Prologue

"You're gonna lose. It's in your nature. You lack conviction."

—Phil Coulson

Asgard Prime, T = 0

"You're gonna lose. It's in your nature." Agent Coulson's words burned, burned, burned, freezing in Loki's throat, his heart, his mind, colder than the shackles that bound him to the cell wall. It's in your nature, nature red in tooth and claw your way back up to the bridge, don't fall into the abyss stares into you lack conviction on all counts of murder of father, patricide to kill Laufey, fratricide to kill Thor will destroy all the monsters parents tell their children about at night, monsters under the bed now lie in it and get up with fleas no ants, petty itching trivial insects prating of justice and genocide to kill a world without end up with the Other and dream of pain in the heart pierced by the spear in your hands you the Tesseract, greatest power in nature, in your nature to lose...

Such an insignificant man, to leave his words chasing around the head of a god. Loki's lips pulled down from his nose in disgust. This black-suited human had challenged the Destroyer, claiming allegiance to his pathetic SHIELD. A petty bureaucrat, brandishing his conferred authority, his regulations and rules. When Loki had taken Agent Barton's mind and stripped it for information on those who would oppose him, this agent, this handler had often appeared in the background, ubiquitous as the SHIELD-grey furniture. Loki had dismissed him as meaningless support staff, until the moment Agent Coulson confronted him before Thor's glass cage.

Loki had shown him his foolishness, indeed, he thought smugly. His pointed scepter through that fool's heart had been the end of him, though Loki had left him to bleed his last alone. Fool, to challenge Loki. It made Loki's victory all the sweeter when he overheard Agent Romanov tell Stark that there would be no funeral, that Agent Coulson's body had dissolved into Tesseract blue within the morgue. It was an unexpected side-effect of the scepter, but a happy result, to be sure.

With far too much time to think, the dead agent's words echoed and repeated and chased those of Tony Stark through Loki's thoughts. There is no version of this where you come out on top. Could it be that in no version of history he was victorious? Lose. Impossible, surely. Even lowly Midgard's thinkers knew that all things must occur at least once, at least in one space, in one universe. Loki himself had visited many such neighboring realities, though none had yet been pleasant enough to compel him to tarry there. Lose, lose, lose.

Could the seeds of his failure indeed sprout from his own nature? You lack conviction. No, there must be a universe abutting this where Loki triumphed, where he caused all Midgard to kneel before him, where he ruled Asgard, where he took Odin All-Father's place, yes, and Laufey's, too, and ruled even the Nine Realms together. And he knew how to find it.

It was easier to free himself from Asgard's prison than Loki had feared. With the magic-dampening spells in his cell it was not easy, but given appropriate motivation it was possible. The bindings were painful, true, but feather-light in comparison to what The Other had devised. Still, he mewled pathetically a handful of days. His prison guards who had first looked upon him with rage and scorn soon regarded him with disgust for his weakness. No true Aesir would be so demeaned, to whimper in a cage. Their eyes soon passed o'er him without seeing. It was a matter of a few short months before it was clear they had ceased to think of him at all.

All these things Loki turned to his advantage. His guards' loathing of him deafened their ears to his increasingly feeble noises, and blinded their eyes to his weak movements. Soon he was free to manipulate his bonds with his body as well as his magics. Loki probed for weaknesses in his prison and in the minds of his captors. When a guard stumbled in Loki's cell and fell, cursing, to the floor, his partner did not hesitate to leave the door open as he laughingly assisted him to his feet and out of the chamber. After all, Loki was bound securely to the wall, was he not? And he had long since ceased to strain against his bonds. If either guard cast a glance at their prisoner, they would have seen no movement in his body and no interest in his dull eyes turned toward the floor.

Indeed, as the second jailer assisted his clumsy partner out of the cell, neither saw so much as a shadow ghost along the corridor ahead of them. Had they cared to look, they would have seen Loki within his cell, securely fastened to the wall, quiet and unmoving as he had been of late.

Loki worked his way down Asgard's halls, now invisible, now shadow, now an image of another. The sheer variety of changes appealed to his nature it's in your nature, lose, lose and heightened the challenge. An item in the treasure of Odin's weapon's vault would grant him all his desires. The Jotnar yearned for their precious puling pathetic Casket of Ancient Winters and dreamt of the glorious Jotunheim your ambition is little its power would produce. What was the power of a thousand killing winters' cold to that which Loki sought? An artifact so potent the All-Father had considered it too dangerous to be housed with the main trove, had never displayed it even to his sons. Son, he corrected. Son and Loki.

During his imprisonment, Loki's intention had crystallized into resolve to find this Mirror of Truth. Or Mirror of the Infinite (the translation of its name had been somewhat in doubt). He had called to mind every scrap of information he had heard or read about the mirror. It was said to show reflections of all universes, some altered from another by as little as one choice. This alone would make the artifact a powerful tool – none could protect secrets from one who wielded such an item. But in addition, it was heavily implied that the mirror was more than a tool for information. Its owner was not limited to mere observation, but could use the mirror as a portal to enter the other universes.

He wended his way through the weapons vault to the chamber where the mirror resided, only to stop in dismay. The mirror filled most of a wall in the weapons vault. He had no desire to exploit the mirror while standing about in Asgard's dreary vault, waiting at each moment to be discovered. He turned over options in his mind as he approached, but instead of growing proportionally larger in his sight, the mirror remained the same apparent size. He blinked, but the mirror's size was consistent. He could now hold it in his two hands, and it took up a small space on the wall. In a flash of memory, he recalled his child self reaching his hand out to cup the moon in his palm, or squinting one eye to measure the height of an adult between his thumb and forefinger. Clearly, the mirror did not conform to the rules of perspective. It was the size it was in the beholder's eyes, whether that beholder was near or far.

The mirror flared as he grasped it. The faceted frame appeared at first to be crystalline, reflecting light. Upon closer inspection, each facet seemed to glow from within, many white, some golden, some laced with other colors. Further, the facets showed the same brain-twisting effects that the mirror as a whole did. It was impossible to focus on a facet of the frame; any plane he looked at was, without undergoing any intermediary changes, actually the center viewing surface.

It reflected his pallid face framed by stringy black hair grown long in his imprisonment. Purple-red shadows like bruises surrounded eyes that glinted blue, the intense, icy blue of the scepter. He who put the scepter in your hand, echoed in Loki's mind, there is no realm where he can not find you.

Well, thought Loki, let us test that theory.

Chapter 1

"The Casket wasn't the only thing you took from Jotunheim that day, was it?"

—Loki

Home, T = 1

Loki rematerialized in a pocket dimension he had long since made his own. The portal snapped shut behind him, and he felt years upon years of defensive spells lock into place, severing the tendrils of The Other's influence blue, to his mind's eye, always blue like the blade of a guillotine. He took a deep breath, his first free breath in eons, it seemed. Separation from The Other's scepter, while at first painful, had become welcome. Even in lowly Midgard, the distance in simple space had been a relief. The greater distance of Asgard was a balm.

With a mental flex, he clothed himself in his most familiar garb. His armor, gold and black and green, more comfortable than his own skin had been in years, flowed around him as he seated himself on his chair with the mirror in his hands. He blinked. Blue-green eyes. Green eyes, black hair, and moon-pale skin. So different from his not-brother, his not-father, his not-mother. If he had been born to Odin and Frigga truly, a true child of Asgard, would he have resembled them more?

Asgard 2, T = 1

One facet of the mirror drew his attention as it flashed gold. By the time he had shifted his gaze to it, the plane had become the center of the mirror without so much as disturbing his hands' grasp on the frame.

"But, the day will come, when one of you will have to defend that peace." Odin's voice resonated within the weapons vault as he faced his two blond sons from in front of the Casket of Ancient Winters.

"Do the Frost Giants still live?" Loki's blond self had barely uttered the question before the cherubic Thor interrupted.

"When I'm king, I'll hunt the monsters down and slay them all." His eyes shone with hero worship. "Just as you did, father."

"A wise king never seeks out war," Odin chided mildly, "but he must always be ready for it."

Odin moved to leave the vault. Thor and Loki shared one fond glance with each other before running after their father to take his hands. "I'm ready, father!"

"As am I," Loki added, grasping his father's left hand.

"Only one of you can ascend to the throne," Odin responded. Loki waited for the addition he remembered from his own childhood, but no. Odin did not assert that they were both born to be kings.

Disgusted, Loki turned away from the obvious affection the boys showed each other. This would have been no improvement: still Thor's shadow, a pale reflection of the elder son. What was the callous Midgard phrase? "An heir and a spare," and Loki cast continually in the role of spare. Unneeded. Surplus to requirements.

Asgard 3, T = 1

Ah, but what if he were not the spare, but the heir himself? If Odin had had but one child? Another plane flared the gold of the Asgard throne room, as he saw himself, broad in shoulder as Thor had always been, approach Odin All-Father on his coronation day. Did he –? Did he truly stop in this procession to wink at the queen?

He watched his other self spin Mjolnir as a child would a toy before setting it to the floor with a resounding clang. The winged helm was removed and set aside as he knelt before Odin All-Father. The longer chin was his, the narrower face and prominent cheekbones, but the manner, the arrogance, was all as Thor had ever been.

Loki threw the mirror from him in revulsion. This was not Loki as Odin's beloved son. No, this was Odin's son named Loki instead of Thor by some chance decision. And what would come now? Would he, petulant child, lead the warriors three to do war on Jotunheim? They four, with no magic to aid them, no guard alerted to their plans and told to notify Odin and rescue them from their folly?

Home, T = 1

He glared daggers at the mirror where it rested across the room, so large again that it almost obscured the entire wall. In it, he could still see Loki Odinson petulantly demanding that his father yield to his judgment. "Teach them a lesson. Break their spirits..." Arrogant Thor had said those words once; now Loki's double was saying the same. As he watched, of the few facets that glowed on the frame, many flickered and went dark. "What is this?" Loki murmured.

He crossed to where the mirror had landed against the lounge and grasped it again. "Was I right? Would I then die?" He saw Loki Odinson fall in battle to Frost Giants. "Is this the fate of Loki the Aesir?" A few planes of the mirror flashed dimly, and as he shifted his gaze from one to another he saw —Loki given no quarter, no respite by Laufey, impaled and killed —Loki living long enough to lead the Warriors Three into a trap and be killed by Frost Giants, —Loki, golden-haired Sif, and the warriors mauled and eaten by the Jotnar's great beast, —Loki dead of blood loss, —Loki beheaded, —Loki entombed in ice, —Loki trampled, —Loki torn to shreds, —Loki herded off the edge of a cliff, only to fall and be impaled on ice spikes below…

He shuddered. That one was perhaps the worst. Instead of growing dark in evidence that his other self had died, this one remained a lambent gold. He wondered how long he would linger there, frozen, freezing, dying, yet living.

Asgard 14, T = 5

No, he could never have been Odin's son, either his firstborn or his second. Yet when else would he have been Loki of Asgard, feared and respected across realms? The mirror's frame flared in his hands, this time with fewer facets lit. Given time, he might even have been able to count them, but his attention was snared by the mirror itself. Instead of focusing on Loki's own face as it had previously, this time the mirror showed a huge, grossly misshapen head, with no hair either black or blond, and enormous eyes all of inky black.

"No. No. No. This is all wrong." For a moment Loki thought the mirror was echoing his thoughts, but then he saw them come from a tiny mouth the same mottled pink as the skin covering the figure's hairless head and emaciated limbs. Loki stared in consternation. The creature was neither Aesir nor Jotun, but it was surrounded by four humans where it reclined on a smooth grey slab, and they were questioning it agitatedly.

Loki let their words wash over him, taking in their matching dull-green uniforms marked with strange moon-over-a-mountain insignia, until the bespectacled one's question caught his ear: "...us who you are?"

"Loki," the creature replied.

Through his shock, Loki heard the same human mutter, "According to Norse mythology, that's the god of mischief."

"Impossible," Loki told himself. "What madness is this?"

"What did you want with Colonel O'Neill?" the woman demanded. As the humans nattered on to one another it became clear that this so-called Loki was working bravely to save his people. At some time past, the Aesir (or "the Asgard", as the humans referred to them in this universe) had begun to wane as a people. This Loki sought a cure for their diminishing, and the humans, tiny and petty though they were, railed against the unfairness of it all.

Loki's ears pricked again as the oldest human, the man with greying hair, decided to call Thor, despite their Loki's protests. Loki frowned, rubbing a thumb across a ridge on the mirror frame. Surely Thor would be of assistance in this contretemps. Despite his fondness for the inhabitants of Midgard, he understood that the continued survival of the Asgard must come first.

Of course, Loki himself had never been glad of the great lout's appearance, but this child-frail Loki appeared to have neither magic nor wit on his side to win free of those pathetic mortals.

This reality's Thor, another short, pink-grey figure, appeared in a flash of light, and immediately began apologizing for Loki's behavior.

Apologizing!

This time, Loki did not throw the mirror, having no desire to retrieve it again. But he wished himself away from this universe and the few glowing spots on the frame dimmed somewhat. No matter what possible victories lay in store in that universe (and, he admitted, they appeared quite unlikely), he had no desire to wear the form of some bobble-headed, glassy-eyed, stick-limbed child for the rest of his existence. No; whatever choices, decisions, or accidents led to that realm, he would never join it.