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17 November 2016 @ 10:52 am
The Ice Demon and the Captain, part 4  

Loki was feeling rather foolish the following morning. He’d slept like a stone, without any dreams he could recall, and that helped his strength return to normal as well as his awareness that he’d behaved terribly.

He texted both Natasha and Steve that he was awake, presuming the hour was late enough they had both risen, and hurried to the breakfast room before they took all the food away.

As Loki was helping himself to another bagel and cream cheese, Steve came in, wearing the T-shirt and shorts of a run. “Good morning! Did you have a good rest?”

“Apparently almost a full day of it,” Loki answered dryly.

Steve smacked his shoulder on his way to swinging a chair around to sit in it. “Hey, you needed it. Natasha said you passed out. Sorry you missed Lucy though. She said not to pass on any thanks, because she’d much rather hug you to death later.” Steve snagged the orange Loki had intended to steal and eat later, and started to methodically peel it. “She seems like a good kid.” He thought about what he said and grimaced. “Adult. She’s older than I am, not counting sleeping on ice.”

Loki regarded him, curious. “No thoughts that she should’ve been yours?”

Steve considered that and gave a reluctant sigh. “At first, yeah. But she’s so obviously a mix of the two of them, it didn’t stick. I can’t be mad at them for going on with their lives.”

“Maybe a little bit?” Loki insisted.

Steve’s eyes met his and he admitted, “Okay, a little bit. I am glad they didn’t pine away, and I’m glad they found each other. I mean, if I’d been able to give my blessing I would’ve. But still, I can’t help imagining what might have been.”

“Well, in theory, there is an alternate universe where none of this happened, so it follows there’s another you out there in the multiverse who did get to keep his date with Margaret.”

Steve looked at him in silence for a long time, and laughed. “That’s weirdly comforting.”

Loki shrugged and was chewing his bagel (stale and with indifferent spread) when Natasha entered. She was wearing slim-fitting jeans and a loose black jacket over her white top, which meant she probably had a weapon at the back of her waist. Her hair was loose on her shoulders, and there was just enough gloss on her lips to draw his gaze.

They’d kissed. The memory of that made him want to touch his own lips. Before reality asserted itself and he wondered – had he really been that pathetically needy​? Norns, no wonder she’d turned him down. Still he forced a smile at her and beckoned her to join them. “Good morning.”

“Good morning. How are you feeling?” She didn’t sit down, standing on the other side of the table as if she didn’t expect to be staying.

“Rested. Ready for whatever the plan is for today. To see James and Margaret, I assume?”

“If you want, later, sure,” she said. “But we have an appointment to visit Agent Coulson. He wants your advice on something, and you-” she turned to look at Steve, “are suggested to visit a museum or two since you’re in DC.”

“They want me to check its accuracy?” he asked dryly. “Okay.”

“They don’t want Steve with us?” Loki asked, puzzled and vaguely bothered by that. “Why not?”

“I assume they want to ask you about things before Rogers’ time.” She teased, “He’s old but not that old.”

Loki was tempted to stick out his tongue at her like Lila did, but restrained himself to a wrinkling his nose at her. “Hilarious.” He drained his orange juice and stood. “Fine. We should go then?”

“You’ll be okay?” Natasha asked Rogers. “I don’t mean to abandon you.”

“I got back on my own yesterday,” Rogers reminded her and she shrugged as if he had a point, and Loki grimaced.

He started, awkwardly, “I do have to apol--”

Steve cut him off. “Hey, no, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m a senior citizen, not a kid. I can take care of myself. Besides you had to rest after you healed Peggy.”

Loki smiled thinly, trying to agree, though he knew that resting had nothing to do with Peggy, and everything to do with the crack in his mind that seemed to be growing wider. “Yes, that’s so. We shall see you later, Steven.”

Away from the breakfast room, he said, “I hope I did nothing untoward last night? I was not myself.”

“I think you were,” she disagreed. She glanced his way as they walked. “You know I meant it, right? Not now, doesn’t mean never; it means not now.”

“Sometimes it means never,” he corrected, “but I am… pleased to know what you believe it means.” He considered what he recalled of the night before and added wryly, “At least my lack of lucidity did not chase you away.”

“You were truthful, and that’s rare for anyone to be so willing to reveal themselves as you did, exhausted or not,” she said. “In my business that’s a rare thing.”

“And an exploitable weakness, surely?” he asked

“In my enemies,” she confirmed. “But if you were my enemy I would’ve accepted your offer.” When he was silent, she glanced at him. “You disapprove?”

“No,” he answered and gave a short laugh. “It would be highly hypocritical of me, after all. No I was pondering that my skills were either so atrophied or yours are so strong that my invitation could be rejected.” He said it lightly, but as if he meant it, too, though he truly was thinking that she had been wiser to refuse him. As yesterday had shown so clearly, he wasn’t ready.

As they waited for the valet to bring the car from whatever mysterious place they stashed it, he glanced at her, “I will have to make a better effort to demonstrate my skills, next time.”

“Maybe I’ll demonstrate some of mine,” she retorted.

“Oh, I hope so.”

They were smiling at each other as the valet brought the car around.

Natasha glanced at Lukas as she drove toward the Triskelion for their meeting with Coulson. He seemed better today, but yesterday’s panic attack still disturbed her. The surface was intact, but underneath seemed, if not broken, at least deeply cracked.

With luck Maria would have some information on help for Lukas. Natasha could break him easily enough, but putting someone back together was not part of her skillset.

“There,” she pointed, lifting one finger off the wheel. “The Triskelion, administrative HQ for SHIELD.”

At sight of the building, Lukas fell silent to look at it. It was pretty impressive, she always thought, modern glass and steel, as if it was rising out of the river and nothing like the short buildings around it. Tall where the Pentagon was broad, it made a different sort of statement. And for her, it meant something approaching ‘home’, since that was where Natasha Romanoff had been born.

Loki grabbed the steering wheel abruptly and sent the car over onto the shoulder, as they approached the bridge. She stomped the brake pedal in reflex, arms up to protect her face against the windshield breaking. Car horns blared all around them, and she felt at least one tap their bumper, sending them into a slide.

“What are you--? Lukas, what was that?” she demanded after the car had shuddered to a halt. “My god, in traffic, we could’ve been hit!”

He sat, arms folded, and did not look at her. “I won’t go there,” he declared, and jerked his chin in the direction of the Triskelion looming on the other bank of the river.

She took a beat to tamp down her reflexive impatience, and said, “It’s a meeting. Nothing’s going to happen.”

“It looks very secure. And I will not enter a place I cannot leave freely.”

“You went in the SHIELD building in New York. Why is this different?”

“Because it is,” he insisted, voice tightening. She thought it had little to do with the building, and more to do with having seen Carter and Barnes and the resurgence of old memories again. His explanation had nothing to do with that, though, when he said, “When I look on the shadowpath, all I see are dark echoes, Natalya. Terrible things have happened inside that, on that ground.”

She frowned. “Nothing like that happened here, Lukas. Director Carter built it, or at least the previous version of the building. This one’s only five years old; there aren’t any ghosts in it.” She smiled a little, trying to get him to relax, but he refused.

“No, tell Agent Coulson that I will meet with him, but not in that building.”

She took her phone out. “Where do you want to meet?”

“I don’t care.”

But he did, that much she knew. Nowhere dark or underground or heavy security to make him fear an ambush. “All right. I’ll call him. We’ll go back to the hotel and we can meet with him someplace else.”

“Thank you,” he said with distant politeness.

She texted Coulson that Lukas was refusing to enter the Triskelion and they returned to the road. Lukas only spoke again when they’d looped around to go back in and were heading back to the hotel.

“I do not know who you offended at SHIELD or what crime you committed to be forced to tend to me, but I do appreciate it,” he murmured, breaking the silence.

“My choice,” she reassured him, and touched his knee lightly. “Phil and the rest understand you have some understandable problems trusting the rest of SHIELD.”

“And I let you keep tabs on me,” he observed. “So they don’t recall you to something else.”

“Also true,” she admitted, and pulled into the short driveway for the valet to take the car. “C’mon, let’s go to the bar and wait for Phil.”

It was barely after lunch, but the bar had switched to alcohol from coffee, so she was not surprised when Loki ordered whiskey and sat at the small table nearest the entrance. She ordered an iced tea and said, “You can take it up to your room if you want. I’ll call you when he gets here.”

His eyes flicked in the direction of the elevators as if he were considering it, but he shook his head. “No, here is fine.” He gulped down half his drink and set the glass on the table so he wouldn’t finish it off, and inhaled a deep breath. “I do wish this would ease.”

Glad that he was admitting the problem, she told him, “It will. Give yourself some time.”

“You counsel patience, and I know you are right, but--” he grimaced and shook his head. “Not a strength of mine.”

“And?” she probed.

“And,” he echoed, looking everywhere but at her, “I hate it. My-- the place I grew up prized strength above all things, and despised weakness. To find such weakness in myself--” he glanced at the mirror hanging over the bar, “I wonder if they were right about me, after all. That sorcery and tricks are the weapons of the weak and unworthy.”

It wasn’t hard to parse that one, having met Thor. But centuries’ old sibling rivalry was a big nut to crack, so she stayed to what she knew. “I think if any of them had experienced what you have, they would be drooling husks. Because I will tell you something I learned long ago - the ones who never face adversity but believe themselves strong are the first to break.”

“And when you break anyway?” Loki murmured, head down and hair hanging loose at the side of his face, so that she reached across and tucked it out of the way.

“You’re not broken. Hurt, but you’re here, you made it,” she reminded him. “Sometimes surviving is a victory, Lukas. Sometimes making it through with only a piece of your soul is the best anyone can do.”

His gaze met hers, and his hand covered hers, where she’d laid it on his leg. “You have more than a piece, Natalya.”

It was ridiculous how that sparked warmth in her chest, that he would recognize that she’d meant it about herself and say that to her. She didn’t need reassurance or confirmation, but it felt good to hear anyway.

But she pulled her hand back as her phone buzzed with a text. “Coulson’s almost here.”

Lukas sat up, and there was nothing to read in his expression, the upset smoothed away.

Loki knew from the way Natasha tensed when she glanced toward the front of the lobby as the outer doors opened, that Coulson had come. They both stood to wave him over to the lounge. “Agent Coulson, thank you for coming here,” Loki said and gestured Coulson to the opposite stuffed chair in lieu of shaking hands.

“No problem,” Coulson answered, with just enough edge to let them know it had been a problem but he was accommodating it. Natasha flicked her eyes at him that she noticed, too.

“You did not wish Steve a part of this,” Loki said, as an opener, to see what Coulson would say. That had made him suspicious that they wanted only Loki for something, but were keeping Steve away. “Why?”

Coulson’s surprise looked genuine. “Oh, I figured he’d have no interest in what I wanted to talk to you about.” He set his briefcase on the table and opened it with his thumb on the lock. “SHIELD’s picked up some artifacts that we can’t identify; sometimes can’t even figure out what they do. We’re hoping you know something about them.”

Loki relaxed and spread his hands. “I would be happy to offer whatever assistance I may. Did you bring these items here?”

Coulson gave a short laugh. “No, no, just pictures for now. They’re secure in a lab.” He made a small grimace. “I didn’t think you would want to visit in person.”

Just the words “secure” and “lab” made his heart thud too heavily in his chest, and Loki forced a smile. “Not especially. So, photographs?”

He removed a file folder from his satchel and pulled out a stack of photos, handing the top one over to Loki. “This cylinder was found in an old burial site in China. They used to think it was obsidian but we know now it’s some sort of carbon-polymer, far too advanced for Earth five hundred years ago, obviously. If touched it hums, but R&D suspects the power source is failing so it might have done more, at one time.”

He handed the picture to Loki, who looked at it and chuckled. “Oh, mortals, never stop being so amusing.”

“You know what it is? Where it’s from?” Coulson asked eagerly.

“The markings here are from a race called the Kree. They are quite powerful. Asgard forbids their presence on Midgard, although this may not have come from one of them directly. Because many races can use this.” He tossed the photo back at Coulson, with a smirk. “It is a device for use between partners during sex acts.”

Coulson looked at the photo and his eyes went wide, as the purpose of the dark shiny cylindrical object with the tapered ends suddenly became obvious. “Oh my God, it’s a vibrator?” he blurted.

Natasha burst into laughter at his tone that only grew when Coulson tried to glower at her to stop.

“Is that what you call them?” Loki asked, with deliberate innocent curiosity, teasing him. “To be more specific, I believe that one is for insertion in both--”

“I get it!” Coulson cut him off. “Good to know. I suppose. That’s going to be a fun report. Maybe I’ll just bury it in the lab again.”

“Oh no, you should use it,” Loki suggested. “Though if the power supply is weakening it might not be quite as pleasurable.” Coulson shaded pink, while Natasha laughed. Loki wasn’t sure which reaction was more delightful.

Coulson cleared his throat. “Moving on. Hopefully not also a sex toy.” He handed the next one to Loki.

Loki was disappointed when he didn’t recognize the small, mouse-sized golden pyramid. “The temptation to tell you it’s another sex toy is nearly overwhelming, bot no, I have no idea what it is or where it comes from. I would need a closer look.”

“Okay. Next.”

The third photograph was a punch to the chest. Sitting on a white plastic tray, next to a baseball for size, it was a metallic ball, part of the metal shielding torn and bent to expose a glowing core. He stared at it, not breathing, memories of a baby cooing at the sight of it floating attacking him with their sharp little knives.

His voice was ragged. “That’s mine. I want it back.”

“It’s yours?” Coulson asked. “We knew it was alien technology when it was recovered by the SSR in ‘52, but not that it was yours. It was with some Latverians who’d recovered it from Hydra.”

Loki blinked and shoved the pain away, to get control of himself. Anger rose up in place of the pain, disliking the sense that he was being played. He leaned back, feigning ease, but did not disguise the hostile sharpness of the gaze. “Oh come, Coulson, you must have had some idea. Or why ask me?”

Natasha would have told Phil not to try it. Lukas too suspicious right now not to catch lies, and he certainly wasn’t letting it slide.

Coulson read the same and grimaced a bit before admitting, “Well, it was a suspicion that it was yours, or at least you knew about it, and I wanted to confirm that. What does it do?”

“It hovers, spins, and flashes lights for a child’s amusement.”

“It’s a toy?” Coulson exclaimed, but Natasha leaned near to put her hand on Loki’s arm, giving him an inquiring look that he was all right.

That gave him the strength to take a breath and explain, “My brother gave it to a princess of Arendelle, as a gift. Schmidt stole it, and I want it back.”

Coulson hesitated, thinking it through, then nodded agreement. “Of course, we can do that. It’s not here, it’s in our experimental science facility. Agent Barton is headed there for another assignment, so I’ll give him orders to bring it back with him when he’s done.” He raised his eyebrows at Loki. “If that’s acceptable?”

“That seems fine. Just so long it is not conveniently ‘forgotten’ to return to me,” Loki warned. “My book was destroyed by your people, so I want the ball.”

He didn’t know what he would do with it. He shouldn’t return it to Arendelle without the expectation it would be stolen now that it was a known alien artifact and power source, but he knew he didn’t want it in SHIELD hands.

“I won’t let them forget,” Coulson promised and shoved the file folder back in his case. “We will earn your trust,” he said, standing up, “I know it was broken – horribly – and it’ll take time. But give us – me – a chance.”

Loki joined him, standing, and shook his hand. When he let go, he said, holding Coulson’s gaze and making sure he understood that Loki meant it, “I am giving you a chance, Agent Coulson. If I weren’t, I would take SHIELD apart so nothing survived.”

He could see the instinct in Coulson to rise to the challenge, but fortunately he swallowed back confrontational words, and merely nodded once in understanding. “Mr Onsdag, Agent Romanoff, I’ll be in touch.”

He walked away, and Loki returned to his seat to sniff at the pleasant aroma of the whiskey and lifted a brow at Natasha. “Tell me, is the facility where they’re keeping the ball, also where the tesseract is?”

She didn’t flinch – she was good – but Loki didn’t need a reaction or a response to confirm anything. She considered a denial and then grimaced and gave in to the inevitable. Her gaze met his. “How the hell do you know?” she asked curiously. “I never talked about it. You couldn’t have overheard anything that gave it away. So, how?”

He smirked slowly. “When you found out who I am, no one asked me to pinpoint where the plane went down. That told me it had been found. If they found the plane, the tesseract fell not that distant. SHIELD has the technology to detect the Bifrost, so it could locate the unshielded tesseract as well.”

“Ah,” she said and smiled in appreciation. “Well played.”

“High praise from you.” He drained the whiskey and stood up. “Shall we eat? I am suddenly famished.”

After lunch, they met Steve at the home with Barnes and Carter again, and Loki was delighted to speak to her and see the clarity in her eyes again.

She gripped his hand – her own dry and so thin, but still some strength in it. “Thank you. This is a precious amazing gift, and no matter how long it lasts, or how long I have left, thank you for giving it to me, Lukas. To see Lucy’s face and to know her again--” her voice choked and her eyes grew wet.

“You are very welcome, sweet Margaret.”

She gave a dry laugh. “You’re the only one I ever let call me that.”

“Well, you do have to grant your elders some eccentricities, am I right?” he asked, and was glad when she smiled again.

He gave way to Steve to talk to her then, and went out in the hall. Natasha had gone to SHIELD, and he had the feeling she was up to something, since she hadn’t told him the reason why. Or perhaps she was taking him at his word, that he needed no nursemaid. Which he didn’t of course, but he did miss her being near.

James found him in the visitor lounge, letting himself down with a sigh. “I know I don’t look it, but these bones are old.”

Loki teased, “Do people lie and say you don’t look old?”

“Ha, funny. I think you--” he was cut off as a young blond woman entered.

“Uncle!” She came over to hug Barnes around the shoulder and kiss his cheek, before taking a moment to recognize Loki. “You’re him. You’re here.”

Loki rose to his feet. “I am. Lukas Onsdag. I am pleased to meet James’ niece.”

Not standing, James corrected, “Peggy’s technically. Her grand-niece. Sharon Carter.”

Sharon scoffed a bit. “As if you’re not.” She looked at Loki and explained, “They were basically my grandparents. But Granduncle and Grandaunt are just … unwieldy. So I’ve always called them Uncle and Aunt since I was little. Anyway, I’m honored to meet you.” She held out her hand automatically, but reconsidered, biting her lip. “Uh, if you shake hands? Sorry, I don’t’ know, is there protocol?”

Grinning, he took her hand to lift it to his lips. “Of course, Ms Carter. There is always protocol.”

Her eyes widened at what he was doing, and James called from his chair, “Hey, no flirting with the niece. Watch out for this one, Sharon.”

“Yes, Uncle,” Sharon returned, smiling, and she perched on the coffee table end to form the point of the triangle between the two more comfortable chairs. “You helped Aunt Peggy, thank you for that,” she told him seriously. “Uncle told me it was you.”

“He did?” Loki raised a brow at James.

“She has clearance, Lukas. And she’s the only relative who decided to join SHIELD,” James explained.

Loki leaned back in his chair at the mention, a movement not missed by either of them. Sharon said, “I, uh, do know,” she murmured. “I think because of my family connections, Commander Hill told me and I’m on the investigation team. don’t know what to say, really. It was such a shock. I didn’t know the STRIKE team too well, just enough to recognize them, and Ward was always an arrogant prick, so I’m not totally surprised about him, but Sitwell? I worked with him. He seemed loyal and kind…. I don’t know how he could do such a thing,” she admitted. “I’m so sorry nobody saw.”

Her voice was low and her distress so genuine, Loki only tensed a little, focusing more of her upset than the reminder. “It’s not your fault, Sharon,” he murmured. “His motives were his own, and men turn to evil for different reasons. Though I would be grateful to know how they turned him. It seems inexplicable to me that anyone would choose Hydra. I had always assumed most of their minions were somehow mentally compromised. At least the ones in the war seemed so akin to automatons.”

“I’d like to say they were brainwashed, but,” she shook her head sadly, “as near as we can tell they were recruited. Like any other terrorist organization or cult, really – they look for those disaffected and promise them what they want in return for their loyalty and future power. That’s why it’s so sickening our own people fell for it, when they should’ve known better.”

“Munchkin,” James said, patting her hand, “People always do what they should’ve known better. Because it’s easier to see the faults in others, than ourselves. But now that I know,” he shook his head at Loki and pressed his lips together. “I’m sorry we missed Strucker. We tried in those early years to root out all the ones we could...”

“James, enough,” Loki interrupted, feeling this blame and fault was all getting out of hand, plus his chest was tight and he wanted to stop thinking about it. “I would much rather discuss your lovely grand-niece and you as a defacto grandfather. That intrigues me.”

She launched into a story of one summer when Barnes was recovering from an injury and writing one of his memoirs, while then-Supervisory Agent Carter was at SHIELD. “She’s so great,” Sharon said, after Loki had laughed at Barnes hobbling around after what sounded like a strong-willed little girl. “So tough. As a girl, I looked up to her, so of course I had to follow in her footsteps.”

“I would say there is no one better to be your role model,” Loki agreed.

James cleared his throat, and Loki grinned to see Sharon pat the back of his hand in a ‘there, there’ gesture.

He watched them and felt part of the family. Perhaps not of blood, but at least the old family friend who disappeared for years at a time on mysterious adventures, but still a part. His fears that he would no longer be welcome dissolved, proven to be the phantoms Natasha had told him they were, and the easing in his heart kept a smile on his lips long after he’d left them with the promise to visit again soon.

Back at the hotel, he propped up the copy of the photo that James had given him. It showed him and Margaret, and their two children when they were young in a formal portrait. It was a bit of a shock seeing them youthful again in the photo, especially James who appeared to have not aged at all since Loki had seen him last in the war, despite the year being 1962.

There was a knock on the door and found Natasha and Steve both waiting there for him. Loki knew this was probably what she had been doing at the Triskelion earlier.

She said, “There’s some people down in the lobby I want you to meet. Well, you met them before but I’m not sure you remember them.”

He frowned. “Before?”

Her eyes flicked to Steve. “Sokovia.”

“Sokovia?” Steve echoed. “You mentioned that before, what happened in Sokovia.”

“Not now,” Loki said shortly, not taking his eyes away from Natasha. He knew she wouldn’t want him to meet anyone terrible from Sokovia. If they’d captured escaped Hydra people they wouldn’t be waiting in the lobby of the hotel.

Telling himself these things didn’t help his heart stay at a level calm.

Breathe slowly, he reminded himself. I am a seidrmater; I learned how to concentrate, I learned how to use my will to reach the primal force of the universe. And I tire of having mortal ants control me from death.

When he was able to meet Natasha’s eyes again, she added, “Doctor Maximova’s children.”

Relief made him almost laugh. “Oh! Well, why didn’t you say so?” He joined them in the hall and shut his door. “Come then.”

“Sokovia?” Steve asked.

“You remember Hydra?” Loki asked him, heading through the hallway toward the stairs down to the lobby floor. “It turned out that a small off-shoot of Hydra lingered in Sokovia. I was injured in the fight, my powers were weak, and Doctor Maximova in the hospital there helped me. I am glad to hear her children have come here. Are they visiting?” he asked Natasha.

She gave him a narrowed eyed look of disapproval for skating over the truth, but since Loki had no interest in discussing it, she gave in and shook her head. “No. We inspired them to join SHIELD, and they’ve just started at the Academy.”

His step faltered briefly, wondering if they were truly his enemies after all, seeking to infiltrate SHIELD, but put that aside. Natasha would know, since she’d been there and would know better whether their help had been genuine or not. And since she believed it had been, then it was, and his doubt was mere reflexive fear, not truth.

He nodded. “That’s a good idea to recruit younger people who saw the vileness of Hydra in their homeland so they might work against it better in SHIELD.” He ignored Natasha’s glance that suggested she didn’t really buy his cheerful approval, and she didn’t say anything, sliding past him to go down the stairs first.

The young people were immediately obvious, visible from down the lobby area where they were standing together in some unease in the bar area.

They were both handsome, but Loki's eyes were drawn to the young man's nearly white hair with a pang of loss, since it reminded him of Elsa.

"Wanda and Pietro Maximoff," Natasha introduced. "Lukas Onsdag. They helped us get you out of the fort in Sokovia, and Clint recruited them. They wanted to meet you, now that you're better."

Loki stepped forward, intending to clasp hands. "Then I owe you a great debt of gra... ti... tude..." his voice faded away, as he felt an odd echo within, a sense of familiarity. It wasn't just similarity, there was an actual sense there. A feeling that called to them, and found its return. His eyes traveled between them both, and Wanda seemed to feel it, too, her gaze snapping up to his with wide-eyed shock.

He held out a hand, palm upward. "Wanda."

She set her hand over his, tentatively at first. When their fingers tightened on each other, that familiarity echoed between them like a plucked string.

"How?" she whispered. "What does it mean?"

He held out his other hand for Pietro and felt the same, and a smile grew in
tandem with the growing sense of elation within, like a surge of glowing light caught in his chest as he understood. "It means... it means, you are.... You are of my blood, my descent. I'm not sure how, yet, but it is distinct and quite strong in you. This … this is more than I could ever have imagined." He laughed a little, at his own amazement, and felt his eyes sting with tears. "Family."

"Now I understand," Wanda said. "When you were ill, I was strongly drawn to
helping you. I knew it was something we had to do."

"I'm very glad you did, but even more glad to know you exist." Loki let go of their hands, but only so he could lift one and touch Pietro's hair. "You look so much like my daughter."

"Our father had it, too," Pietro said.

"Had?" he repeated, disappointed that this new relative might have died already without Loki getting to know him. "Is he-- did he die?"

The twins exchanged a glance. "We don't know. He left when we were little," Pietro said flatly. "He disappeared."

"Oh. I am sorry. Both for your sake and that I cannot meet him, too. But still, that erases none of my excitement to find family here on Midgard. And with powers as well."

They looked at each other again, surprised. "No," Pietro said, "we have none. Or at least I have none, Wanda has a little..."

Loki interrupted them, smiling, "No, no, my friends, you have more than that. The blood runs strong in you, and the potential for more is there. I can help you unlock it. If you wish," he added, though he had little doubt they would want to. This was a new dangerous age and they were children who already knew war.

But Wanda had another thought. "Mother said our father had some kind of power. He could move things like coins with his mind. That was why she was never surprised by my other sense. And she said once that he told her he was a prisoner in one of the Nazi camps. She did not believe him because he looked too young... But maybe it was true. You were here during the war, too."

Loki's jaw loosened, wondering if this relative of his might have been captive at the same time he was. He might have been a test subject at some point, and like Barnes, perhaps some version of the serum had worked to enhance his lifespan. Since SHIELD had taken many of the old Hydra files, Loki wondered if he might get more information. "Do you know his name?"

"Erik," Pietro answered unexpectedly. "but I do not know his family name. Mother never told us. Maximov is her family."

“She may know it,” Wanda offered. “I will ask her.”

"Well, a last name would help, but there are ways. But,” Loki realized, with some disappointment, “I did not come to Midgard until late and I did not--” he was about to say he had not bedded any human woman during the war, but the sudden memory of hands sent him flinching back. Was it possible? No, he was not thinking that; the timing was wrong and he would not go there. "He cannot be my son. He must stem from Elsa in Arendelle, or another I did not know about in the 1700s. I was not so careful back then."

"Three hundred years?" Pietro asked, doubting this information. "You are so old?”

Ah, that made him feel better as he smirked. "You know you are the blood of a god, Pietro?” They gaped on hearing that, probably at the affront to their personal religion whatever it was, and he laughed at their faces.

Steve had been hanging back for that, watching just as Natasha had been, but he moved forward. “Lukas? They’re related to you? You can tell that?”

“I can,” he answered. “Wanda, Pietro, this is my friend, Steve Rogers.”

Their eyes grew wide, and Wanda looked from Steve to Loki and back again before she asked, “You are Captain America?”

“It’s sort of a secret that I’m back,” Steve said, shaking their hands as if he thought they were at a business meeting. Loki wanted to roll his eyes. “Please don’t tell anyone just yet.”

“No, of course not,” they both reassured him hastily.

“We should take over the corner of the bar and get to know each other,” Loki suggested.

They talked, keeping to topics of their home in Sokovia and their time so far in the US, it was pleasant but rather shallow. Loki had to remind himself that he was a stranger to them, and not everyone could be as welcoming as Elsa and Anna had been to him. They weren’t unfriendly, but it lacked immediate warmth.

But then, he realized it was because they were both afraid of what he’d said about their power when Wanda asked into a lull, “You said that you might unlock greater power inside us. What did you mean? How?”

He leaned back in the chair and rested the mug of indifferent bitter tea on his knee. “Elsa, the Snow Queen of Arendelle, was able to manipulate climate such that she cast her entire kingdom into winter during July, ice and snow fell over the country.”

“You think we could do that?”

He shrugged, but Natasha interjected, “I would think you already have a psychic ability, surely that would expand?”

Loki raised his mug to her in salute. “Yes, probably. You have already unlocked your potential, at least partially, it would seem. And the ability had already decided on the form it will take.”

She frowned. “I am not sure I want it to expand.”

Steve leaned forward. “You know I faced that choice, right? You know the basics of the story if you know who I am. I was a scrawny kid who wanted to fight, but more than that, I wanted to help. The Army had rejected me for my weak body, but then Doctor Erskine offered me the chance to take this risk with the serum and become something greater. To do what I could, to protect innocents.”

“Very inspirational, Steven,” Loki said dryly.

Natasha shot him a look to shut up the commentary, and she added, “That’s what you told us about joining SHIELD, wasn’t it? The Winter Angel?”

Loki sat forward. “Winter Angel? What is that?”

“It’s a movie, based loosely on Barnes’ book about you,” she explained. He gave her a look of incredulity.

“There is a film, about me, that you did not mention? I knew about the comic book, but surely you could have mentioned it so I could watch it and laugh at it,” Loki said, affronted.

“You wouldn’t laugh,” she answered rather flatly. “It’s the whole story of you during the war, Lukas. And whether it’s accurate or not, I guarantee you aren’t ready to see it yet.”

Oh. The movie was about everything. Depicted everything.

“I see,” he said, and his voice seemed to be coming from far away. “It was good to meet you both. Excuse me.”

He set the mug carefully on the low table and walked away, feeling as if the walls were closing in on him. Sokovian children, reminders of Schmidt and Zola, even Steven talking about the serum…

The air was too heavy to breathe.

He went outside the hotel into fall’s warm spell, humidity creeping on the back of his neck beneath his hair, and kept walking.

Natasha watched him leave, and inwardly shook her head.

“It still affects him,” Steve said sadly.

“Still?” Pietro repeated. “It was weeks ago.”

“Wait, what, weeks?” Steve looked from the Pietro to Natasha, and she knew she was going to have to talk.

The twins exchanged a look, and Pietro asked Natasha, “He does not know?”

“No,” she admitted with a sigh. “Lukas was trying to keep it to himself. But you should know, Rogers.”

“What really happened in Sokovia?” Steve asked.

She nodded and then asked, "What did he tell you about the month before you woke up? Or where he's been?"

Steve frowned. "Just that he was sent to Arendelle, he's in exile though he never really said what for, and he spent some time on a farm, adjusting to modern Earth. And he visited Sokovia to attack some sort of Hydra remnant there, I gather."

She leaned closer and explained, "He was sent here to Earth with most of his powers bound for some reason he won’t talk about. A remnant of Hydra found out he was back and they captured and tortured him. They broke his fingers and cut him open." She gestured a slash across her abdomen. She thought of what else she knew that they had done and decided to keep that to herself. That was for Loki to tell or Steve to guess, not her to reveal. "And because he didn't have his super-healing when we rescued him, he had to recover at a safe house in the country for a while."

"Oh." Steve thumped back in the seat, horrified. "God, he was hurt again. But he's fine now?" He took back the question immediately, waving a hand, "Physically, I mean. He has his powers."

She nodded confirmation. "Yes. Physically, he's restored. Mentally? Much less so, whatever he's trying to sell you."

Steve nodded, sadly. "So that's why he doesn't sleep. Not that I sleep well either, but I haven't seen him sleep once. And he used to-- not a lot, but he did." His eyes flicked in the direction Lukas had gone. "God. That's terrible. I'm surprised he came back to Earth at all after last time, and then it happens again? No wonder." He leaned forward, holding out his hands toward her in a gesture of invitation and openness. “What do we do? To help him?”

She wanted to tell him that he should probably get his own help, since he had at least as much to deal with than Lukas did, but she couldn’t say it. Lukas was coping by helping Steve, and clearly Steve wanted to do the same for him. Since she was the last person who had any standing to complain about someone wanting to cope by doing something, she made a little smile of understanding. “I had an idea. The one place that Lukas feels most at home is Arendelle. And when I was researching my mission on the way to meet him originally, I found a rumor of a creature up in the mountains there.”

Steve frowned. “Isn’t that him? The Ice Demon story?”

“Probably. But there was a Facebook post that got passed around of someone getting attacked in the winter by some sort of yeti, and that couldn’t be him, since he wasn’t on Earth last year. So I sold Director Fury the idea of a mission for us to investigate. It’ll help Lukas feel better to be home, I think.”

She also sold it to Fury as a way to ease Steve back into fighting trim and get him to bond with her and Lukas, so he’d be more willing to join the Initiative project. But she kept that part to herself.

Later that evening, Steve was sketching a portrait of Peggy on hotel stationery, when someone knocked on his door. He flipped the picture over and went to answer it.

To his surprise, Lukas stood there. He wasn’t looking at Steve, eyes downcast, and he mostly seemed weary.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked. Then realized he was being rude making Lukas stand in the hall. “Do you want to come in?”

Lukas slipped past him inside, and Steve shut the door.

Gazing all about, Lukas finally said, “I assume they told you.”

“Natasha did.” Steve wanted to demand why Lukas hadn’t told him, but kept quiet, waiting for him to speak.

“I knew you would find out – too many people knew the truth – I just wish I could’ve spared you a bit longer,” Lukas said.

“Spared me?” Steve exclaimed.

Lukas finally turned to look at him. “There was nothing you could have done. There’s nothing you can do to help, and you have enough to carry right now, without learning about this, too.”

Steve could kind of see what he was trying to do, but shook his head. “I can’t do anything about it, no. And I get that you’re trying to protect me in your own special way, but I’m glad I know the truth. I can help by being your friend, If you let me. And if you don’t hide shit for my own good.”

“All right.”

The capitulation was abrupt and Steve had to raise his brows at that, skeptically. Lukas’ lips twisted in a faint wry smile. “Not here to argue, Steven.”

“Well, good. You want to sit? We can talk about it, if you want, or not. I know you weren’t big on sharing before.”

“No, but we could talk of other things.”

Which Steve translated to mean that Lukas didn’t want to be alone, so he gestured to the bed or the single armchair by the window. “Have a seat. We can talk about whatever you like. Or just watch TV and drink up the minibar.”

“On Fury’s dime?” Lukas asked, heading for the armchair, and smirking. “Apparently I’ve corrupted you. I like it.”

Steve almost shut the minibar door – it was terribly expensive, and it wasn’t just his 1940’s sense of money which told him that, and drink was wasted on both of them mostly – but then he thought about what he’d learned of what Lukas had experienced. And himself, transported to the future, and he grabbed two of the small bottles. “We deserve it, I say. They can bill my nearly seventy years of backpay if they want.”

“Knowing bureaucrats, they probably will.” Lukas held out his tiny bottle to touch Steve’s to toast. “To the future.”

“Hopefully we see it the ordinary way.”

It was only one swallow, briefly warm in the stomach, and then gone. “I think we need another one,” Lukas suggested, tossing the bottle into the trash.

No minibar bottles were safe that night, including the ones from Lukas’ room hauled next door in both ice buckets. Not drunk, but mellow by the drink and the late hour, they eventually dozed off on Steve’s bed, side by side. As Steve fell asleep, Lukas’ hand fell on his arm. It was light enough it could be accident, but Steve smiled to himself and didn’t move away. The touch anchored them both, and nightmares passed them over.

Part Five