toastfic: (right in the feels)
[personal profile] toastfic
Title: "When the Minutes Drag"
Series: Never Run From Anything Immortal
Pairings: Steve/Loki, strong Steve/Natasha friendship
Length: 7,275 words
Rating: R for mature themes and disturbing content.

Summary: The Enchantress hits Steve and Loki with a spell that forces them to have sex. This is what happens after after.

Notes and Warnings: Magic made them do it, so frank discussions of non-consensual sex.

This is a story about Steve Rogers trying to come to terms with the aftermath of a sex spell. While there are no graphic depictions of sexual acts anywhere in the text, please be aware that it still has the potential to be quite triggery. Seriously. My original editor quit halfway through because she found the subject matter too upsetting.

Set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but does make use of some comics characters.

Whopping big thanks to [personal profile] rivendellrose and [personal profile] ebonlock for taking over the editing & beta-reading duties, and to [personal profile] danielmedic for medical advice and being an excellent sounding board.




I.

Natasha was curled up in bed enjoying a trashy novel and a hot cup of tea when her phone rang. She almost let it go to voicemail; Avengers Tower was blissfully silent for once, and she wanted to savor every moment of it before the inevitable return to chaos. But the name on the screen was Steve Rogers, and that got her attention. There was no way in hell Captain America was calling her in the middle of his patrol just to chitchat.

Mentally bidding farewell to her peaceful evening, she marked her page with a tattered scrap of lilac ribbon and grabbed the phone. "Hey, Cap. Everything okay?"

"Not really, no."

There was a strained, almost tremulous quality to Steve's voice. Natasha sat up fast, book tumbling from her lap to land on the floor with a thump. "What happened? Are you hurt?"

"Not--not exactly. I ran into Loki and Amora. They were fighting, and--" There was an uncomfortably long pause. "I really need you to come get me."

If Loki and Amora had a falling out, and Steve got caught in the crossfire ... Natasha winced. "Just hang tight, Cap. I'll be right there." On a hunch she added, "Would you like me to stay on the line with you?"

There was another long pause. "If--if you don't mind," Steve said at last.

"Not in the least," she said, keeping her tone gentle as she compiled a mental list of things that could freak out Captain America this badly. It was a short list, but a profoundly unpleasant one. "I'm going to put you on hold while I grab my gear, but it's only going to be for a minute, tops. Don't hang up."

"Copy that," Steve said.

Natasha transferred Steve's call over to her communicator as she swapped out pajamas and slippers for her uniform and guns. Steve hadn't told her where to find him--another sign of just how damned rattled he was at the moment--but that was easy enough to sort out with a little help. "JARVIS, I need you to run a trace on Captain Rogers' call for me."

"Already done, miss," the AI replied. "I've sent the GPS coordinates to your phone. Would you like me to contact the other Avengers and have them meet you at the location?"

That gave her pause. Captain America hadn't called the Avengers for backup; Steve had called Natasha for a ride. Meaning he was unable to return to the Tower in his present condition, and unwilling to let the rest of the team know why.

Natasha's mental list of Potential Bad Things suddenly became a whole lot shorter.

"Negative, JARVIS," she said as she headed out the door. "I'll handle this on my own."

"If you think it best, miss."

"I do," she said firmly before un-muting Steve's call. "Still with me, Cap?"

"I'm here."

"Good. I'm on my way. ETA--" She glanced down at the GPS coordinates JARVIS had provided. "Twenty minutes, tops."

Steve let out a soft breath of relief. "Thank you."

#


Natasha's GPS led her to a part of the city that had taken some of the heaviest damage during the Battle of New York. So many buildings had been left structurally unsound that the entire block would have to be razed. But New Yorkers were nothing if not resilient, and there were already plans in the works to transform the devastation into a memorial park dedicated to the victims of the Chitauri attack.

The area was also heavily patrolled by both the Avengers and the NYPD, which made it an odd choice of location for Loki and Amora to hold a showdown. Usually, trouble here tended to be in the form of urban explorers with more enthusiasm than common sense, not supervillains.

According to JARVIS, Steve was on the third floor of an office building scheduled for demolition later in the month. The stairwells were mercifully still intact, though the lack of lighting made them unpleasant to use; just because Natasha was accustomed to moving quietly in the dark didn't mean she had to like it.

She found Steve not far from the stairs, sitting on the cold concrete floor with his back pressed against the wall, shield tucked up close against his side like a security blanket. He'd piled the remains of his uniform in a tattered heap atop his lap in an attempt to preserve his modesty, the rest of his body bare save for a single dirty white sock still on his left foot.

He looked up at her approach and offered a faint, tired smile. "Thank you for coming."

"Any time," Natasha said. She set her backpack down carefully near his feet. "I took the liberty of grabbing some clothing from your room before I left. I hope you don't mind."

Steve let out a watery chuckle. "I didn't even think to ask for a change of clothes until you were halfway here. How did you know?"

"You asked for a ride even though this building is close enough to the Tower that you could have walked home," she said. "If you'd been seriously injured, or magically transformed in some way, you would have told me. That left public indecency." She nodded toward the bag. "I'll let you get dressed."

Natasha turned away and moved deeper into the room to give Steve at least the illusion of privacy, but also to examine the site without being too obvious about it. With only ambient light from the boarded-up windows to see by it was next to impossible to distinguish any fresh damage to the building from the old, but there was an uncomfortable pressure in the air that she knew from experience to associate with residual magic. A smear of blood on the floor caught her eye, incongruously bright against the dusty grey concrete. With each small detail, she built up a clearer picture of what had physically transpired. It would be up to Steve to provide the missing context.

Her phone buzzed with an incoming text from Bruce. Just got in, it read. JARVIS told me where you went. Anything I can do?

She bit her lip as she considered how best to answer, then decided on the truth. That depends, she sent back. Do you have any experience treating sexual assault victims?

Several seconds passed before Bruce responded. Jesus. Yes. Get him back here ASAP.

Working on it,
she replied. Aloud she said, "That was Dr. Banner checking in. I told him we'd be heading home soon."

"I imagine he'll want to see me when we get back," Steve said, sounding more resigned than anything else. "You can turn around now," he added.

The soft, comfortable clothes she'd picked out had given Steve back a measure of dignity, but there was a fragility to his expression that made Natasha's chest ache. He'd slung his shield across his back with a makeshift strap, and was just now stuffing the last pieces of his uniform inside the backpack. She caught a glimpse of something metallic and gold mixed in with the red, white, and blue, but it was gone too fast for her to properly identify. The grim line of Steve's mouth told her not to press; whatever it was, it would keep until later.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Yeah," said Steve. "Let's get the hell out of here."

#

Natasha had chosen a dark grey sedan to drive that night, one of several nondescript cars Stark kept in the underground garage beneath Avengers Tower for use when a low profile vehicle was needed. Steve climbed into the passenger seat and, after a polite reminder to Natasha to fasten her seatbelt, shut his mouth and did not speak again for the rest of the drive home.

He continued to remain silent even after they arrived back at the Tower. Natasha watched sidelong as he gathered his backpack and shield from the backseat, not liking the pallor of his skin, or the hazy, blank nothingness in his eyes. She wasn't sure if it was exhaustion, shock, or some combination of the two, and resolved to turn him over to Bruce's care as quickly as possible.

The good doctor was waiting for them in the common room kitchen, a cup of tea cradled gently in his broad hands. "Hey, guys."

Steve huffed out a slightly annoyed sigh, the first real sign of life Natasha had seen in him since they left the demolition site. "I don't suppose there's any way you'd let me take a shower before reporting to medical, is there," he said.

Bruce set his teacup aside on the counter. "Sorry, no," he said. "It'll be quick, I promise. I just need to make sure you're okay."

"I am," Steve insisted. "Really. I wasn't, I wasn't hurt. Not the way you're thinking."

"Somebody was," Natasha said quietly. "I saw blood on the floor."

Steve paled even further. "That--wasn't mine." He closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddery breath. "Okay," he said. "Listen up, because I only want to do this once: The Enchantress hit Loki and I with some kind of spell. Next thing I knew, she was gone, Loki was on the ground beneath me, and we were--" He shook his head and stared pleadingly at her, blue eyes wet with tears. "I couldn't stop. I tried, but the magic, it was--I couldn't stop."

Natasha opened her mouth but no sound came out. This was--not what she'd expected. At all. She threw a helpless look at Bruce, who sucked in a deep breath and stepped into the breach.

"This wasn't your fault, Steve," he said, keeping his voice low and soothing. He took hold of Steve's elbow and began gently steering him down the hall. "C'mon. Let's get you cleaned up."

Natasha waited until they reached the elevators that would take them up to the medlab before pulling out her phone to send a quick text to both Stark and Barton: You need to come in. We've got a situation.


II.

Half an hour later, the remaining Avengers were assembled around the kitchen table for an emergency meeting.

Stark had come straight from a black tie event at Carnegie Hall and was still dressed in his tuxedo. It did not go well with the stunned expression on his face. "Wow," he said, as soon as Natasha finished recounting the night's events. "I--wow. That is really, really fucked up, and I have no idea how to respond."

"You're not the only one," Natasha said. She turned to look at Barton. Even though it was past midnight, he still wore his sunglasses, making it impossible for her to read his eyes. "Clint? Any questions?"

"Just one," he said. "What the hell was Amora thinking? She has to know that if Loki doesn't come looking for payback, we will."

"That's assuming Loki wasn't in on it right from the start," Stark said. "I mean, Cap's tough and all, but Loki? He's got magical powers that make Doctor Strange look like a vaudeville act, not to mention he could probably bench press a tank. Okay, maybe not a tank, but you get the idea. My point is, there is no way Cap could subdue him long enough to do--that."

"Steve seemed to indicate the spell affected them both," Natasha said.

"Yeah, maybe," said Stark.

The elevator down the hall dinged, and Bruce came walking out. He raised an eyebrow when he spotted the three of them in the kitchen. "Family meeting, huh?"

"Yep," Stark said. He nudged one of the empty chairs away from the table with his foot. "Have a seat, Doc."

"How's Steve?" Natasha asked as soon as he was settled.

"Resting, or trying to," Bruce replied. "I gave him enough Valium to knock out an elephant, so hopefully he'll be able to get some sleep."

"He tell you anything?" Clint asked.

Bruce shook his head. "No, he's still way too freaked out by what happened to talk about it yet. I don't think it's even occurred to him that he's just as much a victim as Loki."

"Yeah, about that," Stark said. He made a gesture with his hand to indicate himself, Natasha, and Clint. "We have been discussing whether or not Loki was, in fact, behind the whole thing."

"Nah, I don't buy that," Bruce said. "It's not his style. If he wanted to create emotional chaos, there are plenty of ways to do it that don't require putting himself in harm's way like that."

"I gotta go with the doc on this one," said Clint. "Loki's a twisted son of a bitch, that's for damned sure, but he is way too proud to just lie back and think of Asgard while one of us filthy mortals fucks him through the concrete."

"Agreed," Natasha said.

"Okay, okay," said Stark. "If Loki truly is a victim--and I'm still not 100% sold on that, by the way--then he's going to want revenge. It's kind of what he does. So, here's the thing: Is it just going to be Amora he goes after? Or will he also come after Steve?"

"Well, that depends," said Bruce. "Would he see Steve as a fellow victim, or as the instrument of his humiliation? I don't know enough about Asgardian culture to hazard a guess, and Thor isn't around to ask. Where is Thor, anyway?"

"Back in Asgard, as far as I know," Stark said. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyelids. "Jesus. Loki may be a freak show in search of a carnival, but he's still Thor's baby brother. What the hell are we going to tell him?"

"Forget Thor," Clint said. "What are we going to tell Fury?"

"Nothing," Natasha said. "We tell SHIELD nothing, and handle the matter in-house."

"I could be down with that," said Stark.

"I hate to bring up the red, white, and blue gorilla in the room, but Captain America isn't exactly fit for duty right now," Bruce said. "Like it or not, SHIELD needs to know that."

"Doctor Banner is right."

Everyone at the table started at the sound of Steve's voice.

"I did not hear you come out of the elevator," said Stark. "Why did I not hear you come out of the elevator?"

"I took the stairs," Steve said. Judging from his damp hair and freshly scrubbed skin, he'd finally managed to take the shower he'd been craving. While it hadn't quite restored his old composure, at least he was fully there behind his eyes again.

Steve hesitated in the doorway, as if uncertain of his welcome. "Is this a closed meeting, or may I join you?"

Natasha indicated the empty chair next to her. "Go right ahead."

Steve moved to take the proffered seat, shooting her a brief, grateful look as he sat down. "Thanks."

"How much did you hear?" Clint asked.

"Enough," Steve said. He placed his hands on top of the table and took a deep breath. "Right. I'll just get to the point: I am in no shape to lead the team right now, and it would be irresponsible of me to even try. Therefore, I am placing myself on convalescent leave effective immediately, and I will stay there until such a time as Dr. Banner clears me to resume active duty."

"That sounds reasonable," Natasha said.

"I'm not done yet," Steve warned. "I would also like to name Agent Romanoff acting team leader in my absence."

For the second time that night, Natasha found herself speechless.

"Works for me," said Stark.

"I was actually going to suggest that, if Cap hadn't," Bruce added.

"What they said," said Clint.

It took her a moment to find her voice again. "Thanks, guys."

"We still need to decide what to tell SHIELD," Steve said. "I don't really like the idea of lying--"

"Then stick with the truth: magic sucks," Stark cut in. "You took a bad hit in a fight with the Enchantress, and it threw you for a loop, end of story. That should buy us a few days before Fury gets suspicious."

"Might also be a good idea to use up some of that leave time you've been accumulating," Clint added. "Anybody asks, you can say we bullied you into it."

Steve nodded. "And if my...recovery takes longer than that?"

"Then we'll come up with something else," Natasha said. "No matter what happens, we've got your back."

"Thank you," Steve said. "All of you." He looked dangerously close to tears as he rose from the table. "Well. I'm pretty tired, so if there's nothing else, I think I'll head back to my room."

"Yeah, it's getting a bit late for me, too," said Bruce. "Night, guys."

Barton cocked his head at Natasha. "I'm still pretty wired. You up for a little Mario Kart?"

"Absolutely," Natasha said.

"Excellent," Clint said, and headed off toward the rec room.

That left Stark still sitting at the table, one finger pressed against his lips as he stared off into the distance.

Natasha paused on her way out the door. "You okay, Tony?"

"Yeah, yeah," he said. "It's just, I was supposed to be the one on duty tonight. Cap switched patrols with me so I could go to that charity thing with Pepper." Stark gave a little disbelieving shake of his head. "There but for the grace of god, you know?"

"Yeah," she said. "I do."


III.


Even on the best nights, Steve only managed three or four hours of sleep. It was one of the drawbacks--and he definitely considered it a drawback, a big one--of the super soldier serum. Yes, it meant he didn't fatigue easily or quickly in battle. But all battles ended, one way or another; and in the silence after, the inability to sleep made the hours drag long.

The numbness that had gotten Steve through the last several hours had finally faded, leaving a combination of anger, shame, and despair churning sickly in its wake. He contemplated getting up and taking another shower, but all the hot water in the world couldn't wash the memories out of his head.

After another hour ticked away, he gave up on sleep entirely, rolled out of bed and headed for his desk, intent on writing the combat report for SHIELD. He always wrote his reports out longhand before retyping them on a computer, a habit Tony had tried repeatedly to break him of with no success. Stark had even gone so far as to install some kind of electronic notepad on Steve's tablet that mimicked the look of lined paper, but a stylus on glass just couldn't compare to the feel of a fountain pen flowing across paper.

When Tony had pressed about why he never used the program, Steve had shrugged. "I'm just an old-fashioned guy at heart," he'd said.

True as that was, Steve was not so old-fashioned that he was unable to recognize that Loki was not the only one who'd been victimized by Amora's spell. What her magic had done, what it had made him do....

The pen trembled in his hand. He didn't want to face that particular line of thought, not just yet. Not ever, if he could get away with it, which he knew perfectly well he couldn't. But here, in this moment, he didn't want to think about it. He didn't want to think about much of anything. He was tired of thinking, so the sooner he got the report out of the way, the sooner he could find something mindless to focus on.

He kept his words spare and on point, just as Tony had suggested. Perhaps a little too spare, he reflected, after rereading the finished paragraph; it sounded abrupt, even by his own Hemmingway-esque standards of military writing. Scowling, he tore the page out of the notebook and tried again. One hour and a half-dozen crumpled pages later, he finally managed a draft that didn't scream I AM WITHOLDING RELEVANT INFORMATION, typed it up on the computer, and sent copies of the file to both Natasha and Director Fury.

A glance at the clock told him it was just past four in the morning; a little early for a trip to the gym, but not ridiculously so, given his usual sleeping habits. What he really wanted was to go for a long run, but with everything that had happened, the rest of the team would probably have apoplexy if he snuck out of the building at oh-dark-thirty. So, down to the training level it was.

#

Enough laps around the gym and even Steve could work up a good sweat. When he grew bored with running, he taped up his hands and switched to beating the ever-living hell out of a series of punching bags.

He was two bags down with a third about to split its seams when Clint showed up. "Cap!" he shouted, waving a hand to get Steve's attention. "Coulson's on his way. Says he needs to talk to you about your report."

Steve's stomach gave an unpleasant lurch. "The one I just filed? Why?"

"Probably because the building you were in last night mysteriously collapsed," Clint said. "We just got the news."

Steve closed his eyes. Loki. Had to be. "Was anyone hurt?"

"Nah," Clint said. "Scared the shit out of the field techs Coulson sent in, though. And no, I don't know why they were there. Nat showed me your report; there was nothing in it to warrant an extra investigation."

"Wonderful," Steve grumbled. "That's just wonderful."

He stalked over to the bench where he'd left his gym bag, and grabbed a bottle of water out of it. When he turned back around, Clint was giving him an odd look, mouth opening and closing like he couldn't quite decide what to say.

"What?" Steve demanded.

"You have a couple of hickeys on your neck," Clint blurted. "You might want to cover them up before your Number One Fan gets here."

Steve flushed hot at a sudden, visceral memory of Loki's mouth on his skin. "Oh," he said. His legs wobbled beneath him, and he sat down heavily on the bench before they could dump him to the floor. "What, what should I--"

"Shit, hang on." Clint rummaged around in the gym bag until he came up with a towel, which he draped around Steve's neck, carefully arranging the folds so that they covered up the marks. "There. That should do it."

Steve took several long, deep breaths and tried to will his hands to stop shaking. "Thank you."

"No problem," said Clint. "You gonna be okay? 'Cause, I can totally take Coulson if you need me to."

He huffed out a laugh. "That won't be necessary, Agent Barton, but I appreciate the offer."

Clint's expression remained worried, but he nodded and gave Steve a reassuring slap on the shoulder before sitting down beside him on the bench.

A few moments later, the gymnasium door creaked open and Agent Coulson stepped inside. "Captain Rogers?" he called.

"Over here," Steve called back.

Coulson was impeccably dressed in a charcoal grey suit with a blue silk tie, his black shoes shined to a mirror gloss. "I hope you'll pardon the intrusion," he said. "I understand you're still a bit under the weather from last night's incident."

"It's fine, Agent Coulson," Steve said. "What can I do for you?"

"My team has been working on a way to track magic users," Coulson said. "They were hoping to take readings at the site where you were attacked, but with the building destroyed, that's no longer possible. Any additional information you could give us about the spell the Enchantress used would be helpful."

"I'm afraid I don't know what she did," Steve said. It was even the truth, after a fashion. "Whatever it was, it sure packed one heck of a wallop."

Coulson's crisply professional demeanor softened into genuine concern. "You do look a bit peaky," he said. "Are you sure you should be working out right now?"

Clint snorted. "Fuck no, why do you think I'm here?"

"Tattle tale," Steve muttered.

"In that case, I'll leave Agent Barton to drag you back to your rest," Coulson said. "If you think of anything in the meantime, anything at all, please don't hesitate to contact me."

"Will do," Steve said. "It was nice seeing you again, Agent Coulson."

"Likewise, Captain." Coulson took a couple of steps toward the door before turning back again. "One more thing. Can you think of any reason why Loki would have returned to the site and destroyed it?"

"No," Steve lied. "Sorry."

"Worth a shot," Coulson said. He nodded politely in farewell. "Gentlemen."

Steve waited until the gym door swung shut behind Coulson's back before letting out a sigh of relief. "Think he bought it?"

"Probably not," Clint said.


#


Natasha caught up with him as he was on his way back to his room.

"How'd it go with Coulson?" she asked.

"He's a good agent, and I'm a bad liar. You do the math." Steve stopped walking and raked a hand through his hair. "Sorry. That was rude."

"You're tired," Natasha said. "You've been up, what, thirty hours now?"

"Thirty-six," he admitted. "Or thereabouts. Just can't seem to get my brain to turn off."

She nodded, eyes soft with understanding. "That happens, sometimes."

Natasha didn't elaborate how she knew, and Steve didn't ask, just offered her a small, wry smile of commiseration and held open the door so she could precede him into the room. It was light out now, and the view through the windows showed a grey, overcast sky heavy with clouds. Steve set his gym bag down by the door and folded his arms across his chest. "What's on your mind, Agent Romanoff?"

Natasha got straight to the point. "You picked up something at the site last night, something metal," she said. "What was it?"

Steve nodded. Of course she'd seen that. "Nothing worth destroying a building over, if that's what you're wondering." He paused. "At least, I didn't think it would be, but--"

"But this is Loki, and we need to be sure," Natasha said. "May I see it?"

"Sure," Steve said.

The backpack containing his ruined uniform was still on the bathroom floor where he'd dropped it. He retrieved it, and unceremoniously dumped its contents across the top of his desk.

Steve pulled the slim crescent of etched gold free from the mess and handed to Natasha. "It's the decorative gorget from Loki's armor," he explained. "I found it when I was looking for what was left of my clothes."

"Was there a reason you took it?" Natasha asked.

Steve exhaled heavily, and leaned against the edge of the desk. "I was hoping I could get it back to him somehow. Sounds crazy when I say it out loud like that, but at the time--" He trailed off, unable to fully express the chaotic jumble of thoughts rattling around inside his head.

"I think I understand," Natasha said. "Steve, you're not the one who needs to make amends, Amora is. She wanted to humiliate Loki--"

"And she used me to do it. I know; I was there." Steve's eyes blurred. He scrubbed at them angrily with the back of one hand. "Trust me, he was pretty damned humiliated."

"Do you think he'll come after you?"

"He could have killed me back at the building, once the spell wore off," Steve said. "He didn't. Maybe he'll regret that later. Maybe he won't. It's Loki. There's no real way to be sure."

Natasha nodded. If she was worried, it didn't show on her face. "Thank you for being so forthcoming," she said. "I know it can't have been easy."

Steve shrugged. "Anything to help the team, Agent Romanoff."

"Of course," she said. "Get some sleep. We'll talk again later."

Steve saw her to the door because some habits died hard, and Natasha didn't seem to mind his old-fashioned gallantry so long as he kept it off the battlefield. It wasn't until he walked back to the desk with the intention of packing up his destroyed uniform for disposal that he realized she had left Loki's gorget behind for him to keep.


IV.

Two days passed without incident. There were no further communications from either Coulson or SHIELD, and Loki remained most notable by his absence. It was enough to make Natasha twitchy.

When trouble finally did materialize, it was in the improbable form of a fire-breathing dragon. It was a measure of how strange Natasha's life had become that her reaction to the video footage of the creature sunning itself on the roof of the Cloisters was little more than an aggrieved sigh.

Bruce shook his head. "I don't know about this, Natasha," he said. "It's the Cloisters, for god's sake. Maybe I should stay here with Steve."

"It's a dragon," Natasha said. "We may need you."

Clint bounded into the room, his whole body vibrating with barely leashed excitement. "We doing this, or what?"

Natasha bit back a smile. "Easy, Bard. You'll get your shot."

"Damn right I will," said Clint.

Steve stood a little ways off, hands tucked deep in the pockets of his khakis as he watched the local news coverage. "Boy, I remember when that place first opened," he said, voice low and reverent. "A real medieval cloister, right here in Manhattan. I used to spend a lot of time there drawing."

Natasha's eyebrows went up, while Clint and Bruce exchanged looks. It was rare for Steve to talk about his life before the ice, rarer still for him to mention his pre-serum days.

"We'll do our best to keep the property damage to a minimum," she said before giving her communicator a tap. "Iron Man, can you give me a sitrep?"

"I am circling Fort Tryon Park even as we speak," said Stark. "Smaug appears to be taking a nap. You lazy bums gonna make an appearance, or do I have to do all the work myself?"

"We're on our way," Natasha said.

#

"Yep," said Clint. "That is definitely a dragon."

It was stretched out along the museum's western roof with its chin resting on its front feet, looking for all the world like an overgrown, scaly red cat draped over the arm of a chair. Wisps of smoke curled up from its nostrils as it snored, filling the air with the stench of sulfur. Every now and then one of its wings twitched with a leathery rustle.

Stark landed on the grass a few feet in front of Natasha. "The roof's lost a few tiles, but the building's otherwise intact. Any suggestions on how to keep it that way?"

"Our first and only priority is to minimize human casualties," Natasha said crisply. "We need to get it away from the city, now."

"Well, the Helicarrier is just a few miles offshore," Bruce said. "If Tony can lure the thing out over open water, then Fury can send in a squad of jets to finish it off."

"That's assuming conventional weapons even affect it," Stark said. "And thank you so much for volunteering me to be dragon bait."

"No problem," said Bruce.

"It's the best plan we've got," said Natasha. "Doctor, go back to the car and call it in. Iron Man, get airborne and get ready to catch it's attention. Hawkeye--" She turned and shot Clint a wicked smile. "You're going to help me wake a sleeping dragon."

"Excellent," Clint said, and reached for his bow.

#

Steve watched the news coverage of the Avengers assembling on the lawn in front of the museum. When one of the newscasters noted the absence of Captain America and began speculating about what that might mean to the team dynamic, he punched the power button hard enough to break the whole remote.

JARVIS's voice floated down from the ceiling. "Is there a problem, sir?"

"Nope," Steve said curtly as he chucked the now useless hunk of plastic into a nearby trash can. "Everything's just swell."

"I can see that, sir. Might I suggest a little music to soothe your nerves? I believe Madeleine Peyroux would be to your tastes."

Steve hesitated. JARVIS's musical selections usually turned out to be pretty bang on the nose, which was more than he could say for Tony's. "Not right this minute, JARVIS," he said at last. "But if you'll download it to my computer, I'd be happy to give it a listen when I get back to my room."

"Consider it done, sir," said JARVIS.

He headed for the elevator, intent on grabbing a book to help keep his mind off the fact his team was out there battling a dragon without him. The temptation to suit up, grab his shield and head down to the park was an almost physical pang, but even he could admit that would be a spectacularly bad idea. Between insomnia and bad dreams, he'd managed maybe four hours of sleep over the last three days, and that was simply not enough to function on, even taking into account his reduced need for rest.

Steve was so exhausted that when he walked into his room to find Loki sitting in a chair by the window, all he did was close the door quietly behind him. "I guess that explains where the dragon came from," Steve said wryly. "Are you here to kill me?"

Loki arched a brow at Steve's question, then gestured to the sleek black suit he wore in lieu of his usual armor. "I'm not exactly dressed for battle, now am I, Captain."

Steve refrained from pointing out that Loki had once gouged out a man's eye while dressed in impeccably tailored formalwear. "I guess not. So, why are you here, if you don't mind me asking?"

Loki looked up at him, his expression so carefully neutral that it set Steve's nerves on edge. "I merely wished to be certain you had not told SHIELD the ... messier details of our encounter."

"What? Of course not," Steve said. "I swore I wouldn't, remember?"

"An oath given under duress is rarely binding," Loki pointed out.

Steve's jaw went mulish. "Maybe to you it isn't, but when I give my word, I keep it. Besides, it's nobody's damned business but ours."

Some of the tension bled out of Loki's stiff posture, and his hands relaxed their death-grip on the arms of the chair. "That, at least, is something we both agree on."

Steve thought of the gorget sitting in the top drawer of his desk and dropped his gaze down to the scuffed toes of his boots. "Look, since you're here, I'd like to--"

"If the word apologize passes your lips, I will gut you with my teeth," Loki snarled.

Steve took a step back and threw his hands in the air in a placating gesture. "Duly noted," he said, "but that's not what I was going to say. I have something of yours. I thought you might want it back."

Loki turned his head away as he struggled to rein in his emotions. "And what might that be, I wonder?"

Steve slowly lowered his hands and began moving toward his desk, taking care to keep the demigod in his line of sight at all times. "A gorget," he said. "At least, I think it's a gorget; I don't really know much about Asgardian armor styles."

Loki's brows furrowed before rising sharply toward his hairline in surprise. "You have it? I thought--"

"That the SHIELD team had gotten to it first, yeah, I figured as much when I heard you'd wrecked the building."

"That was not the only reason I destroyed that place," Loki said.

"No, I don't imagine it was," Steve said dryly. He pulled the golden crescent out of the drawer and offered it to Loki. "Here you go."

Loki took it from him with the tips of his fingers, careful to avoid any direct contact with Steve's skin. "I never thought to see this again," he said, his expression wavering between delight and utter bewilderment. "Why would you even bother saving it?"

"Your armor has evolved quite a bit over the years, but that one piece always stays the same." Steve tucked his hands into his pockets and shrugged. "I figured it must be important to you."

"It was a gift from my mother, when I came of age," Loki said absently, his voice soft and laced with quiet sadness. A quick flick of his fingers, and the gorget vanished, gone to wherever Loki stored his armor when he wasn't wearing it. "Thank you, Captain. That was remarkably thoughtful."

"It's the least I could do, all things considered." Steve took a deep breath, his stomach twisting itself into knots as he struggled to come up with the right words. "I wasn't ... I wasn't strong enough to resist the Enchantress's spell, and you got hurt because of it. I know nothing I say can ever make that right, but for what it's worth, I truly am sorry."

Loki's eyes narrowed, and he sprang up out of the chair. Two swift steps brought him right into Steve's space, close enough that Steve could see the faint outline of scars around his mouth. "That spell was made to work on gods," he snapped. "If even I could not break it, what chance do you think you had? You are mortal, and not magically inclined. That you were able to temper your response at all is nothing short of astonishing."

"But it wasn't enough!" Steve insisted.

"No," Loki agreed, and his tone was almost kind. "No, it wasn't, and it never could be. No blame falls on you for that, Captain. Not from me."

Steve swallowed hard against the tangle of emotion trying to clog his throat. "Okay," he said. "Okay."

Loki nodded before turning away and walking back toward the window. "Well. I believe I've taken up enough of your time for one day, so--"

"Loki, wait!" Steve said. To his surprise, the demigod paused, glancing back at Steve over his shoulder. "About that dragon..."

"A little light entertainment, nothing more," Loki assured him. "Besides," he added, "it's not the dragon they should worry about."

And then he was gone, leaving Steve alone in his room, cursing as he scrambled to find his cell phone and call Natasha.



V.


The team gathered in the rec room for the usual post-mission round of pizza and painkillers. Natasha was unsurprised when Steve joined them, dutifully handing out cold packs and Ibuprofen to whoever needed it. She was even less surprised when Stark grabbed him by the arm and made him sit on the couch to watch some shaky cell phone footage that JARVIS put up on the TV of Iron Man buzzing just out of reach of the dragon's snapping teeth.

"Swear to god, I felt like one of those dangly cat toys," Stark said. "And the damned thing still wouldn't budge off the roof until Barton put a firecracker up its ass. Which should be right about...now."

There was a loud bang, followed by an even louder roar from the dragon. Then it was airborne, chasing after Iron Man as he sped away over the treetops toward the river.

"Who shot the video?" Steve asked.

Bruce raised his hand. "Ah, that would be me. I really didn't want to break the Cloisters, so I stayed by the car."

"Good man," Steve said, and saluted Bruce with his beer.

Natasha watched herself jog into the frame, with Clint following on her heels. They came to a stop not far from where Bruce was filming, heads tilted up toward the sky as they watched Iron Man's progress.

"I'm going to get your call here in a second," Natasha told Steve.

Video-Natasha's cell phone buzzed moments later. She watched herself answer the call, heard the words slow down and Loki and what kind of second attack?

"And that's when the unicorns showed up," Clint said.

Sure enough, the drumming of sharp, vicious, cloven hooves could be heard galloping closer. On screen, Bruce, Clint, Natasha all swore and bolted in opposite directions as a half-dozen hairy white shapes came sweeping toward them. While they were undoubtedly unicorns, they had little in common with their pop culture counterparts, being considerably more goat-like in both appearance and temperament.

And smell. If she lived a thousand years, Natasha would never, ever forget that smell.

Steve got an odd expression on his face that she couldn't quite decipher just before he burst out laughing.

"It's not funny!" she insisted, even as the corners of her mouth began to quirk up.

"They were stupidly fast," Clint added. "And mean. And they spit like fucking camels."

Steve kept right on laughing. "No, you don't--it's--tapestries!" he gasped out between chortles.

Bruce began chuckling. "You know, I didn't even think of that."

"Think of what?" Clint asked. He looked back and forth between Bruce and Steve. "What's so funny?"

"There's a famous series of medieval tapestries at the Cloisters depicting a unicorn hunt," Bruce explained. "Loki must have brought it to life."

Natasha nodded thoughtfully. "That would explain why they were so pissed off."

"How did you manage to round them up? It's not like there's a virgin on the team anymore," Steve asked. When everyone turned and stared at him, he rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on. Unicorns? You were all thinking it."

"I'll have you know, I thought no such thing," Stark said.

"I did," said Clint.

"Just watch the screen," said Natasha.

Bruce had dropped his cell phone at this point, giving them a lovely view of the cloudy grey sky. In the distance came the muffled sounds of shouts, the Hulk bellowing, and then, improbably, laughter.

Oh, my god, Clint's voice said somewhere off camera.

Natasha's face filled the TV as she picked up Bruce's phone. She got a shot of Barton doubled over laughing before pointing the camera down the lawn to where the Hulk sat in the center of a ring of adoring unicorns, looking for all the world like a little kid at a petting zoo.

"Apparently, they really like the Other Guy," Bruce said. "Don't ask me why."

Steve just started laughing again.

With hindsight, the whole thing was so clearly one of Loki's less malicious pranks that Natasha was embarrassed she hadn't figured it out before Steve's call. Even the property damage had been kept to a minimum, though she suspected the groundskeepers at Fort Tryon Park would have a few strong words to say to them.

Best of all, Steve finally seemed to be pulling out from under the depression that had weighed on him ever since Amora's spell. Natasha never thought she would have cause to be grateful to Loki, but whatever he'd said to Steve, it had clearly helped.

"Something on your mind, Agent Romanoff?" Steve asked quietly.

"No," she said. "Just, it's nice to see you smiling."

She didn't expect Steve to reply, and he didn't, just blinked and nodded at her before turning back to the TV. They still needed to talk about Loki's visit, and she was under no illusions that a few chuckles and a grin meant everything was back to normal. But Steve was here, actively participating with the team again instead of sitting in his room like a hollow-eyed ghost, and that was a good place to start.
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