Steve left Loki in his suite as exhausted as he always did. Mentally from navigating the conversational minefield that these conversations always were, and physically from…everything else.
And somewhere, head still spinning a little over the fact that he’d just taken Loki out to a nice dinner. In Paris. (Or maybe Loki had taken him out to a nice dinner. Either way.) Forget fraternizing with the enemy, or drinking with the enemy. From the borderline (sometimes not borderline at all) outrageous flirting Loki had been doing over dinner, this had gotten quite a bit worse.
He’d enjoyed the night, though. His mind kept wandering back to the journey. That wonderful, terrifying, surreal journey.
Rubbing his eyes, Steve wandered back to his room, feeling sorely in need of a hot shower and a bed. And found Thor standing in his doorway, a painfully hopeful expression on his face when he caught sight of Steve. Who was reminded rather forcefully of a golden retriever bouncing to its feet at the door opening.
Should’ve known, Steve thought wearily, and sighed. To himself.
“You were with him, were you not? You spoke to my brother?” Thor’s voice seemed to rise a couple notches when he was excited, from a low rumble to a dull booming. Steve hoped no one on the floor was trying to sleep. “What did he say? Did he explain why he assisted us?”
“Yeah,” Steve said carefully. “Yeah, I was…with him.” He could feel himself blush, saying that. For some reason. “And he…sort of. Look, Thor, I’m pretty tired. Could we maybe do this in the morning?”
Thor drooped. Visibly. “I would not deprive you of your rest, my friend,” he said, sounding horribly mournful. Steve sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“—don’t…oh, fine. There’s not that much to say. He didn’t really tell me why. Didn’t give me a straight answer when I asked if he’d do it again, either, though I think – think, mind you – he might. Hard to say. Half the time I don’t understand what’s going on in his head and the other half I’ve stepped in something without knowing what it is.”
Thor nodded sagely. “So it has always been, for me,” he said. “Loki was ever difficult to understand, the pathways of his mind twisting. He took offense quickly and his mood was as changeable as the winds. I fear time has only made him more apt to read insult into others’ words.”
Yeah, Steve thought. No kidding. Talking to Loki was like playing hot potato with a grenade while blindfolded. You never knew when it was going to explode in your face. Though lately it seemed to be going better. Maybe. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you more,” he offered. Thor shook his head.
“I only wish I might…did he mention me?” The hope in Thor’s eyes hurt. Steve was briefly reminded of his continual temptation to shake Loki until his teeth rattled and insist that he sit down and at least speak two words to Thor. Except that he knew how that would end. ‘Not well’ was an understatement.
“No,” said Steve heavily. “I’m sorry, Thor. He didn’t.” There were times, sometimes, when Steve could almost see Loki thinking about him. Some offhand comment reminding him of a memory, perhaps, or something that Thor would find amusing, or…but none of it ever passed Loki’s lips. Always continuously, almost conspicuously silent. Thor’s face fell.
“I am gladdened, nonetheless,” he said, finally, “That he seems to enjoy your companionship.” Steve leaned back against the wall. The image of Loki delicately licking ice cream off his long fingers popped suddenly into his head, and he flushed. Sometimes I think he just enjoys making me blush.
“I got him a cat,” Steve blurted out, suddenly. “—well, a kitten. He mentioned liking them, and I thought…well, I figured…” He felt abruptly rather foolish. Well. It wasn’t as though it would be a secret. Thor, however, seemed delighted.
“You gave him the gift of an animal? A fine gesture, Steve Rogers! Loki has ever been fond of such creatures. Undoubtedly he will seek to give you some gift in return that may be equally prized!”
Steve froze. “What?” His mind was suddenly filled with visions of – well, a cat bringing in dead or dying animals. Except with Loki…maybe dead or dying supervillains? He felt a little sick. “Oh no, that’s not-”
Thor clapped him heartily on the shoulder. “Loki’s gifts were always wondrous indeed. You shall have to tell me what it is he presents you with.”
Steve felt a little like he might choke on his tongue. “Yeah,” he said, after a few moments. “Yeah, I’ll just do that.”
Thor released his shoulder, seeming somehow buoyed up by the news. Steve wondered why. Perhaps Loki had had a pet he’d been fond of as a child. That might make sense. (Thinking about Loki being a child was…difficult. It didn’t fit, somehow, in his head. Unlike Thor, who Steve sometimes suspected had never entirely grown up.) “Well,” Steve said after a moment. “He seemed to like it. I’d’ve gotten you some pictures if I could’ve.”
Thor looked wistful. “You could not?”
“Even if I knew how these new cameras worked,” Steve said regretfully, “I don’t think I could without him noticing, and I don’t think he’d like it.” Thor sighed.
“I would not have you lose Loki’s trust.” Steve wasn’t sure that was the right word, but he left it alone. “I only…I miss him,” Thor said heavily. “And not to be permitted even to see him…this afternoon was the first time in months, and even then it was only an illusion and he said not a word to me. To think of all the times when I wished Loki would be silent.” Thor shook his golden head, and Steve sighed. Maybe in another year, he thought, if all goes well, I’ll be able to mention your name without him acting like a poked turtle.
“Well, um,” Steve said, groping for a reply, and found, “I could tell you about the evening if you want,” because he wanted to tell someone and Thor was by far the least likely to give him trouble about it, and he always left these meetings with so many questions he couldn’t ask. Maybe Thor would even have some answers.
And the way his face lit up was reward enough in itself, though Thor made a great show at trying to be restrained, offering a, “If you do not think it unwise.” Steve shook his head.
“No, I – I think it’ll be fine.” He looked around the hallway, and grimaced a little. “Do you want to find somewhere to sit?”
They ended up in the kitchen, where Steve made himself a mug of tea and Thor made himself hot chocolate, a beverage second in his estimation only to coffee.
“So,” Steve started awkwardly. “We went to Paris. I mean. He took me to Paris.” Thor blinked.
“Paris? Is that not a long ways away?”
“Yeah,” Steve said with a laugh. “A little. But he – Loki showed me this thing, last time, this way of traveling…he calls it. Uh. Walking the World Tree? Yggdrasil?”
Thor sat bolt upright, the look on his face one of sudden alarm. “Loki took you on those paths? Steve, are you well? Do you feel hale? Are-”
“I’m fine,” Steve said, blinking a little at the reaction. “I mean, I…there were a couple moments where…Loki kept me on track. Have you ever…”
“Once,” Thor said, mouth flattening to a slightly grim line. “With my brother, many years ago. I nearly fell. I believe I frightened him, for he said that I was too stupid to walk with him again.” He sounded rueful. “It is possible that he was right. I have been told it takes uncommon cunning to walk those darkened ways.”
Steve shifted and cupped his hands around his mug. “He said he taught himself to do it,” Steve said, the picture back in his head of a younger Loki teetering in that great darkness.
Thor nodded, looking distracted. “It would not surprise me. Loki was always teaching himself one thing or another. As often as he could slip away from arms training he was reading some ancient book of magic. And he would never say what it was he was doing until he could manage it successfully.”
“He said not a lot of people bothered to learn. I don’t understand why. It was…it was beautiful. Amazing.”
Thor looked slightly uncomfortable for the first time. “Sorcery…the kind of power Loki wields…is not altogether well thought of in Asgard. It was not a pursuit that many chose, and even fewer to the extent that Loki did.”
Steve thought about what Loki had said. Once you have tasted powerlessness, I do not think you ever truly forget. Of Loki saying Frigga always encouraged me to find my own especial skills. Loki, tall and imposing but next to Thor practically slender. Not muscle, not brute force.
Huh, he thought, and then said, “Huh.” Thor looked at him with concern.
“Your expression is pensive, my friend.”
“Just…sorting a few things out,” Steve said carefully. “Or trying to, anyway.” He hesitated, and took a deep breath. “He said something. About…about…you said. Before Loki got here, the last time you’d seen him, he…fell.”
Thor’s expression went slightly pained. “Yes,” he said, after a moment. “The Bifrost was broken and he fell into the void between worlds.” Steve looked down at his tea.
“Do you know anything about what lives there?”
Thor frowned. “Until recently I would have said nothing. But I suppose the Chitauri…” Thor trailed off, mouth twisting downwards, and there was something slightly blank on his face like he was trying not to think about something. Steve cleared his throat.
“Just…Loki’s said some things. Little things, never much, not really one to talk about himself, but they just made me wonder what kind of a place he was in before turning up in that SHIELD base.”
“I have thought of the same,” Thor said, after a moment. “I have wondered in what state Loki came upon those creatures, and how they welcomed him. I have wondered…if Loki knew he would survive that fall.”
“Or if he thought he would die,” Steve said, a little hollowly. Thor hadn’t said much about what had happened, but he couldn’t help but picture Bucky, and that brought him around to the feeling that thinking about Loki like this at all was some kind of betrayal. “I don’t know. It hardly even came up before he changed the subject. He’s like that. It’s like the instant he starts to get a little bit personal – about himself, I mean – he doesn’t. And sometimes I wonder if he’d like to tell someone, if it’s as tiring as it seems like it’d be keeping everything all secret and mysterious, but-” Steve stopped, realizing that he was babbling a little. Thor looked thoughtful.
“He was ever very private,” he said slowly. “He spoke to me often when I least looked for it. He spoke to our mother more often, I think, but…when he was young in both cases, not for many years. For a long time he has kept his own counsel.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. He was starting to feel tired again. “I can see that.” Loki with his walls and his secrets and his innumerable masks. Steve was beginning to wonder if Loki had lost the way out from behind them.
Thor fidgeted, eyes wandering back to his hot chocolate. He took a gulp of it and stood up, moving over to one of the cabinets. “Did he seem in good humor?”
Good humor was not, Steve thought, the way he would describe Loki as he’d found him. But after? “Yeah,” he said, finally. “Overall, I guess. There was a minimum of nasty personal digs, anyway, which is generally how I can tell when things go downhill. I guess he was…showing off, sort of. Flaunting,” and oh, maybe that had been the wrong word choice.
Thor had a thoughtful look on his face. He nodded, after several moments, and Steve finally managed to place where he’d seen that expression before. Sometimes a girl’s mother would look at the boy she was stepping out with like that. “I am glad that your evening was pleasant,” Thor said, finally.
Steve could feel himself blushing again. For no good reason, of course. He groped around for something to say. “You should have seen him with the cat,” Steve said finally.
“Someday,” Thor said, striding over and clapping a hand on his shoulder, tone both wistful and determined, “I still hope I might.”