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Shaky Hands

Anger was starting to turn into dread. Loki had failed. And he knew the price of failure. Thanos would have no mercy on him. The choices open to him were limited to either going along with whatever his brother and his pretender father had planned for him, or escaping. Neither option sounded appealing. He would not do well in prison, if that was where he would end up in Asgard. Execution was also possible, though he reckoned it unlikely. Slow torture of boredom and idleness would rot his brain. But the life of a fugitive would mean he would never rest again. Constantly looking over his shoulder, guessing who would be the one to capture him first. He had no shortage of enemies, and they all wished him dead.

His salvation came in the shape of a cube. Chaos was erupting around him, but the bump against his foot drew his attention. Loki recognised it, of course. The Tesseract, the source of much misery. But also power. He knelt down and picked it up, unnoticed by anyone else. His magic was bound by the shackles Thor had placed on him, but he could activate the cube with what it drew from him, overriding the shackles. A cloud of darkness engulfed him as he blinked out of sight.

He started with a small jump, just to get out of the tower. He materialised again in a forest nearby, amidst lush trees, away from prying eyes. The air was clearer than in the city, but Loki could still see airplanes passing overhead, leaving long stripes of white in the sky. He wasn’t far from the areas that humans had claimed as their own, but he was removed enough to have some privacy. He raised his bound hands to the muzzle on his face, trying to pry it loose. Had his magic functioned properly, ridding himself of the thing would’ve been the work of a moment, but as he had no access to the pool of raw energy within him, there was little he could do.

Keep calm, you have time, he told himself, but the assurance was futile. He couldn’t get the shackles off, and he couldn’t breathe. As he tried to pull the muzzle off again, his hands shook so badly he barely managed to grip the Asgardian metal.

I need it off, now, his mind kept frantically telling him, pushing him further into the frenzy. He clawed at his face, trying to force the magical object to yield to his will, but without any strength other than what his muscles provided, he couldn’t do it. He screamed through the restraint, producing a pathetic muffled sound that only served to frighten a solitary osprey into flight.

Off, off, off, Loki kept chanting internally, but nothing happened. He closed his eyes and tried to focus, to burn the wretched shackles off, all in vain. Something had to give, and to his eternal shame, that something was his mind. The world around him started flickering, sounds and colours warping. At first he thought he would spontaneously teleport, but as he kept struggling to pull in enough air through his nose, he realised he was about to pass out. Refusing to succumb to such weakness, he sat on the ground and leaned his head on his knees. He would not be this frail. His mind was his sole ally, it would not betray him. He was only restrained, he could handle such a minor inconvenience. There was no one else around, no one could find him, he had time to work out the problem. All he needed to do was to think.

 

Explosion

The greatest failing of Asgardians was their limitless arrogance. Loki knew it well, having partaken in similar attitudes in the past. But now he knew he could fall. He knew Asgardians weren’t the greatest people in the galaxy. And he knew how to take advantage of said arrogance.

Having calmed down sufficiently to think, he poured all his focus into the anti-magic restraints. They worked on the assumption that whoever was captured by the mighty Asgardians would soon succumb to their destiny as a lesser being and not even attempt to fight for their freedom. But Loki was more than that. Magic ran strong in him, and he relied on it heavily. As such, it would also be his key to freedom. He concentrated on the muzzle first, feeding it magic at an increasing rate. The binding worked through the captive’s own source of energy, suppressing what it received. It should’ve deterred any sensible being from wasting their strength, but Loki kept at it. He felt his power draining to no discernible effect on the metal. The sun overhead sailed into view from a gap in the canopy, shining in his face and raising beads of sweat on his brow. He closed his eyes and continued. The magic flowed, leaving him and returning nothing in its place. But the muzzle was starting to grow warm. He could feel its internal workings accelerating. Had he been looking, he would’ve seen tiny sparks appear on its surface.

The sun moved further along, crossing the wide blue sky. Loki was starting to feel like he was fading away, giving more of himself than he could afford. But he didn’t stop. The restraints had to come off, and he knew of no other way to accomplish it. Chest heaving for air, he forced more magic to enter the muzzle. As a delightful side effect, he could feel the shackles around his wrists warm up too, responding to the expenditure of power. Little bit more, and he would start to see results. Just a little bit more.

After another hour, Loki was thoroughly exhausted. He was lying on his side, staring sightlessly ahead, blinking whenever a spark rose from the metal hugging his face. His magic was still flowing, but now at a trickle. Whenever he thought he had nothing left to give, he squeezed a little bit more out. The warmth had grown into a burn, scalding his wrists and mouth. He pushed past the pain. If he gave up now, he might as well toss himself into the nearest river and be done with it. The bindings had to come off. He could not face his would-be captors if he was helpless. A bit more power. Just a bit more and he would be free.

Had Loki been in better shape, he would’ve noticed the moment when he went too far. The restraints hummed menacingly, and grew hotter. Loki didn’t notice. He had pushed himself over the edge of conscious decision, feeding magic to the metal automatically now, not deliberating on when to stop. He was not prepared when the enchantment gave and the shackles exploded in his face. He only felt the jolt of the shockwave and the relief at finally being freed before his mind blanked out entirely.

 

Delirium

Monsters were approaching him. Loki blinked his eyes slowly, barely seeing anything with the sun setting in front of him. He could make out several shapes coming closer, but not any finer details. He counted three pairs of legs, moving slowly but with determination. This was it then. Thanos had already found him, before he even managed to free himself.

Loki brushed a strand of hair off his face. It stung, viciously. He pulled his hand further and looked at the palm. Angry red and blistered. On the wrist, bone was poking through the charred skin. Loki stared at it with fascination. There was a lot of blood, flowing with no inhibition. It was blue. Of course it was. The taint was strong in him, signalling that he would never belong anywhere. But now he didn’t need to worry about that anymore. The beasts were growling at him, shouting menacing words he couldn’t understand. Not that it mattered. He had reached the end, and he would go quietly.

“Hey, you okay?”

The monsters came closer. Loki, once a royal prince of Asgard, now a wounded insect, did nothing. He was too tired to care. He had failed, he had lost everything, he held no hope. The beasts may as well feast on his rotten flesh.

“Look, he’s hurt. We have to help.”

“Why? He’s some weirdo cosplayer or medieval enactment geek. Just leave him.”

“Are you actually kidding me? Fuck off if you wanna be responsible for murder.”

“Murder? Manslaughter or neglect at worst, and that’s only if they find out we were here. Exploring, remember?”

“More like trespassing, but none of that matters now. He’s hurt and we have to help.”

“You two, settle down. I think you’re scaring him.”

The creatures came closer. Despite his acceptance of the impending death, Loki found a reserve of anger within. These things would threaten him, and he would let them? Never. He hadn’t travelled through the worlds to give up now. He stood up, and readied his spear. Only, he wasn’t holding anything. That was strange, but never mind. He still had his magic, as always. It would never fail him.

“Woah, look out!”

“Is he gonna fight us? Who is this guy?”

“Look at his eyes, he’s not even focused on us. I think he’s delirious. Again, we gotta help him.”

“I’m not touching that dude, he’ll bite me and give me rabies.”

“Jake, you’re such an idiot. I thought you were twenty-two, not twelve.”

“Shut up, Zoe.”

“Both of you, quiet! Look at him, if he flips out, he’ll take out all of us. Speak with soft voices.”

The monsters cowered before him. Of course they did, faced with such primordial power, what choice did they have but to kneel before their master. Loki decided to be a merciful ruler and allow them to serve him. A hand touched his shoulder, and it burned, but he bore it with the stoicism his people were known for. Let no one say he was a lesser being. He had surpassed them all in all the ways that mattered. And still, he deserved none of it.

“Hey, easy. Come, sit down. You’ll be alright.”

“You don’t know that. Dude’s face is burned off and those hands are barely attached. If they fall off, I’m gonna hurl.”

“Jake, how about you return to the canoes and bring my secondary first aid kit, it’s in the blue plastic bag.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

One monster left. Loki knew it had departed because it was afraid of his power, but he also knew with equal certainty that it had left because he was so vile that no one could bare to be in his presence. Except these peasants who were marvelling at his magnificence.

“Reckon he was holding something that exploded in his face. See the shards on the ground, could be the remnants of his phone.”

“Yeah. Irrelevant though. You do realise we have nothing that can help him, right?”

“We can at least bind the wrists and give him water. I think I should have some aloe cream too, for the burns.”

“Always ready, eh Tay?”

“Scout’s honour.”

The creatures howled in fury. Loki cowered, trying to cover his head with his hands, but the monsters grabbed him and forced him to remain open. Vulnerable, weak, alone -- it was his life in three painful words.

“Shh, easy, don’t move your hands. We’re trying to help you, you’re badly hurt.”

“I don’t think he can hear. Or perhaps understand, maybe he’s from elsewhere.”

“How would he end up here though?”

“Same way we did, canoe over from Long Island.”

“Yeah, but before that. You can’t exactly canoe into New York.”

They were laughing at him. They hurt him and then they mocked him. Loki knew torture, he had endured it before. He would not give them the satisfaction of seeing him break. He hadn’t cried out before, and not for lack of trying on Thanos’ part. He had escaped with his dignity intact. Not that he had escaped. He had been sent on an errand like a boy, obedient and meek. And he had failed.

“Stop fighting us! We’re trying to help!”

“Don’t shout at him. If he really can’t understand, then raising your voice will only alarm him.”

“Right, yeah, sorry. Just so hard to see someone in so much pain and not have anything to help him with. Where the hell is Jake?”

“There he comes, almost here.”

Loki howled. The searing agony in his wrists nailed him to the ground, immobile with the pain. The monsters were holding him down and tearing him apart, squeezing his injured wrists, twisting them to maximise what he felt. But he would be strong, he would take it, he wouldn’t break. He would never be weak and small again.

“We should really call 911. This is beyond us.”

“And get arrested for trespassing? No way.”

“They can’t arrest us for that.”

“No, they’ll just shoot Zoe, and pat us on the head.”

“Funny. But we can’t leave him here alone, and we can’t take him with us.”

“Actually, what if we do? No, hear me out, we take him over to Long Island and call for an ambulance there. No one needs to know we found him here.”

“Well he sure can’t tell anyone.”

“Exactly. He gets the treatment he needs, we don’t get in trouble.”

“Just one problem. How the hell are you gonna get him to the canoes?”

“Should we… tie him up? Can’t hurt us or himself then.”

“Bad idea, just keep him calm and maybe he’ll come around enough to understand what we’re doing.”

The fiends dared to touch him. Loki ordered them to stop, but to no avail. He tried to slip out of their hold, but they were latched onto him tightly, like barnacles that burned. He swallowed his pain and his pride and went with them. He was waiting for the opportune moment, not giving up. But the sun was too hot in his eyes, and the beasts dragged him across impossibly high obstacles. No one would’ve been able to keep up with such rough handling. But Loki tried. He had nothing but the remains of his dignity, and he would hold onto them. He would wrap them around himself, shroud his shame from view. He could almost feel himself ascending from the misery, rising above it all. He would soar victorious.

“Woah, stop, he’s gonna faint!”

 

Human Shield

When Loki next came to, it was to the gentle rocking of a ship of some kind. He felt wrung out and nauseated, but lucid. He was free of the restraints, but the cost had been dear. He needed no mirror to see how badly his face was burned, and he didn’t much care to think about his wrists. The magic within him lay dormant, drained almost to nothingness, but regenerating. He needed uninterrupted rest and sustenance, but neither was on offer.

“Hey. Feeling better?” a young woman asked him. Loki opened his eyes a tiny slit, just enough to make out the round-cheeked face. Her dark eyes looked concerned, or perhaps wary of her pray escaping.

“Where am I?” Loki asked, hating how feeble his voice sounded. At least the explosion hadn’t destroyed his tongue, but his lips hurt when he moved them.

“On our way to Long Island. Do you remember where you were?”

“No,” Loki answered truthfully. He remembered a forest and the flicker of sunlight on water, but he didn’t know the name of the place.

“I don’t know how you got to Gardiners Island, but we happened to see you there as we were passing by and stopped to help you.”

“Okay,” Loki said. None of the woman’s words meant anything to him. She sounded sincere in her benevolence, but Loki had met many a convincing liar before. He would trust her only as far as he absolutely had to.

“We’re almost there. We’ll call you an ambulance once we’re on solid ground again, and you’ll be alright. That sound good to you?”

Loki nodded. The soft movement of the vessel against the waves was rocking him gently enough to make his battered body want to slip into sleep. He knew it would accelerate his healing, but he couldn’t allow himself to be in such a helpless state.

“How did you get hurt? Did your phone explode during a call?”

“Something like that,” Loki muttered. He had to transport again. He lacked the energy, but the cube would hopefully provide all he needed. Stopping meant death or capture. No matter how much his body begged for it, he couldn’t afford to rest.

“It’s a nice day for a canoe trip,” the young woman said. “We heard there was some strange commotion in the city, but we haven’t been on social media much today, just out here enjoying the nature. Were you on a picnic? You have unusual clothes for it, if you don’t mind me saying. What were you doing?”

Loki tried to tune the woman out, but his mind analysed her words and meanings regardless of his exhaustion. Could she truly not know?

“My business is my own,” he said, and flashed her his most charming smile, fighting not to grimace from the pain. “But I do appreciate the help.”

“You’re most welcome. We couldn’t exactly leave you there in your condition. Anyone would’ve -- what is that?”

She pointed at the sky, somewhere behind Loki. He sat up and twisted to look at what she had seen. He couldn’t tell what it was beyond a flying metal thing. Whether it was Thanos’ death machine or an earthly contraption, he didn’t know.

“Look out!” the woman screamed and launched herself at Loki’s back, pressing him flat on the vessel’s bottom. He couldn’t see anything from his position, but he felt the thud of something hitting her.

Loki was surprised by the surge of rage that spiked within him when he realised that the woman had shielded him from whatever the flying machine had shot at them. He should’ve been relieved and pleased at her servitude, but all he felt was anger at the injustice. Was this to be his future, wherever he went: innocents would bear the consequences of his failure? He could never return home, and now he couldn’t go anywhere else either, there would always be someone hunting him, regardless of who stood in the way. He found himself reluctant to allow that.

“Zoe! Zoe, are you okay?” someone was yelling. Loki shed the woman’s weight off his back and straightened up. He looked at the thing that had shot her. It was metal and it flew. Not Stark, but not unlike him either. Loki stood up to his full height, heedful of the rocking of the vessel, and focused on the enemy. With so little magical energy left, he wasn’t sure what he could accomplish, but the death of someone who had aided him would not go unpunished.

 

Gunpoint

Loki aimed all his remaining energy at the machine. He didn’t hear the two voices yelling behind him, or the sound of the waves. Only his enemy existed, only defeating it mattered. He had no strength left for finesse. He gathered what power flowed through him and blasted it at the machine. It tried to dodge, but Loki wasn’t limited by the laws of physics. His magic found its target and knocked it out of the sky. He heard the splash and bothered no more with it.

“What was that?” a male voice asked behind him. Loki turned around and saw the two remaining kids in their canoes. He ignored them and kneeled down to examine the woman. Judging by the size of the hole in her back, he knew she couldn’t have survived.

“Is she… is she okay?”

“She is beyond help,” Loki replied. The two kids sat in silence, too stunned to move. Their canoes continued floating along the stream, towards the green shore.

“What just happened?”

“Isn’t it obvious. He fucking killed Zoe.”

“No, it was that robot. We have to get out of here.”

“Yeah we do, and us alone.” The boy sitting at the front of the canoe stood up and turned towards Loki. He opened his jacket zipper and reached inside with his right hand. When he pulled it out, his fingers were gripping a gun.

“You! Get out of the canoe.”

Loki looked into the boy’s eyes. There was fear, but also calculated determination. Should Loki fail to comply with his order, he would shoot. Loki was familiar with the kind of small handgun he was holding. In prime condition, it would cause him no trouble. But drained as he was, a direct shot could prove lethal. He stood up slowly, keeping his hands up. The movement hurt his wrists, but he barely noticed. He was looking at the waves outside the vessel. The water would be cold, but that was not a problem for him. He was more worried about the current. The canoe hadn’t struggled with it, but a weakened person swimming might not fare so well.

“Now!” the boy yelled. Loki considered knocking him off balance, but he wasn’t sure he could produce enough magic to accomplish even such a simple feat. He was also motivated by the desire to be free of the humans and to lick his wounds in peace. Perhaps he would return to the island where he had initially escaped to.

“Come on Jake, he’ll drown.”

“I don’t see how that’s our problem. He killed Zoe.”

“Just think for a moment. We could --” The kid was interrupted by the splash of Loki jumping into the sea.

 

Dragged Away

Loki shuddered as he hit the water, his wounds stinging in pain. He swam up and gasped for breath. The current was even stronger than he had anticipated. Trying to swim against it proved impossible and he soon gave up, allowing the stream to drag him away from the canoes and the kids. And the girl who had died protecting him.

Loki floated for a while, watching the green shore pass him by. He saw a large island, potentially the one he had been on, and started worrying about getting out of the water. He kicked and paddled but didn’t seem to be nearing the shore at all. He passed a sandy beach and some large houses, but after those he saw only trees. Intent on getting to dry land before his strength gave out entirely, Loki boosted his movements with a small dash of magic. It would cost him later, but for now he had to stop following the current and get out before he reached the open sea.

The shore was steep. Loki clung to rocks and crawled out of the water, skinning his palms and knees on the sharp edges. After much struggling, he managed to roll onto smooth ground and he lay there panting amongst the shrubbery. The last rays of the sun were disappearing into the horizon. Loki could see lights on the opposite shore, a long distance away, but nothing from anywhere near him. But he couldn’t relax just because there were no immediate visible threats. Thanos could track him down at any moment and strike before he even registered his presence. But he was so spent. Resting for a moment wasn’t a luxury, it was a necessity. He doubted he could get up even if he had wanted to.

“You are a fool,” Loki told himself. No one contradicted him. He had been dragged away from his family, more than once. The last time had been his own doing, but he refused to shoulder all the blame. What choice had been left for him, when everywhere he turned he faced a new dead end.

A bird called somewhere deeper in the woods. If Loki had any sense left in his head, he would go there too, out of plain sight. But he was too tired. Just keeping his eyes open was an effort. Every bone in his body ached for rest, for a moment to lie still. It was dangerous, reckless even, but he relaxed against the soft ground. Cursing his own weakness, Loki allowed his mind to wander, slipping into sleep as soon as he let go.

 

Isolation

Loki woke up alone. As always. All his life he’d felt the divide between himself and everyone around him. As a child, he had never known why he felt so isolated, but Odin had enlightened him in that regard. To find out you were the monster plaguing your people who were not your people… Loki wasn’t sure if he was still over the initial shock. He’d learned more about himself, about what he was, but knowledge couldn’t soothe all the hurt. The lies he’d lived under, the deception of those who knew, it all still stung. He chastised himself for being so dependant and pathetic, but to no effect. No more could he change himself than a fish could learn to fly.

The forest around him was silent. Down the shore, he heard waves breaking against the rocks, not violently, but at a gentle lapping. The lights on the opposite shore had dwindled, signifying that most people were asleep. He saw aircraft and ships pass by at a distance, but they made little sound. He felt astonishingly alone, considering that he was nestled next to a large city with millions of humans skittering about.

Loki got up slowly. He was achy and unsteady, but the rest had done him good. He felt some magic course through his veins, diminished but not fully depleted. Should the need arise, he would be able to defend himself. But for now, he would preserve his strength as much as he could until he found a secure location. He could raise his shields where he was and disappear from sight, but he needed some sustenance to maintain it. Even space gods couldn’t run on pure willpower indefinitely.

Loki smiled as he stepped deeper into the forest. The humans were right to fear him. He couldn’t deny that the power felt good. To bend them all to his will. Except not everyone had obeyed. There would always be those who resisted, be it out of malice or a sense of righteousness. Had the positions been reversed, Loki himself would’ve been the one resisting.

Except that he wasn’t. When Thanos had gotten his hands on him, he’d surrendered like a newborn kitten. He had fought for as long as he could, but kittens had frail claws. Thanos had snapped his off one by one, until he held up nothing but bloody stumps.

“I’m free,” Loki whispered to himself. Once again, no one could contradict him. He wrapped his arms around himself and stepped over a mossy rock. A flock of birds took flight nearby.

 

Stab Wound

The Tesseract weighed heavy in Loki’s pocket. He was surprised no one had used it yet to track him. He’d put protections around it just in case, but they were weak and wouldn’t have stopped someone determined to find him. There was no doubt Thanos didn’t already know of his failure. It was his lackeys’ absence that worried Loki. He held no illusions that he could escape Thanos, so either he was delaying on purpose, or was too occupied with something else to immediately pursue him. Neither option sounded good. But since Thanos hadn’t yet made his next move, Loki would consider humans as the more urgent threat.

He climbed on top of a large rock jutting out from the dirt. It wasn’t high enough to allow him a view over the trees, but he could make out the lay of the land better. His observations told him it was very flat. Numerous trees, but nothing rising above them. He reached out with his senses, trying to decipher if there were any humans nearby. He could feel a large concentration of them further away, but nothing in the immediate vicinity. Of course, hiding one’s presence was beginner level magic, but Loki doubted anyone capable of it was within range.

As he turned to climb the less steep side of the rock back down, his body decided to remind him that he had been asking a great deal from it lately without giving anything in return. He was struck by a wave of vertigo, and his vision grew dim. Reaching for something to stabilise himself with, he failed to take his precarious position into account. His seeking hands met nothing, and his downwards momentum continued and carried him over the edge of the rock.

The drop wasn’t high, perhaps two metres if even that, but Loki landed heavily on a collection of small oaks that were barely sturdier than saplings. Cursing at his clumsiness, he made a move to get up, and froze. Poking through his green vest was a cut-off, bloodied end of a tree. He didn’t need to feel his back to know that’s where he’d find the rest of it.

“With all the dangers threatening you at the moment, you had to go and stab yourself with a damned tree. Your stupidity knows no bounds.”

 

Shackled

Moronic or not, Loki still needed to untangle himself from the trees. The one that had impaled him was half a metre or so in height. He wouldn’t be able to free himself unless he cut it shorter first. The most sensible option would be to cut the sapling at the roots under his back, but the other trees blocked his groping hand from accessing it. His position was uncomfortable, limbs shackled by the unyielding wood. Loki couldn’t reach the small knife in the holster behind his back, or the really small ones in his boots, but he could conjure one with magic. It was frail, but corporeal enough to bite into the wood.

He started sawing the small tree, grunting with the effort. Each impact reverberated through his middle, making his innards pulsate with the pain. After making only a tiny dent in the tree, Loki had to stop. Silver sparks danced in front of his eyes and his breath came in quick pants. He realised his body would give out before he managed to slowly chip away the obstacle. Once again, Loki reached for his magic, this time preparing for a single violent swipe that would cut the tree. He concentrated, gathered the energy, and blasted it out with all his might.

The scream Loki released startled a solitary rabbit that had been eating leaves nearby. For a while, he could only lay still and breathe, riding the waves of agony. But hopefully his gamble had paid off. Loki pulled in a couple of fortifying inhales and raised his gaze towards the tree stump. He had managed to cut it halfway through before he’d been overwhelmed.

“Bloody brilliant. First you get mauled by a tree and now you are trapped by it. How much more pathetic can you possibly be?”

Loki didn’t want to find out the answer. He snaked his arms around the trees until he managed to lay his palms flat on the ground, ready to push himself upwards. It would hurt, but he refused to remain stuck any longer. He would already appear weak in front of his enemies when they found him, he wouldn’t be immobile too.

“Stop thinking about it and just do it.” The words seemed to help, to crystallise his plan, simple as it was: lift himself up, be free of the tree, lick his wounds. He didn’t know how he’d manage such a feat, but he had to try. Voicing a cry that was mostly involuntary, he pushed with his arms, feeling every millimetre of the rough bark as it slid inside him. His muscles trembled and he wanted nothing more than to release the tension and collapse back onto the ground, but he knew he wouldn’t be getting up again if he gave up now.

Progress was earned with unspeakable agony, but Loki kept at it. Once he had lifted himself halfway up the tree, he grabbed it and held, dangling long enough to get his feet under him. After he gained the use of his legs to aid in the process, the rest was easy. He stood up to his full height, and fell right over, this time missing all the dangerous flora.

 

Unconscious

The night wore on while Loki lay unconscious. He had freed himself successfully, but he had done nothing to stem the blood that now flowed freely from his wound. The moss under his abdomen absorbed the liquid, turning red in the light of the bright moon. A machine flew over, its sensors set to receive energy signatures of magic usage. The dim spark of passive healing struggling to cope with the extensive damage didn’t register. Neither did the dampening field around the most powerful magical object within its reach. The machine flew on undisturbed.

 

Stitches

Birds who sang in the morning clearly hated sleep and all those who would partake in it. Loki grimaced and tried to roll over, but sudden searing pain made his eyes fly open. He curled around the agony in his stomach, stretching his back painfully. His hands encountered wetness. The predicament from what must’ve been the previous evening came to his mind. No wonder he felt so weak if he had been bleeding all night.

Loki took as deep a breath as he could and looked around. Nothing moved in the forest, and he couldn’t sense anyone nearby. He deemed his situation safe enough to focus on his body. If his innate healing hadn’t managed to take care of the injury yet, he’d have to tend to it like a mortal. What did they even do? Preventing himself from losing any more blood seemed like the highest priority. He considered burning the wounds shut, but in his unsteady condition, he doubted he could control his magic accurately enough to only affect the bleeding area and not tear himself apart. Stitches, then. He had no needle or thread, but that was hardly an issue when there were plenty of cloth and metal parts in his attire that he could convert.

Gingerly, Loki peeled the hem of his undershirt up. The wound wasn’t pretty, probably had all sorts of splinters in it too, but at least it was only the width of his palm in size. Basic stitching would have to do, his body could handle the rest. He lifted the needle, hands shaking, and poked it through the jagged edge of the wound.

“By the fires! How do mortals stand this?”

Steeling himself, Loki continued his task. The initial poke was bad, but the feeling of the thread running through his skin, slowly in order to not rip the wound further, had him grit his teeth to keep from crying out. When his rudimentary knot hit skin and he tugged on it to make sure it was tight, his toes wanted to curl up. He had never felt empathy for a garment he had mended, but he was swiftly learning to. Each stitch was intrusive, tearing pain, not the kind of healing he was used to. Warm hands, the invigorating flow of magic, the sensation of wrongs being righted, those were all missing. The exhaustion one felt after magical healing was more natural to him than this physical effort that left him soaked in sweat and trembling. But the deed was done. He tied off the thread and closed his eyes, leaning against a nearby rock, utterly spent. Moments later, he flew upright, hand going to his back. Of course, how could he have forgotten the other side of his impalement wound.

“Dullard,” Loki muttered. He pressed his hand against his back and brought it up to look at it. The blood he saw was fresh, but there wasn’t a lot of it. He was nimble enough to sew his back as well, but he doubted he’d manage well enough to make a difference.

“Surely limiting the bleeding to only one hole is sufficient first aid,” Loki said, to no one in particular. Clearly the blood loss was starting to affect his faculties. He laid down and sent his senses out. There were animals and humans in the forest, but not close enough to be a threat. He felt no malice towards himself within reach. The Tesseract was still safely ensconced in its field of magical suppression, and he himself emitted nothing stronger than the vitality of a tree. As strongly as his instincts told him to run, his reason won and insisted he allow himself a moment to rest properly. Falling into a full healing trance wasn’t the most sensible choice, but Loki decided he had to risk it. When he’d wake up, he’d be ready to move away from this wretched world. The Tesseract would take him far from Earth and humans and ridiculous heroes.

 

“Don’t Move”

When Loki woke up, it was to the sensation of being stabbed all over his body with thousands of tiny knives. He gasped and tried to move away from the disturbance, but he was immobilised. He fought the weight upon him, but the pain did not cease. Snarling, he started pushing with his magic as well.

“Don’t move,” a mechanical voice said. Loki saw no reason to heed it. As he became more aware of his surroundings, he realised that a net was thrown over him, and it was sending electrical impulses. It was a feeble effort to suppress a god, but to Loki’s infinite shame, he couldn’t battle the contraption in his weakened condition. The mortals couldn’t possibly have anything that could affect his magic, but his best attempts to toss off the net proved futile.

“Don’t move,” the voice repeated. Loki arched his neck to see who was talking to him. It was one of Stark’s mechanical men.

“Tell your master I will not bow down to him,” Loki said. The machine continued to stand impassive. “And you may end this obscene charade. You cannot hope to contain me.”

“Don’t move.”

“Are you a man or a machine? Never mind, soon you shall be nothing but nuts and bolts.” Loki raised his hand to focus his energy, ready to blast his would-be captor to pieces. Before he could release the projectile, the mechanical man raised its own hand and shot an impulse of some kind at Loki. He reeled back, momentarily stunned. As he tried to get the function of his limbs back, the machine peeled off the net and plucked the Tesseract from Loki’s grasp, like stealing a toy from a child. Loki struggled to interrupt it, but only managed to awaken such a strong spike of pain through his middle that he fell back with a gasp.

“Don’t move.”

“Keep… quiet,” Loki panted out. The suit or robot or whichever it was leaned closer and gave him a massive jolt of electricity with its hand. Loki fought the effects, but his world started shimmering at the edges.

“What…?” Loki asked before the world slipped away entirely.

 

Adrenaline

Loki woke up with his heart hammering furiously. He was lying on his back but he sat up quickly and leaned a bit forwards to ease his frantic breathing. He looked around, trying to orient himself. He remembered the metal man and being electrocuted, but nothing after that. Judging by the cramped and dark room he found himself in, he’d been moved while he was unconscious.

“Just brilliant,” Loki muttered to himself. Against his expectations, his breathing still hadn’t settled down. His rapid pulse made him feel unsteady and he decided to not try standing up. Not that he necessarily could’ve, the ceiling looked very low. He probably wouldn’t be able to pull himself to his full height. The walls were close too, giving him perhaps a metre on each side before he’d hit the metal surfaces. The floor and ceiling matched too: it was like sitting inside a metal cube, and not a large one.

“Is anyone there?” Loki asked. He couldn’t see anything on the walls, not even the outline of a door. He patted himself down, but he already knew what he wouldn’t find. They’d taken the Tesseract, and everything else he had been carrying. He’d only been spared his undershirt and trousers, even his boots were gone. But at least they’d bandaged his midsection.

“What do you want with me?” he asked. His breath still came too short. He wondered why it wouldn’t settle. He was certainly nervous being imprisoned in an unknown location, but he wasn’t one to panic easily. It did help that he knew he was captured by humans rather than Thanos. The mortals still didn’t even know about the real danger facing the universe. They would be no match for him.

“You can bore me to death if you want, but it would be more productive to discuss our specific desires and how to reach an understanding.”

No one answered Loki. He didn’t mind much. He could wait longer than the humans, after all. If only his body would settle down from its frantic state that didn’t match his frame of mind. Despite his calm, being constantly on edge was starting to unnerve him, as if his body was trying to tell him he was in danger. Turning inwards, he reached for his magic, finding great comfort in its presence. Since no one was communicating with him, he focused on his body, looking for any substances that didn’t belong in it. He wouldn’t be surprised if the humans had poisoned him while he was defenceless. The reaction he was experiencing certainly pointed towards such nefarious methods.

“Oh, clever,” Loki muttered once he found the foreign matter. They’d given him what the humans called adrenaline, the hormone that helped their fight or flight instincts take over in perilous situations. He was above being enslaved by his body’s responses, far too advanced to obey his animalistic nature. He was the master of his own entity.

Yet he couldn’t stop gasping for breath.

 

Tear-stained

Loki settled against the wall as comfortably as he could. His heart’s rapid pounding made him feel unsteady, but knowing what was causing the reaction helped him suppress it. It was only a drug, he didn’t need to obey its artificial impulses. But as time passed, he found it harder to relax. Meditation didn’t work, he was too high-strung for it, burning through his meagre reserves by remaining hypervigilant. He was starting to feel weaker. The wound in his midriff hadn’t fully healed yet. It was no longer bleeding, but he could tell there was internal damage below the surface. In order to heal it, he would need to sleep, much deeper than he could allow himself while being captured.

“Whatever you are attempting, it is nothing but a nuisance,” he said. No one had replied to him so far, but he was certain they were listening. Humans liked to get involved, especially in matters that didn’t concern them.

“I am bored of your display of false supremacy. You have no power.”

Loki stretched his neck from side to side, trying to alleviate the stiffness. His hands were shaking, mostly from the drug. It was a bother to be at the mercy of his body’s reactions, but it mattered little. He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. The room was cold, but that was of no consequence to him. His shivering wasn’t caused by the temperature anyway.

Loki's life was a mess. He didn't know where the thought came from, but he had to acknowledge its accuracy. He had no home, no family, no roots, no future, no hope. If the humans didn’t end up killing him, Thanos certainly would. If he was lucky. All he had to look forward to was a miserable, solitary life on the run that promised to be brief.

Loki rubbed his face with his palms. Although he knew it was artificial, he still couldn’t shake the profound fear that nested somewhere within his core. He could see no escape from the trap he had fallen into, no matter how powerful he was. Not that he had the strength to even translocate himself to safety without the Tesseract. His traitor of a body threatened to give out entirely, still radiating pain from the injury he should’ve been able to shake with little effort.

When the tears came, Loki didn’t notice. He was staring at the opposite wall through the curtain of his hair. He was filthy after his dip in the ocean and running around in the woods. A single tear slid down his grimy cheek, leaving a trail of smudged dirt in its wake. Loki hugged his arms around himself and tried to steady his frantic breathing. The first tear was joined by others, and soon he realised he was crying, still denying that he had anything to cry about, squeezing his fingers into tight fists. He was pathetic and stupid and so lonely it hurt.

 

Scars

Loki must’ve fallen asleep at some point. He woke up slowly, becoming aware that his body was curled up into a tight ball, so deep in slumber he had to fight his way to wakefulness. But as his thoughts clarified, he realised he was feeling stronger. He lifted his shirt to look at the wound. Only a jagged circular scar remained. He felt behind his back and found skin that was smooth to the touch. He didn’t really accumulate scars the way mortals did. He would heal with time, though the remnants of his injuries lingered for a while, giving him visual reminders of his past failures.

Loki cared little for scars. They were not badges of honour or signatures of the things he had survived. The sooner they were gone, the better.

 

Pinned Down

While Loki was engrossed in examining the condition of his body and energy levels, the hatch at the top of his cell that had been previously invisible opened up. Loki squinted at the sudden onslaught of light in the cozy darkness of his prison. He expected someone to talk to him and thus paid no mind to the opening, pretending to be occupied with setting the hem of his shirt neatly in his lap. When something suddenly dropped on him and pinned him to the floor, he couldn’t suppress a grunt of surprise.

“What is this?” Loki asked as he struggled to free himself. Whatever or -- judging by the way it reacted to his movements -- whoever was on him, was very strong and skilled. Loki was pushed down on his face and his wrists were trapped by most of the weight, leaving his legs free, but since they were folded under him, he was quite immobilised. He wouldn’t panic, but he was at a loss of what to do.

“Get off me!” he shouted, voice climbing higher than was acceptable. His next buck would not be physical.

“Play along,” someone whispered in Loki’s ear, stunning him into silence.

“What --” Loki started but was interrupted by the person on him suddenly grasping the fingers on his left hand and yanking them back, hard enough to crack the wrist. Loki howled in pain, hardly believing that a mortal could break his bones so easily.

“Foul creature. I’m glad we captured you before you could spread your filth further on Earth.”

Loki recognised the voice. Captain America, the hero everyone deserved. He would’ve rolled his eyes if he hadn’t squeezed them tightly shut in agony.

“What do you want?” Loki asked when he could talk without sobbing.

“To rid the world of you. But first, we need some questions answered. Luckily for you, no words are necessary. Just be a good little god and don’t cause any trouble.” He released Loki and allowed him to sit up. Facing each other, Loki met the man’s gaze. His words were harsh, but something in his blue eyes made Loki pause. The whispered plea to play along repeated in his head, enforced by the raw earnestness in that steady look.

“And if I don’t?” Loki couldn’t resist asking. He couldn’t trust this hero, but he was short on options. Captain Rogers was affiliated with the Avengers, but somehow the small prison didn’t match their style.

“We’ll have no choice but to punish you. Which I’ll enjoy immensely,” he added, as a hasty afterthought.

“Hail Hydra,” Captain America said, loud enough for anyone outside the cell to hear. He then jumped up and the hatch was closed. Loki was alone in the dark again, pressed against the wall, cradling his wounded hand in his lap.

 

“Stay with Me”

Loki didn’t know how long he spent in the dark. Nothing marked the passage of time. He could hear nothing but the sound of his own breathing, see nothing that wasn’t the steel walls, feel nothing but the chill. Perhaps a mortal would’ve been freezing, but Loki was mostly unaffected. He tested his strength against the ceiling hatch, but neither might nor magic could make it budge. Humans shouldn’t have been able to block him, unless someone was helping them. He tried not to think about who it could be.

The hours ticked away. Loki became aware of his body demanding water and sustenance. He ignored the pleas. Nothing he could do about them anyway, as long as he was stuck in the box. His wrist hurt wretchedly with his natural healing lagging behind again, having just put in all the effort to heal his gut. Was this the humans’ plan? Keep him constantly on the edge, push him as far as he could go, and then repeat.

“It will not work,” he muttered.

“What won’t?” Captain Rogers asked. Loki flinched, not having heard the hatch open. Another sign of him being at the end of his endurance.

“Nothing,” Loki said, turning to look at the man. Rogers slipped inside quickly, shutting the hatch behind him. He was wearing his ridiculous suit, but lacked the shield.

“Now listen, I’ve disabled the surveillance equipment, but I can’t keep them dark for long. If I get the Tesseract to you, can you transport us --”

“Yes, of course.”

“-- temporally.”

“What?”

“This might sound insane, or perhaps normal to you, but I’m actually from the future.”

“If this is some kind of a trick, it is in exceedingly poor taste.”

“I know you have no reason to trust me, but you’re literally my only option. The Tesseract is my only way home, and you’re the only one who can wield it. So you see, my life is in your hands, whether you believe me or not.”

Loki beheld the man in front of him, free to stare in the dark where only he could see. Captain Rogers did have a harrowed look about him. His outfit showed wear and tear, and his hair appeared hastily slicked back. His hands also drew Loki’s attention, having several nicks and scrapes on them, and a black smudge on the side of the left thumb. It was a feeble foundation for trust, but Loki decided he would play along, as the man had asked him. His faith in his own strength was sufficient enough that he believed he could get himself out of any situation if the need arose.

“I’ll try to be quick about it, but they’re still wary around me. Whatever happens, just stay with me, I promise I’ll get us out of this.”

“Why are you helping me?” Loki asked.

“It’s not so much about you. I need the Tesseract, and you’re my ticket back to my own time. Consider yourself collateral rescue if you will.”

Strangely enough, that made Loki feel better about the operation. If Captain Rogers was as motivated by his own mission as he claimed, his story gained credibility. Loki didn’t know what his ultimate purpose was, but he could guess. There was only one being that he knew of who wanted the stones badly enough to push others into using desperate measures to ensure he wouldn’t get them.

“I will say one name to you. Your reaction to it determines whether I believe you or not,” Loki said. Rogers nodded, waiting for the name.

“Thanos.”

The shudder that ran through the Captain was not faked. His hands clenched into fists and jerked. There was hatred there, and Loki trusted hatred.

“We have an understanding.”

 

Muffled Scream

After Captain Rogers’ visit, Loki spent a long time alone. He was offered nothing to drink or eat and he felt his condition weaken. If something didn’t happen soon, he would not be fit to follow their plan. He rested as much as he could, but the metal box allowed little comfort. He only knew that time was actually passing instead of his mind falsely stretching minutes into hours since his wrist slowly improved. He couldn’t move his fingers normally yet, but he would manage. Not that he had anything to do. Idleness and being constantly in the state of expectation were wearing him down. He’d almost prefer to be tortured than simply wait for something to happen.

Eventually, the hatch opened. Loki looked up, squinting in the light. He was met with a boot to the face. As he recoiled, he didn’t notice the approaching stick that shot him with electricity before it had already connected. He slumped to the floor and tried to move, to no avail. Someone turned him over, showing no care, and cut his sleeve off. Loki muttered in fury at the manhandling, but the person didn’t slow down. He managed to turn his head enough to see that it was a slim man wearing a white coat.

“Stop that,” Loki whispered. Apparently he couldn’t produce sound more effectively.

“Be still,” the man said and jabbed a needle into Loki’s flesh. He hissed, more out of anger than pain.

“How dare you —”

“One more word out of you and I’m cutting off your air,” the man said. His voice didn’t sound threatening, he could’ve been discussing the weather. As poor a condition as he was in, Loki still didn’t think the man could overpower him, certainly not enough to strangle him.

“Your idle threats do not frighten me. Release me before you will regret laying your filthy hands on me.”

The man in the coat said nothing. He finished taking his samples and shoved the capped needle into his pocket. Loki saw a quick glimpse of it. The translucent tube didn’t appear to be carrying blood. Mystified, Loki struggled to get up, but the man slipped away before he even managed to roll over. Loki thought he saw something move outside the hatch, but the metal slab was closed before he could be sure. There were sounds of something heavy hitting something hard, and a muffled scream. Loki drew in a breath to shout a question, and realised he could catch no air.

 

Asphyxiation

Alarmed, Loki sat up and leaned against the wall. He pulled air in slowly, assessing the quality. There was a stuffy smell, and he felt no invigoration. His lungs were sending panicked signals to his brain, telling him to start hyperventilating in order to get enough oxygen in. He suppressed the urge, but knew it was a battle he would lose. He could do without food or water, but he wouldn’t survive without air. His captors would be well aware of it.

Even in the darkness, Loki could tell his vision was fading. He could still hear, and sounds of combat carried to his ears. The hatch took some hits, but it didn’t budge. Loki looked at it, a shimmering rectangle that was quickly losing its shape. Someone was shouting, but the words escaped Loki. His burning lungs forced him into gasping painfully, like a fish out of water. The mental image amused him, and his mouth twisted into a smile.

Just a salmon, about to leave this world, and all the others. Victory for the humans. At least in this, Thanos will come second. You took my freedom once, but you shall not have my life now. It is free to swim in the cosmic river with all the other poor salmon who let go. With nothing to my name, I shall depart. Maybe it is I who won after all?

Loki released a breath, and didn’t pull in another.

 

Trembling

Steve kicked the nearest hydra agent in the stomach and punched another one in the face behind him. His left hand was clutching the Tesseract, but he could hold his own with just the right. He made short work of the agents and the technicians in the room, but he feared he was still too late. Loki’s air had been cut off and vacuumed out of the cell only seconds ago, but Steve hurried nonetheless. He didn’t know if Asgardians needed oxygen at the same rate as humans did, but with this he would err on the side of caution. Counting seconds, he knocked another operative down, too rushed to be gentle. He would be breaking bones, potentially ending careers and even lives, but those had to be considered acceptable sacrifices when the fate of the entire universe hung on the balance. Steve didn’t like it, but he had no choice.

“Push it!” someone shouted. Steve didn’t see who or where, but he heard a siren start blaring seconds later. His time was cut even shorter. He picked up his shield from where it had landed earlier, and tossed it at the hatch. Even a small hole would allow some air to enter the cell, but the material didn’t crack. He ran to collect the shield again, fighting off three guards on his way. People kept pouring into the room as a steady stream, their sole purpose preventing Steve from reaching the hatch.

“He’s dead, just quit already,” a technician said, pointing at the monitor that was showing the night vision camera’s feed from inside the cell. Loki was lying on the floor in a heap, and Steve could see no movement from him. That didn’t necessarily mean anything though, his breathing could simply be too subtle to catch on the screen. Clinging to that hope, Steve hastened towards the hatch, slamming his shield against it with all his might. The impact shook him, but appeared to do no damage to the metal. Four agents attacked Steve at once, hoping to overpower him. He fought them off and struck the hatch again. He thought he felt a bit of give, but he was interrupted by another batch of guards. And all the while, time was running out for Loki.

“Hang in there,” Steve muttered. He fought off the guards and brought his shield down again. The hatch remained unbroken, but the hinges shuddered. Steve focused his efforts on them, and soon enough, he could grip the metal and pull it aside. Not waiting to see how many operatives would follow him, he dropped into the small cell.

Loki had not moved. Steve rushed to his side and shook him. His head lolled limply against the floor, but after Steve disturbed him enough, his eyes flew open and he started gasping for air.

“Easy, I’m a friend,” Steve said. “You with me?”

Loki blinked slowly and caught Steve’s eyes. He was bleary, but appeared to be present.

“We’re out of time. Here’s the Tesseract, can you take us to the future?”

Loki reached for the cube with trembling hands. Steve turned to shove the Hydra agents out. They were trying to reach them all at once, crowding the entrance. Steve reckoned they had only seconds before the guards realised their own folly.

“Now, Loki. Please.”

Steve felt Loki’s hand grasp his. He returned the hold and disappeared into a whirlwind.

 

Laced Drink

Steve immediately knew they were outside. His senses returned gradually, but the fresh quality of the air and the feel of space around them let him know they were no longer confined to a room. He heard crashing waves and felt a strong breeze against his face. The sun wasn’t warming him, but he wasn’t cold either. He blinked his eyes open to an overcast day.

“Loki?” he asked as soon as words returned to him. If Stark’s devised method of travelling through time was like the flight of a jumbo jet, Tesseract travel was a tiny two-seater plane that was buffeted by the smallest gust of wind. He reckoned he’d be sore the following day if he ever reached one.

“Where did you bring us?” Steve walked closer. Loki was lying on his side, facing away from him. “This isn’t New York.”

“Actually, I think it is,” Loki said, very softly. He coughed before continuing: “The girl with the canoe found me here.”

“Okay.” Steve had nothing to add. He pulled a bottle of water from his pocket, thankfully unscathed. He had grabbed it from the desk nearest the cell where they kept Loki’s supplies.

“Drink this, we need to focus here,” he said and handed it over. Loki took it eagerly, nearly crushing the plastic in his haste to open the bottle. Steve left him to it and looked around. They were by the sea, that much he could tell. Unless it was a large lake. He didn’t trust Loki to know the geography of America, so he would consider the place unknown until he received credible evidence as to where they were.

“What did you give me?” Loki asked, fury radiating off him. He was looking at Steve steadily, but his hands had started to shake.

“Just water. Same bottles that they’ve been giving you, I grabbed it from the stack before the fight.”

“Do not lie to me. They gave me nothing,” Loki said. Either Steve was imagining it, or Loki’s gaze was starting to grow unfocused. “What… what is this?”

“Maybe you’re experiencing after effects from the transportation, umm, spell. I promise, I didn’t poison you. It wouldn’t benefit me in any way.”

Loki stood up, needing a couple of tries before he managed it. He swayed where he stood, taking small steps to the sides to keep himself in balance. “I know that, and this isn’t —”

Steve grabbed Loki’s arm when he started to list to the right far enough to topple over. Lowering him gently to the ground, a sense of dread overcame him. Had he been stupid?

“Loki? Can you tell what’s happening to you?”

“Losing coherence. Fading. Blood says something doesn’t belong. I think —”

Steve didn’t get to hear what he thought. Loki fell silent, his eyes closing. Steve couldn’t rouse him.

 

Hallucination

Steve couldn’t find any obvious shelter nearby, so he carried Loki to the forest and laid him down under a wide spruce where he’d hopefully be hidden from immediate view. He piled some thick branches on top of him, making sure his airways stayed clear. The last thing he needed was for Loki to choke on a mouthful of fir. Satisfied that Loki would be secure for a moment, Steve started walking towards the shore.

The presence of the unknown substance in the water meant that Hydra had either planned to dose Loki for a purpose, or to kill him with poison. Only time would tell whether it would just put him to sleep for a couple of hours or end his life. Steve wished he knew more about Thor’s physiology. Although he and Loki looked as different as any brothers could, they’d still have more in common with each other than they had with humans. None of it helped Steve though. He didn’t know what to do or how to help. He had another bottle stashed away in his pants, but he opened it and poured it out onto the sand. So now they had nothing to drink or to eat. No shelter either, nor means of communicating with anyone.

“Okay, enough of that. What do you have?”

Before Steve could catalogue his meagre supplies, he was snapped out of his thoughts by screaming. He spun around and started running back to Loki, heart racing. Had he misjudged in leaving Loki alone? Had Hydra already managed to catch up to them?

When Steve reached the edge of the woods where he’d stashed Loki, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. The branches lay as he had left them, with no visible disturbances. But Loki was howling and trashing. Steve pulled the firs off him and caught his flailing hands, struggling to hold him still despite his weakened state.

“Loki, it’s alright, it’s just me, I’m here to help!”

Steve’s words had no effect. Loki tossed and turned, trying to pull his hands free from Steve’s hold. His dark hair was plastered to his forehead, emphasising his pallor.

“Easy, we’re safe for now, you need to calm down,” Steve tried talking as soothingly as possible, voice low. Loki opened his eyes and turned his head towards Steve. Instead of gaining hope, Steve’s heart plummeted. Loki was looking straight through him, gaze somewhere far beyond.

“I’m sorry,” Loki whispered. “I have to help canoe girl. My fault. Everything is my fault. Always and never. Why is it unfair?”

“Shh, it’s okay. We’ll help canoe girl. She’ll be alright.”

“She says it suffices. Look, she is smiling. It was her choice, not mine.”

“That’s great,” Steve said, choosing to play along with whatever Loki was hallucinating. At least he was starting to calm down. He was still dreadfully pale and drenched in sweat, but his breathing was evening out. Steve brushed the damp strands of hair off his face and released his wrists. As he did so, he noted that one of them appeared swollen.

“Get some rest now, we’ll be fine.”

Loki obeyed. He pressed his face against Steve’s thigh, snuggling to get comfortable on the ground. Steve automatically placed his hand on Loki’s shoulder, rubbing it slowly along his back. The soothing motion seemed to relax Loki further: he went completely limp and fell asleep.

 

Bleeding out

Steve allowed Loki to rest for an hour. He feared that every moment they spent in the past would bring them closer to the inevitable doom in the future, but of course time didn’t work like that. Unless it did. At this moment, the future was open, an endless and unknown mass that he could join at any moment if he knew how. But his own past was at a certain point in the future, and he needed to catch it. From there, they could fight to reverse what had been done in their reality, and not affect any others more than they already had. But if he couldn’t leave this timeline, that past future would be lost and he’d be facing something entirely different. His natural curiosity tried to lure him into finding out, but his sense of duty won. And he wasn’t entirely without hope. With all the stones, they had a real chance of reversing what Thanos had done and to bring everyone back. That was what Steve fought for, would go to the ends of the earth and beyond for.

Steve shook Loki awake. He dared not wait longer in case Hydra found them again. He didn’t know how they had gotten their hands on Stark’s tech -- or something that functioned suspiciously alike -- but he sensed trouble there. Loki was slow to rouse. Steve started to think that they’d have no choice but to wait for longer, but finally he opened his eyes and focused them on Steve.

“You coherent?” Steve asked by way of greeting.

“Of course. What an inane question,” Loki said and made to get up. Steve noticed him pause and grimace, only for a fleeting moment, but enough to concern him.

“What’s wrong?”

“Your world is primitive and hostile, that is what is wrong, as you so eloquently put it.”

“Guess you’ll live. Think you could try the Tesseract again? We’re not where or when we’re supposed to be.” At least Steve assumed they hadn’t moved in time, though he had little other than intuition to base his assumption on.

“Yes, give it here,” Loki said, not bending down to retrieve it himself. Steve had more important matters on his mind than Asgardian powerplay, so he plucked the cube off the ground and planted it in Loki’s waiting hands. He recited the temporal and geographical coordinates he’d been given, hoping they made sense to Loki. As they prepared to leave, Steve looked around, making sure no one was following them. Just when he felt the first tug of the transportation, his eyes roamed over the spot where Loki had been lying. The ground was saturated with blood, in vivid contrast to the green underbrush. Before he could ask about it, the world disappeared and twisted, worse than before, until he could no longer hold on.

 

Secret Injury

The world re-solidified into Stark’s laboratory, right where Steve had left from. He had no time to recover before the others swarmed them. Loki was largely ignored in favour of the Tesseract, pushed aside when Stark grabbed the cube. He and Banner carried it off, already talking a mile a minute to each other about things Steve couldn’t follow. He had read about the advances made in science in the recent years, but he had only scratched the surface, nowhere near close enough to understand physics on the level Stark and Banner operated on.

“There was trouble?” Barton asked. Steve looked down at himself, noticing how dirty and bedraggled he was. The fight with the Hydra agents had been brief and hurried. He hadn’t really had time to take note of everything going on.

“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” Steve said. He nodded towards Loki who was standing in the middle of the floor, looking out of place in his torn, blood-stained shirt and bare feet. Thor was nearby, leaning against a wall and looking at him silently. Steve was surprised at that, he had expected rambunctious jubilation from him, not this quiet consternation.

Barton stepped closer to Steve and lowered his voice. “We have prepared a special room for our guest. One where he won’t be any trouble.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary. He’s cooperated with me without question.”

“Desperate times, Rogers. He’s free now.”

“I get where you’re coming from, but I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Thor can keep him in check.”

Steve didn’t quite believe it himself, as Thor had not demonstrated any ability in the past of being able to control his brother, but after having witnessed Hydra’s treatment of him, he was reluctant to force Loki into a similar position in their care. And their show of courtesy might be met with gratitude, if they were lucky.

“Any lives he takes will be on you,” Barton said and walked away. Steve understood his pain and anger, and let the harsh words slide. They had more urgent matters to attend to. He walked past Loki, noting how forlorn he looked hugging himself, still in the middle of the room. Him not having moved anywhere or said anything confirmed to Steve that he intended to play nicely. The flamboyant conqueror was gone, and here stood someone desperate to survive. Perhaps even to belong.

“We’re probably going to reverse the Snap right away now that we have all the stones. Just wait, we’ll get to you in a bit,” Steve said as he hurried to where Stark and Banner had disappeared to.

“The what?” Loki asked. He took a step forwards, as if to follow Steve, but faltered.

 

Humiliation

“I saw that,” Thor said from his spot against the wall. Loki turned to look at him, wincing as the pain inside him flared. He wasn’t sure what had happened, but after he’d woken up from the sleeping potion, there had been a bleeding wound on his side. It was closing now, but the pain remained.

“Saw what?” he asked. Thor looked terrible. All light had died from his eyes, and his unkempt appearance said he had given up. Loki knew this was the future, that untold years had passed without his knowledge, but he couldn’t imagine what had brought his proud warrior brother so low.

“You’re trying to hide something.”

“I have nothing to hide. The humans took all my possessions,” Loki countered. And it was true: his coat and boots were gone, and with them, all his physical knives and items. Of course, his body was his strongest weapon, as long as his magic was unobstructed. As Thor well knew.

“Will you begin our new chance at life with lies? I thought you changed, but I see I am mistaken.”

“You speak as if I were dead.”

“You are. We walked a long path, brother, and you were better at the end of it. You showed your true colours, do you want to know what they were?”

“No. Whoever you speak of, it is not me. I make my own path.”

People were starting to gather around them. They kept a respectful distance, but they were listening.

“You helped us save our people. That is how you came to be in possession of the Tesseract. Your actions allowed what was left of Asgard to escape certain doom. You chose to belong with us, you sought shelter with family. After all your posturing, you were just a lost child, wanting to be part of something.”

“I shall not stand here and be humiliated like this,” Loki said, taking a step towards the nearest exit. Thor’s words stopped him.

“But in the end, you were a coward. You took the easy way out. Nothing else can explain why you tossed your life away with such a stupid stunt. You had no real chance against Thanos, you had much more potent weapons hidden, yet you used a tiny little dagger. You chose to die on that day, you chose to leave me alone!”

Thor ended his tirade and walked away. Loki was left standing alone, trying to piece the events together. His past future self had gone against Thanos ill-equipped. He wondered what might’ve prompted such an action on his part. What Thor accused him of, he didn’t believe. There had to be more to it, some angle only he had seen.

“So you’re a traitor too,” Barton said from behind Loki. “Knew there was nothing good there. You should just leave, you’re not wanted here.”

With a final look towards the doorway where Thor had disappeared through, Loki focused and removed himself from the building.

 

Abandoned

Loki transported himself outside to a field surrounded by a forest. He didn’t know where he was or even when he was. He had followed Rogers’ coordinates almost blindly, trusting the Tesseract to move them where they needed to go, guided by his magic. Now he stood abandoned and forlorn, with the world wide open for him, yet stuck in a dead end.

He looked back to the building he’d just left. It was large but surprisingly modest for being Stark’s. His brother was there, working with his friends to undo some great injustice their world had faced. Loki hadn’t been filled in on the information, but he could read the situation well enough.

As he walked around the meadow, he wondered if anyone was looking for him. Probably not, they had all seemed preoccupied. He could leave so easily. Yet something held him up, and not just the battered state of his body. The bleeding on his side had stopped, but he still felt shaky and weak. Transporting in such a condition was unwise, and he lacked any destination. Staying with his brother seemed like as good an option as any other. At least Thanos wouldn’t be looking for him now if he was considered dead. That could work well in his advantage.

Loki was facing the forest, behind which the last rays of the sun were peeking, when an explosion knocked him to the ground. He twisted around to look at the building, or what remained of it. A spacecraft had appeared above it without warning. Loki stayed low and observed. He saw no movement from the rubble. Something was happening in the ship but he was too far to tell what. Potentially someone was exiting it and going to examine the ruins. Where his brother and the Tesseract were. And all the other Infinity Stones.

Cloaking himself with the colour of the dry hay around him, Loki crept closer. He would gain nothing by revealing himself too soon, better to first get a handle on the situation, then decide how to proceed.

“Down there!” someone shouted. Loki snuck closer to see what they were after. The safest bet was on the Infinity Stones, but the target could just as well be the fools who called themselves Avengers. Including his brother.

“Bring it to me,” the instructions continued. Loki was fairly certain he hadn’t been noticed. He risked getting a little bit closer. He could see Thanos’ lieutenants directing the grunts while the purple menace himself sat on the stairs of his craft and waited. Ambushing him now would be easy. There was a considerable distraction and he would not know of Loki’s presence. But would he be able to strike the killing blow fast enough to make it count? Loki knew how cunning Thanos was, and how many magical protections he carried. A simple attack would do nothing but expose him.

“Very good,” Thanos said and stood up. Loki cursed at the missed opportunity. He was considering a new plan when he noticed what had been brought to Thanos. Thor and Captain Rogers, accompanied by a robotic gauntlet with the stones inserted in it. He retreated, making sure his camouflage was intact.

“My destiny is fulfilled,” Thanos declared as he reached for the gauntlet. Loki felt his rage rise. He was in no mood for Thanos’ pompous bullshit. But perhaps while he monologued there could be an opportunity. As expected, Thanos didn’t immediately put the glove on, but continued to sing his own praises as the saviour of the universe. Loki looked at the spot behind him, close enough to be within reach of the gauntlet. He would have to time and aim the blink precisely, there was no margin for error. As Thanos asked a rhetorical question and inhaled in preparation of answering it, Loki disappeared. Before Thanos got the first syllable out, Loki appeared behind him and snatched the gauntlet off his hand.

“You -- “ Thanos bellowed and reached for Loki with his magic, but Loki was quicker. He transported further away and slipped his hand inside the robotic arm. Seeing this, Thanos changed tactics and went after Thor and Captain Rogers instead. He shot tendrils of burning energy around their necks and tightened them.

 

Ransom

Loki paused. He could kill Thanos with the snap of his fingers, but the tendrils he had wrapped around Thor and Rogers created a link between them. If he killed one, the others would die too. Loki had no reason to know this, other than the stones whispering truths to him. If he allowed himself to be exposed to them much longer, he would go mad.

“You know my ransom. Give me the stones and your friends go free.”

Loki didn’t acknowledge Thanos. He tried to think, but the noise from the stones was making it difficult. A million possible scenarios shot through his head, showing several different outcomes. One certainty became apparent: if Loki went on the offensive, Thanos would kill his brother with no hesitation.

“I am not unreasonable. In all things, I do what is fair,” Thanos said. Loki fought the urge to shudder. It was sickening how absolutely Thanos believed in his own superiority.

“A prize for a prize. This exchange is just.”

An idea came to Loki. It was a gamble, but in the potential futures he had seen, it had worked two times out of a hundred. Loki had relied on much worse odds before.

“You think yourself a god,” Loki said, raising his voice above Thanos’. “You are nothing but a child playing at make-believe.”

Thanos’ undivided attention was on Loki. He looked him straight in his foul eyes, and in one fluid motion, Loki directed the stones’ powers into destroying them. The explosion threw Loki back, drowning out Thanos’ enraged scream.

 

Beaten

Loki opened his eyes as soon as he could. He saw exactly what he had been betting on: Thanos running straight towards him, the tether of energy gone from around his brother’s neck. Loki stood up to face his punishment. He knew he was unlikely to survive this encounter, and he could’ve run, but that would’ve led to nothing but a hunt, and he was tired of being the prey. He would stand his ground, fight back for all he was worth, and maybe die with honour. Not that he had ever much cared for such notions, but he had nothing else left. The stones had drawn more power from him than he had expected, and he had been running low to begin with. He would die like a mortal, but he would die knowing he had saved his brother.

Thanos was beyond words as he ran towards Loki. His screams echoed off the surrounding hills, the rage so tangible no one dared to stop him. With a wave of his hand, he created a barrier around them, isolating himself and Loki from everyone.

“How does it feel to lose everything?” Loki asked. It was probably unwise to taunt Thanos, but words had ever been his armour.

“How does it feel to lose your life?” Thanos bellowed and charged. Loki shielded himself, but Thanos was stronger. He pushed through and the impact sent Loki back on the ground, his head bouncing painfully off the turf. Thanos gave him no time to recover. He straddled him and started punching with his giant purple fists, pounding on Loki where he lay.

The blows kept landing, finding their marks in Loki’s face and chest. He tried to protect himself by blocking with his arms, but Thanos was unhindered. At least one arm snapped under the abuse, and Loki’s ribcage was so battered he could barely breathe. And still Thanos kept on coming, not relenting even when the ribs started cracking and sinking into Loki’s chest.

“Stop it!” a muffled voice outside the barrier shouted. Several others joined in, and there were sounds of various different projectiles hitting the shimmering surface. But strength would do nothing against the magical barrier. Loki wanted to tell them that, to advise them to conserve their energy since Thanos would undoubtedly turn on them once he was finished with him, but he could produce no sounds. He couldn’t even draw a deep enough breath to keep himself present and coherent. He did notice when there was a break in the beating, but before he could relax, the attack continued in the form of kicks all over his body. Loki suspected he would not be able to hang on much longer, but he would do his best, if only out of spite.

 

Numb

As the assault continued, Loki started to lose his grip on reality. His body was a mass of pain that tethered him to consciousness. His magic tried to counter the abuse, but his reserves were too low for the amount of damage that needed to be repaired. There were no moments in which to recover, no respite in which to gather himself. His mind was drifting too, ready to leave his miserable existence behind. He was going blessedly numb, unable to feel, unable to care. He was lighter than air, floating away into nothingness.

He almost welcomed it. A small nagging voice in his mind kept him back, forcing him to cling to what he knew, to keep from entering the void. He obeyed it, for now.

 

Recovery

Captain Danvers entered the battlefield in a blaze of glory. Bright energy burned around and behind her, lighting up the sky. She knew she was coming late to defend her home world, but in a universal scale, the threat it was currently facing was insignificant. Thanos had had a devastating impact on everything, but the Avengers had already reversed his Snap. She could admit to herself that this trip was more about vengeance than justice, even if Thanos did need to be contained. She landed in the field on top of a shimmering energy shield, destroying it with the impact. Inside, she found Thanos, stomping on a body.

“You want to pick on someone your own size?” she asked. Thanos’ response was a growl and a charge towards her. She met the assault with her fists, knocking him back. She’d heard how powerful he was when using all the Infinity Stones, but with no enhancements, he could not stand against her. She made quick work of defeating him and restraining him.

“Loki!” Thor yelled and ran in. Carol watched him reach the still form. She wasn’t sure if a rage-fuelled pummeling from Thanos could be survived, but she hoped so. Dying now would feel so futile, when the world was at the start of its long recovery period.

“Is he alive?” she asked. Thor raised his head towards her, sorrow twisting his features.

“He won’t respond,” he said. “Am I too late?”

“Allow me,” Doctor Stephen Strange said. He stepped up to the brothers, leading a group of others in his wake. Carol saw the heroes known as Avengers, all looking grim. The long-awaited reunions would be celebrated later, now everyone seemed too stunned by the quick pace of events. The ones who had been gone were back, and Thanos had been defeated, but there were casualties.

“Maybe he’s not yet lost,” Strange continued as he kneeled down next to Thor. “I will look into it, don’t punch me even if he starts flailing.”

“Please do what you can, witch man.” Thor stepped back and allowed Stephen to cradle Loki’s head. Carol felt like she was intruding on something private, but her curiosity took over. It appeared that Thor’s brother was not dead after all, but it had to be a close thing.

“He’s deep, almost at the edge. His willpower is tremendous, but I think he’s given up. He’s not fighting as hard as he could.”

“No! I won’t allow that! Loki!” Thor hollered and grabbed his brother’s shoulders. Carol thought he would shake him, but Thor leaned him carefully against his chest and hugged him.

“Come on, Loki. It’s not all that bad. We won. The humans here are mostly kind, I think you’d like it here. They have good food and beer too. And the softest beds, you’d like that. You could be comfortable for the rest of your life here. Please, come back.”

“I think he’s listening,” Stephen said. His hands were hovering above Loki’s head, not quite touching. “Keep going.”

“Brother, remember everything we’ve been through. I know you weren’t there for all of it, but I can tell you about it. We can make new memories. We can be better brothers. I see that now, after I lost everything. I swear, I will listen better. I will try to understand, and I won’t be so rash. My youthful pride has finally deserted me fully. My failure devastated the world, I will never think too highly of myself again. But I will think more highly of you. Loki, please come back.”

Stephen looked at Thor and shook his head. Loki had not stirred.

 

Embrace

The abyss was shivering. Loki found it a curious phenomenon. Here he was, undisturbed in the darkness, ready to float away into nothingness, and the scenery shook. He had no ground to stand on, but he felt the trembles in his bones, unrelenting. Leaping into the endless quiet would be easy, but he couldn’t go while the protest remained unexamined. If he really focused, he could hear a heartbeat, distant but steady. Words were accompanying it.

good food and beer

Of course, it was his brother, speaking of mundane things. He would probably perish if he ever had to go a full day on an empty stomach. Loki had survived much worse, he had pushed his body well beyond its breaking point and further, on several occasions.

So why was he giving up now?

we can make new memories

Loki hesitated. He did not belong in this world, where who he had been had beaten a path for who he was now. To live in this reality, he would have to push beyond that, to establish himself as who he was, not who his past future self had been.

Was he actually considering it? To continue the struggle that was his life?

Loki, please come back

The raw emotion coming through cut Loki to his core. They had been close with Thor once. Much had come between them, a lot of it his own doing, but the bond remained. They shared no blood, but they were brothers. And to his amazement, Loki realised that it meant something to him.

“Loki!” Thor’s jubilant shout assaulted Loki’s ears. He opened his eyes, fighting against the swollen flesh threatening to keep them shut.

“Cease your racket,” he mumbled. It hurt to breathe, but Loki found himself pulling in air with vengeful gusto. He would survive, to disappoint those who would keep him down.

While Loki was in the process of mastering his battered body, Thor cut off all his air by throwing his arms around him and squeezing tight. Loki did not protest. His brother’s strong arms supported him and he could lean into the embrace. Perhaps he wasn’t as alone as he thought. Perhaps they could build something out of the ruins they’d created.

Perhaps he’d won, after all.