Chapter 12: Azure Atmosphere
Too many Hydra agents slipped through the cracks of the leaked documents. Many SHIELD files were decoded secretly by government agencies - the FBI and CIA were working together, giving one another missions once they determined whether the contents were domestic or international - or openly by Internet sleuths. Communities online formed with the goal of locating every free Hydra agent and bringing them to justice. Others looked through every word of the documents, curious about the truth to every SHIELD mission and activity. The contents became more complicated whenever an Avenger was involved. Sometimes the smallest detail created a surge of Internet uproar.
Steve was updated by recent discoveries via Tony, Bruce, and Maria, who texted or emailed him a summary of what exposed SHIELD activity was being exposed. Sometimes he found out himself through his Internet research. Though he preferred hearing about recent events through his friends, as they had better interpretation methods of online information.
None of the uncovered information had negative connotations toward him, though his altruistic self was always concerned about the further revealing details of his teammates. They had to coexist with the guilt and trauma being brought back to them, and Steve just wanted them to feel understood.
He felt breathless one morning when after breakfast, he read a text from Bruce after finishing a shower.
Some people read the files involving the Chitauri Invasion in 2012. Most are freaking out over the Loki's daughter detail in a file about Loki. Don't watch the news today. It's best if Eira doesn't know about it.
Steve's body froze after reading that text. He imagined every horrible comment journalists and online commentators could be making about Eira, an innocent, lively little girl who was not responsible for the actions of her father, whom she loved dearly.
Eira deserved none of the possible hate directed toward her, even if hardly anyone in the world knew about her personality and whereabouts. And he could not handle the stress of watching others speak invectives about Loki, the man who raised her as a single parent and treated her with nothing but love.
His mind was whirling with anguish, which he tried his best to hide. Keeping the pain subsided became more difficult once he left his room and saw Eira and Sam in the living room.
"It's so blocky," Steve first heard a high-pitched voice say as he entered the room. There was a hint of dispirited confusion in her tone as she held… a white and red rectangle with buttons? Whenever Steve saw something he was unfamiliar with, he assumed it was an invention during his time frozen, which included the color-blocked rectangle. He noticed a wire connected to another, though larger, rectangle. What Eira held was a control of sorts, he guessed.
"Well game designers weren't entirely sure of what they were doing when they made consoles like the NES," Sam responded, saying those technology terms with ease that Steve could not comprehend without a much simpler explanation. "Times were different in the early 80s. I have a Nintendo 64 and the original PlayStation if you're interested in those."
"How would I know if I'm interested if I just found out what video games are?"
"You have a good point there."
Sam pulled a box from the television stand, removing the lid to reveal a collection of cases containing disks. Their widths and materials differed. Each had a paper wrapped around their containers, the colors and fonts differing. They reminded Steve of the DVDs he bought after arriving in Washington DC.
"What are these?" asked Steve as he walked toward the pair.
Sam looked at Steve as Eira focused on the contents of the box.
"They're video games," Sam answered, already planning to explain further, anticipating the confusion expression on Steve's face. "They are like movies but you can control the main character. Through this controller you can control the actions of a person on the screen. Maybe that wasn't the best explanation."
"Most modern technology is hard to describe," said Steve. "Especially to a fossil like me."
"Too bad Nat isn't here," Eira broke her silence. "She would be so happy to hear you say that."
"That she would. Don't worry, Eira. Natasha will be back soon."
"I know," responded Eira before returning her attention to the collection of video games.
She leaned toward the contents of the box, pulling two games from their confinements. In her left hand was a box titled The Legend of Zelda; a shield was on its cover, reminding Steve of the weapons used in medieval films. A more futuristic game called Metroid was held in her right hand.
"Hey man," spoke Sam. "You have those files ready?"
Steve nodded. "I have them in my room. I don't think anyone knows I'm here, so there is no worry of anybody coming and stealing it."
"Kinda glad to know that nobody knows that Captain America and a demigoddess live with me."
"Are you going back to work?" Eira asked, lifting her gaze from the games.
Steve attempted to hide his discomfort at her question. Although he voluntarily offered to be a caregiver for Eira, he disliked putting her between metaphorical crossfire. It was simpler a month ago when she lived in the security of apartments presided by Avengers. Now, without the protection of a recently disbanded SHIELD, the shelter for her was uncertain. There were people who were willing to die protecting her, but there were less levels of security. Loki would certainly make an appearance the moment anything threatened Eira, taking her to wherever he resided. And then there would be the panic of the Asgardian royal family, their reactions with a wide realm of possibility. Earth was the most secure planet for her, but danger lurked there. Was any place truly safe for the princess?
Sometimes Steve wondered if Eira knew about his uneasiness, and possibly the incertitude of her family and his teammates. Her selfless nature was always prevalent, more so whenever someone nearby was in distress. And in tandem with her above-average emotional awareness, it seemed as if she could sense the tiniest of discomfort. She hated seeing those she cared about in pain, and Steve pondered if she would feel the same toward strangers. It appeared her altruistic care was the only trait that differed from Loki.
Her personality was truly one of a kind. Boldness and timidness were both contained in her body. Whenever she met someone new, she struggled to make eye contact, trying her best not to hide behind her father's leg like she often did during her years as a toddler. She would live up to half-Jötunn blood by freezing in place, only removing the ice when she was motivated to do so. But once she developed a familiarity with a person, courage and wit erupted from her. She began to respect them and somehow give them her kindness while subjecting them to her ingenuity; Natasha once quipped that she was a demo version of Loki. The reading and studying she completed with serious silence was balanced with her high-energy and harmless mischief.
Steve sat down on the couch, leaning forward as he put his hands together.
"Technically, me and Sam will be doing work," Steve stated. "Though we will just be overlooking some stuff. A lot of research. It will be a while before we go out into the field."
Eira squinted her eyes. "That sounds boring."
Sam chuckled as Steve kept a straight face. "It's good for the mind to relax before going all heavy-duty for a mission. I'm sure it is good for a demigoddess like you."
"I guess," responded Eira with a shrug and light smile.
"Before we get to work," Sam said, taking a game cartridge from Eira's hold. "Why don't I show you two the beauty of the Legend of Zelda? It's from the 80s, so the graphics are basic and may be strange looking, but I don't know if you all could handle the realism of modern video games. And Eira, you will definitely like the elfish feel. Or not, I'm just assuming it is similar to Asgard. So, is it alright if I put this in the console?"
Steve nodded as he leaned back into the cushions of the couch. Eira ran toward the couch, climbing onto it and settling next to Steve as eagerness entered her body.
Both Eira and Loki disliked how they often had to meet during the night while she resided in Midgard. Loki's time to teach Eira magic was drastically shortened, though he always gave her books so she was never behind in her studies. And at only seven-years-old, she was tired during the twilight visits. Luckily Loki was an expert in the art of storytelling, and his tales always managed to lure his daughter into slumber and strengthen their already robust bond.
Whenever Rogers or Romanoff were sent away for a mission, Loki promised to visit her during the day. Eira loved being able to hug her father without the fear of falling asleep, and Loki was always overjoyed to see her love.
Loki couldn't hide a smile when he arrived in Eira's bedroom, as her unshelved hair, strands defying gravity, was transformed from her groomed, thick curls mere minutes after being put to bed. It was the warrior in her, Loki mused to himself. Even the state of her hair length, cut right at her shoulders, could not manage the frizziness. Her night attire, however, demonstrated her status as a princess: a soft navy shirt paired with dotted swiss pants - the background mauve, the dots cherry.
"You really dress fancy everywhere you go, don't you Daddy?"
Loki chuckled. "I missed you too, Eira. Can you at least give your father a hug?"
Eira did not respond audibly, instead jumping off her bed, arms opening then closing her arms around her father's neck. Her sudden movements deterred Loki for less than a second, he himself responded with a warm embrace.
Her shoulders were tense, creating concern within their hug.
"Eira," Loki spoke with soft worry. "Are you feeling alright? Did something happen?"
She slightly relaxed, though Loki could feel her lightly panicked pulse as she put her head on his shoulder. Loki narrowed his eyes as he stroked her hair, attempting to pinpoint the root of her worry through his stoic and compassionate gaze.
"Steve is returning to work," Eira began to explain. "Sam is working with him now. Did I tell you about him?"
Loki was unsure if he was impressed or confused by the abilities of the Falcon. He originally considered the concept of mechanical wings absurd, as Asgardian magic long provided the ability to fly, albeit temporary. Upon further cognizance, the advanced, complex Earthling technology provided long flying intervals and smooth controls.
His hubris prevented Loki from audibly voicing his changed mindset, especially when the shift related to feeble Midgardians.
"You told me about the Falcon during one of our recent visits," assured Loki, taking a strand of his daughter's hair and settling it behind her ear. "You can continue, Eira. Addressing your worries to me might improve your mood, and you know I dislike seeing you in distress."
"I think Steve feels different about the mission," she answered, her eyebrows tightening as she thought of the proper words. "Like, maybe he knows the person he's fighting."
"It's personal then. That can be difficult for some."
"But he's not acting like you when you fought Uncle Thor."
Loki shifted anxiously. He marvelled at his daughter's intelligence, but sometimes her observations created awkwardness. She was so young and likely unaware of the effects of the ways she phrased her words.
She should not have observed troublesome dynamics at her early age, some of which Loki blamed himself. Learning something so important about his heritage way past his child years was the push he needed to bow to his malevolent, selfish temptations. His adoptive family had to take partial blame for their eon of lies, and although part of Loki was developing - a part of himself that was slightly more considerate - he continued to deflect some blame.
But when regarding Eira, an innocent being and victim of consequence, Loki was willing to temporarily lower his ego for her wellbeing.
"Daddy?" asked Eira, tugging his shawl collar with concern. "Are you okay? What are you thinking about?"
"My, uh… my apologies, Eira. I was thinking about your question. It could be that Steve did not expect to recognize whomever he was fighting. I imagine that as a soldier, he is not accustomed to that. Did you say that he and Sam were discussing this tonight? Presumably after you were meant to go to bed?"
"Then perhaps they are in discussion right now," Loki glanced toward the door. "How about I give you a lesson in sneaky observations? I can teach you how to mute your sound. It's what I do whenever I pay you a visit."
Eira squinted her eyes, unsure if eavesdropping was an appealing act of mischief to her. Though she valued moments alone with her father, the being she trusted the most, and loved his lessons in advancing her seidr abilities.
Loki took hold of her hand, guiding her toward the hall. Eira, despite having senses of exhaustion, eagerly took his hand.
Before he opened the door, Loki looked down at Eira, putting an index finger in front of his mouth, motioning a shushing signal with a smirk. Eira grinned, attempting to suppress the urge to giggle in case it was to alert the unknowing adults outside her chambers.
The duo walked close to the wall to avoid detection, with Eira striding close to her father's leg, similar to when she did it as a toddler.
"Holy shit man, Bucky has killed a lot of powerful political figures," a voice echoed through the hall. Loki squinted his eyes; he was unfamiliar with the voice, so he assumed it to be Sam.
He looked down at Eira who was tilting her head. Although she was intelligent for her age, she probably did not understand the weight of those words. She knew about Bucky from her conversations with Steve, but she thought he went away long ago. Loki's knowledge of the childhood friend of Rogers was limited to what Eira told him.
"Hydra brainwashed Bucky as the Winter Soldier to assassinate whoever they thought would threaten their vision," spoke a second voice, which Loki recognized as belonging to Steve.
The Winter Soldier. Now that's a codename that can strike fear in the hearts of even the most vain and omnipotent, Loki thought.
"Looking at this list, it seems like a lot of people. Do you think he knows about all of these?"
"HYDRA wiped his mind too many times to count. Well every time they put him back in the Cryostasis Chamber is listed in these documents. It's still a lot, and they erased his memories every time, so I doubt he remembers any of the assassinations."
"They erased his memories," Eira commented with a hushed tone. "That can't be good."
"It's not," said Loki, stroking her hair in solace. "It is extremely inhumane."
Loki had killed thousands and attempted to end the lives of more, but the concept of repeatedly wiping the mind of an unwilling subject and forcing them to murder over the course of decades was unsettling to him. He couldn't tell if it was irony or not.
"So who did he kill?" Steve asked.
"You might not recognize some of these people," responded Sam (Loki could hear the raise of his eyebrow).
"I know that, but please Sam, read them to me."
A sigh was followed by the crinkling of several sheets of paper.
"It's a lot, man. Probably best that you read this for yourself, or else we'll be here all day reading this. From what I've skimmed over, Bucky killed primarily influential people. Mainly scientists and politicians. Turns out he assassinated a president from the 60s, John F. Kennedy. HYDRA managed to put the blame on Lee Harvey Oswald and this guy named Erik Lensherr, but he's never been found.
"HYDRA manipulated the scene of all of his killings. They framed the assassination of his French diplomat on the Algerian Nationalist Movement. They made the death of Senator Harry Baxtor look like an accidental drowning, though theories have his death have been around for awhile, so they didn't do that great of a job covering up that one.
"Let's see the more recent ones. Alright so… oh fuck."
"Sam! What is it? Are you alright?"
Sam gulped before answering.
"I… I looked down and saw 'December 16th, 1991: Howard and Maria Stark.'"
Stark's parents? The Winter Soldier got to them? What til Tony learns of the news, he will definitely be eager to hunt down the Soldier himself? Let's see how humane he'll be when…
"December 16th? That's my birthday."
Loki stopped his train of thought. Eira was holding his hand tighter than before, her eyes hazy in sadness. The god felt stupid for not considering that a sudden double homicide occurred on her birthday. Her date of birth was the 15th anniversary of their death, so why did he think she wouldn't feel sullen?
"Let's get you to bed," said Loki, picking up Eira.
"Why now?" Eira questioned.
"Because I said so," his tone was paternal, stern yet soft.
The princess glared at her father, crossing her arms in frustration. Loki remembered such an expression when she was a toddler. A tantrum always followed afterward, though she had passed the age for unreasonable upsets, so Loki hoped that such anger would not occur.
Admittedly, Loki was partially to blame for her potential outburst. She was too stubborn and curious, and he realized that by encouraging her to eavesdrop, he led into her desires. He did not expect the conversation between Steve and Sam to become soul-wrenching and brutal, but they were unaware of the father-daughter spying.
Another addition to my parenting blunders, thought Loki. How fantastic.
He kept a neutral demeanour as he carried her into her chambers. Carefully settling her down onto her bed, he pulled the sapphire blankets over her body. The task done, his gaze transferred to his daughter's face. Exhaustion clouded her eyes, the anger from moments ago disappeared in return for her father's solace. Another similarity from her toddler years.
"I'm sorry you had to hear that, darling," comforted Loki, sitting on the bed as he wrapped an arm around Eira's shoulders.
"Does personal stuff make it hard to go on mission?" Eira asked. She leaned her against Loki, causing him to stroke her curls.
"It depends," answered Loki. "If I am on a positive basis with the person or group I am fighting against, then the back of my mind questions my sensibilities. Though at a young age I put myself up to not letting connections affect my work. I consider what is right and wrong. Sometimes, my perception of those concepts are skewed. I wish for that to not happen to you, Eira. It is a difficult path to recover from."
"Were you ever thinking about Mummy while you were at work?"
Loki remembered years ago when he felt infelicitous whenever Runa was mentioned. Her sudden departure occurred in tandem with the birth of a new life, and he did not want Eira to actualize that reality when she was so young. And then the learning of his origins and how it connected to most negative aspects of his life. Secrets ended the life of his lover, and he still had not recovered from the bitterness within him. But Eira was at an impressionable age and undeserving of his caustic and depressing sentiments.
"I did. I thought about her and wished to see her again. I wanted nothing more than to see her bright smile. And after she became pregnant, my mind was fluttered with worries about the wellbeing of my two favorite girls. Even as your mother clarified to me that both of you were in the care of healers and warriors, it did not deter all of my concerns. Suddenly, there was the hope that I could be present to hug the little girl that would soon enter our lives. I did not want anything to stop me from caring for you.
"After your birth, you became my motivation. I overcame everything in my path so I could hug you, raise you. I was travelling and fighting for the safety of the realms, but the thought of losing you was the fuel I never knew I needed."
"I helped you?"
Loki leaned forward to kiss her forehead. "You are the best part of my life. You are always a positive, and I thank you for that."
He felt her body relax, slumber beginning to take hold of her body.
"I love you, Daddy," Eira mumbled.
Loki held a warm smile. "I love you too."
A stack of non-fictional tales and nonfiction books sat in front of Eira. She glared at the closed hardbacks, eyeing them as if they were preparing a stealth attack.
I remember these books, she thought. Natasha had these at her apartment. Are we still going through with this school thing? I don't wanna spend time with kids. They can be annoying. I just want to spend time with Daddy. But would he take me back to the Learning Hall in Asgard?
"Eira?" A deep, concerned voice called. "Are you alright?"
She diverted her attention to the source of the voice. Steve pulled up a chair to the table where she sat. His hair, recently washed, sparkled like the fur of a golden retriever. His eyes were soft with worry, the deep blue reminding Eira of her father's descriptions of the Mind Stone in his specter.
"Um, I think so?" Eira unsurely answered. Her glance was focused on Steve, but her eyes occasionally diverted to the pile of books. When her fears were involved, Eira was not skillful in lying.
Without waiting for Steve's response, Eira sighed and looked down at her dangling feet. "I want to read the books so I can learn more about Midgard, but these books are for school. I don't know if I'm ready for that."
"I'm sure that you'll easily understand the contents of these books," reassured Steve. Well, it was only a consolation of one aspect of Eira's schooling. "You're still worried about being with other children, right?"
Eira nodded, head still directed toward the floor. Her manners class in Asgard taught her to always look at the person she was talking to, but fear can override proper behavior. Eira could hear her tutor, Saga, scolding her in the back of her head.
"It's so stupid," she said as she lifted her head.
"Having social anxiety isn't dumb, Eira. It's common for people to feel anxious, even people your age. I'm sure that there are other kids who feel the same as you."
"But how can I interact with them? Do I have to practice? And I have to lie to them too."
"It might be difficult to learn how to interact with kids without being around them constantly. But I can help console you. And don't worry about lying about your origins. Before you arrived, SHIELD arranged a fake birth certificate so no one outside of the organization would be suspicious. And when you first arrived here, Nat noticed that your accent was similar to a British one, so your 'birth certificate' says you were born in London, England."
"When I talked with Loki, he had some essence of a British movie villain," Natasha had said to Steve, shortly after she spoke with Eira for the first time. "Eira's voice is eerily similar to the accents of kids from London. Forming her backstory will be easier than I initially thought."
"Really? My accent won't sound too strange?"
"Not at all. And SHIELD also arranged other important documents for you before it had to close down."
A smile returned to Eira's face. The curves of her lips were soft, kind, very unlike the mischievous grin she sometimes held. Her gentle smile was not familiar to Steve, so he guessed it was inherited from her mother.
"Well that makes me feel a little bit better," she spoke, her shoulders now filled with confidence.
"I'm glad," said Steve as he leaned back in his chair.
His glance went upward while his mind contemplated how to reveal some important news to Eira.
"It was originally planned that you would go to school in Washington DC. Though now that SHIELD has fallen, it's now more difficult to arrange your schooling. Luckily, Tony decided to help with that. All we have to do is move to Stark Tower."
"We're moving to New York?" Eira questioned as she tilted her head. "Will we be living with the other Avengers?"
"Well, some will live with us. I just got off the phone with Clint and he said that Natasha would be coming back to the States in a few days. She'll be staying at the Tower."
"Nat finally finished her work? That was quick."
"I guess spies are fast like that."
Steve couldn't hide his excitement about Natasha's return. Although only separated for a month, he became used to working with her. He grew accustomed to her jokes, her smile, the way the sun shone on her scarlet locks. He was glad to be seeing her again so soon.
"Is Tony gonna be living there too? All I know about him is that both Daddy and Thor think he's annoying."
After stopping the Chitauri invasion a year and a half ago, both her uncle and father told her tales about the backstories and fights of the Avengers. There were large differences in the contents of their tales, with Thor being more boastful and kindhearted to his comrades while Loki was bitter. The main similarity was about the exhausting personality that was held by Tony Stark. Loki was bothered by him primarily for causing his downfall, and Thor was confused by his jokes. Eira remembered, literal minutes after the brothers' return, Thor asking her if she knew what a Point Break was.
"Tony has many properties, so he may not be always staying at the Tower. The other Avengers will visit. I know they will like you."
"I hope they do."
Eira's gaze returned to focus on the books. Steve noticed her change in eye direction and also glanced at the books.
"You know, after being in ice for seventy years, I missed a lot of historical events. Both in country and international. There's also been changes to what it put in history books. I have a lot to catch up on, and you have a lot to learn about the history of Earth. So, I thought that we could learn about history together, though only if you want to."
"Of course I would like to learn with you! It might make it more fun!"
Eira's stance straightened with excitement as her smile brightened. Steve had to smile back.
He lived with this little yet powerful girl for two months, and despite the short length of time, his care for her was increasing. He loved seeing her happy and proud of herself. It almost felt paternal.
No. Steve couldn't go paternal. Although he was her legal guardian, he did not want to replace her father. Eira loved Loki more than anyone, and would most definitely become angry if someone tried to take his place as her father. And judging by reports of his comrades on how Loki spoke about and acted around her, he would certainly stab anyone who attempted to replace him. His protective instincts toward Eira were unbreakable, and he wanted no one to take her away from him.
I'm her legal guardian, Steve told himself. I can care and worry for her, but I am not her parent.
"Well, why don't we take a look at these books," Steve said to Eira, his words an attempt to distract himself from his thoughts.