There’s very little traffic this late, and when Rogers turns down a narrow, dimly lit alley between two buildings, he’s confident no one on the street will see them. He crouches and lowers Loki to the pavement, leaning him against the wall, and Loki blinks up at him. “Tired already?”
“No,” Rogers says, which is true, but the vague thought intrudes that it’s never been relevant before if he got tired on a mission. “I got you out. Your turn.”
“Ah,” Loki says. “That. Well, I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you. You recall I said, or at any rate heavily implied, that I knew who you used to be?”
Rogers tenses. “Yes.”
Loki leans his head back against the wall, wincing. “I lied to you.”
Rogers drops to one knee and clamps his hand around Loki’s throat, not choking him but squeezing enough to threaten. Loki doesn’t move, just looks at him, and Rogers feels a dull anger stir behind his breastbone. “Why,” he says.
Loki makes an impatient noise that vibrates slightly against Rogers’ palm. He doesn’t seem at all bothered by the hand on his neck that could cut off his air or snap his spine at any moment. “I know they tampered extensively with your brain, but they didn’t make you slow-witted, did they? Why do you think I lied? Because I had to get out of that chamber, I could not do it alone, and you were the only one who seemed even slightly inclined to help me.”
“So you decided to use me too,” Rogers says.
“Yes, I did,” Loki says. “What are you going to do about that, soldier?”
Rogers tightens his grip and feels Loki start to struggle for air, but he still makes no move to get away, and somehow that’s even more frustrating. “I could take you back.”
“You could try,” Loki agrees breathlessly. “But you will not, because you know they will wipe your mind again if you do—and now that I am not bolted to a table being pumped full of poison, I am at least capable of forcing you to kill me instead. So those are your choices: you may kill me for my lies however you like, and I will take comfort in the fact that you are certain to do so at least more efficiently than my other captors might. And then you may do what you wish—return to your masters, leave them and make your own way, it will be no concern of mine.”
“You said choices,” Rogers says. “What’s the other one?”
Loki makes an abortive movement that might have been a shrug, if he weren’t pinned to the wall by a hand on his throat. “You can leave me alive, help me heal, and see whether I can perhaps make some truth out of my lie after all. Though you should not—heh—hold your breath. I am known far more for lying than for truth-telling.”
Rogers squeezes harder out of sheer frustration and feels a pulse of vicious satisfaction when Loki starts to choke in his grip, back arching and heartbeat fluttering unsteadily under his fingers. “I could choke you out and drag you back unconscious. You couldn’t stop me then.”
“They’ll still wipe you,” Loki gasps out. “I will…take my chances.”
Rogers growls at him, almost wants to carry through on the threat out of pure stubbornness, because Loki doesn’t know him, has no business acting like he does, and Rogers has always hated being played like a sucker, and the last thing he wants is—
He wants. The realization stops him cold. The asset does not want; he follows orders. He has no desires, only targets and objectives. But Rogers wants. Already, thanks in part to Loki, he wants, and he recognizes that he wants, and—
And he wants to stay that way.
Abruptly he lets go, and Loki sags back against the wall, coughing hard. Rogers sits back on his heels, realizing that he is tired now, and it’s not physical—it’s something new and he doesn’t know what to make of it. “So you don’t know me at all,” he says.
“Why would I?” Loki says hoarsely, and coughs again. “I’m not even from your primitive little realm.”
“You knew my name,” Rogers points out.
Loki shakes his head. “Educated guess. People talk when they don’t think you’re listening—and when you’re just an interesting test subject, they assume you are not listening.” His gaze on Rogers sharpens. “You may not remember, but I suspect you’ve experienced that yourself.”
Something else clicks into place. “They tried to make you like me, didn’t they? But it didn’t take, so you’ve just been a lab rat ever since.”
Loki grimaces. “That is one way to put it, I suppose.”
Rogers sighs. Loki leans his head back again and lets his eyes fall shut, apparently not planning to contribute anything else to the conversation, so Rogers considers his options for a moment and then picks Loki up again. Loki makes a thin sound, half startled and half pained. “What…?”
“I’m going with option two,” Rogers says and heads back out to the street. Loki doesn’t reply, but he doesn’t relax, either; if anything he seems to grow more tense.
Rogers sticks to the shadows again and walks until he finds a truck parked at the curb that looks old enough not to have a built-in alarm system. He can deal with those, but he prefers to keep things simple when he can, and he doesn’t need anything fancy anyway. (He prefers—how does he know that? But it feels true, not just a quality the Winter Soldier is supposed to have so he carries out his missions more efficiently.) It’s the work of only a few moments to break into the truck and hotwire it—and his thoughts pause on that too, as he works, and he wonders whether this skill comes from HYDRA or from whatever he was before—and then he settles Loki in the passenger seat and gets behind the wheel himself. Loki watches the whole process without much interest, slumping in the seat, hands loose in his lap. The bandages around his wrists are nearly soaked through with blood, although at least what Rogers can see on the top layer looks dry, so the bleeding has either slowed or stopped entirely.
“You should buckle up,” Rogers says as he pulls away from the curb.
Loki glances at the seatbelt Rogers is wearing, and his expression tightens. “I think not.”
“Getting pulled over by cops would be bad too, you know,” Rogers says, “and for something that stupid? Not wearing a seatbelt is illegal,” he adds, realizing there’s no reason for Loki to know anything about US traffic laws.
“Then you’ll just have to drive carefully, because I am not strapping myself down to anything,” Loki says sharply. “Particularly not like—that.”
Rogers glances down at his own seatbelt, then across at Loki. The chest strap would press against his ravaged torso, true, although the sudden quivering tension in Loki’s body—the hunted, trapped look in his eyes—suggests that’s not the main reason he’s refusing. Rogers considers saying that knocking Loki out is still an option, and for that matter he doesn’t think Loki could do much to fight him off if he just buckled him in. But that all sounds like more trouble than it’s worth, especially when he has no intention of getting pulled over anyway.
“Suit yourself,” he says instead, returning his attention to the road. Loki flashes him a startled glance, so quick Rogers almost misses it, before turning his head toward the window.
They drive in silence for a while, Loki hunched in on himself, eyes closed. Rogers would almost think he’s sleeping, except he’s holding himself too stiffly. Every time they go over a bump he makes a quiet noise of pain, often no more than a sharp exhalation of breath, but otherwise he’s silent.
Gradually the buildings get shorter and less grandiose until Rogers finds what he’s looking for: a Walmart store, closed for the night. It’s right on the street like all the little shops around it instead of being set back behind its own parking lot, which is potentially a good thing for staying hidden. Loki opens his eyes and glances listlessly out the window as Rogers circles to the building’s other side. It has a couple service entrances that look promising, as well as an underground parking garage. Rogers considers that for a moment—getting them off the street for this would be good, but if they need to leave quickly, he doesn’t want to end up trapped. Instead he pulls over at the curb, kills the engine, and opens his door. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he says. Loki jerks upright, eyes widening, and Rogers shuts the door on his hoarse “Wait—”
Loki fumbles with his door for several seconds, finally getting it open as Rogers rounds the front of the truck, and he nearly falls out in his haste. Rogers stops, watching him, and Loki clings to his still-unbuckled seatbelt, expression almost as wild and desperate as it was in the HYDRA lab. “Don’t—don’t leave me.”
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Rogers repeats, and Loki shakes his head frantically.
“No, what if—they might come, while you’re in there, I can’t fight them, if they find me they’ll take me back—”
“We weren’t followed,” Rogers says. “There’s nobody around, and I need to get some supplies. You’ll just slow me down.”
“No,” Loki says, “no, I—I can…try to shield you again—”
“I thought you used up your magic.”
Loki licks his lips, and for a moment his mouth works as if he’s searching for words before he slumps against the seat, head bowed. Blood trickles lazily down his arm from his wrist. “Please,” he says, his voice low and hopeless. “Please, just…don’t leave me.”
Rogers studies him for a moment. There is no practical justification for taking Loki into Walmart with him, and a lot of practical justifications for making him stay in the truck (possibly, again, by rendering him unconscious). He’s almost definitely going to get blood on something, he really will slow Rogers down, and the best he can probably do at this point is short out a security camera or two. But—yes, if HYDRA shows up, they’ll take Loki, and Rogers won’t have any warning before they come for him too.
And the same persistent something that nudged him onto this path in the first place, that wanted to help a dark-haired man on a table in a HYDRA lab, is nudging at him again with a confusing mix of he’s scared, he shouldn’t be scared and we don’t leave a man behind. Which is ridiculous and not really true, because Rogers is reasonably sure he’s left people behind before, but—the mission was always what mattered, and thinking about things like leaving people behind didn’t come into it.
This isn’t a mission. And there is some deeply buried, impractical, and insistent part of Rogers only now making itself known that doesn’t want to leave a scared, injured, and virtually helpless companion behind.
“Okay,” he says. “What if I take you inside and you stay by the entrance while I work?”
Loki raises his head, expression wavering between hope and wariness. “Inside the building,” he says. “Will you leave me a weapon?”
“Sure,” Rogers says. He can spare one of his knives for a few minutes.
“Yes,” Loki says. “All right. I…thank you.” He still looks like he expects Rogers to slam the door on him at any second, but Rogers doesn’t intend to change his mind, so Loki’s concerns on that subject are irrelevant.
“Just try not to bleed on anything,” he says as he picks Loki up again and leans on the door to close it. “They’ve got plenty of your DNA to track already.”
Loki pulls his arms in, trying to keep any fresh blood on the hospital gown. “I am well aware.”
Rogers crosses the street with Loki in his arms, still hugging the shadows, and sets Loki down at the nearest door. “Did you have anything left for that invisibility trick you did earlier, or not?”
“At the moment? Perhaps one minute of it.”
“That would help,” Rogers says and gets to work, dismantling the door’s alarm and lock. He’s taken apart vastly more complicated systems before (hasn’t he? He’s certain he has, but he can’t remember anything specific), so it doesn’t take long. Just as Loki says “Hurry,” his voice strained, Rogers pops the door open. Beyond is one of the store’s back rooms, dimly lit and full of untagged merchandise. To the left is a hallway that looks more office than warehouse, which is what he wants.
Rogers hauls Loki inside and shuts the door behind them, then finds a nearby spot next to a plastic-wrapped pallet where Loki will be partially hidden from sight but will still be able to see anyone coming. Loki winces as he settles on the cold concrete floor, winces again as he accepts the small, matte-black knife Rogers offers him. As far as Rogers can tell, only the boxes at Loki’s back and side are holding him upright, but he has the knife and he doesn’t make any further protest, so Rogers turns his attention to the task ahead. He considers finding the security office and incapacitating whoever’s on duty there, but keeping a low profile is probably best. Instead he puts on a pair of gloves, leaves the back area, and works his way through the store methodically and efficiently, only taking things he’s sure they’ll need—some prepackaged food, a heavy-duty first aid kit, extra bandages and disinfectant, ammo. A laptop still in its box. A few shirts, two pairs of jeans, one pair of loose jogging pants, and a pack each of socks and underwear. Basic toiletries. A wheelchair. Everything goes into two sturdy backpacks, which he places on the seat of the wheelchair. He easily avoids the cameras and security guards (and chooses, for the moment, not to question how he knows how to do this). Last of all, he finds a safe in one of the back offices and removes a few handfuls of bills.
Loki hasn’t moved when Rogers gets back to him, except to make the knife disappear somewhere (for the time being, Rogers decides not to ask for it back). A little of the tripwire tension leaves his posture when he sees Rogers, and then his eyebrows draw together. “What is that?”
“Wheelchair.” Rogers stops in front of Loki, swings one of the backpacks onto his shoulders, and sets the other one on the floor.
“Those are for…cripples,” Loki says. His tone doesn’t make it a question, but it seems to be anyway.
Rogers shrugs. “Lot easier than carrying you everywhere, and a whole lot less likely to attract attention.”
Loki exhales, looks away, and says nothing, which Rogers figures is close enough to agreement. He gets Loki into the chair and everything to the truck without incident, and the rest of the drive passes in silence. DC proper was quiet enough this late at night; the further out they get, the fewer vehicles he sees, until they’re the only movement on the tree-lined streets of a residential area.
Loki twitches when the truck stops in front of an apartment building, seeming to wake from an uneasy half-doze, and glances around. “Where are we?”
“Bethesda,” Rogers says. “Maryland. Not very far from the center of DC but far enough for now. I have a safehouse here.”
Loki accepts this silently and reaches for the door, wincing—and then hunches over with a gasp when he tries to pull on the handle. His wrists don’t look any worse than they did earlier, but that doesn’t mean much considering how much damage there was, and now that Rogers is looking he can see at least two fingers that look broken. Panicked adrenaline had pushed Loki through the pain earlier, apparently; without it he can’t seem to do much with his hands. And with the adrenaline, something else seems to have disappeared: the tiny amount of defiance he showed in the lab when he tricked Rogers, and again when he revealed the lie. Now he just looks emaciated and exhausted again, and somehow small despite his height.
Rogers notes these things, the way he assesses everything, but he doesn’t know what to do with the information, how to classify it. He doesn’t know what he feels about it either (which brings him up short again, like the realization that he wanted something). It’s curiosity, but not just that. Not quite concern, either.
He leaves the truck, hauls the wheelchair out of the back, and pushes it over to the passenger side. Loki is still trying to work the handle, his expression tight with pain and an odd, muted sort of anger. Rogers doesn’t know what to do with that either, so he just opens the door and picks Loki up again, then settles him in the wheelchair.
The building is new enough to have an elevator, fortunately, although it’s a creaky older one, and something of a tight fit with the wheelchair. But the place is quiet and safe (and air-conditioned in the actual apartments, which isn’t as crucial this late in the year but still probably important for an alien who apparently comes from a cold place), and his key is where it’s supposed to be, under a trick panel in the floor below one of the wall-mounted fire extinguishers. The apartment itself is a basic one-bedroom, and Rogers sweeps his gaze over it as he enters and flicks the lights on. Everything looks clear, no signs of disturbance or listening devices, and the curtains are still closed. He’s familiar with this place, but he automatically catalogs everything anyway: bathroom and bedroom to the left, kitchen immediately after the short entry hallway and its closet, a bar separating the kitchen from the living room (good visibility, decent cover if necessary). There’s a couch, a stuffed chair, a side table with a sturdy-looking metal lamp, no TV or decorations. On the living room’s back wall is a sliding-glass door that leads to a small balcony, the orange glow of streetlights showing through gaps in the curtains. That’s the only other exit, both a potential vulnerability and a possible escape route—probably not for Loki, even though they’re only five floors up, but Rogers knows he can use the balconies to work his way down.
He locks the door behind them and wheels Loki into the living room. He takes one of the backpacks with him into the kitchen and unloads the few perishables he grabbed into the fridge, then looks over the bar at Loki. “If you eat something, will you throw up?”
Loki raises his head slowly from where he was apparently contemplating his chair’s oversized wheels. “I…do not know.”
“Well, try this,” Rogers says, coming over with a little single-serving box of milk. Loki looks at the box, then back up at Rogers, his cracked lips parted in confusion. Rogers opens the straw and sticks it in the box, then holds it out again. After a moment Loki takes it carefully, balancing it on the wheelchair’s arm so he can hold it in place without having to grasp it, but he still looks faintly perplexed—by the gesture, Rogers thinks, not by the way the milk is packaged.
Rogers goes back into the kitchen and puts away the rest of the food, of which there isn’t much; he’ll have to find a CVS or something tomorrow. For now he settles for some granola bars and studies Loki as he eats. The alien has finished the milk box and let it fall to his lap, and now he’s just sitting there again and looking at his hands, his face mostly veiled by his hair.
“I should probably set those breaks,” Rogers says after a moment.
Loki flinches, and when he glances up, his expression looks not just distant or distracted but utterly lost. “What?”
“Your fractures,” Rogers says. “Just make sure they’re set so you heal right. You heal fast enough they could get messed up pretty quick, and you probably don’t want to have to rebreak anything later.”
Loki blanches. “No. No, I very much—” He frowns. “How do you know about my healing?”
“Read your file. Skimmed it, anyway.”
“My—” His mouth snaps shut as he gets it, blood rushing to his face, and he drops his gaze back to his hands, not quite fast enough to hide the sudden intense shame in his expression. All he says, though, is “I see.”
“So,” Rogers says.
Loki nods jerkily. “I suppose—fingers, and…I don’t know how many places in my legs. I think my left knee may be out of joint. Anything else is…just cracked, I believe.”
“Okay,” Rogers says, coming around the bar to open the second backpack. “And no stitches, probably.”
Loki grimaces. “No. But fresh bandages would not go awry, if you have them.”
“Got some of pretty much everything,” Rogers says. He pulls the wheelchair over to the couch and locks it in place before dumping the medical supplies out of the backpack, then looks critically at the bloody bandages showing through the hospital gown. “These open wounds should all really be cleaned properly.”
Loki’s fingers twitch. “Surely they will keep until morning. I need…more than anything, I need rest.”
Rogers considers the healing speeds recorded in Loki’s file and shrugs. “Probably. I should still rewrap these for now. Definitely set the breaks.” Loki nods again, reluctantly, and Rogers asks, “You gonna fight me?”
“I will endeavor to keep still,” Loki replies tightly, and if he’s going for sarcasm, he doesn’t quite make it.
Rogers shrugs and gets to work. Loki stays mostly quiet for the broken fingers, although his breathing is strained until Rogers finishes wrapping them. He checks everything else pretty thoroughly, Loki holding himself rigid in his efforts not to flinch away from Rogers’ probing fingers. Pulling the hospital gown off to reveal Loki’s chest is easy enough, even though it’s stiff with blood in places. Removing the bandages is a lot more difficult once he gets down to the layers actually touching Loki’s skin, and eventually Rogers resorts to warm water and a pair of scissors that makes Loki’s jaw go tight in reaction. The autopsy-like incisions in his torso look nearly as bad as they did in the lab, now heavily clotted with dark blood, but at least the skin doesn’t seem to be in immediate danger of detaching again. Under the dried blood and bruising, Loki’s ribs stand out sharply. A couple of them are visibly out of alignment and have to be nudged back into place; the first makes Loki stop breathing entirely for a few seconds, and then he goes so tense trying not to move that he starts shaking.
Rogers thinks maybe he should say something reassuring here, but he has no idea what (reassurance, after all, is not part of the asset’s skill set), so he says nothing and begins cleaning up some of the blood in preparation for rewrapping Loki’s chest. When he comes to the actual bandages, he pauses, remembering the sight of the organs inside Loki’s chest and what the records said about the internal damage inflicted. “What about under—?”
“Leave it,” Loki snaps. “I will not—” He takes a hitching breath that probably isn’t deep enough to do much good and says more moderately, “Unless you are a surgeon as well as a soldier, there is nothing you can do to improve the situation anyway. My body will repair itself eventually.”
Rogers shrugs and tapes the beginning of the bandage in place on Loki’s sunken abdomen. His skin is slightly less clammy than it was earlier, but probably still not normal, and Loki twitches at his touch. “How bad is it right now?”
Loki is silent for a moment as Rogers begins to wind the bandage around his torso. “It’s…difficult to say,” he says finally. “I think—part of one lung—the right, I believe—and…certainly part of my liver is missing. They removed a kidney and a great deal of intestinal tract at some point, but…I am not sure how long ago that was, or how much might have regrown since then.”
“Intestinal tract,” Rogers repeats as he tapes the last part of the bandage in place under the sharp jut of Loki’s shoulder blade. “And it was always just IV, right? No actual food?” Loki nods. “Guess we’ll find out soon how your other bodily functions are doing, then. You realize if you’ve got a perforated bowel anywhere, anything you eat or drink is gonna spill into your abdominal cavity and cause even more problems, right?”
Loki shrugs, not looking terribly bothered by the possibility. “Apparently my body is fairly resistant to most common Midgardian infections. Something to do with ‘a robust immune response.’”
Rogers supposes that makes sense, if anything does. He moves on to the bandages around Loki’s too-thin wrists, which prove even harder to unwrap than the ones on his chest. They are brittle and caked all the way through with blood, and the last layer pulls part of a large clot out with it. Loki makes a noise in the back of his throat like he’s been stabbed, and the hole fills with fresh blood that runs sluggishly into his palm.
“Shit,” Rogers says, pressing a handful of gauze against the wound.
“It is no worse than it was earlier,” Loki says, his voice a little faint and very slightly amused. “I have lost a great deal more blood than this and lived.”
Well, you’re my responsibility now, Rogers almost says, and where the hell did that come from? He busies himself with the bandages instead of actually saying it or trying to figure out why he wanted to and moves on to Loki’s left knee once he finishes with the wrists. Bruising covers most of his exposed skin, but it’s especially dark and swollen around the joint, and a quick examination is enough for him to agree with Loki’s assessment that the knee is dislocated. He grips the leg above and below the joint, and Loki inhales sharply. “Brace yourself, and think about something else,” Rogers says.
“You said—you read my file,” Loki says, sounding winded. “Did it happen to say how long—” He breaks off with a gasp as Rogers pops the bone back into place.
“How long you’ve been on Earth?” Rogers asks. Loki nods, apparently unable to speak for the moment. “About a year.”
Loki releases a long breath, his head drooping lower. “I…had wondered…I lost track of time quickly, but I thought it might be something like that. Unless I was much mistaken and perceiving a longer stretch of time than it truly was. I…had hoped…” He doesn’t finish the sentence, and Rogers sees no reason to push for more.
He sets and wraps two obvious leg fractures, Loki still twitching and shaking under his hands but more audible now with the occasional bitten-off whimper, as if he’s too exhausted to keep himself silent anymore. He lets out a long breath without actually relaxing when Rogers starts working on the many cuts and burns, and since he hasn’t tried to pull away yet, Rogers doesn’t comment on that either. He uses up about half a tube of triple antibiotic ointment on Loki’s various surface injuries, figuring that’s better than nothing, then carefully removes the ankle bandages. The hole in his right leg looks bad, leaking a yellow fluid, so Rogers wraps it loosely to let it drain and makes a mental note to clean it better in the morning. Finally he gets Loki into a t-shirt and a pair of underwear (the latter is trickier, involving holding him up with one arm and pulling up the shorts with the other, Loki rigid in his grasp the whole time but completely unable to support himself). The t-shirt mostly just makes him look even skinnier, the way it drapes over his nearly skeletal frame, but at least it’s not a bloodied hospital gown. He’ll have to deal with that at some point too, but for the moment he just rolls it up with as much of the blood on the inside as possible and stuffs it into one of the backpacks.
Loki’s slumping in the chair by the time Rogers is done, his eyes half shut, and Rogers can feel the long day starting to catch up to him too. He glances at his watch, unsurprised to find it’s almost 2 a.m., and finally straightens from where he’s been kneeling next to the wheelchair. Loki barely reacts as Rogers wheels him into the bedroom, rousing only when Rogers actually deposits him on the bed and pulls the blankets up around him, and then he says, “This is…this is your bed.”
The answer to that goes without saying, so Rogers doesn’t say it. The bed’s a double, so it’s big enough to share if they’re careful, but frankly that sounds unnecessarily complicated at the moment. “I’ll take the couch.”
Loki blinks up at him, seems about to say something, and sinks back into the pillows instead. Rogers nods to him and leaves the room, shutting the door behind him. Getting into more comfortable clothes and pulling a blanket from the closet only takes a couple minutes, and then—just like always—he falls asleep quickly and doesn’t dream.