Stockholm Syndrome

Author's Note: Thanks to everyone for your incredible patience with me and for all of your helpful comments, reviews, criticism, praise, and artwork! I still am not in love with this epilogue but I wanted to finish at least one of my stupid WIPs. The full version of this chapter (which is necessary for plot reasons) will be posted at my AO3 (archive of our own) account later, under the name of uchiha_s. FFnet doesn't like links, so just google it up please, or click the link on my profile.

Disclaimer: the HP and Marvel universes do not belong to me.


Hermione and Loki stared in shock at the smoldering remains of Malekith and his peculiar throne for several minutes, each unable to form a response. There was a keen sense of loss filling Hermione, dampening her victory. They had won, but she had lost Ron. The victory almost didn't matter, and the relief she felt at defeating Malekith was minute in comparison to the grief and guilt surging through her now.

Loki watched Hermione's back tense. He held his breath, waiting — surely she'd turn to him now, and throw her arms round him — and then... He fought the urge to smirk in victory. This moment was one he had been anticipating: finally, she would have to acknowledge their bond. Finally, Hermione would have to give in to her own obvious desires...

But she did not turn round; she did not fling her arms round him.

The breath was knocked from Loki, even as he told himself to be calm, to be patient. He knew how to wait for what he wanted; he knew how to obtain his own desires. He steeled himself, but when she finally did turn around, her face was ashen with pain and grief. She didn't want him.

"We won," said Hermione, her weary voice tinged with irony. She gave a flippant gesture back to the remains of Malekith. "I suppose we should head back to earth and let them know."

Their eyes met now; there was a certain avoidance in her gaze that told him all he needed to know: by refusing to acknowledge all that had passed between them, she was rejecting him. It didn't take a genius to see it, and Loki was more than equipped to perceive such subtle cues. He was breathless with the unfairness of it all, he longed to strike her for doing this to him. How foolish he was, how audacious — to assume she would have seen their bond, to assume her feelings ran deeper.

He looked into her brown eyes, thinking of all the men she must have so callously cast aside in favor of her own intellectual pursuits, and he felt his throat burn with acid rising up. She didn't want him.

"Such nonchalance — I nearly forgot you do this all the time," said Loki now, his voice low and scathing and rough with hurt and anger. Why didn't she want him? Hermione visibly winced, and the sight was soothing. He wanted to see her in pain, because she did not want him and she had led him on.

"What's wrong now? Something not going your way? Ron is dead, Loki, because our planning wasn't good enough." Her brown eyes were beginning to well up with tears, and though Loki's hands itched to reach out, to take her in his arms, they also ached to hurt her. The conflict was, as always, unbearable. Would he never feel at peace? Would his inner demons never rest?

"This was a war, Dr. Granger. He was a casualty. I doubt there has ever been a war lacking in casualties."

Loki's voice was hard, unforgiving. Hermione balked. After everything they had been through, could Loki truly lack sympathy, to this extent? Did he really feel none of her pain? Hermione's heart was leaden in its lack of hope. She had never before felt so alone.

"...Perhaps you're right," she finally said flatly, even as her throat was constricted with the burn of tears. "Let's just get back to earth."

Loki reached out to hold on to her for the teleportation; as Svartalfheim shimmered and disappeared around them, Loki felt himself disappearing from Hermione's heart and mind.

"Brother! Lady Granger!" Thor bellowed, vaulting himself at the two when they had returned. In the distance, the unconscious Svartalf army had been rounded up.

"We did it," said Hermione in a leaden voice. "Malekith is dead."

Thor's joviality disappeared; his face settled into grim lines. He had been ruler and soldier for long enough to know that now was not the moment for celebration. His eyes met Loki's, and Loki looked into his brother's steely blue eyes. How often had he denounced his own plain grey eyes; how often had he admonished himself for not possessing the broad, square jaw; the long golden hair; the deep blue eyes; and the bulky form that Thor posessed? How many times in his youth had he gazed in sulkiness at both Frigga and Odin, wondering why they had given Thor so much of their appearances, and given him none?

It had made him ill with jealousy. Every time he had looked at his brother, he had had to see yet another way in which he had been slighted by Odin. Now he knew the truth about why he did not look like Thor, and yet the feeling did not go away.

He wondered what Thor saw when he looked at him. He probably only saw his beloved brother, and that thought shamed him. On top of everything else, Thor had also gotten a warm and loving and bottomless heart. His own heart was sickened, twisted, filled with envy and all sorts of ugliness and decay.

Thor's full lips, so unlike his own, curved in a slight grin. Hermione had stepped aside, and now, Thor threw his arms around Loki. Loki accepted the embrace, and for a moment, could not return it. How he longed to be like Thor: so willing to forgive, so ready to accept with open arms.

He returned the embrace.

"I am sorry about your friend, Lady Granger," said Thor in a solemn voice, when he had released Loki. Hermione nodded, blinking fiercely. Beyond the Svartalf army, the Aurors were huddling to keep warm, but Harry stood separate from them, staring at a long, coffin-like box, his face as white as the snow. His and Hermione's grief was shocking.

Hermione went to Harry, and Loki, sick with jealousy, observed as their arms slung, so naturally, round each other. The gesture was intimate and familiar. Did Hermione realize the deep-hearted love which Harry had for her? Did she even care that, probably, with one word, she could have separated him from his wife and son? Did it matter to her?

"What happened back there?" Thor asked Loki quietly, placing a hand on his arm. Loki resisted the urge to shrug it off, his eyes still riveted to Hermione and Harry as they silently comforted each other.

"Dr. Granger was dueling Malekith," Loki began flatly, "and I stepped in at a helpful time. She had started a fire, and Malekith died through that."

"She is your match, Loki," Thor replied, a trace of amusement in his voice.

Loki said nothing; there was nothing to say. Sometimes, Thor was not so clever. Evidently he did not see how many men longed for Hermione; evidently he did not see how little she cared for him.

The days which followed were like drowning; she was underwater in her own grief, guilt, confusion, and loss. A funeral was held at Hogwarts for Ron, and an ashen-faced Harry, overcome with grief as she was, gave a short and terse eulogy. Hermione had been staying at Grimmauld place with Harry and Ginny, in one of their guest rooms. Now, five days following the funeral, and eight days following the battle with Svartalfheim, it was finally time for her to return to the flat which she had shared with Ron.

She stood there, in their cramped sitting room, observing evidence of the life they had lived together. Pictures (some Muggle, some Wizard) hung on the walls and cluttered the tops of tables and shelves; one of Ron's jumpers lay carelessly cast on the sofa, his shoes in a heap at the foot of the sofa; he had left the telly on when he had left, apparently, and it was set to a rather silly reality program concerning cakes, still blaring, the noise not even filling the incredible silence which now consumed her world.

Hermione thought of the Weasleys; this was the second Weasley son to die before his time, and this time, it was completely and utterly her fault. Though Mrs. Weasley had wrapped her in a hug at the funeral, deep down Hermione had heard her thoughts, and she knew that everyone blamed her for Ron's death nearly as much as she blamed herself.

She did not deserve happiness, after what she had done. She deserved this pain, this sadness. It would be her cross to bear; it would be her penance for allowing Ron to die. She deserved this punishment, of being surrounded by remnants of Ron's life. Even now, she could feel his magic still clinging to the air, faint and warm. Why had she not noticed it before?

She was despicable.

Three Years Later

"Brother, are you ever going to step away from your work? There is a celebration outside in my honor. My own advisor cannot miss it!"

Thor's large, warm hand clapped down on Loki's tense shoulder, and Loki scowled at his parchment when the movement caused him to muss his handwriting. With a scoff, he dropped his stile.

"Brother, are you ever going to learn to not bother me when I am working?" He turned round to face Thor, who was decked out in his finest armor and cloak. He was beaming — practically radiating golden light in his immutable happiness. Loki could not fight back a fond smile even as the typical stabs of jealousy pierced his heart. "Fine. Happy birthday, brother," he conceded finally. If possible, Thor's beam widened.

"Excellent. Now, put that down, and let us drink until we can no longer stand!" Thor declared, dragging Loki away from his work. Loki scrambled to put out the light before straightening his clothing and armor and following on Thor's heels.

The birthday party was beyond extravagant. The throne room, splendid in its golden decorations, was packed to bursting with Asgardians — and a Midgardian, of course. Jane's slight form was notable in how it differed from those of Asgard, and across the room Loki watched as Thor and Jane's gazes locked. He rolled his eyes, more for his own benefit than anyone else's. Sometimes, Thor and Jane's undying devotion and all grew a tiny bit grotesque. Still, he was genuinely happy for Thor, as much as it pained him to admit it. Thor was truly growing into his role as ruler of Asgard, and especially with Jane (sort of) at his side, he was more confident and relaxed than ever. Of course, Jane was normally in Midgard, conducting research, but often she was stolen away to spend time with Thor — mostly in his bedroom, to the amusement of all at court and the disapproval of Frigga.

Loki surveyed the party, more of a spectator than a participant. The music, the cheering, the shouting, the clink of glass upon glass as toasts were made: it all blurred together into a deafening din that was oppressive. Loki tugged at his collar — he needed to get out. He stole away, melting into the shadows.

He reappeared out on the balcony which overlooked the rainbow bridge and the city of Asgard. In the distance, the sky was magnificent, with its golden, citrus, and crimson hues blazing, shot through with purple clouds. The sight never failed to take his breath away, no matter how often he saw it.

However, somewhere out there was Hermione, and this thought always occurred to him, just at the height of the sunset's beauty. At this moment, he would always turn away from it, and today was no exception. His features drew together, contorting in pain, and he turned away, back into the shadow of the balcony.

He would never forget that moment in Svartalfheim for as long as he lived — which, if myths were to be believed, was forever — and he would never forget how her warm brown eyes had held such weakness. In that moment, as the dying fire's last crackle had echoed throughout the cavern, Hermione had turned to him, and he had seen himself in her eyes: the guilt, the shame, the loss.

To see himself so clearly mirrored in another's eyes: it wounded him. He had grown breathless at the sight. As they had teleported from Svartalfheim, Hermione had shimmered before him, disappearing particle by particle, and he had felt her slipping away from him just as fast.

When they had returned to Midgard, though Hermione had been standing before him, he had known the truth: for all intents and purposes, she was gone.

After the funeral service for Ron, he had not spoken to Hermione. There hadn't been time, anyway, what with his sins against Midgard and Asgard being officially pardoned by both SHIELD and Thor himself, in two separate ceremonies. The ceremony that took place in Asgard was much more of a welcome-home party, which would surprise no one who knew Thor at all. However, Loki had never expected to be so warmly welcomed back to Asgard, especially after all the trouble he had caused, but it seemed that in defeating Malekith, he had truly been pardoned.

At first, the distance had been a comfort. He had not wanted to see Hermione, because he had not known what he might do if he did see her. His feelings were all confused, and once he realized there was no reason for regular contact with Midgard, he decided to put the past behind him. Hermione clearly had no deeper feelings for him like he had suspected, and she was probably too busy grieving for Ron to even be willing to examine any budding affection she might have possessed.

So, he had resolved to forget her.

He had put every fibre of his being into making up for lost time: he had helped to make Thor's reign as solid as could be, and with his excellent strategising, it had been quite a peaceful one as well, thus far. Thor needed Loki, and damn it, Loki needed Thor.

(Still, he managed to add in a few tricks here and there. Just to keep Thor humble, really.)

But it was days like today that made him remember Hermione: he could not help but to recall her warm brown eyes, her spirit, her energy, and her sheer power that had allured him from the very moment he had sensed her setting foot inside his prison. Hermione's magic was everywhere, and he had not forgotten the feeling of holding her wand to conduct his magic — almost as intoxicating a feeling as holding her close to him. He wanted, desperately, to forget it, to let it go, to pretend it all had never happened, but he could not seem to relinquish these memories. They came to him, unbidden, and though he wished they would go, he sensed that he was allowing them to stay. In this way, he was keeping Hermione close to him, as he knew he would never see her again.

For months — nearly a year — he had harbored an unreasonable rage towards her. He had been sick with envy and rage and loss. Why did he never get any of the things which he desired? Everything he wanted was always just out of reach, slipping through his fingers every time he thought he had found his grip on it. Hermione was no exception, and the moment he had felt she was within his grasp, she had slipped through his fingers like water. Jane Foster had once cryptically remarked that Hermione was not a conquest nor a prize to be won; she was a person with choices and loyalties and dreams and regrets, and therefore could not be won nor taken. He had not understood what she had meant, at the time.

With time, however, he had begun to grow, and change. As his anger towards the world subsided, so did his anger towards Hermione. As his bond with Thor healed and re-formed, stronger than ever and only strengthened by the flames of battle and anger, Loki found himself wanting bonds with others — specifically, with Hermione. Deep in the night, alone with his thoughts, he had found his hands wandering as his mind returned to his memories of Midgard, and all of the times during which Hermione had been within his reach. He still had not met a woman he respected quite so much. Jane Foster was close, but often he found himself irritated by her awkwardness, by her lack of confidence. She was brilliant but always needing guidance and direction, and so quick to feed on Thor's self-esteem.

He didn't want a woman who would need him, but at the same time, Hermione's independence was infuriating. Women needed men, and that was the bottom line. Yet Hermione would never need him, and would barely even want him.

Normally, he was inclined to simply go after whatever he wanted, relentlessly. He was as driven as Hermione, if not more so, and it was partially what made him such a valuable advisor for Thor. But something unidentifiable held him back from simply returning to Midgard and searching for Hermione. Perhaps Jane's words had affected him more than he had before thought; he was no longer seeing Hermione as a prize but instead seeing her attention and love itself as the real prize.

Loki's thoughts were torn from Hermione when one of the guards cleared his throat, and Loki was grateful for the release from thoughts of Hermione. He turned back to the guard, a short, squat, but powerful middle-aged man with a full red beard.

"Prince Loki, sir, we have identified a security breach through the northern wing," said the guard. Loki narrowed his eyes shrewdly, and pushed past the guard, thoughts of all else banished from his mind as he reentered the celebration.

Lightning split through the sky, just as a crack of thunder shook the tiny flat. Hermione scowled, listening to her glasses and cutlery rattle, before returning to her work. She sat on the floor, leaning against her sofa, her coffee table piled high with books and the carpet around her covered in scrolls. Normally she was far more careful and precise in her note-taking, but as she had not slept in three — no, four — days, she was growing a little messy. Her shirt was splattered with ink, her hair was wild, and her hands were trembling with too much caffeine.

Still, she was close. Just one more rune to find, and then...

"YES!" she cried, jumping up and punching the air. In the process, her notes tumbled from her lap to the ground in one big mess, and she let out an oath that would have made Mundungus Fletcher blush. Whatever, she thought grumpily, brushing herself off and crouching to sort her notes. At least I finished it.

And on record time too: as usual, especially of late. Hermione Granger no longer slept, ate, or socialized reliably. In the stead of a normal life, she had constructed an entire universe wherein only her work and her admirable intellect existed. Kingsley gave her problems, and she solved them. This way, she didn't need to think about anything else, and that was excellent.

Of course, the usual panic of realizing she had finished a project and now had to wait until a 'reasonable' hour to contact Kingsley for a new one set in. Hermione squinted at her clock.

Well, was there anything actually wrong with contacting the Minister of Magic at eleven thirty on a Friday?

Hermione wiped her brow, massaged her temples, and dropped down onto her sofa. Rain rattled her windows and thunder made her photographs jiggle on the wall. She tapped her fingers together in different patterns and then, when it occurred to her that she was getting entirely too focused on that, she dropped her hands in frustration.

She groaned. Let's see... what do I normally do when I don't have any more projects to occupy me?

Well, there was always re-reading a sappy chick lit book that was sure to make her sob her eyes out, whilst drinking hot tea and listening to Celestina Warbeck. Not that she did that, or anything...

A knock on the door startled her enough to make her choke on her spit. Wild-eyed and over-caffeinated, Hermione summoned her wand and tiptoed to the front door. If it was Ginny telling her to get a social life, she was going to give that little spit-fire a taste of her own medicine and fire a thousand Bat Bogey Hexes in her general direction (not that Ginny had done this before, or anything...).

She waited for her wards to tell her exactly who had the nerve to show up like this, when her door unexpectedly swung open. Lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating the features of one Kingsley Shacklebolt.

"K-kingsley," she sputtered, her face flushing with shame. Her flat was a mess, her hair was a sight, and she was just now realizing that it was highly likely that some of the curry takeaway she'd gotten was smeared on her face and shirt. Kingsley, however, was looking immaculate as always. "I was just—"

"Thanks for inviting me in," he said in his deep, slow voice, pushing past her. Hermione blinked. It was always unsettling when Kingsley was sarcastic, and usually did not bode well for her. He paused in the middle of the room, his gaze taking in her sitting room, and he shook his head.

"I finished the—" she stopped when he held his hand up.

"I am sure you did," he said wearily. "But I don't have any more busywork for you right now, Granger. I've got a real project now, and you're not gonna like it, I can tell you that much, but you're the only one for the job."

It had been three years since she'd been back at SHIELD. Hermione squinted at the dark night and the icy world below, as the snow-covered crags grew closer and closer. They were landing, and her stomach was tying itself into knots. She had insisted that Apparating would have been much less trouble for everyone, but Kingsley had in turn insisted that there was too much of a chance for her to back out that way, and he was unfortunately right.

She could always Apparate out of the helicopter, but thinking of how many people were depending on her stilled her, forced her to put away her wand. As much as she didn't want to go back, it seemed it was inevitable.

She hadn't returned any of Natasha, Jane, or Agent Hill's calls. Natasha and Maria had even shown up at her flat, trying to bang down her door, but at the time Hermione had been unable to face them, and after that, she had been too guilty to try to make amends. She was ashamed of her behavior but, as she saw no painless way to make amends, she had resolved to simply forget about them — in spite of the three women having been kinder and better friends to her than anyone, even Ginny or Luna, had ever been before.

Now the shame that she had been pushing down for three years was bubbling up again, fighting to spill over, and it was almost too much to handle.

"Landing," called the pilot over the comm system. Hermione wished she could shrink back into her seat and simply disappear, and though she was positive she knew enough clever Hexes and Charms to accomplish it, she knew that the shame of running away — again — would break her this time.

"Here goes nothing," she mumbled, scrunching her eyes shut as she attempted to gird herself for what was sure to be a painful, humiliating, and sad experience.

The helicopter landed jerkily on the launch pad, and soon Hermione was standing in the driving snow, the intense lights of the launch pad illuminating everything and forcing her to shield her eyes. Before her stood the entrance to the compound, and she was so overcome with memories and pain that it took her breath away.

"Right this way, Dr. Granger," said the pilot, as he hefted her duffel bag over his shoulder. Hermione winced.

"I've got it," she assured him, taking it from him and grunting with the effort of hoisting it up. She had brought everything this time, in an attempt to be better prepared, and even with all of the Undetectable Extension Charms on the beaded bag, it hadn't been able to hold all that she had wanted to bring. She had had to go up a size to the duffel bag, but she'd still packed her beaded bag with essentials, just in case.

With legs like lead, she followed the pilot inside.

The SHIELD compound was brightly lit and windowless, just as it had been. Hermione was overcome with a sense of deja vu that left her reeling. If it were this bad already, how would she feel when she finally saw the Avengers? I've just got to do it, she told herself, gritting her teeth and adjusting her grip on her duffel bag.

She would finally have to confront her grief for Ron.

It was such a complex grief, though, that she had never even known where to start in dealing with it. It was better to push it down, to lock it away. Everyone told her she had to move on, that she deserved to be happy, but deep down she knew that wasn't the case. She had failed Ron, and though she had won the battle against Malekith, she had lost the war in her own mind: she almost felt that her desire for Loki had been what caused her to subconsciously allow Ron to die.

In the sobriety of daylight, she knew this was illogical. Yet on her own, in the dark, these thoughts always crept in... She shook her head in a futile attempt to banish them. She couldn't think of it now — she had a mission to do.

A mission. Wasn't this what she had always done? Any time she was upset or in emotional pain, she buried herself in her work. She found a point to focus on, and she would work relentlessly toward that.

Wasn't this how she had lost Ron?

When she hadn't been able to confront her own fading affection for Ron, she had happily taken the assignment from Kingsley.

She had run away.

Even then, she had fled, and look what it had cost her! She considered these things now, as she approached the conference room. This path, through the compound, had become so familiar to her in such a short amount of time, that it was like returning home. So many changes had occurred during her time with SHIELD. Perhaps, it was time to let some changes happen again.

Perhaps it was time to stop fleeing.

She paused in front of the doorway. The pilot took her bag, clearly aghast at how disproportionately heavy it was, and informed her that he would leave it in her temporary room. Hermione nodded, and gazed at the sliding titanium steel doors, listening to his footsteps echo down the hall and away from her. Eventually, she was left alone in front of this door.

If she went through this door, she would have to confront all of her demons.

If she left, she'd just be running away again.

And even if I do choose to go through, I can either continue to flee and bury myself in this project...

...The doors began to slide open...

...Or I can rise to meet this challenge like the Gryffindor I supposedly am.

The conference room was filled to bursting with the Avengers and more. So many faces she didn't recognize... The room fell silent as she stepped into it, and the ringing silence was oppressive. At once she was filled with the urge to turn on the spot and Apparate back to her flat — but here she was, fists clenched and jaw set in determination.

She would not flee.

"Dr. Granger... I wasn't sure you'd agree to help us," said Fury. He was unusually quiet and respectful, and it soothed her. She gave a pained smile.

"It's hard to come back here," she admitted slowly, "but I want to help." Her voice strengthened as she realized how true it was. She met Natasha's eyes, but found no warmth in them. It's understandable. I pushed her away when she was just trying to be a friend. She then looked to Maria, and the flicker of a smile on the agent's face gave her further confidence.

"We're glad to see you back here," said Tony, stepping forward and clapping Hermione on the shoulder. The new faces were watching her with wide eyes. Steve now stepped forward as well. Fortunately, he was garbed in relatively normal clothing today, and it was a relief. His spandex suit had always made her feel a little uncomfortable.

"Everyone, this is Dr. Hermione Granger," he began, brightening the room with his infectious, genial smile. "She is the woman who defeated Malekith with Loki's help, three years ago, and saved us all. She gave everything to help us."

Someone in the back began to clap slowly, and then soon the room was filled with thunderous, deafening applause. Tears began to burn Hermione's eyes, especially when she saw Natasha finally join in. She shook her head and gave a teary, wet laugh. This was not the reception she had been expecting — not at all.

Finally, when the applause had died down, Tony turned back to her, looking unusually serious.

"There's a threat to both Asgard and Earth," he began, ushering her over to Fury. Fury hit something on a keypad, and the room darkened. Hermione took a seat beside Natasha and Maria as Fury began talking.

"As Stark was saying, there's a new enemy on the rise. Our intelligence tells us, however, that this threat originates from our own realm..." Fury's eye narrowed, and he turned to Hermione, fixing his heavy gaze on her. "And not just our realm — your people, Dr. Granger." He hit a key, and an image flickered on the screen. It was a photograph, slightly blurred, but easily understood all the same. "Do you recognize this man, Dr. Granger?"

He zoomed in as a burst of recognition knocked the breath from Hermione. An unnaturally lovely, ethereal face of a man came into focus, his face all angles and his hair dark, wavy, and impeccably styled. Next to him was a young man with long, unruly blonde hair and a friendly, mischievous air about him.

She would know those faces anywhere. After how much these two men had affected her life, and how much research she had done on them, how could she not know their faces, even though they both appeared far younger than she would have ever known them?

It was Grindelwald and Voldemort.

"You'll have to go to Asgard. Loki is overrun with work there; Thor doesn't want him to spare the time to come here and work on the investigation," explained Fury. They had retrieved her duffel bag and now were on their way to the teleportation pad. "So he'll just be coming here to help transport you to Asgard. You'll be working out of there, temporarily."

Fury turned to her now, set his hands on her shoulders, and stared at her hard. "I'm glad you're back."

Hermione felt her eyes burn with tears. She looked down, biting her lip, fumbling for words and failing spectacularly. All she seemed capable of doing was giving herself a runny nose. "We all make mistakes; we all do things we regret," began Fury, his voice just as hard as his gaze, "and it's tempting to sit there and just wallow in your regret."

"How do I make it go away then?" She despised how thin, how weak, how crippled her voice was.

"...You don't. You make it a part of you, and you move on. We don't know what happens when we die — we have lots of ideas, but no answers. So until we find out, we have to assume that this is all we have." Hermione looked up at him now, shocked by his sentiment. Fury's grip was hard. "You have to keep on living, you have to keep on moving forward. There's no point in talking of who would have wanted what, or any of that bullshit. All you've got is the here and now. That guy is dead, Dr. Granger — whatever that means in the bigger sense, for now all we know is that he's dead, and you're still alive."

He relinquished his grip; Hermione massaged her shoulder as the weight of the truth of his words hit her, hard. It was like a slap in the face — a slap she had been desperately needing. Fury stepped back. "Looks like he's back," he added.

She felt it before she saw it. Ever since the battle with the Svartalfs, she had felt it every now and then — a presence, a sixth sense, a connection. Instinctively she had known that Loki was close; she had felt the hairs on the back of her neck raise up, her heart had beat a little faster.

Then it'd be gone; she wouldn't feel it for months and months. She would wonder if she had imagined it.

Now she knew that it hadn't been the fantasizing of a heart overcome with grief: Loki materialized before her, looking the same as ever, his high forehead hidden by his gleaming golden horned helmet, his angular, pianist hand curled in a decisive grip around his staff.

Their eyes met and the world went away for a moment; for that brief instant she was transported directly back to the ashen cavern of Svartalfheim still echoing with Malekith's last desperate screams. She was transported to that moment when she had finally acknowledged her love for Loki — the very same moment in which she had turned away from that bright point of affection, admiration, and desire, and turned to the shadows of her own heart.

Here he was now, before her. What could she possibly say to him? How could such a vast crevice be possibly bridged?

"What a relief — I'd thought you might insist on making some sort of bombastic entrance," greeted Fury dryly. "Any news from Asgard?"

Loki's clever eyes flicked to Fury before settling on Hermione. The emotion in them was too distant and veiled for Hermione to read.

"Good to see you too, Captain," parried Loki. He leisurely stepped off the teleportation pad, and Hermione could not help but revel in his inherent grace and elegance as she had so many times three years ago. Though she had heard that he was a changed man, there was still something in his posture that bespoke of mischief, of trickery, of everything being not quite as it seemed.

And she still found herself wanting both to run away from him and yet also run towards him.

"Well? Report, Loki. He asked you a question," she said sharply. Loki arched his brows at her; as he approached her she was confronted with how much bigger he was than her, and that he had every potential to overpower her with brute force alone. She had to crane her neck to look properly at him.

"I see you still have an affinity for bossing people around."

"I see you still have an affinity for stupid clothes," she retorted, feeling some of her old confidence come back. "Really, when are you going to give that helmet up? It's embarrassing."

"You can have it then — might help with the hair," he said cheekily with a I'm-oh-so-innocent sort of shrug. Hermione crossed her arms, scowling. She hadn't anticipated falling back into this sort of dynamic with Loki, but it was easier than confronting all of the unsaid things between them. She'd take it.

"Ooh. Scathing," she deadpanned. "In any case, if you've nothing to report to Fury, we ought to get moving. If those two are who I think they are, we've got a hell of a lot of work to do."

"I'm not the one standing around insulting people's helmets, now am I?" Loki arched his brows again and held out his hands as he stepped back up onto the teleportation pad. "Coming? Or were you planning on running back home?"

The slight was a stab to the heart; Hermione sucked in a breath of air in pure astonishment.

"I'm not the only one who runs away from the things that are difficult," she said quietly, when she had recovered. "But that's by the by now; we've got two resurrected Dark Wizards to catch — the two most legendary Dark Wizards of all time, mind you. It won't be easy."

Scowling at Loki warningly, she hefted her duffel bag again, wincing at the weight of it, before stepping unsteadily onto the pad. Her eyes met Loki's and a clench of attraction shook her. She hadn't been so close to him in so long... Would he touch her?

Looking down his patrician nose at her, he placed a cool hand on her arm. The motion was rote and unfamiliar; but the look in his eyes was purely intimate.

After they had reached Asgard, Loki had fled immediately, under the guise of having work to do. This was not a lie by any stretch, but it was certainly a convenient excuse. When he reached his rooms, he slammed the door shut and sank to the floor against it, head in his hands.

His mind was a mess again, and it was all her fault. He had been so comfortable, so cozy in his own melancholy, that he had forgotten how frenzied and wild she could make him feel. He was spinning out of control again, filled with all sorts of dark and uncomfortable urges towards her. He wanted to strangle her, he wanted to strike her, but above all, he longed to hold her close and fuck her. He was no longer Loki the Prodigal Son; he was again Loki the Monster, Loki the man who could not keep his own demons in check.

How easily she had undone his facade, all with a single point of eye contact! That magic, that power, that awareness that she possessed... He did not know what to do with it. She was like fire: terrifying yet so very alluring, dangerously warm, and capable of both giving and destroying. Having her here was dangerous. It reminded him of his own lust for power and danger, yet it also reminded him of how very isolated he still was. Once upon a time, he had imagined pursuing her, had imagined making her his. He had since discarded the notion, but now it was here again, in his face. He was no longer stable, because now, he had a chance to make amends with her; he had the chance to put things right.

Would he take it?

"You'll be staying in a guest suite in the palace," explained Jane, of all people, as she led Hermione down an enormous breezeway, with fantastic views of the city. Jane kept having to stop and drag Hermione away from one of the balconies, to continue on their way.

Jane had said nothing thus far of Hermione's absence, and though Jane was always awkward and socially uncomfortable, the warmth and friendship had remained. It was a relief, and Hermione was shocked by how many people were willing to forgive her for fleeing.

Unfortunately, it seemed Loki was not one of them.

After arriving in Asgard, he had swept off to attend to business, leaving Hermione to get situated with the help of Jane. His dismissal had been so breezy, so easily done, that Hermione wondered if she had imagined that burning, intimate look of desire in his eyes on the teleportation pad as the rest of the world had faded away.

Then again, Loki had never been quite what he seemed.

They reached her suite; beyond a golden door lay an enormous room with a desk looking out over the balcony and a fabulous canopy bed nearly as large as a swimming pool. The whole thing was so fantastic that Hermione was unsure of how she was going to actually accomplish any work here at all. The bed was the most tempting, and the plush chair by the vast fireplace — perfect for curling up in with a book and tea — was a close second.

"Wow," she breathed, stepping inside, "no wonder you prefer Asgard."

"Yep. Beats the trailer I was working out of for a while," said Jane sardonically. Hermione turned to her.

"I'm glad you're here. This is all so awkward," she confessed. Jane pressed her lips together.

"No one blames you for not wanting to talk," she said shortly. "In fact, I'm stunned you were willing to come back at all."

"I had to," she replied. When she looked back at Jane, the pretty scientist was grinning lopsidedly at her.

"Well, I know the feeling."

The two women shared a private smile before Jane left Hermione to get settled.

Hermione looked around, feeling a bit at a loss. So many emotions to experience all in the span of less than an hour... She dropped down onto the bed, unsure of what to do next. She finally had an all-consuming project, but it meant confronting everything she had been desperately running away from. Now everything was all confused.

Worse yet, she had (for the most part) managed to push down her feelings for Loki, but now they were brought to the fore. She had forgotten how visceral, how pure her desire for him had been. Now there was no real reason to be guilty about it anymore, but to not be guilty about it put her at a loss. She had spent her whole adult life with Ron; he was the only man she had ever slept with. It seemed Loki was not actually an option in that regard, but to even consider it felt wrong. She was for Ron and Ron was for her — but Ron was dead. Ron had been dead.

Where did that leave her? Did that mean she was permanently widowed, permanently alone? Or did that mean that she could find someone new?

It was too confusing; she could not think of it. Just as she was preparing to unpack, there was a knock at her door.

"Come in," she called, her heart racing as she wondered who it might be.

It wasn't Loki, however. Thor was beaming at her — she could all too easily picture him as a puppy (albeit a rather large one) wagging his tail ecstatically.

"Lady Granger!" he bellowed, hurtling across the room and enveloping her in a bone-crushing hug. "It has been far too long! And you are looking just as love-"

"You're embarrassing yourself," came a drawl from the doorway. Thor and Hermione pulled away to find Loki standing there, in dark, plain clothing and his helmet and staff absent. "There is to be a meeting, Dr. Granger, to debrief you."

Before either could respond, he dematerialized, and was gone. Thor sighed, pushing at his golden hair. In spite of his evident distress, he flashed her a grin.

"Ignore my brother — he is acting like a spoilt schoolboy over your arrival, I fear. Come, let us discuss our plans."

He led Hermione to the throneroom. Before the throne, a large golden table had been placed, and tall, serious-looking men, most of them in armor, sat round it. Loki sat at the foot, across from Thor. Hermione felt a clench of intimidation, both from the men who looked so much more impressive than she, and also from Loki's infuriating impassivity. There was a seat open at Thor's right, and Hermione took it. Across the table, her eyes met Loki's. A bolt of desire shook her, but she had to ignore it.

Thor began to explain the situation; it seemed that at his birthday celebration, Loki had detected a breach. He had spotted a flaxen-haired man darting away, and had followed him on his own, narrowly losing him just as the man had reached the rainbow bridge. He had disappeared, with a sharp crack, and Loki had known then that the man had to be a magical Midgardian.

This lined up with reports from the British Ministry of Magic as well as SHIELD: two men, who either were masquerading as young Voldemort and Grindelwald, or really were Voldemort and Grindelwald, somehow resurrected, were causing trouble in both Asgard and Earth. They were looking for something, Loki had concluded.

But no one knew what.

Throughout the account, Loki remained silent, his gaze aligned with Hermione's. He had remained impassive, and to see him so inanimate and emotionless was like seeing Professor McGonagall looking ditzy: it seemed impossible and wrong. Yet she detected that this facade was tightly controlled, and something more wild and powerful lurked beneath the icy, placid surface.

"I was wondering if I could have a private word with Loki," said Hermione, after Thor's tale was finished. Thor looked a bit miffed that his dramatic account hadn't gotten more praise, but he grudgingly agreed, along with the rest of his advisors, to leave Hermione alone with Loki.

"Follow me. We'll talk in my study," said Loki flatly, before rising from his chair, which scraped loudly on the floor, and stalking off. Hermione hastened to follow him, her face burning with anger. Why was Loki acting like this? She far preferred when he was being a little shit to this impassive mask.

Loki's study was connected to his room, and had enormous windows overlooking the bifrost. The sky was darkening; night was falling. Torches cast flickering light about the room. Hermione shut the door behind her as Loki halted in the middle of the room, and turned to face her. "Well?"

Hermione brandished her wand, considering threatening him with a Hex just to get a reaction from him.

"Well? Well? Are you out of your bloody mind? Loki, we have got to just... talk about this, at some point. This is getting ridiculous," she blustered, stalking over to him, wand pointed at his chest. Loki seemed supremely indifferent to her threat, and a hint of a smirk tugged at his lovely lips — the lips she had imagined kissing for so long.

"Getting ridiculous? Dr. Granger, you've not been here an hour. Given all the time that's passed..." he trailed off significantly, and stepped back.

"It's Hermione," she said through clenched teeth, lowering her wand. "Just. Bloody. Call. Me. HERMIONE."

"Sorry, did you want me to call you Hermione, or Dr. Granger? You haven't quite made yourself clear."

"Har har. I see you haven't completely lost your charming wit, after all," she snapped. "Loki, I just want to work together and solve this, but I can't if there's this — if there's this... thing, between us!" She found herself gesturing a bit wildly, feeling foolish in the process. Loki scoffed, and she was filled with grim satisfaction as his eyes flashed. At last, he was truly reacting to her.

"Perhaps there wouldn't be, if you hadn't simply run off," he said coolly, approaching her lazily. A surge of fear and anticipation heated her blood and she instinctively shifted into a fighting stance.

"You could have chased me," she retorted, ducking around him and circling him, wand at the ready. "But you didn't. You could have confronted me — but you didn't do that either. You did nothing — no, you did worse than nothing. You ran off too."

Loki's mouth was a thin, hard line. He held out his hand and his staff flew across the room, snapping into his grip. They began to circle each other, the flames casting flickering, shifting golden light on them.

"How could I have possibly run after you? You didn't want me."

They stopped now. Loki's gaze was scalding. Hermione gripped her wand in sweaty palms, nearly at her breaking point.

"I did want you, Loki. But I was afraid of feeling that way about someone other than Ron to begin with — and when he died, I felt my feelings were responsible for his death."

Loki's eyes flashed. He threw his head back and let out a bitter, acidic laugh.

"Oh, that is rich. You were afraid of your own desire? I should not even be surprised." He stepped closer now; she was filled with the scent of his skin. She was afraid to breathe; she might breathe him in and then what? "You act as though you're this fearless lioness — but you're not. You are afraid of your own darkness — you are actually afraid of your own shadow."

"I don't have to take this." Hermione turned on her heel and left the room.

You're actually afraid of your own shadow. The disbelief, the shock, the incredulity, and yet, the relish with which Loki had said these words was seared in her mind forever as she stalked back down the hallway, back towards the throne room. She felt her face threatening to crumple and break down as she burst into tears; she had not cried in years and it was for a reason.

She swerved and took a sharp left, instead of returning to the throneroom, and found herself in a little alcove, sheltered from the hallway, and looking out over the bifrost at night. She sank to the floor and curled up, as tears, unbidden, streamed down her cheeks. Her shoulders shook and she pressed her forehead to her knees, willing the tears to stop, but they were apparently not impressed by her willpower, for they continued. Failure. Coward. Selfish bitch. These accusations, the same as always, flitted about her mind, but now, she heard them in Loki's voice, and it made them sting all the more. She hadn't realized how much she had craved Loki's approval. Why did she even care? Loki had done so much wrong, especially towards her.

She recalled standing atop Big Ben, in the pouring rain, attempting to capture him. She recalled the sheer power radiating from him in that moment, and how intoxicating and alluring she had found it, even then, when he had without argument been her enemy. He was no longer her enemy, yet they were more at odds now than ever before. In spite of all this, she still was filled with the absurd urge to win his approval, to make him like her. It was ridiculous. He did not deserve this from her.

Clearly, he held her in quite low esteem, if their conversation was anything to go on.

Pull yourself together, you blithering moron, she snapped at herself. She steeled her will and wiped at her cheeks furiously before rising, and hurried back to the throneroom.

When she had returned, Loki was already there, and the men around him, including Thor, were laughing at something he had said. They quieted when she returned, and she stood there, overcome with the awful, sinking notion that she was acting like a childish and weak little girl around several seasoned warriors. If they didn't respect her, it was obviously her own doing.

"Voldemort and Grindelwald, if that is really who they are, are after immortality," she said, having cleared her throat. She approached the table and retook her seat. All eyes were on her and she tried to ignore the burning embarrassment currently setting her cheeks aflame. "That was always their quest. They are both more than formidable, but Voldemort is especially dangerous — more than dangerous. He is the single most deadly man in the universe. He is beyond cunning, and is ruthless. Due to the means by which he was conceived, he is incapable of love or remorse."

She cleared her throat again, tensing as she awaited their reaction. Loki, surprisingly, was the first to speak. Their eyes met across the table. She anticipated some sarcastic remark from him, and girded herself for it.

"What is the likelihood they have actually been resurrected?" His voice was hard, all business, and betrayed none of the fury with which he had accosted her in his room.

"Very high," she replied grimly. "There are a few means of resurrecting life with our magic, and Voldemort is no stranger to them."

"You seem more concerned with Voldemort than with Grindelwald," Loki observed silkily. Hermione raised her brows.

"It took one duel to end Grindelwald — it took two wars, innumerable lives, and an incredible amount of research to end Voldemort."

"Apparently not, as neither of them have actually been ended," Loki remarked. Hermione felt fury blossom in her towards Loki. Who was he to make sport of all of the suffering which had cost them due to Grindelwald and Voldemort? She despised him; she wanted to Hex him and then decided that brute, physical, non-magical force would be even more satisfying. She stared into those depths, as cold and deep as the Atlantic, and tried to convey through her stare how much she longed to hurt him.

Like looking into water, however, that same intent — and more — was reflected in his eyes. A hint of a smirk curved Loki's lovely lips.

"Well, when we finally do take them down, I'll be sure to allow you to be the one who does it — to make sure it's done right," she snarked. Loki's brows flicked upward in amusement.

"That's probably for the best," he said dryly. She was just short of seriously hurting him, and in a surprisingly tactful move, it was at that moment that Thor decided to end the meeting.

Hermione sat in her room, before the fireplace, on the plush chair. She should have been relishing such a delicious moment for herself — after all, there was nothing she loved more than a cozy fire, a plush chair, and a good book — and she even had a steaming cup of Earl Grey on the little table beside her chair. But instead, she found herself scowling into the fireplace, daydreaming about causing Loki serious harm.

This day couldn't get any worse — or at least, she hoped it couldn't. She was heartbroken, confused, enraged, and yet — and yet — delirious with happiness. She now knew that that was the thing troubling her the most; that was the emotion surging within her all day that she had been unable to identify or control. She was near Loki, even if the space between them was filled with acidic hostility, hurt, and disappointment, and it was making her heart sing. Layered on top of this happiness, partially clouding it, was the guilt at such happiness. She did not deserve this. Was it not disloyal to Ron?

You didn't even love Ron anymore when he was alive. Again with this mental tail-chasing... she didn't know where to turn or what to do. The old notes on Voldemort, from the Horcrux days, lay on her lap, but even her work could not distract her from her turmoil this time.

Deep within her, at her very core, was a searing need for Loki. She wanted him, all of him, but she had no idea of how to get him, and she did not even want to try, for fear of the guilt which would inevitably fill her. Again Loki's words echoed in her mind: you are actually afraid of your own shadow. Here she was both trying to outrun her own shadow, yet looking back at it, frantically, desperately drawn to its darkness.

And who was Loki to criticize her, anyway? He had done nothing but since their reunion, and it was infuriating. She wasn't the one who had wreaked all sorts of havoc across bloody realms because she was not the favorite child. Really, if there was anyone who ought to be criticized, it was Loki.

Still scowling, she rose from her chair and stashed her notes on the desk. She was going to find Loki, and she was going to settle this once and for all. If they didn't finish the conversation she had fled from earlier, then there was no way they were ever going to solve this bloody case.

Loki had remained locked in his room for quite some time, futilely attempting to accomplish work. The problem was Hermione, as always, and Loki was about ready to really strangle her. It occurred to him that he was in hiding, but so long as Hermione didn't dare to accuse him of doing such, then it didn't have to matter. His pride was still stinging, but at least he was positive hers was too. Worse yet was the burning desire, pumping blood to places in him that made things ... complicated... and thus contributing less blood to his brain. As a result, his mind was clouded with lust, rendering him directionless, infuriated, and crazed.

If he could simply have her one time, then he might feel some relief. Deep down he knew this was bullshit — if he really just wanted a good fuck, he had plenty of other options. That wasn't really the issue and it was foolish to try and tell himself that.

After all that they had been through together, he would have thought that their combative attraction might have settled down. Especially after so much distance — both literally and emotionally — he had thought the flame might have receded to little more than an ember. How wrong he had been!

He heard the soft chink of his lock unclicking, and he tensed. Of course, Hermione would be able to unlock locks with her magic. Loki began to panic as the door creaked open. He swallowed as his heart jumped into his throat, before setting his face in a grimace.

This was nothing more than a battle, he told himself. He would win this war, once and for all.

Hermione pushed open the door, caught between her own natural hesitance and an instinctive confrontational nature — really, this had always been her problem: to hold back or rush forward? She felt she was always doing the wrong one at the wrong time. Always charging forward into confrontation when it was uncalled for, and then feeling foolish for having done it. On the other hand, the times she had held back, she had always regretted it; she had always found herself recalling the situation and coming up with any number of clever rebuttals that, in spite of all her wit and cleverness, would never have come to her in the moment.

She was thirty-three years old now; if someone had told her when she had been, say, twelve, that she would still feel so awkward and ungainly in her own skin most of the time, she would have fainted. She had always looked forward to her future with the certainty that she would grow out of her uncertainty, that she would grow into her own personality as she had grown into her features (with a little magical help, of course). She could see that she still had quite some growing up to do.

But what would grown-up Hermione do in this scenario? She tried to remind herself of all of her successes, to give her confidence that in some ways she was grown up, but they all seemed to centre on her work: none (or at least, a spare few) of her successes had any relevance outside of her office. She was a lonely woman now, and though she always had been, it had only gotten worse in the past three years. She had pushed everyone away.

Her features crumpled with the temptation to cry. Her true loneliness was realized at this moment, and at the same time of such a selfish thought, she was overcome with an alarming burst of empathy: Loki was this lonely, too. At the centre of their relationship, past the wit and cleverness and talent and scathing remarks and combat, at this centre was pure understanding. At once she had recognized herself within Loki, as though looking into a mirror, and she had understood him, and she had not liked that. It was too easy for her to empathize with Loki, and she did not want to empathize with a villain.

So she had run, had she not? She had run away from the sight of her own shadow existing within Loki, but it had followed her, dogged her footsteps. Perhaps grown-up Hermione's task was to turn and greet that shadow with open arms — just as in the story of the Deathly Hallows, the third brother greeted Death, in all of its horrible, beautiful inevitability, as an old friend.

Hermione pushed the door open wide.

Loki was stretched languidly in his desk chair, facing the door and regarding her with arched brows. The expression, as well as the loveliness of his lips and the grace and elegance with which he carried himself, as always made her belly clench in desire.

"Loki," she began in a soft voice, unsure of what to say to convey all that she had realized. She shut the door behind her without turning from him. Even across the room, his gaze was blazing, burning, searing. She could tell he was girded for a fight, but she wouldn't give him a fight. She had been the villain for far too long. She looked down at the ground. "I just wanted to say thanks. For sending for me. It was flattering."

"I didn't send for you."

The immediacy of his response suggested otherwise. Hermione found her lips curving into a grin, against her will.

Loki sat there, watching her, drowning in shock. Of all the things he had been expecting from Hermione, this had not been it. There was not enough blood in his brain and the sight of her was doing odd things to him. All he could see was her soft brown eyes, shining with a tenderness he had not expected from her.

He needed to get her out of here. She could not invade his space like this; it was not fair. "I didn't send for you," he repeated, though it was a blatant lie and she would know as much.

"You're such a child sometimes, Loki," she snapped, folding her arms across her chest. The movement emphasized her considerable assets and Loki's brain turned off momentarily. Even when rational thought did return to him, it was foggy. He wanted her. "I know you're the one who would have sent for me — who else would have? Honestly, you must think me mentally subnormal."

The way she was standing there, cheeks pleasingly flushed and her brown eyes bright with wit, was more than he could bear. He was panicked, panicked that she would find out. Because if she found out just how much he desired her, then she would gain the upper hand. And once Hermione got the upper hand, she wouldn't be relinquishing it any time soon.

And yet... perhaps in admitting his desire, he would free himself from this madness. Loki began to smirk as his posture changed from defensive to something more predatory. Why were they doing this? The only woman to have ever so thoroughly occupied his mind was in his bedroom, all his. She was here of her own volition, and she could have run away before now — but she hadn't.

"You're right. I did send for you." He rose from his seat and observed Hermione's eyes flash as she processed this change in dynamic. He took a leisurely step forward, his eyes locking with hers. "I sent for you because you're the only one who can help us."

"Well." She took a deep breath, her chest rising and falling. He could see her throat muscles work as she gulped. "Like I said before: thanks, it's flattering. Means a lot."

"It wasn't just that I knew you could do it. It was also that I have thought of little else besides you for the past three years." He took another step forward, beginning to invade her personal space. She was here, in his jurisdiction. Why in the name of Asgard would he allow her to dictate their confrontation? All this time, they had been fighting for dominance — but now that she was here, he would show her who was boss. He watched her take a little step back, draw in a sharp little breath, her eyes widening just so. She wasn't scared, but he'd caught her off guard, and the notion flooded him with pleasure. He continued to stride forward, until he had backed her against the wall. Here, she belonged to him — and wasn't that exactly what he'd been trying to prove to her all along? No, she could not be owned by any man — but Loki was not any man.

"What are you playing at?" she demanded. "We have a job to do, Loki. We haven't got time for nonsense."

"You yourself said we'd never be able to work together if we didn't resolve the conflict between us. Consider me doing my part to resolve it." He placed a hand on the wall next to her head. She bit back a little squeal of frustration. His heart was pounding with the notion that she could easily utter one of her spells and cause him all sorts of damage, but he was oddly confident that that wouldn't be happening. For as much as she belongs to me... I belong to her, he realized. She could end him and he could end her. Permanently at odds, forever circling each other...

"This isn't resolving it — you're making it worse!" she said acidly, pulling at her hair. She had never felt more cornered emotionally; physically she knew she could escape easily but this wasn't a physical conflict. Even if one of them managed to pin the other down magically it would not have meant a victory, because their battle was one of the mind and, most of all, willpower. Prior to now it had been willpower against one letting the other find out about their attraction, but now that Loki had admitted his feelings, the game had changed, leaving Hermione uncertain of how to win this round.

Time to change tactics, she had to admit to herself. She allowed herself to smile. Loki arched his brows.

"Making it worse? You don't seem too upset about this change in situation," Loki observed.

"Well, you're right. It's time we admitted our attraction to each other so we can move on to more consequential things. Voldemort and Grindelwald must be defeated." She pushed at his arm, pushed it away from her. "I've thought of little else besides you as well, Loki."

It was easier to admit such a thing when it was a step towards winning whatever this was, but it still wasn't a simple thing. She didn't know what it would mean to win nor what her reward would be but she was saturated with the urge to win at all costs. This revelation — her attraction to Loki — had been a subject of great shame for her for so long. Even now, under the guise of battle, admitting it was like releasing something. She felt herself droop slightly with fatigue.

The weight of that much had it been weighing her down? She had always been aware of its negative influence on her life. It was her greatest source of humiliation, and now it was out in the open, for Loki to do with it as he wished.

Their eyes met once more and Loki cast his staff aside, and without thinking she reached forward and grasped his tunic, dragging him roughly closer as he pinned her against the wall. Their lips crashed together as her world went spinning off its axis, and she was out of orbit of all of the things that had once governed her life. All her life, she had relied on her logic and deeply ingrained sense of morality to guide her, yet every now and then, her passion took over, made her do things that went against all sense of rhyme and reason.

Loki sank into the kiss, closing his eyes and surrendering to his senses: the taste of her mouth, the feel of her soft, slick lips and tongue, the sound of her soft hum of appreciation as he deepened the kiss...

Afterwards, they lay on Loki's bed, staring out the enormous windows at the brilliant sky of Asgard. Hermione lay there, feeling Loki curled possessively around her, her eyelids drooping with the threat of sleep. She was just beginning to drift off when the door to Loki's room burst open.

"Brother! Another brea- oh."

Hermione bolted up and snatched the blankets to cover herself; conversely, Loki leisurely sat up, regarding Thor with amusement. Thor appeared to be choking on his own spit.

"We'll be there in a moment," Loki said with a smirk. Thor bolted out of the room, slamming the door. Hermione imagined him rushing to find Jane to help him process what he had just seen.

"Cat's out of the bag, I guess," she remarked, as they began hurriedly dressing. She admired Loki's pale torso — clawed over with scratches and love bites — for a moment before returning to the task at hand. Loki sniggered and finished dressing, and held out his hand. His staff and helmet zoomed across the room to him. Fully clothed, they faced each other.

"That's one way of putting it," he parried insinuatingly. Hermione flushed and rolled her eyes. Loki turned and looked back at her over his svelte shoulder.

"Are you ready to save the world?"

"As usual," she retorted. They left the room together, unsure of what they would face but confident they would defeat it together.