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Hi, Thor!
It's really great to hear from you! I don't watch much news, but Darcy loves to end the day with the Daily Show & Colbert Report, so we've seen you a couple of times. It looks like you've been settling in really well! I'm really happy to see that; I know you understand why I couldn't try sending you back home while Loki is still on Earth, but I did feel bad leaving you high and dry like that, so it's good to see that you have a whole superhero support network.
Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner -- the lab has been really busy. Actually, I have a question about your rainbow bridge, and I was hoping you might have some insight for me. Before you came back I was trying to access the far end of the energy signature you got beamed up by, out in the desert, and the background radiation is still there, but there isn't anything to hook up to, or at least our instruments can't find it. So I was wondering whether your bridge turns on and off? I assume the situation with you and Loki being here isn't permanent, and when you both do need to go home I'd like to help; but I can't if there's nothing to connect to. Tell me if it's there and my equipment just isn't good enough to find it -- I can take the ego blow! But until I know I'm going to keep thinking that there's another explanation.
Sorry for the shop talk! If it's not super confidential, I would love to hear about all the adventures you're having with the Avengers.
Keep well,
Jane

*

It has been a week.

Thor is not prevented from accessing the internet, though he has no illusions about whether he is being monitored. The email from Jane, which would have brightened his spirits considerably had it come only a little earlier, now haunts him. He has no notion what to say to her; he could perhaps explain a falling-out with the Avengers without explaining the cause, and get sympathy without question in return, but he cannot bring himself to do so. He does not deserve Jane's sympathy, nor indeed her attentions. In the end he writes her back simply telling her of the Bifrost's current state of half-repair, thanking her in her continued interest in that mode of travel, and apologizing for not saying more. I am having some difficulties, related to Loki, which prevent me from telling you anything more presently he settles on, and decides it will have to do.

He only leaves his floor for meals. There is no sign of anyone else in the Tower when he goes to the kitchen, which Thor finds increasingly disconcerting. He suspects JARVIS of giving them warning whenever he moves, and allowing them to disappear.

Natasha did come to his rooms later that first day. Thor still felt numbed enough that he made no effort to brace himself, and perhaps Natasha could tell. "Anything you want to add," she had asked, "now that we're not in the middle of a shouting match?"

"No," Thor said, "though I understand your terms."

Natasha looked at him for a long moment. "I don't get it," she said finally. "You seem smart enough not to fall for such a clumsy seduction; he was being really obvious about it. And I hadn't pegged you as someone who gets off on sleeping with a prisoner, though I could be wrong."

Thor had realized, with sinking defeat, that Natasha was just as furious as Tony. "No," he said again, quietly. "It was not for power, nor revenge, nor because I knew no better." He stared down at his hands, tangled uselessly in his lap. "I love him."

"Love," Natasha repeated, pronouncing it like a distasteful foreign word, and Thor flinched from her. He has not seen her since, and he is glad of it; that such a motivation might be outside her understanding frightens him. He is not sure he would prefer any of the others; Bruce, perhaps, though Bruce's reaction remains a mystery. Perhaps he is too angry to safely see Thor.

The worst part of this isolation is its totality. There is still the noise of the city outside, of course, and Thor’s floor of the Tower has its own television. He can play music, and generate as much sound as he wishes, and keep himself thus entertained; but none of it holds his attention. He finds himself turning on the television, just for the noise in the background. He finds himself thinking, at odd moments and with sudden clarity, of an early visit to Loki in prison: Loki's eyes unfocused for a moment, the stillness of his body, the ringing tap of his shackles against the bed frame, regular and automatic as habit. Thor remembers it and feels sick with sympathy.

"Sir," JARVIS says.

Thor jolts from his grey contemplation of the city below. "Yes?"

"A visitor for you," JARVIS tells him. The AI sounds as impeccably polite as always, but where Thor has always detected the slightest hint of sarcasm when JARVIS addresses Tony, he thinks that he can now hear a note of pity. Thor winces, but he does rise before Director Fury strides into the room.

Thor is grateful that it is Fury and not one of his friends. He can at least meet the Director's eye.

Fury looks around the room, at the sleeping laptop, the television on low, the great window overlooking the city. His mouth twists unhappily. "It's a better prison than we gave Loki," he says by way of greeting. "But then, you haven't been endangering everyone from malicious intent, I hear."

"Endangering everyone," Thor repeats. He is surprised by his own voice; he was not sure he was going to speak at all, and now that he has, all he sounds is very tired.

"We're not going to argue this point," Fury says, very cold. "I don't know how they do it on your planet, but here, we don't have sex with our war criminals and prisoners. It's sick and disgraceful, and given the magnitude of what you've done, I'm at a loss for what might be appropriate to do with you. Keeping you under house arrest seems ... inadequate."

Thor does not flinch, but he feels hot and cold at once, horrified all over again. That he and Fury do not care for one another is not a blessing, after all; he can look Fury in the face, but all he sees there is a reflection of all the things that his friends, even Natasha, were too kind -- or perhaps too hurt -- to say to him directly. He has no idea what to say.

Fury gives him no chance, in any case. "Given our state of possible invasion," he tells Thor, "dealing with you is the last thing I want to be bothering with."

Thor finds his voice. "Is there news?" he asks. "Is it the Chitauri?"

"I might want to give you intel if I knew for certain who you were worried about protecting," Fury says, precise and cutting.

For a moment Thor cannot breathe; the offence of Fury's implication is too great. "Do not think," he says, low, "that my dealings with Loki have anything to do with my interest in the wellbeing of your planet."

"That's exactly what I think," Fury snaps. "I think you're an alien, and we have no idea just what you're capable of, or where your loyalties really lie. It isn't looking good for you. Do you understand what you've already put in jeopardy?" He takes a deep breath, visibly calming himself, and goes on, relentless, "I've put a lot of effort into making the Avengers Initiative work. And it looked like I was getting returns: better fits for my agents than I thought they'd ever get; Stark acting like an adult, and a good one at that; real conversations about social issues, thanks to you and Rogers, which was unexpected and damn impressive. I have the military giving us the time of day; I thought we might be able to go ahead with our SWORD initiatives, given the right leverage. It looked like all of you were going to do the impossible for me. I was very proud." He eyes Thor with great displeasure. "I'd like to drive this point home, so you understand how completely idiotic it is that you've compromised planetary security with your sexual hangups."

Thor cannot meet Fury's eye after all. He stares down at the traffic gliding by below, and thinks of how he told Coulson long ago that the Earth was under his protection. After a long, agonizing moment, he nods. "I understand."

"That's good," Fury says coldly. "So you'll also understand what a difficult position you've put me in. I would like nothing better than to kick you out, but like it or not, the Avengers have become the world's most public strike team. I can't get rid of you without calling into question everything your teammates have been working for. You see my difficulty."

He waits, pointedly. Thor grits his teeth. "Yes," he says.

"Even more disturbingly," Fury adds, disgust seeping back into his voice, "you seem very sorry you were caught, but you don't seem very sorry you did it."

Thor does flinch at this. It's not like that, he wants to say, but he has no idea how to even begin explaining his utter terrified helplessness when he tries to think of how he might fix the situation with Loki, or the situation with the Avengers; when he tries to understand what he has made of himself.

"Truth hurts, doesn't it," Fury says quietly. "Here's how it's going to go. I'm keeping you here, on probation. We might have an alien invasion on our hands, and if we do, I'm letting you out along with the rest of the team. I'll be watching very, very carefully to see what you do, and if you do anything I don't like, I'm locking you up somewhere you'll never see daylight. I don't give a damn who used to worship you as a god. This is my turf, and you aren't going to fuck it up for me."

He doesn't ask if Thor understands, this time; and when Thor looks over to make some kind of assent, Fury is already gone.

*

That night, when Thor goes with leaden feet to the kitchen, the lights are still on. He freezes in the doorway.

Bruce is sitting at the kitchen counter, eating absently while he reads through something on a tablet. He looks up. "Hey."

"I can -- wait until you are done," Thor offers, fumbling.

"No, it's okay." Bruce lifts a fork in invitation. "Pasta?"

"Thank you." Thor leaves the doorway feeling something akin to battle nerves; but when he sits down next to Bruce, Bruce makes no move to shift away, simply sliding the bowl of pasta over to him and resuming his perusal of the tablet. Thor tries to eat, but his throat is closed up with gratitude.

"Why did you stay?" he asks at last, when he can no longer take the silence.

"Lots of reasons." Bruce puts the tablet aside, and peers at Thor over his glasses. "For one thing, I know what it's like to make a mistake that destroys your whole world. How it feels when you're completely alone. And I didn't want to facilitate that sort of isolation." He sighs, removing his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose. "You do know, don't you? How monumentally you screwed up?" Thor only nods; Bruce's mouth twists in an unhappy smile. "We just -- all of us, even Natasha, not that she'd say so -- we had this shot at having something lasting and important, and it's ... not going to be the same now. Tony's heartbroken. He liked you a whole lot, and he's taking it really personally, the way you used him to cover up the tapes. He's been used enough by people he thought of as friends that he's feeling pretty burned. What?"

This last he asks because Thor is staring at him, in growing tremulous astonishment. There is no accusatory tone in Bruce's voice, only quiet regret. "Are you not angry with me?" Thor asks.

"I was. But honestly, I feel like everyone else has that covered," Bruce admits. "Me, I'm mostly worried for you."

"For me," Thor echoes, incredulous.

"Natasha's visited Loki a few times this week." Bruce prods at the remains of the pasta. "I watched the feed -- Tony and Steve too, actually. We all want answers. And ... it might sound funny, but Natasha was concerned for him. She wanted to know why Loki had done it -- kissed you, let you touch him. Loki laughed at her. He gloated a bit, too. But he was genuinely shocked when she asked whether he felt he'd had no choice. The idea you could have forced him into sex ... I don't think it ever even crossed his mind."

"No," Thor agrees quietly. "He can more than hold his own when he cares to."

Bruce frowns. "Okay, but here's the thing: both of you assumed that meant physically. So let's not talk about force, let's talk about coercion." He holds Thor's gaze. "Natasha said you did it because you love him, but ... If you did it to keep him loving you, it doesn't follow that you wanted to do it that way, only that it seemed like the only way at the time."

Thor blinks. "You are worried that it was I who was unwilling?" A flush is creeping up his neck. "We were both very willing, I promise you, or we would not be in such straits now."

"Well." Bruce breathes out audibly. "That ... is a relief, actually. It was still a really incredibly stupid thing to do, but at least you didn't do it for the worst reasons."

"I doubt now there are any good reasons," Thor admits, and his chest aches with gratitude when Bruce gives him a commiserating smile in response.

*

The next day Bruce appears on Thor's floor of the Tower, laptop in hand, and asks if Thor minds the company. They spend most of the day together in quiet, though occasionally Bruce will explain what he's working on, obviously more to give Thor the sound of a friendly voice than because he believes it will be of more than passing interest to Thor. Thor feels better than he has in a week; he feels less than entirely alone in the world, and that is something.

"Does Tony not mind?" Thor asks, before Bruce takes his leave in the afternoon.

"Tony's an adult," Bruce says, shrugging. "He has a lot on his plate right now, and Pepper is much better with Tony under stress than I am. If he has any issues with me spending time with you, he can take it up with me."

"I do not want to -- to further strain things," Thor says, but Bruce waves him off, and promises to visit again soon.

He returns frequently enough that Thor feels he has something to look forward to; Bruce offers no recriminations, and Thor is grateful for that. He does not think it his place to ask Bruce for forgiveness, or for advice on how to make it up to the others. He only knows how to right wrongs through action, but at the moment there is nothing more he can do than be as courteous a host to Bruce as he can manage.

"Thor," Bruce ventures on his third visit -- he has seemed preoccupied, and though his next words come like an unexpected jolt, he has clearly been mulling them over for some time. "Does Loki love you?"

"What?" Thor asks, on a startled breath.

"If you did it because you love him," Bruce says, "were you getting his love too?"

"I know you think Loki mad," Thor says, trying and failing to keep defensiveness from creeping into his voice, "but that does not mean he is incapable of feeling; I would say rather the opposite to be true."

"Sure, I won't dispute that." Bruce leans back on the couch, looking so unthreatening that Thor suspects him of doing it even more deliberately than usual. "What I'm asking is, does he love you? Because if he doesn't ... look. You're tearing yourself up over this, and I don't think it's just because of us, I'm sure it's about Loki too. Am I right?"

Unwillingly Thor nods.

"If you're hanging on to someone who doesn't love you ..." Bruce drags in a breath, much shakier than is his wont. "I'm not telling you how to feel, but the fact is, Loki is violent and vicious and, yeah, pretty crazy, and it's going to destroy you if you don't let him go. I know he's family, but that -- that doesn't make him your responsibility anymore."

Thor's breath catches. "Yes," he says, "that may be so. But if I could see him --"

"Thor," Bruce says, looking a little alarmed. "I'm not sure that's a good idea. And even if I said you need closure, I don't know if they'd let you."

"Please," Thor says. He is shaking, he discovers distantly, as though with cold; given the slimmest possibility of seeing Loki again, the world has come rushing back in color. "I cannot leave it as I have, as though I have fled him. It will be closure, if that is what you wish. Please."

Bruce looks dubious, but he only says, "I'll see what I can do."

*

No one is very happy about it, but Natasha backs it; or so she tells him, when she appears in his room a few days later and says, curtly, "Congratulations, you get to see Loki."

"How long do I have?" Thor asks, already scrambling to find a jacket.

"Long enough to say your goodbyes," Natasha tells him. She waits in the doorway, watching him in silence while he finds his shoes. "You know you won't be able to see him after this, unless things change drastically."

Thor gives a tight nod. "I know."

They head together for the prison facility. Thor cannot tell anything at all about Natasha’s mood; she acts as though he is not there until they reach the prison, at which point she explains what will happen, with professional detachment. Thor and Loki will not be allowed into the same room together, of course; instead their conversation will be conducted in the same way that Natasha talks with Loki when she visits, with a wall of bulletproof glass separating them. Natasha gives no further advice; but perhaps she is curious to see what he will do.

Thor has not thought beyond seeing Loki again, though he knows well enough that he must end things properly. But when he is led down the sterile white hall to where Loki is waiting, he finds his mind gone blank, his breath torn away with pain and longing.

Loki was evidently expecting Natasha; there is a certain languid carelessness to his stance, which evaporates when he sees Thor. Loki's shoulders go tight, his face still. He is just on the other side of the glass. The guard leaves Thor, giving them the illusion of privacy. Thor draws in a breath as best he can, and has no words to offer.

"Let me guess," Loki says quietly. "You have been given leave to see me one final time, in memory of the goodwill your mortals used to bear you."

"Yes," Thor manages.

Loki waits. Thor knows what he must do, and does not know how to do it; instead he drinks Loki in with something close to desperation, knowing he has no assurance of seeing his brother again. Loki's hair is a dark tangle, long enough now to spill over his shoulders. He meets Thor's eyes unflinching.

There was never time to say goodbye, before now. Thor stares at Loki and thinks of his brother falling away into the dark of space, of Loki turning away and slipping out from between his hands and driving a knife between his ribs. He thinks of the whispers that followed all the spaces Loki's body was not, of his own grief subsumed in bafflement and duty, of how he had learned that Loki yet lived, and how the feeling in his chest could not decide whether to be horror or joy. "I wanted," Thor says. His voice cracks. "You know I cannot see you any more, but I could not simply leave you."

"I know," Loki says, still very soft. There is the faintest curl of a smile starting at the edge of his mouth, poisonous.

"I'm sorry," Thor says, uselessly. He wants to tell Loki that this feels again like mourning, like seeing every one of his mistakes spilled out before him, like being slowly flayed.

Loki leans forward. His eyes are growing brighter. "Thor," he says, cold and gentle. "Did I not say I would have your ruin? You betrayed your father; Mother abandoned you on a little world because she did not believe you capable of conducting yourself in war." Thor stumbles back a step, heart pounding so hard it hurts. "Then you took your little brother," Loki goes on, relentless, "and you bedded him, and now your companions have found you out. They see you for what you are: weak. Breakable, for the sake of sentiment and false hope, incapable now of even standing by those horrors you have done. Pathetic."

Those are tears, Thor realizes with an awful start; Loki's eyes are so bright because he is trying very hard not to cry. "Yes," Thor says. "Loki." His voice breaks again on his brother's name.

"Go," Loki says. He is starting to tremble. "I cannot think why you believed returning here would be any kind of mercy."

"Nor can I," Thor whispers. He nearly reaches out to touch the glass between them; he nearly tells Loki that he loves him still. But he does neither. Instead, Thor turns and goes back down the long white hall, each dragging step a quiet eternity.

*

Back at the Tower, Natasha stays with him. Thor sits at the table while she quietly reheats soup, and quietly eats it, glaring at Thor until he eats his, too. Thor tries to return to his rooms afterwards, but Tony appears in the doorway, looking determined and a little pale, and says, "We're watching a movie."

"Are we?" Thor asks, without interest.

"We've done the Die Hard movies," Tony says, "and the Fast & Furious stuff. We're up to Independence Day."

"I didn't realize we were doing an alphabetical oeuvre," Natasha mutters, but she also takes Thor's elbow and steers him into the rec room.

By halfway through the movie, Thor rouses enough to understand that they are being kind to him -- Natasha, who has been coldly furious, and Tony, who has refused to set foot in the same room, are sitting on either side of him on the couch, Tony leaning against Thor a little. Thor is baffled, but he does not mind the gesture.

The next few days are much the same. There is still no sign of Clint, nor of Steve, but Natasha, Bruce, Tony, and even sometimes Lady Pepper willingly spend time in the same rooms as Thor, eat their meals with him, make attempts to engage him in conversation. Thor knows he is failing to respond to this last, but he cannot summon the effort. He does exchange a few more emails with Jane, on the nature of the Bifrost and other small, pleasantly inconsequential matters. Thor dreams of the Bifrost, of its shining sweeps of color, of the awful splintering sounds it made under Mjolnir. He dreams of Loki pinned there, snarling It's too late. He does not dream of his mother; there is still no word from Asgard.

"Want to help me make pancakes?" Bruce asks, when Thor shuffles into the kitchen, still rubbing sleep from his eyes. Outside the Tower window, between skyscrapers, the sky is a piercing early-autumn blue. Thor simply shakes his head and settles in to watch Bruce carefully pouring the batter.

Pepper wanders in shortly after. "Did Tony go to bed?" she asks Bruce, fiddling with the coffeemaker.

"Yeah, he'd crashed when I got up." Bruce offers her the first pancake. "He's not scheduled to do anything today, is he?"

"No, we --" Lady Pepper starts, but she is interrupted by JARVIS.

"I am receiving a message," JARVIS says, more quickly and sharply than Thor has ever heard him.

Bruce turns off the stove, and they hurry to the next room; they are met there by Tony, tousle-haired and wearing only sweatpants. "JARVIS yelled me out of bed," Tony tells Lady Pepper plaintively.

"Quiet," Bruce tells him, switching on the television.

It fuzzes for a moment before the picture resolves into a strange face: grayish blue, long-chinned, with a gold mask protecting both nose and chin, and a cowl so deep the eyes are obscured. The face grins sharply and says, in a low sibilant voice, "My master sends his greetings. We are above your planet now. Your capability in missiles we have already seen, so for every missile you send against our mothership, we will have ten for you."

"Tony, is there a way to triangulate the signal?" Bruce asks, not looking away from the screen. When Tony does not respond, all of them look at Tony; he is frozen, breathing hard, his eyes gone wide.

"Yeah," Tony says after a long beat, "yeah, I, uh, there's -- that's --" He sits down very hard, shaking.

"Tony?" Lady Pepper drops to her knees next to him.

"I don't, I, um, breathing is an issue," Tony tells her, gasping.

Bruce kneels down on Tony's other side. "That's okay," he says quietly, "just breathe, okay, Tony?"

Thor glances over at the television. The grayish creature is still talking: "...destroyed a city once with the least of invasion forces. But the full might of the Chitauri are upon you now." The creature grins again, wide as a snarl. "We do not expect your surrender."

"Fine, I'm fine, just what the hell?" Tony is saying behind Thor, miserably.

Bruce begins talking again, quiet and steady, so Thor ignores them and fumbles in his pocket for his Starkphone. He has barely pulled it out when a code red flashes across the screen, sent by Natasha. Suit up and stand by for assembly point.

Thor turns. Bruce is rubbing circles on Tony's back, but Lady Pepper has risen. "Assembly alert?" she asks.

"Yes." Thor nods at Tony. "Is he well?"

"Bruce thinks it was an anxiety attack, so --"

"Yeah," Tony says, looking up. "Code red? Aliens? Let's suit up." He brushes off both Bruce and Pepper's beginning objections, and nods to Thor. Thor nods in return, blood thrumming.

In ten minutes they are all in the meeting room, even Steve and Clint, both of whom avoid Thor's eyes. Coulson, there to brief them, spares Thor a hard sideways glance before he begins.

"Our satellites have detected a spaceship parked above the North Pole," Coulson tells them. "Much more massive than our biggest carriers; we're talking Star Wars scale, several city blocks at minimum. It looks like it's come as close as it can without hitting the atmosphere, so it is in range of our most powerful weapons, but --" He glances at Tony, who is looking very pale, and moves on. "Some smaller craft have come out, and what looks like more of those Leviathans the Chitauri were using last time. They're too far away to tell, but they are heading down our side of the planet, so New York is definitely a potential target."

Coulson glances at Thor and hesitates, long enough for Thor to notice but not long enough for him to object; then Coulson adds, "Given where our hostile sent his message -- here, SHIELD facilities, several military bases, while bypassing all the civilian news channels -- it's a safe bet that the hack two weeks ago was these guys too. So we're treating Loki as a potential target, and moving him to a new location that they won't know about unless he's in some kind of communication with them."

Thor swallows his desire to snap He is not. That Loki is not in cooperation with the Chitauri will become evident soon enough.

"Alerts have been sent to local government and police," Coulson says. "The National Guard are on their way to help on the ground, and the military plans to intercept the Chitauri craft in the air off the coast. Our job is to be ready to meet any Chitauri when they make groundfall." He nods to Steve.

"I'll be in the Quinjet with Clint and Natasha," Steve says. "Bruce --?"

"Big guy's here when you need us," Bruce says, with a faint smile.

"We'll have you below," Steve says. "I'd like to keep damage to a minimum, so let's only break out the Hulk if we have to; but if any of them make it down, I want you to stay between them and civilians. Smash whatever you have to." He takes a deep breath. "Tony, you and -- and Thor, you'll fly in. Take positions on the best skyscrapers you can find, and once you know the enemy's position, flank for the Quinjet; Thor will hit them with as much lightning as he's got. Tony, you good?"

"Yeah." Some color has come back into Tony's face as Steve laid out the ground tactics; he is at least recovered enough to give Steve a grin. "This should be fun."

He says it like a joke, but Thor at least is not unhappy. He has no love for any invasion force intent on Midgard, and one that wishes Loki ill least of all; but this means that at last there is something to fight. Heading for his assigned position, Mjolnir humming in his hand and the wind a roar around him, Thor settles into a welcome and longed-for familiarity. No matter that Steve would not meet his eyes, he was still given a task to help; he is still allowed to fight with the Avengers, which means all is not lost.

Thor waits on the spire of the Chrysler, lightning under his skin, and watches the approach of the Chitauri not from a hole torn in the sky, but -- far more prosaically -- over the horizon, bearing down from the northeast. Small planes are already moving to intercept them, but the Chitauri scatter and reform easily, like a flock of birds. Thor waits, breathing steadily, until they have escaped entirely from the planes and begin coming down upon the city, waits until they resolve into individual vehicles and he can hear the whine of their organic engines.

Then Thor reaches up, a release of tension, a conduit of power, and lightning crashes down upon them, chasing them down to where Iron Man and the Quinjet are waiting to rake them.

For a moment it seems to work: they are herded by the lightning, and a good number of them fall to the Avengers' fire -- but too many swerve away, less interested in engagement than in attacking the city below.

Thor lets the lightning cease. Immediately his ears fill with the chatter over the comm, not just between the Avengers but others as well, the police, SHIELD, everyone Tony thought might be relevant; and what he hears is not good. There was no time for a proper evacuation, though the police and the civilians are doing their best, and even beyond the proposed evacuation zone there is danger, for it seems the line is not holding well. Traffic is a snarl, the air force cannot come in without further endangering the people of the city, and Steve, in frustration, finally yells, "Just go for the largest concentration of targets, everyone!"

Abandoning the lightning entirely, Thor flies down to the nearest street and simply lays into what Chitauri have landed there. They chitter and shriek, scattering before him, but Thor follows, felling them on one street, and when that is cleared the next, and the next, feeling in each blow another release of horror and frustration.

The others have landed nearby as well; indeed, Clint and Natasha are talking with one another, the banter of dear comrades used to one another's company in battle. Thor allows it to wash over him without meaning, so when another voice breaks through, crackling with desperation, it takes him entirely by surprise.

"Corner of 1st Avenue and 46th!" The voice is not someone Thor knows, but the urgency is enough for him to listen. "Sir, a truck crashed, we can't get through! None of the bogeys have seen us yet, but when they do --"

"Can you turn around?" Thor blinks, pausing over the fallen Chitauri; he was not expecting Director Fury to directly answer someone who sounds like any other SHIELD operative panicking under the pressure of battle. But it is Fury, saying with great patience, "Just take him back to the prison if you can't get through."

"Sir, I'm not sure that's -- shit," and the voice is overridden by the cacophony of whining Chitauri weapons and gunfire.

Natasha, down the street, shoves her hair out of her face and looks over at Thor, her face very white. She is too far away for Thor to hear it directly, but he sees her mouth move, and over the comm she says, "Thor, don't you even think about --"

Until that moment Thor had not been sure if the truck in question, nor indeed the prison in question, was the one he suspected. Now he does not even wait for Natasha to finish, but launches into the air. His walks with Steve have effectively set a map of the city in his head, so he does not even have to hesitate before heading for 1st Avenue.

He spots the trouble: a large produce truck, which skidded out of control in the face of the oncoming Chitauri and is now lying in a smoking ruin across the entire crossing of streets; the armored truck, backed up against it with eight hovering Chitauri zooming down upon the three remaining guards. Thor falls down upon them, lightning crackling over the Chitauri, but even before he can land a first blow another of the guards falls.

The Chitauri look up. Spotting Thor they give their rattling war cry; several lift from the ground to come at him, and Thor swings at them, lightning arcing bright around him, his whole body afire with battle-joy. They fight well, but none hit their mark, and in minutes they are all struck down.

Thor comes to rest on the street, breathing hard and grinning, though his grin fades when he sees that the guards did not survive the battle. Then he remembers, with a shock of fear, that Loki has no weapons at all, no magic, that if the Chitauri knew Loki was here --

But when he throws open the rear door of the van, Loki is there, entirely intact, but drawn up into a ball to make himself less noticeable. He stares at Thor, drawing a hitching breath that sounds like a sob, and Thor scrambles into the van, nearly tripping over himself in his haste.

"Thor," Loki breathes. He uncurls. Thor sees that the mortal chain which bound him to the wall is already broken; no doubt Loki wrenched it off as soon as the truck stopped and his captors were out of sight. Loki's eyes are blown wide with fear, and his hands when he lifts them are shaking. The shackles on his wrists shine. "Take these off -- take them off now --"

"But --"

"Mjolnir will do it." Loki is nearly panting, like a cornered animal. "Please, Thor."

Thor tries to distance himself from Loki’s desperation. No matter how glad he is to see Loki alive, no matter how afraid he is for Loki, too, he still knows well enough that Loki is playing this angle. "They will fall away --"

"When I become worthy, yes," Loki finishes for him, "but I haven't time. Will I become worthy at the moment of death when I throw myself recklessly into the fray? Or will it be only after?" Loki seizes Thor's shoulders, his grip hard with terror. "My magic is not Mjolnir, brother; it will not save me, not from the edge of death. And what if I am not judged worthy? I have no love for these mortals. If I fight the Chitauri, I am fighting for my own skin. I doubt there is anything Odin would find worthy in that."

It is true. There is a lump in Thor's throat, like sorrow or dread; but if the choice lies between the greater safety of the Nine Realms while Loki's magic remains bound, or his brother defenseless in battle and in danger of death -- Then there is no choice at all.

Thor cannot bring himself to speak. But he grips Mjolnir, raising it above Loki's joined hands. Loki's mouth falls open, his eyes shining, as though after all his frantic speech he still expected Thor to reject him; and for that Thor does not even hesitate before he brings his hammer down upon Loki's bonds.

There is a blaze of light, and a strong clear note loud enough to ring the ears, and the bands of metal and magic that have kept Loki bound lie broken at their feet. Thor and Loki both stare down at them for a moment, and Thor is hit with the stunned realization that everything is different now. They look back up at one another.

"Thor," Loki breathes.

"And what now?" Thor asks. His hand tightens on Mjolnir. "Will you help us in this battle, or was it all a trick?"

Loki smiles, a faint fleeting smile, neither happy nor bitter. "No," he says. "I harm you and I harm what chance I still have to live. I will keep you." He reaches out and draws a finger down the side of Thor's face, magic sparking like electricity in a trailing line. Thor shudders under it, in surprise and joy and fear.

Already Loki's armor is forming around him, shining gold before it settles. "Come, brother," Loki says.

They go out together. The battle has moved on from this intersection, but a few blocks on comes the noise of ongoing fighting. They head towards it. Thor wonders what Loki will fight with, given that he conjured no spear when he regained his armor; but when they reach the fray, Loki takes a deep breath and begins throwing knives, easily, brought up from nowhere, each finding its mark. After the first few hits the Chitauri take notice, and suddenly they are no longer scattering. The air is thick with them. Thor glances over at Loki, grinning, and Loki flashes him a viciously pleased smile in return.

Back to back they fight: Thor sends Mjolnir out to knock the Chitauri from the air; Loki, seeing this, abandons his conjured knives to send out a wave of energy that brings more Chitauri crashing down, the shock of it great enough that Thor feels it like a moment without breath. More and more Chitauri come, and Thor is beginning to feel it, a pleasant burn that will bloom into exhaustion later, but now is nothing but elation. Loki has not moved from his side; Loki is silent, furious with concentration, and Thor is entirely, brightly aware of him for every moment of it.

"Thor!" Tony's voice comes over the comm. "What the hell is happening over there?"

"We have concentrated the Chitauri force," Thor tells him. "Bring the Avengers here, and I believe we can stop them."

"How --" he hears Steve say, and then, with shock, "Oh."

Thor looks down the street: Steve, Clint, and Natasha have arrived, Tony fast behind them. Natasha does not hesitate, but comes in beside them at once; it takes the others a longer moment to shake off their astonished horror, and Thor thinks he can see on both Clint and Steve's faces a desire to deal with Loki before they take on the Chitauri. But both of them master it; and then all six of them are confronting the oncoming Chitauri together.

There is a roar in the distance, growing nearer: seven, Thor amends, and laughs as the Hulk crashes onto their street, sending a handful of Chitauri flying.

Thor has no worry to spare for what might come when the Chitauri are beaten back. All that matters now is that none of the Avengers are attacking Loki, nor even allowing themselves to be distracted by his presence; and Loki, for his part, is still throwing magic and knives into the fray, felling one Chitauri after another, swift and methodical. He has become much better at it since the last time Thor fought at his side, or else has learned not to hold back. He is vicious and lovely, and Thor is flooded with joy so fierce it spills over into euphoria.

He swings his hammer, Loki at his back, sinking so fully into the moment of battle that, when it ends, it takes a pause of ringing silence before Thor realizes that the Chitauri have stopped coming.

They all stand there, panting and surprised. Thor looks over at Loki, and Loki at Thor. There is a spatter of Chitauri blood across Loki's face. His eyes are shining, and the smile he gives Thor, slow and bright as sunrise, makes all Thor's joints feel loose.

Then Loki vanishes.

"What the hell," Tony says, the visor of his Iron Man armor sliding open.

"Quiet," Steve says, frowning. He taps his comm ear. "Coulson, why the retreat?"

"The good news is, you've taken out most of the Chitauri in New York," Coulson's voice comes in. "The bad news is, most of the force we picked up didn't even head for the surface."

"Then where?" Natasha asks sharply.

"Satellites," Coulson says. "We're scrambling every SWORD plane we've got, but --" A burst of static. After a long tense moment Coulson's voice comes back. "-- turn to Avengers Tower."

"Copy that," Clint says. He looks over at Thor. "You gonna vanish too?"

"No," Thor says, and however much that stung, he cannot even feel justified in glaring when Clint simply shrugs and turns his back.

The destruction of the city, Thor sees as they make their way back to the Tower, is only slightly less than it was after the first Chitauri attack. Now that Loki has vanished -- and Thor cannot think on that too long, or it sits like lead in his chest -- the battle-joy has faded too, and left in its place nothing but heavy exhaustion. Months of cleanup, destroyed in one attack, which promises to be only the first of many.

He should not have brought Loki to Earth, Thor thinks; the Chitauri only care about this planet so far as Loki does, and Loki only cares because Thor took an interest. Thor looks at the smoking ruins and loathes what he has wrought.

*

"They've sent electromagnetic pulses at several satellites," Coulson informs them. Everyone is sitting around the meeting table as attentively as they can, but Clint is slumped against Natasha's shoulder, and Bruce, in torn trousers and a blanket, is not even attempting to disguise his exhaustion. "We'll know more tomorrow," Coulson says, "but from the emergent pattern, it looks like they're taking out our monitoring systems, communication satellites, SWORD's planetary defenses."

"What can we do?" Thor asks.

"Frankly?" Coulson looks at Thor very coldly. "At the moment, nothing. Our satellites are mostly above the atmosphere, and we don't have a good system in place to defend them. Fighter jets don't last long with so little oxygen, and ballistic missiles are more likely to hurt Earth on the way down than these Chitauri, since they're such small targets. Drones won't work, either -- their targeting systems are on the satellites that are being taken out. They're crippling us." He looks around at all of them. "So I suggest you get some rest, before they try another ground assault. And you," he adds, turning back to Thor, "you're grounded, indefinitely. I don't care how many aliens you took out, or how well-intentioned you are."

The desire to defend his actions rises for a moment in Thor; but he is too heartsick. He clenches his fists, but nods rather than speaking.

Coulson nods too, very briskly. "Go get some rest. Who knows how much time we'll have for that soon."

Thor is more than willing to take the dismissal. He rises and heads for the door; the others follow, with varying degrees of weariness. Despite having been confined there for so many days, all Thor can think of now is getting to his rooms, of having somewhere quiet to sit, if only to silence his thoughts. Before he can make it to the elevator, however, a hand grabs his arm, and when he turns, Steve drags him through the nearest doorway into a room lit orange by the slanting afternoon sun.

Steve lets go of Thor's arm abruptly. "What the hell was that?" he demands.

Thor feels as though something in his chest is breaking with relief. It hurts, terribly, but at least Steve is no longer pretending he isn't in the room. "What was what?"

"Loki." Steve's look is, if possible, even colder than Coulson's was. "Tell me why you let him go."

"They were going to kill him," Thor says. "The Chitauri. I could not leave him undefended."

"So instead of defending him, you gave him his magic back. Why?"

Steve looks tired, and hurt, and very young. Thor, already not much inclined to make any defense against him, feels a wash of pity. "You have been in war," he says. "You know what bonds there are between comrades-in-arms. If one of your friends lost his way, and was in danger, would you not still help him?"

"I -- This is a completely different situation!" Steve snaps.

"Would you?" Thor persists.

"Yeah, of course." Steve looks at Thor with desperate unhappiness. "I hate this," he says. "I hate that we didn't win after all, looks like, and I hate that you were so damn stupid that you're getting grounded right when we need you most."

"If you wish --" Thor starts.

"No," Steve says. "I'm just -- I'm going," and turns, stiffly, to walk away.

Heartsore, Thor goes to his own rooms. He is weary to his bones, but his mind will not stop racing. He turns on the news, instead, and watches dully as New York crumbles over and over on camera. The news anchors and reporters are terribly excited; they speculate on why the Chitauri returned, whether it is the start of a war, what the mortals can do about it, what the Avengers appear to be doing, and whether they need to do much more.

"Look, they were obviously doing their very best out there," a well-coiffed woman says earnestly, before the footage switches back to the moment when the Chitauri evaded the Avengers' attempts at herding them and began to scatter. Thor winces and turns off the television.

His fear is not for what Loki might do -- Loki will do what he will; but the look his brother gave him before vanishing gives Thor hope, sends warmth through him even in recollection -- but for what the Chitauri attack portends. A long war is not what Thor wishes for Midgard; a war brought here because the Chitauri are finished with Asgard, even less. That is the worst thing: Thor has had no word from Asgard, no warning, no tell of victory; nothing even from his mother.

Thor lies in his bed, staring in misery at the dark ceiling, and forces his breath to evenness. Fear for Asgard will only be a crippling distraction now, so he will not think on it; but the terror is still there, only barely mastered.

A restless night's sleep leaves him in no better mood. Less from optimism than from a desire to do anything at all, he clothes himself again in his armor rather than Midgardian civilian attire. Afterwards he makes a disconsolate breakfast from half-stale sugary cereal; his only companion is Bruce, who gives him a subdued smile but says nothing. Thor does not stay in any of the common spaces and risk encountering the censure of his other companions. When he retreats to his rooms, he does find an email from Jane that reads, simply, Are you okay?? and, feeling warmed, Thor sends her in return a few words of reassurance.

With nothing better to do, and restlessness under his skin, Thor turns the news on again. It still shows the same shots as the day before, over and over until they look like an unreal play. But eventually even the news anchors can think of nothing new. The station cuts to stories of ordinary mortals already helping with the relief effort -- and Steve coordinating yet more, Thor is unsurprised and relieved to see. "And what about our everyday heroes?" a young reporter asks the screen intently. "Here are some other first responders to the scene."

Thor watches with interest. Firefighters, EMTs, a teenager with long black hair and an impressive number of piercings who, rather than running, helped teachers herd their field trip class of scared children away from the battle zone. "And with the Avengers, right in the heart of the fighting," the reporter says excitedly, "we have this man, as yet unidentified."

Thor jolts upright. They're playing a quick clip of Thor and Loki, fighting back-to-back, before the program cuts back to the reporter, who says, "Could this be another Asgardian? From what we could see of his armor, and with the God of Thunder obviously not questioning his presence, we're going to say yes."

"Oh no," Thor breathes, in half-horrified fascination.

He wonders if the others have caught this; he wonders whether he ought to tell them. He goes to his laptop, and after one or two false starts, finds enough relevant articles and steaming clips of the Battle of New York to know, with some confidence, that none of the reports mentioned anything about Loki then. They do not know he was behind the Chitauri. Further searching does yield a German news item of an incident at a Stuttgart opera house the night before the Battle, but no connection is drawn between the two events, though there is a grainy picture of Loki in the article, pulled from security camera footage.

"Oh Hel," Thor mutters, and hopes very fervently that Loki is not about to do anything stupid.

*

"It was amazing," the construction worker on television tells the camera. "We were trying to clear out one of the sinkholes, and he just turns up and -- lifts it. I'm serious, I'm not talking he was really strong or anything, I mean he levitates this stuff -- hah, and I ask him if he's Harry Potter or something, you know, and he says, oh man, he says, 'I assume he is one of your sorcerers?'" The reporter interviewing the construction worker laughs dutifully off camera, and the construction worker grins. "So I said, I'm guessing you're not local, asked if he was an alien like Thor, and he says, 'Yes, I am Loki, also of Asgard.'"

The camera cuts back to the reporter. "You heard it here first, folks," she says. "Loki, another Asgardian, helping with the rescue efforts. Is he a new Avenger? The rest of the team has not yet been available for comment."

"Fuck," Thor mutters, and goes up to the common space.

Bruce is making grilled cheese; Tony is also there, and Natasha, though Thor is sure JARVIS will have warned them of his approach. Bruce gives Thor a lopsided smile and says, by way of greeting, "Now look what you've done."

"Thoughts?" Natasha adds, with no especial hostility.

"I have no idea what his game is," Thor confesses, taking the chair that Tony offers him. "I doubt he is helping with the relief efforts out of any sense of atonement, but what he hopes to gain I cannot see, unless he really intends to keep up some ruse of being an Avenger."

"If he gets linked with us in the public's mind," Tony offers, "and then screws us over, we'll be undermined even more than we already are by those aliens coming back. It's a pretty effective way of showing that we can't clean up our own messes."

Thor winces. "I do not suppose anyone would wish me to contact him in some effort to learn what he plans?"

"No," all three of them say as one, though Bruce at least throws Thor an apologetic grimace afterwards. "Given your track record," Natasha adds, "you'll understand if we want to keep you as far away from Loki as possible."

Thor is tempted to answer But I cannot free him any more than I already have, though he knows better than to say it aloud. Instead he gives Natasha a word of acknowledgement and thanks Bruce for the grilled cheese Bruce slides across the counter. Talk turns more broadly to the possible war. Steve has renewed efforts to coordinate with the local authorities; Lady Pepper has gone back to the West Coast, she and Tony having agreed that she should stay out of the line of fire and continue running Stark Industries there until the danger has passed. Natasha tells them of SWORD's ongoing efforts, in concert with Colonel Rhodes, to intercept the continuing Chitauri attacks against the satellites. Thor listens with growing frustration. That he is ordered to stay in the Tower while there is work to be done is bad enough; that he should be kept here, while Loki is assisting on the ground for whatever unfathomable reason, feels far worse.

"If you will excuse me," Thor says, abruptly feeling too chafed to stay. The others bid him goodnight with some suspicion, but let him go.

"JARVIS," Thor says in the elevator, "the roof. The ground floor. Anywhere."

"Only this level and your own quarters are accessible, sir," JARVIS tells him implacably.

Thor growls but lets it go. He does not know what he might gain by breaking the elevator, in any case, except a confirmation of his companions' mistrust. Instead he stalks to his room, in dark spirits, and stops abruptly in the doorway, the breath leaving his body in a rush.

Loki is standing turned away from Thor, looking out the great window. The line of Loki's back is troublingly still, shoulders not raised in tension, but barely moving even with his breath. His feet rest flat, shoulder width apart, his hands settled lightly on the edge of the windowpane: grounded, a fighting stance. This, Thor realizes, is a first since his return to Midgard, and he knows it is no coincidence that Loki had not attempted to fight him properly before his magic was restored to him.

Thor remains just inside the door, out of easy reach.

Loki turns, slowly, and raises his eyes wordlessly to Thor's. Thor cannot read the look on his face, but there is something simmering under Loki's skin that is beginning to fill the whole room. Loki's breathing remains terribly even, and Thor braces himself for the onslaught of a spell. Loki takes three sure steps across to him and places his feet squarely just inside Thor's, his hands on Thor's chest.

"They will know you are here," Thor says. It comes out soft and slow, though he is not sure what he needs to be careful of. Everything.

A flicker of concentration passes over Loki's face, and every electronic thing in the room flashes and goes dark. Thor blinks through the afterimages; it is a moment before he can make out Loki's face again, in the dusk and the rising lights of the city.

Loki's hands half curl into claws; it is still insufficient warning. He leans in and kisses Thor, so gently at first that Thor cannot help relaxing fractionally into it, and then, oh --

He hadn't expected to drown. The force in the room, the heat, all rushes into him through Loki's mouth and pours like water down his chest and belly to pool between his legs. He cannot pull out of the kiss to gulp down air -- though Loki's grip is not tight, there is something close and dangerous in the way Loki is flush against him, and Thor feels that if Loki were not exercising a great deal of self-control, holding himself so unsettlingly still, he might pry Thor's ribs open and slip inside.

Thor manages to raise heavy hands to Loki's shoulders and push him back some inches, though it is less in protest than from a need to surface. Loki's focused expression doesn't change. He takes a quick breath, makes a quicker gesture, and Thor's armor streams off him in pieces like a dandelion being blown, clinking gently as it scatters on the floor. His clothing, and Loki's, pull tight against skin and disappear entirely; and Loki just stands looking at him. Devouring him. Loki's hands are shaking very slightly.

Then Loki is on him, vanishing the distance between the doorway and the bed; Loki's bare skin meets his, pressing Thor down hard into the mattress. Thor moans, and Loki's even breathing finally breaks into ragged gasps. Thor knows, distantly, that there are a hundred reasons he should not be doing this; but the feel of Loki over him is perfect, and his hands fit unthinkingly into the hollows of Loki's hips. His grip is met by the strength of Loki's fingertips digging into his shoulders, and Thor grinds his hips upward, pulling something between a moan and a yell out of Loki. The sound is dizzying; Loki is achingly hard, and, shaking with desire, Thor wraps a hand around Loki’s cock.

Loki’s gasps build quickly into cries; his eyes are shut tight, his head bent, his hair falling around his face. He thrusts faster into Thor's quickly-moving fist. Loki sounds nearly as though he is being tortured, and Thor tries to remember to breathe, wills his own heart not to stop. He loosens his other hand from Loki's hip, moving it slowly up his back, and leans up to kiss him.

Loki's voice twists into a moaned-out "No," on Thor's lips, the first word he's spoken since Thor entered the room. Thor gasps, winded. Loki cries out as though he's been struck, and comes hard against Thor's stomach, Thor's hands the only thing holding him up.

"Loki," Thor says softly.

Loki opens his eyes, and gives him a look of naked terror. Thor is unsure whether he may kiss Loki again; he is unsure whether he should speak, or if any words at all might run Loki off. So he pulls Loki to him, settling Loki against his chest and pressing a fervent kiss to his forehead. Loki makes a soft noise, not quite pained, and shivers. He reaches for Thor's cock, and the feel of his hand is so good that Thor's hips rise involuntarily. "Loki," he says again; it is nearly a moan, but he manages, "It can wait, take a moment."

At once Loki stills, and shivers again. He leaves his hand wrapped around Thor's cock and thumbs the head absently, which sets Thor to shaking too; but he does not ask for more. Instead, still dizzy with arousal, he runs a hand up and down Loki's back, simply for the feel of his skin, and says, "Were you well, after the battle?"

Loki stays silent for a long moment, still touching Thor with light careful fingers. "Yes," he says finally, low, but makes no elaboration.

"I saw you," Thor ventures. "On the news. What do you mean by it?" Loki's hand stops moving, his whole body beginning to go tense, and Thor, less out of strategy than the animal terror that Loki might leave for good, says instead, "I am glad you came back."

"You did set me free," Loki says, and though he sounds matter-of-fact to the point of coldness, he does uncoil again. "We will call it even."

Thor blinks down at the dark crown of Loki's head. He still cannot tell whether he can trust any of the things Loki says, either the tender things or the vicious ones, but this sounded carelessly honest. "Thank you," Thor says, without thinking about how terribly vulnerable the words will sound; but Loki does not laugh at him, or use it as a weapon. Instead, his hand tightens on Thor's cock again, moving with purpose now, and Thor shudders, hips rising to meet him. He pulls Loki closer, and Loki goes willingly, sliding up to meet Thor's mouth.

Perhaps there is some magic at work; that, or Thor has simply been distracted from his arousal and is now reminded again. In moments he is shaking under Loki, clawing at his brother's back. Loki breaks away to kiss along Thor's jaw and murmurs, "Dear brother," twisting his hand. Thor comes, helplessly, moaning, with Loki's soft laughter in his ear the whole time.

Thor does not let go of his hard grip on Loki's back, and Loki makes no move to get away. He returns Thor's dazed kisses readily enough, making soft pleased noises into Thor's mouth.

"Loki," Thor asks, quiet and unsteady, "will I see you again?"

Loki kisses the corner of Thor's mouth, lightly. "Almost certainly," he says, in a tone Thor finds thoroughly unreassuring, and like that he is gone.

Thor sits up, slow and a little off-balance. All the lights are back; his clothing is on, looking just as it did before he found Loki here; the only evidence of Loki's presence is the rumpled bed under him. It feels like waking from a dream. He stumbles to his feet, dazed.

"Thor?" Natasha is standing in the doorway, her wrist weapon powered to full, and abruptly Loki's visit becomes real again. "What's going on?" Natasha demands. "JARVIS hasn't been able to access your floor for the last twenty minutes."

"Loki," Thor says. He does his best not to flush, or draw any attention to the bed. "He cut the power. I am sorry, I did not invite him, he was already here --"

"It's fine." Natasha sighs and lowers her arm. "Are you all right?"

"As well as I can be." Thor's legs still have no great desire to hold him. He drops back onto the bed. "The others?"

"Bruce and Tony are trying to figure out what happened -- how Loki cut the power, I guess I should say." Natasha shrugs lightly. "Steve and Clint wouldn't come. So Loki was here. Did you learn anything useful?"

"I'm afraid not. He -- did not speak much. I think he simply wanted to see me, though what he plans to do next, or why it should be so important to speak with me now --"

"He's definitely planning something," Natasha agrees. "Okay. Get some sleep; I'm sure we'll have a lot to deal with tomorrow." She hesitates. "Do you want one of the rooms on my floor? If he tries anything again, there will be someone else around to help you contain the situation."

"Thank you, no." Thor gives Natasha a tired smile. "I doubt he will try anything again tonight."

"Fair enough." Natasha sighs. "Goodnight, then."

"Goodnight," Thor returns. He sits there for a long while after she goes, before disrobing in the mundane way, one layer at a time. He wonders whether he should have told her that he has fallen into bed with Loki again; wonders whether she noticed; wonders whether, if called out, he would have been able to say with a single degree of honesty that he regrets it. Loki has left the fading imprints of bruises on Thor's shoulders, heedless of discovery. Thor touches them lightly, wondering what Loki might do now, and cannot help but hope, just a little, that it will cause something other than destruction.

*

The next day has a palpable feeling of waiting to it, thick in the air like thunder. Steve is gone, to help the relief workers return the city to its feet. The other Avengers gather in the common spaces -- rec room, kitchen, dining room -- to pace, to watch the news. None of them object to Thor being there; he suspects that they would much rather he stay somewhere they can keep an eye on him.

So far the news stations have nothing but speculation, but it is building to panic; the cable news channels are still running, but broadcast service has cut out entirely, and it is not difficult for the media to make the connection between downed satellites and aliens in New York. Coulson, when he returns from the Helicarrier around midmorning to update them, confirms this. Besides their ongoing satellite attacks, the Chitauri are flying around much of the planet (though only, so far, the northern hemisphere); sometimes they approach low enough to be chased by any military that can arrive in time, but the Chitauri do not engage. "Recon, probably," Coulson says, looking grim. "They're scouting out several major cities -- Moscow, London, Beijing, Tokyo -- so obviously they aren't interested in targets based on any existing political borders."

"Nor would they be," Thor puts in, enduring the coldness of their attention; the Chitauri are a more pressing matter than any of their quarrels, and they know it well enough to listen. "This is the most populous of any realm I have seen. That you should be divided into countries, with no common sovereign, is the exception rather than the rule. It may mean they are expecting a more centralized resistance force than Midgard can present, or it could mean they expect no kind of organized response at all. But at the least, do not expect them to target any one country particularly. I think they returned to New York first not because they have any great regard for America, but only because it was familiar, or because they wanted to find Loki here."

"SHIELD is contacting other agencies to build an international response effort," Coulson says, giving Thor a brief nod.

There is nothing more to do but wait. In the early afternoon their Starkphones ping -- a code yellow, from Director Fury. "Loki?" Bruce asks, eyeing his phone; "Update on the Chitauri, probably," Natasha replies, and Thor is inclined to agree with her, for he doubts Loki merits less than a code red.

Steve returns, in dusty civilian clothes, around the same time that Fury arrives. But Fury, rather than explaining the reason for calling the code yellow, simply points to Clint. "Barton, in the hall."

Clint exchanges glances with Coulson and Natasha before rising and following Fury into the next room.

"Loki?" Bruce asks again, with a touch of irony this time.

For a few minutes they wait in near silence. Thor tries to feel anything besides a lowering dread.

When Fury and Clint return, Clint is wearing a thoughtful look that is not quite a frown. He gives Natasha a grimace Thor cannot read, but Natasha quirks a wry smile in return and moves over on the couch to give Clint room to sit.

"So," Natasha says to Fury, "who has Loki sold us out to?"

"He didn't sell us out to anyone," Fury says grimly. "He's letting me do it instead." He pulls up a chair, sitting backwards on it with his arms folded over the back, and leans forward. "Here's the deal. Loki wants amnesty here. Here on Earth, I mean."

Thor remembers, vivid with the touch of Loki's fingers upon his cheek, his brother saying I harm you and I harm what chance I still have to live. "We're his best chance of surviving this war," Thor says aloud.

"So it seems," Fury agrees. "And he does have a few cards to play. He came to see me this morning. Walked right into my office, past all the security like it was nothing, laughed in my face when I pointed a gun at him. He said he thought all the media speculation about him being a new Avenger might get us into trouble, and he had a proposal for me."

"Blackmail?" Steve asks tightly, but Fury shakes his head.

"No, he's smarter than that. The blackmail was implied, of course." Fury glances at Thor and away again, without elaborating, but of course everyone follows the implication well enough. Thor colors a little, but masters himself. "He said," Fury goes on, "that in exchange for amnesty he'll offer us assistance and cooperation -- information, too. He even gave me some for free, as a taste. Apparently the Chitauri have a major backer, someone Loki's had dealings with before -- not the blue guy from the broadcast, but that 'master' he mentioned."

"That's probably accurate," Clint puts in. "I saw Loki go off to ... talk, sometimes, sort of meditation-style, before he went ahead with the next stage of his invasion plan."

Natasha says something in return, but Thor does not hear it; the inside of his mind is humming with a sudden wash of rage. Unasked for, perhaps unwanted, Loki is offering up the very information that would have saved him on Asgard. Thor wants to find Loki, grab him and shake him for being so cursedly difficult, so stubborn and self-absorbed that he will cause such damage to two worlds for the sake of his pride, and then give it up again for so little.

"-- their general hasn't ordered a second attack because Loki's here," Fury is saying, when Thor remembers to listen again. "I don't know how much of an exaggeration that is, but Loki did just get his magic back; maybe Loki's theory that he's acting as a deterrent has some weight. And on the flipside, the Chitauri might be calculating that we have Loki on our side and hit accordingly whether we have him in our pocket or not." Fury sighs. "He can spin his uses, I'll give him that."

"So you're actually considering this?" Steve demands.

"We probably should," Tony says, frowning. "Like the man says, Loki can spin his uses."

"I think Loki needs things from us," Fury says. "I think he's desperate, I think we can play him, and, from a strategy standpoint, we could definitely use him. But there was no way in hell I was saying yes to allowing him to be a consultant linked in any capacity to the Avengers without asking you all first."

"Whether we're willing to cover up everything Loki's done?" Steve asks, looking increasingly agitated.

"If we don't take his offer," Bruce says, very mildly, "I doubt he'll even hesitate before he dishes out the dirt on us to anyone who will listen."

"Exactly," Tony says, pointing at Bruce. "Thank you. It's that or fess up. Personally I'd rather keep on with the good works and avoid the media scandal."

"Is this the price we want to pay?" Steve demands of Tony. "I think we've done enough, and maybe we should own up to our mistakes, not dig ourselves deeper."

"Look," Tony says, "I get where you're coming from. And yeah, it'd be great if things worked like that -- if you could just confess your screw-ups, and that wouldn't destroy all your credibility. And we're talking both retroactively and from that point forward, by the way. But sometimes causes are more important than being transparent about them."

"The ends justify the means, huh?" Steve scowls. "I'd rather have some integrity."

"Fine," Tony says, with tight patience, "okay, the guy's blackmailing us. It happens. If we take his terms we get a sorcerer helping us fight this war. We're going to need every bit of help we can get."

Bruce looks over at Fury. "Do we have a cover story?" He continues, looking back at Tony, "You know that if we let him blackmail us, we don't really have a way out unless we find some way to discredit him."

"Why are we even entertaining this?" Steve demands.

"If I may," Thor says quietly.

It takes a moment for Tony and Steve to stop glaring at each other and look at him. Thor waits, and when he has their attention, he says, "Whether you take Loki's offer or not, I want you to know that his threats need not be of concern to you. If you must take Loki down, you are under no obligation to protect me. I do not wish for any of you to be culpable for my own foolish actions."

There is a surprised silence after he speaks. Thor looks around at them and realizes, with a guilty jolt, that he has not tried to apologize before this. He swallows, and adds, "I cannot with honesty say I am sorry for what I did with Loki, but the manner in which I conducted myself -- what I kept from you, how I used any of you, no matter my intention, the position I have put you in now -- for that I am deeply sorry."

Another silence.

"I say we take him," Clint says abruptly.

"What?" Steve tears his gaze from Thor.

Clint shrugs. "I'm not going to let Loki fuck with my team. Director Fury has a cover story that should let us take him out no problem if it comes to that. Anyway, if all he wanted was to mess us up, I'd say he's already done that." He glances at Natasha, who gives him a near-imperceptible nod. Clint goes on, calm and slightly wry, "I figure I have a lot more reason than anyone else here to be uncomfortable working with Loki, but I think we should take this deal. Like Tony says, he'll be useful as long as he behaves, and when he stops behaving ..."

"I could live with that," Tony says, giving Clint a smile.

"One more thing, though." Clint turns to Thor. "There's one thing I gotta know. What will you do? The heartfelt apology thing is great in theory, but I'm talking something concrete. If Loki makes you choose, we have to know you're not going to screw us over." Clint holds Thor's gaze. "I'm not asking for a group hug and I'm not saying I suddenly like you. I just need to know if you have my back."

Thor's throat feels tight. He loves his brother terribly, and for that he may be a monster; but he still has his honor. He has done so much damage already to Midgard, forsaking more oaths in carelessness than he ever could have imagined, even in his darkest moments. "Yes," Thor says. "I have your backs. I would not betray you for Loki's sake. He is my brother, but you are all dear to me, too. I may not have shown it well or conducted myself as I should, but should any of you be in real danger I would not hesitate."

"Then I'm good," Clint says. "Tasha?"

She nods. Tony claps his hands together. "Great!" he says. "All in? Everyone ready for Operation Worst Idea Ever?"

Steve has been watching Thor very hard. At this he blinks and turns to Tony. "At least you think so," he says. "Fine. Bruce?"

Bruce shrugs. "If he gets too annoying the other guy can just pound him into the dust again," he says, with a small smile. "So what's our plan of action?"

"Glad you asked," Fury says. "First things first. Press release."

*

It goes, Thor thinks, fairly well.

"The Avengers have not taken Loki on as a new member," Natasha tells the flashing lights, the cameras, and the reporters' eager faces. "Given his background --"

"The German press claims Loki is the man who terrorized the Stuttgart opera house earlier this year," one of the reporters calls, jumping to Natasha's bait. "Is there any substance to this rumor?"

"Yes," Natasha says calmly. "Loki has in the past been one of the people that the Avengers are in the business of stopping."

"So you deny any ties between Loki and the Avengers?" another asks.

Natasha glances at Thor. "No," Thor says. "Loki is indeed of Asgard; I have known him most of my life. There is that tie. And there is, too, that Loki has no more love for the alien attacks than any of us do. His grudges have been against me, not against the people of Earth, and I believe he is sincere in the help he has so far given, and that he will continue to give."

"Captain America and Iron Man took Loki into custody in Stuttgart, as I'm sure you're aware," Natasha steps in. "We've been keeping close tabs on him, and he's exhibited a remarkable willingness to cooperate. He contacted us and offered to help fight off the aliens. Given his history we can't be sure of his long term goals, so we're not doing anything risky. But Loki has skills none of the rest of us have; since he's willing to help, we want to take advantage of those."

"Why take the risk?" one of the reporters demands. "Is the situation so drastic that you need to bring on supervillains as consultants?"

Tony, who has so far been surprisingly quiet and allowed Natasha to say her peace, leans forward. "It might be a risk," he says, "but what the situation is here is unprecedented. And the fact is, if you want to get philosophical, which obviously you do or you wouldn't be asking the hard-hitting moral questions, is: some of the best people I know have made decisions they regretted later on, myself obviously included. I'm not passing judgment while we've got a war to win."

Thor can feel Natasha's irritation at Tony for going off their careful script, but he does not mind; it was well-said, and the reporters seem to think so, too. There follows more back-and-forth, but it is no longer accusatory, merely curious: of what the Avengers plan to do in concert with Loki, what his areas of expertise are, what Thor thinks of him. On this last point Thor treads carefully, simply speaking of Loki's sorcery, and of their battles together in times past before circumstance drove them apart.

"The tabloids are going to be all over that," Tony tells Thor, when Natasha has thanked the press and they've escaped back into the foyer of the Tower. "You gave them just enough to keep 'em guessing. Outstanding."

"Not bad," Natasha agrees, though she looks less than entirely pleased. "Hopefully they'll be too busy picking over that to wonder why only half of the Avengers made a show of support for this idea."

Tony waves this aside. "It looked fine. It went fine, considering." He gives Thor and Natasha a grin, mostly teeth. "So now everyone knows Loki is working for the Avengers. What could possibly go wrong?"