And all the stars were crashing 'round
As I laid eyes on what I'd found...
It was a white crane
It was a helpless thing
Upon a red stain
With an arrow its wing
And it called and cried
And it called and cried so...
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, lived a former soldier with no wealth or fame; he had nothing but a small house and his two hands to his name. His name was Steve Rogers and, though he was as brave and good as a man could be, he got by on a small army pension and doing odd jobs in the village closest to the house he had inherited from his mother.
On a cold night, when there was just a glimmer of sun still visible as it set between the heavy clouds, Steve pulled his coat tight against the falling snow and began to make his way home from the village, where he had been helping Widow Agnes cut wood for her fireplace in exchange for eggs and some seed cake.
Winter was so long in this land. It stretched on for months, grey and cold and loaded with softly falling snow, until it seemed that the sun and the greenery would never come back again. Steve had fought the war in the south for many years, and he’d forgotten just how dreary winter could be in his homeland. The endless expanse of snow and the succession of grey days felt as smothering as the worst of war had been; the howling of the storms reminded Steve of those nights when the cannons roared in the darkness and the air vibrated with it until noise wasn’t noise, just a pressure in his chest like his childhood asthma attacks.
He ought to be grateful for it, he knew; grateful to have a home, even if it was just a small house far away from the village, and grateful to have somewhere to return to after the war. But gratefulness tasted bitter on his tongue when he sat alone by the fire in the evenings and silence stifled him. He missed Bucky and his warmth (how he’d held Steve in his childhood as he shivered with endless fevers and misery, how he’d helped Steve up and dusted him off after every fight, how he’d looked at Steve when he finally made it to the army thanks to Dr Erskine, the sudden cold when he fell off that train to his death); he missed Peggy and her smile (sharp in the battlefield, soft when Steve was wounded, regretful as she refused to leave her work with the army and go with him somewhere they wouldn’t have to see so much death and destruction); he missed the Howling Commandos and Colonel Philips, and even, when the silence and loneliness got too much, he even missed war itself.
Steve took a deep breath and felt more grounded when he took in cold, wet air instead of the smell of gunpowder and blood he'd been fearing. The wind was picking up quickly and the last rays of sunlight were gone; holding his lantern tightly, Steve leant into the wind and followed the path that would take him to his house.
He was halfway there, bordering a hollow flanked with leafless trees, when he heard a sharp cry in the sky above and he looked up in time to see a dark shape hurtle down to the ground, surrounded by what looked like falling stars. It landed in a bank of snow in the middle of the hollow and gave out a low, pained cry that made Steve hasten to leave the path and wade between the snow towards it; he'd done this so many times for injured soldiers in the battlefield, it was second nature to him.
As he approached, by the light of his lantern he could see it was a white crane, a helpless thing, lying upon a red stain, with an arrow in its wing; its blood tinged the snow and its feathers a dark red, and it called and cried with the sweetest voice Steve had ever heard.
“It’s alright, it’s alright,” Steve said as he looked for somewhere to put his lantern; the crane tried to shy away on its wounded wing and awkward legs, but it only managed to dig itself deeper in the snow and shed more blood. “Hush, now. Let me see what I can do. I'll help you, stay still.”
“Hurry, then,” said the crane. “They know they’ve brought me down and they’ll send their hounds after me.”
Steve almost dropped the lantern. Where there had been a crane there was now a man, his skin as white as the crane’s feathers, hair as dark as its wingtips, with an arrow embedded in his shoulder; the blood was still the same, as was the little pained cry he gave out when he tried to stand.
“Don’t move,” Steve told him; in the face of an emergency, sudden transformations were the least of his worries. “I can… put a bandage on it, some pressure to stop you bleeding and… I’ll need to take you inside, you’re going to freeze in here.”
“I don’t…” The man whimpered when Steve pressed his handkerchief against the wound; the cloth went from white to red at once and Steve had to swallow against the bile on his throat at the warm, slick feeling of blood under his hands.
“Can you walk?” he asked.
The man (the crane?) shook his head.
“Even if I could, they would follow my scent, even over the snow.”
“Well, then…” Steve reached out and took one of the man’s hands, the one on his uninjured arm, and raised it to press it against the wound (fingers long and soft and pale, like wing feathers). “Hold it as tightly as you can.”
The stranger weighed as little as a crane would, it seemed to Steve as he lifted him and then tried to grab the lantern too; the jostling produced more of those little pained whimpers from the wounded man, but finally Steve managed to get their only light source and make his way back to the path.
Snow fell more and more heavily as Steve walked on; he was glad he knew the way by heart, because the lantern gave out little light and the weight of the man in his arms was exceedingly distracting.
Drops of blood marked their trail like crumbs in the forest.
“Here we are,” said Steve after what seemed too long; he hadn’t been as glad to see his house since the first day he was back from the war.
But there was no answer: the man (the crane?) had fainted.
Steve took him inside, then busied himself lighting the fire and a few candles; he paused after a moment and went to his room for a blanket, to preserve the man’s modesty. With water warmed by the fire, he washed the blood from the man’s pale skin and then, with his best hunting knife, cleaned on a candle flame, he proceeded to take the arrow out. It was an ugly thing, for all it was finely crafted, and Steve was quick to wrap it in a rag and put it away, still soaked in the stranger's blood.
The man cried and struggled, pain bringing him out of his faint where warmth had not, but Steve held him down, making soothing noises, until he had done all he could with the wound: washed the dirt and the snow from its jagged edges, sewed it closed with neat stitches, then covered it with his last reserves of honey to keep infection away. This was not the first time that the lessons on field medicine he'd gained in the trenches had come in handy, even in this land war had not touched directly.
“There, there,” Steve soothed, wrapping the wound with a clean handkerchief (his last, and he wondered how he would be able to afford replacements). “It’s done now. It will heal. Shhh…”
The stranger trembled beneath his touch, though he was sitting right in front of the fire; after wiping the blood off his hands, Steve wrapped the man more tightly in the old, tattered blanket and helped him sit up.
“Would you like to drink some water? Don’t move, I will bring you some…” He poured fresh water in a bowl, then sat by the man and raised it to his lips, which looked startlingly red against his pale skin.
The man’s green eyes were as wild as any wounded animal’s, but after a moment he opened his lips and took a small sip of water, relaxing by stages as he drained the bowl. After he had drank all the water, he licked his lips and, for the first time, looked at Steve in the eye.
Steve shook his head, blushing he knew not why. He stood up quickly, feeling clumsy, being careful not to touch the stranger, and went to put the bowl away.
“You’re welcome,” he said. And then, when he had recovered some of his composure. “I’m Steve Rogers. What is your name?”
The man looked away, his eyes travelling over the whole room, his shoulders rigid under the blanket, and Steve had time to regret his question before it was answered.
“Loki,” the stranger said. “Loki of Asgard.”
“Well then, welcome, Loki of Asgard. There’s not much more I can do for your wound, so… rest would be the best thing for you. Sleep. You're safe here.”
Loki of Asgard looked frail and vulnerable as he sat on the floor, in front of the fire, wrapped only in that old, blood-spattered blanket. Ignoring the uneasy feeling in his stomach, Steve left him alone for a moment and went to his room, to drag the mattress off his bed and into the sitting room, arranging it as close to the hearth as he dared.
“You’ll be warm there, I think,” he said, watching Loki settle on the mattress (somewhat awkwardly, with his wounded arm, like a crane on land). “Sleep now, I’ll take care of everything.”
And there were many things to take care of. Steve washed his knife and his needle, put his bloodied handkerchief in water (it was probably a loss anyway, but he had to try), built up the fire to last the night, and then (stealing a look at Loki, snow pale and night dark under the blanket), he grabbed his coat and went back outside.
Loki had said they would follow his scent, and though Steve had carried him home, they had left a trail of blood that wasn’t yet quite buried under the snow and that would lead any pursuers right to his door. War had taught him not to take risks, so Steve grabbed an old bucket and a shovel and retraced his steps until the hollow, digging up the bloodstained snow and hoping the storm would do the rest to cover their tracks.
It was almost dawn when he was done. Steve opened the door and the light of his lantern fell on Loki, sitting up on the mattress in front of the hearth, eyes wild, long hand white-knuckled around the hilt one of Steve's knives.
“It's me,” Steve said, staying on the doorway and using his calmest tone of voice. “It's just me.”
It took a moment, but then Loki bowed his head and dropped the knife. Steve closed the door against the cold, put down the bucket of bloodied snow, and approached his guest carefully.
“Are you alright? Did anyone come by while I was away?”
Loki shook his head, dark hair falling around his naked shoulders; he was very pale, save for two spots of fever on his cheeks, and his green eyes were frantic and wild. Steve knew the symptoms and he also knew he had nothing at hand to ease the stranger's fever, but he helped him to more water from the well and he wrapped the old blanket tighter around his shivering body, cringing when his rough hands accidentally came in contact with Loki's smooth skin.
“So cold,” Loki said between chattering teeth. “I have never been cold...”
He let out a little laugh that made Steve's hair stand on end; he knew its broken sound from the battlefield, he knew it from the lips of those bright-eyed young men who went mad from war and ran in search of death not caring for anything else. The uneasy feeling in his stomach bloomed into panic and he forgot his earlier care to wrap an arm around Loki's trembling form and murmur soothing nothings. He'd done the same for Bucky, after he rescued him from captivity, in the nights when nightmares and terrors kept him awake, and just like Bucky, Loki tensed at first and then relaxed by stages, the tremors leaving his form until he was soft and pliant in Steve's arms, still feverish, but calm.
Steve held him until he fell asleep, and then a good while after that.
When the sun came up and became impossible to ignore, even through the snow which was still falling steadily, Steve let go of his guest, who was still asleep, too warm to the touch but at least not shivering any more. Even on no sleep, there were things to be done and Steve did them: he went out and got water from the well (not frozen, yet, though it might if the storm got worse), cut wood for the fire, cleared the snow from the porch and checked to see if the repairs he'd done on the roof were holding well under the weight of the snow piled up there.
This time, when he came back inside, Loki remained asleep, deeply enough that Steve could go around getting other small chores done without waking him. His handkerchief was definitely a loss, stained rusty red even after much scrubbing, so after he laid it out to dry, Steve lit the stove, made tea and fried two of the eggs he'd gotten from Widow Agnes the day before; he saved the other two for his guest, and the seed cake too.
Widow Agnes had also given him a bunch of old clothes when Steve first arrived back from the war; her James wouldn't need them any more, and she was thankful that Steve had brought back James' medals and his last letter to his ma. Steve went through them now, looking for something that would fit his guest; he looked at Loki to size him (tall, taller than Steve himself, though leaner, and he hadn't looked so big the night before when Steve had carried him through the snow), then looked at him again to make sure he slept at ease, then stole another look because in his fever Loki had cast the blanket aside and his pale skin shone under the watery sunlight that filled the house like polished bone.
Loki woke at midday, flushed and disoriented, still feverish but more lucid than he'd been at night. He said nothing when Steve presented him with more water, though he drank it all, and only wrinkled his nose a little at the clothes he was offered. Steve wanted to flee to the safety of the kitchen while Loki get dressed, because... well, he was only human, but Loki's right arm still hurt too much for him to move it freely and his feverish fingers were clumsy, so Steve ended up tearing one of the too-small shirts to make a sling, and then helped Loki dress, scrupulously not touching him as he did up the buttons.
Food, however, did not hold Loki's interest at all; he toyed with his eggs and crumbled a piece of seed cake idly, taking occasional sips of his tea.
“I'm sorry,” said Steve, looking at the rather miserable meal. “I know it's not much, but... times are rough.”
“Oh...” Loki looked up from the pile of crumbs under his fingers. “No, it's... it's fine. I don't eat much. Not...” He waved his hand vaguely. “Would you mind sharing the meal with me?”
Usually Steve would refuse, but Loki did seem utterly uninterested in food and it made no sense to let it go to waste, with things being as they were. So, he ate the eggs that had gone cold and some of the seed cake; Loki took a bite here and there and drank all the tea, then padded back to the living room while Steve straightened up the kitchen.
He wondered if he should bring up the issue of the knife that had gone missing from the drawer, but he remembered Loki's terror the night before and he decided to leave it; he was pretty sure that, even with the knife, he could take on the fever-weakened, wounded man if it came down to it.
When he went back into the living room, Loki was sitting on the mattress, feeding the fire small pieces of wood with his uninjured arm, and frowning at the flames; he'd picked up and folded the blanket, but the knife was nowhere to be seen.
“I'll just... go and wash the blood off this,” Steve said, picking up the blanket.
Loki blinked, startled out of his contemplation of the fire, then looked up at Steve.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” he said, and attempted a smile.
Steve smiled back.
“You're welcome. Call me if you need anything.”
Getting the blood off the blanket wasn't difficult, as there were just a few drops scattered here and there from where Steve had been stitching Loki's arm up, and then Steve went to spread it in front of the fireplace, hoping it would dry soon; though he hadn't touched it since the night before, the fire was still burning well, so Steve assumed that Loki had built it up at some point while he'd been busy.
Snow fell steadily outside, and Steve was glad he didn't have a pressing reason to leave the house and go to the village. Any other day, he'd be pacing the room, restless and antsy, but today he was content sitting on the rickety chair by the window and putting charcoal to paper; he wanted to do a portrait of James for Widow Agnes and he had been having trouble getting it right, but now every line seemed to fall in the right place. Every so often, he'd look up to see Loki watching the fire or snoozing quietly, leaning on his uninjured arm.
It was late in the afternoon when Loki awoke suddenly and sat up, looking at the door with wide, wild eyes. Steve put down paper and pencil, heart beating on his chest though he couldn't hear anything but the soft kisses of the snow as it fell steadily outside. He considered asking Loki, but he was so tense (long hand creeping to where he must have stashed the knife) that Steve preferred to keep quiet; his own weapons were in his bedroom, and if some hostile stranger were to try and invade the house, he'd have to make do with the fire poker to defend himself and Loki.
After a few minutes, Loki relaxed and turned back to the fire, still breathing hard.
“What was that?” asked Steve.
For a moment, it seemed Loki wouldn't answer.
“It wasn't nothing. You heard something. Is it...? Is it the people who are chasing you?”
Loki began to shrug, then stopped and hissed when the movement pulled at his wound.
“I don't know.”
Steve bit back an impatient reply.
“Who are the people chasing you?”
“I don't know.”
“How can you not know?”
Loki had drawn himself to his feet. Even in his borrowed clothes, with his arm on a sling and his hair matted with sweat, he looked regal, which struck Steve as oddly fitting.
“I am thankful for your hospitality, but if I am overstaying my welcome or inconveniencing you in any way, you need only to say so and I will leave,” he informed Steve, his voice tight, his hands shaking though they were drawn into fists at his sides.
“What? No, no... that was not what I meant...” Steve sprung forwards when Loki swayed on his feet, his indignation not enough of a match for his fever and the blood-loss he had suffered. “Sit down... you can stay until you're healed, you can stay as long as you need... I only wanted to know, because...”
“Because?” Loki gave him a mistrustful look, his forearm tense under Steve's hold.
“Because I want to help you,” Steve answered.
“You want to help me,” said Loki flatly.
“Is that so hard to believe?” Steve received a look that told him that yes, it was. “You're wounded and vulnerable and you're being hunted... how could I not want to help you?”
Loki looked away, and his throat worked as he swallowed hard; Steve watched helplessly, not daring to let go of Loki in case his equilibrium failed him again, and not really wanting to either, his hands hungry for touch.
“I don't often need help,” said Loki after a while, his voice low, barely audible over the crackling of the fire. “And it is even rarer that I am offered any.” He paused, hesitated. “Thank you.”
Steve couldn't help his smile.
“You're welcome.” He helped Loki lower himself to sit in front of the fire, then stepped back, unconsciously closing the hand that had been holding Loki's arm to preserve his warmth. “I will go and... make dinner now.”
“I'm not hungry,” said Loki. “I think I'll just rest.”
Steve paused on the doorway, about to nag Loki into eating something (the memory of so much blood spread over the snow as vivid as the scarlet over the white), but he bit his tongue, guessing he had pushed the other man's patience to its limits already.
Loki was awake still when Steve came back with his own dinner, and dutifully drank the tea Steve had made him, but he refused all offers of food, growing more and more sleepy as his colour rose, signalling the return of his fever. He huddled as close to the fire as possible, eyes closed, until Steve spread the now-dry blanket over him and retired to his room to build a makeshift cot for himself of old clothes and his only coat, since his guest was commandeering all the bedding.
At some point during the night, Steve woke up, his hand reaching for the shield he'd placed by his bed. He remained still, listening for the sound that must have woken him up, but there was nothing; even the wind and the snow had died down. For a moment, he considered getting up to check, but he risked waking Loki up and he decided not to. He dozed on and off for the rest of the night, but he didn't hear anything again.
When he went out to get water from the well, around mid-morning, Steve thought he could see tracks in the snow around the porch, but a light sleet was falling and it was impossible to see what kind of animal they belonged to.
Loki looked better that morning; his temperature seemed normal and his wound, when Steve checked it, wasn't infected and appeared to be healing nicely. It was a relief, because the village's old wisewoman had died while Steve was away at war and he found her replacement very intimidating; if his knowledge of field medicine hadn't been enough, Steve wasn't sure what he would have done.
But it had been, and Loki grew stronger. Though he still refused to eat most of the things Steve offered him, he didn't seem to be wanting for nourishment; he leafed through the few books Steve had brought from his travels, offered his opinion on Steve's drawings, and lounged on the mattress in front of the fire, showing no inclination for going outside.
After two days (during which neither he nor Loki seemed to hear or see anything out of the ordinary), Steve decided to go to the village in search of more supplies, news, and to spend some nervous energy. The path was covered in snow, but not too deeply, and as much as he looked, Steve could see no signs of anything strange in the hollow where he'd found Loki.
Once in the village, Steve was directed right away to the house of elderly Mr and Mrs White, whose stovepipe had collapsed under the weight of the snow; it took Steve a couple of hours to fix it, after which he was offered hot barley soup, a knitted scarf and two jars of wild strawberry preserves for his trouble. With the soup, he also got brown bread and a healthy serving of gossip, which included the terrible influence the new wisewoman was having on the young women of the village (several of them were talking of leaving the village to go and work in the city!), the attacks of winter-hungry predators on the flocks, and young Mrs Kelly's nightmares, which she told to everyone who would listen.
Steve extricated himself from the after-lunch conversation with some difficulty and -preserves in his satchel and scarf around his neck- made his way to Coulson's store, wanting to get what he needed and be on his way back home well before the sun started to set. He wasn't looking forwards to another strange night encounter, and he worried at the thought of Loki alone at night.
Unfortunately for his plans, Coulson's store was the centre of the village's social life during winter. Usually, Steve would enjoy the conversations and he would linger there until sundown (and then go to back home in the dark, lantern in hand, risking stumbling upon wounded birds who turned into people), but today he skirted past the groups of villagers, nodding to everyone but avoiding eye-contact. He placed his order with Coulson and leant back against the counter, fidgeting a little.
He jumped a foot in the air when he found the village's wisewoman standing right in front of him all of a sudden.
“Sister Romanova,” he said, trying to look as if he hadn't been startled at all; the quirk to the woman's lips told him he wasn't being that successful.
“Mr Rogers,” she replied with a crisp nod; her flame-red hair was neatly contained under a black scarf, and when she looked around the store, no one dared meet her eye.
If she had been less intimidating, Steve might have asked her what she knew about cranes that turned into people, or begged her to accompany him to his house and take a look at Loki's wound, but as it was, he kept silent and waited for her to speak.
“There has been talk of arming a hunting party to go into the forest this week,” the wisewoman informed him. “Mr Fury will lead it. Are you in?”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Steve gave a helpless look at Coulson, who smiled a little, encouragingly. “Why is it necessary? Has anything happened?”
“Wolves,” said Coulson, putting a small sack of salt on the counter to weigh Steve's order.
“Or something like wolves,” said Romanova.
“Mr White did mention that Ned down by the stream had lost three sheep this week.”
“And he's not the only one. Clint saw... something, when he went hunting two days ago.”
Steve diplomatically refrained from saying anything at the mention of the wisewoman's... partner (brother, lover, mind-controlled slave... the village's gossip couldn't settle on just one).
“You haven't seen anything, have you? All alone, so far from the village...”
“No, no,” Steve said in response to Coulson's question and Romanova's sharp look. “I haven't seen or heard anything. I'll keep an eye out, though. I don't have cattle or... or anything that would attract wolves.”
“If they are wolves,” said the wisewoman.
“What else could they be? We have had trouble with wolves in the past,” said Coulson, piling a small bag of chickpeas with Steve's supplies; his tone of voice was that of someone who's said the same thing many, many times.
“It wasn't a wolf Clint saw the other night.” Romanova's jaw set stubbornly; Steve prayed nothing would catch fire if she lost her temper.
“It was dark and it was snowing,” replied Coulson pleasantly, putting a tin of biscuits with the rest of Steve's things.
“So...” Steve interrupted, before the discussion became an argument. “When will the party leave? I'll make sure to come armed that day.”
“In three days' time, if the weather doesn't take a turn for the worse. We will meet in front of the church, one hour after dawn.” Romanova gave him a once-over, then nodded, turned on her heel and left the store.
“She's coming with us?” Steve asked Coulson, who was now calculating the price for his supplies, the abacus clicking quickly under his fingers.
“Would you like to be the one to tell her she shouldn't?” asked the store-keeper without looking up from his calculations.
The sun was low when Steve began to make his way home again, his backpack and satchel full of supplies and his mind churning with thoughts. They had had trouble with wolves in the longest, darkest winters, when the woods were bereft of prey, but this winter hadn't yet gone on long enough to justify so many attacks. And then there were Romanova's words and the echo of Loki's whisper, 'they'll send their hounds after me'...
Steve walked faster. When he was within view of his house, he stopped a moment, then gave a shout and started to run.
The figure which had startled him revealed itself as a small flock of ravens, and they flew away sulkily before Steve could get any nearer. The door to his house opened and Loki poked his head out, looking curious.
“Sorry,” panted Steve when he reached the porch. “I thought I saw someone... but it was only some birds.”
“Hm,” said Loki, going back inside and leaving the door open for Steve to follow.
“I thought it might have been... you,” Steve explained as he went into the kitchen to put away the supplies. “Or someone like you.”
“Someone like me?” asked Loki, leaning on the doorway.
“You know...” Steve stared at the sack of chickpeas, feeling stupidly uncomfortable. “A crane.”
“I am not a crane,” said Loki disdainfully, moving further into the kitchen to inspect Steve's acquisitions.
“You certainly looked like one when I found you.”
Loki looked at Steve from under his eyelashes.
“And do I look like one now?”
Steve blushed and turned to put the salt in its container by the stove.
“So, if you're not a crane, what are you?” he asked.
Loki hummed but didn't answer, apparently busy examining the contents of Steve's satchel.
“What is this?” he asked, taking the two earthenware jars Mrs White had given Steve earlier.
“Uh... strawberry preserves. Do you want to try some?”
Steve found a knife and some biscuits, and under Loki's curious look, he prepared a small snack for his guest; the sound Loki made when he bit into the first one made Steve drop the knife and blush up to the very roots of his hair.
“This is wonderful,” said Loki, licking the tips of his fingers.
Considering this was the first thing Loki had eaten with any enthusiasm since his arrival, Steve decided that his embarrassment and Mrs White's hard work were a small price to pay; he gave the knife, the jar of preserves and the tin of biscuits to Loki, then shooed him off to finish putting the kitchen to rights.
Once he was done, he went to his room and opened the trunk at the foot of his bed; there he kept his old uniform, his weapons, and the remains of his military life. He looked at the compass with his drawing of Peggy on the lid (how had it slipped to the bottom of it all?), but avoided looking at his medals or at the bag that held Bucky's personal effects.
The sound of Loki dropping the tin of biscuits in the living room -and cursing softly- startled Steve out of his morose contemplation; he took his weapons out, plus a bottle of oil and a few rags, and went to clean them by the fire.
Loki gave him a curious look from where he was curled up in front of the hearth, trying to get the last traces of preserves from the jar, but he didn't look afraid, in spite of the display of weaponry.
“I'm going hunting in a few days,” Steve told him, settling into the chair in front of the fire. “Wolves are becoming a problem.”
“They've stolen a few sheep, even a dog from one of the farms... winter is hard on all of us, it seems.”
“Wolves...” Loki dropped his gaze to the fire.
“Unless they aren't wolves,” said Steven pointedly.
“Why wouldn't they be?”
Steve gave him the look which had served him so well during his tenure as a captain, and Loki had the grace to look a little bit bashful.
“It would be...” Steve took a deep breath. “... very helpful if you could tell me anything about those hounds that are supposed to be hunting for you.”
“You think it's them those people are mistaking for wolves?”
“I think it's very strange that right after you appear and say you are being hunted, we start seeing unseasonable wolf attacks.” Steve gave another severe look to Loki, who was chewing on his bottom lip and looking thoughtful.
“It is. Very strange.” Loki sighed. “I don't... there's nothing I can tell you.”
“You can't tell me, or you won't?”
“I can tell you that I don't believe there is a hound or wolf on this land that can give you any trouble.”
Steve tried to look stern, but Loki looked so earnest in his praise, and his borrowed shirt was slipping down his shoulder, revealing the bandage around his shoulder and arm...
“Well, if you suddenly remember anything that can help me...”
“I owe you a great favour for all your help,” Loki said. “I won't forget.”
“You don't owe me anything...”
“But I do.” Loki leant forwards and put his hand (pale, long, fragile as a crane's feathers) on Steve's knees. “I do. I owe you my life. I'm not a man who forgets his debts.”
Steve looked at Loki, curled up at his feet, green eyes huge and red lips parted as he gazed up at him, and all thoughts of being stern and suspicious fled from his mind.
“You don't owe me anything,” he said again, more softly; he would have grasped Loki's fingers on his knee if his own hands weren't covered in oil, so instead he just brushed them with the back of his hand and smiled.
The discovery of Loki's weakness for sweet things meant that Steve could now cook dishes that had some possibility of being eaten by his guest; he brought back to mind his mother's old recipes and dusted off the box of sugar and the tins of spices he usually kept in the highest shelf. While Loki insisted he didn't really need to eat and that Steve shouldn't bother, he nibbled at the spiced sweetcakes until the plate was clean and gave his host an indulgent look when Steve mentioned wanting to get more honey.
It was... nice. It was domestic. It was the opposite of war, the opposite of loneliness. Loki took up space in the small house, made noise, listened to Steve and occasionally condescended to give him conversation (he knew a lot about the forest, but he also had a fine mind for the arts and a talent for telling old stories in a way they seemed new and exciting); he laughed at Steve sometimes, but in a way that made Steve laugh at himself too, and even when he kept quiet and still, his presence permeated the house, making Steve feel warmer than he'd been in years.
The day of the hunt, Steve got up well before dawn. Trying to be quiet, lest he woke Loki (who could sulk for hours if he was woken up before he was ready, silently offended like a wet cat), he got dressed, grabbed some bread and cheese to eat on the way, and checked his pack and weapons one last time.
“Wait,” said a soft voice as he stood in front of the door.
“Loki? I didn't mean to wake you...”
“You didn't.” Belying his words, Loki yawned and blinked up at Steve in the faint light of dawn; then, he got up from the mattress in front of the fire, and approached Steve, all rumpled and sleep-warm. “Take care in the forest today.”
“I will.” Steve's throat felt tight; no one had seen him off since Peggy, and Loki's eyes seemed that much gentler, his mouth that much softer, his skin that much warmer and vulnerable.
“Don't take foolish risks,” Loki said as he placed his hand on Steve's shoulder; he was so close now, so very close, smelling like snow and darkness; Steve's arm went to wrap around his waist instinctively.
“And if you find yourself in danger,” Loki continued, his face now inches from Steve's, “call out my name, and I will hear you.”
Kissing him seemed much easier than answering, so Steve did. He pulled Loki closer to him, uncaring of the many things that hung from his belt, and took those blood-red lips with his own; Loki's hands went around his neck and into his hair, and he returned the kiss just as hungrily, just as desperately.
When they drew apart, Loki's eyes seemed to glow in the pale light.
“Go,” he said hoarsely. “Go.”
Steve found himself on the porch, staring at the closed door, his lips tingling, and his breath coming short. Reluctantly, he turned around and started the trek towards the village.
When he arrived at the square before the church, he wished he had just ignored his duty and stayed with Loki. War-veteran Mr Fury (owner of the local stables), was waiting there, grim and silent, and also Sister Romanova and her partner (Clint was a hunter of note, but he never took anyone with him into the forest, which only served to fuel the rumours about him). The huddled shadow under the church's porch turned out to be Doctor Banner, and as Steve shook his hand he wondered how anyone had convinced the man to abandon his half-demolished hut and join them; Banner shunned most people's company and -though it was said he sometimes offered his services to people too poor to go to the wisewoman-, the village held him as little better than a monster.
“Are we all here?” asked Steve when Coulson arrived.
“In a hurry, Captain?”
Steve sighed before turning around.
“Mr Stark,” he acknowledged, feeling his good mood fizzle out. It wasn't that he thought the other man was nothing but a drunkard and a lecher, as most of the village did, but he did think him reckless, selfish, and a danger to himself and others; he wasn't looking forwards to putting his life on the line with only Stark as his back-up.
“Gentlemen,” intervened Fury. “And Sister Romanova. I want to know what's going on in that forest. If it's wolves, then we deal with them. If it's not, then we find out what the Hell it is and we deal with it. This winter is going to be long and we can't afford something like that going on around us.”
“It's not wolves.” Steve was surprised to see that the denial came not from Romanova or Barton, but from Banner. “I saw what was left of one of those sheep, and a wolf couldn't do that.”
“I have made something...” Sister Romanova went around handing out small paper packets that smelt strongly like pepper. “This might help, if you come across anything... strange.”
“Let's go and chase these not-wolves, then, instead of standing here chatting about them,” said Stark. “The days are short, we don't have much time.”
“Captain, if you could go with Mr Stark and Doctor Banner, and take the side by the stream. Mr Coulson, you'll be with Barton and Sister Romanova on the hillside. I'll move between you. You all have horns, to make a call if you see something?”
“I'll whistle, Natasha can hear me,” said Barton, while everyone else muttered their assent.
“Very well, let's go.”
Steve took a deep breath as they walked into the snowy forest; this wasn't war, but it was battle in a way, and just as likely to end up in injury or death. He thought of his house, where Loki would be sitting by the fire, lips red as blood, and he whispered a prayer to gods he hadn't believed in since well before the war that he could return safe.
Stark kept up a running narrative while they walked into the forest, spread out to check for tracks, but luckily Doctor Banner seemed well willing to provide the necessary audience, while Steve focused on their search. It hadn't snowed in a couple of days, so the tracks -if they were any- would be frozen.
“I think we should spread out a bit more,” complained Stark after a while, as if he hadn't been the one walking right next to Banner. “Cover more ground, get back home earlier, you know.”
“Fine,” said Steve, his nerves stretched thin. “Do call if you see anything. And keep an eye out for Fury.”
“I'll tell him you made a joke about his eye-patch,” Stark said before walking away between the trees; Banner gave Steve a sympathetic smile and turned left, soon disappearing from view.
Steve breathed in the silence of the forest for a minute before moving forwards too; the sun shone amongst the leafless trees, but nothing moved in the forest except for the hunters. Even for winter, it was a strange sight and one that made Steve felt uneasy.
He was considering calling for Stark and Banner when he came into view of the stream, dark water running strong down the middle though its banks were frozen. And by the side of the stream stood a massive figure, fur shining golden brown in the sun, steam rising from its maw. Though Steve didn't make more noise than a surprised exhale of breath, the massive bear turned to look at him and, with barely a moment's hesitation, forded the stream in one fluid jump and bounded towards him, teeth gleaming.
Steve brought his horn to his lips and called out once.
Running was the worst thing he could do, Steve knew. He stood calm and reached for his weapon, taking a deep breath; if Stark and Banner didn't come quickly, he doubted he alone could take on the massive beast. When it was still several yards away, the bear paused and stood up, growling low, tilting its massive head in a manner which would seem inquiring if it didn't come from an animal... oh.
“Can you... can you understand me?” asked Steve, feeling very foolish.
The bear stood still and stared at Steve. It opened its mouth (to speak?) and then...
“Rogers!” called Stark.
“Stand back!” Steve shouted. “Stark, stand back!”
But when had Stark listened to anyone? Steve heard him crash into the hollow, bringing the bear's attention on him.
“Rogers, are you alright? Darkest Hell, this is definitely not a wolf. I've never seen a bigger bear in my life,” said Stark.
“Stand back, Stark,” repeated Steve, moving towards him; he had the -completely irrational- feeling that the bear had heard him and wouldn't hurt him, even though it was now advancing upon Stark. “Calm down and stand back. I got this.”
“What are you going to do, Cap, stare it down? Hell, where is Bruce? We're going to need him...”
Steve saw the bear preparing to charge, and broke into a run; he situated himself between the beast and Stark, raised his shield, and took a deep breath.
If you find yourself in danger, call out my name, and I will hear you.
“Loki,” he whispered, looking at the charging bear; as ways of saying goodbye went, it would certainly be memorable.
The impact was terrible, but not as terrible as it would have been if the bear hadn't tried to stop its charge at the very last moment. Steve's breath left his lungs as he landed on his back on the snowy ground, one of the bear's legs pinning him down.
“Rogers!” shouted Stark, and Steve wanted to tell him not to worry, but he couldn't seem to draw breath to speak.
“Loki?” asked the bear in a low growl, leaning in to stare at Steve.
“Coulson, now!” shouted Stark, and then the store-keeper's low voice said something and the bear roared, an arrow embedded in its shoulder.
Now wounded, the bear stood up over Steve, all conversational gambits forgotten. Steve tried to reach for his weapon, but what he found instead was the slim paper packet Romanova had given him earlier.
Well, if a talking bear didn't qualify as strange...
When the packet hit the bear's chest, it burst apart in a cloud of red powder; Steve rolled on his front, buried his face in the snow, covered the back of his neck with his hands, and hoped for the best.
He heard a roar, felt a sharp pressure as the bear stepped on his leg, and then it was all shouting and the pervasive smell of pepper.
“Rogers, are you alright? Steve?” Coulson coughed and pulled at Steve, who obediently moved to sit up and then crawl away from where the snow was tinged red by the effects of Romanova's little trick.
“I'm fine, I'm fine,” gasped Steve, sitting against a tree. “Stark?”
“Fine,” Stark grumbled, approaching them. “I didn't need you to throw yourself in front of me like the hero everyone says you are.”
Barton swung down from the tree from which he had shot the bear.
“The Hell was that?” he asked, brushing snow from his clothes. “I shot it twice, but the bastard almost didn't notice. If it hadn't been about to eat you, Rogers, I would have been rooting for it... what a beast!”
“Banner?” asked Steve, still trying to catch his breath; his eyes were streaming and his leg was bleeding from where the bear had stepped on him, but nothing felt broken.
“He... went after the bear.”
Everyone turned to look at Stark.
“He was really angry, alright?” said Stark defensively. “Have you tried reasoning with Bruce when he's angry? He just took off, what was I supposed to do? He'll come back... he always does.”
Steve sighed and put his head on his knees. He was alive. Stark was alive and unharmed. Banner was... probably going to be alright (he highly doubted that, angry or not, he could catch up with the bear). It was fine. It was all fine.
He wasn't feeling half as optimistic after Fury and Romanova arrived and gave them all deeply disappointed looks. The wisewoman bandaged his leg and washed his face with melted snow while Fury listened to Coulson's report and looked disapproving.
“Well, what could we have done?” grumbled Stark later, as he served as Steve's human crutch on Coulson's instructions; Barton had taken off to look for Banner, and Fury and Romanova had stayed behind to examine the bear's tracks. “I'd have liked to see them standing in front of that beast like you did...”
Steve felt a wash of affection for the man who'd been so obviously worried about him and who'd been so brave (if untimely).
“We did well. You did well.” He took another step and winced. “And at least now we know what we have to deal with.”
“Strangest bear I ever did see,” commented Coulson, who was walking just ahead of them.
In spite of his protests, both Coulson and Stark insisted on accompanying Steve all the way to his house.
“I just need to rest,” Steve said firmly, standing on the porch; he had no plans to let them inside, as discourteous as it might seem. “I'm fine.”
“I'll send you Jarvis tomorrow with some food,” Stark said, eyeing the house as if he suspected Steve was hiding something (someone).
“Are you sure you will be fine here alone?” asked Coulson, sincerely worried.
“I'll be fine,” Steve said, never one for lying. “Really.”
At last they left, and Steve stepped inside his house. His dark, empty house.
“Loki?” he asked, leaning against the door, heart beating painfully against his bruised ribs.
After a moment, a shadow appeared in the doorway to his room. Loki gave him one look, then moved towards him quickly, looking as pale as the day Steve had found him.
“What happened?” he asked, supporting Steve towards his chair.
“I thought you weren't here,” Steve answered, bear and injuries forgotten for a moment.
“I thought you wouldn't want others to see me, or to know there was someone here,” Loki said as he helped Steve sat down and knelt at his feet. “You're injured... let me see.”
“It's fine, Sister Romanova bandaged it... Loki, it's fine.” Steve caught Loki's trembling hands in his own, scratched and muddied. “I'm fine.”
“You're not fine!” Loki exclaimed. “I heard you! What was it? Who did this to you?”
“It was a bear, but don't worry, Sister Romanova's trick worked, and I'm barely...”
“No,” said Loki, stumbling back.
“A bear? It can't have been a bear.” Loki's green eyes were wild and bright, as if he had come down with a fever again.
“Oh, believe me, it was a bear,” said Steve, chuckling tiredly.
“It can't...!” Loki shot to his feet, looking around himself frantically. “No, no, no!”
“Loki... Loki, what is it?”
As quickly as he'd panicked, Loki calmed down.
“Nothing. Nothing. You're right. It's fine. You're fine.” Loki tried to smile. “I'll heat some water for you, you'll want to get washed. Can you get the fire going again? The embers must still be burning...”
Loki escaped into the kitchen, leaving Steve confused and worried, but mostly exhausted. He was still trying to take off his boots when Loki came back, moving so quickly and looking so flustered that Steve half-expected him to start shedding feathers.
“Here, I'll do it.” Loki knelt at his feet again and pulled off Steve's boots easily. “Take those clothes off, you're tracking mud everywhere.”
Steve chuckled, but when Loki scowled at him, he raised his hands and tried to look serious.
“Fine, fine... you can't blame me for expecting more smiles when I'm being asked to undress.”
Loki's face did something complicated (cycling through amusement, anger, fear, pain and a thousand emotions more in a single moment), but in the end he gave Steve what looked like a sincere smile.
“Well, I expect those who take off their clothes for me to be clean,” he replied, and only wrinkled his nose a little when Steve laughed and deliberately tracked a dusty finger down his cheek.
If Steve had been less exhausted and bruised, he would have enjoyed the experience of Loki helping him to wash more, but as it was -and though Loki was uncharacteristically helpful about it- at the end of it he just wanted to lie down and sleep, preferably with Loki in his arms.
When he asked, Loki's face again did that thing where too many emotions tried to show in too little time, but again settled on a smile.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course.”
Loki carried the mattress back to Steve's room and threw the bedding onto it haphazardly, leaving Steve to put it to rights while Loki went and did something in the kitchen that required a lot of banging pans.
“Here,” he said, coming back into the room with a mug in his hand. “Milk with honey.”
“Thank you,” said Steve, going to take the mug, but wrapping his hand around Loki's fingers instead. He pulled lightly and Loki followed at once, wrapping his free arm around Steve's waist and resting his head on Steve's shoulder. “I'm fine,” Steve murmured, aware of the tremors going through Loki. “I'm fine. We'll talk tomorrow.”
“Drink your milk,” Loki said into his shoulder.
Steve laughed and drained the mug in one swallow; it was faintly bitter, but the thought of Loki braving the kitchen for the first time for him warmed Steve more than the finest brandy Stark might have bought.
They got into bed -Steve mindful of Loki's skittishness, Loki careful with Steve's bruises- and negotiated where everyone's limbs should go, until Steve had Loki wrapped in his arms, warm and soft and so very tempting, if only he weren't so tired and bruised...
“Tomorrow,” he whispered into Loki's hair. “Tomorrow we'll talk...”
Loki raised his head and unerringly found Steve's lips in the darkness, quieting him down with a kiss.
At some point during the night, Steve thought he heard voices... no, not voices, a bear growling... he tried to wake up, to warn Loki, but his arms felt so heavy and sleep clung to him like a jealous lover... he smelled snow, heard Loki's low voice soothing him, and he fell asleep again.
When he woke up in the morning, he was alone in bed. The house was cold, the fire was out, there was a set of familiar clothes neatly folded on a chair, and Loki wasn't anywhere to be seen. Trying to rein in on his panic, Steve opened the door and stepped outside: there was a perfect set of massive bear tracks leading straight to his door and back away; nothing else, least of all signs of a struggle.
Loki had left.
His panic at the mere mention of the bear, his uncharacteristic docility the night before, the bitter taste in the milk Steve had drank, his unusually heavy sleep, the way Loki had never answered any of Steve's questions...
Steve tried to pretend the ache in his chest was his bruised ribs, that the reason his hands shook was anger. On aching limbs, he lit the fire, made himself something to eat, sat down to brush the mud off his hunting clothes, and then went outside to shovel snow until there were no traces of the bear tracks left where someone could see them.
And just in time, because as he was putting the shovel away, Stark and his manservant arrived, loaded with more food than Steve could eat in a week, an ointment and a herbal drink Romanova had sent for him, and news that Banner had returned early in the morning.
“The bear completely lost him. Bruce swears the beast was smarter than most of the village...” Stark made a face that clearly stated he agreed, and not because the bear had impressed him; in the meanwhile, Jarvis had taken over Steve's house, in spite of his best efforts at stopping him. “Bruce's fine, he won't even get a cold, it isn't the first time he spends a night in the forest...”
“That's... that's good,” Steve said, trying to focus on the conversation and not in the way he wanted to scream at Jarvis for neatly and implacably getting rid of all the traces of Loki that might remain.
“Fury is talking about setting another hunting party, once you're recovered.”
“Or, who knows? Maybe we scared the bear off,” Steve answered.
Stark gave him a worried look.
“Are you sure you're fine, Cap?”
“Yes.” Steve tried to smile. “I'm fine. And call me Steve.”
“Making friends through almost getting killed for them, huh?” Stark gave him a crooked smile. “Call me Tony, then. Stark was my father.”
“I've brewed the tea that Sister Romanova sent for you, Master Rogers,” said Jarvis, presenting Steve with the same mug that Loki had given him the night before; if it took him a long moment to reach out for it, Steve thought no one could blame him.
“Thank you, Jarvis.”
“So, Cap... I mean, Steve... it can't be convenient living so far from the village after a bear sat on you.” Tony gave an unfavourable look around himself, then leant in closer to Steve, dropping his voice to a conspirational whisper. “I finally convinced Bruce that his house would fall down on his head with the next winter storm... it would, you should see the state of the roof... so, I was wondering if you'd like to come and keep us company... you know, make sure we don't get into trouble or make anything explode... at least until you've stopped moving like an old man.”
Steve forced a laugh and looked around himself. He thought of how he'd sit on his chair by the fire when night came, and how he'd listen to the silence now that Loki wouldn't be there to fill it with his presence. He thought of endless winter nights waiting to hear the heavy tread of a bear or the cry of a crane outside, his memories growing dustier and more bitter every year. How could he go right back to that emptiness, when just the night before he'd gone to sleep with Loki in his arms?
“Yes,” he heard himself saying. “Yes, why not?”
If Tony's raised eyebrows and the minute hitch in Jarvis' movements were any indication, they were as surprised as he was.
“I'll just pack my things,” Steve continued, getting up before he had time to change his mind.
“If I may, Master Rogers...”
“No, no, Jarvis. I'm an old soldier, I'm used to packing my own luggage. But I won't be long.”
Under Tony's curious eyes, Steve didn't have the chance to hesitate before going into his room and closing the door behind him.
There was the unmade bed, with the sheets which still retained traces of Loki's smell of snow and darkness, the pillow which kept the shape of Loki's head, and the coat Steve had set aside for when Loki finally wanted to venture outside. There were Steve's hopes, wilted amongst the rumpled bedding.
Angry (at last!), Steve took his old army satchel and began putting his clothes into it, as neatly as if Sargent Hill was looking over his shoulder. He'd leave the house, accept Tony's hospitality for a few days, and go back to his routine when he felt he could breathe without his heart bursting.
He paused again before leaving the room, his heart hammering the beat of a mad hope against his bruised ribs, but there was nothing but silence to hold him back.
“Maybe you should finish drinking the infusion, Master Rogers,” Jarvis said, taking the duffel from Steve's hand when he came into the living room.
Obediently, Steve drank his cold tea and tried not to look too pitiful, while Tony kindly pretended to be fascinated by a book Loki had left on the mantelpiece.
“Let's go, Cap.” Tony's patience gave out and he clapped Steve on the back; he tried not to wince as he hit a particularly deep bruise. “Coulson is going to be so jealous...”
My crane wife arrived at my door in the moonlight
All star bright and tongue-tied, I took her in...
Between one thing and the other -most of which were related to Tony making things explode and Fury coming up with tasks that no one else in the village could do (plus the one time that Clint went into the forest and didn't come back and Natasha threatened to set everything on fire if they didn't find him and bring him back safely)-, Steve didn't go back to his house until early spring, when he ran out of excuses to tell himself as to why he was staying away.
Jarvis had made sure everything was ready for his return: when Steve set foot inside, the fixtures sparkled and the air smelled like lavender.
It was anything but home.
Steve made an effort to settle back in. He lit the fire, unpacked his clothes, displaced a few knick-knacks, made himself something to eat. He hummed to himself to mask the silence, and closed the curtains tightly so he wouldn't be tempted to look outside.
When night fell, he sat by the fire and opened one of his sketchbooks. There was a roughly drawn wing here, a sharp profile there, a fully shaded drawing of narrowed eyes on the next page (only charcoal, but Steve could see the green in them)... Steve reviewed them all, then settled on a blank page, taking up one of the slim charcoal pencils Tony had given him.
He was struggling with the line of Loki's neck (that tendon that he'd never had the chance to bite, the skin he'd never had the chance to bruise) when someone knocked on the door.
Maybe Jarvis, with something Tony wanted Steve to have right-this-minute-cannot-wait, Steve told himself. Maybe Natasha, in one of those moonlit walks she took for no discernible reason, Steve reasoned, ignoring the thundering of his heart. Maybe a lost traveller, attracted by the light and the smoke of his chimney...
He opened the door to see Loki standing there, all dressed in black; his eyes shone like stars under the light of the moon, and his long, feather-like fingers were twisted in an anxious knot in front of him.
In the distance, a great bear watched.
“I... I have been waiting for you to come back,” Loki said. “I thought... when you moved in with Stark... but then Thor... he's my brother, you see, the bear...” Loki lowered his gaze to the ground, took a deep breath. “When I realised Thor had found me, I... there were things I needed to take care of, things I'd done that... I wouldn't have wanted to bring the consequences to your door...”
Loki looked up and caught Steve's eyes on him.
“I...” Steve paused and ran a hand through his hair. “You could have told me this. I wouldn't have kept you here against your wishes.”
Loki's narrow lips quirked in a mirthless smile.
“Ask yourself... could I have left, knowing that you didn't want me to?”
“Why did you come back?”
“On my brother's advice.” Loki smiled unhappily again. “He thought you would... forgive me.”
“I forgive you,” Steve said readily.
Loki met his eyes again, looking so desperately hopeful that Steve held out his hand before he could think better of it.
“I am not sorry,” Loki said, putting his hand in Steve's, the proud tilt of his head just as he remembered it.
“You have a peculiar way to apologise,” said Steve with a little laugh, pulling Loki closer.
“I kept you safe,” insisted Loki; though the turn of his mouth was stubborn, he went willingly into Steve's arms.
“Safe from what?”
Loki tensed and hid his hesitation in the curve of Steve's neck, who didn't have time to fully embrace discouragement before Loki spoke again.
“I will tell you,” he promised. “I will tell you everything.”
Steve couldn't help but smile, though he knew Loki couldn't see him.
Loki huffed softly and leant back to frown at him.
“What else do you want?”
Steve, still smiling, traced Loki's lips with the pad of his fingers.
“You'll tell me about that bird I've been seeing out of the corner of my eye for weeks and weeks?” His fingers followed the moue of annoyance Loki made. “About that shadow... I'm pretty sure it was a bear... that scared off that pack of wolves when I was in the forest searching for Clint? About the voice I heard when Tony and I got caught in that storm?”
“You weren't supposed to notice,” murmured Loki against Steve's fingers.
Steve tried not to look too proud of himself.
“I asked Mrs White for some of her strawberry preserves,” he said instead. “Should we ask your... brother to come in?”
“No,” said Loki at once. “Let the big oaf stand guard outside, if he insists on being nosy. He'd only shed all over your rug.”
“He can't change shape, like you do?”
“It doesn't make any difference with him,” Loki informed him with a little disdainful sniff, before untangling himself from Steve's arms and walking inside the house as if he'd never left.
Steve waved goodbye to the bear before he followed Loki inside and closed the door behind him.
In the distance and darkness, the bells of the village church rang as if for a wedding.