"Extraordinary," said Dr. Erskine, not for the first time, as he peered into his microscope. He wiped his palms on his lab coat and scrawled out a series of notes, whispering to himself, completely engrossed. His guest patiently waited. Almost ten minutes passed that way before Erskine remembered he was not alone, and he turned, a portrait of boyish enthusiasm. "I can hardly believe it, but it's just as you said."
Loki smiled and lit another candle. "What reason could I have to lie?" The tiny flame flickered wildly with every draft through the moldy window frames. "My only wish is to see you succeed, Doctor."
"You must tell me how you obtained this sample."
"Tell me first," said Loki, "how you obtained the previous one."
Erskine pursed his lips. "It wasn't I who obtained it," he said, watching closely as Loki paced along the walls, making certain that there were no spying ears nearby. "It was recovered from an archeological site in Norway. The tip of a spear, in fact."
Loki turned toward the window so that Erskine wouldn't see his amusement. "Ah, yes. I remember." Before Erskine could question, he went on. "You could say I obtained my sample in a similar fashion." He cast a quick glance to his palm, where not even a trace of his former wound remained.
"No; you couldn't have." Erskine turned back to his microscope for another long inspection. "This sample is fresh. There is no sign of cellular degradation, no contamination. This is blood came from a living person. A living..."
Loki glanced over his shoulder, and Erskine did the same--their eyes met and Erskine gulped. "My God," he murmured. "Schmidt was right, wasn't he? They do exist."
"Hush, Doctor," said Loki. "You can never know who is listening."
Erskine nodded and took Loki's paranoia to heart, gazing quickly around the old cabin. "This changes everything," he said, and Loki could only smirk as Erskine's entire life seemed to flash before his eyes. "If Schmidt was right about...about that, he's right about everything. Even now he's out there and--"
"Hush," Loki said again. He returned to Erskine's side and put a stern hand on his shoulder. "You said you wish to go to America, no? Your British friends in the next room were very generous to help you escape Germany, but I suspect they will be much less inclined to convey you onward if they learn the full extent of your work. Keep it close to you."
"Of course." Erskine needed no more prodding to begin packing his equipment and precious sample away. He continued to cast glances in Loki's direction as he worked; doubtlessly he had arrived at the truth already, but he saw in Loki's face that further inquiries in that direction would be unwelcome. "Thank you, for this," he said instead. "Though to be honest, I'm uncertain if I, and the rest of the world, ought to be grateful for it. I cannot help but wonder at your motives."
Erskine snapped his cases shut and faced Loki with all seriousness. There was sweat on his upper lip, but his eyes were steady, like any number of mortals that had faced down a god without fully comprehending their own audacity. Loki was not impressed, but he was amused, and that was always enough of a motive for him.
"Your work presents me with a unique opportunity," Loki answered. "One I'm interested to see to its conclusion." He offered his hand, and with a deep breath Erskine accepted. "You must succeed, Dr. Erskine."
Erskine still looked suspicious, and rightly so, but he nodded and shook Loki's hand firmly. "I will."
When the lights of the Bifrost faded, Loki was greeted on the other side by Heimdall and, unexpectedly, his brother. He had long since taught himself to feel the heavy eyes of Asgard's gatekeeper whenever they were upon him, but he had not yet devised a method of knowing when Thor was about. Still, he faced both men with a smile. "Brother. What timing you have; I've brought you something."
He hefted his trophy: the head of a stone spear, barely intact after centuries of wear. Though the swift and downward twist of Thor's lip indicated that he recognized it, Loki asked anyway, "Remember that time you said the mortals would be overcome with reverence for you?"
"That was--" Thor grunted when Loki shoved the ancient weapon into his possession. "You were supposed to be on Midgard searching for father's treasure, not...whatever this is meant to be."
"I was searching," said Loki, and a heavy look from Heimdall urged him to elaborate. "But Midgard is vast, and its mortals know it better than I do. Since they are already on its trail all I need do is let them find it for me."
"It was you who offered to recover the Tesseract," said Heimdall. "To repay your father for the damage done to his library."
"And once they've unearthed it, I will recover it with my own hands," Loki reasoned. "I simply don't have the time to chase it in person when Fandral expects me to replace his supply of Esrian tobacco."
"Also your own doing," Thor reminded him, though he couldn't help the twinkle of humor in his eyes. "You would not be so busy with these errands if you'd stop with your pranks in the first place."
"Then what amusement would there be for Asgard?" Loki took his brother's shoulder and steered him toward the exit. "Father has not missed his trinket in centuries--he won't care whether I dig it out of the earth myself. Now, come. Let's go show Sif your souvenir. I'm sure she'll get a hearty laugh out of reminiscing."
Thor groaned but allowed Loki to herd him, until they were halted by Heimdall clearing his throat. Loki managed not to wince as he and his brother glanced back.
"Loki," said Heimdall. "I will be watching for the outcome of your...latest trickery."
Loki grinned slowly. "Nothing would please me more."
Loki never felt more like a god than when he created his Adonis.
A few drops of Asgardian blood gave the humans the means to imitate gods. They squandered it at first, as was their habit, and for a time Loki lost interest in the flailing jester he refused to consider his progeny. By the time curiosity drew him back to Midgard, "Captain America" had made himself a soldier. Wishing that he had thought to personally provide the catalyst much earlier, Loki disguised himself amongst the ranks for closer inspection, and was not disappointed again.
He kissed Steve Rogers between the bookshelves. At the first touch of their lips he tasted the wellspring that surged and danced within its cage of mortal flesh. Steve Rogers was not a match for a full Asgardian with the gifts a million year lineage granted, but his strength was absolute, tangible even in his most tender actions, and he would only grow stronger. With every battle won, every conflict conquered, Dr. Erskine's dying gift would further mature and sustain its host.
And never before was there a host more worthy. Loki marveled that fate had offered him such a perfect subject without his guiding influence. Steve Rogers was determination itself. He was power, and wisdom, and beauty. He was more a god than those who sat on the throne of Asgard or ever would, and he was Loki's. Valhalla itself would not be worthy to house his indomitable spirit, so convinced Loki was of the great feats that awaited his creation.
His lips were sweet, but it was pride that made Loki giddy with pleasure long after Steve was called away.
"I'm going to tell your father what you've been doing," said Heimdall.
Loki hid his apprehension well, by his own estimation. "Father knows that I take these trips to Midgard," he said. "What does it matter how I amuse myself while I'm there?"
Heimdall freed his sword from the Bifrost, and its energies swiftly dissipated. "Lord Odin has laid down a number of laws regarding how you are allowed to interact with the mortals."
"As I'm aware." Loki ticked them off on his fingers. "I have not revealed my identity to anyone. I have not encouraged them to worship me. I have not sired any half-breed children. The only one who might have suspected what I am is dead. I haven't broken any of father's laws."
Heimdall stared at him for a long moment, no doubt trying to inspire further explanations from Loki that would trick him into revealing his deeper motives, but Loki was too aware of the tactic to fall for it. At long last he released a deep sigh. "I know you, Loki," he said. "You will reveal yourself to your pet sooner or later. And he will not thank you for it."
"Spying on someone is not the same as knowing them," Loki cautioned as he backed away. "Do not make the mistake of thinking that in seeing my actions, you see my mind."
"Advice I return to you, my prince."
Loki paused, and faced Heimdall with full sincerity. "Please don't tell my father," he said. "I haven't done anything that should displease him, but if you were to catch him in foul spirits, he would forbid me from going back. Once the human retrieves the Tesseract I'll take it from him and it will all be done--I'll let him be, and Midgard. I give you my word."
Heimdall's posture relaxed in what Loki perceived to be regret. "Your word means less and less these days."
"Very well." Though clearly displeased, Heimdall motioned for him to leave. "I will hold my tongue a while longer."
Loki bowed graciously. "Thank you, Lord Heimdall." Thinking it best not to patronize Heimdall with further gratitude, he swiftly departed, and waited until the gatekeeper's eyes were off him to scowl.
Steve and his men celebrated the capture of their second Hydra base in a barn, at the edge of the country village their unit was using as a camp. The drinks were few and had to be shared--Steve took none for himself. By the end of the night he and his right-hand man were huddled in the corner, reminiscing jovially until only Steve was awake, Bucky Barnes on his shoulder. Loki waited until he looked just about ready to nod off himself to approach, disguised as a humble young soldier in a uniform some sizes too large for him.
"Captain." Loki offered a bottle of brandy with a few gulps left in it. "I saved you some."
Steve smiled. "You have it," he said. "I've had enough."
"It's too strong for me, sir," Loki lied. He dropped down next to Steve and gave the bottle an enticing shake. "I hate to see it go to waste."
Steve considered a moment longer, but when he leaned forward to claim the bottle, Bucky shifted against his side and grumbled as if about to wake. He quickly reclined again, and with a chuckle shared between them, Loki uncapped and passed the drink. Steve gulped it down with a wince and a hiss. "That is strong," he laughed. "I hope you'll all be ready to move out in the morning."
"For you, we will," said Loki immediately, and the humble nod of approval he received for it made him smile. "We wouldn't have made it this far without you, Captain. Everyone knows it."
"We wouldn't be here if not for every one of us," he replied. "We're a unit, after all." He glanced down at the Sergeant snoring against his shoulder. "We're all important."
Loki wanted to scorn him, but the more he watched Steve relax into the hay, his precious Bucky beside him, the less he was tempted. There was such ease in the way Steve welcomed his friend to his side, with such blatant and unconditional affection. It gave Loki something far easier to hate.
"Can I ask you something?" Loki found himself saying.
Steve handed the empty bottle back. "Of course."
"Is it true you used to be smaller than Sergeant Barnes?" He grinned sheepishly. "Some of the boys were saying you used to be as skinny as me, sir."
"Skinnier," Steve replied with no hesitation. "I was half this size before the SSR got its hands on me." His eyes thinned with lazy but sincere fondness. "Just keep at it, soldier."
Loki winced and almost broke character. "That must be strange for Sergeant Barnes," he went on. "To wake up one morning, and your littler brother's bigger than you. I bet he's jealous."
Steve was already shaking his head. "Naw, not Bucky. We've known each other since we were three feet tall. Everyone's pretty much the same size, then. It's no different now."
Loki leaned back. "My brother would be jealous," he said, his voice eager and bitter at once. "He'd probably say he wouldn't be, either, but I know him well enough. He'd be furious." His gaze slid to Bucky. "Maybe you just don't know Barnes well enough."
The gravity of sleep lifted from Steve's face all at once. "What's your name, soldier?" he asked carefully. "I'm not sure I've seen your face before."
Loki smirked, and just when it looked like Steve was going to rouse Bucky and the rest he placed his hand to Steve's chest. It took only a simple spell to render him gently unconscious. "Go to sleep, Captain," he said, tucking the empty bottle into Steve's grip. "You have a busy day tomorrow."
Loki was in Thor's chamber, putting his magic to the task of repairing an unsightly scratch in Thor's armor--which he was not the cause of for once--when the guard interrupted: "Lord Heimdall summons you, Prince Loki."
Loki's stomach churned, made worse by Thor's insisted presence, as he rode down the rainbowed path. As soon as they dismounted Heimdall greeted them at the entrance to his station, his face grim and weary. "I warned you," he told Loki severely. "I said it would not end well."
Loki went slack. He knew what Heimdall had to tell him, and felt in his chest the slow, cold pressure of disappointment he was so familiar with already. "Open the Bifrost," he ordered. "Send me to him."
"It's too late for even your magic."
"This one last time," Loki persisted, and when Heimdall did not look moved, he added, "Thor will accompany me. He'll make certain I do no mischief."
Thor shrugged. "Let us go, Heimdall. You know if you don't he'll find a way to get there himself and we'll all be the worse for it."
Heimdall moved to his pedestal and readied his sword. "I will give you some time," he said. "But this is the last time I open the path to Midgard for you, Loki, unless your father strictly commands it. As you promised, it is done."
Loki stepped into position. "What of the Tesseract?"
"Gone. Fallen to the depths of Midgard's oceans." Heimdall lodged his sword in place, and all around them streaks of light flashed on and off. "You will have to find some other way to reconcile with Odin."
The bridge opened for them, and when they landed it was on frozen tundra. Ice rather than earth shifted and creaked beneath their boots, and stretching out of it, like a corpse's desperate, seeking hand, stood an enormous blade of dark metal. The brothers investigated, cautious of the delicate footholds, until Thor discovered indentations that marked an entrance. A few solid cracks of Mjolnir breeched the hull, but when Loki tried to climb inside, Thor held him back.
"It's flooded," he said, motioning toward the sub-freezing water creeping up the interior of the craft. "Be careful."
Loki slipped free and entered anyway. His cheeks and fingers ached with cold as he crawled through the twisted debris, closer to the edge of the encroaching ocean. Most of the craft lay underwater, broken and empty, and already ice was forming in every crack. He could see only a distant glimpse of the fore, and a shadow in the water that swamped it, silent and motionless.
Loki crept as close as he could, but then the wreckage squealed in complaint, its nose turning deeper into the murky ice. A loss of balance put his foot in the water and immediately set his toes tingling. He jerked back just in time for Thor to steady him.
"Is that him?" Thor asked, pointing with Mjolnir toward the drowned figure.
Loki allowed his brother to bear some of his weight. "Yes. It must be."
Thor sighed, shaking his head. "Well," he said. "I hate to say it, but I win again, don't I?"
Loki's jaw clenched. "What do you mean?"
"My pawn beat yours. Wasn't that the point of this little experiment? To pit a mortal, strengthened by your blood, against one strengthened by mine?" He gave Loki a clap on the back, just gentle enough for it to be pity. "I may not be as clever as you, brother, but I'm not a fool."
The craft rocked again, and its descent quickened. The brothers climbed swiftly out of it and were forced to retreat several meters before they could be safe of the buckling ice. As they stood close together, their breath in the air, Loki turned his gaze to the seemingly endless landscape of white all around them. There wasn't another human for legions in any direction, no sign of plane or ship in pursuit. His champion would never be found.
"What will you tell father?" Loki asked, the wind cutting his lips.
"Whatever you want me to tell him," said Thor. "That you dawdled amidst the mortals and lost your chance at the Tesseract? That you searched in earnest and were unsuccessful? Either way does not reflect favorably, but it's better than him knowing the truth."
Loki tried not to look at him, but when he did, he found the sympathy fixed on him to be unbearable. He wanted to tell Thor to say the truth or nothing at all, but he had no desire to see that same, amused pity from his father's eyes. "I'll tell him I wasted my time here," he said. "It's true enough."
Thor threw his arm around Loki's shoulders. "When you finish with my armor, I'll treat you to some ale," he offered. "Hogun and Fandral were out seeking game earlier--we'll see if they caught anything, eh? Worry about Father in the morning."
He called for Heimdall to retrieve them, and as the luminescence of the Bifrost surrounded them Loki glanced once more to the sinking wreckage. His eyes narrowed in bitterness. "Better you had stayed the dancing monkey," he said under his breath, and in a flash they were gone.