He nearly starts when the door to his room opens.
It’s too large and too comfortable to be called a cell, honestly, but he can’t quite bring himself to call that ‘his apartments’ as Loki does because, well, that’s still a prison, and he hasn’t seen anything but this space and the attached private garden with too-high walls in decades now.
Sometimes, Steve wishes he’d grow old.
At least, he would have something to mark time with for himself –he tried marking days and weeks on the walls, but they’re all covered now: seventeen-thousands one hundred and seventy-nine small black columns, two-thousands two hundred and fifty-six green strokes, five-hundred and sixty-four blue circles, forty-seven angry red scratching serve as memory for the beginning of his captivity, memories of times long gone when he still bothered to try and know how long he’d been here, how long Loki had him locked out of reach of the world.
He uses other means to mark the time now.
Yesterday, he cut the vine in the garden for the eightieth time –one cut per year since he got it on year five. He thinks maybe –hopefully- expression lines are finally starting to fix at the corner of his eyes, and does his hair look any paler today? The man who used to come and read to him is gone, long retired, possibly even dead now. Now it’s a woman who comes to see him. She’s thirty-something, although she was barely of age when she started coming, and her name is Tasha.
She’s beautiful, Tasha, all dark skin and generous curves and hot temper, always ready to hear a story and tell another about her everyday life, always smiling and happy to come here, and Steve honestly doesn’t want to think about the day she won’t be there to brighten his life anymore, about retirement or worse because… well, because Peggy seemed like the only good choice, once upon a time, but she’s been virtually dead to him for more than eighty years now, and Tasha’s here, solid and real and oh so precious, and Steve doesn’t want to lose her, ever.
This morning though, it’s not Tasha who opens the door –she would never be so silent about it, opening with just a click and a quiet air of menace.
In fact, Steve isn’t surprised to see him lingering on the threshold.
“Where’s she?” He asks, ready to contest any talk of retirement or new job or anything because he knows, he knows they can’t be true. “What did you do to her?”
Loki ignores him, regal in his simple attire of deep grey and light green, a thin silver pin shaped to look like fireworks ornamenting the lapel of his jacket and catching the light as he walks in the circular room he likes to designate as the living area –it’s well lit and comfortably furnished, but it still doesn’t feel like a home.
“If this is an advanced very of this year’s reunion….”
“Oh, there won’t be any offer this year, Rogers,” Loki says, an elegant eyebrow rising. “For the past forty years I have offered you freedom, and yet you have always refused it.”
“I will never stop fighting your so-called ‘reign’, Loki,” Steve says calmly, because it’s true. Loki did offer him freedom, if he promised to behave, and Steve would rather stay here until he dies than endorse Loki’s dictatorship. “Now tell me where she is!”
“Tasha isn’t coming here today, Rogers. You’re being transferred.”
“Transferred? Where? Why?”
“To her house,” Loki says. “It is everyone’s right to have a fulfilling childhood, and your son is no exception.”
Steve has to take a step back.
“I… I have a son? How?”
“Well Rogers, when a stubborn prisoner and his infinitely too patient keeper love each other very much they….”
“Okay I know how but… why? What’s the catch? What do you gain with that?”
“Only the knowledge that this child will not be missing a parent because of me.” A pause and then: “And the unforgettable memory of your face just now. I had no idea one could pull skeptical so badly, it’s very impressive.”
“You do realize you’re giving me one more reason to fight against you, right?” Steve asks, because he’s just honest and slightly stupid for it like that.
“On the contrary, I believe this is the only thing that could make you behave.”
“If you’re threatening my family I….”
“Oh please Rogers, use your head for once, when have I ever menaced infants or pregnant women?” Loki rolls his eyes in a rare display of exasperation. “Besides, the only thing threatening to your family’s well being right now is the slightly manic tendency you have to squeeze your hands in my presence. Rest assured that strangling me wouldn’t help your situation in the least.”
“I’ll find a way to end you, Loki.”
“You keep telling yourself that,” Loki agrees lazily, “I’ll send someone to set you up for your new life as a free man and bring you over to your new home.” He shrugs. “Enjoy calling me names in the meantime.”
And Loki leaves in a puff of green smokes, leaving Steve to crash against the door.
It takes about two hours before anybody comes around, plenty of time for Steve to picture everything Loki could possibly throw at him, ranging from easiest to resist –taunting, teasing, maybe psychological torture- to hardest –Bucky, Peggy, Tasha.
Steve imagines jailers coming in to smash his bones to dust, beat him to a pulp, skinning him alive. He pictures trained assassins, making their way toward him for a quick, clean and silent execution, poison drifting through the window –and yes, maybe at last, that would be freedom.
He never, ever, in a million years, would have pictured Tony Stark.
“Hey Cap’,” he says, and Steve recoils so fast and so hard that he trips on his own feet and falls to the ground in surprise.
It’s not that he’s a coward or anything -ask anybody who knew him before he landed here- it’s just that it’s been eighty five years since he last saw the self-proclaimed genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, and Tony was a little over forty five at the time, there is no way he should even be alive, let alone walking around with the same unconcerned gait he had the day before their final battle against Loki, looking as disheveled as ever and absolutely unsurprised by Steve’s presence in the room.
“Tony?! How… you should be dead!”
“Well, you know what they say: an apple a day keeps the doctor away. And there are wonderful apples to be had when you live in the palace.”
“So he made you his servant?!” Steve says, because there is no other explanation he can think of.
Being a prisoner who genuinely can’t seem to age is bad enough, but to be forced to go on with a life of servitude when you should have died a long time ago, how bad can this be? Quite honestly, Steve is searching, but he can’t picture anything worse than this, being forced to witness the death and suffering of all your friends while you keep living, keep serving a man you can only loathe, keep seeing the world slowly dying because of—
“Hey, Cap!” Tony says, a hand passing before Steve’s eyes. “Calm down dude, I’m fine.” He smiles when Steve looks at him with disbelief. “I’m not lying. Come on, we’ll get you cleaned up.”
And Steve, too surprised by Tony’s lack of complaint to speak, follows him without question.
They leave the door open behind them, not seeing the need for any lock, and Tony guides Steve through large corridors ornate with off-white walls and pale green curtains, large windows allowing the sun to flood inside and warm the atmosphere. All around them is silent, but Tony seems unaffected by it, and Steve himself is surprised to find that the silence doesn’t feel as creepy as it should.
They cross a few servants, clad in various shades of green –unsurprising, given their master- and they look at him with wary looks, like he’s some sort of dangerous animals on the run rather than someone who’s still fighting for them after all this time –though, to be honest, most of them are too young to remember a time when Loki wasn’t dominating the world… it is only logical that they should look at him like a danger.
They’ve probably learned not to defy Loki the hard way.
“Shouldn’t you bind me?” Steve ends up asking, low in Tony’s ear.
“Bind you? Why would I bind you?” Steve give him a look, and Tony chuckles. “Dude, there’s no need to bind you, you’re free. Didn’t Loki tell you so?”
“We both know he lies.”
“Not this time.” Tony must see something on Steve’s face then, because his features harden and he holds up a hand warningly: “Steve, don’t, okay? I know what I’m saying. I also know you’re trying to come up with an escape plan, so let me tell you it won’t be necessary.” Steve tries to speak, but Tony cuts in: “And if you still want to try and escape, just don’t bother with me okay? I’m good here, I’m not leaving.”
This feels so much like a punch that Steve barely notices they’ve reached a new room all in pale blues and greens and whites until Tony designates one of the small pools scattered around the floor and says:
“Enjoy your bath. Just push the fireworks next to the tap when you’re done and dressed, someone will come and take you to the registration department so they can sort a few things, then to Mahonee’s house.”
“Tasha Mahonee. You know, the one who’s pregnant with your son.”
“You… you know about that?” Steve stammers, shocked.
“Everybody knows Cap’, what d’you think? ‘S not everyday somebody gets pregnant with the most famous opponent to the regime.”
And with that, Tony just shrugs, gives Steve a mischievous grin, and closes the door behind him. Steve spends a long time listening for the sound of a lock clicking into place.
It never comes.
The clothes they gave him are, surprisingly, not green.
Steve went into the bathtub with every intention to keep his old clothes afterwards, because he’s been wearing them since he was first captured -of course, he’s been washing them too- and they remind him of all that he’s lost, but then he came out of the water –deliciously relaxed and limbs heavy with comfort, and if this is Loki’s plan to keep him tame well, it’s unorthodox, but certainly not inefficient- and realized that he could almost see through his jeans.
Oh lord. And to think Tasha saw him in those for most of her life.
So in the end, Steve finds himself wearing the black pants and white shirt he’s been given. They’re not very elaborate clothes: the pants are snuggly enough to feet in the heavy boots he’s been given, and the shirt, sleeveless, closes with strings over his chest. He finds an old leather bracelet that he’s sure can’t really be Bucky’s but makes a damn fine job of pretending, and he puts it in his pocket, just in case.
He pushes the firework button next to the tap of the pool –which now smells of apple pie- and in less than five minute, an elderly man in black pants and a purple tunic with golden stitches embroidered on the cuff of the sleeves and collar comes in. The man doesn’t look very happy about being here, and his face grows more displeased for every second Steve takes to drink the man’s features in.
Still, this is the first person Steve has met in more than eighty years, and it feels so good to finally have a face to study that isn’t Loki’s or Tasha’s that, confused or not –although the confusion is kind of overruled by the soothing effect of his bath- Steve can’t help but give an enormous grin.
“Excuse me,” he says with an almost apologetic smile, “what month is it?”
If his count is correct, the year should be 2097, but Steve has no idea what period of the year this is. He’s guessing spring, maybe late March? He doesn’t know, and suddenly he needs to know, needs to reinsert himself in the flow of time, like he did that first time except it’s both easier and worse. Because this time he knows things will be different, expect it, so it won’t be as hard to get used to it, but it also mean that he’s got all the time in the world to imagine the worse and that isn’t a feeling he likes. At all.
“April fifth twenty ninety-seven,” the man says, and Steve sucks in a breath because damn it sounds so weird to hear this new, foreign date in the man’s mouth.
“I think I’m going to faint.”
“Like hell you are!” The servant says as he folds Steve’s old clothes, and the silk of his tunic catches the light.
Silk? For a servant?
“Who are you?” Steve asks, and it must come out more insulting than surprised, because the man in front of him draws up to his full height -which is still shorter than Steve by a few inches, but Steve has taken to slouching in the past few years, and the man’s back is straighter than a ruler, so it kind of cancels the height difference out.
“What, you think I can’t tell you that you won’t faint?” He huffs, a sound that has Steve’s ears perking like they’ve heard something they shouldn’t have heard here and now, but he can’t quite put his fingers on it until the stranger curses: “Dang it Rogers, are you dumb or what?”
And suddenly Steve feels his chest constrict, his eyes sting, his hands clench into fists at his side, and there is only one thing he can say, pushed out forcibly, like a plea, like a prayer, almost, but he doesn’t really know if he’s praying to be right or wrong as he whispers:
The old man meets Steve’s eyes, and the super soldier wonders how he missed it, how he could not recognize the crooked smile that’s more of a smirk than anything else. There’s no doubting it now that he’s seen it, Steve finds. The posture, the eyes, even the facial structure is the same once you’ve made the effort of imagining the white beard away.
“Oh, Clint,” Steve says again, and Clint chuckles.
“Yeah, I know, white really isn’t my color, but I couldn’t bring myself to dye it.” He gestures to the door and adds: “Come on now, gotta get to the registration desk, they need to fill your chip.”
“My what?” Steve says, indignant. “I will not be treated like cattle Clint! I don’t know what Loki did to you but I….”
“Woah, woah, dude, calm down!” Clint says, and it’s weird to see him hold up his hands in surrender when just yesterday –a lifetime ago- Steve would have pictured him notching an arrow to his bow in one swift move. “It’s standard procedure! See? I got one too.”
Clint points at his left wrist and Steve notices two things: the first is the black leather bracelet snugly fitted to his arm, and the second is a flash of silver on his ring finger, but the arm goes back down before Steve can make sure of what he’s seen.
“It’s just like ID cards: name, photograph, fingerprints and distinctive features. Only now instead of being written on plastic it’s stocked in a bracelet. Harder to loose, and quicker to update. And, well, easier to keep track of your files, too, but since only the police can do full readings it’s not too big a deal, especially with the level of anti-hacker protection.” Clint looks at Steve’s wrist, and frowns: “Dude, didn’t you get one? Yours should be braided leather or something… Tony said you’d like it and….”
Steve stops in the middle of the corridor, and a young man pushing a basket of laundry bumps into him, curses damn idiots who can’t move on in any sense of the term, then looks at Clint and scurries away.
“Wait,” Steve says as if nothing had happened, “what do you mean ‘Tony said I’d like it’? Are you allowed to talk to him?”
“Yeah I—damnit Rogers, move, I don’t have all day!” Steve nods and follows Clint on unsteady feet, before the former Hawkeye continues: “Yeah, of course I’m allowed to speak to Tony. Not that I get to do it often ‘cause the dude’s busy but, you know, we hang out when we can.”
“But Tony’s a servant and you’re….”
“A retired palace guard,” Clint finishes, and he turns his back on Steve to rap his knuckles against a booth window.
A woman in her forties opens the door, and at this point Steve feels relieved that he can tell he’s never met her.
She gives Clint a formal bow and a semi-shy smile, and then her gaze goes to Steve, and she has to make a visible effort not to scowl at him.
“ID please,” she says and Steve, remembering Clint’s explanations, takes the bracelet out of his pocket and hands it to her.
He supposes he should look around, make his plan for an escape, anything really, but he’s still reeling from Clint’s revelation, trying to come up with a reason why this isn’t a betrayal, no matter how illogical it is. He comforts himself by thinking he’ll bid his time and wait until he’s with Tasha to set about making his plans. It’s not like he’s going to leave without her, anyway.
He is only vaguely aware of the woman in the booth asking several questions about him, his behavior in jail, and typing Clint’s answer at an impressive speed. After a while the questioning is done, and Clint takes Steve’s hand in his, getting him to press his thumb on a small tactile screen before he hands him back the bracelet.
“You don’t technically have to wear it all the time,” Clint says, “but in your case I think it’s better if you always have it with you. It would be a show of good will.”
“Why would I want to show any goodwill towards Loki’s regime?” Steve protests, and Clint grabs his elbow to drag him down the corridor and into a more intimate, but also richer-looking area.
They walk in silence for a while, Clint’s pace still brisk despite his age, and they end up reaching yet another part of the palace, more sober but no less comfortable, sort of like a cross between Steve’s cell and the more opulent space they walked through earlier.
Clint opens the door by applying his fingerprint on a small panel Steve didn’t notice, and then gestures for the former Avenger to get in.
What Steve discovers isn’t exactly what he expected.
It’s a clean and bright studio, but colored in pale grays and touches of soft orange instead of the purple Steve associates with Clint. Still, the sofa is the same one he got used to seeing in Hawkeye’s room back at the Avengers House –down to the discreet pale spot where someone accidentally dropped bleach on the black leather- and it feels good to sink down into it while Clint goes and makes coffee for the both of them.
There are photographs on the wall though, and Steve gets back up. Of course, the one that catches his eye first is the one in the middle, snuggly secured in an elegant frame. It shows Clint, older than Steve left him but much younger than he is now, smiling smugly at the camera while holding out his left hand, fingers entwined with another man’s, the ring on his finger shining in the light.
It takes a few seconds for Steve to recognize Agent Coulson in black tunic and a goatee.
“Our wedding,” Clint says as he comes back from the kitchen, and this time Steve doesn’t miss the two rings glinting on his finger. “Phil died last month.”
“Clint I’m sorry I….”
“Don’t be,” Clint says as he hands Steve a cup of coffee. “We knew what was going to happen once he stopped taking the apples.”
“Wait, wait,” Steve pleads, remembering something, “what’s the deal with apples exactly? Tony said something about them too.”
“Idun’s apples,” Clint explains. “They’re magic, apparently. That’s what keeps Loki and all the others from growing old.”
“So if you cut their apple supply….”
“You strip the entire world from decades of medical progress, including the cure against AIDS and cancer,” Clint interrupts calmly. “Those apples, they stop aging process when you eat them whole, but the juice and various components are used in a lot of medicine. Seriously Steve, I get why you still hate Loki –no, really, I do- but if you took the apples away you’d be doing more harm than anything else.”
Steve just stares, dumbstruck.
“I’d offer you some vodka but….” Steve echoes Clint’s half-bitter smirk and swallows a mouthful of coffee.
It’s not like it would do anything to him anyway.
“So,” he says in an unsteady voice, “you and Phil. What happened?”
He knows Clint knows he’s just trying to change topic here, but the archer –ex archer now, probably- just offers an apologetic smile, indicating that they’re going to talk about magic AIDS-curing apples, whether Steve wants it or not.
“I think at first he had us all in cells. Well. Banner and Fury didn’t need one obviously.”
“Wait, Fury died?”
The last thing Steve remembers before being captured is the Hulk’s head flying off, cut clean by his own shield after it bounced off Loki’s protection spell. He thinks maybe he saw the head hitting Fury in the chest and propelling him backward, but he’s not absolutely sure.
He must have thought out loud though, because Clint says:
“Fury landed on a broken traffic light. Pierced him right in the lungs. The electricity did the job before anyone had time to notice, or so I’m told.”
“By Loki,” Steve states, because he’s been clinging to the idea of Loki as an enemy for so long that he feels reluctant –terrified- to let it go.
“Yes, by Loki,” Clint admits. “Honestly, I’m not sure if he’s telling the truth on that count, but I’ve learned to let it rest.”
“So it looks like,” Steve mutters, and Clint sighs –and this is new too, not to see him jump into the fight immediately.
“Look, listen to the whole story, okay? Then you can rant and insult me if it make you feel better, just don’t throw me into the wall because I’m peachy for a one hundred and twenty-six years old guy but I’m still not as good as before.”
It takes all of Steve’s education and friendship for Hawkeye –he’s not sure where he stands with Clint right now- not to make a snide remark on the benefits of eating apples.
“Anyway, aside from Banner and Fury, we were all put in custody. I don’t know when Loki started visiting you, but the first time he came round to mine was toward the end of year five.” Clint chuckles as he drinks from his cup: “I threw an encyclopedia at his head. I think he genuinely didn’t expect that one. Anyway, the guy comes up to me and he says ‘I need you’. So, you know me, I told him he could stick that where the sun never shines.”
Yeah, Steve remembers that too.
That was the year Loki came to him and gave him a potted plant for his garden. Except what Steve heard was more along the line of ‘I know you’re going to forcefully refuse but think about it because I’d like you to work with me’. He remembers breaking a wall and most of his furniture for the first and only time in his life. He did nothing to the plant though, because somehow a life is a life, conscious or not, and aimless destruction on inanimate objects was bad enough, thank you very much.
But Clint is not done with his story, so Steve goes back to listening.
“So Loki scowls and he goes out, and I think ‘well Clint, either you’re never going to see anyone ever again, or you’re gonna start dying very slowly very shortly’… but then none of that happened. My reader was back the next day–used to be a scrawny black kid, kinda nice once you get over the babbling thing- and my routine really didn’t change. Except Bruno, the reader, well… as I said, he spoke. A lot. And I’m pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to tell me about what happened outside the palace, but suddenly he starts telling me things are getting tense. Says some guys from whatever part of space are trying to take on earth or something.” Clint coughs a little, swears, drinks again before he adds: “So six months pass. Things get worse. And then one day Bruno doesn’t come in, and I get this gangly red head girl instead. She’s not exactly friendly, more the ex-fan kinda kid. It takes a little insistence, but eventually she tells me Bruno died when his building crumbled on him.”
Steve’s cup crumbles in his hands and he swears a little when hot coffee spills over his lap and onto the couch, forcing Clint to get up to retrieve the remains and put them in the bin.
Steve follows him, fingers shivering with the same need to clench Loki pointed out just this morning. He’s dimly aware that a long time has passed since they started this conversation, mainly because Clint feels the need to turn the lights on when he comes back from the kitchen.
“At first I assumed that Loki was the one who caused the building to crumble in the first place. But then she told me those things from space still weren’t gone by this time. And then she said something that shocked me pretty bad. She said even Tony Stark couldn’t think of something to save them.”
Clint pauses in his story then, because someone is knocking on the door.
Steve watches him get up and greet a man whose face Steve has never seen –and he’s starting to think maybe he shouldn’t try to remember everyone he sees just yet, not when he doesn’t know where he stands with someone he once considered his friend, but who now works with the super-villain who’s sounding less and less evil by the second.
Clint comes back to the couch with a tray covered with warm meat and wine and generally delicious if foreign-looking food.
“The downside of living in the palace,” Clint says, “you get to eat like a Norse king and miss cheeseburgers like crazy, most of the time. Thank Tony for junk food night.”
Steve wants to ask. Wants to know. But he promised to listen to the whole story and, besides, he’s starting to think maybe he needs to hear the whole story.
They eat in silence for a while, and Steve chews on his thoughts, before Clint speaks again:
“Of course, when I heard that even Tony couldn’t help, my first reaction was the same as yours: I didn’t know why on earth Tony was even supposed to help Loki. So I said I wanted to see him, and guess what? Loki said yes.”
Once more, Steve’s finger clench, hardly, but this time it does nothing worse than create a dent in his fork.
Was it that simple then? Could he have seen his friend as much as he wanted for all these years if he’d asked? But he was so convinced nothing would ever be granted to him, so sure he would never see anyone aside from Loki and Tasha again.
But then here he is, sitting on a couch with a man who used to be Hawkeye and is now Clint Barton, in a room designed for someone who is –or was- obviously more than just a palace guard, while a woman is waiting to welcome him into her home.
He’s not sure how to process this.
“She knows,” Clint says. “When I saw your face at the registration office, I figured I’d let her know not to expect you for diner. You’re still going to her place when we’re done though.”
“Ready for the rest?”
“Stop being so considerate,” Steve blurts out, “I’m not used to it.”
And to think it used to bother him, Clint’s straightforwardness and Tony’s utter lack of tact.
Now he’d give everything to have it back.
“Sorry,” Clint says with a smirk, “but some of us do learn a few thing as they grow old. Anyway. So I asked to see Tony, and Loki gave his OK, so here I am, with a twenty-something kid who looks like he fell through an armory and didn’t figure out how to take off the Kevlar vest. Kid gets me through the palace and dude I don’t know how we never felt or heard anything in our cells because I promise you once you were up there, you just couldn’t deny there was a war going on. And then they bring Phil in and I’m like what the fuck?” Clint smiles fondly at the memory, and Steve can’t help leaning forward. “Phil was there, cool as cucumber, because apparently that’s… well, that was his default setting, the bastard.”
Steve looks away while Clint throws a longing look to the photograph on the wall.
He kind of wants to know what happened that cost Agent Coulson -Phil- his life, but right now he needs to know why his friends started working with Loki more than anything else.
“Anyway,” Clint continues, shaking himself, “So Phil just stands there and he does this… weird thing with his eyebrows, which I don’t think you’ve ever seen, come to think of it. Kept it for the battlefield, that one. Anyway, I follow his gaze and I see this huge greenish light cover the sky like… remember that time Thor had us watch Atlantis, the lost empire ten times in a row?”
Oh, yes, Steve remembers.
He remembers those afternoons spent with Thor, trying to understand the world as it was in 2012, trying to get into the swing of things and not feel like outsiders. He remembers spending more time with the blonde God than any others in the house, almost as much time as Thor spent with Jane.
Where are they now?
Has Thor returned to Asgard? Is Jane even alive?
Steve kind of feel like crying. He nods instead.
“Well it kind of looked like that blue shield thing they use at the end, with the volcano,” Clint says, oblivious to Steve’s emotion -or maybe just choosing to ignore it and soldier on through the story.
In a way, Steve feels grateful for this, Clint going on with the tale of his conversion no matter what.
Nobody told him anything the first time around, he had to read what happened to Peggy by himself, and even then he couldn’t read the whole of it because there was always something more urgent to learn, to find, to fight.
Clint is giving him a small measure of closure, and Steve is thankful for that.
“The thing is,” Clint says with a bitter smile, “Loki never put all his energy into our fights. We thought he did, and we thought he was tough but manageable, but in reality… he’s not. He’s never been manageable, Steve. You weren’t there that day, you didn’t see how he looked, you didn’t get to taste that but…” here Clint pauses, halfway out of the couch and hand still moving on his knees, grasping for something he can’t really describe. “It’s just. You could taste how much power he used. That’s how impressive it was. But even with that… I couldn’t see the sky. Too many aircrafts, too many… I don’t even know how I can describe what they were. Like someone had put mashed brains in a bag and it started trying to eat people –I swear I could have barfed right on Loki’s boots if Phil hadn’t given me a pack of tissues. That’s when I fell in love, by the way.”
“What, just like that?”
“Yup, just like that. Kinda hit me in the face like a brick. Bit weird, but all in all it’s the best punch I ever received in my life so, you know. I adapted. But yeah, back to that day. We were there, the both of us, trying not to let people know we were impressed while everyone was running around us and screaming and then who do I see?”
“Damn right it was.” Clint chuckles and points at a picture on the far left of the wall: “this one was taken about twenty minutes in by whatever remnant of war reporter there was at the time. I think it’s a good summary of how things went that day.”
So Steve leaves the couch once more and goes to see the photograph in question.
It shows a dark room littered with cables and rubble, dusted by the impact of what Steve can only identify as several bombs, with a gigantic hole in the wall, right behind Clint, whose hand looks like it is keeping Coul—Phil’s- shoulder in a painful grip.
Tony is closer to the objective, covered in grease and fallen plaster, hair messier than ever as a leather-gloved hand seems to direct someone outside the shot.
And then there’s Loki.
He stands on the far right of the frame, blue skin alight with speckles of green and blue and gold mingling into a turquoise unlike Steve has ever seen before, infusing the whole picture with unnatural and fascinating colors, tendrils of light coiled around his fingers and forearms as he points his hand to something that looks like a larger version of his old Casket.
There is power here, more than Steve remembers seeing when he fought Loki, and he starts wondering if, perhaps, Clint isn’t telling the truth rather than a lie he believes in.
“It’s the heart reactor,” Clint says, pointing to the cube. “For the shield. To this day I swear, I still don’t know how it worked –how it works- but somehow they managed to combine technology and magic to create that. Only they both knew it wouldn’t hold on forever. Tony said a week, Loki said two if we were lucky. The point is, whatever the reason behind it, he was trying to protect us you know? Humans I mean.” Clint shrugs. “Phil and I figured we could help.”
There is a long silence then, as Steve digests what he’s been told, turns it over and over in his head, until he’s not sure he understands properly anymore.
The idea of Loki protecting anyone, especially if it means exhausting himself, is so… foreign. It isn’t something Steve would have imagined, not in a million years, not after so long spent fighting him and referring to him as the biggest villain of all time.
He tries to push the thought away.
“How… how did you end up helping?”
“PR, mostly,” Clint chuckles. “You know how Loki dismantled most of the militaries during the conquest, and everything he’s done before that, not to mention what we said about him?”
“Can’t have helped.”
“Not really, no. And at first, you know, Phil and I thought we could leave him to deal with it, see how he did that. But then… well. Let’s just say Tony made sure to point out it wasn’t an option.” Clint shrugs, amused: “Ironic, isn’t it? Tony Stark coming to Loki’s rescue when he was the most violent in our fights. But hey, I suppose that helped, too. I mean if he agreed with Loki, well. It was probably worth considering. Anyway, so Tony takes us out and starts explaining how this thing, this shield, it won’t hold forever, and that Loki’s fighting for us really, but even he can’t hold that back on his own. So, in the end, Phil and I ended up training the first few volunteers –none of them from the former military, mind you. Those… I think at the time they had their own militia, something like that. Resentment, you know? Not that I blame them for not trusting Loki right away but, you know, it kind of made things more difficult. Anyway so we get saddled with this bunch of kids and bakers and bankers, and somehow we manage to make them into half decent soldiers, and we kind of expect Loki to keep them as palace guards or something… but then he cuts them into five teams and sends them to the nearest nurseries.”
“The nurseries?” Steve repeats, incredulous. “Why?”
“Because he actually cares about babies, humans or otherwise. Though, if you value your balls, you’ll avoid saying that when anybody else than us can hear you.”
Steve spins on the couch, twists his back to look toward the door and, sure enough, Tony Stark is there, cleaner but more disheveled than he was this morning, mouth relaxed but careful as he leans on the wall.
“Hey Tony. Wanna take a seat?”
“Depends. You gonna punch me Cap’?”
Steve closes his mouth, shakes his head, and Tony nods before he comes to sit beside Clint.
He’s wearing the same black pants and heavy boots as everyone, but the faded T-shirt from this morning is gone, replaced by a white shirt and a sleeveless red vest that lets the glow of the arc reactor show.
He looks comfortable here, Steve thinks. Looks like someone who’s had time to get used to the room, scatter bits of his life between the cushions and leave more than one beer stain on the kitchen table.
He doesn’t sag as much in his chair, and it feels new to see him like that, not quite elegant yet, but far from being as nonchalant as he used to. The way he pats Clint’s knee is new as well, and there’s another story here, Steve guesses, woven through the years he missed, hidden away as he was.
He wonders if he’ll get to hear that story someday.
“You know, when you get to know him, and when you bother listening to him, really listening, not just trying to tell if he’s lying or not, well. Loki’s not a bad guy.” Tony’s smile grows more mischievous and he adds: “Though I wouldn’t exactly call him a good guy either. He is a gigantic tease, after all.”
“Ookay Romeo, enough with you love life,” Clint chuckles, and Steve chokes on his tea.
“You –you slept with Loki?” Steve asks when he can breathe again, red faced and teary-eyed.
Clint and Tony burst out laughing, and Steve feels like he’s the butt of a joke right now.
They have the delicacy to sober up –or try to- quickly, though, and then Tony gestures for Clint to keep talking while he picks up something to eat from the plate.
“Where was I again?”
“Oh, yeah. Nearly finished then.” Clint smiles, and pops a few grapes in his mouth before he goes on: “So, Loki sent the guards to the nurseries, and then the next group of them to the hospitals… and when all those were in place, he sent the rest to defend the cities and strategic points until we could get some help.”
“Took its sweet time coming,” Tony grumbles around a mouthful of meat, and Clint punches him lightly. “What? ‘S true! I mean, Loki sent Thor not a random dude.”
“Thor?” Steve asks, seizing the opportunity to learn more about his friend’s whereabouts. “Thor’s free?”
“Well, yes and no,” Tony says with a smirk. “There’s a few rules he’s got to follow when he comes here, but he doesn’t complain, so. Aside from that yeah, he’s free to come and go as he please.”
“And that first time,” Clint butts in with a gesture signaling for Tony to shut up, “it was him Loki sent to Asgard to ask for help. You know how they say the nine realms are connected by the branches of a tree, and we always kind of assumed ‘realm’ meant ‘planet’?”
“Yeah…” Steve says, carefully setting his food back onto the tray.
He does have vague recollections of Thor rambling about realms and elves and rainbow bridges.
“Well it turns out we were mistaken, and the Realms are more like Dimensions, each with their highest point of culture, and their Rainbow Bridge is a good way to cross the space between each dimension. So Midgard isn’t only Earth it’s named for Earth, and the universe surrounding us, including other galaxies and shit like that, are also part of Midgard.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Steve says, memories of school coming in, “but the universe is infinite!”
“That’s what we’re considering to be true, yes,” Tony says with a smile that lets Steve know he anticipates his next remark:
“So this means that there are… nine infinities?”
“Apparently,” Clint shrugs. “You kinda forget about it after a while, anyway.”
“How is that even possible?” Steve wonders, and Tony shrugs.
“Same way our universe can be both infinite and in constant expansion, I suppose. Don’t lose sleep about this though, Cap. ‘S not like it’ll change your life or anything.”
“Yeah,” Clint approves, kicking Tony’s foot out of his way to get to the jug of wine, “it’s more a detail you need to know for things to make sense right now, but after that you can just forget it.”
“Unless it comes back to bite us in the ass,” Tony remarks wryly, and Clint mirrors his grimace.
“Yeah, okay, maybe not forget but not think about it too much, anyway.” Clint shrugs again, because of course, the both of them have made their peace with the weirdness of it all a long time ago, and Steve wonders if he’ll stop feeling left out of his own life someday or if he’s condemned to feel like that forever. “The point is, the aliens that attacked us, they weren’t from Earth but they were still from Midgard, and that caused some problems.”
“What, because these things came from our world?”
“What do you want?” Tony sighs, and he sounds more tired about this than he used to, “Politics are always stupid. As it turns out, Asgard spent nearly three months debating whether or not it was a good idea to send us help or not before remembering that hello Loki doesn’t ask for help unless he has to.”
“He could have left you know,” Clint says after a while. “He could have left us to die on our miserable planet, save his ass and start over somewhere else, but he didn’t. He stayed, and he fought, and there were more than a few times when we wondered if he could die.”
“At one point, I even thought he would,” Tony says.
Steve isn’t sure how he should react to the darkness in Tony’s eyes.
They stop talking for a while, enjoying their meal and leaving Steve to analyze what he’s been told, to digest it, so to speak, or at least as much as he can in one day. The light is getting lower though, and Clint claps his hands, causing the ceiling to literally come alive as small white spheres separate from it, shedding a soft honey light on their little trio.
Steve watches them dance for a while before he asks, more than a little breathless:
“He really did change the face of the world, didn’t he?”
“He saved it first,” Clint confirms. “All by his lonesome.”
“What happened?” Steve asks, choosing to treat this like any other story for now, and reconcile the two Lokis warring in his head later.
“I’m not really sure,” Clint sighs. “I wasn’t with him when that happened, my unit and I were trying to contain an attack on Beijing, and Phil was stuck somewhere around London to help organize hospitals or something.”
“Right. I’d forgotten you two ended up in his militia.”
“Oh, not just in his militia. By the end, we were at the head of it. Basically, what he’d come to ask me that time in my cell, was to help defend the world. I think that’s also what he wanted from you when he started visiting you but… you know, for all that people call him Silvertongue, he’s not really good at asking for things, especially not help.”
“Damn right he’s not,” Tony says, gulping a mouthful of beer, “I had to keep nagging at him for months before he agreed to ask you guys for help.”
“So you knew I was captive then,” Steve says, and he’s surprised to find himself disappointed rather than angry. “You knew I could only see one person a day, and you never visited me… did you even try?”
“I wanted to,” Clint admits, sadly. “I wanted to, and so did Phil. But there was a war going on, and a military to reform, and battles to fight… and then, when the war was over –which took about five more years, mind you- there were cities to rebuild, countries to reorganize –do you have any idea how time consuming it is to build a world republic? The politics, the revolutions in science and theology….”
“Wait…” Steve interrupts, confused. “Revolution in theology? Are you sure?”
“Yep,” Tony confirms, smirking again now. “Another one of those things that came in just at the right moment to save our ass.”
“Swearing is the only reason you enjoy coming here so much don’t you?” Clint asks good naturedly. “Because there’s no other place you can do it.”
“I’ll have you know, I have plenty of occasions to swear in the bedroom. And the kitchen, and behind curtains, and….”
“Okay, we get it,” Steve says, uncomfortable, and Clint sniggers:
“Remember that time Phil and I ran into the two of you? After that guy from Whateverheim brought those super-boring dancing octopus?”
They burst into laughter, and maybe it’s something in the air or maybe it’s seeing his friends again in these new men, but Steve joins them, and it feels very, very good.
“Seriously though,” Steve says after they’ve laughed so much they’re all breathless, and Clint has to smother a fit of hard coughing with a shaking fist, “I still have a lot of questions to ask, and I’m assuming Tony won’t have much time for me tomorrow.”
“I can make some,” Tony offers as he shifts to lay his feet on the table, too close to the food tray for Steve’s taste. “In fact, I think we all could. It’s not like we’ve taken a vacation in a long time, and I bet Jörm could run the house while we’re gone.”
“Nah, I don’t think I feel up to it,” Clint says. “Old age does that to a person, you know.”
“Old age my ass,” Tony says with the voice of someone who already had this conversation. “You’re merely looking for a pretext to stay within reach of Phil’s grave.”
“Look, dude, I get it, ok? I wouldn’t want to go either in your place. But you’d be here to force my ass out anyway. You’re not dead yet. You’re allowed to have fun. Heck, you’re expected to have fun, or you’re gonna get your ass handed to yourself when you join Phil in Valhalla.”
Clint sighs, defeated, and Steve watches him slump in his seat, shoulders hunching as Tony snakes an arm around them in a comforting one-armed hug. They stay like that for a moment, until they seem to remember they’re not alone, and Clint explains –without moving out from under Tony’s arm:
“I’m going to die. I don’t know when, and I haven’t decided how yet, but I will. Tony won’t.”
“Why?” Steve asks, thinking back on the surprise he felt when he discovered Clint had aged and Tony hadn’t. “Why won’t you die, Tony?”
“Because I accepted the apples.”
Tony sighs, mumbles something that sounds suspiciously like ‘long night ahead’ and runs a hand over his face before he leans forward, elbows on his knees and chin on his hands, and speaks in a voice that belongs more to a storyteller than to Steve’s obnoxious best friend.
“I think if you want to understand properly, I need to go back to the beginning. Or, well. My beginning, at least.” He sighs again, older than he was despite the lack of change in his body, and he continues: “I’m not sure what happened to you guys after you were taken, but when Loki’s little pests got me that day, I was bleeding out on the ground, and pretty fast. Loki found me around the time where I was starting to see flies that weren’t really there, so he didn’t really have much time to do anything. And anyway, by that time the hospitals had better things to do than take care of the billionaire casualty, so I was kind of saying my prayers –or as close to it as I know how to do anyway- and preparing myself to follow Bruce and Fury, when I see Loki just… running toward me with the kind of face he used to make when he went for Thor. You know the one. This thing he did with his eyebrows that meant serious business.”
“Yeah,” Clint says, “I remember that one.” Steve nods as well, and Tony goes on:
“So anyway, I’m there, dying, trying to say something smart because you always need a good quote to put on your tombstone, and the guy just shove this piece of dried apple into my mouth and just makes me swallow it, like stuffing a goose. And –don’t ask me how I could tell, but I could- the bleeding stopped. Like, we’re talking a full on open artery there, and it stopped just like that, because Loki gave me an apple.”
“The same magic apples that gave the cure for cancer and AIDS?” Steve shifts in his seat, interested in more than just the apples, and keeps his gaze on Tony’s face even when Clint reaches between them to take another gulp of wine.
“Yep, just those.” Tony confirms, reclining. “So anyway, that stopped the bleeding, but it wasn’t enough to bring me back to full health or anything. Just like the meds don’t give you immortality, you gotta eat the fresh fruit on a regular basis for that. Long story short, I end up half-dead on Loki’s bed in the warehouse he used before we got the palace made, and I wasn’t exactly in a state to escape.” He smirks, that one mischievous smile Steve always thought made him look like a child, and says: “I did cause him to call me an annoying little shit several times, though.”
Steve laughs along with Clint, because he can so picture it, Tony lying on a bed, probably tied to it as well, and doing his best to spill out the most annoying, antagonizing, outrageous things he could think of at the time. It does sound funny when you hear it years later, with the proof that no long-term sequel ever came out of it.
“He must have been furious,” Steve says, because after all, what better way to make Loki angry than to mock his ego and his plans, uh?
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. I mean, I had him pretty ruffled a couple of times, and we’ve all seen what he was like when he fought Thor, but Steve. You’ve never seen Loki when he really loses his shit.”
“And you did see it then?” Steve asks, reluctant to believe that the psychopath he remembers was merely annoyed, rather than full-on crazy.
“Oh yeah I did, as soon as I made the mistake to say it was a good thing he wasn’t a daddy because he would have traumatized his kids.”
“Don’t,” Clint warns as Steve opens his mouth to speak. “Just don’t. I had the same reaction, but really the guy surprisingly good with kids.”
“He’s amazing with kids,” Tony says, “And I’m not saying this because I’m with him. You should have seen how he was around Fenrir after he was released from Asgard… kid had a kettleful of PTSD, and Loki didn’t even bat an eyelid, just put everything on hold and took care of it. He’s a Dad,” Tony explains when he notices Steve’s raised eyebrow. “He had six kids at the time. Soon to be eight.”
Tony smiles that silly, goofy grin he used to sport whenever things were going really good for him, and Steve has to prevent himself from shouting in surprise at the implication of that grin. Clint catches his eyes though, and it’s clear on his face that he knows exactly what Steve is thinking. He gives a little nod, and Steve braces himself against the armrest of his chair, because he would never have pegged Tony for the fathering type… Then again, he’s had forty years to change his mind while Steve was stuck into his cell and trying to determine whether it was fair or not to get his caretakers to get attached to him, so this may explain that.
(Steve chooses not to ask how two males can have natural kids together. He doesn’t think he’s ready for the answer.)
“Anyway,” Tony says, literally shaking his grin away, “I told him that and he just… lost it. You know how we always thought he and Thor looked pretty normal? Well that time, he really looked like a God. And before you ask, I don’t know if he’s really a God as we understand it. He says he’s one, but somehow I don’t think it means the same thing to him than it does to us.” Tony gives a lopsided smile and shrugs: “All that to say, I got scared. I mean, honest to goodness piss-in-my-pants scared. He was so angry sometimes I still wonder how he managed not to kill me on the spot. And then, he broke down. I swear, I’ve never seen anyone cry that long, not even Clint that time Pepper beat him at Halo.”
Steve remembers that time.
To be fair to Clint, Steve remembers that was the week his brother died –also, the week they all discovered he had a brother- and that guy from the circus he used to travel with popped in at their door asking for money or whatever, and Clint managed to hide the importance of winning at videogame this night pretty well until Pepper smashed him to the metaphorical ground.
Steve also remembers spending the next four hours trying his best to make Clint fell better, along with the others, because they may have been a dysfunctional family, but they were a family all the same, and they protected their own.
It feels fresh in his memory, yet Clint doesn’t look particularly concerned, like mentioning a wound that has had ample time to scar, and Steve smiles at that, glad that his friend isn’t suffering from this anymore.
“So,” Tony continues, “I know I’m an asshole, but I don’t kick people when they’re down, and frankly nobody can fake that level of hysteria, not even Loki. Long story short we talked, he told me about the war, how he needed help to protect the planet, and I offered to help.”
Tony shrugs like it doesn’t matter that he offered instead of accepting –and, well. Maybe it really doesn’t. After all, if Steve had known all the facts, if he’d known it was either work with Loki or let the world die, he’d probably have accepted, too. Not happily so, but he would have.
“We came up with a plan for a shield, something that would at least protect the major population areas and allow for… well. Survival. They wouldn’t save the entire planet, but a good chunk of us would manage to resist just about anything, now that the shield is built. But anyway. At the time, we were just getting started on the applications of magic to science and vice-versa. Hence the old-fashioned fighting. And Loki, well… he helped. A lot. Because he was already powerful at the time, and he really did throw himself into the fight –though I still don’t really understand why.”
“And what happened?” Steve asks, and he is dimly aware that he’s leaning forward, elbows on his knees and chin in his palm, and Clint chuckles lightly, before he sighs:
“Well, nothing pretty, as far as I know. I think he got his by a missile?”
“Missile, laser, whatever,” Tony says darkly. “What you have to understand,” Tony says as he turns to Steve, “is that at that point, he’d been fighting a good chunk of the invasion by himself for several weeks, because the militia –which was really ridiculously small- was busy on another front. It lasted for a long time, and there were more than one time we thought he’d die of his wound.”
“But he didn’t,” Steve states.
“But he didn’t,” Clint echoes. “I don’t know what kind of spell he put on himself, but it’s efficient. I’ve seen him take hits that would have left Thor on the ground and just… basically get up and go back to the melee.”
“Of course,” Tony adds between two mouthfuls of cake, “We learned afterwards that Frost Giants –that’s his species- are stronger than Asgardians. Thor lifts around thirty tons when he’s really, really angry. Loki can go up to eighty if you try and touch his kids.”
“Who, by the way, were very helpful in the war. Those who could, anyway,” Clint adds, stretching his arms.
“Yeah well, let’s finish the part about Loki before we go into my awesome step-kids uh?”
Steve never thought of himself as the type to choke on thin air. Maybe he should have, though.
“You and Loki are married?” he asks, and Tony grins, while Clint rolls his eyes.
“They tied the knot about –what, five years ago now? Quite the sober ceremony, I must say –then again, surprisingly enough, Loki isn’t that fond of grand ordeals or anything.”
“Yes, well, let’s just leave that for the end, okay?” Tony says after a while, lips still curling into a smile, and Clint snorts. “Where was I again?”
“Uh… Loki was hit by a missile… I think,” Steve prompts, and Tony nods, his smile vanishing, while Clint pours them all a new glass of wine.
“Yeah, that.” Tony takes a gulp of his wine and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand before he continues: “At that point we were this close to losing,” he says, demonstrating with his thumb and forefinger. “And most of those who live in the city were out and watching… we’d have died if he lost anyway, so it seemed the thing to do. Anyway, Loki was hit and it looked like he wouldn’t be able to go up. And then, suddenly, there’s this little girl, a servant’s kid, who start screaming for him to wake up.” Tony looks into the distance, like he’s seeing that little girl again after all these years. “Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t love him, not yet. Most people still remembered him as the villain that tried to destroy their city and all. But he was our last hope. So somehow, people took up the word. Turns out, Loki and the other guys from his dimension… they channel power and energy from belief.”
“What do you mean?” Steve asks, not sure he understands what Tony is trying to tell him.
“It means that the more people pray to his name, the more powerful he is,” Clint explains. “What those people did that day, it was a prayer, even if it was unrefined.”
“Exactly,” Tony approves, munching on a slice of cheese. “And that’s what saved us, because that’s what saved him. And you see, the thing with faith, is that it grows every time you do something impressive.”
“So now, Loki is what… a God on earth?” Steve asks, and Tony nods.
“He saved an entire city all on his own,” Clint says, keeping count with his fingers, “he single-handedly kept an invasion at bay for about five years, he brought the cure for cancer, AIDS and old age, he brought us world peace, nearly suppressed hunger… Yeah, he’s pretty much a God. Remember when I talked about revolutions in Theology? Well, that’s ‘cause a lot of people abandoned their religion for his cult.”
“Did… did they?” Steve says, and somehow that sounds bigger than anything because, well… he was raised in a society that was still quite religious, after all, and the fact that said religion may have disappeared….
“Yeah,” Tony confirms from where he’s still munching on his cheese. “I can see why. Easier to believe in a guy you can see on TV or in the street than in one you’re not even sure exist. Lots of people do both, though, weird as it is.”
“And what do you do?” Steve asks him. “Do you worship Loki too?”
“Course I do,” Tony grins. “But only in the bedroom. Otherwise, it’s not religious belief, it’s trust. He’s my husband, remember? I know what he’s like and what he can do. And I’ve learned to trust him long before I started to love him.”
The way Tony speaks, it’s easy, it’s simple. He looks comfortable saying this, used to the ins and outs of a relationship, of marriage, and Steve can’t help but think back of how it was back then, back when mentioning his relationship with Pepper meant risking him go down to his workshop and not come up for the next two days, long enough for you to switch topic. Steve remembers that, not so long ago, Tony would have denied even concern for Rhodey or Pepper’s health, and he stares, happy that things are different now, but wishing he’d been here to see them change.
“I don’t think I could have done that if you’d been there, Cap,” Tony says quietly when Steve voices his thoughts. “You were the only thing I had left of Howard. Being near you… To me it was like being near him, except this time I had a chance to get some approbation, you know?” He sighs and says: “I understand that it wasn’t a walk in the park for you, and it wasn’t one for us either. And believe me, I wish things could have gone differently. But to be perfectly honest, I think being cut from you helped me to let go of Howard.” He snorts. “Well. That, and to be recognized as myself instead of Iron Man.”
“And the kids,” Clint points out, and Tony nods.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “And the kids.”
“What about them?” Steve asks then, not wanting to dwell on the bittersweet feeling Tony’s words provoke in his gut –after all, even if he is happy that his friend feels better, he wishes his absence hadn’t been a condition of that change. “Aren’t they supposed to be millenniums old?”
“Oh, they are,” Tony says, shifting the leather bracelet he wears on his right wrist so that the red stone opens.
Steve sees a small light appear, a greenish yellow that reflects on Tony’s face and mixes with the blue of his arc reactor. There is a sphere floating above Tony’s wrist, and Steve comes closer to see what’s inside. What he discovers is a black stallion with eight legs and the proudest stance Steve has ever seen on a horse.
“That’s Sleipnir,” Tony explains. “He’s the oldest. Then you’ve got Jömungandr” –the sphere shifts to reveal an emerald-colored snake coiled around….
“Is that the empire state building?” He asks, and Tony smirks:
“Big boy, isn’t he? And he’s grown up since.”
Steve’s mouth falls open, and Clint laughs, before he says:
“Don’t worry, he looks mostly human most of the time.”
“Mostly?” Steve asks, voice still faint.
“As human as you can look when you’re blue and ten feet tall,” Tony shrugs. “He’s a gentle giant though, don’t worry. You’ll see when you meet him.”
Steve nods, but he’s not really sure he feels entirely reassured at the idea of meeting someone that big.
“Jörm was very useful for general defense, especially on the seaside,” Tony explains. “He also helped build underwater shelters –I worked with him for a while, on the first project. He’s been swimming out there for long enough that he knew all the best places. He’s also quite good at magic –second best behind his sister.”
“He got Phil out of a nasty fight, too,” Clint adds. “Took the ship in his mouth and brought it to the other side of the globe. Pretty sure the only thing that’s weirder than hearing the story is to live it.”
“This,” Tony continues, shifting the stone again, “is Hel. Ruler of the dead and generally not someone you wanna cross –the brainbags found that out the hard way when they ate one of Sleipnir’s front legs.”
The woman in the sphere looks beautiful and terrible, the right half of her body a pale shade of blue, and the left black as ink, as if she’d been tattooed all over. Steve can’t help but stare. Her eyes, most of all, look at him, and it doesn’t feel like it’s just an image of her, but rather like she’s really here with them, especially when she smirks.
Steve raises his eyes to Tony’s, who chuckles and says:
“Hel, stop messing with Steve’s head, please.”
The woman giggles elegantly –and Steve is surprised that it’s even possible- before she hops down from the pendant, growing to an ordinary human size with a puff of black and blues smoke that curls around Steve’s ankles like water. She looks even more impressive up close, high cheekbone and brilliant eyes, scars curling around her forehead and arms like jewels engraved in her skin.
“It works too well to pass,” the woman says, voice sounding like it comes from far away. “And mother would like you to know that you and your guest are welcome to join him for dinner.” She looks around the room, and her eyes rest on the abandoned plate of cheese and roasted meat, and she says: “Though judging by the look of things, I daresay you already have eaten yours.”
“It’s nearly midnight,” Tony frowns. “Is he only dining now?”
“Pandora is still giving him trouble,” Hel shrugs. “He still loathes the name, by the way.”
“Yeah but those guys really look like they’re out of Cameron’s movie,” Tony protests, and Hel shrugs:
“It’s not me you have to tell this to, but Mother. Shall I tell him you wish to remain with your fallen hero?”
“His name’s Steve,” Clint says, chuckling. “I’m sure you can remember it if you make a little effort.”
“When I’m certain he won’t upset Mother, I will,” Hel says.
“Course you will,” Tony agrees with an indulgent smile. “Now bring us there, I wish to have words with my spouse.”
“Why, Stark, you speak more like one of us every day.”
“I blame everything on you,” Tony retorts, and Hel smirks, before she extends her arms outward.
Steve feels like a fist is twisting at his guts for the briefest of moment, blue smoke filling the room, before he finds himself in a room large enough to welcome a few hundred of people and still feel comfortable.
“Do we really have to use the grand dining room?” He says, scrunching his nose, and a man with ebony skin pops up beside him, knocking their shoulders together.
“Your apartments are still destroyed, remember? So unless you find a way to have Jörm fit in the kitchens….”
“No,” Tony states firmly, and the man laughs, salutes Clint with a shake of his hand.
“And this must be the star-spangled man,” he says looking at Steve, who finds himself blushing.
“Uh… yes, that’s me.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the man says. “My name is Sleipnir.”
He’s tall, taller than Steve, or even Thor, and his fingers feel as hard as hooves in Steve’s hand, but it’s his eyes that get him. They’re dark and soft, like fabric worn for a long time and fuzzy with use. They look old, too, so much older than Steve would have imagined. They’re the eyes of someone who has seen death and loss and grief. They’re the eyes of a veteran.
“Pleased to meet you too,” Steve says, and he finds that he means it.
“Well, at least he’s polite.”
Steve looks up to see a blue mountain of a man hovering above him, tons of ice-hard muscles and decorative scars ready to fall down on the former Captain America at the first misstep, and Steve stares, floored. Still, it doesn’t last for long, because suddenly, Tony is at his stepson’s side –his head barely reaches Jörmungandr’ hipbone- and patting his thigh.
“Now, now, don’t be mean to my guest and don’t terrorize him, please. Why don’t we all sit down and wait for your mother to come in?”
“Alright,” the giant grunts, and Steve follows everyone to the end of a giant table closest to the throne.
It’s made of silver and white gold, with a dais of pale green fabric hanging high above it, like a lake suspended in the air. Steve notes the second seat, slightly smaller but still on the same level, and then, a step below, five smaller and more sober seats. Behind those, part of the wall is carved to allow someone to sit in there, someone who would be about ten feet tall. Steve feels a hand grip his shoulder, and when he turns to Clint for explanation, he notices the hole carved in the ground, barely ten inches from his feet.
Jörmungandr has already lowered himself in the hole, and is now helping Tony across. The table, carved wood and steel reinforcements, is like a bridge over the hole, and Steve realizes it’s Jörmungandr’s seat, made to allow him to sit at the same table as everyone else.
“Don’t look so surprised,” Tony says. “Did you really expect us to make him eat outside or something?”
Not you, Steve thinks. Just Loki.
He keeps silent, however, and watches as Tony sits down at the head of the table, on the right side of another carved seat. There’s a third one next to it, wider but shorter, and made of gold. Sleipnir sits on Tony’s right, and Hel is on his right. The both of them are seated in front of Jörmungandr, whose width equals that of two ordinary persons, and Clint sits on the man’s right, but one chair down, like they’re missing someone. Steve sees Hel gesture for him to come and sit next to her, so he goes to walk around Jörmungandr’s hole in the ground, but then there’s the twisting sensation again, and he’s standing behind his assigned chair, where he sits down without protest.
All the others are looking at him now, Clint and Tony and Tony’s step-kids, and he feels like he’s being judged, like they’re trying to assess whether or not he’s going to be a menace to anyone or anything, and it astonishes Steve that he honestly can’t find an answer. Not because he doesn’t know his own intentions –he knows full well that he wants to do the right thing- but because he’s not sure of what is the right thing to do right now.
Beside him, Hel looks like she’s taking pity on him, and she claps her hand for a servant to bring wine.
“I hear that you are not able to get drunk anymore,” she says, “But I am quite certain you never tasted this kind of wine before. Tell me, how did you find being out of your cell so far?”
“Confusing,” Steve answers, and Sleipnir chuckles.
“I imagine mother did not do much to help the feeling,” he says to Tony, who smirks.
“Well. You’ve known him longer than I did,” he says. “But let’s speak of something happier. How are your kids?”
“Amazingly well,” Sleipnir says, and when he smiles, his face lights up like the sun is shining from within. “Pegasus is taking them for their first flight tomorrow, she’s delighted.”
“Wait,” Steve asks, “Pegasus?”
“Did you think we were the only ones alive?” Jörmungandr asks. “Just because the legends never mention our meeting doesn’t mean we don’t know immortals from other parts of the world.”
“Sleipnir and Pegasus have been married for a while now,” Tony says. “Way longer than I’ve been with their dad, though from what I understand, the marriage had to stay a secret for a long time.”
“Odin’s steed may not marry,” a voice says from behind the throne, “but my son can.”
Steve looks up to discover a woman standing there, green toga draped over her heavy belly, her black-as-ink hair tumbling down to her waist in soft waves while her hand rests on the neck of a wolf that reaches up to her shoulder.
“You’re late,” Hel scolds. “You said you would be here in a minute.”
“Blame your future siblings,” the woman says, and Steve suddenly recognizes Loki in the slant of her lips. “I have no idea what they are, but I know they’re vigorous, if nothing else. It was easier walking around with Jörm in my womb, and that’s saying something.”
Steve looks at Clint, brow furrowed, because when Tony said ‘soon to be eight’ he thought he meant his children would be here in eight months or so, not within the month. And besides, he clearly remembers Loki seeing him this morning with a flat belly –and in his male form but he’s quite certain the belly would have showed even then.
“I sent a clone this morning,” Loki says as if hearing Steve’s thoughts.
Tony chuckles and goes to help Loki down the steps that lead from the throne to the table, while the wolf trots up to Jörmungandr’s place, leaps over it, and then presents his head to hid older sibling. Steve sees turquoise tendrils of light curls around the wolf’s head and body, and then in a flash it’s a boy of twelve that’s standing there, dressed in dark grey furs and soft skin boots.
He climbs onto the empty chair between Jörm and Clint, and then stares at Steve with big, curious red eyes.
“Is this the stubborn mortal?” He asks, and Steve turns to Loki.
He is stunned to discover him –her?- with a tender expression on his face, love and relief and sadness all mixed up into one, like those mothers Steve remembers getting their kids back from the army or the Gestapo. It’s a face that speaks of long times spent worrying about your child’s life, of things kids shouldn’t have to see and the unattainable desire to wipe it all away and make it okay with a hug.
It is that expression that convinces Steve of one thing. If there’s only one fickle of truth in all that he’s heard today and tonight –and he’s almost sure, now, that there’s more than that- it’s that Loki loves his children. Loki, with his usually blank face and blank eyes and furious body language, Loki who birthed some of the most feared monsters of the legend, love those children more than Steve can ever imagine, and it feels like a punch to his gut to realize it.
“Yes,” Loki says, “He is.”
“Then I don’t like him,” the boy says, and Loki laughs just as Tony signals for food to be brought on the table.
“Now, don’t say that,” Sleipnir says. “I’m sure he’s not all that bad if Tony and Clint like him.”
“You like him?” the boy –Steve supposes it must be Fenrir- asks to Tony, and he sounds hurt and betrayed.
“Well you see….”
“The Captain of America did what he thought was right,” Loki says, stunning the rest of the table into silence. “He paid his due for delaying our reunion, and now he has a chance to start anew. Now eat your meat, Fenrir. It’s still warm, as you like it.”
Steve looks at Fenrir’s plate and all he sees is a piece of raw meat, which says a lot about why it’s still warm. Fenrir, however, doesn’t touch his plate, and looks at Steve with undisguised animosity. Looking around him, the former super hero doesn’t really feel surprised to see the boy’s siblings staring at him with intense expressions too, and he is reminded of his army instructor, back when he applied for the super soldier program.
“But what if he tries to change things and bring them back to what they were before?” Fenrir asks, and it’s Clint who answers:
“How do you know?”
“Because he’s mine and Tony’s friend,” Clint says, looking at Steve right in the eyes –and it makes Steve feel like he’s being warned. “And Tony and I love you. So he won’t do anything that could harm people we love.”
“But what if he does?” Fenrir insists, and Clint frowns:
“You don’t harm people that are loved by the people you love,” Clint says, and Steve hears the bone handle of Loki’s knife crack open.
“That’s the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard,” Sleipnir says. “And it’s really not a guarantee.”
“Uncle Thor put me in the chains,” Fenrir says quietly, and Jörmungandr wraps an arm around his shoulder, while Steve stares at Loki’s face.
He looks closed off, lost in grievance that are probably more than a few centuries old, and Tony puts an arm around his waist, kisses his temple in order to make him relax. It takes a few painful heartbeats, but eventually Loki’s shoulders appear less strained, his jaw less clenched, and he releases the cracked knife.
Steve watches the way Loki’s nostrils are flaring, the way his children are looking at each other in concern, the way they look like they want to curl up together and never let go, and he realizes something important. Something he thinks is probably the most important question he could ask right now.
“Loki, why did you want Earth?”
There’s a stunned silence as Loki stares at him, then at Clint and Tony, who both signal that they don’t have the answer to Steve’s question.
“I never had time to think about it during the war,” Clint explains.
“And after that,” Tony continues, “It’s not like it mattered anymore. But I gotta admit, I’m curious as to why you didn’t leave us all to die when those aliens attacked.”
“And where, pray tell, would I have taken my children?” Loki asks, and it surprises Steve that he looks flabbergasted rather than annoyed, like he thought Loki would be.
“What do you mean?” Clint asks, and it’s Sleipnir who answers:
“Earth is the easiest point of passage between Midgard and Asgard,” he says with the tone of someone addressing a slow child. “Mother knew that once the planet was conquered and secured, Asgard wouldn’t try to overthrow him so long as he did not attack them.”
“Which made it the safest landing point for my children,” Loki approves. “My plan was to conquer Earth, where, by the way, Jörmungandr was already exiled, and to break Fenrir out of Asgard at the same time.”
“Wait,” Steve says, “break him out of Asgard?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Odin kept him chained in a cave almost from the moment of his birth,” Hel says, and Fenrir scoots closer to his massive older brother. “As he kept Sleipnir as his personal mount as soon as he was grown enough to bear his weight. Jörmungandr and I were lucky, as we had some form of freedom, he in the midgardian seas and I in Helheim. But for our brothers, things went differently.”
“I was too young to defend Sleipnir,” Loki says, “And in too bad a state to negotiate Fenrir’s fate like I negociated Jörm or Hel’s.”
“That leave two of your kids out,” Steve points, and Loki’s voice is cold when he says:
“Nari and Vari were born Aesir pink. They have remained that way, and with their mother. She does not wish me to visit them.”
“So…” Steve hesitates for a moment, not knowing how his question is going to be received, but he feel it’s one he needs to ask if he wants a chance at settling here and concentrate on giving Tasha the life she deserves. “All this time, when you fought us, you did it only to give a home to your kids?”
“It provided a good diversion,” Loki says. “While Thor was preoccupied with my mischief making here on Midgard, he could not fight the Allfather’s quests, which forced him to send entire garrisons where Thor and his foolish friends may have succeeded alone, if I had been there to help them. This in return meant that there were fewer guards to manage the cells, and why bother keeping an eye on a child who supposedly has no memory of his time before the chains?”
Jörmungandr gets up then, pointing to Fenrir whose face is buried in the space between his biceps and his lowest ribs, legs and knees tucked in the crook of his older brother’s elbow. Loki nods, and Jörm starts toward the door, but Hel’s black and blue smokes ensnare her brothers, plus Sleipnir and herself, and in an instant they are gone. Loki sighs.
“I should not have mentioned this so carelessly.”
“It’s going to save everyone a lot of trouble in the long run though,” Clint points out. “So I think you did the right thing.”
“We’ll go see him as soon as we’re done here,” Tony promises, and Loki nods.
“I hadn’t anticipated having Thor as a prisoner when I secured the realm. Still, there he was, so I traded him against Fenrir, which spared us a lot of trouble, really. And now, I’m back here, trying to make things work in my kingdom and my family.”
“So… you don’t really care about our well being, do you?” Steve questions. “As humans, I mean.”
“I would kill every single one of you in a heartbeat if it meant keeping my children safe,” Loki says, and Steve is astonished to see Tony beaming at that answer.
“I’m actually sometimes jealous of them,” the billionaire –is he even still a billionaire?- says.
“Would you rather I adopted you, Tony?” Loki says, and Steve sees Tony’s face transform, go from amused and wistful to astonished to touched to carefully controlled in a heartbeat, and a blush rises high on Loki’s cheeks.
“No,” Tony says after a beat, “I think I like being the cool step dad better than I’d like having the cool parent.”
There’s a wetness in Tony’s voice that Steve is not sure he understands, and things are pretty awkward for a while when Tony tugs on Loki’s long hair to bring their mouths together –not that Steve is a complete prude or anything, it’s just… there are kisses for the public, kisses that signal you should remove yourself from public eye in order to reach a bedroom, and then there’s this kind of kiss. It’s the kind where there’s almost no tongue involved and not a hint of hands, save maybe the fingers laced together on the table top, but there’s enough emotion and history in the gesture that Steve feels like an intruder witnessing something he wasn’t supposed to see.
“Okay, whenever you two lovebirds are done,” Clint says, sounding as uncomfortable as Steve feels, but with a lot more fondness for the couple.
“Hey,” Tony protests when they finally part, “It’s not every day I get on first name basis with my spouse!”
Clint laughs at that, and Steve can’t help but join him despite the weirdness of that statement.
Finally, he is starting to feel at ease with the situation –maybe not with everything yet, but he is, at least, starting to believe that the Loki he knew and this new ruler are really one and the same and that, perhaps, one day he will consider Loki as a rightful king of earth, as weird as the notion sounds.
“To answer your question,” Loki says, hand still holding Tony’s, “I don’t care about human race as such, and if it were a choice between all of Midgard and my children, Midgard wouldn’t stand a chance. But for as long as Midgard is their home, I shall protect it and make sure it is a good place to live in. Are you satisfied with that answer, or would you like me to pretend that I fell under the charms of butterflies?”
“No,” Steve answers quickly, “I’d rather have an honest answer. One last question, though.”
“Why didn’t you rebel sooner?” Steve asks. “Why didn’t you force Odin to give your kids back?”
Loki watches Steve’s face for a long time, as if searching for something before he says, slowly:
“Odin may have done horrible things to me and my children, but for all this time, I still believed him to be my father.”
“Do not try to understand, Steve Rogers. You won’t. You don’t know what it is to be unloved.”
Steve watches Tony as he nods, squeezing his spouse’s hand in his own, his face painted with an understanding Steve is ready to admit he doesn’t feel, and probably never will. Across the table, Clint too looks like he gets it, and Steve hopes it doesn’t show that he wishes he could understand how they feel.
Somehow, he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to let that out.
Eventually, they finish diner. Tony and Loki go to find their son –Steve saw the love on Tony’s face. Even if he’s ultra excited at the idea of having his first kids soon, it’s pretty obvious that the ‘step’ in family status doesn’t count in his eyes.
Steve thinks it’s a good thing.
He follows Clint through backstreets and side alleys out of the castle and into the northern part of the city, where royal servants have their specific quarters, and they come to a stop in front of a red door with a single white star in the middle, outlined by glowing blue lamps.
“Do you want me to come in?” Clint asks as they listen to Tasha’s footstep coming closer, and Steve shakes his head.
“I think I’ll be okay for tonight,” he says, “but thank you. I’ll come and see you soon.”
“Or we will. Tony seizes every occasion slack off on his duties,” Clint smiles. “He’s gotten better at it because Pepper made him promise, but he’ll be damned if he’s called responsible.”
Steve chuckles alongside Clint.
It occurs to him that there are still many things he doesn’t know –he has no idea what happened to Natasha, or Happy or Pepper, or Jarvis, not to mention other people he knew. Still, he thinks he knows, now, what Clint, Coulson and Tony saw in Loki that made them reconsider their position. He thinks he knows, at least, why people now feel satisfied with Loki’s reign, and he knows that the alien is far from the evil madman he thought he knew.
“Welcome home,” Tasha smiles as she sneaks her arms around Steve’s neck, the dark chocolate brown of her skin a bright contrast to his even in the dim night. “Do you want to see your son? I’ve had my first sonogram yesterday. I have a DVD.”
“I think it can wait for tomorrow,” Steve says. “I don’t think I can handle that much emotion in one day.”
They close the door quietly behind them, and Tasha leads the way to her bedroom, where they make love with the lights out and without sunlight to remind them that they’re going to be apart for the night. Steve feels like his chest is going to burst with the idea that he is free, now, and that he’ll never have to be trapped again.
That maybe, if he’s lucky, he won’t have to watch Tasha die either.
He still has a lot of questions to ask, and he’s not completely at peace with Loki yet, that he will freely admit it, but he will.
In due time, they will have peace.