In early September, Steve woke up and Loki was gone.
That on its own wasn’t so strange. Loki took off sometimes for hours at a time, more often than not without warning or explanation. What was strange was the fact that he didn’t come back by mid-afternoon, or sunset. Or the next morning.
Steve started to worry on the third day he didn’t show up.
He’s probably fine, Steve told himself. He can take care of himself. It’s not like he’s helpless.
But he wasn’t exactly well, either.
Are you really worrying about Loki? Are you actually going to do that?
“So,” Sam said on their daily phone call. “How’s the houseguest?”
Steve opened his mouth to deny it, then sighed. “Who told you?”
“Not you,” Sam said. He didn’t sound delighted. “Thor. Couldn’t keep a secret anymore. And I guess assumed we already knew. So?”
“Not here, actually,” Steve said. “He does that sometimes. Just...goes off on his own for a little while.”
“You don’t worry about what he might be up to?” Sam asked.
“No,” Steve said. “Not really. He’s not exactly...like he used to be.”
“Huh.” Sam exhaled audibly. “You thinking about when you’re going to be coming back home?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said. “You guys seem to be doing fine without me for now.”
“You’re still missed,” Sam said. “It’s not just about need, you know.”
“I know.” Steve paused. “Sam...thanks. For understanding.”
“Which part,” Sam said. “The part where you need some woods alone time? Because that, I get - the part where you’ve taken in an unbalanced alien a little less so.”
“That’s fair,” Steve said with a sigh. “But just...thanks.”
He turned around after hanging up the phone, expecting Loki to be there, having listened to the whole conversation. The cabin was still empty, though, and the next morning marked the fourth day of Loki’s absence.
“Hey,” Steve said, dreading telling him that Loki had been absent and he had no idea where he’d gone, but Thor just said, “Loki’s here.”
“Oh,” Steve said after a moment. “That’s...good?”
“He’s sleeping,” Thor said. He sounded concerned. “He seems...exhausted. Did you know…?”
“No,” Steve said. “He vanished from here a few days ago. I didn’t know where he’d gone.” He took a deep breath. “I’m glad, Thor. That he went back to you.” Though there was the oddest disappointed pang in his chest. He’d almost gotten used to not being entirely alone, with someone else who expected nothing from him.
“I don’t think he is here to stay,” Thor said. “He is...there is still a restlessness in him. And he still tries to hide it from me.”
How painful that could be, Steve thought. To look at someone you loved and know that they were holding you at a distance.
He felt a sudden twinge of guilt. “But it’s good, isn’t it?” He said. “That he actually...came to see you?”
“I hope so,” Thor said, quietly, and then paused. “And you, Steve? How do you fare?”
“I’m good,” Steve lied without thinking. But it wasn’t always a lie. There were days. “Enjoying the quiet, for now.”
“I did not know that Loki’s staying with you was a secret,” Thor said, sounding a bit rueful. “I had assumed that everyone knew. I am sorry for sharing the word.”
“It’s all right,” Steve said. “I probably should have told them by now.” Though he was dreading the string of phone calls. Bucky, Natasha, Clint. Tony especially would have something - probably a lot of things - to say about it.
“I’m grateful,” Thor said. “That you looked after him.”
Steve made a little ha sound before he could hold it back. “Hardly,” he said. “I didn’t do much of anything. We mostly just shared a space.”
“He speaks highly of you,” Thor said. “And Loki speaks highly of few people.” He paused. “He asked that I tell you that he was here.”
Steve blinked. “Oh,” he said. “That’s...hm.” He supposed that shouldn’t surprise him. He did try. And for his part, Loki seemed to try, too. Not always well, but more often than not he was there when Steve woke up from nightmares of ashes and grief.
He dreamed less often now. At least, of that. There were always other nightmares.
“I should go,” Thor said, after another pause. “We will speak later?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Sure.”
He hung up feeling strange. He looked around the cottage, which felt strangely empty. Loki’s favored yogurt sat untouched in the fridge, a few days from its expiration date; he wondered if he should throw it out.
He’d been right about the string of phone calls. Clint told him he was nuts. Natasha also told him he was nuts, in slightly different words. Bucky told him that if this was what happened when Steve took off on his own then he was going to haul ass to New Hampshire and set up next door.
Steve talked them all down, mostly. “Besides,” he said. “He’s not here now. I don’t know that he’ll even be coming back. I’m fine. Really.”
“So where is he?” Clint asked, sounding just on the border of hysterical.
“With Thor,” Steve said, and felt again that vague sense of abandonment that he brushed hurriedly aside. “At least, last I checked.”
“Fuck,” Clint said. “I thought he was gone. For good, this time.”
“Guess he’s just a survivor,” Steve said. He wondered if Loki resented that, like Steve had sometimes.
“Thor must be happy, at least,” Clint said after a moment. “There’s that. God knows he deserves a little happiness.”
Steve went for a walk out to the jetty and sat down to watch the waves crash against the rocks. He started when he saw a seal’s sleek head above the water, looking at him from dark and shining eyes.
“Loki?” Steve said, and almost immediately felt like an idiot. The seal vanished back underwater and didn’t resurface.
Loki came back as suddenly as he’d left.
Steve woke up in the morning and Loki was there in the kitchen making eggs as though he’d never been gone. Steve stood there and blinked at his back.
“Is fried acceptable?” Loki said. Steve shook himself.
“Um - sure,” he said. “You’re...back.”
“Indeed,” Loki said. His shoulders tensed and Steve saw him push them back down.
“You left very suddenly,” Steve said. Loki made a faint noise at the back of his throat, glancing sidelong at Steve.
“I know,” he said. “I ask your pardon. It was…” He was quiet for long enough that Steve was about to prompt him to continue, but then said, “not a considered decision.”
“That’s fine,” Steve said slowly. “You were just longer than usual. I was...until Thor called, I was worried.”
Loki twitched and Steve wondered if he’d made a mistake in bringing up Thor, but Loki neither lashed out nor fled. He put the egg he was making on a plate and turned, holding it out to Steve. Something about the look on his face made Steve think it was something of an apology.
“Thanks,” he said after a beat. Loki dipped his chin a fraction and turned back to the stove.
“I went up to the mountains,” he said as he cracked another egg into the skillet. “It was quiet there. In the end, too quiet.”
Steve shifted slightly. “So you went to see Thor.”
“I did,” Loki said after another pause. “I thought to perhaps...reassure him. I do not think I was successful.” He snorted. “I am still too little what he wants me to be.” There was no bitterness there. Just a sort of resigned exhaustion.
“I’m sure he was still glad to see you,” Steve said quietly.
Loki was still, unmoving as a statue. “Are you?”
Steve could tell a test when he heard it, and was tempted to call Loki on it. After a moment he decided it wasn’t worth it and sighed. “Yes,” he said. “I am. Like I said, I was worried. I thought you might be...in trouble.” He paused, and then added, “and it was a little too quiet around here, too.”
“In trouble or making trouble?” Loki said, still facing the stove so Steve couldn’t see the look on his face, though he flipped the egg over.
Steve pressed his lips together. “In trouble,” he said tightly. “Given that you’ve been living with me for three months and haven’t done anything nefarious, I’m not so worried about the other one anymore. I’d appreciate it if you gave me a little more credit than that.”
Loki fell still and then sighed, his shoulders slipping down. “That is...fair,” he said. “Though it would also be fair for you to give me less.” He turned off the stove. Steve walked over and sat down at the small table, starting in on his eggs, and after a few moments Loki joined him. They ate in silence for a while before Loki set his fork down.
“It is good to be back here,” he said, looking at a point over Steve’s shoulder, the slightly distant tone in his voice that Steve recognized as his admitting something he didn’t really want to. “I missed it.”
“So why’d you leave?” Steve asked.
Loki’s throat bobbed. “I don’t know,” he said after three breaths. Steve waited, and Loki went on. “I woke up and it felt like I was...suffocating. I had to...get out. And then I couldn’t stop.” He let out a huff, not quite a laugh. “I tried to lose myself. It didn’t work.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Steve said.
“Not if you’d asked me then.” Loki moved one of his shoulders, stretching, and Steve heard a pop that sounded painful, but Loki didn’t wince.
Why didn’t you come to me, was Steve’s first thought, but that was his mistake. Expecting that just because they sought each other out sometimes, when the nightmares came, it would, or should, always be so. Still, he was somehow disappointed.
“Well,” he said, when Loki didn’t say any more. “Like I said. Glad you’re back, and safe.”
He thought he saw the faintest tilt of a smile at one corner of Loki’s mouth, but a moment later it was gone.
They settled back into the rhythm of things with surprising ease, almost like Loki had never left. Steve supposed it shouldn’t be that surprising - in the scheme of things, Loki hadn’t been gone that long.
Loki was still sleeping - or not sleeping - on the couch. Steve had traded it for a fold-out futon, but most of the time Loki didn’t bother folding it out. Steve wondered if that would make it feel too permanent.
The first night Loki was back Steve dreamed of blood and ash and ice. “Steve,” Loki said, voice breaking into his dreams, and he woke with a jerk. Loki was hovering in the doorway like he didn’t dare cross.
“Thanks,” Steve croaked, grimaced, and reached for a glass of water. It was empty.
“Let me,” Loki said abruptly, and paced over to pluck the glass from Steve’s hand, retreating back out of his room. Steve heard the water running and sat up, rubbing his eyes.
“Here,” Loki said, holding out the now full glass. Steve took it with a murmured thanks and drank half in a few swallows. His head felt muddled, half of him still in the nightmare, and Loki was hovering a few steps away.
“What do you want,” Steve said. It came out sharper than he meant it to, and Loki took a step back, something flashing across his face before it closed off.
“Nothing,” he said. “I heard you. That was all.” He turned on his heel and exited. Steve pressed his hands into his eyes and drank the rest of his water before stumbling to his feet and out to the living room, but Loki wasn’t there. The front door was unlocked.
Steve rubbed his forehead and went back to bed, but he didn’t go back to sleep.
Loki wasn’t back in the morning. Steve went for a run through the estuary at sunrise, standing on the beach for a little while to watch the sky change colors before heading back. He stopped in front of the steps up to the front door, his eye catching on the magpie perched on the branch of a nearby red oak.
“I know that’s you,” Steve said. The magpie ruffled its wings and turned its head to preen its feathers. Steve tapped his fingers against his leg. “I’m making pancakes,” he said. “If you want any.”
The magpie spread its wings and flew into the woods, disappearing among the branches. Steve went aside, surprised by the strength of his own disappointment. At least until Loki walked in about ten minutes later, though his face was closed off and unreadable.
“You mentioned pancakes,” he said coolly.
“Have you sufficient to share?”
“I might.” Steve set down his spatula. “Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”
“Nothing,” Loki said.
“Then I don’t have enough pancakes,” Steve said evenly. He could see Loki’s eyes narrow out of his peripheral vision, and heard him huff.
“If you don’t want me here anymore,” he said, “you should just say so.”
“I’m not–” Steve shook his head. “What gave you that idea? Just because I was a little short with you?” Loki said nothing, but he pressed his lips together. “Don’t be an idiot,” he said. “If I wanted you gone, I would say so.”
Loki eyed him, expression skeptical. Steve flipped over the pancakes in the skillet. “If you’re looking for an excuse to go,” he said, “don’t try to use me to do it.”
“That isn’t it.” He sounded reluctant to speak.
“What is this?” Loki asked, after what seemed like a struggle. “This...thing. Here.”
It wasn’t a bad question. Steve wasn’t sure. Probably the strangest living arrangement he’d ever had, but beyond that… “You aren’t a bad roommate,” he said, which he knew wasn’t Loki’s question.
“Beyond that.” Steve turned to look at him more directly.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just sort of...taking things as they come.”
Loki considered that, and then nodded. “I see,” he said, and seemed to relax, somewhat. He paused, and then said, “so. Pancakes?”
Steve pointed at the table. “Sit down,” he said. “And the dishes are yours.”
In answer, he thought he caught the barest flicker of a smile.
“Let’s go north,” Loki said abruptly one morning as he was making omelettes. As usual, he hadn’t offered; just started doing it, and largely ignored Steve’s offers of help. Steve wasn’t sure if that was about pride, control, or just Loki thinking that was how to be helpful.
Steve eyed his back. “North,” he said. “Where up north?”
“The mountains,” Loki said. “They are beautiful. And the leaves will be starting to change.”
“The mountains,” Steve echoed. “I thought you were up there before, and…”
“I was alone,” Loki said. “It is different.” His shoulders tensed up when he said it, like he thought Steve was going to say something sharp. He chewed the inside of his cheek.
“All right,” he said. “I guess there’s no reason we couldn’t.”
“But would you want to?” Loki asked.
“I haven’t been,” Steve said. “And if you say it’s beautiful…well, I guess I’d better see it.”
Steve couldn’t see Loki’s face, but he thought he was pleased by that answer.
They started the trip up early. Steve packed some sandwiches for lunch, along with crackers and apples, and watched Loki walk around the car, eyeing it skeptically. “And this works?” He said, sounding profoundly dubious.
“Mostly,” Steve said. Loki shot him a look of alarm that was almost comical, and Steve had to laugh. “You’ve been in a car before, right?” He realized belatedly that, if Loki had, it would have been during his invasion, and felt briefly cold. He tried to brush it off.
“Yes,” Loki said, voice dry. “I don’t have fond memories of the experience.”
“How did you think we were going to get up there?” Steve asked, genuinely curious. Loki blinked at him.
“Magic,” he said. Steve supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised by that.
“I suppose it’d be faster,” he said slowly. “But driving is part of the experience.”
Loki sighed heavily. “If we must,” he said, dramatically long-suffering, and Steve tried to repress his smile.
Once they were on the road, though, Loki almost pressed his face to the window watching the road and the trees roll by. Steve put on an Ella Fitzgerald album and caught himself periodically humming along. “Are we going somewhere in particular?” He asked as the landscape began to change from birch and aspen to fir and pine.
“Yes,” Loki said. Steve glanced at him, eyebrows raised.
“I’ll tell you when we get there,” Loki said. Steve eyed him, wondering if he should press for more, and decided to refrain.
They drove for almost three hours, mostly in silence except for the music. After an hour and a half Steve swapped to Sinatra. “I preferred the other one,” Loki commented.
“Duly noted,” Steve said.
Steve didn’t know how Loki knew where to turn off onto a narrower road, and then a still narrower one. The trailhead he brought them to was barely visible - old, he thought, and not very well maintained.
“You’re sure this is the right place?” He asked.
“Trust me,” Loki said, flashing an ironic smile. Steve shook his head, but followed.
The hike out wasn’t short, or easy. It started going uphill almost immediately, and kept climbing; it was nothing Steve couldn’t handle, and seemed to be easy for Loki, but it was still a hike, and it’d been a while since Steve had tramped around in any woods. “How far are we going?” He called ahead.
“I don’t know your measurements,” Loki said. Steve sighed and kept going.
He heard the falling water before he saw it, and when he finally did it took his breath away. He stopped, admiring the white water cascading in steps, all the way down to the green-blue pool what looked like maybe 50 feet below. He stood there watching, listening to the thunder of the water.
“Wow,” he said. “How did you find this?”
“Don’t stop here,” Loki said. “Keep going to the top.”
“Give me just a minute,” Steve said. Loki shook his head and continued upwards. After just standing for a few moments longer, Steve turned and kept climbing.
He met Loki at the top, and stood looking at the water flowing over the rim. Loki’s eyes were closed.
“Did you come out here?” Steve asked. “When you were gone?”
“Yes,” Loki said. “But be quiet. Listen.”
Steve closed his eyes too, and listened. To the roar of the waterfall. He didn’t hear anything else, at first - but then the gurgle of the river itself, eddying and lapping against the shore. A bird, and then two, and then he could pick out some different calls - different birds, maybe? He didn’t know what kinds. The rustle of wind through leaves.
The sound of his own breathing.
He opened his eyes when he heard Loki sigh, and turned to look at him. He glanced at Steve and half smiled, though there was something odd to the expression, a little melancholy.
Then he stepped forward into the water, wading out into the river.
“Loki,” Steve said, jerking forward, alarmed.
“Steve,” Loki said, clearly imitating him, but he didn’t look back. The water swirled around his legs, knee deep. He looked over his shoulder, raised his eyebrows, and turned toward the ledge.
“What are you doing,” Steve asked.
“Do you ever dream of falling?” Loki asked. Steve’s heart was beating too quickly and he took a step forward, but knowing how cold it would be stopped him. He might not get cold as easily as most people, but the thought still gave him chills. And the current...he didn’t know how it wasn’t pulling Loki away. Magic?
“I,” Steve said, or started to say.
“I do,” Loki said. “All the time. Sometimes it seems better to jump, first.”
He turned, gracefully, and dove over the edge.
Steve shouted, lurching forward like he could catch him, but of course it was too late. His head spinning, he turned around and raced back down the trail, imagining Loki’s shattered body at the base of the falls, dead for good this time, God, what would he say to Thor - was this why he’d brought Steve out here? As a witness?
He plunged through the trees, skidding down the steep incline, jumping over roots and rocks until he ended up at the bottom of the waterfall, standing next to the edge of the pool he’d been admiring. He couldn’t see Loki’s body. Had he been washed downstream? Or was the pounding of the waterfall itself holding him under? He should have seen–
He saw a flash of silver in the water and his breath snagged. A flick of a slender tail, and a moment later a head emerging from the water. He could see the gills moving before the fish vanished again.
A moment later Loki surfaced, pushing his hair back out of his face. Steve went limp, anger and relief tangling together in his chest. “Dammit,” he said. “You scared me. I thought…”
Loki heaved himself out of the water, soaking wet, and rolled to his back. “It was a risk,” he said serenely. “The timing needed to be perfect.”
Steve pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t - do that again.”
Loki turned his head fractionally to look at Steve. He looked thoughtful, for a moment, and then nodded. “If you ask it,” he said, and a curious feeling twisted in Steve’s stomach. He sat down, the adrenaline rush leaving him shaky.
Loki sat up and began stripping out of his wet clothes, laying them out on the rocks. Steve looked quickly away, warmth rising to his face. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen Loki naked before - he’d arrived at Steve’s house that stormy night without a stitch on him. Even so.
“Aren’t you cold?” He asked.
“No,” Loki said. “I don’t get cold.” He stretched out on his back, folding his hands behind his head.
Steve bit the inside of his cheek. “You asked if I dream about falling,” he said. “I do, sometimes. But I think it’s better to hang on.”
“Perhaps,” Loki said after a long silence. “But sometimes you don’t have that choice.”
Steve thought about a plane, going down. I gotta put her in the water. “I guess not.”
They both fell quiet. Steve leaned back on his hands and looked up toward the top of the waterfall, the stream of water cascading down, gradually diffusing into mist.
“Thor wants me to come back,” Loki said, speaking to the sky. Steve glanced at him sidelong.
“Of course he does,” he said.
“I don’t think he understands,” Loki said. “Sometimes there is no going back.”
Steve wanted to tell Loki that wasn’t true, that he should be with Thor, that his brother no doubt needed him. But he hesitated. Wasn’t that what he’d felt? Why he’d come out here to begin with, at least in part? He’d been lucky, to get back what he had. But...that doesn’t mean they weren’t lost.
He couldn’t go back to what he’d been. And he didn’t really want to try.
“So what are you going to do?” He asked, finally, and maybe the question was as much for him as it was for Loki.
“Right now,” Loki said, “This.”
Steve supposed that was as good an answer as any. “How cold is the water?” He asked.
“Cold,” Loki said.
Steve eyed it. The spray from the waterfall had already left his shirt damp.
He stripped down to his underwear and waded in.