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one hand on my throat, and one on your heart

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Loki was lounging on the couch reading a book about Wakandan history when he got the message from Steve: meet me in the garden. There’s something I want to show you.

Pursing his lips, Loki felt one of his eyebrows creep up. Something. That could mean a lot of things, either bad or good - though in this case he was, actually, inclined to think the latter.

I’ll be there in a moment, he wrote, smiling faintly, and bookmarked his place before standing. He almost called the magic to simply take himself there, but chose to walk instead. It’d been a fine string of days, the weather slightly cooler, and if the restlessness lingered, for the most part things were...quiet.

Perhaps Steve had conjured up some sort of romantic surprise. He hadn’t yet given answer to Loki’s taking them to Alfheim, and while Loki certainly didn’t expect him to return the favor he thought Steve might feel otherwise.

He walked into the garden. “Steve?” He called, but there was no answer. Loki hummed under his breath, slight anxiety prickling under his skin, and moved forward. “If you are planning to jump out and surprise me…”

He rounded a corner and trailed off. He could see Steve, now.

Steve, who was sitting on the ground, looking adoringly up at-

Amora ,” Loki snarled, and magic was in his hands, to strike, to burn her out of existence.

“Careful,” Amora said, smiling. “If you kill me, you will rip the magic out of your lover’s mind. It will be quite...violent. He might survive. I doubt he would be of much use.” Her fingers combed lazily through Steve’s hair, the movement such that it was clear she wanted Loki to notice. Loki’s stomach lurched, rage almost blinding him, but he forced it onto a leash.

I will rip your head from your shoulders, as I should have done before. I will tear you apart and scatter your atoms so far that they will never be found. I-

“What do you want,” he asked flatly. “Him? I thought mortals were beneath you.”

Amora’s smile widened. “You seem to find this one...satisfactory. I could enjoy finding out why. Not just for the pleasure of taking him away from you.” She looked down at Steve, fingers tangling in his hair and pulling his head back. Loki heard Steve gasp. “He’s strong. He might even last for a while. Until I rode him into the ground.” She raised her eyebrows. “Would you like that, Captain?”

Steve swayed. “Yes,” he said. Loki’s heart stuttered, even knowing this was as much Steve as HYDRA’s copy had been. That made it worse, knowing what Amora was doing, how she was twisting Steve, how he would feel when he broke free.

“His will is stronger than you know,” Loki said. “He would break free of you. You would be putting a leash of thread on a lion. Walk away now, Amora, and I will let you go.” He let his lip curl. “If know what I do to those who take what is mine.”

He thought he saw Steve’s head turn toward him, just a little. Away from Amora. Perhaps if he could distract her just long enough, Steve could break free on his own, and together…

Amora laughed, the sound musical, pleasant. “I know you have gone soft. Weak. Once you might have matched me. Not anymore.”

Loki bared his teeth. “Would you like to test that?”

Amora’s eyes narrowed, but a moment later her expression cleared. “You are trying to distract me,” she said. “But don’t fret, Loki. I am not going to take As personally pleasurable as it would be...I have a better target.”

Wanda, Loki thought. Amora would want to retaliate against someone who bested her. She had always been petty, vengeful. Loki almost wanted to see her try. “Is that so.”

Amora tipped her head a fraction to the side. “You.”

Loki went still, just for a moment. Surprise flitting through him. “That is surprising,” he said slowly.

“It should not be,” Amora said, her smile softening though her eyes stayed cold. “Dark days are coming, Loki. You know this. And I intend to be on the winning side.”

It took Loki a moment to understand, and then the chill of Jotunheim’s ice swept through his veins. “If you think that, you are a fool.”

“Am I?” Amora looked down at Steve again, whose eyes were strangely glazed. Loki wanted to shift forward, yank him away, but he couldn’t. Not yet. He had to trust that given time, Steve would break free. Had to give him time. “Perhaps,” she said. “But I think I can give him something he wants.”

“What he wants is for the universe to burn,” Loki said. “He will not make an exception for you.

Amora shrugged. “Maybe he will if I deliver him something he wants just as much.”

Loki saw Steve shake his head like he was trying to clear it, blinking. Amora looked down at him, frowning, but even as Loki twitched she grabbed the back of Steve’s neck and clicked her tongue.

“Careful,” she said, and Loki fell still, his chest heaving. “Come. Your choice, Loki. Come with me willingly and I’ll let your lover walk away. Or fight me and I’ll have him attack you.” Loki could see Steve fighting for clarity. Amora’s smile widened.

“Choose quickly,” she said, and he felt her weave something small, delicate, dangerous.

Steve’s back arched and he shook in the throes of a seizure, his mouth opening but no sound escaping but a faint whine. Loki lurched forward but he felt Amora’s magic tightening, Steve’s body almost writhing, twisting like his bones would snap. And Amora, smiling, smiling-

“Stop,” Loki said, his voice strained, rage pulsing in his ears but the moment he moved - he couldn’t. He couldn’t. He knew what Steve would say, but he knew what Steve would do, too, and this wasn’t Njord. Amora was smarter. Stronger. Crueler.

She cocked her head at him. The magic coiled tighter and Steve’s back bent like a bow. “Do better,” she said coolly.

Hatred burned in his stomach. Hatred and fear and he would kill her, as soon as Steve was safe, he would rip out her throat with his teeth.

Loki dropped to his knees. “Please,” he forced out. “ Stop. I will. I will go with you.”

Her magic unwound. Steve collapsed on hands and knees, panting, and Amora glided toward him.

“Make it binding,” she said. “On your blood, Loki. You will go with me. You will not try to free yourself. You will not try to hurt me.”

Loki’s eyes flicked to Steve. “Release him first,” she said. Amora’s lips twitched, and he added, savagely, “you will not hurt him. You will leave him whole. That is our bargain.”

Amora considered, then inclined her chin. “I swear it. I will leave him whole.” She pulled a small knife from her belt and sliced open her palm. “This I do swear,” she said, weaving the magic that would make it binding. A moment later he felt the magic slither free, away from Steve, and he gasped.

If Loki delayed a moment longer, maybe…

Amora’s magic gathered. “Think carefully, Loki.”

He closed his eyes and summoned a blade. “I will go with you. I will not try to free myself. I will not try to hurt you.” He slashed open his hand and bound the oath to his blood. Not unbreakable. But nearly.

Steve was pushing himself up, shaky and disoriented, but when he looked at Loki his eyes were clear. “What…”

He saw Amora and his eyes widened. Loki saw his muscles bunch to move, to attack. No, he started to mouth, but Amora reached for his hand.

“Time to leave,” she said. “Take me on the shadowpaths. I will show you where to go.”

“Loki,” Steve said, voice thrumming with something that stabbed through his chest.

Stay here, Loki thought desperately, closing his eyes as he pulled them away. Stay here, with the others. You’re the only hope I have.

If there is any hope at all.

Steve’s thoughts spun, his stomach churning. He could still scarcely make sense of what had happened. His memories of the last hour were blurry, disjointed, but what mattered - all that mattered - was Loki, expression horribly resigned, taking Amora’s hand and vanishing.

He tried to stand, but his body felt shaky and weak, and he could hear himself gasping. Sinking onto the bench, fingers shaking, he called Sam.

“Something awful’s happened,” he managed to say. Amora took Loki, he wanted to say, but his tongue didn’t quite seem to work right, and that wasn’t...Loki hadn’t been struggling. He’d gone with Amora like it was something he had to do.

Steve bent over, trying to control the rush of mingled dizziness and nausea.

“- Steve, ” Sam said, like he’d repeated it a couple times. Steve licked his lips.

“Outside,” he said. “ of the gardens. Southwest, I think.” What had happened? It felt foggy, blurry. Snatches of conversation…

Dark days are coming, Loki...I intend to be on the winning side.

He remembered kneeling, the overwhelming desire to please…

Steve stumbled to his feet and vomited into a bush. He was still retching when Sam came up and put a hand on his back. He’d just sat there. Just sat there while Amora - petted him like a dog, and he’d wanted it. Loki had been right there and Steve had barely even glanced at him. The violation-

I think I can give him something he wants.

“Steve,” Sam said, his voice gentle with a thrumming undercurrent of worry. “What happened?”

Steve had to swallow hard three times before he dared try to talk. “Amora,” he managed to croak. “Amora’s taken Loki to Thanos.”

Sam reared back. “What?”

Steve could feel his lungs squeezing, his next breath coming harder. He could remember - all of it, too clearly. Useless, watching while Amora used him against Loki and he wanted to be angry but at least for now all he could be was scared. Loki’s greatest fear and he’d delivered himself to it because Steve hadn’t been strong enough.

“Steve,” he heard Sam say, though it sounded very far away. “Head down, breathe. Listen to me, all right? This isn’t over. Amora was here?”

“She was here,” Steve gasped out. “Took control of me. She wanted - Loki. For Thanos. Loki went with her so she wouldn’t…” Kill me. There was a sour taste in Steve’s mouth. If he could’ve broken free a little sooner, fought a little harder, if he’d been able to do anything at all…

He might even last for a while. Until I rode him into the ground. Would you like that, Captain?

Steve heard himself moan, stomach heaving into his throat. He’d thought he would, then. It’d sounded like the best thing in the world.

Focus. Think. Pull yourself together.

Sam’s hand was rubbing up and down his back. “Shit,” he said quietly. “ Shit. So he could already…”

Be back with him. Steve’s breathing hitched and his thoughts were awfully blank, despair grabbing him hard and dragging him down. He’d failed. Again. He thought of Loki’s terror, the way he flinched every time they even drew near to the topic of his captor. And Steve had let him be taken. Been the lever by which Loki had let himself be taken. And now he was gone and Steve didn’t know how to follow-

Loki. Numbness followed the despair. Loki was gone.

“Steve,” Sam said. “You’re not giving up.

Steve shook his head, staring at the ground. “You don’t understand,” he said dully. “We don’t have any way to follow him.”

Sam exhaled harshly. “Fuck that,” he said harshly. “Come on, Steve.”

He put his face in his hands. “You don’t understand ,” he said again. “I failed him. Again. I was there and I couldn’t do anything. He’s walking into hell because of me, because I was weak.

“If anyone can walk out of hell again, it’s Loki,” Sam said. “And if he can’t walk out, we’ll drag him out.”

Steve’s inhale hurt, his stomach burning. “What do you think is going to be left to drag out?” He made himself say, every word hurting like a stab to the gut.

“Loki’s said before, hasn’t he, that Thanos wouldn’t kill him,” Sam said, after a moment. “Where there’s life, there’s hope. As long as he’s alive we can get him back.”

“This isn’t Ross, or Doom,” Steve said.

“I don’t care,” Sam said savagely. “And neither should you. This isn’t like you, Steve.”

“Sam,” Steve said. He made a frustrated noise.

“Fine,” he said. “Stay here. Get it out of your system. I’m going to go do something.” Steve let him go without stopping him. He felt like he was being crushed. Wasn’t enough enough? How much more did the world want him to take?

Why did he always have to lose everything ?

He didn’t know how long he sat there, numb, before Bucky came and found him. Steve could feel him vibrating with anger and desperation, and wanted to tell him to go, but didn’t.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” he said, sitting down next to Steve. Steve shook his head.

“Sam said the same thing,” he said, exhausted. He closed his eyes. “You didn’t see the look on his face. He was looking at me. Like…”

“Like he knew you’d come after him even if it meant going to the very edge of space?” Bucky said. He sounded calm, but Steve thought it was the kind of calm that wasn’t.

Steve dropped his face into his hands. “I can’t,” he said miserably. “I should. I should be able to get up and keep going but dammit, how many hits do I have to take before I get the hint that it’s useless, that I can’t do anything, can’t save the people who matter the most-”

“You saved me,” Bucky said flatly. Steve shook his head.

“You saved yourself.”

“Not the way I see it.” Steve could feel Bucky looking at him. “It’s not fair. I know it. It’s not fucking fair that the world keeps trying to knock you flat. But you’re not on your own. The rest of us can punch back for you until you’re back on your feet. And we will.”

“How,” Steve said. “ How are we going to find Loki, how are we going to save him, how are you all so sure that he’s not-”

Steve choked on the word.

“Wanda thinks he’s still on Earth,” Bucky said. Steve jerked, and looked up.


“She says it’s not that easy to just walk across the universe. That’s why this Thanos creep needed the Tesseract to begin with. Even Loki can’t just teleport there, and probably Amora can’t either. And it would take a massive amount of magic to do that, besides - she said Loki told her it’s hard to get anywhere outside the, uh, Nine Realms, and she says that she would’ve felt something like that.”

Steve swallowed hard. The hope starting to sprout in his chest hurt like a limb that had fallen asleep coming back to life. “And she...didn’t.” He clamped down on the maybe trying to grow. “That still leaves eight other entire Realms-”

Bucky’s mouth was a flat line. “Wanda says she doesn’t think so. Asgard’s out - too dangerous for her. And based on what Loki’s said, that eliminates Vanaheim too. Apparently all Aesir avoid Jotunheim like the plague.”

“So - so what makes Wanda think Earth?” Steve asked. No, he told himself. Don’t. Don’t start. It’ll just hurt more when they’re wrong.

Bucky shrugged. “Maybe you should ask her.” His gaze was steady. “You want to know what I think?” Steve just waited. “I don’t think Loki would walk anywhere without at least a little bit of an escape plan. Not now. Maybe before, but not now.”

I am not in such a hurry to leave you. But...

“He swore not to try to free himself,” Steve said. “Amora made him. Some kind of binding.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said. “So that means the escape plan is us.”

They stepped out of the Void, but not into Sanctuary. Loki’s racing heart didn’t slow, but he stared around them in confusion at what looked like some kind of underground cavern with a stone altar in the center. His skin crawled.. “What is this?” He asked.

“The humans have a myth about you,” Amora said. “Buried beneath the earth, chained, tormented by dripping venom.” She smiled coldly. “Inspiring, really.”

Even if he’d been ready to fight back, he couldn’t. He reached for his magic as hers seized him, but the moment he started to shape a curse his stomach cramped violently. She bent him backward over the stone altar, his body stretched taut and his back in an unnatural curve. Loki panted, lungs struggling to fill completely.

“Do you think - nn - the Titan will find this display edifying?”

The Titan, ” Amora said. He turned his head, neck straining, to see her sauntering toward him. “You mean Thanos? ” Loki flinched, and she laughed. “You cannot even bear to say his name.”

“You would not either, if you were less a fool,” Loki said. He twisted, trying to find some way to ease the strain on his body, but Amora had him like a lamb trussed for slaughter. “Do you think to summon him?”

“Oh, no,” Amora said. “I am not going to just deliver you to Thanos.” Loki flinched at the name, and her smile grew an edge, leaning in closer. “I am going to deliver you to Thanos broken . Too shattered to fight. A tool, if he wants you.”

Loki bared his teeth, though his shoulders, spine, and thighs were beginning to ache already. “Others have tried, Amora. The Titan himself tried, and yet here I still am. Unbroken.”

Amora smiled. “Not entirely.” She reached out, her fingertips brushing the faded scar down the center of his chest. “I’ve always seeing the weak points in others’ armor. And you’ve never been able to hide yours as well as you think.” She leaned forward. “I don’t need to start fresh. All I need to do” Her fingers bore down, just for a moment, then stopped. “And you will shatter along those fracture lines. All I have to do is finish what those others started.”

Loki felt himself go rigid, dread shivering through him. He knew those fault lines she meant intimately. Could feel them, far too often - less often, now, but if Amora managed to dig her nails into the tiny cracks still long before he gave?

He fixed his face in a sneer. “My mind has always been stronger than yours,” he said. “You have never been able to break my defenses. You will not be able to now.”

“I do not have to.” Amora smiled at him. “Do you know there is an herb on Alfheim? They use it to interrogate prisoners, apparently. Outsiders are not meant to know, but, well…” She flicked her fingers. “I convinced one of them to tell me. The process is two-fold. First, the victim ingests the leaf of a different plant. One that...opens the mind. I imagine you’ve used that one before.”

Loki kept his face blank. Amora’s words echoed in his ears. You will shatter along those fracture lines. He knew where they were. He could feel them. Patched over, some of them healed-

But enough?

“The second,” Amora said, “is the interesting part. It draws out...memories. And makes those memories real. Like one of the story chambers on Asgard, making you a part of a tale.” Loki licked his lips, beginning to feel sick. “The effects only last for an hour ago. I am told it can feel like several. And there are only limited effects on the body, so…”

Amora smiled wider. “I tested it on the elf who explained the process to me. He barely lasted the length of one round before his mind gave. I expect you will be a bit more resilient - you always were stubborn - but that is all right. I brought plenty of the necessary supplies.”

Loki’s stomach plunged. “How very clever of you.”

“My dear Loki,” Amora said, “you have always been prone to overestimating your own intelligence, and underestimating others’. It’s reassuring to see that hasn’t changed.” She ran her fingers into his hair and pulled his head further back. “Shall we? I am so very curious to see what memories haunt the brave Loki Odinson. Or is that - as I hear from some lips - Laufeyson?”

Loki twitched, forcing himself to laugh. “You might change your mind about wanting to watch. I’ve survived nightmares that would shatter you in seconds.”

“For the pleasure of seeing you suffer? I think I can endure.”

Steve, he thought, please come soon.

Steve sat, barely understanding the conversation swirling around him, wrapped in a numbness he struggled to escape. He was frozen. Paralyzed.

It’s over. They won’t admit it, but it’s over. He knew he was being selfish, that he should be standing up, that his friends needed him - but selfishly, he just wanted to be alone, where no one could see him falling apart. He was numb right now, but he knew that wouldn’t last forever, and he couldn’t put that on everyone else.

Yet again, he’d failed, and yet again he wasn’t the one paying for that failure.

“Steve?” Wanda’s voice was small, but clear. “I wanted to check and see if there is any...residual magic. From...from what Amora tried to do to you.”

Tried to? Did do. Steve nodded, slightly, feeling suddenly sick at the idea that she was somehow still in his head. “All right. Do it.”

He flinched a little from Wanda’s magic, even if it was familiar from training, and nothing like Amora’s. Different from Loki’s sorcery, too - it didn’t carry that strange electric tingle. Steve’s chest clenched and for a moment he felt like he couldn’t breathe.

“There’s nothing,” Wanda said gently. Relief swept through him, followed quickly by guilt. Loki had bought him that freedom with his life.

Steve stood up abruptly. “I have to go,” he said, unable to look at any of them. “I can’t - I’m sorry.” He left before anyone could object to his going.

He went to his and Loki’s shared apartments and locked the door. He wanted to scream. Wanted to cry, some kind of release, but he just felt empty

Steve sat down on the couch. Loki’s book was sitting on the table, carefully bookmarked - Our Beloved Land: A History of Wakanda . Steve stared at it and took a shuddering breath.

Sam, Wanda, the others - they thought there might be a chance Loki was still alive. Still on Earth, still within reach. If they were right... are you really going to give up on him? He wouldn’t give up on you.

He had, though.

There was a body, then. A clone. You don’t even have that, but you’re giving up already?

Steve squeezed his eyes closed and opened them, staring straight ahead. There was a knock on the door, and he looked over toward it.

“It’s me,” Wanda said.

Steve rubbed his face. Go away, he wanted to say, but he needed to...he needed to try. To do better. “Come in,” he said.

“It’s locked.”

Right. Steve got up and unlocked the door, opened it. Wanda looked at him, biting her lip, and then hugged him.

“It’s okay, Steve. We’re going to get him back.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, but he knew he didn’t sound convincing. Wanda pulled back.

“Clint said that Loki has...a way to find you, wherever you are. Do you still?”

“Something like that,” Steve said. “But I can’t...reverse it to find him.”

Wanda lifted her chin. “You can’t,” she said. “But I might be able to.”

Steve felt the first real sprig of hope. He stared at Wanda, scared to let himself feel it, and licked his lips. “ could?”

“I don’t...I’ve never done anything like it before. But I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to do something. And I’m definitely going to try,” she said, her expression determined, defiant. Steve chewed on the inside of his cheek, staring at her, almost holding his breath.

“What do you need me to do?” He asked, and was glad his voice didn’t break.

“Please,” Loki heard himself say, slumped on his knees, unable to move. His shattered arm hung useless at his side, and blood ran into his eyes, gumming the left shut. He’d been beaten, and he knew it. “You were my brother-”

“Pathetic wretch, Thor said, and snapped his neck for the eighth time.

Loki jerked back to his body, shuddering, chilled. Failed again, he thought bitterly, and opened his eyes. Thanos did not look amused.

“This is your weakness,” he said. “You hold back. You hesitate. I show you what awaits you if you let sentiment rule you, and still you fail.” He did not frown, but his eyes turned considering. “Perhaps you would benefit more from my lieutenant’s instruction.”

Loki’s blood went cold. The memory of healed wounds burned on his skin. “No,” he said, without thinking. Thanos just looked at him, cold and steady, and Loki’s breathing hitched.

“You disagree?” He said. Quietly. He did not need to bellow or thunder. Sanctuary shook to his whispers.

Loki wavered, his stomach clenching. Please, don’t. Mercy. He knew better than to ask for that. There was no mercy here.

Thanos smiled, suddenly. It was not a pleasant expression, but it was a smile, and Loki nearly went limp with relief. “So you have a little spine yet,” he said. “Good. I have no place for the weak-willed or the pathetic. If you are to lead my armies, you must be worthy of your place. I will give you what you crave, little Loki. But you must earn it.”

The relief that washed through Loki made him slump in utter relief. Underneath it, a current of shame. Look at you. You let him shape you into...this? A tool to fit his hand.

Thanos’ smile faded. “Once more, then. If you should fail again…”

“I will not.” He would be hard. He would be steel.

He would-

No. This isn’t real.

Loki fought it. Struggled against the tendrils of memory and dream - memory, not reality. He was free. He had shed Thanos’s leash, made a life. Steve. Think of Steve. He could feel the bones in his neck grinding together as Thor broke it in the simulation Thanos had carved into his mind, over and over. The poison Loki had swallowed eagerly along with promises of power.

I am free!

The memory shredded and Loki was again lying on stone, his chest heaving. Amora watched him, chin on hands, smiling.

“Good dreams?” She murmured.

“You’ve made a mistake,” Loki snarled. “I have lived these memories once. I can live them again and laugh knowing that I survived. That I am stronger for it.”

“You think that now,” Amora murmured. Her expression shifted into one of mock sympathy. “Would you like to talk about it?”

“I almost hope I live to see Thanos rip you apart,” Loki snarled.

“I look forward to seeing what he does with you when I deliver you weeping and broken to his feet.”

Loki forced his face into a rictus grin. “You’ll kill me first. You never were as patient as you thought. Never as clever, never as strong-”

She backhanded him hard enough that his lips split and his head snapped to the side, but Loki just laughed wildly. “You still think Thanos will thank you? That he will accept your service? You will be an afterthought at best. A tick on the skin of a giant. And there you will remain until you die with all the rest-”

Amora grabbed his throat and squeezed until his voice cut off. “I know your game,” she said, lip curling. “You would seek to provoke me. I am not a fool.”

“Words fools often say,” Loki said, with difficulty. Amora released him, her expression smoothing.

“I always knew I would enjoy seeing you brought low,” she said, “but I think I will enjoy even more forcing you to relive the times you already were.”

It’s just Wanda, Steve told himself. Just Wanda. It’s safe. You’re safe.

Still, he could feel himself tense, gripping the arms of the chair hard at the first brush of Wanda’s magic. But he wasn’t going to let his nerves interfere with any chance at getting Loki back. It’s your fault for falling into Amora’s lap the first time.

“Steve?” Wanda sounded worried. He shook his head.

“It’s fine,” he said. “Let’s just do this. I don’t want to wait.” Every second was a second more that anything could be happening. A second off Loki’s life. Or his sanity.

“All right,” Wanda said slowly. “It’s...I haven’t done this before. I know the theory, but...if anything feels wrong, or hurts, stop me.”

Wanda had gotten in his head before, what felt like a long time ago, and not again until the brief sweep earlier. It was different now - he trusted her - but his breathing still caught at the strange, not entirely pleasant feeling.

Just Wanda.

“I can...see it,” she said aloud. “The magic on you. Loki’s magic.”

Steve remembered Loki telling him, at one point, that most magic broke with the caster’s death. So Loki was still alive. That was something, wasn’t it?

( Death was never the thing he was afraid of. )

“And you can...trace it back?” He made himself ask.

“Magic leaves a...residue,” Wanda said. “And this is one that is specifically meant to guide him to you. If I can just…”

She trailed off. A strange shiver went down Steve’s spine, and Wanda made a frustrated noise. “No, that’s not it.”

Steve licked his lips, holding very still. Maybe he should’ve told someone what they were doing before starting this. In case anything went wrong.

Again that strange, shuddery feeling, like someone tugging at something inside him. Another frustrated noise.

“What’s happening?” Steve asked.

“It’s like I’m being - blocked. I can see the road I want to take but every time I try walking down it suddenly I’m going in the wrong direction. But I know I can get around it, let me try something else.”

Steve jerked his head in a slight nod and closed his eyes. Blocked. What did that mean? It could just be that Amora was keeping Loki hidden, like Doom had done. Or it could mean that he was - out of range, maybe. Too far away to reach.

Or maybe, it occurred to him, it was something Loki had done himself. So other people couldn’t find him using Steve. Like they were trying to do now.

He could feel Wanda trying. Fighting, and Steve dug his fingers in and tried to focus like he could reverse directions, develop telepathy of his own just by trying. Come on, he thought with increasing desperation, and he could feel Wanda’s, too. Come on, come on…

He heard Wanda gasp in what sounded like pain. “I almost had it,” she said. “I was so close-”

The weight, momentarily lifted, sank back onto Steve’s shoulders. This isn’t going to work.

“Wanda, stop,” he said, pulling away. “It’’re just going to hurt yourself. We’re not getting anywhere.”

Wanda was squinting and pale but her eyes were pleading. “I’m not giving up,” she said stubbornly. “I know I can figure this out. I’m so close-”

“Wanda,” Steve said heavily, “please.” He swallowed hard, a lump rising in his throat. “Just - maybe later. You need to rest. You look like you’re going to throw up.”

“I’m fine,” Wanda said staunchly. “I can do it.”

Yeah, well, I can’t. “Not now,” he said. “Maybe later. Just - just take a rest. Okay? I need alone right now.”

She slumped. “Okay,” she said, her voice shrinking. “We’ll try again later.”

“Right,” Steve said. “Sure.” He didn’t sound very convincing even to himself, but Wanda walked out, pausing by the door to talk quietly with someone outside before leaving the room. Steve dropped his head into his hands.

She can’t find him because he’s not there. A nasty, cold voice, the voice of all his doubts. Not on Earth. Not anywhere, maybe. He could be dead already.

Thanos wouldn’t kill me. I wouldn’t deserve that gift from him. Loki’s voice, hollow and miserable as he stared at nothing. Steve’s stomach burned. No, Loki wouldn’t be dead. Just gone, where Steve couldn’t find him, couldn’t follow him.

He’d always said, in the face of Loki’s fears, I’ll save you, I’ll protect you, and instead he’d been the reason Loki couldn’t save himself.

The band on Steve’s finger winked blurrily at him, and he realized he was crying. There’d never been a ceremony. Never been a celebration, just the two of them and their private promise, all of it over so fast.

He trudged back to their room, relieved that no one interrupted him on the way, and curled up in bed. If he pressed his face into the pillow, he could just smell Loki, though it was fading fast.

Steve managed to fall asleep, not quite sure what else to do, but in his dreams Loki came back with empty blue eyes. “I belong to him now,” he said, holding up his left hand to show the missing ring finger. “You have to fight me. You have to kill me.”

“No,” Steve gasped. “I won’t.”

“Me or the world,” Loki said, smiling. “I should have made you promise.”

“It wouldn’t do any good,” Amora said, her fingers sliding into his hair. “He’s too weak, anyway.” He could feel her worming her way into his head, and Loki was turning to walk away.

“Goodbye, Steve,” he said quietly.

“Hello, Captain,” Amora purred.

Steve woke up with his stomach in knots and the pillow damp, a scream caught in his throat. He pressed his head into the mattress and tried to catch his breath.

I belong to him now. The ragged stump of Loki’s ring finger.

Steve fell still and opened his eyes, staring at his own ring again. No, he thought. He would’ve said.

The tracking spell on Steve that Loki had cast once upon a time. Wanda had tried to trace it, but that link definitely only went one way. Rings they both wore...he dimly remembered Loki saying once it’s easier to bind a spell to a physical object than a living one. And harder to undo.

What if Loki had given him a way to follow? The rings. If Loki still has his ring- And Steve bet that he would. To someone like Amora - and maybe Thanos - leaving that symbol intact would be crueler than taking it away.

It could be nothing.

But instinct told him it wasn’t. And if it wasn’t...maybe there was still hope.

Loki spat a thousand vile (impotent, useless ) curses in Victor’s face. Victor ignored him. Mostly. “Hold still,” he said. “This is delicate work.”

The fingers of his left hand were spread wide, held apart by a device Loki could only imagine was designed solely for this. His hand splayed out and Loki couldn’t (wouldn’t) see it but he could feel Victor... working. He would pluck a symphony from Loki’s tendons. He seemed to be trying.

Better that than the almost tender way he had laid a nerve bare and ran his fingers along it, making Loki spasm and choke with the overwhelming pain. “How does that feel,” he’d asked, voice quivering.

Loki had bitten his tongue and said nothing. Sometimes silence was his only defense.

“Beautiful,” Victor murmured. “You have no idea, Loki, how often I imagined this.”

Loki sucked in a harsh breath through his nose. “I can easily imagine how many nights you filled with your perverse fantasies.”

“I do not desire you, Loki. Not how you imply.” Victor sounded almost disappointed. Loki began the painful process of trying to wriggle his right hand free. “My interest is purely scientific.”

“Liar,” Loki said, raggedly. “It arouses you. Having a god at your mercy. You’ve wanted this since you first saw - aaaah. ” He felt the tendon snap, neatly severed. Victor clicked his tongue, irritation plain in his voice.

“What did I say about holding still?”

Loki licked his lips. “You know you cannot - cannot hope to hold me forever. I will break free and when I do I will make garlands of your entrails. I will burn everything you have wrought to the ground and scatter the ashes.”

“Such extravagant promises.” Victor’s voice was cool, dispassionate. His scalpel sliced delicately up Loki’s wrist, and Loki squeezed his eyes closed and breathed raggedly. Victor paused. “You should not have underestimated me,” he said, with just a touch of cold anger. “You thought I could not trap you. I have. And now you say I cannot hold you? I will. You are mine, Loki. All of you. You belong to me.”

“No,” Loki said harshly. “ Never.

“Your current position begs to differ.” Victor shook his head as though disappointed. “This could go easier with you if you submitted.”

“To you?” He sneered. “I would rather submit to a wild boar.”

“Your choice,” Victor said, and bent back to his task.

Loki snapped back to reality, still stretched and bound but it was Amora watching him now. His hand and arm throbbed with remembered pain. “Mortals truly are disgusting,” she said. “Look at what they’ve done to you. That one...a most vile little creature.”

He licked his lips. “At least he - had the courage to dirty his own hands trying to defeat me.”

Amora laughed, low and sweet. “Ah, Loki. You and I both know that sort of ‘courage’ is more closely kin to folly.” She leaned forward. “But that you would be brought low by such...a mere mortal, pawing at you like a bawd at a whorehouse…” She clicked her tongue. “I am embarrassed on your behalf.” She paused. “Or perhaps...did you enjoy it? Your tastes always did run to the...deviant.”

Loki snarled, wrenching at the magic holding him, and he spat a curse at her to wither skin from bone. It did nothing, though he was faintly satisfied to see her flinch back all the same, even if it cost him stabbing, twisting pain in his gut. She recovered quickly, though, and laughed.

“Oh, but I am sure your beloved Captain came to your rescue. Nursed your wounds ever so tenderly.” She reached out to his left hand, touched the vibanium band circling his finger. Loki shuddered with pure, incandescent rage and his stomach clenched.

“I escaped alone,” he said, teeth gritted. Stumbled forth, torn and bleeding, to fall practically at Steve’s feet. “I escaped-”

“Did you?” Amora smiled gently. “Can you really claim to have escaped, when you relive every moment in your dreams, graven in your memories, always only inches away? Your body free, perhaps, and the human dead, but he has found a kind of immortality, hasn’t he? In you, and your fear. You will always remember him. How he destroyed you.”

Loki snarled at her. “I do not feel so destroyed as that.”

“I do not believe you.” Amora walked slowly over and ran one finger along his wrist, following exactly where Victor had cut into his skin. “I know what the aftermath of destruction looks like, Loki - I’ve done it myself enough times. And I can see it written all over you, like a bone thrown into the fire.”

“You should have stayed in exile,” Loki said. Amora’s touch was like the memory of metal splitting his skin.

“Loki, Loki,” Amora said, amused, “when have we ever done as we should?”

Steve charged through the halls without thinking, skidding to a halt in front of Wanda’s door and banging on it too loudly before he realized it was the middle of the night.

She opened the door, though, wearing slippers and pajamas, her eyes red-rimmed and exhausted. “Steve?” She said, sounding surprised.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize how late it was - just, I thought of something. That might help us find Loki.”

Wanda’s eyes widened. “Come in,” she said immediately, opening the door wider, and Steve stepped inside only to stop, surprised to see Jane Foster sitting on the couch with her legs crossed.

“Doctor Foster?” He said blankly.

She turned a little pink. “I...was just visiting Wanda, and neither of us were sleeping, so...”

Steve felt a pang of guilt that he hadn’t even known they were friends. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said. Wanda shook her head.

“It’s fine. You said you thought of something?”

Suddenly Steve felt a rush of doubt. What did he have? A dream, a wish ? “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess - I was just thinking that maybe Loki...did something to our rings. Some kind of magic to connect them-” -us- “-and maybe that we could follow to find out where he is…” Spoken aloud, it sounded stupid. Jane’s eyes widened, though.

“Oh!” She said. “Like quantum entanglement?” Steve looked at her blankly and she said, “it’s a phenomenon that can occur between a set of particles that interact in tandem, regardless of distance. Physicists have been studying how it could potentially be used for communication, and…” She trailed off, glancing back and forth between them. “Anyway.”

Wanda’s expression was brightening as well. “Of course! And hypothetically something like that wouldn’t run one way, so I could follow it more easily - it could work! Steve, we need to try-”

“Now?” Steve said, a little surprised, but of course it had to be now, who knew how much time they had? But- “Do you need anything, any equipment, should we get Pietro-”

“No,” Wanda said. “Let’s not wait.”

“Can I stay?” Jane asked, sounding almost shy.

“Of course,” Wanda said, rolling her wrists. “Steve - give me your hand.”

Steve held it out. His heart was pounding. Loki, he thought. Hang on. I’ll be there soon. Just hang on.

Wanda’s fingers touched his ring and he watched her expression shift, focusing.

This time he felt it almost immediately, a shiver in his bones, like there was a thread attached to his finger and something yanking on the other end. And Steve was being pulled forward, faster and faster, reeled in like a fish-

It was Loki. Steve knew it even before he saw him, no, sensed him, and the first impression he got was pain, was fear and desperation. Steve reached out, desperate.

Loki! He thought, shouted. Loki, it’s me, I’m coming-

He jerked and was standing face to face with Wanda, who stared back at him, her eyes wide. Steve was breathing fast and hard and tried desperately to slow it.

“Did you...was that…”

Wanda nodded. “I’ve got him. He’s still on Earth, hidden somewhere - show me a map.” Jane immediately scrambled for her computer, pulling it onto her lap. Wanda’s eyes were shining. “Steve,” she said. “We found him. We’re going to get him back.”

Still alive. Still on Earth. Steve felt like he was going to choke on the sudden, burgeoning hope - deflated a moment later by the memory of what he’d felt in that brief, brief moment. Pain, fear. Had he heard Steve? Felt that he was there?

They’d get there in time. They would.

“I need to tell the others,” Steve said. “We have to move fast.” Steve knew he was being reckless and couldn’t care. He’d held off last time. Waited. And it had cost Loki days more of agony.

He wasn’t going to wait this time.

And Amora was going to pay for this. Wanda could protect them from her influence (protect him) , and this time Steve wasn’t going to let her get away. Not again.

There you are.

Loki felt himself pinned, a mouse with a cat’s paw on its tail, a bug with a thumb pressing down on its back. He fought to break free, struggling, but Thanos’s claws just sank deeper into him, taking hold.

Did you really think you could get away from me? You? I own you. I will always own you.

Let me show you.

Loki threw up all his walls, braced himself for the onslaught, summoning all the work he’d done with the witch to protect his mind. It meant nothing. Thanos pushed into his thoughts like there was a door already made for him. Of course there was. He’d broken Loki to halter once before - why should he have to do it again?

He would have screamed, if he could have. Fought to awake, to give Steve (sleeping next to him, no, not Steve ) some warning. But he was helpless. Pathetically, utterly helpless, as Thanos crushed him, pushing his consciousness down and shoving him aside, compressing everything that was Loki and sliding into his body like it was an empty vessel for his use.

You fool, he thought, in his last moments as himself. You thought you would be safe? You’ve doomed them all.

“I came back,” Loki said, his voice fracturing. “I - I came back. He can’t - my will is my own.

Amora was laughing. He fought the memory away and focused on her, letting hate blaze through his eyes, embracing that, clinging to it. He wouldn’t surrender. Not to her. Spite alone would keep him from breaking.

It had to.

Please find me. For a moment, a flash of a moment, he’d thought he felt...but he couldn’t be certain. And wouldn’t hope too hard. Disappointment lived too close to despair in his heart.

Amora glided over to him, running her fingers lightly along the line of his jaw, letting them come to rest over his hammering pulse. “Poor Loki,” she crooned. “This would be easier if you were not so stubborn. But less satisfying.” She paused, cocking her head to the side. “I could let you rest. Just for a few moments. Some water, a little food…”

Loki swallowed, thirst surging just at the mention of water. “You want me to beg.” He knew this trick. Thanos had done it. Get your prisoner to give in for small things, and sooner or later they surrendered to larger ones.

“You do beg so nicely.” Amora’s smile was faint and nasty. “I remember that.”

Loki summoned a bared-teeth smile. “One of my worse mistakes. Hardly memorable, though.”

Amora’s nails dug into skin. “Such crude insults are beneath you, Loki.”

“But not you?” Loki licked his lips. “I will not beg. You aren’t worth the breath it would take.”

Amora’s expression briefly twisted with displeasure before she wiped it away. “So be it.”

Loki smiled wider, another rictus. “This is taking longer than you thought, isn’t it? And you don’t have infinite time. I am not alone anymore. People will be coming for me. People who already have one very good reason to hate you. And you remember the witch, don’t you? She’s stronger than me. Certainly stronger than you.”

Amora’s nostrils flared, but she sneered. “Is this what the great Loki Silvertongue has come to? Hiding behind a pack of mortals ?”

Loki laughed harshly. “Mortals who have driven you away with your tail between your legs.” He met her eyes, his smile turning cold. “I have friends, Amora. What do you have?”

“Your friends are far away,” Amora said. “What you have, Loki, is me - and your worst memories.” Her lip curled. “Again, shall we?”

“Why not,” Loki said, as though the prospect did not make his heart race. “I have - all the time in the world.”

Steve wanted to grab Wanda and a plane and just take off, but he knew how stupid that would be. Amora was dangerous, and besides, he was pretty sure Bucky wouldn’t forgive him for disappearing again without notice. Everyone else deserved to know what was going on, too.

But he wasn’t going to wait until morning.

Clint wasn’t the only one yawning. “Something happen?” He asked, and if he looked bleary-eyed, his voice was surprisingly clear. His expression sharpened a little. “Did you find Loki?”

“Yes,” Steve said simply, just as Bucky came in. He straightened up, lips twitching at the corners.

“When are we leaving?” Bucky said.

“As soon as everyone else gets here, I assume,” Clint said. He looked tense, now, any trace of bleariness gone. “How-”

“Wanda,” Steve said simply. Sam came in, followed shortly by Scott. The tight expression on Sam’s face relaxed with one look at Steve.

“You found him,” he said.

“Wanda did,” Pietro said, sounding almost defensive. She lifted her head.

“We should go now,” she said. “I don’t know how long Amora will stay where she is, or what she’s waiting for, but there’s no time to lose-”

“Obviously,” Sam said. “We’ll borrow one of the Wakandan planes, those things are damn fast.”

“Right,” Clint said. “I’m flying, though, none of the rest of you can pilot a damn-”

Steve blinked. “You’re coming?”

Clint gave him a look. “Well, yeah. We all are, right?”

Steve looked around the room. They were all staring at him. Pietro wrinkled his nose. “I go where my sister goes,” he said. “That’s all.”

Sam snorted. “Who were you planning on leaving behind, Steve? T’Challa’s got a country to run, but the rest of us poor saps - this is a team, right?”

“Right,” Steve said, and his chest suddenly ached with a well of gratitude for these people, his friends. “Let’s...wheels up in fifteen. All right?”

The room emptied out fast, leaving Steve standing on his own. He felt almost sick with the hope he was trying not to let himself feel. In a few hours, if everything went well, Loki would be back. And he’d be - he would be okay. Not immediately, but Loki was strong, and he’d know, this time, he’d know people were coming for him-

“Um - Steve?”

He jerked back to the present. Jane was hovering in the doorway, looking uncertain. “I know I can’t really help much on this,” she said, “but I wanted to...wish you luck. And if there’s anything I can do back here, let me know.”

“I...will.” Steve hesitated, knowing he needed to go, get ready, make sure T’Challa knew what was going on. Instead he said, “you’ve been talking, right? Spending some time together?”

“Yeah,” Jane said after a moment. “A little. He’s, um. I don’t know if he likes me very much.” She laughed. “I get the feeling it’s probably just because he misses Thor.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily assume that,” Steve said. “Loki likes smart people, and you’re definitely that.”

Jane looked like she was trying not to look too pleased. She paused, though, and said, “I know it’s not the point, but if you get the chance, do you think you can ask this Amora woman about Thor? Or Asgard?”

Steve hadn’t even thought of that. What if Amora did know something and that was why she’d come after Loki now? “It seems like she’s been keeping her distance from Asgard,” he said carefully. “Apparently she’s persona non grata there. But...if I get the chance, I can ask.”

Jane nodded, smiling weakly. “Thank you.” The smile faded fast. “Anyway. You need to go, I know, and...and you should. Just...yeah. Be careful.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, his answering smile pretty weak as well.  

They’d be fine. They would deal with Amora, get Loki back. Fix all of this.

And if she gets in your head again? What good are you going to be to anyone then?

She wouldn’t, Steve told himself. He wouldn’t give her the chance.

Loki kept his eyes closed, struggling to breathe. Every inhale hurt, but he couldn’t stop, even if some part of him wished he could. Anger might be the only thing keeping him alive. Anger and obstinacy.

And the faint, stubborn hope that Doom had lied. That Steve wasn’t dead. That maybe, maybe someone would come to find him.

Victor’s saw cut the last bone and Loki heard him sigh like a lover seeing his beloved naked for the first time. He didn’t speak, though. Loki felt the machine slot into place, pressing his rib cage apart, cracking open his chest.

Revulsion shuddered through Loki, a sense somehow of being exposed worse than he had been. He’d done this before. But somehow now - somehow now it was worse. Victor’s hunger a perverse echo of the dwindling memory of Steve, their bodies pressed close with no space between.

“You are - vile,” Loki managed to say. “A despicable - worm. A parasite hooking onto your betters - ah.

Victor seemed to be ignoring him. His gloved fingers caressed bone and Loki’s stomach lurched.

“You make me sick,” he spat.

“Beautiful,” Victor murmured, and his hands-

Oh. His hands reaching into the cavity of Loki’s chest to touch his heart. He could feel it, almost a caress, and the violation of it brought bile surging into his throat. He choked, just managing to turn his head to the side enough that he didn’t suffocate on it.

Victor clicked his tongue and withdrew his hand. “I will have to sedate you for that, I suppose,” he said casually. “I do not want your heart to give out while I examine it.”

Tears stung his eyes, hard as he fought them. He could feel the brush of air on his insides. Every defense truly stripped away, even his very skin. Victor owned him. Would he ever discard his prize, or would he find a way to keep Loki like this forever, suspended between life and death?

“No,” he moaned faintly. He felt Victor pause.

“I could be kinder,” he said, almost gently. “If you tell me everything...I would allow you some relief from the pain.”

Surrender once, and you will surrender again and again.

“No,” he said again. “I will - I will never. Tell you anything.”

“Ah well,” Victor said. “Then I will go on as I have. Perhaps in a month or so you will change your mind.”

In a month or so I will have no mind left, Loki thought bleakly, but perhaps that would be a mercy. Perhaps by then he would have learned how to die.

But you didn’t. You survived. Steve came for you, and Thor, Thor destroyed all of this and buried it in rubble.

Victor touched his hip. “You must forgive me for being so...familiar,” he murmured. “But it is vital that I be thorough.”

This isn’t happening. This happened to someone else, a long time ago, it’s over, it’s-

A scream exploded out of his throat and he broke free, his body seizing, thrashing against his bonds in spasm after spasm after spasm until it finally ended and he lay limp, panting, his entire body burning as though his nerves were on fire. Amora was standing over him, frowning.

“You’re going to - going to kill me before you break me,” Loki said. “Getting - desperate. Sloppy.” He grinned at her, knowing how mad it would look. “You can’t. Do it. Not like this. I survived.

Bravado, whispered a voice at the back of his mind. You’re fracturing. How much more can you take? You survive because you run from these memories, refuse to face them. But she’s right. You know she’s right. All she has to do is finish what they started, Victor and Thanos and the Chitauri.

All your strength. You thought you’d come so far. Look how fragile it is.

Wanda’s directions took them to northern Sweden and a seemingly unmarked stretch of forest.

“There’s nothing here,” Bucky said.

“My sister knows what she’s doing,” Pietro snapped. He and Bucky eyed each other, glowering.

“Cut it out,” Steve said, his eyes on Wanda, who was turning in a slow circle.

“It was here,” she said quietly. “I know it was here.”

Steve felt his heart start sinking, but Clint sucked in a breath through his teeth and strode toward a nearby patch of bare ground. “There’s a depression here,” he said. “Lower than everything else. Then another one, ten feet that way. And another one after another ten, all in a straight line. There’s something underground - a bunker or something.”

“How do we get in?” Scott asked. “Is there a door somewhere around here, or…”

He was interrupted by the sound of cracking stone. Steve’s head whipped around to see Wanda ripping a chunk out of the ground with her magic, lifting it and throwing it down with a crash. She looked a little startled.

“Well,” Sam said, “I guess that works.”

“There goes our chance at stealth,” Bucky said, but he didn’t seem all that upset about it.

The hole in the ground revealed a drop into darkness, the light from outside just illuminating the bottom. Steve gauged the distance and then jumped in.

“It’s only about ten feet down,” he called up to the alarmed shouts above him. “Wanda, can you help the others get down?”

He’d half expected an immediate attack, but everything was quiet. He supposed Amora was arrogant enough that she might think there was no chance they’d track her down.

“Anyone bring a flashlight?” Sam asked, once they were all down.

“Use your phone,” Clint said. “The miracles of modern technology.”

Scott pulled his out and turned it on. The light seemed dimmer than it should be, like somehow the darkness was pushing back against it.

Steve turned to Wanda. “Can you…?”

“No,” she said. “Not really. Not like Loki can.”

“If Amora’s somewhere down here,” Scott said, “she’ll have lights on. Right?”

“Unless she’s just using magic,” Sam pointed out.

Steve moved cautiously forward out of the light, further in.

A dim light flared to life from what looked like some kind of stone embedded in the wall. Steve jerked back, but all it did was glow.

“Well,” Clint said, sounding unhappy. “That’s handy.”

All of Steve’s instincts were screaming at him to go, to move, stop delaying and find Loki. In the dim light from that one stone he could see two doorways leading out of this room.

“We need to be thorough and we need to be fast,” he said. “I think we should split up. Wanda, Sam, and I will go east; Bucky, Clint, Pietro, and Scott take west. Stay in contact and if you see Amora...don’t let her touch you.”

He paused, but there was no argument. For once, he thought a little uncharitably. “Be careful,” he said, and then turned to the east doorway.

I’m coming, Loki, he thought as hard as he could, wishing he could believe that Loki would somehow hear it. I’m getting you out. Soon. I promise.

(Don’t make promises you might not be able to keep, whispered that nasty, doubting voice. He pushed it away as hard as he could. He needed to believe that they weren’t too late.)

The strange stones on the walls lit up as they walked. Steve took point, keeping his breathing even. All his nerves were on high alert and his skin was crawling, ears straining to hear any sound at all. The stone halls around them were eerily quiet, their footsteps strangely muffled. It was becoming increasingly clear that this wasn’t just some kind of bunker - it was a city.

“What is this place?” Sam asked.

“I don’t know,” Wanda said in a small voice. “But it feels...old. And somehow sad.”

“Great,” Sam muttered under his breath. “If we run into ghosts, I’ll…” But he didn’t say what he thought he’d do. Steve kept moving forward, looking for any sign that might tell him where to find Loki in this maze.

“I think we’re heading for the center,” Wanda said. Steve called up his mental map of where they’d been so far and nodded.

“I think you might be right,” he said, his stomach tightening.

“Seems like a good place to look,” Sam said. “Which way?”

Steve strained his ears again. He almost wished, awfully, that he could hear screaming. At least then he’d know they were heading in the right direction.

At least then he’d know that they weren’t too late.

“Keep going straight,” he said. “Stay close. And be ready. It’s been too quiet so far.”

“Let’s hope the others can say the same thing,” Sam said quietly. Steve just jerked his head in a nod. He checked the gun at his hip, wishing for a split second he had his shield. Or a shield, at least. Bullets wouldn’t do much more than sting one of the Aesir, but if it came to that he had a better chance at close range anyway.

Wanda stopped, her head turning. “This way,” she said abruptly, pointing down a side hallway. They both looked at her and she said, “I can sense someone. Close.” She swallowed. “They’re hurting.”

Steve felt his breathing hitch and spun. “Steve,” Sam said harshly, but he was already running, only to stumble to a halt. There was a door at the end of the hallway made of something that looked like iron and shimmering with pale green magic. Steve’s heart squeezed.

That eerie silence. But Wanda said there was someone here, in pain, and it had to be, had to be-

Unless this was all a trap, and Loki wasn’t here at all.

Wanda pushed past him, magic fanning out from her hands and sweeping the green aside. Steve walked forward and grabbed the doorknob, bracing himself.

“Stay back,” he said. “In case there’s…”

He trailed off, and wrenched the door open.

Steve’s heart lurched. Loki was bound over some kind of rock, back bent in an unnatural curve, ankles and wrists chained together in what had to be almost unbearable strain. He was breathing, and seemed unhurt, except that he was twitching as if in the throes of a seizure, eyes wide open and unseeing and traces of foam on his lips.

He jerked forward. “Steve, wait,” Wanda said, but then she was gone, everything was gone and he was standing on barren rock surrounded by stars. Steve’s head spun, whirling around, but then he heard - something, and realized that he wasn’t alone.

Looking up, he could see the shadow of a chair that seemed to be floating, its occupant veiled in shadow.

On the ground...Steve heard himself make a muffled sound. One of the Chitauri, but robed and hooded, and next to them someone on their knees, held up by the Chitauri’s grip on their hair. It was Loki, he knew it, and not thinking about how or the fact that he was unarmed, Steve broke into a run.

“Loki!” He shouted, but Loki didn’t stir. Nobody did, none of them turning to look at him, and Steve jerked to a halt. No. Loki was...he’d just seen him, and this Loki looked different. Younger, his hair shorter. He was battered and barely conscious, his eyes out of focus.

“I found this,” the Chitauri said. “Space trash.”

“No,” said a voice, and Steve thought he could feel it, like it was registering on a level other than just his ears. “No, this one can be useful. Can’t you?”

“Loki,” Steve said more loudly. “This isn’t real.” But it was, wasn’t it? This wasn’t just some...figment of imagination. Somehow, he was seeing Loki’s memory.

Loki blinked slowly, not seeming to hear him, but his expression shifted. “No,” he said. “I am not...your tool. I am Loki-”

The Chitauri’s hand pressed to the side of Loki’s face and he went rigid, eyes rolling up. Steve grabbed for the thing’s arm but his fingers went through it like it was made of mist. “Fool,” it hissed. “You would defy your master?”

“Careful,” the other voice said. Thanos, Steve thought. It must be. “This will require a delicate touch. But with a little patience...I can make something of him.”

Steve crouched down in front of Loki, reaching for him to touch his face. “Loki,” he said urgently. “None of this is real. You’re - you’re dreaming, or drugged, or - Amora’s done something to you-” Whatever was going to come next, he was certain he didn’t want to see it. Certain that Loki wouldn’t want him to.

“Let me see what you know,” Thanos said. Loki twitched, jerked.

“No,” he said quietly. “No, stop-

“Look at me,” Steve said. He could hear the desperation in his voice. “ Loki. Look at me, all right, I’m right here-”

“Your petty defenses are nothing,” Thanos said. “Your mind is mine.”

Loki’s back arched and he screamed, howling, and Steve flinched, wanting to scream himself-

The Chitauri, the rock, all of it vanished. Loki had gone limp, his eyes closed, skin sheened with sweat and breathing heavily. Steve looked over to see Wanda leaning against the wall and looking pale.

“What did you do?” Steve asked. “What…”

“You just froze,” Sam said. “Stopped moving, and then you started talking but it didn’t make any sense. Wanda…I don’t know what Wanda did. What did you do?”

“Knocked him out,” Wanda said in a small voice. “I was trying to...but I just couldn’t reach him. So I…” She looked worried. “He should be all right? He’s shown me how to do it before but I’ve never actually…”

Steve could imagine why Loki would have shown Wanda how to do something like that. Contingency plans.

He thought of the shadowy figure he’d barely glimpsed and a chill ran down his spine. “No,” he said, “no, you...did the right thing.” He hoped. God. He closed the last few steps to Loki and touched his face, his neck, even if he could see his pulse hammering in his throat. Steve started to reach out to touch the chains and stopped, feeling magic humming through them. He licked his lips nervously, imagining some kind of trap that would react to tampering. “Wanda,” he said. “Could you...get him out of these?”

“Yes,” Wanda said, still sounding a little shaky. “Of course.” She moved slowly forward, Sam following her. Her hands glowed red and Steve heard something click, the links going slack, the arc of Loki’s body relaxing though he still didn’t stir. Steve supposed that was probably it worked, whatever Wanda had done. He’d wake up when they were safe, when it was safe. He’d wake up and it’d be fine.

“We need to go,” Sam said. “Preferably fast. Wherever Amora skittered off to, I don’t want her coming back while we’re still here-”

“Well, well,” said Amora’s silky voice, and Steve looked up to see her standing where they’d come in, blocking the only exit. “It appears Loki was right to whine about his expected rescuers. Come a bit late, but…”

Sam was already moving when she started talking, and Steve was barely a breath behind him, but she flicked her fingers in a slight gesture and they both froze. Her eyes locked on Steve, and she smiled coldly.

Steve’s blood froze and he broke out in a cold sweat. No, no, no-

“Just imagine what Loki will do when he sees his lover and friend at my side. Why, it might be enough to break him entirely.” Her lips curved in a cruel smile. “Perhaps I’ll even keep you after-”

Amora had forgotten about Wanda.

A ribbon of red snared her around the ankle and dragged her feet out from under her. “ You! ” Wanda snarled. “You-”

She switched into Sokovian. Steve didn’t know what she said, but whatever it was made Amora snarl even as her magic shredded through Wanda’s and she got back on her feet.

“Ah,” she said, sneering. “Loki’s little witch pupil. Come to play with your betters again?”

Her magic lashed out but Wanda batted it aside, advancing. Her face was a mask of determination and anger, and Amora’s eyes narrowed. Her magic shaped a miasmic cloud that Wanda swept away.

Amora hissed. Her eyes flicked to Steve and Sam and suddenly something squeezed around Steve’s throat, choking him.

“Stop now,” Amora said, “or your companions die.”

“No,” Wanda grated. “They won’t.” She made a sharp, slashing gesture and Steve gasped in air - not only that, but his body was suddenly his own again. Amora’s eyes widened. “I’m stronger than you,” Wanda said, her voice full of savage triumph. “And I’ve been learning since we last fought.”

Amora’s face twisted and she lunged. Steve caught the glint of metal as it appeared in her hand.

“Knife!” Steve shouted, but Wanda had already reacted, moving just like Natasha, using Amora’s momentum against her. Amora looked more surprised than hurt when Wanda flipped her, but her eyes widened when a barrier of red kept her from getting up.

“Never again,” Wanda said, rage vibrating in her voice. “You’ll never hurt anyone again.”

She raised her hands, glowing with magic. Amora screamed, and for a moment it wasn’t clear what was happening, but then Steve realized that the ground was buckling under her, like some great force was pushing her down against the stone. She thrashed, struggling, but Wanda’s fists clenched and she shouted.

The stone cracked. Wanda’s magic shoved her down into the ground, and slammed it shut over her.

The magic holding Steve still suddenly released and he almost fell. Sam stumbled, his eyes round as saucers. Steve stared at the sealed stone where Amora had been buried. Wanda swayed, pale, the red glow around her hands and in her eyes fading.

“Oh,” she said quietly. She leaned back against the wall, panting.

Loki twitched and coughed. Steve turned toward him, hurrying over as his eyes opened, just barely. Blurry and vague and Steve’s throat closed. Too late.

“Steve?” Loki said, his voice a rasp, and he slumped, letting out almost a sob.

“Oh, thank god,” he heard Sam say, and about then the others showed up. Loki had already faded out again, but he’d been there. Been responsive. They’d managed to make it in time.

“Where’s Amora?” Bucky asked, his voice harsh.

“Dead,” Sam said. “At least, uh. I’m pretty sure. Wanda?”

“Yes,” Wanda said, and if she sounded tired there was a hard note in her voice that Steve didn’t miss. “She’s dead.”

“Well,” said Clint after a moment of silence, “that’s one good thing to come out of this.” His eyes went to Loki. “Is he…”

“Alive,” Steve said. “He’s alive.” Not well, almost certainly. But alive. It was more than Steve had let himself hope for.