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It's Not Always Black and White

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Bruce didn't know what to think about Thor's little brother.

When last they had met, the guy's brain had been a bag full of cats, and he had been hell bent on world domination. Not to mention had had a pretty shitty plan to achieve that once you actually thought about it. So much for a warrior nation... Brains and tactics apparently weren't really a thing for Asgard he guessed? Or so it had seemed, anyway.

And now... they were on the same side?

It was very strange, to say the least โ€“ and that was by Bruce's standards, and he turned into an enormous green rage monster, had saved the world from not one but two alien invasions (alright, one was a sentient AI, but the point still stood) not to mention was currently in outer space.

Well, he supposed he could put aside their differences for now. After all, this was the literal fate of Asgard hanging in the balance, and the guy had brought ships to evacuate the citizens so maybe he wasn't entirely terrible after all.

Had that been the plan? Thor hadn't actually said why Loki wasn't with them when they had left Sakaar. Not that Bruce had asked: he wasn't a fan of the other god, and hadn't really cared too much where he might have been when Thor had shown up without him, horrible as that may be to think. (And why should he? He'd barely seen the guy through the whole ordeal as it was, it wasn't like he was Bruce's top priority โ€“ or any priority really...)

For now, however, the Hulk was having far too much fun to bother with the 'puny god' (and the guy had got up again after being Hulk Smashed: Bruce could at least respect the durability of the apparent god from a biological standpoint, because seriously, what the fuck was up with these two? Because Thor had survived that as well...) so Bruce was mainly watching from the back of the giant's mind as he smashed Hela's undead army and fought her giant zombie wolf.

(Seriously, what was his life now?!)

And even that was strange, and new, and kinda cool, actually. He couldn't remember ever really having this much awareness while the Hulk, though he did generally have something of an idea what had been going on when he 'woke up' again, when he turned back into himself.

That he hadn't known at all on Sakaar was... well, a little unusual actually, but even so.

He was worried he wouldn't be able to change back, that perhaps he was stuck like this now, but he couldn't afford to be worrying about that right now.

Not when Thor had sent Loki off somewhere โ€“ alone โ€“ to do... what, exactly? Hulk hadn't been close enough to hear the conversation, but Thor had told him that Loki was away to 'end this'. He had looked grim and unhappy with whatever solution the pair had come up with, but determined and resolute.

And how would the guy even get through all of this to get to... wherever he was off to? Sure, he could probably fight (with a society like Asgard seemed to be, it made sense both princes would have been trained as warriors, surely, and he had been holding his own so far from what little Bruce had seen...), but the Avengers had beaten him last time. Six people had beaten him and his crappy, crappy plan last time. It didn't inspire confidence in the guy being able to pull anything off, let alone something with stakes like this.

Thor had told them that his brother was smart back then, like โ€“ genius level smart. What Bruce had personally seen was not that.

Guy was crazy.

(Maybe Asgard just had different standards of 'intelligence'...?)

He hadn't interacted with him enough this time round to say if the crazy was still true or not, but he didn't see the god making it and actually managing to pull off any plan.

When Valkyrie had questioned it โ€“ the brothers having apparently had a rather cryptic exchange that had told her exactly nothing โ€“ Thor had replied simply but grimly: "Ragnarok."

Which... wasn't that supposed to be the literal end of the world in Norse Mythology?

Thor was stepping up getting the citizens to the ships, and seemed determined to get everyone well and truly off the planet, so that wasn't really doing anything to help with the whole 'end of the literal world' vibe of this so-called plan...

Bruce lost track of the others for a while, as Hulk was so busy fighting, but he along with everyone else was caught completely off guard when the zombies... well, collapsed. It was like someone had cut their strings: one minute they were up and fighting, the next they were inanimate rotting corpses again.

It was so gross...

Hela seemed far more pissed off with the situation, though equally as bewildered as she let out a furious scream while everyone else looked around in obvious confusion.

She had been almost upon them, Hulk, Thor and Valkyrie, and she turned a murderous gaze on them now after looking wildly around at her fallen army โ€“ and Christ, even the partially rotted (So. Gross.) wolf was down, though it had yet to fully make it back from where Hulk had pretty much dealt with it already, what with throwing it into that seemingly never-ending waterfall that seemed to just fall into space, of all things... (How was there still water falling? Where did it all come from?! Asking the real questions there, though perhaps not so relevant to his current situation... He should focus. He was focusing, watching through the Hulk's eyes.)

"YOU!" She shrieked, looking absolutely murderous. "WHAT DID YOU DO?!"

"Er..." Not one of Thor's more intelligent lines, it had to be said, but he honestly had no clue what the hell was going on either.

Had this not been his and Loki's plan, Bruce wondered? Couldn't have been, Thor seemed just as taken aback as the rest of them, and 'Ragnarok' rather implied a planetary destruction or some such as far as Bruce was aware, rather than an unanimated army of the dead...

That was when Loki appeared between them all, out of thin air.

O...kay, then. Apparently that was a thing he could do? Seriously? Why had no one mentioned this? (Why had he not done anything like that when invading Earth back in 2012?)

He had a long, expensive-looking spear in hand, but was facing Hela so turned away from them. That meant that even through the Hulk's eyes Bruce couldn't see his expression โ€“ which would hopefully have given him an indication of exactly what the hell was going on here because as it was he was flying blind along with apparently everybody else.

***

After that rather dramatic moment, it was all pretty anti-climatic, especially after the chaos of the battle. The ships were vacated again, and people shakily began to return to what remained of their homes, while Hela was escorted to the dungeons and the two Princes went to the palace to start on damage assessment to the realm as well as general clean up and aid of the population.

And probably figuring out what the hell to do with their insane sister seemingly no one had previously known about.

Because Hela had been stripped of her powers by Loki.

Bruce โ€“ who had turned back into himself again (and was glad to accept some clothes, his own โ€“ well, Tony's โ€“ having been, predictably, rather ruined) โ€“ still wasn't sure what to think.

It had been rather surreal, he had thought, to watch Loki face off with Hela, cocky and sardonic in the face of her sneering rage, and calmly ask her to stand down.

Apparently he preferred words over violence? That did not at all hold with the Loki that Bruce knew, but Thor at least had seemed unsurprised โ€“ well, by that particular aspect of the entire thing.

When Hela had refused, Loki had... Well, Loki had apparently bound her powers.

Bruce later learned from Thor that that slightly gaudy looking spear (seriously, why was everything gold around here? It was more than a little ostentatious and, well... tacky...? No wonder they had superiority complexes...) was Gungnir: the spear of the king, wielded by Odin and whoever sat on the throne. And that Loki had done similarly to what Odin himself had done to Thor when he had been banished to Earth all those years ago. (Christ, it seemed like several lifetimes, though Bruce had understandably known nothing about the craziness going on in New Mexico as he was a little busy turning into the Hulk for the first time and all the craziness that came from that.) (Also, y'know... S.H.I.E.L.D. It hadn't exactly been made public knowledge, hushed up as much as they could as it was.)

And apparently Loki was actually rightfully king โ€“ if he had not been king, then Gungnir wouldn't have worked for him.

As it was, apparently Loki had been impersonating Odin for... however long it had been. (Bruce was torn between being suitably scandalised โ€“ an evil villain on the throne of the golden kingdom, Thor's kingdom! โ€“ and reluctantly amused: it did sound like a comedic situation, if you completely disregarded the actual people in the scenario, and just took it as a trickster impersonating a king without anyone noticing. He was assuming no one knew โ€“ because surely no one would stand for that? That was the impression he had got about Loki and his standing with these people from Thor, anyway.)

Thor had seemed to think that Loki had stolen the throne, that he wasn't actually recognised as King of Asgard.

Thor, Bruce came to find out, had been wrong.

When questioned, Thor had said Gungnir shouldn't have worked for Loki: he had stolen the throne, therefore he had never been recognised as king by the power of Asgard, or something along those lines. (Did this place run on magic, or something? Thor hadn't really gone into it. But that didn't really make sense: Thor had always seemed pretty disdainful of magic, referring to it as 'cheap tricks', or at least that had been Bruce's impression of his views โ€“ especially in regards to his own brother, as that was usually how the subject came up on the rare occasions that it did back with the other Avengers. So how could Asgard rely on magic? Hmm... There was much he had yet to find out about this realm, and he was getting increasingly curious, it had to be said.)

Having been overheard when they were speaking of this, a council member who was nearby at the time informed him that Loki had been king before, when Thor had been banished and Odin had been in the Odinsleep (did... these guys name their naps after themselves? Bruce did not understand this culture at all...) therefore he was recognised by Gungnir and the power of Asgard as King.

Thor had replied dismissively, stating that Loki had stolen the throne then as well.

That had earned him a disbelieving eyebrow, and the tart response that the Council and the Queen had named Loki Regent King, had put him on the throne in the absence of Thor and as the next heir in line by law and Odin's own decree.

Thor had refuted ย that by telling them that he had been informed that Loki had stolen the throne.

When asked by whom, he had replied with Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, backed up by Heimdall later โ€“ the guy who apparently 'saw all'. Honestly, Bruce wasn't sure what to think of that either (the thought of some Peeping Tom able to see him at any time... creepy. Especially for a man who had spent a significant amount of time hiding from governments and such...).

That reply had earned him a scoff, and a: "There you go, then."

As if that explained everything. (As if that explained anything.)

Bruce hadn't understood. Neither, it seemed, had Thor, but the Council member had already moved off to help a wounded warrior who had just come stumbling into the entrance hall they were in.

Exchanging a confused look, Thor and Bruce had moved off to keep working.

***

Bruce eventually found himself helping out in the infirmary. Although a lot of the equipment was unknown to him, bandages and how to treat superficial injuries were at least something he knew and could do, having gained much experience in his various travels, and some more when working with the Avengers to hunt down and retrieve Loki's sceptre.

He worked for hours, seeing neither of the princes nor Valkyrie, who was helping out elsewhere as well.

By the time he was sent off, most of the injuries having been dealt with for the time being โ€“ the ones that could be saved and were worth treating, that is: there was another room where they were treating the more seriously injured people, and another still where they were laying out the bodies โ€“ Bruce was in danger of falling asleep where he stood.

One of the young healers took pity on him, and came over to tell him to stop working and get some rest, and that she would help him see about finding somewhere to lay down for a while.

...Was she young? It was hard to tell with these guys. Was it just royals like Thor and Loki who lived for a long time โ€“ then again, Valkyrie was older than either of those two, must be if she knew of Hela personally but they hadn't... โ€“ or were the ordinary lay-people of the race long-lived as well?

It was an interesting biological puzzle, but Bruce was far too sleepy to give much consideration to it just yet.

The healer โ€“ Sygin, she had introduced herself as, and did he know that name from somewhere? He had looked up Norse myths back when he had met Thor, but had been informed that there was very little basis on fact in those, so hadn't bothered learning too much about them โ€“ led him to what he was informed were Thor's chambers, and told him to get some rest.

Had he been a little more with it, he would have perhaps questioned why she was letting him stay in the Crown Prince's chambers, why she could even have the audacity to do a thing like that. (And without even consulting with Thor first to check and see if it was alright, as he would later come to learn.)

As it was, Thor was Bruce's friend, and he really wasn't used to viewing him as a prince or royalty or really anything of the sort, so it didn't really register to him.

Nor did the woman's smirk as she opened the door to show him in, all the way through to when she showed herself out.

Oh, that bed looked glorious... But it was Thor's, he couldn't take Thor's bed, the man would need it himself... He could take the floor. Or โ€“ hang on, there was a couch over there, that would work too...

Well... Maybe he'd just rest his eyes for a moment... Yes, he'd lie down briefly โ€“ just to test it out, you understand, it truly did look divine โ€“ and then make himself a little nest or something on the floor. There was bound to be spare bedding around here somewhere, wasn't there?

Bruce was out within seconds of his body sinking into the covers, not even bothering to climb underneath them.

***

When he awoke the next morning, Bruce was mortified to find that he was still in Thor's bed โ€“ and that it had very obviously been rather a lot more than a couple of minutes he had been lying there.

He was additionally surprised to find Thor fast asleep next to him.

He didn't have time to dwell on this, however, as Loki came striding into the room moments after he had woken, showing little more than a raised eyebrow and a slight smirk at Bruce's presence (and Thor's arm slung over his waist, holy shit, there was so much blackmail material here for the evil god Bruce thought, slightly hysterically in his still sleep hazed mind) before turfing Thor unceremoniously out of the bed and onto the floor.

Right. Brothers.

(Bruce had never really considered what that meant. He only knew Loki as a bad guy after all, the ultimate evil so to speak. He knew he was Thor's adopted little brother, but somehow he โ€“ and the other Avengers, he was sure โ€“ had never really thought about it. Had never really considered what that meant. Thor was good, Loki was bad and needed to be stopped and contained at all costs if ever he was out and about. That was just the basic facts of life, and it had never been any other way, not to them, nor would it be.

He had never considered that maybe the brothers had once been close. That they had a literal millennium of experiences together, and that Loki was only recently a 'bad guy'. Well... Actively working against Thor? He wasn't too sure, he had a feeling they had always been at cross purposes.

Thor had told that story of his brother stabbing him when they were children, after all... And Loki had stolen the throne from Thor... Then again, that council member yesterday had said that Loki hadn't stolen the throne, but Thor seemed pretty adamant that he had...

No matter. He supposed it was kind of irrelevant now anyway. Loki was definitely an enemy... Er, most of the time?

Still: he couldn't help but wonder now. What was it like for Thor to have to fight his baby brother?

What had it been like for him when that enemy had died? In his arms, by the way Thor had told the story. Heroically.

Bruce was less than pleased as he was realising the implications of Loki being alive and well now. How could the bastard do that to his brother?! To Thor?!)

Thor tumbled to the floor as Loki tossed him out of the bed, and awoke with a loud curse, rubbing his head where he had banged it on the stone floor (and yikes, cold feet in the morning much?) and glaring balefully up at Loki who looked โ€“ rather predictably โ€“ entirely unrepentant.

"You're needed in the Council Chamber."

Thor groaned, and scowled at his brother. "Brother, I'm exhausted, I need a rest โ€“ "

"Brother, you're to be the bloody king. Grow up. Time to step up โ€“ Odin fucked up, congratulations, his mess is now yours to clean up. And that means starting by appeasing the people, organising clean up, organising rites for the dead, being a bloody leader... You know this. Come on, you managed yesterday, you can do it again today." Bruce was shocked at how Loki's tone softened towards the end, as if he was honestly sympathetic to Thor's position.

But at the same time absolutely not sympathetic in the slightest. Yeah, there was some history there, and, though Bruce was burning with curiosity, he didn't question it.

Thor sighed, looking suddenly young and oh so weary as he ran his hand through his closely shorn hair. And man, was it still weird to see him sporting that look... Not to mention the missing eye and new patch he had found... wherever yesterday.

(Oh God, it wasn't one of his recently dead father's, was it? Gross...)

"I know I must be king, but..."

"No. No buts. You turned down the throne before, you do not have that option anymore. As much as it is a relief you have finally seemed to realise some of the responsibility that comes with being king rather than just the glory and feasts you seemed to think it was for our entire lives, you don't have the option of running away anymore.

"Odin is dead. I cannot continue to rule in his stead. And no, before you start accusing me without proof yet again, I did not steal the throne, nor have I ever even wanted it โ€“ as I have told you before.

"With Odin dead, the throne falls to you. Unfortunately, there are additional complications with Hela, but you can handle that later. For now, you need to focus on rebuilding, on continuing to assess the damages from the battle to the people and to the kingdom. Today you'll also need to contact the other realms."

"What, why?"

Loki looked at him in disbelief. "Because, as unwillingly as it is on their parts, Asgard is still 'Ruler' of the Nine Realms and we have just had an unprecedented attack? Not to mention this is the second such incursion into Asgard's borders in recent years,"

"Third, if you count the Frost Giants," Thor interjected, glowering balefully at the other man as he clambered to his feet, spine cracking as he stretched making Bruce wince as he sat on the edge of the (ridiculously large and ridiculously comfortable) bed.

"I do not count the Jรถtun," Loki skipped over that blithe fully (whatever it was...), and continued on. "The other Realms do not wish to be subjugated, surely you realise that? I have worked on bettering Asgard's relationship with them, but, as I have had to do so as Odin, it has been slow going.

"He's hardly liked or even trusted elsewhere."

"Loki, Father brought peace to the Realms..."

Loki looked at him in disbelief. "You're still spouting that rubbish? Did you learn nothing from Hela? Thor, it has never been a secret that Odin brought 'peace' by conquering the other realms: as in, subjugated them forcefully, and violently. We did not know precisely how violently, but I'd say Hela is a pretty good indicator, no?

"Tell me, why the Hel would anyone like him, or Asgard for that matter? If you still do not understand, you'll find parallels in the history of your precious Midgard. I'd recommend looking up the British Empire from recent history, for example, and how they came to power, along with how people outside themselves viewed them, and oftentimes still view them today."

Which... Bruce had never really considered that.

He had heard from Thor and general reading (Norse mythology surely couldn't all be complete crap, could it? They had at least got names and powers, so perhaps there was more in there as well...) that Asgard was supreme ruler or some such of the 'Nine Realms' (whatever nine they were, some sources seemed to vary and he had never asked Thor to specify โ€“ and why hadn't he? He was curious, of course, but perhaps it had just never seemed all that important...) of course, but he had never really heard much about why that was.

He supposed that conquering people and calling it 'peace' historically wasn't the greatest thing to do...

But hey, since when was Loki the voice of reason, or against violence?! It made no sense whatsoever.

"What, the Midgard you wish to rule?" Thor mocked, receiving an eye roll in return.

"You know, it's like speaking to a particularly dense wall, always has been with you. How many times do I have to tell you? I do not want a throne.

"Why would I? Unlike you, I actually have an understanding of what that entails, and I am well aware that it is not something I want for myself."

"You wanted to rule Earth!" Bruce blurted, not meaning to break in but unable to keep his silence any longer.

Oops.

Loki turned his cool green-blue gaze on him now, and arched one eyebrow. "I did not, actually. And before you start going off on how I supposedly view Midgardians as 'inferior' or some such, consider this: I have been visiting Midgard for centuries. And not once have I tried to conquer your people. Not until... after. And, as it appears to have escaped both your notice, I was hardly myself at the time."

Thor snorted at that. "Sure, yes. Then who were you, might I ask?" He mocked, "Can't face up to your own actions, Brother?"

Loki's voice was colder than ice when he replied, hard and unyielding and utterly emotionless, while very obviously thoroughly Done With This Shit. "I'd like to see how well you hold up after falling through the Void for months immediately after having your entire life be revealed as a monumental lie with no support, dying many times over, having your body and mind repeatedly ripped apart, and then reformed with the ideals of a bloodthirsty Mad Man. Not to mention having another in your head pulling the strings in that so-called 'invasion' and being under the influence of a maliciously twisted Infinity Stone.

"Get your arse to the Council Chamber, now."

And with that, he turned and strode furiously from the room.

Thor's face was stark white beneath his apparent tan (where had he been before all this, anyway? Bruce didn't even know when his friend had left Earth, come to think of it... Man, they had a lot to catch up on), and he looked like he either couldn't believe what he was hearing, but more like he didn't want to believe it.

Bruce just blinked, too stunned to really do anything.

Was Loki... was Loki talking about mind control? He knew of course that torture could change you, but... But there had been no indications that he hadn't been acting of his own free will, he had been fine when leading the Invasion -!

Unwillingly, Bruce's mind replayed some footage he had seen of Loki's initial breach of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base using the Tesseract.

He had been far more focused on the violence and sheer terror of Holy shit an alien is coming to invade us and kill us all! at the time to really bother with much else. But all the same, it had struck the doctor in him at the time... Loki really hadn't looked well back then.

He had brushed it off โ€“ he had looked... well, not good, but better when Bruce had seen him in person on the helicarrier, mostly just crazy. Bruce had brushed it off as a reaction to travelling via Tesseract from across the galaxy or wherever it was he had come from (not Asgard, he was pretty sure), and a general lack of personal grooming. After all, no one else had commented โ€“ not even his own brother, and surely he would have known?

But what if that hadn't been the case?

And Thor โ€“ Thor had said his brother was smart. That didn't at all line up with what Bruce had seen.

Could... could there have been a reason for all the odd things that had struck him? All the inconsistencies he had heard between the brother Thor had occasionally spoken of (though not often, admittedly: the Avengers hadn't exactly been willing to listen to tales of the crazy murderer, had they...), and the crazy genocidal maniac Bruce had met?

No โ€“ no, Bruce was not about to feel sympathy for the guy.

Clearly that was all just a ploy to shift away the blame for his own actions. Bruce wasn't about to believe him, nor to look any deeper into that.

Thor had said his brother was a liar, after all.

And really, what kind of monster faked their own death and let their own brother believe them dead for so long? No, Loki deserved no sympathy, and he would get none from Bruce.

Still, no matter how much he shoved it away, the thought lingered in the back of Bruce's mind...

I wonder...

***

He didn't ask anyone about anything Loki had let slip earlier.

Instead, he headed back to the Infirmary โ€“ only taking a wrong turn four times, before finally sucking it up and asking for directions, as mortifying as that was when these people had far more important things to be worrying about than his lack of knowledge, like having just been invaded... โ€“ to make himself useful once more.

It was far less chaotic and urgent than it had been the day before, but he still stayed well away from the machinery โ€“ if it could even be classed as machinery.

Honestly, as averse as he was to the word as a scientist, Bruce would have to admit that a lot of what he saw around the infirmary of Asgard had to be magic.

He found Sygin again quite by accident, who smirked at him and asked sweetly how he had enjoyed his night in the prince's bed.

The way she asked it could have been entirely innocent, but the mirthful glint in her eye told him that she was well aware of the innuendo implied in her question, and was purposefully trying to make him uncomfortable.

Bruce wasn't sure if he liked her or not.

Still, he found himself sticking close to her, asking questions about Asgard while they worked and finding her a receptive listener and willing to answer him.

She was an engaging woman, with a quick wit and a wicked sense of humour even in these dark times, but he found there was a darkness to that humour as well, a certain jadedness in some of her answers and a well-honed anger (and long-held) in her deep brown eyes.

She was certainly striking, Bruce realised as he spent more and more time with her. Though she was beautiful to his own cultures tastes, with long hair and soft features and eyes that seemed to see deep into his soul (they were quite disconcerting eyes at times, he was finding, much to his discomfort) and a truly remarkable figure if the hints from the clothing she wore were anything to go by, he found that she grew more attractive once you began to get to know her.

Truly, she was a forceful personality.

He had asked several general questions so far: what she did in the castle (she was usually occupied as a healer), were there many healers here, why were all the healers that he had seen women (magic was a 'female' art apparently, and therefore obviously no 'man' would ever sully himself to learn it โ€“ said with no small amount of disdain and mockery, her feelings on that particular view clear), what did the men do then (being a warrior was apparently a male art, with very few females being granted access to those holiest of esteemed ranks... yeah, Sygin was pretty disdainful of her own people, he was coming to see โ€“ not that he could really blame her, not after hearing this. But if this was all she had known living on Asgard... how would she know any different as to even be disdainful of it at all? He wasn't sure.)

Now, however, his curiosity was getting the better of him, and he couldn't help but ask about some of what Thor โ€“ and Loki โ€“ had mentioned before.

"Hey, so, you've worked here a while, right?"

"Many years, yes," If she wasn't fooled by his casual tone, she didn't let on.

"So, were you around when Thor was banished to Ear โ€“ um, to Midgard?"

She shot him a sharp look, but nodded. "I was..." She said slowly. "But surely, if Thor is your friend as you say he is, you can ask him about this?"

"Well, I have. See... Well, um, apparently some of what Thor thought was true... uh, isn't? Just, we were talking yesterday, and someone โ€“ a council member, I think? I dunno who they were โ€“ overheard and said it was wrong. And I just... I'm curious, you know? Thor didn't know what was going on back here of course, and it might be that the information he got might... might not have been... entirely accurate?"

She had stopped sorting the bandages they were working on together now, and turned to assess him with an arched eyebrow. "And what 'information' is this that you would like me to clear up for you?"

"Uh, well... Thor said Loki stole the throne?"

Sygin immediately rolled her eyes, scorn flashing across her pretty features in a suddenly ugly look. "And I suppose the Idiots Four told him that."

"Uhm... who?"

"Lady Sif and the Warriors Three," It was said in a mocking tone โ€“ clearly, there was no love lost there. He wondered if it was personal.

Why had he even asked this woman? It wasn't as if she could give him any inside knowledge, was it? After all, to know anything worthwhile, you would need to be fairly close to a member of the royal family, surely?

Then again, just a general impression of what had gone on over those few short days โ€“ by someone who spent a good deal of time in the palace, at that โ€“ would be an adequate starting point, it had to be said. Get a feel for what the people maybe thought and had felt about that whole situation.

"Er โ€“ yes. Yes, them. I think they're the ones who went to get Thor on Earth?"

"Mm, and committed treason to do it, not to mention dereliction of duty by abandoning their posts in a time of war."

Bruce looked up startled at that. "What?!" Well that didn't make sense... That was not at all the impression he had got of the group from Thor.

Sygin looked at him with something verging on pity. "Did Thor really never realise that? I knew he was a self-absorbed idiot, but I would have thought even he would have realised that directly disobeying their king's command is, by definition, treason."

"How... how did they disobey his command? Odin's command?"

"Yes, Odin โ€“ and then Loki when he was King. After all, Loki couldn't just undo what Odin had done, it would not have gone over well at all. Especially not when the old fool woke up. He had to do what was best for Asgard, and that was not bringing Thor back. If he had, he would have been committing treason as well.

"I suppose I should explain," She added, offering a slight smile at his perplexed look. "Thor was not ready to be king. Loki knew this โ€“ many of us knew this, but we are not exactly listened to around here, and neither was Loki, despite being Prince. Many would just accuse him of being jealous, of wanting the throne for himself when that is far from the truth."

"How can you possibly know that?" Bruce demanded, unable to help himself. "The guy's a psychopath! He wants any throne, by the sounds of it!"

Sygin fixed him with a cold look. "I am well aware that Loki attacked Midgard, but unlike you, I am aware of why. And believe me when I tell you, Loki does not want a throne โ€“ not then, and even less so now."

"But how would you know?" Bruce continued, unwilling to let this slide in the face of what he thought was probably just loyalty or something to a member of her nobility. (But hadn't Thor made it seem as if Loki was not well seen even here? Why would anyone be loyal to him? Even without that not being seen well, why would anyone want to be loyal to him anyway... Bag of Cats. Bag of cats, he had to remember the bag of cats...)

Sygin scowled at him. "I have known Loki for centuriesยธ Banner. He is an old... friend. Not only did he help teach me magic and was an excellent teacher, but he has also long been a personal friend. I know Loki, and I know what I am talking about because we spoke of such things a little during those days.

"There was... a lot going on with him, and when the Queen made him regent king..." Here she broke off, snorting bitterly. "Honestly, I have no idea what the woman was thinking. Here her son is, clearly in the midst of a mental breakdown because he has just discovered that his entire life has been a lie, his so-called father has just told him he is nothing but a tool and that he should have just died as a babe and she goes: 'Oh, you're suffering? Never mind, forget about all that โ€“ you're king now, yay!' I mean... what?!" Clearly, Sygin felt strongly about this.

Bruce had no idea what she was talking about.

"How was his entire life a lie?"

Sygin stiffened, then turned to fix him with a cold look. "That is not my place to say. Loki may tell you if he wishes, but I wouldn't hold your breath. From what I've observed of you, you are hardly trustworthy when it comes to him. Loki is not a man who trusts easily โ€“ he has been betrayed and let down far too many times for him to be otherwise โ€“ and he is not likely to trust you of all people."

Him of all people?! What was that supposed to mean?! Bruce may not be a phenomenally good person (his mental health and general feelings of self worth were too poor to ever even vaguely consider himself that) but he was still an Avenger โ€“ he was one of the good guys by definition! Why shouldn't he be trusted?!

But then again, he mused, wincing as he checked his own ego โ€“ Christ, what was wrong with him? Those kinds of thoughts were not common, and he did not like when such things arose. But then again, Loki had been โ€“ still was? โ€“ a villain. Why would he trust Bruce?

...Was he still a villain?

...Even more concerning, had he ever really been one in the first place? Had his words about possible mind control and heavily implied torture actually been the honest truth?

No, Bruce wasn't about to entertain that as a possibility.

It was simply too far out of the realm of possibility.

(It is very hard to shake off a viewpoint you have held for years, even if shown a multitude of evidence proving that the opposite of what you believe is true. There are many, many examples of this proven throughout humanity, and it was equally so for Bruce here and now.

As much as he prided himself on having an open mind โ€“ he was a scientist, after all, he had to be open to new ideas and seeing multiple possibilities โ€“ this wasn't registering in that mindset. After all: he had met Loki as a villain. Everything he had heard about the man, everyone he had spoken to, had made him out to be a villain.

That he was getting another side of the story now that in some ways directly contradicted that long held viewpoint... Well. It was hard, to say the least.)

"Um... Uh, ok then. So... So Thor was banished โ€“ hey, why was he banished? He said he was foolish, that he courted war in his youth, but โ€“"

Sygin let out a loud snort at that, genuine (though jaded, it looked like) amusement thawing her cold exterior for a moment. "In his youth?" She chortled. "It was only two or so years before he met you!"

Bruce grimaced, but knew he couldn't really contradict that. (Honestly, that line of Thor's had sort of bugged him too. It really wasn't his 'youth' if it had been at the time he was on Earth, after all โ€“ especially not with how long these guys lived! Even Bruce wouldn't class his first transformation into the Hulk as in his 'youth' regardless of how it felt like a lifetime โ€“ or several โ€“ ago now, and he was a measly human!)

"Er โ€“ yeah, right. But what happened?"

Sygin was silent for a moment, hands mechanically sorting bandages again as she apparently thought over whether or not to answer him.

Eventually, she sighed and looked round at him. She looked tired, he thought. "You recall I said how Thor was not ready to be king? That Loki knew this, but that no one listened, insisted he was just jealous?"

"Yes?"

"Well, he knew that Thor would plunge us into war within a matter of weeks should he be crowned king, and he resolved to do something to stop that. He thought that Thor still had much to learn โ€“ and really, I think even Thor will admit that now โ€“ and that Odin was rushing into things."

"Thor wouldn't plunge you into war so quickly, surely!" Sure, his friend was hot-headed, but to start a war! No, he couldn't really see it... (Bruce did not have the context within which to view Thor as a royal, and as someone very much capable of starting wars. As he had thought before, he saw Thor as a friend โ€“ not as a royal.)

"Oh, he did prove Loki wrong with that," Sygin replied almost lightly, and Bruce felt himself relax slightly, vindicated. "He managed it in a matter of hours, and that was with his coronation thwarted โ€“ delayed, mind, not cancelled."

Um... WHAT?!

"...How?"

"I mentioned Loki was planning to derail his coronation?"

"Yeah...?"

Christ, these guys were so messed up...

"Well, he did so by allegedly sneaking in a small number โ€“ less than half a dozen โ€“ of Frost Giants into the Palace. He knew they would be killed, but we have all been raised to view them as the enemy, as nothing but animals โ€“ mindless beasts. But he knew that as soon as they entered the Vaults, the alarm would sound and it was timed to halt the coronation. Not that anyone can prove it was him, but... well, I have my suspicions โ€“ as I'm sure many others do and did.

"That, of course, all worked out. The Jรถtun โ€“ Frost Giants," She added, at his confused look (and he was very carefully not thinking about what she had revealed about how they were viewed by the Asgardians โ€“ he knew, after all, nothing about the โ€“ species? people? โ€“ himself) "Entered the Vaults, and were killed by the Destroyer โ€“ the guardian of the Vaults. Thor's coronation was called off while the alarm was investigated. He and Loki accompanied Odin to the Vaults, and they saw who had breached the city.

"They did not know it was Loki, of course.

"I had known Loki was planning something, but not what. He did not discuss it with me โ€“ what he was doing was treason, after all, even though he was genuinely doing it for the good of Asgard, and he did not want me to be implicated. We both knew Odin would have no qualms about executing me if he thought I was even the slightest bit involved."

"Executing you?!"

"Yes?" She glanced over at his startled face, and snorted, once more bitterly amused. "What, you didn't buy into that rubbish about him being some kind of benevolent, merciful being did you? Please."

Which... Yeah, alright, what had been revealed by Hela did paint Odin in quite a different light than how Thor had always spoken about his father.

Not that Thor had really spoken much to Bruce about what he had learned in the past couple of days, of course. There hadn't been much opportunity for that.

Bruce had seen the grand hall or whatever it was called though โ€“ the one with the apparently newly uncovered ceiling paintings depicting vicious, bloody battles and Odin and Hela subjugating the realms beneath their feet with no mercy.

...Yeah, Odin was a swell guy by the sounds of it.

"Uh, alright then. But you think it might not have been Loki?"

She gave him a wry grin at that. "No one has ever proved it, and no one will ever be able to prove it. So no, I think there is a chance it might not have been Loki.

"After all," She added, with an undeniable glint in her eye. "Loki was there in full view of everyone the entire time. Why should he be more suspect than anyone else who was there that day? How could he possibly have done it when he was there at the ceremony the entire time?"

...Yeah, Loki had definitely done it.

"So, what happened when the โ€“ sorry, Frost Giants? Jรถtun? ...er, the intruders, were dead?"

"Thor threw a temper tantrum, of course. I was cleaning up the main hall at the time, I saw the argument."

Convenient. Alright then.

Why a healer would be cleaning, he didn't bother to ask.

"He and his little friends were there โ€“ Volstagg continuing to pig out, as per usual. Have you had the dubious pleasure yet?"

"Er... Thor's friend? Big guy? Red hair?"

"Yes, that's him."

"I think I saw him yesterday, but I didn't treat his wounds at all."

"Well, I'm sure Thor will want to introduce you to those idiots at some point. Anyway, it's just the princes and the Idiots left of the party, though it was fairly obvious Loki didn't want to be there suffering the idiocy." Yeah, clearly this woman did not like Thor's friends... Honestly, she didn't seem to have an overly positive view of Thor either, and hadn't he been loved and admired by all of his people? That was the impression Bruce had always got from his friend...

"So what happened?"

"Thor decided to upend a table. Which, thank you ever so much, extra cleaning to do."

He what? Jesus... Apparently Thor's grand proclamations of growth after his time on Midgard were not, in fact, exaggerated if that was the kind of thing that was just admitted to... offhandedly when it came to the crown prince.

Or was that usual Asgardian behaviour? (Was there another word for Asgardian? He didn't know, but it was kinda unwieldy... Humans weren't known as 'Earthians' after all. Then again, he had heard them referred to as Midgardians... Not overly imaginative, God he hoped there was some other name... Getting side tracked! Back on track, Banner.)

"He then somehow convinced himself it would be a grand idea for the small handful of them to invade Jรถtunheim โ€“ the realm of the Frost Giants โ€“ so that they would be made to 'pay for their treachery', or some such nonsense."

"Wait, just a few of them?"

"Mm-hm. At least they were wary at first โ€“ Volstagg, Fandral, Hogunn and Sif. But he convinced them eventually. And, of course, he dragged Loki along as well. Loki of course ensured that Odin would be informed โ€“ the AllFather had, after all, specifically told Thor not to retaliate. And let's be honest here, Loki has always had a far better understanding of how politics and diplomacy and just common sense works.

"Thor, on the other hand, didn't even seem to grasp the fact that what he was doing was a declaration of war."

"Well, didn't Loki want to prove he wasn't ready?" Really, all of this did sound like it was Loki's fault...

"For the benefit of Asgard, you fool! Does Thor actually starting a war sound like it would benefit Asgard? Loki did what he did so Thor wouldn't be able to do that!"

"Well, clearly, his plan backfired."

Sygin scoffed angrily. "It went wrong, admittedly. He asked me โ€“ he knew I was there of course, and we have long not needed to physically speak to communicate โ€“ to inform the guards. We both knew Odin would not take it seriously coming from a woman, nor a magic woman, nor especially anyone who had previously been involved with Loki โ€“ assuming, of course, that the old man would have remembered or even registered that in the first place."

Wait โ€“ involved? Why did the names Loki and Sygin together sound so familiar... Oh, he really needed to brush up on his Norse mythology again! Even if most of it was untrue.

"So you told the guards?"

"I did. I don't know what delayed them though โ€“ Heimdall didn't tell Odin until they had already left either, and I know Loki had told him to alert Odin as well in case my message didn't get through. Which it apparently didn't, and I still don't know why.

"Anyway, they went, and Odin eventually went after them and pulled them back. No one really knows what exactly happened between them, only that when they returned to the palace Odin announced that Thor had been banished, and that no one was to go after him until he proved himself worthy and returned himself."

"Oh. So you don't know what happened when he went to... wherever it is the Frost Giants were?"

The grin she shot him at this was decidedly wicked, and yes, he could see how Loki โ€“ God of Mischief, wasn't it? โ€“ could perhaps like this woman... "I didn't say that..."

The tale she spun was... startling, admittedly. How she knew, he didn't ask โ€“ perhaps Loki had told her, if they truly were friends, and had talked as she had hinted at earlier?

But Thor basically invading another realm over the actions of a few, looking to 'slaughter all the monsters' as Sygin put it, how he had been about to leave but then spectacularly over-reacted when one of them called him 'Princess'...

Well. Was this true, or was she exaggerating? He didn't know what to think, but it didn't really sound like the friend he knew โ€“ did it?

She mentioned that something had happened during the fight โ€“ something that had thrown Loki off, distracted him, shattered his world...

And hadn't Loki himself said earlier that he had found out around that time that his entire life had been a lie?

She was careful not to tell him exactly what he had found out, but he still found himself โ€“ utterly against his own better judgement โ€“ feeling a little sorry for the guy as the tale went on.

"So Odin, with spectacularly bad timing as always, fell into the OdinSleep as he was finally forced to admit the truth to Loki. When he was safely deposited in his healing chambers, the Queen... Honestly, I don't know what she was thinking. Maybe she was thinking that it would distract him, that he wouldn't have time to dwell on it while he was king, and yet again having to be the one cleaning up the mess Thor had made?

"Anyway, she made Loki king. Really, she should have announced that in front of the court, not just some of the Council โ€“ maybe then the Idiots wouldn't have been so surprised, and maybe they wouldn't have made up that bullshit about him stealing the throne...

"But yes, she left him to it. Preferred to lock herself in her chambersย  and hold the King's hand while her son struggled to keep peace and pacify an incredibly volatile 'peace' treaty after Thor's actions โ€“ all while having found out something huge from the end of the war that caused that treaty that changed everything, and not just for him personally.

"And knowing he could tell no one." She fell quiet for a moment, looking troubled as she stared into the distance, eyes focused on something he would never be able to see.

She shook herself out of it after a few moments, and continued briskly on. "Anyway, like I said, the peace treaty was volatile, and Loki's mind was... Well. He's a seidmann โ€“ a magic user, and a bloody powerful one too. How much do you know about magic and those who can wield it?"

"Uh... Not much, I suppose. Thor always made it sound more like tricks, though, not really useful for much."

Sygin let out a loud, derisive snort at this, and Bruce once again felt like he had said something wrong. "He would. Oaf. Needless to say, Banner, whatever Thor has told you about magic? Forget it. Forget all of it. That imbecile has no understanding of it whatsoever, and even less respect.

"Not really useful for much? Have you any idea how many times over he and his idiotic little friends would have been dead if it wasn't for Loki's magic 'tricks' saving their asses? Not that he ever got any thanks or acknowledgement for it, of course.

"In case it's escaped your notice, the warriors of Asgard are morons. Any solution to any problem that is not running wildly at it with a big weapon is viewed as 'cowardly' and 'weak' โ€“ and yes, I am including all problems in that. Not just fights. They prefer to use their fists rather than their words.

"Do not ask a stereotypical warrior about magic, and if you do, do not take their word as law.

"Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes.

"Seidr โ€“ magic โ€“ users, we have a magical core. We need to know ourselves, really know ourselves, have a strong sense of identity to maintain that core and literally keep our sanity.

"If those fundamental beliefs about ourselves change, or get disproved? Well, it has detrimental effects to say the least.

"So when Loki found out his entire life, everything he thought he knew about himself had all been a lie?

"His core shattered.

"He was quite literally clinging to his sanity, and the Queen decided to put him on the throne. His entire world had been upended, he was severely injured and could tell no one and she thought that was a good idea.

"She was a witch herself, you know. She knew the dangers of keeping a secret like that from a magical child. She's the one who taught Loki about it! Yet she still lied to him anyway.

"I don't know what she was thinking โ€“ if she even was."

"...You weren't kidding about him having a breakdown then,"

"Hm. He held together remarkably well actually, all things considered. Then the Idiots Four came to the AllFather, demanding he allow Thor to return. Demanding, mind you. Of their king. They were rather surprised to find Loki on the throne from what I hear, though how they could have missed that I have no idea. It wasn't exactly a secret, the whole palace and a good part of the town knew by that point even if they hadn't seen him for themselves. Too busy plotting and commiserating over getting Thor back from his banishment, no doubt."

"So they asked Loki to let Thor come back?" There was a lot here Bruce wasn't liking โ€“ if any of this core stuff was true, no wonder Loki was a bag of cats and so different from the brother Thor had spoken of... (Not that he had much information to go on about all this core and magic business, and as a scientist he was very interested in getting some more... Magic couldn't possibly be real, right? Obviously, there had to be some rational, scientific explanation... Then again, he did turn into the Hulk, but even that could be explained โ€“ partially, anyway โ€“ by the gamma radiation he had been exposed to...)

"Demanded. And of course threw a temper tantrum and committed treason when he said he couldn't."

"Couldn't, or wouldn't?" The latter sounded far more likely to Bruce. After all, with Thor gone, Loki had the throne. Something he had clearly wanted for himself. Why else would he sabotage his brother's coronation like that? Sure, for the 'good of Asgard', but Bruce didn't entirely buy that.The Loki he knew from both his own experiences back in New York and from things Thor had said about him was far more likely to have done it out of petty jealousy and a lust for power than out of any sort of noble cause he convinced other people of.

No, he would be taking this woman's account with a hefty pinch of salt.

It was interesting, though. And far more detail than he had ever gotten on these events โ€“ events Thor hadn't known about himself, not having been there, so hadn't been able to fill them all in on beyond the seemingly little his own friends had told him โ€“ not to mention a far different view point.

"Banner, what exactly do you think would have happened had Loki been able to, and had returned Thor? Odin didn't usually Sleep for long, and though he had put it off that time, he would awaken at some point soon enough. Do you really think he would have been pleased that Loki had let Thor come back, had undone his own punishment for him for slaughtering hundreds over a childish insult and restarting a war? A devastating war, by all accounts the last time. You don't think he wouldn't have just sent him straight back again, but probably punished worse?

"...Then again, Thor was his golden boy and favoured son. Honestly, I'm surprised he bothered to punish him in the first place, he never had before."

"Well, he'd never killed... sorry, how many did you say?!" This didn't sound like Thor at all. Honestly, it sounded far more like Loki, stirring things up and starting wars, taking the lives of innocents... Yeah, far more like Loki if you asked Bruce. Maybe he had lied when they had returned from... Frost Giant land, and put all the blame on Thor? Yeah, that seemed more likely... But then, why hadn't Thor said anything to their father? Perhaps Loki had prevented it... Yeah, that was probably what had happened โ€“ right?

"Three hundred or so? Yes, I think that was it. I don't know if there was ever an official count we were informed of."

Three... Three hundred?! Nope, Thor would never do that!

"...Well... Well, he'd never attacked people like that before!"

Sygin stared at him. "...Banner," She began slowly. "What exactly do you think Thor did with his life before meeting you? You have heard him talk, right? Haven't you noticed an... I don't know, pattern in his tales?!"

"Well there's a lot of quests, sure, and fighting for honour โ€“ "

"And what do you think that 'fighting for honour' or those 'quests' are to the people he is fighting?! By the Norns, Banner, don't you get it? Thor has spent his entire life starting fights for no good reason, slaughtering innocents. The only ones I've ever heard him speak of sparing their lives is you Midgardians, and I have no idea why he suddenly changed his tune on that. What the Hel happened in three days that Loki has been failing to make him understand for centuries?

"Oh yeah, and Loki? Your irredeemable 'villain'? Has spent his entire life trying to keep your precious 'hero' out of fights, and stopping him killing innocents. You haven't noticed the disdain Loki is treated with by the likes of Thor? That isn't new. Because Loki would prefer to use diplomacy to solve a problem, rather than just seeing who can hit the other harder, or come out alive in some stupid, pointless fight."

That... did not match up. At all.

Bruce didn't believe it. He couldn't believe it โ€“ it made no sense!

Sygin took one look at his face, and snorted. "Right, but of course you'll never believe that. Because you know oh so much better, having seen him for a scant few days if even where he was not in his right mind. Sure, whatever Banner. Just get back to work."

***

Bruce didn't see Thor again until later that night, when his friend came to find him.

He looked exhausted, and seemed to be looking to escape his duties for a while.

Bruce didn't mind, he was glad to get out of the medical wing and escape his own (voluntary though they were. He couldn't just sit back and do nothing after all, not when these people had so much to deal with).

He didn't know if he should bring up any of what Sygin had told him at all. Truthfully, he had been trying not to think about it as much as he possibly could.

It was hard not to, though.

But even if Thor had once killed people for fun โ€“ as she had seemed to be implying, he hadn't dared ask outright โ€“ he didn't anymore. Right? Certainly not on Earth, anyway. He tried to help, there. And they hadn't killed anyone on Sakaar, not on purpose at least. (He didn't know what had happened to those pilots who had tried to stop them leaving... He tried not to think about it.)

(There was a lot he was trying not to think about, but for Robert Bruce Banner this was nothing new.)

(Like just how many he must have killed as the Hulk in the past couple of years in that damn arena he had apparently been fighting for fun โ€“ sort of โ€“ in. That hadn't really sunk in yet, and part of him didn't really want it to. Another part of him felt sick with guilt at the very thought of it not sinking in.)

"Long day?" He asked as casually as he could as they walked side by side down yet another golden corridor. (Bruce was mildly concerned he would go blind at some point with all this gold. At least indoors there wasn't really as much sun to shine in and dazzle everyone. And honestly, there was a lot of stonework just embellished with gold โ€“ thank God the walls weren't solid gold, or anything... He had, admittedly, been mildly concerned that the whole place would be like that...)

Thor snorted beside him, and offered him a tired, rueful grin. "Indeed, my friend. How goes your work with the injured?"

"Well, I think most everyone with only minor wounds have been seen by now, and if they haven't already healed, then they're well on their way. I haven't been allowed to help with the more seriously injured which honestly, fair. I'm completely fine with that โ€“ I'd have no idea where to start with that machinery, I don't even know what most of it is." He admitted. Fleetingly, he thought again that Tony would have loved to get his hands on it, to take it apart and figure out how it worked.

Then probably rebuild and improve upon it, knowing the engineer. With a pang of longing, Bruce suddenly missed Earth very much. How was his 'Science Bro' doing, anyway? Sure, they had never exactly been close, but he was the one person on that team who could keep up with Bruce intellectually. Honestly, it had been a bit of a novelty to be around someone who Bruce himself couldn't keep up with at times. That man's brain was something else... As a biologist, he was very interested in how it worked, because from what he had seen it was not on the level of a normal person's, nor even someone like Bruce's own intellect.

He wondered how everything had turned out after the whole ULTRON disaster... But he hadn't been able to stick around, he had just needed to get away. Hell, he had stayed as the Hulk ย for two years because he had apparently wanted to get away that badly!

It wasn't as if he would be missed, or anything. If the team needed any heavy hitters, they still had Tony and Thor after all. And for Bruce, all of that was a mere few days ago. It didn't feel like literal years to him. God, he still wanted to stay away, while part of him desperately longed to at least return to his planet, if not to America let alone the Avengers.

Still... he probably owed the guy an apology or something for not speaking up when the others were all getting on his case about building a murder bot.

He hadn't really registered it at the time but... well, it had just been Tony they were blaming, hadn't it. Not Bruce. Despite the fact that both of them had been studying the sceptre, both of them had been working on ULTRON and then helped create the Vision (along with Thor for that one, of course. He had certainly made a dramatic enough entrance into that situation)... Huh. Well, maybe they had just been wary of the Hulk, he mused.

Not like it mattered much now anyway. What was done was done.

"I'm glad. And thank you," Thor added, glancing over at him as he led him into a large hall lined with tables. The atmosphere was subdued and tired, but clearly it was dinner time. "For helping our wounded. We lost many good men to Hela's attack..." He trailed off, frowning pensively. "It will take some time before our armies are back up to their usual force. And after the Dark Elves incursion some few years ago..."

"Well, at least your remaining people are safe now. Hey, I've been meaning to ask you,"

"Hmm?" Thor had taken a seat at the high table, having nodded to people as they passed, but not stopping to speak with anyone else. He began helping himself to some of the food laid out, and motioned for Bruce to do the same and take the chair beside him. Noticing that everyone else was serving themselves to what they wanted, Bruce picked up a spare plate and took some of what he was pretty sure would be a meat he had never had before. No matter, it looked fine enough โ€“ not too outlandish, thankfully. (He still retched a little at the thought of what he had thought were โ€“ admittedly strange tasting but more or less pleasant โ€“ noodles back on the Grandmaster's orgy ship...)

"Yeah. So, you know how Loki stopped Hela? And how it was a surprise?"

"Yes...?"

"Well, I was wondering, what was your plan originally? I mean, you said you had sent him off to do something. And clearly, he did not do what he was told to." That much, at least, had been obvious.

Thor had clearly had no more idea what was going on when Loki randomly showed up and the undead army dropped to the floor than anyone else had had.

"Ah yes. That. Well, truthfully, Friend Banner, I am thankful โ€“ this once โ€“ that he did disobey me. His solution worked out far better than my own, I must admit." Not that he would be admitting that to Loki, of course...

"Soo... what was your solution?" Bruce prompted when his friend did not immediately continue. He glanced around, noting that people stayed back from them. Some looked as if they may wish to approach, but for the most part it seemed that they were going to be left pretty much alone.

"...Ragnarok." Thor replied after a long moment, staring grimly down into his tankard. "I told him to incite Ragnarok."

"Right..." Bruce said, knowing vaguely what that was, but at the same time having no idea whatsoever. "Just... what exactly is that? I mean, I know it's supposed to be the end of the world in Norse mythology, but โ€“ "

"It is," Thor finally looked up and met his gaze, and Bruce felt a shiver go down his spine at the look in his eyes. ...eye. He only had one now. And dealing with the change that injury would definitely have caused on how he saw the world (...no pun intended whatsoever, this was so not the time for jokes! He thought to himself) while dealing with the fall out of his planet being invaded and being newly crowned king... Yeah. Poor guy was going through a lot.

Actually, had Thor been crowned? Was there supposed to be some sort of ceremony, or was it automatic? Huh, something to ask about later perhaps. He had mentioned his previous aborted coronation, after all...

"Ragnarok would have destroyed Asgard. It is what I was travelling to prevent prior to coming here and finding Loki as Odin." Thor continued โ€“ and right, there was that to find out about as well. No wonder Thor looked so tired, it couldn't be easy cleaning up the mess both Hela and Loki had left of his kingdom through their destructive ways. "It is said that Sultar, King of Muspelheim, would bring about Ragnarok: destroy the Realm. And that it would happen due to his Crown, that that was the key to unleashing Ragnarok upon the Realm. So I went on a quest to retrieve his crown, ensure that that could never come to pass."

Unbidden, Sygin's words about Thor and his 'quests' came into Bruce's mind. He quickly shoved them out again. Clearly, the fate of the guys Realm had been at stake. Of course he would do what he could to prevent it.

Hadn't that been the intention behind ULTRON when they started working on it, after all?

(And look how that had turned out... Bruce had no idea about the actual damaged done, having left directly after the battle. He had no idea how many people had died in that disaster...)

"I succeeded, of course. I retrieved the crown, and I brought it to Asgard, securing it in the Vaults. Loki knew this, I put a stop to his schemes as soon as I returned and I still had the crown upon my back. I secured it in the Vault before making Loki take us to where he had imprisoned Father."

Yep, wanting more of that story... Jeez, Loki sure sounded like a swell guy. There he was, almost feeling sympathy for the guy after all Sygin had told him, but then he hears that he's gone and done something like this. Not only had he stolen the throne from Odin (and Thor by default), but he had imprisoned the presumably frail old man, since he had died not long ago from what little Thor had told him on Sakaar.

"So what's the crown got to do with Loki starting Ragnarok for you?"

Thor was frowning thoughtfully again. "Before he died, Father said Hela drew her power from Asgard. It was one of the few things he was able to tell us about her. So... In order to defeat her, Asgard must be destroyed."

Well shit. Bruce had kinda been holding out a little hope that that had not been where Thor was going with all this.

"I told Loki to go to the Vault. To place Surtur's crown in the Eternal Flame, where the giant would be reborn and would bring about Ragnarok. Thus destroying Hela's power source and her along with it."

There was ringing silence for a moment, before Bruce spoke up. "Huh. Well, I'm really glad it didn't come to that."

Thor choked out a bitter, slightly hoarse chuckle that sounded suspiciously close to a sob. "As am I, Banner. As am I."

"So... How did he stop her? I mean, he didn't use the Eternal Flame, right? And I didn't see any giant rampaging around..." Well apart from himself as the Hulk. "Has he told you?" Bruce wouldn't put it past the trickster not to have bothered, to be honest. Anything to inconvenience Thor and give him more mess to clean up. Have him running around trying to find a solution while there was so much else, and far more important, going on.

"He did inform me, yes. You see, Hela's spell โ€“ the one to reanimate her army of the dead โ€“ that was powered by the Eternal Flame. So Loki figured... Well, why not extinguish it?"

Bruce blinked. Ooookay, then... Fair enough, yeah, that sounded logical enough he supposed given his non-existent knowledge of magic, but: "Huh. You know, with a name like 'the eternal flame', I assumed that would be pretty difficult..." He hinted, and Thor chuckled mirthlessly once more.

"Oh it is, believe me. In all my years I have never known it to extinguish. It has always been burning."

"And yet Loki managed it?"

"Eventually, yes. Using the Casket of Eternal Winters, apparently. I didn't even know he had that."

"The what now?"

"An ancient relic of immense power, taken from Jรถtunheim at the end of the last war. Within it it is said to contain the force of one thousand storms."

"Wind?"

"And ice. Forgive me, Banner, I had forgotten how little your realm knows: Jรถtunheim is a desolate land of ice and snow, inhabited by monstrous giants. The Casket was their greatest weapon. Father confiscated it at the end of the last war, as I said. All were forbidden to touch it. He said there was a great curse upon it, should anyone attempt to use it or even touch it. It has lain secure in the Vaults for over a thousand years." He snorted bitterly suddenly, giving a tired, jaded smile. It was a strange look on the usually boisterous god. These last few days seemed to have aged him as nothing else had before to Bruce. "Though now I find myself wondering if that part were even true. If it were not just a ruse to prevent us touching it, to prevent Loki finding out the truth."

"The truth?"

"Hmm." Bruce found himself studied for a long moment, before Thor sighed and leaned a little closer, lowering his voice with a glance around. There was little need: there were few close enough to hear their conversation, and anyone who might have been were studiously avoiding looking at them anyway. "You know Loki is adopted?"

"You said when we met, yeah." What did that have to do with anything?

"Well, up until my original coronation, neither of us had any idea."

What?! Wait, could this โ€“ could this be what Sygin (and Loki, actually) had meant by him finding out his entire life had been a lie around that time, or something like that? Sygin obviously hadn't wanted to tell him, but perhaps Thor was about to...

"Father only told me after Loki fell into the Void and we all thought him dead. Apparently, he changed into his original form when he touched the Casket."

"Original form?"

"Hmm. Loki is a frost giant."

"...I mean, he's tall, sure, but giant?"

Thor smirked slightly, looking briefly amused. "He is far shorter than the norm for that kind, aye. Father said he was a runt, left to die. He rescued him and brought him back to Asgard when he confiscated the Casket, and raised him as my brother."

"What did you mean, he changed forms? Did he grow, then?"

"Nay, I do not think so. At least, it was never mentioned. Father said he turned Frost Giant blue."

"Blue?"

Blue aliens. Blue aliens. Jesus Christ, his life was a real life sci-fi movie...

"Aye. 'Tis the colour of their skin. We were often told stories of them as children. You have similar on Midgard, no? Monsters to encourage children to behave?"

"Sure, yeah..."

"Hmm. Well, Loki is one. So he is able to use the Casket without being cursed or encased in ice, or whatever it is it's supposed to do. I know not. And apparently, he used it to freeze the eternal flame. He said he doubts it will hold indefinitely, but it's done the job of disabling Hela's spell at least. So her army will not rise once more should the flame melt the ice it is currently encased in. At least, Loki doesn't think so."

"...Huh." Was all Bruce could think to reply to that.

Well, he had asked... Why he had expected an answer that didn't sound insane, he wasn't quite sure.

He was on an alien planet, after all.

***

Loki didn't join them for dinner, nor did Bruce see him at all that day after he had abruptly left Thor's chambers in the morning. Bruce couldn't say he was disappointed.

Honestly, Bruce didn't really know what the guy was up to, nor did he particularly care. As long as Bruce didn't have to see him โ€“ as much as he was curious hearing more about him, it was still difficult to let go of beliefs he had always held to be true, and honestly, just being around the guy was causing him to remember the Invasion of New York and everything around that, and he really didn't want to think about that... So as long as he didn't have to see the guy, that was fine by him.

He was pretty sure he wasn't up to anything nefarious either, since given the way Thor had spoken, it seemed like Loki had been with him or helping in some way for most of the day anyway.

Bruce didn't sleep in Thor's bed again that night, nor even in his chambers. Instead, he was given a guest room, he presumed (God, he hoped some poor unfortunate dead person's room and things hadn't just been commandeered for his use...), and he slept heavily there.

In the morning, it was not Loki who woke him. (Thank God). He woke himself fairly late in the morning, to his surprise, but he had been very tired. Still left over from the battle, treating the injured or any patient in general โ€“ while rewarding โ€“ had always been exhausting.

He wasn't sure if he should head back to the healing halls today but, having no idea what else to do and not knowing where Thor was nor the Valkryie (actually, he had not really seen much of her since the battle either... Hm, maybe he should ask around... She couldn't have left, surely? Not without saying goodbye...), he decided he might as well go back.

After all, it wasn't as if there could ever be too many pairs of hands when dealing with large amounts of patients.

Seriously, these guys healed fast. A little slower than he had seen Thor heal, but still ridiculously quick by human standards. Their healing methods were fascinating as well, what little he had been able to see. He wasn't allowed to help with most of it, understandably, as he had no idea what he was doing, not with this alien medicine. Literally alien, actually. Huh, that was still so weird.

"You're Thor's friend. The Midgardian."

A voice startled him as he walked past a row of beds, and he turned to see who had spoken. A blonde with ashen features was struggling to fit upright in his bed, features briefly twisting with pain.

Oh. He had survived then. Bruce vaguely recognised him: he had been badly wounded, and, from what little he himself had seen, Bruce had been pretty sure the guy wasn't going to make it, not with a gut wound โ€“ and straight out his back โ€“ like that.

"I am?" He moved closer to the guys bed, curious despite himself. His surprise at being addressed made it sound more like a question than an affirmation, and he mentally chided himself.

"Mm," The blonde was leaning heavily back against his pillows and the wall now, and looked him up and down critically. "The berserker, no? One of his new shield-brothers from Midgard?"

"Er... โ€“ berserker?"

He arched an eyebrow. "You have some sort of rage beast within, I believe?"

"Oh โ€“ right, the Hulk. Yeah, that's me. Sorry, who are you?"

He grinned wryly. Bruce thought he was perhaps going for rakish, but honestly, he fell well short of the mark in the state he was in.

"Lord Fandral the Dashing. I'm sure you've heard of me?"

"Er..." Honestly, Bruce wasn't really sure. But then โ€“ "Oh! Right! You're one of Thor's friends, right? The Idio โ€“ uh, the Warriors Three?"

"Aye, that would be me." He smiled, either not noticing or ignoring Bruce's slip. Having spoken to Sygin about them more recently than he had Thor, he didn't think calling the man an idiot to his face would go over very well... And really, he couldn't judge: he had only her word for him, and she hadn't even mentioned much about this guy in particular, only referred to him obliquely by her name for the whole lot of them and lumped them all in together in her storytelling.

"Right..." He drifted a little closer, running a critical eyes over what of the man he could see. "Are you faring better?"

"Aye, I shall be up and fighting once more in no time," He declared, straightening in his bed and hiding another wince. "Takes more than a mere blow the likes of this to keep me down."

"Right..." Because a spear or sword or whatever through the torso was something anyone could just shrug off.

Somehow, even with accelerated healing, Bruce didn't think the guy would be fighting anytime soon regardless of what he declared.

And not just due to his (extensive, no matter what he seemed to be trying to convince the silly little human of) injuries, but because Bruce was pretty sure that consolidating and rebuilding their society at home would be the Asgardian priority right now, not fighting on other realms or whatever this guy was on about.

Right now, Bruce would say that healing and physical labour rebuilding were of far more use and importance than the ability to wield a sword.

"Well, I'm glad to hear that..." He said awkwardly, honestly having no idea what to say to this guy. He didn't know him, and knew little about him. Sure, he was pretty sure Thor had included him in some of the tales he had told, but about the guy personally, he wasn't really sure. Thor had seemed fond of him though, so Bruce genuinely was glad for the sake of his friend that the guy had survived. "I'm sure Thor is relieved too."

Fandral grinned weakly at that. "I haven't seen him yet, but aye, I believe he will be. Do you know where he is?"

Bruce shrugged. "Doing kingly things, I think. There's a lot of work to be done in the chaos Hela left behind, rebuilding and organising relief efforts and all that. I think he's sorting all that with Loki."

Fandral immediately frowned, looking displeased. "Loki? What is he doing 'helping'? He isn't locked up himself?"

Bruce quirked an eyebrow. "No? He did stop Hela, he's been working to help rebuild. Why would he be locked up?"

"He usurped the throne!"

Ah. Yes, he had heard the Idiots Four believed this, hadn't he?

Then again, while it was possible the Queen had named him regent herself the first time around, Bruce still had no idea how Loki had come to be impersonating Odin. That had to be illegal, right?

Was now really the time to be getting on about it, though? As far as Thor had said so far, Loki was helping him and their kingdom just now.

"It's treason!" Fandral continued, looking furious.

"So?"

"So, he should be imprisoned! Treason!"

"Well, shouldn't you have been then?" Bruce pointed out, fairly reasonably he thought. There was no need for the man to splutter so much and turn red like that.

"Excuse me?!"

"Shouldn't you have been imprisoned for your treason?" Bruce really didn't see what the confusion was.

From what he had heard of every monarchy, any form of treason typically resulted in at least imprisonment, even execution.

So far, he had not got the impression that Asgard was any different in that. Perhaps even more violent, if anything.

Hadn't Thor said Loki had been sentenced to life in prison for his actions in New York when he had returned to Earth before?

(Bruce... hadn't really thought too much about the implications of that at the time. Then, he had just been glad the guy was going to pay, and would not be his problem again. (...Well.)

He had forgotten how long lived these guys were, and that both Thor and Loki were considered young still.

Just how long was a life sentence for one of these guys?)

"I have never committed treason! How dare you imply such!"

Ah. He may have upset this guys 'honour'. He recalled several instances in the past where some Earth custom or saying had insulted Thor's . He had always seemed to be becoming quite worked up before they had managed to explain or de-escalate the situation.

Still: if this guy wanted to uphold the laws of his kingdom in others, shouldn't he too be subject to those same laws? It only made sense.

"Sorry, weren't you one of the ones who went after Thor when he was banished to Earth?"

"Indeed I was!" The warrior puffed up proudly in his bed. It was rather less than impressive given the state he was in, unfortunately for him.

"Well, wasn't that treason?" He pointed out, but the guy still didn't seem to get it.

"In just what way?!"

Bruce shrugged, trying to appear unbothered. "Well, Thor said his father the king had forbidden anyone from following him. So, when you lot did, you disobeyed the King's orders. Treason." He decided not to mention that they had committed treason when they had disobeyed Loki's orders as regent king as well: he highly doubted that would have gone over well, not with this guy.

As much as he didn't like the guy, Loki had just been following Odin's orders. Sure, he probably had ulterior motives as well, but Sygin had had a point: Odin, as full king, had given those orders. Loki, standing in as temporary king, probably couldn't have rescinded them, even if he'd wanted to.

And the way she had spoken, it sounded like Odin didn't even sleep for overly long during these episodes anyway. Were the four โ€“ five, including Heimdall, and he had kinda liked Heimdall from what little interactions he had had with the man, he seemed loyal to Thor, he couldn't really see the man committing treason โ€“ really so worried about Loki on the throne for what was in all probability going to be a mere matter of days?

Alright, so Bruce didn't know the whole circumstances: maybe they had had genuine reason for suspecting him of... whatever it was they had been suspicious of.

Surely it hadn't all been because theyย  just hadn't liked the guy, right? But... now that he was thinking about it, he didn't really recall Thor ever giving him an actual reason for why they had come. It had all โ€“ from what little he personally had told them about it โ€“ centred around the fact that Thor was banished for courting war, and then that the fight had happened when Loki had sent some sort of mechanical monster to kill him and his friends, loyal to him and to Asgard, had been there to step in as they had come to help him rescue Asgard from the clutches of his brother.

...the second in line for the throne.

Yeah, he was finding some flaws in the admittedly little he had heard from Thor now that he was thinking about it having heard Sygin's version of events. And that version certainly had more information.

He was under no delusion that it wasn't just as biased, though. At least she had given details and more background information (comparatively).

Fandral was scowling at him, but Bruce thought his eyes looked at least mildly perturbed. "That was before Loki usurped the throne. Obviously the situation had changed."

"But he hadn't usurped it," Bruce pointed out, and why exactly was he having this conversation? More importantly, why was he borderline defending Loki of all people?!

"And just what would you know about it?" Blondie snapped.

Bruce was not impressed in the slightest. He was scarier than this guy. No competition. Alright, not in his own body but the Hulk. The Hulk was way scarier.

"Well, Thor and I spoke with a Council member the other day," Fudging the truth a little with this, but not technically a lie.ย  It had, after all, been that Council member that had led Bruce to be curious enough to ask Sygin about it. Somehow, however, he didn't get the impression that the word of a female healer would be any better received than the word of a member of the King's Council. "He said that the Queen had put Loki on the throne, that she had put him in charge while Odin was in the ... what is it called, the Odinsleep? Yes, that."

Fandral was looking a little discomfited now, but still stubborn in his belief. "Be that as it may, he still denied our request to return Thor!"

"Well yeah," Bruce acknowledged reasonably. "Odin had forbidden it, and he was the king. Loki was just regent, he couldn't exactly undo what Odin had ordered could he. And anyway, didn't Thor already have a way to return on his own? He wasn't banished permanently. All you had to do was wait," Really, why had they not just done that? It wasn't even just a matter of not liking Loki: from what Sygin had said, they hadn't even known Loki was on the throne when they had gone to ask for Thor to be returned. Were they really so lost without their little friend?

No, that wasn't a nice thought. He had no idea what had being going on at the time, not for individuals. There could have been a whole situation Sygin didn't know about.

Regardless, he didn't really see this conversation going anywhere worthwhile. Bidding the man โ€“ what was his name again, Fandral? Yeah, something like that he was pretty sure โ€“ an absentminded goodbye and well wishes to get better soon, Bruce ambled away.

He quickly spotted Sygin working with another healer, and hesitated for a moment. Should he go over...? She kinda scared him, to be honest.

But... well, he had enjoyed her company. And really, Thor was the only one he knew on this planet. And Valkyrie, he supposed, but he hadn't seen her yet and the Hulk knew her far better than Bruce Banner did. He just had a vague sense that she was familiar.

And โ€“ well. Loki. But he was so not even going there...

He walked over, hovering awkwardly for a few moments before the pair noticed him. Well โ€“ more likely before they gave him their attention, correctly deducing that he wasn't about to break his awkward silence first

"Yes?" The healer he didn't know enquired politely. "Can we help you?"

Sygin wasn't looking at him, coolly intent on her task.

"Er โ€“ I wanted to apologise. To you, Sygin." She paused, and glanced up at him. He quailed a little under her lifting eyebrow, but continued on doggedly. "I just โ€“ I shouldn't have spoken to you like that. You were just answering my questions, and that was a friend of yours we were discussing as well. I shouldn't have argued with you, should have kept inย  mind my own biases and that we were speaking of events before I had ever even met him. I'm sorry I reacted badly."

Her other eyebrow arched, and she regarded him coolly for a few long moments while her fellow healer looked between them curiously. He tried very hard not to squirm under her gaze.

"Alright Banner. Just remember, please, not everyone here shares the opinion of Prince Loki that you and Thor do."

He nodded quickly, while her friend looked up again in interest. "Prince Loki? You were discussing him?"

"Indeed. Banner here had asked how Thor had come to be banished, and the allegations of Loki's usurping the throne. He had heard only the lies Thor had been fed."

"Ah," She nodded sagely, and then smiled at Bruce. "Well, at least you're asking Banner. I'm Ariette."

Bruce smiled awkwardly back, reaching over to shake her hand, a gesture she seemed even more amused by. Did they not do that here? He had travelled enough to know that it wasn't a universal greeting even on Earth. "Nice to meet you. Please, call me Bruce."

"You seem like you still have more questions,ย  Bruce,"

He looked up again as Arietta broke the silence between them after a long few moments to find blue eyes staring expectantly at him while slim hands deftly continued her work without looking.

"Oh. I โ€“ yes, I suppose I do. You don't mind?"

"Not at all," She answered promptly and, noticing Bruce's hesitant gaze as it strayed to Sygin's bent head, smirked slightly. "Sygin doesn't mind either, do you Sygin?"

"Depends on the question."

She grinned at that, but motioned for Bruce to ask what he was wondering.

He thought for a moment, not wanting to piss Sygin off anymore than he probably would regardless. She seemed to feel pretty strongly about this whole thing, and he was curious as to just how she knew Loki. He supposed it was understandable she was emotionally invested if they had been close at all, even if it was a while ago: honestly, the whole thing had sounded like a pretty shit situation. He tried not to think about it or come to any conclusions, but it sounded like Loki and Thor had been treated and viewed rather differently by everyone, including their own parents... Not exactly a healthy environment for a child to grow up in, assuming it had been going on that long.

(Actually, that was a thought. How did Asgardian childhoods and everything work? Because Thor and Loki were considered pretty young he was fairly sure, but Thor had said something before about being over a thousand years old... He momentarily considered a century for every human year, but โ€“ no. No, that wouldn't work. That would make the pair of them about ten years old, and that obviously wasn't true. They were both definitely considered adults in their society.

And they certainly didn't look like ten-year-olds. Bloody hell, imagine having a newborn to one-year-old human standards for one hundred years.. Those poor parents... So many nappies, so little sleep...

No, it couldn't possibly work that way.)

He remembered Loki mentioning the invasion before, but figured he probably shouldn't ask how he had come to be leading that. He had heard the mentions of physical and mental torture and he really didn't want to think about that.

There was something he had been wondering, though.

"There is something I've been wondering..." He began slowly, frowning into the distance and not meeting her eyes. He was a little afraid of the reaction this would get him from the woman, he had to admit. "You and Loki both alluded to the Invasion of Earth not being his idea, or that he even wanted to do it."

"He didn't. But that is not a question."

"Well, it's just โ€“ Thor never told us that, I guess? And he said Loki had been imprisoned for his crimes, he never said there had been mitigating circumstances or anything."

"That's because apparently Thor, who proclaims his love in one breath and then demonises his brother in the next, didn't notice."

"But surely it came out at his trial?"

Ariette โ€“ and it was Ariette this came from, so he couldn't even subconsciously accuse her of bias as he might have Sygin from his interactions with her the previous day โ€“ arched an eyebrow and said something that made his blood run cold. "What trial?"

***

Loki had not had a trial.

Even the worst criminals on Earth were not denied a trial.

Loki had not had a trial.

Bruce... didn't know how he felt about that. While he still didn't like the guy and he highly doubted he ever would, let alone trust him, he had still watched the brothers depart New York in the full expectation that Loki would be getting a trial.

Part of him had been curious, while the other part of him had wanted to put the whole thing behind him. After all, Thor had said he had no idea where Loki had got his army. Wouldn't they have wanted to find out about that?

But no. Loki had got no trial, he had not been asked how he got his army, he had not been asked why he had come to be invading Earth.

Hell, he had apparently not even been asked what had happened to him when he had fallen from the Bifrost into the Void, and hadn't that been an unsettling snippet, bare details as he had been given.

Clearly, there was a lot he didn't know that had gone on between Loki being put on the throne by their mother and Loki invading Earth.

He wasn't too keen on asking Sygin to pick up her story from yesterday though, not with how the pair of them had left it.

So no trial. No, instead Odin had just sentenced him without letting anyone speak in his defence โ€“ not even Loki himself, apparently โ€“ then tossed him in a cell and thrown away the key. And no one had been allowed to go see him.

"He claimed that Loki should be grateful, that it was only on the Queen's behalf that he wasn't killing him." Ariette informed him, "I don't believe that, though. Maybe it was part of it,"

"No, more likely it was so he didn't completely lose hold of a valuable weapon. For all seidr and Loki are degraded, no one can truthfully deny that the man isn't intelligent and powerful. And really, Odin put a lot of work into that stolen relic. So he tossed him in a cell, to be taken out and used as he saw fit, before returned to serve out his farce of a sentence." Sygin agreed.

"Surely not! He... he was his son! He probably just didn't want to execute him!"

"Banner, if Odin actually cared about Loki he would have asked him why he had attacked Midgard โ€“ let's be clear here, that is an action very outside his norm. In fact, Loki has been visiting Midgard for centuries: not once has he actually tried to take over anywhere.

"Add to that, how he went about that farce of an invasion is not how he would have done it had he wanted to rule.

"No, he most likely did not care about Loki. He was a tool, nothing more. Perhaps he was fond of him to some extent once upon a time, but by the time Thor had dragged him back โ€“ and his orders were to muzzle him, shackle him, and drag him back with the Tesseract, no questions asked โ€“ he had long since put aside any positive feelings towards the man he had always called son, I am sure."

Bruce wanted to protest that, but... Well, that was what Thor had done, wasn't it? He knew Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. had wanted to question โ€“ and probably study, he had been relieved when they had not managed to do that he had to admit โ€“ the would-be conqueror but Thor had, true enough, shackled him, muzzled him, and departed with both Loki and the Tesseract.

Still. He wasn't too sure about Odin not caring at all: Sygin had said centuries, and he knew Thor was pretty old by Earth standards. There was no way anyone could raise someone as their son, see and interact with them every day, and not feel something towards them.

It just wasn't possible for Odin to have felt nothing. ...right?

"And that's exactly what Thor ended up doing, anyway." Sygin added, watching him out the corner of her eye for his reaction. "Took him out of his cage to use their pet weapon when he needed something."

Bruce... didn't even know why he was surprised anymore.

His shoulders slumped. "What happened?"

***

Bruce had heard a little about the Dark Elves from Thor, but had never got the whole story. It basically boiled down to his girlfriend had been in danger, he had taken her to Asgard, they had attacked and his mother had been killed, Loki had got he and Jane to the planet of the elves through... some means Thor himself had not been able to do alone, Jane had been saved, Loki had died, and then there had been that big fight in London.

He had been a little sparing on the details.

Sygin was only too happy to fill those in, with Ariette providing information in a more general sense.

Clearly, the general populace and inhabitants/workers of the palace (castle? fort? what exactly did they call this ridiculously grandiose building anyway?) did not have access to as much personal information as Sygin did.

Although, there was also something in there about a play...

Neither woman had known exactly what had happened when it had just been Thor and his parents, but they did know โ€“ through general gossip, probably, and, being healers, had been there for part of it at least โ€“ what had happened when the Elves had attacked.

"I was one of the healers who examined his mortal," Ariette informed them. "The energy inside her... It was parasitic, protecting its host as it drained her. Well โ€“ not drained. More, her body was unable to accommodate it, it was too powerful.

"Odin was not pleased Thor had brought her to Asgard. He insisted your healers on Midgard should handle it. Then he tried to have the guards remove her and the energy lashed out. After that, he seemed to realise what it was.

"Of course, he didn't bother explaining it to the rest of us."

"The Aether," Sygin supplied, and Bruce was very suspicious about how she had all this information. Clearly, there was more to her knowledge than just what could be found around the palace. "The Elves needed it to bring about eternal darkness during the Convergence. That was why it had awoken after all this time."

"Right. Anyway, the Elves had infiltrated the prison โ€“ after Thor destroyed the Bifrost, the other realms 'rioted' so Odin claimed. I mean really, if your heavy handed overlords suddenly couldn't reach you, wouldn't you take the opportunity to gain a little more independence?

"Anyway, this one prisoner used cursed magic, managed to break out of his cell. The let all the other prisoners out, and they started rioting in the dungeons. Well โ€“ he didn't let Loki out. No idea why."

"Neither does he."

Yeah, Bruce was very suspicious.

"At the same time, the Elves managed to breach Asgard in their ships. They attacked the palace, and their leader went hunting for the energy within the mortal woman while the warriors and guards were occupied within the dungeons.

"The Queen died protecting her, and many others perished that day. We held a mass funeral that night, but Loki was not permitted to attend."

Bruce looked surprised at that. "He wasn't allowed to attend his mother's funeral?!"

"He was not even informed of her death by his supposed family," Sygin replied bitterly. "No, that was done by a guard who at least had the presence of mind and common decency to decide for himself that perhaps the prince should be told that his mother was dead. Had it been left to Thor or Odin, I doubt anyone would have told him."

No... No, surely not!

"Mind you, maybe Thor would have mentioned it later when he came to Loki for help... He did use that as a bargaining chip, after all. Incited him to revenge. Well, when outright threatening him didn't immediately work."

Because apparently Odin had refused to even entertain the possibility of sending Jane away, or something? Neither was really sure, they just knew that Odin had forbidden Thor from leaving.

So he had got together with his little friends and conspired to go against the orders of his king.

Guess that was another charge of treason for Fandral. Seriously, how had the guy completely forgotten all of this? Did it just not register?!

"So Loki helped them, right? Pretty sure Thor mentioned that."

"Mm, yes, he did. Not that Thor gave him very convincing reasons to, of course."

"What do you mean?"

"What, he didn't tell you? In case you haven't noticed, diplomacy or even common sense are not concepts that Thor has any inkling of. Basically, he told Loki that if he didn't help he and his little friends commit treason and help them save the woman who was the reason the Elves had attacked in the first place then Thor would kill him, or and if he did help them then Thor would lock him up again as soon as they were finished. And let's not forget the promise of a painful death should he betray them in any way, and the seidr-binding shackles he would be put in.

"While demanding help only Loki could give to get them off planet. A way that is only accessible through the use of seidr."

...Yeah, Thor's bargaining skills could certainly use some work, it would seem.

"But Loki helped?"

"Yes. And was threatened by every one of the Idiots Four, of course. I really can't stand that lot. Ignoring personalities, Loki has still always been their prince. They have no right to speak to or treat him the way they always have, you do understand that, yes? Tell me, have you ever seen Thor even tangentially insulted? Seen his reaction? And yet he let those fools get away with it, he participated in their disrespect and degradation.

"And make no mistake here, this was before Loki was ever viewed as a criminals."

Yep, Bruce had seen Thor when he thought he was being insulted... It wasn't pretty. And that was apparently him when he had matured and learned much. ...or something. He honestly wasn't even sure.

"But yes, Loki helped." Ariette continued while Sygin fumed to herself, gaze dark and a tad too manic for Bruce's comfort as she seemingly thought back on all the slights she had heard of or seen towards Loki.

Yeah, he was really thinking she was an unbiased observer... Not.

"He, Thor and the mortal woman went to Svartรกlfaheim, where they were followed by the Dark Elves. Using his illusions โ€“ Thor oh so kindly eventually removed the shackles โ€“ he acted as if he wanted to help Malekith, cutting off Thor's hand and throwing the mortal at his feet."

"But why would they believe he would help them?" He really hoped that 'cut off Thor's hand' part was an illusion. He seemed to still have both, so he was assuming so...

"Because the cursed soldier had seen Loki in Asgard's dungeons, and Loki told them he wanted to watch Asgard burn."

"Which, honestly, probably at least a little true," Ariette mused, and Sygin tilted her head offhandedly as if in agreement.

"Anyway, the Elves for the Aether out, and Thor attempted to destroy it with his little hammer. Obviously that didn't work, and then they were fighting. Malekith got away โ€“ obviously: I assume you know at least a little of what happened on Midgard โ€“ but they killed most of the other Elves there. Cursed was about to kill Thor, but Loki stabbed him through the torso."

Ariette picked up at this point as Sygin faltered. "Unfortunately, that did not kill him. He turned and pulled Loki straight onto the blade, impaling him. Luckily, Loki managed to activate one of the dark matter grenades on the monster's belt. He was destroyed, but Loki died."

"Well, he faked his death you mean," Bruce provided, quite convinced of this. "I mean, I know he supposedly died in Thor's arms, that was a really dick move. Thor was really broken up about that," He felt the anger start to rise up within him as he thought about it: he couldn't believe even Loki could be that cruel!

"He didn't fake that, Banner."

"What?" That caught him entirely off guard.

"He didn't fake it. He genuinely thought he was dying โ€“ Hel, he did dye. And Thor would have known he survived if he hadn't left his so-called brother to rot!"

"Oh, come on! There's no way that was real! He had to have faked that wound!"

"I treated it myself."

"...what?"

"'That wound'. I treated it myself."

O..kay. Not how he had expected this story to go when he had asked.

"So โ€“ so you've known, this whole time, that Loki was still alive?!"

Sygin shrugged, looking entirely unrepentant. "Of course. And Odin has too. Why do you think Loki was the one on the throne?"

"Well, because he stole it, obviously! Attacked Odin, and โ€“"

"No."

"...no?"

"No. Loki returned to the palace in the guise of a guard, claiming he had found the body and that Loki was dead. He had no intention of sticking around โ€“ why would he? He knew he would just be thrown back into that damn cell, and for a crime he had been coerced into committing. Of course he was planning on leaving and never looking back."

"...So why didn't he?" Bruce wasn't sure he believed that claim.

"Because Odin, as always, couldn't deal with the consequences of his own actions and oh so conveniently fell asleep again."

Ariette looked over at her in interest. "He did?"

Sygin nodded. "Yes."

"So why does no one else seem to know about this?" Bruce challenged.

"Because Loki saw an opportunity. I don't know what you know of it, but the Invasion was not his choice and it is far from over โ€“ really, that was nothing. There is someone out there who... who is still coming. Who is a threat to all. And, well... Loki's never exactly been accused of being forgiving. He hates the guy's guts, as you mortals say. So he saw an opportunity, and he took it. And he decided he might as well loosen Asgard's hold on the other realms while he was at it. I don't know much, we haven't really spoken much โ€“ it could be taken as treason, after all."

"But... but wasn't Odin on Earth?!"

"Mmhm. When he started waking, Loki wasn't done yet. He put a spell on him, turned him pretty much mortal and senile, and dumped him at some sort of care home for old mortal people."

...Alright then.

"And you knew, you knew the whole time, that it was really Loki?"

"Well, yeah. Bit hard not to when I found him passed out from that damn stab wound. Seriously, that was really bad. That blade was imbued with powerful dark magic: even if the stab wound hadn't killed him, the poison would have. That was a nightmare to heal, and he's still not back up to strength. Not from what happened after he fell into the Void either, and being imprisoned them keeping up the appearance of Odin didn't exactly help."

"And you never told anyone? You were the only one on Asgard who knew?"

Sygin burst out laughing at that, much to Bruce's confusion. "The only one?! Norns, Banner, no of course I wasn't! I'm quite certain many people figured it out, they just didn't talk about it."

That... that did not make any sense.

At all.

From what Thor had always said, the people of Asgard โ€“ especially those around the palace (or whatever) who were presumably the ones who would have figured it out as they would have been the ones in most contact with 'Odin' โ€“ they were not likely to have kept quiet had they known the trickster was on the throne impersonating their king. And even from what Sygin had said, it was clear many did not view him well.

So why would they have said nothing?

***

Thor once again found him and they went to dinner that evening. Loki once again wasn't there, and, when he asked him about it, Thor had just shrugged.

"He said he had something to do. I don't think he wants to come, to be honest. He's never really seemed to like the feasts and celebrations, it was just yet another thing that was different about him."

"But he's still around?"

Thor nodded, tearing some meat off what Bruce think was a very big chicken leg had he not been on an alien planet. He wasn't going to ask. "Indeed. He's been helping, still. Well โ€“ I say helping."

Well that didn't sound good. "What do you mean?"

"He's been pushing the wrong things to be sorted first."

"Huh? What things do you mean?"

"Well, he's been pushing for things like food stocks, the farmers, the housing structures, the healing supplies. But clearly we need to ensure our warriors are in fighting shape before we bother with that in any time consuming way. We need to be able to defend ourselves after all."

Bruce blinked. "...Thor. Thor, is you prioritise the warriors over everything, they're not going to have much if anything to defend. And if you don't ensure the healers have supplies and funds then how are they supposed to get the warriors healed up so they can fight again?" Christ, was this the same attitude as Fandral had seemed to have earlier? Was this a common mindset on Asgard? ...And Loki wasn't thinking like that? There may have been something in that warmongering fool Sygin had been going on about, much as he didn't really want to admit it... "And as for the food supplies and the farmers, how are they supposed to fight if they haven't the food to ensure they can keep going? I know you're a warrior and that they're important to the realm, but Thor, so are those who don't fight.

"I mean, how do you expect a society to function if everyone is a warrior, is always focused on fighting? Who would feed them, who would provide them with weapons, who will mend their armour, keep their homes, raise their children? Assuming they aren't going to bother with such things themselves, from what I've seen and heard so far you guys kinda seem like that kind of society, no offense. And how do you expect to keep this kingdom going if they don't have children? I mean, I know you guys live a long time, but you don't live forever."

Thor was frowning at him, but Bruce thought he might look a little thoughtful. "You sound like Loki, not prioritising our warriors,"

OK, mildly horrifying to be compared to the guy, but fair enough in this case. "Hate to say it, Thor โ€“ and I really, really do โ€“ but it sounds like he's right. Thor, your people don't need a warrior right now: they need a king who can help them rebuild their daily lives, not their empire. You guys need to be strong at home before you can even think about gaining power over anyone else."

Thor grunted. "You heard about that, did you? The chaos Loki let the realms fall into? Asgard has always been ruler over all, and he just let that go to Hel!"

"How so?" He was curious about Thor's perspective on this.

The god was frowning again, staring contemplatively down at his plate as he chewed thoughtfully. "He's been lax in his policies. Renegotiating treaties to give leeway that the other realms should never have, giving them power, potentially power to one day attempt to overthrow us..."

Bruce watched him speculatively. "But is it really bad, Thor?" He asked quietly. "Are the other realms rioting against Asgard? Or are they happy with the new conditions?"

Well, he himself didn't really know.

Speaking as an Earthling though, if Asgard was to turn up and enforce their authority over Earth as they seemed to have over the other realms (and why was Earth seemingly exempt from that? He'd have to ask his friend some time, he supposed), then he would not be pleased.

Nor, he was fairly certainly, would be pretty much anyone else on the planet. They didn't want to be subject to some tyrant's rule โ€“ they had had enough of those in their own history, they didn't need an intergalactic one.

And if someone turned up and started giving them back some freedom?

Well, he was fairly certain Earth would grab it with both hands.

Of course, there would be those who would seek to take advantage, to try and get revenge on Asgard, he was sure.

But it would take time, he was certain, and overall the vast majority of the population would probably be pretty happy to be left alone and to work out how to do their own thing now that they were able to without whatever policies Asgard had in place.

Of course, he had no idea of the true situation, and he knew he could never understand it fully. Unlike Thor, he had not been trained his whole life to be a king.

But by the sounds of everything, Thor had trained to be a warrior king.

He would just need to realise that that was not what his people needed right now โ€“ and that his people consisted of more than just the warriors he was evidently used to prioritising.

But... well, Bruce didn't really have any way to get back home right now. Maybe he should speak with someone about that? He had to admit, he was very curious about what travel via the Bifrost was like.

But he found he didn't really want to leave just yet. He was in no rush to leave just yet, and he found himself feeling a little invested in these people, at least in as much as he had helped stop the invasion of their world and he was now aiding with their wounded.

He would stick around for now, as long as they would have him.

He would like to help Thor more, but he hadn't been invited to the meetings or whatever Thor was doing all day, and besides: politics were never his area, especially not politics on an alien planet.

No, he would stick to what he knew โ€“ he may not be a medical doctor, but his travels while avoiding the government had certainly given him plenty of experience, and he was more than willing to lend his hands and his skills in any way he could to help these people.

And if he could help Thor out by giving him some reminders of what really should have been obvious every now and then... Well. Better coming from him than from Loki, right?

And Bruce really didn't want to think about what it meant that Thor was apparently the one thinking of the warriors and their fighting strength whereas Loki was thinking of the people and the things that would actually help a society after a devastating attack... Was this normal?

Was this why Loki had always been 'other'? Because he didn't value fighting above all else?

***

Bruce didn't know what to think about Thor's little brother.

He didn't for a moment think that the guy was some kind of saint, and he was far from under the delusion that the psycho would never do anything cruel. In fact, he was almost certain that he would.

But being on Asgard... Being on Asgard, interacting with more than just Thor, he was finding that maybe it wasn't as black and white as he had always believed the whole situation to be.

...maybe there was more to the situation than he had always believed. Truthfully, he had never really thought too much about it: the sky was blue, grass was green, Thor was good, Loki was bad.

Loki was of course not entirely blameless, and he didn't think anyone would say so โ€“ not even Sygin, and he thought maybe he would seek her out again tomorrow, see if she would be willing to share some more of the story. He wasn't quite brave enough to ask her outright about her and Loki, though. And there was aย lot he didn't know even with what he had been told so far...

So Loki wasn't entirely blameless.

But maybe Thor wasn't blameless either. Clearly, he had also made mistakes, even if he hadn't realised it at the time.

The question was... did Bruce actually care? Thor was his friend, of course, and that wasn't going to change.

But what did he care about Loki?

Ah well. It was just curiosity, anyway: it wasn't as if knowing anything about the guy would change things overall. It was none of his business what the guy got up to, as long as he didn't do it on Midgard.

And Bruce would be going back there, he had to. As much as he didn't want to face certain people,ย  he knew he had to go back to his home planet at some point.

And really, what would knowledge of Loki matter there?

...Then again, Sygin had said Loki had been sent by someone in that invasion, and that they weren't finished yet.

...hadn't Tony been saying something like that as well? Oh God...