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13 November 2014 @ 09:28 am
The Ice Demon and the Hydra, part 6  

Back on Malta, celebrating a mission accomplished in the base canteen, the hour had grown late and everyone else had gone off on their own, leaving just Steve and Bucky and a candle on the rickety wooden table, set into a jar lid. Bucky set something down on the table next to Steve's beer glass. It was a small, malformed piece of metal. Steve fingered it curiously before giving into the inevitable question. "Okay, what is it?"

"It was in the dirt at the Hydra base. It's a bullet. Or what's left of one."

Steve looked at it again. It was flat on one side as if it had slammed into concrete but that was all that seemed special about it. "And?"

"It should've been in your spine, Steve," Bucky murmured. "I wasn't quick enough to take that bastard in the tower."

Holding it up again, he peered at it. "What the hell?"

"I didn't see it hit, I was shooting the tower, but after, I saw Lukas drop it out of his hand. Like he'd fucking caught it."

"I'm sure there's another explanation," Steve muttered, uneasy. Except he had been convinced himself that the Hydra bullets should have hit him, wide open without his shield as he'd been and the shooter up high. "He said it missed."

"The bullet hit something; that doesn't happen hitting dirt. And if it did hit him, that's not super healing, that's … invulnerability."

"He's not invulnerable, Bucky. I saw him, very vulnerable, before we found you."

Which Bucky knew, but he waved his hand in an urgent vague gesture of simultaneously hearing what Steve was saying and yet disagreeing with it. "Maybe Schmidt knew how to -- peel it away, or weaken it or something. Because that," he pointed at the bullet, "didn't hit him and he healed up; it hit him and acted like he was a wall. How is that even possible, Steve?"

"It's not. So there's another explanation."

"Sometimes he talks like science is barely a step up from monkeys banging sticks together. Like he's Howard Stark, but no one's heard of him."

"Maybe we have," Steve suggested with a wry look. "Lukas Onsdag isn't his real name." He set the bullet on the table top. "Anyway, even if he's some kind of natural prodigy or Hydra experiment or whatever, he's still just a man. And our friend."

"True. Even if he's not so sure about the last part." Bucky picked up the bullet again and slipped it into the pocket of his jacket. "Lucky charm," he answered Steve's raised eyebrows. "The bullet that saved Captain America's pretty pretty face for all the newspapers and ladies to sigh over. Oh Captain, can I call you Steven?" he imitated a high-pitched mocking cooing.

Steve tossed the coaster at him. "Shut up."

"Aye, aye, cap'n." Bucky's salute could use some work as he pushed his chair back and yawned. "Gonna hit the hay. Don't stay up too late."

"Good night, Dad."

Bucky laughed and flipped him off behind his back as he walked away, entirely unconcerned.

Loki heard the footsteps, lifting his brows at the realization that his visitor was Barnes, not Rogers. He turned his eyes back to the book of poetry in his lap.

Barnes got close to the wall where Loki was perched. "Hey. You weren't at the party. You doing okay?"

Loki looked up. "I am not much for feasts and revelry. But I am well, thank you." He lowered his gaze back to the book. But that of course was not going to work as a dismissal, since Barnes seemed determined to talk to him.

Barnes leaned close enough to see the script. "What the hell is that chicken scratch?"

"Arabic poetry. I found the book in a pile -- a remnant of someone's collection I presume."

"You can read that?"

Loki shrugged. "I learn languages easily. It's a gift."

Barnes leaned against the wall, crossed one foot over the other and asked, "Is not getting hurt when you're shot at also a gift?"

Loki sighed. "I told Rogers they missed."

Barnes fished something out of his jacket pocket and held it up. "While you two were inside blowing the hell out of that place, I grabbed this off the ground. Where you dropped it."

Loki saw the bullet well enough by moonlight and grimaced. He turned away to look through the darkness at the movement of ships at the harbor and hear the distant drone of planes at the airfield. The war continued, even though the Commandos part of it was in a lull for the night.

"Look, I get that you don't want to tell anybody the truth," Barnes said, earnestly. "I was in that hellhole, I know what they did. I swear I won't tell - not the colonel, not even Steve. But I've got to know."

Loki sighed again and closed his book slowly. "There is very little that can injure me when I have my strength. It's innate, not given by any serum or any other external gift. As I explained to Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter, I am related to Queen Birgitte of Arendelle, and to her ancestor the Ice Demon of Arendelle. That is the well-spring of my ability."

Which was even true, amusingly enough, if in the wrong order.

"The Ice Demon of Arendelle?" Bucky repeated. "What's that? Never heard of it."

"Him," Loki corrected. "About two hundred fifty years ago, a... being came to the mountains between Arendelle and Norway, and for several years he terrorized the people, like a mad dog, attacking all who came near, uncaring of their lives. He had strange magical powers. He called himself a god but they called him a demon. And later, a child Elsa the Snow Queen was born with powers over ice. Ever since, the royal family has held a potential for … strange power. It mostly lies dormant, but not in me."

"Oh," Bucky slumped against the wall and folded his arms. "That's… weird. So what was the Ice Demon, really?"

"Who knows?" Loki shrugged. "Perhaps truly a demon? Or an angel."

Bucky made a face, wrinkling his nose. "Maybe he was an alien. From another planet."

Loki shot a look at him, surprised he had come up with the idea. Perhaps the mortals were not still as primitive as he believed them to be. "Why would you think that?"

"Well, I don't much believe in angels and demons," Bucky said, and glanced with a worried frown in the direction of the town's cathedral and lowered his voice, "Seems sort of … superstitious. I can believe in God, but all that other stuff? What about other religions? They can't all be right. So that magic, I don't buy it. But what about other planets? There are other planets in our solar system. Maybe Venus or Mars have people, too. Or maybe other stars have planets."

Amused by the speculation and yet also impressed that Barnes had thought it through, Loki looked up at him and slowly nodded. "Yes, I think you may be closer to the truth than anyone else. Though I will tell you that Venus is a hideous place, unfit for any life."

"But it's got an atmosphere! It's probably a jungle with giant snakes and dinosaurs!"

Loki smiled at him, feeling some strange affection for this mortal and his enthusiasm, and shook his head. "Alas, no. Its temperature is far too hot; it rains sulfuric acid, not water."

For a moment Barnes looked disappointed that Loki had just crushed his dream of a jungle paradise on Venus, then he frowned. "How the hell do you know that?"

Loki grinned and lied flippantly, "Because I've been there."

Barnes stared at him and then burst into laughter. "You have not! Liar!"

"You will never know," Loki teased. "But I do know a great many things."

He stood and tucked his book into his pocket. "I think I should escort you to the barracks to rest, as it's gotten quite late and I hear we're departing early."

"Yeah, I could use some shut eye." Barnes tucked the mangled bullet into his pocket and closed the button securely, then gave a short laugh, shaking his head. "You and Steve are enough to make a man feel… ordinary."

Loki chuckled a little bitterly. "I know that feeling, Barnes."

"You? But you have all these special abilities…"

"Special abilities". But never the ones that counted for anything. "They set me apart. It is a difficult thing to be different, and not also feel less." Which was something his family had never understood, neither being different nor feeling less.

"Oh. I didn't think of it that way." Barnes was quiet, following him down off the roof, nodding once in acknowledgment to the watch officer- who was amusingly startled by Loki's appearance, since Loki had passed him unseen.

They passed the anti-aircraft emplacement, ready but quiet now that the Nazis had been pushed back from Malta, and headed for the barracks where the Howling Commandos were housed.

"Then it's a good thing you're here, right?" Barnes asked. "I mean, on the same team with Steve. I know he likes it that you're here. You two don't have to be different on your own."

Loki wanted to object that he was different here, and there was no escaping that he was nothing like them. He was alone.

Barnes hand closed on his arm. "And you'd probably feel less apart, if you spent more time with us. You know the others are fine with the captain, and they're fine with you. So you don't have to be worried they'll think you're a freak or something, they already know you're different."

Which they did since the wounds to his wrists had given away his quick healing. But the problem was that he wanted to stay apart. He didn't want to get attached to these mortals and watch them die. The thought of Elsa and Anna's deaths still tore at him, all these years later.

Frigga's words came back to him, that trying to avoid pain was in the end fruitless, because all he was doing was denying himself was feeling the better part, when the pain would come inevitably. He glanced at Barnes' profile. It was too late not to feel something when he died. And Rogers, too.

"All right, fine," he heaved a sigh. "I will make an effort to be more sociable, Sergeant."

Barnes slung an arm over his shoulder. "Who knows, you might even like it."

The Howling Commandos continued their assault on Hydra bases, rattling Schmidt's cage as much as they could. Their second success in the French Alps brought attention from the military propaganda machine, which completely ruined all the ease Loki had found with the squad. He warned them stiffly that he was not to have his photo taken, and he expected them to heed that wish.

But of course they didn't, taking his picture anyway. And the dumb skinny mortal grinned at him with insincerity that Loki could feel from another Realm, and said, "But, sir, you're one of the Howling Commandos. You're a hero. The people of the world deserve to know--"

Which was exactly as far as he got before Loki's hand went around his throat and lifted him clear off his feet. "Do not take my picture again." He threw the boy down to the ground, and swooped in to take the camera and even as the boy yelled at him to stop, and Rogers came running to see what the problem was, Loki opened the back and yanked out all the negatives, exposing them to the sunlight, as the photographer yelled in dismay.

Then he threw the empty camera and stalked off. Steve ran after him.

"Hey! Lukas! Kinda rough on the kid, weren't you?"

Loki glowered back at the photographer who was still kneeling in the dirt, the negatives in his hands, trying to stuff them into his shirt as if that would save them from being over-exposed. "I warned him not to take my photo. He didn't believe me."

"But why not?" Rogers asked, confused. "You're not going to be a spy after the war, Lukas; you're going to be the national hero of Arendelle."

The words struck like a knife. He stumbled a step away from Rogers, as if that would let him escape those thoughts. He was no hero of Arendelle, and never had been. "No, I will not. I cannot. You don't understand." He swallowed hard, remembering the Asgardian ball left in Arendelle and now in Schmidt's hands, and he shook his head frantically as the fragile paper house he'd built in his mind, collapsed. He couldn't leave traces, he had to stay secret and hidden... "I left too many footprints last time, too many trails -- why do you think Schmidt knew I existed? He murdered dozens of people for the sole purpose of luring me forth. Because he knew what I was. I cannot leave bigger trails for others to follow," Loki insisted.

"Hey," Steve's hand closed on his shoulder tightly. "It's not your fault."

"I was careless! He came looking for me." He clutched at the slender tree trunk, needing its support.

"No," Steve insisted strongly. "Schmidt's the one who killed those people, not you. He's a murderous madman, and we need to take him down. It's not your fault."

"I-- I could've come to Arendelle sooner," Loki admitted, turning away. "I should have come sooner. I could have helped them more. They died because I didn't come…"

"You're only one person, Lukas," Steve murmured. "No matter how strong we are, we can't be everywhere, or do everything. The Germans would have attacked Arendelle and Norway whether you were there or not."

Loki just shook his head, finding no words that he could share to actually argue. He didn't disagree, since Scandinavia had been too strategic for the Reich to ignore, but Schmidt wouldn't have come. And he wouldn't have the tesseract if not for Loki. He had left his trail all across history, leading Schmidt right to the tesseract and to him. He had tried to lift human progress, giving Schmidt the tools to make his devices of terror. He looked bleakly eastward toward the Allied lines where brave humans were throwing themselves on a pyre to push back an aggressor fueled by things Loki had left strewn all over the world.

"I have to stop him, Steven. I have to end this."

"We'll get him. Didn't I promise you in Austria, we would get him?" Steve asked.

"You did." Loki turned his head to look at Rogers and then away again, adding, "And you mean it."

"Of course I do. And you know what I think might be a good idea?" Rogers asked. "You know how we're trying to light a fire under Schmidt's ass with our attacks? Don't you think you helping us would do that too? You and me working together? The public doesn't have to know about your special talents, but Schmidt sure does. Pose for a picture or a video with the squad; it'll get back to him. Show him that you're after him, too."

Loki considered that. It had a certain appeal, to demonstrate to Schmidt that Loki had found allies and they were working towards Schmidt's defeat. He would have to be careful. "All right. So long as they keep my name out of it. There's a journalist accompanying us to Latveria, yes?"

"That's the spirit!" Rogers said, slapping his back companionably.

That was how a newsreel of the Howling Commandos included brief footage of a tall man with unregulation black hair in unmarked fatigues standing like a grim shadow behind Captain America. He was not identified in the newsreel, or in the military-approved article and photograph about the triumphant assault on the Hydra base in Latveria. That didn't stop other journalists from putting it together that Lukas Onsdag of Arendelle was part of the Commandos team, nor stop a queen in exile from talking to another journalist and identifying him as her rescuer.

Which was how Loki found himself the object of an entire squad of hilarity as Barnes dropped a package in front of him. "Mail for you."

The package was made up of letters, all bound together with string. The others looked at the pile and hooted, laughing. "Is it the long hair?" Monty demanded. "Or the general air of mystery? Look at that stack!"

Dumbfounded, Loki looked at them. "Those are all for me? From whom?"

"Well, I don't know that, do I?" Barnes returned. "A pile for the dashing captain, of course. Oh, look, more for you." He dropped more letters in front of Loki's place at the table.

"What are all these?" Loki repeated blankly and fingered the string on the pack of letters. "One might be from Birgitte, though she would likely send me a telegram, but there is no one else to send me a letter..."

"Probably admirers," Morita said. "We all get those."

"Not as many as some people," Barnes teased, dumping another pile of letters on Rogers' place. "You need help answering your fan mail, Captain? I'm sure we could all help you out."

Rogers rolled his eyes. "Gimme. I'll do it."

"Looking at that, I think we should keep a tally of marriage proposals," Duggan teased. "Looks like Lukas is giving you a run for your money, Captain."

"Marriage proposals? Don't be ridiculous." Loki opened one of the loose letters warily and scanned it, frowning at what he read. It actually was a marriage proposal. "Oh. But-- they know nothing about me. Why would they write this to me?"

"Because you're not ugly?" Duggan suggested, lifting his beer in salute, his bright blue eyes teasing.

"And you're single," Monty added. "Aren't you?"

"But-- why?" Loki stared at them, in consternation and confusion. And the entire table broke into laughter. Offended that they were laughing at him, he stood fast enough to knock the bench over, tipping Dernier and Jones backward, too. They smacked into the dirt, startled, and the rest laughed again.

Loki's hands clenched and he stalked away so he wouldn't put a dagger in all of them.

"Wait, Lukas!" Barnes called and started after him, but Loki was in no mood, tossing invisibility over himself as soon as he was around the corner between the tents. Barnes walked right past him between the tents, calling after him.

Loki went to the perimeter of camp and lit the letters on fire with a twist of seiðr, watching them burn with a dark satisfaction. I need no ignorant mortals pretending on acquaintance, their letters filled with lies and desperate pleas for attention. They should not even know I exist. That was a mistake.

"Lukas?" Barnes' voice came from behind him. Loki started, only then realizing he'd let the invisibility glamour fade. "Hey, they didn't mean any harm by it."

"I do not take well to mockery."

"I got that, but they were just poking a little fun. Admit it, your face was ridiculous. You know everything about everything, except the idea that some ladies in Britain might fall a little bit in love with you on the newsreels."

Loki still did not believe this was even happening. "That is the most absurd notion I have ever heard. And I have heard many."

"You must have seen the mail Steve was getting?"

"Well, yes, of course, but I assumed he had met many people in his travels…" Loki's voice trailed off since, on second thought, that had been a stupid thing to assume that all those letters represented actual acquaintances.

Barnes chuckled and shook his head. "Sometimes you're the most worldly person I've ever met, and sometimes you act like you were raised by reindeer."

"Reindeer?" Loki glanced at him sharply at that, thinking of Anna's husband. Kristoff reminded him of the stone troll colony - he should, when this was over, go check on them. They all had the brains of rocks, but they didn't deserve Nazi tanks to crush them either.

"You know, because you're from Arendelle?" Barnes explained, then rushed on when he saw Loki wasn't amused. "Anyway, when we get back to town, we'll have to take advantage of our hero status and find ourselves some dames, right? Might as well get some use out of it." Assuming the answer to be yes, Barnes slapped him on the shoulder and moved back toward camp.

No, I think not. I did that. I casually "found some dames". I found a lonely queen at a ball, and that resulted in more hurt than finding out the truth of my parentage. So I will leave the mortals to each other. No more mortal branches of my family tree.

But it was too late to stop the reporters and the newsreels, and every time he saw his photo in a paper or received another letter from a stranger, he knew it was another trail he was leaving for the future.

There was nothing to done about it now, except finish the task at hand - stop Schmidt and retrieve the tesseract. Each mission got them one step closer, even as he was frustrated that it wasn't over with already.

Finally, a new mission got them the closest they'd been, with a spy report that Zola himself was on a train. And since Zola would give them Schmidt, they went after him, with the most dangerous plan they'd come up with yet.

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