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Hard Wired, Part I

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What's madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?
—Theodore Roethke

The wound is the place where light enters you.
—Rumi

 

Odin’s dungeons were never quiet.

The Einherjahr marched tirelessly up and down, up and down, at all hours of the day and night, making the halls ring with their heavy, self-important tread. You could set a clock by their comings and goings. As soon as you closed your eyes, as soon as it almost grew quiet enough to think, the halls would start echoing again with their ceaseless steps. Loki even heard them in his dreams.

Odin’s dungeons were never dark.

The Allfather had made his prison a great, grim panopticon—not through necessity, but out of cruelty, Loki conjectured. Prowling like wild beasts in their boxes of light, his prisoners must always be visible, never having the privilege of solitude, their cells lit like the skyscraper windows in that faraway city, New York, scene of Loki’s last defeat. As if anyone could escape from this hole, even in the dark. The magic that had created his cell and held it secure had been woven so tightly it could never be broken.

Sometimes Loki dreamed of the quiet, empty space that he had found beneath the Bifrost as he fell and fell, twisting in horror over what he’d done, the act he’d thought irrevocable until he landed in Chitauri space. When the Chitauri started taking him apart, he had longed for Asgard.

Now he remained in captivity, biding his time, but in truth he knew he would never leave unless Odin let him go. He had tried every spell, every charm, every galdr—chanting each incantation nine times, as he had learned long ago. He had tried finesse and he had tried brute strength. He had focused every bit of seidr he possessed into the effort to escape, and yet the shimmering field of energy that trapped him in the cell had not even trembled by his efforts.

It was a great humiliation: the trickster, the dreaded mage, trapped in a web of seidr that he could not break. He suspected that Frigga and the healers, the völver, had some hand in it, but she refused to discuss it with him, smiling that secret little smile he knew so well. She would defy Odin to visit him, projecting her image from her aerie, high in the castle tower, to the depths of Loki’s prison. Through her trusted guards, she would send him books, and sweetmeats, and fine liqueurs, but she would not help him escape.

And, even so, frustrated as he was, he did not reject her visits. His crimes had cut him off from everyone else in the universe. No longer could Loki rail at Thor or defy Odin until his one eye turned dark with fury, and the ravens cawed hoarsely enough to drown him out. Now he remained alone with his thoughts, and bitter company they were. Frigga’s visits provided the only distraction, the only contact he had. If he lost them he knew he would go mad; he felt half mad already.

He often thought of the Avengers—that little band of mortals, with the addition of his brother—who had defeated him. He could do nothing from here except conduct imaginary conversations with them in his head. But one day it occurred to him that, if Frigga could project her image to him, perhaps he also could project himself to others, as long as he was discreet, as long as Odin never found out and repaired the flaw in his prison’s wall.

So he started to try to project his image to Midgard, concentrating on Stark Tower, and on the only one of the Avengers he had been able to vanquish. Not Tony Stark, full of bravado and bluster, trying to beat Loki at his own game; not the woman, with her cold, provocative sexuality; not the Hawk, who knew him too well; and certainly not the Monster—what would be the use? Not Thor either, once his closest companion, now his bitterest enemy. No, he would speak to Captain America, the man out of time—so serious and yet so vulnerable, so ridiculous in his tight suit with his shield painted in concentric circles like a bright flag. He would speak to Steve Rogers, who might be naive enough to listen.

***

“Steven Rogers.” The voice wasn’t loud, but it had been distinct, every syllable clearly enunciated.

Steve sat up in bed. It was 3:00 a.m. on the dot and pitch dark. There was no moon outside the unshaded window, but there were city lights, and his night vision was pretty good. As far as he could tell, there was no one in the room beside himself. Had it been a dream? Sometimes he awoke at night thinking he heard his mother’s voice, but this had not been her.

Swinging his feet to the floor, he turned on the lamp. Unlike everyone else in the building, he refused to put his room lights on voice command. It seemed lazy, and downright silly, in a way, to ask a mechanical man to do something you could do perfectly well yourself.

Walking into the bathroom, he relieved himself, then splashed cold water on his face and drank some from his cupped hands. He wondered if he should tell the others about the voice. Tony had been telling him he was wound too tight, but who wouldn’t be wound tight with these continual menaces from outer space showing up in New York, and all the things he’d had to adjust to from his displacement in time? If he told them, they’d just try to get him to go to a psychologist again. Banner had one he kept recommending. No matter how real that voice had seemed, it was just a dream.

His face looked pale and anxious in the glass. He wondered if he’d be able to go back to sleep, but when he lay in bed he dropped off immediately. In the morning, he barely remembered the incident.

***
The next night the Tower’s fire alarm went off at 3:16 a.m. and again at 4:45. Jarvis had no explanation for it. Tony swore a blue streak and called an inspector to come the next day to check the system.

***

The night after that Steve must have dreamed about the Battle of New York, because he awoke and thought he saw Loki standing there, in the center of the room, wearing his gold and green battle armor and horned helmet. But when he’d blinked and shaken his head, the illusion disappeared. He couldn’t remember dreaming, but the image of Loki had been clear as day.

Was this what the head-shrinkers called shellshock, or—what did they call it now?—Post-Traumatic Stress? He knew Tony had been struggling with that for a while because Pepper told him. Maybe he had it too.

And then he realized with a shock that the voice he had heard two nights before had been Loki’s. It was 3:32 in the morning.

The next day he ended up telling Tony, who first checked with Jarvis that no intruders had been inside his room or anywhere else in the Tower any of the three nights, while Thor contacted Asgard to make sure that Loki was still in his cell. Then everyone made his life miserable for a day.

“Sure,” Tony said, “Loki’s pretty, but—” Cries of protest and derision greeted his remark.

Steve’s heart skipped a beat. Were they just joking, or did they know he was attracted to men? Not that he could be interested in Loki, but....

“Loki’s pretty?” Hawkeye snorted. “You have something else you want to tell us, Stark?”

“Come on,” Tony said, “hear me out. I was going to say that—objectively—Loki’s not bad looking”—here Bruce whistled provocatively—“not to my taste, you understand, but if Steve wants to dream, he should be dreaming about that hoard of groupies that tries to get in here every day. They’re way prettier than Loki.” Tony gestured an hourglass form in the air, while Natasha raised her eyebrows, shaking her head in mock disapproval.

“One of them almost got past the Tower security last week,” Natasha said. “Some night you’ll come home and find one in your bed, Steve. Would that be so bad? Aw, how sweet! He’s blushing.”

Steve breathed again. It was just the usual teasing, the same stupid jibes they always aimed at each other. If Pepper had been here, she would have stopped it at about this point by diverting Tony’s attention, but she and Tony were “taking a break,” which usually meant that she would be gone for a few weeks until Tony’s increasingly desperate promises to change convinced her to return.

“But maybe you’d rather have Loki after all,” Hawkeye said, laying a hand on Steve’s arm, which he quickly shook off. “By now I’m sure he’s recovered from that bashing the Other Guy gave him. He’s been in prison a year or so—hey, I bet you’d look pretty good to him, too.”

Everyone thought this was hilariously funny except Steve and Thor. “Hey, it’s his brother,” Steve said softly to Clint, who laughed and told him that Thor and Loki weren’t really brothers, and, besides, Thor had gotten over it, but that wasn’t what Steve saw in Thor’s face.

In his heart, Steve knew that he was more likely to dream of a beautiful man than of any of the women who fantasized about him. That didn’t used to be acceptable in his day, so he had always tried to pretend to ignore the guys and concentrate on the ladies, who never gave him a second look anyway, except for Peggy. These days, being gay was supposed to be fine, but hearing Tony and the others sneer about what people used to call—at best—“homosexuality,” minus most of the nasty name-calling he’d heard in the army, Steve wondered if gay equality was all it was cracked up to be. In any case, he thought of Loki as a homicidal monster, so seeing him as beautiful seemed a stretch.

Tony, Clint, and Nat mistook his anger for embarrassment and talked about his blushes until he was sick of the whole lot of them. They kept it up for a day or two, and then suddenly stopped. Steve was grateful for the respite until one night, when he woke in the small hours of the morning to the sight of a stripper doing a pole dance right in the middle of his room. Like most of Tony’s crude holograms, it blinked and fuzzed and pixilated here and there, but the immediate effect of coming out of a deep sleep to a bright eyeful of naked female flesh was deeply shocking and embarrassing.

Leaping out of bed, Steve ripped every one of Jarvis’s feeds right out of the wall.

As he lay down in bed and tried to relax enough to go back to sleep, his streetwise Brooklyn instincts kicked into high gear. That vision of Loki in his armor must have been a hologram, too. They’d gotten Steve that time, but trust Tony to overdo it. For all Steve knew, Tony and Bruce had cooked up a Loki hologram and had Jarvis project it as a practical joke to force him to go to some crony of theirs who was posing as a shrink. If they’d been able to resist waking him up with the stripper, it might even have worked.

He sighed and wondered, not for the first time, why the team that he trusted with his life in battle acted so immature in everyday life. They’d played worse pranks than this on him and on each other. The others seemed to take it all as good fellowship, but after all the bullying he’d been through in his childhood, Steve didn’t see it that way.

Well, he’d torn the feeds out of the walls and verified that Loki was safely in jail. End of story. Steve just wanted to do his job and be left in peace. He rolled over and, flinging one arm around the pillow, dropped off to sleep.

***

Several nights went by without any disturbance. The fire-alarm inspector found nothing amiss. Steve was well on his way to forgetting that anything had ever happened, except that he felt better knowing that no one could look in on him when he was alone in his room.

***

He woke up at 4:47 a.m. by the clock on a bright, moonlit night. Between him and the window, he thought he saw a shadow waver. When he turned on the lamp, the image blinked out for a second like a defective hologram and then came into focus. It was Loki, dressed in deep forest green, sitting on an ornate chair that Steve didn’t own.

“What the hell, Tony?” Steve cried. “Don’t you think this joke is getting a little old?”

“Are you having vision problems?” Loki asked with a frown. “Oh, I see, you suspect that Stark is teasing you with my image. Let me assure you that he is not.”

“Then how do you explain—how can you be here? A week ago Thor said you were still in Asgard,” he said cautiously, trying to stay calm and think. Rising, he moved cautiously towards the door, where his shield hung on a hook. “How did you escape?”

“Alas, I am in Asgard,” Loki said, smiling the ghost of a smile. “I continue to rot in the dungeon where Odin threw me. Can’t you guess what you’re seeing?”

“No,” Steve said baldly. Stepping back quickly, he grabbed his shield and swept it through Loki’s image, expecting to feel resistance, but he felt nothing against his arm, and the image never wavered. He stumbled and barely caught himself from sprawling at Loki’s feet. Loki sat calmly, watching him, smirking in a way that made Steve’s blood boil.

Feeling foolish, he tossed the shield on the bed and, keeping one eye on Loki, went to check the feeds. None had been repaired. He walked around the image and saw that it looked real from every angle, unlike one of Tony’s crude holos.

“No,” Loki repeated indulgently, “you have no idea. Would you like to know?”

Steve did want to know, urgently, but felt he was being led, and he didn’t like that. “Why contact me?” he asked, feeling at a loss. How did you fight an incorporeal foe? Insubstantial as it was, the image looked entirely real, and that alone kept Steve on edge.

“Ah,” Loki said, smiling more broadly, “an excellent question. I chose you because I had no desire to speak to any of the others.”

“How flattering,” Steve said wryly, trying to hide his fear as he sat back cautiously on his bed, with his shield close at hand. Now that he was starting to believe he was actually talking to Loki, he thought about rushing out into the hall to call for help, but decided against it for the moment. He was glad he had donned pajama bottoms this night instead of sleeping in his underwear or in the nude as he sometimes did, now that the feeds were gone.

Loki considered for a moment. “As you might imagine, I have no desire to speak to the Monster again, even as a mental projection, although…” He paused. “It might be instructive to set him loose inside Stark Tower.” Loki’s eyes were riveted on Steve’s face as if lying in wait for any reaction, no matter how small. “I’ve already spent enough of my life talking to Thor. And then there is the woman.”

“You mean Agent Romanov.”

“The very one.” Loki’s tone was artificial and exaggerated, as if he’d practiced these lines in front of a mirror. Steve was starting to feel less afraid than annoyed with the whole performance. “I already had my little chat with her on the carrier. Once was enough. And her cohort, Hawkeye—well, I know him inside out, of course.”

“And Tony?” Steve asked, figuring this was going to be the punch line.

“He offered me a drink and then refused to give it to me. And he might be a bit miffed at me because I tossed him out his own window.”

Loki seemed very satisfied with himself, but Steve was becoming more and more irritated. “So, why me?”

Loki shrugged. “I’ve hardly spoken to you. I thought it might make a nice change.”

Steve was losing patience fast. “We spoke plenty in Stuttgart.”

Loki’s eyes widened slightly in surprise. That wasn’t the reaction he’d expected. “Briefly. And then—as you mortals say—I kicked your ass.”

“We captured you.”

“Ha!” Loki’s skeptical laugh was one percussive syllable. “Only because I wanted to be captured,” he continued, as if explaining things to a mental deficient. “I had to get on the carrier somehow.” He shrugged again. “You were so weak that it wouldn’t have been plausible if I’d let you overcome me. I had to wait for Stark, and even so, it was a bit absurd of me to surrender to him like that. And then Thor—”

“And then Thor kicked your—”

It was Loki’s turn to be annoyed. “I was supposed to be a prisoner and I had to wait ages for Stark and Thor to stop posturing. I could have been halfway to Vanaheim if I’d wanted to go. None of you would ever have found me.”

“And yet you stayed,” Steve said skeptically.

“And none of you figured out why,” Loki shot back.

The banter was wearing on Steve’s nerves. He decided to try asking a direct question. “Why did you do it? Why did you call the Chitauri down on New York? You must have known you couldn’t win.”

Loki’s eyes lit up with interest. “That’s the most intelligent thing you’ve asked yet. I was beginning to think I’d come millions of parsecs in vain, but there seems to be hope yet for this conversation.”

“So? Will you answer the question?” Steve put a challenge into his tone.

Loki leaned forward as if preparing to confide a secret. “I hate to admit it, but I was coerced. I did exactly what they told me to do, and so we lost, of course. If I’d planned it myself—well, suffice it to say that I wouldn’t be the one in the cell.”

Steve realized that he’d been talking with Loki for 10 minutes now, and the man hadn’t moved from his chair and hadn’t made a threatening gesture. His legs were crossed and he looked entirely relaxed. If he wanted to talk about the Chitauri, then why not continue this for a little while? They’d never been able to get anything out of him before. Thor implied that Loki had been tortured once he’d reached Asgard, but that he still hadn’t provided any details.

“Why are you telling me this?” Steve asked warily. “Why wouldn’t you tell Odin or Thor? Maybe your sentence would have been reduced.”

“Of course I wouldn’t tell Thor,” Loki sighed. “He’s my brother. More or less. And Odin wouldn’t care what I said.” He rolled his eyes. “I told Frigga a few things.”

“Frigga?”

“Odin’s consort.”

“Your mother.”

“Thor’s mother.”

“She raised you.”

“Do you want to parse my family tree, or do you want to know about the Chitauri?”

Steve scoffed. “The Chitauri, if you really are Loki. A mental projection from Asgard, you said?”

“We’re back to that again,” Loki said sadly, shaking his head. “And I thought we had made such progress.” He put one hand to his mouth and yawned theatrically. “I have other things to attend to now. We can continue another night.”

“What if I tell Thor?”

“I wondered if you’d ask that. Well, in that case, Thor tells Odin and they find a way to stop me from projecting my mind through the World Tree—‘astral projection,’ as it is ridiculously called on Midgard. It took me a few tries to get the range right, by the way, and then a few more tries to avoid setting off Stark’s alarms,” he added confidentially. “And then Odin will discover that Frigga has been projecting her mind to me, and he’ll stop her from coming, and my life will suddenly become so much more tedious.”

“Do you expect me to feel sorry for you?” If this had been a phone call, Steve would have been ready to hang up. How did you hang up on a mental projection?

Loki deflected this question with another. “How long is a human life?”

“What?”

“An average human life. Not yours.” Loki steepled his fingers and touched them to his lower lip.

“Around eighty years, or a hundred at most, but not everyone makes it that far. I have no idea what the average is.” This whole encounter was beyond surreal. Steve was tired of being thrown off balance. He felt as if he were playing a game without knowing the rules.

“So a life sentence on Midgard is generally on the order of thirty years, maybe fifty or sixty in an extreme case?” Steve nodded. “Do you know how long my life will be, and therefore my sentence?”

Steve thought about it for the first time. “Thousands...?” he ventured.

“Five thousand, maybe six. The best I can hope for is that Odin dies, and Thor becomes king and leads Asgard into a reckless war. Then perhaps I shall live to see the citadel fall into ruins around me, and I will at last be free.” Loki’s eyes looked haunted, and his voice was fainter now, as if heard over a great distance. “I tire of this. I shall return another night, unless you’ve run and told Thor, of course.” His image blinked out between one heartbeat and the next.

Steve sat and stared at the space where Loki had been, feeling unaccountably sad. Maybe it was all that talk about human life spans. He thought of Peggy, confined to her bed, well over 100 now. No one knew how long Steve would live, but it was likely he would be around long after everyone he knew—save Bruce, and Loki and Thor—was gone. He hadn’t aged at all during the 70 years he’d spent in the ice—not physically, anyway. Emotionally, especially lately, sometimes he felt every one of his hundred and two years.

He thought about raising the alarm, of telling his friends that Loki had spoken to him, but the idea of fighting through their disbelief and ridicule again made him tired. Loki was safely incarcerated in Asgard, and he was bored, but his “mental projection” had seemed harmless enough. Chances were he’d eventually try contacting the other members of the team. Let them deal with it then.

He thought of Loki sitting in his prison cell all those eons, waiting for Asgard to fall. He thought of himself in fifty years, still gazing out at Brooklyn from the windows of Stark Tower. Did Loki have a view from his prison, too, he wondered?

Thinking of time stretching out before him made him wonder again how he could find or forge a place in this new world where he’d landed. After expecting to die, he’d woken up in a place where people lied and manipulated each other as easily as breathing. Those things had probably existed before, but somehow the sides had seemed pretty clear back in his day. The first moment he’d been awake he’d been lied to, and he was sure it would have continued if they hadn’t made the error about the baseball game, and if he hadn’t escaped into twenty-first century New York. Nick Fury had been forced to be straight with him, but Steve often wondered what S.H.I.E.L.D.’s original long-term plans for him had been.

And then there was his personal life, or the lack of one. Sometimes, when he was alone in his room, staring out the windows at Brooklyn, he thought of Peggy, as he had known her during the war, and fantasized about taking her to bed. Peggy was an old woman now, and she had once said with a twinkle in her eye that she hoped he sometimes still remembered her when she was young and beautiful. She’d be shocked if she knew she was the only woman he ever thought of, the only one who had ever excited him. But how could he start a relationship with anyone, when he knew that in a few decades they’d be gone, and he’d still be young? How could Thor and Jane stand the thought of what awaited them?

The eastern sky was turning pink and gold. Lowering the shade, Steve got back in bed and slept until 10.