Fandom: The Avengers (movieverse)
Prompt: Written for this prompt (Loki/Steve, Five times Loki protected Steve and one time Steve rescued Loki.) and Write about being a winner.
Summary: Five times Loki protects Steve from little things (like going crazy), and one time Steve saves Loki from the biggest threat of all. (Title from Cold War Kids’ Hospital Beds!)
1. Ice sickness.
In the end, the team doesn’t meet Loki on a smoking battlefield, or in a merciless, knock-down, drag-out bloodbath—they meet him in Tony Stark’s living room, exchanging suspicious looks rather than bullets and arrows.
Thor insists that Loki come here, swearing his brother is the only one who knows how to treat Steve’s condition. It is more than mere illness, Thor stresses, implying what everyone else refuses to say out loud: Steve’s body is rapidly shutting down, and Dr. Erskine’s serum isn’t helping. Even Tony’s financial resources and futuristic technology is no match against a virus that originates from Jotunheim: developing a cure for ice sickness would require months of research into Jotunn biology, and all Steve has is a week, maybe.
Steve doesn’t see any of this first-hand. He’s bed-ridden, nursing a sky-high fever and a rapid case of onsetting delirium, and the first time he lays eyes on Loki is when the man shakes Steve from a nightmarish sleep to ask a series of questions. Steve says something but can’t remember what; Tony hides his expression behind his hand and Loki’s lips become pinched before he disappears. Tony leaves, too, and the only people who stay behind are Peggy, Colonel Phillips, and the commando squad Steve led during the war.
Dum Dum shakes his head. “You are one sick puppy, Rogers. What the hell did you catch?”
You’re dead, Steve hazily thinks. You’re not here, you’re dead, I’m sick, you’re dead, and plummets into feverish dreams.
Other memories permeate the fog: a night he spent screaming from hallucinations; the vial of bitter liquid Loki made him drink; the morning he smashed everything in the room, bellowing and out of his head; Loki, again, sitting on the edge of the mattress and examining him closely, inquiring as to how Steve felt. During the rare moments of lucidity, Steve would catalog his symptoms: an awful, perpetual sweat; pounding migraine; slow heartbeat, and then he’d slip away again, a lunatic that only Loki would—could—risk getting close to, being Jotunn himself and therefore immune.
It’s another three days until Steve wakes.
The first thing he sees is the open window, and then the white-tinted morning, and finally Loki, sitting in a chair Steve doesn’t recognize. Daylight does him justice, hitting his face in such a way that suggests there’s some softness beneath the armor.
“Steve,” a woman snaps, sounding put out. “It’s rude to stare like that.”
Steve’s eyes fly open and he sits up with the same urgency soldiers felt during the war, when the perpetual threat of an enemy bombing raid kept them vigilant no matter the hour. Panic sends his heart into double-time: he knows that voice, that tinge of fondness and exasperation—and sure enough, Peggy is standing at the foot of his bed, arms crossed, with her tan uniform, her dark hair, her red lipstick.
The commotion is such that Loki’s attention moves from the window to where Steve is frozen on the mattress.
“Oh, good, you’re with us,” he blithely says. “One more day in this room and I would have burned down the city just to keep myself occupied.”
Loki rises and brings a preemptive bottle of water with him. Steve stares at the plastic like he doesn’t know what it is, and then shifts his focus to Loki’s face.
“For Pete’s sake, Steve, tell him thank you,” Peggy huffs.
Steve’s tongue feels heavy when he croaks, “Thank you,” taking the bottle out of obligation and then realizing he is, in fact, very thirsty. He greedily downs the whole thing, ignoring the way Jim peers at Steve from over Loki’s shoulder. Loki doesn’t seem to notice.
“Nice first impression, Rogers. Don’t people sleep in clothes anymore?” Jim asks, referring to Steve's lack of shirt. This would normally embarrass him, but he's more perplexed by Loki’s disregard of Peggy, Jim, and the others who've crowded around.
“Captain Rogers,” Loki says, yanking Steve back to the present like a slap to the face. “Do you know who I am?”
“Thor’s brother,” he answers, quietly skeptical. Could Loki be a hallucination, too? What are the odds Tony would willingly allow an enemy inside his house?
“And do you know where you are?”
Steve clears his throat and wishes he could clear his head.
“The mansion. It was you who helped me, right?”
“I retrieved the antidote, yes. It required a journey into Jotunheim.”
“Where the hell is that, Europe somewhere?” Dum Dum wonders. Gabe, who'd never been the academic type, shrugs.
They stare at one another for a moment. Loki doesn’t appreciate the attention, visibly uneasy and distrustful—but Steve can’t help himself, curious about the complex outcast Thor has often mentioned. (Thor, during the months he thought Loki dead, described his brother with the highest praise: the cleverest warrior, he’d say, or the most faithful, often sharing stories from their youth, tales that would make him laugh and, later, drink until he forgot everything.)
“I’ll alert Mister Stark that you are ready for visitors,” Loki announces, moving away from the bed and, consequently, Steve. “Do not attempt walking yourself. At this stage, physical stress will merely negate the progress we’ve made.”
“It’s okay if Tony comes in here? I’m not contagious?”
Loki scoffs. “At this point, you’re not even sick.”
Hallucinations, Steve thinks, are not indicators of a healthy person. He opens his mouth to say as much, stopping only when he notices Jacques has joined Dum Dum near the stereo, fiddling with several buttons until his finger nears the power switch.
“Stop,” Steve hisses, driven by an irrational paranoia that Jacques will give the squad away. A second later, the foolishness of such a fear sinks in, especially when Loki turns to pin him beneath a hard look. It’s off-putting, and very different from the softer man he’d glimpsed minutes earlier.
“As point of fact, I may come and go whenever I please. I live here,” and then he marches out.
(“So,” Steve says, later, when Tony is running a few tests to ensure Steve is safe to leave isolation. “Loki lives with us. I’ll be interested to hear how that happened.”
“Wanna hear something crazier? The bastard’s an Avenger now,” Tony corrects, sounding wholly teed off. “Like the Joker said—did you ever see The Dark Knight? Whatever, we’ll get you a copy, it’s a must-see for all previously-frozen superheroes—if you’re good at something, never do it for free. Loki’s good at getting into Jotunheim, but he had a price. Avenger status or nothing. Fury didn’t have a choice.” Tony taps his fingers against the computer, nodding at the readings that pop up on screen. “I’m more worried about my crib. It wasn’t built to hold two Norse gods, know what I mean? I wonder if my insurance plan covers that kind of damage.”
“Such incidents would undoubtedly fall under the ‘Act of God’ clause,” JARVIS helpfully notes, and Tony doesn’t look pleased about that at all. Meanwhile, Dum Dum peers at the computer, fascinated. Steve closes his eyes and counts to five; he opens them again, and Dum Dum is across the room, poking at the thermostat. He was always fond of new technology.
“Next time I’m getting frozen for sixty years!” Dum Dum informs him. “This house is incredible!”
Tony continues working, heedless, and Steve is afraid.)
2. Food poisoning.
The aftereffects of ice sickness leave Steve tired for the next few days. He sleeps late and goes to bed early, and can only spar with Thor for half-hours rather than the usual hour or more.
Of course, there’s also the slightly more serious issue of having his long-dead comrades playing cards at the kitchen table. Steve doesn’t tell anyone, half-hoping to wake up one morning and not find Colonel Phillips reading the paper over Bruce’s shoulder, or Jacques making unheard come-ons to Pepper—but the other half of him secretly hopes they stay. They’re not hurting anything, and to be honest, Steve’s not ready for them to leave.
On Halloween, he finds himself sharing the couch with Peggy. She watches World News Tonight with a wide-eyed awe.
“I still can’t believe how far the press has come,” she marvels. “Live footage, can you imagine? Right from the war zone! And they don’t have to send the film over, it’s all...” She pauses at the foreign word. “Digital. Instant.”
“And there are women reporters,” Steve adds, taking satisfaction when Peggy lights up.
“Women reporters, and, did you know, there’s a female Secretary of State!” she exclaims. “Steve, there’ll be a female President one day, watch my words.”
With women like Peggy around, Steve has no doubt about it.
A domestic news piece begins just as Steve’s stomach growls. His appetite, too, was adversely affected by the ice sickness, so he gets up from the couch and leaves Peggy glued to the TV. She might be there when he comes back, or she might not, but he knows he’ll see her tomorrow. His hallucinations are punctual that way.
Steve walks into the empty kitchen and surveys the pantry, only to blanch at the piles of processed foods. It’s what Tony stocks his kitchen with, too lazy—“Busy,” Tony always corrects, “busy!”—to cook a proper meal. (The canned ravioli stacked high on the shelf claims to contain real tomatoes, but Steve has his doubts.) He tries his luck with the fridge, rooting around Bruce’s soymilk, Clint’s pudding snacks, half a carton of Tony’s forgotten Chinese takeout, and is ready to give up when he spots a large casserole dish covered with aluminum foil. He takes a peak.
“I wouldn’t, if I were you.”
Steve’s head shoots up to peer above the fridge door. Loki, seemingly bored and uninterested in Steve’s culinary quest, is leaning against the counter. Steve glances down at the casserole dish uneasily. There’s ground beef and cheese in there, but it’s just sort of… mixed together. Steve can’t call it appetizing.
“The asshole’s right,” Dum Dum admits, suddenly rooting through the pantry. “We were fed better during the war. What is this, ravioli in a can? I’ve had ravioli, my friend, and this is not it.”
“Mr. Barton informs me it was meant to be a Mexican dish,” Loki deadpans, regaining Steve’s attention. Steve is struck with the mental image of Clint laboring over a meal that was inedible even to himself. He laughs, shaking his head as he puts the pan back.
“Peanut butter and jelly it is, then,” he decides, to which Dum Dum nods emphatically and Loki says nothing. “Would you like one?”
Loki’s nose wrinkles delicately. “No. I find peanut butter unpleasant.”
“Surprise, surprise,” Dum Dum mutters.
Steve suspects Loki finds all of “Midgard” unpleasant, but is trained well enough not to say so. Steve clears his throat and tries again. This isn’t ideal, having their first real conversation in such humble circumstances, but Steve’s mom always said that kitchen tables could mend any bridge.
“Then would you like to just…” He trails off, searching for the right word. Steve gestures towards a chair. “Sit? I’ve been eating alone all week.”
“You’ve hardly eaten at all,” Loki corrects him, but pulls out the chair across from where Steve has placed a jar of peach jam. He manages to locate a knife and spoon, and a loaf of bread shoved haphazardly in the bread box.
“That’s true. But not my choice. And listen, I know I thanked you—”
Loki rolls his eyes. Bucky, who’s sitting next to Steve like he’s been there the whole time—which he hasn’t—does the same.
“But,” Steve continues, “thanks again. You saved my life.”
“I assure you my choices were limited, Captain.”
“Steve,” Loki repeats, spitting it out like a mouthful of sour wine. It doesn’t bother him that Loki is underplaying the situation. After all, Loki saved him from ice sickness and food poisoning, all in one week, so Steve has no room to complain.
He swallows the first bite of sandwich and says, “Do... Jotunn?” He casts a quick look towards Loki to see if he’s used the correct term. Loki’s jaw tightens at the mention of his heritage, but nods. “Jotunn,” Steve repeats. “Do they—you—eat?”
“Of course we eat,” Loki sharply replies. “Is my true nature so offensive that you would think otherwise?”
Gabe whistles at the defensive answer; Steve desperately ignores him.
“I was just asking. You’re an Avenger now, but you never come down for dinner or anything, and it’s not like you aren’t invited. We’d like you to feel welcomed.”
Loki’s unimpressed expression is all Steve needs to correct his turn of phrase.
“Thor and I,” Steve hurriedly amends. “Thor and I would like you to feel welcome. Everyone else’ll come around in their own time.”
“I’m sure they will. Their arms have been open so far.”
“They don’t know you. Their attitudes would be different if you gave them a chance.”
Steve’s sure he’ll find himself alone in a second, Loki tiring of the conversation, but Loki surprises him by saying, “I do not need your pity, Captain, nor do I need you to hold my hand. I am capable of making my own allies.”
“It’s not pity,” Steve argues, tearing off another bite. “But I know what it’s like to not belong anywhere. Before the serum I didn’t have any friends, ‘cept Bucky, and then, afterwards, I still wasn’t really part of a group. Not until the very end.”
“What happened at the end?”
Steve is surprised by the genuine interest Loki has taken. He smiles—at least they’ve connected on some level, outcast to outcast, two men who never belonged in their original place—and makes another sandwich.
“I realized I’d been given a gift. No one else had it. So I figured the time had come to use it, really help the war effort. If I waited for Colonel Phillips to invite me, Bucky would have died strapped to a table.”
Loki’s lips twist upwards. “Instead he died falling from a mountain.”
“Whoa,” Bucky snaps, rearing up like a shot has gone off in the room. “That is so out of line, that is—damnit, Steve, that is absolutely not true, don’t let him tell you that!”
A protest forms in Steve’s mouth, and dissipates just as quickly. Silence stretches between them, so far and so wide it might as well be its own continent. He doesn’t know what to do or say, ignoring the slap Peggy tries to give Loki on Steve’s behalf. Her hand goes right through him. He dumbly caps the peanut butter and jam (waste not, want not, his mom always said) and places the silverware in the sink (don’t leave me a mess, Steven) while Loki stares very hard at the table.
Steve gets it. He does. Loki’s angry and lashes out. Steve can’t take it personally.
Everyone says things they regret.
“This guy deserves a wailin’,” Gabe states, but Peggy—always level-headed, always dependable—sighs in the tired way Steve had been so fond of.
She looks at Steve and advises, “Don’t leave angry.”
“Angry?” Jim echoes. “This guy couldn’t have hit any lower! You don’t owe him anything, Rogers.”
“He’s on your team,” Peggy points out.
“He conned his way onto it,” Gabe counters. “Like a double-agent!”
Peggy rests her hands on her hips and raises her eyebrows, implying she’ll be disappointed if Steve ignores her counsel. Steve looks back at Loki, who’s frowning at him. With a jolt, he realizes he’s been staring at his old team that no one else, including Loki, can see.
“I’m making lasagna tomorrow. Dinner starts at seven, barring SHIELD work. I’ll set a plate out for you,” Steve tells him before turning and walking calmly towards his room, careful to avoid anyone else, and it’s only when he reaches his door that he bawls his eyes out, sobs catching in his gut as he remembers Bucky screaming, disappearing into the white haze of snow and rock.
“Hey,” Bucky whispers, resting his head against Steve’s shoulder. “That wasn’t your fault. Nothin’ that jerk said was your fault.”
“Please, all of you, go away,” because Steve can take a lot of things, but this isn’t one of them.
He crawls into bed and weeps until his head hurts. What a courageous thing you are, he thinks, viciously, crying like a kid who scraped his knee, but there it is, true as anything. He can’t let the regret go, the sickening truth that he let Bucky down in every conceivable way: first by promising they’d all get through the mission, and then being helpless to keep his best friend safe.
He dreams about the train and the mountain. He dreams, too, that Loki is sitting in the chair by the window, head resting in his right hand as he watches the world outside, and as real as it seems, Steve knows there’s no reason Loki would ever be here when he went to such lengths to hurt him.
The next night, Steve makes two batches of lasagna—one specifically for Thor—and is just dishing it out when Tony and the others come trampling in, loud save for Natasha, who can’t be anything other than graceful and slightly condescending.
“I have a drawer full of chocolate bars,” Tony confesses, smelling of sweat and electronics. “But JARVIS swore your Betty Crocker skills would be worth the trip up here.”
“Steve Rogers is very skilled in the kitchen,” Thor says, eating straight from the pan. “Tell me, how did you prevent the cheese from burning?”
Tony pats Thor’s gigantic shoulder.
“He didn’t cook it at six hundred degrees, big guy. Hell, I didn’t know the oven went that high.”
“You didn’t know you had an oven,” Steve corrects, to which Clint loudly laughs. Bruce accidentally scrapes his fork against the plate while Thor praises the meal, and it’s noisy, everyone talking and carrying on, until their voices fade into an abrupt, jarring silence. Steve looks over his shoulder to see what’s caught their attention.
Loki is standing in the doorway.
Everyone stares; he stares back. He is so prideful, Steve thinks: his shoulders are straight, his chin is up, like he’s steeling himself for a thrashing.
“Brother!” Thor finally greets him, oblivious to the unease of both parties. “You have chosen a good night to join us. The Captain has prepared a handsome meal.”
“Is that so,” Loki sweetly retorts. “I trust Mr. Barton was no where near the kitchen?”
Clint glares. “Christ almighty, I already apologized for the casserole. Let it die with dignity.”
Steve manages to smother a smile as he turns back to the cabinet and grabs another plate. He sets them down in front of the last available chairs, one of which usually goes to Thor (who has become too involved with stuffing his mouth to bother with basic dining etiquette). Steve waves Loki over; Loki grimaces but accepts the invitation, and picks up a fork like it might turn around and attack him.
“You’re too forgiving, kid,” Colonel Phillips mutters. “Always were, and it’s gonna get you dead and buried.”
Like you’re supposed to be, Steve thinks. Around him the Avengers are boisterous, but they don’t see Dum Dum sampling the lasagna, or Peggy throwing out Tony’s old pizza.
He starts eating when he feels Loki’s stare.
3. The rain.
Loki has his first taste of being an Avenger when HYDRA hijacks a Big Three network (later Clint will complain that “pulling a ‘V for Vendetta’ is only cool in the movies,” and Steve has to ask what he’s talking about). Suddenly and unexpectedly, every television in all fifty states is being fed the same message: join us or else, hail HYDRA, etc. The country at large is bewildered, and Clint is doubly pissed because he’d been watching a race on ESPN and has no idea who won.
“I had money on that baby,” he complains on the way there, but falls silent when they learn ten hostages have already died, and more are inside. The police are in place, along with SWAT and EMS, but everyone knows HYDRA doesn’t negotiate, period, so Fury tells them to do what they do best: go in, guns blazing, and take care of things.
The station doors are locked, naturally, and the team has several suggestions. Hulk wants to smash the windows; Tony wants to laser the doors off, but Loki just sneers and says, “Despite what Thor might tell you, the most elegant solution is usually best,” and then, a moment later, the soft sound of multiple disengaging locks.
“I never thought these words would cross my lips,” Tony says, “but you? Are awesome.”
“Debatable,” Dum Dum remarks, popping up from nowhere, right by Steve’s elbow. Steve forces himself not to jump and then slams his eyes shut, frantically willing Dum Dum and the others away, just for now. They can’t be here, shadowing Steve’s every move, when a building full of hostages are at risk.
Focus, he thinks. Focusfocusfocus.
Steve opens his eyes again. He’s heartened by the fact the mantra worked, but his stomach drops when he sees Loki is watching him, hawk-eyed. Steve hefts his shield and looks away.
Loki’s magic makes it easy to get in, rescue the hostages, disable—kill, for those who refused to surrender—the agents, and allow SHIELD to take away whatever personnel Black Widow left alive. They work quickly and efficiently and like a team, even with Loki.
Especially with Loki.
The ordeal lasts all morning, just long enough to get everyone’s adrenaline pumping without giving them a way to cool off from the rush. Natasha deals with the leftover energy by disappearing to beat up an unsuspecting punching bag; Clint takes the opposite approach and falls asleep in front of the television. Thor has a celebratory drink; Bruce meditates; Tony slinks off to “reinvent science,” but Steve has learned the best way to calm down is to take a walk.
He showers, changes, and picks a direction.
Very little slows down New York, and he’s pleased to see that the hostage situation, while noted by residents, doesn’t prevent them from going about their daily routine. He wanders through parks and across busy streets, and picks up a new sketchbook and set of pencils from his favorite “hipster” (Clint’s term, not Steve’s, and even now Steve doesn’t really understand the meaning) art store. A few blocks down is a used book place (“God, what do you have against retail chains, huh?” Clint had demanded) that Steve really likes, because it’s quiet and smells like dust, and it doesn’t cost him twenty-five dollars to buy something. He ducks in and waves at the owner before heading towards the fiction section.
“You’re a real bookworm, Rogers. Anyone ever tell you that?” Colonel Phillips asks, already scanning the titles.
“And you’re always reading the paper,” Steve points out, grateful that the aisle is empty. “I don’t see the difference.”
“Knowing and reading are two different animals, son. I read to know what the hell is going on in my own backyard.” He squints at a novel called American Gods. “At least do me the favor of choosing some nonfiction. Literature has died since our time.”
“I’ll pick up a biography, if it’ll make you feel better,” Steve promises. “I saw one on Walt Disney. He’s pretty interesting.”
“Pick someone worthwhile, Rogers. Winston Churchill. FDR.”
“You’re biased,” Steve comments with a smile. “Walt Disney is worthy, too. He changed animation.”
“Ninety-pound asthmatic and an artist. How we ever won that war is beyond me,” Phillips mutters before plopping in one of the overstuffed chairs near the end of the aisle. There’s a three-day-old newspaper on the armrest, but he reads it anyway.
Steve laughs and turns back to the shelf, where he plans on leisurely going through a few interesting novels—but his hand freezes, suspended halfway between where he stands and where the books sit.
Loki is here, in this bookstore, standing next to the Rs like he’s been craving something from Ayn Rand or Christina Rossetti. What’s worse is that Steve has no idea how long he’s been hanging around, listening, an ear to the figurative floor.
“What’s the matter? Do we need to suit up again?” Steve asks, already considering why Loki would follow him here and concluding it must be a worse-case scenario: the team is in trouble, there’s an attack somewhere, Clint has tried another hand at cooking.
“No.” The answer is curt. “But Natasha insists you will require this,” and he hands Steve an umbrella. Steve stares at it, trying to wrap his mind around why Natasha would care about bad weather, or why Loki would act as her messenger. He glances out the window and decides to be grateful regardless: the sky, having been ominously dark all day, is assembling an impressive collection of black clouds.
They stand there like strangers, like two men who’ve randomly met for the first time. Steve wonders what would happen if that were the case. Maybe they would have coffee, or exchange numbers, or... whatever it is people do these days.
Stop being stupid, Steve thinks, and then, decisively and out loud, “Thanks.”
“Tell me, Captain, who were you talking to just now?” Loki asks, turning to face the shelf. He runs his finger along the spines, stopping on a book titled The Norse and Their Myths. The worn, brown cover looks older than Odin himself.
“My phone,” Steve lies, paying no mind to Phillips’ impressed, you-just-lied-to-the-god-of-lies whistle. “Tony called.”
“In that case, it would seem Mr. Stark is overly involved in your reading selections.”
“He’s into everyone’s business, you know that,” Steve replies, stuffing his hands in his pockets. Does he even have his phone with him? He feverishly hopes Loki doesn’t ask to see it.
Loki hmmms and thumbs through the myth book.
“I’ve always wondered where humans acquired such outlandish stories about us. Here is a whole chapter dedicated to me and all of its contents are false. ‘Numerous children.’ ‘Husband of Sigyn.’”
“What are you saying, not a thing in there is true?”
“I have no children,” Loki states. “Nor a spouse.”
“Ah.” Steve doesn’t like the direction this is going. “Why’s that?”
“No one asked,” Loki replies, his voice growing tight. “And those who did asked for political ambition. I was a prince, you recall.”
“You’re still a prince.”
“I am banished from Asgard and Jotunheim will not have me. I am prince of nothing and belong nowhere.”
“You seem to belong here,” Steve counters.
Loki closes the book with a forceful snap.
“You speak with such sincerity, but lie to my face when I ask a simple question. I return to my original query: you were talking to someone before my arrival. Tell me who it was.”
Fight or flight, Steve thinks. Fight or flight, fight or flight.
“Flight,” Colonel Phillips dryly advises. “Sometimes retreat is your only option.”
Steve maneuvers himself to the next aisle, where biographies are practically stacked one on top of the other. He grabs the Walt Disney book he’d mentioned earlier, and, as promised, a random selection on Winston Churchill. He takes the small stack to the register, where he pays with a charge card courtesy of SHIELD. With no rent from Tony and no interest in spending money on phones or clothes, Steve finds himself doing what he did back in the forties: counting his pennies, splurging once in a while on books and drawing materials. He’s not sure what to do when he notices Loki is waiting for him by the exit, refusing to let Steve slither away.
“Can I help you find something?” the owner asks Loki as he rings up Steve’s choices.
“No, thank you,” Loki answers, uncharacteristically pleasant. “I’m just waiting for my friend.”
Steve resigns himself to the fact his nice, calm afternoon is over, and accepts his purchases with a quiet thanks. Loki follows Steve out onto the sidewalk, which is slick with the beginnings of a mid-November storm.
“Can we make a deal?” he asks. Loki considers the question, scrutinizing Steve for an endless and humbling moment. Finally, he nods.
Steve takes a deep breath.
“You’ll notice I haven’t asked why you wanted to be Avenger, or what you’re doing with us, or how long you plan to stay. I trust you because I want to trust you, and I would appreciate if you’d trust me. It doesn’t matter who I was talking to, it only matters that I have it under control.”
Silence follows, but it’s not the same kind they shared during that first night in the kitchen, when Loki had heartlessly brought up Bucky’s death. This is different. It’s meeting in the middle.
It’s a truce.
“All right,” Loki agrees, just as a blade of lightening slashes the sky. “I won’t ask again, but you aren’t... out of the woods. To borrow an American phrase.”
Steve feels the cold knot of dread unwind slightly. He’s avoided the issue for now, and with any luck, Loki will become too preoccupied with other matters to bring it up later.
“Thank you,” he says, punctuating it with a pause. The wind is wreaking havoc on Loki's long hair. It makes him look mortal and light, like he, too, can be swept away by forces beyond his control. “Hey, you probably have a mischief quota to meet, but I was on my way to get lunch. You can join me, if you want. Turn my plate of spaghetti into snakes or something.”
Bucky stands at Loki’s side, shaking his head at Steve’s awkward invitation; Dum Dum removes his bowler hat and pretends to throw up in it.
Fine. Maybe the invitation doesn’t pass their muster, but Steve has the last laugh: he and Loki end up spending the whole afternoon together.
(Later, just as night is falling, Loki… teleports?… them back to the mansion. Natasha is on the couch, using one of the laptops Fury had given them. Steve looks down at himself: he’s still in one piece, and the books are still with him, but Loki is gone. He glances back up to Natasha, who merely raises her eyebrows.
Steve holds up the umbrella, feeling foolish. “Thanks for this. It was nice of you to think of me.”
She frowns and replies, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” before returning her attention to the screen.)
4. Thor’s deplorable photography skills.
Two months later is the start of Christmas.
Tony usually buys gifts for the team each year—meaning Pepper chooses the gifts, and orders them, and hands them out with Tony’s name on the tag—but this time Steve gives it a shot, too. He spends November trying to figure what they’d want in the first place, and then tackles the impossible task of placing online orders. He even wraps the boxes once they arrive, though his paper-and-tape skills are poor compared to Pepper’s.
Peggy sits with him and helps. Her wrapping expertise is a force to be reckoned with.
He chooses a digital camera for Thor, who’s always marveled that Asgard, for all its advancements, has never been able to “capture time” like humans have. Thor’s clearly overjoyed with this choice on Christmas morning, and he photographs everything: snow, trees, Pepper’s impossibly-high heels, Happy’s frowning face. For him, the world is endlessly fascinating, and he takes to carrying the camera with him on their days off, if indeed criminals and villains give them any.
Steve, though, finds he’s not fond of having his own photograph taken, and gets more exercise ducking the lens than he does during a regular training session. Sometimes Loki will even take pity on him, allowing the camera to momentarily malfunction while Steve (who ought to be used to it, considering the shows he performed back in the day) makes a beeline for the door.
The only time he doesn’t escape Thor’s watchful eye is a February night, when he, Clint, Thor, and Loki—despite finding human transportation unnecessary—are riding the subway home after seeing a movie. It’s late, the last train scheduled to run. Steve and Loki share one seat while Thor and Clint sit across from them, consuming Loki’s leftover popcorn (after eating a large carton of their own), and Steve says something that makes Loki laugh. Loki turns to reply; they’re looking at each other right in the eyes, grinning like conspiring children, clearly not paying attention to anyone or anything else, arm touching, knees knocking together—so involved in their conversation they don’t even notice Thor take the picture.
Steve stops short when he sees the printed photograph.
He holds it very carefully. It feels more delicate somehow, perhaps because it’s proof that even unloved Jotunn princes can smile. Peggy stands next to him and says, fondly, “It’s impossible for people not to fall absolutely in love with you, Steve.”
“You may keep that one, if you wish,” Thor offers. The laugh lines around Thor’s eyes—and it says a lot that Thor has laugh lines while Loki doesn’t—deepen when he smiles, a silent blessing he’s bestowed upon Steve, though what the blessing is and why Steve would need it remains uncertain.
Steve keeps the photo for its own protection, certain it will… offend Loki, somehow, and hides it in the Winston Churchill book.
That night, Steve wakes just long enough to see his squad lounging around the room, napping or reading by the hallway light. Loki is in the chair by Steve’s window, thumbing through the Churchill biography, another innocent hallucination to add to Steve’s collection.
Steve openly admires him, just for a moment, just long enough for Peggy to tap his shoulder and whisper, “Staring is rude no matter the year. Or hour. Go back to sleep, Steve,” and so Steve does, knowing full well the real Loki is probably out and about, giving New York’s nightlife a run for its money.
Even though they’re all friends (including Loki, occasionally, when he feels they’re worth his time), and even though they have plenty of ways to get around, the team rarely goes out together. They venture in pairs: Bruce and Natasha to Whole Foods; Clint and Steve to headquarters (Steve accompanies him out of kindness, because Natasha refuses to give Clint any more of her time than necessary, and Clint just pisses Bruce off). Steve thinks it’s kind of a shame that they’re never out in the city as a group; he remembers being with Bucky and Dum Dum and the others, and they fought better because they were friends, not just teammates.
“Let’s get dinner tonight,” Steve suggests, one week after Christmas. They all stop eating (Steve doesn’t know how many cartons of eggs he fries in a week, but he’s afraid to check the grocery bill) to shoot him a collectively incredulous look.
“Who were you talking to?” Tony asks. “Group this size requires the use of names, Stevie.”
“Don’t call me that,” Steve automatically retorts. “And I was talking to all of us. I was thinking we could do something, maybe check out the Italian place Clint keeps talking about.”
Clint snorts into his orange juice. “Why not invite Phil and Fury, too. Maybe we could have a sleepover! Natasha can paint our nails.”
Lost cause, Steve thinks, and is about to forget the whole thing when Loki clears his throat. He sets down his fork and wipes his mouth, even though it was clean to begin with. Loki, unlike Thor, is delicate in all things, eating included.
“I enjoy Italian,” he declares, sounding strangely defiant in the face of such an inconsequential conversation. “I would be happy to join you.”
“Since when are you on the up-and-up of human cuisine?” Tony demands. Loki’s lips press together, a consistent habit when someone asks a question he doesn’t want to answer. Fortunately, Thor is always so eager to join Loki’s side that he shovels the last of the eggs onto his fork and proclaims, “I, too, would be most pleased to accompany you.”
Clint frantically shakes his head. “Whoa, big guy, you’re not going anywhere without adult supervision. I’m in.”
“Great. Now I have to go, too,” Tony mutters. “You and Thor? Not a good combination, and I refuse to have Fury on my case just because you two destroyed a restaurant in a fit of drunken revelry, or whatever you call it in the great kingdom of Ass Guard.”
“Asgard,” Thor patiently corrects (like Tony doesn’t know).
“We don’t destroy public property on purpose,” Clint contends. “Bad guys start it. We just finish it.”
They all have their own plans for the day, but somehow, remarkably, everyone agrees to meet at 8:00 for dinner, and it isn’t until they’ve headed for meetings (a “CEO thing” for Tony, an official debrief for Natasha) or a lab (Bruce, who’s running a time-sensitive experiment) or Somewhere Else (for Clint, who always has an excuse to disappear when dishes need to be done) that he finds himself alone with Loki, or alone as he can be, with Colonel Phillips a few feet away, drinking a beer from the fridge.
“How did you do that?” Steve asks, collecting plates. “You say yes to dinner, and suddenly everyone else does, too.”
Loki shrugs like it’s nothing.
“Magic?” Steve tries.
“I merely employed the power of suggestion. It is an invaluable tool.”
Steve’s eyebrows rise. “Devious,” he comments. When Loki frowns at devious, Steve hurriedly adds: “You know, in a good way. Like Bugs Bunny.”
He loads the small stack of plates into the dishwasher and thinks it might be best to change the subject.
“Bookstore?” he asks over his shoulder. Loki pretends to think about it, but Steve knows Loki’s been wanting the not-really-a-sequel to American Gods, and unlike his fellow team members, Steve doesn’t have much on his agenda. Natasha tends to take care of things with Fury; those two were all but separated at birth, equally ferocious with the uncanny inability to smile, and anyway, Loki is the only one who enjoys books as much as Steve. (Tony once tried to give Steve an “e-reader”, but there were no pages. Steve thanked him profusely, stashed it in his bedside drawer, and forgot about it.)
He and Loki spend the day ducking in and out of bookstores. A day on the town with Loki is more fun than the team might think: his caustic remarks about the people around them are in turn offensive and hilarious, and Steve finds himself defending strangers even as he secretly agrees. It’s remarkable, too, how well Loki blends in with everyone while Steve still struggles with things like automatic doors and cuss words on TV. He envies Loki’s easy grace, and the way he can pass as a businessman without a second glance.
Loki finds the novel he wants, and Steve loads up on a bunch of interesting books from the sale aisle. (He still can’t believe how expensive everything has become. Comics used to cost a dime in his day, and dimes could be hard to come by when you’re a kid from Brooklyn.) It snows: a burst here, a flurry there, but it’s pretty heavy by the time dinner rolls around. They slip into the restaurant, where the hostess doesn’t even need to show them where their party, sans Tony, is already seated. Thor’s voice is like a GPS signal.
Steve’s half-afraid this will be weird, that he’s trying too hard to gel this team together rather than letting it happen naturally—but for a bunch of misfit superheroes, they do okay. Thor doesn’t smash any glasses on the floor, and Clint manages to keep his perverted jokes (which make Steve blush even though he knows what to expect) to a dull roar so that only the table next to them is offended rather than the whole restaurant. Tony shows up ten minutes late in what he calls his “Clark Kent disguise”: jeans, a hoodie, and sunglasses, even though it’s night.
“Tony Stark can’t be seen in this rathole,” Tony explains, before eyeing Steve’s plate. “Oo, what is that, guacamole? Gimme.”
The food is good, and the company is better. Steve judges the evening a success.
It doesn’t reach the pinnacle until they’re all walking home, navigating the nearby park that’s just a few blocks from the mansion. Steve’s walking by Loki, and sometimes their elbows will brush when one of them (mostly Steve) missteps in the snow. Loki opens his mouth to say something, and Steve assumes it will be a request for Steve to please watch where he’s going.
Instead, Loki says, “If you throw those at him, you will regret it.”
Everyone stops and turns to look at Tony and Thor, who have snowballs in their hands, raised and aimed at where Steve is standing.
“Really, guys?” Steve asks, while Tony argues, “Oh, come on! Why not? We wouldn’t have hit you.”
“Yes, you would have,” Loki corrects him.
“Step aside, then,” Thor suggests. Loki doesn’t take orders well, so he crosses his arms and very pointedly doesn’t move an inch.
A line has been drawn. Thor and Tony glance at each other. They exchange a complex series of eyebrow lifts and shrugs, and then arrive to a decision.
“Duck,” Dum Dum advises.
“For honor!” Thor bellows, and he and Tony throw the snowballs, and Clint throws one from up a tree, and Natasha throws one from who knows where, until Loki and Steve are wearing four handfuls of snow. They’re deadly silent.
“Strategic retreat, comrades!” Thor’s laughing as he runs away, as they all run away except Steve. He watches Loki lazily flick his wrist, and up emerge several snowballs from the ground.
“Seriously, this is a new suit, Loki!” Tony complains when a barrage of snowballs pummel Tony from behind. He turns and blindly tosses a few in retaliation.
They’re grown adults, two of whom are gods and two of whom are trained assassins, and one of which is a billionaire playboy philanthropist, so it stands to reason that they shouldn’t be running around a park at half past ten throwing snowballs—but that’s what they’re doing, twenty minutes later. It’s a full-on war, and Natasha actually laughs. She laughs because it’s fun, and they haven’t had that in... well. Ever.
Peggy oomphs when a snowball lands on the back of her neck.
“You’re all children,” she snaps, and Steve laughs as he says, “Sorry, Peggy.”
He doesn’t realize he’s said it out loud until Loki whips his head around; Steve might as well have bellowed I have a grenade for all of Loki’s shock, the aha-caught-you expression that’s written all over his face.
Gabe shakes his head. “Jig’s up, I think.”
“Thank god you were never a spy, Rogers,” Colonel Phillips remarks.
Steve is rescued by Thor’s booming voice: “Captain, the weather worsens! It is best we seek our hearth.”
“‘Hearth’? Seriously, where do you come from?” Tony asks.
Steve follows them so quickly that Loki doesn’t have the time to utter a single word, but he knows the impending discussion is unavoidable. He can’t run from Loki, or hide from him, and it’s kind of surprising how much he doesn’t want to. Loki is his friend. They buy books and wander around the city and talk about things, even dumb things, even things Steve’s sure Loki would normally have no interest in. Loki has trusted him, just as Steve asked, and now Steve is running away like a scared child.
He hurries into his bathroom and takes a hot, lengthy shower, and spends too long putting on a pair of pajamas, trying to delay the inevitable. He gathers his will and steps into his room.
Steve would have bet money that Loki would be there, ready to forcibly address the problem. He’s not even in the chair by the window. Steve tiredly slides into bed and waits. The digital clock on his night stand reads 10:00, and then 10:30, and by 11:00 Steve is drowsy and sick with nerves, because what sort of person is he to lie to his team? He’s been hallucinating since the ice-sickness. Three months. Three months, and he hasn’t told anyone.
He dreams that Bucky is Iron Man, that Tony fell from the mountain; he dreams that Dum Dum wields Mjölnir, that Thor wears a bowler hat; he dreams that Loki is with him no matter what, constant and unchanging; he dreams both of his teams are one and the same, that he doesn’t have to chose between the friends he loved before and the friends he loved now, and Loki, who he loves differently—
“Steve,” Peggy says. “Wake up.”
Jacques snorts. “Yeah, before lover boy does it for you.”
It’s not 11:00 anymore—it’s almost one in the morning. Loki is by the window. In one hand is a manilla file; in the other is a vial. Steve can guess what’s in it.
“Peggy Carter was a lovely woman,” Loki says, not turning to face Steve. “She’s also dead.”
Steve sits up and wipes the sleep from his eyes.
“Yes, she’s dead. They’re all dead.”
“And how many of them are in this room right now?”
Steve looks over to where the squad is silent, waiting for the conversation to resolve itself. Phillips’ unexpressive face; Dum Dum’s mustache; Bucky’s big, dark eyes. Steve looks away again.
“Seven,” he quietly answers. “It’s my squad.”
“And Colonel Phillips, I assume? The one you spoke with in the bookstore?”
Steve smiles. “Yeah, that was him.” He pauses before asking, “It’s the ice sickness, right? I thought I was cured.”
“You were physically healthy and no longer contagious.” Loki finally turns towards him. “The mental repercussions are a lingering aftereffect.”
“And you knew?”
“I suspected. The way you’ve been staring into space, conversing with people who aren’t there. I returned to Jotunheim and retrieved additional medicine.”
Steve moves to the edge of the mattress. He can’t bear to see everyone’s faces, and for once they are all quiet: none of Colonel Phillips’ strategies, none of Peggy’s common sense, none of Bucky’s hit-first-ask-questions-later. They know. They know how this is going to end, and Steve does, too, even though he’d do anything to go back to them, to a country that grew victory gardens and rationed sugar and gave up their tin cans and panty hose. Men who wore hats; women who wore gloves. No curse words on the radio. No impossibly complicated telephones.
He reckons Loki will lose his patience soon and physically shove the medicine, vial and all, into Steve’s mouth—but instead he does something so unexpected that Steve’s face blooms red, his heart stutters, his body stills until breath can hardly escape: Loki stands before Steve, and then gracefully sinks to his knees so that they are face-to face. He places his hands on top of Steve’s.
“They are gone,” he whispers, though the words are perfectly loud in the silence of the room. “We are here. Tony Stark is here. My brother is here. We are alive and counting on you.”
“You can still count on me.”
“You’ve been sick and lying about it for months. How can anyone count on that?”
Steve resists it, but in a strange twist of irony, Loki speaks the truth: Steve has been a poor excuse for a leader. He has been hallucinating for so long that he no longer finds it strange, and worse, he’s been keeping it from the people who have placed their trust in him. Steve doesn’t like bullies, but he also doesn’t like liars, and here he is, the biggest liar of them all.
“They are gone,” Loki repeats. “We are here.”
He climbs onto his feet and gives Steve the vial.
“I’ll leave you,” he offers.
Steve thinks about what it will be like to be alone with Bucky, Peggy, Colonel Phillips, to say goodbye to them, seven against one. They stare at him; he stares back.
“Actually,” Steve says, uncapping the vial, “could you just—stay, for a second?”
There’s a poem Steve read, once, in a collection he picked up from Loki’s favorite bookstore. It went something like I carry your heart with me, I carry it in my heart, and that, he decides, is where he’ll carry Bucky and Peggy, Colonel Phillips and Dum Dum; he’ll carry them so long as he lives, and there they can remain forever young and fierce.
He puts the vial to his mouth, and the last thing he sees is a collection of figments, silent as graves, and Loki, the only real thing in the room.
He sleeps for three days.
Steve is roused by the whizbangpop of fireworks, and to the sight of Loki sitting, ever present, in the chair by Steve’s window. Outside and far away, the sky is alight with rapid bursts of blooming, sizzling color.
This, too, must be a hallucination. Steve closes his eyes and wills Bucky back, but the room remains empty of ghosts; the fireworks are still exploding over the city, and Loki is still watching with rapt attention.
Steve slowly climbs to his feet and pads to where Loki is sitting. He crosses his arms and watches rainbows erupt across a black sky. It’s New Year’s night, and will be the literal new year in about eight minutes.
Finally, Steve reaches to touch the back of Loki’s neck. He presses lightly to assure himself this is real.
Loki swallows but says nothing of it.
“Had to make sure,” Steve finally admits. “All those other times I saw you here... it was every night, almost.”
“And am I the only one present?”
Steve lets out a long breath.
“Yeah. Yes. Just you and the fireworks.” He smiles. “‘Course, I can’t touch those.”
They watch a moment longer. Steve’s hand is still on Loki’s neck, and in a punch of daring, he brushes his thumb down the side, where he himself is sensitive and maybe Loki is, too. His hopes fall when Loki jerks away. Steve quickly takes his hand back and returns to the bed, situating himself on the edge of the mattress.
“Sorry,” he mutters. “I—read things wrong, sometimes. My mistake.”
He thinks Loki might up and disappear, but instead Loki looks at him, with his big eyes and thin mouth, and says, “I didn’t want to take your friends from you. Surely you understand that. You were sick.”
“It was not a cruelty.”
“I know that, too.”
“Do you? Some might argue I have stolen your only happiness, your only connection to the past. Despite that, and despite your upbringing, you still feel such a thing for me?”
“My upbringing taught me to love my family, and you’re part of that.” Steve doesn’t mean to sound so passionate about it, but this black and white, hard-edged theory Loki has about family is something they really, really need to work on. “Families aren’t just bound by blood. We choose them. Me and the team, we’ve chosen you, and all you have to do is choose us, too.”
The fireworks keep popping. Four minutes until the new year.
Loki hesitates, like he’s not sure, or he wants to give Steve an opportunity to change his mind. But how can he? They’re not so different: Loki, the small boy no one understood, and Steve, who’d been a runt most of his life. Loki, who was not the same as his family, and Steve, who was not the same as his fellow soldiers who hung photos of their wives and girlfriends in their bunks, and who loved Captain America’s beautiful dancers, and who loved women.
Steve sucks in a deep, cold breath when Loki carefully joins him on the mattress’ edge. The world suddenly feels very small.
Three minutes. The fireworks grow more fierce, a war in the sky that has captured the entire city's attention.
At the one minute mark, Loki says, “I’m told there’s a tradition for the new year. Humans make resolutions.”
“In America, sure.”
“And what is yours?”
“Eat healthy and exercise,” Steve jokes, and then, more seriously: “Find out why you wanted to become an Avenger. What’re yours?”
Loki looks at him. His eyes move from Steve’s eyes to his lips, and then back to his eyes again. It almost seems like Loki wants to kiss him, though Steve can't be sure, considering his lack of experience in that area. They will, one day. Not tonight, but one day. Steve looks forward to it.
Finally, Loki turns to watch the remaining fireworks. Something like a smile crosses his face.
“None.” (He sounds pleased about it, and maybe he is. Maybe he’s tired of resolve. Maybe he’s tired of making plans, second and third-guessing himself, keeping track of all the pieces. Maybe he’s just plain tired.) “I am perfectly content.”