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15 November 2018 @ 03:34 pm
The Ice Demon and the Red Skull  

The quinjet took off from the military base in Arendelle, and headed west and south, course set for Washington.

Loki, in the chair next to Natasha, watched her pilot and listened to her explanations of the various functions. He had decided to take more of an interest in flying and the function of the craft, figuring it was better to know how it worked and so he could be ready in case something went wrong.

But mostly he wanted to be in the front so he could have a view of Arendelle as they left it. Something tugged at his chest as the craft banked away from the coast and headed out to sea, leaving the country behind.

His future was not Arendelle, he felt that was true, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be back. The place would still be a part of him, and he always seemed to circle back to it. But not now; now it was time to move forward, not face backward.

So it was with an unexpected calm that he looked out the front windows of the quinjet as they chased the setting sun, and headed back toward America.

Natasha turned to direct her words to him and Steve. “So. What course? Back to DC or to New York?”

He hesitated, caught by the question, and glanced back at Steve, who rose to come forward at the question. “I know New York has appeal to Steven,” Loki answered, with an apologetic grimace in Steve’s direction, “but Wanda and Pietro are near Washington. I wish to continue their training.”

Natasha nodded, unsurprised, and turned her gaze on Steve. He answered without having to think about it, “No, I’d rather go to DC, too. There’s nobody left in New York.”

“Are you sure?” Loki asked. “We saw little of the city.”

“I saw enough. I'd rather be near people I know.” Bucky and Peggy were what he meant, Loki knew, but then Steve’s hand closed on his shoulder, and Loki knew Steve meant him as well.

Natasha’s gaze flicked to the grip, before she turned forward, saying lightly, “Washington it is.”

Loki glanced at her and said, “You're not surprised by our decision.”

“Yours, not at all.”

He smiled wryly. “Ah, so easily am I read.”

“Like a book,” she teased.

He accepted that with as much grace as he could muster, and settled back to enjoy the trip.

A few minutes later the phone in his pocket buzzed, and given most of the people who knew the number were in the jet with him, he took it out to frown at the screen, hoping it wasn’t one of the Maximoffs with bad news.

Instead, it read “Laura” and he clicked receive. “Hello?”

Laura Barton’s voice came over the line, “Hi. Are you busy?”

“Not at all, Laura.” Natasha’s gaze pinned him worriedly when she heard the name, but he held up his free hand to indicate nothing was wrong.

“Good. Can you Skype? I have someone here who wants to show you something?”

It took a moment and Natasha’s help to get the bigger screen at the rear set up, but shortly he could see Laura’s face and she could see his. Her smile broadened as a small face wormed its way under her arm, soon taking up the screen.

“Uncle Lukas!”

He couldn’t help the smile that grew on his own face at the sight. “Hello, Lila.”

She frowned. “Where are you? That looks weird.”

“I’m on an airplane, heading back to America.”

“Are you coming here?” Lila asked hopefully. “It’s been forever.”

He wanted to smile, since it hadn’t been that long, but he supposed for a short-lived young child, time probably did seem to pass differently than he experienced it. “No, I am sorry, Lila, not yet. What is it you wanted to show me?”

She stuck out her lip, pouting, before the mood cleared. She held up a piece of paper, carefully checking the image to center it as best she could. “I made this for you.”

“Two flowers!” he exclaimed. “How pretty. Next you’ll draw three flowers for me. And then four, and soon the flowers will cover the page and no one will be able to count them.”

She grinned and shook her head, laughing at him. “You’re so silly!”

“Am I?” he returned, teasing. “Very well. If you say so.”

Natasha pushed in, insistently refusing to let him keep the camera for himself. “Hello, Lila.”

“Auntie Nat!” Lila shrieked, waving her little hand vigorously. Natasha waved back. Lila’s eyes went big with sudden hope. “Is Daddy with you?”

Natasha shook her head once. “No, he’s not here, sweetie. But I hear he’s okay. We’re about to hit a storm edge so I need to go back to piloting, but I wanted to say hi.”

“Hi,” Lila said. “I’ll draw you a picture too, I promise.”

“I’d love that. We’ll see you for your birthday, but until then you be good.”

“But not too good,” Loki corrected, getting Natasha’s elbow in his ribs. His ‘ouch’ made Lila grin.

Natasha waved. “Say hi to your brother from us. Bye.”

Loki lowered the screen to turn it off, wishing he was going back to the Barton farm for a wistful moment.

Natasha returned to the pilot’s seat and Loki turned to find Steve regarding him with some curiosity. “Who was that?”

“Friends,” Loki answered. “I stayed with them after Sokovia.”

“Ah, the safe house you mentioned?” Steve asked and Loki nodded agreement.

“It’s a secret,” Natasha told him. “Very few at SHIELD know about them. For the family’s safety.”

“Smart. It was nice to see you relaxed,” Steve said to him. “And now I know where the picture you carry comes from.”

“We can still go to the farm, if you want?” Natasha invited, glancing over her shoulder at Loki. “Not too late to change course.”

He was tempted briefly but shook his head. “No, as much as I would like to, I think I need to return to Wanda and Pietro. She needs training, and I need to find a way to unlock his powers.” He thought of the vision the Norns had sent him. As angry as he was at them, he knew it was a warning he had to take seriously.

“Because there’s something dangerous coming,” Steve spoke without doubt, believing what Loki had told him.

“Something big,” Loki agreed. “Something… terrible.” His fingers sought the place on his abdomen where Schmidt had stabbed him in the vision. What did that mean? Some other Hydra villain attacking him as Strucker had? General warning of attack against him personally?

But that reminded him of something else he’d seen in the vision: the tesseract and the other Infinity Stones scattered against the black. He had to get the tesseract from SHIELD and away from Midgard. It had always been a dangerous lure, and with SHIELD playing with it again, it would draw attention and Midgard was not ready to defend itself.

He didn’t doubt he could find the cube, but he was wary of trying alone. Fury had likely laid a trap around the tesseract, and Loki would not underestimate the mortals’ technology nor their capacity for harm.

If not alone, then how? Steve might help, if Loki could convince him it was necessary to fight against a putatively friendly force, but Natasha was not likely to act against her employer and friends. Perhaps if she knew it could be done without casualties he might convince her.

But, the ones he needed were Wanda and Pietro. Once he’d trained them in their powers, SHIELD wouldn’t be able to stop them. He would take back the tesseract.

From the apartment that SHIELD had lent to him and Steve, Loki took the subway to the zoo, where he was to meet Wanda and Pietro. Picking out Pietro’s near-white hair from afar was easy, Wanda’s red shirt and black skirt hardly less so. Her hair was held back in a tight ponytail that emphasized her large eyes, darkly lined, and almost black lipstick. He wanted to tell her she was too beautiful to hide behind makeup, but kept silent as they saw him and bounded his direction like the energetic young people they were. He was startled into a grin as Wanda embraced him.

“You are back so soon. Did all go well?” she asked.

He thought of the ice monster, and his smile faltered. “It was taken care of,” he answered. She exchanged a frown with Pietro, but didn’t pry right there with people all around them. She tugged on his hand. “You have seen the pandas?” she asked. “I love them. They are so cute. Fluffy.” Her eyes were alight with good humor and eagerness, so he followed along, as she led the way to the panda exhibit, along with a multitude of others.

“I have practiced,” she said to him, as they walked.

A bit alarmed, he glanced at her. “In private, I hope?”

“Yes, in private.”

“We practice focus in the open,” Pietro added. “It looks like meditation, so no one knows. But Wanda practices in her room, and I watch over her.”

“Good, I am relieved to hear it.” He worried about the people in line near them, too close not to hear and one never knew who was familiar with Sokovian or Russian. “After pandas, I would like to see what you’ve been practicing.”

Wanda watched the antics of the pandas, exclaiming over the rotund smallest one rolling backwards off the branch. Loki and Pietro waited, tolerant of her enthusiasm, and Pietro leaned closer to murmur to Loki, “She has been worried for you. That something might happen when we are too far to help.”

Loki touched his arm. “It is my duty to protect you, not the reverse, Pietro.”

Blue eyes met his, a glimpse of a harder past and stubbornness shining there, and he said, “Family looks after each other.”

“Yes,” Wanda agreed, coming back to them. She slipping her hand around his arm. “You may not argue this.”

“Oh?” he returned lightly. “Why not?”

“Because you know it is right,” she answered, and her smile was impish at him. “Come, I will show you. It is small progress, but I hope you will be pleased.”

He reassured her, “Small progress is better than none, and truly any at all is impressive in such a short time.”

Loki had been to the zoo before, most recently when he’d been in such a mood he’d made an ice bridge for the monkeys. He’d felt better watching them finding the bridge and using it to escape, with the resulting shrieking of both monkeys and humans as the troop had launched themselves into the trees.

But after watching them find their freedom, he’d been disheartened to see several refuse to leave their cage: too afraid, or too complacent in their captivity. He’d not freed any others and left.

So it was with some familiarity that he led them to a picnic area that was deserted in the autumn heat and isolated by shrubbery on three sides.

“I will watch,” Pietro said and moved to the pathway.

Loki and Wanda sat across from each other at the table, and her lips lifted in a wry smile, as she smoothed a hand across the surface. “I will try not to ruin this one.”

Loki gave a shrug. “Do or do not, there is no try.”

Her eyes snapped to his. “You-- “ She laughed, and he eased back, pleased with his jest’s effect. “How? How do you know?”

“I watch films,” he protested. “I also have a great expertise on storybook princesses, should you require it. But now that you are more relaxed, find your focus.”

Before doing so, Wanda cocked her head a bit, big eyes staring into his. “You seem more… at peace,” she decided on the word. “The visit to Arendelle helped?”

“As much as it could,” he answered. “I am resolved to protect Midgard. And to help those, like you two, who need training. So,” he gestured in invitation, “Show me.”

She drew in a deep breath, her eyes fluttering closed as she focused and reached for her power. Her eyes opened again, looking within as her hands rose up, scarlet threads glowing around her fingers.

He watched, as the water bottle rose up from the table and began to rotate, at first slowly and then faster until it was spinning within a ruby glow. A feeling rose in his chest, pride that another of his blood was so skilled and talented.

Something happened, a stray thought perhaps, and the bottle came apart, spraying water. Loki was prepared for a far more dangerous unraveling, so his counter-spell encircled the mess and crushed it all to frosty powder in an instant.

Wanda’s eyes flew wide, and the glow disappeared from her hands before she lowered them, expression chagrined. “Oh. I lost control.”

“Not completely. No missing table bits this time. I think we can account that a success,” he said lightly, but when she didn’t smile, he said. “No harm done, Wanda.”

“But it broke. I had done it so well, before. I am sorry it was disappointing.”

“No, not at all,” he reassured her. “It was not. I am, in fact, impressed by your control, and how much you have learned in such little time.”

“Truly?” she asked, looking up at him, and seemed very young.

“Truly,” he confirmed. “You have done well. Now, switch with Pietro, and I will take a look at his head again.”

“There is nothing to see. it is all empty space,” she teased her brother. He rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh, as he slipped past to take her seat on the bench.

“I know,” Loki said with some sympathy. “Siblings are quite annoying.”

“I’m older, but she bosses me.” Pietro groused, glowering at her, but in a familiar way. She didn’t deny it, only smirked at him.

“At least she’s not the heir to the throne. Imagine how bossy she would be then,” Loki told him and held out both of his hands, palms upward. “Set your hands on mine. And focus your thoughts.”

Pietro joined hands with him and it took some doing to get him to focus, but finally he did, and Loki could delve his powers.

That block was still there. Loki could see Pietro’s power, shining like a small sun beneath the ice, but inaccessible. He tried everything he could short of blowing it up, but nothing seemed to touch it.

Loki opened his eyes. “Damn,” he muttered and shook his head. Pietro’s face was a thin mask over disappointment, and Loki grimaced as he let go of Pietro’s hands. He knew all too well how the young man felt, being the underpowered sibling.

“You are strong, Pietro,” Loki told him. “I see the power within you. But I have no key to open the way. You may have to open it yourself.”

“What should I do?” Pietro asked.

“I don’t know,” Loki admitted. “I don’t know why there is a wall there at all.” It was natural and Pietro himself had made it - Loki knew that much. But why? “Perhaps something happened in Sokovia? Did Strucker do something or did you feel something that made you fear a power growing within? Or,” he thought to his own relationship with Thor and wondered, “Or did you feel something but you knew your sister already had and you wanted to be different?”

Pietro’s gaze flickered, and he said hurriedly, “No, there was nothing.” And he stood up, anxious to be done with the line of questioning.

Watching him, Loki saw only himself, and wanted to sigh. Was I so obvious? So pathetic in my need for validation?

He knew he had been, and so he wouldn’t press for now. Give the young man some time to work it out for himself.

The twins looked as if they needed a break, and Loki was tired. He forced a smile. “Shall we visit the monkeys? I enjoy their antics.”

Later, having said his farewells, Loki left the zoo and headed down the long escalator into the subway, to head back to his apartment.

Loki took a solo seat on the subway car, glad it wasn’t crowded so he could lean against the window and relax a little. Helping Wanda was a joy, no question; but trying to crack Pietro’s was bothering him, because he didn’t think it should be difficult. But that block seemed impervious, and Loki needed to figure out some new way to crack it.

He opened his eyes as the doors opened. Two girls sat in the seats in front of him, chatting animatedly, but he let it wash over him, paying little attention.

The doors shut, the train started to move, and the lights flickered, carriage turning dim. He tensed, pressing against the wall. The girls fell briefly silent, but went back to their talk as the lights came back.

The car abruptly came to a stop and the lights went out.

Everything went pitch black and silent. Loki’s heart and breath froze, everything inside him sent straight back to the lightless tube Schmidt had kept him in. The metal coffin they had electrified to keep him tamed except when they wanted something from him.

His heart leaped into pounding hard in his chest, and even though he could see the lights had come back on and he could hear the passengers behind him, they seemed far away, swallowed up by the dark.

Pressed against the wall, feeling the metal tube beneath his fingertips - no it was plastic of the seat, not back there -

There was no air, no breath, only a tiny dark space that was his prison and his torment.

… nonono, not there, not there, not back, not there again, nono…

The denials didn’t work at first. The darkness clung to him, and he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get out, couldn’t make it stop.

The present slowly reasserted itself as he realized his eyes were open and there was light. His heart rate began to slow down, and he could finally hear his own harsh breathing and try to control it. He had wedged himself between the chair and the wall, he realized, but couldn’t relax his limbs.

Not wanting to close his eyes, he fixed his gaze on the advertisement on the back of the forward wall and forced himself to concentrate on it. Toothpaste. The woman’s photo showed shiny white teeth like a shark. Mint flavoring to disguise the flouride that killed bacteria. Mint was a plant with small green leaves and made good tea.

Finally he felt more normal, but exhausted, as he stirred. When the train stopped, he didn’t recognize the name and had to look at the map to figure out where he was. He’d missed his own stop and he was going to have to change trains and go back.

He had to hold onto the rail, climbing the steps, moving like an old man.

I hate this. That bastard is dead. Why does he still have power over me? Why is this happening?

What is wrong with me?

Loki fumbled at the lock, tempted to shove it open but deciding against it at the last minute, as the key finally got in the slot.

Pushing the door open, he saw Steve on the sofa watching baseball. He turned his head to greet Loki, “Hey, good eve-” A frown gathered as he watched Loki approach. “You okay? You look… a bit tired,” he finished diplomatically. “Was it rough with the Maximoffs?”

“No,” Loki shook his head. “It’s fine.”

Steve glanced at the digital clock. “You sure? You’re late.”

“I, uh, was on the subway, missed the stop and had to ride back, that’s all.” But too quickly, Loki realized he should’ve lied, not told a version of the truth, because Steve’s frown tightened and he stood up.

“You missed your stop?” Steve repeated. “Did something happen?”

“No, nothing happened,” Loki replied, a bit too tartly for trying to push away Steve’s concern. “I was tired from training Wanda and Pietro and I lost track. That’s all. You need not be concerned.” He turned for the door to his room. “I do need rest.”

“Sure.” Steve said and Loki could feel the worried gaze on his back, making his shoulder blades itch. “Oh, wait, this came for you. SHIELD agent dropped it off.” He picked up a large brown envelope, sealed, from the dining table and handed it to Loki.

“SHIELD? Why would they send me an envelope?” Loki slipped a finger under the flap. “Oh, I bet it’s money. I complained to Natasha about --” But his voice trailed off as he looked at the single sheet of paper.

It was not money. It was a note in Maria Hill’s own hand. “After some discreet inquiries, I have a suggestion for you. This doctor is not affiliated with SHIELD or the US government, except for some referrals. He is highly respected, and he consulted on the case of Doctor Banner, which Agent Romanoff can brief you on, so he is aware of some extraordinary events and people. I have made an appointment for you to meet him tomorrow.”

Loki’s fist clenched, crumpling the paper. No, he wouldn’t do this.

“Bad news?” Steve asked.

“Garbage,” Loki managed to say and threw the paper into the wastebasket. “I feel like a shower.”

In the bathroom, he rested his head against the tile and let the tepid water run over him until the tension eased from his shoulders. It was a moment’s weakness. A moment, only. It means nothing.

Outside the shower, a soft knock heralded Steve wanting something, so Loki called a t-shirt and trousers, and opened the door.

“Hey,” Steve said, and he was holding out the paper, crumpled but now smoothed out. “Why did you throw this away?”

Loki very nearly slammed the door in his face, jaw clenching. “Because it’s trash.”

“I thought you wanted--”

“I never wanted it,” Loki interrupted, irritated. “It’s a stupid waste of time. And I won’t subject myself to mortal quacks for their entertainment anymore.”

Steve glanced at the paper and back to Loki. If he’d been the least bit condescending, Loki would have slammed the door anyway, but there was only concern in Steve’s blue eyes. “Something happened today on the subway,” he said, voice level. “Maybe this doctor can help you with that.”

“He can’t.”

“You don’t know that,” Steve persisted. “Maybe he can. They’re doing amazing things in medicine today.” Loki knew that was true, even if they didn’t have the kind of healing that Asgard did. But that just made it more obvious this doctor could do nothing -- Asgard barely acknowledged problems of the mind, and certainly had nothing useful for healing them.

Steve ignored Loki’s resistance and offered, as if this was a negotiation, “You could meet him, see what he’s like? I can go with you?”

“I do not require a hand to hold. I am not a child,” Loki snarled.

“Of course not. But there’s nothing wrong with having a friend with you.”

“You should go yourself,” Loki snapped, knowing it wasn’t his best effort at a counter-attack. “Visit this doctor. Have him dig through all your feelings and resentments for awakening in this time.”

Steve didn’t fall for the provocation, answering calmly, “Maybe I will. If you like him, I could give it a try.” Steve smiled just a bit as Loki’s expression tightened with annoyance, and he touched Loki’s hand. “You know I just want to get help for you, when it’s out of my league, Lukas. You’ve dealt with so much lately - not just the shit in the war, but recently. Someone to help you sort through it has to be better than nothing, doesn’t it?”

Loki turned away, muttering sullenly, “I can do it on my own.”

Steve kindly didn’t point out that he actually couldn’t, or he’d have done it already. “I’m sure you can, but you don’t have to. That’s the whole point of having friends, and,” he rattled the paper, “professionals to help.”

Hearing it again reminded him of Natasha telling him much the same when he’d reacted to nothing at Peggy Carter’s care place. He couldn’t say he didn’t need the help, because he wasn’t that much of an idiot. Not after today had thrown it at him, again, that there was something wrong with him.

He leaned against the door frame not looking at Steve, murmuring, “The train lost power and I was… back there. In the tube Schmidt electrified to keep me weak. It was decades ago, Steven, and it felt like it was still happening.”

Steve’s grip on his arm tightened, expression sympathetic. “Tomorrow, we’ll go together. Okay?”

Loki nodded his head once, feeling exhausted and defeated by his agreement. But foolish pride was no solution either. “Okay.”

Steve squeezed and let go. “You want some dinner?” He wasn’t surprised when Loki declined. Steve withdrew and said good night, and Loki closed the door again. He stood there for a time before letting his head rest against it. Making his mind blank, he inhaled slow breaths until he relaxed.

Part Two