Chapter 1: Wrench Me Out of Myself
Every day, before he's even fully awake enough to remember, before he makes the bed with military precision and goes about his morning routine, Steve gets a feeling of wrongness.
Like he's missing something. Like something's missing him.
Like he's not where he's meant to be.
Thor, on the other hand? Thor's about the only one who doesn't find his presence on Earth strange.
More often than not he'll leap out of bed before his eyes are even open, roaring words in a language no one else knows, and attempting to summon lightning. (The bedside table suffered one too many catastrophes from Thor's sleep-swinging of Mjölnir, and has now been removed entirely).
Of course, he'll wake up the moment the damage is done, thump his chest with one massive fist, and proclaim something about great warriors and requiring a breakfast worthy of the gods themselves. Although every inhabitant of the Avengers Mansion has their own room, Thor speaks at a volume that probably renders him audible across the street.
It's an odd start to a daily routine, and it's one that took a while for his fellow Avengers to get used to. Fortunately, Tony was willing to provide everyone with super-soundproof earmuffs.
Even Steve can admit that a lot of the time it's funny.
(That first night when they'd moved into the Stark mansion – wrongStarkwrongStarkwrongStarkwro-- everyone had been grouchy and cagey and wary of their new team-mates, and a tour of the house had been foregone in favour of various combinations of brooding, drinking, and sleep. Of course, that meant that come morning, when the military training still ingrained in Steve got him up at least two hours before everyone else, he had no idea at all where anything was.
Tiptoeing around and pushing open various doors had eventually found him a kitchen, even if it was far shinier and more intimidating than the one he'd been allowed to use since he woke up. S.H.I.E.L.D. had been doing their best to introduce him to the modern world as slowly and carefully as they could, but obviously that was never going to happen with a Stark.
Steve had rolled his eyes, not awake enough to be hit by the crushing waves of guilt and sorrow that usually came with thinking of Howard, and dared to step into the kitchen. The number of distorted reflections peering back at him from various metal surfaces in the dim light was definitely in the double digits, and that alone was disturbing enough. Honestly, what was up with Starks and their deep abiding affection for shiny metal things?
Surprisingly, it was easy to locate the coffee machine, despite its monstrous size and its ridiculous number of levers and buttons – and the mugs were actually logically stored in the cupboard above it. Maybe Coulson had been in here already.
The problems only started when Steve actually had to try working the thing.
By the time Natasha was strolling through the door, perfectly done up as always and pointedly snapping over her shoulder at Clint, Steve was sat in the middle of the floor, wide-eyed and wondering if this was what shell-shock felt like, and the kitchen looked like a bomb had hit it. Natasha had stopped dead, a strangled sound that was probably trying desperately not to be a giggle escaping before she could censor it.
Steve raised his big, innocent, blue gaze to her face, and looked so terrified that Natasha couldn't help herself. When Tony staggered in, already sniping about showers and JARVIS and humanity in general, she was sliding down the wall in hysterics, unable to support herself.
Chairs flung back against the walls, table overturned, and each and every cupboard and oven and dishwasher thrown open. Little lights were flashing everywhere, and all the beeping complaints of various appliances were loud enough that they could be heard even over Natasha's laughter.
“I guess we're going to Starbucks for coffee then.”)
Thor still doesn't seem to have any idea what the coffee machine is, or how it works – in fact, now he comes to think about it, Steve is pretty certain that he's never actually seen Thor drink any coffee out of the big, red mug he claimed as his own. He might suspect that Thor has never tried coffee, except that he's met Jane Foster and he knows exactly how much she gets through in a day, so it seems highly unlikely. No one in the Avengers mansion is particularly worried about trying to convince Thor of the benefits of coffee though; after all, a caffeinated Thor? Is there anyone in the world who doesn't shudder at such a horrifying thought?
There was that week in which Clint decided to teach Thor to make hot chocolate. He was tired of being badgered by the god at increasingly inconvenient moments because he wanted “to sup upon that most wondrous and noble of beverages” and Clint was the only one who made it properly, in a saucepan with real chocolate rather than that cheap powder that was “but a mere shadow of its true, glorious taste”. And also he was the only person willing to let Thor add marshmallows.
That week had been stressful and rather traumatising for everyone – and by the end of it, even Natasha had let off her sniping at Clint, who was looking more than a little wild around the eyes, and had been seen stroking his bow and muttering to it whilst glaring at an oblivious Thor.
Thor did learn to make hot chocolate though, and most of Tony's kitchen was apparently fixable, which was good. Fury still isn't very impressed with the enormous amounts of marshmallows the mansion gets through – all of which go on their expenses sheet – despite the majority of the Avengers arguing that they didn't order them, they just didn't argue with the god who did.
Occasionally, it's just plain odd.
(Like the first time they went on a practice mission and Steve was watching Tony dance around Thor throwing insults and gibes until finally Thor got fed up and thwacked his hammer into the ground hard enough that Steve stumbled, let alone Tony – when suddenly, they were surrounding by tinny ringing noises and whistles and beeps and Steve could swear he heard a duck somewhere in the cacophony.
Steve had leapt backwards, swinging his shield up without thinking, but it was like the incessant ringing was following him. It was only after spinning in a circle a few times, and curling round to look behind him, that he noticed that most of the irritating noises had stopped.
And the rest of the Avengers were staring at him.
Clint had a little box thing pressed to his ear, and chuckled at Steve even as he spoke into it.
“Yeah, yeah, we'll be there. Just watching Cap have a mini-freak-out, that's all.”
Steve blushed to the roots of his hair. Even Thor had picked up on cell phones quicker than him.)
It's true. Thor had, remarkably, only needed the concept of a phone explained four (and a half) times before he'd learned it. Admittedly, the other Avengers and most S.H.I.E.L.D. staff still avoid calling him unless they have to (he 's loud at the best of times, and understandably most people find it a tad uncomfortable having him bellow into their ear) and his texts are all entirely in caps lock and using his outdated and long-winded phrasing (they were essentially a visual representation of his usual speech patterns, in fact), but he can at least use the tiny machines quite proficiently when necessary.
At any rate, it's better than Steve stumbling constantly over which way up to hold the phone, and which button answers it without putting it on loudspeaker, and how to turn it off, and remembering to “charge” it – and when it comes to texting he's still caught in that place where he knows he could just about do it were it not for the “predictive text” feature (which is seemingly always wrong) but doesn't yet know how to turn it off. And his team-mates – especially Tony – are being annoyingly unforthcoming on that front.
But sometimes-- sometimes it's awkward and it's alienating and it hurts.
(The team's only been formally together a couple of weeks when the alarm comes in saying that Loki has been spotted in several states across the USA – probably cackling evilly each time, Steve thinks, still grouchy and uncomfortable in his new-but-not role – and that mysterious fires have been springing up exactly two days after he's seen.
And he was seen in Virginia day and a half ago.
Not even an hour passes before the jet is in the air, and they're rushing towards the military-declared Danger Zone, each of them focused on the massive screen installed along one wall of the plane, giving them a view of Fury and Coulson in the War Room back at HQ.
Steve is so preoccupied with the tension in the air, his attention divided between Fury's scowl and barked orders and the files in his hands that he grabbed before they left, that he carelessly pushes the strangeness of the modern plane to the back of his mind. Nothing like a mission to take your mind off your personal problems, after all.
Or at least that was what he had thought.
At first, there are no problems. They get to some spot a little ways away from Washington, D.C., exact location pinpointed by Stark Industries technology, to find nothing out of place. They're focusing on evacuating civilians, and Steve is in his element, pointing and cajoling and shouting as the occasion demands, and it's only procedure to give chase when Loki finally appears, automatically taking the lead and directing the other Avengers to follow just as he would have with his former team.
This time, Loki apparently knew to expect them, and he's brought reinforcements. Steve doesn't even know what to call the bizarre crosses between oversized spiders and machines, doesn't really want to think about it, but he laughs at the sound of Clint's “Take that, spider-bot!” somewhere behind him and to the left.
Swinging his shield off his back, he uses it to carve a path through the creatures, bellowing at Stark when a laser burns through a “spider-bot” far too close for comfort. Steve registers a faint crackle of Tony sniggering over their radio, but doesn't even have time to roll his eyes before he's through the crowd of robots and sprinting after Loki.
His feet are thudding on the grass, and the wind is whistling in his ears, and it takes a few moments for Steve to identify the regimented lines of white rapidly approaching amid all the green. He automatically slows, stumbling slightly, when he understands just where they are.
He can't charge across here, he can't fight Loki in the middle of Arlington.
But the rogue god isn't giving him much choice. Laughing maniacally and swinging his staff around to face Steve, Loki leaps right on top of the Tomb of the Unknowns and suddenly the ground around Steve's feet is exploding.
Setting his shoulders, Steve starts to run again, and the rest of the team is here too, Natasha somersaulting past him, missing a blast by inches, and Tony zooming down right on top of Loki, red against green. When Loki flashes out of sight though, it's all Tony can do to back-pedal until he's hovering horizontal just above the surface of the thankfully unharmed monument. The radio is filled with curses and swearing and muttering at JARVIS.
Steve rolls his eyes, and is about to make some snide comment at Stark when he's dragged off his feet by a hand on his shoulder and a flash of blue light that blinds him, leaves him staggering. A laugh that can't belong to anyone but Loki is right behind him, and Steve straightens, turning to face the noise, shield up in front of him and blinking frantically.
He can still hear the clash of battle, so they can't be that far from the Avengers, but he doesn't have time to get back to them, because suddenly Loki is driving that spear straight at his chest.
The following half hour is a blur. Roars from the Hulk herald the destruction of the vast majority of the spidery machines, and Loki is deflecting arrows that somehow never hit Steve despite the speed with which he is having to move. It's not long before Thor is shouting at his step-brother though, speeding between the rows of graves, hair and cloak twisting in the air behind him.
Just for a moment, everything stops. Crushed right up against the enemy, Steve is close enough to feel the momentary freeze of every muscle in Loki's body as he notices Thor over Steve's shoulder, close enough to hear the murmured “Brother...”.
But then, just as Thor is about to reach them, Loki throws a cocky smile at Steve, and pushes him backwards into Thor's path. By the time they've untangled each other, he's disappeared and the Avengers are standing in (or flying above, in Tony's case) a field of destruction, bits of machine tossed in heaps over the trampled grass.
Miraculously, every tombstone is still standing unharmed and peaceful.
Steve breathes hard, but smiles through it, feeling the thrill of victory run through him. Right at that second, it didn't matter what year it was, or who he was with – they had fought, and they had protected the good people of America, and that was what he had been trained to d--
His breath catches in his throat.
Thor is saying something, voice booming and loud, and a massive hand claps him on the back. Steve staggers under the force, but barely notices, can't tear his eyes away, can't hear the rest of the team putting aside their usual animosity and laughing about their success.
Steve just tries really hard not to cry.
Finally though, Tony lands right in front of him – and its either look up again, or stare at Tony's crotch, which would be sort of awkward.
“All right, Rogers, I'll give you that you can fight well. Even if you are a jumpy son of a bitch,” Tony grins, and his helmet is sliding open, and Steve's heart is hammering in his chest because oh god it's Howard and there's a war going on and Hydra and they have to stop them and--
“Oi, Captain, I just gave you a compliment! Are you even awake in there?”
There's the hand of a heavy metal suit pressing against his chest, warm even through his uniform from all the fighting and electricity, and suddenly Steve snaps back to himself.
The overlay of his previous – his real, his mind whispers longingly – life dissolves, and suddenly it's 2010 again and Tony's in front of him, Howard's son, not his friend, and this Stark isn't grinning at him and laughing about whatever they can find to laugh about in the middle of a war, but he's rolling his eyes and shoving Steve lightly.
Steve gives a lame response, he's not even sure what it is, and lets himself get caught up in the group, in the walk back to the jet and the sniping and jokes about whose moves were best, and who was sloppy, and whether Clint let a spider-bot throw him on top of Natasha on purpose or not.
He refuses to turn around, resists the urge to walk back, or break down, and he forces his mind into the present.
They won, they fought as a team, and Loki's plans, whatever they are, will have to wait until another day.
He very definitely does not think about the tombstone Loki had been about to slam him into, doesn't think about the past and growing up small and picked-on in Brooklyn, doesn't think about successful missions and celebrations and teams in another lifetime. He most definitely does not think of the name “James 'Bucky' Barnes” carved into a slab of white marble, “1918-1945” beneath it, the date of death squeezing around his heart like a noose.)
It's difficult to do anything at all after that, when all Steve wants to do – all he feels like he can do – is curl up in a corner, fisting his hands over his chest, and rock until he can't feel the pain, the guilt, the responsibility for everything he left behind. Until he can't hear their voices, feel slaps on the back and lips on his cheek, can't see the colour from his memories fading away, trickling out ever so slowly, under the barrage of patterns and flashes and lights of this brave new world he woke up in.
He knows there was a debriefing, that he stood at attention and gave his report like the soldier he cannot, will not, stop being. He knows there was a strategy meeting, an argument with Thor over what to about Loki, and dinner in the living room, all of them collapsed across sleek leather sofas, clutching bowls of Clint's homemade pasta and chicken, talking warily now over the hum of the massive television.
Steve is sure that, instead of trying like he normally does, he avoided watching this 'TV' as much as possible, dragged his gaze away whenever it strayed towards the bright colours and brazen 'special effects' that secretly he doesn't want to get used to. He doesn't want to let go of everything just yet, he can't, and he's afraid it would be far too easy to take this incredible invention for granted, just like everyone around him. What if, when he does that, he starts to lose his past, the things he grew up with, the people? Steve knows it won't stop hurting until he lets himself assimilate into this new place that is so like home but just so wrong at the same time, but right now--
Tonight, Steve can't forget.
Steve doesn't think he slept much that night, isn't sure how much of the tossing and turning was in his head, how much was real. There were shadows too, and a glow, moonlight or memories, and when Steve finally gives in, blinks open his prickling eyes to the sun pouring through the window, his head aches and he can't tell if it's from the bad night or from all the thoughts charging around inside his skull.
With a beginning like that, Steve doesn't expect the day to be up to much – and at first, he seems to be proved right. He had dropped the simple blue mug he'd claimed as his own, watched it shatter into pieces all across the floor, and woken up Natasha with the noise. She hadn't been pleased but, as she put it, “At least you're not Barton, Steve. If you were, I might have to kill you.”
He somehow manages to burn toast, and when he heads down to the gym to try to get his head back in order, he manages to break the chain holding up the punching bag, and whack himself in the shin with a dumbbell. It doesn't do any damage, not really, and his physiology will deal with it quickly enough, but that doesn't mean he has to enjoy walking around all day with the ghost of pain in his leg, trying not to limp out of sheer habit. For him, his days of being small and easily breakable are all too recent.
When Fury announces that he has a special assignment for them, Steve is torn between relief and irritation. Relief because maybe having something that actually needs doing will distract him from the lingering whirl of feelings in his gut; irritation because at the rate he's going, he'll screw up any 'special assignment' even more spectacularly.
Of course, when Fury announces said assignment, Steve actually sort of wants to cry.
Coulson shepherds them to the local library, all decked out in their Avengers uniforms – Tony had even been forced into his full armour (not that it was ever very hard to get him to show off his own creation). There's a small crowd of people clustered outside, adults and children and the elderly, all crammed into some semblance of a queue, eagerly awaiting the arrival of 'Earth's Mightiest Heroes'. They may only have been a team for a short amount of time, but any one of them alone could generate a decent amount of excitement. Now that they're all together, it doesn't matter that all they've done so far is argue and bicker and stamp out a few of Loki's mechanical spiders, because surely they're going to save the world and isn't it amazing lucy that's captain america he's meant to be from brooklyn where I grew up you know--
And when he looks in the direction of the voice, he sees a young girl with blonde pigtails clutching the hand of an elderly woman with the brightest brown eyes, and something stutters at the back of him mind, a memory, and suddenly Steve knows that Lucy's grandma is little Margaret Smithson. She'd lived just down the road from him before he'd gone away to war, she'd been five, and now look at her, her whole life lived and a family around her and no idea who the man walking past her actually was.
A librarian guides them into the main room itself, and Steve has his 'people smile' fixed on his face, learned from months of working on the stage, drumming up support for the war effort in the only way he thought he could. His throat has gone all tight, but he tells himself the cozy little place is just stuffy, the books around them must have collected dust, and it must be some lingering form of the asthma that plagued him growing up, never mind that he'd been reformed by the super soldier serum.
They're left alone for a few minutes, while the staff go to work on filtering the public into the room with them, making sure everyone has enough space. Coulson turns to them, stern, and reminds them of how good an opportunity this is to gain public support, that they really can't ruin it this time, some of these children don't have homes to go back to, and watch your language because this is family-friendly, I mean you, Stark.
Steve is nodding. He knows this, knows how to deal with civilians, he did this before. This, for once, is something he can do without feeling out of place and wrong in his own skin. He doesn't like it – ever since he got back on the front lines a couple of yea-- no, seventy years ago, and he stifles a dry sob, but ever since then, he's been unwilling to go back to this world of pandering and acting. He's a soldier, not a hero, but at least this isn't new.
“Honestly, Phil, I don't know what you think of me, I'm a people person, you know--” Tony starts, raising his eyebrows and leering over Coulson's shoulder in the direction of the, ahem, rather well-endowed librarian who was standing at the entrance to the hall. Steve clears his throat quietly and bounces once on his toes. He can see Clint grinning and nodding.
Agent Coulson folds his arms. “You will behave, Stark. As will the rest of you. The idea is for you to read a story to the children here, and then spend some time with them and their families. We need to make sure that it's clear you're not a threat to ordinary people, and that you're here to protect them. The press will be watching, so no mistakes, please.”
He stares them down until there's a general murmur of agreement, all of them shifting uncomfortably like chastised schoolchildren.
And then they're swept up in the whole 'Public Relations' palaver. The press is eager to get some quick interviews, and the public wants to know about them, so they're each pushed up to a makeshift podium, forced to give a quick speech, explain their role, reassure the locals. Tony is eager to step up, full of grins and jokes, carefully hovering the suit just a foot or so above the floor, to the delighted gasps of children and parents alike. Natasha seems perfectly comfortable, dimpling prettily at their audience, and explaining simply how she's with the Avengers “because someone has to show these boys that girls are way more awesome, isn't that right?” with a bright grin. The little girls love her, and parents smile affectionately, and even the little boys think she's just the coolest, mom. Bruce is quiet but friendly, Thor is loud and pompous and a bit strange, but no one calls him on it because he has that sort of personality that just draws you in. Clint has no problems, chats to the crowd like he's known them all his life.
And then it's Steve's turn. He steps up, swallows, fixes his mind in the present.
“Uh, hello, everyone. I guess you all know that I'm Captain America, huh?” and he starts to relax as he sees the kids in the front row grinning up at him, rapt, faces glowing with excitement. “I grew up just a little way away from here, did you know that?” Really, when he ignores the cameras flashing, and his team-mates watching him, intrigued, it's not hard to give a speech about how great it is to be American today, how he's so glad that the United States are even greater than they were when he was a kid, how hard he's going to fight to keep them all safe. When he rounds it off, the roar of applause is deafening – he'd forgotten how loud it could get, but when he turns, blushing, to get out of the way so that this whole event thing can start properly, he's shocked to see the Avengers standing there, clapping too. Natasha is smiling, and Tony's nodding approvingly. Clint cheers, and Thor slaps him on the back. Bruce gives a quiet “Nicely done, Captain Rogers,” as he shuffles past to get back to the little dais that the staff have set up in the corner of the library.
“Hi again, everyone. So, we're going to spend some time with you now, and I've been told that a book you'll all hopefully enjoy is this one--” at this point, he holds up a collection of Dr Seuss rhymes. Steve smiles. “My friends are going to sit in with all of you while I read you some of these poems, if that's all right.”
Surprisingly, Bruce is excellent at talking to the children and the adults together, without sounding patronising. It's sort of adorable really, and when every head in the room turns to look at the Avengers, clustered together as they are, Steve has to force himself not to 'awwww' out loud.
The children and their parents are sat around on chairs, the floor, bean bags, and stools. Some of them are tucked up next to tables, books and toys and crayons spread out around them, but every single child is looking eagerly at the team, clearly hoping they'll decide to sit next to them.
Clint is the first to move, and he bounces over to where a few boys seem to be mock-fighting with dinosaur toys. He offers high-fives to the group and promptly sits down, pulling a tyrannosaurus rex towards himself and making a ferocious growling noise. The spatter of giggles that follows encourages Steve to make his way over to a boy diligently colouring in at a table in the corner, quiet and a little bit alone.
“Hey there.” He taps the boy's shoulder gently, shooting a look at the man he assumes is the kid's father for permission – and receives a beaming smile in return. The boy turns, wide-eyed, but doesn't say anything. “Is this seat free?”
The boy nods, still silent, but Steve just smiles softly and sits down. Pulling over a spare piece of paper and a crayon, he pretends not to notice the little boy watching him with interest, letting him get used to his presence.
He's starting to feel better already.
By halfway through the book, most everyone is staring up at Bruce, listening raptly. His quiet, lilting voice is really suited to reading aloud, and he's just animated enough to make the poems fun without sounding irritating.
Tony is gently bouncing a brunette girl in a pink dress on his lap while she grips his armoured hand with chubby little fingers. Natasha is sitting on the floor in front of some slightly older girls on chairs, letting them brush and braid her hair, while simultaneously playing hand games with a boy in a fire engine top. Clint's dinosaur is apparently being torn apart by rabid diplodocuses, and Steve is showing Charles – the quiet little boy with a floppy brown fringe – how to draw a dog.
Thor is sat right in the middle of the group of smaller children on the floor, staring up at Bruce, utterly engrossed in the poem, forehead furrowed as though he's giving deep thought to the antics of the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat.
Steve can't help but smile.
When the book is finished, most of the children clamour for more, some of them climbing into Bruce's lap. He laughs and pats their hair, patiently explaining that they have to go away and work now, that although they'd love to, they can't stay any longer. Charles' father shakes Steve's hand, looking ever so slightly starstruck, and Charles himself hugs Steve around the shoulders before letting his parents coax him out, clutching his drawings in one hand.
Steve is just stretching, rolling shoulders that are uncomfortable from being curved over a tiny table like this, when he happens to glance towards Thor – and so notices the odd flush on his face, and the way his gaze is fixed on the door. Following the direction of the stare, Steve twitches at the sight of Loki – this time simply wearing an elegant suit and looking positively harmless – leaning against the door jamb, apparently having listened to the poems along with everyone else. He's not sure what the 'brothers' are communicating through their stony expressions, but eventually, Loki nods once, shoots a sudden grin at Steve himself, and twists away out the door, carried along in the line of people.
Steve shakes it off. Loki hadn't done anything, after all, and he easily could have. And Thor didn't seem worried, although there was still a very strange look on his face.
Making his way over, trying to ignore the cameras that were once again flashing everywhere (and didn't these machines look so strange, very odd, and Tony had tried to explain how they worked but it had mostly gone right over Steve's head), Steve smiled encouragingly at Thor.
Before he could say anything though, Thor was grinning broadly, showing his perfect white teeth.
“Ah, Steve,” he boomed, “these stories that you have for children are very strange, and I could not divine a meaning from them, but they were very enjoyable all the same.”
Steve laughs. “They're silly nonsense poems, Thor, they not really meant to make a lot of sense. But I'm glad you liked them. Are you all--”
Once again, just as he was about to bring up Loki, Thor talks right over him, gripping his forearm firmly. “This Sam character is very odd, though. Green eggs and ham do not sound at all tempting, and I cannot see the question of eating them ever arising, not in any of the Nine Realms. And I do not understand why anyone would want him to eat them in a box, or with a fox-- do such animals like food of this kind then?”
Steve is a little speechless – a feeling that is pretty common when talking to Thor, because what? But before he can think of anything to say, someone bumps into him from behind, and he's knocked forward slightly, face-first into Thor's chest. Letting out a little 'oomph!' he straightens up quickly, rubbing his nose. Thor's armour is hard. Thor chuckles, a rumble deep in his chest, and helps him right himself.
“Come, American Captain, we should return to Director Fury now, for there may be enemies to vanquish!”
Rolling his eyes good-naturedly at Thor's dramatic phrasing (not to mention, mangling of his name), Steve lets Thor lead him by the arm out of the building, but promises himself that he'll bring up the subject of Loki another time.
(The picture of Thor and Steve apparently hugging that appears in all the papers the next day – with various unlikely explanations attached – should have been awkward. Of course, they don't escape teasing from their fellow Avengers, and Clint and Tony decide it will be hilarious to lie in wait to push them into each other any time they pass in the halls, but Thor is so indifferent that Steve can quite easily bring himself to set the bizarre rumour-mongering aside, and focus on training.
Whatever Fury and Coulson were hoping to accomplish from their outing, it had clearly worked. The Avengers were starting to work as a team. Steve, laughing with Thor on the way back to the living room, didn't even notice that he was finally loosening his grip on the grief that had been plaguing him since the fight by Bucky's grave.)
Chapter 2: Broken Glass and Honey
Once the Avengers start to get their act together – helped along by the pressure from Loki's gradually increasing attempts to destroy various cities, and sow mischief and pain around the world – it's not long before S.H.I.E.L.D. starts to relax its hold on their time a bit, reducing their training schedule so that they have time in which to do whatever they like.
Steve's immediate reaction is to be at a loss, the first time Coulson shoos them all out of the mansion - “but if I get any phonecalls from jail, I'm not bailing you out until tomorrow morning.”
Tony is excited to be out, and eager to “do something awesome” so he bullies the rest of them into letting him take them out to dinner. Of course, being a Stark, he has a ridiculous amount of money to spend on whatever he wants, so they end up eating at a horribly expensive restaurant with prices that make Steve cringe, but the food is excellent, and the company is better.
Steve has comrades again.
“I can't believe how much Coulson hates you, Stark,” Clint snorts, dipping his gourmet fries into a sickening mess of all the sauces the restaurant staff could provide. “Not that I'm complaining, mind you – it keeps him off the rest of us, which is awesome.”
Bruce laughs softly, slapping Natasha's hands away from his salad. “I can believe it, I'm just surprised he hasn't strangled you yet.”
Tony pouts and crosses his arms. “It's hardly my fault he doesn't appreciate my charming personality.”
Natasha uses the opportunity to steal some pie from Tony instead, making him pout even more, and rolls her eyes. “Your personality is about as charming as your armour is camouflaged.”
“Hey! I'd be camouflaged if we had to fight someone in, say, anywhere at all stylish!” At the laughs from everyone else around the table, he mock-frowns and turns to Steve. “You're not going to let them talk to me like this, are you, oh great and wonderful champion of the victimised? You're Captain America! Protect me!”
Steve smirks, and the sharp pain of remembering how he used to laugh with Howard is dulled, and he barely hears his voice in his head. “I'm afraid my protection is reserved for people who are in the right. I'm going to have to side with Natasha about your suit.”
“Steve is right, metal man,” Thor adds – and now it sounds weird for Thor to use his real name, oh dear - “You are not in need of protection. But I do not think that this camouflage is necessary. A warrior should stand boldly, ready to confront the foe head on. He should not skulk in the shadows using trickery and guile.”
Steve notes the slight dimming of Thor's bright grin, and knows he's thinking of Loki. He squeezes Thor's arm in comfort, knowing that the Asgardian appreciates contact, and jumps in, distracting the rest of the team from Thor's faltering speech.
“But then again, Tony, if you were camouflaged, you could escape Coulson more often. And all those events you never want to go to. Of course, you'd probably also end up even more annoying than you--”
Days full of laughter like this one definitely make it far easier to deal with this whole 'new world' thing, Steve decides.
It's not until a week after that that things start to go to hell. Everything has been quiet on the Loki front for a while – quiet enough that they probably should have been suspicious, in fact – and it's not until Thor and Steve bump into him that they realise quite what he's been planning.
The mid-morning sun is bright and clear as it reflects off windows and car roofs and bike frames, and Steve is feeling happier than he has in a long while. Thor is dragging him along, peering into shop windows and booming out his views on how strange life is here, and does Steve have any idea where they could buy poptarts - “that most noble Midgardian invention”.
Steve, on the other hand, is looking around, content to be dragged, letting this twenty-first century life wash over him. He's trying not to focus on any one thing in particular, because he really doesn't want to get dragged into noticing the differences between now and then, doesn't want to feel the sadness well up in him again. Instead he absorbs the colours, the sounds – even the voices, the accents, have changed, but after being in the army and leading his Howling Commandos, it's almost comforting to hear such a mishmash of states and nationalities. He doesn't even let his mind register where in Manhattan they are, doesn't want to start identifying places that he used to know, places that are no longer there.
“Thor, isn't that a food store? We could go there?”
“Your sight is true!” Thor exclaims, and Steve slaps his hand over his face. At some point, Thor will say something like a normal person – but by then, it'll probably make Steve die of shock. Within seconds, Steve is trailing behind Thor, trying to deal with the overwhelming strangeness of this massive, cold, and unfriendly store. Thor, on the other hand, is apparently having the time of his life, throwing box after box of, well, everything, into a trolley – a trolley he is pushing round like it's a chariot or something, and Steve is suddenly laughing into the sleeve of the soft blue sweater he'd found in his drawers this morning.
Thor might be ridiculous, and he certainly doesn't fit in – but unlike Steve, who worries, and remembers, and feels desperately torn between two worlds, Thor happily throws himself into new experiences and tries out everything about this new world that he possibly can.
“Hey, Thor, here-- we're getting vegetables as well as all this meat and sugary things, all right!” But Steve is only able to throw in some carrots and broccoli before Thor, who of course wandered off around the corner, is charging back and dragging the trolley away from him, booming something about “incredible, delicious, marvellous foodstuffs!”.
By the time they leave the shop (and thank goodness Fury gave them plenty of money before they left, but it was nice to have done something as normal as grocery shopping again), they're in the middle of a light-hearted argument over the fizzy, brightly-coloured drinks Thor had insisted on throwing in, and they don't immediately notice the slim figure standing in front of them.
“Gentlemen, how very domesticated you've become.”
Both their heads snap up, and twin expressions of wary dismay form on their faces – although behind their eyes, where Steve is counting civilians and working out how to keep Loki away from them, he is equally sure that Thor is swimming in regret. He hasn't spoken to Thor about this whole thing properly yet, but it only takes a fool to see how much it hurts him every time Loki isn't the brother he remembers, the brother he adores.
Loki is sneering, and for possibly the first time, there is genuine hate on his face. He's not laughing, he's not smiling. He actually looks angry. If anything, it's as though their 'domestication' has left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Enjoying your shopping trip, are you? Oh, not that I want to interrupt such a heartwarming scene--” he positively spits the words out, glaring, and Steve is confused to find the glare focused almost entirely on him. “--but I'm afraid I have plans that just won't wait.”
He strides forward, and this time, Steve's defensive stance is his undoing. He doesn't move away quickly enough, goaded into stillness by the challenge in Loki's eyes, by the lack of an immediate threat, and so it's not at all difficult for Loki to snatch at his arm and take them away in a flash of that same blinding blue light that Steve had experienced once before.
They stop briefly, not long enough for Steve to even get his eyes working properly again – but long enough for Loki to press a hand between his shoulderblades, and Steve can't do anything about the lassitude that overtakes him, that loosens every muscle until he slumps in Loki's grip.
Just as they vanish again, everything goes black.
When he wakes up again, he's got metal around his wrists, still cold despite the heat from his body, and he has no idea what's going on. But groggily blinking his eyes open brings polished shoes into view, and suddenly he remembers the blue light and the shopping and Loki and Thor.
Why had Loki taken him and left Thor?
“Oh, don't worry, Captain,” Loki begins, and Steve looks up at him, squinting against a headache pounding in his temples, “you're only here for the sake of an experiment. I'm not going to do anything to you. I'm not even interested in you.”
Steve frowns and tries to tug his arms away from the chair, discreetly at first but then with increasing vigour when the slim metal bands around his wrists hold no matter what he does. Finally, he slumps again and looks up at his captor. “Look, Loki, I don't know what you think you're doing, but--”
“Oh, hush.” Loki sounds bored – all the anger that was there before has apparently vanished, and he's rocking slowly on his feet, not even looking at Steve. It's funny, from this angle he looks far less arrogant than he does whenever he's trying to kill them. “You know what they say, Mr Rogers. Know thine enemy. I've been wrong before, but I will not make the same mistake again.”
His shoulders are starting to hurt from this position Loki's got him trapped in, handcuffed to a chair in the middle of an empty room. “If you don't want me for anything, then why am I here?”
Maybe he should sound angrier, but with Loki sounding so-- not reasonable, that's the wrong word, but calm, perhaps? Either way, it would feel wrong to shout at Loki when he's not raising his voice at all.
But Loki does look at him then, and he looks almost surprised.
“No, no, it's not that I don't want you for anything. It's just that I don't want you. You have to listen, Captain. Although this has been an excellent opportunity to test those cuffs you're wearing – I was sure they would hold against your serum-induced strength, but it's always nice to test the real thing.”
The smile he offers is wan, and if this were anyone but Loki, Steve would probably be concerned for them. All the same, he's not actually sure that he isn't.
“I don't understand,” he begins calmly, trying to get anything out of Loki that he can, “You attack us, you attack places all over America – all over the world, in fact – and yet now that you've kidnapped me, you're not going to do anything?”
Big, dark eyes look down at him, and the only word Steve can think of is sad.
“Do not try to understand me, Captain. I have my reasons for what I have done, and I have my reasons for today. None of them involve you, yet you are an important piece. More important than I thought...”
Steve is about to ask more, but the sharp, pale face is suddenly pointing towards the door, one eyebrows curved up in what appears to be expectation. “And here we go...” Loki murmurs, making Steve frown and begin to speak again.
But then the door explodes inwards, and Thor charges through.
“Steve!” he bellows, before taking in that Steve is apparently fine, apart from being trapped. “Loki,” he continues, striding towards his brother, “You must stop this. I do not want to have to hurt you, but should you continue to threaten my friends, then I--”
“Thank you, Captain,” Loki says, speaking over Thor, ignoring him entirely. Thor looks as confused as he ever does, and Steve isn't much better, but he doesn't move as Loki reaches around him to release his manacles. “This experiment was most beneficial, and I appreciate your part in it.”
And then, once again, Loki is gone.
Over the next month or so, similar things keep happening again and again. Steve will be going about some normal, everyday activity – often with Thor, but not always – and suddenly Loki will appear without warning and vanish him off to some mystery location.
Loki never does anything apart from sit and wait.
Steve has considered that maybe he's trying to judge the team's reaction times, but since he's been more on his guard ever since this started happening, and the whole team is on edge, and Coulson has even had Steve fitted with a little tracker device, it seems like a bit of a redundant exercise.
But Loki never changes.
He's never angry. He's never violent. He just waits. Sometimes he talks. Sometimes he doesn't even look at Steve.
But he never, never looks happy. The Loki who danced around New York throwing explosives and robots and monstrous snake creatures at people has disappeared, and Steve doesn't have any idea why that bothers him.
Does this lack of emotion make Loki more dangerous? Steve isn't sure, and he has absolutely no idea what his feelings are doing.
He just knows that he can barely muster any anger or will to fight Loki any more. Words like 'misguided' and 'broken-hearted' pop into his head whenever they have a strategy meeting about the Loki problem. Being face to face with him gives Steve the absurd urge to pull him in for a hug.
But above all that, this is tearing Thor apart, and Steve can't do anything about it.
“Thor,” Steve begins, on an otherwise nondescript day in mid-August, “Can we talk?”
The god turns to face him, and he's as golden and noble as ever in the glow of the sunset. They're standing on one of the mansion's balconies, high above the people below and overlooking the various office buildings that Steve will swear were never so uniform and boring in his own time. The sky is dappled pink and purple and a deep blue creeps in over to the east, and it's like it was taken right off a canvas by Turner or Towne.
Thor blinks at him once, apparently nonplussed. “I did not know that you Midgardians required permission to speak to one another. The metal man has never asked before, and he spends much of his time making remarks of a humorous nature.”
Steve grins, unable to stop himself, and shakes his head at he sits in one of the picnic chairs left outside. “No, Thor, we don't have to ask for permission to speak, except in special circumstances. You might have to ask if you're with a superior officer, but in ordinary life, you don't have to worry. I suppose as god of thunder, you don't have to worry about superior officers either, do you?” he muses aloud, and Thor, throwing himself into another chair that creaks under his substantial muscle mass, laughs loud and deep.
“No, I was raised to lead, my friend. But among my people, many of us are equals. There is hierarchy, but there is also not. We are too long-lived to be anything but familiar with each other.” He has Mjölnir on his lap – he had spent the afternoon flying around above the city – and traces the intricate patterning with absent fingers as he talks. “So tell me then, Steve, why do you ask me if we might speak?”
It strikes Steve – for the nth time – that he is the only one of their group whom Thor calls by their real name. Everyone else is “Man of Iron” or “Man who sees as if with the eye of a hawk” (Thor has never really been one for economy of words). It's flattering really, and a little bemusing, but Thor does spend more time with him than any of their fellow heroes.
“I asked because I was being polite, and because what I want to talk about-- I don't just want to chat, Thor. I want to talk about something important, which I've been meaning to bring up for months.”
Thor frowns down at him, almost a head taller even sitting down, but inclines his head. “Speak, Steve. We are shield brothers now; we have fought together. I shall not be offended.”
Drawing breath to begin, Steve pauses, narrowing his eyes as he tries to work out whether Thor just made a joke about his weapon of choice as Captain America. The open expression on Thor's face convinces him otherwise, and he laughs softly at himself.
“I wanted to ask about Loki.” He leaves it as a statement, doesn't want to dive in where he's not wanted. If Thor decides to avoid the topic, Steve will let him, but with any luck...
Indeed, Thor looks stricken, and will no longer meet Steve's eyes, but he clears his throat and nods. Steve reminds himself to proceed with caution.
“I know the two of you were raised as brothers--”
“We are brothers!” The interruption is vehement, and Thor is gripping Mjölnir tightly, the veins in his forearm standing out in sharp relief against his skin.
Steve nods agreeably, makes a soothing gesture with his hands as he leans forward. “Yes, sorry, that's what I meant. You and Loki are brothers. You returned to Earth because he was wreaking havoc here, only to discover that it was you that Loki wanted revenge upon.”
There is what could only be described as a sort of choked whimper from Thor, and Steve manfully ignores it, looks away over the city to give Thor at least some illusion of privacy. He swallows.
“Thor, why does Loki keep kidnapping me? It's almost always when we're together, but he never mentions you while he has me, and he barely ever does anything else any more. There's no robots or aliens or army. There's no dastardly schemes or attempts to incapacitate us. When he does anything, it just seems like a gesture, throwaway, a reminder that he's still here and still wielding incredible power.”
Steve's voice is getting a little desperate, he can hear it. It's not that the kidnapping is a terrible experience, because it's not – it wouldn't be, even were he not a veteran of a world war. But the sympathy he is starting to feel for the rogue god is getting in the way of the mission. The other villains they've dealt with, the ones that are far more run-of-the-mill than Loki, Steve has no problem with.
It's just this one man – the man with the sad, sad eyes – who tugs at Steve's heartstrings and turns his ideas of good and evil on their head.
“I know not the answers you seek, Steve. I too wish to understand my brother.” There is a pause, and Thor's voice is strangely subdued when he does continue, quieter than Steve can remember ever hearing him. “I wish to take away the pain that drives him to this, I wish to fix whatever wrongs I did him in the past.”
“Thor, you can't blame yourself--”
Steve's breath catches at the desolate smile Thor sends him. He hadn't realised how deeply this was affecting Thor, although he almost certainly should have.
“Loki does,” is Thor's simple reply. “Loki blames me for his misery, and so I must somehow make amends. There is little I would not do should he ask it.”
There doesn't seem to be anything to say, and so instead he reaches out, grips Thor's knee and tries to will peace of mind and happiness through the physical contact. It might be slightly more likely to work if contentment was a state of mind that Steve was particularly familiar with, but up until now, he had been fairly certain that Thor was far better adjusted than he was.
They sit in silence until the last rays of the sun dip below the horizon line, watching the last red light bleed across the navy sky. Finally Steve clears his throat softly, stands and brushes off his trousers. His hand is already on the door handle, about to let himself back inside and leave his friend in peace when Thor makes one last statement, thoughtful and pleading in a way that breaks Steve's already fragile heart.
“I want to bring him home.”
It is a simple enough thing to make a resolution, to decide to do everything within your power to help a friend in need. It does, of course, require huge courage to make such a resolution and mean with all your heart to keep it, but Steve Rogers has always had such bravery in spades.
What he doesn't have, on this occasion, is the means by which to solve Thor's problem.
Loki is not the sort of estranged brother that he can just pop down the road to see, dial a number on a phone and talk to. On top of the fact that they meet most often in the midst of a fight – on opposite sides, of course – there is the fact that Loki is delusional, hurting and certainly not stable.
Steve has genuinely no idea how to go about this. But he'd had no idea how to circumvent regulations to get into the army until Erskine had seen past his outer shell. He'd had no idea how to go about fighting Hydra until fate presented him with the Howling Commandos. He'd had no idea how to survive in a world so close to and yet so far from his own, a world in which all those he'd known and loved were gone forever, until necessity had driven him to endure and then even begin to enjoy it.
Reuniting two lost brothers? Not a problem.
Chapter 3: I'll Be The Quiet Angel On Your Shoulder
The next morning, when Thor grips his cup hard enough to make it shatter, and snaps curtly at mild-mannered Bruce, Steve doesn't say anything. He pulls out his new mug (blue again, but with his own shield on it – Coulson apparently has a sense of humour and got them all some of their own merchandise) and gets out the real chocolate and tries to remember what his mother used to do when she made this for him and Bucky at the end of a cold winter day.
When Thor roars in irritation at some tiny, insignificant thing and smashes both his chair and the table with his fist, Steve ignores Tony's shouts of annoyance and gently pushes Thor towards the door to the balcony, holding the hot chocolate carefully in his other hand.
Once they're outside, he lets Thor take it and stare moodily out at the world, eyes dark and brooding. He goes inside just once, to fetch a book, and then curls up on one of the tacky deckchairs Clint bought a few weeks ago, snuggling down into his bright, scarlet fleece.
The others leave them alone, although every so often the noise of Tony's irritated rants filters through the floor-to-ceiling glass panes. Steve's not sure, but he thinks it's almost an hour before Thor says anything. The only movement he's made in that time is to sip quietly from his mug.
Thor's voice is subdued still, a soft rumble that barely seems to leave the barrel of his chest.
“Steve, my apologies. I shall have to make amends with the Man of Iron and the one who may become green.”
Steve's mouth twitches in a half-smile, and he tucks in a S.H.I.E.L.D. business card as a bookmark, looking up. “It's all right, Thor. They'll understand. And you've got nothing to apologise to me for – if anything, it was me who upset you yesterday. I am sorry for that, you know.”
Thor looks back at him then, but his gaze is unfocused, distant.
“No, Steve. I believe that an outburst such as this has been building for many weeks – months even. You merely brought it to the fore, so I could not hide from my own frustration any more. 'Tis not a bad thing.” He shrugs, but the motion looks heavy, tired.
“Thor...” Steve doesn't know what to say.
“You are uncomfortable in this world, are you not?” The question is sudden, a change of subject Steve was not expecting.
He stumbles over his reply. “Uh, yes, but-- what?”
Thor smiles, and his eyes are warm again, if still sad. “You are uncomfortable in this world because it reminds you so much of all you have lost. You are a man out of time and you can never go home. You can only march forwards, and you do so with great bravery, but also great sadness.”
Dumbly, he nods.
“I-- I am not so different.” Thor looks awkward now, out of his depth.
“Thor, you don't have to--”
“No,” he interrupts, “I do. I admit that I do not look around and see Asgard, see echoes of the people and the places that I love so dearly. And that I can only count as a blessing. But my brother-- this world which is so different, so new-- all of it just makes me wish all the more longingly for the past. I wish for things to return to the way they used to be. This time I would do things right, I would make my brother feel at home, feel precious, feel loved. He would not be drawn to this mad vengeance, and we would still be a family, still be at home, still be together.”
Steve's breath catches at the unconscious pleading in Thor's voice. “You can't blame yourself. It's not your fault. You can't know that if you had done anything differently, things might be all right. Maybe this was just... how it was meant to be.”
It hurts to say it, doesn't seem as comforting out loud as it did in his head. Thor is still for a moment, but then he shrugs – properly this time – and all the care seems to fall from his shoulders. Once again, he seems free. He even tosses Steve a careless smile.
“It is kind of you to say, my friend! But now I must go and apologise to the rest of our merry band--” (it should be noted that Natasha had recently convinced Thor to watch several versions of Robin Hood – including the Disney one – and he had loved them) “--and then the day may proceed as it will. Time cannot be turned back, after all, and I believe there is still hope for my brother.”
And with that, he turns and goes inside once more. Steve blinks, and returns to his book, smiling wryly.
Idly, he wonders whether Thor might be able to teach him that trick for forgetting all of his worries.
After all that – after Steve finally gets Thor to talk, after Thor's small breakdown, after Steve promises himself that he will help Thor and Loki – the kidnappings continue as per normal, but Steve's attitude to them has changed. Loki still whisks him away every few days, fixes him to a chair or the wall or (on one memorable occasion) the outside of a boat, and looks at him with his sad, sad eyes; but Steve's approach to them has turned on its head.
No longer are they inconvenient, situations to be got out of as soon as possible. Admittedly, they're still potentially dangerous, and they still set his teeth on edge with an odd mix of nerves and confusion. But now he almost looks forward to them, to the chance they give him to work on convincing Loki.
The two days between his conversation with Thor and Loki capturing him again have him twitching and wound tighter than ever in anticipation, so when he does finally wake up – or rather, come round – with a phantom ache in his head and a pain in his shoulders from the discomfort of having his arms fixed above his head, instead of sighing and possibly rolling his eyes as he would normally, instead of looking for a way out, Steve smiles broadly.
His vision is ever so slightly blurry from whatever spell it is that Loki keeps using on him, but he can just about see the utter bemusement on Loki's face. His head wobbles just a little as he looks up, and there's a funny lavender-and-fennel smell in his nose, but he has more important things to worry about right now.
“Did I zap you harder than I meant to, Captain? You look almost as dim as my moron of a brother.”
Steve frowns. “Thor's not dim. He misses you, you know.”
There is a pause, only the length of one heartbeat, but it is enough for Steve – even groggy as he is – to know that he's thrown Loki off his game, just slightly.
Loki's voice, when he does reply, is light but there is a thread of steel running through it, hard and almost angry. “You are aware that I've captured you, yes? That you are at my mercy?”
With difficulty, considering his position, Steve shrugs. “You've had me at your mercy plenty of times before, and you've never done anything.”
Loki purses his lips and doesn't reply.
“I've been thinking, Loki – I want to talk.”
The look of annoyance is gone, and Loki is once more in perfect command of himself. One eyebrow arches, a world of condescension in that one tiny move.
“What makes you think I will agree to any sort of conversation with you, Mr Rogers?”
“Nothing,” Steve says simply, and he's not sure but he thinks he might have surprised Loki again. “But the thing is, I don't need conversation, I just want to talk. You don't even have to say anything. You have to listen, Loki,” he adds, in an echo of the first kidnapping – an echo that can't decide if it's meant to be mocking or gently teasing.
Loki blinks, shocked, but then – surprisingly to both him and Steve, if his expression is anything to go by – he laughs. Not much, and not loudly, but it is definitely a laugh. Steve is going to count that as a win.
“Far be it from me to stop my guest from talking. Please, do go ahead.”
Loki sits himself down in a simple desk chair, the only piece of furniture in the room, and crosses his legs neatly. He's wearing a smart suit, trim and fashionable, and he wouldn't look out of place in any high-end business meeting. For a moment, he fusses with his cuffs, but then he settles himself and pins Steve with his unfathomable gaze.
Steve swallows uncomfortably. There is an abyss in those dark eyes.
“Uh, right,” he begins, awkward now that it comes to it. But he takes a deep breath and steadies himself because this is for Thor, not for him. He tells himself to ignore Loki's smirk. “Thor misses you. I don't know exactly what happened between you in Asgard, I don't know about your upbringing, I don't know what you've gone through since you fell from the Bifrost, but I do know one thing. I know that Thor loves you. You're his brother, and he would do anything for you, anything you wanted, to make up for whatever it is that he did in the past.”
Loki's face snaps into a frown and it's as though a switch has been thrown. Suddenly, he's angry, on his feet, prowling towards Steve, who instinctively – and ineffectively – tugs once more at his manacles. They hold, but Loki stops short of him, eyes flashing and fingers curling and uncurling stiffly.
“You do not know the wrongs my brother--” he spits the word, angry, hurt, “--has done me. A lifetime of living in his shadow, of being overlooked, of being a lie – that is not something which he can fix so easily. It is not something that you can fix with your simple words.”
Steve does not flinch, meets his eyes. “No,” he agrees, “it's not. But it's also not something that you can fix by killing him – or the rest of the Avengers – or by taking over the world.”
Loki snarls, wordless. “I do not simply want him dead. I will tear him apart, right down to his very soul, and I will take this Earth that he so loves, and I shall utterly destroy him.”
There is spit on Steve's face, but he can't wipe it away. Luckily, in the face of danger, he's always been able to retain his calm, the very calm which eludes him at more peaceful times. The face of danger can't get much worse than the face of a mad, furious god.
“Where's your terrible plan then? Why haven't you done anything for the past month other than capture me? Why do you capture me and not Thor or the others?”
There is suddenly something that looks a lot like fear in Loki's eyes.
“I've thought about it a lot. The only reason to keep taking me is because I'm closer to Thor than anyone else right now. I'm where you used to be. You don't want revenge, Loki, don't you see? You want the love and attention you didn't get growing up. Isn't that right?”
Silence. Loki stares at him, terror in his stiff posture, his wide eyes that do not leave Steve's face. Then, suddenly, he turns on his heel and disappears.
Steve worries that he's blown it, that he's ruined everything before he even really started; he worries as his team-mates pull him from the wall, as Thor rips the cuffs off his wrists, as the days pass without any sign of Loki. He feels as though he's constantly holding his breath – waiting for Loki to disappear entirely and break Thor's heart, waiting for him to return to his old ways of mindless destruction.
The relief he feels six days later – when long fingers close over his bicep and he's engulfed in a cloud of smoke that's electric blue and tastes of fennel when it settles on his tongue – is palpable. Loki won't meet his eyes, and Steve knows he's got to him.
He relaxes slightly, doesn't push so hard, but suddenly it seems like he might actually be able to help Thor this way, might be able to help Loki.
“--and so Fury decided that every time we break something necessary, it gets replaced out of the official 'Avengers merchandise' that people have started selling. It's like a running tally for who's caused the most catastrophes around the house.”
“I can't imagine something like that was particularly successful in dissuading certain members of your little team.”
“Heh, no. Tony broke just about all the kitchenware and appliances we own in about four days. It didn't matter, obviously, because he's a Stark and if need be, he can rebuild everything in less than a day. But ugh, there are so many bright red-and-yellow things everywhere now, it's awful.”
“Captain, I am not going to let you out of the manacles. I don't care how long it's been since you tried to escape. I am not stupid.”
“Of course not. But really, I'm trying to convince you that violence isn't the answer, remember? What am I going to do? Hug you to death?”
“I was rightful king of Asgard! I deserve to rule! I have as much right as Thor ever did!”
“Yes, yes, you did. You do. But don't you see that you went about it the wrong way?”
“Wrong way! I would have been – I was – overlooked even in my greatest successes, even though I am more intelligent than Thor ever was. Even when Thor was cast out, I was not considered as a suitable candidate in his place!”
“Is that Thor's fault though? You hurt people and tried to start a war when you could have talked to Thor about it instead. You sent a destroyer against the only person who, if you are right, would have listened to your complaints and even supported you.”
“Talk to Thor? Have you tried talking to Thor? He is arrogant and self-centred and convinced that only he deserved to rule Asgard! He never even considered that maybe I could!”
“He was like that, but he's not any more. That was the whole point of him being sent to Earth, wasn't it?”
“Mr Rogers, I--”
“Call me Steve. I'm not really a captain, not any more, and I was never 'Mr Rogers'. My dad was, but I wasn't.”
“Where you ever actually afraid of me kidnapping you?”
“Yes. Right back at the beginning. Months ago. Not really since then, and even less now.”
“Why not? Steve, I was – I am – your greatest enemy – don't look at me like that – and you never seemed overly concerned that I'd taken to capturing you whenever I felt like it.”
“You looked too sad.”
“That first time. You just looked so sad, and it got me thinking, and it wasn't long before I couldn't think of you as 'evil' or 'bad' any more. I could barely think of you as 'enemy', actually.”
“--you'd better get back in these, I can hear your friends coming. Thor in the lead, as always.”
“I suppose I'd better. Unless you fancy telling them we're friends now?”
“That we're what?”
“Well, what else are we? You kidnap me and all we do is sit around and chat about this and that. Come on, we have to count as friends now.”
“...Ah. I suppose-- ahem, I suppose we must. Uh, manacles?”
“Oh, yeah, sure.”
Inevitably, the Avengers do eventually work out that something's going on. In fact, the only reason they didn't figure it out sooner is probably because of the unusually high number of super-villains who have been popping up all over the USA. There's also been a few new superheroes appearing, and Fury wanted them to get to know the Fantastic Four better so that they could work in concert when needed.
But approximately seven weeks after Steve first starts trying to convince Loki to let his quest for revenge go, it finally seems to click.
Of course, that could be something to do with the fact that when they burst into today's nondescript room in some abandoned building or other, Loki and Steve had managed to get themselves a little distracted, and so Loki is just disappearing as they arrive, and Steve doesn't have his manacles on. In fact, there's no evidence of them anywhere.
“Wait, what?” Tony asks, intelligent as ever.
Natasha frowns, peers around the room. Clint comes right up into Steve's personal space and starts prodding his face for some reason.
“He doesn't feel like a robot.” Ah, so that's the reason. Steve rolls his eyes.
“I'm not a robot, guys. I'm still me. I just, uh--”
He glances around at them all, and none of them seem very impressed. Thor looks almost upset. Surprisingly, it is Bruce who comes to his rescue.
“There's been something going on for a while. Think about it – Loki's been doing nothing remotely villainous apart from kidnapping Steve, and Steve keeps on bringing up how we should leave Loki be and focus on other enemies, and prevention, and such.”
“Yes,” agrees Tony, still spluttering, “but I assumed that was because he was being sympathetic to Thor, what with how much they're all over each other! I didn't think he was fraternising with the enemy.”
Steve blushes, both at the implication that he and Thor are-- that they-- ahem-- and at the realisation that he really should have thought about how to tell the others when he came up with this brilliant plan.
“We're not--” he exclaims, but apparently it's not his turn to speak yet.
“Loki is not the enemy!” Thor roars, and everyone stops bickering to look at him. “He is my brother, and he is not the enemy unless he does something that opposes us.” He crosses his arms, firm.
“Well, we did think he was kidnapping our team leader, Thor,” Natasha points out, tucking her hair behind her ear as she re-holsters her pistols. She doesn't seem overly concerned with the whole situation, but then when does she?
“And now we have Steve back,” Thor growls, dangerous as he only is when Loki is the topic of conversation.
Clint shrugs. “Good enough for me. If Loki's given up being the bad guy and likes to kidnap Steve for tea and biscuits, then who am I to stand in their way. Although can we get you an alarm or something so we don't all have to trek out to rescue you if we don't need to?”
Everyone's attention is suddenly directed back at Steve. He shrugs awkwardly, rubbing the back of his neck and grinning nervously. “Uh, sorry?”
The general response seems to be a collective eye-roll, and then Thor grabs Steve and swings him over his shoulder as 'punishment' for making friends with his brother without telling him.
“So, the Avengers know.”
“You could... come round now? Instead of kidnapping me, I mean?”
“Steve, don't be ridiculous. I am a god.”
Loki lapses once or twice, raises armies and crushes cities in seven different states simultaneously. But no one dies and only twelve people end up in hospitals, and Steve can forget the expense of repairing their homes when he sees how nervous Loki is next time he 'captures' him.
“I didn't-- I was – angry. I had to--”
He's twisting his hands over and over, and his eyes are big and scared, and Steve feels his heart ache in sympathy. He can't quite forgive, but he can understand.
“Hey, Loki,” he murmurs, soft, gently grasping one of Loki's wrists and holding firm so that he has to stop pacing. “Loki, it's okay. Well, it's not okay, and it'd be great if this didn't happen again, but no one was seriously hurt, and we should be able to rebuild--”
“I can help,” Loki interrupts, sudden, voice tight and almost choked. “I can help with that. I've got-- magic, I can--”
Steve blinks. “You'd do that?”
Loki nods, but doesn't speak.
Steve grins, and finally gets to give Loki that hug he'd been planning to spring on him for weeks. “Thanks. And don't worry, I think I understand, and anyway, I'm your friend. Just, next time you're angry, come kidnap me and you can shout it out instead, okay?”
He's not sure if it's wishful thinking, but it feels like Loki nods against his shoulder. He does laugh though.
“Or, of course, my offer still stands. You could come round to visit – although I can't promise what the rest of the team will think, but...”
Chapter 4: We Take A Little Of Each Other Everywhere
The first morning Loki shows up at the Avengers mansion, wandering into the kitchen where Steve is sat at the table, persevering through yet another newspaper full of stories and words that don't quite make sense, it doesn't really occur to Steve to find it strange. Not even when Loki calls him 'darling' and bends down to brush his lips against Steve's cheek as he passes.
Well, all right, maybe he does find that a little weird.
But when he looks up at Loki, bemused, there's a smirk hovering around the corners of his mouth, and Steve just rolls his eyes and offers a 'good morning' in reply as he returns to his paper. He's not going to argue when Loki's finally decided to come to him rather than take him away.
It's nice really, with Loki sat opposite him, quietly tucking into a bowl of those colourful, sugary things that Clint likes. Loki's feet are propped up on the chair next to Steve, and although neither of them talks, it's a comfortable silence. Right now, as far as he's aware, Loki's not plotting world domination or otherwise getting himself to the top of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Most Wanted List, and Steve is tired enough of how confusing this modern world can be that he's hardly going to push away one of the only people who understands.
Of course, eventually, the sounds of the rest of the team shuffling about their morning routines start to filter through to the kitchen. Loki snorts at the sound of Natasha yelling at Clint to 'get the hell out of the bathroom right now, before she burns his his goddamn bed, and how would he get the beauty sleep he so desperately needs then'. Steve smiles and shakes his head at what has now become a morning ritual, and turns another page. It's still frustrating that the story which he understands best is the one about a cat that managed to get lost on the roof of a high-rise building, but he's getting there, he's certain of it.
But then their odd and unexplained breakfast peace is shattered when Tony walks through the door with his eyes shut, one hand stretched out in front of him to feel his way around. Steve grins lopsidedly while Tony can't see him, and finally folds the paper away. He's not giving up, but he'll never be able to work his way through it now that everyone else is awake.
“Urhgfygh,” Tony mumbles (or something along those lines, anyway). “Rogers, I know you're sitting there perfectly awake and laughing at me, so do you think you could possibly laugh at me while getting me some really, really strong coffee?”
Steve does let out a laugh at that, and is just standing up to oblige when Loki interrupts. He's smirking at Tony, and there's a mischievous light in his eyes that makes Steve pause, wary.
“Stark, I'm impressed, you haven't engineered the coffee machine to respond to your voice alone yet. Although I suppose that would mean that you couldn't go around demanding that 'Captain America' make you some every morning.”
And yes, even though Tony now had a hand over his eyes and couldn't see him, Loki did use air quotes around the name of Steve's alter-ego.
Tony yelps and quite literally falls over as he flails in surprise.
He glares up at Loki, who isn't even bothering to hide his sniggering, from the floor. “The hell are you doing here? Are you even aware-- how did you get past-- Steve, do you actually remember that this guy is, in fact, the enemy?” He's snapping and gesturing and there's red climbing up his neck.
Steve sighs. But just as he opens his mouth to reply, Loki jumps in again.
“Aww, but I've been such a good boy recently, Stark. I think I'm entitled to visit if I like, and Steve here doesn't seem to object...” Loki pauses slightly on the word 'object', rolling it around his mouth and almost leering down at Tony. Steve has no idea what he means, but is pretty sure it's about pissing off Tony as much as possible, and so he sighs again and moves over to the counter to start up a round of coffee for everyone.
Still sitting on the tiled floor and rubbing his tailbone, Tony freezes and glances rapidly between Loki and Steve.
“You cannot be serious--”
“Someone around here does have excellent taste in furniture though, Stark. I'm assuming it's not you that does the decorating though. Possibly Ms Potts? JARVIS? Well, do make sure to pass along my compliments to whoever's responsible. The beds around here are awfully comfy. And large.”
Tony's jaw has dropped and he's spluttering and making squeaky noises in the back of his throat. Steve gets out everyone's favourite mugs and ignores what's going on behind him.
“I did not need to--” Tony finally manages to get out, and then he breaks off and Loki must have done something that Tony can see but Steve can't hear because all of a sudden, Tony is springing up from the floor and rushing back out of the kitchen, nearly falling over himself again in the process.
Steve turns around, frowning idly, and shakes his head at Loki's wicked grin.
“You know, you don't actually have to--”
But he's cut off once again, this time by a bellow from a few rooms away.
“Thor, I don't know what the hell you think you and him and Rogers are doing, or whether the bastard's your fucking brother, but this is still my house and I do not want to see our arch-enemy eating breakfast in my kitchen!”
It's only because Steve happens to be looking right at him that he sees the grin suddenly drop off Loki's face, just for a second, before he's replacing it and turning to Steve. Steve might be fooled, but for all the brightness in his voice, Loki's eyes stay dark and shuttered.
“Ah, Steve, it's been lovely, my dear. But I really must be going before I'm late for a very important appointment. We really must do this again some time, darling.”
And with a brush of his fingers over the t-shirt covering Steve's chest, he's gone, disappearing the way he always does when he's fighting on a battleground he can't control.
Steve blinks once before his attention is dragged back to more mundane matters by the obnoxious whistling of the coffee machine behind him. He shakes his head, setting thoughts of Loki aside for the moment, and calmly starts to fill mugs with the bitter black liquid. Occupied with remembering amounts of milk, cream, and sugar to add, he's mostly able to ignore the shouts of both Thor and Tony, the confused exclamations of the rest of the team, and even the way Thor crashes into the kitchen – actually wearing jeans this time – apparently on a quest to find Loki.
Unfortunately, he can't ignore the devastated expression on Thor's face when he realises that Loki's left already. Feeling inexplicably guilty that he can't do more, hasn't yet fixed something so incredibly broken, Steve simply hands over the creamy, sugary monstrosity that is Thor's morning hot chocolate (he just uses the chocolate setting on the coffee machine, whatever complaints Thor makes), and grips Thor's shoulder for just a moment.
Thor doesn't even react as Steve quietly leaves the room behind him.
Sighing and scrubbing a hand over his face, Steve ducks out of the way of a still-furious Tony, dodges around Natasha attempting to strangle Clint with a towel, and makes his way down to the gym. Normally, he prides himself on his calm and control, and violence for its own sake has never attracted him. But right now, he just really needs to hit something.
This happens several more times, Loki turning up whenever it suits him to spend time with Steve. A lot of the time, they don't say much of anything at all, apart from maybe a greeting. Other times, they'll chat, and Loki will ask Steve about the rest of the team; he'll very carefully never mention Thor, and Steve never knows whether to take that as him wanting to hear nothing about him, or him trying to disguise his interest. Compromising, he usually throws in some details about Thor's daily life in the midst of an anecdote, or in relation to the rest of his housemates – for instance, they laugh about the ongoing battle for bathrooms (despite the fact that the mansion has at least ten that Steve has found, mostly by accident) as Tony, Clint and Thor argue over whose hair deserves the most attention, and at the story of that time Bruce tried to teach Thor to use chopsticks.
One thing that is true of every single one of Loki's visits, however, is that he never stays long enough for the other Avengers to see him. This usually means he'll disappear at the slightest noise outside the door of whatever room they're in, which nearly always results in someone walking in on Steve mid-sentence and looking a little lost, and they'll roll their eyes and sigh and go on with whatever they were doing.
Steve doesn't quite know what to do – the so-close-but-yet-so-far nature of this arrangement is killing Thor, he can see it. And yet Loki is becoming so much more comfortable around him, and Steve doesn't want to ruin what he's eked out so far by pushing for more than Loki is willing to give.
He's also a little confused by the way everyone seems to be giving him the side-eye, especially when Loki or Thor comes up in conversation, but he can set that aside.
He's so close to succeeding in reuniting Thor and Loki, he can feel it!
“Steve, tell me Loki isn't going to turn up halfway through this meal?” Natasha asks, mumbling slightly around a mouthful of hairpins. Steve is awkwardly holding her shawl while she puts her hair up in some magnificent and complicated arrangement of braids and loops of hair.
“Uh, not as far as I know?” At least Natasha doesn't tiptoe round the topic like all his other friends.
S.H.I.E.L.D. has decided that, in another effort at public relations (necessary since some miscalculations in a battle with a race of lizard people that had started clambering out of sewers all around New York City had resulted in the demolition of not only the usual public and private property, but also a new museum with its incredibly valuable collection of modern art which was due to open this coming weekend), they must host a dinner for the inconvenienced and rather put out investors and art collectors. All the Avengers are required to attend, although why they think it's a good idea to put such a volatile mixture of people into a posh, reserved setting, Steve isn't sure.
Natasha shoots him a look out the corner of her eye – she's apparently unable to move her head in case she unbalances the hairstyle that is still under such painstaking construction. “Well, he's got some of the most inconvenient timing I've ever seen, so I'm just hoping he stays away today. I guess if he's not planning to come as your date then we should be okay.”
Steve frowns and is about to ask what she means when Clint pops his head round the door, fiddling with his bow tie.
“'Tasha, darling, do you have a moment to fix this for m-- oh, hey, Cap! I see she roped you into being her clothes stand then. Usually it's me; I was wondering why I was missing out on the honour.” His eyes dance, teasing, as he looks over Natasha's petite and elegant black dress. Only a fool could miss the obvious affection there.
Natasha, for her part, is apparently finished with her hair – which miraculously stays in place even though Steve can't see a single pin any more – and tosses her head back, grabbing the shawl off Steve.
“Actually, Clint, Steve is a gentleman and he offered.” Steve grins and shrugs at Clint who clasps a hand to his heart dramatically.
“The implication being that I'm not, I assume? 'Tasha, I am wounded.” He holds out his arm to her, and they continue to snipe back and forth, clearly forgetting entirely about Steve as he follows them to the elevator, smoothing his lapels nervously, uncomfortable in formal wear. But just as their attention is dragged away by Tony's loud entrance, showing off his Iron Man cufflinks, Steve hears them murmuring to each other.
“You do look lovely, darling.”
“Mmm, thank you. Not so bad yourself, even if you still can't tie your bow tie.”
Out of the corner of his eye he can see the soft, intimate smiles they're directing at each other, and he quickly stops watching. It's not like they're being obvious or outrageously affectionate, but that makes him feel all the more like an interloper, and he focuses instead of trying to ward off Tony's attempts to get him to wear a Captain America tie pin.
By the time the dinner – and dance, Steve learns with a jolt of combined regret and embarrassment – is in full swing, the Avengers appear to have got over their awkwardness, and are mingling happily with the guests. As for said guests, most of them appear to have been consoled by the S.H.I.E.L.D. promises to compensate them fully for their losses.
Even Steve has been convinced into taking a turn on the dance floor a few times, with a couple of lovely young ladies with French accents, Pepper Potts, and a rather frightening old woman who trod on his toes every time she moved.
Right now, he's over by the buffet, watching his friends and hiding his laughter in his glass of punch. Tony is charming his way through the crowd, his arrogance inexplicably attractive to men and women alike; Natasha and Clint appear to be flirting outrageously in alternation with a blushing young man (Steve thinks he was introduced as Peter-something? He knows he's only here because he's covering the party as a journalist) who doesn't seem to know where to look; Bruce is deep in conversation – in Norwegian – with some intense-looking individuals about science or art or something in between; and Thor is blithely eating and drinking and obliviously seducing near everyone with his golden good looks and towering physique. It had been hard work getting him into the formal ensemble, but obviously it was worth it.
Steve is about to make his way over to Tony, who had mentioned earlier wanting to try some of the strawberry canapés, when the building shakes, thunder crashes, and every pane of glass explodes inward. Every light goes out immediately.
Within the space of a second, the hall goes from pleasant dining experience to a tumult of screaming, crying people struggling over each other to the exits. Automatically, the Avengers meet each other's eyes and they're abandoning their drinks and their food and pushing through the crowd towards the centre of the room.
“What happened? Does anyone know?” Steve shouts to be heard over the noise of the crowd – who even now the ever-efficient and prepared S.H.I.E.L.D. staff are filtering through doors out of the immediate danger zone.
He's met with head-shakes and worried expressions.
“All right, so we operate under the assumption of an unknown enemy in unknown numbers. That means everyone will maintain radio communication and no one is to charge into a fight without alerting the rest of us.” He stares particularly hard at Tony, who grins cheekily for a moment but nods his agreement. “Thor, there was thunder involved. Do you have any idea what might be going on?”
Thor is shifting on the balls of his feet, clearly uncomfortable, and it takes Steve a moment to remember that Nick Fury and Phil Coulson had both banned Mjölnir from the party. While he presumably could summon his hammer from across town, it was hardly safe to do so.
With that thought, he takes a moment to look round at his team. Natasha will almost certainly have at least one pistol somewhere on her person, and even without one she's deadly enough. Clint too, although he cannot have brought his bow with him, is sure to have some means of defence. Tony probably fixed his cufflinks before they left, and Steve himself can pick up just about anything to make a shield but it won't be anywhere near as effective as his trusty vibranium. In fact, the only one of them functioning at full capacity is Bruce, but given the number of civilians so close by, using the Hulk can be nothing but a last resort.
He's about to suggest a strategic retreat, centred around getting the party guests out rather than confronting whatever the danger is head-on, when there is a flash of blue light. Blinking rapidly, all of them turn to see Loki standing there looking more concerned than they've ever seen him.
“Steve! You're all right!” Steve thinks he might be the only one who knows Loki well enough that even in the darkness illuminated only by bright bolts of lightning through the sky he can see Loki's eyes flicker sideways to check on Thor, who looks equally relieved to see his brother.
Steve nods, tugs Loki in for a brief hug mainly to reassure them both that the other is still alive. “We have to get out of here! Do you know what's going on?”
Loki grimaces, but nods. “It's Doom. He's fighting it out with the 'Fantastic Four'--” and even in this tense moment, with him yelling to be heard, his tone is dripping with sarcasm “--again; he's got some machine that's sucking in power from all over the place. They've got him under control, but they can't do anything about the rest of the city. We've got to get out of here!”
There's no way to argue with that, and soon enough the Avengers are coordinating the evacuation of not only the S.H.I.E.L.D. building but also those nearby. None of them have their suits or their real weapons, but they're still more prepared to deal with something like this than the people hurrying to escape the danger zone. Loki hovers, agitated, teleporting here and there and using his powers to keep an eye on the rest of the team as well as the situation with Doom. He clearly isn't particularly interested in assisting the populace but has apparently decided it isn't worth arguing with Steve on this point.
Finally, the last family is running out of a block of flats, and the lightning is getting worse. The Avengers are all running towards the S.H.I.E.L.D. meeting point, dodging the few pieces of rubble that are being flung around in the general vicinity of the Baxter Building when suddenly there is an even mightier crash than before. Loki and Steve, running side by side, look up to see the swirling cone of light around the top of the hotel, and then suddenly lightning is arcing across the sky, vicious and terrifying. They throw themselves towards the S.H.I.E.L.D. van, scramble inside to find almost all the Avengers already there – but before Steve can even open his mouth to ask, there's a heart-wrenching howl from behind them.
There, just across the street, Thor is illuminated, silhouetted, by a massive rush of electricity, shooting jaggedly down from Doom's machine. The only way it can have hit him – in between the tall buildings of a crowded city – is if it had something to do with his affinity for lightning, but Steve has no idea how that affects being electrocuted.
He's frozen, watching the rictus of pain on Thor's face, the arch of his back, as if in slow-motion. But next to him there's a snarl, and Loki is trying to barrel back out of the van, restrained only by Tony, Clint, and finally Steve.
He sobs without tears when Thor falls to the ground, lightning gone apart from the crackle running over his skin, but slumps onto Steve as the S.H.I.E.L.D. medics run out to do their job.
Chapter 5: Lift Our Wings When We Forget How To Fly
Thor ends up spending a week in bed, and has to be kept away from contact with anything metal. Luckily, as god of thunder, he's apparently pretty resistant to lightning, and he's able to stay in the Avengers mansion, and his friends can visit whenever they please. He's allowed mug after mug of Clint's specially made hot chocolate with extra marshmallows, and Tony shifts one of his TVs in so that Thor can watch an array of Disney movies and old fantasy flicks.
Steve makes sure to at least look in whenever he walks past, and he sits with Thor most evenings – it's harder during the day because they're on clean-up duty as well as keeping an eye on the villains who traditionally go after the Fantastic Four while they recover from their fight against Doom. There's an interesting afternoon where Steve meets Johnny Storm – the Human Torch – for the first time, and it's creepily like looking in a mirror. There's a lot of circling around each other and edging away before they shrug and laugh and Johnny invites Steve to a biking show.
Yes, Thor is mostly fine – but Loki, Loki is shaken to his core, Steve can see. He didn't leave Thor's bedside until hours after he awoke the first time, and even a week later he is spending hours on end sitting by his brother's bed. He's clearly frustrated at how much he cares though, going by how snappish he's become, but Steve finds that somehow it's easy to smile and let his irritation wash over him when he can picture the horror on Loki's face when they were tucking Thor into his bed and he still hadn't regained consciousness.
They're obviously taking this as an opportunity to work through a lot of their issues, and Steve is astonished to find that now that he's not caught in the middle of their tug of war, he doesn't quite know what to do with himself. He gets to spend time learning to cook from Clint – who makes a mean steak, it must be said – and carefully going through history books with Natasha; Tony is able to bombard him with film after film and band after band until he thinks he's going to drown in all the noise and colours; and he likes to sit in the lab that Bruce has claimed as his own, watching intrigued as he measures out test tubes and sets up complex patterns of pipes.
He even has time to draw again, and a delighted Pepper (flattered by his sketch of her as Joan of Arc) is only too happy to find him some canvases and paints to experiment with. He paints through his pain from the past, his memories of Bucky and Peggy and Howard, and then on into the modern world with its jarring buzz and too-bright colours. Tony doesn't seem particularly happy with his double portrait of the two Starks, but he does keep his grumbling to a minimum.
It's a strange sort of downtime, a limbo for Steve, and he didn't quite realise how much he'd fixed his existence around balancing Thor and Loki. It's soothing though, and probably much healthier than being quite so tied to two people.
When Thor is finally allowed out of bed again, and life returns to normal – apart from the odd time when Thor touches someone and all their hair stands on end – Loki disappears again. Thor still isn't happy, Steve can tell, but it's not the same unhappiness, the sadness that was tearing him apart.
He smiles. Breathes. They're going to be okay.
No one's exactly sure how Thor and Loki worked through their issues, or what sort of agreement they came to. They just know that Loki shows up even more now, and that the pair of them do anything and everything together. They go on walks, they watch TV (and Thor chuckles at Loki's disgust at every programme in existence) , they spar.
The whole thing is only brought to anyone's attention when Tony sprints up the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator, all the way up from the gym in the basement, gesturing madly and shouting about Thor and Loki and the balance beam. When he is met by blank looks from everyone – he has interrupted their communal watching of a David Attenborough documentary on the Amazon rainforests – he grabs Clint, who is nearest to him, and shakes him, looking more than a little bit insane.
“Thor and Loki are making out on the balance beam!” he grinds out in time to his shakes, and Natasha chokes on her red wine.
Tony looks rather dismayed when she starts to laugh at him, Clint sniggers, and Steve and Bruce raise their eyebrows.
“No! It's true!”
“We believe you, Tony,” Bruce explains patiently, looking back down at today's crossword. “The thing we're confused about is how it took you so long to catch on. What elephant did you think they were dancing around?”
Steve nods, unable to keep a straight face when Tony looks so forlorn. “Wait, so you all knew?” Everyone nods. “And no one thought to tell me?! What is wrong with you people?”
He continues to moan as he stomps off towards his room, and everyone else settles back in to catch the end of the show.
“Idiot,” Steve mutters affectionately, earning himself a murmur of agreement from the room at large, before Natasha throws her legs over his lap and they go silent again except for the scratch of Bruce's pen against the page.
Eventually, of course, there comes the first time when Loki outright aids the Avengers in a fight. Dr Doom is causing havoc in New York once again, and the Fantastic Four are all off in different corners of the globe, taking a well-deserved break. Rather than have them come all the way back across the world to deal with their nemesis, the Avengers are happy to do Reed a favour when he calls – Sue in the background sounding irritable and almost as scary as Natasha.
It's not hugely difficult compared to some of the things they've seen, compared to Loki's power, for example. But it's a battle of endurance and the team have been there nearly all day, and although the city and its civilians have been protected and only three policemen have needed to be gotten to a hospital, the front line doesn't seem to have shifted much and there are still hordes of gremlin-like things and larger,two-headed snake robots being held at bay rather than being destroyed.
Steve is coordinating yet another offensive, going from Clint's surveillance from his position atop Grand Central Station, when an explosion rends the air and Steve is flattened by the shock waves.
“Tony!” he yells, pushing himself upright and spitting dirt left, right and centre. Luckily, his shield protected his eyes, but he still blinks furiously in the clouds of dust that are swirling gently. “I told you to wait for my word – Natasha isn't in position yet, and the Hulk--”
Tony's voice is indignant, if a little crackly, over the radio. “It wasn't me! I've been flying around in circles like a good boy, waiting for the rest of you to get on with your little manoeuvres. See?”
And sure enough, in the distance, the Iron Man suit rises above the debris as its occupant sends an unmistakeable gesture in Steve's direction. He rolls his eyes and shoves away the urge to apologise.
“Hulk, then?” he queries, addressing the team in general. “Did he throw something--”
“Bruce – the Hulk – is still down here in the park, shamelessly destroying public property to strengthen the barrier.” Natasha's voice comes in loud and clear, wryly amused the way she always is in battle. “And before you ask, I didn't do anything either.”
Steve smiles even though there's no one there to see, and levers himself to his feet. “Wouldn't dream of suggesting such a thing, Natasha. Clint? I'm assuming it wasn't you, since we were talking at the time, but I suppose--”
“Not me, Cap,” and Steve can hear the grin. “Wish I could take the credit – Doom must be down at least four of those monster robots, although I can't say for sure until the smoke clears – but none of my arrows could do that much damage at this distance.”
He's running out of possible explanations, and Steve frowns slightly as he dusts himself off and tries to get his bearings again. Nothing seems to have changed much this far from the centre of the blast (whatever the blast was) but his training had taught him that it never hurt to be prepared. There was some small chance that this was all a distraction set up by Doom himself.
“Thor? I didn't see any lightning, and your usual battle-cry was notable by its absence, but...” he trails off, but no one replies. The silence from the rest of the team sounds as though they're holding their collective breath, but maybe that's just Steve projecting. “Thor? Thor, come in. Come in.”
He's moving before he's really thought about it, leaping up the barrier at the end of the street, feeling it creak beneath his feet as the harsh odour of burning metal and rubber fills his nose. It's a smell he's got far too used to since he woke up – and even before that, when he and his old team had been blowing up tanks and Hydra bases – and although it gets filed away somewhere at the back of his mind, he doesn't pay it any real attention.
Instead, he's focused on the roads in front of him, eyes scanning the buildings efficiently but without success.
“Thor? Are you there? Report your position.”
Still no reply, and Steve's starting to worry. It's still hard to quell the instinct deep down that wants him to rush to his friend's aid, but he reins it in and focuses on being an officer, a leader. There is more than one soldier under his command, and he is responsible for all of them.
“The rest of you, are you still here? Report in.” His voice is curt, but there's no censure in the prompt replies. “Can any of you see Thor? He was meant to be up on--”
“He's not on the roof any more, Cap. And there's no sign of him anywhere else, not that I can see. Tony?”
“My sensors aren't picking anything up from here. D'you want me to go over there and check it out?”
Steve swears under his breath, but clamps down on his emotions. “No. If something's happened to him, we can't afford to lose anyone else. There's still Doom to worry about. Clint, has he moved at all?”
There's a pause in which Clint presumably turns his attention to the centre of the carnage. A few beats of silence, and it's all Steve's mind needs to start conjuring images of Clint being taken – quietly, undetectably – by whatever had got Thor, but then his drawl is coming back over the line, still professional despite the tension underlying his tone.
“Doom's location hasn't changed, and if I'm not mistaken, he's as surprised by that explosion as we are. He's sending reinforcements out, weakening his primary guard to plug the gap.”
Decisively, Steve nods. “Fine, then we'll--”
“Shield brothers!” comes the completely unexpected, booming exclamation. Thor's voice is as unmistakeable as ever. “I have good tidings!”
The radio is suddenly filled with sighs of relief, deep breaths, and nervous chuckles.
“Geez, big guy!” Tony yelps, “Give us a bit of warning, won't you?”
Thor gives a single bark of laughter, but is clearly unwilling to be distracted. “My apologies, comrades. But I have news the likes of which can only cheer your weary hearts.”
Steve grins, can't stop grinning, and he's pretty sure it's obvious in his voice when he replies. “Thor, we were worried. What's your position?”
“My position is of little importance, as I am on my way to you, Captain.”
“It is vital that I do so, for I bring news that will surely change our strategy.”
Steve sighs. “Thor, that's great, but couldn't you tell me over the radio? Without you blocking that side, Doom and his creatures have a free route out into the rest of the city.”
Another laugh, although Steve doesn't understand what Thor could find so funny. “Never fear, Steve. Precautions have been taken, for--”
The rest of his sentence was swallowed by the roar in Steve's ears as Thor, carried by an extremely localised gale-force wind, appeared over his head and slowly set himself down. Shielding his eyes from the swirling air currents, Steve yelled over the radio.
“Sorry? Thor, I can't hear you over the wind! I could have sworn you said--”
He removes his hand from his eyes as he speaks, and is suddenly brought up short by the sight of Thor and--
Shooting him a smirk worthy of the Norse god of mischief, and patting Thor's breastplate familiarly as he steps away out of the embrace that had held him aloft, Loki himself looks around at the make-do barricade on which Steve perches, and the heaps of rubble from the buildings to either side.
“Lovely battle you've got going here,” he quips, and from the bizarre buzzing from the radio wired into his suit, Steve assumes that he's using his powers to patch himself into the comm link between the Avengers. “Hope you don't mind me dropping in.”
His response is a combination of indignant squawks and ominous silences. Steve rolls his eyes at Loki, ignoring the discomfort of a team who have not quite come to accept such a drastic change of heart from their former enemy. It's not surprising, considering how he was trying to kill them before, but they haven't been in Steve's shoes more recently. He grips Loki's arm tight in greeting, smiles warmly.
“Still like to make an entrance, I see. Did you just happen to arrive in the neighbourhood, or were you hiding out somewhere, watching and waiting for the opportune moment?”
Loki gives a slightly rueful grin, tilts his head to the side, and keeps his eyes deceptively wide and innocent. “I was just on my way to visit my dear brother.”
There is a strangled cough over the radio, and Steve may not know who it was from, but he knows exactly why. The 'brothers' are right in front of him, after all. He can see the way Thor melts at that, the soft look on Loki's face even as he refuses to turn around and meet Thor's eyes but allows himself to reach one hand back and tuck a couple of fingers his brother's belt, to tug gently.
For his part, Steve grins broadly.
He only realises how long they've been quiet when Clint's stage-whisper comes over the line.
“They're doing it, aren't they? I can't bring myself to look. What if my eyes are burned right out of my head?”
“But Steve's there too. Does that mean he's just watching them, or joining in?” Natasha murmurs back, wicked glee in her tone.
Tony's snort of laughter is unmistakeable. “My bet's on joining in, even if that's mostly because the image is ridiculously pretty. Can you imagine?”
Thor looks sort of scandalised, and Steve's on the verge of laughing out loud and thus ruining their play, even as he can feel his ears burn with embarrassment under his mask. Loki, on the other hand, appears completely unfazed, and the curve of his lips is teasing as he moans, long and low.
“Oh, Thor. Steve, Steve.”
He's so convincing that even Steve feels his breath catch, feels the need to step away even though he's right there. Now it's Thor who is almost laughing, looking at Loki fondly. The radio is a crackling mess of silence – horrified silence. Loki indulges in some heavy breathing, milking the moment for all it's worth, and it's only when a distant screech of steel on concrete brings them all back to reality that their hold on their laughter is broken.
Thor is first to crack, booming away at who knows how many decibels. Steve goes next, leaning on a fallen pillar as he bends over and wheezes, he's laughing so hard. Loki is quieter, but loud enough that the rest of the Avengers catch on, and Steve would swear that at that moment he could tell you what the sound of three people rolling their eyes as hard as they could is.
“All right, all right, we'll leave it be,” grumbles Natasha.
“Uh, guys,” Clint interrupts, “you might like to know that Doom seems to be on the move again. Not to butt in on your touching reunion, but I thought Thor said he'd done something about leaving them a route into the city?”
His voice is tight, and Steve snaps immediately back into Captain America mode, straightening up and raising his shield. He looks towards Thor, questioningly.
“Loki left images of ourselves there, lifelike enough to keep the enemy from believing that they could escape that way.”
Clint's voice is grim. “Well, I'm afraid it seems that they've worked it out. They're advancing on your former position in force. Any ideas, people?”
Steve sets his mouth in a firm line, brain frantically running through potential plans and discarding them one after another. That is, until Loki presses a hand to the middle of his back, eyes warm and dark.
“I said I was here to help, did I not?” he says, still with that proud undertone that so aggravated people. “They will be rather surprised by the 'images' over there, I think.”
And sure enough, almost before he's finished speaking, there are two more explosions in quick succession, and even from this distance Steve can see tiny creatures being flung into the air, squealing in terror.
“Jesus Christ,” mutters Tony, and Steve wonders whether he's thinking about how, under different circumstances, it would be them feeling the brunt of that attack.
Loki just laughs, and something else explodes.
Steve shrugs, sets his feet, grips his shield. “Avengers, assemble!” he yells, before leaping over the barricade and running towards the fray, shouting orders over the radio as he goes. Thor is at his left shoulder, roaring in a language that has been dead on Earth for hundreds of years, and swinging Mjölnir in an ever-widening circle. At Steve's right, Loki runs, sometimes shadow, sometimes projection, sometimes real and solid – but always cackling, beaming brightly, and tossing vicious blasts of magic all around them. Overhead, Tony careens carelessly, drawing fire even as he takes out monster after monster with direct hits. In front of them is the deafening carnage that comes with the Hulk, and all around them arrows are flying with deadly accuracy and shot after shot is being fired into the oncoming foes.
It's bizarre, to say the least, but the battle is over a lot quicker with Loki on their side.
Afterwards, once all the clean-up and rescue missions are done, the Avengers return to the mansion, just about ready to collapse after a long day saving the world. Loki declines Steve's invitation to join them, probably taking in the uncertainty on his team-mates faces and giving a little with good grace. Thor looks between his brother and his friends, faltering, but Loki leans in and whispers something, grips his shoulder and brushes a chaste kiss to his cheek, before departing alone.
For once, however, Thor doesn't look distraught at Loki's leaving, and claps Steve firmly on the back in excitement from the fight, knocking what little wind he had regained post-battle out of him.
It takes quite a while for the Avengers to get used to Loki joining them. He does so regularly, particularly when they are in more trouble than usual, but he rarely sees them outside fights. Steve sees him sometimes when he is out of the house, and he drops round occasionally for a quiet breakfast like before, but not much changes. Thor presumably see him more often, but no one likes to bring it up for fear of what they might hear. Thor's not very good at discreet, after all.
Steve is actually ridiculously happy, happier than he's been since he woke up.
Life's not perfect, and he still doesn't understand cell phones, and Bucky's grave and Peggy's last words still haunt his dreams sometimes. But he's stopped confusing Tony and Howard, he no longer flinches at bright colours and special effects on the television, and the world doesn't seem quite so wrong any more.
“Come on, Steve,” Loki laughs, tugging him away from his journal. “Thor is being terribly annoying, and he has no taste in furniture.”
Steve laughs, and sets aside his pen. He might be fitting better into the twenty-first century, but that doesn't mean he needs a computer for everything like Tony keeps trying to convince him. A simple, leather-bound journal and an ink pen are quite all right by him, thank you very much.
“What's Thor doing now?” He lets himself be pulled indoors, off the balcony, and through the kitchen where Bruce is drinking tea and filling in another crossword puzzle. He smiles up at them absent-mindedly, raises his mug in greeting, but is distracted by what appears to be 14-down.
Loki pulls him through the TV room, where Tony is sitting on the floor and tinkering with the DVD-player and Clint and Natasha are playing chess and teasing each other while half-watching some type of action movie. “I'm trying to redecorate the bedroom, but Thor – of course – disagrees about the bed. He wants some horrendous four-poster thing. Positively medieval.”
Apparently hearing them approach, Thor sticks his head out the doorway of the room he and Loki have been sharing for the past five-and-a-half months. He grins broadly, seeing Steve, and shakes his head at Loki. His expression could only be called soppy.
“I hear you don't like Loki's choice of bed, Thor.” Steve rubs his ink-stained fingers on his sleeve, smudging the blue-and-white-checked fabric.
Thor pouts, and Loki murmurs something unintelligible but generally unimpressed from Steve's left.
“All I am requesting is that our bedroom might remind us of home in some small way. Loki is convinced that this--” he gestures at the sleek black model with its crisp white sheets “--is homely enough. I do not see why we could not have something more impressive, more--”
Loki makes a strangled sound as Thor waves his hand in the air, apparently searching for the right word.
“I think the term you're looking for, dear brother of mine, is ugly.”
Thor looks at Loki again, and Steve tries not to laugh. They're arguing, yes, but Thor still looks well and truly besotted every time he looks at his brother, and there is something more relaxed about Loki than there used to be, more at ease with the world and with himself. He still has days when he hates everyone, when he's angry at Thor, at life, at the very clothes on his back – and on those days he'll rant and rage and push Thor away, and Steve will let Loki talk at him, let him work through the madness and get back to them, even as he lets Thor lean on his shoulder and mope as he waits for his brother to calm down.
They've had a few near-disasters, but between Thor and Loki and Steve between them, they're still here.
Loki waves a hand at the bed, turning it into some over-stuffed monstrosity heaped with pillows and shrouded in heavy drapes, and exclaims, shrill, “How is that in any way preferable!”
Steve can't help it, he laughs. And he's still laughing an hour later, as he pushes and pulls furniture this way and that to his friends' demands, every piece occasionally changing with the whim of one or the other of them.
Life isn't perfect, no, and he's still not entirely sure that he's where he's meant to be – but he does know, he's certain, that this is where he's meant to be.