"He doesn’t take to the freezing process as well as the other one," one of the scientists notes, rather obviously.
The assistants haul Loki, wet and naked and undignified, out of the tank in which they have tried yet again to submerge him.
Loki curses his fate, curses the Norns who spun it, curses the All-Father for saving him as a babe simply to allow him to meet it. He curses his very nature, the icy monstrosity of which denies him the peaceful oblivion of what they call cryostasis.
After another series of painful zaps and leechings, they drag him down the long corridor. The cell they keep him in when they aren’t trying to warp his mind or sap his life force is completely devoid of stimulation, so he has plenty of time to wonder who this "other one" is, and to curse him, too.
It could be worse. At least he’s awake this time. He doesn’t always remember being dragged back to his cell. Sometimes he wakes with no memory of how he got there, but there’s blood seeping from fresh lesions all over his body and a distinctly unsettling feeling, different from torture or pain.
He has nightmares of falling. He has nightmares filled with screams, sometimes his own, and sometimes those of the creature down the hall. He dreams of transforming into something blue, something horrible. Sometimes he dreams of attacking them in this form, but not even then can he win. He wakes each time in the dark, shaking and terrified. He’s almost thankful for the constant darkness so that he doesn’t have to face it—himself.
They try for years, but the brainwashing will not take, even though the attempts burn like lava in his veins. These chemicals and these processes are meant for someone not quite human, but they aren’t meant for him. However, where Hydra’s doctors fail to alter his mind, they do succeed in stealing his magic. He is left weaker and more powerless after each session. From what he overhears, they are studying him with the hope of imbuing others with his power.
He sees now that alerting them to magic’s existence was his gravest mistake. But he was disoriented when he first awoke in the icy ravine into which he had fallen. His first thought was that the All-Father had banished him to Jotunheim, for there was nothing around him but snow banks and jagged cliffs. But at least in Jotunheim, death might have been quick. Instead, Loki endures endless torment at the hands of humans. Humans. As if he hasn’t been humiliated enough.
Hydra’s brainwashing doesn't work, but Loki allows them to think it does so that he can better observe them. He learns the officers’ and scientists’ names and ranks. He begins to understand the organization’s long-term purpose (grandiosely conceived yet ineffectually executed). He learns more about the Asset—the "other one", their fabricated miracle, the man found in an icy wasteland and possessing no identity beyond his use as a political tool.
Not so different from Loki himself, he thinks.
Eventually, he even gets to see him.
One day, instead of being dragged back to his cell, the handlers take Loki back to the cryostasis room, in the corner of which an unbreakable glass wall has been installed. The space behind it becomes Loki’s new cell. The lights here stay on night and day, but he has nothing to look at except the foggy glass of the tank and the shape of the man inside.
The only diversions afforded him are the rare occasions when they take the man out. He writhes on the floor and chokes on the fluids trapped in his lungs. Loki watches the way his dead eyes take in the agents and the surroundings and Loki staring from behind the glass. They always lock eyes, but there is never recognition. There is never will. He receives his orders with perfect passivity.
This is the thing they have failed to turn Loki into.
Intrigued, and grudgingly impressed, Loki cannot entirely blame them for trying. For to have two of these assets… He can imagine all the things he might do with just one. Escape is the foremost of those things.
Loki observes the way the asset behaves, the way what remains of his mind seems to work. He fashions his behavior to present himself as a perfect complement.
After fifty years of solitude and pain, fifty years of pretending to have been broken—of almost wishing these people had the power to break him—Loki finally sees his opportunity.
Someone with eyes joins the organization and notices the objective handsomeness of their frozen tool. Their attempt to harness and weaponize this handsomeness—the only trait that remains of the man’s past, and the only one to which Hydra cannot lay claim—proves to be their one misstep. They make plans to instill the asset with charm and wit for use in strategic situations: a personality. They aim too high.
At around the same time, they deem Loki properly subjugated. The perfect partnership is now ready to commence, or so the handlers think.
(Loki himself does not disagree.)
The practice mission, of course, fails spectacularly. Loki enjoys watching his captors scramble to salvage it. He takes advantage of their distraction to recite the trigger words from files that they have been careless enough to leave in his sight. He watches their horrified faces with vengeful glee when the asset slumps to a halt.
Now undefended and wholly unprepared for his attack, Loki relieves the agents of their briefing notes and slits their throats with their own knives. By the time the asset awakes from his stupor, Loki has in his possession safe house addresses and bank account numbers, piles of currency and weapons. He doesn’t know what to do with them, but he hopes he doesn’t need to.
The asset inspects the carnage around him, and then turns to Loki, the only man left standing. “What is the mission?” he asks with unnerving blankness.
“Hydra has been compromised. I am your new handler. Your mission is to destroy as many of the spies as possible and get us out unscathed.”
Together, they casually kill everyone in their path. Once outside, Loki directs the asset to destroy the place through whatever means possible and to facilitate their escape. He doesn’t know what these means may be, but he assumes that whatever the asset is doing with those white blocks, and now with those wires inside the this metal vehicle, will work. Once he’s finished his mysterious tasks, the asset leads them into the belly of the vehicle. Loki grips a convenient handle above his seat when the contraption begins to move.
In almost fifty years, this is his first taste of life outside, in this realm that he has come to assume is Midgard. He isn’t sure he likes it.
But at least their former prison explodes behind them as they speed away.
The asset functions as programmed for three days. But three days is all they need to reach the safe houses Loki has learned of, raid them for supplies, and kill every Hydra agent they encounter.
However, neither a brainwashing victim nor a visiting Asgardian who have both spent decades in a prison have any idea where to go or what to do next.
And the asset keeps asking for his mission specs. It’s very annoying.
Loki stoops to asking a truck driver at a gas station what a pleasant destination might be. From his somewhat mystifying remarks, it is clear that he takes Loki and his taciturn friend for eccentric newlywed army retirees. He recommends a place called Napa and thanks them for their service.
Loki consults the map, but it’s all lines and numbers to him, incomprehensible. “Can you follow these directions?” he asks. “Can you read in… French?” He thinks this language is called French, here in this land called Canada. It all sounds the same to him, retaining the All-Speak as he does (almost the only thing he retains of his previous talents).
For the first time since they have escaped—for the first time ever—something like personality breaks through the asset’s blankness. He looks witheringly at Loki. “Of course I can read French. And fifteen other languages. What do you take me for? An American?”
“I take you for nothing at all,” Loki replies, bristling at the rudeness, but also relieved. “Just drive.”
The asset does so, but he clutches his head with his gleaming metal hand, as though that one speech proved too much and too confusing for him.
They need to rest, and soon.
Loki’s knowledge of this realm is limited, but his time with Hydra taught him about a few useful concepts, such as drugs. What the mortals call ‘chemistry’ is not so different from certain schools of magic. He guesses that Hydra kept the asset infused with a precisely calibrated cocktail engineered to affect pinpointed behaviors and functions. Here, on the outside, his body has to eject the drugs naturally and adjust to sobriety.
It is not adjusting well.
By the time they reach San Francisco a couple of days later, the asset is a sweaty mess. Loki, who still finds these vehicles terrifying, abandons the car by the side of the road as soon as he realizes there are drivers for hire who can navigate the dizzyingly steep labyrinth for them. With the asset drooping at his side, it is up to him to locate an empty dwelling for them to use as a base. It is up to him to procure food. When he returns from the store down the street, the asset is curled up into a ball in the tub. He’s barely conscious, but apparently Loki’s uninformed purchases are eclectic enough to occasion notice. He raises an eyebrow at the assortment of fruit and Cheetos and tomato paste laid in front of him.
Loki scowls at first, but when he takes a bite of the paste spread on an apple, he has to agree.
Loki tries to take care of the asset, in hopes of securing a deadly and loyal bodyguard later on. He has no qualifications to play nursemaid, so recovery progresses perhaps more slowly than it otherwise would have.
While the asset sleeps, Loki explores the neighborhood and picks up details about how life is lived here: the greetings people give one another; the right teams to root for; how to stop the intermittent beeping from the contraption in the ceiling; how the self check-out machines at the Walgreens function; more appropriate combinations of food. He poses sometimes as a foreigner and sometimes as a simpleton in order to ask obvious questions.
He supplements his observations by reading on the laptop he steals from someone at a coffee shop (the beverage and the pastry that he brings back to the apartment are the first foodstuffs the asset seems to genuinely like). Without a primer or a teacher to steer him away from misleading phrases, he wastes time on irrelevant topics. For example, Star Trek eventually reveals itself to be a fiction, not a way home. He becomes fascinated with the chaotic rationality of commodity markets, and whiles away the monotonous hours of the asset’s convalescence watching stock tickers move up and down.
They’re forced to find a new apartment when the residents return. He has his charge deposited into a taxi before anyone can call the cops. Their new base in the Mission is smaller but more secure, with residents who live most of the year in a faraway place called Hawaii. The neighbors take Loki and his “drunk” charge as vacationers renting the place.
When he isn’t reading or walking or watching how-to videos on YouTube, Loki spends hours watching the asset sleep, watching his hair puff up with each gentle exhalation. He listens to the incoherent pleas he mumbles in his sleep and gives him warm baths every few days, taking care with the joins of his strangely beautiful arm.
When he returns to the apartment after meeting a hobo who sells paper-wrapped herbs and identification papers, Loki finds the asset sitting on the floor, eating the cold lo mein he absent-mindedly left on the dresser before going out.
The asset gets one end of a noodle into his mouth and proceeds to slurp. But either his lips have lost the knack or the noodle isn’t as slick as he expected, because it doesn’t slide in smoothly. Still, Loki can see the intent. Except for the rude comment about language, this simple motion is the first sign of personality Loki has seen him exhibit in all the time they’ve been together.
The asset points his fork to the container as a greeting, as though they talk all the time. “This is good. You got any more?”
“Not of that in particular, but there is something similar in the refrigerator.”
“I’m starved.” The words are confidently pronounced, but the voice is rough from disuse.
A minute later, while Loki watches the paper container spin round and round in the microwave, he reflects upon and admires the asset’s bravado—the carefully phrased non-request masking physical weakness. It is a move he might have made himself.
“So,” Loki says when he returns to the bedroom and hands the food over, “You are finally awake.”
The asset stares at him quietly, chewing so slowly that Loki wonders if his mouth will ever empty enough to speak again. Once he’s swallowed, he asks, getting right to the point in a way that Loki appreciates, “Why’d you get me out?”
Loki takes a seat in a nearby desk chair. He tests the possible reception to all the possible answers in his mind. He decides that the path to ingratiation lays in logic and practicality, not feigned kindness.
“I didn’t want them sending you after me. You are the only one who might have succeeded.”
“Then why not just kill me? Seems like a surer way to make sure I don’t come after you.”
“Leverage,” Loki replies coolly. “I have no intention of letting them take you again, for aforementioned reasons. But they don’t know that. As far as they know, I have something they want. Something they would prefer to remain unharmed. There’s power in that. Of course, this is all predicated on the assumption that you don’t wish to go back.”
“You give a shit about what I want?”
He has successfully avoided it so far, but Loki cannot conceive of an answer that eschews sentimentality entirely. The image of the asset strapped to the chair or being lowered into the tank, screaming, thrashing, resigned, broken… Loki may be a monster, and he may be Frost Giant, but he isn't entirely made of ice (he has not even that luck).
“I took no pleasure in seeing you as you were,” he admits. “How much do you remember?”
“It’s coming back in bits and pieces, the more I’m awake.” He pauses, just long enough to make Loki wonder if and for how long he has only been pretending to be asleep. “But I remember you. They kept us in the same room. You and me… Yours is the one face that looks the same in everything I remember, never got older. You’re the one constant. They were, uh, working on you, too. They wanted you to be the other asset. We were in it together.”
“We were. And we still are.” Loki gets straight to his proposition. “I believe my chances for survival are greater with you than alone or with anyone else. And vice versa. I propose we become allies for as long as we find the arrangement advantageous. As soon as one of us no longer does, he can leave with no repercussions and a vow never to give the other up in the future.”
The asset eats a few more bites before nodding. “All right.”
“That’s all?” Loki had expected a bit more argument.
“Sure. It makes sense. Plus, I owe you. You got me out of there. And you’ve been nice to me.”
Loki cringes. “I’ve simply been keeping you alive.”
“They kept me alive, too. They weren’t nice about it.”
“Save your gratitude. Hearing your expressions of it was not my motivation.”
“I’m just trying to be polite here.”
“I have no doubt your manners are exemplary, refined enough that your presumably long-dead mother would have been proud.”
The asset blinks. “Okay. So, on top of whatever else, you’re a grade-A piece of work. Good to know.”
“Will that be a problem?”
“No. Just makes it more interesting, I guess.”
The asset nods and extends a hand. After they’ve shaken, he asks, “You got a name?”
“You may call me Loki. And you?”
“I keep having this dream where someone’s calling me ‘Bucky’. I’ll go with that until I remember something else.”
They sit staring at one another in silence before the asset—Bucky—asks a question.
“You said something about my long-dead mother. How long’s it been?”
“Since about 1960 for me. But you were already there when I arrived. It is now 2010. Hydra’s assumption was that cryostasis kept you young. But having watched them, I wonder sometimes if it was necessary. If perhaps their experiments had already left you such that…”
Bucky receives this significant news with no visible reaction other than a more thoughtful slurp of his next noodle.
“Well, you aren’t any older,” Bucky says slowly, “and you weren’t in a tank. So, maybe you’re right.”
“No, but…” In that moment, Loki decides to say nothing about his past, to be as much of a blank slate as his new companion. To be the blank slate he was when he fell here. He and Bucky are not as alike as Bucky seems to think, but they can be alike in this freedom.
“Hey,” Bucky says suddenly, and with an odd inflection to his voice. “Do they have flying cars yet?”
Bucky frowns. “I don’t know why I asked that.”
Despite Bucky’s newly regained ability to conduct a conversation, they can both see that recovery will take some time.
Loki hasn’t made plans for this next stage of his exile. He’s rather like Bucky in some ways, learning about the realm into which he has fallen.
He congratulates himself on having spent his days researching the ways of the realm during Bucky’s convalescence. He may be the one who actually hails from this realm (from this country even, he soon remembers) but Loki is the one with the initial expertise in present-day life. For the first time ever, someone looks up to Loki the way he always looked up to Thor. Bucky asks Loki question after question, about everything. Hydra, San Francisco, the do-dads on the stove, the advertisements on the television, why everyone is half-naked. Loki is pleased to know the answers (or make semi-informed guesses).
He even more firmly suspects that Bucky was only pretending to be asleep for the last couple of days before they first spoke, because Bucky immediately understands how to cohabitate with Loki in a way that suggests studied observation. There’s no other way he could know where Loki likes to sit on the couch, and when to switch the light on when Loki wakes up panicked in the night, staring at his hands to check that they are still his.
Somehow, Bucky has ended up taking just as much care of Loki as Loki does of him, but not in the way Loki anticipated.
“Since when do pickles cost $10? Don’t these kids have anything better to do with their money? Back in my day, you saved up for a steak dinner and dancing, not shit I could brine myself,” Bucky says during a walk through the farmer’s market at the Ferry Building. It’s their first outside of their immediate neighborhood.
“Such talk is relegated to old men,” Loki chides.
“I’m ninety-five. If I’m not old, who is?”
Loki smiles wanly in reply. But even at only ninety-five, and having spent most of those years unconscious, Bucky makes for a wiser and more sober companion than most of the people Loki knew and disliked for a thousand years.
“They never got to you, did they?” Bucky asks next. “They never got inside your head.”
Lying is no good when there is nothing to be gained. So, Loki tells the truth. “No, they did not. How did you guess?”
“You weren’t sick like I was. And you never talk about anything. If you were like me, you’d be boring me as silly as I’m probably boring you every time I remember something new and need to work it out. Which means you remember just fine but are choosing not to say anything.”
“I’m not bored by your recollections,” Loki responds, by way of a non-answer.
Bucky raises an eyebrow. “You’re telling me you give a shit about the time I switched boots with Steve during the war? Or the time I stole a slice of Mrs. Robinson’s pie and got caught by all the blueberry thumbprints I left in her daughter’s bedroom?”
“The first, no. But the second was quite amusing.” Loki likes listening to Bucky talk, but he could do with fewer stories of the great and wonderful Steve.
“So, who are you?”
“Does it matter?”
“Sure it does. You must have been someone before they got you. Someone spoiled, I’m gonna bet. Someone important. Not a soldier by nature, though you sure know your way around a fight when you need to. It hasn’t been as long for you as it’s been for me. Isn’t there someone you want to look up? Someone who could help us out?”
“No, I am as alone here as you are. And we need no one else’s help.”
“But you must have been someone,” Bucky persists. “Someone you could be again.”
“I thought I was someone. A glorious someone. I was wrong. And since then, I’ve had fifty years to think. And what I think is that who we are is a costume to don and discard at will. You consider what was done to us as a tragedy, and in most respects it is. But, we have also been given a rare gift. You and I find ourselves in a new time and a new place. We can be anything we wish. You can even take on a new and less stupid name if you so choose.”
“Like yours is any less stupid.”
Loki purses his lips. “What I mean to say is that while you choose to hold onto aspects of who you were, I choose to use this opportunity to begin again.”
“And what do you want to be?”
After fifty years out of Thor’s shadow and away from the stale prejudices and limitations of Asgard’s stifling court, Loki has begun to feel free from his old jealousies and fruitless desires. “I haven’t decided yet. Perhaps nothing. So far, nothing is better than what I am… what I was, I mean.”
Bucky rubs Loki’s shoulder. “I won’t make you talk about the past if you don’t want to but… It’s okay, you know. What they did to you. It isn’t who you are.”
Loki doesn’t understand what he means, but neither does he shake off the warm touch.
Over the next few months they drift from San Francisco to Seattle to Sheboygan to Salt Lake City to St. Louis. Bucky and Loki know full well that they are being pursued. What Hydra doesn’t know is that Loki has been purposefully leading the chase, arranging false clues all over the country to buy time for Bucky’s recovery.
“You shall go to Denver, and I will be in Chicago,” he explains one evening when Bucky swears he is well enough to fight.
“I don’t know about this. We’re stronger together,” Bucky says after listening to Loki’s intricate plan.
“But we will be even stronger if they think us apart. If all goes well, we will only need to do this once, perhaps twice.”
Bucky’s reluctance is written all over his face, but he knows Loki is right. “Fine.”
Loki hands him a return train ticket and a few wads of cash. “I’ll see you on Monday.”
Bucky begins to pack guns and knives into a duffel. “Be safe, okay? Be here when I get back. I don’t want… I don’t want to be all alone here.”
“I mean now. Here, now… it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter where I go. You’re all I’ve got. Even if you are a piece of work. It’s not like I’m gonna find anyone else I've got anything in common with.”
“A fifty-year cage is about all we share. Believe me.”
Bright-side prognostications are not in Loki’s nature, so he doesn’t promise Bucky to be here when he returns. But he doesn’t want to be alone here either. And Bucky, in contrast to himself, is surprisingly little work.
All does go well, for the most part.
Loki’s magic may be gone, but his superior strength remains. He’s never learned how to use the weapons specific to this realm, but knives work the same everywhere.
Bucky bursts into the warehouse where Loki is fighting Hydra’s best and bravest, twelve hours before he’s supposed to be back in the city. The blood of his fallen enemies is still damp on his shirt and staining the metal of his arm.
Bullets fly over their heads, but the appearance of the lost asset distracts the assailants, and their efforts to regroup buy Bucky and Loki a moment to whisper.
“How are you back so soon?” Loki asks as they crouch together behind a fallen table.
“I rented a car. Drove faster than a train ever could.”
“I don’t doubt it. How did your mission go?”
“You think I’d be here if any of them were left alive?”
“Fair point. Would you mind lending a hand?”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Bucky says, half grimly, half apprehensive, even though he isn’t at all afraid. “Though, from what I’ve seen, you’ve got this under control. You’re pretty handy with a knife. I’m impressed.”
“Hours upon hours of mandatory practice as a child.”
“You have no idea.” Loki quickly formulates a plan that he communicates partly through whispers, and partly through silent signals that Bucky, oddly attuned to the workings of Loki’s mind after only a few months together, immediately understands. “On my count. One, two three.”
Bucky—the Winter Soldier, for right now, not an iota of the man Loki has come to know shines through—is the most efficient meter of death he has ever seen. Where Thor would have groaned and grunted, half in earnest and half for effect, Bucky makes no noise at all. He simply places his weapons where they need to go. Even in the middle of his own battles, Loki can’t help but admire his grace.
When it’s all over and Loki is busy making the carnage look like something else entirely, perpetrated by other people entirely, he glances up.
“What’s the matter?” he asks, because Bucky is shivering and looking destroyed, despite suffering little more than a bullet to the leg that will heal by morning.
“I… I never want to do that again,” he says, looking at the bodies that Loki is artfully arranging.
“But you were magnificent. You are magnificent. I have never seen the like.”
“I don’t care. I’m done. Let’s just… let’s go. Anywhere. Fake our deaths and run away and live somewhere they’ll never think to look for us. Anything so it can be done.”
“But don’t you want to avenge yourself? Avenge what they did to us?”
Bucky shakes his head and drops his knives (but only after wiping the prints off on someone’s shirt, because he even when he’s being melodramatic, he isn’t an idiot). “Yeah, I do want revenge. But I want to get to the next part more. There’s no point in us escaping if it means I have to spend the rest of my life doing… this.”
Loki is disappointed, but he can tell that having now made up his mind like this, Bucky will not waver. He commits the beauty of the fight to memory, knowing it’s likely to be the last one.
“I will arrange matters.”
Bucky doesn’t so much smile as relax his shoulders in gratitude. “Thanks, Loki.”
They leave the city that evening.
“Where to?” Bucky asks when he gets behind the wheel. The difference in his mental state is palpable. Unlike their first night together, when he kept asking about his mission specs, it’s clear that tonight he is asking Loki the question because he doesn’t care what the answer is, not because he is incapable of thinking of one.
“We have one more order of business before we can disappear entirely,” Loki replies. “We have to return to California.”
Loki stares pointedly at Bucky’s metal arm, which has hung at an unnatural angle ever since the fight. “I’ve read of someone who can fix it. A brilliant but low-level, underpaid, under-appreciated engineer at a big firm. I would wager there are few ambitious scientists who could resist a chance to inspect your arm.”
Bucky shakes his head. “I’m not letting another scientist touch me again.”
“You’re no good to either of us like this. I swear I won’t leave your side while he works. And I have a plan.”
Bucky peers at him. “I know you don’t like to talk about what happened to you before but… You can tell me. The way you handled the plan this week, and the fight tonight, and all our plans all the time… Were you a general? Or some kind of spy master?”
“No. I was not.”
“Well, you should’ve been. You’re aces at it. You’re aces at pretty much everything.”
This is the nicest compliment anyone has ever paid Loki, and it solidifies his regard for his companion. He’s been contemplating leaving Bucky one day soon, per their arrangement. Not because he dislikes his company, but rather because he likes it too much. And liking it too much only means that it will hurt that much more when Bucky decides to leave him, which he will, of course he will…
But Loki knows in this moment that he won’t be the one to leave. Weak masochist that he is.
They spend a night in a well-reviewed motel on the way to Los Angeles (Loki won’t settle for grimy ones, fugitives or not). When Loki comes out of the shower, he finds Bucky sprawled on his stomach over the blue velour blanket with his feet waving in the air. He’s watching a newscast with a startled expression on his face.
“What is it?” Loki asks.
“I knew that guy’s dad.”
Loki takes in the footage of the metal suit speeding into the sky, and the name in the caption below the image. “What, the playboy in the tin can?”
“Yeah. I’ve told you about him. He was the one who flew Steve out to Austria to rescue me and the other guys. Didn’t remember his name until the other day, though. This son of his… It turns out he’s the guy who’s been flying around LA recently. He just announced it.”
“He also owns the company at which the scientist we seek works. Do you want to introduce yourself? A fallen comrade of his father’s. Another kidnapped victim of extremists. I think he would be glad to know you. And he would be a useful acquaintance for us to cultivate.”
Bucky continues to watch the glowing circle in Stark’s chest as he replies, “Nah. I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“You could say whatever you like.”
Bucky looks up at Loki who feels suddenly shy, dripping and clad only in a towel as he is.
“Hey, Loki?” Bucky asks.
“Will you cut my hair?”
It’s a terrible shame, Loki thinks. But he leads Bucky into the small bathroom anyway. With his arm malfunctioning as it is, it takes Bucky longer than usual to tug off his shirt before handing him the scissors. All the bruises and wounds from the fight have already faded. He looks at Loki’s face the entire time. The dark locks tickle as they fall into the tight space between Bucky’s muscular back and Loki’s bony chest. Bucky radiates a pleasant warmth that Loki has to stop himself from burrowing into.
They've been inseparable cohabitants for months now, but only tonight, as Bucky reclaims himself, does Loki feel that they have become more—something like friends.
“Eyes on the job,” Bucky grunts when he catches Loki glancing at the scarred area where the metal arm meets Bucky’s shoulder.
“There is only one aspect of my former life that I miss,” Loki says, thinking of his lost magic. “If I had it back, I could fix this for you.”
“What, you could grow me a new arm?”
“No, that would not be a fix. You are stronger for what happened to you, including this. You are better. More uniquely interesting. It takes someone special indeed to have survived it. I should know, for I watched several of their subsequent failed attempts. What I meant is that I would remove these marks. I find the scars interesting as well, but I can tell you do not.”
Bucky mulls this over as though it’s the first time he’s ever looked at it this way. In the end all he says is, “You’re lying. There’s more than one thing you miss about your old life, whatever it was.”
Loki thinks of Thor and the stupid hide and seek games they played as children. He thinks of watching Frigga at her weaving. He admits, for the first time, “Perhaps.”
By the time he’s finished, Bucky’s hair is shorter than it was in the WWII history book they recently bought. He no longer looks like the Winter Soldier, but neither does he look like Captain America’s right hand man. He looks simply like Loki’s companion.
And once Bucky returns the favor, clipping Loki’s hair with something close to the reverence Loki always wanted and never got, the prince of Asgard is gone as well.
“Looks good,” Bucky says.
“Does it function adequately?” Loki asks on their way back to the Santa Monica pool house they are renting for the week.
“Too soon to tell, but so far so good.” Training, not nature, has made Bucky too careful to engage in the sweeping and swinging that a true test of the limb requires, at least in public. He walks with his hand stuck into the pockets of his jeans, hiding them out of habit, even though he now wears a sleeve that makes it look like a flesh arm.
“You’ll need a tan to match,” Loki says lightly. “Now that that's been taken care of, it’s time we moved on. Where shall we go? Do you want to return to New York?” Loki has heard a lot about the place from Bucky and from his reading and from Flight of the Conchords. He’s intrigued.
But Bucky vehemently shakes his head. “I can’t go back there. Not for a good long time. I’m not ready. What about Rome?”
“It was the last nice place I remember before… you know. The last nice time. We had a mission there. Me and Steve and Monty. Infiltrating an embassy to get some Hydra contact lists. The night before, we went dancing. Italian girls, gorgeous ones… and there was this Italian guy who…” Bucky almost blushes (he does need a tan, if only to maintain his poker face) and skips to a different part of the story, leaving Loki wondering what exactly about the Italian guy. “And the day after the mission, we got coffees and Monty knew how to order all the good stuff in Italian, and it was sunny and Steve kept singing the wrong words to this song that was big at the time, and I was giving him shit about it, and nobody got shot at and my boots were dry and… It was a really good time. And then after that, we went to the Alps.”
“I see,” Loki says, not certain how else to reply. Comfort has never been his forte.
“Unless there’s somewhere else you wanna go? Wherever you’re from?”
“Where I am from is even more cut off to me than the New York of your youth. Even if I wanted to return, I could not. Therefore, and since it makes little difference to me where we go, Rome it is.”
That night, while Bucky watches television, Loki’s phone vibrates in his pocket, in the particular rhythm he set up when he bugged the engineer’s phone and programmed it to relay to his own. He goes into the bathroom and shuts the door.
“I know where to find what you've been looking for. Things you thought were gone,” he hears him say. “Two soldiers. I heard there was a reward.”
“Do you have them now?” the Hydra agent on the other end of the line asks.
“No, but I can have them come to me and alert you to the time and place. For the right price, of course.” The engineer must mean the follow-up appointment he insisted on setting for a few days from now.
Loki listens to their tiresome negotiations long enough to determine the rank and location of the Hydra agent.
“I’m going out for a walk and for food,” he says when emerges from the bathroom. “Is there anything you would like?”
The shadows of the asinine adventure program play across Bucky’s hypnotized face. “Get me whatever.”
An hour later, the engineer convulses on the cool tile of his kitchen floor, choking to death under Loki’s watchful gaze as an untraceable poison spreads through his veins. An hour after that, the Hydra agent crashes into a highway barrier, a fatal tragedy caused by a loose brake.
They were greedy sorts. Loki knows neither of them told anyone else, lest they had to share their prize.
He returns with off-the-menu specials from In ‘n Out. Sitting down next to Bucky, he says, “I’ve tired of California. I propose we leave for Italy tomorrow.”
“What about my arm? We were going to see that guy again.”
“I watched him closely today. I am certain that with some study, I can become proficient enough in the subject to serve as your repairman.”
Bucky wrenches his attention away from the program. “What did you do?”
“Only what was necessary. Come, Bucky. You are not an idiot. You know we can’t both lay down our weapons and stay safe.”
“I know, but—”
“You’ve told me of how you did some unsavory things during the war to keep your friend’s legend clean. In my time, I… I have been in such situations, propping up another’s light. I’m accustomed to it. In fact,” Loki admits, for the first time ever, even to himself, “I don’t always mind it, not if the cause is worthwhile. I think our safety—my safety—fits the definition of worthwhile.”
“All right,” Bucky mumbles.
“You'll be happy to know that other than the unpleasantness I was forced to deal with tonight, Hydra does indeed think us dead. Any tales to the contrary will come from South America and be proven incorrect. The nightmare is over. As long as we are careful, we are free.”
“Not sure I’ll ever feel free. But thanks anyway.”
“It has only been on the market for two days,” the realtor says. The calculating smiles in this profession are the same no matter the city or country, Loki has learned. “And the neighborhood becomes more desirable by the year.”
Roberto beams at Bucky in a way that makes Loki’s chest tighten for some reason. Bucky is too busy checking for anthrax in the silverware drawers to notice.
“My… friend and I,” Loki says, lingering on the word ‘friend’ in a way that suggests anything but, “have some valuables and require an apartment with a first-rate security system.”
Roberto’s toothy smile stays in place even as the rest of his face falls a millimeter. “I can assure you the building is equipped with the best security equipment in Italy.”
“It seems all clear,” Bucky says to Loki as they pass through a door off the living room.
“Do either of you work from home? This smaller bedroom would serve well as an office,” Roberto continues.
Bucky frowns. “Office? We said two bedrooms. Why would we use one as an office? Anyway, I call this one. It's sunnier.”
“Good. Because I prefer the larger one,” Loki says.
“You keep separate bedrooms?” Hope returns to Roberto’s eyes.
“He snores,” Loki says before Bucky can reply.
Bucky looks between them with confusion that grows into consternation as he finally sees what is going on.
Later that day, he holds in his hands a lease and a set of keys. The apartment is in a quiet part of the city, full of older couples and mothers with strollers. They choose it less for its aesthetics than for its defensibility, but it's lovely all the same. A fifth floor apartment in a difficult to scale building. No nearby roofs or windows at an angle to see in. Metal shutters on the windows. A dumb waiter leading to the ground floor that time and a series of landlords has forgotten. The original wooden flooring creaks only under feet that have not studied the right places to step, and the high ceilings echo the quietest sounds. It boasts a large dining room for parties they will never throw. Original 1920s pocket doors lead to a cheerfully bright living room where Loki and Bucky will, if behaviors so far have served as any indication, read books and do push-ups. Respectively, of course.
Sitting on the floor of the empty dwelling that is now theirs in a way that none of their previous stops have been, Bucky passes Loki a panini, still hot from the kiosk down the street.
“That guy thought we were a… you know, a couple,” he says as he looks at his sandwich, analyzing the best corner to attack first.
“That didn’t bother you?”
“Well, in retrospect, I should have let him think you were available,” Loki says with his mouth full. “We might have secured a discount that way. He was quite taken with you.”
Bucky sputters and uses his sleeve to wipe a dangling string of cheese off his chin. “Why do you think he thought… Do I seem like the kind of guy who’s into other guys?”
“No more or less than anyone else. Do I?”
“I… I dunno.” A pause. “Wait. Are you?”
Loki shrugs. “Inasmuch as I am ‘into’ anyone at all. That is to say, not right now.”
“Nothing, I guess.” Bucky stands up very suddenly, holding his arm akimbo like an explorer surveying the territory he has just named for himself. "I’m gonna put a fake wall in front of that dumb waiter so we're the only ones who know it’s there."
"Whatever you like," Loki concedes, "as long as you keep your squalor contained."
“And I want surround sound for the TV.”
Loki is five concessions in before he realizes he is indulging Bucky. He’s fondly indulging him each time he blandly says, "if you must" or “I couldn’t care less” to one of Bucky's surprisingly earnest desires.
Loki has never indulged anyone but himself in his life. Perhaps Thor on occasion, but even then, it was always with a secondary aim or nugget of curiosity. But his initial plan in rescuing the asset was to procure for himself a bodyguard—someone to care for and indulge him. He doesn’t know how the tables turned, or at least balanced out.
Possibly because Bucky is not the asset, and hasn’t been for quite some time. With each day that passes, the puppet Loki watched for so many years has faded away and been replaced by a real man. Loki’s original reason for breaking Bucky out of Hydra’s prison no longer holds.
It is the first time he hasn’t wholly minded the failure of one of his plans.
Loki can’t tell whether it's because they’ve decided not to fight any more, or if Bucky has simply needed this long to fully recover. Either way, Bucky approaches this move with more willfulness than he has heretofore shown. He has opinions about their housing decision beyond how defensible it might be in a siege. He has opinions about appliances. He devotes himself to deciding which of the many specialty food shops in the neighborhood is the best.
He even goes so far as to get a job. He doesn’t need a job. Neither of them do. Loki has increased the size of their bank accounts through online poker and various speculative investments. They will never want for anything, not even if they both live for as long as he thinks they will.
“Why this?” Loki asks, when he visits Bucky during his afternoon shift at the juice and coffee bar in the lobby of an American-style gym near the Borghese gardens.
“I’m not qualified to do a whole lot else these days,” Bucky replies as he pulls two shots. “Plus, it gets you out of the house.”
“By ‘you’, you mean ‘one’, I assume?”
“No, I mean you.” Bucky smiles, an expression that has slowly become more common since coming here. “Even better, I’m picking up a lot of clients this way.”
Loki sees the truth in this. The mothers gaze at him over the rims of their white ceramic cups, the tourists tee-hee when he hands them their juice blends, and the ex-pat men try not to openly ogle his musculature. Bucky continues to wear a skin sleeve over his metal arm, but it doesn’t hide the fact that it is a prosthetic. The limb only serves to impress his admirers and endear him more firmly to them. His habit of flashing a smile as he hands over the beverages doesn’t hurt either.
Bucky’s mornings soon fill with personal training sessions for expensively dressed and underfed women, as well as men training for Everest summits and other nonsense. Loki takes to spending the afternoons in the café, even though the quiche is runny and the wooden chairs are uncomfortably low for his long legs. Bucky puts a hand-scrawled ‘reserved’ sign on a corner table near the window and saves most of the day’s frittata for him, smiling when he lies to other patrons about having run out.
A thousand years of regal indolence and a small social circle have left him well-accustomed to his current life of leisure. Unlike Bucky, he doesn’t need structure or a variety of daily interactions. He could do the laptop noodling that pays their bills and takes down Hydra, one disguised cyber attack at a time, from their apartment. But from there he wouldn’t be able to glare at the customers who flirt with Bucky.
Unlike Thor’s companions in Asgard, Bucky never forgets that Loki is there, no matter how many admirers surround him. Even at his busiest, he remembers to slip Loki fresh teabags for his inhumanly strong brew.
Loki’s tour of subjects eventually takes him to botany. He learns of a plant that sounds in some respects like the root from which Fandral's favorite ardent spirits are distilled. He conducts experiments during the evenings when Bucky goes out with the gym employees he has begun to befriend. Just as when he’d been a boy bested by his homework, books go flying around the room, landing below whatever bit of wall he throws them at.
The only thing that keeps the entire beaker from hitting the wall this evening is the ringing of his phone.
“What?” he snits.
A minute later, Loki steps out of the large wooden door of their building. Bucky stands just off the sidewalk, leaning against someone’s vehicle.
“Isn’t she a beaut?” he asks.
Loki immediately feels an odd clench in his stomach and around his lungs. He looks around, but they are the only pedestrians on the block. “Who?”
Bucky throws his head back and laughs. His hair—back to its natural color and growing shaggy again of his own volition, reclaimed, properly washed—ripples around his face.
“Cars and boats are always women, you weirdo. And she isn’t a car, but she’s even better. And she’s mine.” Bucky pats the motorcycle beside him. It’s a new one, gleaming black and chrome beside the smaller, shabbier ones parked in a row beside it.
Loki feels a surge of relief. It takes a moment of searching in his mind for usual causes and effects, but this is how he discovers that what he felt a moment ago was jealousy. This isn’t the passive acknowledgement of Bucky’s attractiveness that Loki has had for years and that he shares for Bernini’s statues. This is something new. This is churning and active longing for someone real.
This is a new form of torture.
“You purchased this today?” he asks as he works this development out internally.
“With my own money, too. I’ve been wanting a Ducati since the second I knew they existed.”
Loki forces his gaze away from the sparkle in Bucky’s eyes and onto the object of conversation. “It certainly is not subtle.”
“No, she isn’t. But at least I didn’t get the red one, right?”
“You are the pinnacle of practicality.”
Bucky leans forward to snatch at Loki’s hand. “Let’s take her for a spin. If you like it, we can get you one, too.”
“No, thank you.”
“Come on. I got you your own helmet and everything.” And indeed, there is a green helmet dangling from one of the handlebars. Bucky tosses it to Loki, who is forced to catch it, lest it hit him in the chest.
“I was occupied upstairs,” Loki says, failing to mask his apprehension.
“Bullshit. What are you so scared of? You’ve seen me drive.”
“Loki,” Bucky all but whines, becoming increasingly boyish in his excitement. The glow of pride and happiness is such a rare combination on his features that not even Loki can resist. He’s lost count of his indulgences.
“Oh, all right.”
Gingerly, he presses the helmet onto his head and takes a step towards the death machine. Loki tests this newfound awareness of his attraction by watching from behind as Bucky straddles the thing. His jeans stretch across his strong thighs, and Loki can see the muscles rippling in his back as he leans forward.
Bucky turns to see what the delay is. Loki averts his eyes and climbs onto the passenger seat.
“If you start to feel like you’re gonna fall, just hold onto me, okay?”
Loki responds by scooting himself forward until his chest presses firmly against Bucky’s back. He wraps his right arm around Bucky’s waist and rests the left one on Bucky’s thigh.
Bucky tenses in front of him, within his arms.
“Uh, Loki? We haven’t even started to move yet.” He turns to look, and their faces are so close that Loki actually does begin to feel a bit unsteady.
“An anticipatory measure,” he chokes out, hoping that he is passing the tremor in his voice as teasing.
“Okay. Well,” Bucky says. He awkwardly pats the hand that Loki has placed on his thigh, and even squeezes his fingers for a second before reaching for the handlebar. “Here we go.”
Loki tightens his grip around Bucky’s waist. The lurch in his stomach is only half caused by the jolt into motion.
Loki is the one who names it—her—in the end.
"Since you insist on referring to this heap of metal as a woman, I will call her Sylvia, after our neighbor downstairs. They make a similar screech when forced to stop short."
"Sylvia it is. I dated a girl named Sylvia once. Made the same noise when I straddled her the same way."
This isn't what Loki wanted or expected to hear. His nose wrinkles despite himself, but he hides the expression behind a pretended sneeze.
Within a few weeks he overcomes his fear of the vehicle’s off-kilter balance and of Bucky's maniac driving, which results in his helmet getting more use than he anticipated. But he continues to grip Bucky just as tightly as on that first ride, using a pretended continuance of nervous disdain as his excuse. Nothing about this is safe, but there’s something comforting about being wrapped around his companion—friend, roommate, shield brother, more—that he hasn’t felt since he and Thor were small, and Thor petted him after pinching him.
If he’s caught on, Bucky doesn’t show it. If anything, he scoots back farther into his seat, into Loki. But people ride very closely here in Rome. It probably means nothing.
Bucky often takes Sylvia out for long solitary afternoons, rolling up and down the Tuscan foothills far to the north of the city. He says it helps him relax.
At the end of such days, they fling open the French windows, drag two armchairs over, prop their tired feet on the elaborately smithed railing, and drink limonada until the city below them hushes into muffled tinkling and murmurs. They talk about everything except Loki’s past and their shared time with Hydra. Surprisingly, even with these limitations, they are left with a surprisingly large number of available subjects, whether it’s Berlusconi, or Bucky’s memories, or chitchat about their day, or happenings in the neighborhood. Or, most commonly, nothing at all.
“It's bright. So fucking bright,” Bucky says tonight. His fingers twitch into his pocket and pull out a cigar he bought to celebrate gaining another regular client.
Loki watches, half disgusted and half aroused by the way Bucky's lips purse and pucker around it. He can't look away, so it's just as well that Bucky keeps talking, giving Loki an excuse to keep staring.
“It wasn't this bright when we were kids,” he continues, forgetting that Loki wasn't necessarily a child when he was one. Or perhaps it's only a trick of speech. Or, worse, he's forgotten, in this fog of smoke and memories, who he's with. That Loki isn't Steve. “And then in the war, it was so dark. Almost everywhere we went in Europe, it was dark every night.” He shakes himself out of the memory and back to the present. "Hey, I almost forgot.”
He reaches over to the bundle of helmet and backpack that he dropped nearby when he came home. He pulls out a paper package and tosses it lightly over.
Loki unties the string and finds a stack of dried sausages inside. "What’s this?"
“Saw it in one of the villages I rode through today and thought of you. Remember that time we stumbled into the Oktoberfest in St. Louis and you tried it for the first time? Your face… I’ll never forget it. You liked it so much. That was a great day. This is the same flavor.”
More than the gift itself, what moves Loki is the fact that this is the first time Bucky has ever spoken of one of their shared memories with the same cherished nostalgia he saves for his stories about Steve. This is the first time anything in his present life has counted among one of his favorite days.
“Thank you,” he says.
Bucky blows a large puff of smoke that obscures his face.
Loki’s months of experiments finally yield results.
"Cheers," he says when Bucky walks in, sweaty from his run.
Italy’s bright climate has done its work; Bucky is a glowing, sun-kissed marvel. Loki slightly preferred him pale, but Hydra’s repeated assaults on Bucky's person have only proven his handsomeness to be unassailable. A little tan makes no difference.
"What's all this?" Bucky asks, methodically and responsibly untying his shoelaces instead of kicking off his sneakers, as Loki would do. The prince has still not learned to preserve his belongings, while the pauper from Brooklyn continues to live as though rations are in place.
Loki pours him a glass. "It’s a drink.”
"You know I can't get drunk. I thought you couldn't either."
"You'll get drunk off this," Loki says, slurring his words. He's already tested his concoction, copiously.
Bucky's eyes open wide as he makes his way to the couch. "Shit, you actually did it, didn’t you? Is this you drunk?"
"Have some,” Loki continues to insist, growing annoyed that Bucky has not yet tasted it. What is the point of all this, if he is to drink alone?
"What's in it?"
“Too many things to list, and in too specific a combination.” Loki flops down beside Bucky, a little closer than he usually allows. He can smell the sweat on Bucky’s shirt.
Bucky doesn’t insult him by moving, but he does eye the way Loki’s fingers dance between their thighs, teasing the possibility of resting on either leg. Loki watches them, too, and if asked, could not honestly say where he intends for them to land.
Gods, it has been a long time since he was properly drunk. Or drunk at all. Not since the feast they had shortly before his banishment to celebrate yet another of Thor’s victories in the hunting field.
“Drink it,” he almost whines. “It doesn’t taste any more disgusting than your cigars.”
“We can't both be drunk. What if...”
“What if what? I told you. No one is coming after us anymore.”
“We can't both be drunk.” Bucky looks desperate and frightened in a way he never does over a real threat.
“You are the most aggressive spoilsport I've ever met.”
“Never been called that before.”
“Well, you are.”
“Loki…” Bucky says softly. And it is his fingers that slide over to sit on top of Loki’s. His thigh that moves a millimeter to brush against Loki’s. His breathing that deepens a bit. His tongue that peeks out from between his lips.
Loki can’t be imagining this. He knows he isn’t. Which is why this standstill infuriates him.
Bucky takes a sip from the glass that separates their faces. He grimaces.
“It gets better the more you drink,” Loki mumbles.
“It’s not that bad even now.”
“So have more.”
But instead, Bucky abruptly stands up.
“Where are you going?”
“We can’t both be drunk,” Bucky repeats. “I’ll try it another night. Congratulations, though. I know you’ve been working on this for awhile.”
“Which is why you should—”
“Night, Loki.” Bucky goes into his room and shuts the door, leaving Loki alone on the couch feeling embarrassed, confused, and very very drunk. The spot where Bucky just sat still smells like him. The combination of olfactory stimulation and physical longing lead him to make a prosciutto and taleggio sandwich that fails to satisfy the kind of hunger he actually feels.
Not too long later, when he decides there’s no point in staying up any longer (in fact, he physically can’t), he retires to bed. He tosses and turns in the way he always does when he goes to bed drunk. His mind keeps running to Bucky, and the heat of his back the other day on Sylvia. He should have left like he planned, long before it came to this. He should have seen this coming, the more Bucky displaced the asset to become a new and separate person. That last night in Los Angeles would have been the right time. Loki should have killed those men and never returned. Bucky would have figured it out and moved on, dealt with it. No one has been after them ever since. They both would have been safe.
They both would have been terribly alone.
Loki’s achingly hard, and rolling around as he is only makes it worse. He hasn’t been touched since learning of his heritage. He hasn’t even touched himself. The thought of what lurks beneath his skin, and that might surface if he ever loses mastery of himself, even for a moment, makes him nauseous. Every time he’s considered touching himself, he’s been assaulted by images of himself changing color during the critical moment, lines raising, eyes reddening. He doesn’t know what a Jotun cock looks like, but he’s created some horrifying suppositions.
But tonight, he wants. He wants so badly. Tonight, he slides his hand under the light cotton sheet that covers his nude body (he still doesn’t understand the Midgardian love of pajamas). He makes it as far as holding his cock, but shudders at the thought of stroking it. All the usual horrors plague him. He lets go. It takes stumbling back into the living room and gulping the remainder of his concoction to make him pass out.
The next morning, he wakes with a sticky patch in the middle of his bed, as he sometimes does when his body demands the release that Loki refuses to assist. Bucky comes home in the evening and acts as though nothing happened.
But then again, Loki rues, nothing did.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Bucky says two days later. It’s the end of his shift and they’re both packing up to leave.
“Why not tonight? You have only the Contessa on Wednesday evenings.”
“I’ve got a date after I see the Contessa. If it goes well, I might not be back.”
Loki likes his routine, likes having all his things predictable, just so, where and when he prefers. Only he is permitted to inject chaos into the mix.
“With whom?” he asks, trying not to sound as agitated as he feels.
“One of my Tuesday mornings is married but said I shouldn’t go to waste. So I’m going out with her cousin.”
“You accepted a blind date?”
“It’s not technically blind. She’s a newscaster, so I know what she looks like.”
“And she looks good,” Bucky says flatly, not in the tone Loki normally hears such appreciation expressed.
“If you don’t want to go,” Loki says hopefully, “you could make some excuse. I could help you think of one.”
“No, I’ll go. It’s for the best.”
“The best? How so?”
Bucky has no answer to that. “I’ll see you in the morning, if all goes well,” he repeats.
Loki is reading in his room when he hears the front door open and Bucky tiptoe into the apartment.
He checks the clock. It’s barely after nine.
Things can’t have gone all that well.
For the first time all evening, his book manages to hold his attention.
“Another one?” Loki asks a few evenings later when Bucky emerges from his room looking entirely too smart for their usual Friday nights at the window.
“Yeah. I’m trying to get out there. You should, too.”
“I don’t see why.”
“Don’t you get lonely? Tired of only hanging out with me?”
“No. What are you saying? That you tire of my company?”
“No, that’s not it. Not even a little. I just worry sometimes...”
This makes absolutely no sense, and in lieu of more reasonable explanations, Loki has a terrifying thought. “I hope you aren’t considering forcing me into double dates the way you’ve told me you did with Steve. I’ll tell you now that I refuse.”
“No. No, I’m not angling for that.”
“Why not?” Loki asks, incensed, despite having just complained about the possibility.
“Because you’re not Steve. Because you and me aren’t Steve and me,” Bucky states with a definitive and meaningful glance that Loki thinks—hopes—is about the tension between them. But without any concrete discussion, there’s no way to be certain.
Loki goes to the movies by himself to pass the time during Bucky’s latest date. He’s so agitated that he makes the mistake of purchasing a ticket before reading the reviews. The film turns out to be utter rubbish, one of those horror films that evoke more laughter than fright. In order to salvage the evening, he begins recalling old spells he used to use to scare Thor and the servants when he was just as bored as he is now. He hasn’t had occasion to think of them in ages, but soon his lips are murmuring the words in the semi-darkness. Someone tries to shush him, probably taking him for a madman talking to himself. But the shush morphs into a gasp when what appears to be a ghost of a horse begins sauntering up the aisle of the theatre. The entire theatre screams. Even Loki is startled at first, but then he recognizes it. His illusions always belonged to a family, although few knew how to look for the resemblances. Once he realizes that it is his creation, he more consciously controls its motions with slowly growing elation.
He never expected the spell to work. It shouldn’t have worked. But it has. Which can only mean one thing. His magic is coming back, just as surely as Bucky’s memories, although on a more delayed time scale. He tries a few more spells. Only two out of four work, and the efforts leave him feeling light-headed, but there’s no doubt of his trajectory. On the walk home, he tries various old favorites, not caring—relishing, actually—the confusion of the passersby around him as stoplights change into candles and signs rewrite themselves to say wholly inappropriate phrases.
He feels like himself again. He feels like the man he was before Hydra, before the last decades at home when bitterness had consumed him. He practically skips back to his neighborhood. He’s never volunteered any information about his past before, and Bucky has never pried, but now that there’s something to tell, something impressive and real and wholly his—himself—Loki thinks he might like to. He just needs to decide how he wants to do it, the right way to ease Bucky into some of the truth. But there's no rush.
He walks up and around, ever up and around, the grandly balustraded staircase of their beaux-arts building. The elevator retro-fitted into the center passes him, going marginally faster in its rickety but well-oiled old age than Loki's languorous pace. Through the brass posts of the cage, he recognizes Bucky as its passenger. The slats create split planes out of his face, but Bucky's disheartened expression is easily enough pasted together. So engrossed is he in his trouble that he doesn’t see Loki slowly circling him.
Sloppy. And therefore worrying. Bucky is never unaware; life has robbed him of that luxury.
Loki waits a few minutes before continuing. When he finally enters the apartment, Bucky has already changed into his house clothes and removed the flesh-coloured sleeve from his arm. He’s already poured himself a beer and slumped into the soft cushions of the couch, but he’s staring into space instead of watching television as he usually does.
"You're home late," Bucky says, all forced smiles and simulated jollity when Loki walks in.
"And you are earlier than I anticipated. You told me not to expect you until morning. What happened?”
Bucky looks for a minute as though he’s going to keep up the act, but something snaps. The mask falls and he frowns. “I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I used to be so good at this. But now I keep not being able to do it.”
“Do what?” Loki takes a seat on the other end of the couch.
“Every time, we get up to her place, and we start necking and then… and then I can’t keep going. I get scared I’ll hurt her. You’ve seen me with the peanut butter jar and with the bike share stand. I’m stronger than I know sometimes. And then there’s the arm… And they start asking personal questions… I can’t… I can’t get it up…” he says helplessly, probably not meaning to divulge that last confession.
“So you haven’t actually—”
“I end up making an excuse and leaving before we’ve barely kissed.”
“Perhaps you don’t actually want it,” Loki suggests, more for his own comfort than for Bucky’s. He doesn’t expect to hear the answer he hopes for, but…
Bucky covers his face with his hands. “I don’t think I do.”
“So why do you persist?”
“I have to try. I need to know for sure I’m not just confused, and I want what I want because… I should be trying.”
Loki doesn’t understand at all, but so far, he seems to be on a roll in terms of Bucky saying what he most wants to hear, so he asks, “Would you be less nervous with a man?” and hopes his luck holds.
“I…” Bucky gulps. “I don’t know. I’ve never been with one.”
“But you would like to. You’re curious.”
“I guess. Yeah. The same problems are there, too, though. I’d be scared of hurting them too. I’m scared I’ll freak out if someone else touches me, like it’ll trigger some defensive… I don’t know.”
“You couldn’t hurt me,” Loki says, emboldened by the confidence of earlier in the evening.
“You know we can’t,” Bucky with the same incongruous casualness as the first time he ever spoke to Loki, as though they haven’t been avoiding this topic for ages.
“I don’t, actually. Why can’t we?”
“It isn’t a good idea. What if we… What if we’re just confused because there’s no one else? What if we screw this up? This can’t get screwed up, Loki.”
“We have control over that. Nothing would change unless we made it. Consider me practice. A test of your limits. A way to see if you really can do this, and a chance to be with a man without any stigma or fear.”
Bucky’s metal fingers flex; it’s endearing how even the mechanical part of him gets nervous. “You’d want to?”
Loki’s loath to put himself too far forward when Bucky might still reject him, so he pretends not to care. “If it would help you and your mood. You’ve been in a terrible one recently.”
Bucky’s face contorts this way and that, into hilarious expressions of indecision and anguish. But finally, he takes a deep breath and says, “Okay. You have to promise it won’t get weird, though.”
They stare at one another.
“I think you’ll have to come a little closer for this to work,” Loki says.
“Right.” Bucky levers himself over with his arms until he’s only half a foot away from Loki. “You can’t laugh.”
Loki has always kept his eyes open while kissing. It’s always seemed safer that way, ever since he discovered that one of the visiting princesses from Muspelheim was only pretending to like him. He likes to see the expression with which the eye-closers—the majority of kissers—lean in. He’s noticed that people are at their most honest in this moment. He’s seen his fare share of looks. Shyness, duty, drunken sloppiness…
But this is new. Loki’s never before seen a face glow with such beatific earnestness. It rather takes him aback. Instead of letting Bucky’s lips catch his, he leans back in order to keep looking, which results in Bucky losing his balance and almost toppling into Loki’s lap.
“You promised you wouldn’t laugh,” Bucky complains when Loki covers up his momentary emotion with a pretended chuckle.
“That was before I knew you would accost me like a caroler. The kiss that came upon a midnight clear.”
“What,” Bucky says, confused. He shakes his head and stands up. “I knew this was a bad idea.”
Loki’s self-defensive teasing has denied him things he’s wanted in the past, but he can’t bear to let this be one of them. He leans forward and grasps two of Bucky’s metal fingers just before he moves out of reach. It takes a millisecond longer for the sensation to reach Bucky’s brain, which is as long as Loki needs to pull him back down onto the couch.
“Keep your eyes open,” Loki says just before kissing him.
It starts awkwardly, all teeth and dry lips and Bucky’s metal hand pressing uncomfortably into the joint of Loki’s wrist. All very proper and restrained. But then Loki feels the tip of Bucky’s tongue swipe lightly against his lips, and he can’t hold back a little moan. After that, the energy shifts, and now Bucky is heaving forward, hitching his leg up on the couch and curling it halfway around where Loki sits perched. He reaches up Loki’s neck to hold his face. It takes him a second to realize which hand now rests on Loki’s cheek, but when he does, he snatches it back.
In a rare display of equivalent strength, Loki takes it and puts it back where it was. “Don’t be,” he says. He pulls the hand forward enough to suck the shiny thumb into his mouth. Bucky can’t feel it properly, but at the sight, he lets out a groan of his own.
“It doesn’t bother you?” Bucky asks.
“On the contrary.”
Bucky takes the statement as encouragement to press Loki into the cushions. He keeps kissing him, with a studious intensity that leaves Loki feeling more overcome than most of the actual sex he’s had. The beatific look is back, but Loki can’t laugh at it. For almost the first time ever, he lets his eyes close, reassured that he is in safe hands.
Lost in sensation, Loki forgets himself for a minute. He drags Bucky’s metal hand down and between them, into the waistband of his trousers. But he overestimates his own control. At the first touch to his cock, even through the cotton of his undergarments, Loki shakes with need. Finally, finally, someone is touching him, and it’s everything he’s been wanting and denying himself…
He suddenly remembers why he hasn’t done this since in so long, and all the apprehension returns in a wave. He freezes, wanting the hand away. But it’s too late. Those warm fingers have already wrapped around his hard and aching cock, thumb rubbing against the underside.
“Wait… wait…” Loki tries to say, but he can’t finish the sentence. Three tentative strokes and he’s coming. He fights it all the while, terrified of what might happen. Bucky holds him through it.
“Been awhile?” he asks with a sly yet quietly knowing smile as he wipes Loki’s come from his hand onto his shirt.
“Yes,” Loki admits as the aftershocks roll through him. He feels mortified and relaxed all at once.
“You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about,” Bucky says quietly, and then, more cheekily, “Just means I’m a natural, is all.”
Loki has never been very good at accepting kindness. With anyone else, he would lash out, but for Bucky he makes an exception. Another indulgence.
“I, on the other hand,” he forces himself to reply once he’s caught his breath, “am even more of a natural, and will therefore draw it out for you. Bedroom?”
They stumble over to Bucky’s room, which is closest to the living room. Loki wastes no time in shedding his soiled trousers. Now that’s he’s come without any adverse effects, he’s feeling less nervous. For his part, Bucky continues to kiss him as though he expects nothing else to happen. He’s so focused on sucking on Loki’s lower lip and mouthing along his jaw and tangling hot and cold fingers in his hair that Loki has to undo the fastenings of Bucky’s trousers and shirt himself. Bucky’s so absorbed in kissing the hell out of Loki (he’s also rather excellent at it) that it takes very little effort to ease him backwards and onto the bed.
Loki doesn’t give Bucky time to settle. He breaks the kiss and almost immediately has the tip of Bucky’s hard cock on his tongue, just holding it there, letting him see.
The sight that greets him back is equally worth savoring: Bucky propped up on his forearms, head curled into his chest, hair mussed and falling into his face—pushed away only by the hard, staccato exhalations through lips kissed into plump redness. He’s half in a sit-up right now, and his stomach muscles ripple every time Loki’s tongue moves a millimeter along his cock.
This is a less beatific, but just as earnest, and even more arousing sight.
Where kissing appears to be Bucky’s stock in trade, this has always been Loki’s. With men or women, his tongue has always danced as gracefully as the ballerinas of the Mariinskiy, and has been just as renowned. But never before has he wanted so badly to impress with his performance. He lavishes attention on every possible spot—at the root, swirling his tongue around the tip, letting his lips move rhythmically along the shaft. He tries to take this slow, but it’s been a long time for Bucky, too. It’s only a few minutes before he begins to sound choked, sputtering and seizing up when Loki strokes his balls. Loki grips Bucky’s ass with both hands and keeps his nose firmly buried in the musky hair, swallowing while Bucky calls out aborted versions of his name and spurts into his mouth.
“Wow,” Bucky whispers when he catches his breath, so reverently that Loki starts to wonder if even Thor has ever actually had anything compare.
Loki kisses and nibbles at Bucky’s oversensitive cock. It takes only a minor adjustment to press his index finger against the puckered hole, already wet with saliva that has dribbled down his balls.
Loki lifts his head so that he can look Bucky in the eye. “Nothing will happen that you don’t want. But you did say you wanted to know…”
Loki rubs and teases, but doesn’t penetrate. “It would be nicer with something more than saliva to ease the way.”
Bucky rolls over so he can open a drawer on the nightstand. He takes out a tube of lubricant and hands it to Loki, who regards him and it with a raised eyebrow.
“I thought you said you’d never…”
“But you’ve never attempted to take another man on a date,” he says.
“Didn’t say I was wishing for dates,” Bucky answers, looking straight at Loki with a firestorm’s worth of heat in his eyes.
Loki has always been best with his tongue, but he enjoys this game, too. Bucky doesn't need to be coaxed or told to relax or to open up; he's smart enough to figure it out on his own. But from the way he squirms and gasps, it’s likely that he has never done this, not even to himself, so Loki eases him into it before beginning to feel around for the spot that will make him understand why people truly bother.
When he thinks he’s almost found it, he backs off and asks, “How do you like it?”
“Weird. But not bad.”
“Is that all?” Loki asks evilly, and then presses against the nub. Neither the view from Heimdall’s dome nor the Pietà itself is as beautiful as Bucky’s face right now.
“Only ‘not bad’?” he asks next.
“Less jawing outta you,” Bucky huffs. “Do that again. Press there, rub, whatever you did.”
Loki does, again and again. He has to hold Bucky’s hips down with his other hand to keep him from flying off the bed when he adds a second finger. Bucky tries to regulate his breathing and grabs Loki’s shoulder with his metal hand to steady himself. He grips hard and there will be a bruise in the morning. But Loki loves the pressure, the edge of pain. Soon, he’s hard and moaning himself, even though no one is touching him. Bucky is hard, too, after only a few minutes break.
“Wait… wait, stop,” Bucky says suddenly. He shifts frantically up the bed a few inches.
Loki’s hands follow until his brain registers the ‘stop’. He slips his fingers out. “What happened? You seemed to be enjoying—”
“It was good. Really good. Then, kind of… too good? Started to feel like I was…” He shakes his head, and then with determination, sits up and reaches for Loki’s neck to pull him up, up into a kiss.
As much as he has enjoyed kissing Bucky so far, Loki isn’t ready to settle for another session of necking, not when he doesn’t know what’s gone wrong.
“It started to feel like what?” he demands.
“Like I had to piss. Talk about ruining the mood.”
Loki laughs and leans down to kiss Bucky’s brow. “You weren't going to piss. You were going to come. The confusion is relatively common, however.” He kisses the side of Bucky’s neck and whispers directly into his ear, “You were going to come simply from having me inside you, without a hand ever touching your cock.”
“I know. Let me continue and I will show you.”
Bucky huffs out a couple of breaths and then lays himself down again. “All right. Okay. I trust you.”
Loki’s instincts immediately tell him to flee, or to press on Bucky’s bladder, because Loki has always constructed his existence in such a way as to avoid engendering such sentiments. He has always run from them.
Tonight, however, he stares into Bucky’s honest, hesitant face, and slides two fingers back in.
However, almost as soon as he does, Bucky wriggles away. “Wait, no.”
“You should fuck me,” Bucky says quickly, almost as though he’s trying to say it before he can stop himself.
“You’re hard again. And I’m ready. And we’ve gotten this far. You might as well.”
“I thought you were known as something of a charmer in your previous life. I must confess, I don’t see it.”
“If it works with your fingers, it’ll work with your dick, too, right?” Only at the end does his attempt at nonchalance falter. “Don’t you want to?”
It’s hardly the desperate declaration of desire Loki has fantasized about, but he’ll take it. And he’s almost certain the desperate desire he wants really is there, lurking behind Bucky’s eyes, even if it isn’t reflected in his words.
“Tell me if it hurts,” Loki says as he squirts the lubricant onto his cock. Only when he’s lining himself up does he remember the abnormally high pain threshold they both have. So, he edits his request. “Tell me if the discomfort continues to outweigh all pleasure.”
He’s already given more than enough preparation, but Loki takes it slow, more for his own peace of mind than anything else. He watches, mesmerized, as centimeter after centimeter of his cock sinks in and disappears. Bucky is so very tight, and so warm, and Loki’s used so much lube that everything is slippery and good and… gods. Coming before took a bit of the edge off, but it’s been a very long time since he’s experienced this kind of stimulation.
“Come on, don’t hold back,” Bucky pants, bringing Loki back to the present. His jaw hangs open and his eyes are wide open, staring inscrutably at Loki’s face. The tension in his every muscle leaves no question that he’s holding back just as much as Loki is. He’s breathing only because he forcibly reminds himself to. “You don’t have to go easy on me. I can take it.”
“Perhaps this makes me an egoist—”
“—but,” Loki continues, after pausing to frown at him, “I would prefer my cock not be considered yet another ordeal you merely endure. I will go as slowly as I please.”
He makes his point by going even more excruciatingly, deliciously slowly than before. Not even his remarkable self-control can last very long, however. Once he’s all in, balls brushing against Bucky’s ass, he pulls back quickly and thrusts, hard, before he’s realized what he’s doing. He stiffens when he hears Bucky choke on a pained groan, but the way Bucky soon grabs Loki by the side of the each thigh and drags him even closer makes it clear that he doesn’t mind. Loki leans forward and rests his palms on that broad, hard chest, and lets Bucky try his best to worm Loki’s cock further in with each stroke.
“Kiss me again,” Bucky begs and dislodges Loki's hands so his face can come closer.
The position is more awkward like this, but Bucky spreads his legs that that much wider to allow Loki room. It isn’t a very good kiss, as their movements are too frenzied and rough for the kind of smooth face-sucking Bucky is so good at. It isn’t even the smooth fucking Loki usually aspires to. But having Loki’s lips pressing sloppily on various parts of his face, and his cock sliding wildly in and out seems to be enough for Bucky. His erection flagged when Loki first started to push in, but now it’s back. True to his word, Loki hasn’t laid a hand on him, though he can feel Bucky’s thick length rubbing between their sweaty stomachs.
“Loki, I’m gonna…”
“I know.” Loki plants his hands on either side of Bucky’s shoulders and raises his head up again so he can watch.
Bucky writhes as he comes, in small but far-reaching spurts, again and again, with a different pitched grunt accompanying each one. He clenches around Loki’s cock so many times that it takes only a few more thrusts before Loki is coming, too. He stops moving and simply presses as hard as he can into Bucky.
It seems to take Bucky a second to understand what this new sensation is, and why Loki has stopped moving. But once he does, his eyes go full-moon round. It’s as though only now, as he feels Loki’s come filling him up, does he fully register what they’re doing. Only now, when it’s done, does he seem to realize that he’s being fucked. He radiates such shock and wonder that even Loki feels a little overwhelmed.
The room goes still and silent. Loki pulls out and Bucky’s eyes quietly follow him the whole time.
“So, that happened,” Bucky says a minute after Loki has flopped down beside him.
Loki doesn’t know what to do with such an open-ended statement. “Indeed it did,” he replies.
He wonders if he should leave and go back to his own room. He’s never before wanted to stay. But right now he’s bone-tired, and the contrarian in him resents the uncertainty of the situation—the way Bucky’s eyes say one thing while his words say another. So, he stretches out his long limbs past the line demarcating what is strictly half of the bed. He yawns dramatically and settles in.
Bucky observes this, but says nothing. He gets up a minute later, glancing back at Loki as he heads for his bathroom. A few minutes later, after Loki hears the sink running and the hum of a toothbrush, he returns and sits on the bed, back against the headboard and legs stretched in front of him. He keeps strictly to his side.
“Well,” Loki says, simply to break the awkward silence. “Mission accomplished. Now you can go on your dates with the knowledge that nothing terrible will happen. Just mind squeezing a little too hard with your metal hand and you’ll be fine.”
“Right. My dates,” Bucky says carefully. With a strange sort of brightness, he next adds, “Mission accomplished for you, too.”
“Now you know you can get off and nothing bad will happen. You won’t hurt anyone either. And you won’t turn blue.”
Loki feels all the blood turn to sludge inside him. “Excuse me?”
“Your… you know, your thing. They woke me up a couple of times, I guess right after they’d been working on you. Once when they were putting me back, you were passed out in your cell. Looked like you—same size and shape and everything—except blue and with these lines on your face. I figured they were trying to make you into something a little different from me. But it didn’t work exactly the same and… and that happened. Like Red Skull, but a different color.”
Loki’s mind whirls. Bucky knows. Well, he’s wrong on some points, and seems to think this is a thing Hydra did to him. But the general idea, the knowledge of what lies under Loki’s skin… he knows. He’s known this entire time. And he doesn’t care. He cares so little that he willingly took Loki to his bed. Willingly cohabitates with a monster. Loki doesn’t know what to think.
“You’ve never said anything before,” he says quietly.
“You never want to talk about it. And I can tell it bothers you. But I don’t care. It doesn’t mean anything. It isn’t who you are. I mean, unless you want it to be.”
There’s another long silence, during which Loki remains all but paralyzed by this development. After a few minutes, Bucky must assume that Loki is spending the night, and also that his revelation has stopped all hope for further conversation. He switches out the lamp, flops over onto his belly, and buries his hands under his pillow.
Loki is still too stricken to respond.
The next morning, he opens his eyes to find Bucky watching him sleep.
“Yes?” he asks.
Bucky continues to stare, very seriously, across the three inches separating their noses. After a mostly companionable silence, he rolls away and out of the bed.
“I’m gonna get some breakfast,” he says, plucking dark jeans and a soft blue henley from the floor. Not last night’s clothes, but some others that are lying about, that are always festooned about the place. Bucky’s words this morning lack the usual implicit invitation for Loki to accompany him.
“All right,” Loki replies slowly. “You know what I like.”
“Yeah. I do.”
Bucky hovers at the edge of the bed. Eventually, the desire to flee—or a perfectly quotidian desire for coffee—wins the battle. Loki remains sprawled in the bed.
Their preferred café is only two blocks away, but it takes Bucky more than twenty minutes to return. When he finally appears in the doorway, he isn’t carrying anything in his hands except a StarkPad. No coffee. No pastries. Loki takes in his devastated posture, the slowness of his usually efficient movements, the ragged breathing through lips kept open by a listless jaw.
All this is very worrying. Despite Bucky’s recovery, traces of the soldier remain. The soldier was never this floppy. Bucky has not been either.
“He’s here,” Bucky says as he sits on the edge of the mattress.
“What, in Rome?” Loki asks, a split second before he remembers that Bucky sometimes refers to time as a place, distinguishing between here (now), there (before), and between (they rarely speak of it).
“No. In New York. Look.” Bucky fiddles with the video playback button on his app, pausing first to say, “Oh, I should warn you. Aliens tried to invade the planet last night. Yesterday evening there. Aliens… space aliens are real. Huge ugly fuckers dropping out of the sky, which… Yeah. But it’s all right. Steve… Steve took care of them.”
“I thought he drowned himself in the Arctic seventy years ago.” A ridiculous thing to do, Loki has always privately considered.
“He did. But, hell, I fell off a cliff seventy years ago, and I’m still here. Mostly. Loki,” Bucky says, intoning Loki’s name as hungrily as before, but in a completely different and entirely less satisfying way. He presses play on the video he has queued up. “Watch.”
Loki bites his secrets into his lower lip and schooches closer to where Bucky sits. His one foot tucks under Bucky’s thigh and the other wraps around Bucky's back. Nothing about this is comfortable, but he pretends it is. He waits for a reaction, a sign that Bucky remembers despite the excitement of the morning, despite Steve.
Bucky doesn’t seem to notice. “Look.”
Monsters are tearing apart his home city, but only one element of this amateur footage holds any interest to Bucky. Loki, meanwhile, tries to identify the creatures, and more importantly, understand how they arrived. The idea of invaders from other realms is hardly newsworthy in his mind, but he does wonder which race is bold enough to defy Asgard’s edicts about Midgard’s protection. He squints at the screen, hoping to find the answer, but of course the idiot who filmed this was not concerned with such matters.
In the third video, he identifies the leader. A leggy female with a bald head and blue skin, but too small to be a Frost Giant. In the fourth video, Loki spots a bright beam of light stretching from the top of skyscraper to a hole in the sunny New York City sky. Loki has never seen it, but he has heard tell of the Tesseract, and has read of its power. An ancient Asgardian treasure lost in the war that surrounded his birth. He recognizes its workings here. Through the opening, members of a primitive soldier race from the outer edge of the galaxy drop, one by one, into the city. An entire army’s worth. And now he sees them more clearly. He knows little more than their name, but long ago heard faint rumours of their thirst for a better, bigger realm than that which the Fates originally allotted them.
“Chitauri,” he murmurs to himself, without thinking.
“Bless you,” Bucky automatically replies. He cuts that video off and begins another one shot on a shaky cell phone. It shows a mountain of a man standing on top of a bus. He’s dressed in the tasteless, gaudy costume Loki recognizes from archival photographs—a costume so tight that the only part of his anatomy left to the imagination is his face, which is covered by a cowl. However, he compensates for the silliness of his outfit with the ferocity of his fighting.
Steve’s return is Loki’s worst nightmare come true. With terrible timing to boot.
He decides denial is the best course of action.
“How can you be certain it’s him? Perhaps this is simply a delusional yet devoted role-player.” But then the man jumps higher than any human is capable—any human save the one sitting beside him right now. “Very well,” Loki concedes. “But how can we be certain the army has not simply found a new test subject?”
“This is him. Those are Steve’s moves. You can’t copy that brand of stupid.”
Loki is about to respond with a choice bit of sarcasm when a flash of red hurtles into the screen. But the video ends, just then. Presumably even the kind of idiot who films instead of fleeing an alien invasion can no longer ignore the fact that he is about to be killed. The video ends before the new face enters the screen, but the swooshing cape and whirling hammer are all Loki needs to be as certain of this man’s identity as Bucky is of the one in the cowl.
“Are there more? More of these videos?” Loki asks. He can hear himself sounding almost as ragged as Bucky, who innocently takes this reaction as shared excitement about Steve.
“Yeah. Steve…. He saved the whole planet, Loki. As far as I can tell.”
“He appears to have had help,” Loki snaps, even less patient for Bucky’s odes to Steve now that Thor is also here. His mind whirls. How can Thor be here? Is the Bifrost repaired? Has Odin found new magic…?
They watch as many videos as have been posted, but there are more being posted all the while. They watch repeats of news broadcasts from around the world. They learn of how the Earth was saved by Captain America (no name given aside from the title), Iron Man, two remarkably agile humans who gave no name and disappeared into the shadows, a green giant… and Thor.
They discover that a press conference was held only an hour ago, in which Thor introduced himself as a visitor from a different realm than the invaders, this time a friendly one called Asgard. They watch as he jumps straight in, as he always has and probably always will, not stopping to think that the people of this planet, who have known nothing about the realms beyond until today, are likely still in shock. The reporters glean what little they can from his strange greetings—perfectly, if hilariously, understandable to Loki, but headache-inducingly confusing to the mortals—and then ask why he is here today.
“We of Asgard pledged, millennia ago, when you mortals were but cave and hut dwellers, to protect you, since you possessed not the means to defend yourselves. We have saved you before, once when I was but a child in skirts. Today, my father sent me here again to save you. Yours is a precious realm, containing those… those who are precious to me.” Thor walks right up to the camera and grips it with both hands, the way he used to grip Loki’s head when they were younger, as though he’s trying to see Loki through it. “My hope is that it will not be long until we meet again.”
The newscaster assumes the statement is about her, and, from off-screen somewhere, proceeds to simper and stutter in reply. Thor continues to gaze balefully into the camera. All that shows on the screen is his nose.
Loki half groans, half laughs, a combination response that used to happen frequently but which he has not experienced in decades.
“What’s with this guy, right?” Bucky asks.
“He is a fool,” Loki replies fondly, more out of habit than truth.
“I don’t know. He only just got here. I don’t know if I was any better when I first woke up here. But he sure can fight. Let me see if I can find the video this woman was watching in line in the coffee shop, when I found out about all this. Steve does this thing, you see…” He starts another video. Thor is already gone from his mind.
Bucky rewinds and rewinds to watch Steve punching Chitauri in the face as he, according to Bucky’s second-hand stories, used to punch costumed Hitlers.
“Loki, we’ve gotta… I gotta…”
“I’ll get us on the first flight to New York that I can,” Loki says, watching Thor just as hungrily as Bucky watches Steve, but with a sinking despair in the pit of his stomach. “In the meanwhile, I would still like a coffee.”
Bucky and Loki have never left anything behind nor returned to a place once they have left it. But Bucky makes no move to pack and discard as he has in the past. Loki assumes it is yet another symptom of his Steve-induced distraction.
JFK and LaGuardia are closed while the city assesses the damage, but Loki finds two seats on a flight to Newark. The last-minute nature of their tickets means that they cannot sit together on the long flight from Fiumicino. From three rows back, he can see Bucky’s knee shaking into the aisle.
When they arrive, the televisions still have the press conference playing on a loop. Thor is on every television they pass, which is many.
“All right, all right,” Bucky says, gripping Loki’s elbow and trying to pull him along. “I get he’s good looking, but pick your jaw up off the floor.”
Loki feels his features curl into a horrified sneer as he turns to look at Bucky. “You think I find him attractive?”
“Well, yeah. Hell, I don’t blame you, but we gotta keep moving.”
“I…” Loki doesn’t begin to know what to say. And now he’s jealous, but for a real reason, instead of Bucky’s mistaken one.
They haven’t even encountered him yet, and already Thor’s light has begun to draw Bucky’s attention. Eight hours in coach (never again) have been long enough for his brain to catch up to him and begin spinning all the possibilities in his mind. Most of them involve Bucky finding Steve and leaving him. Now there’s Thor and…
He can see where this is going. He’s seen it since the moment Bucky first returned from his failed breakfast run.
He makes a show of being absorbed in his guidebook during the train ride from Newark airport to Penn Station, evaluating hotels and studying the subway map. He looks up only when the entirety of the car gasps. The train has turned a bend, revealing the skyline for the first time. Thick ash blankets Midtown in the distance, but the scale of the destruction is clear. Loki glances at Bucky, who stares impassively at the wreckage of his birthplace, which he has not seen since leaving for war.
They’ve never been in the habit of enquiring of one another, “Are you all right?” Such a question has always seemed insufficient and irrelevant in the face of where they’ve been. Loki doesn’t ask now, but Bucky answers anyway, eyes still fixed on the window.
“There are a lot more buildings than I remember.”
The NYPD have corded off the epicenter of the attack with yellow police tape. Loki has always found this practice an amusing indicator of the docility of humans. Even the weakest of them could bend down and under if they so choose, but almost none ever do.
None except him and Bucky, who quickly locates the base of the rescue squad’s operations and liberates two uniforms for them to wear. They make their way through rubble and bodies—humans and Chitauri—strewn about like the aftermath of a fancy dress party that has gotten far, far out of hand. A platoon of guards are checking identification outside the revolving door entrance to Stark Tower, which means that entrance is off-limits to them. However, the police and SHIELD soldiers have, understandably, have not planned for beings that can leap between roofs of wildly disparate heights separated by considerable distances.
(But perhaps after yesterday’s alien invasion, they should begin planning for everything).
“I don’t see any workable options,” Bucky says, squinting into the early evening sunlight from where they stand across the street. “Either we land on the… twelve, thirteen, fourteen… the terrace on the fourteenth floor, where there are a ton of guards. Or we jump and pray we can hold onto the side of the building in order to climb up forty stories without a safety. Except I don’t see much to hold onto.”
“The terrace is obviously the preferable option.”
“What about the guards? There are too many of them, even for us. There’s no way to incapacitate them without killing them. And no way are they going to believe I really am Captain America's buddy, returned from the dead. We'll be arrested and Steve'll never hear about it.”
Loki feels a surge of power pulse through him, collecting in his hands. He didn’t plan to tell Bucky this way—he hasn’t had a chance to plan for it at all—but perhaps this will do. He’s always preferred unexpected demonstrations of skill over verbal explanations. Invisibility is among the easiest skills in his repertoire; his magic is still recuperating, but he thinks he can manage this.
“What if I told you that we can land on that roof, and not a single one of those guards will acknowledge our presence?”
“I’d say you tell me a lot of crap, on a regular basis.”
“You said last night that you trusted me.”
It’s the first time either of them has acknowledged what happened.
“Yeah.” Bucky’s agreement is a definitive statement, but a question lingers as to why Loki is asking now.
“Then take the leap. Make your way through that door leading inside. You will not have to fight a single guard, I promise. I shall join you presently.”
Bucky looks between Loki and the terrace, and back again. “Is this your weird Loki way of asking if it was good for me, too?”
It is, in a sense, but Loki is hardly about to admit it. “Try to ensure you land apart from where the guards are standing. It won’t work if you collide with them.”
Bucky goes on tiptoes to gauge where the best spot to land might be, and changes his angle accordingly. He backs up, all the way to the far side of the roof, takes a quick stretch, and then he’s running too fast to see Loki’s fingers directing pale, pale tendrils of invisibility towards him. As soon as he assumes Bucky has made his way for the door, Loki harnesses the magic into himself and makes the same jump.
“You have a cloaking device,” Bucky’s posits once they’ve reunited in what turns out to be a stairwell and located each other by feeling around. “That’s the big secret?”
“No, I have a seidr.”
“Which is… a cloaking device?” Bucky asks, annoyingly literal-minded today.
“Which is a natural-born aptitude for sorcery.”
Loki can’t actually see Bucky’s raised eyebrow, but he can almost hear it.
“An aptitude,” he continues, “which, with proper study and practice, can be applied to illusions and invisibility. It is an aptitude that is most rare, though not unheard of in my race.” Loki tries not to wince when he hears his slip. “In… either race, actually,” he finishes quietly, noting that this is the first time he’s ever admitted the truth aloud.
“Race?” Bucky asks. “I don’t know what country you’re from, if it’s England or somewhere else in Europe, but…”
“I am not from England,” Loki explains, but feels himself losing his nerve. “I am not from anywhere you consider real.”
“Are you saying you’re just in my head?” Bucky asks the question as though he’s wondered many times before.
“No.” This is going more poorly than even Loki’s most uncomfortable expectations.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Bucky asks after a moment’s awkward and invisible silence.
“Yes, of course.”
“Is this tied up with the blue thing? Are you telling me about it now because I told you I know?”
“I don’t know,” Loki answers to the first question, and then, “No,” to the second.
The door opens, and four guards pass within an inch of where he stands. One must run into Bucky, for he stops, stares at thin air, and shakes his head before continuing on his way.
“What’s the problem, Len?” one guard asks.
“Nothin’. Just need another cup of coffee, I think. I’m more tired than I realized.”
Once he’s secured Bucky’s cold metal fingers again, Loki leads them down the corridor, after the soldiers.
“I’ll catch you guys later. Gotta report upstairs for Cap-guarding duty,” another guard announces.
Bucky squeezes Loki’s fingers to signal, “They know where he is!” and Loki squeezes back to reply, “Yes, I know, I’m not deaf.”
“Don’t see what he needs guarding for. Who’s stupid enough to take on Captain America? Especially when big, blond and alien is around, too,” another soldier says.
“The job’s more about keeping nosy reporters away than actual threats.”
“How long’s this going to go on for?”
“Indefinitely, as far as I can tell. Stark’s making moves to house as many of his super-pals here as he can. And it’s not like the Cap has anywhere else to go. Everyone he knows is ninety-five or dead.”
“What floor, Len?”
Bucky seems about to go into the elevator with them, but Loki holds him back.
“What the hell? I wanted to ride with them,” Bucky complains. “They’re going to where Steve is.”
“The space was too small. They would have felt our presence. I suggest we take the stairs.”
The information and the promise of Steve being near bring the giddy sound back to Bucky’s voice. “All right.”
Loki leads the way, but he’s already made up his mind what he’s going to do. He lets Bucky go into the stairwell first, releases the invisibility spell, and then lets the door close between them. These kinds of buildings only allow re-entrance to the floors with a key-card that Bucky doesn’t have. He hears Bucky knock on the door, but ignores it.
He should have left a long time ago, he tells himself, before he had a chance to get hurt. He knew he would, although he hadn’t expected it to be exactly this. But now, Steve has come back to claim his friend and Bucky will surely see that this chapter of his life was simply an intermission. And now Thor is here, too, so close and rocking Loki’s carefully constructed existence here with the simple storm of his presence.
He makes his way to the roof. There are a few soldiers up there, but no one sees him. As he expected, no one has yet dismantled the equipment that harnessed the Tesseract’s energy. They don’t know how. He identifies a few lingering tendrils of teleportational power. It takes a few tries, but he finally latches on to one of the tendrils and mouths an old, old spell. There isn’t much choice in the direction, but he does manage to steer away from the most direct route, away from the place where the annihilated Chitauri must be drifting.
He takes one last look at Midgard before the void closes behind him.
The humans weren’t the first race to think of seaside resorts, and they won’t be the last. In other realms, vacation spots even come without mosquitos and those annoying early risers who claim the best lounge chairs with towels before breakfast.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Loki’s seat at the bar, overlooking the still, pink sea at the foot of the pebbly cliffs outside. He was exceedingly fortunate to land on this pleasant backwater planet in the realm of Niflheim. There are so many worse places he could have found himself, and with beings who hated him. But here, he’s been very well-treated, and no one knows who he is.
However, he’s never been more bored or more ill at ease. Never lonelier. He considers trying to take over the planet, simply for something to do, but always dismisses the idea; ruling would be even duller than this.
At least the drinks work properly here, and he doesn’t have to ferment them himself. Not that drinking makes him feel any better. The liquor of this world makes him gloomy and pathetically nostalgic.
He’s staring off into the distance (there is no horizon here, as the world is flat, so he can actually make out the land mass leagues and leagues away), when he notices a figure appear in the corner of the terrace. He tells himself it’s only a trick of his eyes, a passing resemblance, but the sense of recognition persists. There’s also the fact that everyone else startles and stares, too.
Loki takes a real look and blinks, because it cannot be. His first thought is that he has finally, truly gone mad, and is now seeing things.
It’s Bucky. Bucky, moving towards his table with a determined, if nervous, gait, peripheral vision working at capacity as he tries not to stare at all the beings around him. He pulls out the chair facing Loki’s, spins it around and sits down, propping his forearms on the high back.
“You’re a grade-A piece of work, you know that?”
“You told me as much during our first conversation,” Loki manages to say, with an admirable, if not wholly perfect, simulation of calm.
“What part of ‘promise me this won’t make things weird’ didn’t you understand?”
“How are you here?”
“Well, it didn’t take long for Steve to piece together that the guy I was telling him about was the same brother Thor wouldn’t shut up about. It explained a hell of a lot. A lot of stuff you never bothered to mention. And I was sore—real fucking furious—with you, for a long fucking time.”
“It’s only been five months,” Loki points out. But inside, he’s glowing, because Bucky only swears like this when he’s properly emotional.
“Well, it’s felt like longer. Don’t smile, you dick,” he says when he catches Loki’s expression. “You left. You fucking left. You left me locked in a fucking stairwell. Do you know how long I was stuck in there until security spotted me on a camera? I looked for you, but I knew. I knew you were gone. Anyway, so a week or so ago, this light comes down, like out of a goddamn movie, and then your crazy brother’s looming over me, and this hot lady’s crying all over me about her beloved son who had to be banished—”
“Did you just refer to my mother as you would to a potential conquest?”
“And it’s a whole meet-the-family nightmare, except with aliens and royalty and shit, about a guy I’m not even fucking dating, and who fucking left.”
“I’m certain you handled the situation with aplomb.”
“‘Course I did. I’m outta practice, but I was always ace with mothers. She sat me down and took me through the equivalent of your baby photos—”
“She didn’t. She wouldn’t.”
Bucky grins. “Oh yeah. She did. And she gave me this.”
Loki looks at the object Bucky holds out to him. “A transporter. With a piece of the Bifrost embedded in it.” He cringes with embarrassment when he flips it over. “And a bit of fluff from my favorite pillow. To what? Track me down?”
“To guide me, she said. To your heart or some cheesy shit. It was up to me, she said, since the rules of the banishment or something mean she and Thor can’t get you themselves. She told me to practice with it before taking a long trip—before looking for you—just to make sure I don’t get lost or stuck or something. It’s been pretty useful so far for when traffic’s backed up.”
Bucky seems different today, more complete. And with a bit more Brooklyn in his voice than there was before. Due to his time with Steve, no doubt. But not even Loki can begrudge him this—this quietly radiating… okayness, for lack of a more sophisticated articulation.
“Are you ready to go home, or are you gonna sulk a little longer?” Bucky asks after Loki has turned the transporter over and over in his hands without responding.
“Home? I can’t go home. Surely they explained that to you. And I am not sulking.”
“Yes, you are.” Bucky holds out a hand.
The choice is an easy one. Loki lets himself be pulled through a gash in space, through the cold emptiness of the in-between, and then back into warmth. Familiar warmth. Italian warmth, in fact. By the smell of discarded coffee grinds, Loki recognizes the location as the alley behind the gym. Only now does he understand where Bucky meant by ‘home’. He didn’t mean Asgard, and he didn’t mean New York. He didn’t mean the past. He meant here, now, in the life they shared together.
“What about Steve?” Loki’s stomach drops at the thought of returning to his apartment to find Steve’s things in his vacated bedroom.
“Steve’s got some stuff to work through, same as I did. I’ve been helping him through it. This teleporter thing has already been a big help. We can visit really easily now, every day. He wants to stay in the States, for now at least. And that’s fine. That’s what he needs. But I like what I’ve got here. Or what I think I’ve got.” He pauses. “It was, by the way.”
“Good for me,” Bucky clarifies. “You left before I had a chance to make that clear.”
“You had an entire day.”
“A day full of alien invasions and returned-from-the-dead best friends. Cut me some slack. Especially since you spent the whole time pretending you could take it or leave it.”
“You did as well.”
“You’re right. I did. I made it weird, too. It’s not all on you, and I’m not saying it is. But at least I didn’t leave you in a stairwell.”
Loki nods, which is as close as he’s ever come to a true apology for anything. Bucky seems to accept it, and with it, an assumption of a return to what had been their ‘normal’.
Or, rather, not quite normal. More like something new, of which they had only just breached the cusp before their separation. For he steps into closer, toes of his boots nipping at the toes of Loki's, close enough for a challenge, for a question. He tilts his head up slightly, cocky and inviting, daring.
“Am I right?” he whispers, lips so close to Loki's.
“About what?” Loki stammers back.
“About what I've got here.”
The kiss practically starts itself, the distance between them negated, as if by the Tesseract itself. This is different from that awkward, doubting first kiss, months ago. This is a promise, and Loki does not break, does not move. With his lips, and by skirting his hand around Bucky's waist to draw him closer, he gives the assurances that he should have given long ago.
“Break’s almost over,” Bucky pants once they stop for air. “I’ll see you inside?”
Loki nods, still breathless. Bucky dons the Mets cap he habitually wears at work and disappears into the service entrance.
Loki enters the café through the front door. He doesn’t have his laptop today, but on his way to his seat, he picks up one of the newspapers on a stick.
“What are your plans for this evening?” Loki asks as he passes by the coffee station.
“What do you think?” Bucky winks with delicious lascivity.
An American tourist, immediately identifiable by his awkwardly fitting khakis, running shoes, and baseball cap, sits at Loki’s usual table. The café doesn’t attract a lot of American tourists (the only guidebook in which this place appears to have been written up is the German-language Michelin) but this man appears to have found the place.
“This table is reserved,” Loki says, intending to intimidate the man away, no matter how hulking his frame.
The man stands up in a hurry, knocking over a nearby chair. And out of the corner of his eye, Loki sees Thor come out of the rest room, bursting even more out of his own American tourist togs. He’s never been able to go incognito. But Loki doesn’t even have time to react, because the first man sticks a hand in front of his face.
“Hey, I’m Steve. I’ve heard a lot about you.”