Steve didn’t hear Loki approach, but some kind of tickle on the back of his neck made him glance over his shoulder anyway. There he was, sitting perched on a chair he was relatively certain hadn’t been there before, radiating casual disinterest so intensely Steve was sure it was fake.
“Loki,” he said, surprised, and apparently loudly enough that heads turned toward them, stopping mid-drill.
“Don’t stop on my account,” Loki said, nearly a drawl. “I am just here to observe.”
A little bit of unacknowledged hope went away, but Steve reminded himself, again, to be patient. Despite the standing invitation, Loki had never shown any inclination to actually join the new Avengers, but Steve knew he was probably testing. Circling the idea warily for a while. Pushing him too hard would just scare him off. “Sure,” he said, hoping his disappointment didn’t show. “As long as nobody minds…”
“I don’t like being watched,” Pietro said, scowling in Loki’s direction.
“Given I do not find you very interesting, that should not be a challenge,” Loki said airily. Pietro’s eyes narrowed, and Steve tried not to wince, but Pietro just turned his back with a mutter of something that was probably insulting. Fortunately, Loki let it lie.
“All right,” Natasha said loudly, “everyone quit staring, you’ve all seen him before. Back at it.” Steve caught Sam giving Loki a bit of a wave before he got back into what was more or less an unusually intense game of capture the flag. Steve looked to Natasha, who nodded at him. He jogged over to Loki, who rose to meet him.
“Hey,” he said. “Good to see you. Are you sure you don’t want to join?”
“Quite,” Loki said, with a very small and lopsided smile. “In truth, I am not here on your invitation.”
Steve was almost hurt, but mostly just confused. “What do you mean?”
Loki glanced sidelong at Steve and then looked out at the battle for control being waged in front of them and hummed. “The witch,” he said after a long pause. “She…requested that I…lend an experienced eye to her work. And seeing as she did a favor for me recently…it seemed churlish to refuse.”
Steve frowned. “What kind of favor?”
“No matter,” Loki said dismissively, which just made Steve a little worried. He wondered if it would be wrong to ask Wanda.
“So you’re going to teach her?” Steve asked, trying to keep his hope out of his voice. Loki scoffed.
“Certainly not. All I agreed to do was watch. And perhaps provide some commentary on her shortcomings.” Steve frowned, and Loki seemed to catch it, because he added, “and I suppose praise if it is due.”
“That’s great,” Steve said. “Her abilities are totally out of the range of Natasha’s and my experience. She’d probably appreciate having someone to work with who could actually understand what she’s doing.”
Loki shrugged one shoulder. “Perhaps,” he said, which Steve knew was Loki’s version of a no without saying no. Still, he hoped Wanda might change Loki’s mind.
“I didn’t know the two of you were talking,” he said. Loki’s lips twisted.
“We are not,” he said flatly. “I asked her for a favor, and we have had perhaps one other conversation that went beyond an exchange of strained pleasantries. Her…request…was wholly unexpected.”
“Still,” Steve said, reaching out to put a hand on Loki’s arm. He waited until Loki looked at him to say, “It’s good. I’m glad.”
Natasha called time and Loki lifted Steve’s hand, kissing his fingers before standing. Wanda, laughing at something Rhodey had said, looked over, smile fading just a little. Still, she came over to them. “Loki,” she said, chin lifting, and Steve could see her determination not to look uncertain. “It’s good to see you.”
“Is it?” Loki asked, his hands tucked into his pockets. Wanda pressed her lips together and Steve caught Pietro glancing over, looking like he wanted to intervene.
“It is,” she said, a little tart note in her voice. “Are you here about…what we talked about?”
“So it would seem.” Loki didn’t look directly at Wanda, eyes only flicking toward her sidelong. “You want my opinion on your skills?”
“That’s what I asked,” Wanda said.
“You have power,” Loki said, his voice still bland, not quite toneless. “And the measure of what you can achieve with it is…serviceable.” He paused, and then did look toward Wanda. Steve shifted uneasily, something about Loki’s expression and stance setting warning bells ringing. “And that is more or less the sum total of what I can say you are doing right.”
Wanda blinked, looking surprised, but Loki didn’t give her or anyone else a chance to interrupt before he was off. “Your technique is unforgivably sloppy. Your use of energy is wasteful and inefficient. You telegraph what you are going to do to anyone with eyes to see. Your gestures are too large - they should be smaller, more compact. A flick of your wrist should be enough, at need. Furthermore, your lack of precision is absurd; you are using your skill like a bludgeon when it should be a scalpel.”
Wanda’s expression had gone from astonishment to hurt. “Loki,” Steve said, but of course he wasn’t done yet, and if he’d just agreed to this to get the chance to rip Wanda to shreds - Steve could understand that Loki was angry at her, he could, but she was practically a kid. Loki was lucky that Pietro hadn’t heard him yet, but when he did…
“And then,” Loki said, “there is the matter of-”
Wanda’s hands balled into fists. “Stop it.” She didn’t sound hurt anymore so much as angry. Steve opened his mouth, but he caught Natasha out of the corner of his eye shaking her head.
“Stop what,” Loki said carelessly. “I am simply offering the critique you asked for.” Her eyes narrowed and Steve noted with slight alarm the red streams of magic starting to coil around her arms. Whatever Natasha thought, this needed to stop. Steve opened his mouth, but Wanda spoke first.
“You know perfectly well what, you condescending–” She took a deep breath, visibly trying to control herself. “I’m not a child, and I know a thing or two about my own powers.”
“When it comes to magic you might as well be,” Loki said, lifting his chin. “I am astonished you have not killed yourself or your brother before now-”
“Not all of us had the privilege of growing up royalty!” She burst out, taking a step forward and staring up at him with fierce defiance. “How many tutors did you have? And how long have you had to learn? You were born with your powers. I’ve had three years.”
Loki’s expression, what Steve could see of it, looked surprised. Steve was a little himself; he knew Wanda was far from a wilting flower but she didn’t usually yell.
“And that’s another thing. Your magic was natural. Me? I was an experiment. Everything I learned I had to teach myself, in a cage. I didn’t have anyone else to teach me or help me or even tell me what was happening. All I had was Pietro, and he was as much at a loss as I was.”
The surprise vanished from Loki’s expression, his face wiped clean. Everyone else was either gaping at Wanda or trying not to. Steve caught a glance of Pietro’s face out of the corner of his eye, and it seemed now he was listening. His arms were crossed and he was smirking.
“And you know what,” Wanda went on, her voice still rising, “even with all that, even though I didn’t get a fancy magical education and I’m just bludgeoning my way around, I managed to survive, and I managed to beat you. Me, a half trained witch, remember, and I still took you down.”
Loki’s face went white and his eyes widened, and Steve recognized anger when he saw it and half moved toward him, even as Wanda seemed to realize what she’d said as well and paled. She didn’t back down, though, her lips pressed in a line, staring at Loki. He stared back at her. Steve saw his fingers twitch and reached out to catch his wrist.
“Loki,” he said lowly, but he pulled his arm out of reach and stepped back, breaking Wanda’s gaze.
“Well, then,” he said, voice stiff and cold. “I suppose you will do just fine on your own.”
He turned and vanished. Steve grimaced after him, well aware that he was going to end up being the one to deal with the fallout later. Pietro laughed, a harsh, sudden sound. “Good job, sister,” he said. Steve turned to frown at him, but Pietro seemed unaffected. Wanda glared at the empty place where Loki had been, not looking terribly triumphant.
“Well,” Rhodey said dryly. “That was fun.”
“Was it?” Vision asked mildly. Steve couldn’t tell if it was sarcasm or a legitimate question. Sam came over to him and made a face.
“Here’s hoping he gets some of his sulk out with Barnes,” Sam said. Steve shook his head a little. He probably should’ve sent Loki out. Though if he’d tried to do that Loki probably would’ve dug in his heels even harder. “Sorry about your evening plans, Steve.”
The others trickled out, leaving Wanda and Pietro behind, though Vision glanced back before he phased through the wall. She was still frowning at the spot Loki had been standing.
“I’m sorry,” Steve said. Wanda shook her head.
“He can apologize for himself,” she said, sounding still more than a little irritated. She made a face. “I shouldn’t have said that, though. About…the last bit.”
“It’s true,” Pietro said. He looked amused. “And he deserved it.”
Wanda cast her brother a look. “Even if that’s true, it still leaves me back where I was. I know I can do more with my powers. And I want to learn more about…how it works. Not just how to fight, but how to do other things. And now the one person I know who could help probably hates me even more than he already did. But I’m not going to apologize.”
“Good,” Pietro said.
“You shouldn’t have to,” Steve said. “Loki shouldn’t have talked to you like that.”
“I know.” Wanda grimaced. “I just feel a little as though I might have shot my chance at learning more in the foot.”
“You might be surprised,” Sam said, to Steve’s surprise. When they looked at him, he shrugged. “I’m just saying. Loki’s stubborn, but that doesn’t mean he never changes his mind. And as far as I can tell, he respects people who push back sometimes. I wouldn’t give up yet.”
Wanda shook her head a little, her lips twisting. “Thank you, Sam, but I don’t think I will hold my breath.”
Steve came home to a note on the counter.
Needed to think. Do not fret. -L
Steve stared at it for a while, left it where it was, and pinched the bridge of his nose. He wished Loki had said where he was going to think, but he supposed it could be worse and he could have not left a note at all. (He’d done that once or twice, taking off without a word, and Steve had nearly panicked and called in reinforcements.)
Loki came back perhaps an hour later, seeming subdued but not angry, to Steve’s relief. “Do you want to talk about what happened today?” He asked carefully.
“Not particularly,” Loki said, going straight to the refrigerator and pouring himself a glass of orange juice.
“Are you…all right?” He asked, even more carefully. Loki sighed, dropping his head forward for a moment.
“I will be. I do not precisely appreciate being reminded of the experience of having my mind prised open so my nightmares could be dredged up for the witch’s perusal, but I will recover.”
Steve winced. “I know you’re…I’m not saying you can’t be angry. But Wanda is on our team now. And what you were doing today…”
Loki’s shoulders tensed. “Please spare me the lecture, Captain. I gathered from Ms. Maximoff’s indignation that I was out of line.”
Steve hesitated, but then crossed over to put his arms around Loki’s waist, pulling his back to Steve’s chest. “She really just wants your help,” he said.
“I know what she wants,” Loki said. His voice didn’t get any warmer, but Steve did feel his shoulders drop a notch. He decided to let the question go. He should probably start on getting Loki to treat Wanda with civility first, before trying to get him to teach her.
“Okay,” he said, moving Loki’s hair out of the way to kiss the back of his neck. “As long as you know.”
Steve was talking tactics with Wanda when she suddenly broke off mid-sentence, stiffening. Steve looked up and standing in the doorway was Loki, wearing casual clothes and looking distinctly awkward.
“If you are busy,” he said, with the careful formality Steve associated with Loki’s being uncertain. “I can wait.”
Steve glanced at Wanda, who eyed Loki. “No,” she said, giving Steve a quick look. “That’s fine, we can pause for a moment. What do you want?”
Loki’s eyes skated to Steve, and he stood up. “I can go,” he said. “Give you guys a little privacy-”
“That is fine,” Loki said quickly. “It is…” His lips pressed together and after a moment he bowed, graceful, head staying bent forward even when he straightened. “I am sorry, Lady Maximoff. I spoke too harshly, and you are…as you pointed out…correct that your methods may be unorthodox but they are…effective. You are very powerful, and. Particularly considering that you are self-taught, remarkably skilled, whatever technique you may…not have had the chance to learn.”
Steve blinked, and glanced at Wanda, who looked even more surprised than he felt. Loki sounded strained, but more sincere for that. Wanda opened her mouth and closed it again, clearly searching for a response.
“Clearly I…have been remiss in neglecting my own study of hex magic.” Loki twitched very slightly. “If you were still interested. Or willing. I might be willing to see what I can teach you. I am not the most…patient of instructors, and I am not certain how much what I know applies to your…skills. But that may simply mean that I might. Hm. Learn somewhat from you as well.” Loki cleared his throat. “If you would have me.”
Wanda was perfectly quiet, staring at Loki with an unreadable expression. “You can look at me,” she said at length, and Loki raised his head. His face was blank, but Steve could just detect the hints of uncertainty underneath the calm, and almost held his breath.
“What you were saying,” she said. “Was any of it true or were you just being nasty?”
Loki didn’t look away, though Steve thought he wanted to. “It was true.”
“Just you being tactless about it.” Wanda untucked her legs and stood up. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I threw what I did to you in your face. I didn’t need to respond like that.”
Loki’s shoulders twitched slightly. “I did not come here for your apology,” he said stiffly.
“No,” Wanda said a little dryly, “I guess you didn’t.” She settled back on her heels. “All right. I’m willing. But I’m not going to let you yell at me. If you try, I’ll yell back.”
Loki’s eyes widened. He glanced at Steve, then back to Wanda. “You are agreeing,” he said, sounding almost wary.
“I told you,” she said. “I want to learn. And I don’t hate you.” The emphasis there was obvious. Loki’s eyes skated to Steve again, and he tried to look like he wasn’t listening, wondering if he ought to offer to leave again.
“I do not hate you,” Loki said, after a long moment. “That list is fairly short and consists of rather more unpleasant sorts than yourself.”
“Thank you,” Wanda said. The corner of her lips twitched like she was trying not to smile, though. She took a step toward Loki and held out a hand. “Can we call it an official truce?”
Loki cocked his head to one side, then shrugged loosely. “Very well.” He took Wanda’s hand, and Steve felt himself relax. A moment later, a ghost of a smile flickered at the corner of Loki’s mouth. “At least until the first time I yell at you, mm?”
“That’s not the end of a truce,” Wanda said. “That will just be me telling you when you’re wrong.”
Loki let out a faintly startled bark of laughter that turned into a crooked smile. “Ms. Maximoff,” he drawled. “I am never wrong.”
Well, Steve thought, stifling his own smile. It was a start.