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The day they let Mobius out of the infirmary, Loki gets assigned to a new handler. This, Mobius is pretty sure, is where the trouble starts.

He protests the transfer as best he can, still being loopy on drugs and mostly bedridden, but sending strongly worded comms to Personnel doesn’t carry quite the same gravitas as Mobius’ usual marching around with his hands on his hips, pointing fingers at terrified underlings schtick, so all he gets back is a form letter telling him his complaint has been received and will be processed in eight to ten business days.

Mobius, though he’s worked at the TVA long enough to know this is standard, spends a great portion of the rest of the afternoon glaring at his interdimensional TV and bitching at his coffee maker, which makes Wake Up Buddy wobble like he might cry and makes Mobius feel terrible.

“Aw hey, buddy, I’m sorry,” he says. “Don’t cry. I’ll have a cappuccino, alright?”

No one ever orders specialty drinks from Wake Up Buddy, because he’s terrible at them, but he takes pride in the fact that his base code gives him the ability to make them — unlike his predecessor, Mr. Coffee — and he brightens at Mobius’ request. It means Mobius has to choke down a cappuccino that’s mostly milk and still somehow tastes like the inside of a shoe, but at least his coffee machine’s not crying resentful tears over next to the toaster. Tsarina Toast-It is vindictive and overprotective and if she thinks he’s hurt Wake Up Buddy’s feelings again she’ll burn his food for a week.

Mobius drinks half the cappuccino making appreciative noises in the kitchen, then takes the rest in the other room, where he can dump it in a potted plant out of sight of his kitchen appliances.

His tablet is still where it was when he left the apartment a week ago, sitting on his coffee table next to a dog-eared stack of TV Guides from 1980 to 1999, so Mobius levers himself painfully down onto the couch, both legs up, and gets to work figuring out what the deal is with Loki’s new handler.

The guy’s name is Carter C. Carter, and as far as Mobius can tell he’s a total schmuck.

Perfect service record, good numbers on his quarterly performance reviews, only one demerit in his entire career, which appears to have been about telling Judge Woolley to go fuck himself. Mobius can’t fault him for any of that, especially because half the agents in the TVA have at least one demerit for telling Woolley to fuck himself, but there’s also a picture in Carter C. Carter’s file, and even though he has great, shiny teeth and the sort of cheekbones that would make Picasso jealous, Mobius just doesn’t like the looks of him. He looks shifty. He looks like the sort of guy you don’t want to say “Hi” to in the elevator.

Mobius’ tablet chimes with a notification. He opens it to see CARTER C. CARTER HAS REQUESTED ALL FILES RELATING TO VARIANT L1130, then closes it immediately, says, “Nope. Nuh-uh,” and propels himself gracelessly towards the door.

***

Mobius’ first memory is a white room. He knows now that it’s one of the rooms in what agents call the “Maternity Ward,” where newly-created agents are ushered gently and clinically into the world, but at the time all he knew was that it smelled like antiseptic and that a severe woman who looked like she ate boys like him for breakfast was saying, “Congratulations, you’ve just emerged fully-formed from Zeus’ skull.”

“What?” he said, bewildered. He was only 50% sure he knew what congratulations was, and he had no idea where to even start with Zeus.

“Don’t worry about it,” the nurse told him. “You’ll get Greek mythology in orientation.”

She was right — along with a number of other useful things, like how to use a toilet and why he knew the names of smells even if he didn’t understand where the names came from, new agents received a crash course on mythology. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Abrahamic, Norse, Kree, Xandarian. Mobius remembers sitting in his orientation classroom, dressed in a white jumpsuit and feeling like his whole body had just been scrubbed down, deep-cleaned to the bones, cold and uncertain in his skin like a layer of it was missing. There was a drawing of Loki in the textbook, he remembers. A few variants, rendered in green and gold ink, under the title LOKI. He’d lingered over it maybe a little longer than the others (or maybe that’s just him projecting in hindsight, knowing what he knows about Loki now), and bumped his knuckle against the cartoon Loki’s cartoon knee, sucking on the inside of his cheek while Miss Minutes prattled on at the front of the class about common variants of Jesus Christ.

When he was finally released, along with the rest of his Kindergarten class, into the dubious care of their training agents, it was Ravonna Renslayer he found waiting for him with his name written on her TemPad, like a chauffeur picking someone up at the airport. Mobius’ brain felt wobbly and abused with all the new information that had been crammed into it in the last week, and he was a little slower than he should’ve been walking over to her, but she just smiled.

“Feeling weird?” she asked.

Mobius nodded.

“We call that ‘Kindergarten Catatonia,’” Ravonna informed him. “It’ll wear off. You just need time to process. Come on, you’ll feel better with something in your stomach. Lunch is on me.”

Food in the TVA canteen is free, seeing as they don’t exactly have an internal economy and none of them have money — no reason to, when the Timekeepers provide everything — but they still do that all the time, “buy” each other lunch, and Mobius appreciates the sentiment. Ravonna was his first friend in the world, back when the world was still new and huge and everything about his existence was so intimidating that it was difficult to even navigate ordering himself a sandwich. She ordered the sandwich for him, teasing him a little, but gently, in a way that got him to loosen up, and by the time they sat down at their table he was smiling with her, talking like a normal human, instead of an overstuffed vessel for all the secrets of the universe.

She was his first friend, and she’s his best friend. Except maybe not, because best friends aren’t supposed to say things like, “I’m not reversing the transfer, Mobius. You were getting too close to that variant.”

“Too close?” Mobius echoes indignantly, but she may have a point because the way she says That Variant sort of makes him want to smash something. “I’m his handler, Ravonna, I’m supposed to get close — “

“You took a bullet that should have hit him,” Ravonna says shortly.

Mobius knows that. He knows it especially because he’s pretty sure he popped a stitch on the way here, and he can feel blood soaking into his shirt. But he doesn’t say anything about that, because Ravonna’s a worrier.

“It’s a danger to both of you to have you two in the field together,” Ravonna says, settling in behind her desk. That’s how he knows she means business — she never sits behind her desk when he’s in here unless she’s mad at him and trying to (not-so-) subtly remind him that she outranks him. “Variant L1130 will be fine with Agent Carter.”

Mobius whines, “Ravonna — “

No,” she says, pointing a finger at him. “My decision is final. That’s it.”

Mobius has never been good with quote unquote final decisions. “Ravonna,” he says, “I just think it would be best if I stayed as Loki’s handler. I know him, I know how he operates. He’s gonna eat Agent Carter alive.“

Ravonna gives him a look that says she sees right through him, narrow eyes and pursed lips. “Why is this variant so important to you?” she demands.

“He’s not,” Mobius protests weakly.

“He is,” Ravonna insists. “Why?”

Mobius doesn’t say anything. He’s caught, like he was caught a million times when Ravonna was still his training agent — caught caring about the variants too much, caught asking too many questions, caught trying to keep a golden retriever puppy in a laundry basket in his closet. He feels half embarrassed, half guilty, even though he hasn’t, technically, done anything wrong. Diving in front of a bullet notwithstanding.

“Mobius,” Ravonna says, more gently. “What’s so special about this Loki? Why are you being so difficult?”

Mobius snorts indignantly at the word difficult. “Look, I’m — he’s — “

He smells familiar, he wants to say, but can’t. Lately, he’s been realizing that his and Raovnna’s friendship only protects him so much, so she’d probably give him an express ticket back to the infirmary and a date with psych.

“We work well together,” is what he settles on, after a minute. “I like working with him. We catch a lot of variants.”

Ravonna gives him the you’re-full-of-shit look again and starts shuffling her papers around on her desk, which is Mobius’ cue to leave. As he heads toward the door she calls after him, “Should I remind you about TVA Code 177-6?”

“No!” Mobius shouts. “Jesus Christ, I’m going, alright? You win!”

TVA Code 177-6 states that it’s against regulation and punishable by pruning for an agent to sleep with a variant, or have any sort of romantic attachment whatsoever with a variant, from handholding to tender gazes to even vaguely homoerotic thoughts.

Mobius figures he’s pretty damned lucky the Timekeepers haven’t managed to develop mindreading technology yet, but he’s not about to hang around Ravonna’s office and tempt fate. The last time she threatened him with Code 177-6 was when she thought she caught Mobius casting lustful looks at a fishman from Zebular VII, and the time before that was way back in training, when Mobius was still a fresh colt wandering around on wobbly legs and she’d filled in the gaps in TVA Kindergarten’s sex talk. That had been a real humdinger of an afternoon.

So now, wanting to avoid another humdinger, Mobius hoofs it away from Ravonna’s office as fast as he can. It’s not very fast, granted, since he’s oozing more than a little blood, but the blood’s hidden by his suit jacket and anyway he figures it’s high time he had a chat with Carter C. Carter.

***

What happened is this:

Mobius heard the shot. He looked over, and he saw Loki standing in front of the variant they were after, a mean-looking Achernonian with studs in his lips and cheeks, who was holding a gun.

NO, he said, or tried to say, but it got all caught up at the base of his throat.

He hadn’t really thought much about Loki up to that point, outside of him being a variant who smelled vaguely familiar and gave Mobius a headache more days than not. But at that moment — hearing the shot, seeing the minute tensing of Loki’s shoulders under his wrinkled shirt, how he shifted his weight ever-so-slightly onto his toes in preparation of diving out of the way, knowing that it wouldn’t be enough, wouldn’t be fast enough — Mobius suddenly thought about Loki a whole lot.

Standing behind Loki’s shoulder on that crowded street in Knowhere, while the smog rain poured down around them, he thought about a million things — blink-and-you’ll-miss-them things he hadn’t realized he’d noticed, like how Loki’s smile was wider when he was faking, how he always looked a little breathless, thrilled, when he was about to do something extra stupid, how he wasn’t that tall and still he could never quite seem to fit his legs under tables.

His expressive eyebrows, too expressive, how he could move them around at will to manipulate people’s heartstrings, Mobius’ heartstrings, like a classically trained actor at the fucking Globe; his unerring politesse, the strange formality which Mobius was sure had been drilled into him at a young age by some Emily Post wannabe in the Asgardian court; his hair which he needed to wash more and how he was always tucking it behind his ear, always raking it back from his forehead; how he talked with his hands like he was trying to distract you from the real meaning underneath what he was saying; how when he was sad or tired or he’d had a bad day it wouldn’t show at all except for this very slight tightening around the corners of his mouth, the crease of his cheek smoothing out in a way that hurt to look at.

He thought about all those things in the space of an instant, Loki as a sum total of mannerisms and motions and words — Loki as a strange creature who had somehow, against all rules and regulations, ceased to be a glossy image in a textbook and become real.

Then he thought Aw, hell, and jumped in front of a bullet.

***

It was raining buckets in Knowhere, thick driving rain that was generated artificially in the nebula and tasted like toxic, chemical sludge. Mobius knows what it tasted like because he was there in the alley for a while, lying with his mouth open and his TemPad shattered on the ground next to him while Loki put enough pressure on his bullet wound to crack a couple ribs and alternated between yelling for backup into Mobius’ comm and yelling YOU ENORMOUS, EXCEPTIONAL IDIOT, DON’T YOU DARE BLEED OUT IN THIS DISGUSTING ALLEY into Mobius’ face.

Mobius remembers wanting to ask if he was an exceptional idiot or just exceptional and an idiot, but his throat wasn’t working and he couldn’t get his tongue to move right, so mostly he just choked on rainwater.

He doesn’t remember much after that. Just bits and pieces, really — Loki’s voice going abruptly quiet and desperate, a long litany of please and no and Mobius, flailing a hand out and touching the wet fabric of his shirt stuck down to his shoulder, the warm reflection of a time door in the brown puddle next to his face, the sudden whiteout stab of being lifted onto a gurney.

Mobius came to once in Trauma 1, just long enough to see his blood all over the damn place and Loki behind a wall of doctors in crimson-stained scrubs, sitting on the floor next to the door with his head in his hands.

He hasn’t seen Loki since then.

***

He hasn’t seen Loki since then, because apparently his partner’s been cheating on him this whole time with another handler.

Loki is leaning against the edge of Carter C. Carter’s desk when Mobius finally tracks down his cubicle, laughing with his arms crossed while Carter leans back in his chair. Mobius figures it should be some consolation that it’s Loki’s fake laugh, too wide and too crinkly by a country mile, but he’s had a long day and he’s bleeding more than he’s frankly comfortable with so it’s really not.

“Hey,” he says, when he’s close enough, “can I talk to you for a minute?”

Loki looks at him, and his smile drops. “Mobius,” he says. “I thought you were still in the infirmary — “

“I bullied the nurses into letting me go,” Mobius lies. “Come on, can we just — “

“Well well well,” says Carter loudly. “If it isn’t the famous Agent Mobius. You know, this one can’t shut up about you. Apparently my management style’s not up to your standards.”

Loki gives Carter an indulgent look, like they’ve got an inside joke going already. The thought makes Mobius’ stomach turn over — but then again, that could be the blood loss. Truth is he’s feeling a little woozy.

And Loki must be able to tell, because he puts a hand on the small of Mobius’ back as he leads him away from Carter’s desk, to a deserted section of the bullpen. “Should you really be up and about already?” he asks quietly.

“Apparently it’s a good thing I am,” Mobius says, stepping out of his reach, “seeing as the second I turn around they’ve got you — got you goddamn reassigned to another handler — “

“It’s alright,” Loki cuts in, too fast. “Genuinely, it’s aright. Agent Carter isn’t so bad.”

Carter sounds strange in Loki’s prissy accent — Cahtuh — and Mobius thinks with a petty sort of playground vindictiveness that at least Loki never struggled to say his name. Mobius M. Mobius. Rolls right off the tongue.

“I don’t like this,” he tells Loki. “I’m supposed to be your handler. We’re supposed to be out there together.”

Loki’s face is doing something deceptive and sort of heart wrenching that Mobius thinks is supposed to be reassuring, except that the room is spinning a little so he can’t be sure.

“I’m sure this is only temporary,” Loki says. “They just want to make sure we haven’t been adversely effected by…” he stops, swallowing hard. “By what happened on our last mission.”

“Yeah,” Mobius says, after a minute. He looks out over the bullpen, over the walls of empty cubicles, to where Carter has his feet up on the desk and his chair tilted back on his wheels, and hasn’t wanted to hit someone so bad in a long time. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

But — It’s a danger to both of you, Ravonna had said. That didn’t sound temporary.

Mobius’ abdominal muscles give up on him for a second apropos of absolutely nothing, and he stumbles.

Hey.” Loki catches him with a hand on his elbow and one on his back, holding him close against his body, and no matter how much Mobius tries not to lean into it he ends up with his face in Loki’s shoulder and a big whiff of whatever the hell that familiar scent is. It gives him a vague sense of lurching fear, revelation, the sudden impact of relief.

“I’m okay,” he says, at the same time Loki asks, “Are you alright?”

So he says again, “I’m okay.”

“Let me take you back to your apartment,” Loki says. His eyes are soft and concerned under dark, furrowed brows, and Mobius feels a swell of guilt in his throat. He’s the one who’s supposed to be taking care of Loki, not the other way around. This is all wrong.

“No,” he says, shaking off Loki’s hands. “I got shot in the stomach, not the leg. I can walk fine.”

“You don’t look like you can walk fine!” Loki shouts after him, but Mobius just waves a rude hand gesture behind his head and keeps hobbling stubbornly towards the door. Like the indignity of losing his partner to a guy named Carter isn’t enough.

Loki is right, though — Mobius can’t really walk all that fine. His torso feels like someone replaced the muscles with jelly, and his right leg’s sort of given up on bending, but by avoiding major thoroughfares and leaning hard on the wall he manages to make it most of the way down to the infirmary. Then he just sort of slides down the wall and sits on the floor until a nurse happens to walk by on the way to his shift and helps him — drags him, mostly — into one of the urgent care beds.

“I thought Quinta told you not to over exert yourself,” the nurse says, as he lifts Mobius’ legs up onto the bed.

“I didn’t,” Mobius insists. “I just walked around a little. That’s exercise. That’s good for you.”

The nurse gives him an unamused look. “I’m gonna go get Quinta.”

“No,” Mobius says. “You don’t need to do that, man. You and me are getting along great. There’s no reason to — “

But the nurse is already gone.

Mobius swears and lets his head fall back on the pillow. He briefly debates whether or not he can make a run to his apartment from here, and is trying to figure out whether he’ll be able to get up again if he manages to get himself into a monorail seat, when Nurse Quinta Q. Quinta comes into the room and fixes him with a look that could turn a lava worm to ice.

“I thought we had a understanding,” she says.

Mobius sighs and resigns himself to the inevitable. “I missed you, Quinta. What can I say.”

“Do not bullshit me, mister,” Quinta says. She starts touching panels on the walls and popping out all the scary pieces of life-saving machinery that Mobius thought he escaped from this morning, unrolling what must be a mile of IV tubing and tossing a really big needle in a plastic packet down on the bed. “You were supposed to be resting. You know what ‘resting’ means?”

“I skipped Resting Class in Kindergarten,” Mobius says tiredly.

“You sure did,” Quinta agrees. “Once the doc comes in to stitch you up, you’re going in a healing pod. And that’s the end of that.”

Mobius makes a face. “Aw, come on. Not the healing pods. They make me feel all fuzzy.”

“You’ll be feeling worse than fuzzy if I don’t put you in,” Quinta says, and stabs him with the really big needle.

Healing pods are claustrophobic capsules just big enough for a human to lay down in, where time moves at ten times the speed of normal and you can do a month’s worth of healing in a matter of hours. Mobius hates them, mostly because he always comes out feeling like he has a wicked head cold, but also because the first time he was in one he had a crazy head injury so they couldn’t even sedate him — he just lay there for what felt to him like twenty days, listening to the complete works of seven different William Shakespeares and two Christopher Marlowes, calling Ravonna once every two days for a conversation which was very brief and a little annoyed, since for her that was once every hour.

At least now they can put him under, but he still gets a tight feeling in his chest at the woozy sight of that lid coming down, sealing him in the slipstream. Chill out, he tells himself, mouthing the words. Chill out, man. Jeez.

By the time he wakes up out of the pod with Quinta bustling over him, the ugly bullet wound on his abdomen has turned into an ugly scar. He pokes at it in mild fascination until Quinta bats his hand away and says Quit poking that, and then he’s hustled through the same gauntlet of paperwork he did this morning — a month ago? this morning — at the end of which, walking through the infirmary doors with strong legs and a fuzzy head, he’s a free man.

When he makes it back to his apartment in the residential sector of the TVA, giddy and high on his newfound ability to walk without feeling like he’s going to collapse into a puddle of bloody goo, he finds Loki sitting on his couch watching FISH OR DISH?, the most popular game show from the planet Contraxia.

Mobius sighs and goes to join him on the couch. “Jennifer being a bitch again?”

“An unbelievable harpy,” Loki agrees.

Like every other variant employed in the service of the TVA, Loki was assigned a bunk and a roommate down near the prisoner processing facility, where theoretically the prison guards could watch them like hawks. That theory is not supported by Loki, who’s almost never slept in his own bunk since he made himself a copy of Mobius’ key, and who Mobius is willing to bet a million bucks the prison guards could not locate given one hundred years and a GPS tracker. 

Anyway, Loki’s roommate is a woman named Jennifer, and though Mobius has never met her, from Loki’s reports he understands her to be A) way too friendly, B) a rescuer of discarded kitchen appliances, C) an insufferable bleeding heart who doesn’t so much as smile when Loki tells hilarious stories about stabbing his kid brother, D) without shame, without morals, and prone to “parade about the room with her breasts on full display, as if she’s advertising her wares in a brothel on Vanaheim,” E) eager to make Loki talk about his feelings, and F) an unbelievable harpy.

It’s hard to know which particular offense has driven Loki to Contraxian reality TV this time, so Mobius asks. “What did poor Jenny do now?”

“She does not like to be called ‘Jenny,’” Loki informs him, with the wisdom of someone who has made that mistake.

Mobius holds up a hand in surrender. “Hey. My bad.”

Loki burrows down deeper in the couch, and Mobius’ chest swells with a warm rush of affection. Sometimes watching Loki is like having a big old jungle cat in his apartment, like he’s managed to domesticate something fierce and wild. Or maybe like something fierce and wild has managed to domesticate him.

“She is attempting to counsel our oven and our dishwasher through their, quote ‘marital strife,’” Loki says miserably. “The entire kitchen is up in arms. The appliances have taken sides. I had to come use yours.”

Mobius turns to check over his shoulder, and sure enough, his kitchen looks like a disaster area. He’d figured out pretty early on in their partnership that Loki might be a god in certain circles, but the kitchen certainly isn’t one of them. Loki cooking is sort of like a badger trying to crack an egg — it might get the job done, but it makes a mess and it gets egg everywhere.

At least Loki knows not to make Wake Up Buddy cry; he made that mistake the first night he crashed on Mobius’ couch, and they both had to choke down burnt toast for a week.

Mobius remembers how weird it was, watching Loki eat blackened toast and thinking this is a crown prince. this is a god. this man tried to conquer a planet, and now he was sitting in Mobius’ kitchen getting crumbs all over his lap and really filling out those gray slacks in a way Mobius was pretty sure meant that he had no idea what his size was. It was kind of like Jesus with an office job.

He’s used to it now, though, so it’s not strange at all to watch Loki loosen his tie and kick off his shoes and slowly merge with the couch as they watch unlucky Contraxians get thrown in pools of carnivorous ice fish and forced to reveal their deepest darkest secrets live on air.

Eventually Mobius levers himself off the couch and goes to see to his nighttime ablutions, and when he comes out of the bathroom in the t-shirt and boxers he always sleeps in, Loki is hovering worriedly in the hallway.

“You’re really sure you’re alright?” he asks. He sounds afraid.

“I’m fine,” Mobius promises. “They fixed me up good. No more leaks.”

Loki doesn’t look all that reassured.

“Loki,” Mobius says softly, then clears his throat. “You should get some rest.”

Loki smiles weakly. “As long as you do, too.”

Mobius goes into the bedroom and closes the door, and behind him he can hear the sounds of Loki rummaging around in the den, changing into his nightshirt. Asgardians, Mobius has been informed, mostly sleep in the nude, but Mobius draws the line at having Loki’s bare ass rubbing all over his couch all night, and also Loki rumpled and soft in the morning is enough of a challenge to Code 177-6 without also having to view the inevitable morning wood, so he’d insisted on pajamas and they’d compromised with a nightshirt. It helps that it’s sort of comical, watching a six-foot-two man with washboard abs and broad shoulders shuffle around the kitchen in what basically amounts to a dress. Not that Mobius still doesn’t get ideas, but.

There are no ideas to be had the next morning, though, because by the time Miss Minutes wakes Mobius up at eight o’clock local, Loki is gone.

***

Mobius has always thought of the TVA like a giant organism. All the hunters and the handlers and the support staff — they’re the cells, and the hallways and the monorails are like arteries, ferrying blood around the body. It’s always been a comfort to him to know that he’s part of something bigger, because where most people have families or countries or sports teams, Mobius only has the TVA. He was never a child. He never had a mother, or a father. He never sang a national anthem or went to a football game all decked out in team colors or got in a scrap with his friends on the school playground. But he’s a part of the TVA, he was created for a purpose, a good purpose, and that means that he’s not alone. He’s one cell in a larger, more glorious organism.

He’s not sure where Loki fits in that metaphor.

***

Over the next couple weeks they settle into a strange sort of routine, going off to work separately and both coming back to the same place, without Loki ever even attempting to go home to Jennifer. Mobius tries not to look directly at the fact that in lieu of a working partnership they seem to have developed a domestic partnership and instead focuses his energy alternately on hiding his new roommate situation from Ravonna and spying on Agent Carter.

To Mobius’ disappointment, Carter doesn’t actually seem all that bad — he’s competent, and efficient, and he’s never gotten one of his hunters killed, though he’s also never been in charge of handling a variant.

After a few days of watching Carter’s every move and coming up empty, Mobius is forced to admit — in the privacy of his own mind, but still, forced to admit — that the reason he doesn’t like Carter is because he doesn’t trust anyone else to look after his best friend. Mobius is the only one who knows how to do it right.

It sort of creeps up on him, how much Loki means to him. How close they’ve gotten. It probably shouldn’t, given that Mobius just recently dove in front of a bullet for him, but that was a lightning strike, sign-from-God sort of moment, and in Mobius’ experience realizations spurred by the threat of imminent death aren’t all that reliable.

This one seems to be the exception though, because without Mobius noticing — like water gradually seeping into a room until he was in over his head — Loki has become the most important thing in his life, and not being with him in the field is a slow and constant form of torture.

Because Agent Carter doesn’t know that Loki comes from a Shakespearean hellscape of betrayal and scandal and interplanetary warfare, that he’s prone to theatrics but that the only way to make him talk about something truthfully, honestly, is to get him to sit down and be quiet for a while. He doesn’t know that it took Loki more than a month to stop sleeping until noon because he was used to getting up with the sunrise and the TVA doesn’t have a sunrise, or that he likes to put his pale bare feet up on Mobius’ coffee table and crack his toes and it’s disgusting. He doesn’t know that the last thing Loki needs when he says he wants to be left alone is to be left alone, or that he twitches in his sleep like a cat, or that when he starts showboating on a mission that means he’s losing control of the situation and he needs to be rescued.

Carter doesn’t know any of this stuff, and he doesn’t know a lot of other stuff which is vital to the care and keeping of Mobius’ Loki, which sets Mobius continually on-edge and also, one night when Loki doesn’t come home on time, makes Mobius march straight down to the bullpen and yell in Carter’s face.

He accuses him of a lot of things, like letting Loki get shot and leaving him behind and shooting him himself, but it all just rolls right off Carter’s beautiful goddamn cheekbones, and eventually Mobius runs out of steam.

He’s attracted the attention of everyone in the handlers’ bullpen, which makes it doubly embarrassing when Carter says, “Are you done?”

Mobius is about to channel the embarrassment into round two of his angry tirade, except that Carter spins his chair around to face his desk, giving Mobius his back, and says, “Loki has the flu. I took him home.”

Douchebag, Mobius thinks, but he doesn’t say it out loud because he’s too busy making a beeline for the variant dorms.

If Carter knew Loki better, he’d know that leaving him weak and in Jennifer’s care is tantamount to murder. That’s not to mention how very much Mobius knows Loki wouldn’t want Jennifer to see him like this — he probably doesn’t even want Mobius to see him sick, but Mobius isn’t about to give him a choice in the matter.

He knocks on the door for what feels like five minutes before Loki answers. Jennifer must be out, because it’s dark in the apartment, the only sound inside is Kaiser Kettle pitching a bitch fit on the stove, and Loki’s wrapped in enough blankets to make him look like an eskimo.

“Mobius,” he says thickly. It sounds like he’s got a metric shit ton of mucus in his nose.

“You look awful,” Mobius tells him, shouldering into the room. He takes the kettle off and puts it in the oven to shut it up, then ignores Loki’s bewildered expression and confused protests to herd him through a time door to Mobius’ apartment.

It really is a sad little room, Loki’s variant dorm — bunk beds that must be too short for him and a tiny bathroom with the toilet in the shower, malfunctioning Window Wizard showing a flickering image of some tropical beach that Mobius thinks Jennifer must have chosen, since Loki hates the heat and the ocean and sand. Compared to what Loki’s probably used to, royal bedchambers and sweeping panoramic views and an army of servants at his beck and call, Mobius imagines that he must feel cramped. Like he’s been forced into a box that’s too small.

Mobius ushers him into the bed — Loki must be really out of it, or he’d be arguing for the couch — and watches with a happy-sad twist in his chest as Loki stretches his long legs out of his blanket burrito, cracking his toes before he burrows back into a miserable ball under Mobius’ covers.

He makes a rough, unhappy noise as he does it, halfway between a whine and a huff, and Mobius loses higher cognitive function as he sits down on the edge of the bed and puts his hand on the side of Loki’s head, pushing his hair out of his face. He’s burning up, forehead clammy with sweat, and even though Mobius is sure this is nothing, just one of those run-of-the-mill flus that makes the round every winter on a half dozen humanoid planets, a tendril of fear still snakes through his mind, that this could be serious. Loki could be really sick.

Maybe this is what people feel like when they have family to be worried about. Just — constantly a little bit afraid, but so full of love that it works out to an even trade.

“I haven’t,” Loki starts to say, through chattering teeth, “I haven’t been sick since I was a child.”

Mobius keeps running his fingers through his hair, hoping it’s soothing. “Well, I’d say you’re about due, then.”

Loki makes an annoyed noise. Normally that noise would be an impassioned speech about how gods don’t catch mortal diseases, but Mobius is just glad to see a sign of life. “How about some Fish or Dish?” he suggests.

He gets a weak nod, so he carries the ID-TV into the bedroom, nearly throwing out his back in the process, and sets it up so Loki can see it from where he’s curled up under a bunch of pillows like he’s expecting an air raid. FISH OR DISH? isn’t on, but another Contraxian game show that Loki likes — CONTRAXIA’S NEXT TOP WHORE — is, and Mobius puts it on while he bustles around the apartment collecting things he likes to have when he’s sick, Roxxcart-brand sports drinks and saltine crackers and tissue boxes and the bowl that he keeps in the bathroom just for puking.

When he gets back, Loki is sitting propped against the headboard, swaddled like a baby and glowering at the ID-TV, where his least favorite contestant, a LoveBot called Sindy, is doing one of her confessional interviews. I was made for this, she’s saying vehemently. Literally.

Loki scowls at the screen. “Sindy is such a cunt,” he says. The effect is lessened by how much snot is in his nose.

Mobius settles down on the floor in front of the ID-TV, leaning back against the bed. “I thought Sindy got sent home?”

“They brought her back,” Loki informs him miserably. “Vibronica broke her hip in the butter churner challenge.”

Mobius makes a disappointed noise. “I liked Vibronica. She had a real gung-ho attitude.”

Loki snorts, which turns into a wet-sounding cough, which turns into him needing to use the bowl Mobius brought him. By the time Mobius comes back from the bathroom, Loki is shaking so hard he’s shoved himself back against the headboard to try and stop the tremors. Mobius feels like all his breath has been punched out of his lungs. He deposits the clean bowl on the foot of the bed and climbs in bed next to Loki, pulling his head into his lap, letting him press his face into his stomach and clutch bruising fingers into the small of his back until the shaking stops.

Mobius runs his fingers through Loki’s hair again, because it seemed to help the last time, and wishes more than anything that they could switch places. Loki hasn’t been sick since he was a kid — he’s got no defenses against this.

“I’m sorry,” Loki says against his stomach, voice raspy. “This isn’t…very dignified.”

“Hey,” Mobius says softly, “you should see me when I’m sick. There’s a lot more crying than this, I’ll tell you that.”

Loki laughs weakly, and this time it doesn’t turn into vomiting, which Mobius counts as improvement. “My mother used to stroke my hair like that,” Loki says. He sounds far away.

Mobius never had a mother, but he likes to think that if he had, she’d have been very affectionate. Very tactile. She would’ve ruffled his hair all the time in that fond Hey, Scout ways he’d seen dads do on old Earth sitcoms.

“Did she call you ‘honey’?” he asks, before his brain can catch up with his mouth.

Loki gives him an odd one-eyed look where he’s still got his face buried in the folds of Mobius’ shirt, but he answers, “No. She called me vennen min.”

“My friend?” Mobius translates.

“Asgardian is not a very affectionate language,” Loki says.

“I had noticed that, actually.”

Mobius doesn’t stop stroking Loki’s hair, and Loki doesn’t take his head out of his lap, but gradually they melt into a more comfortable positions; gradually they go back to watching the TV. It’s a good thing all of Mobius’ shame went out the window somewhere around the tenth episode of this damn show, because when it comes down to it they’re basically watching porn together, and Loki’s head is in sort of an unfortunate place, and — yeah. But Mobius has never really liked porn anyways and Loki seems to be taking it in with a sort of clinical eye, muttering comments on the contestants’ form and technique performing sex positions Mobius has never heard of like he knows what he’s talking about.

“Sure,” Mobius mostly says, noncommittal, “that’s an awful snow angel. Worst I’ve ever seen.”

Loki gives him a considering look that Mobius is sure would be much more inscrutable if he weren’t full of mucus and red around the eyes. “I thought you watched my whole life,” he says. “Multiple lives. Did you never watch me have sex?”

No,” Mobius says, fast enough that it probably seems like he’s lying, even though he’s not. He straightens awkwardly, all of a sudden hyper-aware of the fact that they’re watching porn together in his bed. “Look, there are two times in a man’s life that should always be private — when he’s in the bathroom, and when he’s in the bedroom.”

“I’ve had a lot of sex outside of the bedroom,” Loki informs him.

“I’m sure you have,” Mobius says. “Lucky for you, the metaphorical bedroom extends to wherever you decide to take your dick out, so as far as I’m concerned your virginity remains intact.”

There’s a long minute where the only sounds are LoveBots on the ID-TV and the quiet machine hum of the TVA around them. Then Loki says — sleepy and sort of slurred, voice so low that on second thought Mobius isn’t sure he really heard it — “You should watch. I think…I think I’d like for you to watch.”

Mobius looks over, but by the time he does, Loki’s eyes are closed, and he’s asleep.

***

The flu burns through Loki for three days before his fever breaks, and Mobius spends the whole time pretending to be sick himself in non-official comms to Ravonna, telling elaborate lies about how just the thought of chicken soup makes him crazy nauseous and how she really shouldn’t requisition him some and come over to pet his hair and watch his favorite version of Lethal Weapon 4, like she usually does when he’s got a cold.

Mobius watches more FISH OR DISH? than he ever wanted to and manages to get Loki interested in 8-dimensional Zehobereian cricket, which Mobius likes mostly because it’s impossible to follow the rules and which Loki seems to despise for the same reason, but with enough righteous incredulity that he won’t let Mobius change the channel.

He dabs Loki’s forehead with a cold towel and worries his thumb over the tense bone of his temple and calls him honey enough that Loki stops scowling performatively when he hears it, that it stops feeling like a joke.

At night Mobius alternates between retreating to the couch — a long, comfortable couch, which is why he never felt too bad about making Loki sleep on it — and dozing propped up against the headboard while Loki shivers feverishly next to him, molars clenched so hard Mobius can see the tension in his jaw.

In the early hours of the night when the Window Wizard is still tuned to a calming sunset over the primordial sea of the Earth, he watches Loki sleep — not in a creepy way, just because he likes the shape of Loki’s chin and the shadow of his eyelashes and he wants to make sure all that snot in his nose doesn’t suffocate him — and thinks about how he probably wouldn’t sit at Ravonna’s bedside even if she had D’Rillian fever, how she wouldn’t want him to anyways.

Somehow, without Mobius noticing until it was too late, Loki has staged a coup on his entire life.

For all that he’s part of a larger organism, Mobius has always been alone. He’s gotten pretty used to the idea that he’s always going to be alone. No parents, no family, just his boss who he was maybe a little too close to by TVA standards and a bunch of Minutemen under his command who wouldn’t hesitate to prune him for the good of the Sacred Timeline.

But now there’s Loki, and — hell.

Suddenly Mobius wants stuff he’s never let himself want before.

On the fourth day, he wakes to find himself alone in bed, keeled over onto the pillows where Loki should be. He can hear the shower on in the other room, and when he knocks on the door, Loki shouts out that he hasn’t fallen and cracked his head and that Mobius needs to stop hovering.

Miffed, Mobius drifts into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. By the time Wake Up Buddy is done, Loki has emerged from the bathroom toweling his hair, already dressed in the extra work clothes he keeps in a drawer in Mobius’ room.

“Carter called,” he says. “We’ve pulled a variant that’s already evaded three teams. Should be an interesting mission.”

“You sure you’re feeling up to that?” Mobius asks. He has to fight through a huge wave of fury at Agent Carter to even get the words out, so he’s gratified to hear that they sound so normal.

“I’m right as rain,” Loki assures him, popping a piece of bread out of Tsarina Toast-It that he must have put in before hopping in the shower. “Never better. I feel like I could win the Tournament of Heroes with flying colors.”

Mobius, having watched nearly every second of Loki’s life, knows that’s bullshit — no one except Thor ever seems to win the Tournament of Heroes — but the wall of male friendship is back up between them this morning, so he doesn’t call Loki on it. He doesn’t feel like he can.

“Alright,” he says instead, sipping his coffee. “If you say so.”

Loki gives him a smile. It’s one of the fake ones. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he says.

I doubt it, Mobius thinks, I know it already.

Out loud he tells Loki, “Stay safe, alright? Don’t be a hero, doesn’t matter how good you feel.”

Loki’s smile dwindles, turning more genuine. “I never am,” he says softly.

He makes an aborted motion towards Mobius — as if to hug him, or touch his face, or something — then steps back before he can get there, that too-wide smile back in place. “See you later,” he says, and departs.

The door closes behind him with barely a click, and the apartment feels cavernously empty in his absence. Mobius sighs, and beside him, Tsarina Toast-It quips, “You’ve got it bad, Mr. Mobius.”

“Boy, do I know it,” Mobius mutters, and takes a long, long drink of his coffee.

***

Mobius has always thought of himself as one of those people who was content with what he had. Content to dream, maybe, without ever attaining his dreams.

He’s never really hungered for anything before, not like this, but when he lays alone in bed at night all his belief in the greater good and the Sacred Timeline narrows down to: Loki, skin damp and fresh out of the shower; Loki, sitting on the floor with his head in his hands and his hands covered in Mobius’ blood; Loki snoring softly into the pillows next to him.

Never having experienced love, Mobius has developed a lot of theories about it. He’d always thought that there were two kinds of love. There was the quiet, everyday kind of love, and there was the kind that could bring down mountains. The kind that upended entire timelines.

Now he thinks, maybe there aren’t two kinds of love after all. Maybe there’s just the one.

***

Carter’s team is gone for two days, and Mobius spends the intervening night hunched over his desk in the empty bullpen and looking over his shoulder every three seconds like a teenager looking at porn on the family computer. Granted, he’s making a supercut of every time Loki has ever had sex in a video file named QUARTERLY EXPENSE REPORT, SUB-SECTION Y, so he sort of is looking at porn on the family computer.

He has Miss Minutes do most of the work for him — she gives him an extremely judgmental look when he tells her what he wants, and he thinks she’s about three seconds away from telling him he needs to find Jesus again — so he doesn’t actually see any of the clips that are getting loaded in. But every once in a while through the white noise of the time stream, there’s a wanton moan or a snatch of Loki’s voice saying fuckfuckfuck or harder, harder, GOD, and Mobius has to put his head down on the desk and think of the FISH OR DISH? 100 Most Gruesome Deaths special.

When he gets back to his apartment around two in the morning with his Quarterly Expense Report, Mobius can’t bring himself to watch it. He tries for a couple hours, vacillating between the ID-TV — now back in the den — and the bedroom with his hands on his hips, but in the end he just tosses the data chip in the drawer of his bedside table and goes to sleep.

***

All he can think about the next day are those noises Loki was making. He thinks about them while he gets breakfast in the cafeteria, while he interviews three very boring variants of Jennifer that Hunter B-15 has brought in, and while he handles a minor incident in which one timeline has somehow ended up with seventeen different Infinity Stones.

He thinks about them so much that he spends the whole day in a low-key state of arousal, so that by the time he gets home and finds Loki asleep on his couch in front of a rerun of NEPTUNE’S GOT TALENT, he’s got almost nothing left in the way of inhibitions.

Loki’s feet are bare, socks balled up in his shoes under the couch. Mobius sits down on the coffee table, leaning his elbows on his bent knees, eyes tracing the lines of Loki’s face, relaxed and delicate in sleep. For a moment he hesitates, suddenly afraid — afraid that maybe he hasn’t staged as much of a coup on Loki’s life as Loki has on his, that maybe this panther is only pretending to have been tamed — but then he remembers that Loki cracked two of his ribs putting pressure on his wound in that alley, and that when he yelled YOU ENORMOUS, EXCEPTIONAL IDIOT, he sounded hysterical, like under the rain on his face he might have been crying.

It’s just Loki, Mobius figures. It’s just his best friend. What’s there to be afraid of?

He puts his hand on Loki’s shoulder, waits for him to blink awake, then says, “I don’t want to watch you have sex with other people.”

He waits for the inevitable joke about him being a prude or voyeurism being a very healthy form of sexual engagement, but it never comes. Something must register — Mobius’ expression or the words other people — because Loki doesn’t say anything for a long minute. He just studies Mobius’ face in the light from the TV, while Mobius studies him back, noticing the tired lines around his eyes and mouth, the deep, thinking notch between his eyebrows.

“I’m not so good at sharing,” Mobius adds after a while, in case there’s any confusion as to what he meant. “I mean — ” he huffs a self-deprecating little laugh — “I can hardly stand sharing you with Carter.”

“You’re not sharing me with Carter,” Loki says distantly, still studying him. “Carter is a plague on society. I hate him.”

Mobius exhales. “Well that’s a relief.”

Loki reaches out and touches the corner of his mouth, just under his mustache. Mobius realizes with a lurch that this is how Loki meant to touch him the other day, in the kitchen, before he left. It’s the same trajectory.

“You’re a ridiculous man, I hope you know,” Loki says, but his voice is fond. “I can’t believe you affect me the way you do.”

“How do I affect you?” Mobius starts to ask, but before he can, Loki sits up awkwardly on one elbow and kisses him.

They’ve always been pretty liberal with casual touches, guiding hands on backs and knees bumping against each other under tiny cafeteria tables. Mobius realizes now, with Loki’s mouth on his, that those were just tiny trickles breaking through hairline cracks in the dam around the massive, infinite ocean of how much he wants to touch Loki.

He surges forward against him, practically climbing on top of him on the couch, and it’s not sexy at all except that Loki’s got two handfuls of his ass and that apparently he kisses slightly tilted, with his top lip first and his bottom lip second, like he’s taking a bite of Mobius’ mouth.

Mobius makes a big, blustery noise that he’s never heard himself make before and breathes, “Jesus Christ.”

“I believe we have a Jesus variant in holding,” Loki murmurs against his lips. “I, however, am — ”

“You’re a little shit, that’s what you are,” Mobius says, but Loki only laughs into his mouth and kisses him again.

In some astronomically distant corner of Mobius’ brain, there are warning bells going off about Code 177-6, and pruning, and death by a thousand I told you sos, but they’re hard to hear over the Hallelujah Chorus of Loki rolling them over and pressing a hot, heavy thigh between his legs.

Mobius knots his hands in Loki’s hair and mostly tries not to burst into flames as Loki breaks away to trail wet, open-mouthed kisses down the line of his throat, fingers working open his tie as he does it.

“Hey,” Mobius says, breathless. “You should — we should — “

Slow down, he means to say, but finishing a sentence doesn’t seem to be on the table, so he figures they can slow down after they’ve torn each other’s clothes off.

Mobius won’t remember, later, how they make it into the bedroom. What he’ll remember is Loki magicking away their clothes, the shock of suddenly being naked on top of the sheets when Mobius usually does this sort of thing between the covers with the lights off, a few frantic minutes of friction and an inevitable awkward morning after. He ducks to hide his face in Loki’s bare shoulder, feeling his cheeks heat, but before he can start talking himself out of this, the great naked muscle of Loki’s body moves underneath him and Loki says, “Mobius,” coaxing, and all his embarrassment is gone.

In its place is a raw, hungry want that Mobius has never felt before. He wants to swallow Loki whole, but he settles for framing his broad, muscled chest with his hands and sucking messy kisses into his sternum, the hollow of his throat, the pebbled pink peaks of his nipples. Loki makes crazy noises under his tongue, noises that drive Mobius crazy, and when he pulls back a little and sees the livid red marks his mouth has left, a map across Loki’s pale skin, that drives him crazy, too.

He starts to sink lower, under the covers, because he’s suddenly developed a Norse-god-shaped oral fixation, but Loki catches him by the hair and pulls him back up into a kiss.

“I won’t last like that,” he says, so Mobius bites his chin lightly and says, “Okay. Okay, honey,” and tangles their legs together so they can rut against each other like teenagers.

“You can fuck me,” Loki says on a gasp, “Mobius, you can — “

“Later,” Mobius says, equally breathless, “later, Loki, later,” because he might not have watched those Quarterly Expense Reports, Sub-Section Y, but he knows Loki well enough to know he’s probably one of those people who thinks sex is all about power, and he doesn’t want to navigate fucking until he’s had some time to think about it.

Loki’s long, thin fingers frame the side of Mobius’ face. Mobius rests their foreheads together and looks in his eyes from point blank range, into the desperate steeple of his eyebrows, and for a moment he loses his rhythm entirely. “Fuck," he moans.

“I’ve never heard you swear,” Loki laughs, delighted.

“Yeah, well, you’re gonna hear it some more in a minute,” Mobius says, and Loki breathes, “Gods,” and flips them, so he’s on top.

Mobius flings out a hand to scrabble at the outlet under the bedside table, full of bright ideas about unplugging Miss Minutes so she can’t decide to drop in on them in flagrante delicto, but his fingers don’t seem to be working all that well and it takes him a good minute to get enough of a grip on the wire.

When he does, he rips it out of the wall with a shower of sparks and a sudden smell of burning.

Loki jerks away from his neck with a look of alarm. “Did you just electrocute yourself?”

“I electrocuted the wall,” Mobius assures him, only half-sure that's true, “come on, baby, it’s fine, come back here — “

He coaxes Loki back down over him, so that every inch of his skin is pressed to every inch of Mobius’, knees stationed side to side on the bowed old mattress as they ride a slow, steady grind. Mobius thinks about things you don’t expect and things that are better because you don’t expect them and things you can see coming a mile away, and somehow he knows that Loki is all three. When he comes he comes shuddering with Loki’s name caught in his throat, and Loki follows him a minute later, sobbing with his face pressed to the center of Mobius’ chest, and Mobius holds him through it, calling him honey and pressing firm kisses to the side of his face and his hopeless hair and the flushed red shell of his ear.

“I swear I don’t usually finish that fast,” Loki says against his side, while Mobius is still catching his breath. “You just — “

“I’m a sex god, I know,” Mobius says humbly. “It’s okay. This happens all the time.”

Loki lifts his head to glare at him, but there’s mirth dancing in his eyes. “You’d know if you watched me,” he says. “I can make myself bigger, too. Maybe you’d like that next time.”

Mobius wonders who taught him that he had to change himself to make them stay, then decides that it doesn’t matter, as long as Mobius gets to be the one to teach him different.

“I just want you,” he says softly, tucking Loki’s hair behind his ear. “The real you. However you want to be.”

Loki’s eyes shutter. “I don’t know who the real me is,” he confesses.

Mobius’ heart twists. “Well,” he says. “I do.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“I’m pretty sure he’s the guy who cracks his toes on my coffee table,” Mobius teases, just to see him smile, then says, serious, “He’s the guy I trust more than anyone else in the world. And he’s the guy in bed with me right now.”

Loki meets his eyes. He’s starting to smoosh the air out of Mobius, with how big he is, but Mobius wouldn’t dream of moving him. Not for another few seconds, at least.

“Why did you take that bullet for me?” Loki asks, after a minute.

His hand drags over Mobius’ side, to the ugly knot of scar on his stomach, and with a jolt Mobius remembers that he isn’t supposed to let Loki see that. He’s supposed to be the one taking care of Loki, not the other way around — he worries that maybe they won’t be the sort of people that can take care of each other, that they’ll only drag each other down. But then, that’s stupid, isn’t it? They’ve taken care of each other in the field a million times, and there’s no reason this should be any different.

“It wouldn’t have been such a bad way to go,” Mobius says softly.

Loki makes a noise in his throat that’s not quite a laugh. “All deaths are horrible,” he says.

“Not if you’re dying for something important.”

“I’m not important,” Loki says.

“You are to me,” says Mobius. “I’m sorry if I ever made you think you weren't.”

Loki bends and presses a careful kiss to his scar. “You didn’t.”

***

Four days later, Mobius attaches the wrong Quarterly Expense Report in a comm to Ravonna.

He realizes what he’s done the second he hits send, and he knows from experience that no amount of bargaining with Miss Minutes will convince her to un-send it, so for a long time he just sits there at his desk, completely numb, wondering idly if his friendship with his boss extends to her letting a prune-able offense slide by unnoticed.

It probably doesn’t.

Well, he thinks. Better face the music.

On his way to the gallows, he runs into Loki in the hall. Loki’s smile drops off his face the second he sees Mobius’ expression, which must be a real doozy, because on top of the smile thing Loki also grabs him and pulls him sideways into an empty Time Theater.

“What’s wrong?” he asks. “Did a mission go south? Did someone die?”

“No,” Mobius says, “no, Jesus, nothing like that. Thank God.”

Loki shakes his head, bewildered. “Then what?”

Mobius sighs. He steps away from Loki and paces to the far end of the theater, rubbing his hands over his face.

He realizes that he's stubbly, he forgot to shave this morning, probably because he’d woken up to find Loki already jerking off slow and sleepy in bed next to him, so he rolled over and reached to join their fingers, and said, Can I, Let me, I always wanted to, because he had always wanted to, ever since Loki started sleeping on his couch and showering in his shower, and so he’d helped Loki masturbate and watched the expressive motions of his face and later, when they were moving around each other in the bathroom and Loki stopped to pull him into a long, close-mouthed kiss, shaving probably didn’t seem all that important.

Mobius stops, facing the projector screen, and feels tears pricking his eyes. “I just sent Ravonna a bunch of videos of you having sex,” he says, without turning around, “so she probably knows we’re sleeping together.”

Loki makes a confused sound. “And that’s bad because…?”

“Code 177-6,” Mobius answers. “Don’t tell me you didn’t read the handbook.”

He turns around to find Loki still looking bewildered. “She probably won’t prune me,” Mobius says, but his voice is small and he sounds about as confident as he feels, which is not very.

Loki’s eyes darken. He’s never trusted Ravonna, for some reason, always been very hostile towards her, and usually Mobius defends her, but in this particular instance he has neither the energy nor the inclination, so instead he just sits down on the edge of the stage and watches as Loki takes out his TemPad and punches out a furious message.

“I don’t think that’s gonna help,” Mobius says weakly, but Loki ignores him.

He shoots off the message, and then he crosses the room in three strides and crouches in front of Mobius with a very serious, earnest look on his face. Mobius sort of wishes, all of a sudden, that he hadn’t run into him in the hall, because this morning would have been sort of a perfect goodbye —  unworried, unhurried, happy — and now Loki’s going to try and fight it, and it’s going to be a mess.

Loki starts to say, “Mobius — “

Mobius surges forward and kisses him hard.

It’s a painful, clumsy kiss. It doesn't have much to recommend it except that it might be the last time Mobius ever gets to kiss Loki, so he doesn’t care how bad it is — he’s going to make it last. Loki kisses him back, giving as good as he gets, but he seems sort of confused about it, how vehement Mobius is being. Mobius holds Loki's head between his hands and leans forward on his toes, so that Loki has to catch him before he unbalances, and he thinks, God, what a shame we didn’t get to do this forever. We could’ve done this forever.

“Mobius,” Loki says again, when they finally separate. “I have to tell you something. But first I want you to know…I want you to know that I’ve never had anyone like you. Anyone I could talk to, freely, without arguing, without worrying they’d think less of me.”

He smiles a little, amending, “Well, anyone except — “

“Please don’t compare me to your mother right now,” Mobius begs. “You sucked my dick eight hours ago.”

Loki’s smile gets wider, but there’s something bittersweet about it, as if he’s about to say goodbye. Mobius tightens his hands in the fabric at Loki’s shoulders. “Loki,” he asks, but he doesn’t know what he’s asking.

“I met you before,” Loki says quickly, like ripping off a band-aid. “You were made to forget me.”

Mobius blinks. Of all the things he thought might be about to come out of Loki’s mouth, that really wasn’t one of them.

“I forgot you?” he echoes.

Loki takes himself gently out of Mobius’ hands, unwinding Mobius’ fingers from his shirt and setting them back on Mobius’ knees one at a time. He gets up and goes to the table, then calls up Miss Minutes and asks for a file that Mobius doesn’t recognize the name of, with a security level he shouldn’t have clearance for but somehow does.

The projector turns on, and Mobius squints in the light, shielding his eyes.

Loki beckons him over, so he gets up and goes. They stand side by side at the table and watch as a chapter of Loki’s life that Mobius has never seen before unfolds at a hundred times speed on the theater screen.

“There was a Loki variant, in this other timeline, called Sylvie,” Loki begins. His voice has taken on the same gentle, careful cadence it does when he tells stories about Asgard, as if he's talking about something that happened very long ago that nevertheless still hurts him. “She wanted to get revenge on the Timekeepers for taking her from her timeline when she was a child. For forcing her to live as a fugitive, always running, always looking over her shoulder.”

Mobius watches Sylvie’s face on the big screen, the manic hostility in her eyes, the burning hate. “You knew her?” he asks his Loki.

Loki nods, face sad. “I loved her, for a time. I helped her evade you, and I helped her kill the Timekeepers.”

Mobius looks over, startled. “You — ?”

“We killed the Timekeepers, with the help of Hunter B-15,” Loki confirms, with a small smile. “But they were only robots. Figureheads, put in place by a being known as He Who Remains, who lived in a fortress at the end of time.”

“Did you kill him too?” Mobius asks. He feels insane asking it, but then — all of this feels insane. A female Loki? Robots? A fortress at the end of time? The only reason he’s not laughing is that he knows you can’t fake Time Theater footage. Not even with magic.

So everything he’s watching — Loki and Sylvie locking blades in a castle in front of someone who must be "He Who Remains," the man at the end of time — it all has to be real. It’s all real.

“Sylvie tried to kill him,” Loki says beside him, as on screen the two of them come to a stalemate, blades crossed, Loki’s eyes desperate, Sylvie’s hard and dead with an ugly, determined rage. “But I thought it was the wrong thing to do. To risk that much chaos, that much suffering, that much…” Loki clears his throat. “Anyway. I made a deal.”

On screen, Sylvie pulls Loki into a hard, fighting kiss, and Loki shoves her away. He throws out a shell of green magic to hold her at bay while she pounds against it, snarling, her curls a furious storm around her head, then turns to face He Who Remains.

“What was your deal?” Mobius asks, over the silent video.

“He Who Remains was tired,” Loki says emotionlessly. “Or bored. Either way, he wanted someone else to take over as the puppeteer behind the Timekeepers. I told him I would do it — I would let him erase the TVA’s memory, and reset everything with myself at the helm of it all — for a price.”

The screen goes dark.

“What price?” Mobius asks. He whispers, but his voice is suddenly very loud.

Loki turns away from him, shoulders tense. “You should also know that you’re a variant,” he says. “You’re all variants. Everyone who works for the TVA. I kept all of you here, as — as slaves, because I was too selfish to risk letting you go. You should all hate me. You have every right to.”

Mobius takes the nauseous lurch of panic he feels at the words you’re a variant and puts it neatly in a box to deal with later, when the love of his life isn’t having an emotional breakdown in front of him. He walks over to Loki and slides his hands up his back, feeling his muscles get even more tense, like he’s worried Mobius is going to hurt him.

“Hey,” Mobius says gently, tugging at him until he turns around. “I could never hate you. Never. That’s an impossible choice. That’s — you did the right thing. You did.”

He has no idea if Loki did the right thing or not, but his cheeks are streaked with tears and he looks younger than Mobius has ever seen him, like a scared little boy, so Mobius just says it again, “You did the right thing,” and wrestles his tense, unresponsive body down into a hug. Loki seems to melt, like whatever wall he’s built around himself has crumbled all at once and left him defenseless. He clings to Mobius, shivering, and Mobius runs a hand up and down his spine, crinkling his shirt, until he quiets.

After a minute, Loki says, “My mother.”

Mobius pulls back to look up at him, not following. “Your mother?”

Loki’s mouth twists into a rueful grin. “The price I required. That my mother die naturally in her sleep, surrounded by loved ones, in every timeline.”

There are tears clinging to his eyelashes. Mobius pulls his head down and kisses them away. Loki’s fingers tremble against his back, and he says again, “You should hate me.”

“Never,” Mobius repeats. “Never in all of time, Loki.”

Five minutes later, Mobius will get a sort of shellshocked comm from Ravonna letting him know that, in an unprecedented turn of events, his relationship with Loki has been given an exemption from Code 177-6 and a personal stamp of approval from the Timekeepers.

And at the same time — “Hey,” Mobius will remember, coming up for air, “if you’re in charge of all of this, why do you still live with Jennifer? Why do you still work for Carter?”

And Loki, who has watched many, many episodes of UNDERCOVER BOSS, will say, “It’s much easier to observe your employees when they don’t know they’re being observed. Don’t you know I’m observing you right now?”

And Mobius will grumble and bite Loki’s lips in retaliation, while he realizes inside the privacy of his own skull — Oh. That’s why he always smelled so familiar. It’s because he is.

***

Mobius has a healthy and protracted freak-out about the fact that he’s a variant about a week later, while Loki’s out on another mission with Carter. Mostly his freak-out involves staring at walls and wondering if he likes jet-skis so much because he was a jet-ski salesman in his other life; he makes an unconscious decision not to touch the wife-and-kids question with a ten foot pole. There’s no reason to, not when the Mobius that he is here, now, is so in love with Loki that sometimes he feels like it’s going to tear him in two. Like the emotion is so impossibly big that it can’t fit in his chest.

They got lunch together in the cafeteria before Loki had to leave, and Mobius let Loki take half his food without arguing — he’d always argued before, and it made Loki pause with the sandwich halfway to his mouth, frowning, to ask, “What is this? Does this mean I’m your boyfriend or something?”

Mobius snorted. “You’re not my boyfriend.”

“What am I, then?” Loki said, mock-offended, but his voice was teasing. He thought boyfriend was just as childish as Mobius did.

Mobius shook his head a little, digging around for a joke. Instead he found something that, in hindsight, was probably too truthful to say over half an egg salad sandwich.

“You’re a miracle,” he said. “You’re a goddamn miracle. That’s what you are.”

Loki stared at him for a long minute, totally speechless. Egg salad slopped out of his half of the sandwich, onto the table. “You — “ he started to say, then gave up. He picked up Mobius’ hand and kissed the pad of each of his fingers one by one, then stood up and leaned over his chair and kissed his mouth, so painstakingly gentle that it stole Mobius’ breath.

By the time he pulled away, the whole cafeteria was watching. “I’ll be back soon,” he promised, and walked out.

“Dramatic son of a bitch,” Mobius muttered, watching him go, but his heart was in his throat.

Now, sitting on his couch staring at the wall, Mobius thinks maybe the trouble didn’t start with Loki’s transfer at all. Maybe it started when Loki cracked two of his ribs, or when Mobius heard the shot, or when he met Loki for the first time in a Time Theater all those years ago, or when he saw that drawing in his Kindergarten textbook under the heading LOKI.

Maybe it started before time. Mobius doesn’t really care. He’s just glad he has trouble now.