The night was far too warm and humid to sleep, and Loki decided to spend it on the Barton veranda, drinking cold lemonade and watching the stars.
Tomorrow they planned to leave for Manhattan, so Loki could be there when Steve woke up. The thought made his fingers tremble against the glass, wondering what Steve would think. Would he despise Loki for letting him crash? Would he be angry that Loki had caused him to miss so many years of his life?
Of course he would be. Why wouldn’t he be?
What if he didn’t remember Loki at all? No one knew what would happen to a mortal in such long hibernation.
But he reminded himself that he owed Steve, so he would be there. But obligation was only part of it; he wanted to be there, see his friend again, and help him, if he could.
The bugs buzzed around him so incessantly it took a moment to realized that tickling he felt was something else.
Someone was scrying him, and as soon as he noticed, the sense of familiarity made the identity plain, as well. It was Frigga trying to get his attention.
For an instant he felt a wild surge of longing for her presence – to see her, feel her touch, to hear her voice – until that happiness was doused in reality. Cold rage smothered the warmth as his hand clenched, crushing the cup so the remaining liquid and ice spilled out over the glass shards.
How dare she? How dare she try to contact him now, when it was all over? What did she expect, that he would fall all over himself with gratitude that she’d remembered she had another son? Was it finally convenient to reach him, now that Thor was safely home and no doubt filling her more gentle heart with regret that she’d abandoned Loki in his hour of need?
Well, he didn’t need her now. It was too late, and he was done with her, with Odin, and with Asgard.
He spun the seidr threads into a shield and slammed it between them, hard enough to fling her back. Then, he tied it off so she would stay away from him. He didn’t want to hear anything she had to say: no excuses, no explanations, no protestations. Nothing.
Let her know what it felt like to call and not be answered.
He headed down the steps and out into the fields, knowing he had to work off this fury that knotted itself in his chest before it choked him. There was too much boiling beneath his skin, but worse, if he let it settle there, it would turn cold again, hate and anger freezing out better emotions.
He remembered Elsa’s voice, making him promise not to let his heart get frozen again, and though he’d failed her after Steven had vanished, he would try this time to do better.
He stopped beneath the trees that marked the edge of the western field, far away from any other people. One hand grabbed a thick branch until the wood creaked.
He cast his gaze upon the darkness of the fields and vowed:
I will remember Lila and Cooper, and Elsa and Anna, and Steven and James and Margaret who reminded me of friendship and love, despite neglect and pain. I will remember them, and I will not let the darkness consume me. I will not become the monster I was born to be, no matter how the Norns keep trying to force me to that path.
He dug his fingers so hard into the bark the joints twinged and throbbed, reminding him of his previous injuries, and he had to let go, letting out a breath as he shook both hands to get the blood moving again and try to put the memories aside.
Making a slow circuit around the house, he told himself it was a sweep to check the perimeter. That sounded useful though he knew it was not necessary when few people knew this place existed.
Oh, but that’s not true is it? Fury knows. He could be Hydra. One of those close to him could be Hydra. They could be out there, getting ready to assault this house. Helicopters, gas, bombs... they have so many more choices than they did back in Schmidt’s day.
He stopped walking again, knowing he was working himself into a panic over nothing. They weren’t coming for him. They didn’t know he was here. Logically, even if they did, enough of them were dead they couldn’t mount an operation so quickly after Strucker had been taken down. Natasha had told him that, and he knew she believed it was true.
Relax, breathe, stop imagining the worst, he told himself. Remember what Natalya showed you in the hospital. Breathe slowly, concentrating on each inhalation and each exhalation, one after another. I am not there, and my enemies are dead.
In the dark, away from anyone to see, he pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead as if to push the memories out of his mind, as he concentrated on counting between each breath and ignoring the tightness in his throat. The effort worked and he managed to slow his heart back to normal and take easier breaths.
Weary but not willing to sleep, he returned to his seat on the veranda and decided to wait out the sunrise.
In the morning, Laura presented him with an empty duffel bag. “For your things.”
“Do I have things?” he asked, curious.
“Clothes? Those are yours. And your toothbrush.” She smiled impishly. “Please don’t say you don’t brush your teeth. I need a good example for Cooper.”
He raised both hands, giving in. He glanced at the boy. “I most certainly do clean my teeth, and so should you.”
Lila held up her flower picture. “You wanna take this, right? I made it for you.”
He took it from her, handling only the edges. “Of course. I was always going to have that with me,” he promised her. “But I didn’t think I needed a great big bag for one picture.”
“What about Blue Bear?” she asked and held up her blue stuffed animal. “He keeps bad dreams away. You should have him.”
He bit his lip, feeling utterly flayed against the little girl’s innocent concern. She knew about his bad dreams, even though he hadn’t let himself have one since Thor had left. But he wouldn’t lie to her either, so he knelt on the floor to face her big eyes and pushed Blue Bear against her. “That is a kind thought, Lila. But Blue Bear is your special friend.”
“But if you--” she started.
He touched her nose to halt her words. “Could you draw me a picture of him? I think that would work as well.”
He eyes lit up and she nodded and scampered straight to her drawing area on the kitchen table.
“She’s gonna miss you, y’know,” Clint said to him, when Loki was back on his feet.
“And I will miss her,” Loki said, folding his arms as he watched her draw. Something in his heart always eased around the children, especially small Lila and her winsome face. “I would never have expected that a year ago, but I am glad, nonetheless.”
“Make sure you come back for her birthday party,” Laura told him and teased, “I won’t even make you be the party magician.”
Loki returned the jest, letting his lips curl into a smirk. “Oh, I could entertain them. I know many tricks.”
“And how many are appropriate for a group of six year olds?” Clint retorted.
Loki flicked his fingers and scoffed, “Today’s mortal children are so sheltered. They can handle more than you believe.” He thought of the violent executions he’d seen different children watch and yet he gave no examples out loud, so Lila couldn’t hear. She could handle it, but why should she? And of course, he had no wish to frighten the other children, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t pull a trick or two. Rabbits out of top hats seemed a fairly basic requirement of Midgardian magicians, and since rabbits reminded him of the book, he could summon one. Or perhaps something more interesting.
Clint and Laura exchanged a look, as Natalya touched his arm. “I think just being there would be gift enough. You should pack your things, so we can get into the city before traffic gets worse.”
He heaved a sigh, so she would know he was acceding only because he didn’t want to argue, and took the bag to the guest room. He packed the clothes and the toiletries that had ended up his, though with his powers back he had no true need of any of it. He supposed it made the Bartons feel better that they weren’t sending him away with nothing. But truly, the only thing he wanted was the flower picture Lila had made for him.
He ended up with that picture as well as the blue blot that was supposed to be Blue Bear, and a book that Cooper had hesitantly offered when Loki asked if there was anything he could have from Cooper as well. It was a popular children’s book that Loki knew about vaguely; he was pleased
The best thing he took with him was the memory of Lila’s fierce hug, and his memory treacherously reminded him of Elsa’s embrace when she’d bid him farewell. He’d intended to return after that, but time had slipped past as it always did in Asgard, and he’d never seen her alive again.
His throat closed up around the thought that Lila might also die before he saw her again. And he inhaled a deliberate breath to settle his fears and smiled at her. “I will return for your birthday party, I promise. I will search for a suitable gift.”
“I want a lightsaber!” she exclaimed. “And a pony. And drums!”
In a mild tone, Clint murmured through his smile, “FYI, I will murder you if you give her a drum kit.”
Well then he knew exactly what to get, didn’t he? His eyes met Lila’s, and when he grinned, she burst into peals of laughter. The sound stayed in his ears well down the road, heading for the city.
“Oh,” Lukas said, and leaned into the window to watch the skyline of New York as it came into view across the water.
Tucked into the backseat behind him as Clint drove, Natasha smiled. He sounded so impressed. It was always a treat when his ancient cynicism was overcome by something new and surprising. “You haven’t seen New York before?”
“It has been some time. It is very... big now.”
“Much bigger than it was in the forties, that’s for sure,” Clint agreed.
Lukas leaned back in his seat, now able to admire the view through the windshield. “I was not in America during the war. I was last here in,” he paused to consider, “Seventeen-- I forget the year. I was invited by Benjamin Franklin, whose acquaintance I had made in London. As much as I despise aeroplanes, I am glad we need not travel by sail any longer. That was genuinely the worst.”
Clint darted a look at him. “You knew Benjamin Franklin? Are you serious?”
Lukas looked at him as if he suddenly doubted Clint’s intelligence. “I told you I was interested in pushing forward science in that era. How could I not know him? I stayed briefly in the Colonies, and I doubt I am even remembered.”
Natasha pulled out her phone and went to wikipedia. “Let’s see. What name did you have then?”
He tapped his fingers on the window sill until he came up with it, “Luc de Veiully, a scholar of natural sciences.”
Curious, she typed it in and searched. “Nope, you’re wrong. There’s a page on Wikipedia.”
Clint barked a laugh. “How many times is he in there?”.
“Four so far, counting the Ice Demon,” she answered absently as she read. “It says you were an influential abolitionist.” She frowned. “You protested slavery?”
“Influential? It says that?” Lukas asked, surprised, but pleased. “Well, good. It is a vile practice throughout the Realms, and Asgard does not approve. But my main intent was to refute the idea of some human races being somehow inferior by nature. I,” he hesitated briefly, glancing upward, and when he spoke, it was with a tension in his voice of something deeply personal, “I have a great loathing for such arguments, misusing science to bolster such harmful lies. You are all human, and your surface differences are negligible.” Aware that he’d let the conversation get heavy, he shot a smug look over his shoulder and teased, “You are all equally inferior.”
She thwapped the back of his head with her water bottle, and he chuckled, reaching back. She let him find her knee and give it a squeeze in apology. “So, what else does it say?” he prompted. “That I was devilishly clever? Mysterious and handsome?”
She rolled her eyes. “No. There’s not much really, just that you were a part of the scientific circle for about a decade and only a few letters survive after your visit to America. I assume you changed identities?”
He nodded. “When I went back to Europe, I did not return to London. Some had noticed my appearance was unchanging, and it was best to disappear. I went east to wander Persia and meet their mathematicians, before I heard a story about the Snow Queen and that drew me north again.”
Natasha listened to his matter-of-fact recitation of living in the 1700s and inwardly shook her head. She lived in strange times. But she thought Laura had the right idea: they needed to get Lukas to start writing things down. His knowledge should be preserved. It could be a valuable legacy for the Ice Demon-- someone who remembered real history and who had known people who were otherwise only names in a book.
The city’s charm wore off for Lukas as soon as they hit traffic and crawled through the tunnel. “Is there no other way?” he complained when they had barely moved for five minutes.
“There is, but you didn’t want to take the train,” Clint reminded him.
Lukas blew out a breath and folded his arms. “Flying cars,” he muttered. “I will work on it with Stark. He is already close with his repulsors. We will make it happen, for your transportation sorely needs to, as Cooper says, level up.”
“I don’t know, do we need to make Stark richer?” Clint asked.
“I can’t do it on my own,” Lukas pointed out. “And I will not give it to any government to isolate into weaponry.”
She had to nod agreement with that. She knew SHIELD’s first impulse would be to control that technology into the quinjets and other armament, and that was trusting that Nick Fury had good intentions. Recent events had proven his organization was not as pure as any of them had hoped, and she trusted SHIELD a lot more than she trusted any other government agency.
Clint nodded. “Well, I can’t argue with anything that’ll let me drive my car up and over all these morons. But then morons will have those cars, too.”
“Yes, I am aware.” Lukas sighed. The silence held for a moment, while Lukas glowered at the traffic ahead of them. He tapped his fingers on the window, bored and increasingly restless. Finally, he asked, “Do you have any objections to slipping out of this reality? I can shift the car enough for us to drive through.”
“That would be great--” Clint started.
Natasha, a little more used to magical things and their costs, asked, “Why would we have objections?”
Lukas glanced at her and wrinkled his nose. “It can be strange and bothersome; I am not certain how tolerable it is for mortals.”
“But not dangerous?”
She didn’t like that he had to think about it before answering. “Dangerous in the way all magic is dangerous, I suppose. Unforeseen consequences are something of a given, I’m afraid. But mostly I expect unpleasantness.”
“Alright,” Clint said. “Fire it up. If it’s too terrible, you can bring us back out, right?”
“Certainly.” Lukas reached out to lay his hand where the door met the frame, near the mirror. He inhaled a deep breath and let it out slowly. As he did so, a greenish flicker appeared on the back of his hand and at his fingertips. It spread outward, racing along Natasha’s window to the back, barely visible except as a small flame like a stove set low and crackled as it passed.
When the flames met at the opposite corner, the wave of intense cold washed across and through her, and something flashed, as out of the corner of her eyes, not quite seen.
But the change was far more obvious outside the car. A distortion rippled around them, bending the sidewalk and the bodega. The signage changed to something unreadable and strange. Another wave of distortion took the building away and for a split second, she saw empty land of trees and grass. A different brick building appeared and vanished again, to become the bodega again.
“Whoa,” Clint said. “Was that a horse?”
“Drive,” Lukas commanded through gritted teeth. “Forward.”
Clint stepped on the gas gingerly, nudging the car up against the bumper of the car in front of them. It flickered into three different cars and into a wagon, and then they were inside it.
Natasha’s stomach roiled with nausea at the sensation, as the wrongness shivered across her skin.
“Oh, God, you’re sure this isn’t hurting them?” Clint asked.
“We’re not existing at the moment,” Lukas explained tightly. “You can go faster.”
Clint pressed on the gas, and the flickers and distortions came faster, things there and then gone nearly too fast to comprehend.
She glimpsed buildings made all of metal, some made of stone, some of curves and colors that looked wrong. There was lava, and once there was a flash of nothingness, just a void, as if the entire world had disappeared out from under them.
Clint braked at something, and while they were slow again, a face pressed to the glass – leathery grey skin and yellow eyes, nothing human at all – and she threw herself back with her fists up to protect her face, wishing she had on her tac suit.
But then it was gone, and she blew out a relieved breath. “What was that?”
“Different dimensions, not all of them pleasant. Just be glad I didn’t do this in the tunnel. Underground is always worse,” Lukas replied dryly. “Two hundred meters more, then be ready.”
Clint’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, and she had one last glimpse of a smoky dark sky and huge bat-winged creatures, before abruptly it all reverted with another greenish flash.
They were back into traffic, ordinary brick buildings to one side of the street, park on the corner… a horn blared to the right and she heard the squeal of brakes. She braced for impact, as Clint stomped on the gas, shoving them forward out of the intersection and across the red light.
“Jesus! That was close.”
Lukas settled back in his chair and observed blandly, “Traffic seems better.”
“That was some weird shit. I never want to see that again,” Clint declared, voice ragged and one hand gesturing in Lukas’ direction.
Natasha patted Clint’s shoulder. “Good job, partner.” But she was more curious about what she’d seen. “Were those alternate realities? Times that could have been?”
“Some,” Lukas answered. “Others are dimensions that exist apart from time. Usually I would pick one of those to travel through, since I lose no time emerging, but with so much to bring with me, it was easier to stay on the border of our own and let the others slide against us. I hope it was not too disturbing?” he glanced back at her. “You both handled it well.”
“It was weird,” Natasha answered, “but fascinating to see all the differences. Some had Manhattan, and some felt like they weren’t Earth at all.”
“Still getting used to this ‘magic’ thing,” Clint said and shuddered violently. “There wasn’t much in your bio about you doing stuff like this.”
“I didn’t use it much in the war,” Lukas said. “I didn’t want them to know what more I could do.”
She didn’t know if “them” were Hydra or the SSR, but she guessed it probably didn’t make much difference. But he trusted her and Clint enough to demonstrate to them, so she wouldn’t betray that trust by revealing it and she knew Clint wouldn’t either.
The remainder of the trip was ordinary and uneventful, and she leaned back to enjoy Manhattan as it should be.
Loki cursed his own impatience that had caused him to reveal a form of teleportation. He stared out the window, and regretted not tolerating traffic longer, instead of making his impetuous offer. He shouldn’t have done it. After a few minutes of brooding over his mistake, he sighed to himself. He couldn’t take it back now, but he’d have to be more careful.
He saw little he recognized of the city, but since he had memorized the rather simple map, it was not difficult to track where they were, even if he wasn’t sure where they were going until they arrived.
Barton pulled up to the curb. “Here we go. SHIELD New York HQ, conveniently located near Times Square for that extra tourist flavor.”
It looked like an ordinary office building, grey stone and glass, marked only by the number above the glass doors. “C’mon,” Natasha urged him, as she shoved open the back door. As soon as the doors shut, Barton waved and pulled away to find a place for his car.
There was nothing outside that said SHIELD, but Loki felt it seemed too official and the security visible within the glass was too heavily armed. The sight of tactical gear made his throat close up.
Natasha noticed he’d paused and touched his back. At his inquiring glance, she murmured, “I’m with you.”
Which was more reassurance than it should be, since it wasn’t as if she’d been able to keep them away from him last time. But he was not as he was then, and he needed to be strong. “Shall we test if Fury believed me about keeping his staff in line?” Loki asked lightly.
“He believed you,” she answered, taking his question seriously.
“I hope so.” He headed for the door, and held it for her to enter first.
She headed directly for the door-like scanning machine and walked through, displaying an ID card to the guards on duty. When she was through, she beckoned him to follow. As he approached, the magnetic field was uncomfortably strong and he balked. “No.”
“It’s a metal detector,” Natasha explained.
“For weapons, sir,” one of the guards explained. “If you just step through...”
“Weapons?” Loki repeated and smirked, summoning a dagger to his hand as he reached beneath his jacket. “You mean like this?”
The guard reacted, stepping back and putting a hand on his gun. “Put the knife down, sir. No weapons are permitted inside the facility.”
Loki flicked his fingers and sent it away. “What knife?” They did not seem reassured when it disappeared.
“Lukas,” Natasha said in a reproving tone, but he ignored it.
“I will carry all the weapons I wish, and I will not be prodded or poked or scanned,” he retorted sharply.
A male voice from behind Natasha cut in. “He’s cleared to enter on my authorization.”
The nearer guards snapped to attention. “Agent Coulson.”
The other guard complained, “Sir, this is very irregular. No ID, no clearance, carrying a weapon...”
Coulson lips gave a twitch. “Sergeant Lewis, this man is the Ice Demon of Arendelle. So let’s be polite to our guest and let him in.” Coulson opened the plastic chain and held it aside. “Mister Onsdag, please.” Once Loki had passed the flimsy barrier, he clipped a card to Loki’s lapel. “There, now you have a pass.”
Loki looked down at it with distaste. The card held his name – Lukas Onsdag – and a copy of the photo he’d taken in the police station in Arendelle and had been used on his passport, and big red letters “visitor”. “If I must.”
Coulson chuckled. “It does make things easier, as you can tell. Come, this way. Agent Romanoff--”
She interrupted before Loki could even tense about the possibility that they were trying to draw her away, “I’m sticking with him for now. I’m sure you understand.”
Loki wasn’t sure Coulson did or not, but he nodded. “As you wish. This way.”
There was a pair of doors that slid aside for them, and Loki hated the way he tensed when they shut behind him. There was a high atrium, with a circular staircase going upward, and glass elevator beyond that. He inhaled a deep breath, looking up at the ceiling and its SHIELD bird symbol prominently in the skylight to put its shadow on the floor. There were other people, not just armed soldiers, bustling about on the upper levels, paying him no mind.
He called power into his hand as he followed Coulson up the staircase, to be ready and remind himself that he was not powerless this time. They would not catch him unprepared; they would not catch him weak.
Nothing untoward happened, as Coulson led the way on the next floor, down a long dull hallway, and a door that he opened with his keycard. “Here we are. He’s been moved from the lab where the techs defrosted him, and is now in a room to wake up on his own. This is the monitoring room,” he said, pushing open the door.
Within was a dimly lit office space, with two computer workstations and numerous extra monitors. There were three agents within, all wearing uniforms that seemed reminiscent of those he remembered of the war. But before he could think too much about the oddity, his eye was drawn to the monitors where he saw an image of a bedroom.
There was a single bed and a simple dresser, and the room was lit by a window one on side. In that bed, lay Steve Rogers.
Loki didn’t realize he’d said anything aloud, until Coulson answered, “Yes, he’s there. Alive. And doing well. Medical thinks he’ll probably wake in the next twelve hours. His recovery has been-- well, a miracle really. And to have you both back at once….”
“The Norns work as they will,” Loki murmured. Realizing he was making a spectacle of himself, he shook his head once sharply and turned his head. “I certainly did not expect either of us to return. So, what is the plan, Agent Coulson?”
“We thought – well, Psych thought, mostly – it would be an easier transition for him to see some familiar things, that’s why--’ Coulson gestured toward the uniforms and in the direction of the monitor.
A tall woman with the hair style and clothes of a nurse during the war stepped close. “Agent Van Pelt,” she introduced herself. “We intend to transition him to the present gradually. So if you--” her voice failed her, wide eyes staring at him, professionalism abruptly overcome. “Are you really Lukas Onsdag?”
He smiled, put more at ease by her enthusiasm. “I am, yes. Though my current passport is Luke Rendell. Agent Van Pelt.” He took her hand to kiss the back. She laughed nervously until he let go. “I would think Captain Rogers would be more exciting than I am?”
“Well, he’s asleep,” she said, and he had to chuckle, because he could see how
watching someone sleep was not that exciting. “But no, really,” she added, “he’s from here. From--”
“Brooklyn,” Loki interrupted dryly. “I believe I heard him mention it.”
“But you’re not,” Van Pelt said, clasping her hands in front of her. “I mean, that’s what I heard? That you’re not actually from Earth? You’re from another planet?”
His thoughts drifted to Asgard and Jotunheim, and how he didn’t want to go to either. “Another Realm,” he corrected stiffly.
Van Pelt was about to ask something else, but Natasha intervened, “Do we wait here for him to wake?”
“I want to enter his room,” Loki declared. “To see how he is recovering for myself.” He could see Steven on the screen, but that didn’t mean Steven was here. He could be on the other side of the planet and this could all be a lie. Loki didn’t think it was -- he didn’t believe Coulson and Van Pelt were lying to him, but he still wanted to know for certain.
“Of course,” Coulson said. “We want him to wake with you near. But it might be awhile--”
“It has been decades already,” Loki interrupted, feeling that Coulson was trying to discourage him from going in. “Hours are immaterial to me.”
It turned out his suspicions were untrue, as Steven was in fact, the next room over. They went through the opposite door in the observation room, into a larger airy space several window’s width and within that space was a more temporary wall of bare wood beams visible and a simple wooden door set into the frame. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked.
“We had to build it in something of a hurry,” Van Pelt explained. “Here, go on in.”
Within, it was a theater set, he understood suddenly. All seemed as it had been once, decades past, and it was quiet except for the whirr of the fan, the soft static and murmur of the radio, and more distant hum of traffic.
And the softer but present sound of breathing.
Without looking away from Steven, Loki murmured, “Natalya, you need not wait wait me. I thank you for your companionship.”
Her hand gripped his arm. “I’ll be close by.” Releasing him, she left.
As her footsteps went away, he nearly called her back, wondering if this was when they’d make their move. But then he looked at Steve again and knew he was here for a reason.
“Is everything all right?” Van Pelt asked. “With the room? We did as best we could to duplicate what it would be like?”
He looked around without much interest and shrugged. “I spent little time in places like this. So I wouldn’t know. It seems adequate.” He knew the noise of the traffic was wrong, but there was nothing to be done about that, except realize this charade would not last.
He addressed Agent Van Pelt. “You may leave us.”
“Yes, sir.” She closed the door behind her quietly and he was alone with Steven. Not unobserved, he knew that for a fact, so he pulled a chair close to the bedside. But before sitting he held a hand above Steven to check for himself that, in fact, he was merely sleeping and he was well.
Loki closed his eyes in relief, and sat on the chair to wait. He could use his powers to waken Rogers, but there was no need. It was best if he wake on his own, and Loki could be patient.
Leaning back, he pulled out Cooper’s copy of Neville Potter, which he had promised to read. Thus far Loki was at a loss why it was such a literary phenomenon, especially such a ridiculously bad magical system, but he had promised he would read it.
He became so absorbed in the novel that he didn’t notice when Steve stirred. In fact, he had no idea until Steve said his name that Steve had moved.
Which was not the best start to Steven’s time in the present, and his embarrassment and surprise caught him even more unprepared to look into Steve’s face, blue eyes alight with life, as the memory of standing on the ice and watching Schmidt’s plane go down with Steve on it flashed and the guilt rose up like a suffocating wave.
He couldn’t keep it together, when Steve asked if he was all right. Because that was not a question Steve should even be asking. Because Loki had left him there for dead, and he was here, alive, and talking, and asking Loki if he was all right.
Loki’s eyes burned with sudden tears, and he tried to push them back, knowing this was weakness and tiredness and guilt. Steve didn’t’ need to know this when he’d just woken up.
But he looked so… alive, and Loki couldn’t stop the words from tumbling out, “I should never have left you alone. I was stupid and reckless and you-- and I lost you, and it was my fault…" He shut his eyes, bending down to hide his face in his hands, gasping for breath as the book thumped to the floor.
"Hey, no," Steve reassured him, "No, Lukas. It's okay, it's all right." His hand gripped Loki’s shoulder, rubbing in gentle circles but it made Loki feel that much worse.
He choked out, "It should have been me…"
"Hey, no, don't say that. It's not your fault, Lukas. I'm here, you're here – I'm glad you're all right." Loki shook his head, letting his hair hang over his face, so he didn’t have to see Steve’s far too forgiving face. "It's okay, Lukas. You saved me."
That was almost laughable in its wrongness. "No, I didn't," Loki insisted. He rubbed at his eyes and wiped his cheeks with his palms before lifting his head again. "You don't know, Steven. You don't know what's happened."
Steve frowned, not understanding. "Know what?"
Loki glanced at the door, wondering if they were going to come in, but he couldn’t keep lying to Steve. The truth was hard enough, but to lie to him about something so important to him? He couldn’t do it. He inhaled a settling breath, and told Steve in a level tone, "The year is 2011. You were preserved in the ice, asleep, for sixty-seven years."
He saw the denial and incomprehension flit across Steve’s face, that this couldn’t be true. That it was ridiculous and Loki was making a stupid joke. And then his eyes when he understood it was true were so devastated they punched a hole right through Loki’s chest.
All he could think was: I did this. This is my fault.
They ran. To nowhere in particular, just away. Out. Escaping the SHIELD facility and its facile lies, but Loki knew they wouldn’t truly escape. Because, in the end, there was nowhere to go. They could run, they could hide, but for what? Live like rats in the detritus of the world, until some other group identified them and scooped them up?
No. Loki would not live that way, and he doubted Steve would either. He would rather make a stand and get something from an alliance than being forced to submit.
So when the big black cars were pulling to a stop around them, forcing other traffic away with angry honking, Loki called a kernel of energy to his hand, ready to hurl it to defend himself and Steven, but held it, waiting to see how it would turn out..
The cars surrounded them but stayed back, though, and only Fury came out. "Mister Onsdag, you weren't supposed to engineer a patient escape."
"Patient?" Rogers called back. "Is that what I am? Or prisoner? Your fake hospital, your fake nurse--"
"To ease you into it," Fury answered. "Not lay it all on you all at once. But apparently Mister Onsdag believes in ripping off the bandage."
Loki returned his look, unrepentant. "I thought at first perhaps it would be a kindness, but a well-intentioned lie is still a lie. And it makes the reveal no better in the end.”
"We’ll never know, will we? I should introduce myself." Fury stepped forward. "Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD. The successor organization to the SSR. We dug you out of the ice about two weeks ago, and my doctors have been carefully thawing you out of hibernation since." He glanced around, taking note of the gathering crowd wondering what was going on. "We should get off the street before some cell phone video of you two gets on YouTube. You hungry?" he asked. "There's a deli around the corner, we can talk."
Steve hesitated, looked to Loki for direction, and Loki nodded.
"Yes, I think I'm hungry," Steve answered.
Fury nodded his head. "This way." He gestured to the other cars to drive off, and in only a few minutes the three of them were at a booth in the back of a deli. Steve looked around as they entered, and though he looked at the television mounted on the wall, nothing else seemed to draw his attention. The place was not modern in its décor with wood wall-paneling and faux-leather booths, though Loki was sure he noted the computerized registers and the patrons with their cell phones. People looked at Fury with his dramatic coat and eye-patch, but paid no mind to the two following him.
Steve said nothing on the way, and luckily for Loki’s nerves, was willing to go on the inside of the booth.
"Basket of fries, three pastrami and swiss, coffee, and water,” Fury ordered and to Loki's surprise the waitress smiled at him.
"Sure thing, darling. Good to see you again."
As soon as she was gone, Fury stretched an arm across the back of the booth on his side and his lips twitched seeing them across the way. "You want to move to a table?"
"I'm fine," Steve said, though they were pretty crowded. The booth was fairly small, and Loki had his feet in the aisle, to give Steve more room. Steve leaned forward. "So. You said the SSR. SHIELD. What do you want from me?" he asked.
"It's more what you want," Fury said. "When you were found, alive, we weren't going to leave you down there. And since Mister Onsdag was happy to ease you through the transition –"
Loki stiffened at the irony of his tone, wondering if he should've followed the plan after all. Steve seemed all right so far, but Loki thought some of it was shock and that was going to fade eventually. But then, that moment would still happen, even if he’d gone along with the pantomime.
"I'm glad you told me," Steve reassured Loki. "I mean, I'm not glad it's true, but I'm here. I just don't know... what's next."
"Next is," Fury hesitated to let coffee be put down before them, "– thanks, Corinne – Next, we eat our lunch. And I tell you about my idea. Since you're going to need to transition to the modern world, and Mister Onsdag volunteered to help you do that, I was thinking to put you up here in the city.”
“Why?” Steve asked. “In return for what?”
“Nothing,” Fury answered but Loki leveled a stare at him.
“Nothing? You don’t seek to add Steven to your Initiative?” Loki asked.
Fury lifted a hand. “Can you wait for one god-damned minute before springing all this on him?” he demanded irritably. “Yes, I have an idea for you, for the future, but that’s not relevant right now.”
“It is if you seek to form an obligation,” Loki returned unimpressed. “There is very little in this world that comes free. And I will not have you put Steven blindly in your debt, so he thinks he has no choice.”
“I’m just trying to help,” Fury protested.
Before Loki could express his doubt of that – or at least his doubt that the ‘help’ came without strings, Steve interjected, “Then help. I see the cars, I know they’re different. Hell, that small movie screen,” he indicated the television showing sports mounted above, “is amazing. I can’t even tell where it’s being projected from. So I know I’m in the future. I know I’m going to need help to find my feet. I just...” he stopped and shrugged, and he looked at Loki. “At least we can do it together, right? I want to hear him out.”
Loki nodded, “Yes, of course.” He sipped at his water glass to discourage himself from interrupting Fury’s pitch again.
“Thank you,” Fury said to Steve. “Anyway. So, there’s an apartment here, not far away actually, that SHIELD has as a safehouse. You two can have it. Not forever, we’re not that generous with Manhattan real estate, but long enough to get adapted to modern Earth. Take some walks, ride the train to Brooklyn, see the old places, whatever you need to do. Take some time.”
“And then?” Steve asked.
“Well, when you’re feeling more comfortable, the world is gonna know you’re back. The thing you should know is, the memory of Captain America didn’t go away. So people are going to be interested. Excited. You’ll probably have your pick of what to do, by then.”
Loki thought of what ‘interested’ could mean, and the coffee turned bitter in his mouth. Strucker had been ‘interested’ in him; someone else might be equally interested in Steve Rogers, the only known successful supersoldier recipient.
Steve was quiet, and drank his coffee, thinking or just overwhelmed. Into that silence, Corinne brought their lunch and after she went away, Steve stared dubiously at the stack of meat and immense pile of fried potatoes. “This is more food than I think we had in a week,” he said, with a shake of his head, but lifted the sandwich to take a long sniff, closing his eyes. “Oh God, that smells great.”
At first unsure whether he was hungry enough to eat, Loki poured ketchup for dipping his fries. Cooper had introduced him to the practice since he ate everything with ketchup, and it was oddly delicious in its sweet foulness. Loki was fairly sure they must lace it with some addictive substance. After nibbling a few fries and getting a curious look from Steve that he wasn’t eating, he started on the sandwich as well. But there was something about Fury that reminded him that he was eating at a table and he needed manners, so he pulled out the sandwich contents to eat with utensils.
Fury watched them both eat with something like pride before going on. “So the simple answer to why I’m doing this, is because if word got out I left you out on the street like a beggar, I’d get fired and SHIELD would be burned to the ground, because you’re a national hero. Our obligation is to you, not the other way ‘round, whatever Mister Onsdag believes.”
Loki sniffed skeptically at that, because while that was true, that didn’t mean Fury didn’t want Captain America to join his little band of Avenger Initiative “volunteers” and was prepared to give him a very long leash in order to do it. But he only said dryly, “I’m sure SHIELD rescuing Steven does nothing for your reputation.”
“I didn’t say I got no benefit, now did I?” Fury returned. “But SHIELD is willing to foot the bill while you get your heads together and figure out what you want. If that ends up with me, great. If not, I still get to say my people pulled you out and brought you back. Now, for the details.” He reached into his inside jacket pocket. “These days, you need identification and money, so here’s a set for you, Cap.” He pushed a thin black wallet across the table and Steve opened it up.
His eyes widened seeing the green paper money tucked inside. “This is… this is too much.”
Fury laughed. “Inflation, Cap. It’s not that much. And I have something for you, too,” he handed a small booklet to Loki. “I thought you’d want it replaced.”
It was a duplicate passport to the one Hydra had stolen from him. Surprised to get anything at all, Loki seized it. “Thank you.” He opened to find it was in the name Luke Rendell, and smiled, handing it to Steve to look at. “I have an Arendelle passport now.”
“Nice. It’s new?” Steve asked, admiring it the gold foil design stamped on the purple cover.
“The old one was lost,” Loki answered, flicking a look at Fury to keep his mouth shut about how it was lost. Luckily Steve was looking at the picture and didn’t see.
Fury got the warning and gestured for Corinne to come over and refill their coffee, as Steve read the name and asked, “Luke Rendell?”
Loki shrugged. “I was trying to be anonymous.”
“Mister Rendell, here, is famous, too,” Fury added dryly, but then said, more seriously to Loki, “Word’s getting out that the Ice Demon was in Sokovia and connecting you to the destruction of the fortress there. So it’s just a matter of time before you’re recognized.”
“Fantastic,” Loki muttered.
“Sokovia?” Steve asked curiously.
“I’ll tell you later.”
By which Loki meant ‘never’, but Steve accepted that with a nod and handed the passport back for Loki to tuck into his jacket pocket. “I suppose I need one too.”
“We have to get a picture of you awake for ID,” Fury pointed out. “But that’s for another day. Go ahead, eat.” Watching them finish their plates, he added, “I’ll increase the food allowance twenty percent.”
Steve paused as if he was embarrassed briefly, but ate everything in his basket and half of Fury’s sandwich as well, when Fury lifted it up in offer.
After they left the restaurant, they headed to the apartment. As they walked, Steve looked around curiously. “It’s so strange,” he murmured to Loki. “So much glass. But other than that, it looks pretty much the same.”
“Buildings endure unless removed or they suffer calamity. And people still must eat,” he nodded to a restaurant as they passed, “and wear clothes and shoes. But not hats,” he added after a moment. “Very few people wear hats today. Pity.”
They had to wait to cross the street, as a tour bus came by with a massive sign on the side for the Intrepid museum. Loki saw Steve’s brow furrow as he read the information. “The Intrepid. It was new, I remember reading about the launch. Now it’s a museum.”
“You might want to check it out,” Fury suggested, looking over his shoulder. “They’ve got a good display of what you missed. And they’ve got a space shuttle.” Fury dropped that casually, and Steve’s reaction didn’t disappoint.
“America put men on the moon, Cap.”
Steve was impressed, but Loki rolled his eyes. “Humans. So impressed with themselves.”
Steve’s frown deepened. “Aren’t you human? You were born with your abilities, I know, but you’re human, aren’t you?”
Loki hesitated, realizing he’d never actually told Steve the truth. “Not… exactly. No.”
“So, what are you?” Steve asked.
Loki grinned at him. “A demon, of course.” Then he stepped off the curb as the signal came up to walk, daring the taxi attempting to get around the corner in front of him. The taxi slammed on brakes, honking at him, as the driver made rude gestures, and Loki was tempted to put a boot on its bumper and shove it away, but mindful of his anonymity, he tossed a bit of seidr instead, conjuring an illusory snake into the taxi’s passenger seat.
The driver’s yelp was audible all the way across the street, and Loki smirked.
The apartment building was a modest, low-rise brick building with a few steps up to a main door. “Here we are,” Fury said and headed up the steps.
Steve tilted his head back and looked around. “This was a crap neighborhood when I was a kid. Too rich for me, but still crap,” he said wryly. He followed Fury up, Loki tagging along behind more slowly.
Inside there was a hall and stairs both up and down, and an elevator that looked as old as Steve himself. They climbed up one flight to the open door to the right.
“Come in,” Fury invited and strode inside.
Loki hesitated, unsure if this was a wise thing to do. An apartment to stay in felt strangely settled. The only place on all of Midgard he’d wanted to stay had been Arendelle, and even that, he’d never stayed too long. This would be temporary – Fury had said they couldn’t keep it- but still, his own place felt strangely like the potential for growing roots. And he wasn’t sure he wanted roots. Not here, not yet.
Yet being alone was not the answer. In the absence of other family, friends would have to do. And certainly Steve needed his help right now, so there was no real choice to make.
Inside, the had a short hall, with a kitchen to the right, bedroom and bath to the left, and opened up into a living/dining area with two windows, and a second door on the far wall to another bedroom. The walls were not quite white, and the furniture was basic and even Loki could tell from his short time in 2011 Midgard, that it was not modern.
Natasha was standing at the small round dining table, and she smiled to see him come in. “You left HQ in something of a hurry,” she teased.
“We were bored,” Loki retorted, and introduced, “Steven, this is Agent Natasha Romanoff, of SHIELD. Natalya, Steve Rogers.”
Steve shook her hand with a smile. “You get a nickname, so you must be a friend.”
“I am,” she answered without hesitation. “Good to meet you, Cap.”
“Agent Romanoff, I trust you can manage here?” Fury asked.
“Yes, sir. I have the rest of the package.”
“Good.” He turned a baleful eye on Loki and Steve. “Get settled, see the city, learn some history.” Those were definitely commands, not suggestions, the way he uttered them, but Steve didn’t bristle, just nodded. “I’ll see you in a few days.” Then Fury added a tiny bit more warmly, “I’m glad you’re back, Cap.”
With a last nod, he swept out of the apartment and the door shut behind him.
“Package?” Loki asked Natasha, curious.
She dumped a brown envelope onto the dining room table. “Two phones. Keys. An information packet.” She scanned over it, lifting her brows skeptically. “Looks like it was made by the psych department, probably mostly useless but maybe you should take a look. Credit cards. And Coulson told me, under no circumstances are you to use these to buy tickets to Hamilton.” She glanced at Loki and grinned. “If you can get us tickets? I will give you anything you want.”
Laura had already told him about the musical, which was only a few months old but difficult to find tickets for. He’d been less than interested since he’d actually met those people, but she’d pointed out that was why he should see it. And if Natasha was truly that interested… well, perhaps he needed a credit card less than he needed persuasion. He’d earned the sobriquet of Silvertongue long before he’d become the Ice Demon. This should be a piece of pie.
He asked her archly, “Anything?”
But she met his gaze and he had no idea if she were bluffing as she said, “Anything.”
It was more amusing to realize Steve was glancing between the two of them, frowning, trying to figure out what that teasing meant.
Which was, nothing. As attractive as she was, and as good as her touch felt, he knew it would be a mistake. Getting involved with mortals so intimately would bring only more pain. That he didn’t know how he would react made it that much more obvious that he shouldn’t do it.
“Hamilton?” Steve asked.
“A musical about Alexander Hamilton,” Natasha explained.
“The guy on the twenty? Has a popular musical?” Steve asked and added more to himself, “Now I know I’m in the future.”
His tone was incredulous and dry, but Loki thought the heaviness behind it was real. He asked Natasha, “It might be good to have a night out. Steven, too, I mean. But I know nothing of how such things work – where one should apply money or appeals to access these tickets.”
Her eyes met his, fully aware of what he might mean by ‘appeals’, but she said only, “I’ll look into it.” She watched Steve head toward the window and stare out of it, then picked up one of the phones from the table and typed into it before handing it to Loki. He read “Natalya” and her number. “My cell. In case you need anything. I should let you get settled in. There are menus on the counter for delivery.”
She touched Loki’s arm and gave him a questioning look with a head-tilt toward Steve to make sure he’d be okay, and Loki nodded.
“I’ll stop by later,” she said and the door shut behind her moments later, leaving Loki alone with Steve in the borrowed apartment.
It lacked the warmth of the Barton home, with sparse décor on the dark wood shelves and the framed art prints on the beige walls were bland nature scenes, probably painted by machine. That could be why Steve was looking out the window, though Loki suspected it had more to do with looking at the street outside, differences and similarities, from what he remembered.
Silence held at first, and instead of poking at it, Loki examined the things on the table and then found his bag had been left in the corner by the kitchen. He carried it into the far bedroom, but realized it had an attached bath, which would be of more use for Steve than it was for him, so he turned around and took his bag to the other bedroom.
One large bed, a nightstand, small closet, and dresser, all of it bare and plain, though at least the bed had been made with sheets and a navy blue blanket. He dropped his bag on the bed and went to look over the kitchen.
Steve was still standing at the window, while Loki checked the refrigerator and cabinets. Steve’s silence was growing heavy. “We have plates,” Loki announced. “Condiments. Something in the cabinet; I am not certain if it is food or building materials.” His jest got no reaction, and Loki pulled the drawer for the freezer, which was empty. “I see why Natalya mentioned menus, as there is no actual food in this place. There is, however, beer. Because no apartment is complete without ketchup and beer apparently.”
Steve ignored the conversational gambit, and Loki was deciding whether he should go over to him or leave him be, when he abruptly turned around. “I knew you weren’t enhanced like me,” he said. “You were born with your powers. But you’re not human.”
Loki wasn’t sure that was a question until Steve added, “Are you?”
Loki hesitated, realizing how terrible this timing had been. he’d forgotten that Steve didn’t know. He answered, coming nearer to Steve but stopping in the middle of the room to give him some space, “No. I was not born on Earth.” It still felt strange to say aloud. For so long he had mimicked being human, hiding the truth.
“You’re from Mars? Outer space?” Steve asked.
Loki couldn’t help a smile. “Mars is a barren cold place, and no one comes from there. But I suppose ‘outer space’ is adequate for answer.”
Steve gestured toward him. “But you look human.”
Loki thought of his true form, but he didn’t want to make this worse by showing that monstrous visage. So he answered with a bit of a shrug. “I do. But I have abilities your kind does not, and I came to this world about three hundred years ago. I have used several names in Midgardian history, Lukas Onsdag and Luke Rendell are merely the most recent. Those stories about the Ice Demon are all me.” Then he thought about what he’d read and corrected, “Well, except the ones they made up.”
Seeing Steve’s face, so still, and his eyes so blue in a face gone pale, as if this were a bigger shock than finding out he’d slept through sixty years. Or perhaps it was too many shocks all at once. Loki was reminded of Fury’s admonition to stop blurting out the truth.
“I am sorry,” Loki said after another silence. “I should have kept quiet. You’d think with my years I would be more wise.”
“You’re three hundred years old?”
He nodded, and this time, held his tongue that he was actually quite a bit more than three hundred. The exact number of years didn’t matter; three hundred was plenty to a mortal. He gave a little laugh and tried to look sheepish. “I know. It does sound absurd when said aloud. And I truly did not want to bury you in all of this, Steven.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
The note of betrayal in Steve’s voice was difficult to hear, but Loki reminded himself it was not undeserved. “I told no one,” Loki corrected, though that wasn’t quite true. He’d told James, but that was all. “It was a secret I have kept a long time. Now Earth is more ready to learn they’re just one of many species of people in the universe, so I have been more forthcoming of late. But you should not have had to learn that today,” Loki said.
Steve nodded slowly. “No, it’s okay. I guess it’s good to know all of it.”
When Steve fell quiet again, Loki offered, “I need not stay here, if this is too strange for you. It is meant to help you, not make this worse. Yes,” he nodded to himself, “I will have Agent Van Pelt sent in, she can help you settle, and I will--”
Steve snapped out of his daze, lifting his head and interrupting, “No. No, don’t go.”
“You’re still who you were during the war,” Steve said. It was not a question, but Loki nodded confirmation anyway. Steve gave a little laugh. “It’s not like I didn’t know you were hiding something. I just figured you’d tell me when the war was over, and we had more time.”
“Well, the war is over,” Loki pointed out, “and we suddenly have a lot more time than we expected when we were on Schmidt’s flying wing.”
Steve snorted and shook his head. “This is so weird.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I can’t even imagine all the things I missed. All the catching up I have to do....”
“It’s not that different,” Loki reassured him. “Humans remain the same, only the details change.”
“I guess that’s reassuring.”
“Have a seat,” Loki invited. While Steve sat on one end of the sofa, Loki took out two beer bottles from the refrigerator and offered one to Steve.
As Steve accepted it, he glanced at the label and to Loki. “It’s not going to affect us.”
Loki shrugged. “Social habit.” He popped off the top of his bottle with his thumb and held out the bottle. “Welcome back.”
Steve tapped his bottle against Loki’s. “It’s good to be back.”