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Stephen Strange did not believe in fate or destiny.

It was an unusual stance to take, perhaps, in a world where people's futures were, quite literally, written on their skin. Everyone was born with their soulmate's first words printed somewhere on their body. Most people were born with one soulmark, others had multiple, some had none. They were an indelible tattoo, a reminder to all who believed in them that their future was fixed, that they were hurtling along like a runaway train down their pre-assigned tracks, fate guiding them through all the right stations and changing points towards their inevitable destination, where they would finally meet their soulmate and hear them speak the words written on their skin.

To not believe in fate, therefore, was an extremely rare attitude.

Stephen's belief, or rather lack thereof, was due to the bizarre nature of his soulmark. The ridiculous words were written on his left forearm, black cursive on pale skin: 

Handle me? Who are you? You think you're some kind of sorcerer? Don't think for one minute, you second-rate…

The incoherent rant ended there, mid-sentence. His soulmark was not only nonsense, but incomplete nonsense – something that Stephen's perfectionist nature despised. Not only that, but this speak of "sorcerers" could not be further from Stephen's scientific worldview. He was a man of logic, rationalism and reasoning. He was a doctor, not a magician. His world consisted of medical textbooks, not magic spellbooks; actual life-saving brain surgeries, not parlour tricks; hours spent hunched over the operating table, not dancing around some cauldron. He laughed harshly and openly at those fraudsters he saw conning tourists out of their cash with palm readings and fortune telling. He tutted loudly whenever he overheard anyone talking about so-called "alternative" medicines. He aggressively shut down anyone who believed in the paranormal. Stephen's world was one unshakably grounded in science and fact, which made his soulmark all the more maddening.

But, at the same time, the impossibility of his soulmark somehow comforted him. He had decided a long time ago that he did not believe that the future was fixed. If someone met their so-called soulmate, he reasoned, they could easily walk away. There was nothing that could physically stop anyone from turning their back on their fate and pursuing something else. The impossible nature of his soulmark only reiterated in his mind what a load of nonsense the whole business was. His soulmark was so outlandish, so ludicrous, that it could not possibly come true. Stephen's soulmark was simply wrong, inconceivable, an anomaly.

He saw himself as an outlier, as a rebel with no destiny, with total free will. In a world where everyone else was tied to some fixed future, his own pre-assigned future was impossible, and so he had the freedom to live his life however he pleased. Some people would find the notion of being without a destiny horrifying, but Stephen fully enjoyed it. His scientific nature rejoiced and embraced this tidy resolution to the problem of his puzzling soulmark.

He was living his best life. He was one of the best neurosurgeons in the world. He was part of New York City's social elite. He hosted and attended lavish parties. He was amassing an enviable collection of expensive watches and fast cars. He had the money, the charm and the confidence to seduce any man or woman whom he wanted into his bed. His dexterous fingers could perform complex brain surgeries freehand, play Beethoven, Chopin and Bach with ease, bring his partners on one-night stands to orgasm in mere minutes. He felt like a puppet master, pulling the strings of his life to perfection, revelling in pure hedonism.

Life was perfect.

He would have it no other way.

Then, he crashed his favourite sports car off the road at over 70mph.

 


 

He woke slowly.

His consciousness returned to him in that hazy way that indicated a high dosage of pain medication. He gradually became aware of his surroundings: the whites and blues of the hospital room, the sterile smell of disinfectant, the soft beeping of machines. Groggily, he blinked his eyes open – or rather, one eye. The other seemed to be swollen shut, tender and bruised. As his awareness returned to him, he realised that he was not alone. Christine was sat beside him. Dr. West was stood near the foot of his bed. He was simultaneously repulsed and terrified by the looks of pity on their faces.

Afterwards, he would find it difficult to remember the first time he saw his hands. Trauma-induced amnesia, he rationalised, because the diagnosis, which he remembered perfectly, was horrific. Eleven stainless steel pins in his bones. Multiple torn ligaments. Severe nerve damage in both hands. He had been on the operating table for eleven hours. The first time he tried to move his hands, he almost sobbed. The trembling, painful, unwieldy sausages could not possibly be his fingers. His hands shook like those of a man three times his age. They were so weak, so clumsy, that he could barely curl and uncurl his fist.

His regimen was gruelling and frustrating. Over the next few months, his physiotherapist prescribed a multitude of finger stretches and exercises. Stephen performed them attentively, even obsessively, but his improvement was minimal. He underwent seven surgeries, many of them experimental, none of them successful. With every failed operation, every day of fruitless finger exercises that did barely anything to improve his symptoms, he fell deeper into despair. The realisation of everything he had lost, floored him. He could never again be a surgeon. He could never again play his favourite piece by Bach or blithely knock out a tune on his violin, carefree. He could barely hold his shaver or tie his shoelaces. He struggled to see how he could possibly live any semblance of a normal life, like this.

His dreams died painfully. His old ambitions, his old life, were swept away unceremoniously like rain down a drainpipe. The car crash was mere months ago, but his old life felt like a lifetime ago. His previous existence almost felt like a dream: unreal and inaccessible. He hit rock bottom. At night, lying in bed with nothing but his thoughts to occupy him, he contemplated what it would be like to fall asleep and never wake up, and found himself not afraid of the idea, but almost longing for it.

It was not long after that, that the package came in the mail. It was from his physiotherapist; a file about a paralysed man who had defied medical science and learnt to walk again: Jonathan Pangborn. Stephen devoured the contents of the file, reading the words and examining the scans over and over, until his eyes hurt from the strain. Pangborn was impossible. His injuries had been devastating and absolute. His back had been broken, a C7-C8 spinal cord injury. He had been paralysed from the mid-chest down, plus partial paralysis in both hands. He should not even have been able to move his toes, let alone walk, yet apparently, he was the star player of the local amateur basketball team.

Impossible.

In other words, exactly what Stephen needed.

He went to the basketball court the very next day, sitting discreetly at the side, clutching his thermos and refusing to give in to the cold or the increasing stiffness in his joints as the hours slipped by. Pangborn arrived in the late afternoon. Stephen stared at him, hungry and incredulous, as Pangborn walked up to his friends, high-fived them and immediately got in on the game, ducking and weaving between the other players, his feet light, fast and nimble.

Stephen approached, in equal parts giddy with excitement and terrified of what he might hear. Their conversation was brief and cryptic. Pangborn talked in riddles, about holy men and magic. There were no concrete, medical facts regarding his treatment that Stephen could understand. As a doctor, it was frustrating. He ignored his rising sense of irritation and pressed harder. At last, Pangborn shared something definitive: a location.

Stephen repeated the foreign syllables carefully, wanting to make sure he had got them right.

He clung to them.

His final, desperate hopes all came down to two words: Kamar-Taj.

 


 

As it turned out, Kamar-Taj was a sacred place in the Nepalese city of Kathmandu, nestled in the shadows of the Himalayan mountains.

Kathmandu was busier, louder and more chaotic than Stephen had been expecting. The guidebooks showed only peace and serenity, not the honk of traffic and the clamour of market traders selling their produce, shouting to be heard over the din. At first, it had been overwhelming, but Stephen was nothing if not adaptable, and he soon realised that the bustle of Kathmandu was simply a variation of the rush he was accustomed to in New York City.

Hidden amongst all this was Kamar-Taj. It was like a paradox; calm and quiet, almost like an oasis. As soon as the front door swung shut, you could forget you were in a busy city at all. The thick wood deadened the sound of the outside world. The sprawling grounds therein were expansive enough to effectively be a little bubble, a microcosm, a city within a city.

There, under the watchful eye of the Ancient One, Master Mordo and the surly, mononymous librarian Wong, he began to learn the mystic arts. It did not come easily. It was as if the Universe itself knew that he was a lifelong sceptic, and was punishing him by withholding its power. For the first time, Stephen learnt what it was like not to be top of his class, to be average (below average, in fact), to have to work hard, his photographic memory of little use when the power that seemed to come so easily to his classmates simply refused to be channelled through him.

It was one hell of a learning curve. He realised that he knew nothing, and as soon as he accepted that, it was as if a switch was flicked, his mind opening to new possibilities. Magic flooded in to fill this new space in his mind. He re-doubled his efforts. He threw himself into the life of a student of the mystic arts. He learnt how to perform astral projection, create portals, create energy fields that he could use as both protective shields and weapons. He learnt how to create illusions, to summon objects, to warp reality itself and enter the mirror dimension, a parallel space in the fabric of space-time where one's actions did not affect the real world.

His awareness was opened to a whole new side of the Universe that his eyes had been blind to before. He realised that what he did not know was enough to fill the world's libraries many times over. He learnt to be humble. When he had arrived at Kamar-Taj, he had had nothing; no hope, no future, no purpose in life. Now, he had those things, and he appreciated them so much more for having lacked them. Gone was the arrogant doctor, replaced by someone much kinder, more patient, and more open-minded.

After the Ancient One passed away and Stephen saved the Earth from an attack by Dormammu, he transitioned from student to master. He became a guardian of the New York sanctum. The surly librarian, Wong, who had become one of his best friends in Kamar-Taj, accompanied him. Wong, at last, had revealed his humorous side, waking him up one day by blasting Beyoncé's Single Ladies out of a boombox, his face totally deadpan as he explained that Stephen's alarm clock was broken, so he was improvising a solution. Stephen bought a new alarm clock promptly.

It was strange, to be back in New York City. It was his old territory, back where his story had begun, back where he had lived his old life. His new life, despite the familiarity of the streets and the buildings, could not be more different. Some nights, he lay in bed, in the same city where he used to be a surgeon, and thought about how much his life had changed between then and now. Before, he had lived in a tidy world constrained by the laws of science. Things had been routine and predictable. Life felt so much more fluid, now. He was aware of a whole new side of reality. When he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could feel the magic as it pulsed through the Universe, like a heartbeat, or a drum. Ba-doom, ba-doom, ba-doom...

He touched his left forearm, tracing his finger over the words that were printed there. His soulmark. The first words that his soulmate would say to him.

Handle me? Who are you? You think you're some kind of sorcerer? Don't think for one minute, you second-rate…

Sorcerer... He had used to believe that his soulmark was nonsense, that he was an outlier, that the impossibleness of his soulmark was evidence that fate was not real. That had been, until Kamar-Taj. Kamar-Taj had changed everything. His soulmark made sense now. His fate was coming true. Destiny was hurtling towards him at an unstoppable speed. His destination was inevitable.

Somewhere, out there, was his soulmate. At some point in Stephen's future, some stranger would say those words to him, and he would know that he had found his soulmate. For some reason, this staggering realisation that he had a destiny, that he was hurtling along his pre-assigned track just like everyone else, did not feel claustrophobic or constricting, but exciting. He grinned. He could not wait.

After all, who did not want to meet their soulmate?

 


 

Being a guardian of the New York sanctum came with many responsibilities.

One of these was to keep an eye out for any extra-terrestrial or other-dimensional beings who came to Earth. Stephen and Wong had set up a spell that would activate an alarm in the sanctum if any alien DNA was detected to arrive. There was a second, more urgent alarm that was reserved for those on what Wong dramatically liked to call the Watch List. The Watch List was a list of individuals who were a known threat to Earth, for example those who had previously attempted to threaten it or had a history of causing harm on other planets.

In all the time Stephen had been working at the New York sanctum, the general alien DNA alarm had sounded three times: for a family of tourists (granted entry), missionaries wanting to spread their religion (definitely not), and one ageing demigod who requested permission to die on this planet which he so loved (granted entry). Never had the Watch List been activated, however, which made it all the more alarming when, one morning, Stephen was interrupted from his tasks by the sound of klaxons blaring.

He transported himself to the inner Sanctum Sanctorum, where he was met by Wong, who was already conjuring up a floating image of the globe, twisting and flexing his fingers as he zeroed in on the location of their unwelcome visitor. Stephen watched Wong work, his eyes glued to the hovering map of the world, a sense of unease growing in the pit of his stomach as the location zoomed down and down towards an unsettlingly familiar part of the world.

"Two extra-terrestrial beings," said Wong. "One on the Watch List. One a regular alien. They're both here, in New York City."

"Who?" said Stephen.

Wong closed his eyes, his eyelids flickering as he manipulated the spell, working to identify the threat. Stephen slid his sling ring onto his fingers, preparing to create a portal.

"Loki," Wong said finally. "Accompanied by his brother, Thor."

Stephen swore darkly beneath his breath. He remembered the devastation that Loki had brought to New York City in 2012. At the time, he had been an emergency doctor working in a hospital directly in the middle of the affected area. He had experienced first-hand the panic of a city under attack. He had seen hundreds of patients being brought in with varying degrees of horrific injuries. There had been patients crammed into every room, with many having to be treated in the corridors. It had been his most hectic shift ever. He saved many people's lives that day, and did not manage to save many more. He declared more times-of-death than he could count. He witnessed more death than he could ever wish to see again. What Loki and his minions had done to those patients was horrendous. He hated Loki with a passion. He did not want him anywhere on Earth, let alone New York City.

"Give me a specific location, Wong, or I swear to God–"

"Got it," said Wong.

He flicked his fingers outwards, projecting an image of Thor and Loki standing side-by-side on a pavement. They were watching the demolition of a building, Loki looking mystified, Thor looking thoroughly pissed off. Stephen scanned the scene for any particular landmark that would allow him to pinpoint them exactly, and finally saw something usable. A sign was visible amongst the mangled wreckage of the building, bearing its name: Shady Oaks Care Home.

Concentrating on the location in his mind, Stephen closed his eyes and began to rotate his hand wearing the sling ring. He opened up a portal at Loki's feet, throwing him into a dimension where he would perpetually free-fall until Stephen managed to negotiate his removal from Earth with Thor. Flicking his fingers, he then dropped a card containing the address of the sanctum onto the pavement for Thor, before quickly closing the portal.

Wong blinked at him, both surprised and impressed by how easily Stephen had simply dropped Loki through a hole in the pavement to solve their immediate problem.

"That was efficient," said Wong.

Stephen smirked.

"Let's prepare some tea for our guest," he said.

They did not have to wait long. Less than twenty minutes later, there was a knock on the front door. Stephen briefly astral projected to check that it was Thor and, upon seeing that it was, magically transported him inside. It did not hurt, he reasoned, to demonstrate to Thor that he was a powerful man of magic. If their discussion became heated, it could be in Stephen's advantage for Thor to know that he had special abilities that could be used against him. With this in mind, he levitated off the ground, allowing himself the liberty of adding a little wind to make his hair and cloak billow just so. OK, so he had a flair for the dramatic, so what?

"Thor Odinson," he said sombrely.

Thor turned towards him, a feeling of smug satisfaction going through Stephen's gut when he noticed the other man's eyes widen in shock as he took in the sight of his levitating host. Stephen floated gracefully towards him, before alighting on the ground just in front of him. Thor, who had raised his umbrella defensively, eyed him warily.

"God of Thunder," continued Stephen. "You can put down the umbrella."

Thor looked down, apparently noticing for the first time that he had been holding his umbrella like a weapon, and grimaced apologetically, setting it down in the umbrella stand beside him. Stephen magically transported them to the library, allowing himself a quick smirk at Thor's visible confusion. Seemingly trying to cover his bewilderment, Thor picked up an ornament, studying it between his fingers.

"So, Earth has, uh, wizards now?" said Thor.

He attempted to put the ornament back where he had picked it up from, which only caused the rest of the ornaments to topple over, clattering loudly on the wooden table. Thor tried in vain to catch them, grabbing them clumsily and attempting to slot them all back into place.

"The preferred term is Master of the Mystic Arts," said Stephen, before having mercy on his guest as Thor tried and failed to reassemble the toppled ornament. "You can leave that now."

Visibly relieved at having been excused from his task, Thor put down the ornament and cleared his throat.

"Alright, wizard," he said. "Who are you? And why should I care?"

Stephen's eyes narrowed. He did not like Thor's disrespectful tone of voice. Perhaps another little demonstration of his magic was in order.

"My name is Dr. Stephen Strange, and I have some questions for you," he said. "Take a seat."

He magically transported them into a pair of comfortable armchairs, purposefully making sure that his own was slightly larger and more impressive than Thor's. Thor looked around in confusion, baffled by their sudden change in location.

"Tea?" Stephen said innocently, flicking his hand and causing a mug of tea to instantly materialise in Thor's hand.

Thor stared at it for a long moment, before slowly moving it away from his body, as if it might be cursed. Stephen stifled a laugh. Perhaps it was a little mean to play these tricks on Thor, but how could he resist, when the other man's reactions were so delightfully funny?

"I... don't drink tea," said Thor weakly.

"What do you drink?" said Stephen.

Thor hesitated for a moment, obviously pondering whether this was some kind of trick question that might result in even more magic.

"Not tea..." he said finally, looking at Stephen with an almost pleading expression on his face.

Stephen finally took pity on him, magicking a large glass of ale into his hand instead and leaning towards him. Time to get down to business.

"So, I keep a watch list of individuals and beings from other realms that may be a threat to this world," he said. "Your adopted brother, Loki, is one of those beings."

Thor gulped down the ale enthusiastically, swallowing most of the contents of the giant glass in several large glugs. Stephen's eyebrows rose, impressed despite himself.

"He's a worthy inclusion," said Thor, staring at his now near-empty glass.

Stephen re-filled it with a wave of his hand.

"Then why bring him here?" he said.

"We're looking for my father," said Thor.

Ah... Perhaps Stephen should have seen this coming. Odin – Thor and Loki's father – had been one of the three beings to have triggered the alien DNA alarm previously. He had been the old man, close to death, who had requested to spend his final years on Earth. Permission had been granted. Stephen gnawed thoughtfully on his lower lip.

"So, if I were to tell you where Odin was, all parties concerned would promptly return to Asgard?" he asked.

"Promptly," said Thor.

Stephen smiled. It seemed that getting rid of Thor – and more importantly, Loki – was going to be simpler than he had expected. He let out a sigh of relief.

"Great," he said. "Then I'll help you."

Thor held up his hand, frowning slightly as he rubbed his chin with confusion.

"If you knew where he was," said Thor, "why didn't you call me?"

Stephen raised his eyebrows.

"I have to tell you, he was adamant that he not be disturbed," he said. "Your father said he had chosen to remain in exile…"

"Hmm," said Thor.

"...and you don't have a phone," said Stephen.

Thor laughed, the sound booming out of him. He waved his hand, as if what Stephen had just said was of little consequence.

"No, I don't have a phone, but you could have sent an electronic letter," said Thor. "It's called an email."

"Yeah... Do you have a computer?" asked Stephen.

Thor looked confused.

"No," he said. "What for?"

Stephen snorted, not justifying Thor's question with an answer.

"Anyway, my father is no longer in exile," said Thor. "So, if you could tell me where he is, I can take him home."

Stephen nodded.

"Gladly," he said. "He's in Norway."

He magically transported them to the library, pulling the appropriate book from the shelf and leafing through it until he found the page he needed.

"I'm just seeing whether this incantation requires any Asgardian modifications..." he muttered, his eyes darting over the lines. "Nope!"

He magicked them to the next room, deftly gathering together the ingredients needed to complete the spell. He heard a whimper behind him. Turning, he found Thor steadying himself by clinging to his glass of ale and a bookcase.

"Oh, we don't need that," said Stephen.

Thor slowly backed away from the bookshelf and placed his glass of ale down onto the nearest table. He shook his head slowly, visibly disorientated by the most recent transportation.

"Will you stop doing that?!" he said.

Stephen ignored him, having just noticed the final missing ingredient for the spell.

"I need just one strand of your hair," he said.

Thor's expression darkened.

"Let me explain something," he said angrily. "My hair is not to be meddled with–"

Stephen never found out how Thor intended to finish that sentence, because he transported himself behind him, pulled out a strand of his hair, and quickly walked back to where he had assembled the rest of the ingredients. Thor rubbed his head, grumbling under his breath as Stephen concentrated on performing the spell, muttering the incantation to open the portal to Odin in Norway.

"We could have just walked," said Thor.

Stephen ignored Thor's comment and gestured towards the portal, which was now about two metres in diameter, spinning steadily.

"He's waiting for you," said Stephen.

Thor straightened up, nodding.

"Alright," he said.

"Don't forget your umbrella."

Thor's eyes widened, as if Stephen had just reminded him of something very important.

"Oh, yes," he said.

Stephen watched, puzzled, as Thor held out his arm, his palm open, as if reaching for something. For several long seconds, there was silence, until Stephen became aware of strange, crashing noises coming from a distant part of the sanctum, and getting closer.

"Sorry..." said Thor, looking deeply uncomfortable as his umbrella smashed through the wall and flew into his hand.

Stephen stared. Thor cleared his throat, clearly wanting to quickly move on from this embarrassing act of vandalism.

"There we go," Thor said hurriedly. "I suppose I'll need my brother back."

Breathing deeply, trying not to think about how much of a pain it was going to be to tidy up the damage caused by Thor's shockingly resilient flying umbrella, Stephen nodded tightly. The sooner he got both Thor and Loki off this planet, the better.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Right."

He span his hand in circles, opening up a portal and letting a screaming Loki fall through it onto the sanctum floor. Loki hit the ground with a loud thud, before slamming his fists on the floor and flinging his hair back angrily.

"I have been falling for 30 minutes!" he shouted at the room in general.

Stephen winced. He did not envy Thor for having to be the one to deal with his now very angry (and not to mention, generally homicidal) brother.

"You can handle him from here," he mumbled to Thor.

Thor, to his credit, smiled graciously, holding out a hand to shake Stephen's.

"Yes, of course," he said. "Thank you very much for your help."

"Good luck," said Stephen.

There was a rustling sound behind them. Loki had finally staggered to his feet. He glared furiously at Stephen, his green eyes narrowing to slits as he balled his fists by his sides, shaking with anger.

"Handle me?" he demanded. "Who are you?"

Stephen's eyes widened. Those words... No, it could not be. Loki's choice of words was a coincidence, surely? Loki could not be...

Loki flicked his hands, conjuring up two large knives and gripping them tightly. He started marching purposefully towards Stephen. Thor hurried forwards, trying to put himself between Stephen and his brother.

"Loki..." warned Thor.

"You think you're some kind of sorcerer?" said Loki, still glaring at Stephen as he stormed murderously towards him. "Don't think for one minute, you second-rate..."

Stephen panicked, sending the portal skittering sideways so that it engulfed Thor and Loki, sending them to Norway. The portal closed with a shower of sparks, leaving only a heavy, charged silence in its wake. Numb, Stephen staggered over to the stairs, sitting down heavily with a thump. Shock, horror and panic all exploded in his gut. His soulmark's words – Loki's words – echoed deafeningly in his ears. His destiny had arrived.

His soulmate was Loki.

 


 

Shit.

His soulmate was a murderous psychopath.

Fuck!

Perhaps this was the Universe's version of a joke, to serve him right for all those years spent not believing in fate. Of course, when he finally met his soulmate, his supposed one and only true love, it would be fucking Loki. For the umpteenth time, Stephen shook his head in horror and disbelief. This could not be happening. He could not comprehend it.

How could his soulmate be someone whom he so despised? He saw first-hand Loki's destruction when he brought the Chitauri down on New York City. He saw the deaths. He saw the terror. How was he supposed to love the man responsible for it all? It did not make sense. He hated Loki. He could not possibly be his soulmate. And yet... The soulmark stood out boldly on his pale skin, declaring his destiny, which Loki had just unknowingly fulfilled.

He stopped pacing around his bedroom, running his hands through his hair and massaging his head to ease the tension headache that had been building. The answers to his questions did not exist in his bedroom. They existed, if they existed at all, in Norway. As much as he might not like it, if he wanted answers, he would have to speak to Loki. Swallowing back his anxiety, he reopened the portal, quickly stepping through it before he could think about it and talk his way out of it.

He stepped out onto lush Norwegian grass. He was stood on a clifftop, the sea stretching out endlessly in front of him. Above him, seagulls cawed noisily, but there was no sign of Loki, Thor or Odin. Stephen moved cautiously, examining his surroundings. Definitely no Asgardians, although he soon stumbled upon evidence that they had been there very recently.

On the ground, still warm to the touch, was a circle of scorched earth.

 


 

Stephen did not try to track down Loki.

It was the right thing to do, right? The guy was a psychopath. He definitely should not try to chase after him. And yet, of course, over the next week, he could think of little else. However much he might hate it, the Universe for some wacky reason believed that their souls belonged together. He tried to ignore the burning sense of curiosity for as long as he could, not eventually could no longer stand it. Every waking moment since Loki had uttered the words of his soulmark, he had been thinking obsessively about it, turning the words over and over in his head. He could no longer take it. He had to seek answers.

It was night-time. He lay back on his bed, closing his eyes and taking deep, calming breaths. He did not know if what he was about to attempt was even possible. In the absence of any clues as to where Loki could be, Stephen was going to try to connect with him telepathically. It was not something he had ever done before. The majority of his skills involved the ability to manipulate space and energy: creating portals, creating energy shields, creating illusions, summoning objects, simple teleportation. He had never received any tutelage on the more mental, psychic arts. Nor could he find anything about telepathically connecting with a particular person over potentially vast distances in any of Wong's books. Still, if Stephen and Loki were supposed to have some special bond, he figured he might as well try.

He quietened his thoughts, emptying his mind of words, and tried to concentrate on the underlying throb of magic that was constantly beating throughout the Universe. He allowed his mind to attune itself to this universal beat. He extended his consciousness beyond his body, allowing himself to feel the warps in space-time caused by all living things. He searched the cosmos for the feeling of Loki's soul, picturing his face, replaying the memory of his voice. For a long while, there was nothing, just an increased awareness of billions of souls scattered throughout the Universe. It was cluttered, unfocused, too overstimulating to be able to hone in on any one individual mind. He noticed that his body was tense and forced himself to relax. His muscles slowly loosened up. He stopped trying so hard to connect, allowing his mind to simply wander wherever it wanted to go, and then, suddenly, the white noise vanished, to be replaced by a single entity, another mind connected to his own. The change was sudden, so unexpected, that it almost threw him off and caused him to disconnect completely.

Hello? he thought uncertainly.

For a long moment, there was silence. Stephen wondered whether he had connected with anyone at all, or if he was simply imagining things. And then, suddenly, there was another voice talking inside his head; one that was most definitely not his own.

Looks like you're not such a second-rate sorcerer, after all...

Stephen chuckled anxiously, all of a sudden hyper-aware of the fact that he was psychically connected to the monster who had wreaked havoc on the very city he was presently in. Of all the stupid ideas he had ever had, this had the potential to be number one.

How are you doing this? asked Loki. No one's been able to telepathically connect with me before.

Loki sounded merely curious, rather than enraged, something that Stephen took to be a good sign. He did not particularly want to anger the other man whilst their minds were interlinked. Could Loki be capable of causing brain damage at a distance, if he wanted to? Was that even possible? Stephen shoved the thought out of his mind. Best not to give him ideas.

It's complicated, he thought.

Then un-complicate it, said Loki.

Stephen struggled to articulate an answer. In all honesty, he was not entirely sure how he had done it.

I just... wanted us to connect, he thought. I felt around for your mind, and it just happened.

Interesting, said Loki. And why did you want to connect?

Stephen swallowed back his nerves. No way was he going to reveal to Loki the words on the skin of his left forearm. He noted, again, the lack of aggression in Loki's tone.

What? he thought, stalling for time.

I don't have an abundance of friends, said Loki. People aren't normally lining up to chat with me. What made you want to?

Stephen was struck by how unexpectedly polite the tone of the conversation had been so far. Loki did not come across as the deranged megalomaniac who had come to Earth in 2012. He seemed normal, measured, eminently curious but not at all threatening. The difference between the violent madman who had led the Chitauri through the portal and the man with whom he was currently conversing was stark. It niggled at his mind, standing out as odd. It was difficult to reconcile the two. Rather than answering Loki's question, he asked his own.

Why did you do it? he thought. When you came to Earth five years ago, why did you unleash the Chitauri on us? We were no threat to you. We did nothing to you.

Stephen sensed the change in Loki's demeanour immediately. The other man became cold, closed off. When he replied, his tone was sharp, almost defensive.

You don't know anything about what happened five years ago.

Stephen felt a lick of anger flare up inside him. To hear Loki's harsh, dismissive tone rankled him. Because he knew exactly what had happened in New York, five years previously. He had been there, in hospital, tending to the victims. He knew better than most.

I was there, thought Stephen. I helped stitch up the people who you and your alien buddies attacked. I saw almost a hundred deaths that day. I think I understand just fine.

Loki's reply was white hot and instant, hitting Stephen like whiplash.

This conversation is over.

As abruptly as it began, the connection between their minds broke.

Just like that, Stephen was lying once more in his bed – the only voice in his head his own.

 


 

For about a week, there was nothing: no more psychic conversations, no more visits paid to Earth by Asgardians or Jötunns, just a silence that somehow managed to be very loud.

All week, Stephen mulled over his conversation with Loki. The one thing that stood out to him was how different Loki had been to how Stephen had expected. He had expected Loki to be arrogant, rude, aggressive – or at the very least, sneering and belittling. Before Stephen had brought up New York, however, Loki had been none of those things. He had seemed normal; merely curious as to how Stephen had managed to connect with his mind and why he had sought him out. Loki's reaction to Stephen bringing up the attack on New York had not aligned with his expectations either. Stephen had expected him to gloat about it, or at least revel in the chaos and lasting impact he had caused, perhaps asking for the gory details of what had happened in the aftermath, so he could bask in the knowledge of his carnage. In fact, however, Loki had reacted defensively, closing down the conversation with such speed that he had come across as almost afraid to talk about it. It was not at all what Stephen had expected from the psychopathic mass murderer he believed Loki to be.

Curiosity tugged at him, seeking answers. Eventually, he caved. He tried several times, unsuccessfully, to re-connect with Loki's mind, but could not sense his soul anywhere. It was as if Loki had simply disappeared from the Universe – or was deliberately hiding from him. After each failed attempt, Stephen fluctuated between feeling disappointed and relieved. He did not know if he was doing the right thing, in trying to connect with him. It was like picking at an itchy scab – both hugely tempting, and yet from a rational point of view, damaging and potentially harmful. Still, he could not stop himself from trying. The soulmark on his arm demanded answers, as did his own innate sense of curiosity.

One night, as he teetered on the cusp of sleep, he was suddenly jolted awake by a voice speaking to him in the darkness.

Good evening.

Stephen almost fell out of bed, his blanket tangling around his legs as he scrambled upright, panicked and disorientated.

The voice chuckled inside his head.

Guess who, it said.

Stephen did not need to guess. Loki's voice was unmistakable – plus he was the only one Stephen had ever had a psychic conversation with. Ignoring his racing heart, he settled back against the pillows, closing his eyes and concentrating on the feel of Loki's soul. Loki felt tired, Stephen realised, although he had no idea what the other man had been up to since their last conversation.

I sensed you trying to connect with me, before, said Loki. I was too busy to talk.

It was the perfect "in" for Stephen to use to guide the conversation towards where he wanted it to go. He seized his opportunity quickly.

Busy with what? he asked.

Loki sighed, and Stephen could almost imagine him doing it, world-weary.

Escaping the Devil's Anus, wading through literal mountains of rubbish, ensuring my immediate survival by ingratiating myself with the Grandmaster – take your pick, said Loki.

Stephen blinked in the darkness. He had no idea what Loki was talking about. Loki had said words, but the combination he had arranged them in made about as much sense as a chocolate teapot.

OK... he thought.

Stephen sensed Loki bristling slightly. Apparently miffed by Stephen's lack of any impressive reaction, Loki huffed. Stephen could picture him frowning.

Just OK? said Loki. What have you been doing that's so impressive, then?

Stephen was slightly taken aback. He had not expected Loki to be so chatty.

Just this and that, he thought, before pausing.

This did not make sense. Why had Loki contacted him? He wondered if the other man had ulterior motives.

Why are you contacting me? he asked finally. We're not friends.

There was a pause, and then Loki seemed to give in, sweeping aside the small talk and finally getting to the point that had obviously spurred him to contact Stephen in the first place.

I wanted to get to know the mind that is so powerful that it can connect with mine over such huge distances, said Loki. Did you know that the psychic abilities you're demonstrating right now are way beyond what any human being should be capable of?

This was news to Stephen. He frowned.

Really? he thought.

Yes, said Loki. So, tell me: what's so special about you?

Even in the darkness of his bedroom, Stephen knew the exact contours of his soulmark. He blindly ran his fingers over it, imagining its lines and curves. He consciously did not form any words in his head, so as not to transmit them to Loki. He had no sufficient answer to Loki's question, so he made a vague noise that might have been the psychic equivalent of a shrug, and decided to distract him from his non-answer by posing a question of his own.

What did you mean, last time, when you said I didn't know the truth about what happened in New York?

There was a long pause, much longer than any previously, and Stephen almost wondered if their psychic connection had broken or if Loki had simply gone. Eventually though, Loki replied, his tone curiously flat.

It doesn't matter, said Loki. What happened, happened. We can't change the past.

He sounded exhausted, almost sad. Stephen could not understand it. Reaching out with his mind, he tried to feel Loki's soul. Although Loki must surely have been able to sense Stephen's probing, he made no move to stop him. Stephen concentrated on the soul before him, studying it and examining it carefully. Loki's soul fascinated him. The other man was a study of contradictions, an enigma. He was kind but cunning, confident but shy, ruthless but thoughtful. Rather than immorality, Stephen sensed amorality. Loki seemed to live by his own code of ethics, but Stephen did not sense any kind of evil. If anything, Loki was tired. He did not lust for violence, but longed for rest.

Tell me, thought Stephen.

Another pause, and then Loki began to speak, his words almost tumbling over one another as he got into the flow of his story, unspooling his memories.

For the longest time, after I fell from the Bifrost, there was nothing. Just falling through space, for aeons and aeons, until I thought I might be dead, and simply lost in Hell. And then, Thanos found me. He held a sceptre with a glowing blue stone and placed it on my chest. He told me to go to Earth, to open a portal to let his army through. I couldn't resist. His will became my will. His thoughts drowned out my thoughts. It was like I was trapped inside my body, watching myself do terrible things, but powerless to stop it. The spell only broke when the Hulk smashed me into the floor. He banged my head so hard that finally Thanos was forced out. Cognitive re-calibration, they called it.

Loki lapsed into silence, as if realising he had just revealed too much. Stephen grappled to make sense of this new information, his mind scrambling to understand. Horror and bile rose in his throat as comprehension dawned. He remembered reading news articles about one of the Avengers – Hawkeye – having had the same experience. Hawkeye, too, had been touched by the sceptre, and had been forced to do whatever was ordered of him. He had killed fellow SHIELD agents, gouged out a man's eye, fought against some of his best friends. He had been under some kind of spell, unable to break free until he had been smashed in the head and knocked out. Cognitive re-calibration.

You were brainwashed? pressed Stephen, seeking clarification.

It doesn't matter, said Loki. I still did those things.

Stephen balked in disbelief.

Of course it matters, he thought. You were forced to do those things, against your will...

He trailed off. It was simply too horrible to imagine. Words could not do justice to what he was feeling at that moment.

Don't pity me, said Loki.

Stephen shook his head. He was lost for words.

I have to go, said Loki.

Still, Stephen was too shocked to speak.

Can we talk again? asked Loki. He sounded uncertain.

Stephen shook himself and forced himself to reply.

Yeah, he said. Sure.

Still dazed from the bombshell Loki had just dropped on him, more eloquent words eluded him.

Goodnight.

Stephen echoed the sign off, and then Loki left his head, the connection between them breaking as he pulled away. Stephen waited a minute or two to make sure he was really gone, before exhaling deeply, kneading his knuckles against his eyes as he struggled to absorb what Loki had just told him.

Loki was brainwashed when he invaded Earth. He was brainwashed when he unleashed the Chitauri on New York City. He had had no free will, no control over his actions. His mind had effectively been raped by Thanos. The horror Stephen had witnessed that day had not been, ultimately, due to Loki.

Loki was not evil.

This changed everything.

 


 

Over the next few weeks, Stephen and Loki communicated telepathically every single night.

Their friendship developed quickly and organically. They shared a quick wit, a curious nature and a sense of camaraderie at being outsiders from what most people considered "normal". Their conversations flowed naturally. They had a genuine interest in one another and enjoyed learning about one another. Every night, Stephen came to look forward to their conversations more and more.

Stephen learnt that Loki was not on Asgard, but on some literal world of garbage where rubbish rained down from portals in the sky. There, apparently, gory gladiatorial battles took place for the entertainment of the residents, under the watchful eye of an exuberant and flamboyant "Grandmaster". Loki mentioned he was having family issues, although he seemed reluctant to go into them. He also revealed that Thor and, astonishingly, Hulk were on this strange world with him.

Loki was interested to hear about Stephen's magical abilities. He was particularly interested in Stephen's ability to conjure portals, as this was apparently an ability that Loki lacked. He seemed interested, too, in learning about Stephen himself and what it was like to grow up on Earth – or as he called it, Midgard. Stephen entertained him with stories about American culture, food and old folklore tales from around the world.

Loki was not so keen to talk about his own upbringing, although he did mention briefly that he was adopted, that he had never really felt as though he fit in, but that he had nevertheless enjoyed a close and loving relationship with his adoptive mother. Stephen noted the use of past tense and felt a pang of sadness for him. Grief was never easy.

Stephen learnt that Loki had a razor-sharp sense of humour, that he was an introvert, and that he preferred the company of books to most people. Loki revealed that he had a love for animals from many planets, particularly snakes and those others that were frequently overlooked for not being "cute" or "pretty" enough. He revealed, too, that he had the ability of Allspeak, which allowed him to speak to all living beings, regardless of species or language.

Stephen found himself opening up in return. He told Loki about the car crash that had ruined his hands and ended his life as a neurosurgeon. He told him about the prickling, burning sensation that still affected the damaged nerves in his hands to that day, and the chronic tremor that returned whenever he was too tired to channel the energy into his hands that was necessary to steady them.

He found himself looking forward to their evenings together. He enjoyed talking to Loki, albeit inside his head, and found himself growing ever fonder of him the more they spoke. Every night, he found out something new that he liked about Loki. In the space of just a few weeks, he came to care for the other man, to consider him a friend. Their telepathic conversations flowed easily, as if they had known one another for years, something that came as a surprise to both of them, since neither of them were exactly experts in the "making friends" department. Their conversations happened every evening without fail, as routine as clockwork, and they both relished it.

Which was why, one night, when it came to "their" time and Loki's mind remained silent and inaccessible, Stephen felt a vague, inexplicable sense of dread.

Stephen reached out across the cosmos, feeling around for the familiar energy of Loki's soul, and found nothing.

Loki was gone.

 


 

The next few days were filled with a feeling of mounting anxiety.

With each passing hour without contact, Stephen became more and more concerned for Loki's well-being. He and Loki had become friends. The other man would not simply cease contact without warning, unless something was very wrong. Stephen regularly reached out with his mind and tried to locate Loki's soul, but he could not sense him anywhere. He was getting desperate. He was even contemplating asking Wong if he knew any locator spells that were powerful enough to work on a cosmic scale, but before he could pluck up the courage to do so, he was suddenly interrupted by a familiar voice bursting into his consciousness.

Stephen! Are you there?

Immediately, Stephen could sense Loki's panic.

Yes, he replied quickly. What's going on? Are you alright? I've not been able to sense you.

I was passing through the Devil's Anus, said Loki. An Einstein-Rosen bridge – that's probably why you were unable to reach me.

The Devil's Anus? Stephen did not understand, but before he could say anything, Loki was already ploughing on, his tone urgent and flustered.

Asgard is burning. It's Ragnarok.

Stephen paled. He did not know what Ragnarok was, but he knew that Asgard was the world that Thor and Loki called home. If it was burning, then thousands of Asgardians were in danger.

I'm evacuating the survivors into a spacecraft, but it's taking time, continued Loki. There are children and elderly people here; they can't move fast. If you know any safety or luck spells, now would be a great time to share them.

Loki was audibly stressed. Stephen wracked his brain for any incantations designed to bring good luck or ensure someone's safety, but his mind came up blank. The mystic arts that he had learnt at Kamar-Taj were all about manipulating energy, not trying to imbue luck or anything of that sort. He transported himself to the library, staring helplessly at the shelves that he knew did not hold the answers.

I'm sorry, he thought. I don't know that kind of magic. How else can I help?

I need to go, Loki said suddenly. He sounded out of breath. Thor is getting his stupid blonde head smashed in again.

What? thought Stephen.

I need to kill my sister, said Loki.

What?!?

Loki did not reply, disappearing instead in a flurry of psychic energy. Stephen's heart was hammering in his chest, adrenaline pumping through him even though he himself was in no physical danger. He stood there in the library for several long seconds, not moving save for the heaving of his chest. What was happening? He tried to calm himself, focus on the facts.

Loki's explanation contained a lot of missing information, but one thing was clear: the people of Asgard were in mortal danger.

And Stephen was not powerful enough to help on his own.

 


 

Wong, to his credit, did not interrupt as Stephen told him everything that had secretly happened over the last month: Loki speaking the words of his soulmark, their nightly telepathic communications, and the fact they were enjoying a blossoming friendship (and perhaps more than that). He did not interrupt, either, as Stephen explained the most recent developments, namely Loki's return to Asgard and the unfolding catastrophe that seemed to be taking place at that very moment. In fact, the only indication of Wong's internal state was his eyebrows, which were travelling further and further up his forehead with every bombshell that Stephen dropped. By the time he was finished, Wong's eyebrows were in serious danger of vanishing into his hair.

"So..." said Stephen, bracing himself for the inevitable scolding to come crashing down on his ears.

Wong cleared his throat and took a moment to visibly compose himself, before looking Stephen straight in the eye, his voice calm and steady.

"So, the people of Asgard need our help," said Wong. "What do we do?"

Stephen resisted the urge to leap forwards and squeeze him with a bear hug, settling instead for letting out a grateful sigh of relief at having such a great friend. After lengthy discussion, they agreed on the unsatisfying decision that there was nothing they could realistically do but wait for Loki to get back in touch and update them on the situation and what help he needed from them. They did not know any safety or luck spells, and without a proper description of the location (since neither of them knew where Asgard was) they could not open a portal to join them. All they could do was wait, and wait, and wait...

It was, quite possibly, the tensest, most stressful four hours of Stephen's life. Somewhere out there, his soulmate was fighting not only for his life but the lives of his people. Asgard was burning, Loki had said. Stephen could picture it in his mind's eye: a burning planet, the terror of civilians as they fled to the spacecraft that was to be their lifeboat, and Loki, in the middle of it all, fighting to keep them alive. Stephen paced restlessly around the sanctum, his hands trembling as he kept his mind open and attuned to Loki's wavelength, ready to receive his message as soon as their minds connected once more.

When Loki's consciousness finally re-joined his own, he almost sobbed with relief. He had not wanted to contemplate it out loud, but the very real possibility of Loki's death had been playing on his mind like a nightmare. Loki felt tired, his mind radiating an exhausted kind of energy that was palpable to Stephen even at their great distance.

Stephen.

Stephen sat down, shocked at how just two syllables could carry such weight in their tone. Loki sounded quiet and shell-shocked. Stephen felt dread uncoil in the pit of his stomach, thick and nauseating. He almost did not want to ask for an update, but could see no other option. If he and Wong were to help, they needed to know the situation.

What happened? thought Stephen.

There was a long pause, as if Loki did not want to verbalise whatever horrors had just unfolded. Finally, he spoke, his voice hollow and numb.

Asgard is gone.

Gone? repeated Stephen, unsure if he had understood correctly.

Gone, said Loki. The whole planet.

There was a horrified silence as Stephen tried to comprehend the scale of the calamity. He tried to imagine what it would be like if Earth, the entire planet, was destroyed. He could not do it. It was too horrific to even think about.

And the people? asked Stephen.

The survivors are safe, said Loki. We got everyone on the spacecraft just in time. We're in space.

Stephen let out a sigh of relief. At least the people had survived, even if the planet had not. The situation was still an emergency, but it could have been so much worse.

I was wondering... began Loki, before trailing off uncertainly.

Stephen prompted him to continue, trying to telepathically send him some comfort.

Would it be possible for you to open a portal to allow us to travel to Earth? asked Loki. The Bifrost is destroyed, and this ship doesn't have enough food or oxygen to sustain the population for long. I wouldn't ask, but I don't see a lot of options...

"You want me to open a portal from your location to Earth?" Stephen said out loud, for the benefit of Wong, who was watching him with rapt attention.

He saw Wong's eyes widen in response. He could feel himself mirroring the action. He thought seriously about the request. Of course, he would try his best, but what Loki was asking was ambitious. Previously, whenever he had opened a portal, he had always had a fairly good idea of the geographic location of the other end. What Loki was asking, however, was different. Stephen had no idea where the Asgardian spacecraft was located. It could be literally anywhere in the Universe. With no location to lock on to, he did not see a way to open a portal between here and there.

I... I don't know if I can do it, he thought. I don't know where you are. I need a location to concentrate on. I need to lock on to something.

There was a pause as Loki worked over this new information. After several long minutes, he spoke, his tone cautious and questioning.

You could try to lock on to me, said Loki. Reach out and find my mind, the same way you do when you reach out to talk to me telepathically. You could try to concentrate on my mind. If I do the same and try to concentrate on you, could that work?

Stephen thought about it, before nodding slowly. It sounded possible, in theory. If they used their mutual psychic energy to lock on to the location of one another's minds, it theoretically could allow a portal to open and stay open long enough to allow them to pass through. In the absence of any other option, it was certainly worth a shot; the Asgardians' situation could not get any worse.

It could work... said Stephen. Where do you want to come through, on Earth's end? New York, uh, may not be the best option.

He hated to bring it up, seeing as Loki had been under Thanos' mind control at the time. However, he also had an obligation to look after the emotional well-being of the people of New York. The last time Loki had appeared in the skies above the city in an alien spacecraft, it had been in very different circumstances. The people of New York were still traumatised from 2012. If Stephen were to open a portal above the city to allow the Asgardians to pass through, there would be widespread panic. Thankfully, Loki did not seem offended by the question.

How about the Old Country, Norway? Loki suggested.

One portal later, Stephen and Wong were in Norway. It was the same location where Stephen had sent Thor and Loki to meet Odin. Presently, he was sat cross-legged in the centre of the scorched circle where they had made their exit, his eyes closed as he cleared his mind, preparing himself for the task ahead.

His sling ring was nestled on his fingers, his thumb rubbing the edge of it nervously. Loki had described the approximate size of the Asgardian spacecraft. It was huge. It was going to have to be one of the largest portals Stephen had ever made. It added to the list of things that were going to make this the most complex piece of magic he had ever attempted to pull off. He breathed deeply, blocked out the sound of the waves from the Norwegian Sea, blocked out his worries, his sense of self, focusing his mind solely on Loki's.

Slowly, his perception of Loki began to sharpen. He became aware not only of Loki's thoughts, but of Loki's mood. His breathing slowed further. He concentrated on the feeling of Loki's soul against his own. It was warm, comforting, pulsating in a way that reminded him of a heartbeat. He became aware of Loki's breathing, of his pulse, of the cosmic energy that surrounded him, as it surrounded all living things. He concentrated deeply on Loki, on all of him – his mind, body and soul – and slowly raised his hand.

The first circle that he made was deliberately slow. He did not want to break his concentration. It was vital that he stayed fully focused on Loki's mind until the entire Asgardian spacecraft was through the portal. Any lapse in concentration could prematurely close the portal and slice the spacecraft in two. He could not afford to make a mistake.

He heard the tell-tale whooshing sound of a portal beginning to form. Slowly, he rotated his hand once more. He did not dare to open his eyes, lest it break his concentration on Loki's soul. He focused harder, noticing for the first time that souls had colours. Loki's was green. It was a deep, rich colour, like a forest floor, or the glossy scales of a snake. He could feel Loki's soul reacting to his own. He felt a tendril of something soft and comforting reach out from Loki's soul and wrap itself around his own. It was like an intergalactic hug, giving him a rush of comfort, of quiet confidence, like a thumbs up from an old friend, or the reassuring touch of a lover.

He rotated his hand once more, more strongly this time, bolstered by Loki's soul entwined with his own. He opened his eyes, seeing for the first time the sight before him. A portal, well over 100 metres across, was solidifying in front of him. As he watched and rotated his hand once more, the edges glowed golden, before the inside opened like a huge mouth, revealing a vast spacecraft on the other side. The vacuum of space sucked greedily at the air. Stephen concentrated on keeping his hand steady as he rotated it once more. Slowly, the spacecraft began to edge through the portal, its nose passing through the rim and entering Earthside.

Sweat began to form on Stephen's forehead, on his back, trickling down his sides. The effort of holding the portal open was immense. It was so large, connecting two points in space so far apart, that the amount of energy needed to maintain it was huge. He concentrated harder on the feel of Loki's soul, urging himself to devote his attention solely to their psychic and spiritual connection. He rotated his hand again, again, again...

He listened to the sound of Loki's heartbeat and moved his hand in tempo with the rhythm. He felt Loki's gentle psychic encouragement and took strength from it. He could see the green of Loki's soul and allowed his vision to be filled with it. His hand turned as his mind focused solely on Loki, Loki, Loki – until his pulse was indistinguishable from the other man's, until he could not tell where his soul ended and the other began, until their minds were so entwined that it felt as though they were one person, as though they always had been, as though there had never been a time when they had existed as separate beings.

Someone was calling his name.

Was it Loki?

No, closer than that.

Stephen opened his eyes and saw that the spacecraft had finally passed completely through the portal. Wong was calling out his name, trying to get him out of his trance. Stephen let his hand drop, exhausted, the portal fizzling out into nothing as he toppled over onto the grass. The hatch of the spacecraft opened. Asgardians began to disembark. The refugees spilled out, men and women, young and old, some crying, some mute, all huddled and frightened. Wong immediately began to help the frailer Asgardians down onto the grass.

"It's OK," said Wong, as he helped lift down a child from the ramp. "You're safe now. It's OK."

Stephen tried to get up from the grass to help him, but found his energy had been completely depleted. He was completely drenched in sweat. Creating and maintaining the portal had drained him. He rolled onto his back, gasping, his vision blurring as his head began to pound with a splitting headache. The rumble of voices and the sound of hundreds of footsteps walking down the spacecraft's ramp merged into white noise. The sky above him was too bright. With his very last reserves of strength, he rolled his head to the side, so that he was facing the spacecraft. He smiled. He had succeeded. He had brought the Asgardians to Earth.

The last thing he saw before he slipped into unconsciousness, was the shape of someone running towards him.

A pale hand touched his forehead.

A pale face framed by black hair swam in front of him.

And then, everything went dark.

 


 

Stephen woke slowly.

The first thing he became aware of was the softness of the bed he was lying on. It was comfortable and warm. He had a warm duvet wrapped around him like a hug, and the pillow beneath his head was the perfect balance between soft and supportive. Slowly, he opened his eyes, observing that he was in a small, simply-furnished bedroom. It was basic, but warm and homely. Out of the window to his right, he could see trees.

He heard the rustle of a page turning to his left and turned his head to see Loki sat on a chair beside his bed, reading. Loki noticed that Stephen had woken up and closed his book, making it vanish with a wave of his hand. He smiled, pulling his chair closer to Stephen's bed to give him his full attention. Stephen wondered how long he had been asleep. His headache had thankfully gone, and the weakness and fatigue in his muscles had diminished too. Out of the window, he could hear the sound of the sea.

"Where am I?" asked Stephen.

"New Asgard," said Loki. "A small town on the coast of Norway. I built it, about an hour ago."

Stephen blinked with confusion.

"You can't build a town in one hour," he said.

Loki smirked, conjuring up a glass of water and handing it to him. Stephen took it, gulping down the cool, refreshing water gratefully.

"You're not the only one who can do magic," Loki reminded him.

Stephen nodded, making a mental note to ask Loki more about his magical abilities. It seemed to be different from what humans were capable of – or at least, different from what he had learnt at Kamar-Taj.

"How are the Asgardians?" he asked, bringing himself back to the present.

"They're all safe," said Loki, sounding audibly relieved. "Thanks to you. Not bad, for a second-rate sorcerer."

Stephen laughed, comforted to find that Loki's sense of humour was just as sharp in person as it had been in their psychic conversations. It struck him that this was their first proper face-to-face talk (not including their disastrous first meeting where Loki had tried to stab him). He was pleasantly surprised by how easy and un-awkward it felt to be in one another's physical company, at last. It felt as though he had known Loki forever.

He took the opportunity to properly look at Loki, close up, for the first time. He observed the vivid green of his eyes, the cheekbones that could cut glass, the slenderness of his crossed legs. He stared at Loki's jet-black hair. The darkness of it against the paleness of his skin was simply beautiful. Realising he was ogling, he blushed and looked away, but not before Loki noticed and smirked.

"About that..." said Loki. "When were you planning to tell me that we're soulmates?"

Stephen's train of thought screeched to a halt. He almost dropped his glass of water, spluttering as he tried and failed to form words. To hear Loki just casually come out with it, that sacred word – soulmates – was beyond surreal. Suddenly, he was at once embarrassed and terrified. How did Loki feel about this information? Did he feel that same sense of longing that Stephen felt for him? Did Asgardians, or Jötunns, believe in soulmates, the way humans did? He ducked his head, unable to meet Loki's eye. He felt like a teenager, unable to speak to his crush, except this was so much worse, because Loki was his soulmate. The thought of rejection terrified him.

"How–?" he began.

He could not finish his question. Loki gently took hold of Stephen's left arm and pulled up his sleeve. His soulmark came into view, Loki's first words to him printed in black on his pale skin.

"I saw this strange marking on your arm when I carried you here," said Loki. "I recognised the words as my own. I thought it was curious that you'd got them tattooed onto your skin. Your friend Wong explained to me that this isn't a tattoo, but what humans call a soulmark. He explained all about soulmarks whilst you were sleeping."

Fuck you, Wong, thought Stephen.

Loki laughed, apparently able to hear his thoughts. Stephen raised his eyebrows in surprise, unused to having his thoughts listened to whilst not explicitly taking part in a psychic conversation. Discomfort uncoiled in his stomach. Loki cocked his head to the side, his eyebrows furrowing with concern as he apparently picked up on that thought, too.

"I can refrain from mind reading, if you'd prefer?" said Loki.

Stephen nodded. Having his every thought listened to was not something he was entirely comfortable with.

"Yeah..." he said. "It's not really something I'm used to."

Loki nodded, accepting the new rule wordlessly. His hand was still resting on Stephen's arm from when he had pulled up his sleeve. Stephen was hyper-aware of the warmth of him, of the touch of his skin against his own.

Slowly, tentatively, Stephen inched closer, sliding his hand into Loki's. They intertwined their fingers, fitting together perfectly. Stephen closed his eyes, enjoying the thrill of it. Who knew it could be so electrifying to simply hold hands with someone? Loki's fingers were slim but strong, cradling Stephen's hand protectively. His thumb swept over the back of Stephen's hand, caressing the scar tissue there lovingly. Usually, Stephen hated it when people touched his scars, but he found that he did not mind it when Loki did it. To Loki, the scars seemed to be just another part of his skin – normal, just another place to touch. Stephen revelled in the feelings that Loki's touch elicited; that heady mixture of nervous excitement, endless possibility and just a hint of sexual tension.

Loki must have felt the same, because when Stephen opened his eyes, Loki's pupils were blown wide, his tongue flicking out to wet his lips. Loki leaned forwards. Stephen mirrored his movements unconsciously. Instead of kissing him, however, as Stephen had half-thought (half-hoped, even?) that he might, Loki simply leaned closer to examine Stephen's soulmark, tracing the letters with his finger carefully.

"Our first words," said Loki.

"Yes," said Stephen. His mouth was dry.

"I'd like to make some more," declared Loki.

Stephen smiled.

Talking, right.

Seemed like a good place to start.