Steve always felt a certain amount of trepidation when his phone rang with one specific ringtone. It was one of the default tones, nothing special, even a little annoying, but the tone was the one he selected for unknown numbers. The number of people – or agencies – that could get a hold of his personal number was very low, thus the nervous little flip in his stomach.
Bucky recognised the ringtone as well, because he was frowning at the phone as Steve reached for it to pick up. He was still in bed, because he never wanted to take the shower first in the morning. His sleep-tousled hair ruined the darkness of his frown and made him look more cute than dangerous… at least in Steve’s eyes.
‘Hello?’ he asked with an even tone when he picked up the phone. There was always a chance it was just Natasha with a new number.
‘Steve? Steve Rogers?’ the other person on the line asked. It was a woman and she sounded… old. He immediately felt a little confused, but some of the tension left his body as well.
‘Uhm… yes, who is this?’
‘It’s Rebecca,’ she said. ‘Rebecca Proctor… oh well, Barnes-Proctor if you will. Sharon was kind enough to give me your number. I hope this is not a bad time.’
Steve froze for one moment and he immediately stared at Bucky.
‘Becca, no… hi, I mean, it’s not a bad time at all,’ Steve said and watched as Bucky’s eyes widened after a moment, realising who was on the phone. His face went carefully blank after that. Steve wanted to reach out to touch him. He looked like he might bolt in a second.
‘I didn’t know you and Sharon knew each other,’ Steve added.
‘I knew Peggy,’ Becca said, sounding like she was smiling. ‘We met when they were making that documentary about you. Not that I had much to say, I was so young back then, but I did have a few good stories about you,’ she laughed. ‘I’m sure you saw it.’
He did see it, in the Smithsonian, back when Peggy was… his heart always clenched painfully whenever he thought of her. He should visit her grave again; he could take the time for it.
‘Yeah, that makes sense,’ Steve said. ‘I guess I just never really thought about it.’
He did feel a little warm thinking about it, Peggy meeting Bucky’s family. He was sure she and Becca got along swimmingly.
‘So what can I do for you?’ he asked. Bucky was still staring at him, but at least he didn’t leave the room.
‘Well, my 85th Birthday is coming up… oh just saying that… time flies by so quickly.’
‘Oh yeah, of course,’ Steve said right away. He couldn’t remember when her birthday was, maybe early next year. Late in the spring or summer, yeah, that sounded right.
‘And next March would have been Bucky’s 100th… well… I suppose that must be very strange for you.’
‘Yeah,’ Steve agreed. He’s been thinking about what to do for Bucky’s birthday for a while now. On good days, he even teased Bucky about hitting three digits. It was hard to pin down his biological age, because of the constant cryostasis he was put through. They mostly just agreed that he was two years older than Steve, like he’s always been, and they just stuck with that.
‘Anyway, my sisters and the rest of the family got it in their heads to make a very big deal about this,’ Becca continued. ‘So we will have a big family reunion in May.’
Okay, May was her birthday then.
‘And I know this might be a little out of the blue,’ she said. ‘And you might not think that way, but I would be really glad if you could come. You were always family, as far as Bucky was concerned, and who could argue with that really.’
‘Oh, wow… I don’t know what to say. Uhm, thank you.’
‘Oh, and all the kids would be delighted,’ Becca added. ‘Kids, I say, but probably a lot of the grown-ups too,’ she chuckled.
‘Yes, I… I can probably make it,’ Steve said. ‘Unless something gets in the way.’
‘Well, let’s hope the world won’t be ending then,’ Becca said, sounding very pleased. ‘I’ll have my granddaughter Jamie e-mail you all the details… I wouldn’t know which buttons to push on that thing tablet-thing she got me. Louise doesn’t either, but she keeps insisting she knows all the new technology, so I won’t even ask her. She might end up sending you one of those viruses.’
Steve laughed quietly at the humour in her voice.
‘It took me a while too, to figure it out,’ Steve told her.
‘Now that must be a big fat lie, Steve Rogers, you’ve always been a smart one,’ Becca said, making Steve smile again.
‘So, here in New York?’ Steve asked.
‘Yes, Evelyn insisted,’ Becca said. ‘The only true New Yorker in the family, she says. I think she would go mad without all that noise.’
‘I would too probably,’ Steve said. ‘I’m back in Brooklyn now.’
‘So I’ve heard from Sharon,’ Becca said. Steve wondered for a moment what else Sharon told her. She knew Bucky was alive and back, but she obviously didn’t tell that to Becca. It was kind of confidential information after all.
‘Well, I won’t keep you,’ Becca said then. ‘I’m sure you have much to do.’
‘I don’t mind talking to you, don’t worry,’ Steve said. ‘And thank you for the invitation.’
He looked back up at Bucky again, and wondered how much he heard from the whole conversation. His hearing was as good as Steve’s, so probably most of it.
‘Oh, don’t mention it at all. It will be so good to see you again.’
‘You too Becca,’ Steve said. ‘And everyone else too… sorry I didn’t really try…’
‘No, no, Steve… you had things to deal with,’ she said. ‘I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like, to wake up again the way you did. Don’t feel guilty about it.’
‘Yeah… thanks, Becca.’
‘Goodbye then, Steve. I’ll see you in May… oh, God willing.’
‘Don’t even say that,’ Steve chided. ‘I’ll see you then.’
Becca just chuckled again and said a soft bye before hanging up.
Steve stared at his phone for a bit, then glanced up at Bucky again. His face must’ve been very descriptive, because Bucky made a face and got out of the bed.
‘Don’t say it,’ he warned. Yeah, that was not likely to happen.
‘I really think you should come,’ Steve told him. ‘Or better yet, contact them now, we can go whenever.’
‘No, and I told you why,’ Bucky argued. He marched over to the dresser, turning his back on Steve while he got some clean clothes out.
‘Her 85th Birthday, Buck,’ Steve reminded him. ‘How many more do you think she’ll have? You know you will regret it if you don’t see her at least once.’
‘It’s not about me, it’s better for them.’
‘That’s bullshit, and you know it.’
Bucky was quiet for long moments, just staring down at the drawer in front of him.
‘Becca was eleven when I last saw her… Louise was seven, and Evelyn just a tiny little thing, barely started to walk. They probably only remember me from history books.’
‘That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want to know you’re alive,’ Steve told him softly.
‘You said it yourself that you won’t be able to stay under the radar forever,’ Steve reminded him. ‘Hell, it’s a miracle some paparazzi didn’t snap a good picture of you yet. Would you rather they found out from you or some news channel?’
Bucky didn’t say anything to that, he just swiftly turned and walked towards the bathroom.
‘I’ll think about it,’ he bit out curtly before closing the door very firmly.
Steve was not about to give up, and Bucky probably also didn’t expect him to drop this entirely. Nevertheless, he also knew when Bucky needed some space to think things through, so he let him be for now.
Just like every time a conversation was shelved, during the day they pretended it didn’t happen in the first place. It was probably not the best way to deal with things, but Steve found it hard to find a better way. There was some tension lingering between them even still, like Bucky expected him to bring the discussion back on the table any second. So, to be honest, he was glad for the distraction when Tony texted him.
32 interview/comment requests pending. Not your secretary, Rogers.
He smiled down at his phone, then pointedly waited ten minutes before answering.
Yet you’re still giving me these updates.
Things between him and Tony were significantly better now, which sometimes felt like a small miracle. It was impossible for them to exist without snappy remarks, but at least the comments lacked the bite of their old arguments.
Get your genetically enhanced ass over here.
Steve laughed at the response. Bucky sat on the couch, head bent over a book. It was probably some fantasy thing. He despised Steve’s historical books, all books about real life events in general. The further from reality a story was the better. Their lives were plenty fantastical, but Bucky said there were more than enough old cheesy sci-fi books that got everything wrong. Those were his favourites.
‘I’m going over to the Tower, wanna come?’
Bucky huffed and gave Steve an amused look. ‘I’m gonna have to pass.’
Shocking response, Bucky still hated being watched by an AI.
‘Want me to pick up anything on my way back?’ Steve asked then.
‘Fruit,’ Bucky shrugged. ‘Chocolate.’
Another shocking response. Steve smiled and walked over to the couch, probably smiling like a loon.
‘Wow, colour me surprised,’ he teased and leaned on the back to ask for a kiss. Bucky shook his head, but obliged anyway, hooking two fingers into the neck of Steve’s t-shirt to pull his head down.
The tension Steve felt between them almost all day drained away immediately. Sometimes all they needed was a little connection and immediately the world righted itself. He should’ve done this hours ago.
‘Now get out,’ Bucky said after a final loud peck on his lips. ‘You interrupted the best part.’
‘Robots or wizards?’ Steve asked.
‘Aliens,’ Bucky replied.
‘Like we don’t get enough of those,’ Steve told him drily.
‘We definitely had plenty of those,’ Steve grinned.
‘Go bother your avenging buddies, punk,’ Bucky told him firmly, but he was smiling, so the dismissal just warmed Steve’s chest to no end.
The Tower felt oddly empty when Steve drove across the public garage to get to the private entrance that Tony reserved for The Avengers. He didn’t put much thought into why this might be. The inner workings of Stark Industries were really none of his business and Tony would probably not appreciate it if Steve tried to put his nose where it didn’t belong. Avengers-related matters was one thing, Tony’s company was something completely different. Steve was happy to keep his distance with the latter.
‘Hi HELEN,’ Steve greeted the AI as soon as he elevator opened for him.
‘I was willing to bet that you would keep him waiting,’ HELEN’s voice responded. Steve was sometimes still thrown by how much more human-like she was compared to what JARVIS used to be like. It even felt strange to not refer to her as a well… a “she”. Steve figured Tony wanted an AI that was as different from JARVIS as possible, for a great many reasons.
‘Now when have I ever done that?’ Steve asked with a smile.
‘I can transfer the list to your phone,’ HELEN said, making Steve huff in amusement. He really wanted to know who the inspiration was for HELEN. Sometimes she reminded Steve of Pepper, but only very rarely.
HELEN started the elevator without Steve’s input and unsurprisingly, the doors opened again at Tony’s lab level.
‘Do I want to know what he’s working on?’
‘I doubt I will be able to explain in simple terms,’ HELEN told him.
‘Now you’re just being mean,’ Steve said in return. He didn’t know why, but he found himself chatting with this AI a lot more than he ever did with JARVIS.
‘In here!’ Tony called from… somewhere. Steve started walking in his vague direction, but it took him a few moments to spot him crouching next to… something. Steve was not completely ignorant when it came to technology, but there was a pretty significant difference between your everyday gadgets and a Stark prototype.
‘I hope this is not one of your caffeine-induced building-marathons,’ Steve commented.
‘He did sleep last night,’ HELEN reported dutifully.
‘See? I’ve been good,’ Tony added. ‘Messages are where they usually are, but help me lift this first, would you?’
‘Oh, now I see, this isn’t about the interview requests at all, you just lured me here for manual labour.’
He still shrugged off his jacket and dropped it in the general direction of some crates that were lined up not that far away, containing God knew what.
‘Now would I do something like that?’ Tony asked with a cheeky grin.
Steve didn’t dignify that with an answer.
‘Where can I grab where it won’t break?’ he asked instead.
Tony tapped the metal top of the thing with his screwdriver.
‘It will part in the middle, you don’t need to lift the whole thing. It won’t take long, I just need to put something in.’
‘You do have all kinds of robots for this,’ Steve said. ‘I know you do.’
‘And deprive myself of your unnecessary commentary?’
‘Tell me when.’
‘Now would be good.’
Steve grabbed the metal where Tony indicated and lifted. It was as heavy as it looked, but not a significant weight for Steve. Tony knelt up and Steve saw him insert some sort of computer panel into the thing, then quickly connecting wires everywhere.
‘At least tell me I’m not holding something explosive.’
‘Anything’s explosive with the right motivation,’ Tony commented.
Steve sighed dramatically, that was the best comment he had for that. Tony hummed, sounding way too amused, as he continued to work for another minute.
‘Okay, lower it back down, just… centre it, yep right there.’
‘I really don’t think you needed me for this,’ Steve said. ‘And what is this thing anyway?’
‘Oh… a power bank of sorts, a bit more… advanced version anyway. Not for domestic use, as you can probably guess.’
‘Yeah, it would be a bit troublesome to carry it around just to charge your phone.’
Steve was relieved that it was not another one of Tony’s “defence” inventions. They all knew that someday something would happen. That war would be coming to their front step and Tony was obsessed with being prepared, he’s been for years, even before Leah and Loki basically spelled it out for them.
‘Generators are easy to sabotage, but if I make this baby as sturdy as a black box, and probably bury it underground, I can store enough energy to run the tower or the compound for a while. Good for an emergency.’
‘I thought your arc reactor could run the tower for at least a year at a time or more.’
‘Yes, well… it never hurts to have a backup… and arc reactors can be used, well… misused for other things. That’s a lesson Loki taught me at the very beginning with that portal. The worst thing you can do with this thing is drop it on someone.’
Something safe that couldn’t be used against them, something that couldn’t be turned into a weapon… something that wouldn’t cause destruction on its own. Steve understood perfectly.
‘By the way, you’re not going to believe how many messages you got from all kinds of churches.’
Steve blinked at the sudden change in topic.
‘The Serpent,’ Tony said. ‘You’re like the only confirmed “real” Christian in the Avengers.’ Steve wasn’t sure what he meant by the quotation marks he made with his fingers. ‘And somehow that means that people want to hear your version of the story.’
‘Please tell me you’re joking.’
The Serpent was… a giant mess. The team briefed everyone, and that really meant literally everyone they could, about what they knew about it. Thor being absent didn’t help matters, because he would’ve been the biggest expert they could’ve thrown at people. Still, Tony and Jane were handling the science community, while Natasha fed information to the intelligence community. The rest of the Avengers were all trying their best to handle the public, because there was shock and panic and just… a mess.
They also didn’t have an answer to all the questions that popped up, because even they didn’t know the full meaning behind the Serpent taking up permanent residence around the globe. It had something to do with Loki, Bucky was sure of that, and they all remembered what the Serpent looked like in Chthon’s world. That piece of information was kept a bit more under wraps, since Loki did lead an invasion at one point. Bringing up his name might’ve caused some concern with some agencies.
After the initial panic and confusion, the whole thing turned into a spiritual/religious matter, which was not unexpected according to Tony. When science failed the masses, they looked for other sources to get answers. Some were convinced that the end of the world was coming, while others that it meant quite the opposite. Some even claimed that it was actually a Chinese Dragon and not a Serpent. Churches and religious groups were quick to give their opinion to their followers, and there was something about it in the news almost every day, but Steve still didn’t get where he fit into that.
‘I was there for a lot of press conferences,’ Steve pointed out. ‘I already gave my side of the story, along with the rest of you. And why do they think I know more than what we already told them?’
‘If you ask me, you should ignore most of them,’ Tony advised. ‘Some of those people are no better than sensationalist journalists.’
‘Believe me, I know,’ Steve said. He met his fair share of so-called “Christians” since he woke up in this century. They didn’t really share Steve ideas about what America was supposed to be like.
Tony walked over to his digital displays and pulled one to the side for Steve, while he went to work on some of the others nearby. Steve saw some blueprints on one of them, while a lot of numbers and equations on another.
‘Oh, you were really not joking,’ Steve said as he looked at the first few messages.
‘Not even a little bit.’
Steve sighed, but dutifully when over them all.
‘So, how’s Robocop?’ Tony asked after more than half an hour of silence. He actually turned away from his screens to look at Steve.
‘Pretty good, all things considered,’ Steve answered honestly. Yes, considering what Bucky’s been through, he’s been doing amazingly well. It might not look like it sometimes, but it was still true.
‘Hmm, still rocking the honeymoon phase?’ came the suggestive question next.
‘I am not answering that question.’
Steve shot him a look. ‘Do you honestly want a detailed answer, or are you trying to embarrass me?’
‘On second thought, forget I said anything. You’ve got that stubborn look on your face. You’re gonna answer me out of spite, if I’m not careful.’
‘Bucky and I are doing fine,’ Steve said lightly. ‘There are good days and bad days for us both, you know. Life. We’re taking one day at a time, focusing on the now.’
It was slightly surreal to talk to Tony about this, but they’ve been both trying to build up a real friendship. Sometimes they had to move out of their comfort zone for that.
‘Yeah,’ Tony agreed quietly.
‘So… I’m not trying to be a jerk…’
‘No, I mean it. Pepper?’
Tony sighed and turned back to his screens.
‘Same old,’ he said after a moment of silence. ‘It’s not like anything changed just because I almost died… again. It probably just made it worse.’
‘This break seems…’
‘Permanent?’ Tony asked, glancing back at Steve. ‘Seems like it right now. She didn’t put the last nail in that particular coffin, but sometimes I get the feeling she’s just trying to… I don’t know… be gentle about it. I don’t really know anymore.’
‘I’m sorry, Tony.’
‘Yeah, me too.’
Steve awkwardly looked around the lab, trying to figure out what to say next. He went through his messages and it didn’t seem like Tony needed more help, but still…
‘Hey, you’re hungry? I’m hungry. When was the last time you ate?’
‘Too long,’ HELEN answered before Tony could open his mouth.
‘Okay, food then,’ Steve decided, grabbing Tony’s shoulder to pull him away from his screens. To Tony’s credit, he didn’t put up much of a fight.
Steve stayed at the Tower much longer than he planned, but he still managed to get some shopping done. Bucky might be grumpy about not getting his fruit and chocolate in time, but he was probably not worried that Steve was out longer than expected. Steve liked it when he was grumpy about such trivial things. It showed how much he healed since he came back.
‘Hey, Buck, I’m back!’ He called out as he shut the door. He put down his shopping bag to unlace his boots. He was only greeted with silence.
‘Buck?’ he called again as he made his way towards the kitchen. Still silence.
There was no note. No text either. Maybe he just got tired of waiting for Steve and went out to buy some stuff himself. A note would’ve been nice, but still, it was not the end of the world.
An hour later Steve was a bit more miffed about the lack of note. It was already getting dark and it would’ve been nice to know whether Bucky wanted to have dinner at home or not. Steve settled for making food for two and putting Bucky’s aside for when he got back. He sent a quick text to Bucky to let him know about the food, and that he got him the fruit and chocolate he asked for.
Two hours later Steve sent another text, telling him that he’s going to eat all the chocolate himself, but he still got no answer. He firmly told himself that there was nothing to worry about.
At the three hour mark Steve tried to give him a ring, but it went straight to voicemail. Maybe his battery was dead… not that it ever happened before, Bucky was meticulous about being able to reach Steve at any time. He wondered if he was just being paranoid as it started drizzling outside.
He kept looking around in the apartment to find some clues, anything that would tell him what Bucky did before he left. His book was abandoned on the couch, no bookmark between the pages. An empty cup was left in the sink, but that was normal. Bucky took his jacket, his phone and keys, but nothing else. It gave Steve the feeling that he left in a hurry, which was concerning.
Steve’s been home for more than four hours when the rain got worse. It was late at night now and he had to admit to himself that he was more than a little worried. Bucky did take off sometimes on his own, but he usually left a note or sent a text, and he never ignored Steve’s phone calls. He wasn’t worried about Bucky’s physical safety per se, more his state of mind. Steve initially doubted that anything could’ve happened in the apartment to trigger him, but now he wasn’t so sure.
He wondered if it was too soon to call someone. Even in his head it almost sounded foolish. A man like Bucky could very well take care of himself, especially for just a few hours, and he’s been gone longer before, especially after waking up from a bad dream in the middle of the night. But this was unlike him, it didn’t fit his habits. Maybe Steve just worried too much, or maybe something was very wrong. In their lives, it was usually the latter, and Steve was never much for just sitting around.
The front door banged open just when Steve decided to grab his coat and head out himself. All his muscles tensed up immediately as he jumped up from the sofa.
‘Steve!’ Bucky called. It was a relief to hear his voice, but his tone was anything but reassuring.
He was drenched from the rain when Steve finally came face-to-face with him and he had his jacket wrapped around someone in his arms, someone small.
‘Is that a kid?’ Steve asked, immediately alarmed.
‘Get me the first aid kit,’ Bucky asked as he marched into the living room. Steve didn’t need to be told twice.
‘Should I call an ambulance?’ he called while he grabbed the nearest kit, which was the one in the bedroom.
‘No, just bruises and a few cuts,’ Bucky said, only raising his voice enough for Steve to hear him.
Steve’s mind was running a mile a minute, but he shoved aside his questions for now. He opened the kit before putting it down on the floor next to Bucky. He also knelt down on the carpet.
It was a kid, a boy to be exact, small and slender, pale white and obviously too cold from the rain, because his lips were almost blue. His black hair was sticking to his head. He also had a big bruise on his forehead that was probably going to look worse in an hour.
‘I’ll get a towel,’ he offered. He also grabbed his smallest t-shirt and some shorts, because he was sure they shouldn’t keep the kid in his water-logged clothes for too long.
Bucky cut the t-shirt the boy was wearing at the shoulder and bandaged the wound that was on his collar bone on the right side.
‘What in the hell happened?’ Steve finally asked.
‘Some shady characters,’ Bucky said as he looked at the kid’s face. ‘Okay, this actually might be a concussion. He got knocked about a bit before I got there.’
Right… later. It was best to focus on the boy for now. Bucky leaned closer and touched his face, then moved his hand to his uninjured shoulder to shake him a little.
‘Hey, can you hear me? Wake up.’
The boy didn’t respond at first and Steve opened his mouth to suggest an ambulance again… and possibly the police, when the kid shook violently, his eyes popping open.
‘Hey, easy… easy, you’re fine,’ Bucky said right away, putting his hands up in front of him. ‘Remember me?’
The boy stared at him, his chest rising and falling rapidly, like a panicking little bird. He was shaking too, but that might have been just his cold wet clothes. The boy moved to pull further away, but he abruptly slumped back down on the couch, putting a hand on his side. Damn, they needed to check his ribs.
‘You’re safe,’ Bucky told him. The boy kept staring at him with widened eyes, probably not even noticing that Steve was just a few feet away from the couch, towel and clothes still in his hands.
‘So… remember me?’ Bucky asked again.
The boy frowned, hesitating.
‘You stopped them…’ he said then. Steve was thrown immediately, because the kid did not sound like he was from around here. The accent was not quite British, but definitely something European.
‘No, before that,’ Bucky asked the he wiggled his metal fingers to pull the boy’s attention to them. He got a big frown again and the boy’s blue lips thinned as he stared at Bucky’s metal arm. Steve was concerned about the shaking, but they couldn’t really help him while the boy was this scared.
‘James?’ he said then, but it sounded like a question, like he wasn’t really sure.
Bucky gave him a quick smile, but Steve was just confused. He had so many questions right now.
‘That’s right,’ he said. The boy didn’t look too reassured though, if anything, he looked more confused and cautious.
‘I… I want to go,’ he said then.
‘You’re hurt, pal,’ Bucky told him. The boy looked down at himself, considering it.
‘We only want to help, promise,’ Steve said, finally drawing attention to himself. The boy startled badly, jolting his hurt shoulder and hissing in pain. ‘Sorry, sorry,’ Steve apologised quickly. ‘I brought you a towel.’
The kid grumbled something under his nose, but it was too quiet to make out what, then he looked up with a glare on his face. His green eyes were basically spitting fire at him, and Steve was struck with an odd impression of familiarity. Did he meet this kid before? The boy glared at him for a second, then his eyes widened again, this time in surprise.
‘Are you Captain America?’ he asked. ‘I saw you on TV once.’
Okay, that was good. Maybe this would put his mind at ease, make him feel a bit safer.
‘Yes, I am,’ Steve nodded with a smile and held out the towel for him. The boy took it, still staring at his face. ‘You got hit on the head, from what I gathered.’
‘This is very strange,’ the kid said.
‘I don’t think you actually realise how much,’ Bucky said. ‘Let me look at your ribs, all right?’
The kid wiped his face then leaned back down on the couch.
‘Fine,’ he agreed, sounding very reluctant. Steve just noticed that his clothes seen better days. Everything was worn and scruffy and a little too big. There was also a small backpack half under Bucky’s leather jacket, stuffed full with too many things.
Bucky gently probed at the kid’s ribs, making sure nothing was cracked. The boy did hiss at one point, but Bucky didn’t look too concerned, so it was probably just a bruise.
‘You remember your name?’ Bucky asked then.
The kid hesitated again, staring up at the ceiling for a moment or two.
‘Some call me Luke,’ came the odd answer.
Bucky huffed as he pulled the towel from his hand, unfolding it.
‘Eh, close enough, I suppose,’ he said. He dropped the towel over the kid’s head then took the dry clothes from Steve.
It took Steve a moment, it just didn’t click right away, but then that odd familiarity struck him again… No… friggin’… way…
‘You have got to be kidding me,’ he said.
Bucky never truly understood magic. Sure, he knew that the power that lived under the skin of people was an integral part of them, just like their flesh and blood, but though he witnessed it and was protected by it, he never wielded it. He wouldn’t have called it more than passing familiarity.
Yet, there was a tug in his chest that he couldn’t call anything else but magic. There was no other rational explanation for it. Something pulled on him, burned around him, called to him. And inexplicably, the sensation reminded him of Loki. Crisp like a winter morning, smouldering like old burnt wood, a hint of metal, and just a touch of warm light. Something he recognised, but could not name.
He was almost by the Navy Yard, when the rain got much worse. If he focused enough, he could hear the wind cutting wild waves into the East River. That’s when the tug got more insistent, clawing at him. Hurry, it shouted… run!
He tried to avoid the main streets, not that there were many people out and about in this neighbourhood. It had enough old buildings and broken street lights to make people think twice about taking a stroll, especially in this weather. There was only the sound of rain hitting the pavement and the noise of traffic in the distance. But if not for his enhanced hearing, he wouldn’t have caught the shouts.
‘What the fuck you mean he knocked him out?!’ a man yelled angrily. It sounded exactly like what Bucky was looking for, in a way. Trouble, basically. Loki always meant trouble.
‘There! Get the fuck up there!’ the guy shouted again, yelling at somebody.
Bucky finally found the street about half a minute later. There was a dark school yard on one side behind a metal fence, and a tall building across from it. A guy, probably the one that was shouting, was standing right in the middle of the street, gesturing at something on the building, two others behind him.
It only took Bucky a moment to notice the movement on the fire escape two floors up. There was some struggle, or a chase, he didn’t know. He barely stood there for three seconds when something fell from the metal staircase. A body too small to be an adult’s, a small aborted shout of fear, and Bucky was moving before the body hit the pavement.
He was mostly on auto-pilot, not that these guys required much of his expertise.
‘Who the fu--…?!’ one of the men exclaimed when Bucky was suddenly right next to them, but he didn’t really have much time to say anything else.
They were not really a priority, they were just in the way. The first two did not see him coming, so they hit the ground smoothly, one punch, one kick. The third one tried to put up a fight, but Bucky grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back with ease. The man shouted in pain, then in alarm, when Bucky shoved him aside. He hit the pavement hard, and hopefully had enough sense to stay down.
Bucky now saw the body more clearly, and it really was a kid. The small chest was still rising and falling quickly, but he needed help. Bucky had a flash of memory from times long gone, about a very different alley in New York.
He heard the click of a gun and he turned and lifted his arm to block the bullet without second thought. The guy who tried to shoot him was the one he kneed in the stomach. The one that was yelling before. Clearly, Bucky should’ve hit him a lot harder.
He was now staring at Bucky with widened eyes over the barrel of the gun, shocked that the man he just shot was still standing, like nothing happened. He could’ve killed them… it would’ve been easy. He was armed. All of them, including the guy still up on the fire escape, could be dead in under twenty seconds.
But they were not his priority. No, that was the small pained moan that reached his ears from behind him. Bucky also he didn’t need a trail of bodies causing him trouble right now. He needed to get the kid out of here, preferably before anyone else showed up… like the police.
The guy got over his shock and pulled the trigger again. Bucky shifted his arm to block the bullet that was clearly aimed at his head, then closed in on the man in two long strides. He grabbed the gun and the guy’s hand, then closed his metal fingers tightly. The man yelled in pain as two of his fingers snapped, his flesh digging into the metal of the gun, his blood staining Bucky’s fingers.
‘If you want to keep breathing, then get out of here,’ Bucky warned. ‘Now.’
‘Yes, all right, yes!!’ the man hastily promised, face scrunched up in pain as he tried to pull his hand away from Bucky’s immovable grip.
‘Please yes, we’re leaving… please goddammit,’ he pleaded then, and only then did Bucky loosen his grip… he kept the gun though.
He turned his back on them, and sure enough, they were running. Bucky will remember their faces.
Bucky hurried over to the boy to check him over. There was blood staining his shoulder, he could see that even with the amount of rainwater soaked into his clothes. He was unconscious, but his eyelids were fluttering, like he was trying hard to wake up.
‘Hey, you’re fine,’ Bucky said to him, even though he knew the boy probably couldn’t hear him. He reached out to cradle his head, to check his skull and neck for any injuries. As soon as his metal fingers touched the pale skin of the boy’s cheek, the little rune on the back of his metal hand lit up with a small soft glow.
Bucky stared at the boy’s face again. That tug, that little whisper, it told him he was right.
‘Took you long enough,’ he commented. A backpack was squished under the kid, still on his back, so Bucky quickly moved it while he checked whether anything was broken, if he could move him.
Green eyes finally popped open just after Bucky checked the vertebrae in his neck and his skull.
‘Wha… what?’ he mumbled.
‘I got here just in time, huh?’ Bucky said. ‘You’ll be fine, relax.’
That only got him two heavy blinks, then the boy was out again.
‘You really are a pain in the ass,’ Bucky said as he scooped him up from the ground and grabbed his backpack. He was incredibly light, which felt wrong for several reasons. Loki’s always been larger than life, so this was just surreal.
‘But how can you be so sure?’ Steve asked for the fourth time. He kept his voice low, even though they moved over to the kitchen. Loki fell asleep on the couch again. Bucky planned to wake him up within the hour, since he probably had a concussion. A real bed would have been better for him than the sofa… or a hospital bed, but Bucky was a little reluctant.
‘Look, I didn’t just go wandering around the city for no reason,’ Bucky told him. He lifted his metal hand. The little rune was almost impossible to spot right now, and the glowing stopped, but Steve understood. ‘He was in trouble. He must’ve tapped into his magic… maybe just instinctively. I know it’s him.’
‘He looks human to me,’ Steve insisted. ‘I don’t think Loki would bruise this easily.’
Bucky gave him a look. ‘He fell off a building, two floors up. If he were a normal kid, he would’ve cracked his skull, he only has a little scratch and bruised ribs.’
‘You said he got knocked around a bit!’ Bucky wasn’t sure whether Steve was horrified or just shocked… maybe both. ‘We need to get him to a hospital. Right now!’
‘Maybe he’s Loki, maybe he’s not, but I don’t want to take chances with a kid’s life, all right?’
He had a point there.
‘He remembers me,’ Bucky offered. ‘I never told him my name, he recognised me.’
‘Still needs a doctor.’
‘We could take him to Stark’s,’ Bucky said then.
‘Why are you so against hospitals?’ Steve asked. Bucky thought that was obvious.
‘Because if he looks less human on the inside than on the outside, there will be questions. And your face will be plastered all over the news if you march into a hospital with some kid.’
Steve made a face, but at least Bucky didn’t need to elaborate on why a hospital would be bad… or at least risky.
‘I’ll give Tony a call,’ Steve said. ‘And you should wake him up, in case he really does have a concussion.’
Bucky just gave him a nod and walked back to the living room.
‘Do you have a doctor you can contact this late?’ Steve asked quietly on the phone. Bucky couldn’t hear Stark’s response and he didn’t try either.
‘Yeah, but it’s not me or Bucky,’ Steve clarified. ‘But we need a doctor who’s not going to ring the press or run off with possibly-alien blood.’
Stark’s reaction must’ve been pretty dramatic, Bucky imagined.
‘It… might be Loki-related,’ Steve said then.
Loki stirred on the couch, so Bucky sat down on the coffee table to be in his line of sight. Bucky’s hair was still damp from the rain, he didn’t bother drying it, just tucked it behind his ears to get it out of his face.
‘Let me know if you feel like throwing up,’ he told him.
‘I’m fine,’ the boy scowled. And oh boy, it was a familiar scowl. It almost made Bucky snort, because there was nothing at all intimidating about it right now. He caught himself staring at him again. After he noticed the similarities, he couldn’t stop seeing them, the eyes, the nose, the shape of his jaw… it was undoubtedly him.
‘You’re acting very odd, you know that, right?’ the kid asked.
Bucky lifted an eyebrow.
‘I’ll tell you later why it’s funny that you said that,’ he told him.
Steve’s phone rang again, which made both Bucky and Loki turn and stare at him. Steve gave them a weird looking smile and backed out of the living room.
Then he was back in a sec.
‘It’s Benny… Benny Rogers,’ he said, offering the phone. ‘The--’
‘The nurse with the neck tattoo,’ Bucky said. He worked for Stark, he was there when they got back to New York after the mess with Chthon and the Darkholders. He was remarkably immune to super-human nonsense… and Bucky’s glower.
‘Yes, he wants to go over some things,’ Steve told him. ‘I’ll grab us a few things in the meantime.’
Bucky took the phone. ‘You have questions,’ he said.
‘Yes, hello,’ the nurse greeted, nonplussed by Bucky again. He didn’t sound nervous either, which was another thing Bucky liked about him. ‘Mr. Stark said there is someone in need of medical assistance, but he didn’t ask you for details. I want to know how serious the situation is. Can you answer a few questions, or pass over the phone?’
‘Sure. It’s a boy, he’s…’ Bucky thought about it. Loki was at least 4 feet right now, maybe a bit taller, even if he was on the slender side. ‘He’s maybe eight years old or nine, it’s hard to tell.’
‘What happened to him?’
‘He was attacked,’ Bucky said plainly. ‘There’s a shoulder wound, but it was nothing serious, we’ve seen to it. Doesn’t need stitches. One of his ribs might be bruised, but not broken. He fell from quite a height, so a concussion is possible.’
‘Second floor, and yes, his spine is fine.’
The nurse didn’t sound shocked, but then again, he was a nurse. He just started shooting off questions.
‘All right, are there any visible head wounds?’
‘Just scratches, nothing looks too bad.’
‘Is he conscious?’
‘He was out after the fall, but he’s up now. He doesn’t look nauseous or dizzy, just… dazed I guess, or just really tired.’
Loki gave him an annoyed look, which was also very familiar, but Bucky ignored him. The kid mostly just looked confused, but Bucky didn’t think that was due to any head trauma. If he really didn’t remember, then there was a lot for him to be confused about. He seemed to remember Bucky, but he obviously didn’t know how.
Bucky looked questioningly at the boy, who stared back at him.
‘I’m fine,’ he said with a stubborn look. Right.
‘I think so,’ Bucky said. He noticed him squinting, even though the lights were not too bright.
‘Is he breathing okay?’ Benny asked. ‘Any coughing or tightness around the chest?’
‘His breathing is fine,’ Bucky confirmed.
‘Any abdominal pain?’
‘Hard to say with the ribs, I don’t think so.’
‘Is his skin purple anywhere?’
‘Small bruises,’ Bucky said. ‘Most of them are red, not purple.’
‘Pain anywhere else in the body?’ Benny asked next.
‘Does it hurt anywhere else?’ Bucky asked, looking at Loki again, who didn’t say anything. Bucky tried to convey with his face alone how ridiculous he was right now. He must’ve succeeded, because he got an answer.
‘I just hit my knees,’ Loki said finally. ‘It’s fine. I can walk.’
‘He hit his knees,’ Bucky repeated. ‘He says he can walk.’ He put a lot of doubt in his tone at the second part, which earned him another scowl.
‘Look, I hate to say it, but I think you know you should have taken him to an emergency room after a fall like that,’ Benny said. ‘I mean, he might not have internal bleeding, but I can’t exactly say for sure over the phone.’
‘That’s where this gets a bit more complicated,’ Bucky told him.
‘Mr. Stark said something about aliens?’ Benny said with a questioning tilt in his voice.
‘Look,’ Bucky wanted to keep this brief. ‘Steve wants him checked out, because he might be worse off than he looks like, but I’ve seen blunt trauma before and he doesn’t look hurt. I’m not even convinced he actually has a concussion.’
He knew exactly how a normal human of comparable size should look like after a fall like this… he didn’t like to remember the details of why he knew that.
‘I am fine,’ the kid told him again.
‘Right, okay,’ Benny sighed on the phone. ‘From what you told me, it will be fine to move him again, but we have to examine him. If there’s any internal bleeding, he might not feel it right away.’
‘Sounds good to me.’
‘Mr. Stark will be there in a few minutes,’ Benny said. ‘I’ll ring Dr Karim and get things ready for you over here. She should be here by the time you get to the tower.’
‘Thanks,’ Bucky remembered to say.
‘Don’t mention it,’ the nurse said before he hung up.
Bucky put the phone down on the coffee table next to him, then just looked at the kid again.
‘I don’t understand what’s happening,’ Loki said.
‘I’m your friend, okay?’ Bucky told him. ‘You were in trouble, so I helped you.’
‘But how did you know?’
Bucky decided to change strategy.
‘I’ll make you a deal,’ he said. ‘Tony will be here in a minute to give us a ride to the tower…’
‘What tower?’ the boy questioned.
‘You mean… Iron Man?’ he looked a lot more shocked than he did when he recognised Steve.
‘Yes, Iron Man… saw him on TV too?’
It was Loki’s turn to stare at Bucky.
‘This is really… really strange.’
Bucky huffed out a small laugh.
‘Yep, and it’s going to get stranger, believe me.’
The boy just looked thoughtful at that.
‘So, what’s the deal?’
‘Med eval first, and when the Doc says you’re fine, then we can do the whole twenty questions game.’
‘Just twenty questions?’
‘As many questions as you have,’ Bucky shrugged. ‘Trust me, I know you don’t like those holes in your memory.’
Bucky wouldn’t say Loki relaxed after that, but at least he didn’t look like he was still looking for escape routes. Of course, Bucky didn’t miss the way he was still clutching his overstuffed backpack with one hand. That was eerily familiar as well, but it didn’t remind him of the old Loki, but his own past. He couldn’t trust anyone or anything after Hydra, he was always ready to run, his whole life in one backpack. The kid looked small curled up on the couch like this, a little lost too maybe. More curious than trusting, but Bucky would take it.
The kid was persistent and refused to be picked up from the sofa initially, despite looking dead on his feet. Bucky was sure that he did not sleep much or at all in recent days. There was no point arguing with him, so he just he kept close while the kid got ready. He kept Steve’s t-shirt on, which he was swimming in, and refused to give his bag to Bucky either.
He was barely out of the living room when he swayed on his feet, his knees buckling. Bucky caught him before he could hit the floor and picked him up, settling him securely on his hip.
‘Stubborn little bastard,’ Bucky grumbled quietly. The damn kid was too light, Bucky noted again. Steve picked up the dropped backpack and led the way outside.
Stark’s car pulled up less than a minute after they stepped out onto the street.
Steve took the front seat next to Tony after tossing Loki’s and his own bag in the trunk, while Bucky laid Loki down on the backseat and got in after him. Tony turned around in his seat to stare at them for a moment.
‘Now here’s a surprise,’ he said. ‘But there’s a lot less blood than I expected.’
Bucky just gave him a look.
‘Okay… so he’s…’ Tony gestured vaguely at the kid and glanced questioningly at Steve.
‘Can you drive and talk at the same time?’ Bucky asked.
‘Fine,’ Tony huffed and turned back around to put the car back in gear. ‘By the way, this sounded like a much bigger emergency on the phone.’
‘We just want to make sure he’s okay,’ Steve told him.
‘About that, who is he again?’ Tony asked. ‘Not that I’m opposed to random acts of heroism in the middle of the night.’
‘Loki,’ Bucky said plainly. There was a pause.
‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ Tony commented, looking at them both in the rear-view mirror. He didn’t look nearly as shocked as Bucky would’ve expected, but Stark always knew how to roll with the punches. ‘You’re sure?’
‘He remembers me,’ Bucky cut in before Steve could say a thing.
‘Yes, we are reasonably sure,’ Steve relented.
‘Right, in that case, I get your hospital concern now,’ Tony told them. ‘Where’d you find him?’
‘Irishtown,’ Bucky said curtly.
‘What in the world was he doing there?’ Steve asked, turning a bit around again.
‘Beats me,’ Bucky shrugged. He still had no idea what Loki was doing over there, so close to the Navy Yard. He had to ask him later… about those men too.
‘So, I guess you also don’t know how he ended up in New York in the first place,’ Stark guessed.
‘Or how long he’s been here,’ Steve nodded.
‘I’m actually more interested in why he’s pint-sized,’ Stark continued. ‘Is this the same resurrection thing as before? I mean, he did look like a woman at one point, we all remember that, right?’
‘No, it’s different,’ Bucky said. ‘He was sometimes confused when he woke up, but he always remembered who he was.’
But then his death was different too. Last they saw him, he was stuck in a destroyed world, on the precipice of an endless void, chained to a demon god. There was no body left either; he was just gone. Gaea told Steve that he was not alive, but he still existed, whatever that meant… and now he was back.
‘Right… this doesn’t smell like trouble at all,’ Stark commented wryly.
‘Regardless, he needs help,’ Steve said firmly.
‘That is blatantly obvious,’ Tony agreed, glancing in the rear-view mirror again.
Dr Karim was just as polite and efficient as Bucky remembered her to be. Steve thanked her kindly for helping this late, but she just smiled then ushered them all out of the room while Benny settled Loki in a bed.
Stark vanished swiftly after a minute, talking rapidly to HELEN about several protocols. He was probably upping his security with Loki and Bucky in the building. Smart man.
Bucky just leaned to the wall to stare at the closed milk-coloured glass door and waited with his arms crossed. He had no intention of going anywhere. Steve stayed with him. They did not talk at all, but the silence was comforting, just like the warmth of Steve’s body so close to his own, and the sound of his breathing. It relaxed him.
It only took about thirty minutes for the door to slide open again. Dr Karim didn’t look too grim, which was a good sign.
‘Right, the injuries are a lot more superficial than what I expected from Benny’s summary,’ she said. ‘Scrapes and bruises mostly, and his ribs are definitely all okay too.’
‘He kept passing out,’ Bucky pointed out.
‘Not due to trauma,’ the doctor said. ‘Exhaustion, possibly dehydration. I’d wager malnutrition as well, but the blood test is still running. I can’t determine his exact age, but he is definitely underweight for his height. We put him on IV to rehydrate him, and to get some vitamins and minerals in him.’
‘I think he might’ve been on the streets,’ Bucky interjected. The clothes, the bag… there were many signs.
‘Yes, that seems likely,’ Dr Karim nodded.
‘And did you notice anything… you know, unusual about him?’ Steve asked.
‘Well, the shoulder wound seemed rather mild. You either went overboard with the bandages or he heals rather quickly.’
‘It was a knife cut,’ Bucky said. ‘Not deep enough for stitches, but long.’
‘You also told Benny that he fell from a great height,’ Dr Karim said. ‘But if I had not known, I wouldn’t have been able to tell. Still, at first glance there is nothing out of the ordinary about him.’
Yes, but considering everything, that was obviously not the case.
‘Once Benny’s done, you are welcome to go in, if you’d like, but he’s most likely going to be asleep for a while. He needs to eat when he wakes up, but Benny will have everything sorted.’
‘Yeah, thanks for all this,’ Steve thanked her again.
‘It’s what I’m here for,’ she smiled. It looked honest. ‘I’ll be back once I have the blood test results.’
They both waited silently as she walked away, and then just stood there for another few moments.
‘Well, this was quite a night,’ Steve broke the silence.
‘And it’s hardly over, but go to sleep if you want,’ Bucky said.
‘I’m good,’ Steve shrugged.
They stood in silence for another few moments. Something nagged at Bucky’s brain and he had to say something.
‘Hey… sorry for not calling you.’
Steve smiled. ‘It’s all right…’
He could picture Steve sitting on the sofa, trying to call him and text him, getting stressed when he got no answer. He felt real shitty about it now that the insistent tug in his chest quieted down.
‘I did, but it was an emergency, so I get it.’ He gave Bucky a smile again and bumped his shoulder with his own, like a big softie. Damn, but Bucky loved this man. ‘Make it up to me later?’
Bucky smiled back at him. Oh, he most certainly would.
Tony left Steve and Barnes alone while the kid slept; he had better things to do. He had no plans to go back to sleep, but at least he was well used to all-nighters. Pepper might’ve been the CEO of Stark Industries, but Tony still has a ton of projects from R&D to supervise, and his own projects to work on… plus everything Avengers-related. He drank enough coffee that would have woken up a dead horse, then buried himself in his work.
HELEN’s updates about what was happening in his tower registered in his mind, but didn’t distract him from his work.
Sometime after the sun came up, HELEN told him that she updated Vision and the twins about the current situation. She also inquired whether Tony wanted to inform the rest of the Avengers. Tony told her that it could wait until they knew more about what was going on. There was no reason to ring the alarms just yet.
Breakfast mysteriously appeared on his workbench, but HELEN was silent about how it got there, so it was probably Pietro. He was often the accomplice when it came to his cup being refilled with either coffee or tea, or food appearing in his workspace. He was a good kid. Sometimes Tony didn’t even catch Pietro’s signature blue trail. He swore the kid was getting faster somehow.
Sometime around midday he decided to take a break. He went over the doctor’s report about the boy while he took the elevator down to medical.
To be honest, Tony wasn’t sure what to make of his new unexpected house guest. The name Loki usually meant some very specific things, namely chaos and destruction, snide remarks, and family drama a mountain-high. Yet, when he looked at the boy passed out on the bed, the usual definitions of the word “Loki” did not come to mind.
‘Rogers?’ he asked.
‘Went up to grab some food,’ Barnes said. He was casually sitting on the sofa in the room. Well, as casual as Barnes ever was in the tower.
‘Kid’s slightly malnourished,’ Tony said, and handed the tablet to Barnes. ‘Nothing too severe. No sickness, no infections, yadda yadda…’
He must’ve gotten better at reading Barnes than he realised, because he knew exactly what he meant.
‘And that’s it. The Doc only wanted to check his health, not his DNA. His blood’s red and looks like human blood at first glance, but you know… underage patient, ethics, that sort of thing. She did the necessary checks. I told her we’ll try to shout at the sky for big brother.’
Barnes huffed, and yeah, that’s exactly how Tony felt about it too. They had no sure-fire way to contact Thor. The best they could hope for was that someone in Asgard was watching and listening. It was less than ideal.
‘I’m running a search too, but I doubt he will be in any system,’ Tony added. ‘Still, if he’s been around for a while, there might be a trace of him somewhere.’
New York was a big place and probably nobody really noticed one random kid, even if he showed up out of nowhere. Still, it was best to be thorough.
‘I can tell you what the men that were chasing him looked like,’ Barnes said. ‘Guys like that probably have a criminal record somewhere.’
Grown men who had no qualms about pulling a knife on an eight-year-old, then throwing him off a building… yes, there was bound to be something.
‘HELEN can throw together some facial composites,’ Tony said. He didn’t doubt Barnes would remember enough details to get some decent pictures. ‘Also, CCTV.’
‘Hudson Ave,’ Barnes supplied.
‘On it, boss,’ the AI confirmed.
When HELEN informed him that Loki was awake, the sun was already going down again. Tony felt like he really should’ve slept sometime during the day, but his brain kept running in circles. Yes, he also got some work done, but he kept going back to the damn medical report.
Barnes gave HELEN the required information for the facial composites a little while ago, so that search was going as well now. But again, it was a big city, so he wasn’t shocked that nothing turned up yet.
‘You didn’t sleep at all, did you?’ Wanda intercepted him as soon as he was out of his workshop.
‘Bull… what’s bothering you?’ she paused, tilting her head. ‘Is it the boy?’
‘You know who that boy is,’ Tony reminded her.
‘I don’t,’ she said, which finally made him stop. ‘He’s a boy… small and vulnerable. Loki was neither.’
Yes, he realised that the second he looked at him, bruised and limp on his car’s backseat, then again when he read the doctor’s assessment of his health.
‘And I think that’s all you can see too,’ Wanda continued. ‘Just a hurt boy. But why does that bother you?’
Tony sighed and started walking again. Sometimes he appreciated that Wanda wanted to be his friend, but she regularly refused to show her care through jokes, banter, and sarcasm… like a normal person.
‘I don’t think he’s a threat. Do you think that’s crazy?’ he finally asked. He should be more alert, he should feel wary, he should feel threatened. He expected certain thoughts and emotions to surface in him the second he heard Loki’s name, but none of them came now. It was unnerving how calm he was about all this.
She considered him for a moment.
‘I think you should do what feels right.’
‘Not helpful,’ Tony scowled. She gave him a wide smile.
‘Want me to go with you… see if I can see any threat?’
That was not a bad idea. Loki was magic, and Wanda understood magic more than any of them, save for Strange.
‘I also found something interesting,’ HELEN told him. ‘It is at least a 90% match.’
‘The second I’m not in my workshop,’ Tony rolled his eyes, then he got his phone out, because he knew HELEN would transfer everything to it right away.
Wanda stepped closer and Tony turned his phone a little to allow her to read the screen as well. That was… not what he expected.
‘Definitely interesting,’ Wanda hummed.
Steve was back, but he kept his distance from the bed, while Barnes was sitting on it, speaking to the kid. There was a tray over the boy’s lap with food and a big smoothie on it, probably a pound of fruit and other nutrients squeezed into it. Just what the doctor ordered.
The boy looked up when the door opened and then he just stared at Tony with big green eyes. His gaze shifted to Wanda for a moment, then settled right back on Tony immediately. It was a bit weird, but the kid didn’t look freaked out, so Tony tried to ignore it.
Before he could bring up what HELEN found Wanda strolled across the room to sit down on the bed across from Barnes.
‘Hi, I’m Wanda,’ she greeted.
There was a pause, then the kid finally looked away from Tony and grabbed his smoothie, giving Wanda a look.
‘Hi,’ he settled on in the end.
‘And what is your name then?’ Wanda asked.
‘Luke,’ the boy said.
‘Just because others decided to call you that, it doesn’t mean it’s your name,’ Barnes told him quietly.
‘It sounded good enough,’ the kid shrugged.
‘It’s still not your name, is it?’ Bucky asked in return. ‘And I think you know that.’
‘Well, you have a better one?’
‘Sure, you’re Loki.’
There was a moment of silence, then the kid sucked in a harsh breath.
‘That’s it,’ he said quietly, in a disbelieving whisper, then louder, shoving his tray away. Barnes grabbed it before anything could fall off it. ‘That’s it!’
He fell abruptly silent then, staring intently at nothing, maybe trying to remember something.
‘I don’t… I don’t get any of this,’ he said. Now he just sounded lost.
Barnes seemed to be contemplating how to continue, but Wanda beat him to it.
‘It might be very confusing right now, but we’re best equipped to help you figure this out. Does that sound all right?’
‘I suppose,’ the kid said dubiously, looking over to Barnes, who gave him a nod.
‘So,’ Tony walked a bit closer. The kid’s eyes immediately locked onto him again. ‘You feel up to answering a few questions?’
‘I thought I would be asking the questions,’ the boy said, looking back at Barnes again.
‘Those two things are not mutually exclusive,’ Barnes said.
‘But let’s start with this,’ Tony said. ‘Someone is looking for you, through official channels. So, I want you to tell me whether he has anything to do with the guys that will no doubt have nightmares about Barnes for quite a while.’
‘There’s an actual missing person report?’ Steve asked. Tony understood his surprise, this was the last thing he expected. He pulled out his phone and brought up the missing person report that was filed less than 24 hours ago. The description fit the kid perfectly, and now even the name “Luke” made sense.
‘Does the name Malcolm Ducasse ring any bells?’ Tony asked.
The kid groaned and leaned back on his pillows, crossing his arms.
‘I’d say yes,’ Barnes commented, standing up to put the tray on the floor. ‘Who is he?’
‘A bleeding heart who won’t mind his own business,’ the kid replied. ‘Ignore him.’
‘I can’t help but feel there’s a story here,’ Tony said.
‘Nothing for the Avengers to care about,’ The look he gave Tony was a lot less friendly this time. ‘So why am I here?’
‘You’re not just some street kid,’ Barnes said. ‘You probably know that.’
He did not talk like your average eight-year-old, didn’t really act like one either, but then again, Tony never did either, so that didn’t mean anything on its own.
‘You know me,’ the boy said. ‘I know you… somehow.’
‘We know who you used to be,’ Barnes said, which just made the kid frown again of course. ‘What do you remember?’
‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to remember.’
‘What’s your oldest memory then?’ Barnes asked.
‘Cold,’ Loki said. ‘Then the sun came up, between the buildings, it was all wet… then--’ He abruptly fell silent, his face closing off. He stared at Barnes for a moment, then glanced around the room, shooting quick furtive glances at all of them. His lips thinned as he thought about something, whatever it was, Tony doubted he would say it.
‘Were you looking for me?’ he asked quietly instead. ‘If you… if… if…’
He looked around again as he sucked in a deep breath, more guarded now, his eyes wide and shiny, his movements jerky. His fingers were white around the plastic cup with the half-drank smoothie in it. Tony knew that look. This was not going to work.
‘Hey Cap, Wanda, come with me for a sec, will you?’ he spoke up and immediately headed for the door. The both gave him a questioning look, but followed nonetheless. Barnes didn’t look away from the kid.
Tony sighed when the door closed behind them and rubbed his face, then turned to look at the other two.
‘He wasn’t going to talk with all of us in there,’ he told them. ‘Maybe Barnes alone can get more out of him.’
‘To be honest, I have a tough time reading him,’ Steve said. ‘But you’re probably right.’
‘So, what then?’ Wanda asked. ‘Should we find this man that’s looking for him?’
They way Loki reacted, this Malcolm guy could probably tell them a lot. Maybe not about the circumstances that brought the kid to New York, but the things that happened after. The kid had to have been here for at least a couple of weeks now, maybe longer. Hell, maybe he popped back as soon as that damn Serpent appeared. Who knew with magic?
‘I’ll check his background, but he’s probably not a threat,’ Tony said.
He did not intend to contact him yet, but they needed all information they could get their hands on to put this picture together.
‘The boy would have to stay here,’ Wanda said. ‘It’s a dangerous world out there for those that are… special. And those men probably did intend to kill him.’
Tony wouldn’t have been able to anticipate this just 24 hours ago. They were actually talking about needing to protect Loki. He should be used to the madness that was his life by now. He looked at Cap.
‘I guess you and Barnes are staying too?’ he asked.
Steve just looked blank for one second, then huffed.
‘Probably. If you don’t mind,’ he said.
Tony waved him off. ‘I have more space than I know what to do with.’
‘I’ll let Vision and Pietro know,’ Wanda said. ‘Just call if you need me for anything.’
‘Sure,’ Tony nodded.
‘And just so you know,’ she added. ‘I don’t think he’s a threat either. There is nothing else in there, only a boy.’
‘You read his mind?’ Steve asked.
‘No, I just looked at it,’ she told him. ‘I don’t know what he knows, or what he remembers, but we needed to know if only he was in that body.’
Tony… should’ve thought of that. They all saw what demons were capable of. Maybe Chthon was not going to be a problem again in their lifetime, but there were others. Hell, Tony regularly got nervous about the possibility of seeing Kierrok’s yellow eyes staring at him from a familiar face. Deal or no deal.
‘I think I’ll be leaving a message for Strange,’ he said. ‘You know, just in case.’
‘I would,’ Wanda agreed before she walked off.
Tony turned to Steve. ‘So, I guess you can just…’
‘Don’t tell me to rest or sleep,’ Steve cut him off. ‘Just give me something to do. I’ll help digging.’
Tony grinned. ‘You’ll regret saying that.’
‘The police database is a mess,’ Steve groaned. Tony smiled, but refrained from laughing at him.
‘Hey, you wanted to help,’ Tony pointed out.
Steve just huffed and kept scrolling through the results HELEN complied based on the descriptions Barnes provided. Tony was reading something infinitely more interesting about one Malcolm Ducasse. The man himself, interesting, but not ground-breaking. He used to be a social worker, then he fell off the wagon. Nothing happened in his personal life to explain it, but these things didn’t always happen for a reason. He had an arrest record; drugs, minor breaking and entering, some misdemeanours. He was not exactly a model citizen, but also not a dangerous criminal.
Then Tony read the rest of his story, and he realised that HELEN already had some of the information flagged for him, with good reason. The details were gruesome; murder, suicides, murder-suicides… mind control. HELEN flagged it, in case things really went out of control, but apparently the situation resolved itself before the AI could bring it to his attention.
Tony’s general rule about vigilantism was to keep his distance. There were things he could get involved in and throw around his weight, but street-level crime was not one of them. It would get messy extremely fast. The Avengers already got plenty of heat about getting involved when it came to terrorist organisations and big-game arms dealers.
Of course, when they were the only ones who stood a chance at stopping a threat, their involvement was looked at much more favourably. But stepping on the toes of the police force and the juridical system when it was not an end-of-the-world type of situation was inadvisable. Tony hated politics, but if they intended to keep doing what they did best, they had to follow at least some of the rules.
How the kid was connected to all this, he did not know, but he had several names he could look into now, starting with Mr. Ducasse.
Steve made a disgusted noise, so Tony glanced up.
‘I can’t believe some of these sentences… 1800 milligrams of cocaine, that’s barely more than half an ounce, why would they even use milligrams? That makes no sense!’
‘Because it sounds like a lot to your everyday citizen on jury duty,’ Tony answered. ‘As they rarely have any idea what the hell a milligram is, so they focus on 1800.’
‘It’s wrong,’ Steve said. His face grim, his voice hard and filled with absolute conviction.
‘Hey, if you want to publicly protest police misconduct, be my guest,’ Tony offered. ‘Might be a good hobby for you, attend some rallies and protests… standing up for the innocent. You might enjoy it more than punching demons and aliens. The media would go nuts.’
‘I have a feeling I should talk to one of your lawyers before I do that,’ Steve said, as he kept scrolling, frown still firmly on his face. ‘I wouldn’t want to make things worse.’
‘Wow, not charging in headfirst into something. I’m impressed. Barnes really is a good influence on you.’
Steve huffed out a laugh, but he was still mad, Tony could tell. He was probably ready to burst with righteous fury from the injustices he was reading about. Unfortunately, there were bound to be a few on Tony’s list, considering that two of the guys they were looking for in the police reports were black.
‘Want to hear about Ducasse?’ he asked.
‘No, but his name keeps popping up in relation to certain type of people,’ Tony said.
Steve glanced up.
‘What do you mean?’
‘The kind of trouble Loki is… people that are out of the ordinary. There’s plenty of them, actually, this is New York after all.’
‘Any idea why he’s looking for Loki?’
‘It says he knew the kid lived somewhere in his neighbourhood, with no guardians. He claims he was unable to get him to social services, but he tried multiple times. He noticed him missing and asked around the block, but no one saw him, so he decided to report it to the police.’
‘Does his story check out?’ Steve asked.
‘He did indeed contact social services,’ Tony confirmed. ‘And he did talk about the kid to the police before. It looks like he was trying to find out if anyone was looking for him.’
‘Loki did call him a bleeding heart,’ Steve noted. Yes, so the guy might just be a good Samaritan, trying to help a lost boy on the streets. Loki was obviously disinclined to accept his help. Tony had no idea why, maybe paranoia, or maybe something else. He kept wondering if remnants of the old Loki were still in the kid, even if they couldn’t see it.
He did remember Barnes, enough to consider him safe at least.
‘I don’t know what we’re going to do… about any of this,’ Steve said with a sigh.
Tony shrugged. ‘The way I see it; Thor will show up sooner or later, so we just have to keep the kid in one piece until then. He’s probably mostly self-sufficient, so it shouldn’t be that hard.’
He was laying the optimism on a bit too thick, but what else could he say? As Pepper liked to remind him; he was a grown man, and the rest of the people in the tower were also adults. They could handle a lot worse than one eight-year-old, even if it was Loki. Theoretically, it would be fine… just fine… probably.
Before Steve finally gave up he narrowed HELEN’s list down to a dozen guys that matched the descriptions of the men Barnes ran into. Tony called it a night soon after. His back was protesting like crazy about sitting around for so long. He needed rest, badly. His mind was still buzzing with questions, but he fell asleep relatively easily.
He didn’t expect HELEN to wake him the way she did. He groaned and turned around, trying to stretch without moving around too much. He didn’t feel like he slept enough, so the wake-up call was unwelcome, especially since it did not sound like an emergency.
‘Repeat that,’ he mumbled as he finally lifted his head from his pillow. It was still dark in his bedroom and he felt half asleep.
‘Sargent Barnes asked me to inform you that he is borrowing one of your cars for an errand.’
Right. Tony knew from experience that Barnes could get out of the tower without alerting HELEN, so the fact that he told Tony what he was doing was more polite than expected. He could’ve asked before he took the car, but what the hell, baby steps.
‘Okay… how’s the kid?’
‘Loki accompanied him on this errand.’
That woke him up.
‘Does he have a phone on him?’ Tony asked. ‘Call him.’
‘Certainly,’ HELEN confirmed. There was a bit of silence, so Tony got out of bed while rubbing his eyes. The tint on the windows shifted, allowing just a bit of light in. The digital display lit up on the glass right after, showing the time and weather outside. 7:02, dear god, he planned to sleep more.
The line connected.
‘What?’ Barnes answered.
‘I hope you’re not driving while holding a phone,’ Tony told him, for whatever reason. He was tired, sue him.
‘It’s your car, you know I didn’t need to take the damn phone out of my pocket.’
Tony was surprised he actually answered. Also, he was right.
‘So, hey… I thought we agreed that the kid had to stay here,’ Tony said.
‘I didn’t agree to anything like that,’ Barnes said. ‘And something needs looking into.’
‘Okay, you remember that medical report I showed you yesterday?’ Tony asked.
Sure, the kid didn’t need constant medical supervision, but considering the state he was in…
‘Benny said he’s fine,’ Barnes said. ‘He needs to eat, so he will eat, and this is time sensitive.’
All right, Tony was surprised again. Barnes actually spoke to Benny. Maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised. He had a very specific picture of Barnes in his head, which was apparently not as accurate as Tony thought it was. He knew better than this, it was time to re-evaluate for sure.
Moreover, whatever information came out of Loki, if Barnes thought it was time sensitive, it probably was.
‘This errand of yours. Is it going to involve anything illegal?’
‘I don’t expect it to,’ Barnes said.
‘That’s good to hear,’ Tony told him. ‘Should I bother asking what you’re going to do?’
The answer didn’t come from Barnes, but from a small annoyed voice a little further away.
‘Easy, we’re helping you, remember?’ Tony said.
‘If I wanted to tell you, I would have told you!’ said Loki. There was a shuffling noise and then silence.
‘They have disconnected the call,’ HELEN informed him. ‘Would you like me to call back?’
‘No, that’s fine.’
Ugh... it was time for some coffee. The kid was obviously testy about this. So, he just had to trust Barnes to handle it, and wait to hear back from them. And hopefully, afterwards, they would explain what the hell was going on.
Huh… almost like old times, just with fewer demons this time… probably.
‘So, if I was an adult when I died, shouldn’t I be an adult still… or a baby?’ Loki asked.
Bucky kept his promise and answered all questions he could, keeping out most of the gruesome details, but not skipping any of the important parts. But no matter how weird his explanations got, the kid just kept asking more questions. He acted more surprised when he saw Steve and Stark for the first time, than when he heard that he apparently died and came back to life. He just nodded when Bucky told him that he was from another world, hummed thoughtfully when he was told that he used to be a sorcerer or mage of sorts.
‘Beats me,’ Bucky shrugged, slowing down when they reached a red light. ‘Time works differently in other places, maybe you were a new-born, just not here on Earth.’
‘All right, that makes sense,’ Loki said.
‘Really?’ Bucky was not so sure, magic was still not his forte.
‘Ehhh… maybe? I don’t remember it, so maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it was bad, and it’s better that I don’t remember.’
There was some truth in that, Bucky had to admit.
‘Dr Karim said I have a brother,’ he said quietly then.
‘You heard that, huh?’
Bucky wasn’t sure whether he did or not, but he certainly didn’t ask about it until now.
‘I did… I thought… he might show up?’
That was definitely a question.
‘He’s not on the planet, and we can’t just call him,’ Bucky told him. ‘But if I had to guess, he will be here as soon as he hears about you. He’s predictable like that.’
‘I don’t remember having a brother,’ Loki said, thoughtful. ‘But it sounds right, like when you said my name. I just can’t picture him.’
‘You didn’t remember me either,’ Bucky told him. ‘But you recognised me. Maybe your brain just needs triggers.’
‘Stark could probably dig up some pictures or a video of him.’
‘No,’ Loki shook his head. ‘I’ll wait… if he’s going to come.’
Bucky didn’t have much to say to that. He knew things between the brothers were complicated, but Thor was not a shitty guy, so Bucky didn’t really feel the need to worry about what would happen when he showed up.
‘You have two brothers actually,’ he added. ‘But I never met the younger one. He was a more recent addition, from what I gathered.’
Loki just nodded thoughtfully, probably wrecking his brain trying to remember. But he didn’t stay silent for long of course.
‘If I was an alien, am I an alien now too?’ came the next question.
‘Maybe,’ Bucky told him. ‘You’re tougher than kids usually are, that’s for sure.’
The kid made a thoughtful noise at that.
‘I noticed that,’ he said. He fidgeted a little.
‘You’re going the wrong way, by the way.’
‘No, we’re making a detour.’
‘I told you--’
‘Yes, it’s urgent, I get that, but if you look like I kidnapped you, that’s going to draw attention. Trust me, it’s best if we stay under the radar.’
‘We’ll stop for a change of clothes, to blend in. In and out, twenty minutes tops.’
He already noticed, that having a good explanation why something was necessary worked well with the kid. It was not very different from the way things used to be when he first met Loki. He always needed to know the reason. He never took anyone’s word, not even Leah’s for a long while. Sure enough, he didn’t argue now either.
His own clothes were fine, relatively new, and nondescript. The weather was maybe not cold enough yet to justify the gloves he was wearing, but if needed, he could also pass off his arm as a less advanced prosthetic. People tended to ask fewer questions when they pegged him for a vet, so that was a plus. The kid on the other hand looked, well… homeless. He cleaned up before they left, but the oversized t-shirt and torn trousers might ring some alarm bells in a more public space.
There were a lot of smaller stores they could go to, a place not too busy, and preferably not stuffed full of security cameras.
‘You do this a lot, don’t you?’ Loki asked.
‘Buying clothes for someone? Not in recent memory.’
The kid rolled his eyes.
‘Sneaking around… blending in. All of that.’
Bucky thought about his answer for a moment. His past was a bit too complicated to get into right now.
‘I’ve got enemies, and so do you.’
‘Yes, I got stabbed.’
‘It was just a cut, it’s healed, you can barely see it now.’
‘Lightly stabbed,’ the kid insisted.
Why was he arguing with him? He let it go.
It was early enough that there were still a few parking spaces left here and there, so Bucky stopped as soon as he spotted one, even if it was two corners away from where they needed to go.
‘Leave the bag,’ he told the kid when he was turning around in his seat. Loki refused to leave his backpack at the tower and Bucky let him bring it along.
‘But what if the car gets stolen? It’s a really nice car.’
Yes, it was. Another reason why he didn’t plan to drive it all the way to Hell’s Kitchen.
‘It’s Stark’s car. It can probably go back home on its own if it gets stolen.’
The kid looked at a car interior again, with a bit more wonder in his eyes this time, then he left the bag where it was on the backseat and got out. Bucky kept his steps short and slower than normal, so the kid could keep up with him.
‘Tell me more about this friend of yours,’ Bucky prompted. He agreed to this trip without asking too many questions, because he knew this was his chance to learn more about what the hell happened to Loki recently, without needing to pull the information out of the kid.
‘I just want to make sure she’s okay,’ Loki told him. That’s what he told him before. Bucky needed more.
‘Why wouldn’t she be?’
‘Because that asshole that calls himself her boyfriend is why I got stabbed.’
Bucky almost reflexively opened his mouth to tell him to watch his language, but thought better of it. Loki wasn’t really eight… well, he both was and wasn’t. Bucky still wasn’t entirely sure how to act around him. He could figure it out later. ‘Was he one of the guys chasing you?’
‘No, those were the people he got angry, I just shouldn’t have been there.’
‘Wait,’ Bucky stopped them and pulled the kid to the side, closer to the buildings. He glanced around to make sure nobody could hear them. ‘What happened to this guy?’
‘Oh, I think he’s probably dead,’ Loki said easily. ‘I didn’t stay long enough to make sure.’
‘You could’ve opened with that. Why?’
‘I don’t know. The reason why people like that usually get killed,’ Loki shrugged. ‘Maybe he owned them money, or he stole something, or he just made them mad, because he was an asshole.’
‘Why were you there?’
‘Gigi lets me sleep on her couch, so that’s what I was doing.’
‘Gigi’s your friend?’ Bucky asked.
‘Yes, sort of, she’s nice.’
‘Right, was she there too?’
‘No, she works at nights,’ Loki said. ‘I don’t think they would’ve waited for her to get home, but…’
‘They chased you down,’ Bucky pointed out.
‘Well, I did see them murder a guy.’
There was more to this, Bucky could tell. ‘And?’
‘And I also heard them talking before they got on with the murdering.’
That explained a few things. Still, it’s been more than an entire day, if anything happened to the girl after those men ran away from Bucky, there was nothing they could do about it now. Loki could’ve told him all this yesterday, but Bucky wasn’t surprised he didn’t. He probably found it hard to trust anyone.
‘All right, let’s make this quick.’
Bucky led him to this little secluded store that looked like it sold kid’s clothes. He’s never been inside before, but the store front looked right.
The woman behind the counter perked up with a smile when they walked in and moved to come around to greet them. Bucky would’ve preferred someone who ignored them. If she talked to them, she would remember them better.
‘Good morning!’ she called as she walked towards them. Bucky did his best to make his expression more “friendly”, but he knew he didn’t always succeed with strangers.
He was mildly shocked when Loki grabbed hold of his hand and tugged him forward, giving the woman a loud cheerful, ‘Hi!’
He looked excited and bouncy all of a sudden as he smiled up at her. Bucky schooled his face and stayed silent.
‘The airport lost all of my clothes,’ Loki told her dramatically. ‘So, I get to have new ones!’
The lady looked down at the oversized t-shirt Loki was wearing under his worn jacket and she immediately seemed to put a perfectly reasonable story together in her head. People tended to do that, if you gave them some good hints they filled out the blanks with a logical explanation.
‘Oh, that is just awful,’ she said. ‘But it’s like an early Christmas for you too, right?’ She sounded like she was talking to a toddler. Then she looked up at Bucky again. ‘Do you need any help picking things out?’
‘I know my size,’ Loki said and practically ran away, deeper into the store.
‘Uh, we’re fine, thanks,’ Bucky told her.
‘Well, let me know if you need me for anything,’ she smiled as Bucky walked away from her.
He found Loki at the far end of the store, digging through some jumpers. He already dropped the air of cheerfulness that he exuded just moments before.
‘Good cover,’ he commented.
‘You told me we needed to blend in,’ the kid said. Which was true, so Bucky let him be.
‘Grab like three from everything, and then we can go.’
Bucky grabbed a cap for himself and tucked it under his arm, then got out his phone while Loki walked around grabbing things for himself. He texted Steve just to check in with him. He still felt guilty about vanishing on him the other night.
“Don’t forget to eat something.” Steve texted back, it made Bucky smile.
Steve wasn’t too happy that Bucky wanted to take off on his own with the kid, but he let the matter go once Bucky convinced him that he would draw too much attention. Steve might have been adept at covert ops, but he was the worst at not sticking out in a crowd. Steve grumbled, but agreed.
Bucky’s estimate was correct. They were done in under twenty minutes even after making the trip back to the car to drop everything off. Loki changed at the store, and Bucky was satisfied that he wouldn’t draw any attention now. He didn’t need to be told what “sensible” clothing was either, which was a relief. No bright colours, or pattern that was easy to spot and recognise, something thick enough for the weather, but nothing too constricting. He shouldn’t have been surprised, the kid did survive on his own in New York for quite a while.
The subway had too many people, so Bucky decided to hail a cab instead. Loki didn’t even question why they were not taking the car, he probably figured it out on his own. He started fidgeting with the sleeve of his jacket as they got closer, pulling on the cuffs. He was trying to hide it, but Bucky was good at spotting nervous ticks. Loki’s hands have always been a tell, he liked to fiddle with his clothes or a weapon, or twist his fingers, when he forgot to clasp his hands together.
They got out a block away just to be on the safe side, and continued on foot. Bucky’s never been to Hell’s Kitchen much, especially not in this century, so he wasn’t familiar with the neighbourhood, but Loki knew where he was going.
‘If those guys are around…’ Loki started. Bucky doubted they would be.
‘I can handle them,’ Bucky told him. ‘Relax.’
‘But what if--’
Bucky grabbed his shoulder and stopped him. It took the kid a moment to spot what Bucky noticed. Yellow police line. He couldn’t see any police cars from where they were standing, but there had to be some around.
‘Oh no,’ Loki spoke quietly.
‘You did say they probably killed that guy,’ Bucky said. ‘That usually means a body. Especially if they all ran off after you and just left him there.’
Or they didn’t plan to hide the body in the first place. Plus, Bucky did break that one man’s fingers, so maybe going back for the body was not a priority.
‘Can we still go in? What are we going to do?’
Now he really sounded like a child, his tone a lot more uncertain. He was Loki, but he also wasn’t really. It made Bucky reluctant to let him out of his sight. Leaving him behind to investigate the building and Gigi’s apartment on his own was not an option.
‘Do you know anyone else around here who would have information?’ he asked. ‘Someone not in that building? Preferably someone you can trust?’
Loki stared at the building, then sighed… loudly.
Apparently, Thursday mornings this Malcolm guy was running some group thing in a diner nearby. Loki claimed he didn’t know anything more about it, but Bucky wasn’t sure that was the case. He didn’t push, it was irrelevant.
‘Anything else I need to know about this guy?’ he asked as he stared at the entrance.
‘He’s going to have a lot of questions,’ Loki said.
‘He might call the police.’
‘Because of you or because of me?’
Loki shrugged, ‘Both?’
He walked inside first, and looked around quickly. He noted the exit sign above the kitchen entrance, the bathroom doors, the lady behind the counter staring angrily at the cash machine. Then he quickly assessed the people inside. On the left there was a family towards the end by the window, a kid with two women, probably wives or girlfriends, then an older man at the counter drinking coffee, tapping aggressively on his tablet. On the left there was a middle-aged guy in a flannel shirt, eating a big breakfast with vigour, and then in a more secluded corner there was group of people, talking quietly.
Almost none of them looked up when the bell above the door rang, except for one of the moms, and two people from the group.
Bucky stepped further inside and let Loki in a moment later.
The young black guy from the group shot out from his chair at the sight of him, his eyes wide, so Bucky guessed he was Malcolm.
‘Luke! Shit, we’ve been looking everywhere! You’re okay!’ he called as he marched closer. His arms were stretched out, like he wanted to grab the kid, but Loki took a step back, almost plastering himself to Bucky’s side. Malcolm finally looked at Bucky at that, and gave him a frown.
‘Who are you?’ he asked.
‘Where’s Gigi?’ Loki interrupted. ‘Did they get her?’
Malcolm turned his attention back down at him. Now he obviously took the time to take a good look at Loki, checking him for injuries or any signs of distress. He used to be a social worker, Stark said, so he probably knew what to look out for.
‘So, you were there then,’ he said absently.
‘Where is she?’ Loki repeated.
The guy looked conflicted.
‘This isn’t really the place--’
‘Tell me!’ the kid insisted, his face firmly in a glower now, but Bucky could see the underlying worry.
‘We just want to know if the girl is all right,’ Bucky said, going for a reasonable tone. ‘We saw the police outside.’
Malcolm kept staring at Bucky, obviously not knowing what to make of him.
‘Malcolm!’ Loki raised his voice, demanding an answer. Several heads turned to stare at them, which prompted Malcolm to finally jerk his head towards one of the booths.
Bucky waited for Loki to sit down on the bench first on the inside. It put the kid by the window, but it made it easier for Bucky to stand up quicker.
Malcolm kept looking at Loki, his eyes sometimes flickering to Bucky, probably trying to decide if he should be reaching for his phone and dialling 911. There was not much Bucky could do about his suspicion, except act normal.
‘Stop it, Malcolm,’ Loki said. ‘He’s my friend.’
‘Oh, a friend like some of Gigi’s “friends”?’ Malcolm asked in return, sounding irritated. ‘I know you think you’ve got the whole world figured out, but you are a goddamn kid, and I don’t know who the hell he is!’
‘Just tell me where Gigi is!’ Loki insisted again, without answering.
‘She’s fine, okay? We got there in time,’ Malcolm finally told them.
‘In time?’ Bucky couldn’t help but ask. Malcolm’s eyes shifted to Loki, and he hesitated.
‘I know they killed Cole,’ Loki told him. ‘I saw it.’
Cole being Gigi’s so-called boyfriend. That explained the hesitance. Most people would be reluctant to talk about murder in front of a child, with good reason.
‘Shit,’ Malcolm cursed under his breath, then pinned Loki with an intense look. ‘I don’t care if I have to drag you kicking and screaming, you have to go somewhere safe! End of story! You can’t stay on the streets!’
Loki groaned, but Malcolm kept talking, not letting him interrupt.
‘Listen, I know Gigi told you a lot of horrible stuff about the system,’ he said. ‘The police and her foster parents, I get it. Listen to me, I get it! There are a lot of bad people out there, and you already met way more than you should have, but that doesn’t mean all of them are bad. I didn’t plan to just drop you off at a doorstep, you know.’
He was getting quite worked up about this. His desire to help, his frustration about not being able to, it all rang true. He looked like he was two seconds away from jumping up from his seat to try and grab the kid again.
‘I’m going to stay with James until my brother comes back,’ Loki declared, then he glanced up at Bucky for confirmation. Technically, they would probably all just stay with Stark, but Malcolm did not need to know that. He might’ve been genuine in his desire to help some kid he found on the streets, but he could still easily run to the nearest reporter at the mere mention of the Avengers.
Malcolm looked confused for a moment, then suspicious. Bucky decided that he had to do some adult-to-adult talking, because this guy was not going to take Loki’s word on anything. Plus, he needed more information.
‘Steve said we had to eat, so how about we do that?’ he asked. Loki looked at him like he was crazy for just a second, but then he came to some sort of decision and nodded.
‘Can I get whatever I want?’ he asked as Bucky reached for his wallet.
Bucky was suddenly unsure what the correct answer was. On one hand, this was Loki, and Bucky didn’t care what he ate, on the other hand, he was around eight right now, so maybe he couldn’t be trusted with food choices. Well, there was only one way to find out, at least for future reference.
‘Sure,’ he said, standing up to let Loki out, handing him some cash. ‘Just order me some eggs and bacon.’
Loki walked over to the counter and climbed up on one of the tall chairs without any further comments. He stayed close enough that Bucky could see him from the corner of his eye. Smart kid.
Bucky sat back down and looked at Malcolm.
‘Yes, he has a brother,’ he said. ‘No, he’s not in the country.’
‘I have a really hard time believing you,’ Malcolm said. ‘I looked at a lot of missing person ads, okay? Nobody was looking for him. My friend is a PI, and she’s good, she couldn’t find anything. And now you are suddenly here? Who are you?’
‘He wasn’t missing, he was presumed dead,’ Bucky said simply, which made some of Malcom’s anger dissipate and turn into surprise. It was a version of the truth in a way. Malcolm was obviously waiting for him to elaborate, but Bucky couldn’t give him a better answer.
‘What happened?’ he asked.
Bucky gave him a look. ‘I don’t know you either,’ he told him. Malcolm opened his mouth to retort, but thought better of it.
‘How long has he been here?’ Bucky asked him instead.
‘I’ve known him about five weeks now,’ Malcolm said. ‘But he must’ve been around longer than that,’ he sighed and rubbed his face. ‘I tried to take him to the police, but whenever I tried, he just vanished! I don’t know how! And when child services tried to find him at Gigi’s place, she just told them she never saw any boy, that she didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t want to get her in trouble by calling her a liar, she really didn’t need that.’
Bucky gathered as much, from the bits and pieces he heard about her.
‘She works nights, Luke said,’ Bucky prompted. He wasn’t sure whether Malcolm would answer.
‘She’s a dancer,’ he said. ‘It’s one of the better places, so she was safe in there, and we picked her up when she finished. She didn’t need to see… damn, it was a mess.’
Malcolm had to be there when the body was found then, the police wouldn’t have let him in afterwards.
‘What were you doing there?’ he asked. Now Malcolm gave him a look again.
‘I must’ve missed it when you showed me your badge,’ he said.
Bucky just spread his hands, didn’t push. Malcolm eyed his gloves for a moment.
‘Okay, you got at least a picture?’ he asked suddenly. ‘You know, family photo with Luke in it or something? To put my mind at ease.’
The guy was smart, and the way the world worked, with smartphones and social media, this would’ve been a perfectly reasonable request under normal circumstances, and an uncomplicated way for Bucky to prove his story. Obviously, there was nothing Bucky could show him.
He didn’t get the chance to dodge the question, because Loki interrupted them. Bucky was almost tempted to believe that his timing was deliberate. Bucky stood up again to let him sit on the inside.
‘So where is Gigi staying?’ he asked Malcolm.
‘My place,’ he answered. ‘My friend lives down the hall, so she will be safe there.’
‘The PI?’ Bucky asked.
‘She’s on the case, and so is the police,’ he paused to think something through. ‘Luke, if you saw what they did the other night…’
‘I am not going to the police,’ Loki told him with a firmness that would’ve been very uncharacteristic for a child his age. Malcolm didn’t seem surprised by his tone though.
‘Don’t you want them arrested?’ Malcolm asked.
‘For killing Cole?’ Loki asked in return, then snorted. ‘What do I care?’
‘They weren’t there just to kill him,’ Malcolm said. He obviously forgot about his earlier apprehension of talking about this in front of a kid. Loki not acting like a kid probably had something to do with that. ‘They were looking for something. They tore the whole place apart, and they might go after Gigi if they figure out where she is.’
Loki’s eyes flickered to the side as he clenched his jaw, but he remained silent. There was something familiar about the look on his face, even if it was slightly off. That face told Bucky that the kid already knew all this. He didn’t plan to call him out in front of Malcolm, but he made note of asking him later.
They were interrupted again when the waitress approached their table with a tray. She set down a big milkshake in front of Loki, which made Bucky pause for a moment when the bizarreness of the situation with Loki struck him again. Then he pushed the thought aside.
The mug she put down for Bucky smelled like tea instead of coffee. Bucky was not overly fond of coffee, and he didn’t really need it with his enhanced endurance. He wondered if Loki thought about what to order for him, or if he just did it without thinking.
‘Luke, this is serious,’ Malcolm hissed as soon as the waitress left them with a quick promise that their food would be out soon.
‘Yes, the murder part made that obvious,’ Loki told him, before he visibly ignored him in favour of his milkshake. Malcolm swallowed down his annoyance with not much struggle.
‘If you’re the only witness…’
‘Witness of what?’ Loki blinked up at him innocently. ‘I don’t know what you mean Mr. Ducasse,’ he added with a much more child-like tone.
Malcolm stared at him. It didn’t look like he had any idea what to say to that. Loki stared back at him while he slurped his milkshake. Bucky resisted the urge to huff out a laugh.
Malcolm stood up abruptly, running right into the waitress he obviously did not see coming. She didn’t drop the plates in her hands, but she did bump into their table and spilled Bucky’s tea all over the surface. It only got Bucky’s metal arm, but the lady didn’t know that. She quickly put the two plates down, well away from the puddle, and started cleaning the tea up with the napkins she brought with the food, while Malcolm was apologising to her.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ she said too. ‘You could run your arm under the tap behind the bar for a bit,’ she suggested. She almost reached for his arm, probably to try and dab the tea out from his jacket, but Bucky pulled it away in time. Loki scooted a bit away from the mess, and helpfully shoved a handful of napkins at Bucky too.
Bucky tried to scrounge up a friendly smile, while he picked up the cup to move it out of her way.
‘Don’t worry,’ he told her. ‘This doesn’t get burnt.’ He tapped the cup on his metal forearm. She gave him that look that Bucky was used to seeing by now, it happened almost every time he was forced to point out to strangers that his left arm wasn’t flesh.
‘I’ll get you another one,’ she promised with a smile as she took the cup from Bucky.
Malcolm just looked at him for a long moment, then he turned and went back to his little group in the corner.
‘Well, at least he didn’t call the police,’ Loki observed.
‘Probably because he knows you will lie through your teeth if he does,’ Bucky told him. Malcolm probably knew the odds of whom the police would believe in this scenario, especially with the innocent kid act Bucky saw Loki pull earlier in the store.
Loki reached for his fork, and Bucky finally noted that he ordered pancakes and bacon.
‘The police won’t help Gigi,’ he said. ‘They never have.’
Bucky pulled his own plate closer, while he thought about all of this. It was really time to grill Loki for some more answers.
‘You know what they were searching for?’ he asked quietly, not even looking at him.
There was only a small pause.
‘And whatever it is, if I looked in your bag in the car perhaps,’ Bucky continued. ‘Would I find it?’
‘I didn’t say that,’ Loki said.
Now Bucky did turn to look at him. Loki stabbed at his pancake, thinking.
‘Probably,’ he admitted.
Bucky did huff out a laugh this time. ‘Figures.’
He started on his food, while he sorted through what he knew so far. The waitress came and went with a new cup of tea. Malcolm still turned around to glance at them occasionally. Bucky took out his phone to send another text to Steve, while they ate in silence.
‘I do wonder,’ Bucky continued after some time. ‘Did it not strike you as monumentally stupid to take it?’
Loki shrugged. ‘A little,’ he admitted, then he gave him a grin that used to look sharp on his adult face, but now just looked cheeky. ‘But I like my odds now.’
Bucky’s phone pinged with a new message. Steve again.
We found one of them. When will you be back?
‘Do you need to see your friend?’ he asked.
‘No,’ Loki said. ‘If Malcolm says she’s safe, then she is.’
His trust in this guy was at odds with his behaviour towards him. Loki must’ve seen the confusion on his face.
‘I don’t have to like him to know he’s trustworthy,’ he said, which was fair enough.
‘Finish up then, time to go… and you’re going to show me what the hell you took from those guys.’
Loki didn’t protest, which was as good as an agreement.
Hello! I am not dead. January is very busy at work, thus the delay. Enjoy :)
Bucky returned with a stormy look on his face. He wasn’t furious, because his expression always turned stone cold when he was, but he was still obviously angry about something. And he didn’t even hear what Steve and Tony had to tell him yet. None of the information was up on Tony’s screens.
‘Where’s the kid?’ Tony asked as soon as the door to his workshop opened.
‘The nurse got him,’ Bucky told them. ‘That guy has no common sense.’
Steve smothered a smile. Benny was completely unafraid of Bucky, and seemingly immune to all his glares and curt words. Steve found Bucky’s befuddlement of this endlessly amusing. Tony just looked proud.
‘He’s a good kid, don’t terrorise him,’ he said.
‘Did I do anything?’ Bucky asked, but it sounded rhetorical. He walked up to the workbench Tony was at and put a phone down in front of him. Steve walked closer to look at it too. It looked unremarkable especially compared to StarkPhones, and it was older model too, going by the size.
‘You’ll have to crack this open,’ Bucky said.
Tony looked somewhat interested.
‘I’ll bite, why?’ he asked.
‘Loki stole this from a guy, and he got killed for what’s on it,’ Bucky explained simply.
‘But what?’ Steve asked.
‘No clue,’ Bucky shrugged. ‘Loki said the guy called it “insurance”, but it obviously didn’t work out for him.’
Tony made a little hum. ‘You say “insurance” and I hear “evidence”,’ he said.
‘Or blackmail,’ Bucky added.
Tony hummed in agreement. ‘Do I need to worry about fingerprints?’
‘It will have Loki’s on it,’ Bucky said. ‘And the dead guy by the name of Cole, no surname.’
Tony wandered away, probably to grab some gloves, but Steve just eyed the phone on the workbench.
‘Malcolm Ducasse checks out too,’ Bucky told them. ‘We got some information out of him. He’s not a threat, just a bleeding heart, like Loki said.’
‘One would think you would be happier about finding decent people out there,’ Tony commented, not even glancing back at them.
‘I feel like I’m pointing out the obvious, but shouldn’t we inform the police?’ Steve asked. ‘Don’t we have a policy on this?’
‘Oh, yes we do, and I will call in Maria very soon to get this mess sorted,’ Tony said. ‘But when some sort of criminal evidence is delivered to me by a guy who’s supposed to be dead and was acquired from a murder victim by a child who doesn’t even officially exist… things become a bit more complicated. They will ask me where I got it from for one. So, my answer is; not yet.’
‘I guess we can’t just make an anonymous tip,’ Steve said with a wry smirk.
‘There’s a PI working on this,’ Bucky spoke up. ‘We could check whether she’s the real deal.’
Tony swiped the phone off the workbench, now wearing a glove, then stopped to give Bucky a considering look.
‘I’ll let Maria know,’ he said. ‘But first, I want to know what you brought us. Place your bets gentlemen; drugs, guns or something worse?’
‘It might not be anything big,’ Bucky said. ‘People can get killed for the smallest shit.’
‘That is unfortunately true,’ Tony agreed.
The thought unsettled Steve, even if it was nothing new. There were people out there who were willing to kill… hell, willing to chase down and murder a kid for some small insignificant reason. He’s met world conquerors, gods and demons. He faced down the potential end of the world multiple times… but this felt different. Small, yet bleak. He knew the world could be ugly, but sometimes it was easy to forget when he only thought about humanity as a collective that needed to be protected.
The one guy they identified through Bucky’s description was most certainly not some criminal mastermind, just an average person with a long list of petty crimes to his name. Or maybe that was just what the police could pin on him.
It was a little strange that he was almost hoping for some big conspiracy. He could deal with those more easily. He wasn’t sure how to deal with shitty average people, other than to track them down, punch them in the face, and then drag them to the nearest police station.
Tony and his PR team would probably advise against that. But maybe he should ask…
‘Okay, there are definitely some drugs,’ Tony spoke up, looking over something on his monitor. Steve and Bucky made their way over. Somehow Steve wasn’t surprised that it took Tony so little time to get into the phone. ‘But they are more consumers than suppliers.’
Sure enough, the photos on the screen were taken at some party. But there was more than just alcohol and cigarettes going around once he looked closer.
‘This place looks a bit too high-end for a guy like this,’ Bucky commented.
‘Run facial recognition on everyone, HELEN,’ Tony instructed. ‘See if we can recognise anyone.’
‘Maybe he was just hired muscle or something,’ Steve offered.
‘Or a waiter,’ Tony commented as he zoomed in on a different picture from the library. The man on the photo took a picture of himself in a bathroom, he was wearing black slacks and a pristine white shirt. He was young, maybe mid-twenties, his skin just a little on the darker side, maybe Greek or Turkish.
There were other pictures on the phone too, not from a party. A few more selfies of the same guy, Cole, Steve assumed. Then a few of him and a black girl with long curly hair. She looked very young, but Steve couldn’t guess her age. They looked like a couple. There were a few shots of her wearing… very little. It was not underwear per se, but the outfits showed a lot of skin. Tony didn’t linger on those.
The girl showed up on a few other pictures as well, some of them she took of herself. She probably borrowed the phone to make them. And then there was Loki. It was the only picture of him. The girl must have taken it, judging by the angle. They were both sitting on a couch. She was wearing heavy make-up, maybe getting ready to go out, while Loki sat in a too-big red hoodie next to her. His grumpy glaring face was in stark contrast with her wide smile.
‘That would be Gigi I guess,’ Bucky said. ‘Cole was her boyfriend… of sorts.’
‘And nothing incriminating enough to kill for so far,’ Steve added.
Tony scrolled further down to some other party photos.
‘Well shit,’ he said as he enlarged one of the pictures. There were several young men on it, drinks in hand, one of them snorting something off the table. It didn’t take a genius to guess what. ‘I know that one,’ Tony said, tapping the screen, pointing out one of the guys.
‘Who is he?’
‘The son of someone who is rich enough to be invited to the same places I’m invited to…’ then he hesitated for a moment. ‘We had a contract with him, and Cross Tech, back when I was still… when Stane was still acting CEO.’
Steve thought about that for a moment.
‘But not anymore?’
‘I’m not in the weapons business anymore,’ Tony answered simply.
‘Just a businessman, or businessman involved in politics?’ Steve asked next. One of the first things he realised after waking up in this century was that he had to be more cautious about the latter category.
‘Not directly, as far as I know,’ Tony said. ‘Campaign contributions. HELEN, bring up Sonny Burch.’
While HELEN pulled up some information about the man in question on a different screen, Tony kept flipping through the pictures.
‘He might not be happy about photos like this about his kid,’ Bucky commented.
‘Drugs and booze can be explained easily with good PR,’ Tony said, his voice flat. ‘Just a troubled boy, he feels sorry, he’s going to rehab yadda yadda… these pictures might sell decently to some gossip rags, but they wouldn’t be enough for blackmail, it could easily--’
Steve’s eyes were running through the information about Burch, his past at Cross Technologies, and his son Zach Burch, so he had to look back to Tony to get why he fell abruptly silent.
The small picture on the screen was still from the party, but the younger Burch now had a girl next to him. One of his arms around her middle, his other shoved down her dress. The body language alone would’ve been enough for Steve to know that she didn’t want to be close to him, but the look on her face and her puffy red eyes made it obvious. Bucky and Tony both visibly tensed, and Steve could feel his own spine stiffen.
He had a very bad feeling about this.
Tony closed the whole album, then just stared at the empty desktop for a long moment.
‘HELEN, flip through the rest of the pictures for me, and facial recognition on the girl please.’
The three of them stood in silence for the minute it took HELEN to follow Tony’s instructions.
‘I must echo Captain Rogers’ earlier assessment,’ HELEN said then. ‘It may be prudent to contact the police. I have identified the young woman on the pictures as Jaci Nowell, she had been reported missing five days ago.’
No wonder she found her so quickly. A picture of her popped up on the screen, attached to a missing person report. It was maybe a profile picture of sorts, she was smiling brightly. College student, nineteen years old.
‘This matches the date the pictures on the phone were taken,’ HELEN continued. ‘There are also several pictures you have not reviewed where she is in visible distress, while on a few of the later pictures her expression shows signs of intoxication, and she is also not fully dressed.’
‘Call Maria,’ Tony instructed right away in a clipped tone, then turned around to look at Steve and Bucky.
‘So, what do we do?’ Steve asked him.
‘You two? Nothing. Trust me, I wish we could ride up to the Burch residence and punch an answer out of the guy, but we can’t. Maria knows what strings to pull to get this information to the right people.’
‘You really want us to do nothing?’ Steve asked. He didn’t know how he felt about this. His gut told him that he needed to help, as always, but he was unsure what he could possibly do. Other than… yeah, punch an answer out of Zach Burch.
‘Rich kid, and the evidence is circumstantial at best, and illegally acquired,’ Bucky said before Tony could answer. ‘Publicly accusing him is not gonna help the girl… if she’s alive.’
Tony looked tired. ‘Yes, all of that… Just stay put, all right? The kid too.’
Steve sighed. ‘But if there’s anything we can do…’
‘I will call you, trust me. I’ll check if there’s any connection between the Burch’s and the thugs that killed this Cole guy. They followed Loki all the way from Hell’s Kitchen down to Brooklyn… I mean, that’s like a two hour walk at least. I don’t even know how he got that far.’
‘It’s Loki,’ Bucky shrugged.
‘Yeah,’ Tony sighed again.
Steve looked at the girl’s picture again and hoped she was still alive.
At first, they both stood silently in the elevator as they left Tony’s workshop floor, but Steve couldn’t keep his thoughts to himself for long.
‘So, Cole works as a waiter of sorts, sometimes at classy parties,’ he said.
‘He takes pictures,’ Bucky continued the thought. ‘Maybe he wanted to catch someone rich and famous doing something indecent.’
‘I mean, he was risking his job,’ Steve added. ‘But maybe he hated it.’
‘Then one night he takes pictures of something much worse than booze and drugs,’ Bucky continued.
‘A girl goes missing,’ Steve finished.
‘Loki said he called it “insurance”. So, he had to know what happened to her,’ Bucky said then. ‘Maybe he didn’t take pictures of everything, but he had to know.’
‘And what then?’ Steve asked. ‘He just… does nothing?’
‘They paid him, or threatened him,’ Bucky guessed. ‘Or yeah, maybe he just didn’t give a shit.’
Steve sighed. They barely knew anything about this Cole guy, so it was hard to draw conclusions about him and how he got into this whole situation.
‘But he had the pictures, and he told his girlfriend Gigi about it,’ Bucky said. ‘Loki overheard him and stole his phone.’
‘Why?’ Steve asked.
Bucky shrugged. ‘He didn’t say why, but he called Gigi his friend, and called Cole “that asshole”. My guess is that he either wanted to get him in trouble, or he didn’t want Gigi to get dragged into the whole mess.’
As odd as it was to think of the smiling girl on some of the pictures as Loki’s friend, Bucky’s reasoning seemed solid.
The elevator stopped and they both walked out. Steve was still trying to put the picture together in his head, and Bucky was probably trying to do the same.
‘Someone sent those guys to get the phone from Cole, destroy it maybe,’ Steve said. ‘Which means someone found out about it. Someone at the party noticed him?’
‘Or Cole didn’t keep it fully a secret,’ Bucky answered. ‘Maybe he asked for money, I don’t know. He kept the pictures for whatever reason, and they killed him to get them back from him… except he didn’t have them anymore.’
‘If he suspected Loki took his phone, that would explain why they went after him,’ Bucky guessed.
Steve stopped, and Bucky slowed down too.
‘This is messed up,’ Steve said. The whole thing was ugly, from start to finish.
‘The world is messed up,’ Bucky told him. It was not the first time he said it, and usually Steve tried to remind him of the good things in life, but right now he couldn’t get himself to.
‘Loki will want to know what was on the phone,’ Bucky said then.
Steve thought about it. ‘He… probably shouldn’t know, right? I mean, he’s a kid… is he? You spent more time with him now.’
Bucky looked up at the ceiling, contemplating his answer.
‘Yes and no,’ he settled on. ‘I have no idea what Loki was like as a kid, so maybe he’s acting normal for his age… for an Asgardian… frost giant, whatever. Let’s stick to the basics for now.’
Steve nodded in agreement.
HELEN told them even before they stepped into the elevator that Benny dropped Loki off on the guest floor that was usually reserved for Steve. The furniture changed since then. They probably replaced everything after the repairs from the last time. Steve didn’t like to think about what happened back then. That thing that crawled into his body and mind still haunted his sleep on some nights.
He heard voices long before they reached the living room. Wanda’s voice was the first he heard, then Vision, and then Loki. When he turned the corner, he saw that Pietro sprawled across one of the sofas too, looking way too amused. Vision was sitting in a more dignified position next to him. To Steve he always looked just a bit odd when he put on civilian clothes, but he wasn’t about to dissuade him from trying to fit in more.
‘But maybe that’s what happened to me too!’ Loki was saying enthusiastically. Steve saw Wanda smothering a smile, while Vision just looked bewildered. ‘I got killed so badly, that I was almost gone, but then someone made a new body and just put me in it!’
Vision tilted his head, taking a moment before answering. ‘An interesting theory, but that is not how it usually works with humans.’
‘No, but magic!’ Loki argued. ‘And I don’t remember being smaller, so maybe I was never smaller at all! And I wasn’t human either.’
‘Hey, he’s got a point,’ Pietro said, drawing Vision’s attention. ‘He died less than a year ago, but he’s… how old are you?’
‘How would I know?’ Loki shrugged. ‘I don’t remember anything.’
‘We’re guessing eight,’ Bucky interrupted, making all heads turn in their direction.
‘Did you find what Cole was hiding?’ Loki asked, kneeling up on the couch to turn fully towards them. He looked a lot more relaxed than he was just a day ago, his body language open and a lot less cautious. He was also less tired and pale.
‘He took photos of things he shouldn’t have,’ Bucky answered. ‘But we’re still putting the pieces together. Stark’s on it.’
Loki looked thoughtful and Steve wondered whether he would be satisfied with an answer like this. The old Loki wouldn’t have, but the kid let it go.
‘Are we going to stay here?’ he asked instead.
‘There’s nowhere safer,’ Bucky told him. Loki looked at him for a long moment again, expression unreadable.
‘Okay,’ he said then easily, sitting back down next to Wanda.
‘HELEN thought he could do with some company while you are busy,’ Wanda explained their presence. ‘And I thought he should meet everyone who lives in the tower for now.’
‘For now?’ Steve asked right away as he and Bucky stopped next to the two sofas. ‘Are you going somewhere?’
‘Tony didn’t mention it?’ Pietro sat up. ‘We’re all moving out of the tower.’
No, this was most certainly news to Steve. ‘A lot’s going on, he probably forgot.’
‘After the most recent repairs were competed he arrived at the conclusion that it was too dangerous for this tower to remain our main base of operations,’ Vision explained. ‘This is a densely populated area and well… we do attract conflict simply by who we are.’
‘Is this going to happen soon?’ Steve asked then.
‘It is in progress,’ Vision said. ‘An old Stark Industries warehouse has been redesigned and refurbished to suit all of our needs, but there is much work left to be done, mainly in terms of security.’
‘I think he’s also trying to decide whether to keep the tower or sell it,’ Wanda added. ‘And if he does sell it, he needs to pick the buyer very carefully.’
The tower had extensive security and surveillance systems, and its own arc reactor as a power source. Steve wasn’t sure what company would need a building like this, but maybe there were plenty.
‘But it’s the Avengers Tower,’ Loki piped up. ‘People know that if something bad happens, you are right here!’
‘But sometimes bad things happen because we are here,’ Wanda told him. ‘And we just don’t want people to get hurt.’
Steve didn’t know what it was, but she seemed to have won Loki’s trust to at least some extent already. The way he carefully listened when she spoke was telling. He was taking her words seriously.
‘Are there many bad guys who come pick a fight with you?’ he asked.
‘Sometimes even one is too many when it comes to people getting caught in the cross-fire,’ Wanda said sombrely. She must’ve been thinking about her home country, still recovering from what Ultron did to it. Pietro reached across the space between them to grab her hand. She gave him a smile and squeezed his hand back.
‘And it’s not that far at all,’ she continued when she turned back to Loki, putting some excitement in her voice. ‘We visited once already, it’s all very impressive. Maybe next time you can come with us?’
Steve wasn’t sure whether he was surprised when Loki immediately turned to Bucky at that, the question clear in his eyes.
‘I’d like that,’ he said.
‘Stark will probably want to show it off soon enough,’ Bucky told him.
Now there was a smile Steve did not recognise. It certain moments the kid looked like an odd miniature version of the old Loki, especially when his eyes were sharp and suspicions or his lips thin and bloodless. But he’s never seen this expression before, soft and cautiously pleased. It was gone in a blink.
Loki turned back to Wanda.
‘Can you show me magic again?’ he asked.
Bucky made a little huffing noise, which Steve recognised as a sound of amusement. Wanda smiled again, and maybe she even looked a little proud. Not a lot of people acted this excited about her powers.
‘Doctor Strange lets me study at the Sanctum,’ she said as red light appeared around her fingers, soon taking shape, forming into little rings around her fingers and her wrists. ‘He has a library full of ancient tomes, but he said it’s nothing compared to what the sorcerers have in Kamar-Taj.’
Vision and Pietro seemed content to just sit around and listen to her talk, while Loki was eying the red shapes around her hands with keen interest. Did Loki still have his powers? As far as Steve knew magic required practice and a lot of studying. Bucky seemed sure that Loki reached out to him somehow when he was in danger, so while he might’ve lost his knowledge, the ability had to be there. It made him wonder.
‘We should probably tell Strange about him,’ Steve told Bucky quietly. ‘I don’t know how this works, but we definitely don’t want him to accidentally blow something up… if that’s even possible.’
As if on cue, Loki reached out towards Wanda’s hand in something like fascination. He didn’t touch her or the shimmering red rings, but the smallest one close to the tips of Wanda’s fingers sparked and turned into a little green and white flame at his proximity. In a blink it skipped over to Loki and coiled around his hand like a tiny serpent.
The boy was startled by the burst of magic and pulled his hand back, but either the movement or his reaction just fanned the flame bigger, turning it more green than white. Wanda grabbed his hand with both of hers, quickly dispelling both her red rings and the wild little green flame.
It happened so quickly that nobody had time to really move before it was over.
Loki stared at Wanda’s hands and his own with a frown, then he looked up with a small, ‘Oh.’
‘Okay, nothing happened,’ Wanda said. ‘Everything’s fine,’ she added a bit louder, maybe to make sure that HELEN knew there was no danger.
‘I didn’t mean to,’ Loki said in a voice much quieter than Steve would’ve expected. ‘But I could feel them moving.’
‘No, I should’ve been more careful too,’ Wanda told him. She was looking at his hand still, probably to make sure there was no trace left of the green magic flame. ‘You had a lot of power in your… earlier form.’
Then she turned to Steve and Bucky. Steve knew what she was going to suggest before she spoke.
‘Okay, so… Greenwich Village?’