North of Arendelle town, Natasha drove slowly, as Luke didn't seem to know exactly where to go.
Luke frowned out the window as the road wound its way upward. "It's been a long time," he muttered.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
He ignored the question, huffing out, "This is impossible." He opened his seatbelt then the sunroof, climbed up on the seat, and stood up, so more than half of him was outside the car.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, blurting it out in surprise.
"Trying to see!" he answered, shouting against the wind, then he dropped back into the seat. "I saw the marker finally. Pull off the road at the next valley."
She did so, despite the fact that there appeared to be nothing there, just wilderness heading off toward the higher mountains.
Luke muttered something in a language she didn't recognize and shoved open the car door. "Stay here," he ordered her curtly. "I will return." He stalked off down the valley, disappearing into the bushes and thin green-leafed trees.
She waited until he was out of sight and then followed. Where was he going? Some sort of weapons cache? Secret meeting?
Instead, he wound up in a deep ravine. It seemed to be a dead end and mostly grass and stone, with no taller plants in between the high cliff walls. She stopped and observed from behind a stone as his stalking pace slowed. The valley was dotted with small rocks, rounded from rain and glaciers. Some were moss-covered, or had small plants growing in their crevices.
He wandered through the stones and called, "Papi! Papi, I need to speak with you."
She frowned. 'papi' sounded like 'father'. Was he calling on his father? A real person, or was he praying? It didn't really sound like a prayer though as his tone became more irritable. "Papi! I know you can hear me. You know who I am."
Was there someone else here he was supposed to meet? But she saw no one in the field of small round stones.
"You're an odd duck," she murmured.
"He's not a duck, silly," said a voice under her elbow. Natasha scrambled back, away from the stone, looking frantically for the owner of the voice. How could anyone have gotten so close? Or be so small to hide behind that stone? She wished for her gun, as she pulled the knife in her boot and held it at…
… the rock?
With a soft grumble, the stone she had previously been leaning against unfolded and turned around, to display a face. Head. Arms. Legs. It was small and oddly proportioned, but clearly person-like.
She stared. Her stomach went tight. She'd thought she was prepared for non-humans. She'd been ready.
She wasn't ready.
The rock person's large eyes blinked at her.
But Natasha was no longer looking at that one, as beyond it-- him?-- all the round stones of the valley were also rolling. Unfolding. Waking. Round stones were turning into people.
She blinked wondering if Luke had gassed her with a hallucinogen. That was the only logical explanation.
In the middle of the small rock people, Luke was a giant, especially as all of them bowed to him. She was definitely dreaming this.
"Son of Odin," one greeted him, looking up at him.
Luke looked pained. "I told you, Papi, not to call me that."
"A truth refused is still a truth."
"And who refuses it more than he does?" Luke retorted sharply.
"You," Papi returned, and Natasha was impressed by the small person's courage in the face of Luke's obvious anger.
"I know the truth. And I am not here for recriminations." Luke lowered himself to one knee. Kneeling, he was still taller than "papi", but they were a little closer to eye-level. "My powers are bound. I need you to free them."
Papi squinted at him, reading deeply, then stepped back. "The All-father's work. I cannot."
"Cannot. Or will not?" Luke asked, his tone low and dangerous.
"Cannot," Papi repeated and met his eyes. "Only you can unbind the working."
Luke's lip curled in disgust or annoyance. "You mean him."
"I mean, you. Your powers will be freed when your heart thaws. Not before."
"My heart is just fine. I'll find another way. Can you heal the arm? Or is that too beyond you, suddenly?" Luke demanded with bitter heat.
Papi put small hands above the wound in Luke's arm and Natasha didn't know if she was really seeing any of this at all, but it looked like there was a … blue glow in a halo around his hand.
"There," Papi said, but didn't lift his hands away. "You know the answer. Love. Love is all--"
Luke yanked free and grabbed Papi by the throat, as he stood up, lifting him clear off the ground to look in his eyes. "Do not press me," he whispered in a dark threat. "I did that. For nothing. I will not do it again." He dropped Papi to the ground. Natasha was relieved the little creature seemed unharmed, only anxious.
"She would never want this!" Papi objected to his back as he started away.
Luke stopped, posture rigid. "Do not speak to me of her."
Papi raised a hand, and all the little creatures copied the motion, each small hand shooting off a stream of colored light. All the lights combined overhead to form a gleaming image, like a television screen in the air. Luke tilted his head back to watch as one horse drew an open-carriage bearing a coffin draped in the flag of Arendelle. His inhalation was ragged as he recognized it, and his lips parted.
"You were there," Papi said gently. "No one else saw you."
The image changed to the interior of a church, and a wooden image of a large tree carved into a wall. From that carving another image formed, a phantom transparent image of Luke who stepped away from the paneling to approach the coffin. The ghostly Luke trailed a hand across the coffin, until his hand stilled, his knees gave way and he collapsed before it. She couldn't see his face, but she could see the curve to his shoulders and back as he leaned into the coffin, one hand still flat and desperate on its smooth surface. It was a posture of such grief, it made her heart hurt to see it, aching with sympathy of his pain.
"Why are you showing me this?" Luke whispered.
"Because your companion needs to know," Papi said. Natasha started as the stone person's eyes flicked to her. She stood and moved within the crowd of the aliens. Luke saw her and seemed only wearily resigned that she had followed him.
"He has a heart," Papi said to her, "He's only forgotten it. Pain and loss turned it to ice, but love can melt a frozen heart."
She lifted her brows, wondering why he was telling her this. Did he know that she had been sent to observe Luke and figure out how dangerous he was?
He didn't look dangerous at the moment at all, his eyes lifted again to the funeral scene above until it flickered out. The moment passed and his expression hardened. "Spare me the sentiment, troll," Luke sneered. "If you can't help me, I will find one who can."
He whirled around and stalked past her to leave. Papi called after him, "Only you can, you know this."
Luke flicked glinting eyes over his shoulder. "We shall see," he drawled coldly. "I would take care of her, Papi. She has masters you would not like."
Alarmed, wondering what exactly 'take care of her' meant, she scanned the little creatures.
Papi's eyes met hers. "Help him," he urged her. "Help and perhaps this Realm will be saved."
"From what?" she asked.
"From him. From worse than him. From powers great and terrible that even now turn their eyes to this world." Papi looked upward, and this time, when she looked up the sky was dark as night with more stars in it than she had ever seen before. And yet, she felt eyes; someone or something was watching.
She felt cold and her fingers tightened on the knife hilt, even if it would be useless against that terrifying power out there. Watching.
The sky returned to normal, reassuring blue before she was sure she'd seen it.
"But I think he is right; you are not yet ready," Papi said, a little sadly.
"Ready for what?" she demanded and backed away, holding her knife tightly though she doubted it would be any use. "What are you doing?"
He lifted his little arm and pointed it at her. "Take the magic, leave the feeling. Take the magic, leave the truth. Remember only the ordinary..."
"No, no, what are you doing? No, don't," she said. His hand glowed blue, and a stream of light flowed out of it at her, but its touch was gentle as a stream of warm water. It wound around her, rising, shining bright in her eyes...
She gasped and blinked.
Why was she staring at an empty valley of rocks? Something teased at her about this valley, and the rocks, as if there was something... but it was an ordinary ravine with some glacier-smoothed rocks. It was a bit weird that Luke had met his doctor contact way out here, but with SHIELD after him he couldn't meet in town, either, so that made sense. Didn't it?
Shouldn't she have seen him leave? It didn't seem right that she had missed him. But at least "Papi" had shared the truth that Luke had lost someone close to him, given her a little insight into his past. That was probably the trigger that had resulted in his arrival in Arendelle.
Luke. Damn it, he was probably halfway to the car by now, she needed to catch him and make sure he didn't strand her here in the middle of nowhere. She raced after him.
He wasn't too far, and waited for her when she called his name.
"I'm sorry about your loss," she told him. "Is she why you're here?"
His eyes sought the western horizon across the tumbled hills in the direction of the sea. "Broadly speaking, yes."
"Your wife?" she guessed.
He shook his head, lips flickering in a humorless ironic smile. "Daughter."
"Oh, I'm sorry. That's... tragic." He wasn't that old, so the daughter would've been young when she died. Children were such delicate losses.
"It was long ago," he said dismissively. "Papi can't help me, so I need to find someone who can."
As she opened the car door and slid behind the wheel, she thought about what that meant. "You're not planning to attack SHIELD any more?"
He lifted his left arm in demonstration. "This was a lesson I cannot take on such a large organization as I am. I will give them time to leave Arendelle on their own, and if they choose not to, then... they are true invaders. And I will not stay my hand again."
That was a dramatic way to say that he was going to leave SHIELD alone. That much of her mission was accomplished. She still had to find out who he was, and she thought she should stay with him to do that. Help him, and let him reveal himself to her when he trusted her.
"Where do we go then?" she asked.
"We?" he repeated, surprised. "You can drop me back in town and return to your own business. You were investigating SHIELD, were you not? And I am of little help to you in that endeavour."
"I was, but you're more interesting," she said. "You're a mystery, Luke. Who are you?"
He shrugged and countered, "No one interesting."
"Who were you?" she persisted.
He stared out the window. "Someone who does not exist, Natalya. A phantom."
She growled a bit in her throat of frustration. "You're making me more curious. Just tell me."
That lightened him up and he smirked at her. "You would never believe the truth."
"No? Try me. I've seen a lot."
His gaze turned more appraising. "Well, perhaps you have. But it is a secret I should keep."
That was interesting, because that meant he knew who he had been and he was refusing to tell her. She needed to gain his trust more fully. First thing, she would play to his amusement, because he clearly enjoyed having a secret from her. She smacked his shoulder. "You are so annoying." His smirk widened. "So. You didn't say. Where to?"
"Town," he answered. "I need a new shirt."
Not the answer she'd expected, but certainly true. The sweater was too clearly blood-stained, even on the brown coloring. But 'in town' meant she needed to stay suspicious for her cover. "But what if they're there?"
"Steal a new car," he suggested with a shrug, as if that was nothing to worry about. "That is the easiest part to identify."
"We could drive to Oslo."
He lifted his brows at her. "Won't they watch the border? I would."
She had to nod, because Arendelle didn't have a lot of ways in and out, and SHIELD was watching all of them.
"With a new shirt I will be less recognizable," he offered. "Also, the blood is starting to smell."
She couldn't disagree with that, and at his direction took the road back to town and used a more circuitous route to a secondary street where there was a charity shop.
She followed him in, noting when he touched an khaki military-type jacket with nostalgic look on his face, but he moved on to pull some other shirts off the rack and started to change right there. She met his eyes and nodded toward the curtained changing booth. Looking irritated as if that was absurd, he followed her direction anyway.
Then he walked out. If his intent was to be inconspicuous, the shirt was not going to help that. It was a deep green button-front shirt, it flowed and shimmered like silk, and fit his torso like it had been made for him.
She did a poor job of hiding her reaction, as he grinned at her. "It fits. Does it not?"
"It does," she agreed and let her face soften in admiration. "It looks good on you."
He'd pushed his hair off his face while trying things on, and his features teased her with familiarity.
As he paid for the shirt and a black t-shirt, she frowned at his profile, cursing Red Room and its mental games that made her memory unreliable of anything before meeting Barton on that fateful day.
I have seen you before, somewhere, I know I have.
But his face gave no answer as they went out on the sidewalk. "Back to the car?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I need to go to the library."
Astonished, she asked, "The library? Why?"
"I need to find an answer, and that seems to be the only place to start," he said. "But you need not tend me. It will take time and likely be quite tedious."
She shrugged. "I'll follow for now."
The library seemed old and small from the outside, but inside, it opened up in a much larger, more modern space of glass and wood, rising on several levels. He stepped inside and looked all around, the small smile on his lips a rare genuine expression. "So many books," he murmured. "I could spend all day here."
She smiled indulgently. "I can tell. Go on, I'll find you." Like a dog let off a leash, he hurried into the stacks and she trailed behind him. At first she kept track of what he looked at, but gave up when he pulled books off the shelf at random, regardless of what language they were in or topic. It was as if he'd never seen so many books before and needed to look at them all.
She pulled out her phone to check it, texting, "In town. Identity still unknown, military service indicated."
The answer came back, "If subject threat 0, mission terminated."
She sent back hastily, "Tell Cmd: until identify verified, need to stay on mission."
"Your discretion," he replied, and she wanted to heave a sigh of relief that she wasn't pulled. Not now, not so close. Every instinct wanted to stay on this and solve the mystery. He claimed otherwise, but she knew; his past was important. She needed to know who he was.
He'd gotten out of sight, and for a moment she feared he'd taken his chance to dump her. But she found him in the science and technology section and he seemed to be going through with more focused interest.
He was examining books in the history of science, tomes about early science when alchemy and astronomy had been cousin disciplines. That tickled her memory, too. He took some books off the shelf, thumbed through them, and put them back. Some he sneered at and let fall to the floor like trash. Whatever he was looking for, he didn't find it.
Moving to the more modern science section, he piled a few to the side as if he might want to look at them more closely, and then knelt to look at the lower shelf where the larger ones were. He went utterly still. The reaction was so abrupt Natasha glanced around in alarm thinking he might have been struck by some weapon, but then he whispered something under his breath and reached to take a book off the shelf.
She moved closer to watch. He seemed to be touching it carefully, letting it sit on his knee to look at the cover.
Loki opened the cover slowly, as if he feared something within. His fingers were trembling. The first few pages of writing didn't seem to bother him, but then he reached a page with a small drawing on it, and he drew in a sharp breath.
He closed the book gently and lifted it to his chest, cradling it in his fingers, and the look on his face was devastated.
"Luke?" Natasha asked. "What is it? What did you find?"
"I need this book," he declared, his voice low and ragged.
"Can I see it?" she asked. Without relinquishing it, he turned it around so she could see the cover. It said, "A Rabbit's Guide to the Universe" and had a drawing of little rabbits lying on their backs looking up at the stars and looking through a telescope. It was a cute picture, but his reaction clearly had nothing to do with the actual content. "You've seen it before?" she asked.
He gave a torn little laugh. "Oh yes." A deep breath restored him and he said in a more normal tone, "I thought it was lost." Turning the book around to look at the cover himself, he said, "Elliot Randolph, Ed. What does that mean? 'ed'?"
"Editor," she answered.
"Ah, yes, of course."
"May I?" she asked and took the book from him. He didn't want to let it go at first, fingers clutching the spine until he visibly forced them to open. Flipping to the back she looked for the "about the author" section and read, "Elliot Randolph, professor of Norse mythology at the University of Seville. That's in--"
"Spain, yes, I know." He stood up and plucked the book from her. "I want to meet this Professor Randolph."
"I can take you," she offered.
He frowned at her. "Why?"
"Because SHIELD is still on our tail, and we might as well stick together. I can mislead them we're going East, where I have more contacts. They'll never guess Spain."
"How will we get there? Train?"
Ordinarily she would say yes, but Seville was a long way. "Airplane."
He frowned. "Will they not be watching the airport?"
"Yes, probably." He was catching on, she thought. It would only take a mistake to blow this open. At her next check-in, she needed to get Sitwell to get approval to tell Luke the truth before this went pear shaped. Luke was too clever to buy this much longer. "They think we're traveling by car. So as long as I lay a false trail it'll buy us some time."
"We could board a plane going elsewhere and force it to change course to Seville," Luke offered.
Hijack a plane… that would be a bit difficult to explain. Dangerous, and might put others on their tail they didn't want there. She was also disturbed at the casual way he suggested it, as if there was nothing dangerous about it at all. "That's an option, but let's try being sneaky," she suggested. "First task is to get you a passport."
"I think we can get the Arendelle authority to expedite your real one. I have a few contacts, let me see what I can do."
He nodded, with no real choice but to go along with her plan, even if he looked doubtful she could pull it off. But he didn't know her contacts were SHIELD, and SHIELD could make him a passport and dump it into the Arendelle system by morning. Sometimes it was very handy working for a legitimate agency, rather than freelance.
Luke wanted to take the book, and did not understand how libraries worked until she explained the process to him. While he was filling out the form to become a member, she called Sitwell. It felt odd to be doing it openly, but it was for the best.
"Agent Romanoff?" he sounded surprised, and she buried a smile.
"I need you to expedite a passport for Luke Rendell so we can pick it up tomorrow morning," she instructed. Dead silence for several seconds. She buried a smile. "Sitwell, are you still there?"
"Why does he need a passport?"
"We're going to Spain."
"Spain. Why on Earth does he need to go to Spain?"
The answer of chasing down the author of a children's science book seemed unlikely to get her the passport, so she answered, "I don't know, that's why I need to go there with him. There's something going on, Sitwell. But he's agreed to leave SHIELD alone for now, and do this other project. So get him a passport in their system legit by morning."
She hung up quickly as Luke came to her with his precious book, and a small card he held up for her inspection. "Look, I am a member of this library! I can borrow books for as long as six weeks, longer if I renew on the internet," he said proudly. "I am an actual citizen."
She had to smile back, thinking back to how good it had felt that first time she had filled out her forms for SHIELD with 'Natasha Romanoff' as her name. It hadn't been the name, but the pedestrian filling out of forms that had made her feel real. She had changed from a shadowy citizen of nowhere, to having an actual place to belong. So she understood his enthusiasm.
"Better than a library card, I have been promised we can pick up your passport tomorrow morning."
He frowned. "A real one? Or a fake?"
"Real. You're in the system, so it'll be real. Just... quick."
"Oh, good." He looked down at his book, excitement fading from his posture. "So we have to wait to speak to Randolph."
"A little while. Did you find what else you were looking for?"
"No. But this is more important," he said shortly.
She frowned. A beginning science book, basically "science for kids", that was published at least ten years ago, was so important?
But no answers were forthcoming as they found something to eat and a b&b room to share, paying cash as if still on the run.
* * *
Loki didn't want to let it out of his sight, even though it was a copy of the original. It was not even in the original language, having been translated into English, but still, it was Birgitte's book.
Randolph must have the original to have published this copy. It burned Loki's blood to think that Birgitte's book was not in Arendelle. It belonged here, to King Haakon and his children, not to some random mortal who had probably stolen it in the first place.
He was going to return Birgitte's book. His powers would have to wait.
But after the book was home... he would need sorcerers. Not the stage magicians with their sleight of hand and technical wizardry, he needed true magic. There was some true magic on Midgard, some he'd left there himself, but what there was, was in hiding. The irony being if he had magic, he could find it, but without, it was a difficult quest. He needed a better way to search it out than old books in a library.
He laughed to himself. Perhaps this professor would be able to help him find the ones he needed. He might be as easy to lure with tidbits of the truth as Natalya was. She wanted to know who he was, and he'd nearly laughed outloud when she had walked past an entire shelf of books devoted to the Ice Demon. He'd wanted desperately to see what ridiculous lies the mortals had come up with about him, but didn't dare touch the books with Natalya nearby.
There would be time later, after she was no longer useful. She was getting him his passport from Arendelle, and with that, he could travel more freely, including Switzerland. At least one of his accounts must still exist, and then he would have money, too. He would have an identity, a homeland, money to live on... So much for punishment.
The thought reminded him of Thor, and he wondered how his brother was faring, wherever he was. At least Loki had landed someplace familiar, hopefully Thor had, too. If not, Thor was probably already drinking in some inn with new friends. That was what he did.
Thor was all right, Loki was sure of that, unable to really conceive of a situation he would not be, even in a strange place. And just like Loki he was probably thinking that this 'banishment' was hardly punishment at all.