Steve takes this breakthrough as some sort of sign, apparently, because he redoubles his efforts to get the kid - to get Loki - sprung from his isolation room. At length, Fury agrees... provisionally. Loki’s allowed out during the day, with a keeper, and with a guard trailing at a discreet distance. And he’s not allowed out of SHIELD.
Tony sees Steve grin at the good news and take the limitations as a challenge. He sees it, and wonders when he grew to know Steve well enough that he knows when he’s planning something.
Once he starts, Loki doesn’t stop talking, though he only ever says more than a couple of words if Steve’s around - and increasingly, Tony.
The next day finds Tony in the Scarily Advanced Sciences Lab (Darcy’s name for it) going over Jane and Erik’s blueprints for the new and improved Bifrost receiver. Tony’s not really a physicist, but by now he’s read every paper even related to wormholes and the Einstein Rosen Bridge theory and he’s got what he considers a working knowledge. Working well enough, anyway, to get an idea of whether or not the control circuitry of Jane and Erik’s baby is likely to blow out power for the entire Eastern seaboard.
Darcy has temporarily abandoned him to go in search of coffee (she’s even more addicted than Tony, which is awe-inspiring), and Tony is absorbed in the blueprints. This is the state Pepper always found creepy, because apparently he goes all quiet and still for hours at a time and doesn’t even realize he’s doing it until he snaps out of it aching and hungry.
Usually when he gets in the zone it’s the manic kind of crazy, where he’s full of energy and ideas seem to follow one another like water tumbling down a particularly rocky stream. The other thing is different, and all he’s aware of are the plans, and the machine the plans represent, and how it will look when it’s done, and how it will work, and the hum of the metal and the pulse of power running through it like water...
“...I think he’s busy.”
Steve’s exaggerated whisper reaches him across whatever distance he’s traversed in his head, and he comes out of it blinking. Steve is standing in the door to the hallway, and he’s got Loki perched on his shoulders like he weighs nothing at all.
Right. Super solider.
“Huh?” is what Tony says. Okay. Huh. How long has he been here? What time is it? And how long ago did Darcy go for coffee? How long does it take to get coffee, anyway?
Steve looks chagrined. “Sorry, Tony, we didn’t mean to bother you.”
Steve’s hair is standing hilariously on end in two places, probably where Loki has had his tiny hands fisted in it for balance. Tony pats vaguely at his own hair, which is probably full-on mad scientist by now.
“You’re not--” Not bothering me, Tony starts to say, but stops himself for reasons that are totally beyond him. Instead, he asks, “Was there something you needed?”
Steve shrugs. “He wanted to see you.”
As if on cue, Loki raises a hand clutching a big block of stuck-together LEGO and waves it at Tony.
“Hey kid,” Tony says warily. Steve's been taking every opportunity to get the two of them to hang out together, he says because Loki likes him and doesn't talk much around the others. Tony thinks it's because the rest of the team will do whatever makes Steve happy and Tony is the only one showing resistance to Steve's weird plan to take in every waif and stray and demigod and hot assassin he comes across. He has to keep suppressing the urge to remind Steve, repeatedly, that the kid's not a puppy.
They’ve had exactly one conversation about it.
They were testing a new version of the under-armour (that might have applications in protecting poor Bruce’s modesty in post-Hulk situations). Steve had come upon Tony about to take a hammer to his own shin (He was wearing the armour! It would have been fine!) and insisted on playing guinea-pig instead. Then he’d started talking some awesome new thing Loki was learning to do, which comprised roughly 62% of Steve’s conversational topics these days, and Tony listened for almost fifteen entire minutes before he snapped.
“Do you actually hear yourself?”
Steve looked up from where he was flexing one muscular arm in a sleeve of as-yet-unnamed-brilliant-polymer-patent-fabric and looked confused. “What?”
“You’re like those people who raise puppies for the blind. Except not, because you’d want to keep all of them. And then what would the blind people do?”
Steve gave him a look like he was trying really hard to understand, but failing because Tony was speaking in a language Steve didn’t know. “I don’t...”
Tony knew Steve wasn’t stupid. “He’s not a puppy, and you might not get to keep him.”
Steve froze, and turned all the way around. “I know that, Tony,” he said He held himself very still, as if he was expecting an attack. He paused, and then shrugged. “But there’s no way to know, is there? And it might...” He looked away from Tony, his eyes drifting off into the far corner. “...It might work out.” He looked at Tony again. “Okay?”
Tony stared at him for a long moment, mouth still open, and then sighed. “Fine,” he says. “Okay.”
And that, apparently, was the end of that.
Tony let it go. He's had enough of the Disappointed Face to last him for a while.
Loki is staring up at the blueprint projection hovering over the table where Tony's been working, his eyes huge. He reaches out one hand to touch the slowly-rotating lights, but he's too far away. Tony gives in to the familiar urge to show off.
Loki looks down at him, points at the lights. "Pretty," he says enthusiastically.
Tony grins, and then picks up his tablet. "Yeah, that's nothing. Look at this." He calls up the plans for a mostly-non-classified jet engine he made for the USAF a few years ago. It's pretty boring technologically, but has all sorts of exciting moving parts. Loki is obligingly big-eyed and waves grabby-hands at the projection as it expands around them.
"So what are you two up to this fine afternoon?" Tony asks Steve, who is beaming up at the little boy on his shoulders, and is still wearing a the bright smile when he looks down to meet Tony's eyes. Tony ignores the weird twist in his chest at the sight and shuts down the hologram. Loki makes a disappointed noise.
"Not going stir-crazy, according to Director Fury," Steve tells him, and he sounds kind of annoyed. It's been most of two weeks since Steve's left SHIELD for more than a few hours, and some of those were for the purpose of retrieving Tony from Avengers Tower.
"Still no luck on talking him into field-trips, huh?" Tony asks sympathetically, as Loki pats at the top of Steve's head and demands:
"Down it is, Shortstack," Steve says to him, and then he's lifting him and swinging him easily down...
...into Tony's lap.
Tony decides not to ask when nicknames entered the equation, and instead hastily reconfigures his legs so that the kid doesn't slide right onto the floor. The kid seems perfectly sure that Tony won't drop him, and totally ignores Tony's discomfiture in favour of reaching for one of the styluses scattered over the tabletop.
Steve smiles proudly down at them. Tony doesn't know if the smile is for him or for Loki, which is... a weird feeling.
"So, kid," Tony says, "how do you feel about Super Mario?"
Two solid weeks of what Steve calls campaigning - and Tony calls nagging - finally yields a victory of sorts. Steve comes down to breakfast one morning and announces: “We’re going to the park.”
He looks around at his team - most of his team, as the second pot of coffee is still brewing. The first pot, brewed by JARVIS in the early morning, rarely survives long enough for the aroma to travel and it usually takes at least the smell to lure Tony out of bed on a weekend when he hasn’t been up all night in the workshop. The big table in the kitchen nook is surrounded by Avengers in various states of wakefulness, and Steve feels a warm sense of accomplishment. This is only the fourth or fifth time he’s seen them all around the same table for a meal. Tony gave them each a floor to themselves, but the common floor has a kitchen, a huge lounge, and a home theatre, among other wonders. The refrigerator in here is larger than the room Steve shared with Bucky and two other kids in the orphanage. Not that they don’t need it; a team of superheroes goes through a lot of groceries.
Maybe he should put weekly team breakfasts on the schedule, even though Tony will definitely make fun of him for weeks.
Clint is staring at the wall, eyes open only the barest amount; probably just enough to navigate his coffee cup between the table and his mouth. Bruce is reading the paper and drinking some kind of weird-smelling tea. Thor is, as usual, demolishing a half-dozen scrambled eggs and a small mountain of bacon. Natasha is the closest to her usual daytime self, sipping a glass of juice and eating a plate of toaster waffles in small, geometrically precise bites.
Steve still has not gotten over the incredible convenience of toaster waffles. They’re almost as cool as Pop-Tarts.
It’s Clint who looks up, eyes still half-closed. “Is the park under attack?”
Steve looks at him and frowns. “No.”
“If it’s slug-monsters again, can I call Not It?” asks Bruce from behind his paper. “It took three days to get the goo out of my hair. And it wasn’t even my hair at the time.”
Clint grins. “Yeah, that was a lot of monster slime,” he says, and Bruce just sighs.
“There are no monsters, and nothing is under attack,” Steve says, getting a little impatient (and surreptitiously touching his fingers to the gleaming wood tabletop, because there’s no point in borrowing trouble). “It’s just--”
Everyone is looking at him now. Thor even puts down his fork.
“Don’t you guys ever just go to the park, just to... just to go to the park? See the sights? Enjoy nature?” He can hear his voice growing less and less confident towards the end of the sentence.
“You wanna take the kids on a nature walk?” says Tony’s voice, and Steve turns his head to see Tony himself shuffling into the kitchen. He’s barefoot, wearing flannel pyjama pants and a t-shirt and his hair is standing hilariously on end. The shirt is thin enough that the blue circle of the arc reactor reflects blurrily in the stainless-steel cabinets when he goes to the counter to pour himself a cup of coffee. Steve watches him for a moment, feeling the strange little tug in his chest that’s been happening more and more often lately around Tony.
Tony turns around, face half-hidden behind a huge mug of coffee, and regards Steve over the rim.
“Yes,” Steve says, belatedly.
Steve watches Tony blink, watches his brain wake up, catch up, rewind and process everything that’s been said in the past thirty seconds, and blink again. He lowers the mug.
“You’re kidding,” he says flatly.
The elevator buzzes from the living room, and JARVIS announces that they have a visitor.
“It is Agent Coulson, with a guest.”
“Everybody get dressed,” Steve says, as Tony gives him a complicated look that's half amusement and half mutiny. “We’re going to the park. That’s an order.”
It’s a gloriously beautiful autumn day, the kind that Steve used to like best as a kid. There’s just a little bit of a chill in the air, the leaves are turning, and the sun is out and shining. The quality of light is warm and honeyed, and Steve’s fingers itch for the sketchbook and pencil he has tucked away in his backpack. He’s been drawing again for a while. It took a while for him to feel settled enough to do it - not that he feels settled now - and sure enough that all of this wasn’t some dream he’d wake up from.
They’re an odd party, moving through the park in something between recon formation and a leisurely stroll. They draw a few stares, but nothing intrusive. Steve realizes they make a strange sight, especially with Loki along, orbiting between Steve, Tony, Phil and Bruce as he darts away to pick up a leaf, a stone, a clump of grass, and bring it back to show them. He’s smiling more than Steve’s ever seen him do, and the Avengers are watching him indulgently - except, Thor, who is smiling, but still looks faintly unhappy in a way he often does these days.
Steve looks over at Tony, who is just walking, whose phone is actually in his pocket and not in his hand, watching Loki watch his own feet. Someone got him a new pair of sneakers for the outing, and every time he takes a step, lights blink and flash along the soles and the tongue. They’re possibly the coolest thing Steve has ever seen, even though Tony spent a solid ten minutes laughing at his enthusiasm.
Tony seems unusually at-ease, which he would claim is because it’s not even eleven yet and he’s had only one cup of coffee and therefore isn’t conscious. Steve would actually almost call it relaxed. He’s wearing well-worn jeans and a t-shirt with a logo from some band and a tiny hole in the seam at one shoulder - no sign of his perfectly-tailored suits today - and both look like they might have been in a heap on Tony’s floor before being grabbed up to be put on. This is often as much effort as he puts in when it’s just the team and they're not going out expecting to need to impress everyone. He doesn’t even have his sunglasses, so he’s squinting into the bright sunlight, and for the first time, it occurs to Steve that Tony’s not really as vain as he appears on first meeting; he just doesn’t like to be unprepared around people he doesn’t know, people who don’t know him, and looking just right is part of Tony’s ritual of preparation. How he feels secure.
Tony glances up, meeting his eyes, and Steve looks away, returning his gaze to Loki’s green sweatshirt. He feels a little embarrassed, because he feels like he caught Tony out in a moment of vulnerability. But even the beauty of the day and the good cheer of his teammates and Tony’s easy smile, when Steve looks back at him, doesn’t make it easy for him to shake the idea that he’s figured out something important; that Tony trusts them enough not to care all that much what they think of him.
At the playground, Loki goes straight for the swings, kicking his legs in an enthusiastic but unsuccessful rhythm until Thor goes over to give him a push. Steve sits down on a bench and pulls out his sketchbook, no longer able to suppress the urge. He does a half-dozen quick sketches of the park, the trees indistinct squiggles mainly for setting; the playground, with its colourful, futuristic equipment; the figures of his teammates standing around him. He draws Loki, head tipped back as he swings up, eyes big and amazed at defying gravity; Thor’s hands big on the chains on either side of him. He considers drawing in the shapes of their probable SHIELD tail sketched in for accuracy’s sake; he can’t see them, but he’s pretty sure they’re there. He understands, though he’d have preferred being informed.
They’re keeping their distance, anyway, as are a handful of what are probably reporters and photographers. They do keep their distance, these days, at least most of the time. They were a lot less polite immediately following the invasion, and Steve thought he was used to being under a magnifying glass but that was nothing compared to the way the media treats celebrities in this century.
It died down pretty quickly after a pair of incidents involving one particularly persistent photographer on a motorcycle. Clive Ferrazzi, freelance, known for getting his scoops by accosting his subjects while they’re grocery shopping, dogwalking, and out on the town with their kids; he’s well-known for an incident where he made some actress burst into tears, causing her Yorkshire terrier to run out into the street after him and get hit by a car. Steve dislikes him particularly because he rides a really nice bike, and the guy gives motorcyclists a bad name, never mind journalists.
Steve still doesn’t know the details, but they involved a very angry Thor, Dr. Foster’s academic transcripts, and Natasha politely threatening to dismember the guy and send the pieces back to his employers in separate packages, before Phil took over and the mess disappeared overnight. Steve doesn’t really want to know, but he’s still deeply appalled that this sort of thing is apparently commonplace, now; that all the media seems to care about is finding dirt, and that if there isn’t any dirt to find, they’ll just make something up.
When the incident is mentioned, Tony seems to find the whole thing hilarious, mainly because he wasn’t even there and someone else caused a media stink for once.
Natasha comes over and sits with him quietly for a while, chin in hand, elbow on her crossed-over knee. “You’re pretty good,” she says eventually, and he turns his head to see her looking down at his sketchbook. She tilts her head. “Would you rather I not look?” she asks, and he considers, then shakes his head, passing over the sketchbook.
“No, feel free.” They're just doodles. He hasn’t really worked back up to drawing anything he thought about very hard; these are just random sketches, mostly. He watches her flip through the book from the beginning. There are a lot of nobody-in-particular studies that he did when he was doing it for fine muscle control after he woke up; just to see if he still could. One of the first things they gave him was a pencil and the book, as though familiarity would ground him. He couldn’t bear to draw real things, then, because the only things that still seemed real were seventy years behind him and long gone. Male and female bodies; hands, feet; the curve of a cheek and the jut of a chin. A disembodied nose and three pages of eyes, all different shapes. To a lot of people this might seem unsettling, but he was running through his paces the same way he does when he settles in with a punching bag in the gym.
Then come more recognizable faces. Director Fury, sitting behind his desk, looking concerned. Agent Hill, a few times; her periods of stillness interspersed with efficient motion. More studies and disconnected body parts; the view from the cafeteria at SHIELD. Bruce, half-silhouetted in the window in his lab on the helicarrier, expression thoughtful. It takes a while before Natasha comes across the drawings of her, but there’s nothing too embarrassing. A few profiles; a rare moment of her smiling her odd, cool, small smile at the back of a head that’s obviously Clint’s. There’s one of Clint and Natasha sparring, that he did because their bodies are fascinating, all smooth lines and curving musculature, and makes his face heat a bit, but she just tips her head thoughtfully and considers it, turning the pad to examine it from a different angle.
There are drawings of Thor, mostly smiling; Thor and Jane; Darcy, in a more classic pose, smiling and looking off into the middle distance. That one she sat for. There haven’t been a lot of people Steve has felt comfortable asking. Darcy, though, is so open and so blatantly young that she doesn’t often make him feel awkward, even though she has that quality (one she shares with Tony) that tells him she knows how easy it would be, and she’s holding off, even though it’s against her nature to be so careful with people.
There are, evidently, a lot more sketches of Tony than he thought there were.
Steve thinks, belatedly, that this was a mistake.
The last few are interspersed with drawings of Loki. Loki with blocks. Loki and Tony. Natasha stops on one of Tony with Loki in his lap in the workshop. Not depicted is the projection of an engine floating above and around them; Steve didn’t feel like he could do it justice in pencil. Loki has his hands up and reaching to touch it. Tony is wearing an expression that is somewhere in between affection and uncertainty, and he’s looking not at the little boy, but at the viewer. At Steve.
At the time, Steve just drew it; he didn’t really think about it. Didn’t study it. He rarely does.
“You have an impressive eye for detail,” she says, fingers just touching the edge of the page. She looks at him. “Did you draw this from memory?”
“Um, yeah.” Steve rests his hands on his knees and tries not to sit so straight that his discomfort is obvious. He doesn’t know why this is so strange; Bucky used to see everything he drew, and then Peggy did. It never bothered him before. Whether that’s because Natasha is so much more perceptive, so much more invested in his subject matter, or because he never really paid attention before or tried to see his art from anyone else’s perspective, is a mystery. Before, it was just something he could do; something he did, sometimes, to pay the bills.
He has no idea why he thought that this, too, might not be different. Everything else is.
Natasha doesn’t take the opening that a lot of the others would. Doesn’t comment on his discomfiture. Just nods and says, “Your visual memory is excellent.”
“Oh, it was always - I could always... do that.” He shrugs. “Even... before.”
“You’re very talented.”
He smiles at her. Talent has never been something he really thought he had; the only person who ever used that word with him was his mother, and she was gone long before he was old enough to wonder if that might mean something for him in the real world.
She smiles back. Steve exhales, tips his head back a little.
It’s still a beautiful day. Clint and Phil are sitting on another bench, eating ice cream they got from a cart on the path, and Bruce is reading on one of those electronic reader things in a black leather case. Steve really wants one of these, but he doesn’t want to mention it around Tony because Tony will build him one, and Steve just wants the same one everyone else has.
Thor is still pushing Loki on the swings - pushing him awfully high now, actually, the seat nearly clearing the crossbar on the upswing, but Thor is standing right there with hands outstretched every time, and he’s beaming, and Loki looks nervous but mostly delighted, his fingers tight around the chains, and Steve’s just glad Thor looks happy for once. It’s not natural to see the guy so down all the time. Maybe things are getting better.
And Tony... has wandered off across the path to answer his phone.
Steve sighs. At least they got most of the morning out of him before Tony’s attention span ran out.
Oh, well. Steve was about to suggest they go get some lunch.
“Captain Rogers, over here!” says a voice, and Steve turns to see a man standing at the edge of the playground enclosure with a camera aimed in his direction. It flashes, and then flashes again, and Natasha is up and moving before Steve can do much more than blink, belatedly noticing the motorbike half-hidden behind a tree a few hundred yards away. He wonders how he didn’t hear it approach.
It’s Clive Ferrazzi, and Steve gets up to intercept Natasha, but Bruce beats him to it, somehow managing to head her off without looking like he’s yanking her back to prevent her from ripping Ferrazzi’s head off and drop-kicking it into the woods. Natasha’s expression is still stony, but most people wouldn’t notice a difference, and Bruce is herding her back, talking quietly. She stops, but doesn’t look away from Ferrazzi, who is still snapping pictures.
“Is love in the air, Cap?” he asks with a barely-hidden sneer.
“You’ve been asked not to approach SHIELD agents, Mr. Ferrazzi,” says Phil, appearing from apparently nowhere. Steve didn’t even see him get up from the bench. Clint is hovering at his shoulder, not bothering to hide his disgust.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, pal. I’m just out on a walk. Taking pictures of the scenery.” He leers at Natasha, who slowly tightens her hands into fists, and just as slowly relaxes them.
“The scenery is about five minutes away from summoning the NYPD, Mr. Ferrazzi,” Phil says, managing to look menacing and professional despite the fact that he’s wearing jeans and a Berkeley sweatshirt (something that made Tony do an actual double-take when Phil stepped out of the elevator). “And refresh my memory, what are the bylaws regarding motor vehicles on pedestrian walkways?” He pointedly does not look in the direction of Ferrazzi’s motorcycle, but Ferrazzi glances over his shoulder at it and sees two SHIELD agents standing nearby, somehow radiating intent to damage without even looking at the bike.
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve sees Thor slowly moving in their direction, his instinct to charge warring with the very stern lecture he got from Phil last time about antagonizing reporters. It’s time to shut this down before it becomes an incident, but apparently Ferrazzi does at least have some survival instincts, because he retreats with only a sneer and a rude gesture, heading for his bike.
Steve turns back to his team. Natasha looks really mad, but has a lid on it. Thor looks angry, but in a muted sort of way that probably won’t mean property damage. Clint and Phil and Bruce have shrugged it off...
“Where’s Loki?” he asks. The swing is empty and Steve can’t see him anywhere. He turns to look for Tony, sees him still standing beyond the footpath, phone pressed to his ear, and then lets out a sigh of relief when he sees Loki, crossing the footpath in Tony’s direction.
Off to the left, there’s the sound of an engine revving, and Steve looks up to see a bright red motorbike barreling towards him at top speed.
The serum did a lot for him. Improved his reflexes. His ability to take in a situation and react to it. But it can’t change the laws of physics, nor can it shrink the space between Steve and the motorcycle, the motorcycle and Loki, who is heading right into its path.
Steve starts to run anyway. He isn’t going to make it. “Tony!” he yells, and Tony turns round, looks up, sees the bike, the little boy, and what’s about to happen. He drops his phone and lunges.
Steve hears, but doesn’t see, Thor’s shout of fury, and what might be the sound of something heavy striking the front wheel of the motorcycle. There’s definitely a screech and a metallic crunch and a lot of swearing as the same something skids and screeches to a stop. But all Steve sees is Tony’s flight through the air, Loki’s look of terror and surprise. Tony rolling through the scrubby grass beside the footpath; Tony lying very still for the endless moment it takes Steve to reach him.
But it’s okay. It’s okay, because Tony is sitting up, one arm still tight around Loki, who is white-faced and has both small hands fisted in the back of Tony’s shirt, but doesn’t have a scratch on him. Tony is covered in pine needles and grit and has a long scrape down one arm and another on his cheekbone, but he seems otherwise okay. Steve sits down on the ground, very hard, because for just a second it feels like his legs won’t hold him.
It takes Tony a second to notice, brushing leaf litter out of his hair, and sort of half-crawl over to Steve. He hasn’t put Loki down, and Loki is holding on to him tightly, but he isn’t crying. They’re both staring at Steve like he’s sprouted a second head, and Steve is really, really glad that the SHIELD agents have Ferrazzi in hand down the path because he thinks maybe he’s losing it a little, his breath coming too hard, his chest too tight.
“Hey,” Tony says eventually, hesitantly, and he holds out a hand but doesn’t touch Steve until Steve looks up. Then he grabs Steve’s arm, squeezes it, and somehow that makes it easier to breathe.
They were having such a nice day, a minute ago. And then... and then Tony almost... and Loki, who is staring at him with flat-out fear. Tony’s bleeding. Sometimes Steve wishes for the times when he wasn’t always aware of how fragile people are; for the times when he was, too, and it was a lot easier to forget.
“Sorry,” says Steve, quietly.
“Hey, no,” Tony says quickly, hand still squeezing, a little tighter, now. “Don’t be sorry. Nothing to be sorry about.” He sounds freaked-out himself, which goes a long way towards making Steve feel better, a little less like he’s flying apart. He lays his hand over Tony’s on his arm, just for a little contact, just for the anchor, without thinking about it. Tony’s hand is warm and real, and he’s fine, they’re both fine. Tony twitches a little, maybe in surprise, but he doesn’t pull away. He just watches Steve carefully, like he’s waiting for something, eyes intent on Steve’s face.
“Okay?” he asks, after a while, and Steve nods.
Steve finds out later that Thor threw his hammer at the motorbike, Clint and Phil tackled Ferrazzi to the ground, and that the motorbike... well. By the time the cops showed up, it had been reduced to a misshapen block of metal, rubber and plastic, and Ferrazzi was yelling his head off. After a few minutes’ conversation with Phil, he calmed right down.
Steve waits for the angry phone call from Director Fury, telling him that all “field trips” are cancelled for the foreseeable future, but it doesn’t come. He wonders how much Phil actually put in his report.
He waits for it to show up in the papers, on TV, on the Internet. But it never does.