NOTE: We're starting to head into part of the story were I'm playing with plot threads I laid down back as early as chapter I, which is great fun (for me, anyway.) I still haven't seen Captain America 2 or Thor 2 so there are no spoiler warnings for either film. At least, not intentional ones. (Realistically, it seems supremely unlikely this fic was ever going to be particularly canon-compliant with either film, anyway.)


CHAPTER XXX

If Thor had been waiting for a blast of lightning, a clap of thunder, or the sonorous bellow of an enraged Odin, he was to be disappointed. (And secretly relieved. He hadn't forgotten Mjolnir's . . . unusual behaviour . . . with Loki, not at all. In fact, though he'd have found it deeply disturbing, he wouldn't have been surprised had the hammer suddenly started contributing to the current discussion by way of atmospheric effects.)

But Mjolnir lay a comfortably quiescent weight at his side. Silent, obedient, restored once more to a simple (albeit magnificent) weapon to his hand. Steadfast, inanimate, its power leashed as it should be, as if it had never, ever, done anything else. . . and Thor wondered when exactly it was that the world had gone so insane.

In front of him, behind a windowed panel of the strongest material Midgard had to offer, Loki battled his way to his feet again, shivering and absentmindedly pulling to himself the red cloak Thor had left him with. There was something wonderful, something heartbreaking about the way his brother - disavowed or not - was wrapped in his colours, holding the cape with a closeness no longer permitted to its owner. Loki was near, so very near, mere feet away . . . and yet he'd never seemed so very distant.

What have you done, Loki? What have you done?

But the slight seidr-worker seemed curiously unmoved, seemed coolly uncaring, dry-eyed and unconcerned that he'd just sundered a family, single-handedly changed Asgard's line of succession, and ripped the heart out of Thor's precious world view. For the second time. And this time? This time Thor felt as though it wasn't he that was standing on a shattered, darkened Bifrost, watching was his brother fell, as colours, tears and hope alike leeched into the crushing darkness around a frail, tumbling form. This time, Thor could almost taste the snatching, snarling abyss that thieved away the very breath in his lungs, this time it was as if it were he, himself, who was falling.

He could only hope he'd land less changed than his little brother had. Turning, his steps a measured and stately retreat, Thor ignominiously fled the room.

Fury wasn't sure exactly what had just happened. But he didn't trust it, not one bit. Because what it looked like? Well, what it looked like was that one of the greatest criminals Earth had ever seen had just thrown away even the slightest, most nominal protection provided by his royal status and familial connections, and done so while still chained and captive. And that? That didn't make any sense. What are you playing at, you slippery little menace?!

He couldn't possibly be banking on the fact that he'd just - maybe - saved the planet. From a rift, from an invasion. From who knew what. We have Foster and Selvig, we have Stark! We could have closed that rift!

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Either way it wouldn't - shouldn't - matter. And the mischief god had to know that; Loki didn't seem like the sort to depend on clemency from his enemies. Or from anyone for that matter. From what Thor had said in that long-ago lock-up as he gagged his brother it seemed like the trickster had learned that lesson young. Very young. And he'd taken it to heart utterly.

Except that he manifestly hadn't. At all.

Or else he considers Asgard's protection of so little worth he can do just fine without it. On a planet where more or less every government, every region - every Council Member that ever authorised firing a nuke on New York - wants his head. Preferably not attached to his body.

And we were so desperate, so desirous of Thor's assistance, of Asgard's good will, that we gave Thunder Boy over there a free pass on his own acts of war. The implications of that, of Asgard's response to that, fired a roiling queasiness low in Fury's belly.

A free pass.

And the cost of that pass could well prove astronomical, could well be paid in tears and violence and destruction. Odin gave out invitations, opened portals, made us a decoy. We gave Thor a free pass, and Odin threw us to the wolves. And only Loki - Loki of all Asgardians - questioned the rightness of that.

The implications were staggering.

Almost as staggering as the deceptively fragile-looking, slender wrist almost hidden in fisted, heavy gauntlets that battered into glass, a fine, crystalline web of cracks following its progress. The shuddering impact of the blow sounded a rifle-crack across the silence that had fallen following Loki's pronouncement. A second blow, as Fury gaped, as the humans around him roused to action, as Loki - standing well back on the other side of the panel - smirked softly.

"Took you long enough, Traitor." Loki's voice was velvet smooth once more. Threaded with amusement through every breathy tone, and unasked for! This was no response to a question! Thin lips, stretched wolf-like into a fanged grin, chaos and madness and all the brilliant insanity of a universe's caldera spilling molten from an unhinged mind, and that focus - Loki's full attention - narrowed down to a single, unearthily beautiful, brunette.

Who was currently gearing up for another blow, armoured gloves creaking as hidden fingers tightened once more into fists, fine brows drawn down into a ferocious scowl even as carnadine lips lifted back into an almost animalistic snarl. In full war raiment, armour shining, hair and cloak streaming in the backdraft of her strikes, Sif stood tall, incandescent in her lividity.

"You - You of all people - would name me 'Traitor'?!" Enraged, the warrior goddess punctuated her fury with another blow, the fine network of cracks across the supposedly Hulk-proof barrier widening with each strike.

"And why not?" dark-eyed and ragged, seemingly unaware of or untroubled by the disaster he courted with his words his very manner, the bedraggled, battered master wordsmith continued calmly. "After all, whilst Thor only committed treason the once, you and your cohort are traitors to Asgard twice over, and unpunished at that."

"How dare you!" white spittle flecked her lips, her breath coming in harsh pants, Sif readied a final blow. It seemed unlikely the Hulk-proofed chamber would stand a fourth strike from the angry goddess. It seemed even less likely that Loki cared in the slightest. Around them, the alarm klaxons howled and yelled, somehow strangely muted.

"STAND DOWN!" Fury roared, as the woman - or whatever she really was - once more readied her fist unopposed. Where the hell are the guards!? The agents?! Snarling to himself, Fury went for his handgun, only to be completely ignored as Loki continued. He's fighting with words! With the only weapon he's got at the moment, and how I wish that lack of arms made me feel better!

"Or perhaps not unpunished. Perhaps Odin preferred simply a suspended sentence for your willful disobedience to his edict, your deliberate foray to Jotunheim with Thor. Perhaps your penance was simply held back until enacting it was of use to him." Loki's brow furrowed in thought. "After all, you're here now, and I know you did not come by Bifrost. Tell me, Sif, does your esteemed King intend to trade you for his son? Offer the lives and services of the Mighty Sif and the Warriors Three - brave, strong and 'noble' men-at-arms who simply also happen to be traitors to two kings - in exchange for removing his son and sole heir, currently pledged to Midgard's defense? How fickle. And how trusting he mistakes these humans to be."

"The citizens of Midgard will be grateful for our help in the oncoming storm, you wretch! To them, we are as gods!"

"'Gods' you think? 'Gods'? Really? 'Gods' whose ruler would tear a wound in their world, and leave them to the terrors that spill through it, all to save his own? I think you'll find the word the humans have for you and your ilk is not 'gods'."

SIf roared at that, her fury inchoate but no less powerful for it. Her fist struck a fourth time, and plexiglass shattered, raining crystalline destruction throughout the holding bay. The last pieces were still in the air, still splaying in a glittering, deadly arc of shards and dust when she moved. Like lightning, like grace, like the sulphur tang of storm and fury, she was there and then gone.

Seizing Loki by the collar that bound him and wrenching him off his feet, the goddess turned and strode from the prison bay. Behind her, Fury's furious shouts to stand down, to desist, were finally heard: Hogunn and two others, two Asgardian warriors Fury vaguely recalled from the surveillance footage Coulson had sent back from the battle with the Destroyer, peeled away from the Avengers and moved to follow her. Fandral. Fandral and Volstag? I think Thor identified him as Volstag. And he called both of them friends! Snarling, the rounds from his handgun utterly ineffectual against the armour covering the Asgardians, Fury readied himself for pursuit.

This was the second time. The second time in as many hours that an Asgardian had pulled Loki out of that cell. Fury's anger deepened. There would not be a third.

How the hell did she get in here?! And why the hell aren't the Avengers pursuing?! But the Avengers, on their own communicators, seemed to be responding to Iron Man's wild gesticulations. Turning, Fury found his focus caught by his earpiece. "Status report, Hill." He snarled. There was a static-filled pause, long enough to line the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director's gut with lead. "Fury to Bridge: Status report!" The silence was terrifying. "Bridge? Come in, Bridge."

"Sir," the sound of Hill's voice, thin and threaded with tension though it was, filled Fury with relief. "Sir, you need to get up here."

"Loki has escaped!"

"Loki's the least of our problems, sir!"

Fury could only stare, for a heartbeat, down the passageway the Asgardian invaders had taken. Then, turning, Fury sacrificed dignity for haste without a single second thought and sprinted after the Avengers, towards the Bridge of the still water-bound heli-carrier.

Away from an enraged warrior goddess who held the most dangerous foe Earth had ever faced, dragging him dangling from one armoured fist like a rag doll. Away from what his trusted second in command had just deemed the lesser of two problems.

And heaven help us when I find out what the other problem is!


The scene on the bridge was pandemonium. An organised, efficient uproar, but a maelstrom of chaos nonetheless. Fury wasn't the least bit surprised to see Thor in the middle of it.

He was surprised to see the blond warrior god un-armoured, and on his knees. He was even more surprised to see him looking happy about it.

In front of the blond thunderer, a man sat astride an eight-legged horse. For all that he seemed shorter than Thor, and thickset, the power radiating out of the armoured form was almost palpable. A single, keen eye flashed across the bridge, missing no detail however small. Fury could barely hope to imagine what the mind behind that gaze made of it. This is Odin. Must be. This is the ruler of Asgard. A chill flowed through the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director. This is the being who deems my world expendable, who would send out engraved invitations to its destruction.

"My King," Thor cried, jovially, "Father! It is good to see you!" Spreading his arms wide, encompassing the bridge and the newly-arrived Avengers, his enthusiasm seemed genuine. "I'd not expected your presence, but I'm well glad to see you! I've many great comrades-in-arms to introduce to you, and both I and Loki will value your wisdom. Doubtless Heimdall has already informed you that Loki has spoken. . . foolishly. He will need you to convince him of the error of his words."

Almost in echo of his remark, there was a faint scuffle and the Warriors Three appeared through one of several entries to the Bridge. Thor's delighted surprise in seeing them - as he roared a hearty welcome - seemed utterly unfeigned, though it dimmed when he spotted Sif's grip on his recalcitrant younger brother. "Lady Sif," He rumbled angrily, thunder spicing his words, "why hold you my brother? And away from his cell in such a manner as will cause offense to our hosts?"

"'Hosts'? We are not guests." Odin smiled, though there was little amusement in it. "These are humans, of Midgard, and for our protection from the Frost Giants aeons past, and your battles on their behalf more recently, this world owes us fealty. For our abilities, they worship us as deities. They cannot suffer to take offense."

And there it was. The final straw. Confirmation of all of Fury's deeply held fears regarding Asgard's high-handedness. They still think we're a bunch of viking villagers armed with spite and longships! Without sovereignty over our own world! Powerless, to be defended or cast aside at will! Fury was scarcely aware of stalking forward himself, of Bruce Banner placing a calming arm on Tony Stark's armour even as Black Widow stepped in front of a suddenly-livid Captain America. The rage in his blood settled to icy, clear-headed wrath. This supercilious, unilateral garbage was going to stop. Right now.

"In the past, humans may well have worshipped you as deities." He started, voice a cool, even tone that nonetheless managed to convey his disdain. The slipping threat of danger, of ire, danced through his words even as respect was notably absent. "Even now, there are some stupid-asses among us who might refer to you as gods."

"And rightly so! We are so far beyond your abilities and comprehension that it is only by considering us divine that Midgardians can comprehend our abilities." Volstag nodded. "Though I think hunger for a feast is a universal trait." He looked somewhat disappointed that his hint did not cause a banquet to immediately materialise the way it had in ages past.

"Humans fear and worship gods. It is the order of things." Odin nodded, ponderously, and Fury had a mere moment of disbelief, an instant to think, THAT's your ploy? You're going to pretend to be divine and expect us to fall all over you, forgetting that you just tried to DESTROY OUR WORLD?!

Before he could open his mouth to argue, to open fire on the arrogant asshole, or both, he was interrupted by a faint, harsh-sounding laugh.

Loki. Behind him, Loki had shaken off Sif's hand with an uncanny ease. Straightening under the weight of his shackles, he stood tall even as lightning traced a sparking mockery along the metalwork of his bonds. Insane genius in his look, and a wild rebellious freedom in his stance, the erstwhile son of Odin paced forward. Stepped between Odin and humans before him. The same defensive position he'd taken mere hours ago, though this time his foe seemed even more terrifying than the rift he'd faced then.

Fury tried really hard not to read anything into that.

"Loki," Odin began, regally. He got no further than that before the mischief maker interrupted him.

"You're going to play at being 'gods', Odin? Really? You don't think two millennia of Midgardian development might make that gambit a bit . . .old?" He smirked a challenge.

"We are Gods, Loki, to these humans of Midgard!" Odin snarled, "Gods and titans!"

And at that, all humour - false and bitter though it had been - fell from Loki's face. Snarling, the shacked, frail prisoner stalked forward, step by measured step. It escaped no one that Odin, on his extraordinary steed, leaned back. Loki spoke, then, softly, but with an icy bite that carried to all corners of the room. "I remember, Odin Allfather. Not all. But enough. And I know you do too."

A step, another silent pace forward on battered feet, only the faint clink of his manacles breaking the eerie quietude across the bridge, and Thor found himself shivering as inexorably, Loki continued.

"You would call yourself a god? Well, look into your heart, your mind, your past. Look, and remember just who and what it is that gods fear, Odin Allfather, because I'm standing right here and you? You have . . . my complete attention."

"I know," Odin breathed, heartbreak and desperation lacing his voice, "I know. And I know I was right to fear, and right to turn you away and then to steal you back when you were reborn. Reborn a frost giant, of all things!" His voice cracked, suddenly no longer a figure of mystery and power, suddenly he seemed simply an old man, a father tormented beyond his ken.

"And I need you to know that Frigga loves you, that I loved you, that your time as my son, my beloved second son, was some of the happiest days of my life." He straightened then, drew the mantle of Kingship around him as if it were a physical shield, a palpable force seeping into his marrow, straightening his stooped bones. His voice, reedy with heartbreak, grew strong and sonorous with power once more.

"I know, as I know that I must protect Asgard, and as I know that being the . . . object of your attention . . . is a dangerous position to occupy." Gloved hands creaked on the reigns that seemed almost an afterthought, as if such a creature as Sleipnir could truly be bridled. Odin's brows pulled tight, face turning cunning in an instant as all agony, all paternal anguish was ruthlessly shoved aside. "I know. So I brought you a distraction."

There was a hiss, a smell of leather charring - though what sort of leather, Steve Rogers could scarcely hazard a guess - but there was burning, and a glowing blue light that cast eerily familiar shadows across the bridge, and it was coming from Odin.

From the Tesseract in Odin's hand. Rogers was barely aware of moving, of screaming a warning - visions of Red Skull, of his body melting into a ruin to match his face as he gripped the box, of the metal floor of the plane shrieking in protest as the Tesseract burned through it - as Odin threw the cube.

At Loki. Unprotected, draped in chains and barely dressed in the rags his efforts to save Earth had left him with.

Who caught it. Barehanded.

Loki screamed, and the world went white.


Comments and feedback greatly appreciated - let me know what you think!