Garbled shouting and sharp attacks to his head and lower back startled Loki into the most unpleasant waking of his life.
His last memory was of having all the symbols and trappings of his identity forcefully removed, and then being thrust into the Bifrost. He didn’t know where he was or why he seemed to be on the losing side of a fight he hadn’t started.
“Freak!” one of his assailants said.
“Loser!” another yelled with a well-placed kick to Loki’s stomach.
A new voice rang out, in a different tone. “Leave him alone!”
“You assholes picking on sleeping drunks now?” another new person said.
“Stay out of this, you two.”
“Not in our nature.”
Tangled around him as they were, Loki’s muddy cape and filthy mat of hair prevented him from seeing the altercation of which he was no longer the center. Blows ceased to pummel him, but he could hear the impact of knuckles on other bones and wheezing grunts as wind was knocked out of other lungs.
He was still trying to find his balance. The ground here was uncommonly hard and black, made of a substance he’d never encountered. By the time he had corralled himself enough to look up, the fight had ended and the victors were chasing the vanquished from the area.
Loki didn’t know which party had prevailed: his attackers or his rescuers.
“Hey, you!” one of the victors shouted into his ear. An indelicate shake accompanied the greeting. “You alive?”
This didn’t clarify matters much.
“How dare you lay hands on me?” he snarled.
“Whoa, there, calm down. Just trying to help.”
“Go easy on him, Buck,” the other voice said. “I think he’s still waking up.”
A thin stream of foul-smelling white liquid had run from an unknown source and curdled into a puddle near Loki’s hands. The sleeves of his chemise were drenched in the stuff. “What is this?” he muttered to himself.
“Milk,” the rougher of the two voices said. “Must have been some wild night for you to have passed out in the garbage heap behind a diner. How much did you have to drink?”
“Nothing,” Loki replied peevishly. “Nothing at all.”
His hands had finally gained purchase on a dry spot on the ground. After a couple of attempts, he managed to fling enough hair out of his eyes to see with whom he was conversing.
A more contrasting pair of youths had not been seen since Loki had been content to nestle in Thor’s shadow. Had Loki possessed lesser observational skills, he might have thought the smaller one a child. But there was maturity in that thin face, and manliness in the too-strong features.
“You in the circus?” the one with the dark hair and strong arms asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your get-up. Fancy cape and everything. You don’t look like a clown, though. What were you, the ring-master? Lion-tamer?”
“I am a prince of Asgard, you prattling buffoon, not a court jester or the maintainer of the menagerie. Now, help me up out of this wretched filth.”
“Don’t talk to Bucky like that.”
“I can take care of myself, Steve.”
Steve continued to stare Loki down, wholly unaware of his weak powers of intimidation. “Do you know how many people have walked by this alley this morning? Must be hundreds. But the only people who stopped were those assholes. And us.”
“So I am to thank you?” Loki replied with a sneer. “And for what? Regaling me with your ignorant conversation? Letting your oaf of a friend dare to touch my person?”
“Come on, Steve. This guy doesn’t need us. He’s fine on his own. He’s a prince, didn’t you hear? Prince of a trash heap.”
However, Steve refused to budge. His small fists clenched tight, just as tightly as his brows pressed into one another. “I don’t care how big the words you use are. You don’t talk to people like that.”
Such nerve won, if not Loki’s respect, then at least his curiosity. How did one so small and sickly looking come to think he could command deference? But Loki had only a moment to spare on such questions. He knew that in his predicament, he needed to learn where he was, with whom he had to deal and where his possible routes of escape lay. It behooved him to play this a little more calmly, and if that meant pretending politeness to these strangers, so be it.
“I will attempt to moderate my speech if you tell me where I am.” He assumed his more moderated tone would serve in lieu of an apology.
“Water and Front,” Bucky replied.
This riddle stumped even Loki, who had always been master of such diversions. Perhaps he had underestimated the boorish Bucky, just as he had at first underestimated the frail-seeming Steve.
“This tells me little. What realm do I find myself in? You do not look like elves, and your garments are not like any I have seen before.”
Bucky cocked a warning eyebrow at Steve. “You foreign? You sure talk like a foreigner.”
“He’s from England, can’t you tell?” Steve replied. “We’re in Brooklyn. New York,” he tried again, when the first word did not manage to smooth Loki’s clouded brow. “The USA. How drunk are you, if you don’t even know where you are?”
“I told you. I am not drunk. I was…” He paused. These mortals—for mortals he now recognized them to be—would not understand. However, their interactions so far had proven them soft-hearted, despite their outward bluster. He could prey on this weakness. With an affectation of misery that slipped into the genuine article, he explained, “I was cast out and sent here, against my will. I know not where I am, nor why it was chosen for me.”
“That’s really rough,” Steve said, as predicted.
“You got a place to stay, pal?” Bucky asked, also shamed into a gentler form of concern.
“What part of ‘knowing nothing about where I am’ does your feeble mind fail to grasp?” Loki spat, forgetting himself for a moment.
“What did I tell you about being rude?” Steve asked.
“Steve’s right. You don’t act like somebody who’s in trouble.”
“I don’t need you, two strangers who happened upon me in the road, if this is indeed what passes for a road in Midgard. Leave me.”
Bucky shrugged. “Come on, Steve. We’ve got better things to do than waste our time with circus rejects.”
Although his friend had already begun to walk away, Steve’s warm blue gaze fixed seriously on Loki, a contrast to Bucky’s pale, icy flicker. After a moment’s quiet assessment, he produced a worn stub of coal from one pocket, and a scrap of thick paper from another. Quickly he scribbled and handed the paper to Loki before running to catch up with Bucky.
“If you change your mind… if you decide to calm down enough to accept some help, you can find us here.”
Loki spent the rest of the day exploring the teeming, stinking city into which he had fallen. Its denizens disappointed him. The few whose notice he attracted all shunned him. They were even more unfriendly and judgmental than Aesir, except when asked to provide directions, he quickly learned. Then, they were all smiles and attentiveness. He began asking for directions at random, as a way of getting them to talk. He searched for shelter and finally found some in the rafters of an abandoned warehouse.
Between the beating, the thirst, and the discomfort, Loki thought he had learned enough of a lesson. Surely a day spent watching him endure so many low moments would appease the All-Father. Looking towards the sky that night he said, “This day has been a grave punishment. Heimdall, open the Bifrost to me and take me home.”
It didn’t take long for Loki to see that the mortals had made great headway in the thousand years since Asgardians had last visited. This place, this New York, was quite far, not only in distance, but also in spirit from the frozen fjords upon which they had waged war so long ago.
There were spires, certainly, but angled and harsh, a far cry from the elegantly rounded peaks popular in the realms Loki knew best. Disgusting and suspicious smoke billowed from them, especially at night. In fact, smoke in a variety of stenches wafted from almost every possible opening, as though the city were a great beast expelling its flatulence from infinite and unexpected orifices.
He took to skulking around corners, stole bread and other refreshments from wherever he could, and slept in abandoned lofts. Loath to relinquish the last bits of Asgard that remained to him, he refused to beg for new clothes, even as the ones he wore became more and more dilapidated. No one had heard of Asgard and laughed at him when he tried to impress upon them what an important person they were dealing with. It was a reaction he had never before encountered. Surely his humiliation should have appeased the All Father by now. However, night after night, he called to Heimdall and received no answer.
His mind kept returning to his two rescuers, the ones he had so curtly dismissed. After three days, he had failed to meet a single person in this world who afforded him even close to the same level of concern that those two had.
Loki convinced himself that destiny had marked them out, and that in his momentary confusion, he had been too blind to see it. He could eventually learn to survive here on his own, he was certain, but perhaps with them, he could do more than simply survive. And even better, perhaps accepting their charity was the nadir he needed to regain his home.
Three days after his arrival—three of the longest, most miserable days of his life—Loki knocked on the door of an apartment on the topmost floor of a modest but respectable building on a quiet street near the downtown.
A minute after knocking, he heard shuffling inside. A light shone through a tiny glass hole in the door.
“Hey Steve, look who’s back,” Bucky’s voice called before the door opened to reveal his smirking face.
“You look like you’ve seen some rough times,” Steve noted, coming around a corner and taking in the muddied leather and distinct lack of cape.
“This realm and I do not agree with one another. In my three days here, I have found no succor of any sort. And so, I request a reinstatement of your offer of hospitality.”
Bucky barred the way with arms mockingly crossed. “Only if you apologize for being a jerk the other day.”
Hunger and dampness forced Loki to rein himself in and reply through clenched teeth, “I apologize.”
“And you’ve got to promise to stop talking like a dictionary.”
“I will endeavor to simplify my speech.”
“Not a great start.”
The dwelling was small—two rooms, with a small cooking area and a shared lavatory down the hallway. This was a lair belonging to bachelor brothers, much like one Thor and Loki might have shared in the slums of Asgard had they not been princes. Steve and Bucky worked in tandem to make him feel at home, never tripping over one another in the small space.
Together, the three of them got Loki out of his wet and ruined things and into itchy but clean and warm garments. They were too big and too small all at once, as Loki’s bulky armour had always hidden a frame almost as thin as Steve’s, but taller by inches than Bucky’s. The dark colors depressed Loki even further; he was accustomed to vivid greens and soft leathers tailored specifically to him.
Within minutes, he found himself sitting on two couch cushions (the closest thing to a divan in this tiny dwelling) and clutching a mug of cocoa, the first warm thing to pass his lips in days.
“This is delicious.”
“You must be really hungry to think that,” Steve laughed.
“Here, have this, too.” Bucky handed Loki a container of pinkish-grey foodstuffs.
“When was the last time you ate?” Steve asked after watching him devour what they told him was tinned tuna. Unlike the cocoa, it satisfied his rumbling stomach but not his palette.
“My father hosted a grand banquet in the royal gardens for my brother, which is why I was able to go three days without needing to seek assistance.”
“Great banquet, huh? Not a lot of those around here.”
“So I have noticed.”
Unlike his friend, Bucky remained skeptical about Loki and his presence here; while Steve’s generosity was Loki’s main recourse, he related more readily to Bucky’s suspicious pragmatism.
“We didn’t catch your name the other day.”
“I am Loki.”
“Because ‘Bucky’ conveys such seriousness,” Loki snapped back.
“You have a last name?” Steve asked.
“Loki Od—” He remembered Odin’s last words. “Just Loki.”
Steve must have caught the hesitation as well as the sadness in Loki’s response, for he tilted his head and regarded him even more questioningly than he had before.
“Where are you from?” Steve asked. “You can tell us. If you’re in trouble, you can trust us.”
“I told you. I am of Asgard. Or I was. But now I have been cast out, banished, forced to fend for myself on this barren rock.”
“The hell?” Bucky said.
“Where’s Asgard?” Steve calmly asked. “Is that in Europe?”
“It is further than you could comprehend.”
“How about you give us a try?”
Loki launched into an explanation, simplified for these mortal minds. He told them of the Yggdrasil, of the branches, of Asgard and the All-Father, of the war fought on Midgard so long ago, of the power and magic that had until recently flowed through his veins, of his attempts to wrest the inheritance of the throne away from his brother, of how that scheme had been discovered and ultimately thwarted, leading to his expulsion and arrival in this realm.
Throughout his tale, Loki watched Steve and Bucky exchange glances. At first he took it as equal parts sympathy and awe, but by the end, he recognized it as worry—the looks one gave to fools and madmen. Loki had just spent himself, had tried so hard to put his situation in terms they could understand, only to have his best efforts received as raving.
“Look, pal,” Bucky said. “I’m sure you think you’re real smart, but we weren’t born yesterday.”
Loki repressed a laugh. In Asgardian terms, they had been born only a minute ago. “Would you prefer a lie? For I could tell that much more easily, I assure you.”
“Excuse us for a minute,” Steve said. He dragged Bucky into the next room.
They whispered too softly to hear, but out of the corner of his eye and through a crack in the door, Loki could see Steve’s elbow gesticulating and Bucky’s tempered but eventual gestures of agreement. They returned a few minutes later, Steve looking serious and Bucky rolling his eyes.
“You’ve got a funny way of putting it, but what we think you’re saying,” Steve said slowly, “is that you’re all alone here in the city. And you need a place to stay until you find your feet.”
“I would appreciate the shelter. On Asgard, we have not these harsh winters. But where would I sleep? Are there hidden chambers here?” Much as Steve and Bucky appeared genuine, Loki could not conceive of where they planned to put him.
“Steve usually sleeps out here on the couch. Same cushions you’re sitting on right now. But ever since this chill set in a few weeks ago, he’s been sleeping with me. Which means the cushions are free, at least until the summer.”
Although it went unnoticed by Bucky, Loki did not miss the faint flush that drifted across Steve’s cheeks at this speech.
“How many strangers have you taken in before me?”
“You’re the first.”
“It’s clear something terrible happened to you,” Steve added. “You need help more than most.”
This was mortifying, but Loki had to take it if he wanted to remain in this warm, welcoming environment.
“If you’re going to stay here, you’ve gotta earn your keep, though, same as us,” Bucky said. “This place isn’t cheap.”
“And how does one go about earning one’s keep?”
“Getting a job. Pitching in for the rent and the heating. Helping me look after Steve when he gets one of his spells.”
“I’m not a baby, Buck. I don’t need round the clock babysitters.”
“What if it’s not about what you need? What if I’m just a worry wart?”
“Then I say that’s your problem, not mine.”
They wrestled jokingly as Loki and Thor had used to do. It took a few minutes before they remembered him, until they looked up from where they lay tangled together breathless and laughing and flustered on the floor beside him. Loki wondered if this was the lesson he was meant to learn. To see from the outside what he had thrown away in a bid for power.
Together, Steve and Bucky plotted what to do with Loki, using words and concepts he understood poorly. At first they thought his questions about the city and the state of Midgard today were jokes, but once he had worn down their disbelief, they began to give him precious information about the place, not that it mattered; he had a feeling that tonight would be the night he would leave. However, to their credit, the hours flew by more quickly than Loki would have expected with such people.
Later that night, Loki went onto the fire escape, looked to the sky and said, “I understand. Send me home. Heimdall, open the Bifrost to me.”
Only a few stray dogs and mewling cats answered him. Loki turned around with the intention of crawling back inside through the window, only to find Steve’s and Bucky’s heads blocking the way.
“How long have you been watching?” he asked.
“Long enough,” Steve said. “Who were you talking to?”
He had already tried to explain and received disbelieving laughs for his trouble. So, he stooped his head, took the hand Bucky offered him, and climbed back in, stopping only to mumble, “No one.”
“That’s the most worrying answer you could give, pal.”
The next morning, Bucky took Loki down to the docks with him. The dingy warehouse in which he toiled was only a short tram ride from the apartment.
“New friend in town, looking for work,” he told his manager.
“What’s your name?”
The surname had been a joint invention of Steve’s and Bucky’s. They had insisted that Loki needed one. Since he kept saying he was ‘of Asgard’ they had decided that should be it. Steve had had the bright idea of twisting it into something French since German had fallen out of favor.
The manager appraised Loki, not unlike an animal for sale at the market, and then shook his head.
“Too skinny. And prissy. You French?”
“No, sir, you mean.”
Despite having spent only an evening with him, Bucky already knew Loki well enough to get him out of there before he unleashed.
“Here’s fifty cents,” he told Loki, after hurriedly ushering him outside. “Buy a newspaper and a pen, and I’ll meet you in the diner down the street at lunchtime. This isn’t gonna work, but maybe you can find something in the classifieds that will.”
Loki had no other plans, so for once, he did as he was bid. He spent the rest of the morning learning about the opportunities for employment in this city. They were diverse yet poorly described. Loki could not fathom how anyone was expected to muster enthusiasm when the people hiring couldn't even be bothered to write in complete sentences. However, he made an effort. Everything else so far had failed, so his latest theory was that a day’s honest toil might do the trick.
As promised, Bucky slipped, panting, into the adjacent bar stool a few hours later.
“Find anything?” he asked.
“No, and I doubt I will. At least not anything listed in this paper. It seems to be a poorer one, given the quality of the content surrounding the advertisements. Do I strike you as fit for yeoman’s work?”
“Right, I keep forgetting, you’re a prince.” Bucky rolled his eyes and called over the waitress to order some lunch. “Look, it’s probably for the best if you keep that under wraps. Don’t talk about it with people other than me and Steve.”
“Why should I keep it a secret?”
“Because no one’s ever heard of this Asgard place. Not everyone’s as open-minded as me and Steve. People will think you’re loony tunes. And look around you. Even if it were a real place, you think people these days take kindly to snotty princes lording it over them?”
“I see your point.”
Bucky glanced at the marked-up newspaper. “You’ll find something. I’ll get you the Wall Street Journal tomorrow. It’s a classier read. Might have classier job listings.”
“What does Steve do?” Loki asked. “I doubt he hauls things around the docks as you do. I may find better luck through his connections.”
“Steve’s got a job at a book publisher over in Manhattan, designing covers. He can’t help you there, though. He’s on the rocks himself. Too sick. Misses too many days. That’s why we need you to find something, you see. Steve’s salary… it’s not the most reliable, not that I’d ever tell him that. Which means the rent is all on me. We had to move to this new place a few months ago, because the last apartment was setting off his asthma. But the rent is double what I told him it is. He’d never have agreed to the move if I’d told him the truth, but he needed to get out of there. I’ve been struggling to make it work, but then you showed up, and Steve can’t say no to people in need, so… It works out.”
And now it made sense. Why Bucky, whose heart bled a little less gushingly than Steve’s, had agreed to take him in. He saw Loki as additional source of income, that was all. And now it turned out that Steve would have done the same for any victim in need. None of this had to do with Loki himself. Two impulses warred within him; one urged to run far away from this odd combination of pity and pragmatism, and another to prove himself to them as neither needing compassion nor existing as a burden.
The fact that taverns here did not accept credit for meals made his decision. Loki’s only access to hot food was currently through Bucky’s generosity, no matter what its motivation.
After work and back at the apartment, Bucky showed him how to conjure voices from a brown and grey box—strange magic, that. For a time, Loki regarded Bucky as some new breed of wizard practicing a powerful seidr he’d never encountered.
“How’d it go on the docks?” Steve asked when he returned home an hour later.
“That bad, huh? I had a feeling.” Steve responded. “But I’ve got a lead. Two guys who work at the ad agency on the fourth floor got in the elevator with me this evening. Talking about how their three best copywriters had just quit and all gone to a different agency together, leaving them in a lurch. And I got to thinking… Loki’s good with words. You should go in tomorrow and apply. Show them your stuff.”
“What does a copywriter do?”
Steve and Bucky had to explain not only the duties of the position, but the entire industry. Loki listened, riveted. This constant churn of new wares and services did not exist on Asgard, which created little need for ‘marketing’. If something was good, people invariably heard about it. This new idea—tricking fools into parting with their money, solely through clever language and imagery—intrigued him.
This sort of work (thank goodness) required a different sort of wardrobe from that which he’d been wearing. Bucky asked Caleb Thompson next door if they could borrow his good suit, just for the morning. Caleb was tall, like Loki, and only a little bit broader. Never before had Loki’s whippet-thin figure—always a source of mockery among Thor’s friends—cut such an attractive line. In some comparisons, however petty, Midgard impressed him. The clothes here weighed mercifully less than garments on Asgard, and allowed for more fluid motion.
“You look the part, that’s for sure,” Steve said appreciatively when Loki tried it on that evening.
“No question about that. There’s a snag, though,” Bucky added. “A fancy Madison Avenue ad agency’ll be more strict than my gig. They’ll want to check your papers.”
“Are you sure you don’t have any?” Steve asked Loki.
“I have only what I arrived with.”
“I’m on it,” Bucky promised. “I’ve got an idea.”
That night, he went out to make some inquiries among the seedier corners of his vast acquaintanceship.
“I can’t believe you even know people like this,” Steve said disapprovingly when Bucky returned to the apartment with a birth certificate and social security card under the name of Tim Dawson. Tim had recently gone missing in a gangster attack.
“It’s always good policy to cultivate contacts among all walks of life,” Loki said. “Bucky does well to nurture connections among those beneath him.”
Riding the subway with Steve the next morning was a terrifying experience. His nose rested perilously close to short men’s hats, and it took a few stations before Loki learned how to steel his balance in preparation for the jolting motion of starting and stopping.
“I guess princes don’t spend a lot of time hanging on straps with the masses,” Steve joked.
Loki did not appreciate the mockery, but he accepted the kind smile. All the humans were worms, everyone knew that, but his two hosts had already managed to inch his way past Loki’s defenses. Steve's incongruously confident smiles contained more mettle than many of the warriors Loki had met on battlefields across the realms. Loki had always taken satisfaction in seeing that which escaped others’ notice; Steve was a prime example of something interesting but overlooked. Loki alone—well, he and Bucky—saw Steve’s true worth. And the fact that Loki’s current well-fed, well-rested, relatively even-tempered state was directly the result of them seeing more in him than a lunatic tramp… well, that had to mean something, too.
Steve caught Loki staring. “What?”
They walked through streets infinitely busier than those Loki had been traversing in Brooklyn. He felt oppressed by the sheer volume of humanity that poured out of subway entrances and off buses and down the cold streets.
“Tell them you heard they were looking for someone,” Steve coached him on their ride in the little metal box. “They’ll ask for samples. Just read off the taglines we had you write last night. You’ll do great.”
“I don’t need reassurance,” Loki replied haughtily to mask his nervousness. It was ridiculous, he told himself, to feel any apprehension about being evaluated by some strange mortals. But the prospect of this activity intrigued him, and he wanted an opportunity to learn more about it.
“Whatever you say.”
Once inside the office, Loki’s natural confidence hypnotized not only the receptionist, but also his would-be employers.
“You in some weird religion?” Mr. Davies, the creative director, asked when Loki had finished dazzling them with his wit and verbal pyrotechnics.
Loki didn’t know how to answer; sarcasm and truth fought for dominance on his tongue. The struggle ended in a draw, so he replied, “Why do you ask?”
Mr. Davies puffed on his cigar. “You’ve got a funny accent. Long hair. Something funny about you in general. But you’ve got the job, if you want it.”
At the end of the day, after writing clever lines for three new tinned soup brands, a law firm and a new nightclub, Loki waited for Steve on the landing of his floor upstairs.
“Take me to a tailor,” he demanded. “Caleb Thompson’s suit sufficed for today, but I require my own vestments.”
“I’m guessing it went well,” Steve said with a snort.
“Better than well. I have already been given what is known as an office.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Steve checked his watch. “We might be able to catch Gimballs before it closes. Come on.”
Loki and Steve spent an interesting hour thumbing through neat rows of jackets and trousers in an enormous emporium. At the end of their adventure, Loki still declared that what he required was something custom-made, but he took Steve’s advice and used his advance to purchase something to tide him over. He even bought Steve a new hat to replace the one that had been ruined during the back-alley squabble in which they’d met.
“Well, don’t you two look like a million bucks.” Bucky’s worried brow uncreased itself in admiration once he saw his roommates enter, not only safe and sound, but also handsomely outfitted. He went to the cupboard and took out a small bottle. “Let’s celebrate.”
“Don’t jinx it, Buck,” Steve said. “It could all go downhill tomorrow.”
Bucky smiled at Loki, almost knowingly. “It won’t.”
By the time they were ready for bed, Loki was too drunk to remember to call for Heimdall. The fall must have altered him, he realized the next morning in panic; such thin liquid would have had no effect on him at home.
Bucky was right. It didn’t go downhill. In fact, except for his general continued presence in this realm, things only proceeded to fall even more felicitously into place. Once given actual accounts, Loki excelled at his chosen form of paid leisure (he refused to call it a ‘job’). The entire endeavor was so enjoyable that he would have done it anyway; receiving paychecks for it was an added bonus.
He tried to tell himself that he stayed with Steve and Bucky not out of need or loneliness, but rather out of curiosity. The awareness that this reasoning could only be described as delusional didn’t trouble him at all. For what was magic if not the willful and practiced transmutation of delusion into reality? Loki may have lost the ability, but never the theory.
Every night, however, he waited for Steve and Bucky to go to bed before going out to the fire escape to call for Heimdall. And every night, after a lack of response, he shuffled back into the living room and settled himself among the couch cushions, vowing that if he was meant to stay here any longer, the first thing he would do when he’d saved enough money would be to buy a proper bed.
(Sometimes, he heard the bedroom door open, and saw the shadow of Steve’s or Bucky’s face peeking through to check on him, but he pretended to be asleep.)
Loki had to constantly remind himself how much he despised it here. Even beyond his roommates, there were things to enjoy. He liked the books here. They contained much more plot and wordplay than the austere tomes he had spent his entire life reading. For all that the fantastical formed part of the everyday in Asgard, the mortals had greater powers of imagination. They invented magic where it was absent, concocted entertaining twists even he did not expect.
While Bucky charmed and Steve drew, Loki spent weekends lost in Dickens and Waugh, in Trollope and Cervantes. He could not reconcile the beauty he found in books with the vulgar, smoke-filled world that surrounded him… but then he looked at Bucky and Steve. Bucky, whose good looks and breezy personality granted him access to secret, hidden delights all over the city that he shared with Loki. Steve, who never mocked Loki for his reading, and actually encouraged the habit by bringing home manuscripts from work for Loki to read and describe. Steve took those whimsical descriptions and turned them into covers that someone with a machine printed thousands of. Steve’s pictures lined the windows of booksellers everywhere Loki walked in the city.
It was, in a way, its own kind of magic.
Loki tried to use this realization for his own purposes.
“There are more kinds of magic than the seidr, and more applications for purposes other than power," he said on the fire escape. "I do see this now.”
It was habit more than anything else that made him continue this practice, because his prayers went continually unanswered.
“This is what you’ve been talking about all this time?” Steve whispered. “It’s like Zeus and Mount Olympus, but not as well-known.”
“Yeah, I don’t get it,” Bucky said. “These are just stories.”
“They are stories based loosely on facts,” Loki tried to explain.
“You’ve got a kid who’s a wolf?” Bucky whispered. “You telling me that’s a fact?”
“Of course not.”
They received an outraged glare from an elderly lady nearby.
Loki had taken his new friends to the library in an effort to help them understand who he was and where he had come from. If he had not already gleaned how far the humans had come since the last time Asgardians had reported back on their doings, this temple to learning would have convinced him. Here was an entire palace devoted to books, larger and more beautiful even than the library where he had spent much of his youth. As there were books in Asgard about Midgard, so were there many books here about Asgard. But they were all confusingly contradictory and out of date, much like the ones he had read before arriving here. Even worse, they were filled with lies much more imaginative than his own. People over the years had spun bits of truth into impossible nonsense about everyone he knew, himself included. Loki recognized only the barest facts.
“I thought you were going to tell us where you’re really from. At least show us on a map or something,” Steve whispered.
“Look,” Bucky added, “if you don’t want to tell us, that’s fine. But don’t drag us up here on a nice Saturday afternoon and pretend you’re gonna tell us something you’re not.”
Loki made a couple of attempts to help them understand, but they were shushed by other patrons. Losing interest in what they considered an ill-conceived prank, Steve eventually requested some books of art. Once they arrived, Bucky made quiet but rude jokes about the nudes depicted.
Loki had spent his life spinning lies to gullible believers. Never before had he had the truth resolutely taken as a falsehood.
At least they had happily accompanied him to the library, he thought on their way home that evening. That was more than he could say about his Asgardian companions. More importantly, these were his companions, not Thor’s friends who merely put up with him. Even if they hadn’t believed him, the day had been pleasant enough.
Bucky pressed Loki into a chair and stood over him, straddled his legs. Hovering a few feet behind him, Steve held a set of implements.
“Are you certain this is a good idea?” Loki asked, wincing.
“I’ve given Steve pretty much every haircut he’s ever had.”
“Is that meant to inspire confidence?”
“Hold your head still and quit your yakking.”
Loki had been steadfastly holding onto his one last physical reminder of his old life, even as he stalked the streets in the knife-pleated trousers and well-tailored coats that his increasingly generous salary afforded. But not only had Loki’s boss insisted that he cut his hair before an important upcoming pitch, but even Bucky had stepped up his cajoling.
Loki could have resisted the boss, but no one had ever been able to resist Bucky.
“Don’t cut too much,” he protested.
“I’ll give you number five on the top and number three on the sides.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It’ll look good. Just trust me.”
Bucky cupped Loki’s face, bringing it slowly upwards. Their eyes met, and Loki was suddenly very aware of Bucky’s stance over him. Judging from the way his eyes clouded over, so was Bucky. But neither of them flinched. Loki sustained eye contact, and, perhaps out of bravado, Bucky drew almost obscenely closer.
This was interesting.
He’d always been a master of self-control, so willing his body not to respond was easy, but when Bucky actually sat in his lap in order to get the front of his head just right, Loki thought, imagined perhaps, that both of them were breathing just a bit more heavily. It had to be wishful, willful misinterpretation, because Bucky had never given the slightest hint that...
Since he wasn’t standing at an angle to see what was going on, Steve watched the proceedings with oblivious interest. He handed Bucky scissors and clippers and a straight razor whenever requested.
“There you go,” Bucky said when he was finished.
Loki’s long black hair lay in clumps on the kitchen floor. The person who stared back at him from the mirror seemed older (ironic, that) and unquestionably more Midgardian. But for all that, it wasn’t a bad look. His natural curls—so unfashionable in Asgard—seemed to fit his clothes and surroundings in this new style.
“What do you think, Steve?” Loki asked.
“You look kind of like Bucky,” he said slowly, his eyes flicking between the two of them.
Even though part of him bristled, Loki had gleaned enough over the past few months to know this was intended as a compliment.
And then he looked over at Bucky, whose perfect face reminded him that the comparison was hardly insulting.
“Nah, he looks loads handsomer than me,” Bucky said.
Loki’s tutors and father and other acquaintances had always chastised him for his destructive nature. They accused him of suffering from chronic jealousy that made him want to smash or sully everything good and beautiful.
They had always had it wrong. Loki loved a little too much, was too susceptible to beauty. Merely looking could not satisfy him. When he saw something perfect, he coveted it. As a child Sif’s beautiful golden hair had taunted him. He had lain awake dreaming of it, seeing its glinting prettiness behind his eyes. And so, one day he’d cut it off, wanting to claim it for his own, to share in it with her. But once in his hands, the hair seemed little more than corn husk—utterly boring. He hadn’t realized that it needed to remain attached to Sif herself to be beautiful. The hair grown back black. Yes, she was still lovely, but Loki’s attempts to have it had altered it forever.
This may have been the first instance of Loki’s unfortunate acquisitiveness, but it was hardly the last. He was no simpleton, failing to learn a lesson despite multiple examples. But he saw each situation as unique, too different from the last to apply previous learnings.
The life he’d made for himself here was hardly privileged, but it was beautiful in its own way. As an interloper, a new addition to their household, Loki enjoyed a first-hand view of how beautiful Steve and Bucky were—as beautiful as Sif’s hair—both individually, but even more together. Their friendship was a precious jewel that, although he had begun to shoulder his way inside, he felt he would never quite crack. But he wanted to; he wanted to crack it, to nestle himself inside it, even if doing so might break it.
To expect immediate entry into a sanctum they had spent their entire lives building would take time, if it happened at all. But Loki cared little for such logical restrictions. He wanted, and consoled himself with the thought that mortal lives were too short for time to matter. Steve and Bucky had been inseparable for fifteen years before they had met him, but what were fifteen years to him? Was not such a period a mere blip to be overcome in a matter of months?
His initial idea had been to stay only as long as it took to establish himself here in style or else to go home, whichever came first. But time passed and still he remained, not only on Midgard, but in their cramped apartment. Summer, the season Bucky had initially hinted might be the limit of the invitation, since Steve spent the winter in Bucky’s room, came and went. But no one brought the deadline up again, nor seemed to want to.
Between his desire to regain his magic and the thrall of the domestic situation around him, Loki could hardly focus enough to prioritize his tangled and gnawing wants, much less to find the line between desire, appreciation and acquisitiveness. Rejected as a runt, cleverer by half than his peers, Loki saw in Steve a shadow of himself. He wanted to possess him, become his other half, to share space with him in ways that were not purely physical. He sometimes dreamed of Steve looking at him with the worshipful eyes usually reserved for Bucky; it would represent a grand victory, indeed, to win the admiration and desire of such a man. For was not Loki at least Bucky’s equal?
But Steve alone had not caught Loki’s attention. Bucky reminded Loki of Thor, in a way, and activated a nostalgic longing he yearned to quash. A different but similarly effective smile, the kind of winning manner that had made him as universally popular in Brooklyn as Thor was in Asgard. Objectively, Bucky, who possessed little beyond his looks and charm, was more popular; Thor’s position would have won him friends and toadies even if he’d been less personally pleasing. Like everyone else, Loki yearned for him. He deserved to count among—to reign above—the insignificant people who caught Bucky’s eye. For was not Loki at least Steve’s equal as well? A skinny, clever foundling trapped in a body and station that stifled his potential? Should not Bucky want Loki just as much?
The door flew open and a more jaunty than usual Bucky strolled in. He slapped some tickets onto the dining table.
“Get dressed, you two. We’re celebrating tonight.”
“Why?” Loki asked.
“The Stork Club?” Steve asked after peering at the words on the tickets. “We can’t afford that.”
“We could if you would let me pay,” Loki complained.
“Yeah, but you know how we feel about that.”
“Old McKinnon gave me a promotion today,” Bucky said. “You’re looking at the new day-manager of the warehouse. So yeah, we can afford it, just this once.”
“Buck, that’s great!” Steve hopped to his feet, the adventures of his radio characters forgotten. Together, the two friends danced around the room, too close by half.
“My most heartfelt congratulations,” Loki said when they finally flopped down onto the couch, dizzy and wheezing and quiet enough to hear him.
“Thanks, Loki.” Bucky smiled—the particular combination of quirking lips and squinted eye that was reserved for him alone.
This night was for Bucky’s benefit, so Steve and Loki resisted putting up a protest when he informed them that he’d found three girls to accompany them. Loki had no use for the endless stream of women who flocked around Bucky. Through a pre-planned set of excuses and diversions and well-timed rudeness, he had so far successfully managed to wriggle out of the relentless efforts to set him up. Steve’s dates inevitably wandered away from him, which left the two of them on their own little date while Bucky negotiated the terrifying trenches of multiple women.
“I was hoping he’d given up,” Steve whispered to Loki as they got ready. “We had a good system going. Him and two dates, you and me off to the side.”
“I’m sure the pattern will repeat itself,” Loki replied. “My only question about the night revolves around Bucky’s prowess. He has already managed both his date and yours. I wonder if tonight he can manage to get all three in bed.”
“Sure he can.”
“I take the opposite position.”
“You wanna wager something?” Steve asked, though he clearly took no joy in the game.
“Certainly. How about if I win, you’ll let me take you to the Stork Club, just the two of us, without any dates or whining about the cost?”
“Just the two of us?”
Loki had never before been so forward, with either of them, but everyone was looking more comely than usual tonight, and Steve’s depressed manner compelled Loki to do something about it.
The Stork Club was almost everything people said about it. The elaborately set tables and excellent selection of food and drink were enough to inspire Loki to strive for new heights at the agency. This was the sort of life for which he was meant. Despite having lived in the city for over a year, this was the first time he’d been out with the upper-crust.
As always, Steve’s date quickly found her way to Bucky’s side. And Loki’s date, after repeated but failed attempts to win his favor, eventually gave up and joined them.
Bucky and the ladies made their way to the bar to stock up on drinks before the second round of dancing. Steve and Loki remained behind at their dark, forgotten corner table, and watched, not the dancing, but Bucky’s charm offensive in action. He was almost seeing one of them—as much as Bucky ‘saw’ anyone—and as a result, had been spending just a little less time in the apartment over the past couple of weeks. Steve had tried to act happy for him, had asked all the right questions and entertained her when they interacted, but his unhappiness in private moments was palpable. Loki decided tonight was as good a night as any to explore, obliquely, what his chances were.
“Betty’s nice, isn’t she?” Steve asked. His nervous fingers twisted and ripped his napkin into unlikely shapes. “A real looker, too.”
He wasn’t looking at Betty at all.
“Not quite as much of a looker as Bucky, though, is she?”
Steve glanced sideways at Loki, and then stared at his napkin as soon as Loki’s eyes confirmed the meaning he’d suspected.
“What are you talking about?” Steve muttered.
“I see how you look at him. I’ve seen it since the day I met you.”
“You haven’t said anything to him, have you?” No matter how deeply he tried to hide it, Steve was too honest to deny it outright.
This would, Loki feared, one day be Steve’s downfall. Steve possessed plenty of potential for guile, and had the capacity to dream up some delightfully clever schemes, but he lacked any desire to put that guile into action for anything other than the most heartfelt of causes. That quietly serious face could have sold any lie, but Steve refused to tell any. Loki found it a terrible waste.
“No, I haven't said anything. However,” Loki replied, “I have been wondering why you seem to feel such shame. You look at him, and then furtively shift your eyes away before he can see. You feign hope about the females he throws at you. Why?”
“I’m not pretending. It’d be great if one of them…”
“Why do you hide it?” Loki pressed.
“I’ve seen him let girls down easy plenty of times. I already know exactly how it would go. What’s the point?”
“How can you be so sure of his reaction?”
“You see how he is. He loves the girls. And they love him. One day, he’s gonna settle down with a nice one, get married, have a family, be happy. Both of you will.”
Loki tried not to laugh at the image of him with any of these prattling, giggling creatures. “I think not.”
“That’s what you say now, but it always happens. Until then, though, at least we can stick together.”
“This is about more than fear of rejection. Why else do you hide?”
Steve seemed surprised by the question. “Because it isn’t right. Or, people think it isn’t right.”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. Not just because he doesn’t look at me that way, but also because we’d get locked up even if he did. I don’t want to do anything that’ll get him in trouble. Sometimes…” Wistfully, he watched Bucky dancing. “Sometimes I hope I’m wrong, just confused. Life would be a lot simpler if I woke up one day magically over it.”
“You have never acted on these desires? Not with anyone?”
“There’s only ever been him.”
A flare of anger coursed through Loki. He had been right there, for over a year, and gone unnoticed, just as unnoticed as he had gone for millennia. “I could show you. I would like to show you how it could be.”
“I know you like to tease, but that’s just mean. I don’t need a pity…” Steve stumbled, unsure what noun should follow, polite or not.
“I am neither teasing nor motivated by pity. Bucky is right, Steve. You are perfectly capable of attracting a partner. Only, perhaps, not exactly the ones he continues to push on you. He does you a disservice by assuming you could enjoy the company of one of these idiotic girls.”
“I enjoy their company fine,” Steve said unconvincingly.
“As much as mine?”
Loki could see the moment when Steve began to take him seriously, for he went very still. For a second, Loki feared that he had broken his fragile friend, or caused an asthma attack. But then, slowly, Steve looked up. Loki watched as something that had long been lurking shifted between them.
“You’d want to… with me?”
“You talk like it’s no big deal.”
“On Asgard, we have little of this silly prejudice. We take our pleasure from wherever it may come.”
He thought to himself, but didn’t say, that they still probably would have drawn a line at other species. While taking a male lover was not frowned upon, Loki’s recently discovered Jotun heritage would probably have limited his pool of prospects if it were known. And even if he had been a true Aesir, princes consorting with mortals as more than a passing fling was almost unheard of.
Steve continued to sit very still, as though only now having noticed how close he and Loki sat, and had always sat, whether out like this or in the apartment. “I wish this Asgard place of yours were real.”
“It is real, I keep telling you, but you refuse to believe me.”
“I wish I could go. To go somewhere I could…”
But despite the momentary focus on Loki, Steve was still staring at Bucky.
At his height, Loki had been counted among the most powerful sorcerers in the nine realms, but Bucky, despite having no access to magic, had managed to cast powerful spells indeed. The only way Loki could think to break it was to make his intentions irrefutably clear.
“On Asgard, they called me Silvertongue.”
“Yeah, because you never stop jawing.”
“There were other reasons, too.”
Loki placed his hand on Steve’s thigh. He watched Steve shiver in a way that was more gratifying than the screams and pants he had elicited from others in the past.
“I would take great pleasure in showing you all the things your culture has made you too nervous to experience.”
“Loki, we can’t. Someone might see.”
Loki leaned in, whispering so close to Steve’s ear that he could have taken it between his teeth had he not feared going too far and scaring off his skittish friend. “It does not have to be here. We do live together.”
“We also live with Bucky…”
“Is that the only impediment?”
“Well… I’m not… This isn’t a good idea.” Having made his decision, Steve stood up. “I’m going to get another drink. You want one?”
“No thank you.”
Loki watched Steve walk towards Bucky and the girls, glancing back occasionally to shoot Loki shyly questioning glances. But he never returned, never said anything more. At the end of the evening, Bucky put the girls in a cab and walked between Steve and Loki, arm in arm with both of them. Tipsy and in high spirits, he chattered away about the liveliness of the dance and the prettiness of the girls, oblivious to the tension between those on either side of him.
“How come you’re going home with us?” Steve asked. “Struck out with the girls?”
“Not at all. I just wanted to be with my two favorite people.”
Steve leaned out to look at Loki on Bucky’s other side. “I think we have to call forfeit. He didn’t even try.”
Loki frowned; he couldn’t tell if this was Steve being fair or Steve continuing his confusingly tentative rejection.
“That place was great,” Bucky said, still enthralled by their night out. “Did you have a good time, Loki? You didn’t care about the girl I found for you. Anybody else catch your eye?”
“I enjoyed myself well enough, and yes, there was one. However, the flighty bird refused to perch.”
Bucky slapped Loki on the back and laughed while Steve stared at them in panic. His eyes pleaded Loki to keep silent.
“Next time, buddy, next time,” Bucky said, oblivious.
Almost three years to the date after Loki’s arrival on Midgard, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. Now that war had officially touched American shores, questions of duty and justice that had previously been relegated to a philosophical difference threatened to sow real discord in their household.
“Of course I’m gonna enlist,” Steve was saying hotly. “Who’s gonna stop me?”
Bucky sat with arms crossed. “Everyone.”
“Come on, Loki,” Steve said. “Back me up. Tell Bucky I can do it. Tell me you’ll help me.”
“Why would I do such a thing?”
“We can fight together, all three of us. It’ll be great. We’d be unstoppable.”
“We’d be dead, Steve.” Bucky glanced at Loki, silently pleading him to help him talk sense into Steve.
Despite enjoying his position as the tie-breaker each of them looked to for support, Loki had little interest in the topic. “I have no desire to sacrifice my life as a foot soldier in someone else’s petty war.”
Steve drew himself up to his fullest height, and although that wasn’t very tall, he managed to radiate something larger than his frame. If Loki had still had access to his magic, he might have seen something more there, but as it was, only a flicker of imagined height and girth flashed across his imagination. This was not the first time this had happened.
“Nazis are killing innocent people,” Steve continued, “stealing land and homes they have no right to. It’s the worst sort of bullying. There’s never been a less petty cause in history.”
“That is because your understanding of history is limited to a few paltry dénouements on a single realm. This war is nothing compared to what I have seen and fought in before.”
“This isn’t time for one of your stories, Loki,” Steve said. “This is serious.”
By this point, Steve and Bucky had become accustomed to Loki’s earnest pronouncements and descriptions of his previous life. But they still refused to believe, still thought him a fixated eccentric, hiding a secret past so tragic that he could only talk about it in riddles buried in fanciful mythology. While he didn’t stop telling them about himself where relevant, he had long ago stopped trying to convince them.
“They believe themselves to have a birthright,” Loki said about the war, “and they have decided to take it. While I disagree with their perceived superiority—for they are no better than any other mortals, save the two in this room—”
“You don’t need to butter us up,” Bucky interrupted.
“—the central concept has merit. However, their erroneous assumption that they are better will prove their downfall. This war will end in Allied favor with or without our personal participation.”
Steve ignored him. “I’ll forge papers if I have to.”
“You don’t know how to forge papers, you goody two-shoes.”
“I’ve watched you do it for Loki, haven’t I?”
Loki was making his way home when he heard someone jogging behind him. He spun around, arms ready for attack, only to see Bucky approaching.
“You never take this route,” Loki said by way of greeting.
“I wanted to catch up with you before you got home. We need to talk.”
“What is it?”
“I got called up today,” he whispered, after checking to see that no one they knew was around. “God, I was hoping they’d win this shit before my number came up.”
The ashen fear that had drained Bucky's face of its usual healthy glow was not that of a coward or a pacifist.
“You worry for Steve in your absence,” Loki surmised.
“You know how badly he wants to go. It’ll break his heart.”
“I wonder which will hurt more: not being able to fight, or losing you.” Loki kept to himself the fact that losing Bucky would break him as well.
“Not being able to fight, of course,” Bucky said automatically. “But I’m glad you’re still here at least, and I’m glad as hell you aren’t going either. I don’t trust anyone else to look out for him while I’m gone, and especially if I…”
“I am not made for such responsibility.”
“Maybe not in general, but in this you are. You like to pretend you don’t care, but I know you.”
In the eyes of the world, Steve was the sensitive, observant one, using eyes trained in perceiving light and shadows and applying that skill to all areas of life. But what the world often missed was that the more gregarious, more rough and ready Bucky possessed powers of perception greater than most men.
“But what of you? Do you truly wish to fight? Would you prefer that I find some scheme to keep you here? Your safety is of interest to Steve and myself as well.”
Bucky looked off towards the river. “I’ve got to go. I could never look at myself in the mirror if I weaseled out. Steve would never look at me the same way again.”
“He looks at me without difficulty even though I have made my decision clear.”
“But you’re not like other people. I know we tease you for your Asgard fantasy, but whatever happened to you can’t have been pretty. There’s got to be some good reason why you haven’t signed up even if you won’t tell us.”
“There isn’t, I assure you. The only reason is my decided disinterest in the affairs of this realm.”
“If you say so.”
“When will you tell him?” Loki asked.
“I want to put it off as long as I can.” He put his arm around Loki again and squeezed a little too tightly. “I’m gonna miss you like crazy. It isn’t just about Steve. I know it’s only been a couple of years, but I’m not sure how I got along without your crazy face and your crazy stories. I know it was mostly Steve’s idea to take you in, but now… Well, I’d be the first to club you and drag you back if you ever tried to leave.”
“Your caveman instincts are strong, friend,” Loki teased to keep himself from replying in sentimental kind.
“I guess I just mean… I hope that thing you pray for every night is never granted. Be here when I get back, okay?”
That night, after the others had gone to sleep, Loki crept out onto the fire escape. He had given this much thought and had devised a plan—a plan that would not only save his friends, but also require a painful sacrifice. If Loki suddenly disappeared, Bucky would surely find a way to keep from going to war in order to have someone to look out for Steve, wouldn’t he? Loki would lose his friends, but he would secure their safety while also regaining his powers.
“Send me back to Asgard,” Loki called, loudly enough to make his intention clear, but not so loudly as to wake the neighbors. “Send me back to Asgard so that these two may live.”
As on every other night, he received no response.
Deep down, he knew the sacrifice was not enough. The potential profit for himself was too great.
Steve did not take the news well.
“Guess it’s just you and me now, huh?” he said as he and Loki stood side by side in the bathroom, brushing their teeth and slicking back their hair for the excursion to the Stark Expo that Bucky had demanded they attend with him on his last night.
“Does that trouble you?”
Steve’s eyes were calm and steady as they looked up at Loki. They were both thinking of that night at the Stork Club, when Steve’s best attempt at an excuse had been the fact that they lived with Bucky. That would no longer be true. If he didn't want him, could never want him, this is when they would find out.
Steve glanced wistfully into the other room where Bucky was humming to himself as he got dressed, the muscles of his strong, unblemished back rippling like a wave. Then he looked challengingly back at Loki. “Doesn’t trouble me a bit.”
There was a promise there—unspoken, but still there. Loki would take it for today. This was a long game, and unlike the throne of Asgard, second-place had a fighting chance of winning.
Parting with Bucky was wrenching enough. To make matters worse, the next day, Loki came home from work to find Steve packing a bag.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m reporting for training tomorrow. Down in Jersey.”
“Yeah. There was a recruiting station at the Expo last night. They finally let me in.”
Loki sat on the couch that was now used as an actual couch. With his generous salary, Bucky’s promotion and the surge in Steve’s health that allowed him to work more regularly, they had upgraded to a two-bedroom apartment some time ago. Steve and Bucky still shared a room, but Loki comforted himself by taking the larger one.
Much use all that now was. Loki's entire existence here was poofing into nothing around him. How dare Steve? How dare Bucky? How dare both of them leave him like this, for this stupid war.
Steve was too excited about throwing his life away to notice the black cloud of Loki’s mood rolling in.
“Is there nothing I can say or do to dissuade you?”
“You know there isn’t,” Steve replied.
“I shall have to get a smaller apartment.”
“Not too small,” Steve said with a smile. “We’ll be back before you know it.”
He didn’t downgrade, after all. His salary had been large enough to afford three of their apartments, but he’d kept that fact from his roommates. They wouldn't have wanted to move, would have seen Loki’s offer to pay more than a third of the share as a charity they were unwilling to receive, even though they had already given him so much. Given the choice between solitude in grandeur and company in poverty, Loki had surprisingly chosen the latter.
It only made their desertion sting that much more.
He visited Steve during the weekends of his training, just as they’d visited Bucky during his stint at Camp Lehigh. Steve was putting on muscle, yes, but only eyes as accustomed to studying him as Loki’s would have been able to see it underneath all the bruises.
“Are you ready to come home yet?” he asked one weekend.
“No,” Steve asserted through a swollen lip. “I’m having the time of my life. How’s the city?”
“You could sign up. Come be here with me. I bet we could even ship out together. There’s an empty bunk next to mine. It could be like old times.”
“We’ve never shared a bunk.”
Steve looked away, understanding the disappointed reproach behind Loki’s words, and seeming disappointed himself. “You’ll come back next weekend, right?”
Except that when Loki returned to the camp the next weekend, he was informed at the gate that Steve was no longer there.
“Has the company left for Europe already?” It didn’t make any sense. Bucky had returned home for a week between training and shipping out. Why not Steve?
“Can’t say, sir,” the guards said.
Loki went back to the city and checked the departure lists. No ships were scheduled to leave. It was a mystery. He contacted everyone he knew, every one of Bucky’s shady friends. No one knew anything.
Steve was gone.
A few days later, Loki read about an altercation by the Dumbo piers. Some kind of superman chasing a man in a black suit.
He thought little of it. The papers had a penchant for exaggeration.
Without Steve’s visits to provide him with company, Loki lasted only a few more months in New York.
At first, he tried to convince himself that this was what he’d wanted all along—perfect self-sufficiency. He had a place to live, a means of sustaining himself, everything he could want within the confines of his lot. Without his virtuous companions to hold him back or distract him, he had already began to supplement his already substantial income by dealing in some of the seedier undersides of wartime New York City life. He didn’t technically need any more money, but he was bored.
He devastated his coworkers at the agency by announcing his resignation. He would have preferred to dramatically disappear, like a wraith who had taken what he came for and stayed no longer than needed, but the only way he could continue on as Steve and Bucky’s main point of contact was to register his false name with the US Army.
“We’ll need an address, Mr. Dawson,” the woman at the post office said.
“I do not know my destination.”
“You’ve got to have a city in mind at least.”
Loki thought. Steve had always dreamed of going to France, for the art, he said; Bucky had agreed, though not entirely for the same reasons. “Paris.”
“I’ll put down the US Embassy there as your point of contact.”
“I’m just curious,” the woman said when the requisite paperwork had been filled. “You’re headed to Europe, and you’re not a soldier? And you don’t know or care where you’re headed? Why? Not sure if you’ve noticed, but most people are trying to make it here, not the other way around.”
“I thrive in chaos. In a realm that is not my own, it matters little in which city I reside. And there are friends I seek.”
The woman didn’t know how to respond to that, which was what Loki had hoped for. New Yorkers, he had come to find, sometimes became chattier than strictly necessary during basic transactions. Only baffling them served to hush them.
But what he had told her was not a lie. He was concerned about what had become of Steve and Bucky. He was leaving now, partly to seek his fortune, but also to find out what had become of his friends.
Loki had seen other tenants of the building receive mail from sons and brothers who had shipped out, but neither Steve nor Bucky had answered a single letter he had written them so far. While Bucky had always been able to hold his own, Loki could not imagine that Steve was faring well on the battlefield. Yet he had also seen neighbors receive death letters; he’d barely contained his disgust at being asked to comfort Mrs. Bialeggio downstairs when her letter had come. Loki was sure a similar letter would have come for him if one of them had died. He wasn’t sure what a compete lack of information meant.
Now on his own, Loki was finally able to rent the kind of accommodations that he liked best. He set himself up in the 16th arrondissement, with a view over the Bois de Boulogne.
For all that the Americans lauded Paris for the beauty of its buildings and food and women, Loki found only the same unimaginative piles of concrete, an even blander array of victuals, and even more annoyingly simpering girls. He laughed when the French ooh-la-la-ed to find out he was ‘from’ New York; they harbored the same false impressions of the other side of the ocean. Loki now saw, quite clearly, that his relative equanimity in New York had not been due to the place, but to the people—two people in particular.
Vichy-controlled Paris, with its network of hypocrites and informants, made for a grand game. The lies went deeper and the rewards were greater. Navigating the black market and trading money and food and metal for secrets was child’s play.
While keeping himself busy, Loki made time every day to visit the Embassy and ask for his mail and eavesdrop for news from the front. Every day, they told him he had nothing. It was clear that official news would never come. By now, however, he had cultivated his own web of informers.
This life of leisure interspersed with morally questionable activities yielded quick results. Within weeks, he discovered that the 107th infantry regiment had been taken captive in eastern Germany, practically on the Austrian border. Whispered reports said that the captured soldiers had been put to work in a camp.
Loki gathered everything he could carry and left the next day. If he carried off this rescue, he told himself, he would achieve more than simply rescuing Bucky from an unacceptable situation. He would move from the periphery of their trio and cement himself at the center of both Bucky’s and Steve’s regard. He would be a hero to both of them.
“How can you, one man—not even a very large man, hien—walk into Germany and rescue anyone?” his landlord asked when Loki requested a release of his contract on the apartment.
“I’ll think of something.”
In a sense, the landlord was correct. Without his magic, Loki was little more than the lanky stripling who had been bested by every single one of his fencing masters. But he had been testing his limits. Unaccustomed to looking out for them, he’d been hit by a car during his first days in the city. He’d bled but had not been nearly as hurt as the victims he saw later on in the streets. Other trials demonstrated a slightly heightened healing ability. And although it stemmed from a truth he despised about himself, his impressive ability to withstand cold remained. He could do this. If anyone could rescue Bucky, he could.
The saving grace of the situation—of this entire realm—were the guns. With a gun, a weakling could become dangerous.
He sent a last letter to Steve, informing him of where he was going, but he’d all but given up on it reaching its destination. Wherever Steve had gone, and whoever had taken him there, not even Loki’s network of spies could discover.
It took many train rides, some hitch-hiking, a few bouts of impersonation and various disguises discarded along the way, but within two weeks, Loki had arrived. Helpful townspeople showed him the way to an extensive factory and warehouse currently being used as a work camp. Peering through the fence, Loki saw soldiers hauling raw materials for weapons manufacturing across a snowy field.
He watched for an entire afternoon but didn’t see Bucky among the prisoners. However it never occurred to him that he might not be there, that he may have died in the skirmish or from the inhuman conditions of the camp. Those Loki befriended did not die anonymously in battle or captivity.
Breaking in would be easy. Staying on task, less so.
The last thing—the very last thing—Loki had expected to see on this venture was his first taste of home. While noting the workings of the camp schedule and keeping an eye out for Bucky, he watched a tall man make his way across the field. He was clearly the Herr Direktor of the place, and in his hands was the Tesseract. Loki had not seen it since he was last here on Midgard. He had checked the stories early in his stay here, but there was nothing written about it. He had assumed it was lost, probably stolen away to another realm. But here it was, being waved practically under his nose. He took it as a sign that choosing to undertake this rescue mission (the only one he had ever dared—or cared—to plan) had resulted in this prize. Perhaps virtue and brotherly feeling had tangible rewards, after all.
“What is that prisoner doing out of the cells?” one of the guards yelled. “You two, schnell!” He whistled and within seconds, Loki was surrounded.
Loki tried shooting but the attack was too sudden and he’d been too distracted by the sudden appearance of the lost treasure to defend himself properly.
“I am not one of the prisoners,” he huffed when they brought him before the leader, whose name appeared to be Schmidt, if he heard the mumbled salutes correctly. “I am your rightful master. I alone can wield the object you insects dare to defile.”
Schmidt approached Loki and dangled the Tesseract in his face. “You know what this is?”
“I know it better than you. I know from whence it came. I know what it can do. I know its true potential.”
“And how do you know this? It has been hidden for a thousand years.”
“I knew it before it was hidden.”
“Here is an interesting madman,” Schmidt said. “Perhaps a good subject for Herr Doktor Zola.”
Kicking and hurling curses at his captors, Loki was led to an isolation room. They strapped him down to a table surrounded by scientific equipment that left no doubt as to what they intended to do to him. But it seemed as though experimentation hours had not yet commenced, because even after the guards had finished and left the room, the men in the white coats did not arrive.
It served Loki right for coming here at all. Rescuing friends—having friends—was the sort of folly Thor specialized in. He should have known better. He’d failed, been captured like a fool, and hadn’t even found Bucky for his trouble.
“Loki?” a broken voice near him whispered.
Loki turned to his side and registered the prisoner on the table next to him. After all this, here was the person he had come all this way to find. Bucky didn’t look good. He was thinner, pale, shaking and drenched in sweat and other unseemly bodily fluids. Even though he was tied down himself, Loki vowed vengeance on those who had dared to reduce his beautiful Bucky to this wretched collection of body parts.
“What have they done to you?”
“What haven’t they done to me?” Bucky answered with a wheeze that in another situation might have been a laugh. “Shouldn’t you still be in Brooklyn? What are you doing here?”
“I came looking for you.”
“That was stupid. What about Steve? You were supposed to look after him.”
“You needed more help.” Loki decided to save his worrying lack of updates on Steve for later; Bucky was in no condition to hear it. With false cheer, he added, “You wouldn’t want him here, would you?”
Luckily, Bucky was in too much pain for his intimate knowledge of Loki’s evasions to help him see through it. “No, I guess not.”
The scientists entered, and Loki spent the next few hours receiving a thorough instruction in the pain that threatened to break his friend’s spirit. His body—either because of some continued protection from the All-Father, or else because of some Jotun hardiness that not even Odin could strip from him—withstood the torture better than Bucky. Hours into their experiments, Bucky could barely repeat the meaningless string of numbers that he’d been holding onto. Loki, however, remained completely lucid.
“What is the purpose of these tests?” he asked, relatively calmly, some time into the procedures.
“He is strong, this one,” one doctor said to another, instead of answering.
“I am talking to you,” Loki seethed. “Heed me.”
“Too strong to waste on these tests, I think,” the other said, still talking over Loki to his colleague. “He would be of more value in the factory.”
This difference in opinion led the two scientists to seek Zola for his opinion. They tightened the straps on the two beds and left Bucky and Loki alone. Zola must have been busy elsewhere, because they didn’t come back.
Loki called out to Bucky many times. At first he got no response; Bucky must have passed out. Later, when Loki called his name, Bucky repeated his string of numbers. It wasn’t until the sun had set that Bucky answered in anything like real words.
“You still there, Loki? You okay?”
“Only you could think of my welfare before your own at a time like this.”
“Not only me. Steve would, too. I learned from the best.”
“And have you learned nothing from me?” Loki asked, only half-teasingly. He was simply trying to keep Bucky awake.
“I’ve learned lots from you,” Bucky replied with a cracked laugh. “I’ve become even more of a smart-ass since you came along.”
“Good, then my time spent on this rock has not been a complete waste.”
They were silent for a few minutes while Bucky tried to regulate his breathing. He sounded terrible, even worse than he had when Loki had first been brought in. His body couldn’t take many more sessions of this.
“Loki?” Bucky asked next. “I might not make it to morning.”
“Of course you will. Don’t be ridiculous,” Loki chided. He couldn’t tell if his words were hope or a lie. Too often, the two were one and the same.
“But if I don’t… I’ve always wanted to know… Where are you really from? I mean, what’s really the deal?”
“I’ve told you, time and again. I am Loki of Asgard.”
“All we’ve been through together and you won’t throw me a bone on this? We’re gonna die and you’re still sticking to your story?”
“You think we’re going to die, and you still persist in disbelieving me,” Loki retorted.
Bucky snorted. “Guess we’ll have to call it a draw.”
“We are not going to die, Bucky. I am here to be punished, not to die in a miserable little cell. We will be saved by those above, by those who watch me and my progress. You’ll see.”
“I’m the one who goes to church, and not even I think God’s got any say in this.”
“I said nothing about God. I speak of the All-Father.”
“Who’s a god, right? I may not believe your claptrap, but I do pay attention.”
“I’m sorry you came after me. I’m sorry you got caught,” Bucky said. “But I’m sure glad to see you.”
“And I am glad to have found you,” Loki replied, trying to keep his voice light and even, even as he wracked his brain for a scheme that could get them out of this hopeless predicament.
As though to mock them, one of the guards entered.
“You,” he said to Loki. “Back to the cells with the others.”
Bucky jeered weakly at them when they dared to strike Loki, but tied down as he was, he couldn’t help.
They threw Loki in with some unwashed, sleeping men. They swore and muttered when he landed unceremoniously amongst them, but they were too tired from their labors in the camp to protest too much. Within minutes, a place had been made for him. Everyone went back to sleep, but all Loki could see when he closed his eyes was Bucky’s hollow, haunted face.
He was still willing the image away so that he could sleep when he opened his eyes to find the image’s complement.
Steve stood before him.
But not quite Steve.
Even though half-asleep and confused, Loki’s vision appeared to be working correctly. Everything else was clear—the men beside him, the sickly light that shone into the holes in which the prisoners were kept. Loki saw them all clearly, which meant that this mountain of a man wearing a filled-out version of Steve’s face had to be…
“Loki? What are you doing here?” the familiar voice whispered through the grate.
“Well, you’re doing a bang-up job,” Steve joked as he unlocked the cages and let the prisoners out. Only when he had released them all did he spare a moment to pull Loki toward him and hold him tight. Loki found himself lost in Steve’s chest, like he had often found himself lost in Thor’s during his brother’s more emotional attacks. It should have felt strange, but Loki had often seen glimpses of this truth in the back of his mind. This new and enlarged Steve merely brought those glimpses to life.
This had to be the help Loki had known would come. It was the only explanation. Through some dark conjuring, the All-Father must have enhanced Steve’s body to match his desire to find his friends, since his body was all that that had ever stood in the way of his will. The possibilities were endless; did Steve now possess the power of Thor? Had the All-Father imbued him with magic of his own, as a humiliating balance to the favour of providing Loki with a rescue? Was the change temporary or permanent?
But there was no time to ask Steve any of these questions. He was busy giving orders to the men.
“Is Bucky here?” Steve asked. “I don’t see him.”
“I know where he is.”
Steve told the men where to meet and then took off with Loki.
“Look at this,” he said joyfully while they ran down the corridors. “All three of us here, fighting together. Just like I said. You always like to talk about fate and whatever. For once, I almost believe you.”
Loki was not an official member of the US Army, but he walked most of the way with his friends. He learned that Steve had not, as he’d suspected, magically woken up one day this size as a result of the All-Father’s meddling. Instead, some form of Midgardian science had done this to him.
“They wouldn’t let me write,” Steve explained. “That’s why I didn’t send you any letters. They didn’t want my whereabouts getting out. I snuck around them and sent two to the apartment, in the regular way, not through official channels.”
“I must have been gone by then,” Loki replied.
Throughout the walk, Bucky remained quiet, content (or discontented) to simply gape at Steve as he dragged himself across the terrain. Loki worried about him. The black hollows refused to leave his eyes and something dark lingered about him.
“Don’t tell Steve,” Bucky whispered to him on the first night. “Don’t tell him what they did to me. I don’t want him to know.”
Once back at the camp and hailed a hero, Steve told Colonel Philips who Loki was and how he’d found him.
“You’re one of Captain America’s best friends, and you went on a one-man rescue mission into enemy territory. But you’re telling me you still don’t want to sign up?”
“This still isn’t my war.”
Phillips shrugged and glanced at Bucky, who was sitting over in a corner with a lost, glazed-over expression and looking like the undead.
“You sure know how to pick ‘em, Rogers.”
“Don’t I, though?”
Phillips assigned Loki semi-private civilian quarters near Howard Stark’s. While setting in, Loki kept colliding with a woman—the only woman in the camp. Her name was Peggy Carter, and Steve looked at her with something closer to the fire with which he looked at Bucky than Loki had ever seen.
Perhaps the fact that she returned the flame was what stoked it in the first place.
Steve formed a special team composed of some of the men he had rescued. Their goal was to track down Schmidt and destroy Hydra. Having finally found them, Loki would have had no interest in leaving his friends, but the fact that they, too, sought the Tesseract made it impossible for him to leave. Not being an official member of the US Army, Loki could not count among them, but he became part of their group nonetheless.
“He’s a special independent consultant,” he overheard Peggy explaining one day when a visiting general came to inspect their progress and saw Loki hanging around without a uniform.
“Is he qualified?”
“Steve—Captain Rogers says he brings a unique skill set.”
Loki spent many hours laughing to himself as Stark ran experiments on the weapons that Steve and the men had brought back from the camp. Stark was amusing, but very far off.
“Your great folly,” he told him, “is in continuing to believe that it is a mere meteorite. This is no hunk of space rock we seek. This is power itself.”
“Is he always like this?” Stark asked Steve, who happened to be nearby.
“Pretty much. You get used to it.”
That said, Steve did corner Loki one day before their first mission.
“I’m glad you’re coming with us,” he said. “But I don’t understand it. Why have you fixated on this Hydra stuff? Until now, you’ve always kept your Asgard thing about the past. Why are you so obsessed with connecting Hydra to that?”
Loki didn’t appreciate Steve’s tone—that of concerned psychoanalyst. Out of irritation, he lied for the first time.
“It isn’t Hydra. It’s you two. Someone has to watch out for your combined stupidity.”
He was frustrated to see that his lie was met with just as much suspicion as the truth. Steve squinted and eventually shrugged. He glanced over to where Bucky sat, pretending to make merry with the other men. “Look out for him, will you?” he said before he was called away.
“I have been.”
Bucky had been pretending nothing was wrong with him—that neither Steve’s sudden transformation nor Peggy’s presence nor his painful torture had had any impact on him. He shrugged off all of his attempts at comfort and performed a sad rendition of his previously cheerful manner. Far from rousing himself at the sight of his friend finally finding love, he sank further and further into his own head. His skin took on a sickly pallor, and his eyes retained a redness that lessened their previous carefree brightness.
“She’s really something, isn’t she?” Bucky asked Loki one night as they sat in a corner of the bar, watching Steve look at maps with Agent Carter. It was a strange inverse of all the times Loki had sat with Steve and watched Bucky with women.
“She’s fine,” Loki replied.
“Do you think she’ll make Steve happy when this is all over?”
“I hope not. And I don’t think you do either.”
That made Bucky sit up. “What’s that supposed to mean? Of course I want him to be happy. I thought you did, too.”
“There are multiple routes to happiness. Or, at least, so Steve has told me. However, I remain unconvinced that there is even one.”
“No, he’s right,” Bucky said awhile later, after they’d left. They were approaching the fork in the road that led on one side to the army barracks, and on the other to Loki’s quarters.
“Hm?” Loki asked. He had no idea what part of the conversation Bucky had decided to return to.
“Steve. What he told you about being happy. There are different ways of getting what you want.”
Without any warning, Bucky lifted his heels and kissed Loki, full on the mouth. Loki was too startled to kiss back, but his eyes fluttered shut in satisfied bliss and he emitted a short little whine of pleasure.
“Always wondered what that’d be like,” Bucky slurred.
Loki could still smell the whiskey from where Bucky had exhaled nearby. “You’re drunk. You don’t want this.”
“Wanted it ever since I saw you in Caleb Thompson’s good suit. I know you do, too. I’ve seen you checking me out. As much as you always check Steve out. I know what’s up.”
Loki did want it, but not like this. He wanted Bucky to want him as much as Loki wanted him, with a clear head. He'd wanted it almost from the first, but Bucky had always been so occupied with his various dates that Loki had deemed it nigh impossible, and had therefore focussed his intermittent advances on Steve instead. “Let’s talk about this in the morning.”
“Oh, I get it. It's only Steve you want, not me. I just happened to be there.”
Loki couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity. All this time he’d spent jealous of what Steve and Bucky had with each other, wanting to wriggle his way in between them and claim each of them for himself… Bucky had apparently been feeling something similar.
“It isn’t funny,” Bucky said, bristling at Loki’s smile.
“Yes, yes it is.” They had reached the fork in the road. “Goodnight, Bucky. Get some sleep. And a strong coffee in the morning if you can procure it. If not, I will.”
A few nights later, Loki lay in his bed, too tired from the day’s mission to meet the others for drinks as he usually did. He heard a rustle at the window. When he sat up to investigate, he saw Bucky climbing in. This was hardly out of the ordinary. A lifetime of crawling in and out of windows in Brooklyn had made him not only the best sniper and spy in Steve’s new group of commandos, but also the best surreptitious visitor. The only place Bucky seemed to feel at ease was here in Loki’s quarters. These late-night visits, for chit-chat and better snacks than he could get in the canteen, had become a pleasantly regular occurrence over the past few weeks.
“I haven’t had anything to drink today,” Bucky said instead of his usual greeting.
“And?” Loki could guess what Bucky meant, but he wanted to be sure.
Bucky made his meaning very clear when he took a seat on the bed. It was a long one, with plenty of room, but he chose to squeeze himself as close to Loki as their layers of clothes would allow.
“You said it was because I was drunk,” Bucky said, with as challenging a promise as Steve’s unkept one to Loki on his last night in the apartment. “I’m not drunk tonight.”
“I don’t want to talk about Steve right now. This is about you and me. Isn’t it?” Bucky himself didn’t seem too sure.
Loki wasn’t either. He wasn’t sure anything could ever exist between any two of them without the spectre of the third hanging over them. But he had wanted this, had dreamed of Bucky’s tongue-swiped lips glistening in front of him, begging to be claimed.
“Yes, it’s just about us,” Loki said, but only after he’d taken what he wanted—and what Bucky seemed eager to give.
Loki had spent over a thousand years sampling the varied carnal offerings of the nine realms. Although Bucky’s induction had been limited to only one realm and ten years, those years formed a similar proportion of his youth, and he’d embraced his pursuit of pleasure with more gusto than Loki ever had. However, even with this impressive body of pooled experience, what passed between them was surprisingly innocent. They kissed more tenderly and for far longer than Loki had with anyone since he’d reached maturity. The hungry, reckless despair that had hung around Bucky ever since their rescue lessened a bit. He even almost smiled when, later, they sat with their backs up against the wall and played cards as they had so many times back in Brooklyn.
“I should go before someone comes looking for me,” he said long past midnight.
“This regiment is notoriously lax in doing barracks checks,” Loki noted. “When was the last time you were in bed at the appointed hour?”
“They aren’t lax,” Bucky said with a sly grin that approached the ones Loki had once been accustomed to seeing every day. “It’s just that I’m really good at sneaking out.”
Loki had thought it a one-time occurrence, but Bucky returned a couple of nights later, and again the next week. A few days after that, he tugged on Loki’s sleeve, signaling that he wanted to leave the tavern in which they were eating with the rest of the group. They never spoke about it directly, and took care not to acknowledge it outside the bedroom, but these twice or thrice weekly visits became an anchor of happiness that Loki couldn't imagine giving up. The only times they took a hiatus was when the team ventured into remote territory where there was no possibility for Loki to demand private quarters. In these cases, he bunked in a tent with both Steve and Bucky, and, as a trio, they recaptured some of their Brooklyn days. On these nights, no one would have guessed anything had changed; Loki doubted Steve had any idea what was going on.
Loki had never been involved in an affair like this before. Not only did it go on for months—longer than any similar relationship he’d had before—but it also seldom progressed past the light petting they’d engaged in on the first night. That seemed to be all Bucky could handle right now, but it was more intimate than any of the more intense sexual experiences Loki had ever had. He watched with satisfaction as the bitterness slowly began to seep out of Bucky’s eyes and some of the color returned to his cheeks.
They still sat in corner booths together some nights and watched Steve with Peggy, though. The players had shuffled their positions somewhat, but the general layout of the board remained the same.
“This is a terrible plan,” Loki said as he peered through the driving snow at the oncoming train.
Bucky stared at it, too, waiting for the others to affix his harness. “But it’s our only shot.”
Luckily Steve’s mission today was not quite the same as Loki’s, although no one knew that. It was a terrible, desperate shot that, if all went well, would give everyone what they wanted.
“Gabe and Dernier, you two take the front two cars,” Steve ordered. “Loki, Bucky and I will take the back end. We’ll meet you in the middle and find Zola somewhere in between.”
Bucky clasped Loki on the shoulder, his hand lingering a little too long. These kinds of quiet gestures, made only when Steve was otherwise occupied, were the closest they ever came to acknowledging what was going on between them. “I’ve got your back,” he said.
“As I have yours.” With his eyes, Loki said everything that his tongue dared not articulate.
Bucky grinned at him—the slow, affectionate curl of lips that he had long ago developed for Loki alone.
They boarded the train and dispatched the few guards who stood in their immediate way. Confident that Bucky and Steve had the advantage, Loki profited from the momentary scuffle to wander into the next car. When the door closed behind him, he pretended to have been locked out, forcibly separated from them. Before going to explore, he watched Bucky shoot through two more guards, seemingly without effort. When Bucky looked around for him and spotted him through the glass, Loki feigned panicked gestures, and ultimately shrugged and signed that he would go find the others for help.
With Steve and Bucky locked and safe at the back of the train, he would have at least a few minutes until Gabe and Dernier arrived from the front. More than enough time to question Zola for his own purposes, and then to kill him before he could let anyone know about their conversation or continue helping Red Skull.
He found his quarry huddled over a communications table in a central car. Zola was too occupied ordering his soldiers to attack to notice Loki’s presence.
“What has the Red Skull done with it?” he asked by way of greeting.
Zola looked up. “Ah. There you are. One of my most interesting subjects, though I saw the reports only after you had escaped. My assistants were not skilled enough to see what sat right in front of them.”
Loki decided that flattery would be the most effective way of making Zola talk. “But you saw it. You saw only from some pieces of paper. You are more talented than any of them—the greatest scientist in this realm. I see your worth, Zola. Do you think Schmidt fully does? Do you think he cares whether you live or die? These men…” Loki gestured at a screen showing Gabe’s inexorable approach. “These men will take you. You cannot win. But with me…”
The camera showed Gabe in the next car, sooner than expected. By the time he burst through the door, Loki already had his gun trained on Zola in a perfect imitation of having found and apprehended the target first.
“Nice work, Loki,” Gabe said.
“He is a traitor, you fool,” Zola shouted. “Can’t you see?”
“Nice try, for a guy on his knees. Come on, Loki, let’s tie him up and then find Barnes and the Cap.”
Loki winked at Zola, who glared back at him. Together, he and Gabe marched Zola through the train until they reached the back. Loki was surprised to see Steve crouched in a corner. In his stillness and obvious shock, he looked small in a way that he never had—not even when he’d actually been smaller. Loki assumed he had been injured.
“Where are you hurt? And where’s Bucky?”
Steve stared out the open side of the train car, which Loki had originally thought to be an open door but now recognized as a blast hole.
“Where did you go?” Steve asked. “I was looking for you for back-up.”
“We were separated,” Loki replied, feeling sick. Never before had he despised his own lies. “I had no way of getting back to you.”
“Oh.” Steve believed him, had no reason not to, and let his head slump again.
“You have lost Sargent Barnes?” Zola’s voice sounded more interested than taunting.
In response, Loki struck Zola across the face with the butt of his weapon. Zola fell to his knees, and almost brought Gabe down with him. Loki struck him again, as hard as he himself should have been struck. He hit and jabbed and kicked so hard that the violence of his actions roused even Steve from his despair to join Gabe in pulling Loki off the victim.
“This won’t bring him back, Loki,” Steve told him mechanically. “We need him alive for questioning.”
From the ground and through increasingly swollen eyes, Zola laughed at Loki. He knew. The worm knew this was Loki’s fault—his fault for leaving his comrades.
That night, Steve refused all attempts at comfort. He wandered off to a bombed-out bar and shunned the company of anyone who was brave enough to follow.
Whether or not Loki would have counted among those Steve turned away, he never found out. As if he had not failed his friends enough for one day, he lacked the courage to go to him now. He sat alone in the cold tent, staring at Bucky’s toothbrush, of all things. All Steve had said on the way back was that it was his fault, but Loki knew where the blame really lay.
For the first time, he did not call for Heimdall that night. Nor did he call for him the next night, nor the night after that… Nothing could wipe out this stain. He would remain here on Midgard for as long as he lived—be that another few years, another few decades, or another few millennia.
Steve eventually returned to the tent the three of them had been sharing for this mission. When he watched him crawl with red eyes into Bucky’s empty bedroll, Loki desperately hoped for the first option. Never had the possibility of a mortal’s lifespan appealed so strongly.
Loki had learned over the years that the mortals moved on quickly. The only explanation he could come up with was that their lifespans were too short to grieve properly. While everyone had given himself and Steve a wide berth on that first night, by the third day, they were expected to push past their devastation and get back to work.
Steve pretended to throw himself into planning the next mission, but he still spent most nights embroiled in a futile battle against his own physical enhancements. He drank bottle after bottle of liquor with little effect on his system except to fill his bladder. Although Loki had hid on the first night, he slowly began sitting with Steve in the evenings. He gathered bottles that he found or bought during the days, and together they drank them at night, wallowing in their sorrow. The bombed-out bar became their private refuge. Even Peggy had learned to leave them alone. Unlike his friend, however (how bitter the irony), Loki could and did get drunk. He who was guilty was able to drown in the relief of insensibility that was denied Steve.
A few weeks after Bucky’s death, and on the eve of the mission that would either see their complete defeat or utter triumph over Hydra, they sat together as they often did.
“Don’t have any more,” Steve said, breaking an hour’s silence.
Steve reached out and prevented Loki from pouring a third tumbler. Steve had learned, from years of nights out, exactly where Loki’s various limits lay. Here, between his second and third drink, he was relaxed, but still in full possession of his faculties.
“Do you remember that night at the Stork Club? You said you wanted… Do you still?”
“Why are you asking me now?”
“I never did tell him. If this doesn’t work out tomorrow, I need to have told someone something. And I need you to know, at least, that I wanted to that night. And after. If I hadn’t met Erskine that night, I would have… I know you thought it was only Bucky, but… I wanted to.”
“What about Agent Carter?”
“She already knows how I feel about her. But she isn’t you two. She isn’t us. You and me are all that’s left of us. It’s funny. I never thought this was how it would all shake out. I always thought it would end with Bucky’s wedding to some dame and then you and me would… But then there was Peggy, and the next thing I knew, you and Bucky were…”
Loki froze. “You knew?”
“I’ve known him my whole life. And I know you almost as well, no matter how hard you try to convince me that your life ‘is beyond my mortal comprehension.” Steve rolled his eyes as he finished his impression.
“You didn’t say anything.”
“I don’t know what Hydra did to him in that camp, but whatever you two were doing, it seemed to be helping.”
“He would have preferred the comfort from you,” Loki admitted.
“I don’t know about that. He wanted you. I saw it in his eyes. You were the one making him feel better, not me. And anyway, it’s okay.”
Loki couldn’t tell if Steve was paying him a compliment or denigrating himself. “What do you mean?”
“It was nice, the two people I love the most making each other happy. I wasn’t going to get in the way of that, not even if it meant I never got to…” Steve trailed off, leaving an ambiguous question mark over where his regret truly lay. “Do you still want...? I want you to show me.”
Loki didn’t know what Steve was asking—if he wanted to know what it was like to have been with Bucky, or to be with Loki, or to be with men in general? He wasn’t even sure Steve knew. But he had heard enough. He had heard himself named as Bucky’s equal in Steve’s heart, and had heard outside validation that what Bucky had felt was as real as what Loki had felt. And right now, he felt Steve’s desperate hands tugging reflexively at his sleeve. Loki had won both victories, but they had come at an unacceptable price. Steve was offering himself, just as Bucky had, just as Loki had always wanted them to, but he could take no joy in it.
But this was what Steve wanted right now, and Loki didn’t have it in him to deny him it. He couldn’t have damned himself more than he already had, so he let Steve lean into him and kiss him with liquor-sweet lips and a clear head.
“Not here,” Steve said, as he had that night at the Stork Club. He didn’t need to explicitly say ‘not at the tent, either’. Even though it was private enough, Bucky’s bedroll remained, as well as all his belongings and the ghost of the presence that had always filled rooms with joy. They couldn’t go back there, to rut all over his memory.
Together they made their way down dark, empty streets to an abandoned but still-intact old house far from the areas where anyone they knew would ever venture. Whereas what Loki had been doing with Bucky had remained rather tame, this was anything but. Steve wanted everything Loki had to give him. What he lacked in technique or know-how, Steve made up for in bloody-minded determination. He kissed Loki hard enough to leave hot bruises along his shoulders and neck. Clumsy fingers—still not accustomed to their size—hastened to remove Loki’s clothes as well as his own, tripping far worse over the many zippers and buttons and catches that made up his own uniform than Loki’s civilian garb.
Loki had thought he would be the driver here, but Steve took charge, pushing Loki onto the floor of the house and covering his body with his own.
“How do you know how to…?” Loki began to ask before Steve pulled off his pants and took him into his mouth. Then, all words dissolved into insubstantial breaths on his tongue.
“I read about it,” Steve said a few minutes later when Loki was slumped over and panting.
“I first learned from books, too,” Loki admitted. “But there is one thing I never put into practice.”
He looked over at the small tub of salve that had fallen out of Steve’s discarded pants. Its presence demonstrated that, far from an ill-advised impulse, Steve had been planning this for at least a couple of days. There were no shops in the place they were currently camped, so he had to have procured it beforehand.
“Will you?” Loki asked.
Loki nodded. He could see the desire in Steve’s face, had seen it even during the walk over here. It wasn’t something Loki had ever pictured himself craving, but right now, he couldn’t find it in himself to refuse Steve anything, not when he’d deceived him into thinking he deserved this. And once his hands and knobby knees were gripping the splintered floorboards in a desperate bid to maintain his balance while Steve thrust eagerly over him—a little stronger than he realized, but not strongly enough to assuage Loki’s guilt—he found that he liked it more than he’d ever imagined. However, he was not so lost in pleasure as to forget that it should have been Bucky whom Steve was holding, Bucky's back into which Steve pressed his face near the end.
“Can I ask you something?” Steve asked when they had finished and clothed themselves again, for warmth.
“Why were you in the alley that day? How did you really get to Brooklyn? Why did you run away from your family?”
Loki understood with a stab of pain that Steve must have been certain he would die the next day, that he almost welcomed it, just as Bucky had almost welcomed the idea after days on the experimentation table. As before, he answered truthfully, knowing it would be taken as a lie. But this time, he took a different approach.
“I didn’t run away. Like I have told you, I was cast out.”
“But why? For what?”
Loki had told them most things about himself, but he’d kept this secret so far; there had never been call to expose his villainy and potentially lose their trust on the off-chance that they believed him. But tonight he felt the need to reveal all, possibly with the hope that by confessing one crime, he could receive part of the censure he deserved for the other. So, he told Steve about his horrible discovery about himself, about his betrayals.
“Why’d you do it?” Steve asked, disappointing Loki with his solemn lack of judgment.
“Many reasons. Greed, ambition. A desire to…” He thought about it more, and for the first time saw his actions as part of a larger pattern. “I think I loved my brother too much, too destructively.”
“That’s always been obvious.” Steve stretched and reached for Loki’s hand in the darkness. “We have to stay here the rest of the night.”
Loki had just as little desire to return to the tent that reeked of Bucky while he reeked of sex. “I know.”
After some wrangling, they twisted themselves into a semi-comfortable position in which Loki was mostly curled around Steve’s back, with his head resting on Steve’s shoulder.
“You’ll keep me from doing anything stupid tomorrow.”
“No one ever could, Steve.”
Steve chuckled. “It wasn’t a question, it was an order.”
“I am not under your command, remember?” Loki protested ineffectually. They both knew that, unofficially, he belonged to Steve in ways stronger than the army could dictate.
“Tomorrow, will you deign to follow me?” Steve asked, in a passably good imitation of Loki’s haughty accent.
“It’ll probably just result in double the stupid, though.”
“I take offense to that.”
At first, Steve’s plan worked well enough. His plans always did, Loki thought with a self-loathing pang, when the people he counted on followed them. The fluidity with which his suicidal ruse drew Hydra agents into a central location served only to remind Loki that if he had listened and put his own agenda aside for a moment, Bucky may still have been with them. He may have had another chance to win everything without losing anything.
In the scuffle, he and Steve became separated from the rest of the men. Today, he swore, he would not leave his captain. He watched Peggy kiss Steve for luck and felt almost no jealousy. No matter what Loki and Bucky had wanted, she was a good person—the best he’d ever seen hanging around them. She, unlike Loki, wouldn’t have let Steve’s best friend die.
Together they climbed aboard the aircraft. He and Steve shouted commands at one another and efficiently carried them out. Steve wanted Loki to go for the bombs, but Loki knew nothing about bombs.
“I'll go for Schmidt!” he yelled over the roar of the engine.
“I’m coming with you!”
Even though he knew what he had to do, and had not forgotten what his greed had already cost him, Loki couldn’t take his eyes off the Tesseract held in its silly and unnatural Midgardian harness. He helped Steve fight Schmidt, but kept it visible in his peripheral vision.
And then Schmidt accidentally activated its true potential. A vision of the stars Loki had seen countless times in Heimdall’s dome appeared to them all in the ceiling of the airplane. Schmidt was sucked through a minor porthole. In his surprise, he amateurishly lost his grasp on the Tesseract, leaving it behind. Loki watched as it began to burn a hole in the metal floor of the plane.
Once he had it in hand, he knew he could get himself anywhere he wanted to go, rearrange space according to his own whim, have power beyond the throne he had once sought. All he had to do was throw himself out of the hole through which it was falling. It would be the simplest thing he’d ever done.
But Steve had already lost a friend through a hole in a moving vehicle, and right now, he was struggling with the controls of the airplane. If he saw Loki go after the Tesseract, he would understand that Loki had purposefully separated himself from them on the train as well. It would be over.
“You don’t know how to fly a plane, do you?” Steve yelled.
“No,” Loki replied, with his eyes on the Tesseract as it disappeared into the ocean far below him. Then he straightened and went to his friend. “No, I don’t.”
Together, they discovered that the parachutes had all blown out of the plane, that there was no safe landing. The only answer was to put it in the water. Loki had apparently not simply decided to give up his dream of power in favor of staying with Steve and avenging Bucky; he’d decided to give up his life.
Steve flew the plane with both hands on the steering wheel, but Loki sat behind directly him and covered Steve’s hands with his own, urging the plane downwards with double force.
Even as Steve spoke to Peggy over the radio, he let his body sag against Loki’s chest, silently telling him the same things he was codedly telling her. If the previous years and his own experience hadn’t proven that one could love multiple people at once, this finally drove the point home. With his head resting on Steve’s shoulder, eyes locked on the icy sheet of land before them, Loki made one last, whispered plea.
“I am Jotun,” he said, knowing Steve was too busy to notice. “You do not need to restore my magic, but at least restore that which was originally mine. Let my body shield him from the cold.”
He had barely choked out his hopeless prayer when the plane hit the water. Loki felt cold blanketing him, dizzying pain unlike any he had ever felt, and then something more familiar—a swirling rush. Only when he found himself facing Heimdall did he recognize it for what it was: the Bifrost.
“Welcome back, my son,” Odin said.
“What have you done?” Irrationally, Loki began blindly picking at the epaulets and trappings that flew to him, cloaking him in his old fineries. He didn’t want them anymore, and in the confusion occasioned by his sudden travel, he almost thought that ridding himself of them might help Steve, might take Loki back to him.
“You put another before your ambition. You learned your lesson. And so, we returned you to Asgard.”
“I didn’t want to come back! That was the entire point! All that time I spent begging to come back, and you answered me when I no longer wanted to. And now he is dead—they are both dead—and for nothing. You fools!”
“Have a care how you speak to the All-Father,” Heimdall warned. “It is not for us to question his decisions.”
Loki spun around to see Thor, but only for a second, because almost as soon as he recognized him, he found his face smashed against his.
“I have missed you, brother,” Thor said.
“Don’t.” Loki squirmed to release himself from Thor’s grasp. His muscles remembered well the hug-evading maneuvers he had taught himself in their youth. “If my return brings you joy, then so be it, but I take no pleasure in being here.”
“You mourn your mortal friends?” Thor asked. “But Loki, their lives were never meant to last. Even if you had not returned, they would have died and left you eventually.”
“You are as much of a fool as you ever were. All of you. Send me away again.”
“Send you away?” Odin asked. “But you have only just come back.”
“I have no interest in remaining here with the lot of you,” Loki seethed, eyes narrowed in anger at his father. “Heimdall, if there was ever a time for you to heed my request, it is now. Open the Bifrost and send me elsewhere. I do not care which realm.”
“I am coming with you,” Thor said. “I’m not letting you go again.”
“You cannot leave, Thor,” Odin said. “I need you here.”
Thor shook his head. “Where Loki goes, so do I. You sent him away from me once. I will not sit by a second time, especially not when he leaves of his own accord.”
Loki stared at Thor. He hadn’t expected such a welcome from the brother he had betrayed. In another moment, pride may have made him push Thor away, but today, he would take this comfort, especially if it caused Odin grief.
“I cannot open the Bifrost if my lord forbids me,” Heimdall said.
It hadn’t been that long in Asgardian years, but Loki had almost forgotten the strict protocols here. He could tell that shrill demands would get him nowhere; they didn’t work the same way here that they did in the streets of New York. Subtlety was required here.
“I overreacted,” Loki replied smoothly. “You are all correct. They would have died whether or not I had been there. My temper will cool and things will be as they were.”
Thor glanced at him, knowing Loki too well to believe that this was the end of the scene.
Odin, however, guessed nothing. He sighed with relief. “I am glad to hear it.”
On their walk back to the palace, Thor whispered, “What are you plotting, Loki?”
“The Bifrost is not the only way to travel between the realms. I will stay long enough to see Frigga, and then I am off.”
“I meant what I said. I will come with you, wherever you choose to go.”
“You really mean this? After everything I did?”
“If you had not been deemed worthy to return today, I had already resolved to begin looking for my own way to join you. Your banishment was punishment for both of us.”
Loki was surprised. Here was forgiveness from a quarter he hadn’t expected, when his attention had recently been turned toward other crimes. All the old fondness returned, but Loki was no longer as afraid of it as he had once been.
“There aren’t any stars any more,” Steve complained. Then he pointed. “Wait, no. There’s one!”
“That’s an airplane, Steve,” Sam said.
They sat on a rooftop outside Warsaw. The search that Steve had hoped would be limited to the US and a month-long time frame had stretched into months and across continents. The scent had all but gone cold, and every new piece of information they’d picked up about Bucky’s ghostly existence over the past seventy years merely explained why finding him now was proving so impossible.
Any optimism Sam had entertained about this goose chase had long since evaporated. A desire to keep Steve safe and sane was what kept him here now, not any hope of ever finishing the mission. Steve could see in his eyes and hear in his voice the desire to go home, back to DC and his job and a life where the goals he set out for himself had a fighting chance of being achieved. He was waiting for the day when Steve would see reason, too.
But Steve couldn’t, and wasn’t sure he ever would. Unlike Sam, he had little to go back to in DC. He kept trying to hint that if Sam wanted to go, he’d be fine on his own… even though he wouldn’t.
“Even if we find him,” Sam had taken to saying, “he won’t be the same. You’ve read the files. You’ve spoken to people who knew him. He doesn’t remember. He’s a machine now. He didn’t remember you on the bridge or on the helicarrier, not really. What they did to him… There isn’t a doctor alive who can fix that.”
Sam was right. They’d forwarded the files to Tony and Bruce and Selvig, who had forwarded them to the experts they trusted. Everyone who had taken a look had written back polite emails with transparently weak grabs at positivity. Sixty years later, Zola’s twisted achievement still hadn’t been cracked.
“The lowest form of magic is still greater than the highest reaches of mortal science,” Steve muttered to himself as yet another star began moving in a flight plan.
“Huh?” Sam asked. “What old movie are you quoting now?”
“It’s not from a movie.”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“Harder to explain than your friend who died seventy years ago turning up alive and brainwashed?”
Steve snorted. “Yeah, actually.”
They’d told Steve that no one had been found with him in the ice, and that there was no way anyone who might have been there could have gotten out before him. He’d asked them to look again, and again. He’d even flown out to the Arctic to check the wreckage himself, but there was nothing, not even the signs of anyone ever having been there. Almost two years later, Steve had begun to think he'd dreamed Loki up, imagined him during his time in the ice. Loki hadn’t been a proper member of the Howling Commandos, and even in New York, he’d gone by a name Bucky had procured for him. Without any official record of his existence, the exhibit at the Smithsonian had left him out entirely. Peggy couldn’t be sure she remembered him among all the other soldiers, even though Steve told her he would have been hard to forget. The only person who could have helped was Bucky, but a Bucky with no memories was a Bucky unable to confirm that Loki had been real.
After his first casual attempts at telling people about his friend had met with worried glances and uncomfortable questions, Steve had stopped mentioning him. But tonight he decided to take a chance on Sam. Cautiously, he told him about finding Loki in the alley, how Loki had dazzled Madison Avenue, how he’d sworn to the end that he was actually the god version of a fallen angel.
“Gotta tell you, man,” Sam said when Steve had temporarily run out of steam, “I’ve sort of been waiting for something like this.”
“Something like what?”
“The other shoe to drop. You sacrificed yourself to save the world, woke up 70 years later, everyone you know is dead, and then it turns out your best friend is still alive and brainwashed into killing you. You’re way too calm for someone who’s been through even one of those things. And who knows what kind of shit the freezing process does to a person. Other than you and your buddy, I don’t think there’s anyone else who’s come out the other side. This is… weird enough to make sense. Almost textbook.”
“So you think it’s all in my head, too?” Steve hunched over in disappointment. Now he knew how Loki had felt all those years.
“Someone no one else remembers, someone your psyche placed with you in the plane when you went under… Sounds like a classic imaginary friend. The Norse god part, though… That’s a new one. Were you into that sort of thing as a kid? Myths and stuff?”
“No. I mean, I’d seen pictures of blondes with braids and horns, I guess, in the way everyone has, but I never knew anything about it. I never read any of those kinds of stories until I met him.”
Sam made air quotes. “‘Met’, you mean. You could have heard about it, not even realized you were absorbing it. And it sort of makes sense. Runt god, always underestimated. Sounds like the pre-serum version of someone I know. A goody-two-shoes like you might have dreamed up someone a little naughtier than yourself. The god of mischief fits the bill, almost a little too literally. Classic displacement, you know? What did he look like?”
“Tall. Very thin. Dark hair, blue eyes, pretty pale. Bucky cut his hair to look kind of like his, but he never did manage to fully fit in.”
“‘Uh huh’ what?”
“Looked like Bucky?”
“Not really. Just the hair.” Steve paused. “What are you getting at?”
“Were you friends, or were you friends like you and Bucky were friends?”
“Bucky and I were just friends.”
“I basically quit my job to follow you around while you chase for someone who’s more likely to shoot you on sight than want to hug it out. I think you owe me the truth on this one. We’re not just looking for him because he used to beat people up in alleys for you.”
Steve hadn’t been able to deny it back when Loki had called him on it, and he couldn’t deny it now. “Bucky and I were just friends, but no. You’re right. It wasn’t just that. I don’t think he ever knew, though. I only found out I had a chance after he was gone. It was Loki who told me.”
“Or your subconscious telling you what you were too scared to see for yourself.”
“Or that.” Steve knew all the rational, therapy-session answers, but his heart refused to let go. He hadn’t believed Loki before; he felt obliged to believe in him now. So, he kept talking as though it were unquestionably real. “The two of them had a thing. Bucky and Loki. And then when Bucky was gone, Loki and I sort of…”
“Transference, too? This just gets better and better.”
“Is it more or less messed up if he’s imaginary?”
“I’ll have to think about that. I’ll get back to you. Was this your only experience with…” Sam made a lewd gesture.
“Wow. You want to talk about it? Well, not ‘it’, because there are limits to how much I like you, but maybe… It sounds like you need to let it out.”
So, Steve told him, not about the sex, but about everything else. He continued on his previous tear, telling whatever anecdotes he could think of. He told Sam about the book covers Loki helped him imagine, about the always-inventive ways he got out of the dates Bucky set up for him, and the snide but hilarious comments he would make about all the little details of life on Earth.
“And he did the weirdest thing most nights,” he said, now completely steeped in the memories that rushed in an increasing flood the more he talked. “He’d go outside and talk to the sky. He stopped doing it after Bucky died. Maybe he stopped wanting to leave. Or if he wasn’t real and everything he did was just some trick projected from my own mind, then maybe it was that I stopped having any hope. I don’t know. But most nights, when he thought we were asleep, he’d go out on the fire escape and raise his hand and say, 'Heinrich, open the… the Biway to me'.”
“No, that’s not it,” Steve muttered to himself. He stood up, hoping that matching the gesture would help to jog the nonsense words. “Heimdall! Right. Heimdall. He’d look up and reach to the sky and say, ‘Heimdall, open the Bifrost to me’.”
Steve saw Sam’s mouth open to respond with a sarcastic comeback, but a sudden wind drowned out the words. A second later, a bright light whited out Steve’s vision. He couldn’t see Sam or the rooftop or anything.
When the world pieced itself together again, the scene had changed. Steve found himself in a large domed room, with an arched opening on one side and a vista of the stars on the other. A man—taller and broader even than Steve—stood on a central dais, leaning on a heavy-looking sword. His eyes glowed golden and he wore elaborate armor that reminded Steve vaguely of the elaborate fantasy circus get-up Loki had been wearing on the day they’d found him.
“Welcome to Asgard.”
Steve stared, speechless. This couldn’t be real, and yet it felt real. As real as anything else that had happened to him. He pinched himself.
“Those who call upon the gods should not be so surprised when their prayers are answered.”
After its initial shock, Steve’s brain began to whirr into action. It couldn’t be but… “You’re Heimdall?”
“I am,” he said with more gravitas than Steve had ever heard.
If Bucky had been here, Steve thought with a pang, he probably would have made some crack about how this guy needed to lighten up, and maybe even given him a piece of his mind for letting Loki down all those years. But Bucky wasn’t here, technically wasn’t anywhere, not with everything that had been done to him. But for the first time ever, Steve felt that all maybe wasn’t lost, because if Heimdall was real, if he was really in Asgard…
“Is…” Steve had too many questions to ask, and wasn’t sure exactly how to put them. He wished he’d paid more attention to Loki’s nonsense. But he did remember all the rantings about immortality. It felt right that if Steve and Bucky were still alive and physically unchanged by the years, Loki should be, too.
“Loki yet lives, yes,” Heimdall answered when Steve’s tongue-tied state lasted a bit too long.
“Is he here now?”
“He is not.”
Steve’s heart sank, but lifted again when Heimdall continued, “But I can send you to him, on one condition.”
“He and his brother deserted Asgard years ago to seek adventure in the realms beyond. But the All-Father approaches his next Odinsleep. If you cannot convince Thor to return to his duty, then you must help Loki to do so.”
Steve had no idea what was being asked of him, but he’d have agreed to just about anything for a chance to see Loki again, and through the magic Loki had always boasted about, perhaps they could help Bucky. “All I can do is do my best, but I promise to try.”
“It will be enough. Are you ready?”
“For a trip similar to the one you took a moment ago. Loki and Thor have taken up residence in Niflheim. They put down a rebellion and now rule as wardens of the realm.”
“Sounds like everything he ever wanted,” Steve remembered.
“You will find that it is not,” Heimdall replied.
“Okay then. Well… beam me up!”
Heimdall looked at him with a raised eyebrow, not unlike the haughty confused look Steve had seen on Loki’s face a million times in the early days.
“I mean,” Steve tried again, “I’m ready.”
The horrible process repeated itself. Heimdall disappeared from view. Steve found himself standing on the edge of the lake, in the center of a ring of grass that had been scorched in an elaborate pattern. On an island in the center of the lake stood a pretty little palace.
“Halt!” a voice yelled out.
Steve spun around to see five guards aiming their spears at him. He put his hands up.
“You are sent from Asgard? The patterns of the Bifrost surround you.”
“Yeah. I’m here to see Loki. I’m an old friend of his.”
“No one simply walks into the presence of their majesties,” one of the guards said.
“He’ll see me,” Steve replied.
He spoke with so much confidence that the guards stopped jeering.
“What is your name?”
“Steve Rogers. From, uh, Midgard.” He hoped he'd remembered that word correctly.
While they mumbled between themselves, deciding whether or not to take him, Steve finally remembered to look around him. He’d been so focused on finding Loki again that he’d barely registered the fact that he’d just been magically shuttled between realms, incomprehensible distances. Stark probably would have wet himself, but Steve didn’t much care where he was as long as the person he wanted was here. The only thing that troubled him was how his surprise disappearance would be taken back home. As far as poor Sam knew, Steve had vanished into thin air.
After some deliberation, the guards decided to take him to the palace. They flanked him on all sides while rowing him across the lake.
Steve spotted them right away, sitting in a garden and going over papers and maps with beverages in hand. The first thing he saw was the back of someone huge and blond and wearing a red cape. Beside him was Loki, looking like a scrubbed and polished version of the person Steve had rescued from that alley so long ago. A real prince, with green and golden armor and a cape and everything, just like he’d always said—this time with his long-again hair slicked back and without milk staining his pants. Steve’s heart swelled in a way it hadn’t since they’d last been together.
“A Midgardian demanding an audience,” one of the guards announced.
Loki looked up and immediately went pale—even paler than usual. He grabbed Thor’s arm. Putting his hand up defensively, he said, “Get behind me, brother, for there are ghosts in our midst.”
“I see no ghost, brother. Only a...” Thor’s pleasant, rumbling voice paused as he squinted at Steve. “A mortal, yes? But different, somehow.”
Still trying, hopelessly, to shelter Thor’s bulk behind his thin frame, Loki interrupted, “I have been waiting for one of you to haunt me. Has it taken this long for your spirit to cross the realms and find me?”
“I’m not a ghost.” Steve took a step forward, following Loki. Finally, when it became clear that Loki was too quick-footed to catch, Steve went for Thor instead. He punched him in the arm and said, “Tell him I’m real.”
“He doesn't feel like a ghost,” Thor marveled. “Are you one of the mortals my brother has mourned all these years? You find my twin in all realms, Loki. And yet you pretend not to have missed me during your banishment.”
“He didn’t look like that when we first met,” Loki muttered, but, with Thor now backing Steve up, he came around and tentatively reached out to touch Steve’s face. “Is it really you?”
Steve answered by tackling him into a hug. They fell to the soft grass and half-hugged, half-wrestled, just like he and Bucky had used to do. He’d always wished Loki would join in, but Loki never had for whatever reason. He rolled on top of him and kissed him the way he remembered having kissed him on that last night, except this time without quite as much miserable desperation—only the good kind of desperate.
“You shouldn’t,” Loki said, pulling away.
Steve sat up, feeling stupid. It had only been a couple of years for him, but seventy for Loki. Long enough to move on. And it really had only been that one time, no matter how long they’d danced around each other in Brooklyn. He shouldn’t have assumed that…
“I killed Bucky,” Loki blurted out.
“What? How? You weren’t even there.”
“Exactly. I wasn’t there when you both needed me. I went to seek treasure and my own gain, leaving you two unguarded.”
Steve thought about it, remembered the intense, almost insane longing that had stamped Loki’s face every time Schmidt and the cube had come up. He could piece together, now, what had happened on the train. But it was cancelled out by Loki’s subsequent grief—just as painful as Steve’s—and the look on his face as he watched the cube fall into the sea in favor of staying by Steve’s side.
“Bucky’s alive,” Steve said.
Seeing them having come up for air, but unable to hear their whispers, Thor must have thought they had finished kissing, at least for the minute. He pulled both of them into seats at the nearby table. Steve saw that here, too, Loki had been telling the truth all along. He’d almost forgotten about Thor, but he was still here, beaming at the the guy trying to make out with his little brother.
“Sit. Eat. You kept my brother whole for me during his banishment. And for that, I am in your debt. Loki has told me about all of your deeds. I have oft told him that you died a hero’s death. You and your other comrade. Yet he has been in a foul temper ever since leaving you. For more reasons than one, your miraculous return gives me great joy.”
“Shut up, Thor,” Loki said with the old fond but rude impatience that no one had been able to look past—no one except Steve and Bucky. And Thor, too, it turned out. Loki stared at Steve. “You say Bucky is alive? Where is he? Why is he not with you?”
“We didn’t come back together. He didn’t come back like me. He didn’t come back okay.” Steve gave a brief explanation of the situation, and then ended with, “There’s nothing anybody back on Earth can do. I’m still looking, but until today, I didn’t know what I’d do with him once I found him. But now… We never believed you about all this. But if it’s true, then maybe…”
“My magic will be tested but I can think of a few spells that may help.” Loki took Steve’s hand across the table and turned it over and over, tracing the lines of the palm with his long fingers. “This is my doing, Steve. It is fitting that I am the only one who can repair the damage.”
“There’s a catch,” Steve said. “Heimdall said he’d only send me here if I sent at least one you back. Something about the Odinsleep. I don’t know.”
“He needs someone to rule in Odin’s stead,” Loki explained.
“I gave you my word that I would never leave you, and rescinded my claim to the throne in order to keep that promise,” Thor said.
“What if we seek this adventure, bring Bucky back to Asgard and rule together while I try to restore him? That way, both you and Steve can keep your promises.”
Loki’s face had taken on the scheming, contemplative look that Steve had learned long ago meant mischief was brewing, at least as far as Asgard was concerned. He knew Loki wouldn’t plan anything that might jeopardize Bucky. Whatever he was plotting, Steve could handle it. And, given the glance he caught Thor sneaking at him, he wasn’t the only one. Once they got Bucky back, the three of them would definitely be able to handle whatever mischief Loki had up his sleeve. Steve almost welcomed it.
It would be like old days, except with a new companion, and a few other realms to wrangle.
He looked forward to telling Sam about five different ‘I told you so’s.