100indecisions: my chains are broken (holding up sunlight)
[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: discussion of suicidal thoughts

           “So,” Rogers says, when Loki finally finishes the Gatorade, or at least doesn’t seem like he’s going to drink any more. “You said you could try to help me find out who I am. How do you plan to do that?”
            “I am sure there is research that could be done,” Loki says. “Public records and so forth. Or HYDRA’s files—”
            Rogers shakes his head. “The really important stuff is on a server I can’t access without being there in person, and it would be tough even then. I suppose you could help with that, eventually.”
            “Perhaps,” Loki says. “There are also…more direct methods.”
            It takes Rogers a second to realize what Loki means. “You want to poke around in my head,” he says flatly. “With magic.”
            “I want nothing. I am merely raising a possibility.”
            “You could really do that?” Rogers says. “Just…give me back my memories?”
            “I cannot guarantee anything,” Loki cautions. “I am not…I have very little experience with mind magic, although I am familiar with the theory. But I suspect HYDRA’s methods—regardless of their ultimate intent—had the effect of blocking your memories rather than destroying them, so yes, I may be able to restore access.”
            “Yeah,” Rogers says after a moment’s hesitation. “Do it. I need to know.”
            “Well, first of all, I need to determine whether HYDRA left any unpleasant surprises behind, before I look any further. I have the strength for that, at least.”
            Yes, Rogers can imagine a number of unpleasant surprises, now that Loki’s brought it up—trigger phrases, sleeper commands, even a kill switch. “Okay,” he says. “And then you’ll try to fix my memory.”
            “If I can,” Loki says, and then he gestures vaguely toward the couch. “Lie down, please.”
            Rogers doesn’t move. “Why?”
            “Because that way I will actually be able to reach your head. Contact is not strictly necessary, but it will make things easier for me, and I can think of no better way to do this. Unless, I suppose, you wish to rest your head directly in my lap.” His tone is faintly mocking, implying that of course Rogers won’t want to do that, and Rogers isn’t sure why. Loki takes in his expression and adds hastily, “Strike that. You are incapable of feeling embarrassment or awkwardness, aren’t you?”
            “Probably,” Rogers says.
            “And incapable of recognizing rhetorical questions, I see.”
            “When they don’t sound like rhetorical questions and you only sometimes make sense anyway? Sure.” Rogers sits on the couch and swings his legs up so he can stretch out. It’s a vulnerable position and he doesn’t like it, but at least he knows he can trust his own reflexes.
            Loki sighs. “I do not want any part of you putting weight on any part of me because I have broken bones. That is not so difficult to understand, is it? You could kneel, I suppose, but I imagine this is more comfortable.” He moves up until his knees are almost touching the couch, and when his face enters Rogers’ field of vision, he is grimacing. “Whoever invented this wheelchair clearly did not consider that a patient might not retain full use of his hands.”
            “Well, not the kind of wheelchair you can walk out of Walmart, anyway,” Rogers says.
            “Hm,” Loki says. “Now be quiet and hold still,” and he places one hand against Rogers’ forehead. For not quite five minutes Rogers feels nothing, just the slight pressure of Loki’s near-skeletal fingers at his temple. Every several seconds, a minute shiver runs through his hand, and the shakes get more frequent and more pronounced the longer Loki holds the position. But he doesn’t say anything, so Rogers doesn’t either.
            “There you are,” Loki murmurs at last, his fingers twitching against Rogers’ head, and whatever he does magically, that part Rogers does feel—like a cord being snipped somewhere, or a haze of smoke clearing, or…something else he doesn’t have words for (the first deep breath with lungs that didn’t ache, the realization it could be this way and he never knew what he was missing). He can feel the wrongness of it, now that it’s gone, and he has no idea how he never noticed before.
            Well, he does know, of course, that was the whole point of this exercise, but it’s still a strange feeling, like only realizing the pebble in his shoe was hurting him after shaking it out and registering the absence of pain.
            Loki exhales and his hand vanishes, and Rogers sits up to face him. “All done?”
            “For the time being,” Loki says, his voice mostly steady despite the new grayish cast to his skin. “I cannot…later, perhaps, I can work to uncover your memories. But I cleared out the obvious traps, and that should do for now.”
            “Traps,” Rogers repeats. “Like what? I felt something—go.”
            “I imagine that was the trigger phrases. You had a good half-dozen or so in there.”
            “And they’re gone now?” Rogers asks, feeling suddenly cold. “You’re sure?”
            “Only one way to find out, I suppose,” Loki says. “‘The third flower in the vase is green.’”
            Rogers flinches—he knows that phrase, somehow—but otherwise nothing happens. He meets Loki’s expectant gaze and says, “I don’t feel anything.”
            “No? Ah, well.” Loki shrugs. “No harm in trying.”
            “No harm—?” Rogers says, staring at him. “What was that? An attack command?” He knows he’s right as he says it, can feel what it was, and when Loki hesitates a beat too long, he has his confirmation. “That would’ve made me attack you.”
            “Given that there is no one else in the immediate vicinity, I suppose that would be the case,” Loki says lightly. “Now if you will excuse me, I believe I either need to lie down or find sustenance.”
            Rogers grabs one of the wheels to keep Loki from leaving, although he can’t move much anyway. “Why do you want to die?”
           Loki raises one eyebrow. “I never said that.”
           “You didn’t have to,” Rogers says, annoyed and not sure why (but he holds onto that, because he knows the asset doesn’t feel annoyance). “The first time you saw me, you asked me to kill you—”
           “Yes, because that was far preferable to remaining there to be tortured as long as I could be kept alive—”
           “—and when I got you out,” Rogers continues, raising his voice a little but otherwise not acknowledging Loki’s interruption, “then you tried to goad me into killing you. I had to ask what the other option was. And now—you’re healing, you’re regaining your magic, and you still don’t seem to care about your own survival.”
           “Well then,” Loki says, shoulders braced and posture defensive, “if you are so perceptive, surely there is no need for me to explain. Have you truly never wanted to—to give up? To stop?”
           “Of course not,” Rogers says, but suddenly he wonders.
           Loki shakes his head. “Yes, I suppose a weapon never would question its purpose or its existence. You will sooner or later, you know; I think all living beings do.”
           Rogers shrugs and releases the wheelchair. “Fine. Maybe. But you still haven’t told me why you do.”
           “Does it matter?” Loki asks sharply. “I am doing what you asked. There is no need for you to try to…understand me. Particularly when there is so much you are yet incapable of understanding.” He tries to grip the wheels again and stops short, his hands jerking back in pain.
           Rogers sighs. “Just let me.” He gets another little box of milk from the kitchen, and while Loki drinks it, Rogers works on setting up the laptop for lack of anything better to do. “Now what,” he says when Loki finishes.
           Loki sets the box on the side table. “Now I am going to sleep again, if I can, and perhaps regain enough energy to dig around in that locked-off brain of yours. Perhaps not. Perhaps you will simply have to…what is the phrase, ‘find yourself’?”
            “How the hell am I supposed to do that?”
           “You have heard of the internet, yes?” Loki asks, his tone scathing.
            Rogers stares at him. “That’s how you’re going to help me? Tell me to Google myself?”
            “In case you’ve somehow already forgotten, I promised you nothing,” Loki says.
            “You said you would try,” Rogers says. “I don’t even know where to start.”
            Loki’s shoulder twitches in what Rogers supposes is meant to be a less painful shrug. “Begin with what you do know. HYDRA and the name ‘Rogers.’ It is at least worth a try, and perhaps you will learn something while I rest. Now, if you would—”
            Rogers shakes his head but helps Loki out of the wheelchair and onto the couch, and then he settles himself in the stuffed chair and opens the laptop. He has no other ideas and he definitely can’t access secure HYDRA files from here, so he types Loki’s suggestion into the search bar. The results are immediate, and it’s not the links that draw his attention but the right side of the search page. “Steven Grant Rogers,” it says in large, bold letters, and under that in smaller type, “First Captain America.” Born: July 4, 1918, Brooklyn. Disappeared winter 1945, Germany (missing in action). Below that is a list of related names and faces: James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, Margaret “Peggy” Carter, Abraham Erskine, Johann Schmidt, Howling Commandos, SHIELD, Howard Stark. By far the most jarring, however, is the cluster of images above the name, because they are all…him. The largest is a sepia-toned photograph of (Steven) Rogers in a WWII-era military dress uniform, smiling slightly at the camera. He looks young in a way Rogers can’t quite define, and there’s no hardness to his expression, no distance in his eyes. He’s clean-shaven, his hair much shorter and neatly combed, but Rogers has seen his own reflection often enough that the resemblance is unmistakable.
            Loki glances at him from the couch where he is apparently trying to get comfortable, and Rogers turns the laptop toward him, still feeling a little off balance. He still doesn’t remember anything, or at least he doesn’t think he does, but…that’s his face. And those other faces, those other names—once again, there is something
            “Well,” Loki says after a moment. His gaze flicks to Rogers and back to the screen. “Correct me if I am wrong, but you look remarkably well preserved for a mortal who has lived nearly a century.”
“That can’t be right,” Rogers says. “I’m not…”
            “Perhaps they had you in stasis much of the time,” Loki says, letting his eyes fall shut.
            Let’s put him on ice, Rogers thinks he remembers, and yes, there’s something familiar about this. Like the names and faces on the screen in front of him, familiar in a way he doesn’t understand, because he knows he doesn’t remember them.
            And yet—
            He knows them. Somehow. The same way he knows that Steven Grant Rogers is his name.
            He clicks through to the Wikipedia article and begins reading. “Steven ‘Steve’ Grant Rogers was the first of two American soldiers to take up the title of Captain America and the only person on record to have made a successful transformation with Dr. Abraham Erskine’s supersoldier serum,” the article begins. “Rogers was instrumental in many Allied victories in Europe during the latter half of World War 2, aided by Agent Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, and the Howling Commandos. However, during a mission to capture HYDRA scientist Armin Zola, he fell from a train high up in the Alps, and his body was never recovered.” It is surreal. As Loki’s breathing evens out in sleep, Rogers keeps reading.
He learns that Steve Rogers’ death was kept quiet for morale reasons, and Captain America wasn’t allowed to die because he was too important to the war effort (and maybe more importantly, his death would’ve been an Axis victory). Instead, James “Bucky” Barnes primarily stepped into the role, with Peggy Carter providing major tactical and strategic support from the sidelines. Barnes wasn’t a supersoldier, but testing revealed moderately enhanced physical capabilities from whatever HYDRA did to him, and Howard Stark quickly got to work trying to supplement that with his vita-ray invention and experimental versions of the serum that wouldn’t produce such dramatic results but also didn’t carry the same danger of side effects. Some historians, the article tells him, speculate that this form of the serum was not as safe as Stark claimed after the fact in his reports, because his notes make clear that the process was rushed and he didn’t get approval from anyone before beginning. Stark never confirmed it, but there’s a popular theory that he and Barnes, both mourning their fallen friend, went ahead with the serum as a fairly reckless experiment because they wanted revenge on HYDRA. (A more modern theory takes this further, suggesting that Barnes’ apparent insistence on taking an untested serum might have stemmed from romantic attraction to Rogers. In fact, one film from just a few years ago portrays Rogers and Barnes as secret lovers. A much older theory, dating all the way back to the first feature-length dramatization of Captain America’s story in 1949, is that Carter and Rogers were lovers, despite Carter’s claims to the contrary. The real Rogers, reading all of this on a laptop with an alien asleep on his couch, has no idea what the truth might be.)
           The new Captain America and his Commandos (and, more often than not, Agent Carter) continued destroying HYDRA bases, eventually uncovering a plot to take out numerous cities in one strike. Barnes was able to board the bomber but not to prevent it from taking off, and—presumably after subduing Schmidt—he was forced to ditch it in the water above the Arctic. Like the first Captain America, he was presumed dead but his body was never found, even though Stark put forth a major effort to find him and Rogers (and, possibly, a weapon in Schmidt’s possession that was never declassified).
            Most of this information—nearly everything that didn’t show up in the propaganda reels—remained classified until a few years after the war, when the public finally learned that the Captain America who heroically sacrificed himself to save his country wasn’t the original. His story became even more popular after that, used to show the greatness and bravery of American soldiers against enemies like Nazis and now communism, the enduring power of the American spirit in the willingness of these young men to die for their country, and so on. The fact that HYDRA apparently dabbled in occult and pagan powers didn’t hurt the narrative of their darkness and evil withering in the face of a couple of God-fearing boys from Brooklyn.
            The article details Rogers’ early life as a “frail, sickly youth” as well, including his growing up in poverty, losing his mother to tuberculosis, meeting Barnes, and developing his artistic skills. Then there’s a list of appearances and portrayals of Rogers in the media—early propaganda films, comics, and radio plays, and then a sensationalized and eventually debunked biography and accompanying film released almost immediately after some of the information was declassified. After that there seem to have been at least a few biographies, documentaries, and “docudramas” per decade, like a popular but semi-fictionalized TV miniseries in the early 1990s, a classic 1974 film starring Robert Redford, and a 1986 book (David McCullough’s The Men Behind the Shield: The Lives of Captain America, which itself was eventually adapted into a History Channel documentary) widely held to be the definitive historical account of the Captain America story.
            Rogers reads a few excerpts, watches a few video clips, somehow follows a trail of links that leads to a site called “Captains America: The Stucky RPF Archive” full of sexually explicit (and questionably accurate) fan-written stories about himself and Barnes. At that point he finally closes the laptop, feeling unsettled, and rubs at his aching eyes. Of course he wouldn’t know much about any of the books or films, although he vaguely recalls seeing ads for at least a couple of them, but the rest of it…he doesn’t remember any of that. He’s (nearly) sure he doesn’t. But the photos are unmistakably of his face, if not his smile, and even though he knows he (probably) doesn’t remember, he can’t deny a niggling sense of familiarity.
            Loki stirs on the couch, catching Rogers’ attention. The alien is still asleep, but his expression is pinched, forehead creased with strain. As Rogers watches, he flinches against the back of the couch with a bitten-off sound of pain, his eyes flying open. His pupils are dilated, his gaze wild and unfocused, his breathing harsh.
            “Easy,” Rogers says without thinking.
            Loki jerks in place again, pulling his arms defensively inward. Rogers waits, grateful (why?) that the nightmare didn’t send Loki tumbling to the floor this time, and after a moment Loki blinks at him and seems to recognize his surroundings. He looks away and clears his throat. “How long…?”
            Rogers glances at his watch. “Three hours, 27 minutes. Do you feel recovered?”
            “Hah. No.” Loki hauls himself more or less upright and sags against the cushions. “But I think my seidr is replenished enough to try to remove some of the barriers in your mind.” He hesitates. “Well—perhaps some food first.”
            “Sure,” Rogers says. He’s hungry too, now that he thinks about it, and what he’s learned about the stranger with his face needs to settle in his mind a bit before he wants to stir up real memories. He heats up some tomato soup without really paying attention to anything he’s doing, black-and-white images still lingering behind his eyes. Stark is long dead, killed in a car accident with his wife in 1991, but Peggy Carter still lives, and he wonders if she remembers him. If she would recognize him, now. That’s an option, he supposes, if Loki’s magic doesn’t work. Except it kind of needs to, because all he has now is fragments of somebody else’s biography and the frustrating sense that the names and faces should all be more familiar than they really are.
           Loki is watching him, he realizes, having somehow finished his soup first. Rogers gives himself a mental shake and takes both bowls back to the kitchen, then eases Loki back into the wheelchair. “You need me on the couch again?”
           “The bed this time, I think,” Loki says. “This will be complicated, and more contact will help. My hands on both sides of your head,” he clarifies.
           Rogers shrugs and wheels him into the bedroom, lining the wheelchair up where Loki directs him so Loki’s knees are touching the blankets. He sits on the bed then, an odd feeling in his stomach. “If this goes wrong,” he says. “What’s the worst-case scenario?”
            Loki hesitates, so briefly that Rogers wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been watching for it, and it’s enough to tell him that Loki doesn’t know. “Most likely,” he says, “if this does not work, nothing will happen at all. I am reestablishing old pathways, after all, not creating new ones. I suppose there may be…feedback, of some kind. But you may also want to consider whether you are asking the right question.”
           “And what’s the right question?” Rogers asks.
           “Consider if this works,” Loki says, “and the answers you find are not ones you can bear. Once you have that knowledge, you cannot give it back, and I cannot take it from you even if you wish it. HYDRA could, no doubt, but their methods are…” His lips thin. “Once you remember, you will not voluntarily submit to that again. And—is not this simpler? You are—who and what you are now. No doubts, no regrets, no past to drag you down. You could start over, unburdened.”
            Rogers is already shaking his head before Loki finishes speaking. “I don’t have anything to start from. I don’t know who or what I am, and I want to know. I don’t—” It feels strange to say, but he knows it’s true as he says it. “I don’t like not knowing things.”
            Loki looks at him for a long moment. “If you are sure,” he says finally.
            Rogers nods. “I’m sure.” He stretches out sideways on the bed, deliberately relaxing the tension in his limbs. Loki’s fingers settle against his temples again, the roughness of the bandage making an odd contrast to his faintly cool skin.
            “There is one other thing,” Loki says. “Whatever memories you recover, I may be able to see as well.”
            Rogers shrugs, which probably looks a little strange when he’s flat on his back, but he’s sure Loki understands his meaning. As far as the privacy of his own memories goes, he really doesn’t care about that—maybe he should, and maybe he will later, but right now he doesn’t even know what’s inside his own head or what he might not want someone else to see. The idea of someone else seeing that unknown quantity as well doesn’t really bother him.
            As before, he feels nothing at first, hears nothing but the background hum of the air conditioning and the very slightly unsteady rhythm of Loki’s breathing. And then, with no sense of gradual buildup or warning, he is not alone in his own head. There is no other way to describe it, and nothing he has experienced that compares. It’s not an intrusion, not an attack; there is no sense of anyone prying open a door or chipping away at the walls of his mind—he is just no longer the only presence behind his own eyes.
            Loki’s presence is distinct, and Rogers doesn’t have the language to describe it or even understand it (and he has no idea, when he thinks about it, if he just doesn’t have the memories to compare it to anything, or if there aren’t human words for something so far outside of normal human experience). He knows, though, that it doesn’t hurt, and it doesn’t feel like a violation. He is sure of that much. He isn’t sure why he suddenly expects both of those things so strongly, isn’t sure he wants to know, and a shiver of unease prickles down his spine when he realizes that if this works, he will know why, and very soon.
            But he still wants to know who he was. Needs to know.
           He holds very still and focuses on the breath going steadily in and out of his nose, spreads his hand against the blanket for something tactile and grounding. Inside, on a completely new level of awareness, he feels…Loki is taking a look around, much the way Rogers automatically maps out paths and exits when he enters a room, except Loki’s attention feels more like detached observation than tactical assessment. Examination without judgment. It’s almost gentle and not really intrusive, and he doesn’t know why that seems so odd.
            Nothing else happens for a little while, long enough that Rogers starts to wonder if this is it, whatever Loki’s trying just isn’t going to work and he’ll have to try something else or take Loki’s advice and start over from scratch (unless Loki’s only pretending right now and not actually trying to fix anything, and in that case the simplest way to motivate him to cooperate is obvious—except now the thought of deliberately hurting someone who’s already so injured makes him feel uncomfortably cold inside).
            And then something shifts.

November 2016

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