Title: A Villain State of Mind
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Angst, cold-bloodedness.
Timeframe: Set post-Avengers.

It was a long moment before Loki could compose himself enough to raise his head and sit back, although he did not yet release Charles' hand. "So, you return," he said, and then cleared his throat to dispel the traitorous roughness. "I hope your errands were fruitful?" And done with?

"I'm sorry that I could not be reached yesterday," Charles said. "I was conferring with some of our allies, regarding the threat presented by Thanos. But I hoped to return to visit you at least once more."

The stirrings of panic still clutched at Loki's heart. "Why, are you leaving again?" he demanded.

"No," Charles said, "but you are."

Cold caution tempered Loki's relief. "What makes you say that?" he said warily.

Charles looked surprised that Loki need to ask. "Director Fury has filled me in," he said. "I viewed the recording, as well. I assumed you would be going home shortly."

"Ah." Loki pulled back, releasing Charles' hand as he did. Now he knew why Charles was here. "You assumed wrongly. I no longer have a home."

Charles cocked his head to the side inquiringly. "Will you not be heading back to Asgard?" he asked. "But returning there and helping them with the threat would be the conditions of your release."

Loki's breath hissed through his teeth. "I would rather rot in this jail cell for a hundred years than lift one finger to aid the house of Odin."

"Why not?" Charles looked honestly shocked, then perplexed. "This is your chance - an opportunity to wipe out your ledger, gain your freedom from Earth and a pardon from Asgard at the same time. You could go from being a criminal in their eyes to a hero in one step. Why would you not want that?"

"I tried my hand at heroing for Asgard once before," Loki said roughly. "For my efforts, I was betrayed and cast down. You'll pardon me if I have not the desire to stick my hand back into the fire just to see if it still burns."

"But they need your help," Charles said, as though that alone should be an argument. Perhaps he truly believed that it was. Charles was so soft-hearted, Loki thought, that he genuinely could not seem to understand that others were not so - he could not seem to comprehend that anyone else would not want to be a hero. How did he maintain such naivete in the face of all the corruption he must see in men's spirits?

"Even so," Charles said, responding readily to Loki's thoughts if not his words, "you can look at it as a transaction, one where you can't help but come out ahead."

Loki scoffed. "They may need me, but I need nothing from them," he said scathingly. "This transaction is vastly imbalanced. From me, the power and knowledge to do what they lack, all their pitiful lives saved, and their puffed-up lands stayed from destruction another day. And I? What do I get out of it, apart from a few empty accolades, and a forgiveness that I neither need nor want?"

Charles looked sad, and Loki hated that pitying look on his face - if only because he knew it intimately, and it galled him to see Charles' wretched compassion turned on anyone else but him. "Is there truly nothing in Asgard for you?" he asked. "Nothing that you would want to see saved or protected?"

Mother. Golden hair and soft hands and a jewel-colored garden centuries gone. Frigga would surely be at Odin's side, defending him with a lioness' valor, as she always had - or would she be with the Völur, instead, wearing away her life to spin shield-spells with the others?

Loki shoved away such treacherous sentimentality, filling his thoughts instead with the memory of Frigga as he had last seen her: the look of horror in her eyes, the way she shrank from his embrace after Thor's disastrous return. There was nothing left to save, there. "No," he said defiantly, as though force of will could make it true. "No, there is nothing for me there. They rejected me, and I was glad enough to reject them in turn, and I owe them nothing." His voice trembled on the last word.

"You're afraid," Charles said shrewdly.

The words struck him with a pang, and Loki responded in sheer ingrained reflex. "I am no coward!" he snarled.

"Everyone has something they are afraid of, Loki," Charles said. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."

Fat lot Charles knew.

"If this Malekith is able to threaten Asgard with destruction, he must be pretty powerful," Charles went on.

"I do not fear Malekith," Loki scoffed, turning away. "I could defeat him in my sleep." Probably literally, if it came to a contest of dream-walking. In a battle on the astral plane, Loki would comfortably bet on himself against any two elves of Svartalfheim.

"If not Malekith, then what are you afraid of?" Charles asked. "Of failing?"

"Or of succeeding." Loki crossed his arms over his chest, though it was no colder in the cell than it ever had been. "They are one and the same, after all."

"I don't think I understand," Charles said.

Of course he didn't. How could he, when it had taken Loki a hundred years to understand it himself? A hundred years of trying, and trying, and never succeeding. "In Asgard... what you like to call heroism is... taken for granted. The absolute minimum that is required - at least if you are a brother of Thor." Or a son of Odin.

"It sounds like you would need to do something pretty special, to impress them," Charles said. His voice was mild, encouraging, but Loki was not deceived: 'like saving all of Asgard from an invader?' was clearly implied.

He laughed bitterly. "I thought so too," he said. "Which is why I thought if I could have ended the war - if I could have regained the same victory that my father had, but without spilling a single drop of Aesir blood - if I could have destroyed our enemies in one single stroke, that would be a victory worth noticing. If I could have - "

I could have done it, Father.

No, Loki.

Charles winced visibly. "Perhaps your great plans could stand a little auditing beforehand," he admitted.

"It matters not whether my plans succeed," Loki said. "If I were to succeed beyond their wildest dreams, that would still be no more than what is merely expected. But should I fail - or even succeed in a manner other than what is expected - they will not hesitate to censure me." To crucify me.

"But right now you have them over a barrel," Charles pointed out persuasively. "In the straits they're in now, they're in no shape to place conditions on your help. They'll have to approve of whatever methods you choose to employ, or whatever conditions you demand in recompense."

Loki rather thought that Charles was underestimating the extent to which the Aesir valued their mindless, stubborn pride - and how many casualties they were willing to sacrifice to protect it.

"In fact," a razor thin smile crossed over Charles' face, "you could go up there in your true skin, your Jotun skin, and they would have no choice but to fete you like a hero all the same. Perhaps you should; it would teach them a lesson."

Loki glared. "That's quite the hypocrisy, coming from you," he bit out, "considering that you not only hide your true nature from the world, but demand that all your vassals do the same. Who are you to dare others to brazen honesty, at the cost of public shame?"

The acid in his voice took even him by surprise; he had hardly realized how deep this bitterness ran. For a moment he wished he could take the words back, fearful of alienating his only ally... but no. For the past week Charles had persistently ignored or brushed aside Loki's fervent efforts to drive him away; surely he would not change his mind now.

"...a fair point," Charles admitted in a strained voice.

Loki folded his arms and said nothing. He knew what Charles was trying to do, to manipulate and persuade him, and he had no intention of helping him along. Charles tried another tack.

"Well, something to consider is that if you go back now, you go as a free man, and you can always leave again after," Charles said in a reasonable tone. "But if you don't go, and Asgard falls, that will be done forever and there will be no going back from it. You will never know if you might have made the difference."

Loki's lip curled upwards in a sneer. "I certainly know that I would not care," he said.

"Wouldn't you?" Charles challenged. "You took an oath to protect Asgard, did you not? If that loyalty extended as far as protecting Earth from Thanos, surely you have even more obligation to protect Asgard."

That stung, ground right in the raw spot that had chafed him for so long: that even after his fall and exile, still he had tried to uphold his oaths. There had been times, among the pits of the Chitauri, where that oath had been the only thing holding his sanity together. And now Charles tried to use that as a lever to force him, to crush his resistance? "They betrayed me first!" he snarled, furious at the renewed memory. "Not a day before their oaths were cold did they forsake them, forsake me - not that anyone cared about that! What worth is in a loyalty that runs only one way? Why should I cherish my oaths to them so dearly, when they cared about theirs to me not at all?"

"It was not all of Asgard that turned on you," Charles offered. "Surely it's not fair to punish them all for the actions of a few."

"But they were the ones who should have known me best!" Loki paced restlessly around the room, driven to ceaseless motion by the resentment and injury seething under his skin. "I had fought beside them for a hundred years, watched their backs and saved their lives countless times. I saved Fandral's on Jotunheim - I saved all of their lives from my brother's brash idiocy! And yet before two days had passed they did not hesitate to slander me, to judge my actions and accuse me of treason - I, who did more for Asgard than all of them put together!"

"They had reason to be worried," Charles said quietly. "Your intentions were not exactly clear."

"They had no proof!" Loki whirled to face Charles, fury spiking. "None! They had no reason to accuse me except - except by their own admission that they did not understand me, and what they could not understand, they despise! They thought it enough to judge, that because of some petty childhood conflict with Thor, that I would betray my own home - my king - my country, my father -"

"Loki," Charles interrupted him, and Loki realized he was hyperventilating.

"Such was the loyalty of Asgard," Loki said savagely. "All I had ever done, all I had ever been, and they threw it aside in a moment, because of Thor!"

He turned abruptly away, hands clenching into fists as he struggled to leash his bitter anger, his frustration and resentment and rage. When at last he thought he could control his voice, he spoke again.

"Any good memories I had of Asgard have been tainted beyond redemption." Loki turned back and looked at Charles somberly. "Whether the fault was in me or in them, the result is as you see. You have given me - reason to think - that I may be otherwise, and I so wish it. I wish..." His throat tightened, thick with these strange new thoughts - these unfamiliar needs and wants, that he knew not how to express.

"But if I go back, nothing will have changed, everything will still be the same - they will suck me right back into the games of hero and villain that nearly destroyed me." He gave a bitter laugh. "Why would I go back to the house where my spirit was so poisoned?"

A dozen heartbeats passed, and Loki knew that Charles had no answer for him.

"You're right," Charles admitted quietly. "You shouldn't have to go back. And I can't, in good conscience, force you to."

Loki's breath hitched, seeming to freeze in his chest. Part of him felt triumphant, vindicated by Charles' admission - but another part of him felt bitterly disappointed. As though he'd wanted Charles to convince him after all.

Charles sighed sadly. "I can't tell you what to do, Loki," he said. "I'm not your father nor your commanding officer. I can't make you do anything and I won't punish you or withdraw my support no matter what you do or don't do."

That reminder eased the panic clutching Loki's chest, even as it left him feeling oddly desolate. But no amount of reassurances could change the weight of expectation. "But you think I should go back," he challenged.

"I do," Charles said with a nod. Then he corrected himself, "Or say rather, I would like it if you went back."

Loki thought about that. No matter how he tried to approach it, he couldn't figure Charles out. What stake could he possibly have in the continued survival or well-being of Asgard, a land he'd never visited and most likely never would? In the well-being of people who most likely, if he ever met them, would despise him for the evidence of his physical frailty and for the power of the mind that he wielded?

"Why?" he said at last.

Charles shrugged. "I don't have a good argument, really," he said. "It's just something I believe. That if you can help someone, you should."

If you can help someone, you should.

Is that why you helped me? Loki thought. He could not, would not even try to deny the kindness that Charles had lavished on him from the start: pulling him from the horrors of his own mind, easing his restraints, bringing him food and water when no one else would; the translated letter, the books, the freeing of Loki's mind. In all likelihood Loki would be dead by now if not for Charles, and he'd fought him every inch of the way, only ever repaid him with slights and insults and childish temper tantrums. Even now he argued with Fury for Loki's freedom - and why?

If you can help someone, you should.

What had Loki ever done for Charles, that might repay his generosity? Loki wasn't sure that anything could; he had nothing that Charles needed. Even now, the first time he ever asked Loki for anything, it was a favor from which he would never reap a single benefit. Perhaps there was no way to give back such kindness. Perhaps it was something you could only give on to others.

"I will go back," he said aloud.

Charles smiled.

"But I won't enjoy it," he said acidly, just for appearance's sake.

Charles laughed. "I think you may enjoy it more than you think," he said, "once you realize how much sanctioned havoc you can commit."

Loki shrugged. It was only beginning to dawn on him just what this commitment would entail - he would have to return to Asgard along the dark paths, skirting the Void that had once pulled him over. He would have to face them again, all those whom he had betrayed and disappointed, who had betrayed and disappointed him - Thor, Frigga, Odin - they would never forgive him, he could not forgive them, it was impossible, impossible -

"Remember, Loki," Charles said, interrupting the tide of building dread. "Remember who you are; neither a failure, nor a monster, nor evil. You have always fought for Asgard, for Earth, for the greater good. You have a good heart. Do not let others, through their words or their actions, make you forget that heart."

Loki was not at all sure that he did - but the way Charles said it, in a tone of such certainty, made him want to believe it. Made him want to prove Charles right, make him proud. He nodded.

"I meant what I said earlier, you know," Charles said, his voice gentling "You don't have to stay on Asgard, after the threat is gone. I'd like to see you again. If you would, you could come by my school. Some of my students - there are a few that shift shape, as you do. And one who is learning to control magic. They could greatly benefit from an elder to guide them."

Loki hummed noncommittally. "Perhaps," he acknowledged, although the idea quite intrigued him. He had never tried to teach anyone before. That prospect was frightening too, in its own way: the fear of the unknown, of crossing new frontiers. Frightening, but exciting.

"Even if you don't," Charles said, "you would always be welcome at my school. You know where to find me."

He hadn't before; but now that Charles said the words, he found he suddenly did. A little town buried in the north-eastern part of this country; a cozy lane, a sprawling mansion, wooded hills that took on the color of fire in the autumn. The spaemadr must have put the knowledge directly in his head, but Loki did not think he blamed him for not wishing to speak it aloud. He felt a sudden, intense surge of longing for the place - to go home to a place he had never been before.

"You can come and find me, any time you need to talk," Charles said firmly. "I imagine there will be a lot you'll want to talk about, after you're finished in Asgard."

It seemed almost hubristic, to talk of victory in Asgard before he had even begun. Yet it helped, somehow, to imagine a future - a life beyond going back. The road did not seem so dark, so close. Loki took a deep breath, and pushed his shoulders back and his head high. "Perhaps," was all he said.

But perhaps was not no, never. It was a possibility - a cracked-open door, through which a whole new world could be seen.

It was not quite that simple, of course. No change-of-status could be effected on a government prisoner without a metric ton of accompanying paperwork, and SHIELD was still a government agency, no matter how clandestine.

At last, though, the three of them - Fury, Xavier, and Loki - stood in an antechamber, of sorts, near the roof of the Carrier. There was little visible change to mark Loki's new status as a free man; they had stopped using restraints on him at Xavier's request long ago, and if SHIELD still had his old clothes stashed somewhere they weren't in a hurry to admit it. They certainly weren't going to be returning his scepter, the only other possession to his name when he'd stepped onto Earth.

Fury stood by, looking deeply unhappy but also resigned. That didn't stop him from delivering an eleventh-hour shovel speech to his soon-to-be-former prisoner, though.

"We have everyone even remotely connected with SHIELD and the Avengers under twenty-four-hour surveillance," he warned Loki. "If you start anything with any of them, if you so much as blink in their direction - we will be down on your ass with the full team of Avengers before that blink finishes."

Loki's lip curled. "Believe me, Director," he drawled. "Words can hardly convey how little I wish to have anything to do with you and your..." He paused, apparently rifling through a choice of words, before settling on "flying circus."

He dismissed Fury from his attention, and moved on to Xavier, seated in his wheelchair further away from the door.

Xavier smiled at him, the same kind smile that Loki had first seen when he'd come out of his enforced flashback in SHIELD custody. Loki shifted uncomfortably, hands twitching slightly at his sides, and Xavier's smile widened as he sensed Loki's conflict.

"Come on," he said with a slight chuckle, "it's perfectly traditional, when a family member departs on a long journey."

Loki flushed slightly, muttering something under his breath, but he moved forward; Xavier reached up to return the embrace, resting his hand lightly on the back of Loki's shoulder while Loki clung to him fiercely. It was strange, Loki thought, how light and weak and mortal he seemed on the outside; Loki well knew the power encased in that fragile shell. Strength and weakness, power and kindness - it was a combination Loki would never have imagined, before meeting Charles Xavier.

After a long moment, he loosed his hold and stepped back, avoiding their gazes. The stiff set of his shoulders defied anyone to comment; Fury wouldn't dare, and Xavier wouldn't dream of it.

"Well, let's get on with it," Fury said ungraciously. They were all aware of the time ticking away, the longer they lingered. The flow of time between Earth and Asgard meant that they could delay for a time, but not forever. "Do whatever it is you need to do, in order to release his magic."

Xavier's eyebrows went up in surprise. "What, the mental blocks?" he said. "Oh, I removed those ages ago."

Loki and Fury both stared at him, with expressions of surprise and disbelief so similar they were almost comical. "What?" Fury demanded, almost at the same time that Loki cried, "When?"

"As soon as I witnessed the recorded request of the King of Asgard to have you released," Xavier said. "At that point, as far as I was concerned, you were no longer our prisoner. The only reason Loki has not vanished himself, Director, is that he didn't want to."

Before Fury could respond to that, Loki stood up straight and took two steps into the center of the room. His hands twitched, and a whisper of soundless voice escaped from him - pass breath over lips, Thor had said. The air around Loki shimmered and swirled, a coruscating aura of dark violet and green; it sank down over his legs and feet and became hard, dark leather, swirled bright up around his chest and arms and became triumphant gold.

When the smoke cleared, Loki stood before them in all his ceremonial armor - not quite what he'd been wearing in the clips of him leading his invasion, but the same style, the same colors, the same deadly promise of danger. No longer prisoner or patient, but unmistakably a prince.

He even wore the golden helm, its smooth curved prongs arcing upwards to increase the intimidation of his already formidable height. A bit too formidable, perhaps, for this room; the pointed tips scraped painfully on the ceiling when he lifted his head. He grimaced, and gestured quickly again; the helmet swirled and disappeared, unconjured to whatever strange store it had come from.

Loki struck a stiff pose, his fist clenched and his arm folded across his heart, and inclined his upper body slightly towards Xavier. "Charles Xavier, King of Mutants," he said in a formal tone; "You have the gratitude of Loki of Asgard. If there is any boon or service I can provide for you or your people, you have but to ask, and it shall be yours."

"Thank you, Loki," Xavier said, smiling slightly. "And my doors are always open to you, you know that."

Loki nodded once, firmly, in acceptance of the contract. Then his eyes slid over to Fury, and his lips twisted in a sardonic smile.

"You, not so much," he said.

"I wasn't planning to put you in my rolodex, either," Fury shot back. "As far as I'm concerned, you've still got about five hundred years of community service owed."

"For the sake of your allies, I am willing to overlook your tresspasses against my person," Loki said coldly. "But you would be wise not to press your luck."

"Loki," Xavier said in a gently warning tone. He and Loki exchanged a long glance, and Loki looked away first; he did not pick any further fights with Fury.

Fury reached out and punched a series of buttons into the keypad by the door, and it rolled aside with a hissing that quickly escalated to a roar. Sunlight streamed in through the door as high-altitude wind whipped around it, and all of their ears popped as the air pressure in the chamber dropped dramatically.

Looking at the door, Loki inhaled deeply through his nose, looking endearingly young and nervous despite the imposing armor. He pushed his back to painful straightness, jerked his chin up, and walked out through the portal.

For the first few steps, he looked perfectly normal, just a tall dark-haired man walking unbowed through the winds. By the fourth step, the colors and shadows on him had shifted, as though the light that shone on him was no longer the light of the sun above; by the sixth step, he was gone. The two men of Earth - one human, the other not quite - stood for a long moment, watching the place where he'd disappeared.

"Well, at least he's out of our hair," Fury sighed. "With any luck, he'll get killed or at least distracted in his little interfactional spat, and never darken my planet again."

"On the contrary," Xavier said unexpectedly. "I dearly hope he does."

"Why, because you'll miss him?" Fury said incredulously.

Xavier shrugged. "In part," he said. "Mostly, so that I can continue guiding him. To tell you the truth, Director, I'm not exactly pleased with letting him run around unsupervised in this state..."

"You're telling me that?" Fury muttered.

"I would have preferred to have more time with him," Xavier said. "In some ways, Loki is still very... fragile."

Fury scoffed. "I wouldn't call anyone who survived a close and personal argument with the Hulk as 'fragile,' " he said.

"Fragile in regards to his moral and emotional maturity," Xavier clarified. "He's come a long way in the past week, but a week is... only a week, and the scars and wounds he seeks to overcome were years in the making. It's not an easy road to travel; he'll need someone to guide him on it. And if there had been anyone in Asgard capable of helping him, he never would have gotten to this state in the first plate."

Fury had to agree with that, but preferred not to say so, restricting his commentary to a noncommittal "Mm," instead.

Xavier's tone and expression grew more serious. "Loki has a long, long path leading out of the darkness," he went on. "His capacity for empathy to the suffering of others is still quite limited. He wants - he truly wants - to do good, but in many ways is blind as to what that means. He still does not really understand why the things he did on Jotunheim, on Earth, were wrong. Until he can understand why he is being punished, to torment him for his crimes would only drive him further into hatred.

"This mission in Asgard could be a breakthrough for him," Xavier said thoughtfully. "If he is able to meet the threat and overcome it, without resorting to atrocity - and if his good deeds are recognized and lauded by his people, and he is rewarded for them - then I believe he will truly be able to grow into the role. If he can begin to believe in himself as a good person, then he can begin to feel remorse for the lives he has destroyed. But if they do not..."

He trailed off, and Fury looked sharply at him. "You think he'd go back to being a supervillain again?" he demanded. "Come back and wreak more havoc on Earth? Then what do we do, when we're right back where we started?"

"If he relapses, and he is lost to the darkness, and I cannot reach him... then, Director Fury, we may have no choice but to end his life," Xavier said bleakly. His hands clenched into fists, twisting in cloth even as he made the admission. "I hope - devoutly hope - that it will never come to that. But he can't be contained, and he will not age; and he is far, far too dangerous to be allowed to rampage at will."

Fury stared at his colleague, incredulous. "That's what I've been arguing for weeks!" he complained. "You were the one who insisted that execution was off the table!"

"Of course I did," Xavier said with asperity, "otherwise it would have been your preferred solution every time we hit a setback. But I had to try, Director. I had to give him this chance. You should know about that, I think. Second chances you've given to others. And second chances you've been given."

Fury fell silent again. He did. But that didn't mean he liked it.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Professor," he muttered.

"So do I," Xavier said softly, and tilted his head back to look up at the sky, tracing an imaginary pathway branching through the sun-shot clouds. "I truly do."

~the end. (for now)

More Author's notes:

Whew! We've reached the end of the fic! I really am sorry to all the people who were hoping to see more - more of the other X-men, more of the Avengers, or more of Loki's adventures back in Asgard. Those would be great things, and I hope to address (some) of them in other fics I do, but that was never the goal of this fic - it was intended entirely to focus on the relationship between Loki and Charles, and was always meant to end when Loki left SHIELD captivity. I'm just sorry it took me so long to complete!

I do plan to write at least another one-shot in this continuity - with Xavier, Loki and Thor, considerably later on. And enough people have convinced me that Loki guest lecturing at Charles' school would be AWESOME that I'd like to do something that features that as well, if I could find a story in me for it. But for the time being I'm going to focus on other projects, which feature more of the Avengers and less of the X-men characters.