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Something Stolen

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Thor used Banner as a body shield. The cowardice and moral depravity of such an act would have surprised Loki if he hadn’t already known something was off with Thor. Not that he particularly cared about Banner’s health. In fact, things would have been according to plan for Loki if Banner’s interference had occurred a minute earlier when Agent Barton was shooting at the Asgardian formerly known as God of Mischief.

Now, there was a Sword of Truth sticking through Banner.

This series of events meant a few things for Loki. First, there would be no quick escape. Second, there would be no stabbing (and saving, really) Thor. Third, an arrowhead was getting painfully friendly with Loki’s right scapula. And finally, he had a much higher likelihood of dying, seeing as he’d skewered Doctor Banner, AKA The Hulk, in startlingly close proximity.

Everyone but Captain America gasped comically. “Thor…” were the Captain’s tones of warning.

Maybe this day would have gone differently if his planning had been just a bit better. Loki blamed reincarnation. He blamed killing that reincarnation and the guilty conscience that steeped every moment of sobriety.

It should only have hurt the good doctor a little, but he seemed to be taking it personally enough to go green. His comrades appeared to both sigh collectively —that Loki hadn’t actually killed Banner -- and brace themselves for the oncoming rage.

Loki cringed — the Sword of Truth had cost him a pretty Wheat Penny of magic — and let go the sword as green muscles rippled out from Banner’s pale skin. A half-formed Hulk-hand slapped Loki back into the wall. Over the crumble of drywall, he could hear Iron Man cursing about the new sofa Banner-Hulk was smashing as he transformed. Loki also saw Barton and the Black Widow loading their weapons. Thor was shoving the still-impaled and shape-shifting Banner for a clear shot at Loki with his hammer. Mjolnir lifted. She crackled.

Loki turned invisible. He rolled to avoid an arrow, ducked behind a sofa to avoid another and a companion bite from the Widow, summoned a noise distraction to lure their fire east of him, and ran. Down the hall, he opened a stairwell door and hid on the landing.

Frowning, he touched the rubbery eaves of the arrow in his back. With a sleight of magic and a grimace of pain, he disintegrated the arrow and counted the seconds until someone appeared.

The night would be a failure if he didn’t get that sword back. Thor was uncontrollable. The Hulk not much better. They at least would find him. It was the others that complicated his mission.

Loki cast projections of himself around the room just before Captain America peeked around the door. When the man finally came in, he threw the shield and managed to hit nearly every illusion. Loki ducked and tossed a dagger. The point buried in the Captain’s inner thigh, and he cried out gruffly, whispering something into his communication device.

“Oh, come now, I avoided all the important bits,” Loki sneered. Blood was turning the blue uniform at his thigh violet --a lot of blood. Well, he thought he’d avoided the important bits.

He allowed his thoughts to darken, stomach twisting at imagined deaths and dismemberments. It activated the stolen shadow threads on his coat and hid him from vision again.

“He’s invisible!” the Captain shouted, shield raised. For a moment, one foot up on the stairs, Loki pitied him: a solitary soldier, hand-to-hand combat and incredible strength his only weapons at this distance.

A thunderous roar boomed down the hall and Thor burst into the stairwell, looking right and left. A purple bruise had swollen on his cheekbone like a tumor. Loki smirked — Hulk must have punished Thor for using him as a human shield.

Loki’s smirk disappeared when the Hulk, too, stepped onto the landing. Had it not been the Sword of Truth, Hulk would have snapped the blade out by now. But there it was, writhing in confused magic, making the Hulk look like a big, walking martini olive. Glad as Loki was to find the sword somewhere accessible, it was clear there would soon be no space to move.

So, breath heaving once, he cast an illusion. The clone went downstairs, he went up, the Hulk on his heels. An arrow followed him. Loki cursed, ducking. Barton must have shot the clone right off and dispelled it. They knew he was going up, even if they couldn’t see him.

Over Banner’s monstrous nasal breathing, he heard a moan from Captain America— something about rooms -- but Loki didn’t look back.

He left the stairwell and alighted what had to be the blandest suite in Avengers Tower. How disappointing— he’d hoped to lay waste to more of Stark’s lovely furnishings.

The Hulk, too, hit the landing and tried to step into the room. Loki struck at the green face —a distraction, really, to keep him blocking the doorway long enough. He ducked as Banner punched empty air, using the move to step behind the monster’s right leg. Loki extracted another dagger — larger than the one he’d thrown at Captain America — and stabbed the tendons connecting green foot to green calf. The resulting roar was both terrifying and tragic, but it kept Hulk still enough for Loki to retrieve the Sword, pulling it out with a ruddy squelch. He pocketed Gram as only a quantum-shrinking bag could allow.

Loki knew the Hulk wouldn’t keep the door blocked for long. He ran into the room, straight towards the windows —Thor’s rescue would have to wait, because Loki couldn’t just turn invisible and back all day (there were rules to this sort of thing).

Five feet from the window panes, a voice and an electric sound stopped him. “Oh, no you don’t. I can call the hotline if you like, but you’re not jumping today.”

Tony Stark had a palm extended in his direction. How had he lost track of Iron Man? Now the other Avenger’s were coming in and it was seconds before Loki met a really grisly doom or vanished. He pulled out his last dagger — a very special one — and cocked his arm back to throw.

He was too late. Metal scaled down the glass, blocking his escape. The elevator dinged behind him. From it, the Captain and Clint Barton emerged. Loki ducked behind a beige sofa just before an arrow pierced the air. He couldn’t see anyone, but he heard quick, light footsteps— the Captain was advancing. Military tactics. Thor followed Captain’s orders in battle for good reason; the man could lead a team.

“No more talking?” he shouted over cushions. “I liked the talking.”

“Jarvis, go ahead and patch Loki through to the Manhattan Suicide Hotline. He wants to talk,” Stark said from the kitchen, moving into visible range with one gauntlet glowing violently. He discharged electricity, and Loki didn’t roll quite fast enough.

Sir, I imagine you mean the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the machine clipped. And we will not be abusing their invaluable services for your humor.

Loki’s side burned. He heard Stark arguing with the machine while he fingered his coat’s shadowthreads— perfectly intact. Good old Dwarven artistry.

Enough! Come out, rat!”

That was Thor’s voice, rumbling from somewhere near the stairwell doorway. Loki heard a scuffle and flipped his dagger in the air casually, catching it by the tip. He had to time this just right.

Steve Rogers bowled into him from around the couch, as expected, not quite winding him but impressively locking out his dagger-wielding arm. “Thor,” the Captain was panting, breath stirring Loki’s hair as he tried to grapevine his legs. “Stick to the plan.”

“No need to get so possessive, Captain,” Loki breathed, leaning back and speaking near the other man’s ear as they grappled towards the coffee table. “Plenty of me to go around.”

“The plan is cowardly,” Thor shouted, and Loki saw him vault over the couch. The others were guarding the exit and ready with suppressive fire. He understood the Captain’s quickly-made tactic, saw the beauty in it even as Thor brought it crashing down around them.

One last time, Loki grabbed onto dark thoughts. This time, he let himself recall the screaming child— the Loki that could have been, the Loki he’d killed —and turned invisible.

He felt both sick and high, twisting and jamming his knee into the wound in the Captain’s leg. Vaulting over the coffee table, he almost escaped Thor’s grasp. Reaching into his pocket, he bit down a scream as Mjolnir blasted into his shoulder, just where Barton’s arrow had been. Blood came from where he was biting his lower lip. He kicked out at Thor’s knees, re-sized Gram, and stabbed Thor in the heart.

The Captain was scrambling to his feet. “What the…”

Dark, molten magic swirled around the sword, flooding out from Thor’s mouth as he bellowed, “O-out, damn you!” His voice somehow seemed tight, like it was coming from somewhere not quite in the room but getting there.

Loki pulled out his homemade runic jar, opening it and watching nervously as the corruption left Thor and wafted towards the humming runes. It wouldn’t take long to finish his mission, now.

“There you are,” Loki heard Stark's voice. Something burned into his side. “Emperor’s New Clothing no good?”

The shadowthreads hadn’t been okay. He’d ponder that later, but first, he had to duck another blast and projectiles from the Widow.

His head was foggy, but there was something important he was missing. Cursing, he bodily protected the jar, screaming as another arrow hit him. Illusions, he thought, and cast them in a swirling mass, moving with them. Thor pulled the sword from his chest, flinging the last of the magic from his chest as if it were blood. Loki held out the jar to catch the black vapors.

Five crushing footsteps barreled through his illusory cloud.

The Hulk picked Loki up by the arm and slammed him into the ground. Pain exploded in his shoulder and spine, blackening his vision.

A few seconds he must have been out, for when he opened his eyes again the jar wasn’t in his grasp. He hadn’t sealed it. He saw it lying on the ground, empty. The runes were quiet.

Thor was trying to restrain the Hulk, whose strangely-colored foot and unwavering gaze suggested he hadn’t forgiven Loki for the dagger earlier.

“Steve,” the Widow’s voice barked out. “Crystal Priori.” Codes. Battle tactics. Loki had worked alone too long, hadn’t thought long enough about those things. Still, he’d almost succeeded.

His shoulder and side were on fire as someone started lifting him. “I know,” the Captain said. The Captain was moving him. “Jarvis, key the Greenhouse.”

Half of Loki’s vision was gone, the skin around his eyes sealing up in bruise, but he heard the Widow murmur something to the Captain. At the sound of rubber creaking and the swerving motion of Mr. Patriotism adjusting his hold on Loki, he turned.

“No time for paintball,” he told the gas-mask of Captain America. Loki couldn’t see his mouth, but the man’s eyes crinkled like he was smiling.

“Nonsense,” came Black Widow’s mask-muffled voice, just as a tiny globe of noxious yellow something hit the ground and misted up around them. He coughed— it was actual mist, dry and painful to breathe. Not tear gas but something else, he knew, seconds before he passed out.

Chapter Text

Steve hadn’t stayed up to watch the security footage for the Greenhouse where Loki was contained. He looked around at the damage his suite had undergone. Last night’s fight had destroyed his living room furniture and left a fine yellow mist over the white paint that Nat promised him wouldn’t harm him. Steve wanted to clean it himself, but he doubted he’d have the time. In the end, with wood splinters everywhere and the paint ruined, he’d probably just use S.H.I.E.L.D.’s clean-up crew. Civilian cleaning companies didn’t meet security clearance for this level of the Tower.

“I think we should take watch. Swap every two hours,” Clint had said while Steve made tea. “That guy’ll slit our throats in our sleep.”

“I mean,” Steve pulled a beer out for Clint, twisting off the cap and setting it on the counter near the archer’s balled up fists, “will that room hold him? The guy can turn invisible. I doubt it will hold. Not much I know to do about it. We don’t know what Loki wants, but if he thinks about it hard enough, he’ll know it was for his protection anyway.”

Clint took a deep pull from the bottle. His eyes were wide and mocking, tone light as he said, “And he’ll be so moved by the generosity that he won’t slit our throats?”

Steve drew invisible, meaningless patterns on the counter-top.

Clint laughed coldly. “I guess you’re right. Not much we can do either way where that guy — or Thor — is concerned." The archer only finished half the beer before pushing away from the marble island. “Night, Cap’n.”

“Night.”

Alone with his tea, Steve considered Loki’s standpoint as he would an enemy. Loki’s capabilities in stealth and illusion meant that when he broke out, it would be difficult to detect. Or it would happen explosively, so distracting they wouldn’t even be able to pause to think where to look for the Aesir. Their weaknesses? A reliance on technology. Stark was only ninety percent genius, the way Steve saw it. The technology and security systems he’d produced for Avengers’ Tower were only as strong if they were vigilant.

“Jarvis,” he said to the room, not looking up from his mug.
Sir?

“Patch me through to Tony.”

Whatever Jarvis said in response, the Captain wasn’t listening. His thoughts were plotting the Tower as a battlefield.

“Steve, this better be good.”

“You always say that, and Pepper isn’t here, so no excuses.”

“I can have personal moments that don’t involve her, thank you very-”

“Do me a favor, okay?” Sometimes, one needed to just out-talk Tony for results. “However you do it, try to buffer or check the database. It needs to be invasion-proof with our new house-guest, and you might want to-”

“Guard Jarvis, too? Yeah, what do you think you’re interrupting? Your faith in me is inspiring. Utterly morale-boosting, truly, Captain.”

Steve sighed. “Glad you’re on it. Keep me updated.”

“Sleep tight, don’t let the completely rational paranoia over having a megalomaniac under our roof bite.”

Sir, that was truly a sub-par-

“Can it, Jarvis, before I change your voice to Alan Rickman’s just to make my day.”

Steve interrupted the clearly tangential conversation with an AI. “Jarvis, keep me out of this.”

The connection cut out. Steve placed his phone on the counter and spun it around slowly, thinking about their location and wishing again that they didn’t keep headquarters in a place so… obvious.

A minute later, he was on the phone with Sam. “Sorry to bother you this late.”

“What’s up? Clint texted me. Says me you’re housing a cold-blooded killer.”

“I don’t think he was trying to hurt anyone, but he might when he tries to escape the Greenhouse.”

“In what world does stabbing Bruce and Thor count as not hurting people?”

“Just, do me a favor and come to town as soon as you can.”

“I’m not even on the same continent, but I’ll get there as soon as I can. The Director knows, so someone has your back if things go to hell.”

“I’d rather just have reinforcements in position.”

“Don’t tell anyone I said this, but have you thought about just opening the door?”

“Just letting the cold-blooded killer go?”

“Hey, you’re the one who seems to think he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. You think he can escape. Seems to me you might avoid some damage by just letting him out.”

Steve thought about that. Then he imagined the court martial he’d be subject to for letting Loki go. His stomach was tense and heavy in a way that only came from being in between a rock and a hard place.

“You know I can’t do that,” he finally said.

“Then maybe you can knock him around a little. Teach him a lesson.”

“Sam.”

“I know, I know. Don’t worry— I wasn’t serious. Just don’t get killed, okay?”

“Back at you. Bring me a souvenir.”

When he hung up, he realized that his tea was cold. Winter had hit New York and while the Tower was certainly energy efficient, Steve never kept the thermostat above sixty-eight. He dumped out his tea and Clint’s beer and went to bed, grateful the fight with Loki had never made it to his bedroom. He fell asleep, mapping and remapping strategies for worst-case scenarios until his brain was too tired to think.

 

At first, when the alarms sounded, he wasn’t surprised.

Loki, he thought, teeth grinding until he calmed the dread taking over his body. Act, he reminded himself. Even after all the years, he still had to force himself to act. It was easier now than it had ever been, but he knew he wasn’t alone. Nic Fury had once confirmed, in private, that keeping a good head in battle wasn’t as effortless as even the veterans liked to pretend.

“Jarvis?”

One of the security guards on the third floor lobby has been assaulted.

“Loki?”

Slowly awakening in the Greenhouse. Security footage shows he never left.

He knew it was impossible to plan for everything, but he grabbed his shield and uniform thinking he should have been going to bed with a broader perspective. Loki wasn’t their only enemy.

Sir-

Jarvis didn’t sound done reporting, but Tony’s voice cut in. “Cap’n Crunch, we’ve got a problem.”

“The security guard?”

“There's no murderer. Footage just shows the guy keel over.”

“Could have been poison. Might still be murder.”

“Uh, not unless poison makes you keel over and do a sprinkler move with blood. And there’s a fire.”

“Evacuate-”

“Done.”

“Banner?”

“Peachy. No hint of green.”

“Let me know when you’ve got an aerial view.”

“Yeah, but get with Fury first. His eyes— err, eye —is in the sky now, and Nat’s in the quinjet.”

“Clint?”

“I’m across the street, praying to a non-Norse god that Thor isn’t doing what I think he is.”

“Where exactly is this fire?”

Thor’s voice growled into Steve’s earpiece, the static belying Mjolnir’s activity. “It lies before me in the courtyard.”

“Thor, you know you can’t put out fire with lightning, right?”

“It’s not just lightning I bring, Captain. And this is no simple fire. Hurry.”

 

That night, Steve Rogers had a hard time keeping to his shower timer. The day had been long. Ash came out of his hair just fine, but the cuts from exploding glass stung. No stitches aside from where Loki had stabbed him the other night, but that was healing fast enough that the doctor said he could shower. Steve wished he owned a bathtub; he’d been on his feet all day and they’d gotten no closer to understanding the strange chain of events which included an as-yet unexplained subway explosion.

According to Jarvis, Loki had stayed in the Greenhouse all day.

Steve swore when he realized that no one had brought their prisoner food. They hadn’t even tried to evacuate him when they’d cleared the building. Everything had happened too quickly.

Quickly, he dried off and changed into flannel pajamas. He paused for just a moment when he glanced at himself in the mirror. Bringing food to a caged Asgardian mass-murderer in his night clothes wasn’t his best idea. After all, a uniform carried authority. At the very least, jeans and a T-shirt suggested a level of propriety—

But Steve was too tired to think more about it. He did grab his shield, sliding it over his back to make room in his grip for a tupperware of cold pasta salad. If it was good enough for him to eat, it'd have to be good enough for their prisoner. Besides, there wasn't anything else ready-made in his fridge.

When the elevator dinged and the doors opened, he took a deep breath and passed through the security checkpoint.

“Who’s there? If you didn’t bring food I swear by all that is cute and lovely I will sick the Geneva Convention on you Avengers.”

Steve didn’t know how much of it was an act. Thor said his brother had changed; literally been reborn. But then, Loki had also tried to stab Thor without explanation. The Captain was heaping grains of salt to Thor’s perspective, but he had to agree that the hungry-eyed Loki currently fogging up the Hulk-container was mountains from the Loki who had teamed up with Doctor Doom and other super-villains.

“We couldn’t get food to you any earlier.”

Loki’s gaze narrowed. “You look way too clean to have been busy all day.”

“I didn’t realize until I was showering that-"

“You thought about me in the shower? How decadent. Careful, or I might get ideas for-”

“You want your food or not?”

“Didn’t you eat?”

“Right after… things,” he said, regretting it. Loki thrived on information; all enemies did. Giving anything away, even the timing of a meal, could be too much to share.

“Dogs always get fed last. I see how it is.”

Steve opened the robotic compartment for passing items between the observation deck and the glass chamber. There was a fold-away tray, and on it he set the pyrex container of leftovers, pausing when he realized he hadn’t brought utensils.

“I see how appropriate my dog metaphor was,” Loki’s voice came through the glass. It sounded more melancholy than his face actually looked, but Steve couldn’t tell which he should trust. Neither, he concluded, and sealed the transfer compartment a little too strongly.

“I’ll be back with a fork.”

He just wanted to sleep.

“Don’t bother.”

Steve watched as Loki pulled a fork out of a pocket in his coat.

“If you can just whip forks out of thin air, why can’t you just whip up some food?”

“Because first,” Loki said before spearing a twirl of rotini. “That’s not how magic works. Second,” he paused, looking at what he’d just eaten, “this isn’t half bad. Did you make this yourself?”

Steve didn’t answer. Maybe Loki would give him some good information, and he was waiting.

“Third,” Loki continued, and Steve wondered how he’d gotten so chatty. “Thor brought me some food a little while ago and didn’t notice that I kept the fork.”

The grin on the other side of the glass was just a few degrees from conniving.

Steve should have thought— of course Thor would remember to get his brother food, especially now that he was acting normally again. If it had been any other prisoner, anything other than a plastic utensil would not be left behind. But Loki was, obviously, a different level of prisoner. Namely, the kind that liked his captors to think he graced them with his presence.

“You’re welcome.”

Loki’s grin smoothed into a knowing smirk as he speared more pasta and paced around the cage. “Ahh, Mr. Manners. I should thank you for the food.”

“Yeah, but more importantly: for saving you from the Hulk last night.”

The Asgardian’s eyebrows arched and Steve could hear laughter in his voice. “You think you saved me from him? And I should thank you for putting me in here?”

“He would have killed you. Or did you forget why you’re leg wasn’t quite working? Hip any better?”

Loki snorted. “No thanks to you. No medical team was in here tending me.”

“Better than dead.”

“Just say it, Captain— Can I call you Steve?”

“I really don’t care.”

“You liked having me down for the count.”

“You know what I really would have liked? I’d have loved it if you never came ‘round stabbing my teammates.”

“If you knew what was eating up Thor-”

“Now that I’d really like to know. What was it?”

Loki stopped pacing. Steve heard a clinking— Loki was tapping his fork against the pyrex container. Steve hoped the man didn’t break it. He didn’t have time to start buying all these new house items. Hulk had smashed his coffee table and two of his sofas thanks to Loki.

“I don’t actually know.” He said it matter-of-factly, coming round purposefully to the transfer gate, opening his side. He snapped the lid back on the pyrex container and set the fork on top. “I heard alarms earlier. What happened to make you forget about interrogating me?”
“You think I’m going to tell you?”

Loki pulled hair behind one ear and crossed his arms before closing his side of the transfer gate with his foot. “Look, I already told Thor this, but that magic— I don’t know what it is exactly, but I know what it does. It’s chaos and corruption incarnate. But I couldn’t capture it like I was supposed to. Which means you’ve got bigger concerns than Little Old Me.”

Strangely, Steve believed him. He didn’t need to have a history like Natasha’s or Coulson’s to know that the best lies contained truth. He just couldn’t tell what Loki was leaving out that might hurt them if they took to trusting his words. He wished he could just let the man go and be done unraveling these mysteries.

Reaching into the compartment, built to only open from one side at a time, he grabbed the utensil and container. He didn’t have anything else to say and his brain was too tired to figure out how to get more helpful information, so he just nodded as he started to walk away.

“Did you start wearing that cologne before or after the ice?”

Steve stopped. He almost didn’t want to look back at the man who was far too smart to be caged for long. Something like curiosity and relief forced him to turn back. Loki’s eyes were soft, knowing, and searching.

“After. They stopped making the one I used to like, but I wanted something familiar after coming out of the ice.”

“And let’s face it, Guerlain makes good stuff,” Loki said. He was leaning a shoulder against the glass, torso propped away from Steve. “I’m surprised a soldier such as yourself would have cared for trivial refinements like that.”

Again, Steve didn’t respond immediately. These weren’t secrets— no harm would come from sharing them. But these facts about himself felt like secrets. Maybe that was just because no one but his S.H.I.E.L.D.-recommended therapist knew well enough to ask. Having a stranger and an enemy asking him these questions felt wrong and invasive and just a little cathartic.

His decision to answer felt —stupidly — like the moment one lets go of a rope. “It was the little things. Lots of soldiers would do whatever they could for a a cigarette. I didn’t smoke, really. But when we were passing through France… This family we saved. The father gave me a bottle of something.” He laughed, remembering. The memories were just sweeping over him. It had only been a few years for him. It had been seventy-five years for the rest of the world, but for him it hadn’t been so long. “It was such a fancy bottle, I tried drinking it that night. Thought it was alcohol.”

Inside the Greenhouse’s glass, Loki’s chuckle was like birdsong.

“After that,” he went on, his own laughter gone. He couldn’t quite smile, remembering. “Every morning, I’d dab a little on. That ritual, that smell… I don’t know, it centered me.” He stared off into the shadows of the room, unable to look at Loki. Clearing his throat, he said, “So, yeah. New smell. Same habit.”

“Habits die hard.”

He stared at Loki, who looked as distracted as Steve had felt. The Asgardian was peering into those same shadows. Inquiries and demands about how much Loki had really changed died on his tongue at the haunted look on that face.

“We kill them when we’re ready,” he finally said, aware that they weren’t talking about fragrance. If Loki could try pulling at Steve’s memory lanes, Steve could dip into Loki’s, right?

“And what happens if we’re never ready?”

Steve didn’t answer at first. He’d already taken this conversation into far more of a personal zone than he cared to with an intergalactic fugitive. Finally, he said, “Some habits aren’t bad. But the ones we ought to stop kill us in the end.”

He was thinking of cigarettes, but was surprised when Loki laughed coldly. His smile didn’t reach his eyes. He pushed off of the glass and turned away from Steve. “Goodnight, Captain.”

Steve couldn’t even be angry about the summarily dismissive attitude from his prisoner as he left. Before the elevator doors closed, he could see Loki standing in the same spot, head tilted to the ceiling. On anyone else, the posture might have seemed religious— like Loki was looking up for gods.

Chapter Text

“Thor, your blind spot is a big poster of Loki,” Tony was saying, lips smacking around hummus and pita. Clint hissed, again, for him to stop eating so loudly. As before, Tony ignored him. “I know you think he’s different now, but what proof do you have?”

As annoyed with Tony as Steve was (the idea for a campground meeting had been a good one with the mysterious events at Stark Tower; Tony just hated nature), he agreed. He hadn’t shared the moment of connection he and Loki had somehow found. It didn’t change anything.

Natasha spoke next. “Whether he’s a new Loki or not, we have no answers. Thor, Steve, you two spoke with him. You said he doesn’t admit to knowing what that black energy was, but that it’s dangerous. He seems to think there’s a connection with that and the subway explosion.”

“Nothing else strange has happened, though, has it?” Bruce spoke up, stoking the fire they were going to use to cook lunch.

“Aside from this cozy little field trip?”

“Yeah, Steve, for real,” Clint started in, “I don’t like being away from base. Freaks watch us, and someone will at least have noticed that Iron Man left. With nothing but Loki there…”

“We're always being recorded or otherwise watched,” Steve reminded them. “And it’s not the first time we’ve all been out of the base.”

“You made me take the database offline,” Tony said. “I’m using a primitive version of J.A.R.V.I.S. right now and if someone does attack, I may as well wear a blindfold.”

“Fine. Go home and start the technology back up.”

Thor was arranging Bratwursts on the grill. “I support Steve’s decision today. You put too much faith in a beast with a far larger brain than yours.”

“Thanks, Thor,” Tony said, lining up prematurely to ogle the meat. “But I’ve scanned you and our brains are actually the same size.”

Thor smirked, and Steve was struck at how similar the facial expression seemed to Loki’s, even if it wasn’t as common on Thor’s face. “I meant your technology, Stark. That building is a metal creature with many eyes and, if I do not misunderstand, can be very simply taken control of.”

“I wouldn’t call layers of encryption and more than a dozen security checkpoints simple obstacles.”

“All it takes is the right lie for your machines to change allegiance,” Thor said, skewering some red peppers over raw meat.

The right lie. Steve thought about that. For a moment, the dread of panic rose up in his stomach as a clearer image of Loki’s intentions snapped into focus. What if Loki’s was peacefully staying in the Greenhouse because he wanted access to the database? What would he do with it? Steve breathed out the dread, remembering he’d taken the database offline and they weren’t even at the Tower. Plus, if Loki was there to access the database, he would have an even harder time without it even being live, if he understood Tony’s initial explanation correctly.

Broader perspective, he reminded himself.

“Let’s update our battle tactics and codes, folks. Crystal Priori?”

“Yeah, Loki totally heard that,” Clint said, hands on his O’Doul’s. “As much good saving his sorry ass did us. No information in that crystal ball, is there?”

Steve lookef to Natasha. She eyed the woods around them, leaning up against a tree far from the fire. Then she met his gaze.“Good intel takes time to pull out. And you guys haven’t even let me at him.”

“You were a bit tied up,” Bruce said. “Those stitches holding up okay? No pus or redness?”

“Nope,” she said, giving Banner a small smile that Steve wished he could see more of. “Thanks for that.”

“You guys should actually go to hospitals,” Bruce said to the table. No one responded to him, but Nat’s smile got a little bigger before she ducked into her scarf.

“So, back to codes,” Steve said loudly, leaning forward on the rusting picnic table.

“Didn't J.A.R.V.I.S. generate the list last time?”

“We can make a name for something, it just has to be something everyone will remember.”

“Pickaxe.”

“Butterfingers.”

“Clint,” Nat started, “That doesn’t even make sense.”

“It does to me…”

“Grey’s Anatomy,” Banner’s suggestion came and silenced people for a moment. Everyone nodded.

Steve cleared his throat. “That’s decided, then. Nat, you’ve got some kind of connection with S.H.I.E.L.D. right now, right? I feel like something’s going to happen in the city.”

“Something always happens in the city,” Stark grumbled, watching Thor turn a Bratwurst. “Is it just me or is it deafeningly quiet out here? .”

“Yeah,” Steve said, nodding. “I know what you mean. But we’re just used to being surrounded by a million noises.” Thinking about that reminded him of how jolting it had been to come out of the ice and then out of the simulated 1941 environment. Everything, even in the simulation, had been just a bit too loud. Always a buzzing somewhere of electronics.

“I’ve got a flare gun,” Natasha said, expressionless. "You said this meeting needed to be off the grid.

“There are agents posted to look out at the nearest weigh station. They can find us if they need.”

As if on cue, the noise of a car coming up the drive caught their attention. “If it’s weekenders, the answer is no, they cannot have some of our steaks,” Stark said, arms folded. His tone was lighter than the suspicious expression on his face.

“We have steaks?” Clint said, suddenly interested in the bag Thor had been pulling meat from.

The vehicle was speeding up the drive, clearly in a hurry. Gravel flung out against tree bark across from them as an army-duty jeep halted.

“Captain, Avengers are needed in the city. I have Agent Hill on the radio,” a woman they didn’t recognize held out a corded walky-talky. She wore a S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform and was standing up in the passenger seat. Her driver, another woman, had a worried expression and was tapping the steering wheel as Steve jogged to the Jeep.

“This is Starstruck on Channel 4. Big Bird, do you read?”

“Big Bird here. I hate these names.” Stark was chuckling, joking with Bruce about the names. Steve heard him release the compact setting on the Iron Man suit.

Hill kept talking. “We’ve got a situation in Central Park. Your dog’s still in the pen, so don’t worry about him.”

“Who would worry about Loki?” Clint grumbled, out of earshot of the radio as Steve pressed the button to speak in.

“O.K. What’s the situation?”

“Fire. It’s green, and it’s burning down half the park. It’s not moving, though, maybe not even actually charring the trees. Trees have been standing in the green fire for a half hour already. Over.”

“Roger that.” Steve heard Tony snicker, and when he turned, even Bruce was grinning. “Big Bird, do we get a lift?”

“Affirmative. Move a hundred yards south. In the clearing there you’ll find a vehicle.”

“Over and out.”

Handing the radio back to the standing S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, he looked back at his team as he walked towards the messenger bag with his uniform in it.

“Goddamn it,” Stark complained. He was tossing his helmet and catching it, the only piece of his suit not lit up and fastened over his body. “Barbeque is the only reason I followed your ridiculous lumberjack notions here, Steve.”

The cold hurried him to change quickly. He tried not to feel self-conscious stripping out of casual clothes and into his blue and white uniform. They’d all seen each other nude at least once. Well, when he thought about it, he hadn’t seen Clint.

“No lunch, fighting bad guys,” Clint nodded as he slipped his fingers through the archers’ gauntlets. “Being a superhero sucks. I want out.”

“Do you?” Natasha purred, stepping close to Clint. “I don’t think you’ve finished your debt to S.H.I.E.L.D. What prison address should I plan on sending letters to?”

“Damn it, Nat,” Hawkeye glowered, eyes twinkling. “You know the exact address anyway. If you go suggesting to the Director that…”

“A way out can be arranged, that’s all I’m saying,” she answered, grin wicked as she climbed behind Steve on his bike. Clint got in the Jeep with Bruce after waving up at the sky. A S.H.I.E.L.D aircraft had to be above them, or else Agent Hill wouldn’t have been able to contact them. He couldn’t see her waiting at a weigh station in case things went wrong. The sound of a jet breaking the sound barrier confirmed his suspicions. They were officially done with their break from technology. Steve hoped he wasn’t right about the Tower and it’s technology being a target. The best hope wouldn’t protect him from the fallout of his own lack of preparation, though.

They rode south and were at the clearing in a minute. A quinjet was waiting, back hatch open. Steve rode up it, eyeing Tony. Stark had managed to grab one of the barbeque skewers before Thor doused the flames.

“What? You’re just jealous. It’d have been a waste of food, you know. Children in poor countries eat less than this a day and we just dumped a bunch of steaks. Where’s Thor?”

“Again, who brought steaks? I remember chipping in for the rest. No one mentioned steaks.” Nat didn't entertain Clint. “Thor went ahead to the Park.” “Stark, did you miss the ‘Lightning, ho’?” “Yeah, I was a little preoccupied,” Stark answered, waving the skewer of meat and peppers.

The hatch behind them whirred electronically and began closing at the same time as they were lifting off the ground. Steve strapped his bike down before strapping himself into a seat, unsure he’d be using the vehicle. What were they supposed to do with green fire? He racked his brain and tried getting ideas from the team.

“Agent…”

"Caballero, Captain.”

“Agent Caballero, what’s our ETA?”

“Twenty minutes, sir.”

“Thor,” Steve continued, this time into the earpiece after turning it on.

Static— probably from wind — crackled loudly in his ear before Thor’s voice could be heard. “Captain?”

“Are you there yet?”

“No. Nearly, though."

“The day after Loki showed up, when there was a fire at the Tower, you said it wasn’t simple fire. When I got there, the flames were gone, and we had bigger things to worry about.”

“Aye,” came Thor’s voice and the static.

“What did you mean? Was it green?”

A pause before Thor answered. Everyone in the quinjet was quiet, waiting.

“Not green, no. It seemed like fire in color and manner of movement. But there were shapes in the flames. Distinct illusions. I saw my mother. I saw others.”

That didn’t help immensely. “Have you seen green fire before?”

Another pause. “Loki is known to use such tactics. But then so are certain other magic-users, without this realm and within it.”

Tony’s voice cut in, smooth and refined from inside a wind-blocking helmet.

“J.A.R.V.I.S. has confirmed that Loki is still inside the Greenhouse. I kinda wish it were him. Then this would be easy.”

Steve had an idea. It was the sort of bad idea that made sense and carried risk and weighed heavily and thickly in his throat before he voiced it. But he had hunches when it came to battle. The others trusted him. And he wasn’t about to risk the lives of his teammates unnecessarily. They might not see it as safely as he did, but then, they hadn’t had the moment with Loki that he had. They hadn’t made the call to save Loki from the Hulk.

“I understand that some of you may doubt my sanity for saying this,” Steve said. “But save it for after this mission and we see how things go.”

“What?” Tony said, voice cold. Steve didn’t look at Natasha or Clint, who sat opposite him, or Bruce, who was strapped in at his side.

“Tony, instruct J.A.R.V.I.S. to free our prisoner and give him the coordinates of the fire in Central Park. Preferably the originating location. Agent Cabellero,” he kept talking, voice rising to muffle Tony’s argument, “do we know where exactly the fire began?”

Again, everyone was quiet, waiting for information. “Our intel suggests it’s acting like a glacial earthquake, sir. The epicenter is a peninsula near Bow Bridge.”

“The Point?”

“Affirmative, sir.”

“Looks like we’ll be getting wet, guys.”

“Better than burned to a crisp, but hey,” Tony’s voice came in over the earpiece. “About the Loki crap. No, Steve. Just no.”

Static crackled. “I support the decision,” Thor said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Steve said, pulling his cowl on. “Because I’m not taking a vote on this one. Tony, make it happen, or I’ll send someone else to break Loki out.”

“Goddamn it, Steve.”

Steve smiled, but his grin was short-lived. Natasha crossed her arms, eyes far away, calculating. Clint’s jaw was clenched, which reminded him how thoroughly he needed to do this if it was going to work.

“All units note that until we have information to prove otherwise, Loki is a friendly non-civilian helping the Avengers out today. That changes if J.A.R.V.I.S. or S.H.I.E.L.D agents report any difficulty, though, okay? Keep me updated, Tony.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Clint’s eyes met his briefly. His gaze was hot, like he wanted to stick an arrow in somebody and maybe that person was his commanding officer. The Captain met that gaze until it turned away. Natasha watched the exchange, her face empty. Steve looked over at Bruce casually. He was actually twiddling his thumbs. Only Banner could make it look like a stress-relieving tactic.

A few minutes passed. Agent Cabellero or her co-pilot, D’Bois, kept them updated on ETA, but there was no change in the situation in Central Park except that the fire had spread a bit. “Now at 55% of the park acreage.”

Tony’s voice came into his earpiece. “Good news, Loki’s on board,” he said. “More good news, I know how not magic-resistant the Blue Room is. Loki did some breaking and entering on his way out and stole back that sword we confiscated from him.”

Thor spoke with reduced static in the comms. “That is good news, Stark. Loki believes the thing that escaped me may be behind this green fire. We may yet need the sword to thwart it.”

“Thor,” Steve said, “Have you landed?”

“Yes. I stand atop the castle and see the vastness of the fire.”

“Find out if it’s hot.”

“I will wait for Loki. I fear not the heat of fire, but its color suggests it may do far more than burn those foolish enough to touch the flames.”

“Fair point,” Steve said. “Tony, what’s your location?”

“Just entering the city. I’ll find Thor and join up with him. Where's this party happening?”

“Agent Caballero, how close can you get us to that epicenter?”

“Depends, sir, on if you’d like to swim or not.”

“If we don’t?”

“Then the closest is Bow Bridge. We can’t land on it, though, sir, and there isn’t an open space large enough on either side of the bridge for the jet, either. Both sides of the bridge are flanked in that fire.”

“But the bridge isn’t?”

“Correct, sir.”

“Civilians?”

“We lack comprehensive surveillance for the Park area, but most of those we could save have been evacuated.”

“Most?”

“Some gondolas of tourists are still touring the lake, sir.” Tony called them crazy, citing the cold weather, but Caballero continued, “National Guard will arrive shortly after we do to airlift them out.”

“How many were caught in the fire?”

“An estimate from radio call-ins and Park Staff records suggests between a hundred and fifty and two hundred, sir.”

Beside him, Bruce’s thumb-twiddling became more intense and erratic. Natasha reached her foot over, sliding booted toes up Banner’s calf and down again. Steve nodded thanks to her. They weren’t ready just yet for the Hulk to appear.

“Do we have any intel on what happened to them when the fire appeared?”

“Well, sir,” D’Bois answered as Cabellero began their controlled descent. “The civilians are still there, still alive, we think. We have heat readings for human temperature levels all over the park in areas where a fire is known to blaze.”

“So, they’re alive, but about to burn?”

“No, they should already be burning. And they’ve been that way since the fire began. Relatively immobile, so they’re not walking around or running from the flames.”

“Anything else? Any suspects?”

“One, sir. There’s a figure, unidentifiable, sitting at The Point. Seems to be observing the fire, not doing much else. Been there since it started, sir.”

The Captain thought about that. If they couldn’t identify the figure, it might be a known enemy that was just good at shrouding themselves from surveillance technology. Or it was a new player. Or something else entirely.

“Are any S.H.I.E.L.D agents on the ground?”

“Not near The Point, sir.”

“Leaving us to do the dirty work, naturally. I’ve landed, Captain,” Stark said. “Did Loki decide to take the scenic route, or something?” Tony shrieked. “I don’t know how you did that, but don’t you dare to it again, Dung Beetle.”

“Loki has arrived,” Thor said. Steve could hear him grinning.

“Tell Loki: he helps us rescue those civilians and put out that fire, he keeps the sword and gets a limited stay in a guest room at Avengers Tower.”

“You do not have clearance to give that permission,” Natasha said, loading her gun and staring at him with venomous eyes.

“As commanding officer of the Avengers, I do,” he countered, meeting her gaze. He took off the earpiece and spoke more softly to her. “If you know a better way to get Loki to help us, I’m all ears. But these things are connected— maybe even to Loki, and you know how close they say we should keep our friends and our enemies.”

She took a deep breath, expression unmutable. Then she spoke into the comm device. “Tony, stop swearing. Thor, yes the offer is good. It will change if Loki backstabs us, though.”

Steve nodded once in her direction and patted Bruce’s hand. “I know what I’m doing, okay? Haven’t let you down before, have I?”

Banner let out a deep breath, eyes roaming around the cabin before he shook his head and gave up a small smile.

Hooking the earpiece back in brought a litany of complaints from Stark until he cut the man off. “Avengers.” He smiled as the pieces of strategy clinked into place. In moments like this, he understood Tony’s love of machinery, tinkering separate individual parts and properties until they united in well-oiled purpose.

“We’re doing a Tequila Moonrise. Pilots, take us to the plot behind Belvedere Castle; it’s okay if you can’t land, but I need to know once all those gondola tourists are evacuated.”

“Great, Captain, what are we going to do about the lovely winter sun.”

“Wait until we land. We’ll turn tech off and solidify the plan.”

“Captain,” Caballero’s voice came, anxious. “The Director has asked for this threat to be eliminated immediately.”

“And it will happen as quickly as it can. I’m not about to kill off the Avengers in a Highland Charge against something we don’t even understand. There’s sense, I have a plan, and if he wants to hear it, he knows where to find us. But I believe these magic-using folks have an easier time breaking into comm systems than our best techies do.”

Loki’s voice bled like silk onto the airwaves. “Your Captain is quite correct about that.”

“Loki doesn’t have an earpiece, guys,” Tony said, “And he’s standing twenty feet away from Thor and me. I don’t know how he’s doing that.”

“Point taken sir,” Caballero said stiffly. “D’bois, relay our status to Agent Hill.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Steve adjusted his grip on the shield, fingers anxiously attacking the seams in his seat harness. The quinjet landed smoothly. He took a deep breath, unclipped the harness, and strapped on his helmet. The list of things he never thought he'd face but did got longer every year. Green fire in Central Park wasn't the most surprising on the list, but he'd certainly squared off against more clearly solve-able problems. Of all the possible plans, though, this one seemed the best, so he held his head high, trying to exude the confidence his team needed. Especially with an enemy-ally on the team.

“Earpieces go off when Thor, Tony, and Loki find us.”

“Can I build a campfire?” Clint asked beside him. Natasha was fiddling with a tablet.

“For what?”

“Maybe Thor kept some of the meat.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Plenty enough fire in Central Park today as it is,” he said. The three of them walked down the ramp out onto the grass. Behind them, Bruce was talking softly with the S.H.I.E.L.D agents.

Steve looked over to Belvedere Castle. Three figures were moving in the eerily far-reaching glow of green fire.

“Ok,” he said quietly to the two assassins. “Here's what you two, and you two alone, are responsible for.”

Chapter Text

When Stark's AI system announced a bargain from the Avengers, Loki had sighed. Whatever was happening, he was sure he didn't want to help. Especially not after an unfruitful conversation with the All-mother, which had gone something like this:

“Hello, majesties. Good to see you in panels of glass completely incapable of that sort of projection. I'm afraid I have no tea or ale to offer and-”

“And you can't get out to go and fetch some.”

“I'm so glad you understand.”

The look in their faces was displeased at best, but he didn't think it had to do with the lack of tea or ale. “We do not understand how you have gotten yourself trapped in human technology-”

“Made by a wizard among men, I assure-”

“-After failing a mission made most simple with Sigurd's sword.” Idunn tossed and caught one of her golden apples in the glass. She didn't say anything more.

Loki broke the silence. “Surely, in your infinite power, you could help me out here.”

“No.” Gaia's eyes were unfocused, like she stared at the universe. “We know you, Loki. You will find a way.”

Where was this faith last time around, he wondered. He tried stabbing a panel of glass with Gram as the All-mother continued speaking.

“And you will retrieve that spirit.”

“Spirit? Is that what it is?” He gritted his teeth. It was bad enough with something on the loose; now it had a sentient essence. “The spirit of what ?”

He could recall more than a few spirits that he really didn't want on a rampage.

“Something out of time and place, which is more than you need to know before capturing it.”

“All-mother, please.”

“I could get used to a Loki with manners.” Frigga's face was pensive and playful. Loki glared, but Idunn ended the conversation.

“Do not keep us waiting.”

Their faces vanished from the glass, leaving only a reflection of his own features, mouth open to speak.

Not five minutes later, the AI spoke to him-- for the first time. He'd tried talking to the technology—any of it-- to get out, but not a peep had come back to him. It had been like no one was listening. And if no one was listening, there were no lies he could whisper to move the 0's and 1's as he pleased.

Mr. Laufeyson-

“No, call me Loki. Mr. Loki if that services your protocols better.”

Thank you, Mr. Loki. I've been told to inform you that on certain terms, you may be released.

Had the All-mother done this, despite telling him to dig himself out? To the AI, he said, “Your Avengers have my attention. What terms?”

By Captain Rogers' orders, you may leave if you agree to to help in Central Park today. You may even stay in one of the guest suites on site here for a limited time while the efforts continue to track what was responsible for Thor Odinson's recent condition.

Loki snorted.

“What's in Central Park?”

I'm not authorized to say until we have your terms of agreement. Mr. Odinson has asked me to relay his conviction that you should trust the Avengers.

He laughed and whispered a spell-- the mirror found in an oil spill, reflecting warped truth. He was in.

Cease and desist, Mr. Loki. You should know that any further attempt to access classified information in the Avengers Database will be met with-

More magic. More lies. The AI shut up, and Loki forced it to read aloud reports and radio conversations. They described green fire in central park. Avengers en route to intervene as tourists were evacuated. Over a hundred people trapped in the emerald flames.

He looked at the door of his cage. As yet, conventional – wise -- tricks had not breached it. Thick glass panels formed a lifeless greenhouse around him, tiny vents pumping in a gentle stream of recirculated air. Upon first waking in the cage and glancing around, Loki had known the glass would not break; this was meant to contain the Hulk. Doctor Banner had pioneered a most clever cage for himself.

With control over J.A.R.V.I.S., Loki tried to force the door open, but Banner had placed those capabilities in a different system. Until he found where that was, he was helpless.

Loki laughed again and stared at his shoes. He could stay here and trust that the Avengers would come to interrogate him, giving him a window for manipulation. Eventually, he would escape. He could escape immediately, but not without becoming something he never wanted to be again. It was only a matter of time before he figured out the key and freed himself, but he didn't have that kind of time.

Loki released his control of the AI after erasing evidence of his meddling. “I agree to their terms.”

The door to the glass cage opened with a hiss. Loki examined the open space as the AI began summarizing the files Loki had already pillaged. As he left the room and entered the lift, he noted what information J.A.R.V.I.S. left out-- which Avengers were involved, where they had been before the incident, and that the Captain was (rightly) paranoid about the weaknesses in their base of operations.

Out of the cage, it was quick work to break into a vault, pocket Gram, and heat up leftovers from Thor's fridge.

An hour later, Loki stood atop a positively medieval observatory, peering at the green fire. Thor and Ironman watched each horizon, waiting for their allies.

Loki teased the idea of saving the day his way-- try to get closer now before they took away all element of surprise. Their bargaining chip was little temptation; nothing in their words were enforceable. Let them try and take the sword from him now.

Still, the idea of going up against the loose spirit alone, surprise or no, was too much of a gamble. If he played nice with the Captain's plan and offer, he'd have an easier time breaking into the Avengers Database. And when the energy decided to jump into a new host – if that's what was at the center of this fire – it wouldn't jump into him.

From where he stood on a crumbling turret at Belvedere Castle –no, actually crumbling, he realized with an embarrassed giggle, hopping back just as a stone slipped the mortar beneath his feet and thwacked into rocks on the shore-- he couldn't see anything but green fire. But according to Thor, there was someone, or something, at the center of it all.

Loki picked up a loose crock of stone, flicking it in the air and catching it, repeating the action as he walked and thought. A hundred years ago, he wouldn't have even been able to rely on pathetic Midgardian technology to try and avoid magical detection if he needed to. That was the thing-- using magic, even to go stealthing around, could trip a smart magic-user's trap. Hell, it would trip a smart beast's senses. He stopped walking near Iron Man's crimson silhouette.

“Bieber Loki,” the suit said, stepping back and raising a charged hand, “So help me, you touch this suit-”

“What's the layout of where this super-secret somebody is? What kind of terrain are we looking at?”

“Don't interrupt my threats.”

“I can't tell if they're threats or jokes.”

“Usually they're both.”

“Well, it's kind of a serious day, don't you think?”

“All the better to have some comic relief.”

“Besides,” Loki smirked, unable to help himself. He flicked the pebble up in the air, caught it and held it up before his right eye, closing his left as if he were aiming at a crack in Stark's armor. “If you think I need to touch you to do any damage...”

“Brother, enough.” Thor looked tired as he came over, eyes not on them but on the non-fiery treeline where the quinjet could be seen. Loki looked back at Thor; the corruption that had invaded him had left a toll. Thor would heal, but maybe not if he got taken over again. “Stark said you have Gram.”

Loki nodded.

“If the center of this fire holds the same enemy, if it goes into me again... ." Thor's eyes were dark, gaunt, and serious. “Run Sigurd's blade through me again.”

“You know that could kill you, right?”

“It will take more than Gram to kill the wielder of Mjolnir.” Thor answered, a soft smile dimpling his cheeks as he twirled the hammer easily. Loki eyed the fondness in Thor's eyes. As much as he joked about the man having inappropriate relations with his weapons, he'd only seen that look on Thor when he'd been unable to use Mjolnir for whatever reason. Maybe the corruption had made Mjolnir heavier.

He had no time to find out, though, useful as that information would be. The quinjet had landed in a clearing behind the joke of a castle they stood atop.

“Thanks for the lift guys.”

“Hush, Stark,” Thor's voice grumbled. “We descend.”

The two Avengers leapt off the back of the building, while Loki simply walked over the edge of one balustrade and down the wall, perpendicular to it. His gaze never left the wall, seeing it and the ground it connected to as one long sidewalk. The grass in the field was ghostly gray and deathly still. The fire beyond the clearing was just his sort of eerie.

When he was in human earshot of the Avengers, they were talking rapidly, pointing lightly back at the castle.

“...chopper will swoop down there in ten to evacuate the tourists,” the Captain was saying. “Tony, if anything goes wrong with the rescue, you and Thor are fastest.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Loki,” was all the Captain said in greeting to him. “We're looking to move under cover of darkness.”

“Sunset isn't for another three hours at least.”

The Captain grinned. “Thought you might be able to help with that.”

Loki raised his eyebrows. They had no idea how magic worked. He didn't answer the blatant request. “Show me on a map where you plan to attack.”

Black Widow followed him and the Captain into the jet. He wouldn't have expected anything less, but couldn't just keep quiet. “Is this just a ruse to get the three of us alone? Always pinned you two for monogamous types, but hey, if you're ready to experiment-”

His smirk was mirrored in the Widow's face, whereas the Captain only shook his head.

“This is us.” He pointed at a geographic rendering of the clearing and their position inside the jet. Beyond the perimeter of the clearing was a flickering red haze overlying the green gridlines. “That's the fire, obviously, and up here,” he said, tapping a finger to the tablet screen to move the view out and south, “is where an unidentified somebody is hanging out at the Point, where monitors say it all started. That's where we'll head. We'll be going in boats.”

“You're kidding.”

“Well, you can swim if you like, just don't make too much noise. I'll warn you, though. The water's cold.”

Rogers explained the plan quickly, answering questions with the ease of someone who had anticipated them. Crazy as the plan was, the Avengers trusted their Captain. They voiced opinions, especially Stark, but when he outlined alternatives, it was clear that his was the best strategy.

Clint, Banner, and Stark went to keep an eye on the recovery of innocents. Loki found himself outside the quinjet, alone with Thor.

Loki severed his connection with the Avengers comm systems and knicked Thor's earpiece like he might steal coins from behind the ears of children. Thor frowned but said nothing as Loki tossed the device and caught it. He switched it off in the process.

“So, you told the Avengers that I was reborn. Reincarnated.”

“Yes.”

“It seems like you didn't tell them everything.”

The part where I killed my reincarnation-- he killed himself? – and I'm the same old, bad Loki pretending to be this young, mischievous-but-innocent-as-a-wayward-dandelion cad. Thor knew that part, and Loki was sure that if the Avengers had known, they would have been a little less welcoming.

Thor sighed, wiping a hand down his beard. “They did not know you as a child, as I did.”

“I killed the child.”

"I meant in our childhood,” Thor said sharply. “I know what you do for the All-mother. Asgard may yet shine as it once did. You may be helping. You helped me. There is too much to tell them to earn their trust of you, and, in the end, words will not earn what you need.”

“What do I need?”

Thor didn't answer at first. “Loki, the child asked my advice. Came to me. It was his choice.”

“And I manipulated him into it.”

Thor shrugged, holding a hand out for the earpiece. “I will not be the one to slash your chances at redemption. Let the Avengers judge you by your deeds, as I will. Prove me wrong and you will regret it.”

Loki dropped the bluetooth into Thor's palm without touching him. “You sound like Odin.”

“He is our father.”

“Your father.”

Thor rolled his eyes and began walking away. “It wasn't a threat, Loki. Merely a prediction of consequences.”

“Since when did you become so talented with words?”

Thor laughed, though not as loudly as usual. “Since I didn't have you around to best me with them.”

Loki watched Thor walk away, then stared at the ground. He thought of how he could be gone in a second. He could be on another planet with a thought. With a few words of negotiation, he could form an alliance. With a few well-timed illusions and opened doors, he could have the throne of the as-yet-feeble Asgard. These thoughts were like ash in his mouth, remnants of a time bygone when he had burned with something volatile. Envy, hatred, greed, and the flame-flickering fear that he was a monster among the men of his world.

That last feeling was all that the ashes had left, and the fear was why he considered teleporting away in the middle of his mission, in the middle of his new path.

The fear said, what are you doing? This will never work. You will always be dung on their shoes, they will always be ungrateful, unmerciful hypocrites.

The fear pointed out his realities. You cannot lie, except to tell the biggest lie of all: I have changed. You do not change, except to change the stories. You say there was no Loki that burned, no coward that killed.

He dug the tip of one boot into the dirt at his feet, swiveling the leather like he was paring out a piece of rot from the earth.

Nothing in me is real.

He kicked clumps of dirt with the inside of his foot before turning to walk back to the jet.

“Don't quit your dayjob.”

Loki hadn't noticed Rogers. He needed to spend less time inside his head, more time keeping track of his enemies, staying aware of his surroundings. Worse had happened when he'd been entirely focused on tasks at hand.

“What do you know? I could be the next Beckham.” He strolled past Steve, who asked who that was. Loki didn't answer. Apparently, he didn't need to. Someone speaking in his earpiece must have quipped.

“Yeah, well, I didn't spend the last five years watching soccer. I've been a little busy.” There was a pause as he listened to whoever was speaking, eyes down and then up quickly to meet Loki's before darting away again. “Loki's here with me.” A pause. “Loki, your comm device isn't connecting. I know you can tap into these things whenever you like, but we can't. Let me see your earpiece.”

Loki handed it over wordlessly, wondering how much Steve had overheard of the conversation with Thor. The Captain had been in the quinjet, and they hadn't been standing too far away.

Loki let the Captain fidget with the settings on the device, holding it up to his ear several times. Then Loki undid his magic on it, re-lighting the connection.
“There we are,” Steve said victoriously-- as if he'd been the one to 'fix' it. “Loki's back on, folks. ...Barton, come on. You too, Stark. Play nice.”

Steve met his eyes apologetically and Loki knew they must have been speaking ill of him. Steve waited a few moments. “Wait, do you guys watch sports? ...Well how do you know who Beckham is? ...Tony, no, I don't, and I'm sure I don't want to know what a Spice Girl is.”

Then Steve slipped the earpiece off and handed it over to Loki. “You're all good,” he muttered, then turned away to slide his own earpiece in.

When Loki put his back on, a heated discussion about the sexualities of various pop stars blazed into his ears. Loki heard, both through the earpiece and real life, “Who's Madonna?”

In the windshield of the jet, he saw Steve smirking. Loki listened to the chaos on the comm systems as even the Black Widow seemed bothered that in five years out of the ice, Steve hadn't heard of Madonna.

“Guys, I'm just joking. I know who Madonna is. She was Superwoman's predecessor."

Loki found it hard to think about the pathetic dimensions of his existence, faced as he was with the realization that Captain America had any ounce of humor.

A half hour later, the rescue team had liberated civilians and their mission was beginning. "Loki," Captain said.

They were waiting at the edge of a clearing, too near the green flames licking up trees for his comfort. Loki had decided to play by their rules for now. Once he knew what was waiting at the edge of the water, he was prepared to go his own way with the sword.

He stood next to Thor, in a semi-circle with Rogers, Romanov, and Stark, facing the long boat all but Stark would use. Banner and Clint hid on a long, low bridge, west of them.

"Come on, buddy," Stark said. "Give us some mood lighting."

Loki tried to make it as natural as possible, the darkness he drew down into the sky. He really did not want that spirit detecting him, though it might be hopeless to hide.

Eyes closed, he found a shade in orbit around the earth and brought it before the sun. Eyes open, he bent and whispered to the water. Encouraged by his story--his magic--the water rippled and mist began to rise.

He caught the Captain staring as he stood straight. With a wink, he sighed and sent forth a storm of illusory, black moths. They blanketed the sky, a fluttering dome to trap the green fires in Central Park. Thunder grumbled as Thor did his part, holding Mjolnir aloft. It was a storm barely withheld above them.
When Loki looked back at the Captain, the man nodded and moved forward. They weren't quite invisible, but darkness shrouded them like a fog as they launched the boat. Loki wanted to be the last one in, but Rogers kept shaking his head.

"Stubborn ass," he muttered and hopped in. Thor elbowed him. He elbowed back. Natasha caught both their ears in a pincer-like grip and twisted. She didn't let go or stop twisting, even after Steve had pushed the boat out of silt and hopped in behind Loki. Loki and Thor struggled silently against Natasha's grip, but the water around the boat began sloshing. Anything but silence would betray their potential element of surprise.

A lot of begging gestures later, Nat let go and Loki aided the boat's motion through the water. Oars were for people who wanted a welcoming party from the enemy.

They closed in on the epicenter quickly and quietly. Loki peered for the figure they said had been observed, but only green fire greeted them.

Steve held up a closed fist as the prow nudged silt and stalled. Loki closed his eyes, trying to sense past the rocking boat and beyond the cold fire. The dark thing --spirit?-- was like a hot current waving through it, serpentine and waiting.

Loki opened his eyes. Steve flung out a hand, casting something. Rocks skittered into the flames uselessly.

"Must I do everything myself?" He drew out Gram and hopped onto the shore. Thor was right behind him. In the earpiece, Stark was swearing, probably plummeting from the sky to join them.

Loki dipped the blade into green fire, which sputtered at the contact. The others claimed the shore, walking trepidatiously towards him. The Captain spoke to his team quietly. The darkness had not aided their ambush.

Laughter rang out and echoed in the darkness. He sensed it a second before the fire exploded around them, just managing to leap back and onto the water. Seven-league boots for the win would be how some cheeky comic book author would pen his cowardice.

His self-preservation left him unharmed while Thor and the others screamed noiselessly in the thrall of emerald flames. If he touched them, he might see what tortured them so. Maybe he could tease out the source, but he'd have to reach into flames first.

"Loki," Clint said from the bridge, into the comms system. "Banner is a second from-"

"No. This is toying with their souls and sins. If the Hulk goes in, you may never see Banner again."

"That doesn't make any-"

"It does," Banner interrupted. "Loki, six o'clock."

Loki turned south and saw... himself.

Chapter Text

The awkward, terrifying--menacing-- meeting became less so if Loki re-structured the narrative the way certain old Skaldic bards would…

Two men stood on the water.

One man was hunched—not from age, though wrinkles certainly creased his sneer, but from a nearly primal anticipation of attack. A two-pronged helm gleamed golden on his head. Fur on his mantle ruffled in the strangely chill air—strangely chill, listeners should note, not because of the time and place (winter in New York), but because not twenty feet away raged an emerald fire.

The flames leapt gargantuan behind the second man, younger, standing tall in the ripples of the Turtle Pond, facing the elder. A similar decoration shone on his head as the other man—golden, two horns, but with the differences seen in the contest between a mature stag and a young buck.

The only feature mirrored between them was also the most common expression they ever wore: a uniquely mischievous grin.

The younger spoke. “You look familiar. Where have I seen you before?”

“Oh, you know you haven’t. Not yet.”

“You traveled back in time.”

“You keep saying ‘you’.”

“My bad. I will apparently travel in time. Why?”

“Oh, why not? I like seeing you like this.”

“Now you’re the one saying ‘you’.”

“We aren’t really the same person.”

“No kidding. At what point do I forget the importance of skin-care? Seriously— tell me now if I need to fund the anti-aging corporations. You could plant carrots in those furrows.”

“At what point?” King Loki from the future stopped grinning. “When everything you are working for comes to naught. When the nine realms and every space between whisper your name as it has always been: Loki, God of Mischief. Loki, God of Lies. Loki, God of Evil. When you sacrifice everything to fight the old in you while those you love-”

“Love?”

“-never forgive you. They distrust you, avoid you, and reward your honesty with a dungeon.”

“You don’t watch any movies—like, at all, do you? This time-traveling-to-warn-your-old-self-of-the-future stuff is not cool.”

“You may fool them, but do you really try to fool yourself? Your dream is rooted in guilty trenches of the heart. It is built in sand at the shoreline.”

And Loki, Agent of Asgard, never lost his grin. But to keen observers the tightness of his expression would belie its falseness— a mask against unpleasant truths, not a mark of mirth.

A splash like a truck falling into the water drowned Loki’s response. He didn’t take his eyes off his future self, though. Loki gripped Gram tightly, and moved forward to stab. The apparition from his future disappeared with a sound like roaring fire.

Hulk rose up from the water, swatting at thin air. Loki saw steam, and in the steam lines were visions of his future. He felt the apparition escape, its trail a twin of the ‘Goo’ from before. It headed West.

… and thus King Loki was out of our story.

That’s how good old Gunnlaug would have told the it. Only not, Loki figured, because he had no way of knowing whether or not he’d be seeing King Loki again.

Knowing himself, it was rather likely he would.

On the island, the Avengers burned. Thor was the least affected, but his eyes were closed and he crouched to the earth, fists balling up soil and grass. He seemed to be desperately trying to ignore something, or flinching against pain. Iron Man’s hands were clamped at his side, feet hovering above the earth, suit visibly straining to lift him higher yet unable to. Black Widow had flattened herself to the ground, staring out towards him and yet beyond him, like she was paralyzed in the shadows of her mind, hiding. Steve Rogers had abandoned his shield and was clinging to a tree branch, reaching out and down.

All of them were screaming.

The Hulk was running towards the shore.

King Loki had fled, and the corruption remaining was a spell, not the invader. Gram couldn’t save them.

Loki looked down at his boots, water rippling beneath him.

He could very, so very, easily run. However, he had a chance to bring the Avengers into his debt.

An arrow whizzed by his ear. “Aren’t you going to do anything?  Useless.” Hawkeye didn’t wait for an answer. Loki heard the comms system buzzing with jet pilots flying in for a rescue that would do nothing for the Avengers’ torment.

Loki sighed. “These boots have been so good to me, too.”

There was the magic of stories, and then there was the magic of things, which were not entirely separate magics. It was the difference between carrying gold and having favors you can call in. The boots were like gold, but it wasn’t like you couldn’t use gold to call in favors.

Loki just wasn’t looking forward to stepping into the fire himself.

A whisper of serenity stilled the Hulk from joining his friends. The green monster stood just in front of the green fire, breathing heavily. Anger laid over fear.

Stay, Loki bade him, and the Hulk didn’t look happy to do it but he didn’t step further.

Loki resized Gram, stashing the sword away. He set his jaw and walked into the flames. The visionary steam from earlier had been almost tantalizing, but the smoke filling his lungs now was darkness of his past. There are so many things more terrible than death. And yet what hadn’t he done to avoid the bounds of mortality? Of Asgard?

The shadowthreads of his coat loosened as if in the company of friends. The flames were no longer visible to him. Visions of opportunity courted him. Release this killer for that killer and gain that. Convince this child that death is the only way and become his charade. Convince him it is right to choose death, while you would sooner let the universe burn. A sunlit brother commands armies to hunt you down, to bind you far from the galaxies that could be yours.

The magic of the flames was as cold as Jotunheim, with a darkness that glittered like it knew what light was and laughed.

He told his boots there were far better places to run than this. Seven-league boots, he commanded, become your truth. Leave your binds, and free us from this hell.

Naturally, they resisted. The boots tried to take him and him alone, but he held his ground, seeing the flames and visualizing smoke instead. The boots were confused. They were built for crossing physical distances. They were also built to be physical things.

He held his ground, and it felt like the world’s orbit was grinding against the boots, an axis directly beneath him kept somehow from movement.

Then, with a shudder like they released the weight of the planet, the boots gave. Leather and stitches and laces separated into panels, which smoked for a moment before flaming up painfully over his ankles. He didn’t move, though. It was imperative that he didn’t move. The shudder swept out. He recalled the numbers of civilians caught up in the flames. The magic of the boots rippled towards them.

Then, it felt as if the full speed of Midgard’s orbit was running away with him. There was light and fire and darkness silken sliding over his skin, trying to reclaim him.


 

When he awoke, he saw he was not the only one who had fallen, though the Hulk still stood, exactly where Loki had bade him (and looking angrier by the second).

Cattails rose up from the wet silt, partly obscuring Thor’s features a few feet away. Their cover of darkness had slipped away, and a winter sunset burned dimly in the west.

“Th…kk…”

Thor was trying to speak, and when he realized he couldn’t, he shook his head, pointing. Loki swallowed nausea and sat up, elbows on his knees. Thor was pointing past their abandoned gondola. It was floating away from them, toward a jet on the other side of the bridge Hawkeye had been standing on.

The others were standing up shakily, touching their heads, frowning as they tried to speak. Loki watched them, hiding a grin as the Hulk growled.

Iron Man tinkered with his suit slowly, examining the thrusters which didn’t seem to comply with his manual orders. Black Widow looked all around them, like she could hear something they couldn’t. Steve Rogers rubbed a shoulder, probably sore from holding the tree and reaching as he had been. His eyes were bloodshot.

Loki finally whispered the words to release the Hulk, who roared and stomped around the island. He bent down to Loki and breathed heavily, but didn’t do anything. Banner seemed more and more in control of the monster as time passed. Loki didn’t necessarily like that.


 

Steve Rogers tried to remember something nice, now, as way of drowning out the fire. In the fire, he saw Bucky’s face. Bucky falling. He saw SHIELD operatives finding Bucky. He saw the report he’d submitted. He saw Bucky executed.

A text message on his phone from the dog walker brought him back to just the edge of those dark thoughts. Sandy says home sweet home. Time for a nap! A photo of his dog drooling, lapping up water, was attached.

If he thought about something in the world that absolutely depended on him, something so innocent, it was almost possible to live in the moment and ignore the past.

Loki accompanied the silent Avengers back to their compound. In the jet ride, Steve pointed to his throat, tried to ask, “What happened?” but all that came out were shaped breaths.

Loki seemed to understand. “You were screaming. You might be a bit mute now, but I really thought I might have gone deaf, how long and loud you were shouting. All of you. Your doctors should inspect you.”

He had expected Loki to flee. But instead, he now sat in their common room, treating the cold shoulders abounding as if they were compliments.

Pepper came in, interpreting Stark’s gestures for the meanings they were. Point to stomach = hungry. Index, middle, and thumb pointed together, sweeping the air = 

“Italian?”

No.

“Ice Cream?”

Stark shook his head and made a triangle above his hair. Pepper stared at him. Everyone else was watching, too. Stark mimicked Kung Fu, and Pepper rolled her eyes.

“You could have just written it down. I’ll order enough for… everyone?”

Stark wheezed and stared at Loki, as everyone else did, too.

“Well, considering I am the reason the fire is gone and you are no longer consumed by its torture...”

Steve wouldn’t say the fire was done consuming him. He tried to think of cute puppy dog eyes. She was still shy around the Avengers. He thought about bringing her here. Maybe she’d be less panicked with them all so lazy and tired like this, unmoving on couch cushions. No spies or green monsters or gods; just a bunch of weary humans. Humanoids. More or less.

“Ok.” Pepper’s face was diplomatic as she left. She joined them for dinner when it came. Stark always insisted on some kind of spicy version of Chinese food, but Steve couldn’t handle it, and thankfully Pepper had similar tastes. They shared a dish of eggplant and pork and some kind of cucumber side. He felt he could eat for days, but stopped after just a few bowls.

Pepper hadn’t been there; Hawkeye and Bruce had been, but since they hadn’t been engulfed in the fire, while they could talk, everyone seemed inclined to silence as they ate. Even Loki didn’t say anything, swigging a Paulaner that he’d materialized for himself after Tony flat out refused to give Loki one. (Steve suspected the beer had been less ‘materialized’ than transported from the closed refrigerator door to Loki’s hand.)

Thor cleared his throat and spoke. “I think,” his voice was raspy, but capable, “I can speak. Loki, how did you break the flames’ hold over us?”

Steve wondered if it was an Asgardian thing, maybe his own super soldier blood was healing his voice more quickly, too.

“I sacrificed the magic of the boots to get us out of there.”

Steve tried speaking, failed, and typed into a random text box in his phone, Can you sacrifice any kind of magic?

Loki grinned and pulled out his own phone. Within moments, Steve had a new contact, “Lovely Loki”, who was messaging him.

Not really. You couldn't  sacrifice the magic in a bullet-proof T-shirt to make someone love you. But you could maybe use it up to expand coverage beyond just your torso. Depends on how much the shirt likes you, though.

Hawkeye tapped on the table. Neither he nor the others looked happy about a secret message thread between Captain America and the God of Lies. Steve showed them the screen. They all read. Hawkeye pulled out his own phone, which made Steve just look around for a memo pad. No one did things the same anymore. He didn’t even know if Tony had a landline in the room to keep a memo pad by in the first place.

Steve’s phone vibrated, and he saw a group chat titled, 'Everyone Loves Loki.'

Hawkeye (whose name in the group appeared as ‘Arrows = Compensating for…’) texted: Did the boots like you?

Steve eyed the burn marks on Loki’s bare feet. Loki said aloud, “We certainly went some nice places together.”

Hawkeye’s name briefly changed to ‘Loki = dbag’ before becoming ‘Barton = impotent’.

Black Widow sighed. Her name in the chat was just ‘Black Widow’: But you didn’t just take us out of there. You dispelled the flames.

Loki was touching his phone screen, but he answered aloud, “No, the flames had no one to torment, so they died after we left.” The group name changed to 'Avengers Jeopardy,' Hawkeye’s name changed to ‘circus freak’, and Hawkeye himself seemed to consider the new names.

Steve stood up. He cleared his throat, tested his voice, and smiled briefly when a guttural croak broke high. It made him think of his teenage years, which wasn’t a bad thing. It was before all of … this. Or rather, that — the memories the flames had showed him.

Goodnight, he texted, then rolled his eyes at his own Loki-given screenname: RedWhite&iBLEWyourBF.

Chapter Text

Steve and his fellow Avengers shared a look when Loki left, then promptly evacuated to the conference room they usually used for debriefings. Maria Hill’s face was on the screen.

“Congratulations. Not a single loss of civilian life. How’d you manage that?”

Thor grinned. “My brother is to thank for those lives, and our sanity.”

Stark tried talking, but his voice was raspy and unintelligible.

“Right. I got your message Stark, but I know some of you can still talk. Tell me what happened.”

Clint narrated events. Bruce occasionally explained something, but mostly the archer led the answers, until a certain question was asked.

“Rogers, you released a dangerous Asgardian. You didn’t even consult me. Why?”

“Ghhh,” his voice wasn’t back. He took a deep breath and tried to convey the confidence he had made the decision with earlier that day. He hoped he looked responsible. He couldn’t tell if Hill expected an answer or not. She looked around the room, shaking her head.

“You’re lucky it worked out for the best, that’s all I can say. I know it was an incomprehensible task, and I know you felt that he was the best person to comprehend it— the fire. But it was a real gamble, and we don’t even know if we won.”

“Yeah,” Clint nodded. “We still don’t know who’s behind it.”

“I meant Loki. We don’t know what we lost to him by asking for his help.”

Steve understood. The likelihood that Loki would stick to their bargain was slim. But the gamble had saved more than a hundred lives. No one had been watching as Loki saved everyone, but he had still come through— not just for them, who Steve would bet Loki intended to use, but also complete strangers who just happened to be in the park when the fire spread.

“I want your reports in 24 hours, barring another emergency. Especially yours, Rogers. Goodnight, Avengers.”

“Good night,” the few that could speak grumbled back.

 


 

Loki went to Asgard for answers.

“I mean, tell me if this is happening to everyone else,” Loki said to the All-mother. “If everyone else is seeing themself from the future, hey, I know it’s not just me who’s fucked up. Maybe it’s something in the water.”

“You alone saw him, Loki.”

That wasn’t reassuring.

Idunn frowned. “It might have been connected to the flames. Something inside you, your fears, manifested the vision you saw.”

That was even less reassuring; Loki knew what he saw. He knew magic and illusions-- even if his own magical prowess had less umph than it used to have-- but only a handful of magicians could fool Loki with their tricks. He knew that the Loki he had seen was indeed real, if out of time. He had felt it.

Surely, the All-mother knew it, too?

“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe that’s it. Well, I’m off for a hot bubble bath.”

“We expect your next mission to be wrapped up, alongside resolution of your most recent failure, within a reasonable amount of time. You’ve no idea what our seers foretell, Loki, and your efforts pave the way for an Asgard we can call home once more.”

“What’s my new mission?”

When they told him, he remembered that thing called “overtime,” which Midgardian enterprises dispensed as reward for the suicidal hours employees occasionally put towards missions.

He was expected to not only to track down the wild goose magic that had possessed Thor, but also bring Lorelei in to Asgard.

If the Allmother had a form of overtime payment, he’d never heard of it, so, naturally, he took the longest bubble bath in all his reincarnation. (It still wasn’t that long, but long enough for his digits to wrinkle like prunes. A first.) He then took a stroll through Alfheim, bribing merchants for sideways glances and info on new seven-league boots. They were hard to come by and not made of strictly legal material in Alfheim’s jurisdiction of policing gods. (The leather was of sky otter hide, and only from specimens that died of old age; but since you couldn’t tell until spelltime what death the sky otter had suffered, and the spell took a while to cast before even touching leather, there was a sad trade of sky otter pelts who had died… not of old age. Hence the ban of trading any sky otter pieces and the increased rarity of the type of boots Loki had sacrificed for the Avengers.)

There were no leads for new boots, so Loki contented himself to travel by more mundane, risky methods (like teleportation), while multi-tasking missions. He met a nice lie-detecting lady while speed dating to spy on Lorelei. Why Lorelei was involved in material pursuits on Midgard was beyond him, but given time, he’d find out. He didn’t always stay at the Avengers Tower, or even on Midgard. His mucked-up shadow threads weren’t exactly reliable anymore, but he wasn’t ready to risk breaking into the Craftsman Guild on Svartalfheim get new ones.    

Instead, he disguised himself as … herself, chatting up informative drinkers on Anaheim. When a particularly fetching woman there asked Loki’s name, she only said, “Call me ‘Lovely,” paused for laughs, then dragged out more with, “No, really, I hear too many complaints and not enough compliments these days.”

Their beer was inferior to Asgard’s.

A month passed. Two. Lorelei hadn’t quite announced enough of her plans for Loki to get involved and bring her to the All-mother, but she had enough to do, anyway, limping along without seven-league boots in pursuit of either her future self or the corrupt spell said future self had released on Midgard. Or both? She couldn’t tell yet how much direct influence King Loki was exerting, but if she knew herself— she had doubts that she did— He (future) was probably too busy to micromanage the magic.

Or maybe that was literally all Future Loki was devoting his time to.

Loki had had nightmares more pleasant than that thought.

Fresh from playing hooky in Paris (and introducing herself to Lorelei as a future partner in crime), Loki … was back to being himself.

Unfortunately for Loki, the spirit/Ooze/whatever snaked its way around the globe. One day, he could track it in Manhattan’s sewers. On others, he couldn’t fathom how Midgard existed with so many countries and languages, nor how they’d invented computers or vaccines without at least Allspeak.

This was how he found himself in a quaint attempt at metropolis known as Houston, battling the corruption’s latest mischief. The manifestation this time was organic: a cross between some kind of vine and a mockingbird, but hundreds of times larger than either. Its wingspan was ten Sleipners long, and its cry destroyed everyone’s eardrums—literally. Loki, Thor, Hawkeye, and Captain America found themselves bleeding and blinking back tears of pain. Black Widow was in the Quinjet, so while Loki imagined she hadn’t fallen victim to the same blast they had, if she was trying to communicate with them, she would need to resort to non-aural means.

Prior to showing up in a bayou-landscaped park in the suburbs, Loki had been testing out some new shadowthreads, alone, wandering the busy streets of Tokyo. Something drew him off Honshu, back to North America, and he heard the Avengers flying in not long after he had arrived.

What he now knew about the Ooze: it did not need a human host. It could mold the host to its will and for its own strength.

The bird’s downy vines slapped along the earth. It didn’t appreciate Hawkeye’s arrows. This was how they learned that this manifestation was louder than the natural host.

Loki and Thor would heal— probably in no more than a day. Steve Rogers, too, would probably hear again.

He found it uncanny how this entity on the loose was throwing them into chaos by disrupting communication for the second time.

Speak no evil, hear no evil…

Loki saw the mocking-vine rise. Its leaves curled around a tree, lifting itself into the air as its claws reached. The creature didn’t fly so well. Or perhaps it had found a fun new way of walking.

Loki tried to dig out the Sword of Truth and cast little flames at vines straining for him. He regretted this multitasking the moment talons dug into his side. The bird thrashed him forward and back. He couldn’t reach Gram, so he tried an illusion.

The creature’s talons spasmed. The appearance of a building-sized Great Horned Owl swooping down would have given Loki pause, too. He managed to wrangle bloodily out of the birds’ grasp. He hit the ground shoulder first and rolled a few feet before stopping against a body—Thor. He was bleeding, but alive. Loki tried to speak, to tell Thor there would be other times to sit and enjoy the scenery. No sound came out, but Thor grinned.

In his own mind, he heard Thor’s voice like brass bells. You have your illusions. Tell me why this thing seems to resist the charge of Mjolnir, and I’ll tell you I have strength yet. All-speak could conquer deafness. It was good to have another weapon.

Later, he responded. It wasn’t quite like thinking. It was still deliberate, still All-speak… Still a massive waste of time to contemplate given the current situation.

An arrow flew by his ear. When he turned to Hawkeye, the man was moving his hands wildly… no, purposefully. Delicately. Eloquently…

Not so eloquently. It seemed that Barton hadn’t been learning this country’s sign language for very long, but his message came across. He was saying the same thing over and over, trying to get his attention. …Asshole, asshole, yeah, the nice bird fucking went away. There’s the bad bird! Look!

Loki saw that the owl had indeed been dispensed with, vapors of a dream in the air, and the mocking-vine cast a huge shadow across the Avengers. Captain America was caged by vines, Hawkeye slashing furiously to release him. Stark and Black Widow in the jet were flying circles around the bad bird, trying unsuccessfully to pull it into an aerial battle.

Loki released Gram and stood, waiting for the bird to notice him.

If this thing was connected to what he’d seen in Central Park, it would target him.

The bird was flapping and wheeling upwards, feathers curling into plant matter as they fell. Loki placed the runic jar on the ground.

Loki imagined Las Vegas casinos, his personal reward for finally completing this mission. He’d even invite Stark, if only to get him out of the Avengers Mansion so Loki could have their database wiped of any mention of himself.

The bird had gained a great height, though, and Loki started second-guessing his plan. Not about Vegas, but about waiting until the last minute to stab the creature. It was clearly planning to divebomb the intruders like the multi-ton bird-vine of prey that it was.

He tensed and relaxed his hand on the sword hilt, tensed it and relaxed it again. He felt cornered, unable to use tricks on this thing. The sword was his best bet, but Thor had always been the one for brute force.

The bird stopped climbing into the sky, pausing in mid-air as to wrap its vine-wings close and tuck its head to its chest. Loki didn’t know how, but the thing had teeth, and the flash of its sneer disappeared as the bird shot down like a bullet.

Loki had lined this up perfectly—the bird thought it had the upper hand. But Loki was sure that Gram would take the brunt of the damage, its truth splintering the spell of the creature.

Red, white, and blue dashed in and shielded him from his target.

Idiot, he said, unheard, trying his best to aim Gram around the Captain’s shield as the colossal bird slammed against vibranium and vibranium slammed Loki and Steve to the ground. The shield rolled away as the bird recoiled on the ground.

Fortunately, Gram hit its target. Unfortunately, Gram couldn’t unhinge physics. Loki hadn’t been crushed like this even facing off against the Hulk (who was, sadly, otherwise occupied in Latveria).

Loki didn’t lose consciousness. He was in pain, apparently not more than his body could handle, but he couldn’t move much without pushing closer to that dark, fuzzy edge.

Somehow, the shadowthreads activated. He cursed, still unheard. The coat was glitching—clearly a knock-off, and he was lucky that only meant vision issues: the world became textured monochrome, as if the scenery had been dipped in ink and set to dry in fog. Captain America, black. Iron Man, black. Hawkeye, black. The quinjet… well, that had always been black.

The bird writhed darkly in his sight, alone blending into the fog, unlike the iridescent superheroes.

Silver oozed out of the bird’s mouth, a scream Loki couldn’t hear with ears but felt shivering over his skin, searching. He remembered that old nickname, Silvertongue.

The world ceased looking like ink in fog.

Next to him, close enough to smell, Steve Rogers was breathing like a sick dog. He didn’t seem to be awake. Loki, stuck between the rock, which was pain, and the hard place, which was unconsciousness, could tell that some part of the magic had messed the soldier up. In what way, and what that meant for Loki’s mission, he didn’t know. But the runes on the jar he’d prepared lay dormant, sealed tight over a writhing black entity that had cost Loki some very nice boots and a coat he’d known he couldn’t afford in the first place.

 


 

Steve woke in a cold sweat. His sheets were wet, his nightshirt soaked. He wanted to go take a shower, but for a moment, he caught his breath, hand covering his eyes.

Nightmares had visited him infrequently for the last several months as he waited for word about Bucky. He wasn’t sure S.H.I.E.L.D. would have a use for him. He had his fears that they would execute him to extinguish the threat of the untamed Winter Soldier.

He had the nightmare again, reminding him of that August day before New York’s autumn chill set in. Steve had felt hopeful, tracking Bucky down to an alley in Brooklyn. It was one of many Steve had picked a fight in, rescued by Buck from a beating too bad. That the Winter Soldier had travelled there was a good sign.

Steve rolled out of bed, disrobed, and stepped into the slowly warming water of the shower.

He had been hopeful. S.H.I.E.L.D. promised they would try everything to undo Hydra’s damage. They wanted to undo the Winter Soldier, they’d said. October brought frequent updates of the tests they were doing. November saw weekly statements, brief but insightful, about how their treatment plan and its initial stages. But starting in November, he hadn’t heard anything.

Now, recovering from the fight with the mocking-vine, as they were calling it, it was March. He had asked Maria weekly throughout December and January for updates, but she had said that there were none. They were following the treatment plan, and it hadn’t left the initial stages. In February, she told him to stop asking her about it; she would let him know when there was news.

He trusted Maria Hill in many things, but he knew her enough that if she saw Bucky as an intolerable threat, unrecoverable from Hydra’s training and brain-washing, she would not hesitate to eliminate him.

That man is a weapon, she had said before they even began searching for him. We can’t let him fall into the wrong hands.

Was Bucky in the right hands, now?

Steve didn’t know. They could have killed him and he wouldn’t know unless he rallied all the Avengers to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. and get the information Hill wasn’t giving him.

These thoughts were the fuel for his nightmares. Steve saw Bucky dead by his own hands. Shot in the back, throat slit in his sleep, poisoned in a military camp. In other dreams, he knew he needed to kill Bucky, but he couldn’t and the Winter Soldier killed the Avengers one by one, forcing Steve to watch.

Tonight’s nightmare was different. He was riding the wings of a black bird, killing mercilessly with his shield. Innocent civilians had been no different than Bucky, who he killed three times before waking up with a pounding heart.

Steve, still deaf, texted Jarvis that he was going for a run. He skipped warming up and hit the pavement hard just outside the Avengers Tower.

Running didn’t make him feel better, and neither did feeding Sandy when he got back, but the tasks were something to do until he made up his mind about how to get info on Bucky. The tasks also tamped down the strange feeling he had that was somewhere between real illness and guilt—a feeling which, in sum, he’d never had before, but had, since his fight with the mocking-vine, seemed to creep at the edge of his every thought.

Chapter Text

Loki took the jar to the All-mother. He offered to throw it somewhere deep and dark where it’d never be found, but they told him not to go to the trouble. This didn’t surprise him as he was ninety-percent sure the rune jar and its contents were lying to him: the Black Ooze hadn’t been captured. Considering who he’d seen on the water in Central Park and the nature of the entity wreaking havoc around Loki, he continued searching.

He didn’t tell the Avengers about his doubts. It was understood that he would be leaving their premises any day. Confrontations with Agents Romanoff and Barton had become a daily entertainment for Loki. He wasn’t the God of Evil, but that didn’t mean a little misdirection now and then (“I’m worried about your Captain America; he took the brunt of the damage with the mocking-vine, so unless you have someone else on hand who knows its magic better, trust me when I say it’s in his best interest that I’m around.”) was out of his purview.

Loki ate a bagel and walked the streets near Madison Square Park, following the path of metro tunnels and plumbing where the Ooze had first made its presence known. Loki knew he was missing something, not seeing enough moves ahead to prevent some catastrophe. Not for the first time, he wondered if this was all worth it. Then he remembered the alternative, and his steps were rougher on the pavement.

As he walked, he juggled mini-Gram and mulled. Recently, Stark and his techies and his security personnel were making it difficult for him to make the changes to their network (or pulling information from it) without them noticing his presence. Meanwhile, his information traps in Svartalfheim collected Craftsmen Guild members’ habits, but they were smart, and he hadn’t yet figured out how to break in for a new invisibility coat.

So determined was he in following the trail the Ooze had left six months’ prior (strangely as strong as it had been in the first days) that he didn’t notice a dog had taken to following him.

“And how long have you been hoping I had some treats?” The dog kept trotting at his side, barely looking up before its gaze lolled around and back at their surroundings. Loki stopped. “Go. Go home.”

The dog sat down, turning one bored eye at him and panting. Its fur was a little curly and long, golden in color with a kind of squashed face. Loki didn’t know dog breeds. He did not have command over animals. He could have picked that card, too, and he chose illusions and shrouds and (now limited) shapeshifting.

Narrowing his eyes at the dog, he began growling at it. A couple walking past him quickened their steps, more afraid of him than the dog, apparently.

The dog wasn’t threatened. It laid down, still panting.

“Yeah, stay there. Stay put.”

Loki walked away from the shopping areas, down sidestreets. The dog followed him.

Well, he resigned, maybe the dog could help in detecting magic.

He actually really wanted to know how well the dog could sense magic. Certain breeds in Asgard did…

Loki emerged from back alleys in front of a manhole near 33rd street. The dog sniffed the entrance of a cafe.

“Useless,” Loki muttered, pulling out his staff. He enlarged it and tweaked it as he did so, so the end became pick-shaped. He locked the tip into a slot in the manhole cover and levered the disk up. Some pedestrians could have noticed him, but he encouraged a fire alarm inside the cafe to distract them while he shape-shifted into a construction worker uniform.

“Stay here,” he continued as the dog finally paid attention. “Or better yet, disappear while I do crime. Don’t want you implicated.”

The dog whined, nudging Loki’s hand and sniffing at the circular hole in the road.

Loki stomped his feet and lit the base of the hole with luminescent moths. A service ladder mostly reached the bottom.

“Wish me luck,” he said to the dog, then jumped down, using a bit of magic to shove the manhole cover back into place. He heard the dog scratching anxiously at the cover. The beast hadn’t had a collar or tag on. Maybe it had never known love. Maybe it’d be lonely up there.

He was not going to spend his evening sympathizing with a companion animal bred for domesticity. Or any evening, for that matter.

The Ooze had been in this tunnel. Sensing its trail was like feeling warm spots in a river current— there and then gone, but if you were fast enough you could find your way to it again.

Beneath the city, Loki’s breath seemed to echo off the giant pipes and their electric control panels. He heard a rumbling and felt tremors in the concrete--a train in the subway station nearby. It had been a few days since it rained, so no water sloshed about beneath the grate at his feet. The further in he walked, though, the less he bumped into the Ooze’s trail. It grew fainter and fainter until he could only conclude that the entity had traveled through the tunnel and up and out into the alley. The day was more or less a waste, with no new information. The trail on the streets above had stopped here and continued nowhere else except back towards Stark Tower.

He made his way back. When he climbed up, the dog was still there.

“I don’t have puzzle-pieces that fit. Stop looking,” he murmured, when the dog began sniffing his crotch; he felt weird silently suffering it. He crouched and ruffled the dogs ears. “Isn’t that the story of my life?”

In case he’d missed something, he trekked out away from the manhole in all cardinal directions— each time trying to retrace the trail and find another hotspot, but nothing came. Maybe it was something the Ooze (Future Loki?) controlled. Maybe it had wanted someone searching these specific clues to keep them away from something else.

When he left the alley for real, the dog kept trotting at his side, curly hair bouncing fluffily with each step. It seemed like the kind of pet the Avengers would like. Specifically, the Captain. Maybe this day wouldn’t feel completely useless if he gave the pathetic thing some food. Not that it was skinny… actually, for a street dog, it seemed well-fed and groomed.

The security guard in Stark Tower stopped him; security was tighter than ever, but the guard seemed just as concerned about the dog as by security protocols. That was, until he saw the A-logo passcard Loki presented. It took a few minutes for them to verify it (all it gave him was access to the right floors of the building, but he was working on tricking the technology to giving him more), but he was let into the guarded elevator. That led to a change in lifts and a security checkpoint, then another security checkpoint at the entrance to the floor he was staying on. It was the same floor as Steve’s and the fitness area. In fact, if he’d heard right, the rooms he was occupying were the guest suite for Steve’s quarters. Probably so eyes could be kept on him. (Which meant there was probably a way in between the suites; he simply hadn’t bothered to look for it yet. Besides, he could always make a way between them.)

A small kitchenette existed within his bedroom. The fridge held a few things that Thor had picked up for him, including some sandwich meats. He fed these to the dog and poured some water into a crystal punch bowl he found in a cupboard. He smirked at the image and went to lay down. He didn’t even have the energy to strip for a shower.

He did have enough energy to jump when the front door slammed open. The dog barked, but just once. Loki knew who it was (his wards were very informative), but the very angry-looking Captain America, shield strapped to his forearm, was still a surprising sight.

“Really?” Rogers had his hands on the dog as it painted the blue uniform in slobber. Maybe it was trying to wipe the furious expression off Steve’s face. It didn’t work. The dog really had no use, Loki concluded.

“Really what? Is this your dog?”

“Like you didn’t know.” Steve stood, taking in the empty wrapper of sandwich meats in the trash and the punch bowl. A vein in Steve’s jaw looked ready to explode. “That’s an antique. It’s on the floor as a dog dish.”

“Well, it came with the room, and I’m not equipped to care for an animal. Where has the dog been if it’s yours?”

“What, because you and I are close or something and you would actually know if I had a dog or not? Don’t answer that. If you mess with Sandy again-”

“I didn’t mess with that poorly named— and poorly trained dog. I-”

“I don’t believe you.”

The dog was fine— fed and watered and rescued, apparently. Where was the gratitude? “Believe what you want, but take your mutt and get out.”

He turned, not waiting to find out what the soldier did. He shut the bathroom door behind him and leaned up against it for a moment. His eyes were on the floor, looking at his toes. He turned the water on and shut the glass door before stripping out of his clothes. Then he stepped in, letting the water run too hot, steaming up over him and streaming down his back.

What a waste of a day.

 


 

 

Steve got Sandy to stop licking him by giving her proper dog food and a bowl of water. She surely didn’t need more food, but he hated the thought of her wandering the streets of New York since morning. Maybe extra food would convince her not to slip her collar again.

He called the dog-walker, who was alternately hysteric and terse; the natural concern for a client’s pet was probably escalated by her embarrassment at losing an Avenger’s animal companion in America’s largest city.

“I’ll walk her myself tomorrow, no change of pay,” he said. “Just take a day off.”

“Mr. Rogers, I can still do my jo-”

“I know. I picked a dog as stubborn as myself—if she wants to escape, she’ll get it done. But you just said you were out making calls and flyers all day and normally you just do the hourly thing, so please, take a day off. Maybe more time with me will help Sandy remember where home is.”

She finally agreed, and he considered pet training classes. A dog was only as safe as its owner put time in for safety, and he figured maybe a dog trainer could help Sandy become more willing to work with the dog-walker. This wasn’t the first time she’d run off, but the last time the dog-walker had lied about walking more than one dog at a time. Specifically, a Rottweiler-mix at the same time as walking Sandy. They got along fine, but when the bigger canine yanked the leash towards a dog in heat, Sandy slipped away easily.

Steve couldn’t sleep, so he watched the moon slice the night sky.

The anger he’d felt at Loki was inexplicable.

This was the best view of his life, save a castle in Germany, but most nights, like this one, he found he couldn’t enjoy it.

Guilt chased the memory of Loki finding Sandy. How could he have bullied Loki like that and then give a day off, with pay, to the dog-walker who lost Sandy in the first place?

He thought about calling Sam. He thought about walking up to Thor’s suite for advice. He thought about a run or a go at the punching bag.

Fear steeped the decision Steve made, so he stuck his hands in his pockets, where sweaty palms wouldn’t be seen.

 


 

Captain America came back later to apologize. Guilt and embarrassment, Loki theorized, brought the man knocking on his door. There was no pretense— no extra slice of pizza he thought Loki might want. Just an apology.

“I was worried about Sandy. The dog-walker told me earlier that she’d slipped her collar, and I’ve been looking for her since then.”

“So naturally, you thanked me for having the good fortune to find your canine.”

“I’m sorry. Being worried is no excuse for how I behaved. And frankly, neither is my distrust of you.”

“Well, now we’re being a bit too honest for my taste.”

Steve looked around the room. Loki had done nothing to it. The punch bowl was drying in a dish rack in plain sight.

“This isn’t an excuse. But I haven’t felt quite right since that battle in Houston. Any chance you know what’s going on with me? If it’s something magic-related…”

“Sadly, it isn’t that simple.” Loki bit the urge to rub salt in the wound: even if it were, there’s no compelling reason to diagnose you, nice as you’ve been to me.

Steve sighed, but Loki didn’t provide an explanation.

“I’m making dinner. You hungry?”

“Not really.”

Loki watched Steve struggle. He thought about this new identity he was trying to fit himself to. He wasn’t this new person. He had killed that child-soul.

Steve nodded, said something bland that Loki didn’t entirely hear, and walked back down the corridor towards his suite.

Loki smirked and followed.

Steve looked over his shoulder. “I thought you weren’t hungry.”

“I’m not.”

“Coming to snoop around my rooms, then?”

Young, young, I’m young and new and laid-back, Loki thought. Not the God of Evil. That much he did believe. So he didn’t answer a question with a question, despite his inclinations. “Yup.”

The Captain hadn’t been lying. Something meaty roasted in the oven, the scent carrying even out into the hallway. Rogers’ dog jumped up Loki’s leg as he came in. He ignored her.

“Peel those carrots and the potatoes, then cut them up,” Rogers said, placing a vegetable peeler on a cutting board.

Loki raised an eyebrow, but felt strangely content following this order. As he peeled and sliced, he ruminated over the command. It carried no judgement. It held the estimation of capability: you can do this. It contrasted brightly against commands Odin had given him, and even the unfeeling All-mother, in which he knew a Frigga but no family.

Steve moved around the kitchen. Loki waltzed out of the way and then back into it uncertainly. He didn’t know how to be domestic like this. He felt like a top-heavy stein of beer. Something would surely knock him over. He also literally didn’t know where Steve’s tools were, so he kept getting in the way.

Loki stepped out of the kitchen. With his hands on his hips, he stared at the blank walls. The dog he’d found earlier, Steve’s dog, was curled up on the couch. The couch didn’t match the plush chair, which was unlike the suite Loki was using. He realized that this was the flat he’d brought the Hulk charging up to when he first broke into the Avengers tower.

That was six months ago.

He moved the dog off the couch and sprawled out over it, closing his eyes. When the dog crawled up boldly and squeezed between Loki’s legs and the back of the sofa, Loki didn’t shove it off again.

 


 

Natasha walked into Steve’s quarters with determined steps. Her pace slowed when she saw that Steve had company — Loki — and was sketching said company. Loki was asleep — or pretending to be asleep — on Steve’s new beige couch. The Captain looked towards her for a moment, giving her the barest twitch of a smile. Good. This wasn’t a private, loving moment between the leader of the Avengers and an enemy they currently called ally. If she suggested anything like it to Steve, he’d flatly deny it, but she knew how these things developed and hadn’t ruled the possibility out.

She stepped noiselessly forward, crossing her arms and looking down at the sketch. Steve had captured the softness of Sandy’s fur and the position Loki was in with perfect likeness, but he’d avoided depicting Loki’s facial features too clearly. In comparison, the couch was rendered down to the smallest detail. Good. He was, consciously or not, still avoiding intimacy with the mischief-maker.

The real Loki gave a single snore, his head falling back over the cushions. She watched Steve’s expression, wondering if Loki was sleeping on Steve’s couch to make himself seem tender, vulnerable, and prey on Steve’s inclinations of stewardship.

Originally, she’d wanted to come and talk to Steve about their house guest, but since that wasn’t possible, she opted to stay and watch how the scene — especially any interactions once Loki woke up — unfolded. So she moved to a corner in the kitchen and propped one leg up behind her.

The hum of the elevator lift didn’t wake Loki; neither did the doorknob hitching as Clint stepped into the room Clint stopped, catching her eye immediately. His brows knitted together, gaze questioning. She jerked her chin to Steve and Loki. Clint looked and stiffened, fingers twitching. Loki’s neck was still tilted up, mouth open and breath noisy. Sandy had woken to yawn, smack her lips, and climb a little farther up Loki’s hip. She even turned around, somehow sticking part of her head into the narrow space between Loki’s back and the couch. Steve had started a new sketch, shifting his own position on the couch to focus on a profile sketch of Loki’s head and shoulders bent as impossibly as they were over the sofa cushions.

Looking back at Clint, she raised an eyebrow. He gave her a clueless expression, taking in a deep breath and shaking his head. Then he came to stand next to her, finger digging into his shoulder. She was quite certain the gesture was more of an act to keep his fingers ever close to the quiver on his back, but she dragged him into position in front of her so she could press fingers into the muscles of his back. Beneath her hands, none of the tension slipped from his body. He was always like that, though.

She kept an eye on the two men on the sofas.

Steve turned around after a minute. His expression didn’t change, but his eyebrows were raised before he nodded at Loki. He pointed to himself.

Natasha nodded. She had wanted to talk to Steve about Loki, but couldn’t do it here. At least, she was pretty sure that was what Steve was asking. Communicating without words was more of a sure talent she had with Clint, hearing loss or no.

Natasha let go of Clint, whose hand relaxed dangerously over his bow. Relaxed was how he approached shooting things.

Clint slung out his arm at that moment to point angrily in the direction of Steve. Nat circled forward to see his face while he signed “Draw,” jabbed in Loki’s direction, and then, “WTF.”

Steve shrugged, taking in a breath like he was about to explain something.

Nat nudged Clint with her shoulder. He knitted his eyebrows together, signing “What?”, head tilted innocently, gaze never leaving the direction of Loki.

Steve finally spoke, shattering the silence. His voice was soft, but still jarring as he said Loki’s name.

The other man closed his mouth, lifted his arms, and stretched from fingertips to toes, arching back against the sofa and dismantling Sandy, who blinked slowly and stepped blearily towards a cushion far from Loki. The dog curled and laid her head on her paws, watching Steve and his company with quiet interest. Loki did not go back to sleep. He snapped out of his stretch and yawned, pausing before stretching once more, this time over the arm of the couch, hunched forward. Nat was tempted to roll her eyes. There were people prone to theatrics— like Tony — and there were people for whom theatrics were simply part of them. She was beginning to wonder if that was Loki in a crazy nutshell.

Loki seemed to recognize his surroundings. He peered at the dog, then at Steve, then at the unexpected company. Then back at Steve. He pulled out his mobile phone, tapping away at the screen. Natasha couldn’t see it, but she heard a vibration come from Steve’s couch. She watched as Steve hunted for his phone. His face was tilted down and sideways, so she saw him roll his eyes; Loki had texted him something, apparently not wishing anyone else to hear his thoughts.

Glancing once, she checked that her Widow Bites were loaded and the safety was on. Clint’s stance was wide as if bracing for combat as Loki stood up from the couch, tucked his phone away, and left the room without even a second glance in their direction. The door to the hallway opened and closed softly behind him.

Chapter Text

After Loki left the room, Steve braced himself for the questions. Clint grunt-sighed. Natasha moved to the kitchen counter, leaned back away from it, and bent her arms into some inclined push-ups that were way too easy for her. “You need to be very careful.”

Steve stood and went to the pressure cooker, ladling some corned beef and veggies onto a plate for Clint. Clint looked reluctant to accept while serious conversation seemed at hand. Steve scooped himself some food and dug in. “Why?”

“You know Loki’s profile,“ Nat said. “His best skill is manipulation. Every interaction with him is for some purpose that he hasn’t let you in on. We have no way of knowing whether that purpose is actually antagonistic at us or just uses us, but all we have is Thor’s misguided trust in Loki to hope that it’s the latter.”

“Friends close,” Steve said, “enemies closer.”

“You’ve said that before,” Clint said. “About the exact same bastard.”

Steve spoke slowly enough for Clint to lipread. “It’s still true. Especially with this one thinking we buy some degree of his nice act.”

Nat finished her set and stretched her arms against Clint’s shoulder. “So you don’t buy it?” she said.

Steve didn’t answer. He finished his food. “I don’t know what to believe. I see exercises like that,” he nodded at his sketchbook, “as information-gathering.”

Clint had finally started eating, but that didn’t stop him from joining the conversation. He signed, “What information are you gathering by drawing that [word Steve had to ask for the spelling for—of course Clint would know all the swear words in ASL before he learned ‘owl']?”

Steve shrugged and rinsed his plate. He thought about telling them he wasn’t the same—there was something wrong with him, and for some reason being around Loki made him feel less like he was an angry alien in his own body.  

 


 

After letting Steve draw him for an hour, Loki texted to Steve: “Get a grip and actually draw my face next time. It’s not my best feature, but it’s the best one I’m willing to let you draw.”

Then he left the room and went to Svartalfheim to get into a certain Guildmaster’s workshop. This broken invisibility cloak of his was not up to Harry Potter standards, and Loki intended to do something about it before his own Voldemort showed up again.

His first stop, though, was a date with an informant. Without seven league boots, Loki had to drop some blood, lick stardust, and mutter a pledge to get where he needed: the murkiest moon surrounding Svartalfheim. (All of them, really, were very murky)

One moment he was kneeling in his suite in New York, bleeding into the carpet and looping particles from Midgard to Svartalfheim. (Stark probably watched him through hidden cameras) The next moment he swallowed bile as his leather shoes scuffed mildewy rocks on the unnamed moon. Loki stood and looked up at the stars. Over the lifeless landscape, the constellation of the Korksnugh (kind of like a venomous mist-dwelling crab) was in the house of the Queen, which meant Loki was an hour late.

He walked north, dodging swampy pits of noxious liquid the whole way. Loki’s pledge during the transportation spell had been “I promise that new boots are on the agenda after shadowthreads.” He had meant it.

Once Loki reached the sun-side plains, the Korksnugh was climbing out of the Queen’s house and into the Noose’s. He was really late. But he found the creature he was looking for.

“Redmouse,” Loki greeted.

“You’re later than usual.”

The dragon blew steam from its nostrils but didn’t look at Loki. Its eyes were on the brightening horizon.

“Many apologies. And gratitude for what you share.” Loki re-sized a gallon-bucket of chicken hearts from his pocket and set it on the ground in front of Redmouse, who was closer in size to a large cat than any other dragon Loki had met.

“You didn’t bring my favorites.”

“Mice are fast, and I lost my boots.”

The dragon never ate in front of Loki, which was surprising, given that Redmouse was a gargoyle when the sunlight faded from the plains. Whatever joy it had in eating was finite. Night lasted weeks up here. In Svartalfheim’s system, you paid for your crimes, even if all you had tried was to steal the royal treasure.

“I’m looking for shadow threads.”

“Yours are the only ones outside of the Dark Elves’ home.”

“I wonder how I might get more.”

Loki had an easy time speaking the dragon’s language. Debts among dragons were despised, both maintaining them and being under them, and every effort had to be made to avoid requesting or giving assistance. Of course, taking  treasure didn’t seem to be considered being indebted to the people who originally owned the treasure.

Redmouse finally looked at the chicken hearts, but in a sweeping gaze that would have suggested he was merely glancing around at his surroundings. “There is a security-smith down there who works for the Guildmaster. The smith knows where you might find some shadowthreads. He has otherworldly tastes.”

“Realms like that certainly do need security-smiths, just as security-smiths need names.” It grated Loki to be this vague. But Redmouse was the only secure source of information, and the swishing, barbed dragontail was not something to underestimate if communication broke down.

Redmouse reached out with talons, scratching a name in Asgardian script on the air. The Dark Elves possibly monitored this moon somehow, so Loki didn’t speak the name, but he understood it.

Loki nodded. “Boots are on my list, too. With boots, I can catch mice.”

Redmouse harrumphed, stood and stretched. “It is day.” In other words, get off my moon .

“Indeed.”

Loki dropped blood, licked stardust, and made another pledge ( I vow to vex someone today. Again. ). He knew exactly where he was going. On his way off the moon, though, Loki purled Midgard to this moon and this moon to his new destination. Something told him he would need a quick exit. Unstitching the threads wouldn’t take him exactly back to his suite in New York, but it would come close. And it would bring him back more swiftly than anyone in pursuit could follow.

 


 

Steve found himself in Maria Hill's office. He didn't exactly remember walking or riding there, but he remembered waking up from yet another nightmare feeling angry.

"Captain Rogers. We aren’t scheduled to talk about your prisoner until eleven hundred."

“What?” He didn’t quite remember getting to her office, but that happens sometimes: you walk a route you know well and you remember nothing but that your feet got you there. But he hadn’t called ahead to talk about Bucky, so how did she know Steve wanted to talk about him?

“Loki,” she said, eyes boring into his skull like he was hiding something. “He skipped out last night. Disappeared. Literally. Hasn’t reappeared.”

Steve frowned. That didn’t bother him.

Hill’s desk was a neat map of coded memo's, opaque folders, and a laptop that was shut. He didn't understand what little of the memo's he could see, and the thought that Maria could lock things or people away so finally fueled his fear and anger.

"I need an update on Bucky."

"Funny. You're cracking jokes now, Rogers. Because I remember explicitly telling you there were no updates to give, so you should wait until something is worth sharing."

"It's been months. The only kind of situation I'd imagine has no updates is if he were dead."

"Your trust is inspiring. We'll deal with that later, but no, Mr. Barnes is alive and as well as he can be given the situation he was in when retrieved."

"I want to see him. Where is he?"

"He's not cleared for visitors."

"I don't care."

"You should. It isn't your sanity or safety that's a matter of concern here. We have expensive psychologists, neurologists and even an electrical engineer working salary hours, now, trying to help him. We don’t know how long it will take to help him, but we’re committed to doing all we can.”

She opened a folder and pushed it towards him. Lots of numbers. Some names. Dates. Hill continued, “You know how cheap the government usually is, so if you look at the accounts, you should recognize this means they’re serious in supporting this."

Steve wanted to stay angry. He actually wanted to stay angry, even though what Hill was saying made perfect sense. Although, the government being so interested in one soldier meant they expected something out of Bucky. Just information? Bucky might be able to tell them things about the Russians, about Hydra. He might be able to shed light on cold cases. He tempered the anger, the sudden need to be right. Tried to, at least.

"Let me see him."

Maria stared at him for a long while.

Steve added, "He doesn't know those doctors, but he knows me. Maybe it will help?"

Maria shook her head. "No, it won't. He responds negatively to even images of you, Steve."

She closed the first folder and opened a filing drawer to extract a tablet. She slammed the drawer afterwards. "You can see him. But you aren't going anywhere near him." She put in her password. Steve watched her, trying to guess the code before catching himself. This, more than the anger, freaked him out, almost to the point of leaving the room. He pivoted and stared at the wall resolutely, wondering when he became the angry guy who didn't care about whether it was good or not for Bucky as long as HE got to see his friend.

"You know, I-"

"Here,” Hill said, coming around the desk, putting the tablet in front of him. She pointed at a figure on the screen. “That is Doctor Singh. The nurse behind her is monitoring Mr. Barnes' vitals." On the screen, Bucky lay very still in a hospital bed while a man took notes from a chair nearby. “That’s the engineer. Doctor Singh is interviewing Bucky about any new memories he has, details he might have missed specifically regarding the metal prosthetic. A couple days ago, he had an episode, and sometimes he remembers more after that. Sometimes he remembers less, and we tell him what he forgot. It seems to help.”

Steve saw that the room was cushioned. Soft panels around the room alternated in earthy and neutral tones, and a plexiglass window seemed to offer a view to the outside world, or perhaps just a courtyard.

"That looks like a cushy asylum," Steve said.

"Are you forgetting that he used to actually be in a straight jacket? Rogers, this is as good as we can do without compromising his security as a highly dangerous weapon."

"Former weapon."

"Not yet. He lashes out. He nearly killed that engineer, and Michael's a stocky brute."

"Hence the guards.”

“Steve, stop treating Bucky like he’s a teenager who wrecked the car and just needs to be grounded. What is this? You agreed last time; he’s still recovering, and we don’t know how long this will take. We have to take every precaution. Geez, imagine if somebody messed with Natasha’s head, or yours. We’d have to take the same precautions, because you guys are dangerous .”

Steve turned from the tablet again. “You’re right. ...I’ve been having nightmares, and just… needed to see him.”

“You should take advantage of Dr. Li’s office.” The counselor.

“Maybe.”

“Get some breakfast. See you at 11:00.”

“What for?”

“Loki.” She was looking at him again, like he was suddenly very different. “Conference call about Loki.”

He stood up straighter, taking a deep breath. “Right. See you then.”

Hill didn’t move an inch while he was in the room, right to the moment he closed the door behind him. She was suspicious of him. Or maybe just liked to focus on each task that was on hand, he told himself.

Over peppered, scrambled eggs and buttered toast at a cafe nearby, his thoughts kept plowing away from Loki, back to Bucky.

He thought of the mule that walked circles to run the millstone on his aunt’s farm in New Jersey, nearly a century ago. Perhaps the way he felt about Bucky and the way he felt about Loki were tethered, somehow, the one to the other. He still didn’t understand why the situation regarding Bucky seemed suddenly much more dire, while that of Loki escaping seemed frivolous.

When his food got cold, he stopped trying to parse it all out and just tried to enjoy the last warmth of his coffee.

Chapter Text

Under a murky red sky on Svartalfheim, Loki shapeshifted to appear as Thor. Gram could re-size, but being the blade of Truth meant it absolutely would not show itself in any other form. So Loki wielded a fake Mjolnir crafted from a stick, twirling it about absent-mindedly as he jumped into a subterranean network of caves. He’d been here before.

Anyone wanting access to the stash of Guildmaster Cherhzhimund-khlan (Loki called her “Cherry”--much easier to pronounce) had to go through the security-smith Bandat.

Loki had never known a Dwarf to give away anything for free. In fact, he’d never known anyone to give up anything without something in return— all of fate, he knew, was drawn by negotiations and their consequences.

He knocked nine times on a barren cave wall which he knew to be the back entrance to Bandat’s workshop. The wall peeled up and a flaming poleaxe seared to a point beneath Thor-Loki’s chin.

“You’re dead in ten seconds.” Bandat was short even for a dwarf, compensating for his height, at least, with the long weapon threatening Loki and expensive-looking fashions. A blonde beard was braided carefully to drip back to his ears and weave into his hair beneath a velvet beret. His boots looked barely worn at all, which was strange for a dwarf.

Loki spoke like Thor: slow and overly confident. “You have otherworldly tastes, don’t you, Bandat?”

Bandat eyed him up and down. “Not a taste for you, Odinson. In with you, then.” The dwarf herded Loki into the workshop. It was bare. Nothing in sight.

If Loki had time to snoop around…

“If you’re picking at my tastes, you want something in return.”

Thor wouldn’t be this direct, but Loki couldn’t waste any time. “Shadow-threads.”

Bandat glanced around the room. His thick hands reached out to something invisible to Loki but was most likely a Svartalf monitoring device. Then he told Loki the deal.

Unfortunately for Loki, most Dwarves drove very hard bargains, and Bandat, the security-smith, was no different. For Loki to get a safe, untraceable pass through the security magic surrounding Cherry’s prestigious studio where the shadow-threads were kept, he would need to procure a stream of Midgardian slaves of a specified build and sex for the dwarf.

Logistically, the price Bandat demanded was easy-peasy; it would be like taking candy from a baby to give the dwarf what he wanted, and thus get what Loki wanted in return. However, feasible as it was, Loki much preferred screwing over both Bandat and Cherry to dipping his toes in alien trafficking.

“No,” he said, Thor’s voice gruff and echoing around the chamber. Bandat nodded his head and flicked at the previous monitoring device, then turned the poleaxe around on Loki.

But Loki wasn’t Thor, and his arsenal contained much more than clashing weapons. He threw ‘Mjolnir’. Bandat ducked, believing it to be the real thing. Before the stick could clatter against the wall and break the illusion, Loki dropped one of Black Widow’s gas pellets and slapped a breathing mask (of a much better quality and convenient size than Midguard’s) over his mouth and nose.

Bandat saw the illusion and the gas and yelled, stabbing forward with the flaming poleaxe. Loki pivoted, stabbing down with a poisoned dagger towards the dwarf’s dominant arm. He missed because Bandat slashed the poleaxe sideways towards him. For someone so small, a poleaxe really was the perfect weapon.

Loki felt vibrations under his feet--alarms, the kind Dark Elves probably sensed like klaxons.

He ran to the wall, found the monitoring device by touch, and flicked it back off. He narrowly dodged being skewered on Bandat’s poleaxe.

“Are you sure I’m not to your tastes?” Loki said. To which Bandat yelled and thrust forward again. Bandat couldn’t appreciate innuendo.

“Have I vexed you, Bandat?” Check , Loki thought.

“So, and more than that, and I’ll have your head for it, Odinson,” the Dwarf muttered, slashing up towards Loki-Thor’s ribs.

Loki cast illusory images of himself around the room and rolled away from the poleaxe point. The illusions wove around him, some rolling around the poleaxe, others moving with the real Loki-Thor. Then all of them followed him in running to the opposite wall, putting distance between Loki and Bandat that couldn’t be closed with the poleaxe.

Bandat ran after them, but tripped.

The gas was finally taking its toll. Loki made the illusions disappear and dropped another gas pellet just to be on the safe side.

Crouching, he bent and took the dwarf’s boots. “Sorry, not sorry,” he grunted. This dwarf’s feet didn’t even smell. Loki remembered the mask was keeping out any smells. “I made a pledge, after all.” New boots , he thought, check .

Then, Loki caressed every inch of the small cave, whispering for the stone to share its burdens. Where was pain? Where was a tear? Something foreign?

And, just as footsteps sounded outside, he found a series of cracks in the wall that formed a facade. The facade had hinges inside somewhere, and when he used a dagger to flip it, a sturdy lever shined onyx beneath.

Loki grabbed the lever and pulled.

 


 

 Stark presented the facts at the conference call. His opinions, as always, filtered in, of course, but this didn’t surprise Steve. But it was bit more annoying than usual.

“At 9:17 pm, we know Loki texted Steve on his way out of a little sketching party. Shortly after, he was bending down in the connected suites, bleeding into my carpet, muttering, and disappearing. Steve, sorry, but your boytoy might be cheating on you.”

“I won’t dignify that with an answer,” Steve said, twirling a pen. “Do we have any way of tracking where he went?”

“It’s magic, Steve. So, without calling in special help, absolutely no. And then even if we called in help, maybe still no. Why, did you plant a tracker on him?”

“I did,” Nat said. Everyone but Hawkeye turned to her with slight surprise writ on their faces. “I see how underestimated I am.”

“Good work, Agent,” Hill said from the screen. “We’re surprised given who Loki is. When it comes to magic..”

“Yeah,” Stark said, “I was being sarcastic about a tracker, because I never thought anyone would try it. These gods and whatnot are… different.”

Nat shrugged. “It couldn’t hurt to put it on him, so I did.”

“When?” Steve asked. He’d been there in the room, and he hadn’t seen Nat go anywhere near Loki.

Romanoff just smiled, addressing Thor, “Well, the tracker was made by ‘gods and whatnot’, so Thor can tell us about how it works.

Thor grinned. So, as much as he believed in this new reincarnation, he was just as willing as ever to keep tabs on his brother.

Steve wondered when all this happened and why he hadn’t been briefed on it. It was only somewhat a relief that Hill and the others seemed just as surprised.

“I provided the tracking device,” Thor said, “But I don’t think you have something to monitor it with.”

Steve looked to Stark. The engineer’s face was torn between puzzlement and intrigue. “So, Asgard had a way to track with this device.”

“It’s an animal, actually. A bug.”

Tony and Clint chuckled.

“Literally? It’s an insect?” Steve confirmed. Thor nodded.

“Harmless. A few small bites, nothing more. It is an insect that dwells on the bifrost, and other such portals. There was a system designed in Asgard to use them for tracking between realms.”

Steve asked, almost at the same time as Stark. “Do you have more bugs?”

Thor beamed mischievously. “I do.”

Steve looked at Stark. “You might be able to recreate the system.”

“We’ve got nothing better to-”

Onscreen, motion distracted them. Someone had entered Hill’s office with a tablet extended and a frown creasing her face. Hill ripped the clip-on mic off from her lapel to speak with the messenger.

Hawkeye chuckled to himself, watching their silent conversation. “Avengers Assemble,” he said. “Bad guys in Rome.”

Stark said, “So much for nothing better to do.”

Maria Hill looked down at the screen, frowning then turning her back to the screen and repositioning the informant so Barton couldn’t eavesdrop.

Steve waved at Clint to get his attention. “What could you catch?”

“A big hole opened up in the Colosseum. Police and architects trying to investigate all disappeared. Bad guy released a video about hostages. Couldn’t catch more than that.”

Hill was facing them again, alone now, microphone clipped on. “In summary, that’s correct. The bad guy is a bad lady, and she’s on Interpol’s list. Interpol and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has requested intervention. Their Ministry of Defense wants Avengers.”

“What’s the bad lady wanted for?”

“Funding terrorist cells. She reportedly has powers like the Scarlet Witch.”

“It may be Lorelei,” Thor said.

“I want you in Rome as soon as possible,” Hill continued. “Interpol and the Defense folks will meet you on the ground in ten hours. That gives you two to get ready for flight.

“And none to sleep,” Hawkeye muttered rather loudly.

Nat signed something to him and he put his hands up in defeat. Steve could only catch “You,” “Always,” and “Out.”

“Avengers, any questions?” Hill asked loudly, glaring at Hawkeye.

Everyone shook their heads and the monitor cut out with Hill breathing a sigh.

While Stark swivelled Thor to him to talk about the Asgardian tracking system and the others stood to leave, Steve grabbed Natasha’s arm. She looked like she was expecting him to talk to her but hadn’t expected him to grab her. He felt his face flush and pulled his hand back,  wondering what came over him.

“You ok, soldier?” she said. Her tone was casual, nonchalant, but her eyes were penetrating.

He could just imagine how she was evaluating his responses, peering into his brain. He wasn’t ok, but he didn’t have the words to extrapolate, so it didn’t matter . “When did this tracking thing happen? Why wasn’t I briefed?”

Her green eyes bore into him. “Need to know, Steve. You didn’t need to know.”

“Why not?”

“Why have you been so distracted?”

“Why didn’t you tell me about tracking Loki?”

She pressed her lips together in a way that looked strangely relaxed, like she was moving a piece of candy around in her mouth and had stopped halfway through.

“If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. I’ll tell you when you’re ready to believe me,” she finally said, and slipped away to catch up with Barton and Banner.

Steve took a deep breath. Why did he suddenly want to punch something? Some one ?

Bucky. He wanted to see Bucky. The morning meeting with Hill hadn’t gone where he wanted it to and now he had to go to Rome.

The feelings bubbling inside gave him questions, no answers, so he chose to ask new questions, ones about the Rome mission, and walked over to Thor and Stark with tablet in hand.

“Sorry, buddy, engineers and Asgardians only in this convo,” Tony said.

“We have less than two hours to fly over to Rome,” Steve answered, pulling up a chair. “If we need to bring any supplies over with us, we need to decide that now.”

Stark whined. “Who cares? I need to know what to bring with me to start on this tracking system.”

“You’re not building that on the road. Not secure.”

Stark cocked his head, then nodded. “Ok. Later, Thor, you’ll show me these bugs, right?”

Thor clapped Stark’s shoulder. Stark winced. “Oh, sorry,” Thor said, noticing.

Steve looked down. He might have grabbed Nat too hard, and he hadn’t apologized. What was wrong with him?

“Just save it for the bad lady, ok?” Stark said, rubbing the shoulder and snatching the tablet from Steve’s grip. Stark winked at him, flicking around in the software and pulling up the details of their mission. Steve took a deep breath, trying to focus his thoughts on the mission and only the mission.

“Alright, first, let’s tackle Plan A.”

Tony stroked his goatee seriously and said, “Then I’ll poke holes in it to develop Plan B.”

Thor followed and said grimly, “Then I will point out how little you perceive Asgard’s greatness, and my Plan C will allow us to conquer Lorelei.”

Steve felt a small smile forming on his lips. The smile was like a door opening inside him, a door he’d been knocking on for hours. His inner turmoil relaxed enough that he could flip through past missions, past successes and failures. He remembered an occasion in Germany, a suicide raid through no-man’s land, and his Plan A began to form.

 


 

Two cave doors opened at once, the one through to Cherry’s studio, the other back the way he came. Dark Elf guards were covering their mouths and backing away from the entrance as Loki dipped through the hidden tunnel towards shadowthreads. He ran.

The tunnel looped downwards, which was more than a little foreboding. The likelihood of him getting trapped was much higher now.

In less than two minutes he dashed under a tripwire of magic at the entryway to Cherry’s studio. The cave ceiling mawed high above him once inside, and he reached back to re-program the trap--a little lower than it had been.

Work benches and drafting tables huddled in one curved corner, unattended. The dark elves must have all been at their meals or rest. In the middle and remainder of the room sat some heavy-duty elven power tools and looms twice his height, seemingly bare. A flat wooden vat in an alcove shimmered with inky liquid. Beyond the liquid, wooden dowels cascaded down from the cavern ceiling, draped, he imagined, with shadowthreads. He ignored those and went straight to the loom. To the side, nearly missed, was a small cubicle, and inside the cubicle was… nothing.

He paused and thought. He stuck Bandat’s boots under his arm and re-sized Gram. The swords blade shone its light down on the ground in front of the cubicle. With Gram’s help, Loki could just make out runes in a circle around the cubicle. Unfortunately, Loki’s Elven was rusty. Fortunately, he’d learned last time what would happen if one tried to read the rune out loud and failed . He had the scars on his knees to remind him.

Loki looked over the walls. The trap last time had been arrows set low in the cavern stone, aimed at this spot. Those slots were empty. So he looked up. Nothing.

Vibrations under his feet told him the Elves were about to burst into the room.

Loki tilted his head, still eying the ceiling. Sometimes looking at something from a new angle helped. But it didn’t this time. The elves had changed the trap somehow.

The invisible wire he had repositioned was tripped at the entryway. He didn’t glance over, but he heard a whoosh of fire and screaming elves. The smell of burning skin made him want to finish this even faster than he believed he would.

Loki looked down at the runes again. He pulled out his phone, opened up a scribbler file he had saved, and compared the runes. They had definitely changed. And this time, Loki grinned: he could read them. And he was going to trigger this trap.

“Odinson,” an Elven warrior ran in, bellowing. She had leapt over top of her burning colleagues. Her cloak was on fire, but she didn’t seem to notice.

Loki made sure he was inside the circle of runes. He pivoted as he read aloud, feeling an updraft lift his blonde hair as he did so. Protected from the flames of doubt , it read.

‘Protected’ sounded a lot like ‘ not protected’ in their language, or ‘defenseless’, so if he had moved faster, he might have read incorrectly and risked standing outside the circle.

Eerie blue flames rose up in a wall around him. The Elven warrior nicked his arm with her blade, but screamed and fell somewhere in the blue fire. Her screaming stopped after a bit. The other elves, too, were silenced.

Loki smiled bitterly. He was willing to bet that the looms and equipment were all immune to that blue fire. He minimized Gram, pocketed the blade, and reached into the cubicle. His hands brushed a feather-like slick material, though his eyes couldn’t see it.

The flames around him died down. Loki looked up. Stomping in through the cave entrance was a tall Dark Elf dressed in visible, inky shadowthread-embroidered leather, hair cut close to her scalp. If she could become invisible, she must not be turning invisible because she wanted to intimidate him. She wanted him to see her.

“Now is your time to cast the world in darkness,” he bent and whispered to the shadowthread-woven material. It amused him how even the spell words for inanimate objects on this planet were megalomaniac. The material blossomed into view, tar-black over his fingers.

The Elf wasn’t alone, and her poleaxe dripped blood. She must have killed Bandat.

Cherry .

He didn’t dare even think her real name, yet. Names held power.

She reached a hand out, pointing at him, saying, “Odinson.”

He waved and gave her Thor’s best smile. He reached into his pocket and dropped a pinch of stardust. Loki didn’t watch Cherry’s reaction, but he heard her footsteps stop. She was watching him as he cut a finger with a dagger and licked the blood beading forth.

I fulfill my promises , he thought clearly, finally. His stomach lurched and the world warped past him. His body felt like the strings of a bow, stretched near to breaking with tension, then released forward. If he kept his eyes open, he’d spot Bandat’s body as he was pulled taut again. He kept his eyes closed. The magic loosed him forward, and he might have spotted Redmouse. Keeping one’s eyes closed was key to keeping one’s dinner in one’s stomach. Loki was pulled and released again through the knots he had made in his path, bound off towards where he had originated from: Midgard.

The spell may have originated in Avengers’ Tower, but the Earth had since moved. Still, the spell would put Loki on the planet he requested. Even before he opened his eyes, the smell of salt and the breeze flicking his hair told him all he needed to know; he was lucky he hadn’t landed in the middle of the ocean.

Loki straightened and looked around. A shoreline. Scraggy dunegrass. A gray sky and slate-blue waves. A house in the distance, like it might be washed off its fenced, cliff-side perch any moment. His hands juggled dwarven boots and shadow-cloth. He dropped the dwarven boots into the sand. Kelp-ridden water lapped his knees and swept the boots away.

Loki’s phone buzzed. “I guess I’ve got reception.”

He tried not to talk to himself too much, but even without an audience it was hard not to announce thoughts like that.

It didn’t seem to Loki that he had been followed. He began walking, up out of the water and onto sand. He dropped the guise of Thor and appeared as himself again.

His forearm itched. Sliding back his right gauntlet to scratch the itch revealed three red bumps. They formed a triangle if one connected the dots. He stopped walking.

“Shit.”

Loki recognized the bites of a bifrost beetle. He looked over his shoulder, up at the grey, impenetrable sky, and was no longer relieved that he hadn’t been followed.

Wolves you can see are wolves you can kill , Odin used to say.

And Frigga would finish, Wolves in hiding are wolves that can kill you.

Whether Cherry had tracked him or not, only time would tell. At the moment, he had to think of her as a wolf, stalking from somewhere he couldn’t see. Without disguise, he walked on, plotting out a Plan B, C, and D.

Chapter Text

The flight to Rome was uneventful. Black Widow and Banner alternated controlling the quinjet. Behind them, Stark tinkered away on his tablet. Thor slept. Clint ate a sub sandwich and kept interrupting Stark’s work with questions about what the engineer was doing.

The quinjet’s engine was quieter than its power would suggest. But Steve couldn’t sleep with the that quiet hum. Or maybe it was something else keeping him up.

Outside the windows of the jet, sunset was turning to midnight blue over the Atlantic. How far away was the place he’d crashed? He’d changed so much since then.

Before the serum, he’d only had Bucky and no professional prospects. Hell, he’d known he probably wouldn’t live out the decade. Unlike those healthier than he, he hadn’t been afraid to enlist.

Then, after Dr. Erskine, after the serum, he threw himself into the efforts of the war. There was too much to do, too much cruelty to counteract. He didn’t let himself believe in something personal, like a home or family. There had never seemed to be time, and the Howling Commandos, anyway, felt as much like home as he knew to expect. Even with Peggy, there hadn’t been time .

“You hungry?”

Clint was leaning sideways in his chair, holding forth a parcel wrapped in butcher’s paper. Another sub.

He was starving, though he’d eaten just a couple hours prior. Nodding, he took it and began unwrapping the paper. “Italian?”

“With the works.”

Steve grunted, smelling oregano, onions, vinegar and salami. He bit into it. This, too, felt like the Howling Commandos. But, for the first time in a long time, he began to think about what it would be like to come home to a ...home, and not have to save the world, eating dinner on the road.

Maria Hill, he knew, had a personal life. He didn’t know much about it, but knew she had a wife and a house in Upstate New York.

“Stark,” he started, swallowing the last of the sub.

“Here,” Stark reached back to a corded hammock in the side of the quinjet and tossed him a bottle of water. Then his fingers resumed moving infinitely over his tablet’s interface. “Before you choke on all that meat.”

Tony winked. Steve rolled his eyes at the innuendo.

“How do you and Pepper make it work?”

Stark stopped moving. “Why, Cap’n? Looking to settle down?”

Steve shrugged. “I just notice that you might be the only Avenger with something like a home life.”

“Hey,” Clint stole Steve’s water. “I’ve been married.”

Natasha laughed from the front of the quinjet. “Past perfect. A number of times. Doesn’t mean you know how to make it work.” Steve felt her eyes on his, and when he glanced towards her, he saw that she had curled sideways in her chair, fist under her chin as she stared back. “And it sounds like that’s what Steve’s curious about."


 

Imagine that you live on a homestead and you’ve pissed your neighbors off. Maybe you aren’t the kind of person who pisses your neighbors off, but Loki is.

So, knowing they aren’t cool with you, you become a little paranoid. Every morning, you step onto your porch and look down the road to make sure those neighbors haven’t commiserated together and come storming up on their horses or spaceships or whatever equivalent your planet uses for transportation. And, just in case, you build a fence, you build it higher, and you start planning for the worst. One gun, for hunting, becomes five, for just in case.

With the Ooze-slash-Future-Loki on the loose and Cherry potentially tracking him, this was the situation Loki found himself in. Well, it was the situation he’d found himself for most of time.

Currently, he had new shadow-threads, but no leads on fancy boots. The All-mother wasn’t being completely honest with him, which meant there were dangers he couldn’t see. And the Avengers were very close to kicking him out.

Loki had no choice but to go on a date.

He pulled out his phone and smiled at Midgardian technology. Asgardians would never stoop to this method of finding a date--networking organically was so much more pleasurable. And yet, at this moment, Tindr provided exactly what he needed: A quickly-made connection.

He swiped left, left, left, then right. He shoved the phone back in his pocket and swiveled in front of the mirror.

To be perfectly blunt, he was using this person just for the sex, but less for carnal pleasures and more for the sex magic . Sexual connection and orgasm wasn’t a potent form of energy, but it was a safe, relatively harmless method to get a bit stronger. After a strenuous, risky mission in Svartalfheim, Loki could use low-risk gains. And as long as he didn’t choose anyone terminally ill, they wouldn’t even notice.

He buttoned the suit jacket, looking at his reflection in the mirror. The suit was real. Sometimes it helped to have clothing that was not an illusion, and this time, he had put some of the shadow-threads into the bespoke of this garment. Clothing ought to be glamorous and functional.

Decades ago, Loki had grilled Lorelei about the banal tactics of seduction she always employed.

“Original, or no, it works, repeatedly and reliably, on so many Midgardian men.”

“And what about the ones uninterested in a body such as yours?” he had asked her.

She smiled wickedly. “I tend to notice which type of man it is, Loki. And if they aren’t interested in me, well, I show them something else they want. And if it’s sex, I always walk away stronger, and they think their languor is just from the passions we enjoyed.”

“And do you always enjoy the passions?” he’d asked.

And she’d stared at him like he had just said stars didn’t exist. “I accept nothing less.”

An hour after dressing, he exited a cab and saw his date waiting just inside the restaurant. It was one of the few Italian eateries that looked as decadent as its food tasted--elegant spotlighting around pillars near the entrance and beveled glass, though which he could see his date.

Inside, the lighting was clear and warm, bright enough to see another’s face. “Loki?”

“That’s me,” he shook her hand. “Nice to meet you, Margaret,”

“Maggie, please. Only my moms call me Margaret, and only when they’re angry.”

“I hope you weren’t waiting long,” he said, and told the host the name of their reservation.

Loki felt out of practice. Meaningless flirtation as a stalling tactic with the Avengers was one thing. Actually trying to get someone in bed required more finesse and, honestly, vulnerability than he was used to.

Wine in hand, they began chatting as they waited for the appetizers. “So, do you have any siblings?” Maggie asked him.

Loki frowned. “It’s complicated.”

“My Mom remarried once, to a woman, while my dad remarried three times and had kids each time. Try me.”

The appetizers of stuffed mushrooms and a fresh baguette arrived. Loki filtered as best he could a portrait of his childhood with Thor without spilling the fact that he hadn’t grown up on Midgard. She glossed over what must have been painful moments in parental disputes and divorces and shared her own memories of tubing trips gone awry and toddlers biting directly into birthday cakes before the candles were lit.

Then they were interrupted.

Loki heard him before he sat down, but the man was clearly skilled at sneaking around. That was, excepting his conspicuous red and black masked getup.

“This guy bothering you?” Deadpool said to the woman. She didn’t look impressed, but to her credit, she didn’t look scared either. The guy had two swords strapped to his back. “Look, he’s a troublemaker. Handsome as fuck, right? Get him in the sack and it’ll be ALL about him. Me? I look like the muffin you forgot about in the backseat of your car and found three months later covered in mold.”

She smiled. “And that’s supposed to impress me?”

“Hey, I don’t know what you’re into,” Deadpool said, the mask moving over his lips. “But what I’m saying is: someone like me wants to get laid, the only balls in my court are these,” he gestured, “and my ability to please.”

Loki grinned. He’d met this man before, and in another day would buy him a drink, spike it, and see how fast his body kicked out the poison before he stole the man’s swords. Tonight, though, he had a very particular plan.

“You’re leading with, ‘I can make you feel good’?”

Deadpool shrugged, then leaned in to whisper in the woman’s ears. Her eyebrows lifted. From the tilt of her smile, Loki could tell he was losing ground even before Deadpool pulled out his phone. He flicked around some screens, paused, and watched with Loki as her eyes and mouth went wide. She hooted, “I can’t believe… Wow. Well, that doesn’t change anything. I’m on a date with Loki here, not whoever you are,” she said, but her eyes never left the red and black mask.

Deadpool, on the other hand (Loki was having trouble remembering his actual name), suddenly took a very keen interest in Loki’s face as he withdrew a sword.

“Now you recognize me,” Loki tried to say. A concerned waitress was cautiously telling Deadpool to sheathe his weapon.

“Yeah, there are some people’d pay me a pretty penny to have your head on a platter.”

The woman at Loki’s side ducked only a tad slower than Loki. She then promptly flipped the table.

Deadpool jumped back a little, chuckling, “Classic!”

“Screw you both!” she yelled.

Loki guessed she escaped. With Deadpool’s blades nicking his personal space, he could only care for his own safety.  (Was his name ‘Mike’? Midgardian names could all sound so similar… all vowels and consonants and no glittering potential for magic)

“Think she’s into threesomes? Should we call her back?” Loki threw a dagger. Deadpool had moved already, though.

“She might be,” the assassin answered. “But I’m not.

“And here I thought you were all about your abilities to pl-” Deadpool’s fist cracked into Loki’s jaw. The guy was strong, but Thor punched harder and Loki could see the human’s next move. He sidestepped twice, wound one arm down around red-and-black’s neck, and dropped back to the ground, kicking out a leg. He spun, making sure to land Deadpool first.

Something happened. He lost track in all the flying tableware and holding his own without magic… He realized he hadn’t used any tricks yet. Loki really didn’t want to. Wrestling around and beating the crap out of some guy-

Deadpool would like readers to know that he definitely comes out on top tonight. Spoilers , he says. You’ll like this fangirls.

-felt cathartic. This was easy. Childhood with Thor kind of easy. Deadpool was muttering to someone about fangirls, head turned to the side. Loki pinned his sword arm down and relished the success. Knuckles crunched and broke under his knee. Then an elbow caught him under the ribs and the two of them tumbled against the upturned table, each fighting for advantage.

Loki felt the shard of a broken saucer digging into his bicep. Deadpool punched him. Pressed to the ground like he was, he couldn’t do anything to keep his head from bashing into the tile. Blood seared across his vision, but it didn’t really hurt. He bucked his hips and had an elbow over Deadpool’s throat just as he started speaking. The words gurgled and Loki adjusted his position over the man.

He could do this all night.

Deadpool stopped gurgling and tapped two fingers on Loki’s arm. Loki let up enough for him to speak, his knee against the femoral artery.

“Why are we fighting?”

“You seemed to be harvesting my head for a fortune.”

“I’m in between assignments, actually. You aren’t one of them.”

“So…”

“I’m also between relationships.”

The mask wriggled from where the man’s eyebrows must have been.

“What was your name again?”

“Pool. Dead.”

“I’m not calling you that in bed.”

Deadpool sighed dramatically. “You can call me Thom Cruz.”

Loki shook his head, waiting.

Deadpool was impetuous and impatient. He caved. “Fine! But first name only.”

“Your last name’s probably boring, anyways.”

“It really, really is.”

Loki grinned. “My place or yours?”

“Yours.”

“Say please.”

“Excuse me?” Ngh , oh-”

Loki imagined how visible the other man’s erection would be when he stood up again. It had been so easy for Loki to move his knee over and up in the gentlest manner, sliding his thigh up and down the man’s groin.

 


 

The Colosseum would have been remarkable had Steve been a tourist. As with other places in the Old World, a building which had stood the test of time breathed history into the air around it. This made it much harder for Steve to throw his shield around; he winced every time the shield nicked a pillar or scraped a wall. But Lorelei was agile.

The Avengers may have walked into an ambush, and Thor had received the brunt of it, but Lorelei was working without enough conspirators. She was outnumbered, and Steve knew that meant she was looking to flee.

Steve was separated from Natasha when a hulking man joined Lorelei in attacking them. Steve couldn’t defend his back as Lorelei kicked him back and slashed towards his chest with a military-grade tomahawk.

“Glen Miller!”

Their brainstorming sessions for tactics codes always included strange word association games, usually led by Tony and Natasha. This one referenced the Lindy Hop and aerial dance moves, but also close, wild dancing not dissimilar to one-on-one combat, which they had been divided into at present.

On cue, Iron Man dove down. Steve retreated fast from Lorelei, trying not to step on the unconscious Thor. Steve kept his shield forward, eyes roving: sure enough, someone had been creeping up on him. A woman who looked like she shared a wardrobe with Lorelei had been sneaking from behind a pillar and now jumped out. Steve didn’t look to see how Tony was doing. The goal now was to herd the few of Lorelei’s group together.

The woman who had been hiding launched out with a baton at Steve. His shield deflected it, and he kicked out. She blocked with her forearms, stepping aside. She kicked his knees out and he raised the shield above his head just in time to avoid the baton strike to his throat.

Tony yelled. The suppressive fire he’d been providing stopped. Steve dared a glance, dancing around to try and steer the baton-wielding woman towards the center of the Colosseum. A tomahawk was lodged in the side of Stark’s suit, which seemed to be malfunctioning now.

“Tony, you’re grounded,” Steve said, slamming his shield forward against Lorelei’s accomplice. “Get down here.”

“Just a sec.”

Steve disarmed the woman and threw her baton at Lorelei’s head. She dodged, then sprinted away. If Tony continued being this stubborn, Lorelei and her crew would escape. “Tony!”

Tony growled in frustration, whatever grand plan he had been constructing shredded as he tackled Lorelei.

“I guess you guys didn’t need me after all,” Banner said over the comms. He and Clint were piloting the quinjet, the green guy to be backup only.

Steve reached Lorelei, clearly the ringleader, and assisted Tony in restraining her. She fought the whole time, but didn’t seem able to pull any magic tricks with her hands cuffed. To be fair, they weren’t normal handcuffs. They were the best Stark tech could make, on the cutting edge of his own innovation and Asgardian inspiration.

At the sound of a scream, Steve turned and saw the other accomplice, the baton-wielding one, viciously fighting Nat, who seemed unphased. The savagely huge male accomplice was on the ground nearby, unconscious. Nat’s doing, surely. In another minute, Nat had grappled the woman to the ground and pinned her, face-down in the dust of the Colosseum.

“We’re good here,” Nat said, a little out of breath, but gaze steady as she felt the woman for weapons. Her search extracted some daggers and a gun.

Steve nodded and spoke through his bluetooth to the quinjet. “Contact the Italian Ministries. Battle in the Colosseum is over, and we have the culprits.”

Soon enough, once the bureaucratic business was concluded, they would be flying home. Home.

He guessed, for now, that’s what Avengers mansion was, strange as it was to Steve. Maybe he had just been so stubborn for so long. He couldn’t see anywhere as home because he wouldn’t let himself do so. His rooms were barren. And that was no one’s fault but Steve’s.


 

There seemed to be one sure way to get Wade to shut up, and that was sexual pleasure. Of course, getting to that blissful silence had taken twenty minutes of a cab ride, thirty minutes of trying to convince the security to let Deadpool through with his weapons, and fifteen minutes of sneaking Loki’s sexual partner into Avengers Tower without security noticing. Deadpool had talked the entire time.

“Would it kill you to be inconspicuous for one night?” Loki growled.

“Probably. Believe it or not, the mask stands out less than my face. Folks see superheroes and shit wearing masks all the time, but it’s not every day you a face covered in ketoid scars. Who decorated this place? Super boring.”

Loki reached out and grabbed Deadpool’s hand just as it went to the pistol strapped to his hip.

“You try to re-decorate with bullets, and we won’t be having fun for long, will we?”

Wade smiled, pressing Loki’s hands closer. Loki smiled, too, moving the man in front of him and against the door to his suite.

“Helping me find the keys?” Loki smirked as Wade’s hands roved over Loki’s thighs.

“Nope. You can find ‘em. I’m having fun.”

Loki closed his eyes, hand reluctantly going to the pocket of his suit. Wade was touching everything but Loki’s dick. He found his key card, ground his hips forward against Wade’s, and turned them, bodies close, so they could actually fit through the doorway.

The door closed behind them and they separated. Loki stood on the blue rug in the middle of the room, while Wade crossed it, searching for something.

“Do you have anything to drink?”

Wade wanted to be drunk. Loki allowed his surprise to show. If he was going to use sex magic, he’d feel much better about it knowing the person wasn’t also drunk . Not that it made a difference. It was the orgasm, really, that made the magic happen. Loki was regretting his flirtation with Wade. He should have gone home with someone else.

“If you need alcohol to do this with me, I’d rather you left. I’ll call a cab for you.”

Wade ignored him and started rummaging, singing some song under his breath. Loki heard, “O-L-D E,” letters spelled out, and stood awkwardly in the middle of the room. Soon, Wade found Loki’s stash of gin and whiskey and Asgardian mead, singing “‘You make my gray skies blue .’ I found this new band. Well, they’re not new, been around a while, but they’re new for me, strangely. Alkaline Trio. I wanna try this !”

Loki exhaled, deflated, as Wade held up the old bottle of Goldfet. He really didn’t want to do this drunk, or with a drunken partner.

“Please just go.”

Wade’s eyebrows moved, and he walked over to the window after setting the bottle on a side table by the couch. Loki stayed by the door, ready to just sleep and try again tomorrow with someone else. It was a disappointing night, after all was said and done, to find out the person just preferred a hazy night of booze and sex and, what else, drugs? Why couldn’t it just be simple pleasure ?

“You there still?” Wade said from the window.

“I do live here.”

Wade kept his hands on his hips and walked back to Loki. “If you want me to go, I will. I meant the alcohol as another kind of indulgence. And a gesture. Men like us can’t let our guard down. Alcohol was. I don’t know. A bad idea, after all.”

Loki smiled softly. “A gesture.” It made perfect sense to him, when it was explained. Loki and Wade were quite similar, it seemed. “Not with Asgardian mead, though. There’s a reason it was with the liquor instead of the beer.” Loki reached up slowly, his fingers touching the cheek of Wade’s mask. “A better gesture would be to remove this, and to let me see you.”

Wade laughed. “My whole body--all of it-- is covered in scars. You’ll see plenty. Allow me the dignity of having a smooth face, at least, with this mask, while I’m fucking you and making all kinds of obscene expressions.”

Loki grinned. “Oh, is it you who will be fucking me?”

Wade smiled back. “You have a hot ass.”

“You haven’t seen it, how would you know?”

Wade’s hands went to Loki’s belt. “Good point.” Loki, satisfied that Wade was a willing and enthusiastic partner, felt goosebumps as he took off his suit jacket. He started undoing Wade’s belt and felt the other man’s fingers on his buttons. They kept slipping because of his gloves, though, and Loki left Wade’s belt alone, moving to his hands instead.

“Here,” he said, unfastening one gauntlet and dragging it off of Wade’s arm. He was right. Scars, everywhere, as if his skin bore a different topography in the genes. Loki kissed the skin of Wade’s right hand as he undid the left gauntlet. Then he drew Wade’s thumb into his mouth, sucking and staring. As Wade started controlling the pace, thumb in and out of Loki’s mouth, he really wished Wade would take the mask off.

Loki started fantasizing--it was so easy to fast-forward and imagine that was Wade’s dick in his mouth or, better, inside him. Wade’s mind seemed to be going the same route. He removed his thumb from Loki’s mouth, pressing forward for a short, sloppy kiss through masked lips. Then Wade grunted, finished taking his belt off, and finally resumed unbuttoning Loki’s shirt.

Loki started fantasizing--it was so easy to fast-forward and imagine that was Wade’s dick in his mouth or, better, inside him. Wade’s mind seemed to be going the same route. He removed his thumb from Loki’s mouth, pressing forward for a short, sloppy kiss. Then Wade grunted, finished taking his belt off, and finally resumed unbuttoning Loki’s shirt.

"We doing this here? On this rug?" Loki asked.

"Why not?" Wade probably would have said that no matter what Loki was asking. He slid the white button-up shirt off of Loki's shoulders.

"Because I prefer fucking in comfort.” He pushed at Wade’s stomach, steering him, feeling his skin and and the hair on his chest. “Indulge me."

Wade grinned, walking backwards to follow Loki’s direction. Loki didn’t bother closing the door, and the remainder of his clothing came off quickly. Yet Wade became prickly when it came to his own divestment.

"I'll do it."

"I'm not going to take your mask off. I'd like to see your face while I fuck you, but if you want the mask on, then so be it."

Wade grinned at that, grabbing Loki's ass with strong fingers. "All right. Well, pants and panties come off, but socks don't. My feet get cold."

Loki grinned and licked and kissed his way down to Wade's beltline, finally undoing Wade's belt and pants, stripping them down. He concentrated as the pant legs tried to sweep the socks off and Wade laughed.

"See? This is why I was going to do it. Here." Wade undressed the way he saw fit, leaving Loki feeling a little useless but still aroused on the bed. Despite being covered in scars, Wade was clearly fit. He couldn't be called beautiful as a human, but seen through Loki's eyes, which had roved several species that were not his own, well... his erection spoke for itself.

Wade turned to him again, touching his hair. "Maybe I should grow my hair out like yours."

"It wouldn't fit in your mask."

"I could make a little hole for a ponytail in the back."

"Mmm." Loki pressed Wade down onto the comforter, licking his way up Wade's chest, suckling the nape of his neck. He reached down and lightly, teasingly touched Wade's dick. He delighted in the little intake of breath and spasm of muscles that told Loki his partner was enjoying his attentions.

Wade's fingers were still in Loki's hair, massaging his scalp pleasingly. He took a firmer grip with Wade's cock and slowly slid his grip up, foreskin sliding over the glans and back down again. Wade groaned minutely, his hands swirling in senseless circles over Loki's hair. Loki barely kept a chuckle in.

He looked down to see a small bead of glistening precum lubricating his fingers. He slid the liquid around the crown of Wade’s dick, then wiped his hand off on the sheet. He turned, reached into a drawer in the nightstand, and pulled out two condoms.

"I'm going to go down on you," Loki said; his own voice had changed a bit, grown more gravelly with desire, "while you go down on me." He handed Wade a condom and opened his own little packet, sliding it over his dick and watching Wade slide one on, too.

Loki laid on his side and they curled to each other, mouths moving and moaning with pleasure given and received. This didn’t go on long. Neither could focus enough on giving while receiving, and after a few minutes, Loki turned and faced Wade, positioning himself wordlessly so the other man’s dick was lined up to his anus.

“Now, I’m sure you’ve done this before,” Loki said, gently rocking the tip and only the tip of Wade’s cock on and slowly into him, “but you seem impulsive, so let me be clear. I will be guiding this pace, do you understand me?”

Wade seemed gone, eyes closed and teeth biting down onto his lips. Loki stopped moving and grabbed Wade’s chin. “Repeat it back to me.”

Wade’s eyes opened reluctantly. His voice was breathy as he said, “You guide the pace. Not me. Crystal clear.”

Loki smiled and moved his hand down Wade’s chest. “Good,” he said, and resumed his rocking. When Wade’s tip finally fit inside him, both their breaths hitched. Wade was so tense beneath him, and Loki was damn near seeing stars. He wouldn’t last long like this, but he kept rocking, the other man’s dick rubbing inside him like heaven.

Wade reached up, riding his fingers up and down Loki’s dick, and he did see stars.

Loki had a sudden admiration for Lorelei, who so regularly employed this magic.

Just as his pleasure passed a threshold, he knew he would come in mere moments, so began to murmur the invocation. It was so difficult, though, to weave the arcane net which would allow energy into his body when his own pleasure was blasting in his head, spilling from his cock.

Loki heard Wade chuckle and felt his body still.

As his orgasm dissipated, the tingling magic of an unfulfilled incantation itched beneath his skin.

“What, were you talking dirty in Ass -guard-ian?” Wade wiggled his still-hard dick a little in Loki, making Loki inhale, his softening dick twitching at the beckoning arousal.

“Out with you. Slowly, mind,” Loki muttered. He pulled a clean towel from his nightstand drawer and cleaned himself off, grabbing flavored lube from the drawer while it was open. He could magic the experience of flavoring in his mouth while he performed oral sex, which was less messy. But overlapping spells sometimes interfered with their potency, so he relied on the Midgardian technology of … Fruit-of-the-Loob , it was called.

Wade removed his condom and asked where the bathroom was. Loki pointed. When Wade returned, Loki beckoned him to lie beside him. Wade’s erection tapped his stomach as he flopped on the bed. Loki nipped his ear, putting another condom--flavored, this time--on Wade’s dick.

“Ngh… Hey, why’d you stop?”

Loki had been stroking, but now he unwrapped the pillow of lubrication. He licked his finger.

“Ooo, what flavor?”

“Green apple,” Loki said.

“They make that?”

Loki chuckled, touching his fingers to Wade’s masked chin, tilting it up, opening his mouth, and dribbling some of the liquid onto his tongue.

“Mmm.”

“Indeed,” Loki said. He poured the rest into his own mouth and slid his lips tightly down over the other man’s cock. Wade mmm ’d again, and Loki began using his hand, too, to stroke down as his mouth came up, lips allowing the liquid to seep out. When his lips were tired, he stopped to kiss the merc’s mouth. Wade was breathing roughly with eyes closed and brow furrowed. Loki continued with his fingers faster over the surface of the condom.

“I take it that feels good?”

Wade huffed a laugh, said “Here,” and took control.

“How will you come?” Loki prompted, fingers brushing Wade’s thighs as he jerked himself off.

Wade seemed like he wasn’t going to answer; he was just going to keep pumping to completion, lost in pleasure. That, too, would work as sex magic. But then Wade gulped a deep breath and stopped.

“I thought I’d take myself to the edge, and you could put your mouth down there when I’m ready.”

Loki grinned mischievously and bent forward to take Wade’s cock in his mouth again, sliding up and down wetly a few times. Then he pulled up, “Like that?” Wade moaned and nodded.

They continued in that fashion. Loki sucked and stroked, then Wade took his own pleasure while Loki teased Wade, sliding his fingers over his neck or through his hair. They alternated until the net of magic inside Loki nearly burned him, like a tea mug grasped too long, too hot.

And then Wade came, Loki’s mouth slick over the condom, fingers coaxing, magic harnessing.

Seconds prior, he had been languorous, moving forward only because of concern for his partner’s fulfillment and the itching of the spell. Now, he felt energized. His gaze flitted across the room, feeling flush with vigor. The spell had been completed.

He looked down and saw that Wade’s eyes were closed. He would probably sleep, but Loki couldn’t, so he stood and showered. When he returned, drying his hair, he watched Wade, whose eyes were still closed, but less in post-coital bliss and more in… pain? Loki’s stomach clenched. He stepped forward and started to put the back of his hand on Wade’s forehead, but knew that wouldn’t tell him anything. He began to pull back the mask, when Wade’s hand reached out and grabbed Loki’s roughly.

“What the living hell did you do to me?” Wade’s voice was weak but demanding. Angry. Disbelieving.

Loki couldn’t believe his luck. His terrible, rotten luck. How could the spell have negatively affected this man, this mercenary who was known to be immortal ?

“What are you feeling exactly?” he asked. But Wade wouldn’t answer. He clumsily put his clothes back on, wobbling to his belt, clipping it on and raising his gun to point at Loki.

Shit .

Loki raised his hands in peace, inhaled, and in an instant he was clothed in his Asgardian armor, the rest of the new shadowthreads just waiting for him at the dark edges of his consciousness.

What did you do to me?” Wade’s voice wasn’t strong.

“Should have been nothing. You can’t die. It shouldn’t have harmed you.”

Wade loaded the barrel and fired his gun. Loki blocked the bullet with his gauntlet, gritting his teeth against the pain but sprinting at Wade, whose next shot hit the wall. The one after that hit the ceiling as they crashed to the floor, Loki straddling Wade, knees down on Wade’s biceps. It was easy, too easy to pin Wade’s hand and remove the gun from it.

“I can fix it,” Loki said,” if you tell me exactly what you feel right now. Also, how you got your powers would be good to know.”

“Why the fuck should I believe that?” Wade struggled weakly beneath Loki.

The door burst open and every Avenger was looking into Loki’s bedroom. They must have heard the gunshots, back from a mission, because some of them were bruised and all were wearing their uniforms.

“Is Spidey there? I want Spidey,” Wade said from beneath Loki.

“What’s going on here?”

Loki growled, “Lovers’ quarrel. None of your business.”

Wade barked a laugh. “Get this guy off of me. He did some kind of sex magic on me and now it’s like I’m in chemo again. Tired. So fucking tired.”

Loki closed his eyes, realizing. Somehow, his spell had broken the positive chain of cancer and healing that gave Wade his unique abilities. It probably wasn’t permanent, but his healing had been knocked out, and the cancer was so fast that it was starting to hurt him already.

He heard Steve and the other Avengers come closer into the room, noticing the sheets in disarray, the suit and other garments strewn around the room.

“Loki, get off of him,” Tony said, blaster poised at Loki. He rolled his eyes. Why did nothing ever go his way?

He knew how to fix this. He put his hand to Wade’s chest and murmured a different invocation, this time, passing the energy he’d taken from Wade back.

Steve was stepping towards him, but Loki spoke to Wade, “I’m sorry. A day. Keep yourself safe for a day and you will return to n-”

Steve punched him, and he fell back, surprised. Loki rolled to his feet, crouching with a dagger out. The Captain was staring at him with fire in his blue eyes.

“Get out . And do not come back.”

Loki straightened. He didn’t need to be told twice. With a wave of his hand the few belongings of his disappeared from view. They joined Gram to be a heavy weight in his quantum-shrinking bag.

He could simply turn invisible and they would probably think he had disappeared; he could eavesdrop. But he didn’t. Loki simply walked out the door, brushing against Steve’s tense shoulder, glaring at every Avenger who met his eyes.

When he was out on the streets of New York, his shoulders sagged with the weight of fatigue. He wondered if the All-mother would allow him to spend the night in Asgard. As he had nowhere else, and barely enough magical resources to cover his skin if he were attacked, he knelt beside a muddy puddle, hoping the All-mother answered, as he began speaking into those channels between worlds.

“All-mother, hear my plea…” he began, rubbing his eyes tiredly.

“Loki. Do you have Lorelei?”

He looked down, their faces staring back tensely at him. “Not yet. I might know where she is, but I need …. I need a safe place to rest and regain my strength.”

He saw them look at each other, and slowly, one by one, Idun the last, nodded. “Come home,” they said in unison. Loki exhaled in relief and saw a prism of light before his body left Midgard.

Chapter Text

The rebuilding of Asgard carried on at a glacial pace on a freezing moon orbiting Jotunheim. The All-mothers had negotiated a deal with Jotunheim’s queen. The All-mothers would not reveal the details of this deal to Loki, which told him it was most likely a bad deal. Yet, it had to be better than Asgardians floating as a non-unified mass of refugees, slinking along through space.

And yet, there were only twenty or so Asgardians around him.

A central building had been erected. It was sturdy and thick, built to keep the heat in. Most of the Asgardians preferred to bitterly reminisce over drink every night ale was to be found. They complained when more wasn’t to be had. The few who spent their time being productive would then snap at the drunkards to help them figure out how to build a new Bifrost, then, or else ferment in their own fluids. At which point tankards were thrown and only the appearance of the All-Mother would settle the argument.

Everything made much more sense, now that he’d spent several nights here. Before this, he’d been almost exclusively on Midgard, only occasionally popping in during a mission or for reports. Seeing how things were, day in and day out, made him realize the challenges the All-mother faced. He understood why they wanted Loki to track down Lorelei and other Asgardians. There were too few to accomplish the task, and their scarcity contributed to the problem: it seemed pointless to try and rebuild Asgard, the home of millions, when not even fifty congregated on an ice chunk that was tied to Jotunheim, of all places.

Loki rested and recovered strength, but he could feel cabin fever itching at him before long.

He had an idea for cutting out some of the complexity in his life. It wouldn’t protect him when Cherry came calling, but could simplify the various threads he had left unresolved on Midgard.

In the Great Hall, which felt rather more like a kitchen, Loki slammed down a hinged-lid pewter tankard. He counted eighteen today. A blooming onion had, until now, been occupying the attention at one end, while the other end had just begun their nightly bickering.

“I dare each and every one of you to say one kind thing about me.” He opened the tankard and emptied his bottle of Goldfet into it. He closed the lid of the tankard and passed it to the person on his left. “If you drink, you have to say a kind thing about me. If you cannot, you pass it on without a sip.”

To his left, Gudrun leaned back in her chair with a frown. Her lips were greasy from the blooming onion. She looked like she was about to say something disparaging, but after opening and closing her mouth a few times, she leaned forward and pressed her thumb down on the tankard’s lid hinge. She sipped, swallowed, and sighed, “You have an undeniable talent for grand entrances and speeches.”

She closed the lid and slid the tankard down.

Loki bowed and she laughed, shaking her head.

The next person was Astrid, whose pale eyebrows and expression made her look like an angry ghost. She didn’t seem as interested in praising Loki about anything. Loki nodded his head to the next person. She muttered something under her breath and passed the tankard on.

Hroald took it from her with a gleeful smile in his beard. He was probably many cups into the night already as he popped the lid open, drank more than a sip, and wiped his lips. “Loki, you’re fine looking with or without jugs, which cannot be said about myself, and I’d love to have my way with you.”

Raucous laughter all around this side of the table, while the other side was edging back into their previous argument.

Hroald passed the tankard on to Khimera, who tapped her fingers against the pewter in thought. She looked around her. “Why are you doing this? Of all things, Loki…”

He shrugged. “If you’re not up to the challenge…”

She didn’t take the bait, but chewed her cheek in thought. Her red hair flowed in the firelight when she finally sipped. “You did well in the end. With the Void.”

Loki stared as she closed the lid and passed it down. About half of them wouldn’t participate. Two of them fought over this point — Leidolf and Reist — when one broke the challenge by mouthing off at Loki. Audhild, the last, reached over stealthily while they fought and sipped the Goldfet. 

“Someone I’d love to have fighting at my side.”

She seemed more interested in the drink than anything, but smiled at Loki regardless. He found himself smiling back.


Steve tossed the covers aside after a nightmare woke him up. Sandy padded after him, yawning and stretching. In the dark of his kitchen, the oven clock read 4:32. He drank some water, scratched behind Sandy’s ears, and went back to the bedroom. After changing clothes, he put on trainers and walked down the hall, glancing once at the suite Loki used to occupy.

In the gym, he warmed up with a jump rope, then moved from the rhythm of the rope to the rhythm of a speed bag. Right-right, left-left, right-left-right-left, repeat.

The nightmare had left him feeling sick with himself. It wasn’t about Loki—it had just been a wonky dream with fire and falling, but his thoughts were dark upon waking, and led him back to thinking. Why had he punched Loki? Something had been off about the encounter, yes, and he had no regrets about separating Loki from Deadpool.

Steve had never heard the merc talk so seriously on any occasion, but after Loki left, Deadpool’s continued weariness and explanation of events had been so direct and humorless as to shock them all.

What scared Steve the most was that Deadpool seemed fanatical about Loki. His energy returned the next day, as Loki had promised, but until then, Deadpool kept saying, “I’m gonna find him. Maybe this can finally end.”

The Avengers found Cable and between reuniting him with Deadpool and the return of Deadpool’s energy , the merc seemed to come back to his normal sarcastic self, annoying even Tony. The sex stuff, from Deadpool’s explanation over burgers, had been consensual. He was very explicit about the things they’d done together and how fun that had been.

But as he left Deadpool said to Steve, “If Loki comes by again, tell him to ask for me at Kelvin’s Arms for Round Two. Drinks on me.”

Steve wasn’t sure what to make of that, or that he wanted those two to cross paths again, so he shook the merc’s red-gloved hand and said, “Take care.” Without another witty remark, Deadpool and Cable had stomped out of the Avengers Tower lobby.

Steve had a feeling that if those two met again, Loki, in remorse and sympathy, would give Deadpool the death he craved, and Loki would carry that grief as a … what? Steve shook his head, thinking he knew Loki. Yeah, right.

Steve moved on to the heavy bags. He lifted them from the floor, slammed them down, and followed with downward hooks.

Loki had been in the wrong. But he’d admitted it; he’d fixed it. Steve wondered if the culture of magic saw sexual acts like something that, if offered, included the energy therein. In any case, Loki certainly hadn’t clued Deadpool into this custom.

Steve went to a chained up heavy bag and began kicking. Front-kicks, slow and methodical, ramped up to alternating side-kicks.

He started to understand why he felt disgusted: he had attacked a remorseful man. And he wanted to forgive Loki for what he’d done to Deadpool.

Steve thought of Bucky. There would come a time when SHIELD had exhausted resources trying to undo the damage HYDRA had done. Even in the best case scenario, Bucky would still be left with the knowledge of what he’d done. Steve had no question that he could forgive Bucky—it hadn’t been in his control. But the world would have a harder time forgiving Bucky. Bucky would have a harder time forgiving himself.

Steve missed Bucky.

He stopped kicking. He stared up, sweat making the florescent lights refract like stars in his eyes. When he opened them, Natalie was in front of him. Had he shut his eyes that long, or just been that unaware of his surroundings?

“Evening, Rogers.”

“Hi, Natasha.”

“How about some partner practice?”

“Sure. Shield?”

“Yes.”

He hooked up another heavy bag and picked up his shield. Steve faced a heavy bag, as did Nat, the two of them squaring off as if they faced opponents on the battlefield.

“Three, two, one,” she said and began assaulting her bag. Steve followed and waited for her signals. It was a few minutes before he heard, “Assist!”

Steve kicked around his bag and knelt, shield up. Her boots barely made a sound as she jumped off the shield and attacked the heavy-bag mid-air. Nat mock-snapped its neck and twirled down to continue her onslaught from another direction.

“So, anything you want to talk about?”

Steve shield-bashed his heavy bag (lightly; vibranium was the toughest material, and even though these bags were re-enforced for Avengers to practice on, they weren’t Wakandan-strong). “Loki,” he gritted out.

“Up!” Nat shouted, and he tossed his shield up, just shy of the gym’s florescent lights. He imagined it striking an aerial enemy or projectile, but Nat was bouncing off a corner-post of the boxing ring to snatch the shield from the air and slam it into her punching bag. She tossed it back in the air, & Steve jumped, gripped it, and punched his heavy bag off its chain. The bag thudded down, and he ‘finished’ it.

Nat was running a lap when he looked up, and when she passed him, he joined.

“What about Loki?”

He didn’t say what he wanted to say. What he’d been feeling. He said, “Have we tracked him?”

Nat didn’t look from the square they were running around the boxing ring. “He isn’t on or around Earth.”

Steve ignored the pang of disappointment, not completely understanding its source.

Nat jumped up onto the ropes and swung over it into the ring. She waved him in, but as soon as his feet landed, she kicked out. Steve rolled with it, jumped to his feet, and swung.

She blocked, saying, “Why? Talk to me.” It was like she was reading his thoughts.

He jabbed, but his knuckles only brushed her hair as she dodged aside. Suddenly she was behind him, love-tapping his shoulder, so he hooked his leg out and back. She saw it coming and had her arm around his throat, tipping his balance as she pinned his ankle to fall.

“I haven’t been… sleeping… well, and…”

They slammed to the mat, both breathing heavy. His back was pressed to her chest.

He couldn’t think deep, introspective thoughts on little sleep while trying to undo her legs, which were grapevining his out. He flexed his feet up high and then down to the mat, bridged one hip, and rolled over. Nat sucked air through her teeth, and Steve realized he’d pinned her thigh in turning.

“Sorry! Are you okay?”

He swiveled to sit half-cross-legged, knees no longer in a position to grind femoral arteries.

Nat smiled. “It was just a little pinch.”

He stood to retrieve his water bottle while she massaged the area. The way she explained it, massaging redistributed some of the pain away from the affected nerves.

Nat could handle a scale of pain he probably couldn’t imagine, so when she said it was a pinch, he believed her. But when they practiced, it was to sync up, not to hurt each other. They usually stopped at a time like this. Plus, he’d been hit in that same spot enough times to know it wasn’t just a pinch when a grown man shifted all of his weight onto that artery. It wasn’t the worst pain out there, but it left a hefty bruise and could bring him to tears.

Steve handed her the water bottle, and she watched him as she drank.

“Something’s going on Steve. Ever since Houston,” she said. He didn’t deny it. He felt exhausted, but wired.

“I haven’t been sleeping…”

She began unwrapping her hands. “You said so. Bucky on your mind?”

Steve nodded.

“Loki?”

Steve hesitated. When Nat stared him down, though, demanding, seeking the truth, he knew that not answering was answer enough. Just one he didn’t understand or like. He nodded and looked down.

“I’m changing.”

“Change isn’t necessarily bad.”

“I don’t know about this change. It doesn’t feel real. Or, it doesn’t feel like I’m changing myself. But like something inside me is pushing and pulling me. Not in good ways.”

“We’ve been responders to scenes of magic. Houston besides. There’s Loki. That Ooze he said he was tracking. It could be any one of those. Even Lorelei is capable of some magic, I hear. Maybe they’re all connected.”

“So then what’s the solution? Where do I go from here?”

Nat shrugged. “Wait for Loki to get back.”

“You’re kidding.”

Nat shook her head. “He’s at the center of all of this. At least with what’s going on with you. We had Bucky in custody before that. You didn’t start acting differently until Loki came around — specifically, Houston. The mocking-vine.”

“I saved Loki from that thing and this is what I get.”

His stomach churned as soon as he said the words, and Nat stared at him, frowning. He hadn’t thought at all before saying it.

The lights of the gym were too bright, and he didn’t want her staring him down anymore. Steve rubbed his eyes and stood up. “I’m going back to bed. You good here?”

Nat stood as well, and handed his water bottle back to him, nodding. “Mhm.”

He hopped over the ropes, feeling her gaze on him as he left the gym. He felt both scared and relieved, and wondered resignedly what nightmares this nap had in store for him.


A few days after collecting everyone’s happy thoughts about him and wasting good Goldfet on poor company, Loki begged the All-mother’s leave to return to Midgard.

“Bring Lorelei back within the next moon.”

“My goal is this night.”

Satisfied, they whispered words to bear the load of toil as he dropped stardust, licked blood, and promised to return with Lorelei.

When the world stopped spinning, Loki stood on Midgard and looked up at a tall tower of gray. No other buildings were visible, even to the horizon. Avengers Prison. He might have the name of the place wrong, but he had all the passwords right.

Inside, Lorelei, as usual, tried to seduce him, and when that failed, tried to stab him. All of this, he was prepared for.

“Might I point out,” he huffed, “that a barrage of soldiers are coming through that doorway behind you. With guns. You and I are strong, but perhaps-”

“Fine,” she spat. Together they cast illusions and summoned nightmares to occupy the soldiers while they ran. Lorelei kept trying to slip away and go … where? He didn’t know.

He knew he needed to keep hold of her and get her to Asgard.

“This way,” she said. They broke into what seemed to be a storehouse. Some items were easily fetched—Lorelei grabbed a coat— while others items were sealed away in vaults.

“Can you assist me?” She nodded her head to one of the lockers. It was a few feet wide and tall, with a keypad to the right. Not the most secure of lockers in this room—some required retinal scans, so SHIELD must have placed the value of its contents low enough for just passcode access. But that didn’t mean Lorelei hadn’t hidden harm in there.

Loki grinned. “I’ll let you have the honors in just a moment.” He smelled the metal and listened to it ring. Human ears wouldn’t hear it. Even Thor wouldn’t. Honestly, it was magic—the magic of things. Loki felt the metal wanted balance because it leaned ever so slightly in its casing.

BAM.

He slammed up top with one fist and heard stars tinkering happily. Balanced, the metal told him what he needed to know.

“Into that keypad, press 5-4-6-2-1,” he said, leaning back.

She entered the code. The locker popped open. Loki saw what she was pulling out and, without pause, cast an illusion of bugs crawling all over her. Lorelei growled, dropping the boots to scatter the insects she thought she saw. Loki caught the boots in the air and slipped them on. Since when had Lorelei collected Seven League Boots?

“Loki,” she hissed. “I will end you.”

“With all due respect, I highly doubt that.”

He reached out, curled his body to hers, and sprinted to Asgard.

Chapter Text

 

“She needs a sense of reliability,” the teacher was saying. Steve nodded and scratched the back of his head, looking at Sandy. She sat at his feet, getting beige dog hair all over the navy of his corduroys. He sat on a leather couch in a mock-living room at a dog training facility. They also boarded, which he liked in case he had to fly off to distant countries on weeks-long assignments.

“I understand your schedule, so building routines in behavior, plus whatever habits you can build together will really be meaningful in making sure she doesn’t want to stray. Not to mention getting a sitter who understands your routines and exercises with Sandy.”

“I think maybe I’ve been coddling her. I get home after a mission, make dinner, and want to cuddle up on the couch with her.”

“Yeah,” the trainer said. “Affection is one thing. It’s great! And it’s necessary. But dogs like knowing what to expect mixed in with the playful compassion. It makes them feel safe and loved to be on the same page as you. So, with a mix like Sandy here, where we think she’s got some Spaniel—easy going, social, eager to please-- and some Shepherd—-up for a challenge and will make up her own if you don’t give them to her-- this rigor should be positive, but still regular in her life.”

That explained the running away.

A question died on his lips as his phone rang. He’d arranged the silent mode so it only rang in Avengers emergencies.

“Sorry,” he said, and rushed to a corner to listen to Director Hill.

“Immediate briefing at the Tower. Lorelei got a jump out of The Fridge. From Loki.”

“Understood. Be there in fifteen.”

He turned to the animal trainer.

“Any chance you have availability to board her now?”

The trainer smiled softly. Steve looked at Sandy and felt his heart clench. If he wasn’t willing to start a family given his dangerous and unpredictable career, what the heck was he doing with a dog?



It hadn’t been the Seven-League Boots that got him back to Asgard, but the fulfilling of his oath to bring back Lorelei. Still, Loki spun in them when they landed on an ice lake outside of the Great Hall. It felt good to be boundless, at least in this way.

When he entered the Hall, he yelled, “Mother, there’s someone I’d like you to meet!”

All-mother cut through his antics and took Lorelei for a private meeting. Before they could close the door on him, though, he stuck his toe against the door frame. “I just have a quick question.”

Freyja said, “We cannot hold your hand through these things, Loki. You still have an unfinished task on Midgard. And you skipped ahead to bring Lorelei in.”

“I know,” he said. “Hand-holding won't be necessary. I think I found it. But bad things could happen if I'm wrong. Is there a way to test if this is, in fact, the energy I'm looking for?”

“You know there is, Loki,” Idunn said. “Water from the Norn Well.”

“With all respect, I don't have time to climb down to the base of Yggdrasil.”

“And you think we have time to answer questions you already know the answer to?”

“Loki, we attempt to rebuild a world and re-unite a universe.”

Loki sighed gruffly, then quietly continued. “Gram kills. I don’t want to use it on the wrong person if I can help it.”

“He will live,” Freija said, her eyes unexpectedly soft. For a moment, he remembered a previous lifetime, when he and Thor had played and she had looked after them. “Do what you need to do, Loki.”

He nodded and pulled his toe out of the way. As the door shut, Lorelei looked on with intrigue.

Loki rolled his eyes. This was the last little joy he was likely to have for some time. So he forced on a smirk, soaking in the feeling of triumph a bit longer. He drank from Reist’s tankard and plucked bread from Leidolf’s plate.

“That’s my breakfast!

Before they could rise to pummel him, though, he leapt over the table, waved his fingers, and pledged to kiss and tell. “I’ll bring you something from Midgard.”

He was running low on stardust, but, then, there was no guarantee he’d live long enough to return, anyway. He bit a finger til it bled, licked the stardust, and zipped off to Midgard with Leidolf’s bread roiling in his belly. The stomachache had been worth seeing Leidolf pitch a fit.

The magic knitted Loki to Midgard. A look at his phone told him it was a different continent, but Loki just grinned and zipped off in the Seven League Boots. After a few tries, he was oriented, and in minutes, stood outside the Avengers Tower in a snowstorm. While New Yorkers around him muttered and bent in thin jackets to the unexpectedly snowy wind, Loki flipped open his phone again and checked the date. April 1. A joke of a day for a blizzard to hit. A puzzle for someone else, though. He shrugged a disguise on and entered the warm building.

Loki walked up to the security turnstile and held out a badge. A red light and rejection sound blared.

“Mr. Odinson?”

The guard at the desk looked at Loki, who had dressed as his brother again.

“Do you mind if I just, em, jump over this thing?”

The guard was staring. Something was wrong. Loki frowned, then he flinched as someone squeezed his shoulder.

“Loki.”

Loki laughed awkwardly and shrugged the disguise off. Now he stood, shorter than the real Thor at his side, Thor’s hand still tight on his shoulder. Loki kept Thor’s outfit on, though.

“Don’t you think it looks good on me?”

Thor shook his head, and said to the guard, “We have some business with this one.” Then he tapped his own badge down and dragged Loki awkwardly, painfully through.

“Ow, ow, Freyr’s balls, who invented that thing?” Loki flipped over the prongs of the turnstile and brushed his brother’s hands off him, pocketing the security badge in the process. “And what do you mean— you don’t like it?”

The guard was on his radio, alerting Avengers.

Thor tilted his head. “Not your color, red. It’s just not your color, Loki.”

“It could be my color,” Loki suggested as they entered the elevator.

“Maybe purple.”

“I’ll consider it.” The doors closed and the lift started.

“Why not now? Go ahead, change it to purple and let’s see.”

Loki slid a finger down the fabric of the crimson cape, urging it through shades of purple, from an icy aurora to thistle to lilac then lavender through to violet and midnight.

“I liked it,” Thor said with feeling when the color disappeared.

Loki shook it back to crimson. “I want to try something new. Just for a little bit. Call it an experiment.”

Loki pulled out his compliment mug, the tankard his fellow Asgardians had blessed. Its pewter shined.

“What’s that?” Thor said.

“Vessel for the Ooze.”

“You found the Ooze?”

“Always knew where it was. Er, well, had an inkling. Had to follow various leads to confirm. No good stabbing the wrong person, yeah? Plus, didn’t have a way to capture it. Had to build up my strength, you know.”

Thor stared at him. Loki shrunk a little, uncertain what it meant and bracing for the inevitable. “What?”

Thor smiled and shook his head as the elevator stopped. “You just … never used to share this much.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “What’s this business you said you had with me?”

The elevator dinged, and the doors opened onto a host of Avengers with weapons aimed at him. Black Widow’s eyes narrowed at his new outfit. Captain’s did, too. Iron Man was indiscernible behind his suit mask to the left, and Hawkeye’s bow and multiple arrows nocked on the string spoke silent volumes.

Loki held his hands up in peace and slowly walked ahead of Thor.

“You have a word for this, I believe. Deja Vu?” Loki said. “Where’s Banner?”

“He said not to wait up, Red Riding Hood.” Iron Man. “Make yourself right at home. Go on. Try.”

Loki grinned, then remembered the last time he’d led them on a violent chase through these suites. He frowned. “Sorry, Captain.”

A widow bite charged, setting the others in motion. She was so savvy, he had to admit. Cap put his shield up. Loki pulled out Gram. And here was a twist! He almost wanted to stare as Black Widow moved Captain, dragging his extended shield arm and all right into the line of fire from Iron Man’s lasers. The shield deflected the pulse, and to the right, Hawkeye was staring at Black Widow. Wordless communication. With an opening like this, Loki didn’t hesitate further. Loki stabbed Steve Rogers in the heart.

“NO!” Iron Man shouted.

No blood soaked Steve’s gray T-shirt, which Loki tried to take as a good sign that Gram was working.

Loki set the tankard on the floor, opened its lid, and whispered to it the sweet words of capturing: molten metal gaping to receive a kiss. Then Loki was crushed by Iron Man.

He didn’t know if the Sword was killing the Captain or doing its work, or if the mug was even upright and doing its work as they tumbled away, Iron Man pounding at his face repeatedly. Apparently, Thor’s clothing did not make the Avengers more likely to be sympathetic to him. Pity. He was covered in crimson now and it truly wasn’t his color.

“Stop and LOOK!” Thor bellowed, dragging Iron Man off of Loki. Stark looked to where the Captain stood, Sword of Truth through his heart. Beneath him, Black Widow was guarding access to the tankard with Captain’s shield in front of her, one hand staying Hawkeye back. Black ooze slithered slowly out of the wound and towards the tankard, which was upright, and doing its job. Echoes in Asgardian throbbed from the metal.

“There some kinda magic words you’re supposed to say, Loki?” she said, eyes on Steve.

Steve was in excruciating pain, Loki knew. He had a knack for some things, and even if he hadn’t, the look on the soldier’s face, like he would cry if only he had that much control over his body, would tell him all. Black Widow was talking to him, but Loki couldn’t hear. Loki worried that the All-mother had been wrong. He really would be in trouble with the Avengers if he’d killed their Captain.

Loki stepped forward, thinking, imagining what Truths the Captain was wrestling with. He could hear Black Widow’s words now.

“It’s not your fault, Steve. This thing had control of you, so whatever you’re beating yourself up about, let it go. This isn’t how you’re gonna go, ok? Fight it.”

Their eyes met, and Loki nodded encouragement, kneeling to the mug. There wasn’t much to do except shut it when the time came. But he whispered some old Asgardian poem to help Black Widow feel like he was doing something, like he wasn’t simply eavesdropping.

Meanwhile, he listened to her, and kept an eye on Cap. If it looked like he became closer to dying than being free, Loki would need to run.

Black Widow said, “Steve Rogers, stay with us. We need you. You’ll do so much more good alive than dead. And you have a dog to take care of. I have allergies, so I can’t help you there.”

Loki was sure Thor would be laughing if he could hear him. The poem he was reciting was quite bawdy.

Captain unclenched his jaw and screamed. Finally. This whole suffering in silence bit was nothing like when Loki had stabbed Thor. The black ooze spurted into the mug now, and at another time Loki would remark on the obvious sexual imagery, but for now, he was just relieved he’d been right.

The last of it went in the tankard and Steve crumpled. Loki slammed the lid shut, and now he did whisper magic words. Molten magic, seal, re-seal, you are full to the brim. Age, ferment, another thousand years, or until my command.

The jar didn’t re-open of its own accord, so that was a good sign. The pewter shimmered gold for a moment as it remembered the blessings of the Goldfet, the circle of compliments of his Asgardians a part of the binding, too.

Loki touched a fist to his lips and sighed.

“Now. Somebody said they had some business with me?”


Everyone, apparently, wanted to talk. The conference room was a storm of conflicting opinions. Captain hadn’t woken up. Thor had taken him to his own rooms to sleep off whatever this was, and a medic had been called. If Loki had been asked, he would have said the cure to the fatigue was a continuation of what Black Widow had been doing, adding cups of wild celery tea whenever the man awoke. He had essentially been possessed and needed to come out of that funk. 

But no one asked Loki, and as Agent of Asgard, he knew this was bigger than him. The urge, however, to just run, now that he could run was so tempting.

Loki cleared his throat. “Pardon the interruption, but did any of you discover why a blizzard is occurring in April in New York?”

“Global warming,” Iron Man said, and returned to their discussion of … Lorelei, for some reason. Loki walked to the window. A stone of apprehension was settling in his stomach. It was definitely time to run.

He did, but he only sprinted to the Green Room, where they had kept him before. A guard tried to stop him, but he was too fast. And he was just placing something inside it for safekeeping.

“Don’t touch that,” he cautioned the guard. “Also, your lipstick is lovely. Red is everyone’s color but mine today, is it?”

He ran off before she could detain him, though she had most certainly reported him by the time he arrived in Central Park. Fitting, that this was where some of it had begun. An angel with a water lily in her hand touched down to purify the icy water. Snow dusted her shoulders.

He’d thought Cherry was coming. But he waited until the sun went down and the angel’s wings were laden with snow, yet nothing happened. No sign of Dark Elves. No sign of Cherry.

All of New York passed by before he finally sighed and left.

Loki looked up the address of a specialty store on his phone, ran there to purchase something that wouldn’t bloom for another two months, with or without blizzards. Then he ran back to the Tower, entering again as Thor, this time successfully swiping the security badge in. He waved at the same guard. The guard frowned. Loki took the stairs, sprinting, so he could skip past the other Avengers to slip into Thor’s rooms.

“Yoo-hoo.”

“In here, Loki.”

Loki blinked out of his disguise and followed Thor’s voice to a guest room, where Steve rested in bed. Thor looked up with a small smile.

Loki backtracked to the kitchen and flicked the electric kettle on. Steve had looked like a man beset by a plague. While Loki waited for the water to boil, he thought about his conversation with Thor earlier. He thought about how he’d known, in some capacity, this whole time that Steve was possessed by something negative. That Loki’s future self or a specter of his past had come back as a scourge, possessing people, or allowing them to be possessed, for who knew what reasons. And that, since Houston, Loki had well thought that Steve was the new host. That was months ago.

But he hadn’t known. And if you stab someone with the Sword of Truth it can kill them if they aren’t strong enough inside to handle the deep, dark conflicts in their psyche.

So why did he feel guilty?

The kettle boiled, and Loki found Thor’s teapot, strainer included. Good brother, he thought. Keeping stock in house and home. He put the wild celery flowers in the strainer and poured the boiling water over it. Then he fetched a mug, and waited for the infusion to steep.

He was suddenly very tired.

What was he doing here?

“Is that hvönn I smell?” Thor asked from the guest room. “Make me a cup too.”

Loki rolled his eyes, but found another mug anyway. When he re-entered the guest room, Thor stood and took it from him, gesturing for Loki to sit in the chair by the bed.

“Should we wake him for this?”

Loki shook his head, then startled as Steve mumbled and opened his eyes. “Wake’m fwhat?”

Loki couldn’t help smiling as he reached out slowly with the mug in offer. “Can you sit up and drink?”

Steve was suddenly very awake, and he slapped the mug out of Loki’s hands. It spilled on his thigh and shattered to the ground. Loki stood to try to avoid it, and when he glared at the Captain, he could see him backed up to the wall, standing when he should be resting.

“You stabbed me.”

“And don’t you feel better for it?”

Loki let his words burn through Steve. He stood perfectly still while Steve worked it out. Eventually, Thor stepped forward, drinking his tea. “This is hvönn, a restorative tea. It won’t bring anyone back from the brink of death, but it helps in times of duress. Steve, you were… ensorcelled, as I had been. You remember how it went with me. Have you not felt it? Did you not feel… strange?”

Steve’s face, suddenly timid, like he was hunted, or haunted, told them the answer. But Black Widow had apparently snuck up on them, and commented from the doorway.

“Steve, how many times have you snapped since the mocking-vine? At Loki, about your dog. At me when you just wanted a word. Director Hill told us about the day you marched up there-”

“God she told you about that?”

Steve rubbed a hand over his face, down to the back of his neck, head bowed. Loki had the sudden urge to reach out and rub Steve’s back.

Why? He stood stock still, hands in his pockets, chewing on this thought as Black Widow continued.

“It was uncharacteristic. I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen you lose control and they pretty much all happened in the last few months. Maybe you didn’t get as bad as

Thor got, but coming from you? It was still pretty bad.”

Steve sunk back onto the bed, his back to them.

“Also, the others are listening in via Jarvis, since Loki’s been doing weird things with the Green Room, and Clint tells me to add,” she looked at her phone to quote a message, “’Don’t forget that Steve stole all of my fries at McDonald’s when I went to the bathroom!’”

Loki hadn’t expected anyone to step in for him. But, really, they weren’t stepping in for him. They were reminding Steve what happened when he’d been possessed. Thor had privately told Loki, back when he’d been recovering, that the times he’d snapped at people inappropriately had all seemed normal. He didn’t question them until others brought it up after he’d recovered, and then the crushing truth of it came back. It was like being stabbed by the sword didn’t wrestle with his crimes in his conscious brain, only his subconscious. And that wasn’t enough to get past the incident as a whole.

Steve turned to look at them.

Black Widow went forward, sank onto the mattress, and hugged Steve.

Loki felt very suddenly that he didn’t belong. And as he began to wonder, not for the first time, where he did belong, he saw Thor set his mug down and step forward to join their Avengers hug.

Loki turned and left the room, beginning to sprint. Someone called after him, which he could only hear because he immediately ran into another someone about to step into the room. They tumbled to opposite sides of the living room, the initiated energy of the boots needing some kind of release.

“Goooooood, that hurt!"

The other guy was yelling and standing up, rubbing limbs or something. Loki didn’t even stand up. He was so done with the day. He couldn’t even make a proper escape in Seven League Boots from an uncomfortable social encounter. How the hell was he going to fare when Cherry came looking for him?

“Sam?”

Steve was in the guest room, calling out to this Sam person. Loki remembered him as Falcon, the superhero on a covert mission in South America. Until now, apparently.

“Whoa man, you look like death.”

Loki didn’t want to stand up, but he really didn’t want to stick around and listen to Avengers Summary Night. So he stood, smoothed his coat fur down, and made for the exit at a normal pace.

Only to be blocked by Hawkeye, coming in the front door with a frosty Iron Man. “I know you’re not going anywhere,” Stark said, and hooked an elbow around his head. It wasn’t platonic. Stark was completely serious because Loki had interrupted their serious meeting before about how he’d released Lorelei for prison and bla bla. Loki twisted out of it and heard Stark’s pulsar load.

“Tony!”

Steve. Steve got everyone to stand down, held up a hand peacefully, and walked Loki out into the hall. He shut the door behind him, then leaned against it, seemingly spent.

“There’s no more secrecy out here than in there, you know,” Loki said.

“Yeah,” Steve huffed.

“You really shouldn’t be standing. Go in and rest.”

And Loki didn’t know how, though the super serum must have played a part, but Steve transferred his energy of leaning against the doorway to leaning against Loki. Hugging Loki. Still half-leaning against Loki, but in an obvious embrace.

Loki froze. Then unfroze, knowing the man was having a hard time standing and at least arms around him could support him if he passed out.

Sure. It was weak rationale and he knew it, remembering a few moments ago when he’d wanted to be part of a saccharine scene of Avengers hugging it out.

“I’m sorry, Loki.”

Loki really had frozen. Normally, he picked up everything. Small ticks. Personality traits. A fence leaning. Metal whispering. These built up larger pictures when you knew what to look, or listen for. Small ticks and personality traits told you if a person faced addiction. A fence leaning told you the soil had eroded or otherwise shifted density. Metal whispering meant unseen fractures or inequities one could use.

When he actually unfroze, he noticed the smell of Steve. Only a hint of cologne, mostly musk, a bit of blood. Soap. Hair. The smell of Steve’s hair and the appearance of dog hair on his clothing. On his butt.

If Steve had been standing straight, he’d be a little taller than Loki, but now, hunched up against Loki, Loki was the taller. He exhaled a long-held breath and refrained from leaning his chin on Steve’s shoulder.

“Keep going, please,” Loki said, and heard and felt Steve’s chuckle against his shoulder.

“I’m sorry I knocked that tea mug outta your hands. It burned you.”

“I’ve suffered far, far worse.”

“Yeah, well it’s no way to treat someone who had just saved me.”

Loki inhaled. Part of him still wanted to flee. “You should fully appreciate how humble I’m being when I suggest that you weren’t quite in your right mind.”

“I don’t really know how to respond to that, but maybe you’ll tell me more later?”

Later meant sticking around in some capacity. Loki didn’t know if he wanted that. And if Steve wanted that, he certainly wasn’t in his right mind, yet.

Steve’s arms briefly squeezed around Loki. There was a tremor of trepidation in the embrace, or perhaps that was just his strength failing. “And thank you. For saving me from whatever was going on with me. And for the tea.”

“It spilled. You haven’t had any.”

“I’ll steal Thor’s.”

“Captain America, patron saint of thieves, I see. Stealing fries, stealing tea.”

Steve coughed. It was perhaps originally a laugh but his ordeal was wreaking havoc even with his super soldier serum strengthened body, apparently.

Loki tucked his arm under Steve, afraid to meet his eyes as he opened the door back to Thor’s suite.

Inside, the Avengers surrounded the entryway, staring at the two of them. Sam stepped forward first to put his arm under Steve. When Loki’s burden was released, he realized how warm Steve had been. The skin on his neck burned residually where Steve had clung to him.

Feeble. He was recovering and that was why he clung to Steve. To stand up during a private conversation.

But when their eyes finally met, the blue gaze staring back at him was anything but feeble. It was steady and strong. It made Loki’s stomach flip.

Loki shut the door firmly behind him and walked to the guest suites where he used to stay.