Another escape, another Rust Belt city, another evening after a long day of walking, and Loki is exhausted, yet again. He wonders- is this all his existence will be? Fixing time, escaping the TVA, running a spell, finding only brief respite, recapture, re...-education? -minders of the mission? -animation? And then biding time for another moment of escape, one inch of freedom in a life that is a paradox.
There are two truths, however, of which he is certain. He is never going to simply settle into the role they’ve made for him, that’s the first. The second is that they are never going to let him exist on his own terms. It will be a tug-of-war, regardless of who is ahead, and neither will really ever win (though, walking down this hot asphalt on a sweaty summer day, he knows he will, eventually, tire of this, and somehow, he’s loathe to admit, they will win).
He wishes there was another inviting porch somewhere nearby that would draw him to it the way it did last time. Another house of music that smelled of something delightful and a someone singing just on the other side of an open window. But this time, the street is quiet, the houses run-down, and the corner store he passes looks as though someone ran into it with a car, the concrete block wall dented and inexpertly patched. This place is not inviting, this place is as exhausted as he feels.
The heat from the pavement is nearly as oppressive as the heat from the day and Loki wishes for another comfort he found in his last venture to Earth- a shower. No matter how much he tries to convince himself he’s not miserable, he is, and a small sliver of him wants to return to the TVA and tell them he’ll stay a little longer this next time if they just let him bathe for a solid hour in a cool bath with no one trying to talk to him for any reason throughout the duration. But instead, he walks through a neighbourhood that has so little tree cover that the native species creating a canopy over the streets is the electrical wire.
There is some greenery ahead, however, and his eyes are set on it- the street ends at another road that parallels the overgrown bank of a small river. Traipsing through the unkempt grass will at least afford him a little shade. There is the impression of possibly being a sidewalk under the weeds along the river side of the street, but whenever it was seen last is a mystery. Loki resists the urge to quicken his pace. It will only make him sweat harder.
When he finally reaches the greenery, he feels his shoulders relax just a little. Not enough to call it any sense of relief, but enough that he knows walking on something unpaved is good for him. Despite the uneven terrain and the tripping hazards inherent under the long grass, he keeps walking along the river, ignoring the occasional odd look from someone passing in the street or in one of the yards across the street. He doesn’t pay attention to where he’s going. It doesn’t really matter. The point is to keep moving and not get caught.
The houses across the street become more decrepit the farther he walks. Soon, the houses are spaced only a few to a block, a quarter of them burned out or falling in. He wonders what stories this neighbourhood could tell him, had he the time to listen. Where did the people go? What happened to the other houses?
And why, he wonders, his attention drawn to a shallowly sloped area along the river bank where the brush has been hacked back and flattened to create an access point, is there an old woman pulling on some strange arrangement of ropes fastened aloft in the tree branches along the edge of the river? He takes a moment to try to decipher what he’s seeing. She walks to the water’s edge, checks something, returns to her ropes, and starts pulling, a block and tackle somewhere in the branches above her looping the rope up and down between branches. The rope creaks. Something shifts in the water and slowly, a large wooden box begins to break the surface.
No. Not a box. A piano.
The old woman strains against the rope, but she doesn’t appear to be in any sort of crisis, and the piano is shifting a remarkable amount as she tries to heave it from the river with her pulleys and ropes. Something slips, she swears loudly, and the piano splashes back down the few inches she’d managed to raise it. She checks something in her contraption and on the ropes around the piano and returns to her hauling line.
“Ma’am? Might I help?” Loki asks as he approaches, not quite sure why he’s offering, but also entirely intrigued by the entire idea of a small old woman pulling what appears to be an upright piano out of a river with only an elaborate system of ropes and what appears to be two large-wheeled metal mesh garden carts lashed together under a piece of plywood.
She looks up and waves him over, “Of course, of course. Come on by and I’ll tell you what you can do.”
“I’ve been walking for some time and I apologize if I offend. I’m in rather desperate need of a shower.”
She shrugs, “You’re just another like the rest of us, doing what we can on a hot day.”
He takes note of what she’s wearing- he thought it was a dress at first, but it’s not- she has a long skirt and tank top under what appears to be a short-sleeved summer cloak. This is not what he expected. He briefly wonders how it is dry and yet she somehow managed to loop ropes around an underwater piano.
“Where do you need me to be?” he asks.
She hands him the rope, “You pull at the pace and time I tell you. I’ll keep things on the right track.” He nods and does as she instructs, pulling, pausing, waiting for her to adjust things. It isn’t long before they are laying a waterlogged upright piano on its back on her cart.
“Ma’am? Might I ask how you intended to do this on your own?”
She shrugs, “Oh, same way I always do. With a little cleverness and a lot of stubbornness.”
“How did you know to find it here? And what are you going to do with it now?” he asks.
She fiddles with the lid and when it falls open, water rushes out, revealing the soundboard within; she peers at it before answering, “Water calls to me. It always has. There’s a voice in it that can send you wisdom if you know how to read for it.”
“When you spend most of your life by water, you start to learn how it works. It’s not as simple as people make it out to be. It gives you life, but it will also bury you. It will bring you respite, but it will also carry blood down-river. I used to wash laundry at the water’s edge. I remember what it looked like to see the grime flow away with the current.”
“I wasn’t aware of people here washing garments that way in many decades.”
She smiles at him, “Oh child...I’m so many more decades old than that.”
“Ah. Well. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
She nods and grabs a harness from the ground, fastening it across her chest before attaching the handles of her cart, “Make sure it doesn’t fall off. Doubt it will, but...there’s a first for everything.”
He walks beside the cart as she slowly gets it moving, “You’ve done this before? Fished a piano out of a river?”
“Yep. This is the fourth from this spot alone. But the water carries smaller things to this place and I catch them, too.” She slows as they pass over a particularly bumpy part of the incline back to the sidewalk, “What’s your name?”
“Loki,” he answers. “And yours?”
“Annie,” she says, “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. Where are we taking this?”
Annie picks up the pace once they’ve passed the bumps and they glide the cart into the street by way of a curb cut to a driveway that doesn’t exist, “Just down the way. Carlos has a big garage and his son’ll likely come out to help us get it moving there. Adam’s a good kid. They’re all good kids...just some of them end up in more trouble than others.”
She nods, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No. I’ve found myself here without much notice.”
“Well, places like this have their struggles. Kids find their feet however they can, and sometimes that’s in ways most people don’t approve of. But nobody wants to live risky lives, wondering if they’re going to end up crossing the wrong person or making the choices that’ll get themselves killed. They all start off as kids, though. And all kids just want people to love them at their heart.”
Loki thinks a moment, understanding this to be true, wondering if it isn’t the same with adults, too, just under more layers of complications.
Annie smiles as a young teenager hurries toward them, “Adam! Fancy seeing you out.”
“Hi, Miss Annie! What did you find?”
“A piano. And this young man helped me when the ropes were being tricky.”
Adam walks around the cart, staring wide-eyed at the instrument bumping along on carts groaning a little with the weight, “What’re you gonna do with this one?”
“Not sure yet. Maybe make it into something beautiful.”
Adam smiles, “Oh, you sure did with the last one. I’m sure you will for this one, too.” He gestures to her harness, “Come on, hand it over. I’ll get it down to the garage.”
Annie pulls it off and helps him into it, “Thank you, Adam. I’m going to walk with my new friend here for a little while, then I’ll be back.”
Loki smiles, somehow feeling better about his predicament with this woman calling him a friend. While Adam hauls the piano home, Annie gestures for him to keep following her and he does, and happily so.
“Loki...there are things about this world you should know, things many years ago I’d tell you washing at the river, the water speaking secrets in my ear. Meeting me was a sign, a portent, if you will. Since you never lived those days in this place, I will tell you this plainly. A drawing up, a drawing out, is you being pulled from the world in which you have come to exist, a something battered, damaged, and yet with value to the right person. You run because you are caught in the current, tumbling beyond your control, only once in a while snagging on a branch to which you cling so desperately. But today, the branch snaps, and when we reach this crossroads ahead, you will turn to your right and you will run, because the current is about to tear you into things you cannot escape, plummeting you to the falls. What happens thereafter, whether you surface or shatter, I cannot yet see.”
His step falters, “You’re her. Anand. Black Annis. Your sister told me you wash the uniforms at the river and speak of war, yet your calls go unheeded. Yet you are here, not warning those in a war room.”
“No, I do,” she answers, “But the war rooms are police precincts and the battles are no longer against enemies, but against my Adam and Carlos and the war rooms are embedded in our every day and in the ways of the law. I warn, I speak in meetings and use my wisdom and age and colour to my advantage. And yet...those who could heed do not. So I let the waters speak and love those swept away in them.” They reach the intersection, “And now, we part ways.”
She steps into the intersection, “And what if I turn around and simply leave, go back the way I came?” Loki asks.
“There is no way you came. They’ve taken it. This is the only way.”
“And I should trust you, why?”
She smiles, “Because Black Annis does not lie.”
He takes a deep breath, steps into the crossroads, turns to his right, and runs. Behind him, he hears the shouts of the TVA, incantations in a language he cannot comprehend, and shouts of astonishment. But he doesn’t look back, instead running full force ahead.
And suddenly, he finds himself in a cemetery that wasn’t there before. He staggers into a headstone and curses, glancing back over his shoulder to see how close they are behind him. But they aren’t. It’s simply a vast cemetery, stretching as far as the eye can see. Panting, unable to catch his breath, he leans heavily against the grave marker and lets is cheek rest against the cool stone. A few raindrops pat down from a grey sky and he sighs, the water trickling down his cheek. Loki doesn’t care about the rain. He doesn’t care about being wet. What he does care about is that, for just a moment, the TVA has been left behind and wherever he is, they aren’t. He has a feeling this is a place they won’t follow him, though he doesn’t know why.
Once he feels somewhat more steady, he stands, stretches, and looks around. The graveyard stretches in all directions. The way in which he came is flat, row upon uneven row of mismatched grave markers stretching as far as he can see. To one side, the graveyard fades into overgrowth, brambles and brush melting into tree cover and ivy shading and hiding monuments, their shapes obscured by the greenery. On the other side, the graveyard flows up a berm that curves and shields whatever is beyond it from view. And ahead of him, opposite the way he came, is a cemetery with winding paths, old trees, ivy climbing mausoleum walls, and trees shading and framing the paths. It is neither entirely wild, nor is it entirely tamed and cultivated. Wildflowers spill from the grassy plots into stray patches in the mossy paths. This way seems most inviting, and so he begins to walk farther into the cemetery, unsure of what he will find, but knowing there isn’t another direction for him to go.
The moss mutes his footsteps and the rain patters gently on the leaves of the trees arching above him. The rain is cool, but not chilly, and after the heat of the day he has just left, and the sweat from running, it is soothing. He doesn’t think about where he’s walking to, he just keeps walking.
Loki closes his eyes a moment and just listens to the world he’s found himself in, to the rain, and to the soft sounds of distant crows. A very slight breeze shifts his hair, tickling his cheek. He stands with his arms bent, palms up, as though receiving a gift from the sky. After a deep breath that he lets out so very slowly, he starts walking again. He seems to be getting closer to the crows.
He chooses a path that leads between two steep hills, trees on the side of the narrow gap arching over it to create a tunnel. Within it, between the sheltering earthworks and the wide, ancient trees, it is calm, cool, and quiet. He stops and sits, leaning against an ash tree. He looks to the other trees. All of them are ash and elm, the sacred trees from which the old stories say men and women were carved.
“But what of those who live between?” he whispers, asking a question he thought was important in his childhood, a question his teachers nor his parents had been able to answer.
Exhausted from walking, then from running, Loki lets himself rest. He lays down on the moss, closes his eyes, and drops off to sleep almost immediately.
When he wakes, the rain has stopped. He slowly sits up, brushes off his clothes, and then stares at his hands a moment, wondering why he bothered to brush off a shirt that reeks of sweat and is smudged with other dirt. He pushes his hair back from his face. It feels greasy. He hardly wants to touch it. He stands, stretches and hears his back pop, and then continues toward the other end of the tree-covered valley.
When he steps from the other end, he sees the sky- still grey, but now snatches of sunlight manage to break through the clouds to dance on the trees.
And then Loki sees them- hundreds of crows, all of them gathered around a plot with a large marker that appears to be a woman bent forward in prayerful contemplation, her hands outstretched, cupped, as though she were waiting to drink from them. The crows partially obscure the statue. He steps closer. The crows sing to one another, and then the statue moves.
Loki freezes in place. What he thought was a sculpture shifts to straighten, crows fluttering down from her back. She turns to look at him. He can’t entirely tell where she ends and the crows begin, her dress seeming to shift with them, black skirt or black crows flowing over the monument on which she sits. When her hair shifts, it appears as if there might be crows tucked on her shoulders, her wild tresses moving about as though they, too, had wings.
When she speaks, it is as though the birds are calling, too, their voices soft, her own words gravelly and mixed with crow-speak, “Loki, son of Asgard and Jotunheim. You are not when you should be.”
He stares, unsure of what he should be doing when standing in front of a woman who may or may not be partially made of birds, “I...understand this. How do you know my name?”
“I am a creature of war. I have watched you try on my craft.”
He very carefully lowers himself to one knee, never taking his eyes off her, “You’re the third sister, aren’t you? You’re the Battle Crow.”
She smiles, “Yes.”
“Why have you brought me here?” Loki asks.
“Then why was I sent here?” he asks.
“Because my sister said you should be,” she answers, “And when one of the Morrighan sees a need for our services, we can cross worlds.”
“Is that where I am? The other side of the world?”
Badb Catha shakes her head, “No. This is a between-place.”
“So...what purpose do you have for me here?” he asks.
She tilts her head, observing him, “Child...you do not need to remain kneeling. Sit. You might as well be comfortable.”
Loki bristles at being called “child,” but he cautiously does as he’s been asked, settling back against a nearby headstone, “And...my purpose?”
“In this place,” she says, “You wait.
He sighs, slightly frustrated, “That’s all I seem to do these days, isn’t it? I wait. I wait for a new assignment. I wait for my moment. I flee, and then I wait to be caught.”
“And you will yet wait here, lest you be caught more quickly. Or is this what you want? To be caught?”
She laughs softly, her laugh the cackle of her birds, “I thought so. You have no clarity to your fate, and yet you also cannot allow others to determine it, even if you know they ultimately will.”
“And what do you know of my fate?” he asks.
Badb Catha studies him a moment, “I can’t say.”
“Is this the ‘I can’t say’ of a witch who knows, yet will not tell; the ‘I can’t say’ of a witch who knows, yet cannot tell; or the ‘I can’t say’ of the witch who cannot say because the fates cannot be read?”
She waits to answer, watching, her black eyes locking with his until he glances away, entirely uncomfortable with how deeply she seems to be looking into him, “Loki...I am no witch. I am an ancient being. Your mother is/was a witch. I, however...I am a fate-weaver, not a fate-reader.”
Loki shifts against the headstone, “What do you mean, my mother ‘is/was?’ Has something happened?”
“Time happened. In this place, its threads overlap.”
“And in the timeline I left?”
Badb Catha shrugs, “You broke that timeline. Had you not left it, this would be a simple question to answer. But you did. And now things are more complicated.”
“And had I not left?” he says, frustrated with her lack of answers.
“Had you not left, you would have been returned a prisoner and she would have died protecting another in an invasion. You would have made choices that led to your death, as do all beings, though in the truth of that timeline, you would outlive her, though not by many years, my child,” Badb Catha answers.
“I’m not a child!” Loki snaps. He immediately regrets it and bows his head, his palms on the grass, “Oh gods, I’m sorry, my lady.”
Her crows increase their movements, their voices raising, agitated, but she sits as still as the stone for which he first mistook her, “This is true. You are not, to your kind. But to mine.... All those who walk this earth are so young. Those in many worlds are yet young.” She holds out her hand, palm down, and holds it still, waiting for the crows to settle.
He cautiously looks up, “Many worlds? Macha spoke as though you were the race of long-lived from this world only? Or that world, given I’m not sure we are on Earth....”
She nods, “Yes, we began with that world. Grew up alongside it. But...we are not bound to it. We don’t meddle in the worlds of other gods, but that does not mean we have not seen them.”
“You still haven’t given hint as to why I’m here,” Loki says, choosing his words carefully, “Was I brought here to evade? To rest? To contemplate?”
“Anand sent you. This is why you are here. Yes, you are evading, though not forever. Yes, you are resting, though you won’t once you leave here. And I know you are contemplative, for that is in your nature,” she answers, “But you are also here because you captivated my sister, even if only for a snapshot in time, and she does not often speak to us of those she takes to her bed.”
A soft smile spreads across his face as he thinks back to his night with Macha, “Ah. Yes. Well...I don’t suppose I’m allowed to speak of it, am I? That was the agreement I made with her.”
Badb Catha nods, her own smile dancing at the corner of her lips, “You remember. Good. But as I have mentioned it first, you are revealing nothing she has not likely already told me.”
“I don’t really want to share what she possibly hasn’t, my lady. Those moments are mine to treasure. But...it was a delightful night,” he says. He pauses, thinking about Macha’s home, “She said you’d been fighting a war of a different kind. Yet you are here, with your birds. Was she mistaken?”
“No. I was. But this is not a war I understand and so instead of using fear to change the course of war, I left. Fear is already being used to change the course of that war, but it is fear of a kind I cannot master and shape.”
“I returned home to my birds to watch and to wait. You broke reality. We felt time shift. It seemed wise to be where I could see it from a distance.”
Loki decides one more time to try to glean a concrete purpose for this journey from his host, “So...I broke reality. You came here to watch, your sisters are behind in Earth, and I...? Will I be pulled back abruptly? Will this graveyard disappear and the streets reappear? And what happens next?”
“I already told you, I cannot say.”
“Can you at least tell me how I will be called back to the reality I’m supposed to be fixing?” he asks.
Badb Catha nods, “It will be a choice. At least a little. I have glimpses of times you can return. One is at night, to continue walking, only to be found a little down the way and roughly retrieved. Another is in day. They are waiting. And there are points between. Some in which you step out into their waiting custody, others in which you have a few moments to fight back. But regardless...they will catch you. They will win.”
He fiddles with a few blades of grass growing long at the base of the grave marker, “And when they win...when it’s all repaired, back as it ought to be...then what?”
Her crows settle as she sighs, “Loki...when I say I can’t tell you your fate, it is because there are things in it that are yet blurred, choices you have yet to make. But when it is all repaired as it should be...you will be a paradox. The ‘you’ of proper time, cannot be the same you that jumped timelines. This ‘you’- the variant you are, will not make the same choices. They will need to be rid of the ‘you’ who has seen too much of the nature of reality and time.”
“I will die,” he says quietly. “After all this...they’ll kill me, won’t they?”
Badb Catha shrugs, “Perhaps. That is how variants, rare as they are, usually are handled.”
“And is there another endpoint? Another moment into which I could be dropped?”
She nods, “But-”
“-you cannot say,” he says, ruefully, “I know. I’ve heard.”
She laughs and her birds sing with her, the humanness of her laughter disappearing in the songs of the birds, “And now...you know a little more of the nature of the universe. Those for whom you work- this TVA- they believe they understand the nature of time. The nature of reality. And yet...the one time Agent Mobius came to my door, he understood in an instant that he knew nothing at all of the nature of this place. Remember this- none of them are infallible. There are points in history that have to happen to bring about the ‘correct’ happenings, yet...I’ve never quite understood why.”
Loki nods, “Thank you, my lady, for our moment today. I do think I should be getting back soon, though. If they’re going to catch me, I’d rather not wait around forever.”
She nods, “And how do you want to be found?”
“You want a chance to run you know you’ll never gain.”
He nods, “Yes.”
“Then walk back between the hills. Goodbye, Loki.”
He stands and brushes himself off, “Yes, goodbye, Battle Crow.”
She waves and the voices of her birds rise, their bodies agitated, the boundaries of the ancient they follow blurring, her own shape obscured by the birds until she is blackened by them, the call of their voices overwhelming. Loki walks away, but pauses near the mouth of the tunnel between the hills. He turns back to wave at her and watches as the crows take to the sky, leaving nothing but air on the pedestal on which she was seated.
He sighs, takes another deep breath, and lets it out slowly, before making his way through the tunnel.
When he emerges on the other side, it is night on the street and he emerges from an alley not far from where he began running. He looks behind him. Only an alley, no portal to a graveyard. He looks around. There are TVA officers sweeping the street. Loki takes the only option he feels like he has. He whirls around and runs as fast as he can back through they alley, hoping the TVA won’t think to follow.
But they do. He hears shouting, heavy boots tramping through the overgrown brush along the alley’s shoulder. He keeps running. Something slams into his shoulder, pitching him forward. Another something strikes the back of his knees and he falls to the ground, tumbling down the slight slope of the alley, his face landing in a puddle that swirls with oil on the water tension surface. He can’t move his legs. He bushes the gravel from his palms and is rubbing the water from his face when someone behind him kicks him in the back, sending him back toward the puddle. He curses quietly.
“Take him back and get him out of here,” someone says, “Make sure he doesn’t think about doing this again.”
He didn’t expect the blows to come so quickly, but they do, before a familiar voice says, “Now now, that’s enough, he’s clearly not a threat right now.”
“Good evening, Agent Mobius,” Loki says.
“Good evening, Loki. Let’s go somewhere to talk.”
“Oh, I think you’re going to go whether you want to or not. I was just being polite.” Agent Mobius begins walking away, “Bring him with us. We’ve got some reality to fix.”
There is so much more time to fix, more reality to put back in place, and with every little piece that falls back into place, Loki grows closer and closer to the day he knows he will end. But...but there’s a catch. Reality can only be fixed so much and another creature, this one with a stone that contorts reality itself, has its eyes on Asgard. Loki watches, though he isn’t supposed to. He finds ways. He sneaks into where he shouldn’t be. And he watches himself die. But something still doesn’t quite seem right. Something in the future seems so very bleak. He asks Agent Mobius. Is this really how it all ends? Does the creature who calls himself Death really get to destroy half of everything and simply...win? Yes, Mobius answers, this is how it is supposed to happen. Asgard will fall when Thanos comes to retrieve what he seeks, the Tesseract stripped from the vaults, soldiers torn through like paper toys tossed in a rainstorm. Other worlds will suffer similarly. And when half of everything left behind simply fades to dust, Thor will retreat to sorrow, nothing left to pull him back from the edge, a king of a broken world, destroyed first with Thanos’ arrival and cleaved yet again when he snaps his fingers.
B ut Loki also sees another thread. One hidden. But one that isn’t marked with all the tell-tale notations the TVA makes sure are clearly displayed on the maps of a divergent timeline.
Loki watches for his moment, gathers together every last bit of strength he can, and flings himself onto Svartalfheim. He stares at his own corpse and quickly hides it. Another skiff comes through the gateway, this one carrying a single guard. Loki steals this man’s form, steals this man’s vessel, and strands him on Svartalfheim, one more body to be claimed by a lifeless world. And then he returns to Asgard and takes Odin’s place on the throne.
There is one way and only one way to save existence. The threads of time could be rewoven one other way. But for that to happen, someone who has seen farther ahead has to be in the right place, ready to move the warp and weft at the right time.
Sitting on Asgard’s throne, he knows what he must be next. Loki the Variant must become Odin, must control the contents of the Vaults of Asgard, must guard the Tesseract and deliver it to Thanos at exactly the right time, regardless of what it will cost him (and he knows it will cost him, and he knows it will be immensely painful) . He cannot see all the pieces of this puzzle, but what he does know is this: in order to save half of existence, he is going to have to make sure Thor has a reason to fight back.