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Thor is loathe to let Loki out of his sight for even a moment. When they return to the mansion, all of them exhausted, Loki announces, "I plan to have the longest bath the worlds have ever known." Thor restrains himself from protesting when Loki leaves the room, but it is difficult.

He collapses on one of the couches instead, sweat and armor and all, and closes his eyes so as not to anxiously watch the doorway Loki vanished through. After a moment the couch dips next to him, and Thor cracks an eye open to see that Steve has collapsed in similar fatigue there. Tony and Bruce, he sees, have already vanished upstairs; Clint and Natasha are still aboard the Helicarrier, at Coulson's insistence, and Jane elected to stay there as well. Thor does not blame her. He recalls only relief on her face, but perhaps when the first flush of victory is gone, she will make some protest at his behavior with Loki; but that does not bear thinking of now. Thor gives Steve a faint smile.

Steve shrugs a little, not even really making the effort to smile back.

Thor's heart aches. He remembers other times they have sat beside one another, watching documentaries, talking endlessly about anything and everything. It was only months ago, but it feels like lifetimes. Longing wells up in Thor's throat until he cannot bear to stay silent, and he says, quiet and careful, "I know we have ... had our differences. And I won't pretend the fault is not mine. But -- Steve. The moment I watched that ship falling and had no idea whether you would make it out was one of the worst of my life. You are ... one of the best friends I've ever had. It was terrible to nearly lose you, and I am happy beyond measure that you are alive."

Steve draws in a sharp breath. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I -- sorry, I need a minute. I wasn't awake for this part last time."

He looks at Thor, and there is such naked unhappiness on his face that Thor cannot do anything but put an arm around his shoulders and draw him into a tight hug. Steve lets out a shaky sigh and leans heavily against him. "Thor," he says. Thor waits, but Steve is silent for so long that he has stopped expecting anything more when Steve says, very quiet, "I missed you, too," and settles himself more comfortably against Thor.

They stay so for long enough to go a little stiff; then, by mutual silent agreement, they rise and go to their own quarters. Thor takes a shower, as swiftly as he can, not allowing himself time to dwell on much of anything, and clothes himself in the softest old jeans and t-shirt he can find among his things. He does not wish to be in his armor for some time. He does take Mjolnir with him when he goes back downstairs, but it is more for comfort than out of any real need.

He comes into the common space to an odd spectacle: Loki perched on a chair, hair in damp ragged curls, sheared unevenly above his shoulders; and Pepper sitting behind him, a pair of scissors in hand, cutting Loki's hair more evenly. Bruce is sitting next to her, reading from a tablet, and Tony is sprawled at Bruce's feet, looking pale and tired, but content. He glances up when Thor enters, and gives him a wave and a smile.

"Hey, Thor," Pepper says absently.

Loki gives Thor a look that says in no uncertain terms that Thor must never speak of this. Something unclenches in Thor's chest. There is a soothing stillness to the room; and seeing someone else touching Loki with gentle absent care reassures him more than he would have guessed.

*

The news over the next week is as heartening as it can be. Nothing goes seriously amiss: none of the Chitauri make any last moves of defiance, instead allowing themselves to be escorted from the cities by SHIELD-supervised military forces. From the footage that appears on the news, it seems the escort is less for the mortals' safety than for the Chitauri's: there are protesters at every exit point, though none of the watching crowds turn to true violence.

According to Tony, who refused to be kept out of the talks between SHIELD and the international alliance, not everyone is pleased with the terms Thor gave the Chitauri; many of them want greater retribution. But Director Fury, at least by Tony's gleeful secondhand report, made the very reasonable point that any retaliatory attack might be against any part of the world at all, guaranteeing that the first nation to attack the Chituari would instantly make many enemies on Earth. "He has it under control," Tony says, "unsurprisingly," but they are all pleased and relieved to hear it, nonetheless.

In truth, they spend very little time paying attention to the news coverage. Instead, the Avengers gravitate towards one another, staying in the same rooms, drawing comfort from quiet camaraderie, and do very little of anything at all besides rest and talk. They are at something of a loss in the vacuum where the war used to be.

"I'm thinking," Tony says, one such quiet afternoon. There is a powdering of snow on the mansion lawn, and the sun that comes in through the great windows is bright in the clear winter sky. Bruce is reading; Clint has coaxed Natasha into playing some sort of racing game on the television, volume on low, and Natasha is trouncing him entirely. Thor looks away from this contest at Tony, who is sprawled on Pepper's lap and saying, half to Pepper and half to the room at large, "We should rebuild Avengers Tower. To the uninitiated eye it kind of looks like we're hiding here -- if we built the Tower again --"

"Tony," Pepper says quietly. "If we're going to be throwing money at things --"

"Right, right, rebuilding houses for people who don't have second ones." Tony smiles up at her. "Just tell me where to throw my money, Pep."

"That's all fine," Steve adds, "but we are hiding, and I don't think that's a good idea."

"No, Fury's right," Natasha says. "It's better to lie low for a few weeks, get our heads on straight." She leans forward, making sure to catch Steve's eye. Her digital car careens off the edge of the track, but she ignores it. "The world can wait. If you want to go be Captain America, make sure you'll be doing the job justice."

Natasha makes a very good point. Steve and Tony may be restless, but Thor suspects that if he is feeling so weary, they cannot really be faring any better; and he is feeling weary indeed. Rising from bed in the morning is not too difficult a task -- with no war to drag him forward he does indeed feel lighter -- but once up, he wants little. There is no strategy to go over, no task at hand, nothing frantic with which to occupy his mind; but it feels as though his mind has forgotten how to do anything but fight a war. Thor is a strange blank. He thinks of what he used to do: long sparring sessions, longer talks, the elaborate enthusiastic meals of new Midgardian foods. He supposes he should do those things again.

At least Loki is here, now. No one questions his presence in a room, though after that one slip on the Helicarrier, both Thor and Loki are circumspect, and do not touch much in company. Loki comes to Thor's bed every night; more often than not they fall asleep with their limbs tangled together, Thor protectively half-curled around Loki, as they used to do when they were very young. He thinks he should speak with Loki about what they are to do next; but considering the future only fills him with a strange, baffled weight, and he is too grateful for this temporary peace with Loki to risk it in a conversation he does not even know how to begin.

Instead, Thor pulls himself from sleep; makes enough toast for everyone, now that the infrastructure of the city is beginning to be rebuilt; heats the water for Tony's second pot of coffee. He supposes that if he makes the gestures of life as it used to be, it may yet return to him. It seems as good a strategy as any. (After all, it worked before. Asgard went on as it always had, covering the places Loki used to be with an ease that sometimes made Thor half-doubt his own memory. Going on as usual was much easier than it had any right to be.)

The difficulty this time is that the whole of Midgard seems to share a part of the loss. While New York City is beginning to come to life again, it is still crippled. All the cities struck by the Chitauri were evacuated by those with the means to escape, and their homes and places of work suffer from the collateral damage of the war itself, or from loss of revenue. Many return to find their homes destroyed. Yet others find their homes intact, but no occupation waiting for them, no means of support.

Thor knows all this not from any innate understanding of how Midgard works in wartime, but from those bits of information that he slowly garners from the news. When the reporters onscreen are not discussing the evacuation of the Chitauri forces, they focus mainly upon the migration and support of refugees. "Many refugees are currently housed in gyms, stadiums, hotels, and any available facilities in the suburbs of the affected cities," one reporter tells the camera seriously, while Thor spreads jam on his toast and watches the shots of various mentioned buildings with half an eye. "Government assistance is keeping these places open and supplied, but with governmental aid stretched so thin by the breadth of the Chitauri campaign, altruistic private citizens are stepping in to pick up the slack. Stark Industries CEO, Virginia 'Pepper' Potts, is spearheading a bicoastal campaign to bring material assistance to affected cities in the Northeast and California."

Thor turns, smiling at Pepper. Tony raises his mug to her in a silent toast across the counter.

"It's not enough," Pepper says. "Bicoastal campaign, great. I can't cover the whole country. It's great that we're beginning to get the supplies we need, but it doesn't solve the issue of distributing them." Pepper drops the papers she is shuffling through to rub her eyes.

"We'll solve it." Tony comes over to rub circles on her back. "We'll pull some strings --"

"I've pulled them all, Tony," Pepper says into her hands. There is frustration verging on tears in her voice. "I know we're both used to just waving our hands and making things happen, but this isn't going to be solved by throwing money at particular causes or inventing a new element. We need more people.”

"We can't hire the people?" Tony says, more like a proper question than a given solution. "C'mon, we can create jobs."

"I've looked at the numbers. That might be the solution eventually, but in the short-term I don't know if that will be enough, especially not on the scale we need." Pepper straightens, touching the corners of her eyes gently and raising her chin again. "It's okay. Thanks, Tony. I'm sure there's a string we haven't pulled yet."

Tony looks troubled, but kisses her cheek and departs. Thor feels their false optimism keenly. He glances down at his toast, knife hovering uncertainly. There is little satisfaction in the tasks that used to bring him joy; he feels as though he is simply filling time to stave off the slight hollowness that grays his waking hours. There is no reason to believe that the future will not be better than the immediate past. But though they have left behind the state of constant worry for their own survival, or Earth's, there is no sense of resolution, no upwell of hope, no moral lesson or emotional truth to be found in work, in the faces and voices of the surviving populace, in the editorializing of the newscasters. It is as though the entire planet is aware of how uninvited and needless the conflict really was. For all their struggle and ingenuity and support and relentless, desperate hope, they have only to come back to a place no worse nor better than where they started.

Matters have not changed by the end of their first week after the war, when Thor receives a caller.

He is in his rooms, debating whether it would be too frivolous a use of his time to find Darcy online and ask her for more of those videos of cats, when there is a knock on his door. Thor shuts his laptop, puzzled. He supposes it is Bruce, the only one of his friends who would both visit Thor in his own quarters and knock before attempting to enter. But when he opens the door, Jane Foster is standing on the other side, looking a little tired but otherwise well.

She gives Thor a smile, though it doesn't quite reach her eyes. "Hi," she says. "Sorry, I would've waited downstairs or something but JARVIS told me to come right up, so here I am! I thought I'd -- stop by, before I headed back home."

"You are going?" Thor says, foolishly, before remembering himself. "Jane. Please, come in."

Jane does, looking around Thor's room: the view of trees through the window, Mjolnir against the nightstand, Loki's spear in a corner, dips in both pillows upon the bed, a dozen tiny signs that Thor shares this room that he had not noticed until now. Jane looks back at him. Her face is carefully neutral. "Yeah," she says, "I'm going. Back to New Mexico, for a little while -- I have a class to teach next semester, and I want to get all my notes in order, and get Erik set up again. We were invited to talk about the quantum encryption breakthroughs at a few conferences, this spring and summer. Erik wants to sit that one out, but I'd love to, so ..." She trails off, shrugging. "It's sort of your fault that I'm famous."

"I am very pleased for you," Thor tells her, meaning it wholeheartedly.

"Anyway, I wanted to thank you," Jane says. "And I wanted to say goodbye before I left. It's the thing to do, when you're friends."

Thor looks at her upturned face. He is not sure what she expects of him; he is not sure what she is thinking. She does not seem angry with him, but she is on the brink of an awful polite distance, and Thor cannot stand to send her away a stranger. "I'm sorry I left again without contacting you," he says, "and that I asked you to send me away again without considering the consequences. I am sorry for the burdens I placed upon you, and that ... things could not be different."

"It is what it is," Jane says, but when she smiles again it is warmer. Thor feels a rush of relief. "I don't know what your plans are, but keep in touch, okay?"

"I do not know what my plans are, either," Thor admits. He wonders whether he should say that he wishes for her to see Asgard someday; but that seems the height of presumption, when he has no idea even of his own standing. He wonders whether he should ask what she feels about Loki, and reassure her in some wise if he can; but since she has not brought it up, it seems more prudent to avoid the topic entirely. Instead he simply says, "Whatever my plans are, they will include keeping in touch with you, I promise you that."

"Good." Jane bounces up on her toes and kisses Thor lightly on the cheek. "You take care of yourselves, okay?"

"And you," Thor says. He wants to wrap his arms around her, press a kiss to her hair, tell her how much he cares for her; but Jane is already turning on her heel, with a last fleeting smile, and leaving him there, words still unsaid.

*

The next day it snows, flurries in the morning and large heavy flakes in the afternoon and early deepening evening. Tony and Bruce build a fire in one of the larger sitting rooms, despite the fact that the mansion is heated well enough by other means, and no one makes any objection; Thor, at least, finds great comfort in sitting before a roaring hearth. It reminds him of home, sense-memories that have nothing to do with the terrible anxiety he feels every time he wonders what is happening on Asgard.

"If it snows enough," Steve says, "we could go out and make snowmen." He nudges Natasha gently. "You ever made a snowman?"

"No," Natasha says. "Didn't really have the time."

"We should do that, then," Steve says firmly.

And indeed, the next day when the snow has ceased to fall and the sky is a bright pale blue overhead, Steve hustles them into warm clothes and makes them go out on the lawn, where the snow, while not quite knee-deep, is still enough to pack and shape. Thor is not quite sure what Steve means by this; but Steve's eyes are sparkling, cheeks pink, and the others must notice it, too, because no one makes any protest. What Steve means, it turns out, is that they are to turn the snow into sculptures. None of them are much good at it; Steve and Bruce roll snow into balls and stack them atop one another, and Clint sets about making miniature versions -- "These ones are normal-sized; yours is Godzilla," he tells Steve, when Steve questions this -- but Tony, Natasha, and Thor do not have much luck getting the snow to stick together.

"Snowball fight?" Tony mutters to Thor. "I bet we could take her."

"No," Natasha says, because her hearing is uncannily good. "Don't embarrass yourself, Stark," but she says it with the first true smile Thor has seen on her face in ages.

Eventually, they tramp back inside to warm up, leaving a large lopsided snowman and Clint's smaller ones still sitting peculiarly out on the lawn. "If the paparazzi see that, they'll have a field day," Bruce says.

Tony laughs. "Awesome."

Thor wonders whether Loki would have enjoyed this. He has not seen his brother all morning, but does not think much of it; Loki will tolerate the company of the Avengers for days at a time, then vanish, only to be glimpsed at odd moments pacing the halls or passing through the kitchen. Thor eats lunch with the others, half an ear to their relaxed conversation, and when he is done he wanders out in idle search of Loki.

He finds no sign of his brother, but after poking his head into several rooms he does discover Agent Coulson, who is sitting in an armchair near the fire and shuffling through SHIELD briefs. Thor decides to leave him to it, but before he can move from the doorway, Coulson glances up. "Hi, Thor," he says. "If you're looking for Loki, she went to speak with Director Fury about forty-five minutes ago."

That gives Thor pause. "Did she say why?"

"Director Fury asked to see her, actually. Beyond that, I don’t know."

Thor thanks him and turns away, mind awash with sudden worry. He has allowed himself to wallow so far in his own melancholy that he has not been clearly assessing Loki's situation. Times are no longer desperate for SHIELD and Midgard -- Loki might no longer be regarded as a necessary evil. There is little that could contain Loki at full power, Thor tells himself like a comfort, but doubt creeps in; Fury could simply tell Thor that Loki vanished after their interview, and until Thor found every cell and safehouse in SHIELD's possession, he would have no way of knowing the truth.

Thor goes back out onto the lawn, cold as it is, to clear his head.

Loki is there.

She is sitting with her back against a leafless tree, eyes slitted and head back as though dozing in summer sun, frowning slightly. Thor goes over to her, boots squeaking in the snow, but Loki does not open her eyes. "May I join you?" Thor asks.

Her expression is unyielding. "You'll be cold," she says.

It is neither a refusal outright, nor a refusal to engage, and so it is probably a trap. Thor sits.

"I do well enough," he says. "Coulson told me you were seeing Fury."

"For a dead man, he is very prone to telling tales," she quips back, clearly unable to resist. But she volunteers nothing more.

"What did Fury say to you?"

"Oh, he sounded me for weakness." Loki shrugs, still not opening her eyes, her head tipped back towards the winter sun. "He wished to know if I would continue to remain SHIELD's lapdog, or if I was seeking scraps elsewhere."

A small fire starts in Thor's belly, hot and cold at once; he cannot tell if it is fear or the beginning of anger. He leans forward to look Loki squarely in the face, for all that Loki is not looking at him, and does his best to keep his voice even. "It was no meager bargain Fury offered. He gave you amnesty in the face of so many dead by your hand, and outright freedom for information that should have only bought you a good word."

"Don't be petulant simply because I waited until my market price was good before selling myself. Though it is true, Director Fury was willing to sweep a great deal under the rug for me, and I am duly grateful." She says the last perfunctorily, as though it is a recitation.

"I am not being petulant," Thor says, nettled. "I am saying that I hope you understand what Fury has given you. This is not the first time you have refused amnesty despite no good alternative --"

Loki does crack an eye at this, and gives Thor a slow bitter smile. "Neither of Odin's alternatives were good."

In a flash Thor loses the thread; he forgets that he is trying to discover, without bowing to Loki's mercurially dark mood, whether she did decide to keep her allegiance with SHIELD now the war is done; he forgets everything but the frustrated anger he felt when Loki made the bargain with Fury. "In one you lived," he says, voice breaking. "We could have faced the Chitauri down on Asgard -- They would not even have come to Earth if we had held them there --"

"You are equally to blame for them following us here," Loki says, with infuriating calm. "It was you who insisted we come. I was perfectly willing to try my luck with the Chitauri."

"Why?" Thor demands, voice rising. "You were terrified of them, that is plain enough! I cannot understand why you throw yourself headlong at death -- why you would reject Father's terms and take Fury's when they are materially the same --"

"They are not," Loki says, quiet and cold. She rises in a rustle of snow, and stands back from Thor. "Fury asked no oath of fealty. He does not offer mercy conditional upon some pretense of love."

"That is not what Father --" Thor protests, and trips over the words halfway, struck by a horrifying thought. He comes quickly to his feet, not missing the way Loki takes another step back. "Loki. You know I make no such condition."

Loki goes very pale. "A pretty lie."

Thor can hardly breathe. "What did you tell Fury?"

"Fear not, Thor," Loki says, poisonously gentle, "I will not ruin this world. It would be poor sport indeed, now. You need not fret, nor make false assurances."

"I am not --" Thor tries, and Loki's face twists.

"Thor," she says. "Do not try me."

Thor stares at her, inarticulate with fear and frustration, as uncertain now of how to reach Loki as he was a lifetime ago in Loki's locked room on Asgard. The whole shape of the worlds has changed around them, and Thor is no longer such a fool that he would tell Loki that he wants his brother back. But they are at as much of an impasse as ever they were, if they can still anger one another so easily, if I love you spills over Thor's tongue and Loki brushes it aside as meaningless.

*

Thor lies very still in bed, a cold knot in his chest; he has been there for some time, but he cannot sleep. The fight with Loki seems to have kicked his mind back into activity, and now it will not stop clamoring with possibilities, each less comforting than the last.

It is a surprise, then, when he feels the mattress dip, and Loki slides into bed next to him. It has become their habit to sleep thus, but Thor did not expect it tonight. He rolls over to see Loki settling down, arms wrapped pointedly around a pillow. He does not look at Thor, and Thor makes no move to touch him, but nevertheless his mood lightens enough that he is able to quiet his mind and sleep.

He wakes again when Loki does, rising from a light doze when Loki stirs. Thor feels a moment of sleepy surprise: to his recollection he has never seen Loki in her woman's form while in bed with him, yet here she is, sitting up sharply. She sees Thor looking at her, and says, very pale, "Excuse me," before rising from the bed and leaving so quickly that Thor has no time to do anything but blink after her. Thor wonders whether he should go after her; indeed, he wonders whether it is past time for him to reassure Loki that she can look however she desires and it will be no great matter to him. But this is obviously not the time, with yesterday's fight still fresh in Thor's mind. Instead, he dresses and pads downstairs to breakfast.

Bruce is already in the kitchen, fighting with a waffle maker. "Morning," he says in Thor's direction. "There's coffee."

"Thank you." Thor pours himself a cup, adding a great deal of sugar. "Would you like any help?"

"No, I was able to drag Tony away from the suits last night, and I didn't see Steve watching infomercials at three in the morning, so I assume he got some sleep, and Tasha was actually smiling yesterday, so --" Bruce stops and smiles ruefully. "You meant with the waffle maker."

"With any of it," Thor says, meaning it despite his lingering exhaustion. "As well as I can."

"Can what?" Clint asks, strolling in and yawning enormously. "Ooh, coffee."

By the time Bruce has triumphed over the waffle maker, Steve, Natasha, and Pepper have wandered in as well. They eat in companionable silence, until Steve sets his knife aside and says, "Okay, we really have to get back out there."

"In what sense?" Clint asks. "Like, go fight more things, or ...?"

"No," Steve says. "Not yet, anyway -- I think the whole world's recovering, right now." He shrugs. "I just mean, we should go talk to the press soon. Reassure folks that we're still here."

"Are we?" Natasha asks quietly.

"Yes!" Steve says at once. Then he looks around at the others uncertainly. "Right?"

"Yes," Thor says firmly. "We would be poor defenders of the realm otherwise. But the Chitauri are only recently gone; give Midgard another week to breathe before we reappear. They should have time to mourn and rebuild before they feel any obligation to celebrate us or show gratitude."

"I like that," Pepper says. "Let them speculate, Steve. Breathing room is a good idea."

"Fine." Steve accepts the syrup from Clint. "A week, and then we really need to start talking again."

*

Loki does not reappear all that day. It begins snowing again, in lazy drifting flakes. They build another fire in their favorite common space. Bruce does work on a tablet while Tony and Pepper discuss finances next to him on the couch; Steve makes a decently-successful attempt to engage Natasha in a discussion of how they'll handle the press in the coming weeks; Thor plays several rounds of Mario Kart with Clint.

"Y'know," Clint says, careening his digital car around several hairpin turns, "we can't let Steve just plan things at Tasha all week. Someone will get seriously injured."

Thor spares them a quick glance. Steve looks very earnest, Natasha quietly calm in a way that means she is being, for the moment, patient. "How is Natasha holding up?" Thor asks quietly.

Clint shrugs. "She'll be okay," he says. "I mean, she's never had to fight an alien army before, but she's ... dealt with stuff. Give her time, let her do her thing, and eventually she'll come back." He takes a corner too fast and swears, mashing at the buttons. "Thing is," he says, very low, "this -- all of this, the fucking war -- it feels like we're back where we started. That's the point of being a hero, right? You make the world better. And here we are, back at square one. Below square one. And I'm trying to tell myself, at least we're still alive, we could do it again, but ..."

"We have just been through a war," Thor says, the same steady rote reminder he's been telling himself.

"Yeah, well." Clint looks back over at Steve and Natasha. "Maybe we should ask Steve how he coped." He snorts. "Then again, it's Steve I'm most worried about. I think he copes by doing everything right away. He's not going to be happy about this lying low thing; he's the most irritatingly proactive guy I've ever met."

"Then we shall have to distract him," Thor says. "We used to spar. I think I should like to do that again." He means this too, he discovers with a bloom of relief; the dragging grayness he feels does not stop him from wishing happiness for all of them. Perhaps the theory that if he goes through the motions long enough they will become true is no poor theory after all. "Tony must have fitted this place out with some sort of gym. What say you? Should we drag Steve there tomorrow?"

"Good plan," Clint says, and zooms across the finish line. "Best two out of three?"

Thor accepts this challenge cheerfully, and they play through much of the rest of the afternoon. When the afternoon turns to evening and Thor realizes that everyone is equally focused on their own quiet tasks, he firmly shepherds them back into the kitchen for dinner. He still feels tired, and strange, but at least he knows how to do this, and watching everyone eat together brings him comfort.

He sets aside some food for Loki, but he does not really expect Loki to appear. Indeed, when he heads up to bed he finds Loki already there, curled up with his back to the center of the bed, already deeply asleep. Thor examines Loki's pale face, marred by a faint frown, and suppresses the urge to kiss Loki's brow. He climbs into bed beside Loki, careful not to jostle his brother or wake him, and falls asleep worrying.

Then Thor is in his mother's chambers.

He has a moment of deep confusion. It is evening, the room lit by braziers and the fire in the hearth. Frigga sits before it with her back to Thor, weaving as is her wont before she sleeps; and for just a breath everything that has happened since Thor was last here falls away from him, though his burdens feel no lighter.

"Mother," Thor says.

Frigga turns. "Thor," she says. "Come sit by me."

Thor walks across the dream and kneels by her chair. "Why now?" he asks. "I have heard nothing in months. I feared the worst for Asgard." He looks at her closely, at her familiar face, calm and composed and wry as ever. "Are you well?"

She reaches out to touch the top of his head for a moment, gently. "The war is long since over, here," she says, "and the Bifrost near rebuilt. Thor. I am sorry to have frightened you. Would it give you reassurance to hear what happened?"

"Please," Thor says. This is the blessing of a dream-visit: he knows the inexpressible relief and joy of seeing Frigga again, his fear and anger at having been cut off from Asgard for so long; but she knows these things, too, feeling them with him, and there is no need for rages or tears.

"Your father was ... not pleased with us." Frigga smiles at Thor, and he cannot help grinning back, for all that the words land heavy in his heart. "But it was my motherly tenderness that led me to rescue my child, of course, just as it was Odin's kingly duty to deal with Loki so; and it was your duty to finish what you had begun in Midgard, the realm you swore to protect." She draws a hand briefly across Thor's jaw like a comfort. "No one will accuse you of abandoning Asgard in time of need, I promise you."

"That is good," Thor whispers. "No such leniency for Loki, I take it."

"That remains to be seen," Frigga says. "Loki too defended Midgard, when he might easily have fled. But if Loki chooses to come back, we shall deal with it then." She shrugs lightly. "In any case, we were in no worse position without Loki. Thanos sent his emissary, who made the empty threats that all do who pretend to power. They desired only the Tesseract, so Odin gave it in force, leading a battle beyond the edge of the world. Before any great loss to either side, they vanished."

"Thanos knew he couldn't outstrip the might of Asgard," Thor says, low. "He desired leverage. Asgard's crown prince would do well."

"So we thought," Frigga agreed. "But you could be captured, or gain victory, just as well here or on Midgard; and since Midgard was where you wished to make your stand, we did not want to bring you home, either to hide you from Thanos or to leave Earth to the mercy of the Chitauri, or Loki."

Thor frowns. He knows that Asgard did not plot to use him as bait so that the war would happen on another world, far from the doorstep of the Realm Eternal; but it sits ill with him nonetheless. Still, he brushes it aside. "I am glad you are all well, then. But why was I given no warning? I could have helped Midgard make preparations; they were not prepared for a full war from outside their world."

For the first time, Frigga looks uneasy. "Were I your father, I would say we were allowing you to prove your mettle, and your right to defend the other realms, which will serve you well when you are king," she says. "That may be so, but it was far simpler than that: I did not know what to say to you."

"'Beware, the Chitauri are coming for you'?" Thor suggests, and belatedly remembers that this is the Allmother he is talking to; now is not the time to exercise the worse habits he has acquired from Tony Stark.

"Thor." Frigga looks as though she cannot decide whether to laugh at him or to yell. "The moment I left you on Midgard, I asked Heimdall to watch for you when he could, and to tell me how you fared."

Icy cold floods Thor. "Oh," he says.

Of course. He was far too concerned for Asgard to realize what else this audience with his mother would mean; but Frigga rarely misses anything, and Thor is a fool to have thought she would not keep an eye on him, or that any of the worst things he has done will have escaped her attention.

"Yes," Frigga says grimly. "Oh. It is fortunate that I decided to speak with Loki first, or I would not be so gentle with you."

"Last night," Thor says; Loki's abrupt departure that morning is perfectly clear, now.

"I thought to wait until I could think what to say to you." Frigga does not look angry, after all, Thor realizes, but only very unhappy. With unthinking anxiousness, Thor reaches further into his awareness of her, and can feel anger there, banked, deep and controlled and covered by concern; his mind jerks back from it as though from hot metal. "Heimdall told me of your quarrel," Frigga says. "I could not stand to see you go through a war without aid, and not visit you now."

"What did Heimdall tell you?" Thor asks. He knows he should be saying something reassuring, but he hasn't the least notion what that is; and for all that Frigga is not chastising him, he is still afraid. "Does Father know?"

"No one but Heimdall and myself," Frigga says, "and Heimdall can keep a secret for an age and more if he must. So here we are, and I confess I still do not know what to say. Thor, your little brother."

As cold as he was a moment before, Thor now flushes painfully. "I know," he says, and swallows. "Shall I say I am sorry? I know it was foolish, I know it means I -- I am broken somehow, and I will accept your disappointment, Mother, and your disgust. All I can tell you is that I love him."

"Oh, Thor," Frigga breathes, and draws him to her. Thor allows it, baffled and still utterly ashamed. "I cannot tell you I like it, or condone it in the least," Frigga says softly, "but I would be a hypocrite indeed if I cast you aside for this, after holding Loki dear still with all that he has done." She draws back to look at Thor seriously, and Thor makes himself meet her eyes. "I will not tell you that you must stop this," she says, "when Loki has made clear that it is his doing at least as much as yours, and you have both always been stubborn children. But Thor, I must ask you to think about what you are doing. You say you love Loki, and I don't doubt it; I would not doubt it no matter what you chose to do with one another. But love to you is a strength. It is not so for Loki."

"I know," Thor says, on a shuddering breath.

"He believes it must be earned and fought for; a bitter word." Frigga smiles sadly. "Do not use it like a reassurance to someone who thinks love is a weakness with a terrible price."

Thor swallows hard, nodding. "Mother," he says, very low, "thank you for this, for -- for everything, and most of all for not casting us aside."

"Oh Thor," she says, drawing him into another embrace, "never that."

She slips gently from his grasp. Thor's eyes open to dawn light in the mansion, and to Loki's fingertips brushing his on top of the coverlet. Thor takes his hand, and Loki turns to face him readily, taking an end of Thor’s hair between his fingertips and playing with it as Thor strokes a hand down his side. Even in the dim light, Thor can see that Loki's face is drawn, from too little sleep or from tears. Thor places a kiss on Loki’s forehead.

"Was she angry with you?" Thor asks, after a silence.

Loki's face tightens, though he still focuses resolutely on the lock of hair. "She was so sad," he says softly. "Like she'd failed, or like she couldn't be brave anymore. I've never seen her look like that before." His voice goes rough and strangled, but he pushes through it. "She told me I'd grown into a beautiful woman, and that she was glad for the chance to say so."

Thor pulls him close, wordlessly. There is more, the tension of things unspoken in the way Loki breathes, but it stays roiling under his skin. Instead, Loki laughs soundlessly. "How did a mother like her come to be cursed with such awful children?"

Thor feels his own tension ride out on his laughter. "Perhaps the worst children need the best mothers."

"A sage, at this hour?" But Loki rests his head against Thor's collarbone, under Thor's chin. "I regret hurting her more than anything else in this mess -- failing her, and making her attend my rites." There is the barest pause, more feigned nonchalance. "And you as well, I suppose."

Thor cannot breathe.

"You are here now," he says, finally, when he can do anything other than fight back his own tears. "That is everything, Loki."

They lie in silence, Loki tracing idle patterns across Thor's ribs. Thor is not sure how much bare honesty he can stand. His mind latches almost gratefully to the horror of knowing, knowing, that Heimdall could be watching them, and he huffs a laugh, a little hysterical. Loki tilts his head up questioningly.

"Mother," Thor says by way of explanation, and then, actually laughing, with a mixture of horror and honest mirth, "knows everything," and Loki laughs too, a horrified giggle, and kisses Thor, kisses him, tangling together in the sheets because they do not fear discovery now.

*

When Thor and Clint approach Steve about taking up sparring again, Steve agrees enthusiastically. They spend most of the afternoon in the mansion's gym, less well-appointed than the one in the Tower, but still quite suitable for their purposes. By the time they tramp up to dinner, sweaty and grinning, Thor feels sore in a way he hasn't since before the war, well-worked but not tired, smiling easily.

"We are definitely doing that again tomorrow," Clint says.

Natasha is already in the kitchen when they arrive, perched on a stool with a salad and a SHIELD dossier. She gives them a brief smile but makes no effort to engage when the three of them settle in with dinner, talking and laughing about nothing at all of consequence. Bruce turns up when Thor is raiding the fridge for ice cream. "Can I join you?" Bruce asks; and when he sits down with them, he says, "I, uh, usually I'd use the texting system, but I didn't want to worry anyone, and I suspect Tony would find out very fast if I sent a code yellow to everyone but him."

Steve leans forward. "Code yellow?"

Bruce shrugs, half waving it away. "I don't really ... ask for help," he says.

"But," Clint adds, deadpan, and Bruce smiles.

"But," he says, "Tony and Pepper are running themselves into the ground. Tony's trying to come up with solutions to Pepper's resource shortages, but there's only so much he can do all at once, and half the time all he wants to do is stay in the lab making bizarre new modifications to the Iron Man suit -- he keeps saying he's going to get it better next time." Bruce nods at their collective wince. "Pepper's running herself into the ground; and both of them hate that they don't have the time for each other. I don't ... really have any good idea what to do except be there for them, but frankly I think I'll do better if I take a break."

"If we can find another way to keep Tony busy without having him hole up obsessing over the suits," Steve says, "that should help. And you can take as much time to yourself as you like."

Accordingly, the next morning when they have all come to breakfast at more or less the same time, Steve invites Natasha to spar with them. "Only if Tony comes too," Natasha says, and when Tony starts to protest, adds, "What if you get caught somewhere unsafe without a suit nearby? And don't tell me about those sensors you put into your forearm, not unless you're also about to tell me how useful the suits are when they crash-land around you in pieces."

"Fine, fine," Tony says. "Bruce?"

"I'll watch," Bruce says, smiling. "Don't be offended if I take a nap. The sound of you being hit is very soothing."

"Um," Steve says. "Thor, do you know if ... Loki maybe wants to come too?"

Loki is still making himself scarce, though things have been easier between them the past few days. Thor shrugs. "You could leave him a note." But Loki does not appear; perhaps he does not regard a note from Steve as a good-faith gesture.

That day's sparring session goes well regardless; and the next one; and the next, the activity providing enough distraction that no one worries too much over the future. Steve does fall into being team leader, encouraging them to better forms and pointing out weak spots when they spar, but everyone rolls their eyes fondly, and they mostly take his advice, and make no move to stop him.

On one afternoon a few days into this routine, though, Steve is strangely quiet. He still spars well enough, but he seems distracted, and Thor at least goes easier on him for it. When they are done they all gather for dinner and, over his plate of lasagna, Steve suddenly looks up and says, "Tony."

"Present!" Tony says.

"The Tower," Steve says. "That was all run on arc reactor technology, right? Energy efficient, sustainable, incredibly cost effective?"

"All of the above, yes."

"So do it again," Steve says. "Not the Tower, I mean. Well, you do still own the property, rebuild the Tower if you want, but ... we've only got three floors here, and we do have everything we need. It's still big enough for the eight of us. But why not rebuild the Tower as housing? We have displaced refugees and people who need work; you have a big Manhattan property and the best blueprint for actually affordable housing I can think of."

Tony is staring at Steve across the table. "I have no idea if you're crazy or a genius."

"Sounds worth a try to me," Bruce says.

"I'll ... check in with Pepper," Tony says, but he's already beginning to look excited. "I have no idea if that would work. That would be -- a real challenge. Okay."

"I'm working on the rest of it, too," Steve adds, looking immensely pleased. "Once we go back out and start talking to the press, I can talk about volunteer efforts, getting supplies distributed to refugees, you name it. I was good at selling war bonds; I think I can sell this."

"Cap," Tony says, with such sarcasm that they can all tell he is entirely sincere, "you're a hero."

By mutual agreement it is movie night, and Steve's turn to pick. "Screwball," he says decidedly, so they spend an enjoyable hour and a half watching Bringing Up Baby. Loki pads quietly in partway through, and settles on the arm of Thor's chair, watching with mild curiosity, and even laughing at some of Susan's more absurd antics with her pet leopard.

She vanishes before the film is quite over, though; and the others leave soon after, Bruce throwing Steve a grateful smile as they go. Steve and Thor stay sitting for some time, content to watch the credits roll. "Thor," Steve says.

"Yes?" Thor says absently.

"Thanks for suggesting the sparring," Steve says. "I think we all needed the jumpstart." Thor looks over at Steve. He cannot pinpoint what, but something in the quality of Steve's speech makes Thor suspect that this is not the point at which Steve is aiming; so he nods, and waits. Steve stares down at his hands. "And I think maybe I owe you an apology," he says. "I've made decent decisions most of the time, I think, but then I haven't had to make too many hard ones -- and for the hardest one, well, I wasn't really around to see the outcome, how it affected everyone else. Meanwhile, here you all are, and maybe you all have some things to make up for, but I see the way you're trying, and making the world a better place, and I think ... maybe I need to step back a little, sometimes. Go easier on Tony, for one thing." He gives Thor a rueful sideways smile.

"It is a difficult thing to learn," Thor agrees quietly, "but I still see nothing that needs an apology."

"Well." Steve takes a deep breath, squaring his shoulders. "Loki, for a start. I don't mean I want to hug and be best friends, but he -- he came back for me and Natasha when he didn't have to, and it's thanks to him I'm not in the ice again. I won't say I judged him too harshly, given that he was leading the Chitauri army the first time, but I think it's worth saying I was wrong to be so angry with you. You see something in Loki that I couldn't."

Thor ducks his head. "Given what we both knew at the time, I still believe there is nothing to forgive. But thank you; I am heartened to hear that you think better of Loki now."

"Honestly," Steve says, "I'm just happy that your taste isn't as terrible as I thought. Though the, uh, brother thing is still weird." Thor begins to blush, but Steve adds thoughtfully, "On the other hand, I was around my best friend growing up since I was really little -- we were a bit like brothers, and I sometimes ... Okay, I can ... get my head around it, sort of."

Thor laughs. "I hardly can."

Steve smiles wryly and stands, hunting for the remote. He finds it under the couch cushion and shuts off the movie. Into the silence, he says, "I froze up. On Thanos' ship." He looks over at Thor, who is sitting up straight, pulled up by the quiet seriousness in Steve's voice. "It reminded me of ... last time. Natasha could have gotten out in plenty of time, but she stayed with me, and then there were too many Chitauri trying to get to their escape pods, and the ship was crashing, and I -- I realized how much I like it here. And at the last second Loki appeared, and I --" He huffs a laugh. "I've never been so happy to see anyone in my life."

"You owe me nothing for that," Thor says, low. "But if you have not thanked Loki for it ... I never gave him the credit in battle I should have, when we were boys. Tell him."

"Yeah." Steve busies himself putting away the DVD. Thor watches him do it, wondering whether he should follow the conversation further. Steve has just confessed to freezing up at a critical moment, and Thor is not sure whether he should try to say something reassuring, or indeed what he could say, having never done the like.

Across the room, Steve takes a deep breath. His shoulders relax. He turns to Thor. "There's another thing, too," he says.

"Please." Thor touches the couch next to him. Steve takes the invitation and sits down again, closer to Thor this time. Thor waits him out.

"It's funny," Steve says. "I thought ... When I woke up, and everyone I knew was old or dead and the war had been over for ages, it made sense, how guilty I felt. But I'm feeling it now, too." He looks over at Thor. "I keep thinking, why did I live when plenty of good people died? I've had so many second chances -- I got through every childhood illness, I survived the serum, I survived the ice, I survived all this; I survived when it would've been my fault if Natasha hadn't made it. I don't know how even Captain America makes up for all that. I don't know how I live up to that."

Thor has no words of consolation, but he understands the feeling vividly. He remembers, too, Clint saying that it feels as though they are back below square one; and he says, "I can only speak for myself, but I believe we may all be feeling thus, if not all of us to the same degree. I have no solution. But we do have each other; and we are doing good again, or we will, if your plan for Tony and Pepper's rebuilding should work."

Steve nods, but he does not look much consoled, so Thor adds, "It has been a week now, more or less, and at the very least we do not have to skulk here forever." Steve does brighten at that, shoulders straightening, giving Thor a dawning look of hope, so Thor smiles and says, "Good. Let us consider how to bring the Avengers back into the world."

*

"Ice skating," Tony says, blankly.

"Yeah." Steve glances over at Thor. "We remembered that we'd talked last summer about going to Rockefeller Center when it got cold, and, well, it's winter now, and the rink's back open, so ..."

"You want the Avengers' first public appearance to be us ice skating?" Tony looks around the table. Natasha is unsuccessfully hiding a smirk behind the pretense of eating oatmeal, Clint is openly snickering into his cereal, and Bruce is watching Tony with a look of amused commiseration. "Okay," Tony says. "Hands up if you actually know how to ice skate."

Natasha's hand goes up. Steve's does too, with less certainty, and Thor shrugs.

"You want the paparazzi to take pictures of us falling over," Tony says, deadpan. "I can see the headline now! Earth's Mightiest Heroes: They Defeated An Alien Warlord But They Fall Down Doing Simple Tasks." He thinks about this. "Or something catchier. The point is, I can turn one of the tennis courts into a rink or something. We don't have to go outside with this."

"Seriously?" Steve shakes his head. "Tony, let them take pictures of us tripping over our skates and laughing. Earth's Mightiest Heroes being normal people. Look me in the eye and tell me you think that's bad press."

"Fine," Tony says, "fine."

As Thor half-suspected, Tony's reluctance has less to do with wanting to shield the Avengers from looking foolish, and more to do with the fact that he cannot skate at all. They arrive at the rink early on a weekday morning to avoid a crush; none of them having made much effort to conceal themselves, they receive some double-takes from the morning skaters. It is probably Loki who is drawing much of the attention, at least to begin with: unlike the others, he is hardly bundled up at all, wearing but a light jacket, and that mostly for the sake of appearance.

When they get out on the rink in their rented skates, Thor at first has to focus on what he is doing. Though he engaged in many a childhood race across a frozen pond, he was not at his full height then, and it takes him a short while to find his balance, and to move with enough confidence that he can do more than watch the ice just before him. When he has, however, the sight is well worth it: Steve is skating along well enough, though with no particular grace; he is in conversation with Bruce, who is doing just as well. Natasha has Clint's arm, and is doing an astonishingly good job of more or less pulling him along, skating well enough for both of them.

Loki glides past Thor backwards, each movement such pure grace that Thor deeply suspects him of cheating. "Look at Stark," Loki says, before whirling and taking off across the rink.

Tony is holding on to the railing at the edge of the rink, shuffling along and looking mutinous. Thor goes over to him. "No one has yelled Avengers yet," he says. "I don't think you have anything to fear."

"This is all your fault," Tony says, but he grins up at Thor. "Hey. Help me get away from this deathtrap, I'll buy you some hot chocolate."

The other skaters do begin to take cell phone pictures of them, and by the time everyone has tired of the ice but Steve and Natasha -- who are still skating a circuit and chatting -- reporters are beginning to crowd out on the street. Loki peers at them distastefully over his cocoa. "They are worse than the courtiers on Asgard," he says. "I would not have imagined it possible."

"Clearly you've never been to a Board of Directors meeting," Tony says, clapping him on the back, and ignoring the indignantly baffled look Loki gives him.

"Oh, there he goes," Clint says, watching Steve make a beeline off the rink, heading for the reporters. "Captain America, reporting for duty."

And indeed, the evening news, first on the local channels, then on the national ones, shows photos and cell phone footage of the Avengers at the rink, followed by Steve's earnest face, pink-cheeked with cold, telling the cameras that the Avengers are back on call if the world needs them. He moves on to talk about more serious rebuilding efforts, the help Pepper needs and the help they should all give. "There you have it, folks," one reporter says, "Cap is back."

All of which is true enough, and played exactly as Steve hoped. But the satisfaction Thor feels has less to do with Steve's success, and more to do with the warmth in his chest when the news replays footage of Loki skating in loops around the others, briefly racing with Natasha, exchanging words with Bruce; Thor watches it and feels nothing but happiness.

*

He finds Loki up in their room, examining his spear with great concentration, though when he sees Thor in the doorway he sets it aside. "All went as Rogers hoped?"

"Yes." Thor looks closely at Loki's face. There is more of the brother he remembers there, now, though he is not sure what to make of it. The Loki he has known these past months, all vicious edges, is at least in some measure honest; a Loki who is still and calm but for flashes of dry wit reminds Thor of nothing so much as the time just before his interrupted coronation, and he is not sure he likes that better. Perhaps it only means that Loki has found some measure of peace here. "I think I should say," Thor ventures, "that you are welcome here. That you -- you need not have any particular understanding with Fury; I do not think the Avengers will mind your presence, so long as you do not cross them."

Loki stares at him in long silence. Thor realizes that he was wrong: the sharp edges are still there after all, in the light in Loki's eyes, in the way he holds himself. "You say this like a certainty."

"They are good people," Thor says, before understanding Loki's meaning. "And you have done much for this world; I don't believe you would turn away from that on a whim."

Loki's face shutters. "Your faith in me is either unshakable or terribly resilient," he says, toying with the edge of the coverlet, "and I am never sure which it is."

"It is not faith," Thor says, "but knowledge of your actions." His heart is beginning to pound too hard. He has the sudden irrational feeling that, if only he can find the right words, they might stop this endless circling and come to some real understanding. "You pulled Steve and Natasha from a falling ship --"

"I dropped you, in a falling cage."

"You persuaded Thanos to leave Midgard!" Thor knows the lie even as he says it.

"I led his army here, first; and technically, I advised him to stay." Loki rises with a sigh. "This is pointless. Every piece of evidence you would dredge up to showcase my apparent redemption is outweighed by some past offence, or undoubtedly will be by some future one. You make claims and promises without thinking." Loki smiles, crooked and spiteful. "I realize it is your life's habit to defend me, but it has led to treason for both you and Mother, to the betrayal of trust on the part of many of your friends and current benefactors, to the near-death of your king, and to the attack of three of the Nine Realms."

"You speak," growls Thor, fists clenching unwillingly, and no, no, he doesn't want this fight, "as though Mother or I could think of no plan for you, as though no one but you could see how matters truly stand --"

"Everyone has made a plan for me," Loki yells, eyes flashing. "None have succeeded. Admit that yours has failed, Thor. You've got all you will have from me, though it is by no means little." He takes a sharp breath, composing himself. "You are so accustomed to winning that you would lose everything before you cut your losses."

"That is not --" Thor snaps. "I do not know what you must think of me, if you believe I would give up on you after all we've been through."

Loki's laugh is wild. "What option were you considering to fix your present dilemma, proclaiming me your consort?" Loki's tone is sardonic, for all that it is by now mostly a snarl. "If the king of Asgard cannot afford to keep his traitorous son from the jaws of an encroaching army, you certainly can't afford to be fucking your brother." He takes a deep steadying breath and continues, softer. "At the very least, you were able to taste something twisted with utter impunity. I would consider that a victory."

Thor stares at him, anger falling away under sheer surprise. "Why do you still speak so?" he asks. "In one breath you call yourself my brother and then brush it aside as though that has no meaning. I -- I am not fucking you, Loki, for any easy thrill." He sees the rising skepticism on Loki's face. "Nor is it to humor you," Thor snaps, "nor because I am such a fool still that I believe it is the way to reach you --"

"Then why?" Loki asks, genuinely curious.

"Because I love you," Thor says, voice cracking, hating that this of all things Loki cannot grasp. "Because you are my brother."

Loki's face shifts. For a moment Thor thinks that Loki still disbelieves him; then he sees that Loki is beginning to smile, slow and delighted. "Oh," Loki breathes. "Thor. I should like to be very clear. When you call me brother, it is not a reminder of what you think I should be, but an invocation of what you want?"

The familiar flush is rising to Thor's face. "I would have thought it obvious," he manages.

"Perhaps it should have been," Loki murmurs. He takes a step closer, and another, with predatory focus. "If I'd known there was such a simple way to destroy your honor, I might have done it before your botched coronation. But there I was, holding out, trying to be good." He reaches Thor, standing inside his space without quite touching, and says softly, "Trying not to be pitiful in the face of your perfection."

Thor can hardly breathe. Loki is regarding him with open delight, and that -- that is not how this is supposed to go. Wanting his brother is the most shameful thing Thor knows; he is under no illusions that the Avengers would be horrified anew if they understood; Thor horrifies himself still. Yet here Loki is, knowing exactly how filthy and dishonorable it is, and looking at Thor as though Thor has given him a gift. Thor's throat sticks with sudden tears of baffled relief. He makes himself meet Loki's eyes.

Loki smiles, slow and sweet. "Kneel," he whispers.

Thor's legs buckle without thought. He goes hard to his knees. It hurts, and he takes in the spreading ache of it, because he cannot take in the look on Loki's face. Then Loki grabs his hair and pulls sharply, jerking Thor's chin up, and gives Thor a satisfied smile. Thor flushes again, wants to snarl at Loki, wants to regain any equilibrium, wants to stay exactly like this, held tremblingly in place by that inexpressible relief.

Loki considers Thor for a moment, cocking his head to one side like a hunter's falcon. "I will not gloat over a lie, and claim that you are no purer than I," he says. "You are not capable of what I am. But perhaps you are not unteachable. Let me lead you down this road, brother," and here he stops to savor Thor's shudder, "as far as you will go."

Thor's whole skin feels afire; the tangle of arousal and shame is familiar, though he has not felt it so powerfully in ages, and never before with Loki taking it in with such hungry enjoyment.

"So," Loki says softly. "How far will it be, Thor? I know you like hurting me; do you like being hurt in return? Would you like me to strike you?" He traces the fingers of his free hand across Thor's face, and Thor flinches involuntarily, not a refusal but an instinctive reaction. Loki tugs Thor's head back and says, thoughtful, "I know you like being fucked, if your eager behavior before was any indication. Would you like me to hold you down while I do it to you?" He is watching Thor carefully, but not as though he thinks any of these things are questions; he says it all with such casual assurance that Thor is beginning to feel dizzy. "Would you like to be bound with my spells," Loki asks, "and have pleasure dripped slow and molten hot straight into your veins?"

"You're not doing that already?" Thor gasps, only half in jest.

Loki laughs. "No," he says, "it would feel a little more like this," and spreading from Loki's hands comes impossible heat. It pours through Thor, stealing his breath, rolling his eyes up in his head; he is so hard it hurts, deliciously, and he sags, Loki's grip the only thing holding him upright. "Not bad," Loki murmurs. "Everyone else I've tried that trick on would be screaming by now."

"I am not," Thor says faintly, "anyone else." He sounds drunk to his own ears.

"No you are not," Loki agrees, and when Thor forces his eyes open Loki is giving him a look of great fondness. "It would be cruel to challenge you in such a state."

"No," Thor says. He sets his hands on Loki's hips. He can feel every fiber of the fabric of Loki's trousers. "No, Loki, this is perfect."

If he were not touching Loki he might not have felt the way Loki goes very still, for just a moment. "Is it," Loki says, and without further warning he backhands Thor, a vicious cracking blow that whips Thor's face sideways. Thor gasps, shocked; the pain is much greater than he would have expected, blinding for a moment, and then so good Thor is shaking. He slumps forward against Loki, leaning his forehead against his brother's belly to stay upright.

"Good brother," Loki murmurs, hand now carding gently through Thor's hair, and Thor cannot help moaning, pressing his burning face against Loki's shirt. "Can you do this, Thor?"

Thor nods, and moves easily when Loki wraps his fingers in Thor's hair again and pulls him back to his knees. Loki presses the fingertips of his free hand to the rising mark on Thor's face, and Thor leans into the pressure, shuddering. Then Loki stops, and Thor has only a second to dazedly wonder why before Loki hits him again, another cracking blow across the same spot. Thor does cry out this time, unable to help it, and when Loki kneads the pain in again with his fingertips, Thor is shaking so hard it feels entirely outside his control.

Loki hits him again, and it is a little different now: Thor sinks into the feel of it, less shock than necessity. He rubs up against Loki's hand, shivering, soft noises escaping his throat.

"So eager," Loki murmurs, sounding fascinated; "taking punishment so well, brother. But then you have always been very brave. You could fight back whenever you wanted; but you wouldn't. You would never hurt your little brother unless I asked you." Loki's nails dig into Thor's cheek, sudden and sharp. Thor moans and does not even make any pretense of trying to get away. "I wonder," says Loki, "would you if I commanded it? Thor, the damage I could do with you as my weapon. Then again," and Loki shoves Thor a little, watching him sway, "I doubt you could even stand if I asked it of you."

Thor cannot argue with that; he cannot even blame Loki's magic, anymore, though he can still feel it in every throbbing heartbeat, though he is so heavy with arousal that he feels he is going a little mad. "Loki," he says. It comes out like a moan. "If you asked I would try."

Loki laughs with soft astonishment. "I have no doubt. But this is easier."

He snaps his fingers. Thor feels his legs raise him up, though he is still much too shaky for standing. The sensation is peculiar but not alarming, and certainly expedient; in a few steps he is at the bed, and then sprawled over it on his belly, Loki's magic no longer holding him up. It takes him a moment to realize that his clothing is also gone; then cool air is against his skin, and Thor presses the untouched side of his face hard against the bedclothes, trying to anchor himself.

"Now," Loki says. He slides his hands thoughtfully over the planes of Thor's back, and Thor arches into it, so far gone that he has no wish to conceal how much he wants Loki to touch him. "I could flog you," Loki says, quite composed, "and see how long it takes before you faint; but the point is not to test your mettle. You, dear prince, are simply indulging a filthy habit with your little brother." He laughs, soft and satisfied, at Thor's shudder. "The most you deserve is a belt, or a switching."

Thor feels Loki get in close behind him, still fully clothed, nudging the bulge in his trousers against Thor's bare ass. "Guess which I prefer," Loki says, already beginning to take off his belt, letting Thor feel what's coming.

Thor realizes that Loki is making no move to hold him there. He feels a thrill of shame, somehow, still having reserves despite feeling so much already -- because he knows he's not going move. He is going to lie there, and he is going to take it.

Loki strokes up Thor's back again with possessive admiration, then steps away and says, "Ready yourself."

How? Thor thinks, and nearly opens his mouth to say it with every ounce of sarcasm he still possesses, when the first blow hits. Thor gasps, jerking against it and clutching at the covers. He half-expects Loki to do what he did before -- a blow, rubbing the hurt in, another -- but before Thor even has time to recover Loki hits him again, and again, raining blows down on Thor, cracking his belt like a whip. Thor tries to breathe through it. He wonders, a strange passing thought, whether Loki would stop if he asked; and the thought that he might not makes Thor dizzy with something that is not entirely fear.

Then Loki stops. Thor gasps into the bedclothes, and keens when Loki traces the rising marks with his fingertips. Loki is not even pressing in on them; and it is that, or perhaps the same perversity that causes Loki to speak when he should not, that makes Thor say, unthinkingly, "Is that all?"

Loki laughs, sharp. "Asking for it, aren't you," he says, and Thor does not even have time to tense up before Loki cracks a blow right across his ass. Thor cries out, mostly from surprise; but Loki, evidently sufficiently provoked, does not return to Thor's back. The next series of strikes is all over Thor's thighs, the end of the belt lashing around the sides of Thor's legs. Thor flinches away with breathless fear, but he has no desire to protest.

When Loki stops this time, it is to touch the rising welts on the insides of Thor's thighs with fingertips that leave traces of ice behind. Thor shivers and whimpers and involuntarily spreads his legs.

"You are -- lovely, brother," Loki murmurs. "Can you take it still?"

"Yes," Thor says, swallowing, "please."

"Oh, very good," Loki says, laughing, and does it again, raining blows all over Thor's back and ass and legs. Thor sinks into it, moaning raggedly into the covers; he is beginning to feel as though he is floating. When Loki stops again, he makes an inarticulate noise of protest, and Loki draws in a sharp breath. "I had not known," Loki says, running a hand soothingly over Thor's back, "that you would be so incorrigible. Perhaps I should have flogged you after all." He strokes damp hair back from Thor's face. "Next time, perhaps."

"I should like that," Thor mumbles, and breathes in sobbing gasps when Loki resumes his blows.

It stops again far too soon, but Thor understands why when Loki says, "Now, dear brother, crawl up and get on your back for me."

Thor obeys without hesitation, as best he can, his limbs not quite holding his weight. But he manages; and when he lands on his back he cries out, and lies there shuddering and gasping, trying to adjust to the feeling of his welt-covered skin pressed against the bedclothes.

"There, Thor, this is the easy part," Loki murmurs, running a steady hand down Thor's chest and stomach. Thor's legs spread at once, and Loki gives him a brief smile for that before taking Thor's cock in hand. He gives it long slow pulls, massaging Thor's balls gently; now and then he reaches up with one hand and twists Thor's nipples hard, though never sudden. Thor's head falls back. He breathes with Loki's slow, dragging touches, dazed, wondering vaguely whether he might come from this.

"So good," Loki is whispering, "Thor," and Thor does not know whether Loki means for him to hear it, or even if Loki is aware that he is speaking at all.

"Loki," Thor says. It comes out slow and a little slurred. "Please fuck me."

"All in good time," Loki says; but Thor feels another spill of magic, so agonizingly good that his hips rise involuntarily, and two of Loki's fingers slide into him as easily as if he had been working upon Thor for some time.

"Oh," Thor says, "Loki, now," but Loki only laughs at his impatience and twists his fingers. Thor wonders whether this is revenge for the teasing he has done to Loki, and then decides he doesn't care; it feels too good to care about anything else at all.

Then Loki withdraws and moves up to settle firm hands on Thor's shoulders. It drives Thor's back down into the mattress, and while Thor is still gasping at the unexpected pain of it, Loki thrusts into him.

Thor cries out, quite beyond being able to stop himself. Loki laughs, sounding amazed, his hands tight on Thor's shoulders, and pounds into Thor, each thrust rocking Thor back against the bed and sending a new jolt of pain through him. It is all Thor can do to lie there and let him. He feels like he is floating again, even more powerfully than he did before; and he is grateful beyond words that Loki is holding him, or he fears he would fly apart.

When he comes he feels it in his whole body, cock to fingertips, less a crescendo than the most unbearable pleasure yet. Loki fucks him through it and a little beyond, then hisses a curse, fingers tightening on Thor's shoulders, and spills in him before collapsing upon Thor's chest.

"Are you well?" he murmurs.

Though Thor is heavy with the sudden lassitude of absolute contentment, he manages a nod. He does not protest when, after a minute, Loki sits up and does some sort of quick magic that rids them of the worst of the mess; but he likes it better when Loki pulls the sheets up over them both, and draws Thor in against him. "Sleep, brother," Loki whispers. "You did very well indeed."

Thank you for that, Thor wants to say, or perhaps I love you too, brother; but neither pass his lips, for he is already drifting into sleep.

*

Thor wakes, with lovely slowness. His brother is sitting beside him, the pale light of dawn filtering in over his face. Loki's eyes are screwed shut, as though there is something before him that he desperately does not want to look at. He holds his spear across his lap, though he is dressed lightly, in Midgardian fashion; he is wearing one of Thor's soft charcoal-colored t-shirts under a jacket, and though he sits in bed his boots are on.

Thor sits up, alert with sudden alarm. He ignores the deep ache that follows the movement. "What is it?"

Loki’s eyes snap open, and his shoulders, tense before, slump with defeat. "Forgive me," he says. "I didn't intend to wake you." His throat works as he swallows. "I intended to be gone."

It hits Thor like a terrible chill. Gone, as in -- Loki is dressed to move on Midgard without drawing attention, but carrying his one valued possession. Gone permanently.

Thor can feel a wound reopening in his chest, the numb cold of watching Loki fall away --

"I ... became distracted last night," Loki is saying. "But nothing I said yesterday is untrue. The problem with Asgard is still just as real. There is no good plan for you that includes me. You must see that."

Thor is shaking his head, the inarticulate denial of a man stripped of all armor, all means to fight, not even fortified for such a battle with coffee and five minutes' waking. "I love you," tumbles from his mouth instead of the thousand arguments or pleas he wishes to make, "but Loki, I love you."

"Thor," Loki says, meeting his eyes, "it won't be enough." Thor can hear the effort it takes Loki to keep his voice whole and gentle. "Your Avengers will still turn on me." He is trying to sound reasonable, Thor can see that, but it comes out relentless; or perhaps Loki cannot contain the words anymore. "I bring destruction for any realm I'm in, even if I make myself useful. And you cannot protect me forever."

"You do not need my protection," Thor says, not bothering to hide his desperation. "Even if Mother and I find no means to secure your safety on Asgard, we do have a home here."

Loki lets his head fall back, a despairing smile baring his teeth. "What do you mean by home? At home they only wanted me so long as I could be used to -- to 'unite the realms,' or to galvanize you to some heroics." He turns away, slides off the bed and gets to his feet. "The moment I cannot bury nor place my anger I become unfit for use," Loki says, low, "and there is nothing unreasonable in that. Even the most patient would lose patience. But I cannot be different than I am, either, I --" He turns to Thor, eyes darting back and forth as he collects himself. At last he meets Thor's eyes, deadly serious. "I've already destroyed too much of myself trying to be someone worthy. You must understand that I cannot give more."

Thor cannot help it; he laughs. "I have lost patience."

The faint curve of a smile crosses Loki's face. Thor takes a deep breath. "I lose patience with you all the time," he says, "as you well know. I get angry with you, and I don't trust you half the time, and when I do, I know I am probably being a fool, and these things do not make me love you less."

"Thor --" Loki says, on a breath, looking very much as though Thor has unexpectedly stabbed him.

Thor feels as though his brain has been flooded with light. The words come easily, as though they are the ones Thor has been grasping for all along. "Forget I asked you what happened," he says, and his voice cracks a little. "That is not mine. But this -- you are here. And when I say I love you, I do not mean I love the idea of the little brother I used to have, I mean you." He reaches out to where his brother stands beside their bed and takes his hand. Loki draws a hitching breath, watching him with wide eyes. "I mean the brother who would choose his own death over falsehoods," Thor says, "who would rain down ice on his enemies, who would have given this planet over to Thanos if he had to, who -- who held me down just hours ago because we both wished it. You are terrible, and barely trustworthy, and you frighten me, but you do not frighten me away, Loki, and I love you now as much as I have ever done."

Loki's eyes are shining terribly bright, but still he says nothing.

"Please believe that I would not give you up," Thor says, quiet. "I cannot think of anything that would cause me to do so."

"I shudder to think," Loki murmurs, but the tension is leaving his shoulders. He gives Thor a look of wonder. "You complete fool."

"Yes," Thor agrees. He feels a little like crying, his own tension still knife-edged.

"Thor," Loki says, "Norns help me, I believe you."

"Oh." Thor swallows hard. He pulls Loki to sit and leans in, meaning to simply rest his forehead against his brother's. But Loki meets him halfway, mouth already open, and kisses him, focused, dangerous, as though he never means to stop.

*

Thor moves through the following days feeling stunned. Nothing is different, except everything is; there is an impossible lightness in his heart in the space where he used to hold his fear for Loki. He is not such a fool that he thinks they have come to the end of their quarrels, or that this accord means Loki will behave himself, even for a moment; but they spend every night together, as easy as breathing, and even during the days, Loki is around more often than he used to be.

"He is not bothering you, I hope?" Thor asks Tony over lunch. Tony is eating a sandwich absently, fiddling with a holographic layout of a rebuilt Tower. He waves an absent hand at Thor.

"Don't worry about it," he says. "I didn't leave him alone in the lab. Bruce is down there too. They're Skyping with Dr. Foster, actually -- going over some notes for her lecture tour." He looks over at Thor. "You guys good? Loki's been ... extra intense, lately."

"We are," Thor says. "I think. I mean -- yes," and laughs a little, giddy.

"That's good," Tony says, prodding at the holograph. "He's been smiling a lot, is the thing, and I wanted to make sure it wasn't some wacky plot. He is getting in the way of some of the projects, but it's seemed more like a cat thing or a chaos god thing than a plotting supervillain thing. Good to know all the smiling is because the sex is good." Tony looks over at Thor again, with the faint quirk of a smile. "The sex is good, right?"

Thor cannot read Tony at all when Tony is in this particular sort of jesting mood. "I ... did not know you found my relationship with Loki acceptable."

Tony shrugs. "You mean the incest? Look, you're both consenting adults. It's weird, whatever, life is fucking weird."

"If I recall," Thor says quietly, "that was not your main objection."

Tony sighs and rubs his forehead. "No," he says. "But I'm not going to get all morally superior on you now. I was -- I was angry because it looked a hell of a lot like you'd decided to be friends with me so that I'd doctor the prison footage for you. And someone in my position ... I've known a hell of a lot more people than I'd like who tried to get close to me because I'd be useful."

"Tony," Thor says. "That was never my intention. I'm sorry. My regard for you has nothing at all to do with your usefulness."

"I know," Tony says, shrugging again, and then corrects himself, "I know now." He clears his throat and spins the hologram to a new angle, quite obviously for something to do with his hands. "I ... like the idea of people caring about each other even when they're not useful. When they fuck up or -- or panic, or have feelings that aren't easy to handle." He looks up at Thor, then, through the blue glow of the schematic. "Given that, it would be hypocritical of me to mind having Loki around. Or you."

Thor nods, not quite able to speak past the emotion lodging in his throat.

"Hell if I know what I'm talking about," Tony says. "Actually, I don't know if any of us know what we're talking about; as far as I can tell we have the most fucked-up collection of childhoods within a twenty-mile radius. But I think maybe this is the way we should be doing things, being -- being --"

Perhaps the word Tony is looking for is team. "Family," Thor supplies, not really a question.

Tony points at him. "Yes. That."

*

Near the end of the week, Steve cajoles them out to an interview. "We don't need a game plan," he says, when Natasha asks what they should say about their part in ending the Chitauri War. "We tell it like it is. We don't have anything to be ashamed of." He looks immensely pleased as he says it.

Steve has chosen the news station whose reporting irritates him the least. It feels strange to be back in a studio, arranged under lights, with a reporter who looks even more hungrily eager than the ones they spoke with before the war. Steve leads in with his latest hopes for rebuilding; he and Tony talk about their plans for the new Avengers Tower. The interviewer smiles and nods, tolerating this for a time, before saying, "We'll get back to that in a moment, I'm sure there's plenty still to talk about; but given the length of our segment, I think it's time to ask the question we've all been dying to hear a first-hand answer to: what exactly happened up on that ship? We've heard SHIELD's version -- what's yours?"

Telling it like it is works well enough. They all give their own parts of the battle. Thor, of course, only says that he and Loki provided a distraction so that the others could do their jobs, and makes no mention of meeting either the Other or Thanos. Instead he explains how instrumental Loki's magic and means of transport was to their eventual victory.

"Which is great," the interviewer says, "but it does bring up a concern that possibly the whole world is feeling right now: how does Loki fit in with the Avengers? He was seen at Rockefeller Center with the rest of you last week. Having him as a consultant for the war was obviously an excellent move. But how do you justify him staying on now? His history ... isn't the most savory. He killed several people in Germany last year. Is keeping him around really the best idea?"

Thor, going a little cold even under the lights, knows he must give some politic answer. The rest of the Avengers are looking around at one another, obviously in the same dilemma. Then Bruce says, calmly, "You could probably ask the same about any of us." He smiles at the interviewer, the mild dangerous smile that Thor has come to be so fond of. "If Loki should be charged for murder, I should probably be charged for manslaughter, at the very least. And take Tony." He turns to Tony, who grins back at him. "How many lives have Stark Industries weapons taken? Or Captain Rogers; he's killed people, too."

"Nazis," the interviewer protests.

"Yes," Bruce agrees, "and Stark technologies were ostensibly used to fight terrorists." He glances over at Steve who, though frowning a little, nods at Bruce to keep going. "I'm not saying either of those things are the same as what Loki did in Germany; what I'm saying is that all of us are accountable for the things we've done, and accountable for doing better now. Where do we draw the line? Every day when we are go out, we -- we don these personas, we call ourselves the Avengers, and we try to protect who we can. But the fact that we are here, and that we're good at what we do, draws certain enemies to us; Thanos, for instance. He targeted New York first because we were here. Does that negate all the times we were able to defend against an unprovoked attack, or put away another dangerous criminal?" Bruce draws a breath, and smiles again, as though to reassure the interviewer, or everyone watching on the other side of the camera. "Who's to say that all the actions we take are the right ones? Is it okay for us to do the things we do because SHIELD or the US government has sanctioned it? Who knows where to draw the line?"

Thor realizes that he is not the only one of them who by this point is trying very hard not to break into a grin. Bruce has never been much for interviews, but Thor sees now that it is not from any fear that he might have of becoming the Hulk under pressure, but rather because he has so much to say, and because it will probably get them into some measure of trouble with SHIELD. But not even Clint and Natasha look overly concerned; they mostly look very proud of Bruce. They will get away with this; they are important, and there is very little that SHIELD can do about that. The next time the Avengers are needed -- and there will be a next time, without a doubt, no matter the brief respite the aftermath of war has given them -- they will be able to work however unconventionally they wish, because they are essential.

"So," the interviewer says, "...what's the answer, then? Where do you draw the line?"

Bruce laughs. "Why do you think I can answer that?"

"It's a process," Steve says. "We all have to work at it, all the time," and he steers the conversation back in his own good, comforting, Captain America ways.

When they are backstage after the interview, though, he turns to Bruce and says, "That was amazing. Warn me next time."

"I think it went incredibly well," Tony adds. "Good job, team."

But as they're leaving the studio, Thor pulls Bruce aside. "Thank you," he says, low. "I know you didn't do it for me, and I know you wouldn't have said any of that unless you truly believed it, but -- thank you," and Bruce knocks against his shoulder with smiling acknowledgement, because he does after all understand exactly how much it means.

*

"Celebratory dinner?" Tony asks. "I hear that burger place is back open."

"Are we going there every time we get good press?" Natasha wants to know.

"Does Loki have a phone yet?" Tony says. "I need to give him a phone. Then we wouldn't have to run halfway across town to pick him up for every code green."

"It isn't that far," says Clint, and shrugs. "Let's just swing by the mansion first."

Loki looks taken aback when the Avengers arrive and insist that he go out for dinner with them, but he comes along without protest. On their way to the restaurant, Thor notices that Loki is more subdued than has been his wont around the others lately; but he has no time to draw Loki aside, and once they arrive and take their seats, there is no chance for any private word.

While they await their meal, the Avengers dissect the interview. "Bruce was fucking amazing," Tony says again. "Loki, did you catch that on the news? Is Dr. Bruce Banner not the very best?"

"I," Loki says, looking caught out at being addressed directly. He glances over at Bruce. "Well," he says. "Yes. I. Thank you?"

Bruce smiles lopsidedly. "You're welcome," he says. Loki continues to look at him, with something akin to pleading alarm. The others look away, tactfully busying themselves with the table's remaining menus; Thor watches Loki watch Bruce. "Look," Bruce says quietly. "I know this isn't the easiest thing, for any of us or for you. And I know that sometimes it can feel like being good is just an act, but -- well, there's something I heard, that I think is a good reminder, sometimes: none of us were monsters when we were kids."

"Hey," Tony says, abandoning the menu to jump on this, "what were you like as kids?" Since all of them are avoiding looking at Loki’s face, Tony addresses this mostly to Thor.

But Loki is the one who answers, with a sudden laugh that dispels the tension. "We were utter horrors. Thor especially, of course."

"I --" Thor starts indignantly; then he sees the way that Loki is smirking at him, and relents with a smile, relieved that Loki has shaken off his paralysis at being invited out to dinner with the Avengers. "I was a horror," Thor agrees.

"I knew that already," Natasha says, leaning forward. "I already know the one about the bilgesnipe."

"Which one?" Loki asks, giving her a sharp grin. "No, I would not bother telling you of those stories. Thor had wretched ideas about what was fun."

"I did not," Thor protests. Loki looks over at him, still grinning like a challenge, and for a moment Thor is so happy that he cannot breathe. Nonetheless, he rallies and says, "You started tavern brawls just as often as I did."

"True," Loki says with no trace of repentance.

The food arrives then; once it is sorted among the eight of them, Steve ventures, "So what about these brawls?"

"Well." Loki eats a fry. "Thor was itching to get off Asgard. Several of his older friends liked to boast of the way they would go to the taverns on other worlds -- better ale, better wenches, that sort of thing. One day, Thor came to me during a lesson and proposed we go try our luck. I knew it would end poorly -- all of Thor's ideas had a tendency to end poorly -- but the lesson bored me, and I knew he would get himself in trouble if he went alone, so I agreed."

"Mmf," Thor says around his burger, and swallows impatiently. "You were still perfectly studious then -- you were so worried we'd get in trouble."

Loki rolls his eyes. "You haven't the least idea, do you? You do remember when Freya's undergarments ended up scattered through the Einherjar's barracks?"

"That was you?" Thor asks, with laughing delight. "I thought Fandral had done it alone."

"It wasn't even his idea," Loki says, "but I will admit it wasn't my best work." He looks around the table at the Avengers, who are watching them somewhat nonplussed, and quirks a smile. "But that is beside the point. Where was I?"

"At Thor taking you to a space bar," Natasha says.

"Yes." Loki considers. "We were still quite young. I have no idea why they let us into such a rough tavern, when we were clearly well-scrubbed boys; but I suspect they meant to kill us and take everything we had. Thor thought he fit right in, of course." He looks over at Thor again, and Thor grins rueful acknowledgement. Loki grins back and continues, "Of course Thor was doing nothing to disabuse them of the notion that he was nobility. He took a patron's ale without asking for it nor paying, thinking it merely his due. Probably everyone there was weighing the chances that killing him might start an interplanetary incident."

"Did it?" Tony asks.

"Since we were neither killed nor robbed, no." Loki shrugs. "But it was at that point that I discovered that Thor's friends were there, and realized his true purpose in coming. Of course, I also realized we were no longer so terribly outnumbered, and that a fight would likely prove more interesting than watching Thor and the Warriors Three drink themselves into a stupor. So I did a spell or two, and sent the entire tavern into chaos."

"A spell or two," Thor echoes. "He made the ale stop in its tankards until they were shaken over the patrons' faces; he caused shadows to gesture rudely at their owners. It was brilliant."

"Yes," Loki says dryly, "and then I hid behind you, while you were but a youth with an untried blade shouting battle challenges at a man with half his original teeth and a sword sheathed in some kind of humanoid skin." He smiles in quiet pleasure at the laugh he draws from his audience.

"Thank the fates Volstagg was there," Thor adds.

"He stood," Loki says, glancing about the table, catching all their gazes, "swaying on his feet, soporific from drink, and without saying a word he --"

"Flipped the table!" Thor and Loki say together.

"He did not flip it over," Loki adds, "so much as he threw it the length of the tavern."

"And then the entire place was in chaos," Thor concludes with a smile.

Loki settles back, looking pleased. "Thor ended up with a black eye, so of course we had to explain to our mother how that had come to pass. She was quite clear that she did not approve of us starting fights outside of our training; she thought no one would dare to finish them, not against a prince of Asgard. But someone clearly had, and we had survived, so she may have been a little proud of us, after all."

"My mom was like that, too," Steve says. "She'd yell, but she was proud when I stood up for what was right." He pauses, and then grins, ruefully. "I mean, not that I got into bar fights, exactly, but I think the principle's the same."

This starts a round of stories -- of mothers, briefly, and less briefly of childhood scrapes -- that carry them through the rest of dinner. They return home together, full and happy, and bid one another goodnight before going their separate ways.

"So," he says to Loki, while they disrobe for bed, "that was ... not what I expected."

Loki gives him a wry look and pulls his shirt over his head. "Dare I ask which part?"

"I mean." Thor sits down on the bed, searching for the words. "You told it very differently than I remember it happening. But it was ... kind."

Loki is quiet for a time. He comes and sits next to Thor. "It is much easier to remember the good things about our past," he says, low, "when the bad and difficult things are acknowledged as well." He leans a little against Thor, frowning, and clarifies, "It is easier to tell the difference between the two."

Thor nods. "I will not let you go unheeded, then," he says. "I mean, I swear that I will try."

"It will do for a start," Loki murmurs. He gives Thor a slow, soft smile, and Thor draws Loki to him.

*

The next morning, while they are still in bed touching one another idly and slowly waking, Thor says, "I must return to Asgard."

Loki goes still. "Very well."

"Stop that." Thor kisses his forehead. "It's a courtesy visit only. The war is over, and since Mother says that I am not in exile, it would look ... unreassuring, if I didn't return now that I have the chance. So I will go, and let them see me, and tell some tales of our battles, and return to you before the week is out." But Loki is going no less tense. "I need not tell of your part in the battles if you would prefer," Thor offers.

"Tell them as you wish," Loki says, rolling away to sit up.

Thor sits up too, allowing Loki the space. He is a little sorry for bringing it up before either of them have properly risen; so Thor gets out of bed entirely, and begins hunting for his clothes -- Asgardian ones, not jeans and cotton shirts. "What I wish," Thor says, "is to do what I can to make a place for you again on Asgard; but I wish that for Mother's sake, and my own."

He dresses slowly, not looking at Loki. He thinks of how much freer Loki is here to wear forms of Loki's choosing; he thinks about his friends, angry with him on Loki's behalf for allowing Loki to be Jotun only insofar as it could benefit Thor. He takes a breath and says, "I doubt I can fathom how difficult a thing it would be for you there. I should dearly love to promise that Asgard will come to hold you in high regard for what you've done on Midgard, but I doubt I could keep that promise."

"Not in the least," Loki agrees softly.

Thor nods, looking for his boots. "They don't trust you," he says, and hates himself for putting it so bluntly, so he pushes on through the rest of the thought as quickly as he can: "and if it had begun after -- after you fell, that would be reasonable enough, but I know it's happened our whole lives." He turns to Loki, who is watching him, quiet and still and expressionless. "I hope you will forgive me if I find it strange only now," Thor says. "The Avengers have far more personal reasons to distrust and dislike you than ever Asgard did; but they do not treat you badly. I would not fault you in the least if you held no love for Asgard, when they have never trusted you."

Loki takes a shivery breath. "I used to wish to claw your eyes out for failing to see," he says, "but this is nearly as unsettling. Thor. If you must go to Asgard, go, and be done with it; it gives me no great satisfaction to watch you be so unhappy with the prospect first."

"I was not asking your permission to go," Thor says, with a small smile. "But I was leading up to asking whether it was even possible your wishes might align with mine." He sits down on the edge of the bed. " And I wanted you to know that I at least had some idea what I was asking of you, before I asked whether you would like me and Mother to try securing you a place on Asgard again."

"Ah." Loki frowns down at his clenching fists. "I foresee little but grief if you try."

"I know," Thor says. He swallows. "And I know it would be difficult enough if we had only some recent mistrust to fight against, but we would also have Father to contend with, and --" Thor stops with a sudden shudder, more surprise than anything else. He has not really thought of Odin in ages. He has felt frustration at his own inability to counter Odin's plans with anything more subtle than stealing Loki away, and felt relief at the knowledge that Odin's reaction was not far sterner; but this is something else entirely. Thor thinks of his father's willingness to give up his child to the enemy, and Thor thinks of the Avengers giving Loki amnesty, and for the first time, Thor finds no fault at all in Loki's having chosen the one over the other.

"...And?" Loki prompts.

"Loki," Thor says, "I am angry with Father."

"This is nothing new," Loki points out.

"No," Thor says. He feels nearly incandescent with anger. "We will leave aside every foolish argument I ever had with him over the wisest way to be a king. There is no more canny ruler in the Nine Realms. But as a father he has been a disgrace."

"I destroyed a peace and a bridge and nearly a planet," Loki says, very dryly; by rote, Thor sees, for Loki is visibly baffled by Thor's words. "Small wonder he would not try to be a good father after that."

"No," Thor says, all of it tumbling hotly into his head, "I don't mean when he offered you to the Chitauri, nor when he rejected your attempt upon Jotunheim. I mean far before that, when he did nothing to silence those who spoke of your magic as unnatural and maidenly; I mean when he did nothing to make us believe the Jotun were other than monsters, when he hushed up your heritage like something shameful, when he did everything but outright say that being different was terrible and gave you no chance of hope nor pride in it when you were different despite all the secrecy --"

He stops abruptly. Loki has been watching him wide-eyed throughout this speech, beginning to shake his head a little; but it is only at this that Loki actually moves back from Thor and slams up against the headboard.

"No," Loki says softly, wildly, "do not speak of the what-ifs, Thor, don't you dare -- it's far too late for that, and you cannot talk of the pride I might have had when I did Jotunheim as much damage as their conqueror --" His hands are claws hovering in front of his face, as if they wish of their own accord to stem the flow of his speech. "And when the son of that conqueror came to save them from the savagery of one of their own --" He breaks off, shuddering, hands finally covering his face.

I have already destroyed too much of myself trying to become someone worthy, Thor remembers. "Loki," Thor breathes, but he cannot offer comfort. Even if Odin played a part in driving him to it, the action itself is still no one's fault but Loki's. "I will not talk of it, then," Thor says finally, and Loki chokes on a bitter laugh.

"There now," he says quietly. "The monster is capable of remorse."

"Which is a great comfort to me," Thor says, gentle and wry, because it looks as though Loki needs it; and indeed a brief smile crosses Loki's face. Cautiously, Thor comes up the bed to him. Loki turns at once and curls hard against Thor's shoulder, hand like a claw at Thor's chest.

"We could always make a place for you on Asgard after Father is dead," Thor offers, only half in jest.

Loki's laugh is still shaky, but a little more genuine this time. "You may try, if you wish," he says, "before or after Odin's death. But you must understand that I might never take you up on it. I have no great love for the realm that has little for me."

Thor presses his face to Loki's hair. "Thank you," he murmurs. "And you need not take it up; those parts of the realm that love you can always come to you. Mother is not bound to Asgard; she could just as easily visit us here."

"I should like that." Loki sighs, unwinding a little. "Didn't you say you had to go?"

"Yes," Thor says. But instead he stays there, holding his brother for a time, filled with such welling tenderness that it is a long while before he can bring himself back to his duty, before he can do anything at all but sit there, arms around Loki, breathing him in.

*

"Heimdall," Thor says to the sky, standing upon the lawn of Avengers Mansion, "I do not know if the Bifrost is repaired. If it is not ... tell Mother to take the Tesseract and bring me home? She says I am not exiled; let us bear that out."

He does not say it very loud; Loki is not present, but the Avengers are standing crowded in a doorway, half-bundled against the winter chill, watching him with anticipatory curiosity. Thor hopes very much that Heimdall will obey him in some way, or he will look very foolish standing there squinting at the sky.

Thor need not have worried. There is a near-immediate rumble, the sky turning to grey; Thor grins before composing himself and turning to the rest of the Avengers, to give them a nod of farewell. Most of them nod in return, though Tony gives him a finger-wiggling wave that at the last second turns to awe as the Bifrost crashes down around Thor. In a moment, the mortals become a smearing blur of rainbow colors, and Thor is flying, exhilarating and lovely in a way that he had all but forgotten.

He lands, steady on his feet, amid the dissipating branches of lightning in Heimdall's observatory. The new observatory is half-built still, the metal framework open to the stars. Thor is still for a moment, looking at them, the familiar whorls and constellations of his childhood, the sight a greater release than he could have imagined. He allows himself only a moment; then he looks around, and sees that Heimdall is there, regarding Thor with his piercing eyes. Thor has long since learned not to squirm under Heimdall's gaze, but he does it now, almost cringes with shame, knowing that Heimdall knows; but Thor straightens his shoulders. He will be Heimdall's king someday, and if Loki is with him that day, he will not be ashamed.

"Thank you, Heimdall," Thor says.

"The Queen is expecting you," Heimdall tells him. "But I think you will be waylaid before you even reach the gates. The Bifrost's use means your return, and your friends are already coming this way."

Thor grins. "Thank you for the warning, Gatekeeper."

"My prince," Heimdall says, with as much deep sincerity as ever he has; and what Thor feels is less relief than the same respect he has always felt for Heimdall.

He takes his leave and strides off down the bridge. The light glances off his feet strangely at first, relics of the place the bridge splintered away, for all that it is now repaired. Then it evens out, deeply beautiful as it always has been, and Thor tears his gaze from his feet and looks up.

The Realm Eternal rises before him, in spires and arches golden with morning sun, light rising on the mountains beyond. Tears spring to Thor's eyes unbidden, and he blinks through them, looking out at his realm with unmeasured joy. Down at the end of the bridge he sees the gates swing open, and Thor laughs, quickening his pace.

"Thor!" Volstagg roars, the moment they are within hearing. Fandral is beaming; Hogun has even found a smile for the occasion; and Sif rushes ahead of them to throw herself upon Thor, a half-tackling hug that Thor only staggers under for a moment. "You ass," Sif says low in his ear, and draws back to grin at him as the others reach them.

"My friends," Thor says, thumping them all upon the back, "I've missed you. I'm only sorry to have left for so long."

"It's not as though it was a surprise," Sif says. "The real surprise was that you didn't do something foolish much sooner."

"What she means is," Volstagg starts, and then sighs. "Yes. That, more or less."

Thor laughs. "I won't deny it. But it did turn out for the best. We would not have defeated the Chitauri if Loki had not helped us."

"How did you manage that?" Fandral wants to know. "A direct command from Odin didn't do it."

"That was part of the difficulty," Thor says, but he is disinclined to elaborate until he knows he has the time to explain what happened in terms that his friends here will understand. "But come, will you keep me standing at the gates?"

They walk in together, up the long golden roads towards the palace. "What was Midgard like?" Hogun asks.

"Complicated," Thor says. "More complicated than I thought at first, given my other visits." He is then obligated to undergo a questioning for the whole rest of the walk, though he answers readily, telling them of the other Avengers, of the astonishing number of countries and practices and truths the mortals have, of the delightful variety of food, playing this last one up for Volstagg's benefit. This line of talk carries them all the way into the palace, where by unspoken agreement they take back ways towards Frigga's chambers.

"Thor," Fandral says. "This is all very well, but what of the war?"

"What of the war?" Thor echoes.

Sif rolls her eyes. "You needn't save the best stories for the feast halls," she says. "What were the most glorious battles?"

Thor stops walking, suddenly, and turns to stare at them. They are all looking at him expectantly. They have all seen him magnificent in battle, and in the training yards; they have all done their share of boasting. They think of war, he realizes with sinking weariness, as something very like a skirmish but longer, and thus full of greater glory; they think of war as an easy prospect, the entire might of Asgard at their backs.

"Later," Thor says. "Perhaps not in the feast halls. There are tales I wish to share with the four of you, first." They smile, satisfied by this; and Thor's heart cracks a little, with weariness, and with fondness for them. "But now I should attend my mother," Thor says, "and my father as well."

They wince a little. "Best of luck," Volstagg says, with one last clap on Thor's shoulder, and they leave him outside his mother's door.

Thor does not enter at once. Instead he stands there, frowning unseeingly at the engravings on the gold panels. Everything is golden here, magnificently and ponderously so. Thor finds he misses the impractical glass of Tony's doors, the way the sky reflects all its colors off Manhattan's skyscrapers, the strip of green down the middle of the city, and the way the trees shaded to the colors of fire at the very start of the war. But this is not really what is pressing down on Thor; so he waits, patient, and thinks: his friends expect tales of glory because they picture war on Midgard to have the might of Asgard's army behind it. This is not unreasonable: when Laufey and his subjects came to Midgard, covering it anew in ice, Asgard came to Midgard’s defense. Thor thinks, How is this different?

It unspools easily before him: Midgard used the Tesseract's powers, and attracted Thanos; but Midgard only had the Tesseract because Asgard left it behind, and the Avengers' one victory in the Battle of New York is no real argument that Earth was ready for a higher form of war. The Chitauri War was long and brutal, and it might have been won with or without Thor and Loki there; but it would have been won swiftly and easily if Odin had pursued Thanos when he came for Earth. Odin did not, and there is the lie. If Asgard's calling is to come to the aid of the other realms, and to keep the peace, then this time Asgard has failed. He sees this, now; but nevertheless, Thor fully expects to be told that, since he was there, that duty was fulfilled.

Thor wonders what Loki might say to this; but barely as he thought it when he imagines Loki saying, Surely you cannot still be so naïve, and Thor laughs a little to himself. No; he has been through a war, and he is many things still, but that is not one of them.

Thor enters his mother's chambers.

Frigga comes at once to embrace him, warm and real. Thor buries his face in her hair for a moment and then draws back. "You know this is only a visit," he says. "I am needed on Midgard still."

"I know," she says, and smiles up at him. "It is good you came. Your father wishes to see you."

Thor nods; this is only expected. "I promise I will not lose my temper and be exiled again."

"Do not even jest about that," Frigga says sternly, giving him such a frown that Thor knows she is fighting down a smile. She masters herself, and says, "Besides, both of you have done enough arguing and maneuvering to exhaust any schemer. Talk of something else." She settles a gentle hand on Thor's shoulder. "I heard your friends out in the hall," she says. "I know they do not understand, and that I can only understand as much as I saw secondhand from your father. Talk to Odin of the war. He had his own, and he was just as tired by its end. I think it might be a relief to both of you to speak of it."

Thor nods again, slowly. The horror and desolation of war, he remembers his father shouting at him, an echo from a lifetime ago; and he thinks that they do have something to speak of, after all. "I should like that."

Frigga smiles. "He is out on the balcony," she says.

Thor turns. Down the hall is a doorway open to the sea and sky. He can see the stars there, the spectacular colors of day seeping away over the ocean; and he sees Odin there too, in silhouette. He nods to his mother and sets off down the hall.

His mind is already girding itself for argument, the panic of a boy in the presence of a king. Thor takes a deep breath and lets the old defenses fall away. He is not going to shout any fervently held truths at his father; nor is he going to doubt his own mind. He is not going to tell Odin that, when Thor is king, things will not stay on Asgard as they are now, with the arbitrary grasps for power, and the fear that theirs might not be the only truth. Thor holds that in his heart; instead, he will speak to his father of the place he has chosen for himself on Midgard, of the good he will do there; instead, he will speak with Odin of war.

His father too knows the language of aftermaths. But Thor is not interested in a peace of collected relics and singular uneasy power and burdensome duty; he wants Loki at his side, mortals at his side, wants all of their voices. On Asgard, as on Midgard, he wants to do what he can, protect what he can, with camaraderie and with love.

There is much to do, some of it later and some of it now. Thor smiles to himself, and walks to his father easy in his mind and heart; when he is done here, he can go home.