Thor recognizes the place where he and Loki have landed. It is the park in the middle of the city, surrounded by tall buildings, the same place from which he and Loki left some weeks before. There are mortals here and there nearby, walking the path or lying under the trees, reading. None of them have noticed Thor and Loki's sudden appearance save one, a small child gawking at them over food she has dropped on her feet. Thor gives her a smile.
At his side Loki stirs, the slight, wary movement of a predator scenting out some new place. Thor remembers his charge and looks around, which is when he makes the uncomfortable discovery that, while he recognizes the park, he has no memory of where Stark's tower sits. But it is no matter; Thor has found his way in far worse places than this.
Of course, those times Loki was at his side in feeling as well as physical presence. Thor has no great desire to hear any more of Loki's opinions on the ill-thought nature of his plan.
Before Thor can decide upon a course, however, there is a roaring noise from the sky. Thor raises his hammer, and then relaxes -- fractionally -- when Tony Stark, in his metal suit, executes a neat landing before them. Stark's hands are raised, energy weapons glowing in his palms, but Thor hardly blames him.
"What the fuck," the Man of Iron says.
"Stark," says Thor. "I will explain."
This takes some doing. Thor does succeed in explaining that he and Loki are on Midgard from an extremity of need, that they seek asylum, and that Loki's bound magic renders him for the moment far less dangerous than he was. But by this time Stark has brought them to his tower, and Thor must explain it all over again to the other Avengers, whom Stark summoned the moment he discovered Thor and Loki's presence. Stark arranges for a room in which Loki can be locked, so he cannot interfere with Thor's explanation. Loki suffers this without complaint, but he throws Thor a look of sardonic challenge just before the door closes on him; and Thor knows that Loki's doubt is not entirely misplaced. He and Stark join the rest of the Avengers in a room in Stark's tower which reminds Thor very much of his father's council hall. Thor is touched that all of them have come. Barton is stony-faced, Romanoff unreadable; Rogers looks frustrated, and Banner mildly amused. Stark fidgets with a pen.
But when Thor makes his explanation, all of them listen without protest. Even Barton listens, for all that his grievance against Loki might be strongest. Thor is just beginning to have hope that all might go well when Nick Fury arrives, striding into the room without announcing himself, black coat billowing in his wake.
"I thought your people were going to take care of Loki," Fury says.
Take care of. Fury says these words, and they sound final; they sound knowing; they sound as though Fury thinks as Odin does. Thor meets Fury's eye, and remembers how, long weeks ago, Fury looked at him exactly thus and asked him what he was prepared to do.
"They were going to," Thor admits. "I could not let that stand."
"So you've come to dump the problem back on us?" Fury demands.
Thor raises his chin and marshals his thoughts. Fury is of a type he knows, but Fury is mortal, and Thor owes him nothing beyond his greater obligation to Midgard; Thor will not be shamed by him. "I know we owe each other nothing," he says, "and that you have no wish to take responsibility for Loki's confinement. But your world is no longer alone in the universe. The rest of the Chitauri fleet may be coming for my realm first, but only because it is closer -- you cannot think they will ignore this place because you have rebuffed one attack." Thor keeps his gaze locked on Fury's, but he can sense the others stirring around the table, and knows he's gained ground. "When the Chitauri come again, and they will come, I should like to aid those who are already my allies."
Fury simply stares at him. Thor wonders if Fury can tell it is an empty threat; and then he wonders if, after all, he would come to Midgard's aid were Loki lost to him, and he feels something shift in his expression, hardening.
"Gods," Fury says meditatively. "All of you are bastards. All right."
"All right?" Stark echoes.
"Yes, Mr. Stark," Fury drawls. "We're going to keep Loki. We have a facility that should hold him just fine, if his magic's really gone like Thor says."
"It is," Thor confirms.
"Hang on just a minute," Stark snaps. He looks around the table, searching for support. "C'mon, guys, are we actually going to be bullied into this? We worked our asses off to get rid of Loki, and now a month later we're going to play babysitters for him? I'm sorry, no. Cap -- Cap, after what he did to the city?"
Captain Rogers has been frowning down at his hands. He looks up. "I get why Thor came back," he says, and looks over at Thor. "I'm not saying I'm a fan of the ultimatum, or the implication that we can't defend the Earth just fine without you, but ..." He shrugs. "I'd like to call handing Loki over to the Chitauri poetic justice, but he is still Thor's brother, and if Thor wasn't expecting anything that harsh, I don't think it sits right with me either. Besides, who knows what Loki might talk his way into back with the Chitauri? We might have an even bigger mess on our hands. Personally I'm happy to have Loki where we can keep an eye on him."
Stark makes a noise of baffled frustration and turns, snapping his fingers and pointing at Romanoff and Barton in turn. "Coulson," he says. "Are we going to call that one water under the bridge?"
Romanoff gives Stark the frown of someone not seeing the relevance to this argument; but Barton starts to say something, thinks better of it, and gives Stark the long stare of a man caught out.
Fury heaves a sigh.
"Coulson isn't dead," Romanoff says, glancing to Fury and back at Stark. "His condition was unstable for a few hours; no one was sure he would make it for about a day."
"Ah," Stark says, inflectionless. "Well. Glad you bothered to tell us."
"That's ... good news," Banner puts in, as though he hopes it is. Captain Rogers looks as though he's not sure either.
So Agent Coulson's recovery is news to Rogers, Banner, and Stark as well as to Thor. Thor is glad indeed to hear that he lives; in a deeply unpleasant day, the moment when Loki thrust his spear through Coulson's chest was one of the most unpleasant of all. Thor resolves to leave some message of apology for Agent Coulson before he goes; then he sets his joy at this news aside, and recalculates. No one looks particularly pleased to hear that Coulson is well -- because, of course, Fury was keeping it from them. That Fury has agreed to keep Loki now seems like no advantage at all. Thor tries to think of a new approach, but Fury speaks first.
"Of course it's good news," he says, long-suffering. "Feel like you saved the world for nothing now, Stark?"
"I -- no!" Stark snaps, sounding distinctly wrong-footed.
"Here's how it's going to go," Fury says. "We're going to put Loki somewhere we can keep an eye on him, and have plenty of advance warning if he tries to get up to anything; and if he does misbehave, that might give us a heads-up if Thor's right, and the alien army comes calling again." Stark opens his mouth, and Fury holds up a hand. "It isn't up to you. And if you feel like making it, chew on this: you still want the Avengers to be a reality? You want to keep being a team of heroes, saving the day and not getting in trouble for the damages?"
"I can pay the repairs," Stark protests.
"You can," Fury agrees. "But I'm the only thing standing between you and total bureaucratic shutdown. And the people who want to shut you down? Sometimes they throw nukes at New York City."
Thor can actually see the color drain from Stark's face. "So," Stark says, very flat, "those people are definitely not people we want to get their hands on Loki, either."
"Now you're getting it," says Fury.
Stark mashes the heels of his hands under his eyes. "Fine," he says, muffled. Looking up again, he asks around the table, "All in favor?"
Slowly the rest nod, Barton behind the others; he seems to be having an argument with Fury that consists only of them looking at one another, but at length he heaves a sigh and shrugs agreement. Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff both meet Thor's eyes, acknowledging their acceptance of his request, and Captain Rogers gives Thor a small, crooked smile. Thor manages a smile in return, grateful that he is already sitting down. The relief is overwhelming.
He didn't know he had been so afraid.
Thor's request to stay that night in Stark's tower before returning to Asgard in the morning is granted by Stark. "Not a problem," Stark tells him. "I have plenty of rooms, and the gang's all here." He narrows his eyes in thought. "Actually," he says, "I sent Pepper to DC the moment I realized it was Loki in the Park, and Rhodey's way the fuck out on the West Coast, and Cap and our friends the agents have SHIELD housing -- seriously, they could each have their own floor but apparently some brownstone in Brooklyn is nicer? -- so the gang's just me and Bruce and the robots." He gives Thor a grin that's mostly teeth.
"Ah," Thor says, entirely at a loss. "Thank you?"
He considers whether he should check on the state of Loki's new accommodations. He knows that Loki has been transported to a SHIELD prison facility by Fury and some of his agents; Fury left to do this while Thor was still answering more in-depth questions for the Avengers on the nature of Odin's binding spell, and the political situation on Asgard, and his own plans to return home and help in the war. Thor felt he owed his comrades those answers, at least. Now that they are gone, he could go see Loki one last time before he departs -- he doubts Fury would refuse him that request -- but Thor balks at the idea. What more have he and Loki to say to one another? Loki would only say hurtful things for the sake of seeing Thor hurt. No: it is better to give Loki no farewell at all than to go back to war with the memory of a painful one. Thor has enough of those already.
Instead he follows Stark into an elevator, which rises from the conference floor. When it stops, however, Stark turns to Thor and says, "This is me, sweetheart. JARVIS, give Thor the tour."
"Certainly, sir," a disembodied voice replies.
Thor looks around curiously as the doors slide closed after Stark. The elevator is quite devoid of places in which to hide. "What manner of being are you?" he asks.
"JARVIS, sir," the voice says. "I'm an artificial intelligence, created by Mr. Stark to run the internal systems of his homes and Iron Man suits. Would you like the tour?"
Thor is much more fascinated by JARVIS, the disembodied servant whose intelligence seems quite real, than he is in learning the layout of some small mortal home, but he understands the desire to fulfill a duty well, so he follows JARVIS's voice through the tower. He learns the location of the kitchen, the library, the sparring room, and the hall of entertainment; JARVIS calls some of these by unfamiliar names, but explains their functions well enough for translation. Much of the tower is off-limits to those who do not have Stark's skills at sorcery, but Thor accepts this. JARVIS runs the elevator between floors, and will take him where he needs to go.
JARVIS offers to show Thor his quarters, but Thor says, "Thank you, no; I would eat before I take my rest. The tour was most informative."
"A pleasure, sir," JARVIS says, and goes silent.
Thor makes his way back to the kitchen. It is very unlike the kitchens in the palace, or indeed those elsewhere in Asgard: there is no central fire, and while Thor sees something that looks like an oven, there is no warmth to it. Nor does it remind him of the space in Jane's workshop that served as kitchen, for this place is far too opulent. Here there are all manner of metallic devices with no purpose that Thor can discern, and even though he does recognize some of the same appliances that Jane's kitchen had, these ones look unnecessarily complicated. At Smith Motors they had only a small gas oven, on which Thor made Erik eggs to cure his hangover, and a small oven which Jane used to warm pop tarts.
He misses Jane, suddenly, like a sharp whipcrack that hurts all the more because he did not think to prepare himself for it. He hopes she's somewhere safe. He's grateful that Coulson -- Coulson, who is still alive, despite Loki's worst vicious efforts -- sent Jane away. He's even grateful that Loki is locked up here, on Midgard, harmless and out of Asgard's reckoning and no longer Thor's responsibility.
No. Unworthy thought.
Thor shakes this off and goes to search the cupboards for food. Everything is neatly packaged and unappealing. He wishes for diner food like Izzy's, back in Puente Antiguo. He wishes for thick stew and late-summer apples. He wishes for anything familiar.
"I do that all the time," says a mild voice behind him. Thor turns in surprise, and sees Dr. Banner standing there in his rumpled clothes, looking self-deprecating and harmless. Thor wonders whether he can read minds. But Banner just smiles lopsidedly and elaborates, "I'll stand in front of the fridge for five minutes and never figure out what I want."
"I could use some guidance," Thor admits.
"Let's see." Banner comes up to stand beside him, looking over the food. Thor notices, not for the first time, how carefully Banner moves, and how strangely, as though he must keep himself from touching anything for fear of breaking the world. Thor wonders whether he does it consciously. But he doesn't ask, and after a moment Banner says, decisively, "Pasta," and begins gathering ingredients.
"May I help?" Thor asks.
"Sure," says Banner. "Boil some water. Ever made pasta before?"
Thor has not; in fact, he's never seen anything quite like it. These noodles are out of his reckoning, and the way they go from brittle to pliant in the boiling water amuses him greatly. The sauce too is wholly unfamiliar, though Thor takes to it at once. At least neither cheese nor vegetables are strange to him; he eats the end of the block of cheese while they finish their cooking preparations.
Banner makes enough for three, but Stark does not appear. Thor is a little grateful for that; he keeps dropping the noodles, making a mess, and where Banner's laughter is good-natured, Thor suspects he would find Stark's less so.
"I'm sorry I can't stay longer," Thor says, once he more or less has the hang of eating the pasta. "The food here is a delight."
"Next time," Banner says. It sounds like polite empty words, but Thor sees that it is a question -- You will come back? You won't leave us to watch Loki forever? -- and he nods acknowledgment and confirmation. Banner sighs and twirls pasta around his fork. "We could use you," he says. "We're doing fine, I guess, but this Avengers thing ..."
"Stark did say you were the only one living here," Thor says. He serves himself a third helping of pasta. "This place seems ideal as headquarters. Why are the others so far away? Is this 'Avengers thing' not happening properly?"
"Oh, it is," Banner says. His mouth quirks up on one side. "Any time there's a problem that seems tricky for local law enforcement to solve, we turn up and save the day. Well. I say we. Half of the time we're working on reconstruction, repairing the city after -- people are calling it the Battle of New York -- after Loki." Banner looks apologetic, but Thor merely nods. Banner nods back, ruefully. "And half the time we're dealing with people more powered-up than the police can handle. Not on a god-level or anything, just the people with seriously big weapons or abilities. Even then, the, uh, the other guy usually sits out. He ... breaks things."
"The Hulk is formidable," Thor agrees, and shares a smile with Banner. "It is good to hear the Avengers are succeeding, even if you do not share quarters, or come to every battle. A warrior with friends is better than a warrior alone."
"Which is why we could use you," Banner says, pointing his fork at Thor. "We need another heavyweight; someone reliable. Which I'm afraid you weren't really being, earlier today. Did you seriously threaten Director Fury that you'd bail on Earth if he didn't do what you wanted?"
"Yes," Thor says. "I suppose I did."
Banner shakes his head, chuckling. Then Thor is laughing too, a little surprised with himself after all. "Well," Banner says, "it took guts. But how do you know Fury's going to stick to it? He could be bluffing you."
Thor's laughter trails off. "Fury will stick to it," he says, "because the alternatives are worse."
"Yeah," Banner agrees, sobering.
"Tell me something of your exploits," Thor says quickly, before Banner can follow any of those alternatives in his thoughts. "Living with Stark must be very exciting."
Banner hesitates a moment; then he relents to the swift change in topic, and smiles, a slow spreading smile of such fond warmth it takes Thor by surprise. "Tony's ... something," Banner allows. "He has whole floors just for his scientific equipment -- not just for his clean energy work, either, but that's incredible, and I think I might actually be working him up to admitting that peer review is an important part of --" He breaks off, giving Thor a rueful smile. "I bet this is all Greek to you."
Thor tries to parse this, and realizes what the idiom must be from the look of dawning self-recriminating hilarity on Banner's face. "I don't have to follow the particulars to understand your enthusiasm. I take it that peer review involves having one's work examined by others who understand the work and have similar skills?"
"Yeah." Banner scrutinizes Thor. "Hey, do you happen to know anything about how the Tesseract works? We've been trying to talk to Dr. Selvig about it, but he asked for leave from SHIELD for a little while; he's somewhere out in the desert. I wouldn't actually mention it to Tony -- he's, uh, a bit frustrated that Selvig's probably off sharing notes with Dr. Foster instead of him."
The name lances joy through Thor. "Dr. Jane Foster?" he asks.
"Right, you know her." Banner huffs a laugh. "It really is too bad you're not sticking around."
"I begin to feel so as well," Thor confesses. "And if matters were less urgent, I think I would do so. This world is dear to me, but the war summons me home, and if I can help defeat the Chitauri while they are yet near Asgard, I will have done my duty to both our realms." He breathes out, letting go of that tension of duty for a moment. "But I find it a pity indeed that I have twice returned to Midgard without paying Jane a visit. It would ... be very good to see her."
Banner's face softens. "Yeah," he says. "Well, if you do get the chance, she's out in New Mexico, doing really amazing work."
"I'm sure she'd be happy at the chance to meet you as well," Thor says, and watches Banner's face stay soft and longing. He knows better than to touch that more deeply, so instead Thor slurps up the last of his noodles and adds, "I believe now would be the time to bid you goodnight."
"Sure," Banner says. "I can't imagine the jetlag you must have right now."
"Jetlag?" Thor repeats. "That is all Greek to me," and Bruce laughs with him.
In the morning Thor wakes to the golden rise of a strange star, and successfully navigates his way to the pantry and thus to pop tarts while no one but JARVIS is awake. This turns out to be a blessing, for Thor tries to use the stove to heat the pop tarts, as Bruce cooked the pasta the previous night, and he startles more than he should when JARVIS says, very sharply, "Sir! I would advise you to use the toaster." Then of course Thor must be instructed in the use of the toaster, and while he does achieve his pop tarts without further mishap, he starts the day in an ill mood. Tony Stark's Midgard is not the one he is used to; it defeats him with its alienness even when he does not feel wrong-footed by it.
Thor is most of the way through the second heated box (cinnamon) when Stark strolls into the kitchen wearing nothing but loose grey trousers. Thor stops, food halfway to his mouth, and stares.
He did not realize that the glowing device which powered Stark's armor was in fact a part of Stark; but there it is, embedded in his chest, glowing. The sight gives Thor a strange feeling, a respect close enough to awe to be distinctly uncomfortable. He had not realized that Stark's sorcery was so great, nor so ... unsubtle.
"Morning, sunshine," Stark drawls. Thor's gaze snaps back up to his face. Stark gives Thor that brilliant grin, mostly teeth. "Like what you see?"
"Your energy device is most impressive," Thor says, opting for honesty.
It seems to work; Stark's smile suddenly looks more like a smile. "Arc reactor," he says. "Powers the suit, powers me, long story, we'll save the version in epic verse for a time when you're vacationing here a little longer."
"I should like that," Thor says.
"Mmhm." Stark comes up to the table, and blinks at Thor's plate. "Huh. Is that a whole box of pop tarts?"
Thor is saved from admitting that it is, in fact, the second box, by a sudden interruption from JARVIS. "Sir," the intelligence's voice says, "I've picked up the same keywords on both SHIELD and NYPD frequencies. The chatter seems to indicate an altercation at the docks, and the use of a 'brainwashing machine'. Some sort of sonic device inducing rage in everyone within range."
"Huh." Stark squints out at the view of the city below them. "Could the suit block it?"
"Without running tests --"
"We're on it," Stark says. "Get Bruce up for this one, will you? I doubt a brainwashing rage machine will make much difference to the Hulk. And assemble the others at whatever recon point is nearest this thing. Can we be there in ten? We'll be there in ten."
"The alert is already sent, sir," JARVIS replies.
"What do we know so far?" Stark asks, pressing buttons on the device around his wrist.
"A unit of police discovered suspicious activity at the docks," JARVIS reports. "Shortly after they called it in, their presence was discovered, and they were attacked, it seems, not by the workers at the suspicious crate, but by all nearby civilians. This is the point at which SHIELD took an interest."
"I'd say," Stark says, his eyebrows going up. "And the current situation?"
"Complete chaos, sir," JARVIS says dryly.
Stark snorts. "This should be fun. Okay, suiting up, heading out."
"What of Barton?" Thor blurts.
Stark blinks at him. It's plain he had forgotten that Thor was even in the room. Thor frowns and elaborates, "If this machine can alter the mind -- after what Loki did to him -- I'm not suggesting he is not a capable warrior, simply that he should be informed of the foe he'll be facing."
"We'll inform," Stark says, waving a hand. A beat, and then he adds, "You wanna come take down a bad guy?"
Thor grins. "Yes."
Thor finds the earplugs provided by SHIELD distracting, and the high-pitched noise emitted by the machine in question only mildly irritating. The Hulk, too, finds it mildly irritating; between Thor's swiftness and the Hulk's resistance to bullets, the machine is soon in pieces.
With the machine destroyed, the civilians caught in the crossfire are free to run. The men still guarding the machine lose most of their nerve; it is easy work for the Avengers to take them down. Thor even finds it a little unsporting to use Mjolnir against them, at least until he sees for a moment a glowing point of red light against his armor -- Agent Barton knocks him out of the way, something very small and fast shoots past Thor's head, and he loses most of his idle impulse for mercy. He fights back-to-back with Barton, swinging his hammer at any who come too close while Barton shoots those rushing them from a distance. Behind him, Thor can hear the sound of the Hulk making very sure that the machine does not ever function again. To Thor's left, Agent Romanoff fells a foe with a small lightning of her own while the Captain punches another going for her blind spot. To Thor's right, Stark comes down out of the sky, his energy weapons blazing, and makes straight for their enemies' apparent leader, whose face is startling and strange: metal covers half his skull, and one of his eyes glows machine-red.
Thor thinks he prefers Stark's sorcery to this man's.
The Captain comes to Stark's aid, shouting something, but Thor pays it little mind. He's swept up in battle-joy, though he has the presence of mind not to laugh with it, not in this still-unfamiliar company. But he can, he realizes, hear Barton, who only laughs a brief bitter laugh and says, as the Captain knocks their foes' leader out with finality, "Yeah, take that, dick."
Not especially eloquent, Thor supposes, but very much to the point upon victory.
It is the work of moments to round up the remainder of their enemies. By then the city's law enforcement has arrived, to shackle the men and lead them away; Thor also briefly glimpses Agent Hill, making her way straight to their foes' leader and taking him quietly away. Thor glances sideways at Agent Romanoff, and sees her noticing that he's noticed. Her mouth quirks into a brief sideways smile of acknowledgment.
"Everyone out who's getting out," she says under her breath. "That means you, Clint."
"What about Thor?" Barton asks. "He's not doing the press circuit."
"Exactly." Stark has come up during this exchange. "This is a me, Rogers, Romanoff, and Bruce operation only. Where's Bruce? Is he Bruce yet? Hawkeye, do you have Bruce's spare pants?"
"Always," Barton says, rolling his eyes. His shoulders tighten. "Okay, Thor, come on, we're benched."
Thor follows Barton willingly enough, puzzled. They find Bruce in the crater of broken machinery -- he accepts the clothing graciously -- and go on to a black vehicle which will, Thor assumes, return them to Stark's tower. He gets in after Barton, and watches the city go by, sitting as still as he's able. It's not very; he has yet to come down from the joy of battle, and he can feel the pump of his blood. It was good to have something to fight, good to have the Avengers at his side, good to have something simple, but now that it's over he still has such energy that he feels the battle was much too short. Barton, beside him, seems no better off; the mortal sits very still, but it is fighting-still, or perhaps anger-still. Thor would be willing to bet it's the second, for though Barton sounded easy enough about being 'benched,' his body said otherwise.
"The press circuit?" Thor asks.
"News media," Barton says shortly. "They've gotten better at finding out where the Avengers are gonna be. Show up, film us fighting, want a play-by-play afterwards. Stark loves it. Of course he does."
Thor tries to imagine how Stark would talk, explaining the battle to curious strangers. He would boast, Thor suspects, playing up the Avengers' deeds and prowess; Thor cannot help the grin that crosses his face at the thought.
They reach Stark's tower in good time, and go up to the common spaces together. Given Barton's mood, Thor expects him to go somewhere alone, but Barton simply throws himself upon the nearest couch and stays sprawled there, glaring out the wide window. This seems enough like an invitation that Thor settles himself upon the floor by the couch, leaning back on his elbows and observing the view as well. The spires and towers of New York City cannot rival Asgard's for beauty, but there is something grand in them all the same, and something a little like home.
"Why did they wish for you to return here?" Thor asks, low.
Barton is silent for a long time, long enough that Thor supposes Barton must be ignoring the question, or pretending not to have heard it. Then, "I know him," Barton says. "The guy who was leading them. I mean, I've dealt with him before."
Thor twists to look up at Barton. "He is an old foe?"
"An old foe," Barton mutters, and smiles, brief and ironic. "Yeah."
Barton, Thor reflects, is nearly as taciturn as Hogun. "I would like to hear about him, if you wouldn't mind telling," he says. "Even if he is defeated, it is good to know one's enemies. And I think he would have been formidable, had we not joined forces against him. His machine was a clever sorcery."
"Oh yeah, he has lots where that came from." Barton sits upright. "So this guy, right. William Cross, calls himself Crossfire. He created that brainwashing shit himself, back when he was working for the CIA -- that's one of the intelligence agencies we have here -- and when he went rogue, SHIELD sent me to investigate his private company. I got him, too, and that was after he'd decided I was enough of a threat to send his best assassins after me."
"It seems unwise to send assassins after an assassin," Thor says obligingly into the pause in Barton's tale. Barton actually grins at him for that. Much of Thor's fighting tension unexpectedly leaves him; but it is good indeed to be falling into tandem with Barton here, especially since Barton has less reason than the rest of them to be glad of Thor's presence.
"So once I'd taken care of his lackeys, he comes after me himself," Barton resumes. "And -- god, this fucker, seriously, I could fill a book. I put him away that time, but of course he broke out of prison, and he'd taken me kind of personally, because this time he decides to put a bounty on my arm. You got that? Not me, just my fucking arm, and he didn't even go after me that time, he just sat back and waited for all the greedy lowlifes to come swarming."
"And you beat these soundly, too," Thor says, nodding assuredly at Barton's still quite intact arms.
"Yeah, well, I had help that time," Barton says; and abruptly he refocuses, the sardonic grin vanishing, the careful tension coming back. "Guy I've known for ages. He taught me how to use a bow. He was my mentor at the circus. Hey, do you have circuses on ... wherever you're from?"
"Asgard," Thor answers readily enough. He doesn't know what to make of this change in mood, but he knows well enough to keep from touching it. This moment of Barton's history is only Thor's so far as Barton allows it; that he has been given this much, by Barton now, by Bruce earlier, is a gift indeed. So Thor lets the rest go, and he says, "I don't believe we do. What is a circus?"
Long beams of afternoon sunlight are sliding across the floor, encroaching upon where Thor and Barton sit together on a couch with a laptop, when the others finally return to the tower. They can be heard before they're seen, arguing as they exit the elevator. Barton pauses partway through a YouTube video -- two acrobats stay frozen upon the screen on their trapeze -- and Thor rises rather gratefully; Barton's willingness to educate him in the entertainment of the circus was indeed interesting, but Thor has been sitting still too long.
"But they love the jokes!" Stark is saying loudly.
"So joke about something other than supervillain prison," Romanoff answers, her voice tight with annoyance. Thor might not have heard her reply at all, it's said with enough soft control, except that the argument has now entered the room in which Thor stands. Stark looks exasperatedly amused, Romanoff patiently irritated; behind them, Rogers looks tired, and Bruce wears his usual expression of mild detachment.
"Oh, hey, Thor," Stark says, spotting him. "What are you still doing here?"
"It is not yet past time for me to return home," Thor says, "though I expect I'll be recalled soon. I take it the press circuit went ... interestingly?"
"That's a word for it," Romanoff says dryly. "Hey, Clint."
"Hey, Tasha," Barton returns. "The usual fun?"
"It went fine," Rogers says. "But I'm beat. Anyone want early dinner?"
"Chinese?" Stark asks, but Thor is already halfway through saying, "Bruce, what shall we cook tonight?" and by the time he's finished it seems foolish to backtrack and enquire about Stark's question.
"Uh." Bruce looks mildly taken aback. "I don't know if we have all the ingredients for it, but I do make a mean enchilada."
"If we don't have the stuff, I'll call out for it," Stark says promptly. "Thor's gonna help cook? This I have to see."
That Thor has not been recalled to Asgard by the time dinner is prepared is mildly puzzling, but he is not worried overmuch. There is rice in Stark's hair, which actually brought Barton to tears of laughter, though he is calm now, sitting at the counter. A relaxed Romanoff leans on Barton's shoulder, grinning at his expense. Rogers has introduced Thor to something disgusting and delicious called soda before subsequently revoking all Thor's soda privileges, which Thor suspects is wise, given the way the bubbles keep getting up his nose. Bruce's food smells wonderful.
They all line up with plates and serve themselves one at a time from the stove. Next to Thor, Stark mutters, "Stay. Seriously, you should stay, today was awesome and no one's gone home yet."
Thor knows Stark is only joking, though when he smiles back at Stark it is a little pained. He wishes he could accept; he wishes that there was no looming war at home, no reason for his presence on Midgard at all besides a desire to see the Avengers again. He can see the truth in Stark's words: as they sit down to their food, they settle into configurations that already feel familiar. Barton and Romanoff sit next to each other at one end of the table, Rogers across from them; Stark takes a seat at the countertop to talk to Bruce, who is tidying the small mess he made while cooking. Thor does not attend any one conversation too closely; what strikes him is the ease with which they were struck up. The first meal the Avengers shared -- the victory feast of shawarma, at Stark's request -- was painfully silent. No one knew where to look, and feet jumped back when they bumped under the table. It has been less than a month, and all awkwardness seems to have evaporated. It compliments the seamlessness of the way they fight together, and Thor thinks, looking at Stark and Rogers, their bodies canted toward each other even as they look to their own conversations, that they have built a truly wonderful force in such a short amount of time. It reminds him of a hundred meals back on Asgard, of feasting and laughing with his brother and the Warriors and Sif.
Stark interrupts the flow of talk, and, mercifully, Thor's thoughts. "Hey, I heard that CNN guy say we were gonna be on at six. Want to see?"
There is a general chorus of assent, and Stark activates a large screen at one end of the room. Images resolve into clips of Romanoff neatly throwing a man with a gun over her back; Thor swinging Mjolnir while opponents appear to skim off of him like stones on water, and Barton firing arrows from his blind spots; and Stark and the Captain jointly subduing Crossfire. The voice narrating the course of the events of the morning is drowned out by the commentary in the room.
"I like the buddy system we have going on here, I think we should --"
"Shit, Tasha, how big was that guy?"
"Over ninety kilos. I like the big ones, they go down heavier and stay --"
"-- oh, right in the kneecap! Remind me not to piss off Barton."
The chatter stills as the words Supervillains Entering the War on Drugs? flash across the screen. Bruce, who has paused in his drying of the countertop, heaves a sigh of irritation. "Here we go," he says, turning his back on the screen. "Just what the city needs, more stop-and-frisks."
Thor glances at Bruce, who has hunched his shoulders over his task, then looks around at the others. Barton catches his eye. "It's a law that lets the police stop you and search you if they have reasonable suspicion that you're committing a crime," he explains. "Define 'reasonable suspicion'."
"Not to mention it's mostly enforced against social minorities," Stark adds, "poorer neighborhoods, people who aren't white."
Thor realizes this must be a contextual gap -- he has yet to meet a person on Midgard that can be described with one color.
"I'm not going to argue that it's enforced unfairly," says Rogers, "but I have to ask -- does it work, for getting hard drugs off the street?"
Bruce huffs a bitter laugh. "You know the majority of drug arrests in the US are for pot possession?" Thor has the brief amusing image of a villain furtively clutching a flowerpot, but Bruce is obviously talking about something else entirely, and Thor's thought only tells him how little he truly knows about Midgard. He focuses on Bruce. "-- and the case rate with a public defender means you're almost certainly doing jail time, which then shows up, for the rest of your life, on job applications, welfare applications, voting records --"
Thor looks to Rogers, who seems to understand the substance of what he hears, but still looks overwhelmed. Romanoff looks sideways at Bruce, and says, "Crossfire was CIA -- that's probably where he learned the drug trade. Even his mules were mind-controlled, he had practically no ties in the surrounding community." Rogers has now turned a puzzled look her way, which she answers with a quiet aside to him. "After World War Two -- look up the French Connection and the Iran-Contra Affair."
Rogers nods, looking lost. Thor catches his eye as Bruce begins to speak again, and offers a sympathetic smile. Rogers smiles ruefully back, but appears heartened, which heartens Thor in turn.
"Okay, I'll see who I can get the press team to connect with about this one," Stark is saying. "I don't think we can predict every story they're gonna pitch, so we'll keep it light for the post-action sound bites, and discuss our statements later. But," he points at Bruce, "I think you're right, this is part of the job description."
"Thank you," says Bruce, smiling again.
The talk turns to other matters, but Thor pays it little mind. He is too busy going over the discussion and thinking, uneasily, of Loki laughing at him on a mountainside: You're doing a marvelous job. Loki might not have been thinking of anything so small as innocents being punished for the misdeeds of others, but that Loki is more aware of Midgard's ills than Thor -- that rankles. No; Loki's own knowledge aside, Thor realizes that he is angry with himself for knowing so little about the world he wishes to protect. He stares down at his plate, which holds the remains of good new food made for him, and in part by his own hand, with a friend he is loath to leave; he looks around the room, at Barton and Rogers, intently discussing strategy, at Bruce and Romanoff, both of them laughing at something Stark has just said, and he does not want to leave. But he thinks of how the feast halls at home are nothing like this now, and he thinks of his mother weaving war bandages, and he thinks of Sif, leaning solidly against him in the garden, and Thor's skin itches with the need to go home.
The summons back to Asgard does not come. Instead, Thor helps Rogers wash dishes, until Stark comes by, says, "Guys, we have a dishwasher, just rinse them," and elbows them out of the way.
"Patience," Thor murmurs to Rogers, seeing a muscle jump in Rogers' jaw. "He does not mean to insult you."
"Yeah," Rogers says, stalking into the next room, "but not meaning to and not doing are two different things."
Thor says nothing, because he cannot argue with that.
"I think I might hang out tonight," Barton announces, heading back towards the couch. "You have every channel in the universe, right?"
"Of course," Stark calls back from the kitchen.
"I'm going home," Romanoff says. "Steve?"
"Sure." Rogers goes for his jacket. "I'm ready to go. Want to take the train? We've got SHIELD housing in Brooklyn," he adds aside to Thor, and Thor appreciates the gesture if not the context.
"Have a good night, kids," Stark says, emerging and blowing them a kiss. "Bruce, wanna play in the lab?"
"Okay." Bruce scrubs his hands on his trousers and gives everyone a smile. "Uh, goodnight. Thor, you heading out?"
"Oh. Yes." Thor tries an unconvincing smile. "Thank you all for your hospitality."
"Any time," Stark says, and sounds like he actually means it.
In short order Thor is alone. Bruce and Stark have left for one of the other floors, Romanoff and Rogers for Brooklyn; from the next room comes the sound of Barton watching television, but Thor has no desire to join him. The niggling feeling that Frigga should have come for him by now, which remained only an itch through dinner, has bloomed into fear. What is happening on Asgard?
At a loss, Thor goes to the elevator, and waits patiently until it comes for him. He steps inside. "JARVIS, take me to the roof."
He wonders whether this request is even possible to grant, for he still does not know how this building works from the inside; but the elevator rises, and Thor finds himself not on the roof but in a dim-lit stairwell, with a ladder and a square of sky visible above. Thor climbs this ladder, and finds himself on the highest point of the building, the gravel-covered roof where Loki set the Tesseract to open a portal in the sky. Thor walks across the roof, buffeted by cool wind, and sits down near the edge. Beneath him the city spreads wide, lit so bright it creates a sort of false daylight; the sky above is a strange dark color, without clouds but also without visible stars.
"Mother," he says, looking up into the strange sky, "it is past time. Please. Heimdall. Anyone."
But there is no reply. Thor stares out over the city, listening to its distant unceasing noise under the wind, and feels entirely alone.
"Thor," Frigga says.
There is gravel pressed to Thor's cheek. He blinks up at his mother, frowning. The wind is gone, and the stars are back, in great bright familiar swirls like the sky on Asgard; but he looks around, and New York City is still below them. "Ah," Thor says, understanding. "Why have you not come? What is amiss?"
"Nothing is amiss," Frigga says, "yet." She sinks down to sit beside Thor, her dress a bright billow around her. She touches Thor's face gently, and he leans into it, for comfort given by an apparition in a dream is comfort still.
"Then why?" he asks.
Frigga smiles at him, but it looks like pity, or perhaps regret. "It is terrible to fight two wars at once," she says, "and worst of all when one of those wars is with your own family. Thor, you will be safe on Midgard for a time. You and Loki can look after one another, while your father and I take care of the Chitauri here."
Thor stares at her, too astonished yet for anger. "But Asgard needs me."
"Midgard needs you," Frigga tells him. "The Chitauri may come for Loki yet, whether or not you are there; you all stand a much greater chance of victory if you are not worlds away. You know Asgard can defend itself if you are away for a time. You are not its only defense." She softens these words with a gentle kiss to Thor's forehead, but Thor recoils, and Frigga allows it. "I understand if you are unhappy with me," she adds.
"Yes," Thor says. "Very. Mother, please, I do not wish to bear another exile."
"Oh, Thor," she breathes, "no. Not an exile. A task, if you must."
At least, Thor thinks numbly, he has Mjolnir with him this time. The fact that this is a dream does not make it easier; on the contrary, in the way of dreams, for a moment he is nearly back in another time, in a small bright-lit white room, wet and miserable, with Loki standing before him: Mother has forbidden your return. Somehow it is more difficult to believe now than it was then, though Frigga sits before him. "When," Thor says. It comes out much quieter than he means it to. "When can I come home?"
"When the Chitauri are taken care of," Frigga says, and hesitates. "Or when the need becomes too great."
So she does know that Asgard might need him, after all. Her decision to relegate him to this realm stings less for that. And perhaps she saw some of what he did: the Avengers are formidable warriors, and the better off for having Thor with them. "All right," he says, trying a smile. Frigga might even smile back, except that bright light is flaring up all around them. Thor wakes blinking to morning sunlight.
"Oh," he says. "Damn."
He doesn't actually think about it -- there is nothing so intentional as thought; he merely knows what he has to do. Thor rises to his feet, lifting his hammer, and with a crack of thunder across the blue morning sky he is in the air and racing towards the only person who might still be able to transport him home.
Puente Antiguo looks much as Thor remembers it. The Smith Motors building still sits on the edge of the desert, though when Thor approaches it, he sees that it now houses much more equipment than it did. It pleases him so much to see Jane's workspace thus improved that he feels his mood is better than it has been in a very long while; since, perhaps, the last time he saw her.
He enters the building quietly. As he hoped, he finds Jane at once. She is sitting across the room in front of a computer, hair up in a careless knot, squinting intently at the screen and scribbling notes in her small black journal. She looks up when the door closes behind Thor, and squints across the intervening space, full of computers and sundry equipment. "Hello?"
"Jane," Thor says, his voice resonant with joy.
"Thor?" Jane gets to her feet. "Oh my god, Thor!"
They go to each other, Jane nearly crashing into one of the tables in her excitement. She hugs him, small and warm and vital, and for a moment Thor cannot speak, he is so glad to see her. Jane, of course, has not lost her words; she tilts her head up, staring at him as though he's a particularly difficult and delightful puzzle, and says, "I tried to reach you, I did, and then I saw the footage from the Battle of New York," and she seems to recall, through her excitement, that delight is not the only thing she feels. She draws back and glares at him. "But the news said you'd already left! What happened?"
"I tried to reach you as well," Thor says. "I believe you were in Tromsø while I was in New York? Some friends at SHIELD were keeping you safe. I'm so sorry I could not see you."
"That's ... okay, fine." Jane's frown becomes less severe. "But why are you here? I mean, you left, but now you're back, and I'm really glad to see you, but --?"
"I was taking Loki to SHIELD," Thor hastens to explain. "I wish I could stay longer, but I'm afraid I have to go again, and I need your help."
"To get back home?" Jane asks, and stills. "Wait. You went home with Loki, but now he's back with SHIELD?"
"Yes," Thor says slowly. He did not think to anticipate trouble from this quarter, which only goes to show that he was not thinking. "Asgard is at war with the Chitauri. I had to bring Loki back here, so that neither side might use him as leverage, and so that he might be safe. But I must return to my duties, and the way is barred from me."
"Wait," Jane says again, with less confusion this time, and more anger. "Are you really -- how could you? Not that you're leaving, I mean, I get it, your planet is at war, but you're leaving the guy who started that war -- and we're talking interplanetary war -- Do you know we've only ever had World Wars before? Those were so unspeakably bad, and this is bigger -- You're leaving him here?" Her voice is climbing; all at once it drops again, soft with disbelief. "And you want me to help. No."
Thor opens his mouth, intending to argue, and falters. He sees, suddenly, what he has been too intent upon returning to Asgard to see before. He does not know if, like Jane, Frigga fears what might become of the mortals if Loki is left alone with them, or if instead she fears what might happen to Loki. But either way, Thor thinks they might be right, and he finds himself saying, "I. Yes. I understand."
Jane pulls up short at this, as surprised as Thor. "Oh," she says. "Well. Um. Why -- why did you bring him back here? He's leverage?"
Thor feels a small glimmer of hope again; or perhaps he simply wants someone to tell, someone who is not necessary as an ally but someone he thinks of as a friend. So he tells her: Odin's ultimatum, Loki's refusal, his own decision to remove Loki from Asgard entirely, and thus from danger.
Jane is frowning. "I wish Loki had just done what your father said."
"Yes," Thor says. "But Loki is my brother, and I -- couldn't."
"Yeah," Jane says, arms wrapped unhappily around her torso. "And Erik is practically a father to me. What am I supposed to tell him?"
There is a long silence. They look at one another, Jane's face stubborn and anguished, and Thor realizes, with a small strange shock, that he really could grow to love her.
"So," Jane says, "you think there's really going to be a war."
"I might not get a choice, then," Jane says. "But given one? I don't think I can afford to get involved in this. I think --" Her voice breaks. "I think maybe you shouldn't come visit me again, at least until this is all over."
In its own way, this is much less of a surprise than Frigga's rejection. Thor finds himself nodding. "I believe you're right," he says. "And I wish there was some way to apologize." Jane smiles, small and shaky; encouraged, Thor continues, "I will keep track of Loki, and I will look after Midgard."
"Okay," Jane says, her voice wavering. Her smile nearly breaks; she starts forward and falls against Thor, burying her face in his chest and hugging him tightly. "Take care of yourself," she tells him, fierce and muffled. "Good luck."
Thor can feel his shirt getting a little damp where Jane's face is pressed to it, but his own eyesight is wavering a little, so he does not fault her. "I wish you well, Jane Foster," he whispers to her, and she giggles, the way he remembers she always did when he paid her a courtesy.
They stay like that for a long while. Then Thor murmurs, "Farewell for a time, Jane." Jane squeezes him a little tighter for it. Wordlessly she walks him to the door. There Thor takes to the air. He flies for New York in the lowering afternoon light, uncertain, angry, hoping to be better than those feelings in the coming days.