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The conversation upon Thor's return is less awkward than he had anticipated. He had thought to explain the situation to Stark, as swiftly as possible, and to ask where he might stay while on Midgard, but he is not even given the chance. When Thor lands at the Tower, he finds not only Stark and Bruce in residence but also a lady Stark introduces as Pepper. Thor tries to politely take his leave, but the Lady Pepper says, "No, please, sit down, I've been wanting to meet you," and halfway through their evening meal together, she turns to Stark and says, "He can stay here as long as he likes," not as though she is making a request but an edict.

Like that it is settled; indeed, Stark claps Thor upon the shoulder and says, "If you're officially stuck here, you're officially an Avenger."

"I thank you," Thor says, meaning it with all his heart.

He takes the same room that night, observing it with fresh eyes. It has nothing of Asgard about it: the colors are too pale, the walls blank, the bed more softly yielding under his weight. But these are things he can become accustomed to; and one of the walls is mostly taken up by a wide window which affords Thor a view of the city below, a sight for which Thor can forgive many of the room's shortcomings. Besides this, he is grateful to Stark, and were the room as little and dull as a prison cell, still Thor would be grateful.

The plain truth of the matter is that Thor did not think things through. Jane's complete refusal to help has thrown this into relief. Yes, Thor wanted to get Loki to safety; but if the Avengers decide they cannot protect Loki after all, or if Fury loses his leverage, Thor is out of options. Perhaps at the last he could convince Jane to send him and Loki back to Asgard, but they would be right back where they started, no better off and with Odin now angry with Thor for such disobedience. And this assumes not only Jane's willingness but Jane's ability; their conversation never went so far as to confirm she could send Thor back if she wished. No matter how Thor looks at the problem, he knows he has made no real improvement to the situation, only changed it.

Thor paces before the wide window, half-tormented by these thoughts as they grow clearer and sharper. The only thing that saves him is the knowledge that Frigga thought he was doing the right thing. His mother believed Odin would give Loki up. Thor tells himself this, once and again and again, until he calms. Still, he holds a terrible awareness of how difficult the situation really is: he has asked so much already from Jane, from the Avengers and SHIELD, from his mother; he knows that his friends would be in the right to relinquish his asylum and Loki's whenever they choose.

"Enough," Thor tells himself sternly. "They are helping; you owe them a debt; it will keep until the morning."

He sleeps, restless and without dreams, until the strange nighttime light cast by billions of lamps turns into the bright light of morning. Then Thor drags himself from the bed, because there is no point in refusing to face the day head-on. He takes the elevator down to the kitchen, and discovers Stark already there, full of the sort of bright-eyed cheerful alertness that comes with very good sleep or no sleep at all.

"Coffee?" Stark says in greeting.

The word is only vaguely familiar, but the smell hits Thor like a memory: Jane and Darcy's startled faces, Jane telling him No more smashing! Thor's chest feels heavy and tight. "I thank you, yes."

He sits down at the counter and accepts the mug Stark hands him, sipping the coffee slowly. It seems to be of superior quality to that of Izzy's diner, though Thor cannot quite bring himself to appreciate it. But he is aware that such a mood is unbecoming, so he gives Stark a smile. "It's very good."

"Fair trade organic, Pepper buys all that stuff," Stark says, waving a hand so expressively that Thor wonders how he manages to keep his own coffee from spilling. "Hey, I'm thinking of sending out an assemble alert to let everyone know you're still here. Nothing formal, just code green -- You're going to need a Starkphone, it'll give you an all-access pass to the levels of the Tower that aren't Stark Industries specific --" Stark flashes him a grin, catching the politely baffled look Thor is giving him. "Code green means it's a social gathering, so I'm taking bets on who will turn up."

"Don't bet against Tony," Bruce advises from the doorway. He shuffles in, yawning, his hair a rumpled mess. "Particularly if you don't have any Earth money on you."

"I do not," Thor acknowledges. "And I believe I would know better than to enter into a friendly wager with our friend Stark in any case."

Stark snorts and sips his coffee. "Okay, Bruce, what about you?"

"Agent Barton will be here," Bruce says. "Agent Romanoff, too; I don't think she trusts you enough to leave you alone when you say Avengers things are happening."

"Astute," Stark says.

"And Captain Rogers?" Thor asks. Bruce and Stark exchange a look.

"Rogers comes for code red," Stark says. "That's about it. He has his own stuff going on."

Thor nods, and thinks it prudent to move past this. "What are these codes?"

"You explain," Bruce tells Stark. "We make pancakes."

Code red, Thor learns, while also learning to make pancake batter, is the message Stark sends for any situation of urgency akin to the takedown of Crossfire two days previous. Code yellow is for any situation that appears as though it may need the Avengers to intervene, but Stark -- or, indeed, any of the others, for any one of them may call in a code if they wish -- would rather discuss the situation before rushing in. "Emergency group meeting, basically," Stark says. Code green, non-emergency group meeting.

"It is very neat," Thor says, carefully pouring pancake batter into a sizzling pan. "Are there yet more?"

"Don't encourage him," Bruce recommends. "We don't need a whole rainbow of codes."

"Hey, no complaining, big guy," Stark says, pointing at Bruce with a smile curling the edge of his mouth. "At least I'm only doing codes. You should hear the protocols I have for my suits. Like House Party Protocol --"

"Save the surprise," Bruce says, but he smiles at Stark in return.

Around the time the first pancakes have turned a pleasing golden brown and been removed to a plate, Lady Pepper wanders into the kitchen, looking mildly disheveled but very lovely. "Bruce," she says, "you moving here is the most amazing thing that's ever happened to breakfast."

"Actually, these are Thor's," Bruce tells her.

"Well." Lady Pepper sits down, giving Thor a blink of surprise when he comes over to present the stack of pancakes, an extra plate, and syrup. "Then I guess I made a good decision when I said Thor could stay."

Fortunately the pancakes taste as good as they look. Thor sits quietly while the others banter through breakfast, but he is not moved to join in; he does not wish to interrupt their easy rapport, content to simply watch them be happy in one another's company.

At the end of the meal they each go their separate ways. Lady Pepper, it seems, is in New York to give another of these press conferences Thor keeps hearing about; this one is about the industry that she and Stark run together. "It's really lovely having you here," Lady Pepper tells Thor again in parting, gathering her papers before she and Stark leave in a busy rush.

"So," Bruce says. "I usually just ... stay in the Tower. There's a lot of correspondence for me to catch up on, and papers I couldn't access outside the country, that sort of thing, but if you, uh. If you want a tour guide --"

"Thank you, no," Thor says swiftly. "Today I would speak with Fury. I think ... if I am to remain on Midgard, I should visit my brother." Even as he says it he feels a sharp reluctance, but that is all the more reason to get this duty over with.

Bruce gives a sympathetic wince, but he also gives Thor directions to contact Fury, on a private communication line Fury gave the Avengers. To this end Thor uses Bruce's Starkphone, a small semi-transparent piece of machinery that feels fragile in Thor's hands. The interface is very straightforward, however, and in short order Thor is speaking with Fury across a great distance. He explains his continued presence on Earth, and his desire to see his brother; he rides out Fury's silence, and tells Fury that he is grateful when Fury says he will send someone to take Thor to Loki's prison.

"Hey," Bruce says, as Thor prepares to leave. He gives Thor that crooked smile. "Good luck."

Thor nods. Quite probably he will need it.

*

Loki's prison on Midgard is nothing like his quarters upon Asgard, and Thor cannot help observing this with guilt. There are no books here, no hearth, nothing comfortable. Loki's cell -- which Thor sees from a screen in the hallway outside before he is allowed in -- has nothing in it but a bed, a toilet, and enough room to pace. Loki has been allowed to keep a stripped-down version of his own clothing, but still the scene constricts Thor's heart.

"We don't ... do this much," says one of the guards, less to Thor than to the agent from SHIELD who accompanied him. "I mean. This is maximum security. He shouldn't be let in."

"I can defend myself against Loki," Thor says, watching his brother on the screen. Loki is sitting still and quiet, much as he did when Thor first visited him upon their return to Asgard. "And he is not going anywhere."

"Thor will be fine," the agent from SHIELD says. She turns to Thor. "Take your time. It's not like he's going to get any other visitors."

"I will not be long, I think," Thor says, and goes in.

There are no guards posted by Loki's door here, just those outside the hall, watching their screen; the closed door therefore gives the illusion of privacy without affording any. There are other prisoners here too, for Thor saw them on other screens, but there is no way of knowing whether they are along this hall. Thor rather hopes they are not; even with his magic gone, Thor does not trust that Loki will not try to whisper to them.

He waits for the click of the lock, and opens Loki's door.

Loki looks up slowly. He blinks once, the only sign that he is surprised to see Thor. His face remains blank. Thor expected all of this, and still it hurts.

"Hello," Thor says.

"I suppose," says Loki, "you are bidding me farewell. Tell me, do you feel you've done your duty to me because I am rotting in a Midgardian prison rather than a Chitauri one?"

"You would not be in a prison if the Chitauri were allowed to have you!" Thor snaps, before remembering that he should be correcting Loki upon the first point instead.

Loki laughs soundlessly. "As you say."

Thor takes a deep breath. He reminds himself that the agent from SHIELD is watching, that the guards are watching; that, soon, it is likely Director Fury and his best analysts will be watching; that Heimdall is watching. He is a prince of Asgard, and he should know better by now than to allow Loki to goad him. "I am not saying goodbye," he says.

This does provoke an expression across Loki's face, shock there and then gone like a flash of lightning. "Are you not."

"I am staying on Earth," Thor explains. "I will look after you."

"Will you," Loki says, voice halfway to a snarl.

They are watching, Thor thinks, but the knowledge is distant, an academic truth without being an urgent one. The fact is that Loki is here, still stubbornly refusing him when Thor has bought his own exile for a second time, when Thor has placed Loki's wellbeing so high that the price was Jane Foster's absolute rejection. What comes out of Thor's mouth, tight with frustration, is, "You could be a little grateful!"

Loki laughs, sharp and mirthless.

"You have put me to such trouble!" Even as he says it Thor knows it is foolish; Loki did not ask, and Loki will say so, knowing full well Thor's point. But Loki is in no immediate danger of dying now, and the knowledge of what Loki has put him through comes crashing down on Thor in waves, halfway between frustration and rage. "I have had to ask so much -- of Mother, of my friends, of --" He does not say Jane; he does not want to give Loki that. Loki is watching him, cold and impassive, and Thor knows better than to go to him and shake him, not with everyone watching, but he needs to shake Loki somehow, if not with his hands. "You tried to kill me," he says, quieter now. "You tried to destroy Jotunheim. Loki, what happened?"

He waits, but Loki says nothing. Loki merely watches him, head tilted a little, as though he does not understand the question.

"I ... I do not believe discovering you were of Jotunheim can account for it," Thor says. His anger is draining away; only the bewilderment is left. "You are still my brother. Norns, Loki, you look Asgardian! What does it matter?"

Loki's face goes freezingly still.

"You are right," he says. "It changed nothing. It was an excuse."

"No," Thor says, but it comes out nearly grateful. This is something. "It must have changed you. I do not believe you would always have tried to do those things you have done."

Loki stares at him. "Are you still so blind? I brought those frost giants into Asgard on your coronation day."

"It doesn't matter."

"It matters." Loki leans forward. He says, quiet and precise, "I smiled and professed my love, and the moment I left you, I opened a gateway between worlds to destroy your day of triumph. I -- there was no moment in which the -- the knowledge of my terrible heritage destroyed my mind. I have always been like this."

Thor finds he is shaking his head, wordless refusal. He makes himself stop.

"You ask for my honesty, and you ask for your brother back." Loki comes to his feet. "You cannot have both."

"Stop," Thor says. He hates that he has no better words. "Don't lie like that."

Loki takes a padding step towards him, and another. "Everything dishonorable you have done since our return to Asgard, you have done because you are so desperate to reach me that you will follow me down any abyss I throw myself into." He stops before Thor. Out of his leather and armor, stripped down to a fine-woven green shirt and simple trousers, far too much of Loki's pale skin shows; he looks fragile, and breakable, and dangerous. There is a bare inch of space between them. Thor is holding so still that he feels as though he is about to start shaking. "Believe me, Thor," Loki whispers, "it will be so very far down, because from the first moment I was old enough to remember, I have been seeking shadow sides, I have been twisting myself into less innocent things." He leans forward, his breath feathering across Thor's cheek. "Give up."

Thor jolts back, slamming into the wall, and shoves off it again angrily. Loki is laughing. "I've never heard anything so stupid," Thor snaps. "You must take some responsibility."

"Oh yes." Loki laughs harder. "Do tell me about responsibility, Thor. You were planning to leave your mad brother on Midgard and allow the mortals to sort out the mess. Is this like the time you were planning to teach Jotunheim a lesson once and for all, after they dared try to steal their Casket back? Or is it like the time you thought that by declaring it so, you might protect all of Midgard? Tell me, Thor, how is it going for you so far, this attempt to reach out to my better nature?"

Thor doesn't hit Loki, no matter that his fists itch to. He remains with his back against the wall. "It will happen," he says. "Just watch me do it."

*

Thor hardly recognizes his own anger until he sees the glass doors of the tower rattle in his wake. Loki would be laughing still if he could see Thor's petulance. On this thought he slows, and breathes deep, before he sees that he is not alone.

Rogers stares at him from the couch, hand on the controls to the large screen in front of him. Thor nods to him, preparing to make a retreat the way he came, but Rogers says, "Stark told me you were staying, so I thought I'd come over." He catches Thor's mood, and his brow furrows in sympathy. "Something on your mind?"

Thor stops. There is no call to shut Rogers out. "I visited Loki," he says, a little stiffly, not knowing what else to say. He alone resolved to take Loki's care into his hands, and it would be unbecoming to complain of a burden he shouldered himself.

The words hover in a short silence.

"Uh, want to talk about it?" ventures Rogers, taking pity on him, but Thor is shaking his head before Rogers can finish.

"No, and I am sorry -- he is no one's" -- problem -- "responsibility but mine. I simply find myself ... at a loss." Thor smiles as though it will turn the admission harmless.

"I hear you there," says Rogers, glancing back at the screen. "Speaking of," he adds, "want to join me? I'm still catching up on being a member of this century. I figure you and I are kind of in the same boat with this place and time, huh?"

Thor feels warmth start in his chest. Given the kindness and extensive hospitality the Avengers have shown him thus far, Thor probably should not be surprised at such a gesture of goodwill. "Thank you," he says. "I would like that very much."

Rogers restarts the images as Thor settles next to him. The story is half a century old, Rogers says, and concerns the youth of this place -- the United States of America, one of the many countries to make up the greater world of Midgard -- protesting a war that their elders wage against another Midgardian territory. Anecdotally, Thor is mildly interested, but there are always people making war and protesting war and calling for change. He takes note of the relevant parties, but he is far more interested by the content of Rogers' exposition: he had no idea that Midgard was home to more than one sovereign, with no kind of planetary leader over them. When he asks how many countries this planet has, Rogers' answer -- hundreds? he is unsure -- takes Thor's breath away. He has never heard of a realm that exists in such a state of anarchy. Alfheim comes closest, but even so it is ruled by a council of lords, with power over the realm remaining centered on them.

Thor does not try to explain all of this cultural disparity at once. He simply nods and gestures for the Captain to continue the paused narrative before them.

"Hey," Rogers says, when the history lesson draws to a close, "do you want to do this again?" He turns to Thor, watching him earnestly across the space between them on the couch. "There's this, uh, online channel that does this thing called streaming -- the point is, there's a lot more where this came from, it's a whole series of lectures on the twentieth century, and I'm liking it a lot more than the dossiers SHIELD gave me. It'd be really great to have someone to watch these with."

Rogers' face is guileless and sincere. Thor finds he is just as interested in learning Midgardian culture as the Captain is. "I would like nothing better," he says.

*

So for the next few days, this is what they do. Stark and the Lady Pepper are still mostly away from the Tower, and though Bruce joins Thor and the Captain for meals, he usually keeps to the lab. Thor does not see the others; he gathers that it would take a code red to bring them back together. In the meantime, Thor and Steve watch the series on twentieth century America.

These lessons pass quickly, being told as they are like stories and not lessons. They learn of protests called rights movements, where those with less power demand the respect and good treatment of those with more. Thor learns of the women's rights movement, of their desire to be treated to the same compensation for their work as men; he thinks of Sif then, and thinks that she would approve. He learns of the civil rights movement, and understands more fully the conversation that took place over dinner after the Avengers took down Crossfire. ("But what has the tone of someone's skin to do with a perception of their abilities?" he asks Steve, puzzled; Steve, looking rueful, says, "It's ... complicated. We can do colonialism later.") He learns of the gay rights movement, and this one seems most baffling of all, that the mortals set so much of their identity upon whom they would be intimate with -- and more than that, that those whose proclivities are different from the mortal normal would speak so loudly about it.

But Thor thinks he should not say this last aloud. He suspects that Steve would find such an opinion distasteful, given his shining-eyed delight when he hears of these rights movements, as though he intuitively understands sexual tastes to be as integral to identity as gender.

On the other hand, perhaps Steve would not find Thor's opinion too distasteful. What Thor takes from these history lessons, more than the specifics of events, is that Midgard believes in a plurality of truths. They have no one ruler, nor one right way of doing things. Nothing is absolute. Thor thinks this with a sort of terror and a sort of elation: it means nothing in this realm is certain, but it also means such freedom.

"There is nothing like it on Asgard," Thor tells the Captain over dinner (stir fry, made without Bruce's help but nonetheless fair). "I had not imagined there might be so many ways of doing things."

Steve slurps a noodle thoughtfully. "Yeah," he says. "I'm watching this, and I keep thinking, how do I be Captain America for the twenty-first century? There was this whole wartime ideology when I was doing this the first time -- the army had me being the face of the American soldier so that everyone would chip in to do their part for the war effort. But it's not like that anymore. There isn't one big bad organization or ideology we have to go fight."

"You do seem to be fighting smaller ones now," Thor says, without criticism, "if Crossfire is a good indication of our foes."

"No, see, it's more complicated than that." Steve gives Thor a crooked smile. "I've been reading up on the team's files. Actually, I've been reading up on everything I could find about them, which mostly means lots of stuff about Tony, and ... you should probably see it for yourself. The national media likes to debate the things that Stark does. He used to invent weapons, and now he invents new energy technologies, and no one can agree whether that's a step in the right direction."

"What do you think?" Thor asks.

"I think that the world needs good people a lot more than it needs more weapons right now," Steve says. "And I think that maybe I need to say that as Captain America, too."

Thor considers this; he considers Steve's delight at some of the progresses made while he was beneath the ice, Steve's disappointment with those things that have not changed as much as he wished, or have not changed for the better; he considers which voices have influence in this realm, and that they are not always the voices of those understood to be in power. "I think," Thor says, "that you may be right."

*

"I think he's my new hero," Stark says.

He is sitting with Thor, Bruce, Lady Pepper, and Agent Barton, who stopped by for the several purposes of reporting on Agent Coulson's continued recovery and bringing pizza. Pizza is a revelation and a delight, and Thor, much as he would be loath to admit it, is much more preoccupied with the food than with the events unfolding on the news.

The day before, Steve allowed himself to be caught for an interview after his latest round of helping the construction crews with the post-Chitauri restoration of the city. In that interview, Steve talked about the social dialogue he thought would be necessary to his continued role as Captain America in a new millennium, and in the hours since, every major news network has been replaying sound bites, arguing positions, and generally making a glorious racket.

"New hero," Stark repeats. "Pep, do you think we could get him to talk about our clean energy initiative?"

"I think everyone is already talking about our clean energy initiative," Lady Pepper says dryly, but she says it smiling.

"Where did this come from, anyway?" Stark demands. "Did he just wake up yesterday and decide to take point on changing the world?"

"He and Thor have been catching up on history," Bruce volunteers, and gives Thor a nod of thanks when Thor passes the pizza box to him.

"So what do you think?" Stark asks Thor, turning down the volume on the television.

"I find your culture fascinating," Thor says, and because Stark is giving him a look of bright expectation, as though he really does wish to hear Thor's thoughts, Thor finds himself explaining his interest in the whole spectrum of opinions, the deep and wild plurality of options.

"Huh." Stark grins at him. "Our Dr. Banner says you've been doing a lot of cooking lately. I'm thinking of the perfect marriage of cultural diversity and food. Code green tomorrow, let's order takeout."

Takeout is a great variety of foods; between the seven of them -- Thor, Stark, Lady Pepper, Bruce, Steve, and Agents Barton and Romanoff -- they each choose something to order, and by the time it all arrives, it approximates a small feast. ("Which is good," Stark says, "because I'm counting at least three super-metabolisms at this table.") The food is from nearly every continent on Midgard; some of it is spicy enough that Thor's eyes water, but all of it is delicious.

"So there is a code green you'll turn up for," Stark says to Steve, and then "Ow!" It seems as though Lady Pepper has kicked him under the table.

Steve, however, simply shrugs and dollops yoghurt onto his plate. "The place is growing on me," he says. "And I'm coming over a lot to watch documentaries with Thor -- there's no reason we can't also have meals as a team."

Thor eats quietly and feels very pleased. They are all arranged around a long table, Stark and Steve and Thor on one side, Bruce and Lady Pepper and Agents Romanoff and Barton on the other, all talking over one another, comparing battle strategies and tales of the day. It is very like home, except that the food is better.

He is struck by a sudden idea.

"Barton," Thor says. "Romanoff." The agents turn from their conversation to give Thor expectant looks, and he asks, "Do you think it would be acceptable for me to make some food for Agent Coulson?"

"What sort of food?" Agent Romanoff asks, diverted.

"I had not fully considered," Thor says, but at least part of the answer seems obvious. "Something with apples, I should think."

"Apples?" says Barton.

"They assist in the healing process," Thor explains, a little puzzled at needing to elaborate. "I have even heard a Midgardian saying to that effect: the consumption of apples eliminates the need for a physician."

"Something like that," Romanoff agrees, a corner of her mouth tilting upwards.

"Yeah," Barton says, "I think he'd probably like that. Pie, maybe, pie's comforting."

"I shall make note," says Thor.

Further down the table, Stark is saying, "-- have a little fun between all the volunteer work and the PR stuff, seriously, you have a good thing going, you should take Thor around the city a bit."

"Tony," Steve says, "I already get recognized sometimes; can you imagine how much more attention we'll draw if I take Thor?"

"If I may," Thor says, leaning over, "I would very much like to see more of this city."

"See?" Stark says. "Put him in a baseball cap and no one will know."

*

It takes slightly more effort than that. Luckily, Steve and Thor fit into clothing of very similar size, so the next day Thor dons jeans and a t-shirt, and reluctantly consents to pull his hair back into a single braid; it is long enough for that now. He wears the cap provided by Stark; it is emblazoned with NY in stylized letters, and Steve gives it a pained look, although when Thor enquires, Steve merely says, very cryptic, "Baseball."

They head out into a bright and pleasant midsummer morning. By mutual agreement they stay out of doors, and walk up towards the park in which Thor first arrived. Their route there is via a road called 5th Avenue. Being lined with shops of all kinds, it was one of the first streets repaired after the Battle of New York, and all the shop fronts are full of displays and busy with customers. Thor cannot help stopping in front of many of the wide glass windows, looking curiously inside. There are restaurants of all kinds, as well as clothing shops, book shops, shops full of the sorcery called electronics. Thor wanders along in delight, and after a short time, sounding amused, Steve begins to keep a sort of commentary.

"That's Rockefeller Center," he says, indicating a tall building that looks much like the others. "If we went down 49th you'd see the front -- there's a plaza, and in the winter they set up a big skating rink."

"You have ice skating on Midgard, then," Thor says, delighted but unsurprised. "If I am ever here in the winter, I should very much like to go skating with you."

Steve ducks his head, grinning. "Funny thing is, I have no idea if I'm any good at it. I mean, I was okay as a kid, and I guess the serum made me better at most things, but I don't know if I'd have the balance for it." He looks over at Thor. "I'd really like to go skating with you, too."

Thor claps him on the back. They keep walking, and a few blocks on, they come upon a stone building quite unlike the others. It is less tall, but much grander, with care obviously set into the placement of its stones, and carvings upon the arches above its wooden doors. Steve, seeing Thor looking curiously, says, "That's a cathedral. A church."

"A place of worship," Thor says, to make sure; churches were mentioned in various of the documentaries they watched, but this is the first one he has closely observed. "It is beautiful. What god is honored here?"

"Ah, right." Steve laughs a little, not as though it's funny but as though he cannot quite believe he's explaining this. "There's ... still a whole lot we haven't covered. It's just capital-G God."

"You will have to explain the distinction," Thor says apologetically.

Steve's explanation takes them all the way to Central Park. Thor finds it peculiar indeed that this particular god Steve describes became capital-G God for many of Midgard, given that the god's ideologies seem so vague and mutable -- though perhaps this is the trick. He does not say this, nor venture to ask what being from another realm might have inspired this particular form of worship, for it is evident enough that Steve believes in the God, or at least draws some comfort from the idea. Thor nods and keeps his peace.

In the park they find a vendor of food and have, in succession, pretzels, hot dogs, and cotton candy. The cotton candy is a greater wonder to Thor than even pasta was; somehow the mortals have spun sugar into shapes like fantastic clouds, and dyed the sugar unnatural colors. Thor devours his first cotton candy bundle in short order, and goes back for a second before he and Steve head down to the large pond that graces the park. They find a seat in the shade and sit for a time, watching the waterfowl and eating the last of their lunch.

"It doesn't look that different," Steve says, gazing out over the water. "I used to come here as a kid. I'd take a sketchpad with me, draw the trees or the skyscrapers. I mostly stopped coming when the Depression hit, though. Train fares."

Thor looks out over the water. He did not come to this part of Midgard as a child, but he suspects that if he did, this whole island of Manhattan would have been nothing but a forest. "How old are you?" he asks Steve gently.

Steve sighs. "Twenty-three," he says. "Or eighty-nine." He huffs a laugh. "My birthday's in two weeks."

Mortals mark each year of their short lives, Thor remembers, rather than only a few important milestones, and is not sure what to say. "Happy early birthday," he offers.

Steve gives him a smile and stands up to throw the rest of their napkins away.

"Excuse me!"

Thor and Steve both turn. A young woman with short black hair and an earnest air is trotting up to them, a determined look on her face and a microphone clutched in her hand; behind her is a harried-looking man with a large camera. "If I could have a moment of your time?" the woman asks. "Rachel Tanaka, MSNBC."

Steve balls up the napkins and tosses them into the nearest bin. "Sure," he says, giving her a smile.

"Oh," Rachel Tanaka says, looking very taken aback. Evidently she wasn't expecting an agreeable response. Thor rises and comes to stand with Steve, and Rachel Tanaka blinks up at him. "So you're Thor?"

"Indeed."

"Okay." Rachel Tanaka gestures frantically to her cameraman, while Steve and Thor glance at each other and grin. The easiness in Steve's bearing seems to say he is used to such interruptions -- as he would be, Thor thinks, recalling Steve's fame in the 1940s. Thor too is unconcerned; this reporter already strikes him as more courteous than the power-hungry young lords who would sometimes interrupt Thor's time on Asgard.

Rachel Tanaka has finished her introductory speech into the camera; she turns to Thor and Steve. "I'm sure our viewers would love to know any tidbits you'd like to give about your lives in Avengers Tower. Right now we only have tabloid rumors -- it would be great to hear what's going on straight from the source. Thor, Captain America, what can you tell us about the Avengers?"

"You know we can't just live like ordinary people," Steve answers without hesitation. "We have a responsibility to the people of this city -- even Thor, nationality doesn't come into it; we made a choice to defend New York, and if we broke it a little along the way, well, it's our job to fix it, too."

Thor relaxes into the moment, enjoying the sunlight and the reporter's interested attention and Steve's words. Steve segues smoothly from personal to political responsibility, and Thor sees that Rachel Tanaka is becoming flustered; "Being a hero is going to be an incredibly complex thing in this century --" Steve is saying, and Thor steps in.

"But we do not only sit contemplating our identities," he says; Steve grins ruefully and Thor smiles into the camera. "You wish to know what we do in Avengers Tower? I have mostly been learning how to cook. Perhaps you can ask your viewers to send in their favorite recipes for me?"

"Sure," Rachel Tanaka says. "I think they'd love to."

Steve picks up the thread again, telling her how between cooking, he and Thor have been watching documentaries, and that it has been a good and educational bonding experience. Thor wonders if this is enough to go on for one interview, but the reporter still looks hopeful, so he gives her one thing more: "We do have responsibilities to attend to, but before we go I can tell you that the Captain and I have disagreed on one matter: the moon landing."

"The moon landing?" Rachel Tanaka repeats.

"Yes," Thor says solemnly. "The Captain became very emotional upon witnessing the footage --"

"You were so unimpressed," Steve counters, and Thor feels pleased indeed; for a moment Steve has stopped sounding like Captain America, with the responsibility of the world on his shoulders, and sounds instead like an ordinary and relatable young man.

"I am sorry," Thor says; Steve is laughing. "I know how arduous and important a journey it was!"

"It was the quality of the footage," Steve confesses to the camera. "Thor's been spoiled by HD."

"And there you have it, folks!" Rachel Tanaka says. "Thor and Captain America! Thanks for your time, gentlemen."

*

The footage, edited for time, is released on the six o'clock news, and Steve, who looked nervous to begin with, appears just as happy as Stark and Lady Pepper by the time it concludes. It seems Rachel Tanaka really did just want some insight into the lives of the Avengers; rather than hotly debating anything Steve said, the entire newsroom seems delighted to discuss Thor and Captain America as relatable heroes. At the end of the segment, they read off tweets already sent in by viewers, recommending recipes to Thor.

"Sir," JARVIS says overhead, "Director Fury is in the building."

"Uh-oh," Stark says. "Thor, have you started an international culinary incident?"

But Fury, it turns out, has paid a house call simply to tell them to keep up the good work. "Yes, Stark, seriously," Fury says. "If there were superhero approval ratings, you would all actually have positive ones right now."

"When you say 'keep up the good work'," Steve says, "do you mean funny anecdotes, or do you mean talking about serious issues?"

"Both," Fury tells him. "You're keeping the media on their toes and you aren't pissing them off, and those are both good things."

He even gives Thor a nod of approval on his way out. Thor wonders whether he should feel pleased or condescended to, and decides to simply take the victory for what it is, and not worry overmuch about what Fury thinks of him.

"So that went ... well," Bruce says, sounding vaguely surprised.

"Yeah," Stark says. "It did."

To celebrate, he calls a code green and takes them out for burgers.

Thor wonders whether this is wise; after all, if he and Steve were spotted during the normal course of their day, they are even more likely to be recognized in the company of the other Avengers. But Stark seems entirely confident that they will not be spotted; he dresses down, has his drivers drop the Avengers off a block from the restaurant, and walks in as though he does this every weekend. Romanoff and Barton are, unsurprisingly, just as good at it, and Bruce has a gift for making himself unremarkable. No wonder he and Steve were spotted, Thor realizes with amusement, and no wonder Stark is not worried about their anonymity.

They sit together around a table in a dim and noisy room, consuming burgers, fries, and milkshakes, all of which Thor enjoys thoroughly. He should very much like to bring Volstagg back to Earth, he thinks, as the fare is even more varied than that of the delicacies his friend likes best on Alfheim. When he mentions this, the others wish to know of the various realms, so Thor talks of Vanaheim, of Alfheim, of Nidavellir. Once or twice he starts to say Loki's name in conjunction with a story, and stumbles over the word, backing out a fraction too late.

Everyone is tactful enough to bring no attention to it, but in a lull between stories, Barton speaks. "So," he says, leaning his elbows on the table, "I get that you didn't want the Chitauri to have Loki, but what were you expecting when you took him back to Asgard?"

He is not, Thor thinks, asking out of concern.

"It was not a punishment," Thor explains, "but a strategy of war. We know the Chitauri want the Tesseract; and since we cannot allow them to have it, my father thought that we might give Loki to them instead."

Even Barton looks a little taken aback. "Huh," he says.

Thor is reminded of the way in which Sif and the Warriors reacted; with little reason to love Loki, the Avengers are still surprised by Odin's ultimatum. Thor thinks of explaining more fully, of saying that Loki had a choice but that he was too damnably stubborn to take it; but the necessary words feel like weights in his chest, leaden and useless.

"That ... isn't exactly what I was imagining," Steve ventures finally. "Handing Loki over as a prisoner of war makes sense, but it doesn't seem right to use him as a bargaining chip. I'm not thrilled to have him around, but that was a good thing you did, Thor."

"Yeah, way to step up to the plate even if he is a bit --" Stark wobbles a hand, indicating that his last word would perhaps be a crueler synonym for mad.

"I know that taking my trouble to you brings it upon you as well," Thor says. "I can only think to pay you back by serving as a comrade-in-arms when any of you might have need of me in battle."

"We --" Stark begins. His phone buzzes; he makes a few tiny, complicated gestures upon it, and his eyebrows go up. "Huh. Code red, guys. Someone grab the check, we need to suit up."

*

After they have rousted the villain, there is no discussion of whether or not Thor will come with the others to the press conference. He simply does; in a dressed-down battle suit, he stands before a crowd of mortals armed with microphones and recording devices, and he answers their questions, simply at first, and then with cheerful enthusiasm. It is easy; it is easier than such things were at home, for here he is a stranger, here there are no expectations of him apart from his ability to fight alongside the other Avengers. Here he can be whatever he wishes to be.

Everyone agrees that it would be best for Thor and Steve to take point on the press from then on. Stark often does not think before he speaks, or antagonizes reporters on purpose; Bruce hates it, and has a longstanding habit of staying away from cameras, though he will appear if he is needed; Barton tends to make monosyllabic answers and stare stonily, which Stark finds hilarious but which is unhelpful; and Agent Romanoff, while excellent with the press if need be, has the same aversion to cameras that Bruce does. So Thor and Steve smile and speak, bouncing off their easy camaraderie with one another, and Thor at least enjoys himself thoroughly.

They develop a rhythm. At first Thor plays humorous counterpoint and approachability to Steve's earnestness and thoughtfulness, but as they go on, Steve becomes more comfortable with modern colloquialism, and Thor allows himself to have a bit of fun. Steve talks of improving infrastructure and taxing the wealthy, and when their interviewer at the time -- one Stephen Colbert, who Tony assured them would be an excellent trial run for their double-act -- mocks shocked horror, Thor backs Steve's ideas with every example he can think of from Asgard, knowing precisely how it sounds.

"The disloyalty your 'one percent' show their President is appalling," he tells Colbert, who is unsuccessfully smothering a grin. "My father's lords consider it an honor as well as a duty to give what they can for their king and their realm. Have your Midgardian nobles no pride? I do not see how they can they claim greater patriotism than the good folk who work to improve the lot of their fellows, not while they drag their feet so."

Colbert's audience applauds loudly, and backstage Steve doubles over with delighted laughter. Colbert too, discarding his character, tells them with great enthusiasm that they are welcome back on his show any time they like.

Fury makes no move to stop them. "SHIELD has military funding," he says, when Steve expresses mild concern. "I don't give a fuck for the lobbyist politicians you're making uncomfortable."

Steve is content to leave it at that, but Thor goes to Bruce. "If I'm going to make anyone uncomfortable," he says, "I should like to do it on purpose. Steve and I have learned a good deal of history, but I believe I need more of the -- the everyday, casual references, cultural touchstones."

"Huh," Bruce says. "Yeah, that makes sense," and he calls his first code green, and organizes Avengers movie night.

Coulson is well enough by now to be on his feet, though he still cannot be active for long periods of time -- or so Lady Pepper explains, when she brings Agent Coulson over for movie night. Everyone is very happy to have him, and Thor makes some apple pie of apology, which bakes while they all eat popcorn and watch the first installment of The Lord of the Rings.

Without meaning to, Thor discovers he has settled into a rhythm. After the press furor following their most recent battle quiets, he and Steve take to exploring the city again; Steve has many stories of his childhood and youth to share. He even, a little haltingly, tells Thor of his best friend Bucky, and in return Thor pours out stories of Sif, and the Warriors Three, and even one or two of Loki from days long past. Thor also continues his cooking lessons with Bruce; while things bake, they watch movies together, and Bruce teaches Thor the uses of the internet. They begin to compare Midgardian science and Asgardian magic, and when Tony overhears one of these conversations at dinner, he drags Thor down to his labs. This occasions several minor explosions, for Thor is not above blowing things up with Tony in the spirit of curiosity. On one memorable occasion, their experiment causes the Tower to rattle so thoroughly that the other Avengers in residence -- in this case Bruce and a very angry Agent Romanoff -- come running out to address the perceived threat. Lady Pepper pelts into the lab, terrified for their safety, and is angry enough about the scare that Bruce and Thor help a very guilty Tony apologize with homemade curry.

Thor does not find the same easy immediate companionship with the Avengers as he does with the Warriors Three and Sif; but then, he did not grow up with the Avengers, he does not share a culture with them, and still they are finding ways to connect. Thor finds he loves it, and Thor finds it comfortable, and one morning Thor is having a companionable breakfast with Barton when he realizes, with a horrible shock, that he has not thought to visit Loki in nearly a month.

He does not want to, but duty is duty, and now that Thor has thought of it, he goes.

*

"How has he fared?" Thor asks quietly, restraining himself from leaning over the guard's shoulder to peer at the screen.

"He's been ..." The guard shrugs, turning in his seat to face Thor. "You want the full rundown? He's been weird. All the freaks in here are."

"If you please," Thor says, quiet and tightly polite, "a report with minimal editorial commentary will do."

"Sure." The guard frowns over at Loki's screen again. As he was last time, Loki is sitting very still and quiet upon his bed, though Thor sees that in the intervening time they must have taken his Asgardian clothing, for now he is wearing simple trousers and a button-down shirt. "He was nasty at first," the guard says. "When we'd bring him meals, or take him out to exercise; he'd say stuff he couldn't possibly have known, and he has this fucking creepy laugh. So we left him alone for a bit, y'know, cool him down, and after that he was a lot quieter. He asked if he could have something to read, but you only get that for good behavior, and being quiet isn't the same as being good, is it?"

"No," Thor murmurs, "I suppose it is not."

"So he got cooperative. He's smart, I'll give him that. He got civil, doesn't make eye contact, doesn't push back. We gave him a radio last week, and who knows, maybe he can have some books soon."

"Yes," Thor says, "I think that might be very good indeed." A thread of unease has started inside him; a Loki who does not make eye contact, who does not push back, is an unfamiliar creature, and Thor is unsure whether he should be frightened of Loki or for him. "I should like to see him now."

He goes to Loki's room. Loki is sitting on his bed, exactly as he was on camera. He does not look up even when the door shuts behind Thor.

"Loki."

Loki looks up slowly, and for a moment Thor is actually frightened, before Loki focuses on him, gaze sharpening. His face is utterly unreadable, still as ice. He says nothing, and the silence between them stretches until Thor feels it like a pressure, like a dull ringing in his ears.

The faint clear noise of metal against metal breaks the silence. Loki is tapping the enchanted band around one wrist against his bed frame, an absent gesture, still watching Thor avidly.

"Stop that," Thor says sharply, and takes a deep breath. "Hello. Have they -- do they let you see the sun?" Loki tips his head back, staring at the ceiling. The pale column of his throat looks like an invitation to violence, and Thor stays back against the door. He tries again. "Do they let you out into the air for long?"

"Would you," Loki says, soft and strangely hoarse for a moment before his voice smooths, "believe any answer from me?"

"It's just conversation," Thor says.

"Yes," Loki murmurs. "Just words. Why are you bothering?"

Thor suspects that saying it is duty would be a mistake. But he does not need to say it; Loki laughs darkly and looks at him again. "Go away," he says. "I see you are still here on Earth, so you have done what you came to do. There is no point unless you have thought of some use for me, and you have not."

"I still wish to talk," Thor says, trying very hard to mean it.

"I do not," Loki says. He meets Thor's eyes. There is nothing in them, not even desperation. "Please go away."

Thor goes.

*

He wants to ask someone what has happened since he saw Loki last. He supposes he could ask Tony or Director Fury for the footage from Loki's cell, but he doubts it would give him insight; what he needs, he thinks, the voice in his head sounding a little like Bruce, is not new data but a new perspective. He has no doubt that the guard outside Loki's cell gave him an accurate account of events. What he does not understand is how Loki has gone from rage to hollowness.

Thor suspects Agent Romanoff might have some insight -- he saw, on the Helicarrier, how very expertly she took Loki apart -- but he, irrationally, disgracefully, fears to ask her. Perhaps it is simply because he has not become close with her as he has with the other Avengers; but he does not feel he has the right to ask, and moreover, he does not wish to confess that she might be able to understand Loki better than he does. He does not think of asking Barton or Tony; and while Bruce and Steve might be willing to hazard some guess to Loki's change in behavior, he does not want to bother them with his concerns.

Instead, he bakes Agent Coulson another apple pie, sent off with Barton when he goes to visit Coulson that evening. He watches Die Hard with Tony and Lady Pepper, and over the next several evenings also watches the sequels, taking comfort in the variation and repetition of the story. He thinks that he should go to Loki again, and recoils from the thought, and hates it.

One evening finds Thor up on the roof, very near the spot he fell asleep before Frigga told him of his exile. He is thinking of recipes, and of interviews, and of the way that Bruce and Tony fall into happy orbit around one another when in the same room, each thought flying uselessly to the next. Thor is not sure he ever used to think so much.

Steve finds him there. "Hey," he says, holding up two bottles of beer, beaded with condensation, "is this seat taken?"

"No," Thor says, moving over slightly. "I would love the company."

They sit in companionable silence, drinking and watching the daytime colors fade from the city below them, replaced by the endless lights. A cool summer breeze rolls by. "Penny for your thoughts?" Steve asks.

Thor laughs. "I am very fond of your colloquialisms," he says. "'Penny for your thoughts' is a good one." He takes a pull of beer. "If there is a deficiency in the Allspeech, it is that it translates meaning as directly as possible. It fails to capture idiom."

"How so?" Steve asks, because he is a good friend indeed, and can perhaps sense that Thor needs to let his voice and thoughts wander without lingering too long upon anything painful.

"'How's it going,' for example," Thor says. "It seems such a circuitous way of asking how you fare, but -- Midgardians are not very free in discussing emotion. So it seems that to ask about the situation surrounding their feelings rather than about feelings themselves is ... less invasive, perhaps."

"Huh." Steve slants him a smile. "You may have a point. What else?"

Thor's spirits are actually lifting. "Perhaps the most versatile word I have encountered is 'fuck'," he offers. Steve's smile becomes a grin. "Simply 'to fuck' is to rut or to lie with, that is a familiar usage; but 'to fuck with' is to jest at another's expense, and consistent with the state of 'being fucked', which means that one has been made the butt of misfortune."

Steve is laughing now. "Your mind is kind of amazing."

"I thank you," Thor says, grinning, "but I am only explaining the versatility of your language." He looks up at the strange sky. "Did you know, at first I wondered if the association of unpleasantness with fucking came from Midgard's relative sexual prudery, but Barton told me that it is only taking a passive part in the action that merits low regard. It is much the same on Asgard."

There is a silence. Steve does not seem to be laughing anymore. After a beat, he says, "I hope you don't mind me asking ... I mean, I assume you guys have sexual taboos."

"Of course. It is a terrible thing to lie with animals, children, the dead, or one's own kin. I believe it is the same on many parts of Earth."

"Sure is." Steve picks at the label on his bottle. "But on Asgard, you can sleep with any adult, regardless of gender?" He looks over at Thor. "That's never been a problem?"

"Never that I know of," agrees Thor. He thinks of whispers about Sif, that she will not keep her place as a woman, rumors both disgusted and admiring. But he has never discussed it with her directly, so he continues, "Though, as I said, among men there is more honor in playing the man's part. I do not know how it is among women."

"Is there ever ..." Steve hesitates. "Stop me if I’m being rude -- ever any conflict about who plays which part? Do people, I don't know, switch it up to keep things fair?"

It is an astute question. “I believe it is best seen this way: just as there are certain arts, such as war among men, and magic and weaving among women -- both essential! -- I believe the greatest importance is placed on knowing one's role, and playing it. One's role is a reflection of one’s station in life -- among two men, the older, or the most distinguished warrior, or the one of higher station ..."

"Makes sense," Steve says, frowning slightly. "I appreciate the, uh. The cultural exchange."

Thor nods, but he is curious now. "And in turn, tell me if I am exceeding my bounds, but -- the people you are attracted to seem to be part of your identity, as a mortal, so I was wondering ...?"

"I never thought about it much," Steve says quietly. "I mean, I knew I liked a couple girls, so I guess I accepted it at that."

"Forgive me," Thor says. "But it seems so strange not to find appeal in both sexes."

Steve's eyes widen. "Yeah, um, I guess most people on Earth are thought to prefer one or the other. Wow, did the idea of gay rights make sense to you when we learned about that? Because here, it's not just an act that's forbidden, it's like you're a whole different kind of person." He tears the label off his bottle, and balls it up ruefully. "When I was born, a lot of people thought that meant there was something wrong with you. Part of what's different now is that people feel like they can talk about it, like it's fine. Like -- like you could be a perfectly normal person, and feel that way."

"I see," Thor responds. Steve appears to have lapsed into pensiveness. Thor does not ask whether Steve feels that way; from where Thor is standing, it still seems to be Steve's own business and his business alone.

"Sometimes I forget you're an alien," Steve says finally, shaking off his thoughts with a laugh.

"I think I will take that as a compliment," Thor returns. He thinks that this forgetfulness must sometimes be a comfort; for Thor, even the sky is still dizzyingly strange.

*

It occurs to Thor that perhaps the problem is that Loki has been disconnected from everything familiar. With this thought he feels much better, and goes at once to see Loki, for all that it has not been even a week since his last visit.

"He destroyed the radio we gave him," the guard tells Thor, before Thor goes in to see his brother. "He says he got bored and wanted to know how it was made. Hope he realizes we're not getting him a replacement."

"Perhaps books instead," Thor suggests.

"Maybe," the guard agrees.

Thor is not much encouraged, and he knows better than to promise Loki the prison will give him books. "Did the radio bore you?" he asks Loki in greeting. Loki simply looks at him, eyebrows slightly raised, which was only what Thor expected. "If you'd like books instead," Thor tries, "you might tell me what sort you wish, and I could bring them for you."

"Spell books," Loki says promptly. "Bring me my books written in runes speaking of the dark places between the worlds, or books that tell the tongues of stones and trees, or the ones the chief librarian always lied about when I was a child and he said they were not written in blood."

Thor does not know whether what he feels is relief or irritation. "Midgardian books, Loki, as you well know."

"Have they none written in blood here?" Loki pulls his knees up to his chest, curling around himself. "Barbarous."

Thor nearly laughs, and stops himself, and remembers that perhaps he should give Loki some sign of encouragement when Loki reminds Thor of his old self. He thinks it too late, and the laugh that does come sounds hollow. Loki throws Thor a mocking smile.

"Earth is not barbarous," Thor tries. "If you listened to your radio at all you must know that." He remembers his conversation on the roof with Steve, and realizes that perhaps Loki would appreciate the subtleties of the English language, being a wordsmith himself. "I have discovered things that you can learn of a culture from its linguistics," he offers. "I would love to tell you of them -- you're the only one here who comes from the same place I do; you would perhaps find amusement in it."

Loki uncoils. "Why," he says. "Why bother? Why would I care for the quirks of a world I'm never going to see? I am not going to leave this cell."

Words die on Thor's lips. Of course Loki will leave this cell. Midgard was never going to be a long-term solution. But things must look very different from inside a prison; Thor can afford to see how things play out, but Loki only has the count of days.

Loki must see this realization in his face. He smiles, slow and poisonous. "Shall we stop pretending you are doing this for me? We are here because you couldn't bear to lose me again, not because you thought I would prefer this over death."

"That sounds like a very good reason for me to be making decisions for you," Thor snaps, abruptly losing his temper.

Loki makes a noise that is not a laugh; it is so far from mirth that it sounds a little as though he is already dying. "How long shall we do this?" he asks. "I can describe it for you every time, to save you the pain and the trouble. You will pretend to be gentle; I will refuse you; you will grow angry, and leave until you think you have created a new approach, but it will be more of the same." He does not deign to rise; he just watches Thor, still and wary, from across the room. "I can outlast you."

*

Loki is a liar, and Thor knows this is a lie; but Loki is not entirely wrong. Thor does need a new approach, and he cannot think of one. He knows better than to leave Loki alone for weeks as he did before, though; at least when he visits Loki more than once a week, Loki does not look as horrible and drawn as he did on that second visit. Still, something needs to be done, because Loki is slipping away. He has given up on snarling at Thor, or indeed on giving Thor angry words. Instead he gives Thor silences, so vast and terrible they claw at Thor's chest.

If the problem is that Loki will not respond, Thor reasons, what he needs is some incentive to begin responding. The conditions of their visits must change. Loki must remain imprisoned, of course, and it is not as though Thor can offer books to Loki as though he will at the last hit upon one that might spark any real conversation. But the conditions of their visits also include being watched, something that galls Thor a little every time; and when he thinks this, he realizes it is what needs changing. Perhaps he could draw Loki out if they were truly alone.

The solution seems obvious, and so Thor goes to Tony for help.

It is four days into the new month, and Steve's birthday. Tony has decided to throw Steve a party, though due to intervention from Lady Pepper, the gathering is a small one. Thor only hears about the party when Steve does. "Sorry we didn't mention it," Lady Pepper says, "but you've been busy, and we wanted to tell as few people as possible so the secret would stay secret." Thor tells her he is not offended; indeed, the truth of the matter is that Thor would have sided with Tony on the subject of party size -- any worthy celebration, Thor feels, should be suitably large.

Even so, the party appears to be a success. Tony holds it not at Avengers Tower but at a city-block-sized mansion that used to belong to his mother; the place includes extensive grounds, and so everyone gathers outside, to cook meat upon grills and to spend time together. Thor greatly approves of such an arrangement. The food is good, and the company still better: in addition to the Avengers, Agent Coulson is in attendance, healed now but for the use of a cane if he becomes too tired. Tony has also invited a friend he introduces as Rhodey; he has a warrior's bearing and helps Lady Pepper serve the cake.

They all sing a short song; Steve grins, blows out the candles adoring the cake (the wax is shaped into numbers that read 90, because Tony remains Tony), and serves it out to everyone. Thor finds the whole affair strangely melancholy, despite the cheer of everyone present. Mortal life seems, at this moment, terribly fragile; they celebrate simply being alive every year.

Of course the Avengers are appreciated as heroes here, Thor thinks, looking over the assembled gathering while he eats his cake. Asgardians go to war because there is glorious purpose in war; long-lived, they must risk death to give their lives meaning. But these mortals, rather than hoarding the years of their mayfly lives, are going into the world every day and risking everything they have, risking this pittance they have been given, so that other mortals may be able to live out each year they have. He feels a swell of respect and affection for each of them. Being in their company is no longer a matter of owing them a debt for Loki's asylum. These mortals are his comrades now.

And Loki is wasting the time he has been given, Thor thinks with a pang of frustration. What a fool his brother is.

"Hey," someone says at Thor's elbow, mercifully interrupting this thought. Thor turns to see the man called Rhodey, who holds out his free hand and says, "Colonel James Rhodes. You must be Thor."

"Yes," Thor says, sticking the plastic fork into the remains of his cake and shaking the offered hand. "Tony spoke very highly of you when he learned you were to attend this celebration."

"Wow, you really do speak like that."

"He does," Steve agrees, wandering up on Thor's other side. "Colonel Rhodes. You're the Iron Patriot guy."

"Sometimes," Colonel Rhodes acknowledges.

"That's ... something," Steve says, but not as though he's very impressed.

"You too have been a superhero for your government," Thor reminds Steve gently.

"That's true." Steve relents and offers a hand. "Good to meet you, Colonel."

"You too, Captain," Colonel Rhodes says, shaking the proffered hand firmly. "Hey, you're probably the guy to talk to about this. Tony doesn't bother with tactical stuff, but I thought you might be interested to know that I've read up on all the official reports I could get on the Battle of New York; I want to help the military prepare to respond if there's another situation like that."

Steve nods. "Smart. We could use the help sometimes."

"Problem is," Colonel Rhodes says, "SHIELD's been sitting on all the really useful intel. Tony and Pepper -- and I think that Agent Coulson guy, Pepper has an in with him -- they've been trying to facilitate this, but so far, no joy."

"Huh." Steve thinks about this. "I'll try talking to SHIELD about it, too; but otherwise Captain America might have to start speaking about it to the public."

Colonel Rhodes grins. "Oh, I was hoping you would say that."

Thor excuses himself and leaves them to their politicking, feeling pleased. It is a comfort to know that Earth is in such good hands.

He finishes his cake, and discovers Tony talking with Coulson, who looks long-suffering enough that Thor feels no guilt about taking Tony away. (Indeed, when Thor takes Tony's elbow and says, "I should like to speak with you," Coulson mouths Thank you over Tony's shoulder. Thor gives him a wink.)

"Okay, big guy," Tony asks, when they're out of earshot, "what is it?"

"I need to ask a favor," Thor says, low. "And I do not know if it is in your power to do, but if it is, I would like it very much indeed."

"What?" Tony asks, unconsciously lowering his own voice in turn.

"I need to see Loki without being recorded," Thor says, soft and swift. "He will give me nothing; my conversations with him are certainly not giving SHIELD any tactical advantage, but perhaps if he knew we were not being observed I will at least be able to get through to him."

"Wow." Tony considers. "You've got a guard viewing that shit all the time. That's gotta be protocol for a high-profile prisoner like Loki."

"Yes," Thor agrees. "Can you do it?"

"If I erased the footage, someone would know," Tony says. "But -- hey, don't look so shattered, cool it, I've got a pretty sophisticated AI, if I do say so myself. You're asking me to fool the camera so that the footage viewed will look like you and Loki are interacting in a normal, non-repetitive, human way ... You want me to fake tapes that will pass a Turing test. And fool SHIELD with them." Tony huffs a laugh. "I could do it."

Thor swallows. "Will you?"

Tony cocks his head, giving Thor a considering look. Thor waits. "Yeah," Tony says finally. "Your family is your own goddamn business, and I like a challenge." He claps Thor on the back and, before Thor can do anything more than breathe relief, he turns back to the party and yells, "Okay, everyone gather round, time for presents!"

Everyone has small tasteful gifts for Steve -- Thor, feeling that it would not be much out of line even if it was not entirely culturally appropriate, bought Steve a quantity of his favorite beer, which no one seems to find odd -- but at Tony's turn, he holds up empty hands and says, "I don't have a gift, just an announcement. Except maybe the announcement is the gift? Anyway, I've invited Agent Coulson to stay at the Tower for the rest of his recovery."

Steve laughs. "I thought it was going to be something awful. That sounds great. Welcome, sir."

"Thank you," Coulson says. He throws Tony a dirty look before smiling around at the rest of them. "And I appreciate the offer. I don't want to impose, of course, or force myself in --"

"Phil, it will be great to have you around," Lady Pepper says firmly.

"Well." Coulson smiles crookedly. "You all seem prone to avoiding phone calls and emails from Director Fury, so being at the Tower in person does seem like the right thing to do."

*

Coulson settles in. Thor bakes him another apple pie, which Coulson shares around for dessert that night.

Before bed, Tony catches Thor in the hall, looking bright-eyed and satisfied. "I got the program running," he says. "Every time you go into Loki's cell it'll flip over to my algorithm until the moment you leave, and then it'll go back to the live feed."

"You are a miracle," Thor tells him fervently, and a few days later, once the celebratory spirit has worn off and the mortals have tired of setting firecrackers in the middle of the night, Thor goes to visit Loki again.

He is surprised to see an actual reaction from Loki this time when he opens the door to Loki's cell; Loki jerks upright, a tense, fighting motion, before he sees it is Thor and stills a little.

Thor hesitates in the doorway. "What has happened?"

Loki shrugs, displacing the tension in his shoulders. "I expected you to be Romanoff. She has begun to visit. Did you not know?"

"No," Thor says. "I did not."

"She has very good timing," Loki says. He gives Thor a slow awful smile. "She knows exactly where and when someone will break."

Thor knows Loki is waiting for him to ask what Agent Romanoff has done. He clenches his teeth and says nothing; he knows well enough that what Agent Romanoff has been doing is her job, and Loki looks none the worse for it.

"I didn't come here to speak about Agent Romanoff," Thor tells him. "I came to tell you that we are not being watched."

Loki blinks. "What?"

"I asked Stark to alter the footage," Thor explains. "I wanted to be able to speak with you privately, without anyone watching. You need not put on any sort of act."

"Oh," Loki breathes. For a moment his face does something very strange indeed; his eyes are wide and dark, and he trembles. Thor cannot tell whether Loki is excited or frightened, and either way Thor is a little alarmed. At least, he thinks anxiously, this is a reaction where before all he was getting from Loki was silence.

"That is all," Thor says. "I need not stay if you do not wish me to, but I wanted you to know that it is only the two of us now."

Loki ducks his head. "And now I know," he murmurs. "Thank you, Thor."

Thor does not know what Loki is thanking him for. He wants, for the flash of a moment, to go to Loki and set a hand on the nape of Loki's neck as he used to, giving his little brother strength. But he knows things have not changed so much between them with a few words that Loki would allow him that; so he says, simply, "I will come again soon," and takes his leave.

*

Thor is much heartened after this. He wonders, in flashes, why Loki thanked him, and what Agent Romanoff said in her visit, or perhaps visits, to Loki; but he is not overly concerned. Instead he bakes, often with Agent Coulson sitting in the dining room doing paperwork and snacking on the bits of pie crust Thor offers him.

Agent Barton moves into Avengers Tower when Coulson does, to Thor's amusement. He has spent so much time with Bruce and Steve and Tony that he had forgotten in part how pleasantly he spent that first afternoon on Earth with Clint, but now that he is constantly underfoot Thor remembers better. Clint has a sly wicked sense of humor, with sarcasm to follow, and Thor spends several easy afternoons with Clint and Coulson, each going about their own business while comfortably in one another's orbits.

One evening, after Coulson has excused himself to sleep, Clint and Thor are alone in the rec room, Clint flipping through channels and Thor sprawled idly on a couch, gazing out at the skyscrapers.

"Hey," Clint says, "how's it going with Loki?"

Thor looks over at him, but Clint seems honestly curious. "It ... goes," Thor says. "It goes very frustratingly, most visits. I'm not sure I'm getting through to him at all. I do not mean that he shows any remorse for what he has done -- he was never much good at that; even as children most of his apologies upon getting into trouble were feigned -- I mean that sometimes I think he will never forgive me for saving him. That is a hard thing to live with."

"I'll say." Clint looks sideways at him. "I get it, you know. I had a pretty messed-up family. I get having loyalty to someone even when it's a stupid idea."

"That is kind of you to say," Thor says, "considering what Loki did to you."

Clint barks a laugh. "Stupid truth is, it might be in the top five shittiest things, but I'm not sure it takes the prize."

"I'm ... sorry to hear that," Thor says, taken aback.

"Yeah, well." Clint leans back against the couch, and cranks the volume back up on the television. They sit in silence until the crowd on the screen roars in response to a scored goal. Clint abruptly mutes the television and turns to Thor.

"I mentioned Trick Shot earlier," he says, giving Thor a bright direct look. "He was one of the people who raised me in the circus." Thor nods. "Well," Clint says, "he also taught me archery. But it's a lot more complicated than that. We're talking bad luck with family, I'll give you bad luck. There was this other guy, stage name Swordsman. He was embezzling money from the circus. I was young, I had a lot of ideas about right and wrong, I threatened to turn him in. He beat me up, of course, and I lived because Trick Shot and my brother stopped him."

"Good," Thor says firmly.

"Just wait," Clint says. "They were all the fucking same, is the point -- later Trick Shot had me rob this rich guy, and I --" He stops. "There was a whole thing with my brother, too, he left the circus and I never got into contact with him again except for the time when I accidentally shot him. Whole pile of not good. Point is, I didn't want to go through with the robbery, Trick Shot fucking shoots me in the shoulder and leaves me to get caught."

"I ... can see how Loki might not register as the worst thing," Thor says slowly.

Clint snorts. "Want to hear the rest?"

"If you'd like." Thor wonders if Clint will want some confession in return, or if he thinks that this is some sort of leveling between them; either way, Thor is willing to hear him.

"Okay. So Trick Shot." Clint waits for Thor's nod. "Years later I hear from him again; he's contacted me challenging me to a duel. It turns out he has cancer and he can't pay for the chemo, so he wanted to go out the way he chose. And that's stupid as hell, so I offered to pay for his medical care."

"I would have done the same," Thor murmurs into the pause.

"Yeah," Clint says. "I know." He clears his throat. "And he was in remission when he helped me take down Crossfire, so I guess good deeds do get rewarded sometimes."

"And you remain on good terms?" Thor asks.

"Not really," Clint shrugs. "He still works for the worst sort of people, but he doesn't want to fuck me over. I still pay for his medical insurance, but we haven't spoken in years. And," Clint concludes, "if you don't tell me I should try to get back in contact with him, I won't tell you what to do with Loki."

"I would not think of telling you what should be done!" Thor says, more indignantly than he means to.

Clint smiles, slow and lopsided. "Which is the point of baring my soul to you," he says. "I want this team to function just as much as you do, and you seem like a pretty good guy, so I'm not going to hold Loki against you."

"Thank you," Thor says, smiling back.

They spend the rest of the night happily flipping through sports channels.

*

Clint's confession stays with Thor. It does not escape him that Clint avoided talking about his brother almost entirely, though whether because it was too painful, or because Clint wanted to keep some of his business to himself, Thor cannot say. In either case he understands with intimate sympathy.

He goes to see Loki again. He thinks that perhaps Clint's tacit approval of the visits would be a boon; but visiting feels more like a burden than ever. It is a duty, Thor forces himself to admit. He knows just as well as Loki that they are getting nowhere, and no matter how his heart aches for his brother, he is becoming less and less sure that what waits for him is his brother anymore. Thor feels such affection for the Avengers, these mortals who do have his back both in battle and outside it; what remains of his affection for Loki feels like an intellectual memory.

Perversely, it makes Thor all the more determined to make his feelings for Loki real again.

"Is there still no one watching us?" Loki says in greeting, when he sees it is Thor.

"No one," Thor assures him.

For the first time in a month, Loki gets to his feet, padding across the room towards Thor. Thor wonders, for the flash of a moment, whether Loki has taken the knowledge that they are alone and fashioned some weapon from it -- but Loki's hands are open and bare, and his face, too, is empty.

Loki stops in front of Thor, so close again that their breath mingles.

"Do you enjoy this?" Loki demands. "I tire of watching you come to me in the same way I would tire of watching you run headlong into a wall over and over again. It was amusing at first, but now it bores me."

The words are so much like those things Thor was already thinking that he reacts instinctively, warding off the present with the past, and does what he has thought of doing but never dared do before now: he reaches out, and wraps a hand around the nape of Loki's neck.

Loki goes very still.

"You are my brother. You will always," Thor tells him, gripping the back of Loki's neck in emphasis, "be my brother."

Loki's face slides into cold rage. "Really?" he breathes.

Thor swallows. This is not going to be one of Loki's better days; but then, none of them are, anymore. "Always," he repeats firmly.

"No matter how many I kill?" Loki asks softly. He leans in towards Thor, and smiles a soft awful smile when Thor forces a nod. "No matter who?" A cold knot of dread is forming in Thor's belly; it has been so long since Loki spoke thus that he no longer knows how to arm himself against it. "What if I had burnt out Erik Selvig?" Loki asks. "He was days away from death by exhaustion. And yes, I knew he was yours. He told me, and I treated him the worse for it. What about the Avengers? Among them, whose deaths are so trivial that it would still permit you to love me?" He draws back and scrutinizes Thor's face. Thor can only stare at him helplessly. "All of them?" Loki asks on a laugh, as though he already knows the answer.

"Loki --"

Loki tears away from him. "You won't really keep loving me, you fool," he snarls. "It's easy to say, but I'll sicken you. You think I won't because the bodies are not at your feet, because you don't see their children grieve. Could you look Barton or Romanoff in the eye, after I killed Phil Coulson? Can you yet? And if the killing won't do it, it will be the madness or the lies or, or --"

Loki stops abruptly. He has to; Thor is gripping his shoulders much too tightly, and shakes him just once, rough enough to snap the breath from Loki's body. Loki stares at him. He looks lost; he looks anguished. Thor wants to ask what has happened, what he missed, how Loki came to be like this, but he has asked these questions before, time after time, exactly like running into the wall that Loki described.

He does not let Loki go. He cannot make Loki better, and he cannot make Loki stop, and, most terribly of all, he cannot tell Loki that he will still love him; Loki would not believe it, and Thor is not sure how much longer it will be true. What he can do is hold onto Loki, even if there is nothing else to be done, even if both of them are drowning.

Loki hisses softly, as though in pain, but Thor cannot let go or Loki will be lost. Instead he loosens his grip, keeping one hand on Loki's shoulder, bringing the other up to touch his jaw, a skimming gentle touch. Loki does not draw away. Instead he watches Thor, curious, thoughtful. Then something changes in his face, like water freezing. "Brother," he breathes.

And Loki kisses him.

It is only a gentle kiss upon Thor's hand, the one touching Loki's face. Thor sees the moment stretch out like the second before Mjolnir lands, Loki's face shifting into unfamiliar warmth, lips soft on the heel of Thor's hand. Time speeds up again, Loki's hand pressing Thor's fervently to his mouth. He moves in close to hold Thor's face with long fingers and touches his chest to Thor's chest and his belly to Thor's belly and his mouth --

-- his tongue is so slick and no one has ever tried to touch the softness just inside Thor's lips before. Thor allows it, stunned, his mouth yielding under Loki's. Loki makes a quiet ragged noise, pushing into Thor's mouth with devouring urgency, and entirely without meaning to Thor responds in kind, pulling Loki hard against him with one hand and cradling Loki's face with the other. Loki clutches at Thor's shoulders, hard enough to be almost painful. Thor can feel more than hear the soft moans tumbling from him, as though Loki cannot help it, as though this long feverish kiss is the only thing keeping him upright.

Loki, Thor thinks, and thinks of the way Loki said brother, and for a moment goes molten with desperate lust before it's drowned out in horror. Thor breaks the kiss, gently as he is able.

They lean together, foreheads pressed against one another, breathing. "No," Thor whispers.

"You will deny that?" Loki murmurs, laughing, quiet and breathless and bitter. "Tell me, Thor, am I your brother or am I not?"

Thor jerks backwards. "You've proven your point," he snaps. "Of course you're my brother, no matter what -- what trickery, what games you mean to play --"

Loki regards him, expressionless, something bright and dangerous in his face. "So if I offer myself to you again, you will know better now and turn your face aside." He slides easily back into Thor's space. Thor watches him warily. Loki's eyes are shining. "Tell me again," Loki whispers, "how you will treat your dear brother," and presses his lips to Thor's.

Turn your face aside, Thor tells himself; but Loki is here, trembling angles pressed against him. He holds very still, but that is not enough. In a moment Loki will break away, will take Thor's inaction for rejection, when in fact Thor --

When in fact Thor wants it, terribly. The knowledge of it crashes down on Thor suddenly, leaving him sick and aching and breathless, and before he can think better of it he opens his mouth to Loki's again, desperately hungry for contact. Loki makes a noise of surprise and -- something else; triumph, perhaps, Thor fears it is that. He claws at Thor's shirt, as though now that he has Thor's honesty he can't remember how to be careful.

The world narrows to just this -- the feel of Loki against him, Loki's hands grasping hard at his shoulders while Thor holds trembling fingertips to his face, the way Loki's lips curve into something that is not at all a smile. Thor cannot get enough air, he wants this so badly. Loki stumbles backwards; he slams back against the wall and the impact goes through Thor, jolting them together, one of his legs between Loki's. Loki makes a soft keening sound and arches up against him.

Thor breaks the kiss to fumble with the buttons of Loki's shirt, and Loki is pulling Thor's hips in against him, grinding them together. Thor is achingly hard; he doesn't know when it happened but it feels so good. His fingers are shaking; he shouldn't be using his hands for this, he shouldn't be doing this. One button pops free, then another, and the noise Loki makes, a breathless whimper, sends a rush of heat through Thor and drives the last thought from his head. He frantically fumbles through the rest of the buttons, and together Thor and Loki wrest the shirt off. Loki drags him backwards and they tumble to the bed, Loki's legs falling open under him; their mouths meet again, Loki still making those whimpering noises, and Thor distantly hears himself moan.

His hands are against Loki's ribs, solid against the rise and fall of Loki's breath, holding Loki in. Thor shudders, kissing along the side of Loki's jaw and down his neck while Loki arches and breathes something that sounds like "Thor." Thor's hands slide under Loki to the curve of his back, and he rolls their hips together helplessly. Everywhere they touch feels molten, and Thor is beginning to breathe with Loki, urgent dragging breaths. He bites down gently on the junction of Loki's neck and shoulder, and Loki moans again, so deep and desperate that Thor finds himself pulling Loki upright; Loki makes a startled sound but doesn't fight it, and without effort Thor flips Loki over on the bed so that Loki is sprawled out facedown. Thor tugs at the waistband of Loki's trousers, hands sliding over smooth skin, and suddenly he freezes.

Loki's hair has slid away from the back of his neck, inky against the pillow; the curve of his neck is vulnerable and pale, and all Thor can think is how Loki looked exactly so when they were children.

Loki goes very, very still.

Thor pulls away, slow and unsteady. His shirt is rucked up, and he smoothes it back down with shaking fingers. He does not look at Loki, but after a moment from the corner of his eye he sees Loki sitting slowly upright, each of Loki's movements slow and careful: straightening his trousers, retrieving and buttoning his shirt, standing, slow and fluid, still with his back to Thor. Thor cannot look straight at him.

Loki turns to him, and Thor forces himself to meet his eyes. Loki does not smile; he does not even look triumphant, but he looks entirely composed. "You can't possibly think," Loki says, and his voice is hoarse with use, "that you are safe now."

"I," Thor says. His voice cracks. He does not even know what apology he might make, so he does the only thing he can do: he flees.