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"I don't get it," Tony says, confusion clear even over the comm. "We practically gift-wrapped him."

"Perhaps that is the problem," Loki suggests. Thor can see him as a tiny figure below, picking his way down the emptied street. "Perhaps we were too obvious."

It is a fair point. Natasha and Steve are so far behind Loki that they look less like a fighting unit group than like two hunters keeping a close eye on bait. "They saw through that quickly," Steve sighs.

"They are intelligent." Thor is almost certain Loki is rolling his eyes. "This strategy was never likely to serve us long."

If Steve feels any irritation at Loki's flippancy, it does not show in his voice. "Any input?"

"I have an idea," Clint starts, "but no one is going to like it."

"Go ahead," Steve says.

"It works better as a surprise. Loki -- make it look like it hurts."

"What --" is all Loki has time to say before the arrow speeds down from the nearest façade and thuds into his shoulder guard. He staggers, surprised, though he makes no sound of pain. Natasha and Steve both begin to make indignant demands for an explanation; but then a small group of Chitauri appear as if by magic out of the rubble, rushing down the street toward them. They are quickly dispatched by more arrows, and by the team on the ground.

"I think we could have faked surprise," says Natasha tersely.

"This," Loki laughs, pulling out the arrow -- which had penetrated armor only, and leaves no blood -- "is why I wanted Barton on my side. I might be dead if he weren't, and he is not squeamish about means to an end."

"If that was supposed to be a compliment," Clint says, very dry, "you should have quit while you were ahead."

"Enough charming chatter," Coulson's voice cuts in over the comm. "Chitauri activity three blocks north. Head over."

Thor turns to look at Iron Man, beside him on the roof; the armor looks back at him, helmeted expression unchanging. "Well," Tony says, "no rest for the wicked."

"Indeed," Thor sighs. They go.

*

"We did well this time," Coulson tells them, back on the Helicarrier. "Our response time was -- well, we made it, for one thing." He turns to Loki, who is standing back in a corner, arms crossed. Thor respects Coulson deeply for the calm professionalism with which he addresses Loki. "Turns out you were right: you make a very attractive target for them."

Loki ducks his head in polite sardonic acknowledgment. Thor frowns faintly at him; something seems a little off, though it may only be that Loki is making very light of how instrumental he has been in their first success of the war.

It was Loki who explained to them in the first place what the Chitauri are after. "They seek resources," Loki told them, when Fury summoned them all to discuss their next steps. "Organics and scrap metal, in the main, for they are a scavenger race. I would look to your cities. It is there they will hit; they desire those things your cities hold, and their general Thanos is canny enough to understand that your planet's main infrastructures are there, as well."

So Director Fury had his own cities put on alert: Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, the bright points on his personal map. Not knowing the locations of these places, neither Thor nor Loki noticed the shortsightedness of the response.

The second city the Chitauri chose to attack was Tokyo, halfway across the world and outside Fury's immediate control.

He sent the Avengers in anyway, of course, but by then it was too late. The Chitauri were not attacking as they had done in the Battle of New York; they focused instead on descending and dispersing throughout the city, and those troops still in range when the Avengers landed made no great effort to engage them. There was no great horde: only swarms of airborne troops, frightening the mortals into evacuating their city, and a leviathan following, with a full complement of ground troops dropped as quickly as possible. "It's smart," Steve said despairingly, back aboard the Helicarrier after their failure to root the Chitauri out of Tokyo. "They're going to be really hard to drive off. We, uh, not us specifically but any Earth military, we might know the terrain but we don't have any home advantage. With phones down, with people panicking -- hell, I don't know if we'll even hear about an attack in time to be there to do any real good."

Nor is this the whole of the problem. The next attack was in the country of China, and due to politics, the Avengers were not even allowed in to help. "Do we really need their permission?" Thor demanded upon hearing this, but subsided when Natasha threw him an incredulous look, as quelling as one of Loki's.

"Obviously we will have to engage in some international cooperation," Fury said, sighing.

Thor was called to the meeting that followed, though mostly as a courtesy -- and for any insights he might have into the Chitauri's strategy. He does not know all Midgard's territories well enough to keep track of everyone who attended Fury's summons, though in the face of the attacks they all seemed willing enough to work to the same purpose. Fury invited both leaders and specialists: scientists of Tony's acquaintance; a woman representing a strike team called the X-Men; Colonel Rhodes and some of his associates at SWORD; a king called T'Challa who offered to use his country's resources to build a secondary response team for those parts of the world the Avengers would take a long time to reach. Thor liked T'Challa very much, recognizing something of himself in the mortal, and agreed on the necessity of secondary response teams, if a situation like Tokyo happened again. They all talked at length about where the Avengers would be of greatest use, and about which parts of the Earth might be under greatest threat.

It was well they agreed upon as much as they did, for the next attack came soon after: Istanbul, also far from New York, though this time they were given more warning. Satellite communications may be down, but the internet, it seems, is more difficult to destroy; JARVIS sent them an alert after the first few tweets about the attack, and so here they are, halfway across the world again, but with some measure of hope.

"And bringing Loki along seems to be very effective at drawing them out," Coulson concludes the debriefing. "Not that I'm thrilled to have you on board the Helicarrier," he adds, directly to Loki this time, "but we'll want you on call."

"Happy to oblige," Loki murmurs, with the faint twist of a smile.

Thor jolts. But when he glances around, no one else seems to have noticed, so Thor settles for sending Loki a warning glare. He has no idea what his brother is about -- foolish enough that Loki would sometimes play at being a woman back on Asgard, primarily at feasts to unsettle the courtiers and make Frigga smile discreetly behind a hand; but that Loki is doing so here, at a council of war where anyone might notice, is utterly baffling. Loki ignores Thor entirely, and Thor thinks, in faint irritation, that it is well Loki is wearing his armor still.

"So are we stationed over Europe now?" Steve wants to know. "Or -- or over the Mediterranean? How big is our coverage area, anyway? I know the Quinjet can take us anywhere pretty fast, but I don't feel happy leaving the home front unprotected --"

"Luckily SHIELD is still operating out of DC," Coulson says, "and we have a West Coast branch. We're not ... professionally attached to Xavier, but his group also has the East Coast covered, and we have Dr. Richards working on the satellite problem --" he ignores Tony's snort of derision "-- so our intel should pick up again soon. We can cover Europe for now, though we'll be moving up to the coast of Spain tonight; Turkey's being very gracious about their airspace, but it might be best to get out of range of Syria."

Temporarily forgetting his irritation with Loki, Thor glances over at his brother again, exchanging a look of commiserating exasperation. Thor knows better by now than to ask why they cannot simply go where they please, but it is good to know that Loki feels as he does about these arbitrary restrictions.

"Are we going to be ... living out of the Helicarrier?" Bruce ventures. "I'm not sure how, uh, good that will be for me."

"I appreciate the concern," Coulson says. "Keep us updated, and we'll accommodate you if you need some shore leave. In the meantime, we should stay on alert. We don't know what kind of response we'll get, now that we've had a moderate success."

*

In the small room provided to him on the Helicarrier, Thor takes a moment to check his email for the first time since the Chitauri came down again on New York. Though he is reasonably confident Jane is safe, he still wishes to assure himself. As he half-suspected, she has already emailed him several times.

Thor, wtf?! the first one reads, dated the day after they announced Loki would be a consultant.

Are you ok? reads the second one, the day they failed in Tokyo. And, later the same day, Sorry, I know you must be really busy, but I hate learning everything from the news. Let me know how you're doing when you have the chance, please.

Now is as good a time as any; Thor writes back thanking her for her concern, assuring her of his safety and expressing his relief for her own. He promises to write her when he has the chance, though he does not think it will be soon or often, and apologizes for not explaining their strategy in any more detail, though he knows she will understand why he cannot. Then Thor hesitates, trying to think of a way to explain Loki's presence, and wondering whether her later worry was enough to cancel out her original question. In the end he writes, Loki was necessary. I am sorry it has come to this, and hopes that it will do.

He is, quite sincerely, sorry that Loki is necessary in this war, though surely not for the reasons Jane would have. Part of it is simply a foolish useless fear that the Chitauri will kill Loki after all, given enough chances. The rest is a tangle of anger and exasperation with his brother, stupid, stubborn, for making a bargain with mortals -- however worthy -- rather than with his own family back on Asgard, when it was still safe.

Aside from all this, Loki is proving impossible: he does not speak to Thor, nor even look at him unless the necessity of battle demands it. It is maddening; having freed Loki, and spoken for him despite everything, Thor finds it hard to tolerate Loki behaving as though he has any legitimate grievance against Thor.

Feeling frustrated, Thor sets his laptop aside and goes wandering the halls of the Helicarrier. He sees no one he knows, and at length, by back ways, finds himself in the echoing empty space where Loki's cage used to be, long months ago. Thor can still vividly remember the horrible freefall when Loki dropped him, trapped, from the sky. It was only then that Thor understood that Loki might do anything at all; a lesson to be learned again and again, Thor thinks now, rueful.

He hears a soft step behind him, and whirls to find Loki stepping out along the catwalk, looking down idly at the trapdoor below. "How you fell," Loki murmurs, a strange reflection of Thor's own thoughts. He looks up to meet Thor's gaze across a chasm. "Well?"

"What?" Thor snaps. He hates being on uncertain terms, hates that all the terms are uncertain, that their breathless coupling in the Tower might still have meant nothing, that frustrated and furious with his brother as he is, he would still kiss Loki without question.

One corner of Loki's mouth lifts derisively, as though he can read Thor's thoughts. "You do understand," he murmurs, his voice carrying in the empty space, "what I have done to your friends, how much they have had to piece back together of themselves?" It is only a taunt, and Thor treats it as such, watching Loki coldly without bothering to reply. Loki gives Thor an appraising look. "Tell me, is having me penance or pleasure?"

Thor flinches, more from astonishment than anything else. He recognizes Loki's tone now, the bitter fall it had when Thor came to see him that last time in prison, to say goodbye. Loki is more composed this time, his eyes dry and his expression mocking. "Loki," Thor says, half in exasperation, "it is not penance; you cannot think I left you because I had grown tired of --"

"Of what?" Loki snarls, before Thor can quite find the word. "Of your futile scramble to break my barriers down?"

"I am not giving up on you," Thor snaps, past patience. "You know your words are not weapons enough to drive me off."

Loki tilts his head, considering this like a challenge. "And what then?" he asks. "If you reached me, would that justify the pleasure you took? Are you hoping to make me scream my wrongs into the sheets?" A slow terrible grin rises in Loki's face, and he brings a hand to his chin in mock contemplation. "Is that why you would have me with such passion, so often -- does it justify ruining any chance of yours to remain my brother? Or do you call me brother still because it is better to bed your little brother than to fuck a Jotun, than to give your seed and your love and your dignity to the son of your father's enemy?"

"Loki --" Thor says, half-winded, furious with the accusation; but Loki will not be stopped. He is leaning over the railing, hands white-knuckled, glaring at Thor on the other side of the divide.

"And after all that, you had the temerity to think you could put it all right by simply leaving off. Your greatest desires are vile things," he laughs, his voice dropping conspiratorially, "and they know, Thor, and if you keep on every protective illusion will be peeled away so that all recoil at the creature of secondhand blood and filth you have become. It no longer matters if I am cast out to a cold death because of it. I have broken your pedestal."

Thor has forgotten to be angry with Loki, has forgotten nearly everything but the rush of fear he feels for his brother. "You will not," he says. "You will come to no cold death while I yet have breath in me."

This knocks the wind from Loki. He sags slowly, head bowing, and says, half-muffled and vicious, "Fool."

Thor makes no reply. They stand there for a long time, at an impasse; and Thor thinks, slow and strange, that Loki is giving him something rare that he did not think to look for. No matter how badly Thor wants Loki to smile at him, to say kind words, to be what he remembers, Loki is refusing to give him that. Where Loki remains courteous, playing his angles for everyone else, for Thor he is bitter and stripped bare, giving Thor his honesty. Thor looks at his brother's bent dark head, the last of his anger leaving him. There is tired resignation in its place, but that is not all. There is still, absurdly, hope.

*

The Chitauri strike London two days later.

This time the force is much bigger, nearly as big as that of the Battle of New York: swarms upon swarms of Chitauri, with two leviathan flanking them. "Guys," Clint says, squinting up into the sky, "I think we pissed them off."

Thor laughs and heads for the nearest leviathan, intent upon striking it down. Lightning is already wreathing Mjolnir, some time before it is strictly necessary for combat. He has some frustration to vent still; Loki has not deigned to speak with him in anything but cutting barbs and sneers, wearing away at Thor's goodwill in ways that are effective for all that they are obvious. Thor swats aside thronging Chitauri and crashes his hammer down upon the leviathan's head, and feels a little better as the creature plummets into the street.

"Keep going," Thor hears Loki snap over the comm. He looks up from the still-twitching carcass of the leviathan, and after a moment spots Loki, a streak of green and gold against the Iron Man armor, Tony flying him towards a great shining glass building with a cloud of Chitauri on their heels.

"What do you mean, keep --" Tony demands.

"Keep going," Loki snarls. "Straight ahead, Stark."

"Why?" Tony says, but Thor sees that he does keep flying straight toward the building. Thor is rooted to the spot, staring intently, half-guessing what Loki means by it; and then they are inches from the glass windows; and then they are nowhere at all, and the Chitauri behind them shriek and swerve and smash into the building like so many insects. Thor's gaze darts to the far side of the building, and yes, Tony and Loki are already there, flying straight on in the sky. Loki has transmuted them by magic through the glass and out the other side.

"Damn," Clint says mildly.

"Fuck," Tony adds, with a note like breathless horror; the armor wobbles midair, and then Thor loses sight of them as Tony sets down on the nearest roof. Knowing them to be safe enough, Thor turns his attention back to the ground, and to the dazed Chitauri now climbing out from the dead leviathan.

He sets about him with Mjolnir, but with one ear he still listens to what is happening atop the roof. "What the hell," Tony is gasping, "what the hell?"

"Stark?" Loki, a little uncertainly.

"What did you do?" Tony demands. "What was that?"

"I simply sent us through the reflection," Loki says. "Hardly disconcerting." He hesitates and adds, so quietly that Thor nearly cannot hear him, certainly quietly enough that it seems Loki does not mean for the comm to pick it up, "It is possible, Stark, to master the horror of falling through nothing."

"Is it," Tony says, but already he sounds a little calmer. "Well. Awesome."

After this there is no question of listening in; another wave of Chitauri are bearing down upon Thor, and even he has difficulty beating them back alone, though he prevails when Clint sends Steve in to fight beside him.

"Jeez," Steve says, shaking out his shield arm when the last of the Chitauri in their street are down, "they just keep coming."

"Then I am glad to have you at my side when they do," Thor returns, unthinking.

Steve shoots him a smile that freezes halfway when he remembers who he's talking to; then Steve sighs, the corner of his mouth lifting again a little. "Yeah," he says. "You too."

"Guys, they're heading around the river," Clint calls out. "Down towards, uh, Big Ben, I think?"

"Come on," Steve says. "We'd better stop them before they knock down Parliament." He claps Thor on the shoulder, and when they set off together, Thor is sure he has enough will now to take on an entire horde of Chitauri and then some.

*

Thor, lying facedown on a couch in Avengers Tower, is fairly certain he will never move again. Even with the help of the local military, it took days to root the Chitauri out and make sure the civilians were safely evacuated. Coulson took one look at them afterwards and sent them on a fast jet back home, with the promise to call them in for the next attack and the injunction to rest as much as possible while they can. Bruce dragged Tony forcibly to bed the moment they were home, and Clint practically sat down on Steve, making him watch cartoons when Steve made noises about going over strategy again. Thor too is more than happy to obey the order to rest, so here he is, collapsed quite without dignity.

"Is it everything you imagined?" Loki murmurs.

His voice is subtly higher than usual. Thor musters the will to turn his head and sighs; out of his layers of armor, Loki's form is more visible: less broadness of shoulder, wider hips, the slight curve of breasts. Thor wonders whether Loki is simply reveling in having his magic returned to him -- but this is the second time he has appeared in this form in as many weeks, and Thor wonders whether instead Loki is trying to goad Thor, or bafflingly to court him. But Thor does not have the energy to take on an argument, so instead he says, "Is what everything I imagined?"

Loki settles lightly on the edge of the couch, not quite touching Thor. "War."

"Well," Thor says, half-turning, "there is no glorious Asgardian army at my back, so it is not much as I imagined it at all, no."

Loki huffs a laugh. He is sitting so close, and looks relaxed enough that Thor risks stretching forth a hand to set it upon Loki's leg; but barely has he touched Loki when Loki springs to his feet. Thor has only the flash of a moment to be hurt before he sees what Loki did: Natasha in the doorway. For a moment he thinks Loki is simply being circumspect, wise enough to keep the other Avengers from seeing anything affectionate between them; but Loki is standing quite frozen, and with a shock Thor understands that Natasha has noticed Loki's form.

Thor sits up, exhaustion forgotten, ready to apologize for Loki, to excuse his brother, to protect him. Natasha is looking at Loki, stony-faced, plainly considering what game Loki is playing. But she has spent long enough in talk with him by now that perhaps she knows his tells as Thor does; for she sees Loki frozen, half-panicked, and her face goes a fraction less hard. "You're ashamed of it," she says, quiet, a revelation.

There is a silence. Thor wonders whether he should speak. But, "There are many who would consider this shameful," says Loki slowly, as though speaking to a child.

"Yeah, I know," says Natasha sharply. Loki ducks his head with a little smile, conceding the point. Natasha is frowning faintly. "That why you gave me all that 'mewling quim' bullshit?"

Thor glances at Loki in astonished indignation, halfway to chiding Loki for such ill manners. But Loki shrugs, a strangely self-deprecating motion, and says, "For what little it's worth, I do regret that. It ... was very petty."

"Petty," Natasha echoes, controlled and calm, with an edge of anger beneath. "Fine. I can see that you've internalized a lot of shit, but that doesn't make it excusable. You are not the first person to be comfortable in a different gender than everyone expects, or even in more than one gender, and you're certainly not the first person to get a lot of flack for it. And what you said was worse than petty."

Loki's face has fallen open, vulnerable. "How many are there?"

Natasha blinks at him. "What?"

"You said," Loki says, soft and trembling, "that I was not the first. You speak of this as though it's common. How many are there?"

Natasha's frown grows deeper. "Have you met -- How many have you known? Ever?"

"There are three words in Asgardian law," Loki says, with the beginnings of a bitter smile, "for which a man must answer a challenge or lose all his station." Loki glances briefly at Thor, who is sitting frozen on the couch, unsure what to do with his hands, unsure whether he should even be here, unable to tear his gaze from Loki. He cannot read the expression on Loki's face; then Loki turns away, back to Natasha, and says, "All three of these words bring into question the manhood of the accused. I will not repeat them here." He shrugs, a quick gesture as though to shake the unspoken words away. "I hear tell that the people of my birth make no such matter and switch forms as they will, but then, they are but Jotun."

"I ... see," Natasha says, though she cannot possibly be following all of Loki's words. "It's not much better here, I grant you, laws about insults aside, but -- There are people. It's not a large percent of the population, I don't know the exact statistics, but there are people, there are communities." She stops. Loki is shaking visibly. Thor does his best not to move at all, unwilling to draw any attention to himself. Natasha waits Loki out, and when Loki has mastered himself, she asks, deliberately casual, "So should I be calling you 'she'?"

Loki smiles a wry half-smile. "As long as I am a woman, you may as well." Loki is inviting a laugh, but where Thor might have given it in the past, he can see now that Loki is making light of something very serious.

Natasha must see this, too. She presses, "And 'he' while you're a man?" without the assurance of a rhetorical question.

"Yes," says Loki, voice a little smaller than usual. One of Loki's hands is clenched into a white-knuckled fist, but with great feeling, not any intent to violence.

"So when you are a woman, you -- take this form?" Natasha asks, as though she is on firmer ground. Both Thor and Loki blink at her in bafflement. Thor feels suddenly foolish; a world that counts the sorts of people they sleep with part of their identity rather than simply their casual preference will surely also believe in the matching of inside and outside. But that seems strange, too: Sif is yet a woman, though she does as a man does, but Natasha is a woman too and seems entirely comfortable being so in a way that Sif does not. Perhaps, Thor thinks, it is different with Loki -- perhaps in this way Loki could think as a mortal does and be the happier for it, shifting form as he can to suit his desires.

Thor does not know what Loki is thinking, but there is an echo of his own thoughts in the way that Loki says, cautiously, "...I take this form when I can. When I am -- when I am thus, yes."

Natasha nods briskly. "Fine," she says. "Um. Hit me up if you have questions?" Loki nods dazedly, and Natasha adds, "Which does not mean you're off the hook for saying the things you said, but I appreciate your effort so far to maintain professionalism, so the offer stands."

"I -- thank you," Loki says, and collapses back on the couch when Natasha gives them both a nod and leaves the room.

"Midgardians do have ... interesting notions," Thor ventures.

Loki turns to him, all sharp angles. "If you mock me for this --"

"I will not," Thor says swiftly, meaning it, and settles a hand on Loki’s tense back when she turns away; but neither does she shrug him off, so Thor stays thus, a point of contact between them. It is their first contact in an exhausted week, and for once Thor does not wonder what Loki is planning, what Loki means. He simply sits with Loki in silence, and inside his head thinks, carefully, the word sister, as foreign to him as Jotun was when Odin told him the truth.

*

They are not yet recovered from London when the call comes in from Moscow. As yet it is only the crisp cool of mid-autumn in New York, but already in Russia the first snows have fallen. Natasha spends much of the flight there muttering quietly to herself, until Clint settles in next to her in the cockpit and says quietly, "I'll shoot any old buddies straight through the eyes. Just concentrate on the aliens, Tasha."

By the time they land evacuations are already well under way. They are familiar enough already with the Chitauri's basic attack strategies that they split off without prior discussion: Thor angling for the leviathan with Tony flanking him to pick off the surrounding Chitauri; Clint and Loki on rooftops to scout and attack the Chitauri heading for the ground; Steve, Natasha, and the Hulk taking out the ground troops. They move smoothly, automatic with what Thor is worried may be less practice than the aftereffects of exhaustion.

"Second wave coming in," Coulson's voice crackles over the comm. "Another leviathan spotted over Dmitrov."

They are all too seasoned as warriors to groan at this news, but when Steve asks, "North?" there is a note of exhausted frustration in his voice. At Coulson's affirmative he says, "We might be able to stop them before they hit the outermost ring road, but we've still got plenty of ground troops to deal with here --"

"Let me," Loki says. "I will need Thor for this."

"A moment," Thor says absently, and smashes the leviathan's skull in.

"I got it," Tony says, zooming in to fire at the Chitauri springing out at them. His voice too has an extra edge, though he tries for levity when he asks, "So what's your plan, Reindeer Games?"

"A combination of magics," Loki says. Thor can hear the dangerous smile in his voice.

"Do it," Steve says, with a sigh. "Whatever will slow them down, we need it."

Thor finds Loki on a rooftop. He is indeed smiling, faint and terrible, and he wraps around Thor like an unsprung trap. Thor flies them north of the city, out past the last ring road, where the buildings give way to snow-powdered fields and the occasional cut of roads north.

"We must meet them before they descend," says Loki in Thor's ear. There is a deep hesitation under his confident tone, not disguised now that they are out of range of the other Avengers, but he speaks of their strategy clearly. "Summon as many clouds as you can, in a wide shield between them and the city. Stretch yourself thin -- I mean to augment your power with mine."

Thor does not question it. He brings them up, and up, to where the air is cold and thin, among the piling dark cloudbanks. The wintry sky is not so dim that he cannot see the incoming swarm, hundreds of buzzing specks and the greater, undulating smudge of another leviathan among them. "The lightning won't be enough for all of them," he tells Loki. "Not with only the two of us here."

"It needn't be. Aim your lightning at the leviathan. I will deal with the troops." Before Thor can ask what Loki intends, Loki says, "I do not know how this will feel, to channel our magics together, but have faith that you won't come to harm -- don't let up, for any reason, or my spell will have no vehicle and it will fail."

"I have trusted you this far, brother," says Thor. Loki makes no reply. The Chitauri are coming nearer, so Thor raises Mjolnir toward the swarm. Loki raises a hand alongside it, and begins to chant in a rolling tongue Thor does not recognize.

A moment after Thor lets fly the first bolt, he feels Loki’s magic in him like cold water running down his spine. It pours outward, blooms in his veins and vitals with freezing heat, breathtaking, and Thor nearly loses the thread of his power. He drags in a breath, laughs at himself, delighted, and redoubles his effort, making the leviathan thrash like a hooked fish.

He nearly doesn't notice that the skin of Loki’s raised hand has darkened to blue. Thor stares at it, the current still running through him, and then looks up along Loki's arm to the rest of him. Thor's armor is rimed with frost where Loki is touching it. Loki's skin is blue all over, and his eyes have flooded with red, iris and pupil barely distinguishable. Raised lines -- what Thor had assumed were scars on the Jotun, decorations or marks of status, deliberately made rather than given from birth -- are becoming sharper on Loki’s face. Parallel lines cut across his cheekbones, bisect his lips and chin. Wide curves loop over his forehead and sweep down from the corners of his eyes like tear tracks. Loki's face is calm, focused wholly on the Chitauri.

Following his gaze, Thor sees the flying troops start to drop from the sky in droves. They are being cut apart by the deluge, he realizes; Loki is freezing the downpour into hail as sharp as knives, and misting the air with their blood.

"Oh," Thor breathes, pleasure blooming up inside him at what they have wrought together. He is glad the others are not here. He knows the mortals have forgotten to think of them as gods, and it is better that way.

He is glad, too, that the others are not here to see Loki so; but even as Thor thinks this, he knows it is an unworthy thought. Loki is Loki; and Loki is lovely like this, calm and centered and horrible in his power. Thor wants, for a wild irrational moment, to take Loki to the ground when the last of the Chitauri here are fallen, and to have Loki there, half-dressed and frantic with a storm still under his skin and Loki clothed in winter. But that thought too seems unworthy. Thor takes a shuddering breath, brushing away both the desire and the following uneasy guilt, and sends another arc of lightning into the leviathan's path, finally felling it from the sky.

The remainder of the Chitauri are crippled. "Closer?" Thor asks, and Loki nods, wordless with concentration. It is short work from the air, and even shorter work from the ground, Loki and Thor back-to-back amidst blood and snow.

When the final Chitauri goes down, Thor turns to Loki, breathing hard with exertion, the freezing air like knives in his lungs and joy under his skin. "That was brilliantly done," he says.

The blue is already seeping from Loki's skin, and the red from his eyes, leaving them fathomlessly dark. "It was well of you," Loki says, "to set aside your disgust for necessity."

Thor stares at him. "Loki," he says, groping for the words. "It is -- it is no matter to me. I mean, it is; you can freeze them from the very air! Can you only do it when the weather is already very cold, or might you do it even if we are in a warm climate again?"

Loki gives Thor an astonished look, and says, blankly, "I do draw from the cold in the air, yes."

"Well," Thor sighs, "it is still very useful," but Loki is looking no less astonished, and Thor could hit himself for his foolishness. "Loki," he tries again. "I have no disgust. Look however you will. I do not -- I don't mind that you are Jotun."

A strange ugly expression passes over Loki's face. "You might have said that before I tried to destroy Jotunheim."

Thor flinches. "Loki, I had no time --"

"It is no matter," Loki says, waving away both the ugly expression and Thor's words. "Did you not say it was no matter? Come, we should return to the others and see if they've fared anywhere near so well as we have."

*

"Well done," Coulson says, when they return to the Helicarrier. "Debriefs tomorrow, everyone; get some rest."

It is a testament to how tired they all are that not one of them protests this, not even Steve, eager though he usually is to make a follow-up assessment of their battles. Instead everyone shuffles off in the direction of their quarters. Thor hesitates, turning, and sees Loki still there, drooping a little with exhaustion.

"Loki," Thor says, quietly for all that everyone else has left earshot, "you could stay with me, if you wish."

Loki looks at him, expressionless. Thor thinks he might refuse, and is already braced for it when Loki gives him a tired nod and follows Thor wordlessly.

The quarters on the Helicarrier are little more than metal boxes, functional enough, though with beds hardly bigger than the one Loki had in prison. Thor and Loki make do anyway, sitting down together. Loki leans against Thor, seeming hardly conscious of it, head bowed a little and his hands twitching restlessly in his lap. Thor wonders, somewhat blurred with weariness, whether Loki is simply worn out too, or if it is more. He thinks of Loki's astonishment when Thor was not bothered by Loki's Jotun face; he thinks of the ugly look that crossed Loki's face after; he thinks of Loki shaking when Natasha talked kindly to him, and the deeply disappointed look Natasha gave Thor when she learned what he had done with Loki, and of Loki whispering terrible things.

"Do you -- wish to talk of what happened back there?" Thor ventures. "I know I don't understand everything, but I believe given time --"

"No," Loki snarls, turning on him, his hands like claws. "We will not talk of it, and if you try I will kill you."

Thor nods. "We will not," he repeats quietly. He wants to gather Loki to him, or give Loki any assurance at all, but he does not know how, and -- "What do you need, then?" Thor asks, a last desperate attempt.

"I --" Loki stares at him, startled again. A flicker goes across his face, some internal debate weighing out whether to trust Thor, and both of them are perhaps equally startled when Loki says, in a rush, uncalculated with honesty, "I need to think about anything else, Thor, I would lose myself in you --" His hands curl into claws again, and Thor kisses the rest of the truth from his mouth, gives Loki as much as he can while Loki shudders and kisses him back with breathless violence.

Then, to Thor's astonishment, Loki tears away and says, rough and scared, "You needn't pity me."

"Loki," Thor says, stunned. "Of course I don't -- You and I have just felled a thousand enemies together; you are beautiful and terrible, and I want you beyond the telling of it."

Loki stares at him, looking lost, looking desperately hungry. He says, voice still rough and graceless with emotion, "Please don't be gentle."

Thor nods, slowly, agreeing before understanding comes; and then desire hits him like a blow to the belly. He surges forward. Loki drags in a startled breath and twists, but by then Thor is over him, pinning him to the bed, hands locked on Loki's wrists, a knee between Loki's legs so he has no leverage. Loki twists again, but Thor simply holds him down until Loki is panting and snarling and flushed. Thor's blood is thrumming, his skin oversensitive, Loki under him disheveled and lovely. Thor feels a surge of fierce inarticulate affection, and he kisses down Loki's neck, soft and fervent, until Loki hisses impatiently. Then Thor turns, tugging Loki's high collar sharply aside, and bites into the junction of Loki's neck and shoulder, far harder than he has dared to before. Loki makes a thin high noise of pain, and when Thor does not relent Loki gasps, noises like soft dry sobs, and whispers, "Thor, yes."

It sends another spike of arousal through Thor. He pulls off Loki's neck to kiss his brother, deep and hungry. Loki thrashes under him, kissing him back, wrists straining under Thor's hands and hips rising, rubbing up urgently against Thor's leg. Thor laughs, low and delighted, breaking the kiss to gaze at his brother with wonder. Loki looks up at him, breathing hard, a rising challenge in his face.

Thor releases one of Loki's wrists again, bringing his hand to the rising bruise on Loki's neck. He presses two fingers to it, not hard, but with deliberate relentless pressure; and Loki goes boneless. His head falls back, his face focused and still. Thor has seen this look before, once or twice in bed, more often on the battlefield. He presses down harder upon the bruise and Loki moans, sounding dazed. For the first time Thor has seen, he is entirely artless in his pleasure.

"This helps," Thor murmurs, half to himself, fascinated.

Loki tenses, brow growing troubled. "Yes," he says, soft, voice more lucid with each word, "it does," and Thor cannot bear that he unthinkingly dragged Loki back from wherever he had gone. He moves his hand from Loki's neck and drives a knuckle, slow and sure and hard, into Loki's ribs.

Loki arches up and collapses into soft panting, the peaceful focused look back on his face. Thor breathes in sharply, dizzy with understanding. For a moment he is paralyzed; he wants to hold Loki down and bruise him anew and press upon those bruises until Loki is past speaking, wants to take Loki until his brother is screaming. Then Thor is tearing at Loki's clothes, pulling Loki's shirt up over his head, tugging his trousers down and ridding Loki of his boots in two quick impatient tugs. Loki allows it, helping as best he can; then he is sprawled under Thor, pliant and dazed.

"Loki," Thor breathes. Loki slowly focuses on him. "I would hold you down," Thor says, nearly a whisper, "and bite every bit of skin I can reach, and grind those into bruises too, brother."

The inarticulate noise Loki makes at that is so gratifying that Thor laughs again, darker, and suits actions to words. Loki does struggle a little under his hands still, but the effort it takes is obvious. With each mark Loki goes limper, breath catching ragged as Thor bites down his chest and under his ribs and into the hollows of his hips. Thor sucks bruises there and sees, with delight rather than sympathy, that Loki is so hard it must surely be painful. He does not touch Loki's cock, but nuzzles at his belly, nips lightly as though considering whether to bite down. Loki's muscles jump; he whimpers, halfway between fear and want, and Thor loves him, so much it sticks in his throat like pain, so much that tired as he is he would willingly use Loki thus for hours yet.

He looks up at his brother's face. Loki is a mess, bruises mottling his skin and his hips undulating upwards unconsciously, bliss in his face; and desire hits Thor again, a half-blinding need to be inside Loki, now.

His clothing is abruptly an irritant; Thor divests himself of it, swiftly, and laughs to himself when a quick search of his absently-packed toiletries yields several half-forgotten packets of lube. He turns back to Loki, sprawled watching him with half-lidded eyes and his legs fallen open, and Thor moves up the bed to kiss him, slow and deep, Loki's mouth yielding under his.

Then Thor takes him, slow and not at all gentle, waiting nearly no time between the first finger and the second. Loki keens, trembling, still half-gone, and Thor wants to be inside him desperately, but wants this, too, wants to watch Loki fall apart around him while he can still think at all. Thor twists his fingers, two, three, waits until Loki is flushed and panting, until he gasps, "Thor, fuck me, fuck me," and waits again a little after that, until Loki is whining wordlessly and driving himself down upon Thor's fingers. Thor is almost as far gone himself, but for the sake of seeing Loki like this, so completely undone, he finds the self-control and holds hard to it, half drowning.

"Thor," Loki sobs, "please," and Thor finally breaks under it, angles his brother's hips and thrusts in. Loki screams, writhes, pulls Thor closer. Thor shudders and takes him, relentlessly hard, until Loki is lying there rocked by each thrust and whimpering softly, until Loki tightens hard around him and comes, shaking, in helpless spasms while Thor drives into him still.

Thor cannot hold out long after that; half a dozen more thrusts and he is coming, too, moaning into Loki's shoulder. He collapses carefully with not quite his full weight on Loki, and they lie there replete and awash with happiness.

"Loki?" Thor mumbles finally.

"Mm?" Loki half turns and tucks himself in against Thor. Thor throws an arm over his brother and, reassured, falls directly into sleep.

*

In the morning, they sleepily eat breakfast at the round meeting table on the bridge. Coulson waits until everyone is at least partway through a cup of coffee before he says, "Good work, everyone. We've effectively stopped the Chitauri from taking root in Moscow. As long as we can do the same at their other target locations, the Earth will stay safe from them."

"Swell," Steve says. "Now we just have to see if this is a pace we can keep up."

"I have faith in you," Coulson says, with his steady implacable calm, but Thor can see the faint lines of worry on his face.

"I'd like to hear what happened with the second wave," Natasha puts in, turning to Thor and Loki expectantly.

Thor glances at Loki, who only raises his eyebrows in return, half a challenge. Thor wants to give him a grin in kind, but a council of war is hardly the place to show undisguised affection for his brother. Instead, he turns to the others and explains how by a combination of their magics they rained lightning and ice down upon the Chitauri to stop them.

"So is that just straight-up magic?" Tony wants to know. "Or is it a, what's it, a frost giant thing?"

Beside Thor, Loki goes very still. "How," he says, low and dangerous, "do you know of that?"

"It's ... in your files," Tony says, giving Loki a puzzled look.

"Is it." Loki's chair scrapes back. He is giving Thor a look of pure murder, and Thor cannot blame him, for all that he told the Avengers of Loki's parentage months ago, when Loki was himself still trying to conquer Midgard. Loki's hands are shaking.

"Loki," Natasha says quietly. "Walk away."

He throws her a look of pure venom, but he does stalk off. They all stare after him in bafflement or concern; when he is out of earshot, Tony immediately swings around in his seat to point at Thor and say, "Okay, what the hell?"

"Loki's parentage is a sore point," Thor explains. He feels suddenly tired, despite his excellent sleep the night before; he feels more than a little angry, at Loki and at himself. "The Jotun ... were Asgard's sworn enemies. We were raised on stories in which they were terrifying monsters, though the reality is not so grim. My father defeated them long ago, but Loki still carries the shame of being from such a race. He would have destroyed that part of himself if he could. That he is using Jotun magic to help us against the Chitauri ... it is good indeed, but it would be best if we did not speak of it aloud."

"Thor," Bruce says. He gives Thor a look so cold that Thor nearly recoils in shock. Bruce exhales, slowly and audibly, and folds his hands very deliberately in front of him on the table. "Let me get this straight. Loki is from a race of people that you were both raised to believe were monsters, from a young age."

Thor nods, half riveted by Bruce's anger, half bewildered. Bruce's hands have clenched into fists; he releases them slowly, with a shuddering breath, and makes no move to shake Tony off when Tony leans over and grips hard at his shoulder, anchoring.

"So you think it's best we don't talk about it," Natasha says; though she is addressing Thor, her eyes are fixed on Bruce. "Do you mean it's just upsetting to Loki? Because you seem pretty ashamed of it, too."

"I --" Thor says, in rising indignation.

"Yeah, wow." Tony spares Thor an incredulous look. "Do you not hear yourself? Oh yeah, it's cool he's using this inborn talent he has, that's really useful, but it's too embarrassing to talk about in polite company?"

Thor stares at them, trying to think of a way to explain. "It is for Loki's sake," he says finally, at a loss.

"Sure," Tony says, with false brightness. "Okay, so tell me. Your father defeated Loki's people. How did Loki come to be adopted by your family, anyway?"

"My father found him abandoned in one of their temples," Thor says, thankful to be back on familiar ground, the story automatic, just as Odin told it to him. "He had been left defenseless to die, still but a young child. My father raised Loki just as he did me; he did not wish to tell Loki the truth of it before he was ready, so he wouldn't have to feel different --"

Bruce surges to his feet. "Sorry," he says. "Agent Coulson, sorry, but I have to --"

"Want me along?" Tony asks swiftly.

Bruce gives Tony a crooked smile. "No," he says. "Thanks, Tony."

Thor stares after him when he goes. That Bruce was removing himself from a situation he found enraging is obvious enough; but why he found it so, Thor still cannot fathom. That everyone is angry -- Thor looks around at them, with dawning unease. Loki's anger destroyed a town, and nearly a planet, a mystifying violent response that seemed but madness; his refusal to explain any of it afterwards, only stubbornness. Thor's friends have not only now discovered that Loki is Jotun, so if they feel any of that same anger, Thor must be missing some other cause for it.

"Tell me," Thor says. The words come out in a burst, desperate. "What have I done wrong? I would never call Loki a monster for being Jotun -- it makes no matter to me, I will do whatever must be done to prove it so --"

"It's not really about you," Natasha tells him.

He stares at her. "Of course it isn't. It's about Loki."

"I mean," says Natasha, with much less heat, "it is something you have to fix, but it's not about proving you're a good person."

"No," Thor agrees, meaning it as sincerely as he can. "But I do wish to fix it."

"Look," Steve says, and glances around the table. "Meeting adjourned, okay? This is a thing we should sort, but it doesn't have to be everyone."

"Thanks, Cap," Clint says, nearly springing to his feet. Coulson gives Thor a faint smile that doesn't meet his eyes, and follows. Thor is left alone with Natasha, Steve, and Tony, the last of whom gives him a crooked real smile.

"So," Steve says quietly, "I don't know the full extent of what's going on here, but -- Thor, listen to yourself. It sounds like ... whatever a Jotun is, you make accepting Loki for being one sound like a concession. Meanwhile the rest of them are still monsters? Even if you are at war with someone, that doesn't make the other side all monsters -- hell, it doesn't even necessarily mean they're in the wrong. In a war -- maybe a few bad folks start something awful, and the rest of them are stupid enough to go along with it, or they object to it without making much of a difference once the war's in motion. An enemy isn't just a monster; I don't care what stories you grew up with."

Thor opens his mouth and shuts it again. Before he can make any reply, though, Coulson pokes his head back through the door.

"Sorry to break it up," he says, "but we just got a hit. Cairo. We need to cover it; Xavier's people won't get there in time, and T'Challa's still knee-deep in cleanup in Lahore. If you suit up now you could be there before the Chitauri are entrenched."

"Fine," Steve says, lines of tension etched into his face. "Let's go."

*

Thor has no time to speak to Loki of what has passed; it takes them nearly three days to root the Chitauri out of Cairo. They sleep hard, and in the morning Coulson wakes them, looking desperately worried and apologetic under his calm, to send them to Paris. Two days in Paris; sleep; a day of rest, and no new city yet.

They eat breakfast together, limply. Loki sits across the table from Thor, next to Natasha, both of them equally silent. Thor listens to Tony and Steve and Bruce's circular discussion on refugees from the various attacked cities; Lady Pepper is apparently organizing international relief efforts. "She's perfect," Tony says very seriously into his coffee, and flops into Bruce, looking only half-awake.

Thor does try to speak with Loki during their day of respite; but Loki, as exhausted as the rest of them, brushes him off. "Oh, that messy business," Loki says lightly. "I wasn't expecting it to remain completely secret after I'd discussed the matter with Romanoff; it was only unpleasant to see how far the information spread of its own accord."

About to say that he is sorry for the part he had to play in that, Thor stumbles over the words and stops, stymied. He is unsure whether he should apologize, and thereby reinforce the notion that Loki’s Jotun heritage is shameful, when Steve made it very clear that it should not be thought so. Loki watches him with a look half of expectation and half of mocking; when Thor says nothing, Loki's look turns to something horribly like pity before he leaves Thor there.

Delhi, Karachi, Chicago, Los Angeles; Fury calls them closer to home when the Chitauri begin attacking American cities. ("Let Asia negotiate for Wakandan tech," Thor overhears Director Fury telling Coulson on conference. "SWORD's done enough training with the EU; they can clean up the bastards we haven't rooted out. I need the Avengers at home.") Thor does not even have the energy to be frustrated that he is failing to protect the entire planet. The Chitauri are too many, and it is enough that he is doing as much as he can.

Steve is less ready to accept the situation as it is: the day after Chicago, Thor finds him alone in a conference room, news of earlier Chitauri attacks projected on a screen and scrawled notes on the whiteboard. "Just -- trying to stay ahead of them," Steve explains, when he notices Thor in the doorway. "We need to be better at what we're doing, but I don't know if any of these ideas are good, and --"

"Have you been sleeping?" Thor asks gently.

"Not much." Steve shrugs. "Super soldier. Don't need as much rest."

"If I am tired," Thor says firmly, "then it stands to reason you are as well. Sleep. I swear I will help you with this tomorrow."

Steve does not argue the point; he is tired indeed. And with good reason: the Chitauri are targeting cities in rapid succession, far across the globe from one another, and it is all the Avengers can do to keep up with those close to home. It feels as though the attacks must be more frequent now, but the reality is far worse. They are attacking steadily, no more swift than before; it only feels so because the first shock is over, and routine allows the Avengers to feel the full horror of their situation. Thor sinks into the brutal grind of it; they all do, and Thor sees it happening to them in strange starts: Natasha going still and blank until Clint has said her name, once and again, gently, and how tired he looks when he smiles at her; the bow of Steve's head when he thinks no one is looking; Tony's insistence that he tinker with his armor during their downtime, until Bruce drags him firmly from it, a task not always successful.

They all attend the meetings Steve calls, talking strategy in between battles, attempting to stay a step ahead of the Chitauri's tactics as they evolve. After a time Tony and Bruce no longer attend -- "You fill me in later," Tony says, "meanwhile we're going to figure out if we can possibly hit their fucking mothership hard and fast enough that they can't hit back" -- but he tries to make his video conferences with other scientists coincide with Steve's tactics meetings. Thor gives what input he can to Steve, but they swiftly find that Loki's is much more valuable.

"We're losing ground," Steve says, at one meeting. "Maybe we need to consider the possibility that that blue fellow was bluffing about having ten missiles for every one of ours -- hell, we haven't seen them fire any missiles yet, their big guns seem to be those leviathan things."

"They have the missiles," Loki says quietly. "I have seen them. The weapons on their ships could drive a planet to rubble in days." His face shifts a little. "Could, did. They do not want to, of course, for without a planet there can be no resources, but I would not drive them to it, if I were you."

Steve winces. "I was thinking -- Look, would they really total a planet if they didn't have to? If we hit them fast enough -- they're smart, they're not just thoughtless monsters, if we got 'em where it hurt maybe they'd retreat. They don't need our resources so badly they'd all die for a shot at them, right?"

Everyone is looking at Loki with desperate hope, Thor included. Loki's mouth twists in a mirthless smile. "The Chitauri may indeed be so reasonable, but their general ... has other plans. Thanos finds the Chitauri useful because their strategies of war wreak such havoc, and he finds it ..." Loki searches for the word. His smile twists a little more. "Elegant," he settles on. "It took me some time, observing him, before I discovered his motives. But it is simple enough: he loves death."

"You'll need to give us more than that," Natasha says flatly. "You're saying it like an insight, but right now all I'm hearing is a platitude about a madman."

Loki laughs softly. "He ... looks up to death; the ultimate unconquerable force, you see, and thus the most alluring to one who wishes the magnitude of power and control that he does. He wants to be equal to death, I think, or perhaps death's disciple. In either case he wishes to prove himself a fine general, and a fine killer. That was the reason he wished to have the Tesseract: he believed it would give him yet more power to destroy, to rule the universe and to control who within it lives and dies."

There is a silence, all of them momentarily aghast at this news.

"So why is he here if the Tesseract is back on Thor's planet?" Clint demands. "Is he just -- bitter it's gone? Does he want to torture us for fun?"

"No," Loki says, sounding nearly impatient at the scope of Clint's question. "You impressed him in the Battle of New York. Midgard has proven a worthy opponent, and now he intends to play with you."

There is a second silence, even longer and more horrified than the first.

"Well," Steve says finally, on a shaky exhale, "at least that explains what he's doing here even if the Tesseract is somewhere else. It still doesn't tell us how the hell we should come at this thing, though."

He looks at Thor, but Thor has already risen from the table to go, not even trying for composure. Loki's description of their enemy's motives tells a far grimmer tale than he would wish, on Earth or on Asgard. He wonders if, since they have seen no sign of the Tesseract, it is a good sign for Asgard after all.

But in his heart he fears the worst for all of them, now; and when he thinks of the emptiness that crosses Loki's face sometimes, he thinks he understands a little of what lies behind it, and fears all the more.

*

The one blessing of Fury bringing them back to America is their ability to work again out of Avengers Tower rather than the Helicarrier. It frees the Helicarrier up for Director Fury and his agents, and allows the Avengers their home base back, some familiarity, some small comfort. Thor does what he can while they are there; he sends the others to their rest for injuries, watches them to make sure they eat what small meals he has the energy to make, speaks to them, smiles. When Thor was young he had imagined doing such things to be the way a leader might keep up morale; he sees now that it is what will keep them up at all, not so that they might be confident of success but that they might find strength for the next battle.

The battles themselves blur together, one much like the next. The Chitauri know well enough by now that Thor is the one who will bring down their leviathans before they can be used to full effect; and with the weather turning cold, winter rolling down upon them in steel skies, they are equally wary of Loki's rains of cutting ice. Thor and Loki find themselves at the center of any battle zone, back to back and fighting fiercely, a tempting enough target that the Avengers shift their strategy to make any place where Thor and Loki land a potential trap for the enemy. Thor loves and hates it in equal measure; it is good to have found so effective a method, but the danger to Loki tears at him.

"Fool," Loki says, not without fondness, when Thor tells him as much. "You cannot think I need your protection."

"I think one day you will not be able to conjure enough knives to kill them all," Thor says, "with their numbers greater every time."

Loki gives Thor a look of consideration. "If it will ease your worry," he says, "I will show you my answer to your concerns about my weapons."

He takes Thor down to one of Tony's labs, and from a workbench he unveils a spear. Thor circles it with admiration: the thing glows with a dangerous blue light, its point lethally sharp, though the metal is strange and dark, Midgardian make. "It was a gun once," Loki murmurs, clearly pleased with Thor's reaction. "It was in SHIELD's possession; one of their Hydra weapons. It runs on Tesseract energy, so it was easy enough to refashion." He glances sideways at Thor. "I did not wish to unveil it without need. For one thing, Barton has grown nearly tolerable."

"We have need," Thor tells him. "Use it on the Chitauri alone and the others will not protest."

Thor is more or less right: Clint stares at the spear for a long second, then shrugs and says, in the same tone of casual violence he uses always around Loki, and with a deliberate edge, "I'll shoot you before you try anything."

"This spear is fashioned only for death," Loki says in return. Clint accepts this with a crooked smile. Steve is not so assured; "We're going to just start using unregulated Hydra tech?" he demands, and grows even more displeased when Natasha points out that SHIELD has already started negotiating with the World Security Council about whether they might start equipping soldiers with Hydra technology as an extra defense against the Chitauri.

The whole affair creates an extra layer of tension that Thor had not anticipated. Though Clint seemed honest enough in his dismissal of Loki's new spear, discussing it at all serves as a catalyst for Thor's worry that he has treated Clint ill in his support of Loki; so that evening he finds Clint in the rec room, flipping from staticky channel to staticky channel, and says, "May I?"

"Sure, come in," Clint says absently. He has long given up ignoring Thor entirely, but has regained none of his warmth.

"I ... wished to ask how you fare," Thor says.

Clint regards him assessingly. "You really want to know?" Thor nods, meaning it sincerely, and braces himself nevertheless when Clint nods shortly and says, "I'm feeling kind of bothered that a lot of innocent people have been dying and someone like Loki is still alive."

Thor cannot help flinching, but he can bite back any angry reply. In Clint's place, he would feel the same; in Clint's place, he might feel much the same about himself, never mind Loki. He cannot say anything in agreement, but he can at least take the blow for what it is and do so honestly.

"So, that," Clint says. He softens somewhat. "And it's -- it's not what I signed up for. Not with SHIELD, I mean, but with the Avengers. I thought, being a superhero, that's great; if I have these skills, I should be using them to help people. But now ... it's like we're helping people less than we were, but it's taking twice the effort for half the return. I hate it."

Thor nods slowly. "I always thought," he says, "that in times of war my people could simply come down to engage the enemy in a single glorious battle. Perhaps that would be true if I had the entire might of an Asgardian army at my back, but ... I doubt it all the same, now. I have seen glorious battle, and seen it with all of you, but not in this war."

"Yeah," Clint says, and turns back to flipping channels; but he adds, not looking at Thor, "Not bad, having you around for it," and that, Thor knows, is as much as he can ever expect to receive in forgiveness.

*

A night later they are all woken from their beds by JARVIS, carrying an urgent message from SHIELD: Chitauri bearing down on Toronto. They run to the Quinjet, half-awake in the dark, and fly north over the strangely dark world. Thor finds he misses the mortals' habit of keeping their lights on all night, now that the lights are gone.

When they arrive the Chitauri are already well-entrenched, and the local authorities, when Steve contacts them, are disoriented with the nighttime attack. Everything is streaks of energy-weaponry flashing between buildings, fire and low visibility and utter chaos. "Let's do this," Natasha says grimly, so they go in; but none of their usual strategies are useful. The Chitauri do not go for Thor and Loki specifically, not seeing them in the dark, so it is impossible to draw them out to one spot, and impossible to effectively hunt them down. They are fighting blind. Over the comm, the voices of Thor's team are more than usually disconnected, interrupted by screaming aliens and mortals alike, weapon fire like static.

They do what they can, and by dawn there are no more Chitauri; if any remain, they have gone to ground amid the smoking wreckage. The Avengers reconvene at the Quinjet: Clint and Natasha holding each other upright, Tony's face deathly pale, Steve's uniform torn at the shoulder and streaked with soot, Bruce clutching his torn trousers around his hips and sagging with exhaustion, Loki spattered with blood and swaying a little where he stands. Thor has never been so grateful to see them all. They climb into the Quinjet in a daze, and though they are all equally drained, Natasha insists, flat and quiet, upon flying them home for a proper rest.

By the time they land at the Tower, Thor has pushed through his exhaustion into a terrible keyed-up fatigue. The battle falls into strange nightmare fragments in his recollection, until all he can remember of it is the repetition: laying into the Chitauri about him, fighting back a rising hum of terror from the moment he lost track of Loki in the fight. That Loki was beside him on the flight back makes no difference to Thor's mind, oversaturated as he is with adrenaline and weariness.

When the others make for their rooms, Thor turns to Loki. Loki looks half-dead on his feet, and Thor hates it, and hates the Chitauri, and hates every inch of space between them, and says, "Loki," his voice cracking, "please."

Loki does not ask what he means. Wordlessly they go to Thor's rooms, and wordlessly they undress one another, hands fumbling. Loki when he kisses Thor tastes first of ashes and then of himself, smells coppery with blood before he smells of sweat alone; their hands on each other's skin leech the worst of the tension from their muscles. Thor begins to be afraid that he might cry. Instead he bites down on Loki's shoulder, exactly where the last bruise has already long faded, and Loki hisses encouragement, nails tearing across Thor's back.

After that it feels like a necessity. For every battle they make it through, there is the prospect of Loki in his bed afterwards, the one bright spot amidst the destruction all around them, the relentless cycle of battle and assessment and battle again. Thor knows the grave importance of defending Midgard; he does it willingly and with the greatest commitment, but what he lives for are the moments with his brother. With Loki, Thor finds he is happy, not least because oft after a battle Loki is the one to seek him out first, to seize him and tear at his clothing and kiss him with violent intent; and Thor feels strangely, wonderfully cherished for it.

He discovers things in himself that he would never have guessed at, except that now he is too tired to avoid them, and too eager for anything of Loki to deny his desires. He learns how much he likes giving Loki pain -- asked for; Thor still knows well enough that he would not harm his brother if Loki did not want it -- and how too he likes when Loki fights back, how he loved the day Loki scratched and slithered his way out of Thor’s grasp, and waited taunting until Thor grabbed him by the ankle and pulled him back across the bed; how after Loki bit down hard on his arm, Thor wore the bruise under his left vambrace and felt a strange answering bloom of warmth every time it gave a faint throb of pain. Thor discovers more of Loki, too: that he loves being choked, by Thor's hand pressing inexorably down on his throat, or by Thor's cock, Loki sliding down along the length and taking him to the hilt while Thor's hips jerk, heedless of Loki's breath.

"I want to do everything to you," Thor tells him, one evening on a rare second day without a new attack. He already feels drunk with pleasure. Loki has brought him off with only slow long strokes of his tongue on Thor's cock and balls and lower belly and inner thighs; Thor is a shivering mess and entirely sincere. "I would do the same for you."

"Would you," Loki says, straightening, intrigued. "Very well, then; come here."

It should not be very different, Thor thinks, having done this for women before. But Loki tugs his hair, a short sharp instruction, not quite painful, and when Thor brings his mouth down on Loki's cock it feels like an exciting, frightening, dizzying breach, new and forbidden and shockingly wonderful. Thor realizes, in a slow warm roil of thought, that he wishes for Loki to take him; and when Loki pushes Thor down a little, Thor cannot help moaning and clutching at Loki's thighs. "Oh," Loki whispers, a shocked exhale of discovery, and though burning color rises to Thor's cheeks, he does not stop.

The thought sits in Thor's mind, a warmth and a distraction through the mundane horrors of the following week, until the one outweighs the other and Thor fears he will become less effective in battle for it. Then Thor asks as best he can, fumbling and graceless, having never asked such a thing before; but Loki, once he has stopped looking stunned, does not look mocking. Instead, he curls a hand around the nape of Thor's neck and says, with soft vicious delight, "I will undo you."

So Thor finds himself sprawled facedown on the bed, clutching at the sheets in a futile attempt to anchor himself while Loki holds his hips and rocks into him, murmuring encouragements that twist in Thor's belly simply because they do help. "You need not," Thor says, as steadily as he can, "treat me as something breakable," and cries out when Loki thrusts in hard. "That's more like it," Thor says, and laughs with breathless joy when Loki does it again, and again, hissing invectives that sound like endearments.

Your little brother, Thor thinks, feeling dizzy and open and hungry, and takes everything Loki gives him, and more, and more.

*

Winter closes in. The Chitauri attack only once or twice a week, more often than not in places the Avengers cannot visit, wary of Loki's rains of ice. They are all glad of the rest, though some take it more strangely than others; or at least Thor cannot imagine what Tony is about, when he comes to breakfast one morning and finds a row of mismatched stockings hung up on a window ledge. All the Avengers' names are there, as well as Pepper's and, oddly, JARVIS', though there is none for Loki.

"What is the meaning of the stockings?" he asks Bruce over eggs.

Bruce smiles tiredly at him. Bruce looks tired all the time now, and subtly dangerous, as though he can no longer put in the effort to seem harmless. "Christmas decorations," he says. "Not that we'll be, uh, celebrating or anything, but Tony said he wanted to brighten the place up a bit."

Feasts and merriment during the dark seasons are important, Thor knows, and he is glad the mortals have such traditions. Now more than ever they seem necessary, though he fears there will be little time or cause for celebration. With the Chitauri attacks less frequent, strategy meetings take their place. When SHIELD has new intel they gather on the Helicarrier to discuss it, every possible idea a fragment of hope.

"Let's use the conference room on the bridge," Tony suggests, before one such session. Director Fury gives Tony a half-suspicious sideways look for this request, but complies. When they reach the bridge, Tony looks out over all the SHIELD agents working frantically at their computers, and says loudly, "I have something to ask everyone in the spirit of the holidays." This turns a few heads, enough that Tony looks pleased and continues, "I don't know how many of you are aware of this, since you're all busy trying to save the world from aliens, but my CEO, the inestimable Pepper Potts, has been doing her own world-saving stuff. And I don't mean the part where Stark Industries is manufacturing weapons again -- desperate times, all that, let me tell you Ms. Potts was not thrilled -- I'm talking the fundraising she's been doing. Relief efforts mostly at home, obviously, for all the evacuees and refugees, though she's also got some international stuff going on. And, you know," Tony makes an expansive gesture, "it being Christmas and all, we were hoping you might all want to pitch in. Pass the hat around, that sort of thing."

Indeed, Thor sees that while Tony was talking Bruce has gone down among the SHIELD agents, carrying not a hat but a box, and that the agents are already flocking willingly towards him with various currency, all looking very happy about it. Tony beams.

There is a celebratory air to the whole thing; it lifts everyone's spirits, and Thor even slips a few bills in, never mind that they were lent to him by Tony ages ago for the purchase of food.

On the flight back down to the Tower, Tony shuffles through the contributions looking immensely pleased. "Pep will love this," he tells Bruce. "She'll take on the whole world and make it look easy, but it's really not, she knows it's not, and this will make her so happy. I wonder where she is right now? Last I heard she was in Iowa, Idaho, one of those 'I' states. She should stop running around for two seconds, it's Christmas."

They come down into the main living floor, the other Avengers trailing Tony, who is still talking rapidly on the subject of their fundraising. "And once we meet that goal, we --" Tony stops abruptly. The others peer around him and see Pepper, standing in the kitchen holding a half-eaten sandwich. "Pepper?" Tony says.

"Hey," says Pepper, waving tiredly at all of them.

"What are you doing here?" Tony demands. Thor sees him look around for Loki, an automatic fear, but Loki had stayed behind on the Helicarrier to discuss further strategy with Fury. Tony's shoulders drop a little, obviously recalling this, but he still sounds worried when he says, "What are you doing here? It's dangerous, if you haven't noticed the way the city's being repeatedly attacked --"

"Tony," Pepper says, "Tony, Tony, I'm flying all over the country in poky little passenger planes, do you really think that's much safer --"

"If you're trying to be reassuring, it's not working --"

"I wasn't trying to be reassuring," Pepper says, overlapping him, "I was just trying to point out that --"

"I know what you were --" Tony says, but it ends in a jumble of words between them, because by then Tony has reached her and they are hugging so tightly that it seems unlikely anyone will be able to pry them apart for some time.

Thor looks over at Bruce. Bruce is smiling at them, the slow lopsided smile of a man who has seen his work done well; and Thor feels a strange mix of envy for Tony, who has found such kindness in his lovers, and gratitude that a man such as Bruce should be in his life at all.

*

That evening Thor emails Jane again, half out of a strange melancholy that has clung to him since witnessing Tony and Pepper's reunion, half from an honest desire to wish her what joy she can find from her winter holiday. Merry Christmas, I am told one says, he writes her. And I do wish you all the merriment you might find in such a time as this. I hope you and those you care for remain safe.

Then of course it is some time before he can check his email again: the Chitauri attack Houston, squarely within the Avengers' range of defense, but too far south to make any use of Loki's Jotun magics, and it takes them nearly three days to drive the Chitauri out again. Thor is so exhausted that he nearly forgets to see if Jane has replied; but Loki kisses him in a tired and desultory fashion before falling straight to sleep, so Thor does have the presence of mind to remember his correspondence.

Actually it's Happy New Year by now, Jane has written back, and I really hope this one will be lots better. I know I probably shouldn't ask this because if you do have a good answer you shouldn't tell me, but I want to ask just to ask it: has there been any change? Are you any closer to getting rid of these guys? I want to know if you're okay, and if life's ever going to go back to normal or ... anything. Sorry, but I don't know who else to ask.

It wrenches Thor's heart; but he wants to answer honesty with honesty, so he emails her back explaining their greatest tactical issue, their inability to know with any certainty where the Chitauri might hit next. Some of his frustration seeps into the explanation, though he does his best not to lay any specific blame upon Tony for failing to interpret or intercept the sort of communication the Chitauri use. Loki thinks that perhaps it is magic, he writes, given the way he used to communicate with his army; but he had access to the Tesseract then, and without it does not know how to proceed. He nearly does not send the email, not liking to sound frustrated, before he remembers that Jane is not in the war, that he does not need to reassure her for the sake of group morale; and then Thor cannot send it fast enough, so strong is his need to tell someone of their troubles.

A few days later, Tony corners Thor when Thor is only trying to eat cereal and wake himself up. Tony's eyes are shining. "What did you do?" he demands in great excitement. Thor gives him a baffled look, and Tony waves a hand at him. "Dr. Foster. She emailed me, she emailed Bruce, she emailed Coulson trying to get in touch with SHIELD's science division, she asked me if Loki had an email address --" He stops in sudden thought. "Loki doesn't, does he? He'd better not."

"He doesn't," Thor assures him. "What did Jane wish to speak about?"

"Quantum communication," Tony says, like something sacred. "Hey, is Loki around? He should hear this."

The next day they are summoned to the Helicarrier for another strategy meeting. "I think you're going to like this one," Coulson tells them when they arrive, although he throws Thor a look that seems almost like apology as he says it. When they reach the bridge Thor understands: waiting for them at the round meeting table are Jane and Erik and Darcy, the last of whom is looking around in open curiosity. Thor stares at them, and over at Loki, who looks suspiciously unsurprised, and then over at Fury, who gives Thor sardonically raised eyebrows as though asking why it is now that Thor chooses to worry about bringing Loki along in company.

"Dr. Foster has a proposal for us," Coulson says, smiling slightly. "I don't pretend I can understand all of it myself, but it's going to be very important, so if everyone would please sit down and give her your full attention."

They do so, with some puzzled looks between them, before everyone takes their seats. Erik, Thor sees with sinking disappointment, is pointedly not looking at Thor, and just as pointedly eyeing Loki; but he does not wonder why Erik came. Plainly he wants to make sure Jane is safe from Loki, which is a noble gesture if a foolish one.

"Thanks for taking the time to come up here," Jane starts. Her cheeks are glowing with excitement, and her face has a determined cast that Thor recognizes with great affection. "I know you have a lot to do, so I want to make this as quick and useful as possible. I had a thought, talking with Thor --" she nods at him "-- about your difficulty in intercepting the alien communications. He said you thought the Chitauri might be using magic, and it made me think of another thing he'd told me earlier: that Earth science and Asgard's magic are just different names for the same thing. And I had a theory, but I ... wanted to run it by Loki." She glances at Thor and makes a grimacing face that may be apology, though she's still too excited to look contrite. "Mr. Stark helped me contact him, and, well -- Loki, tell them what you told me, that Well of Urd story."

Loki gives her a graceful nod. "Deep within Yggdrasil is the Well of Urd. Water from the Well flows up the trunk and through the branches of Yggdrasil before it falls in dewdrops back down. The Norns, living at the Well, carve the names and destinies of all children born into the Tree, and the water flows around those destinies." Loki smiles. "It is a paltry way of explaining what they truly do, of course. Yggdrasil is no tree, but rather the energy connecting the realms. It describes the spatial configuration between them in each moment. The Well is ... the past, we shall say, and the water from it is the flow of causality -- the path a life will take is shaped by what the Norns have written."

"Just like observations on a quantum mechanical system localize a probability curve," Jane cuts in, nearly tripping over the words in her eagerness to explain. Thor looks around the table and is relieved to see that his is not the only nonplussed face, though he suspects that some of the others have looked baffled from the moment Loki started speaking.

Thor hides a smile and turns his attention back to Jane, who is saying, "It's -- it ensures that what is observed, or -- or 'written,' is exactly where the system was going to localize all along! The present retroactively changing the past, like those dewdrops falling back into the Well. It's the Asgardian scientific model of existence! Loki's magic is -- it's shaping reality by making a probability a solid point of data, determining the state of the universe through an act of will."

Jane stops, takes a deep breath, and looks around the table. She seems to realize how many blank looks she's getting in return, and squares her shoulders. "The point is, what Loki was doing 'magically' when he was communicating with his army was just initiating quantum communication -- taking advantage of particles that are entangled -- which means their most basic properties, on a quantum level, are dependent on each other and capable of influencing each other, even instantaneously across large distances, to transmit strings of information. It's an ideal method of communication for a space-faring people, given the distances they have to travel!"

"So ... that means it's possible to intercept their communications?" Steve ventures. "Or just that you've figured out how Loki's magic works in Earth-science terms?"

"Quantum communications aren't interceptable," Bruce says. "Quantum data is fragile -- if a third party intercepts it, it changes, and the two parties communicating know they've been hacked."

"That was true," Jane says. "But I've read every article on quantum encryption I could get my hands on in the last few days, and it's been done by researchers at the University of Singapore. They were able to third-party eavesdrop without introducing enough errors that the eavesdrop was detected -- it doesn't look any different than the random background errors that happen sometimes." She holds up a hand. "Now, I don't know all the mechanics of the system the Chitauri have set up, or how many countermeasures they've taken, but I'm willing to work with Loki. And we'll have Erik on board." She smiles over at him, and Erik gives her a faint smile in return. "Between the three of us, I think we can figure out what to do."

"I think it's worth a shot," Tony says. He grins. "Besides, Thor and Loki thought cracking this stuff was beyond us. Maybe the Chitauri will think so, too; they might not catch on for a while."

Though the plan sounds both good and necessary, Thor cannot help feeling uneasy. But it appears that Jane is not in the least upset at the notion of working with Loki, and this reassures him enough that Thor finds he can smile too, anticipating their advantage.

"So that's settled," Coulson says quietly. "You'll be working on the Helicarrier, along with Dr. Selvig and ... Dr. Foster's assistant?" He gives Darcy a vaguely puzzled look and moves on. "Entirely monitored at all times, of course."

"Of course," Loki murmurs. "So then. Let us begin."

*

Thor desperately wants to get Jane alone to ask her how she's doing; but, though she smiles at him when she sees him, she is so much occupied with her work that it is difficult to have any real conversation with her. Besides, Thor is delighted and horrified by her presence in equal measure, and is unsure whether either of those feelings would be welcome. So he smiles at her in return and leaves her to her work.

They all stay on the Helicarrier now. The Chitauri attack Atlanta partway through the week, but even without Loki, the Avengers are able to keep the Chitauri from gaining a foothold in the city.

Despite the success of the fight, Thor feels unbalanced without Loki at his side. It is good to see him again when they return, good enough that he tries to pull Loki away from his science-magics long enough to at least kiss him hello; but Loki will have none of it.

"Why," Loki says to him indignantly by way of greeting, as soon as they are alone, "did you even think of giving her up?"

"What?" Thor says, utterly baffled.

"Jane," Loki says, much more lightly now. "She is perhaps as brilliant a sorceress as I have ever seen. What were you thinking."

"I ... knew her for but days," Thor says, unsure whether Loki is in jest. "And I like her very much -- she is clever and kind and brave. But there was no giving up to do, Loki; or if there was, she was the one who decided upon it."

"Because you brought me here," Loki says.

"You should return to your work," Thor tells him. "But I am glad indeed that you have respect for her magics."

Nor is that respect ill-founded: only a short time later, Coulson calls them to assemble at the Quinjet and says, "Dr. Foster and Dr. Selvig and Loki think they have something. Three Chitauri leviathan are set to deploy for Mexico City within the hour. We're calculating their best flight routes now. If we hurry you should be able to intercept them over the Texas desert. Even if they panic and turn tail you might be able to shoot them all down before they have a chance to hit San Antonio on the retreat."

"We're a strike team," Steve points out. "Shooting at them from the Quinjet seems ineffective, even if we catch them by surprise."

"That's what you have us for," someone says from across the room. It's Tony's friend Colonel Rhodes, striding over to shake Steve's hand and clap Tony on the shoulder. With him is a woman in a similar uniform, with short blonde hair and a sharp look in her eye. "SWORD will be lending you a couple of squadrons. You'll be on the ground to take down the Chitauri we drop."

"Except for Thor," the woman adds, favoring Thor with a grin. "Can you do that lightning trick without hitting friendlies?"

"Easily," Thor says, grinning back.

"Major Carol Danvers," she says, offering a hand.

Rhodes leads one group of planes, Danvers another, both of them flanking the Quinjet on the flight south. Loki is not along for this battle, either, instead staying in the Helicarrier with Jane in an attempt to intercept any further communications between the Chitauri.

Thor does not know what to expect from the battle, though he has hope; but what he truly does not expect is to be rendered half-unnecessary. When they meet the Chitauri formation, and he summons lightning to take down the first leviathan, it is no trouble at all: the SWORD planes shoot down all the Chitauri who come at Thor, and within minutes all three leviathans are smoldering ruins in the dust below.

Given some hours' warning, Thor realizes with rising delight, the Avengers can have an army at their back for any confrontation. Not a single bystander has been injured; not a single building has fallen. It is a clean, swift victory.

Back on the Helicarrier they are all stunned, even Loki and Jane. "It worked?" Jane asks.

"It worked," Thor tells her. "Thank you," and even though everyone else is there for the debrief, agents and pilots and all, Jane laughs with joy and gives Thor a swift hard hug. Thor hugs her back, and when he glances involuntarily at Loki, Loki only gives Thor a slow pleased smile as though he wishes to do the same.

*

Like that, it is easy. SWORD, and other Midgardian militaries with flight power, are with Jane and Loki's new intelligence able to hold off any new invasion forces the Chitauri send. The Avengers are no longer sent running helpless from location to location; instead, they begin going through the cities that the Chitauri already occupy, beginning to drive them off. New York is first, difficult but necessary, an exhausted week of fighting even when Loki joins them and adds his magics. But their old city-fighting tactics work well, and now they feel like progress, like reclamation, like an apology for mistakes, like anything but the futile holding-back of a flood.

"We should do Toronto next," Steve says, while they eat pizza given to them by a family only too happy to find the commute to their restaurant clear of aliens. "That was ... our worst failure. They're entrenched there. I think we owe it to the city."

"I like that," Clint says. "Hands up, all in favor."

Coulson, when they tell him of their destination, cautiously gives them the go-ahead; perhaps he realizes why it is important. Upon their arrival, battle is easy to find: the Chitauri are numerous in the city, scarcely bothering to hide. When they see Loki they scream their war cries and make for him, in small groups and then in swarms, and Thor is beginning to think that rooting the Chitauri out of this city will be easier than any of them suspected when his comm crackles to life.

"Finish and get out," Coulson says, his voice tight. "As quickly as you can."

It is not an easy order to follow: the Chitauri keep coming, and Thor wonders whether this is some sort of trap. "Fight them off," Steve calls, evidently having the same thought, "and get back to the Quinjet! Hawkeye, where's Hulk?"

"I see him," Clint says. "Give me a second."

Effective, Thor thinks approvingly, when the Hulk comes roaring in, flinging Chitauri in his wake, and carves a swift way for them to their plane. Then there is an awful tense moment: it is the first time it has been necessary for the Hulk to become Bruce once more while under such stress. The Hulk roars again at the Chitauri, a yell of inarticulate frustration, and Tony, landing beside him, says, "Buddy, hey, you gotta shrink down enough to get on the plane now." The Hulk glares at him.

"Enough theatrics, Banner," Loki snaps. He blasts several Chitauri back with his spear. The Hulk glares at Loki, too, but when Tony sets a metal-gloved hand softly against his side, he shudders and twists and shrinks until Bruce is there. He stumbles backwards onto the plane, swearing inarticulately but looking in no immediate danger.

"This is why having the other guy along isn't always the best idea," he tells Tony ruefully while Natasha flies them towards the Helicarrier. None of the Chitauri are following, content with chasing them off.

"No," Tony says, "do you not realize how completely awesomely you just did there --"

"Quiet," Steve says, hand to his earpiece. "Agent Coulson, we're away from the fighting. What do you need?"

"I think it might be what you need," Coulson's voice comes to them over the comm. "The resistance you got back there, that was no accident. Dr. Foster doesn't know how she missed the communication orders for this one."

"For what?" Steve asks.

"Avengers Tower," Coulson says. "We're being sent a message. The rest of the city's still in one piece, but -- a group of Chitauri flew in with some sort of explosive. They leveled it. The Tower's gone."