“We should give them a moment to themselves,” said Steve, turning his back on the cell monitor so he wouldn't see the doubtless intensely personal and private conversation between Thor and his evil maniac of a brother. “If they could just talk this through like adults...”
Tony laughed, chucked the char-grilled stabilizer he'd been tinkering with into the trunk of broken suit parts by the door and slouched into the swivel chair by the monitor, rolling it back and forth with one foot. “Yeah, except Loki's main superpower is fucking your brain out of your ears with words. Magic shackles or not, I still reckon we should gag him. Asking Thor to talk to him? It's like putting a puppy in a mincer and expecting it to...”
His foot came down with a thud, the chair rolled forward to the sound of shouting from the screen. Steve tried not to listen, but it felt like a futile gesture with Tony there, glued to the feed, and there was something about the distant sound of Loki's “Don't!” raw and honest, that pulled him around despite himself.
“Oh hey!” Tony said, sharp, dismayed. “Oh hey, whoa!”
“You chose to make me your enemy,” Thor's voice, grimmer than Steve had ever heard it, heavy as his hammer, “and I have defeated you. Now I will tame you.”
Tony leaped to his feet. Steve turned to see him braced, bracketing the screen with his arms, leaning in, his face waxy with confusion and disbelief. The sound of a body hitting the wall and tearing cloth, Loki gasping in breath, hissing, a slight, panicky edge of desperation to his words.
“I am your brother! You will shame yourself and all your kin, far worse than I have ever managed... Ah! Don't! Let me go! Let me go!”
Steve couldn't connect his own thoughts – didn't really want to – and at that thought he knew he was being a coward, and he shoved at Tony's shoulder to get him to move aside. He needed to see for himself that the suspicions he'd started to have of his dear friend and comrade in arms were as utterly unfounded as he wished them to be.
The loud crack of an open palm hitting flesh, twice, and he was ashamed of himself when he thought Oh, thank God, he's just roughing him up a little.
Thor's voice, hoarse with fury. “Would you lie back and take this like a woman? Fight me!”
Laughter like sprayed acid, “Because with my magic bound and my wrist chained to the wall, I'm so likely to win. No, Thor, I'm not making this more fun for you... No! Argh... ah, no!” A strangled noise, half sob, half whimper, and then the laughter again, madder than ever, mingled with tears. “Whatever will Mother say?”
All right, this had clearly gone well past the time to stop and watch. Steve bolted for the door, and heard Tony, mumbling “Shit! Shit! Shit!” to himself, pulling a suitcase suit from the racks and tooling himself up in preparation to follow.
The cells were in the basement, the monitoring room on the top floor of Avengers' Tower, next to the office. By the time he had jumped out and slid down the lift cable, fumbled with the key cards and access codes and optical recognition devices – all so cheerily calm and unhurried he would have ripped them from the wall in frustration had he been Thor, he was pretty certain the worst had already happened. And on his watch.
Had he been Thor – there was a thought he wasn't ever going to entertain again. But what...? But how...?
He couldn't even throw open the cell door, automated as it was to prevent injury, had to shove on it and overload the hydraulics and grind it slowly wide enough to writhe through, but by that time he was charged up enough to think nothing of grabbing an enraged god by the arm and hauling for all he was worth. “Thor! Thor! Damn it, man, what the hell do you think you're doing?!”
Rhetorical question, obviously, since he had one hand on the back of his brother's head, driving Loki's face into the wall, the other pulling hard on a bared hip mottled with bruises. At the sound of Steve's distress, Thor dropped Loki to lie curled on the floor, making the kind of small gasping sounds that Steve guessed would have been tears if there had been no one around to hear.
The thunder-god covered himself up, straightened, and gave Steve his normal huge, charming smile, guileless and delighted. “My friend, you did not need to run. There will be plenty of time for you, for his wickedness requires a great deal of humbling.”
It was a good thing Tony arrived at that point, streaking down the corridor like a spectacularly tasteless comet, because Steve was not a stupid man and he knew exactly what would happen if he punched Thor in the teeth. But then Tony was landing, looking over at Loki and Steve had to look too, and yes, it was their enemy, but it was their enemy bleeding and trying to cover himself up with shaking hands. It was their enemy still making that desolate little choking noise while he wiped the blood from his broken nose on pulled-out hanks of his hair.
And on second thoughts Steve didn't care what happened next. He never had. He hauled back and punched Thor full in the face, almost breaking his hand in the process.
He got honest puzzlement as a result. “My friend? What is...?”
“Out! Get out! Tony, take him upstairs and explain to him the things that civilized people don't do. We're supposed to be the good guys, for crying out loud.”
Tony's faceplate had never looked so appropriate, fixed in its permanent scowl, but his voice was full of shades of thought, horror and confusion, yes, but wariness still. “Steve? Puppies and blenders, remember?”
“I don't care. One of us has to do the right thing here and it might as well be me.”
“I'm just saying. As for you...” Tony shepherded a bewildered Thor out of the room, “We're going to need a little talk.”
The door ground jerkily shut, hissing as the locks slid into place. “I... I...” said Steve, as Loki pulled himself into a huddle of long limbs against the wall, easing the pull on his shackled wrist. His inky hair was a veil of shadows over a face crimson with his own blood, and he was silent now, his breathing slowly evening out, his gaze fixed on the floor.
“What can I do?”
Loki took in one long breath and then looked up. Startling eyes, greener than beech leaves, clearer than icebergs, and Steve took a step back and bumped into the wall, for they were brim-full of mockery, genuinely amused.
Except how much was ever genuine, with him?
“Have you come for your turn?” he asked, lightly. “You will surely want to wash me first? Unless, of course, the thought of rolling around in Thor's leavings excites you.”
Thor's greeting, which he had dismissed as meaningless, swam into sudden appalling sense in Steve's head. He recoiled from it as another man would have recoiled from a threat.
“Do you think the Iron Man will leave the suit on? He is such a puny mortal otherwise, I might not feel it at all.”
Steve's gut roiled. The room smelled of sex and gore, and that light, laughing voice got under his skin like razor wire and peeled him raw, rubbing his exposed nerves in the horror he didn't want to think about.
“And Banner. You will have to make him angry first. I am not going to do all the work for you.”
Steve took another step away, found himself reaching for the door and understanding caught him by surprise before he could touch the release. “Fight me,” Thor had said, and Tony had said “his superpower is words.” Loki was fighting, in his own way. And, without Tony's warning, Steve was pretty sure he'd be running back up the corridor right now, convinced he couldn't deal with this villain's level of perverse.
“I'm impressed,” he said instead, “chained and powerless and abused, you still almost won that round. You nearly got me to go away.”
Loki leaned his head back against the wall and straightened his broken nose between thin fingers. He had the best poker face Steve had ever seen, but – if Steve thought of this as a fight – Loki's very expressionlessness was a tell. His first attack had failed, now he was drawing back, thinking, considering what weapon to go in with next.
Then he smiled; boyish, with overtones of smug. “I won the last one too. Thor's going to be sick with worry about our dear Mama from the moment he simmers down, until the moment I tell her everything. And who knows when that will be? I may have to make him suffer a trifle first.”
And unexpectedly, Steve didn't need translation or advice to parse this one. It set him straight back down in all the alleyways and dead-end streets of his youth, saw him skinny and pathetic and defiant, shouting “I could do this all day.” He knew – probably he was the only one on the team who could know – all the little lies you told to keep yourself strong, to snatch back some kind of self-respect out of constant, grinding humiliation.
He dropped his shield to the floor and followed it, sliding down with his back to the door and his arms around his knees in half conscious echo of Loki's posture. Because yes, there was a lot that echoed here, though he hadn't seen it before. He hadn't imagined he could ever be on the wrong side of this divide.
They're not even lies, he thought. If you don't let the bullies make you scared, they don't really win. They don't ever win unless you kowtow to what they want. I never did... I guess that he doesn't either.
Looking across the room at his enemy from here on the floor was a very different experience than looking down on him. He should have thought of it before – less intimidating – it was just that it was hard to think of anyone ever seeing him as a threat. But now he'd put his weapon down and sat, something indefinable had gone out of Loki's eyes – a cruelty, or a fear. Perhaps they were the same thing.
The Liar tilted his head. The blood from his nose, thickening and beginning to clot, oozed across his cheek and into his ear. It was all but impossible to read his face, but the muscles in his arms shook, and his skin was bruised porcelain pale. A hint of enormous weariness flavoured his voice, softening it. “You know, I think, Steve Rogers, what it is to be a boy in a man's world. One must take one's victories where one can.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, while the ground shifted beneath him and left him nowhere solid to stand. “Yeah, I've had enough of that to last me a lifetime.”
“And I have it for an eternity.”
No super-serum for Loki, no way of turning himself into Thor, and thus no way of winning that would not leave him more despised than ever. Steve backed away from the thought as it raised its hood at him and bared its poisonous fangs. Philosophizing was scary. He switched back to the practical. “But listen, do you need a doctor? I mean, are you...” he waved a hand, unable to bring himself to be specific. “Injured anywhere?”
A long, thoughtful look, and then a different smile, sincerely sweet, like an offer of truce. “The hurts are trifling, but I would wash, and replace these torn garments, if you will allow.”
“Of course. Anything else?”
“Freedom.” It was like missing a tread on the stairs, a little beat of shock before discomforting truth morphed into a joke, “this collar off? A knife? Thor's head on a platter?”
He laughed because he couldn't do anything else. “Not on the menu. I'm sorry.” But once he got onto “I'm sorry...” it was damned hard to stop. “I am sorry for what happened here. None of us could have imagined that Thor would... I mean he's...”
“In all truth,” said Loki, so gently that Steve didn't notice the contradiction between the words and the speaker, “you should not blame Thor too harshly for this. It is how the warriors of Asgard have treated their enemies since time immemorial, breaking their wills so that they may be made into tractable slaves. At times, if a captive's spirit is strong, many men must be put to him before it can be crushed. That is why I thought you had come to...” He lowered his face unwarily into his hand, and flinched back up at the touch on his broken nose. “I am glad I was wrong.”
And Steve had thought his own neighbourhood had been rough. What would it be like, growing up as a 90lb weakling in a society that thought rape was the right thing to do to the defenceless? No, he didn't want to think about that. He especially didn't want to think about what it would be like, growing up effortlessly strong in such a society, not when it made such an ugly thing out of all Thor's contentment.
He looked up at the security camera instead. “Tony? We're going to escort the prisoner to the bathroom. Can you bring down some fresh clothes, and a big gun.”
When he looked down, Loki's smile had begun to fray around the edges. He tipped his head forward, hiding behind his long hair, but not before Steve had caught a tell tale sheen of tears in those verdant eyes. The shock must finally be setting in. Steve wondered if he should ask Banner to come down too, but didn't think surrounding a trauma victim with enemies would be entirely wise.
“I thought we were having fun,” Loki murmured as if to himself. “Thor and I. Others have done this to me before – not one yet lives – but between he and I, I thought there would always be brotherhood. That there would always be love and kinship between us no matter how we might play-fight--”
“'Play fight'? With worlds?”
“We are gods. Glorious death in battle is one thing, but this? How can there be brotherhood between the mighty Thor and a man he has declared to be argr? Proved to be nithing?”
A clunk at the door, and the mouth of a pulse rifle came in, followed by Tony Stark with a set of SHIELD scrubs over his arm.
Loki changed in an instant from soft to hard. He rose to his feet with imperious grace, as though he had never shown weakness in his life. Then he gave Steve a sly, sideways look and grinned the wolfish grin they all associated with another city block going up in flames. “Still, there is yet one way in which I may save our brotherhood and restore our equality. An easy and a pleasant way that I look forward to accomplishing as soon as I have escaped this place.”
He reached out and actually patted Steve on the head, while Tony made a low growling noise behind his mask. “Fear not, Steve Rogers, for those who think they can break me only succeed in making me Loki. As for you,” the smile modulated into roguish, and Steve could feel Tony prickle up even through the solid layer of iridium armour. “You have been kind to me. Yours will be a clean death.”
Loki swept out of the room like a prince, and Steve had to laugh again, because while he wasn't entirely clear what all that had been about, whether 'a clean death' was prophecy or threat, he still had the strongest impression that what Loki had really meant was 'thank you.'
They were never quite sure what he had stolen from the bathroom that enabled him to break the lock on the collar, regain his magic and disappear, but Steve couldn't be entirely sorry for it.
“You know,” he said later, as he struggled to remember which of the many buttons on the TV remote control would switch it over from recorded material to broadcast. He still felt undermined and uncertain, and terribly terribly sad. “I don't think Loki's quite as bad as he's made out to be. We might need to have a rethink on the Norse god front. It could well be more complicated than we imagined.”
Banner, who didn't have a moment of the day when he wasn't struggling against his own inner monster, nodded from behind his book. Thor was in Coulson's custody, no doubt being relentlessly re-educated, and all the rooms of the mansion were very quiet without him.
“But what did he mean about a pleasant way to save their brotherhood? He can hardly un-rape himself, can he?”
Tony, with a shot glass of tequila in one hand and a half-built fusion bomb in the other, snorted sceptically. “With some kind of temporal spell? I wouldn't put it past him. But see, that's exactly what I mean – now you don't know who's wrong, who's right, if you're up or you're down. God of the mind-fuck, what did I tell you? Next time we keep him gagged.”
Steve knew a thing or two about being beaten up. At the end of the third day, by the time he couldn’t move his fingers, or summon the resilience to shove himself out of the puddle of his own puke, he had to give these guys a reluctant nine and a half out of ten. They dropped the half point for leaving it there, while he was still conscious, and for, curiously, leaving his face untouched.
There was something very demoralizing about a good old fashioned punch to the nose, and a working over didn’t seem entirely thorough without it.
For another five days, they fed him water, and nothing else, through a tube in the wall, while he waited with increasing despair for the Avengers to find him. Any moment now, he thought, every waking moment of that hellish week, any moment now the walls will burst and tumble like sugar cubes as Mjolnir smacks effortlessly through them. Any moment, he’d hear the whine and boom of Tony’s propulsors, Barton’s wisecracks, or the all but silent carnage wreaked by the Widow on a rampage.
But for five days nothing happened. It was so silent in the cells that he began to fear the cadre had fled, had left him here to starve alone in a six foot square white tiled box that was slowly filling up with his own stink. It was something of a relief when the need to excrete shut down altogether and he could crawl over to the tube and leave his necessary corner to mind itself.
A day after that there was an odd taste to the water, and the next thing he knew he was waking up, scrubbed clean to the point of soreness, with his jaw aching and his wide open mouth gagged with an apple. Intense, intense apple taste overloaded his senses, and it was a while before he registered the more worrying fact that his arms and legs were strapped down to some kind of gurney. A stainless steel gurney, with gutters down each side.
There were chandeliers above him, and all his senses, sharpened by deprivation, reeled at the scents of roast meat and pastry, fruit and port, perfume and sweat, the glitter of candles set deep on a long mahogany table, its red surface reflecting gold everywhere – gold plates, gold punchbowl, golden goblets brimming with red wine.
Four of the masked and faceless minions of this league of shadows lifted up the steel tray on which he lay and slid it onto the polished surface of that long table. He managed to get a look down – every villain he could think of surrounded him, watching. A glitter of eyes stirred behind masks, and he could see himself reflected there. He was dressed in a short, white Grecian tunic. Leaves nodded in the corners of his eyes, the pressure of the wreath a small irritation as it curled around his forehead.
Steve wasn’t a stupid man, but sometimes he was too innocent to put two and two together. Sometimes he didn’t want to know what evil lurked in the hearts of men. Sometimes it took Harry Osborne, with a chafing dish sizzling gently in front of him, sharpening his carving knife dramatically on a steel that dripped sparks with every stroke, to make him realize he lay on a platter, trussed up with an apple in his mouth like a suckling pig. The main course.
“Mr. Fear, what will you have? I believe the inner thigh was considered a delicacy, in Aztec times.”
He dropped an over-familiar hand on Steve’s bare leg, angling it. Light ran off the curved blade in his grip, and Steve let out an incoherent noise and thrashed against his restraints.
Laughter, every shade of mad, and some disturbingly sane.
Osborn lifted the knife, trailed it up Steve’s body, across his throat, and poised it above his right eye. “Though of course in some cultures the eyes are the cut of honour. The question in my mind is, do we want him to watch, as we carve him, or do we want him not to know where the next cut will fall?”
Down the end of the table something grey stirred in a fog of black. “Balls,” it said, in a voice like ash. “The balls go first.”
More laughter, and Steve tried very hard to be calm, rationing his breathing as they’d taught him in the army, trying to keep his pulse steady. But then Osborn was wiping the tears of mirth from his eyes and sliding his fingers up, and there was only so much that Steve could take without screaming beneath his gag and pulling and pulling at his restraints, hands numb, wrists bleeding, and his gaze locked horrified on the bitter point of the knife as it descended.
And then something altered in the air around him, and the knife stopped, hanging like a baleful star above him. Osborn’s eyes had gone wide and furious. They tracked something approaching behind Steve, but they were the only part of him that still moved. Even the candle flames hung stationary, and did not tremble or bow as Loki strolled quietly into view, propped his hip against the table and examined his green-lacquered fingernails.
“Tch,” he said, softly, reaching out to prise the carving knife from Osborn’s clenched fingers. The popping of knuckles sounded like bursting bubble-wrap in the unnatural hush. “A great feast, and no one invited Loki? Can it be that no one remembers what a very bad idea that was last time?”
Slowly, deliberately, he lowered Osborn’s hands to the table top, one on top of the other, and slowly and deliberately he pushed the knife through both of them, deep into the wood. Then he turned to look at Steve.
There was a light of laughter in his eyes, as though he found Steve’s predicament hilarious, but he had stopped the dismemberment before it started, so Steve felt inclined to let that go. “What shall we do with them, then?”
He watched Steve struggle to get his dislocated jaw to bite down, so he could free his mouth and speak. Then he reached out and wrenched the apple free – pain whiting out the corners of Steve’s vision, thundering through his starved belly and weakened limbs. With the smuggest of little smirks, Loki bit where Steve’s mouth had been, and then tucked the fruit into Steve’s bound hand.
“No, don’t tell me. We should arrest them all and take them to the authorities blah blah blah... What kind of fun is that?”
A tiny gesture of his left ring finger, and though everything else in the room maintained its strange and frozen calm, the flames of the candles leaped up, licked down the wax and sunk themselves greedily into the table, into the curtains, into the carpet and into the clothes of the men in the seats. “Care to place your bets now on who will get out and who won’t?”
He leaned down, bringing his mouth close enough almost to touch Steve’s ear. It was getting very warm already, the room filling with a fierce amber glow, but Loki’s breath was cold as silver and moonlight on his face. “I have the utmost faith in you, of course.”
And he disappeared, leaving Steve bound, starved and tenderized, in the middle of a burning table in the middle of a burning room, surrounded by angry villains.
“Loki!” Steve yelled, gulping in a lungful of smoke, while expected betrayal and surprising disappointment warred with the terror in his throat. “Loki, please! I can’t...”
The smoke smothered him and everything went dark.
>A clean death, Steve thought, swimming up from unconsciousness to find he was no longer in pain. Smoke still surrounded him, billowing in grey coils just beyond his face, but he could no longer feel its searing choke in his lungs, and he felt clear, as though he had just woken up from a long, refreshing sleep. So that’s what he meant.
There was plenty of time to be grateful as he waited for the expected tunnel and bright light. A quick and painless death by smoke inhalation was indeed far preferable to what the other villains had planned for him. He breathed out a long sigh of relief. It was nice to think that everything was over now, all the struggles and the strangeness of this new world overcome, and only peace ahead.
But the moments stretched on, and the smoke remained, curling and twisting above him. His stomach rumbled, and a spot beneath his right shoulderblade twitched, where there had once been a numb patch from one too many bullets being dug free. No celestial light came, and after a while he reached out – his arms unbound now – and touched the smoke. It was a solid thing, like clouded glass, though the shades and tendrils of it swirled around his fingers, and when he pushed it opened like a coffin lid and let him sit up, blinking, in the everyday light of a large, bare room.
He still staggered as he climbed out, weak from starvation, but all his lacerations and broken bones were healed, and even the bruises sponged away.
Light poured from a skylight into the centre of the room and made the casket from which he had climbed shine like opal, catching in the sinuous carvings of its sides. Steve stood in the sunshine as if it were a shower – he was altogether bare, the humiliating tunic and wreath nowhere to be seen - and gathered his wits. He recognized Asgardian technology when he saw it, and as no Thor had rushed into the room to envelop him in the crushing hug that, these days, made him cringe, the obvious conclusion was (as Stark would put it) obvious.
The door to the room was open, and by it stood a very mundane padded chair with a set of SHIELD scrubs neatly folded on top of it. Steve picked them up and stood for a moment with them in his hands. Washed and smoothed as they were, they were still clearly the same ones he had given to Loki on that day, and did that make them some kind of message? A reminder of what had happened to the villain in Steve’s custody, on Steve’s watch? A warning, or a rebuke?
He laughed at himself and put them on. Whatever they meant, they were clothes, and alone in a super-villain’s lair as he was it was better to be clothed than not.
Barefoot, he came cautiously out into a short corridor of stone, into which a wintery light shone from an open door at the end. He padded up it, noticing the silence. The temperature was just a little chill and the air fairly seemed to ring with silence like a crystal and light like liquid gold.
That impression only strengthened when he came out into the huge room at the end of the passage. Here, a table, a few scattered chairs and piles and piles of books and scrolls utterly failed to fill the emptiness created by a wall of windows, through which Steve could see swells of pine forest and distant mountains, aflame with snow.
Loki stood there quite alone, looking out at a circling eagle. His back was to Steve, so there was a moment when Steve could look at him without being looked at in return.
The god seemed a piece with the solitude and the serenity, watching and thinking. He was much taller than Steve remembered – a great deal taller than Steve himself – and he was broader too across the shoulders, less fragile than Steve’s mental picture of him. Some of the disparity came from his elegance; one didn’t expect so big a man to be so neatly, so carefully put together. Some came from his litheness – all angles, sinew and sharp bones. But most of it, Steve realized, came simply because he wasn’t standing next to Thor and suffering from the comparison.
Steve was struck again by a twist of painful fellow-feeling. He’d loved Bucky, honest he had, and he’d give anything to have him back. But sometimes, before the serum, dragged out by Bucky as a double date to some disappointed woman, he’d felt like that one fat girl brought out by the cheerleaders to point up their own beauty. He knew what it felt like to be judged against someone else’s charms and found lacking, asked along because he was someone’s friend, not because he was himself. I guess both of us had something to prove. I guess too that both of us have proved it by now.
Steve coughed politely to show he was there. Loki turned and smiled. He had a trick of moving that did not disturb the silence, only the chain-mail in his armour swinging with a quiet rustling, like a snake through dry grass. The expression gave Steve pause too. Except for that day, he’d never seen Loki without a sneer, and he still wasn’t sure whether, on that day, Loki had just been playing him for sympathy.
But this was an oddly simple smile, the cool light filling up those clear green eyes, making them look guileless, even kind. “Captain,” he made a gesture of invitation towards the table, where a place had been set, and a shallow bowl steamed beside a small cup and a single stem of grapes. “You should eat. Little at first, but more later when you become accustomed to it.”
“I could eat a horse,” Steve said, sitting down and finding porridge, five mouthfuls and gone.
Loki’s smile tipped up at the edges into amusement. “Believe me, I have some experience of this. Gorging after will burst your stomach and kill you, and I would not have that happen after I went to such trouble to save your life.”
Companionably, he sat at the opposite end of the table and poured himself wine from a silver jug. His presence was as soothing and as mellow as the light in which the room bathed, and Steve thought, with a feeling of revelation, that maybe this – this gentle, thoughtful young man, quiet and wise - was the brother Thor so loved. The Avengers had put Thor’s continued affection for his evil brother down to his big heart; a nature that could love the unlovable. But now it seemed odd that it hadn’t occurred to them that perhaps there was, or once had been, something in Loki that was worthy of love.
“About that,” he said, putting the third grape down after a pang of cramp. “Why did you save me? We’re not exactly friends.”
“Nor are we exactly enemies, you and I.” Loki propped his feet on the table and rocked on the back legs of his chair, to the distress of a succession of schoolmistresses in Steve’s head. “Despite what you may have been told, I am not an evil man, and I would not see a fine thing destroyed without reason.”
“You’ve got reason. I’ve foiled plenty of your plans.”
A breath of laughter as Loki buried his answer in his cup, and Steve was driven to carry on, to have all his crimes taken into consideration.
“I didn’t get there in time. That day. I didn’t get there in time to stop Thor.”
Loki put the cup down, tilted his head like a raven regarding a daring worm. “No one could have stopped him,” he said. “But that situation has been resolved. Have you not noticed the difference?”
A dark suspicion made Steve put down his half-cup of coffee with a shiver. Yes, there had been a difference in Thor, since he came back from his sessions of forced re-education at SHIELD headquarters. He’d been just that little bit less sure of himself, just that little bit softer. But they’d put it down to the acquisition of a guilty conscience, the realization that he had made a truly appalling mistake. Now Loki’s veiled threat came back to him. It had taken him a fortnight to figure out that by “rectifying this inequality and saving our brotherhood” Loki had meant he would pay back rape with rape. But even when Steve had worked it out he’d thought it was empty defiance. As if anyone could do that to Thor.
“What did you do? You didn’t...?”
Loki grinned like a scythe. “Oh please, force is Thor’s thing. Persuasion is mine. I did something much worse. I made him beg for it before I gave it to him.”
Alright, scratch that bit about gentle.
Steve locked his hands around his cup and looked at the ripples on his coffee for council. “I hope you don’t mind me saying this,” he said at last, “but it seems to me that your relationship with your brother is not exactly healthy for either of you.”
This time Loki’s laughter sounded as if it was forced out under pressure – as if he would burst if he tried to hold it in. Not a happy sound. “And that pales beside my ‘relationship’ with my ‘father’. Why do you think I threw myself into outer space to get away from them both? It is not my doing that they won’t ever leave me alone to heal, but must keep coming back and having another go.”
Twisting the stem of grapes between his fingers, Steve checked out the exits. One the way he’d come, one opposite that opened onto a flight of steps. It was habit by now, but he didn’t feel he would need to run. He felt paradoxically safe, cozy even, with his strength returning and the knots in his stomach uncoiling and turning back into hunger.
He thought of pointing out the contradiction between what Loki had just said and his claim, that day, that he had thought there would always be love between himself and Thor. But really, you only had to listen to Stark on one of his alcoholic rambles on the subject of his dad to know that it was precisely because love was an inescapable chain that family could hurt you worst of all. So maybe neither part was a lie.
“Well,” he said instead, reaching for the bowl of fruit that was the centerpiece of the table, taking a plum. No more apples, not for a long time. “Maybe some of that is to do with the super-villain thing. They feel like they need to stop you, since they’re pretty much the only ones who can. You should try being a hero for a bit. See if that helps.”
“When I was a very young child,” Loki said, his eyes once more on the mountains, but his gaze a thousand years ago or more, “my father said to me ‘a wise king does not seek out war.’ Thor brought war to our doorstep. I thought to please my father by finding a way to destroy our enemies that did not involve war, or the slaughter of our own people.”
He frowned, the look of bemusement making his face briefly resemble his brother’s. “And that somehow made me a monster. I have still not quite grasped why. I do not think I understand the difference between heroism and villainy. I seem to achieve my greatest acts of evil by trying hard to do good.”
“I reckon saving me comes down on the hero side.”
That head-tilt again, birdlike and curious. “Because you are a good man, and saving you increases the amount of goodness in the world?”
“Not really. Saving anyone – anyone at all – qualifies as heroic in my book. And that brings me back to my question. Why get me out of there, when you’ve nothing to gain and plenty of goodwill to lose from your allies?”
“It troubles you, this ‘why’?”
“Yes. Yes, frankly it does. I wish I knew what you wanted from me. I’d give it, if I could. I mean, if it wasn’t against my principles. I’d like to do something to say thank you, if I could.”
“Perhaps I intend to use you for one of my cruel schemes?”
Steve laughed, though it was likely enough. “Don’t give me a perhaps,” he said. “Give me the truth.”
“The truth?” Loki arched a winged black brow at him, amused.
“A truth, then, if the whole of it is too complicated.”
“Oh, good answer. Very well then. This truth is that when you burst in, that day, I expected violence, or pity, contempt, or fear. But you gave me none of those things. You gave me understanding, and that I had never encountered before. I liked it. I would have more, if you have it to offer.”
“You want to be friends?” Steve asked, incredulous and disturbed, not sure if he’d followed Loki’s meaning, but also worryingly flattered if he had.
“You could put it that way.”
Definitely flattered. Being Captain America had brought a set of problems he would never have imagined when he was just praying for the strength to make the bullying stop. It hadn’t occurred to him, then, that he might have followers, fans, sycophants and yet find it hard to gain honest friends. So many people were lured by the glamour, who didn’t really want to know the man. “We’re kind of on opposite sides.”
“Would that matter?”
Of course it would matter, Steve thought at first. There would be the issue of trying to kill each other, for a start. Though he supposed that if Loki could decide not to take attempted murder personally, it wasn’t beyond him to reciprocate. This little talk had been strange but not unpleasant, and there was still the possibility that once Loki had been allowed to work through some of his problems, he could be persuaded into a more productive use of his talents as a trickster; such as stealing tech from the gods to distribute among mankind, cheating demons out of their victims, shaking up the stagnant, breaking down society’s restrictive boxes, encouraging the weirdoes, and giving marvelous gifts.
Maybe Loki was right, at that – he might not be cut out to be a white knight. But he could be Loki in a way that was a hell of a lot better for the world, if someone would just show him how. Why shouldn’t that someone be Steve? Steve had never been the kind of guy to back down from a challenge or a responsibility, not even one as superhuman as this.
“I guess it wouldn’t have to, if I didn’t let it,” he agreed. “Alright then, big guy, it’s a deal. Let’s shake on it.”
Later, when Steve was back in the Avengers’ mansion, being mercilessly grilled by Coulson on how he had managed to be in twelve different cities at once, caught on film robbing a different bank in each one, he recalled that another thing trickster gods were known for was a slightly dubious sense of humor.
SHIELD rounded up the Steve-clones quickly enough. Afflicted by identical guilty consciences, they’d turned themselves in within hours of his return. But it gave him a qualm for a day or two, until he put it down to ‘waste not, want not,’ on Loki’s part and reluctantly had to laugh. (A) because the truth that Loki really had wanted him for one of his cruel schemes didn’t necessarily mean that the offer of friendship wasn’t also true. And (b) because, frankly, what did he expect?
Buddy, you’re really not hero material at all, are you? I should have guessed.
Steve knew that, when he could come down in the morning to find another thousand people had “friended” him on Facebook overnight, friendship didn’t have quite the same weight as it had done in his day. He thought that was a shame, because friendship should be a sacred responsibility even in the happiest of cases, and maybe even more so when it involved a god.
Not having the faintest idea of what Loki might want from a friend, he tried reading up on Viking culture and myths – and that was an eye-opener almost on the same level as the disaster that had set this all off. On a whim, he “Googled” ‘doesn’t know the difference between good and evil’ and, among the bunch of theological articles that came up, one struck him to the heart by equating it with the state of primal innocence that existed before the fall.
The thought of Loki as innocent – primally innocent, as innocent as a newborn child that doesn’t know it’s driving its mother insane with its neediness – made him set his notebook down with a shudder and turn to Tony in the hopes that he would say something less upsetting. ‘Innocent?’ It really wasn’t the first word that came to mind. “Tony? What do you call someone who doesn’t know how to tell good from evil?”
Tony took a sip from his morning bourbon, and twisted his fingers to make the tiny green picture above his desk do something technical. “A psychopath,” he said. “We talking about anyone in particular here? ‘Cause I can think of about three off the top of my head. And that was only last week.”
Well, Steve thought, with a resigned twist of amusement, a psychopathic innocent. It seemed appropriate. “I... I’m not sure yet,” he said, getting up and switching the computer off. He couldn’t get used to the feeling that it was trying to drown him in trivia. There had to be better ways of finding things out. “I don’t want to pin that on anyone before I’m sure.”
The ice in the tumbler rattled against the sides as Tony flung himself to his feet, pointed accusingly at Steve’s face. “You’re talking about Loki, aren’t you? You’ve been weird since he was here. That’s why you’ve been reading all that Norse shit and chatting to Thor like you’re buddies again. He got to you, somehow, didn’t he? That time you disappeared, was it then? Or was it earlier?”
“Alright,” Steve bridled at being semi-accused like that, particularly by Stark, whose own bad choices were near legendary, “Simmer down. Yes, I’m reading up about Loki. After he saved my life he suggested we could be friends—“
“Fuck that shit! Are you—“ Tony choked on his own incredulity.
Steve narrowed his eyes and ploughed on, as calmly as he could. “So I’m just looking into what might be involved in that.”
“I can tell you right off what’d be involved,” Tony set his hands on his hips and bristled. “Him getting under your skin, figuring out how to use you, then screwing you over and killing you. Probably taking us with you.”
“I honestly don’t—“
Yanking on his already disheveled hair, Tony gave a bark of not-quite-laughter. “I can’t believe you’re making me have to be the sensible one here! Have you lost your tiny little—“
And Steve pulled his jacket from the back of his chair and went out, too deeply sad to worry much about the rudeness of leaving mid-sentence, though he did take care not to slam the door. It wasn’t even that Tony was wrong – heck, it would be so much easier if he could be sure of that. It was just the memory of tears in green eyes, and that calm, quiet voice, of Loki telling him “you mustn’t be too harsh on Thor,” of hospitality and obligation and all the things they had in common except for their luck in friends. He thought about all those things and he wanted there to be a hope for Loki almost as painfully as if it was his own soul on the line.
All of which could be part of the villain’s plan, of course. Because ‘psychopath’ made so much sense. Loki had all of the slippery charm, deceit and callousness needed for the part, and while Steve didn’t think he was the kind of guy to get suckered in by mere charm, Loki was an extraterrestrial being of godlike power – there wasn’t anything ‘mere’ about him.
As he’d missed breakfast back at Avengers tower, Steve got a stack of pancakes and a coffee at the diner, then made his way to the library, where Miss Sweetman met him with her usual smile and a lowered voice. “Well, hello Captain Rogers. What can we do for you today? Are you in for a book or for a chat?”
She twisted a pearl hairpin more firmly into her sparse white bun. Retired now but still unofficially running the place, she’d greeted him with a girl’s squeal the first time, and a “Captain America! Oh my lord! I saw you on stage, during the war, and you’re every bit as handsome now as I remember.”
He’d come back most every day since, to reminisce, and to feel for a while that there was someone else in the world with whom he shared all those things you take for granted until they’re gone. She’d lost her sweetheart to the Nazis too, and never thought of finding another. It had been a great comfort to hear her talk about her memories of Bernard, and speak softly in return of Peggy, and how much he missed her. How much he still grieved for all the years they might have had together, all that love lost.
She’d understood as no one else could, and so if anyone would understand his duty now, it would be her.
“Have you got anything about psychopaths?” He took off his hat, belatedly, and tucked it under his arm. “How to redeem them, that is.”
She raised her eyebrows and pushed her thick glasses up her nose. “Well, I don’t know that they can be. Not the ones who don’t care about anyone at all except for themselves. They just... have a piece missing, you know, and only God could put that back.”
“This guy,” Steve breathed through dark water, “he cares about his family – his dad and his brother, at least. He cares about them too much, if you know what I mean? The whole family is a bit... difficult, and this guy keeps trying to walk away, but he always ends up going back, even if it’s just to fight.”
“Ah.” Miss Sweetman walked unhurriedly to the shelves and picked out a book without checking the catalogue. He gathered that over the years she had pretty much read every one of them and memorized most. “Then you may be in luck. It’s not to say that he’s not a psychopath, this young man, but he sounds like the second sort, if he is. They don’t have a piece missing, they just learn not to use it, often because of childhood abuse or neglect. Then, if you’re very careful, and lucky, and become one of the few people they trust, you can influence them a little. In theory, at least.”
The relief was immense. Steve beamed and took the book. “That is exactly what I wanted to know. Thank you, Miss Sweetman. Who needs the internet when there are folks like you?”
She ducked her head modestly, so that the praise didn’t hit her full on, and smiled in return. But as he was turning to go, she put a hand on his arm and stopped him. “Still, son, you’re no therapist. You concentrate on arresting him, let the professionals deal with the rest.”
Oh, good God! When he imagined how much ‘fun’ Loki could have with an unsuspecting psychiatrist, it was probably a good thing that he couldn’t see it ever happening – couldn’t see the god ever being held in captivity long enough. Not by any method that left his mind intact enough to reflect or repent.
(“That is an ingenious idea,” Thor had said, when a disgusted Steve described the mythological method the gods had come up with to keep Loki contained. “For severe enough pain would surely stop him thinking, and thus prevent him from scheming up an escape. And the bonds of kinship are unbreakable, even for him.”
Ever since then, Steve had been worried that he might have given the real Asgardians ideas.)
“It’s not going to happen,” he said now. “I’m pretty certain it’s me or no-one.”
“Then do be careful, dear. I see that you have to, but these sorts of things so often end in tragedy. And I would miss you, you know, if anything did go wrong.”
He took the book back to HQ and sat in the sunny kitchen to read it. Tony was sulking in the basement, and the others were gods knew where, so he had the house to himself, with Jarvis playing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy through hidden speakers, and the air conditioning just cool enough to make the great flood of warmth through the windows pleasant to sit in.
It wasn’t pleasant reading, though. His head was aching and his heart right back in the pits when a shift of light punctured his concentration. Someone sucked a hiss of breath through clenched teeth.
“Tony,” he said, folding down the corner of his page, laying the book carefully on the table, “I’m not interested in having this conversation—“
And a hand grabbed him by the throat, pulled him up, out of his seat, sending it crashing into the door. The music cut off instantly, Jarvis sounding the alarm, as Steve brought both hands up to try and break the grip, kicked out at black and green leather. Loki twisted out the way of his kicks as he dragged Steve across the room and shoved him up hard against the hob, where the eye-level grill turned on by itself and made a stripe of blue hot fire, far far too close to Steve’s cheek for his liking. His eyebrow singed, the whole side of his face tightened and stung. The roar of the flames was all he could hear in that ear.
With the hand not currently throttling Steve, Loki summoned the book to him, dropped it into the fire. As it turned to ash, Loki leaned in until his face was all but touching Steve’s.
“Oh how sweet,” he hissed, all teeth and bones and burning eyes. “You’re trying to understand me.”
Steve gathered his wits. If he hung on to Loki’s arm he could keep most of his weight off his throat – enough at least to breathe. His instinct was to fight the madman off with every bit of strength in him, but he noticed that although he was very definitely being threatened he was not actually being harmed. That instinct to hit Loki as hard as he possibly could... well, that was Thor’s instinct too, and he was already starting to wonder how much that was part of the problem.
So he held on and breathed to clear the black spots from his eyes, and even though Loki was physically shaking with fury, and the expression in his eyes was as close to literal insanity as Steve had ever seen it, his grip didn’t tighten. He’s waiting, Steve thought, waiting for me to give him an explanation – or an excuse to kill.
“I thought that was what you asked,” he grated out, trying to relax a little – trying to show trust and innocent puzzlement. “What you wanted? I was trying to do what you--”
“And you think I am an example of anything? Part of a group? You think I fit in any of your pathetic human boxes? I am not a psychopath, nor a saint. I am not a man, or a woman. I am not a god or a giant. I am not sane, and I am not insane. I am Loki.”
The hand tightened, choking off Steve’s reply. He pulled Steve back, then rammed him into the wall again, a little closer to the fire. The hair along Steve’s jaw sizzled and his eyeball baked, he had to clamp his left eye shut to protect it, and he could smell his eyelashes smoking.
“I know what you thought,” Loki’s wide eyes held no emotion Steve could recognize but his voice trembled with betrayal. “You thought ‘I will find out how he works and I will turn him to good.’”
A snarl like daggers, and he punctuated every word by slamming Steve into the concrete, denting it. “I. Will not. Be. Ruled.”
The alarm was blaring, and Steve was going to have to lash out. Sooner or later he was going to have to, and there were running feet on the stairs, that started off with the thud of leather and morphed as they came into the clang of metal. The cough and whine of Iron Man’s propulsors sounded just outside the door, and God damn it they were going to have that battle he’d been trying to avoid, and that would break what he’d been trying to build here, break it beyond repair. God damn it, Stark, no, I don’t want...
Still breathing like he’d been speared through the stomach, like it was only adrenaline keeping him up, Loki gave a tiny chilling laugh and let go.
And Steve fell, into the floor and through it, the atoms bursting apart to let him pass, turning into a choking brown fog after, as he sped through some sort of airless tunnel, the hand on his throat gone, but still nothing to breathe. Nothing to breathe!
This time when he returned to consciousness it was slowly, piecemeal. His head felt thick and his neck bruised. His whole body ached, and he couldn’t- for one awful, vertiginous moment, he couldn’t remember who he was, couldn’t remember his name.
When it trickled back and he tried to sit up, he found that his arms, which had been snugly wrapped around his torso as if to protect it, were actually tied there. His movement made automatic lights flick on, showed him the straight jacket into which he was buckled, the stained padded cell in which he lay. An observation window let him look out at the curious and pitying expressions of the two white coated men who stood in the corridor watching him, pens pressed to their notebooks.
“Be careful with this one,” the older gentleman was saying. “He can be violent. He’s quite delusional – believes himself to be Captain America.”
“An American comic-book character from World War Two.”
Their accents were European, and Steve’s assessment of his situation plummeted from ‘please just turn on the news, you’ll see me on there every night’ to did we even tell anyone other than the Brits about the super-soldier project? And if we didn’t, am I allowed to tell them now?
Aw, hell. How could he prove he was sane and a superhero, frozen in time since the forties, who’d once had a comic book written about him? That sounded like a hell of a thing to have to prove, when he didn’t even know where he was, and his explanation for how he’d got there was ‘I annoyed a unstable god, and he magicked me here to teach me a lesson.’
“Loki!” he yelled at the ceiling, “Loki, OK, I get the point. I can’t prove I’m sane any more than you can. I get it. I’m sorry! Just get me out of here, OK?”
But all that happened was that the older psychiatrist gave the younger one an ‘I told you so’ look, as they strolled out of sight towards the next room along, and Steve was left alone with his head muzzy with drugs, and his thumbs trussed to his toes, to contemplate the ironies of friendship and betrayal for as long as it took.
After two weeks of such scrupulous good behaviour that his dosage of tranquillizers was dropped, Steve escaped and made it barefoot and fugitive to the American Embassy. Fury came to pick him up in person, and sat, elbows on knees, staring at him in silence half the way back. Not until they crossed into American airspace did he finally sigh and say, “Would you like to tell me what the hell’s been going on?”
It must be at least partially a rhetorical question, Steve knew, still so relieved to be treated like a rational being again that he didn’t mind the steely look of disappointment in Fury’s one eye.
“I’m sure Tony’s told you everything he knows,” he said, trying to clarify exactly what he was being asked. “And you’ll have seen the CCTV footage from the kitchen. So I’ll give you the condensed version: Loki asked me to be his friend. But I’m aware of the possibility that he’s just trying to use me, and it seems that he’s afraid I’m just trying to use him, so it’s difficult. There are bound to be setbacks.”
Fury gave a snort of disbelief and gripped his smartphone as though it were standing in for someone’s throat. “And what, exactly, made you think it was a good idea to be ‘friends’ with one of Earth’s worst villains?”
This, he’d had plenty of time to think about over the last fortnight, enough to have rehearsed the entire conversation in his head, all the pros and cons, all the reasons why it was stupid and self-destructive and dangerous. So he could draw his heels in (how nice to be wearing boots again) look up and hand Fury the shining, simple, heart of the thing in one sentence. “Because he needs one, sir.”
Fury was a phlegmatic man – didn’t need to raise his voice, in general, nor to master more than two expressions, mild disappointment and wry amusement. In this case, Steve was relieved to get the latter.
“If I ordered you, as your commanding officer, to let this go. Would you do it?”
It was odd. He didn’t think of himself as a loose cannon – as a maverick like Tony, but ever since Peggy had shown him you didn’t have to wait for orders to do what you knew to be right, he hadn’t exactly been a poster boy for obedience himself. He hoped he did it with a little less needless self-aggrandizement, mind you.
“No, sir. I gave him my promise. I don’t like to break my word.”
“Well,” Fury slipped the phone into its case and folded his hands, as if he was shutting a foolscap file – a man with such easy competence he had no need for melodrama. “I chose all of you because you are extraordinary people, and I would be a hell of a stupid commander if I tried to micromanage that. But you’ve got to know, Rogers: One, you do this under my protest. Two – he lets anything slip about his plans and you bring it straight to me. I don’t want any ‘friends don’t tattle tale on friends’ schoolgirl crap.”
Steve laughed, because it was better that than being insulted, and Fury raised a quelling eyebrow at him, and pulled a strange, bulky gun from his pocket, screwing on to it a hollow needle a millimeter across.
“Three, you don’t get off this plane until I’ve tagged you with this biomonitoring tracer. I’ve had enough of you falling off the map. If these disappearing acts are going to go on, I want to know in future where you are, whether you’re alive or dead, so I can decide whether I need to intervene.”
“Yes sir. I can do that.” Steve pushed up his cuff and held out his wrist, gratefully. They hadn’t hurt him, in the asylum. He’d been fed and watered and kept safe, but it had still been one of the most frightening things he’d gone through in his life. Helpless at the mercy of people who didn’t believe a word he said. Helpless to get them to stop trying to tame him, to manage him for his own good. He knew what he was being shown, and he was even grateful for the insight – or he would be once the sheer horror of the experience wore off – but if there was a chance of never having to go through something like that again, he’d take it without hesitation. “Thank you.”
A debriefing and a medical exam later, he allowed himself a week of normal life to settle back into his own skin. Then he started to give thought to how he could apologize to Loki for treating an offer of friendship like it was an open invitation for attempts at brainwashing. How did you say “sorry” to a professional liar, anyway, if you expected him to believe it?
It was the myths that gave him the idea in the end. He looked through them to see if they could give him any clue as to how Loki himself would go about apologizing, and when he found it it made the little bit of resentment he’d been secretly nurturing since the kitchen incident wither up and blow away like dust.
Turned out, Loki said “sorry” by bringing people presents. Marvelous presents, five times better than anything for which he’d been asked. Presents which he’d risked his life to obtain. And it turned out that the people to whom he’d given those presents had let him be brutalized after, and laughed as they watched.
It was probably just as well that Thor was out, fighting an energy monster that had crawled mistakenly through one of Dr. Strange’s portals, or Steve might have found himself in the position of saying something regrettable about a team-mate’s family. As it was, he went and beat the hell out of the punching bag in the gym, and when he felt better consulted with Clint on the subject of custom made edged weapons. Because if there was anything that said “I trust you,” better than giving a man a way to kill you, he didn’t know what it was.
A Captain’s salary didn’t stretch to much, but he had seventy years of savings, and Clint had friends willing to offer mates’ rates for one-off, hand crafted artistry. Steve considered designs, the possibilities of etching and decoration, and then – conscious that anything too personal was likely to be a minefield of potential insults – rejected them. In the end, he commissioned a pair of throwing knives, elegant in their simplicity, with their hilts wrapped in dark green leather and their balance (attested by Clint) exquisite.
When he set them on the kitchen table in their honey-coloured beechwood box, with a note on the top saying “To Loki. I’m sorry. Steve,” Thor, who had chosen an inconvenient moment to return, gave him an unusually complicated look, sad and skeptical, and a little hurt.
“Does he watch us then? Does he come and go from here and... and not speak to me even to taunt?”
Steve wanted to say “Are you surprised? After what you did?” but he already had one capricious, damaged, dangerous extraterrestrial to manage. He was not going to put himself in the position of being unofficial councilor to them both. Thor had plenty of other friends to spill his guts to, Loki didn’t.
“I don’t know any other way of contacting him,” he said. “This is the best I can do.”
“You do not know what I was going to say.” Thor gave him a reproachful look, like a golden retriever puppy which has just had its face rubbed in its own mess, and Steve reminded himself not to be unfair, because Thor was no more responsible for the blindnesses of his own culture than his brother was.
“You were going to suggest that I let you go looking for him so that you could hand it to him on my behalf, weren’t you?”
The look shaded into sulky and confused. “I was. Is that so ill a suggestion? Is it so strange to think that I also might wish to apologize?”
Steve sighed. “It’s not strange, and I’m glad you want to put things right, but Thor, hunting him down when he doesn’t want to be found is not going to help. Besides, this is my present and my business. Not yours.”
Thor reached out and rubbed a calloused thumb along the glossy edge of the box. “For hundreds of years,” he said softly, “I thought him my wisest councilor, my closest friend. He will betray you too. It gives me no joy to tell you this, just as I am sure it is not his intent to play the traitor. He simply cannot help himself. It is his nature to be monstrous.”
“Yeah,” Steve decided that a long, calming walk was in order. Maybe a run. “I’ve had the warning. Thank you. Now get off my case and leave me to deal with this in my own way.”
It was such a dismissal he was shocked with himself. He watched the outrage and the threat of violence tear through Thor’s honest blue eyes like lightning bolts, and thought I take liberties with him I wouldn’t dare with his brother, because he’s the good guy. I mustn’t forget that he’s the good guy out of the two.
But it was still a relief when Thor unclenched his meaty fists and said “As you say on Midgard ‘it will be on your own head.’ But I fear for you, my friend. Already there is some of his poison in your heart. The longer this goes on, the more that darkness will grow. I mean only to protect you, as I can, from what I have seen before.”
“Tell you what,” Steve forced himself to smile, though the combined disapproval of all his colleagues weighed heavy and sickening in his throat. “I appreciate the warning, and I’ve taken it on board, but this is something I’ve got to do, so I’d also appreciate it if everyone stopped with the nay-saying and let me get on with it.”
It was, as these things often are, a case of “famous last words.” Sometime that night the box disappeared. The following day, a top priority call from the White House scrambled the Avengers to Times Square, where all the massive billboards had begun to display top secret reports streamed straight from the President’s office. The world’s journalists were already swarming like flies to a dunghill over all the piles of dirty linen hung out on show.
Loki was there, of course, standing on the sky as though gravity was another one of those rules he obeyed only when it suited him. He seemed mostly indifferent to the photographers, but at the sight of the Avengers his eyes gleamed, and he gave that big, wide, Cheshire cat grin of his.
“Are you come to stop me from telling the truth?” he laughed. “Oh, the irony!”
And then Thor came streaking in from the left, Iron Man from the right, and for one instant Loki was looking only at Steve, smiling with something like glee. Steve thought it was a good-humoured smile, until he caught the movement of Loki’s hand, the streak of silver, and the thunk of impact, the wail of pain through his blood, and looking down found one of his gift-knives embedded in his thigh.
It disappeared, and so did Loki, leaving Thor and Iron Man to swerve hard to avoid crashing into each other. Photo-flashes went off, and Steve, holding the wound together with his fingers, could just imagine the front pages of the papers tomorrow – the three of them looking surprised and foolish, with the Pentagon’s secrets on display in the background, having done nothing more than turn up and show themselves to be lackeys of a government that had dozens of dirty secrets it didn’t dare tell to its people.
A moment later, Coulson found and pulled the plug, and all the screens went blank.
Steve sat through the subsequent debriefing with his head down. He’d only needed three deep and three shallow stitches, so the wound wasn’t a big deal. The bad part was that everyone from Fury down took the incident as an excuse to say ‘I told you so,’ and for the first time he wasn’t completely sure himself that they weren’t right. He didn’t know how long he could carry on doing this – carry on being hurt and not retaliating, being hurt and trying to think the best. He was dismayed to fail, dismayed to think that maybe they were right, and that Loki was beyond the reach of friendship, redemption or forgiveness.
Maybe he should give up? Treat the guy like a rabid dog, like it would be a kindness to put him out of his misery and painlessly put him down. Maybe Loki genuinely was a god of evil, and Steve should let Somebody bigger than himself worry about whether he deserved second chances or not.
By the time the debriefing was over, he felt pretty thoroughly crushed. He drifted back to the Avengers’ common room, and hunted down the back of the sofas for the specific remote control needed for the DVD player. Why couldn’t these things just have knobs on them instead of needing a separate hand held device that Tony kept taking apart and leaving in bits under random pieces of furniture?
Sitting down in front of Dambusters, he rubbed the cut in his leg as it itched furiously. It was already beginning to heal. By tomorrow he’d hardly feel it, and that fact gave him something to hold on to at least, because he’d seen Loki use his knives before to carry a charge of magic that exploded on impact, and there was generally nothing but spatter on the sidewalk left of anyone on the receiving end of those.
Halfway through the film, Thor threw open the door – slamming it into the network of cracks in the wall left from the many times he’d done it before – and strode in, alight with outrage and more expansive than ever. He seemed to take up the whole room, pacing back and forth beside the window. “I am so sorry, my friend. Truthfully I wish... I had wished that you might be able to bring him back to us. It was brave of you to make the effort. But this canker that gnaws at him, that none of us saw until too late, it is... inoperable. I am only glad that you have escaped so relatively unscathed, and may put this behind you as an unfruitful deed, though a noble one.”
And maybe Steve had something in common with Iron Man after all, because he hated being brow-beaten, and it was no more than cussedness that made him shift back more deeply into the over-soft cushions and say, “Well, I don’t know, Thor. Was this a betrayal? He could have killed me and he didn’t.”
“He injured you for no cause! And with your own gift! It was spiteful. To laugh at all your attempts at kindness and pay them back so meanly? It was unforgiveable.”
Steve laced his fingers over the cut and let the warmth of his hands soothe it. Something about Thor’s vehemence made him feel better, as though Thor was voicing one half of the debate in his head, leaving him free to concentrate on the other. He liked himself better that way. “I wouldn’t go that far. He didn’t hurt me much, and he didn’t hurt anyone else at all – except in the pride, and we can always do to have that trimmed. Maybe I’m missing the point here. After all, he’s a liar, he’s the liesmith, so he knows he can’t just tell us things. He knows we won’t believe him.”
You know what, Steve thought, the idea emerging in coil after coil like a corkscrew – its very twistiness making it seem terribly plausible – there might be something in this after all. He’d started off defending Loki out of sheer bloodymindedness (as Peggy would’ve put it.) Now he was actually convincing himself. “So he’s got to find some other way to show me that he got my present, and that he likes the knives enough to use them. And he’s got to know I’d prefer it if he used them on me rather than on one of you, or worse, on some innocent bystander.”
“Whuh...?” said Thor, with a look as though the floor had turned to quicksand under him. He staggered, had to prop himself up by the other end of the sofa, leaning heavily on the scuffed white leather as if the strength had gone from his knees.
“I think,” Steve finished, too caught up in his revelation to wonder about Thor’s strange behaviour, “that maybe it was a particularly Loki way of saying ‘thank you.’”
Thor lowered himself gently to the sofa, and as he did so the shadows flowed strangely over him, dimming him, thinning him. When he had been standing, he’d been the golden son of Asgard. By the time he was seated he was the dark prince, spindly as a spider and white about the face from shock. “You...” he said, and bit his lip, while his brow creased and his chin compressed, like a scolded boy trying to hold in tears.
Steve’s heart stopped while his brain tried to catch up with what he’d just seen. Then both started up again together, double-time. Nausea, confusion and disbelief burst through him and dissipated, just as they had when the dummy grenade failed to go off, leaving him nothing to feel but gratitude to still be alive. As he did then, Steve raised his head, braced himself and said “Was that a test?”
He faced a Loki he’d never seen before, speechless and vulnerable, one who made it clear by contrast that the tearful confidences exchanged on that day had been smoothly calculated and insincere. This one would only look at him sideways, the gaze fleeting past his face before it fell back to the floor. The god breathed out in a quiet laugh, or a sob. “It was.”
Loki fell silent, tried again, “I didn’t...” Then, swallowing as though his own words hurt him, he confessed, “I have not thought beyond this point. I was so sure...”
“You were so sure I’d denounce you.”
“Yes. Why not? Everyone else has.”
After all this time and pain, finally a breakthrough to something real! Steve could have cried himself. Could have gone over and hugged the guy if he hadn’t been so armored in spiky plate, lamella and chain mail, and so tightly held in. Steve had seen soldiers with that set to their shoulders – as though they’d fall apart if they moved, and shatter if they got a kind word. It wasn’t kind to push them past the edges of their control, to make them weep and humiliate them in the process, so he held back on the comfort and said “Yeah, well, I’ve lost my world too, and I’m not quite human any more. Freaks like us ought to stick together. If we don’t look after each other, who will?”
Footsteps sounded outside the door. Loki leaned forward, closed his long fingers around Steve’s wrist and the next moment they were in the shadow of trees, with Central Park’s Gapstow bridge a few steps away, and dragonflies dancing over the Pond.
Dappled sunshine dazzled Steve with green stars, and he laughed. “Oh yeah, about that. I should tell you I’ve got a tracer on me now, so SHIELD will know where you’ve magicked me off to. I should also tell you...”
His eyes adjusted, but his mind took a beat to catch up, for Loki in a charcoal grey suit - without the horns, with his long hair tied neatly back and his green shirt open to expose his throat - looked so human, so harmless, it felt ridiculous to go on.
He did so anyway, “I should also say that I had to promise to pass on any plans for world domination you might let slip. So, um, don’t tell me anything you want kept secret, alright?”
Loki shook his head, as if the words were a wasp he was trying to scare off. The look in his eyes, when Steve could catch it, was still something near devastation – the look of someone who is totally lost, casting around for a familiar response and failing to find one. “You have to know I will use this. The chance to feed whatever information I choose to my enemies? Of course I will use it. So why... why would you tell me?”
Steve laughed again, in an attempt to keep up the pretense of lightheartedness. He strongly suspected that neither of them were at ease, talking about their feelings like this, and a vulnerable Loki might be the most dangerous kind yet. “It didn’t seem fair not to let you know,” he said and shrugged. “’Friends don’t tattle-tale on friends.’”
Laughing seemed to have been the right thing to do. Loki drifted to one of the benches that lined the tree-cool avenue and sat there, still looking wrong-footed and puzzled and young, but now with an overtone of unused wheels slowly beginning to turn. He looked at the strollers and tourists as if they were thick glass and he was trying to see through them to something beyond. “You... remind me of someone,” he said at last. “Someone I have forgotten. Someone from another lifetime, another age, many, many Ragnaroks ago.”
Steve’s turn to feel that the conversation had gotten away from him. “I’m sorry? I thought Ragnarok was the end of the world.”
“It is. The world ends, and then it all begins again, everything slightly different, everything always the same. I am destined, it seems, to destroy the universe again and again and never to get it quite right.”
The destroyer of worlds – a slight young man with his elbows on his knees and a voice like pouring honey – looked up at Steve with sudden amusement. “I cannot tell you how much this offends me.”
Flashback to Steve reading psychology texts as though his problem was as small as mere psychopathy. Well, heck, no wonder that had been so very insulting to a god who was entropy in person – and didn’t want to be.
“I see how it would,” he said. “Even I hate being told what to do, and for you that must be unbearable.” What a cruel trick to trap the god of chaos into doing the same thing over and over and over again, predictable and inescapable for eternity. “But... are you meant to know about this? I mean, if it all starts up new, aren’t you new every time too? You say you remember things from other iterations, do the others remember as well? Could that be why they, well, why they shun you?”
“Oh no,” Loki laughed, sharp and confident now he was back on familiar ground. “That’s entirely down to my delightful personality.”
His sly look dared Steve to contradict him, but Steve just smiled at a passing dog and let him carry on. “Because the others do not remember. Nor did I, before the breaking of the Bifrost, when I flung myself into the wormhole, looking for escape.
“There I fell through many of my old lives. I remember snatches of them, snatches of my own – sometimes I can’t tell which is which. At times I wake up screaming over something that happened a dozen cycles of the universe ago to a different me, and there is blood in my mouth from how real it still feels.” A wry smile. “I don’t believe it helped with what Stark would undoubtedly call my ‘mental health issues.’ The pain was not pleasant either.”
These were not good thoughts for a sunny afternoon in Central Park, when Steve would have appreciated an ice-cream and the chance to lounge on the grass and feel proud and protective of all the peaceful lives going on around him. But it had puzzled Steve from the start why Loki had shrugged off the rape as if it had been business as usual. The fact was, it probably had been – he probably already was about as broken as it was possible for him to get.
If so, he was doing well for it, sitting quietly with his face turned up to the sun, soaking in the heat, with his hair blue-black as a magpie’s wing and a quirk of humour turning up the side of his thin mouth. There was even something playful about the way he opened one eye, saw Steve looking, and broke out into a grin. “So. That tracer. Does not Fury need to be taught exactly what comes of tagging Captain America as though he were a stray dog?”
“I didn’t mind, honest.”
“I would have done,” Loki’s tone flexed into sulkiness. “He does not own you. Nor are you at his beck and call. Come with me to Alfheim, and let us make that point.”
“Alfheim?” Steve’s train of thought squealed as he slammed on the brakes, because he’d sort of got used to the idea that he was talking to a Norse god, but that knowledge hadn’t ripple out to the realization this meant elves were real, giants and dwarves as well, and all that Tolkien stuff. Dear God, he’d be a long way away from SHIELD’s help there. “Are you serious? I could...”
But on the other hand, the chance to see another world wasn’t lightly to be turned down. And elves... “Am I allowed?”
Loki drew himself up and for a moment, despite his casual business clothes he was as regal as though he wore a crown. “You forget to whom you speak. It has been a long time since I concerned myself about what was allowed.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to create some kind of inter-realm diplomatic incident by going where I’m not wanted.”
Loki got up, wandered over to the bridge and stood, arms on the parapet, looking over into the still reflective water. Steve propped himself next to him and studied the sky.
“Mortal men have always been allowed to enter Alfheim,” Loki said finally, “if they can find the way. Nor am I forbidden from travelling there, though I do not know in what light they will have taken my fall.”
Steve turned a little, to prop his hip against the stone and look down, see the sharp lines of the god’s face limned with quicksilver light. “It’s just a jaunt?” he asked, “Like a holiday?”
“No.” Loki touched his upper lip, where a pattern of faint silver dots marred the skin. “It is because of my new situation that I need to go. Now I cannot claim the welcome accorded to a prince of Asgard, I must create more personal ties to the other realms.”
Folding his hands, he touched them to his chin, then lowered and spread them as though offering Steve the situation whole. “Some centuries ago, an elvish thief crept into Asgard and stole the circlet from Frey’s head while he slept. This brought terrible shame to the king of Alfheim, but try as he might he could not find the thing to return it. I however am aware of where it is. My plan is to steal it back and to give it to Frey’s family in Vanaheim. The honour of the elves will be restored, and my standing in Alfheim will be assured thereby. Meanwhile, the Vanir are kindly disposed to anyone who does a good deed for one of their kin, so I would also have gained myself a refuge there.”
He sneered a well-worn, habitual sneer, “Midgard is all very well, I suppose. But I once had nine realms to play in, and I grow bored in just the one.”
A convoy of roller-skaters sped past to the tinny beat of their ipods. Steve leaned more firmly back against the bridge and rubbed his forehead. At times like this it was all too easy to imagine he was really lying in a hospital bed somewhere, this entire Avengers thing just the product of head injuries and too much morphine. But if he took it seriously, he thought Fury would be pleased that Loki was turning his attention away from Earth, back to places more familiar from the myths.
As though Loki had read his mind, he gave a quick, open smile, and said “It will be a quest, as I went on of old. Would you not like to be in one of the old tales?”
Wasn’t that a thought! A skinny little nobody from Brooklyn in a real life legend. Sometimes he wished the bullies could see where he was now - walking with gods and heroes. The rest of the time he reminded himself about pride and falls, and chided himself for hubris. “Why would you need me though?”
“I like to take someone to hit things for me,” said Loki, and his eager, charming little grin slid away as he lowered his face into shadow. His voice darkened with it. “And I don’t... I can’t... I find myself curiously unwilling to ask Thor.”
Ah, Steve turned around too, leaning his elbows on the rough stone. It was easier to talk and think about this if he was not facing the passers-by. But OK, so maybe he’d been a bit hasty to think Loki had shrugged that incident off with no ill effects. Maybe he just hadn’t been trusted enough, before, to be allowed to see the damage. “Well, yes,” he said. “That makes sense.”
Every so often, Steve would forget that Loki was different. Then he’d end up with his foot caught in his own assumptions, tripping himself up. This was one of those moments, because Loki’s expression of sheer bewilderment made him feel like he was falling downstairs. How could the man not understand something so basic? How could his own perfectly normal response be such a mystery to him?
“The other men who did this to me,” Loki frowned at the still water below him, as if trying to work it all out, “I killed, in such creative ways as made it clear to them that they had no mastery over me. They pleaded, I denied them, and once they were dead I was troubled no more.”
Leaves rustled overhead, and on the path behind a baby in a stroller fretted with a thin cry. Loki’s soft voice was rough as a cat’s tongue with satisfaction, and Steve covered his eyes again and pressed his fingertips into the sockets.
“I thought, once things were equalized between us, once his mouth was shut and his pride humbled, that I would walk away from this too, but it hasn’t been so. I love him still, but I want him to suffer. I want to take a sharp knife and peel the skin from him, and separate each fibre of muscle from the bones. I want to crack open his ribs and take out his lungs and spread them on either side like wings. I want to hurt him until he weeps and begs me to stop, and then I will laugh and do it some more.”
“There’s a ‘but’ in there,” Steve said, a little faintly, trying to hear hurt and not pleasure in the hypnotically pleasant tone.
“But what if only death is enough? I don’t want to kill my brother. I tried, once, and it was nowhere near as satisfying as I thought it would be.”
Steve checked his instinctive recoil. If he was honest with himself, he’d had some fantasies in his day of picking up a half brick and beating the leader of the local bullies in the head until he was pulp. The only difference was that he had his conscience to tell him it was bad to dwell on it and definitely wrong to put it into action. And this was one of the reasons why Loki needed a friend. Without a conscience of his own, who else was going to get him to stop?
“You could try forgiving him?”
Loki gave a hollow laugh, the enjoyment in his voice souring into disapproval. “You sound like a follower of the White Christ. We do not believe in forgiveness in Asgard. We believe in repayment.”
Yeah, thought Steve, and isn’t that a big part of your problem. But he was about as expert a theologian as he was a psychiatrist, so he let it go and went for distraction instead. “So, you’re asking me to Alfheim as a sort of Thor substitute?”
It seemed to work. The weird combination of haunted and gloating vanished from behind the god’s ice-clear eyes, to be replaced with a much happier blend of cynical amusement and boyish enthusiasm. “I’m asking you as a friend. It will be, as your people say, ‘a bonding experience’.”
Steve entirely blamed Tony Stark for the little voice inside his head that said ‘oh shit’ at the thought.
As soon as their feet hit the ground, Loki handed Steve his shield and the submachine gun that had been hung up beside it in the Avengers’ vaults. The implications of this would have troubled Steve more if there hadn’t been a fist the size of a helicopter swinging at his head. He ducked it, rolled away, and flung his shield at the wrist, where it struck with the bell-like bong and crunch of refined metal dinning into stone. As it rebounded, Steve leapt up, caught it, and got the strap of the gun wrapped around his arm, the safety off.
The creature he had hit lumbered towards him. Behind it, Loki had turned at bay and now faced a score of dwarf-like creatures, five feet tall, but as wide again with muscle, each one with curving tusks and a red scarf tied around their gnarled and hairless heads.
They had come through on the brow of a hill, with what looked like a long burial mound in the centre of it, and sagging walls atop sunken earthworks. A quick glance showed a shadow flowing up towards them from the forest below, though there was no visible sun to cast it.
It was all Steve had time to grasp before the giant spiky rock monster whose wrist he’d bruised was coming in for another hit. He let rip with a burst of bullets and, as it leaned down to crush him, ducked and ran fast between its legs. Chips flew, but the impact of the bullets didn’t even knock it back.
He took the few seconds, while it looked around in bemusement for him, to see how Loki was doing, and the answer was about as well as he was. Even as he watched, Loki hit one of the red caps with a burst of magic which splashed off as harmlessly as water. The god’s mouth was tight as he pulled the daggers Steve had given him from the scabbards strapped to his arms, and prepared to battle the motley assortment of pikes, spears and swords with nothing but two long knives.
Not waiting for the giant to move, Steve let fly another volley of shots, setting his back against Loki’s. “How are you on stone?”
A bright delighted grin. “Better. Shall we?” And they turned as one. After that, it went easier, Steve switched back to the shield, sweeping it through the squat little goblins like a scythe. It knocked them off their feet, but didn’t seem to hurt them any, even when smashed rim first into their foreheads. The bullets, however, went through them like a fork in a microwave – he only had to graze them and they’d collapse, twitch and go limp. Get a bullet actually in them and they’d explode.
They kept coming. Kept coming until there were none left to come, and he could wipe his face of the bloodless, dusty residue, breathe out and look behind him to find his giant lashed to the ground with new-grown briars that were just budding into a white cloud of roses.
Whatever the shadow had been, it was now sliding back down the hill, merging itself with the shade beneath the distant trees, skulking away with its tail between its legs.
“Scavengers,” Loki sheathed his knives. “Wanderers slip accidentally through the cracks here. When they emerge they are disorientated, easy prey. There are always scavengers around the gates of the worlds. The trick is to surprise them more than they surprise you.”
“Thanks for the early warning.” Something had changed just through that little moment of danger shared. Steve wouldn’t have sassed Thor’s brother or the Avengers’ enemy. It was something he’d only do to a comrade in arms, and it came so naturally now it delighted him.
Loki laughed. “Why spoil your fun?”
He made a gesture as though he was sweeping a heavy cloak around his shoulders, and there it was, suddenly, a long garment of shaggy white fur that he buckled across his chest with a gilded strap. “But still, time to go, I think, before more arrive. It is a two day walk to where the thing is hidden, and we do not want to be out in the open when night falls.”
Steve’s first good look at Elfland turned out to be a disappointing vista of dark grey forest sweeping in long hummocks towards a dreary sea. The sky was leaden with cloud, smudgy streaks across the horizon told of rain, the air against his cheek was cold and wet, and he was still dressed for a hot day in Manhattan.
Still, he was warm enough from the adrenaline of the fight, and a good walk would keep him so, and when he breathed in deep there was something about the air, even laced with water, something wild and strange, fresh, green and savory that made his heart knock against his ribs and smeared the grey view with wonder. He looked a second time and saw curling mist, distant stone circles with their heads leaning together, something silver and serpentine floating on wide wings between sky and sea.
Another world. Oh, good Lord, it really was another world! Every time he thought he couldn’t get further away from home, life proved him wrong. But this time it was purely marvelous. He gazed one last time, his cheeks aching from smiling, and then shrugged shield and gun onto his back and said, cheerfully, “Sure. Lead on.”
As they came down onto the plain, the mist thickened and swirled. Steve found himself walking through a quiet shrouded world at Loki’s heels, and with beads of moisture greying his black hair and glinting on all the points of his fur cloak, Loki had half slid into the cloud himself, as fragile and evanescent as everything in this scarce-glimpsed world.
Things went past them, every so often, dark shapes and gleaming ones. Steve heard distant horns and hounds baying, but saw nothing more than glimpses of far off light. Swallowing his pride he grabbed the trailing edge of Loki’s white cloak like a toddler holding on to its mother’s skirt, concentrated on where he was putting his feet and stumbled on. It took him three hours of this before it occurred to him there was no pain at all from the wound in his leg. When he reached down and pressed on the dressing, there was no sign it covered anything other than healthy flesh.
“This is healed?”
“I would hardly have asked you to walk two days if it were not.”
“Can you see where you’re going?”
“No need,” said Loki, with a smile in his voice, “Do you feel there’s an incline downwards? When we reach the bottom of the hill, the mist will part, and you will see, afar off, the citadel of the king of the elves.” He fell quiet and there was a long eerie moment when they seemed to be the only two people in existence – the rest of the universe a darkening white haze. The sound of water, dripping from rock and stones shifting overlaid the distant roar of an angry sea.
“Oh, cheer up,” Loki said suddenly, raising his head and apparently addressing the landscape. “There’s no need to sulk. Just think of the impression you’re giving this poor human. Do you want him to go home and tell everyone that Alfheim is as pretty as drizzle? If he wanted to spend a day face down in a bowlful of milk, he could have done that at home.”
As if for an answer, it started to rain.
They pressed on, and half an hour later the mist did indeed draw aside, leaving them on the sea-shore, where a sunset like cracked amber was making the cliffs and the distant slab of castle shine red-gold. The sun was half way beneath the fiery sea and darkness was creeping up behind them like the muzzle of a wolf. Light drained away with every footstep.
They looked among the cliffs for shelter and found a scrape of a cave, so shallow that when the rain followed them, it dripped down the collar of whoever was sitting outermost. There was no driftwood and no means of making a fire, and Steve – who had been getting steadily colder and colder this last hour – was shivering and chilled to the bone the moment he sat down.
“Hm,” Loki tried turning a rock inside the entrance molten, to give heat and light, but the distance it needed to be not to burn their feet off meant that it was out in the rain, and quenched with a great steam and sizzle, flying splinters cracking off it as it cooled. “This was supposed to involve more fun and less dying of exposure. Here, budge up.”
He squeezed himself into the dry corner of the cave next to Steve, unbuckling the white fur cloak and draping half of it around Steve’s shoulders, half around his own. If they squashed together, it almost met in the front. Though it too was soaked through, clingy and heavy, it was blissfully warm, soothing the aches of Steve’s chilled shoulders, frozen kidneys and wrought up miserable spirit.
“I suppose I should have let you go back and get supplies,” Loki conjured a green ribbon of light, like the northern lights, to hang over their heads, and failed to sound convincingly remorseful. “But then you’d have had to explain things, and Fury’s reaction when you suddenly disappeared despite his little tag wouldn’t be half so amusing.”
He tilted his head, frowning, and made a gesture as though he was rummaging in an invisible bag. “What have I got in here? Weapon of mass destruction. Unknown artifact of incredible power. Knives. More knives. Spear. Ah, and...” With a smug look, he handed Steve a packet of chocolate chip cookies, thieving the top one the moment Steve got it open.
By this time, lapped in warmth and with a mouthful of sweetness, Steve was feeling restored enough to switch his internal status from “wilderness survival red alert” to “uncomfortable social situation warning.” He couldn’t help but notice that he was now pressed against the god of mischief from shoulder to ankle, and there was still a gap in the cloak through which the rain-heavy air blew cold.
The night set in and the temperature continued to drop. They finished the biscuits in silence, and then Loki rubbed his face with his hands and lay down, pulling the cloak over himself, leaving Steve to decide if his modesty was worth dying for. He decided that it wasn’t, wound his way back under the cloak and lay down, spooning with the other man, getting a long arm tucked around his chest and the warm ruffle of a laugh pressed to his hair.
Steve’s T-shirt was wet, and so was Loki’s shirt, and the press of the god’s chest to his back felt acutely intimate, warm and clingy as skin. “This is, um, kind of awkward,” he joked, very far from sleep.
“Is it?” Honest confusion again, and then there was the most peculiar sensation against Steve’s shoulders and the cloak deflated a little, fitting more comfortably about them both. He turned over and found himself face to ample chest with a stunning, black haired woman with Loki’s unnaturally green eyes. “Is this better?”
Yes, said a part of him, vehemently. And yes, agreed his practical side, noticing how much more fur there was for everyone with Loki smaller. The rest of him, however, gaped soundlessly for what seemed like an inappropriately long time, noticing that Loki’s face – he was definitely looking at the face, alright – was still recognizable as his own, just more finely drawn, more delicate; high cheekboned, pointed, sly as ever, and breathtakingly beautiful.
“Um... no,” he managed at last in something more like a squeak than he would have preferred. “No, that’s actually worse.”
Was she (he?) messing with him? Given that this was Loki, the answer was probably yes, but he resisted the temptation to put out his own arm to squash her close, and said, “Well, I kind of made a vow that I wouldn’t sleep with a woman unless I was married to her, so—“
Her bemusement lasted just long enough to convince him it was genuine, and then she pressed her manicured fingers to her mouth and giggled. “I wasn’t offering you sex! Was that what you thought? Oh Captain, how shocking! Your filthy mind!” And he found himself humiliated enough to turn over in a huff and let her finish laughing at the back of his head.
It was a man’s voice that answered him next, accompanying the return of the long, steel and sinew hug. “Forgive me. After what happened the last time I married a mortal man, I too made a vow. I swore I would only have sex with those I would as soon watch die. You are quite safe with me at present, I assure you.”
“That sounds like a hell of a story.” Relenting, Steve turned over again. “You were married to a guy?” Like a ‘pathetic mortal’ guy? “On earth?”
“Yes,” Loki’s gaze lifted over his shoulder to follow the coiling of the light on the cave roof. His smile was sweet and regretful, and Steve thought that having once seen the beauty in that face, it was hard to un-see it, even when coarsened with masculinity.
“This was back in the time when you worshipped us. I was young and reckless and had come to Midgard alone just to show that I could. Getting lost in a blizzard was not part of the plan. I remember staggering out into a snowfield where the sheep were almost as frozen as I, and he was there, a young farmer with copper-red hair and eyes the colour of kindness. I thought he’d be more inclined to help me if I was a girl, so I changed myself and came limping out of the storm in just a kirtle, with my hair unbound, and I fell in the snow in front of his feet.”
He laughed, fondly. “Things went fairly predictably after that. His name was Ingjaldr, and I adored him with all the abject defenselessness of first love. I was with him for eight years. It still seems too short a time.”
“What did you do?” Steve asked, trying to fit this domestic little romance with everything else he knew about the god. There must have been some kind of twist, an unexpected punchline, something ironic and a little cruel.
But Loki just looked at him sidewise, still with the smile that had nothing dark in it at all. “I did whatever a wife does – I spun wool and weaved it, I grew vegetables and cooked them. I milked the goats, made cheese, tended the fire, laughed at his jokes. I bore him children and raised them.”
“Geez,” said Steve. Not that he was narrow-minded, he hoped, but ... well. Then he realized the response had not been entirely tactful, and said “you’ve got kids?” in what he hoped was an encouraging and nonjudgmental tone.
“No.” It was like putting his foot in a man-trap, the unexpected iron edge to Loki’s voice now. “I had kids. Two girls and a boy. When the youngest was barely toddling, my father found out.”
Steve thought back to what Thor considered a perfectly reasonable way of treating an enemy warrior and knew enough to feel dread.
“You see,” Loki explained in flat, sharp syllables, “In Asgard it doesn’t matter who you fuck, but if you allow yourself to be fucked you are contemptible, abominable, worthless. Some leeway is allowed to women because they can’t help it – they are placed in their lowly position by their born shape and nature. But a man who would choose to be a woman? Wyrd’s weft! The very idea makes the foundations of society quake. Shame to him and all his family and – if he were a prince of Asgard – shame to his king and his whole realm.
“So, my father decided it would be best for everyone if this incident were made as though it never happened. He came with a servant to bring me home, and kept me in the house while the servant murdered my husband and my children. The little one with her thumb in her mouth, still holding on tight to her doll’s hair while she was slaughtered.”
It was Loki now who turned over, pressing his face into the wall. He didn’t sob, but his whole body was rigid and trembled faintly like a larva trying to prevent the stirring horror within from bursting out.
“Do you know the worst thing?” he said, his level voice still velvet soft. “The worst thing is that once I had stopped weeping, I convinced myself I was grateful to him – grateful for having my appalling secret hidden, for being given a second chance to prove myself a proper man, a good son. I didn’t know, you see, whether I had done right or wrong. To me it had seemed good, but how could I trust my judgment when all about me told me it was not?”
There was a deadweight of darkness in Steve’s stomach and at the back of his throat, but he threw it off and moved, awkwardness be damned, to throw both arms around the injured young man and hug him tight. Loki didn’t respond, but he didn’t move away either, so that was OK.
“You know what? Peggy would have decked the first man who told her there was something wrong with being a woman. Hell, when I think about Peggy – I’d deck the first man who said there was anything wrong with being a woman. She was the best, the bravest, the cleverest, the most valiant person I ever knew. No one could do better than to want to be like her. So I don’t see shame at all in what you did. I don’t see it at all.”
And maybe he was protesting too much because of his earlier moment of squeamishness, but everything that had made his reaction seem normal, he was ashamed of now.
With a painful gasp, Loki breathed in, forced his shoulders to relax, though the muscles still shook in Steve’s embrace. “I do not think so myself any more. These days I know better who to blame. But I still feel guilty – if I had told Ingjaldr who I was, he would not have loved me, and he would not have been killed. I took away from him what might have been two score years of his fleeting life and gave him nothing worth having in return.”
Oh, and there again Steve felt an echo of his own pain. “That’s just nonsense,” he said. “I can tell you right now that if I’d been given the opportunity to have eight years with Peggy, knowing I’d die for it at the end, I’d have jumped at the chance. There was so much I wanted to tell her, so much we could have done together, and I worry...”
The god was listening – his body no longer felt as though it were made of glass and would shatter at an incautious touch, and so Steve went on, telling him what he had told no one else in the world. “There’s a lady at the library who lost her love in the war, and she never found another. That was what you did, back then, if you wanted to be real faithful. It was romantic, heroic even. And I worry, what if Peggy did something like that? I wanted her to be happy, but if she spent a lifetime mourning for some lost legend...”
He pulled himself a little closer, and rested his cheek between Loki’s shoulderblades – it was surprisingly pleasant. “So yeah, eight years? He was blessed.”
A quiet, meditative silence fell, the lights on the ceiling dimming. Outside, the rain had passed and stars shone down, turning the entrance of the cave into a sheet of watered silk. Steve had just begun to drowse, pulling the god to him like a pillow, when Loki – as amused as if he had never experienced tragedy or loss – said “If you keep doing that, I shall have to reconsider my vow.”
Steve rolled away as if scalded, and Loki laughed, wormed his way out of the cloak and got up. “Here, I have an idea to preserve our modesty.”
He gave a shake. In the dimness of the unlit cave it was hard to see exactly what happened, but the next moment he was an enormous grey wolf which nudged Steve away from the wall and then curled up around him with his muzzle on his paws. Steve was altogether surrounded in dry, breathing, radiant warmth. If he’d been asked about this at home he might have imagined it too could be awkward as hell, but really it wasn’t, and he surrendered without caveat to the comfort.
A blast of cold woke him during the night, and he leaned up to see the wolf standing over him, hackles raised and muzzle wrinkled over long white teeth, growling at something outside. A darkness passed by the entrance with a slithering sound, a darkness studded all over with glistening eyes. When it had gone, the wolf came back, licked his face and lay down again, and Steve fell back to sleep with thoughts too big for him to put into words.
“Sssh.” Loki’s whisper sounded, if that was possible, quieter than the surrounding silence. Steve stopped where he was and watched with faint unease as Loki made a series of gestures above the man in the bed.
‘Man’ was a misnomer. The creature lying amid its pile of silk and furs was clearly an elf, tall, slight, beautiful as a razor’s edge, pale as moonlight and swathed in hip-long hair. He was also fast asleep and unaware that he was sharing his private chambers with a magic-using trickster god and an invisible Captain America.
“The circlet is hidden in the King’s chamber,” Loki had said, as they walked unseen through a city and a palace of bewildering marvels. “Under the hearthstone of his fire. It would look awful for him if the nine realms knew he’d had it in his room all this time, and he’d feel simply dreadful. So it’s best if I get it out without him knowing. You can come along and make sure nothing goes wrong.”
And OK, it wasn’t as though Steve had any choice but to believe this, but it didn’t make him feel better about sneaking around a king’s bedroom at night, or the way Loki put his hands down and stood a long time looking down and smiling faintly at a creature who couldn’t look back.
“I think one should do this with all folk of power,” the god said, less quietly now that his spell was woven and there was no chance of waking the sleeper. “And then leave a token to tell them you were there. It reminds them not to get cocky.” Then he took a deep breath and looked Steve in the eye. “Right then, lets try and get this stone up.”
Clearing the ashes and clinker from the hearth revealed that there was indeed a fingernail-thick crack around all four sides of the paving-slab sized stone, but there wasn’t a ring or a gap to get fingers into. When Loki sent a tiny tendril of green light towards it, there was a snap, a blaze like miniature lightning, and the hanging chains in the fireplace rattled so angrily that even under the spell the sleeper muttered and rolled anxiously over.
“Oh, there are some excellent wards on this,” Loki knelt, resting back on his heels and contemplating the stone like one craftsman admiring the work of another. “No shifting it by magic then. And if you can’t lift it up by your fingernails, I don’t suppose I can.”
Loki had the uncanny ability to look straight at Steve, which Steve found particularly impressive since he personally couldn’t tell where his own arms and legs were. “Step back a bit, would you?” said the god cheerfully, “I don’t want you standing on me by accident,” and a blur of shadow later he was gone. Even though he’d been watching the transformation it took Steve three long beats to realize that the ant now squeezing itself into the crack between stones was the Norse god of mischief and lies.
Steve shook his head to clear it. What had happened to his life? Was this some kind of consequence of messing with that Tesseract thing? All he’d wanted was to help win the war, settle down with a nice girl after, and paint for a living. Not that he was complaining, of course, how could you complain about something like this? But being Loki’s friend certainly upped the weirdness quota of his existence, and for a costumed Avenger, that was saying something.
There was a thunder of feet outside the doorway, and Steve tensed, expecting to have to fight off an influx of guards, but they ran on past intent on some other quest while the ant of mischief climbed slowly back out again, carrying what looked like a grain of salt in its mandibles.
The thing still had the colour of salt when Loki changed back. He straightened his long coat and brushed disheveled locks of black hair back from his forehead with one hand, while the other held tight to a milky, translucent, crystal crown. The god’s muffled smile creased both cheeks and made his eyes gleam. “Good! And now to get out of here.”
Steve expected the wrist clasp and the disorientating twist of interdimensional teleportation, but Loki just tucked the circlet into a pocket, opened the door and walked out. He passed the shell-shocked guards with a mocking salute, turned the corner as they exchanged the elvish equivalent of ‘what the hell do we do now’ glances, and had gone through a larger, carved and gilded, door before they had time to react. Steve had to jog to keep up.
As the great golden door swung open he breathed in in awe. This room disappeared to a blue horizon, as though it was a world. The beamed ceiling was so high that clouds drifted beneath it. Under the latticework of the bronze floor a dozen little streams ran, and in the silence that fell after Loki’s dramatic entrance, theirs were the only voices that could be heard.
Yet the room was full of people – if the elves, monsters and other bizarre entities present could be called people – and once they had gawped their fill, they all began talking at once.
In the centre of the room rose a dais like a small mountain, green with grass. Atop it there grew a blackthorn tree – Steve recognized the little white flowers that nodded amongst the long sable thorns – the branches of which had been shaped like a throne. Naturally, since the king was sleeping an ensorcelled sleep, it was empty.
Smiling brightly, pausing to single out the occasional dumbstruck guest with a wave, Loki strolled up to the throne and sat in it. When the uproar broke out, and the guards finally shook off whatever paralysis had bound them, dashing up the steps towards him, he took the circlet out of his pocket and put it on.
The guards skidded to a halt, breathing heavily. A second silence, more stunned than the first, fell over the hall like the blow of a hammer. What the hell? Steve thought. Then a flame-like elf-woman close to the dais closed her golden eyes in resignation, took a deep breath and cried “Long live the king!” And everyone in the room, except for Steve, knelt with their heads bowed and their fists clenched over their hearts.
Loki grinned like a shark, and didn’t stop even when Steve sprinted to his side and shook him by the elbow in a reckless combination of disbelief and disgust.
“What the hell?”
“I may have lied to you a little,” Loki looked far too pleased with himself for this to be an apology. “You see, the interesting thing about the circlet of Frey is that it carries the rulership of Alfheim. Whoever wears it automatically becomes king.”
He examined his fingernails with the air of someone trying hard not to laugh. “I was born to be a king, and since you do not seem happy for me to take Midgard, I thought this would be an acceptable alternative.”
Oh God! Steve felt as though he’d fallen through ice into an Arctic lake – breathless with pain, sickness and panic. Betrayal, deeper and colder than all of that. Oh God! I let him take over a world. I helped him take over a world. He used me. What kind of a friend... “I don’t...” he said, while grief and fury fought it out inside him with his heart as their battleground. “I don’t...”
The god’s eyes were kindly, and his look of triumph modulated into something warm as he smiled at Steve. “My friend. Now I am in a position to repay you for your kindness.” He leaned forward, speaking man to man, both of those long hands held out as if full of gifts. “Tell me what you would like. A country? An army of knights on dragonback? Immortality? Anything you want, if I can give it to you, I will. I swear it.”
Steve sank down on the first step of the dais and hugged his knees, grateful for still being invisible, that there weren’t any paparrazi around to snap photos of Captain America, usurper of worlds.
Giving him time to think, Loki motioned graciously for everyone else to get up. There seemed to be very little dismay in the chamber except for Steve’s. The courtiers huddled in knots, speaking fast and low, but the buzz of their voices was lighter than anger. Here and there were even pockets of laughter.
Their lack of outrage took away support for his own. He found himself remembering all those times he’d been sure, sure Loki was trusting him with things he wouldn’t tell another soul – the anguished gratitude on his face when Steve had believed in him more than anyone else thought wise.
And here Steve was again, expecting Loki to behave the way Steve thought a friend ought to behave, instead of like himself. That hadn’t worked so far, why should it start now? With Loki, he already knew you had to twist your expectations around a different corner. Suppose, then, he took a gamble on the hope this friendship was not a long con at all, but a real thing. Loki had put Steve to the test. Now it was time for Steve to do the same.
“Anything I ask for?”
“As I said.”
Hell, if he’d ever been afraid of his friend before, it was nothing to what he was feeling now, but he dug his nails into the palms of his hands, rested the left for comfort on the rim of his shield, and said “Then I want you to give the kingdom back to the elves, right now.”
Loki’s eyes widened, and his unshuttered expression slid from shock to fondness to something like respect. “Oh, Steve Rogers, you are terribly earnest and no fun at all.” He stood up, and at the same time colour flowed back over Steve’s limbs. He could see himself again, and – by the interested, predatory looks of the elves, they could see him too.
“Such a good scheme! A whole world conquered, not a drop of blood shed. I was sure you’d approve. Just think of the peace it would bring to Midgard were I to be occupied playing with Alfheim instead. Are you sure?”
And Steve wasn’t dead yet. How about that for a miracle? “Yes, Loki, I’m sure. This isn’t right. Give them their world back now, please.”
The golden woman made a sharp gesture, as if to grab Steve’s arm and throw him down. Loki stopped her with a raised hand and addressed the room, gathering the moment with practiced grace. “Well, my subjects. I believe it is known through every realm that Loki always keeps his promises. Mine has been a short reign, but a happy one. And so... Catch!”
He took the crown from his head and threw it up to the beams of the hall, where it turned twice, flashing like diamond, and then tumbled, spinning, back towards the dais. Long before it could fall into arms’ reach, a white clad elf at the edge of the hall unfurled indigo wings and, flying up, snatched it from the air. The room grumbled with one voice, but when he landed on the dais and set it reverently on the fiery woman’s head, the cheering shook the walls.
Just as it had begun to ebb, the old king rushed into the chamber in his nightclothes. Livid with rage, he pointed a trembling finger at Loki. “Serpent! Deceiver! This Asgardian sneak-thief has dishonoured Alfheim by laying his filthy fingers on her treasured relics. Guards, kill him!”
But it was the old king around whom the guards gathered, forcing him to his knees. Loki came to stand by Steve’s shoulder, watching in vivid interest but not saying anything, as the new queen took a foot-long pin from her hair and rested it gently on the ex-king’s eye-lid.
“Whosoever wears the circlet of Frey is the rightful ruler of Elfland,” she said, and gestured to one of the branches of the throne, where a bowl-like depression had been hollowed and polished as if to hold something precious.
“It should have rested there every night, so that it was by the people’s will alone that the same man could have taken it up again in the morning. For eons this system has kept Alfheim in the hands of good kings. But you... you hoarded it. When it was not on your head, you hid it so no one else could take it. So there might be no king but you. All of us have chafed and murmured under this. The land itself has mourned. It is you alone who have dishonoured Alfheim, and I should take your eyes for it, but that I do not mean to begin my reign with bloodshed.”
At a low command, the guards dragged the protesting creature away. The new queen replaced her hairpin and exchanged a measured look with Loki. “You have done a good deed today, Sky Traveller, though you may not have meant to. The Queen of Elfland considers herself to be in your debt.”
“I will treasure your indebtedness like a ruby, Lady.” It was a wicked, sideways smile that Loki smiled, and his gaze slid briefly to Steve and back without giving away the slightest hint of his thoughts. “And now, perhaps, I had best be getting this mortal home before your time departs too radically from his own. We don’t want another Rip Van Winkle on our hands.”
Steve thought about a two day walk back to the portal, with Loki brooding all the way about how Steve had snatched away his moment of victory as quickly and as thoroughly as... Oh hell... as Thor. He breathed a deep sigh of not exactly regret – he couldn’t regret what he’d asked – but sadness. Loki was no stranger to holding a grudge, and Steve just knew he was going to spend the whole way back waiting for the inevitable retribution to fall.
The journey home should have been delightful. If the land had been sulking before, it was now wreathed in smiles that manifested as a forest in blossom, under crisp, cider coloured sunshine. Every patch of sky, seen through emerald leaves, was sapphire and serene, every small brook chuckled underfoot as they crossed it. Instead of monsters out of the corner of his eye, Steve caught glimpses of white deer, and dancers, and once, for a fleeting, incredulous second, the arched white neck and golden horn of a distant unicorn.
None of it helped. Loki kept up a stream of relentlessly humourous anecdotes in an increasingly strained tone, and Steve found himself pulling further and further inwards as if he fell through the increasing pressure of the abyssal sea. He did not want to know what kind of amusingly ironic lesson was coming his way this time, but he was beginning to think the anticipation was worse.
By the time they stopped for the evening in a forest clearing, Loki had lapsed into sullen silence. When the jitters made Steve drop a heavy log of firewood on his foot, he threw the rest of the branches to the ground in exasperation and shouted “What? What are you waiting for?”
Loki’s head jerked up. His eyes widened. Then he gave a rictus grin that stirred the hairs on the back of Steve’s neck, and spread his arms wide - a challenge or an invitation. “I’m waiting for you,” he said. “Why must you brood on it all day long? Just hurt me and have done with it. Come on. Hit me. I won’t try to stop you.”
“What?” Steve was sure he wouldn’t ever get used to it, the way Loki could twist the universe inside out between one word and another. But the sensation was at least becoming familiar. “Why would I...?”
The god’s bright false cheeriness was as painful as his laughter. “I know I got it wrong. I always get it wrong. I try to give people things I think they’ll like, and then they punish me. That’s how it works.” It was impossible to tell if it was a smile or a snarl on his face, his eyes wild. “So come on. Punish me! And then we can get back to normal. Why will you keep delaying it?”
“But...” Steve lowered himself to his knees, scraped up the fallen wood to give his mind time to work, “I’m the one who messed up your plans. I’ve been waiting for you to punish me.”
It was like watching the fuse blow on a furiously spinning machine, a snap of shock behind Loki’s eyes and the sense of a dynamo slowly winding down from overload to stillness. It balanced for a long time on puzzlement.
“Why would I, when it is I who am wrong? I have no real interest in ruling a kingdom – I like to take them to show that I can, but it was no hardship to me to hand it back after. Indeed, I’d rather conquer Midgard. You and your little friends make that so much more entertaining. But I thought you would be pleased to have me safely away from your realm. I thought it would repay you, properly, for your gift and your faith in me, if I were to leave your world alone and take another.”
Loki sat on the other side of the pile of sticks and began to lay a fire with the ease and expertise of someone who’s done it so often they can do it in their sleep. His words were just as practiced and sure when he said, “I tried to give you a gift and I got it wrong. So now you beat me up. That’s how it works.”
“You...” Steve turned this idea around to see if he could fit it into his mind. It carried on being the wrong shape, too big, too embarrassing, “conquered this world... as a present to me?”
Then he thought again about presents, about Mjollnir - how Loki had given it to Thor and, in return, Thor had held Loki down for the dwarves to sew his mouth shut. Thought about what he had heard of the god’s fall - how Loki had tried to hand ultimate victory to his father as a pledge of his loyalty, and had had it so thoroughly rejected all he could think of to do next was to plummet into the abyss.
“I did, but you didn’t want it.” Loki was still picking at this as though he expected the scab to come off and reveal an old wound. He lit the fire with a flare of green witchery, but as the wood caught the flames turned slowly into honest yellow and amber, bright now that dusk was falling.
“I didn’t want it,” Steve agreed, letting go of his own fear. So there wasn’t to be a lesson for him after all? Well, he could get behind that. The relief freed up a place inside him that was immediately filled with sorrow and pity, a wish that he could wrestle with the past and pull it into a better shape. He smiled, encouragingly. “That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the thought. It’s the biggest thing anyone’s ever done for me. And I really appreciate you giving it back when I asked. That was the act of a good friend. Thank you. I don’t know how...” you could have thought I was angry with you.
He cut the sentence off unsaid, partly because he had been very angry indeed at the time, until he spotted the loophole. And partly because he was sure Loki was right, that brutal retribution was the only tactic the Asgardians had ever used when they tried to deal with him.
Steve thought about them trying to beat some morals into the boy, from when he’d been a skinny little scrap of chaos to now, when he was sharp and brittle as obsidian. It must have been as effective as trying to cure a blind man by thrashing him. Punishment wouldn’t ever make him see. It would just make him a blind man who had good cause to hate everyone.
Putting his head in his hands, Steve heaved a great sigh of frustration and sympathy. “Buddy,” he wished he hadn’t been on the other side of the fire, wished he could touch, didn’t know how it would be taken if he did. “Haven’t any of them ever tried to understand you?”
Loki’s long frame had been tense as a bowstring. Steve only noticed it now when the slow relaxation changed his movements from staccato to fluid. His face had closed up around thought, wore the blank, neutral expression Steve thought of as his mask, but then the brows pinched in a little and he was suddenly present again, curious, remembering something.
“There was one,” his lips turned up – the memory pleased him as much as it surprised. “In a different life. The one you remind me of. I remember his name. Hoenir, Odin’s brother.” He put his head in his hands, covering his eyes, concentrating on some inner landscape. “We... used to travel together, as you and I are doing now. The three of us. And human men would call upon us when they needed help.”
He looked away, swallowing hard. Then he reached out and put both hands into the centre of the fire. Steve choked off a shout, as the flames poured joyously into the god’s cupped palms and danced there, their light lining his face with gold, flickering in the startled green eyes. Loki tilted his head to one side and poured the fire from one hand to the other as though he were pouring molten metal. “How odd. I remembered that I had been a fire god, in those days. God of hearth and home, god of the forge fire, domestic and bright.”
He looked at Steve and it seemed he was just as taken aback by this as Steve was. “Hard to believe, I know, given what I am now. And yet even the hearth fire, left untended, will find a way out – will find a way to burn until it consumes the house – and that... that I do recognise. It is in me to keep pushing until I’m stopped.”
Pinching a flame between finger and thumb he lifted it out of the fire and let it burn on, playing over his skin. In its light, Steve caught the quick slide of sly thought behind his eyes, and shuffling closer he caught Loki’s wrist just as the god was about to throw his handful of flame at a nearby tree. Loki laughed.
“You see? It is not in my nature to restrain myself. If I see a loophole, I will use it, or a weakness, I will exploit it. Make something almost impossible, and I will have to do it to show I can. Someone has to stop me from the outside. This is as true now as it was then, and he... for a long time, he did.”
Steve found the bag of provisions the elves had pressed on them before they left, broke out a wineskin, bread, cheese and apples. There wasn’t a cup, so he balanced the skin on his shoulder, unstoppered its mouth and drank to cover his pause for thought. So he’d been right all along, had he? What Loki needed was someone to be his conscience for him. It even sounded, a little bit, like he knew that himself, and wanted it.
“What happened to him?” Steve crossed his mental fingers, but still expected the answer to be ‘I killed him.’
It was not. It turned out to be more surprising than that. “Odin sent him away,” Loki said, thoughtfully. “Do you know, I sometimes wonder if my father wanted me to become evil – to become the doom of the gods. Why else would he send away the only one who could control me? Why else, in this life, would he goad me to fall?”
He was talking to himself perhaps, but Steve couldn’t help but wonder if Thor was wrong about which one of the brothers had been adopted. If this was true, it seemed Loki got his weird amorality directly from his dad. But that was a topic for another day.
“Well in that case,” he handed over half the food and dared a teasing smile, “maybe you should become a hero just to spite him?”
And suddenly everything was okay again. Loki laughed and devoured his food as though he was starving. When he’d watched Steve’s every mouthful, like a dog who hopes for scraps, he commandeered the wineskin for himself and said “Perhaps. In the mean time, since my gift did not please you, what would you like from me to replace it?”
Ingrained politeness almost had Steve saying “I don’t need anything,” but he bit down on it before it could get out. This was his chance to use this friendship to achieve something good for the world. “What I’d like would be for you to promise to stop killing people. That’s what I’d like most of all.”
It didn’t take the chill that sharpened the god’s face into a sculpture of ice to make him feel ashamed. His own heart did that, because when it came down to it, if you used a friendship for an ulterior motive it wasn’t really a friendship at all. “But it’s your choice, okay? I’m not trying to blackmail you or rule you, or whatever. And it’s not like I’ll stop being your friend if you say no. That’s a given, no matter what. Okay?”
He must have had on his most earnest face, because half way through his protest Loki relaxed again and by the end he was laughing. “Peace, Steve Rogers. Do you think I am incapable of the same degree of friendship myself? I am not about to destroy you for answering my question honestly. I will consider what you ask.”
When Steve emerged from Fury’s office, the last stage of a series of health checks, psych evaluations and skin swabs by the doctors and the astrophysics team alike – all of them fascinated by the thought that he might have brought something from Alfheim home with him – it was to find Dr. Selvig in the anteroom with the results of the tests.
“Oh, hi,” Steve said. “I imagine he’ll be a while calming down before he gets to you. Can I ask you something in the mean time?”
“Please do, though if it’s about the data you’ve just provided, I can’t tell you before I tell him. I shouldn’t tell you at all, in fact. It’s classified.”
“It’s a myth question, actually.” Since bouncing back from his own encounter with Loki with a shrug and a ‘well, what else could I expect?’ Selvig had become SHIELD’s go to guy for the myths, a position he took very seriously now it was so clearly tied in with his work.
Reassured, Selvig sank back down on the comfortless, waiting-room chair, “Go ahead.”
And Steve, who’d been pondering Loki’s last question all the way through Fury’s harangue, couldn’t think of a better way to phrase it than to just put it out, flat. “Do you think Loki’s capable of real friendship? Fury says no, but he doesn’t know the guy the way I do. I’d like to think he is, but... let’s say it’s hard to be sure about anything with him. I’d appreciate some kind of informed second opinion.”
Selvig gave his gentle, sceptical smile. “Do you know about kennings, Captain Rogers? They are a poetic way to describe something by referring to its most well known attributes. So if I said ‘the gannets’ bath’ I would be referring to the sea. If I said ‘Hrungnir's killer’ I would mean Thor. And if I said ‘the loyal friend of Hoenir’ everyone would know I was talking about Loki.”
He gave a quiet laugh - a slow, soft-spoken man with resolute eyes. “Make of that what you will, Captain. But it’s used three times as often as ‘Deceiver’, if that helps?”
“I think it does,” Steve smiled and gave the man a half salute. “Good luck!”
“Thank you,” Selvig chuckled, “but I expect he’s shouted himself out already at you.”
Steve was still feeling pretty good about his decisions when he got home and found the parcel in the middle of the Avengers’ kitchen table, waiting for him. It didn’t take the spiky writing on the top to tell him it was from Loki. The fact that none of his housemates seemed to be able either to see or touch it told him that.
His heart sank as he poured himself coffee. Today he’d already had reprieve and reassurance. Judging from the rollercoaster ride of this friendship so far, that surely meant he was overdue for something nasty next.
Looking through the shared fruit bowl for anything that hadn’t gone off while he was away – it turned out that two days in Alfheim had been three weeks on Midgard – he ate an over-ripe pear and wondered what he could have done wrong since they’d parted on good terms. Coming up with nothing, he pulled the cardboard box close and, braced for everything from explosions to zombies, broke the wax seal on top.
The shape of the handwriting on the letters inside made him catch his breath with awe, and he lifted out the stacks of photos with a joy that went so deep it was indistinguishable from agony. Peggy’s writing. Pictures of her, sombre after the war, and then slowly brightening. There was a man, and eventually children. Birthday cakes and Christmasses, and her face slowly becoming softer, more serene, lined with smiling.
It wasn’t until the first drop spattered onto one of her letters, smearing the ink, that he realized he was crying, and then he pushed the box away, set his face down on his folded arms and wept for loss and gratitude and relief.
She had been happy. He couldn’t give that to her, but someone had, and he was glad. Glad despite the pain.
There were home videos below the photos. When he could stand up without snivelling, he took them into the sitting room and played them and wept again to see her as a grandmother, calling out “Steven, put your coat on!” as she wrapped up her grandson for an outing to the swings. And yes, that ached. It ached hard. But he knew already that when he’d stopped mourning it would be thankfulness that was left.
Right in the bottom of the box was a note in the angular writing of someone more used to runes. It took him a while before he could bring himself to look at it. But it only said;
I cannot swear not to kill. Would you ask such a thing of Thor? Of yourself? But I hope this will serve instead. I stole these things from the house of your lady’s granddaughter. I attach the address, should you wish to return them. Perhaps her family will be glad to hear what you have to tell of her. To tell a warrior’s story is to make them immortal.
Until we meet again,
And, in the end, that too made him smile.