With Clint having left into the interlocking landscape of tree branches that make up the canopy of this immense rainforest, Phil has nothing to do but to stand in the gap of the entrance and watch the rain sleeting down and think. He stares out at an alien landscape, foliage just the wrong shade of green, leaves of an unfamiliar shape, the sheer scale of everything – in some ways it is inconceivable, hard to wrap your head around the fact that this is a different planet. In others... the sheer strangeness of the place is like stepping into science-fiction. He'd never really expected when he first joined SHIELD that he would have to deal with anything like this. Espionage is his game, and though he's certainly adaptable, this can be a struggle at times even for him.

The situation is not good. Though Phil has no doubts that what Clint said to him was the unvarnished truth – as he saw it at least – that doesn't mean it was pleasant to hear. To what extent Loki's control has moulded his partner's perspective he doesn't know. There is no data to draw from, no known outcomes that he could evaluate. There is only pain and confusion, the horror of a lack of control, so inimical to a man like himself.

And yet, for Clint, it seems the very same thing hardly bothers him, and that is what Phil finds the hardest to understand. He can't imagine giving in to the slavish mind that had taken over him in those drawn out hours, not to the extent that he could somehow find a way to take control of it. Submission, and hence a kind of freedom. Was that what Loki referred to in his many diatribes? Although, as with everything that comes from the mouth of a 'God of Lies', that cannot be trusted.

Is Clint lost to him entirely then? The thought carves out a hollow place in his chest and fills it with heavy lead. What they have – or perhaps now, what they had – is a rare thing for people in their line of work. Loneliness had been part of the bargain Phil had made when he chose this career, and he had never expected to find someone to share himself with, in the too-short stretches of time between missions. Clint... Phil would not be quick to say he loves someone, but that's the truth of it. He loves Clint, and letting him go, letting this break them, giving in to circumstances without a fight? That's anathema.

This crisis may have split them apart, changed everything around in a calamitous upheaval, but even if Phil has to rebuild their relationship piece by shattered piece he'll do it, however long it takes. Clint may not be able to return to SHIELD – that had been a valid point – but Phil has no intention of letting that stop him, even if it means staying here with a deadly enemy.

Clint was right; Phil had always known of his lover's mercenary nature. It was all that had led to sparing Natasha Romanoff's life, which had certainly turned out to be the best possible decision. Certainly her character was much the same as Clint's, and if their positions had been reversed Phil doubts the outcome would have been much different, save perhaps more chillingly effective. It had been a certain naivety on his own part to think that their differing moral standpoints wouldn't cause some kind of clash between Clint and himself, one way or another.

Perhaps Clint truly doesn't care who his employer is. Phil still has some hopes of changing his mind, but he will have to face the facts of the situation if he can't. He will not betray SHIELD, he will not betray Fury or his country. But if Loki has told Clint the truth, that he cares only for revenge on these distant alien powers, that may not be necessary, or at least if it is, not until long after Phil is dead. He is capable of compromise.

It merely remains to see precisely what the nature of that compromise might be.

Loki settles into a meditative position in the centre of a perfectly circular room. Although much of this sanctuary is cluttered with the debris, both useful and not, of centuries spent travelling Yggdrasil's branches studying the paths of seidr, this place at least he has kept clear. The floor is polished as smooth as any spell can make it, as are the walls. The ceiling is a mosaic of colour, such majesty that the small spectrum Midgardian eyes can comprehend would not be fit to take in a tenth of it.

Not that either of the two Midgardians here are likely to see it. He does not regret releasing Agent Coulson from his seid-weaving. It gave comfort to his hawk, and he could tell the other was not adapting well to it. Such a continual struggle would have damaged him in the end, and that is not what he wants. Still, he had enjoyed the way the man called him 'my lord'. A pity to give that up. There will be time enough in the future for these things however.

He opens the Tesseract container. The light of the universe casts itself upon his face. His senses thrill with the power of it, quiescent though it may be. This is power to reshape reality on unimaginable scale. This is the legacy of the world's beginning, of Ymir the Shaper, of Auðhumla, the first world that bore life amongst the sapling branches of the Great Tree, now long lost to the vast expanses of time, billions of years and many generations of even the long-lived Aesir and Jotnar.

It is dangerous even to touch it, but Loki thinks he has the measure of that much by now. The case is put aside, folded into dimensional space where it cannot disrupt the purity of the room. The wards on the walls are active now, a shimmering barrier of energy, letting nothing pass within or without. This chamber was constructed for the most delicate weavings of his seid, and he must but hope that it will be sufficient to this latest task. He places the Tesseract before him, his breath catching in his throat at the raw sense of the potential that shudders and roils beneath his fingertips.

For a moment, he knows fear. How can he hope to master such a thing as this, as it was meant to be mastered? His plans are not the lowly ambitions of less powerful beings. He means to have what even Odin dared not keep. Is it foolhardy, to aspire to such? He is after all only a monster, an unworthy thing. Yet his seid is strong, his very monstrousness that which gives strength to him, makes the mere thought of revenge possible. Is his heritage not that of kings, though fallen Jotnar kings they may be? Is Laufey's line not Ymir's line, just as Odin's is, though warped and twisted? Many ages ago Jotunheim had the same claim to power as Asgard, though they resorted to base, foul things and descended to that which they now are.

Loki has a right to the Tesseract and all it contains. All he must do is prove himself.

He holds his hands bare centimetres away from it, stretching out his seid-senses. This is what those mortals built their little machines to do, for they were not capable of it in and of themselves. Seidr is a complex thing if one hopes to have any greatness at it. One must envision both what-is and what-they-wish-to-be, holding them in the mind in the fullness of truth and comprehension before applying the will to change it. To truly know a thing, it must first be glimpsed through kennings, through the simplifying gaze of metaphor that leads one on a sure and certain path from outline and outwards appearance to the ephemeral nature of reality. Thus the warp and weft, thus weaving, thus call fire bane-of-wood, or honour mind's-worth, or sky Ymir's-skull. Thus one can see the whole of a thing as separate parts brought together, like a many-faceted jewel. Or at least this is how the Aesir learn, how he learned. To a mortal mind, he suspects it would make little sense.

Still, he has more important things to focus his mind upon. Distractions are dangers in such deep examination of such a deadly thing. The Tesseract is that which holds vastness within, and while to see one part is to be able to use it, for the ultimate use one must know all. A week shall barely scratch the surface, but it shall give him a place to begin.

There are many wondrous things confined within those small-seeming walls of the Tesseract. Many kennings that Loki could give to it – well-spring and world-weaver and star-spinner. Yet for all his silent contemplation, his utter stillness of self that allows his mind free rein to wander over the surface of the artefact in detail enough to make it a universe of its own, there is still something that is holding him back. An unseen obstacle to proper comprehension.

He disengages his thoughts and senses and turns them inwards. The Tesseract does not have a mind of its own as such, but to call it mindless would not be a true thing either. It must judge and evaluate, much as the action of Mjolnir now that the All-father has placed his weavings upon it, though in far deeper and more intricate action than that mere weapon. This obstruction is not a problem with the thing itself, thus it must be a problem within Loki.

That is not entirely a surprise. The problem generally is Loki.

This though... he is not entirely sure what precisely about himself is so objectionable. He scrutinises the subtle, fragile links that have grown up between the Tesseract and himself, looks to where they join upon the surface of his seid, of the core of his magic and of his inner self. That he is a seidmenn is not the problem and would make no sense if it were, for only one with some knowledge of the subject could approach the container of such power. Nor – at first – does it appear to be the facts of his birth, of the monster hiding beneath an illusion of Aesir-pale skin.

Then, with a sick and sinking heart, he realises. It is not his filthy blood, no, but the lie he has told to cover it. The Tesseract will allow none to approach it fully without honesty. For Loki that is as much a weapon as the lies he is known for, though the battlefield for both is not what those of Thor's ilk would recognise as such. In magic the truth is oft a necessary thing, for falsehood can be a trap as cloying as honey, and a lie may be twisted into truth in a perversion of a wish fulfilled. Honesty of intent, honesty of purpose, honesty of self, those are what the Tesseract requires of him, and of these three he has not the last. How could he, being what he is? Yet it seems if he wants to progress he will have to show his true skin, his Jotun skin.

The mere thought of it disgusts him. He knows that he is a monster, by birth and by the word of Asgard, yet he does not wish to see it. For all that he has told himself that he shall be what they say he is and act accordingly, there is still some great part of him that rejects that, rejects the awful truth that cuts as deep as any sword. This is a thing that Loki has always known; that a simple truth may be far more painful than any lie no matter how skilfully crafted. He had not thought to have it turned upon himself.

This is cowardice, he thinks to himself. This is foolishness. You are what your birth and your fate have marked you to be and still you deny it. However horrible it may be to look upon, however much his shape-shifted self, force of long habit, denies it the truth does not become less true.

And he does not have to look. His eyes will be upon the Tesseract, not upon his skin. Provided he remembers to cover himself with his falsehoods again once the week is up he shall not alarm his surprisingly faithful servant. By whatever mystery of loyalty his hawk has come to serve him even without the control of his seid, he does not wish to try it by exposing him to the true nature of the monster that is Loki. He will not chance driving away the one person who has remained at his side by choice, the only one in his entire life not forced into suffering him through the bonds of duty, be that duty of family or the lie of Aesir princedom.

Until now Loki has only done this with the Casket of Ancient Winters in his hands, and it had caused such a revulsion in him that he had stored that thing, both treasure and curse, in the furthest pocket of folded space that he had been capable of creating without losing it. He does not call it to him now. Its energies have a kinship to the Tesseract that will certainly be dangerous if the two are placed so close together. In any case he must find a way of removing the illusion by his own hands. Does he desire to have so little self-knowledge as to be trapped by it, an easy comfort of his own making and thus surely more than he deserves? No. He must face the monster.

It is, in the end, such a little thing. His seid permeates every inch of him, and though he has before attributed the ease with which he changes form merely to that, now he sees that it has more in it of the melting and reshaping of ice and water. Each cell of him changes at the gentle nudge of his command; that which he has learned the mortals call their genetic code. So simple to break apart and reform, the tiny miniscule parts joining a dance that is moulded and controlled by his seid before they re-weave together.

The deep blue sweeps over his skin, followed by the raised lines whose purpose he has never desired to question. The quality of his vision changes, a subtle shift that does not so much alter the spectrum of what is viewed but the way in which it is processed. The room is suddenly warm, though not enough so to truly trouble him.

Loki closes his eyes. He does not want to see the horror of his heritage writ large upon him. Laufey's child. Evil's kin. Without honour, undeserving of even the regard one would give an animal such as a horse, a hawk or a hound. A creature to be killed whenever possible. In truth, naught but vermin.

But that is what he is, and that is what the Tesseract wishes to see. So he shall not deny it.

He returns his mind to the artefact before him. This time it permits him access with ease. He has fulfilled the cruelty of its conditions. Paid its price. Ah, but that is the way of it, weregild owed not in gold but in pain, as with all seidr.

He bends his thoughts to his work, turning away from the sight of himself. If this is to be required for all his examination of the Tesseract, then he must become accustomed to ignoring it. He has no choice in the matter. The promise of his eventual revenge is too sweet a reward to give up.

Loki hadn't been lying about his place being well stocked. Though Clint has been out hunting more than once, to keep his eye in as much as to avoid awkward conversations, there hadn't been any real need for the animals he'd brought back. Strange things they are too, long-limbed and skinny all of them, though they turn out to be decent enough eating. With everything that the pantry contains, a massive amount of dried food, or salted, or otherwise preserved by some kind of stasis field that Loki would probably call magic, they're able to make very good meals out of the creatures.

It would be almost pleasant if not for the situation that constantly hangs over them. At least Phil seems to have believed him when he said he hadn't been Stockholm'd or anything, but Clint can tell he isn't exactly happy about it. Neither of them knows exactly what to say to make things better and so things just remain in this unpleasant holding pattern. Clint has tried to explain again why he thinks that staying with Loki is his only choice, and even that he thinks he might be able to be some kind of positive influence on the guy, but, well...

He gets it, he really does. Everything that's happened, everything that Loki has done... Phil might know the reasons behind it all, but with Clint involved it's clear he's finding it hard to put all that aside, and Clint can't really blame him. It is a terrible situation. He kind of wants to broach the question of whether Phil plans on staying past the week they've been given, but in all honesty he's afraid of the answer. For as awful as everything is, seeing Phil again is still a relief, it still makes him happy. He doesn't want to lose that, doesn't want to lose the chance of somehow fixing this.

The problem is that he doesn't know how, and it's clear that Phil doesn't either. There are a few stilted conversations, and it's not like the both of them aren't trying, it's just that they don't seem to be going anywhere. It doesn't help that Clint doesn't even know precisely what Loki is planning to do after he's finished studying the Tesseract. It's not that he's been cagey with his plans, more like he's too absorbed in whatever to remember to tell him about them. It makes it hard to consider arguments for Phil staying with them. If there's nothing here for him to do other than be bored... it hardly compares with the excitement of SHIELD active duty.

It's easy for Clint not to get bored. It's in his nature to be okay with it – sniper, remember – but he knows Phil isn't made like that, just like most regular people aren't. Clint has this sneaking suspicion that Loki might not have taken that into account, being an extremely long lived alien and all that. For him a week is probably like blinking. If life working for Loki is just going to be a continuation of this... it makes it even less likely that Phil will stay, hell, even less fairthat Clint should ask it of him.

Things come to a head, of sorts, after a few days. Phil meets him on the way in from another of his hunting trips, his hands clasped in front of him in a way that Clint knows means business. "I think it's about time we talked," Phil says, a kind of iron calm in his voice. A trying-too-hard kind of calm. "Talked properly about the two of us."

Clint dumps the squirrel-bear-thing he's carrying. He nods. Phil's right, they can't keep doing this strained dance around one another. Communication. Yeah. That stuff. That's what they need. He follows his lover – he still thinking of Phil as that, perhaps overly optimistically – to the room that's set up as a kind of lounge, though with a great deal more of random alien crap lying about the place than might usually be expected.

"You're right," he says, sitting down on a couch upholstered in... some kind of leather. Probably best not to think about that too much. "I've been avoiding it, you've been, I don't know, working up to it..."

Phil is fiddling with the cuff of his shirt. It's a soft, tan, linen thing laced with cords at the neck, clearly made for someone a lot taller. There hadn't exactly been a supply of human-standard clothes about the place. "I would like us to be sure that we're on the same page," he says. "And I would just like you to know that I don't want to give up our relationship, no matter how much this has strained it."

Clint feels a warm glow rising inside him. He'd never admit it out loud, but he'd been worried. Worried that choosing this path had cut him off from Phil entirely, created a kind of moral point of no return. "I don't want to give it up either," he says. "That was never a price I was willing to pay. I'd hoped that you and Tasha both would never get involved, though I guess that was a stupid thing to wish for."

"I wish you were able to come back home with me Clint," Phil says softly. "But you were right. It isn't possible any more. I can accept that, even if I'm not happy with the situation circumstances have left you in."

"And I'm not about to ask you to stay here full time," Clint replies. This is going... fairly well. Better than the last few conversations have gone anyway. "It wouldn't be fair on you. Not that I know what Loki's planning yet. Though I guess whatever we decide, it's going to depend on him a bit. I think he'll do as I ask though – he seems to... like me, I guess."

Phil raises an eyebrow. "You believe he'll be willing to let me go?"

"He didn't keep the mind-control on," Clint points out. "That's a good sign, right?" He's not entirely sure which one of them he's trying to convince. It would be a lot easier if he could talk to Loki through their telepathic link, but he had been very clear on the Do Not Disturb thing.

Phil makes a non-committal sort of noise. "A compromise would be best," he says. "We're both capable of a long-distance relationship – ideally it would be little different to the time we spent apart working for SHIELD. I would spend some time here with you and some time with SHIELD. Perhaps you could even come back to see the Avengers occasionally."

"I'd like that."

Phil smiles. "However," he says, "I don't know if Loki has transportation capabilities that would allow that, assuming he would even agree to it."

Clint sighs. This sucks. Everything feels like it's up in the air and they're just waiting for it to drop, possibly right on top of their heads. And if it's Loki they're waiting for... that's just the opposite of helpful.

"It really bothers you doesn't it," he says. "That I'm fine with throwing my lot in with him. Maybe it makes me a traitor, maybe it makes me brain-washed, I don't know. But it if wasn't for it fucking everything up with you, then I really would be okay with it. Happy with it."

"Yes, it bothers me," Phil replies. "How could it not bother me? I don't believe it's healthy. But I promised myself I would try and be willing to compromise, for the sake of our relationship. Leave you with Loki, so long as I could be around to make sure you were safe, as much as I'm able."

Clint thinks that Phil is making it sound like an abusive relationship or something, which couldn't be further from the truth. Unless you count consensual hair stroking, which if that's how the Aesir, or possibly the Jotun, have sex it would be really weird. But that's probably not the case. And he doesn't think Phil will appreciate him mentioning it either.

"I'm happy with whatever can get us as close to back to normal as possible," he says. "That's my entire criteria."

Phil smiles. "That's what I want as well. As long as we can be honest with each other, as long as you can stand me telling you from time to time when I think your situations is... getting out of hand..."

"And you can stand me telling you to occasionally shush," Clint retorts.

"Then we can make this work again. We will make it work again."

For the first time since they came here Clint feels hopeful. All is not lost, love will save the day and so on. Perfectly trite he knows, but sometimes also true, with a little effort and elbow grease. So yeah, fix his relationship with Phil and maybe fix Loki too. Well, a man's got to have goals.

So things are a little better after that. There's still not very much to do other than hunt, but at least he and Phil are talking to one another. Clint fills him in on everything that's happened over the past few weeks, the whole story from the moment the staff touched him to the moment he'd seen Phil getting out of that truck and his heart had soared. He has an eye for details; he makes the tale long enough and involved enough that it fills the long hours of the days – and in fact the days do seem slightly longer than normal, though whether that's boredom or an actual quirk of whatever planet this is he doesn't know. In return Phil tells him how things were at SHIELD, the full impact of everything Loki had done up until the attack on the Helicarrier. He doesn't do it to make Clint feel guilty, but even so a little of that emotion trickles through. Still, it's a price he willingly pays for what is all told an acceptable outcome.

Of course talking isn't all they do. Not that it's been terribly long by their standards, but given how much each of them had worried about the other there's a definite need for touch, for the warmth of skin to skin, for a reassurance that yes, both of them are alive, both in one piece. A little of the awkwardness still remains, but making love is as easy as it ever was. There's time to take things slow, long afternoons spent in bed amongst soft thick furs. It is familiar, and comforting in its familiarity. Despite everything else, this hasn't changed.

All in all, the rest of the week passes quicker than Clint anticipated. He's hardly paid attention to counting the days, but typically Phil has been doing it for him. On the morning of the seventh day he untangles himself from Clint's octopus-like limbs and says, "Today we find out Loki's intentions."

Clint props himself up on his elbow, haze of sleep clearing quickly. Before the whole SHIELD thing he hadn't been much of a morning person, but military training soon beat that out of you in one way or another. "He's reasonable," he replies. "It'll be fine." He's fairly sure he's telling the truth.

From that point on the air takes on a tense feeling, a tingling sense of anticipation. After breakfast they start hanging around the entrance chamber, watching the door that leads to the central room. For whatever reason, perhaps the undercurrent of faintly worried energy that Phil is giving off despite his attempt at projecting his usual calm, Clint is having difficulty slipping into his usual sniper's patience.

At about mid-morning, the door swings open. The glimpse that Clint gets of the room inside is dark and featureless, though Loki's silhouette blocks out most of it. Loki looks weary; his shoulders are slumped and his hair falls around his face in even greater disarray than usual. He steps forward into the light of the torches and Clint sees something that's... more than a little odd to say the least.

"Hey boss," he calls out, coming forwards to meet him. "Is there any particular reason why you're blue?"

Loki's eyes snap up to meet his, and for a moment he looks like a cornered animal. Then he spins on his heel and vanishes back inside the room. The door slams shut behind him.

Okay, Clint thinks, that's odd even for Loki.

"Something's wrong," Phil says, coming to stand at his shoulder. He's frowning in concern.

"Yeah," Clint replies. But the embargo on interrupting has probably been lifted now, so he has his telepathic link. His mind is already stretching out through it, questing towards the cold shine of Loki's thoughts.

Hey, he thinks. Hey, are you alright?

For a long moment there is no reply, but finally Loki thinks back, sounding miserable; I can't seem to change it back.

Clint exchanges glances with Phil, who seems to have guessed what he's doing. The whole mental link thing had been another thing he'd disapproved of, but it's not like it's going to go away if Clint pretends it doesn't exist. Plus, it's useful.

"I'm going to go in there and see what the matter is," he tells his lover. Because it's clear that something is wrong, very much so. Phil nods, and Clint sets off towards the door, hoping Loki hasn't locked it behind him.

He hasn't. Clint pushes it open and gets his first glimpse of Loki's inner sanctum, or whatever this is. It's very... empty. That's the first impression he gets. Smooth and perfectly circular, with the Tesseract resting on the floor in the very centre, illuminating the place with its unearthly light. There's some kind of mosaic or painting on the ceiling, but it kind of hurts his eyes to look it at so he doesn't. Loki is standing with his back to him, starting at his hands. Yup, blue. And, Clint notices, with some kind of scarification running in distinct patterns over his skin.

"It remains a mystery to me why you are still loyal," Loki says quietly. "I have told you already that I am a monster, and there is little in me worthy of love – my so-called family is proof enough of that. Perhaps now seeing the truth of it that I have tried to hide will be enough to drive you away."

"Do you want to drive me away?" Clint asks.

Loki laughs, an unpleasant sound. It reminds Clint too much of how he was at the beginning, when he was still recovering from what the Chitauri did to him. "Perhaps I should, for your own sake," he says. "But I am a selfish monster, and I do not wish to give up the first person to treat me with such kindness, which is more than I deserve."

"Honestly?" Clint says. "You don't seem like very much of a monster to me. Not more than I am, or 'Tasha is. You did what you had to do. So what if you're a Jotun? You told me about that before, remember, and I'm still here."

Loki shoots him a bitter look. "You say that only because you do not understand what the Jotnar are. I was born evil and not all Asgard's trying has changed that. I am still a monster, still a man who uses seid, a liar, a trickster, no true warrior and utterly without honour. I do not deny this. It is my destiny, the path of my fate, and since Asgard did not see fit to slay me while they had the chance so shall they reap the result of their false mercy."

What precisely is Clint supposed to say to that? He's no shrink, he's a soldier and a killer, he doesn't have the words to sooth this kind of vicious hurt. Whatever Asgard's warrior culture is really like, they've really fucked Loki over. None of the so-called faults or crimes that Loki just listed sound particularly monstrous to him, even considering the greyness of his own morals, and he's well aware that murder was not on that list. Killing is apparently a-okay, in fact Clint would be willing to bet one of the problems the Aesir have with Loki is that he doesn't do enough of it, or maybe just that he doesn't do it in the right way. Most of those who died at the first Tesseract installation had the roof dropped on their head. Only a half-dozen or so were killed by Loki personally. To the Aesir, is that dishonourable?

"Just because they call you a monster doesn't mean that you are," he says, trying to find some way of explaining this. As though a few words from him will make any difference. But there must be something about him that's done some good, because Loki had seemed less unstable before this latest set-back. "Here on Midgard, we don't give a damn about any of those things. The whole point of SHIELD is to do espionage when necessary – that's what I do, and Natasha does. Even what Phil does occasionally"

"She is a woman – that does not count," Loki replies. He is still staring at his hands, and Clint thinks that perhaps the tips of his fingers are starting to look paler. "I cannot comment on the rest of you. Midgard is... different. Many of you are monsters here, as Asgard measures them."

"That's some stupid fucking gender essentialism bullshit," Clint tells him. Not that he hasn't been guilty of it himself from time to time, but luckily he's had 'Tasha to smack him over the head with the fact that he was being a douche. It's a learning process.

He was right, Loki's skin is definitely starting to turn back to normal, though Clint supposes it isn't really normal at all considering that's apparently what he's meant to look like. It seems to relax him a little though. "You understand that even with the All-Tongue little of what you just said makes sense," he says.

"That's because Asgard is stuck in the past," Clint replies. "Cutting edge technology, completely backwards everything else."

Loki laughs, just a little bit. "Before my fall I would have taken great offence at that," he says. "But it seems to me that if I do not muster the strength to take my revenge on Asgard within a few centuries, your people will do it for me. For I do not believe Odin All-Father would suffer another race to ascend to match his power, and if his willingness to war meets your opinions of this so-called 'backwardness', I can but shudder with pleasure to think of the consequences."

"Well I'm... glad I made you feel better boss," Clint says. Loki turns to face him, and he has returned to his old appearance. The only blue is the faint reflections of the Tesseract's light in his eyes.

"Yes, there is something very pleasing about you," Loki replies.

"Seriously though," Clint says. "Just because they call you a monster, just because you don't fit some bullshit standards they insist on holding you to, it doesn't mean anything. I would have thought you're the kind of guy to piss all over any label that someone tried to stick on you. Or decide to own the label; I'm pretty sure that's a thing that people do. Maybe I should introduce you to Lady Gaga."

"One of your Midgardian warlords?" Loki asks, sounding curious. Clint laughs.

"A singer, actually," he replies. "Phil likes her, it's his guilty pleasure. I'm more of a country/western fan. I don't know what your tastes in music are, but you never know. It might be helpful."

"I will consider it, if you think it wise," Loki says. "But for now I believe we have business to discuss, you, your partner and I."

Clint nods. He's not sure if Loki is changing the subject on purpose, but it doesn't matter. This won't be the last time they'll have a conversation like this he's sure, but now he knows next time he'll try and be better prepared. A happier, healthier more stable Loki would be good for everybody.

"Okay. We've come up with a compromise, but it all depends on what you're planning on doing next. Basically boss, we'll lay it out for you and you tell us what you think."

Loki smiles. "I look forward to hearing it."

There's still an undercurrent of pain, shoved down somewhere deep, but Clint thinks he has been somehow helpful here. If he can keep doing what he's doing... Not that he has any objections to revenge as a concept, but the way Loki talks about it seems less than healthy. So even if this isn't what Clint would have chosen, he has a place here, a purpose.

That's enough for him.

There is something astonishingly reassuring about his hawk's reaction. There is such loyalty, it appears, in the man's heart that not even a monster's face is sufficient to break it. What thrall of Asgard would be willing to serve a malicious creature such as him? None, yet this mortal is willing. This mortal, who stands on a firm dividing mark between good and evil in his great, grey heart, will condescend to serve a creature of the blackest birth. It is... amazing.

In all honesty it warms him all through, this un-looked for faith. Clint does not seem to believe in Loki's own monstrosity, and though he knows the Midgardian speaks merely out of ignorance and the strange ideas this realm possesses, it is still pleasant to be thought of that way. It has the comfort of all lies, but he is weak, and so he welcomes it. Weak too, to keep this noble warrior serving a monster, but he cannot imagine losing him after all this. Loki does not like to need any creature, to be beholden in that way, but he needs Clint Barton.

His hawk believes he can convince him that he holds some kind of goodness using Midgard's ways. And perhaps all he says is true, in that realm. But for all Midgard's unexpected strength, they have changed much since the old days, since the time before the war when Odin looked upon it and its inhabitants as one would pets, to be moulded and brought up in Asgard's own image. Those little mortals were Asgard's property, and not to be tampered with by the rampaging avarice of Jotunheim. That situation no longer exists. Midgard is its own, and so its morals have fallen far from the golden ideals of the Golden Realm. Perhaps Odin is not aware of this, for it seems his mind turned to other things after Laufey's defeat and the loss of his eye. Perhaps more occupied with his latest project, taming his newest pet, his little Jotnar runt.

Odin will regret that. Both in Loki's revenge and Midgard's eventual expansion. Still all that does not change the fact that Midgard is hardly a place of good, hardly a realm of impeccable honour. It has seidmenn aplenty, it wars amongst its own using methods fit for no true warrior. Though not yet unsalvageable, there are still many monsters here, and if Odin wishes to make any use of the place in future he will have to cull it. So for all his hawk's pretty words, all his loyalty and faith, it changes nothing. Loki is, and always will be a monster.

Yet perhaps he ought to commit to his own resolution. Take pride in his monstrosity; take ownership of that which he is. If Midgard welcomes monsters, why, let him be welcome! Let him listen to this female skald whom Agent Coulson holds in such high esteem. If he will never be good, let him make the most of evil.

Much heartened, Loki follows his hawk through to where Clint's lover waits as patient as the predator he is. The foulness of Jotun blue has vanished from his skin at last, hidden back under the illusion of shifting shape, that centuries-long lie. He is in good mind to listen to their requests, to give his loyal soldier anything he desires. Few rewards that are in his power to bestow are correct recompense for such a show of devotion. Were he still Prince in Asgard he would have showered the man in gold, in well-worked finery and weapons bought from the dwarves – though he has never made such a bet with them as the mortals tell it.

"So that's all sorted out," Barton announces, clapping his hands together as if to banish the subject from mind. His lover looks less convinced – and he is certainly lover once more, for Loki can detect the scent of their mingled pheromones in the air, unfamiliar yet still recognisable for what they are. However he does not press the matter. No doubt he has more important concerns right now.

Loki nods, backing up his hawk's words. "I apologise for my abrupt reaction," he says. "But I understand you have a proposal to put to me."

"That's correct." How stiff and proper this hunting-cat is! The mortal is nervous around him, though not quite afraid. Wary of Loki's power, which is wise. Loki would keep him if he could, go back for the third in their trio, but they could only be bound to him through seid and Clint would not allow that. If he wants their loyalty, it will be a thing slowly bought. But he is Jotun, and they need no golden apples, though he supposes consumption of them can only have aided his health. He will have the weight of years on his side if he desires to court them.

Nor does he have any intention of letting those sworn to him perish, as mortals are wont to do. Even if he has to sneak into Asgard to steal from Idunn's garden, he will not let them waste and die.

"Then speak," Loki says. "And I shall grant it. I am a creature that rewards those who have served me well, as your lover has."

Coulson raises an eyebrow and Loki smiles at him. He can afford to be magnanimous, to be pleasant and personable. Not for nothing is he called Silvertongue, though prolonged exposure tends to rather result in a tarnish as his true nature becomes apparent. As proof, see the entire example of Asgard.

"You understand that I don't particularly want to stay here," Coulson says. "You brainwashed me, and to be diplomatic, I'm not exactly pleased by that."

"It was necessary in the moment," Loki replies. "But you have my apologies, of course." It is not even a lie. Although his oath only bound him not to kill, he is well aware of the stress his seid-spell put on the bond between these two and for that he is sorry.

"My loyalty remains with SHIELD," Coulson says, "and although Clint's is with you now, that doesn't mean either of us is willing to be parted from the other because of it."

"There is peace between your folk and me," Loki tells him. "I do not mean for this situation to cause conflict. You wish to return to your masters, I understand that."

"But we want to be able to visit each other," Clint says. "Trouble is if we're going to be hanging out all over the nine realms that might be tricky."

"So you would like me to facilitate this," Loki says. This is good. This is something he can do, and it will give him very many opportunities to slowly win Philip Coulson over to him. He saw enough inside the man's head to know he is more morally aligned than his little hawk, that he has greater honour, more inclined to combat hand to hand and careful to keep violence between those capable of returning it. He would make a worthy Einherjar should he fall in battle. "Very well. Some charms can be devised to permit you to walk the paths between the worlds as I do."

"You seem... very accommodating," Coulson says, sounding suspicious.

"All my desires have been met," Loki replies. "I have no need to be petty, and no matter my actions, I hold no particular enmity for mortals. I hardly blame you for disliking me – I killed many of your brothers-in-arms – but it was necessary. The number would have been greater, save for your lover's influence, and for his sake I would make that up to you."

"Thank you boss," Clint says, pleasure and satisfaction humming along the seid-link they share. "We really appreciate this."

"The preliminary enchantment can be done here," Loki explains, "but to anchor it, and of course to return Agent Coulson home, we shall need to return to Midgard for a short time. And it may be wise in any case to inform your former master, the one known as Fury, of all of this. I made my bargain for peace only with those so-called Avengers, and he may be less pleased to hear it."

"He understands bigger picture stuff," Clint says.

"That's true," Coulson says, "but equally he may take the attack on SHIELD personally." There is a quiet and calculating sense behinds those words, a careful mind well capable of analysis. "Not to mention permitting alien beings to invade Earth – would Asgard allow such an attack on its sovereignty?"

Loki reflects on the truth of that last point, and of the symmetry between two certain cyclopean rulers. Both proud, both monarchs and leaders. No, Fury shall be no ally of his, shall not accept any simple promise of peace. Not that he has anything to fear. He is Loki – he is a god. "Asgard would not," he replies. "But Fury has not the power to trap me or hurt me, so what does it matter? If you worry he will try and stop your travel that is of no consequence – I may shield you from his detection as I shield myself from Heimdall Gatekeeper. I do not anticipate that I should cross paths with him again."

"We captured you before," Coulson points out.

"I allowed it," Loki replies.

"So all we need to do it make sure you stay out of his way," Clint says. "We could hang out at Stark Tower – Stark doesn't exactly trust SHIELD, and didn't you say something about wanting to talk to the guy anyway? We should be able to lay low with him for a little while and then you and I can head of to wherever, and Coulson can go home and be debriefed."

Loki smiles. "A good plan." Clint is right; he has an offer to make to the mortal seidmenn, one which he is certain the man will be interested in. A quick, clever, ever curious mind matched with skills such as a dwarven thane might envy. Not one to resist knowledge freely given, even once apprised of the price seid often demands. The power source nestled in Stark's breast is proof of that.

"Very well," he says. "I will start to weave the enchantments you need, and tomorrow we shall depart for Midgard.

Loki brings them out of the space between worlds onto the sweeping balcony of Stark's tower. The broken glass of the windows has been replaced and through it he can see the beginnings of work to repair the rest of the damage done to the citadel. The only thing that appears not to have been touched is the remnants of the letters that once blazoned this prince's palace with its owner's name. All that remains is the single 'A'. Odd, considering Stark's vanity. Resources cannot be the obstacle – that mortal wants for nothing physical. No, there is a more subtle cause lying behind what would otherwise appear to be a small matter. A question he may ask him when they meet.

Loki leads his two mortals into the high room that looks out over the city, the room where but a week before Loki was himself bested – in force of arms only – by the great green berserker they call the Hulk. The crater left by his own body remains, though the slab of stone has been marked out to be removed and replaced. He turns away from it, uncomfortable with remembered pain that rasps across his nerves like ghosting sparks. He is not nervous. Merely wary. Stark had been protective of that particular monster, so it very well may remain in the building. Still, he can deal with either of its forms, if he must.

Loki is aware of the construct JARVIS sounding a silent alarm at his presence here, so they do not have long to wait before the doors of the elevator chime open – a typically lazy Midgardian invention – and the master of the house steps out. To Loki's immediate displeasure, he is not alone. It seems that all the Avengers have been residing in this hall, even his so-called brother. The mere sight of him makes emotion thick and choking rise up in Loki's throat. It is not entirely the hate he has hitherto been used to. There are other feelings within it, unfamiliar ones he does not wish to examine over deeply.

He may no longer have his sceptre, for which he can only be thankful, but his fingers flex all the same in preparation for spell-casting. It would not take much for them to come to blows, and he has no intention of holding back.

"Brother!" Thor exclaims. Mjolnir is at his waist, looped through his belt, and surprisingly he makes no attempt to draw it free. "We had not expected your arrival, but it is most welcome."

Loki's eyes narrow. "I find that hard to believe," he says. "But I did not come here to speak with you."

"Perhaps not, yet still I would have words with you Loki," Thor says, stepping forward. None other in his band of warriors seems to wish to step in, though surely they must know now what has passed between them, of Loki's own desire for revenge. They know that this is not safe. "It seems I have much to make amends for."

The mere fact that he would admit it stops Loki cold. Make amends? Thor, the golden son, the arrogant warrior, would apologise to a monster without honour? Did Loki's own memory really make so much of a difference? "Speak then," he says through a suddenly dry throat.

"I have wronged you Loki," Thor says. "I should never have said that you imagined the insults my friends and I have given you– these great mortal warriors have shown me otherwise. They have great wisdom here, of which I am but only starting to learn. Believe me Loki when I say that no fact of your birth or whatever your use of seidr could ever make me think any less of you, though I have been much remiss in expressing it to you. All our family has. We claimed to love you, but our actions never showed it."

Loki is without words. Never would he have expected such things to come from Thor's mouth.

"I am not perfect," Thor continues. "In truth the opposite. I have belittled you on our adventures, never given you credit for the many times you saved our hides. Never given you the glory you deserved, the praise of the court, the feasts in your honour. Greedy and arrogant, I took it all as my due. Your advice to me has ever been good, yet I have ignored it many times, or forgotten its source if I did pay it heed. I have treated you ill, and yet thought to claim brotherhood which I am not worthy of."

"Have you forgotten I am Jotnar, that I am a monster?" Loki asks, "You cannot desire to be a brother to that."

"Whatever your birth you are no monster Loki," Thor says, no pleads. There is a horrible sincerity in every one of his words that Loki cannot deny. Thor has no skill in crafting falsehood, he could never lie so well. He means everything he says. "What do you and I, what does Asgard, know of Jotunheim save tales from a time of war? They may very well be monsters all, but that you yourself are who you are makes me believe that cannot be the case."

"And my lack of honour?" Whatever Thor's words, Loki sincerely doubts the rest of Asgard would be so... so accepting. Hah, they never have been, even before any but Odin knew of his true heritage. Does Thor think to change that by a few kind words? He may be a prince, but the people would not stand for a Frost Giant in the royal family.

"The woman of spiders has made me see that perhaps... perhaps what Asgard thinks of as dishonourable is... is not so bad."

Oh, Loki could laugh. His hawk's shield-sister is twin to him in mind as well as soul it seems. She has been using the same arguments, the same logic of Midgard upon his once-brother as Clint used upon him not a day before. But that does not make it any more true, for all that poor, easily-swayed Thor has been persuaded.

"Do not give up your own honour in a foolish attempt to win me back," he says. "You think I do not know my place, where I come in the natural order of things? I am a seidmenn because there is nothing else I can be, but I am not arrogant enough to call myself good, or noble."

"I am sorry Loki," Thor says. "I am sorry brother – for I do hope to be your brother again one day – for all the things I have done to make you rightfully hate me. And most of all I am sorry for not trying harder to find you after your fall. I should have, I should have searched the Nine Realms and beyond, I should have quested throughout Yggdrasil after you. I should have found you and saved you, and I cannot lay any blame upon you for hating me, the one who left you to the hands of those foul alien beasts. You have shown me what was done to you, and oh Loki, I am sorry."

"Even if I were to accept your apology I would not call you brother," Loki says. He could not. Not after everything. And it would not be fair to Thor either, who will one day have to take up the throne of Asgard. He cannot have the monster Loki as his kin when that happens.

"No, I do not ask for that," Thor says, though the undisguised pain in his eyes speaks differently. He is so open, he hides nothing. He has not the mind to. It is one of the qualities that Loki has always found pleasing in him, and besides, it is a fine trait for a warrior to have. "I do not deserve it, and I see now that I should not force it upon you when you do not desire it. Mayhap that will change with time, if I... if I can find some way to make it up to you Loki."

All he can do in reply is nod. He had put that memory into Thor's head to hurt him, to take some measure of the revenge he has sworn upon him and all of Asgard. He had not expected even in the wildest of his imaginings to gain such ground as this. Is this not what he wanted to hear from his once-brother's lips since before his ill-starred time on Asgard's throne? An acknowledgement of worth? Equality? Yet what use is that, now that he knows what he is. For all Thor's pretty words, for all that it soothes something harsh and rough and broken-edged down in the heart of him, it cannot change that one simple fact, that he is Jotnar. Asgard is no longer his home. His family has never been his family. Perhaps Thor does not hate him, but Odin has disowned him by his own words.

Thor comes closer, close enough to grasp his shoulder in one large and calloused hand, a surprisingly comforting grip. "I have much still of learn of Midgard's wisdom, Loki, but my friends will be diligent in teaching me. I do not wish to repeat the mistakes of my past."

"I suppose I must congratulate you," Loki finally makes himself say. "But I did come here with a purpose, and this little heart to heart, pleasant as it is, only delays that."

"Aye Loki," Thor says, smiling like a young pup. "Aye, no doubt you wish to speak to these steadfast warriors. But will you come back to speak to me again? I would do my best to repair what I have broken between us."

"I shall consider it," Loki says, which is more than he feels should be expected of him under the circumstances. "Now, if you will..." He lightly brushes Thor's hand from his shoulder. Though this unexpected event has rather put him off his balance, he has yet the equanimity to do what he came here for. There are enchantments he must complete, mortals he must speak with.

He will have time to absorb the full import of this later.

Tony hadn't been expecting the so-called God of Mischief back so soon. After dropping some sort of horrible torture memory in his big brother's head and getting well... pretty much everything he wanted, Tony had thought he would have gone off to do his own thing with the Tesseract and that would be that. Apparently not. And then Thor had taken a cue from whatever sensitivity and not-being-a-douche-bag training Agent Romanoff has been giving him and gone forth to pour his goddamned heart out.

Well. It seems to have done some good at that, which is also pretty surprising. For all that Loki claims to hate the guy with the burning power of a thousand fiery suns, a little soul-bearing and he's forgiving Thor all over the place. Were Tony in his position, he'd be a lot less pleasant about it. They're talking, what, centuries of being made to feel like shit? Tony had maybe a decade or so of his dad pulling that crap and he can't imagine setting it all aside. Alright, there had been the whole 'saving his life' thing with the atom model and re-creating a new element and all that jazz, but fat lot of good that did after all these years.

So yeah, for all he's a long-lived alien sorcerer with no concept of human morality, Loki just might be the better man between the two of them.

Family reunion over and done with for now, Loki leads his little duo of mind-slaves – although with Barton Tony supposes that's arguable – over to chat briefly with Agent Romanoff. Thor sort of stands there awkwardly for a moment before clapping Cap on the shoulder and leading him off towards the armour landing platform for some kind of conversation based on their fondness for hitting things with big metal objects. Probably a wise choice of conversation partner, since going by prior experience Loki is not terribly fond of Al Oerter there.

Tony sticks with Bruce and tries to eavesdrop without looking like he is. He's sure that Loki will want to talk to the pair of them – he'd mentioned making some kind of offer to Tony actually, now he recalls it. Makes sense, since apparently they are both magic users as Asgard counts these things. He hardly needs to bother though, because Loki doesn't seem to care if they hear him.

"Agent Coulson is returning to SHIELD," Rudolph says, though Tony can't really call him that since he's not wearing that ridiculous hat anymore. "I am crafting a pair of amulets for them both that will allow them to visit each other – and of course for Clint to visit you. I have no intention of forcing the three of you apart."

Romanoff's eyes are narrowed, her arms folded over her chest. Whether that body language actually means anything is less clear, considering just who it's coming from.

"Of course only Clint and Agent Coulson will be able to activate the charms," Loki continues, smiling as though he's trying to be friendly and disarming. It's actually quite a nice smile, if you can forget how many people he's killed, directly or indirectly. "I am mindful of the potential for misuse."

"The offer appears to be made in good faith," Coulson says mildly. His eyes look normal rather than that glowing blue shit which seems to indicate mind-control – there had been something about that buried in a number of the after action reports from the Helicarrier.

"And Clint?" Romanoff asks.

"I'm staying with him," Barton replies. "I'm sorry Natasha, I wish I could explain more..."

"And why should you not?" Loki asks. "We shall remain here for some little while, so you should go with your shield-kin and speak amongst yourselves." He puts one hand over his heart and gives a little bow to Natasha. "I have great respect for you after all, my lady. There are not many who can best me in a battle of wits."

Agent Romanoff very nearly smiles at that, a shocking display of emotion in Tony's mind. Dear lord, if Loki somehow managed to get her on his side... It simply doesn't bear thinking about. The pair of them are both terrifying enough on their own.

Loki straightens up and looks over at Tony and Bruce. "There are others here with whom I would have words," he says. "But before I leave you three to your own devices, I have a minor question. You were the one who had the sceptre last, the one the Chitauri gifted me with. What was done with it?"

"It was sent back to SHIELD for study," Romanoff replies. "We are being very careful with it, you can be sure."

"Wise," Loki says, with a shark-like grin. "Even now it links back to those who forged it. They can cast their minds through it and watch what transpires in the world around. I would not let it near anything you wish to keep hidden. Though this attack of theirs you have so ably repulsed, their utmost master is not one to be daunted by such a setback. He will come questing after the Tesseract by other means eventually, though he'll be no threat for several years."

"And what are you planning to do about him?" Romanoff asks. There's something viciously amused about her words. Loki laughs a little, that soft, slightly disturbed-seeming chuckle.

"Not on your account but on my own," he says. "Though you knew that of course. Oh, he shall pay for what was done to me, as will his race of living weapons. He'll rue the day he laid hands on Loki-Prince."

And with that he turns his attention to Tony, and to Bruce, who is shifting nervously at his shoulder. Tony resists the urge to step protectively in front of his science bro. They've only been cementing their friendship over the course of this past week, tinkering on this and that together down in the lab, bouncing theories and ideas off one another. It's not exactly usual for him to make friends with people, which only makes the ones he has all the dearer to him. Even though Bruce is the Hulk, and thus entirely capable of taking care of himself physically, it's the emotional side of things that Tony is more worried about. Loki has a sharp tongue, and the Hulk did throw him around rather the last time they met.

"So, my two seidmenn," Loki says. "I said I would return to speak with you, and so I have." His eyes flick over Tony, lingering for a moment on the arc reactor shining through his thin T-shirt. "Do not think me unmindful of the similarities between us," he says softly.

"Yeah, I kind of noticed them myself," Tony replies. "So Draco Malfoy, what did you want to talk to us about?"

Loki cocks his head to one side. "I may have taken more heed of Midgard's culture than Thor," he says. "But I am no more likely than he to understand the references you make Tony Stark."

Tony grins. Oops. Not that he's actually sorry or anything; in fact it gives him an excuse to use all kinds of faintly insulting nicknames for the guy without getting turned into a frog or something. Is that even a thing that Loki could do?

"The two of you practise mortal science," Loki says, getting straight to the point, "and I the paths of seidr your kind call magic. There is kinship between the two. We may learn much from each other – you seem the kind of man who might have some skill in the field, if you can craft spells as well as you do metal. In other words, I wish, as you mortals might say, to 'talk shop'."

Tony grins. "See, look at you using a reference already."

Loki looks one step away from rolling his eyes. "I have skimmed a few of your mortal colloquialisms from Clint's mind, it is true." Hmm, on first name terms now, are they? Interesting.

"Okay well, yeah, if you want to talk about your super advanced Asgardian magi-tech then I'm hardly going to pass up that opportunity now am I," Tony says, looking over at Bruce for confirmation. Bruce nods.

"I think it'll be very interesting... to look at the points of comparison," he says. "For example the overlap between the current body of research in the field of gamma radiation and the signals that the Tesseract was giving off..."

"My study of that artefact is only just begun," Loki says, "and your realm not ready to share it. Besides berserker, you hardly need any more power than you have already stolen away beneath your skin, nor I think would you wish to pay the price it would ask of you."

Bruce's mouth twists with something between embarrassment and pain. Tony wants to hug him. He seems very huggable in this moment. "No, you're right," he says. "And I'm sorry for... you know. For Hulk smashing you."

By the looks of it Loki would rather not have been reminded of that event. From the evidence of the broken parts of Tony's floor, it hadn't exactly been one of the guy's finest moments. Still, "Apology accepted," he says, with a frosty sort of politeness.

"Enough of this chit-chat," Tony says, clapping his hands together. "Let's go down to one of my labs where we can do this thing properly." Mostly he can't wait to start poking Loki to see how he works. Magic! Laughing in the face of the laws of physics!

God, this is going to be so much fun.

Epilogue: one year later

"So, you're completely ready to do this?" Clint asks from his seat lounging about another one of Loki's lairs. He can't really call them evil lairs, since they've firmly taken up the position of the 100% morally neutral, a place Clint likes just fine, but they're still definitely lairs.

"I believe I am." Loki holds the Tesseract delicately between his fingers. The unearthly light of it makes his face glow blue, though it's a much softer colour than his Jotun form. Clint thinks he's made some progress on that front. Since studying the Tesseract has pretty much required Loki to stay in that shape for most of the time, he has been using the opportunity to try and use positive reinforcement and all his persuasive abilities to make him hate himself just a little less. He's even resorted to leaving self-help books lying around the place after trips back to Earth, but Loki mostly just laughed at him for that.

It does seem to be having an effect though. And maybe Loki still sees himself as a monster to too great an extent than Clint would like, but he also seems to be surprisingly okay with it. He's taken the advice about 'owning it' to heart. He even listened to Lady Gaga, which was... interesting. Loki seems undecided on whether he actually likes her music or not, but he's fascinated by the singer herself. So there's that.

"Although there is still a very great deal that remains mysterious about the artefact," Loki says, "its weapon functions are close to the surface and easy to divine. I believe I have located a 'sub-routine', as Tony would call it, that should serve my purposes perfectly."

Loki has been spending far too much time hanging out with Tony Stark if you ask Clint. The man has been completely unbearable since Loki gave him the ability to manipulate the basic forces of the universe – and if he had really thought that was a good idea then Loki is far, far less smart than he claims he is. Though Clint hadn't been present for that event, seeing the guy shoot a brood of accidentally transported bilgesnipe with repulsors augmented with something called 'balefire' while laughing like a man one step away from joining the Evil League of Evil... Yeah. Clint would not go so far as to say that Tony Stark is drunk on his own power, but honestly he's just waiting for him to have some kind of showdown with Dr Doom because There Can Only Be One.

At this rate Loki's totally not at all subtle plan to win 'Tasha and Coulson over to Team Neutral and Therefore Awesome will be completed within the year. Neither of them is entirely keen on being within the blast radius when the inevitable explosion happens. Also, they're the only two squidgy enough to actually be at risk if one of Stark's creations really does blow up – apparently the Hulk regards that sort of thing as a fun game, which tells you all you need to know about Stark's workshops.

Anyway, Clint is letting his thoughts get away from him. They have a mission to undertake.

"So, are you still sure you're doing this for the right reasons?" he asks. Loki smiles.

"You Midgardians may find revenge to be unhealthy, but let me assure you that the same is not true for either the species I am or the species I generally appear to be," he chides. "And it must be done all the same. The Chitauri are still, after all, a threat."

"Alright then," Clint says, hopping to his feet. "Revenge it is, best served matured for 12 months."

"Hardly any time at all for one such as myself," Loki replies. He holds out a hand for Clint to take – though it is possible to follow him through the paths between worlds using only their mental link to guide his steps, that's not something Clint's going to want to try on this particular trip.

The world warps around them. They walk through darkness, and Yggdrasil's bark is as rough and easy to tread as ever underfoot. When they re-materialise in reality, at first there appears to be little change. The black canopy of the world is studded only with the pinprick light of far-away stars. Gravity remains only because Loki wishes it to. They turn slowly in space – for that is just where they are, out in the midst of space with nothing but Loki's seid to sustain them.

Clint is just about to ask if Loki was holding the map upside down or something when the sun comes into view. Well, not the sun, an alien sun, but it is still a blazing white-hot thing that is hard to look at despite the fact that it's not much bigger than the nail on his smallest finger.

"It doesn't look like much," he says.

"Nothing does at such distances," Loki replies, smiling a fond sort of smile at the universe. "It will be much bigger soon." He holds the Tesseract out before him. Strange patterns flicker across its faintly translucent faces. The whole process is honestly fairly anti-climactic, though Loki keeps up a look of intense concentration throughout, and his brow is faintly beaded by sweat by the time he lowers it again.

"Of course this will happen in reality in perhaps a month or so," he says. "And the light shall take some time to reach this place. But the heart of the star is unstable and cannot now be made well, so it would not be a lie to show you an illusion of what shall soon come to pass."

The far white sun begins to blossom outwards, spreading waves of super-hot plasma and gas like the unfolding petals of a flower greeting morning. It might be beautiful, were it not death incarnate. The dying star expands ever outwards in a slow, writhing explosion, tortuous and utterly quiet. Clint can't take his eyes off it.

"The flares will reach the Chitauri home planet and boil it dry," Loki explains. He sounds almost... dreamy. "It will be slow. They will die of heat and thirst. They will die in agony. Thanos may already have left the asteroid base where he chose to make his home, or if not he will have his own way to escape. That matters not. There will be time for him later, and even he cannot take a planet by himself." There's a quiet sort of happiness suffusing the bond between them. Satisfaction. Peace.

"Is it all you ever hoped for?" Clint asks, a little wryly.

Loki smiles.

"Yes. It is."