A/N: Annnnnnnd it's back! I'm so sorry for the delay, but keep in mind that I'm attending art high school for writing, and now my schedule is much busier, what with extra classes and a job and all. Please remember this and know that chapters will come slower but hopefully will not stop altogether. Don't forget to review, please! I enjoy hearing your feedback!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY IVYROSE, FOR WHOM THIS CHAPTER IS WRITTEN. MAY YOUR BIRTHDAY BE BLESSED WITH GLORIOUS PURPOSE.

A long time ago, Krystal had talked to Katarina about a movie she had watched in Midgard. It had been called Peter Pan, and was about an immortal boy and his band of boys that never grew up as they teamed up with Indians and outwitted a pirate captain with a grudge and a merciless crew.

There had been a character whose effect on other people Katarina had never quite understood: the crocodile. It was a long, green, scaly thing, with jagged yellow teeth poking out from a red maw. The pirate captain (creatively named Captain Hook) was deathly afraid of this crocodile, because apparently once upon a time it had bitten off his hand and now only lived to eat the rest of him. Fortunately for the captain, however, the crocodile had also swallowed a loud, ticking clock, which warned the captain whenever it came near.

The movie was "animated", as Krystal had called it (meaning that it was made out of moving pictures) and whenever the crocodile came into the frame it was accompanied by a loud tick, tick, tick that made the ends of Captain Hook's mustache jump up and down and his entire body shake with fear. Katarina had always smiled at the mental image.

She wasn't smiling now. Now she understood Captain Hook. In fact, she felt like she had her own personal clock in her chest, going tick, tick, tick every time her heart threw itself against her ribs. She clasped her hands together to stop them from shaking as she followed everyone from the room, presumably towards the bridge.

Tick, tick, tick went the clock. She shuddered.

How long had it been since she had seen Loki's face other than in a horrific nightmare? (Technically a few hours, considering that she had caught a glimpse of him right before she fainted, but that didn't count.) How long had it been since she had simply looked at Loki, drinking in the sight of his face and trying to memorize every line in his smile, every crease of his frown? How long had it been since she had just seen him?

Tick, tick, tick

How much had his face changed? How much could a person's face change in two years?

A bitter smile turned her lips upwards. Well, she only had to look at herself to find the answer to that question.

Tick, tick, tick

But what if. . . A horrifying thought made her back snap up, suddenly board-straight. What if he was a stranger? What if he bore all of the scars she had seen him receive in her nightmares?

The hairs on her arms raised. She would never be able to live with herself. She would never be able to live with the idea that he had really been hurting the entire time, had been /tortured/ that entire time, and she had been sleeping semi-peacefully in a bed in the palace of Asgard.

Especially if it was her own fault that he had fallen and not Odin's as she would auve liked to delude herself.

Tick, tick, tick

The doors to the bridge swished open, letting out sounds of hustle-bustle as black-clad officers swirled around the room, attending to flashing screens and keyboards. Katarina instantly hated the noise. Things were always so noisy in Asgard. She could only imagine how uncomfortable Thor must be, having next to no experience with Midgard. She at least had been regaled with tales of it from Krystal for the last two years, which had given her enough time to adjust to the idea of advanced technology. Even with this prior knowledge, however, she still felt a headache coming on.

A man in a black trench coat approached them. Nick Fury. An oval of tattered black fabric was strung over one of his eyes, and Katarina scowled, thinking of Odin.

"Took you long enough." Nick said curtly. His manner also echoed the Asgardian king. He approached a glass-topped table and managed to pull up a security camera screen.

Tick, tick, tick

"I'm going to have a little. . . Chat with our friendly god down there. Lay down the house rules. I didn't think you would want to miss this. You can thank me later." And with a swish of his cape and the swoosh of the doors, he was gone.

Tick, tick, tick

Krystal piped up, bless her soul. "Does he make everyone nervous, or is it just me?"

Rogers assumed the seat in front of the screen, watching it intently but sparing time to reply. "Everyone, I'm sure."

Tick, tick, TICK

Tony laughed. "You would be an idiot not to be nervous around Nick Fury. In fact, I'm pretty sure he has more secrets than all of us put together."

Katarina spoke without thinking: "That's a lot of secrets, then."

The screen flashed.

TICK, TICK, TICK.

And then suddenly she didn't have to wait anymore, and Loki was on screen.

She froze. Her entire body froze. Her mind froze and the clock in her chest must have run out of battery because it froze too. She didn't move. She didn't breathe.

At first glance he looked completely normal. Green and gold-clad, hands clasped behind his back, chin held aloft with unmistakable pride. In fact, it unfroze her chest, where she felt a starburst of heat blossom around her heart. She was aware of her heartbeat again. But it was slower this time. The clock was still dead, which she was grateful for.

She took a step towards the screen in her daze.

On closer examination however, she could notice small changes. His hair, for example, was longer. The tips of it now brushed his shoulders. His stance seemed more aggressive, as if he was preparing for a preemptive strike, when before it had been defensive, as if he had been anticipating an attack.

And everything about him just seemed sharper: the slanted cut of his cheekbones, the fractured light in his eyes, even his folded hands behind his back just screamed danger. As if someone had broken him into pieces and then clumsily glued all of him together again with the edges poking out. If she had reached out to touch him, surely she would pull her hand away again bearing a cut.

Her stomach unfroze and suddenly she felt sick. This was worse than scars. This was worse than anything she could have dreamt up in her own sick mind. This was worse than anything she could have witnessed in her nightmares. Because he /looked/ almost exactly the same; but he wasn't. He wasn't he wasn't he wasn't.

"The hardest people you know were once as soft as water. And that's the tragedy of living."

Who had told her that? Regardless of who had said it, it stuck with her now, churning her stomach. She couldn't put her finger on what emotion stirred within her, but she supposed anger and sadness had something to do with it.

The clock was back. Tick, tick, tick.

She wanted him so badly to speak, to say something that would exonerate him from this accusational nightmare. But when someone finally spoke, it wasn't Loki. It was Nick Fury.

"In case it's unclear. . . " He strode over to a control panel. Loki's eyes followed him. ". . . you try to escape, you so much as scratch that glass. . . "

He hit a button and a cavity opened up beneath Loki's floor. He looked down, but the interest in his face was mild, as if he was watching a bug crawl across the floor and was somewhat fascinated with it.

Even with his changes, Katarina found herself suddenly tense. TICK TICK TICK. The braces holding up the cell suddenly looked fragile.

"It's thirty-thousand feet, straight down in a steel trap!" Fury shouted over the wind. "You know how that works?" He hit the button again and the floor closed up. More than one person breathed a sigh of relief, but Loki himself looked unfazed as Fury gestured to illustrate his point. "Ant. Boot."

And then the god laughed. It was just a chuckle, but it was so achingly familiar that Katarina twitched. She had heard it in her head so many times over the last two years (albeit gentler and in different circumstances) but when she finally heard it she was completely unprepared. She had forgotten so many things about it. It was if her memory had been a rough sketch, and hearing it now colored it in. She had forgotten the rich timbre of his laugh, how it seemed to resonate like the strumming of a bass.

And then he spoke:

"It's an impressive cage."

Her fingers flinched. She didn't want to think, didn't want to try to describe his voice in her mind: she just wanted to hear him talk for once.

"Not built, I think, for me."

Oh, why did Nick Fury have to talk? Why did he have to interrupt him?

"Built for something a lot stronger than you."

"Oh, I've heard." He then looked straight at them, almost lazily, as if he knew he was being recorded and he knew that they were all viewing him on that hazy little screen. He probably did.

TICK TICK TICK

Now that the shock had worn off, Katarina noticed something. Like the rest of him, his voice seemed to have an edge to it that wasn't there before. Sharp as broken glass.

"The mindless beast, makes play he's still a man."

Somewhere to her left, Banner twitched. Katarina tried to tunnel her own vision, tried to focus all her attention only on Loki, but she still saw the sideways glances that the SHIELD agents gave each other.

"How desperate are you, that you call on such lost creatures to defend you?"

It was wrong, all wrong. The way he spoke, the way he pieced together his words. They might have been his words, spoken in his mouth, but they were in the wrong order and messed with the natural syntax of his speech. She hated it.

"How desperate am I? You threaten my world with war. You steal a force you can't hope to control. You talk about peace then kill 'cause it's fun." (Katarina cringed.) "You have made me very desperate. You might now be glad that you did."

Anger began to surface in Fury's voice. But if anything it only served to further belay Loki's smug attitude. He leaned forward, a look of mocking realization on his face now.

"Oh. . . it burns you to have come so close. To have the Tesseract, to have unlimited power. And for what? A warm light that all mankind can share." His voice hardened then, and his eyes flashed. "And then to be reminded what real power is."

Another glance at the camera. At his audience. This could hardly be accidental. He knew he had a crowd. He knew and he was playing around. Trying to mess with their minds.

The only thing that was keeping her from being targeted was that he didn't know that she was watching him. He didn't know that she was conscious, or if she was even sent back to Asgard. She had to keep that up as long as possible.

If he /did/ know, though. . . that was another story. If he did know, then surely he would expect-

"Well, let me know if real power wants a magazine or something." Fury ended the conversation with a parting sneer and walked away. Loki let him have the last word and followed his back with his eyes before shooting the camera one more smirk. And then the screen went black.

There was silence among the group. For some of them, this was their first encounter with the god.

For Katarina it might as well have.

This new Loki, this different Loki was a minefield to her. She didn't know how he would react to . . . well, anything really. Two years had changed him too much. She was going in blind, and that scared her more than anything.

Thor seemed to sense what she was thinking. He glanced at her, arms crossed and forehead creased. He looked pensive, but at the same time, hurt, as if the his "brother's" changes had caused physical injury. She knew the feeling.

Banner broke the silence first, his voice strained with sarcastic amusement. "He really grows on you, doesn't he?"

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