I have no idea what I'm doing

Tag: fic: Midgard Legends (Page 1 of 2)

Midgard Legends #26: Urðarbrunnr

With food in their bellies and enough in their packs to last them a few weeks, the trek up the mountains was easier than it had been the day before.  They all seemed to move more quickly and complained less about the conditions.  Dry moose meat was not a gourmet meal by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t wet slop from a can, or stale, dry crackers either.  

They followed their path along the river, sticking as close to the banks as possible.  They still only had a vague point on their map, but the well could have been anywhere along a long stretch of land.  More than once, the river branched and forked, forcing them to go out of their way to find a good crossing point.  It added time and distance to their journey, and in the short hours of daylight, they were forced to pick up their pace even further to make up for even more lost time.

As they followed the river further upstream, deeper into the mountains, small flowers began to poke through the snow where it was thinnest beneath the trees.  Though they weren’t yet mature, Bruttenholm suddenly lit up with a new energy.

“This is it,” he said, crouching down to look at one of the small sprouts, woody little green twigs with wide, serrated leaves.

Rogers stopped and knelt down next to him.  “What is that?” he asked.

“Roses,” Bruttenholm said.  He looked up at Rogers, both giddy and serious all at once.  “I suspected this might be what we’d find here.”

“Roses?” Rogers repeated.

“Cuttings,” Bruttenholm said, pointing.  “See how the top is flat.  These were put here deliberately.”

Rogers leaned in to look, and nodded.  “All right,” he said.  “So we’re close.”

“Very, I’d wager.”  Bruttenholm stood, leaning heavily on his cane to keep his balance.  “Follow the roses, and I believe we’ll find our well.”

Loki looked down at the little sprigs in the ground all around them.  He didn’t know what they meant, but Bruttenholm was clearly putting a lot of stock into them.  They obviously counted for something.  But if Bruttenholm knew they were close, Loki trusted him.  He picked a careful path through the flowers, trying to notice whether they were getting bigger or smaller as he walked.  They’d been planted chaotically, with no regard to larger plants that might present an obstacle.  He got the feeling that whoever was behind it was going for the quantity approach, planting as many as they had the energy to plant and trusting nature to take care of the rest.  If that meant that the next empty spot was beneath a towering tree, or already choked by low scrub, then so be it.

The roses grew taller and taller, until finally blue blossoms and tangled brambles were all that remained.  Loki remembered the blue flowers from his journey here as a boy, and began to share Bruttenholm’s excitement.  Getting through the maze of thorns was no easy task, but if they could move slowly and carefully enough, they could just about make it.  Loki had seen blue roses before, many times.  Every midwinter, Frigga was presented with a bouquet of the flowers, which stayed in bloom all year until the following winter.  Loki had never known where they’d come from, but now he made the connection.  They were absolutely on the right path.  He stopped and pulled his bayonet from his belt, carefully cutting a handful of blossoms from one of the plants.

“What are you doing?” Rogers asked harshly.

“What I’ve been told to do,” Loki said simply.  

When he had what felt like an acceptable amount, he made his way more purposefully through the brambles until finally the trees and roses all cleared, leaving a wide, open circle.  In the middle of the circle stood a small, squat well, crumbling from age.  Behind it was a hut, small and dumpy, and standing high on chicken legs.

“What the fuck?” Coulson asked quietly as everyone stopped at the edge of the clearing.

Loki ignored all of them.  He walked straight up to the hut, holding his arms wide.  The game was up.  There was no more point in hiding, since he would not be on Midgard for much longer anyway.

“My name is Loki, son of Odin of Asgard,” he said in his most commanding voice.  “I am here under my own free will, and I have many questions.”

He ignored the murmurs from behind him as the hut squatted down to lie on the ground.  The door sprung open without a second’s hesitation, and an ancient woman walked out, shaking her head.  Her golden eyes shone brightly against her dark, ashy skin as she tutted at him from across her lawn.  She had always been ancient, since the day Loki first met her as a boy, but she seemed to have not aged a day in all that time.

“Urðr.  How lovely to see you,” he greeted, handing her the flowers.  

Urðr clicked her tongue and shook her head.  With her hands on the sides of Loki’s face, she pulled him close.  “You’re supposed to come here after.  Not during, stupid boy,” she said.  She laughed and pulled him down for a hug.

“And yet you knew to be here.  Cearly I am precisely where I’m meant to be, when I’m meant to be there,” Loki said.

Urðr laughed, finally stepping back to look at him, studying him for what came next.  “What have you done with your hair?” she asked, shaking her head again.  “It doesn’t suit you.  You should bring your friends inside before they all freeze.”

“By all means,” Loki said.  

He turned, beckoning the squad to follow.  For a long moment, nobody moved until finally Bruttenholm took the first step.  Then, one by one, the rest began to make their way through the clearing to Urðr’s hut.  Once inside, Urðr filled a kettle with water from a barrel and put it over the fire.  Then she began plucking apart the roses, letting the petals fall into a bowl.  The petals dried in her hand, shrivelling and cracking almost instantly.

“You are here about the well,” she said as soon as Rogers stepped inside.

The cabin comfortably fit the entire squad, and would have comfortably fit an entire platoon if that’s what Rogers had brought up the mountains with him.  Loki made himself at home, sitting at her table not like a soldier on a mission, but visiting royalty waiting to be served.

“We are,” Rogers said, not being as subtle with his glaring as he clearly thought he was.

Urðr shook her head.  “You should know better,” she said to Loki.

“They have the Tesseract already,” he said.  “As well as other relics.  I didn’t want to take that chance.”

Urðr nodded, not pausing in what she was doing with the roses.  “Yes,” she said gravely.  “And now is not the time to ask why.  Nor is it the only stone on Midgard.”

Loki sat up sharply.  “What?”

“I’m sorry, stones?” Rogers asked.  “Olson, what’s going on?”

“Infinity stones,” Loki said.  “Ancient relics with unspeakable power.  Hydra uses one to power their army.”

“And there’s another one out there?” Rogers asked.  He looked back and forth between Loki and Bruttenholm, but for once, Bruttenholm seemed just as lost as anyone else in the room.

“Now is not the time for you to know, Steven Rogers,” Urðr said.  Her words were enough to stun Rogers into silence for a few seconds.

“And let me guess,” Loki said.  “Now is not the time for me to know about the other?”

“No.”  Urðr crushed the petals with a mortar and pestle, and poured them into her kettle.  “You came here for another truth, as have all men before you.  I will not tell you how to win your war, and you should know better than to ask, Odinson.”

“Someone mind telling me what’s going on?” Rogers asked, looking at the two of them like he was ready to start swinging fists.

“You came here to protect my well,” Urðr said.  “For that I am grateful, but it needs no protection.  We are well-guarded, and no mortal can find us when we do not wish to be found.”

Loki was almost pleased to hear it, until she turned those sharp golden eyes back to him.  “And you.  Outside with you, boy.  You can keep lying to your father all you like, but you won’t make a liar out of me.”

Not wanting to find out what would happen if he disobeyed, Loki followed her back out into the snow.  He walked behind her to the well, saying nothing as she dropped the bucket into the water deep below and hauled it back up.  Beside the well was a low, shallow stone basin, where Urðr poured the vibrant blue water, so full of magic it almost glowed in the light.  She stepped out of the way to let Loki kneel beside the basin, the snow beneath him soaking into his wool trousers.  This was a moment he had been prepared for and trained on since before Thor had even taken his rite, but he did not fully know what to expect.

“Have you any questions, boy?” Urðr asked.  

Loki did not know.  He had been prepared for this, but had never thought to prepare himself for it.  He had never once intended to take his rite or receive his fate.  Even if he had, he didn’t know that he’d want to know his fate.

Besides.  He already knew his fate.  He had known it for years, ever since he was a boy and all other pantheons had met to seal Midgard’s fate.  What more was there to know?

“And it will be the son of Jötunheimr and the son of Asgard who leads Hel’s forces and burns Yggdrasil to dust,” Loki recited.  The words had been burned into his mind, never forgotten since they day they were first spoken before him.

Urðr nodded.  “This is what you wish to know?” she asked.

It wasn’t.  There was no stopping prophecy.  No matter how hard one tried, if it were meant to be, it were meant to be.  Prophecy could be changed and altered, but never directly.  Never through intent.

“It is,” he said.

Urðr placed her hand on the back of his head and pushed his face beneath the water.  Its icy chill consumed him, coursing through his veins with a coldness he had never before felt.  Ice may have run in his veins, but now his every atom was ice.  He could feel it freeze and stop his heart and fill his lungs until they burst.  Every colour of the universe exploded in his eyes as the ice consumed him and scattered him into dust.  And then there was darkness and an endless void.  Ginnungagap spread before him for an eternity.  For eons, the universe swirled around him, coalescing into dust, and then stars and planets and systems.

Then, he found himself being pulled from the ice, inch by inch as Auðumbla licked the rime and freed him.  Loki stood there on the ancient plane and looked up upon Ymir’s skull high above him.  The noble cow Auðumbla continued to lick the rime that covered the giant’s flesh, but she was not the only creature Loki saw on the ice.  In the distance, something black moved, fluttering up and down, but going nowhere.  Loki walked toward it, careful step by careful step lest the entire world fall away beneath his feet.  What he found was a great golden eagle spread out on the ice with its feathers and blood spread around its body while a raven ate its entrails.  Loki watched as it devoured the eagle.  When the raven looked up at him, he did not feel as if it were his father watching him through its eyes.  He felt instead an even older, more powerful force behind the inky black eyes.  Something ancient and terrible.  A herald of what was to come.

In an instant, it was all pulled away.  He felt as if he were hit in the chest with a boulder as light flooded his vision.  Choking and gasping for air, Loki found himself on his back in front of Urðr’s well, looking up at the cloudy Midgardian sky.  He rolled over to his side to clear his lungs and breathe air.

“What did you see?” Urðr asked.

Loki waited until he had breath in his lungs to speak.  “I saw a raven feasting on an eagle,” he said.  He shook his head.  “I don’t understand.”

“Now is not the time for you to understand,” Urðr said.  “Now is only the time for you to know.”

Loki did not understand that either.  What was the point of prophecy if he couldn’t even know what it meant?  Knowing only that it existed told him nothing.

“In my dreams—” he started.

“One question,” Urðr said, cutting him off.  “You have asked what you came here to ask, and were given the information you sought.  Now you must decide how you use it.”

“I wasn’t given any information,” Loki argued.

“In time.  You will see it for what it is.  And it will be up to you to react accordingly,” Urðr said.

He didn’t have the energy to argue further.  Sighing, Loki pulled himself to his feet and looked around at the sparse forest around them.  

“I need to rest,” he said.

Urðr nodded at him and began to walk back to her hut.  Loki followed her, using all of his energy just to move one foot in front of the other.  Inside the hut, he found the squad sitting around the fire, discussing something quietly.  As he stepped inside, they all turned to him, saying nothing as he struggled to catch his breath and dripped icy water onto the floor.

“Olson,” Rogers said.  It was neither a question nor a greeting.  Simply an acknowledgement of his presence.

“I am done,” Loki said.  “This place is well protected.  You need not be here.  Go while there is still light.”

He ignored their murmurs and collapsed into one of the three beds in the hut.

“What about you?” Rogers asked.

“As I said, I am done.”  

That was it for Loki.  An eternity in the void left him hollow and used.  Whether the Tesseract was safe or not no longer mattered.  As long as Urðr remained on the realm, Loki knew Midgard was not in danger.  Had they found an empty hut and unguarded well, he’d have other opinions.  But he didn’t need to be told to understand what Urðr knew.  If now was not the time to know about the stones, then now was not the time to involve himself further.

There was a cold silence between everyone as Rogers glared down at Bruttenholm.  To his credit, Bruttenholm did not shrink beneath it.  

“It’s best not to argue,” he said instead.

“You’ve known?” Rogers asked.

Bruttenholm said nothing.  He only nodded, which was all he needed to do.

“Right,” Rogers said eventually.  “We’ll deal with that later.  I guess we’re done here.”

Loki closed his eyes and listened to the squad shuffle out into the snow.  After a long moment, he opened his eyes again, expecting to find the hut empty.  Instead, he found Coulson still sitting by the fire.

“This isn’t the place for you, Ray,” Loki said.  “You should go.”

Coulson nodded.  “You really just staying here?” he asked.  He looked around like he wanted to say more, but didn’t want to insult their host.

Loki nodded.  “I shouldn’t even be here.  Midgard can handle itself.”

“What do we tell HQ?” Coulson asked.

Loki didn’t know.  “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

He took off his spectacles and examined them.  He no longer needed them, or any other part of his disguise.  It was hot in the small hut, and Loki no longer wished to wear a false form.  With Coulson still right there in the room, Loki released his hold on his magic and let it drain from him.  As his skin darkened and his false biology dissolved, the hut grew even more uncomfortably warm, but at least he was able to feel comfortable in his own skin.  Not wanting to accidentally damage them, he settled his spectacles back onto his face to keep them safe for the next time he visited the realm.

“So, that’s you, huh?” Coulson asked.

“That’s me,” Loki confirmed.

Coulson stared for a long moment.  “So, what?  You’re going back to Mars now?” he asked.

It wasn’t funny, but Loki laughed all the same, covering his eyes with his hand.  “I’m not from Mars, Ray,” he said.  “Go home.”

Coulson nodded, still standing awkwardly in the cabin that now seemed much smaller without so many people inside.  “I guess, uh.  I probably shouldn’t expect any letters.”

Loki had learned to steel himself against these goodbyes.  Most of the time, he avoided them by simply disappearing into the night.  This wasn’t always an option, and now he was faced with the sticky task directly.

“I never learned to write, remember?” he said.  “Nor am I likely to return to this realm within your lifetime.”

Direct was the best route to take.  Loki kept his eyes closed, wanting nothing more than to get some well-deserved rest.  Humans were fun to be around, but they weren’t permanent.  He couldn’t afford attachment, and did not want to see the plain abandonment that he knew was written on Coulson’s face.  If he saw that, he’d have to admit his own attachment.

“They’re waiting,” Loki said.

Coulson nodded again.  He paused for just a moment longer before leaving the cabin to follow the rest of the squad back down the mountain.

Though Loki was exhausted to his bones, he could not sleep.  He tried to force himself into unconsciousness, but it would not come.  It was his uniform, he decided.  Loki hauled himself from the bed and shed layers, dropping his boots and shirt onto the floor next to one another.  Feeling it might perhaps be some sort of slight to undress completely, he kept his trousers on.  Even they felt too heavy and close as he crawled back into bed, but he knew that once he got to sleep, he’d forget all about them.

“They are not mere playthings,” Urðr said finally.

Loki tried to ignore her.  Perhaps if she thought he was asleep, she’d drop it and forget to nag him about it later.

“There are reasons gods are no longer permitted in this realm.  Just because you are you does not mean you are above the law,” she continued.

Loki sighed.  She clearly didn’t believe that he’d fallen instantly to sleep the second his head hit the pillow.  “And what makes you above the law?” he asked.  “Should you not have left as well?”

Urðr said nothing while she poured water into the cauldron over the fire.  “There is not a pantheon that has not broken the pact.  All have sent guardians to watch and protect the realm.  But everyone else has stayed out of business which isn’t theirs.”

“It’s everyone’s business,” Loki argued.  He sat up lazily to fight her on more even grounds.  “They have the Tesseract.  You say they have another stone.  They were supposed to have been scattered, so why are there two in the hands of the humans?”

“And soon they will have three,” Urðr said.  “This is not for you or anyone else to change.  This is how the fates will it.”

“What do the fates will after that?” Loki asked, feeling suddenly as though he had just wasted his time completely.  “One stone is powerful enough to obliterate a realm.  And we’re to allow this race of barbarians to possess three?”  

Loki had seen time and time again what humans did with the slightest amount of power over their neighbours.  He had seen how quickly they progressed in their means and technology.  Depending on Urðr’s definition of soon, with three stones, the humans could destroy their entire star system.  Depending on the stones already in their possession, they could destroy much more than that.

“That is not for you to know at this time,” Urðr said, repeating her refrain once more.  Loki began to hate her for it.  “In time, yes.  But not now.”

She poured him the last of the tea she had brewed and handed him the small cup.  Too tired to fight her any longer on it, Loki nodded as he took the cup and drank as Urðr walked out of the cabin, leaving Loki alone.  Before Loki finished the tea, he fell into a deep sleep.

Loki woke not knowing how many days had passed since he arrived at the small hut in the mountains.  His boots and other belongings had been stacked neatly at the foot of the bed, but he found the hut empty.  The thought of lacing those damn boots up once more made Loki’s entire body ache, and he had no reason to hide himself, so he walked outside wearing nothing but the wool army trousers he’d fallen asleep in.  The snow was refreshingly cool on his bare feet as he walked around the clearing.  The air on his bare skin helped wake him from what felt less like sleep, and more like hibernation.  The sun was in a strange position in the sky.  Higher than it had been during their trek up the mountains.  He had been asleep for days; perhaps weeks.

He found Urðr behind the hut, cutting firewood with an axe almost as big as she was.

“Here,” he said, stepping forward to take it from her.  It was a chore she could obviously do for herself, and had been for most of her life, but his muscles craved the activity.

The axe was heavy and sharp, splitting the wood with a single swing.  Urðr probably did not immediately need the amount of wood Loki split for her, but it was something to do to delay the inevitable.  He could not stay on Midgard forever.  He had no reason to, and would be found sooner or later.  But he did not wish to return to Asgard either.  Asgard was a cage, and returning was a defeat.  If he returned, it meant Odin had won their argument, and would hold it over his head for an eternity.

Loki stopped when he ran out of wood to split.  He buried the axe in the chopping block and returned to the cabin to find Urðr serving a stew from her cauldron.  She placed two bowls on the table, clearly inviting Loki to sit with her.  He sat, immediately picking up the spoon from the table.

“Where are your sisters?” he asked, finally realising their absence.

“They have their own business to attend to,” Urðr said.  “They shall return in time.”

Growing no more tolerant of her cryptic messages, Loki nodded and accepted it all the same and ate for what felt like the first time in months.  The stew was full of a mix of game, as if each new pot were added to the previous.  It was the first real food Loki had eaten since Trondheim, and he devoured it.

“Eat more,” Urðr said, pointing to the cauldron for him to pour himself a second bowl.  “You’re still weak, and need the nourishment.”

Loki paused.  “Am I allowed to know why?” he asked.  “Or is it another secret?”

“Soon,” Urðr said.  “For now, eat.”

Her words were a clear warning that sat heavily on Loki’s chest.  Still he poured a second bowl and ate, and then a third.  Annoying as the woman was, she was right.  He was exhausted and starving, and could have eaten the entire pot of stew on his own had he no manners at all.  As he ate, Urðr left him alone again.  The silence of the empty hut, with nothing but the fire crackling was a silence he missed dearly.  He had not been truly alone since his arrival to the realm, and would have paid his entire fortune to have this isolation whenever he craved it.

When he ate as much of the stew as he felt polite, Loki put the bowl in a pail near the fire and walked over to his gear.  He took the briefest moment to search through his overcoat, finding his spectacles folded neatly on top.  He put them on again out of habit and pulled what passed as fresh clothing from his bag before banishing them off to his secret place.  Then, he slowly began to dress.  Comfort or no, a prince of Asgard couldn’t just walk around in nothing but his trousers.  There were certain formalities that must be adhered to, no matter how informal his visit.  This was still the home of Odin’s most trusted advisors. 

He heard it as he laced up his boots.  It wasn’t a sound that he heard with his ears, but with his very soul.  A sound that had been plaguing him since New York.  A song that called to him with a terrible purpose that Loki could not resist.  He tried to shut it out, but it was more powerful than he was.  It was no longer playing games, and neither was Loki.  He would answer its call, and this time he would not be stopped.  The Tesseract had grown stronger, but so had Loki.  He had learned new tricks and new skills.  Loki took the time to check the ammo in his handgun, finding only one round left.  His rifle was empty, so he banished it along with his other gear, and picked up his bow and quiver instead.  It was not enough to fight this battle, so he called his knives as well.  He knew he could have been walking into another trap, but this time he would not lose.  This time, he knew it was not a trap.  Something had gone wrong, and the Tesseract was screaming for a new handler.  It was not a cry Loki could ignore.  

Sparing one final moment to make sure nothing was forgotten, Loki slipped back into his Asgardian skin.  He might be able to sneak around whatever base the Tesseract had been held at, but he’d have an easier time of it if he wasn’t deep blue, with glowing red eyes.  Letting that beacon guide him, Loki stepped out of the cabin and toward the Tesseract.  He found himself not in a mountain fortress, but in a small, steel tunnel that shook and vibrated beneath his feet.  Hollow sounds of footsteps in the near distance told Loki he was not on the ground.  The Tesseract was screaming because it was being taken somewhere it did not want to go.

Loki opened a door and immediately saw what had gone wrong.  A red, white and blue menace with a matching shield fought not as if his life depended on it, but as if everyone else’s did.  Loki recognised the man he grappled with—it was a face he would not soon forget, having been nearly turned inside out from whatever power the man had failed to control.

Neither of them saw Loki enter, giving him the clear advantage over both of them.  He drew his handgun and aimed for the man with the blood-red face.  Before he could find a clear shot, he was violently thrust forward from behind while a searing, white hot pain spread through his shoulder.  It was not the pain from Midgardian weapons, but from a weapon of unspeakable power.  One of the humans’ weapons that had harnessed the power of the Tesseract.  Loki spun on his heel and used his final bullet to split the soldier’s skull.  The shot silenced the entire cockpit, bringing Roger and Schmidt’s attention to Loki.  He barely had the time to notice before Schmidt took advantage.  He grabbed the Tesseract from its housing before either of them could stop him.  For a terrible, horrible moment, Johann Schmidt held in his hand the greatest power the realm had ever known.  It was a power so great, his body failed to contain it.  It vibrated his every atom apart, and soon Johann Schmidt was a cloud of dust, and the Tesseract had fallen to the floor.  Loki watched helplessly as the infinity stone released itself from its shackles and burned through the fuselage to fall to the sea far below.

Loki and Rogers watched it before looking at one another.  Without a word between them, Rogers rushed to the yoke and picked up the pilot’s headphones while Loki rushed to the hatch and pulled it open.  The wind tore past and the sea shimmered dizzyingly below.  Loki knew his next step could kill him.  Very likely would.  But he had not gone through everything to end here, so he stepped out into the void.  As he fell, he had just enough time to banish his weapons before he hit the water.  The impact rattled his entire body, but he barely had time to think about it before he started sinking farther and farther into the icy northern water.  Midgardian seas were almost endlessly deep, and he knew he would not be able to find the Tesseract as he was.  Loki ignored the suffocating chill around him and focused all of his energy on what came next.  His plan relied on a complicated mix of magic, changing his body and banishing what he wore at the same time.  He had to time it exactly right, or he could risk getting tangled in his own clothing and drown anyway.  With no breath in his lungs, he used every ounce of power and magic he had, trading skin for scales and arms for fins.  He mercifully found himself free from the tangle of his own clothes as his magic had been timed perfectly.  With gills, he was able to breathe beneath the water, so he swam further and further down, hoping to catch a glimpse of the familiar blue glow.  He swam as far as the ocean was deep, and as wide as he could manage, but the Tesseract could have landed anywhere from that height.  It was light enough that an air current could have carried it for miles before it hit the water.  A water current could have caught it and sent it even further.

It could be a hundred years or more before Loki found it.  Still, he searched and searched the seafloor, ignoring the pain in his back even in this form.  Ordinarily these changes would force his body to put itself back together, but Hydra’s weapons disrupted his magic, and soon Loki could take it no longer.  He needed to breathe real air.  Knowing he could have been anywhere in Midgard’s great, endless seas, Loki was not going to try to swim to shore.  He stopped, letting the currents carry him as he sought out the nearest land.  Where it was, he had no way of knowing, but he focused on it and took himself there.  As the seas were endless, so were the shadows beneath them, allowing him to travel the long distance in the span of a single breath.  He did not make it onto land itself, but close enough that he reverted himself to his his Asgardian form and took the last small step all at once, falling to the frozen ground gasping for air as he pulled his ragged uniform back from where he had banished it.  He had never before felt so defeated, and all he could do about it was scream, and punch the ground, and weep.  He screamed wordlessly to whoever was listening, not just because he had lost, but because he had run out of options.  There were no more choices.  No more cause for delay.  Loki didn’t know when he had lost hold of his concealment, but he knew that it was gone.  He knew he was being watched, and the only thing left to do was to accept it.  He couldn’t look up and face it directly, so he faced the ground instead.

“Heimdall.  Open the Bifröst,” he said, defeat ringing heavily in his own ears.

A moment later, he was consumed by a pillar of light and pulled through the cosmos.  Loki could not enjoy it.  He took in none of the splendor or beauty as it soared past him, and landed gracelessly in a heap on the floor of Heimdall’s observatory, soaking wet and pathetic.  Heimdall said nothing as he loomed over Loki, an ominous presence above him.  It was Loki who finally broke the silence after a long moment.

“I suppose he’s aware?” he asked.

“He is,” Heimdall said simply.  “The Allfather awaits your return in the great hall, Prince Loki.”

Loki wanted to hear derision in Heimdall’s voice.  He tried desperately to hear it, but he was too tired and weary to make himself hear it.  He pulled himself to his feet, and without another word, began the long trudge back to the palace. He thought he might be able to skip the whole ordeal and sneak back to his chambers, but he did not get far along the Rainbow Bridge before he was met by a mounted guard, leading a second horse behind him.  Loki glared at the man for daring to assume he could simply order him around like this, but ultimately did not have the wherewithal to say anything about it.  If anything, riding back to the palace sounded far more appealing than walking anyway, so he climbed into the saddle and let the horse take him back.  There was still the time and means to make his escape, but by that point, it was no longer worth the effort.  Odin knew he was back on Asgard, and the guard would surely report his disappearance immediately, so Loki went where he was wanted.  

He found Odin on the throne, waiting impatiently for his return.  Loki walked down the long hall tiredly, one foot in front of the other because it was all he could do.  He did not stop beneath the throne to kneel and beg forgiveness.  He walked to the steps leading up to the throne, sitting on the lowest one.

“Deliver your lecture and deal your punishment so I may go to bed,” he said.  He’d nod and pretend to listen along, and they’d both feel like they’d got what they’d wanted.

He waited for Odin to order him to his feet, prepared to ignore it, but the order never came.  Instead, Odin rose from his throne and walked down the steps to sit on the lowest one beside Loki, groaning like an old man as he lowered himself to the floor.  Not just like an old man.  He was an old man.  Old, and stubborn, confusing as ever.  Loki wished he’d get to his point already, rather than dragging it out.

“Is this what they wear on Midgard these days?” Odin asked, studying Loki while he wound up his admonishment.

“If I say yes, can I leave?” Loki asked.

Odin made the small grunting noise he often made when he tried not to sigh.  “I shouldn’t be surprised you have no desire to make this easy,” he said.  “Tell me, Loki.  Where have you been?”

Loki rolled his eyes.  This was not a game he had any will to play.  “I have been sleeping in a frozen hole in the ground.  And I can’t say I enjoyed it.”  Let Odin do with that as he pleased.  Loki didn’t care.

“Why, dear boy, were you sleeping in a hole?” Odin asked.  Loki did not have to make himself hear the sarcasm in his father’s voice.  It was plain as day.

“So the wild animals and the wild humans didn’t kill me in my sleep,” Loki said.  “Though I suppose that would have made it easier for you.”  

He leaned back into the steps and closed his eyes.  He felt like he could have fallen asleep right there.  Let Odin scream and shout.  Loki was tired enough to sleep through anything.

Odin did not scream, and he did not shout.  He stood instead, looming over Loki with all the presence of the palace itself.

“When most young men seek to complete their rites, they are away from Asgard for a year.” Odin said, with a new sternness in his voice.  “You have been gone barely a season.”

Loki looked up sharply.  “What?”

“A boy does not become a man by seeking quests to bring vanity or glory,” Odin said.

Loki sat up slowly, still keeping his seat while he tried to figure out where his father was going.

“A boy becomes a man when he does what must be done,” Odin continued.  “Tell me.  What have you learned in your time on Midgard?”

Shaking his head, Loki finally stood again.  “I don’t want to do this,” he said.

There was a plinth beside the throne.  Odin stepped up to it and picked up a sword that shone like silver.  Its blade was long and glowed like daylight itself, with twisted serpents that made its hilt and crossbar.  

“Your brother chose this for you,” Odin said, placing the sword in Loki’s hands.  “Just as you chose Mjölnir for him.  Lævateinn is said to be unbreakable and unbending; a perfect blade for battle.”

Loki looked down at the sword.  He didn’t want a sword.  He didn’t need a sword.  He had his own weapons he liked better.  He shook his head already turning to leave.  “Send supper and a healer to my chambers.”

“Loki,” Odin called sharply from behind him.  “You cannot run from this forever.”

Loki ignored him and walked out of the hall toward his chambers, still holding the sword he did not know what to do with.  At his chambers, he found guards posted outside his door, as always.  Without a moment’s acknowledgement of their presence, Loki walked right past them into his chambers, which appeared exactly as they had left them.  He also found them exceptionally quiet.

“Fenrir!” he called out.  He waited for the beast to come bounding down the stairs, or from one of the far rooms, but the air stayed silent.

Loki immediately turned around and stepped back into the corridor again.

“Where is my dog?” he demanded of the first guard he saw.

The man glanced over to his partner before responding.  “In the kennels, Prince Loki.”

Loki wanted to ask why his dog was in the kennels with the common mongrels, but he was too angry to get that far.  He took one step and disappeared into the shadows, reappearing in tunnel beneath the kennels where the guard dogs and war hounds were kept.  If his dog were kenneled, it would not have been with those taken on the hunt.

“Týr!” Loki shouted as he stepped out of the shadows.

Týr was close by, and heard Loki’s shouting.  

“Prince Loki.  Back so soon?” he asked.

“Where is my dog?” Loki demanded, ignoring the question posed of him.

“Your ‘dog’ is a threat and a menace, just like its owner,” Týr said.

Loki had no patience for this.  His mind, body, and soul ached with exhaustion, and petty games were not the way to fix that.  Giving no warning, Loki swung his fist at Týr’s face, connecting right between the eyes.  He ignored the pain in his hand as Týr staggered backwards, allowing Loki the room to pass.  As he walked, Loki raised Lævateinn at his side.  He could hear Týr already chasing behind him, and wanted nothing of it.

He walked toward the open archway leading to the kennels, and stepped into a world of blinding sun and braying hounds.  Some of the dogs were out, training with soldiers in the adjacent field, but most were locked in their small cages, frantically barking and howling to be let out.  The cages were all entirely too small to fit Fenrir, so Loki kept walking as he ignored Týr’s shouts to stop.

Loki reached the end of the kennels, where he finally found Fenrir, chained to a stone pillar.  The chain was so small, and Fenrir so big that the animal couldn’t even stand.  When he saw Loki, he immediately began to whine and growl to be released.  He was covered in mud and filth, his fur matted against his body from being left chained by a lunatic.

Loki turned toward Týr to look him in the eye before he raised Lævateinn over his head.  He dropped the sword onto the chain, shattering it beneath the blade.  In an instant, Fenrir was up on shaky legs, licking Loki’s face and crowding him with his body.  Loki indulged him, pulling what fur he could grasp in his fingers, and scratching his ears.

“That thing’s going to kill someone!” Týr shouted from behind them.

Loki turned at once to face him.  “Why don’t you have a snack?” he said calmly.

Fenrir leapt forward, immediately toppling Týr to the ground.  Týr was a large man and a skilled warrior, but Fenrir was the size of a small horse.  He pinned Týr to the ground and found anything his teeth could bite.  Loki only watched as Týr screamed beneath the animal, fighting against him.  But with no weapon, and one hand in Fenrir’s mouth, there was little he could do.

Soon, his screams alerted the men training their dogs.  The men ran over, arriving just in time for Loki to call Fenrir off.  Fenrir backed up, still growling as Týr writhed on the muddy ground.  The dogs that followed the men barked and yelped until Fenrir turned his growl at them.  Dogs and men alike took a step back.  The men shifted their attention between Fenrir and Loki, both of them covered in blood and filth, and needing to bathe.

“Take this man to a healer,” Loki commanded.

The men acted at once, rushing to Týr’s aid.  They helped him off the ground, both supporting him as they led him back through the tunnel toward their healer.  Once they were gone, Loki began to walk back toward his chambers with Fenrir at his heels.  With a tight hold on Fenrir’s neck, Loki took the same shortcut through the shadows, arriving back at his chambers in moments.  Ignoring his guards once more, Loki walked through his door and immediately began to shed items and clothing.  He dropped the sword onto the sofa near the door so he could start the painful task of removing his jacket.  Now that he was home, in his own space, he became acutely aware of every ache and pain in his body.  The weapon that had stabbed him in the back tore a searing pain through his shoulder as he tried to move his arm to free himself of the jacket.  When he managed that, he had the task of his shirt beneath it, and his undershirt beneath that.

Naked to the waist, Loki walked to his wash basin and found it empty.  Looking up in the mirror above the basin, Loki hardly recognised the unshaven mess of a man that looked back.  He realised he was still wearing his spectacles, and took them off and gently set them aside.

As he inspected his hair, trying to decide if he should grow it out naturally, or get it over with and attempt to magic it back to the length it had been before, the door to the corridor opened.  Loki peered around the door to find Eir herself walking in, trailed by two assistants.  Each of the women brought in trays and baskets of food, medicine, water, and trinkets.

With Eir present, Loki stepped back to give her room to work.  One of the girls filled the basin with water, while another stacked up fresh linens.  While they worked, Eir stepped close to Loki, peering at him curiously.  Her gaze lingered on his face longer than was comfortable, before she looked down at his shoulder.  The blade the soldier had used had cut completely through Loki’s back, leaving a long, open wound in front as well.

“I’ve seen worse,” Eir said after a moment.

“Shall we wash the dog too?” a meek voice behind Loki said.  

He turned to see one of the girls crouched down on the floor beside Fenrir.  The dog had sprawled out on the floor, soaking in the timid scratches from the girl.

“Yes.  And see that he’s fed,” Loki instructed.

The girl nodded and stood.  “Yes, my prince.”  She gasped when Fenrir stood as well, almost dwarfing her in height.  She and the other girl took Fenrir out of the room, leaving Loki alone with Eir.

“Let’s get you clean, first,” Eir said.

Loki sat on a bench and allowed Eir to work, wincing through the sting of water and soap in his fresh wounds.  “This is not Midgardian technology,” she observed.

Loki shook his head.  “No.  I’ve never seen anything like it myself.”  He did not think she needed to know what caused it.  He hadn’t even told his father that much.

Eir frowned and continued to scrub.  “Let me see all of you.”

He had been wearing his Asgardian form for so long, he had forgotten to take it off.  Loki released it, allowing his skin ot shift to its natural dark tones.  When he looked up again, Eir wore that same perplexing look on her face.

“I have never known the Jötnar to grow beards,” she said finally.

Loki reached up to touch his face, and was surprised to find himself still an unshaven mess.  “Well then what the hel’s this supposed to mean?” he asked.

“I do no know,” Eir admitted.

Loki had assumed it was his human form taking on a life of its own.  That his pathetic excuse for a beard still remained in his true form was certainly cause for alarm.  He watched Eir carefully as she re-directed her attention from cleaning Loki’s wounds to inspecting his face and head.  She hummed discontentedly to herself after a moment, before returning to work.

Once he was clean, she was able to begin the healing process, but her magic refused to work.  Potions and elixirs did nothing, healing stones only burned his skin, and her magic had no effect at all.

“We’ll do this the old-fashioned way I suppose,” she said, finally giving up.  

She dressed his wounds, wrapping him tightly in the fresh linens, with instructions to rest.  They were instructions Loki was all to glad to follow.  By the time Eir gathered her supplies and left, the food she had brought was cold, but Loki didn’t care.  Cold food was still food he hadn’t had to hunt for himself, or scrape out of a disgusting tin can.  Fatty boar, fresh bread, and mead.  He even devoured the potatoes and turnips.

As he put his plate aside to climb into bed, he heard the door to the corridor opening once more, followed by the rapid tapping of claws on stone floor.  Fenrir rushed through the room and leapt into bed with Loki.  When he saw the dog in the kennels, Loki had hoped he only looked so ragged from the mud in his coat.  But even now, clean and freshly groomed, it was clear he had been starved.  Loki’s anger flared all over again as he pulled the dog close to him, burying his face and fingers deep into his fur.  He had not realised until that moment how much he had missed this; how much he had needed it.

Thor had done nothing to protect him.  Nor had Odin.  It was as if they had not expected him to return at all.

“Next time, I’m taking you with me,” he promised.  “I’m not leaving you here again.”

 

« ||

Midgard Legends #25: Bivouac

The sun hadn’t even started to come up by the time the four of them were awake and ready to start developing their plan.  They spread their maps out on a table, lit by oil lamps and their flashlights, all crowded around the small surface.  They were still a long way from their target, separated by some of the harshest terrain they’d come across yet.  It was going to be an entirely new hell, across untamed lands that stretched on for hundreds of miles in any direction.

“Even if we find another truck, it’s never going to get over all that,” Barnes said, shaking his head.

He was right, but they couldn’t just turn around and give up.

“What’s the alternative?” Loki asked, trying not to give in to the overwhelming despair that threatened to cripple the squad.  “Walk a thousand miles across the Arctic?”  He’d survive, but none of the others would.

“What about those dogs?” Rogers asked.  “Think you could get a few teams up there?”

Loki shook his head.  “We’d need at least four teams, minimum.  Double that if we wanted to take any amount of supplies with us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I can teach seven other people to drive dogs when I can barely do it myself.”

Rogers nodded, glaring down at their map.

“And then there’s this.”  Barnes pointed to a narrow strait separating them from the rest of Russia.  “Can we expect ice here, or do we need to go all the way around?”

It was a good question, and one nobody had an answer for.  “We’ll ask a local,” Rogers said.  “Maybe we can find someone able to ferry us across.”

“How much can we trust the locals?”  Loki didn’t trust any of them.  Not the ones in camp, or any others, no matter what the official situation with Stalin was.  They’d run into too many turncoats and spies already, and he didn’t expect that to stop just because they’d crossed another border.

“I don’t suppose we can fly the rest of the way?” Barnes asked sardonically.

“Even if we could find a plane,” Bruttenholm said, looking up like he was stepping on everyone’s toes just by being there, “we’d find ourselves having to take the roughest portion by foot.  You won’t land a plane close enough, and jumping would be suicide.”

“If we can even find a plane,” Rogers said.

“What about snowmobiles?” Coulson asked.

The four around the table all turned to look at him, curiously listening in from where he sprawled lazily on a cot.  “A what?” Rogers asked.

Loki and Barnes both looked to one another, silently asking if the other knew what Coulson was talking about.  The agreement between the two of them was a shrug and shake of the head.

“That’s what my old man calls them,” Coulson said.  “Every winter he’d take a bunch of old bike parts lying around the shop and bolt them to a sled.  We’d take them upstate and go tearing up some field somewhere.”

“Snowmobile,” Rogers said.  He nodded slowly.  “How long would that take you to put together?”

Coulson sat up and shrugged.  “With the parts we have, I could throw one together in a few hours.  Should be able to hold a couple people and some supplies.  We can probably beg some more parts off the locals.  Take a few days and build a fleet.”

Rogers looked to Loki and Barnes.

“Snowmobiles?” Barnes asked.

They looked back down at the map, and Rogers nodded again.  “Snowmobiles,” he repeated.  “If we don’t come up with anything better in the meantime.”

With more planning left to do, Loki left Rogers with Barnes and Bruttenholm to figure it out while he went out with Coulson to scrounge supplies.  They stopped by Rogers’ bike first, moving it from beneath the canvas sheet they’d hidden it under out into the open so Coulson could get a good look at it.

“The mechanics are all pretty good, but it’s the chassis and suspension that’s blown,” he explained, pointing with his flashlight at the bits that were held together with twisted wire and someone’s belt.

“What parts do you need?” Loki asked.  He didn’t understand any of it, so far removed was the technology from the methods on Asgard that even the Alltongue didn’t seem to be translating properly.

“The chassis won’t be load-bearing as much once it’s stripped down.  The wheels will go.  Replace the front one with the skis from the sled, and the back one with a track.”  He looked around the snow-covered camp, like he expected to see something.  “Not sure where we’ll get something like that, but if we can figure it out, it’ll be the hardest part of it.”

Loki looked around as well.  The camp was mostly quiet in the pre-dawn morning.  

“We’re in a mining camp,” he said.  He’d been in one before, during an earlier visit to the realm.  He’d spent most of his time in the camp then, gambling in the saloons and drinking with the miners, but curiosity demanded he go out to the claims to see what all the fuss was about.  Midgardian technology had advanced slightly since then, but he imagined the very basics of their rigs would be the same.  “There’s going to be some sort of track or conveyor that isn’t being used.”

Coulson considered this for a moment, nodding along.  “If it’s not too heavy, it should work,” he agreed.  He stood up and nodded down what passed for a road in the camp.  “Come on, let’s go see what we can find.”

Loki got up and walked through the snow with him, trying to find the lay of the camp.  The dogs Loki had rode in on were all kennelled on the far end of camp, just before the path that led to the mines themselves.  Their plan to take dogs would not have gone very far, since the team the fake Petrov had met them with was the only team the camp seemed to have.  They had trucks and other vehicles that weren’t going to be much use getting across frozen marshlands, and very little else.  More importantly, they had no shortage of sleds and toboggans, which meant that they needed only find engines and tracks.  The rest could be fabricated with whatever scrap was lying around.

Finally, they got to where the brunt of the work was being done in camp.  Towering machines stood out against the slowly rising sun on the horizon, casting an imposing image on the endless landscape.  Machines that crushed up rocks into grit, and collected the grit and sent it off to be smelted and refined into whatever these men were digging out of the ground.

“Is this what we’re looking for?” Loki asked.

Coulson trotted over, shining his flashlight at the particular bit of machinery Loki had his light on.  A long, narrow belt made of linked steel plates was poised to send the rocks up to be crushed.

“Yeah,” Coulson nodded.  “I think that could work.”  He looked over at Loki, visibly concerned even in the dim light.  “Now how do you plan on getting them to hand it over?”

Loki looked around.  The camp would be waking up soon.  “What do you think the odds are of a broken one sitting around somewhere?”

Coulson’s contraptions were terrifying.  They rattled and rumbled and threatened to fall apart at the slightest cross wind.  Turning involved a wide circle and a nearly broken shoulder as the skis dug into the snow and dragged the machines to one direction or the other, more than guiding them, and he had warned everyone of the catastrophic possibility that their tracks might fail, and if that happened, they’d have just enough time to realise they were about to break their necks.  It was not an experience Loki wished to repeat on this damnable mission.

But they were quick.  Quicker than the horses, or the dogs, or the reindeer across the snow and quagmire, and the small two-stroke engines used between them less fuel than the Opel ever did by miles.  They crossed the peninsula in less than a day, sticking as far north as they dared before riding over uncertain sea ice.  At the strait, they lost only a few hours at the town at the end of this leg of their journey, having only then been able to arrange passage across to the mainland.  The ice over the water was loose, in large, treacherous sheets that would tip and drown anyone who dared to try to cross on them.  They soon found a captain of a fishing trawler willing to take them across for a small barter of rations and supplies, and they were on their way again into the endless Russian night.

They rode hard across the tundra, resting only when they needed to.  By cutting a wide arc ever northward, they added only a bit of distance to their ride, making up for it by avoiding whatever skirmishes and squabbles were happening on the Eastern Front.  But even that wasn’t enough to put Loki at ease.  Coulson’s insane machines were too flimsy to be ridden in Loki’s natural form, forcing him to shift back again.  Every bump in the terrain and strong gust of wind only reminded him of horses and French fields, and he knew exactly what would happen to himself if the machine dug its nose into the snow. 

After several days, the terrain became harsher, even for Coulson’s death trap machines.  Tundra gave way to hills and inclines, and in breaks in the weather, their next foe loomed over them on the horizon.  The mountains weren’t the high, craggy peaks they’d had to brave in Switzerland, but they were still mountains, and their target was somewhere deep in the middle of the range.  Up until then, they had followed maps to get where they were going, but now what they sought was not on any map the Army possessed.  The camp they made at the base of the mountains that night would be their last before they had to stow their snow machines and hike the rest of the way on foot.

“We should be on the right track,” Brutttenholm said, poring over the map.  “The location described is said to be between two rivers, in a valley, between two peaks, and two flooded valleys like cuts in the land.”

Their maps were not that detailed.  Neither were their aerial photos.  Everyone in the squad was given the task of studying every piece of information they had.

“Cuts?” Pinkerton asked.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I think,” Bruttenholm said, his voice wavering, “it might perhaps mean something like a rift.  Or perhaps a canyon.  The translations are not always direct when the source was written in metaphor to begin with.”

The entire squad went quiet again as they all studied what they’d been given.  Loki used the opportunity to attempt once more to scry ahead, but without knowing what he was looking for, or where to find it, he was still just as lost as the rest of them.

“Hey, what’s this?” Morita said suddenly.  He put his photograph into the light of their lamps so the others could see.  “These kind of dark lines.  That looks like water, doesn’t it?”

He was pointing at two lakes, miles long, and almost completely straight.  Both lakes bordered on two peaks within the mountains, which created a valley between them.

“Are there rivers in there?” he asked.

They began comparing Morita’s photo against maps, trying to locate the area relative to their position.  They were a bit too far south, if that were the location, but not so far south as to complicate matters.  Barnes quickly measured the distance on his map, and then double check it.

“It’s less than thirty miles, in a straight line,” he said.  “If we can find a path through, we could make the objective tomorrow.”

“How likely is that?” Rogers asked.

Bruttehnholm didn’t answer immediately, taking a moment to realise he was the one being spoken to.  “I’ve never been here,” he said, shaking his head.  “If we’re on the right track, there may be certain signs to look for, but Alexander the Great would have done it on foot.  I doubt he was summiting any peaks to get there.”

Rogers nodded.  “What signs?” he asked.

Again, Bruttenholm shook his head.  “Literal signs, possibly,” he said.  “Or, depending on what we find, anything.”

“And you’re sure you know where we’re going?” Rogers asked.

Bruttenholm bent over to study the spot marked on the map.  “Reasonably certain, yes.  The spot we’re looking for is in the Arctic Circle, but in 330BC, the Arctic Circle might have been significantly farther south, I think.”  He nodded, still considering the map.  “But not so much farther south that I think anywhere else might fit that bill.  I think we should aim for this location.”

“Should we send a scouting party?” Pinkerton asked.  “To make sure?”

Rogers considered this for a moment.  “No.  We stick together.  It’s only thirty miles.  It’ll turn into more when we find our path, but if we head out early, the sun might still be up when we get there.”

“We’re looking for a valley in the mountains,” Loki said.  “Where there’s valleys, you tend to find rivers, and rivers tend to be flat.”  He rotated the map to be able to see better, and picked up a pencil from their canvas workspace.  “We can trace this river along its course here,” he said, working the pencil backwards from the spot Morita had found.  “Take our northward voyage before the mountains and enter at this location here.  It couldn’t more than double the distance.”

“Sixty miles,” Rogers said.  “If we can take the snow machines up through most of it, we can still have some daylight left when we get there.”

“And if we can’t?” Barnes asked.

“We walk,” Loki said simply.

 

They followed a river that coursed in every direction except where they meant to go.  While Loki’s assumptions about the shape of the terrain had been correct, it hadn’t taken into account the change of seasons or the weather.  The river was already swollen, leaving the banks a soggy, muddy mess, forcing the squad to follow single-file along the slopes on either side.  This too had its dangers.  The snow was soft and prone to collapsing beneath the weight of the machines, forcing them to move at a considerably slower pace. 

“We ditch here,” Rogers announced as they came to a long, twisting lake ahead of them.  He pulled out his map to consult it and made a mark on the page.  “This is about halfway, and we’re not going to get anything around these banks safely,” he said, pointing.  The water had spilled out from the lake’s banks, forcing the only route along a much steeper edge.  

“We’re not going to make it by sundown then,” Dugan said.  “It’s already past ten.”

“Then we’ll camp,” Rogers announced.  Without waiting for another word from anybody, he got off his machine and started picking up his supplies from the back.  “Single file.  Stay in the tracks of the person ahead of you.”

One by one, they all got off their machines and followed after Rogers along the slope.  Bruttenholm was going to slow them down again, but now more than ever they needed him by their side.  In case they hadn’t found the right place, or in case they had, and it was guarded by some magic Loki didn’t know.  They kept him at the back of the pack, where a deep enough trough had been cut through the snow to prevent Bruttenholm from falling too far behind.  He’d walked across half of France with them, and if he suffered as they walked through some frozen Russian mountain range, he kept it to himself.  Everyone kept their suffering to themselves.  The air was bitingly cold, but the effort of moving through the snow made the men overheated and exhausted.  It was a bigger danger than the cold on its own.  Now that they had all been drenched in sweat from the exertion, stopping was a death sentence.  They’d freeze at once.

Camp that night was cold and miserable, bivouacked on a steep slope with winds whipping high above them, and a swollen, half-frozen river far below them.  They were two or three men to a tent, surviving off one another’s warmth and little else.  They’d been hauling supplies for the mountains since their drop in Norway, but nothing had prepared them for what mountaineering actually meant.

“Man, the doc had better be right about this, because we are screwed if we get there and find a bunch of nothing,” Coulson said, rummaging through his pack for any last stragglers from his rations.  Like everyone else, he had little to nothing left in his supply.

“Here, have some coffee,” Morita said, passing him a tin cup.

“I have any more coffee, and I’m gonna shit my fucking brains out right here on this mountain,” Coulson said.

Loki and Morita exchanged a quick glance.  “Don’t mind if I do,” Loki said as he took the cup.  It was too hot and too weak, but better than eating snow.

“What are we supposed to do when we get there?” Coulson went on.  “It’s not like we’re going to walk into a mess hall with hot food.  It’s still a fucking mountain, and we still have to get off it.  That’s another two days of starving.  Plus we have to hold the place.  How the hell are we supposed to do that with no rations and no resupply?”

Loki sighed and handed the coffee to Coulson, giving him the choice of taking it or letting it be spilled in his lap.

“Fuck,” he muttered, taking off his overcoat and reaching for his gear.  He’d restocked on arrows while they were in the mining camp, and was hoping to hold onto them for a change.

“Where’re you going?” Coulson asked.

“To do something about us all starving to death,” Loki said, taking his bow and quiver and squirming out of the tent.  He considered letting Rogers know he was leaving, but it wasn’t worth it.  He didn’t even know what he might find out in this wasteland, but there weren’t many other options.  

He trudged down the slope toward the river, knowing that if anything were out there, it would probably want to drink.  Out in the snow, alone, he slipped into his true form to better see in the darkness and ignore the cold.  Even then, starving and exhausted, he was more comfortable than he remembered being in a very long time.  It felt like he could breathe for the first time in months.  The white, snow-covered valley stood in heavy contrast in the dark night, and he thought he could see a deep rut in the snow on the other side of the river.  Not wanting to risk crossing the dangerous waters, Loki followed from the far bank.  The tracks were not small, but the snow was deep enough that he couldn’t tell if he was following where the animal had gone, or where it had come from.  But they looked fresh, and continued to do so, so he continued to follow.  

After over an hour of following the tracks, his patience won out.  The animal had come to a wide part of the river, where the water was shallow, and crossed over to his side.  Once he was at the tracks, he could see the direction they were heading, away from the river.  He continued to follow as the animal cut a path through the sparse trees.  Low branches had been broken and twisted, torn from the trunks and left hanging in the creature’s wake.  The height of the damage made Loki pause and look at the tracks again.  He had hoped for an elk, or maybe a large deer.  But even elk did not tend to cause so much damage.  Knowing he couldn’t lose the animal regardless, Loki followed it further, walking in its tracks to make less noise.  Broken trees meant the animal had been stopping to eat, which gave Loki an advantage to catch up.  After another hour of walking, he finally spied the giant black figure against the snow up ahead, lazily picking at vegetation as it trundled along.  He hated moose.  Ever since he was a boy, Loki hated them.  If it charged him, it might not have killed him, but it would make him regret his decision to follow after it.  He crouched in the animal’s tracks and drew an arrow from his quiver, moving slowly to stay as quiet as possible.  As he drew the bow, it didn’t click or rattle like his rifle did.  He pulled the string back silently, lining up his shot and waiting for the right moment.  He could not fell a moose with a longbow.  Not without using every last one of his arrows.  But he could do it with three if he timed his actions just right.  He spared a quick glance at his belt to make sure his bayonet was where it was supposed to be, and wasted no further time.  He loosed his arrow and immediately drew another.  The arrow hit the moose in the side of the neck, enraging the animal in an instant.  It threw its antlers around and gave blind charge at Loki, receiving a second arrow in the shoulder, followed by a third directly beneath.  The moose stumbled in its charge, but was not dissuaded.  Loki tossed his bow to the side and grabbed his bayonet from his belt, still crouching low in the snow.  He waited until the moose was all but on top of him before he threw his empty hand at it, blinding it with a flash of hot, white light.  The moose reared, flinging his head back and exposing its neck for Loki’s blade.  He dug it deep into the animal’s flesh and held on, letting the moose’s own weight pull the bayonet across its neck.  Its hooves flailed wildly.  One of them caught Loki in the side of his head, but he still held onto his blade.  Blood poured from the animal, soaking Loki and the snow around him as it fell, still kicking and braying.  Loki jumped quickly out of the way to avoid further punishment from its hooves and antlers and finished the job, slicing across its neck and killing it.

A bayonet was not a good butchering tool, but it was a problem easily remedied.  Loki had knives and other weapons stored in his secret spaces, and it was from there he pulled a blade more suited to the job.  He took off his coat and shirt and crouched beside the animal to begin the task of butchering it.  He could have likely dragged the animal back to camp, but would have no adequate explanation for having moved a 1000 pound animal by himself.  If the rest wanted to eat, they could help.

He worked quickly not particularly caring about cutting the animal up for ageing or proper curing.  He had no saw to cut through the bone, but his silversteel blade was sharp enough to do the job with considerable force behind it.  He quartered the animal the best he could, and would further butcher and cook it at camp.  With the moose gutted and quartered, he’d possibly halved its weight, which was still a suspicious haul on his own.  He cut the antlers off, hiding them along with his blade back in his secret place, and dressed again, putting his shirt on.  His jacket was already soaked from his hunting method, so he dropped one of the front quarters onto it, and stepped into the shadows.  He stepped out again at the base of the slope, leaving the moose quarter there and walking up to the tents.  At his return, he could see several faces poking out at him, and he was suddenly reminded of his form.  They couldn’t see him from that far away in the dark, so he quickly shifted back and climbed up the slope.

“Moose,” he said, pointing down the slope at his jacket.  He feigned breathlessness, pointing downstream next.  “Three more pieces down there.  If we hurry, we can get to it before the wolves do.”

He bent over, leaning on his knees as Rogers stepped out of his tent with a flashlight, followed by Barnes and Bruttenholm.  “You went hunting?” Rogers asked, his voice skirting an uncomfortable line between grateful and accusatory.

“It was that or starve,” Loki said.  He stood up, and held his arms out to his side.  “I grew up doing this.”

“Your head,” Rogers said.

Loki touched the spot on the side of his head where the moose had kicked him.  Blood had run down the side of his face, and was still sticky on his skin.

“It’s nothing,” he said.  “I’d already forgotten.”

Rogers nodded and looked behind him.  “Dugan.  Jones.  Go help him get the rest,” he said, already heading down to collect what Loki had brought back.

“Bring canvas,” Loki said.  “An error I regret making.”

The two headed out of their tents with the canvas tent covers for bad weather and followed him back down the trail.  He moved more quickly this time, knowing where he was going and not caring about making noise and frightening game.  Once they made it to the kill, they loaded the remaining quarters onto the canvas.  As Loki picked up his bow and quiver, he stopped to examine the animal. 

“I think I will have the pelt,” he said, picking it up.  It had not been his best job at skinning an animal, but he thought the moose pelt might go nicely with his polar bear.

“You killed that thing by yourself?” Dugan asked, looking at all the carnage from the field dressing process.

“Not the first time,” Loki said, telling only a small lie.  He’d never felled a moose before.  “It’s tradition in my village for an elder to lead a group of kids who have turned sixteen that year out for their first hunt.  Nobody goes home until everybody kills something.”

They began hauling the canvas through the snow, using the moose’s tracks for less resistance.  “And you killed a moose?” Jones asked.

Loki grinned at him.  “And you should have seen the looks on their faces.”

Both the other men laughed.  They took considerably longer getting back to camp than it had taken them to get to the kill, but they were met with the rest of the hard work already done for them.  A fire had been built, with the first quarter already roasting above the flames.  They left the other three quarters nearby as Loki walked over to examine the progress.

“We’ll head out late tomorrow,” Rogers said.  “Use the daylight to see to that.”  He pointed to the butchered moose and nodded at Loki.

“I can have it done tonight,” Loki said.  He could go a night without sleep, and welcomed the opportunity to do so; to do something familiar.  “Everything will be rationed out by sunrise.”  He’d have to cheat to do so, but as long as everyone else was asleep, they’d never know the difference.

Rogers looked at him skeptically, but nodded all the same.  “All right,” he said.  He looked around the camp, and nodded again.  “Good.”

Loki watched him and the others return to their tents, exhausted.  He’d wait about an hour before he helped everything along and made good on his promise.  And while he waited, he began to work on his pelt.

« || »

Midgard Legends #24: Sled Dogs

The two-ton Opel showed its age more and more with each passing mile.  Even sticking to the few roads so far north, the terrain tore at the truck, takings its toll on the engine and trim alike.  They also needed fuel.  The truck took more than they could carry, and got thirsty fast.  Every chance they got, they stopped to beg, borrow, or steal fuel for the old beast.  More than once, their path took them straight through a German post, with no option to go around or double back without running the tank dry or sinking into a bog.  Their only option was to do everything they could to eliminate the post and loot what they could, and they were getting good at it.  A few gallons here and there got them to the next town, and the next, and the next.  Soon, towns became fewer and farther between, stretching the absolute limits of the Opel’s range before they could resupply for the next leg of the journey.  They rode through the dark, Dugan and Jones swapping off on driving duty and checking dash gauges by flashlight.  The rest of the squad huddled in the back, their coats pulled high to protect against the wind that whipped through the battered and abused canopy.  Every bump and stone on the roads travelled through the shot suspension straight into their bones, shaking and jarring everything so badly that nobody got any useful sleep.  But after two days of dark driving and good luck, fjords giving way to an endless expanse of gently sloping wilderness, the water came back on their left.  According to their map, that meant they were close.  Soon the water faded into the distance again, replaced by low, rocky hills, scattered with sickly birch trees on either side.

“Everyone ready,” Rogers said from the front seat.  “Who knows what we’ll find up here.”

That was all anyone needed to hear.  They grabbed their rifles from the floor and checked their ammo.  If it was a fight they were lumbering into, they were prepared to give as good as they got.  With Bruttenholm secure against the front wall, the rest were ready to take charge or take cover with him.  Nobody said a word, listening instead to the vast emptiness around them, cut through by the rumble of the truck’s engine.  

“I think that was it,” Jones said, looking over his shoulder for a moment.

They’d passed a post on the side of the road, but any barrier it might have held was long gone.

“That was easy,” Rogers said, the frown evident in his voice.

He was right though.  They’d avoided crossing borders as much as possible to avoid the trouble of patrols and border checks.  Maybe it was the fact that they were well within the Arctic Circle, but it didn’t seem right.  Somebody should have been there.

“Look alive,” Rogers said.  “We might be looking at a trap.”

“Yay, another trap,” Coulson grumbled.  

Still, he readied his rifle and sat up in his seat.  Tired and worn down as they all were, they weren’t going to let it end now just because they wanted a nap.

The drive was tense and quiet as everyone focused on the darkness around them.  Danger lurked in the darkness, and none of them could see it.  Several times, Loki tried to reach out, but either there was truly nothing there, or he simply didn’t know what he was looking for.  Finally, an hour after crossing the border, a single torch lit the side of the road in the distance.

“I think this is our guy,” Jones said.  

Rogers nodded.  “Let’s not assume anything.”

Still, Jones drove toward the light and stopped just before it.  On the side of the road, a man with a dog team was waiting for them, huddled in a dense, fur-lined coat.  Rogers opened his door, stepping out into the snow with his shield.  

“Olson, you’re up,” he called back.

Loki got out from the back of the truck, stepping quickly to catch up with Rogers.  In the dim light, he could see Rogers’ hand near his sidearm, which probably was not the worst decision he’d ever made.

“Mr Petrov,” Rogers said before deferring to Loki.  

Loki hated this.  Pretending to speak a language poorly was more difficult than ignoring the Alltongue and not speaking the language at all.  But it was his own stupid cover story, and now he was stuck with it.

Greetings,” he said.  “Mr Petrov, I assume?

Petrov nodded.  “You’re the Americans?” he asked.

Mostly.  You have information for us?”  

Loki watched the way the man stood.  There was something wrong.  He was too sure of himself, out in this frozen wasteland.  Not at all frightened enough of a truck full of soldiers rolling up in the middle of the night.  

Petrov nodded and took a step closer.

Yes.  You need a guide to the Fountain.  I’m that man,” he said, still too confident.

Loki looked over at Rogers, stepping to the side away from the lamp.  

“He says he’s supposed to guide us,” he said.  

That wasn’t right.  Rogers knew it, and Loki knew it.  Nobody was supposed to know their objective, but apparently nobody had told this man that.  Under the guise of defrosting his spectacles, Loki lowered his gaze and changed his eyes.  Hoping the play of light would hide him momentarily, Loki used his advantage to get a better look at the scene around him.  The dogs were huddled together in front of the sled, napping in the cold.  It looked as if this wasn’t where they had originally stopped—snow had been churned up and stomped down for a long tract down the road.  Then Loki saw the sled, its contents dishevelled and seemingly overturned.

“Did the plan change?” Rogers asked.

Loki shrugged, buying time.  He didn’t know how much English the man claiming to be Petrov knew, and didn’t want to relay too much information to Rogers and show his hand.  

By guide, you mean maps and routes?” he asked, making sure to pause in the right places and stumble over words.

Then he saw the unmistakable black smear on one of the skids.  None of the dogs were injured, and all seemed to be accounted for in their harnesses.  The way Petrov was standing, tall and sure, he definitely wasn’t injured enough to have lost that amount of blood.

No, no,” Petrov said.  “You need a guide.  You’ll never cross Russia alone.  It would be death,” he said.

Loki hid his eyes again and put his spectacles back on.  They didn’t have a code or secret phrase for this situation, but Rogers had picked up some rudimentary French on their way through the country.  Banking on Petrov not speaking any, Loki went with the only plan he had.

There’s blood,” Loki muttered quietly.

He could see Rogers tense, even in the darkness.  He understood.

“Ask him how he knows where we’re going,” Rogers said.

Loki nodded, getting ready for the inevitable.  “And how do you know where our journey takes us?” he asked, dropping all pretence of not speaking the language.  “Do you really think we need a guide to the Fountain?  We’ve already made it this far, haven’t we?

It was enough for Petrov to know he’d been had.  A brief, awkward pause between the three of them was all the warning they got before he pulled a weapon out of his coat and fired at the truck.  It didn’t fire bullets, but a blast of blue energy that lit up the tundra around them.  The blast hit the Opel’s front fender, shattering the wheel and axle under the truck’s enormous weight.  Rogers and Loki both drew their sidearms as Petrov fired again, this time at the loose canopy and those inside.  He had the advantage of ammo, but he was firing blind at his unknown target.  Loki and Rogers both fired their pistols at him, unloading rounds until he fell to the ground.  By the time he was dead in a growing black pool of his own blood in the snow, the others had only just started to get out of the truck and onto their feet.

“The fuck was that?” Dugan demanded, looking down at the dead man.  

Loki stepped forward, putting his last round through the man’s skull for good measure.  “Spy,” he said.  “Here for the professor, no doubt.”

Rogers nodded, humming quietly to himself.  “We need to find a way to send him back,” he said.  “It was a mistake to bring him.  I’ve thought so for a while.”

“How do you propose to do such a thing?” Loki asked, damning the chain of command as so many others had already done to him.

“He’s right,” Dugan said.  “I didn’t haul him all over Europe just to send him back right when we need him.”

“We can’t exactly send two-way messages either,” Loki pointed out.  Rogers didn’t know this was a lie, making it the best chance they had.

Rogers frowned at both of them.  “He’s a target,” he said.

“We all are, Cap,” Jones said from behind them.  They all turned to see him shining his flashlight at the front of the truck.  “We ain’t going anywhere with her looking like this.”  

They’d spent so much time in stolen Opels that it was almost a painful sight to see the entire front end crushed and crumpled like that.  What was left of the front wheel had been pushed all the way up into the engine housing, with the twisted fender pushing into the ground.

“Shit,” Rogers hissed.

“I can drive dogs,” Loki said.  It was also a lie, but he could drive reindeer and horses.  Dogs couldn’t have been too much different.  “Not well, but I can.  I can take the Professor and one more to scout ahead.  We can find a place, leave Broom protected, and I’ll come back somehow for the rest of you.”

Rogers didn’t respond right away, mulling it over nosily as he grit his teeth.  It was a bad plan, but it was a plan.  Unless they intended to walk single file across Russia.  Finally, he nodded.  

“Everyone, dig in,” he said.  “Howlett, go with them.  Twelve hours.  After that, we push on ahead and hope to meet up.”

“I’ll be back,” Loki said.  

He walked to the sled to see what was packed on it.  Blankets, some weak rations.  He tossed the rations over to Rogers.  The group would need them more.  The blankets would be needed for the two on the sled.  Once the weight was significantly reduced, he nodded over for the other two to climb in.  

“It’s going to be cold,” he warned.  

Howlett got in first, making room for Bruttenholm between his knees.  Once they were settled as well as they could be, Loki passed the heavy blanket down to them.

“Well, this is cosy,” Howlett said.

“Enjoy it while it lasts.”  

Loki didn’t have much experience with Midgardian dogs, but he didn’t imagine they’d behave much differently than dogs on Asgard.  He pulled on the leads to rouse the dogs and righted the sled to face in the correct direction before whistling sharply, getting the dogs’ attention on him.

“I’ll be back before you know it,” he said.  

He called the dogs in Asgardian twice before they seemed to realise he was talking to them, and a third time before they got the point and started going in the proper direction.  He wasn’t sure if they understood his commands, or were just eager to do their job, but they stayed on the road as they ran, pulling the sled along behind them.  Out in the open, the wind cut deeply, silencing any talk from any of the men as they travelled through the dark.  With only the lamp to guide them, the tundra was an endless, foreboding black expanse.  Loki didn’t dare think about what monsters might be lurking out there, unseen in the wilderness.

The dogs seemed to know their way home, and ran with little instruction from Loki.  Which was good, because he had no idea where they were going.  Even with the sled cruising at an even pace, when he tried to scry ahead he found nothing. The dogs had to have come from somewhere, but the road seemed to lead further into the wilderness, rather than out of it.

“Who has the time?” he called out after too long driving the dogs.

There was a brief pause while the men in the sled shuffled around.  “Half past ten,” Bruttenholm said finally.

“Is that all?”  It felt much later than that, but maybe this Land of Eternal Darkness had some clout behind it.  The days should have been getting longer, but what did that mean in a frozen, northern wasteland?

“What time was it when we left?” Howlett called back.

“I didn’t think to check,” Loki said, irritated with himself for the oversight.  

“And I don’t imagine that guy had a map,” Howlett said.

“No,” Loki said.  “I suspect his objective was to either kill or capture Broom.”  

“Not you?” Bruttenholm asked.

Loki thought on that for a moment.  He should have ignored it, or twisted the words, but his cover wasn’t exactly blown if Howlett already knew anyway.  

“I don’t think they know where to find me,” he said after a moment.

“All right.  What’s the deal with you?  He knows something’s up.  I wanna know too.  I know that martian shit is all bullshit,” Howlett said.  “You one of them secret experiments or something?  Like Cap?”

“No,” Loki said.  “I’m nothing like the Captain.”  He let it sit there for a moment, still not sure how much he wanted to divulge.  But maybe it would be helpful if he had two on his side.  It might come in useful later, if he ever needed to make a hasty escape.  “I’m far more than that.  My father is Odin, King of Asgard, Allfather to gods and men alike.  I’m here because it’s the one place he doesn’t look for me.  And you lot are ruining that by trying to kill one another with a power far beyond your human understanding.”

Howlett was silent for a surprisingly long moment.  “Is that true?” he asked.

“It most certainly is,” Loki said.

“If you’re a god, why don’t you just snap your fingers and end it all?” Howlett asked.

Loki shook his head.  “I’m not that kind of god.  Strictly speaking, I’m not a god at all yet.  I have no more power to end this war than you do.”

“So you’re just another rich brat that got drafted,” Howlett declared.

“No,” Loki said.  “I’m a rich brat that enlisted.”

Howlett hummed loudly.  “That all true?” he asked Bruttenholm.

“To my knowledge, yes,” he said.  “I was there when Rasputin opened the portal and called something through.  We found one of the entities he summoned, and I’d thought for a time that Mr Olson was a second, but he was already on Earth when it happened.  Whatever else is out there, we can only hope Hitler wasn’t successful in finding it.”

“What kind of entities?” Howlett asked.

“Chaos gods,” Bruttenholm said plainly.

Loki felt his heart skip a beat.  Bruttenholm had told him some of this, but he was exhausted and hadn’t heard everything.

“I did come through,” he said.  “I was in Italy.  The company was ambushed, fighting for our lives, and suddenly I was outside some broken old church getting rained on.”

Rasputin was summoning chaos gods, and Loki was grabbed up by the spell.  Spells like that tended to discriminate quite harshly.

“Who’s the god you found?” he asked.  “What pantheon?”

“I don’t know,” Bruttenholm answered awkwardly.  “He’s a infant.  He’s not old enough to talk, it doesn’t seem.”

Loki couldn’t help but laugh.  The situation was so unbelievably bad, and yet, had somehow managed to be worse for the other side.  

“He attempted to summon chaos gods, and all he could find was me and an infant?” he asked.

He would have laughed, had he not known better.  This war was not going to end on Midgard.  This was the catalyst to something much, much bigger.

“I regret ever asking anything,” Howlett said.  “I was going along with this Fountain of Youth thing because it didn’t seem any stranger than what I’ve already seen.  You’re telling me we’re really going to find something?”

“Most certainly.  I was taken there once as a child,” Loki said.  “And Hydra knows we’re after it.”

It was nearly midnight before they saw lights in the distance.  Loki managed to stop the dogs after several attempts, and got off the sled to get a better look at what lay ahead.  There was a small village, small enough to be more of an outpost, on the road ahead.  Chances were the people residing there would be friendly toward their cause, but Loki wasn’t prepared to take chances.  Not after the night they’d already had.

“You two stay here,” he said, checking his sidearm, and realising he hadn’t reloaded after leaving Petrov in the snow.  He loaded his last magazine and primed a round so he’d be ready.  “What’s your ammo like?”

“Same as everyone else,” Howlett said.  Loki knew that meant he had next to nothing.  They had to resupply.  If that meant killing every man in the village and taking their supplies, so be it.

“I’m going to go take a closer look,” he said, holstering his sidearm.  

Without waiting for a response, Loki stepped into the shadows and followed them across the tundra, and stepped out from a scrubby clump of shrubs just outside of the village.  Most of the small, squat buildings were dark, but some had lanterns and lamps lit inside. Loki carefully walked between the buildings, still hiding in the shadows while he peered inside.  The timber cabins were just as bleak on the inside as they were on the outside, sparsely furnished save the cots the men slept on and the stone stove along the wall, and a few wooden chairs.  Even in the dim light, the men were dirty and worn thin from hard work.  A mining outpost, no doubt.  Not soldiers, but still likely armed to protect themselves against invasions of hostile forces, or hostile bears.

Polar bears lived in the north, Loki remembered.  He hoped to never see another one in his life.

He checked every cabin with lights on, and a few that were dark.  None of the men he found in any of them appeared to be out in the frozen wastes for any reason other than digging holes and collecting rocks.  Satisfied that the outpost would be a safe bet, Loki stepped out of the shadows and knocked on the door to one of the lit cabins.  He could hear cautious movement inside before the door finally opened, revealing a gruff, bearded man and a shotgun.

Do you know a man named Petrov?” Loki asked, taking a gamble that he was sure would pay off.

The man didn’t answer right away, taking a moment to study the sight before him first.  “He sent you?” he asked.

I’m afraid he’s dead,” Loki said, wondering if this was the best idea.  “The man we met was an impostor.  Also dead.

The man studied Loki for a moment longer, lowering his gun just a bit.  “You’re the Americans?” he asked.

Loki nodded, looking around the outpost for signs of any other movement, but nobody else seemed willing to step out into the unreasonably cold night.  “One of them.  I have two more with the dogs, and the rest of our squad is several hours back.

The man nodded and stepped aside to let Loki in, finally lowering his gun completely.  “A new group of men came into camp three weeks ago.  They don’t work hard, and eat too much.  I suspect they’re spies,” he said.

They were most definitely spies.  “How many?  And where?” Loki asked.

The man walked toward the window and pointed out at a cabin near the road.  “Five.  In there.

Well.  Five would be easy enough.  And they’d no doubt have supplies and rations.  

Allow me,” he said, holding his hand out for the shotgun.  

After a moment’s hesitation, his new friend handed it over.  Loki breeched it, finding both barrels loaded.  It would be enough for the initial shock, with his own brute strength and what was in his sidearm taking care of the rest.  With little more than a nod, Loki walked out of the cabin and toward the interlopers with a very specific purpose.  Theirs was one of the dark cabins, no doubt because the men inside were not accustomed to the harsh climate and conditions.  They were here for a different mission, but had been poorly prepared and were likely sleeping away the long, cold nights.

He knew he was being watched, but he didn’t care.  The situation was rapidly growing out of hand, and needed to be addressed.  He squared up at the door and kicked it in with a single strike.  At the same instant, he filled the cabin with a blinding white light as he fired both barrels into the nearest cot.  As the remaining men scrambled around him, Loki pulled his bayonet from his belt and threw it at the next closest target, hitting the man in the throat.  He fell before he could light the lamp for the remaining two men in the cabin.  One of them fired off a shot with an energy weapon, filling the cabin with blue light.  The blast hit the wall beside Loki, splintering and singeing the wood.  With only nine rounds left to last him the rest of their mission, Loki pulled his bayonet out of the dead man’s neck and rushed the man with the energy weapon.  Both men aimed to fire at Loki, but he threw the blade again to his side, striking the second man while he kicked the first in the chest, shattering bone beneath his foot.  With the last man still on his feet, and staggering, Loki turned and swiftly broke his neck.  It was all over in a matter of seconds, and the room was just as quiet as it had been before.  Loki lit the lantern on the table, taking stock of the cabin and what had been stored in it.  The stove was unlit, despite the cold, so Loki walked to it.  The oven chamber was full of items one wouldn’t normally want to cook, and Loki pulled it all out.  Hydra energy weapons, secret rations, and gunpowder munitions had been stockpiled.  No doubt for their arrival, but not for them.  Loki put it all back, picked up the shotgun, and walked back out into the night.  He found several of the miners standing outside, watching cautiously from their doors.

Hydra spies,” he announced.  “They’ve been taken care of.  Now.  Does anybody have a truck?

One of the men nodded and led him down the path to a battered flatbed parked beneath a sad little shelter.  Loki waited for the man to get in, but he only shook his head, staying several paces away.  As Loki threw a glare his way, the man stepped back even further.  Biting down on his irritation, Loki threw the door open and got inside, finding it at least somewhat less cramped than the Volvo had been, but no less complicated.  The keys, at least, were already in the ignition, which got that part out of the way.  Theft apparently wasn’t much of a concern out in the middle of nowhere.

The order had at least been drilled into his head.  Clutch, brake, neutral, handbrake, ignition.  It took a few attempts before the engine turned over, but finally it rumbled to life, and then came the hard part.  Not once had he got past the point of successfully slipping the clutch when Jones had tried to talk him through.  Even if he did somehow manage it, he had no idea what came next.  Unsurprisingly when he tried, the whole thing stalled and jerked awkwardly before he could hit the brake again.

Loki took a long moment to breathe.  He couldn’t tell the difference in what he was doing because the truck was not meant to be driven by someone like him.  The man who had led him to the truck had already returned to the warmth of his shack, so Loki shifted and took on a human form.  Immediately he was bitten by the harsh cold, and tugged his overcoat around him more tightly.  This time when he ran the sequence, the pedals beneath his feet felt much heavier, taking a surprising amount of force to operate.

This time when the truck stalled, Loki thought he could almost feel what he had done wrong.  He tried again, taking his time and moving slowly.  As he moved the gear stick into first, the truck began moving forward exactly as it was supposed to.  Loki cried out with shock and punched the steering wheel, even more shocked and surprised when it hurt his hand.  Whatever came next, Loki had no idea, but he was moving.  He quickly searched the dash panel for the lights, and once he found the switch, he quickly headed back to where he’d left the other two.

Twenty minutes later, Loki was driving a rickety flatbed out of the outpost for a second time.  It was difficult to control on the snow and ice, slowing his progress, but it was still faster than the dogs.  He wondered if it was worth going back for the rest, or if he should have carried on alone.  Bruttenholm and Howlett were safe at the outpost.  Rogers and the rest would have made it there eventually.  On his own, Loki could travel more quickly, walking in the shadows and hidden paths.  But he’d be going blind.  Bruttenholm was the one who knew the lore and had memorised old maps.  Loki could take him, but it would have just slowed him down.  At that point, he might as well have the entire squad with him anyway.

Hydra were moving no faster than they were.  Staying with the group would give Loki a chance to plan ahead, if nothing else.

Eventually, he rolled up on the old Opel, destroyed in the snow.  The place seemed deserted, so Loki beeped the horn a few times as he pulled up and cut the engine.  “I have returned with a ride to warm beds, for all who want one,” he called out.

One by one, out in the snow, he could see the dark speck of the rest of the squad sticking their heads out of their foxholes.  While he waited for them to get their gear together, Loki leaned against the truck and lit a cigarette.  If he hadn’t been spotted driving that monstrosity, nobody was out there to spot him at all.

“Holy shit,” Jones said as he crawled to his feet.  “Look at you.”

“What’d you find?” Rogers asked as he approached.

“Mining outpost about thirty miles up the road,” Loki said, nodding in that direction.  “They had a new group come in a few weeks ago, which is how our friend got out here.  One of the miners was supposed to meet us, and it seems that he was followed by a spy.  Hydra, based on the weapons I found.”

Rogers frowned and looked down the long, empty road.  “How many?” he asked.

“Five, including him.”  Loki waved vaguely at the surrounding area, and wherever they’d stashed the body.  “Dispatched easily enough.  Howlett and Broom should be setting up cabins for us as we speak.”

“You’re sure there aren’t any more?” Rogers asked.

“Sure?  No,” Loki said.  “But that’s why I left Howlett back there.”

Rogers nodded.  “All right,” he said.  “Well.  Let’s head back and see what we can do from here.”

Loki nodded, and went to the Opel to gather his gear.  Dugan and Jones were offloading the motorcycle and moving it to the truck Loki had brought, leaving little room in the back for passengers.  With enough bodies crammed in front, they were able to load all of their gear in and still just have room to find a seat on the floor for the long, cold ride to the outpost.  Loki climbed into the back, adjusting his coat so he could wrap it around himself and Coulson as they huddled up against one another.  In his own skin, hidden behind magic to only appear human, the could would barely touch him.  He could feel Ray shivering against him for the entire ride, but as long as he kept shivering, it was good.  It didn’t take long before Morita huddled up with them as well, all trying to leech what precious warmth they could from one another.  On the other side of the truck, Dugan and Pink had adopted the same sorry posture, doing anything they could to hide from the biting cold wind.  Nobody said a word until they reached the outpost.  Howlett was waiting up for them, quick to direct them to the empty cabins.  Each one held six cots, and with two of the cabins cleared out, it gave them all plenty of room for comfort.  While most of the squad shuffled inside like they were half dead, Loki stayed out with Rogers and Barnes to offload supplies and take them into what became their de facto HQ.  Meanwhile, Howlett had the foresight to get the ovens going, using whatever fuel he could find to burn.  The effect was staggering.  Walking across the threshold was like walking through seasons.  Loki had to stop to breathe once he’d put the bags down.

“Everybody get some sleep,” Rogers said, closing the door behind him.  The door didn’t lock, so he moved a chair in front of it as a makeshift alarm.  “We’ll figure the rest out in the morning.”

« || »

Midgard Legends #23: Mosjøen

Loki had volunteered to lead the scouting mission into Mosjøen, because he wanted to know exactly what they were up against.  And it was no different than Trondheim.  Even in the middle of the night, it was clear that the whole city was overrun.  Giant red and black banners hung in windows and off of shop fronts, leaving little room for doubt just how many Germans had rolled into town.  It wasn’t just an occupation; it was the entire head of operations for the regiment.

The ports had been completely overrun.  Twenty-foot fences with guard posts every fifty feet.  The team didn’t even dare try to get close.  Even under the cover of darkness, they were still uncomfortably close to the port as it was.

The two of them slipped into the shadows, hiding between a parked truck and a wall while Loki pulled off his overcoat and draped it over himself and Pinkerton.  Making sure they were completely covered, they quickly pulled out their flashlight and map, trying to spread it all out in the tight space.

“Show me the weak spots,” Loki said, holding the flashlight so Pinkerton could mark the map.

“Here, and here,” he said, pointing with a pencil to two areas far to the south of the fenced-off area.  “If you can give me enough cover to get here—” he pointed at the largest pier, jutting out into the fjord “—we can probably wipe Moss-Joenncompletely off the map.”

“Let’s stick to just getting rid of the base,” Loki said.  He swapped the flashlight for Pinkerton’s pencil and bent over the map to make his own marks.  “We need to get a sniper up high.”

He frowned down at the map.  Mosjøen was right on the fjord, with the only high points being up in the hills around the water.  All the buildings near the port were small; one or two storeys at the most.  Nowhere near protected enough to keep anyone alive during the siege.  Finding himself wanting to defer to Rogers on the matter, Loki pushed the problem aside and studied the map in silence.  

“Have you seen everything you need to see?” he asked after a moment.

Pinkerton nodded.  “I think so.  I can be rigged up this time tomorrow,” he said.

Nodding back, Loki took the flashlight from Pinkerton and turned it off before climbing out from under the overcoat.  Loki quickly pulled the coat back on and picked up his gear again, ready to get the hell out of town and back to camp.  Making sure they were both ready and had everything they needed, he led the way back down the road toward the south, moving quickly and keeping to the shadows as they shuffled their way out.

They were back at camp, to the south of the town within an hour.  They made camp on the other side of the river, sheltered in a gully at the base of the mountain.  Everyone was huddled inside a makeshift tent, shivering quietly as Loki and Pink made their way back.

“What’d you find?” Rogers asked, sitting up a little straighter as Loki stepped inside the cramped space.

“Nothing good,” he said.  He pulled the map he and Pinkerton had marked up and spread it out on the small patch of bare ground between everyone’s feet.  “It’s somebody’s HQ.  There were a lot of Hydra flags, but there might still be some of Hitler’s men there as well.”

He frowned down at the map and twisted it around to get a better look at it.  “Pink wants to go in here,” he said, pointing at the spot that had been marked off.  “After last time, I want to get a sniper to cover, but the tallest building outside of the base is about four feet tall.”

Rogers looked at him with an extreme lack of amusement.

“Everything’s one storey.  Nothing you can shoot from if you want actually hit anything.  The tallest point is that mountain,” Loki said, pointing over his shoulder at the mountain just outside of their tent.

Sighing tiredly, Rogers leaned over to examine the map as well.  

“So we put a guy up on the mountain?” he said, skirting the line between a question and a statement.

“That’s a big mountain,” Dugan said beside him.

Loki shook his head.  “We don’t have anything with a scope.  It would be just as useless as firing from the street,” he reminded them.

“You don’t think you could do it?” Rogers asked skeptically.

Loki tried not to laugh.  “Not with my rifle.  With my bow, maybe.  But then I might as well be—”  He realised what would come next before he even stopped speaking.  “I’m an idiot.  Yeah, I’ll do it from here,” he said, pointing down at the main road running north through town.  “I’m going to be exposed.  I’ll need cover.”

Rogers nodded.  “Who do you want?” he asked, not even questioning the rest.

“Ray,” Loki said without hesitation.

Nodding again, Rogers ran his fingers over the map, and marked it with the new plans.  “Okay, that’s three of us.  We don’t have very good cover here.  Who wants to sit this one out?”

Jones raised his hand.  “I’ll do it,” he said.  

“You and Doc’ll stay here.  If it looks like trouble’s coming your way, try to get him up the mountain,” Rogers said.  “Otherwise, I want you ready to get out as soon as you start to hear gunfire.”

Jones nodded.  “I can be the getaway driver,” he said.

“Buck, I want you up here,” Rogers said, drawing a line on the map.  “Pick two.  Who do you want?”

The next night, Loki and Coulson were trying to quietly climb on top of a small, flat building with a full Jerry can, a shallow bowl, and a sack full of arrows.  Below them, they could see dark shadows moving between buildings as Barnes led Dugan and Howlett toward the north of the makeshift submarine base.  They’d have twenty minutes to set up and be ready for Barnes’ signal, and they’d need every second of it.

The snow on top of the building made them stand out as dark shadows, so as soon as they were up, Loki dumped his arrows out and untied the sack, unfurling the white sheet and draping it over them so they could work unseen.  Loki’s arrows had already been prepared with strips of cotton tied around the tips, but he had to lay them out and check that they would all hold together in the air.  While he did that, Coulson set out the bowl, finding a good place between them for it, and carefully filled it with gasoline before checking his own weapons.

Satisfied that his arrows were ready, Loki sat up and pulled his lighter from his pocket and set it on the roof, behind the narrow wall along the edge, exactly where he’d want it.  Ready to wait, he nocked his first arrow, holding the tip just above the bowl of gasoline.  

“Let’s see how they like siege warfare,” he said quietly.

Coulson laughed quietly beside him, ready for his part at the signal.

Then, it came: a string of gunfire from the north.  Coulson quickly lit the Zippo and jumped out of the way while Loki dipped the tip of his arrow into the bowl.  He barely had to hold the soaked cotton over the open flame for it to catch, before he pointed the arrow into the sky and loosed it.  He watched as it flew in a wide, bright arc over the row of buildings in front of him, and straight into the base on the other side of the fence.  The shouting of confused German soldiers rose up over the snow as more gunfire erupted from the south, where the third team were breaching the wall.  Loki quickly grabbed another arrow, doused and lit it, and fired it randomly into the base.  The flames inside the base were already rising, but Loki didn’t stop, firing again and again, trusting nobody had wandered too far north or too far south to be in his line of fire.

Beside him, Coulson took pot shots at anything he could spot between the buildings, but their vantage point was poor.  The only advantage they had over the Germans was the Germans’ lack of advantage.  Their base lacked any guard towers or high points, just as the rest of the town did, leaving everyone to scramble on the flat plain of Mosjøen.

The first explosion rang out, but this time, they knew what to expect.  The submarines in the port went off in a chain reaction, each blowing up the next one in the line.  Loki fired off one more arrow into the fray before he snapped the Zippo shut and started to grab everything, throwing it all back into the sheet and tying it off.  As he and Coulson began to climb back down, Loki turned around and pulled one more arrow from his sack.  Lighting the dry cotton, he tossed it down into the bowl of gasoline, igniting the whole thing, and kicked it off the roof, sending fiery spray over the side of the building.

“Go.  Now,” he said quickly, urging Coulson down to the ground faster.  

Coulson was laughing loudly at the sound of panic below them, seemingly uncaring about the building burning down around them.  Once they reached the ground, he quickly raised his rifle and rounded the corner to the street, shooting all three of the confused and panicked officers outside the burning building.

The two of them ran north up the road, taking cover in the shadows.  Loki held his awkward pack of arrows over one shoulder, with his sidearm in his left hand.  As they ran across an open road, they came across two Germans heading the same direction.  Loki raised his pistol to fire, startled when something hot hit him in the face.

“Fucking right-handed guns!” he shouted, flinching away as he fired off two more rounds in anger.

Beside him, Coulson howled with laughter as they kept going.  All around them, gunfire and explosions rang out as the submarine base imploded into the fjord.  Confused locals were running out of their houses while the German soldiers scrambled to contain the damage.  War sirens echoed off the mountains, nearly drowning out the engine sounds coming up from the south until it was just behind Coulson and Loki.  They both spun quickly around and leapt out of the way to avoid being run over as Captain Rogers sped past them on his motorcycle, with his shield on the handlebars.  A few seconds later, they could hear the engine of a two-and-a-half ton truck roaring up the road.  They both stepped further out of the way, ready to fire as the truck slowed down.  But it kept going past them, not stopping completely as it rattled down the road.  Loki and Coulson quickly ran after it, Loki throwing his sheet full of arrows in first before jumping onto the back and reaching out to help Coulson up.  They barely had time to get seated in the crowded back before Barnes and his team ran up from the other side of the road, tossing their own weapons in first before climbing in.  Once everyone was inside, Pinkerton slammed his fist into the back of the cab a few times, signalling Jones to get the hell out of town as fire and explosions still roared on around them.  Barnes and Coulson both crouched down at the back of the truck, firing almost indiscriminately behind them as confused Germans still scrambled to find any sense of order amongst themselves.  Occasional shots whipped past the truck, pinging off of metal or tearing through the canvas canopy as everyone else struggled to find safe cover.

They roared ever northward into the night, following the road wherever it took them.  In the front seat with Jones, Bruttenholm held onto their map and tried to lead the way, but in the darkness his directions were meaningless.  The snow cover that still blanketed these parts of Norway reflected the truck’s headlamps, but the dark sky above had no moon to shine down to help light their way.  They continued on their path well after it became clear they were no longer being pursued, their stolen truck rattling along almost ominously.  They only stopped when Rogers left the road by a river, in a valley between three mountains, and got off his bike.  Jones pulled up behind him, leaning out the window as Rogers slowly approached.

“We stopping here?” Jones asked.

It took Rogers a moment to respond.  “I don’t know.  But I think the bike’s had it,” he said.  “Where are we, anyway?”

Bruttenholm struggled with the map, folding and unfolding it nervously until Jones took it away from him.  He checked his watch and leaned forward to look out the windshield before spreading the map out and inspecting it.

“About an hour on these piss-poor roads, I’d say we’re right around here,” he said, showing Rogers the spot he was pointing at.

Rogers looked out at the area around them and nodded.  “All right,” he said.  “Let’s take stock and regroup, and look to get going again in an hour.”

At those words, everyone quickly began to make their way out of the back of the truck as Rogers walked around to meet them.  He stood quietly for a few moments, watching as one by one, they all jumped down onto the wet ground.

“What’s the situation back here?” he asked.

“Nobody missing, nobody bleeding,” Morita reported.  “I’d say we’re getting the hang of this.”

Rogers nodded.  “Good.  Tally your ammo and rations, because we’re not staying here for long.”

He looked around the dispersing group once more before climbing into the back of the truck with Loki and Coulson, as they tried to sort out the mess of arrows from Loki’s makeshift bag.

“Hey,” Rogers said, tapping Coulson on the shoulder.  “Outside.”

Coulson looked nervously up at Loki, but all Loki could do was shrug in response.  

“Uh.  What’s up?” Coulson asked, getting up to follow Rogers back outside.

“I need you to take a look at something,” Rogers said as the two of them walked back around to the front of the truck.

With Coulson gone, Loki slowly sorted out his arrows, picking out the ones that had been damaged and setting them aside while the rest went back into his quiver.  He was enjoying the little moment of silence away from the others, working at something by himself in the dim yellow light from the flashlight.  He could hear the others outside, laughing and celebrating their victory, but Loki let himself be apart from it.  It was just one more moment in what was slowly becoming an endless struggle, and one Loki shouldn’t have even been a part of in the first place.  He had become too invested, and now he had no way out, unless he intended to let the war play out at its current pace and end with the humans destroying themselves and the entire realm.  Which might have been easier, ultimately, but he had grown far too attached to the one place he knew he could be left alone when he wished it.

Knowing the victory wouldn’t last long, he stayed in the back of the truck until he had no more excuse to do so.  He had tallied every round and arrow he still had, and was eager to stretch his legs one more time before their band continued ever northward into the night.  As he stepped out of the truck, he was met by Barnes, armed with a pencil and a small notepad.

“How’s your ammo?” Barnes asked.

“Thirty two arrows and six clips,” Loki reported bleakly.

Barnes’ lack of concerned reaction was telling, as he scribbled something down on his pad.

“Give one to Dugan.  And think about making more arrows next time we stop,” he said.

He didn’t give Loki a chance to respond before walking off toward the front of the truck.  With the creeping feeling of dread slowly crawling up Loki’s spine, he pulled one of his last clips from his belt and walked over to where Dugan was trying to bully Morita out of his rations.

“You’re like, half my size.  You only need half as much,” he reasoned.

“How ’bout fuck you?” Morita countered gracelessly.

“Here,” Loki said, interrupting them both as he handed the clip over to Dugan.  “What’s that put you up to?” 

Dugan held up the clip to look at it before he shoved it into his belt.  “Two,” he said.

Sighing at the victory already starting to fizzle, Loki pulled another clip from his belt and handed it over.  “Three.  Make it last,” he said.

“Can you make him give me that chocolate he’s been hoarding too?” Dugan asked, pointing at Morita.

It was stupid and childish, but Loki wasn’t exactly going to begrudge him for that.  Not when they were all feeling the same way about one thing or another.

“What’s it worth to you?” he asked Morita.

“Two packs of cigarettes,” Morita said at once.  

Loki unshouldered his pack and began to dig through his own stash of hoarded rations, eventually finding the slightly crushed packs of cigarettes amongst everything else.

“Hand it over,” Loki said, holding up the cigarettes.

Morita quickly dug the chocolate out of his own pack and all but threw it at Dugan before snatching the cigarettes away from Loki.

“Anything else?” Loki asked, looking back and forth between them.  “My boots, perhaps?”

“No, I think we’re good,” Dugan said easily.

Rolling his eyes, Loki walked away to see what other fires needed to be put out.  Barnes was mediating similar squabbles, giving away his own gear to help make everyone forget how miserable they all were.  It likely wasn’t what Barnes had expected when he’d been made an NCO, but stopping petty fights was at least half of their job.  A job Loki had seen amongst the ranks of the Einherjar throughout his entire childhood, though he took to it no less grudgingly. 

The Opel was re-packed and loaded, with Rogers’ bike taking up a good chunk of legroom, and soon they were off into the night again, the heavy truck rumbling down icy roads meant for much lighter vehicles.  They followed the water in its winding path north until it cut west, forcing them into the mountains and marshlands of frozen Norway.  They passed several towns as they trekked further north, taking tricky back roads and braving soft terrain to avoid checkpoints.  Nobody complained about it, all too exhausted and starving to want to do anything more than get some well-earned sleep.  Finally, when Jones could take no more behind the wheel, he found a route away from some unpronounceable town toward homesteads and farmlands that would suit for a good overnight halt.  Parked up beside some abandoned barn, nobody even bothered to unpack the truck.  If they slept in the truck, it would be easier to get going in the morning.

Despite sleeping in the truck, there was no early start the next morning.  With Pink’s neck bleeding again, Morita demanded time to make sure it wasn’t going to become an Issue, which left the rest of the squad with little to do while the two of them shouted and swore at one another.  Jones and Dugan helped Coulson haul the bike out from the back of the truck while he rounded up any tools he could find from what they’d pilfered from the German caravan, and what was lying around the old farm.  Others took the opportunity to lounge and clean up for the first time in weeks, but Loki was bored and wanted to be moving.  They’d spent too much time sitting still.  He found a quiet place, tucked away in a small corner of the barn, and sat on the floor.  Loki knew where they were going; he knew what lay ahead of them, with or without Hydra or Hitler or whatever else standing in their way.  It was not an easy place to get to for a god, much less by foot with a squad of humans.  For all he knew, they were walking into a trap.  Or worse, walking toward something that didn’t even exist anymore.

He closed his eyes and focused on what he could remember.  His father had taken him and Thor to the fountain once before, when they were boys.  It had been so long ago that Loki had to focus on everything he could remember—the blue flowers that grew along the edges of the glade, the tall shack on the edge of the trees.  The tea they drank during their visit.  Loki held all of that in his mind and reached out, hoping to find something these memories could grasp hold of.  He couldn’t tell if the cold he felt was from the place he was trying to get to, or from the air where he was sitting, in a cold, abandoned barn in the middle of Norway.  He hated being able to feel the cold.  The longer he spent in this form, the more he felt it, and the more rundown and exhausted he became.

Whether it was from the exhaustion of battle and travel, and the never ending war weariness, or simply not being skilled enough to know what he was doing, Loki couldn’t find what he was looking for.  Worse, he didn’t know if it was a lack of skill, or a lack of that beacon he was searching for that made it impossible to find.  Was the well even still there?  When they found the spot, would there be a shanty shack in the woods, or flowers in year-round bloom?  Was it too late?

Loki didn’t know.  He didn’t know, and he didn’t know why he didn’t know, and he hated it.  They needed to move faster.  They needed to ignore all these petty squabbles along their way and focus on their mission.  Someone else could follow their trail and do the menial labour while they focused on what was important.  They had a psychic in London.  How difficult could it possibly be to send intel both ways?

Giving up, Loki rose to his feet to find Bruttenholm.  The man was in the cab of their truck, huddled up inside his enormous overcoat.  For a moment, Loki thought he was asleep, but when he got closer, he could see Bruttenholm’s eyes moving as if he were reading, though he held nothing in his hands.  He might not have been reading words, but he was reading something all the same.  Or rather, receiving something.  Loki stood quietly, watching as Bruttenholm remained in his trance-like state, muttering quietly to himself.

This was his chance.  Loki quickly moved around to the other side of the truck and let himself in, pressing himself against Bruttenholm’s side.  Even under the bulk of the coat, he was a small man, and Loki felt as though he had to be careful not to damage him any further than he already was.  Loki focused his full energy and attention on him, not quite sure how he wanted to approach the new problem.  He could feel the wound in Bruttenholm’s leg, not healing properly from being dragged all over the realm on a string of wild goose chases.  He could feel a separate energy that wasn’t from either of them.  Something distant and fragile.  Energy that was coming from the Lady Eden-Jones, so far away in London.  A mere human, and she was better at this magic than Loki.  He ignored the sting and focused on Bruttenholm, close enough to smell the blood and sweat and dirt he’d been carrying around since their drop into Norway.  Loki looked around making sure they wouldn’t be seen, but they were parked on the far side of the barn, away from where everyone else had chosen to take shelter inside.  Nobody would be bothering them, especially since they knew Bruttenholm was trying to contact London.  Loki leaned in close, able to feel Bruttenholm leaning away even under his mountain of an overcoat.  He wasn’t off somewhere else, far away.  Loki could see he was still very much in a cold truck in Norway, which made what he planned to do next all the easier.  Bruttenholm was right there in front of him.  He’d projected to him before under far more difficult circumstances.  Letting himself in this time was as easy as opening a door.  He could feel Bruttenholm jolt sharply when he realised his one-sided conversation was no longer private.  Even better, Loki could feel the other presence do the same.

He closed his eyes and let himself go wherever Bruttenholm had taken him.  The room was not what Loki had expected, though he realised it was what he should have expected.  The cold war room in some London bunker somewhere held all their secrets for their mission.  The woman he’d only heard about sat in front of a long desk laid out with maps and reports.  There was nothing trance-like about her, though she was alone in the room.  She read one of the reports out loud, speaking slowly and deliberately.  Loki waited for her to finish before he stepped out of the shadow he’d hidden himself in.

“You must be Lady Cynthia Eden-Jones,” Loki said.

She didn’t jump.  She held perfectly still for a moment before turning to face the stranger behind her.  “There are two armed guards outside that door,” she said, barely nodding toward it.

Loki turned to look at it, allowing a smirk to play over his face.  “It’s a good thing I didn’t come from that direction, then.”

Lady Cynthia did not smile back.  She regarded Loki’s presence before her with a guarded expression, before nodding.  “Lieutenant Olson,” she said finally.  “Or do you prefer Loki?”

Loki shrugged.  “Which do you prefer?” he asked.

His host was not amused.  She didn’t smile, or show any indication of her opinion on his presence one way or the other.  “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Loki walked closer, leaning over the desk to get a good look at what was spread out.  Little red flags had been stuck to the paper, with hand-written notes both for where the squad had already been, and along the route north.  There were little red flags every few hundred miles.

“This can’t continue,” Loki said finally.  “You know as well as I what happens if someone finds the well before we do.”

“You know something I don’t?” Lady Cynthia asked.

Loki nodded lazily.  “One or two things, perhaps,” he said.

He watched the guarded play of emotions on her face while she tried to puzzle out what wasn’t being said.  “You’ve never contacted me before.  Why now?” she asked.

“I couldn’t work out how,” Loki said honestly.  “But our friend Trevor has been kind enough to indulge a curiosity.  But I’m serious.  It can’t continue this way.”  He waved his hand at the map and all its little flags.  “We’re a man down, and ferrying a wounded civilian.  Not to mention, we’re taking the back roads.  If there’s any hope in ending this, we can’t stop again.  Not until we’ve secured the well.”

“Trevor’s wounded?” Lady Cynthia asked, her guard dropping just enough to tinge her voice with concern.

“No more than before,” Loki said.  “No less, either.  He’s not healing properly.”

“So send him home,” Lady Cynthia said.

Loki shook his head.  “I’m afraid we can’t do that.  What would you have us do?  Pack him a bag and let him walk back to England?  If we sent anyone with him, we’d risk losing the well.”  He glanced down at one of the pages, and what Phillips had in store for them.  It wouldn’t do.  “You need to lie for me.  Not a big one.”

“What lie?” Lady Cynthia asked.

“Phillips needs to know we’re already behind schedule.  Tell him you’ve found a way to open two-way communication with Dr Bruttenholm.  Say that he told you what I’m telling you now.  If we don’t stop to finish all these trivial tasks, we could be in Russia in two days.”  Two days, if they were lucky, able to scrounge up fuel and rations, and didn’t run into a single checkpoint.  Two days then.  Most likely more, but still not as long as if they continued to do these missions for Phillips.  “The sooner we get Trevor to the well, the sooner he comes home, safe and sound.  If we continue to stop every two hundred miles, he’s far more likely to return home in a box.”

Loki could see those were the words that were needed.  Those were the words that swayed a person toward insubordination.  She nodded.  

“In that case.”  She shuffled through her maps and reports, pulling them closer.  “Take this route.  The journey should be safer.”  

She used a pencil to trace a route that left the fjords after Tromsø, skirting along Finland’s border.  It was a straighter route than following the fjords, but it meant travelling along more open terrain.  A risky move, but one which would shave time off the journey.  Loki took a moment to study it, hoping that Bruttenholm was doing the same.

“We should have your friend home by the end of the month,” he said, standing straight.  “I thank you for your help.”

She nodded, and Loki dipped his head before returning to the cold truck.  Bruttenholm was still in his half-trance for a few moments longer before he was released from whatever hold was placed over him.  He looked up sharply at Loki, indignation and confusion fighting a war across his face.

“You could do that this entire time?” he demanded.  “Why haven’t you done it before?”

Loki was already on his way out of the truck.  “Hadn’t thought to try until now,” he said. He stepped out onto the ground, flashing Bruttenholm an utterly insincere smile.  “Shall we go brief the captain?”  He didn’t wait for a response before leaving.

A few moments later, Bruttenholm followed after Loki, climbing awkwardly out of the truck and into the snow.  He stumbled once he was on the ground, but caught up quickly, leaning heavily on his cane.  His limp was getting worse.  It was bad news for all of them.  As he pushed the doom and gloom of what-ifs from his mind, Loki rounded the corner of the barn to find Coulson with Rogers’ stolen bike on one of their woollen blankets, with pieces and tools scattered neatly at his feet.  Rogers was watching as Coulson used his belt to reattach part of the engine mechanism to the chassis.  He explained something to Rogers that Loki didn’t understand.  Judging by the look on Rogers’ face as he nodded, he didn’t understand either.  But Coulson seemed to know what he was talking about, so they both trusted that he knew what he was doing.

“Captain,” Loki said once it seemed like Coulson was done.

Rogers looked up, and his posture changed immediately.  Shop class was over.  It was time to get back to work.  “What have we got?” he asked.

Loki immediately deferred to Bruttenholm.  It was his intel after all.

Despite the urgency, they camped at the farm.  An extra day to make sure Pinkerton wasn’t going to bleed out, and to give everyone a chance to make sure their equipment was in working order was needed.  With their ammo shortage, and their ration supply dwindling, the men took to the news of a quick trip to Russia with a morale boost.  Once they were over the border, they’d be able to stock up and resupply.  An extra night in the cold was an extra night to tally everything and make sure they knew exactly what they’d need for their final leg of the journey.

It also meant time to relax as much as they ever could under the circumstances.  There was always the chance of being spotted or the owner coming back and not liking what he saw.  But it was also a time without having to plan the next assault.  There were no bases to attack going forward.  No costumes or infiltration.  Just a race to the border.

Loki and Coulson spent their afternoon beside their small fire, flipping through comics and magazines that had been carried across half of Europe.  They’d read all of them a dozen times, but they were more entertaining than watching Tim Dugan poke his blisters.  They were soon joined by Howlett, with a ration tin full of snow.  He put it down on the ground near the fire and nodded at the two of them.

“The ending of those things change yet?” he asked.

“Nope,” Coulson said, sounding no less put out by it.  “Hitler’s still a dickhead.  Captain America still punches his lights out.”

Howlett laughed.  “You know, I’d like to see that.  I bet you could sell tickets to something like that and make a fortune.”

“Maybe when we’re done here.  Go on one of them USO shows or something,” Coulson said.

Loki hadn’t thought USO shows were anything to write home about, but maybe it was just because he had more important things to do.  Then again, he was also sitting in the snow reading comic books, so what did he know?

“A dollar for entry, you could make big money,” he said instead.  

“Isn’t that what you were doing before?” Coulson asked.

“We closed a show the night they announced on the radio that we’d declared war,” Loki said.  “Rather put a cramp on the after party.”

Howlett laughed.  “Yeah?  And what were you doing at the party?  Playing marbles in the corner with the other school kids?”

Loki decided not to dignify that question with any sort of response.  He made a show at ignoring the hell out of Howlett and turned a page in his comic.  Howlett shook his head all the same, and picked up his tin.  

“All right you two.  On your feet,” he said, getting up.

“You can’t boss your CO around like that,” Coulson said.  He never seemed to get tired of that.

“I’m not bossing around a lieutenant.  I’m bossing around a couple of kids,” Howlett said.  “Get up.”

Now Loki was curious, despite his boredom with the subject matter.  He shrugged and handed his comic back before getting up.  A few moments later, Coulson’s own curiosity got the better of him, and he followed as well.  Howlett took them to the truck, and pointed at the row of packs that had been left under the benches.  

“If you’re gonna be an officer, you need to look like one.  Leading by example and all that shit, right?” Howlett said.

Loki pulled his pack over, but he wasn’t sure what Howlett was getting at.  Until he saw Howlett’s shaving kit on the bench next to him.  He didn’t need to shave.  Jötnar grew no beards.

“I, uh,” Coulson said suddenly.  “I don’t have one of those.  I got rid of it in England.”

“You got rid of your shaving kit?” Howlett asked.

Even Loki had kept his for appearances, even though he knew he’d never need it.  It was an important piece of kit that took up room in his pack to keep people from asking questions like the one he knew was coming next.

“What kind of hare-brained reason did you do that for?” Howlett asked.

Coulson shrugged.  “Took up too much room,” he said.

“I’m sure those comic books you’ve been hauling all over Europe take up even more room,” Howlett said.

“Yeah, that’s why I needed to take stuff out.  Make more room.”  

Coulson looked to Loki for backup, but he had none to give.  Loki hadn’t noticed before because he hadn’t been paying enough attention in that direction, but Howlett was onto something.  Coulson had the fuzzy beginnings of a scraggly little beard growing on his chin.

It still didn’t explain why Howlett had dragged Loki over, but he still decided to humour him and dug his own shaving kit out.  “You can borrow mine,” he said.  

“What, you got two in there?” Howlett asked.  

He wasn’t backing down.  Loki had grown used to being talked back to long ago, but this was more than that.  Howlett was making demands that Loki didn’t know how to answer.  It wasn’t his place to answer them to begin with, but there wasn’t a good way out.  Howlett knew his secret, or at least the important details of it.  He could ruin everything if he wanted to.  Force Loki to give up on what he knew he’d lose if he left now.  He had to stay.  He had to play this game.

That, or Howlett was being an ass because he knew Loki’s secret, and wanted to make him sweat.

Either way, Loki pulled out his shaving kit to get this ordeal behind him.  He was out of toothpaste, but everyone in the squad was.  The safety razor sat untouched, along with the unopened pack of blades and soft soap.  Underneath them all was a small mirror, which Howlett immediately plucked out and shoved into Loki’s hands.

“When was the last time you looked at yourself?” he asked.

Loki could not remember.  London, maybe?  He couldn’t remember how much time he’d spent on grooming, between ice cold showers nobody wanted to take, and special training for his jump wings.  He’d probably glanced at a mirror at one point, but he could not remember.  He lifted the mirror now and took a moment to re-familiarise himself with his human face.  It wasn’t really any different to his Asgardian face.  His hair was horribly cut and messy, because he hadn’t had that tended to in far too long either.  Gone was his long mane, replaced by the slapdash cut of an Army barber and then neglected ever since.

And then he saw it.  His human face was not like his Asgardian face.  His Asgardian face had the exact same fuzzy scruff on his chin as Coulson.  That was definitely new.

« || »

Midgard Legends #22: Infinity Stones

While Loki tied the fletching to the last of his arrows, he listened to Rogers’ briefing up in the hayloft, away from the rest of the squad.  Bruttenholm had no way of contacting his partner in London, but the Lady Eden-Jones had kept a steady communication stream with him since their arrival in Lom.  

Bruttenholm and Rogers both stood over a map, trying to find the city Bruttenholm had been informed of earlier that morning.

“Here it is,” Rogers said, pressing his finger against the map.  “It’s, what?  Two hundred miles from here?”  He looked even closer at the map and frowned.  “That can’t be right.”

Bruttenholm and Barnes both bent over the map to inspect it.  “There’s a base a half day away, and nobody’s come down here to kick our asses yet?”  Barnes asked uncomfortably.

Rogers was still frowning.  “The intel happen to mention whether we’re looking at Hitler or Hydra?” he asked.

Bruttenholm shook his head.  “No.  And I’m afraid I couldn’t ask.”

Rogers kept frowning down at the map as he thought about the current situation.  “If it’s Hitler, they’re probably glad to be rid of the base here.  If it’s Hydra, it’s probably a trap,” he reasoned.

“Either way, it’s Nazis,” Barnes pointed out.

“Not denying that, Buck.  Just trying to figure out why it’s been half a week, and we haven’t seen a single reinforcement roll into town,” Rogers said.

“Undoubtedly a trap,” Loki said offhandedly as he cut the cord on his fletching and put the arrow aside to start on a new one.  He found it much easier to do by daylight, though still made slow progress with it.  “Make your enemy unwary under the false comfort of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

He didn’t look to acknowledge the looks he got from the other three, too intently focused on getting his arrows finished before they decided what their next plan was.

“The enemy of my enemy is still a fucking Nazi,” Barnes reiterated.

“So it’s a trap either way,” Rogers said, strangely confident.  “Good.”  

Barnes and Bruttenholm looked uncomfortably at Rogers.

“Good?” asked Bruttenholm.  “I don’t possibly see how.”

“You got a messed up idea of ‘good’, Steve,” Barnes agreed.

Rogers remained unfazed.  “We know what we’re getting into either way,” he said.  

Barnes cringed and strained as he stretched his back.  “Oh, goodie.  Another suicide mission,” he groaned.  

“No one’s died yet,” Rogers said, falsely chipper.  “We gotta figure out how to get up there, first.  Then we can figure out how not getting killed.”

After another night with no sleep and several hours of planning up in the hay loft, Loki felt stressed and wary.  With his feet back down on solid ground, he quickly assessed the condition of the squad.  Cold, miserable, and starving, so at least nothing had changed.  No matter how many birds they shot from trees, it wasn’t enough to keep the squad fed, and while the fresh meat was a good bolster to spirits, the effect wore off quickly.  The men were back to rations and food from jars most of them still avoided, and with the lefse long gone, Loki was even beginning to tire of lutefisk.

They needed to get out of Norway.  They needed to complete their mission and get stuck at some cushy garrison post.  Loki needed to go home.  And not to Brooklyn.  He hadn’t longed for Brooklyn for a while, but now he had begun to long for Asgard, and his feather bed that was far too big for him, and the mountain of furs piled on top of it.

He missed his dog.

Wolf, he reminded himself.  Fenrir was no common mongrel, no matter how stupid he sometimes seemed.

No matter what he was, Loki missed the big, stupid, fluffy beast.  More often than not on his trips to Midgard, Loki found himself returning to Asgard because he needed the animal—he needed that close contact that he didn’t get with anyone else.  Fenrir would sleep on top of him, and climb all over him, and generally annoy Loki to madness.  Except when he’d come home from Midgard, feeling vaguely sick and exhausted without reason.  Letting Fenrir smother him half to death seemed to snap his senses back into order almost instantly.

Loki had spent more time on Midgard than he ever had before, and yet there were no headaches plaguing him.  No tight, sour feeling deep in the pit of his stomach that told him it was time to go home.  

Loki missed Thor, and the mead hall.  He missed the small group of them crowded in the back corner of the banquet hall, plotting their next adventure.  He wondered what Thor was doing, and how many wars he might have caused in years of Loki’s absence.  Not years.  Maybe months, but surely no more than two.  But Loki couldn’t remember anymore.  He hadn’t normally spent so much time on Midgard without making covert trips back to Asgard.  At first, he hadn’t gone back because he felt like he was making a point no one would ever receive.  Then, he simply became too busy; too consumed by his task.  There hadn’t been a convenient time to slip away.  And the few times he had slipped away had wound up being hideously inconvenient after the fact.

He could go home all the same—he could tell his father what the humans were up to, and let him deal with it.  Let him send a legion of Einherjar and put a final end to all this madness.

And then let Odin deliver the punishment they had both been putting off, while Odin turned a blind eye to Loki so flagrantly breaking a treaty he had witnessed come into life.  Far more likely, Odin would slap him into next week and let the Midgardians destroy themselves out of spite.  Not an outcome Loki wanted.

He put his finished arrows on his bunk and walked over to look over Morita’s shoulder as he examined Pinkerton’s wound.  There was more bruise than broken skin, with the purples and blues fading into ugly green running up to Pinkerton’s cheek and jaw.  Pinkerton cringed, his jaw clenched tightly as Morita gently persuaded him to look far to his right.

“How’s that feel?” Morita asked.

“Hurts like hell,” Pinkerton said through his teeth.

Nodding, Morita let him go and stepped back.  “I think you’re gonna be just fine,” he said.

“When can you clear him for duty?” Loki asked, looking down at the undressed wound on the side of Pinkerton’s neck.  Without the proper supplies and skill, it had been left to heal naturally, and was taking its time.

“Day after tomorrow,” Morita said.  “He’s still in danger of infection at this point, but I think he should be fine to get back in there without risking tearing anything open.”

“Oh good.  I can get up then,” Pinkerton said, already leaning over for his boots.

“Did I say right now?” Morita scolded.  “I said the day after tomorrow, you deaf limey bastard.”

They were both irritated with one another, and it took every ounce of strength for Loki to keep from laughing at them both.  While Pinkerton sneered and threw obscene gestures their way, Loki turned Morita away and guided him toward his own bunk.

“Take Dugan and Howlett and see if you can’t find something to shoot for dinner,” Loki told him.

“Good.  Gladly get out of here,” Morita said as he walked over to grab his gear.  

Loki watched him leave, vaguely wondering how long it would be before the men started shooting one another.  They had to get out of Norway.  Putting it out of his mind, he turned his attention back toward Pinkerton and knelt down beside the bed.

“Let me see,” he said.

Pinkerton obediently tilted his head to show off the gnarled mess on the side of his neck.  The skin was still open, but had healed enough that he had stopped bleeding.  Still, he had a loose bandage around his neck to keep the wool collar of his jacket from tearing everything right back open.

“Will you be ready to fight once you’re cleared?” Loki asked quietly.  “You can stay behind with the Doc, but we need to head north as soon as possible.”

Pinkerton nodded.  “I can fight.  I appreciate the concern, but I know you lads need me a hell of a lot more than he does.”

Loki nodded, accepting his answer.  Because Pinkerton was right.  They did need him at the front lines.  It was one thing to throw a few grenades in and count down until they went off, but Pinkerton knew how to make things really go up in flames at the precise moment he wanted them to.  They’d just have to do a better job at keeping him safe next time.

“Good,” Loki said, getting up.  “Stay on Morita’s good side until then.  I don’t want him killing you before the Germans get a second chance.”

While Pinkerton grumbled about getting shot at all, Loki turned to find Rogers, eventually tracking him down outside with Barnes.

“Sent them out hunting?” Rogers asked.

“They’re going stir crazy.  They need to do something,” Loki reasoned.  

Rogers shrugged.  “How’s Pink?”

“Jim’s giving him the all clear the day after tomorrow.  I offered him to stay on nanny duty, but he refused,” Loki said.

“Good,” Rogers said.  “We’ll brief when your hunting party gets back.”

“If they’re any good, they’ll even bring something back with them,” Loki said.

Rogers made a little noise that sounded like it was trying very hard to be laughter. 

“They better bring something back.  We’re running out of rations again,” Barnes said.  He leaned against the side of the barn, kicking the snow under his toes.  

“Well, let’s try not to blow a giant crater in Mosjøen.  At least not until we’ve done some looting,” Loki said, knowing that as long as they had to keep stopping between missions, they were never going to have enough supplies.

Barnes cringed.  “I’d rather starve.  Those kraut rations taste like dog food.”

Beside him, Rogers snorted.  “And how do you know what that tastes like, Buck?” he asked.

“I did my training at Jackson.  You guys who did your training in New York don’t know what it’s like out there,” Barnes said, shaking his head.

“No, they starved us at Union, too,” Loki said.  He leaned against the wall next to Barnes and looked out over the snow.  “And then put us on latrine duty if they heard our stomachs growl.”  He turned casually to Rogers.  “What was it like at Lehigh?”

“Lehigh?” asked Rogers, shrugging casually.  “Lehigh was great.  Slept until noon, three course meals.  You mean that’s not how it was everywhere?”

Barnes let out an exaggerated sigh.  “Lehigh,” he said, laughing a moment later.  “All right, Olson.  I gotta ask.”

Loki sighed, already hating where this was going.

“Did you really punch out your sergeant?” Barnes asked.

“Yes, I did,” Loki answered.  “And yes, they made me corporal for it, just so they could make me lead hand-to-hand training.”

“Seriously?” asked Rogers.  Despite having heard the rumours half a dozen times, he still managed to sound surprised.  “That really happened?”

“It depends on who tells it.  It’s really not that great of a story,” Loki said.

“Then what really happened?” Barnes asked.

“Horton volunteered me to take a swing at him.  So I did,” Loki said, shrugging dismissively.

Barnes and Rogers laughed.  For a moment, Barnes looked at Loki, considering everything about him.

“It’s the specs.  It has to be,” Barnes said.

Loki looked down at him, not really sure how to follow Barnes’ train of thought.  “What?” he asked.

“I don’t know.  You just seem smaller somehow.  But you really are a goddamn giant, you know that?” Barnes said.

Loki laughed at the sheer irony of the statement.  “I’m the short one.  My brother’s even bigger,” he said.  And what irony that was to think about.

“You got a brother?” Barnes asked.

Beside him, Rogers laughed.  “A twin, apparently,” he said, giving Loki the sort of smirk that suggested he’d caught him in a lie.

“I do, actually,” Loki said.  “And I’m certain he’s at home right now, driving our father to madness.”

The other two laughed, something restrained and not quite honest.  

“You really are some kind of like, lord or something, aren’t you?”  Barnes asked.

Loki looked down at himself quickly, unsure what had prompted such a statement.  “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Father,” Rogers said, not missing a beat.  “You always say instead of ‘dad.’”

Loki frowned.  He hadn’t even realised it, but Rogers was right.  “I do say that, don’t I?” he asked.  “Dad.”  He quickly shook his head, almost able to taste the way the word sat wrong on his tongue.  “No.  Do not like that.”

The other two laughed again, a little more honestly this time.

“So, what is it?” Barnes asked.  “A lord.  A duke?”

Loki considered his options and shrugged.  “Prince, actually.”

Before Barnes could voice the question that played across his face, a single gunshot rang out from the trees.  The three of them all stood still, listening to see if any more would follow, but the air was still and silent after that.

“Sounds like they got something,” Rogers said hopefully.

Loki turned away, already feeling through his pockets for his lighter.  “I’ll start a fire,” he declared.

Rogers waited until the deer brought back by the hunting party had been cooked and passed around until he gave his briefing, going over what had been discussed earlier with Barnes, Bruttenholm, and Loki.  Getting out of Trondheim didn’t seem like it was going to be any kind of an issue at all, given how quickly the few remaining Hydra soldiers had fled.  Even getting up to Mosjøen was going to be fairly straight forward.  Getting into Mosjøen, however, was when things were going to start getting tricky.  Whoever was there was going to be expecting them.  The decision to let them go to Mosjøen, rather than sending a platoon down to Lom had been a deliberate one, banking on the squad being weakened by their previous mission.

As everyone ate, Rogers laid out his plan for taking the next base.  It wasn’t going to be easy, but this time, they knew what to expect.  Nobody seemed too excited for the mission, but nobody argued, either.  It was their next mission, and it was what they had all signed up to do.  They’d all volunteered in Italy, and stupidly joined up.  And then they all stupidly refused Rogers’ offer to leave the unit in England.  Even if they were all cold and starving and miserable, they had all come to Norway to knock out a few Hydra bases on the way to Russia, and the next stop was in Mosjøen.

But as Rogers gave his briefing, Loki had other things on his mind.  He’d been there for the planning phase, and knew what was being discussed, but he could barely hear it over the insistent, almost apologetic song ringing through him.  He tried to ignore it, knowing what the Tesseract wanted from him.  Infinity stones were better actors than anyone had ever given them credit for, for as much as Loki still wanted to believe the Tesseract.  But he knew it was a trap, just as it had always been.  Loki didn’t know why it wanted to trap him, but he wasn’t going to let it happen a third time.  Even with his every atom on edge, Loki tried to ignore the song; to disregard it as a fool’s errand.

When Rogers was done, and the course of action clearly laid out, Loki moved back outside away from the others.  There was still a small bed of coals outside, which Loki sat down to poke at with a long stick.  He focused on the embers, and the way the orange light danced over black charcoal as it burned.  In his youth, reading old forbidden tomes of dark elf magic, Loki had spent all his time learning how to cast outward, and spent little time learning how to shield himself from what others might have cast in his direction.  At the time, he hadn’t seen the point.  The magic was not only forbidden, but the Æsir couldn’t even do such magic.  There was no one on Asgard who would offer him any threat, and as he had with so many other things, Odin turned a blind eye to Loki’s curiosity, since indulging it often kept him out of worse trouble.

As he watched the coals, Loki tried to recall what little he had learned.  He was tempted to call the books to him right there, but he didn’t know which books were the ones he’d need, and he still refused to go back to Asgard, if even for a moment.

Closing his eyes, Loki focused inwardly, toward the song so sweetly sung by the Tesseract.  It wasn’t in his ears, though he could ear it.  He tried to find where it was; which part of him was actually sensing the song as though it were a prayer.  When he cast out, he had always found it easier to find people he knew well.  People he had a sense of connection with.  He looked for them not with his eyes, or anything visual, but through a certain feeling; almost like a strong emotion.

He realised that the Tesseract was using a similar magic, and for a moment, Loki let himself be lulled by the song.  He let the Tesseract try to show him all the things it had shown him before—everything that could be his, whether he knew he wanted it or not.  But before he could let himself be drawn by it, Loki instead focused on where the Tesseract was aiming its magic.  He could feel it, deep within his chest like a rising anger and resentment. He could feel the spot where the Tesseract had taken hold, and in that, he could feel the Tesseract itself, holding on tightly and trying to nurture that darkness within Loki until it became something bigger; something to take advantage of.  

He didn’t know how to let go of something he had felt his entire life, so instead he took the Tesseract as a beacon as he had done before, and sent all of his rising anger toward it, lashing out with all the rage he could muster.  If he couldn’t block the Tesseract, he would bully it back into its own corner, and as he attacked, he could feel its own anger and indignation as it let go of him, subsiding into the distance.

Taking a deep breath, Loki opened his eyes again to watch the coals.  He couldn’t feel the hold in his chest any longer, nor could he hear the Tesseract calling for him.  He sat and waited patiently, expecting the Tesseract to try again.  But for now, it seemed to have received the message.  In the mean time, Loki would have to work on building up his defenses.  

As he sat by the meagre fire, casually poking at the coals, Loki could hear someone walking through the snow toward him.  He looked up to see Bruttenholm approaching, huddled in his giant overcoat and walking heavily on his cane.  Moving over on the log he used as a seat, Loki offered him a dry place to rest.  Bruttenholm took the offer, sitting with his side toward the fire so he could stretch out his legs in front of him.  They sat silently together like that for a long moment, before Bruttenholm finally spoke.

“Why are you here?” he asked plainly.

Loki looked over at him.  “I had a headache and needed some fresh air,” he said, only somewhat untruthfully.

“That’s not what I asked,” said Bruttenholm.  He had a certain calmness to him that Loki had only seen a few brief times before.  It was the calmness Bruttenholm exhibited when he knew he was right about something, and wouldn’t be questioned on it.

“No.  It isn’t,” Loki agreed.  He poked at the coals again, sending up a small flame that died down just as quickly.

“Your people haven’t been seen on this world in centuries.  Why now?” asked Bruttenholm, giving Loki very little room to dodge the question.

“That’s not true,” he said.  “We’ve just been better at keeping a low profile.”

“Are you?” asked Bruttenholm, turning slightly to look at Loki more evenly.

“Obviously, if you think we’ve all left.”  

Loki thought about the man back in Ayrens, and how long he must have been hiding out on Midgard, making Loki’s three and a half centuries feel like spare change.  He wondered if the man ever had the sense to leave and go elsewhere.

“No.  I know you haven’t all left,” Bruttenholm said, shaking his head.  “But you still haven’t answered my question.”

“And what is your question, exactly?” asked Loki, glancing sideways at Bruttenholm.

“Why are you here, and not in Austria, where your followers are?” Bruttenholm asked, his voice calm and even.

Loki laughed sharply.  “My father’s followers, you mean,” he corrected.  “That is what they believe, is it not?  That they are all descended from Odin?”

Bruttenholm hummed quietly.  “Who can say what any of them believe?”

Turning his head toward the sky, Loki inhaled deeply.  “I grow bored with this game.  Say it and be done with it,” he said finally.

He could see Bruttenholm nodding from the edge of his sight.  “I know you sometimes leave at night,” Bruttenholm said bluntly.  “I don’t know where you go, but I have a few ideas.  And I don’t entirely trust that you’re on our side.”

Loki could hear the nervous tension in his voice, and he laughed at the sound of it.

“Oh, yes.  This,” he said.  “Of course.”  He leaned as far back as he could without falling backwards into the snow, finding an odd sort of glee in this conversation.  “You’re right.  I’m not,” he said.

“Then why are you here?” asked Bruttenholm.

“Because I like this realm.  If you blow it up and kill everyone on it, I won’t have anywhere to go to escape my meathead brother and my loathsome father,” Loki said.  “I suppose I could still come here, but if I wanted to go somewhere to be alone, there are a thousand other places I could be.”

On Midgard, he had anonymity.  There were so many people on this realm that even if he did blow his cover, all he had to do was go home for a few months, and return to a new city.  And every time he did return, the realm was new and fresh.  Time moved so quickly here, the humans were constantly coming up with new ways to entertain themselves and murder one another.  The downside being that occasionally, they’d take the latter entirely too far.

“There are ants in my clubhouse, Trevor.  I simply aim to stomp them out,” Loki told him.

“And which are the ants?” asked Bruttenholm.

Loki smiled again.  “In this case, we share an enemy.”  He got up, handing his stick off to Bruttenholm.  “I would not still be here if that weren’t the case,” he said as he walked back inside, leaving Bruttenholm to think about the matter.

Despite everything, Loki still expected to meet resistance as he led the team through Trondheim to gather some last-minute supplies.  Jones, Morita, and Coulson all lined up behind him in a tactical column against one of the old buildings, but the streets were empty of any German presence.  But they were not quiet.  If anything, it seemed as if the residents of Trondheim had come out to celebrate the destruction of the base within their city, and had all taken to the streets to see to errands they had been avoiding for the last year.  Still, the team of four kept to the sides and shadows as much as possible, not trusting every last German to have been run out just yet.  They leap-frogged across roads, offering unneeded cover to one another as they slowly made their way back toward the base.

What they found when they got there was less than they had expected to find.  Whatever had blown up in the base had also blown the windows out of some of the nearby buildings on the other side of the barrier.  Most of the glass had been cleaned out of the streets, but with the boarded windows, it didn’t seem as if anyone had moved back into the area yet.

Loki led the other three through what was left of the base, hoping to loot anything useful.  They were there less than five minutes before they gave up, and decided to instead look for an Opel that still ran.  Most of the trucks they found were mangled and torn apart, forcing them to look at the outskirts of the base instead.  They found a few near the guard post with the windows all blown out and the tyres punctured, and no way to fix any of it.

“We sure made a mess of this place,” Jones marvelled as he looked over the remains.  Even from the guard post, they could see the devastation toward the centre of the base, where Pinkerton’s explosions had been laid.

“We know a little bit goes a long way for next time,” Loki said, kicking an empty jerry can.

Their scavenging mission was already a bust, which put a crimp on the next mission.  They could march to Mosjøen, as they had marched across France, but taking a truck would have been preferred.  For one, they’d already have their getaway vehicle on hand, rather than having to find one after the fact.

Sighing, Loki walked back out toward the road.  “We’ll try the north side.  We might have better luck up there.”

They flanked around the base, rather than trying to make their way through.  By the time they began to come to an area that wasn’t as badly damaged from the road, the sun had already set, casting them into darkness and putting them several hours behind rendezvous.  But with no radio, and no other way to contact Rogers, they were stuck between carrying out their mission, or returning completely empty handed.

Staying late ultimately paid off.  At the north end of the base, behind a tall fence, they found a small convoy of mostly-undamaged trucks.  Cutting through the fence, the four of them slipped through to take a look.  They found little else in the way of useful supplies, but they did find an Opel with a full tank of gas and all of its tyres intact.  It was good enough.  After syphoning what they could from the other trucks into a few rounded up jerry cans, they all climbed into the Opel, and with Jones behind the wheel and Loki in the cab beside him, smashed through the tall chain-link fence and onto the road beyond.  Sparks flew off the stone street as the fence flew out in front of them, bouncing and snaking away.  Leaving the base behind, Jones rushed south through Trondheim back to their camp to help get everyone ready to leave for Mosjøen at first light.

By the time they returned to the camp, the rest of the squad was moving about nervously, their gear all assembled and waiting to be loaded.  The wave of relief as they pulled into the camp was palpable.  Everyone scrambled to load up, eager to get out of Trondheim as soon as possible.

“What took you?” Rogers asked, leaning against the Opel’s door to talk to Jones.

“There wasn’t no base left,” Jones answered, shaking his head in disbelief.  “It really was just a giant hole in the ground.  We had to go way north just to find something that still had wheels.”

Rogers nodded slowly.  “All right,” he said, finally accepting the answer.  Behind him, Dugan was rolling the stolen motorcycle to the back of the truck.

“We taking that?” Jones asked, craning to look out the window.

Rogers shrugged.  “Yeah, why not?  It came in handy this time.”  He looked back at the motorcycle, and then out at the camp.  “Get packed up.  Make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.”

He stepped out of the way to let Jones out, while Loki got out on his own side.  All of his gear was still piled on top of his bunk, making loading up the Opel an easy chore.

« || »

Midgard Legends #21: PV52

With Morita unable to give a clear estimate of when it would be safe to move Pinkerton, and Pinkerton stubbornly refusing to heal, the men were afforded a bit more rest than they had anticipated. Even with the base completely destroyed, Rogers still sent patrols out if for no other reason than to keep the men busy and give them something to do.

The birds Coulson and Jones had shot had only fletched about half of Loki’s arrows, so he took the ones he’d managed to finish and went back out with Coulson to get a few more. This time as they crept through the trees, they did not manage to be terribly silent as they joked back and forth, both forgetting for a moment where they were and what they were doing.

As they walked, Loki spotted a jay in the branches of a tree above. In a single, swift motion he nocked an arrow, took aim, and loosed it, striking the bird before it even knew to be wary. Loki trotted through the snow to pick it up, having to pull a little too hard to free his arrow. The rough, tin arrowheads he had cut from discarded cans he’d found in the barn weren’t amazing, but they were better than just sharpening the shafts themselves. Taking a quick look at the bird to be sure it wasn’t overly damaged, Loki handed it over to Coulson to put into their bag.

“You make that thing look like a toy. How hard is it to use, really?” Coulson asked, eyeing Loki’s bow.

Loki looked down at it and shrugged. “Using it is easy. Hitting anything took practise.”

He considered it for a moment, before reaching out for Coulson’s rifle, while with the other hand offering the bow. The two switched, and while Coulson examined the bow in his hands, Loki shouldered his rifle and pulled an arrow from his quiver.

“Don’t dry fire it,” he said, handing the arrow over.

Nodding, Coulson struggled to nock the arrow. Loki reached over, moving Coulson’s grip on the bow and showing him how to rest the arrow against it.

“It bites, be careful,” Loki warned, stepping back.

He watched silently as Coulson drew the string, mimicking the way Loki would hold it. Then, he loosed the arrow, sending it wildly off to the right as he pulled his arm against the unmistakable sound of the string catching on his sleeve.

“Motherfucker that smarts,” Coulson said, barely managing not to drop the bow.

Loki laughed and took it from him, leaning over to inspect the damage. Coulson rolled up his sleeve as much as he could, revealing the beginnings of a bright red mark on his skin.

“You’re lucky,” Loki said. “I was wearing short sleeves the first time. Took the skin right off my arm.”

“Son of a bitch,” Coulson muttered, rubbing the area. “And you still kept using it after that?”

“I’m stubborn,” Loki said with a shrug. “Now go get my arrow.”

Coulson looked up at him, daring to be indignant over the command. “Seriously?”

“You lost it. Go fetch it,” Loki said pointing.

Loki watched as Coulson trudged off through the snow to fetch the lost arrow. He remembered his first time with the M1 was well, and the chunk of his thumb it had taken off. After the various nicks and cuts from countless swords and knives had only been part of a long tradition of utterly failing before Loki figured out what he was meant to be doing.

When Coulson returned with the lost arrow, Loki handed his rifle back and began leading the way back through the trees, circling around the farm on their path. Loki shot down birds as they came to them, taking down more than he needed to finish his job, knowing the fresh meat would be welcome back in camp. Once they completed their circuit, Loki took the sack from Coulson and headed over to his fire pit to start preparing the birds. With Coulson sitting beside him, helping to pluck out the feathers Loki needed, they made quick work of it. Rather than pluck the entire bird clean, Loki simply tore the animals apart with his hands, pulling the breast from the rest of the carcass. As he tossed the blooded, unusable mess aside, Loki frowned at the waste, but there wasn’t enough left to the carcass to be worth picking it apart.

“My dog would be losing his mind right now,” Loki said, looking down at the growing pile at his feet.

“What kind of dog is he?” Coulson asked.

Loki tore another bird apart, putting its pieces in their respective piles.

“Wolfdog,” he said. “I trained him for hunting, but he also enjoys a spot of petty larceny from time to time.”

Coulson laughed, piling up the flight feathers on the bench beside him. “If anyone could train a dog to steal shit, it would be you,” he said. “You keep him in New York?”

Loki shook his head. “My brother has him. He wouldn’t fit in New York. He’s a big dog.”

“That’s too bad,” Coulson said.

Shrugging, Loki tore another bird apart, thinking they might actually get a full meal for everyone from what he’d shot. He looked up from his task, surprised to see Jones and Dugan approaching with an intent that did not seem entirely casual.

“Uh-oh,” Loki said quietly, nudging Coulson.

“What do you chucklefucks want?” Coulson asked.

Jones laughed, while Dugan stopped to hold his hands at his waist.

“There’s a bet around camp that needs settling,” Dugan said.

“No,” Loki said, already not liking where it was going.

“We all know this kid should be in school right now,” Jones said, pointing to Coulson.

“Hey,” Coulson said, throwing them both an irritated scowl.

“But you,” Jones said, pointing to Loki. “There’s no way you dropped out at eighth grade, the way you talk. But I don’t see a grown man sitting here either.”

Loki frowned deeply at them, entirely unwilling to play this game. “I’m fairly certain there are regulations against bullying your commanding officer,” he said.

Dugan actually laughed. “Yeah, but I think they left out the part about it being a little bit allowed when your CO is seventeen years old.”

Loki frowned even deeper, not sure if he should be getting angry with them, or if he should start panicking over being found out. Had Howlett said something he shouldn’t have? Somehow, Loki didn’t think so. Not when he had so much riding on the line himself.

“So, which is it,” Jones said. “You just some freakishly tall seventeen-year-old genius, or a grown-ass man who never learned to drive?”

Loki stared at them, his jaw set heavily against saying anything he might regret. Humans killed their gods, and he knew he had to step carefully. He’d already said too much to Howlett, and Bruttenholm knew everything.

“I hate you both,” he said, picking up another bird to tear it apart.

He could discipline them for their subordination. The gold bars on his collar gave him every right to do so, but at the same time, he didn’t dare. It would only seem petty, and hurt the already fragile morale around camp.

“I grew up riding horses, and never needed to learn in New York,” he said, keeping his voice even despite the irritation slipping through.

“Well, we aren’t in New York, are we?” Jones asked.

“What about him?” Loki asked, pointing to Coulson.

Coulson looked at him and shrugged. “I can drive. And I’m not the one still lying about his age,” he said. “I’m already here. What the hell are they gonna do?”

Loki took a deep breath, hissing in through his teeth. “You absolute turncoat,” he said, shaking his head.

“Come on,” Jones said, waving him forward. “You can go home with one more skill on that crazy list of yours.”

Thoroughly backed into a corner, Loki stood, taking a quick moment to wipe his hands on the canvas bag they’d carried their birds in.

“I am being bullied and manipulated, and I don’t like it,” he said, resigned to going along with whatever Jones had in mind if it meant ending this ridiculous topic for good.

As he stepped forward, he was surprised to see Dugan walking around the fire pit to take his place tearing apart birds and cooking them for everyone else. The whole thing had been planned and orchestrated, and Loki liked it even less. It quite simply wasn’t fair.

Without a word, Loki followed Jones across the field, away from the farm. As they hopped a low, rotting fence at the property line, Loki couldn’t help the exasperated sigh that escaped him.

“We talked to Kristian about this place,” Jones said. “He said the owners abandoned it when the Germans rolled in. So we thought, hey. Let’s see if there’s anything worth taking.”

“That doesn’t explain any of this,” Loki said, following Jones as they walked through the snow toward the abandoned house.

“Yeah, well. They’ve got a barn too,” Jones said. “We didn’t find much, but what we did find looks pretty special.”

The walked to the barn, Loki standing aside while Jones pulled the door open. What Loki saw inside suddenly explained everything. A black car with a round body and a front end that resembled a pig’s snout, with huge, round front fenders sat in the cold barn, abandoned with the rest of the property.

“Took a little work, but she starts right up,” Jones said.

“This is hardly the time or the place,” Loki said.

“If you really don’t want to, I can’t exactly force you,” Jones said.

Loki was being openly and brazenly manipulated. But he was the only man in the squad who couldn’t drive, and that point was rapidly becoming dangerous in how it was being used against him.

“Under one condition,” Loki said, turning to look Jones straight in the eye. “It stops. All of it. Yes, ha-ha, very funny, I look much younger than I am. I am very aware.”

Jones stood silently for a long moment, looking Loki over. After a long moment, he nodded.

“So when he talks about you fibbing on your enlistment forms,” Jones said, cocking a thumb back toward camp.

Loki shook his head. “I wasn’t in the country legally. I was told enlisting would give you citizenship. It was one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done, because I do not like being told what to do, which is why I have not been home since thirty-nine.”

Jones shrugged, nodding along. “If I hated being told what to do that much, I’d rise up the ranks as quick as possible too,” he said.

Loki nodded as well, glad to finally be on the same page. Taking a deep breath, he turned to look at the rotting Volvo parked a few feet away. Knowing it would be easier to get it over with and humour Jones, Loki stepped toward the car. As he got behind the wheel, Loki tried to find as much space for himself as possible. But like everything on Midgard, it was one-size-fits-all, and roughly two sizes too small to be comfortable. There was no moving the wide bench seat, and with the wheel aimed straight at his chest, Loki couldn’t help but feel just a little bit trapped.

As he fussed and fiddled, trying to find any position that didn’t feel like it was designed to kill him, Jones laughed as he settled in next to him.

“I’m six and a half feet tall. I wasn’t built for this,” Loki said.

“I’ll give you that one,” Jones said.

He opened the glove compartment and grabbed out a key on a large, leather tag. Handing it over, he showed Loki where to put it in the dash panel. Fitting it where it belonged, Loki looked over to Jones, still feeling like this as a mistake. When Jones leaned over to point toward Loki’s feet, he leaned back as far as he could, trying to see what was being pointed at.

“Gas, brake, clutch,” Jones said, pointing at each in turn. “You want to hold down the clutch and the brake. Make sure the clutch goes all the way to the floor.”

Loki nodded once and did as he was told, unsure how much force was too much before he broke something vital. Once he was confident he’d done it correctly, Loki nodded.

Jones walked him through each step, taking his time to point to everything he needed. Loki didn’t understand the point of the handbrake, or why the car needed two different brake systems. Being asked to find a gear that was not labelled like all the rest had been was vexing beyond measure, but he assumed he’d figured it out when Jones finally had him start the car. Loki had ridden in the front of many vehicles, and watched countless people operate the machines as if there was nothing to it. But when the car suddenly stalled out and stopped running before he got it moving, Loki was ready to amend his opinion and already wanted to quit. He buried his face in his hands, pushing his spectacles up over his forehead and tried very hard not to scream.

“Everyone does it,” Jones said beside him, obviously trying not to laugh. “Put it back in neutral and we’ll start again.”

After he stalled it for a fifth time, Loki leaned back into his seat and growled in frustration. “I can’t swim, and I can’t figure this out,” Loki said, resisting the urge to hurl himself onto the ground. “There you go. Two things I’m not perfect at.”

He didn’t hurl himself onto the ground, because if he did, this would be one more thing he’d have given up on. Even if no one else knew, he would, and it frustrate him for the rest of his life. Without waiting for Jones to prompt him to start again, Loki threw the stick pack to its neutral position with a tremendous sigh and tried it again.

Countless attempts later, the car had moved about ten feet, and Loki was truly ready to quit. The whole thing required a level of finesse he was simply not built for, despite centuries of practise at hiding the fact that he was entirely too big for everything on the realm. He slipped out from the car and laced his hands behind his head, stretching his back against the strain of having spent so much time trying to put as much distance between himself and the steering wheel as possible.

Unlike everything else he’d picked up, this was a skill he simply did not need anyway. Asgard hadn’t a single paved road, and if Loki needed to get anywhere in New York, the subway was perfectly capable of getting him there. Leaving Jones to deal with putting everything back where it belonged in case the owners ever returned, Loki walked out of the barn and began walking back toward camp.

He didn’t even know why he was still on Midgard at all. He should have gone home and told Odin. Odin could send a few Einherjar down to guard the well, and a few more to fetch the Tesseract and all would be good. But it would be one more failure in a long line of them. He had already completely failed to live up to a single one of Odin’s expectations, and going home would mean facing that. He wasn’t even sure which would be worse; the disappointment of having failed to carry out even a simple task of getting to Urðarbrunnr, or the inevitable beating he faced from defying Odin’s orders and breaking the Non-Interference Pact. He had done so well at staying out of the humans’ affairs. He had been screwing around with the mortals for three and a half centuries, and on a selfish impulse had thrown all that plausible deniability away. Odin would not be able to forgive this, and Loki knew it. If he survived Odin’s thrashing, Loki knew he would lose his head to the other pantheons’ rage.

Loki returned to the camp, finding nothing saved from his small hunt earlier in the day. With darkness already falling, Loki wasn’t in the mood to go find something for himself, so he trudged off to his bunk to eat cold K-rations and sulk. Shortly after, he heard Jones return to the camp, met with jokes and laughter, and no small amount of hushed whisper Loki was no doubt meant to not hear.

Meanwhile, the Tesseract was still silent, wherever it was. The whole reason Loki had broken the pact at all, and he had only drifted farther and farther from it. Whatever Hydra were doing with it, Loki at once wanted nothing to do with it, and knew it must be stopped. But there was nothing he could do. He had failed so completely at that as well. The only thing he had reliably lived up to his entire life was an ability to endlessly vex and disappoint anyone whose opinion mattered.

As Loki broke into his rations, he realised he didn’t even want it. He held the small can in his hands, and wondered what the point even was. The damn things did next to nothing for him, and he’d been running on empty for his entire time in Europe. With the seal still unbroken, Loki tossed the whole thing aside and fell back onto the small cot, acutely aware of the way it shifted beneath the full force of his weight. Watching the light fade throughout the barn, Loki pulled his spectacles off and watched the way the world went ever so slightly blurry around the edges as his eyes struggled to correct themselves. He had hoped that as he allowed himself to heal while stuck in London, this too would have cleared up and gone away. But it hadn’t. It was better than it had been when he first noticed the problem, but it was still there, just enough for him to notice.

It was one more thing to regret. One more problem he would not even have in the first place if he had just stayed where he was and ignored the squabbling mortals all around him. But whatever he’d done to himself when he killed his horse and broke his face in the process was going to be one more permanent reminder of his inability to do anything correctly.

Putting his spectacles back over his eyes, Loki lifted his hands and looked at the marks and scars on them. Years of burns from magic gone wrong and small nicks and cuts from mishandling knives left their faint evidence on him even in this form. And then there was the cut across his palm, long and thin. Like all the others, it hadn’t healed properly and left a permanent mark. Unlike all the others, it hadn’t been gained through youthful exuberance. He hadn’t gained this mark by trying something new and not being an expert at it right away. He’d gained this one by once again not living up to expectations.

So many years later, Loki still wondered what kind of sorcerer he was if he couldn’t even turn himself into a fish at the moment it mattered most. It wasn’t magic he used often, but it wasn’t exactly difficult either. But he had completely panicked, and was nearly killed for it.

And rather than being allowed to forget it, Thor had given him a permanent reminder of it. As if that solved anything.

Irritated at himself as much as anything else, Loki rolled over onto his side and reached down for the book he had failed to return to Stark. It had still not got any more interesting, but with nothing else to do, Loki was almost eager to figure out if it would get interesting. As he read by flashlight, other men began to filter into the barn to find their bunks. Loki ignored all of them, giving only the barest response to any questions that were thrown his way. Eventually, they got the hint and left him alone. Only once everyone had gone to bed, Loki got up to return outside to the fire pit, finding it cold.

He rebuilt the fire, and working by the orange glow, began fletching the rest of his arrows.

« || »

Midgard Legends #20: Trap

Loki lay on his stomach, watching out over the quiet town as the sun slowly rose over the realm.  If the sun reached its zenith before the Germans came crashing down upon them, Loki suspected the Germans would never come.  He hadn’t seen the damage, and it was too far for him to scry, but he had felt the rock of the explosions.  He knew they hadn’t just damaged the base—they had destroyed it.  Their escape was too clean and too easy for there to have been any other outcome.

But still, Loki stayed in the hay loft, his rifle trained on the road leading into town.  It was boring, tiring work, but his number was always the first to come up for it.  Loki blamed Badolato for that.  He blamed Coulson and Dugan and Barnes for that.  He blamed himself, and his battlefield commissions for that.  But he didn’t argue or fight it.  He was a better shot than anyone else, and the men needed rest more than he did.  He was tired and bored, but some of them were falling asleep on their feet.

He shifted uncomfortably on the old straw beneath him and scratched his chest through his layers of cold weather clothing he didn’t dare take off.  He tried to reach down the front of his shirt to pull whatever had managed to weasel its way in off of his skin, but he couldn’t reach far enough without taking his eyes off the line.  So he scratched, and tried to ignore it, and scratched some more.  He only stopped when he heard footsteps up the old ladder, for a moment thinking Rogers might have something to say to him.  But the steps were lighter and more cautious; not Rogers’ footsteps at all.

“Ray,” Loki greeted, settling down and focusing on his task again.

Coulson quietly settled down beside Loki, leaning against his shoulder as he huddled up in a blanket.  Loki glanced over at him, for a moment expecting Coulson to fall asleep.

“I hate this,” Coulson complained.

“We all do,” Loki reminded him.

“I hate everything about it,” Coulson continued.  “I’m cold and I’m tired and the food stinks and Norway can suck my dick.”

“You don’t want that.  You’ll get frostbite and it’ll fall off,” Loki told him evenly.

“One more reason to hate Norway,” Coulson said.

Loki shifted beneath Coulson’s weight and scratched at his chest again.  “I hate this damn straw everywhere,” he complained, brushing what was on the floor in front of him out the hayloft door.  “I swear it’s under my skin.”

Coulson laughed at him and leaned away, giving Loki a little extra room to scratch himself raw.  “What’s that they said about this kind of shit, back in basic?  It keeps you alert.”

“Sergeant Horton can suck my dick,” Loki complained.  “Keep him alert.”

He forced himself to stay still, rather than tear off his shirt and coat and dive out of the door into the snow.  Inhaling deeply, he focused on the rifle in his hands; the cold metal against his fingers, the line of the sights as they pointed straight down the middle of the road ahead.  He had a job to do, and he couldn’t get it done if he spent all day scratching himself.

“How’s Pink?” he asked, further distracting himself from all the straw everywhere.

“Getting on everyone’s nerves,” Coulson said.

“Business as usual.  How’s his neck?” asked Loki.

“Getting on his nerves.  Morita said something about scabbing, and not having the right equipment to deal with it?” Coulson said, sounding more like he was guessing than repeating any actual intel.  

“He’s not set up for surgery.  He’s probably afraid that if he tries to deal with it with what he has, he’ll only make matters worse,” Loki reasoned.  “Best let the wound heal naturally, I imagine.”

Coulson nodded.  “That sounds about right, yeah,” he said, before snapping his fingers loudly.  “Oh!  And about twenty minutes after you got sent up here, Broom got another message from England.”

Loki was surprised to hear the lack of skepticism in Coulson’s voice that had been present in everyone only a day before.

“Good news, I hope?” he asked.

“Aerial recon says the sub base is gone.  Just a hole in the ground and a brand new little lagoon where it used to be,” Coulson said.  “I don’t know what the hell they had in there, but when it went, it took everything with it.”

Loki frowned, knowing what had been powering whatever they had been building there.  The Tesseract was far more powerful than any of these people realised.

“That explains the lack of retaliation,” he said.

“Yeah, sounds like this Schmidt fella ordered everyone who was left to head north.”

“Schmidt?” Loki asked, looking away from the road for just a moment.  “Then they were Hydra?”

Coulson nodded.  “Yeah, sounds like that’s what we’re gonna be seeing the most of until we hit Russia.”

Loki hummed quietly.  “I do not like the sound of that,” he said.

“Yeah, didn’t think you would,” Coulson said.  

Coulson stayed up with Loki in the hay loft until Dugan came up to relieve him.  Loki stood as Dugan took his place, stretching his back and brushing all the straw off his clothes.  Loki never wanted to see straw again in his life, and was quick to escape the hay loft for cleaner ground below.  In the makeshift barracks, Pinkerton had been moved to the far end of the old barn, out of the way of everyone else while he moaned and complained about being laid up.  He was antsy to get out of Melhus like the rest of them, and even with the news that the base in Trondheim had been destroyed, there was no guarantee they were safe where they were.  They had only meant to stay in Melhus for a single night, before heading farther north, but now they were stuck in once again, waiting to see if Pinkerton would heal or bleed out unexpectedly.

Loki put his rifle down with the rest of his kit and picked up his quiver to inspect the damage Trondheim had done to his supplies.  He knew thirty arrows was never going to be enough, but he hadn’t expected to go through them as quickly as he had.  Sighing, he picked his rifle back up and turned to see who else besides Coulson was in the room.

“Jones.  Ray.  With me,” he said, nodding toward the door leading outside.  “Bring your rifles.”

Jones looked up from the battered and torn magazine he was reading.  “What’s up?” he asked, slowly reaching for the rifle beside his bunk.

“I need more arrows.  And cover,” Loki said.

“Where do you think you’re find arrows around here?” Jones asked, getting up anyway.  He tossed his magazine down to his bunk and followed Loki and Coulson outside and into the snow.

“There,” Loki said, nodding to a stand of nearby trees.  “I need you two to watch my back.  And shoot any birds, if you can.”

Jones and Coulson exchanged confused shrugs, but followed all the same.  As they walked into the trees, Loki slung his rifle over his shoulder and climbed into the first tree that seemed tall and sturdy enough to bear his weight.  He moved slowly, listening to the creaking of the branches beneath him to tell him when to stop.  Even holding his weight off his feet as much as possible, he knew all it would take to send him falling to the ground was a single misstep.  Below him, Jones and Coulson stood ready, looking through the trees for anything that might cause alarm.

The pine branches Loki sawed off with his knife weren’t ideal, but they would do.  He let them drop to the ground as he cut them, finding branches that were already long and slender enough so he’d have less work to do with them, but still stiff enough that they wouldn’t just wobble off course when fired.  

“It matter what kind of birds we shoot?” Jones asked suddenly.

Loki looked down at him, and then up in the direction Jones was looking.  He already had his rifle raised, ready to fire until Loki stopped him.

“No ravens,” he said, watching the animal as it watched them.  

Logically, he knew it was just a common raven, but it was the first he had seen in some time.  It likely wasn’t, but Loki knew he could also be wrong, and that the raven could very well belong to Asgard.

The raven cawed at him once before taking wing, its black body stark against the white overcast sky.

“Shoot anything else you want.  Larger birds are best, but no ravens,” Loki repeated, watching it go.

“We all got our quirks,” Jones said with an odd sigh.  “Some more than most.”

Loki ignored him and continued to saw branches from the tree, moving slowly around it as he worked.  He could hear the other two moving beneath him, stepping away from his tree as they searched the branches for the birds Loki needed.  After twenty minutes of sawing, he heard one of the men below him stop moving, and a few moments later fire off a single shot.

“Got him,” Coulson said proudly.

Loki looked up to see him pick a jay up from the snow.  It wasn’t as large as Loki would have preferred, but it would have to do.

They stayed out for almost another two hours, until Loki felt like he’d have enough to work with to fill his quiver twice.  Jones and Coulson had begun taking somewhat frequent shots into the trees above, and when Loki dropped down to the ground for the last time, he was surprised to see a small pile of jays and magpies next to a falcon.

“Good,” he said, hoping the birds would be enough to fletch his arrows.  “Let’s get back before it gets dark.”

They collected the wood and the birds, taking them all back to the barn.  Loki showed them how to remove the feathers he needed first, and then how to pluck the rest of them off if they were hungry enough to deal with it.  It seemed even magpie was appetising enough after nearly two weeks of canned fish and K-rations, and the two of them eagerly began de-feathering the birds while Loki began stripping his branches of bark and cutting them to size.  

It was dark by the time they were done, with the birds laying out on a long table, plucked and gutted and ready to be cooked.  Loki didn’t have the time or luxury to let his arrow shafts dry and cure naturally, so before he built up the fire to cook the birds, he also searched around the barn for any stones or bricks he could find.  What he found was a stack of cinder blocks, which he brought back to the near side of the barn, and began laying them out as a platform on which to build a fire.  With his arrow shafts inside the hollow bricks, Loki built a fire on top, shielded from the road and the wind by the side of the barn, and slowly cooked the birds Jones and Coulson had shot.  He checked his arrows more often than he checked the cooking meat, making sure they didn’t scorch or warp as the moisture was baked from the wood.

The arrows wouldn’t be perfect, but they would do.  The birds, on the other hand, were snatched up as soon as they were declared fit to eat, tiny morsels of meat devoured long before anybody bothered to break into their rations.  There hadn’t even been much left to any of the individual birds, after being shot with ammunition meant to kill men, but the taste of fresh meat was welcome all the same.  

But Loki was barely able to appreciate it.  All the while, as he tended his fire and cooked for his men, he was distracted by a needy, demanding call.  After the loss of the Trondheim submarine base, the Tesseract had grown loud again, and it was no longer taking no for an answer.  It was calling to him, as it had done so long before.  Loki had followed it then, and paid the price.  But this time, he knew what he faced.  He knew what he would find, and he would not let it stand in his way.  He worked silently as he tended his fire, letting it cool slowly and naturally, pretending he couldn’t hear anything at all.  Once the fire was out, he went to bed, pretending to sleep while those around him settled in for the night.  But sleep was not for him; not with the Tesseract almost screaming for his attention.  Loki couldn’t sleep if he wanted to.  No amount of cotton jammed into his ears would help him rest that night, as he waited patiently for everyone around him to fall asleep.  When the barn grew silent, Loki waited some more.  He waited until the silence was replaced by the snoring of exhausted soldiers, and finally closed his eyes and listened—truly listened—to the song that was sung just for him.

This was his time.  He had no more need of the human soldiers he kept in his company, and they would soon get over their need of him.  Loki listened to the song, feeling it through his very soul, and let it guide him where it wanted him.  He left Norway behind, disappearing from its soil and finding himself instead standing deep in a stone cavern, with water echoing off the walls from every angle.  In the middle, trussed up to some horrible Frankenstein harness, stood the Tesseract, glowing angrily and screaming for attention.  It wanted out.  It wanted free; free of the restraints the humans had put on it.  Free of this realm and all its creatures.  The realm that should have been Loki’s.  He was the only one who knew of its potential.  He alone understood its value, and the position of power it could give him.  Why should Odin lay claim to it, when his sole intent for the realm was to let it rot behind lock and key?  With the Tesseract, Loki could take Midgard, and anything else that had been kept from him.  Anything he wanted was his, and all he had to do was reach out and take the Tesseract from its cage of steel and wire.

His arm moved out, slowly extending his reach toward the cube, almost as though under its own control.  Or perhaps under something else’s control.  Somewhere deep inside him, he knew this was wrong.  But he didn’t know why.  Something would happen if he touched it, but he didn’t know what.  He ignored those feelings, listening to a louder voice that told him to take what was his.

Both voices were so loud, he didn’t hear the third shouting behind him and calling the attention of anyone else nearby.  It wasn’t until Loki heard the gunfire and felt the first sting in his back that he turned round to see the Hydra soldiers that had overpowered and outnumbered him.  Even as their bullets rained down on him, someone else shouting for them to cease fire immediately, Loki reached out and shoved them all to the ground with a burst of magic he could barely muster.  Suddenly very aware of what he had done, with no idea of why he had done it, Loki began to feel an already fading panic.  He was bleeding, and his vision greying, and he knew he would die in some underground fortress where none would ever know his fate.  Reaching out to the only person he thought might be able to help him, Loki pulled himself away from the Tesseract and its protectors.

Howlett had taken the bunk on the farthest edge of the barn, near the doors that led outside.  Loki fell onto him, struggling to stay upright even as he nearly pulled Howlett to the ground with him.  Howlett started to cry out in alarm and confusion, but Loki covered his mouth with a bloody hand, silencing him.  He could see that even in the dark, Howlett could see what the trouble was, and was surprised when Howlett tried to pull him to his feet.  But Loki hadn’t the strength to stand, and he was far too heavy for any human to lift, and even as he tried to find his feet beneath him, he pulled Howlett back down to the floor.  Looking frantically over his shoulder for an answer, Howlett went easily with him, out of the sight of anyone who might have woken.

“What the hell?” Howlett whispered, his voice strained as he kept his voice low.

Loki drew in a shaky breath, feeling his lungs filling with his own blood.  Jötnar could heal from most anything, given enough time.  But Loki hadn’t that luxury.  He barely had the strength to keep his eyes open, let alone use the fractional magic he’d need to change his shape to his natural form.  And even if he had that strength, he didn’t have a month to spend in hibernation, letting his body heal while he slept.

“You can heal,” he said, forcing each word.

Howlett shook his head.  “Yeah.  But I—”

Loki didn’t let him finish.  He knew the magic, and he knew it was forbidden, and he did not care.  Without warning, he grabbed Howlett and pulled him forward, forcing their mouths together.  He could taste his own blood, and Howlett’s fear as he struggled against him.  But he could also taste something bitter.  Whatever power Howlett had was foreign; something new and almost unnatural.  But it was power, and Loki took it, drawing from him his very energy and power until he could feel his body changing.  He pulled away only to cough blood from his lungs so he could breathe again.  Howlett fell backwards, startled and confused, and Loki let him.  His power was strange and consuming, transforming Loki’s body without his doing.  He leaned back onto one arm, shaking violently as the pain of torn flesh was replaced by the pain of new flesh growing too quickly.  He wanted to scream, but he didn’t dare.  He choked back on all of it, unable to breathe around the weight of his own tongue in the back of his throat.

That was twice he had fallen into the Tesseract’s trap, he realised.  Twice it had nearly killed him.  Loki could not understand how he had been so stupid.  

“What the fuck was that?” Howlett demanded quietly.

Loki shook his head, his breath coming raggedly once more.  He looked down at himself, at his torn and blood-soaked uniform.  Oh, how stupid he had been.

“You taste awful,” was all he could say.

Howlett made a brief noise of protest before quietly getting back to his feet.  “All right, you fucking martian.  Let’s get you back to bed,” he said, trying to pull Loki back to his feet.

Loki nodded, knowing that would be best, and tried to find his footing again.  His entire body still shook, and was weak from the violent changes it had been forced through.  But eventually he rose, trying not to lean on Howlett too much, even though he could barely stand, and stumbled as quietly as he could to his own bunk, mercifully only several feet away.  He fell into it, knowing he should rid himself of his ruined uniform.  Instead, Howlett covered him up with the blankets as much as he could before disappearing, only to return a few moments later with a canteen and a dirty shirt.  It took a few moments to realise that the wet shirt thrown on his face was meant to clean up with, which he did as quickly as he could.  He felt sticky and close in his ruined uniform, but he didn’t know what else to do.

“If you don’t die tonight, you’re telling me what what the hell just happened tomorrow,” Howlett said as he took the shirt away.  Hopefully, Loki thought, to burn it.

The last thing he knew, before blackness overcame him, was that the Tesseract was silent once more.

Loki awoke to a silence he hadn’t known in a long time.  A silence he hadn’t realised he missed.  Everyone in the barn was still asleep, and the light outside was dim.  Unless Loki had somehow slept through an entire day, which he doubted, he’d only slept for a few hours.  Which was good.  It meant he could destroy the evidence of his folly before anyone else saw it.  He was sticky and itchy and filthy, and needed to get clean.  Casting out to make sure none would hear him, Loki rolled out of bed and picked up his pack.  The bed, he’d deal with when he returned, but first he needed to get out of his clothes.  As he walked to the ladder to the hay loft, he scratched his chest, feeling as if he were tearing skin away through his shirt.  Stopping before he made matters worse, Loki quickly climbed the ladder and put his pack down out of sight of anyone who might have woken early.  Seeing himself in the light of day, Loki realised how lucky he was to have escaped at all.  He’d been shot from all angles, and not all of the weapons used against him fired bullets.  There was a clear energy burn on his side that he hadn’t even noticed with every part of him being torn apart.  Cringing at all of it, Loki began to strip, taking everything off and banishing it from the realm to one of his secret places.  Naked, and enjoying the cold against his skin, Loki reached for his canteen and pulled a clean sock form his pack, using both to scrub the blood from his skin.

When he got to his chest, he stopped.  He knew embarrassingly little of his own kind, but he had been around enough of them to know that he had never once seen any Jötunn man with hair on his chest.  Loki could not remember the last time he had an opportunity to bathe, or even change his shirt.  London, he thought.  It had been too cold for the others to bother, and so to maintain his cover, Loki had pretended the cold was too much for him as well.

He tried to remember the few showers he’d got in London, but he’d always been so rushed with them, he hardly had time to bathe at all.  He thought he would have noticed then if he’d started sprouting hair in places he shouldn’t have, but he wasn’t sure.  He’d been so busy and distracted in London, he hardly paid attention to anything.

There was sparse hair on his stomach as well, where he knew it hadn’t been before.  Loki stared at himself for a moment, the wrong colour, and still streaked in his own blood, with a body that completely rebelled against him.  Feeling suddenly very exposed, Loki finished washing off as quickly as he could before changing into the only clean clothes he had left.  Everything he’d worn the night before had been ruined, and he now only had half a uniform.  But in a way, he was glad for it.  His had never fit him properly anyway and what he’d been given in London fit him even less.  There was clothing he could steal from the locals if he decided he needed anything.  He kept his jacket long enough to remove his pins and move them to his shirt collar, and banished it as well.

It was only as he banished the bloody and ruined sock to its new permanent home that Loki even realised what he was doing.  He hadn’t planned on coming back here, and yet, here he was.  He had given up on the Tesseract, knowing now that it likely never wanted him at all.  If it was as powerful as the tales said, Loki realised the cube might have seen him not as an ally, but as a threat.  He remembered being so utterly drawn to it, even while another part of him screamed against it, and it was in that moment he knew.  Somehow, the cube had got into his mind and made him crave it.

Twice, it had used this trick and tried to kill him.  Loki would not give it a third chance.

Standing in the loft, Loki considered the men below.  Rogers had originally wanted to go after the Tesseract, but they were now heading in the wrong way entirely.  Heading toward Urðr’s Well.

If the Tesseract had seen Loki as a threat, it would surely know what that threat meant.  It was powerful; more powerful than Loki had given it credit for.  And the humans had it under their control.  He would not allow Schmidt to lay a finger on the Well if he could stop it.  Loki did not want that power or responsibility, but it was power and responsibility the humans had no right to control.

Stuffing his pack shut and slinging it over his shoulder, Loki went back downstairs to his bunk.  Leaving his pack on the ground beside it, he reached out with his magic, trying to lift the stains smeared on the sheets.  He could feel it trying to work, but he didn’t have the time or patience to wait, so he changed direction and cast the soiled blankets away instead.  There were more stolen from the Germans he could replace them with.  The blood still on the mattress was obvious, but it wasn’t the murder scene it could have been.  At least this, he could explain away as another late night nosebleed.

Feeling marginally more clean, and with the majority of the evidence against him gone, Loki left the barn to resume work on his arrows.  He was still sanding and shaping an hour later when Howlett stepped cautiously outside, sitting on the bench beside Loki.  He watched with a wary eye, looking for any signs of injury from the night before, but Loki kept quiet and let him squirm.

“All right.  I give up.  What the hell?” Howlett asked.

Loki smiled peevishly.  “I went scouting ahead,” he said, not exactly lying.  “And I shan’t be doing it again.”

“No fucking kidding,” Howlett said.  “What do you mean, scouting ahead?”

Loki stopped carving the nock into the arrow he was working on and looked over at Howlett.  “You have your powers.  I have mine.”

“Yeah, about that,” said Howlett.

“Entirely regrettable.  And terribly forbidden,” Loki said, turning his attention back to his arrow.  “But it’s the only way I know to borrow another’s gifts.”

Howlett looked over him with a critical gaze.  “You should be dead,” he said.

“So should you,” Loki said.  Based off Howlett’s silence, he didn’t need to remind the man of his terrible landing when they jumped into Norway.  “I’ll keep your secret.  You keep mine.  That’s how these things work, isn’t it?” he asked.

Howlett inhaled deeply, nodding as he looked off into the middle distance.  “One condition,” he said.

Loki looked up at him from the corner of his eye.  “Go on,” he said.

“What fucking planet are you from?” Howlett demanded.

Loki laughed quietly.  He figured it was only fair.  “Asgard,” he said.  “It’s a very long, long way from here.”

Howlett shook his head.  “Why do I get the feeling that’s the first true thing you’ve said?” he asked as he got to his feet.  “Goddamn crazy martians.”

“Martians are from Mars,” Loki told him.

He smiled at Howlett’s grumbling as he walked away.  Beyond the assurance of mutual destruction should either of them talk, Loki knew Howlett wouldn’t say anything, if only because Mars would have been more believable than the truth.  And Loki knew they both knew this.

« || »

Midgard Legends #19: Restricted Zone

They watched the platoon down in the valley. The Germans had been stopped when the squad spotted them, and an hour later, they were still in the same place. Morita watched through the binoculars, reporting everything as it happened.

“I am positive that half-track is sinking,” he said almost gleefully, peering over the small hill that provided their cover.

“That’s all marshland down there,” Hilde said in Norwegian, watching with the rest of them. Loki translated, drawing quiet laughter from the others.

“Yeah, it’s going down,” Morita said.

Loki watched the Germans scrambling to try to unstick their convoy, and could not help but obey the sinister urge that overcame them. He pulled his bow off his back and quickly strung it.

“Then they won’t see this coming,” he said.

Several of the others looked over at him as he pulled an arrow from his quiver. Nocking it, he lined up his shot, considering several options before settling on the man at the very back of the line. The arrow was loosed with the barest whisper of a sound, and when it hit the man in the back of his neck, he fell to the snow. None of his comrades noticed him dead in the snow behind the last truck in the convoy.

“Damn,” Jones said in awe.

Loki lined up another shot, taking out another solider just as swiftly. Like the first, his arrow struck true, and the man fell before he even realised he was hit. It wasn’t until he fired the third arrow that Loki remembered he only had thirty of them, and would need to go retrieve the ones he had fired.

“Keep going,” Rogers said, to Loki’s surprise. “Everyone else, get ready.”

“Yes, sir,” Loki said agreeably.

As he worked his way farther up the line, the risk of being noticed grew and grew. When the sixth man fell with the arrow lodged in the back of his brain, the man nearest him turned and gave the alarm, shouting so loudly his voice carried up the hill. As the rest of the soldiers scrambled to find the source, Loki managed to pick off three more of them, dropping them silently to the ground.

Before the Germans figured out where the arrows were coming from, the rest of the squad opened fire as well, raining down upon them a storm of bullets and blue energy blasts. The German soldiers below barely had time to defend themselves before the entire platoon was gunned down.

After waiting a few minutes to be sure everyone below was dead, Rogers slowly stood up. When nobody took the bait, he nodded. “Pink. Morita. You’re up. Everyone else, let’s see what we can scrounge,” he said.

They all carefully made their way down the hill, walking in one another’s footsteps to avoid any hidden dangers. The ground at the bottom of the valley was soft and soggy beneath the snow, where the Germans had torn up the hard layer of ice and uncovered the saturated mud beneath. Carefully, they all checked the trucks and corpses for anything useful, while Loki walked around, collecting his arrows. He was able to retrieve most of them, but the one he had gone through the German soldier’s skull was well and truly lodged for good.

When he was done, he joined Coulson in raiding one of the half-tracks, using his coat to carry out as many rations as they could.

“I fucking hate these kraut rations,” Coulson complained, even as he searched for more.

“That’s okay,” said Loki as he upended one of the crates full of useless, incompatible ammo. “They hate you too.” He found a few blankets and amazingly, some socks and woollen caps, and piled them all together as well.

Their looting spree made getting up the hill difficult, even with their path already carved, but none of them complained. They’d all slept hungry in the snow too many times to know the importance of extra supplies. Back up at the sleighs, they took a quick inventory of everything that had been taken, from food to clothing to position maps.

Rogers handed the maps off to Barnes as they all got back into their sleighs and continued their journey to the north.

“Trondheim’s marked on this map,” Barnes announced. “Looks like our intel might actually be good. There’s also a mark at Hat… Hatfuh… Hatfuh-jell-dale? And also at uhm. Whatthefuckever. It’s marked on the map.”

Those that could hear him all laughed.

“You having problems up there, Buck?” Dugan asked from the sleigh behind him.

“Fuck you. Have you actually seen these words? They look like they were written by an illiterate six-year-old,” Barnes protested, waving the map for all to see. “Look at this shit.”

Loki leaned over to see what he was pointing at. “Hattfjeldal and Stjørdal,” he said.

Barnes folded the map back up and stuffed it into his bag. After five days on the trail, they were getting close to Trondheim. They were also getting restless. After spending five days on an extended sleigh ride, the men were all itching to get out and get moving. At the same time, the inactivity was breeding laziness. The men frequently dozed as they rode across the endless landscape, putting even more strain on those who were driving, forcing them to pay attention to the animals, the trail ahead, and any surrounding dangers. Almost anticipating the behaviour, Loki had taught Coulson how to drive the reindeer early, and was now taking advantage of it by stretching out in the back of the sleigh with their dwindling supplies. Though he watched the cloudy sky above, his attention was elsewhere. The Tesseract had been getting louder again, calling out for attention it wasn’t getting from its current masters. Loki curiously tried to reach out to it, but not as an anchor. He tried to prod it from the distance, trying to draw a reaction out of it. But either it wasn’t one to be poked, or Loki just wasn’t poking hard enough. It was difficult to tell without truly knowing what he was doing. Eventually, he gave up and focused his attentions nearer afield, closing his eyes and scrying at the terrain around them. This skill, he knew was improving. He didn’t have quite the far-reaching sight of Heimdall or Odin, but he was learning to see without using someone as an anchor. He couldn’t see very far around him before his sight became blurred and distorted, but he could see enough to know the trail was clear for a few more miles, at least.

Their last stop before losing Hilde and her reindeer was at Melhus. They drove on late into the night, arriving in the cover of darkness. They parted ways at a farm a few miles outside of town, and walked the rest of the way to their planned stopover, leaving Hilde with a few extra supplies to get her back home.

They had a two-hour walk ahead of them, but even being farther north, the snow cover was thinner. They were closer to the sea, and every day they travelled put them later in the season, so even the farther north they travelled, the warmer the weather became.

It was getting dark as they reached their rendezvous, where they were met by the next in the line of conspirators. He greeted them openly, showing them into an old, converted barn that now served as a shelter of sorts. There was room enough for the ten of them, with more to spare, and it was dry and warm on top of it.

Despite its proximity to Trondheim, Melhus seemed relatively untouched by German occupation. They hadn’t seen anything suggesting a large presence, even after walking along the road to meet with Kristian. He said little to them, though what he did say was in stilted English, making Loki’s job easier. Instead of taking up their time, Kristian simply showed them where they would be staying for the night and left. The men were all so tired from their ride up from Trondheim, that they were barely even concerned with breaking into their rations before finding a cot and falling asleep.

The next morning dawned clear and promising. Kristian returned late in the morning as Rogers formulated the plan with Loki and Barnes. Their intel was still foggy, but Kristian came in with maps of his own, and written accounts of resistance members who were in Trondheim.

“We have no personal accounts of the inside of the base,” he said regretfully. “But our sources are pure.”

Rogers looked from one map to the next, comparing the marked points on both of them. “How do you know?” he asked frankly.

“German men talk when they’ve been drinking,” Kristian said knowingly. “Especially if there’s a pretty girl to talk to.”

Loki and Barnes both laughed quietly. If Rogers found it funny, he didn’t show it, but he did accept the answer. “Right. So we know what they’re doing, and we know what’s on the outside. Do we know what’s in between?” he asked.

“No,” said Kristian honestly. “The Germans talk, but not so freely as that.”

Rogers nodded slowly. “So, here’s what I’m thinking, fellas,” he said.

Loki and Barnes leaned in close to follow Rogers’ plan, offering only the occasional suggestion. When Loki had first met him, Rogers reminded him of Thor, with his approach of simply going in and punching anything that moved. But this plan felt safe. It felt thought out and considered. There would still be punching, and plenty of shooting and stabbing, but it felt less likely to be them who got punched and shot and stabbed this time.

And this, coming from the same man who decided to march straight through Austria and Germany to get to Russia. Loki was actually impressed.

They spent the rest of the day getting ready for an urban night manoeuvre. They’d go in wearing civilian attire, so as not to give themselves away too quickly, but they still had to scorch and muffle every piece of metal they’d be taking. They quietly blackened their dog tags with lighters and wrapped them in torn sheets to keep them from clanking. Their rifles all needed to be adjusted and cleaned, taken apart and reassembled so they didn’t click and rattle as badly while they made their way through town. Their heavy black peacoats were left behind, replaced by coats and clothing Kristian brought in for them. Like their failed attempt at being SS, they could have passed as Norwegian, if not for the fact that none but Loki spoke it. It was a problem Loki could solve, but one he didn’t dare even try.

Leaving Bruttenholm behind without a guard, they left Melhus just after dusk, getting a ride into town in the back of a truck. The wind was cold and biting, but dry, and the ride uncomfortable with their weapons hidden in coats that were slightly too small to do the job. Their ride dropped them off as far into town as he dared, offloading everyone one at a time before leaving. They were still about a mile from the base, but in the cold night, few people were out on the streets. Loki checked his map against where he’d been dropped off, figuring out where he was in relation to the rendezvous just outside the gates. He walked slowly and casually, making his way on deliberately uneven feet as he listened for any signs of a scuffle nearby. But though he heard nothing, he still wasn’t at ease. Breaking off to make their numbers less conspicuous was a fine idea, until someone was stopped and couldn’t answer any questions asked. Rogers might have been able to fake his way through, but the rest would face extreme difficulty in getting out of the situation without advancing the plan prematurely.

As Loki drunkenly walked through the streets of Trondheim, he caught a glimpse of one of the others holding back, waiting for Loki to get into position. The gates were only a few streets away by that point, so Loki really began to over-do his act, stumbling over his own feet and staying upright only through sheer apparent luck. When he crossed the street and neared the restricted zone, his vision was flooded with torchlight, which he reeled back from, not entirely having to act.

“You shouldn’t be here. Leave,” a German guard shouted.

Loki looked up, squinting through the harsh light. He shook his head, stumbling as if the act of it threw him off balance. “No, no, no. I live here,” he said, twisting his brain to speak German with Kristian’s accent. “This is my house.”

“Get out of here. I’m warning you!” the soldier shouted, reaching hesitantly for his gun.

“I live here. This is my house,” Loki insisted with a vague gesture.

“I won’t say it again. I will shoot you!” the guard warned.

Loki shook his head and started to turn away, as if it was the only thing keeping him vertical. He could see the guard trying to decide what to do, and in that moment of confusion, Loki grabbed his pistol, stood up straight, and shot the guard and his silent partner standing in the shadows nearby. It was the signal everyone else had been waiting for, and before the Germans could figure out what had just happened, the rest of the squad rushed out of the shadows and jumped the gates into the base, unleashing a hail of bullets and Hydra weapon blasts on the unsuspecting Germans.

From somewhere behind them, a low rumbling rose through the air, gaining volume and intensity. Suddenly, with his shield in front of him on the handlebars, Rogers crashed through the gate on a stolen motorcycle, running over one of the guards and using his shield to clout another as he raced past. The men all shouted and cheered at the sight of it, following after Rogers on foot and taking out the confused German soldiers who came rushing out in Rogers’ wake.

There were a few odd trucks and jeeps parked near the gates, and Pinkerton and Jones hijacked one of them, following after Rogers as he led the way through the winding maze of dead end roads. Half of the remaining men chased after them, picking off stragglers, while the other half stayed by the gates to ensure a clean escape. By then, the Germans were so confused, they weren’t sure who to fire on. They became bottlenecked about fifty feet from the gates, where several roads all converged onto the single entrance and exit to the base. Taking cover behind the guard post, Loki pulled off his coat and grabbed his bow, keeping it trained on the tops of the buildings. While he sniped anyone getting into position to snipe at them, Morita and Howlett picked off the German soldiers as they rushed the narrow road to the gates. It didn’t take long for the Germans to start falling back, taking cover where they could while still firing at the guard post.

When Loki was down to only ten arrows, he quickly switched to his rifle, even though his aim wasn’t as good with it. Still, he picked off anyone he could see in the dark; black shadows moving against black. In the cover of darkness and chaos, he uncovered his eyes from the disguise he wore, letting himself see everything in perfect, clear contrast. Men who thought they were hidden deep in shadows stood out as if it were the middle of the day, allowing Loki to pick them off before they even knew they’d been seen.

As they held the gates, a loud explosion rang out through the base, followed by another, and another.

“Sounds like Pink’s breached the second gates,” Morita shouted.

“We just have to hold it until they get back!” Loki shouted back, hoping to encourage them further.

Faster than any of them expected, a second set of explosions rang out, this time much louder. The fire and flames could be seen over the base, backlighting everything with harsh orange as the ground beneath their feet shook. For a brief moment after, there was a pause when nobody fired their weapons, all too shell shocked to remember. Then suddenly, everyone remembered all in the same instant, and the fight raged on even harder.

“Reloading!” Loki shouted as he quickly expelled his clip and replaced it with a new one.

When the third set of explosions rang out, chaining for even longer than before, they knew the other two teams were on their way back to the gates.

“Take cover!” Loki shouted needlessly, as the other two already changed their positions to brace for a change in the tide.

They could hear the roaring engine of the motorbike, followed by the crowded jeep as they made their way back out to the gates. The Germans at the bottleneck scrambled in confusion, those who failed to take cover being run over or shot down by Pinkerton as he stood out of the top of the jeep, firing indiscriminately.

Rogers barrelled back through the gates, while Jones stopped the jeep around the first corner, giving the last three a chance to jump inside while gunfire still raged around them. As Loki made sure Howlett and Morita were inside the small vehicle, Pinkerton fell to the floor with a shout more angry than pained, but even in the darkness Loki could see the blood pooling on his shirt, rapidly growing under the hand he held pressed against the side of his neck.

While Morita jumped to his aid, Loki and Howlett began firing blindly out the back, spraying bullets until they were both out.

They led the Germans on a chase out of the city, but the damage done to the base prevented more than a handful of soldiers from pursuing. While Rogers was safely ahead on his motorbike, the others were still being fired upon from behind. Crouching down as low as possible, Loki reached for his pistol and took aim.

“Jones, keep it steady!” he shouted.

“Doing my best, sir!” Jones shouted back.

While Howlett took pot shots beside him, Loki lined up his own shot carefully. He waited until they came to a turn to fire, taking out the Germans’ front tyre and sending the vehicle careening in the wrong direction, and crashing into a brick wall. Loki involuntarily winced at the sight and sound of it, but breathed easily after. They’d lost their tail, but it wouldn’t be long before the Germans caught back up.

Back in Melhus, everyone quickly scrambled out of the jeep, racing to either help Pinkerton out, or get whatever supplies Morita shouted for. Trusting them to take care of it, Loki leaned over to the front, where Jones and Dugan still sat.

“Drive this thing out of town. Lose it in a lake or something, and get back here as quickly as you can,” he said before jumping down to the ground.

“You got it,” Jones said. He barely waited to be sure Loki was clear before dropping the jeep back into gear and tearing off through the snow again.

Loki waited outside for a moment, listening to the sounds in the night, but all was still. Aside from the engine driving away to the south, there was no noise at all. His thoughts eased only slightly, Loki rushed back into the converted barn, expecting to find a dead demolitions expert. To his surprise, Pinkerton was leaning against the wall, holding someone’s shirt to his neck while Morita scrambled through his aid kit. Loki watched as Morita worked in silence, removing the shirt just long enough to throw a bit of white sulfanilamide powder on the wound before wraping a long bandage around his neck.

“You are one lucky son of a bitch,” Morita said as he made sure the bandage was tight. He looked up at Loki for just a moment, before getting back to work. “This punk’s rubbing off on you.”

“I never thought I’d be called lucky for getting shot,” Pinkerton said stiffly.

“Any farther to the left, and you’d be dead right now,” Morita told him. He fiddled with the bandage some more before taking his hands away. “How’s that feel?”

“Like I got shot in the bleeding neck,” Pinkerton complained, holding onto the bandage now.

Beside him, Howlett dug through his pack and pulled out a small steel flask. Pinkerton took it with a nod and drank liberally from it. “Cheers,” he said, and then drank from it again.

Looking around at the nervous energy in the room, Loki inhaled deeply.

“So?” he asked expectantly.

“I’d call it a success,” Rogers answered, looking around the room. “I don’t know what was on those subs, but whe they went, they took out half the base. We barely got out of there.”

It explained what Loki saw from the gates. And also why they had so little resistance getting out.

“Where are Dugan and Jones?” Rogers asked.

“I sent them to get rid of the jeep. Jerry will be looking for it sooner or later,” Loki answered.

Rogers nodded. “Good.” He looked back over to Pinkerton. “How we doing over here?”

Morita finished cleaning up his hands and flipped his kit shut. “Good news is he’ll live. Bad news is he ain’t going anywhere right now. If that wound gets any worse, he’ll bleed out in minutes.”

“Such a cheery fucker, you are,” Pinkerton grumbled.

“I’m serious,” Morita said, turning to him. “You gotta take a piss, you get someone to help you up, or you piss your pants.”

Coulson snorted from the other side of the room. “Man, I’ll help you up, but if I gotta hold your dick for you, you’re on you own,” he said.

While everyone else laughed, Rogers frowned. “So we’re stuck here for a while?” he asked.

“Unless you wanna leave him behind,” Morita said. “In normal circumstances, that’s what I’d suggest, but these aren’t normal circumstances. There’s no aid station to send him to, and no replacement depot neither.”

“All right,” Rogers said, nodding slowly. “We stay.”

« || »

Midgard Legends #18: Trondheim

“We shouldn’t do this here,” the girl said, her hands already unbuckling Loki’s belt.

She was one of the displaced civilians; some peasant’s daughter who had taken refuge in the church with the others.  She had also been easily led away from the rest into a small storage cupboard behind the altar, and now worked at unbuttoning Loki’s trousers, while he nipped beneath her ear and tried to figure out what to do with her narrow skirt.  The choice of the cupboard was not the best, but in a crowded, snowed-under church, there were few places for privacy.

Forgetting about her skirt, Loki began to kiss a hard line down Bjørg’s neck as her hands found their way past the buttons, and into Loki’s shorts.  Loki let his mouth explore further while she touched him, surprised when his teeth came to a metal chain.  He stopped just long enough to pull the necklace up from beneath her shirt, and almost laughed when he saw the Mjölnir pendant hanging from it.

“What better way to celebrate our pagan heritage than defiling a Christian temple?” he said, pushing her harder against the wall as he lifted her skirt, trying to pull the narrow garment up enough to be out of the way.  When that wasn’t working, he began to feel around her waist instead, looking for the row of buttons.

“You’re right.  We shouldn’t be doing this here,” he agreed suddenly, trying to keep as quiet as possible.  “We should have gone downstairs.”

Bjørg laughed quietly, biting her lip to keep the noise down.  Even once Loki got her skirt down, there really wasn’t enough room to do what he wanted.  He managed to pull his own pants down just far enough that he’d be able to ride her against the wall, but as he started to pick her up, the door opened and flooded the small cupboard with orange lamp light.  The door shut just as quickly, but Loki stopped and banged his head against the wall.  A moment later, the door opened again, Dugan standing sideways with his hand over his eyes.

“Cap wants a word,” he said, before shutting the door again.

Loki sighed.  “Damnit,” he grumbled, bending to pull up his trousers.

“Perhaps it’s for the best,” Bjørg said quietly, suddenly self-conscious as she pulled her skirt back up, turning away from Loki slightly.

Loki ignored her and left, going to find Rogers, wherever he was.  The church wasn’t huge, and Loki didn’t have long to search before he found Rogers in a small antechamber, hunched over a map with Barnes and Bruttenholm.

“Olson,” Rogers said, not looking up.

“Sir?” said Loki, stepping up to the table to see the new plan.

“Flies spread disease.  Keep yours closed,” Rogers said simply.

Beside him, Barnes snorted.  Loki chose to ignore both of them and leaned against the table, looking down at the route that had been pencilled in.

“Trondheim?” Loki asked, following the route to its terminus.

“Hydra has a massive U-boat base in Trondheim,” Rogers said.  “I don’t think the nine of us can take down the entire base, but we can slow them down a bit.”

Loki looked up at Barnes, who seemed less than impressed with the bare skeleton of a plan.  “Isn’t that a job for the navy?” he asked.

“We got word from London today that Hydra seems to be focusing a lot of energy up here.  We think they may be up to something big,” Rogers said.

Loki frowned.  “Word how?” he asked.

Barnes frowned as well, turning his attention between Rogers and Loki.  For a moment, nobody said anything, until Rogers cleared his throat awkwardly and shrugged.

“Doc knows a psychic,” he said, as if he didn’t even quite believe it.

“Funny,” said Barnes flatly.

“Seriously?” Loki asked over him, looking at Bruttenholm.  “Why didn’t you mention this in France?  You could have told him to get us out of there.”

Bruttenholm shook his head gravely.  “She is the psychic; not me,” he said.  “I couldn’t tell her that any more than you could.”

Loki tried not to snort, but Barnes made no such effort.

“A psychic?” he asked.  “We’re getting intel from a ghost?”

“She’s very much alive, I assure you,” Bruttenholm said. 

“Yeah, I’ve, uh.  Met her,” Rogers said, still uneasy.  “Took some getting used to.  Still don’t think I’m there.”

“It’s not that uncommon,” Loki said before he could stop himself.

Barnes looked at all of them like they’d lost their minds.  “A psychic,” he repeated.  “In London.  Steve, are you serious?”

“Yes,” said Bruttenholm, starting to lose his patience.  “And I have been informed that Hydra may be about to launch an attack from Trondheim, using weapons we’ve never seen the likes of before.”

“Did she say what?” Loki asked.

Bruttenholm shook his head.  “No.  Like you said, psychics aren’t exactly uncommon.  She sends her messages in code, to avoid being ‘overheard.'”

Loki nodded.  “That’s smart,” he agreed.

“That’s insane,” Barnes argued, gaping at him.  “You can’t believe this?”

Loki looked up at him, saying nothing.

“Okay.  Guys,” Rogers said, stepping in.  “The issue here isn’t the intel.  It’s the timing of it.  We were supposed to be out of here by now, so they probably think we’re farther north than we are.  We need to get up there by next week.”

“On these roads?” Barnes asked.  “Even forgetting psychics for now, Steve, I don’t see any way out of here right now.”

Loki looked out the small window, through which only a small corner of light was able to penetrate.  The snow was still piled high outside, and had continued to fall in light flurries over the last few days.  Getting out of town by automobile would have been impossible.

“I wonder if dogs could do it,” Loki mused aloud.  “It’s too deep for horses, and probably not enough hard pack for reindeer, but maybe.”

The other three all looked at him now, wearing equally concerned and cautious expressions.

“What the hell do you know about reindeer?” Barnes asked.

Loki held out his hands, gesturing to the whole of himself, waiting for them to make the right connection.  In moments like this, he wanted to scream at everyone, so they’d all know stupid they all were.

It was Rogers who nodded first.  “A lot, probably,” he said.

Loki bent over the map to study it again, looking at the route traced along it.

“There’s a lot of wilderness in Norway,” Rogers observed aloud.  “I bet we could shave some time off if we cut through it, instead of following the road.”

“This is the longest I’ve spent this far south,” Loki said, wondering how many mountains and bogs the road was circling around.  “What we may save in mileage, we’ll likely lose in rough terrain.”

Barnes shook his head.  “Every time we decide to stick to the roads, someone tries to blow our heads off.”

“There is that,” Rogers agreed.

“The roads are more likely to have hard pack, if they have anything on them at all,” Loki argued.  “Out here, the roads are there for a reason.” 

He was sick of trudging through the snow, and knew Bruttenholm would only slow them down even more if they had to keep at it.  His wound had never had the chance to heal properly, and was only made worse by forcing him to keep moving.  Being snowed in was probably the best thing that had happened to him all year.

“And if the road’s clear, everyone else is gonna be on it,” Rogers said.  “There aren’t many roads going where we’re going.”

Loki scowled, knowing he was right.  He glared down at the map for a few moments longer before looking back up at Bruttenholm.  If he was the one receiving their intel, Loki knew leaving him behind wasn’t an option.  Even if leaving him behind would have sped up their travelling speed by at least double.

“You’re going to be arse-deep in snow for about two hundred miles.  I want you to talk to Morita about morphine,” he said, looking straight at the professor.

To his surprise, Rogers nodded.  “Good call,” he said.  “I want to move out as soon as we’re dug out of here.  Olson, you have an idea of what we’ll need to get out of here.  Talk to whoever you can about getting us whatever we need.  Buck, let everyone else know to start getting ready.”

Loki and Barnes both nodded.  While Loki turned to leave the room, Barnes and Bruttenholm stayed behind to further discuss the difficult path ahead.  As much as Loki didn’t want Bruttenholm to continue with them—the man was quickly becoming a liability—there was nothing he could say to convince the others.

As Loki walked out the small room, he was pelted with several dozen condoms, all thrown at him from the pews.  He ducked out of the way of the first few, until he realised what was happening.  While the others laughed at him, he shrugged and bent to pick up what he could reach.

“Thanks.  I’ll be needing these,” he said, turning toward the stairs to the cellar.

The laughter turned to jeering as Loki disappeared down the stairs.  He didn’t even want the condoms, or even intend to use the ones he was given in his own rations, but taking them from the others gave him a spiteful satisfaction.  As he went to stuff them all into his pack, he noticed something on his cot, dark and coiled in the dim light.  Loki reached for it, and knew what it was as soon as his fingers touched the cool metal.  He didn’t even have to hold it up to recognise Bjørg’s Mjölnir pendant.  He laughed ruefully at it, wanting to hurl the trinket into the nearest fire.  Instead, he pulled the chain over his head, cringing as it caught on his spectacles.  He wasn’t even sure why he decided to wear it, but he tucked it under his shirt with his tags and his Ægishjálmur stave all the same.  Wearing it made him feel no better, but perhaps the way things were going, the extra layer of protection wouldn’t hurt.

He stayed down in the cellar for almost a quarter hour, trying to decide his next move.  The Tesseract was only occasionally teasing him now; calling out without giving him anything strong enough to take hold of.  Urðr’s well could not be taken by the humans, regardless of their alliances, but Loki had only the vaguest knowledge of where to find it.  And submarines in Trondheim were the least of Loki’s concerns.  Loki had seen war play out on Midgard before, and he had stayed out of all of them.  If not for the damned Tesseract, Loki would have stayed out of this war as well.  But the humans didn’t deserve that power.  Even now, they were squandering it, using it to fight their petty squabbles.  With the Tesseract, Loki could create a realm of his very own, shaped and molded to his own desires.  With the Tesseract, petty squabbles could be stamped out before they even began.

But he couldn’t get to it.  Not now.  And he couldn’t get to the well on his own.  He would have to play this game for a little longer, until he was in a position to sever all his ties and claim his reward.  With a defeated sigh, he trudged back up the stairs and went to go help in the effort to dig out the church’s doors.

Loki missed being around animals.  He hadn’t realised it until helping harness the team of reindeer liberated from a nearby farm.  They had enough to pull five small sleighs, which was going to have to do.  The owner of the reindeer was a slight woman, but she moved with confidence and wasn’t afraid to pull the animals along to where they needed to be.  In the bargaining process, she had agreed to lend the animals, under the sole condition that she guide them toward their destination.  Not wanting to get stuck in a bog along the way, Loki agreed without even pausing to be sure Rogers had agreed as well.

“He’s kinda cute,” Dugan said as he tried to help ready the animals.  The sky was still dark, with only the vaguest hint of daylight on the horizon.  The days were grudgingly getting longer, but they still seemed to fight the change in seasons.

Loki looked over his shoulder, watching for a moment as Dugan hesitantly petted one of the reindeer.

“It’s female,” Loki said, returning his attention to the harness he’d been working on.

“It’s got horns,” Dugan pointed out.

“That’s how I know it’s female,” Loki said.  “Unless it’s been castrated.”

He watched out of the corner of his eye as Dugan fought the urge to bend over and look between the animal’s legs.

“Are you fucking with me?” he asked finally.

Loki bent and checked his own deer.  “This one’s female,” he announced.

Dugan hesitated again, finally getting up the nerve to bend down and look.  “It’s a girl,” he said, actually sounding a bit surprised.

Loki laughed, attracting Hilde’s attention at the front of the small team.

“What is it?” she asked in Norwegian, craning back to look at Dugan.  “What’s he doing to my deer?”

“He’s never seen them before,” Loki explained.  “I think they confuse him.”

Hilde shrugged and shook her head, muttering something to herself.  Laughing again, Loki finished harnessing in his reindeer and went to lead another out of the barn it was being kept in.

Once the reindeer were all harnessed in, they began loading the sleighs with their meagre supplies.  While Rogers made a show of refusing the offers of extra food from some of the civilians, some of the others gladly accepted, stashing away anything they could easily hide.

Dugan had enough experience with horses that Loki was able to give him a quick crash course with the deer, but even with Hilde and Loki driving two of the other sleighs, it still left the last two without drivers.

“Howlett, you’re from Canada.  You’re familiar with snow,” Loki decided.

“Like hell am I getting behind the wheel of that thing,” Howlett protested.

“Of course not.  There’s no wheel.  Get on,” Loki said.  He looked over the remainder of the group, all trying to avoid being picked.  “Who else is going to volunteer, so I don’t have to pick you?”

“I will,” Rogers said easily.

Startled, Loki looked over at him.  There was a strange look on his face that for a moment, Loki couldn’t understand.  But after a moment, he got it.  Rogers was a quick study, and they both knew it.  He’d pick up the skill in minutes.

“Good,” Loki said.  He looked at the lightening sky, knowing they’d only have a few more hours of good daylight before dusk fell again.  “Get on.”

He nodded toward one of the sleighs, expecting the other two to follow him on.  Rogers followed readily, and Howlett grudgingly, but they both did follow.  At first, Loki drove, showing them how to sit, and how to control the animals with the reins.  In the shallow, packed snow near the barn, the reindeer moved easily, but when Loki handed the reins over to Rogers and instructed him to take the sleigh out to the deeper snow, the ride became more difficult.  The animals had to struggle to pull the laden sleigh through the deep snow, slowing their pace down to almost nothing.  Howlett nearly gave up at his turn, pulling on the reins and slowing the reindeer down when he should have been encouraging them to move harder.

“Don’t hold on like you’re about to fall off,” Loki scolded, forcing him to put more slack into the reins.  “It’s just like the horses.  You’re telling them to do two things at once and confusing them.”

“Well, at least we’re on the same page,” Howlett grumbled.

They ran out of time before either of them were really fit to make the journey, but they’d have a few hours of daylight to learn before dusk set in again.  Everyone loaded into the sleighs, two to each, and started down the road.  They followed it along the river, cutting a deep trough through the snow for the first hour.  They crossed to the north bank at Marlo, following a narrow back road, and eventually leaving it entirely to cut across open terrain to the main road to the east.  Despite their plans to stay away from the road, the terrain didn’t lend well to straying from them for very long.  The reindeer struggled to pull the sleighs through the snow, and were rotated in and out of the front position to conserve energy.  The weather had calmed since the storm that hit after their arrival, leaving bright skies and calm winds.  But the ride was still quiet and tense as they travelled slowly northward.  Nobody laughed or joked as they went, but looked out at the expansive wilderness around them.

Coulson shared Loki’s sleigh, and sat as low as possible, huddled into his coat with his hat pulled low over his brow, so all that could be seen of him was his eyes.

“You really grew up in this kind of crap?” Coulson asked eventually.

“More or less,” Loki said, not taking his eyes off the path in front of them.  Winters on Asgard were never quite as harsh, but he’d snuck off to Jötunheimr enough times to experience real winter before ever making regular trips to Midgard.

“Huh,” Coulson said distantly.  “I guess that rules out Mars, then.”

Loki struggled to follow the logic, and trying threatened to give him a headache.  “What?” he asked.

He could vaguely see Coulson shrug beneath his coat.  “I dunno.  Isn’t it supposed to be hot on Mars or something?”

Loki frowned.  “Is it?” he asked, realising he didn’t know enough about Mars to fake his way through this conversation.

“I think so.  It’s red,” Coulson reasoned.  “Red things are hot, aren’t they?”

Loki considered this.  “I guess so.”  He spurred the reindeer on a little faster.  “But I fear you’re missing the obvious.”

“What’s that?” Coulson asked.

Loki smiled slyly.  “Martians are green, Ray.  Everybody knows that.”

Coulson frowned as he considered that.  “Shit, you’re right,” he said.

At nightfall, they began to search for a place to rest the reindeer, taking them into a smaller valley beneath the back road they had caught back up with, where they’d be difficult to see by anyone travelling that night.  They hadn’t passed a single vehicle all day, but just to be safe, they found a small copse of evergreens and stopped beneath them.

“No fires.  Blackout conditions,” Rogers announced as he carefully stepped down off of the sleigh and into the snow. 

Several of the others groaned at the orders, and only a few decided to get up from their spots.  But with the white blanket over the ground, and the clear skies above, they weren’t in complete darkness.  There was enough ambient light to see the dark shadows of objects against the white backdrop, but little else. 

Loki only moved to grab his pack.  He pulled a small parcel from it, offering it to Coulson.

“What is it?” Coulson asked, looking inside the paper wrapping.

“Lefse,” Loki answered, also handing over a few jars.  “The lutefisk is mine.”

Coulson opened one of the jars, and immediately slammed it shut again, gagging.  “Jesus Christ, what is that?  Your secret weapon?” he asked, choking into his coat sleeve.

Loki snatched the jar back.

“No, it’s my lunch,” he said.  He took several pieces of lefse from the stack and moved to the other side of the sleigh.  Ignoring Coulson’s retching, Loki opened the jar again and held it between his knees while he carefully plucked the fermented fish pieces out and carelessly rolled them into the top piece of lefse before recapping the jar.

A few moments later, Hilde walked over and leaned over the side of the sleigh. 

“Is everything all right?” she asked.

Loki nodded.  “Americans don’t know how to eat.  That’s all,” he said in her own language, offering her the lefse roll with a wink she probably couldn’t see in the dark.  He smiled smugly as she took it and bit into it before walking away.  Once she was gone, Loki opened the jar again and prepared himself another roll.

“Goddamn crazy Scandinavians,” Coulson complained as he wiped his eyes with his hand.

“Eat,” Loki told him, pointing at the jar in Coulson’s other hand.  “That one’s jam.  It shouldn’t offend you too much.”

“Says the guy who’s eating something he found in the trash,” Coulson complained.  Still, he opened the jar, relaxing when all he found inside was thick lingonberry jam.  Following Loki’s lead, he used his fingers to spread some of it onto one of the pieces of lefse and rolled it up to eat it.

“Not bad,” he said.

“She gave me about two pounds of it.  Something to look forward to between K rations,” Loki said.  He quickly finished off his roll, and was tempted to make another, but decided against it.  Instead, he put the lutefisk back into his pack and leaned against the low side of the sleigh to close his eyes.  A few moments later, he heard someone else begin to choke and swear, and he smiled, knowing the others had taken the offerings without even bothering to ask what they were being given. 

“Don’t you dare throw that away!” he shouted.

Once the reindeer were rested and fed, everyone climbed back into the sleighs and followed Hilde out of the valley in a single-file line.  Loki watched out over the white-covered landscape for anything that moved, less concerned with German soldiers than the simple longing to pull out his bow and do some hunting.  But he ignored it, forcing himself to pay more attention to the reindeer and the terrain in front of him.

As they made their way further from Lom, the going became easier as the snow cover slowly subsided.  The reindeer had less to plough through as they pulled the sleighs, and the sleighs themselves had less snow for their runners to get stuck in.  But they still made less than twenty miles by the time they had decided to stop, and still had not caught back up with the main road to Trondheim, which was still going to be the safest way to travel for much of the journey.

Loki and Dugan helped Hilde tie the reindeer to keep them from roaming while the rest of the squad set up what was going to pass for a camp.  Rogers had still insisted on blackout conditions, and rather than foxholes, beds were made in the sleighs.  When Loki returned from helping to tie up and feed the reindeer, he found Morita and Howlett had joined Coulson in the sleigh.

“I’ve been invaded by dwarves,” he said flatly as he climbed into the sleigh.

“Hey, if we get attacked by a polar bear, I want to be next to the guy who says he’s killed one,” Morita reason.

Loki settled himself between the layers of blankets and shifted around inside his coat to get comfortable.  “Polar bears don’t come this far south,” he said trying to find a way to use his pack as a pillow.  “Wolves and brown bears, on the other hand…”

Sleeping in the church, and in London before that had spoiled Loki.  He wanted to take off his boots and coat, but didn’t dare.  He was already too hot and uncomfortable, but he was also supposed to be sharing warmth to keep from freezing to death.  Eventually, he gave up on his pack and shoved it aside, hoping he was tired enough to sleep uncomfortably.  As soon as he lay down and piled what little blanket he could reach for a pillow, the other three all started to burrow in as well, crowding against him.  Sighing, Loki took off his spectacles and put them on top of his pack, deciding to just accept the inevitable.  Unless they were very lucky, and able to find someone’s house to overrun, he knew he was in for at least a week of sleeping under a pile of human soldiers.  Telling himself there were worse places to sleep, Loki tried to get some rest before another long day of driving.

« || »

Midgard Legends #17: Collaborators

Loki saw the Roundnose before anybody else, sitting quietly on the side of the road.  Holding his fist above his shoulder, he dropped to one knee and listened as everybody behind him did the same.  Rogers quickly made his way to the front of the line, crouching beside Loki in the snow.

“I think that’s him, sir,” Loki said quietly, watching the truck for any signs of movement.

Rogers pulled his cricket out and clicked it twice before raising his rifle to the ready.  A few seconds later, they watched a man get out of the truck and walk around to the front to open the bonnet.  After a moment, he banged on something three times, just loudly enough for the sound to carry to them.

“Olson.  Pink.  With me,” Rogers said quietly.

The three of them stuck to the deeper snow on the side of the road as they slowly made their way toward the big Volvo that had apparently broken down.  Once they were about ten feet away, Rogers and Pinkerton stopped, with Loki standing slowly.

“Trouble, my friend?” he called out in Norwegian.

“Every day of my life,” the man replied, slamming the bonnet shut again.

Rogers and Pinkerton stood up as well, still holding their rifles ready at their sides.

“English?” asked Loki.

The man shook his head.  “No.  Some German,” he replied. 

Loki turned back to Rogers and shrugged.  At least with Jones around, he knew he wouldn’t be the only one on translation duty, but he thought it might have been nice if more of his outfit had bothered to learn more than one language.  At least Morita spoke Japanese.  Not that it did them any good in Europe. 

“We’ve been told you’re here to take us somewhere safe,” Loki said to the man.

He nodded.  “Yes.  And I was told there were more of you.”

Loki turned to Rogers again and nodded.  Nodding back, Rogers whistled sharply, and the rest of the squad stood up and quickly made their way up the road.

“Ten of us, actually,” said Loki smugly.

The man nodded and watched with a wary eye as the rest of the soldiers closed in.  “Good.  Good.  I’m Jan.  You must be Captain Rogers, then?”

Loki shook his head and pointed his thumb over his shoulder.  “That would be him, actually.  But he only speaks English and French.”

Jan nodded again and opened the door to the Volvo’s cab.  “Get on,” he said, pointing to the truck’s flatbed.  “We still have some driving to do.”

Loki relayed the instruction and climbed onto the truck, helping Dugan and Jones get Bruttenholm up.  There were only small wooden rails along the edges of the bed, barely large enough to keep anybody from falling off, so they all crowded in the middle, as close to the cab as possible.  Once everyone was as settled as they were going to get, Jan started the truck and began the precarious drive down the icy road.  The truck offered them no protection from either the elements, or anybody who might spot them, so they all stayed as low as they could as Jan took them straight through the centre of the small town.  But at four in the morning, in the middle of winter, the entire town was asleep.  They saw no one as they headed further north, coming finally to a tall, peaked building outside of town.  Even after the truck stopped, everyone stayed in the back until Jan appeared and waved them off.

“I thought we’d see more Germans in town,” Loki mused as he stepped down into the deep snow.

“There are some here, but mostly I think they hate the long nights,” said Jan.

“Long nights?” asked Loki, looking up to the dark sky.  “You see the sun here?  In winter?”

Jan laughed.  “For a few hours, yes.  You must be from farther north to be so surprised.”

Loki laughed along with him, sounding as easy and effortless as if he belonged there.  “Iceland,” he said.

Jan paused at that.  “You fooled me.”

“I’m good like that,” Loki answered.  He looked over his shoulder to Rogers and nodded assuringly.  Loki hadn’t been able to get anything useful out of Jan, except for the impression that Jan had no double-cross planned for them.  Everything about his nervous energy seemed genuine so far. 

Once everyone was off the truck, Jan led them into the church, where a small group of townsfolk were waiting for them.  As soon as they were seated in the wooden pews, beneath the intricately-carved beams and a ceiling so high that light couldn’t reach the top, several women rushed over to them with plates piled with hot foot.  Loki took his, not realising what he’d been given until he’d already stuck his fork into the thin slices of sausage. 

“Oh, you are kidding me,” he said, not sure if he was imagining having a plate of real food before him.  He had to force himself to keep hold of his fork, and not just eat with his fingers and knife like he would at home on Asgard. 

“What is it?” asked Coulson.  “No, wait, never mind.  Don’t tell me.”

He cautiously poked at the sausage on his plate before eating a piece. 

“What’s wrong?” asked Loki as he ate more of the sausage, stabbing the pieces with his fork until the fork could hold no more. 

Coulson jabbed his fork at his plate.  “I’ll ask you what it is, you’ll tell me it’s made of pig, and then I’ll have to decide if I’m hungry enough to eat it,” he said, before defiantly eating more of it.  “So just don’t tell me.”

Loki shook his head.  “It’s sheep,” he said around a mouthful of it.  He jabbed his fork at the yellow mash on the side.  “That’s a root of some variety that I’ve never cared for, but may actually be hungry enough to eat.  And that—” he jabbed his fork into the large dumpling beside it “—is potato.”

It seemed to appease Coulson, since he cut into the potato dumpling with his fork and bit into it, only to stop halfway through.

“There’s bacon in this, you son of a bitch,” he said.

Loki tore into his as well.  “You told me not to tell you,” he said.

Muttering under his breath, Coulson shook his head and ate it anyway.

The others all took Coulson’s wary but ravenous approach to what they’d been served as well, too focused on the fact that they were eating at all to care that they were sitting on cold church pews and surrounded by members of the Norwegian resistance.  Jan and the others were, for their part, gracious enough to let them eat before attempting to open up another dialogue.  The supper they had been served was rich and heavy, and seemed to only make everyone’s exhaustion worse.  Several of the men fell asleep before they were even finished eating. 

“There are few Germans here, but that doesn’t mean we are completely unoccupied,” Jan explained, once everyone had either cleared their plate or curled up and passed out.  “We’ll wait until a few hours after dark to move further north, but it will depend on the weather.”

“Weather?” asked Loki.

Jan nodded solemnly.  “They say a storm may come in.  If that happens, you’ll stay here until it passes.”

Rogers must have either been picking up the language faster than he was letting on, or able to read something in Loki’s reaction.

“What is it?” he asked grimly.

Loki turned to him with a look of dissatisfaction.  “We may find ourselves snowed in before we can leave,” he answered.

Rogers nodded slowly.  “How bad?” he asked.

Loki relayed the question, and Jan shrugged, as if deferring to Loki.  It took him a moment to remember that Jan was under the impression that Loki was at least passingly familiar with weather at that lattitude.

“Properly snowed under, I imagine,” Loki told Rogers.

“Then it’s time we’ll use to prepare.  We’re not going to run into any Germans in here tomorrow, are we?”  Despite speaking in English, Rogers addressed Jan directly, which almost made Loki forget that he was needed until a few moments later.

“No.  You’ll be in the cellar just in case, but we don’t expect anybody to come in here.  They never do,” Jan said.

“But just in case,” Loki repeated quietly, before relaying the information to Rogers.  The captain didn’t seem any more pleased to hear this than Loki had been, but he nodded all the same.

For the next hour, Loki acted as the middleman for Jan and Captain Rogers as the two of them exchanged information and strategy.  Even though they were there for a dual purpose, Jan still tried to convince them to cross the border into Sweden, but Rogers refused that offer every time.  While the squad had been training and feeding the propaganda machine, everyone else in Churchill’s bunker had been analysing grainy photographs and gathering intel.

Getting to Russia via Sweden would have been easier, but there were no repurposed power plants in Sweden, overrun with Nazi scientists where they could be out of the way of the war theatre.

The fight, quite simply, would be taken to them. 

Most of the men had gone to bunk up in the cellars long before Rogers and Loki were done speaking with Jan.  By the time they were done, Loki felt as if his head were fit to burst.  He didn’t entirely know what magic made the All-tongue work, but it was a tremendously difficult magic to control.  He found one of the last empty cots in the cellar and fell onto it, too tired to even take his belt off.  Even as his arrows clattered to the floor, he lay still.

It only took a few minutes for the discomfort from the way he had fallen and the weight of all his kit to outweigh his headache.  Careful not to break anything, he gathered what had fallen to the floor and stripped off most of his outer layers, until he was just in his trousers and undershirt.  The cellar was cool and comfortable, and even on the hard cot, Loki fell asleep quickly.

He dreamt of Thor and Fandral, riding with them through the woods on Asgard.  There was an eagle in the sky, and they were chasing it, following its path straight and true.

Suddenly, the air grew hot, and Loki became separated from the others.  The trees around him turned to glass and steel that melted from the heat coming off of the demon.  Loki was melting.  He looked at his hand to see the pink colour of his skin running off like water, revealing the dark blue beneath.  The sword he held dropped to the ground as his fingers melted away, turning to steam as the ice in his veins dried up and evaporated.

The demon was right there, its huge, curved horns barely inches away from Loki’s.  At any moment, the demon would lock horns with Loki and throw him to the ground, before flaying him alive and drinking his blood. 

Loki woke with a heavy gasp and a pounding in his chest.  He looked at his hands, able to tell in the pale light filtering through the floorboards that his skin was still fair and pink like the human he was pretending to be, and then frantically felt his forehead.  There was nothing there.  No horns for the demon to lock with.  Nor was there any demon before him.  But he was still too hot, even in the cool cellar.  Loki bounded up off the cot, tripping over Bruttenholm’s pack on the floor beside him as he rushed toward the stairs.  He barely had the presence of mind to make sure the coast was clear, only stopping at the last moment to peer through the gap in the floorboards to make sure the man standing watch over the cellar door was still where he should be.  Loki flung the door open and rushed past the guard to make his way outside.

He took barely three steps out the door before falling onto his knees in the snow.  He wanted to press his face into it, but stopped himself when he heard someone following him outside. 

“What are you doing?” the man who was meant to be standing sentry over the cellar door asked.

Loki stayed where he was and looked up at the still-dark sky.  There was a faint purple light in the east, filtering through a growing cloud cover, but it told him nothing of the time of day.

“Having a panic,” Loki answered after a moment, giving in and picking up a handful of snow to press against his face.  “I’m fine.”

“Are you?” asked the other man.

Loki looked over his shoulder at him, surprised to see him unarmed.  “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Geir,” came the answer.

Loki nodded and sat down to take the weight off his knees.  “Everybody has proper names here,” he mused aloud.  “I’ve got nine other men with me, and three of them are called Jim.  It’s an awful name, isn’t it?”

Geir laughed nervously, still keeping his distance.  “You shouldn’t be out here.  If a patrol comes and sees you…” he said, not finishing his thought.

But he didn’t have to.  Loki nodded and got up, realising only then that he had once again run out into the snow without his shoes on.  Even Geir noticed, though he didn’t say anything.  He only continued to watch Loki suspiciously as they walked back inside, making Loki realise that even in the middle of nowhere, Norway, panic was a disease that would spread through the ranks and destroy what little structure there was to the resistance.  Isolating that panic, keeping it far away from the others was the only way to ensure it didn’t spread.  Back in the church, Loki walked down the aisle almost casually, looking up at the familiar, yet extremely alien designs all around him.  There were no followers of Odin here.  These people followed a new god now, just like everybody else.  Even if Midgard hadn’t been locked off, there would be little point in any of the gods coming to this realm.  Not when they had been so long regarded as fairy tales and bed time stories.

Once again wondering why he was even there, Loki walked back down to the cellar, hoping to eventually fall asleep.

“What the hell was that?  You all right?” Morita asked from somewhere in the dark.  Apparently, Loki’s panic had not gone as unnoticed as he had thought.

Loki nodded as he fell back onto his cot.  “Had to take a leak,” he lied.

Morita laughed, and apparently believing him, let it go.  Loki tried to make himself go back to sleep, but his skin still felt too hot, and his chest was still pounding.  Barely a night went by that he wasn’t plagued with visions of demons from the darkest pits of Muspellheimr.  What the demon was doing in his dreams, in what Loki was certain was some strange vision of New York, he couldn’t begin to fathom.

Unable to sleep, and not wanting to think about the demon any longer, Loki put his spectacles back on and dug out his book and flashlight.  The book was still boring, and he still had not got to the bullfighting yet, but it was exactly what he needed.  The dull tedium of nothing happening to the collection of uninteresting characters was exactly what he needed to clear his mind and fall back to sleep.

The snow started falling around midday, and did not stop.  They could only watch as the distant houses disappeared under a growing blanket of snow, and the river to their east slowly disappeared entirely.  Everything seemed to stand still, which at least gave the squad the freedom to move around a bit.  They stuck close to the church, huddled in heavy coats as they enjoyed being outside, with the knowledge that they wouldn’t actually be sleeping out in the snow that night. 

Jan showed them how to climb to the top of the church, which gave them a vantage point over the village.  In the dim, cloudy light, Lom still seemed to be asleep, with few people moving about the streets.  Jan pointed out the houses where German soldiers were quartered, naming the families who had been evicted to make room.  Most of those families had found shelter with neighbours, but some took refuge in the church, sleeping in whatever space they could find.  Loki watched the village quietly while Jan and Rogers carried on a stilted conversation, only offering help when Rogers became truly stuck.  His Norwegian was basic at best, but already better than Loki would have expected it to be.  Whatever secrets Rogers kept, it was no wonder he was willing to overlook Loki’s.

“The Germans don’t want to be here,” Jan said confidently.  “They spend most of the time indoors, unless absolutely necessary.”

“Why are they here?” Rogers asked.  He crouched down next to Loki, lying beside him on his belly to look out the window over the village.

“Pride, at this point,” Jan responded.  “Whatever advantage Hitler thought he’d find wasn’t here.  But they came here, so they’ve stayed here.”

Rogers hummed distantly.  After a moment, he turned to Loki.  “You’re thinking awfully loudly over there, Olson,” he said.

It took a moment for Loki to realise he’d been addressed.  He had been thinking; about everything Jan had said, and what he hadn’t been saying.  He suspected he knew why Jan was keeping key details to himself, and wondered when he was going to choose to share that information with them. 

“It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to draw them out and ambush them in the snow,” he said.  “If there are as few as he says there are.”

“You think he’s telling the whole story?” asked Rogers.

Loki looked back over his shoulder at Jan, who watched them both curiously.

“No,” Loki said honestly.  “But I believe him about the krauts.”

Rogers inhaled deeply and nodded.  “I do too,” he said, getting back up.

By sundown, the snow cover over the village had doubled, making it impossible to travel by vehicle over the roads.  With the light fading, the squad regrouped at the ground floor of the church and huddled over a map while Rogers and Loki compared their intel with what Barnes, Jones, and Howlett had learned as they took a closer look through the village itself.  What they had found had confirmed what Jan had passed on, leaving little doubt to the goings on within the village.

They waited until midnight to move out, when the village was completely dark.  The snow was waist deep for the taller members of the squad, forcing Howlett, Coulson, and Morita to the back of the column as they carved their way through the field and down to the steep road.  The going was no easier on the road, since even the small amount of vehicle traffic the village had seen had crushed older layers of snow and compacted it into a layer of ice beneath the newer layers.  They had to move slowly to stay on their feet, making the otherwise quick journey over the bridge seem like it took all night.  Finally, after they had reached the point of starting to freeze, they reached their objective.  Despite taking almost two hours just to trudge the short distance, nobody in the village seemed to have noticed them.  All the lights were out, even when several had been lit the night before.  It had all been planned, with word quietly spread throughout the village, that the operation would be taking place that night.

Their objective was nothing important.  Pinkerton laid the explosives out along the empty shop’s walls while everyone else took their positions along the road in both directions, ready for what was soon to come. 

While they all crouched in the deep snow, Rogers clicked his cricket twice.  Seconds later, the click was met with a quiet bird chirp coming from the south.  That was Pinkerton’s signal that all was in place.  He tripped the fuse and got away as quickly as he could, stumbling through someone else’s footsteps to get to a safe cover.  With only seconds to spare, explosions rang through the village as the empty shop was destroyed.  One by one, they could see lights come on in the houses, spread haphazardly, and exactly where Jan had said they would.  The residents of the village all knew what was coming, and kept their lamps unlit while the Germans, caught by surprise, were springing out of bed and into action.  As they made their way, half-dressed and confused, through the snow, Rogers’ squad picked them off one at a time with their rifles.   There were only about fifty soldiers in the village, but half of them fell into the snow before any of them figured out what was happening.  By then, they stopped rushing toward the sound of the explosion and began acting with more caution.  But as they began to fan out, taking a flanking position around as wide as they could, they met the resistance members, armed with whatever they could scrounge up.  Though their own weapons had been long confiscated when the occupation began, they had borrowed sidearms and bows, and even bags full of stones to throw to confuse the German soldiers.  They quickly drew the flanking manoeuvre closer in toward the road again, where they were met with Rogers’ squad and the barrels of their rifles.  Three more of the Germans were shot on the road before the rest dropped their weapons in surrender.

The Germans on the road were rounded up and led to a nearby shed, where they were held at gunpoint by Jones and Barnes.  After, with the help of the resistance members, the rest of the houses were swept, drawing out anyone who hadn’t rushed out toward the sounds of the explosions.

By the time the sun began to rise late in the morning, twenty Germans and eight Norwegian civilians were crammed into the shed together, looking nervously between one another and their jailers.  Outside, Rogers stood in the trampled red snow, his arms crossed uncomfortably over his chest, while he stood in thought with both his sergeants.

“We can’t take prisoners,” he said pragmatically.

“We can’t just let them go, either,” Barnes said, looking toward the shed.

Loki remained silent.  The entire road, despite the amount of people on it, was eerily quiet.  Not even the carrion birds that tended to follow battles and skirmishes had anything to say, it seemed.

“You know what you gotta do, Steve,” Barnes said.

Rogers nodded slowly.  “I know,” he agreed.  “Could you give that order?”

Loki wondered if Rogers’ hesitation was borne of the twenty German soldiers, or the eight Norwegian collaborators they had rounded up in the night.  He wondered what call Rogers would make.

“We can’t take them with us,” Loki said, shaking his head.  Sighing, he turned toward Coulson and Dugan, who now stood guard at the shed.

“No prisoners,” Rogers said heavily, hands on his hips as he surveyed the scene before him.  “Find a wall and line up anyone with a German uniform.”

Dugan looked toward the shed.  “And the ones without?” he asked.

Rogers shook his head.  “Not our call,” he said.

Dugan nodded grimly as he and Coulson turned back toward the prisoners.  “All right.  Macht schnell,” he said, waving them forward. 

Loki watched silently as the first ten Germans were led away to a nearby building with a long brick wall.  They all knew what was coming, but none of them fought it.  Almost as if the life had already been drained from them, they lined up against the wall and waited as the rest of the squad lined up as well.

Even though they had been given their order, vague though it was, nobody pulled their triggers.  They stood there, rifles raised and ready to fire.  Without a word, Rogers unshouldered his own rifle and took a place next to Jones, and took the first shot.  After that, no one else hesitated.  Each fired his rifle, killing the unarmed Germans where they stood.

When the second round was brought out, there was no hesitation to fire. 

With the German prisoners dispatched, there was little reason to remain in town.  The squad collected their gear, making sure to take their sidearms and other loaned equipment back from the civilians, and trudged back toward the church.  As they crossed the bridge, one more chorus of gunshots rang out over the village.  Nobody said anything, as if commenting on the matter would make it more real. 

Their tracks back to the church had already begun to fill back in, but only just.  Getting back up the hill took only half the time as it had taken to get down it, and when they arrived back through the huge wooden doors, another meal was waiting for them, which was devoured silently before everybody found their bunks and went to sleep.

They had all known when they went to sleep that morning that the odds of getting out of Lom would be slim, but nobody had suspected just how slim those odds were.  One by one, they all woke and stumbled up the stairs to a grim sight.  The deep snow that had been a hindrance the night before seemed like a light dusting compared to what met them outside, piled thick against the high windows and barricading the doors.

“Jesus Christ,” Morita said slowly as he looked up at the white sheet over the glass.

Loki sat stretched out on one of the pews, casually eating an apple one of the young women sheltering there in the church had given him.

“Gee, Luke,” he said sardonically, copying Morita’s accent.  “What’s the weather like way up north there where you’re from?  Do you think it might be cold?”

“Blow me, Olson,” Morita said, not looking back at him. 

“You’re not my type,” Loki said, not even bothering to look at him.

Morita walked slowly down the aisles, looking up as if expecting to find one window that wasn’t completely buried.  When he finally turned back to look at Loki, he immediately forgot about the snow.

“Where the fuck did you get an apple?  I want an apple,” he said.

“I think her name was Ingrid.” Loki shrugged and looked back over his shoulder.  “I think she may still be asleep, though.  She seemed rather tired when I left her.”

It took a moment for Morita to catch Loki’s meaning.  “Seriously?” he asked incredulously.  “She got a sister?”

Loki shrugged and took another bite of his apple.  “Didn’t ask.”

Morita shook his head, and for lack of anything else to do, found a seat and stretched out as well.

As one by one, the rest of the squad wandered back up the stairs, Loki’s thoughts drifted back toward the storm that had pinned them down.  There was no storm in the forecasts.  They had chosen their DZ because despite its rough terrain, the weather in the area was supposed to be clear.  Even as they made their way in from the mountains, the skies had been open and starry. 

He wondered about something Bruttenholm had told him, during a conversation that seemed to have happened years before, in a small Scottish cottage.

Rasputin was summoning chaos gods.

That Loki had been summoned was no question.  Though he had never been summoned before, a summoning was undoubtedly what had taken place.  But Loki was no god.  There were trials one had to endure for that position; trials which Loki had taken every effort to avoid.  And yet, he began to wonder if maybe Captain Rogers’ self-appointed mission might have gone more easily if Loki had not been there.

But the well hadn’t been Rogers’ original mission.  He had wanted Hydra’s energy source.  He wanted the Tesseract.  If Loki’s presence within the squad was hindering that original goal, then he was determined to stay where he was, right in the middle of it, through the entire war if he had to.  If anyone was going to claim the Tesseract, it wasn’t going to be Rogers.  That prize was Loki’s, and Loki’s alone. 

Almost as if his own thoughts had called out to the cube, Loki could hear it singing mournfully in the distance again.  It called to him.  It needed him, in a way Loki knew it didn’t need anyone else.

He took a deep breath and held it, steeling himself against the urge to rush off and claim his prize right then and there.  The time wasn’t right.  Not now.  He had to be patient, and pick his moment carefully.  He needed a distraction, both for Rogers and for Schmidt.  Neither of them could be allowed to see what was coming.

And if Loki was truly a chaos god, as Bruttenholm had suggested, perhaps that distraction might come more easily than Loki had thought.

« || »

Midgard Legends #16: Jotunheimen

While Rogers’s outfit trained to jump out of C-47s, Howard Stark and his team of scientists and technicians also got ready for the jump into Norway.  They spent the entire two weeks devising new gear for the mission, reverse-engineering Hydra tech, and perfecting technology of Stark’s own invention.  But none of the new gear interested Loki in the least.  There was one single piece of equipment Loki wanted, and for whatever reason, it was apparently impossible to find in London.  Any number of replacements and alternatives had been suggested to him, including keeping the German Luger he took in Austria, but he hated the Luger and was prepared to strangle the next person who suggested he take it with him to Norway.

“I want an M1911 in my hand, or I am not getting on that plane,” Loki told the man in charge of gathering supplies for the jump.  “I don’t care if you have to go to Austria to find the one I lost when I was hurled down a mountain.  I need my sidearm, and I need it to be the correct one.”

The other man looked around nervously, but Loki had made sure there was no one around to witness the conversation.  “Does it have to be that model exactly?” he asked.

He, and nearly every other person in the bunker, was wearing on Loki’s patience.  Everything had to be done to a schedule belonging to someone else, and it was a schedule that was painfully slow.  It was as if the entire operation existed entirely to push Loki’s patience to the very edge, in the hopes he’d lose his temper entirely.  Loki inhaled deeply and tried to keep calm.  This man wasn’t a subject of Asgard, who could be threatened without consequence.  But he was still making Loki very angry.

“See what happens if it isn’t,” he warned before walking away, leaving the twitchy scientist to work out the problem of finding Loki a replacement sidearm. 

He wished he hadn’t lost his in Austria.  He wished he knew where he’d lost it so he could go retrieve it.  As it was, he hardly had the time to take a piss, let alone disappear for the hours it would take to scour the mountainside where the tank had gone off the road.  And that was assuming Hydra hadn’t sent a team to retrieve everything from the crash, American weapons included.  Loki wasn’t even sure what it was about that particular weapon he liked so much, but its very loss was angering him more and more each day.  Even a highly-modified M1911 had been presented as if it was what he was expected to be looking for, but it was the original stock model he wanted.  Gunpowder and brass casings didn’t set his teeth on edge the way the Hydra weapons did.  If he could manage it, Loki intended to go through the rest of the war without ever touching another Hydra weapon again.  He knew what powered them, just as he knew that tampering with that power would only release its full potential, without any way to restrain it. 

As he stomped through the bunker, he nearly ran into Agent Carter as she stomped off in the other direction.  Loki paused just briefly to wonder what might have put her in such a mood, but soon realised the probable answer.  Rogers was standing in a wide room with Stark, holding a large, round shield in front of him and looking a little dazed.  Loki turned back around, as if he might find Carter still standing nearby, and almost laughed.

“Whatever your idea of flirting is, I don’t think I want to see it,” he said, forgetting all about being angry.

Rogers gave him a look that was at equal parts annoyed and embarrassed.  “I—And you’d know better?” he asked, making what Loki assumed to be a dig as his supposed age.

“Yes, I would,” he said with a shrug.  “For one, whatever you just did?  Don’t do it.”

Stark laughed unapologetically as he fiddled with some of the many gadgets on the long table beside him.  “He may have a point,” he said.

Rogers rolled his eyes and shook his head as he handed the shield over to Stark.  “This is the one.  See if you can, I don’t know.   Do a little something extra with it.”

Stark nodded.  “Will do, my friend.  It’ll be ready for the jump tomorrow night.”

Returning the nod, and giving Loki another irritated look, Rogers turned to leave to take care of the thousand other responsibilities he had lined up over the next twenty four hours.  But Loki wasn’t paying attention to him.  His eyes were on the shield, which had what appeared to be fresh lead smears on its domed surface.  As soon as Stark set it aside, Loki reached out to tap it with his fingers, and wasn’t entirely surprised with the way the metal barely made a sound.

“That’s vibranium,” he said before he could stop himself.

Stark looked up at him suddenly.  “Yes.  It is.  How did you know that?”

“My father collects things,” Loki said, tapping the shield again.  He wondered if the sample of the metal Stark possessed was the same metal Loki had stolen from one of Odin’s vaults and sold to fund his gambling adventure when the West was still wild.

“I see,” said Stark, with a healthy edge of skepticism to his voice.  “But I’m glad you’re here.  I heard you’ve been looking for something, so I had one of my men ask around.” 

He picked up the pistol from the table and handed it over.   Loki hadn’t even given it a second glance, assuming it would be another modified weapon, but the pistol was completely stock in every way.  It also smelled of freshly-fired gunpowder.  He took it, not able to stop the little noise of appreciation that escaped his mouth.

“Thank you,” he said graciously, checking the magazine to see how many bullets Carter had fired at Rogers.  It wound up being fewer than Loki would have expected.  “I’m afraid I still haven’t finished your book yet.”

“Keep it.  It’s not the kind of book you want to rush through.  And are you sure you don’t want me to add any improvements to the gun?” Stark said, watching Loki check the sights.

“No, this is exactly what I want,” Loki said, sliding the pistol into his empty side holster, which he still wore out of habit.  “Call me old-fashioned.”

He winked as he started to walk out of the room to find some more trouble to get into, feeling comfortable for the first time in days.  Though he didn’t get very far.  He quickly turned back around to face Stark again, hit by another idea. 

“Could you find me a bow as well?” he asked.  “Recurve is preferable, but I’ll take a longbow if necessary.”

“A bow?” asked Stark. 

Loki nodded.  “I grew up learning to hunt with one.  And a silent weapon with no muzzle flash could be a major benefit,” he pointed out. 

“Yeah,” said Stark, already thinking about it.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

Loki nodded and turned to leave again, but before he was able to get very far, Pinkerton caught up with him.

“Barker’s called everyone to a briefing,” he said.

Loki felt his mood slide back down again.  “I thought we were done with him,” he complained, letting himself be led to wherever the briefing was.  They’d been given their jump wings that morning, and with them, Airborne pay.  Loki couldn’t imagine what Barker could have possibly wanted with them now.

“Seems not,” Pinkerton said.  “Here’s hoping he’s not with us tomorrow night as well.”

Loki rolled his eyes and walked with Pinkerton through the yellowed halls to the room everyone was gathering in.  Barker had set up a large map and marked on it with red ink and a series of little flags on pins. 

“We are actually doing this, aren’t we?” Dugan asked the room as Loki found a place to sit. 

“You can always back out, and miss out on the extra fifty bucks,” Barnes pointed out. 

“I want the fifty bucks.  I’m just not sure it’s worth it,” said Dugan dubiously. 

“If I had my way, none of you would be jumping tomorrow,” Barker announced, in his typical angry tone.  “I’m not entirely convinced you won’t all be killed before you hit the ground.”

“Well, all of us but Olson,” Morita said. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Loki said flatly.  He shifted in his seat, getting used to the weight of his sidearm on his hip again.  It was a weight he hadn’t realised he’d missed, and he was almost surprised at how comforting its return was.

Barker didn’t know what Morita was talking about any more than Loki was pretending.  He looked at Morita with a demanding, confused expression, but before he could ask, Jones spoke up. 

“This guy got into a fist fight with a Hydra Landkreuzer tank and won,” he said. 

Loki sighed.  “And there was an entire squad of highly trained men with me,” he said, trying to deflect the attention away from himself. 

“You took on a Landkreuzer?” Barker asked, his tone bordering incredulous and reverent.  “How many casualties?”

“None,” said Jones.  “Well, one, if you count Olson getting shanked by a tree after.”

“It was barely a splinter,” Loki argued, wishing they’d get off the subject before someone started asking questions he didn’t want to answer.  “Aren’t we we’re to talk about our horrible, inevitable deaths tomorrow, as we all fall out of the sky out of a perfectly good aeroplane?”

“He’s right,” said Rogers, from where he sat in the far corner.  “Maybe a little defeatist, but we’re not here to gossip.  We’re only gonna have one shot at this, so pay attention.  Take notes if you have to.”

Barker nodded curtly and turned to point to his map.  “Tomorrow at oh-seven-hundred, you’ll leave London for Biggin Hill Airfield, where you’ll have exactly one hour to gear up.  You won’t be flying directly to Norway, but will instead stop in Scotland, where you will wait for the cover of darkness and learn the identity of your contact in Fossbergom.  The weather should be clear and calm in the Jotunheimen area tomorrow night, where you’ll be jumping, so we’re expecting as smooth of a jump as possible.”

“I’m sorry, where?” Loki asked, barely hearing the last part.  He could see Bruttenholm casting a strange, sideways glance toward him, but ignored it. 

“Jotunheimen,” said Barker, pointing to the southernmost flag on his map.  “It’s remote, and the terrain is harsh, but it’s the farthest north we think we can get you boys without getting blown out of the sky.”

Loki rubbed his nose under the bridge of his spectacles and tried not to voice every objection that flew through his head.  “Norns save me,” he muttered, not listening as Barker continued, detailing the direction they’d have to take once they landed, and where they needed to get to meet their first contact. 

Four hours later, after Barker had gone over the same plan six times, Loki stood in the empty room staring at the map.  He had only been to Norway a small handful of times, and all but once, he had been so intoxicated, he barely remembered anything about the place.  Now, staring at the map, he was so focused on trying to remember anything about it at all that he didn’t even hear Rogers step back inside. 

“So what was that all about?” he asked. 

Loki looked up at him, and then back down at the little red flag stuck right in central Norway. 

“Call it an old superstition,” he said flatly. 

“You wanna tell me about it?” asked Rogers.  Loki knew Rogers followed the Christian god, but he also seemed more willing than some of the other men in the squad to respect other ideas. 

But Loki was still hesitant.  He suspected even Rogers was beginning to suspect him of subterfuge, and the more elaborate his lie got, the greater his risk of being found out grew. 

“All of our monsters,” he said with a sigh.  “The ones that keep children awake at night, and even frighten grown men.  They all come from one place.”  He flicked the red flag with his finger, nearly knocking it out of the map. 

He didn’t care about monsters.  He knew they’d find nothing in Norway but reindeer and hare.  He cared about the name.  Coincidences happened.  They were also, more often than not, manufactured.  There were better places in Norway to jump.  Jumping into Tønsberg would have given Loki less of a sense of foreboding than jumping into Jotunheimen. 

Someone was trying to get his attention, and they had it. 

“How well do we know our contact in Norway?” asked Loki. 

Rogers looked at the map as well, frowning thoughtfully. 

“Not well enough,” he admitted.

“Do the others know this is a suicide mission?” asked Loki. 

“No,” said Rogers flatly.  “Because it isn’t.”

Loki looked over at him, unable to tell if it was a lie Rogers was telling himself to eliminate the guilt, or if he was truly naive enough to believe everyone would survive. 

“I think you should talk to Bruttenholm,” Loki decided slowly.  “He may be able to explain my misgivings more eloquently than I can.”

Without waiting to be dismissed, Loki walked out of the room.

Flying over central Norway with the hatch wide open, the C-47 sounded louder than ever.  The entire aeroplane rattled and shook as if it was about to fall to pieces, and the wind rushing through the fuselage was so sharp and so cold, it was a wonder how anybody still had any skin left.  In order to make the jump, Loki had to once again put himself in a human body, and there with everybody else, he huddled against the men next to him.  They’d been given along with the rest of their kit, but their brand new big peacoats couldn’t be worn along with the parachutes, so they were stuffed into their bags with everything else.  But even if they were jumping into freezing air, they weren’t jumping unprotected.  Most of the men had opted to keep their M1s, but Pinkerton and Morita both took one of the small Hydra weapons as well—half the size of their rifles, and rather than bullets, they shot pure blue energy.

On top of everything else he had managed to put together for the jump, Stark had come through for Loki as well.  Attached to his leg bag was a long, thin wooden box, holding a bow, extra strings, and three dozen arrows.  As much as he liked the modern human weapons, he missed the feel of the tight string between his fingers.  The only thing that would have been better would have been a set of knives, but he didn’t dare ask for more than he already had, when he already stood out so sharply.

After what felt like an endless eternity, the red light at the hatch flicked on, and Rogers stood up at the front of the queue with his new shield strapped to his arm, signaling everyone else to do the same and hook their parachute lines to the wire overhead.  They all stood, checking the straps and buckles of the man in front of them, before trying to shout over the noise that all was well. 

But this wasn’t a practice jump over a calm English field.  They had flown over an icy sea, followed a narrow fjord, and banked sharply around mountains before finally coming to their frozen, black drop zone in a remote valley.  There was no artillery to meet them, but where they were jumping, they didn’t need to be shot at to be killed. 

The light turned green, and without hesitation, Rogers stepped out of the aeroplane and into the void below.  Behind him, Barnes helped Bruttenholm make that final step, before taking it himself, and one by one the rest followed. 

As soon as Loki stepped out of the aeroplane, his parachute unfurled and caught the wind, slowing him down so quickly, it was like being punched in the chest by one of the giants whose name was bestowed to the region.  Once he was slowed and had his breath back, he released the bag holding all of his kit, letting it safely dangle six feet below him.  Losing the bags had been terrible enough during their practice jumps.  Losing them out here would spell death.  Loki looked around for the rest of his squad, but it was too dark to see anybody with his weak human eyes.  He could barely make out the white mushroom shapes of billowed silk, but he could not see the men dangling helplessly below, even though he knew they were there. 

Even with the parachutes, the fall was not as long as he expected it to be.  He felt the slack in the line to his bag less than a second before hitting the ground and falling over under his own weight.  He dropped his rifle and fell onto his bag, just as his parachute fell down and buried him.  All around him, he could hear the others groaning and swearing as they tried to regain their footing as well. 

“Aw fuck, look out!” someone shouted. 

Loki barely had time to get out of his chute and look up before Howlett and his bag fell down too heavily right beside Loki.  Even over everything else, Loki could hear the crunch of bone, as well as Howlett’s stifled grunt as he too fell over. 

Scrambling out of his parachute, Loki quickly changed back to a safer form and bent to help Howlett.  Now, with eyes that worked properly, Loki could see the unnatural bend in Howlett’s right leg.  He looked up quickly, and could see by the look on the man’s face that he knew exactly how bad the situation was. 

Out here, in the cold with a 20 mile hike ahead of them, a broken leg would kill him.  They had no aid station to go to, and their extraction point was on the Russian border.  Even with Morita, Howlett would never make it that far.

“Put it back,” Howlett grunted quietly as he wrestled with his parachute buckle. 

Loki looked down at the break, and then back to Howlett.  “I should get Morita,” he said, wondering if the feeble healing magic he sometimes used on himself would work on Howlett. 

“You’ll do no such thing, bub.  Fix it quick,” Howlett said, looking around to see if anybody else was close enough to overhear. 

Looking over his shoulder as well, Loki did his best to set the break, crunching and scraping the bone back into place while Howlett grit his teeth and tried not to make a sound. 

“That’ll do,” Howlett declared, getting clumsily to his feet and leaning heavily on Loki while he dug his pack and coat out of the leg bag. 

As Loki dug his own gear out and retrieved his rifle from the snow, Rogers jogged over.  “Everyone all right?” he asked quietly. 

“Landed funny, sir, but I can walk it off,” Howlett said before Loki could answer. 

Rogers nodded.  “Pink broke his nose with his rifle when he landed.  We’re heading out as soon as Morita fixes it.  Be ready,” he said before moving on down the line to check on the rest. 

Once he was out of earshot, Loki turned to Howlett.  “Walk it off?” he asked, pulling on his coat. 

Howlett gave him a cocky grin as he stepped away, tenderly testing his weight on his right side.  “What?  You think you’re the only one who’s special?” he asked. 

Humans were not that durable, and Loki knew it.  They were fragile, and even simple injuries could kill them.  But as Howlett limped off to join the forming group, Loki remembered their conversation in Switzerland, after his trip down the mountain with the Landkreuzer.  Howlett had made him, because he knew what to look for, and Loki had been too tired to realise it.  Howlett may have drawn the wrong conclusion, but it may not have been too far off that mark. 

Not sure what else to do, Loki shouldered his pack and opened the wooden box tied to his bag.  He slid the unstrung bow between his back and his pack, and slid the string and arrows into the hip quiver already on his belt.  After quicky checking to make sure nothing else was left in the bag, Loki pulled the cord from his spectacles, and pulled up the high collar of his Swiss officer’s coat before walking to join the rest of the squad.  Everyone else had taken the black British peacoats, but Loki declined, preferring the look and fit                          of the coat he already had.

While everyone else double and triple checked their gear, Morita sat in the snow with Pinkerton, huddled under one of the big, British peacoats to hide the light from Morita’s flashlight.  Loki found Coulson and Bruttenholm, both wearing their bomber hats buckled down tightly over their ears.

“Ray,” said Loki quietly.

“Yeah?” asked Coulson.  He was helping Bruttenholm into his own small pack, which Loki still thought was a mistake.  He tired easily enough, and carrying a pack would only make it worse.

“You just jumped out of an aeroplane with Captain America,” Loki said, tapping Coulson on the shoulder.

He could hear Coulson trying not to giggle.  “Yeah, I know!” he said, struggling to keep his excitement as quiet as possible.

Soon after, Pinkerton and Morita emerged from beneath the coat and joined the rest of the squad.  Pinkerton had wads of cotton stuffed up each nostril, but otherwise seemed fit enough for the 20 mile march through the snow, in the dark, in occupied territory.  Apparently, while concealed by the coat, the two of them had also consulted the maps.  Morita still held his compass and looked at the dark mountains around them.

“It looks like we’re right on target,” he announced, pointing to the black peaks to the west.  “That should be Keel-house and a bunch of other crap I can’t pronounce.”  He turned and looked east.  “Which would make that Troll-whatever, and to the south, all the other bullshit I’m not even gonna try.”  He consulted his compass one more time and nodded before putting it away.  “Assuming they didn’t put us on the wrong side of the river, the road should be about two miles to the east.”

“Good,” said Rogers, shouldering his shield and readying his rifle.  “We’ve got a long night ahead of us, so let’s make the most of it.”

The snow in the valley floor was hard-packed, but still deep enough to find its way into their boots as they walked.  They marched in single file, cutting a trail in the snow to make travel easier at the back of the line, but it was still hard travel until they got to the road.  Even on the road, the terrain was slick and icy, making travel slow.  Not for the first time, Loki questioned the decision to bring Bruttenholm along.  Even at the back of the line, he still struggled to keep up, and forced the squad to stop every few miles, costing them precious time they didn’t have.

“You made it all the way across France,” Rogers pointed out encouragingly.  “Make it a little bit more, and we’ll have transportation.”

Bruttenholm nodded, even as he panted heavily and leaned against his cane with all his weight.  “Don’t worry about me,” he said breathlessly.  “Like you said.  I made it across France.  What’s a few more miles in the snow?”

Rogers nodded and patted him on the shoulder, encouraging him to get moving again.  “Just a few more hours.”

The winds began to pick up around midnight, slowing them even more.  They followed the road as it followed a path forged by nature, meandering alongside a small river at the bottom of the valley.  It twisted and turned, always heading vaguely north, but their path wound and meandered so much, it cost them all their sense of direction.  When they came to a junction, none of them could remember which direction they were travelling.

“Right or left?” Barnes asked, stepping into the middle of the junction and looking down the road in all three directions.

“Uh.”  Morita pulled the map out again, struggling with it against the wind.  As he tried to pull his compass out as well, the wind caught the map and ripped it out of his hands, he dropped the compass into the snow.  “Fuck!”

As he tried to chase after the long-gone map, something crunched loudly under his boot, creating an ominous silence that for a few seconds, not even the wind could penetrate.  While everyone else began swearing at swatting at Morita in unison, Loki sighed and looked up to the sky. 

“We’re going north, yes?” he asked over their racket.

Nobody answered, all still too busy debating the merits of shooting Morita and leaving him behind, while Rogers tried unsuccessfully to calm everyone down.  Ignoring them all, Loki looked up at the stars through the sparse clouds that were high overhead.  The sky was clear enough that he could still see the shapes in the stars, marking a clear way north.

“Right,” he announced, trudging forward and following the road north.  It was several moments before anybody realised what he was doing. 

“Are you sure?” Barnes asked dubiously.

Loki pointed to the sky as he walked.  “Ursa Major, Polaris,” he said sharply, pointing out the line between the two, and then pointing in the direction he was already headed.  “North.  Basic navigation.  You should all know that.”

Several of them looked up to the sky, muttering in confusion.

“And I guess that’s why we’ve got a seventeen year old lieutenant,” Jones said quietly as they all started to follow Loki up the road.  Nobody laughed at his joke.

“Sorry, sir.  We know it now,” Dugan called forward, before muttering, “Did any of you see which one he was pointing at?”

Loki took point, if for no other reason than to get away from everyone else.  It was a minor infraction, but he found it difficult to let go of his annoyance of nine grown men not knowing how to use their own stars to find north.  The last few weeks, he’d been finding it difficult to let go of his annoyance in general, to the point that even small things were growing likely to set him off.  He didn’t know why he was so angry at a star, but he couldn’t stop thinking about it, even as he watched ahead for any signs of resistance.

He was so hung up on stars, that he didn’t even hear the mournful singing in the wind.

« || »

Midgard Legends #15: Jump Wings

Everyone had heard about Churchill’s bunker, but actually being there was something else entirely.  The yellow-lit underground corridors reminded Loki of Niðavellir, and its sprawling subterranean cities.  Taking Coulson with him, Loki explored as much of the labyrinth as he could, wandering places he wasn’t meant to be and finding dark, hidden passages that led to nowhere. 

“Think this place is blast-proof?” asked Coulson as they wandered through an empty map room.  Loki stopped to look at all the flags pinned to the map on the wall, taking a moment to memorise them.

“I don’t know.  Perhaps we should test it,” he said.  “You go first.”

“Fuck you.” 

Coulson wandered through the next door to a room that was alive with a flurry of activity.  He and Loki kept to the wall as they slowly walked through, watching battle plans be drawn and strategies devised.

In a far corner, Rogers was speaking with another American.  Curious, Loki and Coulson skirted around the room to get closer so they could hear what was being said over the din of war about the room.

“I can’t do that,” said the other captain.  “What you’re asking isn’t just insane; it’s impossible.”

“I’m not asking for these guys to be ready for Overlord.  I just need them to know how to jump,” Rogers said.

Loki felt every muscle in his body suddenly tense up at the understanding of what Rogers expected them to do next.  Clearly, it was a sentiment shared by the man Rogers was arguing with.

“You know how long those boys have been in training for?  You know how much longer they’re still going to be in training?” he asked.

“You have two weeks, Barker,” Rogers said.  “They just need to know how to jump without killing themselves.”  He turned as if just noticing Loki and Coulson watching him and nodded.  “Get it done,” he said to the other captain before walking over to the other two.

“Sir?” said Loki, holding back the questions he wanted to ask.

“How do you fellas feel about getting your jump wings?” asked Rogers facetiously, but not facetiously enough.

“What?” asked Loki flatly, not wanting to even try.

“We get paid extra for it?” asked Coulson over him, not missing a beat.  “If those guys are making a hundred bucks a month for still being stateside, while we’re over here getting shot at.  I mean, just saying.”

Rogers nodded thoughtfully.  “I’ll see what I can do.  Olson, come with me.”

Loki cast an uncertain glance to Coulson beside him before falling into step behind Rogers.  He followed him through corridors, to an office that belonged to someone else deep within the underground maze.

“Apparently brass has been trying to find you since Italy,” Rogers said, closing the door behind them.

Loki looked around, still unsure what was happening.  “That wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with our little trip across the border, would it?” he asked.

“As a matter of fact, it would.”  Rogers turned and picked up an envelope with an official seal stamped on the front.  “I’m told this came from Phillips himself.  Congratulations, Lieutenant.”

Loki nearly flinched from the surprise.  He hadn’t been expecting anything of the sort, and for a long moment, just looked at the envelope in his hands.

“I don’t deserve this,” he said finally.

“Course you do,” Rogers said, giving Loki a friendly clap on the shoulder.  “You’re a smart kid, and tough as nails to boot.  I heard what you did in Italy as well, and I picked you for this mission because I knew you’d do what it takes to see this through.”

Loki nodded, feeling like as much of an impostor standing before Rogers as he did back on Asgard.  “Thank you,” he said after a moment, not sure what else to say.

“I don’t know what you’re running from, but I know it can’t be anything good if you came all the way out here to get away from it,” Rogers said.  “But I’m glad you’re here.  You’re one of the best guys I could have hoped for on this team.”

He nodded, and Loki still didn’t know what to say.  He looked back down at the envelope in his hands, not daring to open it.  He knew exactly what he’d find, but as long as it was hidden behind the yellow paper, he wouldn’t have to acknowledge it.

“I have a couple more of these to hand out,” Rogers said, moving to open the door.  “Until then, round everyone up and be in the barracks in twenty minutes.  We’ve got some work to do before we move out again.”

“Yes, sir,” Loki said, not looking forward to any of it.  He didn’t even wait to be dismissed before turning around to start making his way back to the barracks.

The barracks in the war rooms were small, only allowing for a handful of soldiers to be underground with everyone else.  Most of the personnel in the war rooms were the people who made things happen; engineers and experts who knew what was needed to fight the war, and were more valuable for their minds than their skills with weapons.  It was where Loki had found Bruttenholm before he was called to Itally, and where Howard Stark had been called away to, and where both were constantly busy now with meetings and discussions.

Loki was surprised to find Bruttenholm in the barracks, rather than with his elusive son or in meeting with Churchill himself.  Upon their arrival in London that morning, he’d been given a fresh uniform along with the rest of them, and wore it uncomfortably as he sat on one of the bunks with his nose buried in a new report while the men around him played cards and smoked.

“Where’s Pink?” Loki asked, quickly counting heads to make sure everyone was accounted for.

“He was pissing me off, not shutting up about bacon sandwiches,” Howlett said around his cigar.

“Pissing all of us off,” Barnes agreed.  “So we told him to go find some and bring them back.”

Sighing, Loki checked his watch, realised he had no idea which time zone it had been set for, or which time zone they were in, and silently despaired.  He allowed himself only a moment for it before dropping his hands to his sides and sighing.

“Well, I got our orders, so the sooner we find him, the sooner I can tell you,” he said.  He looked down at the envelope in his hands again and dropped it onto his bunk.

Just as Loki turned to go find him, Pinkerton strolled back into the room with a handful of paper-wrapped sandwiches.  He handed one each to Loki and Coulson before continuing into the room to hand the rest out.  Coulson absently handed his over to Loki, but took it back quickly.

“You know what, fuck it,” he said, tearing into the paper like he was starving.  “Life or death, right?”

“So what are these orders?” asked Dugan, taking one of the sandwiches for himself and setting his own cigar aside.

“Rogers wants us to jump into Norway,” Loki announced.  “We have two weeks to train for it.”

“Jump?” several of them asked in chorus. 

“Out of a perfectly good airplane?” asked Jones.  “You’re crazy.”

Loki shrugged.  “That’s what I was told.”

He looked to Bruttenholm, now watching him wide-eyed and with his full attention.  Loki wondered what Rogers’ plan for him was; if he was to stay behind, or learn to jump with the rest of them.  He wasn’t able to wonder for very long before Rogers walked in to join them, holding the remaining yellow envelopes in his hand..  He took one look at Loki, and the general attitude of the rest of the room, and sighed.

“I take it you’ve heard the news, then,” he said, nodding toward Loki.  Loki responded by shrugging again.

“You seriously want us to jump into Norway?” asked Dugan, looking around at the others like he expected everyone else to start brawling over the matter.

“Only if you want to,” said Rogers.  Any hints of unrest amongst the men were quickly quieted as they tried to figure out what that meant.  “You fellas have been though a lot already.  I’m not going to order you to continue on.  But this is an important mission, and I’m going to see it through with as many volunteers as I can manage.  Anyone who volunteers needs to be at the motorpool with all your effects at seven hundred sharp tomorrow.  Otherwise, you’ll get a two-week pass in London before being reunited with your units.  It’s your choice.”

He looked around the room and nodded once before nodding.

“Jones.  Morita.  With me,” he said before turning to leave. 

Jones and Morita both looked at one another nervously for a moment before getting up to follow Rogers out.  Loki watched them go, waiting until Rogers was well out of earshot before turning back to the rest of the room.

“He’s also pushing for airborne pay for volunteers,” he said.  That got them all talking again at once.

While the rest of the men talked, Loki sat on his bunk and picked up the envelope again.  He sighed at it before finally opening it, finding exactly what he’d expected to find, and more.  Along with his promotion was a new unit insignia of embroidered, golden wings.  Somehow, it was enough to lighten Loki’s mood as he pulled the patches out and carded through them.  Putting his own aside, he stood up to drop the rest in the middle of the card game.

“Look at that, boys.  We’re official,” Dugan said, picking up one of the patches and turning it over in his fingers.  “Contingent upon agreeing to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, I bet.”

“Almost certainly,” Loki said, returning to his bunk. 

He sat down and picked up his coat, where it hung on the end of the bed, and looked at the stripes on the sleeve.  Stripes he’d earned for doing his job, and not even doing it well.  And now he was supposed to replace them for not even doing his job at all.  As he tried to decide whether he should get it over with and do it himself, or find someone else to do it for him, Coulson left the group at the table and sat down on the bunk beside Loki.

“Oh, no shit,” he said, picking up the pins from the envelope.  “You don’t exactly seem thrilled about it.”

Loki shrugged.  “I grew up listening to stories of war and battle, and glorious victory.  And this wasn’t it,” he said.  “I wasn’t there for the last war.  I never knew anyone who went off and never came home.  Funny how they don’t talk about that.”

Coulson shrugged, and knocked into Loki with his shoulder.  “I guess if they told you that, nobody would sign up for the next one.”

Loki picked up his pins and stood.  “Let’s get the hel out of here for a while,” he said.  He lifted his coat, gesturing with it to the door.  “I need to get this done anyway.”

Nodding, Coulson stood as well to follow Loki out to find someone who could deal with all his patches for him.

It was strangely difficult to get to sleep.  They had soft beds in a warm room and a roof over their heads and hot food in their bellies.  There was no worry about being found by a patrol in the middle of the night, nor of a sudden raid while everyone slept.  It was comfortable.  It felt safe.  Most of them seemed to find it unnerving, if not outright terrifying.  While everyone else either pretended not to be wary of every noise or joked quietly, Loki read a battered copy of The Sun Also Rises by flashlight, unsure if he was too worn down to properly follow the story, or if nothing was actually happening at all.  But it was something to do, so he kept reading, hoping he’d find the bullfighting Stark had promised him.

At some point, a dull and pointless fishing trip had slipped and slid into white corridors and tile floors.  It was a space Loki recognised, but he didn’t know from where.  And then there was a wall of windows, looking out over a steel and concrete city below.  Loki was trapped against that window, unable to move and yet surrounded by others.  Others Loki knew to be friends, though he could not see their faces.  Between him and the others, and baring down on him, was a giant demon.  Fire skin and coal eyes that meant him only pain and death.  Loki could feel the creature’s heat suffocating him.  He would die while others looked on and did nothing. 

Just before the creature reached him, Loki felt an explosion in his chest and flung forward.

“Fucking hel,” he sputtered, nearly falling out of bed.  He was tangled in the sheets and sticky with sweat, and at some point had lost both his spectacles and his flashlight.  The flashlight had fallen to the floor and rolled under his bed, casting bands of shadow and light over the walls and ceiling.

His heart still pounding, Loki felt around for his spectacles, finding them tangled up in the sheets as well.  He sat them and the book on the box that served as a bedside table and sat back in the strange glow from the flashlight.  Even if every other man chose to stay behind, Loki knew he had to find the well.  He knew now that he was not being plagued by childhood nightmares.  He was being plagued by prophecy.  Loki knew the creature from his dreams, but the building he always met it in was not a place any Eldjötnar had any right to be.  They were the first race Odin had forbidden to travel to Midgard, long before the non-interference pact had ever been signed by the other pantheons.  And they were the last race any would want to travel at all.

Loki needed to know why his dreams showed him on Midgard, and he knew the woman who could tell him what it meant.  The very woman they were on a mission to find.  If she could not tell him what his dreams meant, none could.

He waited until his heart didn’t feel poised to explode before reaching down to fish out his flashlight and reorganise his bedding.  Checking his watch, he found it was still early, but he also knew he’d never get back to sleep.  He put his spectacles back on and reached for the book again, glad to at least have something to do while he waited for Rogers’ specified time to roll around.  This time, he was glad for the book’s tediousness.  It dragged on with little action,  but was just engaging enough that his mind didn’t wander.  Lovers’ quarrels didn’t exactly interest him, though some part of him perhaps childishly found the idea that the narrator of the book couldn’t bed his own lover owing to a war wound rather funny.  Perhaps the book might pick up by having the narrator try to commit suicide by bull—an illusion of a fitting, honourable death where war could not provide.  But he never did get to find out before it was time to gather his things.  He left early, sneaking out of the makeshift barracks with his pack, giving himself plenty of time to find a few scones for breakfast before finding Rogers in the motorpool.  Which wasn’t so much a motorpool at all.  A few official vehicles lined the street, mostly those belonging to the men who spent the majority of their time in the bunker below.  Rogers stood outside the only truck parked on the street, talking to the man from the day before.  Not terribly interested in where they were off to now, Loki ignored them both and climbed into the back of the truck, finding himself rather annoyingly beginning to finally grow tired.

As he settled back, ready to sleep the whole way to wherever it was Rogers wanted to go, he was surprised at the sounds of someone else climbing into the back with him.  He was even more surprised to open his eyes again and see Dugan and Jones get settling along the opposite wall, brand new patches of their own on their shoulders.

“I didn’t think anyone else was coming,” Loki said, certain he hadn’t imagined the attitude of protest the day before.

“Yeah, well. Fifty bucks for being miserable in Italy, or a hunred for being miserable in Norway,” Dugan said reasonably.  “Wasn’t much of a decision there.”

“Where are we going anyway?” asked Jones.

Loki laughed and closed his eyes again.  “I have no idea.”

Slowly, the rest of the squad trickled in, until finally Rogers climbed in with Bruttenholm, followed by two other civilians. 

“We babysitting too?” asked Howlett, watching them try to get settled.

“Some of the fellas back home thought this would be a good opportunity to sell bonds,” Rogers explained.

“What?” asked Barnes flatly.

The truck rumbled into life and pulled into the street while everyone was still in a stunned silence.  No sooner had they started moving, one of the reporters opened his leather bag and pulled out a small camera, while the other began writing something in a notebook.  Determined to ignore them, Loki pushed his helmet over his eyes and went to sleep.

Biggin Hill was only an hour from the bunker, allowing them to go back and forth, but all their training was done in full gear.  Which was not as straightforward as it should have been.  For the first three days, they wore their packs as usual as they trained for hours, jumping from a four-foot platform and learning how to hit the ground without breaking both their legs while the reporter filmed on.  That part was easy.  When they were brought to the airfield on the fourth day, they were told they had to spend a few days jumping off a 250-foot tower, before completing five practise jumps at altitude.  Captain Barker then brought out the parachutes they’d be wearing for the remainder of their training, letting each of them get a feel for just how heavy they were. Immediately, they all spotted the problem.  The parachutes took up the space normally occupied by their packs, making taking their gear with them a bit of a trick.  Of course, the Brits had an answer for that.

“The fuck is this?” Morita asked, holding onto a leather tag on one end of a long rope.  The other end of the rope was attached to a large bag.

The others all fiddled with their own bags, trying to figure out how it was meant to attach to their bodies.

“That is a British invention that’s going to let you take your supplies with you into Norway,” Captain Barker announced.  “They’ve been kind enough to donate these to the cause, so be thankful to them.”

Morita still frowned at the tag.  “Okay, but how does it work?”

Barker explained how the bag was supposed to attach to their leg, to be deployed after the chute deployed, allowing it to dangle below them and free up their legs to land safely.  Even after demonstrating how it worked, everyone was still skeptical.  Still, they spent the day getting used to all the new gear, with straps tight in areas no strap ever had any business being.  On top of all the rest, Bruttenholm and Loki were each given a special piece of kit on top of everything else, which Barker seemed grudging to hand out.  Not that he seemed to like the idea of training either of them to begin with.  Something about the airborne having standards.

Loki stood and let Barker attach a strap to his spectacles to keep him from losing them.

“I could just put them in with the rest of my gear if you’re that worried,” Loki said over Barker’s grumbling.

“And if you run into enemy combatants in the DZ?  What then do you expect to do, Lieutenant Olson?” Barker demanded.

Loki shrugged.  “Spray and pray?” he said.

Barker tightned the strap a bit too harshly to be accidental before moving on to Bruttenholm.

“You may think this is a joke, Lieutenant Olson, but the rest of us are taking it very seriously,” said Barker.

Loki looked over to Pinkerton and Coulson, where they were mutually complaining about their parachute straps being in very real danger of castrating them.  “Are you sure about that?” he asked.

For the most part, jumping off the tower was easy.  Barker only had them in their kit to get used to the weight, but they were also rigged up with more straps and wires to control their drop.  It was supposed to simulate jump conditions, but their first day in the air painted an entirely different picture.  They were pleased, at least, to learn that the burden of releasing the parachutes wasn’t up to them, and would be done through sheer force of gravity.  At the same time, nobody was terribly keen on letting gravity take care of the important work.  They all sat quietly nervous as the aeroplane climbed to altitude, its engines roaring and drowning everything else out.  Barker stood at the fore, holding onto a handle as if there was nothing at all fundamentally wrong about what they were doing.  As the aeroplane levelled out, he began to shout instructions that no one could hear, while miming the instructions to make sure they were followed.  They clicked the D-hook on their parachutes to a thick wire that ran the length of the fuselage, which in theory would pull the chutes open as soon as they jumped out of the plane.  After, they each shouted to the person in front of them that they were ready, starting with Howlett in the rear and working up to Rogers at the front.  After that, it was silence until the green light by Barker’s head lit up.

“Go!  Go!” he shouted while Rogers took a deep breath and stepped out of the open hatch.  Pinkerton was next, and before he could even get over the fear that locked his legs and stalled him at the hatch, Barker grabbed him by his shoulder straps and shoved him through the hatch.  After that, they each jumped one by one, stepping into the open air and being immediately punched by the drag of their parachutes as they opened above them. 

For the sake of not losing anything vital during training, their leg bags were weighted, rather than filled with their own kit, and almost every one of them snapped off and fell to the ground as the parachutes deployed.  By the time they landed, each man was shaken and uneasy, though unharmed by the jump.  Even Bruttenholm had managed to land safely, only to immediately collapse in the grass from sheer panic.

Barely recovered from it, they had to quickly regroup to return to London.  As if jump training wasn’t difficult enough, they still had war bonds to sell, and that meant far too much time in a London studio pretending to be fired at by fake Germans in a fake forest somewhere in fake France.  The only good thing about any of it was that by the time Loki finally got to bed at night, he was always too tired to even have nightmares.

« || »

Midgard Legends #14: HMNB Portsmouth

Loki sat on the small bed, pulling his stolen spectacles up to his forehead, and sliding them back down again. His eyes had always adjusted on their own to be able to see through them clearly, but the fact that they weren’t so quick to adjust when he took the spectacles off again was becoming worrying. Without them, everything was fuzzy at the edges; not quite so bad that he couldn’t still see what the objects were, but enough that something was clearly wrong.

“Nice bruises,” Coulson said suddenly from the doorway. “What you supposed to be? A raccoon?”

Loki grumbled, still fiddling with his spectacles. “I think I’m going blind,” he said, dropping the spectacles down onto his nose and regretting it. He was starting to feel lightheaded from the magic that kept him from healing, but he knew his injuries shouldn’t and couldn’t heal overnight.

Coulson sat down slowly, watching Loki pull off the spectacles to rub his abused nose.

“Seriously?” asked Coulson. “What, from hitting your head?”

Loki shrugged. “Maybe not blind, exactly. Just getting… worse.” He wondered if it was something that could be fixed by the healers once he got home. He wondered what he’d do if it wasn’t.

Coulson took his spectacles from his fingers and put them on, flinching hard almost as soon as they were settled.

“Fuck, ow,” he said, pulling them off again and digging his fingers into his eyes. “That shit actually hurt,” he said.

Taking them back, Loki laughed. “So I’ve been informed.” He settled them back on his face, more gingerly this time to avoid the break in the bone. “What’s happening, since they won’t let me out of bed?”

“Oh yeah, that’s such a bad thing, to be stuck in bed where it’s warm and cozy,” Coulson mocked, before muttering something that sounded like “lazy ass.” He leaned to look out the door to the rest of the house before saying anything else. “Jim wants you to stay in bed another day. He’s worried you might have knocked something around too hard upstairs, but everyone else is wondering how we’d even notice.”

Loki snorted and shoved him. “Everyone else. You mean you,” he said.

Coulson only shrugged. “But Cap wants to get out of here ASAP. There’s a guy with a boat that says he can take us, but we’d need to leave at slack water, whatever the hell that is. Tonight, apparently.”

“No, he’s right,” Loki agreed. “We need to get out of France. It’s just a boat ride. I can rest then, and get plenty more in England.”

“You think there’ll be dames there?” asked Coulson, almost childishly eager.

“Willing to sleep with you? Not likely,” Loki told him. Coulson shoved him back.

Loki got up and stretched, trying to avoid scraping his hands against the ceiling as he arched his back. He could have easily stayed in bed for a week, if he knew it was safe, but he wouldn’t feel anything like as much until France was miles behind them.

“Is there food anywhere in this place? I could probably eat a horse right about now,” Loki said.

“Well, there’s the one you wrecked yesterday. Or I think someone mentioned goat something earlier.” Coulson frowned even as he spoke, but it was the best thing Loki had heard all month.

“Yes. Take me there. I will gladly settle for a goat. That’s much better anyway,” he said. Loki couldn’t remember the last time he’d had goat, and he was surprised at how much he missed even the idea of it.

Still looking mildly disgusted, Coulson walked with him downstairs to the kitchen, where the beginnings of dinner were starting to be laid out. The squad was spread out over a few houses, lessening the burden on each family that hosted them for their time in town. In theory, they were supposed to be staying two to a house, but Coulson had insisted with staying with Olson while they were in garrison, and Morita wanted to be close at hand should Loki’s health suddenly decline.

Loki walked up behind the young woman as she prepared dinner, reaching around her to snag off a small piece of the meat, and was surprised when she slapped his hand away. Taking just the smallest sliver as a reward, Loki retreated. Eating with stitches in his lip, where he couldn’t covertly tear them out as he had the ones in his side, was a surprisingly difficult task. Everything still stung and pulled painfully, making him suddenly understand the pathetic breakfast of crustless-bread and jam he’d been given.

Sitting down at the table, Morita shook his head. “Hey, you should be,” he started, but shook his head and waved an annoyed hand in Loki’s direction. “Aw, fuck it. Goddamn kid’s gonna do what he wants anyway.”

“Hey watch it. That goddamn kid’s your fucking sergeant,” Coulson reminded him, sitting down as well.

“The goddamn kid’s older than you are,” Loki pointed out to Coulson in turn. He was older than everyone else in the room put together and multiplied several times over, but Loki avoiding saying as much.

“I thought you didn’t know,” Coulson said.

Loki shrugged. “On paper, I’m twenty two.”

“No goddamn way,” Morita said, shaking his head. “Seventeen, tops. What were you two? Fifteen when you signed up?”

Coulson shrugged. “Yeah. So what?”

Their hostess began serving dinner, seemingly not even fazed by their immediate response to being presented with a hot plate of food. They all three ate without taking the time to taste it, just eager to get something into their bellies that wasn’t charred to a crisp or out of a jar. Even Coulson, despite his initial reservations, seemed poised to clean his plate and ask for more. As they devoured what was before them, the woman’s family squeezed up to the table as well, taking more time to actually enjoy their dinner than their American guests.

“Oh, how I’ve missed this,” Loki said, taking a moment to actually savour the meat once the initial shock of a proper meal wore off.

“I miss music,” Morita said. “Me and my girl used to go dancing every chance we got.”

“I miss Bugs Bunny. Or just the pictures in general, you know?” said Coulson around a mouthful of bread. “I used to go every day, if I could.”

“I miss my hair,” Loki realised suddenly.

The other two looked up at him, pausing for a long moment while they tried to figure out what he meant.

“Looks like you got plenty to me,” said Coulson.

Loki shook his head and held his fingers down near his waist. “They made me cut it when I signed up. I used to have a lot more.”

“What, like a broad?” asked Morita.

Loki picked up a pea from his plate and flicked it at Morita. “No, like a warrior.” He brought his hand up to his hair, almost annoyed at not having anything to brush out of his face ten times an hour.

“I guess it probably made up for the hair you’re not growing on your face,” Morita said offhandedly.

Loki flicked another pea at him.

Once they were finished, and Loki properly thanked the family for letting them stay, the three of them went next door to find Rogers speaking stiltedly with an older man. Rogers’ French was surprising, though still rudimentary at best, but the old man was patient and let him finish before speaking his turn.

“It will be tight, but yes. I can get ten men to England, assuming we don’t get blown out of the water before we get there,” he said.

Rogers nodded grimly.

“What are the chances of that?” asked Loki.

The old man shrugged.

“What was that? What’d he say?” asked Coulson quietly.

Loki sighed and let the original conversation continue. “Only that he thinks we’ll probably get blown up before we get to England,” Loki said hopelessly.

The other two went suddenly quiet, listening to a conversation they couldn’t understand.

“If you wish to have your men out of France tonight, have them ready at the docks at eight o’clock,” said the old man before leaving.

Rogers nodded and thanked him, finally acknowledging the other three.

“We getting out of here then?” asked Morita.

“Yeah,” said Rogers. He looked at his watch and frowned at it, and then looked around the room for a clock. “In about two hours. Get everyone ready and down to the docks within one.”

By the end of the hour, everyone was rounded up and on the docks, making sure they were ready to head out as soon as the word was given. Packs were double and triple checked, with everything that wasn’t needed left behind. Spare weapons and ammo that wouldn’t be of any use anyway, the rest of the food from Ayrens; even extra clothing was given away to make sure the load would be as light as possible.

They had been warned the boat was small, but none of them had actually seen it until they were brought down to it as a group. Small was an understatement. The little green vessel rocked in the waves, looking like it would capsize at any moment. The deck was open to the elements, and though there was a cabin, it was too small to stand in, let alone keep anyone dry.

“Julien? You sure this is the right boat?” Rogers asked cautiously.

“Yes. We’ll see how she fares. I’ve never taken her all the way across before,” he responded, hopping easily from the dock to the boat.

Loki buried his face in his hand, choking back the shock from the still-lingering pain that flared across his face.

“What?” asked a few of those around him.

“That don’t look good,” said Dugan.

Loki shook his head. “He’s never done this before,” he clarified. He looked up and cleared his throat loudly. “Is it sea-worthy?” he asked in French.

Julien shrugged. “Depends on the weather.” He looked up to the dark sky and shrugged again. “Like I said. I suppose we’ll see.”

“We’re going to die,” Loki muttered into his hands.

They waited until Julien was done on the boat, taking out all his nets and unnecessary rigging and equipment to make as much room on the tiny deck as possible. With it all dumped onto the dock, he held out his hand and waved them aboard. Rogers went on first, and then he and Dugan helped Bruttenholm board and get settled before the rest filed in after them. The boat rocked against its mooring, moving about so much that Morita almost slipped and fell through the gap and into the sea below.

“Please don’t do that,” Jones said, helping him back to his feet.

Loki looked down at the water and took a deep, steadying breath before climbing aboard. Once more concerned about his weight, he had already shifted his entire body to actually be human, but it wouldn’t be enough if he fell in. Willingly jumping into the water was one thing. Having to be ready at a moment’s notice to take Sif’s childhood advice and turn himself into a fish was another. At least when he was human, there was a chance he might be able to be pulled back aboard before having to give up and fake his death. Finding another way to the Tesseract and to the well would not be easy, so he would simply have to not fall in.

He found a corner against the cabin and sat on the deck, focusing only on keeping calm and concentrating on the magic he’d need if the boat capsized in the sea. Once everyone was onboard and settled with their gear, Julien ran one more round of checks and unhitched the mooring from the docks. The engine was loud, and sputtered to life with a spray from the boat’s stern. Anyone who wasn’t already crouched down near the floor quickly dropped down to the deck as the boat lurched uncertainly in the water.

“Oh fuck, we’re gonna die,” Jones said, grabbing hold of a piece of metal rigging that came up from the deck.

No one said anything else as they left the shore and made their way out to sea. The farther from land they got, the heavier the winds grew, and the rougher the waters became. They were barely twenty minutes out before every one of them was soaked from waves that battered the sides, threatening to tip the small boat over. All Loki could think about was a swift current and muddy water. He knew he had to keep calm and keep focused, but the water on his face and the sounds of the waves devoured his every thought. He held on tightly to his pack, knowing it would do nothing to save him, but having nothing else within easy reach.

“Olson. Olson!” Rogers shouted from the other side of the deck. “Luke!”

Loki looked up suddenly, scrambling to find anything to reach as the boat was slammed by another wave.

“Are you sick?” Rogers shouted.

It was the last question he expected, but a moment later, he realised why it was being asked. He looked up to see Morita and Pinkerton both hunched over the side, holding on for dear life while they vomited into the sea. It was almost enough to make Loki forget his own problems, except he could still see the sea that tormented him.

“I may have neglected to mention that I can’t swim,” he forced himself to say finally. He looked away again as Rogers gave him the wholly useless orders to not fall in.

As the boat rocked and lurched, and even a few times bounced out of the water, Loki sank further and further into his corner. He looked up at the sky, thankful that it was at least dry, and not dumping buckets of rain and snow on them as well, or else the boat might have just filled up with water and sank straight to the bottom.

“Yes, hello. I think there is a problem,” Julien called out from the tiny cabin.

“What problem?” asked Rogers. He got to his feet and crouched down to see out the front, to where Julien was pointing. “Are we close to land?”

“No,” said Julien.

“Damnit,” Rogers muttered. He stepped back out to the deck, holding onto the top of the cabin for stability. He looked out at the sea around them and sighed before turning back toward Julien. “Keep going. They haven’t fired on us yet. Maybe they won’t.”

“What was that?” Dugan asked.

Loki looked up, hoping he didn’t sound as uneasy as he felt. “Problem,” he said. “Apparently someone may start shooting.”

“And what the hell are we supposed to do about that?” shouted Dugan.

Rogers didn’t answer. He stayed where he was, craning to look over the cabin as they continued on their course. Over the wind and the waves, the sounds of another boat engine began to drift toward them, closing in by the second. From somewhere up ahead, a powerful spotlight was raised on them, while indecipherable orders were shouted over a megaphone.

“What do we think? Friendlies, or are we about to get blown to kingdom come?” asked Dugan, shouting to be heard over everything else.

Rogers shielded his eyes from the spray and watched out over the sea toward the other boat. “I need some, uh…” he started off in French, losing confidence toward the end. “Olson, ask if he has any binoculars.”

Loki looked up at him, taking a moment to realise what was said before relaying the question.

“No,” said Julien. “I’m stopping now.”

He didn’t kill the engine, if only to be able to keep the boat from getting turned against the waves. The boat still bobbed and thrashed about even as the other drew near, shining its light at them while someone shouted over the megaphone.

“Identify yourselves at once, or we will be forced to open fire!” a tinny voice announced from the approaching patrol boat.

Before Rogers could say anything, Pinkerton leapt to his feet and began shouting back at them. “Private Percival Pinkerton, First Infantry Division, Coldstream Guards! Get us the hell out of here, or sod off already!”

The other boat stopped abreast of them, shining their light straight at them. “Who else is with you?” the voice demanded.

“A bunch of yanks and the Frenchman whose boat we hired to get us the hell out of France! Are you going to do something about it?” Pinkerton answered

There was a long pause before the English boat started to move away, only to circle back around to the other side, this time close enough to toss a few lines over. Jones and Rogers both grabbed onto them and pulled, bringing the two boats together before tying the ropes off to whatever they could find. Once everything was secure, one of the English sailors climbed over onto the already cramped fishing boat and scowled wetly at the lot of them.

“I don’t know how the yanks do it, but in England, desertion is treason,” he said.

“It’s not desertion. It’s a sanctioned mission,” Rogers said calmly. “Captain Steve Rogers, US Army, under orders from Colonel Chester Phillips. We need to get to Norway, and we were hoping we could take a detour through friendly territory to get there.”

The boats both slammed together in the waves, adding the clanking of wood and metal to the rest of the unholy noise around them. None of it seemed to bother the English sailor staring down Rogers, though. “What’s in Norway?” he asked.

Rogers shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s classified information,” he said. He held onto the cabin as he turned to gesture to his men, huddled and soaked and miserable, all crammed onto the deck like sardines. “I’m just trying to get my men to safety. If you want to interrogate us, fine. You could at least do it somewhere dry.”

The sailor glanced over his shoulder to his shipmates before nodding at Rogers. Over the sound of the weather around them, someone could be heard shouting into a radio.

“Very well. We can take you to port, but don’t expect to get much farther than that.” He leaned into the cabin and banged on the top to make sure he had Julien’s attention. “It’s been a quiet night tonight, and we’d all like to keep it that way. Turn around and go back where you came from.”

After a moment of awkward silence, Loki turned to him and relayed the order in French.

“With pleasure,” Julien agreed.

The English sailors stepped aside to help Rogers and his squad board. Even though the two vessels were lashed together, they still rocked and swayed uneasily in the heavy waves, making the transfer all the more perilous. The English patrol boat was bigger, but not by much. Mostly, it sat higher in the water, making the men have to toss their bags over before climbing aboard. Before everyone was even settled, the sailors unhitched Julien’s boat from their own and tried to push him off into the waves. He wasted no time in gunning his engine and turning around in a wide arc to head back home, without offering so much as a glance backwards.

Loki sat huddled between Jones and Dugan, all either shivering from the cold or trembling from their idiotic shared near-death experience.

“You really can’t swim?” asked Dugan.

Loki shook his head, but otherwise didn’t answer. He remained quiet throughout the journey the rest of the distance across the channel, though the larger boat did nothing to negate the conditions of the sea. The boat tore across the surface of the waves, being constantly thrown into the air and slamming down hard again. The pilot controlling the vessel was clearly favouring speed over comfort, which in the end did get them to shore relatively quickly, despite nearly breaking everyone’s back in the process. At port, they were denied their packs and searched for weapons before they were led away from the boat and into a nearby building. At least there, it was dry and warm, making the fact that they were obviously being put in the brig inconsequential. Before they were even locked inside the sparse room, many of them began removing their soaked outer layers of clothing and finding some place on the floor to lay them out to dry.

“Do you think just once, we might be able to go somewhere and not get arrested?” Morita asked.

“We made it across France, didn’t we?” Dugan pointed out. He sat down against the wall and stretched out his legs in front of him, more relaxed than he had any right to be. “At least in here, nobody’s shooting at us.”

“Yeah, that’s what would be really nice. Going somewhere and not getting guns jammed down our throats,” Coulson agreed, sitting down next to him.

Before everyone was even settled to wait out the night, the door opened again, and two men stepped through. Rather than getting up to acknowledge the ranking officer in the room, everyone ignored him in the vague hope he’d go away.

“Captain Rogers,” the officer said, smiling blandly.

“Yeah,” said Rogers, standing.

“Phone call from London. They want to speak with you.”

Casting a despairing look back at the rest of the squad, Rogers nodded and followed the other two out without a word. After the door shut and locked again, several of the men sighed and shook their heads.

“Do you suppose there’s actually a telephone call waiting for him?” Loki asked.

“Ten bucks says there’s not,” Coulson answered cynically.

It wasn’t the sort of thing to be placing wagers on, but Loki was too tired and worn down to care. “Twenty, and you’re on,” he said.

“All right. Twenty.”

Loki leaned against the wall as Howlett leaned against him, ready to just go to sleep and forget the day had even happened. He had barely closed his eyes when the door opened again, and two more sailors walked in.

“We’re here to move you chaps somewhere more comfortable,” one of them said.

Everyone cast quick glances to one another, not even wanting to speculate what that might actually mean, before getting up to be led somewhere else. They picked up their wet coats and shirts on the way out, none saying a word as they were led through the base, though the lack of an armed escort did somewhat lighten the mood. As they walked, they passed by an office with an open door, where Captain Rogers stood quietly with the telephone receiver against his ear.

Half surprised to see it himself, Loki nudged Coulson with his elbow. “Pony up,” he said.

“I don’t got it on me,” Coulson said.

Loki nudged him even harder as they were led back outside and down a wide path. Off the water, the weather was calm and cold, with only a light breeze on the air. Wet, and wearing little more than their undershirts and trousers, everyone started to huddle together a little closer as they were led further inland. The building they were finally led to was long and narrow, and a surprisingly welcome sight once the doors were open and the lights were on. The barracks were empty, and seemingly unused, presumably with most of the sailors out at sea. Without having to be told, each of them fanned out to take the first available bunk they could reach.

“How long are we staying here?” asked Barnes hopefully as he fell back onto his chosen bunk.

“You’ll be sent up to London tomorrow,” one of the sailors said. “Until then, try not to roam about too much.”

“No problem there, slick,” Howlett said, a heavy edge of sleepiness already on his voice.

They were soon left alone again, until Rogers was brought back to join them. By then, most of them were already asleep, and barely stirred when the doors were opened. Inclined to let his men rest, Rogers said nothing as he found a place of his own to bed down for the night.

« || »

Midgard Legends #13: Plough Horses

It took less than an hour to round up everything that they’d need for their assault, from civilian attire to sidearms and grenades.  The football was the hardest to find.  The six of them who were going out with the ball changed quickly in a shed, layering stolen weapons and borrowed clothes over top one another.  Only Jones, Morita, and Howlett stayed in what passed for their uniforms; Jones and Morita because they stood out as foreigners too easily, and Howlett to make an even three-on-three match. They went over the plan again as they made their way up the road to the line of trees that separated Ayrens from the next town, where the Germans were definitely building something up.  The town had been abandoned, save for the large, brown building to the east.  A high fence had been constructed around it, with the only visible gate right at the front doors, and guarded by several men.

The firing team stayed low in the trees, while without preamble Loki kicked the football high into the air toward the direction of the town, far enough away to be seen by the guards, but not obviously appear as a threat.  As Loki and Pinkerton jogged out toward the ball, they were met with confused shouting in the distance, but they ignored it,  pretending to be too involved in their game.  One by one, the other four ran out to re-join the game, while German guards continued to shout. 

They played the game like they meant it, stealing the ball from one another and falling in the snow, paying no heed to the German shouting as it eventually died out.  Slowly, they inched the game closer and closer to the fenced building, letting the ball go out a bit too far, and then not quite bringing it all the way back. 

When they got about fifty feet away, the Germans began shouting at them again.  They kept their rifles down, and even started to step away from their posts.  Finally, the ball was kicked too far away again, and one of the Germans hesitantly kicked it back at them.  The next two times the ball got away in their direction, one of the Germans reacted in kind, and returned the ball to the game.  The third time, two of them put down their rifles behind the fence and carefully jogged out to join the game.  Sides hesitantly reshuffled, allowing the two new players to be on the same side.  Before too long, three more joined in, making an almost even five-on-six match that everyone seemed absorbed in.  Loki carefully checked to make sure there wasn’t anyone else hidden at the guard post, and kicked the ball as hard as he could, sending it flying over the fence and well beyond it.  Before the Germans could see where the ball had gone, everyone else chased after it, while the three still in the trees finally made their presence known.  At the first clear shots, they took out the German guards and followed the rest behind the fence, helping to lock the gate behind them.

They could hear others rushing out to the gate, and quickly picked up the discarded weapons as their own.  Rogers strode over to the front doors and pulled them open, throwing a grenade in and stepping aside to get out of the blast path.  Shouting on the inside was met by a quick explosion and screaming, and then another grenade, just for safe measure.  After that one blew, Rogers led the squad in.  Their orders were to avoid taking out civilians, but there didn’t appear to be any civilians, at least on the ground floor.  The squad all spread out, clearing the ground floor before the crew inside could even regroup and form a defense.  Once the floor was clear, Rogers pointed at the four men on the south side and motioned for them to check the upper floors, while he led the other four to look for any cellars.

The Germans hadn’t been expecting an attack, and the whole assault was over in less than twenty minutes. They didn’t find any French civilians, but they did find more weapons and ammo than any of them knew what to do with, and outside something that looked suspiciously like a mass grave. 

“Take what you need.  Perce, rig this place to blow,” Rogers said as he reluctantly led the men back inside, looking around to be sure nothing was missed.

“Yes, sir,” said Pinkerton.  He jogged ahead and went to go see what useful items he could find.

The building was old, and probably went through a dozen different uses before the Germans got to it.  There wasn’t much on the top floors, and even after going around the outer perimeter, no one found anything looking like it might be a cellar.  Not caring enough and too eager to leave, everyone quickly loaded up on all the grenades and ammo they could before getting out to let Pinkerton set up his explosives. 

Loki had told the mayor they’d be out of his town by midday.  It was quarter after two by the time they made their way back into Ayrens.  Surprisingly, the mayor was standing on the street, overseeing the dressing and packing of ten horses.  More surprisingly, Remy was absent.  None of the horses looked particularly bred for riding, and all had the massive, sturdy build of plough horses, but they allowed themselves to be saddled so Loki assumed they had all at least been broken.  Loki singled out the largest of the team and took it by the reins, pulling its face down so he could inspect it.  It may have been a plough horse, but it was calm and didn’t seem to object to anything that was going on around it.

“They’ll do,” Loki said, turning toward Pierre and nodding graciously.  “Thank you.”

Pierre nodded in turn.  “Good,” he said before turning away and leaving again.

Loki moved over to Bruttenholm and led him to one of the smaller horses.  “Please tell me you’ve ridden,” he said.

“I could,” Bruttenholm started, suggesting that if he did, it would be a lie. 

Loki fought the urge to roll his eyes.  “The horse will know where it’s going.  Don’t try to steer unless you need to.  Don’t pull on the reins unless you need to stop.  Don’t kick unless you need to run.  Hold on with your knees, and for the love of all that is sacred, don’t fall off,” he instructed. 

Before Bruttenholm could protest, Loki took his cane and bullied him up onto the saddle, helping him get settled.  At once, the horse started to move nervously, but Loki pulled down on its reins and held tight to the saddle, steadying it. 

“It knows when you’re nervous.  Don’t be nervous,” he said.

He tied Bruttenholm’s cane to the saddle and went off to help the next person.  Surprisingly, Dugan also knew what he was doing and was helping others up as well, giving them similar sets of advice.  Between them, it took less than ten minutes to get everyone mounted.

“Horses, huh?” he asked, watching Loki take the biggest one for his own mount, trusting it to be the only horse that could support the weight of him and his pack.

“Oh, yes,” Loki said.  “I was riding before I could walk.”

Dugan didn’t quite seem to believe him as he took his own mount, but let it be.  Loki looked at him, almost surprised at how comfortable he seemed in the saddle.

“How long for you?” Loki asked.

“We didn’t get a proper car on the farm until I was ten,” Dugan answered, kicking his horse in its flanks to start it moving down the road.  The rest quickly got the hint and started to follow.

Loki nodded and turned back to Rogers.  “Sir, permission to scout ahead,” he said.

Rogers looked down at his horse, settling in to get comfortable with the way it moved.  “Yeah,” he said.

Casting a wicked smirk to Dugan, Loki cracked his reins and took off at a run, with Dugan close at his side almost at once.  They left the village behind, riding easily over the snowy fields to the west.  There was nothing as far as they could see, with open farmland stretching clear to the horizon, broken up only by occasional lines of trees.  Running the horse as he was, Loki longed for a bow.  He hadn’t thought to miss the hunt, but riding with a friend at his side, the hunt was all he could think of.  When movement caught his eye off to the north, Loki reached for his sidearm.

“What do you want for dinner tonight?” he asked, slowing only slightly.

“Oh, I don’t know.  I’m thinking maybe a big, juicy ribeye.  Mashed potatoes.  Gravy,” Dugan said, almost wistfully.  He finally looked over to Loki, watching him slowly draw his sidearm.  “Wait, what?”

“How do you feel about venison?” asked Loki. 

Turning toward the deer and bringing the horse back to a run, Loki lined up his shot.  He’d never fired a gun from horseback, and supposed he probably should have expected the animal to panic when he pulled the trigger.  He struggled to calm it as it reared up, kicking and crying out loudly. 

“Did I at least hit it?” Loki asked, pulling hard on the reins and focusing more on not falling off than anything.

Dugan shielded his eyes and looked off to the north.  “I don’t know.”

Once Loki managed to calm the horse, making a mental note to find a bow if he wanted to shoot from horseback ever again, he rode north with Dugan close behind. 

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Dugan said as they drew closer to the buck that lay dead in the snow. 

He looked back to where they had been when Loki fired, and back to the deer as it bled out from its neck, calculating the distance.  He pointed back over his shoulder, back toward the direction they’d come from. 

“I think there was a stream back there a ways.”

Loki nodded and jumped down off the horse. He quickly gathered up the deer and frowned at the weight his horse was already carrying.  Not sure what else to do, he tied the deer down on top of everything else, and took a few long moments to focus his magic toward something he’d only ever tried a few times before.  He rarely bothered to construct a full shape change, electing for the simpler magic that changed his skin and little else, but he feared the horse might collapse under him otherwise.  He could feel everything inside him shift as he made himself be human, rather than just appear as one.  It was oddly uncomfortable, and he didn’t quite seem to move right as he climbed back into the saddle.  He felt too light and too small.  But the horse took his weight, as well as everything else he had packed onto the animal, and didn’t immediately attempt to buck him off.

“Lead the way,” Loki said, once he was sure everything had worked. 

He realised he suddenly felt the cold, and huddled up into his coat to ward off the chill in the air.  He’d known what cold was abstractly, and once thought he’d even experienced it.  But riding a horse across a frozen French field was suddenly something new entirely; bitterly unpleasant in a way that made his entire body want to lock up.  If not for the sake of the horse, Loki wouldn’t even be experiencing it now at all.

He followed after Dugan to the stream, wasting no time in gutting, skinning, and cleaning the deer when they got there, while Dugan went off again to find somewhere less out in the open to camp.  By the time he got back, and Loki was done with the deer, the rest of the squad were catching up with them, just as evening began to fall.

“Thought you guys were going scouting,” Rogers said.

Loki looked up at them, still cleaning himself off.  “We did.  And we scouted dinner,” he said, nodding toward the butchered deer tied to the back of his horse.  “And a place to camp for the night.  About another mile west.”

Rogers nodded while Loki got up.  He checked to make everything was secure before taking his mount again.

“Good job,” Rogers offered. 

The shelter Dugan had found was a small farm house, empty and abandoned.  But it had a hearth and a place to tie the horses, and was dry inside.  Loki broke apart anything not immediately useful and used it to build a fire so he could cook the deer and warm up the house.  Bruttenholm joined him inside, while everyone else undressed and groomed the horses under Dugan’s lead out in the barn.  Bruttenholm watched quietly while Loki managed to settle some of the venison on the grate over the fire, leaving the rest on the jacket he never returned once they got back to Ayrens.  With the meat slowly cooking, Loki pulled out his bayonet and started using it to scrape off the pelt, hoping to preserve it well enough to keep along with the antlers.

“Are you really going to take those all the way with you?” asked Bruttenholm, watching him as he worked.

“I’ll send them back once we get to London,” Loki said, eager to unload the trophies he’d been carrying along with him the entire time.

“Send them back?” asked Bruttenholm cautiously. 

Loki pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose and nodded.  “Maybe not through the post, but yes.  And I believe we only have a short way to go.  It shouldn’t be too much of a burden.”

He wiped his bayonet onto his trouser cuff and resumed scraping the pelt, careful to avoid cutting through it.  While he and Bruttenholm sat in silence, several of the others began filtering in, bringing the preserved fruits and vegetables given to them by the mayor of Ayrens.  It was not, despite what Loki had asked for, enough to get them to the coast, but with the meat from the deer it would stretch to get them there.

“I just put that on,” Loki warned as Morita reached for a piece.

“Oh.”  Morita recoiled quickly and opened a jar of some sort of dark preserve as he sat down on the floor by the fire.  “Hell of a day, huh?” he asked, picking out some of the sticky jam with his fingers.

Loki laughed quietly.  “Could have been worse,” he pointed out.

Howlett settled down next to him, watching as Loki worked his pelt.  He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit up, for the first time in days able to do so without risking being seen by some unknown sniper in the distance.  Loki looked up at him, and after a long moment’s contemplation, held out his hand.

“Give me one of those,” he said.

Howlett handed one over, along with his lighter.

“Since when do you smoke?” he asked.

“I don’t, as a rule,” Loki said, lighting up and taking a deep drag.

He didn’t like the new factory-rolled cigarettes, but he had spent far too long on Midgard unable to indulge a single vice.  He had been sober and clear-headed for entirely too long, so factory-rolled tobacco would have to do.  He worked carefully, avoiding dropping ash and burning embers onto his belt, wishing he had something stronger, and knowing it wasn’t in the cards.

When he finished scraping off the pelt, he hung it over an open door and returned to check the meat on the fire. Deciding it was done enough to be safe, he began handing it out to make room for a bit more to go on, intending to cook it all and hoping the cold weather would keep it from going off before they reached the coast.  Everyone ate greedily with their fingers, passing around the jars brought in.

“How much hunting did you do growing up?” Rogers asked, licking some jam from his thumb.

“More than I wanted,” Loki said.  “I didn’t come to enjoy it until it was no longer required, after I was sixteen.”

Even in the dark, he could see Rogers trying to piece that together with everything else he already knew.  Loki knew he had given too much of himself away already, but with so many rumours and speculation about him flying around, nothing he said would ever make sense anyway.  But there was one point of speculation he knew would be enough of a distraction from everything else.

“I don’t actually know how old I am,” he said, shrugging.  “I’m adopted.  It’s complicated.”

He could see the other men trying to puzzle that out, slotting it in with what they had already figured out for themselves.

He finished the rest of his venison in one bite, hoping to detract any more questions.  It worked, and soon the conversation turned to the usual topics of women no one was having sex with, and beer no one was drinking.  But Loki could still tell he had not heard the end of wild rumours or speculation aimed in his direction.

One by one, everyone eventually drifted off to sleep, while Loki stayed up to finish cooking the deer, and to ostensibly keep watch.  Once he finished, he wrapped the meat back up in the first clean-looking sheet he could find and fed another table leg to the fire before settling in for the night.

It was a rare clear day as they rode across more endless farmland for the fourth day since leaving Ayrens.  Their path had begun to cut more northerly as they hoped to find an unoccupied village at a decent crossing point.  Little about the landscape had changed for days, giving the rather bleak impression that they hadn’t actually gone anywhere.  As they rode, Loki’s thoughts began to drift, and before he knew it, he was starting to fall behind until he rode next to Bruttenholm toward the rear.  Loki looked over at him, trying to decide if he truly wanted to know the answers to the questions on his mind.

“Do you know any stories about Asgardians coming to Midgard?” he asked.

Bruttenholm looked at him, obviously confused.  “A great deal,” he said.

Loki shook his head.  “Not gods.  Just… Asgardians.”  He thought on that for a moment, and realised his error.  “I suppose we’re all gods to you.”  He frowned and tried to think of the best way to frame his question.

“I’m afraid I don’t know the difference,” said Bruttenholm.  Loki thought it was odd that he looked almost pleased to not know the difference, but he imagined it must be rare for him to learn new things after being declared an expert.

Loki let himself smile, glad to teach him.

“It’s a title, bestowed by the Allfather, on the judgement of certain tasks.  Gods of the hunt do not control the hunt, but are the realm’s most skilled hunters.  Others are given in mockery.  A god of festivities for a drunkard who never leaves the mead hall, unless it’s to go to the feast hall,” Loki explained.  He looked over to Bruttenholm, remembering something said during one of their first meetings.  “You called me a chaos god.  Not only have I put considerable energy into avoiding having any title bestowed upon me, but that is not a title given on Asgard.”

“Rasputin’s ritual was to summon chaos gods,” Bruttenholm explained.  “If you were summoned, then you were meant to be there.”

Loki frowned.  If Bruttenholm spoke the truth, then any fool summoning chaos gods could summon him at any time, and it was not a prospect Loki looked forward to.  Especially if it meant godhood, and the responsibilities that came with it.  He wasn’t even sure he knew what it meant to be a chaos god, but he knew he didn’t want it.

“And who determines such things?” he asked.

Bruttenholm shrugged meekly.  “That, I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you.”

Loki frowned even more and dismissed the whole thing as nonsense.  If no one bestowed the title, then it simply couldn’t belong to him.

“What is your title then?” Bruttenholm asked.  “As I dare suspect it’s not what I think it is.”

Loki shook his head.  “I haven’t one.  I was disinherited, at my own request.  I have no title, no position, and the freedom to come and go as I please, as long as my father’s in a good mood.  I got to keep the allowance, but I lost that a few years ago after some minor trouble on Álfheimr.”

He watched Bruttenholm, barely able to resist a wicked grin as the man tried to figure out what to do with this information.  Finally, they both laughed, though Loki knew for different reasons.

“So.  Stories of Æsir coming to Earth,” Bruttenholm said thoughtfully after a moment.

“I suppose Vanir as well,” Loki amended.  “He could have been Vanir.  Likely a warrior, I would think.  He spoke of forsaking an oath.”

Bruttenholm looked up suddenly, some spark of recognition lighting up in his eyes.  “Yes!  The warrior who stayed,” he said a bit too excitedly, causing him to almost slide off his saddle. 

Loki reached out to steady him, not wanting to see him crushed before he gave his insight.  Bruttenholm laughed as he resettled in his saddle and shook his head. 

“There is a story, yes,” Bruttenholm said.  “Often thought to be more of a fairy tale than mythology, since it first appeared in Spain, several centuries after the Viking era.”

Loki waited impatiently, trying to prompt him without actually saying anything.  “Yes?” he said, failing.

Bruttenholm tapped his mouth with his fingers as he thought.  “The story goes that there was a warrior; perhaps a member of Odin’s Einherjar, or maybe a Berserker, who came to fight a battle on Midgard.  When the armies retreated back to their own realms, this warrior stayed behind, choosing a life of peace to a life of war.  It’s said that he broke his magic staff into three pieces, and scattered them across the realm so no-one would ever find them again.”

Loki sat stiffly in his saddle, feeling like he’d been slapped in the face.  “Berserker,” he confirmed, knowing the sort of staff they used; one of the few forbidden items in the palace’s vault that Loki was all too glad to ignore.  He had enough of his own rage and anger, and didn’t need anyone else’s added to it.  “But they haven’t been sent to Midgard since…”  He took a moment to think back on history lessons he’d done his best to forget.  “Jötunheimr.  The war with Jötunheimr.  That’s when he deserted.”

“Who?” asked Bruttenholm cautiously.

Loki jabbed his thumb back over his shoulder.  “This whoreson back in Ayrens.  I may have assaulted him,” Loki said, not entirely proud of that.  “Several times.  He annoyed me.”

“You think one of the men in that village was an Asgardian Berserker?” asked Bruttenholm.

Loki shrugged.  “He wasn’t human.  I know that much for certain.”  He found himself growing angry all over again, wishing he had throttled the life from the man while he had the chance.  At least then he might have felt better.

He rode in silence after that, pulling his coat around him and telling himself that the cold didn’t bother him.  While he was able to shift back during the nights, he still worried he might cripple his horse if he didn’t shift his entire body to the frail form of a human.  It was a body he hated, and living in it he couldn’t see how the humans got anything done.  Everything was exhausting and demanding, and what would have been a simple task otherwise often left him feeling sore and wasted.  Even riding horseback across relatively even terrain was tiresome in this form, and Loki could not wait to be rid of it forever.

Worst of all, he hated the cold.  The novelty had worn off in the first ten minutes.  Four days later, it was all he felt; a bone-numbing chill that would leave for nothing.  He couldn’t imagine how humans managed to survive their winters, if this was what they had to survive them with.

As dusk approached, they could smell the sea in the wind.  They’d skirted around countless villages as they crossed France, but they’d need a village eventually if they hoped to cross the channel.  The tricky part would be finding one that wasn’t occupied.

“Olson.  Dugan,” Rogers called from up front.

Loki brought his horse to catch up with Rogers, along with Dugan.  They were the best riders in the squad, and already knew their orders before Rogers even spoke.

“I think we’re getting close. Go up ahead a few miles and see what you can find,” he said.

Loki buttoned up his coat and tried to pull the high collar around his face before breaking his horse into a run, but the wind only pulled it right back down again.  He tried to ignore it, but it was too much.  The cold stung his face and the wind bit and tore at him in ways he hadn’t experienced since hunting polar bear with Thor on Niflheimr.  Hoping his horse could take it, Loki shifted back, using Dugan’s distraction on riding to cover the gap between bringing his natural body back and changing his skin to only look human.  His horse felt the change, but though it protested and tried to buck, its back at least didn’t break.  But like this, everything felt cool and comfortable.  The wind was still sharp, but it didn’t bite like it had before.  Finally, Loki felt right.

He and Dugan rode toward a low line of trees, hard and fast through the snow. 

“How far should we go?”  Dugan called out.

Loki wasn’t even sure they were going in the right direction, and wished dearly for a map.  He lifted himself higher in the saddle and tried to see over the horse and the trees ahead.

“See what’s beyond—” he started, before the world was suddenly pulled out from under him.  He was thrown violently forward, away from the horse and into the ground, unable to stop himself from falling.  He could hear his horse crying out and thrashing somewhere behind him while Dugan shouted in alarm, but didn’t quite register any of it while he lay stunned in the snow. 

As he tried to pull himself up, Dugan rushed down to his side, holding his hands out like he wasn’t sure what to do.

“Oh thank God, you’re alive,” he said.

Loki felt like his face had been split wide open, and when he saw the blood in the snow, he wasn’t surprised. 

“What the fuck was that?” he grumbled breathlessly, trying to stop the blood that poured from his nose and split upper lip.

He looked back to see the trough he’d cut in the snow, more ten feet long, with the horse the same length back from that.  It lay thrashing on the ground still, kicking its legs and failing to regain its footing.  Something about it seemed off, but for the moment, Loki couldn’t tell what it was.

“Make sure it isn’t lame,” Loki said, trying to hold his face together with both his hands. 

Dugan hesitated, still looking at Loki like a stunned owl before he got up and nodded.  Loki ignored him and focused instead on his face, not taking much time at all to determine that he had broken his nose in the fall.  Looking up again at the blood-spattered and marred snow, he realised that had he not changed to avoid the cold, the fall would have killed him instantly.  As he fell onto his back to breathe, he heard Dugan fire off two rounds before everything fell unnaturally silent.

“Gopher hole, it looks like,” he announced bleakly, walking back.

Loki sat up again to see him bending to pick something up from the ground, but his sight was too blurred to see it properly.  He waited silently, debating trying to set his nose himself while Dugan came back.

“You are one lucky son of a bitch, you know that?” he said, handing Loki his miraculously-unbroken spectacles.

“I don’t feel like it,” he said.

He tried to put the spectacles back on with one hand, but the curved ear pieces were difficult to settle easily.  Once he got them on, he ignored the hard pressure on his nose and looked back at the horse, dead and lifeless in the snow.

“I liked that horse,” he said, taking a moment to wonder if he had only imagined not being able to see it clearly before.

Beside him, Dugan laughed incredulously.  “You almost get yourself killed, and you complain about the horse,” he said, offering his hand out.

Loki sighed and took Dugan’s hand, trying not to pull him clean off his feet as he got up.  They made their way back, Loki staggering and still in a daze as he walked.  He looked down at his kit, still on the horse’s saddle and tried to sigh through his nose, only to choke.

“You okay?” Dugan asked, looking back in concern.

Loki shook his head and took off his spectacles again. 

“No,” he said, handing them over. 

Before Dugan could ask what was wrong, Loki pressed the heels of his hands on both sides of his nose and set it with a loud crunch.  He could hear Dugan groaning beside him, ignoring it while he made sure he’d actually be able to continue breathing.

“Was that necessary?” asked Dugan sickly.

“Yeah,” Loki said with a nod.  “Yes, that’s better.”

He took his spectacles back and frowned down at the dead animal on top of half his kit.  Not sure what else to do, he uncinched the saddle.  With Dugan’s help, he pulled it out from under the horse along with his kit, though he wasn’t sure what to do with it from there.  He just stared blankly down at everything, with the deer antlers poking out of his pack and the rifle with a brand new bend in its barrel.

“Okay, you’re in outer space right now.  I’m relieving you of command,” Dugan decided.

“What?” Loki asked distantly.

He looked up at Dugan, not sure he was able to make that decision.  Though he figured it shouldn’t be surprising.  It was probably more surprising that he was alive at all, let alone able to form words.  Rather than fighting it, he let himself be put onto Dugan’s horse, hoping it didn’t decide to fall out from under him as well.  He watched blankly as Dugan gathered up everything, shouldering Loki’s pack and strapping the rest wherever it would fit on his own horse. Leading the horse by the reins, Dugan began walking back the way they came.  They met back up with the squad as the sky grew dark, but even without light to see by, Loki could hear the confusion in Rogers’ voice.

“What happened?” he asked.  There was a ripple of murmurs from the rest of the squad as they all shifted uneasily.

“Horse threw him,” Dugan said.  “Horse is dead.  Honestly not sure about Olson. He’s pretty out of it.”

“I’m fine,” Loki said thickly.  He’d stopped bleeding, but it still caked his throat and face, threatening to choke him.

“Did you find anything?” Rogers asked.

“Nothing.  We didn’t get very far, though.”

“All right.  Then we’ll keep going until we find something,” Rogers decided. 

Dugan let go of the reins and walked back and tapped Morita on the thigh.  “Go ride with him.  Make sure he’s all right,” he said.

Nodding, Morita slid down off the saddle and walked up to Loki.  Not even wanting to deal with arguing, Loki pulled his feet out of the stirrups and slid as far back onto the saddle as possible, letting Morita take the front.  He wondered, as they started moving again, if the horse really had fallen into a gopher hole, or if it had failed to take his weight.  If it had been the first, and Dugan’s horse had found the hole, their squad would be missing a member, surely.  If not, it was Loki’s error that had cost them a horse.  Sighing and not wanting to think about either possibility, Loki leaned gingerly against Morita’s back, careful not to actually press any of his weight down.

“You okay back there?” Morita asked, looking back awkwardly.

Loki nodded.  “I’m fine.  Not the first time I’ve been thrown from a horse,” he said.

He couldn’t see the dubious look he was surely receiving, but he knew it was there all the same. 

“Don’t go falling asleep on me.  I don’t want you falling out of the saddle as well,” Morita warned.

Loki grumbled in reply, but said nothing. 

They rode until they found a small village, several hours after the sun had set.  It was Dugan and Barnes who scouted ahead this time, much more slowly than on the previous scouting trips.  They came back quickly, bearing news of a fishing village as of yet untouched by the war.  At the edge of town, they were met by a small group of curious civilians.  Between Jones and Rogers explaining the situation, sticking with the story of escorting an injured doctor to England, and now having a soldier injured from being thrown from his horse, they were quickly led to several houses, while their horses were led away to be cared for.  Once inside, Morita bustled Loki over to the fire, only then seeing the actual damage from the fall.

“Jesus Christ, did you land on your face?” he asked, wetting a handkerchief from his canteen and using it to clean up some of the blood.

“I think I might have, yes,” Loki said.

Morita very carefully started unbuttoning Loki’s coat, seeming almost like he was afraid to disturb him.

“Okay, none of your weird tough guy thing right now.  Be straight with me.  Where does it hurt?” Morita asked, pressing his fingers into the back of Loki’s neck.

Deciding it would be in his best interest, Loki sighed and played along this time.

« || »

Midgard Legends #12: Ayrens

They stayed in Le Tour for three days before leaving, reluctant to get moving again, but eager to get out of France.  They grudgingly left the Opel in Chirens, knowing that they’d be able to travel more covertly without it.  Even without being laden with heavy packs, and walking at the pace of their limping civilian, the walk across France would take days at best, but they all packed up everything they could carry and set out on foot all the same.

They cut across open fields and through forests, drawing as straight a path as was possible, and staying off the roads as much as they were able.  They slept in barns and sheds as they came to them, rising early to avoid being found by either farmers or soldiers.  As they trudged across the field on the fourth day, ankle-deep in snow that never seemed to stop falling, Bruttenholm began to once again show signs that he needed to rest.  They couldn’t and wouldn’t go on without him, but if they stopped every time he started to slow down, it would take them a month to march across France.

“You got another mile in you, Doc?” Rogers asked, watching Bruttenholm as he stopped to lean against his cane.

Bruttenholm looked up toward the small wood up ahead and nodded.  “Yes, I should think so.  Just let me… Just let me catch my breath.”  He stayed where he was for just a few moments longer before forcing himself forward once more with a steely determination.

“Where the fuck are we, anyway?” Howlett asked, dropping back a bit to give Bruttenholm someone to lean against.

“What is this castle call’d that stands hard by?” asked Loki, unable to help himself.

Howlett looked around again.  “What castle?” he asked.

Up front, Rogers and Barnes laughed quietly.  Unexpectedly, Pinkerton picked up the cue.  “They call it Agincourt,” he said.

“What?” Howlett demanded.  He threw his gaze this way and that, still trying to find the castle.

“Then call we this the field of Agincourt, fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus,” Loki said, looking straight ahead and not even smiling at Howlett’s distress.

“What the hell are you two limeys going on about?” he demanded, met with more laughter, both confused and amused.

“Shakespeare, James.  King Henry the Fifth,” Bruttenholm said, laughing along with everyone else.

“And Olson’s not even English.  He’s an impostor,” Pinkerton pointed out.

“Aren’t you Welsh?” Morita asked.  He looked back at Pinkerton.  “Where are Welsh people from, anyway?”

“Wales,” Loki said.

Pinkerton looked around wildly.  “If I find out which one of you lot started this bloody rumour,” he started, not even bothering to finish it up with a threat.

Now it was Howlett’s turn to laugh, at least.

“Do you mean you’re not Welsh?” asked Loki with a bit too much innocence.  “Are you sure?”

Pinkerton stopped briefly in his tracks, shaking his head before continuing their march.  “You’re a right bastard, Olson, you know that?”

Loki shrugged.  “Probably,” he said.  He waited just long enough for a few of the others to laugh.  “Oh, you meant—!  I’m sorry.  English isn’t my native tongue.  I forget these things sometimes.” 

Everyone in the squad knew he was full of shit, which only made them laugh harder.  Spirits were high by the time the time they made it to the tree line, but the sun was low behind the clouds, just a pinpoint of light filtering through near the horizon.  They walked into the woods far enough for the trees to provide cover before Rogers stopped and dropped his pack to the ground.  “Dig in here for the night,” he said, looking around.  “Low fires, but keep ’em covered.”

One by one, everyone dropped their own packs and went for their spades.  Even with two or three men digging a foxhole at a time, it was still back-breaking work trying to cut through the frozen ground.  While everyone else dug holes in the ground, Bruttenholm stood awkwardly off to one side, watching through the trees like he expected to see someone following them.

“Hey, Doc,” Dugan called out as he struggled to pull his spade from the ground.

Bruttenholm turned sharply, even more jumpy and alert than usual. “Hmm?  Yes?” he asked.

Dugan finally got his spade out of the ground and nearly fell on his ass.  Shaking his head, he tried again to actually make a dent in the ground he was trying to dig up. 

“I’ve been wondering, since these guys don’t seem to know much about it either.  What are we doing, exactly?  This ain’t really about some fountain of youth, is it?”  He flung his spade into the air, finally managing to unstick a very large stone from the ground.

Bruttenholm looked around, but neither Rogers nor his NCOs offered any objections to the conversation.  “Yes, that is precisely what it’s about,” he said, taking a step closer to the group.  “Hitler is obsessed with the occult.  He’s built himself up almost as a god, and will be after anything to help him maintain that illusion.”

“And you really think it exists?” asked Morita, leaning against his spade and taking a few moments to breathe.  “I mean, seriously?”

“In my experience, there’s always something worth finding,” said Bruttenholm.  “Even if it’s not what you expected to find, these legends get started for a reason.”

Loki kept his head down and dug in silence.  If the well was what he suspected it to be, it was the last place anyone should be allowed to go.  If it was he suspected it to be, a fountain with life-giving water would be nothing short of harmless by comparison.  Just this once, Loki desperately hoped he was wrong.

“So what are we gonna do if we find it?” asked Coulson as he dug by Loki’s side.  “Blow it up?”

Loki looked up just enough to make eye contact with Bruttenholm and shook his head slowly.  Bruttenholm shook his head as well, even more dramatically.  “No, I don’t think that would be best.  It may be guarded.  We just need to make sure we get to it first.”

“Guarded by what?” asked Coulson.

“I don’t know how they do things in Russia, but wells where I’m from are guarded by witches,” Loki said. 

“I thought this was a fountain,” said Dugan.

“Same thing,” Loki told him.

“Witches?” asked Barnes.

Several of the others were looking at him, but he ignored them all and kept digging.  He’d said too much already, and needed to learn when to stay quiet. 

“So, we’re just going there to secure it?” asked Dugan.

“Yep,” Rogers confirmed.  “Unless it or anyone near it poses a threat, I think the best thing we can do is make sure nobody else gets to it.”

“And what if there’s nothing there?” asked Dugan.  “Because I’ll be honest, Cap.  This sounds like a crapshoot to me.”

“We’ll find something,” Bruttenholm assured.  “I guarantee it.”

None of them seemed to know how to argue with that, so they all just kept digging in silence.  They all knew going into this mission that it wasn’t going to be like any mission they’d gone on before, and none were even suggesting backing out.  They’d all seen what Hydra already had in their possession.  They’d all seen power and technology that shouldn’t have even been possible. If Hydra had tanks the size of churches, and weapons that fired pure energy, who knew what else they were capable of.

A fountain of youth was at least something they had all heard of before.

Once everyone was dug in and covered, they fell into a quiet rhythm.  Loki and Coulson shared their foxhole with a small fire and an empty ammo box, making their customary batch of army stew.  It was strangely comfortable and familiar.  Without thinking, Loki grabbed a few pine needles from their foxhole cover and sprinkled them into the stew, laughing and calling it rosemary.  With Coulson laughing along with him and calling him an idiot, Loki was suddenly reminded of Italy.  He had done the same thing then as well, just before the shelling had started.  He looked up suddenly, remembering a long-forgotten errand.

“I took your comics,” he said, surprised to have forgotten.  He’d hidden them away in one of the places only he knew how to find, knowing he’d need the room in his pack when they moved out.  “I didn’t want someone else to steal them.”

Coulson looked up at him, surprised and hopeful all at once.  “Seriously?” he asked.  “What’d you do with them?”

“I sent them back home, for safe-keeping,” Loki said, not sure if it was a lie or not.  “I didn’t keep them because I didn’t think I’d ever see your ugly face again to be able to give them back.”

“Well, I want them back,” Coulson said, laughing.  “Soon as I get back to Brooklyn, I’m coming to bust your door down.”

“You do know my home is a long way from Brooklyn, right?” Loki asked.

“You fucking asshole,” Coulson said quietly.

Loki gave the ammo box a stir and held it out for Coulson.  They both ate out of it quickly, letting their need for food win out over the taste of tinned meat cooked with hard cheese and stale crackers.  As they scraped along the bottom of the box, Jones walked up to their foxhole and kicked a small amount of snow at them.

“You’re up,” he said.

In the dim light of the fire, Loki could see the disgust and confusion on Jones’ face.  Knowing that look well, Loki offered him the ammo box.  “Want some?” he asked.

“Say no,” Coulson said.

Shaking his head, Jones started to walk away.  “Just go out on patrol,” he said, obviously trying not to laugh. 

Rolling their eyes at one another, Loki and Coulson reached for their rifles and climbed out of the foxhole.  Loki stamped out their fire and pulled his coat close around him, making sure the collar stuck up how he liked it before leading the way out.  They headed back to the east, toward the tree line and into the field they’d come from, counting on the falling snow to cover their tracks.  They cut a wide circle around the camp, heading vaguely northward for a while.

The field around them seemed to stretch on forever, disappearing into the darkness.  There were no lights anywhere, either from any villages or camps.  Loki couldn’t even see their own camp, though he knew several of the men had lit low fires.  He didn’t think they were likely to stumble over a platoon of sleeping Germans, but he wasn’t sure they wouldn’t, either.

As they walked, starting to head west again, something caught his attention in the distance.  Loki stopped, trying to squint through the darkness to see it.

“What?” Coulson asked.

Loki cast a quick glance to him, and decided to take a chance.  He closed his eyes tightly for a few seconds, and when he opened them again, the landscape around them had transformed.  The sky and snow stood out from one another, in bright white and deep blues and purples, everything more clear in the dark than it had been during the day through the filter of false eyes.  He kept his gaze away from Coulson and looked back out to the object in the distance, though he still couldn’t tell what it was.

“Do you see that?” he asked, pointing.

Coulson took a step forward and looked to where Loki was pointing.  “No?” he said.

Loki shook his head and closed his eyes again before Coulson noticed their colour.  With his sight muted and muddied once more, he started walking toward the object.  “Something’s out there,” he said.  “Come on.”

They walked cautiously, staying as low as they could while they snuck up on whatever it was Loki had seen.  As they got closer, its outline became even more apparent, despite being half buried in the snow.  They stopped again once they finally saw what it was, and exchanged a nervous look.

“The hell is that doing out here?” Coulson asked, looking at the wrecked fuselage of a B-17.  “Should we go back and tell Rogers?”

Loki considered it for a moment, but shook his head.  “No, not unless we find something in it,” he said.  Now curious more than anything, he walked closer to it, stopping to count the tallies on its nose.  Through the damage, he saw at least twenty, plus two swastikas.

“Looks like his luck ran out,” Coulson said.

“He was doing pretty good before then,” Loki said.  He wondered how many more tallies would have been added, had he made it back to base without being shot out of the sky. 

He walked around until he found a way inside, ducking through a hole in the side.  With Coulson close behind, they walked up the length to the cockpit, finding the pilots frozen and blue in their seats.  Looking more closely, Loki could tell that the pilot was dead before the aeroplane even touched the ground.  Whatever had caused the mess on the nose had come straight through the steel and did a good job at trying to cut the man in half.  It was probably the shot that brought the plane down.

The copilot was slumped over the stick, the lower half of his face covered in dried blood.  Loki stood and stared at the two of them for a few moments before reaching out and pulling the caps right off their heads.

“They don’t need them,” he said, dropping the pilot’s onto Coulson’s head.  He took the copilot’s cap for himself, ultimately intending to give it to someone else who needed it more.

Coulson adjusted the cap on his head, pulling the ear flaps down and buckling them together under his chin.  They checked the rest of the wreckage, not finding anything else of use.  The plane’s mission would have been a brief one, like all the rest; a hop across the channel from England to drop a bunch of bombs onto a bunch of Germans.  Most of them managed to make it back to England.  This one didn’t.

They left the plane shortly after, completing their circuit around the camp without finding anything else.  As Loki passed the foxhole Bruttenholm and Howlett were sharing, he took off his cap and handed it down to Bruttenholm.

“Howlett, you’re up,” he said.  He looked over to the next nearest foxhole. “Perce, you too.”

While they gathered their rifles and got ready to head out, Loki went to find Rogers to report what he and Coulson had found.

It was midmorning when they spotted the village in the distance, hidden in the snow like everything else.  Leaving Morita and Jones behind with Bruttenholm, Rogers had the rest of them quickly flank around the north side of the village.  It didn’t seem to have been hit by the war yet, which was a welcome relief, but they’d learned quickly that looks could be deceiving.  Loki had no idea where they even were, but he was willing to guess that whatever village they’d just stumbled across wasn’t on the way to anything important, or else it wouldn’t even be standing.

Once satisfied that the village was as safe as they could hope, Rogers signalled for Jones and Morita to catch back up with Bruttenholm.  As they slowly made their way into town, with weapons ready but not raised, the inhabitants quickly fled.  While the war may not have hit the village yet, its presence was definitely felt.

“Olson, find me someone to talk to,” Rogers said.  “We’re not gonna raid these people, but we need to resupply.”

Loki nodded and went ahead, finally finding a man who gave the appearance of not caring about anything that went on around him. 

“Excuse me,” Loki called as he trotted up, making sure everyone heard French.  The man sitting outside the shop looked up at him curiously, and maybe a little confused.

“Yes?” he asked back cautiously.

Loki stopped in his tracks.  The answer he received was not in French.  The single word the man spoke was not of any Midgardian language.  Loki looked back at Rogers, already out of time.  Rogers was right behind him again, taking a minute to look around the village before bringing his attention back to Loki.

“Ask him where we are,” he said.

“You’re in Ayrens,” said the man, pulling the same trick Loki used to sound like he was speaking heavily-accented English. 

Loki’s initial shock began to wear off, leaving behind an almost bitter resentment that he couldn’t quite understand.  Bitter resentment and confusion.  It was not a pleasant mix.

“You speak English?” asked Rogers.

“Yes,” said the man slowly, looking to Loki once more.  Loki glared at him, almost warning him to try what he was surely thinking.  “And who are you?”

Rogers looked down at his utter lack of uniform and cringed.  “Americans,” he said.  “Most of us.  Trying to get to England.  I’m Captain Steve Rogers.  This is Sergeant Luke Olson.”  He nodded toward Loki, but kept his eyes on the stranger.

“Remy,” he responded, looking at Loki like he could see right through him.  “And how many soldiers have you brought to our commune, Captain Rogers?”  Finally, he stood, looking past Rogers to where the rest of the squad stood in the street and looked around.

“Nine, counting myself,” Rogers answered.

“Then why do I count ten?” asked Remy.

Loki wanted to punch him.  He grabbed onto his belt with his free hand, just to make sure he behaved.

“The tenth’s a civilian,” Rogers said.  “He’s a doctor.  We’re taking him to England.”

“He must be important, if it takes nine men to escort him,” said Remy.

Loki shook his head.  “You have no idea,” he said.

Remy gave him that same curiously confused look, letting his gaze linger for longer than was comfortable.  “I guess so,” he said.

“Who’s in charge here?” asked Rogers, quickly changing the subject.  “We’re running low on rations.  I was hoping we might be able to resupply, and then get out of your hair.”

Remy regarded him with suspicion for a few moments before nodding.  “I’ll take you,” he said.  He cast one more scrutinising glance to Loki before turning and leading the way down the road.  He led Loki and Rogers to a house near the western edge of town, with a manicured garden in front and a cat on the step. 

Remy knocked on the door, and they were shortly met by a man who looked half-asleep still.  The man at the door looked at everyone suspiciously, before turning his attention to Remy.

“What is this?” he asked in French, either assuming neither of his guests spoke it, or not caring.  “What are you bringing me?  I don’t want this.”

Loki glanced over at Rogers and cleared his throat.  “Then hear us out, and we’ll be on our way and out of your village by midday,” he said.

It was Remy’s turn to clear his throat, if a bit more awkwardly than Loki had done.  Some not-so-small part of Loki revelled in Remy’s discomfort.  “Pierre, they’re Americans.  They are asking for assistance.”

He cast a sideways glance to Loki.  Loki responded with an insincere smile.

“Assistance?” asked Pierre, looking back to Loki.

Loki turned and pointed back toward the centre of town, where the rest of the squad still remained.  “We’re escorting a doctor to England.  We need only what you can spare.”  He glanced back again, struck by an idea.  “And horses.  Which we will pay for.”  Loki had no Francs, but he had plenty of gold at easy access that he could slip to the man without being seen. 

“Horses?” asked Pierre.

“Horses,” said Loki.  “Ten, if you have them.  The doctor we’re escorting is injured.  It’s unsafe for us to drive, but horses might get us there just as quickly without having to stay on the roads.”

Pierre nodded thoughtfully.  “Perhaps.  Perhaps you do something for me, and you can have your horses and your supplies.  Or, you leave now, and I don’t tell the Germans the next time they come asking for food where you’re going.”

“What Germans?” Rogers asked in very stilted French.  Loki shot a quick look over to him, torn between glaring at gaping.

Pierre apparently didn’t even notice.  He pointed up the road as it lead away from his home, almost lazily.  “Selves.  They come for food, and if we don’t have it, they take workers instead.”

Rogers clearly understood enough of what was being said to cast Loki a wary look.  Loki even gave him a matching one in return.

“How many?” Loki asked.

Pierre shrugged.  “I don’t ask.”

Loki pushed his spectacles up onto his forehead so he could very tiredly rub his face.  When he was done succumbing to utter despair, he looked up at Rogers and sighed.  He knew that look already, and didn’t even have to ask what the plan was.

“Ten horses, tacked and saddled.  And enough food to get ten men to the sea,” he said.

Pierre shrugged indifferently and waved them off before shutting the door in their faces.  Loki sighed at it and then turned back to Rogers.  “Since when do you speak French?” he asked.

Rogers shrugged.  “I’m a quick study,” he said.  He started walking back down toward the centre of town.  “What were you planning on paying him with?  I did hear that right, didn’t I?”

“I have money,” Loki said, following him.  “I get paid fifty dollars a month, and never get to spend a penny of it.”

Remy was watching them again, trailing behind as they made their way back to the rest of the squad.  Once they’d regrouped, Rogers explained the situation and the deal they’d made with the mayor.

“Why’s it always gotta be fucking Germans?” Coulson asked tiredly.

“Why’d you ask for horses?” asked Jones.  “Does anybody here know how to ride a goddamn horse?”

Loki looked around them, having not even thought that they wouldn’t have known.  “Yes,” he said. “Do you not?”

Coulson cackled and sat down right there in the middle of the road.  “You can’t be from this planet,” he said.

Shaking his head at the lot of them, Rogers pointed to Jones, Dugan, and Howlett.  “I want you to go see what we’re up against.  We didn’t get very much from our chat, but it didn’t sound good.  We just need a glimpse.  Don’t engage unless you have to.”

Dugan dropped his pack on the ground and unloaded some of the heavier objects from his belt.  “You know where we’re going?” he asked.

Rogers nodded.  “Yeah, this way.”  Once the other two were rid of their unnecessary gear, he led them back up the road to show them where to go. 

As they left, the rest of the squad slowly dispersed, eager to explore the village before it was inevitably blown to hell.  As Remy started to walk off, Loki dropped his own pack and followed after him. 

“Who are you?” Loki demanded as soon as they were out of earshot.

Remy didn’t even turn to look at him.  He just kept walking, eventually making the mistake of turning down an empty road.  Taking the opportunity, Loki grabbed him and shoved him hard.  Remy swung a punch at him, more out of startled reflex than intent, which Loki dodged, using the motion to shove Remy against the wall.  He held him there with an arm pressed over his throat, threatening to cut off his air.

“Do not make me ask again,” Loki said.

Remy stayed calmly still under Loki’s weight, looking up at him and meeting his eye for the first time.  “I think the question is who are you,” he said.

“I am the son of Odin, and I will not be defied.”

All of Remy’s calm evaporated immediately, though he covered it quickly.  He smiled, shaky at first, but still arrogant.  “You must take after your mother then.  But you don’t look much like her, either.”

Before Loki could stop himself, he moved away just far enough to punch Remy in the jaw.  Were he human, it would have likely killed him, but Remy was barely staggered.  Remy stood against the wall, rubbing his face. 

“Okay.  You hit like an Asgardian.  I’ll give you that,” he said.

Loki hit him again, this time even harder.  Remy staggered back, putting enough distance between them that Loki would have to telegraph another swing, but not bothered to actually flee.

“Tell me who you are and what business you have on this realm,” Loki demanded.  “Why you do nothing for the realm you are sworn to protect.”

Remy actually laughed.  “An oath I forsook long ago.  Before you were even born, when I was called to war without a choice.  I was just a mason.  What did I know of war?”

Loki stepped forward to grab him again, pulling his bayonet off his belt and holding it against Remy’s throat.  “If you will not do your duty to the realm, then you will leave it,” he growled through his teeth.  “This realm is mine, and should I see you here again, you will not live long enough to regret it.”

He pushed the edge of his bayonet against Remy’s neck before stepping back.

“I take care of what’s mine.  You would do well to remember that,” he said as he returned his bayonet to its place and walked away, not giving Remy the satisfaction of looking back.

By the time he made it back to fetch up his pack again, Rogers had returned and was talking quietly with Barnes.

“I don’t like it,” Rogers said.

Loki looked up at them as he picked up his pack.  “Don’t like what, sir?” he asked.

Rogers looked up the road and sighed.  “This town.  I feel like they’re hiding something.”

Loki had a feeling he knew what it was.

“I think the sooner we get out of here, the better,” Loki said.

Barnes nodded.  “The sooner we get out of France, the better.  You’re really sure about this?  You’re seriously not scrubbing it once we get back to friendly territory?”

“No,” Rogers said, without hesitation.  “But I’m not gonna force anyone to carry on if he doesn’t want to.  I think the Doc’s right.  Even if we don’t find what we’re looking for,we’re gonna find something when we get there.  And whatever it is, we need to make sure neither Hitler nor Schmidt get their hands on it.”

Barnes frowned.  “He just doesn’t seem… all there to me,” he said, wiggling his fingers by his head.  “There’s something off about him, talking about this stuff like it’s real.”

Loki frowned right back at him, beginning to wonder if Barnes was only there because Rogers wanted a friend.  He barely even noticed Rogers’ subtle nod in his direction. 

“He’s not the only man here who believes it is.  Nor are they the only men in Europe.  You don’t have to come with, Buck.  But I’m going.”  The way Rogers spoke said more than his words did.  He wasn’t just going to go all the way to Russia; he’d leave a trail of destruction to get there if he had to.

Barnes sighed and shook his head.  “I’m with you til the end of the line.  I just wish you weren’t so fucking stubborn sometimes.”

Rogers laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.  “Nah, that’s what you like about me.”  He looked around again, frowning at the general state of the village; at how clean and orderly and positively empty it was.  “But you’re right.  We gotta get out of here as soon as we can.”

“Are you suggesting we steal the horses?” asked Loki, determined to leave on horseback now that he’d had the idea.

For a second, he thought Rogers was going to chastise him for that question.  “Just wait on that.”

The scout team returned shortly after, unscathed and brimming with intel.  They found a table in someone’s garden and brushed the snow off it so Jones could draw out a crude map of what they’d come across.

“Hitler, or Hydra?” Rogers asked.

Dugan shook his head.  “Couldn’t tell, but they’re definitely arming up in there.  The rest of the village is empty, but whatever the big building is, it’s been walled off.”

“Any way in?” asked Rogers.

“Just the front door.  If you think we can get through the guards,” said Howlett.

Loki looked down at the map and chewed on his thumbnail.  “Have any of you ever played football?” he asked, snapping his fingers to remember the right word, since the Alltongue wouldn’t translate it.  “What do you call it?  Soccer.  Anyone play?”

“Olson, time and a place, buddy,” Dugan said.

Loki shook his head.  “No, I’m serious.  I think with a football and enough concealed weapons, we could get in.”

With everyone looking to Loki, he laid out his plan for taking a possible munitions depot with nine men and a football.

« || »

Midgard Legends #11: Bottleneck

Loki watched from the ridge as Pinkerton scrambled away from the bridge and back up the embankment.  They had each of their two stolen tanks on the ridge to the west of Loki’s position, facing down into the gully that would bottleneck the German forces.  The rest of the squad were spread out, parked with the heavier ground artillery they’d found in the trucks.  Loki had only spent two days with the Browning during basic, and it wasn’t the same as the German version but he hadn’t mentioned any of that when Rogers was giving the orders.  They had two more 50 cals on the other side of the river, in the trees.  The other four were dug in with their rifles, all waiting for Rogers’ signal down by the bridge. 

“Well, this is scary as hell,” Morita said loudly enough for Loki to hear. 

He looked up the ridge to Morita, where he was dug in and covered in tree branches. 

“Shut up and watch for the signal,” Loki told him. 

They sat in a tense silence for what felt like a year, waiting for conditions to be perfect.  Finally, when the snow began to pick back up, Rogers launched one of the few mortar shells they had toward the Germans’ position.  Following the explosion, bursts of gunfire flared up, carrying over the half-mile from the Germans’ position.  The gunfire quickly tapered off to a silence, just before Pinkerton threw the fuse and blew the bridge, drawing more confused fire. 

Loki sat up a little higher, ready for whatever was going to come down the road.  Even before blowing the bridge, the narrow, single-carriage road would have bottlenecked the convoy, with the steep drop to the south and another ridge to the north, cut through by a deep riverbed.  From where he sat, Loki couldn’t see beyond the second ridge, but Barnes was up there, giving eyes toward their camp.  After the panicked gunfire ceased, they could begin to hear the rumble of heavy engines as the Germans figured out where the attack was coming from.  They all watched Barnes’ position, and when he threw a flash grenade into the gully, Rogers threw a smoke grenade over the river to the other side of the blown bridge.  Just as the smoke began to obscure the road even more than the snow already had, they could hear the rumble of Panzers slowly rounding the bend.  The first cleared the smoke screen, falling immediately into the river.  The Panzer directly behind it did the same, and the sound of shearing steel echoed off the peaks all around them. 

Below, a German officer shouted orders to open fire as the ground troops rounded the bend.  They shot blindly down the direction of the road and through the smoke screen, their rounds only finding their own soldiers as they struggled to climb from their ruined tanks and back onto the road. 

“Wait for it,” Loki said, holding his hand up just high enough for those on his side of the road to see.  As one more tank rounded the bend, he dropped his arm and opened fire on the troops below. 

The tank to his left fired its canon, taking out the one on the road below.  On both sides of the gully, shots were fired in controlled bursts, confusing the soldiers on the road.  Loki fired off a few more rounds and then watched as the men on the ground scrambled for cover on the narrow strip of road, hiding behind the dead soldiers that had already fallen.  Some had begun climbing down into the river, which still ran deep and swift despite the cold.  Loki let the 50 cal sit and began watching those in the river, picking off those with his rifle who didn’t get swept away by the current. 

Another Panzer rounded the corner, its canon aimed up the ridge as it slowly crawled along the road.  Even as it fired, one of the tanks on the ridge fired at it.  Something exploded directly to Loki’s right, sending dirt and snow flying almost twenty feet in the air.  Something felt wrong in his ear, but he ignored it and took control of the 50 cal again, shooting at anything that moved.  Another explosion rocked the ridge, this time almost directly between Loki and Morita. 

“Hold your position!” Loki shouted over the endless gunfire. 

One more shell hit the ridge, exploding the tree directly above Morita.  Loki looked down at the gully and grabbed the 50 cal as he made his way to better cover on the other side of the ridge. 

“Never mind, fall back,” he told Morita as he ran, able to hear the bullets as they shot past him. 

They dropped to the ground on the east slope, out of the path of the shelling.  The ridge offered high ground, but it was exposed and unsheltered, offering little in the way of cover.  All around them, explosions began to ring out as the Germans gathered their defences and began to mount their own attack.  The tanks on the ridge would run out of ammunition soon, if they hadn’t already, leaving Barnes all that was left on the high ground.  Loki turned to look over the ridge, realising that they were about to lose the high ground entirely. 

“Over there,” he said, pointing closer to Barnes’ position, near a small cluster of trees. 

They quickly ran along the opposite face for cover, setting up right on the crest.  There were already soldiers that had managed to cross the river, and were trying to climb the steeper west slope, but they faced the same problem Loki and Morita had, climbing the hard terrain with no cover. 

“Oh, this guy’s mine,” Morita said.  He lifted his rifle and took down the soldier on the far right. 

Loki brushed the snow from the 50 cal and opened a spray at the advance.  Half his shots missed, with the recoil of the massive weapon throwing off his aim each time, but he quickly learned that the most effective way to use it was to aim low and point and spray.  The soldiers below all scrambled for any cover they could find, half of them retreating back down the road. 

“I don’t have much left on this belt,” Loki said, having to stop firing again to let the barrel cool.  “How are you doing?”

Morita looked down at his belt.  “Three clips.  We are so fucked.”

Loki looked down at the mess below.  The river and the trees were keeping most of the soldiers from taking the southward route, but more and more were trying to take the ridge.  Loki opened fire again, running out his belt completely. 

“Use what you have and then fall back to the village,” he said, reaching for his rifle again.  “They can’t get the Panzers up here from their side, but they’re not blocked in either.”

He emptied his clip, firing with far more precision than he was able to get with the larger weapon.  Each shot he fired found a target, dropping one more German soldier in the snow.  While he reloaded, Morita started firing, clearing out a few more soldiers from the slope. 

“What the hel?” Loki asked suddenly. 

He watched as Rogers ran from his position, cutting a line straight for the tanks in the river.  At first, Loki thought he was going to go inside one of them, but instead he used them to get across to the other side, leaping over and climbing across them.  

“Should we help him?” Morita asked.

Loki raised his rifle and opened fire again at the confused soldiers on the slope.  “Cover him.”

While Morita picked off soldiers on the road, Loki kept firing at those on the ridge.  The German ranks were descending into chaos as officers shouted conflicting orders and soldiers had no unified leadership.  Someone below kept sending squad after squad up the ridge, either knowing that ammo was running out, or not hearing other orders to retreat.  Suddenly, one of the tanks up on the ridge dropped into gear and started rolling down the slope, almost casually mowing down troops as it went.  Just before it fell into the river, the top hatch opened and Howlett leapt out, taking out two very confused soldiers with nothing but his fists before running back along the river for cover. 

“Is everybody just fucking insane?” Morita shouted as he emptied out his clip again. 

Loki picked off the last few soldiers still trying to cross the river as he spotted Rogers rushing back toward his original position. 

“It looks like it, yes,” he said.  He emptied his clip as well, and as he reached for the last one on his belt, a loud explosion rang out from below, triggering two more that rocked the entire valley.  The remaining German troops all began to scatter, retreating quickly back down the mountain.  Several shots were fired after them in encouragement, but by the time the Germans got to the road, there was too much debris for anyone to land a clean shot.  Down on the road, Rogers fired the last of their mortars after the Germans, chasing them off entirely.  Despite their lack of ammunition, Loki and Morita held their positions, ready to shout at any charging Germans if they had to.

“Fix bayonets,” Loki ordered, already reaching for his. 

The valley lay silent in the wake of the battle, with the sounds of any distant manoeuvres being muffled by the still-falling snow.  The squad all held their positions, waiting until finally, Rogers stood again and signalled everyone back down to the road. 

“Olson, hold still,” Morita said, pushing Loki back down as he tried to stand.  “You’re wounded.  Let me see it.”

“No I’m not,” Loki said, watching Dugan climb out of his tank and land uneasily in the deep snow.  He spotted the other two and walked over to them, instead of making his way back down the east slope to the road.

“Yeah, tell that to your face,” said Morita, still not letting Loki leave. 

“What?” Loki ran his hand down the side of his face, surprised when he pulled it away again to find blood smeared over his fingers.  “Oh.”

“Yep, there it is,” said Morita, sitting down in front of Loki.  He pulled Loki’s spectacles off and nudged his head to the side.

“Don’t poke me,” Loki warned, otherwise letting Morita do what he felt he had to do. 

“You got a light?” Morita asked. 

Dugan stepped closer as he pulled his flashlight from his belt and handed it over.  He watched quietly as Morita nudged Loki around this way and that, occasionally shining the light right in his eyes. 

“You might have a burst ear drum in there.  I can’t tell through the mess,” Morita said. 

Loki rolled his eyes.  “Wonderful,” he said flatly.  He was almost certain he had done no such thing, but was sick of arguing with humans who thought they knew better. 

“Okay, now this is gonna smart,” Morita said as he handed the flashlight back. 

“What?” asked Loki. 

Instead of getting an answer, he got a fresh flare of pain as Morita pulled something from his cheek.  He hadn’t even felt it going in, but he definitely felt the twisted sliver of steel as it was wrenched from his flesh.  Morita held it up to show him, like it was some sort of trophy. 

“I saw that shell land, and I swear I thought you were toast,” Dugan said. 

Loki rubbed his hand against cheek again, half expecting to find more shrapnel.  “It was a bit close for comfort,” he admitted. 

He put his spectacles back on and let Dugan help him to his feet as they were met by Barnes. 

“Everyone all right?” he asked, trying to direct his words to all three of them, but looking straight at Loki. 

“Yeah, missed him by a mile,” Morita said. 

Barnes watched Loki suspiciously, but said nothing.  The four of them walked down the east side of the ridge together, circling back around to where Rogers stood on the road with the rest of the squad.  Howlett, soaking wet and starting to shiver, waved his hand toward Dugan. 

“Why didn’t you follow my lead?” he asked. 

Dugan shrugged.  “You had it covered, man.  I didn’t want to get in your way.”

“Well next time, get in my way,” Howlett said. 

No one else seemed to know what to say, all still stunned at everything that had happened.  They looked around at the carnage they’d caused, none ready to deal with what would come next. 

“Well,” said Rogers eventually as he surveyed the scene for himself.  “What’s the situation for everybody?  Where do we stand?”

“Out,” said Loki, followed by Morita, Dugan, and Barnes almost all at once. 

They were met with a weak chorus of similar responses, with none having more than a full clip remaining.  Rogers nodded and sighed.  “Let’s get across the river and take anything we can carry back over,” he said. 

There was a pause while everyone tried to decide if they wanted to complain before they shouldered their rifles and began the slippery climb down the embankment.  Using the crashed tanks, they managed to climb over the narrow river without getting too wet and began making their way through the Germans’ ranks.  They looted trucks and fallen soldiers alike, taking their weapons, ammo, and even the packs off their backs.  They carried everything they could back across the river, by then too tired to even complain about the five mile march back to Vallorcine. 

As they walked back into town, they were met by several Swiss officers, standing confused by their Jeep.  They had two trucks along with them, none of it even remotely kitted for combat. 

“Man, fuck you guys,” Jones said as he walked past, making sure to knock into one with his shoulder. 

“Thanks for the assist,” Dugan said, knocking into one of the others.

As they filed past, Rogers stepped up to their Major and waited a few long moments before saying anything. 

“My men need supplies; food, ammo, cold weather gear.  Anything you got that you don’t need.  And from the sound of things, you don’t need much.  And these people,” he pointed out toward the deceptively empty village, “need somewhere safe to go.  And you’re gonna give it to them.”

The Major shrugged almost helplessly and shook his head.  “What happened?” he asked.  “What was down there?”

Rogers stared at him, waiting a few moments before answering the question.  “You know what was down there.  Exactly what Sergeant Olson told you was down there.  You’re welcome, by the way.”

He turned away from the Swiss Major to join the rest of the squad as they helped the village’s residents out of their cellars and back up into the open air.  Without even waiting for confirmation that his demands would be met, Rogers walked over to one of the trucks that had brought a small platoon of Swiss soldiers to Vallorcine and pointed his thumb over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said, making the order clear even to those who didn’t speak English.  “Now.”

The soldiers hesitated briefly before they began to file out of the back of the truck.  As soon as it was empty, Rogers turned to Jones.  “You and Olson tell them to take only what they can carry.  And make it quick.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jones.

While he and Loki began rounding up the locals, Dugan watched the Swiss soldiers exchange confused words between one another.  He tapped Morita on the shoulder to get his attention, and walked straight to the nearest group.

“Ammo.  All of it.  Now,” he demanded.

The soldier looked at him blankly and shook his head.  Sighing tiredly, Dugan hefted his rifle in the soldier’s face.  “Give me your fucking ammo, numb nuts,” he said, slow and loudly.  Not waiting for a response, he reached for it himself, taking several clips off the man’s belt.  “Ammo,” he repeated, waving it in the soldier’s face.  “Give.  It.  To.  Me.”  He tapped himself on the chest with the clip.

“Yeah, gimme your ammo,” Morita said to one of the other soldiers. 

By now, the message had got through.  Both soldiers quickly unburdened themselves of all of their ammunition and handed it over.  Morita paused to look at the clips in his hand, frowning at what he saw. 

“Hey.  That look different to you?” he asked, holding it up for Dugan to see.

“Yeah, I think you’re right, Jim,” Dugan said.  He reached out for the soldier’s rifle and took it right out of his hands.  “Thanks, pal.”

While they left the Swiss soldiers stunned, several others began treating the rest of them similarly, cleaning them out of their ammunition and weapons without a second thought. 

“I want this.  This is mine now,” Howlett said, taking the helmet right off of a confused soldier’s head.  He donned it himself and turned to clean out the next one down the line.

By the time they were finished robbing the Swiss army of anything useful, Jones and Loki had finished loading the civilians into the trucks.  Loki took the new rifle offered to him with confusion, not sure how he was meant to carry it, the German one he’d already stolen, and his Garand as they made their way down the mountain.

“At least our crisis of munitions is over,” he said dryly.  He looked back over to the German Opels parked in the field and looked to Rogers.  “Sir, what’s the plan for getting the hel out of here?” he asked.

Rogers looked around at his squad before casting a glance back down the road.  “Somebody find me a map,” he decided.

The mountain roads would have been safer during the day, but driving a stolen German Opel down a dark mountain road in the snow felt safer than spending another night in Vallorcine.  As soon as they found an alternate route off the mountain, they wasted no time in loading the Opel with everything they could.  Despite all expectations, the Swiss even came through with a few cases of rations and proper cold weather gear for everybody before turning to retreat back to their own borders.

Even with the canopy pulled shut, the back of the truck was still no warmer than an ice box.  With Jones driving and Pinkerton navigating for him, the rest huddled quietly in the back, too tired to even speak, but too wary to get any rest. 

“I gotta stop,” Jones announced suddenly, pulling the truck to a slow halt.

“Everything all right?” Rogers asked, sitting up to look through the rear window. 

“Yeah, but not for long.  I’m dead on my feet,” he said.

Rogers looked around the back of the truck and nodded.  “Yeah, that’s probably best,” he agreed.

Jones and Pinkerton both climbed out of the cab, but didn’t reappear at the back of the truck.  After a few confused moments, Rogers pulled back the canopy and saw why.  Jones hadn’t parked them on the side of a road in the woods.  They’d come to another village which still stood without any signs of German shelling.  Slowly, one by one, they filed out of the back of the truck and gathered on the street together.

“Good job,” Rogers said.  “Let’s find us some beds.”

None of them had to be told twice. 

« || »

Midgard Legends #10: Heavy Artillery

Night had fallen, casting Vallorcine into an almost eerie darkness.  The orange lights from the village reflected off the snow in the mountains around the village, giving just enough light to see the shadows of rough terrain all around.  The German trucks and tanks were moved as far to the edge of the village as possible, with plans already being made to drive one of them out when the squad was ready to go. 

The German soldiers, they dragged out to the tree line, without giving them the dignity of even a half-assed burial.  Loki stayed with Coulson and Bruttenholm while the rest of the squad dealt with the clean-up and search—partially to make sure Bruttenholm always had two soldiers with him, and partially to keep Coulson the hell away from anything that might make him snap again.  They needed to get back out of enemy territory as soon as possible, and it was never going to be soon enough. 

The three of them sat in front of a blazing fire while their nervous host family stayed huddled in the kitchen.  No one in the entire village spoke English, and few had been quick to trust any of the soldiers, despite the circumstances of their arrival.  Most of their squad still wore traces of their German uniforms just to keep warm, which was only giving them one more reason to get back to England. 

“What the hell’s taking them so long?” Coulson asked as he leaned closer to the fire, nudging up to the arm of the sofa. 

Loki looked out the window, frowning at the dark sky.  While Bruttenholm and Coulson were on the sofa, Loki had chosen to sit on the floor, giving him plenty of room to stretch out his legs.  “Captain Rogers probably still has everyone looking for that family,” he reasoned.  He looked at the fire as he contemplated the situation, which he still didn’t entirely understand.  He tried to remember what Taranis had once said about crusades and holy wars.  But like everyone else at the time, Taranis had spoken down to him, simplifying everything as if speaking to a toddler. 

“How did they know,” Loki started slowly, piecing his thoughts together as he spoke, “to look for that family here?  There can’t be more than fifty people in this entire village.”  He looked back out the window again, as if seeing the mountains for the first time.  “It seems to me, if you were going to go through the trouble of getting heavy artillery up this mountain, you’d be going to invade Switzerland.  They didn’t need tanks to find a single family, and wouldn’t have brought them up here if that was their only goal.”

Coulson and Bruttenholm both watched him closely, waiting for him to say more. 

“What are you saying?” Coulson asked. 

“Jerry and his friends stopped here for recon, and only learned of the family this morning,” Loki said.  “There may be an entire regiment down the mountain, waiting to hear back from the scouting party.  This wasn’t the invasion.  They were clearing the path.”

“Someone sold them out,” Coulson said. 

“Worse than that, I don’t think even you boys can take out an entire regiment,” Bruttenholm said.  Even in the dim light, he was clearly terrified of Loki’s revelation. 

“We’ll have to see what Captain Rogers thinks about this, if he ever gets back here,” Loki said. 

Suddenly, Coulson started to laugh, quietly at first, and then all-consuming.  He buried his face in his hands and leaned back in his seat, cackling like he had finally lost his mind. 

“Ray, you’re frightening the locals,” Loki said, casting a glance over to where their hosts had moved even farther away. 

“Captain Rogers,” Coulson said.  “Captain Fucking America Rogers himself gave me a direct order to sit my ass down.”

Even Loki and Bruttenholm started laughing after that, the absurdity of their situation hitting all of them.  Loki lay back on the floor, covering his face with both arms so he didn’t have to look at the other two.  He tried to calm down, trying to be at least somewhat levelheaded in the face of everything they’d seen that day.  Finally, he felt like everything was becoming right again, until Coulson had to open his mouth. 

“What the fuck, man?” he asked, making Loki start laughing all over again. 

Even after they all managed to calm down again, Loki stayed on his back, staring straight up at the ceiling.  He didn’t actually feel any better for the outburst, but he didn’t feel any worse either.  He turned his head to watch the fire again, glad to be near it for its comforting familiarity, but already feeling too hot being so close.  But he didn’t want to get up and move.  He wasn’t even terribly comfortable, but he suddenly felt too tired to even sit up. 

“Is this a Christian thing?” he asked suddenly. 

“What?  Sitting around with our thumbs up our asses while everyone else is out getting something done?” Coulson asked. 

“No,” Loki said, feeling too lazy to even throw half a kick at Coulson.  “The family.  Why do the Germans want them?  You said they were looking for Jews.  Is that a Christian thing?”

“No, it’s a fucked up Nazi thing,” Coulson said. 

“It’s a Norse thing,” Bruttenholm said, sounding nervous again. 

“It bloody well is not,” Loki said.  He sat up slowly, silently bidding him to explain further. 

“Hitler and his followers believe themselves to be descended from the gods,” Bruttenholm said. 

Loki snorted.  “Not the gods I know,” he said.  “They don’t give a single damn what anyone on this planet does.”

“No, it ain’t about gods.  It’s just a fucked up Nazi thing.  Don’t bring God into this,” Coulson said, his voice strained as he spoke.  He was looking straight ahead at nothing, every muscle so tight it looked like he was about to buckle in half.  “They were working us to death in there.  They kept promising that they’d let anyone stop working if he was willing to talk.  It was too much, and there’d be guys that took up the offer after we got brought back to those cages.”

He shook his head and stayed silent for a long time after that.  No one else spoke to break the silence, bleak and heavy as it was. 

“And every time they left, those bastards would come back and single out someone else,” Coulson said finally.  “I don’t know what was so special about the guys they took up to medical, but the guys they beat to death in front of all of us—”

He tensed up even harder and finally looked off to the side, staring straight into the fire. 

“I spent every minute in that damn place knowing I was gonna be next.  Knowing that one of the guys I’d already been through hell with was gonna sell me out, just for the luxury of a quick bullet to the back of the head,” Coulson said through his teeth. 

 They were all quiet after that.  Loki watched Coulson warily, expecting him to lose his mind again.  He understood now even less than he did before, but knew that it wasn’t the right time to ask.  And Coulson would never be the right person to ask.  Loki would have to get Bruttenholm alone so he could ask what any of it meant.  Or at least find out more about Midgard’s sadistic new gods.

“They’re out there right now trying to find those people,” Bruttenholm said so suddenly, it startled Loki. 

Bruttenholm was leaning close to Coulson, not daring to touch him, but closer than he’d been before.  “You may not have been able to save your friends, but you helped save those people today.  Children who are alive because of you,” he said.  “Hiding and scared, but alive.”

Coulson nodded weakly, still not looking at anyone. 

“Someone here sold them out,” he said finally.  “When I find who, I’m putting a bullet in his head.”

“Okay,” Loki said. 

He should have said no.  He should have forbade it.  But he knew that no matter what he said, Coulson would do it anyway.

“Do you mind if I crash?” Coulson asked, leaning against the arm of the sofa. 

Loki shook his head and started to get to his feet.  “No, I’ve got this.  Get some sleep,” he said. 

Casting a glance over to Bruttenholm, he nodded toward the door.  Leaving the room would not only give Coulson a bit more privacy, but would give them privacy as well.  Loki waited for Bruttenholm to bundle himself into his giant overcoat and walked outside with him, stopping just outside the door.  He could see someone’s flashlight dancing through the trees across the river, making him wonder just how likely they were to find anyone out there. 

“I don’t know what to say to him,” Loki said incredulously.  “I never don’t know what to say.  What do I say to him?”

He looked over to Bruttenholm and shrugged almost desperately.  If Coulson lost it, the rest would be very close to follow.  And then, a tiny voice in the back of his head reminded him, he’d be back to square one, lost in Europe with no beacon to guide him.

Loki ignored that voice for now.  At that moment, he didn’t care about the Tesseract.  That was a puzzle for another day.

“Tell me what they believe.  Tell me what he believes.  I need to know all of it,” Loki said. 

He’d never paid attention to the humans’ new religions or beliefs, beyond as much as it got in his way.  It had never mattered.  Humans killed their gods and burned their witches, and that was as much as Loki had ever needed to know.  But the holy wars he had been told about as a boy had apparently never stopped.  They raged on still, in new forms for the same pointless reasons.

Bruttenholm gave Loki his familiar nervous smile.  “That would require far more time than either of us has,” he said. 

“Then give me the short version.”

He watched out over the river, unable to see the flashlight through the trees.  The search was becoming hopeless, and then he’d have to tell Coulson that they saved that family from Nazi brutality only for them to freeze in the snow. 

He wondered what his father would do.  If Odin were here with an army of his own, what moves would he take?

He would probably raze not only the enemy’s armies, but their entire nation.  And then leave an even bigger, more dangerous weapon behind for the humans to use on themselves. 

Loki shook the thought from his head and sat down in the snow. 

“Tell me the creation story Ray believes,” he said.  “And we can go from there.”

After a silent moment, Bruttenholm sat down next to him.  “There are no dead giants in it, but hopefully it isn’t too boring,” he said. 

Loki rolled his eyes, but listened all the same.

Rogers and the rest of the squad returned to Vallorcine only a few minutes after Bruttenholm went back inside to go to sleep.  Loki still stood outside, looking up at the mountains when he heard the approach.  As they rushed up the street, he could see there were more people in the group than had left, and he quickly moved to open the door to let everyone in.  Jones held a small child in his arms, tight against his chest.  Even in the dark, the child didn’t look well.  Jones and Morita helped get the family inside, crowding up the sitting room even more and waking Coulson with a start. 

“We’re lucky we found them,” Rogers said.  Barnes stood beside him, bundled into his coat and looking miserable, while everyone else slowly dispersed.  “The little one might not make it, though.”

Loki looked over his shoulder at the scene by the fire.  They had the child bundled up in a heavy blanket, right in front of the fire.  There were two more children with them, as well as the parents, and every one of them was crowding around Morita while he worked. 

“Did word get back from Switzerland yet?” Rogers asked. 

Loki shook his head slowly, bringing his attention back to his commanding officer, and away from the scene he knew he shouldn’t interfere with. 

“No, not yet.  But I’d like to volunteer to take a team down the mountain at first light.  I think what we ran into today was a recon party.  We may be about to find ourselves in very real danger here,” Loki said. 

Rogers and Barnes exchanged a set of identical looks of unease.  “Not Coulson,” Rogers said. 

Loki shook his head.  “No, sir,” Loki agreed.  “Howlett, Dugan, and Morita.  They’re the ones I want for this.  That leaves you with Jones to translate and figure out what’s going on here.”

Rogers nodded.  “Anything else?” he asked. 

Loki debated his answer.  “Yes.  These people were sold out by someone here in the village.  Whether they’re a spy or were just trying to get the German tanks off their front yard, I’m not sure.  But until we find out who it was, I don’t think any of us are safe here.”

Rogers nodded.  “Good job, Olson.  Brief your team and get some rest before you head out.”

As Loki walked out to the street to fetch Howlett, Rogers signalled to Pinkerton and Barnes to start patrolling the village. 

For the first time in his life, Loki hated the snow.  While it offered his team some degree of cover, it limited their visibility to what was ahead.  They moved slowly down the mountain, stopping at every bend and hill crest to check the route ahead.  They worked in pairs, each leapfrogging ahead while the other provided cover.  The road they travelled down was narrow and loose, and even worse while covered in snow.  They slipped and stumbled almost constantly, but worse were the tracks they left behind them.  For the first twenty minutes, Loki tried to have them travel off the road, using the trees for cover, but the terrain soon made that impossible.  If they weren’t met with steep drops, they faced impossible climbs.  If they wanted to make any progress, they’d have to travel quickly, and to do that, they had to stay on the road. 

As the terrain evened again, they came to a larger village than Vallorcine, this one already sacked and torn to pieces.  There were few people near the main road, likely having all been driven to neighbouring villages or out into the woods to escape the soldiers that had invaded. 

“We can’t do anything.  Keep going,” Loki commanded when Dugan stopped in the street.  Laying in a snow bank on the other side was a man, face down and half-buried in fresh snow. 

“Yeah,” Dugan said absently.  He quickly refocused and followed Loki to the next cover point. 

Like Vallorcine, this village sprawled out along the road, slowly and almost reluctantly ending where the trees finally started again.  Just past the village, they crossed a low bridge that marked the return of the steep terrain on the sides of the road. 

“How much farther do you want to go?” Howlett asked as they all took cover at the next bend. 

Loki checked his watch and looked at the sky, cursing the clouds for blocking out the sun.  “One more mile,” he decided. 

He sent Howlett and Morita out again and wondered what they’d do if they didn’t find anything.

It was a wonder that was soon banished.  The terrain began to level again as the road straightened out, leaving almost no cover.  As they cleared a small copse, Loki stopped in his tracks and dropped low to the ground, signalling the other three to do the same.  He almost hadn’t seen it through the snow, and wasn’t entirely certain that they hadn’t been seen as well.  More than a dozen trucks and as many tanks were camped in the clearing, either waiting out the weather, or waiting to hear back from their scouts. 

“Fuck,” Morita hissed. 

“You can say that again,” Howlett muttered.

They slowly eased back behind the cover of the trees, digging themselves into the snow to remain hidden. 

“At least they’re only Panzers,” Dugan said. 

Loki couldn’t believe he’d heard the word “only” directly before Panzers. 

“I don’t care if they’re not as big as a cathedral.  We don’t have the manpower,” Loki pointed out.  He looked back over his shoulder toward the direction they’d come and tried to assess their assets.  “We do have a bridge we can blow,” he said. 

“With what explosives?” asked Howlett.  “You gonna knock it down with your bare hands?”

“I might,” Loki said absently, not really listening.  “We have to get back.  Now.”

The other three wasted no time in turning to beat a hasty retreat.  Knowing what already lay between them and Vallorcine, they spent little time on cover and ran as much of the distance back to town as they could, the lack of artillery following them a comforting assurance that they hadn’t been spotted. 

Back in town, Loki sent the other three to raid the German trucks for anything useful while he sought out Rogers.  He and Jones were talking to one of the men from the village, this time with a young boy present. 

“Are you the messenger?” Loki asked the man, hoping they’d got word back from Switzerland. 

“Him,” said the man.  He pointed down at the boy.  If he were Asgardian, he could not have been any older than eight years old. 

For a moment, Loki thought it to be some sort of joke, but he quickly dismissed the idea as far too sneaky and underhanded to be anything other than strategy.  He nodded and looked over at Rogers. 

“There’s an entire battalion down there.  Maybe more,” he said.  “Sir, I suggest we get these people out of here and find a way around.  There’s a bridge we can blow, but it would only slow them down.”

For a second, Loki could see panic in Rogers’ eyes, but he quickly clamped down on it.  He looked around the village and nodded.  “Take him and get back to the border,” he said, pointing at the boy.  “Explain the situation and tell them exactly what you saw.  Request shelter for these people and hurry back.”

Loki nodded.  “Yes, sir,” he said.  He tapped the boy’s shoulder and nodded to him as he ran back toward the border.  After a few steps, he stopped and turned around, rushing back into the house he’d quartered at the night before. 

“Ray, get up.  I need you,” he said, rushing to grab Coulson’s gear. 

“We got trouble?” Coulson asked.  He took his rifle and his helmet and followed Loki back outside. 

“Yeah, an entire battalion’s worth,” said Loki.  He made sure Coulson and the boy were both following and ran back out down the road.  He cast a glance over at where the trucks were parked in the field.  If they had more time, he’d take one and try to learn how to work it. 

Knowing the boy would only slow them down, Loki bent down to get closer to his level. 

“Get on,” he told the boy.  “And hold tight.”

The boy climbed onto Loki’s back and wrapped his arms around the front of his neck.  Holding his rifle with one hand and trying to support the boy with the other, Loki started running down the road again, with Coulson doing his best to keep up.  They spared little time on cover or formation, only occasionally bothering to check their six for anyone trailing them.  As they neared the border, Loki stopped and let the boy back down onto the ground. 

“Bring someone back here.  Someone important.  Tell them it’s urgent,” Loki told him. 

The boy nodded and ran over the border, leaving Loki and Coulson alone.  They both kept watch over their shoulders, wary of any hostility from either the Germans or the Swiss.  Everything was quiet all around, with the only sounds in the air coming from the trees as the falling snow continued to weigh them down.  But there were no sounds of artillery or rumbling Panzer engines coming up the mountain; just the calm serenity of the French Alps.

Soon, they could hear a truck approaching from the east.  Loki and Coulson both lowered their weapons and took a long step back away from the border, just to be safe.  The lieutenant that stepped out of the truck wasn’t one they recognised, but he’d clearly been informed about them.  He was joined by two other soldiers, both with their guns drawn and aimed straight at Coulson and Loki. 

“Back so soon?” he asked in English. 

“Sir, you have a problem,” Loki said. 

“I see that,” the lieutenant said before Loki could continue. 

Loki ignored him.  “We’re not here for help.  We’re here to help the people of Vallorcine.  There are Germans down the hill, getting ready to strike at a moment’s notice.”

“Yes, I know,” said the lieutenant smugly.  “The intelligence travels both ways.”

“Not just the platoon that arrived at the town yesterday,” Loki told him, taking a step closer and ignoring the rifles trained on him.  “An entire battalion.  Probably even more we couldn’t see, no more six miles down the road.  With their tanks aimed straight at your doorstep.”

The lieutenant smiled oddly and nodded.  “I see.  Then in that case, we thank you for your intelligence.”

He turned around and fetched the boy that was still in the truck. 

“That will be all, then,” he said as he sent the boy back over the border.

“You gotta help those people,” Coulson insisted.  “Give ’em refuge so they don’t all get slaughtered when the tanks come rolling in.”

The lieutenant turned back toward the truck.  “No.  We don’t.  This is your war, soldier.  Not ours.”  He got back into the truck along with the other two, as if he hadn’t even considered what was being discussed.  Loki and Coulson watched as the truck turned around and left, disappearing into the Swiss terrain. 

“Son of a bitch!” Coulson shouted, picking up a stone and throwing it after the truck.  “They can’t just…”

He looked up at Loki, and suddenly all the air went out of him.  Without exchanging a word between them, Loki picked the boy up again, and they started the run back to the village.  They returned to barely controlled chaos.  The villagers all scrambled about, already packing to leave, while the rest of the squad gathered as many supplies as they could.  Loki let the boy run off to find his family before he started to seek out Rogers to deliver the news.  He found him inside, hunched over a map with Barnes, Dugan, and Pinkerton. 

“They won’t help, sir,” Loki said as he trotted up to the table.

“I was afraid of that,” Rogers said grimly.  He looked back down at the map and nodded.  “In that case, gentlemen, it’s plan B.”

Loki looked down at the map, which had been hastily annotated with the intel he and his team had gathered.  While he was being denied by a cocky Swiss lieutenant, the rest of the squad had clearly been busy. 

“Pinkerton, how long will it take you to rig up the bridge?” Rogers asked.

“Once I’m down there, sir, ten minutes.  Fifteen tops,” he said. 

Rogers nodded.  “Good.  Go get ready to move out.  Once that bridge goes, they’ll know we’re here.”

“Yes, sir.”  He quickly left the house while the others continued to study the map. 

“Olson,” Rogers said suddenly.  “You and Jones round up everyone and get them underground.  Including the doc.  When you’re done, report back here for further orders.”

“Yes, sir,” Loki said.  He left to find Jones out in the chaos of the village.  Suddenly, Vallorcine seemed much bigger than it had the day before.  Barely sure where to start, he picked a random direction and ran. 

« || »

Midgard Legends #9: Juden

Loki woke up with the sort of headache that only came from sleeping sitting up with his glasses on. He straightened the frames on his nose and tried to sit up a bit more, but was impeded by Coulson laying over him awkwardly. Loki tried to nudge him off, finding his shoulder disgustingly wet and sticky. Groaning at being covered in drool, Loki slapped his palm against the top of Coulson’s head.

“Damnit, Ray,” Loki said, shoving him away with complete disregard.

Coulson woke up just in time for Loki to pull him back and use his shirt to clean up the mess. “Are you three?” Loki demanded.

“Ow! What the hell is that for?” Coulson asked, rubbing his head where Loki had slapped him.

“For being a disgusting creep,” Loki told him.

“What the hell are you children bitching about now?” Dugan grumbled.

Loki stood and looked down at his side and the angry red scar that was forming. It would have healed just fine if not for the stitches. He was almost certain it was the steel needles they used, because every single time someone managed to put stitches into him the wound took longer to heal and never healed right.

“I found out why Morita kept complaining in Alfedena,” he said, poking at his side. “Ray drools all over everything.”

It was a lie, and after sharing foxholes and bunks with Coulson for months, Loki knew it. But at that moment, he could not bring himself to care.

“What’s a guy gotta do around here to get a clean shirt?” Loki asked no one in particular. He didn’t get much of an answer, so he poked at his side a bit more and sat back down.

His tantrum had woken just about everybody else, but none of them wanted to be awake yet. The basement was full of grumbling and complaining as the squad all tried to decide if it worth getting up or not.

“What time is it?” Howlett asked.

There were no windows in the basement, and no light filtered through the floorboards above, making it impossible to tell that way. Loki looked down at his watch and sighed.

“Seven hundred. And a bit,” he said. “But I may have to reset my watch.” He leaned back into his corner, and didn’t even complain when Coulson leaned against him again.

“Wake me if something important happens,” he said.

Loki got several vague grunts in response. He never did manage to get back to sleep, but wasn’t exactly awake either. He was perfectly aware of Coulson snuggled up against him, and the occasional footsteps on the floorboards above, but he could also feel himself drifting. He was back on Asgard, but everything was wrong. Too hot; too bright. Everything was steel and glass, rather than gold, reflecting the suns’ light like a giant mirror.

And then he was trapped, inside a room he didn’t recognise. To his back, tall glass windows, and after that, a miles-long drop. He held a sword he’d seen before—its hilt fashioned as twisting serpents, and the long, steel blade glowing with untold magic.

He snapped back to consciousness as the door atop the stairs opened. Even in the cold basement, Loki felt too hot and sick from what he was now certain to be prophecy. But there was no time to reflect on it now; not when a pair of Swiss officers made their way down the stairs. Loki nudged Coulson awake again, this time more gently than the previous slap to the head, but still somewhat frantic.

“Officer present,” Loki announced as he tried to get to his feet.

Those two words were enough to wake everybody, sending the entire basement into a scramble.

“Major Rassier,” Rogers said once on his feet.

Rassier nodded. “Captain,” he said, almost warmly. His attention then fell to Loki, and he quickly turned to address the man next to him. “Good lord, get this man something to wear,” he said in French.

The other officer—a captain, Loki assumed, though he didn’t know the Swiss insignia as well as he should have—nodded and made his way back upstairs.

“This is quite the operation you have here,” Rassier said, switching back to heavily-accented English as he looked over the squad.

“Yeah, it’s just too bad it didn’t work,” said Rogers.

Rassier shrugged, as if their failure to sneak across Germany should have been a foregone conclusion. “And what now? Are you attempting to rendezvous with the rest of your outfit?” he asked.

Rogers shook his head. “No, sir. We’re not quite ready to give up yet. Sergeant Olson had the idea to try to sneak in through Norway instead.”

Rassier actually laughed and nodded, clearly knowing something the rest of them didn’t. “Perhaps you should have tried that in the first place.”

Loki almost laughed. Dugan did laugh. While Rogers silently admonished him, the Swiss captain came down the stairs again with bits and pieces of a clean uniform, as well as a varied collection of coats. He gave the uniform pieces to Loki, and the coats to everyone else, apologising for having not brought them sooner.

“We can’t offer you much,” said Rassier as the coats were being doled out. “We can feed you, clothe you. And then transport you to the French border. After that, if we find you crossing our borders again, you will all be shot.”

Rogers nodded, obviously weighing the situation. “That’s fair,” he said.

Everyone in the basement was looking at Rassier like they were waiting for the punchline, but none came. Nodding as well, Rassier motioned toward the stairs. “In that case, there’s a woman down the road who is most excellent in the kitchen. She has been told to expect you and your men.”

Rassier led them out of the basement, at a pace leisurely enough for Loki to examine his new fatigues—half German, half Swiss, and none of it fitting quite right. At least the ones he’d had before didn’t fit right in a way he’d grown comfortably used to.

As he climbed up the stairs, Morita followed close behind him in one of the massive Swiss coats, having to hold up the hem like a giant skirt to keep from tripping over it.

“Trade me,” Loki said, looking down at the too-short cuffs on the jacket he’d been given.

Morita looked at the much shorter hem of Loki’s jacket and accepted the offer with a shrug. Once they reached the landing, they quickly swapped with one another. The shorter, lighter jacket didn’t threaten to drown and suffocate Morita, and with the bigger coat, Loki felt like he could actually stretch out his arms without busting a seam.

“Double-breasted’s a good look for you,” Morita said, watching him almost warily.

Loki looked down at the silver buttons down the front. “I think it’s an officer’s coat,” he said distantly.

He fiddled with the lapels a bit, finding he could make the collar stand up if he fastened the front buttons in a certain way. He knew he was bound to overheat more quickly with the heavy woollen coat closed and buttoned up, but the feeling of a high collar covering his neck wasn’t one he’d realised he’d missed until just then. It was the first time since he enlisted that he actually felt vaguely comfortable.

Once outside, the general mood picked up almost at once. The town had been occupied by the army, but it was more resembling the Scottish village where Loki first met Bruttenholm. There were soldiers everywhere, but few signs of actual war. There were no shelled out buildings or frantic aid stations. The unit was in garrison just in case they were needed. And so far for these men, it had been a light tour of duty, as these things went.

Somewhere in the distance, a platoon was drilling, the sounds of early-morning exercise carrying over the snow. Hearing it, Loki couldn’t help but laugh.

“Do you remember when the worst thing you ever had to do was a full-pack night march?” he asked.

Coulson laughed. “Yeah, and remember how Horton got so pissed off at Randal for drinking out of his canteen that he made us do it all over again?”

Several of the others laughed knowingly, doubtless having been put through the same ordeal at least once.

“Was that before or after you clocked him, Olson?” asked Dugan, looking back over his shoulder.

“After,” answered Loki. “When did we start combat training? It was the first day of that.”

“That’s like, week two, you lunatic,” Morita said.

Loki shrugged. “And that’s why I’m a sergeant and you’re not,” he said. Several of the others laughed again. “Apparently they promote you for knocking out your drill sergeant. He never led combat training for our platoon again, though.”

“Seriously?” asked Dugan.

Coulson nodded and laughed. “Yeah. I think he was afraid after that. That was when the Lehigh rumours all got started.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “I didn’t go to Lehigh. If I’d gone there, I’d have had no reason to be at Union.” He looked up the line and smirked to himself. “Captain Rogers was at Lehigh, though. Ask him what it was like.”

Rogers looked back at them, giving Loki in particular a strained look. “It’s just like any other training camp, fellas. Nothing special about it.”

Loki saw the glance Barnes shot at Rogers, but kept it to himself. Barnes knew something the rest of them didn’t. Something Loki was fairly certain he knew as well.

All rumours had a grain of truth in them somewhere, and Loki had heard enough rumours about Lehigh to have a good idea what that grain of truth might have been.

They were led to an old stone house next to a shop that sold small trinkets, likely from pawn. The house was also small, but warm, to the point that it felt almost claustrophobic with so many people inside. The kitchen was laid out for breakfast, with extra chairs around the table and a plate in front of each chair. The small, grey woman whose house was being invaded by foreign soldiers rushed about harriedly as she tried to finish everything at once. Loki took one look at the size of the table and looked around the squad, counting three more people than there were chairs.

“Why don’t we go wait somewhere else?” he said, tapping Coulson and Jones. As they turned to find another room to sit down in, Loki was struck by a thought.

“Wait,” he said, turning back round. “Madam, do you speak English?”

She didn’t even look up, which was enough of an answer for Loki. He shrugged at Jones, and reached out for Morita instead. “You translate. We’re going somewhere else,” he said.

Jones laughed incredulously. “Thanks.”

Loki shrugged as he left the kitchen. “What good’s rank if you can’t pull it once in a while?”

The three of them found the sitting room and took it over like they lived there. Loki took the sofa for himself, while Morita gravitated straight toward the main attraction of the room.

“Oh my god, it’s a radio. An actual fucking radio with music,” he said. He stood in front of it and searched the stations for anything that didn’t sound like propaganda or news. Eventually, he found some French jazz and stayed there.

Loki adjusted his coat and stretched out on the sofa, propping his legs up on the armrest so his feet hung over the side, partially to avoid getting mud and snow on the woman’s upholstery, but mostly because he was too tall for anything else. He leaned back and closed his eyes, tempted to try to get some more sleep.

“Hey, Luke,” Coulson said after a few long moments.

“Hmm?” Loki was quite tired, he realised. Answering with words was far too much effort.

“There’s something I been wondering,” Coulson said. If he had a point, he was taking a long time to get to it.

Loki looked at him suspiciously. “What?” he asked.

Coulson fidgeted awkwardly in his chair, like he suddenly didn’t want to ask his question after all. Loki watched him, eventually giving up on ever hearing it and settling back down.

“When you, uh, fibbed on your enlistment form. Did you change more than just your age?” Coulson asked finally.

Loki sat up to look straight at him. Across the room, Morita turned up the volume on the radio and looked away. “I didn’t hear anything,” he said.

“What are you talking about, Ray?” asked Loki, not even in the mood to be having that conversation.

Coulson shifted again and shook his head. “No, never mind. I’m just opening my mouth before I finished thinking.”

Loki didn’t believe it for a second, but he wasn’t going to press the issue. He lay back down and closed his eyes, but he could still practically feel the nervousness in the room.

“Before anyone asks, half this squad lied about something on their enlistment forms,” he said. “If they didn’t, they were drafted.”

There was a silence just long enough for Loki to think he might be able to get some sleep.

“Oh. Who else?” asked Morita, dashing that hope.

Loki sighed. “Pinkerton’s accent is fake. I think he might actually be Welsh.”

He let them think on what to do with that and went to sleep. He didn’t know how long he had slept, but he was woken by someone nudging his shoulder. Loki looked up, finding Dugan holding a plate heaped with food. Loki quickly sat up and took it, never so pleased to see a fried egg in his life.

“I was gonna let you sleep, but I didn’t think I’d be able to save you a plate,” Dugan said. Loki realised that Coulson and Morita were gone, and that it was just Dugan in the room with him.

“I appreciate it,” Loki said as he tried to actually taste his food before he swallowed it. Real food, for the first time since Christmas. Food that didn’t come out of a cardboard box.

“Oh, this was a mistake,” Loki said suddenly. “I never want another K-ration in my life.”

Dugan sat down in the chair and laughed. “Yeah, tell me about it. I feel bad for that poor old woman though. We damn near cleaned her out.”

“I think I have about eight dollars on me, and none of it’s good here,” Loki said. He picked up one of the sausages and bit into it, barely even chewing it.

“I don’t think she’d take it anyway. Ray tried to help her clean up, and she hit him,” Dugan said.

Loki almost choked. “Why are old women always terrifying?” he asked.

Dugan laughed. “I don’t know, man. But we’re all ready to go, I think. We’re waiting on you, but there’s no rush. Nobody wants to leave yet.”

“Then I shall do my duty to my squad and go back to sleep,” Loki said.

Knowing they had to get moving soon, Loki quickly cleaned his plate and handed it back to Dugan. “I’ll just be a few minutes. Tell Captain Rogers we’re ready to move out.”

Dugan nodded and got up to return the plate to the kitchen. Once he was gone, Loki got up and moved to the far corner of the room, turning his back to the doorway. He pulled back his overcoat and lifted his shirt to get a look at his side. It was definitely going to scar. Just like the holes in his chest that he had healed himself. He’d removed the metal from his body, but the flesh still bore the scars in places. It had to be the metal. He lifted his shirt even higher to see the scars from his hunting trip with Thor, and suddenly wasn’t so sure. Polar bears weren’t made of metal, but those marks wouldn’t fade either. And yet, so many others had. Accidents during training, and other hunting mishaps hadn’t left a single mark on him. And yet, he could still see the scar on his palm.

Sighing to himself and growing sick of wondering over it, Loki dropped his shirt and walked out to join the rest of the squad. They were once again being piled into the back of a deuce and a half, but this time without weapons being pointed at them. Loki climbed in with the rest of them, still bone-weary tired and feeling like he’d never feel energised again. He found a spot all the way at the back and sat down in the corner, fully intending to sleep all the way across Switzerland. Coulson got up from where he was already seated and moved to beside Loki. Before Coulson was even settled, Loki raised up his arm and wrapped it over Coulson’s shoulders.

“Hey, Luke?” Coulson asked.

“What?” Loki asked back.

“You’d tell me if you were from Mars, right?”

Loki had completely forgotten telling Howlett that, and suddenly wished he hadn’t.

“I hate you all,” Loki said tiredly. “Ray, I promise you, I am not from Mars.”

He yawned loudly and leaned back into the corner, hoping to make it obvious that he wanted nothing more than to sleep. The truck soon started moving, with another trailing behind them as they pulled onto the main road.

“So, uh. Cap,” Coulson said after a minute, sounding weirdly nervous all of a sudden.

“What is it, Private?” Rogers responded.

“Is it true you really went after the Lost Ark before this?” Coulson asked.

Loki tried to keep from laughing, but quickly broke down despite his efforts. “I still don’t know what that is,” he complained.

“Wait. Captain—Captain Rogers. Captain Steve Rogers,” Bruttenholm said with an excitement Loki hadn’t seen from the man before. “You’re Captain America. You’re actually him?”

Rogers smiled, seeming almost confused. “They even know me in England, then?” he asked.

“I’d assumed you were like the other one,” Bruttenholm said. “The, uh. The Gibney fellow. All propaganda and big story telling.”

“The Torch of Liberty?” Coulson asked.

No one answered him.

“That’s what they wanted me to be,” Rogers admitted. “Which was great for selling bonds back home, but I decided to take a more hands-on approach instead.”

“Does that mean you weren’t really in Africa?” Loki asked, getting sucked into the conversation despite himself.

“Does that mean the Torch of Liberty didn’t really punch out Yamamoto?” Coulson asked. The tone of utter betrayal and disappointment in his voice set Loki off laughing again.

When the truck finally stopped several hours later, the sky was bright behind a layer of white clouds. The men climbed out of the back and onto the frozen ground and were one by one handed their weapons and gear back. They shouldered their packs and rifles and quickly made sure everything they were given was actually their own. They had stopped on a road high in the mountains, on a narrow bridge. Ahead of them just a few metres, another stone bridge crossed over the road, but it was difficult to tell where, or even if it connected paths with the main road.

“This is as far as we will take you,” Rassier said to Rogers, pointing down the road. “France is that way. Leave now. And I will remind you, if you are found within our borders again, you and your men will be shot on sight.”

Rogers nodded, trying not to cringe. “Understood,” he said. He turned round to face the squad and motioned down the road. “You heard the man. Fall out,” he said.

They turned and began walking down the road and away from Switzerland, knowing that the armed soldiers behind them were looking for any excuse to open fire. No one spoke for a long time, waiting until they had rounded enough corners to make sure they wouldn’t be shot by anyone still at the border.

“Nice people. We should visit again some time,” Dugan said flippantly.

“So, this is France?” Pinkerton asked, looking up at the snow-capped peaks towering over them. “I thought the Frenchists were all farmers and peasant wine makers. I can’t imagine making wine in this mess.”

“We haven’t met any yet,” Barnes pointed out.

He pulled his coat tighter around himself and pulled his rifle off his shoulder, holding it ready. One by one, everyone else did the same.

The road they walked along was rough and uneven, with steep drops off to one side and a high wall of natural stone on the other. They stayed close to the wall, walking in ones and twos. Bruttenholm walked in the middle of the group, completely unarmed and leaning heavily on his cane already.

“You gonna be all right?” Jones asked him, looking down at his cane and watching him limp for several paces.

Bruttenholm smiled uneasily. “Yes, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

“Doc, do you know how to shoot?” Rogers asked over his shoulder.

“I’d rather avoid it, if it’s all the same to you,” Bruttenholm said.

“Yeah, I’m sure we all would. But do you know how?” Rogers asked.

Bruttenholm looked around at the soldiers surrounding him, all with their rifles drawn and ready to be fired at the first sign of trouble.

“I’ve had some training, yes,” Bruttenholm said finally.

Rogers stopped until Bruttenholm caught up with him, and handed over his sidearm, offering the grip. Bruttenholm took it with a nervous but steady hand and nodded. After a moment’s consideration, Rogers took off his thigh holster and showed Bruttenholm how to wear it.

“I have dibs on the first pistol we find,” Loki said loudly enough for everyone to hear. “I lost mine in Austria.”

No one else even carried a sidearm, but Loki already missed his. He didn’t even use it very often, but he liked knowing that he had the option.

Travel was slow as they made their way deeper into France. As the terrain began to level out, snow began falling again, and with it came wind that cut through the trees and bit like a whip. Visibility was cut in half, and it wasn’t until they were almost within its borders that they realised they’d come to a small town in the mountains. There were German trucks and tanks crowding the high street, and even through the muffling silence of the falling snow, they could hear the sounds of struggle. Rogers turned round and pointed at Dugan and Pinkerton.

“You two. Take the doc and find cover,” he said.

Dugan looked more than a little put out to be on babysitting duty, but he tapped Bruttenholm on the shoulder and led him away from the road with Pinkerton. While they disappeared into the trees, Rogers led the rest of the squad off the road in the other direction, flanking around to the south of the small village. Hidden by trees and increasing snowfall, they could see German soldiers breaking into houses and dragging the residents into the street.

“They’re looking for something,” Loki said, trying to figure out one of the words the Alltongue wouldn’t translate. “Juden. I don’t know that word.”

“Jew,” said Coulson grimly, before Jones had a chance to step in.

Everyone looked over at him.

“They’re looking for Jews,” Coulson explained, staring straight out at where a German soldier dragged a crying woman through the snow. He dropped her in the middle of the street and then stormed back into the house.

“Let’s make sure they don’t find what they’re looking for,” Rogers said. He scanned the village and pointed toward the north and south ends. “Teams of two or three. Clear everything. We’re not taking prisoners.”

Loki broke off with Coulson and headed toward the south, while Howlett, Jones, and Morita broke off toward the north. While they flanked back around, Rogers and Barnes slowly made their way into town directly. Loki and Coulson took cover behind a small barn at the edge of town, peering around it to spot their best opening.

“Don’t be the first to open fire unless you have to,” Loki said quietly. “Bayonets. Let one of the other teams draw attention first, and then use the confusion as a cover.”

He hoped the other teams would have a similar plan, as opposed to just bursting in and opening fire. They quickly attached their bayonets and moved around the backside of the barn, coming out to the street as two German soldiers walked into the barn to search it. Loki and Coulson followed them in and gave no warning before driving their blades into the soldiers’ backs, the screams and cries in the village masking the soldier’s screams as they fell to the ground. Loki jammed his bayonet into his soldier’s neck, ending his screams and his life. He quickly dropped to the man’s side and searched him, finding no sidearm, but instead a long knife. Coulson did the same, coming up with a knife of his own. They both shouldered their rifles and went back outside to move up the road, ducking into the next building. The doors were already knocked open, but no one seemed to be inside. As they swept the house just to be sure, shots rang out from the north, first one, then two, and then an entire barrage.

Loki and Coulson rushed back out to the road, grabbing their rifles and dropping their bayonets to the ground.

“I’d give my left nut for my fucking pistol,” Loki growled as he took cover behind one of the trucks and fired at a German soldier, dropping him in his tracks.

A bullet ricocheted off the side of the truck with a metallic twang, making both Coulson and Loki drop for cover. Coulson raised his rifle and fired off several rounds at the soldiers as they scrambled through the street.

“I’d give my left nut to be anywhere but here,” he said back.

They left their cover and ran up the road, hugging as close to the buildings as they could. A woman ran frantically through the streets, and when she saw Loki and Coulson, she started to run back into danger. Loki ran after her and grabbed her, pulling her into one of the houses and directing her toward the back.

“Go. Hide,” he said as he rushed back out to the street.

He rejoined with Coulson and met with two German officers in the street. There was a brief moment when no one seemed to know what to do in all of the confusion. At once, the four of them raised their weapons, but rather than firing his, Loki swung his rifle around and smashed the stock into the German’s face, shattering the front of his skull and killing him instantly. The other managed to squeeze off a shot with his pistol before Coulson attacked with his knife, stabbing and slashing almost without care. Even as the man fell to the ground, Coulson went with him and did not relent.

“You stupid fucking Nazi son of a bitch bastard,” he growled as he tore the man apart.

Loki pulled him away and pried the knife from his fingers before he accidentally stabbed himself.

“Enough,” Loki ordered, having to drag him away after he started kicking. “Ray, he’s dead. That’s enough.”

Once Ray was calm, Loki bent to pick up the officer’s pistol. It wasn’t the same as his 1911, but it would do for now. He holstered it and looked back over at Ray, not expecting him to actually relaunch his assault.

“Ray!” Loki shouted as he pulled him away again. This time, he pulled Coulson away and out of sight. By now, the noise in the village had died down, the sounds gunfire and combat replaced by distraught wailing. Somewhere, a child cried for its mother.

Coulson was covered in blood up to his elbows. He still looked absolutely murderous as he trudged alongside Loki to regroup with the rest of the squad.

“What happened to him?” Rogers asked, rushing over to meet them.

“He’s fine,” Loki said, looking over at Coulson and knowing it to be a lie. “None of it’s his.”

Rogers gave him a wary look and nodded. “Olson, go find the doc and the others. You,” he pointed at Coulson, “need to sit down.”

“I’m fine,” Coulson insisted.

“That’s an order, soldier,” Rogers said. He stared down Coulson until he finally sat down on someone’s front step. “We need to sweep this entire place. Find any remaining enemy combatants, and see if we can find who they were after as well.”

Loki nodded and walked back to where their group had first separated. He found them in a small shed not too far from the barn, not surprised at their eagerness to get out of there.

“We cleared everything, but Rogers wants to do a second sweep,” Loki explained as they walked up the road in a tight group, with Bruttenholm in the middle. “We also need to find the people they were looking for. But I don’t think that was their only reason for being here.”

Dugan looked back over his shoulder as they neared the centre of town. “Think we should send a message back?” he asked.

Loki didn’t answer. He broke off from the group and sat down next to Coulson instead.

“What happened back there?” he asked.

Coulson shrugged weakly.

“We don’t have an aid station to send you to,” Loki told him. “You have to hold yourself together.”

Coulson sighed. “He was an officer. He was the one giving the orders. You know some of these schmucks out here were just drafted and don’t want to be here any more than the rest of us, but that guy. That’s the guy that was telling them all what to do. He deserved it.”

“Probably,” Loki said. “But if you’re going to personally butcher every officer we come across, you’re going to get yourself killed. You’re going to get us killed.”

Coulson sighed again and frowned. “You know what really scares me?” Coulson asked.

“What?” Loki expected to still see fury and hatred on his friend’s face, but instead all he saw was calm.

“I don’t regret it. Not for a second. Sometimes it does bother me, what we’re doing, but not that. I won’t ever regret that.”

Loki nodded and rested his hand on Coulson’s shoulder. He stayed there for a few seconds before getting up and giving Coulson a reassuring tap before he left. He found Rogers and Jones speaking to one of the men from the town, discussing Germany’s ongoing plan to try to make their way into Switzerland.

“Sir, can I have a word?” Loki asked at the first appropriate moment.

Rogers looked over at him and nodded. “Keep talking to him,” Rogers told Jones as he stepped away. He and Loki walked out of earshot from anyone else before they even started talking.

“Sir, we have a problem,” Loki said finally.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Rogers said.

“These men shouldn’t be here,” Loki told him. “They’re all shell-shocked and at their breaking point. If we keep going, they’re going to start turning on one another.”

Rogers nodded. “What happened with Coulson?” he asked.

Loki shook his head and shrugged. “He’s an angry little bastard sometimes, but I’ve never seen him do anything like that. I had to pull him away twice. He just snapped, sir.”

Rogers nodded again. “We can’t get out of here any faster than we already are, but I’m pretty sure these people would let us camp here for a while. Give the men time to recover.”

Loki nodded back. “Should I start telling them, sir?” he asked.

“Yeah, you do that. I’m gonna see if we can find those people,” Rogers said.

Loki turned to leave again, stopping to watch everyone drag the dead bodies out of the street before he began spreading the news. They could camp there for a year and still not be ready to go back out there.

« || »

Midgard Legends #8: Swiss Camp

Of everything they had encountered during their tour, it was the scale of Europe that most of the squad found confusing.  In almost two and a half hours, they’d been in two countries and were rapidly nearing the Swiss border.  And they hadn’t even driven in a straight line.  The roads in Northern Italy were governed by the mountains, and their path had to cut deeply south, and then sharply north again.  It was rough travel, but Barnes hardly let his foot off the accelerator, eager to put as much space between them and Weitlahnwald as possible.

As soon as Loki had caught his breath and stopped his head from spinning, he climbed back through the window into the cabin to attempt to navigate their way to neutral territory.  Something still pulled sharply in his side as he moved, and he could feel his shirt growing stiff and sticky against his skin, but he ignored all of it.  All that mattered was getting as far away from Austria as possible, and doing so as quickly as possible.  He wasn’t even sure how accurate their map was, but it was all they had, so he followed it.

“We should be seeing the border any time now,” he announced, squinting down at the map under the limited light.  “Tags out, and get ready to put your weapons down.”

He didn’t need to tell them to get rid of the more damning parts of their uniforms.  Everyone had already done that on their own.  But they were still driving through Axis territory in a German truck, having taken every step to appear as SS.  Getting to the Swiss border was going to be easy.  Getting into Switzerland and back out again alive would be the trick.

“Already?” Morita asked.  It had taken them most of the day just to drive the length of Italy, and now they’d blazed across it in almost no time at all.  “I don’t think you could get out of California in two hours.  You might get to a beach if you drive real fast.”

Jones snorted.  “You can get a few states over, from Chicago, if no-one else is on the roads.  We used to go up to Wisconsin all the time when I was a kid.”

“Shit, you’d be lucky to get to the next town over.” Dugan fiddled with the bowler hat he’d brought with him, not quite sure if he wanted to wear it or not.

“Where are you from?” Rogers asked him.

“Montana,” he replied, drawing out the first syllable, as if to make the word as big as the state itself.

On the other side of the truck, Pinkerton chuffed quietly.  “People actually live there?” he asked.

“Yeah, about eight of them.” Dugan put his hat back on and pulled out a cigar.  He didn’t light it, but held it between his teeth anyway.  As if taking his cue, Howlett did the same.

“What about you, Pinkie? Where are you from?” Dugan asked sarcastically.

“With that accent, he’s from London,” Bruttenholm said.  Everyone in the back of the truck looked over to him, and he sank into his coat.  “Sorry.”

“No, don’t be,” Pinkerton said.  “It’s nice to not be the only one here.  Since Olson’s an impostor, apparently.”

Loki barely looked back at them.  “No one would take me seriously if I spoke with my own accent,” he said loud enough for those in back to hear.  He wasn’t even sure what his own accent was, since he’d never had cause to learn to speak English, or any other Midgardian language, properly.  He almost didn’t want to know, and though he spoke in jest, he had a feeling he might have been correct anyway.

“That’s something I always wondered, Luke.  You’re so good at those voices and things, why not sound like you’re from New York?” Coulson asked him.

It was a question Loki had considered once, and very briefly.

“Couppla reasons, Ray,” Loki said, affecting a harsh Brooklyn accent.  “If I’m not as good as I think I am, people will notice.  And second, dames love an Englishman.” At the end, he slipped back into the English accent he always used, just to underscore his point.

Barnes glanced over at him and shrugged.  “Sounded pretty good to me,” he said.

Loki shrugged indifferently and turned his attention back to the map.  He could feel the nervous energy coming from everyone in the truck, but tried to ignore it as he mentally calculated the remaining miles to the border.  It was in the single digits, by his count, so he set the map aside and pulled his own tags out from under his shirt.  He quickly mussed his hair and checked himself to make sure that he was as free of SS insignia as possible without completely stripping to his underwear.  Behind him, the others all did similarly in a last-minute dash to appear as un-German as possible.  Morita and Jones both moved to be as visible as possible, sitting on the side of the cab where the canopy had been torn off during the skirmish with the monstrous Hydra tank.

“Lights up ahead,” Barnes announced suddenly.

Loki looked up sharply to see the lights of a checkpoint filtering through the trees.  Barnes slowed the truck, downshifting with a crunching grind and an ominous clang from the gearbox.  Even if they wanted to keep it, the Opel probably wouldn’t make it much farther.  Luckily for the battered truck, it would not lead to stealth while trying to sneak across France, so the squad were well prepared to leave it at the Swiss border to rot.

“All right, stick to the plan,” Rogers announced.  “Jones, Olson.  You’re up.”

“You guys speak Swiss too?” Dugan asked, looking up at Jones.

Morita lightheartedly him Dugan in the shoulder.  “They don’t speak Swiss in Switzerland, dummy.”

“They don’t?” asked Dugan.  He looked around the back of the truck, as if expecting the answer to be written down somewhere.

“French and German, mostly,” Rogers said with a smirk.

While some of the others laughed nervously, Barnes stopped the truck with a shuddering lurch as two armed guards stepped into the road.  They each flanked the truck, shining their torches into the cab at Barnes and Loki.

“What are you doing here?” the one by Barnes’ window asked in German that didn’t sound as fluent as it could have been.  He held his pistol up, ready to fire at them, while the second guard walked to the back of the truck.

“We’re trying to get to France, and from there, England,” Loki told him, speaking slowly.

The guard looked less than impressed.  “Why?” he asked.

The second guard shined his torch at the others in the back, frowning at the lot of them.

“They’re not all German.  Maybe none of them are,” he called to his buddy in French.

“Seven American soldiers, one Canadian, one English, and one civilian,” Jones told him.  The guard turned his attention to Jones, letting his torchlight fall on his exposed dog tags.

“Everyone out.  You too,” he said, pointing toward the cab.

Jones nodded and nudged Howlett.  “He wants us out,” he said.

They slowly shuffled out of the truck, acutely aware of the weapons aimed at them.  Loki and Barnes moved back toward the others, walking evenly and keeping their hands raised slightly.

“You’re Americans?” the second guard asked in English.

Rogers nodded.  “Most of us, yes,” he said.  “We were on a mission that went badly wrong.”

The guard laughed.  “So, what?  You think we will help you?  Let you pass through our country without question?”

“Mostly, we were hoping to get out of Austria for the night,” Rogers said.

If Loki had been close enough to Rogers, he would have kicked him.  The guard shone his torch in Rogers’ face as he glared at him, but Rogers barely blinked.  He stared right back, not even having the sense to look even a little intimidated.

“And what kind of outfit has seven American soldiers, a Canadian, an English soldier, and a civilian?” asked the guard.

“We’re all Allies,” Rogers pointed out.

While the first guard questioned Rogers, the second inspected the rest of the squad.  When he came to Loki, his torchlight fell on the growing patch of blood on his side.  Loki looked down, frowning at the amount of blood he’d already lost.

“I fell off a tank,” he offered in explanation.

Beside him, Howlett looked over to get a look at the damage.  He stared down at the blood at Loki’s side, and then up to the guard in front of them.

“The kid needs medical attention,” he said.  “Which he ain’t getting standing out here in the cold.”

The two guards looked at one another.  The one in front of Rogers nodded, and taking the cue, the other ran back to the guard post to radio ahead to inform HQ about the situation that just casually drove across the border.

“You will all come with us,” said the ranking guard.  He waved his rifle in the direction he wanted them to start walking, waiting until everyone was moving before bringing up the rear.

The squad let themselves be herded to a deuce and a half and climbed inside.  Loki found himself right between Howlett and Morita, and almost immediately, Morita tried to lift Loki’s shirt to examine the wound.  The fabric pulled sharply against his skin in a way Loki did not expect, so he slapped Morita away.

“Don’t touch it.  It hurts,” he said.

“Silence.  All of you,” said the guard as he climbed in after everyone else.  He sat right at the rear of the truck, ready to shoot anyone who might try to escape.

Since a Swiss POW camp—even a hapdash one—was likely to be dry and have somewhere to sleep, no one even considered trying to escape.  As they trundled down the few miles of rough road, everyone remained obediently silent.  It wasn’t long before they rolled into a small village that had been taken over by the Swiss army and turned into a temporary base, and were all led out of the truck in single file.  They were taken into a building that looked like it had once been some sort of shop in a previous life, but which now served as garrison HQ.  After a quick search to take away all of their remaining gear, the guards led them down into the basement.  It was lit by a single exposed light bulb and lacking in any bunks, but was otherwise dry and had plenty of places to curl up and go to sleep.  Several of the men decided to do just that, finding quiet corners to kip up in.  Pinkerton apparently failed to find any suitable places to sleep, and instead chose to use Dugan as a giant pillow.  The rest of them all gathered round a table on the far side of the basement, as casually as if they were about to play a game of cards.

Before Morita could once again attempt to assault Loki, a Swiss medic came down the stairs with an armed guard.  Resigned to being poked at no matter what he did or said, Loki raised this hands to head-level and let himself be led over to sit on the small table against the wall.

“Take off your shirt,” said the medic in French, helpfully tugging on the hem to get his point across.

Loki rolled his eyes.  “I’m fine, really,” he said.  Still, if for no other reason than to humour the man, Loki started to pull his shirt off.  The movement of it pulled against his skin again in a way he was not prepared for, making him hiss and cry out with a startled yelp.

The medic helped Loki out of his shirt, and suddenly he was the centre attraction for the whole basement.  The other men all groaned disgustedly, and it was no wonder why.  A small branch, perhaps an inch across stuck up and out from his side.

“Oh,” said Loki with dawning comprehension.  “Yes, that would do it.”

“Holy shit, Olson.  How are you still standing?” Jones asked from where he sat at a table across the room.

“I’m not.  I’m sitting,” Loki pointed out with a shrug, ignoring the medic’s panic as he shouted up the stairs for supplies.  “I’m fine,” he said, even though nobody was listening.  He reached for the branch, but the medic wrenched his hand away before he could pull it out.

“You’re not fine.  You got a fucking tree sticking out of you,” Coulson helpfully pointed out.  He stood to get a better view, but didn’t step any closer.

Loki reached down again to pull the branch from his side, and was once again stopped by the medic.  Even Dugan and Pinkerton were wide awake now, watching to see if Loki was going to pass out any time soon.

“It’s not a tree.”  Loki took advantage of the medic’s temporary distraction as he rushed over to grab the aid kit that was being brought down the stairs.  He quickly grabbed the branch and pulled it out, drawing another chorus of disgusted and horrified groans from everyone else.  The medic turned round quickly and pulled a bandage from the aid kit, press it it firmly against Loki’s side.

The branch was bigger than Loki thought it would be, but it still wasn’t anything even resembling a complete tree.  It was about six inches long, five of which had been buried in Loki’s side.

“It’s a twig,” he decided.  The medic grabbed Loki’s free hand and pressed it firmly against the bandage.  Getting the hint, Loki held the bandage in place while the medic fiddled with something else.

“Twig my ass.  That thing’s bigger than my dick,” said Coulson.

Beside him, Barnes laughed and nudged his side.  “That’s still not saying much,” he said.

Loki rolled his eyes and threw the branch at Barnes, drawing more disgusted groans from the rest of the squad.  He looked over to the medic, only then seeing him threading up a needle.

“No,” he said in French.  “No stitches.  You have the bandage.  Use that.”  He ignored Jones translating for everyone else, having far more pressing matters at hand.

“The wound needs to be closed,” the medic insisted.

“It’ll do that on its own.  That’s what flesh does,” Loki insisted.

The medic was having none of it.  Loki knew he could have resisted and fought back, but he also knew doing so would only get him a few Swiss rounds to the face.  Resigned to the indignity, he let the medic stitch up his side.  He caught Howlett aiming a questioning glare his way, and at first was certain he’d misread it.  It wasn’t the same angry, terrified look he usually saw when humans started to realise something was amiss, but Howlett still clearly realised it all the same.  Loki looked him straight in the eye, making sure Howlett know that he’d seen, and then rolled his eyes and shook his head, not at all in the mood to have that conversation.  A few others who saw laughed, no doubt pleased to see one of Sergeant Olson’s feats of deaths defying hilarity in person.

With the medic otherwise engaged, Loki carefully stole one of the scissors from the aid kit, hiding them in his hand.  Soon after, the medic finished stitching Loki up, tying off the thread and cutting it.  Loki smiled wanly at him, ready for the obnoxious man to leave and take his guard with him.  He waited until they were all the way up the stairs before sliding off the table and finding an empty corner to take over.  Everyone was still looking at him, but he pretended not to notice.  Straightening his glasses on his nose, he settled into his secluded little corner and stretched his legs out in front of him.  Not for the first time, he almost listened to the little voice of common sense that told him to just leave.  But even as he gathered his energy and started putting thought into the layers of magic needed to make a clean escape, he could hear that same distant song once more.  While it wasn’t enough for Loki to change his plan and let himself be led away by the beacon provided by whatever powerful magic Hydra possessed, it was enough to make him think twice about leaving the realm.

It was enough to make him stay in a dusty Swiss basement while nine humans watched him nervously.

“Seriously, Olson.  You all right?” Jones asked.

Loki looked over at him tiredly.  “I’m fine,” he repeated.

Morita didn’t exactly believe him, and got up to move to Loki’s side, just to be extra annoying.  Without even asking, he crouched down beside Loki and started poking and pressing the area around the wound.  Whatever he was looking for, he apparently didn’t find, if the confused and concerned look he gave Loki was any indication.  This was always the problem with hiding amongst the humans and living as one.  He could pick up all the subtle nuances of their culture and affect any accent and dialect, but as soon as he was injured in front of them, the game was up.  Not having the energy to deal with it, or even care, Loki just watched Morita boredly, wondering how long until he could tell him to piss off.

“Jesus, you’re barely even bruised,” Morita said, at least having the decency to keep his voice low.

Loki shrugged, just waiting for all the dots to connect and give him his cue to disappear in a puff of smoke.  Actually, probably not the smoke.  He didn’t think he had the energy or the enthusiasm for it.

Morita kept pressing his hand against Loki’s side, looking for something that obviously wasn’t there.

“If this starts swelling or feeling tight at all, you tell me.  You could bleed to death, and we’d never even know it,” he said.

“Jim,” Loki said tiredly.

Morita looked up at him.  “Yeah?” he asked nervously.

Loki sighed.  “They’re all true.  Every damn one of them.  Ask Ray.  He’ll tell you more stories than you ever cared to hear.  Now just…  fuck off, would you? I’m tired.”

Coulson and Dugan both laughed and immediately started talking about their siege of Badolato again.  Morita hesitantly got up to join the rest, leaving Loki alone.  He waited until everyone was solidly distracted before sitting up and twisting to look at the horseshoe shaped line of stitches in his side.  Casting a quick glance up at the group and finding them all engaged, Loki carefully started cutting the stitches and very quickly wished he’d stolen a pair of tweezers as well.  He became so involved with trying to pluck the damned itchy little things out of his skin with his fingernails that he didn’t even notice Howlett until he was right there at Loki’s side.

“Aren’t those supposed to stay in a little longer than ten minutes?” Howlett asked.

Loki looked up quickly, finding next to him a man who had already drawn his own conclusions.

“They itch,” Loki said flatly, going back to work.

“In another twenty minutes, you’d have healed right around them, wouldn’t you?”  Howlett said, making it not sound like a question at all.

Loki looked up at him, finding his expression infuriatingly difficult to read.  Carefully neutral, but not quite.  One thing was certain though; he knew.  Maybe he didn’t know everything, but he knew enough.

“Even faster if I concentrate on it,” Loki admitted.  He started picking the stitches out again, letting them pile up on the floor beside him.

“You’re still a young-looking kid.  How long ago did it start happening?” Howlett asked.

Loki wasn’t sure if he was too tired for the conversation, or of Howlett had just plain stopped making sense.

“What?” he asked.

“Your, uh.  The thing that lets you take a grenade to the face,” said Howlett with a shrug.  Loki still had no idea what he was trying to say.  “It stops you from getting older.  Or slows it down.  You still look like a kid, so it must have started recently.”

Loki blinked at him.  He still wasn’t making any sense.

“No,” he said.  “If you’re talking about my ability to get stabbed with half a pine forest and then walk it off, that’s perfectly normal.”  He plucked out a few more of the stitches and frowned at the angry, jagged red line they’d created across his skin.

“There are other people like you,” Howlett said.

Loki laughed.  “There is nothing on this planet like me,” he said.

Howlett gave him a long, critical look, taking the time to dissect Loki’s words.  “What about other planets?  You saying you’re from Mars?” he asked finally.

Loki smiled wryly.  “I don’t think there’s anything like me on Mars either.  But I don’t know.  I’ve never been there.  That’s a good one, though.  Say that a little louder, and maybe they’ll all start spreading it around that I’m a martian.”

He expected Howlett to take it as a cheap joke, but he didn’t.  He nodded and sat back, leaning his weight on one arm.  “There others like you out there, then?  Like us?  Is that where we come from?”

The question blindsided Loki like a slap to the face.  “What do you mean, ‘we’?”  he asked, forgetting all about the stitches in his side.  “I told you, the only thing like me on this planet is me.”

Howlett snorted.  “Don’t be so sure of yourself, kid.  After everything I been through during the last war, I shouldn’t even be breathing to be stuck in this one.”

Loki watched him cautiously, expecting a trap at any moment.  “And I take it you’ve seen others who can survive things they shouldn’t survive.”

“Yeah, and we gotta come from somewhere,” Howlett reasoned.  “I’ve heard people talking about how we’re like that Darwin guy talked about.  Like, we’re the next monkey in the the big line of monkeys.”

“But?”  Loki prompted.  He wasn’t sure who this Darwin person was, or what he had to do with monkeys, but Loki made a mental note to look him up the next time he crossed paths with a library.

“But if we’re the next monkeys, all us new monkeys ought to be the same.  You wouldn’t have people who could change the way they look, or read your mind, or turn into some kind of animal.  That’s too many monkeys.  That’s more like dogs,” Howlett said.

Loki had a sinking feeling he knew where Howlett was going, but he couldn’t stop himself.  Howlett was actually getting interesting, despite the uncomfortable topic.  “Go on,” he said.

“You get two different dogs.  One with spots and short hair and big droopy ears, and another one with long yellow fur and little pointed ears.  You breed them, and you’ll get some spotty yellow pups with droopy ears, and some with long fur and some with short.  It just all gets mixed together.”

Loki grinned despite himself.  “And you’re wondering where the dog with pointed ears came from,” he said.

“Something like that, yeah,” Howlett said.  He looked at Loki critically, waiting for him to answer all his questions.  Instead grinned widely and laughed.

“If you’re looking for your long lost father, don’t look at me.  You’d be blue, for one,” Loki pointed out.

Howlett didn’t find this funny at all.  “I seen blue people too.  Well, one, anyway.”

Suddenly, Loki found the humour of his joke falling rather painfully flat.  His laughter now was nervous and full of denial.  “No,” he said quickly.  “No, don’t even start.”

He was struck by memories from his childhood, sitting in on one of the meetings between Asgard and all the realms beyond Yggdrasil.  He hadn’t understood it then.  It had been framed as a matter of politics and letting the humans destroy themselves as they pleased, but that hadn’t been the case at all.  Too many gods had diddled the natives, and now that their impossible offspring were starting to show up in greater numbers, it was time to cut and run.  A fine and ancient tradition Loki had gladly followed, without even having realised it.  He covered his face with both hands and growled, leaning back against the wall.

“No wonder he was always so annoyed with me,” he said.  He sighed and looked back at Howlett, again trying to determine the best way to make himself disappear.  Instead, he got back to work pulling his stitches out.  “If one more person puts stitches in me, I swear I’m going to flatten their skull,” he muttered.

Howlett laughed.  “So don’t get hurt.”

Loki couldn’t find anything to throw at him, so he quickly shifted and kicked Howlett in the thigh.  “Don’t go pointing it out next time.”

As he picked out the rest of his stitches, the door atop the stairs opened again, and two more armed soldiers walked down to the basement.  One of them stopped at the bottom of the stairs, but the other stepped closer to the group at the table.

“You,” he said in French, pointing his rifle at Rogers.  “Come with us.”

Jones tapped Rogers on the arm and nodded.  “You’re up, Cap,” he said.

Rogers got up and shrugged.  “This should be fun.  I don’t speak French,” he said.  He let himself be led upstairs, leaving the rest of the squad suddenly sombre.

“We’re going to die in a Swiss basement,” Pinkerton announced with a tone so even, he could have been reading sports scores.

“Nah, don’t be stupid,” Dugan said.  “They won’t want to get the floor dirty.  They’ll take us outside to shoot us.”  He pulled Pinkerton back against the wall and leaned against him again, obviously tired but too keyed up to get any sleep.

Loki quickly pulled the rest of his stitches out and kicked at Howlett a few more times.  “I’m tired.  Let me sleep,” he said.

Howlett got up to re-join the rest of the group, even if he didn’t seem to believe Loki.  Loki settled in against the corner, like he had every intention of going to sleep there, and closed his eyes.  But like everyone else in the room, he was far too curious to do any such thing as sleep.  Trusting everyone else to leave him alone, he tried to reach out and find Rogers with the intent of listening in on whatever one-sided conversation was happening, but almost as soon as he started his search, the piercing headache returned.  Before his nose could start bleeding as well, Loki gave up his search and looked back down at his wounded side.  He had lost a lot of blood, even for a Jötun.  He’d also been running on no sleep, and even less to eat since Christmas.  He wondered if he had the energy to escape even if he wanted to.

“As soon as I get home, I am going to hibernate for a month,” he declared.

Several of the others laughed.

“When I get out, I’m taking all the money I’ve saved up from this lousy job and buying my parents’ house back,” Morita said.  “I don’t even care if it’s not for sale.  I’m still buying it back.”  He picked at a large splinter coming off the edge of the table, catching it under his fingernails and letting it snap back.

“They lose it after the crash?” asked Jones.

Morita shook his head and broke the splinter off.  “No, they managed to keep the house after that, because Dad never trusted the banks to begin with.  They lost the house because they’re nisei from Fresno, and some nice, friendly soldiers with nice, scary guns came in and gave us five minutes to pack up and get the hell out.  I’m only here because I was studying to be a doctor, and the army needed medics.  Either way, I was gonna be put on a bus and shipped somewhere I didn’t want to be.”  He shrugged, not having much more to say, and threw the splinter to the ground.

Jones clapped him on the shoulder and gave him a friendly nudge.  “Good luck with that, man.  I hear they pay you extra if you spend time as a POW.”

Morita snorted and shrugged again.  “What about you? What are you gonna do when this is all over?” he asked.

“I’m going back to my cab,” Jones said.  “I was perfectly happy in my cab, but my number got called, and now I’m here with the rest of you ugly bastards.”

The rest all laughed and in chorus, called him ugly in return.

“Why the hell would you want to drive a cab?” Dugan asked, sitting up and nudging Pinkerton off his shoulder.

“Hey, man.  You meet some strange motherfuckers driving a cab,” Jones defended.  He nodded and leaned forward against the table.  “I’m telling you, I’ve never come home after a night driving through Chicago, and complained that I’d been bored.  Half the other drivers in town wouldn’t pick up zoot suiters, and the amount of time I had to clean up their vomit from my cab, I should have banned them too.  But man, they always livened up the night.”

“I ask again.  Why the hell would you want to drive a cab,” Dugan said, laughing.

“Because I’d make more more in tips than I would from the actual job,” said Jones.

No one could argue with that logic.

“I’m gonna open up a motorcycle shop,” Coulson said.

“What, to sell them?” Barnes asked.

Coulson shrugged.  “Buy ‘em.  Sell ‘em.  Fix ‘em up.  Whatever, you know.”  Coulson nodded and pointed around the room.  “And everyone one of you guys are gonna get one.

“Yeah? What do you know about motorcycles?”  Pinkerton asked, sitting up again.  “You look like my twelve-year-old nephew.”

“Well, I been working on them since I was ten,” Coulson said.

“So, two years then,” Dugan said.

Coulson looked for something to throw, but all he could find was the bloodied stick on the floor, and it was the last thing he wanted to pick up.  “Yeah, shut up,” he grumbled.

While the others all laughed, Dugan turned to look at Loki.  “How about you, Olson?  I bet you’re going back to something real crazy.”

Loki found himself actually considering his answer.  “I’m going to get my dog back from my brother and then…  I’m not sure.  Maybe go back to Brooklyn and start acting again.”

Or maybe go back to Jötunheimr and pretend to belong there for a few months.

“You were an actor?” Morita asked.  The door at the top of the stairs opened again, but rather than more soldiers come to drag someone else away, the soldiers were bringing Rogers back down.  He seemed unharmed, so Loki saw no reason not to answer Morita’s question.

“Stage, yes.  I never got into any movies or anything,” he said.

“Yeah, and he blew me off after a show once,” Rogers said with a lopsided grin.  He sat down on the floor next to Barnes, slapping the sergeant’s leg.  “Right after this punk ditched me to go get to know Alice a bit better.”

Loki laughed.  “You’re the one she slept with?”

Barnes shrugged and grinned.

“Alice?” Coulson asked.  “Alice who?”

“Alice from Henry the Fifth,” said Loki.

Howlett snorted.  “Yeah, I bet you do a lot of Shakespeare, don’t ya?”

“A fair amount,” said Loki with a grin.  “My very first role was Ophelia.”

There was a moment of awkward silence as everyone tried to work out if they’d heard him correctly.

“Isn’t Ophelia a dame?” Barnes asked.

Loki tilted his head demurely and batted his eyelashes.  Everyone except Barnes laughed, though they didn’t seem to know if Loki was being serious or not.

“So, what kind of dog you got?” Jones asked, deliberately changing the subject.

“Big old black hunting dog,” Loki said, only just then realising how much he missed the stupid creature.  “I raised him from a pup and trained him to track and hunt.  The only thing he ever really winds up hunting is the dinner off my plate, though.”

He took a deep breath, knowing he was going to regret his next words.

“Before I went to New York to be an actor, I was nobility,” he said.  “As a boy, I must have learned a dozen languages.  Hunting and close combat were required learning, along with politics diplomacy.”

The other men in the room looked at one another, each silently asking how much the rest knew.

“Suddenly, some of your crazy bullshit makes a lot more sense,” Dugan said.  “Why give all that up?”

Loki shrugged and turned his attention to Rogers.  “What about you, Cap? What will you do when this is all over?” he asked.

Rogers shrugged as well.  “I don’t know.  Whatever they tell me to do, I guess.”

“You staying in?” Dugan asked incredulously.

“Yeah,” said Rogers.  “For as long as they’ll let me.”

Nobody seemed to know what to make of it any more than they did Loki’s confession.  They were a squad divided between draftees and enlistment form falsifiers, and surely if Rogers was in the second camp, he knew he was bound to be found out if he made a career out of the army.

“Why?” Jones asked.

Rogers shrugged.  “Because for the first time in my life, I feel like I can really make a difference, you know?”

“Is there a difference to be made?” Howlett asked.  “All this optimism about getting out of here is one thing, but we ain’t gonna be making any difference if they decide to just shoot us in the morning.”

Rogers shook his head.  “I don’t think that’s gonna happen.  Switzerland is neutral only because they haven’t been invaded yet.  If they keep us here as POWs, they’re not gonna be neutral any longer.  Same if they execute us.  Especially since we’ve got a civilian with us.”  He pointed over to Bruttenholm, sitting quietly off to the side.  Bruttenholm smiled nervously and fiddled with the rosary around his wrist.

Loki had to admit, he liked Rogers’ reasoning.

“You think they’re going to, what? Just send us on our way?” he asked.

Rogers nodded, but before he could say anything, the rest of the squad all started grumbling loudly.

“Yeah, well.  They better do something quick, because I am getting real sick of this POW bullshit,” Coulson said.  The others all agreed with him loudly; a reminder of how they’d all come to be together in the first place.

“The major doesn’t want us here any more than we want to be here,” Rogers said over them.  “Right now, they’re giving three different nations a brand new reason to declare war.  They’re gonna want to get rid of us as soon as possible.”

“How do you know?” Pinkerton asked.  As much as everyone wanted to believe him, it was a difficult task.

Rogers shrugged.  “Because he seemed like a pretty reasonable guy to me.”

Silence quickly fell on the room as everyone turned their attention to Rogers.

“You talked to him?” asked Howlett.

“Yeah,” said Rogers.  “And it seemed like he believed me when I told him who we are and what we’re trying to do.  They should be able to verify it all by tomorrow.”

He backed away from Barnes and leaned against the wall.  “So, until then.  Let’s get some rest.  If we’re really lucky, they’ll even feed us in the morning.”

While everyone else tried to decide what to do with Rogers’ new information, Loki shrugged and settled back into his little corner.  “Sounds good to me,” he said, trying to turn away from the light.

A few moments later, everyone else around the table decided to take Rogers’ advice and started finding places to try to get some sleep for the night.  Somehow, Loki wasn’t surprised when someone sat down next to him.  He looked over to find Coulson trying to get comfortable, and raised his arm to rest on Coulson’s shoulders.

“I’m not your pillow,” he said.

Coulson leaned against Loki all the same.  “No, but apparently I have to be your blanket.  You’ll freeze to death without a shirt,” he said.

Loki settled back down and listened to the footsteps on the wooden floorboards above them.  For a few seconds, he envied the beds they were all going to sleep in, but it quickly passed.  Some of them were going to sleep in beds, but the rest of them would get the floor, or some horrible bench.  They could have their horrible bench, so long as it meant Loki didn’t have to sleep on it again.

« || »

Midgard Legends #7: Waffen-SS

Morning found Loki back down in the basement, hunched over a table with a mess strewn around him.  He’d found a hacksaw down in one of the corners, and had used it to cut a large stick into thin disks.  He had ruined his knife beyond repair, shaping the disks to smooth out the harder corners and carving sigils into both faces of each one.  With a small hand drill he’d found near the saw, he bore holes into each one, just big enough to fit the chain from their dog tags.

When Morita made his way down to the basement to gather up the last of anything he might need for their mission, he stopped to watch Loki fill in one of the sigils with a fountain pen, carefully darkening the lines he’d carved into it.

“What are you doing, Olson?” Morita asked.

Loki hardly looked up and tossed him one he’d already finished.  “Put that on your tags.  It will offer protection in battle.”

Morita looked at the carved disk, turning it over in his hands.  It was little more than an inch across, with Ægishjálmur on one side and an intricate shield knot on the other, both designs darkened with black ink.  Humming distantly at it, Morita pulled his tags from under his shirt and unfastened the catch so he could feed the chain into the hole.

“Does it work?” he asked.

Loki shrugged, forgiving him his skepticism.  It was in their nature to be skeptical.  “My people believe it does,” he said.

“Good enough for me.”  Morita dropped his tags back under his shirt and picked up the box he’d come down for.  “They’re handing out costumes upstairs.  Time to go.”

“Once more unto the breach,” Loki sighed to himself.  He finished the final sigil and gathered up the rest, following Morita back up the stairs.

Everything was abuzz with activity as the squad readied itself to leave the relative safety of Italy and return to Austria.  Howlett was standing up on a chair while Dugan crouched at his ankles, hastily fixing the length of his trousers so he didn’t look quite so much like he was wearing a stolen uniform.  For a moment, Morita watched the two of them, leaving to go get changed with a heavy sigh.

“You sleep at all last night, Olson?” Rogers asked, handing him a uniform of his own.

“About an hour,” Loki admitted.  He took the uniform and exchanged it for the sigils.  “Have the men put these on their tags.”

Rogers looked down at the carved disks for a moment before nodding.  “All right.”

Loki nodded in return and went back to his bunk to get changed.  He realised he’d left his glasses on the table the night before, but no one else seemed to have noticed.  Fortunately, they were all far too busy with their own tasks.  Loki quickly changed into his SS uniform, arranging it as he remembered seeing them in photographs, months earlier while still in training.  He made sure every line was perfect, every crease flattened, and took the time to comb his hair, parting it off to one side in what he hoped was a professional-looking manner.  He had no idea what his collar rank meant, with the Sig runes on one side, and three pips in a diagonal row on the other, only able to hope that whoever had scrounged up the uniforms had paid attention to the ranks of their squad.

He slid his glasses on, making sure they were as straight as they could be, before walking out of the room with all the commanding authority he could muster.  The room went very suddenly quiet around him, with all eyes turning to him in stunned surprise.  Grinning wryly, Loki clasped his hands behind his back lazily.

“Guten morgen,” he greeted the room.

“Fucking hell.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were actually in the SS,” Dugan said, slowly standing.  His own uniform had been hastily assembled, with the collar open at his neck and creased all over.  It was the same with everyone else who had already put theirs on.

“I do believe that was the point,” Loki said.  He dropped the character he’d slipped into and relaxed his posture, giving off the impression of being no more than a man in a costume.  He looked around the room and chewed his lip.  “Luckily for the rest of you, you’ve a classically-trained actor to whip you into shape.”

He started making rounds through the room, straightening collars and fixing creases as he came to each man.

“You’re SS,” he told them all.  “Only the best are chosen for these ranks, and you’re all better than everyone in the room.  And you know it.”

He fixed Pinkerton’s shoulder straps, turning them the right way round.

“You are all kings amongst peasants, and you should be telling them without words to drop to their knees and grovel at your feet.”

Around him, everyone straightened their backs just a little more and hardened their expressions.  Loki smiled.

“Better,” he said.

He turned and tried not to frown at Coulson, who still hadn’t changed into his uniform, and sat glowering at it instead.  Loki sat down next to him, leaning in close so they wouldn’t be overheard.

“Are you backing out?” he asked.

Coulson shifted his jaw.  “No,” he said after a moment.

Loki nodded.  “It’s unpleasant.  I know.  We all hate it.”  He watched Coulson mull over his choices, knowing he’d make the right one.  “Did Captain Rogers give you a sigil?” he asked.

Coulson pulled his tags out from under his shirt, showing the disk next to them.

“I was wondering where you went last night,” he said.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Loki told him.  He dragged his hand down his chest, feeling the lines of his own sigil on his tags.  “When this is over, I am going to go home and sleep for a week.”

Coulson actually laughed at that.  “I believe it.  I think I might do the same.”

Loki nodded.  For a moment, he considered trying to feed Coulson another cheap one-liner, but got back to his feet instead.  Leaving Coulson with a brief but steadying hand on his shoulder, Loki made his way over to help Dugan re-fit Morita’s uniform.

“What’s his problem?” Dugan asked, trying to nod subtly at Coulson.

Loki cast a quick glance back before meeting Dugan in the eye.  “He’s Jewish.”

Loki still wasn’t entirely sure what that really meant.  It was just another human religion to him, but one which had come up again and again during the course of this war.  Loki understood enough to know the context of Coulson’s sour mood without having to ask.

Dugan and Morita both understood far better than Loki did, and answered only by nodding.  While Dugan bent to fix the length of Morita’s trousers, Loki helped him use some old sleeve garters to fix the length of his shirt sleeves.  But it wasn’t just the shorter soldiers in their squad having problems.  Both Dugan and Rogers were a bit too big for their uniforms—problems that were not so easily solved with quick hem jobs and accessories that had been decades out of fashion.

“What a group we make, huh?” Dugan said suddenly.  “A Canuck, two limeys—”

“I am from Iceland,” Loki cut in.

Dugan snorted and continued unabated.  “A Jew—”

“Yeah, we get the point,” Morita said, effectively cutting him off.

“And a man who spent too much time in his mother’s sewing room,” Loki chimed in.

“Yeah, who asked you, Olson?” Dugan asked, ignoring Morita’s laughter.

“The same man who called me English,” Loki answered.  He stood back while Morita put on his jacket, the sleeves of which were also entirely too long.  “Who found these uniforms? Half of them don’t even fit.”

Even his own was a bit loose around the waist, but at least the trousers were the right length.  Morita’s uniform was all around too big, but even Loki knew that in reality, his uniform was the least of his problems.

“This is gonna get us all killed,” Morita muttered.

“I’ll put in a good word to the Valkyries for you,” Loki said.  He finished hitching up Morita’s sleeves as best he could, but it was still obvious that the uniform wasn’t meant to be worn by him.

“You really believe that stuff, don’t you?” Dugan asked.  He looked up at Loki, not sure if he should be confused or impressed.

“I do.”  He stepped back to get a better look at Morita’s uniform and shook his head.  “This had better not get us all killed.”

While everyone else milled about, packing their gear and checking their equipment, Loki sought out Bruttenholm.  He was outside, watching as Alfedena slowly came to life.  Many of the soldiers here were transitory, either waiting to be invalided out, or fresh from the replacement depots and waiting for their final orders.  There wasn’t a lot to be done, with the line in shambles and even the Axis powers still scrambling to regroup after Hydra’s attack.

Loki stood next to Bruttenholm for a long moment, drawing the occasional wary look from the few soldiers out on the streets.

“This one’s better,” he said, handing Bruttenholm one of the last of his carved sigils.

Bruttenholm took it and nodded.  Being a civilian consultant attached to the mission, he wasn’t given a uniform of his own, outside of a heavy German overcoat to make him look like he belonged with the rest of them.  One of the stolen Opels was going to be their primary mode of transport, and from where Loki and Bruttenholm stood, they could see Howard Stark and a small team doing their best to fix it up before they moved out.

“I don’t suppose we have many German-speakers among us,” Bruttenholm asked warily.

Loki looked back toward the house.  “Jones, apparently.  And me.  In a way.”

Bruttenholm nodded.  “Two out of ten.  I’ve seen worse numbers.”

It was an effort for Loki not to laugh.  He felt like he was starting to reach a point where everything about the war had worn him so thin that his nerves had completely frayed, and the only thing holding him together was the idea that he might actually survive one more day.  Everything was one day at a time.  Every man in the squad lived each day for the night, and nothing more.  It was all they could do to keep from breaking down completely.

Bruttenholm knew none of this; not like Loki did.  He’d spent the majority of the war in Churchill’s Underground, only recently being embedded with units.  He looked up at Loki with a question he didn’t dare ask on his face.  It wasn’t exactly hard to read though, and when Loki saw it, he shook his head and looked toward the heavens.

“I am not who you think I am,” he said.  Bruttenholm’s confusion only grew.  “I was named after an idiot.  One who apparently did terrible things to fish.  I’d ask about the story behind that, but I’m not sure I want to know.  Not after I heard what he did to the horse.”

He looked away, wondering if the knowledge would be worth it, or if he’d just wind up with a life-long mental scar.

“But you…” Bruttenholm struggled to frame his question.

“I am.  I’m just not that one.”  Loki looked down at the faint scar that ran across his palm, barely visible unless one knew to look for it.  The scar from when Thor had hastily and improperly tried to swear a blood oath between them.  It hadn’t heale properly, for reasons Loki didn’t understand, leaving a permanent reminder of something that hadn’t needed to happen in the first place.  Before he was able to say anything else, Coulson walked out to stand next to them, wearing his SS uniform along with an expression of pure venom.  Loki looked over at him, almost impressed that Coulson had gone along with this plan at all.

“Your hair is a mess,” he said, reaching over to try to tame it with his fingers.

“I’m kinda glad we’re going through Germany now,” Coulson said, almost calmly despite everything.  He stood still, letting Loki mess with his hair as much as he wanted.  “I am going to stab Hitler in the fucking eye.”

Loki tried not to laugh, and failed.  “I shall give you the knife to do it with,” he promised.

Coulson actually smiled.  “See, this guy’s got my back at least.”  He gave Loki a friendly backhand to his chest as he leaned forward to better see Bruttenholm.  “We took a hell of a pounding on Christmas Eve.  A bunch of us wound up in some Nazi work camp, and this son of a bitch jumped into Austria to come get us.  Ain’t even jump qualified, and he didn’t think twice about it.”

Loki cringed and shook his head.  “He wasn’t there in the plane with me.  I thought more than twice when I was looking out that hatch at the sight of Austria exploding underneath me.”

Coulson snorted and shook his head.  “Hey, why aren’t we just jumping in, anyway? Sounds like it would be a hell of a lot easier.”

Further down the road, Howard Stark and his team finished up with the Opel and made their way back to his plane.

“Because nobody’s jump qualified,” Loki said, watching the activity from where he stood.

“Told you we shouldda signed up for airborne.”  Coulson shifted uncomfortably in his uniform, tugging on the hem of his jacket.  Loki reached out to still him, knowing that if he got in the habit of fidgeting with it, he’d never stop.  “I heard those guys are still in training.  Can you believe that? Guys that signed up at the same time we did are still back in the States, not getting shot at.  I don’t get why.  You jumped already.  Why won’t they let us?”

“Because I went AWOL,” Loki told him.  He frowned at what looked like Stark loading up his aeroplane for take-off.  “I wasn’t supposed to be there anyway.”

He forgot all about their conversation and started walking down the road to Stark.  Coulson followed after him, offering a quick parting wave to Bruttenholm.  As they walked down the road, several of the soldiers who were out stopped what they were doing to stare at the two of them in their SS uniforms.  One man even started to raise his gun, stopped only by the solider next to him.

“Mister Stark,” Loki greeted levelly as they approached the aeroplane.

Stark looked up from his checks, eyebrows raised curiously.  “I heard about this plan of yours, but I didn’t think it was serious,” he said.

“Apparently it was,” Coulson said irritably.  He sized up the aeroplane, looking up at its polished fuselage.  “Did you have other plans?”  He was hopeful for anything to get him out of the uniform he was wearing.

Stark smiled apologetically.  “Headed off to London.  They want me analysing that Hydra tech you guys brought back from Austria.  Figure we might be able to fight fire with fire, you know.”

Coulson and Loki both failed to hide their disappointment.

“But hey,” Stark continued.  “We loaded up that truck of yours.  Nothing too fancy, but it should help you get across the border.”

Loki ignored the way Coulson was frowning.  “Thank you.  For all your help.”  He reached into his pocket and pulled out the last remaining sigil.  He handed it to Stark as he clapped the man firmly on the shoulder.  “For all your safe travels, my friend.”

Stark returned the gesture and nodded.  “You too.  Look me up when this is all over.  Both of you.”

Coulson nodded.  “Thanks, man.”  He offered his hand, and Stark took it in a firm shake.  “I owe you a drink, at the very least.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” He nodded before stepping away to finish checking over his aircraft before taking to the skies.

Loki and Coulson left him to it, and completely out of other options, returned to finish packing their gear before moving out.

No-one sang or joked as they wound their way along loose roads and steep trails, cutting as inconspicuous a path as possible through Northern Italy.  The lumbering, two-tonne truck hadn’t been built with mountain roads in mind, and those in the cabin had just as rough a ride as the rest in the back.

Loki held the map, navigating for Barnes as he drove.  Rogers sat on Loki’s right, stiff-backed and looking every bit like the German officer he was pretending to be.  Despite the size of the truck, the cabin was still feeling a bit tight with the three of them sat next to one another and their weapons by their feet.  Being the slimmest, Loki got stuck in the middle, right in the way of the gearstick.  So Barnes could use it, Loki kept his knees apart, trying to also keep his foot out of Barnes’ way.  No matter how he sat, every time Barnes shifted gears, he nearly put the gearstick right into Loki’s groin.

“Watch it, would you?” Loki snapped, jumping so hard he smacked his head on the rear window frame.

He refolded the map so it wasn’t taking up quite as much room while the other two snorted quietly.

“What?” Loki asked.

Rogers actually started laughing.

“Well, if you didn’t insist on putting them right there,” Barnes said.

“Putting what where?” Coulson asked through the cabin’s open rear window.

Loki was in no mood to deal with it.  “Shut up, Ray,” he said, twisting back to try to slap Coulson.  He missed.

“Olson’s just a little testy because I can’t switch gears without getting to second base,” Barnes said, loudly enough for those in the back to hear.  It got several quiet titters from them.

“Hey, while we’re on the subject of Olson’s balls, can we pull over?  I gotta take a leak,” Howlett called out, soon followed by almost everyone else asking to stop as well.

“We’ll stop as soon as we get to some more even terrain.  This thing’ll never start on a hill,” Barnes said, shifting gears again.

Loki was certain that Barnes’ fist in his groin was intentional that time.  He shifted so he could guard himself with his hand.

“Buck, do it again and I swear I will cut yours off,” Loki threatened.

A few of the guys laughed again, but Loki ignored it.  He was just sick of getting smacked every ten seconds.

“Hey, man, I’d listen to him,” Morita chimed in, because apparently everyone had something to say all of a sudden.  “He killed his drill sergeant in basic.”

Loki looked to the heavens, wondering when the rumour had mutated to that capacity.  Not in the mood to get into it, he ignored it as well.  Barnes didn’t seem quite so inclined to do the same.

“Wait, that really happened?” he asked, looking over quickly.

Loki rolled his eyes.  “No,” he said dryly.

“Never happened,” Coulson said loudly.  “Horton was just a little rattled, but that son of a bitch had it coming.”

“Oh.”  Barnes shifted gears and hit Loki yet again, and the only reason Loki didn’t punch him was because it actually seemed an accident this time.

He still wasn’t happy about it, though. 

“Surtur take it all,” he grumbled, throwing the map against the dash panel. 

He was beyond caring at this point, and if Rogers got a knee to the side of the face, so be it.  Loki twisted and turned in his seat so he was on his knees, facing the rear window.

“Coming through,” he announced, before crawling through the tiny space.  Those closest to him moved over to give him room as he crashed gracelessly to the floor.

“How the hell’d you fit through that?” Dugan asked incredulously, eyeing Loki with disbelief.

“I can fit into anything I want to fit into,” Loki said.  He pulled himself up onto one of the benches along the side of the truck and leaned against the back of the cabin.

“Apparently,” Dugan said.

They fell into silence again, but it wasn’t the tense, stifling silence of before.  Quiet conversations rose and fell as they bounced along the mountain road in the most indirect path to Austria they could find.  It would take them ages to get there, but they were far less-likely to be spotted on the back roads.

As they neared the Austrian border, Barnes pulled over one last time to let Rogers and Loki switch places, so they could have at least one of their German-speakers in the front.  They weren’t sure what they were going to come across as night fell, but they were ready for anything.  Bruttenholm was squirrelled away inconspicuously as possible, along with Morita and Jones, where they hoped no-one would see them, with the rest seated with their weapons beneath them, ready to be drawn.

Loki wanted to weave a concealment spell on all three of them, but he didn’t trust the old Álfar magic not to give out on him unexpectedly, and he couldn’t get close enough to work the seiðr on them.  So hiding them in the darkened corners of the truck would have to do.

According to their map, which Loki read by weak torchlight, they were already beyond the Austrian border by the time the sun had set completely, and still they had come across little more than mountains and trees.

“I don’t like this,” Barnes said, just loud enough for Loki to hear him over the rumble of the engine.  “Something seem off to you?”

Loki cast him a wary glance.  “Just keep driving.  There’s a town up ahead.  That’s what I’m worried about.”

It wasn’t just the town up ahead that worried Loki.  It was the town after that, and the town after that, with no way around any of them.  Their out-of-the-way route was, for the time, an Alpine thoroughfare, connecting an entire line of villages to one another.

They could just see a sign on the side of the road announcing their imminent arrival to Weitlahnwald.  Loki inhaled deeply and put the map down on the seat beside him, keeping his hand close to his sidearm.

“Look alive, gentlemen,” Barnes called back to the rest.

The next bend they rounded found them at a checkpoint they’d all been expecting since the moment they rolled out of Alfedena.  A soldier waved his torch back and forth and held his hand up, signalling them to stop.  As they did, he walked up to the passenger window and shone his torch in at Bucky and Loki’s faces.  In the light, they could see his uniform, marking him as a Hydra soldier, rather than one of Hitler’s.  They hadn’t expected Hydra’s control to reach so far so soon, but even if they had, none of their soldiers had been captured for their uniforms to have been re-appropriated.

He looked back and forth between Loki and Bucky, letting his light fall to the insignia on Loki’s collar.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, glaring in at them.  His accent was different from the Germans Loki had heard before, up in Schmidt’s fortress, so Loki imitated it right back at him.

“We are going to Berlin,” Loki told him, taking care to make sure none of the men in the truck heard English when he spoke.  “As part the effort to infiltrate the Führer’s top ranks.  Surely you were told of this?”

The soldier looked confused for a moment and once again shifted his gaze back and forth between the two of them.

“Berlin?” he asked, directing his question and his light at Barnes.

In that moment, Loki could see the plan fall apart completely.  Barnes nodded curtly, not missing a beat, and responded, “Ja.” With that single syllable in an accent that even Loki could hear as wrong, the soldier’s confusion gave way to suspicion.

“Get out,” he told Loki, opening the door.

Loki shot Barnes a glare that he couldn’t hope to see in the dark and climbed out of the truck.  He held himself stiffly, making sure the soldier knew he thought himself above this treatment.  The soldier didn’t care.  He moved quickly to the back of the truck and pulled open the rear flap and shone his light in at the rest of the men in SS uniforms.  For a very brief moment, Loki almost thought him convinced, until his light found Jones in the back corner.  The solder turned back to Loki, and he knew it was all over.

“What is this?” the soldier demanded.

Loki laughed sheepishly, actually finding the way the young soldier didn’t quite seem to know what to do just a little bit funny.  The soldier looked back into the truck again and blew the whistle around his neck, sounding the alarm.  Before the soldier ran out of breath, Loki drew his sidearm and fired two rounds into his chest and jumped up onto the rear bumper.

“Go, go, go!” he called out.

He pulled himself back into the truck as Barnes floored it, only to get thrown to the ground a few moments later as the truck suddenly stopped again.

“Why are we stopping?” Pinkerton shouted.

“Big problem!” Barnes shouted back.

Everyone leaned in toward the centre to look through the windows, seeing the big problem Barnes mentioned.  A tank larger than anything any of them had ever seen slowly swung its canon around over the tops of the houses, zeroing in on the Opel.

“What the fuck is that?” several of them cried out at once.

“It doesn’t matter!  Get out of here!” Coulson shouted back.

Barnes threw the truck into reverse and turned sharply, trying to manoeuvre a three-point turn on the narrow dirt road without getting anyone killed.  The ground itself shook as the giant tank began lumbering forward, easily crushing the houses as it tried to get a clear light of sight to the truck.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Barnes shouted as he threw the truck into gear and turned as tightly as he could.

He drove flat-out back the way he came, while those in the back scrambled to find anything that might work against the massive machine that had started to follow after them.  Dugan threw back the rear flaps, pulling the canvas cover almost completely off on the right side of the truck to clear their line of sight.  Loki and Howlett both started firing their sidearms at it, but it did little good, and only emptied their magazines for nothing.

“Where’s that stuff of Stark’s?” Rogers called out.  He pulled a long box from beneath the bench and opened it, finding something that looked almost like a rifle, but at the same time, nothing like one.  He stood up, pushing the canvas cover out of his way, and braced himself against one of the supporting bars before firing the weapon.  A flash of blue light exploded from the front of his weapon and shot through the air at the tank.  While his aim was true, the shot did nothing to the integrity of the tank.  He fired once more, hitting roughly the same spot, but it still barely left a scratch.

“Germany was a stupid idea!  Whose fucking idea was this?” Dugan shouted as he emptied his rifle back at the tank.

“Argue later!  Fight now!”  Pinkerton pulled another of the Hydra weapons out from under the benches and started firing back at the tank as well.

While the Opel had the advantage of speed and manoeuvrability, the tank didn’t seem to be taking any damage at all.  Loki darted back to where Bruttenholm was huddled behind Jones, clutching his cane and looking around with wide owl eyes as the chaos erupted.  Loki shot a glance up at everyone else, all focused on the fight behind them, before turning his attention back to Bruttenholm.

“Stay here,” he said.  Before Bruttenholm could object, Loki grabbed him by the back of the neck and pulled him into a kiss.  If he could ensure one person would survive this mess, it would be the person who had already helped him the most, and who had the most to lose.  Luckily, Bruttenholm was too stunned to fight back, letting Loki work the magic he had only barely been able to achieve with everyone else.  With the spell finished, Loki scrambled back to grab another of the Hydra weapons Stark had supplied them with.

This one was different.  It seemed more like a mortar launcher, but hand-held.  Not having the time to contemplate that, Loki stood up against a support bar and fired the device back at the tank.  It kicked against him, shoving itself into his shoulder, and shoving him into the bar at his back.  The blue energy it shot collided with the tank, but it was difficult to tell if it managed to deal any damage at all.  Before he could try again, an explosion so loud it blew back the trees around them rang out.  Loki had just enough time to register what had happened before the forest to the right of the Opel exploded in a burst of blue energy.  It rocked the truck violently, nearly pushing it off the road.

Everyone in the back of the truck ducked down as far as they could, hoping not to get thrown out.  That thing was not going to stop until everyone was dead, and nothing they had with them were any good against it.  Loki looked around at those with him, finding himself stuck with a decision he knew he’d have to make sooner or later.  He knew he had the best chance of stopping the tank that pursued them, but it would expose him for what he was.

It wouldn’t exactly be the first time.

“Don’t stop!” he shouted over his shoulder to Barnes as he took off his coat.

He leapt up to his feet and ran the few short steps to the back of the truck, jumping out and rolling along the ground to ease his landing.  It felt like all the air had been forced from his lungs, but he couldn’t stop.  If he stopped, everyone would be dead.

Making sure the Hydra canon was still in one piece, Loki slung it over his shoulder and ran back toward the tank.  As he came to it, he tried to find any way he could up to its top, but it was taller than his apartment building back in Brooklyn.  There had to be some way up.  He ran back behind it, grabbing onto the track and riding it up.  Suddenly, the tank seemed to be moving much, much faster.  Once on top of the track, he spotted a ladder up the side.  He grabbed hold of it as he came to it and climbed up it, struggling to keep his balance while he climbed.  At the top, he found the hatch that led into machine.  He dared a quick glance up to make sure Barnes hadn’t done anything stupid like stopped for him, and seeing that the truck was still moving, Loki pulled open the hatch and fired his canon down into it.  If it hadn’t killed anyone inside, it would have certainly disorientated them.  Loki took the opportunity to reload his sidearm and dropped down through the hatch, finding himself in a surprisingly small cockpit with four very dead Hydra soldiers.  He had never learned to drive a tank, but he started pulling levers at random anyway.  He wasn’t sure what any of them did, but he was certain at least some of them must have been important.

Finally, he found one that was.  He pulled the lever, and almost at once, the tank jerked hard to the left.  Not waiting around to see what was going to happen next, Loki climbed back out of the cockpit and slid down the ladder.  He stopped just before he came to the track, seeing the trouble he’d made for himself.  The tank was already starting to fall down the steep slope at the side of the road.  He couldn’t ride the track back down without killing himself, so he ran against it instead, slowly moving to its outer edge and jumping off before the machine fell off the edge entirely.  Loki landed hard on the ground and rolled into a tree, losing his pistol and the Hydra canon.  He distantly registered the sounds of the tank crashing down the mountainside as he lay on the cold ground, staring up at the forest canopy above him.  He really hoped this wasn’t going to become a habit of his.

Loki didn’t hear the truck skid to a stop, or anyone shouting his name as they ran back down along the road.  He just wanted to lie there and pretend for a few minutes that he wasn’t constantly setting out to kill himself, or whatever it was he kept doing.  For just a moment, he pretende he was back on Asgard, hiding somewhere private where no one would find him.

“Hey, he’s over here!” Jones called out.  He ran over and dropped heavily to his knees beside Loki, struggling to work out what to do.  Morita arrived soon after, throwing his weapon to the ground and getting down close to check for injuries.

“I told you not to stop,” Loki said flatly.

“Holy shit,” Jones said, laughter on the edge of his voice.  “What the fuck was that, man?”

Loki let Morita move his hands over him, knowing he’d find nothing of consequence.

“I don’t want to go through Germany,” Loki said.

Jones broke out in hysterical laughter, and brought Morita down with him.  Loki didn’t see what was so funny about any of it.

Rogers made it over to them, looking down at Loki with an incredulous expression and his hands planted firmly on his hips.

“Did you go to Lehigh?” he asked, panting a bit.

“No, I told you.  I was at Union.” 

Loki waved Morita off him and forced himself to sit up.  Something pulled hard in his back, and he was pretty sure he was bleeding, but he didn’t care.  He just wanted to get as far away from Austria as possible.

“We can’t go through Germany, Cap,” he said.  He looked up at Rogers and shook his head.

Rogers looked over his shoulder, back toward Weitlahnwald.  “No,” he agreed.  “No, we can’t.”

He offered a hand, and Loki took it, letting Rogers pull him to his feet, and helping to keep his weight off his feet as much as possible.  The four of them walked back down toward the truck as quickly as possible, Loki trying just to stay on his feet.  The rest of their squad were waiting with weapons drawn, in case anyone else decided to come after them, and staring wide-eyed at Loki as he approached.  He ignored the mutterings that circulated through everyone as he climbed into the back of the truck and sat heavily beside Coulson.

“You all right?” Coulson asked.

Loki buried his face in Coulson’s shoulder, digging his glasses into the bridge of his nose.  He didn’t care about that, either.

“So, what’s the plan?” Howlett asked as the truck lurched back into life and sped back toward Italy.

Rogers sighed as he got settled in with everyone else.  “We’re gonna try France,” he said.

« || »

Midgard Legends #6: Fucking Germany

Loki waited until he was certain everyone else in the shared quarters was asleep before he did anything.  With the other three men sleeping quietly, there were no witnesses to Loki’s actions.  He started to rise from the bench that served as his bunk, but quickly thought better of it.  His bunkmates may have been sound sleepers, but anything could happen in the few minutes it would take him to do what needed to be done.  He closed his eyes as he lay back down, listening for anything that might aid his actions.  He reached out to Yggdrasil herself, using any ambient magic he could find in this place to amplify his own.  The realm wasn’t silent—not by any means—but the one voice he sought out was silent, and irritatingly so.  While he had managed this magic without a beacon of prayer before, it was always with someone with whom he shared a personal bond; someone on whom he’d worked his own magic before.  While this particular magic he wove in a cold bedroom in Italy wasn’t seiðr, it did enhance the seiðr, and the seiðr enhanced it in turn.  Had there been magic in this place, Loki would have been able to use that as well, drawing it into himself and then sending it out again.  But he found so little here; the only energy he could feel in the air being human magic of electrons and radio waves.  And unlike other magicks of the realms, it did not lend itself to Loki’s will at all.

He inhaled deeply and reached across the realm, slowly expanding his view mile by mile.  He started with the ancient Celtic village, but found nothing relevant there.  The company had moved on, leaving a void in its wake.  He searched everywhere he knew there to be American soldiers, but still found nothing.  His quarry had simply vanished, sending the thought across Loki’s mind that he had been killed by this unending war.  Hydra had been quiet since the Christmas Eve attacks, but Hydra were not the only enemy.

Except, Loki wasn’t searching for a soldier, he realised; he was searching for a civilian.  And unless absolutely necessary, civilians weren’t brought to the front lines.  Loki quickly changed his focus, finally catching a glimpse of the man he sought, right in the centre of London.  Loki went there, leaving his body in Italy but shifting his consciousness and image across countless miles.  He found himself in an underground room with walls of brick and stone, lit only by yellow, electric light that spilled in from under the door.  The room itself was sparsely decorated, like every other temporary bunk Loki had seen during his tour.  Loki quickly realised that he was somewhere in London’s underground, hiding from German bombs.  Of course.

Loki found Trevor Bruttenholm asleep on the only cot in the room, though there was someone else under the blankets along with him.  Whoever it was they were of no consequence, and Loki quickly altered his magic to ensure they would not become aware of his presence, however incorporeal, in the room.

“You would do well to wake up,” he said after he was certain he had the magic right.

Bruttenholm stirred slowly, turning his attention to the one who slept by his side.  “What?” he asked.  He found the one at his side still asleep, and only then thought to look around the room.

“Right here,” Loki said.  He stepped away from the wall and into the centre of the room, still half-obscured by darkness.

Bruttenhom jumped sharply at the sound of his voice, and in one swift motion he grabbed his glasses and turned on the small lamp on the box that served as his bedside table.

“Who’s—oh.”  He froze at the sight of Loki, standing at parade rest with his hands clasped lazily behind his back.  “It’s you.” Bruttenholm’s voice was tense, like he couldn’t quite decide if he ought to call out in alarm or not.

“It’s me,” Loki confirmed with a smug grin.

“What, er, brings you here?” Bruttenholm asked.  He started to rise from the cot, but stopped before he could get his feet to the ground.  A glance over his shoulder telegraphed a desire to place himself between Loki and whoever it was by his side.

“I’m not,” Loki told him.  He leaned over, trying to catch a glimpse of the other person, but they were too small and too buried in blankets to be seen.  “Here, I mean.  Strictly speaking, I’m in Italy right now.”

“Italy,” repeated Bruttenholm.  “Yes, of course.  I should have known.”  There was no sarcasm to his voice; nothing that hinted at anything other than his own short-sightedness.

“You’ve received your orders then?” asked Loki.

Bruttenholm nodded, more confident knowing Loki wasn’t actually there in the room with him.  “Yes,” he said slowly.  “And I suppose you had something to do with that, did you?”

Loki swung his hands out to his sides and walked to the near side of the room, inspecting the walls for anything interesting.  “You recently supposed that it would be foolish to ask for my help in these dark times.  I offer that help, freely and without subterfuge.  But in order to give you that help, I must ask for yours in return.”

Bruttenholm looked up at him, uncertain and more than a little frightened.  Loki knew the reputation he was up against, and was careful to pick his words to avoid sounding as though he spoke in clever riddle.

“And I suppose whatever you have in mind is going to be rather more complicated than salmon roe,” Bruttenholm said.

“What?” Loki asked sharply.  He turned his full attention to Bruttenholm then, almost certain he had misheard.  “What has that to do with anything?”

He studied Bruttenholm for any clues, finding only a man who looked at once disappointed and frightened.  Loki understood that look at once.

“If he wasn’t already dead, I’d kill him myself,” Loki muttered, turning away from his host.  “No, that was someone else.  Forget him.  He’s an idiot.  My plan is far more simple, and does not involve fish.”

He shook his head, not even sure he wanted to know what horrible things his namesake had done to spur that rumour, whatever the rumour may have been.

“Will I regret it if I ask what this plan of yours is?” asked Bruttenholm.  He shifted on the bed as Loki moved through the room, keeping himself always more or less between his guest and the other body on the bed.

Loki turned to look at him, an almost devilish smirk gracing his features.  “I simply told my unit commander that your father and mine are old friends who go back a terribly long time.  You know me as Luke Olson, but I moved to America as a boy, and you have not heard from me since.”

Bruttenholm reached up to adjust his glasses, never quite taking his attention off Loki.  “You think he’s likely to believe this?”

Loki grinned.  “I don’t think he’s even likely to ask.  I believe he suspects that I’m lying about something, but does not wish to dig deeper, lest he uncover something he does not wish to know.”  The potential for witch hunts, literal or metaphorical, were high and with nearly every man in the unit having something to hide, none was eager to dig out the secrets held by the rest.  Loki knew this, and would exploit it for every ounce it was worth.

As Loki grinned smugly to himself, the person behind Bruttenholm shifted and grumbled quietly.  But it was Bruttenholm’s own reaction, looking back almost in alarm before casting a wary glance to Loki, that caught his attention.

“Who’s that?” Loki asked, stepping only the smallest amount closer.

Bruttenholm almost twitched with a nervous energy, trying to divide his attention between the two of them without taking his eyes off of either.  “Oh, that.  That is, uh.  That’s my son.”

“Son?” Loki started to step closer in earnest, but Bruttenholm stiffened sharply and held up one hand, almost pleadingly.  Loki stopped at once.

“Please.  He doesn’t sleep very soundly.  I don’t want him to wake,” Bruttenholm said.

There was more to his voice than to his actual words.  He didn’t want Loki to step closer, but not just because of the chance the boy might wake.  Loki’s presence there wouldn’t even wake him, but Loki inclined his head and took a large step backwards.  He needed Bruttenholm’s knowledge and help, and the way to get that was not through terror and intimidation.

“I was unaware you’re a father,” he said.

Bruttenholm nodded, hesitant at first, and then again with more confidence.  “Yes.  I’ve not yet told him I’m leaving.  He’ll be staying here, of course.  I’m arranging for a colleague to take care of him in my absence.”

“Of course,” Loki agreed.

Most of the men Loki fought alongside were still boys in many ways.  Most just out of school, and some having left university to enlist.  One or two even left school early.  But none of them were fathers; none wed, or even considering it yet, outside of the abstract thoughts of a possible future.  He hadn’t realised until that moment, but Loki was glad for it.  At least there were few orphans to be left behind.

“I shall leave you to your bed, then,” he said graciously.  “After all, you have a big day tomorrow.”

“Yes, I suppose I have,” Bruttenholm said, nodding distantly.

With that, Loki left him and returned his consciousness to his body in a cold Italian bedroom.  Out of reflex, he inhaled deeply, only to choke as something thick and cloying stuck to the back of his throat.  Regaining his senses, Loki could feel something heavy and wet covering his face, the taste of it stinging his tongue.  He quickly sat up and reached to wipe it from his mouth, and as he pulled his hand away, he could see the dark sheen on his fingertips.  Even in the darkness of the room, it stood out against his skin like a terrible shadow.  Seeing it on his hand, he suddenly recognised the taste in his mouth: blood.  His own.

“Mother of hel,” he gasped to himself.  “What?”

He brought his hand back up to try to clean himself better, but it was useless in the dark.  He clumsily got to his feet and struggled to the washroom just on the other side of the hall.  Without thinking, he pulled the chain overhead and turned on the light so he could see himself in the mirror.  A steady trickle of blood fell from his nose, further exacerbated by his sudden leap to his feet.  He looked around the room in a panic, knowing no one had struck him while he pretended to sleep.  While his consciousness had left his body, he was still moderately aware of his surroundings, and would have felt any attack on his person.  To suddenly start bleeding whilst casting magic was unprecedented, but he had never stretched himself so far with that particular combination of spellcraft before.  It was a trick he had learned, combining Vanir sight magic and Dökkálfar illusions to cast a perfect image of himself elsewhere.  And apparently doing so without an anchor was a step too far. 

Loki struggled to clean himself in the mirror, the spotty plumbing in the ancient house doing little more than sputtering rusty spray out when he turned on the taps.

“Hey.  Blackout, remember?”

“Sorry, sir,” Loki said quickly.  He yanked on the light’s chain and plunged the room back into darkness, but not before Captain Rogers saw his face.

“Hey, what happened to you?” he asked, stepping closer.

Loki found an old towel hanging on the far wall and snatched it up.  Without water, any effort to clean his face went poorly, and he only succeeded in making an even bigger mess.  “It happens sometimes,” he lied, muffled behind the cloying in his throat and the sticky towel.  “Stress, or something.  I don’t know.”

Rogers nodded and stepped away quickly, leaving Loki where he was while he rushed back to the bedroom where Morita slept.  Rogers quickly shook him awake, almost pulling him from bed.

“Hey, you’re a medic, right?” he asked.

Morita looked up at the vague shape that was Steve Rogers and frowned in concern.  “Yeah,” he said, already getting out of bed.  “What’s up?”

Rogers gave him a quick tug toward the direction of the door.  “Basement.  Now.”

Morita wasted no time in dashing down to the basement where lights could be turned on without risk of being spotted from overhead.  Following after him, Rogers grabbed Loki from where he was still cleaning himself off in the dark washroom and led him toward the stairs.

“I’m fine, sir.  Really,” he said, almost believing it himself.

Even in the dark, he could see Rogers levelling a questioning look his way.  “Are you sure it’s not something serious?” he asked.

Loki could not say that it wasn’t.  He especially did not say that, at least at first, he thought that whatever it was it was going to kill him.  Rogers took everything he needed from Loki’s hesitation and tugged him along.  With the towel still pressed against his face, Loki grudgingly followed Rogers down to the cellar.  Rogers tipped Loki’s head back, carefully leading him down the stairs one step at a time.  Morita already had the lights on and rushed over to help lead Loki to the large table in the centre of the room.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Woke up with one hell of a nosebleed,” Rogers informed him, stepping out of the way to give Morita room to work.

“I’m fine,” Loki insisted, but his words went ignored.

Morita looked at the mess on the towel and instantly disagreed with him.  “Sit.  Here,” he said, nudging him toward a chair.

Outnumbered, Loki did as he was told.  Morita slowly tilted Loki’s head back again before taking the towel away and tossing it onto the table.  “Looks like it’s pretty much stopped now.  Any headaches lately?”

“No, nothing,” Loki said, trying to shake his head without really moving it.

Morita hummed to himself and stepped over to a smaller table near the wall, where what few medical supplies they had were kept.  He found a small pocket torch and a clean rag before returning to where Loki waited for him.

“Watch the light,” he instructed, giving him only the briefest warning before shining it in his eyes.  Loki flinched away, not quite sure what the point of trying to blind him was.  But Morita slowly nudged his head facing forward again, not lowering the light.

“Watch the light,” he repeated.  “Don’t move your head; just your eyes.”

He moved the torch from one side to the other, and this time Loki did as he was told, following it with his eyes only.  Again, Morita hummed as he turned off the light.

“Right.  Stay hydrated.  It’s easy to forget when it’s cold like this,” he said.  He tilted Loki’s head back again, giving him one more quick examination before releasing him.  “This happens again, you tell me immediately.”

“You got it,” Loki said, suddenly unsure how he felt about Morita being part of their suicide mission into Austria.

“And, hey, just think of it this way.  I don’t think it’s a brain tumour, but if it is, you’ll probably get shot before it has a chance to kill ya,” Morita said, slapping him on the shoulder.

Loki looked down at the floor, all but literally biting his tongue.  “Thanks,” he said dryly.

Morita pointed to a table, with a large pitcher and a deep basin atop it, pushed up against the far wall.  “Get cleaned up.  Careful not to set it off again.”

Loki stood up and walked over to the table, ignoring Morita as he made his way back to bed, passing Rogers on the stairs.  He wasted no time in washing his face, wishing he had something to drink to clear his throat.  But all he had before him was the basin of water, tinted pink with his own blood.  He pushed it all from his mind and dried his face and hands with a small towel on the table.

“It’s probably nothing,” Rogers said, with that optimistic confidence he seemed to specialise in.  Loki didn’t even stop himself from rolling his eyes.  “Like he said—”

“If it isn’t, I likely won’t live long enough to find out anyway,” Loki interrupted, looking straight at him, trying to wear down Rogers’ confidence with despair.  “Do you disagree? Look around you, Captain.  What hope is there?  Our forces are scattered.  Bombs fall from the sky.  Where is our advantage?”  He gestured up the stairs, to where Morita had disappeared and where the rest of the men lay sleeping.  “Behold the morale of the men you intend to lead into Austria.  They will go because they believe it to be right.  But they also believe it to be suicide.”

Rogers crossed his arms, obviously blocking the stairs and keeping Loki down in the cellar with him.  “Is that what you think? You think this is suicide?”

Loki shrugged.  “It would be a hel of a lot more of a dignified death than the brain tumour.”

He stood down Rogers’ answering glare, unwavering in the face of it.  But he kept his hands at his side, not rising up to the challenge, however much he may have been tempted to.

“Do we even know where we’re going yet?” Loki asked.

“We’re still waiting on intel,” Rogers admitted.  He inhaled deeply and finally stepped down from the stairs, drawing closer to Loki so the two could speak more quietly.

“Listen.  You’ve been with these guys since the beginning,” he started, reaching out to rest one hand on Loki’s shoulder.

“A few of them since Union,” Loki reminded him, wondering where Captain Rogers was going with this.

Rogers nodded.  “The very beginning,” he said.

“There were forty of us,” Loki said, looking Rogers straight in the eye as he spoke.  “Sixty men in the platoon.  Forty from Union.  Forty of us who went through the same hel at Basic together.  Got our orders.  Got shipped out to this hel-hole together.  As of right now, at least thirty-five of them have already gone home.  Most in coffins.  It’s been my job to keep them safe ever since I got these stripes, and I have not done a very good job at that.”  He reached up to run his fingers through his already-mussed hair and adjust his glasses, only then realising that he wasn’t wearing them.  “You’ve been given a squad of your own now, which is—if we’re honest—well below your pay grade.  Try not to fuck it up like I did.”

He stepped past Rogers, making his way up the stairs to bed.  Only once he reached the landing did he dare turn round to see if his words had the desired effect.  Rogers still had his back to the stairs, but even then it was obvious that this time, Loki’s words drove home.  He didn’t have to stay and watch to know Rogers would spend a considerable amount of time rethinking his strategy beyond, “storm in and punch Johann Schmidt in the mouth.”  With the ghost of a smirk on the edges of his mouth, Loki returned to the crowded bedroom, eager to get to bed and get at least a few hours of sleep before the next day came and changed everything yet again.  As he finally settled down on his bunk, Coulson sat up, watching him through the darkness.

“Hey.  You all right, man?  What happened?” he asked, sparing no concern for Dugan, asleep in the far corner.

“Yeah, I just…”  Loki shrugged and shook his head.  He knew perfectly well that the bleeding had nothing to do with hydration or a brain tumour, and everything to do with his conversation with Trevor Bruttenholm.

He sniffed and dragged his thumb under his nose, watching Morita still shuffling around, trying to get comfortable on the bunk he shared with Coulson.  Though his lips were dry, Loki still felt the damp, sticky crust of blood on his skin.

“You sure you’re all right?” Coulson asked.

His question broke Loki from his daze, the sheer absurdity of it only calling to attention Loki’s own idiocy.  He was a god, and it would take far more than such a small amount of blood to bring him harm.  He began to settle back down in his bunk, turning to throw his pillow across the room at Coulson’s face.

“I’m fine.  Go to bed,” he said, rolling over so his back faced the room.  It took him only a few seconds, lying on the hard bench, to realise his folly.  “Give me that back.  I need it.”

Coulson and Morita both laughed as Loki was hit in the back of the head with his own pillow.

“Thank you,” he said, re-situating the flat, deflated excuse for comfort in a way that it might pretend to be useful.  A moment later, he was hit with a boot.

“That’s mine now.  Thanks,” Loki told the giggling darkness.  He wanted nothing to do with Coulson’s nasty, rotting boot, so he picked it up and threw it across the room.

“Shit!  What the fuck?” Dugan cried out.  “What was that?”

The other three began laughing in earnest, in a way Loki couldn’t remember doing since before he enlisted.

“Fucking assholes,” Dugan complained.  The laughter only got louder.

The morning Trevor Bruttenholm arrived in Alfedena, snow was falling, blanketing the entire camp in a cautious silence.  He was escorted by Agent Carter to the house Rogers and his team were operating out of.  It was old, small, and draughty, with the same chill in the air as outside making everything inside seem almost blue.  They found Rogers leaning over a long table with Barnes and Loki, the three of them poring over a map of Austria.

“No, I’m telling you, it’s going to be here,” Loki said, jabbing at the map with his finger.  Liezen is deeper within their borders, but Großkirchheim is in the mountains, and thus better fortified.  If I were going to have a top-secret military base to hold my big, scary magical weapons, I’d put it there.  Not in Liezen.”

Rogers studied the map a bit more, shaking his head.

“I think he’s right,” Barnes offered.  “But what if he’s not? What if you’re both wrong, along with all the intel?”

“That’s why we have to know for sure,” Rogers said.  He took a small step back, crossing his arms over his chest.  “We’re only gonna get one shot at this.”

Loki gave up on the map and began rifling through a stack of grainy aerial photos, all but growling to himself as he sought out a specific one.

“And what are you boys squabbling over now?” Carter asked from where she watched in the doorway, one hand on her hip in an image of feigned impatience.  The three men round the table all stood a bit straighter at the sight of her, but it was her companion who ultimately caught Loki’s attention.  In one hand, Trevor Bruttenholm clutched a small briefcase.  In the other, a cane he had not possessed the last time Loki saw him in person.  He seemed to have almost forgotten about the cane, his weight barely resting on it at all.  His grip on the case, however, was white-knuckled and desperate.

“Trevor!” Loki called out excitedly, quickly stepping round the table to greet him as an old friend.  “I can’t believe they actually found you.  Wow.”

Loki clapped him on the shoulder, ignoring his tight, almost nervous smile.

“Yes, I.  I.  Should I be somewhere else?” he asked finally, pointing to the maps and photos spread over the table.  “You all seem rather busy right now.”

Loki glanced over his shoulder to Rogers, who shook his head.  “No, word is you’re quite the expert on our little problem here.  I’m actually looking forward to hearing what you have to say.”

Agent Carter nodded to Rogers.  “Then I’ll let you boys get back to it,” she said before turning to leave again.

Bruttenholm nodded, his uncertainty plain on his face even as he drew near.  He looked down at the map, embellished as it was with notes and lines, hand-written by the other three as they spent all morning arguing strategy.

“So, this Tesseract thing.  What can you tell us about it?” Rogers asked.

Bruttenholm turned a nervous, jittery glance over to Loki before looking up to address Rogers.  Loki gave no indication at all that he was bothered by this question, which Bruttenholm seemed to take as tacit permission to speak what he knew.

“The Tesseract, yes.”  He took a moment to gather his thoughts, glancing this way and that as an almost paradoxical confidence came over him.

“It is said to have once been the jewel of Odin’s treasure room.  One of six sacred stones told to contain unstoppable power.  The story goes that during the time of the Vikings, there was a war between Asgard and Jötunheimr—two of the Nine Realms of the Cosmos.  The accepted explanation is that some time during the Medieval Warm Period, there was an unusually brutal winter that froze much of the Arctic Region and North Atlantic.”

Rogers shifted to lean against the table, crossing his arms over his chest as he listened.  “But you don’t believe that?” he ventured.

Bruttenholm smiled tightly and shook his head.  “No,” he said simply.  “The older texts are probably far more accurate, despite being dismissed as heathen myth.  The war between Asgard and Jötunheimr started with the frost giants invaded Midgard—what the Vikings called Earth.”

No one saw Loki stiffen, his jaw clenched to bite back ire at Bruttenholm’s words.  Not even Bruttenholm himself noticed, continuing with his story unabated.

“Odin and his Einherjar drove the frost giants’ armies back to Jötunheimr,” Bruttenholm went on, each word coming with more confidence than the last.  “Before returning to Asgard to celebrate his victory, Odin left behind a relic so that humanity might be able to protect itself against further threat from other realms.”

“The Tesseract,” said Barnes.

“Said to have been lost for centuries,” Bruttenholm confirmed.

Loki couldn’t help but be impressed, despite himself.  He already knew Bruttenholm was aware of it, but he knew more of the Tesseract and its history than Loki had expected.  Far more.  And if he knew this, it was no telling what Schmidt knew of it.

“However.”  Bruttenholm looked between them, his nervousness returning.  “There’s an even bigger problem.”

Barnes and Rogers exchanged a nervous glance of their own.  It was one Loki found himself agreeing with entirely.

“Just before I left London, we received some intelligence.  The Tesseract wasn’t the only artifact Hydra were after.”  Bruttenholm lifted his case onto the table and opened it, pulling out an intelligence report.

“If our sources are to be believed, which is very likely, Hitler recently came into possession of the Spear of Longinus.”

Both Rogers and Barnes frowned at the news.  Whatever the artifact was, it was surely nothing that should have ever come to Hitler’s hand.  Loki leaned in close to Barnes, not quite taking his attention from Bruttenholm.

“What is the Spear of Longinus?” he asked.

Barnes glanced over at him, echoes of company rumours flickering across his face.  “It’s, uh.  The spear the Romans used to pierce the body of Christ while he was being crucified,” he said.

Loki nodded, still not completely understanding.  “A Christian thing?” he asked.

Barnes nodded with an amused little huff.  “Yeah, a Christian thing.”

Rogers leaned forward, looking past Barnes to Loki.  For a moment, he looked like he was going to say something, but instead he shrugged with his face and leaned back again.

“It gets even worse,” Bruttenholm said.  “Since November, four Nazi submarines have been sunk off the coast of Florida.”

“Florida?” asked Rogers.  “What’s the draw there?”

“According to Juan Ponce de León? The Fountain of Youth,” Bruttenholm said. 

He handed the intelligence report over to Rogers.  As Rogers opened it, the other two leaned in to read over his shoulder.  While they studied the new intel, Bruttenholm went on with what he knew of the situation.

“You may also be familiar with the Tunguska Event in 1908.  There are theories suggesting that the object which fell from the sky was Thor’s Hammer.”

Loki snorted before he could stop himself.

“What’s so funny?” Rogers asked, looking up from a page detailing an excavation team sent into the Florida wilderness.

“I don’t know Christian lore, but I am intimately familiar with the Norse,” Loki answered.  He reached out and flipped to the next page of the report in Rogers’ hands.  “If Mjölnir had fallen to Earth, my father would have never stopped talking about it.  Not all the Vikings are dead.  We’ve just hidden ourselves away.”

Rogers and Barnes both looked at him with a certain amount of uncertainty, causing them to miss the way Bruttenholm nodded, accepting Loki’s denial of that particular theory.

“Even so,” Bruttenholm said.  “Were it Mjölnir, anyone who found it would find it most difficult to lift.”

“Yes, and there’s that,” Loki agreed, knowing that rumour to be just as false as the hammer falling to Earth in the first place.

“Barring a miracle, the Tesseract may already be lost to us,” Bruttenholm said gravely.  “But we cannot let Hitler or Hydra find his next target.  If either finds the Fountain of Youth, he will be unstoppable.”

“So, we’re going to Florida?” Barnes said eagerly.

It was not an enthusiasm shared by Bruttenholm.  “I hate to break your enthusiasm, Sergeant, but Russia should be the destination of choice.” He smiled apologetically and handed him another report, this one of a far-less official capacity.  It was largely hand-written, with various clippings stuffed amongst the pages.

“Alexander the Great once crossed the Land of Darkness in search of the Water of Life, as it was called then,” Bruttenholm explained.  “It’s his steps we should retrace, I think.”

Loki’s attention was piqued in a very large way.  He looked up quickly, fixing Bruttenholm with a concerned stare.  “Urðabrunnr?” he asked.

Barnes looked up, flicking his gaze back and forth between Loki and Bruttenholm.  “English?” he asked.

“The Well of Destiny,” Bruttenholm translated slowly.

“We call it the Well of Life,” Loki said.  “Though, I suppose in many ways, the meanings are the same.”

“And you think it’s in Russia, whatever it’s called?” Rogers asked.

“In the Northern Urals, specifically,” said Bruttenholm.  “Perhaps not quite the land of perpetual darkness the name suggests, but if you found yourself there in the wrong part of winter, you might disagree.”

Rogers looked to his two sergeants, silently seeking their opinions.

Barnes spent a few long moments looking over the report in his hands.  “So, just to be clear.  We’re actually going to try to find the Fountain of Youth, and we’re not questioning that?” he asked.

“You would be better off not questioning it,” Bruttenholm pointeed out.  “Johann Schmidt possesses an ancient Viking relic.  I myself personally witnessed Grigori Rasputin perform a summoning ritual on Christmas Eve.” He mercifully left Loki out of that particular story, sparing them all the headache.

“Rasputin?” asked Rogers.  “The… Okay.”  He looked to the other two and shrugged.  “I’ve already seen things I can’t hope to explain.  I asked for an expert, and you came with very good references.”

“Russia?” Barnes asked once more.

“Russia,” Loki confirmed.  “Come on, it’ll be fun.”

The look Barnes gave him could have frozen fire.

“Russia,” Rogers said.  “Olson, why don’t you take the Professor here and find him a bunk and a bite.  I’m gonna wrangle up any intel I can on our target.”

Loki saluted and turned to guide Bruttenholm out of the room.  As they left, Barnes closed the report in his hands and dropped it onto the table with the rest of them.

“I swear, that kid hasn’t even started shaving yet,” Barnes said quietly.

“I hadn’t noticed.” Rogers looked at him, suggested he not notice as well.  “I think it would be a bit hypocritical to notice, actually.  Don’t you think?”

Barnes almost started to argue his point, but laughed instead.  “Yeah, how many times did you lie on yours?”

Rogers dropped his own report onto the table.  “None at all,” he lied blatantly.  “Come on.  Let’s find something to eat before we tell everyone to dig up all the cold-weather gear they can.”

The team planned and strategised long into the night, scrutinising maps and intel reports well after everyone else had bunked down.  Their primary sticking point, and the detail which divided the team was the most crucial part of the entire operation: the route they would take into Russia.

“You’re really suggesting we go back into Austria?” Morita asked incredulously.  He stared down at the map they’d liberated from HQ, almost sickened by what he saw.  “Seriously? Austria?”

“What about Croatia?” Barnes offered, looking up at the group in the cramped Italian cellar.

“That’s still enemy territory,” Morita argued.

“It’s all fucking enemy territory, Ace,” Howlett pointed out.  He gestured at the entire map with his cigar, challenging anyone to dispute him.  “Unless your plan is to teleport us into Russia.  I don’t know about any of you, but I can’t teleport.”

Loki stared down at the map, hastily hand-coloured to show territories.  “Not Switzerland.  No one’s made it into Switzerland yet.”

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t just suggest Switzerland as a route,” Dugan said tiredly.

“I didn’t.  I’m just saying, it’s not enemy territory.”  Loki grinned smugly at him from across the table.

“Somebody smack him, please,” Dugan said.

Howlett reached out and slapped the back of Loki’s head, making his teeth clack together.

“Thank you,” Dugan said.

Loki, for the most part, ignored it.  “In all seriousness, I am going to once again strongly suggest France.  If we can get back to England, we can resupply there and sneak across into Norway and Sweden.  The hardest part would be getting across Finland.”

“Annoying as it is to admit it, I think he’s got something with that,” Dugan agreed.

Jones shook his head, tapping his finger right in the centre of the map.  “Yeah, but Germany would be a hell of a lot faster.”

“Yeah, you’re gonna get through Germany real quick, pal,” Coulson said, jerking his thumb at Morita.  “You and him both.”

“We’ve captured some SS guys,” Barnes offered.  “We can wear their uniforms and sneak right through.”

“And how many of us speak German?” Dugan asked.  He pointed at Morita.  “Do you?”

“Do I fucking look like I speak German?” Morita asked, his tone broking on indignant by this point.

“I speak German,” Jones offered, raising his hand.

“I do too,” Loki said, drawing a mix of looks from incredulity to exasperated acceptance.

“It might just work,” Howlett offered.

Coulson snorted derisively.  “We’d have to find a couple of pretty short German officers.  And a massive one.”

Pinkerton clicked his tongue a few times, his gaze still held firmly to the map.  “You know, chaps.  I have to say, as much as I’d like to see home again, I’d like to see this war over even more.  And the sooner the better.”

“I think Germany’s our best bet,” Rogers said finally.

Dugan threw his hands into the air.  “You are not serious.  We barely survived Austria, and you want to go back there?  And then into Germany?”

Loki knew that the debate was over, and was the precise reason the military was not a democracy.  Rogers held rank, and if he thought Germany was the best plan, little was going to stop him going through with it.  Loki hardly knew Rogers, but he knew this truth about him.

“It might be the last thing they expect,” he said.  His own words rang false to his ears, and he could only but hope no one else heard it too.  “There are only nine of us.  We may be able to slip through un-noticed.”

“Even with those two?” Dugan asked, pointing his own cigar at Jones.

“Yes, even with those two.  Why not?”  Loki didn’t think any of them would survive this plan, but at least they wouldn’t die bored.

“If you say so.  But I still don’t speak German,” Morita said, run down and defeated after far too long arguing his point.

“Great.  Germany,” Coulson lamented.  “Well, maybe on our way to Russia, we can stop by Berlin and put a few rounds through Hitler’s eye socket as a big thank you for dragging us all into this mess.”

“Germany,” Rogers confirmed, ignoring the rest.

“Fucking Germany,” Dugan said, sounding almost as if he meant to correct Rogers.  Something about it made Loki laugh incredulously, a high, shrill bark that died down almost at once.  No one else seemed to have noticed.

“We’re out of here at ten-hundred tomorrow,” Rogers said.  “Get a good night’s sleep, because it might be the last you get for a while.”

Rogers stood up, signalling the end of the briefing.  The others slowly began to get up, making their way to the quarters upstairs.  Blackout was still in effect, and the old house they were quartered in seemed even more cramped and draughty in the dark.  They shuffled and bumped their way along to their bunks, all eager to fall asleep, and far too nervous to do so.  Loki pushed his glasses out of the way and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands.  After blinking a few times, he managed to drop just that one piece of his glamour.  He was always able to see better in the dark in his Jötunn form, with the realm of his birth experiencing dark winter that lasted almost half a year.  Like this, Loki could see that which transpired around him—Howlett making a bed from the old, battered sofa.  Barnes, Jones, and Pinkerton climbing the stairs to the second bedroom.  The room Loki shared with Dugan, Coulson, and Morita was not meant for four grown men, but they had little choice if everyone wished to sleep indoors.  Loki had deliberately lost the coin toss with Dugan over the larger bed in the room, and Morita and Coulson were both small enough that they could share the smaller one on the other side of the room with minimal cramping.

Loki’s bench was at least long enough for him to sleep on, and padded, so it wasn’t a complete loss.  He could have been on the cold floor instead.

He sat down and started unlacing his boots as the others settled in around him.  This mission was going to get them all killed, and he knew it.  But perhaps going through Germany would truly be a good thing.  It would get him closer to the Tesseract, and thus closer to his ultimate goal.  If he was smart and played this right, he might be able to take the cube and find the well.  And if the well truly was Urðabrunnr, it would be more useful than anyone who sought it even realised.  Anyone who possessed both would be unstoppable.

Loki knew not what he would do with the forces at his command, but the draw of commanding them was so great, he couldn’t bring himself to care.  It pulled at him from deep within his chest, and he knew that this was right.  This was his for the taking, if only he played his cards right.

“Fucking Germany,” Dugan grumbled as he shuffled about on his own bunk.  “And you, you goddamn turncoat.  What was that?”

“Rogers had his mind made up on Germany the second Barnes suggested it,” Loki reasoned.  He took off his glasses and placed them on the small table next to his bunk.  He settled in, burrowing into this blankets as if he thought the chill in the air might kill him otherwise.  “No amount of arguing would have changed it.”

“That’s assuming we even get back through Italy,” Coulson pointed out.  “We got lucky last time.  What makes anyone think we can get lucky a second time?”  He and Morita shuffled and shifted around one another, all sense of masculine dignity having been eschewed the moment they realised sharing a bed made them the warmest two people on the whole squad.

“I don’t suppose any of you are jump qualified?” Loki asked.

“Nope,” the three of them all rang out in chorus.

Loki hummed.  “I didn’t think so.”

The four of them slowly grumbled and complained themselves to sleep.  Even Loki found a fitful slumber eventually, drifting off as those around him snored quietly.  He dreamed he was back on Asgard, with his brothers.  They were riding through the hills on an enormous black horse, far from the palace, with eagles high above and Fenrir loping in their wake.

And then Loki found himself alone, separated from the others and without his mount.  Instead he had a sword, its blade glowing in the sunlight, and almost singing as it sliced through the air.  It was a beautiful weapon, adorned with green gems, and perfectly balanced.  The sword held magic, but not magic it was willing to share with Loki.

And then came the monster, born of the fires of Muspelheimr and son of Surtur himself, with skin made of fire and eyes black as Helsmoke.  Loki tried to flee from the creature, but found himself backed against a high wall.  He tried to raise the sword, but it became too heavy to lift, disobeying his commands stubbornly.  The monster drew ever closer, and just before it reached out to melt Loki’s flesh from his bones, Loki woke with a shuddering gasp.  There was nothing there that would harm him in that cold bedroom, but he still felt as if the creature was there somewhere; hiding and waiting in ambush.  Loki had to get out, and quickly, before he suffocated.  He spared not even the time to put on his boots and instead threw off his blankets and swiftly made his way to the front door.  The sky was cloudy and the night cold, with snow covering the ground.  A part of Loki, somewhere deep in the back of his mind, wanted to go roll in the snow.  He craved that bone-deep chill to soothe the heat from his dream.  But he hadn’t much time to contemplate it before he heard someone else follow him outside.  He turned quickly, finding Bruttenholm wrapped in a heavy Army peacoat and huddling cautiously by the front door, now closed against the chill.

“Where are your shoes?  Aren’t you cold?” Bruttenholm asked.

Loki looked down at his feet, only then noticing that the snow he stood in had soaked clean through his socks.

“I’m from Jötunheimr,” he said as he looked out over the frozen landscape of Alfedena, what few lights were lit in the distance reflecting off the clouds and snow, making everything seem almost like it was glowing.  “I rather like this.”

Bruttenholm nodded as Loki sat down in the snow, picking some of it up and covering his face.  He knew the picture he painted, sitting in the snow like he’d lost his mind, but he couldn’t bring himself to care for even a moment.  He was forgetting himself in this hel-hole, surrounded by mortals and pretending to be one.  He may not have been truly Jötunn, but ice still ran in his veins, and ignoring it would only drive him to madness.

They both stayed in silence for a few long moments, neither wanting to go back inside just yet.

“I assume you’re planning on staying with the unit through Russia?” Loki asked finally, having been unsure until that moment.

“That is the plan, yes,” Bruttenholm said, shaky and determined all at once.  Loki almost had to admire it.

“Come here,” he said.  He stepped close to Bruttenholm, digging through his pockets.  He pulled out a quarter and his pocket knife, wishing he had something better but knowing they would have to do.  Bruttenholm watched with wide, startled eyes as Loki held the coin against his knee and carved into it, blunting his knife to do so.  It was a difficult stave to carve on such a small canvas, but into the coin he etched Ægishjálmur—an almost snowflake-like design, with prongs that branched off from the centre, and then branched off again at the ends.  When he finished, he held the coin up to inspect it before offering it to Bruttenholm.

“Keep this with you.  It will offer protection,” he said.

Bruttenholm took the quarter and nodded.  In the dark, it was impossible to see what had been carved into it with the muddy, dull vision of a human, but Bruttenholm clearly had an idea anyway.

“Have you given these to everyone?” Bruttenholm asked, turning the coin over in his fingers.

“No,” Loki said, only then realising that it was the first thing he should have done.  “No, I have not.”

He’d been so concerned about being discovered that he hadn’t dared do anything out of the ordinary.  But now, with the Tesseract being known to all, and Urðabrunnr as their target, protection sigils wouldn’t stand out at all.  They would be one more superstition to cap off the rest that composed their entire mission.

“You should try to get some sleep,” Loki said, nodding back toward the house.  “I have some work to do before we leave tomorrow.”

Bruttenholm nodded again and lingered just long enough to watch Loki get up and trudge off into the snow, before returning inside to try to sleep.

« || »

Midgard Legends #5: Heil Hydra

They were five miles off the drop zone with the shelling started—anti-aircraft artillery that exploded mid-air, sending shockwaves through the sky.  That was the moment, with the heavy pack strapped to his back and the aeroplane lurching violently, when Loki realised the full scope of his situation.  As Stark struggled to keep the plane level, Rogers pushed open the hatch and leaned out over the edge.  Seeing him standing there, making his decision to leap from the craft into the mayhem outside made Loki realise that he had once again not thought anything through.

“I feel like I should take this moment to confess that I’m not jump qualified,” he shouted over the wind and explosions.

Rogers cast a strange, almost amused glance back at him.  “That makes two of us!” he shouted back.

He pulled his goggles down over his eyes and disappeared out the hatch.  Steve Rogers was absolutely mad, but Loki hadn’t the time to appreciate it.  He hadn’t time to do anything at all.  The longer he hesitated, the more distance he put between the two of them once on the ground.  He screwed shut his eyes and stepped from the plane, fighting everything in him that told him this was wrong.  Wind tore at him from every direction, dizzying and disorientating him until he wasn’t even certain which way was up.  He wanted to scream and swear and everything else at the entirely unnatural experience, but he was fighting hard enough to get air into his lungs without complicating matters further.

When Loki finally opened his eyes again, he almost wished he hadn’t.  Everything around him was exploding, lighting the ground below him in lightning-quick flashes, each burst of light bringing him closer and closer to the ground.  In the chaos, he could just make out the olive-drab silk of Rogers’ parachute below.  The sight of it made him realise that he needed to deploy his own, and very soon.  He blindly fumbled with the straps and tabs, completely unable to tell which would deploy the parachute and which would release the entire harness.  As he struggled, he deliberately ignored the forest canopy as it rushed toward him, a very present reminder of the stupidity of his entire plan.  He quickly gave up on the parachute and instead dropped his rifle to at least spare himself the indignity of breaking his jaw on it—or worse—when he landed.

It only occurred to him then to pursue other options, but by then it was too late.  Before he could even centre his energies and figure out what he needed to do, he crashed through the trees.  The forest wasn’t as thick as it looked from the air, and very little stood in the way to break his fall.  The few branches he did strike on his way down caught on his coat and broke, falling to the ground with him.  The impact rattled every bone in his body, and he was truly certain his insides had all turned to jelly.  He tried to force air back into his lungs, only to choke on his own tongue.  Lying on the forest floor, he could only stare up at the still-exploding sky, wondering how much Heimdall had seen, and if he had, what he might have to say about it later.  It may have even been enough to finally make the old gatekeeper break a smile.

Finally, Loki forced himself to inhale and tried to roll over onto his side.  Every nerve in his body fought against him as he coughed into the dust, but he didn’t dare stop.  He had to get back to his feet and get moving.  He focused on that, not letting his thoughts wander to what might happen if he were discovered lying in the dust with his parachute still packed.

“Fuck,” he coughed, pushing himself upright.  “Ymir’s tits, never again.”

He focused on muttering and cursing to himself as a distraction from everything else as he made his way back to his feet.  He stumbled, swaying dangerously to one side, only to over-balance and nearly fall on his face.  He had to get the parachute off, and after far too much time fiddling with buckles and straps, he did what he should have done in the first place and magicked it off.  As it fell to the ground, it cut through him with a familiar icy chill that was distinct from his inherent Jötun magic.

Standing alone in a strange wood, Loki considered just giving it all up and going home with his tail between his legs.  But it was a fleeting consideration.  He heard someone moving in the distance, giving him not the time nor opportunity to tally his personal failures.  He vanished the parachute to one of his secret vaults and straightened his glasses, doing his best to look like he hadn’t just fallen out of the sky in entirely the wrong way.  He searched frantically for his gun, finally finding it hanging by its strap from a low branch.  He didn’t even bother trying to reach for it, instead calling it to him with an annoyed wave of his hand.  No sooner had he readied it, he spied Rogers in the distance, creeping forward through the dark.

“Over here,” said Loki quietly.

Rogers froze in his place and looked around.  “Olson?” he asked.  He was quiet, but not quiet enough.  Like a replacement, Loki thought almost bitterly.  He quickly put that thought out of his mind and moved closer to Rogers.

“Yeah,” he said. 

He held back another round of coughing and choking, ignoring the tightness in his chest.  Something was definitely broken, but he ignored every ache and sting, determined to at least pretend to have done things properly.

Rogers approached quickly, lowering his gun and slinging his shield over his shoulder.  “You had me scared, there,” he said, looking around cautiously.  “I didn’t see a ‘chute.”

“No, I’m fine,” said Loki, aiming for cavalier and missing by leagues.  “It’s in a tree.  I had to cut myself out.”

He forced back another fit of coughing, but Rogers didn’t notice.  He was too busy looking up at the trees.  If there was any truth to the Lehigh rumours, Rogers was the proof; Loki was certain.  He’d read every comic and clipping Coulson’s mother had sent, and none of it added up properly.  Standing with the man himself in a dark Austrian wood, Loki severely hoped that whatever had been done at Lehigh, it hadn’t given Rogers any super-human vision.  Otherwise, he’d notice a lack of parachutes in trees and a suspiciously Olson-sized depression in the ground.

“We’d better get going,” said Rogers finally.  “We’re short of the drop zone and we got a lot of ground to cover.”

Loki motioned for Rogers to lead the way, if only because chain of command required him to.  He strongly suspected Rogers had never led a field manoeuvre in his life, and even his rank was dubious at best.  Unless West Point were offering special crash-courses for propaganda figures.

Somehow, Loki doubted it.

Rogers looked up and pulled a small compass from his belt, taking only a few moments to orientate himself and set out.  He’d picked more or less the right direction—the Tesseract was so close, Loki could feel it.  But its song was different now; twisted and distorted.  He could have gone straight to it, but he knew he’d never leave alive if he tried that again.  He needed Rogers for nothing else if not a human shield.  And since Rogers had the compass and the rank, Loki had to play his assigned role and follow his command.

“You went to Lehigh, didn’t you?” Loki asked as they crept through the trees.  No one would hear them because Loki didn’t want them to, but he whispered all the same.

“Yeah,” repeated Rogers after a hesitant moment.  “Yeah, I did.”

“You moved up pretty quickly.  When did you finish?” asked Loki.  The baiting was obvious, but he was too curious to care.

“Uh.” Rogers stopped suddenly and held his hand out in a signal for Loki to do the same.

Hand signals were covered during Loki’s fourth week of basic training, and Rogers got it wrong.  Loki said nothing though, and looked to where Rogers was pointing.

“It should be just over there somewhere,” said Rogers.

Loki liked the sound of ‘should.’  His own vision was muted and muddy in his current form, but Rogers didn’t seem to have much of an advantage over him in this area, if any at all.  All Loki needed was to maintain his cover long enough to get to the Tesseract, and then it wouldn’t matter.  His entire mood changed suddenly at the thought, and lifting his rifle, he fell back into position alongside his new captain.

Loki wasn’t exactly sure where they were, but Rogers seemed somehow passingly familiar with the area.  He led the way through the trees in an almost arrow-straight path, pausing only every so often to make sure the way was clear.  Even if he did consistently get the hand signals wrong.

If this man ever finished basic training, he’d forgotten everything during whatever experiments he’d gone through.  Though somehow, Loki doubted that was the case.  Rogers was yet another cuckoo in the army’s nest, and Loki could almost respect that.

They eventually came to a narrow dirt road, down either direction of which were lights.  While the lights to the east were flood and spotlights, those to the west were drawing nearer at a steady pace.  Rogers sloppily signalled his intent, but Loki got the gist and nodded all the same.  Staying at the edge of the road, they waited for the first Opel Blitz to pass and ran after the second.  Rogers climbed into the back first, offering assistance to Loki.  Jumping onto the rear bumper, Loki passed up his rifle to free his hands and climbed into the truck, pulling the canopy flaps down again.  As they both turned to get settled, they saw two Hydra soldiers, stunned-looking despite their masks, look from one another and back to Rogers and Loki.

“Fellas,” Rogers greeted dryly.

It was enough to snap them from their shock, but before the Hydra soldiers were even properly on their feet, Loki and Rogers charged them.  Rogers smacked the first in the jaw with his shield at the same moment Loki head-butted the other.  Both Hydra soldiers collapsed at once.  After a wordless moment, Loki and Rogers both reached the same conclusion and reached to pick up the soldier nearest to the back of the truck and threw him out of it, followed immediately by the second.

“That was easy,” Rogers said, not even winded.

Loki snorted.  “They were just grunts,” he pointed out.

Rogers nodded, understanding the implication.  The two of them settled down where they could amongst the sealed crates, struggling with the difficult task of taking up as little space as possible.

“How long have you been out here?” asked Rogers after a tense silence.  “You seem to know what you’re doing.”

Loki flicked at his rifle strap out of his way.  “We arrived in England in August last year,” he said.  “We were shipped off right out of basic and thrown right into this hel-hole.”

Rogers looked down at Loki’s shoulder.  “That’s a long time.  How’d you make sergeant?”

“Battlefield commission,” Loki explained.  “That is what tends to happen when out of an entire platoon, only eight men are still breathing at the end of the day.  They don’t usually take no for an answer, either.”

“Seriously?” asked Rogers.

Loki wasn’t sure which part Rogers doubted, so he shrugged in lieu of a response, almost indifferently.  He very nearly made a quip about forced promotions, but his heart wasn’t in it.  He told himself he didn’t care about any of it anyway, as he’d told himself countless times before.  He was almost done with what he’d come to Europe to do, and then he could go home and forget about all of it.

“When we get back, we’ll probably be court-martialed,” he said instead.  “Assuming Phillips doesn’t simply stand us up against a wall and have us shot.”

“You don’t really think that,” said Rogers incredulously.  “This is a rescue mission.”

“Unsanctioned,” Loki pointed out.  “At the very least, I’ll lose my rank.  If someone’s feeling generous.  I wasn’t kidding about the shooting.”

Rogers looked at him with a hard frown.  “It’s a rescue mission,” he repeated.  “It won’t come to that.”

Loki shrugged.  “I do hope you’re right.”

The truck slowed suddenly, and Loki and Rogers both scrambled for whatever cover they could manage.  But rather than stopping for an inspection, the truck was waved through the guard post and continued on its way through the camp.

“We should split up once we’re in there,” Rogers said as the truck rounded a sharp corner and stopped.

“Split up?” Loki could hardly believe his good luck.  He almost wondered if the Norns were toying with him, but he didn’t dare say anything further lest he jinx himself.

The truck started backing up, and from outside they could hear men barking orders and moving stuff about.

“We’ll cover more ground that way,” said Rogers quietly.  He moved to the back of the truck and held his shield up in front of him, as though expecting a blow.

“Rendezvous at the main road.  We won’t have much time once they realise we’re here.”

Loki nodded.  He didn’t want to come off as too eager, but Rogers’ plan was perfect.  With Rogers acting as a decoy, Loki could almost sneak around the camp and find the Tesseract without having to use magic at all.  With magic and a bit of luck, he’d be home in twenty minutes at the absolute most.

“Yes, sir,” he said with only the smallest amount of irony.

The canopy flap was pulled back by someone who had just enough time to realise that he was looking at a shield painted like the American flag, before he was struck in the face with it and knocked unconscious.

“That thing certainly does come in handy,” Loki mused, peering over Rogers’ shoulder at the unconscious Hydra soldier.

“Tell me about it,” said Rogers, just as surprised at its effectiveness.

Rogers quickly checked the area and jumped out of the truck and onto the loading dock, holding the canopy open for Loki.  There was no one nearby to see them, but that wouldn’t last long and they both knew it.

“Take the north side of the camp.  I’ll take the south,” Rogers instructed, pointing where he wanted Loki to go.  “Soon as you find what we’re here for, get them and get the hell out.”

Loki nodded and rushed out of the truck before anyone could wander over and find them.  As soon as he was out of sight from Rogers, Loki cloaked himself.  As he ran down the edge of the wide corridor, he glance around, searching for his bearings.  The Tesseract was so close now, Loki almost thought he could reach out and touch it.  Its song, loud and insistent, called out to him with what might have been lust.  And Loki lusted after it in turn.  He would find it if it killed him.  What came after wouldn’t matter, because with the Tesseract Loki could do anything he wanted.

The Hydra camp he sprinted through wasn’t a camp so much as it was a towering steel and concrete compound, with long, winding corridors that didn’t go where Loki expected them to.  It almost reminded him of Asgard in that way; nothing went in a straight line, requiring several detours to reach the final destination.  After finding one dead-end after another, using only the Tesseract’s song as a beacon, Loki began finding it difficult to not simply teleport instead.  It would solve so many problems.  But there was still a part of his mind that knew to exercise caution; a small voice that insisted he give up the Tesseract and let the humans do as they pleased.  He knew from painful experience what would happen if he just swept in to take the Tesseract right from their hands.  But none of it was enough to stop him wanting it.  Giving up on yet another wrong corridor, Loki slunk through a large double-door, casting just enough magic to keep anyone from noticing him enter.  Like all the others before him, it did not lead him to the Tesseract.  Instead, he found himself in a large, dark room with cages lining both sides.  More surprising than the cages was the contents: people.  Soldiers from not just his regiment, but everywhere.  Even from where he stood, he could see uniforms from half a dozen nations or more.  For the first time since laying eyes on Captain Rogers that afternoon, Loki’s thoughts wandered from the Tesseract.  There were more pressing matters at hand.

Loki started to make his way down the centre of the corridor between the cages, inspecting them and their inhabitants.  The locks would have been easy to deal with, but there was no way to explain breaking through all of them without keys.  He moved over to the far side of the room, searching for anything that might have helped.  Suddenly, above a nearby cage, on the grated ceiling, someone fell over.

“Who the hell are you?” one of the trapped soldiers asked.

“I… I’m Captain America,” Rogers answered, hesitant at first, but then with something that almost sounded like authority.

Loki grinned widely despite himself and rushed over, drawing no small amount of surprised chatter at his sudden appearance.

“I thought I told you to take the north,” Rogers said with a grin in his voice.  He passed the keys down to the grate and got back to his feet.

Loki wasted no time in unlocking the door to the nearest cage.  “I got lost,” he said.  “But look what I found.”

Above him, he could see Rogers roll his eyes.

“Olson?”

Loki whirled around to see Coulson amongst the men in the cage, and surprised himself by grinning even wider than before.

“I heard there was a party,” he said, unlocking the next cage as quickly as he could.  He handed the keys off to a corporal and stepped aside to let those trapped inside file out, but otherwise paid them little mind.  “I can’t believe you didn’t invite me.”

“Yeah, we had cake and everything,” Coulson said dryly.  He looked around at the growing crowd as the keys made their way from one cage to the next, creating that much more chaos with each time they passed hands.

“Hey, was that really…” Coulson started, uncertain, as he pointed to the spot where Rogers had been.

Just then, Rogers appeared on their level, standing up on his toes to get a better look at the crowd.

“I’m looking for Sergeant James Barnes,” he called out loudly.

“Barnes?” asked Loki.  He looked to Coulson.  There’s a Barnes in first platoon, isn’t there? The one we, er.  The one from Badolato.”

Coulson’s face went grim.  “Yeah, him,” he said.  “They took him to medical this morning.  You don’t come back from medical.”

Loki intended to question him further, but was stopped by a sudden klaxon ringing out through the camp.  Almost at the same instant, Loki could feel the Tesseract being choked silent.  It ripped violently at him, as if making a final plea, and then he felt nothing.

“Damnit,” he cursed aloud.

“Time’s up,” Rogers said.  “Get everyone to the rendezvous.  Quick.”

Loki started to direct everyone toward the door, but turned suddenly to Rogers.  “What about you?” he asked.

“I’ll catch up.”

Rogers ran back the way he’d come, disappearing behind a door before Loki could even begin to protest.  Looking at the escalating mayhem as newly-liberated prisoners of war scrambled aimlessly, he realised he hadn’t the time for anything else anyway.  On their own, the POWs might have caused enough trouble to escape, but without leadership, they were scrambling in all directions with no central plan.  Out of more contempt and frustration than anything else, Loki stuck his fingers between his teeth and let out a shrill whistle that—with a small amount of help—cut over everything else.

“All right,” he shouted as everyone began to take pause.  He climbed up onto the wall of one of the cages, holding himself high above everyone else.  “If you want to get out of here alive, you’re going to listen to me and do as I say!”

He handed his rifle over to Coulson and unholstered his sidearm.  “There are only two weapons between us, but there’s an armoury not far from here,” he said.  “Coulson and I will lead a raid.  We’ll go in waves.  Take what you need and get out to assist the rest.”

He jumped back down and began to make his way back toward the door, spotting a familiar blond moustache in his way.

“You,” he said, pointing.  “Make sure everyone gets out.  Lead a team to try and round up anyone who got separated.  Rendezvous at the front gate.”

“Yes, sir,” Corporal Dugan said, tipping his unregulation bowler hat.

As Loki and Coulson ran to the front, Dugan turned round to sweep the room.

“Who the hell was that?” someone nearby asked incredulously.

Dugan started to answer, but stopped short when he turned to see a Japanese man addressing him.

“What, are we taking everybody?” Dugan asked.

Jim Morita was less than impressed with the question.  “I’m from Fresno, ace,” he said, holding up his dog tag for emphasis.

“I’m with him on this, actually,” said a soldier in a Canadian uniform.  He hitched a thumb in Morita’s direction as he checked behind the row of cages for anything useful.  “Do you know that guy? Who was he?”

Dugan snorted as he found the stairs leading to the level above.  “Fucking crazy, that’s who,” he said.  He ran to the still-unconscious guard and liberated his sidearm and a few magazines he was able to find.

“First week of basic, he knocked out his drill sergeant and got promoted for it,” Dugan explained.

“That was him?” Morita asked.  “I heard he fractured the guy’s skull.”

Dugan rejoined the other two and waved them to follow him back to the thinning crowd at the front.

“Yeah, that’s nothing,” he said.  “When we were in Badolato, he ran straight through heavy fire to deliver a message to first platoon, and then came back.  And then did it all over again.  Apparently without ever firing his weapon.”

Howlett nodded concedingly.  “Yeah, all right,” he said.  “Even if that’s only half-true, he’s got my support.”

“Don’t got much of a choice, pal,” Dugan reminded him.

He led the other two out the door, in the opposite direction of the rest of the crowd.  Already, they could hear the tell-tale scuffling of a struggle and followed after it.  They came upon a pair of men fighting off three Hydra guards and barely holding their own.  Without a word between them, the trio rushed in to assist.  Howlett was smaller than any of the guards, but he used it to his advantage.  He struck low, body-slamming one of the Hydra guards and tackling him to the ground.  With Howlett on top of him, the guard swung an awkward punch and landed it on Howlett’s jaw.  Howlett hardly seemed to notice.  Before the guard had a chance to try again, Howlett punched him back, unrelentingly, until the guard stopped moving.

Beside him, Dugan grappled with the larger of the three guards, fighting for the Luger he’d stolen only minutes before.

“His belt!” Morita called, helping a fellow George company soldier incapacitate the third guard.

Dugan dared a glance to the guard’s belt, and with a pleased sense of vengeful irony, he snatched the guard’s truncheon from its place.  With a wide swing, he smashed it against the side of the guard’s head, reclaiming the Luger as the guard fell to the floor.

“Told you, didn’t I, Fritz?” he said.

Their number was now five, and after ransacking the guards, four of them were in one way or another armed.  In under ten minutes, they charged their way through the camp, their group tripling in size, before coming to the front courtyard.  What they found there was pure anarchy.  Fire blazed in the night, and over the still-wailing klaxon, shouts and explosions roared out.  Occasionally, a flash of blue would light everything up against the orange glow that had settled over the camp, highlighting the area like a bolt of otherworldly lightning.

“Well, don’t let me stop you,” Dugan said.

It was all the encouragement any of them needed.  Most of them rushed out to the melee, eager to return the hell that had been paid unto them.  Except for Dugan and Jones, who both rushed for an ignored Panzer.  They took it with relative ease, finding no one inside, and soon others began getting similar ideas.  Before long, every tank, truck, and armoured vehicle in the area had been hijacked.  By the time the front gates were blown apart, those few remaining Hydra soldiers beat a hasty retreat, clearing the way for an easy escape.

Loki rode at the front of the convoy in a battered Kübelwagen.  He stood precariously, balancing on the seat with one knee, with his rifle aimed over the top of the windscreen.  Behind him, Howlett had one of Hydra’s Tesseract-powered weapons aimed over the side, ready for trouble.  Though everyone was exhausted, no one dared sleep.  They were deep behind enemy lines, and even at full speed, reaching allied territory before dawn would be impossible.  The slower half-tracks and tanks were quickly abandoned in favour of the smaller but faster Opels and Volkswagens, speeding their progress, but not enough.

“This is starting to bug me,” Howlett said, breaking the long and dreary silence.  “We go through hell to get to Austria, and no one’s even here.”

Coulson looked away from the road just long enough to send Loki a worried glance.  Loki knew Howlett was right, though.  There was something deeply wrong about retreating through abandoned territory.

“I think this is Italy, but I agree,” he said over his shoulder.  “Just keep your eyes open.  The Italians are probably—”

He stopped short, and Howlett shot his attention to the road ahead.  He saw nothing worth being alarmed over.

“What?” he asked impatiently.

“They’re not even here,” Loki said.  “This was all effectively under Nazi control, via Hydra.  Who defected and attacked every Axis stronghold the same night they attacked us.”

“Seriously?” Coulson asked.

“I overheard Phillips talking about it,” Loki said.

“So what are you saying?” Howlett asked.

Loki climbed over the seat and joined Howlett in the back.  “Watch the rear,” he instructed.

He settled his rifle over the opposite side.  All there was to see behind them was a long row of bucket cars and two-and-a-half-tonne trucks.  In the dark, Loki could see antsy soldiers copying his actions, repositioning themselves one by one as information spread down the line.

“So what’s your name, anyway?” Howlett asked after a tense moment.  “I think I heard just about everything but.”

“Olson,” answered Loki.  “And don’t believe a word of it.  It’s all a pack of lies.”

“They talking about that grenade you caught with your face again?” Coulson teased over his shoulder.

“No, just the guy he killed in basic,” Howlett said.  “But I want to hear about the grenade now.”

Loki rolled his eyes and just barely resisted the urge to sigh.  “I didn’t kill him.  He got right back up.  He’s fine.”

“Even if you did knock Wednesday right out of his vocabulary,” Coulson said.

Loki only didn’t bury his face in his hands because he was too busy trying to hold onto his rifle and not fall over as they sped down the uneven road.

“But you should have seen it,” Coulson continued, undaunted.  “We were taking this charming little Roman village that was completely indistinguishable from all the other charming little Roman villages, and Luke kicked in this door like a goddamn mule.  Only, on the other side, there was this guy getting ready to throw a grenade at us.”

Loki rolled his eyes again and pretended not to hear a word of it.

“And he threw it all right,” said Coulson.  “Hit our friend here right between the eyes.  That thing exploded, and this bastard walked away without so much as a scratch on that pretty face of his.” Coulson laughed and shook his head.  “I swear to God, he just flinched and charged in like nothing ever happened.”

“It hit my chest and bounced back into the room,” Loki corrected, incorrectly.

“I like his version better,” Howlett said, nodding vaguely in Coulson’s direction.

Loki looked over his shoulder just in time to catch Howlett studying him, before Howlett turned to face the rear again.

“You should stop denying it,” Howlett said after a moment.  “You’re what?  Seventeen?  Eighteen and already a sergeant.  Let people believe whatever the hell they want.  It’ll be good for your command presence.”

“I don’t have command presence.  I don’t even command; I’m just a sergeant,” Loki said, growing irritable. 

He never even asked to be that much, and his plan to blend in was clearly not going as well as he’d hoped it would.  He was too big as it was, too skilled, and not nearly fragile enough.

“How many guys you think got out of there tonight, kid?” Howlett asked.  “Captain Star-Spangled Banner put that on you.  And look.” He pointed at the line of vehicles behind them.

“I don’t know how many guys didn’t make it out of there alive, but what do you think that number would have looked like if everybody just went out on their own?” asked Howlett.

“And I’m certain that had Captain Rogers gone in without my assistance, things would have worked out just fine.” Loki resettled himself against the edge of the car, looking out at the darkness along the road.  Italy was, as far as he could tell, entirely abandoned.

“Yeah, well.  We don’t know that, do we?” asked Howlett.

Loki very pointedly said nothing.  He wasn’t even supposed to be there; this wasn’t his war and he should have had no part in it.

“Look,” Howlett said, not getting the hint.  “I understand that he’s some sort of Big American Hero, but we don’t exactly have Captain Canada.”  He turned to face Loki properly, leaning against the back of the seat.  “You got command presence.  Trust me.  Try using it sometime.  You might surprise yourself.”

“I’m just a sergeant,” Loki repeated.  He didn’t know how he’d come to be respected as a solder in someone else’s army when he couldn’t even manage half that amount of respect as a prince of his own realm.  A quiet voice in his head told him it was because the humans didn’t yet know what he was.  But they’d find out and turn on him, just like everyone else.  It was just a matter of time.

Humans killed their gods, and every rumour about him put Loki one step closer to being the next in line for the chopping block.

He turned his back to Howlett completely, watching for anything in the dark.  Behind him, he could hear Howlett shifting to get back into position as well.

“So, uh,” Coulson said.  “Where was Canada at before the Nazis attacked and you wound up out here in butt-fuck nowhere, Austria?”

As Dawn broke, they came to a small village by a lake.  The village showed signs of armament, but whoever was camped there had left in a hurry.  Probably just around the time the bombs started falling.

“Stop here,” Loki said, pointing at the market square up ahead.

Howlett turned to signal to the car behind them to do the same.  With guns aimed at every dark shadow, it was slowly becoming clear that the town was well and truly abandoned.

“What’s the plan?” Coulson asked.  He stood up as best he could with the steering wheel in his way and leaned over the windscreen.

Loki cautiously peered up at a high window.  “We won’t make it back without some reshuffling,” he said.  He hopped out of the car and walked back to the one behind, which carried only two men.  They were both privates, but in all the confusion of he prison-break, he hadn’t a clue who anyone was or where those he did know had ended up.

“We need to consolidate,” he told the driver.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” said Pinkerton, a soldier in Britain’s Royal Army.  “If we pack ‘em in like sardines, we can probably fit everyone into five of those Opels; syphon off the petrol from the rest and divvy it up.”

Loki nodded, having been thinking along those same lines.  “Do it,” he told Pinkerton.  “Aim for four.  I’ll send a team to scavenge for supplies.  Anyone not moving supplies, I want pointing guns at every shadow they can find.”

Pinkerton left his gunman and began spreading the orders down the line as Loki returned to Coulson and Howlett.

“You, stay where you are,” he told Howlett.  “Eyes on those windows at all times.  If it moves, I want it dead.”

“You got it, pal,” Howlett said, readying his weapon again.

Loki nodded away from the car.  “Ray, come with me.”

Coulson stepped out onto the loose gravel, taking Loki’s rifle once again as it was offered to him.  As Loki scanned the crowd for someone else to take with him, Rogers and Dugan jogged up from the back of the line.  Loki hadn’t even been sure if either had made it out alive, but now that he knew for certain, Rogers’ presence was a game-changer.

“Have you contacted Stark?” Loki asked, more eagerly than he’d meant to.

Rogers cringed.  “No, there’s a… slight problem with the radio.”

Rather than go into detail about it, he pulled the device from his belt and turned it over, showing mangled wires poking through the shredded case.  Loki quietly cursed at the sight of it and turned to survey their surroundings once more.

“So, we keep driving through enemy territory and hope no one spots us?” Dugan asked.

Loki and Rogers shared a brief glance, but it was clear that neither of them had a better idea.

“That’s the plan,” Loki said reluctantly.

“We’ll need supplies,” Rogers said, looking over at the row of vehicles as everyone worked to reshuffle and trim down to as small of a convoy as possible.

“Jerry cans, guns, ammo, rations.  Anything we can fit on a truck that’ll help us get back to base,” Loki elaborated.  “If you find any trucks, take what you can from the tanks and fill the jerry cans.  We’ll need it.”

Dugan nodded.  “Yes, sirs,” he said.

He went back to gather a team, and Loki nodded toward Coulson.  “We’ll help,” he said.

Rogers nodded at the pair of them.  “Be quick,” he said.  “We shouldn’t stay too long.”

Loki thought that was the smartest thing Rogers had said yet.  “Yes, sir,” he said before leading Coulson away from the convoy.

There were twelve of them raiding the village, but there wasn’t much left to raid.  Most of what hadn’t been destroyed had been taken already.  Somebody, whether the retreating Italians or the invading Germans, had been very thorough.  While Dugan and Jones broke into the fuel tank of a Fiat M14/41, Loki and Coulson broke into every building they could.  Ramirez had been amongst the liberated, and with Morita, they began tearing apart every bed sheet and old shirt they could find, creating makeshift bandages.  Including Morita, two of the men captured had been medics, and while everything else was underway, they quickly made their way along the line to assess the wounded.

Loki and Coulson found precious little on their hunt, and returned to the line with several loaves of old bread and some hard cheese.  They found Rogers standing by the cab of one of the Opels, with the man Loki recognised as Sergeant Barnes in the front seat.  Though he seemed in one piece, he looked worse than many of the wounded, staring blankly out the window.  Almost unthinkingly, Loki passed him a block of cheese.

“You found him,” Loki observed.  “Good.”

Rogers nodded.  “Yeah.  Thanks,” he said, sounding pleased beneath the exhaustion in his voice.

“Looks like everything’s about ready to go,” said Loki.  “Six Opels, two Wagens.  Let’s just hope it’s enough to get us back to Barrea.”

“Go on,” said Rogers.  “I’ll be right behind you this time.”

Loki nodded.  “Sir,” he said.

He returned to the Kübelwagen at the front and reclaimed his seat.  They were joined by Pinkerton and Ramirez as well, both crowded into the back seat with Howlett.

“You want to take this one, Luke?” Coulson asked.

“What?” Loki looked over to him, and it was a few moments before he understood the request.  “Oh.  I don’t know how.  Never learned.”

“Really?” Coulson asked.

Loki shook his head.  “Ramirez.  You drive?”

“Yes, sir,” Ramirez answered.

“Get up here,” Loki told him.

Ramirez and Coulson quickly swapped places, stumbling over the back of the bench seat and clumsily moving around one another while trying to dodge everyone else.

“The other bloke was smaller,” Pinkerton complained as he tried to move Coulson’s knee away from his face.

Loki turned in his seat to watch the struggle.  “Howlett, you want to ride up front?” he offered.

“No,” said Pinkerton and Coulson at once.

“Sorry, Howlett,” said Loki, turning back around with an indifferent shrug.

“Yeah, bite me, Tommy,” Howlett grumbled, though not without jest.

Before Coulson was even properly settled, Ramirez started the car and pulled back out onto the main road.  One by one, the rest followed their tracks south.

It was nearly dusk before they found their way back to Barrea.  Loki was surprised they were able to make it back at all, but even more surprising was Colonel Phillips.  He was suspiciously willing to overlook the incident without a thought.  Instead, he had everyone involved with the whole incident moved back to Alfedena for recovery and processing.  At least a third of the men liberated didn’t even belong to America’s army, and reconnecting some of them with their units was going to take effort.

By the next afternoon, it seemed as if everyone was about as recovered as they were ever going to get, with a makeshift bar open.  Loki kept a pint in his hand for appearance’s sake, but he didn’t bother drinking it; he saw no point in forcing himself to swallow the goat-piss the mortals called beer when he didn’t even get any of its intoxicating effects.  He wandered through the crowd in the bar, taking his own personal roll call.  Randal was back at Barrea.  Ramirez was with a small group of Puerto Rican men, no doubt enjoying a break from speaing English.  Coulson wandered by the dart board, presumably waiting for Loki to wander over as well.  It took a few minutes, but Loki eventually found Jackson up at the bar.  And that was it.  The number of Union men in Baker company was now five, down from two hundred when they first left New York.  Loki tried not to think about that, and instead began to look for a distraction.  He quickly found one in the shape of Barnes, edging a bit close into his space.

“You promised me a rematch,” Barnes said.

Loki wasn’t in the mood.  He was sure Barnes wasn’t either, but played along all the same.  He was only the rescuer; Barnes had been through hel and back.  To admit exhaustion when Barnes wasn’t prepared to do so would have been insulting to both of them.

“Name the time,” Loki said, shrugging lazily.

“How about now.”

Barnes grinned at him wryly and backed off, but only just.  Stepping aside, Loki motioned for Barnes to lead the way to the dart board.  Barnes approached the board with purpose and pulled the darts from the hard cork, wearing a smile Loki didn’t entirely trust.

“Double or nothing?” Barnes offered.

“You have that kind of money on you?” Loki asked.

Barnes nudged Coulson out of the way and took his mark in front of the board.  “I’ve been practising,” he said.

Loki and Coulson shrugged indifferently at one another, and Loki passed his beer off to someone else.

“Double or nothing,” he agreed tiredly.  “Show me what you’ve got.”

Barnes threw the first dart, landing right on the edge of the bull.  He had been practising since their last match in Barrea.  Then, Loki’d had to put effort into throwing poorly, just to keep the con up.

“Not bad,” he said.  “Do that again.”

Barnes threw the second one, landing on the other side of the bull.

“He did it again,” Coulson said.

Barnes grinned smugly at Loki.  “Hope you got the money,” he said.  He threw the third dart, landing it almost in the exact centre of the bullseye.

Loki nodded appreciatively as he fetched the darts.  He quickly tested their weight as he walked back to his mark.  Biting his lip, he looked from the board to Barnes.

“That’s a pretty good score,” he said.  He ignored Coulson’s obvious smirk.  “I’m going to have to try hard to beat that.”

Still looking at Barnes, he threw the first dart with his right hand.  Despite the awkward sideways angle, it hit the bullseye.

Loki cringed.  “I’m sorry.  My hand slipped.  Let me try that again.” He threw the second one the same way, hitting the bullseye again.

Barnes gaped, and those few around them began to stare.  Except for Coulson, who laughed into his drink.

“You know, I forgot to mention something too,” Loki said.  “I’m not right-handed.”

He moved the third dart to his left hand and took it by the pointed tip, throwing it end-over-end.  It hit the bullseye so hard, it knocked the other two out of the board.  Loki turned back to Barnes, who still stood gaping like a stunned fish.

“I believe that’s one-hundred dollars,” Loki said.

Barnes looked to him finally and nodded.  “Yeah.  Yeah, of course.”

He pulled out his wallet and emptied its contents, handing the cash over to Loki before walking back to inspect the board.

“There.  You feel better now?” Coulson asked.

“No,” Loki admitted.  He tucked the money away along with everything else he’d swindled the same way.

“No one’s gonna be stupid enough to play with you after that,” Coulson pointed out.

Loki shrugged indifferently.  “It was getting boring anyway,” he reasoned.

Coulson studied him for a long moment.  “You all right, man?”

“Yeah,” Loki said.  He sighed and looked back over the crowd.  “I feel as though I should be asking you that question,” he said.

“I’ve been better,” Coulson said honestly.  “But this is what we signed up to get fifty bucks a month for, isn’t it?”

“They’re not paying us enough,” Loki declared.

“We should sign up for airborne,” said Coulson.  “I hear they get a hundred.”

Loki turned an unamused glare to him for just a moment before returning his attention to the crowd.  Rogers had made his way in at one point and was wandering around, apparently looking for someone.

“You know, there are only five Union men left in the company,” Loki said apropos of nothing.  “Assuming Randal’s still in one piece back in Barrea.”

“Fuck,” muttered Coulson.  “The whole damn company?”

Loki nodded.  Coulson looked at him silently for a few long moments before putting down his drink and tugging Loki toward the door.

“Come on,” he said.  “Let’s get out of here.”

Loki nodded again and began to follow after Coulson.  Before they made it to the door, Morita caught them up and stopped them.

“Hey, Captain Rogers wants to talk to you two,” he said.

“About what?” Coulson asked.

Morita shrugged.  “He didn’t say.  Just asked me to grab you two.”

Coulson and Loki shrugged tiredly at one another and followed Morita back through the bar to the table Rogers sat at, along with a small group.  Barnes was there with him, as well as Howlett and Dugan.  Morita sat down next to Jones and Pinkerton, leaving two seats open.  Uncertain, Loki and Coulson both sat down, waiting for someone else to speak first.

“I’m putting together a team,” Rogers said without preamble.

“I’m sorry, what?” Dugan asked.

Loki looked around the table once more, suddenly very interested in the group Rogers had chosen.  Loki himself had no business there.  Coulson had only turned seventeen in December, having lied about his age to enlist.  Howlett was Canadian and Pinkerton English.  Morita, a Japanese-American, and Jones, a rather large black man, were both from 3d Battalion, in the only integrated company in the regiment.  And Rogers himself was still a mystery.  But they were all, with the exceptions of Dugan and Barnes, not where they were supposed to be.  And all people Rogers wanted to join him on whatever mission he’d appointed himself.

“We all saw some of what Hydra’s doing,” Rogers said.  “Someone needs to go after these guys.”

Loki shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “You don’t know what you’re getting into.”

All eyes were on him now, but he didn’t even flinch.

“We were all there, which is why I presume we’re all here now,” Loki continued.  “We all saw the same thing.”

Rogers looked around the table incredulously.  “That’s why something has to be done,” he said.

“What the hell do you think we’ve been doing?” asked Coulson flatly.

Before he could say any more, Loki reached out to silence him.  A week ago, Coulson had seen Captain Rogers under an entirely different light.  He probably still did, but he was exhausted and not thinking clearly, and Loki knew it.

“Hydra is Patton’s project,” Loki said evenly.  “Ray’s right; there are entire armies going after Hydra.  Not just us now, but everyone.  But do you know what happens when you try to slay a hydra?”

The table was quiet for a few seconds, until Jones came forward with, “Its head grows back.  Cut off one head; two more take its place.”

“You have to cut out its heart,” Loki explained.  “Its heart doesn’t grow back.  You take away its power and it can no longer recover from its wounds.”

“Hydra’s weapons,” Barnes said.  “They got technology I’ve never seen before.  Not even at Stark Expo.”

“And they must have something powering it,” Loki pointed out.

“Schmidt’s an occult adviser to Hitler,” said Dugan.  “That’s what I heard anyway.  Makes sense, with some of what they had back there.”

Rogers looked around the table again and nodded.  “All right,” he said.  “We go after their power, and stop them from getting any more.  If we do that, we’re gonna need an expert on the occult.”

Everyone at the table looked around anxiously then, none sure where to go from there.

“I know an expert,” Loki said suddenly.

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Midgard Legends #4: Shell Shock

Loki found his spectacles on the table next to him, along with a cup of cold tea.  Out of habit, he picked up his glasses, ignoring the tea, and slid them on before looking around the room.  Bruttenholm was conspicuously absent, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Before anyone else could find him, Loki changed his skin, making sure that if he were seen, there was nothing outwardly unusual about him.  The rest—his presence in a place he should not have been—he could manipulate.  Looking every bit like the alien god he was, not so much.

Once it became clear he wasn’t about to be ambushed (again), he found himself curious about the room he was in.  He got up to look around, ignoring the tiny voice in his head telling him to just leave.  It was a voice he was very good at ignoring.

The room itself was very plain.  A small bed against the wall, the broken table that Loki had destroyed near the door.  There were a few low shelves along the wall opposite the window, sparsely used, as if the room itself belonged to no one.

On the table between the armchair in which Loki had spent the night and the bed, there was a thick folder with an army stamp on the front.  Official business, then.  Soldiers quartered in civilian homes; a practise Loki was well familiar with.  But Bruttenholm, he could tell, was no soldier.  Loki would be a fool to ignore any information he was given, then.

He stood in the centre of the room, flipping through the pages, though little made sense.  The orders were straightforward enough.  Professor Trevor Bruttenholm was attached to the 86th Infantry Division to aid in the defence against Axis paranormal powers.  The orders themselves were barely a week old, and already they seemed to have got far more than they bargained for.  Surely, no one expected whatever dark magic they had stumbled upon the night before.

Loki wondered if they knew anything of the Tesseract.

Nothing in the small stack of paper mentioned it, so probably not.  Loki replaced the folder to where he found it and moved to the window.  He didn’t remember much of his first visit to Midgard as a young boy, but he was certain this was the same place.  It felt the same, though much had changed.  But there was still magic to be found on Midgard, and this place still held it.

As he looked out over the road, Loki heard footsteps, heavy and uneven, on the stairs.  He turned as the door opened, watching Bruttenholm limp into the room.  He carried a large tray with several small plates and another cup of tea, balancing it precariously with one hand as the other supported his weight against the wall.  Bruttenholm looked at Loki for a long moment, regarding him as if surprised to see Loki awake at all.

“I thought you might appreciate a spot of breakfast,” Bruttenholm said, nodding down at the tray.

He put the offering down on the table near the bed before sitting down in the chair to take his weight off his injured leg.  Loki didn’t hesitate to move across the room to the offer of food that didn’t come in a small, cardboard box or tin can.  Eggs, bacon, ham, toast, beans; the first proper meal Loki laid eyes on in months.  He went immediately for the bacon, using it to break the yolks of the eggs before shoving the whole strip into his mouth.

From the chair, Bruttenholm watched him with a bemused expression.  Though he seemed safe, Loki still couldn’t fight the creeping wariness toward him.

“I can’t help but wonder why I found myself in your company twice last night, Professor,” Loki said around a mouthful of toast.

“Professor Broom, yes,” Bruttenholm confirmed, for the first time showing his own nervousness.  “How did you…”

Loki looked up briefly and pointed to the folder sticking out from under the breakfast tray.

“Your orders,” he pointed out.  “I’m not that sort of god.”  He wondered if he could be, but he’d never bothered to try.

He only just then notice the fork on the side of the tray and used it to push some of the beans onto the last slice of toast so he could eat both at once.  Once he started, he found himself unable to stop.  After so much time living on K-Rations, even a simple fried meal as this was like a drug he could not get enough of.

Bruttenholm nodded slowly, accepting Loki’s explanation.

“My colleagues and I specialise in the paranormal, as I’m sure you know,” he said.  “We’ve been investigating certain members of the Nazi party for several years now.” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, obviously resisting the urge to reach for the rosary around his wrist.  “It seems they’ve acquired some rather unusual allies.”

Loki raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing.  Mostly because he was too busy finishing off the last of the bacon.

“Grigori Rasputin,” Bruttenholm clarified.

Loki swallowed.  “He’s dead.  I was there.  It was hilarious.”

He had a habit of dropping in on the mortals, wherever they might be, whenever whispers of magic and mayhem were involved.  And Rasputin had not disappointed in the least.  Whatever sorcery the man had learned could have been amazing, had his vision not been so short-sighted.

“Yes, apparently not,” Bruttenholm said slowly.  “He’s the current leader of Hitler’s Project Ragna Rök.”

Loki forgot all about the last remains of his breakfast and levelled a deadly serious gaze on Bruttenholm.  “I find that to be in extremely poor taste,” he said.

“As do I, considering the project’s apparent goals,” Bruttenholm said, just as seriously.  “Last night, we learned that he meant to summon chaos gods to this world.”

“Chaos gods?” Loki asked.  He paid woefully little attention to the humans’ many beliefs, but it was starting to seem as if he needed to remedy this gap in his knowledge.  At this moment, however, he had an even more important question.

“What sort of idiot summons chaos gods and expects it to end well?” he asked.  “Either way, it doesn’t seem to have worked for him, if all he got was me.”

This time, it was Bruttenholm’s turn to raise an eyebrow.  “Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” he said.

Loki moved over to the window again, looking out over the town as it slowly woke in the early morning.  “What makes you so certain he was after what you say he was?” he asked.

“It was the wording,” Bruttenholm said, keeping his eyes on Loki.  “Of the spell he used.  Seven, neither male nor female.”

Loki frowned, entirely unsure what to make of such a claim.  “What the hel does that mean?” he asked.  He looked down at himself, finding absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

Bruttenholm shrugged.  “Your guess is as good as mine,” he said.  “But his intent was plain, and clearly something of it worked if you’re here.”

Turning back to the window, Loki rolled his eyes.  “And where is he now? Licking his wounds somewhere, I imagine.”

“As far as we can tell,” Bruttenholm said, taking a deep breath, “he was drawn into the very portal he opened.”

At that, Loki snorted.  “Good.”

Looking out at the village below, Loki wondered how easily he might be able to talk himself into a shower.  Judging by the age of most of the buildings, he thought it unlikely.  The concept of indoor plumbing might have been little more than a myth to these people.

“After I left last night, you prayed,” Loki said.  “It was a very unusual prayer.  Not one I’ve heard in ages.”

“I must confess, I didn’t think anyone still listened,” Bruttenholm admitted uneasily.

Loki turned back to study him once more, unsure what to make of a man who carried a rosary and spoke as if he knew more than anyone else in the room.

“We’re not supposed to,” Loki told him.  “It’s forbidden.  I only answered because it seemed preferable to passing out on the moor.”

Bruttenholm nodded, slowly at first but then with thing.  “I suppose it would be foolish to ask for your assistance,” he said dryly.

Loki grinned wryly and looked down at his uniform, gesturing to it.  Perhaps not as foolish as Bruttenholm might think, all things considered

“What do you know of the Tesseract?” he asked.

Bruttenholm went very still.  He looked up at Loki with unveiled fear, which did nothing to quell Loki’s own.

“It’s been lost for centuries,” he said.

Loki frowned and looked at his watch.  A pointless gesture, but theatrical all the same.

“Oh, no,” he said, shaking his head.  “Only a few months.  It was taken from Tønsberg last year.”

“The Nazis?” Bruttenholm asked, clearly already knowing the answer.

“Hydra, to be precise,” said Loki.  “Johan Schmidt.  I found him once, and now he uses the Tesseract against me.  I wish to find it and claim it for myself.”

He looked to Bruttenholm, grinning at the wary look the man wore.

“Don’t worry.  I wish to remove it from this realm,” Loki said.  “I have a summer home in New York.  I’d hate to see it come to harm.”

Bruttenholm relaxed only slightly, though his expression hardened.  “I see,” he said.  “While the enemy of my enemy may be my friend, the lesser of two evils is still evil.”

“You wound me deeply, Professor,” Loki said facetiously, clapping his hand to his chest.

Bruttenholm watched him with a wary eye, and Loki knew why.  Bruttenholm had no idea who he was.  It was Loki’s namesake who had been careless in his presence in Midgard, unbridled in his recklessness as he left destruction and ruin in his wake.  It was this man who had tainted Loki’s own name and image before he’d even had the chance to assert his own presence, and it was that man’s legacy that would follow him to his own grave.

They studied one another, neither saying anything for a long moment.  Finally, Loki moved away from the window and sat down on the bed, putting himself at the same level as Bruttenholm.

“I am not the enemy here,” Loki said evenly.  “I only wish to retrieve that which should not have been left on this realm in the first place.  Considering what is being done with the Tesseract, I would consider this goal to be in our mutual interest.”

Bruttenholm laughed nervously.

“You’ll have to excuse me if I seem a bit skeptical,” he said.

Loki fought a sneer.  That man’s legacy had preceded him across every realm in Yggdrasil, pervasive and incessant.  His very name had become synonymous with distrust and deceit, and now actively worked against him and his goals.

“Of course,” he said stiffly as he rose to his feet once more.  “I would expect nothing less, after all.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get shot at some more.  I did rather mean what I’d said last night about being in the middle of something, and I do hope they’ve not finished without me.”

Without waiting to see what Bruttenholm had to say, Loki returned to the woods outside of Barrea with a single step.  As it happened, they had finished without him.  The line was all but abandoned, but right away, Loki knew it wasn’t because of any advance.  They’d been ambushed the night before, and now the line was in complete disarray.  At least someone had taken the time to deal with the dead and the wounded, however many there might have been, but that only went a short way in restoring the order that had been here the day before.

Cloaked from the few who still remained, Loki dropped down into his foxhole to collect his gear.  The supplies and personal belongings of the solders had not yet been collected, it seemed.  Whatever happened in Loki’s absence, it had only recently ended.

Along with his own pack, Loki found Coulson’s as well.  He still had comics in there.  He wouldn’t have just left it If he had any choice.  Loki quickly moved the comics from Coulson’s pack into his own and put both back where he’d found them, hesitating slightly.

This could be perfect.  He was getting nowhere with the humans as allies, while Schmidt moved farther and farther away.

Loki never was terribly good at judgement calls, especially when that damned pesky honour got in the way.  He took off his eyeglasses and made a quick copy of them; distorted and imperfect, but good enough for his cause.  He slid the original pair into his pack and dropped the copy to the ground, stamping his heel over them.  The crunch they made was rather satisfying beneath his boot, which meant he was getting better at tangible items.  That, at least, was pleasing.  When he picked the glasses up again, the frames were mangled and both lenses cracked and broken.  Perfect.  He slid the glasses into his front pocket and picked up his rifle and removed the clip, replacing it with a spent one from the ground.  Satisfied with his work, he left the foxhole and reappeared about fifty meters away.

Loki dropped his concealment then and started to make his way back to the line, stepping carefully, but with excessive noise.  Someone soon heard him and moved out to quickly investigate.  Loki could see the movement through the trees, but he waited until he heard their footsteps to swing his rifle round in a wide arc.

“Who’s there?” he called out, looking around wildly.

“Jesus Christ.  Olson?” Randal called back.

Loki looked toward the direction of Randal’s voice, squinting as if trying to peer through a heavy fog.

“Over here,” he called back, keeping his voice low despite knowing he was safe.

Randal trotted over to him, dropping his rifle to his waist as he approached.  As he came nearer, Loki lowered his own weapon tiredly.

“Damnit, Luke.  What the hell happened to you?” Randal asked.

Loki shrugged wildly, gesturing at everything around him and pulled the mangled spectacles from his pocket.

“Had a bit of a rough night,” he said.

Randal took the glasses from him and winced at the sight of them.  Curious, he brought them up to peer through the less-damaged of the two lenses, wincing loudly as he pulled them away again.

“How’d you not wind up 4-F’ed out?” he asked, blinking away the strain from trying to see through Loki’s glasses.

Loki laughed nervously.  “Careful.  I wouldn’t want anyone to think I might actually be human after all,” he said.  He pretended not to see the incredulous look on Randal’s face.

“I have a spare in my pack,” Loki said, more seriously.  “I wasn’t even going to try to find my way back in the dark.”

“Yeah, all right,” Randal said.

He slung his rifle over his shoulder and took hold of Loki’s elbow, guiding him through the underbrush.  “Come on, Helen Keller.  Watch your step.”

“Who?” asked Loki.

Randal rolled his eyes.  “Nothing.  Where’s your pack?”

Loki deliberately stumbled over nothing and shot the ground at his feet an angry glare.  “Right where I left it, I should hope.”

Randal led him back to his foxhole, staying near as Loki felt around for his glasses.  He found them right where he’d put them and slid them on, blinking to adjust the distortion.  It wasn’t until some time after he’d started wearing them that he learned that the man he’d stolen them from was practically blind without them.  At that moment, it suited his means rather well, if it would get him out of having to explain his sudden reappearance to the company.

Loki looked around, only then reacting to the sorry state of it.

“Where the hel is everyone?” he asked, genuinely curious.

Randal frowned and shifted awkwardly.  “We’re, uh.  We’re it,” he said.  “We’re just waiting on reinforcements.  I guess the company’s yours again.”

Loki frowned at the sight of it.  There couldn’t have been more than twenty people, and they all looked as miserable as they ever had.  He didn’t think he wanted to know what he’d missed, when it came to it.

“I… I should go report to HQ before anyone back home gets any unfortunate letters,” he said.

He climbed out of his foxhole and made tracks toward the road at the rear.  Randal followed after him, unsure of what else to do.

“You got a family?” he asked.

Loki shot him a disbelieving glare.  “No, John.  I appeared on this planet fully-formed five years ago.  Didn’t you?”

Randal snorted.  “Yeah, I bet you did, Olson,” he said.  “What planet is it you came from, again?”

“Second star to the right, and straight on till morning,” Loki said distantly. 

Behind him, Randal snorted again.  “How the hell you know Peter Pan, but you don’t know Helen Keller?”

“I’m foreign.  Shut up,” Loki said.

Looking out at the road to Barrea, Loki rather envied the Lost Boys then.  He wondered why he hadn’t taken the opportunity to leave.

There were several jeeps parked outside the tents that made up company HQ, but beyond that, no sign of any commanding presence.  It seemed once again, the company had indeed fallen into his hands.  He didn’t even want it.  The sooner someone else came in to replace the officers, the better.

“Come on,” Loki said, nodding toward one of the jeeps.  “We can resupply in town, assuming it’s still there.  And when they shoot me for desertion, you can bring everything back.”

He climbed into the passenger seat of the jeep, putting his rifle in the space between the seats.

“You don’t want to drive?” Randal asked, getting behind the wheel anyway.

Loki shook his head.  “I don’t know how,” he said.

“Really?” asked Randal.

“I grew up riding horses, and then left for New York,” Loki said.  “Why would I ever need to know?”

“Really?”  Randal nodded again and settled his rifle along with Loki’s before starting the jeep.

Regiment HQ was in Barrea proper, and had been just as heavily hit as those out on the line.  The town Randal and Loki drove into was not the one they remembered taking weeks earlier.  There had been some damage done then, but not to the extent Loki and Randal found now.  Buildings barely stood and the streets were in shambles Randal stopped and pulled over at the first space large enough as he and Loki looked out at the damage.

“What sort of psychos bomb their own towns?” Randal asked.

“Those who have become disloyal,” Loki said.  He looked over to Randal.  “Assuming it was even the Italians who dropped the bombs.”

“Well, it sure as hell wasn’t us,” Randal insisted.

Loki kept his theories to himself as the two of them climbed out of the jeep and tried to find someone to report to.  They found their Battalion HQ in an old house with half the top storey missing.  What remained of the officers scrambled about to regroup, darting in and out of the house like giant green ants.  Standing by a desk near the front door, Colonel Phillips dictated a next-of-kin letter to a young staff sergeant at a typewriter.  Loki stood out of the way of the door, letting Phillips finish his depressing task before interrupting.

“Sir,” Loki said.

Phillips turned his exhausted gaze to Loki, too one look at his rank, and became even more exhausted.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Luke Olson, Baker company, second battalion,” Loki said.  “I got a bit separated last night, and came back to find no company commander to report to, sir.”

A brief flash of what might have been sympathy flashed over Phillips’ face as he turned to his sergeant at the typewriter.  The two of them each picked up stacks of freshly-typed letters and began thumbing through them.  Finally, Phillips pulled one from his stack and tore it in half.

“Do you have any idea how many of these letters I’ve signed this morning?” he asked, dropping the torn paper into a small box by the desk.

“I’m getting an idea, sir,” Loki said.

Phillips picked up his roster and updated it, clearly taking a small amount of pleasure in even the small change.

“Report to Captain Matthews.  He’s around here somewhere,” he said finally.  “You boys are being taken off the line.  Just in time for Christmas.”

“Yes, sir,” Loki said.

He nudged Randal out the door as he turned to go find who they could only assume was their new company commander.

Not even their first hot shower since arriving in Italy was enough to raise anyone’s spirits in Barrea.  Most of the men sat quietly, barely speaking to one another unless it was to snipe and bicker at nothing.  Loki sat on his bunk in the basement of the house in which he’d been quartered, reorganising his pack for what felt like the two-hundredth time.  This was not what he’d signed up for.  He was no closer now to the Tesseract than he’d been when he decided to enlist.  Why he’d thought enlisting was ever going to be a good idea, he had no idea.  But then again, his plans always did have a certain lack of planning and foresight about them.

He should have taken his chance and left.  Let the humans declare him killed in action.  What harm could it possibly do?

He laid Coulson’s comics out on his bunk, lining them up neatly.  Loki wasn’t even sure why he’d taken them.  But Coulson kept them as nice as he could out there, so Loki was determined to do the same.  If Loki had any sense of honour at all, he’d burn them, but somehow he couldn’t even bring himself to do that much.  That would mean he’d have to admit that he’d once again made a friend in someone he shouldn’t have done.  Humans died.  That’s what they did, every time.  There was no point in pretending he could keep them around for any length of time.

Loki didn’t hear Randal come down the stairs until he was already looking down at the comics on the bed.  Randal picked one up and shook his head.

“You hear that asshole’s coming out here this week?” he asked, tossing the comic back down with the rest.  “To ‘boost morale.’”

“I don’t think I’ll be going,” Loki said, putting the comics back into his pack.  “Ray should be here for that.”

“Yeah.  So should a lot of guys,” said Randal as he sat on his bunk on the other side of the small room.

“Yeah,” Loki agreed.

He fought the urge to throw something across the room.  Instead, he hastily put everything into his pack and got up.

“I need to get my hair cut,” he declared as he left the basement.

He spent most of his time in garrison in his bunk.  It had been their first time in garrison since England, over a year before after they’d shipped out and sailed across the sea, but few of the men seemed to be enjoying it.  Barrea resembled an over-sized aid station, with many of the walking wounded keeping to themselves.  The medics called it shell shock, and even used it as an excuse to send people off the line, and even back home.

No one noticed one more soldier curled up in his bed all day, with his nose stuck in any book he could find.  And when he wasn’t reading, he was spying.

The basement was quiet through much of the day, allowing Loki to concentrate.  He was just a sergeant; given information only on a need-to-know basis.  So if no one thought he needed to know anything, Loki was just going to have to do his own reconnaissance.

He started with Colonel Phillips, following him unseen around the camp.  Hydra was the word of the week as Phillips discussed matters with other officers.  They weren’t just the scourge of second battalion, but of the entire regiment.  Every coordinated attack against the 107th had been Hydra.

Loki left Phillips’ side and followed General Thompson after that.  Thompson dictated a message back to the States, warning that Hydra had defected from Hitler and Germany.  They attacked not only American soldiers, but Italian, German, French, British… Hydra were bigger than anyone had realised.

One thing was certain.  The longer Loki stayed where he was, the further from his reach the Tesseract grew.  This Johan Schmidt and his army had harnessed the power of the gods.  He was likely already unstoppable, even if the Allied Forces did know what they were truly up against.

After three days of giving himself a headache from the constant reaching with his magic, Loki decided he’d learned all there was the learn.  He rolled over onto his bunk, trying to determine his next course of action.  It wouldn’t matter if he went AWOL.  There was no Luke Olson to be punished, and Loki knew he was too good to get caught anyway.  But after that… what? Wander about Europe like a phantom until he got lucky?  Unlikely.  Europe was far too big for him to rely on luck.  Loki had exhausted his supply of good luck as a screaming infant on Jötunheimr.  Anything he did would have to depend on his wits.

He couldn’t stay where he was at any rate.  The regiment had ground to a halt, and staying with it simply wasn’t an option.  In two weeks, no one would even miss him.

Thinking that perhaps a plan would come to him, Loki got up for the first time in days.  It occurred to him as he left the dimly-lit basement and walked out into the rain-soaked street that there were few people about.  Aside from the occasional officer, Barrea seemed completely empty.  Loki wandered aimlessly, walking to the edge of town where Regiment HQ was set up.  The south edge of town was the only part that hadn’t been completely bombed out by Hydra the week before.  The roads ran along large stretches of trees, broken up only by muddy fields.  As Loki walked along the edge of one, nearing a small group of tents, he remembered the USO show Randal had mentioned.  From the road, he could hear the jeers and shouts of unimpressed men.  Suddenly, very curious, Loki made his way toward the field.  By the time he got close enough to see what was happening, the main attraction had already been replaced by a line of young women in patriotic skirts.  Everything about them seemed boring, so Loki wandered off behind the tents instead.  He could hear shrill whistles and catcalls over the music, so whatever was happening onstage seemed a suitable distraction.

He wandered about the tents that had been set up, letting the officers continue their work while remaining close to everything, should there come another strike.  Not the best place to mount a defence, but a safer place to congregate than ruined, collapsed houses.

Loki heard the sounds of a slightly heated discussion with Colonel Phillips and moved closer to better eavesdrop.  Phillips, ever his cheery self, was arguing the intelligence of going behind enemy lines to mount a rescue, when so few of the men left under his command were fit for combat.

Well, wasn’t that just an idea?

Before Loki could talk himself out of it, Captain America himself stepped out of the tent and stepped right into Loki.

“I’m coming with you,” Loki said at once, barely giving Rogers a chance to recover his footing.

Rogers looked at Loki with alarm, turning to the woman behind him.

“Er, I…” Rogers trailed off, looking between his companion and Loki, like he wasn’t sure what the correct answer was.

And somehow, this man was meant to be a captain.

“I have friends there too,” Loki said easily.  “You’ll have better odds with help.”

Rogers consulted wordlessly with Agent Carter and nodded.  She spared a moment to look over Loki before nodding back.  “Have you got a plan?” she asked.

“Uh.” Rogers looked down at himself.  “I think I want to change, first.”

“I’m quartered up the road,” Loki told him, already walking in that direction.  “No one’s in town right now.  You can get what you need there.”

With another nod, Rogers started to follow.  He stopped suddenly, holding up one hand.  “Wait, just a minute,” he said, ducking back into one of the larger tents.

Throwing a confused glance to Carter, Loki followed after Rogers.  The tent was one the USO tour had set up, with costumes on racks and a sewing machine at quick access right near the entrance.  Rogers had shucked the large, olive drab trench coat he’d been wearing, and was trading it for a pair of combat trousers over his patriotic tights.

“Have you been issued anything useful?” Loki asked as Rogers pilfered a blue helmet from a shelf.  “Perhaps a gun?”

Rogers looked up at him, a frown playing over his face.  “You wouldn’t happen to know where a guy might find one, just lying around?” he asked.

Loki turned to look back out to where Carter stood, waiting for both of them.  He didn’t even have to really try to make himself look like he didn’t want to talk about the words he was thinking.

“Plenty of guys were sent home.  I’m sure you know that by now,” he said bitterly.  “Their stuff is all over the place, waiting to be picked over by replacements.”

He spat out the last word, not even having to pretend.

Rogers nodded.  “Right,” he said.  He slid into a leather jacket and picked up his patriotic shield to match his patriotic tights.  “Let’s go, then.”

Loki nodded in the direction of the town, casting a glance around to make sure they weren’t being watched.  Satisfied that they weren’t he cloaked the three of them from spying eyes, just to be sure.  A small convoy of jeeps and trucks were parked on the edge of the field, and without a word between them, they all climbed into the nearest jeep, Carter taking the wheel.  Loki climbed into the back seat, leaning between the others as he pointed up the road.

“I’m in the church,” he said.  “It’s almost all there.”

With a nod, Carter dropped the jeep into gear and pulled out onto the road, taking it north into town.  As they rumbled about the broken streets, Rogers glared out at everything around them.  Despite his efforts, Loki’s dour mood matched Rogers’, both with their jaws set tightly as they watched bombed-out and destroyed buildings roll past them.

Before Carter pulled to a complete stop outside the church, Loki leapt out of the back seat and slipped back down into the basement to retrieve his things.  He slipped on his belt with his pistol and all his ammunition and grabbed his rifle, slinging it over his shoulder.  For a moment, he contemplated bringing his pack.  He didn’t want to leave it, but taking it might look rather strange, he realised.  Instead, he banished it to the secret chamber behind his bed in the palace.  A moment later, he did the same to Coulson’s pack.  Picking up his helmet from his bunk, Loki turned round to go back upstairs to meet Rogers and Carter.  Before he was half-way up the stairs, he turned back around and found Ramirez’s bunk.  Ramirez had been at the aid station for three days.  If he came back at all, Loki would be surprised.  As it was, he wouldn’t be needing his weapons.  Loki grabbed the rifle and pistol from under the bed and rushed up the stairs.

He found Carter and Rogers waiting anxiously and jumped into the back seat again, passing Ramirez’s weapons forward to Rogers.  Before he was even settled, Carter got the jeep going again, turning round awkwardly on the narrow road.

“I’m not sure which you prefer, but I’ve more rounds for the pistol,” he said.

“It might be easier with the handgun,” Rogers said almost at once.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Carter asked him.

“Making it up as I go along,” Rogers admitted.  He took several clips’ worth of ammunition from Loki, loading the pistol at once.  “I figure the hard part’ll be just getting there.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Carter warned.  “We have no idea what kind of hornet’s nest you’re about to just walk into, Captain.”

Loki gave her a concerned look, telling himself that it was all part of his cover.  But even as Barrea fell from view, he relaxed and turned his attention back to Rogers.

“I thought you’d be taller,” Loki said, changing the subject to something less nerve-wracking.

Rogers turned to face Loki from the front seat.  “What?” he asked.

“I read your comics,” Loki clarified.  “I thought you’d be taller.”

“You’re not exactly short yourself, pal,” Rogers pointed out.

Loki chuckled and looked out at the passing landscape.  “Olson, by the way,” he introduced.

“I know,” said Rogers, turning around to face forward again.  “We’ve met.”

Loki looked back toward the man in front of him, certain he’d remember that meeting.  “Have we?” he asked.

Rogers nodded.  “Yeah.  A while ago.  I was, uh… You probably just don’t recognise me.  I used to be a lot shorter.”

Loki frowned as he tried to work out that puzzle.  Rogers suddenly had an advantage over him, and while it was a small one, it still irritated Loki immensely.  So far, the only thing this damned war had done was put Loki into a series of compromising and under-powered positions.

“Do I at least get a hint?” he asked.

Rogers flicked a quick glance backwards at him and grinned wryly.  “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” he said.

“Or close up the wall with our English dead,” Loki finished automatically.

As Loki stared at him, Rogers turned his gaze to Carter as she drove.  There was something about his profile that Loki did find vaguely familiar.  Something… art student-ish.

“Oh,” he said finally.

“Oh, you do remember?” asked Rogers, more playful than anything.

“I have a twin brother,” Loki said quickly.  “He can be a real jackass sometimes.  Ignores people if he thinks there might be a good screw in his immediate future.”

Rogers laughed openly and looked to Carter once more.  “So, where are we going, anyway?” he asked.

The jeep almost failed to take another sharp bend at speed, but Carter wrestled it back under control.  “We have a temporary airstrip outside Alfedena,” she told him.  “If you want into Austria, you’re going to need an aeroplane.”

“Austria?” Loki asked, pretending to be surprised.  He even might have been, if not for all the time he’d spent spying on Colonel Phillips.

Rogers turned round in his seat to face Loki again.  “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.

Loki nodded and looked out at the sloping fields as they sped down the mountain.  “Someone has to, right?” It was the sort of line he’d read in a dozen Captain America comics.  He was certain Rogers would appreciate the sentiment.

Rogers nodded back and resettled in his seat, watching as their little corner of Italy faded into evening.  They rode in silence for a long moment, the heavy weight of what they were doing falling over them.  Not for the first time, Loki wondered why he was still there, mucking about in the mud with mortals who hadn’t the first clue what they were doing.

“So, we have a plane.  What about a pilot?” he asked suddenly.

Carter didn’t take her eyes off the road as she took another sharp corner.  “I think I know just the man,” she said.

“You?” Loki asked, unable to help himself.  He leaned against the back of the seat in front of him, grinning smugly.

“I’m not a man, in case you haven’t noticed, Sergeant,” Carter pointed out evenly.  She flicked the briefest of glances over her shoulder at Loki.  “I can’t help but wonder the same about you, too.  How old are you, exactly?”

Loki scowled and crossed his arms over his chest as he slouched down in his seat.  The military jeep was big enough for the job it had been designed for, but the back seat wasn’t quite big enough for Loki, putting his knees dangerously close to his face.  As they bounced and rumbled along the loose road, Loki watched Rogers in front of him.  He seemed to not quite know how to interact with Agent Carter at all.  It rather put Loki back in New York, where most of the men he knew seemed to behave exactly the same way.

Alfedena was only about eight miles south-east of Barrea, and had been just as heavily-hit by Hydra’s assault.  A long, flat stretch of road doubled as a runway, and had remained largely undamaged in the attacks.  Seeing it, Loki wondered if he should be thanking some wayward god of open supply lines, and to which pantheon this unknown saviour might belong.

Carter drove until the road straightened out and parked on the sloped edge.  Here, several small cargo and transport aeroplanes were grounded, but one modified Lockheed Lodestar stood out from the rest.  It wasn’t painted olive-drab like everything else the US military owned, but glinted under the setting sun with its polished steel finish.  Someone sat in the open hatch, his feet dangling out over the road as he fiddled with a small electronic device.  Rogers grinned widely at the sight of Howard Stark and quickly jumped out of the jeep to meet him.  Stark looked up at them, taking a moment to fully realise the identity of his visitors.

“Peggy.  Steve,” he greeted, surprised to see them.  He looked at Rogers as the group approached and smirked.  “Or should I say Captain? Who’s your friend?”

Rogers glanced over at Loki.  “This is Sergeant Olson,” he said.  “He’s helping me out with something.”

Stark looked up from his tinkering project, focusing between Rogers and Loki a few times before turning his gaze to Agent Carter.  “As am I, I presume?” he asked.

Rogers nodded and looked up at Stark’s plane.  “Word on the street is you can get us into Austria.”

Stark’s eyebrows rose as he forgot all about the device in his hands.  Once more, he turned his focus to Carter, who said nothing to contradict Rogers’ words.

“Word on the street sure does make a lot of claims,” Stark said.

Rogers hid his disappointment, but not well enough.  Even Loki was annoyed, now being eight miles further from where he needed to be.

“So, that’s a no, then?” Loki asked.

“I never said that, my friend,” Stark said.  He waved his screwdriver at Loki and clicked his tongue a few times.

“Tell me,” Stark said finally.  “What’s in Austria that concerns us, other than Hitler and all his best friends?”

“An estimated half-a-regiment’s worth of POWs, whom Colonel Phillips have deemed not worth mounting a rescue,” Loki answered.

Stark looked pointedly down the fuselage of his aeroplane.  Loki hadn’t much experience with the contraptions, but he could very plainly see that it was not big enough to transport over two-thousand men.

“And I assume there’s more to this plan that you just haven’t mentioned yet?” Stark asked.

Rogers nodded.  “We only need you to get us into Austria,” he said.  “We’ll worry about getting ourselves out.”

Both Loki and Carter shot their attention to him then, neither quite sure of the madness of his plan.

“Steve, you can’t,” Carter insisted.

“If they can get out of Austria, then we can get out,” Rogers assured.  “And it won’t be just us getting out.”

“No,” Carter agreed.  “You and hundreds of men who need medical attention.”

Rogers’ expression turned stony.  “You were willing to help half-an-hour ago,” he pointed out.

“And I still am,” Carter said.  “But what you’re proposing is—”

“The last thing anyone would expect,” Loki said suddenly.  He smirked as he thought about it, finding himself rather impressed with the whole thing.  “If they’re not expecting it, then they’ve not planned against it.  Do we have a contingency plan for two insurgents appearing from nowhere?”

Stark looked to Carter again, his expression suddenly brighter.  “Give me ten minutes,” he said.

He set aside his tinkering and jumped out of the plane, trotting back to the tents set up along the road as a makeshift airbase.  As he disappeared into one of them, Carter pleaded wordlessly with Rogers and Loki before rushing after Stark instead.  Once she was out of earshot, Rogers turned to Loki.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Rogers asked once more.  It almost made Loki want to hit him, despite wondering the same thing himself.

“Ask me once more and I will not be held responsible for my actions,” he said instead.

“All right.  Point taken,” Rogers said.  He began to walk alongside Stark’s aeroplane, pausing to look up at the painted tail fin bearing Stark’s name and company logo.

“So what’s his name?” Rogers asked.

Loki frowned, looking up at the tail fin as well.  “I thought you knew him,” he said.

Rogers quickly flashed form confusion to understanding.  “Oh.  Howard.  Yeah, he’s a civilian contractor.  A genius, apparently,” he said.  “I, uh.  I meant your friend.  The reason you’re so hell-bent on getting over there.”

“Oh,” said Loki.  He looked away, suddenly finding the seams on the plane’s fuselage extremely interesting.  “Coulson.  Ray.  Well, actually, my whole squad almost.  Assuming they weren’t all killed.”

Now it was Rogers’ turn to look away.  He wasn’t a soldier—not a proper one—and Loki knew that he had no idea what they were about to face.  Rogers was a propaganda figure; something to get young kids back in the States all gung-ho about the war effort, and a morale boost to the men stuck in foxholes and mosquito-infested jungles.  At the moment, it wasn’t exactly working.

“What happened?” Rogers asked.

“With us?” asked Loki.  He wasn’t even sure, really.  “We were holding the line at Barrea.  First they shelled us all to hel, and then attacked on foot while we were still recovering.  They were coordinated attacks.  All over Europe.”

Loki leaned against the fuselage of the plane and looked out over the field as night fell upon it.  “Not just us.  It’s a rogue group.  They’re called Hydra.  They’ve defected from German control and have declared war against everyone.”

Rogers started to nod, but turned a suspicious eye to Loki instead.

“They do much gossiping out here?” he asked.

Loki grinned wryly.  “Not really,” he said.  “I’m just very good at catching conversations not meant for me to hear.”

Rogers regarded him suspiciously for a few seconds more before looking away again.  Loki was already certain his cover was starting to slip, but he couldn’t really bring himself to care.  He knew where the Tesseract was now, and was only a short while from having it.  He could take the Tesseract and disappear and the humans would be none the wiser.  And if he was lucky, Rogers would be too busy freeing prisoners of war to notice Loki slipping away.  Or, at the very least, he’d be too busy getting killed to notice.

Stark and Carter returned to the road, each carrying a large pack, and Stark with a small radio-like device in one hand.  Without a word to anyone, Stark took both items into the plane and began readying the craft for take-off.  Rogers nudged Loki on the arm and nodded toward the hatch.

“Now or never,” he said before climbing in after Stark.

Loki took the pack from Carter and offered his hand to help her up into the plane, but she refused it and climbed in herself.  He could get to like her, he thought.

« || »

Midgard Legends #3: Ragna Rök

Badolato was off the coast, but not so far inland that they couldn’t still smell the sea when the wind picked up.  The town was almost picturesque, with its stone buildings and narrow, cobblestone streets.  It sat on a steep hill, each road sitting like another step climbing ever higher.  The town was ancient, the architecture priceless, and if not for the bullets whizzing through the air, it would have been a pleasant place to visit.

The regiment had been charged with taking the Calabria region of Italy within the month, working slowly up the peninsula.  Their target was Rome, and from there Austria, and then from there, Berlin.  But first, they had to take and secure the most recent in what was already becoming a long line of heavily armed towns.  Baker company’s objective was to secure an unidentified factory, or possibly a warehouse or just a large barn, on the west side of town.  Intel believed it to be manufacturing, or at least storing weapons, but whether they were right was still to be seen.

Coulson leaned back against the corner of the building, using a small mirror stuck on the end of his bayonet to see round the corner.

“Top window,” he said, finally catching a glimpse of the illusive sniper that had their squad pinned down in the alleyway.

“Are you certain?” Loki asked.

Coulson peered into the mirror once again and nodded.  “Yeah.  Either that, or a very large pigeon.” He slid the mirror off his bayonet and replaced both on his belt.

“Randal.  Cover me,” Loki said.

As soon as Randal was in position, Loki ran out onto the main road, cutting a diagonal path to the next intersection.  He weaved in his steps, making himself a troublesome target.  Still, the sniper fired off two rounds, the first hitting a nearby wall, and the second bouncing off the cobble by Loki’s feet.  A third shot rang out from behind him, and then everything went quiet.  Loki could only assume the sniper had been neutralised, but he didn’t stop running until he was safe on the other side of the street, where he skidded to a halt against the wall.  He turned quickly, aiming his rifle back out to the road to offer covering fire as the rest of the squad ran across the road in a tactical column.  The sniper stayed mercifully dead, letting them cross.

“I think that was Via Roma,” Loki said, peering back out onto the street.  He couldn’t see any sort of markers at all, and still wasn’t completely convinced that HQ hadn’t just made half of the intel up on the spot.

“No idea,” Randal said, secretly agreeing with him.  “These streets make no fucking sense.”

“At least they don’t have tanks,” Ramirez offered, looking up at the two of them.  “Be happy for that.”

Loki ignored them both, doing his best to take over the platoon leader’s responsibilities without getting any more men killed.  Wars in the higher realms never came with stories of guerrilla warfare and snipers in tall buildings.  The humans fought dirty, but Loki had no time to appreciate it.

“Give me the map,” he said suddenly.  “Who has it?”

“Wallace had it, Sir,” Ramirez said apologetically.

Loki banged his head against the side of the wall, pushing his helmet down over his eyes, and upsetting his spectacles.

“Fuck,” he hissed.  He righted his helmet and glasses, and peered out again on the extremely off chance that something might have changed and would have been willing to help them out.

“We’re sitting ducks here,” he declared, getting a hold of himself.  “Either this is Via Roma, and we’re one street short of where we should be, or it’s not and we’re lost already.”

He looked down the road in the other direction, toward where the sniper had been.  The road curved slightly to the left before coming to a T-junction.  It looked about right, but so had every other street so far.

“If we keep going, we’ll just get even more lost,” Randal offered pessimistically.

That thought had occurred to Loki as well.  At the T-junction, only small shops stood, their windows already blown out from the fighting.  Loki saw no sign of a factory or any sort of anything that might have been making weapons.

“What’s the plan?” Coulson asked suddenly.

Either way, they were already lost, or they were exactly where they should have been.  The plan, Loki thought, was obvious.

“Assume we’re in the correct position,” he decided.  “This road offers cover.  If we are where we should be, it’s just a right up ahead, and that should just about put us at our rendezvous with Second.”

He had no idea where the rest of third platoon was, and had no time to think about it.  They’d been cut off almost immediately, and Sgt Wallace’s attempt to reconnect with them cost the squad three men, including himself.  It wasn’t exactly how Loki pictured himself moving up the ranks.

“Clear all these buildings,” he said, motioning down the street.  “I don’t want anyone coming up on us from behind.  No one else gets hurt out here.”

He wished desperately to have been able to place a spell of protection on every one of them, but there were so many reasons he couldn’t.  Instead, he had to trust their ability to perform, and sent them out in twos.  He waited for each pair to breach a building before sending out the next.  Randal and Ramirez first, then Coulson and Kirby.  After that, Jackson and Schmidt, and finally he went out with Clarke.  They ran up to the next unsecured house, Clarke taking a defensive position behind and to the left of Loki, aiming his gun at the middle of the door.  Loki swiftly kicked the door in, raising his rifle up at once and scanning it across the room.  It appeared empty, but to be sure, Clarke entered and cleared all the corners.  With Loki covering his back, the two of them quickly made their way up the stairs, finding the two rooms up there empty as well.  Most of the civilians had fled as soon as they heard the fighting coming, but the soldiers stayed and held their positions fiercely.

Loki and Clarke left the house, quickly checking the road before running to the next closed door.  Each pair made their way up the road, breaking in doors and clearing rooms in a deadly game of leap-frog.  Finally, the squad came to the junction, lining up against the north wall as Coulson used his mirror to check round the corner again.

“Nothing that I can see,” he reported.  “Someone did a lot of work on this one already.”

The road was littered with rubble and torn up by bullets and explosions.  Whoever had caused the damage wasn’t too far off, as the sounds of gunfire were louder, and had stopped moving away.  Taking it as a sign that they were where they were meant to be, Loki nodded.

“Randal,” he said.

Without a word, Randal once again took position to offer covering fire.  Loki darted out, running up the steep hill and dodging around bits of building and holes in the road before stopping at the west wall of another T-junction.  This time, no one shot at him at least.

Those shots that were being fired were coming from the left, where—if they were where they were meant to be—they would find a large building of dubious purpose.  Loki quickly scanned the road for trouble before turning to the group down the road.  He waved them to follow after his steps, covering for them in return.

“Just over there,” Loki said, nodding down the left side of the junction.  “I do believe we’ve somehow come to be exactly where we should be.  If not a bit late.”

“We’d better get a move-on, then,” said Coulson.

Momentarily forgetting himself, Loki grinned.  “Let’s go.”

He dared a glance round the corner, confirming his suspicions.  Not far down the road was a large, open space, encircled by a road on all sides in a ring.  On the eastern edge, three streets intersected the ring within meters of one another.  On the northern edge, several tall buildings were lined up next to one another.  They didn’t look like any factory Loki had seen, but they weren’t exactly barns either.  But they were undoubtedly the target, whatever they were.

Two of the three Baker company platoons had moved into position along each of the three roads, with First flanking around to the west side of the ring.  Loki watched as Second platoon moved into position across the street, in another alleyway.  Ready to give the signal to move, Loki held up his fist.  Shots were being fired almost at random in an attempt to hold back any advance, but it was mostly blind fire; random bursts at the first sign of movement.

Suddenly, a canister flew through the air from Second’s position, soaring down the narrow corridor and bouncing along the cobble.  A few moments later, red smoke began to pour from the canister, followed almost immediately by an unrelenting spray of bullets from the not-factory.  Loki signalled those behind him to advance, making sure they kept to the left wall.  They were exposed on this side of the street, but that exposure also came with a better line of fire for them, once they were in position.  Loki stopped the squad just before the smoke curtain, nodding for everyone to take cover along the bottom of the wall.  The squad ducked down as low as they could get while shots were being fired from what seemed like all directions, ricocheting off the streets and shattering stone walls.  They had to get cover, and they had to get it soon.

With Ramirez behind him, Loki kicked in the door to the small house, sending it nearly off its hinges.  He quickly cleared the room and stepped inside, allowing the others to file in quickly after him.

“Find a way onto the roof,” Loki told them quickly.  “I’m going to see if I can find the rest of the platoon.”

Several of the others nodded as Loki darted back across the street to the relative cover provided by the north wall.  Cries for a medic could be heard over the chaos as one by one, Italian bullets found targets.  Not seeing anything useful nearby, Loki ran through the thinning smoke to duck behind a large armoured truck along with several others from Second platoon.

“You guys Third platoon?” their lieutenant asked, shouting to be heard over the noise.

“What remains of it,” Loki answered.

Lt Davis gave Loki a startled and incredulous look.  “Where the hell’s the rest?”

Loki shrugged, throwing his hands out in a wide arc to insinuate the entire situation at large.  Shots ricocheted off every surface around them, pinning them down.  Two of the men in the group took turns popping out around either side of the truck, firing shots at the open windows of the not-factory before taking cover again.

“Where’s First?” Loki asked, trying to peer around he truck as well.

“We lost our radio op,” Davis said.  He glanced round wildly, flinching when something clanged harshly against the other side of the truck.

Loki laughed, despite himself.  “Of course you did.” He peered out at the ring again, not seeing any sign of their rear support.  “I’m going to see what I can find out,” he announced suddenly.

Before anyone could question him, Loki darted out from the cover provided by the truck and ran down the south curve of the road.  On his right, he was completely exposed, but his presence drew the enemy fire in his direction, allowing those still behind the truck to find targets in the open windows of the not-factory.  On one of the roofs, a machine gunner began firing in Loki’s direction, forcing him to find cover behind a low wall of sandbags.  He skidded to the ground, ducking behind the bags as well as he could.  With each round that struck the other side, Loki could feel the shock of impact rock through him.  Angry at being shot at and stuck where he was, Loki pulled out his sidearm and shot randomly at the not-factory.  Miraculously, after the third shot, the machine gun fire stopped.  Whether it was a lucky shot on his part or a ploy to draw him out, Loki didn’t care.  Re-holstering his sidearm, he got up and this time cloaked himself before continuing down the road.

There was a small street branching off the ring at the southwest corner, from which first platoon was meant to take position.  Loki found it, and before he even began to run down the steep slope, he immediately saw the problem.

The maps had been wrong.  The street ended before it connected to anything.  That would explain the absence of First platoon.  Doubling back, Loki returned to Lt Davis, dropping his concealment just before dropping to the ground.

“I don’t know where the hel First is, Sir,” he said.  “The road that was supposed to connect them to us doesn’t go all the way through.”

Davis pounded his fist against the side of the truck.  “Shit,” he hissed.

Behind him, a large man—almost larger than Loki, even—with an equally large blond moustache fired off a few more rounds before taking cover again.

“What’s the plan now, Sir?” he asked.

Without waiting for any further orders, Loki got up again and ran back the way he’d come.  Using the confusion as a cover, he cloaked himself almost immediately and sprinted along the south bend again, this time passing what should have been First’s position.  If he remembered the maps correctly, and if the maps were correct, there should have been another intersection on the far west.  Finding it, Loki cut south, spotting another intersection down a ways.  Loki took a shortcut and teleported himself there.  Peering cautiously around the corner, he could see several soldiers at defensive positions along the road, crouched along the high wall that lined the north side.  Looking at the steep incline of the road, it was little wonder it the first didn’t connect to it.  It would have connected twenty feet above this one.

Loki let his cloak drop once more and sprinted to the nearest officer.

“I believe the maps are wrong, Sir,” he said almost flippantly.

The platoon leader frowned at Loki’s sudden appearance.  “You’re not one of mine,” he said.

Loki didn’t bother answering that.  “This way will get you back on track,” he said, pointing up the road.  “The way’s clear, but the rest of us are taking heavy fire.  We won’t last much longer.”

The lieutenant nodded and signalled his men to advance, letting Loki lead the way back to the not-factory.  They quickly crept along the high walls lining the road, using it for cover against any sudden attacks.  As they reached the ring, Loki broke off again to return to Lt Davis.

“First platoon’s in position, Sir,” he said, leaning against the side of the truck as he panted heavily..

“You found them?” Davis asked incredulously.

Loki nodded.  “I have what remains of Third up on the roofs, offering support,” he said.

“You?” Davis asked, as if only then realising Loki’s rank.  “Where’s your sergeant?”

“Lost him too, Sir,” Loki said simply.  “Unless the rest of Third got mixed up with you, there are only eight of us.”

“Jesus Christ,” Davis muttered.  “Get back with your men.  Hold your positions.  We’ll draw their fire.”

Loki nodded and rushed back to the door he’d kicked in, finding Jackson guarding it.

“Easy,” Loki said quickly, finding himself staring straight down Jackson’s barrel.

Jackson lowered his rifle and nodded.  “The guys found a ladder in the back,” he said, nodding his head in that direction.

Loki rushed out to the back, finding a tall ladder propped up against the wall.  He quickly scaled it, climbing onto the flat roof to join the others, where they were situated out along the far edge, sights on the not-factory across the street.  They occasionally took shots, not emptying their clips in an endless volley, but waiting for the targets to open themselves up.

“Talk to me, Coulson,” Loki said, dropping down next to him and raising his rifle onto the raised edge of the roof.

“You’re fucking insane,” was all Coulson had to say.

“Maybe,” Loki agreed, grinning again.  “No one’s heard from the rest of the platoon.  First got lost, but they’re back where they’re meant to be.  Second’s getting ready to draw their fire for us.”

Coulson nodded and adjusted his helmet as he got ready to fire.  Leaving him to it, Loki got back up and quickly moved to the next group to tell them the same set of details, getting everyone back on track for the original plan.  Almost as soon as he was settled again, heavy fire erupted from the west side of the lot, signalling Second’s advance.  In teams of four, Second rushed the lot, taking cover where they could while Loki and his men shot at anything that moved inside the not-factory, directing their shots to muzzle flares in the windows.  They kept their attention focused on the task, ignoring the movements on the ground as best they could.  Three of Second’s men were hit in rapid succession, dropping almost immediately with anguished screams and cries for medics.  Logically, they’d all expected to see people get killed.  Expecting it didn’t make it any easier to watch, so they didn’t.

An explosion rocked through the west side of the not-factory, blowing a large hole in the wall.  First platoon stormed the building, drawing attention away from second and freeing them to enter from the front at the west.  An invisible skirmish raged for what felt like an eternity, obscured to those on the roof, before everything suddenly went quiet.  Only the sounds of heavy footsteps on the cobble below could be heard.

“Hold your positions,” Loki ordered.  “This isn’t over yet.”

From their perch on the roof, they watched as the not-factory was secured and prisoners led out in single-file.  Eventually, Lt Davis walked back out to the road and signalled for those on the roof to come back down.  Loki went last, making sure everyone else made it down safely.  He wasn’t going to be the idiot to get these men through battle, only to have someone fall off a roof after ceasefire.

No one fell and once everyone was safely on the ground, Loki led them back out to the street and walked over to where Davis was waiting.

“Battalion wants us to hold here so we can regroup and resupply,” he said.  “Take your men and clear all these houses for stragglers.

Loki nodded tiredly.  “Yes, Sir,” he said.

He turned and signalled his men into action, wondering when the day would be done.

The company quartered in the houses of Badolato.  That morning, Third platoon had had thirty-four soldiers—one lieutenant, four staff-sergeants, eight NCOs, and the rest privates and corporals.  That night, huddled in someone’s abandoned house, there were eight—one corporal and seven privates.  When Sgt Wallace’s squad had been cut off from the rest, he led them down the wrong street in an effort to cut across the town and regroup later.  The other three squads followed their map and found themselves blocked in a dead-end that shouldn’t have been there.

The regiment had been in Europe for over a year, and Loki hated every person who had ever told him a war story and left out the part about having to watch friends get killed.  Loki thought, as he sat huddled up in the corner of the room, willing himself to sleep, that he would gladly return to Asgard as a pacifist and embrace every accusation of cowardice thrown his way if it meant never having to deal with war again.

He leaned against the wall, watching the others play cards at the table.  They played cards and joked with one another because it was the only thing they could do.  Dwelling on the losses of the day would drive a man insane.  Loki sometimes thought himself already insane for being there in the first place, so he let himself dwell.

“Hey, Olson,” Ramirez said suddenly, leaning around Clarke to look across the room.  “There’s a bed upstairs.  Why don’t you go get some sleep?”

“Someone else can have it,” Loki said.  He knew things were done differently on Midgard, but it would have felt wrong, as the highest-ranking soldier in the room, to have shown weakness and taken the one comfortable spot in the entire house.

He leaned his head into the corner of the wall and closed his eyes, focusing on the sounds of the cards being dealt and shuffled about.  If he kept his attention on that, their conversation almost became white noise.

“Is he all right?” Clarke asked after a few moments, turning to look at Loki as well.  “Should we send him back to the aid station or something?”

Randal and Coulson both looked over at Loki, where he seemed to have fallen asleep right there in the corner of the room.

“He’s fine,” said Randal.  He put two cards face down onto the table, and Jackson dealt him two more.  “You weren’t in our platoon in basic.  He does this all the time.”

“What? Does something crazy and then freaks you all out?” Ramirez asked dubiously.

“Sometimes, he’ll do both at the same time,” Kirby offered helpfully.

Randal laughed.  “Yeah, like that time he knocked out Sergeant Horton and then got promoted for it.”

Jackson forgot all about the game for a moment.  “That was him?” he asked.

“The one and only,” Kirby said, almost proudly.  “Frankly, I’m glad the see the crazy bastard act human every once in a while.  When he goes on like this is all normal, that’s when he freaks me out.  And I could use a little less freaking out.”

Coulson looked back at Loki and put his cards down onto the table.

“I’m out,” he said, picking up his money.

He got up and sat beside Loki on the floor, not daring to touch him in case he actually was asleep.  Loki opened his eyes anyway and turned to look at him.

“Are you all right?” Coulson asked, cool apprehension heavy on his voice.

“I’m just tired,” Loki said, closing his eyes again.   His eyelids were so heavy, it almost hurt to keep them open.

“Yeah, well.  This is the first I’ve seen you stop all day.  I’m not surprised,” he said.  He glanced back up at the table, where the conversation had already turned to women.

“You know, I heard Lieutenant Davis talking today,” Coulson said suddenly.  “He’s recommending you for a battlefield commission.”

Loki wasn’t sure how to respond to that.  Perhaps if he wasn’t exhausted in every way possible, he might have been able to come up with a clever response.  As it was, he just frowned slightly.

“Congratulations, Sergeant,” Coulson said.  “Keep it up, and at this rate they’ll make you a general by Christmas.”

Loki scoffed quietly.  “I very much doubt that,” he said.

By the week before Christmas, the regiment had made it as far north as Barrea, about 100 miles east of Rome.  Baker company was dug in along the line about five miles outside of town.  They were in a low valley, surrounded by trees and flanked to the north by a narrow river.  Even with the ground covered with a light layer of snow, it was difficult for the men to feel too sour about their situation.  With talk of Rome by New Year, a couple of weeks in a foxhole was worth it.

Loki sat in the hole he shared with Coulson, reading through the comics Mrs Coulson still sent every week.  Sometimes, mail would get backed up and the comics wouldn’t come as regularly, but when everything finally caught up, it only meant that Coulson got a small stack all at once.  In the latest collection, a new comic had been included along with Captain America.  He was the Torch of Liberty, and he did basically everything Captain America did, only while wearing red and yellow and carrying a torch instead of a shield.

Not that it bothered Loki or Coulson much.  Something new to read was something new to read.

As they shared comics back and forth, Randal slid into their foxhole without warning.

“You guys got any cigarettes?” he asked unceremoniously.

“I don’t smoke,” Loki and Coulson both said, not quite in unison, but both equally distracted.

Frowning, Randal reached for Loki’s comic and tilted it back to better see the cover.

“I can’t believe you guys read that crap,” he said.  “Don’t you get enough of this bullshit here?”

“No, you see, the Torch of Liberty is in Japan, punching out Yamamoto,” Coulson said.  “I’ve never been to Japan or punched out Yamamoto.”

“And Captain America is in Africa right now, stopping Hitler from finding the Lost Ark,” Loki added helpfully.  “We’ve never been to Africa, either.  Nor do I know what the Lost Ark is, I don’t believe.” He finally looked up at Coulson.  “What is the Lost Ark?”

Coulson laughed quietly as Randal picked up another comic from the stack on Coulson’s pack.

“What, really?” he asked, thumbing through it, his curiosity now thoroughly piqued.

“I’m foreign.  Humour me,” Loki said.

“What do you do with all these things, Ray?”  Randal asked after a moment, completely ignoring Loki’s request.  “You haven’t been humping these all over Italy, have you?”  He stopped on a page depicting Captain America punching out Adolf Hitler and nodded.

“I send them back to my mom,” Coulson answered, turning a page of his own comic.  “She puts them all in a box and sends me the next ones.”

“Why?” asked Randal, getting drawn in by Captain America kicking some serious ass up in the Eagle’s Nest.

“I dunno.  They might be worth something some day,” Coulson said, shrugging lazily.  “Maybe if I keep them around, I can use them to send any future little Coulsons to school or something.”

“I did similarly when I first went to New York,” Loki offered.  “My father has all sorts of old, dusty trinkets lying around.  Worth a fortune, apparently.  I’m sure to catch one hel of a beating when he finds out.”

Coulson once again struggled against laughter, his entire body faintly trembling against Loki’s side.  In front of him, Randal shook his head.

“Christ, Olson.  You’re insane, you know that,”  Randal said.

“So I’ve been told,” Loki said.  He frowned down at the page he was reading, annoyed that whatever a Lost Ark was, it refused to translate.  “Now could one of you please do me a favour and pretend that I’m from another planet and explain to me what the hel a Lost Ark is?”

Beside him, Coulson lost the battle and dissolved into a fit of laughter, with Randal close behind.  Annoyed though he was, even Loki had to laugh.  He still wanted to know what a Lost Ark was, though.

Christmas drew nearer and plans were forged.  Strategies began to relay through the regiment, with talk of advancing by Boxing Day.  The problem with plans, everyone was quickly learning, was they so very rarely went to plan.

The line at Barrea was held without incident while the 107th drew battle plans and strategised and came up with the best way to take Rome.  The southern routes had all been blocked off or heavily fortified, forcing an advance from the East from the mountains.

While Regiment HQ strategised, the Romans attacked.

Or, at least, Italian soldiers—a goodly portion of whom were probably from Rome.

No one kept regular sleeping hours.  They slept when they could, and while the line was quieter in the dark hours, it was by no means asleep.  After so long of not having much to do, the men of Baker company grew bored and restless.  It was nearly one o’clock in the morning, and many still milled about, talking quietly in one another’s foxholes or playing cards by match light.  Loki and Coulson were in their foxhole, attempting to make some sort of horrible K-ration stew over a small fire, using an ammo box as a cauldron.  Loki hated K-rations; they were never enough, but at least by making them awful, he was less inclined to crave more.

The putrid stew was almost warm enough to be considered food when the shelling started; long-range artillery from the other side of the river.  The only warning was a shrill whistle from above, and by the time anyone recognised it for what it was, the trees around them began to explode.  Panic erupted as soldiers ran to take cover in the nearest foxhole, whether or not it was theirs.  Loki didn’t even think about what had to be done.  He slapped out the fire and pushed Coulson down into the foxhole, using his own body as cover.

Lt Davis ran along the line, ducking and weaving around showers of splintered wood and ground that exploded at his feet.

“Take cover!” he shouted, barely heard over the din.  “Everybody find a foxhole!”

As he ran, he guided confused soldiers into the nearest place of cover, making sure everyone else was secure before diving for cover himself.  The foxhole he found was not empty, but had Loki and Coulson huddled down as low as they could get, Coulson barely visible.  Loki noticed Davis at once, looking up with startled eyes.  He liked Davis, and more, he respected Davis, but this was becoming an uncomfortably tight fit.

He wiped his hand across his mouth quickly before reaching out, pulling Davis closer into the huddle.  He dragged his hand over Davis’ face and held onto him tightly, putting himself above the lieutenant as much as possible.  Loki didn’t think his slapdash approach to seiðr would cut it, but it was better than nothing under the circumstances.  He didn’t know how long he could maintain the spell, especially working it on two people at once.  As long as he could manage it, they would not be harmed.  Their foxhole could take a direct hit and the explosion itself would likely bounce right off the humans.

And if it didn’t, well.  At least all of their truly vital parts were shielded beneath Loki.  At least being bigger than the rest of them was good for something.  Being more durable certainly helped as well.

Everything around them exploded, shock-waves rocking through them for what felt like an eternity.  It soon got to a point where the individual explosions around them no longer stood out, blending into a continuous, awful sound.  Every so often, strangled cries for a medic could be heard cutting over the cacophony, but no one dared rush out to the call.  Limited though the cover of a foxhole was, it was still better than no cover at all.

Finally, mercifully, the shelling stopped.  The following silence was both brief and terrifying, until slowly, cries for medics and assistance began to ring out.  Cautiously, soldiers began to rise, but someone in the distance shouted for everyone to stay in their foxholes.  Loki looked up, releasing his hold on the other two.  The three of them peered over the edge at the destruction all around them, none quite sure what to make of any of it.

“Stay here,” Davis ordered, before getting up to check the line.

He got three steps away before he was shot, dropping to the ground as blood splashed out from his neck.  Suddenly, fire erupted from the north in an almost continuous spray.  Loki reached for his rifle, but before he could grab it, his vision was flooded with blinding light and he felt suddenly very, very ill and unable to think of anything at all.

They followed a trail of nothing to Nowhere, Northern Scotland on the word of two quacks and a supposed medium.  Half of what the so-called experts said didn’t make any sense, and the rest was just plain factually wrong.  But this apparently came from Roosevelt himself, so there they were in a wet, freezing hellhole with the sheep and the rocks.

The lead crackpot was a nervous, jumpy little man, and he insisted that something was happening that particular night at that particular abandoned, crumbling ruin.  In the rain.  And the cold.  And the dark.

“Are you a Catholic?” Whitman asked him as he pulled out the rosaries.

“Yes,” said Bruttenholm.  “Among other things.”

Whitman hated him already.  He handed Bruttenholm a gun, which was of course refused, and then moved his men into position.  All the while, Bruttenholm and his associate Frost wittered away about more nonsense, but Whitman had more important things on his mind.  Like the Nazi soldiers he almost walked right into.  He pulled Bruttenholm to the ground, signalling his men to take cover.

“They must be here for the sheep,” Bruttenholm said dryly.

There wasn’t any time to discuss what they were seeing, though.  At least fifty Nazi soldiers, scientists, and other assorted Very Bad People rushed about with purpose, reading a huge, terrifying machine.  Bruttenholm watched all of this through a pair of field binoculars, relaying what he saw to the others.

“This is worse than I thought,” he said suddenly, handing over the binoculars, directing Whitman’s line of sight.  “Karl Ruprecht Kroenen.”

“Hitler’s top assassin,” Frost filled in.  “He’s a member and advisor of the Thule Society.”

The man Bruttenholm pointed out surveyed the scene from behind his gas mask, watching as everything worked as it was supposed to.  He didn’t seem to be directing anything.  That job belonged to someone else.  A someone else who was draped in a long cloak, looming over everyone around him.

“Oh, no,” was all Bruttenholm said as Grigori Rasputin himself walked into view.

Over the rain, they could barely make out the words spoken between Rasputin and an SS General.  After their brief conversation, Rasputin climbed a small flight of stairs, stopping at the landing to overlook the scene around him.  With his arms outstretched, he was wired into the machine as it whirred into action.  Coils hummed and hissed with electricity, slowly working itself into life.

When Rasputin began to shout to the heavens, Frost translated the words to Whitman as best he could.  He wasn’t fluent in Russian, and over the noise, it was impossible to hear everything, but he said the words as much for himself as for those around him.

“Seven is their number,” Frost parroted.  “Neither… Neither male nor female.  They are the serpent… They are the… beast.”

Whitman looked between Bruttenholm and the scene before them.  This was not what he’d signed up for.  It was not what he ever expected to come across.

“What the hell’s going on?” he asked, cutting over Frost.

Bruttenholm watched, transfixed as he slowly realised what he was seeing.

“Oh,” he said gravely.  “He’s summoning chaos gods.”

It was all Whitman needed.  He primed a grenade and threw it over the low wall, ducking for cover just before it exploded at Kroenen’s feet.  Whitman’s men rushed over the wall, opening fire immediately.  The response was swift, and soon bullets flew from every direction.  Still, Rasputin continued his ritual undaunted, seemingly unaware of the chaos and carnage around him.  His hands lifted high above his head, he called forth the seven demon gods of oppression; seven in heaven, seven on Earth.  The machine began to cast off its own light as it tore a hole in the very space around it, pulling anything not nailed down into its event horizon.

It had to be stopped.

Frost and Bruttenholm scrambled for cover behind a low wall as Kroenen fired at everything not wearing an SS uniform.  Every one of his shots found a target.  Bruttenholm felt the hard bite of the bullet pierce his leg, just above the knee, and he fell to the ground at once.  He wasn’t a soldier; he hadn’t been trained for this.  He tried to grit his teeth and block out the pain that shot through his side with each movement.  There was a downed soldier only a few feet away with several grenades on his belt.  Bruttenholm had to make it just that far.

Kroenen levelled another shot at Bruttenholm as he crawled across the stone ground, but at the click of an empty magazine, he reholstered his luger.  Standing with his arms rigid, two long blades fell from inside his sleeves.  He followed after Bruttenholm, stalking him like a predator sure of his kill.

Suddenly, he was hit in his gas mask-covered face by a small piece of stone.  His attention shot from Bruttenholm to Frost, who cowered behind the low wall as he suddenly realised the consequences of his plans.

But it had distracted Kroenen, and it was exactly what Bruttenholm needed.  He reached for a grenade from the soldier’s belt, primed it, and threw it at the machine.  Kroenen immediately forgot about the two of them and dove after the grenade.  It had lodged itself directly under the spinning mechanisms, and before Kroenen was able to get to it, the grenade exploded, knocking out half of the machine’s supporting trusses and spraying twisted metal in every direction.  Kroenen too was knocked back from the blast, flung across the courtyard and impaled upon a spike that had become lodged in a crumbling wall.

The machine immediately collapsed in upon itself, and the event horizon it created suddenly became deadly unstable.  It pulled everything nearby into it, man and machine alike.  Before Rasputin was able to disconnect himself from the machine, it pulled him in as well, skin sloughing off his face as he resisted.  Finally, he was pulled off his feet entirely, and after a flash and a scream, he was gone and everything was silent.

All that remained in the event horizon’s place was a man, stood doubled over and breathing raggedly.  He wasn’t one Whitman or anyone else recognised, nor had he been there before.  Despite warnings to stay where he was, Bruttenholm pulled himself to his feet and limped toward the unfamiliar figure cautiously.

Without bothering to look up, Loki drew his sidearm and levelled it on Bruttenholm.  Almost immediately, several soldiers behind Bruttenholm raised their rifles as well, but Bruttenholm held out his hands.

“No, put your weapons down,” Bruttenholm said.  “He’s one of ours.  Look at his uniform.”

They did, slowly, as Bruttenholm stepped closer to Loki.  His breathing ragged, Loki still kept his pistol raised.  His hand shook so badly that anything he did hit would have been purely accidental, but he wasn’t quite ready to lower the one defence he had at that moment.

“It’s all right,” Bruttenholm assured him, his hand outstretched in a way that could have been assuring in other circumstances.  “I’m not going to hurt you.  You’re all right.  It’s safe.”

Loki finally looked up at Bruttenholm and lowered his pistol, still struggling to catch his breath.  With his gun at his side, Loki dropped his head again and forced himself to stay on his feet.  Bruttenholm stepped even closer, sitting on the ground in front of Loki and looking up at him.

“What’s your name?” he asked quietly.

It took Loki a long while to feel like he could respond without being sick.  If this was what it felt like for Thor to be teleported by Loki’s magic, then he truly was sorry for every instance of it.

“Olson,” he answered finally.

“What’s your real name?” Bruttenholm asked, even more quietly than before.

Loki looked back up at him, and in that instant, he knew.  This human knew what he was.  He’d failed in every possible way, and he didn’t even know how.  And this human knew him for what he was and had the audacity to question him about it.

Humans killed their gods.  And Loki had been undeniably seen.

“I believe something else was brought through,” Loki said instead.  “You may wish to investigate.”

Bruttenholm’s eyes went wide behind his spectacles.  Nodding, he turned round to address Whitman and Frost.

“He believes something else was summoned,” he said.

For just a second, all eyes were off Loki as everyone looked cautiously around.  It was all the time Loki needed to disappear.  By the time Bruttenholm turned back, Loki was gone.

Loki had no idea where he was.  Worse, he didn’t think he had the magic to get any further than he’d managed already.  He’d broken one of his own rules: travelling without knowing his destination.  In his panic, he’d simply fled.  Now, he was on a moor, but mercifully not completely stranded.  In the distance, he could see a small base camp of some sort.  Even better, it flew an American flag.  Running short on options, Loki stumbled forward, not daring to use any more magic than he already had.  He might be able to make it to the camp with magic, but more likely, he would arrive unable to conceal himself, and of a distinctly wrong colour.  Not even the integrated units had any blue people in them.

He didn’t know how long it had taken him to cross the moor.  Days, maybe, except the sun never rose once.  Perhaps not days, then.  But most of the night, surely.  He struggled to stay on his feet, refusing to sit and rest, lest he fall asleep and be discovered by a patrol.  As he closed the gap, he realised that the settlement he approached was not a temporary thing, but a small village, nestled on one side against a small wood.  A low, stone wall ran along the edge, ancient and sturdy.  The buildings themselves were all varying ages, having replaced one another over the years.  It was one thing he found that set Europe apart from New York.  Buildings in Brooklyn may have been old.  Buildings in Europe were ancient.

There had been moose here once.  Now there were Americans.  And one man amongst them, Loki noticed, was praying.  It was an odd prayer, to no one, to everyone, to anyone who would listen.  It at least did not pull him by force.  It was also terrified.  On those merits alone, Loki answered, letting the words take him where he was needed.

Loki found himself in a small room in a small house, and suddenly very much unable to support his own weight.  He stumbled sideways, crashing into a small table.  It collapsed beneath his weight, alerting the one who prayed with a startled yelp.  Possibly his worst entrance yet.

He felt someone gripping his arms, uncertain but strong, helping him sit up.

“Oh.  Oh, my.”

Loki looked up, not sure if he should be surprised or not.

“You,” he said, eyes falling upon Bruttenholm.  “You were praying.”

“Yes, I—I suppose I was,” said Bruttenholm.  “How did you get in here?”

“You were praying,” Loki repeated.

Bruttenholm looked at him, understanding something, but not enough.  They both knew it.  Finally, Loki decided to break another rule answer Bruttenholm’s first question.

“Loki,” he said.

“Oh.” Bruttenholm studied Loki’s face, trying to reconcile what he saw with what he knew.  “Oh, yes.  I suppose I was expecting red hair.”

Loki couldn’t help but roll his eyes.  It seemed as though he would never be able to escape the idiot’s legacy.

Bruttenhom seemed to be taking the sudden appearance of a god in his bedroom surprisingly well.  It was a worrying prospect in many ways.  Suddenly feeling very vulnerable on the floor, Loki braced himself against the wall and heaved himself to his feet, only to stumble immediately after.  Bruttenholm reached out to steady him, only to be knocked off balance himself, remaining only on his feet through Loki’s grip on him.

“What was he doing?” Loki asked, leaning against the wall.  “I don’t know why I’m here.  I was… kind of in the middle of something.”

Something about Bruttenholm struck an odd fear in Loki.  He knew things most people ignored.  He knew all the old stories were true, and that they were all in equal measure false.  And the way he looked at Loki then, it was as if his job to know these things.  And right now, one of the reasons he had this job was barely able to stand, so Bruttenholm did the only thing he could do.  He reached out and led Loki to the nearest armchair.  He limped heavily as he led Loki across the room, getting him settled just to make sure he didn’t break anything else.  Once everything looked secure, Bruttenholm nodded once and disappeared through the door.  Loki knew he should follow him, make sure he stayed silent, but the thought of getting back to his feet nearly made him ill.

Bruttenholm was gone for far too long.  He could have been doing anything; telling anyone.  Loki was in danger, and he needed to move.  Whatever had been done to him had drained him completely, not just of his strength, but of his power.  And he was at the mercy of a man who finally returned holding a cup of tea.

“He was summoning gods,” Bruttenholm answered, setting the tea down on the table beside Loki.

Loki closed his eyes, and for a moment struggled to stay awake.

“There are an awful lot of us,” Loki said.

Bruttenholm laughed nervously.  “I know,” he said.  He moved across the room at sat on the bed, taking his weight off his leg.  “I believe he was summoning a very specific type of god.”

Loki shook his head tiredly.  He’d answered this prayer, and was bound to the help he implicitly offered in doing so, but he was simply too exhausted to do any of it properly.

“That’s… what of the other one?” he asked.

“Yes, we found him as well,” Bruttenholm said quickly, obviously hiding something.  At that moment, Loki could not have cared less.  “He’s been handled and dealt with.”

Bruttenholm was lying somehow.  If he were more awake, Loki might have even seen how.

“Good,” he said.  “I… If you don’t mind, this was my first involuntary summoning.  I’m rather exhausted from it.”

“Oh, yes.  Of course,” Bruttenholm said.  “I can’t imagine that to have been pleasant.”

Loki was already struggling to keep his eyes open, and was growing tired of doing so.  “I may do something strange while I sleep,” he said.  “I’m fine.  It’s just a thing I do.  Guard the door.  Let no one in.”

It was a foolish thing to fall asleep in his current position.  Suicide.  Especially with the tenuous hold he had on his magic.  The problem was, once again, he was completely out of other options.

He didn’t hear Bruttenholm’s response, falling asleep almost immediately.  That night, he dreamt of fire.  He’d had horrible nightmares of Eldjötnar as a boy.  He didn’t remember what these were about, other than horrible monsters from a strange realm, but this one was very clear.  Loki was trapped with a sword he could not wield—elegant and beautiful, forged of white steel.  Before him, the monster that plagued his dreams as a child, huge and imposing, towering over him.  Red fire in his flesh that would surely cause Loki to melt with a single touch.  The monster was so close, and Loki could feel his heat; feel himself start to melt, but he could not lift the sword to protect himself or those around him.

Just before the monster touched him, Loki woke gasping.  At some point in the night, he’d been covered with a heavy quilt.  Probably, he realised, around the same time his skin had turned dark blue.

No wonder he felt so hot.

« || »

Midgard Legends #2: Beacon of Prayer

The Tesseract had travelled far since being taken from Tønsberg.  It still sang, but it sang quietly, and its song was different now.  It was no longer trying to be found.  Now it sang with a glorious, terrible purpose.

Loki didn’t have to search to find it.  There was no shadow-walking or games of hide-and-seek.  The Tesseract still spoke to him; still prayed, and all Loki had to do was answer its call.  He went to the Tesseract and found himself high in a mountain fortress in a strange part of Midgard.  A small, bespectacled man pottered about near an impressive-looking machine, taking notes and making adjustments as he saw fit.  What the machine was and what it did, Loki neither knew nor cared.  The Tesseract was somewhere in the room, and it was his only quarry.

There were other men in the room as well.  Two guards by the door, alert for any sign of trouble, and still unable to see Loki simply because he wished not to be seen.  Loki walked amongst them, pausing to curiously peer down at the weapons they held.  He moved silently over to the man with the machine and inspected it.  Though it seemed designed to house something fitting the Tesseract’s description, he found no sign of it there.  Still, the work was impressive, even if half-started and alien.  Loki suspected, the more he looked at the machine and the calculations on the nervous little man’s clipboard, that he would not like what was intended for the Tesseract.

There was one other man in the room, far on the outer wall.  He sat behind a desk, overlooking the mountains beyond.  It was clear that he was the man in charge.  Loki walked up to his desk, letting his concealment drop arrogantly.

“I believe you have something of mine,” he said.

The man behind the desk looked up suddenly, his eyes alight with indignation.  He glared up at his guards, who only then began to react to the intrusion, and waved his hand to Loki.

“What are you waiting for?  Kill him!” he ordered frantically.

Loki had been shot before, with bolts and arrows and various Midgardian pistols while off gallivanting with cowboys and frontiersmen.  He hadn’t enjoyed it then, and he didn’t enjoy it now.  The humans’ technology had changed since then, and changed greatly.  The guards quickly moved into position and opened fire on Loki, releasing a spray of bullets.  Loki reconsidered his strategy immediately.  Before he was able to beat a hasty retreat, he felt the hot sting of metal piercing flesh, and he gave up the idea of fighting back almost at once and returned to his apartment.  On uneasy legs, he made his way to his bed and collapsed.  The entire frame nearly buckled beneath him, but he didn’t even take notice.  He was too busy forcing himself to breathe.  The air felt heavy in his lungs, almost as if he could drown on it.  Every breath burned, but not breathing wasn’t an option.

With each forced breath, he could taste blood on his tongue.  He tried to cough, hoping to rid the taste from his mouth, but it only made things worse.  His vision swam dangerously from the searing pain that shot outward from his chest, threatening to tear his consciousness from him.  Loki needed to sit up.  He needed to fix the issue, because it would not fix itself.

Dragging the back of his hand over his mouth, Loki dared to look down at his chest, and he grimaced at what he saw.  A half dozen or more individual patches of red, slowly blossoming out onto his shirt.  He knew from painful experience that it took a considerable amount of trauma to make a god bleed so, and he was almost afraid to look at the damage directly.

How stupid had he been to have expected that to work at all?  Of all the idiotic, arrogant stunts he’d pulled, he knew this had been the worst.  He should have at least worn armour, instead of a cotton shirt.  Their shots would have bounced right off had he taken but a moment to think.

Now, he could think all he wanted, but it wouldn’t do him any good.  The more he waited, the more difficult it would be to undo the damage.  He forced himself to sit up slowly, trying not to use any of the muscles in his chest, and failing.  He grit his teeth and let out a strangled cry as every part of him lit up once more.  Not wanting to waste any energy on unnecessary magic, he carefully undressed, using one hand to unbutton his shirt while the other held him upright.  His overcoat had survived, it seemed, but the shirt was completely ruined.  Loki managed to toss them both aside with minimal effort, trying not to make enough noise to alert the neighbours.  Once he was ready to move again, Loki took off his glasses and set them aside on the table, taking each action as slowly as possible.  He didn’t think his wounds would kill him, but he didn’t want to risk making things worse and find out otherwise.  Not since his failed adventure to Niflheimr with Thor had he ever experienced such pain.  Every movement; every breath sent a spike of pain straight through him.  For a fleeting moment, he thought he might welcome death if it meant the pain would end.

Since his hunting accident, however, Loki had learned some new tricks.  He’d also learned that he had no talent at all for the healing arts, but that didn’t matter.  He had other talents that suited his needs just fine; talents that might have been called cheating if he cared about such things.  At this moment, he cared only about surviving.

He placed his hand over his chest and breathed as deeply as he dared.  Reaching out with his magic, he could feel every last trace of the guards’ bullets.  It wasn’t like the round from the flintlock, easy to find and obvious.  These rounds had shattered and deformed as soon as they broke the skin, scattering themselves to cause as much damage as possible.  Finding all of it was difficult enough.  Keeping his focus on the task was exhausting.  He held onto each piece, banishing the fragments from his body.  Twice, he nearly lost consciousness and had to stop to catch his breath, having to breathe slowly to keep from exacerbating his injuries.

Finally, he could no longer feel any trace of the metal inside his body.  Confident that he’d found it all, Loki stopped to catch his breath once more.  He could have ended it there, and would have healed eventually, but eventually wasn’t good enough.  Feeling his magic quickly fading, he summoned what he could and changed his shape to that of a small, black cat.  The change itself was unusually painful his damaged body shifted to take on the new form.  As he crawled out of his trousers, he was certain that it had been worth the suffering.  A brief inspection proved his chest to be solid and whole once more, though he was still covered in his own blood.

He knew he should have done something about it, but by this point, he no longer had the strength to stay on his feet.  Before he was even able to release his false form, he lost his grip on consciousness and the world around him went black.

Loki didn’t know how long he’d slept, but at some point he’d lost hold of his magic.  He awoke as himself, his dark skin in sharp contrast against the blood-stained sheets on his bed.  He hardly noticed as he looked around in a daze, struggling to remember how he came to be in bed in the first place.  Finding himself covered in a thin layer of dried blood, he slowly began to recall the string of events that led to it, and his spectacular lack of judgement.

His sheets would need to be replaced, but it was low priority at the moment.  First and foremost, Loki needed a shower.  He sat up stiffly and looked down at his chest, rather pleased to find that his trick had prevented scarring, thus avoiding any embarrassing reminders of his own stupidity.  Or at least, any more than he had already.

Rousing himself from bed, Loki forced his muscles to move him across the apartment.  Every part of him was stiff and moved inelegantly, but it was nothing a hot shower wouldn’t fix.  It had taken him quite a long time to get used to such a novelty, but now that it was a common occurrence in his life, he didn’t know how he ever went without them.

He stood under the water for countless minutes, wondering where he’d gone so wrong with his scheme.  Showing up without armour, for one.  He’d also severely underestimated the fire power the humans now possessed.  A flintlock and a musket had nothing on the weapons that man’s guards carried, which was all the more reason they could not be allowed to have the Tesseract.  The army that commanded it could raze the entire realm, and Loki had become rather attached to Midgard.  If the humans destroyed themselves, he’d have nowhere to go when Asgard became insufferable.  It wasn’t as if the higher realms had anything new to offer.  If anything, they were just as stagnant and unchanging as Asgard.

He’d simply have to try again, and this time, do it properly.  Before the last amount of the hot water stopped, Loki quickly washed himself, scrubbing away any trace of his previous failed attempt.  He nearly ran out of soap before he was done, but he felt better for it.  Just being clean seemed to renew his energy, making the task before him not seem so daunting.

As he dried himself and dressed, Loki decided against taking on his Æsir appearance.  Humans frightened easily, and he had a very distinct advantage on that level.  He called forth his armour, forming it around himself with the simplest command.  The hippogryph armour with the tall, sweeping horns on his helm fit him as well as it had the day it was presented to him.  He had earned this armour, and he wore it proudly.  Where Thor’s eagle motif was regal, Loki’s was threatening and menacing; almost villainous.  What better way to bully humans?

He took a moment to check over himself, making sure every stitch and plate of his armour sat perfectly on him.  Beneath the shadow of his helm, his red eyes seemed to almost glow as he looked down at his vambraces, adjusting them over his forearms.  Looking up again, he caught himself in the mirror and grinned a pleased, smug grin, and for the first time in years, almost regretted having his teeth fixed.  The sharp, jagged he had once been burdened with had been nothing short of monstrous.  Despite it, like this he could start a whole new legend of creatures that went bump in the night.  Loki liked that thought.

The Tesseract wasn’t singing, but that hardly mattered this time.  Loki knew where he was going without that beacon of prayer to guide him.  He stepped to one side, leaving his apartment and returning to the mountain fortress where the Tesseract was held.  No sooner had he left, he found himself back in his apartment, one step away from where he’d started.  Loki cautiously tried again, but the same thing happened, and once more he found himself back where he’d started.

“What the hel?”

He hesitated to try a third time.  Something was preventing him from gaining access to that place, which only meant someone was likely waiting to spring a trap.

It also meant they possessed very powerful magic; magic drawn from the Tesseract.  Loki may have been a god, but this—whatever it was—was far bigger than him.  He couldn’t help but laugh despairingly at the thought.

He should have kept to the shadows and taken his time.  He should have observed the situation more closely; learned where the Tesseract was held and taken it without fanfare.  Instead, he put on a show.  He was arrogant and presumptuous, and for it, he lost his chance.

For the first time since he could remember, Loki was completely without a plan.

He began to pace around his apartment, chewing his thumbnail as he rethought his strategy.  Any magic used to block his travel would have to be powerful, and not easy to manage.  It should have been impossible for the humans to have managed at all, and yet he still remained in his apartment, far from where the Tesseract was held.  How long, he wondered, had he been asleep?

That would have to be his first step in forming a new plan.  He needed to find out how much time had passed.  He was certain that those with the Tesseract had not yet managed to achieve whatever their goals, but at the same time, he doubted his own certainty.  With the Tesseract, one could do almost anything.

Loki banished his armour and put on what he’d come to call his human skin.  It was identical to his Æsir appearance in almost every way, except for his fingernails.  For the same reason he wore them black on Asgard, he couldn’t on Midgard.  They stood out far too easily.

He tied his hair back into a tail and dressed quickly, finding his shoes kicked under his bed and his watch tangled in the blankets.  Making sure he had a decent amount of money on him, Loki left his apartment and walked out to the street, where a group of boys were playing stickball.  As Loki walked past them, he threw a handful of quarters onto the ground.  At once, the game was forgotten as the boys scrambled to collect the quarters from the pavement, shouting at one another as they searched every last one out.  Loki let himself smile as he walked to the newsstand at the corner, finding no small delight in the sounds of chaos left in his wake.

Paying for the newspaper, Loki glanced down at the front page.  According to the date, he’d been asleep for almost two weeks.  He did tend to practically hibernate sometimes, but that seemed rather excessive, he thought.  Determined not to do something so idiotic ever again, he flipped through the rest of the paper to see what other progress had been made.  He began to wander down the street, hardly paying any attention to where he was going.  He was far too busy being disgusted with the whole state of affairs.  The war in Europe was only growing bigger, and would eventually become too big to be stopped.  The Tesseract would be misused sooner or later, and then not even Odin himself would be able to stand in the way of those who wielded it.

Loki stopped and folded the paper, feeling no closer to solving the problem than he’d been in his apartment.  Loath though he was to admit it, he didn’t think it was a problem he could solve on his own.  Not unless he wanted it to kill himself in doing so.  He turned to start making his way home when a sign in a window caught his eye.  It was a sign he’d seen hundreds of times already, but for the first time, he actually considered what was written on it.  It was, he decided, the best option available.

So much for no more idiotic ideas.  Loki was going to enlist.

He stepped into what had been turned into a recruitment centre, finding it abuzz with eager young men, literally lining up to enlist.  Loki stood near the door, watching the movements of the room, trying to determine what he was meant to do.  Almost at once, he realised a snag in his plan.  Though he could understand the humans’ language and appear to speak it, he didn’t actually know it.  He would be expected to fill out a small stack of paperwork from the looks of it, but the only thing he knew how to write in their language was the name he used.  And he’d only learned that because he’d been using it since he was a boy, and it was bound to sink in eventually.

He made sure that no-one was looking his way and cloaked himself to better slip through the crowds.  He walked silently up to the desk in the centre of the room and began to peruse what few papers were visible.  Slipping one of the folders from the stack, Loki stepped away and began to thumb through its contents.  It had only the most basic of information, but even that Loki would have to forge.  Unless they would accept ‘some time during the summer of Odin’s seventy-forth year of reign’ as a suitable date of birth.  Somehow, Loki doubted as much.

Loki copied the folder and returned the original to the desk.  Banishing the copy, he returned to the milling throng, where he let himself slip slowly back into view.  Eventually, he managed to find a spot in the queue and looked around nervously like those around him.  To speed up the process, a young woman walked down the line, handing out pens and clip boards containing blank copies of the forms Loki had taken.  He once more made sure no-one saw what he was doing and replaced the blank forms with the ones he’d made.  He changed his name and shifted some of the numbers about so his deception wouldn’t be quite so easily noticed.  The person whose forms he’d copied was nineteen, which was a number Loki committed to memory, hoping he could pass for a human of that age.  If not, he had other tricks, but he hoped to rely on them as little as possible.

The rest, he wasn’t sure what to do with.  Medical history and family information were both areas he didn’t even know how to forge.  Most of what was on his stolen copies was unremarkable, so Loki simply left it as it was, shifting only the numbers in the addresses.

Except for one.  Next of kin.  He was struck with a terrible idea and reached back to his apartment for an old letter.  It sat, if it remained where it was meant to be, in a drawer by the window.  He found it right where it should have been and pulled it out to look at the front of the envelope.  Kitty liked to send cards for Christmas, and had sent him one with a whimsical dog wearing a bright red bow.  The envelope, adorned with stylised sprigs of holly, had her address on the top corner.  It felt a cruel thing to do, knowing how he intended his stint in America’s military to end, but it seemed even more cruel to accidentally list an unsuspecting person elsewhere in the city.  Loki changed the information on the form, listing Kitty Price as his next of kin.  He copied the address from the envelope and sent the envelope back where he’d found it.  Glancing over the information one final time, Loki brought his thumb to his mouth.  Satisfied with what he’d done, he ran his thumb over the pages, working a charm into the paper that would make any who looked at it not think to second-guess anything.  Just in case he hadn’t been as thorough as he’d thought.

At the front of the queue, the man at the desk took Loki’s forms and glanced over them.  Loki watched patiently, refraining from giving the man’s mind a slight nudge into accepting everything as legitimate.  In the end, it wasn’t necessary.  After a few moments, the man behind the desk nodded and handed the folder back to Loki.

“On your left,” he said, pointing to a corridor behind him.

Loki followed the directions and was met by a man in a while coat, who ushered him into a small room and took the file from him.  The walls of the room had several anatomical charts hung up, as well as one sign, expressing the legality of lying on enlistment forms.  Loki ignored that one and looked at the man instead.

“Luke Olson, correct?” he asked, looking down at the forms.  Loki recognised him as one of the realm’s healers, realising the purpose of this meeting.  It only made sense that they wanted to be sure their potential soldiers would be fit for duty.

“Yes,” said Loki, once more realising that he was in more than he’d bargained for.

“All right,” said Dr Scott, snapping the file shut and setting it aside.  “Strip down to your shorts.  I’ll be right back.”

He left Loki alone in the room, closing the door behind him.  Loki quickly undressed, setting his clothes aside on a high cot along the wall.  Not for the first time, he wondered how wise his plan was.  It wasn’t as if the humans posed any real threat to him, but if he was caught, the consequences could have been disastrous.  Suddenly, all he could think about was witch trials.

Dr Scott returned with a clipboard and motioned for Loki to sit up on the cot.

“That’s a nasty scar,” he said, pointing to the long set slashes across Loki’s chest.  “What was that?”

Loki looked down, momentarily annoyed that his scars didn’t fade when he changed his skin.  There was probably a way to make that happen, but he didn’t exactly have the time to dwell on it just then.

“Hunting accident,” he said.  “My brother and I spent a winter hunting polar bear.”

Dr Scott looked impressed.  “You sure you he wasn’t the one hunting you?” he asked.

Loki smirked.  “I’m not the one hanging on his bedroom wall.”

That got a laugh from Dr Scott.  “Fair enough,” he said.  He wrote something down on his clipboard and reached for the device hung round his neck.

Loki wasn’t sure what to expect from the examination, but he felt a bit underwhelmed by it all the same.  He spent twenty minutes being told to breathe and cough and touch his toes, and being tapped and poked and prodded.  At one point, he was led to a strange scale meant to weigh and measure him.  Loki stepped onto it without thinking, causing the top portion to tilt with a dramatic clang.  Dr Scott gave it a concerned look as he adjusted the weights, and Loki belatedly thought to take his weight off his feet.  He still couldn’t make himself as light on his feet as those around him, but a quick prod at Dr Scott’s mind made him see what he expected to see from a man of Loki’s size.  Still almost sceptical, Dr Scott wrote his findings down on his clipboard and nodded.

The only thing Loki found remotely relevant to all the tests was when Dr Scott later asked him about the prescription on his eyeglasses, which Loki had to confess he didn’t know.  He’d stolen them from an unsuspecting man when he first began spending time in New York, and kept hold of them ever sense because he rather liked the look of their round, brass frames.

Dr Scott at least didn’t seem to find any of this out of the ordinary, and only had Loki read from a chart across the room.  He seemed satisfied with the results, and after a few more pokes and prods, picked up the file from where he’d left it and added his notes to it.

“All right,” he said.  “I think that’s all.  Go ahead and get dressed and wait for someone to call you.”

He left Loki alone to once more wonder if he was doing the right thing.

Loki walked up the stairs to the brownstone’s door, hesitating only slightly before ringing the bell.  Inside, he could hear muffled shouting as someone rushed to the door.  Loki couldn’t help but smile at it, somehow pleased to know that his family wasn’t the only one to express opinions through rage and loud voices.  An older boy quickly threw the door open and frowned at Loki, sizing him up.

“You here for Kitty?” he asked.

Loki gave him his best smile.  “I am,” he said.

The boy turned away, leaving the door open.  “Kitty, there’s some guy here for you!” he shouted.  “Should I tell him to scram or what?”

Watching the boy start to wander away, Loki very nearly laughed.

“Who is it?” Kitty shouted back from somewhere inside.

“How the hell should I know?”  The boy disappeared into another room as Kitty rushed to the door, her face brightening as she saw Loki.

“Luke.  What the hell are you doing here?” she asked.  Someone inside shouted, so she stepped out to the stoop and shut the door.  “Family,” she said apologetically.

“No worse than mine,” Loki assured her.

“So, what’s going on?” Kitty asked, not to be derailed.  “You never just stop by.  Is everything all right?”

Loki nodded slowly, leaning into persona he’d adopted.  “Everything’s fine.  I, uh.  I enlisted.  Just today.”

Kitty’s eyes went wide as she took a small step backward.  “You what?” she asked.  “Why?  You’re not even from here.  You don’t have to do that.”

Loki shrugged.  “They say you get citizenship if you enlist,” he said.

“Yeah, but is that really worth it?” asked Kitty.

Loki didn’t have an opinion either way, but if Luke Olson did, that would have been it.  “I think so, yes,” he said, shrugging again.  “And it seemed like the right thing to do.”

Kitty looked up at him, an unspoken plea written across her face.  “And getting shot’s the right thing to do?” she asked.

“By the time I finish training, the worst of it will probably be over,” Loki reasoned.

Kitty wrapped her arms over her chest and looked out at the street.  Neither spoke for a long while, not sure what to say.  Finally, Kitty inhaled deeply and faced Loki again.

“When do you ship out?” she asked.

“Monday,” Loki said.  “Just enough time for me to get everything sorted here, and then it’s off to Camp Union for ten weeks.”

“What about your family?  Have you told them?”

Loki shrugged lazily.  He didn’t like to lie outright, finding it too easy to get caught up in his own deceit.  The best lies were the ones wrapped up in honest truth.

“I was disinherited,” he said, shaking his head like it wasn’t anything to be fussed over.  “Why do you think I’m even here?”

“I did wonder,” Kitty admitted quietly.  “What did you do?”

Loki snorted, knowing that the two events had nothing to do with one another in the slightest.

“I plotted against my brother,” he said, going with the more interesting story.  “It wasn’t treason, but it could have been had things gone any worse than they did.  Mostly, I publicly humiliated him and sent our father into a rage.”

Kitty looked up at him almost pityingly before sliding into laughter she couldn’t control.  Loki soon joined her, realising only then how ridiculous the whole ordeal with Thor had been.  Suddenly, Kitty stepped forward and pulled Loki into a tight hug, burying her face in his overcoat.

“You better come back, you hear me,” she said.

Loki gently wrapped his arms around her shoulders, content to remain like this for as long as Kitty wanted.  He hated that it had to be like this, but it was truly the best way for him to disappear, he thought.

“Of course I will,” he said.  “I promise.”

He could not count the times he had broken that same promise before.

“I’m getting real sick of drills.  When do we actually start training?”

Loki silently agreed with the private across the mess table from him.  Training was coming into its second week, and so far they’d done nothing but learn how to march and stand and salute.  Nothing about it seemed useful at all, but Loki didn’t dare try to contradict the drill sergeant and risk standing out any more than someone his size already did.  He knew several men around him already suspected he’d lied on his enlistment forms, but since nobody seemed to know what to do with six-and-a-half-foot-tall teenager, it never came up as a topic of discussion for long. 

“We ain’t ever gonna do any good over there if we don’t start learning how to kill Nazis, you know?” Randal went on.

Loki looked up at him, almost surprised.  Even the Wild West had been tamed, but surely the basics of pointing a gun and pulling a trigger were not completely foreign.

“You mean you don’t already know how?” he asked.

Private Randal dropped his fork onto his plate and glared up at Loki.  “Yeah?  What the hell do you know about it, four-eyes?”

“Hey, shut up, all right?” the recruit next to him said.  “Just leave him alone.”

“No, I wanna hear what this guy has to say,” Randal said, swatting Coulson away.  “He’s sitting over here like he’s done all this before.  I mean, you know.  He must have, to be talking like this.”  He leaned back and levelled a sarcastic look at Loki.  “So go on, then.  Expound upon us all your knowledge of this subject.”

Loki remained unfazed.  “I’m afraid you wouldn’t believe me if I did tell you,” he said.

Convinced of his victory, Randal held his hands in the air.  “See?  Doesn’t know a thing.  Just as clueless as the rest of us.”

“Well, at least you established that,” Coulson said dryly.

Loki was fairly suspicious that Ray Coulson had lied on his own enlistment forms, but he couldn’t be sure.  He seemed younger than the majority of the men in his platoon, but it could have just been a quirk of biology.  Loki had never been good at judging humans’ ages, and being constantly mistaken as a teenager himself, assumed he’d never figure it out.  Several of the men Loki trained with seemed rather young, even by their own standards though.  Either that, or more people were lying in order to join the army than anyone was willing to admit.

As Randal continued to despair upon the monotony of their training, Sgt Horton marched into the mess hall and called the platoon to attention.  Ten minutes later, they all stood outside on a dusty patch of earth, listening to Sgt Horton give a lecture about the importance of unarmed combat skills.  Loki dared a quick glance over to Randal, not surprised to see him looking rather pleased.

“I need a volunteer,” said Sgt Horton suddenly.  “Olson.  Step forward.”

Loki stepped forward as commanded, almost dreading what was about to happen.  “Sir,” he said.

He’d been overheard in mess.  He knew it.  And now he was being called out in front of the entire platoon.

“I’m going to demonstrate the basic defencive techniques,” Horton said.  “Olson, I want you to hit me.  Anywhere you like.”

He stood with his hands at his sides, opening himself up for a strike.

“Sir?” Loki asked, really not liking where the situation was heading.

“You heard me, Olson.  I want you to hit me,” said Horton, already losing his patience.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Sir,” Loki said.  Behind him, he could hear several of the other recruits laughing.  Loki ignored it.

“Olson, this is your last chance,” Horton said, raising his voice until he was almost shouting.  “Hit me.”

Loki refused still, daring to shake his head.  Clearly annoyed at the defiance, Sgt Horton swung a right hook at Loki’s face.  Loki dodged as soon as he saw Horton’s weight shift, grabbing him by his wrist and using Horton’s own momentum to pull him off his balance.  Without even thinking, Loki threw his elbow at the back of Horton’s head, pulling the swing at the very last moment.  The blow still connected harder than Loki had meant it to, and Horton fell face-first onto the ground.  The whole thing was over before anyone even realised what had happened.  Loki quickly stepped away as a nearby sergeant rushed over, kneeling beside Horton.

“I said I didn’t wish to hurt him,” Loki said calmly.

Around him, the other recruits murmured in shock, not quite sure whether or not to believe what they’d just seen.

Horton was roused and sat up, swaying slightly.  He looked around him, his eyes glazed as his vision failed to focus.

“What happened?” he asked distantly.

“Come on,” said the other sergeant coaxingly.  He pulled Horton to his feet, holding him as steady as he was able.  “Up you get.”

Horton was led away, leaving the platoon alone on the training grounds.

“What the fuck?” Randal asked quietly.

No one had an answer for him.

Loki sat outside Major Lee’s office, wondering why he was even still there.  They’d all but found him out, and nothing good ever came from being found out.  Humans killed their gods and hung their witches.  He’d have to leave New York; stay away from Midgard completely until enough time had passed that they’d forgotten him.  But if he did that, there might not be a Midgard to return to.  His list of solutions was growing shorter by the day.  Three times since his induction into America’s army, he’d tried to return to the Tesseract while those around him slept, and each time he’d been forced back again.  He supposed he could have just started wandering the realm until he found it, but even for him, with all his powers, that could take years.

The man who controlled the Tesseract was an enemy of America’s politicians and army, and allying with the nation was the best way for Loki to find him.

He’d begun to lose track of the time when he was finally called into Major Lee’s office.  The major was a surprisingly old man, making Loki wonder just how effective their military could truly be if it was run by their elderly.  He refrained from saying anything at all and stood at attention in front of Lee’s desk, waiting to be reprimanded, or worse.

“At ease, son,” Lee said.

“Sir,” Loki said with a nod, shifting his stance.

Major Lee had a file open on his desk, which he read over slowly before shifting it.  Loki could only guess whose file it was.

“You want to tell me what happened out there today?” Lee asked finally.

Loki nodded once.  “I acted on reflex, Sir.  I was taught when someone hits you, you hit them back.”

“Except he didn’t hit you, did he?” asked Lee.

“No, Sir,” Loki admitted.  “I was also taught that if someone tries to hit you, you hit them first.”

Lee nodded and grabbed a pen from a cup on his desk.  Loki thought he might be about to write something in the file before him, but he just opened it and read it over again.

“Am I in trouble, Sir?” Loki asked finally, wanting whatever discipline meted to him out of the way.

“Trouble?” Lee asked, incredulous.  “No, son.  I’m promoting you.  Starting tomorrow, you’ll be assisting Sergeant Horton in unarmed combat.”

Loki was caught rather off-guard by the decision.  “Ah.  Yes, Sir.”

Lee slid a small envelope across his desk to Loki, nodding at it.  Still unsure, Loki reached forward and took the envelope, but he didn’t open it just yet.  Almost at once, Lee seemed to become occupied by the next matter.

“Dismissed,” he said.

Loki nodded again, and saluted and turned to leave the room.  Perhaps their army wasn’t completely useless after all, if they were willing to utilise whatever talents they found in their soldiers.  Loki made his way back to the barracks, finding the others preparing for a march.  Loki was met with cautious stares as he made his way to his bunk, but he ignored the lot of them.  As he put the envelope down on his bunk, he glanced over at Coulson, unable to discern what he was meant to be doing.

“What’s going on?” Loki asked.

Coulson gave him a wary glance.  “Full pack march,” he said after a moment.  “With first platoon, since…”

“I did tell him I didn’t want to hurt him,” Loki said wryly as he gathered his pack.

“Yeah,” Coulson said, looking away again.  “You pulled that punch, didn’t you?” he asked suddenly.  “My old man was a boxer, and I’ve seen it before.”

Loki looked up at him.  “I did, yes.  Rather too late, I’m afraid.”

Coulson looked back up at him.  “Where’d you learn how to do that sorta thing, anyway?”

“Growing up,” Loki told him, setting his canteen aside to be filled before the march.  “It was just like any other daily lesson.  Something everyone learned, between history and reading.”

“Jeez, where’d you grow up?” Coulson asked, his expression shifting from apprehension to something closer to wide-eyed awe.

“Iceland,” Loki said.  “We’re practically Vikings.” He ran his fingers through his hair, still not used to the short cut of it.

Coulson snorted as he finished readying his pack.  “I guarantee Randal won’t be giving you any more grief after today,” he said.

Loki grinned.  “Yes, I did tell him as well, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, I guess you did,” Coulson said, laughing.  “Maybe next time, he’ll listen.”

Loki found it surprisingly difficult to lead the platoon in physical training of any sort.  Apparently the added stripe on his arm came with a small chunk of Horton’s responsibilities, possibly as punishment for sending him to the infirmary in the first place.  It wasn’t that the training itself was difficult—in fact, it was childishly simple, and that was the problem.  Loki would get bored doing jumping jacks and push-ups before he ever got tired from it.  The humans he led could barely keep up with him.

The assault course was at least fun.

Sgt Horton timed them, sending them off through a maze of high walls, rope ladders, and various obstacles to be climbed over, under, and through.  Years of running along precarious roof tops and dangerous terrain made days at the assault course the most familiar aspect of training.  Loki started off with Coulson and Randal nearby, but lost them as soon as it came time to scale the first wall.  A heavy rope hung down, which Loki was able to climb up with ease, provided he kept his weight off it.  It was a trick he’d picked up after falling out of one too many trees, and one he was rapidly having to perfect living so close to so many squishy little mortals.  Though he was actually surprised how much he’d come to miss so much physical activity, after so much time spent on stages and in clubs.

He finished the course, panting happily as he dropped down from the climbing bars.

“What the hell are you doing here, Olson?” Sgt Horton demanded, looking incredulously at his stopwatch.

“I finished it, Sir,” Loki said with a grin.

“Then get back out there and do it again,” Horton ordered.

Loki laughed.  “Yes, Sir,” he said, already running back to the beginning of the course.

He still finished before almost a quarter of the platoon, feeling rather pleased with himself for it.  Randal stood hunched over nearby, his hands resting on his knees as he panted at the ground.

“That guy ain’t human,” he decided.  “It ain’t right.”

“I heard they were doing experiments at Lehigh,” another recruit, Kirby, said.  “Maybe that’s where they found him.”

Randal shook his head.  “It ain’t right,” he repeated.

Weapons came during the second phase of training, and Loki found he once again had an advantage there.  While some of the recruits were hunters and police officers, most had never handled a weapon any more dangerous than a kitchen knife.

Even so, the M-1 was nothing like the muskets Loki had learned to use as a boy, or the more recent shotguns and revolvers used out west.  While the basic function was the same—point it where you wanted it to fire and squeeze the trigger—no musket had ever tried to take his thumb off when he loaded it.  Loki almost missed the hassle of wadding and powder and ramrods.

He lay on his stomach at the range and tried to force the clip into the rifle.  Finally, it clicked into place, loosening the slide before Loki had taken his hand away.  It shot forward, catching Loki’s hand in the mechanism.

“Mother of hel!” he shouted, struggling to pull his hand away.

Sgt Horton quickly rushed over to assist him in opening the slide, but found Loki already with his hand free.  He had the side of his thumb in his mouth, sucking on the damaged flesh.

“Report to the infirmary, Olson,” Horton said.  Two others had already been sent away from the range to be treated for broken thumbs, and Horton was starting to sound resigned to half of his men washing out just because of their weapons misbehaving.

Loki took his hand away from his mouth.  “I’m fine, Sir,” he said.  “Just caught the edge.”

Horton levelled a skeptical look on him, but walked down the line as Loki took his position once more.  Next to Loki, Coulson lay on the ground, ready to be told when to start trying to hit the targets at the other end of the range.

“You sure you’re all right?” he asked.

Loki looked over at him and wiggled his thumb to prove it wasn’t broken.  “I’m tougher than I look,” he said.

“You’re crazy,” Coulson replied.

Dangerous as it was, Loki also found the M-1 impressive.  Fiddly though the clip was, it held eight rounds.  Even more impressive, the rounds could be fired as quickly as one could pull the trigger.  Loki rather liked that, and thought that perhaps the convenience might even outweigh the frustration in getting the damn thing to behave.

It was also a precision weapon.  One could point it in a general direction and had a good chance of hitting their target with practise, but the M-1 was meant to be aimed.  It took Loki a bit of time to get used to it, but he quickly grew to love the concepts of semi-automatic and aperture sights.  He loved it so much, he qualified on the 1911 shortly after.

The 1911, he thought, might just have been his favourite weapon in a very long time.  It fit better in his hand than his flintlocks, and produced far less blinding smoke.  It also held seven rounds at once and loaded easier than a revolver, making it that much more practical than anything Loki had used like it before.

One way or another, Loki was determined to keep both the M-1 and the 1911 after he was finished with this ridiculous errand he’d found himself on.

The day before their final physical exam, the platoon was given a rare day to themselves.  Not one to waste it, Loki got up and dressed, and then spent the rest of his day in his bunk with a book.

“You know, I don’t understand you,” Coulson said as he returned from the mess hall.  “You got more energy than a jumping bean with a spring up its ass, but you’re the laziest bastard I ever met.  Have you done anything at all today?”

Loki shrugged dramatically.  “I can sleep for days if you let me.”

Coulson took off his jacket and stretched out on his own bunk.  He pulled out a thin magazine from under his mattress and started flipping through until he found the page he’d left on.

“What are you reading?” Coulson asked, looking over at the book Loki held.

Loki showed him the cover.  “What the hel is a hobbit, actually?” he asked.  “I’ve never heard of such a thing before.”

Coulson laughed.  “You never read The Hobbit before?” he asked.

“I’m not from here,” Loki reminded him.  He looked over at Coulson and frowned.  “What have you got?”

Coulson showed him the cover, which depicted a man in blue with a shield, as he ploughed through a small group of Nazi soldiers.

“You remember that guy last month that was all over the papers?” Coulson asked.  “Saved that kid and all that?  My mom sent me this yesterday.  I guess he’s this big thing now.”

“Is it any good?” Loki asked.

“Yeah, it’s all right,” said Coulson with a shrug.

Loki hummed speculatively.  Suddenly, he closed his book and rolled over to face Coulson, causing his bunk to creak ominously.  Spreading his palm out onto the mattress, he renewed the spell that kept the whole thing from just collapsing under his weight, letting him actually relax.

“Ray, can you do something for me?” Loki asked a moment later.

Coulson gave him a dubious look.  “It depends,” he said.  “How much trouble am I gonna get into for it?”

Loki tapped his book against the edge of his bunk.  “Our alphabet is different from yours,” he said.  “I can read reasonably well, but I can’t do much more than sign my name.  Not quickly, anyway.”

“What?” Coulson asked, grinning.  “You got a girl you want to send a letter to, but you never learned to write?”

“A friend, but basically, yes,” Loki said.

“Yeah, all right,” Coulson said.  He put his comic aside and got up to dig through his foot locker.  He pulled out a pencil and a small notebook and returned to his bunk.  “All right, lover-boy.  What’s her name?” he asked.  He licked the tip of his pencil and got ready to write.

Loki rolled his eyes.  “Kitty,” he said.

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