While it was true that he didn't only return in times of need, it had been many months since Thor’s last visit to Midgard. There had been a few short stops before he reached the tower – one of which was to the facility in upstate New York where he learned that it was still primarily for the use of the Avengers but that Tony’s tower had been rebuilt (again) and the team could almost always be found there.
Alighting on the balcony protruding into the sky near the top of the tower, a rumble of thunder overhead, Thor felt a powerful wave of déjà vu. Despite being an entirely new, entirely different balcony altogether, it was similar in enough ways to remind him. He didn't think he would ever stop missing his brother. It was a soul-deep ache that, for all the hurt, he didn’t think he could live without.
His friend had redesigned the building enough that, though the shape was recognisably the the same tower, the feel of the place had changed. It wasn't the shining spire of glass and metal it had been. It was more solid somehow, heavier materials that made the structure less breakable, less fragile-looking.
Thor could see into what looked much like the communal area of the old tower through floor to ceiling windows, but there was only one wall of glass now as opposed to three, and the brief glimpse of the rest of the building Thor had caught had shown less windows overall. He approved heartily. Anything that made his friends safer and more secure.
He walked along the edge of the outdoor pool he had landed beside, admiring the light bouncing and rippling off the unnaturally blue water (he’d been assured on a previous visit that it was indeed water, despite the smell) and opened the glass door with as soft a touch as he was capable.
Finding the space empty was slightly disheartening but he knew he was at least in the right place and had only to wait. He wondered if they still kept the kitchen stocked with pop tarts.
He’d taken a few steps in that direction when movement made him pause.
There was a man staring at him, completely silent, on the opposite side of the room. He must have come down the hall from the elevator, if it was still in the same place Thor assumed it to be.
He wore ill-fitting clothes that hung from his body too much to look like they were his own, in colours that reminded Thor of Bruce. Soft, comfortable colours and fabrics that made the man look less than threatening. He’d think they did belong to the son of Banner if it weren’t for the size of them, which would have left his frame similarly dwarfed.
Despite finding the man in front of him unfamiliar, Thor knew he’d been gone for what Midgardians saw as a long time. It wasn't unreasonable to suppose there had been an addition to the group in the time he’d been away. They were very trusting beings after all.
He took one step forward, and reconsidered. His brother had ever been warning him of his lacking skills in observation and the trouble it would one day bring. Some of which Loki had, himself, brought. And Thor had missed. If he’d but seen...
Where once he had brushed such warnings aside, he now heard the young, untried voice of his brother from happier times in his head, and heeded him.
Tread carefully brother. Note his hands.
The man before him appeared frozen, having yet to move since Thor had spotted him. Even his face held a stillness that did not seem natural, but his hands... his hands that had hung loose at his sides when Thor first spotted him had since drifted slightly behind while he picked at his sleeves in a way that sought to escape notice, and would have if not for the loose fabric rippling with the movements. The man appeared far from comfortable already but the fretful twitching spoke of... nervousness? Fear? It made Thor uncomfortable, that a stranger and, likely, friend of his friends should fear him.
He made to raise his hands as he might to a wild animal out of instinct, to show he meant no harm; but the instant his hands moved the man was watching them, eyes intense, and Thor was taken aback by the speed of it.
It made him pause, again, and simply spread his empty hands at his sides slowly, trying in vain to think of what this particular situation called for. Loki would know. His shoulders slumped unconsciously with the thought and he could see the man notice that as well.
Talk to him, you great buffoon.
The thought came from nowhere and he could actually feel himself, his face, his gaze, soften. He would do this Loki’s way.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of me,” he said, remembering to use his ‘inside voice’. He often forgot. He pressed his right hand to his chest. “I am Thor, of Asgard.”
He didn’t know why an introduction of all things would cause such a response but the man had relaxed a little, so Thor supposed the great amount of amusement he could suddenly see the man struggling to contain was a positive step forward. He got a belated nod in response and the sleeves of that over-sized garment stopped twitching. All good signs.
“I’ve heard of you,” the man said in a quiet, slightly hoarse voice that would have been utterly flat if not for the thread of humour in it and the slightest of smiles curling at the edge of his mouth. “It’s nice to meet you Thor, I’ve heard good things from the others.”
Thor puffed up in pride, to know the friends he thought of, spoke of, while he was away spoke well of him. He beamed at the man who had complimented him so, finding yet more happiness in the small but genuine smile he received in response.
“Oh, I’m Bucky,” the man, Bucky, continued, as if he’d forgotten that part, as if it was less than significant. If his brother had said something in the same tone it would be accompanied by a wave of his pale hand, brushing the words away like smoke the moment they were spoken. The way he had once spoken of Thor’s accomplishments. The way he had spoken of himself.
“Well met Bucky,” there was a leading edge to his sentence, so used to adding ‘son of...’ as was proper that he hesitated. Not understanding but clearly picking up on it, Bucky clarified with something approaching nervousness in his flat tone, though not on his face.
“I was, am, a friend of Steve’s,” he said almost as if he was asking. “From before, when he was younger.”
“Well, I am glad to know one Steve Rogerson calls friend,” Thor assured him, smiling happily even as his mind whirred busily because those words did ring a bell; things he had heard, things Steve and Sam, Son of Wil, had said when they thought no one could hear. Realisation struck.
“You are the one he sought for so long!” he exclaimed, drowning out the Loki-voice in his head. “He found you!”
Thor, in his excitement, forgot himself and took four great strides forward before scooping the man, Bucky, Steve’s friend, into a celebratory hug and squeezing. And, in his arms, Bucky froze completely. And then Thor registered the trembling. And he knew Loki, who he could hear once more, was right.
Thor, you complete fool! Is your head empty of all thought?
“My apologies,” Thor said quickly, releasing Bucky from his hold and lowering him back to the floor. He let go when he thought Bucky had his feet under him but he could feel and see the full-body shuddering that had yet to slow and when he met the – much shorter – man’s eyes they were vacant.
“Friend Bucky?” he asked, becoming quite worried. He was no longer a stranger and Bucky had seemed to know him, or at least to know of his character. Surely he was not still afraid. But the shaking...
Thor placed a hand on Bucky’s shoulder; the soft gray fabric under his hand felt strangely vulnerable. His thumb, hardened with callouses since he could first lift a sword, could still feel the curve of the collarbone so close to the surface beneath pale skin and the single layer of cloth. Everything about this man felt exposed and raw, even to Thor, as unobservant as he knew himself to be. And, as much as it saddened him to see anyone looking broken open this way, he imagined it was much sadder for Steve.
He ducked his head and tried to catch empty eyes with his own, tapping his thumb twice, trying to bring Bucky back from wherever it was he’d gone, because he wasn’t there with Thor.
He drooped forward when nothing seemed to work – don’t slouch so brother – and just looked at Bucky sadly. Damn his thoughtlessness. Again. He wasn’t sure if he would make things better or worse through action or inaction and he couldn’t bear the thought that he might, no matter what his intentions; but ultimately he found that leaving him to come out of this on his own, leaving him to the pain Thor had caused, was not acceptable.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know how to help you,” he said very softly, still looking into blank eyes and hoping his words were, somehow, heard. “I don’t know... but, maybe...” he trailed off, unsure, even as he moved forward again, albeit much more slowly, and drew his arms up and around Bucky once more. He didn’t squeeze or confine; he barely held him at all. One hand found a knobby back, bones more pronounced than he was happy with in his newest friend, and rubbed up and down repetitively, hoping that the sensation might bring Bucky back. Hoping his closeness didn’t make it worse. Wanting, so, so badly, to make things better. Hugs always made him feel better. He told Bucky so.
“I’ve always liked hugs. My mother’s hugs were ever a comfort, ever welcome. Even when I felt I was too old for such things,” he couldn’t help a wet chuckle. “One is never too old for such things, though I fear I realised too late.”
Bucky’s head, where Thor had tucked it gently beneath his chin, turned slightly. Inwards, towards Thor. He made no move to separate, and so Thor continued with his soft words and surer hands, feeling elated at the trust it showed.
“My brother’s hugs were the best hugs,” he divulged, even more quietly, making himself vulnerable as well, and not wholly on purpose. “For their rarity. And their sincerity. He was not always genuine in words and deeds, but the times he hugged me were precious. Are precious. Because I know he meant every one. And I hold the memory of them close to me, even now,” he finished thoughtfully.
His hand paused in its, now quite unconscious, strokes against the thin back when he heard Bucky’s quiet, scratchy voice; barely able to make out his words and intensely, joyously hopeful that Bucky was speaking at all.
“What’s his name?”
“Loki,” Thor answered, not considering the reaction it could provoke, or that anyone, especially a friend of Steve’s, need even ask. But Bucky just nodded slowly against Thor’s chest.
“He sounds nice,” was his response, and Thor smiled, with warmth and pride he knew filtered into his voice.
“He was. Not everyone could see it, but he was.”
“Was,” Bucky said, sounding sad, the word pressed forlornly into Thor’s shoulder. Thor patted Bucky’s back between rubs, wanting to somehow console him for the loss he felt everyday.
“Was,” Thor agreed.
“But, you saw it in him?” Bucky asked haltingly.
“Always,” Thor said with a smile. Because it was true, even when he said otherwise, he could always see good in Loki and knew it to be there.
“And no one else did?” Bucky asked, curiosity creeping in to fill the blank tone he’d had.
“Many never tried.”
“Didn’t mean he wasn’t,” Bucky murmured thoughtfully. Thor could feel fingers pulling lightly at the fabric of his clothes, not to gain attention, rather the opposite, he thought. Each pull was at his side but Thor felt them deep in his chest and knew he was in trouble. It was a strangely happy thought.
“Indeed, it didn’t,” Thor smiled.