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Loki’s mind came back under his control between one impact with the floor and the next.

The green brute continued to smash him against the stonework, seemingly intent on breaking every bone in his body, but the Jotun - as it turned out - were hardy folk. Loki’s bones didn’t break, though he was left terribly disoriented and with a headache that made thought clear, finally, after too long a time blurred.

Afterwards, when the beating ceased, it seemed best to go along with whatever Thor and his new friends wanted. There’d be time to make explanations later, after he’d managed to explain what had happened to himself.

And then the Tesseract had come to rest against his boot, and no one had been paying him any attention, and going along with whatever Thor and his new friends wanted had lost all appeal in a single instant.

Loki took the Tesseract and ran.

#

Taking the Tesseract was easy. Deciding where to run was… not so simple.

Loki tucked himself away in a small dimension that would only last for a few hours. He needed to think and to recover. It felt strange to be able to concentrate again, to hold a thought from beginning to end, to be in absolute control of his body and his will once more.

He was not entirely sure how long Thanos had played merry havoc with his mind and his body. Weeks? Months? Years? Time had lost all sense of meaning in the blue-tinted world, under the control of the staff and the stone set within it.

But he was free now. Somehow, the green brute had given him back control of his own thoughts. He was free, tucked away in temporary safety, and in possession of the Tesseract, which Thanos very much wanted.

Loki very much didn’t want him to have it, out of fierce spite as much as heady, poisonous fear.

He lifted the cube and looked at it, its blue glow the only light source in the small dimension he’d slipped into. Options, he thought, slowly gearing his mind up to speed. He needed to think about his options.

He could just leave the cube somewhere. It could become someone else’s problem as easily as that. But it had power. It could be useful, potentially, down the line, as a bargaining chip for his own life if nothing else, though he did not believe Thanos would truly honor any deal he made to obtain his precious Infinity Stones.

He could take it to Asgard. But that would mean dealing with Odin and Thor - he remembered fighting against his body as it slid a knife into Thor’s chest and grimaced - and he would rather… avoid that for the time being.

He could hide with the Tesseract. The galaxy was a large place. There were plenty of boltholes to go to ground. And, he thought, through the headache, pain, and exhaustion, Midgard might be a better option than most.

Thanos would not expect him to stay here. He’d expect Loki to run. Perhaps Loki would have run, if he were even slightly less injured. But the green brute had done his work effectively. Things shifted and moved under his skin that ought not and his breath had a rattle he disliked.

In any case, it would be easy to notice if Thanos came looking for him on Midgard. The world was so small and so primitive that Thanos would not be able to hide his presence. And, worse come to worse, Thor paid attention to this world, which meant Heimdall did, which meant that if Loki really, truly grew desperate, he could call for help. There was even some chance that, by remaining on Midgard, he would receive aid, if only secondhand as Thor rushed out to save the pitiful creatures here that he’d taken under his wing.

Decided - and unable to fight unconsciousness any longer - he tucked away the Tesseract and fell into dreamless black.

#

Loki woke to a splitting headache, the crawling terror of nightmares, and the fading away of his small dimension. He exited it, returning to the storage space where he’d stepped out of Midgard. It remained empty, dusty, and foul-smelling; infinitely more pleasurable than his dreams had been.

Still. He wrinkled his nose. If he were going to stay here, obviously he would need better accommodations. Which meant he was going to need to be able to walk about without drawing attention. Which meant he probably shouldn’t look like the general in charge of a recent attack upon the world.

He sighed and changed his appearance with a thought, adjusting clothing as well, to something that resembled what the Midgardians wore. Loki conjured a brief reflection in the room, turning this way and that to make sure everything seemed in order, tucking back her hair and adjusting her boots.

Satisfied, she set her focus on working towards the next goal on her list.

#

It was not difficult to find a place that served food, or to conjure Midgardian money to pay for it. Better not to draw attention. Better to pass below the notice of everyone for a time, at least until her head stopped hurting and she took full stock of all that had happened during the blue-tinted days.

She ate quickly, bolting down the food and keeping an eye on the passing Midgardians. A few gave her lingering looks, but there was nothing in their gazes that she did not expect to find, no alarm, no recognition.

She visited four different eating establishments before she felt full, leery of eating too much at any one place to draw attention, and then sighed, and went looking for information.

#

According to the information readily available to all Midgardians, several days had passed since what they termed the attack on New York. Repairs were well underway: clumsy, ineffective repairs, by her measure.

There were more articles written than she expected about her disappearance. It seemed every publication had a different idea about what had happened to her. Some thought she’d been secretly taken by some shadowy branch of one or the other of the planet’s governments, others that she’d been allowed to escape, and still others that incompetence had led to her evasion.

She read the articles, smiling to herself, drinking an iced coffee.

She found a few mentions of Thor, as well. He had, it seemed, left the planet without ceremony. No doubt off to look for her, which was a hopeful sign that everyone else would assume she’d left Midgard as well.

According to the information not readily available to all Midgardians, not everyone was so convinced she was gone. Someone named Fury seemed quite worried that she was still about somewhere, waiting to reopen a portal or some other such nonsense.

According to the information not readily available to anyone, hidden deep within the informational realms of Midgard, some people were looking for her very aggressively indeed. She didn’t know who or what Hydra was, but they seemed positively convinced they’d run into her and that she knew who they were. They seemed to think she’d stolen back the staff they’d taken, and then, for some reason, returned it a few hours later.

She was, it seemed, wanted for questioning. And experimentation.

She took another sip of her coffee as an icy chill grew in her chest, temporarily disrupting all thoughts and planning, memories of others who had wanted to see how she worked creeping forward. She shoved those flashes of bright lights and sharp blades away with effort, focusing on what needed done to keep the rising spike of fear from gaining any further ground.

#

Midgard was a backwater place. Still, they must have had some well-hidden font of strength, to turn aside an invasion by the Chitauri with only a handful of warriors, even with Thor’s assistance.

Their unanticipated tenacity had to be accounted for when planning how best to handle this Hydra, then. Loki had not regained her full strength. Her body knit back together, but more slowly than she would have hoped. She didn’t like her odds if Hydra had something similar to the Hulk lying in wait.

A further look into the history of the world led her to believe she didn’t actually need to handle Hydra. It seemed they were operating in secret and… were they to become less secret, there were plenty of people who seemed primed to take care of them for her.

Captain Steve Rogers, one of the people she remembered from her blue-tinted days in New York, seemed a likely choice. It wasn’t difficult to provide him with information about some of Hydra’s more obvious activities.

Just to be sure, Loki took steps to ensure similar information found its way to the one called Natasha Romanoff. The woman had seemed more competent than most of the others she’d met while in the custody of the Midgardians.

That just left the matter of the staff to consider. Loki’s thoughts wanted to shy away from it, but she’d regained control of her own mind and the willpower to consider even memories that made her ill. Obviously, the staff couldn’t remain in anyone else’s hands. The thought of any other person having that potential power was… horrific. She’d not be controlled that way again.

Besides, she had a sneaking suspicion about what, exactly, the power source for the staff was, now that her mind was clear enough to consider it. She needed at least the power source in her possession, somewhere it could be kept safe, well away from Thanos and anyone else that might want to get their hands on it. She doubted, somehow, that Rogers or Romanoff would hand it over to her if they found it with Hydra. She sighed and stood.

A quick bit of reclamation wouldn’t be nearly as risky as bringing down an entire organization.

#

Obviously, the people of Midgard were not particularly used to magic. Loki didn’t think they’d encountered much of it. She managed to walk into the Hydra installation where they were keeping the staff wearing the face of an old man and no one thought to look twice.

People greeted her, and she happily returned their salutes, all the way down into the areas where they were conducting their tests. She didn’t bother to walk out again, once she’d gotten her hands on the staff. It was easier to prise out the stone at the tip of the staff, replacing it with a close-enough facsimile, and to then slip between one dimension and the next, shifting a half-dozen unnecessary times, just to disguise her passage from any who had the ability to track it.

She ended up back in the small apartment she’d rented under a false name - she’d come up with several to use on Midgard - and sat the pilfered stone down on the bed, stepping back from it and staring as her heart ratcheted in her chest.

The idea of destroying it held a certain deep appeal, but, she thought, eyeing the crystal, such destruction was likely to be impossible. Besides, the gem was a tool and a weapon. She needed all the tools and weapons she could get.

She tucked the stone away, so she wouldn’t have to look at it, and then went into the bathroom to stare at her face, to make sure her eyes remained free of even the faintest hint of blue.

#

Loki spent the next weeks recovering, visiting local restaurants, and monitoring the fallout of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s sudden and fierce attacks on Hydra. They burned the organization down with a satisfying quickness.

She carried the warmth of that success with her to breakfast one morning, settling down over an iced coffee and some Midgardian meal of bread and creamy cheese. She glanced up briefly when the door opened - she did not think the ill-feeling of nervousness would ever leave her, not after all Thanos had done - and dismissed the thrum of alarm through her veins at who entered with an act of sheer will.

Steve Rogers walked into the coffee shop, the bell above the door chiming at his presence.

He wore normal clothing for Midgard, a soft shirt, pants. He carried no visible weapons, but Loki remembered how he fought. He bore strength close to an Asgardian in his frame. But why would he come to this place to fight? Why would he come to this place at all? Loki stayed far, far away from New York as a matter of course.

She sipped at her coffee and kept her head down, breathing slightly easier when Rogers walked to the counter, ordered a drink and a breakfast sandwich. People travelled. That was normal, he was only--

Only coming over to her table and asking, standing over her, “This seat taken?”

His voice sounded friendly enough. Loki cursed, not for the first time, that so many Midgardians found her form visually pleasing. She could have adjusted it, but, well. She’d never claimed not to be vain. Sending him away would be suspicious; everyone on Midgard knew who he was. No one could believably deny him a breakfast conversation.

She looked up and smiled; it was not much work to look surprised and nervous. “No, that’s--please, join me.”

He smiled back, a nice enough smile, and sat, steam curling up off the top of his coffee. She opened her mouth, fully prepared to launch into a gushing thank-you for his bravery in repelling alien forces, and he said, “Hello, Loki.”

She blinked, thoughts jumping from one to the next in a sudden tumble, even as her tongue slipped to action. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I think you’ve confused me for someone else, I should have known that you--”

“I haven’t confused you for anyone,” he said, sipping his coffee, watching her over the rim of the cup. She could shove it into his face, the burning pain would distract even him for a moment, she could take the time to flee. No soldiers had charged in through the door. But. But, he wasn’t doing anything to her, just talking.

She leaned back in her chair, affecting as much disinterest as she could with her pulse humming beneath her skin. “Fair enough,” she said. “And what do you want, Captain Rogers?”

“Answers,” he said, matching her pose, glancing out across the coffee shop where a suspicious silence had fallen. She wasn’t the only one who’d recognized him. “Answers to questions that I probably shouldn’t ask right here.”

“Here seems like the perfect place to me,” she said, pulse accelerating. She could escape, create a portal before he could stop her. “If you’re worried about being overheard, don’t be. As far as everyone else in here is concerned, we’re discussing the weather.”

He frowned, mouth thinning out. “You’re controlling their minds?”

She flinched, memories of creeping blue light washing over her, swiftly shoved down and smothered so she could wave a hand, briefly, and snort. “No, just changing what they hear.”

“The way you changed what we see when we look at you?” he asked, gesturing over at her.

“Now that would be telling,” she said, seeing no reason to tell all of her secrets. “And, anyway, I doubt you’ve come to find me to ask about minor illusions.”

He said nothing for a long moment, only watching her, finger tapping against the side of his cup. And then he nodded, some tension going out of his shoulders. “You’re right, I didn’t. I came to thank you.”

Keeping surprise off of her expression was easy enough, she had long practice with it. Besides, she assumed the statement was a prelude to something like: to thank you for teaching us that we should kill you on sight. She said, with all the curiosity she could muster, “Oh? Thank me for what?”

“For what you told me about Bucky,” he said, and she erased confusion before it could blossom across her features. “I don’t know why you did it, but--but you were right. He is alive. Alive and--and we think in Hydra’s hands, which brings me to the second thing I need to talk to you about.”

Hydra, at least, was a part of this conversation she understood. She needed to find out who the hell Bucky was, if Rogers thought she’d done something with him. For the moment, though, she could only hold her breath while he continued, “You know about Hydra.”

She shrugged. “Mm, yes. I’ve become aware of them during my time on your world.”

“It seems to me,” he said, watching her with sharp eyes, “that you’ve become more than aware of them.”

She gazed back blankly. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Well, then let me make it clear.” He leaned a bit over the table, and she resisted the urge to draw back, thoroughly uncomfortable with another person in her space, with someone who she knew had reason to hate her, with someone who she’d seen deal out horrific amounts of violence, the blue light--

“We don’t know for sure who sent us an entire portfolio of information about Hydra and the ways it’s infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., but I have this gut feeling that I owe you a thank-you for that, too. You want to tell me why you did it?”

She met his gaze, ignoring the terrible pounding of her heart, the sick clench in her gut. She smiled, winningly as she knew how. “Not really. In fact,” she said, and stood, knowing that it would be smarter to linger and gather more information, but the itching under her skin was growing too strong, “while I thank you for the company, I think I need to--”

“Loki, wait.” He reached out, quick, catching her wrist, and it only felt natural to jerk against his hold, the ice in her gut spreading further when his grip tightened.

“Let me go,” she said, the words near a gasp, hating the sign of weakness, surprised when he released his hold all at once. She pulled her arm in close, taking a jerky step further away from the table. He stared at her, expression all surprise and concern and--and she did not want his pity.

She drew up her shoulders, shoving down the dread pushing up her throat. “I did it because they were dangerous.”

“To Earth?” he asked, frowning. He didn’t rise from his chair. “Or to you?”

She waved a hand, dismissing the questions. “Both.” She moved back to the chair, abashed by her display of weakness in jerking away. She would have to answer these questions, sooner or later, if she wished to keep hiding on Midgard. “What else do you want to know?”

“Why are you still here?” he asked. “Are you--gathering intel? For another invasion?”

The absurdity of the question took her by surprise. She barked out a small laugh, shaking her head. “No.”

Silence stretched between them for a moment. He broke it first. “Why, then? Why are you on Earth?”

She glanced at her iced coffee and over at him, his hands clenched tight, as they’d been since he’d grabbed her. She remembered the look on his face; she saw some of that concern still tucked away in his features. And she made a decision, opening her expression the smallest amount, looking down when she said, “I’m hiding.”

“Hiding,” he repeated, quietly. “Hiding from whom?”

“From Thanos,” she said. “Who else? I suppose I need to tell you all about him. Do you have someplace else we can go for that? It’s a long story, and I’m sure the rest of your people will want to hear it, too.”

He stared across at her, mouth pressed tight. “You want to come in with me?”

“Want is a strong word,” she said, shrugging. “But.”

“Last time we brought you in, it turned out to be a trap that nearly got all of us killed.” He said the words flatly, dispassionately. “It did get some of us killed.”

She kept her gaze steady as she looked back. “Last time I wasn’t in my right mind.”

He sighed. “I’m tired of feeling like you’re playing chess while the rest of us are playing checkers.”

“I don’t know either of those games,” she said, and he laughed, a short, punched out sound. He stood up and she frowned, disliking the feeling of him looming over her. He was much taller than her current form.

“You handed us Hydra on a plate. And you told me about Bucky. And maybe it’s just a trick to earn my trust but, well, if it is, it’s a good trick. So alright. I’ll bring you in.” He paused, glancing down at her. “I’ll have to restrain you.”

She forced herself to shrug and smile, ignoring the itching feeling of panic down her spine. “Of course,” she said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

#

Loki followed Rogers out of the coffee shop and around the block, to a waiting driving machine with two wheels. He swung onto it and gestured for her to do the same. She braced and climbed on, disliking the closeness the ride required, and said, “I assumed you flew.”

“Well, it’s good to know you’re not always right,” he said, and turned the machine on, pulling out onto the street. She wrapped her arms around him automatically, the wind whipping around them and pulling her hair back.

The memory of riding the Chitauri’s horrible flying machines high above the cruel streets below crept into her mind on spider’s legs. The speed and terror of it, the echoes of screams trapped inside her head, the--

She squeezed her eyes shut, pressed her face against the solid back in front of her, and swallowed back bile until it stopped rising in her throat. “Hey,” Rogers said, some time later, as they idled as a red light, “you alright?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice a hoarse thing. “Of course.”

“We’re almost to the airfield,” he said, like an apology, and she swallowed a laugh.

The airfield only brought more memories of being loaded onto a Midgardian aircraft, bound and surrounded, with the seeds of destruction growing in her breast. They were met by guards at the airfield, who gathered around when Rogers parked his vehicle and offered her a hand off.

“Give us some space, boys,” Rogers said, waving them back. “I’m going to need transport to New York. Tell Fury I’m on my way in, will you? And let him know that I’m bringing a guest.”

#

Rogers took care with her bindings, closing the metal around her wrists. She fought the urge to clench her fingers together and then gave in to it, if only to destroy the trembles underneath her skin. He hesitated at the gag. “If I leave this off, are you going to make me regret it?”

“If I’d had it on before, I couldn’t have told you about Bucky,” she said, because she could spot a weak point when she saw one, even not knowing who Bucky was or why anyone cared about them.

He frowned and tucked the gag back away. “Fair point,” he said, and waved her into the aircraft. A half-dozen guards followed them, all looking distinctly well-armed. Loki did her best to put them out of her mind, sitting with her legs crossed and closing her eyes as the ship took off.

She listened for thunder the entirety of the trip, the long and steady rumble of Thor’s arrival, but, of course, it did not come. She’d recovered enough of her mind to shield herself from Heimdall’s gaze. She did not want Thor coming here, not now, not the way she had in the early stages of the invasion, when all she could do to fight back against Thanos was reveal her location, knowing that Thor would rush out to find her.

And he had! He had almost managed to disrupt Thanos’s plans, almost managed to steal her away and back to Asgard, where--

Where Thanos would have come for her. Where she would still have not been in her right mind, his puppet to sow ruin and discord, and Odin deserved it, deserved all Thanos had to offer and more but--

But Frigga was there, as well. And Thor. Thor whom Loki had stabbed, Thor who had not managed to disrupt Thanos’s plans, too willing to stand and talk with the Midgardians instead of merely taking Loki away.

Loki spent the trip fruitlessly weeding through her thoughts, her mind turning in a narrowing gyre when she should have been concentrating on what she would say when they arrived in front of Fury and whoever else decided they needed to be there to question her.

The aircraft landed too quickly.

#

They landed, of all places, atop Stark Tower in New York. Loki smiled, small and bitter, as she was unloaded off of the aircraft and led into the penthouse suite where she had been nearly broken in two by the green beast they called the Hulk.

Repairs were well underway. Stark had the funds to restore whatever he wished; she’d discovered that much during her reconnoitering of those who called themselves the Avengers. He was there, standing behind the bar, when Rogers led her into the room by the elbow. He wasn’t alone.

Romanoff stood there, beside Barton, who watched Loki with flat, empty eyes. Banner, Fury, and Hill rounded out the little group. They stared, all of them, hatred in their expressions, and she stood with her shoulders back and her spine straight as Rogers said, “Look, before anyone says anything, she came in willingly, alright?”

“I don’t care how she came in,” Barton said, gone cool and still like all good assassins before a kill. “If I don’t get a damn good reason why I shouldn’t make it happen in the next five seconds, she’s going to be dead.”

“You know, while we’re asking for explanations,” Stark cut in, swirling his drink, “could someone explain to me why he’s a girl now?”

Rogers opened his mouth, but Loki spoke first, speed of tongue had always been a gift she possessed. She said, “I am not ‘a girl now.’ I am sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes neither, sometimes both. And, of course, you shouldn’t kill me because I’m trying to help you.”

“I don’t want your help,” Barton said, arms crossed tightly over his chest.

“And that’s your right,” Loki said, shrugging. “But the rest of you might. The madman that sent me to Midgard is still out there, you understand that? I know why he sent his forces here. I know that he’s going to come here again. I know how he thinks, his battle strategies, his strengths. His weaknesses.” There were disconcertingly few of those, but that was not something they needed to know immediately.

“And you’d share this information?” Fury asked, leaning against a wall, frowning at the floor.

“I would.” She had to share it with someone, after all. She knew well enough she couldn’t protect herself from Thanos without any assistance. Her other obvious option was Asgard and… That way was shut to her.

“Or, and I’m just spit-balling here, we could just take it,” Barton said, straightening away from the wall. “Let me and Banner spend some time with her, and I bet we could learn all kinds of things.” She fought not to flinch back, the memory of the impacts, one after another after another, biting at her thoughts.

“Hey, whoa,” Banner said, shaking his head, hands extended out, “no, that’s, me and the Other Guy are not going to beat information out of someone, okay, just so we’re all 100% clear about that going forward.”

“Why?” Stark interrupted, before Barton could reply. Stark was staring at her, unblinking. “Why do you wanna tell us anything? Why’d you let Freezer Burn here bring you in? Why did you even stay on Earth? Why are you changing sides?”

They stared at her, all of them. She’d always performed well before an audience. She said, inclining her head. “I’m not changing sides. I did not want to fight any of you.”

Stark arched an eyebrow, “So you just… leveled half of New York by accident? Killing Coulson, that was, what, an unfortunate misunderstanding?”

“I was not in control,” she said, spitting the words, hating to hear them aloud. All she’d had left after the truth of her heritage had been revealed had been control of her own mind. Thanos had taken even that. She looked over at Barton. “I was not the only one. He killed in Thanos’s service, as well.”

“You’re saying you were mind-controlled?” Stark asked. “That’s your excuse? Mind-control made me do it?”

“Until the green beast almost killed me, yes,” she said. “My mind has been my own since then.”

“Mental recalibration,” Romanoff said, shrugging when everyone looked over at her. “Hitting someone really hard in the head. It’s how I brought Barton back.”

“And,” Rogers said, clearing his throat, “since she’s been in her right mind, she’s revealed Hydra agents who were embedded within the highest levels of S.H.I.E.L.D. and who were fully prepared to destroy all of us. And she came here to talk to us.”

For a moment, they all kept their silence, and then Fury straightened with a sigh. “Is there any way we can confirm the mind control story? Some test?”

Banner shrugged. “We took a few scans of Barton, taken while he was controlled and directly after the mind control broke. And we have some scans from Loki, after the initial capture. We could… assess similarities?”

“Do it,” Fury said. “And until we know one way or another, I want you sticking close to her. If this turns out to be a lie, mentally recalibrate her again, are we understood?”

#

Loki was led down to the labs, instead of a cell. Perhaps they’d realized how difficult she was to contain, or perhaps they really just wanted to make sure she was close enough to Banner to be killed at any moment.

They left the cuffs on, directing her to a chair, where a half-dozen guards pointed guns at her, looking ready to shoot if she breathed the wrong way. She leaned her head back against the wall, shut her eyes, and thought about all the things she’d need to do when they finally decided to trust her.

They would, she felt almost certain. They wanted to. They were afraid of the monsters that had come out of the sky. And she’d as much as promised that she could help them deal with those monsters.

“Hey,” Romanoff said, eventually, approaching on silent feet. Loki cracked an eye open, watching Romanoff wave the guards back a few steps before approaching to sit beside Loki. She held a cup of water with a straw sticking out of it, and offered it out. “I thought you might be thirsty.”

“Thank you,” Loki said and obediently took a sip. Her fingers felt cool and numb from long containment in the shackles. The water tasted of chemicals, but none that she recognized as dangerous in their current concentrations. They seemed to be found in all the water on Midgard, not included as an attempt to do her specific harm. She swallowed and waited for whatever questions Romanoff had come to ask.

“Initial results seem to indicate you were telling the truth,” Romanoff said, leaning back in the chair and crossing her legs. “They’re double and triple checking. I’m sure you understand.”

Loki shrugged. “They can check as many times as they want, but they’re only wasting time.”

“Because the guy that sent you to Earth is still out there?” Romanoff seemed only mildly curious. She must be excellent at gambling. Loki relaxed back, relieved that they’d reached the opening of her interrogation, finally.

“Thanos,” she said, “yes. He’ll be planning another assault.”

“Why?” Romanoff’s brow furrowed, apparently with honest confusion. “It might hurt our pride to say it, but Earth seems to be… a bit of a backwater, based on our experiences with the galaxy at large. What does he want with us?”

Loki weighed what to tell her, what to keep back, the best way to turn each phrase, and spoke carefully. “He wants something you have.”

Romanoff hummed. “The Tesseract.”

“Exactly. And he believed there was another such object here, as well, though he did not know where it was.”

She nodded. “We thought you took the Tesseract back to him, when you disappeared.”

“Well, you can rest easy on that front,” Loki said, edging her thoughts away from the location of the Tesseract with a paranoid shudder that she could not completely smother. A part of her worried that some portion of her mind remained under Thanos’s control, or that the control could return at any time, that any stray thought might give away her hiding place.

“Mm. So, it’s safe then? I don’t suppose you’d tell us where it is.”

“Not yet,” Loki said, happy to have this conversation with Romanoff, who at least knew how to ask questions in a useful way. “The fewer people who know about it, the better off we’ll all be.”

Romanoff had no immediate response to that. Loki listened to Banner and Stark argue from the laboratory, wondering briefly what they’d managed to find out. Romanoff interrupted her musings. “I’m surprised Thor hasn’t come back to see you.”

Loki remembered the expression in Thor’s eyes when the knife had slid into his chest, the way he’d looked, standing scowling and unyielding as Loki struggled for breath on the floor, and swallowed. She checked on the wards holding Heimdall’s sight at bay once more and relaxed to find them intact. “I’m sure he’s busy,” she said. “He’ll return when he sees fit.”

“I’m sure. Ah,” Romanoff said, standing and straightening her shirt, “here they come.”

#

“As near as we can figure,” Banner said, a half-hour later, when calls had been made and everyone had been gathered into a large conference room overlooking the city undergoing repairs down below, “she’s telling the truth. She was under the same kind of mind-control as Barton during the invasion.”

He and Stark had brought along displays full of information that no one seemed to be paying attention to. Loki smiled, ignoring the readouts on brain chemistry and dangerous levels of certain neurotransmitters to place her wrists upon the table with a pointed thump.

Rogers exchanged a glance with Fury, standing at the head of the table. Fury nodded, and, as easily as that, they’d released the shackles. Loki rubbed at her wrists, relieved beyond the telling of it to have them off. She felt able to breath again.

“Alright,” Stark said, “so let’s say this Thanos guy mind-controlled you and used you to attack Earth, yadda yadda yadda. Let’s say he really does plan to attack us again. How, exactly, can you help us with that problem?”

Loki smiled, wide and charming, and leaned back. “I’m so glad you asked.”

#

They listened to her lay out her basic plans for the defense of their world, interjecting to ask questions and argue near constantly. The meeting took hours to complete, and the promise of additional meetings loomed on the horizon.

Stark had - somewhat startlingly - been the easiest to sway. He took to the idea of establishing a worldwide defense immediately and without hesitation, though his ideas for a mechanical defense network would obviously need curating.

Loki had seen enough worlds fall prey to that trap. Artificial intelligences assigned to defense never worked out well in the long run for anyone. Half a dozen decimated civilizations across the galaxy stood testament to that fact.

Stark hadn’t looked convinced when Loki mentioned it, but she had time to wear him down and make him realize the folly of his idea. Plenty of time, in fact, since she had been invited formally to stay in the tower. They’d broken bread together and shared a meal, so she agreed to stay. The Midgardians seemed to have some concept of guest rights, after all.

Besides, the Tower offered finer accomodations than anywhere else she’d found on Midgard. And it was defended. As well defended as anywhere else she could easily access on the world.

Rogers showed her to the rooms she’d been assigned, quiet for all that he thought noisily. They walked in silence through the halls, the rest splitting off into groups behind them to argue and discuss the merits of magical defenses, advanced weaponry, and meetings with such other races as Loki thought might agree to help them, if they could be reached without drawing the attention of Asgard.

Rogers did not speak until her door opened, revealing a fine suite with a view overlooking the city and the sea in the distance. And then he said, lingering in the doorway as she entered the room to drag her fingertips across the top of the couch, “Do you really think he’s going to come back, this Thanos guy?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, staring out into the ruin below, remembering the hum of the Chitauri craft, the smell of blood, the screams of panic echoing up from below. “It’s only a matter of time.”

“And do you really think we can stop him, if he comes again?”

She turned back to look at him. He had his jaw clenched, a dour expression on his face. He reminded her, suddenly and viscerally, of Thor. “You stopped him before,” she said, carefully. “He will come better prepared next time, but you will be ready as well.”

He looked up, a small smile on his mouth. “You didn’t answer my question.”

She shrugged. “Let’s see how tomorrow goes.”

He rubbed at the back of his neck and stepped out of her room. “To tomorrow, then.” The door shut between them, leaving her in the cool dimness of the room, alone, and, for the time being, with allies to stand against Thanos.

She sank down onto the couch, allowing herself a moment to breathe shakily, there in the quiet, where no one could see. She leaned forward, resting her head in her hands, until the trembling in her fingers faded and she could think once more.

And then she placed a simalculum of her form in the bed inside the chamber and left. She had things to accomplish that could not be done in Stark’s tower.

#

Researching the Bucky that Rogers had spoken of was her first priority. She couldn’t keep feigning to know what he was talking about forever. Knowledge was required. It was not difficult to determine who the man was, some boy who went to war with Rogers many years ago.

Reports said he was dead. Other, hidden reports revealed he was very much alive and - yes - in the care of Hydra. She did not know who had discovered the deceit in the first place, or given the information to Rogers, or why they had pretended to be her, but it mattered little.

The belief worked to her advantage at the moment, so she saw no reason to shatter his misconception. It did not take a terrible amount of time to track down Bucky’s current location - on the North American continent - and she recorded the information.

Nor did it take a tremendous amount of effort to learn what Bucky had been up to in his years under Hydra’s tutelage. There were far more assassins on Midgard than Loki had suspected. Then again, it was a primitive planet.

She looked through the records, frowning over some that related to the Stark family. It seemed very unlikely that Stark realized his parents had been killed by Roger’s dear friend. She could see no way that the knowledge would do either of them any good, particularly since she needed them focused on protecting their planet and, by extension, her.

She destroyed the records, all of them she could find, and, satisfied, moved onto the next task.

#

She turned her attention to plans for magical defenses for Midgard, then. The planet needed all the help it could get, truth be told, but it was not a completely hopeless cause. They had turned back an assault by the Chitauri, after all.

She worked until her vision crossed, and even still the thought of sleep was unwelcome. She seldom enjoyed her dreams, these days. She stared at nothing for a long moment, tucked away in a personal dimension crafted for her own protection, and her thoughts took her down paths she ought not have traveled.

She wondered how Thor recovered, if he were well. It was only the work of a moment to craft the runes and whisper the words of power that brought him to her mind’s eye.

He stood in Odin’s chambers, clad for battle, his hair filthy and unwashed, smears of dirt and blood across his flesh. He held a cup of mead, raising it to his mouth and hesitating to ask, “There has been no word of Loki?”

Odin stood across from him, old and careworn, an unexpected and unpleasant vision in his fine robes. The old man shook his head. “He has disappeared utterly once more. But Heimdall continues to search. He will be found and punished for his actions.”

Thor hesitated over his cup once more, and then drank it down in a long swallow, grimacing as he lowered the cup. “Good,” he said, looking away from Odin, “that’s--”

Loki jerked from the vision, bile crawling up the back of her throat. It had been foolish to even hope that Thor might be able to offer forgiveness. Not after all she had done. She had nothing left on Asgard, nothing left in Thor’s heart, nothing but whatever she might be able to scrape up on Midgard to protect herself from Thanos’s wrath.

She felt cold, cold all over as she frowned forward at empty air, afterimages of Thor’s appearance still playing behind her eyes. She shook the images away, swallowing and casting about for something else to focus on.

Rogers long-ago mention - the morning hours already felt years in the past - of chess and checkers rose up as a lifeline. Loki pushed aside the last remnants of the scene on Asgard, digging into these two games.

The first was… incredibly simple. She dismissed it after a moment. But chess. Chess held her interest for longer, as she reviewed the pieces, the different ways they moved, all the lengthy and detailed strategies developed over time by Migdardian masters.

Something about it resonated, deep inside her skull. She was swept up in discussions of kings and queens, bishops and rooks, and all the lined up pawns, just waiting to be sacrificed….

She shuddered, almost grateful when the alarm she had set to warn her of the sun’s rise on Midgard went off. She fled back, back to Stark’s tower and the bed she had not slept in, dismissing the simulacrum as she arrived beneath the sheets, willing to guess that they monitored her comings and goings somehow.

Another day dawned, harsh and unwelcome, through her windows.

#

Stark wished to get to work as soon as Loki stepped out of her quarters. He had the look of a man who’d spent the night awake, his hair a mess and his eyes over-bright. There was something of an obsessive about him, which served Loki’s purposes well enough.

She had no idea how long it would take for Thanos to strike at Midgard - at her - once more. It would be best for all of them if they had some defenses set into place before that time came. Obsessive focus would likely be needed in the coming months.

They argued, discussed, and discarded plans for hours, until a woman called Pepper Potts insisted that they eat and rest. Banner took the opportunity, rubbing at the bridge of his nose, to ask, “So, listen, I know this Thanos guy attacked us and all. But that was, what I mean to say is, we’re here preparing for a war. Do we know for sure that war needs to happen? Can’t we… I don’t know. Enter negotiations, reason with him?”

“He invaded without warning,” Stark said, without looking up from the tablet he was working on, chewing his way absently through a sandwich. “Doesn’t sound like the negotiating type.”

“He’s not,” Loki said, her appetite withering away to ash as her stomach filled with sour acid. She remembered trying to negotiate with Thanos. Pleading. Promising that there would be a reward for her safe return, that Thor would -

She bit her nails up into her palms, looking to ground her thoughts with the pain. “You don’t understand the manner of creature he is. He - he invades worlds, do you understand? Not because they have resources he wants, or because he desires to expand his territory. He invades solely to destroy half of the population, before leaving again. Because he thinks this is balance.

“Sometimes, on those worlds, he takes a child with him. He calls it adoption, says they are his children. And he - he raises them to be his generals. But it is not a kindness or a mercy. He does things to them. Takes them apart. Replaces parts of them, in a thrashing attempt to make them perfect. Even as they beg him to stop.

“I saw this, all of this, while he held me prisoner. Does any of that sound reasonable to you?”

She looked up after a beat, when her words were met with silence. The others gathered around the table stared at her. She raised her chin at their regard, and Banner cleared his throat, looking away. “No,” he said. “No, it does not.”

“How long were you a prisoner?” Potts asked. She’d drifted over to stand behind Stark, resting one of her hands on his shoulder, her other arm wrapped around her chest. Bile burned up Loki’s throat, as her mind automatically tried to find an answer to that question.

She looked away, swallowing to keep the bile down, and said, when she’d managed that, “Too long.”

Stark cleared his throat into the silence that followed. “How did he capture you, anyway? You’re- ” he waved a hand “-from Asgard, or whatever. Did he invade your world?”

“I am not from Asgard,” the words felt strange to say. She had not spoken them plainly before. There’d been no cause. They dug yet one more knife into her, a reminder of hurts from before Thanos, a digging blade to recall the cruelty of the universe’s sense of humor.

Banner shifted around. “Thor said you were his adopted sibling.”

She snorted a laugh. “Adopted. Odin One-Eyed adopts as Thanos does, then. He took me off of a battlefield on my homeworld and lied that I was his trueborn child. When I found out I… made foolish decisions.” She flicked her fingers, dismissing the memories, the fight with Thor, all that came before and after. “And I fell through the wastes of time and space. Thanos found me.”

Found her and took her and used her. Sent her out, out among the stars to do his bidding, to strike at a distant and unsuspecting target. She wondered if he had ever heard of the game of chess. He made people into his pieces in the cruel game he was playing against the universe easily enough. Sent them to wreak destruction for him, while he sat, safe and protected behind yet more soldiers, a king in his castle….

She set aside the thoughts, wishing they could be exorcised completely from her mind. “Now, if we are done discussing the past, perhaps we can focus on the future of your world? Before we run out of time?”

#

Loki looked up one day, after rearranging half of the equations Stark had scrawled in his attempt to integrate Asgardian energy into Earth’s defenses, to find Stark staring at her intently. “What?” she asked, wondering if perhaps Thanos had reached out and touched his heart, if he had remembered suddenly all of the dead in New York, if--

“You want to make-out?” Stark asked, cutting short the spiraling of Loki’s thoughts, abruptly redirecting them down a different avenue that set her shoulders tight and soured her stomach. For a moment, she could think of nothing at all to say, her tongue heavy as a rock in her mouth.

Stark grimaced in the same moment, rubbing a hand over his face. “Please say no. Otherwise I’ll have to explain that, A: I’m actually only making out with Pepper these days and B: I’m actually ecstatically happy with that, so even though I was temporarily overcome with lust for the whole--”

“No,” Loki spat the word out, into the middle of Stark’s sentence. Her pulse burned the inside of her veins. She turned back to the work in front of them, though the words swam before her eyes, stubbornly refusing to make any sense at all.

“Oh,” Stark said, chair creaking as he moved. “Why?” Loki stared down, not seeing anything, seriously considering other worlds where she might go, where she might start over from the beginning. “Not that you have to answer, or anything, though, ouch, my sense of masculine virility may never recover. Is it the trauma thing?”

Loki rolled her eyes up, just enough to see him through the fall of hair around her face. He seemed entirely serious, watching her with dark eyes, all traces of amusement and teasing gone from his expression. She said, measuring the words carefully, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He waved a hand, rolling his eyes. “Please, I know from trauma,” he said. “You’re just…” He gestured in a vaguely circular motion, a movement with a meaning she didn’t bother trying to determine. “I handled mine by sleeping with anything that moved. Also: alcohol. So much alcohol.”

“An inspired choice of treatment,” Loki said, aiming for cutting and unpleasantly aware that she didn’t quite make it.

“Not the most original methods, I’ll admit,” Stark said, leaning further back in his chair. “And, honestly, I can’t say it really worked. But I’m feeling much better now. Thinking about getting sober-sober, even. Maybe what you need is a Pepper of your own. Someone tall and fair-haired and, you know, better than you deserve. That kind of thing. It worked for me, I recommend it.”

Loki thought of Thor, blood hot on her fingers, his eyes staring down at her with surprise, more than anything else and--

And she turned her face away. “We should finish this,” she said. “Unless you’d rather I detail all the reasons I find you sexually unappealing.”

Stark made a pained sound, but leaned forward, and left the subject drop. Loki wished she could dismiss it as easily from her thoughts, but his words stalked around in her mind, leaving her distracted and jumpy even as the evening settled around them.

She stared at her reflection, back in her own rooms, wondering what it was about the sharp features that Stark found to desire. She adjusted them idly for a while, and then turned away, growing in stature with the movement, settling into another form, one that Stark had never shown any particular interest in.

Loki went to bed. He slept poorly.

#

The work progressed. Scientists clustered together in Stark’s Tower while the martially inclined searched about for Bucky Barnes. The search gave them a purpose and promised to be immensely satisfying to them once they located him, so Loki saw no reason to speed the work along. Besides, he had his own challenges to resolve.

Such as the fact that the construction of Midgard’s defenses was broken up by yet further arguments about the value of an artificial intelligence. They continued until Loki stood abruptly and waved Stark to his feet. “If you will not listen to reason, perhaps you need evidence. Come on.”

Stark stood slowly, glancing over at Banner, ever in the room when they worked, “Where are we going?”

“To a world that counted on a machine for defense.”

“You’re going to another world?” Banner stood as well, looking alarmed. “How are you going to get there? Do you have a ship? You never mentioned a ship.”

“I don’t have a ship.” Loki frowned at them both. “What need have I of a ship? Now, let us go. No harm will come to you. There is nothing left on the world to harm you.”

Stark blinked several times in rapid succession, and then asked, “Can Bruce come, too?”

Loki shrugged. It seemed enough to get them to agree. They approached, but with more caution than they’d previously demonstrated about anything. Loki rolled his eyes. “Hold onto my shoulders. Don’t let go.”

Their touches sent a shudder down his spine, sparking memories of crueler hands, grasping and greedy and-

And Loki shut those thoughts down, burying them deep and reaching for the twist of space that gathered around them all. It was a mistake to attempt to travel with such scattered thoughts, but he could not bear the idea of them touching him for longer than was necessary. He reached out to the universe. The universe reached back.

A moment later, they were deposited in the midst of a lush forest, the canopy overhead unbroken. Something moved through the brush, startling away at their sudden appearance. The air smelled fresh and clean.

“Oh, my God,” Banner said, grip tightening on Loki’s shoulder, each fingertip felt. Loki shrugged out of his hold as quickly as possible. Stark had already let go, turning in a dazed circle. “We’re on another planet.” Banner laughed, punchy. “We’re on another planet, Tony.”

“Get readings about everything,” Stark said, walking a few steps forward, kneeling, running his fingers across the ground. He looked up after a moment, turning to frown at Loki. “This place doesn’t seem so bad. I thought we were supposed to be seeing utter ruination.”

Loki shrugged, moving away from both of them, putting his back against a tree. “There are different kinds of ruin. There is no sentient life on this world. Once, billions of beings lived here. They were all eradicated in a matter of days.”

“Or maybe this is a pristine world that never had life on it,” Banner said, frowning thoughtfully.

“Stark brought his suit,” Loki said, resisting the urge to wrap arms around his chest. He did not want to converse right now. He wanted - the things he wanted were impossible. “Go and see, if you don’t believe me. The ruins start south of here. Run what scans you wish to run.”

Stark and Banner exchanged a look, communicating without words, before Stark nodded, activating the suit. Metal flowed up over him and he disappeared in a burst of sound and light. “If this world was destroyed by an AI, won’t it try to destroy him?” Banner asked, as the noise of the suit faded into the distance.

Loki shook his head, frowning. “No. No, the Aesir - the Asgardians - they saw what was happening. They tried to help, but by the time they arrived…” He shrugged. “They disabled the machine, but there was no one left to save. Many warriors died, shutting it down.” Loki moved again, a little further away from Banner, under the pretense of examining a nearby tree.

“I’m sorry,” Banner said, startling him. “I realize that it must be uncomfortable for you. Being alone with me. After…. But, you should know that I have the Other Guy under control. You don’t have to worry about him coming out. And even he feels bad about what happened. He didn’t… know.”

Loki turned, blinking at him. Banner looked miserable, jaw clenched up and hands shoved into his pockets. In truth, Loki bore the green brute no ill-will. If it had not struck him so hard, he did not know how much longer he would have suffered under Thanos’s control.

But admitting that would require another explanation for his nervous behavior. He had not intended to be so obvious. And they need not know that they could frighten him just by grabbing him, that they held such power over him.

So he nodded. “There are berserkers, among the Aesir. They… go somewhere else, when they fight, recognizing neither friend nor foe. At least your other guy has some measure of control.”

Banner grimaced. “Not enough.” They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, after that. It stretched until Stark returned, dropping out of the sky and retracting his helmet to reveal wide eyes and greyed skin.

“He was telling the truth,” Stark said, clipping the words off. “There’s - the dead are just everywhere. Everything is just - let’s go home, shall we? You’ve made your point.” Loki took them home, smothering the urge to flinch when they grabbed him once more.

#

Months passed, without any invasion from Thanos. Each day that crept past left Loki’s nerves burning hotter. The weight of the eventual attack pressed down on his thoughts relentlessly, stealing even the memory of peaceful sleep away.

He came to know Stark, Potts, and Banner quite well. Rogers and Romanoff as well, though they grew distracted once they found Barnes, spending most of their time attempting to help the man. Barton, for his part, disappeared almost entirely to take care of his family. But they still visited, now and again, all his gathered allies moving through the tower, pieces of the defense he was building.

Loki spent his waking hours doing what could be done, working on Midgard’s defenses and searching for signs that their time had come. In the end, their alarms went off late in the morning, the sound dreaded for so long that Loki could only stare at the flashing screens for a moment, wondering if he did not struggle in yet one more nightmare.

The alerts came from a location the Midgardians named London. The energy readings chilled Loki down his spine. He’d had enough time to become familiar with Midgardian technology, to translate it without thinking into data he understood. “What’s going on?” Stark demanded, bursting into the room and struggling into a shirt as he came. He looked sleep-rumpled. He had not gone to find a bed until early in the morning, scant hours ago.

“Portals to other worlds are opening,” Loki told him, staring at the screen with creeping dread crawling through his veins. Portals that could send through forward scouts for Thanos, or even an invasion.

“Shit,” Stark hissed, “we need to--”

“You prepare the defenses,” Loki interrupted, turning away from the screens. “I will go find out what we’re facing.” Better to know. Better not to be taken by surprise, ever again.

Stark said, “Hey, I’m not sure--”

But Loki was gone already. The movement to London did not take any real effort. He arrived in front of a dilapidated warehouse. It seemed… an inauspicious location from which to stage an invasion. But he felt the power thrumming through the air.

He swallowed and made his feet carry him forward, through the door where he found…. People.

Two Midgardian women and a man, chattering to one another as they moved through the warehouse. Loki stared at them. They did not look nearly frightened enough to be working for Thanos. In fact, the women looked vaguely familiar. He stared, yet unnoticed, the tendrils of recollection pricking at him until he placed their faces.

Jane Foster - the woman Thor loved - wandered through the warehouse with her acolyte, a woman who’s name Loki could not bring to mind. Foster was some form of scientist, he recalled, abruptly. Like Stark. Which meant that, perhaps, she was not in the warehouse to serve Thanos, but only to investigate this strangeness.

A thousand possible outcomes for her presence scrolled through Loki’s mind. None of them ended favorably for her. And, while it could serve him if Thanos entered the world and immediately slaughtered an innocent, thereby proving all Loki said to be true, Thor valued this woman.

Thor and Odin both sought to punish him. Odin would not be swayed, Loki did not doubt that. But Thor… perhaps he could snag back some measure of Thor’s assistance, if armed with the right bargaining chip. Preventing his Midgardian woman from meeting an untimely death would surely earn back some good graces.

Decided, Loki let the shadows bleed away from his form, moving forward, avoiding the portals. He called, “Jane Foster, this place is not safe. I must ask you all to leave it at once.”

His arrival was met with cries of surprise and alarm. Jane whipped around to face him, her hand extended towards one of the portals. She blinked at him, a furrow forming in her brow. “What? I mean, who are you? What’s--”

The portal at her back moved before she could finish the question, shifting into her. Loki cursed, watching it swallow her. Her acolyte cried out in alarm. Loki ignored the outburst, moving as quickly as a thought, darting through the portal before it could solidify or shift once more.

He found himself in an unfamiliar place, shadowed and smelling of death. Foster lay ahead of him, sprawled at the foot of a stone altar. She had only entered a breath before, but time did not always behave properly in dimensional shifts. Loki breathed another curse, crossing to her and kneeling.

She breathed, still, though her skin felt cool. She did not stir when he gripped her shoulder, nor when he recoiled in shock and horror. He had spent much time in the presence of the Tesseract and the stone from the specter. Long enough to recognize the power they held. Long enough to sense it in her.

It had not been there a moment ago, he felt certain. He eyed the surrounding realm, mistrustful of the dark and the altar before her. He lifted her - her skin felt unpleasantly charged - and turned away from the altar, sprinting back to the portal. He did not trust it to remain stable. This no longer seemed to be an attack from Thanos. He did not know what it was, and the lack of understanding rankled.

The portal remained, thankfully, allowing them passage out, back into the warehouse. Foster’s acolyte cried out as they appeared, dropping the phone she’d been gripping. “We need to leave this place,” Loki said, frowning over at her and the man beside her. “Come here, now.”

“What?” the acolyte asked, even as she moved closer. “Why, what are you--”

“Hold onto me,” Loki snapped, misliking entirely the portals around them, and the unpleasant energy seeping out of Foster’s body.

“Look,” the acolyte said, “no offense, man, but I don’t even know who you are and--”

“I’m taking Doctor Foster away from here to receive medical care.” Thor was definitely going to owe him for this. Holding her felt like attempting to carry a bolt of lightning. It was quickly moving from uncomfortable to painful. “If you wish to come with me, hold onto me now. Stay here if you desire it.”

The acolyte’s mouth shut with a snap. She looked at the man, reached out, and gripped Loki’s upper arm. The man shook his head, wide-eyed and obviously terrified, hesitating. Loki’s world left little room for hesitation. He focused, drawing on the shadows, and moved them back to Stark’s tower.

#

Loki reappeared near exactly where he’d left with his new passengers. “Holy--there you are,” Stark snapped, wheeling around, scowling fiercely. “Those portals disappeared a second ago. What happened? Who are these people?”

“It wasn’t Thanos,” Loki said, moving towards the infirmary level of the Tower. “I’m not sure yet what caused the portals. These people are Doctor Jane Foster and her acolyte.”

“Excuse me, I’m her assistant and my name is Darcy. Where the hell are we? What’s a Thanos?”

“New York, Stark Tower,” Stark said, hurrying to follow, flashing Darcy a brief smile. “I’m Tony Stark, delighted to meet you. Thanos is a long story for another time. What happened to Doctor Foster here?”

“She went through one of the portals.” Loki shouldered his way into the infirmary. “Where’s Banner? Something is wrong inside her. Can you feel it?” Loki placed her on the nearest examination bed and stepped back, flexing his fingers in and out, trying to get rid of the unpleasant burning beneath his skin.

“Can’t say that I do,” Stark said, already pulling scanners over, calling for the tower’s intelligence program to bring Banner immediately.

“Wait,” Darcy interrupted, holding up a hand and frowning as she leaned against Foster’s examination table, “wait, wait, wait, you’re the Avengers? I just got kidnapped by an Avenger? What the hell is going on?”

“Another long story,” Stark said, guiding her away from the bed with a hand. “Bruce, there you are! Come over here and help me.”

Banner looked at all of them and asked, “Why is there an unconscious woman in the infirmary?”

#

Explaining took more time than Loki preferred to think about, and it came to naught. They were no closer to determining what had happened to Foster by the time she shifted around and woke up. Darcy made the explanations to her, running through all that had happened in the last five hours once more.

Foster sat, taking it all in, and then rubbed at her forehead. “Alright,” she said. “That’s… alright. So.” She turned to look at Loki. “It sounds like I owe you a thank you.” She frowned. “Who are you?”

He glanced up briefly from the results of the last spell he’d performed over her. It told him little except that she was full of a power she most definitely should not have been. “You can call me Loki,” he said.

She went quiet for a moment, and when she spoke her voice sounded strange. “Thor’s Loki?”

“The very same.”

“What are you doing here?” She seemed genuinely befuddled.

“At the moment, saving your life. You’ve been infected with something. The technology here isn’t advanced enough to identify it.” He sighed, swallowing sour dread that tried to climb up his throat. The power, whatever it was, was spreading through her quickly, burning up cells in its wake. “I need to take you to a professional.” He fought to keep his voice steady. “To Asgard.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, you want to take Jane to another planet?” Darcy gripped at Jane’s arm, as though she would disappear in a moment.

Loki wanted little less than a return to Asgard. But, if he came bringing Jane, freshly rescued from some unknown doom, surely…. He shrugged. “Yes. Thor will probably be there, though I doubt he’ll be able to help with this problem.”

Jane flushed across her cheeks. “I haven’t heard from Thor in two years. I don’t know that he’ll even want to help.”

Loki waved a hand. “I’m sure he will. We should go now. The infection spreads within you quickly.” He held out a hand, expectantly. She stared across at him for a long moment, some unknowable calculation going on behind her eyes, and then she nodded, reached out, and took his hand with an unpleasant jolt.

He smiled, thinly, keeping his grip even as Stark, Banner, and Darcy began insisting that, no, really, they desperately needed to go along as well. Loki didn’t put up much of a fight. He’d likely need the backup to successfully carry out this gambit.

#

Loki could move about many places in the universe. But he did not know what Foster would attract, lit up on the inside with power as she was. A safer form of transportation seemed to be in order, despite all of his misgivings.

He had successfully cloaked his presence from Heimdall for a year. Left with no better options, he released the glamour upon reaching the roof. His pulse already beat unpleasantly fast. Acid burned at the back of his throat. He glanced down at Foster, who looked paler than she had moments before, and said, “This may feel strange to you.”

She laughed, a short, sharp sound. “Everything feels strange right now.”

There could be no reply for that. He was only stalling, in any case. He took a bracing breath, looked skyward, and said, “Heimdall. I know you have been looking for me. Here I am. Bring us to Asgard.” He swallowed and pressed on. “Tell Thor we are coming.”

#

Riding the Bifrost still felt like coming home, though Asgard was not and had never been his place of belonging. The familiarity left a bitter taste in his mouth, even as Asgard resolved into being around them, Heimdall standing but feet away, his blade driven into the Bifrost’s controls.

Loki stared up at him, met by a hard, golden gaze. He opened his mouth, and Jane swayed against him alarmingly. “I’m fine,” she said, when he reached out to steady her, despite the hectic red flush in her cheeks.

Before Loki could interrogate her condition further, there was a snap of thunder, a flash of light, and everything in his chest contracted at once. “Heimdall,” Thor called, his voice familiar and welcome and cutting, all at once, “did you speak truth when you said--”

He cut off then, striding into the chamber and taking in the sight of them. His hair had grown longer. He carried less foolish joy in his countenance. His cloak snapped behind him and he held Mjolnir in one hand. Loki looked upon him and remembered the swell of Thor’s blood, hot across his fingers.

“Loki,” Thor breathed out, taking a step forward, almost stumbling. His stare felt heavy as a physical touch, unmoving from Loki’s face. “I--I do not understand.”

Loki wetted his lips. His pulse would not slow. “I have brought Jane Foster here for care and treatment. She stepped through a portal in space and brought something back with her, something I cannot rid her of on my own.”

Thor blinked, glancing sideways, towards Jane for a moment. “Jane?”

“I didn’t mean to go through the portal,” she said. “It all happened very suddenly.”

Thor shook his head, as though trying to dismiss a wave of shock. He crossed the distance to them and grabbed Loki’s shoulders. Loki braced, expecting to be shaken or struck. Thor made no effort to harm him, though he held tightly. He only demanded, “Where have you been? I have looked for you across half the galaxy.”

Stark paused in his perusal of the room, just long enough to say, “You must not have been looking very hard. He’s been helping us.”

“What?” Thor looked over at Stark, but only for a second. Loki was beginning to suspect that there was something on his face, some embarrassing mess that they had allowed him to travel with to Asgard.

“They were in no way prepared to deal with another invasion,” Loki said, shrugging under Thor’s hands. He had not been touched for such a lengthy amount of time for better than a year. It left him feeling distinctly unsettled. “So I offered my expert assistance.”

Thor stared at him, expression breaking into a tremendous grin. “Then you have given over the idea of conquering Midgard,” he said, delight evident in every word.

“Funny story,” Stark said, nearing the completion of his circuit of the room. “He was never really trying to? Turns out there’s this guy named Thanos? Big on the mind control, used our buddy Loki here as a Manchurian space invader. Hulk broke the control.”

Thor expression shifted through a half-dozen emotions, settling into something Loki could not read. “This is true?” he asked, and when Loki nodded, he laughed, once, the sound almost punched out. He shifted, wrapping both arms around Loki, pulling him close.

Loki flinched, could not stop it, but Thor did not seem to notice. He lifted Loki off of his feet, all at once, and Loki stiffened, heartbeat jerking unsteadily. “I am--”

“I see we have unexpected guests.” Odin’s voice cut through whatever Thor had planned to say. Thor set him back on his feet at once, turning, giving Loki a view of Odin. He stood in the entrance to the room, looking as dour and joyless as ever he had, his gaze moving from one of them to the next. He said, finally, “Secure the traitor. Send the Midgardians back where they came from.”

“You condemn her to death if you send the woman away,” Loki said, ignoring the traitor comment for the moment. Thor had already straightened, arm stretching out. Their reunion seemed unlikely to remain warm unless Loki took immediate action.

Odin turned away, words dismissed out of hand. Stark opened his mouth, no doubt to argue in a manner that would only harden Odin’s heart further. And Loki saw only one way to perhaps keep Thor on his side; and what better warrior could he ask for, when Thanos did come for him again? He stepped forward, even with Thor, and said, “Please, grant her mercy. Imprison me, by all means. Only offer her treatment.”

Odin shook his head, not looking back, and Thor swore beneath his breath, hurrying out to him. They spoke out upon the rainbow bridge. Loki realized, looking at the two of them, fully how small Odin seemed now, his presence diminished by anger, by time, by Thanos’s cruel ministries.

“Why do they want to imprison you?” Stark asked, coming to a stop by Loki’s side.

Loki shrugged. “Past misdeeds.”

Stark frowned around the room. “Are we going to need to fight our way out of here?”

Loki smiled at him, then. “Pray to whatever gods you worship that we do not. But, look. Thor returns. And his countenance is not so dire.”

Thor looked less than exuberant, but neither did he carry a storm in his expression. Odin marched down the bridge, away from them. Thor reached out and gripped Loki’s shoulder as he stopped, not hard enough to be a restraint. He said, “The Allfather has agreed to assess your ills, Jane. The rest of you may stay, as well, though you will be under guard while on Asgard.” He looked over as Loki, smiling. “I have sworn personally to watch you.”

#

They delivered Jane to the healer’s chambers with little further delay. She and Thor exchanged pleasantries while they traveled. Loki paid only idle attention to the chatter, instead pointing out different locations of interest to Stark, Banner, and Darcy as they moved through the great city.

They seemed suitably awed, and, even though Loki no longer had a place in Asgard, even though he had never belonged, he felt a wash of pride. It soured his mood, and he grew quieter as they finally reached the healers’ chambers.

Jane was surrounded and swept off near immediately. Loki expected Thor to follow – he’d ever been a hoverer, when someone else happened to be injured – but he made no effort to chase after the healers. “You look well,” Thor said, eyeing Loki over. “Your color is better.”

“You know, I actually didn’t cross the galaxy to listen to small talk,” Stark said. He appeared to be scanning the room. “So, what have you been up to for the last year, Prince Valiant? We’ve been restructuring our entire society to prepare for another alien invasion so, you know, keeping busy.”

“I have been busy as well,” Thor said, frowning over towards Stark. His gaze grew distant and cooler. “There has been unrest throughout many of the Nine Realms. Fortunately, we have put an end to much of the fighting. But tell me more of why you are preparing for another invasion on Midgard. Has there been trouble I did not hear of?”

Loki gave the conversation half-an-ear; it was better to let Stark speak of their work of the last year. And besides, Loki needed to spare a portion of his attention to the murmurings of the healers around Foster and to the glances being shot his way already.

“Well,” Stark said, drawing the word out, “so you remember the Tesseract? It’s actually something called an Infinity Stone. And Thanos - the guy behind the attack on Earth? - big on collecting the whole set of the things so he can, uh, wipe out half of all life in the universe. All at once.” Stark snapped his fingers.

“This is the truth?” Thor asked, and it took Loki a second to realize the question was directed his way. Thor watched him with troubled eyes and a frown.

Loki nodded. “Not a word of it a lie,” he said.

“And you believe he will return, to try to take this Stone again,” Thor said, scowling now. “It should be removed from Midgard, then.”

“That won’t help,” Stark said. “We’ve been studying the thing, enough to get some power readings from it. There’s another very much like it, somewhere on Earth, but it’s exact location is masked. Loki says Thanos knows about that one, too. He’ll come for them both. So: defenses.”

Thor shook his head, as though attempting to sweep away the grim words. “It sounds as though you have things well in hand, then,” he said. “Let us speak of less dire matters. Surely you did not spend all of the last year bent to such a task.” He gazed expectantly over at Loki.

In truth, Loki had done little else but work, the itching desire to feel some sense of safety eating away at each spare moment. But Thor had no need to know that. Loki smiled, ignoring with long practice the glances of the healers, and told him stories about Midgard crafted to make him smile and laugh, as he’d used to do when they were young.

#

Thor brought Loki to his old rooms as the sun sank, painting the horizon in purples and deep reds. The rooms seemed unchanged, utterly, each book in its proper place, dozens of tools and puzzles just as they’d been left.

Loki looked away from it all, moving out to the balcony; the city below looked little changed, as well. The universe around churned with chaos, but Asgard continued on as it ever had, untouched. He curled his fingers around the railing, shivering when Thor leaned beside him.

“Are you to watch me sleep, as well?” Loki asked. There was something inherently disorienting about returning to a place so well known to find it the same, when everything else had been subjected to such radical upheavings. It left him feeling out of sorts, more out of sorts than even usually he felt these days.

“If I must,” Thor said, merry amusement in his tone. “It would not be a great hardship.” Thor had not seen Loki’s sleep recently, to know how troubled it was or how often he woke with cries caught in his throat and echoing against the cold walls. Thor touched his shoulder, his hand a heavy, warm weight. “I am pleased to have you here again.”

“And I am pleased to be back,” Loki said, dry, smiling slanted up at Thor, who only regarded him with warm eyes and a wider smile of his own.

“Perhaps Midgard can spare you for a time.” In truth, Asgard’s defenses were better than Midgard’s. They might be better able to keep Thanos out. But the people of Asgard looked at him with no love. The best of the world’s warriors, save, perhaps, Thor, would not hurry to defend him in an attack. He was almost certain those allies he’d made on Midgard would step in to offer him assistance. That made Midgard, for all it’s other faults, the safer bolthole.

He shook his head. “No, my work there isn’t finished.”

Thor tugged on a strand of his hair and laughed when Loki frowned at him, before sobering. “How is it that you know so much about this Thanos?”

Loki shrugged, well familiar with pushing down unwanted memories. “He kept me close for almost a year, Thor. I used the opportunity to learn many things.” Or, at least, he had been able to pick through the memories of the time to learn a few useful things, though the blue tinged days were always hard to recall exactly. He wished little to think about it. “How do you think Jane fares?”

Thor blinked, taking his hand off of Loki’s shoulder suddenly. “I’m sure she’s fine,” he said, shifting around to look out over the city. “Father planned to look over her personally.”

“And you don’t intend to be there?” Odin had never had much fondness for off-worlders on Asgard. It made his theft of a Jotun babe an even stranger decision in hindsight.

“Perhaps after a time; I did promise to watch over you.”

Loki laughed, briefly. “Surely you must have grown bored with that.”

“Not yet,” Thor said, bearing suddenly changing as he cleared his throat. “I thought perhaps we could… hold on.” He turned and strode off the balcony, returning after a moment with a bottle that shone faintly from within and two glasses so thin and clear they appeared spun of a breeze.

Loki blinked, momentarily taken aback, even as Thor opened the bottle and began pouring the liquid into the cups. “Moonwine,” he said, finally, and laughed again. “Where did you get moonwine this time of year?”

“I spent much of the last two years thinking of what things might be like, what we might do, when you came back,” Thor said, which was not an answer, handing over a glass.

Loki arched a brow. “And you decided on drinking moonwine?”

Thor shrugged, smiling. “As a beginning,” he said. “And I know it is the wrong time of year, but try it anyway, perhaps it has kept for us.”

Loki had not tasted moonwine in better than two years; it was not a delicacy to be found in Thanos’s court, or any of the stores in Midgard. He raised the glass to his lips and drank slowly, the glowing spirits within dissolving as they touched his tongue, light sliding down his throat and landing in his stomach with the brilliance of the stars.

He closed his eyes, basking in the physical pleasure of the taste for a moment. When the first swallow faded he sighed, blinking, and found Thor watching him, expression strange and unfamiliar. “It is good, then?” Thor asked, voice curiously thick, his own glass untouched.

“It’s perfect,” Loki said, taking another sip, feeling lightness race out along his limbs, settling in his fingers and toes. “I do enjoy moonwine.”

“I know.” Thor took a drink, finally, before emptying the rest of the bottle to top up their glasses. He leaned against the railing, close to Loki’s side, tone going thoughtful as he continued. “I remember the first time we tried it.”

Loki snorted, fonder memories filtering back through his thoughts for the first time in an age. “Your first act of thievery, you mean.”

“I only took a bottle,” Thor said, but there was no heat in his voice; only amusement. “Do you remember how we crept off to that old watchtower?”

Loki remembered very well, sneaking through the city in bursts and snatches, hand in Thor’s to drag him from shadow to shadow, because left to his own devices Thor could not help but attract the attention of everyone in a five-mile radius. They’d arrived at a watchtower long abandoned, standing on the edge of the sea of stars, open mostly to the elements, climbing to the peak of it with their prize.

They’d taken no glasses with them, so they’d shared drinks directly from the bottle, watching meteors burn their way across the atmosphere as the sea poured endlessly down into the abyss below them, so pleased to be getting away with something forbidden. “It was a good night,” he said, coming out of his recollections. Thor said nothing, and Loki glanced over at him to find himself the subject of strange regard.

“We could go back there,” Thor said. He placed his hand beside Loki’s on the railing, skin startlingly warm in the chill of the night air, leaning close, close enough to jar the memories out of Loki’s skin, to remind him of all that had happened since those days.

Loki looked away, the taste of the moonwine dissipating off of his tongue. “No, we can never go back,” he said, taking another swallow, expecting it to be not so sweet. But it was. Even after everything, it spread out through his chest and filled him with light. He glanced up towards Thor and found he could smile without a great effort. “But perhaps we can go forward.”

Thor curled his fingers out, across Loki’s knuckles. He tapped the sides of their glasses together. “To going forward, then,” he said, and Loki grinned at him before taking a long, deep drink from his cup.

They spent the rest of the evening out on the balcony, staring at the stars. They did not sleep, but Loki minded little. He had little desire to climb into his childhood bed.

He no longer felt very much like the person who’d slept there for so many stolen years. They spoke of nothing important, keeping the conversation to foolish adventures in the past and the thing within Jane - almost definitely an Infinity Stone, Loki thought - and about Thor’s battles over the past two years, and the rumors and gossip Loki had missed in his absence, until the sun rose.

#

Loki managed to avoid Frigga for only a single day. He did not want to see her expression, to hear her call him a traitor. He did not want her to look too closely upon him. She’d ever been able to see too much. But there was no way to avoid her forever.

She found him on the second evening he spent on Asgard. Thor had left his side to deal with some new problem caused by Stark, leaving Loki after securing a promise that he would behave properly. He’d barely had time to consider how he might break such a vow when Frigga swept into the room where he’d gone to find some quiet.

She smiled as she approached him, and he inclined his head. He said, “Mother,” the title feeling awkward on his tongue, but he could not fathom what else to call her, even still.

Her smile brightened, even as her eyes shone wetly. She placed a hand on either side of his face, and he automatically leaned down, so that she could place a kiss on his forehead. His skin crawled, but it ever did at physical contact. Lately, he had gotten used to it.

Her smile changed as he straightened, fading away. “Loki,” she said, taking her touch from his skin. “I am glad you returned.”

“And I am so pleased to be back,” he said, a hint of sarcasm in his tone that he fully expected to be chided for, that he’d allowed to remain so that he might be chided for it. She only gazed at him, though, her expression shifting.

She asked, when he looked away from her gaze, “Will you tell me what happened to you?”

He buried a flinch. “Well, I ate too much this morning,” he said. “And I--”

“I can see you are not well,” she interrupted, the words spoken softly. He supposed he should only be grateful that no one else seemed able to tell. Just Frigga and Stark. He shook his head and paced away, wishing--

Screams from further out in the palace cut off all of his wishes. Loki thought first of Thanos - could the Titan have tracked him to Asgard? It seemed at the very least possible, even probable - and he flinched, tuning back. Frigga waited where he had left her, across the room, snapping her head around, in the direction of the screams.

Something pounded upon the door to the chamber, even then, and Loki swore as the door pushed open. Foster tripped into the room, her borrowed skirts snapping at her heels - Loki had not realized they’d released her from the healer’s wing - her head twisted back to gaze upon the abomination looming over her shoulders.

A beast such as Loki had never seen, tall and fierce and terrible, followed on Foster’s heels, chasing her. It swung a clawed hand down towards Foster, who would surely never escape it, and Frigga moved to block the blow, a blade in her hand in an instant.

“Get her away from here!” Frigga ordered, blades dancing as she shone, battle bringing a brilliant glow to her skin. Loki watched her with the creature and deemed she would be able to handle it, at least for a moment, long enough to get Foster from the area, to ensure that Asgard remained on his side.

He grabbed Foster with uncareful hands. “What’s going on?” she demanded, breathless from running and fear, if he guessed her expression properly. “I don’t understand, I--” Loki moved them through space, depositing them back in the hallway she’d fled down, away from the creature, “--don’t know what’s happening.”

Loki did not bother to tell her that he had no specific answers. “Run,” he ordered, instead, pushing her down the hall. “Call for Thor. He will look after you.” There seemed not enough time to breathe, much less to think as he spun back to look for Frigga. She stood against the monster that had broken their peace, fierce as ever she had been, but the creature had a power to it that he did not understand.

It moved too quickly, struck with too much force. He saw, the instant before a blow landed, that it had gotten under her guard. The blade would run her through, an injury deadly even for the Aesir. There was no time to consider options, to scheme, to scrape together more than the bare bones of what must happen.

He pulled on the edges of shadows, crossing the distance between them faster than light - for when light arrived at its destination, did it not always find shadow there already, waiting for it? - arms already extended to grab her. He would take her away from this terrible room, send her after Foster, then turn and delay the creature until Thor or the guards could arrive.

Loki closed his hands around her arms, thinking of nothing but the next moment, the next necessary step. He reached back for the shadows, barely solidifying before he faded back again, back into the doorway of the room, where he shoved Frigga forward.

Loki meant to race after her, to flee halfway down the hall, where the passage was narrower and the beast could not flank around him. He took a single step, and his legs gave out. The pain hit only then, as he swayed, trying to take a breath and failing. He coughed, lungs protesting they were full, and felt something wet climb his throat.

He flailed a hand out, but managed to grab nothing. Agony radiated out of his chest and he blinked down at the red pouring across his leathers even as he fell sideways. His shoulder hit the wall, hard. His feet slid out, and he would have hit the floor, had not Frigga grabbed him, her expression open and horrified, her hands darting over his chest, moving like panicked birds.

The wound was terrible. Clean through, he thought, from his back to his chest. And he had removed the blade by transporting away, leaving nothing to stop the flow of his blood. Not that it mattered. Not really. He blinked up at Frigga, trying to shove her hands away. “Run,” he managed to croak. “Run, find Thor--”

And as though summoned by the sound of his name, the hall shook with thunder. The air tingled against Loki’s numbing skin. A shadow fell over them, stinking of ruined flesh. Frigga threw her body across Loki, arms wrapped around his head, and lightning flashed, blindingly bright all around them, with a terrible wash of heat.

Frigga drew back, her dress all stained red. She ripped at Loki’s leathers, parting them in an instant. He tried to catch her wrists, to stop her, but his fingers were clumsy. He could not remember how many of them he had. Cries of rage range out. The floor shook. He rolled his head to the side, blinking blearily as Thor threw the monster to the ground and smote it thrice with Mjolnir, until it no longer stirred.

Pain brought him back to his body. He tried to cry out and gurgled as agony washed down through him. Frigga had her hands on his chest – in his chest, her fingers in the wound – and the feeling sent black spots across his vision. He flailed an arm up, grabbing for her, trying to make it stop.

A strong hand caught his arm back. A shadow fell over him. He smelled ozone even before Thor said, “It’s alright, Loki, stop, do not fight her!”

Loki laughed, the sound wet and gurgling. For a year he had worked tirelessly, convinced that if he did not Thanos would come and slaughter him. Convinced, most of the time, that Thanos would slaughter him regardless, that the work was nothing but a placebo that allowed him to go on living without devolving into a useless heap of terrors.

A year he had dedicated to protecting himself from such a fate.

And he would die on Asgard, bleeding out on the floor, due to the action of some ridiculous brute. Some monster he did not know, some creature that he had no quarrel with. His laughter got stronger, shaking him, and Thor stroked back his hair, held his hand, and said, “Sh, sh, Loki, stop.”

He stopped. He had little choice. The blackness around his vision grew, consuming the world little by little, until there was nothing left to take. The last thing he saw was Thor’s face, splattered with blood, eyes wide, mouth moving to shape words Loki could no longer hear.

#

Loki woke with a feeling that he was swimming through clouds or thick fog, held back by restraints around his legs.For a long moment after cracking his eyes open to a world that swam slightly, full of golden light and faint music, he could not recall where he was or how he’d come to be there.

He shifted slightly, and a deep pain within his chest brought it back.

He straightened abruptly, sitting in the bed he’d been placed in, as his heart - not so irreversibly damaged as he’d thought - raced in his chest. His arms caught as he tried to reach for his chest. Glowing bands surrounded both of his wrists, tethering him to the bed. Further down the bed, the restraints across his legs groaned and stirred, Thor’s red cloak shifting as he rose, rubbing at his face, questioning, “Loki?”

Loki blinked, waiting for this to pass, a strange image before death. But it remained. He lay in a bed, in Asgard, clad in soft green fabrics, alive, with Thor resting beside him. He asked, his tongue thick and heavy in his mouth, “What happened?” A clarion call of alarm ran down his spine. “Mother, is she--”

Thor regarded him with a smile that Loki could not decipher. “Fine,” he said, sitting up and stretching his shoulders. “She’s fine. Jane is fine. Midgard is fine, though you missed a fierce battle with the dark elves.” Loki raised an eyebrow, because what had the dark elves to do with any of the problems they’d faced? They were an extinct people. Thor did not provide additional information. “Your defenses worked admirably. I understand Stark is especially pleased and wishes to discuss potential updates with you as quickly as possible.”

Loki took a moment to allow that to process, some kernel of dread long carried inside his chest easing. It was hard to adjust magic for the core of a world so different from Asgard. Midgard was not without magic, but it was… lessened. But if the defenses had stood up to an assault from a galactic force, well.

It was a building block for standing up to Thanos.

But he had more immediate concerns. He lifted his arms until they caught on the ends of his bonds. The shackles clicked faintly. “That might be difficult,” he said, arching an eyebrow at Thor, who grimaced and looked away.

“Father-”

“He’s not my father,” Loki snapped, mouth twisting even as the words escaped. It wouldn’t do to upset Thor, not at the moment, not when he seemed Loki’s best chance of getting out of the healer’s chambers. He opened his mouth, apologies shaping on his tongue, and Thor heaved a sigh, continuing before Loki could speak.

“Odin, then,” he said. “Odin wishes you to… remain. And stand trial, for your actions in regards to Jotunheim.”

That foolish, mad outburst seemed another life ago, though the pain and fury of it remained, coursing through Loki’s veins beneath newer hurts. He said, “Ah,” and leaned back against the bed, recalling his actions against Jotunheim, falling through the stars, the first time he had woken up, gasping, to see Thanos’s face, and-

“Loki?” Thor’s voice cut across his remembrances. His fingers bussed over the back of Loki’s hand, clenched tight into an involuntary fist. Loki found that he’d braced back against the bed, and shook his head, throat momentarily too tight to form words.

Thunder rumbled, outside, a clamor of sound that dragged Loki’s attention to the present moment, to Thor’s expression, his eyes like the sky after a storm. Before Loki could stir his tongue - surely such a lapse in control deserved a bit of teasing, it always had in the past - Thor passed a hand over the glowing shackles around his wrists, one after the other.

The bounds ceased their humming, falling down onto the bed. Loki sat straighter, pulling his arms in to rub at his wrists. “I thought Odin wanted-”

“Mother doesn’t,” Thor said, standing abruptly. “The Midgardians don’t. I don’t. Can you walk?”

Loki was unused to being surprised so relentlessly by Thor. His mind still felt clouded by his period of convalescence. But he could focus enough to swing his legs off of the bed, to flash Thor a brief smile, to say, “Of course.”

In fact, he felt less than secure once he reached his feet. His head swam. His body ached and throbbed. But Thor was already heading towards the large window in the healer’s chambers, pushing open the pane of glass to let in the first stinging drops of rain. Mjolnir sprang to his hand from its place by the bed.

“What are you doing?” Loki asked, concentrating on making his way over. It felt like trying to walk while deeply in his cups.

Thor seemed not to notice, turning to wrap an arm around Loki, pulling him close. Loki had time to grip at him, sour, unpleasant shock running through him at the sudden pressure, the arm holding strong around his chest, gripping--

He started to shove back, an automatic response sent directly from his itching spine, and then they were airborne. The shock of the air whipping by his face was enough to jar some sense into his head, to provide the reminder that Thor held him.

Thor had been cruel plenty of times in their youth. But never so cruel as the nightmares that stalked Loki still through his sleep and waking memories. Loki did not twist away, or shove another knife into Thor’s chest, though his heart raced rabbit-fast by the time they landed on the edge of the Bifrost. Thor landed midstep, sweeping Loki along, directly into Heimdall’s station.

Heimdall waited within, helm removed, leaning on his mighty sword. He arched one brow.

“We need passage to Midgard,” Thor said, coming to a stop before the raised dais.

“And good morning to you, as well,” Heimdall said, something chiding and amused in his voice. His gaze moved to Loki. “I had heard that you would be staying with us for some time.”

“Plans change,” Loki said, though he had managed little say in how they were formed or changed, in this particular instance. Thor seemed to be playing at some strange and unexpected game. His hand curled, still, around Loki’s elbow, though he did not grip as though to restrain.

“He is providing defenses to the Midgardians,” Thor said, taking a tact with far more honesty than Loki would have chosen. Heimdall had little reason to care for the Midgardians, after all. Unless he cared so greatly that Thor’s mortal lady was kept safe. He had always been prey to sentimentality. “They have need of it, especially if what we suspect about the Stones is true. He must go back.”

“The King disagrees,” Heimdall said, but he did not make any effort to raise the alarm. Nor did he draw his blade. He just watched, golden eyes gleaming in the early light of day.

“And you?” Thor asked, taking a step forward. “Do you disagree?”

Heimdall fell silent for a moment, eyes going distant. He blinked after a beat and took a sharp breath, straightening at his post. “No,” he said, turning his face to the side, not quickly enough to hide his expression. “I have turned my gaze towards this Thanos in these past days.” He looked at Loki, then, weighing; Loki looked away first, wondering and dreading what Heimdall had seen. “He must go back to Midgard. Come, quickly, before I change my mind.”

“Thank you,” Thor said, tension going from his shoulders even as he squeezed Loki’s elbow and turned to smile down at him. Loki smiled back, reflex, and, at least, did not have time to dread how traveling the Bifrost would feel in his present condition.

#

Heimdall deposited them atop Stark’s tower, the tingling light of the Bifrost fading away to reveal a clear dawn stretching out over the city. Loki’s knees weakened, an embarrassment, but Thor’s hand kept him from swaying.

“Well,” Loki said, wetting his lips, “I must admit, I didn’t think getting back here would be so easy.” He shook his head, making to approach the door that led off of the roof. “Will you stay, break your fast, before you go to find Jane?”

Thor caught him back, gazing down at him with strange intensity, as though looking for the answer to a puzzle. “And yet you came to Asgard anyway,” Thor said. “Believing that you would be restrained there. Why?”

Loki found he could bear the physical contact, the grip around his arm. Perhaps Thor’s long history of grabbing and manhandling him about was strong enough to overcome the foul anxiety left behind by newer memories. He looked up at Thor, shrugging. “The Midgardians could not have helped Jane Foster.”

“Am I to believe you cared for her health so much as to risk your freedom?” Thor asked. The wind lifted his hair about. The rising sun turned the strands to gold.

“You care for her health, Thor,” Loki said, which was true enough. Thor had forgiven him the instant he set eyes upon Foster; Loki had watched it happen. The thought set ill inside him, though he could not determine why. He looked away, smoothing a frown into a smile. “And I’m sure she cares for yours. You should go to her, tell her all is well and--”

“No,” Thor cut him off, shaking his head. “I cannot stay. I…” He shifted, still holding Loki’s arm, fitting his other hand against the side of Loki’s neck, as he had not in so long. The closeness sent sparks of alarm all down Loki’s spine, but before he could jerk away, Thor continued, his voice strange, distant, the words picked with more care than Thor usually employed, “I saw--what happened to you. Who marked you so?” He gestured towards Loki’s shirt and, oh, he’d been there, hadn’t he, when Frigga waved away Loki’s armor, revealing all the ruin of his form.

“Thanos,” he said, mouth stretching into a smile that made his cheeks ache. The thought of him, brought close to mind, sped up his pulse. But Thanos was not there, he was nowhere to be found beneath the suntouched sky, in Midgard’s dirty air and noisy streets.

Thor’s expression hardened, something unfamiliar about the tightness around his eyes and his mouth. “Why? Why would he…?” He gestured again, the movement short and curt.

Loki shrugged. Speaking about it, discussing it, left him with an unpleasant, acidic burn in the back of his throat. His pulse rate would not slow. He said, working to keep that all out of his tone, “It amused him.”

A cutting breeze sliced through the morning air; it smelled like rain and ozone. Overhead, close by, thunder rumbled. Thor’s thumb shifted, brushing his jaw, skin rough and warm. Thor said, voice hard and flat as ever Loki had heard it, “Then I will bring you his head.”

Horror rang sharp through Loki’s blood, far overwhelming the temporary pleasure of the thought. He shook his head, reaching to grab Thor, as though he would disappear all at once. “Do not be a fool,” he said. “Do not underestimate his power. Or his armies.”

“I underestimate nothing,” Thor said. “I don’t intend to fight him alone.”

Loki stared into his expression, trying to catch the direction of his thoughts, trying to determine how to make him see that he could not go to Thanos. Such a thought sent acid up Loki’s throat. “Odin will never agree to fight him,” Loki said. “Never. He has no more taste for war. And you cannot face Thanos without an army.”

Thor smiled, a strange shift of expression, Loki thought. “We’ll see,” Thor said, and Loki’s thoughts raced, dancing from one idea to the next as he struggled to find a way to make Thor understand, to keep him on Midgard, or Asgard, or anywhere Thanos was not.

The door to the roof opened behind them, then. Stark called, sounding irritated, “Are you two ever planning on coming in or are you--uh, everything alright up here?” Loki turned to frown at him, and Thor drew back.

“Everything is alright, Stark,” Thor said. “I will return when I can.” And then he looked up to the sky, called for Heimdall, and was gone.

Loki stared at the spot where he’d been, swallowed once, and shook his head. It took time to shove back the panic in his chest, but he managed. Odin would not agree to a war with Thanos. Frigga would make Thor see sense. He had nothing to worry about. He could build his defenses in Midgard.

“Hey,” Stark said, slouching by Loki’s side, his hands shoved in his pockets. “You know what made me feel better after my chest got torn apart?” Loki turned to stare at him, dizzy and eaten up with a creeping worry. Stark grinned up at him. “Hamburgers. Let’s get you some.”

#

They ate, though Loki had little appetite. Afterwards, they reviewed the efficacy of Midgard’s defenses during the attack by the dark elves, which Stark detailed more fully as they worked. Loki could only focus on areas where improvements might be made.

The dark elves had been fierce, for a people presumed extinct. Thanos’s armies outmatched theirs by entire orders of magnitude. He had far more power than the Kursed, though Thor had, it seemed, struck down that brute in single combat... Still. There was much to be done and Loki had no idea how much time he had to do it in.

Stark grew exhausted, eventually, wandering off to find a bed, probably one with Pepper Potts in it. Loki could not bear to think of rest, even with exhaustion dragging at his thoughts. Steps needed to be taken, but he didn’t know what they were. Alliances must needs be made, an option open to him, now that he was no longer hiding from Heimdall and Asgard, perhaps…

His thoughts chased themselves in circles, until he found himself looking out the windows in his rooms, watching motorized vehicles and people scramble about so far below. He crossed his arms tight over his chest, fingers clenched to stop the trembles, even with no one else around to see them. Gooseflesh rose across his skin and his pulse, still, would not slow, no matter how he tried to reason with his mind that there was no threat.

He squeezed his eyes shut, digging nails into his palms, and startled badly when his door opened.

He turned, half-expecting Thanos to stand there, somehow summoned by Loki’s preoccupied thoughts. A knife sprang to one hand, dissolving again almost immediately as Thor strode into the room, cloak whipping behind him, hair stained dark with rain, a scowl sitting on his face.

“Thor,” Loki said, inane, even as Thor shut the door, closing them into the dimly lit room. Loki’s thoughts skittered down dark paths. He shook them away. He wasn’t bound. He could move. It was Thor there with him. “Is all well?”

Thor nodded, stalking over to the window, leaning to press the blade of one hand against the glass, frowning out over the city, before finally looking over at Loki. Something fierce shone out from his eyes, softening near immediately. “Asgard musters for war,” he said.

Loki’s heart lurched, off-rhythm beneath his ribs. He stared forward, suddenly dry-mouthed, and shook his head. “No, Odin would not have agreed, he--”

“It is no longer his decision,” Thor said, and the hard finality in his tone snapped Loki’s teeth shut. He took another look at Thor, the stiff line of his shoulders, the tension down his arms, the muscle jumping in his jaw.

Loki took a step towards him, tilting his head to the side. He asked, “What did you do?”

“What he wanted,” Thor said, words bitten off as he turned to frown out of the window. He took a breath and raised his chin. “What needed done.”

Loki’s breath caught in the back of his throat, the answer arriving obvious and clear in his mind. He drew back, bitter amusement warring with a sense of empty loss, with relief that finally, finally, the sword he’d been waiting for so long had fallen. He inclined his head, not least to hide the expression on his face, and said, “My King, I am--”

“Don’t,” Thor snapped, close, suddenly, pushing Loki’s back against the wall, one hand gripping at Loki’s arm, and-- “I will not have this come between us, I--Loki?”

The flinch away had been utterly involuntary, but that did not call it back. That did not erase the fact that he’d braced, turning his face away, arms coming up between them to push against Thor’s chest. It did not change the rapid in-and-out of his breath, horrifically close to hyperventilating. He could see it all happening, as though from outside his body.

Thor jerked back; Loki turned, bracing one hand on the wall, concentrating on his breathing. If he could just breathe properly, if he could just exorcise these memories, if, if, if. “Loki?” Thor asked, voice gone hoarse. He touched Loki’s shoulder, softly. “What is wrong?”

Loki cleared his throat as best he could, glancing sideways, up through his hair. He tried on a smile, and rasped, “Gotcha.”

For a moment, he thought it had worked, even. Indignation flashed across Thor’s expression, but it lasted only a second, before giving way to something too like horror. He reached out, slowly enough that Loki had time to restrain another flinch, fingers brushing against Loki’s cheek and then withdrawing.

Loki only felt the wetness then, and turned his face away, horror and humiliation mingling fresh inside his chest. Outside, thunder crashed through the sky. Loki’s tongue felt heavy in his mouth, even as he said, “My injuries were not fully healed, I--”

“A beheading is too good for him,” Thor interrupted. He continued, after a moment, softer, when Loki found no words to say, “I will not harm you. I promise you.”

Loki glanced back at him, wetting his dry lips. He said, “I know.”

Thor nodded, jerky. The storm outside still raged, showing no sign of easing. He said, “You should rest. In the morrow, we will need to talk.”

Loki could think of little he wanted to discuss. He could live the rest of his life without speaking about Thanos. But he recognized that it needed done. It could not be put off. He did not want to sleep, either, fearing the dreams that would come, but exhaustion sunk teeth into his thoughts, making the world bleary and strange.

He made his way across the room, past Thor, through the door that led to the bed chamber. He paused there, frowning at the door frame. “Foster will be pleased to hear of your coronation.”

It was strange to think of Thor as king, his long-promised elevation finally completed, leaving him tall and striking in his armor. A king, one who had struck down the Kursed, one with true power. Loki’s mouth twitched, thoughts of foolish games flitting across his mind.

Perhaps he could use a king. Perhaps his strategies had been in want of one.

Thor said, “The news will wait.” He sounded troubled, tired. Loki glanced back to find him frowning out of the window. Loki nodded, at noone, and walked over to the bed, crawling atop the covers, his thoughts churning, thrown into disarray by all that had happened in the day.

#

It was not a surprise, really, when the nightmares came for him with hungry mouths and clawing hands. Loki woke with a jerk, ghost flashes of pain radiating through his body, gasping at the cool air.

It was a surprise to find Thor bent over the bed, hand on Loki’s shoulder, saying “--must wake up, Loki, please.”

Loki gripped at him; he seemed the only solid thing in the room. Even the bed seemed to be spinning, and it stunk of fear and sweat. “What?” Loki managed to ask, head full of screams, most of them his own.

“You were dreaming,” Thor said, voice low and gentling. “A nightmare.”

“Yes,” Loki saw no way to deny that. He felt shaky and terrible, as though he might be ill. He was, sometimes, after particularly foul dreams. “Why are you--”

“You should drink some water,” Thor said, standing abruptly. Loki watched him march from the room and sat up, slowly, just in case the world decided to turn inside out. He’d sorted himself into better condition by the time Thor reappeared, holding out a glass of water. The weak light of early morning shone in behind him.

Loki took the glass, slipping while watching Thor from under his eyelashes. He asked, “Did you stay here through the night?”

“We need to speak,” Thor said, which was, Loki noted, not an answer to the question he’d asked. “You and I and whomever else you believe will be valuable to a discussion regarding Thanos.”

Loki had been awake less than five minutes and already his stomach felt like it was full of knives. He set aside the water. “Of course.”

#

They gathered in a meeting room. It took some hours to collect everyone who it seemed logical to include. Rogers and Romanoff even brought Barnes along, which was interesting. Loki had monitored that situation out of idle curiosity, and the man appeared stable these days, at least comparatively.

Stark, despite being at the Tower to begin with, joined them last, striding into the room and throwing himself down into a chair with a heavy sigh. “Hey, there, Renn Faire,” he said, grabbing a coffee from the middle of the table. “Didn’t expect to see you again so soon. Used to be we’d go a year between your visits to good old Earth.”

“He had news to share,” Loki said, sipping his own coffee. He’d come to very much enjoy the drink. “Your congratulations are in order. You sit before the new King of Asgard.”

The Midgardians took the news with the surprise and confusion Loki anticipated. Stark leaned back, as the others murmured congratulations and expressed their surprise. He asked, once they finished, “King, huh? When’d that happen, because I seem to remember your dear old dad being in charge when we were there, and you making a lot of noise about wanting to go explore the galaxy and have adventures.”

“The situation changed,” Thor said, frowning. Loki tried to take some pleasure in knowing that, if Thor had taken the throne from him, at least he would find no joy in its possession, but could not manage it. It just seemed like one more layer in the joke the universe was playing on them. Thor’s gaze drifted towards Loki, before refocusing on Stark. “I took the throne yesterday.”

There was quiet for a moment, and then Rogers said, again, shifting in his seat, “Well, congratulations.”

“Seconded,” Stark said, to general sounds of agreement from around the room. “We’ll have to throw you a party, later. After we’re done with...” He gestured around at the room. “This. What is all this about, anyway?”

Thor drew in a breath, squaring up his shoulders. Loki tried to decide if he looked different on a base level. He’d cleaned up. His armor obviously shone brightly. But he carried Mjolnir still by his side. He still dressed as a warrior, not a king. Loki’s thoughts drifted, distracted, while Thor laid out their plight, the threat of Thanos, the Stones held on Midgard.

“Alright,” Stark said, finally, leaning back. “So, basically, you agree with Loki that Thanos is probably going to come here to try to kick all our asses.”

Thor nodded. “It’s only a matter of time.”

“And, what, now that you’re King, you’re going to help us boost our defenses? Are we talking mutual defense agreements? Official treaties? Do we need an ambassador to Asgard?” Stark paused, frowning over at Loki. “You’d be the obvious choice.”

“We may need all of those things,” Thor said. “But I am less interested in defending one world than I am with destroying the threat at its root.”

There was another beat of silence. Loki watched faces around the room, his own reaction carefully contained. The thought of marching out to destroy Thanos was… Immensely satisfying and horrifying all at once. He needed killing, but to voluntarily go to him, even to strike him down... Loki lifted a glass and sipped at the coffee, if only to give himself something present in the room to focus upon.

“You want to go fight him,” Rogers said finally. “To take the fight to him.”

“I do, yes,” Thor, at least, lacked any appearance of conflict. He sat straight-backed and frowning. “I have seen some of the worlds he visited. His army grows constantly. Waiting will only allow him to become more dangerous. And if he gathers the Infinity Stones, he could destroy us all in an instant.”

Rogers leaned forward, expression every bit as grave as Thor’s. He’d seen war before, in a way many of the others at the table had not. He said, mouth an unhappy twist, “I assume you have some kind of plan.”

“The beginnings of one,” Thor said, looking over to Loki. “But I need information. You were…” He trailed off, jaw tightening, and Loki smiled.

“I was Thanos’s guest for some time, yes,” he said, leaning back in his chair. The thought of once more recalling information about anything that had happened during those dark months made him want to get up and lurch from the room. He restrained the urge. “I will tell you what I can. And, of course, you could use more practical assistance.”

Thor shifted. “I would not endanger any from Midgard. They have not the strength and stamina of the Aesir, it would be--”

“If you think we’re not going to space to kick this guy’s ass before he makes it planetside, you’re out of your mind,” Stark said, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair. “We stand the best chance of stopping him if we’re all working together. Let’s not give away our advantages just because we’re not all space gods, alright?”

Thor’s mouth twisted. “I appreciate your willingness, Stark, but--”

“No buts,” Stark said. “Do you know how many people Thanos killed in New York? If we can take him out before he can come back, we’re going to. Now.” He glanced over at Loki. “You said you had some information for us?”

#

Relaying information about Thanos’s forces, his preferred strategies, his armaments, and his supply lines required Loki to focus his thoughts directly on the months of time he’d kept locked away for more than a year. The memories had played out only in his nightmares for months. Stepping back into them in the waking world, willingly, at that, left him nauseated.

But it had to be done, so he swallowed down his rising gorge and told them all he knew that seemed pertinent and useful.

They took a break after some hours, splitting into smaller groups to discuss all they had heard and all they had to do. Loki pushed back from the table and walked from the room, unsure where he was going until he ended up in one of the washing rooms.

His breathing sounded too loud in the enclosed space. He waved a hand, darkening the mirrors. Only then did he turn, putting his shoulders to the wall and tipping his face to the ceiling, hands balled into fists and pressed down against his thighs.

He was not truly surprised when the door opened a moment later. He grimaced, turning from the wall, bending to turn on the water at one of the sinks. His body recognized Thor’s presence. He did not even have to look to confirm his suspicion.

“Going to war is a bold first act for a new King,” he said, counting on the noise of the water to obscure any strangeness with his voice.

“One I think you always suspected I’d take,” Thor said, dry. He reached out and turned off the water. Loki snapped his head up, frowning, ready to chide him, and Thor touched his shoulder, expression open with worry. “Discussing Thanos is difficult for you.”

“They are only memories, recalling them is hardly a challenge,” Loki said, a weak lie, as lies went.

He made to turn, and Thor said, “I am sorry to ask it of you.”

He had gotten out of practice in dealing with Thor’s open expressions and clear eyes. He glanced away, ignoring the tightening of his ribs around his lungs at Thor’s regard. “Let us strike him down, and all will be forgiven.”

#

The following days were consumed with war councils. The proceedings moved to Asgard near immediately, so Thor’s generals could contribute directly and so Thor could take care of the other aspects of rulership, though he seemed little interested in such proceedings and constantly dragged Loki into handling them.

Over the coming days, Loki grew very used to Thor pulling him aside to murmur some variation on, “Loki, here, Minister Thrunn has questions about raising taxes for the war effort, can you provide him with the information he requires?”

Loki did not mind, overmuch. Worrying about trade agreements and insufficient harvests on some of their worlds was far preferable to the dark memories that crept through his mind when his thoughts were not kept busy.

Besides, he’d always enjoyed the puzzle of sorting out such issues.

Not all of Loki’s Midgardian allies followed along to Asgard. Banner stayed behind; he’d been reluctant to lend his particular talents to the defense effort in the first place and could not bring himself to go make war, to seek out such a risk to his control. He argued his position with the rest, trying to convince them to maintain their defensive stance, but the Midgardians were a war-like folk, and they’d already suffered an interplanetary attack on their world.

They’d do what they could to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. So, the others came and went - even Barton visited, bringing his family once or twice to see sights no one else of their station had seen. Others joined them that Loki knew less well: representatives from S.H.I.E.L.D. and military leaders from countries around their planet. Heimdall had more work in the following days than he’d had in millenia.

The expanded war council required Loki to go over all that he knew again and again and again, each time pulling the scabs off of the wounds inside of his mind. Trying to make them understand the sheer power Thanos held - even without the Infinity Stones - proved exhausting. Few of them would be able to stand against Thanos personally. Perhaps only Thor, Loki thought, if any of them could. A king to face a king.

And that was assuming they could even reach Thanos. He had entire armies to array against them, not counting even those he called the Black Order, his adopted children, only some of whom Loki had ever seen. It took days to go over everything, to record it and spread it out in cool, emotionless words.

He had managed, at least, to convince them that no attack should be made before they were utterly prepared to handle the full force of Thanos’s armies. Thanos was many things, but not a fool. They could not start a war until they were sure they could finish it, or they would be ground to dust. But Asgard had not gone to war on such a scale since Thor was an infant. Midgard never had, nor had many of their other potential allies.

And then there were the arguments related to the Infinity Stones. They bickered back and forth about whether it was better to leave them hidden, or to attempt to collect them all before Thanos could find them, or only to find them and set guards upon them, and on and on.

The Space Stone they had, or Loki had, anyway, tucked safely away, and what an argument that had caused, with some of Thor’s Asgardian advisors demanding that it be turned over at once, put to use in the ways they saw fit. And that prompted indignant from Stark and the Midgardians, who felt that if any world was getting the Stone it ought to be them.

“Enough,” Thor had barked, tiring quickly of the disagreement and shifting in his position at the head of the table. He’d glanced at Loki. “You’ve had the Stone for more than a year. What does it do, what are you using it for?”

Loki blinked. In truth, he had not used it. He did not dare to do such a foolish thing. Thanos paid attention to where the Stones were used. They left distinct traces behind, unique in their power output. But he knew what it did, remembered it’s uses from his time in the blue-months. “It allows for the manipulation of space.” When he received blank looks, he sighed. “It lets the user open portals. To anywhere. And it’s a tremendous power source.”

“It could be used to move troops into position,” an old Aesir man with a tremendous beard said, “and--”

“And it would give away our position immediately,” Loki said, shaking his head. “It can be used only as a last resort. Until then, it should be hidden.”

“And why should you--”

“Loki will keep it,” Thor said, tone firm and flat, brooking no argument. He said, when his generals turned to gape at him. “Do any of you believe you could hide it better?”

And no more was said about the Tesseract, which remained tucked away and hidden. Loki had reason to believe he had the Mind Stone as well, though he kept that information locked inside his thoughts. Another Stone waited on Midgard, but they had not yet been able to find it, despite his and Stark’s best efforts put together.

The Aesir stood guard over the Aether, whichever Stone it turned out to be. Loki had suspicions, but Thanos had not provided explicit information about the Stones or their abilities, merely naming them and discussing his plans for them.

That left two Stones unaccounted for utterly. Aggressive searching would surely draw Thanos’s attention to them, so they were limited to carefully reconnoitering throughout the worlds and realms surrounding them.

#

Preparation and planning for all those aspects of their campaign took every ounce of Loki’s remaining concentration and kept him from dwelling too long on the sour emotions that never left him for long.

Being on Asgard only made the itching under his skin worse. On Midgard, his presence had been largely unknown. He’d changed his appearance enough, when he had to walk among the populace, that no one gave him a second look.

The same could not be said of the Aesir. Thor’s rule kept him from the cells beneath the palace, but he could not change the hearts of his people. They had never been warm to Loki; his actions following Thor’s false-started first coronation had frozen them utterly.

They restrained themselves to cold glances and chilly words during the war councils, but he heard the whispers poorly hidden in the halls and grew familiar with the predominating opinion that all Thanos had done to him had been a form of recompense he deserved. Kin-slayer, they called him, as though the Aesir had not slaughtered entire armies full of Jotun in the past. As though the Jotun had not done the same thing. As though they would not have struck down Laufey, as though they had not imagined doing such a thing innumerable times over the years.

He saw the glances that followed him from place to place, full of no good intent. He tried to believe that they would offer him no harm, but such platitudes felt hollow, even inside his own mind. It was no surprise, truly, when a soldier slid into the chair beside him as he reviewed a communique from one of their potential allies, so close that it took all Loki had not to flinch.

“So,” the soldier said, sitting sideways on the chair, one leg stretched out behind Loki’s seat. “Is it true what they say? That the Mad Titan told you all of his plans while having you?”

Loki had expected something. Prepared for something. He had not anticipated the assault to be so bold when it came. He should have. The Aesir were nothing if not bold and sure of themselves. The words sunk in and twisted, burning like a poisoned blade. His body went still and far away, even as he turned to blink sightlessly at the man.

He smirked, Loki noticed, from somewhere distant, somewhere dark, somewhere that smelled like his blood. “Is it true that you serviced—hrrk!”

The man’s words choked to nothing with a sudden blur of movement. An arm reached down, a hand seized the front of the man’s uniform; he was hauled to his feet so quickly his chair toppled over, clattering loudly against the floor. “My Lord!” he exclaimed. “I--”

“Balnor,” Thor said, voice flat and quiet. “You are dismissed from your service.”

“But,” Balnor started; he sounded genuinely befuddled. “I only--”

“Remove yourself from my sight,” Thor said, talking over whatever apologies or excuses might have been made. “Immediately, or we’ll make the circle and have a holmgang, between us.” Loki listened to Balnor scramble away, but the sound came from a great distance. The desperate, terrible noises inside his head were much closer, overwhelming and all-consuming.

“Loki,” Thor spoke quietly. He reached out, but hesitated, not quite touching Loki’s shoulder. Loki blinked up at him. His head seemed full of storm clouds. He could not recall what he had been trying to do. His heart sped along, so fast that he could not distinguish one beat from the other.

“He did,” Loki said, thoughts spiraling in tight, horrible circles. Memories jumbled together, until it became difficult to tell where one started and another stopped. “He would talk constantly. As though I were not even there.” He laughed, the sound all jagged edges. “That’s how I knew I would never escape alive.”

Somewhere far away, a storm rumbled, loud and sudden. Thor touched his hand, and Loki blinked down at the thick, rough fingers covering his. “You live still,” Thor said, quiet. “And you are free of him.”

“For now,” Loki said, words escaping without thought. Despite all his efforts, he could not shake the thought it would all come to naught. That Thanos would strike him down in a moment, that the universe was only biding its time, giving him just enough successes that he might imagine hope, so that it might be snatched away when it would cause the most hurt.

“For all time.” Thor sounded odd. Loki looked up at him slowly, as though in a dream. “I promised you his head. I intend for you to have it.”

Loki shivered, the surety in the words was great and terrible all at once. There was nothing like doubt to be found in Thor’s expression, no hesitation or boyish wonder, only certainty as dark as the center of a thunderstorm. “I look forward to that,” Loki said, and meant it more than he had meant almost anything else in his life. He shook himself, then, and said, “You know you cannot challenge your own men to a holmgang, don’t you?”

Thor shrugged and stood, then. “Come,” he said. “Or we will be late for our trip to Vanaheim.” Loki had not intended to go to Vanaheim, previously. He had planned to stay on Asgard, to focus on the implementation of extra warding, such as he’d established on Midgard. But that could wait.

The thought of distance appealed. He stood, shivering again at Thor’s hand on his back when they walked from the room.

#

Vanaheim made sense as the first world to visit with their plans. Asgard had treaties with the folk there of old. They had gone to war together before. Thor spoke of the recent unrest in Vanaheim as they traveled down the rainbow path of the Bifrost, accompanied by an entourage of guards and clerks.

Frigga and Odin waited outside of Heimdall’s chambers, clad in all their finery. Loki had not seen Odin since he gave up his place as king. He looked… old. Old and tired, watching them all with disapproval, leaning on his great staff. Loki only glanced at him for a moment and felt his mouth twitch even still.

Frigga spoke brief words of benediction over them, straightening the fall of Thor’s cloak and pulling Loki down into a brief embrace to murmur, “Return safely.”

It was not a message he’d expected to have whispered against his ear. They had not spoken in more than passing in days. He blinked at her, even as she smiled, small and fleeting, drawing back from him. The memory of her dark eyes and the smell of her perfume followed him through Heimdall’s brief greeting and their trip across the stars.

#

If Thor had not spoken of unrest on Vanaheim, Loki would not have known about it. No signs of recent battle remained in the capital. They were greeted quickly by the Vanir and led off into the heart of the city, where Loki spoke once more of the threat posed by Thanos, their plans, and the necessity of their actions.

A terrible roteness had come to it, numbing some of the sour fear he felt when he spoke of the danger, the threat growing in the universe around them.

The representatives from Vanaheim nodded and frowned and promised to review all that had been said and all the evidence they brought in council. They were thanked, ever so graciously, and sent on their way to pass the hours as they wished.

“They will refuse us,” Loki said, after Thor swept him off into the capital city, promising him a meal at the most delightful restaurant.

Thor frowned at him, leading the way through an orchard of tremendously tall trees, all of them heavy with sweet-smelling fruit. Low tables sat beneath the boughs, decorated with flowers. Pillows were spread across the ground, displaying dozens of different patterns. “They cannot,” Thor said. “The treaties--”

“Are old,” Loki said, waving a hand even as they reached a table that Thor deemed acceptable, pausing beside it to gesture at the pillows. Loki sank down, lifting a petal to worry between his fingers. He split it with a nail; pale liquid ran down the back of his finger. “And intended to bind Asgard and Vanaheim as one for the purposes of defense, not for aggression. This is what they will tell you.”

Thor did not reply for a moment. A tall, dark-haired woman had appeared, bearing a jug of mead and a platter of small cakes. She disappeared with barely a word, long skirts sweeping around her legs. When she was gone, Thor said, “They must understand the threat we face.”

“Must they?” Loki shrugged. “Look at this world, Thor. You said there was unrest, but it was cleared away quickly. By you and other Aesir warriors. They have forgotten what fear is and how to respond to it.” Thor scowled and took a long swallow of his mead. “So they will refuse the initial offer and demand concessions in return for their aid. They’ll want to open negotiations in a day, perhaps two.”

“It is good that you came, then,” Thor said, mouth quirking into a brief smile. “I’ve no head for negotiations.”

Loki snorted a laugh. “Perhaps,” he said, tossing aside the petal and lifting one of the small cakes. “If nothing else,” he said, after chewing and swallowing, “at least we will have enjoyed a fine meal.”

“At least there is that,” Thor agreed, and they spoke of little of consequence for the rest of the meal.

#

In fact, the people of Vanaheim made their decision more quickly than Loki anticipated. The first refusal was waiting upon their return from dinner, complete with a note indicating that they might open negotiations for new treaties in the morning.

Thor frowned at the missive and went off to search for the rest of their clerks to inform them of what had occurred. Loki, drowsy from the mead and a satisfying meal, fairly confident that Thanos would not look for him on Vanaheim, of all places, threw himself down on the couch in his quarters and intended to doze until someone insisted on waking him.

A knock at his door came too quickly. He frowned up at the ceiling for a moment and rose, stifling a yawn as he opened the door, fully expecting to find Thor, or perhaps an Aesir guard. Instead, he found a member of Vanaheim’s high council waiting outside.

The man was tall and dark haired, despite his age and the lines around his eyes. Loki knew him vaguely of old; he’d visited Asgard a few times to speak of matters of state with Odin and Frigga. Loki had been still a child during the last such visit, barely of age to enter the council chambers so he could listen to arguments only just understood.

Loki inclined his head, summoning a smile, and said, “Minister Njord, what an unexpected pleasure.” He stepped back from the door, for there could be no polite way to send such a man away, and they had negotiations to begin in the morning.

Njord entered the room without hesitation. “You are gracious,” he said, gazing across the rooms. “I hope your accommodations are to your liking?”

“They are perfection itself,” Loki said, wishing, suddenly, that he had not drank so much mead. “If you wish to speak with the King--”

“I do not,” Njord said. “Or I would have visited his quarters.”

“Of course,” Loki said and made to step back. “Can I get you a refreshment?”

“Perhaps later,” Njord said, matching him step for step, reaching out to catch his wrist. “I wished to speak with you first. I thought we might discuss the negotiations between our peoples… privately.”

“Ah,” Loki said, smiling, because a smile was called for, and he knew it, despite the sudden unpleasant lurching of his pulse. “Certainly.” He gestured towards the chairs in his quarters, tugging at the grip on his wrist. It did not ease. “Shall we…?”

“I lost recently my wife,” Njord said, making no move towards the chairs. “In the attacks we suffered from bandits and brigands.” He frowned, thoughtful and considering, as he looked across Loki’s face.

“You have my sympathies,” Loki said, though he’d never met the woman and could not bring himself to recall even her face. “Would you like--”

“You have grown up very well,” Njord said, instead of anything sensible. He reached out and up, and Loki shifted back, gut seizing unpleasantly.

“You are too kind,” he said, words coming from far away. “But perhaps--”

“And Thor has taken the throne of Asgard now,” Njord continued, as though he had not spoken, still holding his wrist. “He has no blood siblings, more’s the pity. But it is said that he favors you greatly.”

“Is it?” Loki asked, feeling cold sweat breaking out across his shoulder and back.

“It is, by all those who would know,” Njord said, and, when Loki attempted to pull back again, he tugged forward. There was strength in his frame. The Vanir and Aesir shared common ancestry, after all. “And so it seems obvious that you and I should speak. You will find no one with more authority over the council than I hold. And while I understand Asgard’s position, I could use help developing more… sympathy for their needs, especially over the long term. Sympathy that would be easier to come by with stronger ties between our peoples. Ties such as have not been renewed for too long.” He reached up, again, and Loki jerked his face to the side, unthinking.

“Minister Njord, how unexpected to see you,” Thor said, and Loki registered only then the change in the light in the room, the rumble of thunder outside, the opening of the door unnoticed as his thoughts buzzed and hummed inside his skull.

The relief of Thor’s sudden presence hit hard, though perhaps he would be angry, later, if Loki’s reticence to flirt and titter cost them the alliance. “Thor,” Loki said, tugging again, relieved when Njord released his grip at once. “Minister Njord visited to speak of the treaty talks tomorrow.” He did not look back towards Njord. He could not. Instead he watched Thor frown over at the Minister.

“Did he?” Thor’s scowl wavered not as he approached, coming to a stop between them. Loki gripped his arm, and felt, abruptly, less as though the room were spinning beneath him or, rather, that he was no longer spinning with it. Thor anchored him into place. He took a breath.

“The matter seemed most pressing,” Minister Njord said, tone even and unbothered. “I thought perhaps we could take some steps to ease things along.”

“How thoughtful of you,” Thor said. “Unfortunately, all discussions on such matters must be scheduled with our representative to your world. You know Hogun, I believe. He is quartered only a hallway away.”

“Of course,” Minister Njord said, inclining his head. “I look forward to seeing you both in the morning.” Loki exhaled when he exited the room, the door shutting quietly at his back.

He startled again when Thor turned, hands coming up to his shoulders, squeezing, as Thor asked, “You are alright?”

“What?” Loki would never drink mead again. It had made his thoughts far too slow. “Yes, I’ve come to no harm. Though the same may not be said of Minister Njord’s feelings. You were too abrupt.”

Thor frowned. “He was…” He gestured, expression growing darker.

“In the process of making a better offer than he needed to make, considering my ancestry.” The space to breathe had given him, if nothing else, a chance to look back over Njord’s actions and his words. “I am the closest thing you have to kin, you know that, don’t you? The Aesir may not like it, but they made it true. I’m unwed. You’re trying to build alliances for a war. He won’t be the last one to make the suggestion.” He snorted, mouth slanting to the side. “Were Odin still ruling, I’d likely already be--”

“He’s not,” Thor said, touching his shoulder, turning him back, expression so strange and intense that it sent a shock down Loki’s spine, grounding out in his stomach. “And I am not going to sell you away for a treaty. Not for any price.”

Loki swallowed and wetted his lips, finding them suddenly dry. “You may regret that in the morning.”

“I won’t,” Thor said, gaze dropping along with his voice. He brushed back a stray strand of Loki’s hair, fingertips sliding across cheek, his bearing gone strange and--

And it was almost a relief for someone else to knock upon Loki’s door; Hogun come to look for Thor to discuss council meetings on the morrow. There was no sign of surprise in his grim visage to find Thor in Loki’s rooms. In fact, he did not comment upon it at all.

All of their planning came to little and less, in the end. They spoke with the Vanir for some days and ended up leaving without the treaty they wished. The council did agree to renew their older treaties, to come to Asgard’s aid if they were attacked, but that was the farthest they would go.

Their company left the planet in quiet, with a dreary rain falling upon them. It was an inauspicious start to building their campaign.

#

Moving through Asgard felt little like a welcoming prospect following their grim return, but, then again, even before all the events that brought them to where they were, Loki had generally moved through the palace with great care. There were too many watching eyes among the Aesir, too many folk curious to watch his comings and goings.

Besides, going quietly sometimes yielded its own rewards, such as the discovery of a conversation otherwise missed. Loki stumbled upon such a conversation after a sleepless night, prowling the halls in the early hours, planning to fill his head with work to block out everything else.

He found their main council chamber already occupied, voices carrying out from within, Stark’s and Thor’s as they discussed some manner of triviality. He hesitated at the doorway, figuring to listen for a moment, and frowned at the first statement overheard, Thor’s voice pitching quieter than it had a moment previously, “Loki seems to have made many friends on your world.”

“Hm?” Stark sounded distracted. No doubt he was busy attempting to ferret out the construction of some Aesir device or the other. Such tasks occupied much of his time. “Oh, yeah, he’s a regular social butterfly.”

“Mm.” Thor took so long to form another question that Loki nearly despaired, but eventually he found words. “And did he form more… intimate connections?”

Stark made a little choking sound and then cleared his throat. “Are you asking me if he’s seeing anyone?”

“I suppose I am.”

Loki frowned at the far wall, utterly confused by this turn of conversation. What would Thor care about such matters? Perhaps he merely cast about for anything to distract from the pressures of building an army.

“I, uh, I don’t know,” Stark said. He sounded strange. “Haven’t been paying attention to the schoolyard gossip. But he could be seeing someone. Turned me down, anyway, a few months back.”

“What?” Something set down hard inside the room.

“To be fair, I wasn’t entirely serious, except for those thirty seconds where I was. I’m not blind and, I mean, think about the possibilities. He changes shape. What about you? You giving Dr. Foster some close encounters of the third kind? Find a way around that whole man of lightning, woman of Kleenex thing?”

Loki stiffened, scowling and wondering honestly why he was wasting his time leaning against the wall and listening to such drivel. He turned on his heel and stalked off, hoping to find more interesting conversations elsewhere, Thor’s answer going unheard as he pulled shadows around his shoulders.

#

They had better luck on their next diplomatic mission, as well as the one after that. Perhaps because Loki served as primary representative, with Thor left behind to plan training and preparations for their forces. Much of their workload was restructured, with Stark disappearing abruptly back to Midgard to look further for the Stone hidden there still.

Attempting to blend the armies of multiple worlds together into cohesive battlefield units was not a task that held any interest to Loki. He was just as happy to leave it to the martially inclined, who swiftly set up training exercises that seemed more like torture than anything else.

Romanoff accompanied him more often than not as he ventured out from Asgard; she served as the representative for Earth, or at least S.H.I.E.L.D.. Most of the worlds they visited found her unthreatening, which worked to their purposes. She moved about, gathering information and the truths their potential allies would rather not share while leaders and governments focused on Loki.

Besides, he enjoyed her company, the slanted edge of her humor and the masks she put on and took off again as easily as breathing.

They returned after a successful mission to find the capital busy with unfamiliar faces, with soldiers wearing strange armor, all of them blending together, hurrying to reach their bunking assignments and training grounds.

Romanoff nodded her goodbyes as they reached the city proper, before slipping down an alley, already well-familiar with the twists and turns of the backroads. She’d no doubt be off to check on Rogers and Barnes. Loki expected not to see any of them until morning, at the earliest. He put her out of his thoughts and set off in search of Thor.

He found Thor in one of the courtyards they’d re-dressed for use as a training ground. Ranks of warriors, both Aesir and otherwise, stood around the edges of the courtyard, watching the show playing out in the center. Loki made his way to the upper level by folding shadows, coming to a stop leaning against one of the pillars holding up the great arch leading into the courtyard.

Below, Thor stood against a dozen scrambling foes, yelling instructions at them even as he knocked them to the ground, calling more forward to replace those who rolled out of the make-shift ring, shaking their heads and pulling off the colored bands around their arms.

None could stand against him. He made beating them back look simple, easy. Loki watched him, losing track of time, until an itching at the back of his neck made him turn his head. He found Sif standing a dozen paces away, at the top of the stairs that led to the balcony overlook. She frowned at him, her armor clean, her hair carefully pinned back. She asked, tilting her chin to the side, “Enjoying the show, are you?”

“I suppose it is an impressive bit of bloodsport,” he said, inclining his head and turning back to the fights below. Thor had lifted a man bodily and thrown him to the ground. “In fact, I’m surprised to see you up here with such a brawl going on.”

She strode over, light on her feet even in armor, coming to a stop beside him. “Thor is late for a meeting with the Lady Frigga,” she said. “I was sent to find him.” She frowned down at the mess below and asked, stiffly, “Your trip went well?”

Loki watched her from the sides of his eyes. They’d shared a comradery in the past, the pair of them. It had faded away as they’d aged into adolescence. He’d never been entirely sure why.

There had been a scrape, he recalled; they’d wandered into the lair of some monster or the other with Thor. The beast within had been displeased with their presence. He could still recall Thor reaching for him in the darkness, only the whites of his eyes visible, crying out when a blow had knocked Loki back.

It had taken the three of them to bring the beast down. And after, Sif had been… strange. But perhaps the memories only seemed connected. Perhaps the chill between them went back further. Memory played strange tricks, he knew. “Well enough,” he said. “They were interested in what I had to say. What does Lady Frigga want with Thor?”

“Ask her yourself,” she said, not taking her eyes off of the skirmish, and the familiar scorn of her words - when so much else had changed, it was a relief to find that some things stayed the same - drew a laugh from him.

Down below, Thor glanced up, eyes widening at the sight of them. Several of the soldiers he fought moved to take advantage of the distraction, charging forward. Thor knocked the first feet over head, tossing the others aside as though they weighed nothing, his movements suddenly given new purpose.

The sudden burst of ferocity marked the end of the training session. Thor barked instructions to the soldiers rolling around on the ground and then leapt, Mjolnir in hand, to land on the railing of the balcony, stepping down before them with a smile.

“Loki, Sif,” he said, sweat and blood mixing in his beard, his hair braided back away from his face. “I did not expect such an audience.”

“Lady Frigga requests your presence,” Sif said, frowning still. Message delivered, she yet lingered, standing uncomfortably before them.

Thor grimaced. “Ah,” he said. “Is it so late already?”

“It is.” And still Sif lingered, expression dark as she looked upon them.

Loki sighed; her behavior was a mystery he could worry at when there was not so much else to take care of. “And I must go to prepare my report,” he said, inclining his head. “You fought well, Thor. I hope you need not demonstrate the same skills with Frigga.” He made to turn, reaching for the surrounding shadows.

“Wait,” Thor said, catching him back with a hand. “We can travel to the palace together.” And before Loki could agree or disagree, he was drawn close, Mjolnir pulling them both into the air. He wondered if Sif frowned after them still.

#

Loki’s presence was not requested for the meeting with Frigga. He attended anyway, silent and unseen, slipping through a wall and settling into a shadow. Both Frigga and Odin waited within the chamber, talking in sharp tones to one another as Thor entered.

“Thor,” Frigga said, upon his entrance, smiling as all traces of frustration wiped from her features. “The preparations go well?”

“They do,” Thor said. He had not even cleaned up before visiting their chambers. He grabbed an apple out of a bowl along one wall, biting into it as he moved to sit in one of the fine chairs. “My apologies for keeping you waiting.”

“A king has little need to apologize,” Odin said, frowning out over the city, ignoring the sharp tetching sound Frigga made in response.

“We know you have been busy,” Frigga said, sweeping away from Odin to sit beside Thor. “Which is why we have delayed this conversation as long as possible. But, Thor, the time for war approaches.”

“It does,” Thor agreed. He glanced at them both. “And it will not be stopped.”

“Something you’ve made quite clear,” Frigga said, dry. “We do not intend to try to stop it. It is only that… well. You are the king, now, Thor. And you have taken no partner to rule beside you. Or to…provide heirs, should you fall.”

“There must always be a king of Asgard,” Odin added, back turned to them still. “No matter what else happens.”

Loki frowned, even as Thor turned to scowl. That this discussion should call them - or Thor, anyway - way from more important duties…! Loki turned aside, finding somewhere better to be before he could hear Thor’s response, itchy suddenly beneath his skin.

No wonder Sif had been in such a hurry to find Thor and fetch him back. She would be a sensible choice, no doubt preferable to Jane Foster in the eyes of Odin, at the very least. Their preoccupation with their legacy stung up beneath his ribs, the irritation of it needling him even when Thor came to find him for the evening meal, looking strangely determined.

“Did you have a good meeting with Frigga?” Loki asked, frowning over a strange report of energy readings from a distant world.

“A strange meeting,” Thor said, sitting close by, warmth radiating out from his body. Loki glanced at him sideways. He had taken the opportunity to bathe before the evening meal. He smiled when he caught Loki’s eyes and held out a book bound in dark material with faint, golden letters shining across the front.

“What’s this?” Loki asked, even as he took it, tracing fingers across the writing, bemusement turning up the corners of his mouth. “Why have you given me a book of poetry?”

“Do you no longer enjoy reading it?” Thor asked. Loki opened the cover of the book; he did not know the poet. The script was a Midgardian language, he had learned many of them on a whim while living on that world.

“I do,” he said, scanning a few lines and shivering. One need not be a chamber to be haunted, indeed. “But you haven’t answered my question.”

“I have,” Thor said. “Enjoy it. You cannot think of war all the time.”

Loki marked his page with a finger, tilting his head to the side to peer at Thor. “Is this only a scheme to get me to read your literary assignments to you again? Have your tutors tracked you down after all these years?”

Thor flashed him a smile. “Nay,” he said, “I would banish them all if they succeeded.” He shifted then, near squirming about in his chair. “I marked a few,” he said, reaching over, fingers sliding along the edge of the book, eyes cast down. “I--”

A burst of horns interrupted him, sharp and clear, cutting through all the conversations around them and silencing the city. Thor’s head jerked up. He stood at once, Mjolnir springing to his hand. Loki’s breath caught and held, even as Thor grabbed him, pulling him along, away from the forgotten book of poetry.

#

They landed upon the rainbow bridge, in front of Heimdall, the sunset painting his golden armor bloody red. He lowered the horn from his lips. “What news have you?” Thor demanded.

“It is of Thanos,” Heimdall said, grim-voiced, and Loki’s thoughts spiraled in small and tight. It was too early, they weren’t ready, he should have-- “I have kept my eyes upon him and his armies these last months. And they have moved, descending upon a world unprepared to offer a defense.”

The whiplash flood of relief - Thanos was not coming to them - made Loki dizzy. He said, as behind them others ran up, or flashed into being, hurrying to the Watcher’s post, “A world with an Infinity Stone?”

If Thanos found one, it would increase the difficulty of their task by entire orders of magnitude. They would have to take steps to prevent it, their level of preparedness be damned. But Heimdall shook his head. “I see no evidence of a Stone.” He looked upon Loki, gaze grim. “You have told us he attacks worlds to wipe out half the population.”

“We must go at once,” Thor said - of course he did, of course, of course, that was the problem with getting help from someone so idiotically good-hearted - and Loki’s thoughts sped along. He needed protection still, Heimdall’s words reminded him of that, if nothing else. Throwing their unready armies at Thanos now was a mistake, however, one that would cost them dearly, one that would very likely draw Thanos’s attention to them.

But making anyone around him understand that, without risking that they would turn on him for his desire not to die… He reached out, grabbing Thor’s arm. “Wait!”

“This is not the time for delay,” Thor said, shaking his head. “People die as we speak, and--”

“People die every moment the universe turns,” Loki snapped. “Many of those deaths you could prevent if you were there, but you cannot run about searching for all of them, constantly. And you cannot simply leap into this battle. Do you think you will not save more lives if we take the time to plan, first?”

Thor hesitated, looking at him, gaze searching. He nodded finally, a sharp jerk of his chin as he straightened his back. “Then let us plan quickly,” he said, adjusting his grip on Mjolnir. “For I desire greatly to meet Thanos on the battlefield.”

#

They gathered, the leaders of their little coalition, those who answered the call, who did not balk at the first sign of adversity, in the great war-chamber of Asgard, to plan a defense for a planet that knew nothing of them, against a force that would not hesitate to destroy them on a whim.

Loki’s stomach turned to ice and rock, as he bent his thoughts to developing a plan that would not see their armies destroyed in one battle. The generals argued with one another, but not with Thor, who scowled over the projection of the besieged world and Thanos’s surrounding ships, and spoke in clear, even tones of a plan that surprised Loki enough to still his churning thoughts.

There were flaws in the plan, without a doubt, but they were not so many as Loki feared. He pointed them out, and it set the argument to motion again, but not for long before they were squared away. The planning did go quickly, and before Loki was prepared the generals were filling out again, going to speak with their soldiers.

Loki remained a moment, staring at the projection of the battle. “You do not have to join us,” Thor said, startling him from his thoughts.

Loki barked a laugh. “Of course I do,” he said. “Who else will provide the illusions you want?”

Thor frowned at him through the red-hued ships. “The plan can be changed.”

Loki waved a hand, brushing away the words. “It’s a good plan.” As to whether or not it would survive contact with Thanos…. “Come,” he said, crafting a smile. “I hear people are dying, and we can’t have that.”

#

Thor’s plan was good, Loki realized, in bits and snatches through the battle that followed. The fleet of ships - of Marauder make, Thor seemed particularly pleased about that touch - that Loki crafted from memory pulled the attention of Thanos’s orbital forces, a distraction that gave Heimdall enough time to neatly deposit small groups of warriors inside those same ships, where they played merry havoc using Stark’s weaponry.

The explosions - Loki viewed them from the surface of the planet - were beautiful, like fireworks at one of Midgard’s celebrations. Burning pieces of metal lit up the sky as they fell through the atmosphere.

The fight on the ground went harder, even with careful planning to flank and attack. Thanos had more soldiers than they did, many of them crafted specifically to do as much damage as possible. Asgard’s forces scrambled, fought, and struggled for such advantages as they could secure, bolstered by the planet’s natives.

It was not a surprise when Thanos sent additional ships to provide reinforcements, dragging the battle out, turning their remaining plan to scattered pieces. They fought, snatching rest when possible, and, somehow, it was a surprise when Loki jerked a dagger free of the body of a screaming assailant and found no one else around to strike down.

He spat on the ground, covered in filth, aching from head to foot, and laughed when a cheer went up across the battlefield.

#

“You are unhurt?” Thor asked Loki, before anything else, when they found one another on Asgard. He touched Loki’s shoulder, his chin, turning his face from one side to the other, looking for evidence of injuries that were not there. Thor was bloody, his cloak in tatters and with scorch marks across his armor, but he was upright, and that was something.

“I am,” Loki gripped him back, throwing power designed to mend wounds down into his skin. “Casualties?”

Thor grimaced. “Higher than I hoped,” he said. “But the people of Theopiar have agreed to join us.” They’d been a primitive people, not even as advanced as Midgard. Still, they would be bodies on the line, if nothing else. And perhaps Stark could arm them appropriately. “Will Thanos return to their world?”

Loki blinked at the question. “Eventually,” he said, shrugging. “But perhaps not for a time. He is not a fool and for all his talk of cleansing the universe, he picks targets that cannot stand against him. There’s a reason he has not attacked Asgard in all his years and that he did not return immediately to Midgard. He prefers to attack from a place of certain victory.” So did Loki, for that matter. But he doubted they’d ever get that chance.

Not in an out-an-out war, anyway. He frowned.

Thor nodded. “Then many lives have been saved.” He smiled, turning as a group approached them, headed by Sif and Stark, clamoring to discuss the battle, what they had learned, funeral arrangements for the dead, and a dozen other topics that kept them from rest for the better part of another day.

#

Loki expected an immediate attack upon Asgard in recompense for their meddling with Thanos’s grand work. No attack came. Perhaps Thanos did not know who they were. Perhaps he built up an attack force of his own, the better to crush them with.

The thoughts preoccupied Loki’s mind throughout planning, visits to other worlds, and pointless conversations in the scant downtime they all managed on Asgard.

He was turning over the likely outcomes of an attack directly on Asgard - they could fortify the planet utterly, diminishing the odds that Thanos would attack, but - when Stark sat down heavily across from him in a courtyard beneath the stars, slouched, crossed his heels, and said, “So, word on the street is that we’re overdue for a marriage around here.”

Loki looked up at him. They had barely had time to speak since Stark returned from Midgard to help with the attack against Theopiar. “What?”

Stark waved a hand. “Thor’s supposed to get hitched, right? Everyone’s talking about it; this planet needs some gossip rags so everyone can monitor the goings-on of the royal family more effectively. They’re all expecting him to get down to business establishing that line of succession.”

“I suppose,” Loki said, frowning down at the books spread around him across the ground. Thor had gifted him two new tomes earlier in the day, before being called away once more. There were so many spells, so many ways to manipulate the power that flowed through the world. He wished more of them were destructive. “Though even if he wed today, an heir in any short amount of time is unlikely. The Aesir birth few children. Odin and Frigga had only one in thousands of years.”

“But he might not pick another Asgardian,” Stark said. Loki scowled down at a text, reading the same line thrice. “Right?”

“He is very fond of Jane,” Loki agreed. “And Midgardians procreate rapidly.” He had not realized, truly, that there was such a focus on Thor’s romantic disposition. Perhaps it gave everyone something to dwell on, besides the threat of crushing annihilation hanging over them all.

“We do,” Stark said, and, after a moment, “Do you think they could have kids?”

Loki stared at a paragraph, giving up reading it. “It’s likely,” he said, the words coming out strange and clipped. “The Aesir have had no problems mixing with other folk. Thor’s friend Volstagg took a Vanir woman to wife. I’ve lost count of their children.”

Stark hummed, slouching down further in his chair. Loki did not bother attempting to read again. He could feel another question coming. “What about your people. The Jotun?” Loki stiffened, but of course Stark would have heard what he truly was while on Asgard. People whispered about him, though, it seemed, perhaps not as much as they whispered about the potential occupants of Thor’s bed.

He shrugged. “By all tellings, they might match the Midgardians.”

“Interesting,” Stark said, though Loki did not see how. “Does Thor know that?”

Loki scowled down at the texts he’d planned to study with a heat they did not deserve. He said, “I don’t know how he wouldn’t.” He gathered his tomes all together and excused himself, irritated and with his concentration utterly broken, leaving Stark to stare up at the stars as he retreated to his quarters.

Even there, in those quiet rooms, he found no peace for his thoughts. The next attack that Thanos must make weighed heavily on him. He could not stop wondering if someone had noticed him on the battlefield, if his presence would be reported to Thanos, if Thanos would care.

But of course he would. Loki had failed him, escaped him, and taken his prize to make all worse. Had he told Thanos of Asgard in the blue months? Would Thanos know exactly where to come, would he guess their location and strike them down, sudden and unavoidable?

If he came, Asgard was not prepared. Not remotely. They would make such a tempting target.

But the attack had not come yet, and so perhaps Loki had passed unnoticed by chance. But it was foolish to carry on openly, if they were to fight Thanos again. He paced back and forth across the floor, deeper worries interrupted unpleasantly by Stark’s words, which would not leave him, until Loki shifted, stopped abruptly, and smacked the flat of her hand upon the wall.

And then she went out into the city and across the land, refamiliarizing herself with the spread of the ley lines across the world. She did nothing to them, merely testing them. There were strong, vibrant, humming against her touch.

She could have set shielding into place easily, with a fraction of the effort it had required on Midgard.

She curled her fingers close, instead, shivering down her spine, and turned away, listening to the clamor of thoughts inside her skull throughout the lingering hours of the night.

#

Loki frowned at her reflection grimly in the mirror the next morning. Staying on Asgard had become unreasonably dangerous, really. But there was nowhere else to go that might be safer. She had cast her lot in with Thor, the Aesir, and the Midgardians. She would just have to make the most of what she had to work with, or die for her poor choices.

She itched between her shoulder blades all the way to the meeting chambers for their morning discussion of whatever catastrophes the night had brought. The itching did not grow better when Thor glanced at her, away, and then back abruptly, gaze shifting down and then up.

“Thanos knows the other aspects of my face too well,” Loki said, to preempt any questions; Sif scowled at her fiercely from across the table.

“Of course,” Thor said and placed a hand on her back, drawing her over to his side, where they argued, discussed, and planned before finally breaking apart to go about all their separate tasks.

“Have you eaten?” Thor asked, as generals and advisors filed out of the room, many of them casting her curious looks as they went. Loki’s stomach rumbled, and Thor smiled, ridiculous and too large an expression to wear after a war council. “Come,” he said, “we’ll--”

A sharp whistle cut him off. Stark strolled up, lopsided smile on his face when he stopped by them. “You’re looking very,” he made a gesture with both his hands, out and in and out through the air, “this morning. Don’t make that face. It’s a nice look. I like it. Not that I don’t like the other look. All your looks are great.”

Thor reached out and clapped his shoulder before Loki could reply; Stark blinked up at him, startled and with a hint of offense around his eyes. But Thor only smiled through it and said, “Stark, we should spar this morning. I have not had the chance to test myself against this new armor of yours.”

“Sure,” Stark said. “How about after--”

“Excellent, let us go now.” Thor turned to Loki, extending his other hand. “Will you join us?”

“I’m not fighting either of you,” Loki said, raising an eyebrow. “Much less both of you together.”

“Now that’s a solution I’d have been interested in a few years ago,” Stark said, with a thoughtful leer; Loki ignored him.

Thor’s expression did something strange, quickly washed away. “You need not fight anyone,” he said, “accompany us only to judge the match and declare a winner. And then we shall break our fast.”

“Is she breaking her fast with the winner?” Stark asked, amusement creeping into his tone along with a sharp streak of mockery. “Is that what we’re sparring for? Just so I understand the stakes.”

Loki’s eyebrow arched higher. “She’s standing right here and she’ll eat with whom she likes. But let us go to the arena. You can both build up your appetites.” She took Thor’s hand, another shiver chasing it’s way down her spine when he pulled her close and took to the air.

Stark landed only a moment after they did, the front of his mask pulling back as he looked up. He grinned at Loki and said, “I feel like I should be asking for a favor. Is that the done thing on Asgard?”

Loki snorted, flicking her fingers to relocate to the top of the wall surrounding the arena, where she sat and crossed her legs. “Not on Asgard,” she said. “They do such backwards things on Vanaheim.”

She could remember going to some tourney or another on Vanaheim, when they were young, Thor despairing because he had no sweetheart as the other combatants had to grant him a gift before battle. He had not ceased bemoaning the issue until Loki had sliced off a hank of her own hair from behind an ear, braiding it into Thor’s blond locks as he stared at her, open-mouthed. “There,” she had told him, “now you may tell them all you have a mysterious, dark-haired sweetling who hopes that you fight well enough not to be an embarrassment. Are you satisfied?”

He had not answered before they were interrupted by Fandral and Sif, both anxious to rush out to the fights, but he had glanced at her, after he won his bouts. Loki shook the thoughts away. She said, smiling, “Here you gain favors by winning fights.”

“Well,” Stark said, closing the mask over his face once more, “let’s fight then, I guess.”

The fight began with a flurry of sound and movement. Loki startled, not expecting such a fervor as they struck at one another. She sat straighter, tracking movement as they threw one another back and forth across the arena.

It ended in a crack of thunder and blinding lightning, with Stark waving a hand afterwards, and rasping, “Uncle, uncle, you understand uncle, here, right? It means I don’t want to fight anymore.”

“I understand,” Thor said, reaching down and pulling Stark to his feet, before glancing up at Loki.

She waved a hand. “Yes,” she said, with a roll of her eyes. “I declare you the winner of this honorable combat.”

Stark grumbled something about taking a long, hot bath and made his way out of the courtyard, limping a little as he went. Loki stood, brushing off her legs, glancing up when Thor leapt to stand beside her. “Did you have fun?” she asked, straightening.

He shrugged. “I’ve worked up an appetite, certainly.” He held out his hand; she took it. She didn’t really even have to think about doing it anymore.

#

Loki happened to be off-world, the next time Thanos launched an attack. Heimdall snatched her from a meeting that was not going particularly well in the first place, depositing her in the war room in a flash of brilliant light. She closed her mouth around the end of a plea she no longer needed to complete, and listened to the description of the situation they faced.

Thanos had moved to cull another world, one far away from the last he visited, one less advanced. He’d sent additional ships.

“It’s a test,” Rogers said, frowning at the projection rotating slowly before them. “To see if we show up again.”

“A fair assumption.” Thor frowned, arms crossed over his chest.

“His generals will be prepared to counter the strategies we used last time,” Loki said, dry-mouthed and painfully cold.

“I do not plan to use our previous strategies,” Thor said, looking up with a fast smile. He leaned forward, resting a hand on the table to gesture at the projection, speaking his plans into being, and, listening to him, Loki felt a chill that had little to do with cold.

She had not thought of Thor’s potential as a general overmuch before, only the raw power he commanded. But he laid forth his plans and they were good. She could see them unfolding in her mind’s eye, each aspect of the battle falling into place.

“Move quickly,” he said, straightening when he finished speaking. “We have a planet to save.” He caught Loki’s eyes as the rest streamed out of the room and asked, “You approve?”

“Ask me when we count the dead,” she said, and her armor flowed down over her skin.

#

There were plenty of dead to count. Most of them were Thanos’s servants, but not all. They lost many soldiers, though the Aesir took the battle in the end, returning home to cheers, free flowing mead, and the bitter smoke of funeral boats, sent burning off the edge of the world.

Loki watched the celebrations unfold, listening to laughter, singing, and shrieks of delight. Warriors fell into one another, into courtiers, into servants, into anyone they could grab, recounting their feats of strength, folk from all across their alliance sharing good cheer and joy.

For a moment, the spirit of the festivities touched her, but even as it did the chill fear of what the victory would mean stole the thought of celebration away. How long until they started calling for a direct attack on Thanos, bolstered by their snatched victory, she wondered? Would it take until morning?

But victories over two invasion fleets, sent to worlds Thanos did not consider much of a threat, did not prove their readiness. They would need convinced of that, she would need to--

“There you are,” Thor said, close all at once, stepping out of the hall she had just passed on her way through the palace. He had scrubbed the worst of the filth away at some point, but grime and dried blood still showed at his hairline and in the creases of his knuckles. He smiled, reaching out to curl an arm around her shoulders. She stiffened as he said, “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

“Are you sure you weren’t looking only in the bottom of your flagon?” She wrinkled her nose at the smell of his breath.

“I’m certain,” he said, but released his hold at least, matching her pace down the corridor. “I looked for you in the feasting chamber, but saw you not. I looked for you in the courtyards, but found only Rogers - carrying Romanoff over one shoulder and Barnes over the other, lucky fellow - I looked for you even in the libraries, and will speak not of what I found, for it would only upset you and I’ve already punished the offenders. Where are we going?”

She glanced up and over at him. “My quarters. It is grown late, Thor.”

“It’s grown early,” he countered, gesturing as they passed a window, where the sky had begun to stain purple.

“It seems it has.” They reached her door and she pushed her way in, unsurprised when Thor followed. “I did not expect to see you until after the noon hour, at the earliest. Do you not have a victory to celebrate?” She knew well enough how he prefered to celebrate. Surely he could have put whatever had happened in the library to shame.

He sighed as he shut the door; the sound caught her attention. For a moment he held onto the latch, his head bowed. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. “Loki, I... ” He reached up and scrubbed at his face. “I have had too much to drink.”

She snorted, stepping close enough to rest her hand on his forehead, concentrating for a moment. “There. Does that ease you?” She made to pull her hand away, and he shifted, fingers curling around hers, holding them so close that she felt the puff of his breath on her skin.

“It does,” he said, voice gravel-rough, so that a shiver climbed her spine and settled oddly in her stomach. He turned his face, beard grazing her fingertips. Her toes curled, inside her boots.

She exhaled, shakily, and jerked when his other hand came to rest at her hip. She felt electrified, though the air smelled not of ozone, and lightning did not arch from Thor’s skin. He went still when she jerked, and then straightened, and it was only then that she realized how far he had leaned down.

He lifted his hand off of her hip, shifting away and back, expression hidden as he turned his face to the side. “I should go,” he said, hoarse and strange. “Leave you to your rest.”

Her tongue tried to stick to the roof of her mouth. She fought it. “Alright,” she said, voice thick, feeling the fool for it, even as he turned and exited her room. She stood there, frozen, her heart racing as her skin tingled, feeling abruptly too energized to sleep.

Perhaps that was for the best. She had work to do. Work that it would be easier to accomplish while everyone else drank themselves into peaceful oblivion. She went out into the city, clad in shadows, walking the paths cut across the world at the ley lines.

She stopped at a nexus, here and there, hands held before her to craft small nodes of power, working carefully to ensure they would not be noticed. The creation of each node took time and left her hands aching. The pain had grown razor sharp by the time the sun rose.

With the soft fall of dawn came Heimdall’s horn, in three sharp bursts.

Loki froze in the street, listening to the faint laughter from inside evaporate into quiet, and pressed a trembling hand over her sternum, as though she could push down the terrible ache placed there by the sound. There would be no need to diffuse false confidence in the warriors gathered all around her, then.

War, war, war, Heimdall blew.

Thanos came for them already.

#

Loki sorted her appearance into order, avoiding so much as a glance in the mirror, and took herself across the city, to Heimdall. Thor landed as she arrived. He looked as though he’d only just climbed from the baths. He glanced at her and then away, quickly.

There was no time to interrogate that, to spare it a thought, not when Heimdall spoke, bringing ill-tidings of an attack on three of their allied worlds, entire fleets exiting space-gates near those planets and making for them with all speed, though they had not yet been reached. Thor swore mightily, at the end of the report. Above them, the sun rose bloody red, a poor tiding that Loki could not help but notice.

She wished she’d slept.

She wished she’d gotten to work earlier.

She wished she’d planned better.

She wished…

“We cannot delay,” Thor said, drawing her thoughts back from the tightening spiral they’d fallen into. “This is no mere test.”

“No,” Heimdall agreed.

Thor scowled and said, “Prepare yourself. We shall return shortly.” The tidings of the war council buzzed through Loki’s mind. Thor ordered the troops into order, sending them hither and thither, in a way that would have impressed were there room for any emotion but dread within her.

The majority of their forces were to be sent to Vestibb Three, closest to it’s jump gate by several hours. “We’ll break the forces there as quickly as we can,” Thor said, tapping the projection to shimmering color. “And then split our remaining forces among Drolwald and Markalim. Smaller forces will head to Drolwald and Markalim now, to begin fortifications.”

The war leaders were dismissed shortly thereafter, grim faced, all of them looking tired already, tired and barely sober. Launching an attack the morning after their victory had been a particularly clever and cruel decision on Thanos’s part.

Loki waited for the last of them to leave and said, “You should not avoid evacuating the civilians. Heimdall may have the opportunity.”

Thor looked up from the slowly turning projection, expression grim as the grave itself. “You have so little hope for victory?”

She shook her head, though her hopes for victory had never been large and had hinged, near entirely, on completing full preparations before Thanos ever knew of them. Her plans had changed, of late. She’d had no choice but to change them, thinking ahead to the moves Thanos might take and the best ways to counter them.

But it would not help to undercut Thor’s confidence. There was still a chance they could snatch some form of victory out of the crushing defeat she saw looming. She said, “I have hope that we will all be able to strike more effectively without civilians under foot.”

He stared for a moment more and then nodded. “And where would you have me send them?”

Midgard rose to the tip of Loki’s tongue. It was well-fortified, as strongly defended as any planet could be against Thanos. Designed to be a bolthole, when hiding had seemed Loki’s only option for survival.

But the creeping edge of darker thoughts, the shape of a plan Thor would not like grew still in her mind, germinating as it had through the long night. “Here,” she said, fleshing out the sharp borders of an idea, thinking about soft, helpless things and the way their cries brought in predators. “Bring them here. Those we cannot take, send to Midgard.”

Thor nodded once more, straightening. “Very well,” he said. Beyond the walls of the war room, cries to muster rang out. Yet he hesitated. “You could… we must have someone here. To organize, if there will be refugees--”

“A task Frigga will handle marvellously,” Loki said, because the thought of staying behind could not be entertained, or she would take it, hide from Thanos, and once she had hidden she did not know that she would ever be able to stop.

As much as Thanos terrified her, she knew she was too useful on the battlefield to cower on Asgard. She moved in ways the other warriors could not. She had to be there. Thor did not argue with her, only set his jaw and led the way from the war room.

#

They arrived on Vestibb Three before Thanos’s fleet by yet some hours, the advantage of having Heimdall on their side. “Hey,” Rogers said, jogging over to where they set up their forward camp, shield across his back and dark shadows under his eyes, “that shield you set up on Earth, any chance you can do that here?”

Loki shook her head. “No. I lack the necessary familiarity with the planet’s core. And the time to deploy it, even if I had the capability.”

“So, it’s just going to be a fight, then?”

“Yes.” Thor adjusted his greaves. “So fight well.”

And there was little else to be said, but that.

When Thanos’s fleet came, it came in fury and sound, huge ships breaching the atmosphere, the storm clouds that had formed since their arrival roiling back from the hulking constructions. Lightning lanced out at the great ships, constant, as Thor frowned skyward. His eyes glowed with blue light.

It was impressive. Loki wondered how long the shielding on the ships would last under the assault, but had no time to dwell on it, for the salvos on the ships opened, and their bellies split, dropping ground troops down, down to try to kill them all, and there was no more time for thought.

The battle raged fierce across the surface of the world. Heimdall moved them as he saw fit, lifting entire battalions and placing them in new positions, to flank the enemy, to shore up a fatiguing line, to steal opportunities they’d otherwise lose.

Loki lost track of time, of her location on the planet, of the hurts she took over the long miserable slog of the fight. At times she fought beside her Midgardian allies, at times surrounded by the Aesir, often by folk she barely knew, sometimes all by herself, when Heimdall deposited her alone, behind the enemy’s lines.

She did not begrudge him the decision, only wrought as much death as she could.

One of the great ships in the atmosphere broke apart, as the fighting wore on. The others pulled back, even as the pieces of it collapsed planetward, lightning crawling across its surface, and Loki laughed with sharp delight, enjoying a perfectly clear moment of fierce pleasure in the surrounding mass of confusion.

There was no way to track the passage of time. Storm clouds covered the sky utterly, though no rain fell from them. Brilliant white light illuminated the world in flashes. Screams, thunder, and explosions formed a deafening symphony.

“Are we winning?” Stark demanded, at one point, landing beside Loki in a wash of heated air and sparks.

Loki turned her head to the side, spat, grabbed Stark, and pulled him out of the way of a shot lancing through the air. Thanos’s forces did not stop. And their warriors were exhausted, fatiguing. “Too early to say,” she told him, stretching her hand out, moving the upper and lower halves of the soldier who had shot at them into different places.

In the end, she did not see the end of the battle on Vestibb Three. Heimdall swept her up in light and placed her on another world, one free of storm clouds, in the middle of a breaking line of the Aesir and an onrushing crowd of Thanos’s soldiers. Beside her stood soldiers she did not know, who turned on the enemy as she yelled for them, pouring wild energy into their bones, urging them back into the fight.

They won that skirmish. They lost others. It all blended together. Loki visited all three worlds, shuffling back and forth, until she was no longer sure what planet she stood upon. She knew only that she was on a world with Thor when she heard thunder.

It rolled on and on and on, until her bones burned and her limbs felt the consistency of jelly. The Midgardians fared the worst, growing fatigued, and it was all she could do to keep them going, pouring energy into their forms when she came upon them, unknowing what it would do to them but seeing little other choice; they would die if they could not lift their weapons. The power she gave them only might kill them.

And it did, some of them. They fell, twitching, upon the ground and did not rise again. But most of them survived. Most of them kept going. In the cruel mathematics of the battlefield, it was a percentage she deemed acceptable.

The battle stretched, until even the Aesir grew slow, until the dead covered the ground in every direction, until Loki swayed, lungs burning, raising a hand to a great beast and splitting it into pieces, and then it stopped.

“Is it over?” Romanoff asked, bending over to grab her knees. They had fought beside one another, for the last portion of the battle. The blood on her face was much darker than her hair.

“Maybe,” Loki said, looking across the battlefield, at those still standing. “Let’s go find out. Heimdall?”

#

Heimdall brought them back to Asgard. The clean air, the sound of birdsong, was disorienting after so long hearing only screams and smelling only blood. Other soldiers stood around them, looking lost and dazed, moving off to their barracks as they were yelled at.

Loki heard Thor’s voice, beyond it all, and turned on her heel, weaving through the crowd to find him. She tracked him to the war room, assessing the updated battle map. Numbers for casualties swam through the air. One of the worlds was dark. He spoke with Sif and his other generals, waving them - and the two healers attempting to attend him - aside as Loki approached the table.

“You’re hurt,” she said, too tired to hold more than one concern in her mind at once. Thor limped, badly, when he made to come around the table. He left bloody footprints.

“It looks worse than it is,” he said. “Are you--” He cut off when she grabbed him, jerking aside split armor to see the deep wound beneath. Black blood gathered in the wound. He hissed when she covered the injury with her hand, and caught her when she swayed afterwards, knees going weak as white crowded her vision. “Loki!”

She waved a hand. “Next time, let the healers do their work,” she said. And then, after a moment, “Did we win?”

Thor kept a hand on her arm, steadying. “We did not lose,” he said. “You should rest.”

She wanted to agree, but could not. More plans needed to be made. She doubted, sincerely, that Thanos would just leave them be. There was probably already another wave of attack mustering somewhere out in the dark. “Not yet,” she said, and he did not argue with her, only nodded grimly and listened as she spoke.

#

There was no raucous celebration that night, nor the following day, after the survivors had slept. Or at least, most of them. Loki found no time to visit her bed, moving from shadow to shadow across Asgard, preparing nodes of power and tucking them away.

She found, when not stealing moments for her working, that they’d lost many people, entire units had been wiped out in the attack. They’d lost Drolwald utterly. Thanos had concentrated his attack there, when it became obvious they could not hold it, fortifying it as they scrambled about on Vestibb Three and Markalim.

“We’re going to have to take that back, aren’t we?” Stark asked, at their next war council. The Aesir healers had done their work well, and most of his wounds were only fading bruises. “Can’t let the enemy have a beachhead so close to home base, and all.”

“If we commit forces to taking it back, it will give Thanos an opportunity to attack elsewhere,” Loki said, frowning across all the glowing worlds that could be attacked. They’d already showed him they were willing to jump to the defense for other planets.

He could make them dance wherever he wanted across the universe. The thought sent her gorge climbing up the back of her throat.

“Yeah, but…” Stark waved a hand, and the other generals were all happy to jump in and argue. Loki scowled down at reports missed during the battles, following the arguments with a portion of her attention.

“We will not attack it yet,” Thor said, finally, ending the argument as he leaned over the star map. “We’ll attack here, instead.” He selected an area well back from the forward lines, a nebula close to the heart of Thanos’s section of space. A shipyard.

“My Lord,” Sif said, her expression mirroring the surprise Loki saw in all the other generals. “That’s a… bold choice.”

“Yes,” Thor agreed, a half smile curling his mouth, his eyes distant, as though already he looked upon the battle playing out and found it good. “We have not had the momentum at any point in this war. It is time to change that. There must be an attack on Thanos. Prepare your forces. I will give you more exact information by the end of the day.”

Loki watched the generals file out and saw in them fear over a banked fire of hope. “You have nothing to say about the plan?” Thor asked, coming around the table to gaze down at her. “Or do you only wait until we are alone to eviscerate it?”

“It is bold,” she said, looking back at the reports she held. He frowned, and she reached out, resting a hand on his arm. “Boldness suits you well.”

His expression eased, some shadow lifting off of his countenance. “Does it? Well, then, break your fast with me?”

Loki snorted and gathered up the reports. She felt she might never be full again, after the magic she’d worked during the battle and over the following nights. They made their way through the halls, to the dining chambers, full of soldiers and refugees.

“I am glad for the chance to speak with you,” Loki said, when they’d made plates to break their fast. Thor jerked to look at her, she couldn’t determine why, swallowing a drink and continuing, “I’ve found something strange in the reports for the area out past Nimfodel’s Collapse.”

Thor looked down at his plate, mouth twitching. “Strange how?” he asked. “There’s nothing there but ruined worlds.”

Loki waved a hand. “There should be nothing there but ruined worlds. But there are very odd power readings from a planet well inside the Collapse. Power readings not unlike those we get from the Tesseract.”

Thor paused in the midst of chewing, resuming after a moment. “You think you’ve located another Stone.”

She inclined her head. “I think it’s a possibility. One that we should pursue immediately. If Thanos collects even one of the Stones…” She shuddered, not feigning the terror such a thought placed in her breast.

“We have limited personnel to send to look for it.” Thor pushed food about on his plate, brow furrowed in thought.

“We need not send many at first. Just a small group, to find out if we are correct. I thought perhaps some of the Midgardians. They tire quickly in battle, but a scouting mission will suit their talents well.” The memory of Romanoff, bent at the waist and panting, came back to her. She frowned.

Thor nodded. “Very well. You may send them as you wish, of course. Now,” he took a bracing breath. “Forgive me, but I must ask you to tell me what you know about this ship yard.”

#

Romanoff did not protest the assignment to go out into the Collapse to chase after mysterious energy readings. She only nodded, dark circles under her eyes though still she was attempting to read upside-down the reports strewn across Loki’s desks, and said, “I’m taking Rogers and Barnes.”

Loki nodded, preoccupied with other concerns. She had much of Asgard yet to net in with her spell-working and no idea how long she had to accomplish the task. “I anticipated you would,” she said. “Heimdall will send you on your way and bring you back when you have finished.”

She thought she put enough dismissal in her voice, but must have underestimated the necessary amount, because Romanoff did not leave. Loki glanced up at her after a moment. Romanoff frowned, expression unreadable. “You’re going to attack that shipyard while we’re gone.”

“It’s likely,” Loki agreed. Though Thanos could always strike somewhere else, shattering their plans, such as they were.

Romanoff stared at her, clear-eyed, arms crossed over her chest. Loki arched an eyebrow in question, and Romanoff curled up one corner of her mouth. “Thank you, then,” she said, and turned on her heel, marching out of the room.

#

Loki’s thoughts dwelt on the progress of the Midgardians, even as plans were finalized for the assault on the shipyard. Thinking about what people were doing halfway across known space helped distract her from the fact that she was going back to the area controlled directly by Thanos, with but a dozen soldiers and with Thor, who would not be dissuaded from his decision to accompany them.

In truth, Loki did not fight it as much as she could have done. Thor, of all the warriors gathered to their cause, stood the best chance of slaughtering Thanos, if he were to come to them directly. If she must go back - and she must, the shipyard was broken into multiple satellites, many of which needed to be sown with explosives, and she had the best chance of moving them from one to the next successfully - then she would be safest if he came along.

Safety could only exist as a relative concept, so close to Thanos. She moved that thought aside, watching Stark pack explosives into the packs they would carry, digging her fingers into her arms while overlaying her image with a form that was calm and still.

The projection wavered when Thor touched her shoulder, nodding when she met his gaze. He said, “We are ready.”

“Excellent,” said Loki, the word ash in her mouth. “Let us go, then.”

#

Heimdall sent them to the planet closest to the shipyard. The Bifrost was good for many things, but it lacked… subtlety. Loki took them the rest of the way, moving in shadow where the Bifrost moved in brightest light.

The arms of the shipyard stretched across a tremendous amount of space, separate from one another, held in place by force fields and powerful engines. To destroy the entire structure they need not place explosives in each arm, only in those selected, located in key locations, or so Stark had theorized based on her reports.

The Aesir warriors accompanying them looked around the dark hallway where they’d appeared. Everything around them was gray and black, lit poorly, and full of ill-smelling vapors. Loki took a breath and her throat knotted, a thousand hungry memories reaching for her, brought back by the assault on her senses.

It had smelled like this when Thanos first--

“Loki,” Thor’s voice cut through the memories. He touched her elbow, close, speaking quietly. She blinked up at him and found his expression agonized. “I should not have brought you here,” he said. “It is--”

“I’m fine,” she said, willing the words to be so. He did not look persuaded. “I’m fine. Come, we only have little time.” She made herself pull away from him, the little bubble of safety created by his touch, and moved down the hall.

She kept her steps silent, focusing on a minor working to steal the sound from the Aesir’s louder movements. She had brought them as close as possible to the area of the arm where they were supposed to do their bloody work. It did not take long to reach a room full of whirring machinery and humming controls.

The Aesir swarmed in around her, setting charges, working in silence. Watching them kept her thoughts from drifting. Thor’s presence at her side, alert for danger, Mjolnir in hand, kept her breathing.

She nodded when the guards finished, straightening, seeds of destruction successfully sown. “We need to--” Loki snapped her mouth shut in the middle of the sentence, as white light curled around Thor and the majority of the other soldiers crouched in the tunnel. They disappeared, taken by the Bifrost, leaving a ringing emptiness behind.

The Bifrost did not return for the rest of them. “Well,” she said, quickly, before the panic in her chest could bite deeper. She turned to smile at the remaining soldiers left to her. “Looks like we’ll be finishing up on our own.”

#

She’d been left with far less than half of the soldiers originally assigned to the cause, and without Thor. In fact, she seemed to have been left with only those carrying explosives. She wondered what had happened to necessitate the adjustment to their plans, but wasting too much time on such considerations would only get her killed.

Instead, she led the forces remaining to her through the structures of the shipyard. She’d been left, she assumed, because she could move them from place to place, in any direction, pulling them along to place their explosives where they would do the most damage.

For a time, as they moved, working with desperate speed and quiet, she even thought they’d make it, that the extra soldiers sent with them to begin with had been nothing but over-preparation.

That was before they were noticed.

Alarms rang out through the stations, and Loki cursed, looking at the explosives they still had to place. “What happened?” one of the soldiers demanded, pale faced, eyes wide.

“They found something,” Loki said. That was the risk of using so many explosives. They could be found, before the explosions went off. They still had almost a quarter of the bombs to place. But if Thanos’s forces started finding them, disabling them….

She grimaced, looking up at the three Aesir with her, and said, “We must move very quickly.” And then she detonated the bombs they’d already placed. One of them was on the structure they currently stood on.

She reached out to the soldiers, dragging them with her to the next arm of the shipyard. She moved immediately. They followed her around corners and down halls, placing their explosives even as the guards charged after them, narrowing in on them with every step.

Loki expected at every moment to be shot between the shoulders or in the head. She lost one soldier like that, and then another, as they left destruction in their wake. She took a shot in her side, instead, the impact spinning her and flooding hot blood down across her skin, even as her only companion grabbed her and yelled, “Take us to the next one!”

She did. She had that much power left. She’d lost track of how many sections they had left to destroy, but, certainly, there were few explosives left in the bag. They limped and fell their way along, through a hallway that seemed to have no end as the deafening alarms rang out and out and out.

“Can you get us back to Asgard?” the soldier asked, leaning her against a wall, where she pressed hands to the wound on her side and worked to blink back the darkness gathering across her vision. He set up the last of the explosives with shaking fingers.

Down the hall, she could hear yelling and footfalls.

She looked at the soldier, little more than a boy, and considered the flagging state of her reserves and the blood pouring out dark and hot over her fingers. She lied, “Yes,” because she saw no reason to force him into despair for the last moments of his life.

She grabbed his shoulder and took them to a far corner of the remaining station. There was no where else to go. Everything else spun in space, in tiny, burning pieces. “Heimdall,” she said, panting, her finger on the last of the detonators. The guards had been close to the explosives. She could not delay.

But the Bifrost did not open or scoop them up. “Heimdall,” she pleaded, squeezing her eyes shut, swallowing around the thickness in her throat, the soldier holding onto her, grip biting and painful on her arm. “Please!”

She got no answer. She sank her teeth into her lip, making a terrible deal with herself. If she counted to ten and got no response, she would have to do it. There were worse deaths than the embrace of dark space. There were. She held onto that thought, as ten came and went, and she pressed the detonator.

The last piece of the space-dock tore apart, the explosion approaching them at speed. She wrapped shadows around them and sent them out, out into space, as far from the explosion as she could get.

It looked beautiful, from the outside. Red fire blossomed against space, fading quickly as the small pockets of remaining oxygen were consumed. Pieces of glittering metal spiraled out, like silver dust scattered across water. Drops of her blood hung like rubies as the remaining momentum of her transportation carried her and the boy slowly back, away from the destruction.

Loki stared at it, lungs burning, cold creeping in alongside darkness, and then there was light, such light, reaching out and swallowing her up.

#

Loki woke, disoriented, to the sound of thunder. She frowned up at the ceiling - definitely not the black of space she’d expected - and carefully flexed her fingers and toes in and out. They all seemed accounted for.

She sat up carefully and found she’d been placed in one of the healers’ rooms. Around her, beds were packed in, wall-to-wall. Healers bustled about, here and there, far more concerned with the injured than someone climbing out of their bed.

She recognized the face of the injured soldier in the bed beside her. His chest rose and fell as he breathed; she smiled, grimly, her fierce satisfaction derailed by another, louder rumble of thunder.

Loki picked her way around the injured, to the large window along one wall. Gray clouds built in the sky, swirling slightly above the Bifrost chamber. Lighting flashed in the clouds, a spider’s web of light spreading out across the sky. She shivered, wondering what had gone wrong, and pulled at the distance. Better to find out now, than leave the sword to fall later.

She arrived midstep, in the center of Heimdall’s chamber. He stood within, back straight and helm off, great sword still plunged into the Bifrost. Thor was the only other figure in the room, bloody and battered, snapping, as thunder crashed overhead, “--wait for your explanation.”

Loki looked from one to the other, wondering what she had missed in her unconsciousness. Heimdall lifted his chin. “I did what had to be done.”

Thor snarled, rage washing over his expression as he stalked forward. “You took me from--”

Loki jerked forward before other words could be spoken, before a blow could fall. She stepped between them, hand against Thor’s chest, confident that Heimdall would not strike her in the back. He could have left her to die in the wastes of space, if he wanted to be rid of her so badly as that. She snapped, “What are you doing?”

Of all the people to pick a fight with on Asgard, Heimdall was the poorest choice. They’d known that since they were children. There could be no beating someone who could pluck you from anywhere and deposit you in any location, including the heart of a star.

“Loki.” Thor blinked down at her, anger draining from his expression as quickly as it had appeared. “You were in the healer’s chambers.” The lines around his eyes returned as he looked her over; she realized she wore still the robes given by the healers and flushed, summoning her armor with a motion.

“I was,” she agreed. “Until the storm roused me. Why are you quarreling?” She risked a glance at Heimdall, when Thor’s jaw tightened and his eyes grew stormier. “What has happened that I missed?”

“He removed all but a handful of our people from the shipyard. Without permission or instruction, Heimdall, you left--”

“I left those necessary to complete the task put before them,” Heimdall snapped back, golden eyes flashing. “And took those necessary to handle the attack upon Markalim. Difficult choices must be made in war. It is time you learned that.”

Thor pushed forward against Loki’s hand. She shoved back, even as he said, low and terrible, with lightning crackling around his eyes, “I should--”

“You should do nothing,” Loki interrupted, curling fingers into Thor’s armor and pulling hard, hard enough to snap his eyes down to meet hers. “You are tired and fresh from battle. This is a discussion for another time.”

Thor’s nostrils flared; a muscle twitched in his jaw, but he jerked a nod out a moment later and turned on his heel. Loki exhaled heavily, back still to Heimdall when she asked, “There was an attack on Markalim?”

“Yes.” Heimdall bit the word off. “It began shortly after you reached the shipyard. I delayed as long as I could to gather reinforcements, but…”

Loki gestured, waving away the explanation. Thor led the war effort. It had been foolish for him to insist on accompanying them to the shipyard to begin with, but his presence had been a balm to Loki, one she had not wanted to dismiss. “He will understand once his blood cools,” Loki said.

Heimdall snorted. “Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps not.” He stepped beside Loki, glancing down at her. “And how is it that you understand?”

She thought of the shape of the plan she spun into being in the midnight hours, the strength of the enemy before them, all of her options cold and hard. She could find no way to put any of that into words, only shaking her head and telling him, “You did not leave me to the cold of space. You could have.”

He made no reply. She left him in silence, going to find Thor.

#

She found Thor in his quarters. The door swung open at her touch. He sat on a low-backed chair, elbows on his knees, head bent forward, hair falling wet and tangled around his shoulders. Injuries littered his chest and shoulders, old bruises and newer hurts. Drops of water stood on his skin. He looked up at her, eyes shadowed and unblinking.

Loki hesitated in the doorway and then shut the door, pulse accelerating without reason. She crossed the room slowly, coming to a stop before him. He watched her, tracking each step. Gooseflesh rose across his skin when she reached out and rested a hand over the laceration across one bicep.

She could not think of what to say, her mind gone stunningly and suddenly empty, so she said nothing, tracing fingers across a bruise, a long patch of torn skin, a hooked cut over his collarbone….

He reached out and took her hand when she began to slide her fingers lower. His thumb swept across her palm. She stared at the curl of his fingers around hers and said, from far away, “Did you find victory on Markalim?”

He grimaced, looking to the side, and that was answer enough. “We bought only enough time for Heimdall to evacuate the survivors,” he said, still tracing the lines of her palm with his thumb. The touch sent tingling heat through her body, all centering low in her gut.

“He made the only decision he could have made, then,” she said. “You would never have forgiven him if he allowed them all to die, Thor.”

He closed his eyes, jaw tightening for a moment before he spoke. “For days, I knew not what had happened, and then I returned to Asgard to find all but you and one other dead, to find you--” He shifted, butting his forehead against her knuckles, still held in his grip.

She hesitated to reach out, but he required some kind of comfort, that much seemed obvious. And she could not have him falling apart. None of them could. She lifted her free hand and touched his hair. He exhaled, heavily, breath warm on her arm.

They did not stir for some time, saying nothing as the warm evening air blew in around them, until someone knocked upon the door, breaking the stillness. “Come,” Thor said, after a moment, voice low and rough. He lifted his head as the door opened, and Loki turned to look.

Sif blinked at them, expression shifting to something hard even as Thor stood. Loki’s hand slipped down, resting on his chest. His skin was very warm. “What did you need, Lady Sif?” Thor asked.

“It’s the Midgardians,” Sif said, looking away, her mouth twitching. “They’ve returned from the Collapse.”

#

By the time Loki and Thor reached the war room, the Midgardian expedition had settled into their chairs. Their expressions sparked no fresh hope in Loki’s chest. They all frowned, unhappy and filthy, but at least alive.

Rogers sat in the middle of their little group, his head bent forward and both his fists clenched on the table. Barnes stood behind him, arms crossed, turned away from the rest. Romanoff looked up when the door opened, her braid come undone. She was leaned back in her chair, arms crossed as well. She said, without preamble, “So, our primary goal is to stop Thanos from getting the Stones, right?”

Loki looked across the group once more, hesitating as she pulled out a chair. “That is the primary goal, yes.”

“Good,” Romanoff said. “Well. We found one. And, based on our intel, we made damn sure no one should be able to get their hands on it.”

“You did not bring it back?” Thor asked.

“No,” Rogers said, flat, still glaring a hole into the middle of the table.

Loki glanced over at Thor, who shrugged. “Would you like to tell us why?” Loki asked.

“It wasn’t worth the cost,” Rogers said, standing. He wiped his wrist over his mouth and turned on his heel, walking swift and straight-backed from the room.

Romanoff called, “Steve!” She swore softly when he only jerked his head and kept walking, rising from her chair. Barnes followed them both out of the room with an awkward incline of his head towards Thor and then Loki.

“What do you think happened to them?” Thor asked.

Loki could only shrug. “Perhaps they will tell us, when they’ve had time to recover.” But she did not feel like waiting for an explanation that might not come, slipping from the room to find out on her own. It took effort to slip across the Collapse; space had been folded oddly in on itself throughout the area, but long practice with such travel made it possible.

She arrived on a dead planet, in a pile of stone ruins. The wind whipped across the surface of the world, crying mournfully. A large peak rose in the distance and she gestured, moving to the peak.

There she found evidence of a pitched battle, the stone marred and gouged, stained here and there with blood. A tremendous chunk had been blown out of the stone, hunks of rock fallen onto a circular area carved far below.

There was a dark shape, down below. Loki frowned, shifting down to the bottom of the cliff, picking her way carefully through the jumbled rock. Something remained there, body broken and utterly destroyed, burned mostly to ash.

She nudged the ashes with her toe and shivered.

Nothing moved in the world. She felt no echoes of the Stone. She did not know what the Midgardians had done and was no longer certain she wished to. She turned away from the remnants of the destruction and slipped back to Asgard, thinking wistfully of taking the time to recover herself.

#

There was no time to recover, not really. Accounts needed taken of the lost. Plans needed made for where to strike next, for how better to protect their allies, and on and on. And Loki had her own tasks to focus on, when the rest of the army rested. She snatched moments of sleep when given the chance.

She had not dreamed much, of late; either given not enough time to fall into a deep enough sleep, or so exhausted when she did sleep that she recalled nothing upon waking. Her dreams, when they returned one early morning, were strange things that left her jerking awake, warm beneath her skin, with a stunning ache low in her gut.

She blinked up at the ceiling, unable to recall the details of the dream that had left her pulse racing and her skin tingling. She seemed to remember Thor, but little else. She pressed a hand down over her stomach - she ached - and sat up abruptly.

She found it difficult to gaze at Thor across the war table that morning. Her dream crept back in false sense memories. The sound of his voice put heat in her cheeks. It was thoroughly discomfiting, especially because Thor seemed equally troubled, frowning distractly out of the windows in the war room even as the others left, the meeting ended.

Loki glanced at him and then away, shoving down the strange warmth inside her skin. She said, to prove that she could communicate in a normal way, “You look troubled.”

Thor sighed. “We are in troubling times.” But he did not leave it there, turning from the window and returning to the table, where he leaned close, his mouth quirking briefly in the corners. “Mother was reminding me once more that I must find someone to rule at my side. And sooner, rather than later.”

Loki frowned down at the maps and plans spread all around them. Thoughts of war were less troubling than considering Thor’s romantic woes, she discovered. A chill had swept aside the warmth under her skin. “Well, that shouldn’t be a problem for you.”

“It’s more troublesome than you might expect,” Thor said, something in his tone snagging back Loki’s attention. She found Thor regarding her and looked away once more, surprised at the attention. She slid a hand across troop numbers, the muster not as strong as she’d hoped.

“Do you require that I instruct you in matters of the heart? You’ve likely come to the wrong source.” She’d never had much luck with romantic assignations, feeling little of the same interest all her fellows seemed to experience. She wondered how much could be attributed to her heritage. The Jotun matured yet more slowly than the Aesir, to all evidence, and took fewer mates, choosing to cleave almost always to one lover, according to the stories.

“Any guidance would be appreciated,” Thor said, some mixture of amusement and frustration in his voice.

Loki sighed, attention riveted on the reports. She did not, she found, want to offer Thor advice to another’s heart. She approved a request for supplies with an irritated flick of her fingers, and set aside her ill-temper, blaming it on the poorly remembered dream. They had not the time to start petty disagreements. They could wait until after Thanos was in the ground. “Have you a partner in mind?” It seemed the best place to start.

“I do.” That admission sent Loki’s thoughts spiraling out as she considered who it might be. Foster seemed the obvious choice, or would have, but Thor had seemed little interested in doting on her. Perhaps he was only distracted by the war before them. There was Sif, who he spent much of his time with, or any of a dozen other Aesir….

Loki shook the thoughts away. “Well, that makes it easy, does it not? Just tell them you wish to have them.”

“And I should expect that they will immediately agree?” Thor asked, more amusement in his tone.

“Why shouldn’t they?” Loki wished this conversation would end, even if it did mean Thor would fly off to secure the desire of his heart.

“Perhaps they do not feel the same way about me,” Thor said. “Perhaps my feelings are unrequited.” He’d taken a wistful tone into his voice. It colored every word. Loki hesitated over a reply to a foolish question about line arrangements for a possible ship to ship battle. They barely had ships, though a few of their allies did. Asgard had little use for them, when Heimdall could place them wherever they wished to be in an instant.

She said, shrugging. “I doubt you need worry.” Thor was the King of all of Asgard, a fierce warrior, a surprisingly skilled general, loyal, easy to look upon. She shook those thoughts away and cleared her throat. “Make known your feelings; you’ll probably be wed within the hour.”

Thor made no reply for a long moment, and then he reached out, and caught Loki’s hand, his fingers warm and callused. “Loki,” he said, voice gone suddenly thick. Loki looked up at him, unsure if there was cause for alarm. Thor looked terribly determined, to be sure. “I—”

“My Lord!” Fandral blurted, falling into the room all at once, obviously winded. “You must come quickly!”

#

Thor listened to Fandral’s call to alarm with a stormy look that did not fade, even as they listened to the distress transmission broadcast from Xandar. The recording -- it showed an older woman, tall, with pale hair and a severe expression -- looped through under their watchful eyes.

She said, rotating slowly above the projector, her figure flickering in and out as the transmission degraded, “Asgardians, we have heard that you seek the Infinity Stones and that you make war upon the Titan Thanos. Xandar comes under attack--we--your help--at--away--”

Thor turned to look at Heimdall when the transmission broke up completely and then restarted at the beginning. “Does Thanos move on Xandar?”

Heimdall shook his head. “Not Thanos. They are under attack by the Kree and the Ravagers.”

Loki frowned. “They had peace with the Kree.”

Heimdall only gazed back at her, golden eyes fixed on something not in the room. “There is only one Kree ship,” he said. “Already they are bringing it down.”

“Yet they called us for help.” Thor straightened. “And spoke of the Infinity Stones.” He shifted his shoulders, armor forming around his body. “We must go and see what assistance they need.”

Loki bit back a protest that really, they must not. Such a suggestion would only be ignored, in any case, and she needed to hoard what favor she could. Starting arguments in a futile attempt to make Thor understand that he did not need to race off to save everyone would hardly work towards that goal.

#

They did not go to Xandar in force; Heimdall could always send more warriors if they arrived and found it necessary. They went with a single unit, arriving in the main control chamber to listen to distant explosions. The sky was full of dust and smoke; it was impossible to see anything outside of the windows.

The woman who sent the transmission jerked as they solidified. Her guards drew weapons. Loki raised her hands, smiling, and said, “Peace, we are of Asgard, come in reply to your distress beacon.”

“Then you need to hurry,” the woman said, her gaze jerking back to the windows. “The Dark Aster crashed already.”

Loki felt Thor glance at her. She tempered her smile. “Then your problem is nearly solved. We are happy to help with--”

“You don’t understand.” The woman turned to her, mouth thinned and eyes wide. “Ronan the Accuser is on that ship. He has one of these Infinity Stones. If he uses it, now that he has reached the planet, we will all die.”

Thor grabbed Loki’s arm, snapping, “Heimdall!”

Light swept them up, depositing them on a plain of dirt, by the ruins of a crashed ship, the entire area bathed in purple light. The air burned against Loki’s skin. She gazed over at the knot of figures standing before the ship, had time to brace, and there was a crash of sound terrible and loud, before the purple light disappeared.

They were left staring at a swaying line of four figures, all clad in red, all filthy, one of whom abruptly started laughing and sat on the ground. Loki looked up at Thor and said, “I think we missed it.”

#

The aftermath of the battle left Xandar in ruins. Loki stifled a sigh when Thor insisted that they assist with search and recovery. Many around the city were, it seemed, buried beneath rubble. It was exhausting, filthy work to rescue them.

Speaking with the figures in red, who styled themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy, proved nearly as exhausting. A Midgardian man introduced himself first, approaching with a crooked smile and a limp. “I’m Starlord,” he claimed, hand extended out. His smile widened when Loki took it. “But you can call me Peter.”

“And you may call me Loki.” She gestured at Thor, currently lifting a fallen building. “This is Thor, King of Asgard.”

“Well met,” Thor said, settling the building down once more and approaching to take Peter’s hand. Peter grimaced after a moment, drawing back.

“Wow, a king, huh,” Peter said, glancing between them as his fellows gathered around. “What’s a king doing here?”

Loki sighed and explained.

#

In the end, after explanations were given, after the immediate rescues were completed, after the dead were taken for burial, they gathered in a cool, brightly lit room in what remained of the capital of Xandar, with the tiny, metallic sphere holding the Infinity Stone between them.

“So,” Nova Prime said, “let me see if I understand you fully. Your people have gone to war against Thanos because you believe that if he collects all of these,” she gestured at the Infinity Stone, “he will be able to destroy the universe.”

“Half of the universe,” Gamora - the green skinned woman who had not stopped frowning since they arrived - said, nodding. “And they are right. You know I am one of his daughters. I heard him speak of it many times. It is why I worked so hard to keep him from acquiring the Stone.”

Nova Prime scowled at all of them. Behind her back, through the open windows, the dust in the sky roiled. She opened her mouth, but never got the chance to speak. Sif arrived at that moment, a full battalion at her back, her eyes wide with alarm as she said, “The gate just opened, it is--”

The first missiles streaked down from the sky even as she spoke, detonating against the faltering shields around the last stronghold of the Nova Corps. Other strikes fell across the city. From above, the clouds of dust and smoke parted just enough to reveal the edge of one of Thanos’s huge, ring-shaped ships.

It had been blind foolishness to assume they would be the only ones to hear about the presence of the Infinity Stone here. The transmissions of Nova Corp must have been picked up by other listening posts. They had been mad to just assume they could discuss their options. And now Thanos had come to make them pay for it.

Loki stopped breathing, jerking around and reaching down to grab the Stone’s metallic case. She closed her fingers around it - even through the case she could feel the thrum of power - and Gamora seized her wrist, fingers biting tight against flesh. Gamora snapped, “What do you think you’re doing with that?”

Loki met her eyes and smiled, because the alternative was screaming. “Taking it away from here. This is what he’s here for, you know it. If he finds it…”

“Why should we trust you with it?”

Loki shrugged. She could feel her pulse racing and knew Gamora had to feel it as well. “Do you have another way to get it away from him?”

“We will fight him off,” the large man - Drax - said, rolling his shoulders, though he looked in little condition to fight. “We will use the Stone again, to destroy the entirety of this army.”

“Well,” Loki said, raising an eyebrow at Gamora. “I wonder how that would turn out.”

Gamora stared at her for a moment, unblinking, and then nodded, dark eyes calculating and apparently coming to a reasonable result. “Take it then.” She released her hold as the building around them shook.

Loki slid the Stone away, somewhere it would not be lost, and hesitated. Thor stood by Sif, speaking fast and gesturing to the smaller drop ships falling to Xandar’s surface. There was no way they could stand up to this force. No way at all. She said, “Thor--”

“Go,” he said, turning to her with lightning beginning to dance down his arms. “Find somewhere safe to hide the Stone. We will delay him here as long as we can.”

Loki did not wait for him to change his mind. She turned, pulling at the edges of the shadows, and slipped away.

#

Loki skipped across space, taking paths she knew well and some previously untraveled, focusing on leaving no trace of where she’d been or where she’d gone and then hesitating.

Thanos rained down death and destruction on Xandar to find the Stone. He’d do anything for it, including decimating the entirety of Asgard’s forces, she had no doubt. They had been spared over his full wrath thus far; there’d been no Stone standing in the balance. She grimaced, and whispered words of her passage into the void, the decision necessary and terrifying, all at once.

She arrived at last in a dark space, quiet, tucked away and long forgotten. And there she crafted a small, temporary dimension and left the enclosed Stone.

She breathed then, in and out, half expecting a blade from the darkness. But it seemed no one had followed her. The Stone gave no sign that she could find, hidden, tucked away as best it could be. She almost laughed; she had three Stones! And she could put hands easily on the fourth.

They were immensely powerful boons. She need only figure out how to use them most appropriately. But that would have to wait. She’d left a battle behind, one that the armies of Asgard could not afford to lose, lest she be left with no defenses against Thanos and three of the objects he desired most in the universe.

#

Time moved strangely on some of the paths Loki traveled. She lost days on her wanderings, and went first back to Asgard, unsure what she would find on Xandar. She stepped from the shadows in Heimdall’s chambers and found him already looking at her as she solidified.

“What have I missed?” she asked, shaking off the unpleasant ache left in her bones from travel between shards of seconds.

“A great battle,” Heimdall said. “One that might have been lost if Thanos’s forces did not pull back only hours ago.”

“Oh?” Loki gazed out across the city, so far away over the water. Lights flickered everywhere, the encampments of the soldiers and the refugees spread hither and thither, beneath the still unshielded sky. “They drove him off?”

“No.” Heimdall came to stand beside her, shining even in the fading light of the evening. “Though they fought valiantly and destroyed many of his forces. He left of his own will. The survivors are returned. What remains of Xandar’s forces are joined with ours, but they are not enough to make up for the lost.”

Loki swallowed. “Thor?”

“He lives.” A knot of tension in the center of Loki’s shoulder blades eased. “And mourns the dead. As the king should.”

Loki nodded. There would be more of the dead to mourn, before the end, if they continued with this open warfare. They were holding their own, but barely, and by luck. The entirety of the war balanced on the edge of a knife, and if they slipped to the side there would be nothing left to stand against Thanos.

Loki shook the tumbling thoughts inside her head to the side; it would not do to allow them too close to the surface. She asked, glancing sideways up at Heimdall, who stared forward unblinking, “Why did you never take the throne?”

He blinked, then, turning slowly to look down at her. She tilted her head to the side. “You could have. Easily. And you would be a good king. You have the temperment for it.”

He only stared for so long that she thought he would not answer. He exhaled, finally, reaching up and removing his helm. “I could tell you I simply did not desire to rule.”

“You could,” she said. “And I could tell you that I would not believe that you prefer to stand aside, serving and taking orders. Watching. Everyone has some desire to rule.”

One corner of his mouth curled up. “Not everyone.” But he sighed, then, his gaze going distant and losing focus. “There must always be a King in Asgard.”

Loki frowned. Exhaustion dogged at her, but she did not want to just leave this conversation. “I’m sure,” she said. “But you could--”

“There must always be a King of Odin’s line in Asgard,” Heimdall clarified, scowling out across the water.

Loki rolled her eyes. “That is what he’d like us to believe,” she said, keeping the bitterness in her tone from flaring into full life only with the greatest amount of effort.

“You should rest.” Heimdall turned away from her, expression shifting to something she could not read. “The balance of the war is precarious. Everyone will need to be prepared for whatever comes with the dawn.”

Loki inclined her head, long habit drawing the gesture, though he did not look at her when she left. The bitter taste in the back of her mouth, left there from their conversation, stole any desire from her to converse further.

#

She found Thor in the war room, his hands braced on the table where representations of the planets where they’d made war slowly revolved. He scowled down at the faintly glowing worlds, face lit with silver and gold light. Her heart sped and her stomach clenched, strangely. She leaned against the doorway, wetted her lips, and said, “Well, you look dour.”

Thor’s head snapped up. He took her in, a smile breaking across his expression. He came around the table. “You’ve returned. It is…?”

“Hidden well,” she said. He reached out to grip her shoulders, looking her over before his expression eased yet further.

“Good.” He gestured at the projections across the table. “That is some good news then. I have little else to share. We are matching Thanos thus far, but only with terrible losses.” Any joy fled out of his expression. “And if your estimates of his forces are accurate, he still has armies to throw at us.”

It was nothing Loki had not churned over already. They needed more people, more bodies on the line. But there were only so many worlds even remotely capable of offering them the assistance they needed, and fewer that would agree to do so. They needed untapped reserves, and quickly. If--

“The Stone you hid,” Thor said, interrupting her thoughts. “The Guardians say they used it to destroy the one called Ronan. They say he placed it before upon his war hammer, and that he could have used it to destroy Xandar with a single blow. Do they speak the truth?”

“About it’s capabilities? Most likely.” Loki frowned up at him, misliking the sudden turn of Thor’s expression, the tightening of his jaw. “But it nearly killed them to destroy one man. And if Ronan had used the Stone in such a way, there would have been nothing left of him afterwards. The power comes with great cost.”

“But they are not as hardy as the Aesir,” Thor said, his hand flexing in and out. “With Mjolnir, could I not use it?”

For a moment, the thought played out behind Loki’s eyes. Thor, wreathed in purple lightning, his eyes black with purple irises, terrible and wondrous to behold, the Stone sank into Mjolnir’s face, adding terrible power to a weapon already built to destroy armies and worlds.

None would stand against such a force, not even all the armies of Thanos, not even Thanos himself.

But.

But, her mind hurried to supply images of the outcome. The Aesir were hardy. Thor would undoubtedly be able to wield the Stone long enough to wreak untold destruction with it. Still, the consumptive power would demand it’s payment, burning through its wielder just as it did those subject to its wrath.

Thor did not know. Not for sure. Perhaps he suspected the cost. But if she told him it would be fine, he would take it, she saw in his expression, take it and go out among the stars and destroy the great threat, and afterwards she--

And afterwards he would be dead.

She blinked, rocks churning in her stomach and a cold ache in her chest. “For a time, perhaps,” she said, her voice steady only with effort. “Perhaps even long enough to destroy a legion of warriors. But that power cannot be used safely. Not even by the Aesir. It would kill you.”

He gritted his jaw, jerking a nod. “But it could improve our chances of ending the war,” he said. “That is a fair--”

“No,” Loki said, reaching out to grip his arm, watching foolish determination unfold on his expression. “No, Thor, listen to me, you could use the Stone to destroy some portion of Thanos’s army. And after it would burn you from the inside and no longer be held in check by your control. It would turn outward, onto whoever surrounded you. The destruction would be… Enormous.”

“So I will take it alone, to endanger no one else,” he said, staring down at where her hand rested on his arm. “And destroy as much as possible before I can no longer control it. I cannot ask all these people to die because I will not--”

“And when you are dead, what will stop Thanos from taking the Stone? Are you certain, utterly so, that you will be able to maintain control long enough to strike him down? That you will not merely be giving him the weapon he desires so much? Do you think he cares if you wipe out half his army, or even the entirety of it, if it gets him what he wants in the end? The Stones cannot be used, Thor. They are not the answer.”

She was breathing hard by the end, the words bursting out of her as she struggled to make him understand, unsure even how much she lied. Uncaring how much truth she shared. Thor stared at her, unblinking, and she held his gaze, willing him to see in her eyes whatever he searched for.

“As a last resort, then,” he said, finally. “We will keep them as a last resort. If nothing else can be done… If there is no other way.”

“We’ll find another way,” she said, the image of him burning from the inside with terrible purple light would not leave her. “Between the two of us, surely we can come up with something.” She already had, after all, her plan set into motion long ago.

His mouth twitched in the corner, and he nodded. “I have some ideas,” he said, turning to gesture at the war map.

“Tell me,” she said, setting aside exhaustion, eager to turn her thoughts away from the use of the Stone, from Thor, burning and consumed by it’s terrible power.

#

The Guardians of the Galaxy had, it turned out, returned with them to Asgard, at least for a time. They joined the war council; Gamora, if none of the others, radiated a frightening intensity when discussing their options.

They did not stay long before deciding that they would go to the Ravagers and speak with them. More ships for the cause could be a boon. Loki was not entirely sorry to see the lot of them go, in any case. She preferred not being around Peter and sighed to hear his voice on the morning they were supposed to leave, echoing into a courtyard where she’d settled to focus on their rapidly diminishing options.

She waved a hand, blending into the background that they might pass her by unnoticed. Rocket was speaking as they drew close enough for her to make out what they were saying, “Not that I mind, because laughing at you is about the only thing that brings me joy right now, but maybe you’d like to stop embarrassing yourself while we’re here. This is a nice place, if you haven’t noticed, and you don’t stand a chance against Mr. I’m the King of Asgard, Look at the Way My Muscles and Hair Shine, Also My Hammer is Humongous.”

“Good looks and a big hammer aren’t everything--”

“Well, no, he’s also kind and brave and, oh yeah, in charge of an entire empire. Our species aren’t remotely compatible and even I find him devastatingly attractive.”

“You’re in widow’s weeds for a tree, man, we all know how seriously you take interspecies compatibility. Anyway, you’re an idiot,” Peter said. Loki frowned at the mention of Thor. She could not imagine a situation where Peter and Thor would compete with one another. “I asked if they were a thing and he said no.”

Rocket scoffed. “You asked—yeah, see, there are no-nos and not-yet-nos, and I don’t even need to have been there to know that was a not-yet-no, not a no-no. You might not be able to catch the pheromones floating around here, you ugly, hairless monkey, but I can, and they ain’t for you. Go sniff somewhere else.”

Loki’s frown deepened. Thor had not spent overmuch time with Gamora. But she was stunning and strong. Loki went over their interactions, losing focus, and by the time she shook her head in disgust, remembering the reports spread around her, Rocket and Peter had passed.

She was not sorry to see them leave, not at all.

#

The war churned its way on, after a brief respite that Loki assumed they were granted as Thanos sent his forces after the whispers of the Power Stone. It gave them time to treat their wounded, to assess their forces, and to plan.

A front had been established, stretching across many worlds and systems. Not a straight line, by any means, but directed by jump gates and passable routes of travel. It cut across space, with both Asgard and Thanos’s base of operations far back from the fighting.

Midgard, distant to begin with, orbited its young sun far away from the entire mess, warded and shining. There were myriad discussions about how it might be used, but Loki directed the conversation away from them. Midgard had… little to do with the conclusion of her careful planning, after all.

The delay also gave Loki time to visit even the most far-flung areas of Asgard, leaving behind seeds of power not yet ready to grow, but the brief period of peace could not last.

The assaults by Thanos began once more, inevitable as the tide, dragging them back to open battle. They fought to a standstill on Vanaheim, working to hold Thanos’s troops in place until the Ravager fleet recruited by the Guardians could make it through the jump gate, closing them in a vice.

But the Ravagers did not come and did not come, leaving them to face death in all directions. Loki jumped through the battlefield, when it became obvious they could not hold, moving from shadow to shadow, looking for Thor, for the largest mass of the Aesir, for--

One of Thanos’s great beasts was waiting when she stepped between one shadow and the next. It caught her with a mighty blow, tumbling her back across the ground, into a massed force of enemy soldiers. She snarled, blades in hand, blood over her skin, cutting them down and turning at a sudden wash of heat.

She had just enough time to catch a wave of ice-blue flame, sprung up from nowhere and then a tall, bald-headed woman appeared from the air, hands raised, and the fire just went away.

Loki panted, surrounded by the dead, wounded and exhausted. She spat on the ground to clear her mouth and said, “My thanks, stranger.” The woman turned to look at her, expression serene. Her robes fell in perfect order. A long necklace hung around her neck. Familiar power radiated out of it. Loki looked away from it with effort, back to the woman’s sharp eyes. “And who might you be?”

“I’m the Sorceress Supreme.”

Loki grinned, but managed not to laugh. “Are you?” she said. “That’s impressive.”

“It can be,” said the Sorceress Supreme, unfazed by all the death and by Loki’s tone. “You may call me the Ancient One.”

Loki sketched a rough bow, straightening with an arm around her ribs. The monsters close to her no longer drew breath, but she could hear battles raging further away. There were flashes of strange light, here and there, bursting above the tops of broken trees. “And you may call me Loki. What are you doing here, Ancient One? You’re not of Vanaheim.”

“We are here because this is where we need to be,” the Ancient One said. “And because this is what we need to do. I will explain later.”

#

Later turned out to be back on Asgard, in the war room, after they had managed to turn back Thanos’s attack on Vanaheim. The Ancient One stood serene under the gaze of their gathered generals. Her people - she had brought many magic users with her - meditated peacefully outside the chamber.

She told them, “My thoughts have been troubled of late. My dreams full of ill tidings. And so I gazed into the vast possibilities arrayed before us and saw the peril of the universe itself. We walk a fine line between success and utter destruction, with one path only leading through to the other side. That path required that we come here, and so we have come.”

Stark raised a hand. “Yes, hi,” he said, when the Ancient One turned to look at him. “So you’re from Earth, right? I heard some of your buddies talking about grabbing impossible burgers later. But I’ve never heard of you.” He turned to glance at the other Midgardian generals. “You’ve never heard of them, either, right?”

“There are many things that exist without your knowledge,” the Ancient One said. “Our existence is not shared. Secrecy is a protection we could not afford to lose. But we can no longer take refuge in our anonymity.”

“Because there’s only one way to save the universe and it requires you?” Stark arched an eyebrow, leaning back in his chair.

“Yes,” the Ancient One said. “And many of the others gathered here. It was not always so. But the future of the universe now requires that we be here to help in the great battles to come.”

“We will not turn aside any assistance,” Thor said. “Your aid in the battle today saved many lives. Coordinate your further efforts with Loki; she guides our magic users.”

The Ancient One glanced over at Loki, who smiled automatically, even around the anxiety of knowing what the woman wore around her neck when it seemed none of the rest recognized it at all. She did not mention it when the meeting broke, generals scattering as the Ancient One approached her.

They spoke of the Ancient One’s capabilities and the skills of her followers. Loki looked at the array of the war before them, planning where these new warriors might be used best, working to keep the Stone from the front of her thoughts.

She must not have succeeded, because the Ancient One said, finally, “You know what I carry.”

Loki frowned at a report from one of the noble families, full of complaints about the noise caused by gathered soldiers, especially those from other planets, and requests that such gatherings be moved off-world as soon as possible. She almost rejected the request - additional soldiers on world provided an extra layer of protection, all pieces had their role to play - and then held her breath and passed the report forward with suggestions for possible worlds where they could stay.

She said, once finished, “Yes. And that knowledge will spread. Thanos will hear about it, before too long. You should have kept it hidden.”

The Ancient One regarded her, unblinking. “I could not,” she said. “I saw the outcome of that future and it was a disaster for us all. I must be here, in this place at this time. As must you be.”

Loki considered all the reports, all the losses, all the news of the war. Seers were not unheard of, and the Ancient One had one of the Stones hanging around her neck; it could almost certainly enhance any innate talent she possessed. Loki asked, “And who else must be here, in this place at this time, for us to win?”

The Ancient One did not answer. Loki looked up to find her smiling, a small, thin expression. She said, “You know the answer to that question already, which is fortunate, as I cannot provide you with information you do not have. Not without taking the risk of changing the path we have been placed on.” She inclined her head then, stepping back. “And now I must go and see to my people.”

Loki scowled after her, turning back to the war map after she had disappeared. Their forces and strength grew, but Thanos marshalled against them still; no one would reasonably believe they had the forces to take him outright. It must be obvious that their current armies grew fatigued.

They needed more strength to make a good showing. But she’d known that already.

There was little time to consider it, not with sudden exclamations from outside the war room, going up across the city. Loki closed her eyes for a moment and went to find out what else had gone wrong.

#

Loki half expected to find the Ravager fleet overhead, arrived late and at the wrong planet. But only a single ship cut through the air, landing in a hastily cleared area, blowing aside tents as it settled on the ground.

She stood well-back from the craft as it opened, Thor dropping from the sky beside her, midstep. A bit of smoke curled out from the inside of the ship, heralding the limping arrival of Peter, leaning his weight on Gamora, and the rest of the battered group.

They were joined by two figures Loki did not recognize, a woman with antenna and one with blue skin. Peter coughed and said, “Sorry we’re late. You’ll never guess what we got up to.”

#

“And so we needed the Ravager fleet to sort of… stop the destruction of all life in the universe. Again? Also? Concurrently? I’m not sure, but, hey, you guys managed without us, so, good job,” Peter finished, after a long-winded story that sounded, to Loki, too ridiculous to be anything but the truth, even if he did not appear to be half of a god.

“This Ego is destroyed, then?” Thor asked, frowning across at the group of them, his arms crossed. “You are certain?”

“Very certain,” Mantis - the woman with the antenna - said. She was wandering about the room, wide-eyed, stopping here and there to peer at people with open curiosity.

“And we took care of the Sovereign, too, not that you asked,” Peter said, contriving to look hurt. “What’s left of the Ravager fleet will be joining us shortly. Until then, you’ve got us.”

“How fortunate.” Loki fitted in the ships, adjusting for the losses they took against the Sovereign; it was still not enough. “You can tell us more about it later.” The blue-skinned woman, introduced as Nebula, another of Thanos’s daughters, watched quietly. She stood a step back and to the side, distant from the others. Something about her regard set a chill in Loki’s spine.

“How are you in contact with the Ravager fleet?” Thor asked, eyes always on the spinning, embattled, worlds. “There is no reason for them to come directly here.”

“Well, we’ve got these things called radios,” Rocket said. “They let you talk over long distances, like.” He stretched out a hand, depositing a few small machines on the war table. “We actually got some for you, since the ravens you send just don’t make it through cold, hard space.”

“Obviously you’ve never seen an Asgardian raven,” Loki said; the beasts had no problems going wherever they wished. She’d learned much of her skill with folding shadows from them. She picked up one of the radios, turning it in her fingers and shrugging. It was, relatively, a clunky form of communication. But if they desired to use it...

The conversation turned then, to where they might send the fleet, and how much the Ravager leadership would expect in payment. Loki looked at the number of ships, compared against the vastness of Thanos’s fleet, and thought not enough.

Not enough, yet, to pose a clear and present danger to the Titan. Not enough to force a drastic step. She scowled, plans unpleasant in nature growing louder in her thoughts as arguments stretched and spread around the room.

#

Bringing more forces into their fold always took so much time. Loki stretched after they finally reached a point of resolution, pacing back towards her rooms with a headache building in her temples and her thoughts rushing from one to the next.

Even with the preoccupation, her attention snagged at an unfamiliar, whirring sound in a hall that she passed. She glanced up, nerves thrumming, in time to catch a rushing flash of blue.

Hands grappled at her; unnatural strength pushed her back, hard, against a wall, into the shadows. Fingers curled around her throat, even as a blade sprung to her hand. Nebula scowled across at her, black eyes wide and unblinking when she demanded, “How did you get away?” There was a mechanical modulation to her voice.

Loki smiled at her, adjusting the angle of her blade, and asked, “Away from what?”

“Thanos.” Nebula spat the name. “I saw you there. You looked different, but your biometrics are the same. He had sway over you.” She was not a subtle woman. Suspicion and accusation echoed clearly enough through her tone.

Loki kept smiling through force of will. “He did,” she said. “It’s long broken.”

Nebula tilted her head to the side. Her grip tightened. “That’s not possible. I came here because Gamora said the Asgardians were going to kill Thanos. But you--”

“Want to kill him more than anyone,” Loki cut in, pulse beginning to pound against her skin in warning.

Nebula regarded her, eyes black as the empty void of space itself. She said, very quietly, “No, you don’t.”

“You’re right.” Loki swallowed against the fingers around her throat, looking at the patchwork woman. “I misspoke. But I do want to kill him with all that I am. I have done this, all of this, to kill him. And it would be a shame for us to kill one another, instead of focusing on him.” She shifted her blade as she spoke, enough for Nebula to feel the point of it.

“That won’t kill me,” Nebula said.

Loki smiled wider. “Shall we find out if you’re correct?”

Nebula stared - she never blinked - and shifted her grip. “You are truly no longer under his control?”

“He has no hold on me.” At least, not outside of the foul dreams that plagued Loki’s thoughts, sometimes, full of dark doubts and fears.

“And you will help me kill him?”

“Oh, yes. I believe we’re planning to cut off his head.”

Nebula dipped her chin, just for a moment, and then abruptly stepped back, hand coming away from Loki’s throat. Loki breathed as steadily as she could, avoiding gulping at the air. “A good choice. Very well,” Nebula said. “I will be ready, when the time comes.”

She turned on her heel, walking almost directly into Thor, who approached the doorway in that moment, concern in his expression as Nebula strode past, her shoulders back and her head up. “Loki?” he asked.

Loki waved a hand, adjusting a glamour across her throat to conceal the bruising she felt. “We’re meeting so many interesting people, these days,” she said. “Have we missed the dinner meal?”

#

Preoccupation followed Loki through dinner and the trip back to her quarters.

They needed more people on the line, more even than provided by the wizards from Midgard and the Ravagers. They needed to appear as a threat, even if they weren’t and couldn’t ever be, truly, not without burning their brightest into stardust. But there were only so many options available; they’d exhausted most of their best choices and were left with those too weak, with too few soldiers, or those who had already turned them down.

She looked sideways, into her mirror, at the angles of her own face. The midnight sky cast a blue pal over her features, and she curled the edges of her mouth up into a smile. Well. There was one option yet untried.

#

Loki had kept the Stone she took from Hydra, unmentioned and unregarded, for almost two years. She slipped through shadows, past defenses carefully built, tracing a path graven into her memory, to take it once more into her immediate possession.

She knew of armies. Tremendous armies. Renowned for their skill on the battlefield and undoubtedly ready to fight once more. Jotunheim’s legions lay untouched. Ready. Strong.

The problem, of course, was that they bore no love for the Aesir and even less love for her.

Bringing them around would take more than negotiations; it could not be done with the sweetest words. They would need more than promises to consider throwing in their lot with the Aesir. They would need a reason to fight for themselves.

Loki looked down at the hated yellow Stone. She knew she’d kept the accursed thing for a reason.

#

Loki took the Stone to Jotunheim, leaving whispers in her wake, each one a risk she had to take. She moved to a temple, heard of long ago, when her plans for Jotunheim had been simpler, to the place where they said the heart of their world was held.

There were priests there, in the mountain fastness. They did not cast her a second look when she moved among them, wearing their form, echoing the chants that spilled from their lips as they worked.

The heart of the world - if such it was - was hidden deep within the temple. It was a tremendous stone, of that there was no doubt. It radiated cold, such that even she felt a chill, and low temperatures had never registered for her as a concern.

She stared at it for a moment, satisfied, and drew forth the Infinity Stone she’d brought. It was a simple thing to bend space, to place the Stone there, hidden, masking its power almost entirely.

She did not leave the way she’d come, her stomach tense with nerves and her pulse thrumming. She pulled apart the shadows and stepped into them, returning to Asgard. She did not know how much time she had before her whispers found the ears they were intended for.

And she needed to be on Jotunheim once more, officially, before that happened.

#

She found Thor in his quarters, staring out his window, frowning. He was clad for sleeping, but she had not the time to delay until morning. She said, stepping out of a shadow, “It’s a beautiful night.”

Thor turned to look at her; he did not startle, only smiled as he saw her. “I suppose it is,” he said. “Where have you been these last days?”

She shrugged, coming to stand near him, gazing out over the city, emptier than it had been in some time as the troops were moved off-world, more defenses flying away from Asgard. “Thinking,” she said, resting her fingertips on the glass. “We don’t have enough soldiers.”

He sighed. “I know,” he said. “But there is little else to be done about it. We are running out of worlds to ally with.”

“But we have not run out yet.”

He shifted around. “You have one in mind.”

“Mm.” She glanced up at him then, flashing half a smile. “You’re not going to like it, but it may well be past time we sought an audience with the court on Jotunheim.”

“No,” Thor said, straightening, a grimace twisting his features. “No, they are far too dangerous.”

She shrugged, reaching out to touch his arm before he could pace away. “Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not. But, Thor, I cannot help but feeling that we are in the last days of a war we are losing. Thanos is too powerful. He will destroy us all and the galaxy after. Is not the risk worth it? Can I not speak with them?”

Thor stared down, where Loki’s hand rested on his arm. He said, tone soft and careful, “Let us say I agree that we should speak with them at all. I would prefer to send someone else to their court.”

Loki laughed, a bark of sound. “You have no better negotiators at your beck and call. I’m not entirely sure you have any.” Diplomacy – and the ability to tell useful lies – was not a quality in large supply among the generals gathered to their cause. She shifted, gripping Thor’s arm, trying to make him understand. “I must at least try. You know I’m right.”

Thor nodded, at the last, reaching out and fitting his hand against Loki’s neck. “You are right,” he said, though he looked unhappy about it. “But you will not go alone. I will accompany you.”

Loki frowned, a victorious smile dying before it could emerge. “I’m not sure that’s—”

“And we will take a legion of guards with us.” Loki opened her mouth, happy to take the guards, but Thor was far too valuable to be risked before absolutely necessary. “Loki,” Thor interrupted, shifting closer, his eyes gone strange and soft. “I will not risk you unnecessarily.” His thumb brushed the edge of Loki’s jaw, setting off a strange shock of heat beneath Loki’s skin.

“You do not flinch away,” Thor said, voice quieter. He had no need to speak loudly. They had grown, somehow, quite close. The statement brought her back into awareness of her body. Her heart raced, uncomfortably quick.

She asked, mouth suddenly dry, “Should I?”

“I would prefer you did not,” Thor said, thumb stroking back, sending a shiver down Loki’s spine, despite the warmth rising beneath her skin. Thor’s nose brushed hers, and her breath escaped in a stuttered exhalation.

“Loki,” Thor started, voice thickened, “I—”

A knock on the door interrupted him. Thor twisted his head to the side and snapped, flat and hard, “Go away.”

The knocking came again, an envoy from one of their aligned worlds, come to offer congratulations for some battle or the other. Loki listened to them for but a moment, her heart humming along in her breast, and then left, using the distraction to return to her own rooms, where her heart slowly returned to a normal pace.

#

The subject of Jotunheim Loki broached again, with the dawn’s light. Thor scowled, but she knew she had won before ever she started the argument. They needed the soldiers, he could not go; he’d had all night to realize that. She stood the best chance of bringing them in.

He agreed before even they entered the war room for their daily councils, though he required she take a legion along. She inclined her head, going to gather the soldiers and shifting form midstep.

He needed the Jotun to recognize him, after all.

Heimdall did not look surprised at their arrival, the march of the soldiers down the rainbow bridge to the Bifrost. He made no protests and, if he disapproved, it did not show as he moved them through the vastness of space, returning Loki to Jotunheim.

The cold of the world curled against him as he solidified into place, golden light fading to reveal a world of blues and purples. He inhaled deeply and the air did not burn in his lungs from the cold. In fact, breathing felt easy – easier than ever it had on Asgard.

He had known, the knowledge terrible and unwanted, denied for as long as possible, what he was as soon as he drew breath on his home world. Only one people felt comfortable and at peace in such temperatures.

Those people gathered around, calling out in alarm at his sudden appearance. He’d been placed well, directly outside the gates of the capital city, all signs of their last ill-fated attack long since wiped away. The walls of ice rose, hulking and intimidating, worked with magic and pulsing with patterns of light that the Aesir could not even see.

But he saw the beauty and the power of it, saw the same power displayed in the weapons brandished by the warriors atop the wall. One shouted, “You did not bring enough soldiers, if you planned to finish the job you started.”

Loki stretched his arms out to either side, inclining his head and calling, “Peace, warriors of . I come only to speak to you.”

“We havJotunheime nothing to say to you, murderer.” The Jotun who spoke had a booming voice; it rang out across the ice as the man strode out between the open gates. He was tall and broad-shouldered, skin deep, dark blue. His eyes blazed with red light.

“Oh, don’t sell yourselves short,” Loki said, smiling. The Jotun looked past him, to the guards standing around his shoulders, scowling. “I’m sure we can find plenty to discuss. For example, how would you feel about ending your long imprisonment on this world?”

The Jotun frowned at him, but he could hear the whispers that started up on the walls. The words would spread through the city and quickly. They would not kill him now, they wouldn’t dare, not without hearing more.

“You have come here and spoken such words before,” the Jotun said, fingers tightening around the long spear he held. The words brought recollection. Loki recognized him, though he had changed with age. Helblindi - son of Laufey - who had been eager to accept Loki’s suggestions last time he came to the court on Jotunheim. “And you brought upon us only death, then, and the murder of our king.”

“I did, you’re right.” Loki shrugged, even as Helblindi’s expression hardened against him. “But that’s in the past and cannot be changed. I’m here to discuss your future. And the future of all of your people.”

“Your people, too,” Helblindi said, with a sneer. “For all that you wear this soft skin and clothe yourself in Aesir garb.”

Loki narrowed his eyes, maintaining his smile as he shifted his form, skin and eyes changing, stature increasing, though by little; he was yet young for a Jotun. The guards around him shifted, but held and did not murmur amongst themselves. “There,” he said. “Does that suit you better?”

“It would suit me better to have your head upon my spear.”

“You could likely achieve your wish,” Loki said, shrugging. “I haven’t brought enough soldiers to stop you.” But the Stone rested within reach. Loki could escape. “But if you kill me, you will never be allowed off of this rock, not until the great war comes and consumes all of the galaxy. I come in the name of the King of Asgard.”

“Odin--”

“Not Odin,” he said, shaking his head. “He rules no longer. The throne has been taken by one stronger, who aims to clean up Odin’s messes. Including the long enmity with our people.”

“And you speak for him?” Helblindi spoke the words archly, with mockery.

“In all things.” The words came easy, no matter how truthful they felt in actuality. Loki gestured at the guards. “Ask them, if you doubt me.”

Helblindi frowned at him. “And how did that come to be?”

Loki tilted his head to the side, thoughtful. “It was not an easy task.” He smiled once more, with all the charm at his discretion. “Set aside your anger for the moment and listen to my offer. Perhaps you will find it preferable to a slow slide out of all knowing and importance in the galaxy, to the forgotten death of all of our people.”

Helblindi stared at him for a long, long moment and then jerked out a sharp nod. “Come, then,” he said, gesturing. “And speak quickly, for I tire already of the sound of your voice.” And Loki did not doubt that he was brought in only for them to more easily close the snare, when they thought they’d learned all they could of Asgard from him. He went anyway, his own plans far too advanced to be stopped.

#

Loki was led through the streets of the capital, watched from doorways and windows by red-eyed figures. He walked in the center of his guards, and no one shouted, or jeered, or threw garbage at them. They had more restraint than they’d been credited with, apparently.

They arrived at length in the central courtyard, the space before the palace. He remembered it well, despite the years of time since he had last stood there. Helblindi crossed to the far end of the courtyard and sat in a tall, brutal throne, with nothing of beauty about it. He held still his spear and said, “Speak, envoy of the Aesir.”

“You’ve done well for yourself,” Loki said, looking around the courtyard and recalling the city. It was not a lie. It looked better than it had, last time he had visited the planet. “Laufey would be pleased to see that you took up the mantle of leadership so well.”

“You will not speak of Laufey,” Helblindi snapped, knuckles stretching beneath his skin.

Loki shrugged. “As you prefer,” he said. “Brother.”

Helblindi surged to his feet, crossing the space between them quickly, spear tip coming to a rest below Loki’s chin, cold and sharp. He snarled, towering, “Do not call me such. You are no relation of mine.”

Loki stared into red eyes that mirrored his own. “Am I not? Do you not see the resemblance?”

“There is nothing alike between us.” Helblindi raised the spear, just a little, attempting to force Loki to tilt his chin. He kept his head steady, feeling the edge slice into flesh, chill blood slipping out into the frozen air.

Loki said, each movement of his jaw carving figures into his skin, but what did pain mean to him, anymore, “This kind of behavior is why your last negotiations with the Aesir ended so poorly.”

Helblindi snarled and jerked back, shoulders heaving from the force of his breath. “Speak, then,” he said, his voice rough and strangled. “Tell me what you offer and what you desire in return, so that you may be gone from my sight forevermore.”

Loki smiled, wide, feeling blood sliding down the front of his neck; his skin burned as it stretched. “I offer you the freedom you’ve been so long denied. I offer you glory in battle. I offer you a place once more in the universe, one full of respect and fear and honor.”

Helblindi turned his head to stare, all control of his expression gone, hunger showing there, hunger and naked yearning. “And what do you want in return?” he demanded. “Shall we help you dispose of this new King?”

“Oh, no.” Loki shook his head, smiling still. “I’ve become used to watching others take the throne in my stead.” Rulership felt like a distant dream, a desire clouded behind closer concerns. He wanted to live. To no longer dream of blood and screams. He said none of that. “I –”

He never got the chance to finish. At that moment a terrible boom rang out over the city – the noise of a tremendous ship breaching atmosphere. He wiped away his smile, even as shouting rang out across the city, and Helblindi’s expression contorted with rage.

“This was a trick,” Helblindi said, charging forward, grabbing him by the throat. “You have come to distract us so--”

“No,” he said, pointing skyward, where the clouds parted around a massive ship. “No, this is why I came to you for help. The Aesir have gone to war, war with a terrible foe. I came for a military alliance. But I don’t understand why the enemy would come here.”

“Perhaps they’ve come for you,” Helblindi said, tightening his grip. “Perhaps you lie and you’ve brought them here to finish the job you started so long ago.”

Loki smiled. “Kill me if you think it so. Or let me go, and I will call to the forces of Aesir and they will come here to fight him.”

Helblindi scoffed, expression contorted fully in rage. “If we agree to your terms. You would like at, wouldn’t you, your terms accepted blindly and--”

“They will come regardless of whether we have an accord. This war is bigger than old enmities. It is bigger than you and the Aesir, bigger than our family. The future of the universe hangs in the balance. This enemy, he searches for items of great power, I do not know of any such items here, but—ah,” he said, when the Jotun’s expression changed, all his thoughts written in his
eyes, “But I see I am perhaps not fully informed.

“That is Thanos above us. He moves from world to world, leaving destruction in his wake, all in search of the items he desires. He will kill all of you to have what he’s come for. He has done such before. Let me go, and I will bring you the help you need.”

“We can turn him back on our own,” Helblindi snarled, eyes flaring.

Loki shrugged, meeting his gaze and holding it. “Try,” he said.

Helblindi stared at him for a long moment, jaw clenched and fingers tight, but not tight enough to choke. Finally, he jerked his hand away. “Call to the Aesir, then. And we shall see if you speak the truth or if you lie.”

#

The Aesir came. They came to the capital, where the attacks seemed perfunctory and designed to keep the soldiers busy, and they came to the outlying rim of the world, where dark-clad soldiers swarmed across the small religious outpost Loki had visited only a few days previously.

The Jotun went out to them there, with Loki, who did not want to leave them out of his sight. Loki shifted as they traveled – Thanos’s forces were there, she would not risk the recognition – arriving in mid-stride to find Thor facing a horde of swarming monsters.

“Loki!” he cried, as she stepped forward and called up the ice below, skewering a line of the monsters all at once. “What are they doing here?”

“I don’t know for sure,” she said. “This is Helblindi Laufeyson, ruler of Jotunheim,” she said, gesturing at her brother, who gazed out across the ruin with horror in his expression. The Aesir had been too late to save the priests, it appeared. They lay broken across the ground. “He tells me that there is some kind of item of power here.”

“I did not!” Helblindi protested, taking a looming step forward, only to find Thor in his way, hammer pressed to his chest.

Thor scowled upward. “You are hurt,” he said, back to Loki. “How did this come to be?”

“We can discuss it later,” Loki said.

Thor nodded, though his expression remained stormy and thunder rumbled above them. “This item of power, is it…?”

“I don’t know,” Loki said. “I would suspect so.”

“Find it,” Thor said. “Get it away. We will hold them here and drive them off.”th

“You cannot—”

Thor turned then, lightning arcing from his eyes, mouth open to snarl, and Loki said, “Could we all attempt to kill each other later? The Aesir fight and die for you, Jotun. Let it not be in vain that they protect your people.”

Helblindi scowled, but nodded, drawing back from Thor. “Very well,” he said. “Let us move quickly then.”

#

The temple was not nearly so bustling with life as it had been last time Loki visited. Many of the priests had gone out to defend their home, and lay shattered now across the ice. A few remained, hiding here and there in alcoves, relieved when Loki touched them and sent them away, to spots of protection behind the Aesir lines.

They arrived in the heart of the temple without meeting a disruptive force; Thor held Thanos’s forces at bay outside. Loki kept an expression of appropriate wonder on her face as they moved through the complex, into the heart of the temple, where the great heart stone resided, casting off blue light and thrumming gently with the pulse of the world.

“You believe this is the item this Thanos wants?” Helblindi asked, shaking his head. “But that’s senseless. It has power, yes, but that power is of no use to any but us. It is tied to Jotunheim.”

“Oh, I don’t think this is what he wants,” Loki said, circling the stone, investigating sights already seen. “I think there’s something else here. Hidden in the power put off by the heart stone.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Helblindi scoffed. “You led me here to distract me from the battle, to gain access to the heart stone, this is another of your--”

He cut himself off, jaw snapping shut, as Loki reached into the stone, peeling aside dimensional barriers she’d placed, gripping the Infinity Stone within carefully with magic and withdrawing it. The yellow Stone hummed as it floated between her fingers, turning gently this way and that.

“That’s it?” Helblindi asked, frowning mightily. “You expect me to believe--”

“Believe what you’d like,” Loki said, curling in her fingers and tucking away the Stone. “Thanos came here for this. He will kill all of your people to get it.” As if to strengthen her point, the ground shook and there were cries of alarm from above. “And he will chase it across the stars when I take it from here.”

“You have no right to take it,” Helblindi said, scowling at her fiercely. “If it is so powerful, we can use it to defend ourselves. It is ours.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Can you learn to use it in enough time to stop the slaughter above? I don’t know what it does, all the Stones are different. Will you survive its use? Many who hold the Stones perish within moments as the power consumes them. The Stone can remain Jotunheim’s, I care little. Only let me hide it now, to spare your people.”

“You don’t care about our people. You never have.”

She smiled, so wide her cheeks ached. “People change. And you have no better options but to trust that I have.”

“Fine,” Helblindi snapped, and she exhaled. She could have taken it without his permission; he couldn’t have stopped her. But she needed the Jotun forces. Better not to torpedo her diplomatic options so quickly. “Fine, take it and go.”

“I’ll return to finish our discussions,” she said, pulling shadows from the air, and went.

#

By the time Loki returned, leaving a breadcrumb trail to nowhere in her wake, Thanos had left Jotunheim. He attacked Alfheim, instead, lashing out at the people of that world with a terrible rage. Loki did not have to look long at the war map to see that the Aesir forces - already exhausted - were flagging.

They could win, perhaps. But it would cost them dearly. And so she did not go to the line, listening to the yelling Ravager forces over the radio in her ear, hearing them die and scream. She shook aside exhaustion from days of hard travel, changed her form, and went back to Jotunheim.

This time, Loki went directly to the throne chamber. Helblindi waited there, bent in discussion with ministers and generals, all of whom straightened with alarm at Loki’s sudden appearance. “Peace,” he said, smiling, hands extended and empty. “I fulfill only my promise to return.”

Helblindi held up a hand; the generals did not race forward to skewer him. “You come to us alone, now?” Helblindi asked. “Are you grown so bold?”

Loki shrugged. “There is no time left to be meek,” he said. “Thanos strikes at other worlds. The Aesir are weary from saving your folk. I told you I came looking for an alliance. You have had time to consider my words. Tell me now if you will agree or if you will continue to cower here, fading from all memory in the universe, imprisoned unto the death of time itself.”

One of the generals snarled, “Jotunheim will never--”

And Helblindi interrupted, cold as the glaciers that covered the planet, “To refuse aid now would lack all traces of honor. The Aesir bled and died here.”

Another general snapped, “Aesir have died here before. Many times.”

“But not to protect your people,” Loki said. “Did they not add to the ice? There is no greater sacrifice on--”

“Do not speak of our ways as though you know them,” Helblindi interrupted, standing abruptly. Loki inclined his head, heart thrumming, thinking of Asgard’s forces arrayed in a fight that would cost them dearly.

“Refuse me then, if you will,” he said; he did not even know if Thor lived, the voices in the radio had not said. “I cannot tarry long here. Say either yes or no and I will leave you, but an offer such as mine will not come again in any of our lifetimes.” He met and held Helblindi’s eyes, red for red, while the advisors and generals shifted around them.

And he knew he had won when Helblindi jerked out a nod, mouth twisting even as he did. “We will agree to this deal,” Helblindi said, over startled gasps and at least one protest. “Prepare your forces now. We go to war across the stars today, as we have not done for thousands of years.”

#

The armies of Jotunheim had grown immense during their long exile from the universe. The old soldiers had trained the young. They had kept their weapons sharp, waiting, hoping for their chance. Helblindi gave it to them, signing the agreement Loki drew forth in his own blood and then clasping Loki’s hand, bleeding palm to bleeding palm.

Loki did not wait for the blood to dry. There was not the time for it. “Heimdall,” he said, pulse racing inside his chest. “We are ready.”

Jotunheim went to war. Their forces flooded forth, everywhere Heimdall sent them, running rampage across Thanos’s lines and bolstering the defenses of the Aesir. Loki moved among them, causing what mayhem and destruction she could, until Thanos’s lines broke utterly.

“Where is Thor?” Loki asked, after the last of the combatants arrayed against them fell, and she had time to think of such concerns. Her body ached from the demands of battle. She wiped sweat and filth off of her forehead and grimaced, expression snagging as the soldiers around her hesitated. She straightened. “Where is he? What happened?”

“He moved to hold the end of the line,” Sif said, limping up from behind them. Her armor had been heavily dented. One of her arms bent wrong. Blood matted back into her hair. “When it seemed we would be flanked. They brought some manner of beast with them. He brought it down, but--”

But Loki was no longer there to listen. She traveled the distance in a series of transports, popping in and out of the lines as the healers went about their work, stopping, finally, before a hastily assembled tent along the far edge of the lines. It glowed and shimmered, opalescent, shielded to protect the injured within.

Loki pushed through, wards washing over her, displaying a readout of her injuries along the far wall, where no healers were paying attention. A group clustered around Thor, reclining back on a bench, alive, by the sound of his harsh breathing.

A wave of dizzy relief flooded Loki’s thoughts for a moment. She shook it away; she had not the time to interrogate it. Barbs, as of some kind of animal, protruded from Thor’s chest, three of them, each longer than a large man’s forearm and near as thick around. They were gray and shiny and, as a healer tried to remove one, they all three shifted, burrowing deeper into him.

“Stop!” Loki grabbed the closest healer - a slight man with wide eyes - and pulled him away. “Do you intend to kill him yourselves?”

“We were--”

“I don’t care what you thought you were doing,” Loki snapped, looking over the ruin of their work. A barb dug in beneath Thor’s collarbone, set to the left of his body. Another burrowed low, almost by his right hip, the third had hit almost dead center in his torso. “Leave us, now, before you complete the job our enemies started.”

“My Lord Thor--”

“I am in good hands,” Thor said, his voice a rasp. “Go, there are plenty of others injured along our lines.” Loki scowled after the retreating healers, but only for a moment. Thor bore up under the pain well, but he always had. He tilted his head back against the bench, his smile tight when he asked, “You were successful, then?”

“Don’t speak,” Loki told him, running fingers around the edges of the wounds and up over the barbs. Magic was woven into them, terrible and bent on destruction. They dug their way into his flesh even still, moving in miniscule amounts. Loki scowled, options flitting through her head, one after the next.

The solution she settled on would not be pleasant for either of them. But she thought it would work. “This will hurt,” she warned, and shifted, bracing both hands on Thor’s chest. His skin felt overhot, grimy with sweat and dirt.

Thor smiled again, bracing back against the bench. “Do it,” he said. He still flinched, a moment later, turning his face to the side as the tendons in his neck stood up against the skin. The muscles in his stomach clenched. He made to bow up off of the bench; Loki shoved him down, words falling off of her lips as she sent power down through her skin, into Thor’s body, to the barbs.

She stretched her focus to each of them, to every hook and blade twisted into Thor’s flesh and bone, until she knew them utterly. And then she pulled them, all of them, away, transporting them from the flesh and over to some unimportant place.

Thor cried out, the noise caught behind his teeth, body trying to flinch away from the pain. Loki could not hold him still and heal the wounds. She released her hold, hoping that Thor would not strike her, hands moving over the gashes left behind by the barbs.

It was over in moments, leaving behind undamaged skin and a pit of burning emptiness in the middle of Loki’s chest, where exhaustion pulled and tugged at her. She barked out a laugh; the day seemed like it would never end, and patted at Thor’s chest. Both her hand and Thor’s skin were filthy. “Better?” she asked.

“Yes,” Thor said, voice ragged. “You have my thanks.” His skin jumped a bit under Loki’s touch, rising into gooseflesh. Loki grinned down at him; she felt punch-drunk, giddy with exhaustion and relief. She leaned her hip against the bench, hand resting still near the middle of Thor’s chest.

“To answer your earlier question,” she said, smearing aside filth and blood, examining the new, pink flesh beneath, “we were successful, yes. Jotunheim fights beside us, for the time.” Her fingers wandered, without really any thought behind them, over other scars, down, towards a thin white blemish low on Thor’s ribs.

She recalled sliding a knife into Thor’s ribs, beating at the inside of her head, screaming herself hoarse where no one could hear. She grimaced, effervescent good cheer turned to something sour in her throat. “But I wouldn’t risk turning your back on them. If you thought I hated you…”

“Did you hate me?” Thor asked, his voice low and rough still, from the pain. Loki shivered, making to draw her hand away. Thor reached out before she could, fingers sliding warm over Loki’s hand, pressing it down against his skin.

The truthful answer was that she had wanted to, often. Perhaps she’d even achieved hatred, once or twice. Loki shook her head. “No,” she said. “Never.” She almost smiled, but something in his expression kept her from humor when she added, “How could I?”

Thor made a sound, pained, shifting to sit all at once, swinging his legs off of the bench. Loki made to step back, to give him space, but Thor held her wrist. Thor stood in the same movement, bringing them far too close together, his bloody chest brushing Loki’s armor.

Loki managed to ask, “What--?”

And then Thor’s hand curled against her jaw, and Thor leaned down, and all at once she was being kissed, hard and hungry, tasting blood. The world tilted wildly around on its axis, gravity reversing, but only for Loki, it seemed.

Thor kissed her like a man desperate to do nothing else as long as he lived. And Loki’s mind moved through memories of one interaction after another, sorting them, retexturing them as Thor slid fingers into her hair. It couldn’t--Thor couldn’t--it was--

Thor shifted back, just enough to catch Loki’s eyes. There was heat in his gaze, the white hot burning at the center of a lightning strike. He panted, voice rough and unfamiliar, “Loki? Do you not wish--?”

Loki did not know what she wished. Not really. But she didn’t need to know what she wished to understand what Thor wanted. And she needed Thor, needed Asgard, needed protection, safety, shelter….

She cut Thor’s question off, flinging an arm around Thor’s shoulders to pull close, tilting her head, throwing herself into another kiss. Thor groaned against her mouth, gripping her tight, and it was suddenly obvious just how much Thor wanted her, obvious and shocking and not entirely without terror, all at once.

Loki’s pulse jumped, already high, into another gear, but she did not jerk away. That would not have done. And kissing Thor was not unpleasant. In fact, there was a kind of wild, surging freedom to it, lighting Loki up from the inside. She shifted, changing the angle of the kiss, and felt a wash of sharp pleasure when Thor attempted to pull her yet closer.

She did not know what she would have done next, had not light washed in from outside the tent, had not a familiar voice said, “Thor, the healers told me they’d been--”

Sif cut off in the middle of her sentence. Loki jerked, startled back into her head, turning to look at Sif, where she stood, mouth open and expression delightfully gobsmacked. “Sif. I am glad you are well. The healers were not needed,” Thor said, voice still thickened. He turned his face towards her, but did not take his gaze off of Loki. He drew his fingers down, through Loki’s hair.

“Not need-- What are you doing?” Sif took a step into the chamber, hissing the words and pulling the wards shut at her back.

“What does it look like?” Loki asked, taking what refuge she could in audacity; it had ever served her before. Besides, Thor made no effort to pull away, even as he finally looked fully over to Sif, who had stained red all across her face and down her neck.

“You,” she said, a snarl in the words, “you, I knew you would attempt something like this. I suppose seducing your way onto the throne is easier than attempting to kill him once more?”

“Stop,” Thor said, and did shift then, turning more fully to face Sif, bloody and bare-chested. “You speak of things you do not understand.”

“Oh,” Sif said, scowling up at him, “I understand well enough.” Then she was better served than Loki, who felt like she was jumping from one slippery rock to the next, trying to cross a raging river that had not existed a moment before. “You have been baited and caught--”

“Sif!”

“--and so skillfully was it done that you do not even see the--” A rumble of thunder, long and low and full of promise ended her speech. She scowled, color high in her cheeks and blood in her hair.

“I pursued, Sif,” Thor said, voice grown harder and flatter.

“You think--”

“You will not tell me what I’ve done,” he snapped, drawing up taller. “Or what I think. We have been companions for a long time, and I value your forthright council. But you go too far with this and you’ll go no farther.”

Sif’s jaw tightened. She cast Loki a glare and then inclined her head, stiffly. “As you say, my Lord,” she said, straightening and keeping her gaze to one side. “You should know that the Jotun forces are mopping up what’s left of the battle. What will we do with them?”

Thor sighed, armor settling over his skin as he called Mjolnir to hand. “I suppose we must decide that now.”

#

They found Helblindi not far away, surrounded by a group of his generals. A mass of the Aesir stood close, watching them, shifting with discomfort. Helblindi straightened as Thor approached, eyes half-lidded and head tilted to the side.

Loki moved in a strange sort of auto-pilot. She felt certain that everyone must be able to see what they had done, that the evidence must be written all over her face, that Sif must have set whispering rumors loose through the camp, but no one stared and no one murmured.

Everyone watched Thor come to a stop before Helblindi, who towered above him. “Good of you to join us,” Thor said, finally. He extended a hand between them. “Your people fought bravely. It was an honor to share the battlefield with such as you.”

Helblindi only stared at his hand for a moment, before one side of his mouth curled up. “The honor is ours, Thunderer,” he said, and took Thor’s hand, fingers curled around forearm. “It is good to walk under new skies once more.”

No one cheered. But the world did seem to collectively exhale and breathe normally once more, as though the entire planet had been holding its breath. Loki looked at them, counting the number of Jotun troops in her mind, and breathed as well.

#

There was much to do after the battle. There always was. They sorted their troops and spoke with the natives, tended the wounded and the dead, debriefed with their generals, and finally, finally, they finished.

Loki found herself standing outside the war room, listening to Thor speak with Helblindi, with Rogers and Stark and all the rest. She could go back in, but there was nothing they needed her to say; she’d brought them the soldiers they required.

Their army would never look more threatening than it did at the moment, arrayed in the border worlds around them, well-prepared to surge forth across the stars, a strong defensive line surrounding Asgard but not on Asgard. They would look confident - overconfident, even - if she had done her work properly.

She swallowed, flexing her fingers in and out, and went to her rooms. There she cleaned off the filth of the terribly long days, her thoughts churning even as she washed away blood and dirt and the strange ichor that came from some of Thanos’s creatures. She bathed and tried to determine what, exactly, her next step needed to be.

She needed to decide how to respond to Thor. There was no way to determine exactly how much time she had before he came to find her; likely little, based on the heat she’d seen in Thor’s eyes and the thunder that had begun rumbling in the air above the capital.

She paced around her room, movements fitful. She could turn Thor aside, she thought. She had set everything into place that she could. Regardless of what she did, there was a terrible momentum built in the war, a wave rising that could not be pulled back into still water.

But. But there was always the chance that she was mistaken. And if Thor took her as a lover, it would… secure her position. Sif had assumed she sought a place on the throne beside Thor. Asgard seemed a small prize, anymore. Safety, though…

Could she take Thor to her bed? She’d not considered it before. Obviously, Thor had no problems with the thought. But Loki was not sure she could match Thor’s fervor, not truly.

It seemed insane not to try. Kissing Thor had not been difficult. It had been sharply thrilling, in all honesty. Blinding and all-consuming. So she must try, then. For her own good. For the good of the war effort. To see if it could be done.

She came to a sharp stop, breathing fast and hard through her nose. She held out a hand, summoning a flagon of mead that she frowned at, before raising it to her mouth and swallowing the sweetly sour liquid. It burned her throat. She’d forgotten how much she disliked it. Midgardians, at least, rarely drank the foul swill.

She bit at her lips, frowning at the mess made of her quarters over the last months. She grabbed books and parchments, sorting through them as her thoughts rolled. Perhaps she ran ahead of herself. Perhaps Thor looked only for a way to relieve the fire in his blood after battle, perhaps she’d only been convenient, on hand, as it were, in the moment; he had not said--

Her fingers closed on the book of poetry he had given her, months ago. It had slipped from her thoughts between one attack and the next. She traced her fingers over the fine, gold lettering, flipping it open absently. There were pages marked; he’d mentioned selecting some sections, hadn’t he?

She turned to one, happy for the distraction, breath catching in the back of her throat as she read:

I have no life but this,
To lead it here;
Nor any death, but lest
Dispelled from there;

Nor tie to earths to come,
Nor action new,
Except through this extent,
The realm of you.

She read the words twice over, breath held tight and selfish in her chest. Meaning cut sharply at her. Thor had-- but surely-- surely he had only found the poem pleasing. She turned to the next marked spot, pulse racing like a hummingbird’s wings, reading:

That I did always love,
I bring thee proof:
That till I loved
I did not love enough--

A knock came on her door, interrupting. She closed the book, carefully, and set it atop the pile she’d built. The shock of reading a few words felt just as upending as Thor’s embrace had seemed in the healer’s tent. She had not drawn breath by the time she reached the door, pulling it open.

Thor waited outside, all the blood cleaned away. His hair was still wet. His cloak hung over his armor. She took a shaking breath, lines of poetry echoing in her mind as her stomach filled with strange warmth. He smiled and stepped into the room, assured of a welcome Loki could not stir her tongue enough to give.

She shut the door, her pulse racing behind her ribs, heart pounding as though it intended to break her bones and escape the confines of her flesh. Thor took a deep breath, looking her over, raising a hand to brush back her hair. She watched his eyes grow darker. He said, as though unaware that he’d set her skin tingling, “I would kiss you again.”

A thousand half-formed questions ran through her mind, but none of them would serve her, and, anyway, she seemed to have forgotten how to speak. He wanted her. She knew that much for sure. She gave up on the usefulness of words, took a breath, and stepped closer, a hand curling around Thor’s shoulder as she pushed up on her toes and gave him the kiss he desired.

He made a sound, low, hoarse, and did not hesitate to take her welcome. He cupped her head, other hand curving past her ribs to rest on her back, hot and broad and solid. She was grateful for it; she felt as though she might fly apart if not held together.

Loki had never kissed, much. She’d rarely even thought about it, before she fell through the stars. And after… But she had always taken pride in being a fast learner. She turned her full attention to the process, taking Thor’s lead and building off of it, until it became difficult to focus on her intentions, the rest of the world edging away, her body growing warm while her spine turned to liquid heat.

The world came back when Thor nuzzled against her jaw. His beard rasped against her skin. She tilted her head to the side, breath stuttering out as she gripped at his shoulders. She could not imagine baring her throat so for anyone else, for an instant alarm rang through her, but Thor only kissed and touched, seemingly intent on mapping all of her skin that he could reach.

But she had always known, in the deepest part of her mind, that he wouldn’t harm her. Not truly.

He did not hurt her as slow movements brought them across the room, nor when they tumbled down upon her mattress. Thor ended up half-leaning against the pillows, Loki sprawled over him in a way that felt inelegant. Thor seemed not to agree. The proof of his feelings pressed between them, hard and urgent.

The limits of Loki’s ideas for forward progress abandoned her. She settled over him, lacking any firm ideas on what to do next, and kissed him. It seemed to have the desired effect. Thor curled an arm around her ribs, hand between her shoulder blades. “Off, off,” Thor panted against her mouth and, unsure what had gone wrong, Loki drew back, only then realizing that Thor was tugging at her clothing.

“Ah,” Loki said, poised over him, scars and bared flesh crowding clamorous in her thoughts.

Something must have shown on her face, because Thor frowned, shifted, and said, “Loki? Do you need--?”

Loki had spent her life trying to figure out what made everyone around her work. She’d finally figured out Thor. She had no desire to fritter away the knowledge, to let Thanos ruin that, as he had so much else. She needed to find out if she could give him what he desired, or if she could not.

She dismissed her leathers, waving them all away, better to take the entirety of the blow at once, instead of spreading out the hurt of it. The air felt cold on her skin. Thor’s hands felt burning hot. His armor pressed in uncomfortable places. She said, forcing joviality into her tone, “Pardon the scars, they are--oof!”

Thor’s eyes darkened in a way that heated Loki’s stomach anew, forcing out the chill that had crept in. He moved, shifting them around to dump Loki down, as if they were children again. Except that, as children, Thor had never leaned over her on one arm, gazing down over her body, hungry.

He met her gaze, after his lingering look, and she raised an eyebrow, asking, “Are you only planning to look, then?”

He leaned down and kissed her again, until she could only curl her arms around his neck and hold on, one knee drawing up all on its own, her body full of an ache she didn’t know how to soothe. He said, lips brushing her jaw, breath warm on her skin, “Can I--?”

“Yes,” she said, before he could finish the question, because she wouldn’t refuse him anything, but a part of her did not want to know what she must agree to. He made a rough sound in his chest, shifting over her, leaning his weight on one elbow as his other hand slid over her ribs, across her overheated skin.

And Loki found, as Thor moved, scattering kisses and touches across her skin, that she could. That she could clench fingers into his hair as he found places to touch that made her spine bow up, thoughts all gone and body hungry for more touch. That she could cry out in surprise at the hot touch of his mouth and the curl of his fingers. That she could fall into blinding heat and pleasure, gasping up to the ceiling, afterwards, skin tingling as though ran through with electricity. There were no thoughts in her mind at all. No fears, no plans, nothing but a heated satisfaction radiating out from her stomach and spine.

Thor shifted, and she shivered, skin tingling as he kissed his way over her stomach, her ribs, her sternum, to her mouth. His armor went away as he curled over, muscles moving under bare skin, hot under her hands. She knew his body, down to each scar. Touching him, running her hands where she would, felt brand new and like returning to a familiar territory, all at once.

He shivered at her touch, skin dragging against hers in so many places. “I want you,” Thor said, voice low and rough, between one kiss and the next.

 

“Have me, then,” Loki said, heady and bold, cleaving to him more tightly, listening to the thunder roar and feeling it rolling through her.

#

There was strangeness, in their coupling. It passed quickly, pushed to the side by the pleasure singing through her nerves as their bodies fit together. They went slowly, carefully, time slowing and stretching as the world contracted to nothing but the space around them.

Loki forgot about the war, the surrounding armies, all of her plans, for a time, thinking of nothing but skin and touch and slacking the hungers woken in her body.

She felt boneless and buoyant when at last they collapsed to the mattress, thunder still rumbling around in the air, the aftershocks of a boom so loud it had shaken the tower. She laughed, sweat cooling on her skin as the echoes of the thunder finally faded to nothing.

Thor huffed a laugh himself. She rolled onto her side, pushing onto an elbow, watching him smile up at the ceiling, his eyes closed, one of his arms curled above his head. He lay uncovered by the blankets and she took the opportunity to look at him in the peace of the moment, shivering with each memory of touching there or there.

She reached out, tracing patterns across skin, wondering, her thoughts still a bit scattered and vague, what exactly was supposed to happen next. Thor shifted on the bed, gaze finding hers as his arm stretched out, hand resting against her back. He said, “You said once we could be wed within an hour if I confessed my feelings, but I believe it must needs wait until at least morning, for I don’t wish to leave this chamber.”

Loki stared at him, taken off her guard so completely that she thought she would not be able to find words. They came to her, before the silence could stretch. She arched a brow and said, dry, “Plenty of time to plan the nuptials of a King.”

He smiled, but only for a moment, before his countenance grew serious. He asked, “You are alright? It was not… too much?”

She smiled at him, sharp, sweet fondness unfurling in her chest. “I can change my shape,” she reminded.

He flushed a little, shaking his head. “I did not mean--” he gestured towards his waist, “--though I am glad that--I mean--I intended that we should speak, first.”

“We can speak now,” she told him, distracted by the way his stomach jumped when she moved her fingers across it.

“Mm,” he said, rolling to face her, beard rasping against her collarbone as he bent his head. “We could.”

“Or,” she suggested, distraction growing, skin flushing warm all over, “we could wait a while.” He smiled against her skin.

#

She could not decide, later, whether they came together multiple times, or if the experience should be counted as one event that left her exhausted, sore, and full of some emotion in her chest that she could not put a name to.

Morning dawned through the window to find them already awake, painting Thor’s skin in gold as he sat against the headboard, one hand at her waist, the other buried in her hair as she moved over him.

They had not spoken much, and the words they had said had been panted nonsense for the most part. But there would be time to speak later, some time when the muscles in Thor’s shoulders were not shifting, when he was not curling an arm around her and moving, bearing her down to the mattress and moving in hard, driving strokes, face buried against her throat as he stilled and thunder echoed around them.

The echo was so loud that it almost covered over the blowing of the morning horn, calling them all back to reality. Thor made no effort to move for a long moment, only breathing against her skin as she traced absent patterns across his shoulders.

“We must go,” she said, finally, and he nodded, beard brushing against her skin.

“I know,” he said, kissing her shoulder and then her collarbone. “I wish only that we did not.” He kissed her jaw and her mouth, and she thought perhaps they would be very late to the meetings, if they made it at all, when someone began knocking on the door.

#

Loki answered the door when the knocking continued unabated. Stark stood on the other side, hand raised in mid-knock as she raised an eyebrow at him, the last threads of her clothing settling into order. “Hey,” he said, frowning, “have you seen Thor? He was supposed to join us before the big meetings, but there were those storms all night long and--”

“I am here,” Thor said, stepping into Stark’s line of sight, straightening his cloak. “You have my apologies for missing our arranged discussion. I was otherwise engaged.”

Stark’s gaze darted between them, eyes widening as his mouth fell open. “Oh, my God,” he said. “Did something come up?”

“We are late,” Loki said, feigning that she had not seen Stark’s expression and brushing past him into the hall. Thor followed. “Why don’t you discuss whatever you needed to speak about as we go.”

Stark waved a hand, as though batting the suggestion away. “Yeah,” he said, “yeah, sure, maybe, but before we do that, that was some storm last night. Impressive how it just kept coming back, all night long. Over and over again.”

Thor frowned over at him. “Perhaps you should rest on Midgard, if the weather here bothers you so.”

“The weather my ass,” Stark said, poking Thor in the arm. “That wasn’t the weather. I thought it was bad rooming beside the Rogers clan, but at least they only shake the wall. You shake the entire city.” He looked past Thor, frowning at Loki. “How can you even walk today?”

She beamed at him. “I’m not made of Kleenex.” He opened his mouth, but they had reached an open section of the hallway by then, and Thor curled an arm around her before flinging them both into the air.

Stark chased after them in his suit, but did not catch them before they landed in front of the war room. Already, there was a crowd gathered inside. They were late, later than they had been before, and subject to strange looks at Thor strode into the room.

Stark caught Loki’s arm before she could walk in to take her place, releasing his hold immediately when she looked down at his hand. “Hey,” he said, frowning and pitching his voice low. “All joking aside, are you alright?” Loki wrinkled her nose, and he continued, quiet, “You have to tell me, we’re trauma buddies.”

She almost laughed, but his expression scattered her amusement as quickly as it formed. She said, “And you told me to find someone tall and fair-haired to ease my hurts. I am fine, Stark.” She wondered, briefly, what he’d planned to do if she said otherwise.

There was no time to find out. They had a war council to hold.

#

Stark was not the only person to look at them and just know. Sif would not look in their direction, her expression mulish and all of her replies clipped short. The other Aesir generals, perhaps less sure of their place in Thor’s favor, went out of their way to be courteous. Helblindi, the only off-worlder with reason to care as her flesh and blood, looked between them with unreadable eyes.

Frigga’s reaction Loki did not get. Her customary spot in the room remained empty throughout the meeting, the absence drawing the eye.

Odin had not joined Frigga in whatever task kept her away. He sat there, looking yet older and more ill than he had when last Loki saw him. Her shoulders tightened when she glanced at him; if everyone else had noticed, surely he had. And she could not imagine he would approve.

But, when her gaze was drawn finally to him, he did not look furious. He did not even look surprised. He did not sneak them looks from the corners of his eyes, as the others did. He merely sat there, a tremble in one hand, listening to them talk of their massed forces, out on the lines away from Asgard, of the plans for an aggressive assault, talk that Loki found suddenly impossible to focus on.

She didn’t believe any of those efforts would matter, anyway. Not if she’d done everything correctly.

And none of it put a chill in her chest the way Odin’s complete lack of reaction did. A shiver spread through her thoughts, an answer to explain his calm regard, one that made her gorge rise in the back of her throat.

She waited for the others to file from the room, when the meeting finally ended. Thor glanced back at her, his attention a strange thing that Loki found she was already used to; Thor had been watching her for weeks now. Months. A year. Since she had brought Jane Foster from Midgard.

That new realization sent a thrill through her, one she set to the side. She nodded at Thor, who frowned, but exited the room, caught up in conversation with Heimdall, Sif, and Stark. Loki did not follow them, turning, instead, to trail after Odin.

It was not hard to find the old man. He waited out on a balcony close by, alone. Not even a servant attended him. Loki hesitated in the doorway before stepping through, waving a privacy charm into being at her back.

Odin turned to glance at her, though she had made no sound. His hair had gone completely to white. He looked… worn out. Used up. Loki leaned against the railing at the far end of the balcony, looking over the lines on Odin’s face, his eyepatch, the strange darkness of his remaining eye.

She said, when Odin only stared back, “You planned this.” She gestured at her body, hating the jerkiness of the movement, the lack of control he brought out in her. “Thor and I.” It made a terrible kind of sense. Odin had not been strong enough to beat the Jotun. Not truly. Only strong enough to lock them away and wait, wait for the day they grew strong enough to free themselves and rage out across the universe once more, beginning the war anew.

What better way to end a renewed war than with a treaty?

What better way to secure a treaty than with a marriage?

Odin grimaced, looking away from her, out over the city below, the people moving in the streets; almost all of the troops were gone, those remaining were being sent to prepare for a major assault along the front. There were still refugees though, so many of them, getting in the way. Helpless. Loki had denied requests by the gentry to move them away.

“No,” he said. “I did not plan it. But I did see it, when I looked down upon you in the snow on Jotunheim.” He spoke slowly, quietly. His expression went distant and open. “I was granted such sight, long ago.” His hand drifted up towards his missing eye, fingers brushing his cheek.

“You saw it,” Loki echoed, the words bitter as ash in her mouth. She shook her head. “You made it happen.”

Odin shrugged. “You credit me too much, though I suppose I could have tried to stop it,” he said. “I could have left you there to die. But the universe has its own plans. Even if I had, I would not be surprised if you had lived and if he had found you. I only did what I thought best, to ready you both.”

Loki grimaced, nails biting against her palms. She had expected Odin to deny it all. She’d expected the chance to rage. This strange, quiet admission only increased her frustration. “Ready us for what?”

He sighed, closing his good eye. “Asgard must have a King,” he said. She tired so of hearing that. “Always. But I looked upon Thor when he was born and I saw that he would be a good man, a good friend, a good warrior, a good general. And a poor king.”

She stared at him, her heartbeat lurching around, off-rhythm and terrible. “You see it already. He gives all the tasks of rulership to you even now,” he said, continuing quietly. “And you saw it, when you were both young, even without my sight. He does not want to rule, and so he will find reasons not to. But you--”

“Stop,” she said, panting. Had she been raised then, crafted, to take on the parts of rulership Thor did not want? It was a thought worse than believing she had been raised only as a backup or as some cruel jape.

“You will rule well. And wisely. You learned all there was to be taught. There will be peace in Asgard and Jotunheim, throughout the Nine Realms and beyond it. There will be a time to create art. To heal.” He spoke like he was handing down prophecy. She thought she would be ill, she thought she would kill him, the desire long buried in her breast stirring again. She turned away, because killing him would only--only endanger everything she’d done, though she did not know if she cared anymore--

“I saw also children,” Odin said, staring out at nothing. Loki jerked to a stop, eyes stinging. Odin went on softly, as though repeating a dream or a dearly held wish. “Children with dark hair and fair eyes, laughing in the sun.”

Her throat had grown terribly tight. Her knuckles ached. She rasped, choking on the words, “That’s what this is all about? What my entire life has been about? Ensuring that someone is there to hold Thor’s hand as he rules? And the continuation of your line?”

Odin blinked, seeming to focus on her for the first time in too long. He only stared, something terrible and sad in his eye. He offered no excuses or explanations. Loki scowled, turning away from him and stalking off of the balcony, blindly down the hall, her chest aching with sharp, sudden pain.

She would find Thor and-- she didn’t know. Or perhaps she would only go, run to the edges of the universe and keep running, until she was far from this accursed place and all the puppeteers who had attempted to pull her strings. Or--

The scramble of clawing thoughts inside her mind was interrupted, then. A strange noise, wailing and loud, broke through the morning. Loki recognized it. She’d heard in on the other planets Thanos hit. She jerked -- not now, not now, not now-- and the first of the bombs landed, throwing the world into confusion and pain as Thanos seized the weak point she’d carefully constructed.

#

The walls and ceilings came down around Loki. She barely had time to raise her arms, working a shield into being over her head. Stone and metal work fell in a great tumble of sound. She smelled smoke. Screams echoed up from everywhere.

Her heart raced as she stood, rubble pushed away by the shield she held still. Other bombs were screaming through the air. Bombs and drop ships. Thanos had looked at the great massing of their forces, the armies gathered to sweep over him, and he had come for Asgard, unprotected at the back of their lines.

She had known he would - hoped he would.

A smile twisted across her face, her heart raced in her breast, and she looked around the hall. No one else stood in it, not yet. But she could hear running footsteps. She could hear the discharge of energy weapons, back in the direction where she had left Odin.

Her hands clenched anew into fists. She could leave him. Thanos’s soldiers would not hesitate to cut down the old man. It would not be as though she murdered him. But.

But. She had come so far. And she thought of Thor’s expression, that morning as they curled together, when his eyes were soft and his smile gentle. When he had kissed her cheek and brushed back her hair.

Sif did not trust her. Plenty of the Aesir did not. That distrust would remain, if she stayed, if she didn’t let Odin run her off. And how did she not know that wasn’t his plan? Perhaps he lied, perhaps he saw what had happened and meant only to sow salt across her heart.

Perhaps she grew tired of letting his machinations push her here or there.

Distrust among the Aesir would be much harder to maintain if she walked out of the ruins of the castle with Odin. She flexed her fingers in and out, testing the idea, seeing if she could stomach it. It made no sense to disregard an opportunity when it arrived. She breathed out and turned back down the hall, picking her way across rubble, heading towards Odin and the blaster fire.

#

Loki found Odin three floors down, on the ground, the balcony a casualty of the initial bombing run. He lay under a pile of rubble, the ground around him staining red. Dark clad soldiers were nearly to him. Loki stood above, in the hole torn in the hallway, and considered.

Odin would be no use at all to her dead. She swallowed her frustration and folded shadows close, appearing behind the soldiers and putting them on the ground, their blood hot and itching on her hands.

She shoved the last one aside, stepping over corpses to look down at Odin, who scrambled weakly at the stone laying across his body. She set her jaw and reached out to it, moving it to another space, somewhere far away. He cried out, curling onto his side. His robes were stained with blood and his eye patch was knocked off; there was a dark space where his eye should be staring up at her.

She scowled and snapped, “Get up, old man.”

He shook his head and coughed. Red spittle beaded on his lips. “Are you sure you don’t want to kill me now?” he asked. “You may not get a better opportunity.”

She reached down and grabbed him, lips trying to peel back from her teeth. “I said get up.” No one, not even Sif, would doubt her so quickly if she brought Odin back alive through a war zone. She bared her teeth, put her other hand on him, and shoved energy into his broken body.

He cried out again, jerking in her hold, but stood when she pulled on his arm. He swayed a bit, disordered and still bloody. He said, gasping, “That’s how you use healing magics?”

“Thor never complains,” she said, turning. The skies were dark with warships. The bombardment continued. Screams came from everywhere outside of their little pocket of peace. She started to reach out to the web she’d constructed around the planet, carefully over the last months, but it was not time. Not yet.

“I’m sure he doesn’t,” Odin said. “It’s very… invigorating.”

“Be quiet.” She didn’t want to speak with him anymore. The conversation kept dragging back everything he’d said, all his admissions, and she had not the time to focus on them now. She tightened her grip on his arm, and shifted them both, across the city, to the safe haven of Heimdall’s station.

The building was already crowded with the fastest of the Aesir anxious to flee Asgard. The bridge leading up to it was packed, shoulder to shoulder, but space was made when Loki appeared with Odin. Murmurs and cries washed back through the ranks. She hauled Odin forward, not stopping until she stood before Heimdall.

“Get him away from here,” she snapped, jerking her hand off his arm. She never wanted to touch him again. “And recall our troops as quickly as you can.”

Heimdall only nodded, eyes distant. She doubted he needed the instruction. She turned to go, and Odin called, “Frigga--”

“I will take care of her,” Loki said, because this had to be done. This was the only way. But it did not have to end in utter destruction. She gripped the shadows and went.

#

Battles waged across the city, the sounds taken individually were horrible; taken altogether they became a background thrum that became difficult to distinguish as Loki traveled from one spot to the next, doing what had to be done.

She found Frigga barricaded into a pantry with her ladies in waiting, collected them, and delivered them to Heimdall. She dealt death where it could be done. And she checked on the nodes of power she’d established, preparing them for what must come next.

At the end of the Bifrost - sometimes closer, sometimes farther away - Heimdall did his necessary work, but so slowly. Civilians were shuffled away, over to Midgard - well-defended Midgard! - and warriors were brought to them, shoring up flagging lines, keeping the battle balanced on the knife’s edge of failure.

They must look weak, from Thanos’s viewpoint. A scrambled defense, desperate warriors thrashing about to keep their children safe against this sudden onslaught, new soldiers drawn in and dumped, with minimal preparation, into the battle. A victory and the utter destruction of the war effort, without ever allowing the strength of their gathered forces to be brought to bear, must have looked inevitable.

And, indeed, Loki could see more of Thanos’s forces committing to the ground attack. They were coming. They were coming. And down below that realization was the bone-deep certainty that Thanos was already there.

After all, storm clouds gathered over palace, building dark and terrible into the sky and over the city. Spots of frozen rain fell on her face as she brought down one of Thanos’s great beasts, waving the family it had been threatening on, down towards the Bifrost.

In her ear, the radio crackled to life as the Ravager fleet began appearing through the jump gates. She heard Rocket’s voice, the Guardians leading the charge. He yelled something about a shield over the palace, blocking it from aerial attack.

She smiled, dragging the back of her head across her mouth. Thanos had come. She’d known he would. And he would not want to be interrupted, not while he measured himself against the coalition’s leader. And that meant there was no longer any reason to delay the closing of the trap she’d laid so very carefully.

Loki folded space, stepping out of a shadow beside the closest node of power. It floated, forgotten and unseen, in the air above her head, full of wondrous potential. She reached up to it, hesitating as another salvo of fire rained down from above, waiting, waiting, until she felt the heat of the coming explosion on her upturned face.

The timing had to be perfect, or the snare would not close, all her hard work would have been for nothing.

She touched the node of power as her eyelashes curled, wakening it as the weapon hit. The shielding she’d set into place around the planet flared outward, all at once, a green shimmer that spread and grew, expanding with each burst of energy poured into it from Thanos’s orbital bombardment.

The initial node woke others, reaching out. Green light crawled across the sky, the sounds of the bombs fading as they smashed against the shields, feeding them, making the defenses stronger with each shot.

Her soldiers flooded out of alleys and roads as Heimdall brought them back, there to handle the monsters that had already made planetfall. They’d had a year of practice developing the best ways to slaughter Thanos’s forces. They would sow terrible destruction among the lines. The only thing they lacked the experience to handle was Thanos.

But Thanos was not out fighting the foot soldiers, who could not have handled him anyway. That was not his style, not when he could take a victory by destroying the leader of those who stood against him. No doubt he’d thought it would be simple, easy, to snuff them out.

She smiled a bloody smile and wondered if he felt the snare that she’d closed around him yet.

#

Finding Thanos was not a complicated prospect. Loki knew his thoughts, better than ever she’d wanted to. Her work finished, the defenses activated and easily holding back any further of Thanos’s reinforcments, she took a moment to breathe, turning her gaze to the great palace of Asgard, even as a massive bolt of lightning struck down through the center of it.

She turned her head to the side and spat, tasting blood on her tongue and dirt in her mouth. Her heart sped along, rabbit-fast. She didn’t want to go there. The moment had arrived, and she did not want to go to Thanos.

Her palms burned and stung, nails cutting into flesh. The Aesir surged around her, either to battle or away from it. Overhead, the sky shimmered green, deflecting away the great bolts of power hurled down by Thanos’s ships.

Thunder rumbled.

She imagined she heard a scream.

And she cursed, bitterly, at herself, and at Thor, and at Thanos. She strode forward, disappearing between one step and the next, form changing as he went.

#

The palace was a ruin. Soldiers gathered outside of it, held back by a shimmering shield, one not crafted by Loki’s hands. Rocket continued to yell about it in his ears. Apparently, Gamora and Nebula were furious that they could not get inside it.

Loki bypassed the shield with a thought; shadows existed everywhere and he moved between them. Inside, fine stone work lay in charred lumps. The guards who should have been the best Asgard had to offer were sprawled across the ground like broken dolls. Gray-clad warriors - those of Thanos’s guard - were scattered across the rooms, many of them faintly smoking.

Loki kept to the shadows, to the nothing-space between one breath and the next, where no one had ever been able to see him, walking with silent steps through the ruin, towards the sound of ongoing battle. He could not even hear voices over the radio anymore. The shield blocked them out utterly.

Only two figures remained living in the ruined throne room. It was domed over with the shimmering forcefield. The sky above curdled with dark clouds; lighting flashed back and forth between sky and forcefield as the stormfront roiled outward, spreading as though to encompass the entirety of the city, or, perhaps, the entirety of the world itself. Thor knelt below the epicenter of the storm, bloody, panting, his focus on the other figure in the room.

Mjolnir lay in pieces around him.

Thanos stood calmly over him, holding that ridiculous sword that he favored, bloody as well, but not enough, not nearly enough, helmet tight around his malformed head. His other hand wrapped, huge and horrendous, around Thor’s throat.

Loki could not breathe. His lungs gave up trying. He’d planned so carefully, worked so hard to dig Thanos out from behind all his defenses, to bring him here, to isolate him, if Thor could not do this--

“Boy,” Thanos said, voice unwelcome, familiar. He tilted his head, looking down at Thor, who gripped at his hand and wrist. “Before I kill you, I have a question for you.”

Thor snarled, wordless, skin reddening up his cheeks. Cold, the cold of the ice in oldest Jotunheim, spread out across Loki’s skin, freezing him into place, in a moment where he could not breathe and his heart tripped erratic in his chest.

“I came here,” Thanos started, slow, as though he had no particular hurry to each word, “Because I had to see the man who’d been systematically taking my armies apart. I must admit, you came out of nowhere, you and your allies. Asgard hasn’t had expansionist goals for thousands of years. But you don’t seem to be colonizing. You don’t seem to be doing much of anything but getting in my way. Tell me why.”

He must have loosened his grip. Thor sucked in a breath, the sound ragged and terrible. Familiar unto itself. Loki envied him, for he could get no air into his own lungs. Not even when Thor rasped, “Because you need to be destroyed.”

“Do I?” Thanos asked, head cocking to the side. “Why are you so sure? I’ve never harmed an Asgardian, to my knowledge. Your people should have no grievance with me.”

Thor snarled, lips curling back from bloody teeth. “I have grievance enough. In all my long life, I never knew what it was to hate someone until you.”

Thanos blinked, a frown that looked almost thoughtful crossing his face. He said, “And yet, I don’t even know who you are, beyond the king of this pitiful piece of rock. I don’t think we ever met. I’ve never done you harm, before today.”

Overhead, beyond the shield, the thunder rumbled long and low and deep. Loki prepared to listen to some heartfelt explanation of the danger Thanos posed to the universe, to the lives of so many, a terrible tremble beginning in his fingers. Thor said, voice echoing the storm above, “You did grievous harm to the one I love.” And Loki flinched, the bands around his ribs tightening further, eyes burning, muscles aching with tension and hunger for oxygen.

Thanos hummed and then shrugged. “What a small, disappointing answer,” he said, and shook himself. Thor grunted, pained. “Well--”

“My Lord,” Loki said, with a numb tongue and numb lips, stepping from the shadows. Thor jerked in Thanos’s grip, trying to look over, failing. Thanos’s gaze, though, snapped over immediately, small, piggish eyes narrowing as Loki walked forward.

“Loki!” Thor rasped, “No, get out--”

“I see you’ve found my present,” Loki said, each word shaped with terrible effort, fighting to keep from panting for breath, from turning and running, from dwelling too long on whether or not he’d gotten the shade of blue in his eyes to the perfect hue.

“What?” Thanos asked, scowl cutting into his face. “If you speak of your failure on Earth--”

Loki waved a hand, smiling. “Earth was nothing, an opportunity that would have been wasted. You went there to find one Infinity Stone, but I found there a way to bring you all of them. And I have, along with anyone who would have stood against you.” He spread out his arms, inclining his head as he approached, closer, and closer, to the last place he wanted to be. “Do you not appreciate my work?”

“Loki!” Thor struggled again, thrashing. “Run!” And the blade of his words sliced two-sided. Would it have hurt more deeply if he believed, if each word falling from Loki’s lips sounded like truth to him?

There was no time to think about it. Not with Thanos staring at him, setting down his terrible sword and reaching out with his free hand to place a finger on Loki’s jaw, tilting his face up. For a long, long moment, Thanos only stared into his face. He said, “I thought I’d lost you.”

Loki held onto his smile, tasting vomit in the back of his throat. “Never,” he said.

Thanos’s smile was a terrible thing, too big, hungry. His eyes glinted with pleasure. He said, sliding his fingers back, tugging Loki closer, “You have done well.” He leaned down, Thor snarling, the air smelling of ozone, and Loki felt like he was half in a dream when he raised an arm and buried a blade crafted of shadow and ice into a crack opened in Thanos’s armor at his ribs.

He said, smiling wildly, twisting the blade, feeling it scrape against bones, “You have no idea.”

Blood poured out hot over his fingers. He shivered at the feel of it, dreamy still, even as Thanos roared with fury and struck him. The force of the blow threw him back, tumbling, to catch against what had once been Odin’s throne with an impact that promised broken things inside his skin.

His vision blurred even as he shook his head, regretting the movement immediately as it set off dizzying washes of pain from one side of his skull to the other. He watched Thanos step around Thor - so at least he’d had some small success - and, beyond that, catching one stray thread of his fractured attention, a gathering of blinding light in the clouds above.

Loki had just enough sense to close his eyes, to turn his face to the side, before the world turned to white hot nothingness. The cracks of thunder hit one after another, shaking the foundations that yet remained of the palace, one-two-three, the last one bringing with it the smell of ozone as the shield above gave out.

Cold drops of rain fell, unimpeded, to splatter against Loki’s face. In his ears, Rocket’s tinny voice shouted, “That -- it -- way right -- just -- for a few -- nds --” The transmission went out then, in a final burst of static.

Loki hadn’t the time to try to decipher it. The lightning had brought down the shield, but not Thanos, who continued to march towards him, sword resting against one shoulder, blood flowing freely down the side of his armor.

Loki made to stand and the dizzy wash of pain through his head knocked him back down. He scrambled back, raising one hand. “Listen,” he said, his voice echoing oddly in his ears, “listen, I was just--”

“You could have had a peaceful life at my side, favored above all others,” Thanos said, coming to a stop before him, mouth screwed into a scowl. “But you chose this path, instead.” He shook his head, almost regretful, and Loki reached for what magic he had left, gathering it within his skin, so that at least he might cause some damage with his death.

He spat, red spittle landing in the space between them, as the blade came up, and it was then that lightning reached out of the sky, touching the tip of the blade with blinding light. Loki turned away, raising a clumsy arm to protect his face. Jagged pieces of metal sliced against his skin, barely felt when compared to all the greater pains in his body.

After a while, the light went away. Loki blinked, looking up at Thor, who stood breathing hard, bloody and ragged, his eyes glowing white as lighting jumped across his skin. Thanos’s sword lay in broken pieces around them.

“Loki,” he said, the thunder in the sky echoing his words, even as he extended a hand down. Sparks danced across his knuckles. Loki watched the electricity dissipate and reached out. Swaying to his feet made his head throb in a terrible way. He could sense the wetness in his hair, slicking down the back of his skull and his neck.

It didn’t really matter, not when Thor cupped his cheek, and said, “I thought--”

He never finished. Thanos roared, control lost utterly, charging back at them. Thor swore, reaching upwards, and Thanos hit him an absent blow, sending him tumbling away. Loki wavered on his feet and laughed, because there seemed nothing else to do.

“Spare us both and attempt no lies this time,” Thanos said, and Loki called his daggers instead. He laughed again as Thanos sneered, all disgust and dismissal as he reached out, terrible strength in his coiled muscles, all of his attention on Loki.

Loki grinned and said, “Made you look.”

Thanos never even glanced sideways at Gamora, entering the room at a dead sprint, her blades dancing out to deflect Thanos’s blow sideways. She spun back, momentum carrying her, and buried a second blade into Thanos’s gut.

Loki did not expect Thanos to sigh, but the huge man did, frowning down as Gamora yanked the blade free, taking a stumbling step back. She bumped into Loki; he nearly fell over. His balance did not seem to wish to cooperate and everything in the world felt hyper saturated with color. Sounds came from far away.

“Gamora. Daughter,” Thanos said. “I expected better from you.” He rubbed his fingers over the cut in his side, blood pouring dark over his fingers. “How many times did I tell you? You should never attack someone you don’t intend to kill.”

She danced back towards him, blindingly fast, and he caught her arm, squeezing so hard she released her blade, her cry sharp and terrible. Loki jerked forward, but someone else moved faster than he could, a blur of color leaping down from above, landing across Thanos’s shoulders.

Nebula screamed as she ripped off Thanos’s helmet, digging the fingers of her other hand into his face, electricity pouring out of her skin, her eyes dark and wide and terrible to behold. And then there was no time to think or track what happened.

Thanos struck at the three of them, thrashing as a maddened creature, one backed into a corner. They struck back, dancing away from blows when they could, taking the hits when they could not get away. The world broke into pieces. Loki wanted to lie down, lie down so badly, but it meant death, so he didn’t.

He fought, swaying, until Gamora rolled low, blades slicing out to scissor across the back of Thanos’s legs. He held one of Thanos’s arms in a tether of magic, no longer entirely sure how he’d managed it, and he yanked with his remaining strength, pulling the Titan sideways as he was hamstrung.

Nebula hit Thanos in the center of the back, before he could regain his balance, and he toppled to his knees, weight supported on one hand. He roared, muscles clenching, “I will kill--”

And Thor was there -- living still! -- moving quicker than a thought, with none of the hesitation Loki would have expected of him, so little time ago. He grabbed a piece of the broken sword, ignoring the bite of the blade into his hands, raised it high, and brought it down on the back of Thanos’s neck without a word.

Thanos went limp immediately. The sudden loss of tension on the other end of the tether sent Loki stumbling back. He fell against something, some broken hunk of stone, and lay there, watching Thanos’s head roll back and forth a few times upon the ruined floor.

Thanos’s body collapsed down. Gamora stumbled away from it, her eyes wide. Nebula scrambled back as well, the four of them ringing the body of their vanquished foe. Thor moved last, casting aside the broken piece of sword that he held, seemingly unaware of the horrific wounds on his hands as he turned and walked, slowly, over to Loki.

He gazed down, sparks still moving in his eyes and across his face. He said, “I told you I would bring you his head.”

Loki wheezed a laugh and then snapped his jaw shut, before it could turn into hitching sobs. Behind Thor, he watched Gamora reach out for Nebula, curling into her, weeping silently as Nebula wrapped arms around her, staring unblinking at Thanos’s body.

“So you did,” Loki said, his voice thick. He held out a hand, and Thor took it, pulling him to his feet, where they leaned against one another. Loki was not sure he could do anything more than that.

“We must go out,” Thor said, looking finally down at his hands, the cuts so deep that Loki could see glints of white bone beneath the pulsing of the dark blood. “It isn’t finished.” He curled his hands over Thor’s, scraping together what magic he had left to close the wounds.

Loki leaned heavier against Thor, afterwards, tired and aching with exhaustion. “It is,” he said. “They just don’t know it yet. Bring the head.”

#

It was amazing how quickly the sight of Thanos’s head took the fight out of his surviving warriors and reinvigorated the spirits of the Aesir. The Midgardians looked less delighted by the grim trophy, but they were a more delicate sort. Loki did not begrudge them the vague nausea in their expressions as the last of the fighting stopped with Thor dropping his ugly burden onto the edge of the Bifrost.

Around the city, the invaders who had made landfall and yet lived were throwing down their weapons. Up above, ships were fleeing or broadcasting surrenders. The cheering started from somewhere back in the crowd gathered around them and spread, all at once, like a field of dried grass catching fire on a hot summer day.

The noise rose up to the sky, deafening and exultant. It beat against Loki’s ears, his throbbing head, and he leaned against Thor’s side, closing his eyes, just for a moment, just for a second, to soak in the enormity of the relief in his chest.

Thor pulled him closer, arm curled around him, turning to press a kiss against his forehead.

#

The next days were a long blur of madness. There were enemy soldiers to sort out and healers to visit; one of them yelled at Loki for some time about whatever he’d done to his head. He avoided thinking about it after she finally stopped yelling long enough to fix the problem.

There were funeral biers to build, for their honored dead as well as the fallen ranks of Thanos’s army. Thanos received no honor, but they did destroy his body. Some ball of tension inside Loki eased as the flames consumed it utterly.

He took a deep breath for what felt like the first time in years.

After, there was time to clean up, but only briefly, before people were coming around to shout more about celebrations and feasting and drinking. It seemed Loki was expected to be there, though truly, all he wanted to do was sleep.

He thought of avoiding the celebrations entirely, standing in the rubble of his rooms. A soft sound from the remains of the doorway drew his attention, as he brushed rubble off of his bed.

Thor stood there, clad in all his finery, red robe hanging over shining armor. The healers had done away with the injuries scattered across his body. But still, for an instant, Loki saw him as he had looked on his knees, bloody and beaten, saying, “You did grievous harm to the one I love.”

“I thought I might find you here,” Thor said, in the current moment.

Loki crooked a grin in his direction. “Just seeing what might be salvaged.”

“Mm.” Thor gazed over the ruin. “We will soon need to go down and meet with the representatives from the alliance,” he said, though he meant he would need to go down and meet with the representatives. Loki needed do nothing. All his aims had been accomplished. Everything that needed done was done.

The realization shifted the world beneath his feet. Thor seemed unaware, taking a breath and straightening his shoulders to say, “But we have some time, yet. We should speak, before we go to our people.”

“Your people,” Loki said, thoughts suddenly a tangle he’d not had the time to sort. He heard the echoes of Odin’s voice, words that burned still like poison. He did not have to stay, to fit into whatever plan Odin had developed and written for his life.

He had come here for protection. He had come here because it seemed the best way of destroying Thanos. He’d been right, and now he could go. Anywhere he wanted. Thor could not stop him, he still held the Tesseract, tucked away and hidden. He no longer had to fear using it.

Thor shook his head, once, taking a single step forward. “I would not have any division between us, Loki. Surely you know that I would have you here, by my side.” He stretched out a hand, eyes open and expression naked with hope. Loki’s chest ached, the way it had since he’d seen Thor on his knees and known he would do anything, including walk directly up to Thanos, to free him. He shook aside Odin’s words, he pushed away the nauseous churning in his gut.

“To rule with you?” he asked, voice strange and hoarse.

“To rule with me,” Thor answered, holding his gaze as Loki took one step forward.

“To wed you?”

Thor’s eyes darkened, his gaze dragged heavy, up and down Loki’s body. “To wed me,” he said, and Loki wondered if he should not expect to find a ceremony planned already. Within the hour, he’d said, and Thor seemed to have taken the words to heart.

“To love you?” He took Thor’s hand, unsurprised when Thor pulled him closer, hand cupping his jaw.

“To love me,” Thor said, voice low and rough. “As I love you.” He closed the last of the distance between them, his kiss slow and deep. Loki tilted his head to the side, sinking into it, shivering with a sharp thrum of pleasure.

He could run. He had the entire universe to run through, with no monsters waiting to do him harm. He could go anywhere he wanted.

He curled his arms around Thor to hold him, murmuring, between one kiss and the next, “So mote it be, then.” And shivered, when Thor made a deep, shocked sound, and pulled him closer yet.

They arrived to the ceremony late.