Turn the Page: A SHIELD Codex

Strange is the night where black stars rise, and strange moons circle through the skies

But stranger still is lost Carcosa ~ The King in Yellow

. . .

1. Welcome to My Nightmare

. . .

It was a measure of hard-fought trust that Loki not only slept within the confines of the hidden SHIELD facility, but that he would dream. Even surrounded by hundreds of well-meaning humans, all of whom liked to talk in the morning about whatever nonsense their neurons burped up in the night. A topic of discussion that never failed to stupefy him with its irrelevance, and yet they barreled on, and often tried to ask him what he dreamed about.

Of course, being a sorcerer with an amazing talent for self-control and, to be honest, self-delusion meant he would describe his dreams as typically under the sort of lockdown reserved for career mentalists and aging hippies that had kept a dream journal for fifty plus years. Typically. Not even he could keep the BS up for too long.

Sometimes, and more often than he liked, things got through that he would much rather not be dealing with. The pounding nightmares of childhood, wordless screaming matches with Thor, horrifying scenarios, each one increasingly worse, about how Frigga had been murdered. The common potpourri of a mind trying to cope with centuries of awful shit going down on a fairly regular basis.

Tonight Loki was dreaming, unhappily, of the Framework.

The Framework was one of those SHIELD situations where, deep down, he wished he'd been assigned to some moronic Scooby Doo case on the other side of the world when it happened. He'd missed a number of particularly awful situations that way and didn't regret it. He had missed the prior bit where that mad scientist twit, Radcliffe, had decided some old SHIELD cybernetics program designed to create protective 'LMDs' for high profile targets meant he should build some robot woman named AIDA under similar auspices. AIDA, because apparently Loki hadn't been subjected to enough stupid movies where robots took over the world, promptly went rogue and attempted to take over the world, or whatever, he'd been too pissed off by the whole scenario to pay attention to some of the finer details.

What was equally true, and equally infuriating, was that the robot woman had access to the deepest SHIELD personnel archives, and thus, managed to get the drop on him pretty much right out the gate, rendering him useless, locked in her inane dreamscape as her goons continued to scoop up and replace other SHIELD agents. An absolute embarrassment. He still refused to talk about any of it, even with Daisy or Coulson. He had been left too exposed to himself, and made defenseless. Bastard machines.

Dear gods, but Loki hated artificial intelligence. Nothing was dumber than a doe-eyed mortal than a mechanical brain that didn't fully grasp that it had been created by those same mortals and was therefore doomed to be dumber yet, because the machine couldn't even make up for it with an imagination.

AIDA's Framework simulation created a world where Hydra had supplanted all rebellious SHIELD influence and forged it into a peaceful but fascist state with herself as its leader. It had two purposes. The first was to imprison anyone in the real world so they couldn't interfere with her second, which was to become a real girl with a slopping bucketful of Inhuman-styled powers. And kiss Fitz, apparently.

With dimly amusing flair, she'd shoved Loki's consciousness into an earthbound Asgardian embassy, attempting to placate his struggling sense of self with the idea of becoming Odin's favored son and diplomat, living among the humans, lauded and wined by the new powers that be. With his influence, the Nine Realms were now allied with Hydra, and he himself was styled as the second most important personage in the realms on paper, first in effectualness.

It'd taken Loki maybe fifteen minutes to realize something was up. It occurred to him, as he 'woke' from a nap on a luxurious Asgardian couch left in his embassy office, that he wanted some books from his rooms in Asgard, whose titles he couldn't seem to quite recall, and for various bullshit diplomatic reasons, he couldn't simply nip off and get them.

The actual reasons included the fact that attempting to build an entire Asgard out of his memories would toast AIDA's program so hard her head would smoke. Gods know, he'd tried anyway as he realized the depths of their trouble, and even for that reason. Tried for weeks or hazy, illusive months, until Daisy and Jemma cut their way into the simulation to undo AIDA's looming disaster.

Which led to the dream he was trying very hard to not have.

. . .

The Framework looted his thoughts and memories wholesale, building relationships and scenarios that called temptingly to Loki even as he was increasingly aware that nothing was real, none of it. Hamstrung by the way he'd been rendered near-powerless and given this false golden chain of leadership as pacifier, he could rarely leave the embassy to cause havoc in the simulation without drawing attention. Here he was in actual danger. Here he could be killed - and the emotions he felt, devastatingly, were real. Every day he worried AIDA would simply unplug him and let him wither into death, the worst, most pointless end Loki could imagine for himself. If it had been him in charge, he would have done it days ago. It had been a horror all its own to awaken and see that, in fact, some had indeed died that way. Including foolish, well-meaning, overbearing Mace.

"You can't," Loki said to Kara in the dream as he'd had then, feeling numb, knowing none of it mattered, knowing it still did. Nearby, at a window, Daisy was keeping an eye on the approaching Hydra assault team, god-killer ordinance slung onto the back of a reinforced truck. She'd arrived for the first time only a couple of days before, sagging in relief as she realized Loki was aware of the Framework's falsity in the way others, like Coulson, she'd approached hadn't yet been. "You shouldn't do this."

Lady Kara, assigned by AIDA's program to run the embassy's security team, looked unmoved by his protest. He'd known her as one of Frigga's handmaidens long ago, in actuality a secret tool of the Queen, a weapon rarely but effectively used - and who had very nearly turned on Odin after the Queen's death, almost taking him, then pretending to the throne in disguise, instead. In daylight he thought of her only occasionally, a pointless if wistful what-if. AIDA had dredged her up, given her a starring role in his prisoner's nightmare, and now he was dreaming of the minutes before this ghost of the person he'd known willingly went to die for his sake.

"It doesn't matter, does it? If you're right." Kara glanced out the window, seeing the missiles being wrenched into position. She had the same unimpressed expression she wore when removing Hydra capitalists from his offices, or coming across him drunk and trying to cope with this mind's prison. "I've heard you, you know. At night. When the girl came. You're not as good at secrets as you care to think, Your Highness. If we're all only dreams here, then it's past time to wake up."

"Not like this." She was right, and it didn't matter to him. No more deaths on his account, not in dreams, not in reality.

Loki shifted in his bed, muttering the same words to himself. Not like this. One hand clenched on a pillow taken from Asgard - a lesson learned after some other long ago nightmare left foam pieces scattered around to be discovered in the morning.

In reality there had been many more things said, things he'd buried deep. In the dream, Kara patted his cheek. "Sentiment," she said and, ghastly, it sounded like his own voice. The walls began to melt, though the sound of the missile launch hadn't happened yet. They had to run, they had to flee, the missiles were here, the missiles hadn't launched yet. He knew how it ended, the embassy in flames, the dying woman plunging her knives into Hydra soldiers, him not wanting to look back and doing so anyway.

"Who's she?" asked Stephen Strange, filling his vision with his magically gleaming aura.

Loki's body jerked on the bed. In the dream, Loki wrenched around, the embassy gone and replaced with a starry, endless black. "Strange?"

"Listen, ignore the question, we need to talk."

"Strange?"

"It's kind of an emergency situation." In the dream, Strange had his hands in the pockets of his doctor's scrubs. The red cloak still rested on his shoulders, however, and he looked even more annoyed than Strange did as a general rule. "Could you wake up?"

"Are you sure that's what you need? Because when I wake up, Strange, I am going to strangle you!" Hot rage hit Loki like a tsunami. No one invaded his dreams and saw what he kept in privacy. No-godsdamned-one.

"Buddy, if you can do it, you're welcome to," said Strange, and his voice was weighted stone. "I'm kind of half past give a shit. I've had a night, is what I'm trying to tell you, so if you could wake up, I promise, if we get this sorted, you can kick my ass all you want later. Because I might actually have my ass again by then."

"What?" said Loki, still pissed off and now also extremely confused, and he woke up.

. . .

Loki sat bolt-upright on the bed, the corner of a pillow choked off in one hand and the sheets of his bed kicked to the floor. He stared at the ghostly image hovering in the corner of his private room, and his throat worked in fits and chokes, trying to put his voice back together. Mostly so he could scream the four hundred increasingly savage invectives he had lined up.

"I didn't take you for a casual jammies guy." Strange's translucent spirit pointed at the old black jogging pants and the thin, baseball-style jersey top Loki was wearing. "I don't want to say I spent any amount of mental energy assuming you went natural, but I think I figured it was either that or some flowing Supreme Leader Snoke bedrobe thing."

"Strange," Loki rasped, still choking on his own anger. "What the f-"

"The Sanctum Sanctorum got hit a couple hours ago." Strange waved behind him, as if for emphasis. "Wong's currently got the shields back up and we're cycling in sorcerers from the other Sanctums to help buttress the protections, but we don't know when they're going to hit again and how much harder they'll strike next time. We don't know who 'they' are yet, except as some trails of energy we're trying to pin down. Oh, and also, one of their agents slipped into the aetheric plane and managed to do this to me before everything lit up. Good forward planning. Assholes."

Loki bit off the hundreds of insults he had ready to go, storing them in a mental to-do list for later, and quickly used his magical senses to map out the nature of the spirit-form Strange was currently in. He leaned back onto his elbows, another pillow squishing under one as he considered. It was, assuredly, not a great situation for Strange. Very well. "Your body?"

"I'm stable. It's a purely magical attack, so the rules are something we're still figuring out. According to Wong, I do have to go sit in my shell every hour or so or my connection to my body is shot and I'll likely die for real. It doesn't make sense, medically, which makes me crazy, but that's what life is these days." Strange grimaced, then summoned an equally translucent image. "There's a knife suspended above my body, splitting the link between my soul and my physical form with its tip, metaphorically speaking. There's nothing we can do about it until we catch up to the attacker and unwind the spell from his hand. My death, as you'll be able to see, wasn't the primary goal. Making sure I stayed out of commission, and suffered, while they got up to whatever they wanted, that's what they're into."

Loki studied the weapon. A kind of athame, to be certain, but not of a type he recognized. It was roughly forged of some black metal, possibly even simple iron, and its pommel jutted from the handle like a threat. The runes on it were more familiar. Chaotic. Terrible. He looked away. "Gods, Strange. Don't tell me this. Tell me I woke up into another nightmare instead."

"Can't do that, Loki." Strange sighed. "Yet another crazy bastard is trying to get at the Darkhold, and this one has a plan that hasn't completely failed yet."

Loki buried his face in his hands, not at all touched that, under duress, Strange had come straight to him for help. Then he shoved those hands back, straightening out his sleep mussed hair with a touch of magic. "Get out of my room. I need to dress, and I refuse to have your witless commentary droning in my ear while I do so. I'll be at the Sanctum shortly."

"You can take a little time for a shower. I promise I won't listen to you sing."

"Stay astral, Strange, for your sake, for as long as you can. Dear Gods, best show some gratitude for your current state of affairs." Loki flung the covers back up onto his bed for emphasis, staring the ghostly sorcerer dead in the eyes as he did so. A small black and orange cat tiptapped her way into the room, jumped onto the bed, and took immediate, cozy advantage of the rearranged quilt.

"Wong sings Beyonce in the kitchen some nights when he thinks I'm latched into the aether. What do you go for? Hozier?"

"Get out!" A pillow sailed through Strange's ghostly form, causing only a single arched eyebrow, but at last, to Loki's peevish relief, he vanished.