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In The Realm of Ungrateful Cockroaches

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Thor barely looked at Loki, his attention on the mortals and their city, before he twisted the handle of the Tesseract’s containment vessel. Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

He was on one knee and would have fallen if not for the scepter in his hand.

Scepter?

Confused, he slowly rose to his feet, staring at the weapon in his hand.

“Sir,” came a very familiar voice. “Please put down the spear.”

Loki stared in disbelief, but only for a moment. Then he thrust the scepter forward and an energy bolt flew out to explode against a bank of equipment.

This time, he would not fail.

**

Thor barely looked at Loki, his attention on the mortals and their city, before he twisted the handle of the Tesseract’s containment vessel. Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

He nearly fell; the Hulk had broken his right arm the third time and it was agony to hold the weight of the scepter.

“Sir,” Nick Fury began.

Loki thrust the scepter forward and fired before he could finish the sentence, howling with pain and rage.

**

Thor didn’t look at Loki at all. Loki cringed in anticipation as Thor twisted the handle of the Tesseract’s containment vessel. Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

He killed Nick Fury by driving the point of the scepter through his throat and left with Barton, Selvig, and the other man.

Agent Hill shot him in the back of the head.

**

Thor kept his gaze on Loki, barely acknowledging the others. Loki wanted nothing more than to scream for him to stop. He twisted the handle. Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down the spear.”

Every time someone mentioned Banner, Loki flinched.

That time, Hulk broke all of his ribs.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

He almost won that time.

Almost.

Fury, Hill, Barton, and Romanov were dead; Captain America was unconscious and bleeding before the Hulk came to put an end to Loki’s victory.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

He killed everyone in the room and sat down to wait for the research center to implode. It was hopeless.

Thor dug him out.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down the spear.”

“I’m in Hell,” Loki muttered, ignoring the mortals around him. “This is Hell. Your entire Realm is nothing but the most frustrating Hell in all the Nine Realms! Give me Muspelheim, Jotunheim even, over this horrid Realm!”

The guards panicked and opened fire.

Loki discovered what it felt like to be shot over two hundred times.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down-”

“ENOUGH!” Loki screamed.

He destroyed the lab and tossed aside everyone who got in his way. In a stolen Jeep, he drove out into the desert until the vehicle ran out of fuel. Then he sat on the hood and watched the sunrise.

He waited.

It was quiet and peaceful in the desert.

“You’re late,” Loki said crossly when Thor found him.

Thor frowned at him. “How did you know I was coming?”

“You’ve already tried to take me back to Asgard one hundred and eleven times. I’ve counted.”

Thor blinked and looked concerned. “Brother…are you well?”

“Just get it over with.”

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down the spear.”

Loki went through the motions. There was little else for him to do and he’d become so used to it that it was routine. Barton, Selvig. Steal the Jeep, shoot down the helicopter and know that Fury would, infuriatingly, walk away from the wreckage.

Barton needed an eyeball.

Loki was very tired of eyeballs. He considered that at some point along the line, he actually had gone mad. How many times had he had this conversation?

“What is SHIELD doing with the Tesseract?” he asked Barton almost absently.

“Making weapons,” Barton answered without hesitation.

Thoughtfully, Loki turned back down the corridor to where Selvig was working on the Tesseract. “What kind of weapons?”

The Hulk didn’t catch him that time, which was a relief because he was still healing from the last time Hulk had thrown him through the wall of Stark’s tower and he’d landed on the street below.

Mjolnir smashed into his chest and it was over.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down the spear.”

Loki aimed and the scepter took out a bank of equipment. He dispatched the guards, took over Barton – he, at least, had never failed to be useful in all one hundred and eighty-three variations – and Selvig. He stopped Fury from taking the Tesseract by shooting the metal case out of his hand.

“This doesn’t have to get any messier,” Fury said quietly.

“You have no idea how messy this already is,” Loki snapped. “Escape before you are buried alive in this place or stay, it does not matter.” He grabbed the handle of the case and started for the doorway.

Later, sitting in the glass cell meant for the Hulk, he finally accepted the fact that he would spend the rest of eternity living the same events over and over again.

He sat down on the steps in the tower with a bottle of what Stark had offered him and watched the Chitauri invasion until Thor came for him.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

He took Barton, threw the others aside, left the Tesseract, and stole a Jeep.

“Where are we going?” Barton asked.

“Wherever I can get a drink,” Loki said bitterly. “A very strong drink.”

“You want to go to a bar, sir?”

“Drive,” Loki commanded.

Behind them, the research center imploded.

Director Fury caught them within six hours.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki determined the most efficient way of getting the Tesseract and Barton out of the research facility; the overall casualty count at the research center dropped by more than half.

Barton sang show tunes when he drank too much. Selvig talked about Thor.

Loki decided that karaoke wasn’t entirely terrible.

Thor hauled all three of them out of the bar.

Thor was no fun at all.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki shortened the time it took for him to escape with the Tesseract by five seconds. He was proud of this even though Barton and Selvig had no appreciation for what it had taken him to do it. The casualty count at the research center dropped another ten names. Five seconds was all it took; such pathetic, fragile creatures.

Barton drove them to a bar and Loki grilled him about all of the members of the Avengers. He knew what questions to ask now; his initial questions had been too simplistic. Selvig proved to be surprisingly useful in his assessment of the team. Of course, SHIELD would think to hide Jane Foster away, but Selvig knew far more than just what was related to Thor’s mortal woman.

Barton nodded toward the metal case. “Rogers is the only one who’s seen that in action.”

Loki swallowed down another glass of something called a screwdriver.

Barton didn’t know much about Captain America, but Selvig knew as much as ten men. He’d worshipped Captain America as a youth and knew all of the stories.

Thor had terrible timing.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Barton drove them to Las Vegas.

Loki stood up in the back of the Jeep and stared up at the shining city around him. The sidewalks were full of people in all manner of costumes, some with glittering stones and feathered headdresses. Halfway down the strip, he held out his arms to the night and breathed in the hot, desert air.

He threw his head back and began to laugh.

The rest of the night blurred together into spinning lights and sounding bells. It was well into the next day and Loki’s head was pounding when Captain America kicked in the door of the hotel room with Thor and Stark on his heels.

“Loki?” Thor turned his head sideways, trying to sort out where Loki ended and other bodies on the bed began.

Loki groaned. “Do shut up.”

“Is that,” Tony paused as he lifted up a dislodged sofa cushion. “Doctor Selvig?”

Selvig was curled up on the sofa, snoring and oblivious to the intruders. Barton made an unintelligible noise from his position on the floor.

Captain America’s face was completely red and he was very deliberately looking everywhere but the naked bodies sprawled on the bed around Loki. Most of them were female.

“Brother, did you come to Midgard to…” Thor gestured vaguely at the bed.

“What happens in Vegas,” Loki muttered and buried his head under a pillow.

Sometime later, he was surprised when a hand tapped his shoulder. Captain America stood beside the bed, his face still red, and held out a cup of fresh, hot coffee. Stark was helping Thor escort the night’s entertainment out of the hotel room.

Loki stared at Rogers for a moment before he uncurled himself from the pillow and accepted the cup of coffee. The pain in his head had dulled somewhat. Barton and Selvig both looked equally haggard.

Captain Rogers turned away, his back and shoulders straight as an arrow. “This is your idea of a good time then.”

Loki realized that he was only just barely covered by the bed sheet and the Captain’s ears had turned a very particular shade of red. He chuckled into his coffee as he sipped at it. “I asked Agent Barton to take me where mortals go to have fun. This, apparently, is it. Although, it was closer than your Miami or your New York City. Barton also suggested those locations.”

“And the Tesseract?” Rogers asked.

Frowning, Loki considered that for a moment. “I have no idea where the Tesseract is. The past hours are somewhat unclear.”

Rogers turned to stare at him, anger overpowering his discomfort over Loki’s lack of clothing. “You lost the Tesseract?”

“I am quite certain it is around here somewhere.”

A muscle worked in Rogers’ jaw. “I guess you can’t use it to hurt people if you don’t know where it is.”

“Next time,” Loki said with a shrug, unconcerned.

The frown on Roger’s face deepened. “Next time?”

Loki leaned back against the headboard of the bed and held tightly onto the cup of absolutely terrible coffee. “I am reliving the same period of time over and over again. I’ve tried everything and it changes nothing. This time…this time, I wanted to get away from all of it. I am so terribly bored of having the same conversations. I could simply kill them all, you know, and walk away with the Tesseract. Not once has anyone bothered to realize that. Ungrateful cockroaches.”

Rogers caught Thor’s eye and motioned for him to come over. “I think you might need a doctor. Or something.”

Loki felt strangely comforted at finally being able to explain to someone, anyone, the horror he was trapped in, even if the Captain didn’t believe him and thought he was mad. Rogers had brought him coffee; none of the others had ever offered him anything out of kindness, not even Thor. He should probably thank the Captain at some point.

He decided that what he really needed was more sleep.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki went through the motions and waited.

“Ant, boot.” Fury turned back to the cell.

“Don’t bother sending your poisonous spider.” Loki grinned, unconcerned. He would live forever in this unstoppable, infernal time loop. “I will speak to no one but the Soldier.”

He waited.

When he came, the Captain was stiff backed and uncomfortable in the uniform he wore. “You asked for me,” he said bluntly.

“You have seen the Tesseract before,” Loki answered.

“A long time ago.”

“And what would you do with it?”

“Are you offering to give it to me?”

Loki smiled and settled onto the bench inside the cage. “I wish to know what you, Captain America, the symbol of freedom and justice, would do with it. Knowing that SHIELD means to use it to build weapons, just as HYDRA did. Consider it curiosity.”

The Soldier said nothing.

The Hulk did not smash him into the floor of Stark Tower that time.

When the Avengers came for him, Loki laughed and asked for a drink.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down the spear.”

“Do you have any idea how many times you’ve said that?” Loki asked irritably. “Loki, Asgard, ant, boot. May I get on with this?”

He shaved another five seconds off of his escape time by knocking Fury out before he could say another word.

“I will speak with no one but the Soldier,” he told Fury once they had captured him yet again.

Captain America stood before him, stiff and solid; as though he were the only real, certain, and unchangeable object in the whole of the universe.

“What would you have done with it?” Loki asked.

The Soldier’s jaw clenched tight. “I would’ve left it in the ocean. Where it couldn’t hurt anyone.”

“Is that what you think?” Loki leaned back, watching the man’s reaction. “Someone always gets hurt, Captain Rogers. There is always a price to pay.”

The Hulk didn’t attack.

Thor found him at the end of the battle.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki discovered that if he shot out the roof of the chamber with the scepter, the energy escaped and the research center didn’t implode.

No one thanked him for that either.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

The new routine was cleaner and more efficient; he didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before. He took out the guards, blasted open the roof to release the Tesseract’s stray energies, took over Barton and Selvig, stole the Tesseract and a Jeep.

Loki was beyond sick of eyeballs. Maybe there was a way around that too.

He didn’t bother trying to frighten the scrambling mortal sheep in Stuttgart, simply sat down on the steps in his suit and tapped the disguised scepter on the paving stones until Captain America and Iron Man arrived. He went with them willingly.

“Something’s wrong,” Rogers said quietly, his words directed at Stark. “He didn’t even put up a fight.”

“A little anxious for violence, are we?”

Thor landed on the roof of the jet with a thud. Loki leaned back in his seat. “Don’t bother trying to reason with him.”

“What?” Steve asked.

Loki nodded upward. “My so-called brother is on the roof.”

“Your brother?”

Stark opened the cargo door and Thor leapt down onto it. “Hey there, Goldilocks.”

“I’m not going anywhere so you may as well sit down,” Loki said as Thor reached for him. He pulled back, away from Thor’s hands.

“I have come to take you home,” Thor said seriously.

Loki rolled his eyes. “Can’t. Sorry. Don’t have the Tesseract, can’t tell you where it is, yada, yada, yada. You’re going to end up going with us anyway so just sit down and, for once, don’t make a nuisance of yourself by smashing things.”

Everyone in the jet stared at him.

“Yada, yada, yada?” Steve asked, bewildered.

On the Helicarrier, Loki walked into the glass cage without hesitation.

“When are you going to tell the others that SHIELD was using the Tesseract to develop weapons?” he asked Fury as he sat down.

“Who says we are?”

“Agent Barton and Erik Selvig. They would know. Tell me, how far have you gotten? I understand the Captain’s past enemies had nearly perfected it. Surely you can’t be that far behind. Or have you told them that your goal is something else. A warm light for all mankind, perhaps? Did they believe you?” He leaned back against the glass and shifted until he was comfortable. “Don’t bother sending your treacherous little spider; I grew bored of her tactics a hundred iterations ago. Send the Soldier or no one at all.”

Fury sent Agent Romanov anyway.

Loki ignored her.

The Hulk left him in a pile of broken stone on the floor of Stark Tower.

He really hated that part.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down the spear.”

Loki blew a hole in the roof of the chamber before starting slowly toward Director Fury, unconcerned with the chunks of rock and dust falling down around him. “I am Loki of Asgard. And I have had a very, very long day.”

“Loki,” Selvig said with surprise. “Brother of Thor.”

“Yes. And no, I’m not a particularly nice person. If we could move on?” Loki adjusted his grip on the scepter. “I have an army waiting for my command to begin the invasion of this pathetic realm. I will take the Tesseract one way or another. It is your choice whether or not you get hurt.”

“This doesn’t have to get any messier,” Fury said.

“Why not?” Loki grinned. “I’m just beginning to enjoy myself here.”

He took Barton and Selvig, left Fury lying on the ground along with the guards and scientists, and stole a Jeep. Agent Hill was ever predictable. He really should try taking her as well, for a change.

Perhaps the next time around.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

He took Agent Hill instead. It wasn’t worth the trouble of leaving an extremely tenacious Agent Barton free to come after him.

But at least he didn’t have to steal an eyeball that time.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“And an eyeball,” Barton said. His bow snapped open in his hands.

Loki grimaced. “Always the eyeball. Perhaps we could steal the entire person this time?”

Barton stared at him, his expression blank and uncomprehending.

“Fine. An eyeball it is.”

Loki hated stealing the eyeball. It was messy and inefficient. He didn’t bother chasing the others out of the museum, merely took a seat on the stone altar beside the dying man with one less eyeball.

Captain America arrived first.

“Lovely evening, Captain Rogers,” Loki said conversationally.

“You want to explain what you’re doing?” Rogers asked gruffly.

“Iridium. This gentleman had his store of the material accessible only with an imprint of his eyeball. I needed it.”

Rogers stopped and stared at him. “Iridium?”

“I can hardly open a portal and bring the Chitauri into your realm without it.”

As though on cue, Iron Man burst through the front door of the museum. His arrival scattered bits of glass and metal across the foyer.

Loki scowled. “Was that truly necessary?”

“Make a move, reindeer games,” Stark said from inside the suit, holding up his weapons.

Loki sighed as he got up from the altar and held up his hands in the mortal gesture of surrender.

Once in New York City, he found a restaurant and drank a bottle of wine while the Chitauri rained down death and destruction from above. Thor found him eventually.

Thor always found him eventually.

It was the first time he’d thought to wonder exactly how the mortals defeated the Chitauri army.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down the spear.”

Loki was careful to do and say everything as he’d done the very first time. He focused on the people as they moved around him, trying to trace out the strings of cause and effect as he stepped through his charade.

Research center imploded; dozens died.

Eyeball; always the eyeball.

Thor.

Fury’s treacherous little spider; ever so clever.

He drove the scepter through Agent Coulson’s chest and dropped Thor from the sky. There was new, bitter taste at the back of his throat when he pressed the button.

The portal opened.

Thor. Again.

This time, he rolled from the tower’s balcony and caught the flyer, but instead of circling back around to the tower, he stayed out of sight and out of range of Barton’s arrows. He watched.

The missile came, Iron Man clinging to its belly, and soared up and through the portal.

He watched the Hulk leap into the air to catch the falling Iron Man. Only then did he return to the tower. He had a glass of honey colored liquor in one hand when the Avengers arrived.

Loki raised the glass to Stark. “You did offer.”

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

He escaped the research facility without taking the Tesseract.

Thor still came for him.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

He stole the Tesseract and Barton. Barton stole an airplane.

They dropped the Tesseract into the middle of the ocean.

Thor helped SHIELD retrieve it.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

It was not random. It was not merely a glitch in time and space that had trapped him.

There were absolutes.

He took the Tesseract, Barton, and Selvig. He left them several miles beyond the research center, releasing them from the Tesseract’s energy, and drove into the desert alone.

For hours, until the sun rose, he stared at the Tesseract as though it held the answers.

SHIELD always came after him. When he took Barton, he always had to rip out an eyeball. Thor always came to Midgard to stop him, even when Loki had done nothing to threaten the realm. Every time Thor tried to take him back to Asgard, it started over again. Sometimes it took three days, sometimes six days, but never more and never less.

The missile wasn’t always fired; Iron Man didn’t always fall back into the realm before the portal closed. Sometimes, only Hulk and Thor were left alive and New York City was nothing but burning ruins. Sometimes the Helicarrier plummeted from the sky. When he took Director Fury instead of Barton, the Avengers still came after him. When he didn’t kill Coulson, only Hulk and Thor survived. When he killed Fury, Agent Hill took his place and wasn’t any easier to deal with than Fury had been.

He’d seen hundreds of variations, but still not enough to fully understand how each of the choices fell together to create an outcome.

When the Captain visited him in the glass cell, Banner remained safely human. When the Black Widow visited him, the Hulk appeared. Loki was less and less convinced that was his doing. The entire realm was a spider web and he was merely dancing on its silken threads. Each choice set off different chain reactions that led him along different paths, but always to the same end. And then back to the same beginning.

He glanced up at the sky and glared. “I know you can hear me, Heimdall. What is the purpose of this torment?”

Two more sunrises came and went. Loki was hungry and thirsty when Thor fell from the sky.

“Loki.” Thor stopped several feet away, his expression hard. “Return the Tesseract.”

Loki motioned to the box in front of him. “Take it.”

Hesitantly, Thor approached. “Are you well, brother?” His tone had softened, though he remained wary and watchful.

“They are building weapons with it. Your precious mortals on your precious Earth. So they can kill more of each other, I suppose.” Weary, he lay down on his back and stared up into the blue sky above. “Do you think Heimdall watches everything all the time? Or perhaps he only watches one realm at a time. Perhaps there are moments when even he looks away.”

Thor stared down at him, troubled. “Why have you come here, Loki? I know of your army, your Chitauri. Why do this?”

“Do you see any Chitauri here now?” Loki asked.

“Then you do not seek to conquer Midgard?”

“I grow weary of this realm.”

Thor shifted from foot to foot awkwardly before finally settling onto the ground beside Loki. “I have come to bring you home.”

The ghost of a smile spread across his lips. “So that I may face justice for my crimes.”

“That too.” Thor turned his face away. “I thought you dead.”

“Did you mourn?”

“We all did. Our father-“

“Your father,” Loki corrected, but without venom. He didn’t have the energy to be angry with Thor. Not anymore.

“We were raised together, we played together, we fought together. Do you remember none of that?”

Loki closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath. “I remember a shadow. Living in the shade of your greatness.”

“Is that why you allied yourself with the Chitauri? And came to the world I love as a conqueror? Is this vengeance against me for your imagined slights?”

Irritation rose up bitter in his throat. Another deep breath. “My entire life is a lie. You as my brother, a lie. Odin as my father, Frigga as my mother, all lies. Every word, every breath, every moment that I spent on Asgard was a lie.”

“Loki.” Thor reached out his hand. His touch was light on Loki’s shoulder, just the tips of his fingers. “I am here and I am your brother. Do you believe even this to be a lie?”

“You will be gone soon enough.”

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down the spear.”

Loki set the scepter down and took a seat. He refused to leave when the others realized the room was going to collapse around them.

Hundreds died.

Thor and SHIELD dug Loki and the Tesseract out of the rubble.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“And an eyeball,” Barton said. His bow snapped open in his hands.

Always the eyeball.

Loki followed the screaming crowd outside, but didn’t bother trying to contain them. He waited for Captain America to arrive and held out the scepter. The spider threatened him from inside her plane. Iron Man arrived, burning like a comet with a bad soundtrack.

“I don’t like it,” Rogers said quietly, his words directed at Stark. “He didn’t even put up a fight.”

Thor arrived and pulled him from the plane.

“I’ve missed you too,” Loki said from the ground where he’d landed.

“Do I look to be in a gaming mood?” Thor demanded.

Loki winced as he got to his feet. “I should think you’d be glad to be back here. Your precious Earth.”

Mjolnir hit the ground with a thud. Thor’s hands were strong as he caught him up. “I thought you dead.”

“Did you mourn?”

“We all did. Our father stood beside Heimdall for days on end, searching for you, hoping that you had survived.”

Loki grimaced and pulled away. “He did tell you my true parentage, did he not?”

“We were raised together, we played together, fought together. Do you remember none of that?” Thor started after him.

“And you think that is all that matters? Memories of a life that wasn’t real. Of lies the Allfather told us both. The stories of Frost Giants as the enemy of Asgard, that is what I remember. I remember nightmares, I remember stories meant to frighten children. The very monsters you swore to destroy. I am that monster! You would slay them all, wasn’t that your plan? What of me? Would you slay me as well for what I am?” Loki stopped, the words catching in his throat. He waited.

Finally, Thor met his gaze. “Father should have told you. Should have told us both. Had I known-“

“What? Had you know what I truly am, what would you have done?”

Thor frowned. “It does not matter that you are not my blood, you are still my brother. Loki.” He started forward again. “Give up this poisonous dream. Come home. We can still make this right. Together.”

“I can’t,” Loki said bitterly and sat down on a rock. “Five. Four.”

“Loki,” Thor began.

“Three. Two.”

A blaze of light shot down from the sky and Iron Man carried Thor away.

Loki didn’t escape the Helicarrier that time. When the men that Barton had assembled arrived, he ordered one of them to press the red button. The glass cage plunged down toward the earth and buried itself.

Thor dug him out.

“Loki! Loki! Can you hear me?” Thor’s face blurred and faded in and out. Loki could taste blood and dirt in his mouth; it felt as though every bone in his body had been broken. “Stay with me, Loki. Please, hold on.”

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki stuck to the script in front of him, but found he no longer had any enjoyment in it. Barton, Selvig, Tesseract. He stumbled, barely able to stand or walk with the extent of his injuries from the last iteration. The research center imploded. He was still coughing blood when Barton told him that he needed an eyeball.

That damned eyeball.

He hesitated for a moment, aching with lingering pain, and that allowed Captain Rogers to get the upper hand. It hardly mattered. Iron Man appeared and blasted him back onto the steps. The armor was fading away before Iron Man had finished his threat. His heart felt strangely heavy as he climbed into the jet and took a seat.

The storm came; Thor landed on the roof. Iron Man reached for his helmet

“It is only my brother,” Loki said without thinking.

“Who?” Rogers asked.

The door opened and Thor appeared, his expression fierce.

“Thor, please don’t.” Loki pulled away when Thor reached for him.

“I have come to put an end to your scheme, Loki,” Thor growled, but he stopped short of hauling Loki from the seat.

“So have they.” Loki watched the three men eye each other, assessing and measuring. “Thor, this is Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. In costume, they are Iron Man and Captain America. Gentlemen, this is my brother.”

Thor looked at him sharply but did not protest when the cargo door closed behind him. “I must return to Asgard with Loki so that he may be brought to justice.”

“He gives up the Cube, he’s all yours,” Stark answered blithely.

Loki sighed and leaned his head back against the side of the plane. “I don’t have it.”

“Where is it?” Rogers asked.

Loki raised an eyebrow. “Do you really expect me to tell you simply because you asked?”

“Why not?”

He considered that for a moment. Captain Rogers had been the only one of them, in all the times he had relived these same, terrible days, to show him any kindness.

“Loki, are you well?” Thor asked, his voice unexpectedly gentle.

Loki waved his fingers and, for a moment, the armor faded away to bare his chest and arms. He was covered with deep blue and black bruises, still healing scrapes and cuts in his skin from where the cage, and his body inside, had been shattered by the rocks. Another wave and the armor returned.

“What happened to you?” Rogers asked, visibly shaken.

“You would not believe me if I told you,” Loki answered wearily.

“Was it the Chitauri who did this to you?” Thor asked, moving protectively between Loki and the others.

Loki considered that question. He didn’t know how to trace the thread back and tie the choices together until they formed a single chain that led to the what and the why of his journey. Did it begin with the Chitauri? No, because he would never have known them if he hadn’t fallen from the Bifrost. He would never have fallen from the Bifrost if Thor had never shattered it and Thor would not have shattered it if Loki had not attempted to destroy Jotunheim.

It all pointed back to a choice that was not his own; to Odin’s choice to bring him back from Jotunheim as a war trophy. Had that been how he secured a truce with Laufey? Had Loki been the bargaining chip that the Allfather had held all this time?

They did not take him to the glass cage. He remained bound and surrounded by guards, but he was taken to their healing room instead.

Voices reached the doorway before the men did.

“…you brought me in to lead this team, Director. This was my call,” Rogers said.

“I didn’t think you’d go Florence Nightingale on me.”

Loki closed his eyes. It felt too good to lie still on a surface that was actually comfortable. There was enough slack in the chains around his wrists and ankles that they didn’t tug on his aching body more than he could tolerate.

“We meet again,” Director Fury said loudly.

Loki turned his head just slightly and opened his eyes. “And again and again. I’ve lost track.”

“He may have a serious head injury,” Rogers whispered to Fury.

Loki bit back a laugh. “I can hear you, Captain.”

Rogers’ cheeks turned slightly red. “Show him. Show him what you showed us on the jet.”

With a sigh, Loki obliged. He expected nothing from the Director of SHIELD. No doubt Fury would lie and manipulate his own without a second thought; there would be no limit to what he was willing to do to an enemy of SHIELD.

“What exactly does this change, Captain?” Fury asked. Predictable.

“I want to know what happened. You didn’t say anything about this.”

“You think we did this?”

“Did you?” Rogers asked with cold determination.

Loki watched with new curiosity. “You probably shouldn’t let him find out about Phase Two, Director. Just a bit of advice.”

Rogers frowned. “What’s Phase Two?”

Fury glared at Loki. “How the hell do you know about that?”

“Coulson has shot me with one of your toys. Two hundred and eighty seven times.”

“That’s impossible.” Fury turned to Rogers. “He’s obviously playing you, Captain. Coulson has never even been in the same room with him. Let alone nearly three hundred times.”

Loki winced as he sat up on the cot. “Has Coulson asked you to sign his Captain America trading cards yet?”

Rogers looked startled. “How did you know about those?”

“Agent Barton,” Fury said quickly. “No doubt he gave you this information.”

“Barton also has an excellent singing voice and knows all of the songs from Wicked.”

“What?” Both Rogers and Fury asked in unison.

“If you would be so kind.” Loki shifted and tried to find a more comfortable position. “I would like a cup of coffee. And a magazine.”

“I’m not giving you anything,” Fury began.

“I’ll get you some coffee.” Rogers headed for the doorway, ignoring Fury’s scowl of protest.

“Well now.” Fury faced Loki directly and folded his arms. He waved a hand at the guards and they fell back several feet. “I don’t know what your game is, but I will find out.”

“I very much doubt that.”

“You threaten my world with war, you steal a force you can't hope to control, you talk about peace, and you kill 'cause it's fun. You have made me very desperate. You might not be glad that you did.”

“Is that what you think I’ve done?” Loki felt a surge of anger. It cut through the pain and the haze of despair that he had sunk into. “You believe me to be allied with the creatures, but I am little more than your hawk; a servant to a higher master. There is nothing for me as a reward but the promise of pain and the threat of death. Do you believe the Chitauri know either mercy or compassion? When he comes, you will know what desperation truly is.”

The cold glint in Fury’s eye changed. It was subtle, almost subtle enough to be dismissed as a shift in the light. “When who comes?”

Loki swallowed and looked away, easing back down onto the cot. “It does not matter.”

He was weary and his body ached. It would take several more iterations for his wounds to heal completely. Next time, he would have Barton take them somewhere he could rest in peace. Fury finally left when it became obvious that he would say no more.

Rogers was as good as his word and brought him coffee. It wasn’t much better than the coffee in the hotel in Vegas, but it warmed him and made him feel slightly less worn. The Captain settled into a chair and stayed, watchful. He looked very young swathed in the red, white, and blue of his allegiance; his blue eyes bright.

Loki raised the coffee mug and gestured to the room around them. “It is you I have to thank for the hospitality.”

“You’re injured,” Rogers answered simply.

“Not seriously.”

Rogers shrugged a little. “I don’t know much about Asgardians.”

“And even less about Frost Giants, I am sure.” Loki raised the mug to his lips and swallowed down more coffee. When he saw the confusion on Rogers’ face, he sighed. “Thor has no doubt told you that I am not truly his brother.”

“He said you were adopted.”

Loki laughed with bitter amusement. “That is one way of putting it.”

“How would you put it?”

“I was stolen. Like many other relics and weapons the Allfather has stolen over the ages. My true parents abandoned me, left me to die during the war with Asgard. I was unwanted, I suppose. Small, unfit, weak.” He lowered the mug to his lap, staring down into the liquid.

“You could go back, find them.”

“I murdered my true father. I have no knowledge of my mother nor how I might find her.”

“Oh.” Rogers shifted in his chair. “That makes it harder.”

“Frost Giants are monsters, Captain.”

Rogers watched him quietly for several minutes. “You think you’re a monster.”

“One can hardly change the circumstances of their birth.” Loki pushed back until he could lean against the wall behind him.

“I did.” There was a small smile on Rogers’ lips. “I was a scrawny kid; no one gave me a second look, let alone a chance. Got turned down by every Army recruiter I saw. Until Erskine found me, I wasn’t much of anything.”

“Ah, yes. And you became what you are today. Did Erskine change who you were? Or merely your physical form.” Loki saw indecision in Rogers’ face and wondered what it meant. “You were chosen for a reason, weren’t you? Not because of your size, no. Something else. What was it?”

Rogers looked uncomfortable and the red had returned to his cheeks. “Erskine said the serum would amplify whatever was already there. Good becomes great, bad becomes worse.”

“Of course.” Loki took another sip of coffee.

“What’s Phase Two?”

“Weapons. Did you expect that SHIELD would do anything else with the Tesseract? No doubt they did not inform you.”

“And Agent Barton told you this? He’s the SHIELD agent that you took control of.”

A twinge of something unpleasant passed through Loki. “Yes. I’m afraid it means that he cannot lie to me so you needn’t doubt his words. Only mine. But if you search this vessel, you will find the weapons I speak of.”

Rogers seemed to weigh that, his expression serious. “We could help you. If you need protection.”

“I doubt Fury’s generosity would extend so far.”

“I would make sure it did,” Rogers said quickly.

Loki raised the mug slightly. “You have been the only one in this realm to show me kindness.” He swallowed down the rest of the coffee and set it aside awkwardly, stretching the limits of his chains.

“Are you hungry?”

Loki eased back down onto his back and closed his eyes again. He needed rest. “Do not worry yourself, Captain. Your Erskine was right.”

When the men Barton had recruited came, they crippled the Helicarrier and barely managed to get Loki out before Thor caught them. It was familiar after that. He’d long since given up trying to control Stark with the scepter and simply threw him out the window.

“Loki!” Thor shouted when he landed on the balcony. “Turn off the Tesseract or I will destroy it!”

“I can’t.” Loki started down the ramp unhurried. He didn’t attack or even look back to see if Thor had decided to take the offensive.

“Look at this! Look around you! Do you think this will end with your rule?”

Loki deliberately did not look at the city. “I never did. But I have no choice. I have tried everything. Do you hear me? Everything. I’ve burned this city to the ground, I’ve saved it. I’ve killed and I’ve protected. All of it for nothing.”

“You speak nonsense.”

“Do not worry, brother.” Loki turned and smiled for the first time. “Your friends will win the day and you will take me back to Asgard.”

Thor’s eyes narrowed. “Do not test my patience with lies, Loki.”

Loki set down the scepter carefully. “You are needed elsewhere. Go to Captain Rogers.”

“Loki-“

He leaped from the balcony onto the flyer as it passed below.

The Hulk did not come for him that time.

Thor did not bind his hands or his mouth when he took him to the square to make the journey back to Asgard. They walked side by side and grasped the containment vessel together.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down the spear.”

“I will speak only with Captain America,” Loki said loudly. “I will harm no one unless you refuse me.”

Fury held out one hand. “We can probably work something out.”

“I need to make a hole in the ceiling. Otherwise the energy released by the Tesseract will destroy this entire facility.”

Selvig rushed to one of the displays. “He’s right. We have about three minutes before this goes critical.”

Loki raised the scepter and fired into the ceiling. He hurried out of the path of falling debris and made his way toward Fury and the others. The blue energy swirled and rose up through the hole, dissipating into the atmosphere.

“You want to tell me exactly what’s going on here?” Fury asked.

“I am Loki of Asgard.”

“Loki?” Selvig asked. “Brother of Thor.”

“Yes.” Loki tightened his grip on the scepter. “I have served the Chitauri and their master because I had no choice. The Chitauri purchase loyalty with pain. And for this betrayal, I will no doubt be killed. You must cease your experiments with Tesseract immediately or they will come for your world.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I am weary of this Hell that I am in. This Hell that I cannot escape. There must be a way. There must be a choice that will change something. This is one that I have not yet tried.” He looked to Selvig. “You helped my brother after he was cast out by our father. Help me now.”

“I don’t know what I can do,” Selvig said nervously, looking to Fury for reassurance.

“I am living the same days over and over again. It is some sort of loop in time and it is tied to the Tesseract. There are fixed events, ones that I cannot change or avoid. Everything leads me to them, no matter what I do.” The entire room was staring at him as though he was completely insane. “Doctor Selvig. You worked with the father of Jane Foster, you knew him. That is why you have looked after her.”

“You could have known that-“

He turned toward Barton. “Agent Barton. Your favorite musical is Wicked.”

Barton blinked. “I’ve never told anyone that.”

“You sing when you’re drunk,” Loki offered in explanation.

“Whoa, whoa.” Fury held up his hands. “Say it’s possible that you’re stuck in a time loop or whatever this is. What do you want us to do about it?”

Loki stopped, unsure how to answer that question. “Help me end it.”

“What will you do for us if we help you?”

Loki met Fury’s gaze without hesitation. “I will negotiate only with Captain America. I will say no more until you bring him to me.”

Captain America never appeared; Stark never arrived in a blaze of fire; the Hulk remained safely hidden in India. SHIELD locked Loki away until Thor came for him. It took several iterations before Loki came to the realization that Fury would not call on his team of outcasts unless there was a real and present threat.

Unless Loki was that real and present threat.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki followed his well-worn path with grim determination. Barton, Selvig, the Tesseract; the cursed eyeball. Captain America and Iron Man came for him.

“I don’t like it,” Rogers said, his words directed at Stark.

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

Rogers looked back over his shoulder, his brow furrowed. “It’s not that. It’s…does this feel familiar to you? I feel like,” he stopped and shook his head. “Nevermind.”

“Like what, Captain?” Loki asked, speaking for the first time. This was new.

“Nothing,” Rogers said quickly. “Déjà vu, that’s all.”

Thunder rolled above them.

Thor came for him and pulled him from the plane.

“I’ve missed you too,” Loki said from the ground where he’d landed.

“Do I look to be in a gaming mood?” Thor demanded.

Loki winced as he got to his feet. “I should think you’d be glad to be back here. Your precious Earth.”

Mjolnir hit the ground with a thud. Thor’s hands were strong as he caught him up. “I thought you dead.”

“Perhaps I am,” Loki said.

Thor’s hand pressed against his neck. “Give up the Tesseract, give up this poisonous dream. Come home.”

“The Chitauri will come. Their Master will not stop until he has it.”

Thor frowned. “Who is this Master you speak of?”

Loki pulled away, working out sore spots as he walked. “He is known only as Thanos. He is far more powerful than you can imagine, brother. I had no choice. I have no choice.”

“Loki.” Thor’s tone softened. “You must come home.”

Loki shook his head. “Do you truly believe that I wish to be here?”

“Where is the Tesseract?”

Loki sat down on a rock, silently counting the seconds.

A blaze of light shot down from the sky and Iron Man carried Thor away.

He settled into the glass cage inside the Helicarrier. Thor’s plea that there was another in the shadows, another far more dangerous than Loki, fell on deaf ears. He played his part; he spat curses at the Black Widow, but felt nothing other than hollow despair as he spoke.

Outside, the Hulk roared.

The men Barton had found came for him and released him from the cage. He left an illusion of himself standing within and went to recover the scepter from SHIELD’s laboratory.

Captain America and Iron Man struggled to repair the sabotaged turbine.

Loki caught Captain America’s wrist as he fell into the open air and pulled him back to safety.

“Loki?” Rogers stared at him, incredulous.

“I cannot stop what happens next, Captain Rogers,” Loki shouted above the noise of the damaged Helicarrier.

“What do you mean?”

“The Chitauri will come. I cannot stop it.” Loki let go of Rogers. “They must not succeed. Do you hear me?”

Roger’s opened his mouth to speak, but stopped, tipping his head and listening as Tony’s voice came through his earpiece. He turned around quickly, looking for any sign of Stark.

Loki left, returning to the cage in time to drive the point of the scepter through Coulson’s back.

“No!” Thor screamed within the cage.

Loki pressed the button to open the floor. The cage plummeted down and Thor with it.

“You’re going to lose,” Coulson said.

“I know.” He moved forward and knelt down, pulling the gun from Coulson’s hand before he could fire. Gently, he reached out and placed his hand over the wound in Coulson’s chest. “I can give you time. Only a few minutes. I will slow your heart and your blood loss. Perhaps it will be long enough for Fury to save you. But the others, they must believe you are dead or they will fall.”

Coulson stared up at him. “Something to unite them,” he said weakly.

“That is you, Agent Coulson. I have lived this moment a thousand times; this is the only way.” He stood up. Blood dripped from the scepter.

The portal opened; the Chitauri came.

The Hulk smashed him into the floor of Stark Tower.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll have that drink now.” Loki eased himself into a sitting position. He expected nothing.

Captain America brought him a glass of water.

Loki accepted it cautiously. “You chose not to go with the others.”

“Wasn’t all that hungry. I’ll meet them there.” His face was still marked with dirt and soot, the tracks of sweat cutting through the grime. “Why did you save me, on the Helicarrier?”

“You would have saved yourself. I merely saved you time.” Loki washed the taste of blood from his mouth.

“You said the Chitauri would come and you couldn’t stop them. Why tell me?”

“Because it’s the truth.”

“How can I trust you?”

Loki almost laughed. “You can’t. But it doesn’t matter.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You said on the plane that you felt as though had done this before. Déjà vu; isn’t that what you called it?” Loki finished the glass of water and set it on the step beside him. “I have lived these six days over and over again. I have seen endless possible outcomes, each a consequence of my choices.”

Wearily, Rogers took a seat beside Loki, his gaze on the destroyed windows and the smoke still rising up from parts of the city. “You don’t have to be our enemy, Loki.”

“What choice do I have?” Loki gestured to the shattered glass, the broken floor, and the city beyond. “I cannot stop this. I have tried. I’ve thrown the Tesseract into the ocean, I’ve buried it, I’ve tried to destroy it. And I’ve failed.”

Rogers’ brow furrowed. “I think Hulk smashed you a little too hard.”

“Do you think I do not know how mad this sounds?” he laughed and shook his head ruefully. “And in all the times I have lived these six days, you alone have shown me kindness.” He picked up the glass and held it up as though it were a rare specimen.

“Say I believe you,” Rogers began, brow still drawn into lines. “What does it mean?”

“I do not know,” Loki answered tiredly. “Tomorrow, Thor will try to take me back to Asgard, but instead, I will simply return to the moment I came to this Realm and it will begin yet another time.”

“Maybe you’re supposed to learn something?”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “Six days at a time, I have lived decades of your mortal life. I doubt there is anything left for me to learn. None of you remember anything.”

“What will happen to you?” Rogers looked away. “If Thor does take you back to Asgard.”

“Punishment of some kind. Perhaps execution.” Loki shrugged. He wasn’t worried about going back to Asgard anytime soon. “Midgard isn’t the only Realm I’ve tried to destroy.”

The Captain’s eyes were wide with something like horror when he turned back. “Why? Were the Chitauri behind that too?”

“Attempting to destroy Jotunheim was my choice and mine alone. Asgard was at war with Jotunheim at the time. If that matters. Although I suppose that was also my fault.” Loki didn’t expect that to matter. Mortals seemed to prefer clearly defined black and white, though their lives and their entire Realm was awash in shades of gray.

“You started a war? Another war.”

Loki took a deep breath, wincing at the pain in his sides. “I am not exactly a good person, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Thor said you had no choice. That the Chitauri coerced you into doing this.”

“Does it matter?” He was stuck in this mire of horror and bloodshed regardless of the Chitauri’s torment, regardless of their threats.

“It matters to me,” Rogers said softly.

Loki considered that for several long moments. “Thor and I fought. The last time I saw Asgard. He destroyed the Bifrost to prevent me from destroying Jotunheim. I fell. There was no reason to remain in Asgard. A family that wasn’t real, a life that was no more than a lie. I landed on a dark, broken moon and it was there that the Chitauri found me. They are not known for their generous hospitality.”

“What did they do?” Rogers asked.

“What is done to prisoners here?” Loki countered. “What is done to suspected spies and those you cannot trust? To your terrorists. To those that SHIELD fears.”

“I’m going to guess it didn’t involve tea and cookies.”

Loki couldn’t help but laugh. There was a strange, bemused expression on the Captain’s face. “You should attempt humor more frequently, Captain.”

Rogers’ cheeks darkened and he smiled shyly at the floor between his boots. “Just think about it, okay? You don’t have to be our enemy.”

It was Loki’s turn to stare at the floor. “I have no wish to be your enemy.”

“And Thor?” Rogers continued with surprising gentleness. “He’s your brother.”

“Yes, I don’t believe I shall ever be rid of the idiot.”

“Family’s family. Even when you want to kill them, you still love them.” Rogers put his hand on Loki’s arm, ever so gently and just for a moment. “Well, if this starts all over for you again tomorrow…I guess I should say good luck.”

Loki smiled; a true, genuine smile.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki found himself impatient for events to progress. He was restless, anxious, and found his nerves buzzing not unpleasantly by the time he arrived in Germany. He stuck to the script, wary of any change that might result in an outcome other than the one he wanted. It had become a delicate balancing act of decisions where he had freedom and those where deviation would destroy the intricately connected web of events.

“I don’t like it,” Rogers said, his words directed at Stark.

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

Rogers looked back over his shoulder, his brow furrowed. “This feels familiar. Like I’ve done this before. Somehow.” He shook his head. “Déjà vu, I guess.”

Thunder rolled above them.

Rogers looked up. “Another Asgardian?”

“What?” Stark asked, already reaching for his helmet.

Thor pulled Loki from the plane.

“I’ve missed you too,” Loki said from the ground where he’d landed.

“Do I look to be in a gaming mood?” Thor demanded.

Loki winced as he got to his feet. “I should think you’d be glad to be back here. Your precious Earth.”

Mjolnir hit the ground with a thud. Thor’s hands were strong as he caught him up. “I thought you dead.”

Loki swallowed down the bitterness in his throat. Stiffly, awkwardly, he placed his hands on Thor’s arms and bowed his head just enough to let his forehead touch Thor’s shoulder. “I am sorry, brother.”

Thor’s arms tightened around him almost painfully. “Come home, Loki. Please.”

“I cannot stop it, Thor,” Loki said as he lifted his head again. He held tightly to Thor’s arms, wishing that Iron Man would not come after him. “You must understand.”

“There is nothing we cannot accomplish. If we are together.” Thor smiled hesitantly.

Loki pulled away. “I would give anything for that to be true.”

A blaze of light shot down from the sky and Iron Man carried Thor away.

The War came.

Captain America brought him a glass of water.

Loki accepted it gratefully. “You chose not to go with the others.”

“Wasn’t all that hungry. I’ll meet them there.” His face was still marked with dirt and soot, the tracks of sweat cutting through the grime. He picked at some of the dirt on his boots, brow furrowed in thought. “This is going to sound crazy.”

“I doubt that.” Loki washed the taste of blood from his mouth.

“Have we…have you and I? Have we met before?”

“Perhaps,” Loki answered carefully.

“I’ve only been out of the ice for, well, I guess it’s been more than a week now. So I’m pretty sure we’ve never met before.” Rogers stared out at the city. “But it feels like I know you somehow.”

“In another life, perhaps.”

“You don’t have to be our enemy, Loki.” Rogers turned, watching him intently.

“There are few choices open to me that prevent me from becoming your enemy.”

“Because of the Chitauri?”

Loki swallowed down more water. The Chitauri. That was an aspect he had not fully considered. As long as he was trapped within the infernal loop of six days, the Chitauri were ever defeated and the Tesseract kept from their hands. What would the consequences be if the Chitauri’s vessel was never destroyed?

“Loki,” Rogers said, concerned. “Are you alright?”

“I have no wish to be your enemy, Captain. You are the only one in this Realm who has shown me kindness.” He drained the glass of water and set it aside.

“Have you given anyone else a chance?”

“There is little point.” But he couldn’t deny that the flickering hope that had begun to grow inside him. Somehow, the Captain was beginning to be affected by the time loop. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before he truly remembered previous iterations. He didn’t know how it had happened, but the feeling of hope was nearly overpowering.

He’d been alone for so long.

This changed everything.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Captain Rogers stood before him, shoulders back and head up. He wasn’t wearing his uniform. Around him were the usual faces and some new ones: Fury, Barton, Selvig, and Coulson. Rogers nodded toward the ceiling and the swirling blue energy left behind by the unstable portal.

Loki fired the scepter and blew a hole through the stone. The energy escaped into the night sky above them.

“I don’t really understand why I’m here,” Rogers began haltingly. “Somehow, I knew you would be here. I’m hoping you can tell me what’s going on, since SHIELD thinks I’ve lost my mind. I’m kind of thinking I’ve lost my mind too.”

Fury folded his arms, watching Loki as though he had his one eye on a particularly venomous serpent. “I’d like an explanation myself.”

They took him to the Helicarrier, still moving like a great iceberg through ocean waves.

Loki sat at the table with the agents of SHIELD around him. He explained everything. He told them of the war against the Frost Giants, how Odin found him on Jotunheim and raised him as his own, of Thor’s banishment and the destruction of the Bifrost. He told them of his captivity with the Chitauri and pain at the hands of the Other; of their dark Master, Thanos, and his desire for the Tesseract. He explained the time loop.

“Is this possible?” Fury looked to Selvig.

“Anything’s possible.” Selvig was still skittish, remembering too well the last time Thor had come to Midgard and Loki had sent the Destroyer after him.

SHIELD would not allow Loki to leave the Helicarrier, but he was not a prisoner. He spent most of his time with Captain America; they talked of the strangeness of Midgard and the way it used to be before the Captain disappeared into the ice. Loki gave him stories of Asgard and Thor’s adventures.

Right on schedule, Thor’s arrival was heralded by thunder. He was as skeptical as the rest as to the veracity of Loki’s strange circumstances, but he was glad that there was no imminent danger to the Realm.

The next morning over breakfast, Rogers placed a cup of coffee on the table in front of Loki. “I think it’s time you called me Steve.”

Loki smiled. The anger, bitterness, and fear that had poisoned him for so long felt lessened in the presence of the ever-steady soldier. Perhaps this time the loop would end; perhaps he would be allowed to stay.

Thor used the Tesseract to make the journey back to Asgard alone.

Two days later, Thor returned. He was bloodied and battered from battle.

The Chitauri had come to Asgard after Thor’s return. The Warriors Three had been among the first to be killed; Asgard had fallen. Even Odin, the Allfather, had been cut down by Thanos. Thor had barely escaped with his life, using the Tesseract once again to return to Midgard.

Loki convinced Thor to return to Asgard again; this time, Loki would go with him.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki tried.

A dozen times; a hundred times. More than a hundred times. Every variation he could think of, he tried.

He kept trying.

There was no solution.

Captain Rogers didn’t remember each iteration, not exactly, but he seemed to remember bits and pieces. Like the echoes of dreams, he said. Loki didn’t know why. Neither Selvig nor Stark had any explanation, but they could only grasp the concept of the time loop and begin to think it through before it repeated and they started all over again.

If anyone, they argued, it should be Barton who remembered. After all, he’d been touched by the scepter. But it wasn’t Barton.

A soft knock sounded on the door of the narrow room on the Helicarrier that had become Loki’s. Sometimes; sometimes it was his. He didn’t move or answer; his back was pressed against wall at the head of the narrow bed.

“Loki?” Rogers opened the door carefully and looked inside. “Can I come in?”

“Has Thor returned?” Loki asked. His own voice sounded hollow and brittle in the quiet.

“Not yet.” He shouldered the door open, revealing a tray in his hands. “You didn’t come out for dinner.”

Loki couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d eaten. “I am not hungry.”

“You have to eat.” Rogers set the tray down on the bed near Loki’s feet and got up to close the door. “I’m not leaving until you eat.”

Loki could feel the seconds ticking away. What if Thor didn’t return this time and the time loop couldn’t be restarted? Every time Thor returned to Asgard alone, the Chitauri and Thanos followed him there.

Asgard fell.

“Loki,” Rogers prompted.

Rather than argue, he knew well enough by now that Rogers could be as stubborn as Thor, he resigned himself to the tray. The food was tasteless; he chewed and swallowed without caring or asking what it was.

“Are you going to try again?” Rogers asked.

“I have to. There has to be a way. Something I can change that will make a difference.” Loki stopped and took a deep breath. His hands were shaking slightly; he didn’t know if it was enough for the Captain to notice.

“I’ll be there.” Rogers’ fingers rested lightly on the back of Loki’s hand, just for a moment.

It was a gesture of comfort that felt very familiar. Loki bent his wrist and laced his fingers through Rogers’, catching his hand in a loose hold. It was an unconscious gesture, reaching out for something solid; the Captain was as solid and as real as anything on Midgard. Loki’s mind was focused on what he could change on the next iteration and getting the remaining food to his mouth. Despite his protests, he had been hungry. Absently, his thumb brushed a lazy arc back and forth against the side of Rogers’ wrist.

“Perhaps if I return to Asgard alone,” he thought aloud.

Rogers’ cleared his throat. His gaze was on the pattern Loki was slowly tracing out against his skin. “Thor won’t agree to that.”

“No, probably not,” Loki admitted. He finished the food on the tray and finally remembered what he’d been eating. Spaghetti and meatballs; that’s what dinner had been called.

“Can I get you anything else?” There was unexpected tension in Rogers’ voice.

The sound of Fury’s voice on the intercom prevented Loki from answering.

Thor had returned.

Asgard had fallen.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Captain Rogers looked nervous; he brushed at his hair a couple times and didn’t quite meet Loki’s gaze.

That was new.

There were other things to worry about so Loki pushed it from his mind and focused on the work ahead. He finally convinced Thor to allow him to return to Asgard first, alone.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Captain Rogers looked nervous.

Loki shot out the ceiling of the room to allow the Tesseract’s energy to dissipate and sat down on the steps as stone and dust rained down around him, the scepter across his knees. He didn’t know what else to do. Footsteps came toward him, slow and deliberate.

“Hey.” Rogers slowly sat down on the step beside him. “How did the last one go?”

“If there is a way to prevent this, I cannot find it.” Loki grimaced with frustration. For so long, he had dreamed of seeing Asgard fall and now he was desperate to find a way to save it. But the only way he knew required bringing the Chitauri to Midgard. He had gone from hating the time loop and wishing only that it would end to counting on another chance to find the chain of events that would give him a better outcome.

“There’s a way. You’ll find it.”

His faith in Loki was still unexpected. And undeserved, Loki thought.

“Are you okay?”

Loki tried to smile and nodded toward Fury and the others. “SHIELD is waiting, Captain.”

“I’m pretty sure I’ve told you to call me Steve. Probably more than once.”

It was still strange to have someone believe him. The others required repeated explanations and repeated convincing, where Steve could often anticipate events with a sort of intuition. Glancing to the side, Loki saw that Steve wouldn’t quite meet his gaze and there was a subtle hint of red in his cheeks.

“Let me help you,” he said. “Maybe if you step me through it, we can figure something out. Together.”

“Together,” Loki repeated. The word was unsteady and unfamiliar on his tongue.

“Two heads are better than one, right?”

Once they were on the Helicarrier, Steve managed to find a game played with small figures carved from a strange type of wood. He discarded the board and merely piled up the little men on the table.

“Walk me through what happened the very first time.” He picked up one of the figures and held it out. “This is you.”

Loki took the figure, holding it gingerly as he thought back to the very first time he’d come through the portal made by the Tesseract. He collected several more figures from the pile.

“I’m here.” He traced out a line. “The Tesseract here. Fury, Barton, Selvig. A woman. And more toward the back of the room, I am unsure as to how many. They ran once the fighting began. Four were heavily armed. They were here and here.” He set those into place and gently tipped them over to indicate that he killed them. “I took control of Barton, Selvig, and another man. Barton shot Fury.” He tipped over the figure indicating Fury.

“I what?” Barton asked. He was peering over Steve’s shoulder and frowning. “You did what?”

“I took control of your mind. It didn’t hurt.”

“Like hell it didn’t!” Barton protested.

“Agent Barton,” Steve said firmly. “Please.”

Loki pulled out another figure for Agent Hill. “At that point, I escaped in a vehicle with Barton and the others. Hill, Fury, and Coulson all survived the destruction of the research facility. The portal that I came through was unstable. The energies released caused an explosion inside the chamber. Many died.” He looked up to see surprised expressions on the faces around him. All but Steve. “That’s why I had to create a hole in the ceiling after I came through, to release the energy.”

No one thanked him.

Continuing, Loki collected more pieces as he needed them. Stark, Thor, Banner, the Captain, Romanoff. He walked them through the first six days he’d lived on Midgard.

Barton shuddered when Loki told them about the eyeball.

Coulson gave no reaction at all when Loki tipped over the figure meant to be him.

A pen served as a surrogate for the nuclear missile.

“And there you have it.” Loki leaned back from the scattered figures before him. “I have thousands of iterations of these six days. I have seen New York City burn. I have seen some or all of you dead. There are a few things I know to be connected, but I do not understand why.”

“Like what?” Stark asked. It was the first time he’d spoken since the morbid game had begun.

“If Steve comes to me in the cage, the Hulk is not released on this vessel. If Agent Romanoff comes, he is. That, I think, is not entirely my doing. Rather, it is an inherent instability that I am able to take advantage of. A tipping point.” Loki tapped the figure indicating the Hulk.

“What happens if you don’t kill me?” Coulson asked.

“Your Avengers fall in battle,” Loki answered honestly.

“Okay. But there are still missing pieces.” Steve reached out for a handful of figures. He placed them down far from the others. “Thanos. The Other. The Chitauri. Asgard. What connects them is the Tesseract. Thanos follows the Tesseract. When it’s here, he sends you and the Chitauri.”

“When it returns to Asgard, the Chitauri follow and Asgard falls.” Loki reached out to tip over the figure that symbolized Asgard.

“Because Tony didn’t blow up the Chitauri army with the missile those times.” Steve folded his arms, looking out over the table thoughtfully. “Is the missile a tipping point?”

Loki shook his head, trying to remember each detail of his earlier iterations. “Sometimes it comes, sometimes it does not. I have never known what made the difference.”

“So we open a portal and nuke them. No army to invade Asgard,” Stark suggested. “Everyone’s happy.”

“Will it matter? Loki will just go back to the start once Thor tries to take him home.” Barton reached down to pick up the small figure that was him. “Why the time loop at all? Why just Loki?”

No one had an answer.

“Nothing I have tried has broken the cycle,” Loki said simply. “It could be magic, perhaps. But it would take a great deal of power. I do not know if even the Allfather could accomplish something like this.”

“Say he could. Why?”

“If it is deliberate and of Asgard, Father’s machinations are usually lessons in disguise.” Loki shrugged, waving at the table. “Though I have not discovered what lesson it is that I am meant to learn.”

Stark drummed his fingers on the table absently. “It’s equally likely that using the Tesseract created a fold in space-time, fusing two points together and forming an infinite loop. It could be random. There could be no purpose, no intent.”

“It’s not random,” Steve said thoughtfully. “This isn’t an accident.”

Stark raised an eyebrow. “How can you be so sure?”

“I just know.”

“Sure, Cap. Still say we try my idea. What’s to lose?” Stark pushed away from the table and stood up. “And I’ve had enough Twilight Zone for the evening. If you don’t need me, I hate to keep a lady waiting.”

Soon, it was only Steve and Loki remaining at the table with the scattered figures.

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt to try.” Steve began reorganizing the pieces. “Open the portal on top of Stark Tower. We can get the iridium without hurting anyone. I’m sure SHIELD can pull some strings. Have the missile and Stark ready. If he has a day or two, maybe he can modify the suit or something, so we’ll know he’ll make it back. Or we just leave the portal open until we know he’s clear.”

Loki hesitated. He hadn’t mentioned the times that Stark didn’t reach the portal before it closed. For the first time, he began to wonder what other echoes Steve heard or saw in his dreams.

“Do you think it’s worth a shot?” Steve asked; his blue eyes were suddenly focused on Loki.

“Why not?” Loki smiled.

Three days later, the Avengers assembled. This time, Loki stood with them and the Helicarrier hovered nearby, ready and waiting. SHIELD had evacuated the surrounding city blocks.

The portal opened; the Chitauri came.

Loki fought shoulder to shoulder with Captain America and Thor until SHIELD was ready. Iron Man carried the missile up and through the portal. He fell back to Earth; Hulk caught him. Agent Romanoff shut down the portal with the scepter.

There was damage to the buildings and injuries, but no one died that day.

Thor was smiling broadly as he held out the Tesseract’s containment vessel for Loki to grab. With a deep breath, Loki took hold of the handle.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Captain Rogers looked nervous.

Loki shot out the ceiling of the room to allow the Tesseract’s energy to dissipate and sat down on the steps. He tossed the scepter to the ground ahead of him and buried his face in his hands.

He had truly hoped that time would be the end. That it would be different.

What else could be expected of him?

“Hey.” Steve eased down onto the step beside Loki. “How did it go?”

Loki couldn’t force his tongue to form words. The turmoil inside him was unbearable; the disappointment, fear, and bitter anger at his Fate. He couldn’t imagine an eternity living the same six days over and over again without choking on despair.

Steve’s fingers brushed lightly over the back of his hand. “Come on. I know what you need.”

Loki doubted that, but he allowed Steve to pull him to his feet and followed. He barely saw the others standing near the equipment they’d been using to experiment with the Tesseract.

“Rogers, where do you think you’re going?” Fury asked.

“We’ll be back,” was Steve’s answer.

Loki followed him out of the facility and into the warm night air. He was surprised when Steve led him to a motorcycle. Steve pulled on the dark leather jacket that had been left draped over the seat and climbed onto the bike.

“You might want to try something a little more…” Steve gestured to Loki’s armor.

Looking down, Loki altered his appearance to match what he’d seen on other men riding similar vehicles. He now wore head to toe black leather, in a very different cut and style than he was accustomed to.

“Climb on.”

They rode out into the night. Loki didn’t ask where they were going and Steve didn’t stop to tell him. Maybe Steve didn’t know either. Loki held onto Steve’s waist, his eyes focused on the night sky above them and the millions of glittering stars. The desert around them appeared washed with moonlight. As the miles passed, the steady sound of the engine became as soothing as a lullaby and his thoughts faded into silence. He thought of nothing, was conscious of nothing, except the feel of leather against his skin and the places where his body pressed against Steve’s. Wind tugged and wrestled with his hair; tangling it up into what would undoubtedly be a mess.

When dawn began to appear at the edges of the sky, they stopped in a small town. The motel was small but neatly kept. Still lost in the silence of the desert, they didn’t speak as they checked in and then made their way to the small diner that was just opening up for the day. At this hour, the only clientele were those who had also spent their night on the road.

They ordered coffee and pancakes, eating in silence. As the sun finally tipped up and over the edge of the desert, they returned to the motel room.

Loki sat at the end of the bed and began to strip away the layers of leather. Suddenly, he was weary to the bone and wanted nothing more than to sleep forever. Or at least until Thor came for him and he would be forced to continue the nightmare he was living.

“This was the only room they had.” Steve shrugged off the leather jacket and slung it over the back of the armchair. He shucked off his boots as well. “You take the bed.”

It was the first time Loki had even noticed there was only one bed. “Don’t be ridiculous. That chair won’t even hold you.” He moved back and laid down on one half of the bed. Closing his eyes, he tried to hold on to the stillness that had filled his mind as they’d raced down the desert highways. All his life, it seemed his mind had been ever full of tumbling, racing thoughts. Beside him, the mattress shifted as Steve’s weight settled onto it.

“Are you alright?” Steve asked quietly.

Loki nodded, unsure of his words. “Thank you.”

“Riding can be peaceful. Clears your head.”

“So it does.” Loki opened his eyes to stare up at the stained ceiling above them. “Do you know where we are?”

“Somewhere in Arizona. I think.”

Loki couldn’t stop the laughter that bubbled up in his throat. “Are we lost?”

“I figure SHIELD will come looking for us eventually, right?”

“This is much better than Vegas,” Loki said with a smile on his lips.

“You went to Vegas?”

“Several times.” He thought back to the time that Thor had broken down the door and Captain America had brought him coffee, his face burning red with embarrassment.

“Maybe we’ll go there next time.”

Loki turned his head to look at Steve. His eyes were closed and he looked completely at peace lying on the bed next to him. “Next time?”

“Yeah.” Steve took a deep breath. “We’re all stuck in this time loop with you, right? You’re just the only one who remembers all of it. If I’m going to spend eternity living the same six days over and over again, I might as well do it with you.”

Loki pushed himself up onto his elbow, staring. He hadn’t considered the idea that it wasn’t just him who had been damned to repeat these six days. True, he was the only one who remembered, but it was no less a punishment for those who didn’t. Their lives were also frozen in the stutter of time and they were just as trapped as he was.

“Why?” he asked.

Steve opened one eye. “A week ago, I was frozen in ice. This is an improvement.”

“But why…” Loki couldn’t finish the question. No one had ever chosen him. Thor had always been the favored son.

A muscle worked in Steve’s jaw. “Do you know what it’s like to feel yourself freezing to death? Slowly. Feeling the ice wrap around you and knowing there’s no escape. You fight it, at first. But you accept it, you face it. And then you wake up and there’s a whole new world. It moves so fast; it’s so loud and so bright and part of me just wants to crawl back into the ice and stay here.” He stopped, the words catching in his throat. “Here, I have six days. Six days that aren’t going anywhere and it feels like the world has slowed down just a bit. I don’t have to try to understand everything; I don’t have to worry about what happens after day six. I just want to catch my breath.”

Loki eased back down on his back, thinking. He’d never found any sort of peace in being trapped in the time loop, but perhaps it was easier without remembering the details of it. He was speaking before he realized his lips were moving.

“As I fell from the Bifrost…the feeling is indescribable. To drift through nothingness, through the space between realms where there is only cold and darkness. But I couldn’t freeze.” He smiled, turning his head toward Steve. “Frost Giants have no fear of cold or ice. So I simply fell. The silence was unbearable. Silence enough that I could hear my heart beating, hear the blood rushing inside my body. I thought I would go mad. Perhaps I did go mad. And then I landed on that broken moon. You’d think it would be painful, but it wasn’t. I fell into a layer of dust as soft as feathers and it rose up around me like waves of silk. There was barely enough air to breathe, so poor was the gravity and the atmosphere. I remember choking on the dust as it drifted back down.”

The mattress shifted as Steve rolled onto his side. Almost absently, he reached out and the tips of his fingers brushed over the back of Loki’s hand. It felt natural, a well-worn habit, for Loki to roll his wrist and thread their fingers together.

“The Chitauri are a hive race,” he continued, still staring up at the ceiling. “Mindless but fierce. They are conquerors, not colonizers, seeking out worlds to devour. They demand obedience and enforce their will through pain. The Other can cause indescribable pain with just a touch. At first, I thought it was mere chance they found me there, but I do not believe that any longer.”

If Thor, with Mjolnir at his side, could not prevent the fall of Asgard, what hope did Loki have?

“Loki,” Steve said hesitantly. “Has this happened before?”

Loki watched him for a moment. He watched Steve’s face as a dozen expressions came and went; watched as the tension built in his shoulders. Finally, he shook his head. “No. This is the first time this has happened.” He gestured to the bed and the room around them.

Steve smiled. “Probably won’t be the last time.”

Loki swallowed, unsure of his own voice. “Probably not.”

He hoped it wasn’t the last time.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki shot out the ceiling of the room to allow the Tesseract’s energy to dissipate. He handed the scepter to Agent Coulson without a word.

He and Steve rode away into the night.

Dawn came and they ate at the diner in silence, the people around them oblivious to their having been there before. As the sun finally tipped up and over the edge of the desert, they returned to the motel room.

Loki sat at the end of the bed and began to strip away the layers of leather.

“This was the only room they had.” Steve shrugged off the leather jacket and slung it over the back of the armchair. He shucked off his boots as well. “You take the bed.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Loki stretched out on the bed, lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling. The mattress shifted as Steve’s weight settled down beside him.

“Loki,” Steve began hesitantly, almost shyly. “What are Frost Giants?”

“A race of monsters. Enemies of Asgard.”

Steve watched him carefully for a long time before he spoke again. “You're not a monster.”

Almost absently, he reached out and the tips of his fingers brushed over the back of Loki’s hand. It was a strange comfort. Loki turned his hand and let their fingers curl together. He wondered briefly if he could show Steve his true form, his Jotun form, but he didn’t know if he could make the transformation happen at will. He’d never wanted to try.

“How is it you know to come for me?” Loki asked.

Steve’s brows knit together as he thought. “It’s a dream. Always the same dream, I think. I see the Tesseract and Director Fury and I see you. Somehow, I know exactly where you’ll be. After I wake up, I call Director Fury. He thinks I’m crazy for wanting to bring my bike. And I know that I’ve done it all before. Somehow.”

Loki didn’t voice his suspicions out loud. Somehow, the Tesseract was causing this to happen. It was reaching out to the Captain prior to Loki’s arrival, which meant the actual beginning of the time loop was earlier than Loki had believed. While it was interesting, it shed no light on the nature or purpose of the time loop.

“What happened between you and Thor?”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “Why do you wish to know?”

Steve’s face reddened and he looked away. “Just curious. Did you ever get along?”

There was no simple answer. Instead, Loki began to tell stories of his childhood, growing and playing alongside Thor. Staring up at the ceiling, he spoke of whatever memories came to mind; happy, sad, infuriating. In a plain motel room somewhere in the desert, in the midst of six never-ending days, the slights of youth didn’t seem to matter. He told stories until he recognized the slow, steady breathing that meant Steve had fallen asleep. Closing his eyes, Loki let himself relax against the mattress, his fingers still loosely tangled with Steve’s.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Six days at a time, Loki and Steve explored the world.

They hiked the Grand Canyon and wandered deep into caverns beneath the surface of the Earth. They walked the Las Vegas strip a hundred times, saw Los Angeles and learned how to surf. Steve taught Loki how to control the motorcycle so they could take turns. They crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, saw black sand beaches, drank tequila in San Diego, swam in a lake made warm by a nearby volcano, raced across the Bonneville Salt Flats, and followed winding canyon roads through snow-capped mountains. More often than not, they ended up lying side by side each night, staring up at the stars or the ceiling of a hotel and talking until one of them fell asleep.

The pain that Loki remembered seeing in Steve’s eyes when he’d first come to Midgard began to fade.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

It was enough for Loki to leave the scepter with Fury or Coulson; enough to climb onto the motorcycle behind Steve and ride away. Although he remembered everywhere they’d been, Steve didn’t and Loki enjoyed watching him discover the world anew each time. There was a purity in Steve’s amazement that caught at Loki, wrapping around him as intangible as smoke.

Loki leaned his back against the stone railing, watching Steve’s face rather than the display of water behind them. Steve was mesmerized by the dance of the Bellagio’s famed fountain; each jet of water choreographed to match the music.

Catching Loki’s gaze, Steve grinned sheepishly. “I’m guessing this isn’t our first time here.”

“It is still beautiful.”

“You’re not even watching.”

“I’m watching you.”

Steve ducked his head, looking away. Too casually to be casual, he reached over and brushed his fingertips over the back of Loki’s right hand. It was a gesture that had become so familiar that Loki couldn’t remember which iteration had been the first time. He turned back to face the water so they were standing side by side and reached down to take Steve’s hand.

“Have we been to Los Angeles yet?” Steve asked.

“A few times. There is still much to see there.”

“Never thought I’d see Hollywood,” Steve mused.

Once the fountain show ended, they walked back down the Las Vegas strip, talking about nothing and everything. Steve’s attention seemed to be on everything else, his eyes caught by every flash of light. Loki found himself strangely restless when they returned to their hotel room.

“I’m going to take a shower,” Steve told him, already heading for the bathroom. The door closed behind him.

Loki didn’t respond. His mind was trying to turn over the strange feeling in the pit of his stomach and determine what it was. He’d grown used to Steve’s presence; had become comfortable with him in a way that felt both strange and very familiar. Steve, alone, had believed him and chosen to endure the endless loop of time with him. Loki didn’t know and couldn’t understand why. Whether it was Steve’s previous exposure to the Cube or the super soldier serum he’d been injected with; no theory was any more likely than the next.

He paced the room, listening to the water running in the shower, and tried to swallow down the anxiousness that had knotted the muscles in his back and shoulders. Perhaps he merely needed to walk. The lights and sounds of Las Vegas would distract him.

As he raised his knuckles to the bathroom door, thinking to tell Steve that he was headed out and would return, the door swung open several inches; the latch hadn’t fully caught. Warm, humid air rolled out around him. He opened his mouth to call out, but the words never made it past his teeth. Through the gap in the door, he could see Steve through the partially fogged glass of the shower door. Steve’s eyes were closed, his head back; the spray from the shower head beat down against his throat and chest. His left hand was braced against the wall as his right made sharp, fast strokes along his erect cock.

Steve’s expression twisted into something almost like pain and his entire body went rigid. “Loki.” It was barely more than a moan.

Loki jerked back, startled. He carefully, silently, pulled the bathroom door closed.

He heard the water shut off and grabbed for the notepad and pen on the bedside table. He hastily scrawled a note before he bolted out the door and into the cooling desert night; he headed for the pool area on the lower level. He needed to clear his head.

Without thinking, he stripped off his clothes and dove into the water. It blocked out the sounds of the city. He swam back and forth from end to end until his lungs burned and he had to come up for air. Then he dove back into the water and kept swimming. He stopped only when his muscles began to ache and he was panting for breath when he surfaced. Pressing his forehead against the still-warm stone of the pool’s edge, he inhaled the scent of chlorine and the desert. His emotions were in too much turmoil for him to make sense of them.

Since he’d come to Midgard, he’d been consumed by his need to take the Tesseract, by his anger at Thor and Odin and Asgard itself. Then the time loop snatched him up and stuck him fast into these six days, with all of his pain and all of his failures forever on parade around him.

He gripped the edge of the pool hard enough to feel the grit of the concrete digging into his skin. A strange new world had settled in around him while he wasn’t looking; a world that wasn’t about Thor or proving that he was worthy of Asgard’s expectations and Odin’s love. Here, there was no war to win, no master to serve.

Here, in the time loop, there was just Steve.

Steve, who had shown him kindness when he was an enemy; who trusted a feverish dream enough to come looking for him. Steve, who had chosen to spend the six days with him; who wanted to be with him; who wanted him.

Here, in the time loop, it didn’t matter that Loki had come to Midgard trying to destroy it. Because he hadn’t, not this time. He’d climbed onto the back of a motorcycle with Steve and ridden into a future that had never been foretold by any prophecy or woven on the loom of any Norn. These six days, the here and the now, were entirely untouched by Asgard. Thor was merely the chime of a clock when three days had passed.

Loki felt his breath stick in his throat, not quite able to fill his lungs. He’d been cast far, far from what he knew, from who he knew how to be, and set adrift. These six days in which he could do anything he wished and be anyone he wished to be. He shied away from the idea immediately. It was too large and too foreign; it no longer mattered that he was a spoil of war brought back from a realm of monsters to serve a purpose that was not his choice. It no longer mattered that Thor was the favored son, the future King; even Asgard was no more substantial than a dream.

“Loki?” Steve’s voice broke into his thoughts. He held out a towel.

When Loki pulled himself up and out of the water, Steve looked away shyly. Loki wrapped the towel around his waist, covering himself.

They didn’t speak as Loki gathered up his clothes and they returned to the room. He headed to the bathroom to wash away the smell of chlorine, unable to stand in the shower without thinking of the way the water had poured down Steve’s body. His heart pounded in his chest. He placed his left hand against the wall where Steve’s had been.

If his past didn’t matter, then he could choose to do and be what he wanted. What did he want?

It had been so long since he’d asked himself what he truly wanted that it seemed an impossible question. He closed his eyes and bowed his head beneath the spray of water. The mental image that came to his mind, as sharp and perfect as a picture, was how Steve’s body would look beneath him. He could imagine the play of muscles beneath skin; the taste of salt on his tongue as he sought out each divot and curve. Panting against the steam rising up around him, he felt himself harden at the images in his head. His fingers curled around his erection, skin made slick by the water. He thought of Steve’s lips against his skin, of the heat and wetness of his mouth; he thought of Steve sitting on the bed in the other room, how easy it would be to press him down against the mattress and take him; how those blue eyes would look, hazy with lust and pleasure. Loki jerked under the spray of the shower, gasping. Hot water rushed down and washed away the evidence.

It was madness.

He wrenched the water to the off position, his anger flooding back. Perhaps this too was another of the Chitauri’s manipulation techniques; perhaps they were still trying to break him to the will of their Master and damning him to this infernal time loop was just another of their cruelties. He toweled off, rubbing away the water as if he could scrub away the heat under his skin. He’d become numb to the never-ending days and now found himself thrust suddenly, jarringly back into the present.

“Loki,” Steve said before Loki had even fully opened the bathroom door.

Thor still had terrible timing.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki shot out the ceiling of the room to allow the Tesseract’s energy to dissipate. He handed the scepter to Agent Coulson without a word.

He and Steve rode away into the night.

Dawn came and they ate at the diner in silence, the people around them oblivious to their having been there before. As the sun finally tipped up and over the edge of the desert, they returned to the motel room.

Loki sat at the end of the bed and began to strip away the layers of leather.

“This was the only room they had.” Steve shrugged off the leather jacket and slung it over the back of the armchair. He shucked off his boots as well. “You take the bed.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Loki stretched out on the bed, lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling. The mattress shifted as Steve’s weight settled down beside him.

“How many times have we done this?” Steve asked, his gaze on the ceiling above.

“I have not counted,” Loki lied.

“And what happens next?”

There was too much meaning layered in those words for even Loki to sift through and identify. He didn’t know what would happen next or what should happen next. So many roads they had traveled; so many places they had gone. Which was the right path? Which was the road he should take? Steve reached out and the tips of his fingers brushed against the back of Loki’s hand. Loki turned his wrist and let their fingers weave together.

“Now we rest,” he answered.

“Tell me about Asgard,” Steve said softly, his eyes already closing. “Tell me about the other Realms.”

“Of the Nine Realms, Asgard stands as a beacon. A light in the darkness,” Loki began. He rolled to his side, unsurprised when Steve kept hold of his hand and rolled to face him. “There is Alfheim, Jotunheim, Muspelheim, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, Nidavellir, Midgard, and Niflheim.” He told Steve of the old tales, the stories he’d heard in his youth, until he was convinced that Steve was sleeping soundly. Only then did he close his eyes.

They slept.

Before afternoon had ended, they left the modest motel room behind.

Loki steered them away from Las Vegas. He told himself it wasn’t because he wanted to be alone with Steve rather than surrounded by a bustling city. They rode through the night and stopped again at dawn, just over the California border. Exhausted, they ate in silence and collapsed onto the bed. Loki pretended not to notice that Steve was nearly pressed against him.

That night, they crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and started up the California coast with the moonlight brushing silver over the waves.

“Loki,” Steve said as the door of the motel room closed. “Are you okay? You’ve been quiet.”

“How do you know I’m not always quiet?”

“I just know.”

Loki stripped off his jacket and boots. He smelled of leather and sweat and dirt; he ached from hours on the motorcycle. “It is nothing. Come to bed,” he said without thinking.

Steve’s breath caught audibly in his throat. He coughed nervously. “We’re not…are we?” His face flushed red.

“We are both tired. I meant nothing more than that.” He saw both relief and disappointment in Steve’s face. He tried not to think about what he might have seen if he’d lied.

“I’m going to grab a shower.”

Loki deliberately turned his face away as Steve walked toward the bathroom, disappearing inside. He tried not to think of Steve standing naked under the spray of water. The sound of water started and Loki began to pace restlessly, unable to think of anything else. Impulsively, he stripped off his clothes and let himself quietly into the bathroom.

Steve’s back was toward him when he slipped into the shower. Water poured down over Steve’s head, he raked his fingers through it to get it thoroughly wet. Loki reached for the bottle of shampoo and leaned against the wall, waiting. When Steve’s fingers searched for the shampoo and found nothing, he pulled his head from the water and looked around. The color drained from his face when he saw Loki and something close to terror flashed in his eyes.

“Loki, what are you doing?” Steve started to turn around and then stopped, his hands dropping below his waist protectively.

Loki held up the shampoo. “May I?”

Steve stared back over his shoulder, brow furrowed. “May you what? Look, this is really, um, this isn’t…we can’t. I can’t.”

“Can’t what?” Loki poured out shampoo onto his palm and set the bottle aside. He reached out and swept his palm over Steve’s hair, pulling him gently back from the spray of the water. Steve shuddered; the muscles in his jaw tightened noticeably. Loki wove his fingers through Steve’s hair as he massaged the shampoo into lather; Steve’s head fell back, almost resting on Loki’s shoulder, his eyes closed.

“We can’t…do anything. Like that,” Steve finally answered; his voice was rough.

“Like what?” Loki watched soapy water slide down the curves of Steve’s throat and chest. His heartbeat was fast, and visible, along the artery in his neck. Satisfied that Steve’s hair was clean, Loki gently nudged him forward. As Steve rinsed away the shampoo, Loki let his fingertips trail over broad shoulders and down the muscles of his back.

Steve turned his face from the water, eyes still closed. “Please don’t.” He sounded terrified.

Loki slipped his left hand over Steve’s shoulder, let his fingers wrap around his throat. With gentle pressure, he pulled Steve back until his back was pressed against Loki’s chest again. Stroking Steve’s neck lightly, he reached down with his right hand and turned Steve’s wrist, weaving their fingers together as they’d done so many times. Steve’s body was rigid with tension and his expression closer to pain than pleasure, despite his obvious arousal.

“Steve,” Loki said softly, his lips almost brushing against Steve’s ear. “I know that you desire me.”

Steve’s jaw clenched again. “I don’t.”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “Clearly, you do.”

“I can’t. Please, Loki, I can’t.” His voice broke.

“Relax. I merely washed your hair.” Loki could see the conflict; there was a violent battle going on within Steve. He didn’t understand it.

“Right. Okay.” Steve took a deep breath. It sounded more as though he was trying to reassure himself than agreeing with Loki.

“Would you?” Loki shifted, forcing Steve to turn with him until their positions were reversed and Steve stood behind him. Loki picked up the bottle of shampoo and held it out. Steve’s fingers visibly shook as he took it. He waited until Loki had gotten his hair thoroughly wet. Loki closed his eyes as Steve began to work the shampoo into his hair, letting each motion sway him. It was the most relaxed he’d been in longer than he could remember; the hot water pouring down over his body and the solid of bulk of Steve’s chest almost pressing against his back.

“Okay.” Steve’s voice sounded thick and a little strangled.

Loki leaned forward to let the water wash away the soap from his hair. He was a little disappointed, but not surprised, when Steve immediately left the shower. He heard the door open and close.

Unhurried, he shut off the water only when he was sure he’d given Steve enough time to calm down. He wrapped a towel around his waist and grabbed another to work the water from his hair. When he left the bathroom, Steve was sitting on the end of the bed, fully dressed; he quickly averted his eyes when he saw Loki. Casually, Loki settled into the overstuffed armchair and watched as Steve looked everywhere but at him, sitting stiff as a statue.

“Loki,” Steve finally said, he looked and sounded as though he was bracing himself for something terrible. “I’m not…I’m not gay.”

Loki frowned. “What does that mean?”

“What?”

“You say you are not something, but I do not know what that means.”

“It means that I…I’m attracted to women.” Steve’s cheeks reddened. “Not men. I’m not attracted to you.”

Loki could tell that this was very important to Steve, although he couldn’t grasp why. “It’s not just me that you’re lying to. Why lie to yourself?”

The red in Steve’s face darkened. “I can’t be with you…like that. I just can’t.”

“Tell me why you can’t.”

“Because I’m Captain America!” Steve burst out. He stood up and began to pace at the end of the bed. “I’m not just Steve Rogers anymore; I have to think about more than that. I have to care what people see when they look at me and they can’t…they can’t see a…look, you just don’t understand. I know the world has changed a lot but it hasn’t changed enough that people would accept me if I-” the words ended abruptly and he sat down, burying his face in his hands. When he finally looked up again, he looked weary. “Before I went into the ice, if a man was…well, he just wasn’t. Not unless he wanted to be treated like a…”

“Like a monster?” Loki asked, keeping his tone light.

Steve raked his fingers through his hair. “America’s changed. I know it has. But not enough.” He let out a long, shaky breath and tried to smile. “I’m guessing it’s different on Asgard.”

“A man’s worth is not determined by who shares his bed, no.” Loki didn’t elaborate on the traits that were considered admirable on Asgard. He had no idea what determined a Frost Giant’s worth on Jotunheim.

“How many times have we had this conversation?” Steve picked at the hem of his t-shirt nervously.

“This is the first.”

“It’s amazing there’s anything new to talk about.” The muscles in his neck shifted as he swallowed. “So, are you? I mean, it doesn’t matter. If you are.”

Loki pulled his hair back from his face and twisted it into a knot at the nape of his neck. “I have taken both men and women as lovers.”

Steve seemed to consider that, brow furrowing. “And no one cares?”

“Mother would like grandchildren someday but, beyond that, no.” Loki frowned as he thought about that. “Although, any children I had would undoubtedly be considered monsters.” For the first time, Loki saw anger in Steve’s face.

“That’s wrong,” Steve said darkly.

“No less wrong than teaching a man to hate what he is.” Loki had meant to speak of himself and Asgard’s hatred of the Frost Giants, but he saw in Steve’s face that his words had held meaning for them both.

“So it would be normal for you if we were.” Steve made a vague gesture between the two of them.

“If we were lovers? Perhaps not normal, but it would be because you are mortal, not because you are a man.” Loki leaned back into the chair. He realized that he knew very little about Steve Rogers after all. There were facts and stories and the tales that had lived on, but they were tales of Captain America, not Steve Rogers. He tipped his head to the side thoughtfully. “Then you had no lovers before you became trapped in the ice?”

“No,” Steve said quickly, his tone and expression a strange combination of adamant and embarrassed. “I mean. No one at all. There was Peggy. She was the most amazing woman I’ve ever met. But she wasn’t, we weren’t. We never got the chance.”

Loki considered that. He thought of reminding Steve that anything that happened between them would be erased at the end of the six days, effectively undoing whatever wrongs Steve might have felt he’d done. But he didn’t understand the mechanism of how or what Steve remembered from one iteration to the next. Sometimes, it was specific details and other times it was simply a feeling that Steve couldn’t explain.

“It is late,” Loki said quietly. “You take the bed.”

Steve shook his head. He moved back and to the side so he could stretch out on his back. “Don’t be ridiculous. You barely fit in that chair.”

Loki moved to the bed, keeping his movements slow and cautious. Steve kept his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes looking up at the ceiling. Loki slipped beneath the blanket and sheet before he stripped away the towel.

“How did you know?” Steve asked, still staring up at the ceiling.

“I heard you say my name while you,” he stopped when Steve visibly cringed, the red returning to his face again. He decided not to press any further. “Tell me about growing up in New York.”

As Steve talked, he gradually relaxed and finally rolled onto his side to face Loki. His eyes were mostly closed, his words growing softer even as he continued to tell Loki about his mother, who had raised him after his father died, until she too died. He’d been alone after that, except for Bucky. There was a sad smile on his lips when he spoke of Bucky.

Gently, Loki reached out and took Steve’s hand, letting their fingers tangle together. Some of the tension in Steve’s shoulders seemed to fade, although Loki doubted if Steve realized that he relaxed with the familiar contact.

Loki couldn’t sleep.

It felt like a lifetime since he’d come to Midgard. As he counted up the iterations, he realized that he’d been repeating the same days over and over again for the equivalent of more than thirty Earth years. He thought of Steve, lying frozen in the ice and in time for seventy years. Watching Steve as he slept, a strange thought occurred to Loki. Perhaps the time loop was not about Loki at all; it truly began with the Tesseract reaching out to Steve before Loki even arrived. And although Steve was not burdened with every detail or memory of every iteration, only bits and pieces and feelings echoing through the cycle, he was still changing.

Loki could see that clearly. In the early iterations, Steve had been wary and locked up behind a hard, protective shell. After decades in the ice, he was still fresh from the War and stung by the loss of his friends and those he loved. But that hard shell had begun to crack and pieces of it fall away as Steve became more settled in the world.

Perhaps the Tesseract was returning those seventy years to Steve, six days at a time.

Shaking his head at his own idle foolishness, Loki pushed the thought from his mind. No doubt, when seventy years had passed, he and Steve would still be repeating the same six days.

The thought felt strangely comfortable.

SHIELD and Thor found them roasting marshmallows on a black sand beach on the sixth day.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Day three was the earliest that Loki could test the limits of physical contact with Steve. Earlier than that only seemed to terrify Steve and he would shut down, withdrawing and becoming silent. Whether it was the distance he needed, away from SHIELD and everything he knew, or the time, Loki wasn’t sure. The subtle changes that he saw from one iteration to the next were fascinating; he wished there was a way to record them that would also follow him through the time loop.

“I’m going to grab a shower.”

Loki waited until the water started before he let himself quietly into the bathroom and stripped off his clothes. Steve’s back was toward him when he slipped into the shower. Water poured down over Steve’s head, he raked his fingers through it to get it thoroughly wet. Loki reached for the bottle of shampoo and leaned against the wall, waiting. When Steve’s fingers searched for the shampoo and found nothing, he pulled his head from the water and looked around. He looked surprised, but not as terrified as he had the first time.

Steve started to turn around and then stopped, his hands dropping below his waist protectively. “Loki!”

Loki held up the shampoo. “May I?”

Steve stared back over his shoulder, brow furrowed. He didn’t say no.

Loki poured out shampoo onto his palm and set the bottle aside. He reached out and swept his palm over Steve’s hair, pulling him gently back from the spray of the water. Steve shuddered; the muscles in his jaw tightened noticeably. Loki wove his fingers through Steve’s hair as he massaged the shampoo into lather; Steve’s head fell back, almost resting on Loki’s shoulder, his eyes closed.

“How we done this before?” Steve finally asked, his voice rough.

“Many times.”

“Loki,” Steve began.

“I am merely washing your hair.”

Loki watched soapy water slide down the curves of Steve’s throat and chest. His heartbeat was fast, and visible, along the artery in his neck. Satisfied that Steve’s hair was clean, Loki gently nudged him forward. As Steve rinsed away the shampoo, Loki let his fingertips trail over broad shoulders and down the muscles of his back.

Steve shivered under his touch, but said nothing.

Once all of the lather had been rinsed away, Loki picked up the bottle of shampoo again and held it out. Steve’s fingers visibly shook as he took it. They changed positions and he waited until Loki had gotten his hair thoroughly wet. Loki closed his eyes as Steve began to work the shampoo into his hair, letting each motion sway him. He savored the sensation of the hot water pouring down over his body and the solid of bulk of Steve’s chest against his back.

“Okay.” Steve’s voice sounded thick and a little strangled.

Loki leaned forward to let the water wash away the soap from his hair. He felt Steve’s fingers brush down along his spine, so lightly that he almost mistook it for water sliding over his skin.

It was the first time Steve did not immediately leave the shower.

“I wish I knew why I can remember some things and not others,” Steve said quietly.

Loki turned around, seeing a frown on Steve’s face. He caught the glance as Steve looked down, blue eyes widening for an instant before he turned his face away; his cheeks began to darken in a familiar, embarrassed blush. Loki tried to smile. “I wish I could tell you why.”

Steve kept his face turned away. “Have we…have we had sex?” he asked. He sounded as though he dreaded the answer.

“No,” Loki answered. Too many emotions crossed Steve’s face for Loki to sort them all out and try to understand them.

“Have we…I mean, what have we done?”

“No more than this.” Loki reached out and slid his fingers through Steve’s hair, scratching lightly at his scalp.

Steve’s voice was barely a whisper. “Do you want more?”

Loki let his fingers slide down the back of Steve’s neck and rest against the curve where his shoulders began. “I would know the taste of your skin, the heat of you against my lips. I would make you mine. Here. Now.”

He waited for the self-recrimination to begin, for Steve to remember that he was Captain America and couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t. Inner turmoil was plainly visible on Steve’s face; he looked like he was being torn apart. The instant that the decision was made, Loki could read that plainly as well, and when Steve opened his mouth to say they couldn’t, Loki caught his arms and guided him back into the spray of hot water, facing away from Loki. He slipped his left hand over Steve’s shoulder, let his fingers wrap around his throat. With gentle pressure, he pulled Steve back until he was pressed against Loki’s chest. Stroking Steve’s neck lightly, he reached down with his right hand and turned Steve’s wrist, weaving their fingers together as they’d done so many times.

Steve shivered; eyes closed. His grip on Loki’s hand tightened. “Loki.”

“I ask for nothing you cannot give,” Loki said softly, his lips almost brushing against Steve’s ear. He tried not to imagine what it would feel like if Steve actually said yes. His breath came out unsteadily and it took all the self control he had to not push for more. The only movement he allowed himself to make was the slow, gentle stroke of his fingers along Steve’s neck.

A groan resonated in Steve’s throat; it sounded more like pain than pleasure. He pulled his hand from Loki’s.

Loki expected Steve to leave, but was surprised when Steve leaned back wholly against him, trusting Loki to support his weight. As Steve’s back arched, Loki wrapped one arm around his chest. He watched Steve’s hand wrap around his own cock, drawing long, steady strokes along the length. Loki had waited years worth of days to press his lips against Steve’s skin. He kissed and licked and nipped at Steve’s throat with his teeth. The water felt cold in comparison to the heat between their bodies.

“Loki…Loki…oh, oh…” Steve stammered nonsensically, his whole body shuddering.

Loki bit his lip to keep from speaking. He couldn’t force anything; Steve would reach a decision on his own terms or not at all. He tightened his hold around Steve’s chest. Steve’s breathing quickened, his body jerking against Loki’s hold as he came. Loki’s breath caught in his throat as he watched Steve’s fingers work the last drops of semen from his cock; water poured down Steve’s body and washed it all away.

Steve pulled suddenly from Loki’s grip, leaning forward and bowing his head beneath the spray of water. Loki shivered at the empty cold against his chest and had to clench his hands into fists to keep from reaching out to Steve. He was painfully, achingly hard; it was difficult to think straight. He saw tension in Steve’s shoulders and recognized the body language.

Shame.

“Go. Dry off,” Loki said through clenched teeth. It was still too soon.

Steve half turned; he didn’t meet Loki’s gaze. “What about you?” His face burned red and looked as though he was about to be sick at the thought of touching Loki.

Unexpected fury rose up in Loki’s throat, bitter and hot. He had one hand around Steve’s throat and pinned him against the tile in a heartbeat. “I can see in your eyes, on your face, that I disgust you,” he snarled. He saw his skin begin to turn blue, felt the change sweep over him. “Nothing more than a monster. Is this what you wish to see? IS IT?”

“Loki,” Steve gasped.

Loki let go and pulled away. There was a perfect handprint in blistering, frost-burned skin on Steve’s throat. His rage faded into sickening horror at what he’d done. He bolted from the shower and into the other room, yanking on his clothes without bothering to dry off.

They were somewhere in southern California. He couldn’t remember exactly where they’d stopped for the night. It didn’t matter. The night air was warm; he slammed the motel door behind him as he left and stalked down the hallway toward the exit. He had no plan, no intent, only needing to get away. Away from Steve, away from the endless six days that seemed to promise everything but never gave anything. He walked until the sun rose and he was utterly lost. Finally, he settled on a broken picnic bench at an abandoned stop along the highway and waited.

He’d never been so glad to see Thor in his life.

“Brother?” Thor said cautiously. In his mind, Loki was ever waiting for the right moment to bring the Chitauri into Midgard.

“Have you ever known someone who drove you to madness, Thor?” Loki asked.

Thor paused. A half smile appeared on his lips. “Other than you?”

Loki motioned to the table beside him. “I know you cannot believe me, but it has been years of mortal time since I came here looking to rule this realm. I gave up that ambition long ago.”

Thor’s brow furrowed, but he took a seat carefully beside Loki. “You speak strangely, brother.”

“For you, it has only just begun. For me, it is long over. I am trapped here, reliving the same six days over and over again. You’ve come to take me back to Asgard but that will only start these days over again.”

Thor looked him over, the scrutiny of his gaze almost unnerving. “You are different. I do not know what it is. You look…younger and older…at the same time.”

“You were always so clever with words,” Loki said sarcastically. An elbow jarred him almost hard enough to knock him from the table.

“You needn’t mock me, Loki. I will believe you. It is a strange tale, but the Nine Realms are full of strange things.”

“You believe me?” Loki asked, incredulous.

“Your anger is gone. Your hatred toward me has faded. I can see that. I know of no better healer than time.” Thor smiled sadly. “Though I would not have you be alone in your Fate.”

“I’m not.” The words felt like shards of glass against his throat. “There is another.”

“And this other is the one who has driven you to madness?”

“He is a mortal. Infuriating, impossible.” Loki raked his hand through his hair. “He cannot remember the repeating time as I do, but he believes that it is real and chooses to endure it with me. Though I wonder if this is rather a curse than a boon.”

“You care for him,” Thor said, something like wonder in his voice. “This mortal.”

Loki scowled. “He is the only one who believes me in the whole of this realm. It is better than being alone. That is all.”

Thor gave him a stern look. “What have you done?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve run off to sulk.” Thor motioned to the desolate space around them. “You always did that when we were children and one of your tricks caused someone harm.”

Loki slumped unhappily. He stared down at his hand. He’d never managed to force the change on his own before and didn’t understand why it had happened then. “You remember the day we went to Jotunheim. Volstagg was burned by the touch of a Frost Giant.”

“I remember.”

“In my…when I,” he stopped, frustrated by his inability to put the words together. “I touched him while I was changed and my touch burned him. I was angry.”

Thor placed his hand on Loki’s shoulder. “Has it occurred to you to tell him that you are sorry?”

“I don’t even know where I am; let alone how to get back.” That described more than a bit of his life, he thought with bitter amusement.

“Where will he go with you gone?” Thor asked.

Loki considered that. Of course, Steve would contact SHIELD. Loki didn’t know the details of SHIELD’s movements any longer. All that had mattered to him for some time had been that SHIELD would eventually come for him.

The Tesseract.

“I know where to start,” Loki answered.

“Well then.” Thor reached for Mjolnir. “I will take you. We will find your mortal lover together.”

“He is not my lover.”

Thor gave him an amused look. “As you say, brother.”

They returned to the research facility where the Tesseract was held. Crews had begun working to restore the hole in the ceiling that Loki had made to release the leftover energies. Director Fury informed them that Captain America was not there, but that he was expected to return the next day.

“May I ask exactly what you’ve been doing with Rogers?” Fury asked Loki, still suspicious.

“No,” Loki answered sourly.

“I fear my brother has had a lover’s quarrel with your Captain America,” Thor offered helpfully.

Loki saw Agent Coulson’s eyes narrow and he looked at Loki with new interest. The attention pricked at Loki’s skin like barbed needles. “Does it offend you so greatly that your symbol, your legend, would take a man as a lover?”

Agent Coulson’s expression didn’t change. “If you harm him in any way, and that includes mental or emotional harm, if you break his heart or treat him with anything less than the respect he deserves, I will personally ensure that you never see the light of day again. Do we understand each other?”

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki shot out the ceiling of the room to allow the Tesseract’s energy to dissipate. He handed the scepter to Agent Coulson without a word.

He and Steve rode away into the night.

Dawn came and they ate at the diner, the people around them oblivious to their having been there before.

“Did we fight about something? The last time,” Steve asked. He’d done little more than tear his pancakes apart with his fork.

Loki swallowed down the mouthful of coffee. It was the first time Steve had ever spoken in the diner. He considered his answer for a moment before forcing himself to smile. “Nothing important.”

Steve watched him, brow furrowed. “You’re lying.”

“How can you be sure?” Loki countered.

Leaning back against the padded wall of the booth, Steve motioned to the table between them. “You know everything about me. You know how I take my coffee, what I put on my pancakes, how I like my eggs. You don’t even think about it, you just know. And I just know that you’re lying to me.”

“We’ve eaten here hundreds of times.”

“And I don’t remember any of them. How many times have we fought? About anything.”

Loki looked down, focusing on the food in front of him. He didn’t want to have this conversation. “Does it matter?”

“It was just the last time, wasn’t it? That was the first time we’ve fought.”

Frustrated, Loki tossed his fork down onto the table, ignoring the startled reactions of the people around him. “What would you like me to tell you? Yes, we fought. Yes, I caused you pain. Is that what you want to hear? That I’m,” he stopped, almost choking on the word. His anger faded. “I am sorry. I did not mean to hurt you.”

“What was it about?” Steve asked quietly.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Please don’t lie to me.”

Loki drained his coffee, searching his mind for something to tell Steve. He wasn’t sure how Steve could tell when he was lying. He was even less sure what Steve’s reaction would be if he told him the truth. The first two days had always been too soon.

“Loki,” Steve prompted. His expression was earnest, searching.

Loki folded his arms, pulling as far away from the table as he could. “I desired to take you as a lover. You declined. We fought.”

All color drained from Steve’s face. “Did you try to force me?”

Loki felt his heart stop in his chest. He couldn’t breathe. “Is that what you think of me?”

“Loki, wait.”

“Stay away.” Loki pushed away from the table and ran.

He stole a car from the parking lot and left the diner and Steve behind.

On a winding road in Colorado, he closed his eyes for only a moment. The car slammed against the guard rail, then tore through it, and plummeted down into the canyon.

Thor pulled him from the wreckage.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki thrust the scepter forward and an energy bolt flew forward to explode against a bank of equipment. Steve dove to the side, pulling Director Fury and Agent Barton with them and out of the way of the blast. Loki had taken out the guards so many times that he didn’t even have to look as he hurled the slender silver daggers out and away; they all found their marks.

Steve caught Loki’s wrist as he reached for Agent Barton. The tip of the scepter came to rest against Steve’s chest and his eyes grew wide. It would only take a second and then Steve’s irrational fears wouldn’t stand between them; he would come to Loki willingly.

Loki froze.

“Don’t,” Steve said, his voice quiet but firm.

“Why not?” Loki hissed.

“Because you know that you don’t have to,” Steve answered steadily.

“Sir,” Nick Fury said loudly. “Please put down the spear.”

“You know I’ll come with you.” Steve lowered his voice. “All you have to do is ask.”

Loki let the tip of the scepter lower, falling away from Steve’s chest.

“Director Fury,” Selvig said urgently. “The portal was unstable. We’ve got about two minutes before it goes critical.”

Loki had forgotten to create a way for the energies to escape.

“Everyone out!” Director Fury motioned toward the doors. “Captain, I want him contained and controlled. Can you handle that?”

The twisting sensation at the pit of Loki's stomach was unfamiliar. It had been years since anyone had died. He looked back at the dead bodies of the armed guards. It didn’t seem real. He’d killed and not killed them so many times, over and over, that even now, he half expected them to rise up again.

“Loki.” Steve nodded toward the exit.

Loki pulled away. “Go.”

“You can’t stay here.”

“I can save the rest. Go.” He started back to where the portal had opened, watching the swirling blue energy above him. Just as he raised the scepter to fire a bolt of energy into the ceiling, Director Fury opened fire. Steve was shouting but Loki couldn’t hear the words.

Thor and SHIELD dug them and the Tesseract out of the ruins of the research center. It took Thor nearly an hour to convince Loki to let go of Steve’s hand.

Loki watched them carry Steve’s broken body away.

No one from SHEILD would tell him whether or not Steve had survived.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki shot out the ceiling of the room to allow the Tesseract’s energy to dissipate and sat down on the steps. Footsteps came toward him, slow and deliberate.

“Hey.” Steve slowly sat down on the step beside him.

Loki remained silent, staring at the floor. He felt miserable and furious with Steve at the same time, unable to decide which of those hurt the most. They’d spent dozens of iterations arguing and fighting; each one of them more miserable than the last. He was more miserable when he was angry with Steve than he’d ever been in his life. It seemed such a ridiculous thing to fight about, but even if Steve had been hurt in the previous iteration, he always wanted to know what their fight had been about.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said.

“For what?” Loki asked through clenched teeth.

“I don’t really know. But I know that I’ve hurt you somehow.” He reached out and brushed the tips of his fingers over the back of Loki’s hand.

Loki turned his wrist slowly and let Steve lace their fingers together. “Would you like to know what we fought about?” he asked, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice.

“I would.”

Loki tightened his grip on Steve’s hand. “I desired to take you as a lover. You declined. We fought.” He waited for the hateful question to come; it always came.

Steve didn’t speak for a long time. Finally, he took a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”

Loki was sure he hadn’t heard correctly. “What?”

“Whatever I’ve said or done, I know I didn’t mean to hurt you like this.” Steve nodded toward the doorway. “Let’s go.” Loki allowed Steve to pull him to his feet and followed. Agent Coulson’s eyes narrowed as they approached.

“Not a hair on his head, I swear,” Loki told Coulson as he handed over the scepter.

They spent the first night in the small motel they’d stayed at hundreds of times. They lay on the bed, shoulder to shoulder, and Loki listened to Steve tell stories of how he became Captain America, of Bucky, and of the War. It was the first time Steve told him about Bucky’s death.

Loki thought about Thor for a long time after Steve fell asleep.

They crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and found a small motel along the coastal highway to spend the second night. Loki left the room when Steve headed for the shower and found an empty chair along the stretch of patio that overlooked the ocean. In the last of the sunlight, the waves looked tipped with red and gold. Above him the sky faded from blue to indigo and the brightest stars were just beginning to appear. The light from San Francisco blotted out most of them. He thought about the open, unlit sky of the desert and the magnitude of stars he could see there.

None of them were Asgard.

He heard footsteps but didn’t turn around, knowing it was Steve. The chair beside him creaked.

“It’s peaceful here,” Steve said softly.

Loki nodded, still staring up at the darkening sky. He wondered, not for the first or the last time, if the Allfather was behind his endless time loop. Perhaps the Allfather was aware of it and was just as powerless to stop it.

“What are you thinking about?” Steve asked.

“Home.” Loki took a deep breath of the cool air coming in from the ocean. “Asgard,” he amended.

“How long have you been here?” Steve sought out Loki’s hand, weaving their fingers together.

“In Earth time? Years. Decades.”

“How long have I been with you?”

Loki considered that, counting back through the iterations. It was beginning to blur together after so many. Counting them had been less important after Steve began to stay with him. “Eight years.”

Steve’s fingers tightened just slightly. “Part of me feels like I don’t know you at all. I just met you two days ago. But part of me feels like I’ve known you for years. It’s strange, sometimes. Not knowing which to trust.”

“Why do you come with me if you aren’t sure?” Loki asked.

“Because this feels right. It may not make any sense, but it feels right.” Steve pivoted in the chair so that he was facing Loki. He turned Loki’s hand palm up and lightly traced lines down each finger. “I don’t feel lost when I’m with you.”

Loki waited, forcing himself to hold still. Each touch of Steve’s fingers sent jolts of electricity and heat along his arm.

“Come on.” Steve grasped Loki’s hand firmly as he stood up. “Get cleaned up. I’ll find us something to eat.”

Loki showered, scrubbing away dirt and sweat from the ride. When his muscles had begun to relax, he shut off the water and tied a towel around his waist, wringing water from his hair with another. He half-listened for the sound of the motorcycle as he flipped aimlessly through the channels on the television. The renewed peace he had with Steve felt fragile and brittle. Once again, Steve had changed and evolved, but Loki couldn’t be sure what had the change meant. Not yet. He tensed when he heard the familiar rumble of the motorcycle and pretended to be interested in what was on the television.

When Steve opened the door, he had a small cardboard box in his arms. He gave Loki a lopsided grin as he dropped it onto the end of the bed and began to sort through the contents. “I told the front desk we’d be here a few more days. I thought we could see the city. I know we’ve probably seen it a hundred times already.” He tossed a plastic bag across the bed. “Here. Change of clothes, a few little things. I didn’t know if Frost Giants needed deodorant.”

Loki stared at the bag for a moment before he looked inside. There was a pair of pants in a soft fabric with a geometric pattern of blue and green stripes, as well as two shirts like the one that Steve always wore. There was also a hairbrush with stiff, short bristles, and a toothbrush.

“I figured we’re both too scruffy for a real restaurant. Maybe tomorrow night.” He dug another sack from the box and held out some sort of food wrapped in thick paper. “It’s a sandwich. I wasn’t sure what you liked so it’s got a little bit of everything.”

Loki accepted the sandwich. He set it aside to pull on the soft pants and one of the shirts, careful to keep himself covered with the towel until he was dressed. Steve was sitting in the armchair, already starting into his sandwich. After carefully unwrapping the sandwich Steve had brought for him, Loki was pleased to find that it was delicious.

“How well can you control it?” Steve asked after he swallowed down a bite. “When you turn blue.”

Loki nearly choked. He coughed and forced his throat to start working again. “I can’t. I don’t know how to control it.”

Steve nodded and turned his attention back to his sandwich; he didn’t seem surprised. “Is that what Frost Giants normally look like?”

Loki set his sandwich aside. “Yes.”

“Sorry.” Steve looked as though he was trying not to smile.

“How is it you remember? It happened only once.”

Steve shrugged. “I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a dream until just now.”

“I did not mean to hurt you.” Loki rubbed at his hand. He remembered the print of angry, red skin he’d left across Steve’s throat. “The touch of a Frost Giant burns like ice.”

“I’ve survived worse.” Steve took another bite and chewed for several moments, still watching Loki thoughtfully. When he finished the sandwich, he folded the paper wrapping neatly before setting it aside. He nodded toward Loki’s sandwich. “Go ahead. I don’t have any more questions.”

Loki raised an eyebrow, skeptical. He picked up the sandwich and continued eating. It was strange that Steve would remember something that had happened only once, while unable to remember what they’d done hundreds of times. It couldn’t be random, which meant there was an unseen hand either choosing or perhaps only influencing what Steve remembered. Purpose implied motive and meaning to the time loop.

But who could do such a thing? And why?

His thoughts were scattered as he ate, trying to determine what it meant. He had tried so many different paths, made so many different choices across the iterations, and nothing yet had broken the cycle. There was no motive he could think of that anyone would have to create the time loop. Could it be the doing of the Chitauri’s dark Master? Had Thanos sought to allow Loki as many chances as he needed to conquer the Earth? He considered that, but it didn’t seem right.

Steve leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “What are you thinking about?”

Loki finished the sandwich. “I came to this Realm after the Tesseract. But when Thor returns to Asgard with the Tesseract, alone, Asgard falls. The Tesseract is powerful, but not that powerful.”

“Then how do they win?” Steve asked.

“Thor has only been able to tell me that their Master wields great power.” Loki looked down at his hands, tracing out the lines he knew would be there in his Frost Giant form. “But if he could conquer Asgard so easily?”

“Why bother with Earth at all?” Steve finished.

“Thanos desires the Tesseract, but there must be something else in Asgard that he wants. Something that gives him power enough to destroy even the Allfather.”

“Like what?” Steve asked.

“I do not know.” Loki frowned. There was no way for him to return to Asgard and attempt to determine Thanos’ true goal or even a way to send word to Asgard in warning.

Steve left the chair and moved to the bed. He stretched out on his side. “So, either way, the Tesseract goes to Asgard. Either Thor returns alone with it or he takes you back with it. Maybe Thanos can’t get to Asgard unless the Tesseract is there.”

Loki was glad to return to the comforting familiarity of lying beside Steve on the bed and talking. He eased down onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. “If that is true, the time loop cannot be his doing. It is all that is preventing the Tesseract from returning to Asgard and preventing him from obtaining what he truly seeks.”

“Okay. We can rule him out. Who does that leave?”

“The Allfather himself.”

“What would be his reason for doing this?”

Loki shook his head. “I have no idea. I am not his son. I am not, was never, meant to take the throne. That was always meant for Thor. In truth, I do not even understand why it was that he took me as an infant. To build a lasting peace between Asgard and Jotunheim is all the explanation that he could give me. Although I do not know how he intended to accomplish that, either by holding me as a bargaining chip, as ransom, against Laufey or another way. Laufey himself, my father, was not aware that I was his son. I don’t believe he knew, or cared, that I still lived.”

“And there’s no one else you can think of who could do this?”

Again, Loki shook his head. “But the Nine Realms are full of surprises and mysteries.”

“Too bad whoever’s doing this can’t just tell you why.”

Loki fought the impulse to roll toward Steve. He already knew how that would end. Instead, he rolled onto his side, away from Steve. The long day was beginning to catch up to him and he had no desire to end their tentative peace. He was no closer to figuring out who had trapped him and why, or why Steve could remember anything at all.

He was no closer to figuring out Steve either.

“Loki.” Steve’s voice was soft. The mattress shifted as he moved closer. His fingertips brushed lightly, hesitantly, over Loki’s arm. “Why did I reject you? Did I give you a reason?”

Loki turned his head just enough to see Steve’s profile. He could feel the heat from Steve’s body against his back. “Because you are Captain America,” he answered carefully.

“And we’ve never done anything?”

“There was once. In the shower.” Loki stared at the door to the bathroom. The same door, the same bathroom. Somehow, they always ended up in this room.

“That was the time you turned blue.” Steve’s breath was warm against the side of Loki’s neck. “Tell me what happened.”

A shiver moved down Loki’s spine and he had to close his eyes again, taking deep breathes. “Why do you wish to know?”

“Please. Just tell me.”

“I washed your hair, you washed mine. We’d done that many times.”

“What made that time different?” Steve continued to make light strokes down Loki’s arm.

Loki licked his lips nervously. “You didn’t leave immediately afterward.”

“What happened then?”

Heat was beginning to pool beneath Loki’s skin and the thin fabric of the pants made it impossible to hide his body’s response to Steve being so close. His throat felt dry; he didn’t trust his own voice but doubted Steve would accept silence. “I held you, watched as you brought yourself pleasure. Afterwards, you were ashamed, disgusted by the thought of touching me. I grew angry. When I saw that my touch had burned you, I left.”

Steve pressed his forehead against Loki’s shoulder. His fingers slid down the line of Loki’s arm and he took his hand. “You’re not a monster, Loki. And neither am I.” Steve’s grip tightened. His breath was hot, lips just brushing against Loki’s skin as he spoke. “The way you make me feel scares the Hell out of me.”

“Because you believe that you would not be accepted as Captain America if you took a man to your bed.”

“I probably wouldn’t,” Steve said bluntly. “But I’m not Captain America. Not right now.”

“And Steve Rogers?” Loki asked.

“Needs more time to get used to the idea that it’s okay to want this. If you can be patient.”

It was impossible to keep from shivering. He hadn’t expected this; he wasn’t sure if he should be excited or terrified.

“Loki.” Steve combed Loki’s hair back and tugged gently against his shoulder.

Loki rolled onto his back and looked up at Steve. He stayed still and silent as Steve’s fingers slipped through his hair. Steve’s lips moved slightly, as though he couldn’t decide what words to say. Slowly, he bent his head until there was barely a breath between their lips.

“Can I kiss you?” Steve whispered.

Loki held perfectly still. “Is that what you want?”

“What I want,” Steve breathed. His eyes closed. “I want more…a lot more. But I need to take this slow. Please.”

Loki had all the time in the world.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki stopped trying to control the outcome.

He began to get used to waking up with Steve pressed against him. They still talked, still told stories, but more often than not, their stories were interrupted. At first, Steve was hesitant and shy, but his kisses grew bolder with time.

Loki was patient.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki shot out the ceiling of the room to allow the Tesseract’s energy to dissipate. He handed the scepter to Agent Coulson without a word.

He and Steve rode away into the night.

Dawn came and they ate at the diner in silence, the people around them oblivious to their having been there before. As the sun finally tipped up and over the edge of the desert, they returned to the motel room.

Loki sat at the end of the bed and began to strip away the layers of leather.

“I’m going to get in the shower.” Steve stopped in front of Loki, close enough for him to reach out and brush a lock of hair behind Loki’s ear. “Join me.”

Loki hoped his surprise wasn’t visible on his face. He followed Steve into the small bathroom. There wasn’t room enough for them both to undress without bumping into each other. The steam from the hot water fogged the narrow mirror and filled the air. Steve handed him the bottle of shampoo as they got into the shower, bowing his head under the water to get his hair wet. Loki poured out shampoo onto his palm and set the bottle aside. He reached out and swept his palm over Steve’s hair, pulling him gently back from the spray of the water. Steve shivered; his eyes closed. Loki wove his fingers through Steve’s hair as he massaged the shampoo into lather; Steve’s head fell back to rest on Loki’s shoulder.

When Loki was satisfied that Steve’s hair was clean, he nudged him. Rather than lean forward, Steve straightened and turned around, leaning his head back to wash away the shampoo. There was a shy smile on his lips when he finished and opened his eyes. He stepped forward, hands catching Loki’s arms and pulling him close. Steve kissed Loki gently; his lips were warm and wet. Loki sucked Steve’s tongue into his mouth as Steve’s fingers brushed down his back, moving slowly along the curve of his spine.

“How many times have we done this?” he asked when they broke apart to catch their breath.

“Not enough.”

Steve smiled against Loki’s lips. “Good answer.”

They changed places; Loki savored the feel of Steve’s hands as he worked the shampoo through his hair and the solid bulk of Steve’s chest against his back. When he leaned forward to rinse it away, Steve’s hands began to work at the muscles of his neck and shoulders.

“You’re tense.” Steve tugged Loki gently backwards. He rested his chin on Loki’s shoulder and wrapped his arms around Loki’s waist. “How long have we been together?”

“About thirteen years,” Loki answered without having to think about it.

“And we’ve never had sex.”

“No.” Loki closed his eyes and let his head fall back against Steve’s shoulder. He was taller by a couple inches and the position left his throat fully exposed. It was a strangely vulnerable, intimate position.

“But you’ve wanted to.”

“Yes.”

Steve placed gentle kisses along the side of Loki’s neck. “Thank you for being patient.” His right hand flattened against Loki’s stomach.

Loki swallowed as Steve’s hand slowly moved lower. He had to reach out and brace himself against the wall when Steve’s fingers wrapped around his cock. His skin was slick from the water and Steve’s hand moved easily, stroking and squeezing. Loki shivered; he could feel Steve’s erection pressing hard against his lower back. He pressed his hands against the tile beneath the shower head, which pushed him harder against Steve’s body.

“Tighter,” Loki panted.

Steve’s grip tightened; his strokes became faster and more deliberate. He nipped at Loki’s neck with his teeth. His breath against Loki’s ear sent violent shivers down his spine. Loki groaned. His hips jerked involuntarily. He was close to the edge and unable to stop himself from racing toward it. He’d waited so long; hungered for the pleasure of finding release at Steve’s touch.

The heat under Loki’s skin exploded; waves of fierce, white-hot pleasure poured through him as he gasped and thrust against Steve’s hand until he was spent. His knees almost buckled. Steve was supporting his weight almost completely as the water continued to stream down over his chest. He could still feel Steve, harder than before, pressing into his back. Fumbling with the shower knob, he shut off the water and turned around. With his left hand, he dug his fingers into Steve’s hair; he wrapped his right arm around Steve’s back and pulled him close.

“We should…the bed,” Steve whispered, his words broken apart by kisses.

They stumbled from the shower, trying to walk and kiss at the same time. Steve raked fingers through Loki’s hair, shedding water that slid down Loki’s shoulders and back in rivulets. He pulled Loki with him toward and onto the bed. Loki gripped Steve’s sides and slid his thumbs along the soft curve of flesh inside his hip bones. Steve moaned, pressing his head back into the pillow and exposing his throat. He moaned again when Loki bent his lips to Steve’s chest, licking and sucking one nipple between his teeth. Steve’s hands fisted in Loki’s hair and more water dripped down onto his chest and stomach, running along the lines of muscle.

Shifting his weight, Loki caught the back of Steve’s thighs with his arms and then pushed forward again. Steve’s knees bent, his legs sliding up over Loki’s shoulders and nearly wrapped around his neck. The head of Steve’s cock glistened, oozing against his stomach; Loki gave him no warning before he caught it with his lips and mouth. Steve jerked, his heels digging into Loki’s back as his entire body tensed. Loki kneaded his thumbs along the underside of Steve’s thighs, pressing just hard enough to be a little painful. He could feel Steve shaking, his every breath half inhalation and half moan. He swirled his tongue around the head of Steve’s cock, teasing the tight slit at the head. Steve shuddered; he seemed just as desperate for it as Loki had been.

“Loki,” Steve said, his voice husky and raw. “I’m…I’m going to…Loki.”

Loki exhaled as he pressed down, lips sliding over Steve’s skin. He almost choked when Steve jerked, thrusting upward suddenly and pushing his cock deep into Loki’s throat. He tasted salt; felt thick semen pulse against the inside of his mouth. Easing back, he sucked gently as he pulled his mouth away, catching every drop. Steve was gasping, his hands making tight fists in Loki’s hair, and his entire body shivering.

When Steve’s breathing had begun to steady, Loki let his legs slide from his shoulders and moved away. He rolled onto his back beside Steve, staring up at the ceiling, and realized he was breathing nearly as hard as Steve.

“I really want to remember that,” Steve said, still breathless.

Loki reached down and took Steve’s hand, lacing their fingers together. “If you don’t, we’ll simply do it again.”

“I’d like that.” Steve smiled as he closed his eyes.

Six days were over far too quickly.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Sometimes they showered and slept first. Sometimes they barely made it through the door of the motel room before their lips met and they tore at each other’s clothes, desperate for the feeling of skin against skin.

Steve tasted of coffee and maple syrup.

He stopped questioning whether or not they’d become lovers, knowing that they were in the same mysterious way that he remembered other bits and pieces of the iterations.

Patiently, but persistently, Steve asked to see Loki in his Frost Giant form. It took a long time for Loki to be convinced to try to control the change and even longer for him to be able to alter his appearance at will. Gradually, Loki became less self-conscious about the blue color and raised markings on his skin. Steve was fascinated by it and insisted on sketching out each marking on the backs of flyers, napkins, and whatever else he could find. He wondered aloud what the markings could mean, but Loki had no answers.

They stopped in San Francisco, at the small motel just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. Steve went out for sandwiches and they stayed up late into the night, talking of future plans and where they could go next.

Talk of the future left a hollow feeling in Loki’s chest.

Even as the repetition of the six days seemed endless, the feeling that they were heading toward an inevitable end had begun to creep into the back of Loki’s mind. At first, he dismissed it as fear that the unexpected happiness he’d found with Steve would cease, but the feeling continued to gnaw at him. He counted and recounted the iterations almost compulsively, adding them up and measuring out the years six days at a time.

“Loki,” Steve said softly.

“Mmm.” Loki shifted to wrap his arm around Steve’s shoulders and pull him closer.

“I’d give anything to remember every day we’ve had together.”

The hollow feeling in Loki’s chest grew heavier. “They have not all been good.”

“Even the bad days. Especially the bad days.” He pressed against Loki’s side, his breath warm on Loki’s neck. “How long do you think the time loop will go on?”

“It may never end.” Loki turned his head to kiss Steve’s forehead gently. He didn’t know if he wished for it to end or not. Here, in the time loop, he had an eternity with Steve. There was no guarantee of anything once it ended. “Rest. Tomorrow, we will see Los Angeles.”

“Never thought I’d get to see Hollywood.” Steve settled against Loki and his breathing quickly became steady, indicative of sleep.

Loki watched shafts of moonlight move across the ceiling.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

San Francisco was as familiar as Asgard now.

“How long have we been together?” Steve asked as he fell back onto the bed beside Loki. They were both slick with sweat and each other.

“Fifteen years.”

Gently, Steve took Loki’s hand and raised it to his lips, placing light kisses on his knuckles. “I love you,” he said simply. He shrugged when Loki stared at him. “After fifteen years, it’s about time I said it, don’t you think?”

Loki didn’t ask how Steve knew he’d never said it before.

Rolling to the side, Loki caught Steve’s lips and pressed him down into the mattress; he sucked at Steve’s lower lip until Steve was breathing hard and arching his back.

“Round two?” Steve asked, smiling.

Later, Loki watched Steve sleep for nearly an hour before he forced himself to leave the bed. He pulled on a pair of soft pajama pants and a t-shirt. The concrete was still warm under his feet. He shut the motel room door quietly behind him and made his way to the terrace overlooking the ocean. Somehow, they seemed to end up here more often than not. He settled into the chair, watching the moonlight play over the ocean waves for a long time. When he had convinced himself there was no other way, he closed his eyes.

It had been a long time since he’d sought to contact anyone beyond Midgard.

He didn’t reach for the Other or the Chitauri. Instead, he focused his mind on whoever it was who had bound him in the time loop, whatever consciousness or intelligence was behind it.

At first, he felt nothing.

There was a stirring in the darkness. He had the impression of starlight, the sound of wind through leaves, and great, ancient power.

“You have been long in seeking us out,” came a voice, neither male nor female. Not a single voice, but a chorus of voices blended so perfectly together that they were almost one.

“Who are you?” Loki demanded.

“Choose your questions wisely, foundling. We answer only those that matter.”

Loki frowned, puzzled. “How do I know what matters? I have lived these six days thousands of times and do not know what matters.”

“You know,” answered the chorus of voices. “You have your answers, you merely desire not to face them.”

“I have no answers at all,” Loki said with frustration. “Speak plainly.”

“Says the Liesmith, Loki Silvertongue. Foundling prince, lost son. Betrayer.”

Loki went still. “I do not wish to betray anyone.”

In the darkness, the sound of rustling leaves grew louder. “Then you will fail.”

“Why? Tell me why you’ve done this to me,” he shouted at the voices around him, everywhere and nowhere.

A figure appeared, a faint light glowing from within her. Frigga, the Queen, smiled kindly at him. Loki stumbled and fell to his knees, looking up at the only mother he had ever known. She reached out to brush her hand over his hair and her touch felt as cold as starlight. His heart ached to see her.

“You are not her,” Loki said stonily.

Her lips moved and the chorus of voices came from her mouth. “This face is easier for you to bear than our true form, our true face.”

“Why did you trap me in time?” he asked again, his voice barely a whisper.

“To prepare you for what is to come. For what you must do.”

“What? What must I do? Tell me.”

“You must be willing to sacrifice everything.”

“Mother, please,” he said without thinking. “You cannot ask this of me.”

She smiled, her hand pressed against his chest. “Sleep well, my son.”

He gasped and opened his eyes. It took several minutes for him to be able to focus on the outline of the trees and the terrace around him. The sound of the ocean waves was steady and soothing. In the distance, an owl called out softly. When he began to shiver, he left the terrace and returned to the motel room. He stripped away the clothes and slipped back into the bed. Wrapping his arm around Steve, he pressed his forehead against the solidity of Steve’s back and wished for sleep.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

San Francisco was as familiar as Asgard now.

Loki looked up as Steve approached with two cups of coffee. He accepted his with a nod and turned his attention back to the piece of paper he was drawing on.

“What’s that?” Steve asked. He took a seat in the chair beside Loki and sipped at his coffee.

“Cause and effect.” Loki tapped the pen against the notepad. “It may take some trial and error to find the right combination of events.”

“You’ve figured out how to end the time loop?”

Loki felt his stomach twist unpleasantly. He was used to the future being known and set. Now, as he traced through the possible paths, searching for the one that would result in the outcome the mysterious voices wanted, the future felt uncertain and terrifying.

“Perhaps,” he said noncommittally. “It may not work.”

“You’ll find a way.”

Loki raised one eyebrow. “You seem happy about the idea of the time loop ending.”

“If it means I get to remember everything about being with you, of course I am. I’d give anything to remember all of it.”

Loki reached for his coffee cup and used it as a shield to hide behind. He didn’t understand and couldn’t control the variable of what Steve did or didn’t remember. That was one of the unknowns in his diagram of choices.

“Are you going to try the next time?”

“Yes,” Loki answered with more certainty than he felt. “As soon as I have a plan.”

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

It didn’t take long for Loki to realize that Steve’s memory was far more of a liability than he’d anticipated. Steve’s hazy, half-forgotten memories changed not only Steve’s choices but the choices of everyone around them.

The result was chaos.

He continued to try until the iteration that the Chitauri cut down Iron Man and Captain America, leaving their bodies broken and bleeding on the city street.

Loki held Steve as he died.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki shot out the ceiling of the room to allow the Tesseract’s energy to dissipate. He started down the walk and met Steve halfway.

Steve frowned. “Are you okay?”

The scepter clattered against the concrete floor. Loki didn’t care. He wrapped his arms around Steve and buried his face against his shoulder.

“Loki?” Steve’s arms tightened around Loki’s back. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay. I’m here.”

Director Fury demanded to know every detail that Loki could remember from as many iterations as possible. When Thor arrived, Loki had to start explaining all over again. He left out the details that were his and Steve’s alone.

A soft knock sounded on the door of the narrow room on the Helicarrier that had become Loki’s. Sometimes; sometimes it was his. He didn’t move or answer; his face turned toward the wall. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Steve dying in his arms over and over again. He was powerless to stop it.

What if ending the time loop required Steve’s death?

Loki refused to believe that. He’d begun to suspect the time loop was far more subtle in its design. It was not about black or white, but about all the shades of grey in between.

“Loki?” Steve slipped quietly inside. The narrow bed shifted as Steve’s weight settled onto it. He wrapped his right arm around Loki’s waist and pulled him gently against his chest. “Can you tell me what happened?”

Loki closed his eyes tightly and shook his head.

The heat from Steve’s body began to gradually loosen the tense muscles in Loki’s back and his breath was warm on the side of Loki’s neck. They laid still and quiet for a long time. Loki had almost begun to slip into sleep when Steve spoke again.

“Did I die?” he asked, his voice barely a whisper.

Loki nodded once.

Steve pulled Loki closer. “I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t the first time you’ve died, but it hasn’t happened since,” Loki’s voice faltered as he stumbled over his words. “It has been a very long time since it has happened.”

“I’m not dead, Loki. I’m right here. See?” He shifted, lightly pulling Loki onto his back and brushing his hair behind his ears.

Loki took a deep, shaky breath. He knew what was coming.

“Will you keep trying?” Steve asked. His fingertips brushed against Loki’s cheek. “Please don’t give up.”

“So I can watch you die again?”

“So we can have a future together.” Lowering his head, Steve lightly pressed his forehead against Loki’s. “I want more than six days that I barely remember, Loki. I want a life, a real life, with you. We can’t have that if we’re trapped in this time loop forever.”

“Steve.”

“You’ll find a way.” He smiled before kissing Loki gently. “I know you will.”

Loki closed his eyes. He let himself think of nothing but Steve, to feel nothing but Steve’s hands, his weight, and the brush of his lips. Here, for the moment, all that mattered was that they were together and they had one more day before it would start all over again.

He knew he would not try again. Not yet, not so soon. It would take time for the memory of Steve’s lifeless body to fade enough before he could think clearly again. He needed to think clearly. There was still something he was missing within the subtleties of the time loop, an answer the strange voices in the dark claimed that he already had.

He needed more time.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

San Francisco felt more like home than Asgard now. It was Day Three and Thor would arrive before dawn.

Loki eased down onto the bed after they’d spent the day walking around the city; he was surprised when Steve told him that he was going back into the city and would return. Once Steve had left, he stripped off his clothes and stood under the hot spray of the water until the stiffness in his muscles had begun to loosen. After he felt sufficiently restored, he left the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist, returning to the bedroom to wait. He flipped through the channels on the television aimlessly. Even the commercials were so familiar by now that he knew them word for word. The familiar rumble of the motorcycle engine caught his ears but it was several minutes before Steve opened the door.

He barely looked at Loki when he entered the room, a brown paper bag in his hands. “I’m going to hop in the shower. Get cleaned up.” His face was turning red as he walked toward the bathroom.

Loki stared at the door after it closed, curious. He settled back onto the bed and continued to churn through the television channels as the shower started. Whatever was bothering Steve, no doubt he would tell Loki about it once he had showered and relaxed. He stopped to watch some old-fashioned cartoons for a few minutes, half-listening to the running water.

When Steve emerged, he was wearing a plain t-shirt and a pair of soft pajama pants. The paper bag was clutched tightly in his hand. He sat down in the chair, staring down at the bag with intense concentration.

“Steve?” Loki asked.

Steve swallowed visibly. His hands shook as he opened the bag and began to empty out the contents. There was a small purple box, a plastic vial of liquid, a short length of rope, and a strange device made of black cloth and metal. He placed each of the items very carefully on the small table beside the chair before crumpling up the bag. His gaze was focused on the carpet in front of him; his knuckles white from the grip he had on paper.

Loki slid from the bed and moved to the table. He reached out to touch the black fabric and recognized the device as a type of binding meant to go around the wrists. The other two objects, he knew immediately from the commercials on the television.

“Steve,” he began, unsure what the collection of objects meant. He picked up the bottle of lubricant cautiously. Steve’s cheeks were blotched with red and his breathing seemed strained. When he finally looked up, just for a moment, he looked terrified. Loki tried to choose his words carefully. “Is this something you wish for me to do with you?”

There was a strange look of agony in Steve’s eyes, as though he couldn’t physically bring himself to answer the question.

Loki considered the wrist cuffs and the length of silken rope. This was something they had not done before, an aspect of each other they hadn’t explored in the time they’d been together. He hadn’t pushed Steve in that direction, sensing that he was only just beginning to accept his own sexuality and that was a step too far. He’d been content to wait until Steve was ready. He glanced back toward the headboard of the bed and noted the shudder that went through Steve when he saw where his gaze had gone.

“Answer one question. And you must be perfectly honest,” Loki said carefully. Steve’s head snapped up; there was relief in his eyes. “Do you want this?”

Steve nodded once. The muscles of his jaw were so tight that Loki wondered if he could speak at all.

“And the restraints,” Loki paused, searching for the right word. “You want me to restrain you?”

Once again, the look of agony returned and Loki found himself lost, unable to fathom what could be churning beneath the rigid tension he could see. Steve couldn’t tell him and he didn’t understand that either.

Loki decided to try another tactic. “Remove your clothes.”

Steve obeyed immediately, stripping off his t-shirt and standing to slough off the pajama pants. His face was still red and he couldn’t quite meet Loki’s gaze, but he stood with his back straight. He was already hard, his swollen cock bobbing slightly.

Interesting, Loki thought. He set the bottle of lubricant back on the table. “Kneel.”

He was surprised when Steve once again obeyed, almost eagerly. He had never known Steve to be submissive. Tender and considerate, yes, he was an attentive lover, but he had never been submissive. Loki frowned a little as he reached out to tangle his fingers in Steve’s hair. Steve swayed under the touch, his gaze still on the carpet.

Loki caught Steve’s chin and forced his head up. “Open your mouth.”

Steve’s eyes widened but Loki saw no fear or hesitation in them when he tugged the towel from his hips. He caught his cock in one hand and pressed it into Steve’s mouth, shivering at the heat and the rasp of Steve’s tongue against the underside. He pushed deeper than Steve was used to, deep enough that he could feel Steve’s throat constrict around him. Burying his left hand in Steve’s hair, he kept Steve from pulling away on reflex. With his right hand, he stroked his fingers along Steve’s jaw.

“Relax your jaw,” he said softly, dragging his thumb over Steve’s jawline and down the curve of his throat. Steve obeyed without hesitation, his eyes wide and clear.

Steve was putting his body and his trust completely in Loki’s hands, without question and without reservations. That was what he couldn’t say.

No one had ever trusted Loki so completely.

It was a heady and raw feeling; enough that Loki barely managed to keep from thrusting hard into Steve’s mouth and ending it right then. Instead, he pulled away and took a step back. He fumbled for the box of condoms and held it out to Steve. He noticed that Steve’s hands were no longer shaking. His fingers made quick work of opening the box and stripping away the wrapping. The latex was cool against Loki’s skin and he was surprised at the easy precision of Steve’s fingers as he stroked it down over Loki’s cock.

Loki nodded toward bed, grabbing up the lubricant and the bindings in one hand. “On your back.”

He followed Steve and tossed the lubricant onto the bed where he would be able to reach it. Catching Steve’s wrists, he secured the black fabric cuffs around them and looped the silk rope around the metal links between them. He tied the rope around one of the wooden posts of the headboard with just enough tension to pull Steve’s arm’s gently upward. It would be no match for the Captain if he truly wanted to break free, but Loki knew that wasn’t the point. Steve was not submitting to Loki any more than he would submit to an enemy of SHIELD, but this was something he couldn’t bring himself to ask for in any other way.

Carefully, he knelt between Steve’s legs and lowered himself down to kiss and bite at Steve’s lips. The brush of his cock against Steve’s was muted by the layer of latex, but still sent a shiver of anticipation along his spine. When Steve was breathing hard and making the nearly soundless moans that he always made when he was ready for Loki to get serious, Loki pulled his lips away and tipped his head to Steve’s ear.

“You will not find release until I allow it. Until I tell you that you can,” he whispered. Steve shuddered beneath him, but he nodded.

Loki caught one of the pillows and tugged it beneath Steve’s hips to raise them up. It took a bit of maneuvering to get Steve’s legs bent away and find a position that he would be able to maintain comfortably for some time. The look of terror had begun to creep back into Steve’s eyes, but he remained silent. Catching the bottle of lubricant in one hand, Loki stripped away the plastic covering and poured a small amount into the palm of his right hand. He reached for Steve’s cock, felt it jump in his hand as he stroked lightly. Steve’s breath hitched audibly in his throat.

He kept a pattern of a few light, gentle strokes, leaning down to kiss and lick at the head of Steve’s cock until the first bead of pre-come appeared. Pouring more lubricant into his palm, he worked it quickly over the fingers of his right hand. He caught Steve’s cock loosely in his left hand, making light strokes with his thumb, and pressed his right index finger against the puckered circle of flesh beneath. As he eased his finger into the hole, Steve immediately tensed and his inner muscles clamped down hard.

“Breathe,” Loki said softly, continuing to press his finger deeper into Steve’s body. Steve’s chest rose and fell as he inhaled and exhaled deeply. “Good. Again.”

He kept his thumb stroking gently along the underside of Steve’s cock and coaxed him through deep breath after deep breath as he worked one finger against the tight inner muscles. He added a second finger and continued to coach Steve through each breath. He paused to add more lubricant, waiting to feel Steve relax enough for him to consider more. When Steve began to relax, he pressed into him with three fingers and bent down to kiss the curve of his hip and the inside of his thigh, nipping at his skin with his teeth.

Rolling back onto his heels, he tightened his grip around Steve’s cock and gave him several long strokes. Steve’s head fell back, eyes mostly closed, and he moaned. Loki took advantage of the distraction to pull his fingers away and reach for the lubricant. He drizzled it liberally onto his own cock and stroked it back to fully hard. Even with preparation, he knew it would cause Steve pain; he was too tense, too tight, and too inexperienced for anything else.

He pushed his hips forward until the tip of his cock just touched where his fingers had been and stopped. “Steve.”

Steve opened his eyes. He looked afraid and aroused at the same time, his face flushed and lips parted. He nodded, swallowing hard.

“Tell me you want this. Say it,” Loki said quietly, hoping that Steve couldn’t hear the uncertainty he felt.

Steve licked his lips. His voice sounded dry and fever hot when he spoke. “I want it.”

Loki moved his left hand to the bed beside Steve’s side for balance and pressed forward. His cock sunk into Steve with agonizing slowness; it was unbearably hot and incredibly tight. Steve tensed, muscles tightening again. The rope jerked hard against the spoke of the headboard. Bracing himself against the bed, Loki pushed until he was buried to the hilt in Steve. He finally looked down, wincing at the expression of agony on Steve’s face. He wanted nothing more than to offer comfort. Instead, he shifted his weight and moved his right hand to Steve’s neck. His thumb dug into the soft flesh beneath Steve’s chin and he let it drag down along the artery in his neck.

“Relax your jaw.” It took several moments before Loki felt the tension in the muscles begin to ease. “Now relax your neck.” He slid his hand to the back of Steve’s neck and dug his fingers into the dense muscles until they too began to relax. “Relax your shoulders.” He worked at the tension in Steve’s shoulders for quite a while.

As he worked his way down Steve’s body, ordering him to relax one muscle and inch at a time, he began to make slight, shallow thrusts. His hands reached Steve’s hips; experimentally, he reached beneath Steve and pulled his back up into a slight arch. Steve’s eyes widened at the difference in sensation with the change of angle, breath hissing between his teeth. Loki released the hold and continued making slow, easy thrusts. He caught Steve’s cock, now soft and pliable, with his right hand. His own nerves and self-control were frayed nearly to the breaking point, but he forced his desire into the back of his mind and focused solely on Steve. He pulled out completely to slather on more of the lubricant, his left hand still working Steve’s cock.

“Harder,” Steve said hoarsely. His hands were gripped tight on the silken rope.

Loki thrust into Steve with far less force than he was capable of, the muscles still impossibly tight even with time and lubrication. Loki settled into an easy pace, watching every momentary shift of expression on Steve’s face for any sign of discomfort or pain.

“You don’t have to be gentle,” Steve said through gritted teeth at the end of one of Loki’s thrusts. “I can take it. I can take it.”

Loki swallowed, refusing to alter his rhythm. Instead, he tightened his grip around Steve’s cock, digging his thumb along the underside until Steve moaned. He matched his thrusts to each stroke, waiting until Steve was writhing beneath him, desperate for release. Driving himself deep into Steve, deep enough to see pain flash across his face, he leaned down to catch Steve’s lips.

“Not until I tell you,” he breathed against Steve’s mouth.

“Loki,” Steve moaned.

“Then we’ll see if you can take it.” Unable to keep from grinning, he caught at Steve’s cock and stroked it ruthlessly. He tangled his right hand into Steve’s hair, forcing him to look up at him. Steve’s eyes were wide and completely unfocused. The rope hissed against the headboard, his whole body shaking.

“Now,” Loki whispered.

Steve bucked up against his hand and Loki nearly lost his grip with the force of it. White ribbons of semen shot out over Steve’s chest; he cried out, back arched like a drawn bowstring. Loki let go of any attempt at self-control, thrusting into Steve mindlessly. Steve cried out again, this time with surprise. When Loki looked down, Steve panting beneath him – he saw nothing in Steve’s eyes but heat and pleasure – that just made him thrust harder. Steve’s eyes widened even further and the hiss of breath between his teeth turned into a moan.

“Loki,” Steve panted. “Oh…oh…that feels…oh, wow.” His head fell back and the rope went taut against the bed frame.

Loki felt his muscles contract; his vision went white, body stiffening as he drove into Steve and he heard himself cry out in ecstasy. For several minutes, it was all he could do to simply breathe. He gradually became aware of Steve’s heartbeat and the stickiness of drying semen against his chest and stomach. Steve’s eyes were closed, his breathing steady and even. Loki would have thought him asleep if he hadn’t winced with pain when Loki withdrew.

“Stay,” Loki ordered. His legs were shaky when he managed to stand.

“Don’t get used to ordering me around,” Steve said sleepily.

If Loki had had the energy, he would have laughed. Instead, he stumbled to the bathroom and soaked one of the washcloths in hot water. He stripped away the used condom and discarded it, then scrubbed away the lubricant and semen, rinsing the cloth several times. Once he was clean, he returned to the bed and carefully wiped Steve’s skin clean as well. He unclasped the restraints around Steve’s wrists only after he was done.

When he lay down on the bed, Steve rolled against him and nestled his head against Loki’s shoulder. Loki wrapped his arms around Steve, running his fingers through his hair and over his back again and again.

After several minutes, Steve spoke. “Would you like me to do that to you? Sometime. Is it something you want?”

Loki traced thoughtless patterns over the width of Steve’s back. His mind went momentarily blank at the question, then filled with imagining the pleasure, the press of Steve's body as he filled Loki completely. Mouth watering a little in anticipation, he tried to choose his words carefully. “Would you like to?”

“I don’t know.”

“Perhaps when you are sure,” Loki whispered against Steve’s hair. “It will not always be painful for you. You may learn to enjoy it. If you do not, I will not ask it of you.”

Steve’s silence was heavy with unspoken words. He pulled closer to Loki and took a deep breath, settling into relaxation. Loki let the heat and weight of Steve’s body sink into him, lulling him toward sleep. As Steve began to drift from consciousness, Loki carefully extracted himself from his hold.

“Where you going?” Steve mumbled.

“Shhh.” Loki pressed a kiss against his forehead. “I will return.”

He dressed silently and shut off the lights, leaving Steve to sleep peacefully in darkness. He closed the hotel room door behind him as quietly as possible, not really thinking about where he was going or what he was doing.

Thor would arrive soon.

The beach wasn’t far away. It was a rocky descent, slick from the ocean spray, and the concrete steps had been driven into the stone by the will of man alone. Loki made his way down and didn’t stop until the cold water lapped against his knees. He stood in the water, staring blindly out at the ocean and the stars and trying desperately to make sense of what had just happened.

Something had changed. Something inside of him had changed; as though tiny pieces of a puzzle buried deep in his mind had suddenly snapped into place.

He didn’t know the words to explain what had changed. The waves tugged at his legs. He thought about each of the iterations. He thought of the first time he’d come to Midgard, of his anger and his fury. He thought of watching Steve die, blood on his lips and his last breath. He thought of the moment he had realized that Steve desired him, how the world had suddenly become sharp and clear around him. Wading back to the beach, he found a dry rock beyond the reach of the water and settled down to wait for Thor.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki and Steve hiked along the black sand beaches of northern California. They’d picked up a tent, sleeping bags, and other supplies in a nearby town before disappearing into a last piece of wilderness along the coast.

As Steve worked to get a fire going, Loki watched the stars and told Steve old stories of the Nine Realms and of Asgard.

“We should ask Thor to stay a day or two when he comes,” Steve said. He leaned down to blow gently on the timid flame and coax it into a larger fire.

“Thor arrives believing that I mean to conquer your world. He’s not usually in a good mood.”

“But you don’t always fight when he’s here.”

Loki considered that for a moment before ceding to the point. “True. I suppose it would not hurt to ask him.”

“Do you think anyone else can remember anything? Like I do.” Steve brought a blanket with him, draping it around them as he settled onto the sand at Loki’s side.

“It’s possible.” Loki had considered it. If there were others in this Realm or other Realms, he didn’t know how or if he should seek them out. Were they, these theoretical others like Steve, the reason the time loop continued? He’d seen firsthand how Steve’s memories, as dream-like and patchwork as they were, could have unintended and far-reaching consequences. If there were others, perhaps they merely dismissed it as dreams and déjà vu, as Steve had when he’d first started to remember previous iterations in time.

Somehow, Loki didn’t think there were any others like Steve on Midgard or in any of the Nine Realms.

Steve’s head rested on Loki’s shoulder. “How long have we been together?”

“Almost twenty-six years.”

“Six days at a time,” Steve mused. He turned his head to stare up at the stars. “I was twenty-five when I met Erskine and when I went into the ice.”

“You are still twenty-five,” Loki reminded him.

Steve nestled closer. He reached out to brush the tips of his fingers over the back of Loki’s hand. It was a nearly unconscious gesture after so long. “How long are you going to wait before you try to end the time loop again?”

Loki smiled ruefully. Even without complete memories, he’d never been able to hide anything from Steve. Twisting, he pulled the blanket closed around them and pushed Steve down against the sand. Wrapped inside the cocoon of the blanket, they were warm and safe.

“Loki?” Steve’s breath was warm against his cheek.

“When I have given you back the seventy years you lost to the ice,” Loki whispered against the side of Steve’s neck. “Then I will end it.”

Strong hands stroked down Loki’s back. “I’d rather have a real future with you.”

“You are impossible to please.”

Steve bent his head and nuzzled against Loki’s ear. “Have you tried sex? That might please me.”

“And if Thor arrives while we’re having sex?”

Steve laughed. “That could be a little awkward.” He pressed lazy kisses against Loki’s neck, his hands pulling at Loki’s hips.

“You aren’t helping the situation.”

“We’ll be quick.” Steve parted his legs and pulled his knees up along Loki’s sides, forcing all of Loki’s weight to settle directly onto his hips and chest. “Have we had sex on a beach before?”

Loki grinned against Steve’s lips. “Many times.”

“I don’t remember any of them.” Steve pulled Loki closer, teasing Loki’s lips apart with his tongue. “So we’ll have to do it again. And again.”

Above them, lightning cracked and thunder crashed immediately afterward.

“Damn.” Loki began to pull away from Steve and untangle the blanket.

“Loki!” Thor shouted. “Show yourself!”

Fighting against the blanket, Loki finally pulled it away enough to see Thor standing on the sand a few feet away. The fire sputtered in the sudden rain.

Thor stopped, his eyes widening when he saw Steve still beneath Loki. “What is this?”

Steve rolled to the side enough to hold out his hand. “Hi. I’m Steve. I guess I’m dating your brother. Sort of.”

Thor’s brow furrowed. “Is that what it is called here on Midgard?”

“Would you like to watch?” Loki asked dryly. He smiled with smug satisfaction when Thor looked away, embarrassed.

Steve twisted away and got to his feet. “I’ll get the marshmallows.” He disappeared into the tent.

“Marshmallows?” Thor asked.

“You cook them over the fire. They’re quite good.” Loki pulled the blanket around his shoulders and settled down onto the sand. Thor took a seat on an ancient tree trunk that had long since washed up onto the shore.

“I came here to put an end to your scheme with the Chitauri,” Thor said stiffly. He looked around, as though expecting to see the Chitauri materialize out of the darkness. “Instead, I find you on a beach with a lover. Heimdall said nothing of this.”

“No, I don’t suppose he would have.”

“Do you care for him? This mortal.” Thor frowned, clearly still confused.

Loki sighed. “I will explain this as simply as I can. For me, the Tesseract has created a time loop. I have lived the same six days here on Earth over and over again. I have been on Earth for nearly forty five years. Steve and I have been together for almost twenty-six years. You have come for me countless times. When you attempt to return me to Asgard, the time loop will begin again.”

Silently, Thor watched him for several minutes. Finally, he let Mjolnir slide to the ground and settled his forearms on his knees. “Do you hate me still?”

Loki looked up when Steve emerged from the tent, carrying a package of campfire size marshmallows and skewers to cook them. There was a strange tightness in his chest as Steve knelt down on the sand beside him. Steve reached for his hand and gave it a quick squeeze before he dug into the plastic bag, pulling out marshmallows and spearing them on the skewers.

He took one of the skewers with marshmallows from Steve and held it out to Thor. “We were raised together, we played together, we fought together. In the end, that is all that matters.”

Thor’s smile was tremulous as he took the skewer. He watched as Loki and Steve kept their marshmallows over the edges of the fire where there were coals. Cautiously, he held out his own, watching it expand and dimple as it cooked. They ate marshmallows with nothing but the sound of the ocean around them. Steve pointed out constellations above them, telling Loki and Thor their names and the names of specific stars. Eventually, Steve pleaded exhaustion and, running out of stars, he retreated to the tent, leaving Loki and Thor alone.

“You are happy here,” Thor said simply. He nodded toward the tent. “With him.”

“I am.”

“I will return to Asgard-”

“No,” Loki interrupted quickly. “If you return alone, the Chitauri will follow you and Asgard will fall. I have found no way to prevent it.”

“How is this possible?”

“The Chitauri answer to a creature I know only as Thanos. There is something in Asgard that he wants. I do not know what it is. He uses the Tesseract to get to it and there is no stopping him once he reaches Asgard.”

“Surely, Father can stop him.”

Loki shook his head. “Father will fall. You return bloodied and beaten every time, with nothing but death behind you.”

“How many times has this happened?”

“Hundreds. I have tried everything to prevent it.” Loki dragged his fingers through his hair.

“There must be a way to discover the Chitauri’s true purpose.”

Loki stared into the fire. It had been a long time since he had tried to contact the Other; he’d stopped trying when he gave up stealing the Tesseract and bringing the Chitauri into Midgard. The idea was unappealing. He looked away from the fire and his gaze fell on the tent. Steve believed that ending the time loop would give them a future, but Loki wasn’t convinced.

“Loki,” Thor said softly.

“Those who created this time loop,” Loki began; his kept his voice too low to be heard within the tent. “I do not know who or what they are. I heard only their voices and they wore Mother’s face as a mask. They told me that I must be willing to sacrifice everything to end the time loop.”

Thor’s expression turned solemn. “They are creatures of great power to manage such a working.”

“I can contact the Chitauri and attempt to determine what they truly seek, but I will not put Steve in harm’s way. If there is no way to end this that doesn’t threaten him, then I won’t end it. I would rather live these days for eternity.”

“You love him.”

Butterflies fluttered in his stomach and Loki realized that it was true. “You will find the Tesseract in New Mexico with SHIELD and Agent Coulson. Return here in three days time. I may have answers then.”

Thor placed his hand on Loki’s shoulder as he got to his feet. “You will see, brother, we will end this. Together.” He raised Mjolnir to the sky and was gone.

Loki watched the fire burn down to coals, then watched until the coals turn dark. When there was nothing but starlight, he closed his eyes and reached out with his mind. He reached for the darkness in space where the Other and his Master would be waiting. Ahead of him, the jagged landscape of the barren moon came into focus. In the distance, great beasts swam through the thick dust like sea serpents. As he stepped forward, he saw his Asgardian armor once again and the illusion of the scepter in his hand.

“The Chitauri grow restless.”

“Do they?” Loki found the shape of the Other in the shadows. He kept his distance. “Surely they know the virtue of patience. If they are as formidable and experienced a force as you claim.”

“You question us? You question Him?” hissed the Other. “He, who put the scepter in your hand, who gave you ancient knowledge and new purpose when you were cast out. Defeated.”

Loki began to walk, feigning disinterest in his surroundings. He moved closer to the sweeping staircase that led up to where Thanos would be. “I was a king. The rightful king of Asgard. Betrayed.” The words tasted like ashes in his mouth.

“Your ambition is little and born of childish need.” The Other stalked closer. “We look beyond the Earth to greater worlds the Tesseract will unveil.”

“Such as Asgard?” Loki stopped and held his ground when the Other raced toward him. He held up the illusion of the scepter. The Other stopped with it less than inches from his throat. “I don’t threaten. The Earth is nothing; a small world unworthy of his attention. Is it Asgard that he truly wishes to conquer?”

“Asgard,” the Other sneered. He moved to the side, all but his bloodied lips and chin hidden behind the shadow of his cowl. “Your defiance will not be without consequence.”

“I merely seek the truth.”

“Asgard is nothing. An old world grown fat and arrogant in its power. But power can be taken by one who has the will to wield it.”

“Power enough to defeat even the Allfather?” Loki said with false disdain and disbelief. “Forgive me if I find that hard to believe.”

“You doubt His will?” the Other seethed.

Loki had an instant to brace himself before the Other’s fingers closed around the side of his head and the pain started. It felt as though needles were being driven through his skull and the pain of it forced him back through the distance into his body. Gasping, he panicked when he saw only darkness around him, remembering the endless pain after the Other had found him.

“Loki, Loki.” Steve’s voice broke through his fear. Strong hands gripped his shoulders and neck, brushed his hair back from his face.

He felt for Steve, held onto his arms tightly. They were on a beach in California; they were together. His breathing gradually steadied. Steve gently caressed his back; he reached for the blanket and pulled it around them, blocking the wind sweeping in from the ocean. Loki realized he was shaking.

“I’ll start the fire again,” Steve offered.

Loki nodded mutely and pulled the blanket closer. The aching in his head was began to fade as Steve coaxed the fire back to life.

“What happened?” Steve asked, settling beside Loki.

Loki shook his head. “Not yet. I need...I need.” He clung to Steve, needing the strength and the steadiness of him.

“I'm here.” Steve wrapped his arm around Loki’s shoulders. “I'm not going anywhere.”

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

San Francisco was as familiar as Asgard.

Loki tried not to disturb Steve when he slipped from the bed. He pulled on a pair of soft flannel pants and a t-shirt, walking as quietly as possible. Outside, the morning fog was just beginning to burn away. What was left of the fog bank gave the terrace an otherworldly feel, with the view of the ocean still obscured in grey. He stood at the railing for several minutes, listening to the waves he couldn’t see.

After night fell, Thor would come for him.

Repeated conversations with the Other had given Loki additional pieces of the puzzle. The time loop affected even Thanos, which meant that he was not all powerful. At least, not yet. For now, the Chitauri and their Master remained unaware, but Loki did not trust that to last forever. He knew that Thanos’ ambition was beyond the Earth, beyond even Asgard, and that he was seeking out relics of power. One of them was the Tesseract, the second was on Asgard. It was likely one of the many objects the Allfather had collected and stored in the weapons vault; Loki could not be sure which.

Thanos needed an agent within Asgard for his strategy to work. Had he known that Loki would fail to win the Earth? Had that been part of his plan?

His last attempt to trick the Other into revealing more information had left him unconscious for at least a dozen iterations. Each time Thor attempted to take his body back to Asgard, he had simply fallen from the Tesseract’s portal onto the floor of the research center. Steve had cared for him all those days, watching over him as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

Loki remembered only pain.

“Hey.” Steve leaned back against the railing beside Loki.

“I did not mean to wake you.” Loki shook himself, trying to clear his head. He’d been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn’t heard Steve approach.

“You didn’t. I woke up and you were already gone.”

“I am sorry if I worried you.”

Steve reached out and took Loki’s hand. “Do you realize how different you are? How much you’ve changed?”

Loki frowned. He felt no different. “What do you mean?”

“When you first came here, would you have apologized for worrying me?” With a faint smile on his lips, Steve lifted Loki’s hand and pressed a kiss against his fingers.

“Would you have been willing to share my bed?” Loki countered, not unkindly.

Steve shook his head, laughing a bit ruefully. “How long have we been together?”

“More than thirty five years.” Loki turned to the side and pulled Steve into his arms. “Had I known when I came here…” he stopped as an idea crystallized and became clear.

“Loki?”

“I know how to end this,” Loki whispered against Steve’s hair. “I know what they wished to change.”

“What?”

“Me,” Loki answered simply.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki shot out the ceiling of the room to allow the Tesseract’s energy to dissipate. Ever ungrateful, no one in the room thanked him. As dust and bits of stone rained down around him, he altered his appearance. The scepter shifted and reduced in size. He slid it into the pocket of the black leather jacket and started toward the others.

“Loki.” Steve smiled, his eyes bright with happiness.

“Loki,” Selvig repeated with surprise. “Brother of Thor?”

“One and the same.” He turned to Fury and Agent Coulson. “I am sorry about New Mexico. An unfortunate misunderstanding, I’m afraid.”

“Misunderstanding,” Fury repeated with clear skepticism. He folded his arms. “Why are you here?”

“I am merely here as a tourist.” Loki smiled broadly. “I wish to see your Realm, that is all.”

Fury’s eye narrowed. “That’s all, is it?”

“I hear Paris is lovely in the spring time.”

“So you take in the sights, snap a few pictures, and nothing else?”

“Did you expect something else?” Loki turned to Steve. Disregarding the presence of the others, he closed the distance between them and caught Steve’s hips, pulling him closer. Steve’s eyes grew wide the moment before their lips met. A second later, he returned Loki’s kiss hungrily, his arms wrapping around Loki.

When Steve pulled away, he caught Loki’s face in his hands. He was breathless. “This is it, isn’t it? You’re going to end it this time.”

Loki nodded. He kissed Steve again and he didn’t stop until Director Fury cleared his throat several times.

Fury glared at both of them. “This is something else. You want to explain how you even know each other? Rogers hasn’t even been defrosted for a week and you two are making out like a couple of horny teenagers. Please, someone, explain.”

“We should get out of here,” Steve laughed.

“Agreed.” Loki let Steve pull him toward the doorway. “As you were, Director. Never fear, Agent Coulson, I promise to return him unharmed. Oh, and my brother will be arriving in two days. He believes that I mean to destroy your world.”

“He what?” Fury yelled after them.

Loki followed Steve to the motorcycle and climbed on behind him. They rode through the night and ate breakfast at the small roadside diner they’d eaten at thousands of times before. There was no rush, no hurry; Loki pushed everything out of his mind except for where they were and what they were doing. All that mattered was Steve and the next six days. He spent an afternoon memorizing every line of Steve’s body, tracing them with his fingers and lips.

Thor arrived on schedule, but with a message from SHIELD – Captain America was to be returned unharmed – and to tell them that he would return in three days time to take Loki back to Asgard.

On the fifth day, they walked the beach until the sun set and roasted marshmallows over the fire pit at the motel.

“You’re worried,” Steve said suddenly.

“I am,” Loki admitted. “I may only have one chance to get everything right.”

“You’ll get it right.” Steve reached out to take Loki’s hand.

Loki pulled his skewer back to check on his marshmallows. “I have seen you die. I have held you as you bled your life out onto the street, watched your eyes turn empty and cold. I will not risk that again. Not ever.”

Steve’s grip tightened. “I love you, Loki. No matter what happens. Never forget that I love you.”

“I won’t. I haven’t.” Loki swallowed and tried to smile. “It is all that has kept me sane many times.” He could feel the weight of Steve’s gaze.

When Steve spoke, his voice was soft and gentle. “I know you’ll never tell me everything. What the Chitauri did to you, what you’ve been through. I know that I watched you; I don’t know for how long. You were in pain the whole time. I remember listening to you scream in your sleep.”

Loki had to look away.

“I know you’ll do what has to be done,” Steve said quietly. “Whatever happens, it won’t be the end. Not for us.”

Loki closed his eyes and gripped Steve’s hand tightly. He hoped Steve was right. “I will have to face the consequences of what I did before I fell from the Bifrost; I will be punished for my actions. The Allfather is not known for his mercy. But I will return to you when I can.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Steve moved to Loki’s side, pressing against him comfortingly.

They finished the bag of marshmallows and returned to the motel room smelling of smoke. Loki pulled Steve into the bathroom, turning on the water in the shower. They didn’t speak as they undressed and got into the shower. The familiar routine was bittersweet to Loki. Water washed away soap and shampoo; he remembered each and every time they’d made love in that shower. Once the smell of smoke was gone, they stumbled back to the bedroom and onto the bed.

Steve caught Loki’s wrists and pinned them against the mattress. He bent down and nipped at Loki’s ear. “You’re acting like this is going to be the last time we’ll be together. Knock it off.”

Loki turned his head and pressed his lips against Steve’s. He didn’t dare speak; Steve always seemed to know when he was lying. It was easy to lose himself in the pleasure of Steve’s hands and lips, in the heat of their bodies pressed together. He could almost forget what he had to do.

“How long has it been for you? Here on earth.” Steve asked later, his strong fingers moving over Loki’s stomach in a gentle caress.

“Seventy years,” Loki answered without opening his eyes.

He let Steve sleep until dawn and stayed pressed against his back. There would be no sleep for him; he wanted to remember everything about Steve. The feel of his skin, the noises he made as he slept; everything. Once the sun rose, he left the bed and dressed. His Asgardian armor looked strange and alien to him now. In his hand, the glittering gold and blue ballpoint pen began to grow longer. One end curved into a wicked blade and the blue stone, a piece of a long-ago shattered Cosmic Cube, glowed softly in the dim morning light.

Loki returned to the side of the bed. He reached out to gently brush Steve’s hair away from his eyes. “Steve.”

Steve slept lightly, a habit born of War, and his eyes opened immediately, though still unfocused with sleep. “What time is it?”

“Dawn.”

Steve frowned. He rubbed at his face with one hand as he pushed himself to a seated position. “Is Thor here already?”

“Not yet.”

Steve smiled sleepily. “It’s too early, Loki. Come back to bed.”

The tip of the scepter pressed against Steve’s chest. Loki saw Steve’s eyes widen – saw the pain of betrayal in them – and his body stiffen as the energy spread through his body. Already blue eyes glowed more brightly.

Loki lowered the scepter to the bed. He sat down, unable to face Steve. “I am sorry.” Steve didn’t respond. He wouldn’t respond until Loki asked him a question or gave him a direct order. “You must forget me. You must forget everything we’ve shared, everything we are. I am a stranger to you now. When you dream of the Tesseract, you will dismiss it as a dream and you will do nothing. You will forget about the time loop, forget about me.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve said without emotion.

**

Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

“Sir. Please put down the spear.”

Loki took out the guards. He captured Barton and Selvig. They stole the Jeep and he shot down Fury’s helicopter. He knew this dance so well that he could almost make every step with his eyes closed.

As the men Barton had recruited worked, Loki sought out the Other.

“The Chitauri grow restless,” the Other rasped.

Loki felt his blood run cold. He kept his chin up, feigning disinterest as he paced, only half-listening to the Other’s words. The conversation was familiar and predictable; that made it easier to lie.

“You don’t have the Tesseract yet.” Loki refused to let any emotion show on his face, holding up the scepter as the Other rushed at him. “I don’t threaten. But until I open the door, until your army is mine to command, you are but words.”

It was a dangerous game he was playing.

“You think you know pain,” the Other hissed.

Loki held very still, unable to keep himself from tensing against the pain he knew was coming. He thought of Steve; thought of blue eyes and blond hair and the taste of his skin. Pain exploded inside Loki’s skull and he jerked away, pulling his consciousness back into his body and far from the Other’s touch. He forced himself to think of nothing but Steve and the next choice he had to make. It had to be right; it had to be perfect; he had to choose the outcome that he knew with absolute certainty would keep Steve alive. He channeled his pain into anger and grim determination.

Barton needed an eyeball.

Captain America and Iron Man arrived. Loki felt sick.

Thunder and lightning heralded Thor’s return to Midgard; he tore Loki from the plane.

The Black Widow came.

He trapped Thor inside the glass cage and dropped him from the Helicarrier.

Agent Coulson shot him.

Coughing against thick, black smoke, Loki got back to his feet and staggered through the hole he’d made. There were only moments to make the one change that he desperately needed to make. He staggered back to Coulson and kicked the gun from his hands. Kneeling down beside him, he pressed a hand against the wound in Coulson’s chest.

“I can only give you time. I will slow your heart and your blood loss. It will be enough for Fury to save you,” he said tersely.

Coulson stared at him. “Save me?”

“Listen well, Agent Coulson, I do not have time to repeat myself. It is vital that the others believe you dead until after it is all over. If they do not, they will fall. Captain America will fall.”

“Something to unite them,” Coulson said weakly.

“That is your death, Agent Coulson. I have lived this moment thousands of times; this is the only way to ensure that he lives.” Loki stood up. Blood dripped from the scepter. “Also know this. The Chitauri and their Master must believe that I am your enemy. I will do whatever is necessary to ensure they continue to believe that. If they do not, your world will fall and Asgard as well.”

Coulson swallowed with obvious pain. “Why tell me?”

“There are times when a man must do terrible things. I do this for Steve.” Loki winced as he said Steve’s name. There was a chance that Steve would remember something; a ghost, a whisper, or that he would be haunted with dreams of Loki. “Tell him that I had no choice. That this was the only way.”

Loki turned away and left Coulson bleeding against the wall. He would live.

The portal opened; the Chitauri came.

“Loki!” Thor roared. “Turn off the Tesseract or I will destroy it.”

The bitter taste in Loki’s mouth only grew stronger as he fought against Thor. Even now, Thor hoped that they could be brothers again. Loki’s eyes stung with unwanted tears. He stabbed Thor in the side with the small dagger; he hit nothing vital, it would be no more than an insect bite to Thor.

“Sentiment,” he said, unable to keep the anger out of his voice. He’d come so far, he’d changed so much, but none of it mattered.

Thor had to believe that Loki was an enemy to Asgard; Loki had to make him believe it.

Hulk smashed Loki into the floor of Stark Tower.

Thor barely looked at Loki, his attention on the mortals and their city, before he twisted the handle of the Tesseract’s containment vessel. Everything dissolved into brilliant blue light and Loki felt himself pulled, stretched, and then thrown back into reality with the force of a blow.

Loki looked up and saw Asgard before him.

“You will face the consequences of your actions, Loki,” Thor said darkly.

He could say nothing with the binding over his mouth, mutely following Thor toward the palace. Thanos would come.

Loki would be ready.

**

In Steve’s dreams, Loki was not the enemy.

He woke with a start, sweat beaded on his brow and soaked through his t-shirt. He stripped the shirt away and left the bed to get a glass of water.

It had been six months since the Chitauri attack on New York City, but the dreams were becoming more frequent and more vivid rather than less. He rubbed at the aching pain beginning in his temples. The headaches always seemed to follow the dreams. To calm down, he pulled a sketchbook from the top drawer of the bedside table and began to draw. It was nearly dawn before he finished the sketch.

Always the same landscape, always the same motel.

He’d asked JARVIS to find the motel once, wanting to know if it was a real place or just part of his dream. Steve was sure he’d never been to San Francisco before.

He was also sure, despite his dreams, that he and Loki had never been lovers. Had never been in love.

He finished the glass of water, put the sketchbook away, and crawled back into his bed. Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to forget.