When Steve was all alone, he would find someone to be with him. He made him tall, just over Steve's height, with dark hair slicked back, a thin face with a long nose, and he was always dressed in good suits. Steve tried putting him in other clothes, but his friend always insisted on wearing suits.
His friend's name was Loki. Loki almost never agreed with Steve. But that was part of what made him interesting. They would debate for hours what goodness was or how to determine right from wrong.
His friend visited him most days. Sometimes, he wouldn't be able to come. Others would take Steve, and he put up with whatever they did to him. Eventually it would be over, and they would leave him alone again. Then his friend would come back.
He never talked about what happened to him when his friend wasn't around. That was best left forgotten.
One day, however, Loki seemed pensive.
"What's on your mind?" Steve asked him.
Loki glanced over from where he sat with his back against the stone wall. He was playing with his cufflinks, and he accidentally tore one off. He stared at it dumbly for a moment before tucking it into a pocket.
"I sometimes question the sensibility of a grown man having an imaginary friend," he told Steve.
Steve shrugged. He thought it was perfectly reasonable. Loki was his only friend here, and without him, he'd likely go insane. He tossed some more straw onto the corner of the little room, hoping to cover up some of his smell. Steve didn't notice the stench anymore, and Loki wouldn't, but his mother always felt house-keeping was essential when guests were over.
"I like having you," he said. Loki chewed his lip as Steve went on. "I like our conversations." When Loki talked, he could forget about being locked away.
"And that's the worst of it!" Loki stood abruptly and began to pace. He threw his arms out in great, sweeping gestures. "My imaginary friend has to be an almost incoherent homeless man."
"You're the imaginary one," Steve said, very reasonably he thought, but Loki rounded on him, eyes wide and mouth moving wordlessly.
"I think you are driving me mad," Loki said, shaking a finger at Steve. "You're the imaginary one. I'm the one with the life. You're my subconscious, a very obnoxious subconscious, if I might add."
Loki had never been like this before. "I'm real!" Steve yelled. "I'm real, I'm real, I'm real." Steve knew this. He felt real. The floor beneath him was cold, the cell stank, and the things they did to him hurt and ached.
"My father's making me see a psychiatrist because of you." And with that, Loki disappeared.
Steve called out to him, but he didn't return.
He didn't know how much time passed. Loki had always kept him aware of the days. He tried creating a new friend, but only Loki ever came to mind. And Loki still wouldn't come when he called.
But at last, he did return, and Steve couldn't keep the utter relief and happiness he felt when he saw his friend again.
"How long has it been?"
Loki looked unsettled. He kept glancing around him, as if expecting something to pop out, but they were alone. Loki only came when Steve was alone. "Two days," Loki replied.
Two days. It had only been two days.
"The psychiatrist said to try talking to you," Loki said, and he sounded very unhappy at the idea. "Find out all I can about you. Find what I might be projecting onto you, and finding the point at which my imagination can no longer account for your continued existence."
It didn't make much sense to Steve, but he did as Loki asked.
He talked about his childhood, growing up in Brooklyn with his mother. He talked about Bucky, his best friend, who he had gone to war with. He talked about his first girlfriend, how that hadn't worked out, and how every attempt afterward didn't seem worth the trouble. He talked about the war and the fear and the death he'd seen. He talked about his capture, he talked about how they took him away, he talked about how they hurt him, and he talked about how he never said a word to them.
At Loki's prompting, he described the smell of things, the smell of his mother's kitchen, of a new sketch pad, of the blood of a dead enemy soldier. He told Loki about the dead taste in his mouth that wouldn't leave, not since he had arrived in this place. He explained how he saw color, how it exploded before his eyes when he painted, how it did the same when he got caught in a blast.
And as he spoke, Loki' face grew slack with wonder. For once, he was almost silent, absorbing everything Steve said, and Steve grew hoarse from talking. His friend encouraged him to take his time, to savor what little water he had. And Steve continued to talk.
When he had nothing more to say, Steve noticed for the first time that Loki held a pen and pad of paper. "What are those for?" he asked. It hurt to speak.
Loki glanced down with a look of surprise. He seemed to have forgotten about the paper. "It's nothing," he said. He glanced behind him at the stone wall. "I have to go. Steve, I'll talk with you soon."
Loki disappeared, and Steve was left all alone once again.
It seemed to take an eternity for Loki to return, but at last he did. Loki cut off Steve before he could even ask what day it was.
"Steve, I need to know whatever you do about where you are. Just... tell me anything you can."
So Steve did. It was hard, harder even than telling him about the pain they caused him. They tried to keep him in the dark about where he was, but he told Loki whatever he could.
Sometimes, he could smell pine trees. It was always cold, although he didn't know if it was due to the weather or the cell. At night, train whistles sounded from some distance, Steve couldn't tell how far. And he tasted salt in the air and in the food. It was everywhere here.
Loki thanked him. "Steve, just hold on, okay?" And that was the last his friend ever said to him.
Once, during the monotony of Steve's life, while he still held onto the last threads of hope that Loki would come back, he heard a commotion going on in the world around him. Sounds of people shouting and gunfire carried through Steve's walls. He pressed his ear against the door, but he couldn't make out what was going on. Then he heard footsteps, heavy and fast, coming toward him.
He scrambled from the door, taking his usual position on the wall opposite, ready to face his captors with all the defiance he could muster. It was routine. It was familiar.
But the men who entered were not his jailers.
He couldn't believe it, but he folded his arms around his childhood friend, and he sobbed with relief.
"We've got you, Steve," Bucky whispered in his ear. "We've got you."
Steve stared up at the white ceiling. He knew he was in a hospital. He had no clue where. A colonel had been in to debrief him. Steve had been able to tell him little. Bucky hadn't been by, not since the first day. On assignment, one of the nurses had told him.
In this place, Steve was never alone. There were other soldiers with him, some injured, some sick, and countless doctors and nurses. They spoke about malnutrition and old wounds to him, but it didn't mean much to Steve. He accepted whatever they offered him without complaint.
Then, without any warning, Loki came back.
"Hi," Loki said, approaching Steve's bed.
"Hi." Steve couldn't stop the grin from spreading across his face. It had been a few weeks at least since he had last seen his friend.
But there was something different about Loki. Steve realized with a start that he was not wearing a suit. Steve pointed this out to him.
Loki looked down at his sweater. "I'm sorry, is this inappropriate?"
"No, I like it," Steve said. "It looks good on you."
And then Steve realized there were other people around.
"You only come when I'm alone," he said to Loki. "There are others here."
Loki looked sad. "Do you remember when I said you were imaginary?"
Of course Steve did. It was at once a lifetime ago and yesterday for Steve. Loki straightened his sweater, fiddled with the cuffs, and didn’t quite meet Steve's eye. He pulled up a chair, and that was new, too. Loki never interacted with Steve's surroundings.
"Neither of us are, Steve," Loki said. "I'm very real, and so are you." He looked at Steve with sad eyes. "I don't know how, but for three months we were able to talk to each other. I never thought..." He broke off, his voice cracking. "It's logically impossible."
Steve held out his hand. He was curious. Never once had he touched Loki. Imaginary friends couldn't be touched. But when Loki took hold of it, it felt warm, substantial, and strong. He squeezed Loki's hand, and his friend squeezed back.
"You're real," he said in amazement. "And I'm real."
"Yes," Loki said. "And I'm sorry it took so long to find you."
He was back in the cell, and Loki wasn't coming. Steve beat his hands against the wall, screaming his throat raw. He knew it was too good to be true. He knew it would never be real. He knew, he just knew, he was trapped here forever, and he was all alone, and-
"Steve! Wake up!"
Steve lurched up off the bed, wrapping his hands around his attacker. But after a second, he realized he held onto Loki's arms, and he released his grip as if he'd been burned.
"I'm sorry," Steve said, looking at the white bed sheets. "I'm sorry."
Loki's hand rubbed his back.
"It's fine, Steve," Loki said. "You'll get through it."
Steve met Loki's eyes, and he smiled. "Thank you."
The military wondered how Loki Odinson, just another socialite, had known where to look for the missing soldiers, including one Captain Steve Rogers. But neither Loki nor Steve had a good answer for them.
It took a long time for Steve to feel comfortable on his own, many times the length of his confinement. But he found most often that he didn't need to be. Loki was still at his side, a solid presence.
Three years and seven months after Steve had first made up his imaginary friend, he kissed his very real friend and told him he loved him.