THANKS SO MUCH TO EVERYONE WHO READS AND REVIEWS THIS!

(Holy shit we're over 3k now)

Beta: Zerubel

Haha! Decent update time!

Of course, the next one you'll have to wait a little longer for. These next couple weeks are gonna be busy ones for me, and I haven't even really started the next chapter so-

But, in the meantime! I GOT TO SEE CIVIL WAR! Holy crud it was awesome 3 I have so many fic ideas and we haven't even gotten through Dark World wtf-

Anyways, this chapter is pretty much all about Loki. We finally get some answers! And I have a few things to say at the end about it all, so you should probably read that.

For now that's all. I won't keep you.

Enjoy.

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His first order of business the next day, after breakfast had been eaten and a nice long hot bath had been had, was the very bit of business he wanted most to put off. But it needed doing, regardless of his hesitance, so it would come first.

When he arrived in the dungeons he approached Loki's cell quietly. He didn't call a greeting when he grew close, and when the Trickster looked up to do so himself, something on the wizard's face made him close his mouth instead, the words dying on his lips. He settled himself wearily into the chair that had been left out for him, leaning back and resting an elbow on one of the arms, rubbing at his chin with his hand.

He was tired. Even after a full, good night's sleep he felt exhausted. Weary and stressed, angry and outraged and mournful and confused from his many revelations during his trip through the realm of ice. He'd bottled most of it up while there, but now that he was back in Asgard he found he had more trouble doing so. He was tired of having his eyes ripped open to the nasty lurkings of the universe, and Odin, and the nine realms. He was tired of politics. Tired of fighting too, if he were truly honest with himself.

And he was tired, he decided, of not knowing things; that had always been something he'd disliked. He'd gone too long with letting the simple understanding of his title be enough. He kept putting off talking to Tom about the details and gaining a deeper understanding of what it meant to be King of the Dead. He'd done so mostly because he was still fighting against the knowledge in some way (and probably would continue to do so). But it was done. It was part of him. There was no taking it back and he was starting to resign himself to that. So he needed to understand it; needed to fully comprehend what Hel and Dumbledore and his own fool-self had gotten him into.

He was tired of Odin keeping things from him. Tired of learning all these nasty things about the Allfather and his past and all the damage he and his predecessors had caused in the other realms. Tired of the two-faced nature of the Asgardian King that might have been as simple as him having been an asshole in his youth and then growing out of it or something much more sinister. He was tired of not knowing which of the two it was (and it irked him to recognize that there was probably no real way for him to find out without possibly putting himself in danger).

He was tired of Muhammad keeping things from him. Tired of sitting there and trusting that all was well even though the older wizard was being weird and secretive and acting suspicious. And he hated himself for the anxiety he felt about it because he should trust him. Because Moo had never ever given him any reason to think that he was anything but trustworthy.

He was tired of thinking about all the things on his shoulders. Tired of considering the clusterfuck that waited for him back in the wizarding political arena (because Cornelius fucking Fudge knew he was a king, and Mitera only how long he'd keep his mouth shut; if he ended up not wanting any part of it the man might still force his hand). Tired of worrying about werewolf laws and muggleborn discrimination and any Death Eaters that might still be alive and possibly free. Tired of worrying about the secrets he was keeping from the Avengers and whatever remnants of Shield might still exist (because government organizations were made of people, and people didn't just disappear when those organizations fell apart) and the possible chaos he'd have to deal with when (not if, because he wasn't stupid enough to think he could hide everything forever) those secrets came to light.

And, most of all, he was tired of him and Loki dancing around the truth but almost never touching on it. He was tired of all his unanswered questions. Tired of not knowing what the Trickster was up to no matter any suspicions he might have about it. Tired of his efforts to get close to Loki being half-fended off by back and forth manipulations; their reluctance to confide in one another leading them into so many distracting topics that by the end he'd half-forgotten what it was he needed know. Half forgotten how important and urgent it was for him to know.

And he was tired, sick and tired, of second-guessing his friend's- his friend's- motivations. Tired of not knowing whether one of the people he cared about was someone he could trust or not. Tired of eyeing the fuzzy and distant horizon and wondering if there was betrayal and heartbreak waiting for him just over the next hill.

So he sat in his chair, Loki blue-skinned (he'd put the illusions up already, Harry could feel them) and eyeing him warily from his own behind the glass, and tried to think carefully about what he should ask first. In the back of his head he could hear Tom, giving whispered advice and suggestions about what to say, where to begin, but it was white noise to him. In the end he just opened his mouth and spoke, and the first question to come out was blunt and straightforward and probably a terrible place to start.

"Why are you here?" Loki blinked at him, and then frowned, brows furrowing in confusion. He opened his mouth, but the animagus beat him to it. "I mean-" He gestured, waving a hand at the cage. "Why are you in here? Why let yourself be locked up when you could have fled? Why-" He cut himself off with a noise of frustration. The Liesmith's expression shuttered closed, and he stared almost blankly at Harry for a long moment. He didn't deny it or play dumb, and that, at least, was a point in his favor. He wasn't insulting the wizard's intelligence at least.

"You've been holding that question back for some time now." It was a simple statement, delivered in the same observational tone the trickster god used when commenting on whether or not he'd worn Asgardian dress that day or whether he still had mud, sweat, or blood on him from training with Sif.

"I've been holding a lot of questions back... But no more." And then Loki was a woman again. Harry had noticed, after a point, that she tended to switch genders most often when she was uncomfortable. It made him wonder about those first few visits, when she'd remained as a man the entire time, even during those moments when he knew she hadn't been comfortable; made him wonder how used to hiding herself she was, and how comfortable she must be around him to have stopped bothering.

"Why? What's happened?" She looked him in the eyes. "I know you have questions. I'm no fool. But you've kept them to yourself and waited until now. What's changed?"

"Nothing... Everything. You still haven't given me an answer." Her eyes narrowed.

"Neither have you."

"I asked first." She was 'he' again in an instant, changing again more quickly than was usual. He leaned back in his chair, and then stood and paced for several seconds. Harry watched him impassively, eyes tracking the movement while his head remained still. He went from one end of the cell to the other, and back again, and then again twice more; the wizard watched his face grow irritable as he thought, until abruptly he stopped mid-stride in the middle of a lap and put his hands against the glass. He towered over Harry when standing, and he was looking down at him, face stormy. They watched each other, neither giving ground, and for a moment the animagus wondered if he was wasting his time; if Loki wasn't going to answer, would never have, no matter when the question was asked or how it was phrased.

But then the god sighed heavily, expression shifting into something that wasn't quite defeat, and sat on the floor of his cell.

"Because I knew I would be safer here in Asgard's dungeons than on Midgard or in any other realm. The palace is well protected." That was exactly what Harry had thought, and he leaned forward in his chair. So his suspicion was true (and he should feel more prideful at how his deductive skills had improved recently, but he couldn't summon anything more than grim resignation). But of course, he had other questions-

"And who do you need protecting from? The one who controlled you?" Loki hissed, shoulders tensing. He looked angry again, but he answered.

"He leads the Chitauri, and his power is great and terrible. Even alone his strength is beyond what I am capable of facing. With his army behind him it's even more so. It would take the Allfather himself I think, to defeat him, and even then, I don't believe he could be killed."

"His name?"

"To speak his name would be to invite his attention upon you, and I am not so much a fool as to do so."

'Sounds like a Taboo.' He almost jumped. After ignoring him earlier Tom had fallen silent, and he'd thought the serpent had retreated to his own mind. He'd certainly felt annoyed enough at being ignored enough to have done so. Harry stomped ruthlessly down on the flash of guilt that thought caused.

'A Taboo?'

'It's a dark spell that puts power into a word or phrase. It causes the person who casts it to be alerted when and where it's spoken.' He hesitated. 'I used such a spell during my first reign. I attached it to my- to the name Voldemort, to help hunt down my most vocal opposers.'

'So that's where it came from. That's why they started saying You-Know-Who and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.'

'Yes.' He hummed.

"Why you? Why'd he control you? What's he want? The tesseract? Control over Earth? How-"

"Harry." Loki looked more weary than anything. A second ago he'd looked angry at the questioning, but now he only seemed sort of- well. Harry supposed he wasn't the only one who was tired.

"... Maybe you could just start from the beginning." The trickster nodded, but didn't speak immediately. He crossed his arms and looked down, hunching in on himself. There was a moment where he looked smaller than he was. He switched genders, and then back again before he'd been a woman longer than a few seconds. Harry frowned, worried.

"I-" He stopped. "When we were children, Thor and I were raised mostly as equals." That was a bit farther back than Harry had expected him to start, but he listened carefully. "But in many ways I... I often felt as though I lived in his shadow. He was a better fighter, he made friends more easily, he better exemplified the ideals Asier ascribe to. The people looked to him and saw a perfect, shining example of everything they thought an Asgardian warrior should be." He leaned back a little. "And then there was me. The Liesmith and the Trickster. He who played with illusions and seidr and obviously could never be trusted."

"That started long before I ever told my first lie. They found me distasteful. Strange. Weak. Feminine. I... I tried, to not be jealous. My brother loved me, dearly. There were many times when he chose me over his friends for no other reason than because I asked it of him. Father played favorites, but our Mother always treated us the same. Loved us the same. It should have been enough." He gritted his teeth. "It wasn't."

"I became bitter and resentful and jealous. It... It started small. A little whisper of darkness inside of me. But it grew. It grew and it grew. I became spiteful towards those who disliked me. My tricks turned nasty. Dangerous. I thought to myself that I would be the thing they always accused me of being. I would be a liar and a trickster and a thief and a monster. And I would be the best of those things. The best I could possibly be. Better than any other before me. And I was."

"But I tried to be other things too. I worked and trained as best I was able. I tried to gain strength. I tried to become more skilled at fighting head-on and without seidr, the way that Thor was. And I- I was never as good with people as he was, but I learned how to mimic it. To look at a situation and react the way people wanted me to, expected me to. I would say to myself 'What would Thor do here?'" He sighed. "I fought for acceptance. And for a while that was... It was okay. Because even if the people did not love me as much as my brother, he loved me, and our parents loved me. I had friends of my own. Children. I managed to grasp a bit of my brother's light. Thor and I were considered... not quite equals maybe, but- two sides of the same coin. And I started to ease. The darkness in me began to temper. I was content in darkness so long as I could reflect his light." He paused.

"And then the Allfather declared Thor as his heir to the throne." His voice was bitter, but he looked more sad than angry. "It had been something in the background before then. The knowledge that Odin would one day pass his crown on to another. It was something rarely spoken of. Part of me had expected that when the time came, my brother and I would rule together, side by side. We would be equals in a way that all could see. It was... It was naive. The moment Odin declared that he would begin training Thor to take the crown everything I had fought for fell to pieces. Those few who had begun to see me on even footing with him dismissed me again. I was in shadow once more. Liesmith and Silvertongue. The king-to-be's strange little brother with his strange little powers." He spat the last bit, fists clenched.

"For a century the Allfather trained Thor. One hundred years he took to prepare him, and in all that time I watched myself fall back into scorn. All the old anger returned and I started falling into that old familiar hate. That darkness." He took a deep breath, and shifted abruptly. She tucked a lock of hair behind one ear.

"It was... Perhaps a year before the crowning ceremony." Harry's brow scrunched. "I've always been prone to exploring the realms, finding nooks and crannies and portals between one world and the next. Going into places I... Should not. I met the Chitauri leader on one such excursion. He... Made me an offer." She looked away, falling silent. She looked... If Harry had to name the emotion on her face, he might have called it shame. "He offered to help me achieve more equal footing with Thor, a chance to prove myself to our father, and I... I knew, I knew, that there was something wrong. I knew it was too late for that but I-" She fell silent again, looking pained.

"You were desperate." He guessed, and she slumped a little.

"I was. I wanted it so badly I ignored every sign, every marker that said it wasn't going to end the way I wanted because at least his offer was a chance. It was better than resignation. And all he asked was that I occasionally did some work for him. He didn't ask for anything important, at first. 'Take this message here'. 'Get me this item'. 'Make this for me'. I never thought much of any of it. He used me like an errand-runner, but he was training me. I thought I had gained as much skill as I was able with a blade but he was making me better. I thought I had hit my limits in strength but I was growing stronger. He taught me things about magic I didn't know before, and I had thought I'd learned nearly all there was to know." She wrapped her arms around herself." He always had the scepter with him. I remember the first time I saw him with it. He's... He's very large in stature, like your- like Hulk. I remember thinking that it was strange he wielded such a thing, because it looked too small for him."

"I didn't realize it then, but every time I met with him he was slowly weaving his control over me. His errands started to become more serious. When he finally suggested the plot, I was so under his thrall that I hardly questioned it as a sound plan. Let the Jotuns into Asgard to get their casket, give them the chance to kill the Allfather, and then save him before they could. Kill their King and prove myself a hero! Cast the Jotuns in the role of villain and then wipe them from this plane of existence! The people would love me for it! Revere me! I would finally be my brother's match! They would call for me to be King! For both of us!" She laughed. It was a bitter, humorless sound. "It was such a fantasy. Such a flawed broken wish. It would never have worked, and it was all so wrong and so twisted. If I had been in my right mind I never would have even considered it. Treason and murder. Genocide. I am a liar and trouble-maker and a chaos-bringer. I am Loki Silvertongue and I am a thief. But I am not- I am not that. I am not such a horrid creature that I-" She stopped, trembling.

"And then it all failed, as it should have, and I was there hanging from the bifrost. I remember wanting to heave myself up and attack them. Attack Thor and attack the Allfather. I think... I think that's what he had wanted me to do. But I had a moment of clarity, a moment free from his control, even if I didn't recognize it for what it was at the time... It was... It was so easy to let go. So easy to just-" She switched again, and Harry felt a chill go down his spine. It set every alarm in his head ringing, what Loki was telling him.

"You intended to die."

"Yes." Suicide. That was- Harry didn't even know where to begin untangling the knot of different emotions that thought invoked in him. It was difficult to believe that anyone would ever want to-

There was a memory lurking in the back of his mind, carefully shut away. He didn't think about it, didn't allow himself to. Didn't let himself contemplate the eight-year-old child he'd once been, standing in the kitchen and looking carefully at the knives, wondering to himself how much force it would take to stab himself and how badly it would hurt.

He shoved the whisper of a half of a thought forcefully away.

At the back of his mind he could feel Tom jerk, as though he'd felt it, but he refused to acknowledge that.

"I had believed that there was nothing, in the place between worlds. We called it the void. I thought, if I let myself fall into that place, it would be my end... I was wrong." There was so much the man put into those three words. Horror and pain, regret and anger, bitterness and fear. "I will not speak of it, not now and not ever, except to say that the void is not empty. Not empty at all, but filled with horrors that should never see the light of day. I was there for months. Months that felt like years. And then he was there. There with his army, killing and destroying all that I had come to fear. He rescued me, and I was so grateful-" He rubbed a hand over his head, pushing his hair back. "When he gave me the scepter he snapped the rest of his control over me. I was so broken from my time in the void that I hardly noticed at the time. He laid out a basic plan, told me to retrieve the tesseract for him, and in exchange he would leave Midgard to my rule. I don't-" He shuffled where he sat, looking almost confused.

"I could barely remember, by then, that I wanted to rule. My thoughts were so twisted- I'd always wanted to rule Asgard with Thor, not just rule, but at the time, it seemed like practically the same thing. I would rule Midgard and he Asgard and we would both be Kings? Wouldn't we? Still stand on equal ground. It's all very... It was all broken up. It was so hard to think straight, to make sense of everything. And then suddenly, there you were." His eyes fell on Harry, a sudden, startling intensity to his gaze that made the animagus sit up straighter. "There you were, your magic meshing with mine and snapping my mind back into place. Everything gained clarity. Even before you broke the control I was suddenly- I was aware again. And there was some part of me that... I knew. I knew what I was doing wasn't right. I couldn't fight it directly. I couldn't stop it. But I could sabotage it, though even that knowledge was only a bare whisper in my mind." There was a gleam in his eyes.

"I knew that if I opened the portal in the middle of nowhere, above the ocean maybe, then enough of the Chitauri would be able to pour through that by the time Midgard's defenders were even able to get there, there would already be too many of them to be stopped. So I didn't. I have always enjoyed attention, if I am honest. So I focussed on that. Forced myself to latch onto the reasoning that if I opened it in the middle of nowhere then no one would know if my part in it."

"You opened it above a city full of people." Loki grimaced.

"I opened it somewhere where it could not possibly be overlooked. I opened it in a place that was personal to the Avengers, and, strategically, more easily defensible. Large cities have large populations. More people means more warriors present to defend and police them." Harry frowned. "It was close to that flying ship as well, which made it easier for you and my brother and the others to get there more quickly. You lot were the strongest defenders, and the ones most likely to succeed in defeating the Chitauri and myself." The animagus considered that.

He... Didn't like, that Loki had opened the portal above a city full of innocent people, but strategically... He was right. The Chitauri had killed a lot of people and done a lot of damage. But if they had been let loose somewhere empty? If more of them had gotten through and had the chance to spread out?

He pictured a hundred of those enormous, vaguely-oceanic flying monsters, each accompanied by hundreds of Chitauri, each spread to a different location. He grimaced. That... had the potential to have been much much worse. He didn't know if Shield or anyone would have been able to even notice a portal opening if it was done in a place with no people. How long would it have taken to find the portal? How long would have taken to reach it?

He had scarcely been able to believe it, when Tony had told him, but the portal had been open for less than half an hour. Not long at all, though it had certainly felt like it. If it had lain open for hours?

At best, there would have been many many more casualties than there had been, because the entire event would not have been nearly as well-contained as it had. At worst?

At worst, they might have been overwhelmed, and unable to have stopped it at all. It was a sobering thought. Approximately six hundred casualties (a relatively small number, considering New York's size and the shear chaos of the battle) and a couple thousand injured versus an entire world taken over completely? With all the casualties that implied?

... Loki's choice, bitter a pill as it was to swallow, had been a decent one; it had been especially good considering the god was fighting against powerful compulsion magic at the time. For him to have been able to make that choice at all was admirable. After all, it was only the mesh of his and Harry's magic that had managed to break through it before then, and not completely.

That bit aside, all of this answered another question of his as well. He had wondered what desire of Loki's had fueled the compulsion. They'd determined, at the time, that what he wanted was to Rule. Power over others. It had been the easiest explanation at the time. The most common and most logical, given what he and his father had known about Loki when they'd briefly discussed it. But this... Ruling was only a means to an end. What Loki wanted, more than anything in the world, wasn't to have power over others.

It was just to be his brother's equal.

There was something... very sad about that, he thought.

"So the Chitauri's leader- He wanted you to hurt Thor and Odin? And he wants the tesseract?" Loki shrugged.

"I know for certain that he wants the latter, but the former was just a guess. And I don't know his motivations, just that he's frighteningly powerful, and that I was warned of the consequences for failure." He grit his teeth again, looking more pained than anything. "I don't know where to even begin with dealing with him. I've been trying to come up with something, but-" He waved a hand helplessly.

"Is that part of why you let yourself be captured? To bide your time in safety while coming up with a plan?" He nodded. Harry hummed, thoughtful.

'Do you think he's being honest about all this?'

'Do you?' Tom countered. He did, and that was why he was asking what the former dark lord thought about it. He thought he knew Loki well enough to tell when the Jotun was lying, but- Well, he wanted it to be true, and he wasn't sure if that was clouding his judgement or not. Loki having already been somewhat under this being's control before he even committed treason against Odin or killed Nal... For him to be absolved of that much wrong-doing...

Harry would- he wanted, very badly, for it to be true.

Besides that, there was something else that niggled against his thoughts. He'd faced the trickster while he'd been heavily holding back. It had been obvious, all the while, just how powerful the man was. And after all his training sessions with Sif? The goddess often completely wiped the floor with him. Almost always, in fact. And Harry believed, though he had no proof, that Loki could likely beat her in turn, if given the chance to do without either of them holding back. For this being to be powerful enough for the older male to be afraid of him, to be convinced he couldn't win against him...

That was, well, a very scary thought. But for all that Loki had been heavily under the Chitauri leader's power, he had managed to defy him. Managed it, in fact, because of the way he and Harry's magic meshed together.

"It is difficult to explain to one who can see so little. You are of the living world, and so are blind to the threads of fate's weave. But there are times, when something horrid looms that threatens so much, and the weaver will see it long before it arrives. When that happens, sometimes she will set events in motion, so that two people can come together to accomplish a task one alone cannot. Your magic now, is not as it was when you were born. My father's magic now, is not as it was when he was born, or a hundred years after, or five hundred years after, and his, and yours, will change again in time. But for now, for as long as is needed, they match."

Hel's words were swirling in his mind. When something horridlooms... He wondered, and something in him, something deep, growled in agreement at the direction of his thoughts.

'I do.' Tom was silent for a couple beats of his heart, and when he spoke again the animagus could feel a curl of both understanding and agreement from him.

'It is an unlikely tale, but I have always been skilled in detecting falsehoods... And I believe he is being honest.'

"I believe you." He hid it quickly, but the flash of pure shock that flashed across his face at those words was telling. "I have more questions." He warned, but didn't ask them just yet. What they'd already discussed was an enormous can of worms all on its own. But he'd rather take the information he'd been given and stew on it later, when he'd had the chance to meditate and was sure the stress of reality wasn't going to burst his skull. Loki looked... Tired, mostly. Relieved too, as though sharing the burden of the truth had made the weight less heavy. He also looked considering.

"You haven't answered mine yet." He blinked. He'd gotten so caught up in Loki's story that he'd forgotten what the liesmith had-

Ah. That.

He bit his lip. He really didn't want to tell Loki about his encounter with Skadi. There were a lot of things about his trip to Jotunheim that he didn't want to tell him... But it would be hypocritical, and entirely unfair of him, to have demanded and gained answers from the trickster without offering the same in return.

"The new Queen of Jotunheim, and her people were... Angry, about you killing their King." Something painful came over the god's face before it fell carefully blank. "When I spoke with Queen Skadi about the treaty, she wanted to make it a condition of Jotunheim's agreement that you be killed for your crimes against them." Loki's face remained mostly blank, but his eyes met Harry's for a moment before he looked away, and the wizard caught a flash of something like betrayal.

"I see." He said quietly, looking down at his hands.

"I told her no." His head snapped up, disbelief on his face.

"You what?" His voice was incredulous, shocked, and hopeful.

"I told her no. We... Came to another agreement. A fight, between she and I. If she won I would agree to her terms. If I won, she would give her word, and have it included in the treaty, that neither she nor anyone loyal to her would harm you."

"You-" He shifted again. She looked angry. "You made a bet on my life?"

"No." Her brows scrunched. "I... I contacted the twins and Moo, and Bruce. I... have a home on Midgard that is... well-fortified." He paused, intending to explain, but realization had already bloomed across her face, as she put the pieces together on her own.

"You were going to help me escape if you lost."

"I was. I didn't know about all this business with the Chitauri leader; about you being here for your own safety. I just..." He was the one to look at his hands then. "You're my friend. I wasn't about to stand by and let anyone kill you, no matter what I told Skadi." She looked surprised again, and the fists she'd clenched in her lap loosened.

"You would have gone back on your word for me." He frowned. There was something about the way she said that-

"Of course I would." She searched his face for several seconds, and then, slowly, she seemed to relax completely. She smiled hesitantly, red eyes shining in an odd way.

"This is why you ask your questions now. You wanted to be certain your hand of friendship was not misplaced."

"I trust you." He told her, honestly. That might bite him in the ass but... The longer this conversation went on, the less likely he thought that was the case. "That's a hard thing for me to do, with all the secrets between us, and nearly everyone else in this realm saying you're evil." She snorted, rolling her eyes. But she looked... Happy. Relieved, even.

He wasn't sure what to make of that.

"I trust you as well." There was a heavy weight to her words. "Even though I am not the only one between us keeping secrets. What else happened during your trip to Jotunheim that makes you look like the weight on your shoulders has grown?" He looked away, body going rigid.

'I do not think it would be wise to-'

'I know, but I'm going to do it anyways.' There was a stunned silence in his mind, and all sorts of swirling hints of emotion that gave a vague impression of panic and the belief that Tom would be telling him not to do this and that he was an idiot; if not for the fact that they knew each other well enough by now for the serpent to be well aware that when Harry made up his mind about something he was stubborn enough to stick to it, nine times out of ten. And besides-

Moo was right. It wasn't his or anyone else's place to keep this from Loki. No matter what.

There was a couple of minutes where he just sat there, nonetheless, wary of saying a word. And then, carefully, he started his tale, starting from the beginning (his initial suspicions), and letting the story unfurl through meeting Unnur, Farbauti, and Knut, until he'd revealed everything, body tense as a coiled spring through every word. Loki sat and listened in silence, smile falling from her face, her expression blank throughout most of his speech. When he finished they were quiet, and he expected that any moment she would look angry, or despairing, or something (he was waiting for frost to start streaking across the floor or for something to blow up or, Mitera forbid, tears)-

But she just sat there, for a long time, and then, voice barely more than a whisper, she spoke.

"I would like some time alone."

He gave it to her.

Wawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawa

He wound up meditating in the bathing pool. He laid entirely submerged, breathing in the crisp clean water, his eyes closed and his back sticking to the bottom with magic. Tom was above the water, big as a tree and sliding over the tiles; he was standing guard for Harry because Moo had been gone when he returned to their quarters, and while the twins were there, they were preoccupied with some new joke invention of theirs (and he was just too paranoid these days to be comfortable doing this without some measure of outside protection). He hadn't wanted to bother them with this.

He went deep, deeper than he had in a little awhile. The last time he'd let himself go all the way down into his inner world had been when he'd spent that night at the Leaky Cauldron during his trip to Earth. It hadn't been that long ago, really, but with everything that had been happening lately it sort of felt like it. It felt like ages since he'd been standing on the surface of his own planet, humans all around him and the feel of Mitera in his mind nearly eclipsing Tom's existence; even though he knew it had only been a little more than a month and a half.

Slowly the sensation of the water changed. The still waters moved, sloshed, growing more turbulent. Warmth seeped away into biting cold. He opened his eyes.

The waves of his ocean shields were more violent than he was used to seeing them. The water moved and raged, enormous waves crashing over him and throwing him about. The vague impression of a sky above had not-so-vague flashes of green lightning streaking across it like spellfire. There were no defined clouds, but rain pelted down on him from above, hard and angry.

He took a deep breath, willing everything to calm. He imagined flying for a moment, the exhilaration and wonder of being on a broom. His last two experiences with flight came to mind, being on his broom during the invasion, and flying with the cloak during his fight with Skadi. Thunder boomed, loud enough to make him wince and cover his ears.

He quickly abandoned that line of thought.

He thought of last night. Of hugging and being hugged by Muhammad, and sleeping safely between the twins. He thought about knitting with Moody. He thought about playing with Teddy; about curling up with him and Scorpius and reading them bedtime stories.

That last one was a little iffy, given the story he'd last read to them had been the tale of the three brothers, but it was a much less volatile thought than his first attempt.

Slowly, the raging of the waters eased, becoming the usual push and pull of ocean that he was familiar with. Above him the lightning continued to streak across the sky, but more intermittently, and there were no further cracks of thunder. The pounding rain relaxed into a gentle sprinkle. It wasn't what he'd call peaceful, but it was calm enough for him to relax; it was definitely an improvement. He nodded to himself, and then slipped under the black water.

He'd thought long and hard about his shield. The bottomless ocean, he had thought, was a damn-near perfect defense; his father had even agreed that it was startlingly good, for more than one reason. Water was a powerful element, and element-based shields were very strong. Beyond that, his shield was unique, more passive than overt, and that uniqueness made it an especially formidable defense, both because of its general nature, and also because anyone familiar with mind arts wouldn't expect such a thing. He was rather impressed with his own mental defenses.

That was, of course, how he'd felt before he'd learned that mutants and aliens and gods were a thing. He'd designed his ocean to be deadly to anyone who couldn't breathe underwater, with the added benefit of it being difficult to judge direction in. That part was a second layer of defense, albeit a much more subtle one (and perhaps all the more deadly for that very reason). But with all the things he knew existed now, well-

What were the chances that there was something out there that could penetrate it?

He'd been thinking a lot about the blue threads that had crisscrossed all over Loki's mind. He didn't imagine those caring much about water or having directional challenges. He needed something more... forceful to ensure his mind's safety from something like that. Like some people said- Sometimes the best defense was a good offense.

He'd decided to meditate to help calm his mind, but there was no reason he couldn't kill two birds with one stone. So he thought hard about it. He had once considered creating living things to guard the water, aquatic snakes or jellyfish, but that wasn't really feasible at the moment. The thing about occlumency was that it was mostly all in your head, but not completely. A person's magic got tied up in a lot of it, which was why things like metaphysical representations of a person's magical core even existed.

It was also why a person learning occlumency was told to imagine mundane protections when they started, rather than magical ones. Steel walls instead of shields. Harry had, foolishly, once tried to create the latter, back when he'd first been learning. He'd been unusually tired afterwards and Severus, panicked, had ripped into his mind and destroyed the shields, ordering him afterwards to never do it again. Then had come an hour long lecture that still made him wince when he thought about it. He'd had a headache that had lasted for days after that. It wasn't an experience he was particularly keen on repeating.

When a person used those sorts of protections on their mind, they weren't just creating mental walls, they were creating actual spells, and like any spells, there was a drain on their magic when it was done. The same thing happened when a person tried to create animals or knights or the like to guard their minds. They were magical constructs that a person's core had to continuously fuel the existence of, and that could easily lead to magical exhaustion, and be incredibly dangerous.

There were ways around it, of course. Ways to alter your thoughts in such a way as to make it possible, but that carried its own dangers. With some further research into runes and some careful experiments and tests, Harry could probably create something that would make "living" guardians for him; without messing with dangerous magic or mental alterations. It was worth looking into, eventually, but it was the sort of thing that would take time, and he wanted some further level of protection now.

Plants, when it came to this sort of thing, were a bit iffy. It was something of a loophole in how it all worked. Most of it was mental, but the way it had been explained to him was that plants could be grown, and animals couldn't. It was a fact, and as long as you believed that, then you could make one in your mind without continuous magic, but not the other. Plant-creation required only a one-time burst of magic to get them going, and after that, they "grew" on their own. It was how his mental island could have trees on it to begin with.

He really didn't understand the theory behind it all, but it gave him an idea, and, thoughtfully, he put his arms out and splayed his fingers. Slowly, bits of water swirled around him, twirling in tiny balls. Carefully, he imagined what he wanted, and the little balls of water wound tight, until they weren't water at all anymore. He put his hands down, looking around. Tiny white seeds were floating all around him, drifting slightly in the water. In moments, a few of them began to sprout, tiny plants peeking outwards. He nodded to himself. It would take a few days, probably, maybe a couple weeks even, for them all to grow to their full potential.

But it would make a damned good protection once they did.

It wasn't quite all he wanted to do, but it would do for just then, so he moved on, swimming down until he came back up. All in all the land with his white castle looked much the same. Some of the trees around it had solidified enough for him to tell there were all kinds. Maple and birch, elm and fir, pines and willows. They weren't exactly clear, not enough to look real; it was more like looking at paintings of trees than actual trees. The castle itself wasn't much more developed than his last time here. Some of the turrets maybe looked a little cleaner, and one of the towers was a little more developed than he remembered, but that was all.

It was still interesting to see his mind change, even in these tiny amounts, without his conscious direction. He had to come here personally and intentionally work on his inner world to really see any progress, but there were a few things his unconscious mind fleshed out, in small amounts, without his direction. It was kind of fascinating-

Oh, if only Hermione could hear him now.

The sky here was just as stormy, though not raining, and with a few calming thoughts and a strong application of will it eventually calmed. It hadn't gained any detail to it yet. But the almost foggy grey turned white, and the flashes of light he knew signified lightning stopped. He came onto the land and approached the castle next, noticing a few small cracks in the stones here and there; nothing too serious, but they hadn't been there before. He ran a hand along them as he passed, walking quietly around the perimeter to make sure he found them all. As he touched them they sealed up, leaving pristine white stone behind; unbroken and unblemished.

It would take a while, and he would need to get to the inside next, which would take even longer. But it was important, for his mental health if nothing else. He could already feel the dull headache that had been bothering him begin to seep away.

Besides, this sort of maintenance wasn't anything he hadn't had to do before.

He finished up with little fanfare, and then made his way to the main castle doors, pausing before them before going through them. They were made of the same white stone as the rest of the castle, only as large slabs rather than bricks, and he ran a hand over them before he pushed them open, frowning to himself. He could feel the texture of it beneath his fingers, and there was a motif of thorns inlaid around the heavy iron handles. He... Couldn't remember there being anything this detailed in his mindscape. Small details like this required his direct creation. His subconscious mind couldn't just make them up.

Or so he'd thought, because he didn't remember making this.

Troubled, he ran careful fingers over the designs, tapped them once with his claws, and then calmly pushed the door open and entered the castle. There were a few more cracks inside, which was even more concerning, but the damage was minimal and he sealed them up easily enough and made his way into the bowels of the castle (he wondered though, because the events of his time in Jotunheim alone hardly accounted for this much damage). Down stairs and through secret tunnels and to the obsidian doors. The same thorn design had appeared there, and he wondered at it. He'd never seen anything quite the same, that he could remember, but for his subconscious to create it, in two different places no less...

He wondered what his mind was trying to tell him.

He entered the doors, taking in the sight of his forest, with its enormous autumn trees and their black bark. The sky above his head was cloudy, the only one of the three skies his mind possessed that was fully substantial. They stretched across the blue expanse in wisps and streaks. They were white, unburdened by rain, and he felt tension in his shoulders relax at that. He'd half-expected there to be storming here as well, so it was an enormous relief to see that that wasn't the case.

He followed the trail until he arrived at his core, and carefully went about inspecting the area, and the beast that represented his magic. It hadn't changed any, that he could see. He ran a hand across its enormous side, the green glow between its scales growing brighter where he touched, leaving a trail of magic beneath his fingertips. He inspected the bonds of vines around it, studying them carefully. Most of them were the same. The bonds that represented his willing connection to Loki were thicker, the greenish blue coloring of them a little healthier looking than he remembered. The life-debt hadn't changed any though. His connection to Tom (a thin black vine with many little offshoots and leaves that were tinted burgundy) was more pronounced than he remembered. The biggest change-

Thorns again.

There was a thick black vine, almost like a snake, curled and twisted around the altered Mishipeshu's head, and not connected outwardly to anything that he could see. It was curled mostly in a circle, but there were smaller offshoots from the main that wrapped themselves upwards around its horns, twisting around all the prongs there. Shiny black thorns stabbed out of it like teeth, all of them pointed thankfully away from the beast. It almost looked like-

He frowned, and reached out to touch it, careful not to press on the thorns. His ring heated against his skin, and he could feel the bands on his own horns doing the same where they touched against his temples. He snatched his hand away, snarling. The beast growled a little in its sleep, and he stepped away. He glared furiously at the crown, and then turned away. There was no real reason for him having come this deep into his mind, not with all the signs of damage farther up, and he was quite done with it all.

He stalked back towards the obsidian doors to make his way back out of his meditative state.

Behind him, a tail shifted.

Wawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawawa

Oh Harry, denial is not just a river in Egypt. You're not as ok as you think you are.

Yes cracks in the mindscape is as bad as it sounds. No, I'm not telling you anything muahahahahahah~

Ok so, Loki.

TBH I'm a little on the fence about how this chapter turned out. Originally, when I was deciding what sort of motivations Loki had and junk, I planned to only have him being under Thanos' control from the fall into the void onwards, with all the things that happened over the course of the first Thor movie being entirely of his own doing. As it seems to have turned out he wasn't 100% under mind-control at that point, more like 70% so some of what he did was probably his own fucked-upness, but most of it wasn't.

Not sure how I feel about all that just yet.

Keep in mind, of course, that just because he's not completely at fault for this stuff, does not mean he's a wonderful person. Loki's done some pretty unpleasant things in his lifetime, and I imagine more of it will come to light as we go.

Of course, Harry made friends with a reformed Dark Lord, so I don't think he'll mind too much.

Anyways, that's about it I think. So I'll see you all next time.

Questions? Concerns? Comments? Review!

Sincerely,

Mr. Hate