Every Judas Loved His Jesus
Jane found the brig in total confusion. Half a dozen agents including Coulson were gathered around Loki's cell, arguing and muttering. Loki himself was up against the glass, one hand clutching the blanket around his naked waist, the other pounding angrily for attention. When he spotted Jane he waved for her to come closer.
"Foster!" he shouted, his face bizarrely animated. "Foster, come tell them it's me, damn it!"
Jane edged over to Coulson. "Sir, what's going on?"
Coulson heaved a sigh. "He claims he's Stark. I've got agents searching the carrier to see if we can prove otherwise."
"Come on, Coulson, it's me!" Loki insisted. "We met at - at my firefighter charity. You gave me my first lame government cover story. Now seriously, would Loki know that?"
"I don't know," Coulson said, uninterested. "Would Loki know that?"
Loki groaned, and Jane had to admit, his eye-rolling seemed distinctly out of character. "We don't have time for this. My core is running nearly on empty and Loki is out there somewhere. Get me the hell out of here!"
He stopped, coughing violently, and suddenly his entire image changed. Loki snapped out of existence and was replaced with a naked and scowling Tony Stark. His arc reactor was blinking in warning and bruises were darkening around his neck. The surrounding agents lurched back.
"Told you so," Tony croaked.
Coulson slammed his hand on the emergency siren, and immediately the carrier lit with flashing red. "Let Stark out," he ordered, and then turned his attention to his phone. "Director Fury, we have a breakout."
"Just let me guess," Fury replied sardonically.
"He'll head for the med lab," said Jane, already turning away. "I'll get Steve."
Coulson frowned. "Rogers isn't-"
"We don't have time for that now - Steve's the only one who can handle him!"
Jane dashed out of the brig and made her way swiftly to the upper deck. As soon as she reached the crew quarters, she nearly ran straight into Thor, back in his armor with Mjolnir in his grip. "What's happened?" he asked urgently. "Is it Loki?"
"He got out somehow," said Jane, and she winced at the pained expression that cross Thor's face. "He's already out of the brig - I'm going to get Steve. Between the two of you..."
She trailed off when she spotted Steve's back at the end of the hall. He stood at the hallway junction, glanced left and right, and went right. Frowning, Jane motioned for Thor to follow her.
"Steve!" She stopped just after the turn. "Where are you going?"
Steve turned. His face was uncharacteristically absent of expression, especially considering the state she had left him in. "I'm going to be with my daughter," he said. "If Loki's out, that's where he'll go."
Jane tugged urgently on Thor's arm, and he tensed, interpreting the warning. "You're going the wrong way," she said.
Steve stared at her for a long, hateful moment, and then turned to run. Thor immediately gave chase, so quickly that Jane felt the rush of air from his passing. They vanished around the next corner, but Jane could hear crackling ice followed by Thor's angry bellow. Though she ached to know what was happening, she ran back down the line of cabins to Steve's door and pounded. "Steve! Are you in there?"
She heard nothing from within the room, but her gut told her not to abandon it yet. She yanked her phone out and messaged Tony: tell coulson to unlock steves door remotely. The sounds of Thor and Loki fighting their way down the carrier made the wait almost unbearable, but it was only a few seconds later that Steve's door blinked.
Jane thrust the door open, and found Steve struggling weakly to his knees. "Steve!" When she saw blood on the floor, she grabbed a towel from the bathroom and crouched next to him. "Hold on," she said, folding the towel against the back of his head. "Are you all right?"
Steve hooked his fingers over her shoulder. "Help me up."
She did, urging him to sit up against the bedframe. "Let me see," she said, leaning around him. She brushed bloodied hair aside and found a shallow gash. "Doesn't look bad enough to be a fracture."
Steve felt it out for himself. "I'm all right," he said and started to push himself to his feet.
"Steve." Jane stopped before she could tell him to stay put. "Loki was headed toward the bow just now," she said instead as she helped steady him. "Thor's right behind him."
"Stark?" Steve asked, giving the back of his head one more wipe with the towel before heading to the door.
"He's fine. He's with Agent Coulson." Once they had left the room, she gave his hand a squeeze. "What do you need me to do?"
"Just stay out of the way, as much as you can," said Steve. Grim determination twisted his features. "I have to end this."
Jane pointed out the direction the dueling brothers had gone, and Steve ran off. As she stood contemplating what to do, her phone rang. She cast a quick glance at the display and answered. "Stark?"
"Where's Rogers?" he asked immediately.
"Chasing Loki. They're headed for the bow. The path to your rig should be clear if you're going to suit up."
"I can't," said Tony. "The little bastard sucked my reactor almost dry. It's enough for me but not nearly enough for the suit. Sorry Foster, but I'm out on this one."
"There has to be something we can do." Jane squeezed her eyes shut, and the memory of Steve's voice, low and pained next to her, made her stomach boil. "Steve said he doesn't think Loki can be stopped short of killing him. We can't let that happen - we just can't!"
Tony was quiet for a long moment. "We won't," he said. "I've got an idea."
Loki appreciated the body he had given Steve Rogers more than ever. Despite all he had exerted in the last twenty-four hours, his muscles were fresh and strong, propelling him swiftly through the carrier's long corridors. He didn't have to expend as much magic on his speed as he usually might. On open ground it wouldn't have been enough, but even Thor had difficulty flying in the narrow metal confines, and was forced to resort to running.
"Loki!" Thor shouted as he gradually gained. "You know you cannot escape me!"
Loki took the corner so sharply that his body slammed into the wall. His shoulder throbbed, but he turned the pain into a spell. When he pushed away, a thousand needles of ice were left in his wake. When Thor took the turn just as swiftly, he hit the wall and cried out.
Petty tricks wouldn't be enough to keep Thor at bay forever. Though Loki hated to do it, he became his Asgardian self again in order to conserve his magic. If only he could reach the Tesseract, he would be invincible. He could feel it pulsing at the edge of his senses, waiting for him. In the other direction.
Loki cursed and turned another corner, which brought him face to face with Clint and Natasha. He skidded to a rough halt and just barely managed to avoid a swift punch. With the two of them reaching for him and Thor catching up, he dove for the nearest door and crashed roughly through it.
He was in a storage room. He raced down the line of shelves and lockers, thinking he might find a weapon, but there was only clothing, medical equipment and diving gear. In desperation, he yanked things off as he passed. As soon as he heard Thor and the others enter the room, a snap of his fingers lit eveything on fire. Within seconds the blaze rippled down the line of fake fabrics and prevented the mortals from pursuing, but Thor did not hesitate. With the help of Mjolnir he dashed above the growing flames and grabbed Loki from behind.
He started to say something, but Loki had no interest in hearing it. Ice daggers formed in Loki's hands and he twisted, trying to impale his brother on them. They were given only moments to whirl in the narrow space, and then the fire reached a line of silver tanks beneath the lockers. Needles jumped and seals whined, and Loki just managed to maneuver himself behind Thor for when they exploded.
Both brothers were thrown into the wall. Though not struck by the brunt of the blast, Loki was rendered breathless when Thor crashed into him. Trapped in close quarters, he clawed and shoved at Thor's armor until he could wriggle free and resume.
"Loki," Thor tried again as he pulled shrapnel from his back. "Stop this madness!"
"You first," Loki taunted.
He passed into the next room, and then another, his adrenaline too thick in his blood to allow for any more complicated emotions. The Tesseract's glow was getting further and further away. When he tried to change course to head toward it, his path was interrupted by agents with guns, and again he retreated into another room. It took his magic to destroy the electronic locks on the nearest door, but once he had, he found it worth the effort.
He was in another storage room, though one more sparsely populated. Only a few objects sat on the heavy shelves, and Loki focused immediately on that most familiar to him. "Fate," he murmured to himself as he crossed the room and closed both hands on the Casket of Eternal Winters.
The Casket's magic was not as old or as impressive as the Tesseract's. It stuck to his skin like a clinging frost, stripping away his Asgardian disguise to reveal his true form. When he took in a deep breath he felt as if icicles were forming in his lungs and brain. He hated it. It may have been Jotunheim's greatest treasure but it was a bitter nuisance to him, and in better circumstances he would have preferred never to rely on it.
Thor was in the doorway. Loki whirled, and despite his irritation with the artifact, he could not help but feel vindicated when it obeyed him. A torrent of sleet and ice washed over the entrance, and though Thor was quick enough to avoid being caught in its wake, his way was sealed. Laughing, Loki turned his prize toward the opposite wall. Once it was slick and frozen, all Loki needed was a tap to send it crashing down.
Loki raced through. Brandishing the Casket before him, he sprinted again through the hallways and did not hesitate for any soldier or agent that crossed his path. Some had reflexes enough that they were able to dodge his onslaught, but Loki noticed at least four trapped and shattered in the ice. He spared no second look as he traced the Tesseract's threads back toward the center of the carrier.
"I'm coming," he whispered. "I'm coming, daughter."
He reached the labs and used the Casket to freeze the connecting hallways before darting inside. When his eyes fell on the cradle at the room's center he could have cried. His magic shrank the Casket into hiding as he stepped forward, breath held the entire way to the cradle's side.
The child stared up at him. As Loki stared back he felt something cold and searing take hold of his heart. His daughter was Jotun. He had known, of course. He had told himself that he was prepared, but staring down at his child, small and ugly, just as he had been, he was overwhelmed. His breath came hot and shallow as he reached into the cradle. A deep and cowardly part of him refused to believe that such a wretched little creature had come from all his effort and anguish.
Loki wrapped the blanket more tightly around her and lifted her up. Her tiny arms waved and her eyes opened a little wider, revealing their pure white iridescence. Her Jotun markings were alive with the Tesseract's light, and when he held her to his chest, he felt the spark in her that would one day become a blaze. She would be powerful and bright, so much more so than either of her fathers. But it was not that promise of godhood that stirred Loki into adoration: it was the gentle frequency of her magic, special to her, same as he had felt when first discovering her inside him. She was inescapably his. She was his hope, his demise, everything he loved and hated in himself.
"Little Dagny," he murmured, the warmth of her small body easing the icy claws beneath his ribs. Tears welled in his eyes. "Forgive me, that I doubted you for even a moment."
Voices gathered in the surrounding hallways. Loki's heart quickened, and he shifted Dagny to one arm so he could press the release sequence into the Tesseract's receptacle. It popped open with a hiss, and like a flood gate opening, a swarm of joyful magic enveloped him. Loki gasped as it soared over and through him, sinking into his skin as surely as when he had the needle in his belly. He heard its immortal voice in his ears and mind, singing hymns of celebration. When he pulled the cube free, its power became his - all its power, saturating him more fully than ever before. All his senses glazed over white. He was a god.
When he turned his blank eyes on the far window, he saw Steve watching him.
Steve was breathing hard as he pressed both hands to the glass. He had run as fast as he could and still arrived too late. The agents next to him were shooting and chipping through the ice, but Steve knew it was a wasted effort. He leaned forward, watching as Loki was consumed in the power he valued so much. "Please," he whispered hopelessly. "Please, stop."
Their gazes met. Loki's eyes had lost their color and their focus, but Steve felt his piercing stare, and he knew that Loki understood his pleas. They were separated by layers of glass and metal, but Steve was even certain he could hear Loki's heavy breath echoing out of the chamber. In and out he breathed, and with a long sigh black robes billowed down his body tipped with kingly gold. They wove around his limbs as if alive and cocooned the baby in protective layers. Thick tendrils wound up Loki's throat, flattened over his skull and curled over his brow in great, hooked horns.
Loki turned and fled. The Tesseract flared in his palm, and the wall before him exploded outward. Bits of flaming metal and melted glass hung suspended in the air as Loki passed through, waiting for him and the child to be safely out of range before clattering to the lab floor. Steve couldn't breathe, but he followed. He ran down the corridor to the next window just in time to see Loki racing through the lab beyond, its walls bursting out of his way just like the last.
Steve sprinted after. He chased Loki down the carrier toward the stern, catching only glimpses of his beautiful, terrible lover bending matter out of his way through every passed window. He felt weightless and surreal. After racing half the length of the vessel, Loki abruptly jumped, his cloaks propelling him into the air and through the ceiling as easily as the walls.
Steve threw himself on one of the ladder hatches and all but flew onto the deck. As soon as he surfaced in open air he realized that Thor was beside him, though for how long he had been there Steve didn't know. Together they faced Loki beneath a dark canopy of low and roiling clouds.
"Brother!" Thor shouted. He brandished Mjolnir but did not dare any closer. "There is nowhere for you to go!"
"I will not go back!" Loki retorted, backing away from them. The Tesseract gleamed in warning, its magic weaving into a protective chrysalis around the newborn still clutched to Loki's chest. "Leave me be, Thor!"
"You know I cannot!"
Thor took a step closer, and immediately Loki attacked. He snapped the Tesseract like a whip, and from its corners shot tendrils of flowing light. They ripped down the carrier's deck, carving into solid steal, and sprang at Thor. The strands fastened around Thor's limbs, torso, and throat, and with another twist of Loki's wrist Thor was dragged through the worn troughs and into one of SHIELD's waiting jets.
"Who is greater now, brother?" Loki raved, using the Tesseract to sling Thor fiercely into the deck. "Tell me now to know my place! Tell me!"
Steve charged. He had no weapon or even his shield, but those thoughts never entered his mind. When he saw a glimpse of Dagny still shielded against Loki's chest he almost hesitated. "Loki!"
Loki turned only his head. As Steve drew closer Loki's cloak spread away from him, pieces of it shredding away into long, serpent-like shapes. They swarmed over Steve and knocked him to the ground, their rough edges drawing welts wherever his skin was bare. He struggled and swiped, but the fabric had no weight, no way for him to damage them, and even when he backed away they kept at him.
An arrow struck close enough that Steve felt the fletching against his chin. It pierced three of the fabric snakes and pinned them to the deck. Steve dropped to his stomach, and when two more arrows deflected enough of Loki's cloak he was finally able to retreat. Clint and Natasha joined him.
"I hope you have some sort of plan," Natasha said as she handed Steve his shield.
Steve fit the shield to his arm and looked back. "Not in the slightest."
Thor had ripped free of the Tesseract and was circling overhead, his hammer deflecting Loki's every attempt to recapture him. As they distracted each other, SHIELD's agents and soldiers took to the deck, fanning out in ranks behind riot shields and pieces of cargo. Each bore a weapon, from handguns to machine guns to grenade launchers, and Steve went pale. "Wait!"
Loki finally took notice of the gathering crowd, and as soon as he turned his snarl on them, they opened fire. Bullets hailed from all along the deck in an array of lead. As before, not one hit its mark. The Tesseract's threads danced from one to the next like lightning trees, exploding each in mid-air. It created around Loki a rainbow of fire and electricity that crept closer to the firing masses with every volley.
"Hold your fire!" Steve shouted, grabbing up the nearest agent that looked to be command grade. "Hold your fire, for God's sake, he has a child with him!"
The firing slowed, but before stopping entirely a soldier from the far end hurled a grenade directly at Loki's feet. Loki reeled back, and the Tesseract made quick work of disintegrating it, but as it did Steve saw some of its energy ripple back up Loki's arm. Loki's sleeve tore, and one of the blazing markings on his forearm burst like a popping blood vessel. It sprayed molten white for only a few disturbing seconds before sealing over, but Loki's face contorted with pain, and he retreated several more steps.
"Something's wrong," Steve realized aloud. "It's too much for him."
Loki swung the Tesseract again. With a cry of fury he lashed at the ranks of SHIELD agents and soldiers, driving them deeper behind cover. His magic tore chunks out of the deck to be flung, wrapped around jets and crashed them into each other, creating panic and chaos. Despite Steve's efforts the gunfire resumed. When Clint launched an arrow at Loki's left leg, it was vaporized before getting close, but Loki still dropped to one knee and grimaced. More white blood oozed out from under the ragged edge of his cloak.
"Stay away from me," Loki growled, curling his body protectively in on himself and his child. "Stay away!"
Steve braced his shield and ran at him. His presence on the field was enough to get most of the guns to stop firing - he thought he heard Fury's voice ordering them down. "Loki, that's enough!" he called. "You have to stop before that thing kills you!"
Loki lifted his head, and with teeth bared, the horns on his helmet shot out in whipping tendrils. Steve deflected them off his shield, but a second pair branching off from the first snapped around his ankles. His feet were yanked out from under him and he was heaved across the rough deck. The metal chafed his unshielded arm raw and bloodied his knees and scalp. As he rolled to a halt one of his legs slipped off an edge and he jerked, grasping for a handhold for fear of landing in the ocean.
Steve turned and realized it was not the edge of the carrier he had landed against, but the open cargo bay. In the lab below, Tony and Jane were dashing amongst the equipment, twisting dials and pushing buttons.
"Steve!" Jane shouted again. "Buy us some time!"
Steve groaned as he pushed up on his knees. "We don't have time."
Lightning ripped out of the clouds above. Steve was momentarily blinded by the flash, and when he traced it back to its source, he saw Thor in command of it. His power was met bolt for bolt by the Tesseract, sparks flying in all directions when each collided in a mad and dazzling display. It looked as if the Tesseract had the advantage, but when Steve dropped his gaze he went cold all over again.
Loki was no longer holding his prize. He was still on one knee, both arms devoted to shielding the child as his cloak fanned around him like wings. The Tesseract itself hovered just above him, but its magic continued to shower down, rooting itself in his shoulders and spine.
SHIELD again opened fire. Their bullets and grenades were just as ineffective, but the exertion of dealing with them showed in Loki's shuddering and bleeding, which gave the illusion that each was a direct hit. The more the Tesseract pulsed, driving closer to Thor while defending its host, the more Loki's skin quivered and split, until light spewed from his eyes and mouth.
Steve dropped his shield into his hand, set his boots in the deck, and heaved. His shield sliced through the onslaught in all directions and slammed into the Tesseract, ripping it away from Loki and tossing both items to the ground. Its tendrils flared in all directions as if in rage, but before it or Loki could attempt to recover their connection, Thor descended in a blur of billowing red. Steve could only watch as a swing of Thor's arm smashed Mjolnir into one corner of the cube.
It cracked. The quiet clink of it breaking echoed above all else, the moment suspended, before everything exploded. The shockwave burst outward and leveled everything in its path, throwing men and women onto the deck, crashing the remaining cargo into each other. Steve had to grip hard at the edge of the cargo hatch to keep from being tossed inside. Energy so cold it burned washed over them, and then it was flowing up, escaping into the sky, splitting the clouds. Its fiery departure was accompanied by a long, shrill wail, like the cries of a mournful ghost.
Everything fell silent, and Steve took several long, shaky breaths before daring to open his eyes again. He stared out over the deck, taking in the dozens of collapsed and struggling figures, Thor among them. The lightning and its enemy had faded, leaving only dull gray sunlight on a dull, shredded deck. As everyone began to stir only one figure remained perfectly motionless: a lump of matte black lying near the port rail.
Steve scraped his knees as he fought himself upright. "Loki...?"
The black twitched. Loki's cloaks no longer held their flowing splendor as he wriggled beneath them in fitful silence. Steve took a few halting steps closer, barely daring to breathe as he waited for another inevitable attack. "Loki."
Loki choked wetly, then moaned, his voice strange and unearthly. The already pained groan rose into a sob, and then Loki was screaming. His helm fell away and Steve could see his face smeared with tears and trickling blue blood. Over and over he cried out like a crazed animal, and when he collapsed to one side a heap of fabric sloughed to the ground, occupied but silent.
Steve's whole body went numb as he stared. Only Loki's voice remained, raving in agony against his weary ears. But then the grief sharpened into wrath, and Steve wrestled himself under control just as a spear formed from thin air in Loki's clenched and bleeding fists.
Thor stumbled to his feet, but by then Loki was already upon him. He jerked with the impact of Loki's spear stabbing bluntly into his gut, and again when he was tossed through the air and pinned to the ground. Loki fell on top of him, his jaws wide and eyes bulging as he continued to howl like a beast. He lifted his hands and the Casket appeared between them, gleaming and vengeful.
Thor didn't fight him. He gripped the spear in both hands and stared up at Loki helplessly. "Brother..."
Steve didn't realize he had moved until his hands were around Loki's wrists. The Casket's ice slicked his fingers but he paid no attention, using all his remaining strength to heave Loki off and away from his brother. Loki's knees and feet scraped on the deck as he was spun, but it wasn't until they had stopped, and he had no choice but to look up at his attacker, that his voice finally ran dry.
"Stop," Steve said, his fingers tight but swiftly losing feeling as he gripped Loki's wrists. "Stop, Loki. Stop."
Loki's breath heaved and caught. He cowered on his knees while Steve loomed over him, shaking with rage verging on desperation. "I can't," he choked out, his upper lip trembling. But then the strength seemed to go out of him, and he sagged, fresh tears on his cheeks.
Steve shuddered, closing his eyes to keep himself from looking back at the discarded cloth. "I know."
The Casket continued to hum, its icy fingers leaking down onto Steve's wrists. With quiet crackles it spread up his forearms, and when Loki realized, his face twisted. "I can't," he said again, with new meaning. His hands flexed against the Casket, but he could not release it and the ice kept spreading. "I can't stop it."
Steve swallowed but was resolute. "I know," he said, and before the ice could reach his elbows he drew the Casket toward him. The press of its smooth front against his stomach felt like daggers. He gasped, shuddering as its cold spread all through him. It was hauntingly familiar.
"Let go," Loki demanded, but when he leaned back the ice already coating Steve's fingers made a cracking noise, and he stiffened. "Steven, let go!"
"No." Steve grimaced as the ice spread down into his hips, then thighs, then knees. "You can't stop fighting - neither can I." Staring down at Loki's stained face, he felt oddly peaceful, though it might have been the numbness creeping up his spine. "So this is the only way it can end," he said. "It's all I can think of."
"No - stop." Loki writhed, panicked but helpless as he watched Steve gradually be consumed. "Please. I'm sorry. I'm sorry!"
Steve managed a smile, but when he tried to say something more - maybe those perfect words he had needed all along - his diaphragm turned to ice and he couldn't draw a breath. His lungs froze, his heart, but whatever fear he felt didn't make it to his face. It's okay, he mouthed, though he didn't think Loki saw let alone understood. It'll be okay. Those were his last thoughts before the ice filled him completely.
Loki collapsed back on his heels. With his arms stretched over his head he hid his face against his sleeve, waiting for the return of his fury. He felt nothing. He could only sit in shock, shivering silently in what remained of his cloaks. It took all the strength he could muster just to breathe.
His numbness lasted only as long as it took for SHIELD to regroup. The sound of their shuffling boots roused him again to panic. They were coming closer with their guns. Loki gasped. He stretched his fingers, depending on sight rather than feeling to know if they had moved. When he tried to draw out of Steve's grip, another crinkle of the ice forced him still. The agents came closer.
"Step away from him," said Fury.
Loki squirmed and tried to speak, but his voice broke in pained moans. There was a hole in him where the Tesseract had been, and he had to dig down into the pit of him to find what magic of his own remained.
A gun hammer cocked back, and it spurred Loki's magic to the forefront. He shrank the Casket back into hiding and then his hands, all the way to the elbow to be sure. He fell away from Steve's frozen body with a whimper, and his hands returned to full size just in time to support him. He crawled away, his only thought to stay away from Steve so that no careless gunshot would shatter him. When he finally had the strength for it, he climbed shakily to his feet and turned to face them. "I-"
Fury squeezed the trigger, and Loki jerked. He didn't hear the gunshot, but he felt its sting in his abdomen. As blood flowed over his fingers, he laughed, short and incredulous. Tears spilled down his cheeks. "I know," he gasped. "I know."
"No!" Thor clawed onto his knees, still gripping the spear in his belly. "Stop!"
Another bullet hit Loki in the chest, and he heard each clink and squeeze of Fury's agents preparing to fire as well. Fear clenched all through him, but before another volley followed the stern of the ship was lit up with a rainbow of brilliant light. It pierced the clouds just as the Tesseract had, and for a moment Loki sobbed with regret. Then he realized what it was.
Fury readied to fire again, but by then Mjolnir was flying at them. The men ducked and dodged, but Loki made no attempt to escape. The hammer caught him in his wounded stomach, flinging him through the air and straight into the glimmering beam. The arms of the Yggdrasil closed in around him, both comforting and terrifying. Loki fought against its pull but there was no escape, and his voice echoed across the deck as he was flung once more into the depths of space.
Steve awoke to another unfamiliar ceiling.
He wasn't on the carrier; the ceiling was drywall, with a soft light and turning ceiling fan, and there was no subtle lull of waves beneath him. He wasn't in his room at SHIELD Central. The medical equipment at his bedside indicated an infirmary, but not one he had been in before. Voices chatted in the hall outside his room, but he couldn't identify any voices or make out any words.
The door opened, and a nurse entered. She met his gaze and started. "Oh! You're awake." She tapped something into her phone and then moved to check his vital sign readouts. "How are you feeling, sir?"
"Fine," Steve answered automatically, but when he considered, he wasn't sure. His skin was prickling. It felt too hot and too cold at once, and there was a deep, throbbing pain at the back of his skull. When he stretched his fingers his joints felt stiff, as if too much cartilage had been jammed into them. It was familiar.
Steve jerked upright. "What year is it?"
The nurse flinched back. "Excuse me?"
"What year is it?" Steve demanded. His breath hitched with panic. "How long have I been out? What time is this?"
The door opened again, and for once Steve was relieved to see Director Fury step inside. He hadn't aged a day. "Calm down," he said. "It's only been six hours."
Steve sighed with relief. His brief anxiety had made the pounding in his head worse, and as Fury dismissed the nurse he sagged onto his back again. "Director Fury," he said. "Where are we?"
Fury dragged a chair closer and sat down. "Back at SHIELD Central," he said. "They remodeled the medical wing along with all the other repairs. Sorry for the scare."
"What happened at the carrier?" Steve stomach worked into knots as he gradually remembered. The last thing had been Loki crying at him, and before that the spear spilling Thor's blood, and before that half of Loki's cloak abandoned amidst the rubble-
Fury waited patiently as Steve fought to retain his composure. It took his hand over his mouth and several painful beats of closed eyes and slow breaths before Steve could bring himself to ask, "Where's Loki?"
Fury shook his head. "He's gone."
Steve went limp. "He's dead."
"We don't know," said Fury. "Stark and Foster managed to activate the bridging device and push him through, but it wasn't at full power. We have no idea where he ended up." He shook his head again. "Or if he even survived."
Steve tried to take it in, but it was too much. He had known that Loki would never submit to Asgard, and being faced with a corpse would have been unbearable, but to think of Loki cast to the edge of the universe, alone with all the bitterness and fear that had gotten him there, was even worse. He draped his arm over his eyes as emotion roiled beneath his surface, burning his eyes and throat, pressing down on his chest. Even when plunging himself into what had expected to be his death he had never felt so helpless. At last he felt he understood Loki and what it meant to hate and depend on someone in equal measure, to be utterly inadequate, to be desperate enough to make the wrong choice and have all good intentions squandered.
"I'm sorry," Fury said quietly.
"Am I going to keep waking up like this?" Steve asked hoarsely. "Until every single thing that matters to me is just gone?"
Fury was silent for only a few beats. "Pull yourself together," he said abruptly. The chair scraped as he pushed to his feet. "There's someone you need to meet."
Steve swallowed hard. "Can you give me a few minutes, sir?"
"Nope." Fury tossed a bundle of fresh clothes onto Steve's stomach. "Trust me; you want to be there for this."
Steve didn't think he'd be able to do it, but then Fury's hand snaked under his armpit and he didn't have a choice. He changed clothes and was given only a moment to wash his face before Fury herded him out of the room. Fury offered no more explanation of where they were going or who they were meeting, but Steve was convinced it didn't matter. He was back at the beginning with nothing to show for it except for the hole gouged out of him.
They came to one of the medical labs. Steve glanced inside, and again did his best to rally himself when he saw his full team assembled. They were crowded around a woman seated at the lab's center; she was dressed in an immaculate gown of pearl and gold, and waves of dark blond hair flowed to nearly her waist. As soon as Fury opened the door the woman's voice echoed back to them, humming peacefully in the otherwise silent room. It sounded like a lullaby and it weakened Steve's resolve.
A second voice rose beneath it: a tiny, delighted squeal that sent Steve's heart racing. He shoved past Fury and hurried forward. Everyone made way for him. He came around the unknown woman and stared in shock at the clothed bundle rocking in her arms.
"How?" Steve breathed, the tears he had been swallowing back finally sliding free as he watched his little girl squirm and reach. Her eyes were not nearly as bright as when she had the Tesseract to nurse at, but they were open and wondrous. She was alive. "I thought she...without the cube..."
"She had a mother's magic on her side," the woman replied with a somber smile. "And some help."
She tugged down the baby's blanket, revealing a small black device nestled against her chest. A tiny spot of blue light gleamed at its center. Steve recognized it immediately.
"All of the Tesseract's energy that Johanna had stockpiled went up in smoke when she did," said Tony, stepping closer. "Except for this battery." His voice lowered in what might have been respect. "I found it on Hammer. It's not much, but I managed to rig up a regulator for it, so that she won't go through it too fast. It ought to be enough to take care of her until we can work out something better."
Steve briefly but firmly clasped Tony's hand. He needed several tries before he was able to draw enough breath to ask the woman "Who are you?"
Thor was seated next to her. He looked nearly as haggard as Steve himself, dressed in modern clothing with bandages bulging subtly beneath his shirt. "This is my mother, Frigga," he introduced. "Wife of Odin Allfather and queen of Asgard."
"You must be this child's father," said Frigga gently.
She offered the child up, and though Steve was still half in shock, he accepted. He gathered his daughter into his arms, marveling all over again at how impossibly fragile she felt. The warmth of her little body seeped into him and left him breathless. His peers must have seen, because then Clint nudged a stool behind him, and Tony and Jane took his shoulders to steer him safely onto it.
"I don't understand," Steve said. Maybe it was because of spending too much time in Loki's company, but he couldn't help his suspicion. "Why would you come all this way to save a traitor's baby?"
Thor tensed defensively, but Frigga calmed him with a squeeze to his hand. She faced Steve with sincerity. "Because she is my granddaughter."
She spoke so plainly, with so much care and so little ceremony, that Steve felt guilty for doubting. "Thank you," he said, emotion making his voice weak again. He smiled down at the bundle in his arms and couldn't help the new tears. "All of you - thank you." He took in a deep breath. "But what about Loki?"
Thor lowered his eyes, and Frigga drew his hand closer so she could clasp it in both of hers. "He passed through the Bifrost," she said. "But he did not make it to Asgard. Good Heimdall still searches for him, and my husband has sent his finest into the realms to spread the news that all should be vigilant." She sighed. "But Loki's sorcery has hidden him very well before. I fear he will not be discovered unless he wishes to be."
She did not mention the other possibility. Steve wasn't about to do it for her, and as he watched Dagny's fingers flex against his, he became certain that it wasn't worth considering at all. "He's alive," he said. "And when he's able, he'll come back. For her."
"He does not even know the child lives," murmured Thor.
"It doesn't matter." Steve nudged her little cheeks and smiled when she smiled. "Either he'll find out and come for her, or he'll come to get his revenge. Either way, as long as he's alive, he'll come back." He closed his eyes and felt brewing in him a weary but hopeful resignation. "Because he can't stop, and neither can I. And maybe next time I'll be ready for him."
He looked to his surrounding Avengers. "We all will. There's a way through to him and I'll find it."
"And in the meantime?" Jane prodded gently.
"In the meantime..." Steve chuckled nervously. "I guess I'll be a dad."
Frigga smiled warmly at him. "And what is the child's name?"
"Dagny," he said. "That's what Loki wanted to name her." He held her closer. "Dagny Rogers."
Thank you for reading!