Bucky took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he read the headline, trying to slow his pounding heart. Winter Soldier Responsible for Bombing in Vienna, the newspaper screamed, along with a blurry but recognizable photo of himself. He forced himself not to react, to put the newspaper down carefully instead of ripping it in half and walk away instead of run. He throttled down the urge to scream at the unfairness of it and jammed his hands into his pockets and lengthened his strides to hurry home. He’d probably have an hour, at most, to clear out his apartment and start getting out of town. He’d thought Bucharest was enough of a backwater to preserve his anonymity, big but largely left out of the world affairs, but apparently not. If he got to the coast, he could get a ferry across the Black Sea to –
A hand on his arm, pulling him roughly into a narrow alley between buildings, jerked him from his thoughts. Instinctively he swung at the person who grabbed him and another hand caught his fist, holding it immobile even as he tried to pull away. Stunned, he stared at the man holding him, breath coming fast and shallow as he felt a deep pull of recognition. The man wasn’t dressed like he remembered – a tailored black suit had replaced the bronze armor and dark green and black leather – but the face was the same, the piercing green eyes, pale skin and sharp cheekbones. His eyes trailed down to where the man’s long fingers were still wrapped around his metal fist, holding it still.
“Holy shit,” he blurted. “You’re real.”
The asset couldn’t stop staring at the man who wasn’t there. Tall, dark-haired and pale-skinned, the man was wearing the strangest body armor the asset had ever seen. A long leather overcoat went almost to mid-calf, the fluorescent lighting of the lab reflecting off the black leather. The light also gleamed on an engraved bronze plate on his shoulder and on the plates that covered the man’s arms from wrist to elbow. What looked like a spear was slung across his back, the blade on it curved and claw-like. A stone embedded in the spear gleamed oddly, like it was emitting light rather than reflecting it. As he watched the technicians prepare the machine for the procedure, the man’s arms were crossed over his chest, jaw tight.
The asset continued to stare, baffled, and eventually one of the technicians glanced over her shoulder as if wondering what he was looking at. But after a second she shrugged and turned back to her work without any acknowledgement of the strange-looking man in the corner of the room. The asset knew better than to speak without being spoken to, so he didn’t say anything as the man paced around the edges of the room, eyes roaming impassively over the machines, still completely unnoticed by anyone else.
A latex-covered hand pressed against his forehead and he obediently rested his head against the chair as the cradle came down over his scalp. His hands tightened on the arms of the chair as the machine whirred to life, and when the lightning hot pain in his head eased, the man was gone.
“Of course I’m real,” the man said irritably. “You don’t remember me?”
“I…” Bucky rubbed his forehead. The memories of him were dull and flat, like many of the ones from his time as the Winter Soldier, but these were filled with so many frankly ridiculous elements that Bucky had ultimately dismissed them as cryosleep dreams or outright hallucinations from a brain that had been fried more times than a carton of eggs. “I do. A little.”
The hiss of released gases roused the asset; the rapid change in pressure and temperature as the cryo tank opened made his jaw ache and his extremities tingle. As the frosted glass and metal move and he opened his eyes, he saw the strange-looking man was the one standing there instead of his handler. The asset stared at him in confusion.
“Well? Come on then,” the man said, and gestured for him to come closer.
The asset automatically moved to obey the order, but his limbs were still largely weak and unresponsive; as he tried to stand his legs gave out, muscles screaming in pain. The man caught him, holding his weight effortlessly and guiding him to lean against the wall. He dug his metal fingers into the concrete as he struggled to stay on his feet, noticing for the first time the bodies that littered the floor. The damage to them differed; some lay in pools of rapidly cooling blood, others had heads turned in unnatural directions, but they were all clearly dead. The asset looked back at the man who was studying him critically and waited for orders.
“I am Loki of Asgard,” the man said, then gestured to the corpses around them. “Have you any loyalty to these people?”
The asset stared down into the sightless blue eyes of one of the security guards, one who had been quick to punish when the asset had been slow to obey. “No.” He answered, voice like gravel.
“Good,” Loki said. “Then you will be coming with me.” He stepped around the pool of blood that had drained from the man’s throat, leaning over to retrieve a knife embedded there. “If you have anything you wish to take with you from this place, now is your chance.”
The asset nodded once and then when he was sure his legs were steady, he went to the armory and took everything he could carry. When he returned, Loki looked at him in surprise. “I meant…” He stopped when the asset froze, suddenly afraid that he’d done something wrong. “Never mind,” he said instead. “Let’s go.”
“Good enough.” Loki stepped back, releasing Bucky’s arm, and raised an eyebrow as he scanned Bucky from head to toe. Bucky scowled and tugged his jacket closed self-consciously. “Come, we need to leave this place.”
“I know, but first-” Bucky turned to go back out of the alley but Loki reached for him again and Bucky had a split second to prepare himself before the world slid away. He took a deep breath against the resulting queasiness and when he was sure he wasn’t going to throw up, realized that they were on a rooftop overlooking his apartment complex.
“You can’t go home,” Loki said, unnecessarily. From where they were standing, Bucky had a clear view of the front of his building; as they watched, vans with the windows darkened surrounded the building, and dozens of armed men swarmed out and went inside. He could imagine what was going on inside, the stomp of feet going up the concrete, the shouts as the operatives cleared the building room by room until they closed in on his. Bucky kept his face blank and tried not to think about the strangers invading his personal space, ripping apart his carefully cobbled together life. His jaw tightened as he remembered the journals tucked under his mattress and the hard-won memories inside them.
Despite his best efforts, Loki must have sensed something of his thoughts. “If you had been there, you would have set off a chain of events that eventually lead to the extermination of half the humans on this planet,” Loki said, sounding almost apologetic. “That’s why I’m here.”
Bucky blinked at him in confusion. “What?” He said finally. “Half of the- what the hell are you talking about?”
Instead of an answer, Loki’s fingers brushed against his temple. There was pressure in his head as images flashed behind his eyes: a ship adrift in space, littered with bodies; six armed monsters with a mouthful of fangs overwhelming beleaguered defenders; and eventually the puzzled look on his own face as he crumbled to ash.
Bucky staggered backwards, head pounding. He leaned over and spat, trying not to vomit as the queasiness returned. “So you’re telling me you’re from the future? How?”
“The answer is that time is not as fixed or linear as most humans like to believe; neither is space, for that matter, and the two are inextricably linked-” Loki stopped himself as Bucky gave him a flat look. “Magic,” he said instead.
“Great,” Bucky said, rubbing his temples. As the ache eased, he stared at the place that used to be his home, suddenly feeling tired. Now the SWAT teams were starting to trail back out of the building, having found his apartment empty. They started to mill around their vans, probably waiting for permission to leave. Next would come the specialists to take apart and examine his room piece by piece. Grief for his journals swelled again, as well as the agony of knowing that strangers were going to read his most private thoughts. He cleared his throat and said, “Ok. So what’s the plan?”
“First, we must clear your name. This little melodrama,” Loki said, gesturing to the scene unfolding before them, “was orchestrated to drive a wedge between Captain Rogers and Tony Stark and destroy the Avengers.”
Bucky got a cold feeling at that, dread making his stomach sink; he had no idea why he was important enough to be able to do something like that, but that was the problem, wasn’t it? In the vast, blank sea that was his past, all sorts of monsters could be hiding. “And how do we do that?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Loki reluctantly admitted. “I wasn’t interested in paying attention to the details of this petty mortal drama at the time.”
Bucky sighed. “So say we manage that. Then what?”
“After that…” Loki’s hands came up and he picked at a callous on his palm before he forced his hands back down to his sides. “We have to somehow convince them to prepare for what is coming.” He looked over and his lips quirked when he saw the skeptical look on Bucky’s face. “Now that I’m here, I realize that I may have underestimated the difficulty of this particular undertaking.”
Bucky snorted with faint amusement. “That’s not like you. You’re more the ‘intrigue inside of a plot wrapped in a scheme’ type, I do remember that much.”
“Yes, well, when one is faced with one's own imminent demise a little improvisation is required.” Suddenly Loki’s eyebrows drew together and his eyes narrowed. Bucky followed his gaze and saw that the police were making way for a new person, someone a head taller than most of the people around him and at least half again as broad in the shoulders, wearing dark blue with a star on the chest and a metal shield strapped to his back.
“Captain Rogers,” Loki said thoughtfully at the same time that Bucky said, “Steve?”
Loki turned to him with interest. “So you remember him?”
Bucky exhaled long and low, running a hand over the back of his neck. “Yeah,” he muttered. “I read about him in a museum.”
After the disaster in New York, James headed south to DC, getting lost for a while in the ebb and flow of tourists and transients in downtown. A familiar face on a sign led him to a museum, and as he walked through the exhibit he realized that his heart was pounding and his flesh hand was trembling. “A Fallen Comrade,” the wall read, and a picture of himself looking impossibly young stared sightlessly at the people as they walked by. He sat down and watched the exhibit’s short movie clip over and over, hungry for every glimpse of his own face, of Steve’s face, until the museum closed. As the sky darkened and the lights of the city came on one by one, he whispered, “My name is Bucky.”
For a moment, he hesitated, then he left the country and never went back.
“Hmm,” Loki said, eyebrow raised, but he didn’t call Bucky out on his obvious lie. “I think it’s time we regroup.” Without waiting for Bucky’s agreement, he put a hand on Bucky’s shoulder and Bucky got that familiar queasy feeling as the world slid unnaturally sideways. When it settled again, Bucky’s jaw dropped.
Leather and wooden furniture filled a room with pale marble walls; when he looked up, the ceiling was intricately carved with stained glass windows, sending shards of light across the walls. Clothes and books and papers littered most surfaces and arched doorways punctuated the far walls. It looked like a European castle, but when Bucky wandered over to a balcony it was clear that they were not only not in Europe, but no longer on Earth – instead of a horizon, he could see a body of water dropping off of some unseen ledge, and beyond that, a field of stars. “Where the hell are we?” He asked, backing away from the balcony before he was seen by one of the people milling in the streets below.
“Asgard,” Loki said shortly, searching for something on one of the tables in the room. He made a noise of satisfaction when he came up with a leather bound journal.
“Why?” Bucky moved to take a closer look at one of the embroidered tapestries on the wall, this one depicting a tree with seven colorful orbs hanging on the limbs like fruit.
“No one is going to find us here, are they?” Loki pointed out. He shrugged out of his tailored coat and unfastened the narrow silk tie, tossing both of them on the dresser as he loosened the buttons at his throat and wrists, rolling up the sleeves as he sat at a desk and opened the journal. “The bathing room is through there,” he said with an unconvincing casualness, gesturing to a doorway on the far side of the room.
Bucky rolled his eyes but started shedding his clothes. “I don’t have anything else to wear,” he pointed out, but Loki waved off his words.
“That won’t be a problem.” Just then there was the sound of someone in the hallway outside and both of their heads turned as the doors to the room opened. Bucky paused, his hand on the button of his jeans as a bearded older man with white hair and an eye patch swept in, wearing elaborately embroidered robes and carrying a glass of wine. He stopped when he saw them, eyes widening when he saw Loki in particular. “What-”
“I’m from the future,” Loki explained, and the man relaxed.
"Oh.” His look of surprise turned to one of consideration as took a sip of his wine and said, “Do I want to know?”
Loki ran a hand over his jaw as he thought. “I doubt it,” he said finally. “Not yet.”
“Very well,” the man said and swept back out, closing the doors behind him.
“Who the hell was that?” Bucky asked, shedding his pants as Loki went back to his journal, pen moving quickly across the pages in a language Bucky didn’t recognize.
“Me.” Loki must have felt the weight of Bucky’s stare because he looked up with a thin smile. “Long story.”
Bucky hesitated, getting a little tired of all of the things that Loki wasn’t telling him, but eventually he just shook his head and finished undressing. The bath tub was less a tub than a small pool, steaming gently in the temperate air of the room. One wall was made up of vines and sweet smelling plants with a small breeze periodically ruffling the leaves. All it needed was some birds singing and maybe a woodland animal and it would be straight out of a Disney movie, Bucky thought with a smile. He suppressed a moan as he slid into the water, wanting to cry with how good it felt. Half the time the warm water went out in his tiny shithole apartment, and he’d had enough cold showers to last the rest of his life.
He dipped his head in the water and then rested it against a padded part of the tub clearly meant for that purpose, closing his eyes and letting his body float and feeling his muscles relax one by one. He didn’t know if he’d ever been in a bath that felt this good, and right then he decided he might never leave. “So I’ve got more than a few questions that I didn’t ask last time,” Bucky called out after a few minutes.
“I’m sure you do,” Loki returned. Bucky opened his eyes and sat up, pushing off gently to scoot to the other side of the tub, enjoying the silky feel of the water over his skin.
“Are you going to turn me into a newt for asking them?”
“I would never,” Loki said, sounding offended. “Newts are useless creatures. If anything, I would turn you into a dog. You’d make a nice coursing hound, I think.”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “I’ve always wondered, how did you find me? Not now, I mean, but back then.”
There was a short silence and Bucky wished he could see Loki’s face. “As part of my reconnaissance of Earth, I noted that there were people observing Captain Rogers’ movements with unusual interest, so I followed them. Soon I realized that I had discovered an enemy of my enemy. After I saw…” Loki trailed off and was silent for a moment before saying, “After careful consideration, I ultimately decided that despite our somewhat shared goals, Hydra would be no friend of mine.”
“Oh.” Bucky thought about that for a moment as he explored the colorful bottles arrayed on the marble lip of the pool, smelling them as he searched for the soap. “So that’s why you rescued me? Pity?”
“Naturally,” Loki said dryly. “I am widely known for my humanitarianism.”
“I thought at one time to use you against Captain Rogers.”
Buck frowned. “But how did you even know-“
“Agent Barton. Do you remember him?”
Bucky started to shake his head and stopped as a memory surfaced.
The asset expected to follow Loki through the cold, sterile labyrinthine hallways of the base out to where heavy steel doors kept the killing Siberian cold at bay. Instead, the world slid away and then remade itself into someplace new; instead of steel and concrete there were red bricks and rounded hallways, and they went from the silence of the dead to the noisy bustle of an active center of operations. The asset tensed, hands automatically going to his weapons as he scanned the room and finding a critical number of armed threats present. However, no orders were given, so the weapons stayed holstered. He risked a glance at Loki, relaxing slightly at the bored look on his face. Moments after their appearance a man with short blonde hair trotted up, eyes an unnatural blue. He came to a stop a few feet from Loki and looked like he barely restrained himself from saluting. “Sir.”
“Agent Barton,” Loki said with a short, stiff nod.
Barton turned his gaze to the asset, scanning him from head to toe, eyes lingering on the mask that still covered the bottom half of the asset’s face. “Who is this?”
“He carried a bow?” Bucky eventually asked, wondering if his mind could be trusted.
“I was also skeptical, but it was surprisingly effective,” Loki said. He must have finished what he was writing because Bucky could hear him moving around the room. “Barton turned out to be a very valuable choice of ally. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Avengers, their strengths and weaknesses, their vulnerabilities. The official record on Captain Rogers stated that just before he disappeared on his last mission, his oldest and closest friend James Buchanan Barnes had gone missing and was presumed dead. So you can imagine my surprise when I found you.”
Bucky only grunted, still trying to find the soap. He thought about the next question he wanted to ask, wondering how far he could push it before Loki lost his patience. “So what have you been doing since New York?” he asked, figuring that was innocuous enough.
“That’s part of the long story,” Loki said from the doorway. Bucky looked up to see Loki leaning against the elaborately carved marble of the doorframe, his face somber. Loki met Bucky’s eyes for a moment before they dropped to the floor. “After the events of New York, I was imprisoned. While I languished there, my mother was murdered,” he said, voice muted. “During an attempt to avenge her death, I almost followed suit. Soon, my father will die, when that happens, a force will be unleashed that will destroy Asgard itself.”
“Holy shit,” Bucky blurted, staring at him wide-eyed. “I’m…I’m sorry.” Bucky felt a sharp stab of guilt for all of the time he’d spent resenting Loki for abandoning him in New York.
James watches with interest as another one of the giant leviathan Chitauri is felled, impacting the pavement and throwing up a cloud of debris. The sound of heavy artillery fire starts to rattle in the distance; the Americans have started to mobilize a response to the invasion.
“Well. It seems that the time has come.” Loki took a deep breath and picked up his spear, straightening his shoulders as a gleam of gold covered his body and faded to reveal armor.
“The time for wh-” Before James could finish his question the world dissolved around him and when it returned, the portal was barely visible in the sky and the attacking Chitauri looked like a cloud of swallows in the distance. He looked at the street signs and realized that Loki had sent him several blocks south, far from the combat zone. The people here were panicking, half of them fleeing while many were staring at the attack in stunned disbelief. At first he was puzzled, wondering if Loki had sent him here for some purpose, but then he realized that Loki hadn’t sent him to someplace but rather from someplace.
With a feeling of dread, James started sprinting back towards midtown.
Loki dipped in head in acknowledgement of Bucky’s words, pushing off the wall to pluck a tall green bottle from the rest and hold it out to Bucky. “And you?” he asked.
“Oh. Thanks,” Bucky said, pretty sure he’d already tried that bottle but sure enough, it started bubbling, more in the way of dish soap than body soap but when in Rome, right? “I've been on the run and in hiding since New York.”
“Hiding from who?”
“Everyone. But Hydra in particular.”
“But I killed everyone at the base where I found you,” Loki said in confusion.
Bucky let out a bitter laugh and tilted his head back to rinse the soap out of his hair. “Loki, Hydra’s motto is ‘strike one down and two shall rise,’ so that particular setback was temporary at best. Two years ago they even tried to take over the world.”
“Let me guess, they were stopped by my favorite band of superheroes?”
“Yeah. After that I think Hydra was a little too busy running for their lives to spend any time looking for me, but I guess someone must still be looking for me for them to try to frame me for that bombing in Vienna.”
“True.” Loki’s eyes were distant as he thought.
Bucky let him think for a while, enjoying the fact that the temperature of the water had not changed a single bit since he got in, but after a few minutes he regretfully said, “So I’m going to need a towel…?”
Loki straightened and retrieved one for him, moving back to the bedroom as Bucky got out of the bath. “I believe our next step should be to simply confront Rogers and the rest,” he said over his shoulder. “I would prefer to bring them the culprit, but attempting to find him may waste too much time on someone who is no longer a threat.”
“Huh.” Bucky toweled his hair dry and raked it back from his face. “That seems entirely too straightforward. What are you plotting?” Bucky followed Loki into the bedroom and was not at all surprised to find that his old clothes had disappeared. When Bucky came to a stop in the middle of the room, towel wrapped around his waist, Loki gestured to a set of clothes resting on the bed. The clothes were a muted gray with elaborate stitching and the shirt had a golden lion’s head in the center of the chest, flanked by two stars. The collar was fine gold metal links and there were matching pants and a belt with a long knife hanging from it. He picked up the shirt and fingered the material, which had the thickness and weight of heavy leather but the suppleness of fabric. It had clearly been made for him because the left side of the shirt had no sleeve and the matching pants were clearly too short for Loki himself.
“No plots,” Loki answered as Bucky started getting dressed. “Time is of the essence.”
“Isn’t it always,” Bucky said under his breath as he tried to figure out the fastening of the pants. Loki talked him through the rest, the silk undershirt that was like a cloud against his skin and then the overshirt, a reassuring weight across his shoulders. “It’s surprisingly comfortable, but I feel like I look ridiculous,” Bucky said, turning towards a mirror and touching the chainmail collar at his throat.
“On the contrary, you finally look like a warrior,” Loki said as he stepped back, eyeing Bucky with satisfaction. “Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be, I guess.” Bucky drew the long knife/short sword from his belt and examined it. “Think I’ll be needing this?”
“Let’s hope not.” He paused for a moment and regarded Bucky critically. “Are you ready to face Captain Rogers?”
At that, Bucky took a deep breath and held it for a moment before letting it out slowly. “Do I have a choice?”
“Of course. You may stay here while I negotiate with the Avengers on your behalf and I can come for you when it’s safe.” Loki’s lips quirked in amusement. “It’s not as if I’ll need you to defend me, should this meeting come to violence.”
“I’m going,” James said, standing in Barton’s way as the squad of agents assembled around them performed the final weapons check. Loki had been gone for almost twenty-four hours, and as every hour passed he’d grown increasingly restless, feeling trapped and aimless. He’d already had misgivings about letting Loki out of his sight in the first place, and now that the mission had become an extraction he wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“Loki didn’t say you were to come,” Barton said shortly as he moved around James to open the case holding his bow.
“I’m coming,” James repeated, stepping closer to the shorter man, aware that the plates in his arm were recalibrating with an angry whine. He was wearing every inch of the armaments that he’d taken from the Hydra base and knew from experience that he could kill every man in the room and force Barton to take him to Loki’s location. He let that certainty settle on his face as Barton studied him, and finally the man stepped back with a nod.
“Fine.” He gestured to one of the agents around them and said, “Cox, you’re with Bravo team. Cho, you’re with him,” he said, tilting his head towards James. “Your job is to get Loki out and then get him to the jet.”
A short eternity later, James found Loki with his hands in the air, being held at gunpoint with a weapon like nothing James had ever seen before. Behind his mask, his lips curled into a silent snarl; he drew his knife as he approached, his boots silent on the metal catwalk. The grunt of surprise when he plunged his knife into the man’s back was stifled by the hand over his mouth. James let the body drop to the floor and stepped over him to make sure that Loki was unharmed.
“I’m surprised Barton let you come,” Loki said mildly as he followed James through the maze of corridors back to the deck of the ship. “I think he was hoping I would perish in this little escapade.”
“I gave him little choice,” James answered, pulling his rifle off his back and raising it to his shoulder, senses alert as they headed towards the extraction point. The response to their ambush was still disorganized so their progress through the ship was rapid and largely unchallenged.
Until they reached the flight deck. There, a man wearing an eye-catching combination of red, white, and blue stood, the shield on his arm painted like a target. James’ steps slowed as the sight struck a chord of recognition deep inside him. Reflexively, he glanced at Loki for orders.
“Don’t kill him,” Loki said with an odd note in his voice. “You’ll regret it later. Cover me, then disengage.”
James nodded and secured his rifle on his back, drawing his knife and flexing his metal hand as he stalked forward.
After a moment of indecision Bucky shook his head. “I don’t know about that; every time you go somewhere without me you end up in jail.”
That surprised a laugh out of Loki. “Very well. Let’s go.”
Appearing in the Avengers’ headquarters among the gathered superheroes had the same effect as setting a dog among pigeons. Heavily armed, very dangerous pigeons, Bucky amended as a lot of things happened in a very short time. The man Bucky recognized as Tony Stark jumped and slid behind the bar, ducking for cover or perhaps going for a weapon there. The Black Widow already had her guns out, one trained on each of them as if she were still deciding which was the greater threat. There were more people there than Bucky expected and most of them Bucky didn’t recognize, including a magenta-colored man with a yellow stone in his forehead who stayed seated while everyone else panicked.
“Bucky?” Steve was holding his shield at the ready but was currently just staring at Bucky in disbelief. Bucky avoided meeting his eyes, not quite ready for that yet.
“Who the hell is Bucky?” A hard voice said from across the room. Bucky didn’t know why he was surprised when he saw Agent Barton, eyes staring at him coolly down the shaft of a drawn arrow. “I recognize you,” he said, eyes flickering down to Bucky’s arm and back up. “But your name sure as hell wasn’t Bucky.”
“I remember you, too,” Bucky said. “The whole bow and arrow thing is pretty distinctive.”
“Well, Bucky or whoever you are, I don’t know how Loki’s controlling you without his little glow stick, but we can help,” Stark called out from behind the bar. “Just stay there while we hit you really hard in the head.”
“So that’s how you did it,” Loki said at the same time that Bucky scowled and said, “I’m not letting you hit me in the head.”
“Loki never put me under mind control,” Bucky continued. “When he freed me from Hydra I followed him willingly.”
“So he freed one man from slavery even as he was holding two others in it,” Clint sneered. “I'm going to go with ‘I don't give a shit,’ Alex, for 200.”
Loki was already moving by the time Clint loosed the arrow, stepping to the side and snatching it out of the air before tossing it away. When it clattered to the marble floor there was the crackling buzz of electricity. Bucky lunged and had a hand around Barton’s throat before anyone could stop him and just that quickly, all the weapons that had been lowered were trained on them again.
“Whatever you think you know about Loki is wrong,” Bucky growled, feeling Clint’s pulse race under his fingers. “You think he’s the bad guy? You think he’s what you need to be afraid of?” He glared at the gathered superheroes watching him warily. “We are here to warn you about the things that keep the boogeyman up at night.”
Loki took the spear off his back as he sat, resting it across his knee as he surveyed the activity in front of them. Frowning, the asset wondered, not for the first time, what his mission was. It was clear that these people were working towards some unknown goal, but he’d received no instructions and the situation was so far out of his experience that he had no idea what he was meant to do.
“Oh, for the love of-” Loki bit off whatever he was going to say with an impatient exhale and scowled up at the asset. “Firstly, your name is James.” The asset nodded shortly. ‘James’ was as good of a designation as any. Loki opened his mouth to say something else but stopped and just shook his head and gestured to the ground beside him. “Secondly, stop looming and sit. I will give you instructions when it is time to play your part.”
The as- James hesitated and eventually obeyed, taking a position where he could be on his feet in an instant. From this location they had a complete view of the room, of the scientists hovering around the machine that dominated the center of the open space and the operatives milling at the edge of the room. They sat in silence for long minutes until beside him he heard Loki take a deep, surprised breath. James looked at him questioningly and realized that something was wrong. Loki was sitting perfectly still and his eyes were staring sightlessly ahead, his muscles tense and his breathing fast and shallow. One hand had a white-knuckled grip on his spear and the other was clenched tightly into a fist against his thigh. James leaned closer, concerned.
“Loki?” He dared, but whatever Loki was reacting to was not apparent. Something was happening; he could tell that Loki was controlling some deeply held emotion –a flicker of an eyelid betrayed fear; his clenched jaw, rage. James glanced around but no one else was watching them or reacting, so he kept still and waited for whatever was happening to end.
A few minutes later, Loki came back to himself with a shiver, his skin pale and clammy. He blinked as if disoriented and then threw the spear away from him as if it burned. When he saw James watching him he snarled and stalked away.
“Alright everyone, this seems like it has the potential to get nasty fast, so let’s all take a deep breath, yeah?” An older, dark-skinned man stepped up, hands held up pacifyingly. “I don’t think anyone came here looking for a fight so let’s just hear them out.” He looked around the room and the weapons lowered again, so with a short nod, Bucky released Clint and stepped back.
“Easy for you to say,” Clint muttered, rubbing his throat. Natasha came over and whispered something in his ear, and even though his face darkened he put his bow away and crossed his arms over his chest. It took another moment but everyone eventually lowered their weapons and Stark came out from behind the bar, though that may have more to do with the five metal suits suddenly hovering outside the windows than anything else.
“All right,” Captain Rogers said, eyes still lingering on Bucky before he turned to give Loki a hard look. “If you’re here to talk, then talk.”
Rather than speak, Loki decided to show them: the walls and windows of Stark’s tower faded away and were replaced by the twisted and broken metal walls of what looked like a space ship. Bodies littered the floor amidst burning rubble, and behind Loki one whole wall of the ship had been ripped away, only the mild blue shimmer of what looked like a force field keeping the still living inhabitants of the ship from being pulled into the cold vacuum of space. There was a stunned silence as they recognized the body of Thor lying at Loki’s feet. Even Bucky, who had only seen him in pictures and videos on the internet, could tell that he looked like he had been dragged through hell backwards; his armor was dented and burnt, hair cut short and missing an eye. Everyone’s head moved as a figure strode into view, skin a dark purple against the burnished gold of his armor. If he’d actually been present, his head would have scraped the ceiling. As it was, he towered over everyone in the room. “This is Thanos,” Loki said. Aliens trailed after the giant, moving among the dead bodies and eliminating any survivors. “And these are his children, known as the Black Order.” He gestured to the alien figures: a blue skinned lady with demon-like horns; a giant burly beast that rivaled the Hulk in size; a nose-less man with bulbous eyes and disturbingly long fingers; and one that looked like an over-sized goblin, spindly-limbed with a long chin and carrying a wicked looking spear. “They will be coming to Earth, soon, and I am here to help you prepare.”
“Who are all these people?” Steve said; the illusion was so real that he couldn’t stop himself from stooping to look at one of the bodies, a woman clutching a child to her chest.
“They are all that remains of Asgard. Rather, they will be,” he amended, voice bleak as the illusion dissolved away. “Thor and I saved them from the destruction of Asgard, only to lose them to Thanos.”
“What do you mean ‘will be’?” Stark said, still staring with morbid fascination at Thanos. “Are you a psychic or something?”
“No. I’m here from a future where Thanos defeated all of you and destroyed half the universe.”
“Bullshit,” Stark said. “Time travel is impossible.”
Loki sighed. “Let me start at the beginning,” he said, enunciating his words slowly and clearly. “When the universe exploded into existence, the six elements of creation were forged into artifacts of immense power. These were known as the Infinity Stones.” Loki held out his palms, and over them six brightly colored rocks appeared, pulsing with light. “Mind, Time, Space, Power, Soul, and Reality.” As he named them, a rock of a different color would glow brighter than the rest.
“That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Loki raised an eyebrow as he dispelled the illusion. “And yet you sit in the same room as one, Stark.” He gestured to the magenta-colored man, who had been watching the drama unfold without moving or commenting. “I never did learn what you named yourself,” he said. “I’ve just been referring to you as Mind Stone.”
When he said that, the man reached up to touch the polished yellow stone in the middle of his forehead. “For the record, my name is Vision,” he said.
Loki tilted his head politely and then produced a glowing blue cube. “The Tesseract contains the Space stone, which is how it could open the portal into the other end of the universe.” It vanished, and then above Loki’s hand the figure of a man appeared, gray haired at the temples and wearing a cape that moved in an unseen wind. “Not too far from here is a man named Dr. Stephen Strange who controls the power of the Time stone,” Loki continued, zooming in on a pendant around the man’s neck that opened like an eye and glowed bright green. “It is through this power that I am here.” The image vanished. “So whether you believe me or not, Stark, the stones are very real, very powerful, and Thanos is eager to have them all.”
“Thanos wants to kill half of the intelligent life in the universe, to cull every civilization before they overwhelm their resources like a plague of locusts.” This time when the room disappeared it was replaced with a planet of tall, burly humanoids, gray-skinned with what looked like red-inked tattoos on their chests and shoulders. “Thus far, he has done so the old fashioned way, through war and violence.” In this illusion, Thanos and his children watched as an army of insectoid aliens herded the people into one of two groups; when everyone had been forced into place, Thanos raised his hand and the aliens opened fire. Everyone in the room flinched as bodies hit the floor and the survivors screamed. With a shiver the scene reset itself, and the victims were green skinned with hair that shone burgundy in the light of a foreign sun; another thunder of energy weapons, and hundreds died. “With the stones, he could do it with a snap of his fingers.”
“Those are Chitauri,” Stark said, pushing his way around Steve to get a closer look at the aliens. “Is this what they had planned for Earth? Did Thanos send you to do this?”
“This plan…you will be defeated,” James said, watching the aliens as they wreaked destruction upon the city. To the untrained eye, it was chaos; the opposition, few though they were in number, were valiantly trying to hold back an untold number of aliens as they swarmed over the major population center. But one major flaw in the plan was that the portal represented a critical chokepoint; only one Leviathan could pass through at a time, and the one who could call down lightning had already demonstrated that a well-placed strike could delay the progress of the rest of the army. When the humans inevitably mustered a military response to the invasion, the tide would start to turn, especially if these so-called Avengers were able to close the portal.
Loki was watching the fight, face carefully blank. “Yes, I know.”
James frowned. “Then why-”
"Orders,” Loki said shortly, and James’s face cleared as he nodded in understanding. One does not disobey orders.
“Thanos is so used to having his children grovel for the chance to obey his whims that it did not occur to him that I would lose on purpose,” Loki continued.
“On purpose?” Stark repeated. “Look, buddy, we kicked your ass fair and square.”
“It’s quaint that you believe that,” Loki said condescendingly. “You truly believe that, even though the staff was the only thing that could close the portal, I would accidentally leave it right next to the portal? “
Stark opened his mouth to argue then closed it again. “There’s no way you could have expected them to try to nuke the city though.”
“That is true.” Loki’s grin was sharp and sinister and probably the most honest expression Bucky had ever seen on his face. “I do wish I could have seen Thanos’s reaction when you destroyed his army.”
Stark barked out a laugh and paced away, scrubbing his hands over his face. “Ok. So Thanos is coming, and he wants Vision’s stone and, I’m going to guess, that green stone that apparently controls time. How much time do we have?”
“You have a matter of years, three perhaps. I have significantly less,” Loki said. “My presence here is an anomaly.” He cast his eyes around the room for something to use as an example and picked up a fondue fork from an end table. He bent it until the tip was curved around to touch mid-way up the handle. “By sending me back, we – Dr. Strange and I – have created an eddy in the flow of time.” He moved the tip slowly up the handle of the fork, the loop of metal at the end getting smaller and smaller. “As I get closer to point of my departure, my presence becomes harder to sustain. Eventually it will correct itself and I will be pulled back to my own time.”
“And then what?”
“And then I will most likely die,” Loki said. The illusion of the space ship came back, and this time they could see Thanos forcing Thor to his knees while Loki was surrounded by his minions. Bucky had to admit that Loki’s odds didn’t look good.
“These people, from Asgard. Is that part of what you are trying to stop?”
Loki was silent for a long time, staring down at Thor before he dispelled the illusion. “The events that put me in Thanos’s path, that will eventually lead to the destruction of Asgard, happened a long time ago, before I was even born. My only hope now is to prevent his victory on Earth.”
“Then what’s in it for you?” Clint said flatly.
Loki raised his eyebrows at the hostility in Clint’s voice. “There will be a ship full of what is left of Asgard coming to Earth; I could hope that they receive a warm welcome here,” Loki said, spreading his hands wide. “I also have a rather deep personal animosity towards Thanos and his children, so I would be glad to see him humbled, if not dead.”
“I don’t believe that you’ve suddenly become an altruist. You have an angle in here somewhere, to save your own skin.”
“Well, you’re hardly an unbiased opinion, are you?” Bucky growled, and Clint just lifted his chin in a dare as Bucky stalked closer.
“Enough, you two,” Steve said sharply, and despite himself Bucky stopped in his tracks at the note of command in his voice. Bucky crossed his arms over his chest as Steve eyed them before turning back to Loki. “So what do you expect us to do?”
“I’m sorry, am I now the leader of this little band of misfits?” Loki raised an eyebrow. “I’ve already crossed a distance currently unmeasurable by humans to bring you a warning, must I devise the solution as well?”
There was a short surprised silence and then Stark turned on his heel to face the rest of the team. “See, this is the shit I was talking about. You guys thought I was crazy when I explained the Ultron initiative-” And then they were off, the silence devolving into an argument as everyone tried to talk over each other.
Loki rolled his eyes and moved away from the squabbling group but stopped when he saw Bucky following him. “You should stay,” he said, gesturing to the others. “You should be a part of this.”
Bucky looked over his shoulder at the group as they argued among themselves. Stark was gesturing with his coffee cup and Steve was watching him as he spoke, arms crossed over his chest. “Why?” Bucky asked. “I’m not one of them.”
“You could be. You should be.” Bucky frowned at that and shook his head, which made Loki tilt his head in inquiry. “What exactly do you want, James? Were you happy where I found you, living in squalor?” Bucky’s frowned deepened at squalor but he didn’t say anything about it.
“I don’t know what I want,” Bucky said eventually. “I mean, other than not dying in a planet-wide genocide. I just… want to not be afraid anymore. I feel like I’ve been afraid since I got my first boner watching Steve get undressed. Back then I was afraid of who I was, then I go to war and then I spend a few years being afraid for my life. After that…” He gestured towards his left arm with his right. “Well, you know. Then after you left, I just wanted to disappear. Now I’ll probably never be able to disappear again.”
“Not on Earth, certainly.” Bucky raised his eyebrows, wondering if Loki meant that the way it sounded, but before he could ask Loki continued, “Had I know the pivotal role you were to play in future events, I doubt I would have left you here. At the time, however, I had simply thought to give you the freedom you had been denied for so long.”
“That didn’t work out so well.”
“No, I suppose not,” Loki said. “Very well. Stay. Save the world. If we survive what’s coming, I will come back for you, and if you still want to disappear, we will.”
For the first time in Bucky’s memory, he felt a stirring of interest in his own future, a possibility of something other than running and hiding and fighting for his life. With a small smile, he stuck out his hand and said, “Deal.”
Loki looked at the hand in surprise and then shook it. “Deal,” he echoed. His hand was surprisingly cool, and Bucky realized with surprise that this was the first time he’d ever touched Loki. He stared at their hands for a moment before he shook himself and let go, glancing up to catch Loki watching him thoughtfully. Suddenly self-conscious, Bucky took a step back and turned to face the rest of the group just in time to hear Stark shout, “He killed my parents? How long have you known?” He launched himself across a coffee table punched Steve in the face while everyone else turned to look at Bucky with horror.
Bucky flinched and spun back around. “On second thought, Loki-” But he was already gone.
He stared at the spot where Loki had been and listened to the shouting and scuffling behind him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then squared his shoulders and went to face up to his past.
In one universe, Loki gathers his courage and confronts Thanos. As he feels the metal gauntlet tighten around his throat, he manages to say, “You will never be a god,” and he prays that Earth is ready. When Thor goes to Earth, he has only grief to share with Bucky.
However, in another, Loki thinks of a faint, hopeful smile and he hesitates just long enough that the moment is gone. Thanos turns away, and the refugee vessel is bathed in purple light even as the power of the space stone rips a hole to the other end of the galaxy. This time, when Thor comes to Earth, Loki is at his side.
“You’re alive,” Bucky blurted, surprised at how relieved he was.
“I am equally amazed,” Loki said with a rueful smile. All around them, the battle raged, but for a moment they were standing in the eye of the storm. “But we had a deal, did we not?”