Take this palm, follow the lines here are written
And script out the rest of your life...
Loki carefully turned another page and listened. Thor was still there, standing on the doorway, his breathing loud in the quiet room, but he hadn’t moved or tried to interrupt his brother's reading, unlike he usually did.
Loki wondered how long he could keep his brother there, but curiosity got the better of him.
“Don’t just stand there, come in and have a seat,” he said without looking up from his book.
“Thank you, brother.” Thor let himself fall on a chair and gave an uninterested look at his brother’s room. “I have just been talking to mother.”
“Ah.” Loki looked up at last. Yes, the sleeves of Thor’s second-best tunic were irreparably wrinkled around the cuffs, as always that he twisted them around his fingers while listening to things he didn’t want to listen. “What did she say?”
Thor didn’t answer immediately. He gnawed on his bottom lip, tapped his fingers on his knee and pretended to be interested on a tapestry which had hung above the fireplace for at least three hundred years.
Now Loki was definitely intrigued.
“Well?” he demanded. “What was it?”
“She wants me to marry Sif,” Thor blurted out, looking profoundly unhappy.
Loki stared at his brother.
“Is that it?”
“Why, you think it’s a small matter?!” asked Thor sullenly.
“Well, yes.” Loki shrugged. “You are going to end up marrying her anyway.”
Thor gave him a disbelieving look. Loki raised an eyebrow, looked down at his brother’s left wrist (covered by a leather vambrace), then looked up again.
Thor blushed and looked away.
“You aren’t supposed to know those things, brother,” he grumbled.
Loki shrugged; as if it’d been hard to spot the way Thor had of looking at Sif, or how he fidgeted with his vambraces when talking to her. It had been no more difficult than guessing the reason behind Sif’s increased belligerence when Thor was watching her spar. Sentiment. He wrinkled his nose and turned to his upset brother again.
“Don’t you want to marry her?” he asked instead.
“Of course I do.” Thor looked down, looking like a sad puppy; that look might work with Frigga, but Loki fancied himself impervious to it. “Just… not yet.”
Loki snorted inelegantly and didn’t bother to cover his smirk when Thor turned to glare at him.
“Did you tell that to mother?” he asked, sitting back to better enjoy his brother’s discomfort.
Thor glared at him. Loki sniggered.
“Maybe you should have,” he said helpfully. “It’s known that she gave father many years to sow his wild oats before they got married.”
“You shouldn’t listen to women’s gossip, brother,” Thor said -all affronted dignity-, standing up; he hesitated on his way to the door. “Surely mother will wait until I am made king, don’t you think?”
‘If,’ thought Loki savagely. ‘If you are made king, you big oaf, not when’. But his thoughts had the taste of defeat, and he smiled instead.
“Not even mother could get Sif to marry you right away,” he said. “Not until she has beheaded a frost giant to decorate her bride trunk and skinned a bilgesnipe for the bed covers, I should think.”
Thor’s lips twitched in a smile.
“You better grow to love Sif, brother. Sooner or later she will be your sister too, and you must welcome her into the family as I will welcome whoever has their name etched on your wrist.”
Loki managed a weak smile, but it didn’t matter, because Thor was leaving anyway, his shoulders looser, his posture more at ease.
Once the door had closed behind his brother and he was alone, Loki looked down at his wrist, covered by a soft black leather vambrace; he didn’t need to loosen it to know what was underneath.
Nothing. A perfect stretch of flawless, unmarked skin.
He remembered going to Frigga, little more than a toddler, and asking about the leather bracelet he’d been forbidden to take off, even though it rubbed his delicate skin raw; his mother had smoothed a herbal ointment over the reddened skin, wrapped a silk bandage around his wrist, and then fastened the bracelet again, over Loki’s tearful protests.
“You must always wear it, and never take it off where someone can see,” she told him, carrying him out into her garden; Loki had stopped crying at the sight of the flowers.
Frigga had sat down with him on the edge of a fountain, and told him the story of how, long ago, a magician, after a long life lived alone with his magic, had come to regret his solitude, and had turned all his knowledge to make sure that everyone else in the world would know that there was someone out there for them.
“But why don't I have anything?” Loki had asked, looking at his bandaged wrist and the hateful bracelet.
Frigga was silent for a long time.
“I don't know, little one,” she answered at last, pulling him onto her lap to hug him close. “I don't know.”
By the time he was twelve, it became obvious that the writing in Steve's wrist wasn't going to become any clearer.
Steve agonised over it for many nights before showing it to Bucky one day after school; it took much swearing of secrecy and looking over their shoulders to make sure they were absolutely alone, and only then did Steve loosen the worn leather strap he wore around his wrist and showed his best friend his soulmate's name: a long line of symbols that almost wrapped around his wrist.
“... maybe it's in Chinese?” Bucky said after a long moment.
Steve had seen enough Chinese writing around Sunset Park to know it wasn't, but Bucky's answer opened a new possibility.
Over the next couple of years, Steve consulted every encyclopaedia, dictionary and travel book he could get his hands on. He became familiar with the look of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Cyrillic, Arabic, and tens of other alphabets he hadn't suspected existed; he pored over books of Egyptian hieroglyphs, baffled the librarian asking for dusty cryptography manuals, and took a detour on his way to school to stare at the advertisements on a tiny kosher store next to the synagogue in Bensonhurst.
But none of the alphabets matched with the curvy, yet rigidly geometric designs on Steve’s wrist.
Then his mother fell ill, and all thoughts of soulmates flew out of the window as Steve had to take on more and more responsibilities at home to make up for her failing health, while trying to conceal from her his recurrent asthma attacks and the bruises from the unfortunately frequent fights he got into.
By the time Sarah Rogers passed away, Steve had resigned himself to living the rest of his life alone; even if he managed to find whoever it was that those symbols referred to (he thought guiltily about the worn paperback of ‘A Princess of Mars’ stuffed behind his school books), who would want him, sickly and poor as he was?
One of the first things he did, after Project Rebirth came to its hectic conclusion, was to lock the door to the room he’d been given and unwrap the stretchy bandage he’d been instructed to put around his wrist before the procedure.
The strange symbols were still there, unchanged, and there they remained all through the war, all through his awkward flirtation with Peggy (who had she lost, what was she avoiding that she opened herself up to Steve so much?), and all through that last, fateful flight.
After seventy years in the ice, the attitudes surrounding soulmates had, like everything else, changed. There were giant name-matching databases on the internet now, young people sometimes went about with their wrists uncovered (Steve had trouble not looking scandalised at the sight of their delicate wrist bones emerging from their sleeves with no bracelet or bandage to hide them), and there seemed to be a growing movement that said that soulmates were all very well, but you couldn’t let your life be decided by a name marked on your skin; marriages between non-soulmates were on the rise (and so were divorces, but Steve didn’t bother to point this out).
At least things for him personally were better. Everyone assumed that his soulmate had passed away while he was in the ice, and they tried not to broach the subject in his presence, or if they did, they didn’t expect him to join in the conversation.
He wasn’t the only one for whom the name on their wrist was a sore subject, anyway. Everyone had seen the name spanning The Hulk’s massive wrist and General Ross had made sure that his daughter went somewhere very distant to ‘weather the media storm’; Bruce's lips went tight at any mention of the subject, and he had refused Tony’s well-meant offers of kidnapping Betty and bringing her to Avengers Tower, and Pepper’s slightly more sane proposal of wielding public opinion to force General Ross’ hand into bringing Betty back.
Tony and Pepper, Pepper and Tony… proof that being soulmates didn’t mean idyllic happiness, or even a normal relationship. Steve tried not to pry, but some nights he went down to Tony’s workshop and sat with him, reading or sketching while Tony worked and talked at equal manic speed, smelling faintly of scotch and guilt.
Call it the intuition of someone who'd been in the same situation, but Steve knew that Natasha and Clint were not –in spite of what everyone else thought- soulmates; he didn’t begrudge them finding comfort in each other, however, not when Natasha’s eyes sometimes went so distant and so sad, her fingertips barely touching the weaponised cuff around her wrist, and not when Clint’s expression turned to stone (his eyes anxious and scared) with every new person he met.
Steve was surprised (or maybe not) to learn from Thor that Asgardians had pretty much the same system in place, and that his love waited for him back at home ‘for me to become a warrior worthy of her, friend Steve, for she is much braver and wiser than I’. What this mean for Doctor Foster, he didn’t want to speculate, but what it meant for Steve... it meant the possibility that the strange markings on his wrist belonged to someone in one of those strange worlds they were just learning about now, that -somewhere around a distant star- someone sat and looked at the letters on their wrist and wondered too.
But most of the time, Steve tried not to think about it. If he thought about it, he was seized with alternatively wild hope and crushing despair (because, even for a distant star, he had spent seventy years frozen), and that was much worse than the resignation he’d lived with most of his life.
So, he focused on work and let events unfold as they would, paying just a bit more attention that was strictly necessary when they got wind of some new dimension.
Fortunately, there wasn’t a lack of work to keep him distracted. It seemed as if supervillains, natural disasters, and alien visitors had a strict schedule to keep The Avengers busy. And when there weren’t any great world-threatening plants to thwart or giant alien spiders to fight, Loki made an appearance to throw things into further confusion.
Thor had arrived back from Asgard, soon after the Chitauri crisis, with what he called good and bad news. The ‘good’ news were that it had been established that Loki had acted on someone else’s orders, compelled by a combination of torture, mental compulsion, and the bribe of a promised reward; the bad news were that he who had used Loki as their pawn was still at large and likely still in full Earth-conquering mode.
Thor had given a halting account of the events that had led to Loki coming in contact with Thanos, of his fall from the Bifrost (Steve noticed how Tony winced in sympathy here), and of what they had found of Loki's treatment (half imprisonment and half brain-washing) at the hands of The Other.
After Thor finished speaking, there was silence around the table.
“So that’s why he lacked conviction,” said Coulson after a moment, looking thoughtful. “Poor bastard.”
Thor’s indignation over what he perceived as a slight on his mother’s honour was nothing compared to Clint’s indignation over his handler’s calm reaction.
“He tried to kill you!” he said, leaning forwards across the table; Coulson stared back pleasantly.
“And I tried to kill him. Neither took.” Coulson shrugged.
If Coulson, whose ‘death’ had come at Loki’s hand (and don’t you think that any of them had yet forgiven Fury about that dirty trick), accepted Thor’s explanation, how could The Avengers not? Only Clint looked still uncomfortable, but he refused to answer Steve's questions about it.
Thor hadn’t been back on Earth for a week when he heard news that Loki had escaped his confinement (‘if you knew he hadn’t meant to do anything, why did you throw him in prison anyway?’ ‘Father considered he should have died before giving in.’ ‘And I thought the American justice system left a lot to be desired…’). It didn’t exactly surprise anyone when Loki appeared in Moscow soon after that, invoked two great ice dragons to fight above the Kremlin, and disappeared while The Avengers did damage control on the ground and Tony tried to referee the dragon duel.
Still, Steve hesitated to classify Loki as a supervillian. He was insanely powerful, seemed to have a taste for chaos, and held a grudge against The Avengers, but he also tended to do things that were more spectacular than damaging, and he had no civilian deaths to his name after the Chitauri debacle. He seemed to be passing the time rather than actively trying to take over the world.
Tony downright liked Loki. He’d nearly fallen to his death laughing when Loki had turned a whole rush-hour Manhattan-street worth of cars into ice cream, and he’d declined to participate in the clean-up claiming that the melting ice cream might damage some of the suit’s electronics, choosing instead to sit on a high spot with Clint and shout advice. In the end, Steve had to go at it alone, since Bruce couldn’t find in himself to be angry at the sight of a hundred executives in silk-blend suits and high heels trying to fish their iPhones out of giant hunks of chocolate and strawberry ice cream.
So, when Steve found himself walking through a half-demolished building, he wasn’t particularly afraid. Annoyed, yes, but the building had been empty before Loki had hit it with the fluorescent green slime, and Steve had only gone inside because Fury wanted him to recover some files; he hadn’t been told what the files were actually about, and he suspected that it was because Fury knew Steve would disapprove, so he wasn’t too heartbroken to find his way blocked.
“Captain.” Loki, in full armour, appeared in a shimmer of green magic. He had a spear held loosely at his side (a different one than the one which had enslaved Clint); it looked made of ice and gold and Steve thought it was more decorative than functional. “The building’s integrity has been compromised, would you do me the courtesy of stepping outside before it collapses? My intent today was to disrupt a certain method of weapon production, not to deprive America of one of its symbols.”
“Certainly,” agreed Steve, holding back a smile.
While Loki had adapted better than Thor to Midgard and its ways, he still had old-fashioned manners that Tony could never refrain from mocking, but that Steve found much easier to deal with than the abrasiveness and grandiloquence of other supervillains. And both Loki and Thor (for some reason that Steve supposed had to do with the fact that he was in their eyes a warrior and almost as strong as they were) seemed to hold him in higher respect than they did others.
“Wait… weapons production?” he asked, stopping in the middle of a corridor filled with rubble and slime. “I was told this was a pharmaceutical company.”
“A pharmaceutical company working on some very crude magic-blocking compounds based on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s experience with me, yes.” Loki gave him a quick, mirthless smile. “As primitive as they might be, it’s in my best interests they are never developed.”
Steve swallowed a rush of bile, knowing now why Fury hadn’t wanted to tell him what he was supposed to recover from the site. Back after the Chituri crisis, Steve had protested Loki’s painful-looking metallic gag, even as he still believed him a supervillain, and he had put an immediate stop to Tony’s suggestions about how to restrain and experiment on their prisoner while they worked a way to send him and Thor home; Steve’s protests had been backed (perhaps unsurprisingly) by Bruce, but he wasn’t surprised to hear S.H.I.E.L.D. had gone behind their backs and done it anyway.
“Well, I couldn’t recover any files,” Steve said, and if it sounded a bit like an apology, well, maybe it was.
Loki’s answer, if there was going to be one, was interrupted by a loud rumbling as a few tons of concrete and metal collapsed above them. Steve instinctively moved closer to Loki and raised his shield above their heads, though he knew that all his strength and all the vibranium in the world weren't enough to stop what was coming. He was rather surprised, then, when after the deafening crash and between the cloud of dust, he found himself intact, standing in what felt like a small cave.
“Loki?” he asked into the darkness and dust, hesitatingly lowering his shield when nothing worse than small pebbles fell on it. “Are you alright?”
“Yes,” said Loki in a strained voice.
“Are you sure? You don't sound too good.” Steve was afraid to move, not knowing how big was the space they were in, or where Loki was standing. “Damn it, I can't see. Agent Jackson? Hello, can anyone hear me? It figures these communicators wouldn't work underground... Loki? Still here?”
“I'm here.” A soft light flickered into existence and Steve saw Loki standing two feet away from him, arms raised over his head; the slim spear of gold and ice in his hands was holding up a massive concrete pillar which would have otherwise crushed them.
“Gee,” Steve murmured. “Right. Can you hold that for long? The people outside will have noticed the building has caved in, they'll be here trying to get us out soon. With any luck Agent Jackson will call Tony or Bruce, and...”
“Not enough time,” said Loki between gritted teeth. “The floor might cave in any moment now.”
“Right.” Steve took a deep breath, looked around himself; nope, they were trapped, and there didn't seem to be any way of digging their way out that wouldn't prompt a faster cave-in. “Is there something I can do?”
“I doubt it.” Loki probably meant to sound biting, but he only managed to achieve 'matter-of-fact'.
“Well, then...” Steve looked around, spotted a small alcove made by two walls falling towards each other. “You better get out of here before the floor caves in.”
There was a moment of silence from Loki; Steve moved towards his chosen refuge, trying not to think of the odds of surviving a cave-in with only two brick walls and his shield to protect him.
“Are you suggesting I leave you here to your death?” asked Loki; the light flickered.
Steve didn't know how to answer. Supervillain or not, he wasn't expecting Loki to rescue him, but he couldn't think of a diplomatic way to say this; his silence must have been eloquent enough, because the demigod huffed.
“You must have a low opinion of me, Captain,” he said. “A poor warrior were I if I didn't try to get us both out of here.”
“Right.” Steve tried not to sound surprised. “I certainly didn't mean to imply...”
“Captain,” Loki interrupted him between gritted teeth. “This will require concentration. I'd appreciate some silence.”
“Oh, sorry. Just tell me if there's something I can do.”
“Move closer.” Steve could see how tense the tendons on Loki's neck were, how the sweat running down his temples cut a track through the dust that clung to him. “The less space I have to cover, the better.”
Carefully, hoping not to step on something that would cause the whole thing to collapse before Loki was ready to do whatever it was he planned to do, Steve approached until he was less than a foot away from the demigod, close enough to see his jaw work as he gritted his teeth.
“The light might...” Go out, guessed Steve in the sudden darkness. “... flicker.” The light returned, weaker and trembling like a candle in a storm. “I need all my strength and concentration...”
“That's fine.” Steve swallowed against the dust and the sudden dryness in his throat; a few pebbles and fist-sized bits of concrete and plaster started to rain down, and he raised his shield to protect Loki from them. “If you can't keep the light up, just do as you think best. I'll be quiet.”
The grimace that Loki gave him was meant to be a smile, Steve decided, and continued to keep his silence as more debris fell onto his shield. Loki began to mutter audibly now, in a language Steve didn't understand, and the light was out more than it was lit; Steve wanted to tell Loki not to bother with it, that Steve could stand a bit of darkness, but he didn't want to interrupt his concentration, so he kept quiet.
The first time he saw something odd, he blamed the flickering light of playing tricks of him; then, he wondered if he'd hit his head and was hallucinating. But no, Loki's eyes were glowing red in the stretches of darkness, and when the light flickered into life, his skin looked distinctly blue.
Steve tried not to stare, but there was something oddly beautiful about that strange colouring. Maybe it was related to the magic Loki was channelling? In the flickering light, Steve thought he could make out silvery scars too, like cracks in the ice Loki's skin reminded him off.
His observations flew out of the window as Loki held up his spear (and the whole building) with one hand and grabbed Steve’s arm with the other.
There was a flash of pain, a moment of darkness, and then Steve stumbled back.
They were just outside the building. Dust rose from some point in the wreckage, presumably where a concrete pillar had just collapsed. Under the distant light from the street lamps across what had been a parking lot, Loki looked wild, otherworldy, beautiful. Steve clutched his forearm and took a deep breath.
“Are you alright, Captain?” asked Loki, frowning at him.
“I think it's just frostburn.” Steve knew the feeling well. “Where you touched me. But I'm fine.”
Loki froze where he stood; he gave a disbelieving look at the hand he had stretched towards Steve (delicate blue skin and graceful wrists hidden under black leather vambraces), then looked up (face twisted in such horrified sadness that Steve wanted to take back his words, grit his teeth and forget about the frostburn, never mention it) and, in the blink of an eye, he was gone.
Steve stared at the empty space in front of him for a minute, until his communicator crackled.
“Agent Jackson? Yes, I've... I'm out of the building. Mostly fine. But Director Fury is going to have to do without those files.”
That night, Steve couldn't sleep. The burn where his suit had ripped along his forearm was bandaged (he'd said something about a liquid nitrogen leak to the S.H.I.E.L.D. medics) and Fury had seemed resigned at Steve's failure to retrieve the documents, but something uneasy skittered on the back of his mind; something about Loki's punctilious chivalry and incredible strength, something about the play of light over blue skin and the devastated look in those red eyes.
He fell asleep thinking about ice.
The next morning, he went to find Thor, who'd been assigned to help with a tornado while Steve held the surprisingly courteous conversation with his brother. It was easy to convince Thor to have breakfast with him on the terrace, where Tony had told him once that all S.H.I.E.L.D. surveillance was disabled.
“I saw Loki last night,” Steve said after the first cup of coffee. “He was behind the attack on that building I was sent to investigate.”
“There were no injured, no?” asked Thor. “Did he seem well?”
Steve smiled; Thor’s worry about his brother’s wellbeing never failed to inspire in him both tenderness and a little unease. It was endearing, yes, but also unhealthy. Sometimes Steve thought that Thor was so focused on saving what his brother could be that he was completely blinded to what Loki really was; Thor could look up to see Loki standing on a mountain of corpses and see only his baby brother, so innocent that he could only be the delusion of a guilt-plagued mind.
Sometimes, Steve wondered what it would be like, to love someone so much.
“No, there weren't any injured. And Loki seemed fine. He saved my life, actually, kept the building from falling down on me while I was searching for some things for Fury.”
Thor nodded. He didn't seem surprised, but then he wouldn't be, who had dived into the North Sea once to pull out a HYDRA commander, and then proceeded to beat him up once in dry land.
“He...” Steve put his empty cup aside. “There was a moment when his skin was blue and his eyes were red. Is that normal?”
Thor looked away. Steve had yet to see him avoid a question, so he waited as patiently as he could.
“Captain, you know my brother is adopted,” Thor said at last, twisting the cuffs of his plaid shirt between his fingers. “He... his blood is Jotun, of the frost giants, a race of monsters with whom Asgard has been at war for centuries. What you saw was probably his Jotun appearance, if for some reason his magic and glamours slipped.”
If his magic slipped, all his concentration devoted to keeping the building from collapsing and getting Steve safely out of there.
“I trust you will not mention this to any of the others. Jotun or not, I love my brother dearly, and he is worth as much to me as any Asgardian, but it is a distasteful matter and I would not like to see it discussed publicly.”
Too surprised to do anything else, Steve murmured his agreement. Thor left almost immediately (perhaps trying to discourage Steve from asking anything else), but Steve stayed in the terrace, empty coffee mug by his side, thinking and remembering.
He remembered Bucky coming up to him one night, taking him aside, telling him that some of the top brass had come talking to him. That they wanted to know if they could move Gabe to a different squad, because having a colored guy with them was making them look bad. That of course he was a great soldier, and all his achievements with the Howling Commandos would remain in his service records, but that all things considered, maybe he'd be better off serving somewhere else. Somewhere less visible. Somewhere not by the side of Captain America.
“No,” Steve had said the second Bucky had stopped talking.
“I think they knew you were going to be like that,” Bucky had replied with a chuckle. “That's why they talked to me.”
Steve had spluttered, not finding words for his indignation.
“I mean, it's obvious they're going to have to do something about it. There's so many colored guys fighting over here, desegregation is just matter of time.” Bucky had taken some gum out of his pocket, and then some chocolate which he pushed into Steve's hand; where he kept finding supplies, Steve would never know. “I guess they'd rather it wasn't forced on them by Captain America.”
Steve had glared at his friend's mocking look.
“It's not right. They haven't said anything about Jacques or Jim or...”
Bucky had hummed thoughtfully.
“I don't know,” he'd said at last. “Don't you think Gabe would be more comfortable, somewhere else?”
“No,” Steve had said, and that had been the end of the conversation.
He'd been so angry then -angry at his superiors, and angry at Bucky, and angry at himself- that everyone had noticed. Even Gabe had noticed, maybe because he was the only one who'd escaped Steve's wrath, and he'd come to talk to him one day, to ask if there was a problem; there'd been fear in his eyes, and worry, but mostly tired resignation, and Steve had felt angry at this too even as he reassured Gabe that he had nothing to worry about.
He remembered all that now. And he also remembered the look in Loki's eyes by the side of that wrecked building, the disgust, and the surprise, and the fear at Steve's reaction.
Steve poured himself more coffee. God, he was angry. He understood Natasha now, and the way she had of stalking out of the room when Thor -and, more rarely, Steve himself, although he always made a point of apologising afterwards- said certain things. Cultural differences, he repeated to himself, because he'd attended the seminar (mostly to make sure Tony did too); Thor meant well, and he loved his brother in spite of everything, but Steve could only imagine how Loki would feel on seeing the shame in his brother’s eyes for something that –unlike everything else- he couldn’t help.
Stve shook his head and went back inside, because sympathising with supervillains was the first step towards madness, and Clint would never forgive him.
In the calm days that followed, Steve tried not to think. Whatever was trying to crawl up from the depths of his memory or his subconscious would make its way up in good time, and faster if he didn't try to force it. He trained a lot, sparred with Natasha, put up with Tony's ribbing about how he always managed to damage his suit, even though it was made from the same material as The Hulk's pants. He let his thoughts simmer gently, unwatched.
A week after his encounter with Loki, he sat at his desk with his sketchpad and some pencils. He drew the soft, interlocking curls of Natasha's hair as it dried after a shower; he sketched the wrinkles around Bruce's eyes behind his glasses; he committed to paper the play of shadows and light in the kitchen at midday; he challenged himself to draw his old bedroom in Brooklyn from memory, trying to get all the details right.
He drew Loki as he'd seen him that night under the flickering light of his magic, blue-skinned and red-eyed, and so incredibly alien.
And that's when it hit him: pencil in hand, eraser held between his lips, his hands going through the familiar motions of tracing the markings on Loki's face because those were the exact same markings on Steve's wrist.
Distantly, Steve heard the tip of the pencil break against the paper, leaving a dark, jagged line down the sketch of Loki's jawline. He stared for a minute or two before dropping his sketchbook; his trembling fingers scrabbled against the fastenings on the bracelet at his wrist and he almost broke it in his panic.
There it was: the curved lines along Loki's forehead, the curved lines at the start of the line of symbols around Steve's wrist; the parallel lines that ran from Loki's cheekbones down to his neck, and the parallel lines in Steve's wrist... there'd been more markings, peeking from under the high collar of Loki's armour and stretching over his hands, and though Steve hadn't caught more than a glimpse of them and didn't remember them well enough to draw them, he knew -with the certainty that romantic movies always insisted the heroines should feel about their soulmates- that they would match.
His first thought was to go to Thor, but he discarded it as soon as it came up. Thor wouldn't know, and if he knew, he probably wouldn't tell; and even if he did, he would also judge Steve horribly, and Steve didn't want to be judged about this, not when his heart was still beating like a panicked bird against his ribs.
Loki paced uneasily in front of a window. The sun was setting, glinting off the glass and off the golden curls that tumbled down his back; he'd been holding the glamour of a petite beauty for three days, and he dropped it now, abruptly.
His skin turned blue. He snarled, clenching his fists as he resettled into his usual form.
It kept happening. Ever since that fateful day in Jotunheim, it seemed as if his body had realised it had spent centuries under a glamour and wanted to make up for lost time. It now took him a conscious effort to maintain his usual appearance (the appearance he'd grown believing was his) and it tended to slip whenever he focused his magic on something else, despite his best efforts.
Like it had happened in front of Captain America. Loki gritted his teeth at the memory. He supposed that, of all the people that might have witnessed the sight (of all The Avengers), Steve Rogers wasn't the worst, but it still stung; the searching look the soldier had given him stung, as did the way the skin of his arm had turned red and white under Loki's touch, and the shame that had filled Loki then, the feeling that had forced him to flee.
Hopefully the man would see it as just another of Loki's tricks and forget all about it promptly.
Not for the first time, Loki wondered if his self-imposed (well, of a sort) retirement shouldn't be more strict. If he really wanted to keep a low profile, making constant interventions and appearances was foolish, but...
… but he was so restless.
Loki's priority was surviving until his pursuers had more pressing things to deal with than making him pay his debts. All thoughts of conquering and ruling realms had to wait until Thanatos and The Other weren't a threat any longer, and -in a way-, this was enormously freeing. With no family to try and live up to and no power-hungry allies egging him on, with limited resources and a need to be subtle, Loki was rediscovering the mischief that he had renounced in the face of greater ambitions.
But while mischief was fun, and having The Avengers regard him with more exasperation than murderous intent was restful, Loki couldn't help but want to do more.
Unfortunately, Midgard wasn't exactly filled with options (and he didn't want to leave for another realm where The Avengers weren't present to act as scarecrows for his pursuers): its villains were tedious, and there was only so much 'harmless' mayhem Loki could cause before some superhero or other raised an objection.
Like Rogers, although even the sanctimonious Captain America seemed more relaxed these days, enough that his first instinct when he saw Loki wasn't to reach for his shield and his holier-than-thou attitude (Loki privately thought this was due to Stark's influence). Why, when they had met at S.H.I.E.L.D.-financed laboratory, he had been almost courteous, not to mention stupidly self-sacrificing).
Not only that, but that had been the first non-violent interaction Loki had had (as himself, not wearing one of his glamours) in far too long, and he again cursed his lack of control over his appearance for giving it such a hurried, undignified ending.
Taking a deep breath, Loki shifted into the form of a stocky, brown-haired man and prepared to go outside. Time to test how much he could do before his glamours slipped.
Steve waited three days after his meeting with Loki to leave Avengers Towers and visit Doctor Strange.
He liked Doctor Strange. Not only was he a magic-user who -for once- was on their side, but he was what his mother had taught him to recognise as a gentleman; he had good manners and a dry wit, and when he'd had to work alongside The Avengers, he'd been competent and patient, even in the face of Clint's obvious mistrust and Tony's exasperating curiosity. And Steve trusted him to be discreet and ask no uncomfortable questions, like a good doctor would.
“Captain.” Steve stood up when Doctor Strange came into the parlour. “How are you today?”
“Fine, doctor, thank you.” Steve tried to smile, found that it didn't come easy. “I'm sorry to intrude on you like this, I know you are a busy man.”
“Let's dispense with these formalities, Captain. My time is at your disposal. I know that you, unlike others, will only use it wisely.”
“I'll try.” Steve chuckled as he remembered Tony's insistence that Doctor Strange came to Avengers Tower to perform magic in his workshop until Tony could figure out how it worked. “I wondered if you know anything about frost giants?”
“Mm.” Doctor Strange gave Steve a piercing look. “Not as much as I wish I did. They are a secretive race. Which is understandable, given how many enemies they have made over the years. But what exactly do you wish to know?”
“Er,” answered Steve.
A pause followed.
“I see,” said the doctor, standing up. “There are some volumes I could let you examine, which may dispel your doubts. An account of a long-ago traveller into that realm. The testimony from one who survived their attempted invasion of Earth, over a thousand years ago... follow me.”
Steve hurried to follow Doctor Strange into his library, which was smaller than Steve had been expecting, and weirder. Steve tried not to look too long at the tall mahogany shelves, which seemed to become transparent at certain angles, and focused on the two books Doctor Strange presented him with a flourish.
“They're not in English, obviously, but if you see under this lamp, I think you'll find you can read Old Norse and Elvish quite fluently.”
Steve let himself be led to the small wooden desk on which was what seemed to be one of those library lamps with the green glass shade; Doctor Strange turned it on by murmuring a few strange words, then gave a few instructions to Steve as to how to handle the books (one of which was bound on a sticky sort of leather Steve didn't really want to ask about) and left, stating that he would be back in a couple of hours in case Steve had any questions.
Steve thought his first question would be how a library lamp could make him understand the spidery runes of the Old Norse book, but by the time he was a few pages into Snorri Sturluson's account of the Jotun invasion of Earth, he'd forgotten all about it.
Doctor Strange appeared after two hours, but only to leave a glass of water and a small plate of biscuits by Steve's elbow before leaving again.
By the time he left Doctor Strange's house, the air was on the edge of freezing. Instead of waiting for a late train, Steve took a deep breath, buried his hands in his pockets, and started the walk back to Avengers Towers, mind churning with thoughts.
He hadn't got any straight answers out of the books (or Doctor Strange's vague but helpful conversation afterwards), but he had got a lot of hints and clues which almost made up for it.
Like the fact that Snorri Sturluson said that frost giants could be told apart by their skin markings, which were unique to each individual, and yet the account of the secretary to the Alfheimr ambassador to Jotunheimr remarked on the matching markings of the King and Queen. Sturluson also said that frost giants wore little to no clothing because they couldn't feel the cold, but the Elvish book spoke of the tradition of keeping young frost giants fully covered and only letting them shed their clothes as a mark of adulthood. And there has been a small illustration of a pair of frost giant warriors, their markings in their bodies similar (but not identical, not the way Loki's had been) to the symbols on Steve's wrist.
Clues, hints, suggestions... but no definite answers.
Doctor Strange had bemoaned the fact that there was so little information to be had, due to the fact that frost giants' traditions were almost exclusively oral and they despised members of all other races. He'd looked at Steve expectantly after saying this, and when Steve failed to supply the right answer (or any answer at all, still trying to process the glut of information), he'd clapped his shoulder kindly and walked him to the door.
The rational part of Steve's mind (the part that had not looked at his sketch of Loki and begun to babble 'this is it, this is it, we've found it!') reasoned that a couple of symbols out of the whole string of them could just be a coincidence.
“Yeah, my soulmate could be *another* frost giant,” Steve muttered to himself sarcastically.
He had to know. He had to know for sure. But, short of tracking Loki down -which was, anyway, impossible- and asking him to take his armour off and let Steve examine the markings on his skin (on that skin he seemed to loathe and fear), he didn't know how.
But even if he did, and if he was right, and if Loki was his soulmate... what then? What kind of life could he have with someone who'd (half-willingly or not) tried to take over Earth, with someone who'd shown so much disregard for humans, for someone who appeared to be the bully Steve had fought -in one form or another- all his life?
He could keep quiet. No one had to know. Everyone already thought his soulmate was dead. And Loki... Loki couldn't possibly know, could he? He would have acted differently, done something if he knew, he wouldn't have limited himself to treating Steve like a worthy adversary if he suspected their markings matched.
So Steve could ignore it, could close his eyes and pretend he didn't know, and live the rest of his life alone, as he had half-expected to do for so many years.
And condemn Loki to live the rest of his life alone? No, it wasn't just Steve's decision to make.
Steve slept poorly over the next few days, his mind a battlefield. He was antsy and kept leaving sketches unfinished to drift over to where Natasha was, to see if there was something in which he could occupy himself.
“Here,” she said the moment he appeared on the doorway to the living room, three days later; she was holding a phone against her ear. “Reports of some strange creatures near the docks. You take it.”
Steve could hear the 'get out of my hair' in Natasha's tone and said nothing in reply, just gave her a small smile and went to suit up.
The creatures were mist and ice, at times massive serpents, at times roaring wolves, with eyes like glowing embers. The street had been evacuated, in case somehow they proved aggressive, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in charge of the operation stopped their van at a prudent distance.
“Captain?” she asked.
“I'll go in first, try to drive them away from that gas station and into that empty lot behind it. You keep the civilians away.”
The smallest of the creatures moved towards him as Steve approached, and curled its incorporeal body around him; it felt like nothing worse than very cold air, and Steve moved through it without any trouble.
“Do we know exactly where the creatures appeared in the first place?” he asked Agent Gomez through his communicator; a bigger creature was roaring at him, but it moved back when he waved his shield at it.
“An abandoned walk-in freezer at the back, sir,” she replied after consulting someone.
“I'm going to try and move them back there, then.” Steve looked at his surroundings. “There are a couple of kids trying to crawl in through the parking lot, get someone there to keep them out.”
The creatures didn't try to touch him again, but they surrounded him, keeping him in their sights, so Steve decided the best way to lead them somewhere would be to walk there himself.
He stopped when he went around the corner and saw a stocky, brown-haired man holding one of the mist creatures; it was a small one, and it was curled in his arms like a sleepy cat, nuzzling his fingers where they smoothed against its incorporeal little head. The man looked up to Steve, obviously surprised, and after a moment the air around him shimmered and Loki stood in his place.
“Captain.” The mist creatures were between them, veiling Loki's form on-and-off, but even if they hadn't been, Steve didn't think he would have been able to read anything in the demigod's stony expression.
“Loki.” His heart beat very fast, but he decided to focus on the problem at hand. “Are these dangerous?”
“Dangerous?” The creature in Loki's arm slithered to the floor, wrapped around his ankles. “Not really. Ornamental, rather.”
“You brought them here for decoration?”
Loki looked around at the rather sad gas station, at the rusty walk-in freezer at his back, at the empty lot behind them.
“Though the place could do with some decoration, no. It was an experiment. It's done now.” Loki made a gesture with one hand and the creatures whirled in the air, wrapping themselves around him.
“Loki!” Steve called out. “Wait...”
Loki waited, but his posture was so tense that Steve stopped three feet away.
“I didn't get a chance to thank you last time. For getting me out of that building.”
Loki just nodded; he looked on the brink of departure still, like a bird about to take flight, like a cat about to jump.
“And I wanted to ask you something.”
Loki didn't look surprised; wary, yes, and resigned, and angry, but not surprised.
Steve took a deep breath. This was it. He didn't have JARVIS to consult, but he could tell that the odds were overwhelming that he would offend Loki with what he was about to say.
“I noticed you have... markings, on your face,” Steve said, trying to sound as pleasant and non-judgemental as possible.
Loki said nothing; his lips were pressed together in a thin line, and the mist creatures swarmed around him, restless.
“I wondered...” If Steve could have taken the last minute of his life back, he would; he would have left it at thanks and gone back to the tower to try and figure out a way to have this conversation gracefully. “I wondered, is that how soulmate markings are for frost giants?”
Loki stared at him, seemingly thrown by the strangeness and rudeness of the question; Steve contemplated the possibility of dying of mortification.
And then Loki and the mist creatures were gone.
Steve sighed. At least the gas station hadn't exploded. And Loki hadn't tried to kill him, not right away.
That night, Thor was called up half-way through dinner. There had been an incident in Jotunheimr which the frost giants blamed on Asgard, and tensions were high; Thor gave a mournful look at the pile of fries on his plate, said goodbye to the team (Clint was already helping himself to the abandoned food), and left.
That night, the thought of the infinite ways he could have led that conversation better kept Steve awake. He tried to draw for a while, but he could feel the sketch of Loki judging him through the pages he'd filled since then. He considered going to train in the gym, but the thought of the questioning look Natasha would give him if she found him there stopped him. He finally got up, made himself some warm milk, and went out into the terrace.
He was halfway through the milk when Loki appeared beside him.
“How did you know?” snarled the demigod, advancing on him, spear in hand.
Steve put the cup down and raised his hands, trying to calm his irate visitor.
“Loki, Loki...” he backed away until the back of his legs came against a small coffee table.
“How did you know, Captain?” The icy tip of Loki's spear came to rest on the hollow of Steve's throat. “Answer me. You couldn't have asked Thor, he doesn't know the first thing about frost giants, nor would he want to.”
“I didn't know for sure,” Steve answered, trying to radiate calm, and wondering why the alarms weren't blaring. “That's why I asked you.”
“How did you know what to ask? This isn't a matter frost giants speak of to just anyone.” Loki gave a bitter bark of laughter. “Do you know how much it cost me to persuade two of them to give me an answer today?”
“That was you, Thor was called up to Asgard because of an incident in Jotunheimr...”
“Don't change the subject,” snarled Loki, and pressed the tip of his spear just a little harder. “How did you know? Why did you ask?”
“I looked at some books in Doctor Strange's library. And I wanted to know because... look, will you put that spear down?”
Loki looked as if he was seriously contemplating putting the spear through Steve's throat instead, but at last he gave a reluctant step back, mollified by Steve's answer and reasonably docile demanour.
“Answer me,” he insisted, his hand tight around his weapon.
“No, you answer me,” Steve said, feeling angry and scared and so damned nervous. “Are they the soulmate markings, or not?”
“Yes, as you well know, they are,” Loki replied. “Now...”
“Will you let me see them?” Steve interrupted.
“I...” Steve sighed. “Please.”
Loki looked conflicted for about three seconds, and then his faced hardened with anger again.
“You want to see the monster, then?”
“You're not a monster.” Steve felt his patience fray; the conversation was like walking on thin ice over a volcano, and he kept waiting for Tony and Natasha and Clint to come charging into the terrace. “Listen, I don't care what Thor says: you're not a monster and you have nothing to be ashamed of because your skin is blue.”
“I don't? You think I don't?”
The pale skin bled out of Loki's form and the blue took over like ink spilled over paper; under the artfully arranged terrace lighting, the markings shone weakly, silver over blue.
“Do you not see a monster, then?”
But Steve wasn't listening; he was looking at the markings he could see, just as he remembered them, just as he had drawn them.
“Can you...?” He blushed, but it was too late to be ashamed now. “Can I see more? Can you take off your armour?”
All of Loki's anger seemed to die at this, replaced by utmost bewilderment. If it had been anyone else, Steve rather suspected Loki would have left (fearing a trap), or killed him for mocking him, but even the worst of supervillains knew that Captain America was nothing but honest and straightforward.
“Captain?” Loki asked, his tone wary. “If this is your idea of a prank, I must assure you...”
Steve reached out for Loki (his heart was beating a thousand times a minute, as if it knew its mate was within reach), but the demigod stepped back.
“I would burn you,” Loki reminded him, almost kindly. “Captain, you need to answer my questions.”
Knowing he would never find the right words, and wanting to put an end to the ridiculous scene (and to the waiting and the agony of not knowing, and to almost twenty -no, almost ninety- years of loneliness), Steve began to loosen the bracelet around his wrist.
“Captain, what are you doing? I know enough of Midgardian etiquette to know that you should not be doing that.” A touch of panic was starting to drift into Loki's tone. “Captain, you are not yourself. Perhaps I should alert your companions...”
“No.” Steve finally undid the last buckle with shaking hands and held out his wrist. “Here.”
Loki didn't look at first, keeping his eyes firmly averted (like Steve would have done, if their circumstances had been reversed), but curiosity won at last and his red gaze drifted to Steve's uncovered wrist.
“I don't recognise those symbols.”
“You haven't looked at yourself in the mirror much, have you?” asked Steve with a shaky laugh.
Loki looked up, one eyebrow raised, his face scrunched up in confusion. He looked so young, so young and so lost, in spite of the armour and the spear and the blue skin and red eyes, that Steve wanted nothing more than to step forwards and give him a hug.
“Now, let me see the rest of you,” he said instead, trying to make his tone as firm as he could.
After a moment's hesitation, Loki lifted his left arm and the armour shimmered away, leaving him dressed only in dark leggings, his right hand still wrapped around the hilt of his spear; he averted his eyes and stared firmly at the distance.
Steve exhaled loudly. He’d been right. Oh God, he’d been right, he recognised every single one of those markings. His fingers itched to touch them, but recognising Loki’s tense posture for what it was, he merely held out his wrist again.
“You see? They match.”
Loki condescended to look back at Steve, then down at his own torso; his fingers traced the markings there as his eyes followed their equivalent on Steve’s wrist.
“I never thought…” he murmured at last.
“Never thought it would be a human, I bet.” Steve tried to keep his voice light, though he couldn’t deny that his soulmate’s lack of enthusiasm hurt a small, naïve part of him.
“Never thought it would be anyone.”
Loki shimmered again and returned to his usual form, fully dressed once more; he tore away his left vambrace and showed Steve a delicate wrist, pale and bony and completely devoid of markings. He let out a bitter bark of laughter at Steve’s expression of surprise.
“Odin didn’t know enough about frost giants to make his deceit complete, it seems, or he did not care enough. I have gone all of my life thinking I had no soulmate and would never have one.”
“Oh…” Steve's voice caught in his throat. He'd thought he'd been unhappy, not knowing who his soulmate was, but at least he'd known they were out there; he couldn't imagine what Loki must have felt.
“Don't pity me, Captain,” Loki snarled, snatching back his wrist and putting the vambrace back in place.
Steve tried to keep his voice light and his face calm; Loki's temper had always been volatile, and the conversation was obviously not helping.
“Captain? Don't you think you can call me Steve now?”
“This means nothing,” Loki said, giving a step back, his left hand held protectively against his chest. “Nothing.”
Steve stared at the empty space where Loki had disappeared in a shimmer of green magic and sighed. He'd expected much better of meeting his soulmate for the first time, but he'd also feared it'd never happen; all things considered, he felt he'd come out ahead.
If Loki had been more like Thor, he would have engaged in something destructive on his return from talking to Steve Rogers; he would have thrown things at the wall, upended tables, gone out to try and pick a fight that could shake the World Tree... but Loki was Loki, and as such he stayed in the dark, seething.
He couldn't find it in himself to be angry at Steve Rogers (at his soulmate, at the man who'd brought him the answers that Loki would have never thought to look for himself), so he focused his rage and resentment on the Allfather instead, on the lying, conniving man who'd ruined Loki's life from the cradle under the pretence of kindness, and that -in doing so- had condemned his realm to ruin; Loki might have been defeated once, might be in hiding now, but he had not forgotten the revenge he'd sworn to wreak when he fell from the Bifrost.
Loki paced the grim hallways of his least-favourite hideout, his fingers itching to touch his own skin; he thought of those hidden markings (the markings that only Steve Rogers had seen, like only Loki had seen them etched in the tender skin of the man's wrist) and resisted the urge to scream. To think that to access that lovely, wonderful secret he also had to take on the form of a monster...
It took Loki a week to gather enough courage to look at himself in the mirror in Jotun form, and even then he couldn't meet his own eyes in the looking glass; instead, he stared at the markings in his skin, the markings that echoed those in Steve Roger's wrist. No one had ever -willingly- shared such an intimate secret with him, and that alone was almost worth more to him than the discovery of his soulmate.
Almost, because the thought that he did have a soulmate -that he wasn't the lonely monster that Odin had made him out to be- made his blood fizzle like magic. For a moment, he was wildly, desperately eager to go to Frigga and share with her the feeling (too sharp to be happiness, too steady to be hope) of knowing that he wasn't alone in the world.
Then he glanced at his reflection again, remembered what he was, and punched it again and again, until his blood ran red over pale skin, and the mirror was nothing but scattered shards on the dirty concrete floor.
Steve didn’t draw anything for several days, and it wasn’t for a lack of ideas. His fingers itched to put pencil to paper and sketch Loki as he had seen him that night in the terrace, defiant and vulnerable, his markings (*their* markings) shining weakly on that unearthly skin, but he shied away from the thought of anyone (Natasha, JARVIS, Tony, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s omnipresent surveillance) finding it and asking him about it.
He’d always thought that when the time came, he’d be shouting his joy at finding his soulmate from the rooftops, drunk with pride and happiness like others he had seen. This secrecy, this uncertainty, turned what was supposed to be the happiest occasion of his life into something bitter, but Steve still couldn’t bring himself to speak to anyone about it: there wasn’t anyone he trusted enough, he realised, and saying it would make it real, more real than it was in his head.
His soulmate was Loki. His soulmate was the man (the demigod, the frost giant) who’d tried to take over the Earth, who’d caused death and destruction which Steve could still see if he looked out into the street, who’d lied, betrayed and threatened -not only The Avengers, but innocent civilians too. His soulmate despised humanity, cared little or nothing for the damage he caused in pursuit of his aims, and was willing to hurt the only person who professed to love him.
His soulmate had magic to rival Doctor Strange’s, was more intimidating than Nick Fury, more manipulative than Black Widow, and could hold his own against Thor in a fight. He had the bearing of a king, the mind of a tactician, and a sinister charm that no supervillain had been able to equal.
His soulmate had been abandoned by his family (except for Thor, and even so…), had been exiled, tortured, defeated. His soulmate hid hurt behind anger, pain behind arrogance, wistfulness behind spite.
Could he forgive Loki, Steve wondered one early morning as he waited for dawn to break in the terrace of Avengers Tower.
“Keeping guard, are we?”
“Hey, Tony.” Steve smiled ruefully before turning to greet Tony, who offered him one of the two cups of coffee he was carrying. “Thank you.”
“Don't mention it, I love serving my country,” Tony replied with an exaggerate salute; he looked manic, wired with sleeplessness, too many stimulants, and what Steve had come to recognise as the particular brand of guilt that only Pepper could inspire.
“Going to bed?” Steve asked instead of acknowledging the joke.
“Sleep is for the weak! And Pepper is punishing me and has scheduled a meeting at some godforsaken hour of the morning half-way across the state. So no, I'm waiting for the helicopter to be ready.”
“You're not even allowed to take the suit?”
“Not even that.” Tony pouted over his coffee, and Steve hid a smile behind his own.
“Everything alright between you two?” he asked after a moment's silence, hesitating because it wasn't really any of his business, but Tony would never talk -not about anything important- unless he was asked, and sometimes not even then.
Tony made a non-committal sound and took a large gulp of his coffee; Steve waited patiently. There was something about the quiet and the cold of the early morning -and the bitter turn to Tony’s mouth- that invited confidences.
“It's fine,” said Tony at last, looking into the New York skyline as it was slowly revealed by the creeping sunlight. “You know how it is. Or maybe you don't, I've never wanted to ask, but...”
Steve hid his wince; Tony swallowed convulsively, looking into the darkened distance, his knuckles white where he held his mug, his left wrist (covered by a sleek metal cuff) tapping against the balustrade.
“I love her, I love her to death, and she's... God, she's stuck by me when better people would have killed me. She deserves more than this wreck of a man, she deserves more than someone who's fucked up so much...”
Steve wanted to reassure Tony of his worth, but he knew better than to interrupt when Tony was in this mood, words bursting out of him after holding them in for too long.
“Merchant of Death or Iron Man, she's always been there, and I’ve been such a bastard to her, put her through so much. You’d think the guilt alone would make me a better man, but… God, sometimes I wish I’d thought of doing what Bruce did, going away and never acknowledging what's between us. Without her I’d probably be dead, but I wouldn’t have the responsibility of her happiness on my shoulders.”
The sound of an approaching helicopter made them both look up; Tony drained his cup of coffee.
“And sometimes she drives me fucking insane.”
Steve watched Tony leave his cup on the edge of a coffee table and rub his hand over his tired face; there was no way to confuse this with anything resembling happiness.
“But that's how love goes, isn't it?” Tony put on the big, fake smile he used for the press and clapped Steve on the back. “Cheer up, Cap, I’ll be out of your hair for a few hours.”
With that peculiar way of saying ‘thank you’, Tony walked back inside, leaving Steve with half a cup of cooling coffee and the early sunlight to keep him company.
It struck him then that he'd always found Tony and Loki very similar, that he'd seen Loki as the dark warning of what Tony could have been (could still be). Tony, who was atoning for things he thought too terrible to ever atone for, Tony who didn’t think himself worthy of his soulmate (or of the friendship of his team), Tony who was –in spite of everything- one of the best men Steve knew.
Oh God, who was he to judge anyone, Steve thought, putting down his coffee. He, who’d let his best friend die; he, who’d led his men into danger countless times, who stood uneasily on the pedestal people like Coulson put him on; he, who said nothing of working for Fury, of working with Natasha. Who was he to judge, who was he to deny someone a second chance?
He wished he could talk to Loki.
He wanted to see him again, to catch the twitch of those long fingers when Steve said something he wasn't expecting, and to elicit that short, almost private smile he got sometimes. He wanted answers, wanted to talk about what they would do, to gauge Loki's real thoughts from his reactions more than from his words.
For a moment, Steve allowed himself to think of what it would be like. He thought about long, elegant fingers tangled with his, about an expression on Loki's face warmer than the polite amusement he'd sometimes graced Steve with, about awe-inspiring magic backing him in battle instead of thwarting him...
Who was he kidding? He was still the same boy who'd read 'A Princess of Mars' and daydreamed for months.
But the days stretched on without news from Loki. Thor came back from Asgard, the situation with Jotunheim having been diffused even though apparently Loki's involvement hadn't come to light (Steve felt guilty about not saying anything, but how could he without revealing Loki's late-night visit and everything else?); then, there was an outbreak of alien bugs across Europe that saw The Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men working for days trying to catch tiny, translucent creatures with too many legs and a nasty bite.
Steve managed, when they returned from that fun trip, to copy into his phone the alert that Tony had created for Thor to warn him of anything that looked like a Loki sighting; he was far from a technology wiz, but after all the times Howard had used him as a guinea pig with his inventions, he wasn’t half as bad as getting used to new gadgets as Tony seemed to think.
But Loki didn’t make an appearance -neither acting up to taunt Thor nor causing mayhem- for so long that Steve began to be concerned. It was crazy, he knew; Loki had survived worse things than all The Avengers combined and Thor didn’t seem worried, but, well, Steve didn’t want to lose his soulmate so soon after having found him. So he listened to his S.H.I.E.L.D. communicator and kept an eye on his Stark phone and took to walking past Natasha every so often (if someone knew things, that was her) until she rolled her eyes and threatened to send him out on petty errands.
When he did meet Loki again, it was, of course, a surprise.
An Asgardian sorceress had arrived on Earth to settle an old score with Thor (the big guy had blushed and muttered something about stepping on her dress at a party) and The Avengers were -as always they were faced with magic- out of their depth, running on pure luck and Tony’s insistence that there must be something he could come up to counteract the showers of golden spells that battered them every time they tried to take her down.
In spite of Tony's confidence, if Loki hadn’t appeared in the middle of the confrontation, Steve rather suspected they would have been an Avenger or two short the next day. As it was, the Hulk was busy trying futilely to smash the dog-sized golden bees that wouldn’t stop tormenting him, Clint was keeping the two-headed cats from Natasha’s unconscious body using his arrows as daggers, and Steve himself was busy protecting with his shield the tied, petrified figure of Thor.
“Honestly, Amora, bees and cats and is that a dog gnawing at Stark over there? Not even a bilgesnipe? You were always boring, but this is worse than I expected.”
“What are you doing here?!” the enchantress hissed, turning towards Loki, who had appeared at her back in full battle armour.
So far, all of them except Natasha (and she was unconscious as a result) had tried to keep their attacks gentlemanly, because Amora looked delicate and beautiful, but Loki didn’t seem to have the same qualms: his first spell threw the sorceress into the nearest wall with such force that plaster rained down on her after she’d crumpled to the ground.
Of course, she sprang to her feet right away, furious, and Steve was once again reminded of how much stronger Asgardians were.
“Keep out of this!” Amora screamed at Loki, her hands burning golden. “If you hate your brother half as much as you say you do, why not let me kill him?!”
“Thor is not my brother,” Loki replied, not sparing a look to the subject of their discussion. “And you couldn’t kill him if you tried, you incompetent wretch.”
The shower of golden sparks fizzled down to nothing before it touched Loki, and Amora began to approach him… reluctantly, as Steve saw, fighting every step.
“Let me go!” she screeched, long tendrils of golden magic snapping before they could anchor her to the ground. “What are you doing?”
“I am warning you,” Loki said, his voice deliberate and awfully cold. “I am warning you that if you come again to this realm or try to harm Thor in any way, I will end you.” Amora had been dragged to stand just before Loki, and she went very still when he put his hands on her shoulders and leant close enough that –incongruously-, Steve’s first thought was that he was going to kiss her. “That’s my privilege and mine alone, do you understand?”
After a tense moment, Amora nodded slightly, just enough to make Loki let go of her.
“I will kill you,” she muttered resentfully.
Loki didn't even deign to dignify that with an answer.
“Take yourself and your creatures away,” he said, making a beeline for Thor. “You won't find me so patient if you ever attempt this again.”
Steve hoped that Tony was still in shape to monitor the sorceress' retreat, because when it came to him, he was simultaneously overwhelmed with the twin tasks of trying to stop his heart from beating its way clean out of his chest and guarding Thor from whatever it was Loki was planning to do.
Loki hesitated a barely-perceptible moment when he stopped in front of Steve, not quite meeting his eyes.
“Captain,” he said with a curt nod. Steve didn't reply. “I will free Thor from his bonds.”
It was not a question, but neither was Steve's answer.
“You will not hurt him.”
Loki met his eyes for a moment.
“I will not hurt him,” he confirmed; there was enough exasperation in his tone that Steve felt he could trust him, this once, so he stepped aside and let Loki approach the cocoon of golden thread that bound Thor.
“Ding-dong, the witch is gone,” Tony's voice sing-songed through his communicator. “Is the wizard leaving too?”
“Yes, after he frees Thor,” Steve confirmed. “Iron Man, can you keep an eye on the Hulk? I think he's still looking for the bees.”
“Aye, aye,” replied Tony. “Barton, you need help over there?”
“I got it,” answered Hawkeye. “I'll take Natasha to the jet.”
“Shout if you need anything, Cap,” said Iron Man before taking off in the direction of the noises indicating that a wall had incurred in the Hulk's displeasure.
Steve stared at Loki's fingers, plucking and picking at the tangle of magic, and waited until Clint had walked away -with Natasha in a fireman's carry- before looking up at Loki's profile, backlit by the golden thread.
“I will not hurt him,” Loki repeated without looking up from his task.
“I know,” Steve said.
“Do you now.” Loki's lip thinned and he pulled at a tangle of magic with more force than Steve thought strictly necessary.
“You said you wouldn't,” Steve explained. “I trust you.”
“Trust me? Surely you know better than that, Captain.”
“You will not call me Steve, then?” Loki didn't answer, his jaw tight; Steve sighed. “I do trust you. To an extent. I...”
“Have you forgotten all I've done, who I am?” Loki interrupted, giving him an irritated glance.
“No. But I will not hold you responsible for the things you did while you were not yourself, and...”
“Is that what Thor told you? That I was compelled, naught more than a pawn, like Barton?” Loki sneered, his fingers tight around a fistful of Amora's magic. “Let me tell you something, Captain: I made a choice. I was tortured, yes, and threatened, but the choice was mine. I wanted to conquer this wretched realm and I used all means at my disposal to do it. Do not paint me as a victim, because I was everything but.”
“Fine!” said Steve. “You've done terrible things. We all have. I am a soldier and...”
“No, Captain, no. A warrior you might be, but you are also a good man. Don't try to compare yourself to me. What you are...” Loki gave Steve an indecipherable look, then stepped back. “What you are, I would spoil, like I would burn your skin if I touched it in my real form.”
“Stop that!” Steve grabbed Loki’s arm, and pulled him towards him. “Stop treating me like I’m different, like I'm fragile. I’ve been in a war, I’ve fought much worse people than you. God, I’ve fought under the orders of worse people than you! You’re not poison, you can’t change me just by being with me.”
Steve looked down at where his hand was gripping Loki’s arm; he loosened his hold and slid his hand down to rest on Loki’s wrist, above his vambrace.
“You are my soulmate, Loki,” Steve said softly, not daring to look up. “That doesn’t mean we’ll make each other happy, or better, or… or anything. But we are made for each other and I would like to… I would like to try.”
He looked up and saw Loki staring at where Steve’s hand rested on his arm.
“That a man like you should feel obligated to this by some ancient magic…”
“You’re not listening to me!” Steve tightened his hold once again and shook Loki briefly. “I’m not obligated to anything. I could have kept quiet, I could have never told you anything. I’d already made peace with spending all my life alone, but then I found you.” Steve tried to get Loki to look at him. “Do you really not want this? Do you find me so pathetic, so… human?”
Loki’s lips twitched in what might have been a smile, though his eyes still avoided Steve’s.
“I believe there is a saying here in Midgard that goes, ‘it’s not you, it’s me’…”
Steve let out an exasperated breath.
Loki's expression shut off and he stepped back, shrugging off Steve's hold as if it were nothing; when Iron Man flew into the destroyed room fifteen seconds later, Loki was tearing off handfuls of Amora's magic off Thor while Steve watched, feeling somehow both better and worse than before.
“Bruce is putting on pants and going to the jet,” Tony's voice said into Steve's communicator. “Everything alright here?”
“Yes. Thor is...” Steve trailed off.
“He should wake in a few hours, none worse than he was before,” Loki said, half-turning to speak to Iron Man, who was hovering to his right.
“That's not very reassuring, coming from you,” said the suit's metallic voice.
Loki smirked at him over his shoulder. Steve had the sudden irrational urge to throw his shield at Tony.
“Amora's magic is barely worthy of the name, I foresee no consequences after it's worn off.” Loki tore the last bits of magic off Thor and watched impassively how his not-brother crumpled to the ground.
“No killing him,” Tony warned, waggling a finger (the repulsor on his other hand ready to fire, in case the joke turned out not to be a joke).
“No.” Loki's gaze barely met Steve's as he turned away. “I have already promised the Captain that I wouldn't.”
“Yeah, but unlike Cap, I don't tend to believe people's promises. Particularly not those of demigods of lies.”
Again Loki smirked.
“I hesitate to call you wise, Stark, but you might not be the most foolish of mortals.”
“Aw shucks, you're going to make me blush, you charmer.”
Steve cleared his throat pointedly.
“Captain.” This time, when Loki turned to him to take his leave, there was a small smile on his lips, quickly hidden as he bowed to Steve.
One second after Loki disappeared, a huge smoking crater appeared where he'd been standing.
“Did you have to do that?” Steve asked Tony, with perhaps more irritation than usual.
“He was expecting it, Cap. You're the only upstanding man he knows, probably.” Iron Man swooped down. “Come on, I'll carry the big guy up to the jet. Loki better be right about the witch's magic having no other effects.”
Loki had not lied, this time, and when Thor woke up in the evening, he was fine and went around thanking his teammates for his rescue; when Natasha (still in medical, with a terrible headache and more bruises than Steve was comfortable seeing in a woman) informed him that it'd been his adoptive brother he had to thank for it, Thor lit up like one of Tony's inventions.
“Did he seem well, Captain?” Thor asked him as they left Natasha to some potent painkillers and Clint's company.
“Yes, Thor.” Steve thought of Loki smirking at Tony, of the feel of Loki's arm under his hand, and of the way he'd pulled away and disappeared. “He looked fine.”
He pulled away from the conversation with the excuse of having to fill the reports about what had happened, and then spent a few hours doing just that, letting the paperwork distract him.
It was late when he finished, but Steve only went to his room, cleared his desk, and took out paper and pencil to do the sketch he had been wanting to do for days: Loki, wearing only his leggings and his boots, hand curled around his spear as he looked away and let the markings on his skin speak for him.
If Steve couldn't have his soulmate, he'd at least keep a memory of the time he'd thought he could have him.
When he finished, he took a deep breath and was surprised at not smelling wet laundry and the stench of Mrs O'Leary cooking downstairs; he felt sixteen again, coming to terms with the idea that -whoever his soulmate was-, they wouldn't want him, frail and sickly as he was. For all that mattered to Loki, Project Rebirth and the last seventy years might as well have never happened.
At least he hadn't told anyone, Steve thought. He didn't think he'd be able to stand the pity if he'd shared his discovery and then had to admit that his soulmate wanted nothing to do with him. Better this way, better to keep it a secret alongside all the other secrets that filled the empty spaces in Steve's mind; the jagged edges of rejection would fit right alongside the heavy weight of Bucky's death, the acrid bitterness of Peggy's goodbye, the jarring void he felt sometimes when he realised how much he was 'the soldier out of time'.
He would be fine. He had his team, his duty, to fill his days. He had many years of experience at being alone.
He would be fine, and Loki would be fine too. Loki would find someone else, Steve would bet on it; someone more powerful and interesting than Steve, someone who'd be able to say the right things, who wouldn't insist on prodding at his secrets and condemning his choices.
Steve traced the symbols on his wrist and tried to forget about the way Loki had smiled at Tony, easy and familiar.
He also tried very hard not to let his mood affect the way he carried himself in front of the team. Nothing had changed, not really: Steve had a name, but his soulmate remained intangible, like he had before his discovery. There was nothing for it but to square his shoulders, increase the time he spent training, and carry on. When Fury contacted him with news of a H.Y.D.R.A. campaign, Steve wasted no time in packing his suit and two changes of clothes and getting on the Helicarrier, destination Austria.
In a way, Steve found more familiar things revisiting the old battlegrounds and theatres of operations than he did walking around Brooklyn these days; Europe was slow to change, quick to remember. But every time Steve heard German spoken, he was brought back not to the war, but to that night in Stuttgart and how he could have died at the hands of his soulmate if Tony hadn't intervened.
Would it have been better that way, he wondered sometimes, late at night, when he couldn't sleep and was sick of waiting to see if Loki showed up. His death might have united The Avengers without Coulson's unnecessary sacrifice (and Fury's even more unnecessary lies), and he was sure that someone (Tony, Thor, Natasha) could have led them as well as Steve had, if not better.
And Steve would have never known disappointment, and Loki would have never been faced with all those truths he didn't want to face.
Two weeks later, he was watching the video of a raid on one of the H.Y.D.R.A. hide-outs, feeling distantly the twinge of his ribs as they healed, when a cold voice interrupted his thoughts.
“You take too many risks.”
He jumped in his seat, his previously dislocated shoulder complaining. Natasha raised an eyebrow at him; God knew how long she'd been sitting on the armchair next to him.
“What?” he said, getting comfortable in his seat again. “I'm not reckless.”
Natasha tilted her head towards the screen, where Steve was throwing himself onto the path of a sizeable projectile.
“I couldn't let it hit any of them!” he protested. “We didn't know what that radiation would do to them.”
“We didn't know what the radiation would do to you either.”
Steve conceded the point reluctantly.
“Still, better me than Gutierrez. He just found his soulmate last week, one of the waitresses in that café in Vienna, God knows I wouldn't want to be the one to tell her we let something happen to him before they got to know each other.”
Natasha frowned at him. Steve tried to return to his viewing, but the strength of her disapproval was almost a physical weight on the side of his face; with a sigh, he paused the recording and turned to look at her.
When Natasha saw she had his attention, she turned her eyes to her left wrist; her delicate fingers were playing with the weaponised cuff she always wore.
“He's dead,” she said after a moment.
Steve let out a breath; he'd never expected Natasha to broach the subject with him.
“I'm sorry...” he started to say.
“He died before I was born.”
“That can't be right.” Natasha gave him a look. “I'm sorry, I've just never heard of something like that happening. Are you sure?”
“I'm sure.” For a moment, Steve thought she would say something more, but she just shook her head. “I'm sure.”
Natasha shrugged, all poise again.
“I don't throw myself in front of bullets because my soulmate is dead.”
“I don't...” Steve trailed off under Natasha's severe look. “I don't,” he insisted once she looked away, sound unconvincing even to his own ears.
Black Widow made a soft sound that fully managed to convey her irritation, disbelief and impatience, and walked away. Steve returned his attention to the video, but found he couldn't concentrate any more.
Natasha's words didn't stop echoing in Steve's mind, but he couldn't stop himself from doing what he'd always done: putting himself in harm's way both because he could take it and because no one would care if it turned out he couldn't.
It wasn't self-pity, Steve told himself as he nursed his wounds, it was the truth.
And that was why four days later, in a warehouse on the outskirts of Sankt Pölten, he didn't hesitate to step in front of his team, in the way of a huge thing -half metal, half teeth, and all pain-, even knowing that his shield would bounce back a fraction of a second too late.
This chapter went a little bit darker than I expected at the beginning... but don't worry, it gets better!
Loki did terrible things, bloody things he hadn't believed himself capable of doing. He fought with an animal ferocity which would have horrified many, including his younger self. He forgot about prudence, about lying low, about anything that wasn't his anger.
He came to his senses later that night, soaked in blood. There were fragments of metal and bone embedded in his armour, and he was holding a weapon he didn't recognise, festooned with bits of gore. He laughed, and the blood he tasted wasn't his own.
There was a human crouching in a corner, terrified but holding a weapon in steady hands.
“You...” As the anger started to recede, its hunger sated, Loki remembered. “Don't tremble, I will not kill you. Why would I kill you?”
“Stop where you are, Loki, or I will shoot,” she said.
“You would.” Loki smiled with bloodstained lips. “You would, even though you know it would be useless.”
Black Widow didn't answer, but tightened her hold on her gun. Loki continued walking around the room.
“Why would I kill you?” he repeated. “You had nothing to do with this.”
“No.” Black Widow swallowed bile, trying not to look at the sight around them; Loki found this amusing. “Everyone who had anything to do with this... everyone... is dead.”
“Yes,” Loki agreed pleasantly.
“Why...?” Her voice wavered when someone's remains collapsed with a squelching sound near the doorway. “Why did you do this? You've never had a problem with H.Y.D.R.A. before.”
Loki paused in front of a half-demolished pillar. Had he made those gouges in the concrete?
“I have never had anything that was truly mine. Perhaps my magic, and even that I was forced to beg, borrow, and steal.” Loki traced the marks in the concrete, slick with blood and bits of flesh; they fit his fingers perfectly. “I will not stand for someone trying to take away what's mine.”
“Steve,” Black Widow breathed out after a moment. “You mean Steve.”
“He mustn't die.” Loki turned to look at her, and she raised her gun again, looking even paler than before. “He mustn't die, do you understand?”
He didn't wait for an answer before he transported himself away from that sad wreckage. She'd lied. Not everyone who was in any way responsible for what had happened was dead. Not yet.
The air in the terrace was cold. Even though he was wearing a S.H.I.E.L.D. hoodie and a fleece shirt underneath (sickbed clothes still), Steve shivered and felt the pull of the hundreds of stitches that'd kept him together while he healed. He didn't have scars, not any more, but he still moved carefully, half-convinced he was going to come apart if he made the wrong movement.
It took him longer than it should have to realise there was someone sitting on the chair in front of him. Loki wasn't wearing his armour or carrying any weapons; he was wearing dark leggings and a green tunic, and he was fidgeting with the thick black bracelet around his wrist. He didn't look up when Steve turned to get a better look at him, but he made a gesture and a hundred small flames shot from his fingers to float around them, warming the air at once.
“Am I dreaming?” wondered Steve, because the painkillers Bruce had developed for him had had some strange side-effects; a wish-fulfilment dream wouldn't be any stranger than the purplish halo he'd seen around everything for the first few days.
“No,” Loki answered after a moment, the corner of his lips quirking up slightly. “I thought you were cold.”
“I... yes, I was. Thank you.”
Steve shifted carefully to the edge of his seat and waited. Silence followed. Loki kept turning the leather bracelet on his wrist around and around.
“They told me what you did,” Steve said after a moment.
“Did they?” asked Loki, looking up only to give him a disbelieving look.
It was Steve's turn to look away. No, they hadn't, not really, and they'd also forbidden him all access to the reports during his recovery. Steve had had to gather information on what had happened after he was injured from Thor (who didn't know much, but who was awful at lying) and from testing the silences Natasha, Tony and Coulson gave him in reply to his questions.
“They told me we won't have to worry about H.Y.D.R.A. for a while,” he said, opting for honesty. “Or ever again, really.”
“Yes, you won't.”
Steve nodded. Loki watched him, his eyes cautious.
“They said...” Not in so many words, but in significant looks, awkward silences, and the thinly-veiled disgust in Clint's eyes. “They said you did it because of me.”
Loki waited until Steve looked at him before answering.
“But why?” That was, more than anything, what Steve had been wondering since Coulson sat at his bedside and gave him a brief and obviously edited version of the events.
Loki reached out for him, but stopped just short of touching Steve's bandaged wrist, silently waiting for permission. Steve said nothing, and Loki didn't either.
“They all know, now,” Steve said, looking down at Loki's fingertips, frozen a hairbreadth's away from his skin. “I don't know how they found out, if they had to take my bracelet off for surgery, or what, but they know.”
Something in Loki's tone made Steve look up.
“You told them?”
Loki looked away, folded his hand back into his lap, and licked his lips.
“I may have allowed Black Widow to draw the right conclusion.”
Steve thought of the way Natasha had watched him, sitting by his side in the hospital room; she'd been afraid, he realised, and again wondered exactly what Loki had done.
“That's fine by me,” he sighed, because Loki seemed almost apprehensive. Steve hadn't been looking forwards to telling his secret to his teammates, but he could admit it was better they knew; he was a big boy, he could deal with the fallout. They couldn't blame him for something which was so out of his control, could they?
Steve wanted to tell Loki of the oddly tender way Thor treated him now, not because he'd been broken and put back together, but because Steve was a part of Loki, a part Thor could reach and take care of; he wanted to share the jokes that Tony made around the breakfast table, the way he made a show of checking the front door every morning and expressing his disappointment that Loki had not left Doctor Doom's head on the doorstep as a courting gift; he even wanted to mention Coulson's apprehensive silences, the careful way Natasha watched him, the twitch in Bruce's lips when someone stumbled over the issue. But he also didn't want to break the strange, fragile truce they had achieved, so he didn't.
“You wanted to see these,” he chose to say instead, picking at the bandage over his wrist (would it always feel like this, this shockingly intimate revelation?).
This time, Loki didn't hesitate; he reached out and traced the markings on Steve's wrist with careful fingers.
“I don't have the power to replace them, but I thought of offering to erase them...” Loki huffed. “I couldn't bring myself to do it.”
“I wouldn't have let you anyway,” Steve replied.
Loki looked up to him and grinned. Was this the first time he smiled at Steve (really smiled, not the polite, guarded grimace he had offered sometimes across the battlefield)?
“I...” Loki sighed and loosened the leather bracelet around his wrist; instead of the unmarked skin he had shown Steve before, there was now a string of very familiar symbols there. “It seemed only fair.”
“How...? Did they appear, or were you hiding them before?” asked Steve, reaching for Loki's wrist; the demigod let him take it without putting any resistance.
“No. This you see is a glamour. I can choose how it appears. It's no more real, or less, than what I showed you before.”
Without warning, the wrist Steve was holding became slimmer, more delicate. He looked up to see a beautiful woman (green eyes, pale skin, black hair) watching him with a faint smile, a smile that turned wicked when he let go of her wrist and sat up straighter, blushing a little because Loki's tunic was loose on her and slipped down one porcelain pale shoulder.
“This is no more real, or less, than what you see usually,” she reminded Steve. “You've seen my true form. These are masks.” She leant forwards, the neck of the tunic gaping open to show the shadows of her cleavage. “Though if I'd known it would fluster you this much, I would have worn this particular mask sooner...”
“Loki!” said Steve, leaning back and keeping his eyes firmly on her face.
Loki chuckled and sat back, again in his usual form. He regarded Steve for a moment with was nothing short of a fond look, and then his expression sobered, and when he leant forwards, instead of playful he looked as dangerous as he had looked when New York had been exploding all around him.
“You mustn't die,” he told Steve.
In spite of the sudden solemnity of Loki's expression, Steve had to laugh.
“It's not like I can help it,” he said; his smile faded away and he rubbed absently at his thigh, where he could still feel the long row of stitches. “I'm only human: one fall, one bullet, that's all it takes.”
“You do not understand.” Loki seemed frustrated by Steve's inability to promise to live forever. “I can't... if you don't...”
Steve reached out and took Loki's hand, curled into a fist; the demigod glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, then looked away again, frowning.
“What did you do? What did you do when you thought I was dead?”
Loki laughed, an unhappy, bitter sound.
“You wouldn't be here if you knew.”
“Will you stop that?” Steve sighed. “I don't know who you think I am. You think I don't understand? When Bucky was captured, and then when he died... what I wouldn't have done, if I'd had the time! Do you think I don't understand what it feels when someone you love gets hurt?!”
Loki was done looking away; he stared at Steve, visibly surprised, his hand tense where Steve was holding it.
“Is that what this is, then?” he wondered.
“I don't mean...” Steve tried helplessly to backtrack. “I mean, I know you don't...”
“No,” Loki interrupted him. “No, no, you are right. I wouldn't have done what I did if I didn't care.”
Distantly, it occurred to Steve that he should be happy; mostly, he felt terrified, with a heavy touch of disbelief. Loki didn't look any more pleased, frowning as if he could make sense of his feelings if he concentrated hard enough.
“So, what now?” Steve asked. Logistics, he could deal with.
“You don't die, for a start,” Loki replied at once.
“Loki, I can't promise you that.”
“You can be more careful, though,” Loki interrupted him; he leant forwards, looking earnest and so damn young Steve felt guilty. “What happened in Austria, that must never happen again. I will help you.”
Steve's protests that it would happen again, because he didn't intend to stop putting the safety of others before his own, died before they were spoken as his mind snagged on the other thing Loki had said.
“You'll help me?”
Loki shifted in his seat, glancing away, looking for all the world as if he regretted saying it already; Steve waited.
“Not The Avengers, obviously. I have no intention of becoming a do-gooder like Thor.” Loki gave a little disdainful sniff. “But there are situations where you would be safer if you had with you someone with an understanding of magic and strategic thinking. Whatever Stark or Thor might say, charging straight at the enemy is not always the better option.”
Loki looked back at Steve, and his expression of offended superiority melted into surprise.
“I don't think I've ever seen you smile like that,” he said in a small voice.
Steve knew that. He didn't think he'd smiled so wide since the war, since Bucky was alive. His cheeks hurt and he knew he looked ridiculous, but he couldn't bring himself to stop.
“Alright,” he said. “You're welcome to help me try not to get killed.”
“Don't joke about it,” snapped Loki.
“I'll be more careful, I promise.”
“I will hold you to that,” Loki threatened, barely mollified.
“And will you promise me something in return?”
On hearing Steve's question, Loki tensed up.
“No, no...” Steve clasped Loki's hand between his own. “Don't. I'm not going to ask you to change. But you've offered me help, right? So let me do the same. I'm nothing special, I know, and I can't do magic, or anything you can't do better, I guess, but...”
The tense line of Loki's lips relaxed into a small smile.
“You underestimate yourself, Captain.”
“Still can't call me Steve, then?” he replied, deflecting the compliment with the ease of experience.
“Steve.” Loki gave him a long, searching look. “I accept your offer of assistance. Yes, I give you my word that I will call upon your aid if I need it. And I also promise not to invoke it for anything you'd find morally objectionable.”
“I should have asked for that, shouldn't I?” laughed Steve.
“Yes.” Loki smirked. “You're lucky I'm in a generous mood.”
“Yeah...” Steve breathed out. “I am. Lucky, I mean.”
This time, when Loki looked away, it was with a smile on his lips and what Steve would swear was a low blush on his cheeks.
“Well.” Loki cleared his throat and stood up, reclaiming his hand. “I should leave you to your recovery.”
“Right.” Steve stood up too, forgetting -for the first time since his injury- to feel the twinge of imaginary pain along where the rows of stitches had been. “So...”
“So...” Loki drawled, imitating Steve, and grinned; from up close, the gesture seemed even more wicked than it did across a battlefield, and Steve shivered again, and not from the cold. “I should get a boon for my generosity, perhaps?”
“What do you...? Oh!” And again, softer, against Loki's lips. “Oh...”
Five minutes later, the last of the small flames went out and -with a huge sigh- Steve walked back inside.
Tony was sitting on the edge of a chair, staring at one of his tablets; without looking up, he raised his hands and clapped slowly.
“Congratulations, Cap. Let me know when you want to make it official, Pepper is itching for an excuse to throw a party. Giving Fury an apoplexy is only a side-effect, of course.”
“The terrace, as I said, is clear of S.H.I.E.L.D. bugs,” Tony said. “That doesn't mean J.A.R.V.I.S. and I don't know what's going on there. A supervillain can only sneak in so many times before I notice.”
“And you didn't say anything?”
“Pffft.” Tony made an expansive gesture. “A man has a right to his privacy. As long as he wasn't poking you with that spear... don't even think of giggling, what are you, twelve? Let's just say I saw no reason to stage an intervention.”
As a team leader and a man forged in a war, Steve disagreed; as Steve, he was profoundly grateful.
Tony finally looked up from his tablet at that.
“No problem. Turned out for the best, yes?”
It was an honest question; wildly-experienced, cynical Tony Stark was worried about him, and Steve felt absurdly gratified at this, and also a little embarrassed, like when Bucky had tried to talk him into going on a double date.
“Yeah,” Steve said with a smile, and Tony relaxed and gave him a little nod.
“There you go. The moment when you tell Fury and break what remains of his heart for good will be the highlight of my year.”
Chapter 5: Epilogue: The Sky Is Flecked With Signs Of Hope
Here is the epilogue. It insisted on being written in the present tense and, after wrestling with it for five paragraphs, I decided to let it.
There's an explosion (magical energy dissipating mostly harmlessly in light and sound) and then silence.
“Well,” says Iron Man, and even the suit's voice sounds tired. “That was fun.”
“I don't like your definition of 'fun',” replies Black Widow, nimbly climbing a mound of rubble to reach Barton's position.
“You don't like anything about me... and don't think it doesn't hurt, it pains me deeply... why would this be any different?”
Loki lets the usual post-crisis Avengers chit-chat fade to the background, and closes his eyes. It had been a close one; maybe they -prosaic, blind, magicless creatures- would never know just how close.
Thor's booming voice is interrupted by a quieter, less jarring one. Then, Loki can hear steps approaching his position.
“Are you alright?” Steve's voice intrudes in his thoughts, not unpleasantly. Loki opens his eyes and sees a familiar pair of red boots coming closer to his not-exactly-hiding place.
“Yes. Don't look.”
Loki doesn't know if Steve can hear his transformation in his voice, if there's some part of him that's visible (he fights the urge to curl tighter in on himself), or if Steve has simply guessed, but he stops on his tracks immediately. Instead of leaving, though, Loki can hear him settle down on the other side of the fallen pillar that conceals Loki from The Avengers.
“You're not injured,” says Steve.
“But you can't put on a glamour.”
“Not at the moment, no.”
Loki can hear Steve hum, presumably accompanying a nod, and then speak into his communicator.
“I've told them to go on without us. You can take me back when you're recovered, right?”
“Right.” A short pause. “You know I won't look if you don't want me to, but are you really alright? No injuries?”
“No, I'm fine.” Loki allows himself to sigh. “Just tired.”
“Alright.” Steve accepts the answer easily, on good faith, like he accepts most of Loki's words. “Tell me if there's anything I can do.”
They can hear the sounds of The Avengers (sans their illustrious leader) vacating the battleground, and then the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents scavenging the site for anything useful before leaving too; Steve waves them away when they come too close, and declines their offers of a ride back to New York and Avengers Tower.
“I know you don't like anyone seeing you like this,” Steve says when they've been left alone; his voice is careful, pitched low. “But I like it. I like seeing you like this, even though I can't touch you without gloves. I like that I'm the only one you'll let see you like this. I like... I like seeing the markings, our markings, all over your skin.” He pauses, then asks in a small voice, “Is this alright?”
So confident, his soldier, his leader of men, and yet when it comes to this, he is all shyness and need for reassurance; Loki will go to great lengths to never let Steve know how much he enjoys it.
“It's fine.” The words come out strange, and not because of the dust that coats Loki's throat. “Are they all gone?”
It doesn't hurt to move, not any more; Loki could probably maintain a glamour again, but instead he climbs over the fallen pillar and sits by Steve's side. He's rewarded with a smile, and those eyes (those artist's eyes in that warrior's body) rake hungrily over his dusty, battered form; there will be sketches of this later, Loki knows, hidden inexpertly around Steve's room.
“You're hurt,” he says, to distract himself from the warm feeling rising through his frozen form, and because there's a bloody gash across Steve's forearm.
“It's nothing,” Steve replies. “Falling debris.”
“Let me see.”
“It's nothing,” Steve replies, but he offers Loki his arm all the same.
Loki touches it carefully, with the gloves he incorporated into his armour after the third time he unwittingly burned Steve. The injury is not deep, but it's long and it's bleeding sluggishly; he is not so exhausted that he cannot magic it clean and numb the skin around it. Steve's healing abilities will have to do the rest.
“I should be able to take us back to New York before nightfall.”
“Take all the time you need. Do you want some water? Coulson gave me some before he left.”
They share a bottle of water and some of the cereal bars that Steve always carries around in a pouch in his belt. Loki is curious about this and wants to ask if Steve often went hungry as a child, that he's squirrelling food around even now, but instead he finds himself telling Steve of the mix of grains, nuts and dried fruit they make in Asgard for the warriors to take into battle, and of stealing some for Thor because he wanted to get used to it even before he was allowed in the training salles.
“Bucky used to steal food for me too.” Steve chuckles. “Apples from the market, mints from the drugstore... I was so thin I looked as if a stiff breeze would knock me over, and Bucky thought that if he fed me enough... he never stopped, not even during the war, when I was bigger than him, and I never did find out how he got supplies.”
Loki makes a noise to signal he's listening and gives Steve the last cereal bar. There are things he can do, deals he can make; dead doesn't have to mean dead forever, and Steve's voice always sounds so warm when he speaks of his fallen friend. And there's a guarantee, written in marks all over his skin, that Steve's affection won't waver even if Bucky is returned to him.
“Let's take you back to New York,” he says instead of what he's thinking, and takes the hand that Steve offers him to help him stand.
“Will you stay the night?” asks Steve, sounding hopeful.
Loki waits for a moment before he answers; he enjoys the utterly unconvincing excuses Steve comes up with to persuade him.
“Tony mentioned the other day that he'd bought the brand of coffee you like.”
Loki raises an eyebrow at Steve, who just grins in return, secure in the knowledge that -whatever the ridiculous excuse he uses-, Loki won't pass up the chance to spend some time together. A bitter, contrary part of Loki wants to disappoint him, but he's tired and he doesn't really enjoy the way Steve's eyes cloud when he thinks he's pushing Loki too far; plus, a chance to snoop around Stark's workshop and scare Barton is always welcome.
“I could use some coffee,” he concedes, taking Steve's uninjured arm and wrapping his magic around them. “Let's go.”