100indecisions: my chains are broken (king of this hill)
[personal profile] 100indecisions
Title: all this that is more than a wish is a memory
Author name: 100indecisions on AO3
Characters/Pairing: Loki & Steve Rogers, very gradually working in a Steve/Loki direction
Fandom/Universe: MCU
Rating: R for violence
Word count: ~26,000
Warnings: Violence and resulting injuries, medical experimentation/torture, suicidal thoughts, dehumanization (these are the main ones, but each chapter will have additional warnings when relevant)
Summary: Direct sequel to let me see you stripped down to the bone, in which the soldier with the star-spangled shield became a weapon for the other side, and decades later, the false prince fell from the sky and became their experiment. The soldier and the prince were never supposed to meet—but they did, and together they escaped from HYDRA. This is what happens next. (Or, the AU where Steve is the Winter Soldier and Loki’s a HYDRA guinea pig, and things are generally awful.)

Chapter-specific warnings: Discussions of medical experimentation, suicidal thoughts; more dehumanization

Rogers drives in silence for a while, focusing only on putting distance between them and the Bethesda apartment. When they’re finally on the Interstate and he’s is reasonably confident they’re not being followed, he says the next thing that’s on his mind: “This was a setup from the beginning.”
            Loki looks across at him without surprise. He seems to have recovered a bit, if his more alert expression is anything to go by. “You think they let us go. Back at the base.” Rogers nods, and Loki says, “In hindsight, it does seem to have been a remarkably simple escape, and I suppose they were confident they could retrieve you. The only part I do not understand is why they would do this in the first place.”
            “I think I do,” Rogers says. “It was all part of the observational study. You probably didn’t notice, but when you reacted to me—the scientists were really interested.”
            Loki is silent for a moment, and his expression twists. “This was just another experiment? To see what we would do?”
            “A controlled experiment,” Rogers says. “They knew where I would go, and they were sure they could bring us back in. They didn’t make a move until it was obvious you’d brought back my memories.”
            “They never would have allowed me to die,” Loki says, sounding faintly horrified.
            Rogers glances at him. “Hell of a thing to focus on.”
            “Yes,” Loki says tightly. “Do you still not understand why I might prefer to die than to be forced to exist as a thing?”
            Rogers mulls over that for a second. “When you say ‘thing.’ Do you mean experiment or Frost Giant?” In his peripheral vision he sees Loki stiffen, and for a long moment there is no reply.
            “Before you were made into a weapon,” Loki says finally, “you were a good man. Even when I believed otherwise, I was always...that.”
            “Well, you don’t seem like a monster to me,” Rogers says neutrally.
            Loki makes a sound of disbelief. “I killed my—I killed Thor, however temporarily, and I killed birth father and tried to destroy an entire realm. If my birth did not make me a monster—and both Asgard and HYDRA certainly seem to think so—then surely my actions did. Or did you not notice that part?”
            “I saw,” Rogers says. “I just have a little experience with cultures that see other people as things. It’s an ugly business. Can’t grow up with that and have it not affect you.”
            “Generous of you to say so,” Loki says, his tone completely flat.
            “Can’t really judge you for it, either, under the circumstances,” Rogers says. “You did help me, after all, and…everything I saw…”
            “Interesting,” Loki says, his voice still almost toneless. “Others seem to find me less tolerable with greater familiarity.”
            “Guess I’m not them,” Rogers says with a shrug. “Which reminds me. This…thing. Whatever this link is. Did you know that would happen?” He’s pretty certain the answer’s no, because although he wouldn’t put it past Loki to try to bind them together somehow, especially as alone as he is otherwise, he doesn’t think that was Loki’s intent. The depths of fear and confusion he felt, the humiliation, the hopelessness and desire to end, the old and new self-hatred…he’s confident that Loki would never invite that level of vulnerability, to let someone else feel his uncontrolled emotions. And Rogers can feel that too, vaguely at the back of his mind, the prickle of Loki’s revulsion for what he sees as a new weakness (and still more fear, underlying it, that this weakness will give Rogers another reason to turn him away in disgust).
            Loki flushes and looks away. “No. I had thought…there should not have been so much backlash. Not when…but I suppose I underestimated the power of your returning memories, and the points of similarity between some of yours and some of mine.”
            Rogers taps the steering wheel. “You said you didn’t have much experience with mind magic. Have you heard of something like this happening?”
           Loki hesitates. “Yes, but…only in tales from a very long time ago, and not quite like this. As I said…I know the theory better than the practice. Many kinds of mind magic are—not forbidden, but discouraged, in a way that even I did not wish to pursue too deeply. It is…an old fear, I suppose, passed down by those who have faced particularly terrifying enemies or witnessed other mages inadvertently destroy themselves.”
            “You sound like you’re talking about something specific,” Rogers says.
            Loki’s fingers twitch in his lap. “There are stories of a being who tried to destroy all life and who wielded—among other things—an artifact that could warp or destroy the minds of those to whom it was applied. It is said he was so powerful he was only banished from the Nine Realms because he could not be destroyed, and many of the mages who attempted similar methods to combat him were driven utterly insane instead. I know not the veracity of these tales, but I was young when I heard them, fresh from my earliest lessons on the dangers of improperly handled seidr and the care and respect with which it must be approached. It all made rather an impression.”
            Well, that’s disturbing. Rogers doesn’t know Loki very well yet, at least not conventionally, but this doesn’t sound typical for him, to be scared enough by something he learned that he would avoid trying it himself. “So when you said the likeliest bad outcome was nothing happening, was that a lie too?” He doesn’t think so, but it’s probably best to ask.
            Loki glances up, looking startled, which Rogers reads as authentic. “No. No, I am sorry, I am being unclear. It is…this particular area of magic is a broad field of study. What I did for you was…a simple cleansing, essentially, very similar to what our healers sometimes practice on patients with troubled minds or damaged memories. The fact that there were…unintended consequences…was entirely my fault for not guarding my own memories carefully enough, not an inherent danger of the procedure itself. I only meant to explain why I was not motivated to move beyond theory in this class of magic.”
            There’s more to that story, Rogers thinks, but he decides not to push. “Yeah,” he says after a second. “I mean, I can see why. It’s—not like other kinds of magic, is it? Nothing else can destroy you from the inside out.”
            Loki makes a noise of assent. “To return to my point, I would guess that this…bond…will remain primarily in the background unless actively sought out, except during moments of…emotional extremity, let us say. Then it seems to become rather more intrusive.”
            That certainly tracks so far. “Any idea how long it’s likely to last?”
            A longer pause this time. “No. I truly…I do not know. I am sorry.”
            Rogers drives in silence for a few moments and then shrugs again. “Could be worse.”
            “You seem remarkably sanguine about all of this,” Loki says, studying him.
            “I’m sure I’ve got a crash coming at some point, but first I’ve got work to do, so I’ll just keep dealing with it until then,” Rogers says. “At least now I know what I’m dealing with. And I’m just barely relearning the entire concept of my brain being a private place, so this part isn’t much of an adjustment.”
            Loki makes a noncommittal noise and turns away to gaze out the window. Without looking at Rogers, he asks, “Why did you come back for me?”
            “I felt you panic—”
            “No,” Loki says, shaking his head with a touch of impatience. “I know how you knew something was wrong. I am asking why. You could have run while the agents were occupied with me. You had no need for me anymore, you knew what I was and what I’d done—you could have escaped them and shed a burden in one stroke. That would have been…sensible. So why didn’t you?”
            Rogers turns the question over in his mind a few times. He knows why, more or less, but he’s not sure how to express it. “Seemed like the right thing to do” is close but not quite accurate, especially considering what it implies about his level of morality compared to Loki’s when it’s possible he’s killed more people than Loki has (maybe a lot more, if you count indirect kills). He was a brainwashed weapon, Loki was a product of a racist warrior culture who was lashing out in the middle of a breakdown, and either way the dead people are dead; the differences are at least partly academic, aren’t they? And given the choice, he wouldn’t consign even Johann Schmidt to torment like what Loki’s already suffered at HYDRA’s hands. “I guess I still don’t like bullies,” he says finally.
           “No, I suppose you do not,” Loki murmurs.
           A few more miles pass in silence, and then Rogers clears his throat. “I wanted to say,” he says a little awkwardly, “I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did, earlier. My memories aren’t your fault.”
            Loki’s mouth tips up on one side in what Rogers would take for a smirk, if there were any amusement or satisfaction in Loki’s eyes. “You are hardly the first I have provoked into trying to silence me. I have always had rather a talent for that, it seems, even at a very early age. But then I suppose you know that now.”
            “Well, that still doesn’t make it okay,” Rogers says. “Or what anyone else did, for that matter. There’s always a choice, how you respond to what somebody says or does, and it’s not—nobody ever has to beat up somebody else just because they’re pissed. That’s what bullies do.”
            “Hmm,” Loki says. “Not many on Asgard would share that view, I think.”
            “Doesn’t mean they’re right, any more than the bullies who beat me up for being a little punk. And back in town, too—when you said you’d lied, I shouldn’t have—”
            “Do not trouble yourself,” Loki says dismissively. “Certainly not about that. You did not make yourself into a creature that could only speak in the language of violence, and at any rate, you reacted the way I intended you to. More or less.”
            “Because you wanted me to kill you,” Rogers makes himself say. The idea hasn’t gotten any easier to consider.
            Loki smiles without humor. “I expected that, certainly. Not fair of me, perhaps, but you must admit it would have made things simpler for me. And…I think you understand, now, what it is to be utterly unmoored by the revelation that everything you know about yourself is a lie. To hate what you now understand yourself to be.”
            It’s close enough to Rogers’ own earlier thoughts that he flinches, but then he shakes his head. “I do get that. Doesn’t mean I want to just…give up. That’s not—it’s not what I do. It’s not what I’ve ever done, even when HYDRA made me into something else. And I want to keep that. I know who I can be, now, and I want that.”
            “Hmm,” Loki says, and then, abruptly, “HYDRA underestimated you too. Your character, your strength of will. They were fools to think they could keep you forever.”
            “You know,” Rogers says mildly, “that might be true of you too. Food for thought.”
            Loki blinks at him, caught off guard. He shakes his head a little, but he doesn’t disagree out loud, so Rogers figures he’ll let the matter rest for now. After a moment, Loki asks, “What will you do now?”
            “You mean aside from trying to stay a few steps ahead of HYDRA and eventually working to take them down?”
            Loki almost rolls his eyes, almost smiles. “I thought that went without saying, yes.”
            “I know who I used to be,” Rogers says. “I still don’t really know who I am now, or how to reconcile those two things. So…I want to figure that out. How about you?”
            Loki shrugs. “Much the same, I suppose.” He turns his hand over, picking restlessly at the bandages, and because Rogers is paying very close attention, he catches something that almost, almost feels like hope. Something that, if put to words, might sound like If I am not yet fated to die, then I must learn again how to live. And if a weapon can become a man again, then…perhaps…
            Rogers finds himself smiling slightly at the road stretching ahead of him. It’s both a new and old expression, unfamiliar to the asset and the Soldier but right for Steve Rogers. “How would you feel about figuring that out together?”
            Another pause, and then Loki says cautiously, “I would have no objection to that, if…you will have me.”
            “Wouldn’t have suggested it otherwise,” Rogers says easily.
            Loki relaxes a little. “I suspect I have had worse traveling companions.”
            “I know I have. You can’t possibly snore as bad as Jacques. Couple times he was so loud I actually thought we were under attack.”
            Loki huffs out a breath of laughter. “I am quite sure Volstagg would outrank him.”
            Rogers compares the memories and snorts. “Yeah, probably.”
            Loki is silent again for a moment, and then his fingers twitch against his knee, which Rogers interprets as a sign that he’s gearing himself up to say something. He still twitches in surprise, himself, when Loki says, “Steve. Thank you.”
            And it feels right. He’s not Captain America anymore, but he’s not the Winter Soldier either, and he can still be Steve Rogers. Just like Loki’s not a prince of Asgard anymore, but he’s no longer an experimental subject, and he can still be Loki. For his part, Rogers…Steve…thinks it will be enough.
            “Thank you, Loki,” he says back—still a little awkward, and he doesn’t say the rest out loud. If Loki’s slightly less tentative smile is anything to go by, though, he gets it anyway.
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