“Why is it always New York?” Loki asked, gesturing to the movie they were watching. “Why don’t monsters or aliens ever attack Chicago or London or Beijing?”
The rest of the Avengers looked at him. Steve, sitting right beside him, pretended to be thoughtful. “Gee, Loki, I don’t know. Perhaps you might have some insight into this.”
The others laughed wryly. Loki looked at the floor. “Because I needed to be certain the Avengers would find me, so that you could stop me. Where better than Stark Tower?”
Tony diverted the conversation back to safer ground. “It’s because Hollywood people are provincial. They think the universe consists of New York City and Los Angeles. They call the rest of the country the ‘flyover states’.”
“Jerks,” Clint remarked.
“Come to think of it, they were already doing that in the ’30s,” Steve said. “The original novel of War of the Worlds was set in England, because the author was English, but when they made the radio play they moved it to New York. Because where else would aliens invade?”
“That the one where people thought Martians were really invading?”
“I suppose you ran out looking for Martians to beat up.”
Steve gave an embarrassed laugh. “No. At every commercial they reminded us that it was fiction.”
“So you had put on your coat and grabbed a weapon of some kind when the announcer let you know you didn’t have to?”
Steve’s silence and pink face answered the question, and his companions all laughed affectionately. “Hey, we did need you to fight aliens in New York!” Clint assured him. “You were just a few decades ahead of schedule.”
“At the time I drew my idea of what H.G. Wells’s Martians looked like. The other day I happened to remember that and tried to reproduce it.” Steve gestured at the sketchbook on the coffee table. “If you guys want to see it, it should be on the bookmarked page.”
Loki was closest, so he picked up the book and opened it. The bookmarked page depicted an alien, but not a Martian.
Loki could not take his eyes off the page for a long moment. It was an intricately drawn picture of himself, a wide unfeigned smile of simple happiness on his face.
When had Steve seen him look like that?
When had anyone?
Recovering himself, Loki turned the page. Maybe the bookmark had just been one page away from what Steve had actually wanted to show them.
The following page was blank, so Loki went backwards, but the page before the portrait of himself looking uncharacteristically happy had another drawing of Loki, his hair flying and his face intent as he sparred with Sif, whose back was to the viewer and who had been represented with a handful of strokes, while Loki’s figure was carefully shaded and detailed.
“What do you think?” Steve’s voice broke into Loki’s bemusement.
Loki summoned his self-discipline and shut the book. He handed it to Steve, saying, “I think this is the wrong sketchbook.”
Steve snatched it from him quickly, face turning from pink to bright red as he tucked it under a well-muscled arm. Loki looked back at the screen, unsure what else to do.
Unfortunately, Tony had noticed Steve’s blush. “Cap, have you been drawing naughty pictures? C’mon, Loki, tell us what you saw.”
“Unleashing an alien army is one thing. Revealing the contents of private papers is another entirely.” Loki spoke firmly, hoping that Tony would let the matter lie.
As he had hoped, Tony started teasing Loki instead, mocking his accent. “Yeah, invading is all very well, but snitching just isn’t cricket.”
Loki seized the tenuous diversion. “Which reminds me that I still want to learn more about Midgardian sports. I’ve learned the rules of baseball already. Perhaps you would let me accompany you to a car race sometime, Tony.”
“Sure. And in the fall we can do football and basketball. We should probably work soccer in there somewhere, but being an American I don’t even know when their season is.”
“I bet Loki will like soccer,” Bruce remarked, thoughtful. “A lot of speed and strategy.”
“But Americans don’t play it?”
“We do but it’s not very popular here. But almost everywhere else in the world it is the sport. It’s always surreal to go to Europe and see them making such a huge fuss over soccer. ”
Loki allowed the humans to continue their banter about different sports - apparently there were two different sports called football and this led to a lot of bickering on Midgard. Loki tried to keep his gaze on the screen, where a colossally silly movie was still playing, but he could feel Steve’s eyes on him. Eventually he had to look at him.
Steve was gazing at him, intent, his flush mostly faded by now. Loki gave him an awkward half-smile before looking away.
What could he say to him, really? What could they say to each other?
When the movie ended Loki was poised to feign fatigue and escape to his chambers, but the conversation had turned to safer, more frivolous topics. Tony was teasing Clint about his enthusiasm for an actor apparently considered especially attractive by Midgard.
“C’mon, you can tell us, you’re among friends,” Tony pestered. “Even you monosexual people have hypothetical exceptions.”
“Sure. Jaye Davidson,” Clint said. Loki had no idea who that was, but most of the humans evidently did and chuckled.
“Loki. You have an exception?”
Loki thought. “Daenerys Targaryen.”
“My moon,” Steve said, not very loudly.
Loki didn’t know what to do with the warm feeling those words gave him. Or with the alarm in the faces of Clint and Natasha, as they both looked between Steve and Loki. Mercifully, a way to make a joke of the moment popped into Loki’s mind. He smiled. “My sun and stars… and stripes.”
The disappointment on Steve’s face made Loki wince. But he couldn’t encourage the other man’s feelings, it would be unconscionable.
“Mine is Catherine Zeta Jones,” Pepper said, pulling Tony’s gaze to her and away from scrutinizing Steve.
“Second the motion,” Natasha agreed.
All the men except for Loki tried to look as if they were not contemplating the mental images the women had just evoked.
“That leaves Bruce. C’mon, ‘fess up. Brad Pitt? Daniel Craig?”
Bruce looked down at his glasses as he turned them over in his hands, giving his quiet little smile. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to announce this. My exception, apparently, is Lt. Colonel James Rhodes.”
“Wait, you’ve been running around with my best friend behind my back?”
“Rhodey turned you gay?”
“For him, anyway.”
“No wonder you’ve been so chipper lately. Here I just thought you’d enjoy playing with his suit. Wait, there’s a joke in there somewhere.”
“Why don’t you leave it where it is,” Clint suggested.
“Besides, it’s bedtime.” Natasha rose and stretched before taking the glass from which she’d been drinking vodka to the dishwasher. The others followed suit.
Tony and Pepper stood holding hands and looking at each other for a moment. Apparently they had communicated something, because Tony announced, “I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight, I can tell. I’m going to work on finding out how SHIELD was able to hack Jarvis so I can block them from doing it again.”
“You still haven’t figured it out?” Clint frowned at him, and Natasha gave him a sharp look. “That’s worrying.”
“It was a pretty slick piece of hacking,” Bruce said. “But then, this is SHIELD we’re talking about.”
Tony was scowling now. “I am going to figure it out if it takes all the caffeine on this continent.”
Pepper gave him a quick kiss and they parted for the night.
“Are you sure you don’t want my help?” Loki asked him as the others dispersed. “I understand why you’ve refused, but if it’s taking you this long….”
Tony looked up at him. “Don’t think that it’s a matter of not trusting the alien. You’re on the team. When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet for life. It’s a matter of totally personal pride. Earthgardian tech hacked Jarvis, I should be able to figure it out with Earthgardian tech.”
Loki was perturbed, but there was nothing he could do but watch Tony disappear into the elevator which would take him down to his workshop.
Only then did he realize that one of the Avengers had not departed yet, and they were now alone. Steve, of course.
“Good night.” Loki turned to go, but of course Steve wouldn’t make it that easy.
“Loki. Can I ask you something?”
Loki stopped. He couldn’t just refuse, couldn’t just run away.
He asked himself what he was going to do. He didn’t know.
Steve drew a breath, bracing himself. “When you were invading. The people you killed….”
Loki turned to face the other man, meeting those searching sky-colored eyes. “Are you asking me if I feel remorse?”
Steve held Loki’s gaze, unfazed. “I know that you do. I’m wondering how you were able to do it.”
Perhaps this was an opportunity to make Steve see why he should walk away. Why he should choose some human with less red in his or her ledger. “Remember that I had spent a year being tortured, after having my world turned upside down and my heart broken. I was not entirely sane at the time. That is not an excuse, by the way. It is merely an explanation.”
“How do you live with it now?”
Loki looked away, trying to put the answer into words. “I get out of bed. I do the duties assigned me by those to whom I owe loyalty. And occasionally, I get extremely drunk.” He made himself look at Steve again. “You should remember what I am capable of.”
“I do.” Steve’s youthful face was serious. “And I also remember everything I’ve seen you do since then.” He licked his lips, searching for words. “You haven’t let that time in your life drag you down permanently. It has to be hard to live with what you did and keep your conscience. A lot of people would have shucked it.”
Steve was standing a mere stride away, the invitation completely clear. It would be so easy to close the distance between them, and then….
Steve deserved someone he did not have to forgive.
“I believe you think too highly of me, Captain.”
With those words, Loki turned and left Steve standing alone in the common room.
It was a long time and a great deal of Asgardian mead before Loki was able to sleep. He had behaved rightly, but he regretted it with every fiber of his being.
Volstagg was easily entertained. Each morning of his stay, Loki took him to local schools for storytime, where Volstagg’s affinity for children served him well. The Avengers introduced him to various Midgardian delicacies. The food didn’t have to be fancy, just plentiful; Volstagg was as delighted with Japanese carryout or delivered pizza as he was with the French cuisine they took him out for one night. The Avengers had had months to get used to the Asgardian appetite, but even so Volstagg’s capacity amazed them.
Volstagg, more amiable than Thor’s other friends, took Loki’s new status in Asgard mostly in stride. Perhaps the fact that Sif and Hogun had already served with him on Midgard with no ill effects had dissipated any trepidation Volstagg might have felt.
On Volstagg’s second evening, as he shared pizza with the Avengers (plus Pepper and Rhodey), he told a grossly exaggerated story of his own triumphs during a griffin hunt with the rest of Thor’s warrior band a century ago.
Loki resisted the urge to ask, resisted until his determination frayed and snapped. “My mother told me that Thor visited Asgard recently. How is he?”
Intent on choosing the slice most loaded with assorted toppings, Volstagg tossed his answer without thought. “I think he’s starting to almost enjoy Jotunheim. But you’ve adapted well to Midgard, Loki. It just goes to show that people can become accustomed to anything.”
Every human pair of eyebrows lifted. Loki spoke firmly. “Adapting to Midgard is no hardship. You must have noticed how far humans have advanced since our last sojourn here. The other realms have badly underestimated them.”
Volstagg chortled, blissfully unaware that he had just insulted half a dozen people. “We all should have guessed you and Thor did not share blood. The way he speaks of frost giants and the way you speak of humans could not be less similar.”
“Oh? What does he say of frost giants?”
The humans noticed Loki’s fingers tight around his glass of beer. Volstagg did not. He shrugged.
“Only that they are not so monstrous as Odin said. It’s to be expected. He has spent months living among them, with no one of his own kind about. He’s gotten used to the Jotuns just as you have gotten used to mortals.”
Loki’s voice was sharp. “Kindly do not insult my hosts, Volstagg. Humans have been far kinder to me than I had any right to expect, and they have proven that they are not inferior to Asgardians in either wisdom or valor.”
Volstagg looked at his prince, surprised and perhaps a little cowed at last if the sudden formality of his tone was any indication. “As you say, Your Highness.”
A moment of tense silence ensued before Volstagg spoke again, thoughtful now.
“I suppose that is why the queen sent Thor to Jotunheim. Get him used enough to Jotuns that he won’t kill his foster brother for being one.”
“Are you serious?” Steve burst out. “Would Thor really kill his own brother just because he found out he was a frost giant?”
Volstagg looked at Steve, at a loss.
Loki stared at the tabletop and forced words out, choking on them.
“The moment I found out that I was a frost giant, my brother was thirty feet away, slaughtering frost giants by the dozen and laughing aloud in joy. He killed hundreds of them - of us - in half an hour.”
No one knew what to say. A moment later Loki rose and swiftly left the room.
Every one of the Avengers stood, ready to go after him. Volstagg looked bewildered.
“I got this,” Bruce told his comrades firmly.
“No, I’ll go-” Steve began, but Bruce held up a hand.
“No, Steve, this one’s mine. Sometimes the best man for the job is a monster.”
Loki hadn’t ordered Jarvis to lock down his suite, so Bruce was able to just walk in. Loki was crouched on the sofa in his little-used living room, knees drawn up to his chest, pressing a fist against his mouth as he tried not to sob.
Bruce sat beside him without a word, moving a box of tissues into easier reach.
“I’m sorry, I just-” Loki began, and could not continue.
“Don’t apologize. You had to deal with all of that shit completely on your own. We’re not leaving you to do it by yourself anymore.”
Loki covered his face with his hands, still unable to control himself.
“Cry all you need to. You can talk, or not. But I’m here. You shouldn’t have been lied to, you shouldn’t have been taught your species was evil, you shouldn’t have had to be afraid your own brother would murder you, and you shouldn’t have to deal with it all alone. You’re not alone now.”
With that, Bruce firmly placed his hand on Loki’s shoulder and let him cry it out.
When the storm of tears subsided, Bruce resumed talking, quietly, evenly.
“The first few times I changed, I had no idea what had happened. What I had become. There wasn’t a word for what I turned into. It was like those movies where someone blacks out because they’re drugged or something, and when they come to, there’s a dead body beside them and blood on their hands.”
Loki wiped his face, dropped the tissues into the wastebasket. Looked at Bruce. “That must have been terrifying.”
“I am sorry you went through that. At least I knew the name and nature of what I turned into.”
Bruce gave his rueful little smile. “I’m still not sure I’d want to trade.”
Loki drew a breath, his composure seeping back. “The lieutenant colonel does not fear your other form?”
“He’s Tony Stark’s best friend. He doesn’t scare easy.”
Loki managed a chuckle. “I am glad for you.” He hesitated, spread his hands and folded them again. “Thank you for… keeping me company.”
“We monsters gotta stick together.”
The following day, while Volstagg was telling schoolchildren stories with Loki, Jarvis notified Tony that he had a chance to catch Steve alone.
Steve was on the balcony, sketching. At the sound of the door opening for Tony, he quickly closed the sketchbook. Tony grinned a little as he took a seat beside him and just got right to the point.
“It’s okay that you’re in love with Loki.”
Steve’s eyes widened. “You could tell?”
Steve let his head fall into his hands.
“I mean it. It’s okay. We’ve all come to terms with him.” Tony paused to regard Steve seriously. “And he’s just as besotted with you as you are with him. I’d say it’s your duty to lure him back to the side of good with your impeccable abs.”
Steve raised his head, irritated. “Can you be serious, Tony?”
“Who says I’m not?” Tony leaned back in his chair, comfortable. “OK, no more teasing. Not for at least ten minutes. I’ll be your big brother and help you as best as I can. C’mon, don’t be embarrassed.”
Steve was embarrassed. The silence stretched. Eventually Steve mumbled, “How do I even - if I made up my mind about a human, I could ask them to a movie or a baseball game. How the hell do you court a Norse god? Do I have to slay a bilgesnipe for him?”
“Now you’re just looking for excuses.”
“There was never anyone but Bucky.”
Tony’s eyebrows lifted. “Never?”
“Never.” Steve swallowed. “But, you know, we knew each other since we were kids. It was… comfortable, you know?”
Tony didn’t know, but he nodded, trying to look understanding.
“And now I’ve fallen for a guy who’s a thousand years old, and god knows how many men and women he’s had….”
Not to mention the horses, Tony did not say. The ten minutes weren’t up yet.
“And he wants you. Seriously, Cap, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.” Tony considered. “I think he might actually like your comparative lack of experience. I think he might hope to kind of catch some of your innocence, you know? Actually, I think he’s afraid he’ll besmirch you.”
“I want to be besmirched!”
Tony arched an eyebrow. “Then I suggest you besmooch him.”
“You’re not funny, Tony.”
“On the contrary, I am hilarious. But also sincere.”
Steve shrugged, attempting to be dismissive. “Anyway, I don’t think he’s really interested. I’ve given him lots of chances and he still hasn’t kissed me or anything.”
“Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. You’re waiting for him to kiss you ?”
“Of course. He’s the one with all the experience.”
Tony rubbed his forehead theatrically. “Yes. He is the one with the experience of invading this planet . And the experience of being here on the sufferance of people who would be entirely justified in demanding that he be executed or locked up for centuries. You expect him to follow that up by seducing Earth's most iconic hero? How do you think the rest of the team is going to react? I think you guys will be good for each other, but I’m not so sure the others are going to see it that way.”
Steve stared at him. “I never thought of any of that.”
“If you’re going to date an ex-supervillain you’d better start. He’s not going to sweep you off your star spangled boots. I gather you don’t like to make the first move, but I’m also pretty sure he’s never going to.”
The two of them sat in silence for a bit, Steve’s face drawn in thought.
Eventually, Steve said, “Fine. As soon as Volstagg leaves. I’m not doing this with him around, he gets on my nerves too much.” He stood up and headed for the door, steps purposeful, but paused to look back at Tony. “And I’m sorry if the rest of the team disapproves, but this is my business, not theirs.”
“I got your back, Uncle Sam.”
Tony gave it a couple of minutes before returning to his workshop. At least he had a few days to prepare to reconcile his shield-brothers to this new development.