Right. Here we go, the last chapter! I want to thank all of you that have stayed with this fic from beginning to end, I just love all of you and I couldn't have finished it without you guys, and my super-brilliant beta – my psychic twin, Eirian Erisdar. You should all read her fics, they're absolutely wonderful. I beta her fics, and she betas mine :) I hope you think this is a satisfactory ending, and I shall miss you all. It's been a great experience as a first-time fanfictioner, and I give you all hugs for everything you've done.

Reviews:

Child of Hermes: Thanks! And thank you for being one of my long-term reviewers XD

Guest: Thank you for reviewing, and I have to say, I didn't enjoy part 2 very much at all, except for the last third. But thank you so much – and did you sign off as Loki, of all people? Haha :)

Guest: Well, at least the description had the desired effect :D Thank you, and I hope you enjoy this last chapter!

Lady Charity: Oops! I didn't even know there was a movie category, oh bother. *Awkward* Oh well, thank you for reviewing, and have a good summer!

** Love Reno: Oh, that would have been awesome – everybody would have a "wha?" face on while Loki twiddle his *fake* mustache hahaha. Thank you so much, *hugs*!

OhCasanovah: You have my deepest gratitude for being my most encouraging reviewer all this time. I thank you, truly. You get a shower of hugs *sniff* :)

Altamiya: I'm sorry you were disappointed, but I hope you like this chapter. As for my plans afterwards… maybe one or two oneshots about Loki as a child, up to no good with Thor and his friends. Depends on whether I have time, with university apps and all that annoyance in the autumn term. Thank you so much for staying with this fic for so long!

Floofy Fantal: Hah! Can't wait to see you back from Canada, oh, and I'll be reading more of Tsubasa now that I don't have this fic taking up my time :) Thank you for taking the time to read this when I know you probably have more work than I do :) Oh, and angst galore. Wonderful ehehehe *evil grin* Love you, and watch the Dark Knight Rises so I can talk to you about it :)

I don't own Avengers – but I do own all the OCs that have popped out of my brain during the whole of this fic. Now, onwards, for the final charge!

The afternoon sunlight drifts lazily down, suffusing through the air and delving some ways into the arched tall doorway that is the southern entrance to the citadel structure, marking the line between soft shadow and bright radiance. The light carries dust that sparkles and circles through the rays, and sounds of the main southern road a distance below the raised citadel.

A faint hint of birdsong lingers in the drowsy breath of wind that flutters from the castle gardens, barely detectable. The flowers are in bloom, and their fragrance also flows in the wind that makes this particular afternoon warm, but not uncomfortably so.

The same sunlight falls upon the terraces of the citadel, the windows of the corridors, and the desks of the scholarly apprentices, children whose hearts wander from studying and dream of games outside, until the sharp rap of the master's frustrated cane jolts many into momentary attention once more.

On such a day as this, none feel like working especially hard, for all work seems tiresome.

The two guards standing in their allocated positions on either side of the great double doors of the southern entrance suffer from the same soporific effect. Usually at attention with backs straight, focused on what is ahead, today they stand relaxed, long, elegant spears held loosely in easy fingers. One's eyes are glazed over with the beginnings of sleep, and the other with a dazed reverie. Every ten minutes or so, one shakes his head in a heroic attempt to stay awake and alert. The other, following his lead, rolls his neck and glares straight forward, as if the strength of his will could somehow overcome his overwhelming inclination for a siesta.

Then they both slip back into their sleepy half-awareness, and this will all repeat itself. Of course, they know that they could be classified as neglecting their duty. But who would care? On such a lovely day as this, anything can be excused. Besides, most Asgardians have abandoned official work for the day, and the corridor is empty.

The guard on the left slowly tips backward until his shoulders are resting on the sun-drenched wall, supporting most of his weight. A minute later, soft whiffling snores drift out of his helmet. The guard on the right's head droops onto his chestpiece, and his spear threatens to slip out of his grasp.

Distracted, and underperforming their guardly duties, they fail to register the soft footsteps sounding from within the hallway, feet that stop on the very boundary between shadow and radiant sunlight. The pair of booted feet hesitates, and almost turns back. Then comes a noise of muffled determination, and Loki strides out into the brightness, dressed in green and gold, a light cape around his shoulders, head bare, his right arm in a simple sling. The pupils of his green eyes constrict in the glare as he makes his way silently towards the southern entrance.

Five steps from the doors, he notices the unnatural stillness of the two guards. They make not a single movement as he approaches. Tilting his head, he purposefully makes his footsteps louder, assuming that the guards are insufficiently trained to hear his soft tread.

Still no response.

Why, they're asleep, while guarding my father's castle!

A hand touches the hilt of a decorated dagger, and taps the pommel thoughtfully. Then Loki decides that it isn't really necessary to use that to frighten them. His very presence should be enough, considering what they now know about his true identity.

Walking until he is parallel to the sleeping guards, Loki proceeds to clear his throat delicately.

The guards jerk awake, feet stumbling, gasping in surprise at finding themselves asleep. The guard that was leaning on the wall bangs his head painfully against the stone surface, and rubs the back of his helmet with a strangled gasp. The other is so shocked that the already loose grip on his spear loosens further, allowing its barbed tip to veer dangerously close to Loki's face. Loki makes a sound of distaste and swivels elegantly aside, the sharp metal passing before him harmlessly.

"Sorry!" squeaks the guard.

"Helmets off," Loki orders conversationally.

They hurriedly comply, tucking their helmets under their arms, reveals two chastened faces reddened with shame.

"Your names, gentlemen, guards who were neglecting to guard?" Loki says.

"Eain, my-my lord," the one on the right stammers. His blonde hair is meticulately tamed.

"Saret, sir," the other says, quaking where he stands.

Loki narrows his eyes at them. Their fear seems disproportional to their wrong. It is not only disapproval for their actions that causes them terror. It is disapproval from whom that strikes horror into their hearts – they fear an unworldly penalty from a frost giant.

Loki's silence sends the two guards into further spasms of dread. "Damian's friends, are you not?" he suddenly asks, "You were those that were visiting when I left the ward."

"Yes," they both stutter.

Sighing, Loki says, "I should advise Damian to chose friends of better quality." Eain and Saret blanch at this, bracing for some form of horrific Jotun punishment.

Loki somehow finds their unconditional fear irrepressibly irritating. "Oh, for heaven's sake, do you possess a single iota of courage? Stand up, and stop shaking. I am not about to murder you both in cold blood."

"You're…not, sir?" Saret squeaks.

Loki laughs mockingly. "No, I'm not going to turn my hand into an ice blade and slit your throats. Terrible waste of time and effort."

Eain all but squeals in horror, eyes growing unnaturally wide.

Loki makes an exasperated noise. "Oh heavens, you weren't ready for that, weren't you?" he mutters to himself. Obviously they are incapable to recognising that he wasn't being serious when he had made that comment. How long is it going to be before the people of Asgard realise that I mean them no harm?

By the looks of these two, a long time.

"Listen." The guards snap to attention. "I will not report this incident to your superior, nor my father. You are not to slacken in your duties from now on. I have allowed this to pass once. Do not expect me to be merciful again. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir!" The guards hold expressions of barely disguised wonder at the prince's leniency.

Flicking a hand at them, Loki says, "Carry on." Then he turns to walk towards the southern gate at the foot of the hill. The guards scramble back into position, knuckles white on their weapons.

Once his back is turned on them, Loki allows himself a small smile. As the first indication of Asgard's response to his father's revelation of his true nature, abject fear is better than the deep-rooted hate he had been expecting. Fear can be changed over time, with good conduct and kindness. Hate would have been harder to remove.

Loki had been relatively sheltered from Asgard's reaction for a week, as he was confined to his rooms for that period both for medical and logical reasons. Without knowing how the people would take this newfound piece of information regarding their prince, Odin had announced the news by sending runners throughout Asgard, instead of publically pronouncing it. He and Thor had then persuaded Loki to keep to his rooms until the chaos calmed somewhat.

Thor's face was grim for the first few days, no matter how he had tried to hide it under a layer of forced cheerfulness as he had visited Loki with Avarin, who performed checkups on his health. Loki had assumed the worst, but did not amass the courage to ask outright the people's view. As the days passed and he had slowly regained his strength, he had begun to think of venturing out of his chambers, but Avarin's dedicated care and his father's protectiveness had provided him with an excuse to prolong his seclusion. He feared what the truth would be, and only today has stepped out of the citadel for the first time.

His intent is to visit Aidan, since he did not have a chance to thank him for his help after handing Damian to his care all those days ago. A few discreet inquires had given his home address to be on the southern road, and Loki had not informed Aidan's father that he intended to visit. Too much pomp and circumstance seemed tiring, and pointlessly formal. He would try to catch Aidan alone.

The encounter with Saret and Eain calms him somewhat, but as he approaches the busy traffic of the main southern avenue, the irrational worry that every glance would somehow be hostile worms its way into his mind. As he steps onto the busy street, the chatter of merchants and tradesmen, children and nobles around a certain radius from where Loki stands fall instantaneously silent. Loki ignores this, head held high and steps purposeful.

Thankfully, the bubble of silence trips haltingly back into nearly full volume when he has passed. Turned heads and questioning eyes revert back to their discussions, albeit with a more careful tone. Loki sighs internally in relief.

But his relief is short lived, for he then realises that the quiet halt in conversation follows where he walks. As he approaches, groups of people stop and glance at him with a curious sort of distrust, and as he leaves, they gingerly regain their speech. But for Loki, no matter how fast nor slowly he travels, the silence seemingly remains with him.

A hundred yards of this is sufficient to set him in a foul mood, and, unable to withstand their gazes any longer, he melts into a deserted side street and springs agilely up the walls, grasping the top with his left hand and hauling himself up with less grace than normal onto the roof of the nearest structure. Smiling ruefully, he looks at his sling. Not using his right hand is troublesome, but not a complete impediment. Traveling on the tops of the roofs would be faster, and a more solitary route than the main street. If he keeps away from the edge of the houses, no one would notice him from road level.

Dusting himself down from the climb up the wall, Loki runs forward, flipping to each structure in elegant grace, his feet barely seeming to touch the ground. He chooses the easiest jumps that do not require handholds, to be careful that his injured right arm would not be his downfall. As he flits from roof to roof, he passes through countless snapshots of people's lives – clothing lines, weaved chairs and tables, a carefully tended vegetable patch. He unconsciously accelerates his passage, for he does not want to run into a homeowner and be accused of trespassing on property.

Midway between leaping for the next building, he catches a glimpse of a dignified house ahead, no doubt Aidan's home. The sight causes him to crane his head slightly, affecting the arc of his flight. Too late, he realises his mistake, but he knows he cannot make the edge of the roof speeding towards him.

By pure luck, his feet land on an extremely narrow iron bracket extending outwards over a gap, to which is attached a basket of dead flowers, long neglected. Half a moment's flailing allows him to regain perfect balance. Laughing a little at his own ineptitude, he rises into a half-crouch, then halts as the iron bracket shakes under his weight. Biting his lip in concentration, he tries to rise into a standing position, but the iron beneath his feet screams in a shriek of metal. The rusted bolts that hold the bracket to the wall loosen begin to come away.

Loki clicks his tongue in distate and flings himself towards safety, but the metal gives away under him, and he tumbles downwards. Desperate, he casts his left hand out towards the smooth wall, grasping for a handhold and finding none. He braces himself for impact.

But he suddenly finds himself still hanging by his left hand and not in a heap on the ground from the should be inevitable fall. Looking up, he sees his hand blue up to the wrist, and completely covered in ice, ice that has conveniently frozen his hand to the remains of the metallic fixture.

Tilting his chin at this new marvel, he vaults upwards, landing lightly on both feet on the edge of the roof. Raising his hand to the sun, he watches as the ice fades and his hand returns to its normal colour. Interesting. That particular ability could prove useful. The strange occurrence perturbs him less than it would but days ago, for he is slowly but surely learning to accept who, and what, he is.

Two easy bounds takes him to the brink of the roof, and he crosses the few remaining gaps between the houses, until he lands on the rooftop next to Aidan's residence, rolling to dissipate the impact. As he comes up, he sees that the owner of the structure keeps a beautiful collection of a variety of blooms, lovingly tended.

As he prepares to jump down to ground level to search for the whereabouts of the little boy, he hears a child's voice, sharply raised, in the street below. Approaching the edge and peering over carefully, he smiles at the sight he sees.

Aidan stands on a small wooden crate, addressing a motely group of boys of varied ages, some from the higher echelons of society by their dress, and others by their ragged clothing merely wandering street thieves attracted by the spectacle. The crowd emanates jeering catcalls and mocking shouts, and Loki has to concentrate to hear Aidan's piping voice say, "I tell you, Loki isn't what you say! Why else would he tell everyone who he really is? That in itself proves it!"

Loki falters as he realises that Aidan is publicly defending him among a small mob of children, some boys more than twice Aidan's age. If the situation were to become violent, Aidan would not be in an advantageous position. Although Loki is beyond pleased by the child's actions, a small spike of worry appears in his thoughts. He readies himself to intervene if need be.

Loki looks on as a tall boy swaggers to the front of the crowd and jauntily says, "What do you know, rich boy? Anyone with any sense would know that frost giants are not Asgardian. They are monsters, inhuman, senseless. Now shut up and get out of here. Keep your stupid ideas in your stupid head." A chorus of approving whistles and applause follow this little speech.

Aidan, whose blonde hair barely reaches the level of this boy's chest, regardless of the fact that he is standing on a crate, is understandably intimidated. His eyes shine with a wetness that cannot be solely attributed to determination. But his mouth is set in an unwavering line, and he flings his chin up so that his entire diminutive height is maximized, and hisses, "I know the prince. He may be a frost giant, but that doesn't mean that he's a bad person."

Loki grins. So absorbed is he by this scene that he does not notice the slight creaking of the rooftop door as an old man with an immaculately cropped white beard and a crooked back steps out, hand holding a metal watering can for his beloved flowers. Nor does he see the old man start at the sight of the prince of Asgard perched on the edge of his roof. The man sidles to the side and also bends over to look down at Aidan. He sets his gardening can on the ground. "He's a good kid," he says warmly.

Loki jerks back violently, alarmed by the sudden sound. His unease at not noticing the presence of another person on the rooftop shows momentarily on his face. Then he catches a glint of wise humour in the eyes of the old man, and is reassured. "Yes, he is," he replies simply. Down below, a small stone flies from the crowd and strikes Aidan on the cheek, causing a bruise to blossom. Loki tenses, hand on a dagger. "Don't be a fool, Aidan," he whispers through his teeth.

The old man shrugs, beginning to water the flowers. "It takes time to learn that choosing a battlefield in which retreat is a viable option is a wise decision," he says. Loki nods, gazing at Aidan concernedly.

"And what do you think?" Loki asks abruptly, turning to face the old man, gesturing at the group of children below. The hopeful air is suppressed warily under a pretense of indifference.

The old man is quiet, and then says, "I have lived many years. I say that what I believe about you will depend on how you act in the near future. Who you are depends on your actions, not who you are born as. Oh, and if you can manage it, don't ruin my flowers." Without another word, he disappears down the stairs.

A corner of Loki's mouth turns upward as he looks down at Aidan and the children once more.

Aidan stamps his foot and continues defiantly, "Just because he isn't Asgardian by birth doesn't mean he can be any less a hero –"

The tall boy laughs, cutting Aidan off and triggering an echo of sniggers behind him. "What do you, little man, know about being a hero?" he asks menacingly, looming over Aidan, who to his credit does not flinch.

"What I am saying," Aidan says, lip trembling but eyes still fierce, "the prince is more worthy to be of Asgard than all of you are. You have no right to judge him."

The tall boy's glare turns dangerous. "What did you say?" he asks, barely whispering.

Aidan shrinks. "You…heard me?" he squeaks. He knows that it is the wrong answer a half second later, when the more intelligent of the rich boys in the crowd scatter away, and the remaining children, all older than Aidan, creep forward to surround him.

"F-Father!" he cries towards the shut windows of his house, in a useless attempt to call for someone from his household to save him. Predictably, no one answers. The boys close in, their shadows creeping up to shadow Aidan's face. Rough leather slings and crude knives made of bits of sharp metal appear in a dozen hands.

Aidan cowers and shuts his eyes, waiting in the blackness behind his eyelids for pain to come.

None does. There is a swish of cloth from overhead, and a metallic rasp of a dagger drawn of far higher quality than the makeshift blades that the street children hold. A familiar voice sounds. "Dear children, you are harassing a friend of mine. It would be a sensible decision to leave, now, and never show your faces again. I would tell you what would happen if you did, but I do not think that is necessary. Do you?"

A scuffle of scampering feet. Aidan warily blinks open his eyes, to see the laughing face of Loki, who is sheathing a single dagger. The ragged boys are nowhere in sight. Aidan can only gape. "I – I" he mumbles incoherently.

Loki extends a hand and takes Aidan's small one in his own, pulling the child to his feet. "Thank you, little man, for defending me," he says, examining the bruise on Aidan's cheek with uncharacteristic care.

Aidan finally finds his voice. "I only thought that they were wrong in assuming things that they did not know," he says honestly but timidly. His blue eyes are as innocent as ever.

"They were," Loki says with a tinge of sadness, crouching down so that his face is level with Aidan's, "but although that was brave of you, it was also an unwise decision to make an enemy out of those you cannot fight." Aidan nods, embarrassed. Loki continues, "So promise me, Aidan, that you will not challenge anyone for my sake until you are sure that success is in your hands. If I had not thought to come and see you precisely on this day, you may have been seriously injured on my account. I could never forgive myself for that. Do you understand? Besides, your father would almost certainly come after me."

Aidan nods again, and gives an uncertain grin, saying, "You know Father?"

"Yes, we have met," Loki says. "Now, I want thank you properly for your bravery in helping Damian that day, and your actions after in delivering the message to the captain of the Guard. You did Asgard a great service that day. You should be proud."

Aidan's mouth forms an "o" of surprise, but his little mind has the capacity to work out that the prince of Asgard is thanking him in person. He cannot, however, think of how to respond. He just stands there, eyes wide, hoping that Loki would grasp his gratitude.

Loki seems to understand, and merely looks down and smiles. As he stands up again, he says, "Now run along to your father. I have somewhere else to be. Take care of yourself, little man." He shakes Aidan's hand, as if warrior to warrior.

"Where are you going, sir?" Aidan's inquisitive voice pipes up from behind him, as Loki turns to go. Loki looks back, and waves. "Why, Midgard, Aidan!" he calls, and with a flash of green, is gone again to the world of rooftops and wind.

Aidan stands alone on the soapbox for a moment, and then skips towards the grand house gaily, eager to tell his mother of Prince Loki's visit.

(~~~)

The cloudless sky arcs a pale, clear blue over Manhattan, the voices and sounds of a million humans and busy traffic rising gently into the still afternoon air. The sun shines brightly overhead, its scintillating rays glancing off the extravagant tip of Stark Tower, shining rather harshly on the tired forehead of a particular Dr. Banner who crouches next to a miniaturized Arc Reactor on the penthouse balcony, fiddling with pieces of metal. He wipes the sweat off his brow as he finishes the final few touches, and calls back into the new renovated penthouse, "Did he happen to tell you the exact reason for this sudden visit to Earth? New monsters and horrors from his home to tell of? Another impending attack on our planet?"

Within the lavishly decorated room, three people sit around a table selected with what can only be Pepper's signature taste, while a fourth, standing at a specially set bar, armed with sunglasses and a narcissistic personality, shouts back to Banner, "Nope," popping the "p". "Fury just informed Jarvis that Thor would be visiting. Didn't even have the courtesy to tell us himself."

Natasha looks up at this from a deep conversation in undertones with Clint over a game of chess, calls out, "But then, when has Director Fury ever bothered to give us anything other than the barest information?"

"Touché," Tony replies, saluting her with his vodka glass. Then he catches sight of Steve poking at an electronic interface with a vaguely mystified air, and hurries to snatch it from his hands, with a quick "Hey! Don't touch my stuff. I would sooner hand it to a bunch of monkeys than you. They would be less likely to cause a system crash like the last time Jarvis let you access it."

Jarvis' refined tones sounds out, "To be fair, sir, he did accidentally press the specific combination out of a possible fifty thousand to turn my firewall off."

"My point exactly," Tony says.

Steve does not look offended, but rather takes the chance to say, "I don't think it's anything particularly serious, or else we would have been ordered to fall in. Has it occurred to you that Thor may not have been particularly specific in the first place?"

Clint pokes his queen gingerly forward, and groans when Natasha swoops in with a bishop to take it. Natasha flashes a triumphant grin, showing a rarely jubilant side of her personality. Clint sighs, and flicks his king over in surrender. "Give the guy a break," he says, "for all you know, he may be taking a holiday from his neurotic brother. Who knows how he managed to grow up with a psycho like that."

Steve shrugs in reply.

Tony goes to where Banner is. "You done with that? Thor's due to connect the bridge in less than five minutes." He sticks his ridiculously expensive watch in Bruce's face.

Face holding an expression of restrained annoyance, Bruce says, "Nearly. But it would be done faster if someone talked less and got out of my way." There is something dangerous lurking in his kind eyes behind those glasses slipping down his nose. Tony backs off, holding his hands up in mock defeat. "Done," Banner says, standing up and dusting off his hands.

As he walks back to the penthouse, wiping his glasses clean, the reactor begins to pulse a faint blue light, whirring into a constant hum of life. Banner sits in one of the armchairs with a tired sigh. Tony, as if not noticing his present state of exasperation, claps his hands together and goes behind the bar, rummaging in the racks below and disappearing from view. His voice says, "You know, I have just the thing. I was in Barcelona, and Pepper was elsewhere – I might have lost track of her somewhere between the hotel and the business district – and I ran into the most beautiful cocktail on the planet in a seedy pub –"

"You know what?" Steve calls, "I don't want to know how sick you ended up being."

Tony pops back up, his back to the glass windows and the vibrating reactor outside in the sun. With an armful of assorted alcohols and, cocktail mixer in hand, begins to shake up a cocktail, tasting it supposedly to check the balance of the mix but doing it rather more often than is convincingly appropriate. Most of the bottles end up being drunk instead of mixed. "Nearly there," he says with a condescending connoisseur's air, at which Steve scoffs.

The reactor behind Tony suddenly glows a more vibrant shade of blue than before, the frequency of its buzzing increasing. "He's coming," Clint says to the room at large.

"Just in time for a drink," Tony says, pouring out the final product into a tall-stemmed cocktail glass. "Voila," he proclaims with terribly accented French.

The others watch as the reactor flashes a violent shade of sapphire, and a thin beam of light so intense it nearly appears solid fires outwards, splashing into a thin film ten feet in front. A second after, Thor's broad-shouldered figure appears out of the writhing steam, crimson cloak around his shoulders and Mjolnir in his hand. His face seems oddly sombre.

Tony hears his heavy step, and calls, "Welcome back, Shakespeare."

A chorus of similar greetings ring out, but they all die abruptly into deadly silence. Tony, whose back is turned, looks at the others' faces and says conversationally, "What, has he come on a bad hair day?" He turns, cocktail glass in hand.

Just in time to see Loki step out from behind his brother.

"Whoa!" Tony cries, spilling the just-made cocktail over the floor. "Jarvis!" he cries, and the elegantly toned lighting turns red, indicating that defensive weapons are primed. Bruce jerks back, startled. Steve freezes, half-rising from the couch. Clint sucks in a sharp breath and darts in front of Natasha protectively. Natasha, on the other hand, whips out a handgun from the back of her belt with frightening efficiency, leveling it directly at Loki's heart, not a shred of hesitation on her face.

Loki frowns, looking from their reactions to his brother with slight confusion. Thor smiles, and says, "Now, now –"

"Oh heavens, you didn't tell them, did you?" Surprisingly, it is Loki that interrupts him. Glaring heatedly at his brother, Loki runs a hand through his hair, exasperation tingeing his tone. "You didn't tell them that I was coming. How inexpressibly intelligent of you. What else could I expect?"

"It may have slipped my mind, brother," Thor laughs good-naturedly, "no harm done."

Loki's irritation surfaces. "No harm done?! That woman," he points a elegant finger at Natasha, "would have shot me immediately if you had not stepped out of the bridge before I!"

"Excuse me," Natasha says in a sweet voice laced with venom, "That woman is about to put ten rounds in your head if you," and this is directed at Thor, "do not explain why he is here right this second." Her voice is shaking slightly, prompting Clint to move even farther in front of her. She ignores this and steps to the side so that Loki remains in the gunsight.

"Yes, sorry to break up the sibling rivalry, but I for one would very much like to know whether you are here to kill us." Tony has surreptitiously moved closer to the glass case in which his Iron Man suit lies, and his jokey manner does not reach his hard eyes.

Thor finally grasps the tension of the situation, and says more seriously, "No, he is not. My brother has come to apologise."

Thor's words hang in the air, and Loki winces inwardly at how unconvincing they sound, even to himself. Loki moves forward, but barely takes two steps before Natasha cocks the gun, an ominous click that stops him where he is.

Raising his hand carefully in a placating gesture, Loki says carefully, "You can see that I am not armed with any form of weapon. Please let me speak." He gazes unblinkingly at them, talking slowly and deliberately.

Natasha looks at him with an expression of deep scrutiny, taking in his sling and missing finger, the cuts and scrapes on his face, flicks her eyes to Thor, who nods encouragingly, and lowers her gun. But she still holds it tightly in both hands, ready to bring the barrel up at any second.

"Why the sudden change of heart?" Steve suddenly asks.

Loki takes a breath and says, "I saw, in Asgard, how much my actions caused pain to those that I love. It led me to reflect that what I did was ultimately wrong, and hurt many that you humans in turn loved. My actions came from my own worries and troubles, and I should not have taken my emotions out on Midgard. I hope that you will accept my deepest apologies." He swallows and waits for their response.

When someone finally does speak, it is Banner, in a low, controlled voice that hums with a dangerous anger, although his face is strangely blank, "Just to make this clear – are you asking us to forgive you?"

"I – I don't presume –"

"Good. Because there is no way that after what you did, killing hundreds of people and going on a rampage through our world that you can ever expect us just to let that go after you say that you're sorry. This is not a petty argument that can be settled between friends. Countless lives have been ruined because of what you have done. We cannot forget that in a matter of days." Bruce's hands are clenched in his outburst, so unlike his usual reserve. Steve, standing next to him, takes an unconscious step back. Clint smiles mirthlessly.

Loki shakes his head. "I cannot ask that of you, not so soon after what I have done. I only wish to extend my regret, and somehow one day to regain the trust of Midgard just as I am working to gain the trust of my people."

Thor steps in to support his brother. "All Loki is asking is that you give him a chance to redeem himself."

Another stretch of heavy silence.

Then Clint says, "Fine. You've said what you have come here to say, and we'll think about it. Now get out. Get off our planet. You're not welcome here."

Loki nods in acceptance that this reply is the best that will come for the time being, and turns back to the bridge. As he goes, Tony, having confirmed that Loki is not here in attempt to attack them, calls out jauntily, "Hey, did you get mugged?" Loki looks back, frowning. "Cause I would like to personally send whoever it was that did it a fruit basket," Tony finishes.

As Loki strokes the arc reactor with the tips of his fingers, causing it to once again dance into life, he calls back in an equally light voice, "Oh, regrettably, that person is dead. I would have been happy to pass on your greetings otherwise. See you later, brother." Thor acknowledges this with a small movement of his head. Tony's smile grows slightly artificial.

The reactor's light envelops Loki's cloaked form, and he is gone, borne back to Asgard on a thread of sapphire, lancing into the sky.

In the wake of his disappearance, as Natasha tucks her handgun back into her belt, Tony looks at Banner and says, "Glad you didn't lose control. Last time you confronted that lunati – " Thor's look stops him, "ahem – troubled young man, I had to replace the floor of the penthouse."

The last of the light vanishes from sight in the high dome of the heavens.

(~~~)

It is almost night again in the throne room of the citadel, the walls a flickering myriad of sunset and yellow torchlight. The cube wavers a deep blue on its pedestal in the center of the room, and a king sits on his throne, Gungnir held in one hand, lost in the depths of the azure power.

The cube throbs, and spits a glowing line of pure light, from which Loki's form appears, before the light is retracted with a sharp pop back into the source. Odin shifts and stands, walking forward to help his son up. Loki accepts the hand extended. Odin asks, "How fared it?"

"As well as can be expected, father," comes the slightly biting reply.

Odin discerns some remnant of displeasure in Loki's expression, but does not comment. He walks out to the edge of the throne room, and Loki joins him in the light of the gently appearing stars. It strikes Loki how much the scene is like that which happened days ago, on the eve of his first return, looking upon Asgard with his father beside him.

This time, it is Loki who speaks first. "Father?" he questions.

"Yes, Loki?" Odin answers, eyes resting on the distant horizon.

"The Other was but a middleman. His master will not have forgotten me so easily. There is more to come in the not so distant future."

Odin smiles. "Yes, I know, my son. Your former master will come in vengeance for his servant and his pride. But we will be ready."

Loki sighs, eyes glimmering. "It merely irks me that I am waiting for a fate that is inevitable, but not knowing when it will come upon me."

"Do not worry. When the time comes, we will face the threat together, you, your brother, and I. You are not alone. Remember this." Odin says this softly.

Loki smiles gratefully, and does not answer.

A while later, Odin says, in mirror of his words all that time ago, "I am glad you are home, my son."

"And I am glad to have returned, father." Loki looks his father in the eye as he says this.

And the stars continue in their perpetual motion on the black canvas of the sky above, Asgard in golden splendor below.

How did you all like that? It seems fitting to bring it back full circle. Thank you all again for staying with this fic. I'll be posting one or two oneshots, mainly Loki-centric, in the next couple of months. I want to thank everybody who favourited, alerted, or reviewed throughout this fic, and I wave goodbye and hope to see you all soon *grin* :)