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The Thrall Prince: Hidden in Mist

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Tony:

“No. No, please, no.”

Tony hovered in the doorway, uncertain if he should leave Cap and Loki alone or not. On the one hand, he had never, in all the months the alien had been in residence at the tower, seen Loki so agitated. No, even that was an understatement. Loki was having a full-on panic attack, and Tony could tell he was quickly using up whatever leeway he’d built up on the magical binding that put him completely in the power of Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America.

But on the other hand was the aforementioned Steve Rogers, standing in the Tower’s living room, resplendent in star-spangled glory, and a few short minutes from departure to SHIELD HQ, where he was being called back to active duty for an indeterminate amount of time.

And they had discussed it, all of them, at length. Taking Loki to D.C. was completely out of the question. Even if they had put him in residence in Steve’s apartment there, and even if the charts that directed his behavior now worked perfectly, odds were good that having Loki in such close proximity would have been too great a temptation for Fury to resist. There was also the possibility that Steve could be sent on foreign missions that left Loki unsupervised for days or weeks at a time. Loki would be out of his element and off his routine, and that never went smoothly.

And, well, most importantly, Loki was apparently in the family way. So, yeah, out of the question.

But even though they had explained it carefully, had even gotten the demigod to admit that there was no way to ensure his freedom and safety in D.C., Loki had resisted, begged even. He wanted Steve and Steve alone, and no calm logic could change that.

Tony saw the moment when Loki lost even the tiny bit of autonomy he could achieve through his obedience, when he fell, like a broken marionette, to crouch silent and still at Steve’s feet.

And the pain and guilt on Steve’s face was just as terrible. It was contorted in anguish even as he knelt beside his lover and tried to comfort him.

And they could hear the transport that would take Steve away approaching the Tower. Within seconds it would descend to the landing pad just outside the window, and this whole fucked-up little scene would be one more knife SHIELD could hold to all their throats.

Tony entered the room. “Steve, you have to go,” he said. “I know, I’ll look after him. He’ll be safe here, you have my word. Now get out to the landing area before you create an international incident. Again.”

Stiffly, painfully, Steve climbed to his feet. “Tony, I…”

“No time,” Tony said. “Text or call me later. You’ve got to go.”

With a last look at Loki, Steve nodded, then took hold of the gold cuff on his wrist. “Tony Stark, I hereby transfer custody of Loki to you,” he said, and Tony hoped that would be enough to work, or all of them were screwed. With a smooth movement the cuff slid over Steve’s hand and he passed it to Tony, who slid it on. He felt the metal vibrate and contract until it fit snug against his wrist.

Outside, the Quinjet dropped into view, and Steve wordlessly walked towards the exit.

“Loki, get up,” Tony said, trying to put as much sympathy and kindness as possible into the direct order, but knowing he was probably failing. Beside him, Loki got to his feet.

“I know this is killing you,” Tony said quietly, “and we both know it’s killing Steve, too. But there are appearances to keep up if you both want to walk away from this. So stand next to me, look sad but proud, give a small brave smile through your tears, and wave for the nice agents.”

And Tony had to hand it to the god of lies: Meryl Streep couldn’t have done better.

+++

After Steve was gone, Tony felt at a complete loss. It seemed wrong to simply send Loki back to his usual daily chores, not when the demigod was the perfect picture of misery, but Tony also knew the binding collar didn’t give a fuck, and if Loki wasn’t assigned work, the little scraps of freedom he was allowed would dwindle to nothing. So he set Loki’s duties in the morning, put him on auto-pilot like the world’s saddest wind-up doll and spent most of the day in his workshop. And he wasn’t hiding, damn it.

Within a few days it became clear that actual calls from Steve would be few and far between, either because of security or just because there wasn’t a convenient block of time, so Steve took to recording short videos instead and sending them. Tony got Loki his own Starkphone so he could play the little clips over and over, Steve reassuring Loki and telling him how much Steve missed him. And it seemed to help. If Loki got too distressed, he could just take out his mobile and listen to Steve’s voice and touch the screen. It was a little weird, but if it worked, who was Tony to judge.

And there was the other strangeness, of course: Loki’s pregnancy.

When they’d been informed by Jarvis of Loki’s “condition” a few months prior, Tony’s first impulse had been to give Cap a stern lecture about responsibility and improvements in birth control technology in the last 70 years, but he’d insisted he had been careful.

It was only when they’d called in Doctor Kinross for a consultation and she’d informed them that sperm could remain viable in the uterus for up to 5 days that Steve had realized that when he’d ordered Loki to heal himself the fertility window had still been open from the night before. And even a full-grown genius could learn something new.

Of course, the blessed event had to be kept completely secret. If they’d been worried about SHIELD’s interest in Loki’s presence before, the imminent arrival of an Asgardian/Super Soldier hybrid was an even greater threat. Luckily, Loki hadn’t started to show yet, so they had some time to come up with a plan. So far, Tony had been checking up on some of his properties that were owned by his various shell companies, hopefully untraceable, or at least obscure enough to slow SHIELD down, where Steve and his baby mama could hole up until the kid was old enough to turn any pursuers into stink bugs.

But frankly, it freaked Tony out. His opposition to magic was well-known, of course, but he wasn’t overly thrilled with aliens, government intrigue, or pregnancy, either, so it was kind of a perfect storm of anxiety, if he was being honest. So, naturally, things went off the fucking rails.

First, they got word that Fury had been assassinated. Then Steve had dropped out of sight with only a five-second video to Loki telling him not to worry and that he’d be home as soon as he could. Not surprisingly, it had not been much of a comfort, but Loki still played it over and over.

Tony wasn’t reassured, either, and took to analyzing Loki’s little movie collection for any clues at all where Steve had been and what had happened, but to no avail. His apartment looked nice, though.

Tony got a call from Bruce late one afternoon. The first thing Bruce asked was, “is Loki nearby?”

“No, he’s working,” Tony said. “What’s going on?”

“Turn on the news.”

Tony brought up a news feed on his monitor, and the aerial footage of some sort of burning wreckage filled the screen. “Wait a minute,” Tony said, “is that..?”

“It’s the helicarriers,” Bruce said.

“It crashed?” Tony was shocked. “Which one?”

“All of them.”

“What? How?”

“There’s no official word, yet,” Bruce said, “but I’m hearing it was Steve and Natasha.”

Tony sat down heavily. “Who are you hearing that from?”

“We’re getting off-topic,” Bruce said. “Listen, Tony, the point is, you were right to be paranoid about SHIELD…”

“I prefer to call it healthy skepticism,” Tony corrected.

“Focus!” Bruce said sharply. “They’ve been compromised. It’s Hydra, and it goes all the way to the top.”

“Shit,” Tony said. “Nazi Hydra? Are you serious?”

“It’ll come out in the next few days,” Bruce said. “But I wanted to give you a head’s-up. This is going to affect all of us.”

“Where’s Cap now?” Tony asked, dread like a block of ice in his gut.

“Still missing,” Bruce said. “But have faith. No news is good news, right?”

“Thanks, Bruce. Let me know if you hear more.”

And then the call they’d all been dreading, from some guy named Sam Wilson, that Steve had just regained consciousness in Bethesda Naval Hospital and needed Tony to bring Loki and come as quickly as possible.

+++

For a few crazy seconds Tony considered getting into the Iron Man suit, scooping Loki up like a bride on her wedding night, and flying to D.C., but luckily the calmer part of his mind prevailed. That calmer part of his mind was also pretty sure that informing Loki of any of this ahead of time was a very bad idea, so he found Loki where he was vacuuming Steve’s rooms and channeled his inner Captain America.

“Okay, attention,” Tony said sternly, and Loki shot him a startled look. “Turn that off, grab a change of clothes, and meet me in the garage. We’re going on a road trip.”

Loki switched off the vacuum and looked around confusedly.

“You okay, there,” Tony said, hoping Loki wasn’t short-circuiting from the sudden change in plans.

“I… I… yes,” Loki said, then he walked quickly from the room.

Great, thought Tony, then went to get a change of clothes for himself.

When he got to the garage, Loki was waiting on his knees just inside the door, a stack of clothing in his lap.

“Get up,” Tony said, and realized too late he was speaking more sharply than he intended, but Jesus, Loki doing the whole groveling slave thing just wigged him right the fuck out. Tony crossed to one of his more non-descript vehicles, an Audi S8, and popped the trunk. A suit of Iron Man armor had already been secured. Tony slammed it shut again and slid into the driver’s seat. Loki followed and after a moment climbed into the passenger side.

“Buckle in,” Tony said, and Loki did. Tony flipped the ignition and pulled out onto the street.

Loki didn’t speak until they’d gotten out of the city and were racing south at 80 mph.

“Is it…” he began quietly, then when Tony glanced towards him he finished in a tiny whisper, “…Steve?”

Right, Tony thought. Just because he’s under a spell doesn’t mean he’s stupid. Although, to be fair, Loki would probably be worried it was Steve if they’d gone out for any reason. Still, Tony thought he owed it to him to be honest.

“It is,” Tony said. “But I don’t have a lot of details other than he’s awake and he’s asking for you.”

Loki pressed his knuckles to his lips and gasped. “Has he been injured?”

Tony merged into the passing lane and shifted into fourth. “I presume so,” he said calmly, “but listen. Steve’s been hurt before. I’ve seen him shake off injuries that would have killed anyone else. If he’s awake, he’ll recover. I have no doubt about that.”

“I should have been with him,” Loki said. “I could have… he could have…”

“No, none of that talk,” Tony said, pulling past a double-trailer like it was standing still. “He’s asking for you, so that’s a good sign. He can’t be too badly off if he’s thinking about giving you the good stuff, right?”

And that did draw a wicked chuckle out of the demigod, though quickly stifled. “Perhaps he needs healing magic,” Loki said darkly.

“Maybe,” Tony allowed. “And if he does, you’ll do what needs done and we’ll all be on our merry way.” Tony downshifted and crossed three lanes to take the exit for the interstate. “But it’s probably he’s just been relieved of duty and he couldn’t wait another second.” Tony shifted up again and the engine gave an energetic roar as he pulled past two panel trucks and a minivan filled with kids.

“I hope you’re right, master,” Loki said, and Tony shook his head.

“I’m putting on some music, okay?” he said, and switched the car radio to his personal hard rock playlist. AC/DC drowned out any further conversation.

+++

Tony strode confidently past the nurse’s station, Loki following in his wake, and straight to the room Sam Wilson had told him Steve was resting in. They found him still in bed, looking a little paler than normal but otherwise in one piece. He looked up when they entered and a tired but nonetheless stunning smile broke over his face.

“Loki, Tony, you came,” he said.

“Of course we came,” Tony said, then he turned to Loki, who seemed to be straining against an invisible barrier. “Go on, hug him, you big nut,” Tony said. “Just be careful.”

Loki surged forward and threw himself across Steve’s lap. Tony turned and pushed the door closed to afford them as much privacy as he could.

Steve was stroking Loki’s hair and whispering gentle reassurances to him, but he managed to indicate the other man in the room, who was rising from where he sat near the window.

“Tony, this is Sam Wilson,” Steve said. “Sam, this is my friend Tony Stark…”

“Iron Man, I know,” Sam was saying with a grin. “I’m a big fan. In fact, if we get a chance later, I’d like to compare notes…”

“Sam’s a flyer, too,” Steve explained.

Tony did a quick assessment: Sam was military, that was obvious, but didn’t have the closed-off mien of a SHIELD agent. Was Steve assigned to the military? Unlikely, especially with Fury down. He’d need more data.

“Love to,” Tony said.

“And this is Loki,” Steve said. “He’s… well, it’s a long story.”

“Which reminds me,” Tony said, taking hold of the golden cuff on his wrist. “Steve Rogers, I hereby return custody of your crazy boyfriend before I lose my fucking mind.” Astonishingly, that worked, and Tony felt the cuff loosen. He pulled it off and handed it to Steve, who immediately slipped it on.

“Kiss me, Loki,” Steve murmured, and the demigod nearly pounced to give Steve a long, deep, enthusiastic kiss.

When they parted, Steve ran one hand down Loki’s abdomen, finally resting it below Loki’s belly button. “How are you?” he asked. “And the baby?”

Sam’s eyes widened. “Baby?”

“Really long story,” Tony said. “You might want to order lunch.”

“We are both well,” Loki said. “Doctor Kinross is pleased with the progress.”

“I’m so glad,” Steve said. “I missed you so much.” And Steve kissed Loki again, this time clutching Loki’s shoulders like he was afraid he’d fall.

Finally they parted, and Steve said, “please sit down, Loki. And you, too, Tony. I have something you both need to know. Tony… have you ever heard of the Winter Soldier?”

“Just stories,” Tony said. “Some kind of Soviet boogeyman, right?”

“He’s real,” Steve said. “I fought him. And Tony… he’s Bucky.”

Loki gaped in shock and Tony leaned forward. “Bucky Barnes? Your Bucky? That’s not possible. Even if he survived that fall, he’d have to be almost one hundred years old.”

“Tony, I swear,” Steve said. “And I know he recognized me. It’s him. He’s the one who pulled me out of the water, too. I’d bet my life.”

“Water?” Loki said quietly. “What happened?”

“Loki, I promise I will tell you everything,” Steve said, “but if we have any hope of finding Bucky we have to move now.”

“What about your injuries?” Sam said.

“I’m not injured,” Steve assured him. “It just takes a lot to knock me out, so they always admit me for 24 hours, but I’m fine. Loki, do you know any locating spells?”

Loki nodded. “It is complicated, though,” he said. “I would need a map of some kind…”

Tony pulled out his phone and slid his fingers across the screen. A map of the greater D.C. area was projected onto the ceiling. “Will this do?” Tony said.

“Quite,” Loki said.

“Do the spell, Loki,” Steve ordered. “What do you need?”

Loki stood and moved his hands, drawing patterns in the air. “Ideally? His own name from his lips, but as that is impossible, I’ll need what you can give me of him. Tell me his full name.”

“It’s James Buchanan Barnes.”

Loki looked at Steve. “Who gave him the name Bucky?”

“It’s short for Buchanan,” Steve said. “I think his dad started it.”

Loki nodded and looked back at the map. A pale green dot appeared near a large green area.

“Where is that?” Sam said, squinting up, and Tony zoomed in on the area around the dot.

“It’s the National Mall,” Steve said, swinging his legs out of bed and standing to examine the map more closely. “I don’t believe it… He’s going to the Smithsonian exhibit!”

“We can’t grab him there,” Sam said. “Way too crowded. We’ll need to follow him when he comes out. See if we can corner him alone.”

“Sam, I can’t ask you to do this,” Steve said.

“Oh, I ain’t leaving,” Sam said. “I want in on this.”

Steve shot a smile in his direction. “Thanks, that means a lot,” he said, then turned to Tony. “Do you have the Iron Man suit?”

“Don’t leave home without it,” Tony said.

“Perfect,” Steve said. “We’ll also need a panel van.”

“Let me make some calls,” Tony said.

“Time to sign myself out,” Steve said. “Let’s get suited up, and I’ll tell you all I know.”

+++

“What makes you so sure he’s going to the Smithsonian?” Tony asked as he maneuvered the van through city traffic.

“Something happened to him, his memory,” Steve said. “He didn’t even recognize his own name. But he knows me, I’m sure of it. And if he came into the city he’s going to see Captain America on every block advertising the exhibit. I can’t tell you how tired I am of seeing my own dumb mug everywhere I look. But if he’s confused and trying to figure things out, he’d go there. Anyway, what else would he be doing on the mall? Reading up on the Wright Brothers?”

“Okay, you sold me,” Tony said. “How are you planning to take him?”

Steve heaved a heavy sigh. “I was hoping I could convince him to talk to me.”

“Err, with all due respect…” Loki began, and by now Steve knew this was “Loki-speak” for “listen, dumbass,” so he nodded at Loki to continue.

“I think perhaps it would be more prudent,” Loki went on, “to remove him to a quiet place before we try to reason with him. He could feel threatened and turn violent, and there are so many people…”

“I’ve gotta go with the tall, spooky dude on this one,” Sam agreed. “He’s unpredictable and really strong. I say we take him down, knock him out if we can, then you can talk to him through some iron bars, maybe.”

“I don’t want to do that,” Steve said firmly. “He’s been traumatized enough…”

“I know you want to treat him gently,” Tony said. “He’s your friend, and obviously something awful happened to him. But he’s also a deadly assassin with superpowers and an arm that can rip off car doors. He resists, you’re putting lives at risk.”

Steve shook his head. “You’re right. I know it,” he said. “But let’s try to do this as humanely as possible. What have you got?”

“He doesn’t know me,” Tony suggested, “but thanks to my dad’s obsession, no offense, I know his face better than I know some of my relatives. I could find him inside, follow him until he’s in a clear area then call the rest of you in.”

“I know some soporific charms,” Loki said. “If you could hold him still long enough, I think I could at least calm his aggression.”

“Whatever you need me to do,” Sam said. “I don’t know if air support is called for, but you tell me.”

“No, you’re right,” Steve said. “You and I can come at him from two directions, keep him off-balance, at least until Tony suits up…”

“I’ve got it down to 2.8 seconds, buddy,” Tony interjected.

“I hope that’s fast enough,” Steve said, casting a glance to the back of the van, where the Iron Man armor stood at the ready.

“All right, there’s a loading dock off to the left here,” Tony said, turning down an access ramp. “Sam, you take the wheel, get ready to move when I know where he’s headed.” Tony reached into his bag and pulled out a baggy gray sweatshirt and a baseball cap. “I hope this disguise works as well on me as the rest of you,” he said.

+++

The Winter Soldier:

Is this me? But it says he died… what year is this? …a long time ago. I should write this down.

He reaches into his pocket, takes out the folded exhibit map and the pencil stub, turns the paper to the blank side and writes: “Bucky Barnes. WWII. Three siblings. d. 1944. Steve Rogers.”

That name, Steve Rogers. He knows it. The man from the bridge, the man on the helicarrier, the man he pulled from the water. Steve. He knows him.

He looks at the exhibit again. “Childhood friend.” And they fought together in a war. He tries to remember, but only random images come to him: a thin boy in a bed, coughing so hard there are drops of blood on his lips. Pale bare feet on sand as a wave washes over them. Following a star before him in the darkness, as gunfire clatters around him.

The smell of apples.

He feels himself shaking. This should not be happening. Before, when he remembered… there was a chair… and darkness. And the memories went away. Where..?

This is how memories feel, he tells himself. To put yourself back together, you have to endure it.

He has to get out. Away from these people, away from the memories. He needs to write this down, so he won’t forget again. He needs to get out now.

He ducks through a door that says “employees only,” finds himself in an empty hallway, tries to orient himself and heads off to the right. He turns a corner and hears the door open behind him. Some employee saw him and is coming for him. Before, he’d have been required to eliminate any witnesses, but that isn’t his mission anymore. Still, he doesn’t want to be seen, either.

He pushes through another door, sees a red exit sign, starts running. He throws himself against the crash bar, emerges into the late afternoon sun.

And he is suddenly grabbed from behind, an expert hold, one arm around his chest, one around his thigh, lifting him off his feet. He kicks, trying to get out of his captor’s grip, but whoever it is, he’s strong.

He struggles in earnest, now. They’ve found him, come for him, they’ve sent another one like him to bring him back. They’ll put him back in the dark, he’ll forget—

“Shh, Bucky, calm down, it’s okay, we’re going to help you,” says a voice in his ear, and he stops struggling, just for a moment. It’s the man, Steve.

The exit door bursts open again, a man he’d seen inside the museum coming out. “Do you have him?” this new man asks, and he is shocked back into action, thrashing his body in a new attempt to escape.

And then there is a van in front of him, and the back doors are thrown open, and two more men come toward him, and... a robot? He can’t understand what he is seeing, the robot opening and the museum man getting inside. One of the van men grabs his right arm and the robot man grabs his left.

“No! No!” he manages to bark out. They mean to put him in the van, they mean to take him back, and he redoubles his efforts. He must escape, run, survive…

And then the last man approaches, and he looks different from the others, with long hair and white skin, and white, flowing clothes. There is a thin metal collar around this man’s neck and he wonders if this is another soldier, but he doesn’t look like one… And then this new man reaches for him and Steve and robot man and van man tighten their holds on him, and long white fingers are touching his forehead, his temples. His vision goes blurry and his muscles go slack, even as his brain screams at him to resist, and then he is on the floor of the van, unable to even lift his head, and the doors slam shut and Steve is looking down at him, and someone is holding his hand.

“How long do you think you can keep him out, Lokes?” robot man asks in a mechanical-sounding voice.

“He’s not out,” the white-skinned man says. “But I believe I could keep him in this state for some time.”

Steve starts talking directly to him again. “It’s okay, Bucky. We aren’t going to hurt you. If you calm down we can release you. We can talk, we can help you.”

He’s heard these lies before, but something about hearing them from Steve makes him want to believe them.

And he hates himself, hates his weak body for not fighting harder, and his weak mind for its betrayal. He hates the pathetic mewling sounds he is making, hates that he’s trying to beg.

And still this man, Steve, is calling him this ridiculous name and speaking in a tone that suggests he is trying to soothe a mad dog, and he isn’t a dog. He ran away from that, from being their creature to command, and please don’t take him back. Please please please don’t.

“Master,” the white man says quietly, and Steve looks at him. “Don’t wait too long,” the white man says. “He is so frightened…”

“How long, Sam?” Steve asks.

“Maybe half an hour,” Sam, the van man, answers. “If we don’t hit traffic.”

“Could we..?” the robot man says, then makes a gesture that makes both Steve and the white man say “no” very firmly, and then Steve is talking to him again, asking him to remember, to try to remember, and the white man’s fingers are on his temples again.

He feels and hears the road they are driving on change from smooth highway asphalt to the more uneven surface of a side road, hears the pop and hiss as they drive over sticks and leaves, and the bright sunshine coming through the windshield becomes dim and mottled. He tries to estimate how long they have been driving, tries to gauge the direction of the sun, so he can find his way back from where they are taking him, but he’s pretty sure it’s a one-way trip this time. They won’t forgive this, will never let him out alone again.

At last the van stops, and he tries one more time to wriggle away from the white man’s hands, but no, he is helpless. He makes a growling sound in his throat, and hates how useless it is.

The driver’s door opens and closes, then the back door opens and light floods in. He is grabbed, restrained, lifted, carried. They are in a wooded area; an old industrial building squats among the trees.

You sure we won’t be disturbed here, Sam?” Steve asks.

“No, they barely use any of the mechanical plant anymore,” Sam says. “In fact, let me go around back and turn on the power. You got him?”

“So far,” Steve says, and he feels like a light flashed in his mind at those words, just a blink, then back to darkness, but he feels his consciousness begin to grope around, trying to find the light again.

A door to the building opens and he is taken into a large room with greenish light and silent machinery. He is taken to some kind of hydraulic equipment, a press or vice, and by the time he realizes what they mean to do it’s already being done and he hears himself whimper because he knows they’re going to take his arm again, leave him crippled and his nerves white-hot, and the pain so blinding he’ll do anything, anything, please just make it stop.

But then they stop.

And this doesn’t make sense. He’s held, but gently, just enough to prevent escape, but not enough to hurt him, not enough to damage him, and he can’t understand why. Punishment should be raining down on him, pain like a deluge, drowning him until he obeys.

The white man steps away, goes to Steve’s side and Steve strokes the white man’s arm and back and speaks comfortingly.

He feels his strength and mind return to him, and he heaves his body against the restraint to no avail. He roars and screams and hot tears fill his eyes, but he went beyond shame long ago, and now he just wants out before they put him back into darkness, because soon he’ll have nothing but the darkness, but oh, how he wants those flashes of light.

Then he stops, assesses, waits for the next opportunity. He moves his body into a crouch, prepared for the moment something changes.

+++

Steve:

Steve felt like he was going to throw up. For weeks all he’d wanted was to finish his assignments for SHIELD, get back to New York, and spend a week in bed letting Loki make him forget everything outside the Tower. What was it that one French soldier had called it? Something like “a holiday on Quilt Island?” Now, here he was, in whatever place on Earth Quilt Island was furthest from.

His plan, his expectation, really, that Bucky would have a sudden revelation and remember Steve and the rest of his life, had gone right out the window. This was Bucky’s body, and maybe somewhere deep inside was the rest of him, but it was gone under layers of killing machine now, perhaps never to be found again.

And even though he was quiet now, that was somehow worse. His eyes were blank, pupils blown wide, and he had what some of the veterans Steve had met, the ones from the wars he’d slept through, called the “thousand-yard stare.” And Steve knew Bucky couldn’t look away from whatever he was seeing.

Helplessly, Steve turned to Loki. “Can you heal him?” he asked, and Loki gave his head the smallest shake.

“Not this,” Loki said quietly. “Even for our healers on Asgard, the mind remains hidden.” He smiled wryly. “Believe me, my mother tried.”

Steve touched Loki’s arm sympathetically, but the alien waved it away. Steve turned back to the figure crouched on the floor.

“Do you know me, Bucky?” he asked, not sure what to do with whatever answer he got.

Bucky looked up. “You’re Steve,” he said, and Steve’s heart gave an extra-hard thump, but it sank a moment later when Bucky said, “I read about you in the museum.”

Tony and Loki exchanged a fraught glance that Steve didn’t quite understand, but he plowed on anyway.

“Just that?” he said. “You don’t remember Brooklyn? Your family? The army? Anything besides..?” And he realized there was no way to finish that sentence that didn’t feel like a challenge, and he was really, really tired of fighting just then.

“Sam, could you drive me back to pick up my car?” Tony asked. “Also, we haven’t eaten since this morning, so maybe we can stock up and bring some provisions back.”

“Yeah, good idea,” Sam said, and they both left.

Steve crouched down as close to Bucky as he dared, and stared into eyes that didn’t seem to be looking at anything. “Remember your Ma, Bucky?” Steve said quietly. “She always wore that kerchief on her hair. And when I got sick, she’d send you down with a bowl of pastina with some butter and sugar. Said it was better than medicine when the chill settled in your lungs. And you’d sit in my room and read me the sports and the funnies from the day-old papers Mr. Mahoney left on the windowsill in the hall for whoever wanted them.”

And amazingly, Bucky’s eyes shifted to Steve’s and came into focus.

“You remember, don’t you?” Steve said, trying not to get too excited, but then Bucky’s gaze slid away and the emptiness came back. Steve could not help but sigh deeply, then he stood and moved away, not sure what to do next.

Loki came to his side and wound his arms around Steve’s waist. Steve shook himself as if from a daze and pressed a kiss to Loki’s temple. “I’m sorry,” Steve murmured. “I didn’t mean for it to be like this. But we’ll need to put things off just a little longer.”

“Of course,” Loki said calmly, and Steve was actually a little surprised.

“You’re okay with this?”

“He is your shield brother,” Loki said. “When he is in need, you are obligated to care for him, to shelter and feed him, to have your servants wait upon him. It is a blood covenant.”

And Steve was reminded again that Loki came from a warrior people. That he, more than anyone, would understand.

“Do you have any suggestions?” Steve said.

“Not really,” Loki said. “This is foreign to me, as well. But Steve… you will need to give me commands soon. Without my usual duties, the slack on the binding is being taken up fast.”

Steve moved one hand up and entwined his fingers in Loki’s hair. “I’d like to give you a few orders,” he said, his voice low and dark, “but this is not the time or place.” He cleared his throat and spoke a little more formally, without going full “Captain-voice,” so as not to startle Bucky. “Loki,” he began, “I order you to inspect these facilities. Make note of any portable tools or equipment on the premises, and if you should find any chairs or folding tables, please remove them to this location. Do you understand?”

“Yes, master,” Loki said.

“Dismissed,” Steve said, and Loki scurried off. It was only after he’d left that Steve saw that Bucky was staring at him.

“You can talk to me,” Steve said. “You can trust me.”

“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” Bucky said quietly, his voice rough from his earlier screams.

Steve crouched down to look at him again. “I know, Buck,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to.”

“Please don’t take me back.” Bucky’s voice was barely a whisper now, and Steve could hear there were unshed tears behind it.

“I won’t,” Steve averred. “I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe from them, in fact. It’s over, Bucky.”

Bucky shook his head as though refuting Steve’s words. “It’s never over.”

At that moment Loki returned, carrying two molded plastic chairs stacked together. “Now these are absolutely filthy,” he said in an incongruously cheerful tone, “but I think they’ll be better than a concrete floor.” He set them down and slid one in Steve’s direction, then carefully moved the other as close to Bucky as he dared.

Steve watched Bucky’s face, tried to read the emotions as he watched Loki. There was wariness, of course, and a current of anger, neither of which was surprising after Loki’s spell on him, but there was a curiosity, too.

Loki slid the chair within Bucky’s reach, poised to move away quickly if Bucky decided to use it as a weapon, but after a moment, Bucky pulled the chair towards himself and sat down. Steve felt himself go weak with relief.

“Resume duties,” Steve told Loki, and the alien hurried off again. Unsure about what to do next, Steve pulled his chair a little closer and just watched Bucky. Loki, meanwhile, brought four more chairs, and reported that while he hadn’t found a folding table, he had found a portable typing desk he thought might be an acceptable substitute. Just about the time he was rolling it in, Sam and Tony returned, laden down with several Wawa bags. They set them down and unpacked an assortment of hoagies, cartons of hot soup, candy, chips, and drinks, and, for Loki, a few plastic containers of cut fruit and vegetables.

“Ae you hungry?” Steve asked Bucky. “Do you want a sandwich?”

Bucky glared at Steve suspiciously, but said nothing.

“Let me,” Loki said, picking up one of the soup containers and a spoon. He pulled his chair closer to Bucky, opened the container and stirred it, then put a spoonful in his mouth and swallowed. Then he extended the container within Bucky’s reach.

With one more glare, Bucky took it, and, eschewing the spoon, drank it from the container as quickly as he could, then, with several furtive glances, put it in his lap and scooped out what remained stuck to the sides with his fingers and stuck them in his mouth.

Steve looked around the room, and saw that while Sam had watched the whole transaction with mild interest, Tony was giving him a very pointed look. Steve gave a small shake of his head and Tony set aside his own sandwich and dragged Steve outside.

“This isn’t good, Cap,” he said.

“I don’t…” Steve began, but Tony cut him off.

“That’s because you were never taken prisoner,” Tony said. “He’s been traumatized, probably brainwashed. We can’t let him draw a parallel between us and his former captors. We need to get him back to some semblance of normal as soon as possible.”

Steve squared his shoulders. “Agreed. Let’s see if we can talk him down.”

When they re-entered the building, Loki was sharing a container of apple slices by biting off one end of each slice and passing Bucky the other half.

“Bucky…” Steve began, not sure what he was going to say.

“Your mother’s name was Sarah,” Bucky said evenly. “And…” Here Bucky’s eyes crinkled into something like a smile, “you used to put newspapers in your shoes.”

“Can’t read that in a museum,” Steve announced to the room in general.

“That’s good enough for me,” Tony agreed.

“Wait,” said Sam. “Just like that we’re supposed to…”

But Steve was already lifting the press off Bucky’s metal arm.

When it had opened enough, Bucky pulled his arm free and stood, and Steve could see him assessing his situation, sizing up the other men in the room and noting exits and possible weapons, but he didn’t move any further.

Wordlessly, Loki took another bite of an apple slice and held out the rest. A little of the wariness drained from Bucky’s face, and the ghost of a smile took its place, and he took the offered fruit. It was all Steve could do not to hug Loki on the spot.

“I don’t believe I introduced myself,” Loki said formally. “I am called Loki. And what should I call you?”

“Soldat,” Bucky said, and just like that, Steve’s little bubble of joy was gone.

+++

When Steve asked Bucky to return to New York, to stay in Tony Stark’s tower and be protected and helped, Bucky had stared at him for a long time before answering, and the maelstrom of emotions that had washed over those familiar but still strange features had broken Steve’s heart. He knew what Tony had been trying to explain to him; he could be Bucky’s ally or he could be his captor. There was no middle ground. But knowing that helping his friend meant running the risk that Bucky would run and never come back made him want to grab Bucky and never let go.

Finally Bucky nodded, casting one last look around the room as though preparing to fight his way out even now, but he followed them to Tony’s car and slid into the back seat. He even fastened his seat belt.

Steve thanked Sam, gave him a hug, and promised to be in touch soon, and Sam had thanked him in return and wished him luck, and promised he was only a phone call or text away if Cap ever needed air support.

Steve sat in the back seat, desperate to cross the few inches between Bucky and himself and offer what comfort he could, but he knew that was impossible. Watching Bucky hold himself rigidly still while his eyes moved constantly, taking in everything as Tony drove out of the hospital grounds and merged back onto the highway, Steve thought of the stray cats back in Brooklyn that seemed so pathetic and helpless until you tried to pick them up, and that then hissed and scratched and yowled. And then when you dropped them, they took off like a shot.

Loki sat beside Tony, but twisted himself almost completely around to watch Steve and Bucky, and while the demigod did not hide his curiosity, his expression was also open and kind, and he asked Steve to order him to speak. Steve did, and Loki began an easy monologue where he related everything Steve had missed while he was away.

Loki talked about two snowstorms that had briefly blanketed the city, an on-line telethon for the Maria Stark Foundation that Ms. Arbogast was organizing, and the schedule for the upcoming season of the combat robot team. And Steve found himself relaxing as he listened to Loki speak, and after a few minutes he glanced over at Bucky and saw that he was no longer watching out the window anxiously, but was watching and listening to Loki with what seemed like genuine interest.

When Loki paused a moment before starting his next topic, Bucky spoke. “Are you Steve’s?” he asked.

Loki gave him an amused smile. “Am I Steve’s what?” he replied.

Bucky frowned. “Does he command you?” he clarified.

“It’s complicated,” Steve said. “Loki is… bound to me. But I didn’t do it to him. He was given to me, but I… It’s hard to explain,” he finished lamely.

“I need him,” Loki said. “I love him, and he takes care of me, and I am happy. There is nothing else I want.”

Bucky looked at Steve and back to Loki, as if puzzling it out. “I remember,” he said finally. “Not much, but I remember Steve is a good man. I don’t know why, but I know I can trust him.”

“Yes, you can,” Loki said. “He will do whatever he must to keep you safe. I’ve only just met you, but I know this to be true.”

“If my opinion counts for anything, I agree one hundred percent,” Tony said.

“Thanks for the glowing testimonials,” Steve said self-deprecatingly. “I’ll do my best to live up to them.”

And Bucky gave Steve a look that lasted less than a second, but was so open and trusting, it took Steve’s breath away.

+++

Once they merged onto the main highway headed north, Tony’s driving became more of what Steve would call “aggressive,” but Tony himself would call “efficient.” Steve had made the mistake of criticizing Tony’s constant shifting and weaving through traffic at speeds normally reserved for aircraft early on in their friendship, and the resulting invective Tony had unleashed was probably still evident in the blistering of the road surface they’d happened to be driving on, and Steve had never mentioned it again. Although, he was not above invoking the protection of the almighty under his breath whenever Tony was behind the wheel.

Still, when they were parking at Stark Tower a mere two-and-a-half hours later, 80 minutes sooner than the Audi’s on-board navigation had estimated, Steve couldn’t argue with results. Loki gave Steve a pointed look, and Steve set him loose to take up his normal duties around the tower, then Bucky watched as Tony unpacked the Iron Man suit and returned it to its berth alongside its other iterations.

“It’s a sort of mechanical armor,” Tony explained. “I use it to, uh, save the world and stuff.”

“Tony’s the smartest guy I ever met,” Steve said. “Wait until you see this place, Buck. You’ll be amazed.”

“Actually,” Tony said, once he’d done a quick check of his garage-slash-workshop, “why don’t I give you a quick tour. I can open your room, too. Cap, there’s a bedroom and en suite across from Loki’s room. We can set him up there.”

“That’s just down from my room, too,” Steve explained. “Is that okay?”

Bucky stared at Steve, and Steve could almost see him trying to work it through his mind.

“We’ll put you there tonight,” Tony said finally. “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll come up with something else.”

Tony opened the room, fetched toiletries, towels, and comfortable clothes from one of the tower’s many closets, and showed Bucky the bath facilities. Then they toured the kitchen and dining areas, the large living room where Tony usually entertained, and the smaller dens where they could tuck themselves away to work and relax. Tony introduced him to Jarvis, and showed him how to access any of the Starkpads strewn around.

Although they’d eaten before leaving Maryland, by 8 pm it seemed like they should have a little something before bed, so Steve summoned Loki and asked him to prepare some food. Loki rummaged in the fridge and pantry, and in about 15 minutes had put together some rather tasty open-face hot turkey sandwiches.

Tony and Steve tucked in right away (Loki really was a good cook,) but Bucky sat looking at the plate uncertainly.

“Go ahead, Bucky,” Steve said encouragingly. “It’s really good.”

Bucky looked up, his expression closed off, and Tony and Loki exchanged another look.

“Come with me, Soldat,” Loki said, his voice warm and kind. “You can eat in another room.” Bucky stood and looked back at the plate of food.

“It’s alright, I’ll carry it,” Loki said, picking it up. “This way.” And he led him into an adjoining study that Steve knew had a table and chairs. In a moment, Loki returned and began to eat his own meal.

“Okay,” Steve said, a note of irritation creeping into his voice, “anybody want to tell me what that’s all about?”

“He’s been broken, Steve,” Tony said quietly. “Probably a lot of different ways, but if you want to control someone, you’re definitely controlling their food.”

“What?” Steve said.

“You can die of thirst in three days,” Tony said. “And starve to death in less than a month. Even the best of us are a few missed meals away from desperation. If your captors control your food, you learn to do what they want pretty quickly.”

“And even then, they can make it bad for you,” Loki said. “Make you eat off the floor, like an animal. Feed you garbage and filth when you’re wretched enough to eat it…”

Steve stared at Tony and Loki in shock. “Did you..?”

“Nope. Sorry, Cap,” Tony interrupted him. “No true confessions tonight. Just putting things in context.”

“Yes,” Loki agreed. “Just trust he’ll feel safer unobserved. At least for a little while.”

“Be patient with him,” Tony said. “Follow his lead.”

Steve pushed himself back from the table. “Sorry, Loki,” he said. “I think I’m done eating for now.”

“It’s alright,” Loki said. “It’s been a rather long day. Perhaps we should make it an early night.”

Steve leaned his head back and rubbed his forehead. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard in a long time,” he said.

“Order me to look after him,” Loki said, and Steve did.

Bucky rejoined them a few minutes later, carrying his plate. It looked as though it had been licked clean.

“We’ve all decided to turn in early tonight,” Loki said, standing. “Come with me, I’ll run your bath.”

Tony had Jarvis keep them apprised of what Loki and Bucky were doing, and it appeared as though Loki had appointed himself Bucky’s valet. He ran a bath, set out clothes, and turned down the bed. Only when Bucky was clean and dressed did Loki leave him alone and retreat to Steve’s rooms.

Steve had showered himself, and set up the bedroom with candles and their fur blanket over himself. Loki gave him a wicked smile as he entered and quickly stripped out of his clothes.

“Oh, God, I missed you so much,” Steve said. “I’m sorry about all this mess…”

Loki quickly crossed the distance between them and put his fingertips on Steve’s lips. “Sssh, my love,” He said. “He is well, and we are well, and we are together at last, and for now there is just us two.” And he replaced his fingertips with his own mouth and gave Steve a deep kiss filled with longing.

“You always know the right thing to say to me,” Steve sighed when they parted.

“Well, they don’t call me ‘Silvertongue’ for nothing,” Loki said. “Now then…” And he took Steve and rolled him onto his stomach.

“What’s this?” Steve asked.

“Stark gave me one of his devices for my private use while you were away,” Loki said, beginning to press a line of kisses down Steve’s spine. “And I have discovered the most remarkable things.”

Chapter Text

Tony:

Tony was last to breakfast, as usual, but he’d had to go over some information with Jarvis that Steve would need to be informed of, so he’d decided he was going to take his time and finish at least one cup of coffee before tackling that. He headed right for the coffeemaker, only to be smoothly intercepted by Loki, who pressed a perfectly-prepared cup into his hands. Tony sat at the table and took a mouthful, feeling the brew work its magic, and only then took in the rest of the room.

Steve was pacing on the balcony, having an animated phone conversation. Loki stood at the counter, working the waffle iron, and within a few minutes he put a hot one in front of Tony.

Bucky stood by the far wall, silent and eerily still, but now that he was clean and dressed in what Steve called their “soft clothes,” he was a less baleful presence. After a few minutes, Loki picked up one of the waffles and held it out, smiling kindly. Bucky approached him hesitantly, then fairly grabbed the waffle and retreated back to the wall where he wolfed it down in four bites, eyes restlessly scanning the room. A few minutes later, the entire process repeated.

Baby steps, Tony told himself.

Steve came in from the balcony. “That was Sam,” he announced. “He’s been contacted by SHIELD, or whatever’s left of SHIELD. They’re trying to salvage what they can, and said they could use a guy like Sam. I told him I thought it was a great opportunity.”

“Are you going back?” Tony asked, and Steve sat at the table before answering.

“My initial impulse is ‘hell, no,’” Steve said, “but… it would depend on the mission, I guess. I’m definitely never going in blind again. And if they ever lie to me…”

“You’ll burn the motherfucker to the ground?” Tony suggested.

“Damn right,” Steve agreed. At the counter, Loki snickered, then held out another waffle for Bucky.

“Stark, I have a favor,” Loki said, not turning from his work. “If I am to be tending to Barnes, I shall need some charts to that effect.”

“No prob,” Tony said. “I can probably just re-write the charts you use to take care of your own needs.”

“Thank you, Stark,” Loki said, and he handed Bucky another waffle. This time, though, Bucky didn’t eat it when he’d retreated, only held it.

“It’s alright,” Loki told him. “You can eat it later, if you like. Here…” Loki opened one of the cabinets and pulled out a plastic zip-bag. “Put it in this. It will protect it that way.”

Bucky came close again and took the bag. He examined it as though he’d never seen one before, then slipped the waffle inside. “Thank you,” he said to Loki, then silently exited into the stairwell.

“Jarvis, where’s he headed?” Tony asked after a moment.

“Sergeant Barnes appears to be returning to his room,” Jarvis said. “He has been using the stairs rather than the elevators.”

“That makes sense,” Tony muttered.

“How many of those things did he eat?” Steve asked Loki.

“Not counting the last one: five,” Loki said.

“Wow,” said Tony.

“That’s about what I eat,” Steve confessed. “The serum kicks up the metabolism.”

“That reminds me,” Tony said. “I know how you feel about Jarvis ‘spying’ on us, but Barnes was up to some weird stuff last night I thought you should know about.”

Tony called up a holographic screen and began showing closed-circuit footage of the hallway where Steve’s rooms were. Bucky came out of his room and stood outside Steve’s door for a while; nearly an hour according to the video timestamp as the footage scrolled through at high speed. Then he went to the kitchen, and looked through every drawer and cabinet, removing a few packaged food items from the back of the pantry. He took a carving knife out of the block and moved it from hand to hand, spinning it, testing its balance. Then he stood at the counter for another stretch of time before replacing it, gathering up the food packets and returning to his room.

Steve sat back, looking stunned. “He wanted to take it,” he said. “He wanted a weapon.”

“He doesn’t know what to make of us, yet,” Tony said. “And he probably hasn’t been allowed to make a decision for himself in years, if not decades. We might need to, kind of, take care of him for a while. Until he can take care of himself.”

“Whatever it takes, Tony,” Steve said. “And really, thank you for taking us in like this. I don’t know what we would have done without your help.”

“Well, despite feeling like this place is a combination VA hospital and lunatic asylum most days, I actually enjoy the company. Plus, Howard would haunt me for the rest of my life if I turned out Captain America and Bucky Barnes.”

“Seriously, Tony, I owe you big.”

Tony waved this off good-naturedly. “Forget it,” he said. “Keeps life interesting. Speaking of which, you know I’m itching to get my hands on that arm, right?”

Steve chuckled. “Oh, I figured,” he said. “Try to pick a moment where he won’t disembowel you.”

“Twenty-four hours, at least,” Tony said.

+++

Tony thought he deserved at least some credit for waiting until Bucky actually sat down with them to eat before broaching the subject of Bucky’s arm. True, the former sergeant was still bolting his food as quickly as possible and regarding utensils more as impediments than tools, but progress was progress.

He was also talking more, and though he was still far from chatty, it was clear his memories were coming back. He talked to Steve mostly, as he recalled things scattershot. Brooklyn, the war, his missions with Hydra, all came back like bolts from the blue, it seemed, and he would suddenly be dealing with emotions attached to events that might have happened decades before.

But he was dealing. Steve seemed to be able to anchor him when he was most overwhelmed, and Loki, of all people, seemed to be the only one who could manage to make him smile occasionally. He even let the alien braid his hair to keep it out of his eyes.

So a week into Bucky’s stay, at breakfast, Tony affected his most casual tone and off-handedly inserted, “you know, I think I could upgrade that prosthetic for you,” into the conversation.

Bucky stared at him, giving him that look Tony was really learning to dislike, the sort of horrified and nauseous expression that suggested an association in the soldier’s subconscious that was too terrible to deal with consciously, and Tony hated to be the cause of it. But a moment later, Bucky nodded.

“Great,” Tony said. “When you’re done we can go down to the lab.

And Bucky nodded again.

+++

“Sit right there, make yourself comfortable,” Tony said, indicating a large office chair next to one of the worktables, then gathering up various tools from other parts of the lab. When he returned to the worktable, Bucky was still standing.

“You okay?” Tony asked, and Bucky looked up, his eyes wide and alarmed.

“This is… where is the chair?” Bucky said, an edge coming into his voice.

Tony forced himself to stay calm. “What chair?” he said evenly.

“The chair,” Bucky repeated. “For maintenance. With the straps and…” he broke off and muttered to himself, searching for some word before saying something in Russian.

Tony felt rising dread as he said, “Jarvis, translate.”

“It’s a sort of medical bite guard,” Jarvis said, and Tony’s brain, which everyone always told him was too quick for his own good sometimes, helpfully filled in “for the seizures!”

Tony swept his arm down the worktable, pushing his tools and devices as far away from Bucky as he could without actually sending them to the floor. “Okay, new plan,” he announced. “We are… just going to do non-invasive scans today. And then we will come up with a procedure that does not necessitate straps and bite guards. How does that sound to you?”

Bucky looked confused again, but nodded.

“Please,” Tony said, and indicated the office chair again. This time Bucky sat down. “Just hold still,” Tony said. “This should only take a few seconds.” A few instructions to Jarvis later, and Tony had a 3-D exploded view of all the inner workings of the arm, and from the expression on Bucky’s face, he was even more fascinated than Tony.

“Is that all inside there?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “State-of-the-art if you’re in the Soviet bloc circa 1985. When was the last time you got this upgraded?”

Bucky shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Yeah, no, forget I asked,” Tony said. He moved the view around, alternately disgusted and impressed by the workings, but pretty consistently appalled by what had been done to Bucky’s body. Then Tony had a sudden thought.

“How’s your healing ability?” he asked. “Is it fast?”

Bucky gave his sick-horrified look. “Yeah, pretty fast,” he said faintly.

“I don’t want this to hurt you,” Tony said. “I’m guessing it hurts more or less all the time now, right?”

“I’ve gotten used to it,” Bucky said.

“That isn’t what I asked,” Tony said. “The point is, if I’m going to make you a new one, I’m going to make it better. It won’t hurt, it will be lighter, and removable, and it’s going to be at least as responsive as what you’ve got now, if not more so. But, and I know this is a big ask, so I really want you to think about it, but, if I can take this one off and let your shoulder and spine and nerve endings recover and heal, it will go a lot easier. The only thing is, I don’t know how long that will take. If your body is anything like Cap’s, it shouldn’t be more than a few days. A week, tops. But you’ll only have one arm for that time. As I said, give it some thought. There’s no rush.”

Bucky looked at the holographic scan, then down to where his arm rested on the table. “Yes, let me think about it,” he said.

“Okay, Tony said. “It’s actually good timing. Doctor Kinross is coming in this week for Loki’s check-up. I’ll see if she has thoughts or can recommend some specialists.”

“Okay,” Bucky said, not looking up.

“Bucky,” Tony said, finally drawing his gaze. “It’s going to be okay. I don’t want any of this to hurt you.”

Bucky took a breath and let it out. “Yeah,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you, either.”

+++

Sergeant James Barnes

He wakes up most mornings thinking he must still be asleep and dreaming; he’s warm, and clean, and tucked in a soft bed in a room with large windows, and most days there is sunlight streaming in. If he didn’t still have the cybernetic arm, he’d think he’d died and gone to heaven. But then he remembers, all the lights in his brain turning on, and he knows he’s safe, and Steve is here, and he’s among friends, and soon he will be given hot, delicious food and allowed to spend his day as he wishes.

It still feels like a dream. Maybe it always will.

His memories have been coming back, one by one, each chasing away some of the darkness. He talks to Steve about each one, and they become more solid, more durable. Steve helps him make connections, putting them together, like beads on a string. There is Brooklyn, his parents and siblings, Steve, school, people from the neighborhood. There’s the war, Steve again, and the other fellas, and the battles. He’s starting to find little pieces that Steve says were from when he was captured, but he was captured twice and only rescued once, and it’s all broken apart, like a puzzle still in the box. Steve says it doesn’t matter, so he tries not to let it bother him.

And then there are the memories from after. He feels like there are big moments that are just out of his reach, lights like explosions, so big they’ll be blinding if they ever turn on, big enough to rip him apart, but he only gets tiny pieces, minutiae, dust motes. Hands pushing him down into a chair. A cold circle of metal that presses into the bones around his eye. The non-stop vibration of machinery when he is trying to sleep on a dirty concrete floor. The texture of some food in a bowl he’s been given, glutinous and tepid and almost without taste, almost but for something chemical. Voices reciting words, words that turn into meaningless noise when he tries to recall them.

But Steve is here, and Steve tells him he will take care of him. Steve shows him pictures and films and drawings, and tells him stories, and the lights come on. He knows a lot is missing, but it’s starting to feel like there is enough, enough to find himself in the dark. And when it’s not enough, Steve is still there, to hold him when he shakes, to fight him when he needs to hurt, to wake him from dreams where he freezes and suffocates.

There are the others, too. There is Tony, whose tower this is, Tony who fills rooms, fills the air, fills the silence. Tony, whose presence is felt even when he’s sheltered in his workshop. Whose intellect is like another creature, untamed and only barely contained, constantly threatening to drag Tony away and he thinks Tony would let it, laughing and barely hanging on. But Tony is like his reflection, too, or maybe he is Tony’s. There are things lurking in their darkness that they hope will stay hidden, things they know will eventually reach for them.

Still, Tony explains things, keeping up a monologue, almost a performance, about machines and history and how things have changed. Tony explains all these things patiently, sometimes going down a side path, and he is learning that some things have changed quite a bit, and some things haven’t really changed at all, except people are talking about them, and they won’t get you thrown in jail.

And he likes Tony, likes this man of the future. He seems like he stepped right out of the magazines they used to read, Argosy and Astounding Science Fiction, with his robots and cars that look like spaceships and his flying suit. Fighting Tony in his suit, once he realized that was what had happened, that had been amazing enough, when he thought about it, but the first time he’d seen the Iron Man armor march out onto the terrace and shoot into the sky like a rocket he’d stared with his mouth hanging open. And when it had returned after looping and banking around the tower like a firework and Tony had climbed out whooping and gasping, he’d laughed in disbelief. Tony had even offered to let him try, strap himself in a suit and let Jarvis give him the ride of his life, and maybe someday, when he didn’t think the claustrophobia would make him vomit or pass out, he might take Tony up on the offer.

And then there was Loki. He couldn’t quite figure out Loki. Not that Loki wasn’t kind to him, he was, and completely without expectation. But there is much about Loki he doesn’t understand. He is male, obviously, but not completely. He seems human, but not exactly. And then there is his relationship with Steve. He hasn’t asked, not since that first day, and though he believes Loki loves Steve, and Steve cares for Loki, it is also clear that Loki is Steve’s in the same way the Soldier was once property, and Loki must comply the same way he once complied.

But no, not the same way. Steve never gives an order Loki doesn’t cheerfully obey, usually asks what Loki wishes before a command. In fact, Loki even asks to be given orders. He asked to be ordered to look after…

It makes no sense. He’s not like one of the other soldiers, he’s not like one of Tony’s robots, but somehow he doesn’t make his own choices, either.

Still… he is kind. Loki makes sure he eats and is clean and Loki tends to his clothes and room, and he shows the Soldier amusements around the tower. And it’s important that Loki makes Steve happy. He doesn’t know why that’s so important to him, but it is. He wants Steve to be happy.

He has been in the tower two weeks when a doctor arrives for Loki. She arrives with another woman, and Steve fetches Loki and takes him to medical. They both seem nervous and excited so he follows them, silently. Loki is made to lie down and the two women move a piece of equipment closer to him. The machine is electrical, with wires and a screen, and the Soldier is suddenly anxious on Loki’s behalf, afraid this machine will hurt Loki, but they all seem unbothered, so he tries to put his anxiety aside. Loki moves his clothes and they squirt something on Loki’s belly and move some device over the skin, and he doesn’t understand what’s happening, but it seems familiar, like he has been scanned by similar machines, but he can’t quite remember.

The woman doing the scan exclaims something, excited, and Steve and Loki and the doctor all chatter excitedly, too, but he isn’t close enough to make out what they’re saying. Steve sinks into a chair, one hand on his head, the picture of stunned disbelief. Loki is laughing like he’ll never stop, and when the substance on his stomach is wiped away, Loki puts his hands over his belly as though holding something gently, and this is definitely familiar, and a light comes on in his mind, his mother telling him he’s going to be a big brother again, and this memory makes him jump, and he knocks into a table, sending something clattering to the floor.

And Steve is up so fast, and on him, but when he sees it’s him he stops and laughs, brings him back to where Loki and the doctors are and points at the screen on the device.

“Twins, Buck, can you believe it?” Steve says. “It’s going to be twins!”

And the Soldier looks down at Loki, who is smiling up at Steve, all love and pride, and he says, “inside you?”

“Yes, inside me,” Loki confirms, then says to Steve, “you didn’t tell him?”

Steve looks embarrassed, and the Soldier knows that look so well he feels a rush of nostalgia for moments he can’t actually recall. “I thought you told him,” Steve says.

Loki laughs and shakes his head. “No, I didn’t.”

Steve smiles sheepishly. “Well, okay,” he says. “It’s… well, Loki is pregnant, and, um, I’m the dad. And apparently now there are two of them.”

The Soldier looks back and forth from Loki to Steve. “How?” he says.

Steve looks even more embarrassed. “Well, you know, Buck, in the usual way…”

One of the doctors interrupts. “Loki also has female genitals,” she explains. “Although he is male, he has a womb capable of carrying a fetus. Or more than one, as the case may be.”

He looks at Loki again, and he must have a look on his face, because the doctor adds, “don’t try to overthink it. We live in a world of miracles and wonders, and this is just one more.”

He reaches for Loki’s belly before he realizes what he is doing, but he manages to stop himself before he actually touches, and his mind is a tangle of memories about his own mother, his little brother and sisters, the youngest born in their tenement bedroom during a storm so fierce the nurse couldn’t travel through the flooded streets.

“My mother used to say you should eat a lot of ice cream, so the babies will be sweet,” he says, and Loki grins.

“Advice I shall surely take to heart,” Loki says. “And you may touch me, if you like. They haven’t quickened yet, but I don’t mind.”

He looks to Steve, who nods, so he lets his fingertips settle on the slightly rounded tummy. Loki’s flesh is cool, and it startles him, but then Loki puts his own hand over the Soldier’s and murmurs, “it’s all right. The doctor says they are well.”

And he realizes that though he vowed never to kill again, he would break that vow with no remorse should anyone threaten the tiny beings growing inside Loki.

+++

Steve:

After Loki’s exam, Dr. Kinross took Steve and Bucky aside and passed a business card to Steve. “Tony asked me to recommend a neurosurgeon for Sergeant Barnes,” she said, “and I’ve talked to Christine Palmer. She’s extremely gifted, and was mentored by the most skilled surgeon in this part of the country. She’s very interested in meeting with all of you and being part of the team to develop a replacement prosthetic. To be quite honest, I think the idea of a completely integrated and functional limb engineered by Tony Stark has her already writing her acceptance speeches for all the awards they’re going to win, but if you’re going to exclude surgeons for arrogance, you’ll be left with two or three medical students, so… Anyway, here’s her card. She’s expecting your call.”

“Thanks, I’ll pass this along to Tony,” Steve said, then shot a look at Bucky. “I mean, if that’s okay…”

Bucky shrugged. “It won’t hurt to talk to her,” he said, and Steve nodded reassuringly.

+++

Tony called Dr. Palmer as soon as Steve gave him the card and strong-armed her into joining them for dinner and a consultation that evening.

She arrived a little late, apologizing and explaining she’d been in surgery. Tony and Steve waved off her concerns and they quickly convened in a conference room that had, with the addition of a table-cloth and floral centerpiece, been reconfigured into a dining room. Loki had prepared several dishes and when everything had been served, Tony came straight to the point.

“I’m not so much concerned about the prosthetic itself,” he began. “The technology’s at least thirty years old and I’ve already started a virtual re-design. And I can get started on the fabrication as soon as I get a go from Sergeant Barnes. What I’m really worried about is the biological interface. I mean, anatomy’s not my specialty, but it’s a horror show in there. Wires wrapped around nerves, threaded through bone…”

“Tony,” Steve said gently, nodding towards Bucky.

“Sorry, Bucky,” Tony said. “I’m just furious at whoever did this to you.”

“Do you have scans available?” Dr. Palmer asked politely, but Steve thought he detected the same sort of eagerness in her voice that he’d often heard in Tony’s when he was really intrigued by a new problem, He was confident Bucky would be in good hands.

After dinner, Tony brought up his holograms and showed Dr. Palmer (“No, please, call me Christine”) the various scans he’d done of Bucky, and she shared his horror, as well as his assessment that Bucky would do better if his enhanced healing was given a chance to undo seven decades worth of damage.

Christine was then given a tour of Tony’s workshop and the medical bay, both of which impressed her, and then they all sat down again.

“So, Buck,” Steve said anxiously. “What do you think?”

“Take your time,” Christine said. “I know you’ve suffered a lot of trauma and I suspect you’re in pain a good deal of the time now, but I promise you, I will do everything I can to make that stop forever. Can you trust me to do that?”

Bucky looked at her, his expression closed off, for a long time. “When the arm comes off,” he finally said, “the pain is worse. I don’t… want that.”

“No, of course not,” Christine said emphatically. “In fact, the goal is to make this as pain-free as possible.”

“Absolutely,” Tony averred. “That’s why I brought a neurosurgeon in on this. If you don’t come out of this with no pain at all, I see no reason to go any further.”

“And that is definitely achievable,” Christine said. “I’ve been reading all the literature I can about Captain Roger’s healing factor, and even if your version is only at fifty-percent of his, by the time you’ve recovered from general anesthesia, you shouldn’t feel more than some mild discomfort.”

“Err, about that,” Steve interrupted. “It takes a lot to keep me under. Regular gas won’t do it. Bruce has been working on some super-tranquilizers for the Hulk we think might do the trick, but we’d have to test them…”

“I could do it,” Loki said. “I could use the charm I cast back in Washington. I believe that, working in concert with a medical anesthetic, would render our patient sufficiently insensible. I could also use healing magic to ease the pain as much as possible.”

“And obviously we’re not going to remove anything until we’ve tested all of this completely,” Tony said.

And now all eyes were on Bucky. “It’s okay,” Steve said. “You don’t have to decide now.”

“No,” Bucky said. “I want to. You don’t even have to replace it, if you can stop it hurting. It’s okay if I’m a cripple…”

“Bucky, you will not be a cripple,” Steve said firmly. “Tony will find a way.”

“Thanks,” Tony said. “Also, fellas? ‘Cripple’ not a word we use anymore, kind of like ‘Oriental’ and ‘dame.’ Make a note.”

“Sorry,” Steve mumbled, while Bucky actually looked like he was trying to commit Tony’s advice to memory.

“I’ll coordinate my schedule at the hospital,” Christine said. “If we can figure out a general anesthetic quickly, I’d like to operate as soon as possible.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Steve said, feeling a tear come to his eye at the thought of Bucky being healed. “Really, I owe you.”

+++

The initial tests were an unqualified success, as far as everyone concerned agreed. The medical bay, now refitted as a surgical suite, had allowed Dr. Palmer, Loki, and an anesthetist to put Bucky under with a combination of the highest possible concentration of gas and a spell maintained by Loki, seated by Bucky’s head and pressing his fingers to Bucky’s temples. Afterward, Bucky affirmed he’d been completely unconscious.

After that, it was scan after scan of Bucky’s muscles and bones, and how they connected to his arm, until Dr. Palmer was at last satisfied they could perform the procedure safely and successfully. They started early, to allow for complications, so it was just past dawn as Bucky endured shots and tests, and Steve gave Loki specific and firm orders to keep Bucky under. Doctor Palmer and her team, five surgeons and technicians in all, did troubleshooting on their equipment and carefully laid out scalpels and clamps, and Tony arranged for his holograms to follow their commands.

With one last look at Steve, part fearful but part hopeful, too, Bucky laid down on the table and let the technician place the mask over his face. Behind him, Loki gently touched his temples, and Steve saw him slip into unconsciousness.

Steve knew he wasn’t doing any good pacing in the hallway outside the operating room, least of all to himself. Even Tony had left after a few minutes, confident he’d be informed if he were needed, and he, at least, had an understanding of the construction of the cybernetic arm. Steve had no useful skills or information; Bucky wasn’t even aware he was there, but Steve felt like he needed to be present, to watch through the glass walls, to offer what moral support he could. Every so often Loki caught his eye and smiled and nodded, and Steve let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding.

Finally the arm came off, and from the way the assistant held it, and the sound it made when it hit the cart, Steve realized it weighed far more than an arm of flesh and blood. Loki and the anesthesiologist looked to Dr. Palmer as she gave them some sort of instruction, and she moved the holographic images to give her a better view.

The next phase of the surgery was not as neat as the removal of the arm, and Steve tried not to think too much about the slurry of blood and tissue that filled the surgical tray where they deposited the wires and bits of metal they extracted from Bucky’s shoulder.

The surgery seemed to go on and on, as Jarvis scanned over and over, and always seemed to discover one more part hiding deep in Bucky’s body. At some point the surgical team turned Bucky over, and Steve watched despairingly as Dr. Palmer cut metal pieces out of Bucky’s back.

It was late afternoon when they finished at last. Two more medical personnel Steve hadn’t even realized had arrived entered the operating room to stitch Bucky’s skin back together and bandage his wounds, while Dr. Palmer and the rest of the team withdrew. One surgical assistant only made it as far as the corner of the room before collapsing in exhaustion.

But Loki stayed at his position until the last, keeping Bucky deeply asleep until he was wheeled away to recovery.

Steve rushed into the O.R., gathering Loki up into his arms.

“Let me take you to your room,” Steve murmured. “You need to rest.”

“It’s alright,” Loki said. “Your shield-brother should awaken within minutes. It should be your face he first sees.”

Steve kissed Loki gently, gratefully, and carried him to Bucky’s recovery room. He was relieved to find (and realized he should have expected, given Tony’s supervision) the room large and comfortable, with sofas and chairs for visitors. Steve lowered Loki into one, and turned to the bed where Bucky was resting.

Bucky’s eyes blinked open and he looked up and gave a weak smile.

“Hey, Steve,” he said. “How’d it go?”

“It was harrowing,” Steve admitted. “How are you feeling?”

Bucky stared at Steve, his eyes slowly widening, and he twisted to look at the thick bandaging around his shoulder and chest. “I… it doesn’t hurt me, Stevie,” he said, and tears came into his eyes. “Oh, God. It’s… I’d forgotten what this feels like. Stevie… it’s been so long…”

“I know, Buck,” Steve said, taking his friend’s hand and giving a reassuring squeeze. “We’re going to take care of you now.”

“Thanks, Stevie,” Bucky said, his voice trailing off as he fell into a more natural sleep.

Steve sighed with relief, and turned back to Loki only to find the demigod curled up asleep on his couch. Steve quickly found some extra blankets and draped one over Loki before settling down in an armchair himself.

+++

Bucky’s recovery from his surgery, while not as fast as Steve’s would have been under the same circumstances, was still remarkable. By the end of the next day he was out of bed and rehabbing his back and shoulder. Within three days, he was meeting with Tony and Dr. Palmer on how best to reconstruct and reconfigure the cybernetic arm, and on the fourth day he was given a full body MRI. Dr. Palmer was even a little speechless at his progress and kept him several more hours to undergo a full spectrum of tests. When she consulted with him afterward, she was even able to show how his healing had progressed from morning to afternoon.

Dr. Palmer also showed Bucky scans of his brain done by Jarvis and compared them to scans done at the hospital. “And I’ll be completely honest with you,” she said, “I’ve never seen this before. In fact, no one in the history of medicine, as far as I know, has seen this before. Your brain tissue… is healing. And brain tissue just doesn’t do that.”

“The serum?” Bucky asked. “Or magic?”

“Could be either,” Doctor Palmer said. “Both are so far beyond my experience that I hesitate to speculate. I’d like to consult with some of my colleagues, if you’d allow me.”

Bucky hesitated, so she added, “I would keep you entirely anonymous, of course.”

Slowly, Bucky nodded.

+++

Steve, of course, was overjoyed with the news. “This could mean a full recovery, Bucky. You could be back to your old self.”

But Bucky only looked pained at Steve’s reaction. “The doc said probably not,” he explained. “If those memories were destroyed, they’re gone. But if they’re in there anywhere, she thinks eventually I’ll remember them.”

“Well, that’s good news, isn’t it?” Steve said.

“I guess,” Bucky agreed half-heartedly.

“What did she say about your arm?” Steve asked, and Bucky gave a wry smile.

“She did joke about just letting it go and see what happens,” Bucky said. “Maybe it’ll grow back, like a lizard’s tail.”

“Really?” Steve said, and Bucky gave a bark of laughter.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “But it’s healing. She thinks they can start implanting the architecture in a day or two, and I should get a new arm sometime next week.”

“That’s great news,” Steve said.

“Indeed,” Loki agreed. “To celebrate, I’ll make your favorite food tonight. What would you prefer?”

Bucky’s brown creased as he gave the matter a bit of thought. “Pot roast? With potatoes, I guess?” he finally said.

“Sounds delicious,” Loki said reassuringly. “I’ll have the grocery…”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Jarvis piped up suddenly. “But Miss Romanov has arrived and is on her way to your floor.”

Steve and Loki exchanged looks, then Steve turned to Bucky. “I really don’t want her to see either of you until I find out what she’s here for,” he said. “Why don’t you stay here and I’ll…”

Tony’s voice came over the intercom, but it sounded hollow, like he was being picked up randomly. “Hey, Nat. Good to see you. Caught you on C-SPAN. Your hair looked great…”

“Out of my way, Stark,” came Natasha’s voice. “I need to talk to him.”

“Can you narrow it down,” Tony said. “Kind of a sausage-fest at the tower these days…”

“I don’t have time for your jokes,” Natasha said. “The internationally-wanted criminal you’ve been harboring?”

Steve, Loki, and Bucky exchanged another look, and Steve gestured for the other two to retreat further into his apartment.

“Again, I’m going to need you to be specific,” Tony said. “That could really be anyone…”

“James. Buchanan. Barnes,” Natasha said, and it sounded as though she was speaking through gritted teeth. “The Winter Soldier? Spent the last fifty years assassinating international leaders and creating political unrest? Last heard from furthering Hydra’s interest? Presumed killed in the helicarrier crash in the Potomac, but I’m pretty sure Rogers added him to his little lost boys’ club? Big metal arm? Any of this ringing some bells, Stark?”

“Big metal arm, you say?” Tony repeated, but Steve could hear he sounded rattled. “Let me have Jarvis check my Instagram followers…”

There was a thump and Natasha shouted, “cut the bullshit, Stark! Either I talk to him now, or I report back to SHIELD, and they take this place apart.”

Bucky moved towards the door. “She’s working alone,” he murmured. “We can contain this. Do you trust her, Steve?”

Loki began shaking his head slowly, but Steve said, “after this last mission, yes. But Bucky, you don’t have to do this…”

“I do, Steve,” Bucky said. “I can’t keep running, and I can’t bring this down on you and Tony. I should at least talk to her.”

Steve set his mouth, determined, then nodded. Bucky moved past him and exited into the hallway, Steve at his side and Loki trailing behind. They found Tony and Natasha in the elevator lobby. Natasha pushed past Tony and began speaking to Bucky rapidly in Russian. Bucky gave occasional one-word answers and nodded, then began speaking back, his words obviously measured and without inflection. At one point Natasha shot a look at Steve, but as he was unable to follow the conversation, it meant nothing to him.

They exchanged a bit more conversation, then Natasha turned to Steve. “I’ve been working with SHIELD to take out the remaining Hydra cells,” she said. “And I’ve been getting some interesting information about the Winter Soldier program. For starters, it looks like Sergeant Barnes was just the prototype. I believe, and he was just able to confirm, that Hydra’s been trying to recreate the formula that makes super soldiers. So far, it hasn’t gone as well as they’d hoped. So far, Barnes is their greatest success.”

“And my version is pretty shitty, to be honest,” Bucky said, and Loki patted his back sympathetically.

“Anyway, Barnes was able to give me names and locations,” Natasha went on, “and that moves our mop-up operations ahead of schedule. But here’s the thing. There’s a book, a kind of Winter Soldier operating manual. Everything the promising megalomaniac needs to make Barnes into an obedient killing machine again.”

Steve turned to Bucky, who seemed to be trying not to look at anything.

“But he’s healing,” Steve said. “All the implants have been removed.”

“It’s not mechanical,” Natasha said. “It’s conditioning. They say ten specific words in a specific order; Bucky Barnes goes away and the Winter Soldier is ready for his mission.”

“Bullshit,” Tony said. “He’s been fine since he’s been with us. Well, not fine, exactly, but certainly not violent.”

“No, Tony,” Bucky said quietly. “It’s how it works. Believe me, I fought it, but…”

“Does SHIELD know any of this?” Steve asked Natasha.

“Not yet,” she said. “But you know Intel. If the information is good enough, they aren’t too picky about where it came from. I can keep Barnes out of my report entirely. But I wanted to give you what I knew about the red book, and as a personal courtesy I can give you twenty-four hours before I bring it in. But that’s all I have.”

“I appreciate it,” Steve said sincerely. “Do you know where the book is now?”

“There’s a facility in Siberia…”

“I know it,” Bucky said.

“This is all yours, Rogers,” Natasha said. “That’s all I can give you now. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Steve said. “This helps us a lot.”

Natasha straightened up and nodded at Steve and Bucky, then turned to Tony. “As always, thank you for the hospitality, Stark.”

“Anytime,” Tony said.

“And Loki,” Natasha said, “nice to see you. You’re looking good. Clearly Midgard food agrees with you, but from one hot babe to another, I’d lay off the carbs if I were you.” And with another nod to Steve, she was gone.

+++

Within minutes, all four men were gathered in Tony’s workroom. Jarvis and Bucky were going over satellite maps, trying to pinpoint the location of the Siberian facility while Steve and Tony talked strategy.

“Could you fly us in?” Steve asked.

“They’d spot you,” Bucky interrupted. “It’s barren terrain for fifty miles in every direction. A small team might be able to approach on foot, if the weather was in their favor.”

“What about Loki?” Tony suggested. “You have command of his magical powers. He could teleport, use illusions…”

Steve turned to Loki. “What do you think? Could you do it?”

Loki did not look up. He was only staring at where his fingers were gripping the edge of the table.

“Loki?” Steve said. “Are you with us?”

“I… I…” Loki shuddered. “She knows,” he said. “About the babies. She knows.”

Steve crossed to Loki in three strides and gathered him into his arms. “No, she doesn’t,” he said gently. “And even if she guessed, we came to some understandings on this last mission…”

Loki looked up and started struggling against Steve. “No, no, I have to get away from here. He’ll take them again.”

“Who?”

“Odin! Or Fury! Or… or…”

“Loki!” Steve said sharply, but Tony put a hand on his arm.

“Steve, take him upstairs,” Tony said quietly. “He needs to feel safe right now.”

Steve shook his head helplessly. “But…”

“Just take him,” Tony said. “I’ll get the facility layout from Bucky and we’ll go on when he’s ready.”

Steve nodded, knowing Tony was right, and lifted Loki up and carried him to the elevator. Loki’s struggling seemed to stop abruptly, and Steve realized the binding had taken effect. Steve’s heart sank, but he couldn’t think what orders would mitigate it without adding to Loki’s distress.

Back in his room, Steve settled Loki into the bed and wrapped him in their fur throw, then climbed in behind him and held him, Loki’s back against his chest. He could feel Loki’s heart hammering and heard his quick, panting breaths, so he stroked his arms gently and whispered reassurances in his ear. After several minutes, Loki’s breathing evened out and he raised his hands to his face to rub at his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I overreacted.”

“No, you didn’t,” Steve said. “I didn’t consider how frightening this would be for you.”

Loki shivered. “I want them,” he whispered. “But they will not be bound to you, as I am. They could… I don’t…”

“Shh, it’s okay,” Steve said, stroking Loki’s arm again. “If it comes to it, I’ll fight for them. And we have powerful allies. Tony and Bruce. Your brother. But I don’t think it will come to that.”

“You are far more optimistic about your allies than I,” Loki said. “But perhaps, with Stark’s help, we can devise some charts that allow me to defend myself and the little ones. I wouldn’t have to kill anyone,” he added quickly. “But you could allow me to teleport away…”

“It’s a good idea,” Steve agreed. “But…”

“Yes, of course,” Loki said, rubbing his eyes again and rising from the bed. He stood still a moment, not looking at Steve, though Steve could see him fidgeting with his hand. “Will you,” he began, “order me to change my clothing? I wish to wear clothing that is not so soft.”

“Loki, I order you to wear whatever makes you most comfortable right now,” Steve said, and in a flash of green light, Loki was clad in his leather Asgardian clothes and the fur coat Steve had given him for Christmas. A moment later, almost as an afterthought, a golden circlet crowned his head.

“Better?” Steve asked, getting off the bed.

Loki took a steadying breath. “Yes,” he said. “Now let us devise our plan.”

When Loki re-entered Tony’s workshop, Bucky stood to meet him. “Are you okay?” Bucky asked, and Loki looked at him in surprise.

“I am better than I was,” he conceded. “Thank you.”

“I know this probably sounds ridiculous coming from me,” Bucky went on, “seeing as how I’m cr… disabled and missing most of my memory, but if it means anything at all, I would kill anyone who tried to take your babies or hurt any of you.”

Loki gave Bucky a kind, soft smile. “Thank you,” he said. “That really means a lot.”

Tony and Steve exchanged glances, and Tony cleared his throat. “Okay, we need to get this worked out and charted quickly,” he said. “Jarvis, I’m counting on you for an assist. Now Loki, would you be able to teleport to Siberia..?”

+++

In the interest of time and an infinite number of unknowns, Loki’s commands boiled down to, “get in, get the book, cause as little disturbance as possible, use whatever magic you deem necessary to accomplish these goals.” At first, Steve had argued for clauses forbidding Loki from killing anyone, but when Tony and Bucky both protested that plan, Steve conceded to “killing only when absolutely necessary.”

“I’ve miniaturized this radio as much as possible,” Tony explained, holding up a metal disk the size of a watch battery. “But since you may be shape-shifting, I’ll, ah…”

Loki looked at Tony expectantly, so he quickly blurted, “implant it under your, um… skin.”

Steve and Bucky both turned to Tony and stared, so Tony explained, “it’s perfectly harmless. I have several myself for summoning the Iron Man armor…”

“Tony, what the hell..?” Steve said, but Loki looked at the disk curiously.

“No, it’s quite remarkable,” Loki said. “Where were you going to implant it?”

“I, uh, thought your upper chest…”

Loki held out his hand. “May I?” he asked, and Tony placed the disk in his palm. Loki looked down at it, then slipped his hand inside his tunic and pressed it to his chest. “Like that?” he said, removing his hand to reveal a slight bump under the skin.

“How’d you do that?” Steve said.

“You did instruct me to use whatever magic I deemed necessary,” Loki said. “Or has the mission not yet begun?”

“No, that’s perfect,” Steve said.

“Yeah, I wish you’d been around when I was putting those in myself,” Tony said. “Let’s test it, Jarvis, activate Loki’s two-way…”

“I am not actually able to speak when I am in animal form,” Loki explained, “but if I can, I will tell you before I must change my shape.”

“And if you need orders, Steve will be right here,” Tony said. “Okay, you’re coming through loud and clear. Did you want to try transforming?”

Loki looked around nervously. “What shall I turn into?”

“How about a cat?” Tony suggested. “I like cats.”

“Very well,” Loki said, and in a cascade of green light, a black-coated cat stood where Loki had been.

“Holy shit!” Bucky gasped, stumbling back in shock.

“Yeah, for real,” Tony said.

Steve, who had spent several days experimenting with Loki to determine the extent of his powers, smiled proudly and bent down to gather the Loki-cat up in his arms. He stroked the black fur gently, and the cat rubbed his head against Steve’s chin and purred.

Tony pulled his headset off. “Still picking up,” he said. “Very loudly, in fact.”

“Sorry,” Steve said, setting Loki back down, where he transformed back to his usual form.

“That was fantastic!” Bucky said. “You’re amazing!”

Loki’s cheeks flushed at the praise. “Thank you,” he said.

“Stick with the Avengers, buddy,” Tony said, “and you’ll see things that’ll blow your mind.”

“Agreed,” Loki said. “When I return, I shall have to show you a demonstration of the full range of my abilities.”

“Speaking of,” Steve said. “Bucky, any last-minute information come to you?”

“No, I’ve told you everything I can remember,” Bucky said. “I wish it was more, but…”

“No, it’s fine,” Steve said. “Loki, are you ready?”

Loki gave one last look at the holographic maps. “Yes.”

“Okay,” Steve said, and took a deep breath. “Loki, begin mission.”

And in a flash of light, Loki vanished.

“Jarvis, how’s it look?” Tony said.

“Tracking, sir,” Jarvis said, and a green dot appeared on the map floating above them.

“I am approximately 500 meters from the entrance to the facility,” Loki’s voice came over the speakers. “I can see two guards, but they seem to be relying more on location and camouflage than fortification. I’m invisible right now, so I don’t anticipate any problems entering” The green dot on the map started moving, and there was a long silence. Steve held his breath.

When Loki spoke again, he was whispering. “There seems to be a lot of activity just now,” he said. “I am going to follow the next person who looks like a scientist.”

“Be careful,” Steve said.

“Of course,” Loki said, and there was another silence, even longer this time, finally broken by the sounds of machinery and voices speaking in Russian. Somewhere in the distance was the sound of a buzzer and a voice echoing on a loudspeaker.

“He’s… he’s near the reprogramming chamber,” Bucky said, his voice a little shaky. “Why would he..?”

Loki’s whisper came again. “I believe they are about to activate another Soldier,” he said. “I am in a room with several of the cryogenic pods you described. They are gathered around one and there is a chair…”

“How many pods?” Bucky asked.

“Eight.”

Bucky turned to Steve, his eyes wide with alarm. “They’ve stepped up the program. Loki, are there guards, armed men, they’d have automatic weapons..?”

“Yes, several,” Loki whispered. “Six that I can see.”

“He needs to get to safety,” Bucky said. “They need a new Winter Soldier, but there shouldn’t be this many. They’re pushing them. They’ll be unstable…”

“We need to shut the place down,” Tony interrupted. “Loki, can you use your magic to destroy everything and still get out safely?”

“Hold on,” Steve said. “I don’t want him destroying anything.”

“There’s no time to debate this,” Tony said. “We need to end this before they have a platoon of these guys.”

“Tony’s right,” Bucky said. “And they’ll be worse. They’re volunteers, true Hydra believers.”

“If I may interject,” Loki’s voice came over the speakers. “I can do it, but I will have to do it soon. They’ve just brought out the book.”

“Shit,” said Tony.

“Please, Stevie,” Bucky whispered, and Steve felt his heart sink.

“Okay, Loki,” he said firmly. “Grab the book, get out, and take every last one of them down.”

Loki’s voice came triumphantly over the speaker. “Yes, Master!”

+++

Thirty seconds later, Loki appeared in the workshop, waving a slim red book over his head like a trophy. He was panting and a wide smile split his face. “I got it!” he shouted. “I took it right out of his hand!”

Tony pointed at his holographic screen. “Jarvis! Live satellite feed!”

The screen showed a featureless ice field punctured with a blackened, smoking crater. As they watched, four more explosions dotted it.

Loki handed Steve the book, then went down on one knee, a somehow less subservient position than his usual “rest.”

“They are dead. All of them,” he declared.

Steve nodded gravely. He couldn’t say he was entirely thrilled that Loki was seeming to take such pride in murdering a few dozen human beings, but on the other hand, if it added a layer of safety for Bucky (and the rest of the world) well… at least it had been quick and clean. “Thank you, Loki,” Steve said. “You’ve done very well.”

“It was my pleasure to serve you in this,” Loki said, and he looked over at Bucky, who, for the first time since D.C., actually had a look of relief. “Now you are my shield-brother, too,” he said.

“Thank you, Loki,” Bucky said.

Steve reached out his hand to help Loki stand, and the demigod instead leapt up, wrapping his legs around Steve’s waist and his arms over Steve’s shoulders. Steve only just managed to stay upright, then Loki was kissing him quite thoroughly. Steve handed the book off to Tony and returned the kiss.

When they finally broke, Steve cupped Loki’s jaw and eased the demigod’s head onto his shoulder. “And now, gentlemen,” Steve announced with as much dignity as was possible with Loki clinging to him like a koala, “I am going for a long-overdue sojourn on Quilt Island.” And he marched, still holding Loki, into the elevator.

As the doors slid closed he heard Bucky ask, “what the hell does that mean?” followed by a burst of Tony’s laughter.

+++

Tony:

Tony found himself consumed with the project of James “Bucky” Barnes. On the one hand was the physical: the new cybernetic arm. The mechanics he understood, and using the Hydra model as a template, he was able to design what he considered a vastly improved version. And for the biological interface, that was to say, Bucky himself, he had Christine Palmer, who was the perfect counterpart as far as Tony was concerned. Christine’s expertise began precisely where Tony’s ended, on the surface of Bucky’s skin.

Tony normally didn’t care for collaboration, preferred to trust his own intellect, but with Christine it was different, like a trapeze act. He created the machinery and it flew gracefully to her, to be caught by her neurological architecture, and the two became one, a perfectly integrated mechanism connected painlessly and flawlessly to Bucky’s central nervous system.

And to see him, Bucky Fucking Barnes, feel the arm for the first time, well, Tony didn’t believe in the divine, but if it did exist, it would have looked something like Bucky’s face when he pressed his metal fingers to flesh. Intellectually, Tony knew he was feeling an almost lifelike sensation: Temperature, force, resistance. But after seven decades of what Tony guessed was almost constant low-levels of pain interspersed with fairly intense pain, he could only vaguely imagine the relief of feeling only human sensation. It must be near-orgasmic.

Christine put Bucky through his paces, and Tony couldn’t believe Bucky’s patience as he spent hour upon hour manipulating balloons, marbles, nuts and bolts, a laptop keyboard. As, blindfolded, he identified the textures of velvet, glass, pebbled plastic, and corrugated cardboard. The first night, at dinner, he picked up a knife and fork, buttered his bread and twirled strands of spaghetti, seemingly for the sheer novelty.

Tony thought this might be the best work he’d ever done. Even greater than Iron Man.

Then, on the other hand, was Bucky’s mind. With the new arm in place and functional, Tony and Steve began working through the Red Book. With recommendations from Christine and Bruce and Tony’s military contacts, as well as from Steve’s friend Sam, Tony assembled an advisory board of the world’s top experts on trauma, PTSD, brain injury and mind control. Tony carefully parceled out the “how-to” sections of the book, asking for analysis and opinion on how to undo the damage that had been done, or at least render it neutral.

But the book was not especially helpful, for the most part. It seemed more like a text for the men who directed the Winter Soldier’s actions, the ones Bucky called his “handlers,” a word that never sounded as dehumanizing as the way Bucky said it. Tony studied the pages on the ten-word sequence that supposedly turned Bucky Barnes into the killing machine responsible for a score of assassinations, read the handwritten addenda from at least six “doctors” down through the years, and he still had trouble believing it.

Tony read about other sequences, too. There was one made of seven words that supposedly made him obedient, but in a malleable, complaisant way. The anonymous commentators noted this state was useful for lengthy travel, repetitive and tedious duties, and “maintenance of the asset.” In a footnote near the back was a handful of sentences suggesting this state could also be useful when “local entertainment” for the handlers was unavailable and “an outlet for release of tension” was desired. Tony felt bile rising in his throat as he grasped the thinly-veiled meaning of the passage, and it was all he could do not to rip the book into tiny, little pieces.

And finally was the passage on the “fail-safe” word, to be used if “the asset becomes unstable.” The idea of a single word stopping the Winter Soldier in his tracks was so laughable that Tony was almost convinced it was a joke, a recent addition by a bored technician, a time-released prank to be played on a future successor. But one afternoon, as Bucky was playing with some of Tony’s robots, Tony said “Sputnik” aloud. Bucky’s eyes rolled back and he crumpled to the floor, insensible, and Tony was forced to summon Steve and wait while Bucky “rebooted.” Tony didn’t think he’d ever be able to apologize enough, and he knew he’d never say that word again, not as long as he lived.

+++

Slowly, but noticeably, Bucky’s mind began to recover. Perhaps it was the therapy sessions one of Tony’s panel began to conduct via Skype, where he and Bucky spent hours deconstructing each word in the sequences, examining Bucky’s associations with “longing” or “furnace,” picking those feelings apart, until (hopefully) each word was analyzed into meaninglessness and lost all power. That was the theory, anyway. No one was in much of a rush to test it.

It could be Steve’s little strolls down memory lane, where they’d look at photographs or film clips, or page through Steve’s sketchbooks, and Steve would tell stories about the two of them. Tony sometimes eavesdropped, though he knew Steve would give him hell if he ever found out, but Tony couldn’t help it. He’d read some of the stories in official reports or various history books, or heard about them from Howard over and over growing up, but hearing Steve’s perspective was revelatory. For instance, every schoolchild knew about Captain America’s daring rescue of Bucky in Germany, but to learn Steve specifically defied orders to pull it off, went charging in wearing borrowed fatigues and carrying a stage-prop shield, well… even Tony had to admire Steve’s reckless bravery. And while Tony never thought much about Steve as a boy, hearing about the things he and Bucky got up to as kids made him want to build a time machine and an anti-aging ray and zap himself back to 1920’s Brooklyn and play a few rounds of Red Rover.

+++

Tony knew Bucky was training. He wrestled and sparred with Steve, and with Loki he practiced with his knives. Sometimes he went to the basement where there was a shooting range Tony thought Clint might have used once, or maybe Natasha. He honestly didn’t remember, it had been unused so long. But Bucky was there every day, a different weapon each time. He’d break it down, clean it carefully, reassemble it, then shoot at the paper targets until they fell apart.

One night, at dinner, Steve started talking about a mission he thought he might take. SHIELD was still rooting out the pockets of Hydra that were hiding under rocks in godforsaken places, and there was a particularly nasty nest that looked like it might need Avengers to dig them all out. Tony was weighing in with his two cents when he had a sudden thought.

“Hey, Bucky, what do you think about joining us in the field?” he said. “These guys start running, we could use someone with a keen eye and a cool head.”

Bucky froze, a forkful of braised lamb and couscous (Loki had recently discovered Pinterest) halfway to his mouth. Steve and Loki both looked at him expectantly, but he didn’t speak for several seconds.

“I, uh, haven’t really thought about it,” he said.

“Do you think you’d like to be back in the field?” Steve said. “Tony’s right, you have a lot of skills…”

Bucky’s fork dropped to the plate, making a loud crash. “Actually, since you’re asking,” he said, his voice raised and suddenly angry, “the answer’s no. I’m done with that, okay?”

“Uh, okay,” Steve said, suddenly taken aback. “I just thought…”

Bucky tensed and everyone in the room felt it.

“Have you thought about what you might do now?” Loki interjected smoothly. “I mean, the world is open to you.”

Bucky picked up his fork and took a bite before he answered. “Well, I’m done with the army,” he said, his voice low and rough. “I never wanted that.”

Steve blinked in surprise. “Buck…”

“No, Steve, that was all you,” Bucky said. “They drafted me.”

“But you told me…”

“I didn’t tell you,” Bucky said, his voice low again. “You assumed and I didn’t correct you. You’d never have understood, Steve. All you wanted was to join the army. How could I tell you all I wanted was to stay out?”

Steve and Bucky stared at each other, Steve dumbfounded and Bucky equal parts sad and defiant.

“How long have you remembered this?” Steve finally asked.

Bucky dropped his eyes and began poking at his food again. “I don’t talk about everything I remember,” he said. “Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be any point. The war ended seventy years ago, and all the history books say I enlisted, so let it go. Nobody cares.”

Steve took a deep breath. “You were a good soldier, Bucky.”

“Maybe,” Bucky said. “But now I’m ready to stop.”

Tony cleared his throat, determined to cut the tension if he could. “Speaking as someone who quit the war business myself,” he said, “now’s an excellent time to get in on the ground floor of peace.”

“Indeed,” Loki agreed. “Leave war to the warriors. What is of interest to you now?”

Bucky glanced up, and Tony saw a look of uncertainty in his eyes. “Well… I was thinking I might go to college,” he said. “It wasn’t an option for guys like me back then, but I’ve been reading stuff online and there’s lots of older fellas going, and I know it’s expensive, but maybe I can get some kind of work and take classes, or you can even go online now…”

Tony waved one hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “We’ll work something out. What did you want to study?”

“I, uh… well…” Bucky seemed suddenly hesitant, but pushed on. “I really love your robots, Tony, and the arm you made for me is amazing. And I thought, you know, maybe I could learn to do something like that.”

Tony felt a sudden, irrational rush of pride. “My company definitely has scholarships for that,” he said. “In fact, I could start you as an intern, let you figure out what field of engineering really excites you, get you enrolled in the best program, with the option to hire when you earn your degree, of course.”

Now it was Bucky’s turn to be dumbfounded. “Gee, Tony, you’d really do that for me?”

“Tony, that would be so generous,” Steve agreed.

“We do it all the time,” Tony said. “Want to lock in the best and brightest. I’ll talk to HR, see what we can work out.”

“You should introduce him to the combat robot team, as well,” Loki put in.

“Excellent idea,” Tony said. “We’ll plan a visit to their lab.”

“Thanks, Tony, I really owe you,” Bucky said.

“Not at all,” Tony said. “I’ve seen you with DUM-E and U. You’re going to be great.”

+++

Tony found himself falling in love with the idea of Bucky in engineering school. And Loki’s suggestion about the combat robot team was a good one. NYU had a great program, Bucky could still live at the tower and commute, and the team were a wonderful bunch of kids, nerdy and enthusiastic, and warm and welcoming to anyone interested in meeting them. Tony had seen them talking to children and other fans, and he knew they’d take Bucky in as one of their own.

And Bucky took their conversation as permission to spend more time in Tony’s workroom, watching Tony work, playing with the robots, and asking Jarvis question after question. Tony had to admit Bucky’s questions were smart ones, and he was looking forward to getting Bucky enrolled for the fall semester.

So one morning when Bucky didn’t appear, it was unusual enough for Tony to notice. Steve only said Bucky was “working on something” and had begged off, but when lunch passed and still no Bucky, Tony was curious. By mid-afternoon, he was concerned. Then, as it was getting on towards dinner, Bucky finally appeared, Steve at his side.

And, well, neither one of them looked good. Steve was tense, nervous, and looking at Bucky as anxiously as Tony had ever seen. But Bucky… Bucky looked absolutely wrecked. His hands and lips were shaking, and his eyes were swollen as though he had been crying.

“Tony, Bucky found…” Steve began, but Bucky cut him off with a look.

“No, Stevie, I gotta tell it,” Bucky said, and he turned back to Tony. “I’m so sorry, Tony,” he said. “I know you’re going to hate me, and right now I hate myself.”

Tony felt his blood turn to ice water. He didn’t know what Bucky was about to say, but he knew in the deepest part of himself it was bad.

“I, uh, I was watching these old films, you know?” Bucky said, his voice shaking. “Stuff from the war. And, uh, in one of them there was, it was… your father was there.”

“Yeah, he worked with the SSR,” Tony affirmed. “Knew all you guys. He talked about it a lot.”

“Yeah. I… remembered,” Bucky said. “And then, I, I remembered, some other, some stuff from after…”

“Did Howard do something?” Tony guessed. “Because I know he liked you guys, but he could be kind of a bastard…”

“No, no, it’s not that,” Bucky said, looking even more miserable. “It was, I…” He looked down, his face a perfect mask of disgust and shame, and took a deep, steadying breath. “You know what Hydra had me do?” he asked.

Tony nodded, and felt understanding begin to form just at the edge of his mind. The water in his veins began to freeze solid.

“I… I… your parents,” Bucky managed, and in an instant the ice inside Tony turned white-hot.

Later, Tony would say it felt like being outside his body, watching some other person launch himself at Bucky, knock him down and beat him nearly unconscious while Bucky just laid there and let him. Later, Steve would tell Tony that Bucky had expected it, and told Steve to let it happen if it did, even while Steve had argued that Tony would understand, that he’d be reasonable…

And when Tony finally rose from Bucky’s prone and beaten body, he’d turned on Steve. “Did you know?” he demanded.

“I knew Hydra did it,” Steve admitted. “I didn’t want to believe it was Bucky…”

“Get out,” Tony told him. “You son of a bitch. You take him and your fuckboy and get the fuck out! Now!”

And Steve had half-lifted Bucky and taken him out of the workshop and away from the tower, Loki following behind.

Chapter Text

Sergeant James Barnes:

He knew how Tony would react, how any man would react to his mother’s murderer. That wasn’t something you felt rational about. More important, he deserved it. Howard and his wife weren’t the only ones the Soldier had killed, not by a long shot, even though he didn’t remember any of the others yet. He would, he knew that now, and each one would hurt just as bad.

Steve had tried to argue him out of it, tell him it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t him, it was Hydra that made him do it, but it was him. He had the memories, he even had the memories of wanting to do it, carefully planning it out, and coming back, proudly presenting his handlers with the case full of serum, like a dog dropping a ball at their feet.

And when Tony had thrown them out, when Steve had taken him away, and Loki, always one step ahead of them all, had met them in the elevator lobby wearing his beloved fur coat and carrying his little collection of belongings in a plastic bag, the Soldier had almost laughed with relief that the world was finally treating him the way he deserved.

They hadn’t gone far, a few blocks to a diner Steve knew, and they’d sat in a booth in the back, and Steve had tried to fuss and he’d slapped him away, but then Loki had wet a napkin to wipe away the blood on his face, and for some reason the Soldier had let him.

They hadn’t even been there long enough for Steve to call somebody before Tony was sliding into the booth with them, silent but still red-faced, with grief or anger, the Soldier couldn’t tell.

“I need time to process this,” Tony said. “So I’m going away for a while. I need two hours to pack and make some explanation to Pepper, but then you can come back to the tower. When I’m ready, we can figure out where to go from there.”

The Soldier nodded. It was more than fair, really.

“My dad loved you guys,” Tony went on, not looking at any of them. “Probably loved you more than anybody else in his whole life. I hate that it was you who did it. I can only imagine what went through his mind when he saw you.”

“Tony, I…” Steve started, and Tony did look up then, his eyes hard and furious.

“Don’t you say one goddamned word, Rogers,” Tony said, then repeated, “two hours,” and slid out of the booth and was gone.

+++

When they got back to the tower, it was eerily silent. Steve stepped off the elevator on their floor and just sagged, defeated. “Loki,” he said quietly. “Could you please heal any injuries Bucky has…”

“No, I don’t need…” he began, and Steve cut him off.

“Dammit, Bucky, could you not hang yourself on a fucking cross?” Steve said sharply. “Just… let him heal you, okay? I need to go to the gym and just… punch some things.” And he stomped back into the elevator.

“He’ll be okay,” Loki assured him, guiding him into his room and settling him on the edge of the bed.

“You don’t have to…”

“Shh. It’s alright,” Loki said, putting cool fingers on his face. “You’re half-healed already. I’m just giving you a little assist, as Stark would say.”

The Soldier felt a warm tingle on his skin, and the pain lifted. “Thanks,” he said.

Loki’s fingers curled around the hem of his shirt and began to lift. “Now your torso,” Loki said, and he let Loki pull it off.

“I thought this would be much worse,” Loki said, and he touched his fingertips to each purpling bruise and soothed it away. His skin seemed to spark each place Loki touched, and he caught Loki’s hand in his.

“That’s enough,” he said. “You are Steve’s.”

Loki looked up at him, his eyes wide. “I was not…”

“No, I know,” he said. “But I don’t trust myself right now. It’s probably better if you go.”

Loki said nothing, only nodded warily, then fled the room.

The Soldier threw himself across the bed, his mind twisting in and out of darkness. Loki’s hands on him had awakened new memories, of himself and a thin, blond boy on a cold, narrow cot, their hands fumbling under one another’s clothes. Of a kiss, furtively stolen in a dark corner of a Coney Island funhouse. And a passionate embrace, in the midnight darkness in a late-autumn apple orchard, the fruit abandoned and rotting on the ground because the orchard workers had all gone to war. The sick-sweet smell filled his nostrils, the sense memory so strong he almost choked on it.

+++

In the morning, the previous day hit him as soon as his eyes opened, a sharp, painful glare, like a shutter thrown suddenly open, blinding and terrible. He had murdered Tony’s parents. Tony, a man who had taken him into his home, had moved heaven and earth to help rebuild his body and mend his broken mind, had promised him a future as a whole man.

It was unthinkable, a horrific turn of fate, like the stories of mortals cursed by gods he used to read about as a kid.

And the other memories, too, filling out now, vague forms and shadowed faces coming into the light. Little Stevie, who’d trusted him, looked up to him, and he’d taken advantage of that for his own perverted urges. He’d ruined a good man, and now he was lusting after Loki, Steve’s, well… wife, maybe? He still didn’t understand Loki, but he did look after Steve and keep house, and now he was carrying Steve’s children somehow, so…

It didn’t matter. He was Steve’s, and thus off-limits. But yet, he was having thoughts. Thoughts about both of them, if he was honest. And it was disgusting. He was disgusting.

Maybe this was something else the doctors could fix.

+++

Steve:

It was well after midnight before Steve decided he’d done enough damage to the tower’s gym, and he dragged himself, sick at heart, up to his rooms. No surprise, Loki was there already, curled under the fur blanket on their bed. Steve thought he might be sleeping at first, but then he saw the blue glow of a Starkpad illuminating the alien’s face.

“Hey, beautiful,” Steve said softly, enjoying a moment of happiness when Loki gave him a small, pleased smile and sat up a bit, revealing his already naked torso. “What are you reading tonight?”

“One of your biographies, actually,” Loki said, pulling himself further up. “Did you know there were more than twenty?”

“I did know that, yes,” Steve said. “But I can’t vouch for their accuracy. I’ve never been interviewed for one. Why are you reading that, anyway? You could just ask me.”

“I suppose I am trying to understand the world you grew up in,” Loki said. “Your culture moves so fast.”

Steve stripped out of his clothes and slid into bed next to Loki. “What did you want to know?”

“You and Bucky were friends as boys, yes?” Loki asked.

“Best friends,” Steve affirmed.

“Did you really live with his family?”

“Not exactly,” Steve said. “Our families lived in the same building. After my mother died, Mrs. Barnes asked me to move in. She and Ma had been close, and Mrs. Barnes helped take care of her when she got sick. But I wanted to take care of myself, and I did, mostly, but sometimes I’d get bad asthma attacks, and sometimes I’d get fevers, and she’d make me stay in Bucky’s room and make Bucky sleep on the floor, so she could keep an eye on me.”

Loki regarded Steve thoughtfully for a moment. “Would you order me to keep speaking with you?” he said. “I do not wish to be interrupted.”

“Sure,” Steve said, and gave the appropriate commands.

“So,” Loki began, “did he stay on the floor?”

Steve frowned. “What?”

“Were you and Bucky..?” Loki let the question hang.

Steve scoffed. “No, we were just friends.”

Loki gave Steve a withering look. “You think you can fool me, the god of lies? Really?”

Steve sighed and rolled his eyes. “Okay,” he said, “you want historical context? Here goes. Men did not have relationships with other men at that time. It was illegal to sleep together. You could go to jail, lose your job, be kicked out of your apartment, and if people found out, well… let’s just say it was best if no one found out. Did Bucky and I fool around? Yes. But there was no future in it. Not then.”

“And what about now?” Loki asked.

Steve pulled Loki into his arms. “Loki, I’m with you now,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about…”

“I think you are misunderstanding me,” Loki said. “Sergeant Barnes is… very much alone here. I think he might like to be with someone again.”

“And you’d be okay with that?” Steve said.

“I trust you would not abandon me,” Loki said. “That our… ‘relationship’ would not suffer, provided we were open with one another.”

“Loki, Bucky didn’t remember his own name a few weeks ago,” Steve said. “He is far from ready to have a conversation about whether some adolescent petting means anything now. If what happened to us hadn’t happened, I have no doubt we’d both have married nice girls and settled down after the war. Maybe he still wants that, I don’t know. But I have you, now. You’re what I want. And before you know it, there’ll be kids and I’ll be shopping for a nice three-bedroom with a big yard in Syosset.”

Loki snuggled down into Steve’s arms. He always seemed to get extra-affectionate whenever Steve mentioned their future together, and it made Steve happy to indulge that.

“Listen,” Steve said after a few moments. “Let’s assume that after Tony calms down and gets back, and he will, we get Bucky involved in school and take him to the robot fights. He’ll meet people. He’ll keep healing. And maybe he’ll meet a nice girl. Or even a nice boy.”

Loki hummed in acknowledgement. “Still,” he said. “He has desires. For both of us, I think. Perhaps…”

Steve chuckled. “Oh, my God. You want him with us, don’t you?”

“I…” Loki’s cheeks went pink. “On Asgard, it…”

“Oh. ‘On Asgard,’ is it?” Steve said. “Or is it, ‘I’m Loki, god of hedonism, and why have one fella in my bed when I can have two?’ Hmm?”

“You’re a cruel, petty master,” Loki said, but his voice was filled with amusement. “To treat me with such contempt, when I supplicate myself for you…”

“Oh, I’ll show you supplication,” Steve growled, rolling over to pin Loki beneath him, and kissing and biting at his neck and jaw. Loki moaned with pleasure and ground his hips against Steve’s, their cocks sliding alongside each other, thickening and pressing heavily against their bellies.

Loki raised his knees, and wrapped his legs around Steve’s hips, then raked his fingers up Steve’s back, scratching up through the short hair at the back of Steve’s neck. Steve took hold of Loki’s hips, then slid his hands lower to squeeze just at the rise of Loki’s ass. Loki tipped his head back and gasped at the sensation.

Steve was able to steer Loki’s body under him, rubbing his cockhead against Loki’s soft folds, now wet and ready for him. Steve pressed his face against Loki’s throat and inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of a coming snowstorm.

“Loki,” Steve whispered, and thrust himself inside the demigod’s body. Loki arched up and cried out, and Steve groaned in response, and then he was taken up in the whirlwind of Loki’s passion, every nerve in his body focused on their shared pleasure.

+++

Jarvis woke them in the morning, with a gentle, “Captain Rogers, I have received a call for you.”

“Is it Tony?” Steve asked hopefully, sitting up.

“This is from Director Fury,” Jarvis said, and Steve felt Loki tense up beside him.

Steve rose from the bed and reached for his bathrobe. “Tell him I’ll call him back in twenty minutes.”

“Director Fury was really quite insistent…”

“Jarvis,” Steve interrupted. “I just woke up. Tell him I’ll call back.”

“Very good, Captain Rogers.”

“He’s going to send you away again,” Loki said, his voice starting to shake.

“He’s not my CO, Loki,” Steve said calmly. “He can’t ‘send’ me anywhere I don’t want to go.”

Loki looked at him doubtfully, but said nothing further, and rose after a moment to begin his duties for the day.

When Steve had washed and dressed he found Loki in the kitchen, frying some peppers and eggs while Bucky watched expectantly at the table.

“He’s not talking to me,” Bucky said when Steve had poured himself some coffee.

“Fury called me,” Steve explained. “Loki’s worried I’ll go on another mission.”

“Are you going to?” Bucky asked, and Loki half-turned towards them, clearly interested in the answer.

“I need to find out what it is,” Steve said, and Loki rolled his eyes and turned back to the pan.

“I can connect the director to the kitchen,” Jarvis said. “He is most emphatic…”

Steve stepped away from the table, so Bucky and Loki would be out of Fury’s line of sight. “Put him through, Jarvis.”

A holographic screen appeared in the air, and though Fury could only see Steve, he was in full view of the whole room.

“Thank you for getting out of bed long enough to talk to me,” Fury said sarcastically.

“Get to the point,” Steve said. “I actually do have better things to do.”

“Fine,” Fury said. “We’ve located a Hydra base, and we need all the Avengers to extract two of their assets and take the whole facility down.”

Steve glanced over at Bucky, who had gone suddenly tense, then looked back at Fury. “What kind of assets?”

“A brother and sister, twins, enhanced by unknown means,” Fury explained. “They’ve been Hydra’s… well, let’s say ‘guests,’ for some time. But we think they can be brought over. Hawkeye and Black Widow in particular are interested in extracting them unharmed.”

“All the Avengers,” Steve repeated. “Does that mean Tony, too?”

“He’s on his way to D.C. for briefing as we speak.”

Slowly, Loki began to shake his head, his face falling into a mask of misery. Bucky stood next to him and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“Is that everything?” Steve said. “Sure there aren’t any secret sub-missions I’m not privy to?”

“Break in, grab the kids, totally desolate the place on the way out,” Fury said. “That’s the mission.”

Steve took a deep breath. “I’ll call you back,” he said. “I need to discuss it with my better half. Rogers out.” And at Fury’s look of outrage, Jarvis collapsed the screen.

Bucky and Loki both began speaking at once, the demigod begging him not to leave, and Bucky telling him he had to. “Stop,” Steve shouted, holding up his hands, and the other two men fell silent. Bucky stared at him with a pained expression while Loki continued to shake his head slowly. Steve stepped over to Loki and enfolded him in his arms, even as Loki squeezed his eyes shut with anguish.

“I have to help them,” Steve said quietly. “You know that.”

Loki only squeezed his eyes shut more tightly, hot tears spilling onto his cheeks.

“Let him talk, Steve,” Bucky said, and Steve realized he’d told Loki to stop.

“Resume,” Steve said, and Loki choked out a sob.

“You can’t leave me again,” he cried. “Not even Stark is here to look after me. I will be lost without you.”

“This isn’t a full assignment, like last time,” Steve said. “It’s a simple extraction. Two days, and I’ll be back.”

“Your last promise ended with you in a hospital bed,” Loki said bitterly.

“Yes, it did,” Steve said. “It also ended with us discovering Hydra had taken over SHIELD, disrupting a plan that undoubtedly would have killed you, Tony, Bruce, and pretty much everyone else we know, and finding out Bucky was alive and rescuing him. So, all things considered, half a day unconscious was a small price to pay, I’d say.”

“You shame me for my fear,” Loki said.

“No,” Steve said. “At least, I don’t mean to. I know it puts you in the worst position imaginable to be separated from me. But until Hydra is completely eradicated, none of us are safe. I want more than anything to stay with you, but no one else can do this but me.”

Loki swiped at his eyes with his hand. “And who shall be holding my leash,” he said. “Or shall I await your return upon my knees?”

“I thought I might ask Pepper,” Steve said, not rising to the bait. “But who did you want?”

Loki looked taken aback. “I… I have not given it thought, but… perhaps Sergeant Barnes?”

“Me?” Bucky looked stricken. “I don’t understand how any of this works, Loki. I…”

“Jarvis could help,” Steve suggested. “He knows Loki’s routine, how the charts work. He’s available around the clock from anywhere in the tower…”

“I would agree with Captain Roger’s assessment,” Jarvis spoke up. “In fact, I believe Loki has reached a state where he could carry out most of his daily activities with little to no added instruction.”

“Exactly,” Steve said. “You’d be here… just in case something really out of the ordinary happened.”

“That is not exactly reassuring,” Bucky muttered, but he did ultimately agree. And Steve excused himself to call Fury.

+++

Tony was in the Quinjet they sent for Steve, and he took a few minutes at the tower to check his workshop and robots, and check in with Jarvis. Before he left again, he found Steve, Loki, and Bucky in the hallway outside their rooms.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asked Loki, and the alien gave a shaky nod. “Call Pepper if you need anything,” Tony went on. “She has complete authority to act on my behalf. Plus she takes no shit. Whatever you need, she can take care of it.”

“I am very grateful to you, Stark,” Loki said quietly, though he could barely raise his eyes, he was so despondent about Steve’s departure.

Tony turned to Bucky. “Sergeant Barnes,” he said, sounding almost formal. “I’ve had the chance to read some of your files. At least what SHIELD has on you, and as much as it physically pains me to admit this, Cap is right. It wasn’t your fault. You weren’t in control of your actions. For whatever it’s worth… I forgive you.”

“Thanks, Tony,” Bucky said, even though his lip shook a little.

“We’ll talk more about NYU when I get back. I promise,” Tony added, and the ghost of a smile passed over Bucky’s face as he nodded.

Then Tony turned to Steve. “I’m still pissed off at you,” he said, but his voice was no longer angry and harsh, just very tired. “But it’s a long flight to Europe, so I guess we’ll be hashing it out.”

“I am sorry,” Steve said sincerely. “I should have told you.”

Tony nodded, then said, “all right, we’ve got to go.”

Steve stepped over to Loki and cupped the demigod’s face in his red-gloved hands. “I’ll be back, Loki, I promise,” he said. “And Bucky will take good care of you. Try to be brave, okay? That’s not a command, just… I don’t want you… suffering.”

Loki nodded, though his eyes were wet with unshed tears. “I shall try,” he said, and Steve leaned forward and kissed him deeply, drawing it out until Tony cleared his throat. Steve broke away and tried to ignore Loki’s bereft little whimper, then turned to Bucky.

“James Buchanan Barnes, I hereby transfer custody of Loki to you,” he said, and slid the cuff from his arm to Bucky’s. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said, and he and Tony headed for the elevator.

“Loki, I’m sorry I called you a fuckboy,” Tony said over his shoulder as they stepped in. “That was inappropriate.”

“Apology accepted, Stark,” Loki allowed, and the elevator doors slid closed.

+++

James Buchanan Barnes:

“You need not supervise me every moment,” Loki said, as the Soldier watched him from the laundry room doorway. “With the charts Stark has crafted for me, I will be quite safe.”

“I know,” the Soldier said. “I just… I don’t know what my responsibilities are with… all this.” He gestured towards where Loki was ironing the bedsheets.

“You haven’t any, really,” Loki said, not unkindly. “Steve made a list of my duties before he left, and they are not dissimilar to my usual work, so unless you wished to override Steve’s wishes…”

“Wait, I can do that?” the Soldier said, and was immediately taken aback by Loki’s stricken expression.

“Yes,” Loki said, though there was a sudden wariness in his voice, and he had ceased his ironing to give the Soldier his undivided attention. “You are my master while you wear the manacle that binds me to you.”

“So I can order you to do whatever I want?”

“Yes,” Loki said, the wariness taking on an edge of fear. “But I wish…” And with an audible click, Loki’s mouth snapped shut.

There was a long moment while the soldier worked this through his mind, arranged all the pieces he had gleaned about Loki and his position, random talk of magic and binding, and suddenly he understood. “Well that is some real bullshit,” he growled. “And Steve goes along with this? That bastard. I thought you kept house for him because you wanted to. And now…”

With considerable obvious effort, Loki waved his hand, then tapped his collar, and the Soldier was suddenly, deeply, ashamed.

“Jesus, Loki, I’m sorry,” he said, stepping into the room. “You say what you want to say.”

“It is not Steve,” Loki said quickly. “He wanted no part of this. He has been nothing but kind to me from the first, and freed me as soon as he figured out how.”

“But you’re not free now.”

“I put myself back into the binding,” Loki explained. “I love him too much to run the risk of hurting him.”

“You might do that?” The Soldier was shocked.

“You have only known me since the binding,” Loki said. “Without it, my mind is… disquieted. I act on impulse, and sometimes I am overwhelmed with rage. Even if I did not hurt Steve, I know he would not let me be with him if I killed, well… someone he did not agree should die. And his list is far shorter than mine, as you may well imagine.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty much active Hydra agents and that’s it,” the Soldier agreed.

“So, as I do not wish to lose him, I let him restrain me,” Loki said. “He cares for me, I share his bed, and I find my mind quieted and content.” Loki picked up the iron again and continued pressing the clothes. “And with Stark’s help,” he began again, “we have established a routine that gives me considerably more agency than I was allowed with my previous masters. It is not unduly burdensome to do these duties, and it allows me to speak freely and spend some of my time as I wish. Compared to what it has been like for me, or what it could be like for me, I count myself very fortunate.”

“You had other masters?” The Soldier was surprised. “I thought it was just Steve.”

Loki looked at him warily again. “It is not something I wish to discuss…”

“No, no, of course not,” the Soldier said. “I’ve had many masters, myself, and I think I can guess…”

The wariness in Loki’s eyes shifted instantly to compassion. “In that case, Soldat, you have my sympathy. Stark has said it is the way of humans to mistreat those over whom they have authority. But perhaps not. At least, I do not believe it is Steve’s way, and in that, my brother was very wise to bring me to him.”

“It’s not Steve’s way,” the Soldier averred. “Every day I remember more, and I know I can trust him. As you say, it quiets my mind. I know he’ll keep me safe. Every day I’m a little less afraid. I… I can hope for the first time.”

Loki looked up again. “I’m glad, Soldat. You… you should tell Steve. He would be most pleased to hear it.”

“Maybe,” the Soldier said.

+++

After dinner that night, the Soldier took Loki into one of the Tower’s dens, this one that Tony called a “media room,” with comfortable, overstuffed furniture and a large-screen TV. “Sit,” he told Loki, pointing to a couch and ignoring the look of outrage from the alien. He left Loki alone for a moment, then returned with a bowl of strawberry ice cream. He handed it to Loki, then sat on the other end of the couch.

“Put your feet in my lap,” he said quietly, and with a small frown, Loki obeyed. “You can eat that, if you want,” the Soldier added, almost as an afterthought.

“Thank you, Soldat,” Loki said, and put a spoonful into his mouth.

The Soldier gave a curt nod of approval, then gingerly began to massage one of Loki’s feet. Loki frowned even harder.

“Soldat, what are you doing?” he said.

“I… remember my father doing this for my Ma,” the Soldier said. “You know, when she was expecting. I thought… you know, you might like it, too.”

“I do,” Loki said. “It’s very nice. I had forgotten how tired I get when carrying little ones.”

“Oh!” The Soldier looked at Loki with interest. “You have other children?”

“I do,” Loki said. “But they are gone, now.”

“I’m sorry,” the Soldier said, turning his eyes away again.

“It was very long ago,” Loki said.

“That doesn’t matter,” the Soldier said. “The way you feel about your family, it doesn’t fade.”

“No,” Loki agreed. “But I was not allowed to… no, never mind. I will tell you another time, perhaps.”

“No, I understand,” the Soldier said. “My Ma… she had a stillborn baby. When I was two. She never talked about it. I found out from my aunt when I was seventeen. Most families don’t talk about it.”

“No,” said Loki. “They don’t.”

There was a drawn-out, awkward silence, then Loki said, “Steve sent me a video on my device. He will be home tomorrow.”

“Was the mission successful?” the Soldier asked.

“He did not say. But that he is returning so soon bodes well, I think.”

“Yeah, probably,” the Soldier said. He looked around the room. “So, Tony said I should try to catch up with some movies. I thought, you know, maybe we could watch one.”

“Stark has said the same to me,” Loki said. “I gather it is a popular Midgardian entertainment. But I have not actually done so.”

“What ones did he recommend to you?”

Loki waved one hand dismissively. “Their names were meaningless to me,” he said.

The Soldier looked up. “Jarvis, what movies has Tony recommended to both of us..?”

+++

About an hour into the film, Loki asked, “is this an historical representation?”

“I was just going to ask you the same thing,” the Soldier said.

“This film is based on the fiction of English author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien,” Jarvis piped up. “Although it is a seminal work of the fantasy genre, it is based on a number of myths from Europe and western Asia.”

Both Loki and the Soldier nodded with understanding.

“Are you enjoying it?” the Soldier asked.

“Now that I understand the context,” Loki said. “I thought I had perhaps missed a most interesting era of Midgardian history.”

“I just like these kind of stories,” the Soldier said. “I used to read pulp mags…”

“Sergeant Barnes!” Jarvis’s voice was loud, and somewhere alerts were beginning to sound. “Intruders have entered the tower. They are attempting to take my systems off--”

The Soldier and Loki were both on their feet, as first the alerts were silenced, then lights began to shut off.

“They’re disabling the defenses,” the Soldier said. “We may have to fight our way out.”

“You’ll have to order me,” Loki said, his voice suddenly breathy. “I can’t…”

“Loki Laufeyson,” came a woman’s voice over Jarvis’s speakers. “This is Maria Hill of SHIELD. We are taking you into custody for the security of Earth.”

The Soldier heard Loki make a small, helpless sound, so he reached out and took his hand. “Come on,” he said, making for the stairwell, Loki close on his heels.

They were able to descend one floor before hearing agents entering at the ground level. The Soldier pulled Loki along, mapping this floor in his mind: storage, pantry, laundry, work rooms. They ducked into the laundry, where baskets of ironed and folded bedding stood on a cart. The Soldier pulled open the door on the industrial-sized dryer. “Get in,” he told Loki, and though the demigod’s face betrayed his confusion and terror, he did so. The Soldier pulled a bedsheet from the basket and leaned into the dryer, where Loki had folded himself nearly double to fit.

“We know about the babies, Loki,” came Maria Hill’s voice again. “If you come quietly, I will personally guarantee your safety and theirs.”

“Stay as still and quiet as you can,” the Soldier told Loki, and Loki was only just able to mouth a soundless “no” before the Soldier draped the sheet over him and closed the dryer door.

The Soldier brought up a mental schematic of the tower in his mind, assessing where he could find the closest cache of weapons that wouldn’t be cut off by agents, and headed there, all while a voice in his mind (that sounded a lot like Steve Rogers) chanted “don’t kill them, don’t kill them, don’t kill them.”

The Soldier pulled the door off the weapons cabinet with his cybernetic arm and nearly sobbed with relief; it was almost entirely non-lethal. He strapped on a tac vest and loaded himself as quickly as possible with stun-guns, tasers, and a few specialty items with Stark’s imprint, then headed for the opposite stairs.

He got three floors down before finding another agent. This was Stark’s server floor, filled with softly humming boxes. The air was chilly and he tried not to shiver as he listened. Somewhere among the machines, he heard a man’s voice, whispering furtively, obviously on some sort of comm.

“I’m telling you, I can’t take control of the building,” the Soldier just managed to make out. “It’s rerouting around me faster than I can take it down.”

The Soldier moved closer, and he felt his body remembering how to do this, how to stalk silently and invisibly, to get so close to his prey it didn’t have time to react.

“Don’t you think I tried that?” his quarry said. “Look, I’m good, but this beast was built and programmed by Tony Stark. It’s not just A.I., it’s genius-level A.I., and right now it’s doing its level best to kick every last one of us out, and the best I can do is immobilize it for a few minutes. You need to find the alien and…”

The Soldier laid a stunning baton along his target’s collarbone and pulled the trigger. The target never saw it coming. He dropped like a sack of turnips.

At the same moment, memories began crashing down on the Soldier: a nuclear scientist, throat slit and left to bleed out on the snow. A journalist, too close to the truth, thrown off a bridge in the dead of night. A family of five, their car’s brakes mysteriously failing as they drove into oncoming traffic.

The woman’s, Maria Hill’s, voice over the target’s comm drew him out of it a few seconds later. “Berman,” she was shouting. “Come in. Do you copy?”

The Soldier picked up the comm and clipped it to his shoulder, turning the sound as low as he could while still being able to hear the chatter.

He worked his way methodically through the rest of the building, feeling like he was letting his muscle memory carry him along while lights turned on in his memory, memories of the missing time between falling away from Steve and seeing him again on the bridge. And every light was a devil in the darkness, a horror painted with his own hands, a life cut short by the Winter Soldier.

Not one of them saw him until it was too late. Most never saw him at all. Only the leader, Maria Hill, looked at him as he raised the stun gun and brought her down, the briefest flash of recognition passing over her face.

When she’d fallen, it seemed like the tower was suddenly wrapped in a shroud. Most of the lighting was off, and the usual susurrus of machinery and voices was stilled. The Soldier felt every hair on his body stand on end, even as the avalanche of memories was crushing him, carrying him away. He wanted to curl up, weep, hide himself and try to sort through his mind, but he still had a mission to complete.

He returned to the laundry and opened the dryer, noting that Loki did stay silent and still as a statue. He pulled off the sheet, saw the white terror in Loki’s eyes soften slightly when he saw who it was.

“Come on, Loki,” he said, willing his voice not to shake, and Loki climbed out, but his movements were stiff, mechanical. The Soldier could see how frightened he was, almost in shock, but he had to get them out.

“I’ll protect you, I promise,” he said, putting his arm around Loki’s shoulders and half-guiding, half-carrying the demigod past the unconscious agents, down the stairwells, and out the hidden entrance in Stark’s garage.

+++

Tony:

The loss of Jarvis was so sharp, so visceral, Tony almost felt it like a blow. One moment the A.I. was there, a presence he could feel in the implants under his skin, a mental pressure reassuring him subconsciously, and then it was ripped away, leaving him raw and exposed.

“What is it?” Steve asked, instantly aware of Tony’s distress.

“It’s Jarvis,” Tony said. “He’s been shut down.”

And Steve was on his feet and headed for the cockpit, telling Clint he was to re-route the Quinjet to Stark Tower, and yes, that was a direct order.

Later, when Tony and Steve confronted Natasha about SHIELD’s attempt to take Loki into custody (“and no, Rogers, I didn’t tell them about your house elf being knocked up. Apparently that intel came from Kinross’s sonogram technician. By the way, I’d get a second opinion on that.”) she told them they’d tried to time it so Tony would be out of the suit and in the air, and wouldn’t realize what was going on until they’d landed for the debrief upstate. No one had realized how closely Tony was entwined with Jarvis.

Not that it mattered. They hadn’t known about the Winter Soldier, either. In fact, everyone but Hill had just assumed they’d been taken down by Tony’s Iron Man suits, acting independently as security, but Hill had seen him, insisted he was flesh and blood (mostly,) and then Fury had connected the dots, but by then he was out of their reach.

They were twenty minutes out from New York when Jarvis came back online and Tony climbed into his suit to communicate more directly. With each detail, Tony became more enraged: six agents, including Hill, who’d been in his home as a guest, taking down Jarvis, coming for Loki. Then, when Jarvis was able to reboot, the aftermath. All agents down, only unconscious, thank God, but Loki and Barnes gone.

“Tony, I know what I’ve said in the past,” Steve said. “And you can rib me all you want when this is over, but please tell me you put a tracker in Bucky’s arm.”

“Of course I did,” Tony told him, with a glance towards Clint. “You ready?”

By way of reply, Steve kicked his shield up onto his arm.

“You know what?” Tony shouted over the noise of the engine. “You can drop us off here, we’ll walk the rest of the way.” And before Clint could respond, Tony blew open the exit and he and Steve stepped out into air whipping by at Mach 4.

Tony hadn’t carried Steve in flight often, and then only short distances, but sometimes it was the only way to get into or out of a situation, so they’d practiced, and now it was second nature for Tony to pluck Steve out of the air, and Steve to hold his shield before him to remain as aerodynamic as possible. It wasn’t exactly graceful, but it worked.

They touched down in the street outside an empty storefront about three blocks from the tower. “He’s in there,” Tony informed Steve. “Be careful. He might be… triggered.”

Steve approached the door, found it forced open, the chains across the handles ripped away like paper streamers. He eased it open a few more inches. “Bucky? Loki? It’s me, Steve. Are you here?”

Tony watched Steve listen intently, finally hearing something that made him swing the door wide.

What they saw made Tony’s stomach twist with dread. Loki was kneeling, almost prostrate, his forehead against the floor, just barely trembling while Barnes crouched beside him, looking horrified and sick and helpless. He looked up at Steve as he entered, grabbing at the cuff on his arm.

“Take it, please, take it,” he begged, and it slid off and into Steve’s hand. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t know what to do.”

Steve slid the cuff onto his own arm, though Tony could see his hands were shaking. “It’s okay,” he said, his voice remarkably calm. “I’m here now.” He went down on one knee next to Loki. “Loki, you can get up if you want to.”

Loki pushed himself up on shaking hands. His face was as pale as Tony had ever seen it, and tears streaked down his face.

“Whatever you need to do,” Steve murmured, and Loki threw his arms over Steve’s shoulders and sobbed.

“I thought you were dead!” Loki wailed. “By the Norns, I thought it was the end!”

Steve held Loki as tightly as he dared. “I’m right here,” he said. “I have you now.” And Loki sobbed again.

“How are you doing?” Tony asked Barnes.

“Not great,” he replied. “My memory’s been coming back. All the worst parts. All at once.”

Steve looked up at that. “Oh, God, Bucky,” he said miserably.

“Well, this is obviously the most epic of epic shitshows,” Tony said. “Jarvis, could you send around the current favorite. We’ve got to get the fuck out of Dodge.”

“On its way, sir,” Jarvis replied. “It should be arriving momentarily.” And thirty seconds later, the Audi pulled up out front.

+++

“Beach or mountains?” Tony asked Steve quietly as he slid into the backseat with Loki.

“Beach,” Steve said. “The season doesn’t start for another two months.” Tony nodded, then pulled onto the street.

Steve had Loki lie down as well as he was able, halfway across Steve’s lap, then leaned down and whispered into the demigod’s ear. A few moments later, Loki’s hitched breaths evened out and quieted. Tony glanced at the rear-view mirror.

“Did you just order him to go to sleep?” Tony said.

“Not exactly,” Steve said.

“Not cool,” Tony said. “He’s not going to thank you for that.”

“I know,” Steve said, sounding defeated. “And I will apologize. There’s just… Bucky, can you tell me what happened? Are you..?”

Tony felt a small tremor go through Bucky, and when he spoke, it was flat and expressionless.

“They shut down Jarvis and the security,” Bucky said. “They asked Loki to surrender. They knew about the babies. I don’t think they knew about me. I took Loki to the laundry and hid him in the dryer, then went to one of the weapons cabinets and took as many non-lethal weapons as I could. I swept each floor, neutralizing targets as I went. When the immediate threat had been contained, I retrieved Loki, took him out of the tower, and hid in the empty storefront until you came for us.”

“Bucky, thank you,” Steve said. “Thank you for protecting Loki. And protecting yourself. I never wanted…”

“Shut up, Steve,” Bucky said, sounding more like a guy from Brooklyn again. “It happened, it’s over, Loki’s safe. That’s the best possible outcome.”

“What about you?”

Tony saw Bucky squeeze his eyes shut before he answered. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “That was all coming back sooner or later. If it helped in some way… maybe the way it happened was for the best.”

“When we’ve got you settled at a new place, we’ll get your health team back on board,” Tony said, and Bucky gave a small nod.

“Where are you taking us, Tony?” Steve asked.

“Well, I know how you New York boys feel about Jersey,” Tony said, “but I hope you’ll forgive me this time. There’s a house in Ocean City, big old Victorian, a couple blocks from the boardwalk. It’s under so many layers, I didn’t even find it until recently. Plus, the town is dry, so it’s the last place they’ll look for me.” He flashed a self-deprecating smile in the mirror and Steve grinned back. “Unfortunately, it’s not fully-stocked or anything,” Tony explained. “I’ll, uh, have to figure something out they can’t trace, but it’s not like that’s something I’ve never done before, right?”

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve said.

“Oh, it’s not for you,” Tony said, though there was a fondness in his tone. “I’m still pissed off at you. But if I can’t help where I can, what’s the point of all this? And you can just wipe that smug look right off your face, Rogers. It’s not like you invented that idea.”

“No, I just really am grateful, Tony,” Steve said. “For all of it.”

“Yeah, well, I like your friends. What can I say?”

+++

It was just before dawn when Tony pulled the car in under the house. Like many beach houses, it was set on stilts to withstand any inevitable floods, and there were two parking spaces, a beach shower, and a large storage locker.

“This is smart,” Bucky said, almost to himself. “They won’t be able to spot your car from the air.”

Tony indicated the padlock on the storage locker. “Do you mind doing the honors?” he asked Bucky, and the Winter Soldier twisted the lock off effortlessly. Tony regarded the ancient, rotting beach towels and inflatable rafts inside with dismay.

“Well, let’s hope that means this place is well off the radar,” Tony said.

Behind them, Steve climbed out of the car with a still-sleeping Loki in his arms. “I’m going to take him up,” Steve said. “Hopefully he’ll feel better if he wakes up in an actual bedroom.”

“Yeah, good luck,” Tony said. “You should get some sleep, too,” he told Bucky. “I’m just going to unload the armor and I’ll be right behind you.”

Tony found Bucky on the first floor, making a systematic inventory of every drawer and cabinet. Tony set the armor in a corner of the living room where it would have a good view of the whole floor. “Anything useful?” Tony asked, and Bucky shook his head. “You don’t have to keep watch here,” Tony went on. “The armor is on sentry mode, so…”

Bucky gave a curt nod. “Thanks,” he said, and resumed his search.

Tony went to the second floor and found the large bedroom and en suite empty (left for him, presumably) and Steve settling Loki down on the bed in the smaller (but still pretty large) suite.

“I told Bucky to take the third floor,” Steve said. “I hope you don’t mind, but it’s all single beds up there. Looks like it’s set up for the children of the family.”

“I doubt he’s sleeping anyway,” Tony opined. “He still seems pretty freaked out.”

“I should talk to him,” Steve said, but he looked down at Loki, clearly torn.

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Tony said. “Pepper will be up in an hour or so, and I need to catch her up and work out where the hell we go from here, so I won’t be sleeping either. You just… give Loki what he needs. He’s been pretty traumatized, judging by what Bucky told us.”

“I will,” Steve promised.

“See you in a few hours,” Tony said, and he pulled Steve’s door shut as he went.

Bucky had finished his reconnaissance when Tony returned downstairs. A few “food” items had been removed to the kitchen counter (a tea tin, canisters that probably held flour and sugar, and a six-pack of instant noodle cups) and four carving knives were lined up on the kitchen table.

“Just in case,” Bucky explained when he saw Tony looking at them. “Your armor is still our first, best defense, though.”

Tony looked at Bucky. It was clear this was his element – tactics, defense, logistics – but he wore the role uneasily, with a weariness that pointed more at his true age that at what he appeared.

“I’m sorry,” tony said. “If I’d thought for a second they’d be…”

“Don’t,” Bucky said. “You couldn’t stop this. It always ends this way.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “I just wish it didn’t.”

At that moment Tony’s phone rang, and he pulled it out. “It’s Pepper,” he said. “This… isn’t good.” He pressed the button to connect up. “Hey, Pep. We’re okay. We’re in one of my safe houses.”

“First of all, don’t call them safe houses,” Pepper said. “It makes it sound like you’re doing something illegal. It’s a vacation retreat. Second, you are not okay. Do you have access to cable news?”

Tony looked at the dark TV in the corner of the living room. “Uh… maybe?”

“Never mind, I’m sending you the relevant video feed now.” Tony flipped his phone flat on his palm and expanded the holographic screen. A news report came up, pictures of Loki and Bucky behind the reporter. Tony felt his stomach drop to his knees.

“When did this start?” Tony said.

“About fifteen minutes ago,” Pepper told him.

“Shit,” Bucky muttered.

“Where are you?” Pepper said. “We can…”

“No, Pepper, I’m not dragging you into this,” Tony said. “Give us a couple of hours to recuperate and I’ll call you back with my plan.”

“Just tell me they can’t find you,” Pepper said.

“They can’t find me,” Tony said reassuringly. “Already thinking my way out of it. This whole mess will be gone like so much morning fog before you know it.”

“I love you, Tony.”

“I love you, too, Pep.”

“Do you really have a plan?” Bucky asked quietly when Tony had hung up.

“I’ve got some ideas,” Tony said, “but we can’t do anything without everyone getting some sleep. And you know when I say that, it’s serious. So go.”

Bucky nodded. “Okay,” he said. “You, too, though.”

“Okay,” Tony agreed.

+++

It wasn’t even nine when the four men gathered around the table to watch the video Pepper had sent. If the situation hadn’t been so grave, Tony thought he might have been amused by the diverse reactions: Intense plotting from himself, growing panic from Loki, Bucky’s usual sick horror, and from Steve, as per the norm, righteous anger.

“I swear to God,” Steve growled, “when I get my hands on Fury…”

Loki put a placating hand on Steve’s arm, and Steve quieted and took the alien gently in his arms, kissing him softly on the temple.

“Look, Cap,” Tony said calmly, “I know as well as anyone the satisfaction of punching your problems into submission, but we need a long-term plan.”

“What we need,” Bucky put in, “are some basic necessities, but I don’t see how we’re going to do that with our names and pictures on every channel.”

“Well there we’re in luck,” Tony said. “Because SHIELD doesn’t know we have a fully armed and operational god of mischief.”

Loki turned to Tony, his eyes wide and startled, but Steve and Bucky both started to chuckle knowingly.

“So, Loki,” Tony said gently. “Feel up to a little magic?”

+++

To everyone’s surprise (maybe even Loki’s) it turned out that doing magic was the best thing for Loki’s mental recovery. He was completely in his element, conjuring magnificent food, wardrobes of clothing, soaps and shampoos and whatever other sundries were desired.

Loki was able to transport various items from the tower (now presumably overrun with SHIELD agents) through a “pocket dimension.” And then, since he seemed to be on a roll, they allowed him to replace the mismatched and somewhat rustic décor with furnishings fit for an Asgardian palace.

By the end of the day, Loki had been much more relaxed, and was reclining with his head in Steve’s lap and his feet in Bucky’s while the former stroked his hair and the latter rubbed his feet. Tony, who was tinkering with his armor, didn’t think he’d ever envied the demigod more.

Luckily, at that moment, his phone rang.

“Oh, Pepper, thank God,” he said. “Please tell me some good news.”

“You’re in luck,” she answered. “I do have some good news. Guess who dropped by for a visit to his little brother while in the general neck of the woods.”

Tony gave an excited laugh. “Please, oh please don’t be fucking with me, Pep.”

“I am not fucking with you,” Pepper assured him.

“Let me put you on speaker,” Tony said, having drawn the attention of the sofa delegation.

“So Thor showed up this morning,” Pepper said. “And Jarvis, who had resisted every attempt to take him back off-line, immediately told him the whole story with accompanying 3-D recreations, including Sergeant Barnes’s takedown of the whole SHIELD contingent. Thor is planning to have a poem written in his honor, by the way.”

“I’ll bet Fury lost his shit,” Tony said.

“Nicholas Fury did, indeed, lose one-hundred-percent of his shit,” Pepper said. “So while they were scrambling to smooth over intergalactic relations with the God of Thunder, I figured the time was right for them to receive some missives from your legal department.”

“Oh, Pepper, you are the best,” Tony said.

“I know,” she said. “So the upshot is, the tower is now free of SHIELD agents, has been swept for bugs, and we have a guarantee that neither you nor Steve will face anything more serious than dirty looks.”

“What about Loki and Bucky?” Steve asked.

“Unfortunately, both of them are wanted by entities other than SHIELD,” Pepper said apologetically. “So they may have to lay low for a while…”

“Pep, you are a miracle-worker,” Tony said. “And when I get back, I am taking you away for at least two weeks to someplace that serves pineapple on everything, but even you need to call in reinforcements sometimes. I think it’s time to release the swarm.”

There was pause, then Pepper said, “You’re the boss.”

“No, you’re the boss,” Tony said. “But you know I’m right about this.”

“I’ll be in touch soon,” Pepper said. “By the way, I hear Rangiroa is nice.” And she hung up.

“What’s the swarm,” Bucky asked.

Tony faced the other three and smiled. “Gentlemen, I know we tend to like to address our problems in a physical way,” he said. “But you are are about to learn the joy of having an army of lawyers, publicists, and consultants at your command.”

Chapter Text

Steve:

As time went on, and Steve grew more used to having Loki beside him each night, he found there was something comforting just about his presence, the cool firmness of his body against Steve’s, the softness of his hair under Steve’s fingers, and the scent of him, clean and fresh, like a winter morning.

Loki moved under his hands, stretching and twisting, then he gave a tired sigh, and rolled closer to Steve.

“I’m sorry you didn’t see Thor,” Steve said, knowing how much Loki looked forward to his brother’s visits, and Loki chuckled softly.

“Even my brother would not be so witless as to lead my pursuers straight to me,” Loki said. “It is no matter. I shall see him soon enough, I’ve no doubt.” Loki gave a small yawn and twisted gain, clearly trying to find a comfortable position. “Still, I look forward to the poem he’ll have written. With luck, it will downplay how I cowered like a mouse in its hole.”

“Loki,” Steve whispered against his ear, and stroked his arm soothingly. Loki shook his head.

“I should not have asked for Barnes to look after me,” Loki said. “That was nearly a fatal mistake.”

“No, Loki,” Steve said gently. “Bucky would die to protect you.”

“Of course,” Loki said. “But if he had, I and the little ones would now be in the fell custody of Fury and his cohorts. Or perhaps trapped in the drying machine until I died.” Loki shuddered and shook his head again. “No, I let my fondness for Barnes cloud my judgment. His reason is not sufficiently recovered to keep me safe on his own. Or himself, I venture.”

As awful as it was to hear these words about his best friend, Steve had to admit the truth of them, and that made his stomach twist anxiously. He laid a protective arm over Loki’s chest. “I won’t leave you with him again,” Steve averred. “I’ll… be there for both of you until we get this sorted out.”

Loki turned to Steve and smiled fondly. “That may be longer than you think,” he said.

Steve reached for Loki’s hand and twined their fingers together. “You know, we haven’t talked about what happened,” he said, and felt Loki go tense. “I could free you,” Steve said. “You could protect yourself, and the babies…”

“Please don’t,” Loki said. “Don’t put that on the table, or I will be too tempted to pick it up.”

“But if…”

Loki gathered both of Steve’s hands into his. “My beloved,” he said. “If I had been somehow freed last night when they came for me, every last one of them would be dead today. And I don’t mean just the ones in the tower. I mean all of SHIELD, from Fury to the lowest menial. And dead in the most violent and intimate ways you can imagine. I know this because as I huddled in that machine, unable to move but an inch and terrified for my very life, there was a part of my mind that was holding that woman, Hill, who I have served at our table, under my hands while… well, I will not describe what I wished to do in deference to your Midgardian sensibilities, Master. But even now, a part of me thirsts for that, insists that she deserves every moment for daring… But then I would not have you, ever again, and that is the only thing that stays me from snatching your offer this instant.”

Steve brought their hands to his lips and kissed the tips of Loki’s fingers. “Loki, do you think I expect you to never be angry,” Steve said softly. “Because I don’t. I know you. I know you’re very smart, and skilled, and powerful. I know you have the potential to be a hero, and it’s my dream that someday you will trust yourself enough to fight beside me. But I also know you feel things very intensely, and if your own rage frightens you so much, well, I guess I can understand that. But your feelings are your own. You’re entitled to them. Believe me, a part of me wants to punch Fury as hard as I can for what he did to you and Bucky and Tony, and that would probably kill him. But I won’t. I choose to be better than that. And you can do that, too.”

Loki turned his face away from Steve’s and he was quiet for several minutes. Steve could tell he was turning Steve’s words in his mind.

“I fear… you may be seeing things in me that are not there,” he said at last.

“I don’t think so,” Steve said, and there was another stretch of silence before Loki turned back and let Steve pull him closer. He felt Loki shivering.

“Do you want to tell me what you’re thinking?” Steve asked, and Loki closed his eyes.

“No, I don’t,” Loki said. “Just… let me be pleasing to you.”

“You are always pleasing to me,” Steve said. “Can I… just hold you, like this?” He stroked one hand down Loki’s flank. “Can I just touch you, like this?”

“Please,” Loki breathed.

“May I kiss you?” Steve said, his lips barely brushing Loki’s. “Like this?”

“Please,” Loki repeated, bringing his arms up to enfold Steve, and Steve kissed him again, more deeply, and moved his hands over Loki’s body.

“May I..?” Steve began, but Loki suddenly jerked away with a small gasp.

“Loki, are you all right?”

“It is the little ones!” Loki said, the surprise on his face quickly turning to delight. He took Steve’s hand and pressed it against the swell of his belly. “They have quickened within me. They are moving, even now.”

And Steve didn’t know what he was expecting to feel, but it was not a small bump pressing up into his palm and moving across it, strange and amazing both at once. “What… what is that?” Steve whispered.

“A hand. Or a foot,” Loki said. “One of your children.”

“Our children,” Steve said, and he stroked Loki’s belly again. Loki hummed happily.

“I believe, before we were interrupted,” he said, “you were about to make a request.”

“Oh, yes,” Steve said. “May I…” and he pressed his mouth against Loki’s throat, licking at the cool flesh, even as his hand moved lower, and his fingers wrapped around Loki’s cock, now hard and swollen. Steve wrapped his other arm around Loki’s back, rolling him closer, tight against Steve’s body. Loki’s fingers danced and tickled up Steve’s sides, and he arched back, giving Steve complete access to his body. Steve’s kisses worked lower, into the bend of Loki’s shoulder, over his collarbones.

Steve had intended to tease Loki, to make his way slowly down until Loki was shaking with desire, but when he pressed a kiss to the hollow of Loki’s throat, the demigod mewled with want, a helpless, begging sound that made Steve’s blood suddenly hot under his skin.

Three quick kisses over Loki’s stomach, and Steve took Loki’s cock into his mouth, its velvet-soft heaviness against his longue. Steve began to work his mouth over the shaft, up and down, and then he suckled at the head, his tongue fluttering just at the edge of the foreskin.

Loki was panting, each inhale a gasp, almost a sob, each exhale a cry that begged and laughed together, a sound Steve had only ever heard from Loki’s mouth.

Steve took Loki’s shaft deep into his mouth again, felt it all the way in the back of his throat. He swallowed, feeling the muscles in his throat clench around Loki’s member, and Loki arched up farther, his back bent like a bow pulled taut. His long fingers clutched at the sheets, then slid into Steve’s hair, fisting there without quite getting hold of the short strands.

Steve hummed low, and continued his ministrations with his mouth and tongue and throat, all while Loki surrendered himself, coming undone beneath him. At last, Loki came, shuddering and crying out with a sound that was not entirely human, and Steve swallowed one last time, taking down Loki’s essence. It, too, was cool and not quite human.

+++

When Steve woke in the morning, Loki had already gone to prepare breakfast. Steve went to the kitchen to find Loki at the stove and Tony and Bucky at the table. He kissed Loki on the cheek, poured himself some coffee and took a seat. “So, any word?” he asked Tony.

“I talked to Pepper last night,” Tony said. “We’re closing down the tower and donating it to the Foundation. They’re going to repurpose it as educational space for low-income and at-risk students. Night classes, after-school sports, the largest free computer lab in the city. I thought the, uh, workshop could do some STEM programs. It’ll be, you know, good for the kids.”

“I’m so sorry, Tony,” Steve said sincerely.

“Well, you can only change the locks so many times before you have to admit the neighborhood is changing,” Tony said. “Don’t worry, we’ll get your things to you wherever you end up settling.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Steve said.

With that, Tony’s phone rang and he pulled it out. “What’s good, Pepper?” he said, stepping away from the table, and there was a pause while he listened. “That’s… actually an interesting idea,” he said. “Who came up with that? Olaf Magnusson, huh? Well, that makes sense. Really? Awesome. Put Olaf down for a genius bonus, gold level. He’s really thinking outside the box. And Pepper, I owe you big.”

Steve, Loki, and Bucky looked at Tony expectantly as he returned to the table, even as Loki served an egg casserole. Tony’s face wore its familiar tenseness.

“Spit it out, Tony,” Steve said.

“I think, if we’re lucky,” Tony began, “you, uh, might be going to Norway.”

The other three regarded Tony with various degrees of disbelief.

“One of my guys worked it out with the royal family,” Tony said. “Apparently, they’re petitioning UNESCO to recognize Loki as a unique and irreplaceable part of their cultural heritage.”

“What… what does that mean?” Loki asked quietly.

“As I understand it,” Tony said, “they want you to live in Norway as an aid to historians and archeologists regarding the era when you and your family were there. They’ll support you, house you. It sounds like an excellent set-up. Probably as good as anything we could hope for after what happened…”

Loki shifted his eyes sideways. “What about..?”

“Oh, yeah, Steve and Bucky, too,” Tony assured him. “Pepper explained the whole shield-brother thing. They’re down. Seriously, do you know how trendy Vikings are? They’ll probably have you doing TV commercials, or teaching seminars at Oslo University on warrior hair-braiding. Seriously, never underestimate the power of tourism.”

Loki looked a little stunned, but Steve felt hope bubbling up inside. This could definitely be a long-term plan for Loki’s future. As long as there was a Scandinavian people, Loki could be protected. He’d have a place, a purpose even. Steve reached out and pulled Loki into his arms, cradling the back of his head with one hand and kissing his cheek gently. “This is a good thing,” he said, and Loki gave a soft laugh.

“I just… I need to…” he started. Then they heard the door to the deck slam shut.

Steve looked up, startled, and saw that Bucky had gone. He hadn’t even noticed.

Loki pulled away, his face serious now. “Go to him,” he said, and with a shaky nod, Steve did.

He found Bucky on the deck facing the ocean, pacing the narrow space restlessly. He looked up when Steve opened the door, his expression somewhere between guilt and anger.

“What’s wrong?” Steve said.

“Nothing,” Bucky replied immediately. “I just, I need to…”

“That seems to be going around,” Steve said, taking a seat on one of the patio chairs. “Sit down, Buck. Talk to me.”

Bucky did sit down, but just looked at his hands without speaking.

“I know a lot has happened since we found you,” Steve said. “And I know this must feel like one more thing you’re being forced into. And I understand if you want something else. It’s not going to be easy, but if you’re ready to move on…”

“You’re a fucking idiot,” Bucky said, his voice low and disgusted, and Steve stared at him in shock.

“What?”

“It’s you,” Bucky said. “It’s always been you. Even when I forgot myself, I knew you. And I don’t want to ‘move on,’ but I sure as hell don’t know what I do want to do right now, and I just wanted some space to think, okay?”

Steve went right on staring, not knowing what to say, and Bucky dropped his head into his hands, tangling his fingers in his hair. After a moment, he began to speak again.

“I love you, Stevie,” he said. “I’ve always loved you. But I’ve known since we were kids I couldn’t have you.” He gave an angry snort, almost a laugh, but not really. “For a while there I had a plan where we could marry a couple of dykes, live next door to each other and have, you know, an arrangement where we’d have a normal face for the world and still have each other. But then there was the war, and you had Peggy…”

“I never actually had Peggy,” Steve corrected him.

“Yeah, well, but you’d have married her, if…”

“Maybe,” Steve allowed.

Bucky kept his head down, and Steve could see his fingers grip his hair more tightly. “And I thought, well, at least you could have a normal life. A wife, and kids. And I’d just… shit, be the bachelor uncle…”

“Bucky, you dated girls,” Steve said, and he hated that he sounded like he was reminding Bucky of that fact. “You dated most of the girls in our neighborhood. What we did, it was…”

“Don’t,” Bucky said, jerking his head up. “It was real. I dated girls so my ma didn’t worry, so my dad would leave me alone about you, stop telling me I’d end up like his queer cousin, a bum on Skid Row. But nothing happened with them, Stevie. Because I loved you.” He dropped his head back into his hands. “And now… you’re here, and it could happen, maybe, because things are different now, but you have Loki, and there’s a lot going on there that I don’t understand…”

“Bucky,” Steve tried to interrupt him gently, but Bucky shrugged him off.

“I just, I can’t compete with that, Stevie, you know? I mean, you hit the fucking jackpot, and I can’t ask you to give that up…”

“Bucky!” Steve said, a little more sharply this time, and Bucky trailed off and looked up.

“You’re right,” Steve went on. “There is a lot going on with Loki that we’ll both need to explain, and soon. But you don’t have to compete with him.”

Bucky frowned, confused. “Well, no, I wouldn’t…”

“No, I mean… I can be with you, if that’s something you want. You could be with both of us, if you wanted.”

Bucky stared at Steve, clearly confounded, and it took a minute for him to find his speech. “I know… you can order him to do things,” Bucky said haltingly. “If you’re suggesting…”

“No!” Steve was a little insulted by the implication, but realized it was probably more a reflection of Bucky’s own experience. “I would never do that to him. And I do have to explain all that. But, no, this was actually Loki’s idea.”

Bucky’s eyes went wide. “What? When?”

“A few days ago,” Steve said. “He guessed about… well, what we were to each other. I told him I didn’t think you were ready to talk about it.” Steve leaned back and laced his fingers together. “Clearly, I was wrong.”

“Not entirely,” Bucky muttered, and Steve waited patiently while Bucky collected his thoughts.

“I need to think about this,” he said after a few minutes. “We need to see where we land with this Norway thing. I need you and Loki to tell me all the things you need to tell me. And I need to figure out how I feel about it all. So maybe we should wait, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve said. “Take all the time you need. And do what’s best for you, okay? You have my support no matter what.”

“Thanks,” Bucky said, and Steve left him with his thoughts.

At the kitchen table, Tony and Loki were both engrossed in working out a chart on Tony’s Starkpad.

“Is there a problem?” Steve asked.

“No, just doing some tweaks,” Tony said. “Pepper texted and said there might be some hobnobbing with the royals, some diplomatic interaction, and of course Gidget here has all kinds of ideas…”

“I have told you many times,” Loki said, his voice taking on the tone Steve always associated with talk of Asgard, “I was raised at court. My mother trained me for this.”

“Okay, fine,” Tony said, “but I’m not exactly some local yokel. I also had a mother who taught me the ways of grand society.”

“Well, I’m just a dumb kid from Brooklyn,” Steve interrupted, “and I’d rather not hear a bunch of discussion about protocol. All the royalty I’ve met has always been pretty gracious as long as you make an effort.”

Tony glanced over at Loki. “Is he always this insufferable?” he asked.

“Worse,” Loki said, before his teeth clicked shut. His smirk at Steve showed no regret whatsoever.

“You just couldn’t help yourself,” Tony said, and Loki’s grin widened. “Steve, can you hit his re-set button, please?” And Steve whispered the command in Loki’s ear.

“It occurs to me we should also work out the charts for when the babies come,” Loki said.

“Sure,” Tony said. “Like changing diapers and stuff?”

“Well, eventually,” Loki said. “But I was thinking for the actual birth.”

Tony stared at Loki with what Steve could only describe as horror. “I… we… shit, maybe I’m not the best person.”

“Breathe, Tony,” Steve said.

“I have done this before,” Loki said. “I shall walk you through what is needed.”

“Yeah, okay, good,” Tony said, taking a steadying breath. “Let’s, uh, start that in a few days.”

“Very well,” Loki said, and his hand moved unconsciously to touch the swell of his abdomen, then he looked uncertainly at Steve. “How long do Midgardian women carry their little ones?”

Steve frowned. “Nine months. Why? How long do, well, I guess Jotuns, er..?”

“I do not know, in truth,” Loki admitted. “But my previous children, it, er… varied considerably. I shall have to guess, I’m afraid.”

“Hold on,” Tony said, his voice raining an octave. “You mean to say you don’t know when the babies are actually coming? What the hell, Loki?”

“Please, Stark, there is no need for panic,” Loki said calmly. “They are not coming today.”

“I am not panicking,” Tony said, though his voice did not lower a note. “But seriously, what kind of range are we talking? A week from now? A month? Are you like an elephant and could be strolling around still pregnant two years from now?”

“Well, that would be unusually long,” Loki allowed.

“There are plans that have to be made,” Tony insisted.

“Take it easy, Tony,” Steve said. “The babies only just started kicking yesterday. We can look up when that happens and extrapolate from there.”

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. “Have I told you two how much I hate this?” he said.

“You have mentioned it, yes,” Loki said.

Tony took a deep breath. “I am going to my room to call Pepper and have several nervous breakdowns,” he said. “Do not do anything weird while I’m gone.”

“It’ll be okay, Tony,” Steve said reassuringly. “You and Pepper can be godparents.”

Tony glared at Steve. “You’re an asshole, Rogers,” he said, and stomped off to his room while Loki burst into laughter.

When he’d left, Bucky came in from the deck. “What did I miss?”

“We were just giving Tony a minor freak-out,” Steve said.

“Sounds fun,” Bucky said. “Come get me next time.”

Steve levelled his gaze at Bucky. “So, did you have any thoughts or questions about what we were discussing?” he said, trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible.

“I… I need some more time,” Bucky said. “Maybe a lot more time.”

“Whatever you need,” Steve said.

“But…” Bucky stepped over to Steve and took Steve’s face in his hands, brought it to his own, and kissed Steve firmly on the mouth. It didn’t last long, just long enough for Steve to go from surprise to returning the kiss, while a handful of his brain cells just managed to have the wherewithal to notice how soft and warm Bucky’s lips were.

“Just checking,” Bucky said gruffly as he pulled away. Then Bucky turned to Loki, who was watching them with a delighted but also somewhat smug expression. Bucky closed the gap between them so quickly, Loki’s green eyes went wide, startled, and then Bucky kissed him, too. That kiss was short, as well, and Bucky broke it off with a grunt, then fled the room without a word.

Loki, eyes still wide, raised his fingers to his lips.

+++

When Pepper called to say Norway had been cleared to accept Loki and his “shield-brothers,” the four men drove as quickly as they could to the Atlantic City airport to meet Tony’s plane on the tarmac. Pepper stood at the bottom of the stairway flanked by Ms. Arbogast and a tall man in a suit.

“This is Olaf Magnusson,” Pepper said. “He’ll be accompanying you on your trip. Tony, you’re coming back to New York with me. We’re having a dedication tonight for the Sarah Rogers Educational Center, formerly Stark Tower…”

“Oh, Tony!” Steve gasped.

“Yeah, consider it a thanks for everything/good luck in Norway present,” Tony said.

“I… you’ve been so good to us, Tony,” Steve said. “Really. I could never repay you for everything you’ve done.”

Tony smiled, then pulled Steve into a hug. “Don’t say it like that,” he said. “You’re not vanishing off the face of the earth. I plan to visit every chance I get. It’s my duty as a godfather.”

Steve laughed, then said, “I wasn’t kidding about that, Tony. I mean, I don’t know what the Asgard equivalent is, but whatever it is, you’re it.”

Tony released his hold and put his hands on Steve’s shoulders, and tilted his head in Loki and Bucky’s direction. “Take care of them, okay?” he said. “And let them take care of you.”

“I will,” Steve said sincerely, and with a pat, Tony let him go.

Ms. Arbogast stepped over to Loki and took his hands in hers. “And I shall miss you, too, Mr. Loki,” she said. “It was always a pleasure to work with you.”

“And I thank you for your patience and kindness to me, Ms. Arbogast,” Loki told her, and she blushed lightly.

“I wish you all the best in Norway,” she said, her voice breaking a little, and she dropped Loki’s hands.

The pilot leaned out from the top of the steps. “Two Quinjets headed this way,” he said.

“That’s our cue,” Steve said, and he, Loki, Bucky, and Olaf Magnusson ascended into the craft and strapped in. Within minutes, they were over international waters.

The trip was quiet, broken only by Magnusson’s instructions for them all regarding “the optics” of Loki’s first appearance back on earth.

“You should appear contrite, but not cowed,” Magnusson said, and Loki glanced at Steve for confirmation. “That’s good!” Magnusson said approvingly. “Our storyline is that Captain Rogers is acting as mentor for you. We’ve been emphasizing your relative youth regarding Asgardian lifespan, so we’re hoping that will garner sympathy from some demographics, if there is any controversy, that is, which we’re naturally hoping to minimize.”

Steve reached over and rubbed Loki’s shoulder.

“You can change your clothing with magic, correct?” Magnusson went on.

“Yes, that’s correct,” Loki said calmly.

“I think it should be something traditional,” Magnusson said thoughtfully. “Something the average Norwegian would recognize as honoring their heritage, that evokes the historical significance of your family…”

Loki glanced at Steve again, who nodded.

“We must be careful not to remind them of New York,” Magnusson said. “No armor. No crowns. Again, contrite. Peaceful.”

“Go ahead,” Steve said softly, then felt the almost electrical charge of Loki’s magic move through the airplane cabin. With a flash of green light, Loki’s clothes were transformed into a soft, sage-colored tunic shot through with subtle silver patterns and woven dark-green leggings. His hair appeared noticeably shorter, his face paler and softer.

“Wow,” Steve heard Bucky whisper behind him.

Magnusson cleared his throat. “Yes, that’s, uh…” and he cleared his throat again. Loki gave Steve a small, shy smile, and even though Steve knew it was almost entirely an illusion, he still wanted to gather Loki in his arms and protect him from the world’s travails.

“Perfect,” Steve said, and Loki smiled more widely.

+++

When they landed in Norway, a handsome older woman and several children were waiting on the tarmac to greet them. “That’s Queen Sonja and her grandchildren,” Magnusson told them as they exited the plane. As directed, Steve led the way with Loki right behind. Bucky, now dressed in a suit nearly identical to Magnusson’s, carried their few bags and stayed several steps back, drawing as little attention to himself as possible. Steve noted a crowd of reporters, most with telephoto lenses, behind a chain-link fence a few hundred feet away.

Loki, all elegance, gave a graceful bow to the queen and kissed the back of her hand, then went down on his knees among the children, chattering away with them in Norwegian as they seemed to ask one question after another. Steve saw the queen smile and touch her heart fondly while out of the corner of his eye he saw Magnusson nod and Bucky melt in with the plane’s crew and vanish into the terminal.. Behind the fence, the reporters shifted, all trying for the best shot.

Within moments, cars were pulling up. Magnusson reached out and took Steve’s hand. “Sergeant Barnes will meet up with you later,” he said. “But this is where I leave you. It has been a privilege to meet you and Loki, sir.”

“Thanks for everything, Olaf,” Steve said. “Really, if you hadn’t worked this out, Loki and the babies… well, I don’t want to think about it. We’re lucky Tony had you.”

Magnusson grinned proudly. “If you need anything,” he said. “Please don’t hesitate to call.” And then he headed for the terminal.

The car nearest them dispensed a woman who looked like she could be the female version of Magnusson, tall and blonde in a similar gray suit, and possessed of the same efficient self-assurance. She gently ushered Steve and Loki into her car, and the Queen and her family into another, and then they were off.

The woman began speaking to Loki in Norwegian, and the demigod looked to Steve.

“You’ll have to tell me what she’s saying,” Steve said with a laugh, and Loki went instantly pink with embarrassment.

“The All-Speak,” he said. “I forgot. Order me, and I shall include you.”

“Uh, I order you,” Steve said, a little confused, and he felt Loki’s magic move through him. The woman across from his looked startled, so he realized she must have felt it, too.

“Forgive me, my dear,” Loki said smoothly. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” And Steve realized that though Loki was speaking Norwegian, Steve heard him in English.

“Not at all,” the woman said, and it was the same for her. “Anyway, you will have rooms at the palace where you’ll be able to refresh yourselves and change clothes before tonight’s reception. There are many people who are very excited to meet you, Mr. Laufeyson. The rest of the royal family, of course, as well of the minister of culture, several heads of universities, various writers and researchers. It’s all very exciting!”

Loki gave her his most charming smile. “I’m very much looking forward to it,” he said.

She leaned forward conspiratorially. “I’ve read much of the mythology myself,” she said. “All schoolchildren in Norway are expected to, but I always loved the stories. In fact, I’m named for one of the goddesses. I hope you can tell me some tales.”

“Which goddess,” Steve asked, and was tickled to hear Norwegian coming out of his mouth.

“Frigga,” she said, and Loki suddenly went still.

“She was… my mother,” Loki said quietly, then corrected himself. “My adoptive mother, I mean.”

“What was she like?” the (currently present) Frigga asked.

Loki was quiet for a long moment, and Steve felt him shiver. Loki talked about Thor a lot, and occasionally mentioned Odin if only to disparage the Asgardian ruler, but he rarely spoke of Frigga. Steve put a reassuring hand on Loki’s back, and Loki looked at him gratefully and took a shaky breath.

“She was very wise,” he began. “A more worthy ruler than Odin, in my opinion…”

+++

Loki and Steve were shown to a suite of rooms when they arrived at the palace, more fabulous and ornate than anything Steve had ever seen, aside from Loki’s illusions of Asgard, all gold and crystal, velvet and silk. The bed had a larger square footage than some apartments Steve had lived in, and was draped with what looked like real ermine.

One of several doors opened and Bucky entered, relief etched on his face. “Oh, thank God,” he said. “Everybody keeps asking if I need anything, and I have no idea what’s going on.”

“Reception in Loki’s honor,” Steve said. “I doubt we’ll be expected to do much more than small talk. In fact, I’d be happy to pass along your regrets if you’d rather…”

“No, I’ll go,” Bucky said. “Don’t want to be ungrateful.”

“Thanks, Buck,” Steve said.

“Yes, thank you,” Loki said, and he looked around the room. “I gather they are regarding this as a sort of diplomatic affair,” he went on. “If you like, I can create Asgardian clothing for you both, as befits the consort and shield-brother of a prince.” He lowered his eyes, then. “I mean, I know I am no longer, but…”

Steve gathered Loki up in his arms and gently kissed his temple. “We would both be honored,” he said. “Please conjure whatever you see fit.”

“Actually, let me get a shower first,” Bucky said, and he retreated back to the inner rooms.

“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” Steve said, indicating their en suite bathroom door. “If the bed is any indication, I’ll bet the bathroom is huge.”

“Hmm,” Loki said and gave Steve a smirk. “Let’s go find out.”

+++

Steve and Bucky looked one another over, taking in the clothing Loki had materialized for them. Steve was half-embarrassed and half-flattered by how the demigod thought he should appear, sort of a cross between Thor’s “immortal warrior” get-up and his own Captain America uniform, with a blue tunic and leggings and long red cape, and golden pieces of armor at his neck and on his forearms. Bucky looked equally impressive in black leather clothing and armor on his chest and limbs that matched the titanium of his cybernetic arm.

“I feel like an idiot,” Bucky whispered as soon as Loki stepped into the next room to prepare himself.

“You look hot as hell,” Steve whispered back, and Bucky’s mouth fell open in surprise.

At that, Loki re-entered wearing a more elaborate version of his earlier Asgardian clothes in deep green. There were also hints of golden armor, and a plain golden circlet rested on his brow.

“I… do you think this is appropriate?” he said, worry beginning to creep into his voice. “We are at this king’s mercy. I do not wish to displease him.”

“I think you are overestimating the roles of modern Midgardian kings,” Steve said reassuringly. “You look very… appropriate.” He took a breath, bracing himself. “We ready for this?” he asked, and Loki and Bucky nodded solemnly.

“Let’s go, then.”

+++

The event began with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. The woman from earlier, Frigga, stayed close to Loki and introduced him to various guests. Steve and Bucky stayed close, too, until Loki was invited to sit with a group of academics who were interested in fact-checking the Poetic Edda, and, realizing Loki was in his element, drifted off to mingle a bit.

Half-an-hour later, Steve returned to find Loki commanding the rapt attention of most of the reception’s guests (including the Queen) as he spun out stories of Thor, Odin, Frigga, himself, and the various other Asgardians down through the centuries. Several of the professorial types were taking notes.

Bucky slid up beside him a few minutes later. “I’m feeling much more confident about Norway,” Steve said, as the crowd around Loki laughed at something he said. “How are you doing?”

“This ‘All-Speak’ thing is nuts,” Bucky said. “I think I just had a conversation with the family dog.”

Steve chuckled. “I’m glad you found someone on your intellectual level.”

“Punk,” Bucky grunted, and Steve laughed louder, putting an arm over Bucky’s shoulders.

“You’re sounding more like yourself,” Steve said. “I mean, like the man I remembered.”

“The doctors helped,” Bucky admitted. “Getting my memory back, even though I hate how it happened, it’s better than wondering, dreading it.”

“We’ll get you back to your doctors soon,” Steve promised. “Once all this rigamarole dies down.”

“Thanks,” Bucky said. Loki’s audience gave another ripple of laughter, then, and Loki smiled modestly and spread his hands.

“That’s good to see,” Bucky noted. “He kind of needs that after everything.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “This is definitely more his element.”

Bucky was quiet for along moment, then said, “you still need to tell me, well, everything about him, and the two of you.”

Steve dropped his hand and nodded solemnly. “I do,” he said. “Tonight, if Loki is up to it.”

Bucky nodded back.

+++

Dinner was a bit of a blur. Loki was seated next to the King and across from the Queen, and Steve on the Queen’s other side. Bucky was a few seats down, among various princes and princesses, looking very uncomfortable. The one big positive of the night was a more clear picture of what to expect going forward, as the King made pronouncements about where they’d live and the many organizations hoping to work with Loki to “reconstruct the heritage of our ancestors.” Steve made a mental note to have Loki work out some charts with Tony; if they could put these expectations in the “orders” column, he should be able to keep enough slack on his binding to live relatively normally.

After dinner, they returned to their rooms. Almost as soon as the door had shut, Bucky was begging to have his Asgardian clothes changed back.

“Really, Loki, what’s up with all the laces?” he complained. “How’s a guy supposed to take a piss in this get-up?”

Loki took pity, returning Bucky’s normal clothes before he retreated quickly to the inner rooms, presumably to take care of the functions he’d neglected all evening.

When he’d gone, Loki reached for the laces on Steve’s tunic. “I’d be happy to show you a much more stimulating way of removing these clothes,” he said, but Steve caught his hands.

“Next time, I promise,” Steve said. “But I told Bucky we’d give him your story tonight. If you’re up for it, that is.”

Loki gave a huff of disappointment and waved one hand airily. “Very well,” he said. “Give me the order and I shall return us to our soft clothes.” Steve did, and Loki settled himself on the end of the bed.

“How do you think it went tonight?” Steve asked, busying himself with various small tasks before bed.

“Well, I think,” Loki said, looking down at his hands. “The Queen was very nice.”

Steve sat next to him and took his hands. “Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?”

“I… it is….”

“You don’t have to…”

“It is the little ones,” Loki said, almost whispering. “I’m afraid…” He shook his head. “I have not told you everything about me. Or much of anything, in truth.”

“It’s alright,” Steve said. “I know the worst.”

“You do not,” Loki insisted. “You know almost nothing.”

“I know about Stuttgart, and New York,” Steve said. “But even after that, I see the good in you.”

Loki stared at him. “You think that is where my story begins?”

Steve frowned. “You’ve told me about your childhood. Thor and your mother…”

“And you never wondered what happened in the centuries between?” Loki said. “What set me on the path so different from my brother?”

“I guess I figured… it was your nature,” Steve said, then tried for a lighter tone. “You know, God of Mischief. Born troublemaker.”

Loki pulled his hands away, and Steve could see he’d made a terrible mistake. “I mean…” he began, then stopped. Loki was staring at him, his eyes narrowing.

“You really never wondered,” Loki said. “You thought I was the just the sort of creature who would murder hundreds of people in cold blood? You could really love such a monster?”

“No, I…” Steve stopped. Was Loki trying to confuse him intentionally, or was he actually as hurt as he looked. He tried to regroup. “I can see good in you, Loki,” he said, “But you’re right. I don’t know a lot of your history. I guess I thought it was your business, but… I now realize… it is something I should probably know.”

Loki looked a little mollified at that, then looked down at his hands again. “I suppose I cannot ask you to respect my privacy and know everything about me at the same time,” he admitted. “I am not exactly an open book.”

“I trust you,” Steve said, and Loki looked up sharply.

“You shouldn’t,” he said.

“I trust your love, then,” Steve said, and Loki stared at him for along moment, until Bucky entered and broke the tension. Loki looked at Bucky quickly, then back to Steve.

“Order me,” Loki said. “I need to tell my whole long tale, and it is long overdue.”

“Tell us then,” Steve said. “I order you to speak as long as there is more you wish to tell. He gave Loki a pointed look, making sure this order was appropriate, and let out a breath of relief when Loki gave a nod.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” Loki said, climbing up to the head of the bed and arranging himself against the pillows there. Steve stretched out alongside him and Bucky sat with his legs crossed.

“Long ago,” Loki began, “a millennium ago, perhaps longer, the realm of Asgard was at war with Jotunheim, a dark and frozen realm, where the frost giants lived. Their king was Laufey…”

+++

Loki talked for hours, of his parentage, not discovered until he had lived a lifetime believing himself one of the Aesir, of his upbringing under the careful magic tutelage of Frigga and the stern, almost brutal warrior training of Odin. He talked of his relationship with Thor, a struggle between brotherly devotion and competition for the throne, and how that led to disaster in the conflict with Jotunheim, and Loki’s assassination of his Jotun father.

He told how he let go of the Bifrost, expecting to either die or fall through the abyss forever, but was plucked up by the Other, how his thoughts were twisted, manipulated, until he agreed, willingly, to do anything that was asked.

Bucky reached out and put his hand across the top of Loki’s foot at this, an anchor as he brought his story to an end, where he was taken by Thor before Odin for his punishment. “And you know the story from there,” he concluded.

“Loki…” Steve began, but Loki interrupted him.

“I’m very tired, master,” he said. “May we talk more on the morrow.”

“Yes, that’s probably better,” Steve said. “You should sleep now.” And Loki sank back onto the pillows, his eyes closed and his body limp.

“You ordered him,” Bucky pointed out.

“I didn’t mean to,” Steve said, positioning Loki more comfortably on the bed. “You can stay here, too,” Steve said to Bucky. “Just sleep here, I mean. The bed is certainly big enough.”

Bucky gave him a look as though he were sorely tempted, then shook his head with a small smile. “Not yet,” was all he said, then rose and withdrew to his own, inner rooms.

Steve wrapped one arm around Loki, pulling him close and inhaling his scent, the smell of oncoming snow that made sense at last.

+++

Frigga awakened them for breakfast, informing them that the king and queen were traveling to another function later that day, and that their meal could be served in their rooms if they liked. Steve agreed that would be fine.

A short time later, four servants arrived with a cart of food and proceeded through to a room none of them had even looked into yet, but which turned out to be a small dining room with windows overlooking the courtyard.

Loki watched silently, and with a look of dismay, as the staff arranged dishes, silverware, and what looked like 20 dishes of food on the table.

“We prefer to serve ourselves,” Steve said, polite but firm, and Loki shot him a look of relief. “Loki, begin breakfast service,” Steve told him when they’d left, and the demigod did, dishing various foods onto Steve and Bucky’s plates and pouring out coffee and juice.

“How are you doing?” Steve asked when Loki took his seat.

Loki rubbed at the binding collar. “I am feeling… restricted,” he admitted. “I am not performing sufficient tasks and I am…” Loki’s mouth snapped shut and he bared his teeth in frustration.

“I’ll talk to Frigga,” Steve said. “See how quickly we can move to our own household. Loki, please say what you wish and eat and drink as you wish.”

“Thank you,” Loki muttered, and began to eat.

“Can I…” Bucky began hesitantly. “I mean… I had some questions about what you told us last night.”

“Are you up to answering them?” Steve asked Loki.

Loki licked his lip, then nodded slowly.

Bucky said nothing for a moment, frowning as he seemed to consider his own thoughts. “You know what,” he said finally, “There’s really only one question, I guess: Are you okay with all this? I mean, do you feel like you’re in a good place now?”

Loki looked thoughtful, and pursed his lips slightly. “I cannot say I am happy with all that happened to me,” he said. “I suppose, in a perfect world, I would not have been raised on lies and machinations. And make no mistake, though he would deny it, Odin is as much the manipulator as I, if not greater. But… if things had been different, I would not have Steve, and that very thought leaves me empty and bereft, so… take that as you will, I suppose.”

Bucky nodded, and looked as though he did understand.

+++

After breakfast, they decided it might be better if Loki talked to Frigga about their situation, since he could probably frame it in such a way that she and their hosts would move as quickly as possible while still feeling like they were making the decisions themselves.

To Loki’s utter delight, Steve’s complete relief, and Bucky’s total astonishment, by early afternoon they were on their way to a new home. Frigga went along, in case they had questions or issues, and explained the house was entirely supported by the ministry of culture, which had also apportioned a budget for Loki’s “maintenance and upkeep.”

They arrived a little before sunset to a two-story wooden house overlooking Hardangerfjord. All three men thanked Frigga profusely, and then they were left alone.

Steve shot an apologetic glance at Bucky. “I need to bring out the regular army,” he said. “Just wanted to warn you.” And Bucky did actually appear to brace himself.

“I’m okay,” he said. “Go ahead.”

Steve turned to Loki, who was much more enthusiastic about the prospect. “Okay, Loki, look alive!” he barked. “You are to find the linen closet and make all the beds. If they have already been made, you are to strip them and remake them! Do you understand?”

“Yes, master!” Loki said, and gave a sigh of relief.

“You are to put out fresh bath linens and appropriate toiletries in all the baths,” Steve went on. “If no toiletries are available you are permitted to conjure some. Do you understand?”

“Yes, master!”

“When you have completed these tasks, come find me for further assignments. Do you understand?”

“Yes, master!”

Steve lowered his voice. “Are you doing okay?” he asked gently. “The trip wasn’t too hard on you, was it?”

Loki gave him an exasperated look. “I am very well,” he said. “Ready to carry out my duties. Most willing, in fact.”

“Jesus, Steve, give the guy a break,” Bucky said.

“Alright,” Steve said. “Dismissed.” And Loki nearly scrambled for the staircase.

Bucky cleared his throat. “Request permission… I mean… do you mind if I look through the house?” he said. “Just, you know… do an inventory?”

“I don’t mind,” Steve said. “You and Loki figure out bedrooms, too. This is probably a little… cozier than the tower. Or a palace.”

“We can always have Loki spruce things up,” Bucky suggested. “But, uh, I kind of like this, actually. It feels normal, for a change.”

Steve took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he said.

Bucky disappeared into the house, so Steve decided to do a little exploring of his own. He found, to his delight, that all the windows on the side of the house facing the fjord were wide picture windows. He stood a few minutes watching the sun set, the colors in the sky reflected in the dark waters below.

A short time later, Loki announced he had completed his tasks, and Steve set to making him dinner, noting, with some surprise, that it was almost nine. Steve realized he’d have to adjust his thinking for northern latitudes.

Tony called while they were eating, and expressed envy at their pork roast and potatoes (Pepper was implementing a more “heart-healthy” diet now that the tower residents with super-metabolism had moved out.) He was also pleased to hear that they were finally in a home of their own.

“I won’t keep you,” he said, “but if it’s okay with you, I’ll have some IT guys from our Norwegian offices come by tomorrow and set you up with whatever you need to stay connected. Bucky’s team is looking forward to seeing how he’s adjusting.”

Bucky glance dup from his dinner at this. “I think they’ll be happy with his progress,” Steve said reassuringly. “But that would be great. Really, Tony, I don’t know how I’ll ever thank you for all this.”

“Well, I don’t know how happy you’ll be with me after you hear what’s happening in my neck,” Tony said, “but that should probably wait for a face-to-face…”

“Wait. What..?”

“Sorry, headed into a tunnel,” Tony said. “Catch up in a few days.”

“Tony, I know your phone works in tunnels…” Steve said, but Tony had already ended the call.

“Should we even guess?” Bucky asked.

“I wouldn’t bother,” Loki informed him between bites. “Stark has his own schemes, and there is little that will stop them.”

“Sad but true,” Steve said.

They ate a few minutes in silence. “You’ll be able to talk to your doctors again, though,” Steve said to Bucky. “So that’s good.”

“I guess,” Bucky said.

“Perhaps we should go exploring tomorrow,” Loki said. “I have… known this land, but it was very different at that time. I should like to see how it has changed since I visited last.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Steve agreed. “From what I’ve seen it’s very beautiful. And the sun and air should do us good.” He looked at Bucky at this, but the other man didn’t look up.

+++

Steve checked in with Bucky again at bedtime, noting he’d chosen the smallest of the three bedrooms, the one with only two small windows instead of the view afforded in the others.

“This lets me see and hear anyone approaching from the road,” Bucky said without preamble when he noticed Steve surveying the room.

“It’s a good idea,” Steve said. “I think I got a little… complacent living at Tony’s. And I’m sorry for that.”

Bucky grunted and nodded. “Well, here’s hoping this is better,” he said.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “A fresh start.”

There was a long silence, one that felt… heavy to Steve. Laden with some undefined emotion.

“I’m still not ready,” Bucky said finally.

“I’m not pushing,” Steve said. “But I’m glad you’re at least considering it.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said quietly.

“Do you need anything?” Steve asked after a moment. “I could have Loki…”

“No, I’m fine,” Bucky said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

And Steve said his goodnights and left him alone.

Chapter Text

When Steve awoke, he found Loki kneeling by the bed, his “rest position.”

Waiting for orders.

“I’m sorry,” Steve told him. “We’ll call Tony today. Work out charts. We’ll get things back to normal for you.”

Loki, of course, couldn’t answer, but his eyes flicked up and he gave an almost imperceptible nod.

“Is Bucky awake?” Steve asked.

“Yes, master.”

“He did an inventory last night,” Steve said, getting up and gathering his clothes from the floor. “Go get washed and dressed – follow your charts as well as you’re able – then find out what we have in the larder and start on breakfast. You need anything, conjure it up for now. Do you understand?”

“Yes, master.”

Steve went over to stand in front of Loki. “Get up, and kiss me before you go,” he said.

Loki gave him a small, amused smile. “Yes, master,” he said, and rose smoothly to his feet, draped his arms on Steve’s shoulders. Steve wrapped his own arms around Loki’s back and pressed their bodies together, and their lips found each other’s, hungry, open-mouthed, Steve’s hot tongue twining with Loki’s cool one. Loki hummed with pleasure, and Steve kissed him harder. When they parted, Loki’s mouth was swollen and pink, and he touched it with his fingertips and grinned.

“That’s what I like to see,” Steve said quietly. “Now go.”

“Yes, master,” Loki said, and exited into the bath.

Steve found a hamper and dropped their dirty clothes into it, then found some fresh ones Loki had left for him in a drawer. Steve mentally added clothes to the list of items they’d have to look for on their outing. Shortly after, Loki exited and headed for the stairs, and Steve prepared himself for the day.

He found Loki and Bucky in the kitchen at work on a stack of pancakes: Loki cooking them and Bucky eating them. There were also sausages, fruit juice, and a proper electric percolator making coffee. Steve sat down and Loki set a plate in front of him.

“Okay,” Steve said. “Let’s have your ideas. Loki needs orders and this house is not big enough to fill his day. Loki, please speak freely. Bucky, any thoughts are welcome.”

“I can start by cleaning everything thoroughly,” Loki said. “Wash the baseboards, beat the featherbeds, everything.”

“Good,” Steve said, pulling out his notepad and starting a list. “You said you used to tend a garden. I think it’s still early enough in the summer, we can get some seedlings… We should be able to order them on-line if we can’t find a nursery, don’t you think?”

“It would be far from the strangest items sold on-line,” Loki noted, and took another bite of pancake.

“The shed’s full of garden tools,” Bucky said. “But can we get tomatoes? My ma grew them in her victory garden.”

Steve smiled. “Sure. We’ve got a lot of property. We can probably grow anything we want.”

“Especially with sixteen hours of sunlight a day,” Loki said.

“Okay, more ideas,” Steve prompted.

“The babies,” Bucky said. “All the things to get ready for them. When my ma was in the family way, she used to knit on-stop…”

“Bucky, you’re a goddamn genius,” Steve interrupted and turned to Loki. “That’s what we’ll do to replace the charity paperwork. You can knit baby things. Booties, layette sets, blankets. It’ll keep you busy, but it won’t be strenuous. What do you think?”

Loki nodded slowly. “It is a practical solution,” he agreed. “At least until the little ones arrive.”

“Oh, trust me,” Bucky said, “once the babies arrive, you won’t have any trouble finding things to do.”

“Right,” Steve said. “This is just to give you plenty of slack in the meantime.”

“Very well,” Loki said. “We shall look for wool and needles, then…”

There was a knock at the door.

“That will be Tony’s people,” Steve said, rising from the table.

It was, and within minutes, their front hallway was filled with electronics, equipment, and technicians. Steve made the executive decision to simply give them the run of the house while he, Loki, and Bucky took their walk into town, and deal with installed computers and entertainment devices when they returned.

The day was bright and warm, and they walked along the main road which followed the curve of the fjord below. They passed homes of wildly different sizes, from cottages that seemed built for the tourist market to huge, extravagant estates. It reminded Steve of some of the resort areas Tony had taken him to on various Avengers retreats, where the neighbors could be anyone from fantastically wealthy CEOs to newly-rich celebrities to the fourth generation of a family who’d settled there when it was orange groves.

They quickly drew the attention of those who happened to be out and about, though they weren’t approached. Steve liked to pretend he was used to it, but really, he was still self-conscious, and who knew what people thought of Bucky and Loki. Captain America, at least, was kind of a known quantity, but who knew what the news was reporting about the other two.

The town was not especially far, a pleasant 30-minute walk over level ground. Steve knew he or Bucky could run it in a few minutes if they had to, but hopefully they’d only ever have to for fun. It also seemed geared to tourism, with restaurants heavily represented, along with boat and bicycle rentals, camping and hiking equipment, various outings and excursions, and shops selling art and souvenirs. Steve made a mental note to ask a local resident where the closest supermarket might be.

Loki broke into Steve’s distracted thoughts with a quick tap on his arm. Steve looked up, then followed Loki’s pointing finger to what looked like a weather-beaten barn, but was quickly realized to be a plant nursery. Plastic buckets holding various tree saplings and shrubs were arranged in rows, while behind them tables full of potting trays held seedlings labeled with multicolored plastic stakes.

“Perfect,” Steve said. “Let’s go.”

Bucky and Loki headed for the seedlings, but Steve let himself daydream a bit among the spindly twigs propped up in their black plastic containers. If they could settle here, live out their lives here, there could be apple trees, and their children could sit in the branches while sweet juice ran down their chins. They could hide in the cool shade of a blueberry hedge with their fingers and lips stained dark.

After a moment he wandered closer to where Loki and Bucky were discussing where they might put in an herb garden when an older woman wearing a work apron with the name of the shop embroidered on it came over to them. Steve expected her to begin discussing the plants, but she stepped close to Loki, her head down and her hands clasped at her waist.

“You are… the ancient one?” she asked quietly.

Loki nodded. “Yes,” he said.

She looked sideways at Steve and Bucky, then beckoned to Loki with one hand as she stepped back towards her shop. “Can we… just for a moment?” she said, and with a glance at Steve, Loki followed her.

“What’s going on?” Bucky whispered when they began talking out of earshot.

“I don’t know,” Steve answered.

The woman was obviously speaking very quietly, her head still lowered, as Loki was bending close to her to listen. After a few moments, he raised her chin with one hand and stroked his fingertips along her hairline with the other, then leaned close to her ear as he spoke.

Her face broke into a smile, and Loki smiled back, then kissed her forehead. She clasped her hands over his, then held up one finger, clearly asking him to wait, returning a few seconds later with a wide, flat basket she handed to Loki.

“Take whatever you would like,” she said, loud enough to include Bucky and Steve. “Keep the basket, and come back any time for more. All of you. It is an honor.” And then she retreated back to her shop, suddenly flushed and breathless.

Loki rejoined the other two at the seedling tables and lifted a small pot of dill into the basket.

“What was that about?” Steve asked.

“She was… praying, I suppose you would call it,” Loki said. “Asking me to… intercede in a matter in my role as one of the Aesir.”

Steve’s eyes widened in surprise. “What?”

Loki tsk’ed softly and rolled his eyes. “Of course, I cannot do that,” he said. “Not that I ever did even when it was within my power. But I did give her some advice, and that will do her more good anyway.”

“Do I want to know?” Steve said.

Loki smiled slyly and pretended to be absolutely fascinated by a pot of coriander. “I told her she carried her son for nine months, then saw him through to adulthood, and no law or custom obligates her to carry him any further,” he said. “You may infer from that what you will.”

Steve looked towards the shop. “So, there are still followers of the gods of Asgard here,” he said.

“Of a kind, I suppose,” Loki said. “We were not ever truly forgotten. But I think she just wanted someone to tell her it was okay to do what she wanted to do, and, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me, I was happy to be that someone.”

Steve shook his head and grinned. “Unbelievable,” he said.

“Yes, Loki of Asgard,” Loki said drolly. “Patron god of doing what you want. Now, let us fill this basket so we can be on our way.”

And later, a few blocks down, they found a yarn shop.

+++

When they returned home the SI technicians had nearly finished up, and the front hall was filled with a new set of boxes, this time delivered by Fed Ex from New York. Steve checked one of the labels and gave an exclamation of joy. “They’re from Tony,” he said. “He sent our clothes and the rest of the things from our rooms.”

Bucky and Loki made near-identical sighs of relief.

“Alright, Loki,” Steve said. “How are you feeling? Do you need to rest?”

“I am feeling quite well and not at the moment,” Loki said impatiently.

“Fine,” Steve said. “Start unpacking these boxes. Is that okay?” he checked with Bucky, who nodded. “If you feel tired or need a break, take as long a rest as you need,” Steve continued. “Is that clear?”

“As crystal,” Loki said, clearly becoming irritated now.

“Watch the lip,” Steve said, missing Loki’s expression of outrage. “Dismissed.”

Loki began pulling at the packing tape on the nearest box, and Bucky gave Steve a nudge with his elbow.

“He’s not the newest greeny,” Bucky said quietly, and Steve turned back.

“I’m sorry, Loki,” he said sincerely. “I got into the rhythm and it just slipped out. Are you okay?”

“Hmm, I will be,” Loki allowed. “Just…”

“What?”

Loki tapped his collar. “Won’t let me,” he said.

“I am really sorry,” Steve said. “I’ll try not to do it again.”

Loki gave another annoyed hum, but nodded, so Steve turned back to Bucky. “Okay, so where’s the gardening equipment?”

+++

The rest of the day was a whirlwind of activity as boxes were unpacked, two gardens were planted (a small kitchen garden near the house and a larger vegetable garden in the side yard,) and meals were prepared and served. Somewhere in all of it, Bucky was able to check in with his doctors on Skype, and, Steve noted, seemed much more relaxed afterward.

It was still full daylight when they sat down to dinner, and Loki took a few minutes before eating to stare out at the sun reflecting on the water.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Bucky asked around a mouthful of veal parmesan, and Loki turned to him questioningly.

“He wants to know what you’re thinking about,” Steve explained.

“Oh, just… remembering,” Loki said. “And wondering why Odin chose to bring us here. This land is so unlike Asgard. Cold and unforgiving where Asgard gives freely of her bounty.”

“Maybe that’s why,” Steve said. “Didn’t want you to get too soft.”

Loki gave a wry smile. “Yes, that would have been just like him,” he said.

“Is it how you remember it?” Bucky asked.

“In some ways,” Loki said, and there was a long moment of silence.

“The people here are very interested in you,” Bucky said.

“Yes, she was very kind,” Loki said. “I shall have to stop there again next time we travel into town.”

“Not just her,” Bucky clarified. “When we were working outside, people were trying to see you from the road. I saw them looking.”

“What?” Steve said. “Why didn’t you say anything sooner?”

“No, I don’t mean like that,” Bucky said. “They were just walking. Some had children. But they were curious. Word must be getting around.”

“Bucky, are you sure it’s just gawkers,” Steve said, and Bucky frowned.

“I think I can assess a threat, Steve.”

“No, of course, I just…”

“No, Bucky’s right,” Loki said. “The woman at the shop, Anetka, she knew exactly who I was, came right out like she was waiting for me. Perhaps she was.”

“Maybe,” Steve conceded. “Still, it won’t hurt to be careful.”

“I’m always careful,” Bucky grunted, taking another forkful of food.

“And I shall be alert,” Loki promised.

After dinner, Steve gave Loki an order to start knitting booties, and the alien took a pair of thin metal needles and a ball of fine white yarn and began, his long, slender fingers confidently shuttling the stitches back and forth, but easing the binding enough for him to talk freely with Steve and Bucky about their plans for the days ahead. It was pleasant and comfortable, and they watched together as the colors of the sunset shimmered on the water below.

+++

By bedtime, Loki had finished one tiny white booty and started a second, and seemed considerably more comfortable. At some point, Bucky took Loki’s feet into his lap and massaged them, and Steve smiled at the domesticity of it all. Even if Bucky never went further with them, Steve thought, hoped really, that this might be enough, this comfortable house in a place where he could live quietly, with a family of sorts.

They climbed the stairs, said their goodnights, Loki into their bedroom facing the water, Bucky where he could watch the approach from the road. Steve looked through the open door of the third bedroom, now overlooking their new garden. They’d make it into a nursery soon: cradles and baby things… there was so much he had to learn, but Loki, he’d done it before. He could do it again.

Steve turned to Loki, then, saw the demigod at their bedroom doorway, watching, a soft smile teasing at his lips.

“I was just thinking…” Steve began.

“I know,” Loki said, and then, as though he were reading Steve’s mind, “don’t worry. You’ll be good at it, I know. You will love them like a lion.”

“Yes,” Steve agreed, not sure what else to say.

“Come,” Loki said. “I’ve put out the things Stark has sent us.”

Steve stepped into the room and was surprised by the wash of relief that swept over him at seeing their things. His and Loki’s books on one of the shelves, his sketchbooks and supplies the shelf below. All his framed photos leaning against the wall, ready to be hung, and various mementos arranged here and there on the nightstands and dresser. And spread out on the bed, their fur blanket. For the first time since leaving New York, it was starting to feel like home.

Loki stood for a minute at the picture window, gazing out at the fjord, and Steve stepped up behind him, wound his arms around Loki’s torso and pressed a kiss to the back of Loki’s neck. He felt Loki shiver, and he slid his hands under the hem of Loki’s shirt and lifted it up and off, and tossed it aside. Steve moved his hands back over Loki’s now bared flesh and turned him slowly to face him, so close their bodies slid against one another.

“You should…” Loki began, his fingers fluttering against the buttons on Steve’s shirt.

“Not yet,” Steve said, dipping towards the hollows of Loki’s throat. He kissed, and laved, and sucked at the skin, while Loki’s hands settled at the back of his head, fingers lacing together, cradling him.

His bottom lip brushed against the metal of Loki’s collar and he startled back and looked up at Loki’s face. Loki’s eyes had gone dark and his mouth had fallen slack, but he nearly glowed in the moonlight.

“Please,” he whispered, and Steve was suddenly stripping off the rest of Loki’s clothes and then his own in a frenzied fever, and then his hands were grasping Loki’s body again, clutching his hips, lifting him. And then they were moving, stumbling, practically falling, and Loki’s back was against a wall, and Steve was inside him, rutting, thrusting, nearly mindless, and sucking at the soft skin between Loki’s ear and jaw.

Loki moaned low in the back of his throat, drawn out until he was breathless, and then he began the strange, half-laughing pant that never failed to make Steve lose all control.

And he did.

+++

Steve jolted awake to Loki’s terrified screams, followed in close succession by his bedroom door being pulled off the hinges, Loki throwing himself off and under the bed so quickly it was like he’d teleported, and the sound of Bucky roaring furiously while the servos in his arm whirred and clacked.

Steve leapt out of the bed himself, ready to rip any intruder apart, despite being totally naked, but a quick scan of the room revealed only Bucky in the doorway, apparently similarly confused by the lack of, well, anything. In the sudden silence, Steve was able to hear Loki beneath the bed repeating a whispered plea, “I’ll be good, I’ll be good, I’ll be good…”

Steve dropped to the floor, quickly realizing he was too large to wedge under the bed himself, so he began speaking quietly instead.

“Loki, it’s okay. You’re safe. It was just a dream.”

Loki seemed to come out of it a bit, turning wide, green eyes to Steve. “I was… I was…”

“Come out,” Steve soothed. “Get back in bed. We can talk about it, if you want.”

Loki slid out from under the bed, and Steve realized too late his words may have been taken as an order, but Loki didn’t seem annoyed, so he decided to let it go.

Bucky was still standing in the doorway when Steve rose, pointedly not looking at either of the other men until they had arranged themselves under the bedclothes.

Steve opened his arms to Loki, who fell trembling against him, then he nodded to Bucky, who gave a dismayed look to the broken door, then sat on the padded bench at the foot of the bed.

“I am sorry for the disruption…” Loki began, his voice muffled against Steve’s shoulder.

“No, shh, that doesn’t matter,” Steve said, brushing Loki’s hair from his face. “Do you want to tell me about your dream?”

Loki shuddered, but gave a small nod. “It was… I was remembering my little ones from so long ago,” he said, “but you were there, instead of Tryg… that was my beloved’s name, I don’t think I ever told you… and we were here, with the children sleeping between us.” Loki paused and pressed a hand to his forehead. “It was all… confused together.”

“Dreams are like that,” Steve assured him.

“Then Odin was here, to take me back to Asgard, telling me I had been disobedient and brought disgrace upon him, and I begged for your lives, but… but…”

“It’s okay, I get it,” Steve said. “But it was only a dream.”

“But what if it’s not?” Loki said, looking up, and his voice was shaky. “What if… he learns about the little ones and decides they cannot… that I cannot…”

“We will fight him,” Bucky said firmly. “We will fight him with everything we have to protect you and the babies.”

“You can’t…” Loki said, but Steve cut him off.

“I fought Thor once,” he said. “I think I held my own pretty well, too. But Loki, I’ll give you this order now. If anyone, and I mean Odin, or SHIELD, or Hydra, or, or… God knows what, really, comes after you or the children, you are to use every ability you have to run and hide and get to safety. And if that doesn’t work, you are to use everything you have – fighting skills, trickery, magic, everything – to defend yourself, fight them off, kill them if you have to. Do you understand me?”

Loki stared at him, mouth now agape in shock. “In truth?”

“Do I need Tony to make a chart?”

“No, I understand,” Loki said, his voice quiet and awed, and Steve stroked his hair again.

“Do you think you can get back to sleep?”

“I think so,” Loki said, settling himself down.

“Thank you,” Steve said to Bucky, who nodded and rose. He looked at the door in pieces on the floor.

“Do you…?” Bucky began.

“Lean it against the wall in the hallway,” Steve said. “I’ll have Loki fix it in the morning.”

+++

Steve slept poorly, and he could hear Bucky moving through the house, no doubt similarly restless. Loki was surprisingly still, but Steve suspected he was in the meditative state he was sometimes able to achieve, not a true sleep. And since the sun was rising a little after 4 am at the moment, breakfast was prepared and served particularly early.

As Steve surveyed the rough looks and half-closed eyes around the table, he had to remind himself they were two scientifically-enhanced soldiers and an actual ancient god; one sleepless night wasn’t going to do them any harm.

Still, when a lightning bolt struck out of the (literal) clear blue sky and deposited Thor beside their newly-planted garden, Steve felt like a drowning man who’d just caught a rope. Loki jumped up from the table and was halfway to the door before turning to Steve for the necessary permission, which Steve said quickly, the words that allowed Loki to visit freely with his brother almost like an incantation now.

Loki charged out the door and across the lawn and Steve grinned to see Thor lift him up in a heartfelt bear hug. There was not a doubt in Steve’s mind it was the very best thing for Loki at the moment.

“So,” Steve said to Bucky. “Shall we go say hello?”

Thor had equally enthusiastic greetings for Steve and Bucky, followed by effusive compliments about the garden, the house, the location, and the view. In fact, Thor was so taken with the spectacle, he and Loki settled themselves right down on the grass to catch up. Loki told his brother of their travels, and Thor listened with a fond smile, noting several times how pleased he was to hear things seemed to be going so well.

Thor’s news for Loki was not so straightforward. He hinted at rifts between the Avengers and SHIELD following the latter’s attempt to take Loki from the Tower. “But I shall leave that for Stark to relate,” Thor demurred before getting into much detail, and Steve made a mental note to call Tony.

“And the news from Asgard, I almost hesitate to tell,” Thor said gravely. “Our father…”

”Your father, you mean,” Loki said, a note of bitterness creeping into his voice.

“Loki… brother,” Thor said quietly. “Father… Odin is entering his final years. All the signs portend.”

“I have no doubt you shall make a fine king when he is gone,” Loki said.

Thor gave Loki as sad a look as Steve had ever seen on the thunder god’s face.

“Thor, can I ask you a question?” Steve said.

“Of course, Captain Rogers.”

“What does Odin know about Loki’s condition?” Steve saw Loki go rigid at this, but Thor’s face grew even sadder.

“I am… forbidden to discuss my brother in the All-Father’s presence,” Thor said. “When I have tried to bring news… I…” Thor trailed off, looking at Loki with great tenderness.

“Enough with that,” Loki said tartly. “Why should he concern himself with the doings of a Jotun slave? Is that what he says?”

The look on Thor’s face showed Loki’s guess was precisely correct.

Steve went on. “Are Loki or the babies in any danger from Odin?”

Thor’s denial was immediate and vehement. “No, no, of course not! The All-Father would never…” and he stopped short, glancing guiltily at Loki. “That was different,” he finished lamely.

“How was that different?” Loki demanded, his voice full of venom.

“You were in line for the throne…”

“I never was!” Loki spat. “You know that now. It was to protect Odin’s pride…”

“Yes! Yes, it was,” Thor admitted. “And Father… Odin… was wrong. About a lot of things. And… I am sorry about your children, brother. If I had known, I…”

“Would have gone against Odin?” Loki asked incredulously. “Would you really? Talk is cheap, brother. You must forgive me if I do not believe you.”

“I cannot change the past,” Thor said quietly. “But I do not believe you are in any danger now. I believe… Odin would prefer to never acknowledge you again, and I’m sure that is a painful truth for you…”

“It’s really not,” Loki said.

“…but if he, or anyone, threatens you or the little ones, I will be first at your side to defend you. You have my word.”

Loki’s mouth opened, as though to fling more spiteful words at Thor, then closed again. “Very well,” he said finally. “I am glad to hear it, brother.”

“Me, too,” Steve agreed. “But I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Bucky cleared his throat. “Now that that’s settled,” he said, “I want to point out that we have visitors.” All turned to the road behind them, where twenty or so people, many children, had gathered to watch. A few had field glasses.

“What is this?” Thor said, his jovial mood coming back strong. “Do the Avengers have admirers here, as well?”

Steve helped Loki get to his feet. “I believe ‘follower’ might be more accurate,” Loki said.

“We should greet them,” Thor said enthusiastically, jumping up and bounding up towards the road. “My friends!” he called out, and was answered with a cheer.

“As it was and ever shall be,” Loki muttered darkly, trailing Thor slowly, his hand still tucked in Steve’s.

Thor was surrounded by the children, who were chattering dozens of questions even as they passed him wildflowers they had obviously gathered during their walks. Loki stood back, watching impassively, when he was approached by a couple who had broken from the crowd. They were young, not children, but not really adults either. They wore dark make-up around their eyes, and their hair was brightly colored, like exotic birds.

“You’re Loki,” the girl said, not really a question. “I’m so glad to meet you.”

Loki’s eyebrows raised. “Aren’t you more interested in the god of thunder?”

The girl glanced back and shrugged. “Not really,” she said. “I always felt more in tune with a god of… nonconformity.”

Steve saw the familiar amused smirk creep back onto Loki’s face. “Indeed,” he said, taking the girl’s hand and drawing her away from the crowd. “Let us talk together, then, you and I.”

+++

Steve called Tony that afternoon, and was surprised to find him still in New York. “I thought you were taking Pepper to a tropical island,” Steve said.

“I am. I will be. Soon,” Tony said. “But she’s actually the one who suggested we postpone until a few things get worked out.”

“The education center?”

“Among other things,” Tony said. “Listen, can I fly in for a visit tomorrow? There are some big things happening.”

“So Thor said,” Steve replied. “Yes, please, come by anytime.”

Steve rang off and found Loki and Bucky in the kitchen. Several of Thor and Loki’s “devotees” (the crowd had actually gotten quite large by the time Thor left) had brought gifts of food and drink, and Loki had decided to prepare a ratatouille-like stew of several of them.

“Those kids seemed nice,” Steve ventured, and Loki hummed and nodded.

“They seemed to be at odds with their families,” Loki said. “I can certainly sympathize with that.”

“Are you… okay with all this?” Steve asked. “I mean, we could ask to be left alone…”

“I doubt it will be such a burden,” Loki said. “They really just… there is not always a place for them, and they are looking for a patron who accepts them as they are.”

“And that’s you?” Steve asked.

Loki laughed. “Not in the way you think,” he said. “I do not hear petitions or call down my wrath. But I love who I want. I love how I want. And if they long for my blessing instead of that of a virgin goddess and her unstained son, well… I will accept them as mine.”

“Somewhere, Father Sullivan is turning purple,” Bucky said, chuckling himself.

Steve looked over at his friend. “What do you mean?”

“C’mon, Stevie,” Bucky said. “Do you think he came by for chicken every Thursday because my ma was such a great cook?”

“Your ma was a good cook,” Steve said.

“No!” Bucky said, rolling his eyes. “My ma had him over to lecture all the Barnes kids about keeping on the straight and narrow. And specifically ‘young James’ on the dangers of ‘perversion.’ Can you believe he once told me if I was too tempted, I should become a priest and God would turn me away from the temptations of the flesh?”

“That explains a good deal of your church’s recent history,” Loki said drily.

“What do you mean?” Bucky said.

“Never mind!” Steve said firmly. “Okay. Fine. The kids can come. But I don’t want this getting out of hand.”

“A sympathetic ear and impartial advice only,” Loki promised, and Steve nodded slowly, hoping they weren’t getting in over their heads.

+++

Tony, gleaming in the latest Iron Man armor, arrived just before lunch the next day, and Steve took it upon himself to give him a quick view of the grounds before hustling him inside. He was very complimentary of the house, even though Steve knew it must seem like a shoe-box compared to his usual digs. He became even more effusive when Loki served lunch, bemoaning Pepper’s attempts to improve his diet.

“I mean, I get shot at, chased by aliens, blown up,” he said. “What are the chances, really, that trans fat is what finally does it.”

“Tony, if you’re trying to get me to contradict Pepper,” Steve told him, “you have come to the wrong man. I wouldn’t cross her even from Europe.”

“Understood,” Tony said, taking another bite of wine-braised brisket.

“So what’s the big news,” Steve asked after another minute.

Tony leaned back. “Well,” he said. “There’s been some interesting fallout from the whole Tower raid. I mean, obviously after SHIELD got their asses handed to them by the Winter Soldier, the two of us were out.”

“You were never totally in to begin with,” Steve pointed out.

“Yeah, well, according to Clint, Fury went ape-shit,” Tony said. Steve saw Loki’s head snap up at Clint’s name, but Tony went on, seemingly unaware. “I mean, he knows I don’t respect any so-called authority, but he just couldn’t compute how or why Captain America would harbor a known terrorist. No offense, Barnes.”

“None taken,” Bucky grunted, focused on his serving of cornbread casserole.

“I’m sorry,” Steve cut in, “did you say ‘Clint?’ As in Barton?”

“Oh, yeah, our strange bedfellow,” Tony said. “Did you know he’s got a wife and kids?”

“What?!”

“So, it turns out that while he’d be more than happy to see your bae rotting in some SHIELD holding cell somewhere, he’s a little put out by Fury’s complete disregard for your privacy and my property. And after Romanov walked him through some of the files she’d so helpfully uploaded, he decided SHIELD’s promise to let him keep his private life private wasn’t worth a fart in the wind.”

Loki and Bucky exchanged an amused grim at Tony’s turn of phrase and Steve rolled his eyes.

“So Barton tells Fury where he can stick his Avengers Initiative,” Tony continued. “And, of course, as Hawkeye goes, so goes Black Widow, leaving Fury with Bruce, kind of, and the two kids from Sokovia, none of whom are likely to be cleared for the field anytime soon, maybe Sam Wilson, but probably not without you, maybe Rhodey, although he’s pretty much committed to the army for the foreseeable future, and less than half the support staff he had a couple of months ago, and most of them, let’s be honest, are trying to work out which of their co-workers are secret Nazis.”

“Wow,” Steve said, his own meal forgotten.

“But wait,” Tony said, “that’s just the backstory. Into our tale walks the radiantly-beautiful genius, one Miss Pepper Potts, who points out that instead of basking in the schadenfreude, I could possibly salvage something useful from this shit-show. So, I put on my swankiest bespoke suit and my ‘fuck you’ sunglasses and made Nicholas Fury an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Steve, Loki, and Bucky all fixed Tony with identical looks of intense interest, and a smug smile broke over the billionaire’s face.

“Gentlemen, say hello to the leader of the New Avengers.”

Steve, of course, had a hundred questions, and he and Tony talked intently through the rest of lunch, the clearing of the table, Loki and Bucky taking off to tend to their own tasks, and around again to dinner.

Although many, many details still had to be worked out, Tony had moved many of the operations to one of his properties he’d discovered while looking for a safe location for Loki and Steve, a compound in upstate New York that SI had acquired through a shell company after the war. He’d invested a significant portion of his personal fortune in the initiative.

(“Tony! That’s your own money!"

“It’s not like I can take it with me, Steve.”)

Fury and his staff had stayed on, of course, but all operations went through a board that included Clint, Bruce, and Tony.

(“And you, too, if you’re interested, Cap.”

“Give me some time, Tony. This is giving me whiplash as it is.”)

And Tony had transferred some of his best and brightest from Stark R&D into SHIELD, partly to keep an eye on things, but also to analyze threats and prepare before they happened instead of just reacting.

(“And I know it’s still early in the process, but…”

“Yeah, I know. Loki would probably have no problem telling you all about the murderous aliens out there, but Bucky… let me talk to him. He’s still putting all the pieces together, you know.”)

And Tony being Tony, there were hints of other developments, still in the early stages, but with promises to keep Steve closely informed. By the time Loki returned to the kitchen to begin preparing dinner, Tony and Steve were ready for a break.

They walked out to the land facing the fjord where Bucky had dragged some lawn furniture he’d found in storage, and took their seats.

“This really is beautiful,” Tony said. “Seems like the perfect place to settle down. Live the simple life.”

Steve raised one eyebrow and gave Tony a wry smile until he laughed.

“Well, you know,” Tony corrected. “As simple as we get.”

“Yeah,” Steve admitted. “It kind of does.”

At dinner, Tony was content to listen to the stories of what had happened after they’d parted, and just before dessert Bucky seemed to work up the courage to ask about furthering his schooling. Tony assured him he hadn’t forgotten and promised to tee up some on-line classes for the fall.

“And I’m not your freshman advisor or anything,” Tony told him, “but maybe you ought to ease in with a few liberal arts credits. Get the whole college experience.”

“Whatever you think is best, Tony,” Bucky said. “I trust you.”

And Steve had to turn his face away, the moment filled him with such tenderness.

+++

Tony left shortly after, promising to return soon, and for longer, and to bring Pepper, at least, and some of the others, if he could.

“Who knows,” he told Steve, “if you decide to join up again, we could set up a garrison nearby, you could run the Euro division.”

“We’ll see, Tony.”

“It would save Loki a few nervous breakdowns.”

“So would retirement.”

Tony grinned. “That would never stick and you know it, Rogers.”

Steve shook his head, bemusedly grinning. “As I said, we’ll see.”

And Tony said his goodbyes, stepped into the Iron Man armor, and shot into the coming twilight.

+++

The next day, two blond-oak cradles were delivered, with Tony and Pepper’s compliments. That afternoon, they made another trip to buy wool for baby blankets.

+++

Life was settling into a pleasant and predictable routine when the pilgrims began to arrive.

The first one came on a bright, clear day. She stood by the back door for a long time, her hands clasped together in something like supplication. Steve whispered orders in Loki’s ear and he went to her. He brushed her hair away from where it hid her masculine face, and she cried when she saw him. So he took her to sit on the hill overlooking the water, where the sun could shine on them, and Loki braided her hair with the little white flowers that grew in the grass. When she left, he kissed her on the forehead, and she smiled.

After that, they came every few days, mostly alone but sometimes in pairs, their eyes filled with pain but their arms filled with flowers. And Loki would sit with them on the grass, and listen to their secrets, and they left with hope and gratitude, and flower crowns upon their heads.

Steve knew somewhere Nick Fury was having heated meetings and berating his subordinates with, “he has worshippers now? How the fuck did this happen?” But Steve couldn’t help but wish he and Bucky and all the hopeless boys had had their own dark god to absolve them of their sins.

+++

Summer stretched out, long golden days that seemed to bleed one into the other. Steve found he missed the darkness, he saw it so rarely, but Loki and Bucky, who’d spent much more of their lives in far-northern climes, told him to take all the sun he could get, a shelter against the coming dark. As predicted, their garden grew wild, tomatoes seeming to swell and ripen in front of their eyes, and bean pods proliferating almost too quickly to shell.

Bucky became less of a silent, haunted presence, and brought plans to Steve and Loki to keep chickens and maybe rabbits, to plant apple trees and rose bushes. He got an advance syllabus for some of the classes he wanted to take and read Dante and James Joyce and Ta-Nehisi Coates, then went to on-line study groups to discuss his thoughts. He still shook his head and slept in his own room each night when Steve waited for him in the hallway.

Steve found himself talking to Tony, and Sam, and Natasha, and even Fury, helping to form the shape of the Avengers going forward. He monitored the progress of the twins, Wanda and Pietro, who were only just starting to trust Tony and the team. Steve hoped when Bucky had healed some more, he might consider mentoring them, given their shared experience as Hydra’s victims. Sam and Tony were also hinting at new recruits they might have on their radar.

Loki, meanwhile, kept himself busy preparing for the babies. After much coaxing and moral support from Pepper and Mrs. Barton, of all people, Tony had worked out charts for the babies’ birth and neo-natal care. They’d added a changing table and rocking chair to the nursery, and Steve had painted pastel-colored zoo animals on one of the walls. Loki seemed to knit non-stop, filling the babies’ dresser with sweaters, hats, booties, socks, and blankets. As summer gave way to fall Loki swelled like the ripening fruit, rolling back and forth as he walked around the garden like a sailing ship at sea. Bucky doted on him, his memories of his mother pregnant with his many younger siblings seeming to dominate his thoughts as he served Loki tea and ice cream, massaged his swollen feet and ankles, and reverently pressed his palm to feel their increasing activity in Loki’s womb.

Winter caught them all by surprise. It seemed as though they fell asleep one night in the deep blue autumn twilight and woke to thick clouds and icy wind blowing in from the sea. The scent of promised coming snow, ever-present on Loki’s skin, now filled the atmosphere, while inside the house it smelled of peppermint tea and disinfectant, as Loki made the final preparations for the children, convinced they could arrive any day.

Steve tried not to fret, and wished they had a doctor they could trust to look after Loki as his time came ever closer.

In the mornings, they began to wake to frost edging the windowpanes like lace trim on a handkerchief, and while Steve wrapped himself in fur and flannel to keep out the chill in their bed, Loki spread himself on top of the covers, trying to get comfortable and finding it impossible.

Still, he went pliant in Steve’s hands, yielded to his kisses and caress. And though Steve knew everything in their lives was about to change, he believed it would be for the better.

Chapter Text

In hindsight, Steve realized they should have known the babies would come with the snow.

The sun, which barely showed this season, had never really managed to shed any light all day, the clouds were so heavy and thick. The wind, which had blown so fiercely the preceding days, seemed to grow calm at last, and the whistles and moans their house made as it found its way through the cracks grew silent. Waiting.

Bucky, who seemed to resent the biting, damp cold on a personal level, finally relaxed, even settling himself at the dining table to do his school work, looking out over the water and distant cliffs, instead of bundled close to the fireplace.

Loki finished his latest knitting project, tiny thumbless mittens joined by cords that would thread through the babies’ coat sleeves, so they wouldn’t be lost if they pulled off, and told Steve he was off to bed.

Steve took in the drawn, exhausted look on Loki’s face and brushed the back of his fingers over Loki’s cheek.

“I’ll come with you,” Steve said.

“It is not necessary, if you are bu—” And then Loki yelped in surprise as Steve scooped him up and carried him towards the staircase.

“My poor Loki,” Steve murmured soothingly.

“I am more than capable…”

Steve shushed him gently. “We’ll hibernate,” Steve said. “It will be nice, just tucked in together.”

Loki’s expression softened into tenderness. “Very well,” he said. And Steve spooned up against his back, their fur throw pulled over them, and Steve’s hand splayed protectively over Loki’s swollen belly.

Steve couldn’t tell what time it was when Bucky shook him awake, but it was late, and he was alone in the cold bed.

“It’s Loki,” Bucky said. “I think the babies are coming.”

Steve launched out of the bed, furious with himself that he hadn’t heard or felt Loki get up. “Where is he?”

“Kitchen.”

Steve’s feet barely touched the treads as he ran down the stairs and into the hallway. “Why is he..?”

“Smallest windows,” Bucky said.

Steve crashed through the swinging door and saw Loki squatting in front of the sink, clutching the edge of the basin, his trousers abandoned a few feet away. The demigod turned his head slowly, and Steve saw his eyes were glassy, and his hair stuck to his forehead with sweat.

“Oh, my God, Loki, sweetheart,” Steve slid down on his knees next to Loki and took his arms, transferring Loki’s weight to himself. “Are you following the charts?”

Loki gave a long, low moan, then nodded weakly. The silence that followed had a muffled quality, and when Steve looked up, he saw snow falling in the little window over the sink.

Loki inhaled with a gasp, then moaned again. Steve held Loki gently, supporting him, and stroked his back. “How can I help you?” Steve whispered.

“It… it just has to happen,” Loki said through gritted teeth. “They will come in their time.” And then he made a pained sound, a straining, grunting sound, which trailed off to another moan.

“Loki, how long has this been going on?” Bucky asked.

Loki slumped forward and rested his head on Steve’s shoulder, and Steve lifted a hand to stroke his hair. “A… a few hours,” Loki said. “I… thought I had more time, but it has come on much more quickly… I…” Loki broke off with another moan, and Steve looked at Bucky helplessly.

Loki made the straining sound then, but louder, more intense. “It’s… it’s…” he managed to gasp, before he cried out and clutched at Steve’s shoulders.

Bucky crossed to Loki’s back, went down on one knee, and held Loki under his arms. “Lean him back onto me,” Bucky said, and Steve did, though his face betrayed his confusion.

Loki made a bellowing sound and his eyes rolled up in pain.

“The babies are coming,” Bucky said, his voice surprisingly steady. “You need to catch them.”

“What?” Steve said faintly.

“You heard me, Rogers,” Bucky said firmly, and he stroked Loki’s head, leaning it back against his chest. “C’mon, sweetheart, you’re doing great,” he said to Loki. “You’re almost there. Just give us a big push, now, doll.”

Loki groaned through gritted teeth, then gave a choked-off sob. “It’s… I can feel it,” he said, now gasping in breaths.

“Bucky, I…” Steve’s hands moved over Loki’s belly, barely touching the distended flesh.

“Get a grip, Stevie,” Bucky said sharply. “Look. Can you see the head?”

Steve looked down, his eyes widening in a look of fear and confusion and awe all at once. “I can see it,” he said. “Oh, Jesus, I can see the top of the head!”

“Okay, Loki,” Bucky said. “One more push for me, okay?”

Loki cried out again, then gave a long, sustained groan, again through his teeth.

“Oh, Jesus, oh, God,” Steve said. “It’s coming, it’s… I’ve got it. I’ve got it!”

“Careful,” Bucky said quickly. “Just hold it there. We need to cut the cord.”

“It’s a girl!” Steve said, his voice pitched with excitement. “A beautiful little…” And then his voice fell. “Oh, no…”

Bucky looked over Loki’s shoulder. “What is it?”

“The baby,” Steve said, his voice edging toward panic. “She’s blue, she…”

“No!” Loki said quickly. “It’s okay! She…”

And with that, the baby let out a full-throated cry.

Steve looked up from where he was cradling the tiny girl in his hands, his face the picture of bewilderment. “Loki, what..?”

“Jo… Jotun,” Loki gasped, and then he was moaning again.

“Loki, I’m gonna need to lay you down, sweetheart,” Bucky said. “I need to get string and a scissors and something to wrap the babies. Just hang in there. I’ll be as fast as I can.” He eased Loki carefully down and onto his side, and Loki’s eyes closed as he rode out another wave of pain.

Bucky returned after a moment, and, with surprising speed tied off and cut the baby’s umbilical cord and swaddled her into a flannel blanket. Steve cradled her up against his shoulder, and her cries quieted.

“Here comes number two,” Bucky reminded him, as he got behind Loki and hoisted him back into his squatting position. Steve repositioned himself into a cross-legged position and set the baby down on his lap. A moment later the second child, a boy, was delivered into his hands, making only soft noises of complaint until he, too, had his cord cut and was swaddled. This baby was also a definite blue color, and Steve passed both children to Loki, who cuddled them close, sobbing with joy and relief.

Under Bucky’s ministrations, Loki and the babies were cleaned up and dressed, then taken back to the bedroom where Loki was tucked into bed to nurse them. Steve and Bucky moved the cradles in from the nursery, just in case, although Loki seemed set on having them all in the bed.

“How did you know what to do?” Steve asked Bucky quietly.

“Been reading up on it,” Bucky said. “Watching videos. Seemed like a good idea. I mean, I know Loki said he’d know what to do, but, you know…” He looked off to the side, and Steve didn’t press. “I’m gonna go clean up,” he said after a moment.

“I’ll help you,” Steve said, but Bucky stopped him with a hand and a shake of his head.

“No, you need to talk to him,” Bucky said. “And the babies need you.”

Steve nodded, then said, “come back here when you’re done,” and Bucky gave a curt nod and left.

Steve sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed Loki’s legs through the covers. “You’re really amazing, you know that?”

Loki seemed to move in slow-motion as he looked up at Steve and smiled. “I think Sarah is done,” he said, trying to move the baby girl carefully as she lay in the crook of his arm. Steve reached over and picked her up, propping her on one shoulder and patting her back until a bubble came up.

“Ma would be so proud,” Steve said. “Of little Sarah and…”

“Valdr,” Loki said, and Steve repeated it.

“So,” he said after a moment. “Jotuns are blue?”

Loki looked up sharply now. “I… I’m sorry. You have but to order me and I will cast an illusion to conceal their hue.”

“Why would I do that?”

Loki stared. “They are… they…”

“Are beautiful,” Steve averred, brushing wisps of pale-blonde hair from Sarah’s forehead. “Perfect.”

Loki opened his mouth, closed it again, his eyes wide with disbelief. “But… people will see…” he said faintly.

“They know you’re not human,” Steve said calmly. “Those historians you keep talking to? Tell them everything. They’re healthy and loved. That’s all anybody needs to know.”

Loki raised a hand to his eyes, and Steve realized he was brushing away tears.

“No, no, none of that,” Steve soothed. “It will all be fine.”

“I know it will,” Loki said. “I know it will be at last. These are tears of joy, my beloved.”

And Steve felt his own eyes begin to sting.

Outside, the snow blanketed the world in white.

+++

It was most of an hour before Bucky knocked softly on the doorjamb and joined them. Loki slept with an arm over Steve’s lap while Steve lay propped up and awake, a baby in each arm. Bucky took a seat on the bed as Steve’s feet.

“Hey, guys,” Steve whispered, though both babies were sound asleep. “Meet your Uncle Bucky.” He smiled up at his oldest friend. “You comfortable with this?”

“More than you,” Bucky said, and Steve passed him the boy baby, whose head was covered with fluffy black hair that stood out in all directions, giving him the look of a sleepy dandelion. “Don’t you remember when my ma got sick after Becky was born? Who do you think took care of her?”

“Wait a moment,” Loki piped up, his voice muffled but still acerbic. “Do I understand your sister’s name was Becky Barnes? Did your father have a theme?”

“Shut up,” Bucky said, though there was no heat in it. “And what kind of name is Valdr, anyway?”

Loki opened his eyes and shot Bucky a glare. “An ancient one,” he said.

“Guys,” Steve said quietly. “Sleeping babies.” And they fell silent, watching the still-falling snow.

+++

Steve awoke at dawn to the sound of a massive thunderbolt striking just beside the house, loud enough to set the windows rattling. He jerked into consciousness, kicking Bucky, who had fallen asleep across the foot of the bed, at which point both babies began to wail at the top of their lungs.

“I shall kill him,” Loki growled. “I shall skin him alive.”

“Calm down, Loki,” Steve said. “Take care of the babies. I’ll go talk to him.”

Loki growled again, but rose from the bed to gather the children up from their cradles while Steve threw on a bathrobe and headed for the steps. Bucky was at his heels and quietly pointed out he’d actually ordered Loki to “calm down,” bringing Steve to a halt, then causing him to return to the bedroom to apologize.

Thor, despite his deafening arrival, was waiting patiently in the snow, holding a basket and wearing what looked like bearskin.

“Good morning,” said Steve. “I gather you heard.”

“A most joyous morning to you, friend Steven,” Thor boomed as he walked in, trailing clods of snow. “Indeed, Heimdall informed me of the birth of Loki’s and your offspring! I am most delighted. Is that them calling now? What hale cries they make! They are surely most hearty stock. Present them at once, that I may give them my blessing!”

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “Thor, we had kind of a long night…”

“I am not surprised!”

Bucky stepped in between Steve and Thor. “Say, why don’t we go have some coffee,” he said. “I was just about to make a pot. Give your brother a couple of minutes to feed the kids, change their diapers, you know, get them all… presentable.”

“Yes, of course,” Thor agreed. “Let us repair to your dining hall…”

Steve returned to find Loki struggling to change and dress the babies while they carried on fussing. Steve scooped up the closest one, Valdr, and bounced him in his arms.

“M… master,” Loki said quietly. “Please order me to cast an illusion over the children. My brother… he…”

“Loki, let’s get the kids dressed,” Steve said calmly. “Your brother can wait while you feed them, and we can discuss this, okay?”

Loki nodded, though he still seemed shaky. Finally, Loki was seated in the nursery rocking chair, both babies nursing, while he held them.

“They seem to want to eat together,” Steve noted. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.”

Loki gave a watery laugh. “It matters not. They shall exhaust us all before long, I have no doubt.”

Steve tickled Sarah’s foot where it had worked free of her blanket, then tucked it back in. “Do you want to talk about this?”

“Their hue will betray their Jotun heritage,” Loki said. “To the Aesir… Thor’s people… the Jotun are monsters.”

“Loki, Thor knows you are Jotun,” Steve said. “This shouldn’t be a surprise.”

“Intellectually, perhaps, though it seems ridiculous to use that word in relation to my brother,” Loki said. “But to see the evidence, undeniable, he… I…”

Steve went down on one knee and patted Loki’s leg. “Loki, they are my children, too, and I think they are perfect. And if Thor, or anyone, really, doesn’t agree, they can take it up with me, okay?”

Loki nodded, and Steve busied himself getting washed and dressed, then he rocked the babies while Loki did the same. Finally, they descended to the dining room, Loki holding Sarah and Steve holding Valdr.

Thor rose to greet them, beaming, but his smile faltered when he saw them. “Brother,” he said, “they are…”

“Beautiful, yes,” Steve said.

Thor looked uncertainly between Loki and Steve, and though Loki stood stiffly, as though bracing for an argument, Steve stared Thor down, daring him to make a comment.

It was Valdr who broke the tense silence, with a small hiccup and yawn. Thor, almost unconsciously, stepped closer and reached out one hand. “May I hold him, friend Steven?” he said softly, and Steve passed him over. Thor cradled the infant gingerly, the tiny being nearly fitting completely in the thunder god’s two huge hands. Valdr wriggled and hiccupped again.

“I… remember when you were so small, brother,” Thor said. “It is perhaps my earliest memory, when mother and father… brought me to your cradle and told me you were my brother. That I was to teach you and protect you, as a big brother should.” Thor was silent for a long moment. “I fear I was not as successful in that as I should have been. But… your hair, it was just the same. So dark, so unlike my own, but soft, like the feathers of a nestling bird.” He handed Valdr back to Steve, then took Sarah from Loki.

“Your daughter favors you more,” Thor said, smiling over at Steve. “Perhaps she shall take up your shield when she comes of age. The children of such strong warriors will surely be most formidable themselves.”

“Maybe,” Steve allowed. “But they’ll… be what they’ll be.”

Thor handed Sarah back to Loki, then placed one hand on each of the children’s foreheads. “May the Norns choose for you both,” he said solemnly, “a long life, a glorious destiny, and a heroic death, when you feast in Valhalla forever.”

Steve only just stopped himself from adding, “amen.” He looked at Loki, who was now regarding Thor with great tenderness, and Steve felt his earlier defensiveness on his children’s behalf melt away as he realized how much this meant to Loki.

“I thank you, brother,” Loki said. “Please, come and break the fast with us, and sit at our table.”

“I would be honored,” Thor replied. “And I can present them with the gifts I have brought…”

For the first time since Steve could remember, Loki willingly allowed assistance in preparing a meal, in particular from Bucky, a testament to the exhaustion he was trying not to show. Steve quietly ordered him to sit and eat, and he did so with only token resistance, while Bucky carried on cooking French toast and Steve did the serving.

Thor presented his gifts, which ran quite a range. There was jewelry and other treasure, some items that were meant to be put aside until the children were adults (such as matching short swords,) and clothing and toys fit for the offspring of an alien demigod. There were soft leather booties, fur papooses, carved wooden rattles and dolls, and a mobile of birds made of precious metal and jewels. There were also bottles of a potion Thor had obtained from the royal midwife that were supposed to aid in recovery from childbirth. Loki pulled the cork on one and drank some immediately, declared it helpful, and gave Thor his gratitude.

Thor stayed most of the day, and spent a good deal of time tending to the babies while Loki tried to catch up on his rest. He was surprisingly (well, surprising to Steve, anyway) gentle and attentive with them, holding them as they slept and carefully cajoling them into stillness when they fussed.

Later, when he discussed it with Loki, the demigod informed him that infants and children were usually present at most of their activities on their homeworld, as women of Asgard were expected to be equal to men in fighting, scholarship, and any manner of skill, and they simply brought their children along. “And Asgardian children are not coddled, as on Midgard,” Loki went on. “Thor and I began training in the use of weapons before we learned to read, and I was learning the magical arts soon after.”

“Sounds like a hard life,” Steve said.

“It could be,” Loki agreed. “Given the choice, I’d have gladly eschewed warcraft for my magic, but that was not an option for us.”

It was only after Thor had left that Steve realized he hadn’t informed the rest of the Avengers of the happy news, and though he was sorely tempted to put it off and allow them a few days before dealing with more visits and calls, he finally just sent a group text and braced for the barrage.

Tony, not surprisingly, responded first, scolding Steve for not immediately sending pictures, which meant setting up a video conference so Steve could explain the children’s appearance, followed by an actual presentation of them, side-by-side in their cradles.

Astonishingly, it was Laura Barton who smoothed the path, grabbing Clint’s phone out of his hand and cooing over Sarah and Valdr in such a way that made clear anyone who made a comment against them was the worst sort of bigot and unfit to show his face in public, let alone pretend to be a role model. Loki was grinning so broadly by the time she concluded her remarks, Steve thought he might split.

“I like her,” Loki declared when they’d all rung off. “You should hand over the Avengers to her and Miss Potts if you want things run correctly.”

“I can’t disagree,” Steve said, and Loki burst out laughing.

+++

As it seemed with every change they made, things eventually settled into a routine. Tony visited with Pepper, laden down with gifts and news of the European division of the Avengers, possibly as early as the spring. The babies seemed to grow in front of their eyes, and became ever more responsive to the adults around them. Steve consulted frequently with Fury, Tony, and Rhodey, and secretly hoped Tony would buy the resort he was looking at in the next town over for a training facility so he could help train the next round of Avengers and still sleep in his own bed each night.

Bucky aced his mid-terms, despite a few late nights working on a paper about the Code of Hammurabi. Loki’s followers still came every few days, with flowers, or little gifts for the children. Sometimes Steve would find pieces of paper with words of thanks or praise stuck in the cracks of the door. Bucky still shook his head with a sad smile in the hallway each night, although Loki often found him in the nursery in the morning, watching the babies sleep.

It snowed often, more than normal, according to the locals, and Loki would go out and enjoy it when he could, covering himself with it and returning to the house breathless and ruddy-cheeked. He would carry snowballs up to the nursery and hold them out for the babies, who would pat them and laugh.

Christmas came with a decorated tree, and gifts, and another visit from Tony and Pepper. Bucky got his first term grades, all A’s, and Steve told him how proud he was until Bucky begged him to stop, but when Loki made him a pot roast and potatoes with chocolate cake for dessert, and told Bucky as he served it “for all your hard work,” the former Winter Soldier’s eyes welled up with tears.

Loki fielded requests from all corners of the country: researchers wanting to corroborate mythology with Loki’s recollections, writers and artists curious about the Norsemen who formed the foundations of their culture, historians and folklorists wishing to understand how the Asgardians had come to earth and what they’d done here, and, yes, those in the tourist trade looking to exploit the moment the Vikings seemed to be having in popular culture. Loki ate up every drop of the attention.

+++

February brought the most severe blizzard in a decade, three days of snow and wind and deep darkness. The house was lashed and snowdrifts piled up against the windows. Even Loki was unnerved, bundling up with the children in the warmth of the living room, where the fireplace burned merrily.

Then, when the storm ended, the clouds broke like magic, bathing the landscape in blue moonlight, the snow glittering below like diamonds. All three men stared at the beautifully surreal scene through the window.

“What is that?” Bucky asked after a moment, pointing towards the horizon. In the distance was what looked like light beams, but as they watched, the beams seemed to coalesce into a curtain of light, shimmering and rippling as if stirred by a gentle breeze. It grew brighter, seeming almost to solidify, and become a definite bright green.

“It’s… I think it’s the Northern Lights,” Steve breathed, standing and crossing to the picture window. After a moment Bucky and Loki did the same.

They watched as the phenomenon seemed to ripple and fold in the sky, the effect a sort of eerie fascination. Steve reached for Loki and wrapped his arms around him, then kissed him gently. “It’s amazing,” Steve said. “Bucky, don’t you…”

But Bucky had silently left the room.

“We need to talk this out,” Steve said quietly.

“Agreed,” Loki said. “I’ll put the little ones in their cradles. Find him and then we can talk.”

Steve found Bucky in the kitchen, looking out at the aurora through the window over the sink.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said quietly. “I just… sometimes I need a minute, you know?”

“You don’t have to do this to yourself, Buck,” Steve said, and he put a hand on Bucky’s shoulder and tried to ignore the flinch. “you love me, I love you, I don’t know why…”

“I can’t, Steve,” Bucky said. “You’re a family man. A father, now. Loki and the kids rely on you completely. If you were to get distracted with me…”

“Loki wants you, too,” Steve said. “I told you that.”

“Does he?” Bucky shot back, challenging. “Are you sure? Or is he just so conditioned to please you that he’d go along with whatever he thought you wanted?”

Steve shook his head. “No, it’s not like that.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes and shook off Steve’s hand. “It doesn’t always look horrible,” Bucky said. “Sometimes it looks kind. Generous. And you want to do what they ask. You want the little tokens, and you think they’re different, but they’re not. You’re just a thing to them, too.”

“Are we talking about Loki..? Or…”

“You have to free him, Steve,” Bucky said. “It’s the only way you’ll know for sure.”

“Are you going to ask what I want?” Loki said from the doorway, and Bucky and Steve both turned to him.

“Loki,” Steve said. “Tell him. I will free you the moment you ask. I want to.”

“It’s true,” Loki said, stepping into the room. “He’s freed me once already and I came back. I need him. I’ve tried to explain to you…”

“Loki, I was you. Don’t you see? I didn’t understand until I was free of it…”

Loki stepped close to Bucky and brushed his hair, so long now, back from his face. “They hurt you,” Loki said.

“Yes.”

Steve took a quick inhale, but Loki gave him a glance, a wordless request not to speak. “Tell us,” Loki said, his voice so quiet, Steve barely heard him.

Bucky looked away, out the window, and the aurora and moonlight together silhouetted his face with an unearthly light.

“There were keepers… caretakers,” he said, still looking away. “They’d… they called it ‘wiping,’ where they took all the memories away. They did it so often I couldn’t take care of myself. I could carry out missions, sometimes, but sometimes not even that. So a keeper would look after me until my… my faculties recovered enough to do what they wanted. He would wash me, dress me, see that I ate. What you had to do for me when I first came with you.

“Usually they didn’t talk to me. Did what they had to until they could put weapons in my hands and send me out. But a few times, they…. they would be kind. Called me little pet names, like a… a child, or… not even. A dog, maybe. They’d treat me gently…”

A look of pain crossed over Bucky’s face, and he brought his hand to his face, rolled a knuckle across his lip.

“But when I came back… not very far, but enough, I realized they… they were…”

“It’s okay, Bucky,” Steve said. “You don’t…”

Bucky looked at him sharply. “I do,” he said. “I need to get it out.” He looked back at the window. “Their hands would… linger. They would grab at me, hurt me sometimes. And when I was just at the point where I was aware enough to know what they wanted, but not enough to fight them… they would…. And I let them, because they…. were kind… and I… I… don’t want to be like them…”

“Bucky, it’s okay,” Steve said.

Bucky bit his lips, still not looking at them. “I’m… I…”

Loki took Bucky’s hand, and Bucky looked at them again.

“I… remember,” he said. “But then…” He balled his metal hand into a fist and pressed it against his stomach. “I… want you. And Steve. I burn for you. I… ache from wanting you. But there’s all this together, tangled in my mind, and I… and I…”

Loki raised his hands and cupped Bucky’s face, and Bucky went still. “Do you trust me?

“Yes, of course I do,” Bucky said.

“Do you trust Steve?”

Steve held himself very still, almost afraid of the answer.

“I’ve trusted Steve my whole life,” Bucky said.

“Then come with us now,” Loki said. “We’ll wait. Follow your lead. Just… let us hold you. Make you feel safe. Let us love you.”

Bucky looked down, away, and Steve recognized the lost, helpless look from his first days with them, and he held his breath. Finally, Bucky nodded slowly.

Loki let go of his face and took his hand again, began to lead him out of the room and caught Steve with his other hand as he did so. He led them through the silent house, the only light the eerie green of the aurora, and they followed up the staircase to Steve and Loki’s shared bedroom.

Loki eased Bucky to sit on the bed, then knelt in front of him. “No,” Bucky said flatly.

“Just your boots,” Loki said, undoing the laces and slipping them off Bucky’s feet. Then he gently urged Bucky to lie down in the middle of the bed.

“I…” Bucky began, then fell silent.

“Just sleep, Bucky,’ Steve said. “Like when we were kids.”

Bucky nodded, and Steve slid in on one side of him and Loki on the other. Steve laid an arm over his chest and pressed a chaste kiss to his temple. Loki stroked his fingers through Bucky’s hair, then laid his head on Bucky’s shoulder.

Bucky took a breath and gave a deep sigh. “You smell like snow,” he told Loki.

“So I’ve been told,” Loki murmured.

+++

Bucky’s sleep was still broken, as it had been, but Steve was relieved that instead of rising to prowl the house, or watch over the children, Bucky reached for him, to squeeze his hand, or for Loki, and was able to find sleep again. In the morning, he let himself come awake slowly, let Steve kiss his temple again, and let Loki brush and braid his hair.

The day was bright, but cold, and Steve and Bucky dug out as best they could. Some of Loki’s followers came by later in the day, on skis and snowshoes, with bread and milk and meat and cheese, so Loki made lots of hot sandwiches and cocoa to eat.

In contrast to the seemingly endless daylight in the summer, the winter night came early, and the northern lights came, too. This night, they didn’t have to ask. Bucky came to their bed, warm and slightly damp after washing off the day and dressed in soft gray pajamas. He lay between them again, but this time he rolled on his side, and Steve threw an arm over Bucky’s waist and gave a kiss to the back of his neck, and Loki drew Bucky’s cybernetic arm over his own waist and pressed his face to the hollow part of Bucky’s shoulder.

That night, Steve thought he slept a little better.

+++

Bucky didn’t spend all of each night with them. Sometimes, he prowled the dark house, reassuring himself of something he didn’t discuss. Sometimes, he would join Loki in the nursery when the babies woke at night to be fed, and though Steve could hear them talking quietly together, he let it be private for them. Sometimes, he would go to his room to watch the road or tend to some personal task, but he would always return before morning and let himself come awake held in their arms.

Steve didn’t keep strict track of the days, but the time seemed to come much sooner than he’d expected. The snow was still on the ground, though it had been shoveled or plowed away in some places and packed down in others, and the days were mostly gray if there was any light at all. Bucky told them he was going to walk into town, try to ease his cabin fever, and yes, Steve, of course he had his phone, he was only walking along a plowed and well-traveled road, not setting out for the frontier.

When he returned he went straight to his room, only to descend again a moment later and check in. Steve thought little of it until shortly before bedtime, when Bucky climbed the stairs again and returned with something wrapped in shiny paper.

Wordlessly, he went down on one knee in front of Steve and Loki and placed the package in Loki’s lap. The paper fell open at Loki’s touch, revealing a bundle of brightly-colored flowers. Loki gave a start of surprise, then looked up at Bucky, who met his gaze steadily. Loki reached out one hand and drew his fingers down the side of Bucky’s face, then cupped and held his jaw. Bucky’s eyes fell closed and he leaned into Loki’s hand.

“Does this mean...?” Steve began uncertainly, and Bucky looked up at him and nodded.

“Yes,” Bucky said, and the moment seemed to draw out, throwing its shadow over all of them.

“Very well,” Loki said, and he brought Bucky to sit between them.

“You are not what they did to you,” Loki said, and Bucky lowered his eyes. Loki took Bucky’s face in his hands, stroking his long fingers along Bucky’s hairline. “You are not what they made you do,” Loki said, and Bucky squeezed his eyes shut and balled his hands into fists.

“You are brave and strong,” Loki went on. “You saved me, and Sarah and Valdr within me, even though you didn’t know what enemy came for me, when you were so frightened for yourself. But from the first, I knew you were brave. From the first, I knew you loved and trusted Steve as I did.”

“I do,” Bucky whispered.

“And that is what you are,” Loki said, leaning his face close to Bucky’s.

Steve put his hands on Bucky’s arms and leaned in himself. “Even when I had nothing,” he said, “I had you. I have loved you all my life, and I always will.”

Tears began to spill from beneath Bucky’s eyelids. “I’ve loved you, Stevie, from the very first day I met you. That scrawny little punk who never knew when to quit. Even when I couldn’t remember my own name, you were there, a ghost in the darkness…” Bucky’s voice choked, and Steve pulled him closer, kissed his forehead, his cheek, and then their mouths came together.

Bucky whimpered, a lost, needy sound, and Steve whispered, “it’s okay, Bucky. I love you, we have you, you have us. You’re with us, now, for as long as you want.”

“Stevie…”

Steve half-led, half-carried Bucky upstairs, his hands and lips never losing contact, and Loki followed behind, grinning down at the flowers he held in his arms. Once inside the bedroom, Steve’s hands found the hem of Bucky’s shirt and lifted it up, over his head, and off in one smooth motion. Bucky began to grasp at Steve’s clothes, blindly, desperately, and then Loki was there, stroking them both.

“Allow me,” Loki said, his voice low, and somehow their clothes were undone and taken away, and even though Steve knew he hadn’t commanded Loki to use his magic, it seemed like magic. And then they were all tumbling into bed together, a tangle of arms and legs, their mouths warring to taste as much of the others’ flesh as they could, and even in the darkness, even with his eyes closed, Steve knew their flavors: Bucky, all heat and sweat, steel and gunpowder, gasoline and sweet apples. And Loki, honey and saltwater, leather and wood smoke, old parchment and morning frost.

And then Loki was whispering in Bucky’s ear with a wicked smile, and slipping off the bed. Steve tried to turn, but then Bucky was holding him, and they were sliding against one another, and Steve felt Bucky’s cock against his hip, thick and firm, for the first time since their frantic, desperate rutting in a French orchard in a war-torn countryside. Bucky’s fingers hooked under his thigh, lifted it up to drape Steve’s leg over his waist, and behind his back, Steve heard the pop and squelch of slick being dispensed. He tried to turn his head, but Bucky touched his cheek, turned his face and claimed his mouth, sudden and demanding, Bucky’s jaw and chin rough with stubble where Loki’s was always smooth, and Bucky’s tongue insistent as it pressed past his lips.

And then Loki’s fingers were on his back, his ass, sliding into his cleft and finding the sensitive opening. Steve’s hips jerked involuntarily against Bucky’s, and Bucky’s callused right hand slid down his back, over his flank to hold him steady while Loki worked his fingers – so deft, so clever – inside, to ease him open, loosen him gently, press slick into the passage. Steve gasped at the feeling. It should feel like an invasion, violation, but it didn’t. He shuddered and began to pant, and then Loki was whispering in his ear, that wicked sound that made Steve even harder.

“That’s right, my love. Just making you ready. And oh, what your dear Bucky’s been hiding. So thick and heavy. It’s going to fill you up, nice and tight tucked inside you. Oh, how you’re going to beg, my beloved.”

Steve jerked again, almost helplessly, and he heard Bucky chuckle, low and dirty, a sound he hadn’t heard since they were boys at war.

“Don’t doubt me,” Loki said, teasing and warning at once. “You know I cannot lie.”

And then Loki’s fingers pulled away, and Steve heard the obscene squelching sound again, then Loki was reaching past him to take Bucky’s length in his long fingers, coat it with lubricant while it swelled in his grasp. And then Bucky’s hands, broad callused fingers on one side and solid, unyielding metal on the other, were gripping his buttocks, massaging the firm flesh, parting them, finding his opening with a fingertip and man-handling Steve’s body to press the head of his cock towards it.

“I’m strong enough to do this again,” Bucky said. “Get you right where I want you.”

“Please,” Steve whispered back, his voice trembling with want.

“I told you,” came Loki’s voice from…. somewhere. Steve was having trouble keeping track of where he was himself, let alone the other two.

And then Bucky entered him with one smooth thrust, grunting as he did, and Steve’s hips were rocking against him, trying to take all of Bucky’s member inside him while finding friction for his own, and how he ached for it, needing Bucky in him, filling him, finally, someplace they were safe and free to love each other at last, without the law or the army or Hydra or anyone to tell them they couldn’t. Their hands were all over each other, their lips and tongues tasted one another’s heated skin, and Bucky found his rhythm, pistoning his shaft in and out of Steve’s body, making Steve tense and gasp with each solid push upwards. And then Loki was there, his hand around Steve’s cock as he squeezed and pulled in time with Bucky, and Steve was helpless, held between them, his pleasure being drawn out of his body drop by drop. He felt suspended, surrendering to their control, a vessel of their desire. And then he felt the hot rush of Bucky’s seed wash up inside him, and he felt himself tip over into his own climax, spilling over Loki’s fingers as he cried out, the world going white behind his eyelids.

He came back to himself sprawled on his back, legs akimbo, bracketed by Bucky on one side and Loki on the other.

“That was pretty impressive, Stevie,” Bucky said, his voice low and rough. “Thank you.”

“Oh, he’s not done,” Loki said lightly, drawing his fingertips through the mess on Steve’s stomach. “Watch this.” And he bent down and took Steve’s nipple into his mouth, holding it between his teeth but not quite biting down. Steve shivered, and Loki’s hand dropped to roll his balls gently in his fingers while his other hand slid up Steve’s inner thigh to probe his now wet and swollen cleft. Steve felt his cock fill and harden.

“That’s fantastic,” Bucky said with a low chuckle.

In a flash, Loki was sitting up on his knees, then swinging one leg over to straddle Steve’s waist. Steve stared up at him, wide-eyed as Loki reached for the tube of slick, tossed carelessly beside the pillow.

“Let’s see how many times we can make him come,” Loki said.

“Sounds good to me,” Bucky agreed.

All Steve could muster was a whimper in reply.

+++

It went on and on, for hours, Steve passed back and forth as his lovers found ever more inventive ways to bring him to climax. And when his strength flagged, they leaned across him to kiss and caress one another until his traitorous cock inevitably demanded their attention. He felt as though he was caught in the surf, each wave of ecstasy washing over him, followed by another, then another, never giving him a moment to come back to himself, to catch his breath, to get his bearings, until finally he was completely spent, too exhausted to even lift his head.

He knew he was sprawled inelegantly across the bed, and he could feel fluids drying on his skin. Someone’s mouth, Loki’s he thought, though he was too far gone to say for sure, pressed a kiss to his cockhead where it lay on his stomach, and though it throbbed almost painfully, it did not rise. If Steve had had the strength, he would have sobbed with relief.

“I think he’s done,” Bucky said somewhere in the darkness beyond his eyelids.

Somewhere else, Loki gave a low hum, then said, “we’ll need to put our plaything away properly, so he’s ready when we want to play with him again.”

“Agreed,” Bucky said, and then the pleasant weight on either side of him was suddenly gone. Steve heard himself make a little mewl of protest at the loss.

“No, love, shh,” Loki soothed. “We’re not going far.”

Steve heard water running, but it sounded very far away, so he drifted, floating now in tranquil waters. His body ached, but it was a satisfying ache, and he knew he’d be fine in a few hours. He felt the bed depress again, and his head was pulled into someone’s lap, Bucky’s, he was almost sure, and a glass of cool water was tipped against his lips. He drank gratefully, and then he heard the basin being set on the dresser, and the splash of a washrag being wrung out, and then a warm, wet cloth was cleaning his mouth and chin between sips, then the rest of his face, then his throat, his chest, his stomach. More splashing at the basin, and then his thighs were gently parted and washed clean, his cock and balls likewise, then his sore and swollen cleft, the hands attending him so cool and careful he knew it must be Loki. Bucky tipped the last of the water into his mouth, and then he was eased down onto the bed, a pillow under his head, and blankets were gently tucked around him.

“Oh, God, Stevie, that was incredible,” Bucky whispered in his ear as he stretched out alongside. “I love you so much.”

“Love you, Buck,” Steve managed, though his throat felt raw, and he felt Bucky’s arms tighten around him.

“And I love you, too,” Loki said quietly. “Both of you. Though I need to leave you just now. I can hear the children beginning to stir.”

“I’ll come with you,” Bucky murmured, though Steve noted he made no attempt to rise.

“No, you should both sleep. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Okay,” Bucky said. “We’ll be waiting.”

Steve felt Bucky’s skin against his, so warm, and that was the last he knew until morning.

And when he rose, with the morning star low and the first hints of pink on the horizon, he found flowers twisted into his and Bucky’s hair.

+++

Epilogue: Summer, three years later.

Steve carefully repositioned the umbrella and its iron stand in the grass to better protect Loki from the midday sun as he reclined on a wooden chaise and fed their family’s latest addition, Afi, a dark-haired boy nearly seven months old. At the end of the yard, the twins were playing at battling the blueberry hedge, standing in for a fierce sea serpent, with small wooden swords, and Bucky sat at their patio table, arguing strenuously on his phone with one of his classmates.

“Look, Tim, I don’t mean to disrespect Professor Schweitzer,” Steve heard him say. “I know he’s one of the best historians in the field, but he wasn’t there. Trust me, people didn’t get confused by the war reports. They thought the Martians were coming! Our neighbor, Mrs. Bianculli, was wetting towels and shoving them in the cracks under the door to keep out the death rays!”

“Valdr Lokison Rogers!” Loki scolded. “You let go of your sister this instant. You know better. Open hand only while sparring.”

“But she’s a scoundrel and a villain,” Valdr complained.

“Am not,” Sarah rejoined.

"You heard your Faðir,” Steve said firmly, and with a sheepish expression, Valdr let Sarah go.

Bucky joined them, and settled himself at Loki’s feet. Absently he stroked Loki’s ankle. “How’s the squirt?” he asked.

“Sleeping at last,” Loki said, sighing. “He fights it like a tiger.”

“Laura tells me that’s caused by FOMO,” Steve said, sitting in a chair next to them, then added at Loki’s look of confusion and Bucky’s of mild alarm, “Fear Of Missing Out.”

“My mother told me when she tried to put me to bed,” Bucky said, “I always acted like the circus was coming and I could smell the elephants.”

“Like father, like son, then,” Steve said fondly, smiling down at the baby sleeping in Loki’s arms.

Suddenly, the sky over them grew dark and a thunderbolt struck at the end of the yard, depositing Thor among the dahlias.

Sarah and Valdr gave a happy scream of “Uncle Thor!” charged toward him and were scooped into the thunder god’s arms while in Loki’s lap, Afi gave a high-pitched wail.

“Every time!” Loki shouted angrily, shoving the howling infant at Bucky and stomping down the hill to confront his brother. “Thor! That is quite enough…” Loki stopped short, staring, and it was then that Steve noticed that Thor’s usual joyful expression had been replaced by the unmistakable look of grief.

Steve rose and touched Bucky’s shoulder and the two of them started down towards the rest of their family. Thor lowered the twins to the ground and extended one hand towards his brother.

“Is it..?” Loki began, and Thor nodded gravely.

“He is asking for you, brother,” he said.

“Is he really?” Loki scoffed. “You know he has forbidden me to return to Asgard while I evade the punishment he placed on me.”

“In truth,” Thor said. “I have settled it with Heimdall. An hour you may sojourn there, that our father may make his peace. An hour the binding will loosen enough for you to go freely. And then you shall be returned to Captain Rogers, Sergeant Barnes… and your little ones.” Thor extended his hand again. “Please, brother.”

Loki glanced around uncertainly. “And I shall be returned? No matter what Odin says? No matter what happens?”

“Heimdall has pledged an oath to me,” Thor avowed. “He could not break his word even if he wanted to.”

“Loki…” Steve said quietly, and the demigod turned to him. “You have to go,” Steve said. “This may be your last chance.”

Loki nodded and turned back to Thor. “Very well, brother,” he said. “One hour.”

Thor put his arm around Loki’s shoulder, and in a cascade of rainbow light, they were gone.

+++

Afi was asleep again, this time in Bucky’s lap, while Sarah and Valdr dozed on a blanket spread under the shade of the butterbean tent in the garden, when Loki returned in a shower of golden sparkles. He looked alarmed, his eyes wide and his hair askew. There was blood on one cheek.

“Oh, my God,” Steve exclaimed, crossing to him and gathering the alien into his arms. Loki sagged, near collapse, against him.

“Loki, what the hell happened?” Steve demanded.

Loki turned his pale eyes, now clouded, to meet Steve’s gaze. “It would seem,” he said, “that I have a sister.”

Fin