Author's Note: So...you can thank a reviewer over on AO3 for reminding me that this website exists.
Mostly for reasons of convenience (and ease of posting), I am now exclusively updating this and all of my fanfiction over there. Unless something changes dramatically, I do not anticipate continuing to update this fic on FFN. Archive of Our Own does not require an account to read or comment, and Life in Reverse can be found at archiveofourown . org*/works/476291/chapters/826240 (remove spaces/asterisk). Over there I've posted up to Chapter 37, so if you've been wondering what's been happening and where this fic is now...there it is.
But I decided I might as well put one more chapter over here while I was letting you know that I've moved. Enjoy - hope to see you over on AO3.
The healer-physician who was charged with Loki's care informed him sternly that he was to stay another two nights "for observation." Loki did not object, though a part of him wanted to; the rest of him was too tired and sick-feeling to fight it. Fury and Natasha had retreated into the hallway to talk animatedly until Natasha noticed him watching and then they both moved out of his sight, leaving Loki alone and staring at the ceiling, his head starting to throb. He tried to remember more of what had happened, but beyond stepping onto the branches of Yggdrasil it was all a blur of vague unpleasantness. Loki balled his hands into fists and pounded one weakly on the mattress in frustration.
Natasha did not return, and eventually Loki drifted into fitful sleep full of vague nightmares. When he awoke again, Agent Coulson was there to inform him that his suspension had been lifted because "you seemed to get into more trouble without work to keep you busy." He paused, and Loki suspected he had been about to say something other than what he did, which was "welcome back, Agent."
With his departure, Loki was alone again.
He could recognize, objectively, that he had been very foolish. He ought to have told someone of his suspicions, at the very least. Or informed them before he'd gone journeying. If things had gone even more poorly, if he had died – they would not even have the warning that his injury was giving them. It would have simply looked as though he had vanished. Likely they would have assumed it part of his plan all along.
What had he expected? To return in glorious victory?
Loki put an arm over his eyes and groaned quietly at his own stupidity, only feeling more wretched for the circles of his thoughts.
"Oh – sorry, is it a bad time?"
Loki dropped his arm and looked toward the doorway, not quite staring. It was the Captain, standing awkwardly in the doorway with, oddly enough, a bouquet of flowers. "I knocked," he went on in Loki's silence. "And I thought I heard…but if you were resting I can go."
"No," Loki made himself say, through his confusion. "No, in truth I would welcome the distraction."
The Captain looked relieved, stepping into the room and holding out the flowers. "I brought…just grabbed something on the way. I hope you like carnations – it was all the bodega had." Loki didn't know what the expression on his face was, but Rogers' cheeks pinked and his voice was faintly defensive. "That's still usual, isn't it? Bringing someone flowers if they're sick or injured?"
"I do not mean to seem ungrateful," Loki said, trying to sit up. "I am merely surprised."
"No, wait, you probably shouldn't-" Rogers hastened over, setting the flowers down. He pushed a button. "Lie back," he said firmly, and after a moment Loki surrendered, admitting he couldn't stay upright on his own, and found that the bed had lifted so that he was at least no longer flat on his back. "Surprised? You mean about how I knew you were here?"
That's not all, thought Loki, but he simply nodded. "SHIELD agents gossip," Rogers said with a rueful smile. "Apparently there was a lot of fuss when you were brought in here. So I guess – heard through the grapevine, though I'm not sure what happened." Loki looked away.
"I do not know," he said, hearing the flat note in his own voice. "I do not remember."
"You don't-? Oh." The Captain sounded sympathetic. "I'm sorry."
"Why be sorry? I do not remember suffering," Loki said. He saw Rogers frown out of the corner of his eye.
"That doesn't make it any better, does it? Then you just don't know why you're hurt." Rogers paused. "How are you doing? You still look…" He seemed to be searching for a delicate way to phrase it. "…a little under the weather."
"You are kind," Loki said dryly. Rogers frowned a little more.
"It's an honest question," he said, sounding a little offended. Loki felt a twinge of regret at his own snappishness and sighed out through his nose.
"I am tired," he said honestly, "and sore, and annoyed. And sick of being here." And I do not understand why you are here, either. "I did not think you wished to listen to me complain."
Rogers relaxed, oddly enough. "Sometimes I think as long as someone can complain they'll probably be fine, so it can be reassuring, in a way." His lopsided smile faded. "I'm sorry you're stuck here, though. Hospitals aren't one of the most comfortable places to be."
"No indeed," Loki agreed. He looked toward the flowers on the bedside table. "Thank you," he pushed out, even if both words and sentiment felt awkward. "For…coming by."
"You're welcome." Rogers gave him a quick smile, then looked away, rubbing his hands on his pants. "You did save my life not so long ago. Stopping by for a visit seems like the least I can do in thanks." Loki felt the urge to twitch and suppressed it. "So I'm guessing this means you won't be up for sparring this week?" Rogers added, a tone in his voice like he was trying to tease.
"If I am not amply recovered within three days I am probably dead," Loki said. "Do not expect you can escape that easily."
Rogers looked surprised, and then concerned. "Are you sure that's a good idea? Just because you can… maybe you should take it easy."
"I do not believe I know how," Loki said. He meant it to be a jest, but it came out sounding more rueful than anything else. Based on the flicker of Rogers expression, Loki thought he heard the same.
At least he was saved from the trouble of a response by the arrival of one of the healers herding Rogers out because the physician wished to speak with Loki about some of his test results. "Take care, Luke," Rogers said, and for a moment Loki thought he would clap him on the shoulder before being chased out, but then he simply tucked his hands in his pockets and left.
Natasha did not come. Loki soothed himself by telling himself that she was no doubt simply busy with Fury's Avenger project, but that excuse rang a little hollow. To his surprise it was Barton who greeted him when he was discharged.
"If you're not careful you're going to start challenging me on the 'pulling stupid stunts' record," Barton said, half smiling, though when he actually looked at Loki's face he grimaced. "You sure you should be walking out? You still look a little…"
"I am sure that is unfair," Loki interrupted, while Barton was still searching for an appropriate word. "That seems a high bar to set."
"Hey," Barton said, though he didn't sound truly indignant. "I'm not the one who's in Nat's doghouse right now."
The faint smile Loki had managed faded, and he felt his stomach drop. "Agent Romanoff is…displeased with me?"
Barton cast him a sidelong look. "Little bit, yeah." Loki tried to control his face, but whatever his expression was made Barton glance away. "It's just – she doesn't like being helpless, yeah? And it feels like we just bailed you out of Doom's torture basement. Nat…" Clint shrugged. "It'll be fine. You just might have to grovel a little."
"I am not very good at groveling," Loki said.
"I got that impression," Barton said dryly. "Might have to learn, though." He gestured toward a car. "So, your majesty. Want a ride anywhere?"
"To my house," Loki said, "which I don't think is driving distance from here, and if I recall you do not like my method of travel." Barton grimaced.
"No, not really. So is that a 'leave me alone, Clint' or…?"
Loki thought he'd been alone too much, lately. "Not necessarily," he said, keeping his voice casual. Barton looked at him for a long moment and then shook his head, muttering something under his breath.
"Right, fine," he said. "I'll put the car in the parking garage and we can do this your way. Should I just throw up and get it over with?"
Loki's eyebrows shot up. "I would hardly force you to endure a method of travel you find so repellent," he said. Barton shrugged.
"Yeah, I noticed you didn't even ask, but it was that kind of not asking that's always actually asking, you know? And I'm not about to send the invalid off on his lonesome to go do…whatever you did, again."
Loki pressed his lips together. "How charitable of you."
"Nah," Barton said. "Not really." He flipped the keys in his hand. "All right, I'll be right back."
"No," Loki said, reaching out and catching his arm, though he let go quickly. "Let us…go somewhere nearby. We can use your car." The relief that swept over Barton's face was almost laughable.
"Not my car," Barton said. "I don't have anything this nice." The car he led Loki to did not look terribly impressive, but Loki chose not to comment. For whatever reason, Barton appeared to be doing him a kindness and Loki was going to try not to be rude. As they climbed in, Clint asked, finally: "what did you do? Nat wasn't clear on the details, just said it put you flat out and you were barely responding when she got to your place."
"Why did she come looking?" Loki asked. He had not wondered before, but considering it…he couldn't have been gone more than a few hours. Barton pulled out of the parking lot, sliding a pair of reflective sunglasses on as he steered with one hand.
"A hunch, she said," Barton said after a moment. "She gets those, sometimes. You were acting kind of squirrelly before you left." Barton half turned his head, suddenly suspicious. "Did something set you off or were you planning to do your whatever before you even got there?"
Did something set you off. Loki was not certain that he could have articulated what it was that had made him decide to take what was, in retrospect, a foolish and reckless action. He had thought…it had seemed necessary. He was the only one who could do it, after all: prevent whatever was coming for Midgard from attacking or at least slow it down. But what had he done? Perhaps nothing. At worst, perhaps harm. He couldn't know because he didn't remember.
"Loki?" Barton's voice broke into his thoughts, sounding…worried. "You're not going to blow up the car, are you?" Loki realized that he'd gone tense and rigid, and forced himself to relax.
"No," he made himself say. "I am not."
"Good call. Appreciate it." Barton's tone was flippant, but Loki could feel his gaze, watching closely. The man was cannier than Loki had first appreciated, and far too observant. Loki wondered what he was seeing. "Are you sure you're good?" Barton asked, after a moment. "Whatever happened to you…"
"I am fine," Loki interrupted. "I did not take you for the type to fret."
"I'm not fretting," Barton said, sounding indignant. "I'm just not interested in being at the bottom of a big, magical crater." Loki felt his mouth twist in a wry smile.
"You will not be, I assure you." Especially not when he was still all too aware of the state of his magic, wounded like someone had torn a hole in it. He wished there was someone he could ask who would know what had been done to him, and how, and thought abruptly of Chandra's scientists. Perhaps, little though they knew, they might have some ideas.
"Good to know." He thought Barton might be looking at him, through his sunglasses, even if his gaze appeared to be on the road. The man held his silence for several moments before speaking again. "So. Did you have an idea of where you wanted to go?"
"Why not to a restaurant," Loki said, after a moment. "One's palate tires rapidly of the food offered by healers."
"Sure does," Barton said, with a half a laugh. "All right, restaurant it is. Though I'm not sure how much you'll like my kind of place."
"As long as it serves something better than broth and meal, I think I shall manage," Loki assured him.
Barton's 'kind of place' appeared to be small and a few steps above a dive. The food was good, though – if fried within an inch of its life. Loki downed three of the weak beers Midgardians served and ate two servings of fried fish with gusto. He could feel Barton watching him, but managed to ignore it – or to pretend he did not notice. He did appreciate that Barton did not ask further questions while they ate; it let Loki sort through his thoughts about what he needed to do next.
"Romanoff," he said eventually. "How would I find her, for this…groveling?"
"You don't," Barton said matter of factly. Loki just looked at him, and he shrugged, taking a swallow of his beer. "I'm serious. If she doesn't want to talk to you, she won't. It's better to give her time and a little space. And even if that weren't the case – pretty sure Fury's put her on trying to talk Stark around to participating in the Avengers Initiative. Guy might be a jackass, but he's got bank."
Loki felt his mouth quirk. "The Avengers Initiative," he echoed. "It was mentioned to me. Romanoff is involved in it?"
"Only in terms of figuring out who should be on Fury's dream team," Barton said, propping his elbows on the table.
"What about you?" Loki asked.
Barton snorted. "Me? Nah. Not my thing. I generally work alone – or with Nat." He rolled his shoulders back. "Big people with big egos…that's not really my thing. And working with Iron Man sounds like a nightmare." Loki chuckled back in his throat. "I'm just fine with letting Nat handle that kind of stuff."
Loki cocked his head to the side. "Fury asked if I was interested."
"And you said?"
"That it was an absurd idea," Loki said. "I am not…" A hero, was what he thought, but speaking it would have sounded maudlin. "As you say. It does not seem the sort of thing in which I would be interested."
Barton looked thoughtful. "You have the power set for it. In terms of heavy hitters…you can match Captain America for brawn, and having your magical voodoo whatever would be useful, probably. You might make a better superhero than a spy, actually."
Loki frowned. "You think I should have agreed?"
"Nah," Barton said, quickly. "Just thinking out loud." He took another swallow of his beer and lifted it in Loki's direction. "You on a team does kind of seem like a weird prospect. Though I guess you're not as bad as I thought at first." Loki was about to snap when he caught the lopsided smile on Barton's face that meant he was not being sincere. He felt an odd pang in his heart, wondering if that was an expression of near affection.
"If I agreed I would insist on bringing you along," Loki said dryly, after a moment. "Just to see you scowl the whole way through." Barton did scowl at that, and Loki felt his lips twitch, ducking his head quickly to hide it.
"Very funny," Barton said, and knocked back the rest of his beer. "You're hilarious, Silver. So, are you going to tell me what happened to you? Nat wasn't exactly transparent on the phone, and no one else gave me any explanation."
Loki gave Barton a sharp look. "Agent Romanoff called you?"
"When did she go back to being Agent Romanoff?" Barton asked. Loki pressed his lips together, and the other man shrugged. "Yeah, she did. After she found you passed out and apparently bleeding from every orifice in your apartment." Loki tried to keep his face still, though he felt a current of shame run through him. "And then called me again to update me once you were stable. I asked." Loki's head jerked up at that, but now Barton wasn't looking at him. "The question still stands."
Loki considered Barton and half closed his eyes. "I do not know. My intent was to go walking the World Tree and discover the presence outside that was trying to get in-"
"Wait," Barton interrupted. "Hold up. You're going to have to go a little slower there. What presence trying to get in where?"
Loki took a deep breath and explained for what felt like the umpteenth time in recent days about the feeling he'd had, Coulson's energy spikes, the screaming of the World Tree itself. Barton looked more and more unnerved as he went on, and whistled lowly when Loki finished.
"I liked my life before I met you," Barton said. "It was nice and normal and only involved normal people trying to kill me, and not – screaming trees."
"It is not a literal tree," Loki said. "Yggdrasil is – the universe. The fabric that ties the Nine Realms together. And the strangeness was always already there; you merely did not know about it."
"And I liked not knowing about it," Barton said flatly. "So that's why Fury's stepping up the Avengers Initiative. Because something big and bad is lurking out there in space and it's coming for us. And it messed you up something good when you went looking for it. Which…I'm not saying I would've volunteered to come with, because I wouldn't have, but really?"
Loki set his jaw. "I did what I believed best."
"Yeah, well," Barton said, "you might want to check on your perception of 'best.' On this planet at least, you only die once." He propped his elbows on the table. Loki could feel his stare turn into a glower and did not bother to restrain it. "And if you're not careful someone's going to put a leash on you hoping to keep you safe."
"I do not do well with leashes," Loki said.
"Seems like you don't do so well without them, either." Barton half smiled. "But never mind that. What's your next move?"
Loki blinked, taken aback by the sudden change in subject. "My next move?" Barton nodded. "On what path?"
"Figuring out what's going on, obviously," Barton said. "Who attacked you, and who's attacking this Yggdrasil thing." His pronunciation was surprisingly good, for only having heard the word once. "You're not just going to leave that one alone, are you?"
"No," Loki said slowly. "I do not…intend to."
"Though," Barton added, "I'd stay on this side of the veil, if you know what I mean."
"The – no, never mind." Loki might not know the source of the metaphor, and was tempted to dispute its inaccuracy, but it did not truly matter. "I do not intend on tempting the Norns again that way. But there are…few in this realm who would be able to answer my questions. Almost none that know anything of the power involved in attempting to rip open the barriers between worlds…" Loki trailed off.
He did know one person who knew something of opening paths between worlds. Who understood a few fractions of what Yggdrasil was and how its energies could be manipulated.
"What?" Barton demanded. "What's that expression for?"
"Foster," Loki said, feeling his nose wrinkle. "Doctor Foster…might be useful."
Barton sat up a little straighter. "Well, yeah, obviously. What's the problem with th-" He broke off. Loki almost heard the connections click in his brain. "Have you been talking with her? Does she know who you are?" Loki exhaled through his nose and inclined his chin. Barton's eyebrows shot up. "How did that go over?"
His mouth spasmed. "About as well as you might expect."
"Yeah, especially considering she seemed sweet on-" Barton stopped, glanced at Loki, and took a quick swallow of his beer. Loki stared at his own and tried not to picture Thor's face. The photograph he'd seen, Thor with Foster and another man, popped into his head.
"You were there," he said, with sudden realization. Barton considered him for a moment and then nodded.
"In New Mexico? Yeah, I was."
Then you saw everything, Loki thought. You saw what I did with the Destroyer. How I – attacked Thor. You saw Thor. And yet you have not…you would act friendly to me. His jaw worked and he swallowed, his stomach clenching. "You did not mention that."
Barton shrugged. "Didn't seem relevant."
"Didn't seem-" Loki laughed, though it sounded strange. "How could it not be relevant?"
Barton sat back. "You knew I knew who you were, and what you did. What does the fact that I was there change, except that I was a little closer in proximity?"
"It-" Loki floundered, slightly. It mattered, he knew it did. "Thor," he said. "You saw him, then. Met – met him."
"I wouldn't say met, exactly. I pointed an arrow at him from a distance." Barton gave him an odd look. "Wasn't much more than that. You and Thor-"
Loki thought he was going to choke. "Do not ask."
Barton looked at him for a long moment, but finally nodded. "All right. I won't, then." Loki jerked, surprised at the simple acquiescence. He had expected argument, or perhaps simply to be ignored. He was almost violently grateful that wasn't the case. Loki chewed on the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood.
"What was your impression of him," he asked, finally. Barton was quiet for a long moment before answering.
"I'm not Nat," he said. "I don't do the personality assessment thing. That said…stubborn, good fighter, confidence bordering on arrogance – totally earned arrogance, mind you, he took out a whole squad of guys - right up until he got to the hammer and it wouldn't budge." Loki's mouth felt dry and he nodded, a fraction. "That bit never did make much sense to me."
"It was Mjolnir," Loki said. His voice sounded strange in his own ears. "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy...he was not worthy." He looked past Clint, at the wall. "Until that moment, he did not understand that. He believed he simply had to battle his way to his weapon and regain it, and that would be the end of his exile."
"But it wasn't," Barton said. Loki inclined his chin, just a fraction. Barton made a sort of "hmm" noise and then shook his head. "Seems stupid to me."
Loki blinked. "What?"
"Pinning that much of your – I don't know, self-worth on a weapon telling you you're good. How does the hammer know?"
"It is spelled," Loki said, frowning.
"Yeah – but by who? And what are the parameters of it? I'm just saying…" Barton shrugged. "One hammer as the arbiter of worth? Weird idea. I know I couldn't budge it. Does that mean I'm unworthy? And unworthy of what?"
Loki opened his mouth to argue, then shut it. "Unworthy of the power of Thor," he said, after a moment. Barton snorted.
"I wouldn't know what to do with lightning power if I had it. Sounds like magic to me, and I don't like magic much." Barton pressed his hands into his thighs and rolled his shoulders back. "Just thinking."
There was something jarring about Barton's words, but Loki did not know how to express it. He tucked them away to consider later. He realized it was the first time he had discussed the events on Midgard with anyone. The first time he'd discussed anything about Thor with anyone, other than brief overtures by Jane Foster. And that brought him back to the thought he'd had before. "And Doctor Foster? Did you meet her?"
"Right," Barton said, apparently jarred out of a train of thought. "Foster. No, not personally. I don't know much about her, to be honest, except what's in her file. You think she might have some ideas about this threat of yours?"
"It is…possible. And until recently she might have been willing to discuss them. But recently…we argued."
Barton's eyebrows went up. "Why do I think that might be an understatement?" He shook his head. "Huh. Do you think you can still…"
Loki closed his eyes and breathed in and out through his nose. "Still convince her to work with me?" He pictured the look on Foster's face, mouth open, staring at him in silent, startled fear. He had not contacted her since. If he might have to grovel for Romanoff…what would Foster want from him?
Loki reminded himself of the sound of Yggdrasil's screaming. The awful feeling of his mangled magic, still distorted. Whatever had done that to him – how much worse would they do to Romanoff, or Rogers, or Chandra and Roslyn? There were greater things at stake than his pride.
"Well?" Barton pressed. "You're supposed to be good at persuasion. Can you convince her?"
Loki took Barton's mostly empty bottle and swallowed down the rest of it. "I think I will have to find a way."
The supervisor of his kidnappers was a solidly built woman with short brown hair. She took one look at him and her expression set, clearly bracing herself for pain. "Where are my operatives," she asked. Loki waved a hand idly.
"Sleeping," he said. "Quite unharmed – aside from the one who attempted unwisely to attack me again, who will need his arm put back in the socket." He summoned his sharpest charming smile. "I would prefer to keep this cordial. Difficult though you have made that. What is your name?" The woman said nothing, lips pressed together. Loki was half tempted to push, but decided against it. "Very well. Can you tell me why you attempted to kidnap me?"
The woman lifted her chin. "Are you willing to return with me to a secure facility?"
"No," Loki said. "I am not." The image flashed into his mind of Thor in a room with glass walls, questioned by mortals. He pushed it aside. "I suppose that answers my first question. Is your organization the same that has been following me these past weeks?" More silence, and Loki felt a twinge of annoyance. "Answer me," he said, adding just a touch of magic to his voice.
"We have been surveilling you for some time," she said, though slowly. Struggling against the suggestion just like the others. These were trained, then; not some ragtag band but organized. Loki pushed down the touch of alarm that stirred in his belly that whispered they will never leave you alone. They will keep hunting you.
"Because you believe I am a threat," he said, not a question. The woman's chin lifted again.
"We are not going to hurt you," she said. Lie, Loki thought. You would if you believed it necessary. "You have demonstrated certain – gifts. Many people would like to take advantage of you. It is our goal to ensure the safety not just of others but you as well, Mr…"
Loki felt himself relax. They didn't know him – or at least, this woman and her followers did not. They thought he was human – 'gifted,' perhaps, but nothing more than that. They did not recognize who or what he was. "Am I to give you my name, then? That would put me at a distinct disadvantage." Loki cocked his head. "So if I were to come with you…"
"We would do our best to ensure that you were comfortable and safe."
Lie, Loki thought again. Or half of one. Perhaps it had been true, but now they were wary. This attempt made clear that he had been re-evaluated as a potential threat, and now they sought to see if that assessment would be confirmed – but in a controlled environment, perhaps one where he could be eliminated if they deemed it necessary. "How gracious of you," he said aloud. He watched the woman's eyes flick toward a panel, a barely noticeable movement, and decided not to mention that he had shorted out her communications. "And may I ask how you found me?" He laced those words with suggestion as well, a little heavier than the last.
She fought it, visibly. "Facial recognition software," she said, after a moment. Loki did not recognize the exact phrasing, but it was clear enough what it meant. "Picked you up with some grocery store security camera."
Loki rocked back on his heels. "I see." He felt a chill settle in his stomach. So they had ways of finding his face. He would have to be more careful. Maintaining a glamor at all times would be exhausting, but if he could find a way to set a spell just to trick machines made to capture images… "You are very brave," he murmured. "Speaking to me alone like this."
The flicker of her expression told him she expected that backup would be here soon. Whether that was the case or not, he needed to end this conversation. "You've been very reasonable," she said. He could almost see the gears turning in her head, keep him calm and docile, occupied. "I am sorry about the…inconvenience." Sorry it didn't work. "I would like to check in with my team, though, confirm what you said about their status, and then we can continue to talk if you'd like-"
"No," Loki said. "I think I am finished." He kept his tone polite, but she was clever enough to see through that. She moved – quick, for a mortal, but he was still faster.
Loki slipped out of the building a few moments later, cloaked from sight. It might not have been a kind working, but he could have been crueler, too. As it was, he had only ensured that she would not be able to repeat their conversation to her superiors in any language they could understand.
That left the larger problem, though. Once again, he couldn't stay here. Once again, he was being driven from another place by the interference of mortals. Once again-
Loki pushed down the rising anger. It did not matter. This was not his home. Nowhere on this forsaken realm was his home. He was going to be a wanderer on it forever. Somehow, he needed to find a way to accept that.