A/N – Just to clarify what has happened with the memories of the prior timeline, people now have a full mental understanding of what happened in both timelines. In other words, they remember everything. However, only the current timeline now exists as physical reality. Things that were changed from the prior timeline did not revert back to the way they were before. Hope that helps.

Chapter 26

On the first night of Loki's imprisonment, Jane tells him that his trial will take place in exactly one week.

"I'm not sure why waiting that long was so important to him," Jane says, "but I'm glad he was firm with the Council. Thor needs time to . . . think."

Loki watches her face without any hint of expression on his own. She pretends not to notice the attention as she dabs ointment on his knuckles, which are bloodied and bruised. He's sitting on the ground with his back to the wall, and Jane kneels before him, an armed guard standing on each side of her. There is an angry, red smear on the wall above Loki's right shoulder that caused some concern, but so far, he has only attempted to hurt himself.

As he stares at Jane, he cannot figure out why she's here. He asked her to come to Asgard for Thor's sake—so why is she in the dungeons wasting medical supplies? Eventually Loki looks away again. He tries to remember why he hates her so much, but he's simply too exhausted to care.

On the second day of Loki's imprisonment, Jane chews on her thumbnail as she considers the untouched pile of bedding that she brought him the previous night. The blanket is still perfectly folded, and the pillow hasn't a single crease. Beside them is a neat pile of peeled-off bandages, and Loki's knuckles are again wrecked.

He has not yet made it through the second stage of grief.

There are tears in Jane's eyes as she opens up the jar of ointment. She says nothing while she tends to his wounds, but before she goes, she moves to give him a hug. It is an awkward, one-sided gesture since he is sitting on the ground with his legs held tight to his chest. But she endures it patiently and doesn't let go as she says, "Thank you for saving him. You said you would do it, and you did. Thank you, Loki. Will you try not to hurt yourself again? Please?"

By the third day, Loki has broken his hand. After the healers have mended it, he is made to wear bindings around his wrists to prevent him from doing further harm to himself. As he studies the intricately designed manacles, he wonders if everyone is so lacking in creativity. They sincerely seem to think this will stop him.

His bedding remains untouched, along with the books Jane brought him. He hasn't spoken a word in days, nor will he eat or drink. Loki is on strike. He should not be in the land of the living, and so he does what he can to remedy that. It's the only way he can think of to prove to his brother that he is truly sorry. That he never meant for it to happen this way. That he really did intend to die and leave them all in a happier future.

Thor comes on the fourth day and silently oversees the work of the healers as they reconstruct Loki's crushed hand. He has done such a marvelous job destroying it that the process of making it whole again takes more than an hour. Thor glares at his brother for every second of it, and Loki is too filled with shame to meet his eyes. The hour passes in silence, and once they're finally alone, Thor says exactly three words before he leaves again. Loki swallows back a choking wave of emotion and consents to finally eating his breakfast.

His wrists are left unshackled—almost like Thor daring him to try it one more time—but Loki doesn't attempt to hurt himself. He can't bear to see that look on his brother's face again. It seems like no matter what Loki does, it always results in Thor getting hurt.

On the fifth day, after a night of pacing and fretting, Loki discovers he is still furious and now has no physical outlet for it. Unfortunately, consuming food as given him enough energy to put some real effort into pondering why. How dare Odin do this to him. How dare he think he could just throw his life away for Loki. A god dying for a Jotunn, of all things. He and Odin are not even connected by blood. Not even the same race. It makes no sense. Loki is a monster and a murderer—just like Laufey, who had waited in his very same cell for a week for his own trial to take place. Loki paces because he can't escape the feeling that he is only the mirror image of his birth father and his hateful choices. Helplessly defined and held fast to a fate that was determined by the past actions of others.

But Loki loses interest in these thoughts after a few hours and pays no further attention to the voices in his head. The anger is an old wound inside of him that has left a scar but has no festering infection trapped inside. He doesn't really believe those things anymore. He'll pick at the scabs at a later time. Perhaps after supper.

By the sixth day of his imprisonment, Loki has burned through the final vestiges of his rage and has at last exited the second stage of grief. As he's contemplating the third, a visitor arrives, and she is quite possibly the last person he ever expected to see in Asgard.

Natasha Romanoff leans her weight against the opposite wall and stares down at him, completely unmoved by the sight of him so pathetic and wrecked. She's dressed in casual clothing—jeans and a fitted leather jacket—and possesses a distractingly large piece of chewing gum in her mouth.

"Rough day?" she asks.

Loki licks his dry lips and lifts a defiant eyebrow in her direction, a smirk firmly in place, as if to ask her what the fuck she thinks. There is no need to wear a mask around her anymore. He doesn't even try.

One side of her mouth pulls into a half-smile, and he can't help but marvel over how different she appears. He is not the only one who has removed the mask. This isn't Natalie Rushman, nor is she the Black Widow. He has never met this person before. In his head, he refers to her simply as Natasha.

"I've come to talk about your defense strategy," Natasha says. "Your trial is tomorrow, you know."

Loki's shoulders begin to shake. He's grinning a few seconds later and then soon forced to cover his mouth with one hand to keep the laughter at bay. "Defense strategy?" he says, his voice cracking from disuse. They are the first words he's spoken in nearly a week. "Exactly what am I defending myself against?"

"From what I've gathered, there's an angry Council screaming for you to be put to death."

He laughs again. Mocking, derisive. Odin would be proud. "The question still stands, Agent Romanoff."

"Fair enough." Natasha tilts her head to the side as if the new angle might help her see him better. "So you want to die, huh?"

"Well, it's not a question of want so much as should."

"I see. You think you're deserving of death. That's interesting." She crosses her arms over her chest and readjusts the position of her back on the wall. "You see, back when we first met, I had you pegged as a psychopath. Kind of a no-brainer, to be honest. But then we met again last year when I didn't remember anything from our first encounter, and I was thinking more along the lines that you might be a sociopath. You know, the general lack of empathy, the overabundant charm, and the bold-faced lies you think you're so good at hiding. Now I'm starting to think my experience is not quite well-rounded enough to define you. You've got some layers beneath that snark."

Loki sneers at her. "Tell me again why you're here?"

"You have no idea what's been going on this past week, do you?"

"Alas, I seem to be incarcerated if you have yet to notice."

"Okay. Here's a recap. People want you dead. Your brother is a little lost right now, and so he's called for reinforcements. Witnesses, if you will."

Loki rolls his eyes toward the ceiling. "Oh, good god."

Natasha shrugs. "Mock if you will. It makes no difference to me, but here's the way I see it. There's no evidence of your prior crimes. None. It never happened in this future, and you can't be judged for something you never did."

He snorts, eyes still aimed upward and showing no sign of descending. "Oh, that's good. I like that. You know, you sound nearly as mad as I literally am. Company at last. Do go on."

"Though I can't speak for you, I can assure you that I'm not crazy. Exactly how can they prove a crime that didn't happen?"

"You are reaching, Agent Romanoff. The last time I checked, first hand accounts of a crime still count as damning evidence. If you've witnessed something, say, in another time, then you can testify that it indeed took place."

"True. But you're forgetting that there is still no actual crime. No dead bodies. No destroyed city. No crater in the earth. Unless, of course, you've been busy behind everyone's back in this alternate future, in which case, this defense won't help you. Have you done anything that would qualify as a crime in this future?"

Loki sighs and lets his head fall back against the wall with an all too pleasing thud. In another life, he would be entrenched in figuring out how to get himself out of this mess. Now he just wants to sleep. "Will you please go away? I did not ask for your counsel."

"You know what's really funny to me?" she says. "Let's set aside all the discussion of murder and destruction for a minute and talk about something personal. When you were on Earth, you could have taken advantage of a situation with me in that hotel room. You didn't. And let me tell you—if you had, you would be a bloody stain on the floor right now, and I would be the one arguing for your execution. But again, you didn't. That kind of thing gets my attention. So tell me—why didn't you go there?"

Loki chuckles, his teeth flashing wolfishly. "How graphic do you want me to be with my answer? Though I must warn you, I have quite the vocabulary."

She's smiling now, head shaking back and forth and eyes narrowed as if she's finally starting to nail down his character. "Whatever. Keep deflecting if that makes you feel secure. You didn't take advantage of me because I didn't know who you really were at the time. You didn't think it was morally right to go there when I didn't have all the facts. Am I right?"

"Go away."

"And you won't even admit that you did something noble. Not only have you turned over a new leaf, but you're embarrassed about it. Or embarrassed of the past, at least—of what you were before."

"You mean, a monster?" Loki says. She's called him that very thing in the past, and so he pulls out that mask and slides it into place—the unblinking, unrepentant eyes and the wide-mouthed smile, so utterly delighted with the chaos he has wrought. This is the absolute masterpiece in the portfolio of his lies. "There is no before, Agent Romanoff. I am what I have always been and ever shall be. You simply didn't have the full picture until now."

Natasha's expression doesn't change in the slightest. "I've been there, you know. I understand what it feels like to want to destroy yourself. Guilt and self-hatred are not easy things to defeat, especially with others watching and judging you. It's nearly impossible if there's no one there to believe you're capable of it. Loki, this is me telling you I think you're capable of it. You proved that to me without even meaning to. I could help you learn to live with it, but somehow I don't think convincing you that you deserve a second chance is going to be a simple task."

Loki laughs, the mask still set in place. It doesn't feel quite natural there anymore—his muscles feel stretched and strained as they struggle to maintain it—but he doesn't care. He'll wear it to the end.

She stares at him for a long moment before adding, "You're going to sabotage your own trial, aren't you? You want to lose."

Well, of course he does. Loki is in the bargaining stage of grief. In a way, he's been trapped there for years and years—long before Thor's death—desperately trying to find his story's end. If he dies, there will be no more grief because he is the Source Of It All. That is his bargain.

It's time for it to stop, and so the monster only laughs again in response to her question. She's clever enough to figure out why.

After she's gone, Loki lets the mask fall away. The muscles in his face ache afterward from the strain. He has only enough energy to pretend when others are around. He'll need to conserve his anger for tomorrow, or there won't be enough to last through the trial. He is so very tired of trying to maintain it.

He wishes desperately that Thor had not chosen to wait a week before sentencing him. Loki remembers the way Frigga had asked him to do the very same thing and how much his decision had changed in that short time. It was like sending him to a time-out corner until he had calmed down.

Thor must not calm down in this situation—nor must Loki, though that is proving to be something of a struggle.

With an impatient sigh, Loki looks around for something with which to pass the time. He does not give the books Jane brought him any attention, for he does not want to reap any benefits from kindness right now. Instead he calls upon the book Natasha once gave him on Midgard—Le Petit Prince—which he had hidden away with the rest of his treasures before his escape to Jotunheim. There was no kindness in her when she'd given it to him. She was studying and manipulating him, and so he'll give it a pass.

He turns the children's novella over in his hands, glaring down at it as if it's a mirror. Ever since he first read it, the words have been like an itch in his mind he's unable to locate. He opens the book to a page he has marked and stares down at the words he has long since memorized.

Translated, it says, "Of course I'll hurt you. Of course you'll hurt me. Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence. To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence."

Gritting his teeth, Loki rips the book apart at the binding and throws it into the energy barrier of his cell. When it isn't sufficiently destroyed, he sets it on fire with a wave of his hand.

But it doesn't do him any good. He has read it too many times, and the words ring in his head even as they burn. "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."

It's not quite the exact kind of anger he was looking for to feed upon—but it will do.

Lady Sif comes for him on the seventh day, sent to fetch him for the trial.

The set of her jaw is tight, and her eyes burn with disapproval as she watches the guards fasten chains to Loki's hands and feet. In her own hands is a muzzle.

Loki smiles pleasantly at her, his expression full of every ounce of biting sarcasm he can manage. "My lady. Why ever do you hesitate? You know you're just dying to see me humbled. Let's have it then. Don't be shy."

Her cheeks flush with fresh anger. "And why do you think I would enjoy that?"

Loki blinks twice. That isn't the response he was anticipating. Sif glares up at him with intimidating intensity, but it does not feel like contempt. He isn't certain what it is, but the vulnerability beneath it leaves him slightly shaken. Instead of needling an enemy, he feels like he has disappointed a friend.

"The purpose of the muzzle is not to shut you up or humble you," Sif says. "It is to force you to listen and prevent you from making it worse."

Something shines in her eyes that Loki does not want to think about, and so he pretends not to see it as he intensifies the ire behind his smile. He wants it to be the last thing she sees before she puts the muzzle on him. Apparently, she still needs convincing that he deserves this.

Sif shakes her head sadly. "If you will not keep silent for your own sake, then find it in yourself to do it for your brother. This is killing him, Loki. When are you ever going to figure out that trying to destroy yourself doesn't only hurt you?"

Loki's smile fades away just before the muzzle is fitted into place.

"Make way for the king!" a guard shouts.

It is midday, when the prisoners are typically tried, and the throne room is filled to bursting. Loki is careful not to look at anyone as Sif and the Warriors Three escort him inside. For his own amusement, Loki pretends the guard was announcing his arrival. He stands at the center of his ex-friends, bound and muzzled, and tries to give the illusion that he does not give a single damn. But it is merely that now—an illusion. Try as he may, he cares very much.

Sif's words trouble him, but she doesn't seem to understand that Loki knows very well that he is the source of Thor's pain. That's the very reason he wants it all to end—to protect everyone else. Especially Thor, who has repeatedly been caught up and even fatally injured in the path of Loki's self-destruction. What other choice is there but to ensure that he dies, once and for all?

The throne room is still damaged from Malekith's attack. Though the rubble is cleared, the reconstruction will take time. Great scaffolding is set up all around the hall, most of the focus set on rebuilding the supporting columns to ensure the upper floors do not collapse. The throne room feels different this way, with the fresh air and light from outside pouring in. It leaves Loki feeling strangely at peace—like everything might work itself out and prove to be all right in the end—and he does not like that one bit.

And so he puts the mask back in place and allows the monster to fix his gaze on the newly crowned King of Asgard, who stands on the platform beneath the throne. Loki has very few things left in his possession with which to speak to his brother, and so he fills his stare and his swagger with confidence, amusement, defiance, and delight. And most importantly, a promise to do it all over again and again until everything is reduced to ash.

(kill me, you fool)

(before i get to you first)

It is not an easy expression to hold, for his older brother looks so very tired. Loki is not the only one who has undergone a slow change through the years. Gone is the reckless, arrogant warrior whose reign as king Loki once feared. Thor's eyes now hold a quiet sadness. There is strength still beneath it, but it has been tested and pushed to the breaking point. The arrogance has been beaten out of him, along with his innocence.

Others are present as well. Heimdall stands at the rear of the hall in the place he has always preferred—a distant overseer. Certain Council members that Loki has long since considered enemies stand at the front of the crowd, their accusations ready. Loki gives them a heartfelt nod of approval. Natasha also stands near the front, along with Helblindi and Byleistr. Loki assumes they are to serve as the representatives from the realms that he has aimed his wrath at. He makes certain not to look at them so that they can feel exactly how much he does not care about them.

(get away from me, all of you)

(run before you are burned)

Jane is there as well, though Loki does not notice her at first. She stands in the shadows to the right of the throne in quiet support of Thor. It is where Frigga often stood during trials when she did not wish to pressure or be in the way. Loki also nods at her, a silent thank you. Thor will have somewhere safe to fall when this is over.

There is murmuring in the hall but not so much to make it difficult to be heard. "I would like to remind those present that the prisoner is not a true member of the royal family," a member of Council shouts, his voice carrying over the din. "No special preference should be given to him."

Cries of approval, along with some mutters of dissent. Loki looks sharply at the man, who is audacious indeed. Who would dare speak to the King of Asgard in such a way?

(shut him down, brother)

Loki turns his attention back to Thor and waits for Gungnir's base to strike the floor to demand silence. It does not come. Loki's eyes narrow.

(what's wrong with you?)

(they will eat you alive if you don't show your teeth to them first)

Thor waits for silence to fall, and eventually it does. His face is like stone. His hand grips Gungnir like he's not fully convinced it belongs to him yet—like someone handed it over unexpectedly and then disappeared. Loki understands exactly what that feels like.

It's then that he notices that Thor's knuckles are bloodied. Loki swallows back a sudden feeling of nausea. He doesn't know how to make this any easier on his brother.

When Thor finally speaks, his voice is quiet but carries easily. "Before the All-Father died, he made me swear certain oaths. To cast aside my own ambition and wants. To guard the Nine Realms and to preserve the peace. I am the King of Asgard now, and so my ambitions and wants have nothing to do with any of this. No ties to family can get in the way. Loki Odinson, you stand accused by your people, and so I am here to listen to the evidence and lay down a judgment."

Applause from a portion of the Council. There are other reactions as well. Shakes of the head. Looks of pity or curiosity aimed in Loki's direction. To his right, Sif readjusts her grip on her weapon and gazes warily at the crowd.

Oh, of course. This is all very familiar. Thor obviously paid close attention to Laufey's trial when Loki had made this same point. It feels very different being on the receiving end of it—and yet achingly familiar. Odin had made him feel like this before after the Battle of New York. Loki now knows he deserves it—that he made the choice to commit so many atrocities and should not expect to be saved—but it still hurts. He has no protection from his brother here.

(nor do you want it)

(remember yourself, laufeyson)

"We have a witness from Midgard," someone calls out. "Let's hear what she has to say."

"Indeed," Thor says, as calm as ever. His style of responding to the people—of actually listening to what they have to say—is off-putting to Loki. Thor should shut them up and tell them the way it will be. "Lady Natasha of Midgard has come as a representative for their interests," Thor continues. "What charges do you bring against the prisoner?"

The murmuring dies down as people strain to hear. Loki lifts his chin and straightens his posture, ready to stand proud at the forefront of his crimes. Yet in the back of his mind, he already knows what's coming. How dare his enemies conspire against him like this.

"No charges," Natasha says. "I'm unaware of any crimes committed by the prisoner."

(stupid, idiotic woman)

The Council agrees whole-heartedly with him. They rise up in outrage, calling her ridiculous.

"On Earth, we don't judge someone when there is no evidence of a crime," Natasha replies once they've quieted enough to allow her to speak.

"But these things still happened," someone shouts. "He killed people. In Asgard's name, I might add."

"Do you have a list of names?" Thor asks. "People who are currently dead at the hands of the prisoner? I know of no such deaths."

Sputtering. Floundering.

Loki closes his eyes and lets out a sigh. This cannot be happening.

"A year ago, the prisoner came to Earth," Natasha says. "I was assigned to watch you both, and we also had you under constant surveillance. I can attest with confidence that there were no murders or other crimes committed by him during his stay. In fact, he helped us defend ourselves against an alien attack."

"The very same attack he incited before!" someone calls out.

Natasha shrugs. "Where is the proof of that? Give me hard, physical evidence, and I'll be happy to give it due consideration. However, I don't think it exists."

Loki hates everything and everyone. Had Sif not put this accursed muzzle on him, he would be giving them all a very detailed rundown of exactly how depraved he really is. And yet with every passing moment, the tiny crack in his resolve spreads deeper—because Sif had put the muzzle on him for this exact reason. She wants him to stop and listen. She wants him not to ruin this.

For some reason, Loki hears Odin's voice in his head. A private conversation from the past, moments after he was crowned king. A plea not to destroy his hard work before his father has a chance to see it.

There are people present who are anxious to see Loki executed, yes—but there are many others who are not. Not everyone cheers when a point is made against him. There are just as many people shaking their heads or shouting back an argument. Even those with hard, unforgiving looks in their eyes are falling silent and choosing to hold back judgment. The voices of dissent become unexpectedly hesitant.

And Thor stands silent while it all echoes through the throne room around them, staring at Loki hard as others come to his aid without him even asking. The King of Asgard might not be able to help him, but that did not mean Loki was alone.

He did not expect any of this. He does not deserve to be defended, and yet Sif and the Warriors Three surround him with their weapons ready. Loki isn't a simpleton. He knows they aren't here to make sure he doesn't escape but rather here to defend Loki against anyone who might try to hurt him. Just like they had at Frigga's funeral.

This is too much. All of it, ridiculous. He is a murderer. The son of a monster.

He remembers something else Odin once said to him. The very same three words Thor had spoken to him on the fourth day of his imprisonment.

(odinson or laufeyson?)

Loki flinches.

He is trying so very hard to be one of those things and yet now knows damn well he's the other. Why won't they just let him pretend to be a monster and be done with it?

The trial goes on. Loki's prior crimes on Midgard were by far his most treasonous, and now those have been dismissed. The Council regroups, having lost the biggest argument they had. They begin reaching for his other crimes. The incident with the Bifrost comes up.

But Thor only looks calmly to his watchman in response to the accusation. "Heimdall, are you aware of any destruction of the Bifrost Observatory?"

"I am not, my king," Heimdall says from the rear of the hall. "The structure is sound."

"Then again, I am not certain how that is a valid argument against the prisoner," Thor says. "Particularly when taking into account that it was me who destroyed it in the prior time."

"But his actions led to it," a Councilman argues. "He turned the power of the Bifrost on Jotunheim—our allies—and he had to be stopped. He did the exact same thing in this time as well."

"I am aware of that," Thor replies. "And he did so both times while serving as the King of Asgard. Are you questioning that authority?" There is a dangerous edge to the words. Thor is really asking if they're questioning his authority.

Beneath his muzzle, Loki smiles.



(show them your teeth, brother)

"I would never question the authority of my king," the Councilman says. "But I do question the prisoner's right to Asgard's throne. Loki Laufeyson does not possess royal blood."

Byleistr's derisive laughter cuts through the noise. Helblindi gently shushes him but wears a look of incredulous amusement that matches his brother's. Loki stares at them, allowing himself to really look for the first time since he arrived, and realizes how angry his brothers are on his behalf.


(i nearly destroyed your entire realm)


"Let me clarify," the Councilman says. "The prisoner does not possess the royal blood of Odin. He is not Aesir and has no right to sit upon Asgard's throne."

"I think you'll find that the All-Father was quite detailed in the legal adoption paperwork," Thor says. "We can bring the documents out for inspection if you'd like. There is an entire section that speaks of Loki Odinson's birthright, and the throne of Asgard is listed there. The All-Father is the one who put him on the throne, if you remember."

"And in the prior timeline?"

"The queen put him there," Thor replies. "And why wouldn't she? I was banished, and so the throne legally fell to Loki. Again, I fail to see how this is a relevant argument."

Loki is practically shaking with anger. He wants to mention the third time he took the throne—when Odin fell asleep after Loki's supposed death in Svartalfheim. No one properly put him on the throne then, and it was not long before he used that power to attack his brother most cruelly. But even if he weren't muzzled, Thor would likely only argue that the line still legally fell to Loki. Thor had refused the throne when it was offered to him, after all.

(you utter fool)

(you are trying to save the same person who killed you)

"And does the King of Jotunheim have nothing to say against this?" another Council member shouts. "It is not only Asgard or Midgard in question here."

Loki rolls his eyes. Now they're tolerant of other races?

"King Helblindi," Thor says. "I understand that the prisoner spent several weeks in your realm. If you wish to bring any charges against him, now is the time to speak out."

"It was a peaceful visit from an emissary of Asgard," Helblindi says. "Prince Loki spent much time learning of our culture in order to better understand it. When he left, my people's opinion of Asgard was much improved. As for the attack with the Bifrost, that matter was resolved the last time I stood in this room. We attacked Asgard, and he defended his realm. I do not understand how this is relevant to a criminal trial."

"Anything to add, Prince Byleistr?" Thor asks.

"Like Midgard, we do not try prisoners when there is no evidence of a crime," Byleistr says with a sneer. "However, I've come to understand that not every realm is quite as sophisticated. Forgive me if I struggle to understand the question, King of Asgard. We have this strange custom called honor where I come from."

Loki is absolutely going to kill his little brother. Byleistr is going to get himself maimed—or worse. They don't even like each other. So why defend him?

The general assembly does not like Byleistr's response at all. A Jotunn has just insulted them. However, it only makes them want to prove him wrong and show the visiting Prince exactly how honorable they are. And that is very bad news for Loki, who wants nothing more than to be judged guilty by the masses. But even the Council members are now simply standing there, stunned and without any further arguments in their arsenal.


He is losing.

And so Loki lifts a hand, though he is bound and unable to elevate it very far. It is a signal to Thor that he wishes to say something.

The weariness in Thor's expression deepens, but he nods nevertheless. "Remove the muzzle, and let the prisoner speak. It would seem his fate is in his hands alone."

Odin didn't believe in fate, but Loki still thinks he might. This is yet another lesson Odin tried to teach him—that there are always, always choices in the end.

Very well, then. This is his choice.

Loki is careful not to look Sif in the eyes as she unfastens the muzzle and carefully pulls it away. He knows she's silently pleading with him, just as he knows she is not the only one. But he has listened to what they have to say, and now it is his turn. They need to understand.

He takes a moment to stretch out his jaw before he speaks. "Here is a valid charge no one has thought to mention. I made a deal with a demon. The blackest of magic and highly illegal, the punishment of which is death. And yes, there is evidence that this bargain took place in the minds of every person here. The current state of reality itself is evidence. And you yourself can serve as witness to the exchange, seeing as you were there when the final price was paid."

The crowd shifts. This is unexpected—for Loki to bring the only real damning piece of evidence against himself—and there is an uneasiness to the way they murmur. They aren't certain how they feel about this. It was one thing to punish him for an actual crime, but is it fair to put him to death for saving lives?

"We made contact with the demon when we retrieved the All-Father's body," Thor says. "It seems the only bargain ever made was the All-Father's, to give you a second chance. The demon also gave the impression that it was on the king's orders that you went to her in the first place. Is that true?"

Loki grits his teeth. "The All-Father gave me the idea, but I—"

"Is it true, Loki?" Thor says again, louder this time.

Everyone seems to fade away until it's just the two of them. The dialogue is solely between them now. In the end, it has always come down to this. A fight to the death, Thor had once called it when he'd told Loki that he would hold onto his little brother until it killed him.

Loki doesn't know what to say. He does not want to hurt his brother and cannot see a way to avoid it. "I went to the demon for you," Loki says. "I made that choice, brother, and I would do it again. I swear to you, that was not the All-Father's bargain."

"You might have thought that was what was happening," Thor says, "but she lied to you at the All-Father's request. But even if what you say is true, I've come to understand that you were the King of Asgard at this time. Is that an accurate statement?"

Loki feels sick. "Oh, Thor. Stop this."

"That means the All-Father was not king when he made the bargain with the demon," Thor says, "and was therefore under no protection from his title. You were. The All-Father's death satisfies the law. The crime has been punished."

Loki is simply livid, so angry that he's close to tears. Everything is coming apart at the seams. He knows he's losing. Odin has played this game of chess masterfully, and Loki is only now just seeing the All-Father's endgame. "And what about the start of it all?" Loki says. "When I let the Jotunn warriors into Asgard on the day of your coronation. That is treason."

Surprised gasps from the crowd. The brothers ignore everyone. It's as if they are standing alone in a room, yelling into each other's faces.

"You told the All-Father of your crimes, and he dealt out judgment accordingly," Thor says. "Since when are transgressions punished twice?"

"Since when are they not punished at all?" Loki shouts back. "What about our last battle together, brother? That's the very reason I did it all to begin with, isn't it? The reason I went to the demon in the first place. Surely you remember the outcome."

"I do," Thor says. "But again, where is the evidence?" He holds out his arms as if to say he's standing right there, whole and alive.

Loki's eyes squeeze shut. Were his hands not bound, he would be pulling his hair out. Why won't Thor just let him fall? Loki has long since let go of himself and is lashing out at anything and everything that tries to keep him from his end. "I beg of you," he says. "Please stop this. Let me go. It is the best thing for everyone. I should not even be here. This was never part of the plan."

"It was part of our father's plan," Thor says. "As was forcing you to live with the consequences of your actions. Strange, but so far those consequences seem to be positive in nature, and that appears to be no one's fault but your own. You made the choices that got you here, and so Loki Odinson, I judge you innocent of the crimes laid before you. You are free to go."

Loki lets out a cry of utter frustration that drowns out any others. Hot, furious tears spill down his cheeks. "Dammit, Thor!"

But even as he curses at his brother, Loki understands that this is simply who Thor is. He does not let go—ever—and Loki suddenly has trouble remembering why he wants him to so badly. He can't remember why he would ever want to hurt someone he cares about so much. Someone who has always been on his side. As a last ditch effort, Loki reaches into his arsenal for his anger, hate, fear, and the horrible feelings of jealousy and betrayal that have plagued him for so many years—but he finds nothing left.

"Your fate is to be decided by your future crimes alone," Thor finishes. "I suppose the rest is up to you. You have a choice—to destroy what you've worked so hard to rebuilt or to honor your father's sacrifice. If you truly want to die, now is your chance to act out and show us all. What is your decision, brother?"

Now Thor calls him brother.

And worse, the ridiculous oaf has started to cry.

Thor does not cry. Only in the rarest circumstance, when everything is simply too much to bear, has he ever shed tears. He is always, always the one who chooses to be strong for the sake of others, no matter how much he's hurting himself.

And Loki has reduced him to this. A newly-crowned king with bloodied knuckles, crying in front of his people.

It is about this time that it occurs to Loki what a good king his brother will be.

It breaks something inside of him. As much as Loki hates himself, he loves Thor so, so much more. This is suddenly no longer about him finding his end but about someone trying to hurt his brother. Thor's refusal to hate in spite of hate is going to kill him one day if Loki is not there to protect him from it. Thor needs his brother by his side. Not fighting him.

Before Loki even realizes what he's doing, he is down on his knees, eyes lowered to the floor in humility. "I swear fealty to you, Thor Odinson, King of Asgard, and bind myself to your service." Despite the emotion welling up in his chest, Loki speaks his oath in a clear voice so that all may pay witness. He has fought this for years and years, and he is simply done. There is no one he is happier to serve, and so his voice rings out even clearer as he continues. "I, Loki Odinson, cast aside all selfish ambition and pledge my body and soul to the will of my king, to protect the Nine Realms and preserve the peace, even unto my own death."

Loki looks up at his brother, eyes filled with the fiercest of loyalty. "You are my king," he says. "You are my king."

Thor has already closed over half of the distance between them. He quickens his pace until he's slipping between Hogun and Fandral to get to his little brother. Thor kneels and fumbles with the bindings on Loki's wrists until they come free at the king's bidding. Then he's hugging his brother, as tightly as he can manage, not giving one damn about the swell of voices around them.

The people of Asgard have plenty to say about this, but not a single word penetrates through that hug or the barrier of protection that Sif and the Warriors Three form around the brothers.

"Get them out of here," Thor mutters, covering his brother's head protectively with the palm of his hand. "The trial is over."

The king's library holds the strangest stillness.

Odin's chair is slightly askew, and his favorite pen sits beside the last journal he would ever write in. Beneath it is the chessboard engraved into the old king's desk—a grandmaster indeed. Loki wonders where his body is. No one has yet mentioned a funeral, and he is willing to bet Thor has waited for his brother to be there for it.

While Odin's desk appears mostly untouched, other surfaces in the room have not fared the same fate. A table at the far end of the room is covered in books and some of Odin's old journals. There are legal documents—an adoption record, if Loki is right—and a copy of Asgardian law opened up and marked.

Loki despises people who scribble notes in books, but who is he to argue with the King of Asgard? They're his books. Besides, it's far too astonishing to think that Thor was reading them at all.

It seems his brother has spent many hours here, perhaps trying to make sense of it all or to ensure that he was prepared for any argument that might come up in Loki's trial. Loki can sense the desperation that Thor felt, and feels no small amount of guilt as he watches his brother drop himself into a chair, looking very much like he has not slept in a week.

It doesn't seem strange at all to Loki that Thor didn't choose to sit in Odin's chair but rather claimed one of the two visitors' seats on the opposite side of the desk. But the weariness on his brother's face or the bloodied knuckles? Those seems strange. No, they are simply wrong.

How many times has Thor taken care of Loki when he was not able?

Loki looks around and spots a pitcher of water on a tray near the door. The tray contains a meal that Thor has failed to eat. Loki takes the pitcher and a carefully folded napkin and brings them over to where Thor sits. Taking a seat in the chair next to his brother, Loki sets the pitcher down on the desk.

Thor's hands rest on his legs, and Loki lays his own hands on top of them, closing his eyes as he heals the wounds with a warm surge of magic. It takes only a few seconds, and when he's done, he dips the napkin into the pitcher of water and cleans the blood off of his brother's now perfectly cured hands. He can feel Thor's eyes on his face.

"Loki," he whispers.

And that's all it takes. Loki drops the napkin, and they meet in a mutual hug that is half love and half rage. Both emotions are equally as fierce.

"I thought you dead," Thor growls in his ear, pulling a fistful of his brother's hair. "I want to kill you."

"Trust me," Loki replies. "I know the feeling. You're going to get yourself killed one of these days, you idiot. Again."

"Loki, you have got to stop this."

Loki's arms tighten around his brother. "I have, Thor. I've stopped. For you, if nothing else. I will not fight you anymore."

"I mean it," Thor growls through clenched teeth. "This is the last time, and then I am done."

But they both know that isn't true. It's like their personal inside joke now. Practically a running gag. Thor will never give up. He isn't capable of it.

"At least until the next time," Thor admits with a spine-popping squeeze. "Or the time after that. Damn it all, Loki."

Despite the fact that it's becoming increasingly difficult to breathe, Loki holds his brother for a long time without offering further commentary. Eventually Thor settles and sags against him, and Loki knows then that it won't be difficult to coax him into some food and rest.

He takes care of his brother quietly, asking a guard to bring a fresh tray and setting the room into order while Thor continues to rest and pull himself together.

Afterwards, when Thor has taken in a bit of wine and bread, they sit together in stunned silence, staring at their father's empty chair, wondering what to do next.

Two Years Later . . .

The newly appointed emissary from Alfheim is all easy charm and appeal—just like every other visitor to the realm has been since Thor's ascension to the throne. It is the elf's first visit to Asgard since his predecessor unexpectedly committed an act of treason, and a feast has been thrown in his honor to welcome and introduce him.

Loki wears the most pleasant of smiles as he leads him on a tour through the queen's gardens, which he has lovingly tended everyday for the last two years. The branches are heavy with fruit.

"You should try an apple," Sif suggests, her fingertips toying with her weapon.

Loki's smile tightens ever so slightly as he looks at their visitor. "Indeed. They're simply to die for."

"Delightful," the elven emissary says as he plucks one from a branch. "You certainly know how to treat your guests most splendidly."

Loki wants very much to kick the elf over the wall and send him to his timely death. "Of course," Loki says, his smile unwavering. "But we are merely the king's humble servants. This is but an extension of my brother's gratitude toward your realm for your continued loyalty in the war with Thanos."

"Oh, yes," the elf lies as he turns the apple over in his hands. "We must all band together to the end."

"It is such a relief to hear you say that," Sif tells him. "We have met others in your position who have not been as forthcoming with their true intentions."

Loki could not be prouder of Sif's performance. Her capacity for sarcasm has grown by leaps and bounds since they became friends, though she is putting a little too much heat into the words. She should learn to keep it agreeably hostile rather than so overt. He makes a mental note to coach her privately later.

The elf swallows as he eyes Sif's weapon. "Is that so?"

Loki touches the back of his hand briefly to his lips, as if remembering something most unpleasant. "I'm afraid Lady Sif speaks the truth. There was indeed an unfortunate situation a few months back."

"Someone tried to betray our king," Sif explains. "Perhaps thinking that since King Thor is newly appointed to the throne, that he has no one to support and protect him."

"They tried to come through me," Loki admits. "As if I would attempt to betray my king and brother. Very foolish. But I must admit, the end of the story is quite humorous, though perhaps not for the faint of heart."

"Prince Loki, not in front of our honored guest," Sif scolds. "He has only just eaten."

"You are right, my lady. Forgive me. It will not do to have him come over ill in the queen's gardens. That would be embarrassing."

"I think my stomach can handle it," the elf says. "What, uh, happened to this traitor, if I might ask?"

Loki's mouth spreads into a slow smile, leaving Sif to finish the story.

"We did," she says.

An hour later, Thor finds Sif and Loki sharing an apple as they stare out across the realm. The sky is descending into twilight, and the Rainbow Bridge cuts an electric path to the Bifrost Observatory. As always, it is an absolutely magnificent sight that never fails to steal Loki's breath away.

Thor leans against the wall beside his brother and takes the apple away from him, claiming a bite before he hands it over to Sif. "Our guest just departed most unexpectedly," Thor says with a heavy sigh. "Still, I think everything went well, all things considered."

Loki snorts. "You would think that."

"Thor, I mean no offense," Sif says as she chews, "but that elf is the most abysmal liar I have ever met in my life. Even worse than your brother."

"Excuse me?" Loki says, reaching to snatch the apple out of her hand.

Sif's eyes glitter back at him. He has taught her the art of sarcasm and mischief a little too well, and his irritation melts into a reluctant smile as he realizes just how far his pupil has come. They might not agree on everything, but when it comes to protecting their king, they have reached a complete understanding.

"I suppose that means the influence of Thanos is still spreading," Thor says. His tone is weary. At his temples are a few strands of gray hair. Jane adores them, and Loki adores making fun of them. "He will bring war to all the Nine Realms before this is over. I admit, I do not know what to do."

"We do what we always do, brother," Loki says as he tosses the apple core over the wall, down to the water below. "We win."

The end.

A/N – You made it! Heck, I made it. If writing this story has taught me anything, it's that I should never be a therapist. My patients would need therapy after my therapy.

As some of you have already figured out, this story has been about Loki getting to a place where he is no longer fixated on destroying his own life (including anything and anyone involved in that life). That was the entire conflict, and everything else was just a symptom of that. He has always been both the protagonist and antagonist of his own story. It might sound weird, but to me, the real character-related climax of this story was in this chapter—not the prior one.

Thank you so much for reading! It would mean a ton to me if you would let me know what you thought. I appreciate every comment, kudos, and rec. I feel like I've made some friends since I posted the first chapter, and that's the best thing of all. :)

I will be posting a Loki/Sif outtake to my tumblr in a day or so. (Sorry, I figured you guys would want me to post this chapter once it was complete rather than waiting.) When the outtake is done, you'll find it on my "tumblr only fic" tag here: pro-antagonist DOT tumblr DOT com/tagged/tumblr-only-fic

MUAH. Bye.