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Maybe You (and your sad blue eyes)

Chapter Text

 


from Maybe You, by Say Lou Lou

And all those times I lost myself in lies
It was you I was trying to find
And though it really hurt sometimes
It was always true

 ~ ⌘ ~

 

"It's probably too late to go to the bathroom, right?"

Loki tries to smartass his way out of the tension but it does nothing to abate the close, stifling heat of the machine and the way it’s drawing out cold sweat he can’t move to wipe away. The metal pod hums and groans, huge around his body like the gut of a sleeping dragon around the burden of a lamb.

He’s locked in a cramped, dark tube, his own wheezy breath is loud in his ears. Blood thumps like the tide washing up in hot layers under his skin, making his eyes throb. Loki’s arms hurt, everywhere hurts, the heavy, blunt ache of the blue liquid being injected into his veins. It’s white behind his eyelids, light so bright it zings with electricity, stinking ozone and powerful heat.

Loki moves, squirming a little, just to test the room. There isn’t any to test. Cold metal brackets hold down his arms and his chest sucks in too fast, breaths too shallow to process air thick with sweat and adrenalin. He’s an insect pinned down to a card and there’s nothing to be done about it.

And he was never one to shy away from pain, familiar with its company, anticipating it most times, always doing something stupid to tempt it but it’s kinda different now when it’s just him inside the tube alone with his own demons and something to prove and the machine starting to really whirr like a bastard—

Oh shit.

He grips the hand rests he’s strapped to, feeling so powerless and it’s not the pain that’s scary, it’s not the dying if they fail, no, the scary thing‘s the goddamn hissing in his chest getting worse and making him black out before he can get the job done. Loki wonders at that wheezing pull in his chest, trying to concentrate on why it feels like it’s his lifelong companion while being completely alien at the same time. Maybe they’ll open the machine to find a corpse. Oh, the irony, dying in the service of his country while never so much as setting foot at the front—

It's unrelenting; hydraulic, metal, unstoppable, hurting, oh god it hurts so bad, but can't stop now, don't fucking stop now, this can’t have been for nothing.

“NO! DON’T! I CAN DO THIS—", teeth locked so tight they might break, should have asked for a mouthguard, should have asked for something to bite because Loki’s going to bite clean through his tongue, blood boiling, every inch of him zapping, from his toenails to the tips of his ears, everything in iridescent agony and vibrating to the relentless force of the machine, oh god, OH MY GOD—

 ~ ⌘ ~

Loki woke bowing from the bed with his mouth locked open in a silent scream, his shoulders and the heels of his feet braced into the coverlets. Suspended in a shock of jagged pain, he sucked at the warm summer air like a fish plucked fresh from water.

Asgard slept on around him, oblivious to his distress. Long moments passed as he lay in darkness and calmed himself.

Loki’s body tingled as though he'd been struck by a stray lightning bolt from Thor, every bone, muscle and sinew quivering in shock at the flare of pain that had scourged like a layer of fire beneath his skin and woken him so abruptly.

He lay blinking in the darkness, assessing. He was whole, all parts of his body accounted for and well enough, and yet there was something—

There was definitely something.

His body and limbs felt normal but within him, something churned bright and as intense as a new world being born, debris magnetising around the kernel at its core.

He stared wide-eyed into the darkness, carefully settling his senses around it.

Buried deep beneath his ribs in the very center of him, the odd sensation, the strange weakness that he had been carrying inside him for years suddenly burned hotter than before, more substantial than he had ever felt it, as though it had been forcibly jolted into life while he slept.

Where before it had been nothing more than a ripple in the depths of a murky lake, now it pulsed, dangerous and elemental. It pulled at his insides like an undertow.

Loki turned to face the window and tried to steady his breathing. With a small flick of fingers, he sent his magic along the strange pulling sensation, directing it to follow. His stomach clenched with anticipation as it went out into the night, scurrying along its length like flame up an oiled rope. Loki gasped, sensing its vigour as it flexed like a live thing against the press of his magic.

“What is this,” Loki whispered into the quiet of his rooms.

It was sure and strong, and banked out into the void beyond Asgard, between realms, scampering along the very branches of Yggdrasil. He could feel intent in its direction, an almost sentient need to—

Loki threw off the sheets and sat up in his bed, suddenly brimming with a mix of curiosity and dread as the coil spun onward into the void, a strong thought alighting into his mind, unbidden.

“Midgard,” he whispered, blinking in confusion. He felt sure, as he always had, that it could not be a bond. The whole business had been a debacle from the start and now, with the hint of its supposed location . . . Whoever heard of a soul bond between the races of Asgard and Midgard? It was surely nothing more than an error. A cosmic joke. He could not immediately think of any other explanation.

And yet, the pull was unmistakable; the more he cast his thoughts toward the other realm, the less doubt remained.

Midgard. It was impossible.

Loki had not waited. He had not pined. He simply grew older and his skin thicker. He had already come to accept being born without a bonded soul to cleave to, one more way in which he would always be the lesser brother.

So of course it made sense that it would settle upon him when he least expected it.

He lay in a tangle of sweaty sheets with his heart lodged in his throat and recalled reading absolutely nothing at all about soul bonds born as sickly as runt babes only to inexplicably burst into vibrant, healthy life some years later.

Perhaps it was not a soul bond after all. Perhaps he had truly been poisoned, or bespelled. He cast about himself but felt nothing amiss. Loki pressed his fingers into his eyes and tried to relax his tense shoulders. An echo of the pain which woke him lingered in his bones and inside his chest, the false bond swelled and swelled until he thought he would choke.

Gingerly, he sent his magic to curl around the ache in his chest. It flared hotly and he gasped at the mix of pain and intense need, like coals ripe for stoking into a proper fire. It licked at him, seductive and dangerous, a promise of belonging that life had already taught him was not his to covet.

Staring blindly up at the ceiling, Loki breathed in sharply through his nose and tried to center himself. He had to control it. It wasn’t real. He had to learn to tame it, then forget it. He would will it into oblivion.

  

He was still meditating hours later when a servant knocked on the door of his chambers to summon him to Odin's presence, putting an end to it. As it turned out, he would have no time to dwell on any matter but this: Asgard had been called upon to head a council for war.

Within a day, he and Thor had been outfitted for battle, and rode hard for the Bifrost at their father's side and the time for delving into personal affairs was over. Loki grinned, self-aware enough to be glad of the interruption. He would have little opportunity to consider anything but how best to use the strange energy that burned so bright inside him and turn it into a forge with which to sharpen his blades.

He would throw himself into the campaign, even if it took months.

And in that time, if his dreams took on an almost frightening intensity, to the point where he preferred long bouts of sleeplessness rather than the distress of waking sweat-drenched and aching, Loki bore it in silence. It lingered beneath his skin; a reminder of a challenge he had yet to face, and from which he could not run, no matter how many enemies of Asgard he laid to waste at Thor’s side.

 

The campaign had not been without casualties, but they came home to a victor’s welcome. Loki often found the lights and festivities of Asgard garish but never more so than now. Or perhaps it was simply that over his two year absence he had grown accustomed to the windswept snap of tent walls and mud caked as far as the eye could see.

He kept his eyes on Thor’s back as they entered the great hall, Thor hand-in-hand with Sif and flanked by his friends, and Loki escorting Frigga on his arm. Odin was already seated and presiding over the feast.

Loki saw his mother to her seat, then excused himself under the pretense of seeking out someone he had seen in the crowd. He walked only so far as a darkened corner where he could lean against a column and stay cloaked in shadow.

They had barely had time to finish a course or two before Sif whisked Thor away; he would gripe later about his cold dinner, no doubt. Loki watched them make their way around the banquet hall, Thor always with his eyes on Lady Sif, his hands on her nearly as often. Loki could almost see their bond, it was so intense. They had been inseparable for days, no longer constrained by the etiquette of battle camps where Sif was less Thor’s beloved and more a mighty sword at his side.

The spartan surrounds, the fighting and training as well as the constant wariness of living in a soldiers’ camp made it easy to ignore the pangs echoing around his heart, though he had to put his mind to it. Denial was a lot harder to achieve when faced with such obvious displays.

He was just considering snatching some fruit and making for his rooms or perhaps the parapet, when someone approached in the hesitant way of the acquaintance currying favour. Loki recognised Gunnar, a warrior possessed of some good swordsmanship. He admired the man - they had fought side by side. The thing in his chest squeezed at him.

“Magnificent feast,” Gunnar said, looking around as though seeing it for the first time. Loki snorted. People were ridiculous.

"At least as magnificent as the last one. And the one before that."

"Ah. Yes. My apologies.” Gunnar looked up, sheepishly. “May I speak frankly, then?”

“By all means.” Loki cocked his head, curiosity stroked just a little.

“I had hoped to speak with you alone. I understand there is to be a hunt soon to celebrate our triumphant return, and, well. I would very much like to join your exalted party, you see."

Many saw Thor's weakness for his odd brother and sought to ingratiate themselves, to impress him, and by extension, Thor. If Loki hadn't been fielding such offers for countless years, he might have been offended. As it were, he was only tired.

"I'm in no mood for this," he said, watching the revellers preen in their finery, the noise of their chatter near unbearable. He pushed off from the column he'd been leaning on and gave Gunnar a slight nod, making it clear the discussion was over. "Enjoy the rest of the evening."

As he turned to walk away, warm fingers slipped around his bicep, not holding him, but simply . . . there. Loki turned his head to find Gunnar much closer than friendly propriety allowed. Warm breath fanned over his cheek. Loki stilled, waiting, senses prickling.

"Is there something else you may be in the mood for?" Gunnar said quietly.

So it would be seduction, not bribery. Loki’s reply was as glacial as he could make it.

”This will get you nowhere with Thor. Perhaps you should be making your bid directly to him instead of insulting me."

"Oh, but you have me wrong, Prince Loki," Gunnar said, a slight smile playing at his lips. He was attractive, Loki realised, especially when he laced his voice with an element of contrite teasing. "It is not your illustrious brother whose favour I hope to win."

Oh.

Loki stayed still as Gunnar neared in to press a soft, chaste kiss to the corner of his mouth.

It was nice, pleasant, not tinged with the desperation of muddy, bruised lust-slaking that was all the experience of lovemaking any of them had had of late - the rush and filth of the needful scrabbling between battles. Loki leaned into the kiss, testing, allowing Gunnar to crowd him against the pillar, cold marble at his back, warm chest to warm chest.

"I have wanted you," Gunnar said, mouthing his way to Loki's throat, nuzzling at him. A tightening coil drew around his chest right beneath Gunnar’s splayed fingers.

They were the wrong hands. It was all wrong.

He tried to relax into it - it would be wonderful to release some of the tension lurking in his bones - but the sudden surge in his chest turned unhappy and anxious, a confusion of feelings swelling inside him now that he could no longer conceal them under the rage and heat of war and the need to feel alive with another breathing body to cling to, to rut against lest they die in the next skirmish.

Loki kissed him back, bit at his mouth and pushed his body into Gunnar’s embrace, and for a moment it seemed as though he could— if he just closed his eyes and—

But no. The disquiet around his heart was not appeased, the hollow ache worsening the longer he clung to Gunnar’s shoulders.

Helpless with the pent-up rage that everything - even this simple, base pleasure - had been taken away from him, Loki laughed darkly against Gunnar's wide mouth, before pushing him away.

Gunnar's confused, earnest little frown almost made Loki relent, though he knew he could not.

"But I have not wanted you," Loki said, watching Gunnar's face fall, then harden. Loki shook off the fingers still curled around his bicep and shrugged his clothing back into place. Gunnar’s wounded pride was better than his own vulnerability revealed to exploitation.

He turned, and did not look back, walking into shadow, then stepping through the void and into his chambers and with a flick of his hand barring the doors to anyone who would enter.

The dream was vivid as they always were now, and Loki woke hot all over with his heart pounding and his mouth dry, the sensory memory of wide, strong hands spread over his thighs not easily shaken off with the vestiges of sleep.

He could still feel the echo of battle-worn calluses dragging deliciously over his skin. There had been a hint of an intense blue gaze, a soft mouth, stubborn and full and Loki ached with desire, hands shaking, stunned and nearly sick with it. Panting still, he put his hand against his chest and closed his eyes, the pull of the bond inside almost violent in its need.

The memory of his dream alone made what happened earlier with Gunnar a travesty. He could ignore this no longer. They'd only been home for a week and in that time his dreams, the ache in his chest - constant, but bearable up until now - had escalated. There was nothing to keep his mind off this torment in the serene, gilded halls of Asgard, and it pervaded his every waking - and sleeping - moment. He didn't know how much more he could stand.

Loki rose from his bed and dressed simply in a tunic and soft trousers, and sat for a long time by the window, the nightscape of Asgard stretched out as far as he could see. He looked down at his own hands, turning them over and over. Was someone out there dreaming of them in return?

Something had changed for him - or perhaps inside him - in that moment two years ago; the ill-formed spark he had grown accustomed to ignoring had come alive while he had slept. He would not be able to fall asleep again this night, his body shivering for that phantom touch and his mind aflame.

He took a long walk through the torchlit halls, bound for the Queen’s gardens. There was once a good vantage to be found in a high nook he and Thor had favoured as children - ah yes, it was just as he remembered. He looked up to the recess lined with drooping vines, removed his boots and sent them up ahead with barely a thought. Then, he climbed the ornamental embankment using his fingers and bare feet the way he did as a boy, found the perch large enough still to accommodate his adult size and set to wait in the soft bed of fragrant greenery until dawn.

He leaned back onto the wall of the very rock from which Asgard was hewn and looked out to sea, the firmament reflected on its sleek waters. Perhaps there was someone whose counsel he could trust.

Night finally receded and Asgard preened, the regal arrogance of her thoroughfares and crystal spires picking up the glare of morning sunlight. Loki had seen this view hundreds of times and had always thought it beyond beautiful. Now he wondered when it had begun to jar his senses.

“Aren’t you going to come down and join me?”

Frigga sat on a bench as though she had always been there, the morning sun favouring the braided rope of hair over her shoulder and glinting from her golden cuffs.

“Mother,” Loki said in greeting.

Frigga grinned and turned to watch the sun rising over the water.

Loki stretched the stiffness from his shoulders and made his way down, landing lightly on the grass beside her bench. He sat, mindful of Frigga's gown and dutifully kissed her proffered cheek.

“You did not rest well,” Frigga said, and Loki tried to muster up some indignation.

"Telling someone they look tired is akin to telling them they look terrible, you know."

"Oh, please. You wouldn't know terrible if you tripped face first into a puddle of it."

"I do not trip."

Frigga cupped his cheek in the palm of her hand and he made himself stay still instead of leaning in, but she knew him too well. There was a deep well of fondness in her eyes for him. There always had been. "How you make me fight for your love."

Loki rolled his eyes and nuzzled into her soft hand. "There. Is that better?"

Frigga laughed in genuine amusement. "Good morning, Loki."

"I hadn't noticed."

"Is that because you've not slept all night?" Her smile was wry.

“Someone must stay awake and plot. It may as well be me.”

"And none better for the task."

"I happen to know of one," Loki said, grinning, and leaned companionably into his mother's shoulder.

Frigga chuckled, as he knew she would. "Oh, but I need to sleep to retain my youthful complexion and cannot stay awake all night, scheming."

“The youthful complexion of our beautiful queen is in no danger from a few late nights of scheming, which well you know.”

Frigga rolled her eyes, but her mouth curled in pleasure. “Flatterer.”

"I do not flatter, either. Everyone knows who truly rules in Asgard, and if they do not, they're fools not worth so much as this." He plucked a speck of leaf litter from the soft fabric of Frigga's gown and blew it into the light breeze. Frigga smiled and pressed back against his shoulder.

They sat quietly for a long moment. Loki watched the waves of the endless sea break over Asgard's rocky shores and thought once more of his dream, and of inevitability. He thought of fate, and of believing in no fate unless he made it for himself.

“Mother, what do you know of Midgard?”

Frigga’s brow rose in surprise. She turned to him, searching his face. Loki stared at the reflection on the water, willing his heart to slow and for his face to be still.

“A little. Your father would surely know more than I. Why do you not ask him,” Frigga said, and Loki pursed his mouth.

“Ah. I see.” Frigga smoothed silky fabric over her lap and looked out over the horizon. “What is it you would know? I cannot guarantee that I have the answer, but—”

“Something draws me there,” Loki said, inclining his head in a contrite nod at interrupting her. “It is - I do not know what it is.” Loki lowered his hand from where it had been absently rubbing circles over his sternum. Frigga gave no sign of noticing, allowing him a moment of silence to regroup. He knew she had seen. What she would make of it, he did not know.

“That sounds intriguing, though I am sure you will not confide in me.”

“I would let it draw me. I would travel there,” Loki said, surprising himself. He had not meant to say any such thing, but the spark within him seemed aligned with the idea somehow. 

 

He recalled how the sensation had been weak and flawed from the beginning, nothing more than a flutter in his breast, perhaps a quarter century earlier though he had not kept strict measure of it. It came to life one evening while he sat at table, flickering like an ill-lit candle. It had been so faint that he'd almost failed to recognise it.

The thing had kicked then, a pulse of warmth radiating out to pool at the base of Loki’s stomach. He did not know what to make of it.

He bore it in silence that evening, expecting it would disperse in time.

It had not.

Against all odds, it had persisted, a dull ache of an accursed thing, and Loki had grown suspicious. He had been uneasy about sharing this secret with anyone who might exploit it and had summoned as many tomes from the library as he could find regarding the subject. He had emerged from his rooms weighed down with tales of bonds corrupted or otherwise malformed, people sent mad with unrequited longing for a dead bondmate, tragedies of soul bonds formed without regard for age or race, the bureaucracy of class or the territories of war.

He woke with it and ate with it, sparred and lay down to sleep with it, and keeping it secret had made it easier to finally accept the kernel of this strange, crippled bond which pulsed like his own heartbeat’s echo, keeping time alongside his own, arrhythmic and weak, but stubbornly refusing to surrender. Loki could certainly respect that.

There had been precious little in the old texts about bonds formed as late in life as his had been, and with such strange beginnings.

Loki had searched inside himself for signs that might suggest some kind of tampering. The sensation of twin heartbeats, an echo inside his own mind and reverberating in his chest had been disconcerting. It still was. The time had come for him to stop making excuses and get to the root of it. He took a deep breath and looked into his mother’s eyes.

“I would see Midgard for myself.”

“As far as I know, nothing is preventing you,” Frigga said, her quiet scrutiny unsettling him.

Loki set his jaw. “I imagine Father would have something to say about it.”

Frigga clucked her tongue. “You have already decided,” she said, and of course, it was true. He had decided, probably the very moment he had woken in exquisite agony two years before. He had to see, to finally know.

“Contrary to your belief, the Allfather does not go out of his way to make your life difficult.”

“Of course not. He does not need to go out of his way.”

“Oh, Loki,” Frigga said, her voice sweetened with fondness. “If it’s reasons not to go that you need to hear from me . . .”

“Yes. Tell me why I must not go. Feel free to bandy around words such as irresponsibility, the foils of youth, gallivanting—”

“And give you the excuse to immediately defy me?” Frigga laughed. “My dear son. Keep your secrets if you must but do not try your tricks on me. I am not one of your weak-minded friends.”

Loki smiled and leaned into her shoulder once again. “Hardly. You know I do not have any of those,” but his smile vanished at the stiffening of her posture.

Silence fell between them, and Loki looked to the horizon, unfocused and suddenly untethered, like a sail flapping in the wind. Frigga tugged at his hair where he’d let it grow long at the nape and Loki let himself sink, tucking his head into the crook of her neck and pushing everything else aside for this tiny, stolen moment of comfort.

“I will speak to your father if the need arises. But it won’t.”

Loki nodded, words caught in his throat, and simply allowed himself to be held, nursing the glow in his chest for the first time with a little warmth.

Loki stepped into the dome which housed the Bifrost and closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the bond throb and tug at him strong as rope wound tight around his heart. When he opened his eyes, Heimdall was watching him from the shadows.

"Am I a fool?" Loki said, his hands clenching into fists.

"Undoubtedly," Heimdall deadpanned.

Loki huffed a laugh but the tension within him did not relent. "Allow me to rephrase, then. Am I a fool to hope?"

"Perhaps," Heimdall said after a long moment, his yellow gaze inscrutable. "If you are, then so are we all."

Loki frowned, his chest feeling a little tight. He gave Heimdall a small smile and took his place upon the mark.

“You will tell no one about this?”

“As long you honour your promise, I will honour mine,” Heimdall said, unblinking eyes fixed on Loki’s face. He could trust Heimdall to keep it to himself as he had promised. Loki had uttered a promise in return, and intended to keep it. After all, this was a personal matter and no possible scenario, no direct action he could take would call for him to cause harm to Asgard.

Loki gave him a stiff nod.

“I do not know who it is. How can you know my destination to open the bridge, if I don’t know who it is?”

Heimdall looked down. His eyes seemed unfocused, but Loki knew he could see well beyond the eternal realm.

“If you draw your magic down the coil, I will see it, and will set you down in the right place.”

Loki swallowed dryly, his heart lodged in his throat. He did as Heimdall instructed, concentrating on sending his spark down along the bond, closing his eyes to feel its winding descent.

The gatekeeper stood in silence, looking out over the ledge while Loki let his senses lead him. Finally, Heimdall seemed satisfied, enough so that he hefted Hofund and inserted its tip into the receptacle at the heart of the dome.

“I have its measure now. You may go forth.”

Green eyes met gold. Loki said nothing. What more was there to say? He set his shoulders and waited.

Behind him, he heard the screech of metal upon stone as Heimdall drove Hofund’s blade in all the way through the sheath, opening the bridge which accepted Loki inside, sucking him through the portal with a heady rush.

Loki’s stomach lurched with a sudden, unexpected displacement.

Something was wrong.

Loki had travelled via the Bifrost many times but he had never experienced this horrible, sickening vertigo, the void sucking at him as though he was free-falling instead of being naturally propelled through the tunnel.

There was nothing for him to brace himself against and he felt as though he might vomit from the conflicting sensations of being pulled by the tunnel while simultaneously being violently pushed through it.

"Heimdall!" Loki shouted, not knowing if the guardian would see what was happening to him or if he could do anything to help when Loki was still within the tunnel.

With a sickening lurch in his gut, Loki realised he was trapped by the speed of his descent and that if something terrible was happening to the Bifrost, he would be unable to do anything to stop it from disintegrating around him. If Heimdall tried to close the tunnel with Loki still inside, he might well be flung out into the void in pieces.

Someone was shouting, something about —a dance? Loki was alone but there it was, as clear as if he himself was making it, a roar of defiance and terror, then the crush of regret so strong Loki could taste it, as bitter as ash. A crash through a white barrier, his body flung sideways, pain, bright hot flare of pain quickly swallowed by ice, the cold, oh god the cold, his chest heaving with the shock, trying to breathe and swallowing freezing cold water instead, fighting, sluggish in the cold, stammering out a prayer until the white turned black—

With an enormous boom, the Bifrost touched down on solid ground and dissipated in a flurry of hissing steam, leaving Loki curled on his side and struggling to breathe.

The sudden absence of sound was like a thunderclap. The only thing he could hear were his own lungs heaving for air. Slowly, he uncurled his limbs and lay back on the ground, looking up to a clear, navy sky full of constellations he had not seen before. The air smelled like apples.

It took a moment for him to realise the silence was in his chest, too, deep within him. The lack was staggering and absolute.

“No,” Loki whispered, pressing his open hand to his chest, as though he could reach inside and find the bond that way, wake it up. Keep it safe. “No!”

Why had he had been called to this barren place? There was nothing here but icy outcrops and snow as far as his eyes could see. He was alone on the stamp of the Bifrost, sensing not one soul for countless miles around, let alone the soul . . . Inside him the bond was a silent tomb.

He had been emptied, the cavity of his chest scooped clean. There was nothing. Nothing.

Loki got to his feet and howled himself hoarse, the raw gape inside him spewing pain into the white void.

All this time, he'd been coming to terms with a soul bond manifesting for him - late, odd, on Midgard of all places - all these concessions he'd made for it, trying to understand it and finally to accept that it was real, that he could have this, that he might have someone . . . all for nothing. It didn't exist. It had almost convinced him. He had begun to believe it. He laughed until his throat felt raw, and when he licked his cracked lips, he tasted salt.

There was something wrong with him, and he should have known it. He should have realised it wasn't real. Perhaps travelling through the Bifrost had disrupted the manipulation he had been under. Perhaps someone had tricked him into this, had worked at it long and hard and had managed to make Loki convince himself that it was real, that there really was someone waiting, someone for him to—

"Show yourself," he roared into the white distance, enraged, throwing the might of his magic around him to find the one responsible, to make them pay for his humiliation.

There was nothing. No one.

“Heimd—,” Loki said, his voice breaking on a sob as the Bifrost came down to where he knelt and collected him back up into the sky.

Chapter Text

The hole in Loki’s chest gaped like a wound. It felt as though he should be able to feel it with his hands, see it with his eyes, but there was nothing there. Just skin and muscle and bone. He had no memory of how he had arrived back in his bed. Perhaps Heimdall had brought him. Perhaps it did not matter.

Frigga had come, and he should have gotten himself together for her visit, ought to have stopped her from touching him and discovering the truth - he knew this, in the remote sort of way that a fly on the wall knew something.

In his stupor he was spared feeling her anguish when she put her hands on him and let her senses delve inside, only to recoil at the raw hollow where his heart had been. Stone-faced, he watched her draw her own conclusions as to what might have happened.

"You should have told me," she said, tears tracking down her face and her hands still spread over his chest where she had tried to use the healing powers of her magic, to no avail. There was nothing she could do. Not for this.

"It wasn't real," Loki heard himself reply in a voice like dead leaves. It was the best he could do. He no longer cared, not about anything. Was that wrong? Loki thought it might be, but he could not remember why. Perhaps he had died, and his body had not realised it yet. Perhaps in time he would simply cease to be.

Frigga looked at him with so much anguish, Loki rolled his head to the side and closed his eyes rather than see it.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

She only cried harder. "It does. It did."

Loki shook his head. "It was not real."

Something had been corrupted inside him. It had been merely a glitch and it had gone horribly wrong - either that or someone had dared to touch him with this affliction, some enemy of Asgard - if he ever felt as though it was worth lifting his head from the pillow, he would find out. He would track them down and he would—

Something. He would something.

When Frigga would comfort him, he became a dead weight in her arms, staring at the shadows crawling over his walls; it was less effort than thinking of what to say, how to behave.

He slept and woke screaming. He did not try to remember what he had dreamed.

Time bled from one moment to another with nothing to distinguish its passing.

It was many days before he became aware of his surroundings again, suddenly finding himself sitting at table, food steaming on a plate which had been put in front of him. His stomach roiled unhappily. He could not remember when he last ate.

Loki blinked, then looked around at the glowing candles, the gold and silver platters overflowing with food, all of the people he had known his entire life - it was as though he had never been here before. Only the emptiness inside him was familiar. Loki felt sick to his stomach. He rolled his hands into fists and sat up straight in his high-backed chair.

A performer of great renown was singing a warrior's tale on the dais and beside Loki, someone had just told a jest. Raucous, happy laughter rang out: Thor. Across the banquet hall, Frigga watched him from the Allfather’s side, trying to catch his eye. Loki scanned past her.

"Come, brother, it's a feast in our honour and here you are looking as somber as though you were in mourning but for the widow's weeds!" Thor said with his usual tact as his massive paw landed on Loki's shoulder. Loki could almost feel Frigga’s wince from across the room.

IT WAS NOT REAL! he wanted to shout at her, but it would accomplish nothing, so he set his jaw and ground the anger to dust between his teeth.

He made himself eat a piece of fruit before pushing away from the table under the pretext of mingling, feeling Frigga’s eyes on him all the while. He strolled away into the shadows and did not truly care if she saw him step through space to his rooms. He leaned against the wide rail of his marble balcony and watched wild colours of a myriad of stars, scattered in such beautiful concert and yet each one spinning alone in the dark.

 

“Come, Loki, we will have such sport! You have haunted your rooms too long, you need the air, the freedom of open spaces!”

Loki snorted under his breath. Freedom. Life’s great lie. They were none of them free.

More often than not Thor was off somewhere tormenting Sif and his friends but now and again when he recalled he had a brother, he was relentless in his pursuit. Weeks, then months had passed and Thor came less frequently now. With any luck he would soon cease altogether.

“Go away, Thor,” Loki said without heat, continuing to read the same paragraph in his book over and over again, the meaning eluding him still.

When Thor finally admitted defeat and stomped off beyond the range of hearing, Loki thanked the Norns for small mercies. And then he wondered whether the Norns had done this to him and he stopped thanking them.

Loki woke gasping, tangled in his bedding and achingly hard. Snatches of his dream lingered; ice-cold hands in his hair, on his body, and wide blue eyes, words whispered through a barrier of crystal-clear ice.

The dreams had not abated. Sometimes they felt so real he'd woken confused to be alone in his bed and wanting so much, so intensely, more desperate than he'd ever been with anyone in real life.

Loki huffed a laugh, then could not stop, laughing until his stomach hurt, until his arousal was nothing but a dull ache.

It had been torture; he could see that now. Elaborate torture the beauty of which he himself might have respected, had he not been the one to endure it. It was over now. It should be over.

He just wished the dreams would stop too.

 

It was odd how Loki had never paid attention to it before, the way Thor was rarely first to make fun at his expense, but he never stopped his friends from it. He never defended Loki, only smiled, indulgent of their antics. How had Loki ever tolerated the jests made clearly to belittle him? Not only that, how had he laughed along with them, playing the fool?

Loki should have known better. He should have protected himself.

Thor's jovial obliviousness began to cut closer to the bone than ever and Loki grew resentful of things he had always managed to overlook.

“You are not yourself, brother,” Thor would complain. “What has gotten into you of late?”

Loki hated him more for not simply knowing.

His dear brother, their father’s golden son, Asgard’s beautiful and deadly warhammer. When they were small, both of them with competitive streaks much bigger than themselves, Loki had cherished being his big brother’s playmate and companion. Now Thor’s light had begun to shine so brightly that Loki had learned to shutter his eyes and look through the slits instead of basking in Thor’s enveloping glow.

Fandral's barbs seemed sharper, though Loki knew they weren't - it was not Fandral who had changed. Loki could see so much more clearly now. He took it all, and smiled through it, pressing half moons into the palms of his hands all the while.

Night after night, Loki sat on his windowsill with his jaw aching for how hard he had set it, two matching hot spots high on his cheeks, remembering how Thor had insulted him in the name of brotherly ribbing, had allowed his friends to do the same, and Loki had laughed along not seeing the undercurrent of scorn and dismissal. How was it possible that he had thought it harmless - a way for him to be accepted among them? He had been such a child. Shame crept in like scalding water.

Well, no more. Loki observed them all from behind the mask his face had become, all the while prodding at the black hole in his chest, tugging its tattered edges, picking the scab off just to feel it weep. Seeing them with these cold new eyes made it much easier to recognise everything for what it truly was, without the kaleidoscope of emotions clouding the truth.

They had never seen him as peer, companion, or friend. Loki had been the outsider all along.

He had been a fool.

 

It was easy to see the cracks after that, the chinks in Thor’s armor.

"Thor, Odinson, my heir. My firstborn . . . " Odin's voice rang in Loki's ears. "Do you swear to cast aside selfish ambition . . ."

Loki kept his face very still.

The quiet workings he had wrought unfolded below their very feet while Thor waited for his birthright, only to choose the path which would in a single day see him shamed and his fledgling kingship revoked.

Loki was doing it for the greater good. Thor wasn't ready and nobody else saw it; it was Loki's duty to act, and if he should derive a perverse pleasure from Thor’s confusion that not everything could be hammered into shape purely by the strength of his will, well. Loki was self-aware enough to accept the ugliness for what it was.

His ordeal had helped him. It had shown him how naive he had been. He had learned so much, about Thor, about their father. About himself.

And then, midnight-blue ice had crawled up his hand and suddenly he realised he knew nothing at all.

With Thor banished and the Allfather plunged into Odinsleep, Loki stared at his own face in the mirror. When he grew sick of trying to find himself in the reflection, he made the mirror show him every occasion Odin and Frigga pretended he was their son so he could relive it all. He made it show him the stranger beneath his skin.

It almost felt good, all these emotions tumbling in to stop up the emptiness cored through his chest.

The anguish on Sif's face as Thor was cast down from the eternal realm and banished to Midgard - nobody would ever grieve for Loki this way, no one would fear for his safety or beg Odin on his behalf, and now, finally, he knew why. He was the cuckoo in the nest. The interloper. He was the thing they feared and hated, from the stories he’d been told as a child, to the centuries’ old artifacts depicting Asgard’s triumph over monstrous Jotunheim.

They had made him participate.

They had known what he was, and had fed him with their lies, ensuring he would never belong to either side. They had helped stoke the fire for the burning thing he had become.

It smiled at him now, from his mirror. Loki smiled back. After all, one had to keep one’s enemies close, just as Odin had kept Loki close.

He could not bear to even think of Frigga.

Thor had had everything handed to him on Asgard's golden platters, gifted it all by virtue of simply existing, by the blessed fortune of having sprung from the right loins, and had managed to take it for granted and throw it away.

Loki had to laugh at his own foolishness when Thor turned the tables on him by winning back Mjölnir with the ultimate sacrifice - why, it was as though Loki was the hero after all, dutifully playing the villain so majestic Thor could shine once more and regain his royal birthright.

Loki had no birthright, he knew that now. For a brief moment, he had been a son, a brother. A king. Now he had nothing except his innate magic, his hard learned wits, and his accursed heritage and he would hold on to those until they were prised from his dead fingers.

The void sucked at his boots, and it was so easy in the end, to let go of his ambitions and his anger, and finally, of everything else. Nothing he would find in the void could be worse than what he was leaving behind, Odin and Thor’s stricken faces quickly fading in the distance.

It would seem that the Norns were not quite done jesting at his expense.

 

Loki sat on a rocky outcrop, the universe stretching out every which way, the void between realms dressed up in sparkly baubles.

Trapped in a prison made of magic older, stronger than his own, with the mad titan presiding above, Loki turned their plan for the Tesseract over and over in his mind.

He could not leave - there was no possibility of escape even if he had somewhere he wanted to be. Thanos had found him at his weakest, intercepting his fall. He had allowed Loki to live and the price was yet to be paid, so here Loki sat, languishing on a rock prison spinning in space, waiting until the moment came to pay it.

He had long ago lost track of time. He supposed it did not matter.

If he succumbed to exhaustion, delirium bubbled up through the cracks in his consciousness, and echoes of a voice as familiar to him as breathing - but one which he had never heard with his own ears - whispered to him in snatches of icy cold breath.

Loki did his best not to sleep.

He wandered the length and breadth of his prison and entertained himself with exercises to hone his magic. He materialised full battle regalia about himself and recalled ancient texts to mull over in his head, anything to keep his mind from screaming.

Something itched at his consciousness, and surely there were no apples in this forsaken place, and yet—

Loki stopped his pointless march and cocked his head, listening, looking for the source of the intense foreboding crawling up his spine like a hundred ants.

For long moments there was nothing, and he thought he’d imagined it, when he nearly doubled over as his heart began to pump the bright, familiar ache through his veins to fill the emptiness inside him.

"No," he whispered at the stab of sensation, energy bleeding acid-hot between his ribs.

No. It was not possible. It hurt, and it wasn't fair, it had gone, it had finally gone and it wasn't possible. No torture visited upon his mind by Thanos so far could be worse than this travesty, this stabbing of false hope returning to haunt him.

As if it had heard, the aching bond void which had lain silent inside him for years throbbed once, twice, then filled up to pounding until his chest was bursting with it, until he was consumed and writhing on the ground. He bit down on a scream.

His whole body was alight, from the tips of his fingers to the balls of his feet, burning with cold fire as though he’d just come out of the deepest ice wearing only his Aesir skin. He shook so hard he thought he’d shatter like glass against the dusty stone floor of his prison, biting down on his hand lest he shear off his own tongue.

He lay on the floor, taking stock and regaining his breath and his wits. The false bond steadied itself from a scream to a thrum and Loki listened to it beating healthy and strong, an echo of his own heartbeat, just as he remembered it. He thought it had never been stronger, not even at its worst when it fooled him as far as to go to Midgard in search of its source.

And here he was again, destined to go back to that very realm.

Loki blinked away the moisture in his eyes. It could not be a coincidence. It seemed clear that it had been Thanos all along, manipulating Loki for years and Loki had been too blind, too proud, too hopeful to recognise it.

Loki's mouth stretched in a painful smile, all teeth. He began to laugh, and did not stop even when tears tracked over his face. He laughed so hard his stomach hurt and he wanted to vomit with rage. Instead, he picked himself up and straightened his back. The Other would come for him soon. They would strike their deal and Loki would comply, and as soon as he could, whether it took days or millennia, Loki would raze their accursed kingdom to the ground.

The plan had unfolded without delay. Loki looked over dozens of bowing heads and beyond them to the unsuspecting city. It would all be over soon.

"You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing."

Air burst out of Loki's lungs as though he'd been punched in the solar plexus. The ache inside him bloomed like blood spreading through water. It flooded his senses, sucking him down in its wake. Loki gripped his sceptre to still his shaking hands.

He looked up, laying eyes on the man who had spoken, standing like a lone pillar among the cowing heads. Locking eyes with him felt like falling.

This was impossible. There was only one explanation and Thanos would pay for daring to meddle in Loki's mind.

They were trying to manipulate him, but why now? He was doing exactly as he had been commanded, carefully playing the part of the conquering god looking for total subjugation. Cold dread fingers crawled up his spine.

No. No. Loki gritted his teeth, the sceptre lending him the strength to stand when his knees wanted to buckle, giving his hands something to grip and to fight the overwhelming urge to reach out.

Loki stared him down, his heart fluttering around every breath and he fought it until he felt his teeth might snap with the effort. He would not be manipulated like some stripling, lovesick fool. It was fake, it was all fake, and this man, this soldier would pay the ultimate price for being Thanos' tool, willing or not.

"The soldier. The man out of time," he said, falling back on his research; this was Captain America, a defender of the realm.

Loki narrowed his eyes, panned over the kneeling throng and forced his mind to focus, sensing the coming fight in the Captain's wide-legged stance.

"I'm not the one who's out of time."

Above them, an airborne ship made itself known, its weapons drawn, and Loki could easily have handled this, he could have obliterated them all in moments but the thing inside him was white agony. Loki craved a real fight.

He would destroy this man. He would obliterate him from the face of this backwater little world. With a shout, Loki swung the sceptre and lost himself in the thrust and parry.

He fought with his all until he could concentrate on nothing else. The soldier's fighting style was one he had not encountered before and Loki found himself pulling back on his magic, wanting to experience the full brutality of the fight. Getting the upper hand was unexpectedly challenging.

“Kneel,” he hissed, the sceptre’s edge holding the soldier in place, Loki’s knuckles popping white with repressed rage.

“Not today,” the soldier countered, the determination in his voice making Loki's heart thump against the confines of his ribs even as he was pushed back.

Inside him, the false bond screamed for attention and he took immense pleasure in wringing every last drop out of its pain to channel into his driving arm and deliver back upon the soldier, who gave him no quarter in return, throwing himself in with eyes wide open and seemingly no regard for his own safety. It had been a long time since Loki had been in a duel so evenly matched and he relished it, he wanted it to hurt.

When Midgard's reinforcements finally arrived in the guise of the Iron Man and Loki was forced to yield in order to stick to the plan, he could only stare at his masked adversary. The Captain’s chest heaved with exertion. Confusion was written on his face, at what, Loki did not know.

Looking into those eyes made the blight inside Loki writhe like a leashed hound.

Loki, startled at the stab of sudden hunger for something he could not even begin to name, could only stare back, the fight drained out of him, desperation clawing at his throat.

Loki’s eyes returned to the Captain again and again where he stood with the Iron Man, both of them swaying with the movement of the jet.

There was a smear of dirt on the Captain’s shoulder and at his nape his hair was darkened with sweat. A pass of Loki’s staff had torn a ragged gash in the leg of his blue uniform. He had removed his gauntlets and his mask so Loki could finally see his face, determined and stubborn all the way from his thick brows to the muscle working in his jaw. Loki couldn’t look away. He both needed and dreaded that the Captain would turn and look him fully in the face.

Apples. Loki’s nostrils flared, but before he could focus on the scent, it was gone. He dug his shoulders into the metal at his back and concentrated on dampening the effects of the ache in his chest.

“I don’t like it.” The Captain eyed Loki over his shoulder. Loki eyed him back, gritting his teeth as his stomach dipped when their eyes locked.

“What, the Rock of Ages giving up so easily?

“I don’t remember it being that easy. This guy packs a wallop.”

Loki didn’t bother to hide that he was listening. He watched the soldier’s every move, unable to look away.

The false bond ached bittersweetly. It made it impossible for Loki to think clearly, made him want to touch his chest, rub right through his ribs to find it, hold it in his hand. Made him want to smile and cry at the same time, but more than anything, it terrified him.

With every moment he careened further into its grasp and if he held himself any more stiffly, he would break into tiny pieces. He suppressed the need to so much as twitch.

Thunder rumbled outside and Loki started, looking up and out into the night sky just as it crackled with a startling lightning flash.

No. He pressed against the restraints crossing his chest.

Suddenly, his entire plan teetered on an edge. It was now or never. The bond throbbed in pain and Loki didn’t think, instincts taking over.

The Captain turned and opened his mouth but before he could speak, Loki sent a surge of magic into the clasp buckling him in and threw himself forward, colliding against the Captain. Instinctively, the Captain’s arms went around his shoulders as though he meant to wrestle Loki to the ground, but momentum carried them both into the bulkhead.

From the corner of his eye Loki saw the Iron Man lunge, his red-gold arm passing through the void where their bodies had been a moment earlier as Loki pushed himself and the Captain off the jet, through a seam in space and into the mouth of a cave sunk into the side of the forested mountain below.

The Captain fell back, panting, eyes big in the darkness, hurriedly taking in the abrupt change of surrounds. He sprang to his feet and assumed a battle-ready stance, but Loki made a point of taking two steps back, arms flung out at his sides, hands open wide.

Magic tingled at his palms and inside him the clamour was reaching a thrumming frequency he was finding it increasingly difficult to manage. There wasn’t much time. He could not sense anything binding or marking the man, but The Other was subtle, even where the mad titan was not.

“What did they promise you in return for my torment?” Loki spat.

The soldier only blinked at him. “Where’s the cube?”

“Do not presume that I won’t kill you where you stand,” Loki‘s hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. It was overwhelming him, the thickness in his chest rising up into his throat.

“You can try,” the Captain said, giving Loki his side and rolling his shoulders. He had not had time to collect his shield before Loki whisked him from the jet but he was tenacious and he knew how to fight; Loki would not underestimate him.

The thing inside him whined and Loki did his level best to ignore it. He shook his head to clear it. Why were they doing this to him now? Loki’s plan was unfolding according to expectations, he had acquiesced to all their wishes… they were hobbling him with this unwanted distraction when he ought to be focusing solely on his takeover of Midgard. It made no sense.

“You’re being used as bait,” Loki said, watching confusion unwind on the man’s face.

“Start making sense real fast,” The Captain said, brows drawn together and that stubborn jaw flexing again.

Loki narrowed his eyes, pushing away images his mind insisted on conjuring up when he was asleep, but those eyes. They haunted him night and day, and the man whom they belonged to had no idea.

“It matters not what I say.”

The Captain looked up to the night sky overhead, as though expecting the answers to be sprawled across the skyline. “The hell it doesn’t. You caved in a facility, kidnapped our people and tried to take over a city. That matters. Apparently you’re not from around here so let me explain why.” He widened his stance and shaped up, naked fists clenching.

Loki laughed under his breath, hysteria creeping in. His advantage was lost. He could not kill this man.

“Do you feel it?” Loki couldn’t stand it one more second. Two quick strides brought him within arm’s reach.

The Captain’s eyes widened but he didn’t back away. Loki blinked, committing him to memory, the thick sweep of lashes, the proud bridge of his nose. He couldn’t think. He could barely speak, body shaking with the effort of holding back some sort of cataclysm.

He hadn’t realised he had raised his hand until his fingers found the pulse on the inside of the Captain’s wrist.

  

Everything around them moved at the touch.

The world flexed and sprang back into place with a visceral pop and a burst of delirious colour behind Loki’s eyelids. The Captain gasped, eyes wide and mouth falling open on a sharp exhale. Loki staggered, blood rushing past his ears. This could not be happening.

And yet, Loki’s fingertips tingled and he was aware of the Captain with every one of his senses, his magic licking at the man’s contours like flames on a pyre.

“Who are you,” the Captain said under his breath, eyes roaming Loki’s face the same way Loki had scanned his, and suddenly Loki was quite sure that the man was oblivious that he’d been used. Whatever The Other had done to him, it was without the Captain’s knowledge.

Overhead, the clouds parted around a thunderous lightning streak plummeting to earth and everything inside Loki howled when he let go of the Captain’s wrist and made himself step back. Gathering his magic, he stole one more glance at the Captain, hating himself a little more for wanting to stay by his side and ...what, exactly?

The enormity of his task suddenly hit him, overwhelming and pointless. He could no more harm this man than murder Frigga in cold blood. Knowing the bond was false did not render it powerless.

He squeezed his eyes shut and stepped neatly backwards and through the portal he’d used to bring them both here, leaving the Captain alone at the base of the mountain before Thor could reach them and ruin everything.

The Captain's uniform had been made of a coarse weave. Loki looked down at his shaking hands, rubbing his fingertips together. He swallowed around a lump in his throat.

Soon, the portal would be open. Selvig would see to it, eager to please Loki. The wheels had been set in motion. With any luck, neither Selvig nor Thanos would realise Loki had already deviated from the plan.

He rubbed absently at his chest, looking out at the thick woodland outside, the scent of turned earth lining his nose and rain plastering his hair to his neck.

For a fleeting moment it had seemed that the Captain felt something too; his brows had drawn together, a terrible question dancing in his eyes. Loki was not so naive as to think he would be feeling the echo of Loki’s pain - it was not Thanos’ style to bother with that level of detail; he was more the burn the crops and salt the fields type.

Still, the haunted look refused to leave Loki be and even as he stepped through a few more folds in space to trek deeper into the forest, Loki allowed himself to imagine that there was a reason the Captain did not re-engage him in combat.

 

 

Loki’s running.

He’s running down an alleyway.

He’s running down a long, dark alleyway and there aren’t any windows and no doors either; there's nothing at all but dirty brick walls and trash cans and his feet slapping in filthy puddles as he runs.

Someone's wheezing, desperate sucking breaths echoing off the walls of the alley and Loki realises it's him. He's the one making that noise, and it goes with the familiar - and also completely not - sensation of his lungs squeeze-squeeze-squeezing down tight, tighter, until it feels like he's trying to breathe through a straw.

He looks around for a doorway, somewhere to hide, but there's nothing and the alleyway is narrowing the closer he gets to the light at the end until it's so narrow he can't stand up, much less run.

There's someone behind him, heavy boots clomping, furious shouting bouncing on the back of his neck, you little punk, hey you little punk, we'll show you how to respect your betters, little punk, and Loki knows this, he knows the hiding and the running and he knows about trying to get his (magic) breath only to choke up when he needs it, before rough hands drag him out from behind the (stables) trash can, and if he can just get his hands up to his face, if he can just—

 ~ ⌘ ~

Loki woke shuddering, lungs bursting as though he’d been holding his breath underwater.

When he finally drew a full breath, it was of moist, cold air. The scent of mildew hung thickly in the little cabin, everything in its place, simple cooking utensils hung above a stone hearth and a table under the single window, everything covered in lichen and dust and signs of animals having broken in over the years. A perfect hideaway found by chance as he made his way through the forest.

Little by little he eased back down to the cot. It had been covered with moldy blankets which he’d replaced, stepping through a doorway of his own creation into a nearby town and some kind of supply house; various items stacked in neat formations one atop another, rows the height of a man housing various provisions. He’d walked the aisles in the dark, picking up this and that, threads of magic sensing out what he needed and bringing it to his hand. So convenient. Loki had stamped the place with a marker spell, making it easy to find again.

It was still dark outside. Midgard rested on the cusp of dawn and the rain had turned to lazy drizzle; Loki listened to it drip from the eaves of the cabin, splashing into puddles on the ground, matching the steady bleeding out of his anxiety as his breathing slowed. Nestled beneath his ribs, Thanos’ accursed parasite sputtered and glowed like coal stirred with a poker, unhappy at being so far from its quarry.

Loki watched a spider crawl over the ceiling, its legs throwing long, spindly shadows. He folded his hands under his head and forced himself not to think of that coarse fabric still tingling at the tips of his fingers.

Thanos would never let him be. Loki had never really believed he would.

His face burned red in shame when he thought back to how he had let himself be used, and how stupid he had been to believe this course of action would play out to his benefit.

Thanos would never release the curse; more like he would bind Loki with it somehow, dangle it in front of him and then enslave him.

Loki pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes and dredged deep to summon enough anger to displace the despair.

“No.” His voice rang clear in the empty cabin. “No.”

It took a very long time for morning to come and he did not sleep again.

The Chitauri were coming. By the time Loki had reached Stark’s Tower, it was already happening, the Tesseract drawing power with a steady pull he could feel in his bones.

Selvig looked adoringly at the device, face iridescent with the machine's eerie glow.

Above them, the portal had already begun to coalesce. Loki was too late. He could not stop it.

He wanted not to care, or even better, he wanted to want it to open and end his misery. He wished he still believed it would happen, that pleasing Thanos with the gift of the Tesseract would see Loki rewarded (there, pet) and that it would end all this pain. He wanted to stand back and let the invasion happen but even as these thoughts surfaced, he knew he would not.

He had to stop it.

Somewhere below, no doubt on his way up right now to stop him, the object of his fake heartsickness would die, and Loki’s breath hitched with the pressure of panicked laughter. He could not stand by while the Captain perished as a result of Loki's inaction, much less actually cause the man's death. It was unbearable.

Something inside him finally snapped free, coming to terms with a decision he had already made.

Loki pushed Selvig out of the way, sending a surge of magic into the core of the device, circling its energy with his own, like a pack assessing its prey, feeling for the alien power within. Its intensity made him stagger and he drew himself up, hands open at his sides, feet planted wide apart to take the strain of it.

"What are you doing?" Selvig shouted, eyes round with shock, as Loki, firmly braced, began to gather his magic about himself, pulling Seidr from the elements and manifesting it between his spread hands into a cloudy, boiling sphere.

"You must stop this!" Selvig lunged at him and was easily deflected with a flick of Loki's fingers, tumbling harmlessly away. Loki spared him no more thought. Soon, Selvig would be himself again - what Loki was about to do would free them all.

Loki focused wholly on the burning hot mass pulsing between his hands. His skin had begun to blister, hair singing away. He held firm, letting his magic snag energy from all around and spin, weaving it together into a ball as dense as a black star.

Overhead, the skies cracked with thunder, lightning spearing the skies.

“No,” Loki said under his breath, frantically scanning the skyline. There was no time for this now.

"Loki!" Thor's bellow shook the floor and Loki turned, bracing for violence, but Thor skidded to a halt like a big cat misjudging distance, watching him with wide, confused eyes, darting glances between Loki's face, the Tesseract device Selvig had built, and the ball of destruction forming between his hands. Loki blinked red from his eyes. Perhaps he did not need to explain.

"Brother, help me," Loki said through gritted teeth, the strain of holding so much energy at bay beginning to fray him, thread by thread.

Thor looked up to the skies where the portal hung above them—a bubbling mushroom sucking energy from the machine—then at Loki.

"What do you need me to do?" he said, and Loki could have cried in relief, wondering what Thor saw in his face that allowed him to look past everything that had happened between them, everything that Loki had done. What Loki really was.

As if on cue, the glamour of his pale skin began to ebb as Loki pushed all of his magic into the cataclysm between his hands. He stood before his brother, blue as the day he was born, all his masks burning away in the rising heat. Just as soon as it had turned blue, his body started to blacken. His coat snapped in the wind like a burning flag, the skin of his arms and face beginning to blister.

“Do not come any closer! He is attempting to disrupt the Tesseract!”

Loki did not turn at the familiar- sounding gassy outburst of energy. “You better be right, Fabio,” the Iron Man said from above.

"Thor, you must get it up into the portal," Loki shouted, voice hoarse and papery through his singed throat.

Thor looked uncertain. "Brother, will you—" His jaw clenched. Loki didn't even bother to respond. They both knew how this would end. Footsteps bounded up behind them and Loki’s heart crowded into his throat; he knew, before he turned, whom he would see.

Loki watched the Captain approach with his companion, the Widow all in black, skidding to a halt near the entrance to the landing. He allowed himself a long last glance, their eyes meeting across the landing and in that moment Loki was glad it was not real. This man, this Captain America, had such power over him. Loki would have let him do anything. He'd have let this man slide a blade between his ribs and he’d have smiled through it.

He forced himself to turn back to his task.

"Thor," he gritted out, and gave it one last heave, pulling all the Seidr he could sense into the roiling monster he had created, pushing it up into the sky, watching Thor aim and leap into the air after it, hammering it with a mighty slam right up into the path of the Tesseract’s energy flow.

They'd always made a good team, when they could stand the sight of each other, at any rate. Loki's mouth stretched in a painful grimace, watching Thor showboat through the sky and zip away from the blast as it travelled up and under the mushroom's cap.

He sensed its delivery, pulled up by the chest like a marionette on a string, helpless as the magic was sucked out of him by the vortex he’d created.

Above them, the mushroom collapsed in on itself, the resulting implosion booming over Midgard, shattering glass all over the city and bursting in Loki's ears like a painful pressure bubble in deep water. Then, the shockwave punched Loki in the chest and sent him sprawling limply to the ground.

Almost immediately he felt the dissipation of Thanos’ hold on him, the cataclysm above severing their connection. Loki’s lip split on a smile.

There were voices nearby. His body felt suspended in molasses, tingling all over and trapped in the waiting space between numbness and agony. He smelled something burning. Flesh. Skin. Himself. Pain was coming.

The sky had never looked quite so blue, not even on Asgard's clearest days. Nor had it ever been framed with sweeps of dark lashes.

Loki was crying, and that was amusing because these feelings were not even real but they were the strongest, most authentic emotions he had ever experienced and he was already mourning their loss.

Apples. There were apples nearby.

The thing in his chest radiated contentment. It should have gone when he’d collapsed the portal - he ought to be feeling its sudden absence but it was there, strong as ever. Stronger. It wasn’t possible. It wasn’t fair.

Someone held his shoulders. He did not know what CPR was and he wished for whoever was shouting about it to cease. Hurt ebbed and flowed at him, licking at exposed nerves.

With the last vestiges of his magic, Loki slipped his body sideways into elsewhere, taking the memory of that startling blue with him into the blessed silence of the void. 

Chapter Text

He has lost control of the vessel and it’s falling out of the sky. Loki’s stomach lodges in his throat. The snowed-over wasteland below stretches out ice-blue forever and all he can hear is the whine and scrape of metal trying to hold together under extreme pressure, grinding and shearing and screeching. Loki has a white-knuckled grip on the steering but it’s useless. Dead. He cannot make it budge.

It isn't Jotunheim down there and Loki is not falling from Asgard, but a certainty keeps him upright nonetheless: in this very moment he is losing everything. The paradox is that he is also saving it. An echo of his own voice sounds in his head, a distressed shout, “HEIMDALL!”

Loki has known the guardian all of his life and yet he’s confused, thinking, what? Who?

A blink, and Loki is standing in the cockpit, no longer holding on to the controls. A man stands beside him - it is himself, Loki knows without looking up and yet it’s a crimson gauntlet on the hand beside him, a blue tactical uniform. Loki looks then, he can’t not.

The Captain’s eyes are heavy with regret and there are unsaid words hanging between them, his mouth open as though he has just finished speaking, but Loki cannot understand, not even by watching the Captain’s mouth form the words again and again.

The Captain holds Loki's magic between his two gloved hands - the ball he had sent up to destroy the Chitauri portal. It glows and sputters until it morphs into an enormous serpent, throwing the Captain's face in sickly relief and burning his gauntlets away, burning his hands, spitting out rays of deadly fire between his fingers. Loki watches in horror as the Captain's hands begin to smoke and blacken, the serpent’s sleek body turning and twisting upon itself.

He wants to knock the creature out of the Captain's hands but he’s powerless, suddenly trapped and pounding his fists against an invisible barrier. Helpless, watching, Loki feels the Captain’s pain and the despair is like a hot knife being driven up under his ribs.

His own shouts reverberate in his ears, but they’re deadened, like the clang of rocks underwater as he fights to move, to get to the Captain. His clothes are too heavy, waterlogged, until they harden and set and when Loki tries to look down, he can’t, he’s trapped in ice, can’t breathe, can’t—

~ ⌘ ~ 

Loki forced himself awake and lay gasping for air, half expecting his nightmare to have followed him into life.

Outside, incessant rain drummed on the roof and splished into puddles.

His body was still tender and though most of the burns had healed, Loki thought it would be a long time before his nose was clear of the smell of his own charred flesh. Finding his way back here to the forest was a hazy smear of a memory.

He had survived, unconscious for the most part, waking to equal parts relief and dismay at finding the bond strong as ever. It meant that the Captain was alive and well, so Loki had succeeded. It also meant another thing.

"Why do you not leave me be," he said, letting the words collect in the cobwebs under the rafters. The cabin was silent and the rain fell and fell.

It should have ended the moment the portal closed; Loki had felt Thanos’ hold on him whispering away into the void yet here Loki lay, still burning. The blight in Loki's chest remained, thumping along with his own heartbeat, and there was only one explanation for that

There was no gasping, shocked discovery. It was like taking a deep, clean breath. Loki blinked up at the ceiling.

It had always been real.

He had wasted so much time fighting it, and it had been real all along and Steve Rogers was real and Loki was not insane and none of it mattered because he was still alone.

Loki pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, body quaking with low laughter.

The little cabin in the woods, long abandoned, overgrown and quiet, was a perfect oubliette.

Loki hunted when hunger came creeping, snaring small game as he and Thor had been taught so long ago. Loki’s technique was rusty, bladework honed for fighting rather than dressing game, but he persevered, fending off memories of sleeping at Thor’s side under the stars too many times to remember.

Loki had not let those memories get to him in so long. He supposed the pyre he’d made for himself had burned through many of his barriers. Above the Midgardian forest treeline, the skies were littered with unfamiliar patterns but if he stretched out on his back among the oaks and fragrant spruce, the universe seemed big enough for it not to matter.

His hold on magic was still tenuous. For the most part he stayed in the cabin, hovering always close to it. It felt like a good place to lick his wounds. He lived like a hermit and wanted for nothing because there was nothing he wanted. If he concentrated on this existence and nothing else, he could almost forget the aching pull south, always south, that simmered away in his chest.

He would always know where the Captain was now - the moment they touched had marked them both and the bond had matured right along with that first touch, completing the connection between them; Loki knew this in theory, had read so much about the subject he considered himself an authority. Of course, knowing something in an academic sense did not mean that its actual experience was rendered any easier to bear.

When he ventured out among people, whether it be to their approximation of a library - pitiful, the internet was proving so much more interesting and yet the smell and sentiment was familiar enough to make him return again and again - or for provisions, it was always under cover of night and magic; he slid over human perception like a slight skew of light, a shadow without form. Loki walked on the periphery of their awareness.

Standing by a densely enclosed woodland creek, Loki eyed his reflection, rippling over river rocks worn smooth by centuries of current. The blood-red of his eyes formed a startling contrast to the serene expanse of late autumn grey and brown, a bruise of sky above.

He had not bothered to assume his Aesir form; there was nobody to comment on his appearance or its significance in this Midgardian wilderness. He walked in his own skin for the first time and there was nobody to care.

It did not escape him that he lived now as the Jotnar did, solitary and self-sufficient, and his hands, though finally fully healed, were often blackened with dirt, the cabin adorned with scatterings of acorns and bouquets of fragrant foliage.

He had been taught to scorn ways of life other than those of Asgard, to think them primitive and base. The more he learned of himself in these quiet forest days, the harder it became to stomach it.

The dreams continued to harangue him like wolves in the night, glowing eyes dotting the darkness beyond his reach. He hunted and slept and thought and in amongst it all, the dreams came for him more often, each one leaving him with the press of such great longing that he no longer knew which he resented more, the sleeping or the waking.

 

When Loki was small, he and Thor would sneak from the palace grounds and tear off to a land bound lake nearby to fish and hunt. They’d built a rickety shelter up in the branches of an enormous tree and would lie on their backs with their spoils carelessly strewn about along with their shoes and clothes if it had been warm enough to swim.

They’d hang their heads over the edge of the cubby and Loki would tell awful jokes he’d overheard at table and Thor would laugh, oh, how they’d both laugh, hard enough to hurt and for their eyes to water and the rough wood of the floor to dig into their shaking shoulders. Loki’s nose would tingle with the scent of freshness and breeze would cool his sweaty skin and everything he knew so well, every tree and mountain top and spire stretching out in the distance was new and strange when looking at the world upside down.

Autumn rotted away and Midgard fell into the clutches of its winter. The blue of Loki’s skin seemed to get richer as the weather turned colder. He had taken lately to studying the markings on his skin and the cabin lay strewn with journals and paper lifted from the store, covered with notations and sketches of parts of his own body, and it was just like those days when he looked at everything he thought he knew with upside down eyes.

On a whim, Loki built a little fire and set it to burn in the old hearth. He did not need the warmth but the glow and crackle were pleasant companions and his skin turned a burnished bronze in the firelight.

A puddle had collected on the floor, rainwater seeping through a hole in the roof. Loki knelt by it. The orange glow made him look surreal, and he thought to make more sketches of the markings on his face but he could not seem to find his focus, thoughts returning again and again to the same place. The same person.

He lifted his hand and sent a tendril of magic to curl along the bond, caressing its coiling energy. Its healthy substance made him shiver, it was so much stronger than ever before. Loki felt his magic speeding along it, gathering momentum the closer it came to its destination. His heart clamoured against his ribs.

Loki looked upon his own reflection in the watery puddle, eyes gleaming in the dark silhouette of his face. With a flutter of fingers along the surface, he scried right through it as he would a mirror, anchoring to the magic speeding along the corded vine of the bond.

And then he was there, and he thought his heart would drown, longing crashing against him in waves.

The bond manifested like gold spun thread through the vision, casting a glow on everything around it, on the Captain sitting among his friends, an easy smile on his face. He said something - Loki’s vision was silent, but still he watched the Captain’s mouth form the words.

To his right, the red-headed Widow sat with watchful poise, guarded even in safe company; one killer knew another and Loki noted her well before dismissing her and everyone else from his mind and focusing on the one person who truly interested him. Someone else spoke, diverting attention their way and the Captain’s eyes cut to the side like he was considering some distant thought. He was rubbing at his chest, fingers kneading in. Loki bit his lip.

He watched for a long time; as long as it took for the Captain and his friends to tire, and even then he followed along in the wake of the Captain’s departure as he made for his quarters. He paused at the door and cocked his head as though listening to a distant sound, then slowly looked up and directly into Loki’s eyes.

Before Loki could do so much as blink, the Captain shook his head on a lopsided grin and turned away, appearing to mutter under his breath. By the time Loki had recovered from the shock, the Captain had disappeared behind the door.

Loki turned away from the puddle, his heart pounding and blood rushing past his ears.

They hadn’t meant to disturb the nest but what was done, could not be undone. Thor looked guiltily at the two tiny nestlings, one dead from the fall, and the other flapping weakly on the ground. Loki knelt and reached to scoop it from the dirt.

“No, Loki, once you touch it, their parents will reject it. It will die of exposure.”

Loki scratched his neck, thinking of the cruelty of creatures that would abandon their young to die, just like that.

“We cannot leave it, it will die anyway.”

Thor scrunched his face but did not stop Loki from nursing the little bird all the way home.

Loki fed it as the wisewomen instructed and carried it tucked in his doublet until it was fat and healthy and a she. When he took his eyes off her and she slipped right off the balcony, he cried out in fear, then in joy as she flew off into the distance, only to come back again. He called her Gala for her pretty song. For a time, they were inseparable, and then one day he woke to find her stiff and cold on the floor of his rooms.

“Why,” he sobbed into Frigga’s skirts. “Why did she have to die, I fed her, I looked after her, I did everything right.” Loki’s heart hurt. Frigga’s hand was soft on his hair.

“All living things must take their turn upon the wheel, Loki. Some creatures do not live as long as we do,” she told him, and rubbed his back and dried his face, but it did not make Loki feel any better to realise that picking Gala up that first day had not changed the outcome, no matter how he loved her.

The sky is white as ice but Loki isn't cold. Fingers stroke his face, calloused and warm, tracing the curve of his cheeks. Soft, dry lips move over his mouth, a catch and release so perfect he thinks he might die from it, from the deep pull low in his belly at this, just a kiss.

Loki drowns in the sweetness, sinks into it, his whole body heavy and lax, as warm as if he were a cat that had fallen asleep in the sun. He grasps wide shoulders, hands spreading out over planes of muscle broad enough to build on, to stake claims into. He wants only this, to never let go, scratching and scrabbling at the familiar rough fabric weave lashed tight under the wide leather straps of the Captain’s shield-bearing harness, and then it’s gone, simply no longer there as is the way of dreams, nothing between Loki's greedy hands and miles and miles of smooth, hot skin.

Loki turns his face up for kisses. He’s weighted down by a big, warm body, the heat of a mouth and hands and intent turning his insides to liquid gold and it feels like dying, like losing himself. Loki's limbs dissolve in surrender at the pleasure of a simple press of lips, rough fingertips stroking his chest, his shivering stomach, oh, oh yes—

 ~ ⌘ ~

He woke wide-eyed before dawn to the alien chorus of Midgard’s stirring birdlife, his back arching right off the bed for more of that phantom touch.

Loki sank into his coverlets with a sigh and parted his thighs, touching himself with a light hand. He had committed Rogers’ visage to memory. It was no hardship now to take off the mask of the Captain and recall Rogers’ lush pout and to imagine it parting to fit against his own mouth.

Loki smiled, lazy and warm, and surrendered to the dream’s memory, bringing himself relief with sure strokes of one hand while the other rested against his lips. He pressed his fingertips between his teeth, dragged his thumb over his mouth, pretending, clutching at the dream’s remains.

He would kiss Rogers just like this, a little rough, a little soft, he’d nibble at his mouth and flick the tip of his tongue, gently, gently hooking Rogers’ lip with it, reeling him in, eating him up, their tongues would brush and tease and flit away from each other and he’d make sounds, Loki knows he would, he’d breathe fast and hard while Loki wrecked him and—

He came with a pained ah, ah, punched out of him, surprised and blinking at the ceiling.

It had been so long. The smile fell away as his pleasure dissipated and he lay still, his eyes falling shut.

The sky lightened to grey outside and the birds trilled their happy songs until it was time for them to quiet. The moon rose and the rain began anew, and still Loki lay on his narrow bed and imagined, and brought himself near to ruin.

 

Rogers knew he was being watched.

Loki had not been certain before, but it was right there written in the tense set of his shoulders - they gave him away like nothing else had. He had known for days, though Loki had been very careful not to give away his presence, steady and quiet and keeping to the shadows.

Loki sat on a rooftop and watched from above, legs dangling over an awning as Rogers made his way down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, finally to stop in front of a shop window. Loki leaned in for a closer look.

Apparently Rogers was interested in bicycles. Childrens' bicycles.

Loki tilted his head; nothing on the internet had indicated Rogers had children in his life, but the fact that Loki had not considered this possibility at all made his blood run cold.

"Fool," he muttered under his breath. As if it made a difference; it was not as though he would ever— and even if Rogers ever—

Loki bit the inside of his cheek and shook off the thought like a cat caught in drizzle.

Rogers stood at the shopfront display with casual ease, hands deep in his pockets, looking over the merchandise, various types of wheels suspended from the ceiling and a little party of kids’ bikes with streamers tied to the handlebars. He took a phone from his pocket, and Loki had spent enough time on Midgard to recognise that he was launching the camera and flipping the viewfinder.

"Oh, clever," Loki mused, pleasantly surprised, as Rogers used the camera to discreetly scan the street behind him. “You sense me watching you.”

Of course he could; Rogers angled this way and that, getting a good scan of the human traffic passing by on the busy street without ever turning around or making it look like anything more than casually checking his messages. His jaw clenched in frustration at finding nothing of note.

Rogers’ screen caught flashes of glare as he angled the phone up, and Loki caught his breath even though there was no possibility of being spotted. Still, he plucked at the threads of magic around him to ensure his glamour was sound and made fists to still the trembling of his hands.

With the phone back in his pocket, Rogers went on his way, Loki trailing in his wake, light footed over rooflines, balancing on balcony rails until Rogers came to a halt in front of a shop, Antykwariat in weathered, old script penned on the window.

A book store. When Rogers entered, Loki rose and stepped neatly off the roof.

He walked to the window and peered in between the lettering, catching the last of an exchange between Rogers and the shopkeeper, friendly, clearly acquainted, and it showed in the ease with which Rogers navigated the shop.

Before long, there was a smudge of dust on his hand and matching finger tracks on the cover of the book he held spread open between his fingers. Loki eyed the bulk of his shoulders, the flip of his collar against his neck, unprepared for the surge of need, an itch beneath his skin driving him to get closer. 

 

A deep pang resounded in his chest, a stab of emotion so great he slumped against the glass.

When he blinked away the haze and looked up, Rogers was looking right back. Adrenalin surged like a wave of sparks under his skin and Loki froze, tingling from head to foot.

Rogers’ brows drew together. After a beat, Loki shifted his weight, moving out of Rogers’ line of sight. Seconds ticked by and eventually Rogers blinked away, passing a hand over his face, frustration etched in the tight line of his mouth.

The moment had broken, and Loki had to step away from the window, lest he tumble straight through it.

It meant nothing. Rogers had simply suspected he was being followed; he was a battle-hardened warrior after all. It meant nothing that he had sensed Loki. Nothing at all.

His stupid, ill-matched bond did not care. It simply burned brighter and pined harder.

It went so: Thor would lie awake hours after Father had done with him. By the time their voices had deepened, Thor had long since stopped sniffing into his pillow afterwards. Loki never said a word, glad that he did not attract Odin’s ire nearly as often as his brother. Of course, Odin would have to pay Loki attention at all for that to happen.

Thor was already as big and ungainly as one of the swordsmith’s hounds, but Loki would swallow down the small resentments and budge over to make room for Thor in his bed and lie beside him in silence until they finally slept.

Neutralising Stark's AI's perception of his presence required a careful hand but Loki managed it without exerting himself and now walked undetected within the Tower. He had learned the lesson of hiding from JARVIS the day he'd wandered in, shielded from human eyes, only to set off a motion sensor in the foyer. Adapting to this unforeseen eventuality had been an interesting diversion. Now, he came and went as it pleased him.

“But it’s so close, you can’t leave now,” said Stark, around a mouthful of sandwich.

“The hell I can’t,” Rogers replied, not sparing a look back as he made his way to the elevator. Banner shrugged and stretched out on the couch Rogers had just vacated.

“I thought you wanted to catch up on popular culture, how’re you gonna do that if you bail on the important parts?”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full, it’s disgusting.” Rogers was already at the elevator. “And it’s less popular culture and more ritual humiliation.”

“To be fair, I hardly think The Bachelor constitutes important parts of anything,” Banner mused quietly, undeterred by Stark’s betrayed glower.

Loki grinned. He liked Banner. He also liked Banner’s barely tethered beast.

“Well, sure it’s a little cut-throat, but they know what they’re in for. Hell, they probably like it. What’s not to like about watching souped up, ultra competitive, tiny butt— Oh wait.” Stark narrowed his eyes. “Anyway, you could learn a few things.”

“So could you. Like minding your own business.”

“Well they don’t teach that on The Bachelor, we watching the same show here? I meant dating, grandpa, you could learn a few things about dating.”

“We’re definitely not watching the same show,” Rogers said, shaking his head. “And if you think this drivel constitutes good dating advice, Pepper must’ve done all the wooing.”

Stark grinned fondly. “Oh yeah. She wooed me six ways to Sunday. I played hard to get, it was glorious.”

“If you’re the prize, doesn’t say much for the other contenders.”

“Oh no you didn’t.” Stark turned to Banner, disbelief on his face. “Oh no he didn't.”

“Better get some ointment on that burn,” Banner said, grinning. The elevator doors closed just in time, the cushion Stark threw after Rogers bouncing off harmlessly.

Loki didn’t stay, he left Banner and Stark to their bickering and quietly made his way out of the Tower and down to the park. He settled on a bench and watched stripes of sun flit over people’s shoulders as they went about their business. Rogers came here often, sometimes just to walk, sometimes to draw. Loki did not have to wait long to see if his gamble would pay off. Rogers’ nearing figure had his complete attention; Loki sat and watched his approach, digging his fingers into his thighs, sitting so, so still.

The afternoon was already turning but still Rogers sat and reached for his journal and a pencil. Loki noted the relaxed slope of his shoulders, the edge where dark blond hairline met tan nape. He watched Rogers’ arm move in a quick back-and-forth as his pencil hatched lines across paper. The waning sun turned his leather jacket from brown to marmelade.

Loki swallowed hard, grappling with the overwhelming sense that he was on the cusp of touching something so precious that his heart hurt, so golden and fragile and perfect.

Loki watched Rogers sketch until the sun began to sink below the treeline, casting the park in its dying light. Shadows had lengthened and Rogers’ bright, open features caught a moodier, darker edge. His jaw looked carved in stone and oh, how Loki wanted him.

Dusk was falling and the warmth seeped from the air. Rogers had ceased his sketching and now sat with the pencil held loosely between his fingers. Carefully, Loki came around and sat on the bench beside Rogers, looking down at the sketch in his hands. Loki pulled in a sharp breath.

It was surprisingly confident; the strokes precise, elegant. His capture had been true to subject and well done: a slender, lone figure standing beneath the broad sweep of a tree, its gnarled trunk and twisted branches like an umbrella.

Rogers cleared his throat, casting restless eyes on the mostly empty park around them.

"Loki."

Loki's heart leapt into his throat. He watched in disbelief as Rogers turned in his seat and edged slightly towards where Loki sat cloaked in his magic. His eyes focused just beyond Loki, staring over his shoulder like a blind man. Then he looked down, and Loki followed his line of sight to where his boots, though cloaked from sight, left two distinct sole prints in the grass.

“I know you’re here.”

Slowly, he reached out his hand and Loki stayed absolutely still as Rogers’ fingers hovered inches above his arm.

"You've been following me, and I wanna know why." Rogers’ hand lowered, and Loki watched it with a sense of foreboding, his heart pounding in his ears. He had grossly underestimated Rogers. Absurdly, it left him feeling pleased.

The bond hummed true like an instrument which had just been tuned and warmth spread through Loki’s chest, then out to his limbs. He wanted to launch himself at Rogers and kiss him senseless, he wanted to run away and never come back, to crawl in under Rogers’ skin and consume him and to cover him up, enfold him, protect him and never ever let him go.

It was too much, too much. Loki’s eyes prickled, his throat burning with the hot rock that his heart had become.

“My name is Steve Rogers, but you know that already,” Rogers said, and it was so absurd, the whole situation. Gently, as if wrangling a spooked animal, Rogers’ fingers brushed Loki’s sleeve for the briefest of moments before Loki moved, displacing a flurry of leaves in his wake and leaving the grass to reclaim and erode the imprints of his boots.

 

“Who is she?” Loki asked.

Mother’s visitor was very tall, and her gown shimmered like the night sky full of stars. In her hands she held a basket covered with cloth. Beneath it something glowed like warm honey. It spoke to him. Loki’s magic tingled.

One always brought a gift when visiting someone, even Loki knew that and he was only small. Loki thought it must be gold and riches. He wondered why Mother would want more of those.

“It is the Lady Idun, keeper of the orchard,” Thor said, squirming in their hiding place. “Can we go and ride now? I’m bored. It is so hot in here.”

“All right,” Loki said, thumping Thor on the leg to stop him fidgeting. “Wait until she has gone inside. Do you think it is gold in that basket?”

Thor rolled his eyes and cuffed his head. “Apples, stupid. Father always eats one of her apples when he wakes from Odinsleep. Lady Idun always comes when he is due.”

“Oh,” Loki said, wishing very hard that he could see the apples for himself. In truth, he could not take his eyes off the lady as she neared Mother’s chambers. He could have sworn she looked directly at him as she passed, but surely that could not be. Under the ornate staircase was one of Loki’s favourite and best hiding places, and one he had grudgingly shared with Thor, let alone strange shimmering ladies bearing golden apples.

 

Loki stayed away for several days, driving himself mad with the possibilities, the endless search for meaning. Rogers should not have been able to sense him, enhanced abilities notwithstanding. No one short of a powerful sorcerer, and perhaps Thor, should have so much as suspected his presence, and that was only because Thor always suspected his presence.

He woke more often than not covered with a sheen of sweat, ghosts of touch pebbling his skin. This night though, he had managed to stay away for days and the dreams which woke him had been disturbing, a sense of lurking danger tugging on his consciousness. Loki sat bolt upright in his narrow cot.

The anxiety rolling off his connection with Rogers had Loki leaping from the cot and into a blur of armour, running from his cabin to follow the pull. It took him north, and further north still until he had stepped through several secret pathways and left night behind to find himself on the opposite side of Midgard’s globe, just in time to witness a derelict apartment building shudder, then begin to disintegrate.

Someone was screaming.

The street below was littered with people running for cover. Loki looked up where the building seemed to have exploded from within, a dusty but familiar silhouette standing on the edge of the precipice, attempting to breach an enormous gap which had opened up in the floor.

Loki’s stomach gave a sickly lurch as the landing disappeared from under Rogers’ feet, falling away in slow-motion. His fall seemed almost gentle as Loki watched in horror, feeling like his own heart was falling too, the vertigo sucking him in, pulling him down. Below, jagged chunks of reinforced concrete reached up, steel latticework glinting in the sun.

Loki didn’t think, he simply splayed his fingers and power burst out of him. The prongs began to peel back and fan out like the petals of an enormous metal flower.

When Rogers hit the ground, the whole massive pile of debris - concrete, steel and all - crumbled on impact, pulverised beneath him like safety glass, yielding as though Rogers’ body was the unstoppable force.

He was too still.

Loki ran. He pushed magic at the rubble, sweeping it from his path and skidded to a halt, going to his knees along Rogers’ prone body.

Scooting closer, he gently splayed his hands over Rogers' stomach, eyes looking for the telltale spread of blood and fingers flitting over plackets and belts on his chest, until his hands were curled over Rogers' shoulders, his palms rasping over that tough fabric he remembered so well.

Loki's thumbs strayed between the wings of Rogers’ collar. His fingers shook as he pressed in, searching for the thump of his heartbeat. The bond fluttered inside him like a swarm of butterflies at the touch, and Loki gasped a small and bewildered laugh at having found it strong, Rogers’ breast rising and falling. The relief was staggering, the bond pulsing with it, shining.

Blinking his eyes clear of the dust, Loki traced the contours of Rogers' jaw until he held it cradled in his hands. Inside him, the bond sang, pitch perfect and resonant. He had never felt anything like this overwhelming, choking-thick emotion.

Rogers’ mouth parted on a shaky inhale, and Loki looked up and straight into his blinking eyes. For a long moment, they simply stared at each other. Loki's heart thudded in his ears. Rogers was seeing him raw, dishevelled hair and Jotun skin streaked with dirt.

Loki's hands sprang away.

"Wait," Rogers croaked, rising up on his elbows. He coughed, turning away to spit dust. When he looked back, Loki was already well away, Aesir pale and perfectly still among swirling clouds of dust.

"Was that you? Did you do that?"

Was he asking if Loki had caused the explosion or if he had been the one to help? Would it matter?

Loki looked away, listening. Something was coming. He cocked his head until he was sure, then,

"Your friends are approaching, Steve Rogers."

Rogers sat up, shaking the dust from his hair. He looked like he was about to say something but the building gave a rumble around them. He got to his feet, holding his ribs. They stared at each other, a mess of broken concrete between them.

Loki's fingers had smeared the dirt on Rogers’ face, pink skin peeking through soot. Loki's heart gave a pained thud. He turned away so he wouldn't have to look at his moment of weakness.

"Wait, I wanna talk to you!" Rogers shouted at Loki's retreating back. He was gone before the echo of Rogers’ words had time to dissipate.

Chapter Text

Loki’s warm, lean body undulates against him and Steve buries his nose in tangled hair, breathing in until his lungs are full of the scent. He tags Loki down with one hand, splaying his fingers over the small of Loki’s narrow back, thumbing the swell of his ass. He knees Loki’s legs apart, bullies his way in between and settles the weight of his hips down with a groan, both of them feeling it, two bodies sweating and moving together, so deep-down good. Steve aches for it.

He wants in, wants to push his way inside so much that it hurts and that’s why he doesn’t do it, that’s why he presses his forehead between pale shoulder blades and rubs his cock between Loki’s long thighs instead. He won’t be rushed now.

Steve anchors himself to Loki with arms braced under his chest until they’re pushing against each other in a delicious simulation of what real fucking’s gonna be like, sticking with sweat, both of them touching all down the length of their bodies, Steve’s mouth on Loki’s neck and his cock tucked behind Loki’s balls, their feet tangled together, flexing against the sheets.

He rolls his hips slow, then faster, just how he’d like to work himself in with a tight screw of hips and how they’d fit together to get him in so deep, so deep, a promise of how he’ll lay Loki down and have him pinned and gasping for it, for Steve to work him over real good.

Fisting a handful of black hair, Steve mouths at the jut of shoulder beneath it, tastes salt there, and Loki turns his head a little until they can look at each other while Steve fucks down between Loki’s thighs and that’s when he knows, that’s when he feels it, they’re looking wide-eyed at each other, stunned because they’re both thinking it, both of them in this dream together and sharing it, and it’s Steve’s dream, Loki’s been sucked into Steve’s dream and they’re, oh god, they’re—

 ~ ⌘ ~

Loki woke panting, the bond thrumming and feverish inside him. The cabin reverberated with his frustrated howl.

He did not bother to repair the scorch marks burned into the walls.

 

Stark’s Tower hummed quietly, JARVIS’ watchful eyes blind to Loki’s presence. He followed the pull of the bond, letting it direct him up and up, past the common areas he was already familiar with to where Stark had outfitted apartments for each of his avenging guests. The closer he came to Rogers’ quarters, the harder his heart pounded.

As he neared the door, it occurred to him that perhaps he ought to have waited until daylight, but the intelligence he had gathered would not keep.

Touching the keypad, Loki silently let himself in.

Rogers did not live here; he had a rustic Brownstone and kept an apartment within it. Loki had followed him there more than once, at first just wanting to see how Rogers lived, and then, well.

It was a comfortable home. It looked lived in: a potted plant on the window, the window-side lusher than the room-side, a little clutter here and there, a slide of dust where Rogers had plucked a book from its home on the bookshelf. It was well furnished, Rogers’ presence visible in a blanket loosely thrown over the arm of a couch, in the yet to be washed glass in the sink.

The last time Loki visited there, green apples had been piled into a bowl on the table. Loki had stared at them for a long time.

By comparison to that cosy home Rogers had made for himself, his apartment at Stark’s Tower was laid out in an open expanse, practically gleaming with costly fittings. On silent feet, Loki poked into each corner, leaving the bedroom till last. The door was wide open, a bed beyond it, covers askew. Rogers lay sprawled among them, his body rising and falling with each deep breath.

It was hard to believe that he had been born sickly and small.

A thought scratched at the back of Loki’s mind.

Echoing exactly how the bond had manifested - not a call in the night so much as a whimper of a stuttered heartbeat, Rogers had come into the world unsure whether to live or to die. Loki came closer to the bed. Rogers lay on his stomach, one arm flung over the side of the mattress, knuckles grazing the floor.

Loki had scoured the internet for information about how Steven Grant Rogers had become Captain America. The night he himself had been jolted awake feeling like a sun had been born in his chest - was it possible? Did those events align, somehow? Could it have been the same moment Rogers had received the serum? Could the crippling loss Loki had felt all those years ago be counted back to Rogers crashing the Valkyrie into the ice?

Loki had been right there, when it happened. Rogers had just gone into the ice and lay frozen beneath Loki’s feet, and would remain so for nearly a century and Loki never knew.

All that pain, those years of lonely denial - he could have averted them all, had he but looked harder, searched deeper.

Loki's hands curled into fists at his sides. He turned and walked from the room.

Rogers' satchel lay on a bureau. Loki sat, the urgency of his errand forgotten, tendrils of magic peeling buckles away from straps until its innards lay open for his inspection. He slid Rogers' sketchbook out with his fingertips and sat at the desk, the city nightlife flickering over his hands as he turned the pages.

He did not move until sounds reached him from the bedroom. Rogers was still asleep, but he’d rolled to his back, and his massive chest moved erratically. Loki no longer cared that he’d meant to be gone before Rogers woke, it didn’t seem important anymore, now that beads of sweat had sprung up on Rogers brow as he thrashed in his sheets.

The sounds of distress he made were so visceral, Loki felt the word leave his mouth before he realised he had spoken.

“Captain.”

Rogers woke with such a jolt, he nearly fell out of bed. Loki stepped neatly out of the room. He put his back to the wall and stood against it watching the bedroom doorway, silent and still as Rogers untangled his legs and kicked his snarled covers away.

He was covered in a sheen of sweat; Loki could see it even in the darkness. His hands were shaking as he pushed his fingers through his hair. The city lights filtered brightly in from outside, flickering strips of light over his face, and for a moment before he schooled his expression, it was so anguished Loki’s heart plummeted.

“Thanks, JARVIS,” Rogers said, voice still thick from sleep. The rasp of it walked like fingers up Loki's spine. The bond thrilled like strummed wire and Loki bit his lip to choke back the response his body wanted to make. Rogers looked around the apartment, rubbing away the vestiges of sleep with the heels of his hands.

“May I ask what for, Captain Rogers?”

“For waking me up. It was . . . not a nice dream.”

“I did nothing, Captain. I was not aware that I should wake you if you appear to be experiencing REM sleep patterns—”

“JARVIS, light.”

“Yes, Captain,” JARVIS answered, tone polite as ever. The bedroom gradually started to brighten with the glow of Rogers' bedside lamp. The lines of his body were tense, nothing left of the loose, heavy sprawl from earlier.

Rogers tipped his chin. “Seen enough?”

Not nearly, Loki thought, the effort of swallowing a burst of manic laughter making his insides hurt.

After a beat, JARVIS' replied. “I beg your pardon, Captain, but I’m not sure what you mean. I have, of course, been monitoring your quarters just as I do all of the rooms in the tower.”

Rogers huffed a laugh, the tension in his body abating a little as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "Oh, I didn't mean you, JARVIS," Rogers said. "But . . . wait. You monitor the whole tower, right?”

“Of course, sir. Would you like to see the playback from this apartment?”

Rogers straightened up and blinked slowly.

“You can do that? Wait, what am I saying. 'Course you can do that.”

“Indeed, sir.”

Rogers finally extricated himself from the mess of sheets and rose from his bed. He stepped into the ensuite, pausing briefly in the entrance to look over his shoulder at the empty apartment, gaze pausing at his desk and on his opened satchel, the journal lying abandoned beside it.

"Thanks, JARVIS, don’t worry about that playback," he said quietly, before entering the bathroom and gently closing the door behind him.

"Yes, sir," JARVIS said

Loki let his head thump gently to the wall. He could not control the smile on his face. He had no intention of showing himself, but none of leaving, either.

Rogers was an open flame and Loki was the moth, a creature of night drawn to the light. Loki wasn't sure which was more dangerous - that Rogers unknowingly had such power over him or that Loki no longer felt healthy fear of it.

Rogers took only a few moments, emerging from the bathroom and making his way to the desk. He sat in the very chair Loki had recently vacated, the back of his neck gleaming with a few stray water droplets.

Loki edged closer, coming to stand just a few feet from the desk. Rogers' shoulders tensed. The air between them crackled with energy and Loki could see Rogers making an effort not to turn around.

“I know you’re here,” Rogers said, quietly. “Stop running.”

“Captain?”

“It’s all right, JARVIS. Stand by for a moment.”

Rogers picked up his journal from the desk where Loki had dropped it, and flicked through the pages, huffing into a smile that Loki could only see the edge of. The bottom of each page had been marked; Loki saw the exact moment Rogers realised it, flicking through fast enough for the illustrations to come to life. He had made Rogers a flip book.

The animation was of a creature Loki had spied earlier that day. He watched Rogers' face open up in recognition as the shape of its sleek carapace was revealed, a replica of something he and his Avengers had encountered a few weeks ago following reports of several people going missing in Queens.

Stark had called it a bug hunt.

They'd found a nest, dispatched its inhabitants, and cleaned out the whole ugly mess though not without cost. The creatures had bled a corrosive substance and killing them quickly became problematic.

It had burned a smear into Rogers' shield, and eaten clean through a section of Stark's suit - he'd been lucky to shuck the gauntlet before it had leeched through to his flesh. They'd been careful after that, working out a strategy of scooping the creatures out of the sewers. Loki had quietly dispatched a few himself, managing for his contribution to remain unnoticed in the scrum.

Loki pushed at the animation and its cartoonish antennae twitched about. Rogers grinned, looking amazed and suddenly so young that Loki found it harder to breathe. He made the creature clean its face with its forelegs.

Rogers brows furrowed together like he was waiting for the thing to explain itself, and Loki relented, letting it paint the picture he needed Rogers to see, the creature's shape swelling to include a lumpy sack carried snug under its abdomen.

"Son of a bitch," Rogers said, the open delight instantly gone from his face.

The journal flipped without prompting and kept going even as the pages ran out, the animation stepping straight from the paper and into thin air where its cartoonish legs bore it over an abstract representation of the New York cityscape.

Rogers watched it with a sort of grim intensity as one building became sketched with particularly strong, solid lines and his face lifted in recognition of the landmark. The creature disappeared under the building and the animation came to an end, the spell dissipating into mist.

Rogers flicked through it one more time, then carefully sifted through the rest of the journal, his own sketches revealed: Stark bent over his workbench, an interesting play of light on the Widow’s face, and Loki, again and again, the sharp cut of his nose unmistakeable amongst a tangle of inky hair, Rogers' signature etched underneath.

 

Rogers slumped and shook his head. Loki’s shoulders shook in silent laughter.

“JARVIS, is Tony awake?”

“Yes, sir. Mister Stark is in his workshop.”

“Of course he is,” Rogers said, pulling a sweatshirt straight over his sleepwear, already at the door. “Tell him I’m on my way.”

Before the door closed behind him, he turned to survey his apartment once more. “Thanks,” he said quietly, and was gone.

Loki thought about his cabin in the woods and the quiet forest sounds he woke to. He thought about remaining safe, as long as he remained also in hiding. He thought about being always alone, half of him aching like a wound grown over with new skin but festering underneath.

He thought of all the risks he had taken already for the sake of sad, blue eyes.

The apartment seemed smaller without Rogers in it, dimmer. The bond twisted unhappily and Loki sighed, already conjuring the portal, following along the bond's trail. After all, he had nowhere else to be.

Afternoon was on the wane once more by the time Rogers finally made it home to his own apartment. Loki found him collapsed onto his bed in full tactical gear, the shield propped against the wall. He looked tired all the way down to the bone and Loki heard his stomach demanding attention but Rogers made no move to quell his hunger.

"Don't know if you saw, but we found it."

Loki started, eyes wide on Rogers. He looked half asleep already, deep even breaths pumping through that big body, pulling his uniform taut at the chest. His eyes were closed as he spoke. He yawned and got so far as unclipping a placket at his throat and pulling down a zip on the panel beneath. He rubbed his hand over his face before slumping back on his bed in a boneless heap. Loki stared at the sliver of skin between the teeth of the zip with his heart racing and a throat like the desert.

"The little bastard made itself a new nest. Very cosy. Probably enough eggs in that sack to stage a fully fledged invasion of Queens. And that was before we found the others."

Loki did know, having witnessed the whole thing with his fists clenched hard enough to draw bloody sickles in his palms, watching Rogers' every move, resolved to step in if anything went wrong. There hadn’t been as many creatures in this nest as the first one, but still enough to keep everyone from getting bored.

Rogers' eyes fluttered open. Strips of light settled over his face, drifting along with the curtains in a breeze coming through the window.

"What I really want to know is why you’re doing all this." Rogers' mouth barely moved and his fingers twitched over his uniform, his body settling into the bedding like an animal about to fall asleep, relaxing by degrees. "Why’re you helping. Why you’re here at all."

There were long beats of silence measured only by the thump of Loki's own heart as he thought about it. A vehicle blaring its siren sped by outside; Midgard was a noisy world, and living in the remote forest as he had been, Loki did not like it, nor was he accustomed to it. He doubted he ever truly would be. He knew why he was here. It was because he had to be. There was something here that he needed, and he needed it to live even while it killed him.

"I talked to Thor, and he wasn't very forthcoming about you. Gave the impression he was concerned, though."

For Loki, or about his motives? He would have been right to be concerned on both counts. Loki worried the inside of his lip, suddenly anxious about what Thor might have confided about him.

"I thought it was everyone at first, all of the Avengers you were looking out for.” Rogers paused. He yawned again, too exhausted to put up any kind of front. Loki wished he didn’t find it quite so endearing. He watched Rogers' face contort and jammed his fist hard against his mouth to check his own brittle smile.

Oh, but he wanted to touch so very badly. His belly drew tight at the idea. He thought Rogers had fallen asleep, but no, he continued on after a little while, eyes peacefully closed.

“I watched for you when we were out on missions. It's not all the others, is it? It's not all the Avengers. It's just me."

Loki held his breath, caught in the moment between fear and exhilaration, the back of his neck tingling with it.

"Sometimes I think I can see you, just out of the corner of my eye, but if I chase it, it's gone."

Rogers shouldn't have been able to see him, and yet it was undeniable. Loki saw it in the way Rogers tracked his presence, his whole body turning Loki’s way.

“Thor thought you died when you closed the portal. He wanted to mourn you.” He sighed, deep from his chest, already half asleep. "I don’t know how I always knew, but I did. I knew you were alive. I never understood why you did what you did. Why you stopped it. You saved a lot of people that day even though I’m pretty sure you meant to do the exact opposite.”

I saved only two, Loki thought, feeling savage. Midgard was nothing to him without the only two who counted.

"Why are you really here?” The unspoken why me hung between them, suspended in the sunny late afternoon haze, frustration coloring the words. “Why all this . . . hiding? Just. Come out into the open and talk to me. That’s what you want, isn’t it.”

The last words dissolved into another enormous yawn and then, just like that, Rogers was asleep, breath evening out into long, easy pulls, dirty hands relaxed at his sides. He had passed out exhausted, hungry and fully dressed down to his heavy boots. The sun made gold of his hair and Loki's chest tightened until he had to look away, wondering at the miracle of the two fools he loved most, being least like himself.

Slowly, he neared the bed. Rogers' mouth, usually set in a stubborn pout, was beautifully soft and full in sleep, his whole face so open. He was snoring. Loki grinned.

He sat on the edge of the bed, and when Rogers did not stir, Loki lay down beside him and catalogued the shadows crawling over the walls, seeing Rogers room from what felt like an intimate vantage. Letting his eyes roam, Loki slid his hand over the coverlets until they were touching at the fingertips.

They stayed just so until Rogers, plagued by some unpleasant dream, began to twitch, his brow furrowing, lips parting on uneven breaths.

Loki closed his eyes and sent a gentle wave of sweetness to suffuse the connection between them, lips curling in a smile when Rogers calmed beside him. His nearness felt like a pull, the butterflies in Loki’s stomach rising in a fluttery swarm.

He thought about twining their hands together and the bond hummed, contented like a stroked pet.

This man, this mortal, was his soulbonded mate.

Loki thought of the softness of feathers, the warmth of a trusting creature in the palm of his hand.

Even if Rogers felt the bond, there could be no future for them. The old stories were right there waiting to flood in, putting Loki in the place of the phantom in the shadows Rogers had drawn, watching everything dear to him die while he lived on and on and on. Rogers’ suffering would be brief in comparison to the centuries stretching out in front of Loki, but no less real for it. It would condemn them both.

Loki curled on his side and watched dust motes dance in the wake of Rogers’ deep, even breaths. After a little while, he closed his eyes and pretended he could take his rest just like this.

It had been a fluke the first time.

Loki stared at Thor, who had appeared out of thin air and landed on his ass on Loki’s floor, then at Thor’s shockingly green hair, then down at his hands, then up again just in time to brace himself as Thor barrelled into him, both of them going over in a tangle of fists and knees and snarls.

“Were you attempting translocation again?” Frigga asked later, catching Loki’s eye as she held a compress to his cheek.

“No,” Loki said. He had not been attempting it at all, he had done it. The hair was an unexpectedly gratifying side effect. He stifled a giggle.

“You are lucky the result is not permanent,” she chided. Loki did not miss the quirk playing at the corner of her mouth.

“Perhaps I failed after all, then,” he said, ducking out of the way of the incoming slap.

“Why do you not leave well enough alone, Loki?”

“To spare you the effort of arranging my funerary pyre when I die of boredom,” Loki said, aiming for a laugh and getting it.

The next time was not a fluke at all, but he was careful to cast his thoughts nowhere near Thor.

Mother made him return the apple along with a vow. He gave both on his knees, secretly warm with his achievement of mastering the spell and finally seeing for himself the mythical fruit said to give health and long life.

The end of this strange, loaded coexistence came with no warning, as things often did when Loki thought he had everything under control.

Loki had followed Rogers - of course he had - when he, Barton and Thor went off to investigate suspicious activity downtown: increasingly panicked reports of monsters wreaking havoc. It felt almost familiar by now, to silently observe the play between the Avengers. Not so long ago, he and Thor had had that rapport, that unspoken synergy in battle. Now Loki watched from the periphery.

It was all too easy to become distracted.

In one moment he was watching from a rooftop as Rogers flipped, skewered and bashed his way through scorpions the size of grown men and the next he was surrounded. There was nobody covering his back.

Loki acted without thought. He leapt from the roof and into the melee until they fought back to back. Loki bared his teeth and felt the bond flare like a stoked fire inside him, driving his arm and amplifying his blows. Behind him, Rogers was feeling it too. The feedback was an endless loop of satisfaction each time his shield connected with a carapace, cracking the scorpions open like delicate eggs and sending them flying.

It didn’t take them long to gain the upper hand.

Loki braced his foot on a still-twitching body to free his blade and looked up to three pairs of shocked eyes.

“Brother,” Thor said, hope shining out of every pore of his face.

“Motherfuck—” Barton notched an arrow before any of them could do more than blink. Thor threw out his arm but it was too late. Everything slowed to a sickly crawl, the arrow already loosed, knocked only slightly off course in Barton’s scuffle with Thor.

Loki turned to Rogers. The moment their eyes locked, he saw nothing else until the whap of the arrow striking home jolted his whole body, sinking into the flesh between his neck and shoulder.

“Hawkeye, stand down,” Rogers was shouting, and Loki looked over to where Barton thrashed and swore, attempting to get loose of Thor’s iron grip.

Loki smiled at him, even as he folded to his knees in the dirt. “Well, I suppose I did owe you,” he said. Barton only fought harder, teeth glinting in the sun, Thor’s platitudes sliding uselessly off him.

Rogers’ hands were clamped on his arms. Loki looked up and smiled bigger. Rogers’ face was filthy and bloody, sweat matting his blond hair to his head, and it was like looking into the sun.

“Terrible shame. Here I was, so looking forward to our chat, Steve Rogers,” he said.

“Don’t talk like that, it’s not even that bad,” Rogers muttered, eyes on the entry wound, clearly unimpressed. Loki’s grin grew teeth. He looked up to see Thor’s face soften with understanding as he looked between he and Rogers. When they locked eyes, Loki silently begged him not to interfere.

“Hardly a flesh wound. I still have use of my arm.” Loki wiggled his fingers.

“Stop fakin’ to get out of the clean-up,” Rogers said, his eyes smiling through the worry etched into his face.

“You’re right. It is hardly a wound at all unless it requires amputation.”

Rogers snorted, cataloguing Loki’s face, his body, the shaft protruding from his shoulder, eyes roaming all over. Loki felt utterly exposed, all of his secrets carved into his face for Rogers to see, to touch, to judge. 

 

“I’ve gotta get you to a doctor,” Rogers said, gently lifting away Loki’s coat to see the blood beginning to seep around the arrowhead. Loki laughed.

“While all this fussing is delightful, sadly I am not one for your type of healing,” Loki said. The scuffle and oncoming sirens were a dull roar in the distance and his arm hung limp and useless at his side, shoulder throbbing with pain which hadn’t yet reached its peak.

“Too backward?”

“Too human.” Loki allowed the Aesir skin to leech away from his fingers for just a moment. Rogers watched his hand turn midnight blue. Barton swore. Thor was looking too, but Loki did not turn to see what expression he wore.

“Listen, Loki, I—” Rogers said, then looked away in search of words and Loki was suddenly not at all ready to hear whatever it was Rogers was building up to say.

“Raincheck?” Loki smiled. “While I am looking forward to your polite rejection, I would prefer not to receive it while bleeding in the street.”

He very nearly regretted the quip when Rogers’ face fell. And then, he left, sliding once more into elsewhere.

Leaning against the wall of his little cabin, Loki laughed and laughed until his chest hurt and he could hardly breathe. It had not been the most graceful dismount; he’d tripped through the portal like a limp rag. His shoulder was burning. Loki hoped the arrowhead had not been laced with poison. He supposed he ought to be glad Barton hadn’t had an exploding one at the ready.

He slid to the ground, the rough wood of the cabin wall at his back. Hair hung in his face, untethered and wild.

He thumped his head on the wall and gripped the shaft.

“No time like the pres— AAAAAAH!”

The tip came away caked with blood. Loki dropped it to the ground.

He had weathered worse. Loki peeled off his stained coat, crawled into the nest of his bed and waited for the edge of the pain to slowly give way to something less sharp and immediate. He swathed it with every healing spell he knew and wished he was more skilful at the healing arts such as those mastered by Frigga. The thought of her brought him nearer to tears than the pain.

The healing flesh of his shoulder was already starting to itch. It would take many hours, but it would be well if he rested and kept it clean.

It did not matter if he closed his eyes because the pain would not let him sleep, but when he did, Rogers waited for him beneath his eyelids with his big, capable hands on Loki’s arms, the fan of dark lashes on his cheeks as his eyes cut to the side and the star catching light at his chest. Everything about him caught light, then reflected it back a dozen times brighter.

Loki groaned in frustration and sank into his bedding.

There is a monster shaped like a hole that would swallow the universe and it tells Loki what it wants, talks to him from the mouth of an eagle. Loki listens. The eagle is very persuasive.

“I want so little,” the eagle says from its perch in the branches of Yggdrasil, and Loki nods. It seems such a small request and Loki pushes down his unease even as the eagle brings forth the blue globe of Midgard held in his talons. The eagle will exchange it for the prize Loki has brought him; a basket of perfect, golden apples.

The eagle tilts his head, pleased, but when Loki looks down, there is no basket; in its place is a woman curled around the delicate fruit, her long, long hair a tightly woven latticework surrounding her precious burden.

She is Idun of the Orchard, old, ancient just as Loki knew her when he and Thor were boys in breeches with wooden weapons for practice, but her face is smooth and unmarked by age, unweathered by time. It is the mark of the Orchard and the fruit with which she gives blessings. Her eyes are silent pleas and Yggdrasil caresses her face with its leafy fingers, wiping away her bloody tears. Something in Loki screams no. No.

“You may eat it now,” the eagle says, magnanimous, and Loki looks at the blue globe in his hand, the shape and size of it matching perfectly the ache of hunger deep in his belly, but something is wrong, something is terribly wrong. He cannot eat the globe.

“But I have found a treasure there,” Loki says, and it is true, but the moment the words leave his mouth Loki wishes he could cram them back in, swallow them whole and sew his mouth shut.

The eagle’s eyes are black, black coals and Loki knows he has made a terrible mistake when the eagle snaps his beak, impatient, growing bigger and bigger until he is the hole that will swallow the universe, dressed in an eagle cloak of feathers and sharp pointy death. His talons punch holes through Yggdrasil’s branches and the tree screams.

Loki reaches for the basket, for Idun, and hauls her away together with her sweet ever-living burden. He runs and he runs and he runs far away but his legs are so heavy, he is so heavy.

The falcon’s wings which have sprung forth from his shoulders are not strong enough to lift him from the ground, but he tries anyway, flapping and running until he is airborne, until he has made it into the cover of clouds. Behind him, the eagle, enraged, takes to the skies and he is fast, so much faster than Loki.

The eagle raises his beak for the killing blow but it never comes.

Idun’s smile is solemn when she takes from Loki the globe of Midgard and presses it into her basket to rest among her apples, safe, everything safe and sound, but it’s not a globe anymore, it is red, it is beating. It is a heart, as strong as a lion’s and just as big, big enough for whole worlds within it, big enough for Loki to curl up inside it.

When Loki looks back, the eagle is on fire, its feathers, all its plumage gone up in flames and in its place there is only the pyre, a great burning pyre held between the hands of a man in blue and Loki can’t bear it, can’t bear to see Steve’s hands turn black, can’t—

 ~ ⌘ ~

Loki woke gasping for air, shaking, clutching at the remains of the dream like a drowning man scrabbling at driftwood. An unfamiliar feeling bloomed in his chest, something he had not cultivated since that fateful day when his world crashed into an icy wilderness.

Loki closed his eyes and for better or worse, let hope in.

Chapter Text

Where the Citadel of Asgard was crystal and gold, Midgard was loamy and green. Loki sat on the roof of his cabin and looked over the forest, marvelling at its likeness to the woodland he and Thor would run off to as children. Despite the alien flora and distant, snow-tipped mountains, the peace it gave him was the same.

Thinking of Thor did not leave the same bitter aftertaste it once had. Loki’s wound was two days old and itching incessantly, but it was in his shoulder and not through his heart and Loki could not easily cast that aside.

Buried off the beaten paths surrounding the cabin, a narrow creek bisected the forest. There was a rocky outcrop and a small culvert beneath it. Loki undressed and slowly lowered himself into the frigid water where the current had sifted away the riverbed at the mouth of the culvert, deep enough to reach his shoulders if he sat on the sandy floor. Recent practice and the cold of the water made it easy to shed his Aesir skin along with the crusty mess of dried blood.

He sat so still for so long a time that little fishes grew brave enough to dart under his folded legs, their tiny bodies glinting silver against the deep blue of his skin.

All the tensions lingering in his muscles drained away with the low current, the quiet forest sounds and the softly flowing water lulling him into something resembling sleep.

When he came to, the day was waning, long shadows stretching over the landscape. He was pale once again, his hair floating about him like black weeds, but something hung heavily in the air, like the promise of an incoming storm.

Heat pooled deep down in Loki’s belly.

He was suddenly restless, the bond thrumming with eagerness, dread and excitement crashing over him in waves.

He had barely stepped foot back inside the cabin when a sound reached him from beyond; something was coming. A machine, its dull roar filtering in through the trees. He had been so preoccupied that he did not register it until it was almost upon him but it did not matter, the urgent tug at his insides told him everything he needed to know though he could scarcely believe it.

Loki's heart was hammering.

The motorcycle finally cut through into the clearing a few minutes later, Rogers sitting astride it in a brown leather jacket, the afternoon sun settling over his head, mussed hair shining. Ridiculous. He was ridiculous and beautiful and the only thing Loki had ever truly wanted, and somehow he was here, eyes already on Loki where he stood in the dark of the doorway, fingers digging into his thighs.

Rogers killed the engine and kicked down the stand of his motorcycle. He dismounted but came no closer. He was wary, telegraphing his movements for Loki’s sake. Loki supposed he had made a lifelong habit of slipping through fingers and Rogers had clearly recognised the signs.

“You sure don’t make it easy,” he finally said, and when Loki made no move either way, Rogers took a few steps toward the cabin.

“And yet, here we are,” Loki said. He pushed down the whine in his chest, the need to get closer, to touch, to lay some kind of claim. His hands shook with the effort of holding himself at bay, all his recently found composure completely erased.

Rogers scanned the cabin, the muddy clearing surrounding it, and finally Loki himself, from bare feet to unkempt hair. His gaze finally stopped at the junction of Loki's shoulder and neck where the skin was new and shiny pink. His mouth tightened unhappily and Loki’s gut twisted right along with it. This was not how he had wanted their meeting to go. He willed his voice not to break.

"How did you find me?"

"I had a friend once who told me I like to borrow trouble," Rogers said, and Loki did not miss the little pause, recognising it for old grief. Loki stored it away for another time, but Rogers' voice, oh, his voice. Loki stood taller, electricity crawling up his spine. He felt like they were on the precipice, about to either collide or explode away from each other.

Rogers took a few steps closer and Loki resisted moving so much as a muscle. The bond screamed at him to give in, to stop fighting it. Loki did not know how.

“I get it, you’ve got your reasons for staying out of sight, but seriously, it’s time to stop running.”

Loki huffed. “I’m afraid it isn’t quite so simple.”

“Why not? You’re here to stay, aren’t you? If you were gonna leave, you’d’ve done it already instead of settling in.” Rogers made a point of looking over the cabin, his expression unreadable. Loki stood in silence.

“Thor’s ready to forgive you. I think he already has. As much as he can without talking to you himself, at least.”

“Thor is not the reason for my exile,” Loki said, looking around the clearing and the forest beyond it. “There are powers at play neither you nor he can understand.”

Rogers’ eyes on him did not waver. “Then he will stand with you. He thinks that doing what you did in New Mexico gave him the opportunity to prove himself worthy and you pretty much cemented that when you destroyed the cube.”

“The Tesseract cannot be destroyed,” Loki laughed, shaking his head. “It is an Infinity Stone at its core. No power can touch it.”

Rogers’ face stilled, the muscle in his jaw tightening. “Is it safe?”

Loki shrugged. “As safe as it can be. The one who seeks it thinks I have it. I sent it somewhere I am not, nor am ever likely to be,” he said, thinking of the ruin of his dead sire’s fortress. Loki did appreciate a fine morsel of irony.

“Still, you helped—”

“You do not know the full story, Captain, and neither does my brother. Perhaps if he did, he would not forgive so easily.”

“It’s Steve, and I know enough.” Rogers came closer still until they were but a few feet apart. The sun was still in his hair. “I know you staged a coup to take the throne. I know you tried to kill him and I know you didn’t succeed.”

Bitterness ate acid-quick through Loki’s stony facade and he lifted his chin. “I see you are in possession of all the facts, Captain. I fail to understand why you sought me out, knowing me for the power hungry, fratricidal failure that I am.”

Rogers smiled but his eyes did not. “Don’t be an idiot. Because you survived when everyone thought you were dead, and I want to know how. Because you came here to destroy and you did the exact opposite. Because you’ve been following me for months and when you’re nearby I feel it.” Rogers’ voice cracked but he pushed on, a deep line between his brows, his hand beating against his breast. “I feel it, right in here.”

Loki couldn’t breathe. He reached for the doorway and closed his hand around the jamb, fingers digging into the brittle wood. Rogers watched his words strike home. If only he would look away, Loki could stand it, but he did not, and his eyes bored holes through Loki’s armour.

“Because when you closed that portal, whatever you did hurt you so badly that I know it took you weeks to recover from it. I know because I felt it. Your pain, your distress, or at least some kind of echo of that, I felt it. I knew you didn’t die, even when Thor was sure you were gone, I knew, Loki. Because I sensed it. And two days ago when you took a hit from Clint, I felt that too. And it’s not just some kind of weird sympathy pain because when I concentrate, I can feel it pulling at me, and if I let it pull at me, if I focus hard enough, I can follow it, Loki, like I followed it here to you, which is insane, by the way, so why don’t you cut the crap and tell me why you’re still—”

Loki started laughing. He laughed until he was weak in the knees and he was tired, so very tired and still in pain, and it made perfect sense to stumble inside and sit on his bed, drawing his arms around his knees feeling like he would break into jagged little pieces. 

He could not stop shaking, so he lay down, and when Rogers entered, obscuring the doorway with his enormous presence, Loki closed his eyes and turned away.

There was an unusually intense scent in the air. Loki sniffled. It seemed as though the forest had come indoors. He blinked the sleep from his eyes. Fragrant, chopped wood had been stacked in a neat pyramid against the stone hearth, the cabin had been swept, tidied and generally set to rights, and Loki had somehow slept through it all.

The urge to roll over to seek more sleep rather than face Rogers was very difficult to resist but Loki made himself push back the blankets and swing his legs over the side of the cot.

The sounds of wood chopping drifted in from outside. Loki wondered where Rogers had located an axe.

Loki was still staring at the hearth when Rogers' massive shoulders blacked out the doorway. Loki watched him silently as he set a large pack on the rickety table by the window and pushed his fingers through his hair. Loki's heart climbed into his throat and lodged there like a rock. He fought to speak around it.

"What are you doing?"

Rogers opened the pack and began to unload its contents onto the table. "Are you hungry? I didn't know what you liked, so I got a bit of everything."

Loki stood, taking a moment to ensure he was solid on his feet. Food started to pile up on the little table, parcels still wrapped, but Loki could smell it, meat and cheese and bread, some kind of fruit. Tea. His stomach contracted at the idea of food.

"Captain."

"For the last time, it’s Steve. I figure we're past the formalities seeing as we're connected by an invisible magic string and all."

Loki stiffened. He knew he was staring, but was unable to stop, willing Rogers to turn and face him, to explain without having to be asked. When Rogers finally stilled and looked over his shoulder, the expression on his face was stony, held so tightly in check.

“Come and sit down. When’s the last time you ate?”

Loki ignored the invitation. "What do you know of the bond?"

Rogers turned and leaned his hip against the table’s edge. "I talked to Thor.”

Of course he had. He’d seen Loki blue and combatant, come to destroy his home. He had seen what he’d thought was the worst of him, but Loki looked at him through slitted eyes imagining still more that he could do and say to make Rogers hate him.

“And despite what he told you about me and what I am and what I’ve done, still you came. My, my. If only your friends could see you now, consorting with a monster.”

“I didn’t mean I talked to him about you, exactly,” Rogers said, impatience colouring his voice. Loki smirked. It was difficult not to enjoy getting a rise out of him when the rise looked so flushed and fetching.

“I meant that I talked to him about me. About what I was feeling, I guess. About you being alive and me knowing about it and this connection we have. About how I felt when you got shot. About sensing the direction you’d gone and maybe being able to find you if I tried hard enough.” Rogers scrubbed a hand over his face, suddenly looking like he wished he were sitting down for this. “Then he explained about soul bonds. And he told me about him and Lady Sif.”

Loki huffed a humourless laugh. “Lofty goals, to aspire to such dizzying heights as that.”

Rogers looked up sharply. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Thor and Sif were bonded when they were but children. They’ve matured knowing they are meant for each other, the bond growing stronger the longer they nourish it with their genuine and requited affection. Somewhat different, I should think, to suddenly discovering you are the unwilling subject of a cosmic joke, bonded to a—”

He clamped his mouth shut and wrapped his hands around himself. He would not be caught shaking with the grief of it.

"A what?" Rogers calm voice was infuriating. Loki said nothing. "Is it because Asgardians don't get bonded to mere humans? Is that the fluke?"

He said it as though still wrapping his mind around the concept, sounding out the term to ensure he had used it correctly.

Loki's laugh was hollow. "Neither am I Aesir, nor are you mere anything."

“Then what is it?”

“I am over a thousand years old.”

“So what?” Rogers’ eyes flashed, defiant.

“So nothing,” Loki said, calmly. So calmly. “I cannot imagine what could be more alluring in a mate than watching them grow old and die.'

Rogers' eyes flashed but he seemed to set that aside with a small nod, the stiffness of his shoulders deflating. His jaw worked as if biting out the words he needed.

"You know what I don't get? Thor told me a little of how you two grew up, princes of Asgard surrounded by luxury, and I didn't think I'd find you starving and squatting in a log cabin."

Loki straightened his back and shot Rogers a look meant to wither. Rogers only glared back, unmoved.

"Material comforts have not seemed important of late."

"As opposed to what?"

"Why, learning how to crochet, of course,” Loki bit down on 'staying close to you'  before it could escape. “Second only to annoying Thor in long term value."

"You've definitely managed that so far," Rogers said, flinty eyes finally softening. Loki's heart sank when he realised that nothing the man did made him any less than maddeningly, infuriatingly attractive. Loki wanted him so much it turned his spine to liquid and his mind to useless fuzz.

"If it's a prince's ransom that you desire, you will remain forever unsatisfied."

Rogers pushed off the edge of the table and Loki's whole body lit up, immediately tuned to high alert. He resisted the urge to move back when Rogers took a step towards him.

"I don't give a rat's ass for any of that. That's not why I'm here."

"Then why are you here?" He wished he'd been able to keep the desperate plea from his voice but it was there anyway.

"You were taking too long," Rogers said, and he was suddenly close, so close, nose nudging along Loki's and eyes open right until the moment their lips connected with the barest touch, dry skin catching, releasing, catching again, kicking out the bottom of Loki's stomach and pulling the bones from his knees along with it.

Loki's eyes drifted shut, the cage of his ribs feeling too tight for the swarm of fluttering emotion rising up from some deeply buried and long forgotten reservoir.

Rogers' hands splayed between his shoulders to catch at his hair, fisting a handful and letting it twine between his fingers, the intensity there completely at odds with the way he bent his head to press the first careful kisses all over Loki's mouth.

“Oh,” Loki said, and looked up to see two bright spots of color high on Rogers’ cheeks, blue eyes wide and trained on his.

More kisses came quickly, just a light-headed, shuddering breath between their mouths. Loki dug his fingers into Rogers' shoulders. They swayed into each other trading ragged, panting kisses until Loki thought he would die from the resonance rising to a flood inside him and drowning his thoughts in a vat of warm pleasure and overwhelming rightness.

When they broke apart, he fought to catch his breath. Rogers looked equally affected, a devastating, single-minded intent in his eyes, the black expanding to swallow the blue.

Something pulled at Loki from deep in his gut, hands hurting with so much wanting. They moved as one to rest their foreheads together and Loki couldn't help but tip into another kiss, and another, until Rogers' arms were tight around him, his hands in Loki’s hair and at his hip and so much hunger pressed into the scant air between them that Loki shook with it.

"We're gonna talk about this," Rogers said, voice raspy and low, his gaze unwavering in a way that made Loki want to crash into him and flee from him at the same time. "But first you're gonna eat something and get some rest."

And so they ate, watching each other across the little table, Loki’s heart pounding wildly all the while. When night fell, Loki climbed back into his bed, tired down to his bones from the pent-up tension between them and from the effort of healing. He fell asleep watching Rogers potter about the cabin, pretending he wasn’t watching Loki right back.

Embers still burned in the hearth when Loki woke, casting a warm honey glow over the cabin and everything in it, including Rogers— no, Steve, who was asleep beside him. His chest rose and fell in a solid rhythm, lashes casting long shadows.

Silently, Loki stole from the bed.

He sat at the table and watched the embers burn, thinking about falling and about the wrongs he’d never be able to right, and about the debts he owed. He thought about Steve’s friends, and Thor, and about all the years he’d wasted on never trusting anyone, least of all himself. He thought of a little bird and of falling to no fate but that which he made for himself.

Loki crept from the cabin and walked the dark paths, careful and silent, until finally he arrived at the Orchard.

There was an ominous hush, the trees holding their breath. Loki thought about all the things that had led him here, about the scars on his heart and about the man in his bed, and went willingly to his knees.

It seemed as good a vantage as any to bargain for a miracle.

When Loki returned to the cabin hours later, Steve was still sleeping. Loki could barely believe he was there at all. The bond thrummed inside him, sending wave after wave of pleased belonging to crest and crash over him.

He shucked his clothing with each step and worked his way under the covers and into Steve's arms. He closed his eyes and tucked himself into the hollows of Steve's warm body until he was the one lulled half to sleep and Steve had come half awake and they were touching each other all over, gentle and soft explorations that made Loki shiver from head to foot. Steve’s fingers drew over the knobs of his spine, pulling a wave of goosebumps in their wake.

"I dreamed you were walking and there were fruit trees," Steve said into Loki’s hair, kissing his cheek, his ear, his throat. He paused there, then lifted his head to look, brows furrowing when he did not find the wound, or even a scar. He leveled a searching gaze into Loki’s eyes.

"You dreamed true," Loki said, and surged up to kiss his mouth. When he fell back onto the pillows, Steve did not follow, but stayed where he was raised up on an elbow, looking down at Loki lying next to him. After a moment, he tossed back the blanket and exposed them both to the dying firelight, eyes roaming all over Loki’s body. His hand followed where his eyes had been, Loki shuddering at the intimacy of the two of them lying naked with each other, just looking, barely touching. The heat in Steve’s eyes surely reflected his own.

“I felt you burning,” Steve said quietly, hand stretching out over Loki’s chest. “I didn’t know what was happening or why, but I felt it, that strange sensation I had all my life, even before the serum. I could always sense it. I thought it was heart palpitations. Or maybe the asthma.”

Loki grinned, though there was a tingling pressure behind his eyes and a hot rock in his throat. “I felt it when the serum was administered. I dreamed it,” he said. “I felt our connection before that, too, but weaker. Not as loud. And when I realised it was leading me here, to Midgard . . . I thought there was something terribly wrong with me. Well. More wrong.”

And he was not going to say it but out it came anyway, crowding into his mouth, “I felt you die.” Loki’s breath hitched against the memories of those long, black months after his ill-fated foray to find the bond. “Out there, in the ice. I was looking for you but I was too late.”

Steve huffed and shook his head. Loki would tell Steve one day. He’d tell Steve about living in a daze so thick, so desolate, he thought he was the one who had died and his body did not yet realise it. He would tell him about the spiral he travelled, down and down until he had almost lost himself completely. But not tonight. Loki swallowed hard. The way Steve was looking at him, Loki thought he already had an inkling.

For a little while, Steve simply caressed him with the back of his hand, lower and lower until he was touching the dip of Loki’s stomach, his hips, everywhere except for his erection, curved hot and high against his stomach. It was delicious torture and Loki relished it, watching feelings skitter across Steve’s face as hungrily as he himself was being watched.

There were lifetimes of tragedy between them and yet here they were. Loki felt a rush of fierce protectiveness. “You were meant for me,” he said in wonder, realising it was true, had always been true, no matter how much denying the truth of it had hurt him. “And I for you.”

“I don’t even know if I understand it,” Steve said, lowering his mouth to the curve of Loki’s jaw, making him shiver.

Loki laughed. “You needn’t try.” Loki closed his eyes, the heat of the bond vibrating with happiness within him. He felt as though he should be glowing from the inside out. “Just feel it.”

Steve’s hand continued its maddening sweep over his skin. “I do. I wanted you the moment I laid eyes on you,” he said looking up, gaze dark with intent.

“I was trying to kill you,” Loki said, laughing.

“Yeah. You looked so good doing it. It was very confusing,” Steve said, and Loki felt the rush of exhilaration coming at him through their connection, both of them grinning like fools until Steve fisted a hand in his hair and pulled him up into a kiss so searing, so fierce that Loki’s bones felt like they’d been set on fire.

He groaned, arching his back for Steve’s touch and those fingers which were no longer softly sweeping but were now palming Loki’s hip, so possessive and hard and finally, his hand was, finally . . .

“Tell me you want me.” Steve’s voice had gone gravelly and Loki’s insides were melting hot. He wound his arms around Steve’s ridiculous shoulders, digging his fingers into the thick muscle and relishing the grunt it earned him.

“Give me what’s mine,” Loki whispered in his ear and held on tight as Steve bucked helplessly into the cradle of Loki’s hips.

It was like he was new to it all again, wanting everything all at once, forgetting about pace and technique, needing it all and needing it now, gasping into Steve’s mouth and bowing into his touch.

Steve kissed him open mouthed and wet, and pressed him down into the bed. He looked into Loki’s eyes as he licked his own palm and put the both of them in it so they could slide against each other within the grip of Steve’s big hand.

Loki held his gaze until he couldn’t anymore, until his climax was wrenched out of him, pearling all over his stomach and chest with Steve joining him there moments later, and still they couldn’t take their hands, their eyes off each other.

“Oh,” Loki whispered, mouth on Steve’s throat, sucking, licking up the sweat. “The things I will do to you.”

The bond shimmered inside him and he knew Steve was feeling it too, the sensation of rightness and belonging channelled through their connection, and then they were done with words, and needed no more.

Steve laced their fingers together and they crashed into each other, hard kisses and soft, deep and then fleeting, tongues barely touching until Loki was out of his mind with wanting to eat Steve up whole.

“Do it, do everything, I want it,” Steve said, sweet and rough at once, biting down on Loki’s shoulder, and rolled him into the sheets.

They pushed each other over that beautiful edge again and again, oblivious to the sun rising and falling once more. Loki's jaw ached and his thighs burned because he could not let Steve out of his embrace long enough to shave.

Before they were sated they had taken each other apart with their hands and their mouths and finally, gloriously, with Loki slowly lowering himself onto Steve’s cock, with his hands clawed in the meat of Steve’s chest and his head thrown back, thinking this, always this, always and only this.

“Spring’s around the corner,” Steve said, and Loki hummed. He could feel it. Only yesterday they’d been in the midst of winter, but the land was singing a different tune now. Sensing budding life beneath the hard soil, Loki warmed it with a flick of fingers and they both watched in wonder as tiny, delicate leaves uncoiled up towards the sun.

“Amaranth,” Loki said.

“Immortality,” Steve said, shrugging at Loki’s questioning look. “The language of flowers was a pretty big deal back in the day. That’s what they symbolise.”

"You humans are horribly romantic," Loki said, soaking up Steve's amused scoff.

Their hands were so different. Loki twined their fingers together lazily, sunlight slipping in between. Steve's naked shoulder pressed against his, the two of them lying side by side on a blanket in a meadow with a break in the trees above. The sky was icy, but Loki was not cold. Neither of them were.

"So if humans don't feel soul bonds the same way Asg— other beings do, why do I feel it?"

It was a good question. Loki thought for a moment. "I have not studied human lore, but I think some among you acknowledge such strength of connection. It may be that receiving the serum has made you more sensitive, more receptive. But more likely it is because you are bonded to me."

"And you're magic."

“I am.” Loki smiled and closed his eyes against the sun’s glare.

"Why didn't you just tell me what was going on?" Steve's voice was pensive. Loki fiercely regretted being the cause of that uncertainty. 

"Did you ever hear tell of the man who dreamed of something so immense, so perfect that his mind could not conceive of it, only to have that wonderful, perfect thing just . . . granted to him? With no caveats, no conditions, simply his to have?"

"Can't say as I did."

"Neither did I."

Steve was silent for a beat. Loki sensed him working out how to phrase his next question.

"But after you knew it was for real? It's like you didn't really want it."

Loki let go of Steve's hand and rose up on an elbow, meeting his eyes, then letting them slip over Steve's jaw, his throat, the catch of light off a sheen of sweat in the dip between his clavicles, the fading marks of Loki's mouth leading down to the dark thatch between his legs.

He bent his head and kissed Steve's throat, flicked it with the tip of his tongue. Each time he closed his eyes, he recalled Steve with his blue eyes so wide, making sounds like the pleasure Loki had given him was a surprise, like he did not realise it was upon him. Loki bit his lip, liquid heat spreading through him from deep inside, making his skin prickle.

"Well, to be fair, what fool would possibly want this," he murmured, dragging his mouth over Steve's chest, down, down to latch on a pink nipple. Steve's snicker cut off on a breathy moan as Loki dug his fingers into the muscle, sucking the nipple into his mouth, then licking around it in circles.

Steve's fingers were in his hair, kneading, knotting, a dirty half grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. "The same fool who hid out in a cabin for months instead of getting off his ass to grab a piece of something immense and perfect."

"Quite. After I found out that the fool wanted it, I had to have it," he said between licks and long, pulling sucks at Steve's nipple. "Just so he couldn't. It's the small things, you see."

"I'll show you small."

Loki laughed in delight and tipped his chin into Steve's palm. He let Steve kiss the smile from his face and lick the words from his mouth, then opened his legs and took Steve between them, letting him work Loki down into their blanket-swathed woodland bed.

“He will not let it go,” Loki said, flanks quivering with effort. He rested his forehead at the nape of Steve’s neck, a curtain of hair spilling down.

Steve stretched beneath him like a big, golden cat and Loki moaned at the milking grip around his softening cock. Gods, but he could fuck this man until the stars fell from the sky and still never have enough.

Steve took his hand and brought it up to lay a kiss in his palm. “We’ll pack tomorrow. Go back to the tower. We'll be ready.”

Loki huffed, heart aching at the mere thought. “You do not know what you’re saying. I will not risk—”

Steve pushed him off, rolled him to his back and kissed him silent.

 

Later

 The doors slid open to reveal the open plan common area of Avengers tower, late summer sun slanting in. Loki continued speaking as he exited the elevator at Stark's side.

"It's not magic, exactly. That's a simplistic word. Seidr is an all-encompassing force, the force holding the universe together, complex and omnipresent—"

"So wait, wait, let me make sure I got this straight. You use the force, Loki."

Loki's brows drew together, watching Stark dissolve in gales of laughter as he walked backwards.

"We'll pick this up later but first I gotta- Doc, you catch that? This is huge, we can single-handedly put an end to the horrific travesty which passes for special effects at Lucasfilm."

Loki looked up to the balcony and his heart sped up at the sight of the sun glinting off two blond heads.

They fell quiet as he neared them, Steve's mouth lifting into a small, private smile. Loki came close enough to brush the backs of their hands together, fingers caressing lightly.

"I never thought to see you so content, brother. It suits you well," Thor said, looking between them, fondness oozing out of him as he squeezed Steve's shoulder. “Mother wishes me to remind you that she has not yet had the pleasure of meeting your bond mate.”

Loki nodded and pretended to think about it, stowing away the unexpected pang for a sunny morning in Asgard, lifetimes ago. "Perhaps I ought to visit soon. It has been too long since Asgard entertained a royal son of Jotunheim."

"Oh. Well. Yes, that too. That is to say, I was not sure if you had accepted— if you wanted to talk about—"

Thor was so serious. Loki's heart gave an uncomfortable twinge.

"My Jotun heritage? Do not worry, Thor, Steve cheers me right up when I feel blue about it."

Steve snorted, and Thor blinked before shaking the room with the boom of his laughter. Loki took Steve's hand and pulled him away, giving Thor a small wave. He had made a sound bargain when he swore an oath to stand always with the future king of Asgard. The reward would be priceless and there were no stipulations to say Loki could not have fun while doing it.

"Lord almighty, you are trouble," Steve said.

"Well. If one cannot annoy one's brother, whom can one annoy?" Loki said, knowing he was still within earshot, then doing his level best to ignore the watery smile on Thor's dumb face.

"Would you come with me?"

Loki had been wrestling with it for days since Thor had mentioned it, and yet there it was, out in the crisp dawn light as though he was merely asking Steve to breakfast.

"'S too early for this." Steve mumbled into Loki's hair and tightened his arms around him. Then, after a moment, "N'way you're going alone."

"It would be something of an occasion," Loki mused. "You would be expected to dress accordingly."

Steve groaned.

"There is an ornate headdress."

"Oh, jeez," Steve whined and pinched him, and Loki snickered into his arm. They were quiet for a while, Steve's breaths deep and even, stirring Loki's hair to life. 

"I have something for you," Loki said quietly, turning in Steve's arms until they could look at each other.

Steve opened one eye, squinting, Sunday beginning to filter in through the leaves of the oak outside his apartment window. 

"I've become somewhat familiar with your bizarre traditions and I understand it is customary."

"Oh yeah?" Steve's eyes were barely open, his mouth so pink and lush. Loki couldn't resist it. He hummed into the kiss, taking Steve's bottom lip and worrying at it with his lips, his tongue and then they were kissing and holding each other like it was unbearable that a sliver-thin layer of space remained anywhere between them. When he came away, Steve's eyes were a little glazed. Oh, Loki thought, heart swelling tight and hot in his chest, feeling too big for his body.

"Making time's a bizarre custom?" The morning rumble of Steve's voice curled hotly around the base of Loki's spine.

"Exchanging the intended for goods and livestock is one." Loki grinned, regrouping.

"You mean a dowry? That doesn't really happen anymore."

"It most certainly does, in some parts of your Earth."

"Well, okay, but—"

"Saving one's virginity until marriage."

"Yeah, that one still happens," Steve chuckled. "I think it's still pretty valid for a lot of people."

"Valid for you?"

"God, no. I'd have given it away at the drop of a hat if there was anybody who'd've wanted it."

"But you did not."

"I did not," Steve said. His blush really was quite delightful. Loki watched it spread down Steve's throat.

“More fool they,” he murmured.

"Well, I wasn’t much to look at back then. But after the serum, there was suddenly all this interest." Steve's eyes cut to the side, before coming back to Loki with a defiant intensity. "And all this energy. I had to, you know. Test drive. Things."

"Test drive things?" Loki laughed and laughed until Steve pushed him down and tagged him to the bed, interlacing their fingers. His eyes had darkened, dropping to Loki's mouth.

"Yeah. Things." He lowered his body, letting Loki feel the long, powerful stretch of him, before rolling his hips. Loki's eyes fluttered shut and Steve nibbled at his neck.

"Exchanging jewellery of ownership." Loki clung to his train of thought.

Steve nosed at Loki's ear. "Rings? Yeah, those are definitely still the norm. It's not really about ownership, though," he said, mixing words with soft kisses down to the crook of Loki's neck, resuming the slow, firm roll of hips. "More like tokens of devotion. Of faithfulness."

"Signifying a never ending bond and a life lived together forever?" Loki said, then gasped into Steve's mouth, cock thickening, the friction between them so delicious and heavy and firm.

"Uh huh,” Steve muttered, then bit at Loki’s shoulder. “What are we talking about again?"

His breath sent a shivery breeze over Loki’s skin, and he shuddered. "My gift to you."

Steve looked up at that, lips red and eyes hooded. 

Loki freed one of his hands and Steve rolled to the side, allowing him some room. Loki waved his fingers with elaborate mockery, then opened his hand to reveal his hard-won gift, glowing from within like a tiny sun, buffed to a golden shine.

"Tell me, do you like apples?”

~ Fin ~