The disguise was Natasha's idea (surprise, surprise). Steve advocated for his usual ball cap pulled low over his eyes. She scoffed at that. "That's getting old, Steve. And it's not as great a disguise as you think it is." Still, the disguise came about mostly by default. There was a distinct lack of razors in the hideout they retreated to after losing their cover, most of their weapons, and their communications during a stealth mission in hostile territory. A report of a cache of high-level HYDRA weapons with enough firepower to level a city hidden in a sparsely populated area in Slovakia. Steve and Natasha had gone in to check it out only to be surprised to find a cache of HYDRA soldiers in residence with the weapons.
It hadn't been a quiet, low-key encounter.
Steve and Natasha spent weeks holed up in a miserable little shack with no electricity, no hot water, and a single bed so decrepit neither of them wanted to sleep on it. After playing more card games than Steve thought humanly possible, they were doing all right. Up until the night Natasha lost it after Steve scratched at his thickening whiskers for the umpteenth time.
"Oh boo hoo, you're growing a beard. I haven’t shaved my legs in three weeks, you see me crying about itchy stubble? If you're so desperate to shave, try the edge of your shield."
That hadn't occurred to him. Just as he was eyeing up his shield, wondering at the sharpness of the edge, Natasha snatched it up first and disappeared into the closet-sized bathroom. She re-emerged ten minutes later and threw the shield at him.
"It's not sharp enough. Shut up. More cards?"
And so it went. The days dragged on. By the end, Steve was ready to make a mad dash through enemy territory to reunite himself with his Gillette. And save them, of course. He kept catching Natasha staring at his increasingly thick beard.
"I can't help it," she said. "The colour's so different than the rest of your hair. Are sure you're a natural blond?"
Natasha was not in fact a natural redhead. Weeks into their enforced tenure as roommates in the world's shittiest cabin in Europe's coldest woods, Steve took unholy glee in learning one of her many secrets.
"Every bit as much as you are," he said, eyeing her roots.
One day when Natasha vanished on one of her irregularly timed food runs, she returned with something extra and a plan. "I got a signal out," she said.
Every previous attempt at calling for help had failed. Whatever HYDRA was using to jam up communications in the area was a step above anything else they'd encountered.
Steve was on his feet in a heartbeat, ready to act, ready to move.
She held up a single hand. "Don't get too excited, soldier. Clint's on his way. Tony and Rhodey are right behind him. They'll fight their way in if they have to, but it would be easier to walk out and meet them at the rendezvous point." She held up a box. "We just need a different look."
Steve squinted at the box. "Is that...?" He couldn't fathom how she found it. The nearest general store was not much bigger than the shack they were hiding in. It didn't even stock razors.
She smiled. It was not a nice smile. "I think it'll match the whiskers nicely. And I got enough for us both."
A half hour later, Steve Rogers had been transformed into a brunette. Natasha was right - it did match the beard. Steve rubbed at the back of his neck. It was still sore from where Natasha had dug her forearm in to hold him in place over the kitchen sink after he'd started squirming under the rush of cold water. Natasha was humming happily as she was bent over the same sink, rinsing the dye out of her own hair.
Steve sighed as he stoked the fire in the small wood stove that was keeping them from freezing from death at night. He played with the black rimmed glasses Natasha had dropped in his lap after she finished with his hair. He felt weird wearing them. Like he was someone else.
Wet, now dark, hair wrapped up in their only towel, Natasha dropped gracefully down on the floor next to him. She busied herself squeezing as much water out of her hair as she could while letting their only heat source do the rest of the work.
"Early morning, right?" Steve said.
"Yep. Clint's bringing the jet down in stealth mode in a clearing about five miles on the other side of the village. Tony and Rhodey will provide cover, but we need to be there when they come in."
Fine by him. First light and they were outta there.
By nightfall, he'd be clean-shaven. Steve couldn't wait.
* * *
Steve pushed through the door to the Avengers' compound with weariness dogging his every step. Despite having little to do other than sleep in between watches for weeks, Steve could feel the pull of the bed awaiting him in his quarters.
If the mission had gone to hell, the rescue had seemed determine to one-up it. Despite their casual early morning stroll through a sleepy village looking nothing like themselves, Steve and Natasha had still attracted the wrong kind of attention. They found HYDRA lying in wait for them. Barton's stealth landing had been everything but, and Tony and Rhodey flew right into an ambush that had surface-to-air missiles on its side.
Natasha threw herself right into the fight, having worn all her remaining weapons. Steve, after digging his shield out of the duffel bag he's been using to disguise it, threw himself after her in the fray. The fight to the jet seemed to drag on for days, and flight out of enemy airspace was no less anxiety-ridden.
Barton didn't so much as glance at either of them before they were clear. Natasha's new hair didn't give him pause. Steve's look got a double-take. "Oh hey, Cap. Nice beard!" Barton hadn't turn off his radio during his greeting and the comm erupted in squawking from Tony and Rhodey both demanding photo evidence. Which they got.
Barton was such an asshole sometimes. Come to think of it, so were most of the people Steve knew.
But they made it. After seeing them safely back to US airspace, Tony and Rhodey peeled away heading for the city.
"You want to go home, too, Cap?"
Steve declined Barton's offer to fly him to DC. The Avengers compound was fine for now. He really just wanted to sleep. And shave. And figure out how to turn himself blond again. Natasha smiled at him when he stated his intentions. Still not a nice smile.
And then she and Barton took off in the jet as soon as Steve got off it. They both waved goodbye as they flew away. Steve considered responding in the manner he thought most appropriate.
But he was too tired to extend his middle finger upward.
Indecision seized him as he propped his shield against the wall of the entry. He could still hear his bed calling him - but now the shower and the kitchen were chiming in. Weeks of washing up using a sink full of cold water had the prospect of a hot shower making him weak in the knees. But the kitchen - Steve had eaten nothing but rations and whatever food Natasha had scrounged (stolen) from the nearby village. The urge to open the refrigerator door and luxuriate in the cool food-preserving blast of air while he shoved whatever was at hand in his mouth won out.
Steve veered left and made for the overlarge kitchen set in the heart of the compound's main floor. When they were all in residence it served as a gathering place, where the Avengers shared meals and talked about things that had nothing to do with work. It was were they'd stopped being colleagues and learned to be friends.
And it was currently occupied. By Loki.
Steve's feet stuttered to an unwilling stop. He'd forgotten Loki was staying there. No wonder no one else wanted to come back to the compound with him.
Months ago, Thor returned to Earth with Loki in reluctant tow. After days of yelling, threats, explanations, and recriminations, it was decided Thor and Loki would stay at the Avengers compound while they were Earth-side. Mostly this was decided after Tony yelled, "Your psycho brother is not living in my tower! I don't care how who's trying to kill him," at Thor.
It turned out Loki's invasion of Earth had been prompted by a creature named Thanos, whom was less than thrilled by Loki's failure to procure him the Tesseract. Thor explained Loki had kept this to himself, so it came as a great surprise to Asgard when Thanos contacted them demanding they surrender the Tesseract and "the traitor" to him or be destroyed.
Thor had looked cagey when explaining Odin's reaction to learning all this. "Our father does not like being threatened. He likes being kept in the dark even less. If you allow Loki to remain, you can be assured he will be on his best behaviour. He and Father reached...uh, an understanding." This was said without Thor meeting anyone's eyes while Loki glared so hard at a nearby wall, Steve expected it to start smoking.
So Avengers compound it was for the Asgardian brothers. Thor and Loki moved in and everyone else moved out. Except Steve. He still split his time between the compound, Tony's tower, and his own apartment. The compound was a good place to relax without it feeling too empty and still. And Steve liked Thor. He wasn't too bothered by the presence of Thor's would-be Earth conquering brother.
Especially not when said brother was frowning at the refrigerator while holding a banana and wearing a green lace-up tunic over black leather leggings. And he was barefoot. Huh. While Thor easily switched to jeans and flannel when he was Earth-side, this was the most dressed down Steve had ever seen Loki.
Steve wavered at the entryway, debating if he should head for his quarters instead, before his stomach growled and made the choice for him. Stepping forward, Steve cleared his throat. Sneaking up on Loki tended to have unfortunate knife-related consequences.
"Hello, Loki," Steve greeted, eyeing the still unrepaired hole in the wall next to the entry, left from the last time someone came up on Loki unawares. “How are you this evening?”
"Captain Rogers," Loki said, still frowning at the fridge. "I understand your absence has been somewhat of a..." Loki glanced over at him, his words dying in his throat.
"Well, I'm back. Everyone is fine," Steve said, moving up to stand opposite of Loki across the island that dominated centre of the kitchen. He peered past Loki into the open refrigerator. He saw some chicken. Cheese. The island's counter-top held a large bowl of fruit next to two loaves of fresh bread. Chicken sandwich would be good.
"How are things? Settled in okay?" Steve scratched at his beard. He still couldn't get used to the thing.
Loki made a strangled noise. Steve looked over at him, concerned he was chocking on his banana. He wasn't, but that banana was getting all squeezed to hell the way he was holding it. Maybe he didn't know what it was? Did Asgard even have bananas?
"You peel those," Steve said.
Loki's eyebrows shot up. He looked strangely taken aback. "I beg your pardon?"
"The banana. You take the peel off first, then you eat it. Keep squeezing it like that, it won't be any good for eating. Here." Steve moved around the island and reached for Loki's banana. His fingers brushed against Loki's knuckles and he had to grab at the fruit to catch it as Loki abruptly lost his grip. "Peel the skin, see?"
Steve peeled half the banana and offered it back to Loki. Loki just stared at him, a little wild-eyed. "You okay?"
"Yes," Loki said, voice sounding odd. "I must go. Pardon me."
Loki turned away and pushed past Steve.
Confused, Steve still held out the fruit. "Don't you want this anymore?"
"No!" Loki called over his shoulder without looking back. "I want nothing." And he was gone.
Shrugging, Steve ate the banana himself as he stepped in front of the refrigerator and started pulling out fixings for a sandwich. He ended up making a plate of sandwiches, knowing they wouldn't go to waste if he couldn't finish them. He'd just bit into his first sandwich when Thor made himself known.
Thor smiled widely at the sight of him. "Well met, my friend! It gladdens my heart to see you have returned safely. I'm sorry I couldn't not go along to aid in your rescue, but..."
"You can't leave Loki here alone, I know." It was one of the many, many, many conditions attached to Thor and Loki staying there. "It's okay, Thor. Believe me, it's good to be back."
Steve took another mouthful of his delicious chicken sandwich. Thor pulled out a stool and sat next to him. Steve pushed the plate closer to his teammate. Thor didn't hesitate to help himself.
"I saw my brother before coming to find you. He seemed most perturbed," Thor said through a mouthful of sandwich.
"Oh yeah? Why's that? He seemed fine earlier. Maybe a little off." The sandwich wasn't fancy, but it was sure hitting the spot.
"You look different, Steve," Thor said.
Steve looked over at the abrupt change in subject. Thor was smiling. "Disguise to fool HYDRA. Didn't work. Haven't had time to change it back."
"Ah," Thor said. "Loki hasn't seen this look on you before." Still smiling.
Steve raised his eyebrows. "Yeah, no one has. Beard's not really my thing. I'm not you or Tony, you know." He chuckled a little.
So did Thor. "Yes. It's been some time since I've seen my brother flustered in such a manner. I must thank you."
"Thank Natasha. It was her idea." Steve's skin itched. And not from the beard. He was missing something. He had that same feeling he got when everyone else was laughing over some cultural reference he didn't get.
Thor laughed again, deeper, almost gleeful. "Oh, I intend to."
Steve finished his sandwich before turning on the stool to face Thor. "Okay. I don't get it. You're laughing at me for some reason. What am I missing?"
Thor's smile stretched from ear to ear as he clasped a hand on Steve's shoulder. "It is not you, my friend. Rather, not just you." Thor waved his hand at Steve's head. "It's this new look you've acquired. Loki has - how does the saying go? - he has...a type."
It took Steve a beat to get it. A beat where Thor's words washed over him. A beat where the words made no sense. A beat when all Steve could see was the way Loki stared at him wide-eyed from the moment Steve stepped in the kitchen. Wide-eyed in his bare feet and tight leather pants and form fitting tunic that hadn't been laced up all the way.
A beat when all Steve's brain functions crashed to a halt and all he could come up with was - "Huh."
Thor's smile even grew wider at his reaction. Most of his friends really were assholes. Steve wondered what that said about him. Thor looked pointedly at Steve's hair. "It does suit you well," he said, casually. "Should you be of a mind to keep it in this altered state. I'm sure there are some who will not mind. Not in the least."
Steve's mind went blank. He pushed his brain to turn over as he pushed back on his stool and stood up. "I'll keep that in mind, Thor. If you don't mind, I'm going to grab the hot shower I've been desperate to have for weeks and get some sleep."
Thor waved him off as he pulled the still-full plate of sandwiches to sit directly in front of him. "Pleasant dreams of victory, my friend."
Steve made his way to his quarters on the second floor. He passed the firmly shut door to the quarters Thor and Loki shared, pausing before continuing to his own room. Once safely behind closed doors, Steve started stripping, leaving a trail of clothes across the floor all the way to the bathroom. He melted into the shower stall, scrubbing at every inch of skin twice over before standing under the hot spray just because he could. When he was out and dried, Steve wrapped a towel around his waist and stood in front of the mirror over the sink. The bathroom fans had wicked away all the moisture from the shower and Steve could see himself clearly.
A man who was him and wasn't stared back.
The beard had grown in thick and even. Natasha had done a good job with his hair. The colour was even, and she was right - it matched the beard. Though he was naturally blond, Steve long suspected his hair was darkening as he grew older. It never bothered him before when he thought about it. The colour of his beard looked about the same as the colour of his eyebrows. And his hair? Well, now it all matched.
It was different. In a lot of ways, it made him look like a stranger.
But he didn't mind it.
Steve looked next to the sink where he'd set out his razor and shaving cream before hopping into the shower. He looked back at the face in the mirror. He thought about what Thor said, about his brother having a type. About how Loki looked at him before fleeing the room without once making any of his usual condescending and snotty remarks.
A slow smile crept across his face.
Six weeks it would take for the hair dye to fade away, Natasha had said while trying to drown him in that cracked sink.
Steve picked up the shaving supplies and stashed them back into the medicine chest.
"Well," Steve said to his bearded alter-ego in the mirror. "I guess there's no rush."