Chapter 1: Thursday
Thor looks down at the report. This is new to him, this reporting, though he has heard of it before. Mostly he has heard reporting discussed in the groaning tones of long suffering. The correct response to these remarks appears to be, most often, a sympathetic rolling of eyes. Personally, Thor does not see how one could be unhappy to have been given such an honour. To be trusted in such a way is the very apex of a warrior's achievements, at least in Asgard. But it seems to be the way of Midgardians (as taken to extremes by Anthony Stark) to downplay the great honours and so, when Director Hill asked Thor to stand watch and to report to her daily, Thor was filled with pride but took care not to show it.
"I shall endeavor to be exact," was what he told her. She looked at him for a long time, and then she nodded.
"Okay," she said. "Look, just tell me when they wake up, anything the medical team says, and any pertinent details, okay? Especially with…" she jerked her pointed chin in the direction of the two hospital beds, both of which were fit for the Hulk when sedated, but at present only occupied by human forms, "…that one."
"You mean the Sergeant," Thor ventured.
"I mean the Winter Soldier," she answered. "Whatever Steve thinks he is…" she paused and shook her head, as if changing her mind. "If the Winter Soldier gets violent, or he gets out of control, you have permission to subdue him in whatever way you think best, after which you will tell me all about it, understood?"
Thor made an effort not to let his chest swell too much. Maria Hill, Director, warrior, and ally, had given him her trust, and Thor did not wish to disappoint.
That feeling lasted the whole day, until now. Because, as it happens the actual writing part of the reports is is something of a thorny business. Thor is beginning to understand the sighs and eye-rolling he has seen among his companions when reports are mentioned. Reports are difficult.
Thor knows Maria Hill wishes him to report everything as if the Allfather’s eye was fixed upon it. Thor knows his own reputation (it is a matter almost of currency in Asgard, and old habits are hard to break). He is seen as honest and trustworthy and strong. But he is also, alas, known because he is still unfamiliar with so many Midgardian customs. He suspects (though he has not asked even Jane for it would make her uncomfortable to speak a hurtful truth) that Director Hill chose him because she believed he would not understand the Midgardian love of privacy. In fact, she may have counted upon it.
Privacy is a strange thing. Thor may not understand the reasons so many Midgardians persist in pretending they have never seen the middle third of the human body unclad, and react with horror when they unexpectedly do. He many not understand the exact difference between underclothes and bathing suits. He may not fully grasp the finer points of TMI, but he does understand that privacy is important to Midgardians and they value it. Now faced with his promise to attempt exactitude, and the events of the day, he suspects that this above all is why Maria Hill asked him to report upon the Captain and his new-recovered friend. He dislikes that. Deeply.
It was like this. Director Hill left, and guards were assigned to watch outside his own little station, an observation booth large enough for his own cot and a small table and two chairs so that Jane might be made welcome when she came to visit. He retrieved the tablet Stark had given him and settled himself near the window to watch both for signs of movement in the two wounded men, and resumed the 13th Warrior where he had paused it.
Some time in the afternoon, the Sergeant woke screaming. Thor came to his feet and stood a while at the observation window. He wondered briefly if he should pass through the heavy mechanical door and attend on the Sergeant, but there was no need. In the bed next to the Sergeant, the Captain opened his eyes and half-rose from his bed, one hand out to settle on his friend's restrained arms.
“Bucky,” the Captain's voice came through the speaker above the window, low but audible. The Sergeant turned his head, eyes wild, staring, the sound dying in his mouth when he saw who addressed him. There was a long moment of silence while the Sergeant looked around, his eyes searching out the medical equipment, and Thor himself, and the Captain once again.
“No,” the Sergeant said then, redoubling his efforts to break free of Stark’s restraints. “No, not you, no not you! I won’t let them!”
“No, Bucky, it's okay.” The Captain managed a smile, fleeting and weary but present, before he sagged back down again, as one weary of heavy labour. “It’s okay. You're safe. We're safe. I told you it'd be okay. He's… he's a friend.” The Captain's blue eyes met Thor’s and the smile returned.
The Sergeant turned his head again, staring at Thor and Thor raised his hand in the manner that meant greeting in Midgard and the Sergeant stared at him. In return, Thor studied the Sergeant.
He had been told that the Sergeant had once been a great hero and now was not a man to be trusted. He had heard the tale of the helicarrier, and seen the wounds on the Captain's body. He knew that the Sergeant was the Captain's greatest friend, and the quest to recover him had driven the Captain almost to madness.
Redemption, that was what the Captain had been hoping for. That above all other things Midgardian, above privacy and customs, that Thor understood.Where an Asgardian might spend a hundred years nursing a grudge like a mountain making a glacier at its heart, a Midgardian would have been born and died, and so they needed to be mutable, and to believe in change. Practical, perhaps, for a short-lived creature, but there was something noble in that hope. He smiled therefore, at the Sergeant, for Thor believed in redemption too.
The Sergeant turned his head away.
Thor looks down at his paper and taps the pen upon it. Thor values his friendship with the Captain. The Captain has taken him in as his own shield-brother, and stood beside him when Loki ran rampant. Even Stark, whom Thor often thinks of as the least approachable of the Midgardians he is habitually with, has protect him, protected his privacy, for the media had been baying at him for interviews and discussions and stories and he had not understood until Stark had told him what all of that would mean. The care they take of one another's privacy is much like the care of comrades in arms in the face of a foe. That is a thing he does understand.
What the Avengers call "friends" Thor was reared to call "family". It is a different word for the same thing, and Thor does not need anyone to explain. He decides, as he thinks about it, that he will do for the Captain what he would do for any of of his family, what they have already done for him.
MARIA HILL, GREETINGS,
I wish this report to find you in good health.
There is some news to tell. Sergeant Barnes began to yell in his sleep this morning and awoke shortly thereafter. Do not be alarmed; I have heard and seen such distress from men who have been injured falling from a height, as if their bodies do not know that they have landed, and so it was with the Sergeant. There was no need to interfere and Stark’s restraints have done admirable work though they were were thoroughly tested.
The Captain also awoke, though he remains heavily under the influence of the draught the doctors have given him, he did speak to his friend, which calmed him and I believe both are well.
I shall report more tomorrow.
Thor, son of Odin, Allfather
There is nothing untrue in any of it.
Chapter 2: Friday
The Sergeant has not moved since yesterday. He is still, but his hands are knotted, and his shoulders hold his head upright and his jaw clamped closed. Thor does not think that he is sleeping.
This morning, the Captain came to the door asked for a number of items, and in the afternoon an Agent of Shield brought them. With the Agent came Sam, and with Sam came a box of doughnut holes, a foodstuff which could not fail to make Thor laugh. No matter how many times he has encountered the curiosities of Midgard, there is always something new to behold. For example, doughnut holes. He once learned from a show on late-night TV called How it’s Made (which Jane watches when her mind is unquiet, for she says it lulls her to sleep) that doughnuts are made using an extruder rather than cut into shape from a single mass. Consequently, a box of doughnut holes should be a box of air, but this is not the case.
If Midgardians love nothing else, they love their food-jokes. There are "Easter eggs" (often chocolate, sometimes filled, and never with egg) and "candy canes" (too impossibly tiny and fragile to be of use to any creature) and now there are "doughnut holes" too. He eats them in Sam’s company, and on the tablet they watch highlights of a riding sport called, a little oddly, MotoGP, for there is a rider of great skill that Sam wishes him to know of. Sam’s company is most welcome, and it eases the dullness and the gravity of Thor’s vigil.
When Sam departs and Thor resumes his watch, he sees that the Captain has opened the smaller of the two bags the agent brought for him. In the larger bag there were practical things such as clean underclothes, and a hooded sweatshirt of the sort favoured by Stark when he is unwashed. But this bag appears to be nothing more than an assortment of small books, all of them coil-bound so they will lie flat.
Thor knows such books are a favourite tool of those who are meticulous. Jane makes her notes in such books, the tiny squares keep her equations orderly. The Captain’s books do not appear to have squares, they are unlined, and Thor supposes that is because they are used for drawing. The Sergeant raises his head from his pillow to watch the unpacking, but the Captain does not notice this. He is frowning at a book, as if it is not what he expected. Perhaps they brought him the wrong one.
"Stevie," the Sergeant says. His voice is low, but he is close enough to the speaker that it comes through and Thor can hear it.
The Captain turns, smiling and boyish. "Hey, you're awake."
The Sergeant lies back and frowns and breathes out hard.
"Buck?" the Captain says, stepping toward him. "You okay?"
The Sergeant shakes his head very slowly, as if there's water in his ears. "It's good to see you, Stevie, but it's not right."
"Used to do this a lot. Dream. See you. But you can't really be here."
"I am," the Captain says quietly. "I am here." He crosses the room so that he can place his hand over the Sergeant's. "You're safe. What happened to you, it… it's over now."
The Sergeant frowns. "If you're…" he starts and stops. Then his forehead creases. "Are you okay?" he asks very softly.
The Captain smiles. "Yeah, I'm okay, Buck. They're letting me stay with you. I asked to stay with you. Now try worrying about yourself for a change."
The Sergeant regards the Captain for a moment. Then he closes his eyes again, as if sleep has suddenly pulled him down, but his hands remain knotted, and his jaw closed. Thor knows the sight of sleep, and this is not it.
The Captain waits by the bedside a while, then suddenly he moves as he does when there is a mission before him. He goes back to his unpacked things, and takes a book and pencil and large, white eraser. He pulls the flimsy, plastic-and-metal chair from the corner of the room over to the Sergeant’s bed and sits down. He opens his book. He says something so quietly that Thor cannot hear it, and then, when he gets no answer, he begins to draw.
Thor cannot see the likeness the Captain has chosen to capture, nor hear the words he speaks while he works; they are too low. But he sees how the Sergeant’s eyes open just a fraction, watching, first the work of the pencil, and then the Captain's face.
MARIA HILL, GREETINGS,
I report for I have most pleasant news. The Captain is steady on his own feet again, though he sleeps a great deal. The Captain has readily assented to stay with the Sergeant. Upon his request, agents have delivered some worldly goods to him so that he may have the comforts of home, and Sam, Son of Will, brought "doughnut holes" (which were most humorous and delicious) and kept watch a while with me.
Of the Sergeant there is less to tell. He sleeps a great deal, though he was awake this afternoon.
I shall write again when I have more news.
Thor, son of Odin, Allfather
Chapter 3: Saturday
TW for suicide-related content in this chapter. This chapter makes me sad, guys. If you want to avoid sad stuff, go ahead and skip this chapter. You're not gonna miss out on nothin'. Except Thor's love of breakfast sandwiches, which you are going to hear way more about soon.
***ALSO AN IMPORTANT NOTE***
Sometimes things are really fucking hard. If you're struggling with suicidal thoughts, please don't read this chapter. Instead please tell somebody about how you feel. You deserve to be here. I for one want you to be here. Yes, you. YES, YOU OVER THERE, looking around to see if I'm talking to somebody else, I'm not. I'm talking to you. I want you to be here. YES I DO. Stick around, okay?
*hugs you all*
The Sergeant's voice comes rasping through the speaker just above the observation window, a whispered question, Why didn’t you kill me?
Jane starts where she sits across from Thor, her eyes suddenly going wide. She freezes for an instant, then finishes chewing the the first hurried bites of an egg-and-ham-and-spinach breakfast sandwich, leans forward and whispers, “Is that him?”
She sounds frightened. Jane is very brave, but only with herself. She is not the sort to ever be a leader; she takes too great a care of those around her to be able to send warriors to die. She cares too deeply, and sorrow brings her pain. It is her great strength and her great weakness, and Thor loves her for it.
“Yes,” he says. "That is him." The Sergeant's unhappy question, Thor knows, will be upsetting to her. Jane wishes all people to be well, however impossible it may be. And Thor knows, it was one of his first lessons on Midgard, that sometimes pain is necessary for healing. He rests his hand upon her arm. "It is alright."
“No," she answers. "God, he sounds awful.” Then her eyes get wider. “Oh god, that was awful. I shouldn’t have said that. Why would I say something like that?”
Over the speaker they both heard the Captain say, Huh? What? He sounds groggy, as if the question woke him. It is very early in the morning still, early even for the Captain, though Jane's work has kept her up over night, and Thor needs little sleep. Bucky?
“Oh no,” Jane whispers, shaking her head. “No, no, no. This is going to be way too personal. I shouldn’t be here.”
Thor nods, pleased to see that he has learned to be able to detect the borders of privacy at last. Jane gets to her feet, finishing her sandwich in a few more bites, and fumbling for her her phone and bag and the new, white lab coat (the old one, which had been badly charred, still stuffed into her bag).
“I’ll call, okay?” she asks. He smiles at her, grateful as always for her affection. She kisses him, pulls open the door, and disappears into the hall.
Too late Thor sees that in her haste Jane has forgotten both her extra-large plain black coffee and her book. He recognizes the book. It is a favourite of Jane's, and he once tried to read it but he finds reading in silence tedious. The tale is one that makes her laugh when she reads it, and she will be sorry not to have it, so he sets it aside to give to her tomorrow when she comes. Then he looks through the window into the small room.
"Did you say something, Buck?" The Captain is asking as he sits up, to face the Sergeant lying bound on his own bed. "You okay?"
"I asked why you didn’t kill me,” the Sergeant says.
“Bucky…" The lights are dim, but Thor sees the way the Captain's shoulders roll. "Bucky listen to me, it's going to be okay. We think we can break the mind control triggers, and Stark says he’s disabled the stuff in the arm-”
The Sergeant makes a noise, almost a shout. Disbelief, Thor thinks, or maybe shock. “You think you’re saving me?” Thor can’t see the Sergeant’s face, but he can see how the gleaming metal of his hand is clenched like the fist of the Destroyer. “You think you’re helping me?”
“No, you should have put a bullet in my head!” The Sergeant’s voice, rising, in pitch and volume. “What do you do with a rabid dog, Rogers? What do you do with a rabid goddamned dog? You put it down, you put it the fuck down, you put it down before it kills you!”
After that the words fall into noises. The sort of noises made by boys whose mothers have died, and by brothers who have wept for dying brothers. They are the noises of loss, and anger at the injustice of the same. In this, Thor knows that Asgardians and Midgardians are alike. Both of them will cry and scream against what is already done, as if love alone could somehow undo it. Both know even as they try, it will never be enough. Some things can never be undone.
The Captain sags where he sits. The Sergeant takes a deep breath, a huge breath, but the words that follow are whispered. "Jesus, Stevie, I got enough… got enough blood on my hands. I don't want to hurt anybody else… couldn't you just… just do me one favour… Jesus Christ… Just a bullet, Stevie. Just one. Remember? Best guy's gun." A laugh shakes out of him.
The Captain lurches to his feet. For a moment he is very still. Then he walks around his own bed and pushes hard against it. The great, metal bed squeals across the floor until it is flush with the Sergeant's own. The Sergeant turns away from him. He lies twisted, arms straining at the restraints. Thor is certain the Sergeant would curl into a ball if he was able, like a man kicked hard in the stomach. He is also certain that so much movement has disarranged the medical materials strapped and taped and pinned into place on him. There will be monitors without data to receive, and alarms will go off. There will be medical personnel in the room in moments.
But this is no place for interlopers. Thor knows what this is; this is a battle. He has fought this battle too, and when it was his fight, he lost. He will not forget what it was to see his brother give up and fall. He knows his place here as an unasked for second. In all the uncertainty that comes with living in a culture not his own, here he has his feet.
In the little chamber, the Captain climbs up into his bed and slides close to the Sergeant. He sets his hand on the side of the Sergeant's face and Thor doesn't have to see the details to know the touch will be tender. Thor can hear the quiet crying of the wretched Sergeant, over which the Captain is speaking in a hard-edged voice.
"James Barnes, don't you ever ask me to do something like that again, don't you ever, you… You selfish goddamned son of a bitch." It should sound like anger, but the Captain's voice breaks like a child's, all the command gone from it. "Try, Buck. Please. Try."
For a while the little room is silent, and Thor busies himself with the papers for the reports, and the pen, which has vanished somewhere on the floor and needs searching out. Soon there is a thump upon the door, and then knocking, and then pounding on the steel. He glances at the small, dark chamber and remembers the numbness that filled him after Loki fell. He knows the Captain would not wish to see anyone, even doctors. Not just now.
Thor picks up Mjolnir and goes over to the door. Not the mechanical door that leads into the chamber, but the large, steel door that leads out into the hall. It opens inward, and so the solution is simple. He sets Mjolnir down in front of it.
It takes the SHIELD personnel nearly thirty minutes to get through the steel door. In the end they use a thermal lance to take it off the hinges. Thor allows himself to play-act at napping to excuse his lack of assistance until the last possible moment. By then all is calm in the little room, and the Sergeant is silent and passive when all the materials and machines are reattached. Thor finds himself enduring the glares of the guards and the medical staff with ease. As the nurses and guards file out, the Captain catches his eye and nods at him through the observation window. Thor nods in return.
MARIA HILL, GREETINGS,
This morning while Jane and I did eat our Breakfast Sandwiches I observed the Captain and the Sergeant speaking. The Captain made free to push his bed closer to that of the Sergeant’s so that they could speak quietly, and the Sergeant turned on his side. It was no doubt this which dislodged the medical equipment and caused alarm.
I was unaware that standard procedures dictated all doors should be accessible at all times to members of staff, and I convey my regrets for the alarm caused. I had placed Mjolnir in front of the door that morning, an action not my custom and one I shall not repeat. I hope the medical attendant's sprained arm and bruised forehead is healing well.
Thor, son of Odin, Allfather
PS: If you have not tasted the Breakfast Sandwiches of the cafe across the street, I encourage you to do so. They are pleasing and nutritious.
Chapter 4: Sunday
Stop with the food. Report on Barnes and Rogers. Everything. If Barnes scratches his ass I want to know about it.
Thor had consumed a considerable portion of his morning coffee and about half a breakfast sandwich (this one with tomato, an unfinished looking sort of fruit that tastes rather better than it looks) by the time the Captain woke. He was therefore in a position to notice the way the Captain lay quiet, sometimes reaching for the Sergeant, as one reaches for a hand when one’s gone under water unexpectedly, and withdrawing his hand again. It was the first time Thor had ever seen the Captain hesitate.
Unlike the Captain, when the Sergeant came to wakefulness it was with a jolt, almost the way he had done the first time. But in this case he did not shout, and he was much quicker to calm at the sight of the Captain there. He settled back down with a sigh and stared up at the ceiling.
“Morning, Buck,” the Captain said quietly. This name, a secondary nickname, has taught Thor much about the closeness of the Sergeant and the Captain. It is as if, because the Sergeant’s nickname is so well known, something even shorter and more hidden must be used between them. Thor cannot imagine how Jane might nick his name, or he hers. Perhaps Jae would do for her, and T for him, but neither sound affectionate the way Buck sounds.
The Sergeant closes his eyes and says nothing and for a while there is silence between the two men. Thor drinks the coffee in his cup, and consumes the last of the tomato breakfast sandwich, and then opens the second. When he came to like that cafe he asked the employees what was best to eat. Now they give him what they call "the dealer's choice", which is whatever they are pleased to make, and it adds the delight of surprise to the delicious food they make. Usually, anyway.
This sandwich, alas, is heavy with spinach, the juice of which is staining the bun a pale green. He frowns, because spinach is a thing enjoyable, as far as he is aware, in spanakopita alone. He takes an exploratory bite and finds, to his great pleasure, there is bacon as well. The bacon improves the spinach immeasurably. It is not merely palatable, but also good. It seems there is there nothing the cafe cannot do with food. He must remember to show it to Volstaag when next they meet.
“So, uh," the Captain says, rising up on his elbow, "are you hungry?"
The Sergeant says nothing, though he closes his eyes.
"There's a cafeteria here. I can bring you something back when I come."
The food at the so-called cafeteria is appalling. If he thought it right to forbid Jane anything, he would forbid her to eat it, lest she become ill. Thor knows the Captain is not easily sickened, but he sees no reason anyone should consume the colourless, flavourless, overcooked masses that heap the heated dishes. Not when there are such things as breakfast sandwiches in the world.
“Maybe toast and eggs?" the Captain says, but the only answer is silence. “Or coffee?”
The Captain sighs. “If you don't eat I'm gonna ask them to put an IV in,” he says. Thor sees the Sergeant's eyes open just a crack.
The silence that follows is as full of meaning as anything Thor has ever heard.
Thor gets to his feet. He takes the book Jane left behind and has not yet had time to retrieve, then goes to the window and knocks on it, gently, so the glass doesn’t shake. The Captain looks up at him, glaring, though Thor knows enough to know the anger is not directed at him. Thor waits until he comes to the door, until the automatic lock disengages, and the Captain is standing before him, looking worse than Thor has ever seen him. It’s not the fatigue of battle on him, but it is fatigue all the same. It draws circles like bruises under his eyes, pulls down the corners of his mouth, gives him a look of tragic helplessness that is entirely unfamiliar on that face. Thor wonders if he has ever looked like that. It is likely that he has.
He glances at the Sergeant where he lies restrained and sees those hooded eyes watching him. It would be easy to imagine that expression is anger, but Thor knows fear when he sees it. Midgardians do not hide it well.
“Perhaps this will help,” Thor says, and he places Jane's book into the Captain’s shaking hands. “Jane says it is one of her favourites. She says it makes her laugh.”
The Captain looks down at the book, hands gripping it so tightly that the pages warp under his fingers. He looks up again. He is shaking. “How is this supposed…” he does not ask the question, but Thor knows what he means.
“All he speaks of is what he fears, and dwelling on such things will take the heart from anyone. Give him something else to dwell on.”
The Captain's shaking stops. His grip on the book eases. He tries to rub a crease out of the cover with his thumb. “Okay. Thank you.”
And then, because he feels he understands this Midgardian, perhaps more than he understands the others, Thor says, “Has the Sergeant eaten "breakfast sandwiches"?”
"Huh?" The Captain blinks. “No. No, I don’t think so, no.”
Thor nods. “I will send for some. It will tempt his appetite." There is one other thing, something that runs like a thick vein through Asgard, and glimmers here too, less brightly, but still present. In Midgard, as in Asgard, one does not dine with one's enemies. Bread is only broken among friends. "I will have them brought here, so that you may eat together.”
The Captain catches his arm and nods and Thor understands the gesture. He returns it, and then departs, the heavy door making safe the place behind him.
Thor summons the guards. They are not best pleased to be put to work fetching food, but whatever they may think of the Sergeant they do not say it to Thor, not knowing as they do just who his brother is.
In the intervening time, Thor sits and listens while the Captain begins to read aloud from Jane's book. It is a tale by turns one of comedy and one of tragedy. When the guards return with the sandwiches, glowering and grumbling, Thor takes the sandwiches in to the Captain and the Sergeant. They fill the air in the small chamber with delicious smells, and the weary Captain smiles at him. At the Captain’s invitation Thor sits a while in the flimsy plastic chair to better hear the tale as the Captain reads it.
When the Captain is explaining a difficult passage involving an ape who is also a librarian (not, perhaps, the strangest thing in the nine realms, but certainly an oddity) to Thor, the Sergeant shifts where he lies. He reaches for the little, paper-wrapped sandwich the Captain set close to his hand and begins to untwist the wrapping. The Captain freezes at the sound. They sit in silence a while, and when the Captain turns to look, Thor allows himself to do likewise. The Sergeant is looking at the sandwich as if surprised to find it palatable, and chewing on a small bite. He looks at them both, from Thor to the Captain and back again. He is, Thor thinks, uncomfortable in the presence of a stranger, so Thor rises. He is careful to move slowly.
“Wait,” the Captain says.
“I must call my dearest Jane. She will be pleased to hear her favourite book is bringing joy to her friends.”
He smiles once, a broad and friendly smile, at the Sergeant before he goes.
MARIA HILL, GREETINGS,
I do not wish to be idle with your time and shall say no more of food.
The Captain passed much of the day reading out loud from a book for the amusement of the Sergeant. The tale is about a policeman who goes back in time, and it is most clever and enjoyable. The Sergeant passed much of the day listening. We are, I believe, of the same opinion about the book (the tale is good, but the ape-librarian is perhaps too far-fetched.) I look forward to the conclusion and shall report on it tomorrow.
Chapter 5: Monday
In the afternoon of the next day, just as the noble but pessimistic hero of the Jane’s beloved tale is upon the barricades in a city at war, the Black Widow appears. He smiles at her, and invites her to join him in the construction of his report to Director Hill. He has been putting it off to better listen to the story. Moreover, he knows Natasha to be a respected, subtle Midgardian, and he would be grateful for her help.
“I can’t stay,” she says. “I’m just here to pick up Steve.”
Her voice is low and serious and he rises at once. “Is there some way I can assist?” he asks.
She waves a hand at him in a gesture that means this is not your business. “No. Just Steve."
He nods and settles in his chair again. Natasha sighs.
"We found… where they were holding him."
Thor nods. Though Midgardians treat feuds with suspicion, all that is Asgardian in him loves the savage joy of vengeance. “It is a shame his shield-brother can not go,” he says. "It would do him good to spill the blood of those who wronged him." He looks through the glass, where the Sergeant has turned a little, to face the Captain while he reads.
“Yeah,” she says in a soft and thoughtful tone. That surprises him. “Yeah it probably would.” She smiles at his surprise. "But it'll be good for Steve too."
"The Captain is not vengeful," Thor says. She looks at him, one eyebrow rising just a little higher than the other.
"What would you do if somebody did that to Jane?" she asks, nodding into the small room. The thought is like ice forming in his veins; the creature he might become in such an instance does not bear consideration. She nods. "Everyone is vengeful in the right circumstances," she says.
She collects the Captain and they leave, but only after Thor has assured the Captain he will watch over the Sergeant and see no need goes unmet. There is a cold and dangerous calm in the Captain's eyes. "I don't know how long we're going to be."
"I will stay," Thor says.
When they are gone, Thor resumes his post and the effort of creating the report. He has taken to chewing the end of pens, a most disagreeable habit as they splinter and the pieces of plastic taste terrible. He’s picking plastic from his tongue when he hears the Sergeant calling, hey! Hey you!
He looks up. The Sergeant is sitting up in bed, as far as the restraints will allow. He still wears what is called a hospital gown, but which Thor grew up to call a tunic, and is it slipping from his metal shoulder. His eyes are wide again, as they were when he first woke. Thor rises at once and goes into the small room.
“You,” the Sergeant says. He subsides. It is as if being alone agitated him, and now in the presence of another, he is able to be calm again. He lies back, and Thor can see him swallow. He has heard that the Sergeant was lean before, but without allies he has become hungry-looking, like a wolf in winter. “Who are you?”
“I am Thor Odinson, Sergeant," Thor says. It is strange that he should know so much of the Sergeant, and the Sergeant know so little of him. "I am a friend of your friend the Captain.”
There is silence between them, and Thor does not think the silence is entirely unfriendly. He waits.
“You’re not just some guard,” the Sergeant says after a while. “You watch and you do stuff back in that room there but you…” his voice trials off. He looks around the room as if seeking something that he does not find. “But, yesterday.”
Thor does not understand. The sergeant sits up again, like his strength and his anger has returned. “Yesterday. The book. Don’t you remember? The book.”
“It is a most enjoyable book,” Thor says, mentally groping for the thread the Sergeant is unspooling for him.
“And the food?” this, like an accusation.
“Breakfast Sandwiches,” Thor says, because perhaps the Sergeant is wondering what to call them. “They are from the cafe across the street. At first I was not convinced about the spinach, but I have reconsidered my previous dislike. The bacon makes it very pleasant indeed. Did you dislike yours?”
The Sergeant stares at him as if he’s grown three heads.
“Don’t you know who I am?” the Sergeant asks at last.
And at last, Thor understands. He settles on the flimsy plastic chair. It is near the bed, near enough that the Sergeant could probably strike him, but he is not afraid. For all the tales of his danger and his strength, all that the Sergeant has spoken of since he woke has been fear of causing harm.
“My brother is Loki Laufeyson,” Thor says. “Do you know that name?”
The Sergeant shakes his head.
Thor does not mean to be ashamed of his brother. He doesn’t want to feel the twist in his stomach, the way the skin of his face grows hot. Those things just happen. “My brother has done great harm to this world, and to my own. Even to my family, my friends. Still," he shrugs, "I cannot but care for him. And I am not sorry that I do.”
The Sergeant scowls at him. “I am not your fucking brother,” he whispers.
“No,” Thor agrees. “Not until we’re blooded in battle together. Then you shall be.”
The Sergeant's mouth twists up into a smile, till he’s laughing, laughing hard enough to squeeze tears out of his eyes. Thor waits until the fit is passed. When the Sergeant is calm again, he looks at Thor and says, “Are you nuts?"
Thor is aware sometimes Midgardians ask questions without an expectation of receiving an answer and he is fairly sure this is an example of the species. He waits.
“Well?” the Sergeant presses. So Thor was wrong, that question did want answering. He can never tell.
"I am not," Thor says. “I have hope.”
"Hope?" the sergeant says. "What the hell does that mean? Hope?"
Thor considers his hands. “Before I came to Midgard, I had never heard of redemption, but since I have been here, I have learned about it.”
“Redemption.” The Sergeant’s tone is bitter.
Thor nods. “I have been listening, this past week, to the things you say. You have what my brother does not.” He looks at the Sergeant, who is staring back at him. “You have regret.”
The Sergeant's frown returns, deeper now. “What if I’ve been-”
“Lying?” Thor asks. He understands the Sergeant and the Captain in ways the others cannot. “It matters little. I still love my brother.”
The Sergeant looks sharply away. Then, after a while the Sergeant looks up at Thor. “Steve’s an idiot," he says in a low, soft voice. "Always has been. Soft in the head. He’d… he’d forgive me anything.” He pauses. He looks down at his flesh hand and flexes it into a fist a few times. “Not everybody is like that. Most people aren’t like that.” He looks up and meets Thor’s eyes. “I’m not like that.”
Thor nods. The Sergeant is not like the Captain, but nor is he like Loki. The varieties of Midgardian temperament are like Asgardian; infinite. What they will and will not forgive is known only to themselves, and Thor will not ask him for his reasons.
The Sergeant holds his gaze for a moment, then he turns his head and indicates the book with his chin. “Is that book yours?” his voice is softer now, as if this is a concession.
“No,” Thor says. “It is the favourite book of my beloved Jane. It is a very good tale.”
“Yeah,” the Sergeant says. He seems to be seeking for words that will not come. Perhaps it is the unfamiliarity of the company, perhaps it is something else. Thor has always been good at setting people at their ease, so he smiles and talks.
“The Captain reads very well, and does excellent voices. I particularly like the voice of the street-vendor.”
The Sergeant’s mouth twitches and for an instant Thor thinks he might even smile. “Christ,” the Sergeant whispers, shaking his head. “Yeah. He’s a natural ham. Always was.” He meets Thor’s eyes and he does smile then, just a little. “I don’t think he realized he was doing them.”
Thor grins. “Nor I.”
The Sergeant looks back at the observation window. “Are, uh, are you expected to be out there?”
“No, my friend. I am at liberty to stay if you would like.”
The Sergeant swallows. He nods. He looks at Thor as if he’d like to ask a question.
“I want to know. About your brother.”
It is the most difficult request any Midgardian has ever made of him. He would be glad to tell tales of his clever brother’s exploits, even as he knows he should be ashamed and silent after what he has done. He should probably never speak Loki's name. But the heart cannot help loving what it loves. Thor understands that better than most. He nods, therefore, and licks his lips.
“What would you like to know?”
“Something… tell me something good about him,” the Sergeant says.
Thor smiles, grateful that he need not relate the tale of the Tessaract, glad to think of happier times. “Very well,” he says. He leans back in the chair and the plastic warps under the pressure. “I will tell you the tale of how he once dressed me as a maid and almost married me to a frost giant, will that do?”
“You… he what?” The Sergeant’s giving him a frowning kind of look, like he thinks Thor is spinning fables. “What?”
Thor grins. “The giant was exceedingly drunk. And may have had bad eyes.”
This time when the Sergeant laughs, it is the sound of joy. It is what Anthony Stark calls cracking up and it is one of Thor’s favourite sounds. "Yeah," he says. "That'll do just fine."
Thor is coming to the end of his tale when the Captain returns. The Captain's weary face softens when he sees the Sergeant smile. He drops onto his own bed and looks from the Sergeant to Thor and back. He is pleased. Thor can see how the pleasure takes the sorrow from his face and eases the defensive hunch of his shoulders.
He is less pleased when the Sergeant asks him to read the final chapter of the book, and then insists upon the voices. But he does them all the same.
Chapter 6: Monday night
SPOILER ALERT for the ending of Night Watch by Terry Pratchett.
F L A S H
Tale concluded STOP Commander prevails STOP His lady is safely delivered of a son STOP Criminal apprehended STOP Body switched by monks STOP A joyous ending STOP Nothing more to report FULL STOP
Maria Hill looks at the young man standing on the far side of her desk, then back at the hastily scrawled note.
“FLASH?” she says.
“FLASH,” she says again. She looks once more at the note from Odinson that just dominated every single communications device on the SHIELD network.
A FLASH means trouble. A late night FLASH means crisis. Missiles launched and ten minutes to save the world. Alien invasion. Incoming meteor strikes. It does not usually mean a non-SHIELD agent was worried the Director might lose sleep over the ending of a novel.
Hill takes some comfort in the knowledge that everybody who counts is going to think this message is code for something, and any Hydra agents left in SHIELD are going to go cross-eyed trying to decipher it. Still. Now she's got a room full of squirrely operations staff right before she was going to pack it in for the night. Thanks, Odinson.
She smiles at the message, so it'll look like it's good news. She'd rather stop the rumors before they start. “Thank you," she says, making a show of sitting back in her chair, as if suddenly relaxed. "You're dismissed.”
She waits till he’s gone, then pulls her laptop over and opens the lid. She looks for a moment at the paperback on the edge of her desk, the one Jane gave her for her birthday. The one Jane convinced her to start reading because it was her favourite. The one they were going to meet to talk about next week. Her bookmark is three quarters of the way through. She glares at the book. She glares at her laptop. She types:
Reports received. Stand down. We’ll get briefings from Rogers from here on. Do not send FLASH unless critical. World-destruction kind of critical.
ALSO: Spoiler alerts. Use them.