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Though Loki has been unmuzzled for some hours now, he hasn't said a word. When Thor saw him last, Loki was sitting straight and unsettlingly relaxed, his temporary chains exchanged for more powerful bespelled shackles to keep his magic contained. He would not look at Thor. Now Thor paces the golden corridor outside Odin's chambers; though summoned, he will not go charging in as he once would have done. Instead, Thor is trying to figure out what to say.

Before he can muster his thoughts, one of the doors swings open. Frigga stands there, clad in white, as poised as ever, but there is a frailty to her that speaks of grief, and it wrings his heart. "Mother," Thor says, and goes to her. They hold their embrace long enough to draw strength from one another; together they go in.

Odin is standing on the balcony that overlooks the palace down to the sea and the world's edge. He turns to them as they enter. Thor can see, more clearly now than he could in the busy minutes at their return, that Odin is weary. Sending Thor to Midgard without the aid of the Bifrost, and binding Loki's magic so soon after, has turned him from a king to an old man, grim and hard.

"Father," Thor says. He knows better now than to declare policy. "What should we do?"

Odin gives him a look that slides from appraisal to approval. "We will do what we must," Odin says. "What that is will depend on Loki."

"Let me talk with him," Thor says. "Our time on Midgard was too short; I had little chance to reason with Loki. He may yet listen."

"I do not know how much there is to be done for Loki now," Odin says. "He set this course long ago."

"It doesn't mean he cannot change," Thor says slowly, feeling the words out. He cannot imagine how Loki came to be so violent and despairing and cruel, but that Odin does not expect better of him -- "How are we to save him," Thor asks, "if we do not believe he can be saved?"

"Of course we believe he can be saved," Frigga says. Odin looks to her, and Thor to Odin. He knows that his parents are not always of the same mind, but if they disagree it is behind closed doors; and so it is even now, because after a moment Odin bows his head, acquiescing.

Thor shoots his mother a grateful look, and as she smiles in return he says, "I will talk with Loki, then, if we have options to offer him."

"We have terms to offer," Odin says, "but neither can we forget what he has done. He endangered all of Asgard with his plot to lure Laufey into a trap; he set the power of the Bifrost upon Jotunheim; he allied himself with an unfamiliar race, and with a force that remains veiled to me, and tried thereby to subjugate Midgard. These transgressions cannot go unnoticed, nor unpunished."

Thor glances at Frigga again. His mother looks composed, but her face is troubled. This is why Odin is king: he weighs his own feelings for Loki against what Loki has done, and makes the objective judgment that Frigga and Thor cannot. "We know he must be kept confined," Frigga says after a moment. "But what punishment can there be?"

"We cannot sit idle," Odin says, "and condone what Loki has done by our own inaction." He comes away from the balcony, sitting down near Frigga. She settles a hand on his shoulder as he goes on, "If you wish to have words with him, Thor, the terms are these: Loki's magic will remain bound until he proves himself worthy of his power; only then will the shackles come loose. As for the rest, we will accept him back if he swears fealty, and makes no schemes of mischief against our house."

"I will tell him this," Thor agrees. "Perhaps he will listen, now that we're home."

"Time for that will be short," Odin reminds him. "Heimdall's vision grows less clear when away from Yggdrasil's branches, but he sees Loki's one-time allies. They are enraged, and will not be too wounded for battle for long. We have warning, but what is our recourse? They will come for the Tesseract, and they will come for Loki."

"They must not be allowed either," Thor says.

"No, they must not," Odin agrees. "And this is why his fealty is everything, Thor."

Thor nods. "I understand."

*

This time, when Thor reaches the room that is Loki's prison, he notices that the guards stationed at the door look nervous. He has noticed so many things since Loki was lost -- or since his time exiled on Midgard; these things tangle together. He noticed that no one even spoke of Loki once Loki was gone, and he sees now that those tasked with guarding Loki are afraid of their prisoner. Loki remembers a shadow, Thor thinks, and armed with what he knows, he enters the room.

It is no cell; though it is smaller than the rooms Loki kept as a prince, and though it lacks the books and papers that habitually cluttered Loki's space, this room should feel enough like home to be a comfort, or at least enough like home to give no offense. Loki is sitting exactly where Thor saw him last, stark against a long gold couch. He is a slender figure out of his armor, head bowed in contemplation over the bright twists of magic encircling his wrists. He looks up sharply when he hears Thor enter, but the moment he sees it's Thor all his movements turn smooth and unconcerned. He gives Thor a look of bright expectation. Thor cannot tell if this bodes well.

His first impulse is to tell Loki the bare truth: I missed you, horribly; but he knows well enough that Loki would call this sentiment, in tones of derision. Thor feels his hands curling into fists, and releases them.

"I've spoken with the Allfather," he tells Loki. He is about to recite Odin's terms when he realizes how foolish it would be, while Loki sits and Thor stands between him and the door. It sends exactly the message Loki must be expecting. Thor crosses the room and sits down next to Loki on the couch, as close as he was wont to do before the madness of the past year. Loki shifts subtly, but when Thor turns to him, Loki's face is close and attentive; he has not tried to draw away. They have time now, Thor thinks with rising relief; there are days, perhaps weeks, before the Chitauri will have nursed their wounds enough to mount some fresh attack. He does not have to talk faster than he can think, and he does not have to beg. "How are you?" he asks.

Loki does not answer for so long that Thor grows uncomfortable, and he cannot read Loki's face, a still mask of calm, alien and untouchable. Then Loki blinks, and Thor can see his brother again, full of all the quiet raging desperation that he aches to banish. "How do you suppose?" Loki says.

"I don't know," Thor tells him gently. "You've gone so far from all the things I do know that I doubt I could guess your mind now."

The quiet rage on Loki's face slips into confusion. The uncertainty shakes Thor to the core: it's such a familiar expression, his careful brother hesitating for a moment before following Thor into the latest adventure. Thor's chest aches with hollow longing. "I," Loki says, swallowing. Thor leans in. "I am bound," Loki says, "and cast low, and imprisoned in the kingdom that should be mine." He says it all with such soft earnestness that it takes Thor a long awful moment to hear the words. "Your father has denied me, and stripped my powers. I think now he has sent you with scraps to offer me on one side, and on the other the threat that he'll throw me back out into the cold."

"No threats," Thor says, the words knocked from him with horror. "An offering, yes, but no threats. He will take you back if you swear fealty."

Loki laughs, sharp and bitter. "I thought it would be something like that."

"Loki," Thor says. "Please."

"What?" Loki demands. His eyes are shining; he's half-twisted to face Thor, no longer remotely composed. "Swear myself to Odin, who stole me, used me? -- no."

"No," Thor echoes. "Not that." Where he sees his father extending a hand in leniency and forgiveness, Loki sees only a trap. But Thor has learned that there is more than one way to do the right thing; he will find that way. "Loki," he says, reaching out, cupping a hand against the back of his brother's neck. Loki twitches but doesn't pull away, meeting Thor's eyes with bright fury. "We want you back," he tells Loki. "No matter what you've done."

"I'm sure you do." Loki leans into the pressure of Thor's hand. "You might've killed me on Midgard, but you'd rather have me here."

"Yes," Thor says cautiously. So far they seem to be speaking to the same purpose.

"And what will you do, now I am safely returned?" Loki murmurs. "Will you keep me caged until I tell you how sorry I am for forgetting my place, how very grateful I am that you still call me brother? Will you believe me if I debase myself as I used to?"

"No!" Thor says before he can think better of it, and Loki laughs disbelievingly, ducking away from him. He rises, moving away, a deliberate space between them. Thor is wise enough to stay where he is. He's spent so much time in bewildered anger at Loki's actions, at his continued refusal to listen, at his senseless destruction; but now all Thor can feel is helpless in the face of his failure to connect with Loki at all.

Here is what Loki does not understand: Thor doesn't pity him, nor think him less than Thor, not ever; not when they were boys, not even now. But were Thor to put this into words, he knows Loki would only laugh again, and demand proof that Thor cannot give. Thor stares down at his hands, clenched into fists on his thighs, and takes a deep breath.

"Do you remember," he says, "when we went to Nidavellir to buy a present for Mother, and found a perfect necklace for her before we realized we couldn't pay? I would have threatened them and called upon what I believed was my authority as a prince of Asgard, and probably I would have started a needless petty feud. But you spoke flattering words and talked the smith down to a price we could easily afford."

Loki has gone very still, his back a line of tension. "As I recall it," he says, "you told me the whole way back how you could have taken on a whole quarry of dwarfs and I had robbed you of good sport."

"So I did," Thor agrees, hardly daring to breathe. "But I knew even then it was only boasting. You'd done what I could not, and I thought -- how good it was, to have a brother who was both comrade-in-arms and a silver-tongued speaker in times when force would go ill."

"It was a necklace," Loki says, turning to give Thor a look of disbelief. "It was a moment, and it was only inside your head."

Thor's nails bite into his palms. So much for that. "Yet you would claim that I had you thrown into the abyss when I was doing all I could to hold you! If we're to speak of the rewriting of past deeds --" Loki flinches away so violently that Thor stops, cut off abruptly; careless words should not fall like blows from Mjolnir. He swallows and says again, as gently as he's able, "I was doing all I could to hold you."

Loki drops down on the bed, two strides from Thor, a distance suddenly too great to bridge. His hands dig pale into the coverlet. "That," he says in return, just as gentle, "is the worst thing of all."

If only he could simply seize Loki's shoulders and shake him until he becomes something Thor can understand. At a loss, Thor grasps for his next point. "I haven't told you everything. Father also said your magic need not remain bound. You will be released when you prove yourself worthy of your power."

"Indeed." Loki looks at Thor again, eyebrows rising. "Magnanimous. How did you manage to prove the same when he cast you to Midgard? We didn't really get a chance to talk."

Here is the brother Thor remembers, quiet and unhappy one moment, conversational the next. Thor opens his mouth. "I --"

"It was something to do with that mortal woman, wasn't it?" Loki overrides him. "And something else to do with your frankly stupid sacrifice to the Destroyer. I wonder if that means I should seek the woman out, or if any will do -- but I'm stuck here, so maybe I should be surrendering myself to some grand death. By your hand, perhaps?" Loki tilts his chin up, whether in defiance or to bare his throat Thor cannot tell.

"No," Thor says. "It's about placing others before yourself, that is all."

Loki laughs, a cracked sound. "Why then, I have been worthy all my life."

"Not if you did not mean it," Thor snaps, "not if you spent long years in silent self-pity." He immediately regrets it, though Loki makes no more reaction than an indrawn hiss of breath through his teeth. "I'm sorry," Thor says. "This is ... I hoped we might talk."

"Have we not, then?" Loki murmurs.

"This is still a battle, I think," Thor says, "one I do not wish to fight."

"One you don't know how to fight," Loki corrects him.

Loki is wrong: Thor does have some idea. Thor is no diplomat, but he is a sometime-tactician, and he can at least approach Loki like a siege, to be waited out and learned, and finally breached when he has the means for it. Thor thinks of telling him that Heimdall has seen the Chitauri amassing again, and knows that the words would fall like a threat between them. Loki cannot be forced; Thor has learned that lesson by now.

"What message would you have me give our father?" Thor says instead.

"Are you his errand-boy?" Loki asks. "Tell him his failed experiment remains a failure; that should be enough, if the shame is too great for him to come see himself."

It takes Thor a moment to untangle this, and when he does, the words clutch at his heart like a fist. He was there when Odin bound each of Loki's wrists in turn, locking his magic away; Odin's eye remained on his work, and Loki had his head turned aside, as though he couldn't bear to look. Thor remembers this now with fresh sight, and in his memory every line of Loki's body is screaming. Thor draws in breath as steadily as he can. "I will talk with him," he says, rising. "With luck there will be no further need for me to act as intermediary between you."

Loki's laugh follows him out the door, but even Thor can tell that he went to no effort to make it convincing.

*

"No," Odin says.

Thor stares at him. "Why not?" he demands, before he remembers himself and adds, measured, "We will not have any fealty from Loki if you do not ask for it yourself. He believes you think he is -- is broken, and so he believes it himself. Whether it is true or no, you must show him we still care or I fear he will be lost."

Odin sighs, regarding Thor closely. His singular gaze is piercing, but Thor stands his ground. "And what do you believe, Thor?"

"I cannot follow his mind," Thor confesses. "But that does not mean he is beyond recall; and I know that you must reach for him too."

For a long moment Odin contemplates this. "I have not gone to him again," he says, "because to do so would be to condone what he has done. The king cannot give such comfort. If Loki seeks audience we may talk, but until then, my feelings must be weighed against the wise course. Until we can show our people that Loki is tractable, there is not much comfort I can give him."

Through this speech, Thor's hands slowly curl into fists. He thinks of Odin's face in the moment that Loki fell, a mirror of the rising grief Thor felt; but there was a weight like inevitability in Odin's expression too, and he still doesn't understand how his father could have felt anything other than horrified disbelief. Thor tries to pin down the deep uneasiness he feels, but certainty eludes him. Odin words sound reasonable, sound wise, so Thor forces himself to relax and to nod.

"Tomorrow is our council of war," Odin tells Thor, "and we wait on your report of the Chitauri. Until then, rest. You have earned it."

Thor promises to do so and takes his leave, but in the corridor he hesitates. He doesn't wonder at his mother's absence, for she is not always at Odin's side, but he finds he hopes that Frigga doesn't feel the same resolution to keep away from Loki. Though it is evident that Odin is the one with whom Loki must have words, he was always closer to their mother.

This hope carries him back to Loki's room. The guards hesitate before permitting him to enter, so he must be interrupting something; but he is their prince, so they allow him. In the moment before he enters, Thor has a thought which sounds very much like Loki, muttering that he is still playing errand-boy. But Thor has already come all this way and is loath to leave, so he nods to the guards and goes in.

He is unsurprised to find his mother there, but the sight that greets him is startling: she is on a chair by the hearth, and Loki is crouched next to her, though he springs to his feet when he hears Thor enter. Still, it's easy enough to tell that he must have been sitting with his head in her lap, as they have not done since they were children. There is a small fire burning in the hearth, Thor sees, and thinks inanely that Loki must have lit it as a distraction; it is only early autumn on Asgard, and the extra warmth seems unnecessary. Thor looks at the fire for longer than he should, but he is not a coward, so he turns to Frigga with an apology already in his eyes.

Frigga only smiles, a soft sad smile, and rises to her feet. "Loki." Loki turns to her, an involuntary jerk of his head. "I'll be back soon, I promise," Frigga murmurs to him. On her way to the door she touches Thor's elbow and squeezes gently in what could be either a giving of strength or a warning; then she is gone.

"Loki," says Thor.

Loki's shoulders go tight at the sound of his voice. He's turned away again, a silhouette against the fire. Thor winces and sinks into the nearest chair. "I -- only want to talk," he tells the stiff line of Loki's back. "Please."

No response. The flames crackle in the hearth. Thor stares at his hands.

"I'm waiting," Loki says, inflectionless. He has not even bothered to turn around.

Thor licks his lips in sudden anxiousness. He will not apologize for being here when their father will not come. "I didn't mean to cut short Mother's visit," he offers; but it sounds hollow, because after all he did come to see whether Frigga had done what Odin would not, and he knew his coming would be an interruption.

Loki makes no response to that, but Thor isn't really expecting one. He cannot leave now, though, not when it would look like a retreat. At a loss, he gropes for anything at all, and lights on a memory. "Do you remember," Thor says, "the first time we ducked our tutors and went forth from the palace to see the world? You started a tavern brawl with ... a wickedly-placed shadow, I think it was, though you afterwards denied having done so. How we both laughed! We smashed mugs of mead over the heads of our opponents, inexperienced as we were, and when we staggered home, Loki, it was arm-in-arm, and though we were bruised we were laughing." Across the room, Loki is very still. Thor swallows. "Do you remember?"

"Why," Loki says to the fire. "Why are you doing this? You cannot think that it will change anything."

"No," Thor says. Not yet. "But I have never done it before, and if I can't get through to you by force, perhaps --"

"By kindness?" Loki says, scornful. He turns, finally, and strides to Thor, hands settling light and cool on Thor's shoulders until he leans in and his fingers go vice-tight. "Kindness now is poor payment. Your kindness, Thor, is but mockery and ashes."

Thor does not imagine Loki said any such thing to their mother, not when he was plainly drinking in every bit of kindness she had brought with her. So Thor breathes in frustrated anger, and breathes out again before he replies. He looks up into Loki's unhappy face. "What payment would you have?"

"Your ruin," Loki says at once, dispassionate. His hands on Thor's shoulders go convulsively tighter. "My freedom. A kingdom under my rule."

"You may yet have one of those things," Thor tells him.

"Yes." Loki's right hand slides from Thor's shoulder to his face, a careful caress, and abruptly he steps backwards, leaving Thor leaning on empty air. Loki smiles. "I may yet have your ruin."

If Loki truly believes that, then perhaps they do not understand one another at all. Thor swallows against the ache in his throat. But he cannot bring himself to leave it at that. The more he thinks on how they once were, the more painful it is to see Loki now. "What happened?" Thor asks, impulsive and perhaps ill-advised, but he wants to at least try for understanding. "What happened when you fell?"

Loki gazes down at him, cold and impassive. "I am under no obligation to tell you," he says. "You were not there."

"I would I had been!" Thor tells him, rising.

Loki holds his ground. "Then why were you not?" he asks. "You could have let go; you could have followed me."

For a moment Thor thinks of it, of letting the numb wash of horror travel down his limbs when Loki released the spear, of leaping desperately after him into an impossible abyss. "Follow you into the dark between Yggdrasil's branches?" Thor says. "I haven't the sorcery. Do you think I would have survived?"

"No," Loki murmurs. "Probably not."

"And what good," Thor demands, "could I have been to you dead?"

Loki's face is very still and pale. "What use are you to me now?"

Thor takes an angry step toward Loki, seizing his arms. "I'm trying to help, don't you understand? I do not wish for you to be caged, not for Father's fear of what you might do and not for the satisfaction of your own anger. You are home now; know that you are safe and that we care for you. Please."

Under Thor's hands the tension drains from Loki's body. "Had I weapons still," he says, quietly, "I would stab you again for your arrogance. I am not safe."

Whether he means that Loki himself is dangerous, or that there is outside danger still, Thor cannot tell. Neither is heartening, but he doesn't let go; every time he draws away, Loki will take it as confirmation. He shakes Loki gently. "I care not."

Loki tears away from him. "You will," he says, very quiet yet. It is a clear threat this time, and still Thor's hands hover on the empty air, vividly aware of the space between them, and he does not care about safety.

*

Evening finds Thor sitting in one of the courtyard gardens. The arm of the galaxy rises through gathering dusk, but he takes no pleasure in the familiar beauty. He absently plucks apart a flower from the basin by his seat, red petals falling to the ground around him.

"Thor."

He looks up. It's Sif, approaching with her usual alertness. She is alone, and Thor is relieved of that; he doesn't think he could bear to hear all his friends' opinions just now. He gives Sif a nod, and she comes to sit beside him. "It's good to have you back," she tells him.

He knocks her shoulder gently with his own. For a short time they sit in silence, and Thor is comforted by it, enough to ask, "What are they saying? At court, in the villages ...?"

"They say that their prince has come home," Sif replies, "or they say that you have captured a Jotun traitor. They are afraid of his magics and of the strength it cost the Allfather to send you away, and they are grateful for your return."

Thor nods. "And you?"

"I know why you went to Midgard," Sif says, low, "and I know why you brought him back here, but I fear you'll live to regret it."

"It was the only thing I could do." Thor turns to her, and Sif gazes back, attentive, wonderfully steady. He leans against her, grateful for her presence and her friendship. "You would never trust Loki again, would you?"

She is silent. Then, "I never did," she says.

Thor is grateful for that, too; he will take all the blunt honesty he is given now. He is beginning to see more fully why Odin must have Loki's oath of fealty, not only for Asgard's sake, but Loki's as well; and he is beginning to suspect that Loki's bitter laughter at the very notion has something to do with Sif's admission. The situation is already far more complicated than Thor would wish. He nearly asks Sif if news of the Chitauri has reached the people; but she is a comfort, the first he has found since he came home, and he does not wish to burden either of them further. There is enough to worry them without speaking of what Loki is dragging in his wake.

Thor breathes out slowly. "This will be very difficult, I think," he says, but he smiles again when Sif leans hard against him, supporting him even now.

*

Difficult is an understatement.

The council is all but baying for Loki's blood. Relations with Jotunheim, Thor knows, have not been at their best since Loki's actions, but he cannot imagine the council would voice the same fury had Thor brought such ruin to the Jotun. But this is only the beginning in a list of grievances, the frost giants but a point of blame to lay on Loki in the lords' speeches. Their chief concern is that Loki brought both the Tesseract and Asgard itself to the attention of the Chitauri. Thor and Heimdall each make their reports, and every face around the hall of council is grim.

"There is still time," Odin tells them, sliding into a space of silence between the shouting. "For all Loki's foolhardy actions, we have not yet been pushed to the wall. He knows their secrets, and for his assistance he will be given leniency."

"And if he doesn't share those secrets?" a lord demands. It is Tyr, Thor sees without surprise; he has never made any pretense of liking Loki, even when it was politic to do so.

"If he has not cooperated by the time the Chitauri draw near," Odin says, "he will be given a choice: he must give fealty, and all he knows of the aliens, or he will be offered up to them in exchange for a treaty of peace; it is possible their desire for vengeance is as great as their desire for the Tesseract."

The lords murmur their approval of this, but Thor hardly hears it over the buzzing in his ears.

It is a sound plan. It gives Loki ample opportunity to stay safe and to earn back Asgard's trust. It is sound, Thor tells himself, and this dismay he feels is unbecoming; but in his heart he fears that Loki's stubbornness and his father's are equal.

Thor schools his face away from horror. He has no talent for deception, but he can at least keep from showing fear, so he is prepared when Odin looks at him. He meets his father's gaze and nods to show his understanding. Odin gives him a brief approving smile before returning his attention to the lords, and under that regard Thor steadies enough to get through the rest of the council meeting without voicing anything beyond what is required of him.

When the hall empties, though, Thor stays behind. He builds his argument carefully in his head, and when the heavy doors swing closed behind the last of the lords and Odin turns to him, Thor is able to say, with calm assurance, "I cannot be the one to tell Loki this."

"You would have a guard deliver such a message?" Odin asks mildly.

Thor takes a steadying breath. "I would have you do so," he says. "Visiting him will not seem as though you are condoning his actions, not after what you've said here today --"

But Odin is shaking his head. He looks terribly sorry. "Thor. I cannot go to him as a father until he has affirmed that I am his king; and I cannot go to him as a king alone."

The words go through Thor like a dagger. His father sounds just as assured now as he did yesterday, but this time Thor struggles with the certain knowledge that within the walls of the palace Odin can do as he likes and remain a respected king. Then the certainty is gone: after all, Odin has been king a long time, and Thor cannot trust himself to make wise decisions in matters of state. He hurts dreadfully for his father and Loki both.

Would that you had never cast me to Midgard, Thor thinks, but that is an unworthy thought. In truth he would not give up empathy for anger and ignorance, especially not now. "And I cannot --" Thor says. His voice cracks. He tries again. "I cannot bring Loki an ultimatum. I ... have not the strength for that."

Odin's face goes very still. It reminds Thor suddenly of a look Loki has worn all too often of late, and he braces himself; but Odin merely nods, and says, "Very well," accepting what Thor has said without censure.

Even so, Thor recognizes a dismissal, so he gives his father a brief bow and goes.

The corridors of the palace feel cloying. Afternoon sunlight glances blindingly off the gold in the walls. Each room feels too warm and too empty as Thor strides through them, not yet certain of his destination. He reaches the open air, and the mild autumn breeze is better than the enclosed spaces of the inner palace, but the wind brings with it the scent of a thousand carefully-cultivated flowers, and Thor nearly chokes on it. He goes through the gardens as quickly as he can, allowing his feet to carry him on the familiar path down to the training grounds.

Thor feels the tension across his shoulders ease as he descends. The smell of the stables and of sun-warmed dirt is a comfort to him. By the time he reaches the yard reserved for informal sparring, Thor finds it possible to smile when he discovers the yard already occupied.

"Thor!" Volstagg roars delightedly upon spotting him; Fandral leaves off polishing his armor to leap up and give Thor a sound hug with much happy thumping upon his back; and though Hogun doesn't break the pattern in his series of exercises, he gives Thor a nod of greeting. The day feels immeasurably brighter.

"Come to trounce us all in some practice bouts, have you?" Fandral wants to know.

"Nothing would please me more," Thor says sincerely. He unhooks Mjolnir and sets it aside before selecting a spot in the yard and beginning a series of stretches, automatic with long practice. "Where is Sif?"

"Archery range," Hogun says. His face remains impassive, but Thor and the other two exchange winces; Sif is most likely to take to a bow when she is imagining someone's face at the center of every target.

"Still," Volstagg puts in, "I'm sure she'd be more than happy to have a bout with you."

"You're just trying to get out of fighting me yourself," Thor laughs, and then laughs all the more when Volstagg shrugs and grins, conceding the hit. "Very well," Thor says. "Hogun first, then," and at Hogun's nod of acceptance he returns to his warm-up with renewed energy.

Fandral and Volstagg continue to make cheerful conversation, but Thor lets their words wash over him without meaning, sinking into his muscles and breath and the movement of his body. His mind empties of scattered thought. Then, like a single stone dropped into still water: Odin is trying to frighten Loki into loyalty.

"Thor?" Fandral says.

Thor gives Fandral a smile. "Are you offering to take the first bout instead?"

Fandral raises his hands. "No, not at all."

"Hogun?" Thor asks, and is rewarded by the quick flash of Hogun's vicious grin, which Thor returns in kind.

Thor loves sparring with Hogun: Fandral is always a shade distracted, Volstagg never fully commits in practice, and Thor has never quite trained himself out of going easier on Sif than he should, but Hogun gives his all. They fall upon each other, and Thor tries to silence that one clear awful thought by throwing himself fully into the fight. He attacks in a rush: it is always best to strike Hogun head-on, with all the conviction Thor can bring to bear, and so overpower Hogun before he can do the same. There is a moment, of course, in which Hogun might get in under his guard, but never has he succeeded in besting Thor during that first attack.

This time Hogun comes up inside Thor's range and strikes the first blow, and the advantage is lost. Thor gives him a snarling grin and grapples for him, glad indeed that the fight was not over in a moment; and so it is drawn out into a fierce exchange of blows. Thor thinks, good, there is no need to worry about Loki here.

That is how he comes to be lying on his back in the dirt with one of Hogun's practice knives pressed dull to his throat, both of them breathing hard and perhaps equally surprised.

Hogun gets to his feet and offers Thor a hand up. Thor looks about; mercifully no one has come to watch except Sif, unstrung bow in hand, sitting lightly on the fence separating training yards.

She sees Thor looking at her and her eyebrows go up. "Something on your mind?" she says.

All four of his friends are watching him with varying degrees of puzzled expectation. Thor runs a hand through his sweat-soaked hair and nods. "I came here from the council of lords," he explains. "Father has laid out Loki's choices to the council. He must tell Father all he knows and swear his fealty again, or -- Father says he will offer Loki to the coming army."

He looks around at them. Sif's mouth is a thin line; Fandral frowns, puzzled; Hogun looks grim, but this is not so different than his usual expression; Volstagg has gone very pale. "What?" Volstagg says.

Thor hesitates. He is not accustomed to sharing his mind with his friends while it is still in turmoil; always they have been at his side when he has decided upon a course, and though sometimes they argue, they have his back. But ever it was Loki who talked through uncertainties with him. And now ... now Loki is a traitor, now Loki has tried to kill him, now Loki is mad, and Odin is doing everything he can to hold the kingdom together. Thor must no longer place his own frustration before Odin's policy.

"It is but an incentive," Thor says. "Of course Father won't give Loki up."

"Will he not?" Sif asks, quite gently for Sif, coming down from the fence.

"Of course not," Thor repeats.

"Oh, surely not!" Fandral puts in, with a joviality that sounds forced. "He must have another plan."

"Thor." Hogun is watching him very seriously. "You know Loki will not give in."

"Perhaps," Thor says. "But you see Father has to try."

"It doesn't seem very -- well, very fair, does it?" Fandral says. He was always ready to excuse Loki's mischief when it landed them in trouble, and for that Thor feels a flare of sudden gratefulness.

"I don't know whether it is fair," Thor says, but even as he says it he is caught halfway between agreement and frustration at his own inability to speak well, and the words come out with an edge of anger.

"The people of Asgard will not like being dragged into war for a Jotun traitor," Hogun says, and meets Thor's eyes without apology.

"He's right," Volstagg says, sounding terribly anxious for voicing this at all. "It makes sense. The king needs to show everyone with Loki’s oath that Loki is pardonable -- that he intends to mend his ways -- or, well --"

"Or the king must give up Asgard's source of grief," Sif finishes.

Thor clenches his jaw. All of them are unraveling Odin's thoughts so well, but there is a hesitation in their words, a paleness in Sif's cheeks, which give him pause. Uncertainty twists hot in his belly. Would it really be so impossible, Thor wonders, to simply keep Loki confined, and fight the Chitauri as they would if he swore fealty? Would Loki's oath truly make Asgard any safer?

"Thor," Volstagg says. He hesitates. "I couldn't do so to one of my own children. No matter what they had done."

But it comes back around to that one terrible moment of insight: the only way Loki's fealty will make a difference to the safety of the realm is if he swears with the understanding that his salvation lies with Odin. His fear and his obedience guarantee that Asgard is safe in keeping him.

"That," Thor says. The words stick in his throat. "That is why Father is king."

And Volstagg must be wrong, he thinks; what Odin is doing is no worse than how any father might deal with a disobedient child. And he is not merely the father of a disobedient son; he is the king of Asgard, and none of his decisions can be for himself alone, Thor knows that well enough. Odin is giving Loki every opportunity he may. It is good policy.

"Thor --" Sif starts.

"It is good policy," Thor repeats aloud. His voice sounds too harsh in his ears, and he takes a deep breath, modulating his anger. "And I know Father would not -- he does not want to make such difficult decisions. He would never have had to make them had his sons -- had both of us -- behaved in ways befitting princes."

The stunned looks on his friends' faces shift; there is respect there, too. "Thor," Sif murmurs, but she says nothing more. Instead she comes up to him, touching his elbow lightly as Frigga is sometimes wont to do, a gesture of support.

"You're going to be a very good king," Fandral adds, and gives Thor an anxious grin.

Thor ducks his head in wordless thanks. It feels strangely familiar; it feels like his coronation all over again, his friends acting impressed, and all Thor can think for a moment is that he will never live up to their expectations, in greatness nor in wisdom. He is not his father; he is not king; he cannot imagine allowing Loki to fall into the hands of the Chitauri.

"Another bout?" Sif asks, with false desperate brightness. All the same Thor feels grateful for it, and for the transparency with which the others follow Sif's lead and attempt to act as though all is well. Thor nods and begins stretching in preparation for the next round.

He does not lose every following fight, but he suspects that Volstagg at least may be allowing him to win. Despite his friends' best efforts, his mind is still in turmoil. He may see Odin's policy more clearly now, and know that it is the right course of action; but still there is one thought Thor can't quite rid himself of.

He cannot imagine letting Loki go.

*

Nor can he face Loki again. Every time Thor remembers that he allowed some hapless messenger to deliver Odin's ultimatum, every time he remembers he was too much of a coward to face Loki himself, his insides twist with new guilt. Why, by all the nine realms, did he think that in postponing his next confrontation with Loki he might make the situation less terrible?

He spends his time discussing Asgard's defenses and various other tactical considerations with his father: the Bifrost is still only at the beginnings of its repair, though the rebuilding will go faster now that the Tesseract has been restored. In the meantime Asgard is effectively shut in, so they speak of fortifications, of weak points, of where the valkyries will be most effective in the air. Odin listens to Thor's recommendations and often finds them good; so at least Thor is able to do that much. In the evenings he dines with his friends, and the seat at the table which should be Loki's hurts like a wound becoming old and familiar. Thor sees little of his mother. She is the only one of them who can bear to go to Loki. "He still says no," Frigga tells them every morning.

After a full shameful week of this, Thor summons the necessary courage. Rather than meeting Odin after he breaks his fast, rather than hearing yet again Frigga's report of his brother's stubborn refusal, Thor gathers the weight of his guilt and carries it with him, heavier than Mjolnir, through the palace to Loki's prison.

This time, when Loki sees him, he does not even feign composure. Loki sneers at him and turns back to the book in his lap. There are books all over the room now, making the place look more like Loki's old quarters; Frigga's doing, certainly.

"Loki," Thor says, and when Loki's only response is the coiled tension of his posture, Thor hardly knows where to begin. The first words that come into his head are I'm sorry, and he nearly says them, because his cowardice was terrible and his honor demands it -- but Thor has already spent enough time reaching to Loki for reconciliation and receiving little in return. Besides, the matter of Loki's fealty is much more pressing than any of Thor's personal concerns. So Thor says, "You must swear yourself to Father. You must."

Loki turns to the next page of his book with implacable deliberate calm.

"Loki," Thor says again, his voice cracking.

"I can't imagine what you think to achieve here," Loki murmurs. "Mother has tried both reason and emotional appeals." He looks up then, and his eyes are so cold that Thor feels their gaze like a pressure in his chest. "Were you planning to beat it out of me?"

Thor shakes his head wordlessly. He sees now the true reason for his reluctance to visit Loki again, a much stronger deterrent than his shame: he already knew, in his heart, that there was nothing to be done. He sees the quiet fury in Loki's face, the absolute resolution, and for the second time in his life, Thor feels hope gutter out like a blown flame. Somehow this is much worse than the moment when Mjolnir refused to come away in his grip; that was but the death of his arrogance. This --

He did not cry when Loki fell. He was too stunned to weep; and then there was his father's explanation of Loki's true origins, and the struggle to make this new information fit with what he thought he knew of his brother. Thor has not yet been afforded a moment to learn how to mourn; or else he is learning it all the time, painful and slow. There must be a course less terrible.

"I cannot let you go to your death," Thor says. "I have seen it once already and I could hardly bear it then."

A smile twitches across Loki's face. "You give yourself too little credit. These things become easier with practice."

Thor grits his teeth. "Must you turn this into a jest? It is no laughing matter."

"Oh, I know," Loki says, and laughs in a mirthless huff, his smile coming back as a bright vicious grin.

Thor marvels at how easy it is for Loki to tip him from fear to frustration. But he can see what Loki is doing, which calms his reaction; and he can see too that Loki is furious with him. Thor takes a breath. "You're angry," he says. "It's understandable."

"Really." Loki leans forward, book forgotten. "This should be good. So you think the Allfather's demands are unfair?"

"No." Don't let Loki goad you, Thor reminds himself, and remembers to be fair, to be honest, to try to make Loki understand why Odin would ask such a thing, because surely -- surely -- "I don't know what is best," Thor admits. "I see why you would be angry, and I see why Father seeks your fealty on such stringent terms."

Loki's face twists. "Coward," he says, quiet. "You will not even risk taking a stand."

"Can we argue this when you're not about to die?" Thor demands. But Loki is turning back to his book. Thor wants nothing more than to stride across the room, knock the book from Loki's hands, and -- what? Shake Loki into reason? Threaten him? Beg? Thor's heart sinks. "So there is nothing to be done."

Loki's gaze flickers back up. "There's nothing you can do," he says.

No, Thor thinks, but even as he does, a spark lights in his mind. There is nothing he can do alone, that much is obvious; but Thor is not alone. He has allies on two worlds.

Across the room Loki's eyes narrow. "What?"

"What if ... you were not here," Thor says, feeling the idea out. "If you refuse to swear fealty, we must protect you from the Chitauri another way."

Loki gives a disbelieving laugh. "And what exactly are you proposing?"

"We must go to Midgard," Thor says, his assurance growing with each word. "The Chitauri have no means of travel similar to the Bifrost, which will buy us time --"

"We have no means of travel similar to the Bifrost," Loki interrupts, "since you broke it. Or do you imagine the Allfather will summon the necessary dark energy to send me down? My exile is no bargaining chip, so I seriously doubt he'd agree to this plan. Do you think nothing through?"

Thor cannot help it: he grins, all the wider for the bemused look Loki gives him. Loki may not realize it, but they're finally, finally speaking to the same purpose. Loki's clipped and exasperated deconstruction of Thor's plans is the most wonderful thing Thor has heard in ages. "You forget," Thor says, "my friends upon Midgard. I am thinking this through."

"No," Loki says flatly. He still looks utterly baffled. "You're proposing that we flee from the world that sheltered me for years and from my erstwhile allies, both lately turned against me, for a planet I razed and people who wanted to hold me on trial for war crimes, many of whom I've personally offended. This will accomplish nothing."

"You think you would fare better at the hands of the Chitauri?" Thor demands.

"You think the Chitauri will offer me worse than Midgard will?" Loki returns, soft. His eyes are glittering dangerously.

"I think that the Chitauri look upon the failure of their invasion as a betrayal," Thor says, "and I think that my mortal allies would not be so quick to refuse us as you think. Loki. Please."

Loki shrinks back into his chair. "You've gone mad. Leave me."

This is the first time Loki has actually demanded Thor's departure, so Thor bows his head. "Very well," he says, "but I'm not giving up on you yet." And before Loki can answer, he goes.

*

Thor has already shirked the informal morning war meeting, and he has no great desire to encounter Odin now, especially as his father has an unfortunate ability to know Thor's thoughts as soon as look on him. But luck is with Thor; he meets no one in the corridors, and when he tries his mother's chambers, he finds Frigga alone.

His relief is short-lived. Frigga is weaving, Thor sees, and the knowledge twists in his chest: she is weaving war bandages.

"Mother," Thor says. She looks up at him, a tired smile in her eyes, and the weight of recent events falls upon Thor so heavily in that moment that he suddenly understands what moved Loki to kneel by Frigga with his head in her lap. Thor wants more than anything to do the same. "I need your help," he says.

She sets aside her weaving and gestures him to her chair. Thor goes, but he does not sit with her. Instead he stands very straight and tells her, with as much certainty as he can, "Loki cannot stay here."

Frigga regards him steadily. "No," she says, "he can't."

"I would have him go back to Midgard." Thor hesitates, but Frigga waits without censure, and Thor knows, sudden and swift as joy, that he has done right to go to her. "Neither Loki nor Father will back down; I don't know whether Father will understand, but whatever Loki's crimes, he cannot be allowed to throw himself upon a terrible death for the sake of his pride. The mortals will not kill him, I know this, and with his magic gone he can be locked away safely enough. I have allies and friends upon Midgard who might even look after him if I asked it." He gazes down at his mother's patient face and adds anxiously, "I would not be gone long, only so long as it takes to ensure Loki's safety. Then I will return to defend our realm and to accept whatever punishment Father deems right for my actions."

"Oh Thor," Frigga murmurs, rising, and to his surprise Thor finds himself enveloped in a fierce embrace. "I wondered if you would come to this," Frigga says. "I feared you would be too cowed by your father."

Thor draws back in some indignation. "You did not ask!"

"Thor." Frigga gives him a fond smile. "How could I ask you to choose between us? Besides," she grows brisk, "you would have been well within your rights to tell your father if you disagreed with me. Since you do not -- yes, we must get Loki to safety. But I fear my own magics are not enough to transport you to Midgard."

"You will not have to do that," Thor tells her, nearly tripping over the words in his eagerness. Hope has sprung up inside him again, and with it the relief of a shared burden, though none of their difficulties are yet overcome. He takes his mother's hands in his. "With the Tesseract here, we can go to Midgard easily enough. I will need your watch to bring Loki to the vault unseen, and I will need you to return me to Asgard -- the following day, if you can." He sees Frigga's smile growing sad, and falters. "This is much to ask."

"For the safety of my sons I would do much more," Frigga tells him.

There is a quality to her voice, the faintest controlled edge of anger, that compels Thor to lean in against her, the same impulse he felt earlier to kneel by his mother's chair. Frigga allows this, and after a moment she rests her head upon his shoulder. Thor draws a breath. "Do you think Father might relent?" he asks, low. "Would he really do as he says he would?"

His mother is quiet for so long that Thor wonders whether she heard him. Then, "Yes," Frigga murmurs. "Yes. He will do as he says."

Thor bows his head. It is a relief to hear, for all that it brings him no comfort: it means that things are desperate enough that he must do what he has to. "Then let us do this, and be done with it," he says.

Frigga draws away. "I will bring Loki," she says. "Meet me in the vault at midday. If anyone asks, say you are there upon my errand."

"Of course," Thor says, though he intends to do no such thing; he would not for any world cause Frigga to come to trouble for the defiance he means to make.

They take leave of each other. There is some time still before midday, but Thor wastes most of it pacing his chambers, looking out over Asgard's houses and hills and mountains rising in the distance, and debating with himself. Perhaps he should warn Sif and the Warriors of this plan, or say goodbye to them, even if he is only to be gone a short time. But he knows he's only entertaining the idea because he wishes for comfort when there is none to be found, so when the time draws near, Thor takes his hammer and goes to the vault.

None of the guards ask him his business; he is the son of Odin, and can go where he likes, even to the most closely protected parts of the realm.

The Tesseract sits alone, a blue glow lighting an alcove. Not a dozen steps away is the place where frost spread to cover the floor, bringing ruin to Thor's coronation. Thor stares at the dark floor, Mjolnir a comforting heaviness at his side, and waits. Waiting is always the most difficult thing; action is easy, any action at all, but the moments beforehand ... Thor stands alone in the echoing vault, and thinks, the one thought he allows, This is terrible. He does not wonder whether Frigga will appear at the appointed hour, or whether she will be able to convince Loki to come at all. He does not think what his father might do. He waits, in the silence.

At length the doors swing open. Thor looks up, and the flood of relief he feels at seeing Frigga and Loki on the stair nearly chokes him.

Loki still wears the shining cuffs that bind his magic, but he is not shackled, nor muzzled again. Their mother, then, did not have the heart for that, but Thor cannot blame her. She walks down the steps with Loki, a hand light on his elbow as though to guide him. They stop before the Tesseract.

"Two of Earth's days," Thor says. "Give me that, and then bring me home."

Frigga ducks her head in agreement. She lets go of Loki. He stays very still. Thor cannot bring himself to look on Loki's face, but he can feel Loki's glare on him, and bears up under it with all the assurance he can. He smiles instead at his mother. She smiles back, and reaches out briefly to touch his face.

"Take care of one another," she says.

What a strange thing to say, Thor thinks, but he only nods and takes Loki's arm. Frigga reaches for the Tesseract. The world flares up blue and becomes a rush of light, the weight of Loki beside him Thor's only anchor.

When the world becomes solid again, Thor and Loki are standing upon a path surrounded by trees, and Thor cannot help breaking into a grin of relief. They're back on Midgard.