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This is What the Water Gave Me

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He falls.

A very long time later, he lands.

 

XXXXXX

"Are you okay?"

He opens his eyes. Blue and gold and everything fair. He is not sure he is not dreaming, that what he sees is real.

I let go to get away.

"I think I'm going to be ill," he says. He twists, and there are hands--broad but careful, far more careful than Thor's ever tried to be, and then he's not thinking about Thor at all.

He aches and he is exhausted and he is not dreaming.

He feels those hands again, and thinks that he is not falling any more.

"Better now?" his erstwhile... what? Not saviour, no, his bones ache too much for him to have been caught. All of him aches, throbs, his head most of all. He is wet, too, and it feels as if he has just heaved a lake entire.

He is wildly grateful for the hurt.

"Yes," he says, and then he says nothing at all.

 

XXXXXX

He wakes mostly undressed in a bed in a room that is possibly the plainest beige he has ever had the displeasure of seeing.

He loves it. For a moment, he stares at it--not dark, not twisting, not star glimmer, but colour. Actual colour.

The bed linens are cotton, not linen, and hardly the softest he has ever felt. There is no fur here, he questions what feather fills the pillows, and the bed feels strange as he sits up.

But he feels, and he savours it as he examines the odd room. Curtains as bland as the walls, dresser, something he is not entirely sure he knows the name for but vaguely remembers from--from before. Midgard. Of course.

"I know, but I'm not--look, Tony, thank you, but I'm not coming back yet. I'll take him home, or wherever he needs to go." A pause. "Thank you. Yes. No. Alright. Tell Pepper thank you for me again. Yes, you know she deserves it."

Another pause, slightly longer, and then, fond, "I'll see you in a few weeks."

The door opens.

Blond, blue-eyed; tall and broad and fair.

"You're awake." A blush, awkward in a way Thor never is, and a quick rub of the back of his neck. "Obviously."

"Yes," he says. He realize his hands are dug into the bed linens, and he forces them to uncurl.

This is not Thor. This is not Asgard. He is away.

The man--mortal--comes and sits at the edge of the bed. He is oddly gentle despite his apparent size, moves as if he expects to run into something.

"How do you feel?"

He had thought he might never feel anything at all again; he curls his hands into the linens once more. Not roughly, only wanting to feel threads pressed into his palms and fingertips.

"Vile."

But a sensation.

The man smiles. Not Thor. Not anyone of Asgard--it is slight and pleasured and, most of all, kind.

"I bet. There wasn't anyone for miles, you got lucky I saw you. Heck, you're lucky you survived, that didn't look like a small fall." The man pauses as if near asking a question, then shakes his head slightly. "How else are you?"

"Awake," he says, ignoring the pause. A fall; what did this man see? He glances around the room once more.

"Mm." Then, "Steve." He looks over at blond-and-blue-and-fair. "My name is Steve. You?"

He narrows his eyes, but there is no guile behind the words. Not beyond concern, more sincerity than he recalls seeing in a very long time. It will not be the last time Steve asks, if he stays in his company, he can see that already.

But where else has he to go? What does it matter?

"Loptr," he says. The name is unfamiliar on his tongue; he has not used it since he was a boy, eterneties and voids ago.

"Loptr," Steve says, stumbling only slightly over it. "Loptr," more firmly. He smiles. "Where are you headed?"

XXXXXX

His own clothing is either ruined or lost; he is not sure which. Even as Steve apologizes for it not being much, he offers Loki clothing newly purchased.

Clothes on Midgard are thin. The last he wore anything near this, he was a child. He hates how vulnerable it makes him feel, how uneasy.

"Loptr?"

He looks up from tugging at his sleeves to find Steve watching him.

"Are you cold?"

"Are you not?" Loki asks instead.

Steve's face flickers before he smiles.

"I was only asking," he says. "I can turn the air off."

It is the first he has seen of what haunts Steve's eyes. Cold.

Loki wishes he felt cold so deeply it is an ache that threatens to cave him in.

"No," Loki says. "I am fine."

"Is this an 'I'm irritated with you' fine or are you actually fine?" Steve asks with a grin.

Loki huffs but he smiles. It is crooked and small and barely a smile at all, but it only makes Steve grin wider. As if a victory.

Perhaps it is.

He pushes the thought away, to join the rest he has been avoiding.

 

XXXXXX

Steve is traveling.

Was traveling, and has stopped entirely because of Loki. He makes quiet inquiries, lends sympathy but does not pity when Loki feigns a loss of memory. For two weeks he stops; when he begins again, he offers Loki--Loptr--a place with him.

Loki goes.

 

XXXXXX

Steve is kind.

Steve does not pry, not beyond his 'how are you today's that comes so regularly Loki thinks they could be used to measure time. He laughs easily but quietly, smiles just as softly, and is content to leave the silence as silence, hair whipped by the wind and the windows rolled down.

He acts like a man much smaller than he is. He stumbles into doorways and chairs, clumsy. Loki wonders if Steve is an adolescent--he does not look it, but he acts it. Eats like it, too. Newly grown.

His eyes make Loki think otherwise.

Loki watches him. He wonders when he will find that first crack of hypocrisy he has come to expect of everyone who appears golden and perfect. He wonders what will be asked for the hospitality he has been shown, and when.

Steve looks too much of Asgard for him to not, even as Loki begins to suspect it may never come.

 

XXXXXX

Dark and falling and ice, water, star glimmer through waves--

He can taste the scream lodged in his throat, can feel his nails dig into flesh and tear, can feel.

"--it's ok, you're safe, you aren't drowning, it's ok, Loptr, you're awake. Oh. You are."

Gold and fair and blue eyes. He snarls, hands digging deeper; hot blood wells and seeps beneath his nails.

"I hate you, let go, you hypocritical, idiotic oaf, let me go!"

Blue eyes go wide, hands letting go, but Loki does not, wretched sobs and tears torn from his chest, spilling over, twisted up in fall and nothingness and please let me land.

He gasps, and then again. Again. Breath. Stale air. Air.

It is dark, but not that dark. Glimmer: headlights from the highway. Street lamps. Rush of air: rain falling outside. Gold and fair and blue: Steve.

Steve.

He lets--

Grabs tightly again, convulsively, unable to stop shaking.

"Loptr?"

Loki opens his mouth and nothing comes out. He is voiceless and soundless and there is nothin--

Steve pulls, careful, and he claws for purchase, shuddering at the sudden shatter of thunder that makes everything bend, through his skull down his spine, rattling his ribs. A low broken sound escapes his throat and then...

"Got you," Steve says, pulling him up and against, wrapping him in a blanket. "You're safe. Not falling, not drowning, you're safe." Another hand strokes through his hair. "You're safe."

Slowly, oozed like slick slime, the world finishes taking shape. He cannot stop shaking, trembling, jerking with the rise of the storm outside, but the tangled discomfort of resting against Steve begins to make normal.

"Drowned," Loki finally says, half of a question.

"You--" Steve pauses. "You fell from a cliff into the lake I was driving beside. Well."

"Leapt." Loki swallows. "Let go."

"Yes," Steve says softly.

"Why?" He does not even know what he is asking. Why did you stop, why did I let go, why did you care, why did I fall into a lake, why.

"Because," Steve says, as if it is as simple as that.

Perhaps it is.

Loki swallows, boneless pile of limbs in Steve's arms and lap. Uncomfortable, yet unwilling to move.

"I'm going to kill you for this," he says. "For seeing this."

Steve chuckles as if Loki is not being entirely serious.

"I don't know what you're talking about. I didn't see anything."

Loki frowns slightly.

He will allow this. If Steve uses it when he betrays, if he betrays, then Loki will simply make his death linger all the longer.

 

XXXXXX

Loki remembers falling asleep against Steve's too hot mortal heat, but when he wakes, he is alone in the hotel room. He dresses, half-wishing to entirely forget the incident, and heads out to locate Steve.

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe south? What is south of here?"

Loki pauses. Steve is facing away, on his phone and leaned against the car. He has not yet seen that Loki has left the room.

Steve has been nothing but kind. This does not mean that Loki trusts there is not more behind it.

"He's not a stray, Tony, he has a name. It's perfectly pronounceable, don't pretend it's not, I've heard you speak Chinese before--Mandarin, sorry, yes." A pause. "I appreciate the advice. Yes, this means I'm not going to take it. Okay. Talk to you later."

A stray.

Steve speaks as if he isn't that, as if there is nothing at all odd in pulling someone from a lake and giving them a bed. In clothing them. In spending two weeks around an area to see if any will spark memory Loki does not have because the loss is a lie. 

That Steve has not grown bored of this random act of kindness, and foisted its working upon someone else.

"Oh, hey Loptr," Steve says, and he smiles. Sincere and sun and all things good. "Ready to go?"

As if there is nothing about the shadow Loki casts he finds distasteful.

"Why?" Loki asks, curious.

Steve frowns.

"Why what? Do you need anything?"

Loki frowns. No claims of senselessness. No disregard. Unnerving, how Steve responds.

"No.” He shakes his head, and the thoughts with it. "Nothing. Nothing at all. Shall we?"

 

XXXXXX

Steve is traveling: that is what he says.

What Loki realizes, in the unspoken pauses and occasionally bitter sweet smiles, is that Steve is adrift. Loki is not kind, nor is he willing to give anyone any ground that might be used against him in the future, so he will not say Steve is as adrift as himself, but he is adrift.

Loki would prefer not to say he is adrift at all, but he will admit even that is a lie too vast to fit on his silver tongue. Instead, he simply does not let himself think about it.

Easier, when they drive. He suspects it is the same for Steve. Once Steve realizes Loki has no qualms about riding through the night, sleep for them both grows more sporadic.

They go south, like birds seeking somewhere warm to forget their sorrows.

 

XXXXXX

An afternoon: the windows down, heat roiling on the wind, dust kicking up from a back road. Sunlight on plains as far as the eye can see, broken rarely by herd and farm house. Slouched and sprawled, one foot on the dash, an arm out the window touching the currents of air like a hand dragged through a boat’ wake.

Peace, or something like it, as unlike traveling with Thor as water from fire.

 

XXXXXX

They stop briefly at a city named Maryville to rest.

"I forgot how small places are out here," Steve comments over dinner, staring out the window of the diner they are in.

Loki hums, putting forth the token appearance of eating. He is not hungry, has not been since he woke, and when he sees himself in mirrors, he is thinner and sharper. It makes a sardonic smile twist his lips, bitter--of course he has been sharpened by these events.

"Let’s go to St. Louis," Steve says. "Spend a few days. I hear they have an art gallery."

"An art gallery?" Loki asks, brow dipping.

"And science center. Could be fun."

Loki presses his lips tight for a moment; how easy to forget that for all his appearances, Steve is very much not Asgardian at all.

"Loptr?"

He glances to Steve.

"We don't have to."

Loki forces a smile.

"Why not?" he asks. "Perhaps I'll remember it."

 

XXXXXX

Thunderstorms are worst. Memory rises up like the grey clouds, laden with the sharp hail of what-if and what-was-I-thinking and why-was-it-not-enough, roaring wind of every moment on the Bifrost smothering the sound of all else. He feels as if drowning in the downpour of history ignored when skies are clear.

Thunderstorms are Thor.

Not literally, but he cannot shake it from his mind. Too many centuries of that being truth. It makes him feel young, freshly returned from his first battle and struggling not to be overwhelmed in the raw violence he had been trained in but never understood before.

He hates it.

Hates how with the storm his throat closes off, hates the anger and rage that burns hot in his breast, hates how easily he confuses Steve for Thor when the former is nothing like the latter except in appearance. It is weak and pathetic and he is meant to be stronger than that.

Meant to be, but isn’t. He never has been, has he? Always not good enough, always second chasing first, the shadows running after the sun as it sets. Disregarded.

This storm rises up with little warning while they are in the limbo between one town and the next, plains stretched before and behind. It is hot, threatens to break the sky in twain with its force, and as the first heavy drops meet them on the road, Loki grits his teeth, pulls himself into his seat, and rests a hand on  his shin. Digs his thumb in to ground himself.

“I nearly drowned too,” Steve says suddenly. Loki looks to him, but Steve does not look over. He stares ahead at the road, one hand on the steering wheel, elbow still resting on the window he has yet to roll up. His jaw tenses slightly, but he keeps going. “Less letting go, and I wasn’t aiming to get away, not like that. I had people waiting on me back home, who wanted me.” A pause. “They’re gone now, most of them.”

“What happened?” Loki asks. It is not kindness or sympathy that compels him, he can acknowledge this. It is selfish desire to have something not his own memory to haunt him. Thunder rumbles, vibrating through the frame of the car and he thinks this is the feel of Thor's joy.

Steve’s eyes flick briefly from the road, surprise, and Loki realizes this is something he should know. Something Steve expects him to know, so used to people knowing that Loki’s not has momentarily thrown him. Then a slight head shake and Steve smiles.

It is not a joyful smile. Loki hangs tight to it, stark flash of lightning to separate Steve from memory already crowding his mind.

This thunder is joyful. Steve is not.

"I was on a plane. It had weapons on it; a lot of people would have died, and I was short on time to figure out how to make it stop."

"So you flew into the water?"

Steve shrugs.

"It was the only real option I had."

"This was your home, what would have been destroyed?"

"Yes." Steve frowns briefly. "It wouldn't have mattered if it wasn't, you know." Another quick glance to Loki, but Loki does not look at him this time. He stares out the window, watches blue-white flashes of lightning as it leaps between the clouds. Sacrificing oneself for one's home is honourable and good and just. It is right to sacrifice one person in the name of their home's safety. It is right to sacrifice one realm on the altar of protection. Steve gave his life--thought he was giving his life--for the safety of his people. Loki tried to give a realm to keep his own safe. Is it so different?

One for the greater of many.

That is not the same.

He shoves the thought away angrily, tries to stifle it. It is the same. It is. One for many.

A realm is many, a realm is full to bursting, even Jotunh--

"Loptr?"

He is shaking, knuckles white, fingers digging into his leg. A particularly loud roll of thunder makes him start, then tense, trying to restrain himself from moving further.

One for many.

Except.

"This was well, your life for everyone else’s?" Loki asks, voice tight and low, barely able to spit it out.

"I just did what anyone would have," Steve says. "Nothing special about it at all."

Above them, the bottom finally falls out of the clouds, the rain smacking into the ground with a resounding clap, lightning near blinding. The thick pressure built up releases, a gasp of air after near-drowning. Not even a few minutes later, the rain itself eases, relaxing into steadiness instead of a joyous war cry, the lightning and its thunderous steed racing the way Loki and Steve have come.

"You lived," Loki says once he finds his words once more. "You survived your fall."

"I did, but you shouldn't talk like you didn't survive yours." Steve reaches over without looking away from the road, settling a hand on Loki's forearm. Not his neck.

There is comfort in the touch, if Loki wants it.

He swallows.

"Perhaps I didn't," he says softly, so softly only shadows and air spirits might catch it. Certainly not a mortal.

"Makes this road trip a hell of a lot more interesting then, especially when I show up at the end and everyone finds out that I've been imagining the amnesiac I dragged out of a lake in Iowa."

It catches him off-guard, both that Steve heard and the response; he chuckles, dry and dark, before he can stop himself.

Steve grins, as if in victory.

Perhaps it is.

 

XXXXXX

Loki had been under the impression that most cities in Midgard were like those they had driven through thus far--pre-planned, rarely larger than a well-off stead, interrupted on occasion by a city that served as what had been explained as the county seat. Academically, he was aware that there were a number of mortals on this realm, and that they must be somewhere, but given the hours in the car he and Steve have spent, he had seen little to really prove it.

St. Louis is large. It sprawls and twists on itself, old crammed next to older, new atop both, winding pathways and great loops of highway around its edges.

They find a nicer hotel--"might as well," Steve points out--and once both of them have had a chance to change and shower, they set off in search of dinner and entertainment.

The hotel recommends a restaurant that does both dinner and a play at the same time. He has long since had time to absorb television, but this is another way to tell stories, performed upon a stage not unlike how the old tales he grew up hearing would be performed at festivals. Steve is delighted that the show in question is a murder mystery, taking endless joy from trying to follow and figure out who committed the murder. Loki keeps his own counsel instead of spoil Steve’s fun; he can give Steve such kindness.

When they leave back into the street, Loki is struck once more by all the ways Midgard is different.

It is not that Asgard does not have its fill of people; far from. It is that Asgard is laid out carefully, artfully. It is that St. Louis alone has nearly a third of Asgard's population. It is that St. Louis and all the cities that surround her, hugged so close that it is impossible to tell where she ends and they begin, is easily double Asgard's. It is that, as Steve so blithely informs him while examining a travel brochure he has acquired who knows where, this city is the fifty-eighth largest in the United States.

If there is anything more unlike Asgard, he is not sure he will ever find it.

“Loptr?”

Loki looks down from the skyline. Steve has stopped because Loki has stopped, and is waiting a little ahead.

“There are other places like this? Bigger?”

Steve frowns a bit.

“Yeah.”

Loki glances back to the sky, glass and steel and brick guardians standing watch over the firefly lives of its inhabitants.

“I want to see them.”

 

XXXXXX

They go south and west. Tony sends them a list of the largest cities; Steve was already planning to keep going west and had been part of the way through a cross-country trip when he found Loki. Loki does not quite care which direction they go so long as they go. There is peace and comfort in the sharp reminder that he is on Midgard, that Midgard is not Asgard, and that for all it was dull the last he stepped foot on the realm properly, it has changed

Firefly lives that burn bright and hot and fast, and he sees, a little, how Thor fell in love with them so quickly.

 

XXXXXX

His dreams become bearable. He does not mistake Steve for Thor. He does not wake lost. And he cannot tell if it is time or the procession of cities they pass through giving the distance.

 

XXXXXX

They don’t go to New Mexico. Steve does not comment on Loki’s request or what it implies, and Loki wonders again what luck it was that Steve found and took him in.

 

XXXXXX

It is late. Loki is half between waking and dreaming, lulled by the twisting roads through the mountains as they head for California; soon their trip will draw to a close, and they will return to Steve’s New York. He looks forward to it, as he has not dared look forward to anything.

It is a struggle to keep his eyes open, and eventually he loses. He dreams of blue and ice and a ruined kingdom and he does not panic.

He stirs again. Steve is humming, something soft and steady. It sounds like a marching tune, inexorable and slow, near slow enough to be a funeral march.

In the quiet, surrounded by Steve’s hum and dark, his mind drifts, unspools thoughts that in daylight or full-dreaming are laced with poisoned barbs. He wonders if Jotnar have funeral marches. If there were any left after it was all said and done. If Thor’s breaking was soon enough, or if Loki managed to succeed. What Frigga-Mother-Queen thought, if this is what she expected and only Odin was disappointed, or if she regretted trying to let a monster prove himself more. If anyone actually cared he was gone.

He doubts that very much.

Perhaps Thor.

He tenses at the thought, hands clenching, half-dream vanishing. He sits up more fully, rubs his face quickly, stretching in slight shifts and arches.

“Morning,” Steve says despite the night sky.

“Morning,” Loki says anyway. For all the tension thought of Thor brought, it feels like a morning; he feels rested and if not at peace then at least balanced.

“You should ask me,” Loki says impulsively, voice still rough and quiet with drowsing.

Steve is not Thor, to stumble for what Loki means, to misinterpret, to assume only the present moment and not the unspoken questions that have hovered for months now. He is not impulsive in his interactions, so Loki is not surprised Steve pauses to think before he speaks.

Vaguely, he is aware it is an admittance that he lied to Steve about having lost his memory, but then Steve likely knew already.

“What happened?” Steve finally asks.

Loki turns the question over. He could still refuse, and part of him wishes to. He can think of justifications—Steve is mortal, these things would seem insanity to him—but he has long since realized that Steve is in truth not so normal himself, even without the full measure of how exactly. After all, it is difficult to avoid noticing the stories of Tony.

Loki tells him. From before the coronation to falling. He does not intend to say everything, but as he speaks, it is as if tugging out something sharp, a poisoned edge twisted and burrowed deep, and though it hurts, it is relief. Steve does not comment, though he nods his head on occasion, hums acknowledgments, and Loki’s words come faster, tumble over each other, flooding the air as the self-imposed dam finally finally breaks.

In the silence that comes when he is finished, morning sunlight just barely beginning to make the horizon glow, he realizes he is desperate—to know Steve’s thoughts, to find what will happen now, to know. He has drawn himself fully into the seat, hands laced and gripping his leg.

Steve reaches over to touch his forearm and it makes Loki start. He grits his teeth, refusing to look over.

“Stay as long as you need,” Steve says. He pauses, then chuckles. “I’m going to say it’s okay, now, and I don’t want you to twist it.”

“I don’t twist anything,” Loki says, mouth dry, staring at the calloused hand resting against his skin.

“And I’m not blond,” Steve says dryly.

A smile tugs at his lips, unbidden. It is crooked and sharp and hardly a smile at all.

Steve pats his arm, then lets go, settling his hand back on the steering wheel.

“I mean it though, stay as long as you need. You’ve got a home wherever I go. And if you want to talk, I’m here.”

“That’s it?” Loki asks, looking up at Steve.

“It’s all I can do. I can’t fix anything, I can’t undo anything, I can’t tell you how you should feel about what happened; I barely know what I think of what happened to me most days. I can be here, and I can listen, and if you want to talk, I’m here. I can talk. I can tell you what I think.” Steve pauses, and smiles. “I’m making it sound easy, aren’t I?”

“A bit.”

“Well, I’m sorry for that. It’s okay, though.”

“You don’t hate me for what I’ve done.”

“Or what you are. You just got lost. A lot happened at once. It’s okay.”

Loki looks away, out the window. The sky is pink and purple, waking. He feels, for the first time, like he can breathe when he thinks of before.

“Thank you,” he says without looking at Steve.

 

XXXXXX

They reach California. Steve sits at the end of a pier, feet dangling off the side, as Loki comes up to him.

Tomorrow morning, they are meant to head for one of Tony’s homes, to meet and then fly across the country to New York. Loki thinks of that, and he thinks of all the places he has not seen east of the Mississippi, of how they passed by New Mexico. He thinks of how he feels as if he has crawled upon the shore and found his balance once more, and the desire to walk a bit longer.

Steve glances up at him and must see it written on his face.

“Where to?” Steve asks.