'What are you doing, my son?'
It never ends, does it? He just wanted peace. He just wanted rest. Silence, death, if that was what it took to make everything stop for at least a minute. But things... can't just stop for him, can they?
'You cannot stay here, Loki.'
Oh, but he wanted to. He didn't want to move, or think, or exist, if only he could find a way to make it stop.
'Loki, come home now.'
And Odin thought it was that easy, didn't he? That Loki could just come home. Could just stand and traverse spaces outside the nine realms simply because it was asked of him? Loki raised his head and opened his eyes for the first time in... days...weeks and looked at Odin. The projection was weak, they were too far away. It was transparent and flickering, but he could make out every line on his father's face, read the exact expression he wore and what it meant from memory, if not from sight.
He did not read concern. There was sadness, if Loki was being generous with his interpretation, but mostly there was expectancy. Because yes, if the All-Father tells you to get up after falling ...days? years? an eternity? through space, to mend yourself because you've broken just about every single bone in your body, and travel through the space outside the nine realms to return home (where Loki does not believe for a second he will be pardoned of his crimes, not for any reason) then you are very well expected to do just that.
Especially if you were the All-father's son.
Wait, no... that was not quiet right. Especially if you were Loki.
Loki, who was not sure if he counted himself among Odin's sons, but so desperately wanted to because this was the father that he has always desired to please and be loved by -- the lie of his heritage did subtract from this need for Odin's approval and could not alone unmake his desperate need. Loki, who burned all his bridges to prove he only needed the one. Loki, who was trained and treated, not to be king or as son-of-a-king, but as an assassin, a construct made only to listen and long for orders from Odin so that he may be of use and therefore be loved.
And wasn't it sad that he knew all this, knew how wrong it was, how wrong Odin was, and wanted the love anyway? And wasn't it pathetic that Loki wanted desperately to believe that Odin was here to retrieve him because he loved Loki, and not... not because Loki had proved to be a useful tool that the All-father did not want to throw away.
"I cannot," Loki croaked out. His throat was raw and it hurt dangerously to have spoken even so little. Scrubbed raw by the piercing cold of space, by his screams as he plunged into the abyss, unused for... will he ever find out how long it has been?
'You can, Loki. The Tesseract is on Midgard. She will know you and she will pull you to her side if you can reach out to her.'
But how was Loki supposed to be able to reach out? He wasn't even certain that he could heal himself, let alone scrape up enough magic for anything else. Wasn't it enough that he lived? Wasn't it already too much, that he still lived? And he wanted more? To inflict more? When Loki had nothing more that he could give?
The image of Odin kneeled beside him. I have a need of you, Loki.
No, no, no, Loki begged in his mind. Please, just leave me to rest or to die. Please, just leave me. I cannot. I cannot. He wanted to speak again, but it already hurt so much the first time. Loki might just hate himself for his weakness later, but he couldn't stop the tears that sprung into his eyes. Too much. It was all just too much.
'You are not alone here, Loki. There are others that are close, and we can use them to get you home, to lure out an enemy before they are ready to strike, to test the mettle of the Midgardians and see if they need be looked after or looked out for.'
And against his will, Loki's mind began to replay the lessons that Odin had always taught him.
Any good plan serves multiple purposes.
All allies are also potential enemies, if you are not aware of their strengths as well as their weaknesses.
Always make your enemies move before they ready, if given the chance.
He remembered them all well. He had thought them to be the lessons of a king and wondered why Thor was so bad at learning them, but he had been wrong. Because a king needed tricksters and assassins to serve him, but he didn't need to be one. No, a king needed to be strong enough to defend a throne and loved enough that his mistakes were forgiven.
Loki was neither. Too clever by half, Odin had made sure that while he was cunning enough and skilled enough for a throne, he would never be loved enough. Systematically, Odin had made Loki burn his every bridge. For Asgard. For the All-father. It was so deeply ingrained into him to do so that he didn't even think twice about eliminating Laufey for those same reasons. Almost eliminated Thor... and that was a step too far, wasn't it?
But Loki knew his place now, didn't he? So this time, he could stay in the lines and be loved for what he truly was. Not as an Odinson, (even though that is the single strongest wish Loki has ever had), but as a tool to be used by the throne.
It was not as if he had anything else to strive for, was it?
Loki gathered what strength he could and braced himself for pain, pretended not to hate himself just a little for being a: pathetic, desperate, fatherless, and loveless fool. "Tell me." he spoke.
And he was told of Thanos, a being he realized with growing horror was someone he knew of from his studies and shuddered at having to meet, and whose slow build of trying to bring everything and everyone into the embrace of death, and his design on the Tesseract. He was also told to test the mortals that so enamored his brother (not brother, he remembered, because Thor was a bridge he was never meant to have, even had he not burned it along with the rest) to see what level of attention they garnered. Thor would not overlook an incident on his new pet planet. He would come for Loki. Loki almost felt hope at the thought (Thor always came for Loki, even if he was, increasingly in recent years, too late), but Odin put that spark out quickly.
'Thor is not to know.'
Oh, how often he had heard that command over the years. When he was younger, he would sometimes tell Thor anyway, but then the level of humiliation or depravity of the missions he was given increased, and Loki could no longer bear to share the details.
Part of him just wanted to stay where he was. To wait until death found him or madness overtook him or... or anything really, if it meant he could just stop for a little while longer. But he didn't. Loki opened his mouth and said, "Alright, father."
Loki never regretted anything as much as he regretted meeting Thanos.
The man was ruthless and much too powerful and too calm for Loki's liking. Never had he been so broken, so weak, so humiliated, and never had he wanted so much to end someone. In the end, he achieved what was needed of him. He learned of Thanos' plan, was inserted right in the middle of it, given the scepter that would allow him connection with the Tesseract, and able to return to the nine realms.
Planning the assault against Midgard was something of a longer process.
There were rules to this sort of thing and Loki had learned them well.
Contrary to what the mortal believed, Loki had taken control of all the mortals in the room, excluding Director Fury. Leaders were needed for any good ruse. So he covered them in his magic, hiding them from the Director's sight and leaving illusions of their bodies.
Never leave loose ends.
The more of his minions thought to be dead, the less they would be looked for and the more freedom he would have to move them. He knew very little of Midgard, was very low on magic, and was being watched, both by his father and The Other. He had to put on a show, but he didn't need results at present, only information.
Incidentally, he let his minions do most of the planning for the invasion, while he amassed as much information on Midgard as he could. The Shield agents recruited from their enemies more minions, so that he was free to forgo the power of the staff. He vetoed many of the better plans, though made note of their strategies, in case they would be needed for a real invasion. He needed showy and loud, two things he was not very good at, admittedly, but the Midgardians had many ideas.
Know your audience.
His minions had expectations of what their world's villains were like, meaning that the Midgardian Heroes at large likely held the same expectations. Meeting them was not much trouble.
A showy arrival, an enthralling speech, and a show of power later, he got to meet the Midgardian heroes he had to play adversary to.
After a week to allow: Selvig to complete his machine, for Loki to learn all that he needed to learn about Midgard (which was not nearly enough, only the bare necessities really), for a plan that seemed reasonable, but was not made to hold up under strain (Loki needed to be able to collapse the plan if Midgard's warriors could not), and for him to regain enough of his magic. (He needed to maintain the wrecked appearance that he had when he first arrived, it wouldn't do if the mortals could track how well and fast he healed.)
Technically, he wasn't under time constraints, but Loki just wanted to get this mission over and go home. After Thanos... after all of that... he just wanted to be home. He wanted to forget the pain carved deeper than his skin, forget the sound of that awful tormenting voice, and forget that his father thought of his return as retrieving a tool instead of the return of a son. Certainly, if he was home, if he could really just go home...
He did not expect Thor's arrival.
Odin had said that he would send Thor to fetch him and that Thor was not to know of his mission, but it was still a surprise.
The strain on Thor's face was plain as day, but Loki couldn't read it. Was it because he knew now what Loki was? Who Loki was? Did it pain him to try to cajole Loki home with words like 'brother,' or was it painful that they fought on opposing sides?
Loki didn't know nor could he really spare the time to care. He had already cast aside this bond, hadn't he? When he chose to do what it took to earn Odin's love? Because he had told Loki to come home and that had to mean that he was wanted. And he was told to test Midgard lure out Thanos and he was told that Thor should not know, so he would just have to pretend as his villainous role demanded. Loki didn't have the heart to cast off Thor unless he thought of it as pretend. Unless he told himself that the strain on Thor's face was disgust for Loki.
Truthfully, though, Loki didn't know what Thor thought of him anymore. Do you still love brothers that are actually monsters in disguise? Do you keep loving brothers that try to kill you? Do you keep loving brothers that are not your brother at all? If Loki could ignore that little voice that told him he loved Thor (had to pretend he could ignore it, or else how could he fight?) then Thor could likely do the same, so perhaps his brother did not love him, but was sent to fetch him anyway.
There was another rule that Odin had taught Loki and he had drilled him extensively until he could get it right, punished him severely if he got it wrong. One of the most important rules, Odin had told him, for a liar or a trickster or one whose task was to deceive.
Commit to your lie.
So Loki dropped his brother off the hellicarrier. (He was certain it could not fell Thor. The glass had already cracked after all.) So he stabbed his brother in the side when faced with, though Loki knew not if it was real or faked, Thor's love. (An insignificant wound, it would heal quickly.) And Loki spoke the truth with the passion of how fiercely he wished it were lie, "I am not your brother!"
Thor never could tell when Loki was lying. Not when he lied for Odin, anyway. And Loki gathered a little file on the Midgardian heroes that he would have to report to his father. Captain America's strength, unusual to them, but perhaps not unreplicable; Black Widow's cunning, a learned skill, but not one that is taught; The brutality of the Hulk and the intelligence of his other half, worrisome only if they can be combined, but manageable otherwise; The skill of Hawkeye, notable, but negligible, and Iron Man, whom represents both the better attributes of the mortals-- intelligence and technological advancements greater than his kind could achieve-- as well as their more pitiable flaws-- arrogant to a fault and far too breakable.
Oh, but he did find himself charmed by his brother's friends. (He always did, didn't he?) The Widow was a worthy enough woman, the captain so very like his brother, and Iron Man in particular he found himself charmed by.
Just the absurdness of the man challenging him without his armor and the loudness of lies (lies of person, lies of confidence, lies wrapped so tightly as to be truth, lies reminiscent of Loki) caught his eye.
"You know there is no version of this where you come out on top?"
Loki just couldn't stop himself; he wanted to engage the mortal. He needed to stay near the portal anyhow, be able to shut it down if the mortals failed, make certain that nothing... unmanageable came through.
"Oh, I don't know, Man of Iron." Loki let his gaze travel hungrily up and down the mortals form. "I can imagine myself topping quiet easily."
"Jokes on you, I'm awesome either way."
"Is it always your policy to offer drinks to those that threaten you?"
"I find it's only polite, if I'm going to completely wreck someone, that there's a little foreplay first."
He really just wanted to take the mortal with him. Offer him to the All-father as a testament to what the Midgardians were like (or could be like, as he was given to know that Iron Man was quiet unique) or just keep him from the fight so he could better evaluate the others (No need for distractions.) Pity that it didn't work.
Loki didn't really want to kill the Midgardian, but it was better to eliminate the threat, wasn't it?
Whether or not it had been the right decision to toss the man out a window, Loki was immensely pleased that the mortal survived. Perhaps it would not be good in the long run, but he was just one more name on a long list of those that Loki did not kill. The thralls he took when he first arrived were all alive, if not freed from control as Hawkeye had been, they would be released once the Tesseract was back on Asgard. The agent that had questioned his resolve, while wounded, was not mortally so. A gift, for being able to see so clearly through his facade and Loki slipped into his pocket the location of the other agents that Loki spared.
He had to pay attention once the Chitauri began to pore in through the portal. He wanted to minimize casualties. (And it wasn't that he had such a distaste for killing or such a love for the mortals that motivated him, but he hardly wanted Thanos to get what he wanted, so minimal death was a must.) He spread his power, amplified by the staff and it's connection and closeness to the Tesseract, to make copies of the Chitari, making it seem as if there were more enemies than there really were. That way he could monitor them, controlling his copies to manipulate the destruction around him. Cloaked in invisibility, he directed them to save those he could, while the more visible caused as much destruction with as little death as was possible.
He could understand why the All-father had hidden the Tesseract. The power boost it gave him was incredible and addictive and he wondered at his ability to give it up. Incidentally, he needn't have worried about that. The Widow shutdown the portal, though he'd already placed a spell upon it so that no more Chitauri could pass, only his clones, and wasn't it convenient to have a cue as to when he could make them all drop at once. (Later, they would wonder why the bodies disappeared, but the mortals knew nothing about the Chitauri, so it was not much of a worry.) And then the beast tossed him around enough to knock some sense into him, the pounding impact temporarily drowning out the seductive whispers of the Tesseract's voice.
That... hurt him. But less than he pretended. Even with such injuries he could have gotten away, but it was his plan to be taken back to Asgard and it was a moment to rest and he took it.
Mentally, he checked off his mental list of task:
--Thor did not know. That was important, though never in suspect.
--Thanos was lured out of hiding. And the threats echoed so in Loki's ear that he was certain he would come for Loki and therefore Asgard could destroy him.
--The Midgardians were tested and Loki had enough to take back to the All-father. They were not a threat, but perhaps they were not to be ignored, either.
Loki had just thought to rise when the heroes finally surrounded him. And, without thinking about it twice (for what need had he for further pretense, when the mission was over?), he stood and spoke calmly to Thor. "Let us return home, Thor."
The look of equal suspicion and shock on their faces was humorous, but Loki had no mind for it. He just wanted to go home. He was affronted, but unresisting when he was bound and muzzled. He had suffered worse injustices for one of the All-father's ruses.
He really just wanted to go home, now, and further fight or pretense was just too much trouble. Loki was glad that there was little delay in their departure.
Being embraced by Frigga felt like coming home. As soon as he was brought to the throne room, thankfully empty of spectators, she rushed to his side and pulled him into a fierce embrace.
Being under the scrutiny of Odin's gaze felt like being suffocated.
"Leave us, my son. I must speak with your brother."
Loki's breath caught in his throat. He was choked on his hope and his own foolishness, wanting to be the son of his father, knowing himself not to be. He couldn't move his eyes from Odin's own hard stare. Loki couldn't keep track of anything else in the room under those eyes. Not Thor's departure and not his mother deftly freeing him of his bindings. He was bound much tighter by the yoke of Odin, by the hold of kinship and need and love, all falsified, all lies, all he has.
"Oh, my Loki," Frigga said softly, placing her hands on Loki's cheek. Slowly, she turned his face away from Odin to stare at her instead, and the tension broke a bit. He was safe. He was home. He was wanted. With a sigh that released all the tension from his body, he rested his head on her shoulder as she embraced him once more. "I'm so happy to have you home."
The moment lasted longer than Loki would have expected before Odin finally spoke. "You know that I must punish you, Loki." Slowly, Loki lifted his eyes to look at his father. "For your crimes against Midgard, you must be punished."
Loki's heart clenched, but it wasn't as if he was surprised. Thor is not to know. Yes, he knew he would be punished, but that did not make it easier to bare. "What will you have of me, father?"
Frigga's arms wound protectively around him. "Later," she said firmly. "For now I have my son back, and I will not release him for any reason." She shot a glare at Odin as she said this. "Come, my son, no one knows you to be returned. We have a few days yet to rest and heal before anything need be decided."
Not every bridged burned, then. He still had a mother, though when he paused to think about it, he realized that it was never in doubt. "I have missed you, mother," Loki whispered, afraid that if he spoke too loudly something, most likely himself, was liable to break and come apart.
Frigga placed a soft kiss upon his temple and took his hand. "Come, my Loki, you need rest."
A sweeter rest he never had. He was bone weary, body and mind. Under Frigga's care he felt truly safe, truly home, truly loved. For a full seven days she nursed him, secluded in her own chambers, feeding him healing potions and other remedies she made specifically for him, more potent than any he had ever had despite his mother not being herself a healer. He forgot for a time that there was a brother that may or may not still love him, a realm that loathed him for all his protection of it, and a father that... and a king who... and Odin. Odin waited also in this outside world, but he was able to forget about these things for a full seven days.
He supposed then that Odin's patience must have run out. For the eighth morning Odin came to him, stern and stately despite the lack of audience. (But that wasn't right, wasn't it? There is always an audience and Loki knows this. Loki is the audience, though he wishes just now that that were not the case and that Odin was not putting on a face for him.) There were many things that Loki wanted to say in this moment, kindnesses that he wanted to request, but he knew what was required of him and that was much more important, wasn't it? His duty could perhaps earn him Odin's love, sentiment would not.
"All-father," He greeted resignedly, stiffly, though he wanted not to. He wanted to crumble and break before his father, but feared that there would not be welcome or respite for him if he chose such recourse. "What do you need of me?"
Odin silently held his gaze for a moment before speaking. "Asgard does not know what you have done for them." They never did. Loki didn't know why Odin chose to begin this way. "They think you a usurper, Loki, and a destroyer. You took a throne that was not yours to have, attacked your brother, and struck out at Jotunheim. Asgard cares not for what treatment you give our enemies, so that is not a crime in their eyes. I know you did not attempt to usurp your brother, and so I care not about that, but what am I to do Loki? Your crimes against Thor are great."
Loki wants to retort that Thor has committed crimes against him as well, but he supposes it petty. The law does not care about crimes of the heart, even if they lead to crimes of the flesh. No one cares about the 'why,' only the 'what' and that Loki is the one to have faulted.
It is only now that Loki considers that he tried to destroy Odin's son and that Odin may never forgive him such action. It does not much matter whether or not Thor forgives him (or so he tells himself), but he dreads the thought that he may have burned the only bridge that truly mattered to him. Loki waits with fear in his heart.
"There is a solution to this, Loki, one that benefits and soothes that which Asgard perceives you have done to wrong them." The soft, understanding tone that Odin used frightened Loki more than he knew words for. This was going to be something unpleasant, he could feel it. He would rather endure having his mouth sown shut again than face whatever the All-father's next words are to be. "Jotunheim is without a king. They are restless and angry at your brother's invasion and the assault by the Bifrost. They know not that it was you, but they do know the son of Laufey yet lives." Loki could feel everything in his body go cold and numb. "I raised you to be a king, Loki, to bring peace to two realms. It is time that we have peace, my son."
Loki closes his eyes and thinks of every flame he ever set upon an ally at the All-father's word. He thinks of Sif, beautiful golden haired Sif, whose only crime was loving another when the All-father intended her for Thor, whose eyes blaze with hatred toward him ever since he cut off her golden hair to replace it black, ruining her romance and earning her Thor's endearment; He thinks of the dwarves, that still eye him distrustfully after he tricked them into creating Mjolnir, and the easy camaraderie he once found there that turned sour; He thinks of Tyr, whose intentions to go against Odin were crippled by the loss of his hand, and how the other warriors slowly shunned him evermore; He thinks of the court on the day he spilled their secrets in verse and rhyme, the faces of shock and hatred directed at him for decades and centuries after, distracting from discontent and insurrection for a long game of politics yet resolved.
He thinks of the quest with Thor and how his brother is the only friend (ally) that he was allowed to have, the only relationship that he has not been directed to sabotage for the good of Asgard. He thinks of every wrong at the behest of the All-father, every stolen trinket that he and Thor retrieved, every visit to the other realms, and he remembers, Thor is not to know. Thor is not know, because Loki will do it for him. Thor is not know, because Loki will bear it for him. Thor is not to know, because Thor will argue and challenge and debate what is right. Thor is not to know, because Thor is the heir and must continue to believe that the All-father is in the right.
Loki laughs, a broken sound, as he opens his eyes to look at Odin.
Odin speaks, but Loki can no longer hear him. All he can hear are repeats of; I have need of you, Loki; Loki, come home now; Thor is not to know.
Loki's laughter is like a sob and he wonders if his mother knew. If the last seven days were goodbye or if Odin has no intention to tell her until it is done.
Odin places a hand on Loki's shoulder and Loki looks at him. He remembers his fear when Odin fell, Loki confronting him with his lies of his heritage, and he remembers his earlier thoughts that there is always an audience and that Loki is an audience, and he doesn't trust his own memories any longer. "My son."
And Loki doesn't know anything except that he will not be King of Jotunheim and he doesn't know what that means for him.
He wants to call him father once more, but he knows it's long a lie by this point, and not even his own.
And it's so funny he wants to cry, as he looks at the man that raised him, commanded him, and he says, in so solemn a voice he wonders if his heart is cleaved in two or if it's simply frozen over, "No, Odin."