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17 November 2016 @ 10:51 am
The Ice Demon and the Captain, part 3  

The three of them found their seats on the train, and Steve was amused when Lukas stretched out his legs with a relieved sigh. “Ah yes, so much more civilized.”

“Trains aren’t even more primitive than airplanes?” Natasha asked, teasing.

“It could be faster,” he allowed, waving a hand toward the window and the view outside slowly shifting. “But those airplanes are nightmares.”

Natasha looked across to Steve and explained, “He’s afraid of flying.”

“I am not!” Lukas protested, sounding very offended. “I’m fine with flying. I dislike my aircraft breaking apart and falling from the sky. Which you lot seem to court with every single flight.”

“Don’t listen to him,” she advised Steve. “Flying is very safe, these days. He just doesn’t like jet engines.”

“It’s on fire, Natalya. You are still using the steam engine, and you think it is so modern,” he scoffed and rolled his eyes.

Steve had to smile at their banter and wanted to get a little of his own back. “I remember. You almost threw up on that flight back to London.”

“That was my first ride on a flying deathtrap. And the stench was foul.”

“It was,” Steve agreed, nodding. “The later ones we flew weren’t so bad, but that one stank.”

They played cards for part of the trip, and Lukas introducing them to some old games she’d read about, but had never played, and they watched a movie.

In Union Station they switched to the subway which seemed similar to New York’s, and headed out toward Bethesda. Natasha said there’d be a car waiting for them and so there was, which was convenient. She drove them to the elder care facility where Peggy stayed, texting ahead that they were on the way.

Steve was anxious about seeing her and Bucky again. It seemed both a miracle they were both alive, and a curse that he’d missed all their years. Unfairness curdled inside, mixed with joy that he hadn’t missed everything, making his reactions unsteady and jolted with every thought.

Meanwhile Lukas seemed just plain anxious, sitting in the back, staring blindly out the window, and Steve would not have been surprised to hear him say he was staying in the car when they finally stopped.

The place had nice landscaping – a tree-lined drive up to a low rise building that looked more like a plantation mansion with front columns and a portico, but the wide ramp with the railings somewhat spoiled the look.

Inside, the front hall had a desk for them to sign in. They’d barely scrawled their name when Steve heard a familiar voice, “God damn, that’s just not fair.”

Steve spun around and saw Bucky. At first the voice fooled him, because it sounded exactly the same, so he didn’t quite comprehend what he was seeing.

Bucky Barnes was old. Not ancient, not even that aged, really. He had a full head of hair still, all of it silvery-grey, and his face was creased, especially at the corners of his eyes, but he still stood with that same upright posture he always had, a bit thinner than Steve recalled. And his arm was mostly hidden by his long sleeve sweater, but his hand – his hand looked flesh, the fingers curling naturally against his legs.

“Buck?” Steve said, voice failing him. “Oh god, you’re alive.”

“That’s my line, you punk,” Bucky said, his voice hoarse too, and then his arms went around Steve and held him tight. “Thank God, you’re alive.”

Not flesh, Steve could feel the difference in the strength of his hand, but a false one made very realistically.

Bucky pushed back and looked at Lukas, who was hanging back. “And you, Lukas, you don’t call, you don’t write--” he chided, and when Lukas opened his mouth, expression somewhat crestfallen by the teasing, Bucky shook his head. “I knew you’d be back someday, thank God you made it today.” Then, ignoring Lukas’ stiffness, Bucky hugged him, too.

He looked at Natasha curiously and Steve made the hasty introductions.

“Oh, you’re her,” Bucky said.

“Her?” she repeated.

“I retired, but it’s not like I don’t get all the gossip. And I had my own experience with your former, uh, teachers, so I know how hard that must’ve been for you to crossover. Welcome, Natasha.”

She shook his hand. “Thank you, sir.”

“Oh, don’t be like that, once a sergeant, always a sergeant. Unlike some people.” He glanced pointedly at both Steve and Lukas. “Come on this way, into the lounge, we can talk there.”

The lounge area had a fireplace and books on the shelves that looked as old as the residents, though luckily it was empty. There was also a television displaying a talk show, but Bucky muted it with the wand. He faced Steve, without sitting down yet.

“I really am glad you’re alive. It’s a miracle,” he said. “We thought you were dead.”

“I know, Bucky. It’s okay.”

"You don't mind?" Bucky asked. "Me and Peggy?

At first Steve looked confused, no idea what Bucky was asking, but understanding dawned. "You and Peggy? Mind? Hell no. No," he added more insistently. "I'm glad. No, really. God, Buck, did you think I'd want both of you to waste your lives grieving over someone gone?"

"Well, no, that's why we did it. Not right away," he added hastily. "We did look for you. But eventually – we-- stopped." His gaze took on a regretful cast, and he swallowed hard, looking away. "We should've kept looking."

"No," Steve disagreed and gripped Bucky's shoulder. "You did the right thing."

"But we could've--"

"Bucky, you had to live. I understand that. And I'm not mad that you moved on with your life. I'm glad you had each other, and you were happy. I'm just mad I missed it."

“I’m mad you missed it, too. Whatever you need, Steve, anything, you tell me,” Bucky said and hugged Steve again.

Steve hung onto him, eyes tightly shut against the burning, fists against Bucky’s back. He was old, but he was still Bucky.

Steve let him go, wiping a hand across his eyes.

Bucky cleared his throat. “Okay. Let’s go see Peggy, she should be awake.” In the hall, he cautioned them, “I do want you to know that her memory’s not… what it once was. She may not recognize you, or she may not remember that you’ve already come in the room. So, just, be prepared.”

“It must be hard on you,” Steve murmured.

“On me? Well, it’s harder on the kids,” he answered. “Me, she’ll recognize at least even if she forgets what year it is. But sometimes she believes the kids are still small, so she thinks they’re strangers.”

Steve thought that sounded utterly heartbreaking, and his situation suddenly didn’t seem so terrible. Missing time sucked, but at least the people who cared still knew him.

He thought he was prepared for Peggy to look her age. He thought he was prepared to hear her say his name.

He wasn’t.

Lukas had kept a smile the whole visit, but when they left Carter to sleep, and Barnes and Rogers were talking, Lukas walked straight out of the facility, ignoring the request to sign out. Natasha gave him a few minutes to chill, but when he didn’t come back in, she went looking, hoping he hadn’t left.

He hadn’t. He was standing at the end of the driveway, beneath the old oak tree beside the open gate, but he hadn’t crossed to the sidewalk outside the property yet. His arms were folded, as he stared across the road at the office park mostly hidden by other trees.

“Lukas?” Natasha approached him, expecting to find him upset by seeing his friends to aged and close to death. “You okay?”

His brow knitted and he shook his head. “I should have come back,” he murmured. “It is distressing to see someone who once was so sharp, reduced and so frail.”

“At least you get to see her again. And she recognized you.”

Lukas shook his head. “Not for long.”

Which had been true. Natasha had hung back out of sight to not be an added confusion, but she had heard Carter greet him by name, and ten minutes later try to call for her brother because she didn’t know the stranger by her bed.

“There’s nothing you can do, just try to--” Natasha started, but then his head jerked up and she fell quiet.

“There is something I can do.” He whirled and started back toward the building, Natasha springing after him.

“What? What are you going to do?” she asked. “Can you heal her?” She thought of the stories she’d read about the Norse gods and though she knew now that most of them had nothing to do with the reality of Asgard, she added, “Can you grant her immortality?”

“The first, perhaps. The second? You mean the apple story? No. We are long-lived by race, not by magical apples.” He scoffed and rolled his eyes. “It is a pity though. Immortality apples would solve so many problems.”

She shook her head at his back, as he didn’t stop at the counter on his way in, either, and went back to the lounge where Barnes and Steve were talking.

Lukas waited until she’d entered, and then he shut the door, getting the two men’s attention. “Lukas?” Barnes asked.

“I have… a proposition,” Lukas said. He brought his hands together before him, rubbing a thumb on his opposite wrist before saying, “There is a possibility I could help Margaret. Her mind,” he corrected hastily, “Her body too if there is a specific ailment, but I speak mostly of her mental … confusion.”

Barnes looked at him and then rose to his feet, closing the space between him and Lukas, to look into his eyes. “You can help her?” His regular hand seized Lukas’ forearm. “You really think you can?”

“As I helped you,” Lukas said, glancing at Barnes’ prosthesis arm. It was nearly indistinguishable from a flesh one, and Natasha hadn’t even noticed the skin on it was false until she’d noticed the hairless sheen to it. SHIELD or Stark had done an amazing job with it.

“Wait,” Steve said, standing at that. “You helped him? I thought it was a blood transfusion. Is that what you want to do with Peggy?”

Lukas and Barnes’ eyes met and Lukas inhaled, with a brief grimace. “No. My healing of James was never my blood, Steven. I healed his injuries with magic.”

“You knew this,” Steve said, blue eyes accusing his older friend.

“He asked me to keep it secret. So I did.”

“It was a better explanation for his abilities,” Lukas said. “We thought it might save him from anyone believing he could be the key to a version of the serum.”

His face was a mask and his tone level, but Natasha inwardly winced, realizing that this lie might have saved Barnes from anyone trying to get the serum from him, but having healing blood in the story had contributed to why he’d been taken prisoner and tested again. Strucker had wanted something that had never existed.

“But that is the past,” Lukas said, flicking his fingers. “What it means is that I believe I can help Margaret. It is not without risk,” he added. “If she is too weak, I cannot attempt it, as healing always takes some from the patient. I would shield her as best I can. But if you and she would allow it, I could at least examine her and see if I could improve her condition.”

Barnes looked at him for a long moment, seeming stunned by the offer or turning it over it in his mind. Since he didn’t speak, Lukas added, “I understand if you would rather not take the risk. It has been a long time since we knew each other and I know I damaged your trust--”

Barnes hand gripped his shoulder tightly, cutting off his words. “I trust you,” he declared. “Good grief, how could I not, Lukas? No, I’m just… To think I could get Peg back.” his voice wobbled and he had to bite his lip. “It’s been hard,” he confessed. “Sometimes she’s back, she’s there, but then she doesn’t know who I am. Or she still thinks the kids are small, and as they are, they’re strangers to her. I’d give anything for them to get their mom and grams back.”

“Well, you don’t have to give me anything,” Lukas said, trying to smile, but his touch was light on Barnes’ arm. “I’ll see what I can do, James. Try to make up for my absence, at least a little.”

Rogers looked skeptical of what he was going to do and still a bit annoyed that he hadn’t known the truth of Barnes’ rescue, but didn’t try to interfere. Natasha watched, curious what Lukas was going to do.

At the door, outside her room, Lukas instructed, “Steven, keep the door closed. I don’t’ want any well-meaning employee to interfere. The rest of you need to stay out of her view. And do not interfere, unless it looks as if one or both of us is dying. That will mean something has gone very awry.”

Barnes took a step forward, “Lukas--”

“Lighten up, James, it was a jest. It may not work, but no harm will come to her, I swear.” Lukas opened the door and strode in again, heading straight for her bedside, opposite the door, so he could draw her attention away from the others following behind him.

Carter stirred and opened her eyes. She smiled weakly, but happily. “Lukas. Mister Onsdag, you’ve come back!”

Lukas’ smile didn’t shift a hair, as he greeted her as if for the first time, “Margaret. You look well.”

She coughed a laugh, and pawed in his direction. “Such a liar.”

He caught her hand in his. “Nay, you do. Old, but we all grow older or we die, Margaret, and I am pleased you chose growing older.”

“But you’re the same,” she said and frowned, growing confused. “Is it not so long then? I thought--”

“Sweet, strong Margaret,” he murmured, raising her hand to his lips. “I am a different breed. And I am here to help you, if you will let me.”

“Help me? How?”

“Your memories. Perception. To help you recognize your children as they are today, grown.”

Her voice, so small, so helpless, made Natasha’s heart – so hardened once –crack, as Carter said, “I forget, sometimes. I know I do.”

Then, so quietly, so gently, that she had never heard him use before, not even to Lila, he asked, “Then, Margaret, will you let me try to help you? Will you trust me to help you?” She nodded slightly, but it was enough. He smiled a bit. “Then I shall.” He settled on the bed, lifting her head and the pillow beneath it, into his lap. He set his fingers lightly on both sides of her head and said, “Think of your oldest memory. When you were a child. As far back as you can. A favorite doll. Your brother. Playing in the garden, or your nursery. Do you remember?”

“We played pirates,” she said, voice hoarse but her eyes were clear, fixing on the past.

“Pirates,” he murmured and his smile widened in soft amusement. “Remind me to tell you my pirate adventure. Think back to when you defended your ship against pirates, Captain Peggy.” The sound of her more usual first name sharpened Natasha’s attention, as both Lukas and Carter closed their eyes. “We shall chase that as the beginning of the path, and join all the other paths back to it where they are broken. She’s stronger than she looks but this may take awhile,” he said, in exactly the same even tone, but clearly to the observers not to her. “I request your patience.”

For a minute, he sat there, Carter’s head in his lap, fingers at her temples, and didn’t seem to breathe.

Beside her Barnes rubbed at his upper chest and shoulder area with his right hand and his brow knotted curiously, as he stopped rubbing and looked at his flesh hand as his fingers curled. He glanced at the bed. “He’s doing something,” he murmured. “I feel it. That’s weird. Haven’t felt something like that in a long time.”

“Is it… bad?” Steve asked. “Should we stop it?”

Barnes grabbed his arm when Steve shifted his weight to walk. “No. let him try.”

A sound in the hallway outside distracted Natasha and she looked out the small window in the door. “Nurse incoming,” she warned.

“On it,” Barnes said and hurried out to block the nurse from interrupting.

Natasha turned back when it seemed Barnes had the problem in hand. What Lukas doing looked odd, but not look dangerous or harmful; the danger came from knowing that Lukas was, somehow, doing something in her head. That knowledge was making Steve tense, and Natasha slid closer to him so she was in position to stop him if he tried to interfere.

But as it continued, she began to be uneasy herself. Lukas’ brow furrowed and his jaw clenched, as whatever he was doing seemed to get more difficult. Carter had, to sharply inhale, as if she’d been holding her breath, and started to pant lightly, while Lukas didn’t seem to be breathing at all. His fingers trembled on her skin.

Though bright in the room, it became apparent that the faint sheen across his hands and her face was not because of the sunlight slipping through the window blinds, but a glow he was causing.

Natasha watched, wondering when she should intervene or let Rogers intervene. That ‘jest’ of Lukas’, that one or both of them could die, made her think maybe it wasn’t such a jest at all, that there was a not-zero chance that could happen. Director Carter was an admired hero of SHIELD, and that loss would be tragic, but it would be even worse for those left behind: her family, Steve, and definitely for Lukas, who would probably never forgive himself if she died doing this.

Since ‘never’ was going to be a very long time for someone who could potentially live thousands of years more, she stepped forward when Carter gasped again and moaned in distress.

“James, I

“Lukas,” she called him back and he went back to the bedside, and when she reached out for him, he took her hand and she tugged him closer. “I am so sorry,” she said. “I saw … I know. We should’ve found the rest of them, we didn’t look hard enough--”

“No, Margaret,” he reassured her. “You have nothing to be sorry for. Especially when I abandoned you.”

“Oh, sweetie,” she said, and pulled his hand up to kiss it. “You did nothing of the sort. I knew you’d be back when you were ready. I’m so sorry it wasn’t happy.”

“I’m happy to see you again.”

Their eyes held for a moment, Carter’s aware and sharp, a younger woman, but a wiser woman, too. “I am, too.” She glanced at the hand she was holding and then looked to Barnes. “James. Take this boy someplace to sit down, and give him food. He won’t tell you but he’s exhausted.”

Lukas looked a bit askance at being called ‘boy’ but a pleased smile hovered nonetheless, as he admitted, “I could eat something.”

“Will do, and be back afterward,” Barnes promised.

“Take your time. I’m going to rest.” She let go of Lukas’ hand and flicked her fingers to send them all away.

In the corridor Barnes grabbed Lukas around the shoulders into a sudden hug. “Oh my God, you did it. You did it, thank you. You… that’s Peggy in there again. All of her. You brought her back.”

Awkwardly, Lukas patted Barnes on the back. “You are very welcome.”

Barnes pulled back and frowned at him. “what was she talking about though? Apologizing for what?”

Lukas couldn’t hold his eyes, casting his gaze away. “Touching her mind meant she also touched mine. But she thought what happened long ago was recent. It was nothing. Though I am hungry. Is there a place here to get real food? Because those vending machines are an abomination….”

As Barnes led him down the corridor, Natasha and Steve followed more slowly. Natasha wasn’t surprised he was keeping up the lie he’d told Steve, that nothing had happened after he’d arrived, and she wished he’d be honest about it, even if he didn’t want to talk about it. It wasn’t going to stay a secret. But it was his choice to make, and she went along with it.

Next to her, Steve heaved a sigh, and since it was the kind of sound people made for attention, she glanced at him. “You okay, Rogers?”

“Yeah, I just-- I don’t know. I’m glad I get to see them, but they’re so different. Lukas looks the same, but he’s doing things I never saw before. Makes me realize how much has changed.”

She let that digest and offered, “Just remember they’re changed for Lukas, too, and he deals with aging and death a lot worse than we do.”

“You’d think he’d be used to it by now.”

She shook her head. “Not when he avoids it as much as possible. He told me he used to move on when people noticed he wasn’t aging; that means he moved on before they could age, too.”

Expression more thoughtful, Steve looked in Lukas’ direction. “Didn’t think of that.”

But then, conversation ahead aught her attention and she quickened her step to hear what Lukas and Barnes were talking about.

“You met Queen Brigitte?” Lukas sounded pleased. “I hope she was well.”

“She was,” Barnes said. “And I spent a while there, helping out.” he held out his metal hand and clenched the fist. “Hauled a lot of bricks.”

Lukas glanced at him. “Thank you, James. I appreciate that you went there, for me.”

“Hey, least I could do.” Barnes shrugged and pushed open the door to the facility’s cafe. “Take a seat, I’ll get the food. What do you want?”

Lukas glanced at the menu written on the chalkboard on the easel. “A turkey and cheese sandwich should suffice.”

Steve went up with Barnes, and Natasha who wasn’t interested in early lunch, waved her hand to pass and followed Lukas at the table with the view out to the courtyard. He looked outside, gaze somewhere far more distant.

“Hey,” she murmured, sliding into the seat next to him. “You doing all right?”

He glanced at her. “It was draining but food will help.”

Which didn’t answer the question, but since the answer was probably ‘not really’ she didn’t pursue it. She watched Barnes and Rogers quibble about who was going to pay at the register, though they settled on Rogers carrying everything and Barnes paying for it.

Steve set the tray down and slid it to in front of Lukas; the tray held the requested sandwich, salad, potato chips, pudding, and a bottle of water. “Go ahead,” he invited.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” Lukas asked. “This feels awkward and rude.”

Barnes scoffed. “Did we just create a miracle? no. Dig in. I’ll eat with Peggy later.” He smiled. “It’ll be good to have lunch together again, like it used to be. When she brought me into SHIELD – this was in the early days, just after it spun off from the SSR- “ he explained in an aside to Steve, “we’d have lunch together. ” His smile turned wry. “Your ghost was sitting with us for a couple of years before I got up the courage to ask her on a proper date.”

“Years? You? Damn, now I know you were lost without me,” Steve teased and bumped shoulders. “So tell me about my namesake. Is he in SHIELD?”

Barnes laughed. “Hell no. They both went as far from SHIELD or the military as they could. Funny when Howard’s kid followed in his footsteps, but no, Stevie’s a pediatrician, and Lucy’s a professor at Culver.”

“Wow, smart. They must get it from Peggy,” Steve teased.

But Barnes wasn’t offended. “Oh, they did. Definitely.”

As Natasha listened, she let her gaze roam, reflexively checking her position and the new people entering the lunchroom. There was no danger of course, but there was a nurse in scrubs trying to take a photo with her cellphone of their table.

Natasha turned and lifted her shoulder, to obscure her own face and Lukas’. There was nothing she could do about Steve though. The nurse worked here, so she knew who Bucky Barnes was, and if she was taking a picture, she’d recognized Lukas or Steve, too.

“I texted Lucy to drive over as soon as she can, so make sure you stick around,” Barnes said and pushed back his chair. “I’m going to check on Peg.”

“I’ll go with you?” Steve said, half in question, but Barnes waved him up. When they left, the nurse took another picture.

Captain America’s return was about to go viral, Natasha thought with a sigh. She could go take the phone, but that wasn’t going to stop her from posting about it, nor anyone else.

Lukas scraped the sides of the plastic cup to get the last of the chocolate pudding. For someone who had claimed to want only a sandwich, he’d eaten everything on the tray. “I find myself eager to meet--” Lukas interrupted himself, to ask her, “What’s wrong?”

“Barnes is a public figure,” she explained. “The woman over there just recognized Rogers by association. Cap’s back is going to be known soon.”

Lukas set his spoon down, grimacing. “We knew it would happen,” he said, more to convince himself than her. “Perhaps people will not be convinced when his appearance hasn’t aged, unlike James.”

“There will be doubt,” she agreed. But she didn’t want it to linger there, because that smacked of willful blindness. Lukas needed to be prepared for the truth. “But unfortunately I think the public is already primed for the two of you to return at the same time, so there won’t be as much as you’d think. And you know the news reports from Sokovia already mention you.”

“I know,” he agreed heavily. “I feel this should be of no real concern to me. Notoriety is not, in itself, a problem. It can be enjoyable, even.”

She shook her head. “You were notorious among the wrong people,” she added quietly. “Twice. Of course you don’t’ want that kind of attention.”

“Which is ridiculous, because I am aware that those sort of evils are not common. Even Strucker and his minions had incredible luck, striking when I was weakened; their ambush would not work today. So public attention should be nothing to me. Inconvenient, perhaps, but ultimately, appreciation is always better than the reverse, right?”

She listened to this attempt to perk himself up, and gave a bit of a smile. “I do
my best work without attention, so I can’t answer that.”

He regarded her in some surprise. “No public attention, but surely some, from your employers? Even your opponents, I should think, give you much respect. And certainly I appreciate you and your many talents.”

It was her turn to be surprised – not only was he sincere, he didn’t say anything about her looks, which she expected, especially when she knew he was attracted to her. “Well, thank you.”

He smiled at her, amused. “Even if you do mock my dislike of aeroplanes.” He stood up. “Shall we see if Lucy has arrived yet?”

He was about to leave behind his tray and the debris of his meal, but hesitated when he noticed several disapproving glances sent their way. But he figured it out immediately, carrying his tray to the disposal area.

Natasha watched from the door, nodding to herself. It was taking him awhile to adapt to this time, but he was also quick to read people and take his cue to fit in, when he wished. He’d make a good SHIELD agent, and though he was understandably reluctant right now, she’d talk to Fury and Hill about easing him into it. Spying, interrogation, infiltration – those seemed to be a good fit with his talents. Plus, he needed something to do; aimlessly floating wasn’t good for anyone, and especially not someone floundering after trauma and cutting ties to his family.

It would be good for him to meet Lucy, and hopefully the two would get along, so he could add her to his connections that would survive Carter and Barnes’ proximate death.

They had to pass a restroom on the way; the door was propped open with a flag out front to close it for cleaning. Natasha’s nose twitched at the smell of bleach; it was nothing she smelled often anymore, since modern cleansers rarely contained strong concentrations of chlorine bleach, but they’d used it in the Red Room. Scrubbing the bathrooms until their fingers were pink. Learning how to use the bleach to make chlorine gas.

Lukas however reacted as if he’d been shot-- recoiling so hard he slammed himself against the opposite wall. Natasha turned alarmed, thinking he really had been hit by some kind of weapon and started to reach under her jacket for the sidearm at her back.

But no, it wasn’t necessary. His eyes were wide and glassy, unblinking and unseeing, trapped. His breaths were desperate and ragged, and he held his hands out to either side, pressed against the wall even as he slid down it to sit on the floor.

His hands were against the wall in an uncomfortably cruciform position, and he held them there, shaking, as if pinned there.

She didn’t dare touch him and provoke an attack. With his strength returned, he could harm her without any awareness of doing so.

Kneeling out of his reach to the side, she called softly, “Lukas! Lukas, can you hear me? You’re safe-- come back to the present. Come back to me.”

He didn’t seem to hear her, as a moan of terror and pain in his throat that wanted to be a scream.

Loki knew it had happened. Logically it must have happened. He knew there had been a wound across his stomach, but once it healed, it was easy to pretend it didn't happen. Until the acrid smell of the bleach touched his nose, flinging him back into the bright, blinding light and the shadowy forms of white-gowned and masked people.

. . .

He knew, looking up, that this was different, and different was bad. He was strapped down at the hips and chest now, to keep him still.

One took a scalpel and cut across his abdomen. The cut bit deep, and then again, deeper, slicing through flesh that should have been much tougher and was now merely mortal and fragile.

He bit down on the gag, the rest of him tense against the bonds.

The cut was opened up with tools, and a dispassionate voice made dry observations about everything he saw --- skin, muscle, organs, blood...

Loki remained conscious and too aware, until one of them plunged gloved hands inside.

He screamed until he ran out of air and his heart beat thundered in his ears, and even then he felt every single touch inflaming his nerves.

Until finally, brain and body had taken all they could bear, and darkness closed in and there was the relief of nothingness.

. . .

"Lukas, Lukas!"

Loki grabbed the sound of someone calling his Midgardian name like a man seizing a rope while drowning, and used it to pull himself out of the dark. His breath was short and uneven, and he opened his eyes to find he was seated on the floor, pressed against the wall.

Natasha knelt before him, her strong little hands wrapped over his, offering her strength.

The reflexive impulse to pull free, straighten up, and pretend he was fine rushed through his mind, but in the end, he did nothing. She already knew, so pride was a bit tardy.

"Hey," she murmured when she had his attention. "What was it that triggered you?"

"The smell." His voice was ragged, and he had to clear his throat. He leaned his head back against the wall, taking deliberate breaths. "They cut me open," he whispered.

Since she already knew that, she understood what he meant. "You were conscious?" she asked. The question was calm, fact-finding, not incredulous.

He nodded and shut his eyes, suddenly and strangely exhausted, as though he'd actually been through it again, not merely remembered it.

Her thumbs rubbed the backs of his hands, distracting and soothing. "Catch your breath. Remember that you're not there. You're right here."

His smile made a vague stab at genuine amusement before falling away again. "I know. Even if I didn't a moment ago." He regarded her a moment before asking, "You seem unsurprised. Does this happen to mortals?"

"Traumatic flashbacks? Yes."

"It didn't happen before, to me," he said, then reconsidered with a frown. "Well, moments of loss. But nothing like this. By any standard, Sokovia was far less terrible, so I do not see why I should react with such force."

She reminded him softly, “This isn’t out of the blue. You’re tired, and it’s on your mind, plus I don’t know how much you had to remember while you were in Carter’s head, but it’s pretty clear she got some of it, so you must’ve dredged up some of it yourself.”

Which was true enough. He’d tried to hold Margaret away from his memories, but the work had been too much of a strain to keep her back, as her eager mind had seized everything it could, without the training to know her thoughts from his. So they’d experienced some of it together, and Natasha was right-- that had probably primed him for reacting to any reminder at all.

“Lukas –" she hesitated and then said deliberately, calling him by his true name, "Loki. We have doctors, trained in psychological trauma treatment. You should find one to help you."

He snorted and withdrew his hands. "And a mortal would understand my mind? I am not human, Natalya."

She stayed where she was, somber-faced, eyes intently gazing at his. "I know. But you're reacting like one, so perhaps if you get help like one, you might find some healing."

That hit its target. How did she know the right word? Because 'healing' was something he could accept. He needed something, because he seemed to be getting worse, not better. But still, it was difficult to agree to such a thing, touching pride and stubborn resistance that muttered at him that mortal doctors knew nothing, could not help, and he should be above all this...

Yet, he was not. Obviously. Because he had zero memory of how he had ended up on the floor, as if he'd found a crack in his mind and fallen into it.

Taking a deep careful breath, he looked at his hands, noting the fine tremors in his fingertips that he could only stop by resting them on his stomach. "Do you think it could help? Truly?" he asked softly.

Her lips quirked upward, a bit crooked. "It helped me." Going unspoken but he knew: ‘you're not the only one with cracks in their mind.’ Her hand laid on his knee. "You wouldn't reject a bandage on a bleeding wound, so there's no reason to reject a bandage for your mind, either."

The words caught him, snagged on him when he would have otherwise tried to shrug them away, and forced him to consider them. "You are too wise for your years, Natalya," he said and her smile widened, recognized the admission in his words.

"I'll ask around for someone you can trust." She helped him up, strong fingers curled around his forearm. "C'mon, let's find you a place to sit down."

He looked down the corridor, and the medical equipment suddenly loomed in his vision and turned his stomach.

“No,” he shook himself free. “I want to go back to the hotel. I – can’t be here right now. Tell them-- I don’t know. Whatever you want.”

He hurried out of there, keeping from running by sheer willpower, alert for anything else that might turn him back into a slobbering wreck on the floor.

The fresh air outside the building was a slap to the face that helped him calm down and draw deeper breaths. It didn’t make him feel less of a fool, so thoroughly betrayed by his own mind.

As anxiety diminished, it left only weariness. Light-headed, he gripped the beam supporting the portico above the entrance, ending up with his forehead against it.

He wanted to go back to the hotel, but he couldn’t take the car. He might be able to drive it and find his way back, but in this state he was likely a danger to others. He doubted his concentration was strong enough to use other paths. How else? What would a mortal do?

Taxicab. But this was a quiet suburban street, with no cabs to flag down. What did one do?

Why did his mind feel like oozing sludge, so that he had to fight for each thought?

The automatic doors hissed open behind him, but he recognized her presence before she spoke.

“I see you got far,” Natasha teased behind him.

“You didn’t have to come after me,” he muttered. “I was on this planet for a century by myself, I crossed oceans and deserts, lived on mountains, found my way in crowded cities. I can manage.”

She moved closer, standing beside him, and murmured, “Of course you can. But the best part of friends is you don’t have to manage alone.” Her hand, delicate and warm, touched the back of his.

“I want to go back to the farm.” the wistful words came out, before he thought about it, then he shook his head at himself and huffed a breath. “No, not there. Just… somewhere.” He put his back to the pillar and leaned against it. “Norns, I am pathetic.”

“You’re tired,” she pointed out. “Come on, I’ll take you back to the hotel and you can rest.”

“But Steven--”

“Is a big boy. He can take care of himself,” Natasha said and headed for the car. “Come on.”

He followed and once they were driving back, he let out a sigh. “I hope they pay you well for nursemaiding me.”

She glanced at him, smiling. “Before you, my assignment was cozying up to Tony Stark. You’re much less annoying.”

“You say that now...”

She patted his knee. “I’m sure you can be very annoying.”

Having expected a more generic reassurance, he was amused but the smile slipped away. “I should stay and meet Lucy.”

It was said without any actual intent to do that, only regret, so she kept on for the hotel. “You will. Just not today. She’s going to want to spend time with her mother, not you, so it’s probably for the best.” Natasha glanced at him. “You did a good thing, you know. Whatever sins you think you committed against them, you paid for them, okay? Let it go. I don’t think you can heal if you’re still trying to punish yourself.”

He glanced at her, lips flat, and returned, “Are you? Punishing yourself for sins of the past?”

She hesitated to mull that one and shook her head. “No. I want to make up for the evils in my past, but to do good, not to punish myself. I think there’s a difference.”

“You want redemption,” he said.

Her lips turned in a small wry smile. “Not in this life. Not for me. But if I don’t do what I can now, then there’s no hope at all, is there?”

“Maybe there is no hope for people like us,” he murmured. “Maybe we’re damaged beyond repair.”

“Maybe we are. But as long as I keep hope alive for Cooper and Lila, that’s enough for me.”

He wondered if that was enough for him and whether helping Margaret had cleared his debt to her and James. Or was there a debt at all? They’d told him there wasn’t, and he’d seen her thoughts to know she believed it, so should he take Natasha’s advice and clear it? Or was it more true to acknowledge that he couldn’t change what he did; he’d made a selfish mistake, but at least he’d tried to make up for it. And perhaps the mistake was not as terrible as he wanted to believe it was.

He sighed and leaned back to rest his head. He should just rest since his mind was simply curling in on itself, giving up on the whole idea of comparative morality and friendship when his head ached this much.

Tomorrow would be soon enough for that.

Natasha escorted Lukas to his room at the hotel and smiled when he sat on the bed and didn’t move, eyes at half-mast and brain already sleeping. “Lukas. Lie down,” she suggested.

He listed to one side as if part of him heard her, but not enough to fulfill the suggestion. She reached out to push his shoulder so he’d fall back, but he caught her wrist and pulled her down on top of him, as he fell backward.

She froze, waiting to see what he was doing. She could free herself, but it obviously wasn’t an attack. He felt exactly as she’d thought he would, when she’d seen him shirtless on that rocky beach in Arendelle, muscular but lithe, and his other hand when he pushed his fingers through her hair next to her face made her skin shiver with the delicacy of his touch, even half-asleep.

“You are so beautiful,” he murmured. His fingers caressed lightly from her temple to her cheek, and despite his words, he wasn’t looking at her, only caressing her face lightly with his fingertips.

“Lukas, what are you doing?” she whispered, pitching it as curiosity, not rejection. Because she didn’t want him to stop, but she was worried that he was doing this without full awareness.

But his eyes opened to find hers, and they were awake and aware. “I don’t know,” he answered, but his hand knew, sliding down and cupping her neck from behind. Never demanding, not pulling her to him, only slowly exploring as if her skin was a delicate art piece and he didn’t want to damage it.

“I wanted… to offer you…. I don’t know how it’s said these days-- to touch you, to give you what you seemed to want that time at the farm,” he murmured. “Your skin is so warm.”

“You said you didn’t want intimacy, or attachment,” she reminded him.

He shook his head. “I have little else to offer,” he returned. His thumb traced her lower lip. “You have been so generous, I thought at least this I could give you in return.”

The meaning of his words struck and she lifted her chin, drawing away from his touch and looking in his eyes. “In return?” she repeated. “You don’t owe me anything.”

“But I do,” he disagreed. One of his hands smoothed down her back to the hem of her shirt and slipped beneath to lay on her lower back. “And for a little while, we can both pretend the past doesn’t exist. Only the present.”

“I would,” she murmured. “But I know what they did, Lukas, and I don’t want you to do anything because you feel obligated. That’s just a different form of coercion--”

He frowned and shook his head, hand falling away from her back. “No, not like that.”

“Isn’t it?” she laid a finger across his lips. “No. Staying with you, helping you, isn’t a debt you need to repay.”

“But you could be doing so much more,” he objected. “Your talents--”

That was flattering, and she felt a bit warm-- so often men only saw the woman, not the agent, which was of course what she showed them, but from the first meeting, Lukas had seen beyond that. She smiled, a bit crooked, “Well, if it makes you feel better, I’m guarding a SHIELD asset. That’s you. Also, I’m here to keep and earn your trust, after those traitors broke it. And I’m observing and interrogating an alien visitor. Which isn’t exactly a mission they give to just anyone,” she added dryly, joking a little bit, but it was also true.

“Interrogating?” he repeated, sounding lightly amused. “Then I think I should reveal exactly how much experience I have.” His hands clasped her waist and lower ribs and slid slowly down her hips.

It was with a little regret, that she captured one of his hands with hers and pulled it away. “Lukas, this isn’t the time. You’re exhausted, and I don’t think you’re ready yet.”

“Ready? Can you not tell how ready I am?” he teased, bending his knee to part her legs.

Which let her put her hand behind her and touch his inner thigh. It wasn’t intimate, and it was a fleeting touch – he still gave a full body flinch beneath her, and nearly threw her off him.

She rolled away, ending kneeling beside him and looking down into his face, which was suddenly ashen. He was breathing rapidly and had to dampen his lips with his tongue.

To take the sting from her words, she laid a hand on his shoulder and gave him a sympathetic smile. “Lukas, they didn’t just hurt you in Sokovia. They assaulted you. I understand that. Believe me, I understand, and I know the appeal of trying to erase or replace the memory of what they did to you. Or the appeal of trying to forget. But you don’t feel safe, and if you push yourself to do this now, you won’t feel safe with me. And I don’t want that. I want you, whole and entire and truly ready.” Leaning down, she kissed his lips, making hers speak her promise and her willingness.

He returned it, eagerly, rising up to meet it and deepen it, not wanting to let her go.

She drew back, sorry to stop. “Later, I promise.” She touched his lips to seal it. “Now rest. I’ll see you in the morning.”

On her way to the door, he called after her, “It would’ve been good for you.”

She looked over her shoulder and gave him her best flirty ‘come hither’ look. “I’ll hold you to that.”

His soft chuckle followed her out and she shut the door behind her.

In her own room, she thought about how he’d reacted and the other events of the day, what he’d said and not said about how he was feeling. He was feeling too dependent on her, so much so that he was trying to ‘even the score’ by offering to give her sex, even though he was in no way ready yet.

He needed to feel safe, and he needed to know more people he could trust so he wasn’t so isolated. Social isolation and dependence were useful tools if she wanted information, but she wanted his wellness and willingness to help, not information. He was on the edge of going off on his own, just to prove to himself he could, and he might never return if that happened.

So, people she could trust weren’t HYDRA or otherwise scumbags? Running a mental list, she stopped and realized she was missing the obvious.

She pulled her phone out of her pocket and dialed a number from memory.

“Hill. Go ahead, Natasha. I hear Lukas did something miraculous to help Director Carter?”

“It was, Maria. But it exhausted him and he had a panic attack. So I have a special request to help. I need the Maximoffs brought here to DC to meet him. He complained of being isolated, and I think it would help him to meet a few more people he can trust.”

Maria had to think of it for a moment, but agreed thankfully. Or Natasha would’ve pulled on Phil’s chain until he gave in, but Maria said, “All right. Anything else?”

“Some kind of psych help?” Natasha asked.

“For me or for you?” Maria joked dryly, but added, “I’ll ask Psych --”

“No. Not attached to SHIELD,” Natasha amended. “He’ll never go for that.”

Maria sighed and her voice grew heavy as she said, “No, he won’t. Damn it. Can’t blame him either. It’s on us to help, so I’ll look into it.”

Part Four