A gentle summer breeze brought the smell of lilacs and salt spray through the cracked window. The sun was a full hand into the sky already. Steve Rogers had been awake for hours but, after the resurgence of HYDRA activity and the latest round with Doctor Doom, it felt too good to just be still.
The intercom in the wall buzzed and Tony Stark’s voice shattered the perfect quiet. “Daylight’s a-wasting, Cap.”
It had been good while it lasted.
Steve pushed himself up and out of bed. Once he was moving, it was easy to fall into the usual routine. He still showered in under two minutes and was fully dressed in under five. He left the guest room wearing khaki shorts and a white t-shirt, flip flops slapping against the tile as he walked. This was Tony’s beach house, one of many, and Tony had a strict dress code.
“Morning, Cap,” Natasha said without looking up from her coffee and the day’s newspaper.
“Are you guys ever going to call me Steve?” he asked mildly as he reached for the coffee pot. “We’re on vacation.”
“Avengers don’t take vacations,” she corrected.
Clint was grinning as he entered the kitchen through the French doors that lead out to the deck; he was already coated with sand and salt from surfing. “No one’s come up with any good nicknames for you yet.”
Steve pulled a mug from the cupboard and filled it with coffee. “Tony calls me plenty of names.”
“The workplace appropriate kind.” Clint winked before he opened the fridge and half disappeared into it as he hunted for either breakfast or lunch, depending on how long he’d been out.
“Well, as long as the world isn’t ending--”
“Cap!” Clint’s head snapped out around the refrigerator door. “You didn’t.”
“He did,” Natasha sighed, shaking her head and making quiet tsk-tsk sounds against her teeth.
“Wait, what?” Steve looked back and forth between them, confused. “What did I do?”
“Jinxed us. Now the world’s gonna end.” Clint disappeared again, reappearing with a stack of plastic bins in his arms. He kicked the doors shut with his heel and unloaded his bounty onto the kitchen counter. “Everyone knows as soon as you say that, boom. Anything goes wrong today, Cap, and it’s your fault.”
Steve couldn’t help but smile. He sipped at the coffee and savored the natural sweetness. The others teased him about not adding sugar and cream, but he still couldn’t believe it was actually coffee. It sure wasn’t the coffee he’d been used to during the War. He followed after Clint, piling a plate high with whatever leftovers were appealing; Tony’s idea of a quiet vacation getaway involved a caterer. He closed up each plastic bin when he was done and put them away, knowing Clint would forget and leave them out. Sure enough, as soon as he’d eaten, Clint was headed back out to the ocean with single-minded determination.
“You enable him,” Natasha said with disapproval.
“I don’t mind.” Steve put the last of the leftovers away, gathered up his coffee and the plate of cold macaroni salad and a thrown together sandwich, and took a seat at the end of the bar. “Where is Tony anyway?”
“Out on his yacht trying to catch something.”
Steve wasn’t the only one who wasn’t particularly interested in sharing Tony’s latest obsession with sport fishing. He was mildly irritated that Tony would wake him up from the yacht, however, rather than be there to do it in person, but that was typical Tony. He ate without hurrying, still a concept he was getting used to, and washed it all down with more coffee. Once he was done, he added the dirty dishes to the dishwasher. It was full, so he added a pack of cleaning detergent and set it going.
He was more than a little proud that he’d learned how to run a dishwasher. It was about the only piece of machinery or electronics in any of Stark’s houses or buildings that he knew how to work.
Pepper came in from the patio; she was wearing a pale blue sundress that reminded Steve of the ocean. “Good morning, Steve. Tony and I thought you might want to do some sightseeing. There’s a full tank of gas in the convertible and I brought home all the maps I could get my hands on.” She was smiling so brightly; Steve could see exactly why Tony loved her. Before he could protest, she was pulling out handfuls of maps and brochures from her woven beach bag. “There’s so much to see and Tony said you’d never been to California before.”
“That’s right, ma’am. Thank you.” He accepted the brochures and maps, spreading them out neatly on the counter. Natasha leaned over, cupping her coffee mug like it was a lifeline, to get a better look at them. He smiled because he knew Tony would have handed him a cell phone with all the maps programmed into it and rolled his eyes when Steve couldn’t get it to work, but Pepper knew he felt more at ease with paper in his hands. Nodding to the colorful spread, he asked Natasha, “Want to tag along?”
“As lovely as the offer is, Cap, I’ve got a date with some sun tan lotion.”
Pepper held out the car keys. “JARVIS is connected to the car, don’t ask me how, that’s Tony’s department. If you get lost, just let him know and he’ll guide you home.”
Steve accepted the keys gratefully and spent nearly an hour pouring over all of the maps and pamphlets. Finally, he grabbed one of the many beach bags lying around and simply dumped them all in. He packed a couple extra sandwiches in a small cooler and took a bag of apples and oranges, along with a six pack of bottled water. The silver convertible was waiting outside and he tried not to shudder at the thought of driving it as he piled his supplies in the passenger seat. He’d only had a driver’s license for a few months and all of Tony’s cars cost more than he could even imagine.
Carefully, focused completely on not damaging the car or even getting the paint dirty, Steve got the convertible turned around and started down the drive. His plan was to just keep going. Looking over the maps was enough that he was pretty sure he wouldn’t get lost, but he didn’t have a goal in mind. Maybe a lighthouse, maybe a museum, maybe he’d stop somewhere and try the barbequed clams that Clint raved about.
He wanted to see where the road could take him.
Within a half hour, he reached Highway One and headed north up the California coast. Other cars passed him, but he only waved and maintained a cautious speed. There was too much to see and every curve in the road seemed to bring more beauty. Long before his stomach started to growl, he was wishing he’d brought his sketchbook and pencils, even though he didn’t think he could do the landscape justice.
He was along a winding stretch of the highway where the coastline alternated between cliffs and secluded beaches when he saw a streak of bright fire against the blue sky. Heart pounding, he watched it arc and dive toward the ocean. The object hit the water; he could see the splash even from his distance. Pressing the accelerator as far down as he dared, he searched for the nearest pullout and parked the car in a patch of gravel.
“JARVIS?” he asked as before he shut off the engine.
“Yes, Captain?” came the familiar voice of the Stark artificial intelligence.
“Do I need to worry about the car getting stolen?”
“It will be perfectly safe, sir.”
That was good enough for Steve. He put the top up, with a little prompting from JARVIS, and made sure the car was locked before he headed to the opposite side of the road. There was a narrow strip of sandy beach at the base of the cliffs near where the meteor had struck. It was a climb; the rocks were slick with sea spray and moss. He was panting when he reached the bottom. His flip flops sank into the wet sand so he stripped them off and continued barefoot.
Hand up to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun off the water, he tried to pinpoint the exact location of impact. A dark shape was floating in the water about fifty yards out. It took him a moment to realize that it was the shape of a man.
He was running before he could think and diving into the clear, cold water; he forced himself not think about the last time he ended up in the water. His strokes were steady, even, eating up the distance between him and the man. Bits of cloth came apart in his hands as he reached for the man – he thought it was a man – and disintegrated in his fingers. Clutching half blindly, he finally got his arm around the man’s shoulders and rolled him onto his back to start back toward the shore. As soon as his feet touched solid ground, he was scrambling and dragging the man up onto the sand.
More cloth fell away in wet ashes and he could see ugly burns and wounds over the man’s arms and chest. He stripped the fabric away and pressed his ear to the damaged skin. There was a faint heartbeat but his chest didn’t rise and fall. With grim determination, Steve moved into position and began artificial respiration. As he breathed into the man’s mouth, his mind finally began to ask questions.
What happened? Was the man struck by whatever fell? Maybe a shockwave from the impact knocked him into the water. He couldn’t have been in the water long if his heart was still beating.
He heard a sound in the man’s throat and pulled back an instant before water came streaming out of his mouth. Easing the man onto his side, Steve grimaced as he saw more burns and long, ugly gashes cut through skin and what was left of the fabric on the man’s back. For several minutes, the man gasped and coughed and choked on water.
“Easy, easy,” Steve said gently. “You’re in bad shape. I’m going to go for help.”
As he moved to stand, a hand clamped down around his arm with surprising strength. With a groan of pain, the man fell back onto the sand, eyes open for the first time; bright, green eyes that shone with cold, burning anger and something that looked like fear. The muscles in his throat worked beneath damaged skin but no words left his lips.
Steve froze. Even with the angry, red burns covering most of the man’s face, he knew those eyes; knew them from nightmares and news footage and a dozen SHIELD briefings.
He searched for any sign of attack, of magic, of anything he knew came along whenever Thor’s brother was involved. Instead, Loki’s head fell back into the sand. Chunks of his hair had been burned away almost to the scalp. His eyes closed and his grip on Steve’s arm lessened; all of Loki’s strength seeming to evaporate. Only the rise and fall of his chest gave any indication that he was still alive. Exactly how he was alive, or on Earth, was a question that Steve couldn’t answer. He took in the burns, the leather that was all but ashes, and the twisted, melted bits of metal still wrapped around Loki’s body. It was impossible, but he couldn’t think of another explanation.
Loki was the meteorite.
That didn’t explain the criss-crossing wounds on his back, each perfectly straight and even; those hadn’t been made by the fall. Steve rocked back on his heels, watching Loki breathe and frowning as he tried to piece together a puzzle without knowing the final picture.
“What happened to you?” he whispered, not expecting an answer.
A mortal man wouldn’t have survived a fall through the Earth’s atmosphere and he was even a little surprised that an Asgardian had, but there was a lot that SHIELD didn’t know about Asgard and its population. He looked up at the cliffs, trying to decide if there was any way he could get Loki back up to the road and into the car without injuring him any further. With no easy way to carry Loki with him, it didn’t seem likely. He was reluctant to leave; how could he be sure Loki would even be there when he got back? He gently pulled Loki’s fingers from his arm, they were just as burned and blood red as the rest of him, and went in search of another way back up.
The nearest gap in the cliffs was nearly a half mile down the rocky shore and it was still a climb. Steve made it anyway and jogged back down the road to the car. He stopped to cautiously peer over the edge of the cliff. Loki was still lying on the beach below; the waves seemed to be coming closer than he remembered. Frowning, he hurried to the car and turned the key in the ignition to get JARVIS back.
“JARVIS?” he asked as he fumbled with the cooler and the bottles of water. The beach bag would be easier to carry, so he filled it as full as he could. “Can you tell the others to come to this location?”
“Of course, sir.” A beat. “Are you injured? Is there an emergency?”
“Just tell them,” he paused, unsure that his message wouldn’t sound completely crazy. “Tell them I pulled someone out of the ocean. They’re injured and need help. I have to get back down there, the tide’s coming in and they can’t walk on their own.”
“I will notify Mr. Stark immediately.”
“Thanks.” He made sure the car was locked and secured before he headed back toward the gap in the cliffs, bag in hand.
He focused on the immediate course of action. He had to get Loki off of the beach and away from the incoming tide. There was already more water around his feet than there had been when he was going the other way and soon the tiny beach would be submerged. He scanned for higher ground as he went, looking for signs of rock that hadn’t been touched by water; he needed an escape route that was doable with the weight of a man on his back. Water swirled and tugged at his ankles by the time he reached the narrow beach and it had already risen to Loki’s knees.
He thought the burns on Loki’s skin might look less terrible than he’d originally thought.
“Right,” he said more to remind himself that he was here for a purpose than anything else. He didn’t want to be the one explaining that he let Loki drown the next time Thor came to visit. If he were a betting man, he’d guess that a visit from Thor wasn’t too far off, since Loki was supposed to be imprisoned on Asgard instead of lying on a beach in California.
After a quick search, muttering apologies to the unconscious man, he found a couple lengths of leather that seem sturdy enough and peeled them away from Loki’s body as gently as he could. He stripped off his shirt to make up the difference and had enough material to fashion a poor man’s sling. He’d need his hands to scale the rock to the north since the way south was already filled with water. Leather and fabric looped around Loki’s shoulders, then his own. It was awkward and slow; he heard breath hiss between Loki’s teeth in an unmistakable sound of pain and muttered an apology. When Loki’s weight was settled on his back, he tied the leather straps together across his chest with his t-shirt and eased into a standing position. Loki was taller by a of couple inches and his feet dragged through the sand behind them.
Steve started up the rock face, gripping against jagged rock, clusters of barnacles, and small shelled creatures that he couldn’t name. Masses of dead seaweed were slick and he had to stop to dislodge them before he could continue. He reached the top of the first cliff and moved horizontally, aiming for a patch of grassy bluff that looked like a way up. At least, it’d be away from the water.
When he reached it, it was nothing more than a gap in the cliffs with sheer rock all around. He had two choices, climb down and try further north or stop and wait.
He decided to wait. The others would be here soon enough and the tide couldn’t reach them here.
It took more doing to detangle himself and Loki from the sling. He eased Loki down onto the relatively dry grass. He sat down beside him, leaning his back against the cliff and gazing out at the ocean sparkling below. He dug one of the sandwiches out of the bag. When he first heard it, the sound was so quiet that he almost didn’t believe his ears.
He swallowed quickly, hastily shoving the rest of the sandwich back in to the wrapping. Loki’s eyes were still closed and he wasn’t moving. Steve undid the cap on one of the water bottles and moved to Loki’s side, suddenly awkward. Finally, he slid a hand behind Loki’s head and pulled him up as far as he dared. When he was sure that he wasn’t simply going to drown Loki himself, he tipped the bottle and poured water, a swallow at a time, into Loki’s mouth. He could see the motion in Loki’s throat as he drank, but his eyes stayed closed.
When the bottle was empty, he set it aside and placed Loki’s head back against the grass. He almost told Loki that it would be okay, that the others would be here soon. Then he remembered it was Loki. There was silence, broken only by the cry of the seagulls above them, for a long time. At least it felt like a long time to Steve as he sat there, watching Loki breathe.
“How did you get here?” he asked, but he didn’t expect an answer. Loki’s being here meant he’d managed to escape Asgard, escape Thor, escape Odin, and travel vast distances across space.
Again, Loki’s voice was whisper soft and he couldn’t quite be sure he heard it at all. “Soldier.”
“At least you remember me,” Steve said with a half-hearted smile. He dug back into the bag for the second sandwich. “Can you eat? I’ve got a sandwich and some fruit. Nothing to cut the apples with though. Maybe an orange.” There was no answer so he settled for an orange. He peeled away the rind and broke it into sections, then broke each section into smaller pieces. Gently, half expecting Loki to try to bite him, he fed each small piece of orange to him and made sure he didn’t choke on it.
He heard the sound of cars far above them, but none of them stopped nearby. When the sun began to start toward the horizon, he decided that he must’ve gone too far from the car for the others to find. And since he hadn’t told JARVIS it was Loki he’d pulled from the ocean, there was no reason for Stark to bring the suit. He’d have to climb up and get back to the road, but he wasn’t going to be making that trip with Loki on his back.
“Look, I have to go get help. You need medical attention.” He emptied the food and water from the bag and placed it near enough for Loki to reach. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The cliff face was rough and treacherous, but he managed his way up foot by foot. When he reached the top, barefoot and shirtless, he realized that he was more than a mile from the car. In the far distance, he could see at least one more car near the convertible and it looked like there was an ambulance. He started into an easy jog that closed the distance between him and the others in a matter of minutes.
Tony was the first to see him. He dropped his sunglasses down his nose as Steve neared. “And there’s our good Samaritan.”
“Tony, thanks.” He slowed and held his hands up. “No need for the ambulance, sorry. Everything’s under control.”
“Steve,” Tony started, a mixture of annoyance and amusement in his voice. “You tell JARVIS you just pulled someone out of the ocean and you don’t think they need an ambulance?”
“They’re not from around here,” Steve said, smiling apologetically as the EMTs stared at him.
“Did someone wash up in a bottle or something?”
“Something. Normally when these guys show up, there’s a storm. You know, lightning, thunder.” Steve didn’t know how else he was supposed tell Tony what was going on. He could see the distant shapes of Natasha and Clint further down the road. “Look, I’m really sorry you guys came all the way out here for nothing.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Tony interrupted; he was still looking at Steve, suspicious and wary. “Just send me the bill. Thanks.” He was all smiles and small talk as the EMTs packed up and got back into the ambulance. Then he rounded on Steve, his expression serious. “Asgard? Or someone new?”
Of course, Loki was gone by the time Steve and Tony got back to the where Steve had left him. He climbed down to collect the beach bag left behind and noted that the food and water were missing. There was an indentation in the grass where Loki had been, but no sign of the Asgardian. Frustrated and feeling foolish, he climbed back up and waited for the inevitable lecture from Tony to begin. Instead, he found Tony with a cell phone against his ear.
“No sign of him,” Steve panted.
“He can’t have gone far, injured like that.” Tony peered out over the edge. “But SHIELD doesn’t think he’ll stay injured for long. Asgardians are hard to kill.”
“I should’ve told JARVIS who it was.”
“No, you were right. That wasn’t an encrypted channel.” He straightened up and the tension in his shoulders eased a little. “Didn’t think the convertible needed one. Just goes to show.”
“SHIELD is sending a team. If he’s anywhere on the California coast, they’ll find him.” He turned to scan the coastline. “Natasha and Clint are never going to let you live this one down.”
“You jinxed us, Cap.”