And now we take a break from our regularly schedule Loki whump to bring you some STEVE! Because he's been terribly neglected this story. Sorry, Steve (and Steve fans). But here he is!
Steve Rogers wasn't exactly sure how he'd ended up back here. After the battle, he'd meant to go and see the world, like Fury had said he should. He'd gone as far as Toronto before something made him turn his little motorcycle around and head back to New York City. He couldn't really explain it. When the fighting had finished, he had realized just how lucky he was to be alive after everything that had happened to him-the war, the crash, being frozen for seventy years, and now fighting an army of aliens-and suddenly he'd had a burning desire to make up for lost time. But somewhere along the way (probably on the unbelievably cold roads of Canada), he'd lost that desire. How could he gain joy from the beauty of places all around the world when his own city-for changed though it was, he still considered New York his city-lay in shambles? Steve had never been a man who played before he finished his work, and this was no different.
So he'd turned around and come back home. Except he'd forgotten one important detail-he didn't actually have a home. He'd taken off right after the battle, so full of anticipation of his journey that living arrangements for when he returned hadn't even crossed his mind. Two places he could go entered his thoughts, and he'd juggled with them for quite some time. The first and most obvious was the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. He had no doubts that Nick Fury would set him up with whatever he needed. Despite the secrets he kept, Steve thought that Fury seemed like a fundamentally good guy, and he knew that he would repay Steve's loyalty and willingness to assist the department. But there again, something had stopped him. As convenient as they were, he didn't really want to get involved with S.H.I.E.L.D. again, or at least not just yet. Call him old-fashioned, but he wasn't really comfortable with the way the department had kept pertinent information from the American people. That just wasn't how the country's government was meant to operate.
And so he'd gone with Option Two. He'd wrestled with the idea for a long time. He was not perfectly sure he'd even be welcome there, despite what he'd been told. It wasn't like he and his potential host had never had any form of...confrontation.
But all the same, now he found himself standing at the front door of Stark Tower. Not seeing a doorbell, and not knowing what else to do, Steve Rogers lifted a tentative fist and knocked.
For several seconds, nothing happened. Steve began to feel anxious, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other repeatedly. He was just about to turn around and head for the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters after all when one of the enormous wooden doors opened of its own accord and a disembodied voice with a distinctly British accent said,
Greetings, Captain Rogers, and welcome to Stark Tower. If you will please proceed down the hall and through the first doorway on your right, Mr. Stark will be with you momentarily.
Startled, Steve jumped a little. He glanced quickly around him, fully aware of how stupid he must look but trying desperately to find the source of the voice anyway.
"Who...who are you?"
I am JARVIS, sir. My name is an acronym for Just A Rather Very Intelligent System, and I am Mr. Stark's Artificial Intelligence butler.
"Artificial Intelligence? You mean, like a robot or something?" Steve remembered robots as being nothing more than speculation, something people talked about as being a whimsical fantasy of something that might happen in the far future. So of course they would have robots in this modern time. And somehow this one knew his name.
Something like that, sir.
Steve could have sworn the robot butler sounded almost amused, and briefly he wondered if Stark had programmed the thing to be like him, including possessing his love for teasing Steve. Well, this was just fantastic. The bodiless voice interrupted his thoughts.
Captain Rogers, if you will please proceed down the hall...
"I'm going." Steve cut JARVIS off and, with one final glance at the motorcycle parked in the street, he entered Stark Tower and allowed the door to close behind him.
After taking the first doorway as instructed, Steve found himself in a luxuriously trimmed room that resembled a sitting room, except for the enormous flat-screen television mounted on the wall. He sank down into a spacious leather armchair, clasped his hands in front of and waited.
Tony Stark entered less than a minute later, looking simultaneously surprised, gladdened, and, or at least Steve thought, a little nervous.
Why would he be nervous? He certainly doesn't usually show that kind of thing. He's probably the most flippant person I've ever met.
"Well, if it isn't our favorite token American." The tease was uttered with a tone of affection, and Steve found himself grinning. "I wasn't expecting to see you here, or at least not for awhile."
Steve felt his smile fall. Why hadn't he thought to call first? Where the manners his mother had put such effort into teaching him? Stark obviously noticed his reaction and shook his head.
"It's all good. This place is always open to you. It's a hell of a lot nicer than any hole-in-the-wall S.H.I.E.L.D. would put you up in, anyway. So...what happened to the world tour?" Tony motioned for Steve to sit back down before heading over to press his hand on a large painting of a waterfall on the wall. To Steve's shock, the painting swung forward to reveal a minifridge, and from it Stark withdrew a bottle of scotch and two glasses. He poured the alcohol and handed one glass to Steve before plopping down in a chair with his own drink.
"It's going to happen," said Steve, and he really did mean it. "I guess it turned out now's just not the right time."
Stark nodded thoughtfully. "So 'now' just happened to be the right time to come hang out and my tower? Which is fine, by the way, I'm just curious." He suddenly seemed to find something very interesting in the way his scotch swirled around in his glass as he moved his hand in small, tight circles. Something was definitely weird. Had Steve come at a bad time?
"I...I don't know. I don't really have anywhere else to go, honestly. I guess I thought maybe we could start cleaning up the city. Thought since you're the guy with all the technology, you might have some ideas."
"Yeah, I was kinda working on that for awhile." Stark took a sip of his drink.
"I'm assuming you're using the past tense for a reason." Steve cocked an eyebrow.
"It's only a temporary hiatus." Again, Stark was studying his drink. What had Steve walked in on? He decided to change the subject and watch Stark for clues.
"Is Dr. Banner still staying here?"
"Oh, yeah. He's having a great time. Ten floors of R and D are every scientist's dream." Tony grinned widely, but something about the smile seemed forced.
"So...he's doing well?" Steve observed Stark's reaction carefully.
"Yeah, Bruce is fine. Got a whole tower to run around in and experiment on. He'll be busy for a few months just trying out all the machines." A chuckle, also forced. Although he couldn't be entirely sure, Steve didn't think Stark was lying. Judging by the currently intact state of the tower, it was a fair guess that there had not been any Hulk-related incidents. He breathed a mental sigh of relief and decided to try another angle.
"So, just the two of you guys? Until I showed up, that is?" He thought he'd heard something about a personal assistant, or a live-in girlfriend, or possibly both. But he wasn't going explicitly down that road.
"So how long were you thinking of staying?" Stark completely ignored his question, as though he hadn't even heard him, and that was when Steve knew for a fact that he'd hit on something. He was about to press the matter when Bruce Banner walked through the door.
"Hey Tony, JARVIS said you were here...whoa." The surprise on the doctor's face was evident when he noticed Steve's presence, and he took a step backward and blinked. "Captain Rogers...hi."
Steve rose from his chair to shake Banner's hand.
"Dr. Banner, it's good to see you."
"Yeah...you too." His smile, like Stark's, seemed forced, and that was when Steve decided that he definitely needed to find out what he'd walked in on, and fix it. Seeing Stark be uncomfortable could be genuinely amusing, but Banner? Not only was it potentially dangerous, but he was really just too much of a good guy. Steve lowered himself back into his chair, and, after some hesitation, Banner took a seat as well.
"Listen guys, I know not everyone's as good at keeping secrets as S.H.I.E.L.D., but, with all due respect, you've really hit a low point."
He saw Banner pale slightly and exchange a quick, somewhat frantic glance with Stark, who took an exceptionally large swig of scotch.
"I don't know what you're talking about," the billionaire deadpanned.
Steve sighed. "Come on, I know there's something you're hiding from me. I know we're not the only three people in this tower. I may not be have a Ph.D. or be a certifiable genius, but I can pick out a badly kept secret when I see one."
"Look, you oversized Boy Scout, I don't know what the hell you're trying to imply..." Stark began to take the offensive, but next to him, Banner held up an inhibitory hand. Steve was surprised that Stark actually silenced, although the expression on his face suggested that he was pouting. Steve turned his attention to the doctor.
Banner's sigh sounded resigned and tired, and he took off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose and scrub at his eyes.
"You can call me Steve." If they were going to share secrets, Steve thought they could at least be on first-name terms. They had, after all, defeated an intergalactic enemy together.
Banner nodded in acknowledgement. "Steve. Before we all went our separate ways, Tony said that this tower would always be open to any member of the Avengers whenever they needed it."
Steve nodded. That was the reason he'd come there that day. "I remember."
"Well, you weren't the first of us to randomly show up looking for a place to stay. And I think the first person was...actually kind of the last person we were all expecting."
Steve's eyes widened. He could only be talking about one person.
"You mean Thor's here?" Banner nodded. "Hey, this is great! Where is he?" Steve paused and looked between Banner and Stark, and realized that they did not at all seem to share his enthusiasm. Then he started really thinking.
"Hang on a second. I thought the reason Thor had to use the Tesseract to get back to Asgard was because it was the only way for him to travel between here and there. How is he here?" Then a more important question popped into Steve's mind. "And why is he here?"
Another one of those uncomfortable glances passed between the other two people in the room with him.
"It's kind of a long story," said Stark sullenly.
"Tony, if he's going to be here for any period of time, he has to know."
"How do you know he won't..."
"Because he won't," said Banner emphatically. This was all becoming rather frustrating for Steve.
"I won't what? Guys, what the heck is going on?!"
"Loki's here too."
And suddenly Steve's world was spinning. He lifted a trembling glass of scotch to his lips.
Banner glared caustically at Stark. "Really? You couldn't just ease the news onto him? Do you possess, or have you ever possessed, an ounce of tact?"
"There was no way to break that gently! Eventually the name 'Loki' was going to have to come up, and then all hell would break loose anyway! I need more scotch."
Stark started to rise, but Steve called out to stop him.
"Wait, wait, wait. You mean to tell me you're harboring a war criminal in your tower? And not just any war criminal. Guys, he just tried to destroy Manhattan! He tried to take over the world! We sent him back to Asgard to let them deal with him! So why is he here?"
"Oh, Asgard dealt with him, alright. They dealt with him rather thoroughly." Banner did not seem to be consciously aware of the fact that he was clenching his fists, and Steve couldn't help but feel a little nervous. Stark, however, was suddenly the picture of calm.
"Hey, Big Guy. Gotta stay focused, remember? You're gonna figure this out."
Banner sighed and shook his head, but the steam seemed to have gone out of his anger.
"What? Asgard dealt...figure what out?" As much as Steve hated being the only person in the room not to understand a reference (which was happening far too much lately), this was by far the worst of such experiences he had ever had. "Why the hell is Loki here? Surely you guys have to realize he's dangerous?!"
"That's just it," said Banner softly, staring at the plush carpet. "He's not dangerous. At all." He gave a humorless, ironic chuckle. "I almost wish he was-it would be better than this." He looked up at Steve then, his brown eyes saddened.
"I think he might be dying."
And then Banner and Stark took turns telling Steve everything. How Thor had told the story of Loki's origins and Loki being stripped of his magic and then punished using a nightmare from the point of view of every single person he had hurt. How the two gods had shown up at the front door, much like Steve had, and how sick Loki had looked from the beginning. How the strange symptoms had begun with a slight fever and mild chills but quickly progressed to something far worse. How Thor had quite by accident alienated Loki even further and how, in a fit of desperation, Loki had asked for him and begged his forgiveness, and the two brothers had been reconciled. How Thor had not left Loki's side since then, watching over him as his condition deteriorated. How Banner had been working tirelessly, attempting to discern the cause of it all, but thus far to no avail.
"I just don't know what else to try," Banner finished with a sigh and a shake of his head. "I don't know how much Loki's actually changed, but I do know that he loves Thor enough that the knowledge that Thor will grieve when he dies is hurting him more than the actual fact that he's dying. And, to me at least, that's enough to want to help him. Call me sentimental, but I can't help but hope that if I just put all I have into helping him, maybe he'll live and turn over a new leaf. But every day that's looking less and less likely."
Banner finished, and then both he and Stark were looking at Steve, waiting for his reaction. He hadn't said anything during the course of the story-he had been attempting to let it all sink in. But now he realized the time for that was over, and he had to react.
"I...wow." Steve blinked and shook his head. "Either he's got some kind of spell on all of you and is going for some really strange trick, or that's a pretty incredible story. And S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't know anything about this?"
"They don't even know Thor and Loki are back on Midgard...I mean Earth," said Stark, his tone severe. "And if you tell them, much as I like you, I'll find you and..."
"Yeah, yeah, okay." Steve held up a hand in a manner resembling a crossing guard. "I'm not going to tell them. I promise. Actually, I'd kind of like to help, if there's any way I can. New beginnings are kind of my thing, after all." He was being sincere. The story Stark and Banner had told had touched his heart. He was a big softie, he knew, but...maybe Banner was right. Maybe, if Loki managed to survive whatever sickness was plaguing him, he'd end up changing his ways. It was optimistic, yeah, but anything was possible. And Steve genuinely liked Thor, and he knew what it was like to lose someone very close to him. He didn't want Thor to have to go through what he had with Bucky, especially since he had apparently mourned Loki's death once already.
Banner aimed a small smile his direction. "That's really great Cap...uh, Steve. And thanks. I'll let you know if there's anything you can do." He glanced at his digital wristwatch. "I should go check on them upstairs. I'll catch you guys later."
Steve and Stark waved to the doctor as he left the room, and then Stark quickly turned around to regard Steve critically, with one eyebrow raised.
"So that's it? You're just automatically completely cool with this?"
"Well, isn't that kind of how it went for you guys? I mean, it sounds like Loki went through some pretty heavy stuff. It's kind of hard not to route for him."
"But what about everything he did? All the people he hurt and killed? Like Coulson, for instance? And the city? He pretty much destroyed a large portion of New York."
Steve furrowed his brow. "Hang on. I don't understand. Why are you questioning me like this when you obviously decided to ignore all that way before I did? Who let him into their tower in the first place, Stark?"
Stark glared furiously at him for a moment, but then sighed and sank back into his chair.
"I don't know, to be honest with you."
Steve waited for him to continue, but Stark provided nothing else. It just didn't seem right.
"What, that's it? No arguing or name-calling or threatening to put on the suit? You're just giving up? What the hell happened to you, Stark?" He was asking for a fight, and he knew it, but he didn't care. He just wanted to know what had caused this sudden change in the Tony Stark he'd thought he knew.
Stark did get up to refill his drink then. He poured the scotch slowly, in silence, and he didn't offer Steve any. Then he sat back down and drank deeply, letting the effects of the hard liquor wash over him for several moments before he finally responded.
"I guess I'm less sure about all this than I thought I was. You walked in here and I thought 'Hey, here's another opportunity for me to snap out of this crazy shit I've gotten myself into'. I thought you were gonna go batshit. I mean, it's Loki, for Christ's sake. I thought you were gonna say 'But what about all those people? And Coulson? And New York City?' Because that's what my mind was saying when he showed up, but I still let him walk right through that door. Hell, I invited him in. But this whole time I've been going 'Tony, are you sure this is a good idea?' But then you were okay with it, which I totally wasn't expecting. And I'm just not sure what to do now. Except get hammered, I guess." He took another drink to prove his point.
Steve blinked. Tony Stark, of all people, had just been incredibly open and honest with him. He was aware that he needed to consider his next words very carefully before he spoke them, so he was silent for several seconds before finally saying, slowly and thoughtfully,
"Maybe it just means you were right to begin with. That it's time to stop doubting and just go with it. I know you and I don't always see eye-to-eye on certain things involving our beliefs..." Stark scoffed and rolled his eyes, but Steve ignored him. "...but I've always believed that everything happens for a reason, and that there's a master plan. This is going to work out the way it's supposed to, no matter what ending that turns out to be. And for what it's worth, I think you did the right thing. You saw someone hurting and you helped them, even though they'd done you wrong in the past. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that."
Stark was silent for several seconds, staring into his glass as he swirled what little remained of his second glass of scotch around its bottom. Then he said, with a small grin and just the slightest touch of his old humor,
"My dad always said you had the morals of the Pope. I always thought he was exaggerating until I actually met you." He swallowed down the last of his scotch and then pushed himself out of his chair and offered a hand to Steve.
"Come on. I guess we'd better get you set up in a guest room."