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Though Loki has been unmuzzled for some hours now, he hasn't said a word. When Thor saw him last, Loki was sitting straight and unsettlingly relaxed, his temporary chains exchanged for more powerful bespelled shackles to keep his magic contained. He would not look at Thor. Now Thor paces the golden corridor outside Odin's chambers; though summoned, he will not go charging in as he once would have done. Instead, Thor is trying to figure out what to say.

Before he can muster his thoughts, one of the doors swings open. Frigga stands there, clad in white, as poised as ever, but there is a frailty to her that speaks of grief, and it wrings his heart. "Mother," Thor says, and goes to her. They hold their embrace long enough to draw strength from one another; together they go in.

Odin is standing on the balcony that overlooks the palace down to the sea and the world's edge. He turns to them as they enter. Thor can see, more clearly now than he could in the busy minutes at their return, that Odin is weary. Sending Thor to Midgard without the aid of the Bifrost, and binding Loki's magic so soon after, has turned him from a king to an old man, grim and hard.

"Father," Thor says. He knows better now than to declare policy. "What should we do?"

Odin gives him a look that slides from appraisal to approval. "We will do what we must," Odin says. "What that is will depend on Loki."

"Let me talk with him," Thor says. "Our time on Midgard was too short; I had little chance to reason with Loki. He may yet listen."

"I do not know how much there is to be done for Loki now," Odin says. "He set this course long ago."

"It doesn't mean he cannot change," Thor says slowly, feeling the words out. He cannot imagine how Loki came to be so violent and despairing and cruel, but that Odin does not expect better of him -- "How are we to save him," Thor asks, "if we do not believe he can be saved?"

"Of course we believe he can be saved," Frigga says. Odin looks to her, and Thor to Odin. He knows that his parents are not always of the same mind, but if they disagree it is behind closed doors; and so it is even now, because after a moment Odin bows his head, acquiescing.

Thor shoots his mother a grateful look, and as she smiles in return he says, "I will talk with Loki, then, if we have options to offer him."

"We have terms to offer," Odin says, "but neither can we forget what he has done. He endangered all of Asgard with his plot to lure Laufey into a trap; he set the power of the Bifrost upon Jotunheim; he allied himself with an unfamiliar race, and with a force that remains veiled to me, and tried thereby to subjugate Midgard. These transgressions cannot go unnoticed, nor unpunished."

Thor glances at Frigga again. His mother looks composed, but her face is troubled. This is why Odin is king: he weighs his own feelings for Loki against what Loki has done, and makes the objective judgment that Frigga and Thor cannot. "We know he must be kept confined," Frigga says after a moment. "But what punishment can there be?"

"We cannot sit idle," Odin says, "and condone what Loki has done by our own inaction." He comes away from the balcony, sitting down near Frigga. She settles a hand on his shoulder as he goes on, "If you wish to have words with him, Thor, the terms are these: Loki's magic will remain bound until he proves himself worthy of his power; only then will the shackles come loose. As for the rest, we will accept him back if he swears fealty, and makes no schemes of mischief against our house."

"I will tell him this," Thor agrees. "Perhaps he will listen, now that we're home."

"Time for that will be short," Odin reminds him. "Heimdall's vision grows less clear when away from Yggdrasil's branches, but he sees Loki's one-time allies. They are enraged, and will not be too wounded for battle for long. We have warning, but what is our recourse? They will come for the Tesseract, and they will come for Loki."

"They must not be allowed either," Thor says.

"No, they must not," Odin agrees. "And this is why his fealty is everything, Thor."

Thor nods. "I understand."

*

This time, when Thor reaches the room that is Loki's prison, he notices that the guards stationed at the door look nervous. He has noticed so many things since Loki was lost -- or since his time exiled on Midgard; these things tangle together. He noticed that no one even spoke of Loki once Loki was gone, and he sees now that those tasked with guarding Loki are afraid of their prisoner. Loki remembers a shadow, Thor thinks, and armed with what he knows, he enters the room.

It is no cell; though it is smaller than the rooms Loki kept as a prince, and though it lacks the books and papers that habitually cluttered Loki's space, this room should feel enough like home to be a comfort, or at least enough like home to give no offense. Loki is sitting exactly where Thor saw him last, stark against a long gold couch. He is a slender figure out of his armor, head bowed in contemplation over the bright twists of magic encircling his wrists. He looks up sharply when he hears Thor enter, but the moment he sees it's Thor all his movements turn smooth and unconcerned. He gives Thor a look of bright expectation. Thor cannot tell if this bodes well.

His first impulse is to tell Loki the bare truth: I missed you, horribly; but he knows well enough that Loki would call this sentiment, in tones of derision. Thor feels his hands curling into fists, and releases them.

"I've spoken with the Allfather," he tells Loki. He is about to recite Odin's terms when he realizes how foolish it would be, while Loki sits and Thor stands between him and the door. It sends exactly the message Loki must be expecting. Thor crosses the room and sits down next to Loki on the couch, as close as he was wont to do before the madness of the past year. Loki shifts subtly, but when Thor turns to him, Loki's face is close and attentive; he has not tried to draw away. They have time now, Thor thinks with rising relief; there are days, perhaps weeks, before the Chitauri will have nursed their wounds enough to mount some fresh attack. He does not have to talk faster than he can think, and he does not have to beg. "How are you?" he asks.

Loki does not answer for so long that Thor grows uncomfortable, and he cannot read Loki's face, a still mask of calm, alien and untouchable. Then Loki blinks, and Thor can see his brother again, full of all the quiet raging desperation that he aches to banish. "How do you suppose?" Loki says.

"I don't know," Thor tells him gently. "You've gone so far from all the things I do know that I doubt I could guess your mind now."

The quiet rage on Loki's face slips into confusion. The uncertainty shakes Thor to the core: it's such a familiar expression, his careful brother hesitating for a moment before following Thor into the latest adventure. Thor's chest aches with hollow longing. "I," Loki says, swallowing. Thor leans in. "I am bound," Loki says, "and cast low, and imprisoned in the kingdom that should be mine." He says it all with such soft earnestness that it takes Thor a long awful moment to hear the words. "Your father has denied me, and stripped my powers. I think now he has sent you with scraps to offer me on one side, and on the other the threat that he'll throw me back out into the cold."

"No threats," Thor says, the words knocked from him with horror. "An offering, yes, but no threats. He will take you back if you swear fealty."

Loki laughs, sharp and bitter. "I thought it would be something like that."

"Loki," Thor says. "Please."

"What?" Loki demands. His eyes are shining; he's half-twisted to face Thor, no longer remotely composed. "Swear myself to Odin, who stole me, used me? -- no."

"No," Thor echoes. "Not that." Where he sees his father extending a hand in leniency and forgiveness, Loki sees only a trap. But Thor has learned that there is more than one way to do the right thing; he will find that way. "Loki," he says, reaching out, cupping a hand against the back of his brother's neck. Loki twitches but doesn't pull away, meeting Thor's eyes with bright fury. "We want you back," he tells Loki. "No matter what you've done."

"I'm sure you do." Loki leans into the pressure of Thor's hand. "You might've killed me on Midgard, but you'd rather have me here."

"Yes," Thor says cautiously. So far they seem to be speaking to the same purpose.

"And what will you do, now I am safely returned?" Loki murmurs. "Will you keep me caged until I tell you how sorry I am for forgetting my place, how very grateful I am that you still call me brother? Will you believe me if I debase myself as I used to?"

"No!" Thor says before he can think better of it, and Loki laughs disbelievingly, ducking away from him. He rises, moving away, a deliberate space between them. Thor is wise enough to stay where he is. He's spent so much time in bewildered anger at Loki's actions, at his continued refusal to listen, at his senseless destruction; but now all Thor can feel is helpless in the face of his failure to connect with Loki at all.

Here is what Loki does not understand: Thor doesn't pity him, nor think him less than Thor, not ever; not when they were boys, not even now. But were Thor to put this into words, he knows Loki would only laugh again, and demand proof that Thor cannot give. Thor stares down at his hands, clenched into fists on his thighs, and takes a deep breath.

"Do you remember," he says, "when we went to Nidavellir to buy a present for Mother, and found a perfect necklace for her before we realized we couldn't pay? I would have threatened them and called upon what I believed was my authority as a prince of Asgard, and probably I would have started a needless petty feud. But you spoke flattering words and talked the smith down to a price we could easily afford."

Loki has gone very still, his back a line of tension. "As I recall it," he says, "you told me the whole way back how you could have taken on a whole quarry of dwarfs and I had robbed you of good sport."

"So I did," Thor agrees, hardly daring to breathe. "But I knew even then it was only boasting. You'd done what I could not, and I thought -- how good it was, to have a brother who was both comrade-in-arms and a silver-tongued speaker in times when force would go ill."

"It was a necklace," Loki says, turning to give Thor a look of disbelief. "It was a moment, and it was only inside your head."

Thor's nails bite into his palms. So much for that. "Yet you would claim that I had you thrown into the abyss when I was doing all I could to hold you! If we're to speak of the rewriting of past deeds --" Loki flinches away so violently that Thor stops, cut off abruptly; careless words should not fall like blows from Mjolnir. He swallows and says again, as gently as he's able, "I was doing all I could to hold you."

Loki drops down on the bed, two strides from Thor, a distance suddenly too great to bridge. His hands dig pale into the coverlet. "That," he says in return, just as gentle, "is the worst thing of all."

If only he could simply seize Loki's shoulders and shake him until he becomes something Thor can understand. At a loss, Thor grasps for his next point. "I haven't told you everything. Father also said your magic need not remain bound. You will be released when you prove yourself worthy of your power."

"Indeed." Loki looks at Thor again, eyebrows rising. "Magnanimous. How did you manage to prove the same when he cast you to Midgard? We didn't really get a chance to talk."

Here is the brother Thor remembers, quiet and unhappy one moment, conversational the next. Thor opens his mouth. "I --"

"It was something to do with that mortal woman, wasn't it?" Loki overrides him. "And something else to do with your frankly stupid sacrifice to the Destroyer. I wonder if that means I should seek the woman out, or if any will do -- but I'm stuck here, so maybe I should be surrendering myself to some grand death. By your hand, perhaps?" Loki tilts his chin up, whether in defiance or to bare his throat Thor cannot tell.

"No," Thor says. "It's about placing others before yourself, that is all."

Loki laughs, a cracked sound. "Why then, I have been worthy all my life."

"Not if you did not mean it," Thor snaps, "not if you spent long years in silent self-pity." He immediately regrets it, though Loki makes no more reaction than an indrawn hiss of breath through his teeth. "I'm sorry," Thor says. "This is ... I hoped we might talk."

"Have we not, then?" Loki murmurs.

"This is still a battle, I think," Thor says, "one I do not wish to fight."

"One you don't know how to fight," Loki corrects him.

Loki is wrong: Thor does have some idea. Thor is no diplomat, but he is a sometime-tactician, and he can at least approach Loki like a siege, to be waited out and learned, and finally breached when he has the means for it. Thor thinks of telling him that Heimdall has seen the Chitauri amassing again, and knows that the words would fall like a threat between them. Loki cannot be forced; Thor has learned that lesson by now.

"What message would you have me give our father?" Thor says instead.

"Are you his errand-boy?" Loki asks. "Tell him his failed experiment remains a failure; that should be enough, if the shame is too great for him to come see himself."

It takes Thor a moment to untangle this, and when he does, the words clutch at his heart like a fist. He was there when Odin bound each of Loki's wrists in turn, locking his magic away; Odin's eye remained on his work, and Loki had his head turned aside, as though he couldn't bear to look. Thor remembers this now with fresh sight, and in his memory every line of Loki's body is screaming. Thor draws in breath as steadily as he can. "I will talk with him," he says, rising. "With luck there will be no further need for me to act as intermediary between you."

Loki's laugh follows him out the door, but even Thor can tell that he went to no effort to make it convincing.

*

"No," Odin says.

Thor stares at him. "Why not?" he demands, before he remembers himself and adds, measured, "We will not have any fealty from Loki if you do not ask for it yourself. He believes you think he is -- is broken, and so he believes it himself. Whether it is true or no, you must show him we still care or I fear he will be lost."

Odin sighs, regarding Thor closely. His singular gaze is piercing, but Thor stands his ground. "And what do you believe, Thor?"

"I cannot follow his mind," Thor confesses. "But that does not mean he is beyond recall; and I know that you must reach for him too."

For a long moment Odin contemplates this. "I have not gone to him again," he says, "because to do so would be to condone what he has done. The king cannot give such comfort. If Loki seeks audience we may talk, but until then, my feelings must be weighed against the wise course. Until we can show our people that Loki is tractable, there is not much comfort I can give him."

Through this speech, Thor's hands slowly curl into fists. He thinks of Odin's face in the moment that Loki fell, a mirror of the rising grief Thor felt; but there was a weight like inevitability in Odin's expression too, and he still doesn't understand how his father could have felt anything other than horrified disbelief. Thor tries to pin down the deep uneasiness he feels, but certainty eludes him. Odin words sound reasonable, sound wise, so Thor forces himself to relax and to nod.

"Tomorrow is our council of war," Odin tells Thor, "and we wait on your report of the Chitauri. Until then, rest. You have earned it."

Thor promises to do so and takes his leave, but in the corridor he hesitates. He doesn't wonder at his mother's absence, for she is not always at Odin's side, but he finds he hopes that Frigga doesn't feel the same resolution to keep away from Loki. Though it is evident that Odin is the one with whom Loki must have words, he was always closer to their mother.

This hope carries him back to Loki's room. The guards hesitate before permitting him to enter, so he must be interrupting something; but he is their prince, so they allow him. In the moment before he enters, Thor has a thought which sounds very much like Loki, muttering that he is still playing errand-boy. But Thor has already come all this way and is loath to leave, so he nods to the guards and goes in.

He is unsurprised to find his mother there, but the sight that greets him is startling: she is on a chair by the hearth, and Loki is crouched next to her, though he springs to his feet when he hears Thor enter. Still, it's easy enough to tell that he must have been sitting with his head in her lap, as they have not done since they were children. There is a small fire burning in the hearth, Thor sees, and thinks inanely that Loki must have lit it as a distraction; it is only early autumn on Asgard, and the extra warmth seems unnecessary. Thor looks at the fire for longer than he should, but he is not a coward, so he turns to Frigga with an apology already in his eyes.

Frigga only smiles, a soft sad smile, and rises to her feet. "Loki." Loki turns to her, an involuntary jerk of his head. "I'll be back soon, I promise," Frigga murmurs to him. On her way to the door she touches Thor's elbow and squeezes gently in what could be either a giving of strength or a warning; then she is gone.

"Loki," says Thor.

Loki's shoulders go tight at the sound of his voice. He's turned away again, a silhouette against the fire. Thor winces and sinks into the nearest chair. "I -- only want to talk," he tells the stiff line of Loki's back. "Please."

No response. The flames crackle in the hearth. Thor stares at his hands.

"I'm waiting," Loki says, inflectionless. He has not even bothered to turn around.

Thor licks his lips in sudden anxiousness. He will not apologize for being here when their father will not come. "I didn't mean to cut short Mother's visit," he offers; but it sounds hollow, because after all he did come to see whether Frigga had done what Odin would not, and he knew his coming would be an interruption.

Loki makes no response to that, but Thor isn't really expecting one. He cannot leave now, though, not when it would look like a retreat. At a loss, he gropes for anything at all, and lights on a memory. "Do you remember," Thor says, "the first time we ducked our tutors and went forth from the palace to see the world? You started a tavern brawl with ... a wickedly-placed shadow, I think it was, though you afterwards denied having done so. How we both laughed! We smashed mugs of mead over the heads of our opponents, inexperienced as we were, and when we staggered home, Loki, it was arm-in-arm, and though we were bruised we were laughing." Across the room, Loki is very still. Thor swallows. "Do you remember?"

"Why," Loki says to the fire. "Why are you doing this? You cannot think that it will change anything."

"No," Thor says. Not yet. "But I have never done it before, and if I can't get through to you by force, perhaps --"

"By kindness?" Loki says, scornful. He turns, finally, and strides to Thor, hands settling light and cool on Thor's shoulders until he leans in and his fingers go vice-tight. "Kindness now is poor payment. Your kindness, Thor, is but mockery and ashes."

Thor does not imagine Loki said any such thing to their mother, not when he was plainly drinking in every bit of kindness she had brought with her. So Thor breathes in frustrated anger, and breathes out again before he replies. He looks up into Loki's unhappy face. "What payment would you have?"

"Your ruin," Loki says at once, dispassionate. His hands on Thor's shoulders go convulsively tighter. "My freedom. A kingdom under my rule."

"You may yet have one of those things," Thor tells him.

"Yes." Loki's right hand slides from Thor's shoulder to his face, a careful caress, and abruptly he steps backwards, leaving Thor leaning on empty air. Loki smiles. "I may yet have your ruin."

If Loki truly believes that, then perhaps they do not understand one another at all. Thor swallows against the ache in his throat. But he cannot bring himself to leave it at that. The more he thinks on how they once were, the more painful it is to see Loki now. "What happened?" Thor asks, impulsive and perhaps ill-advised, but he wants to at least try for understanding. "What happened when you fell?"

Loki gazes down at him, cold and impassive. "I am under no obligation to tell you," he says. "You were not there."

"I would I had been!" Thor tells him, rising.

Loki holds his ground. "Then why were you not?" he asks. "You could have let go; you could have followed me."

For a moment Thor thinks of it, of letting the numb wash of horror travel down his limbs when Loki released the spear, of leaping desperately after him into an impossible abyss. "Follow you into the dark between Yggdrasil's branches?" Thor says. "I haven't the sorcery. Do you think I would have survived?"

"No," Loki murmurs. "Probably not."

"And what good," Thor demands, "could I have been to you dead?"

Loki's face is very still and pale. "What use are you to me now?"

Thor takes an angry step toward Loki, seizing his arms. "I'm trying to help, don't you understand? I do not wish for you to be caged, not for Father's fear of what you might do and not for the satisfaction of your own anger. You are home now; know that you are safe and that we care for you. Please."

Under Thor's hands the tension drains from Loki's body. "Had I weapons still," he says, quietly, "I would stab you again for your arrogance. I am not safe."

Whether he means that Loki himself is dangerous, or that there is outside danger still, Thor cannot tell. Neither is heartening, but he doesn't let go; every time he draws away, Loki will take it as confirmation. He shakes Loki gently. "I care not."

Loki tears away from him. "You will," he says, very quiet yet. It is a clear threat this time, and still Thor's hands hover on the empty air, vividly aware of the space between them, and he does not care about safety.

*

Evening finds Thor sitting in one of the courtyard gardens. The arm of the galaxy rises through gathering dusk, but he takes no pleasure in the familiar beauty. He absently plucks apart a flower from the basin by his seat, red petals falling to the ground around him.

"Thor."

He looks up. It's Sif, approaching with her usual alertness. She is alone, and Thor is relieved of that; he doesn't think he could bear to hear all his friends' opinions just now. He gives Sif a nod, and she comes to sit beside him. "It's good to have you back," she tells him.

He knocks her shoulder gently with his own. For a short time they sit in silence, and Thor is comforted by it, enough to ask, "What are they saying? At court, in the villages ...?"

"They say that their prince has come home," Sif replies, "or they say that you have captured a Jotun traitor. They are afraid of his magics and of the strength it cost the Allfather to send you away, and they are grateful for your return."

Thor nods. "And you?"

"I know why you went to Midgard," Sif says, low, "and I know why you brought him back here, but I fear you'll live to regret it."

"It was the only thing I could do." Thor turns to her, and Sif gazes back, attentive, wonderfully steady. He leans against her, grateful for her presence and her friendship. "You would never trust Loki again, would you?"

She is silent. Then, "I never did," she says.

Thor is grateful for that, too; he will take all the blunt honesty he is given now. He is beginning to see more fully why Odin must have Loki's oath of fealty, not only for Asgard's sake, but Loki's as well; and he is beginning to suspect that Loki's bitter laughter at the very notion has something to do with Sif's admission. The situation is already far more complicated than Thor would wish. He nearly asks Sif if news of the Chitauri has reached the people; but she is a comfort, the first he has found since he came home, and he does not wish to burden either of them further. There is enough to worry them without speaking of what Loki is dragging in his wake.

Thor breathes out slowly. "This will be very difficult, I think," he says, but he smiles again when Sif leans hard against him, supporting him even now.

*

Difficult is an understatement.

The council is all but baying for Loki's blood. Relations with Jotunheim, Thor knows, have not been at their best since Loki's actions, but he cannot imagine the council would voice the same fury had Thor brought such ruin to the Jotun. But this is only the beginning in a list of grievances, the frost giants but a point of blame to lay on Loki in the lords' speeches. Their chief concern is that Loki brought both the Tesseract and Asgard itself to the attention of the Chitauri. Thor and Heimdall each make their reports, and every face around the hall of council is grim.

"There is still time," Odin tells them, sliding into a space of silence between the shouting. "For all Loki's foolhardy actions, we have not yet been pushed to the wall. He knows their secrets, and for his assistance he will be given leniency."

"And if he doesn't share those secrets?" a lord demands. It is Tyr, Thor sees without surprise; he has never made any pretense of liking Loki, even when it was politic to do so.

"If he has not cooperated by the time the Chitauri draw near," Odin says, "he will be given a choice: he must give fealty, and all he knows of the aliens, or he will be offered up to them in exchange for a treaty of peace; it is possible their desire for vengeance is as great as their desire for the Tesseract."

The lords murmur their approval of this, but Thor hardly hears it over the buzzing in his ears.

It is a sound plan. It gives Loki ample opportunity to stay safe and to earn back Asgard's trust. It is sound, Thor tells himself, and this dismay he feels is unbecoming; but in his heart he fears that Loki's stubbornness and his father's are equal.

Thor schools his face away from horror. He has no talent for deception, but he can at least keep from showing fear, so he is prepared when Odin looks at him. He meets his father's gaze and nods to show his understanding. Odin gives him a brief approving smile before returning his attention to the lords, and under that regard Thor steadies enough to get through the rest of the council meeting without voicing anything beyond what is required of him.

When the hall empties, though, Thor stays behind. He builds his argument carefully in his head, and when the heavy doors swing closed behind the last of the lords and Odin turns to him, Thor is able to say, with calm assurance, "I cannot be the one to tell Loki this."

"You would have a guard deliver such a message?" Odin asks mildly.

Thor takes a steadying breath. "I would have you do so," he says. "Visiting him will not seem as though you are condoning his actions, not after what you've said here today --"

But Odin is shaking his head. He looks terribly sorry. "Thor. I cannot go to him as a father until he has affirmed that I am his king; and I cannot go to him as a king alone."

The words go through Thor like a dagger. His father sounds just as assured now as he did yesterday, but this time Thor struggles with the certain knowledge that within the walls of the palace Odin can do as he likes and remain a respected king. Then the certainty is gone: after all, Odin has been king a long time, and Thor cannot trust himself to make wise decisions in matters of state. He hurts dreadfully for his father and Loki both.

Would that you had never cast me to Midgard, Thor thinks, but that is an unworthy thought. In truth he would not give up empathy for anger and ignorance, especially not now. "And I cannot --" Thor says. His voice cracks. He tries again. "I cannot bring Loki an ultimatum. I ... have not the strength for that."

Odin's face goes very still. It reminds Thor suddenly of a look Loki has worn all too often of late, and he braces himself; but Odin merely nods, and says, "Very well," accepting what Thor has said without censure.

Even so, Thor recognizes a dismissal, so he gives his father a brief bow and goes.

The corridors of the palace feel cloying. Afternoon sunlight glances blindingly off the gold in the walls. Each room feels too warm and too empty as Thor strides through them, not yet certain of his destination. He reaches the open air, and the mild autumn breeze is better than the enclosed spaces of the inner palace, but the wind brings with it the scent of a thousand carefully-cultivated flowers, and Thor nearly chokes on it. He goes through the gardens as quickly as he can, allowing his feet to carry him on the familiar path down to the training grounds.

Thor feels the tension across his shoulders ease as he descends. The smell of the stables and of sun-warmed dirt is a comfort to him. By the time he reaches the yard reserved for informal sparring, Thor finds it possible to smile when he discovers the yard already occupied.

"Thor!" Volstagg roars delightedly upon spotting him; Fandral leaves off polishing his armor to leap up and give Thor a sound hug with much happy thumping upon his back; and though Hogun doesn't break the pattern in his series of exercises, he gives Thor a nod of greeting. The day feels immeasurably brighter.

"Come to trounce us all in some practice bouts, have you?" Fandral wants to know.

"Nothing would please me more," Thor says sincerely. He unhooks Mjolnir and sets it aside before selecting a spot in the yard and beginning a series of stretches, automatic with long practice. "Where is Sif?"

"Archery range," Hogun says. His face remains impassive, but Thor and the other two exchange winces; Sif is most likely to take to a bow when she is imagining someone's face at the center of every target.

"Still," Volstagg puts in, "I'm sure she'd be more than happy to have a bout with you."

"You're just trying to get out of fighting me yourself," Thor laughs, and then laughs all the more when Volstagg shrugs and grins, conceding the hit. "Very well," Thor says. "Hogun first, then," and at Hogun's nod of acceptance he returns to his warm-up with renewed energy.

Fandral and Volstagg continue to make cheerful conversation, but Thor lets their words wash over him without meaning, sinking into his muscles and breath and the movement of his body. His mind empties of scattered thought. Then, like a single stone dropped into still water: Odin is trying to frighten Loki into loyalty.

"Thor?" Fandral says.

Thor gives Fandral a smile. "Are you offering to take the first bout instead?"

Fandral raises his hands. "No, not at all."

"Hogun?" Thor asks, and is rewarded by the quick flash of Hogun's vicious grin, which Thor returns in kind.

Thor loves sparring with Hogun: Fandral is always a shade distracted, Volstagg never fully commits in practice, and Thor has never quite trained himself out of going easier on Sif than he should, but Hogun gives his all. They fall upon each other, and Thor tries to silence that one clear awful thought by throwing himself fully into the fight. He attacks in a rush: it is always best to strike Hogun head-on, with all the conviction Thor can bring to bear, and so overpower Hogun before he can do the same. There is a moment, of course, in which Hogun might get in under his guard, but never has he succeeded in besting Thor during that first attack.

This time Hogun comes up inside Thor's range and strikes the first blow, and the advantage is lost. Thor gives him a snarling grin and grapples for him, glad indeed that the fight was not over in a moment; and so it is drawn out into a fierce exchange of blows. Thor thinks, good, there is no need to worry about Loki here.

That is how he comes to be lying on his back in the dirt with one of Hogun's practice knives pressed dull to his throat, both of them breathing hard and perhaps equally surprised.

Hogun gets to his feet and offers Thor a hand up. Thor looks about; mercifully no one has come to watch except Sif, unstrung bow in hand, sitting lightly on the fence separating training yards.

She sees Thor looking at her and her eyebrows go up. "Something on your mind?" she says.

All four of his friends are watching him with varying degrees of puzzled expectation. Thor runs a hand through his sweat-soaked hair and nods. "I came here from the council of lords," he explains. "Father has laid out Loki's choices to the council. He must tell Father all he knows and swear his fealty again, or -- Father says he will offer Loki to the coming army."

He looks around at them. Sif's mouth is a thin line; Fandral frowns, puzzled; Hogun looks grim, but this is not so different than his usual expression; Volstagg has gone very pale. "What?" Volstagg says.

Thor hesitates. He is not accustomed to sharing his mind with his friends while it is still in turmoil; always they have been at his side when he has decided upon a course, and though sometimes they argue, they have his back. But ever it was Loki who talked through uncertainties with him. And now ... now Loki is a traitor, now Loki has tried to kill him, now Loki is mad, and Odin is doing everything he can to hold the kingdom together. Thor must no longer place his own frustration before Odin's policy.

"It is but an incentive," Thor says. "Of course Father won't give Loki up."

"Will he not?" Sif asks, quite gently for Sif, coming down from the fence.

"Of course not," Thor repeats.

"Oh, surely not!" Fandral puts in, with a joviality that sounds forced. "He must have another plan."

"Thor." Hogun is watching him very seriously. "You know Loki will not give in."

"Perhaps," Thor says. "But you see Father has to try."

"It doesn't seem very -- well, very fair, does it?" Fandral says. He was always ready to excuse Loki's mischief when it landed them in trouble, and for that Thor feels a flare of sudden gratefulness.

"I don't know whether it is fair," Thor says, but even as he says it he is caught halfway between agreement and frustration at his own inability to speak well, and the words come out with an edge of anger.

"The people of Asgard will not like being dragged into war for a Jotun traitor," Hogun says, and meets Thor's eyes without apology.

"He's right," Volstagg says, sounding terribly anxious for voicing this at all. "It makes sense. The king needs to show everyone with Loki’s oath that Loki is pardonable -- that he intends to mend his ways -- or, well --"

"Or the king must give up Asgard's source of grief," Sif finishes.

Thor clenches his jaw. All of them are unraveling Odin's thoughts so well, but there is a hesitation in their words, a paleness in Sif's cheeks, which give him pause. Uncertainty twists hot in his belly. Would it really be so impossible, Thor wonders, to simply keep Loki confined, and fight the Chitauri as they would if he swore fealty? Would Loki's oath truly make Asgard any safer?

"Thor," Volstagg says. He hesitates. "I couldn't do so to one of my own children. No matter what they had done."

But it comes back around to that one terrible moment of insight: the only way Loki's fealty will make a difference to the safety of the realm is if he swears with the understanding that his salvation lies with Odin. His fear and his obedience guarantee that Asgard is safe in keeping him.

"That," Thor says. The words stick in his throat. "That is why Father is king."

And Volstagg must be wrong, he thinks; what Odin is doing is no worse than how any father might deal with a disobedient child. And he is not merely the father of a disobedient son; he is the king of Asgard, and none of his decisions can be for himself alone, Thor knows that well enough. Odin is giving Loki every opportunity he may. It is good policy.

"Thor --" Sif starts.

"It is good policy," Thor repeats aloud. His voice sounds too harsh in his ears, and he takes a deep breath, modulating his anger. "And I know Father would not -- he does not want to make such difficult decisions. He would never have had to make them had his sons -- had both of us -- behaved in ways befitting princes."

The stunned looks on his friends' faces shift; there is respect there, too. "Thor," Sif murmurs, but she says nothing more. Instead she comes up to him, touching his elbow lightly as Frigga is sometimes wont to do, a gesture of support.

"You're going to be a very good king," Fandral adds, and gives Thor an anxious grin.

Thor ducks his head in wordless thanks. It feels strangely familiar; it feels like his coronation all over again, his friends acting impressed, and all Thor can think for a moment is that he will never live up to their expectations, in greatness nor in wisdom. He is not his father; he is not king; he cannot imagine allowing Loki to fall into the hands of the Chitauri.

"Another bout?" Sif asks, with false desperate brightness. All the same Thor feels grateful for it, and for the transparency with which the others follow Sif's lead and attempt to act as though all is well. Thor nods and begins stretching in preparation for the next round.

He does not lose every following fight, but he suspects that Volstagg at least may be allowing him to win. Despite his friends' best efforts, his mind is still in turmoil. He may see Odin's policy more clearly now, and know that it is the right course of action; but still there is one thought Thor can't quite rid himself of.

He cannot imagine letting Loki go.

*

Nor can he face Loki again. Every time Thor remembers that he allowed some hapless messenger to deliver Odin's ultimatum, every time he remembers he was too much of a coward to face Loki himself, his insides twist with new guilt. Why, by all the nine realms, did he think that in postponing his next confrontation with Loki he might make the situation less terrible?

He spends his time discussing Asgard's defenses and various other tactical considerations with his father: the Bifrost is still only at the beginnings of its repair, though the rebuilding will go faster now that the Tesseract has been restored. In the meantime Asgard is effectively shut in, so they speak of fortifications, of weak points, of where the valkyries will be most effective in the air. Odin listens to Thor's recommendations and often finds them good; so at least Thor is able to do that much. In the evenings he dines with his friends, and the seat at the table which should be Loki's hurts like a wound becoming old and familiar. Thor sees little of his mother. She is the only one of them who can bear to go to Loki. "He still says no," Frigga tells them every morning.

After a full shameful week of this, Thor summons the necessary courage. Rather than meeting Odin after he breaks his fast, rather than hearing yet again Frigga's report of his brother's stubborn refusal, Thor gathers the weight of his guilt and carries it with him, heavier than Mjolnir, through the palace to Loki's prison.

This time, when Loki sees him, he does not even feign composure. Loki sneers at him and turns back to the book in his lap. There are books all over the room now, making the place look more like Loki's old quarters; Frigga's doing, certainly.

"Loki," Thor says, and when Loki's only response is the coiled tension of his posture, Thor hardly knows where to begin. The first words that come into his head are I'm sorry, and he nearly says them, because his cowardice was terrible and his honor demands it -- but Thor has already spent enough time reaching to Loki for reconciliation and receiving little in return. Besides, the matter of Loki's fealty is much more pressing than any of Thor's personal concerns. So Thor says, "You must swear yourself to Father. You must."

Loki turns to the next page of his book with implacable deliberate calm.

"Loki," Thor says again, his voice cracking.

"I can't imagine what you think to achieve here," Loki murmurs. "Mother has tried both reason and emotional appeals." He looks up then, and his eyes are so cold that Thor feels their gaze like a pressure in his chest. "Were you planning to beat it out of me?"

Thor shakes his head wordlessly. He sees now the true reason for his reluctance to visit Loki again, a much stronger deterrent than his shame: he already knew, in his heart, that there was nothing to be done. He sees the quiet fury in Loki's face, the absolute resolution, and for the second time in his life, Thor feels hope gutter out like a blown flame. Somehow this is much worse than the moment when Mjolnir refused to come away in his grip; that was but the death of his arrogance. This --

He did not cry when Loki fell. He was too stunned to weep; and then there was his father's explanation of Loki's true origins, and the struggle to make this new information fit with what he thought he knew of his brother. Thor has not yet been afforded a moment to learn how to mourn; or else he is learning it all the time, painful and slow. There must be a course less terrible.

"I cannot let you go to your death," Thor says. "I have seen it once already and I could hardly bear it then."

A smile twitches across Loki's face. "You give yourself too little credit. These things become easier with practice."

Thor grits his teeth. "Must you turn this into a jest? It is no laughing matter."

"Oh, I know," Loki says, and laughs in a mirthless huff, his smile coming back as a bright vicious grin.

Thor marvels at how easy it is for Loki to tip him from fear to frustration. But he can see what Loki is doing, which calms his reaction; and he can see too that Loki is furious with him. Thor takes a breath. "You're angry," he says. "It's understandable."

"Really." Loki leans forward, book forgotten. "This should be good. So you think the Allfather's demands are unfair?"

"No." Don't let Loki goad you, Thor reminds himself, and remembers to be fair, to be honest, to try to make Loki understand why Odin would ask such a thing, because surely -- surely -- "I don't know what is best," Thor admits. "I see why you would be angry, and I see why Father seeks your fealty on such stringent terms."

Loki's face twists. "Coward," he says, quiet. "You will not even risk taking a stand."

"Can we argue this when you're not about to die?" Thor demands. But Loki is turning back to his book. Thor wants nothing more than to stride across the room, knock the book from Loki's hands, and -- what? Shake Loki into reason? Threaten him? Beg? Thor's heart sinks. "So there is nothing to be done."

Loki's gaze flickers back up. "There's nothing you can do," he says.

No, Thor thinks, but even as he does, a spark lights in his mind. There is nothing he can do alone, that much is obvious; but Thor is not alone. He has allies on two worlds.

Across the room Loki's eyes narrow. "What?"

"What if ... you were not here," Thor says, feeling the idea out. "If you refuse to swear fealty, we must protect you from the Chitauri another way."

Loki gives a disbelieving laugh. "And what exactly are you proposing?"

"We must go to Midgard," Thor says, his assurance growing with each word. "The Chitauri have no means of travel similar to the Bifrost, which will buy us time --"

"We have no means of travel similar to the Bifrost," Loki interrupts, "since you broke it. Or do you imagine the Allfather will summon the necessary dark energy to send me down? My exile is no bargaining chip, so I seriously doubt he'd agree to this plan. Do you think nothing through?"

Thor cannot help it: he grins, all the wider for the bemused look Loki gives him. Loki may not realize it, but they're finally, finally speaking to the same purpose. Loki's clipped and exasperated deconstruction of Thor's plans is the most wonderful thing Thor has heard in ages. "You forget," Thor says, "my friends upon Midgard. I am thinking this through."

"No," Loki says flatly. He still looks utterly baffled. "You're proposing that we flee from the world that sheltered me for years and from my erstwhile allies, both lately turned against me, for a planet I razed and people who wanted to hold me on trial for war crimes, many of whom I've personally offended. This will accomplish nothing."

"You think you would fare better at the hands of the Chitauri?" Thor demands.

"You think the Chitauri will offer me worse than Midgard will?" Loki returns, soft. His eyes are glittering dangerously.

"I think that the Chitauri look upon the failure of their invasion as a betrayal," Thor says, "and I think that my mortal allies would not be so quick to refuse us as you think. Loki. Please."

Loki shrinks back into his chair. "You've gone mad. Leave me."

This is the first time Loki has actually demanded Thor's departure, so Thor bows his head. "Very well," he says, "but I'm not giving up on you yet." And before Loki can answer, he goes.

*

Thor has already shirked the informal morning war meeting, and he has no great desire to encounter Odin now, especially as his father has an unfortunate ability to know Thor's thoughts as soon as look on him. But luck is with Thor; he meets no one in the corridors, and when he tries his mother's chambers, he finds Frigga alone.

His relief is short-lived. Frigga is weaving, Thor sees, and the knowledge twists in his chest: she is weaving war bandages.

"Mother," Thor says. She looks up at him, a tired smile in her eyes, and the weight of recent events falls upon Thor so heavily in that moment that he suddenly understands what moved Loki to kneel by Frigga with his head in her lap. Thor wants more than anything to do the same. "I need your help," he says.

She sets aside her weaving and gestures him to her chair. Thor goes, but he does not sit with her. Instead he stands very straight and tells her, with as much certainty as he can, "Loki cannot stay here."

Frigga regards him steadily. "No," she says, "he can't."

"I would have him go back to Midgard." Thor hesitates, but Frigga waits without censure, and Thor knows, sudden and swift as joy, that he has done right to go to her. "Neither Loki nor Father will back down; I don't know whether Father will understand, but whatever Loki's crimes, he cannot be allowed to throw himself upon a terrible death for the sake of his pride. The mortals will not kill him, I know this, and with his magic gone he can be locked away safely enough. I have allies and friends upon Midgard who might even look after him if I asked it." He gazes down at his mother's patient face and adds anxiously, "I would not be gone long, only so long as it takes to ensure Loki's safety. Then I will return to defend our realm and to accept whatever punishment Father deems right for my actions."

"Oh Thor," Frigga murmurs, rising, and to his surprise Thor finds himself enveloped in a fierce embrace. "I wondered if you would come to this," Frigga says. "I feared you would be too cowed by your father."

Thor draws back in some indignation. "You did not ask!"

"Thor." Frigga gives him a fond smile. "How could I ask you to choose between us? Besides," she grows brisk, "you would have been well within your rights to tell your father if you disagreed with me. Since you do not -- yes, we must get Loki to safety. But I fear my own magics are not enough to transport you to Midgard."

"You will not have to do that," Thor tells her, nearly tripping over the words in his eagerness. Hope has sprung up inside him again, and with it the relief of a shared burden, though none of their difficulties are yet overcome. He takes his mother's hands in his. "With the Tesseract here, we can go to Midgard easily enough. I will need your watch to bring Loki to the vault unseen, and I will need you to return me to Asgard -- the following day, if you can." He sees Frigga's smile growing sad, and falters. "This is much to ask."

"For the safety of my sons I would do much more," Frigga tells him.

There is a quality to her voice, the faintest controlled edge of anger, that compels Thor to lean in against her, the same impulse he felt earlier to kneel by his mother's chair. Frigga allows this, and after a moment she rests her head upon his shoulder. Thor draws a breath. "Do you think Father might relent?" he asks, low. "Would he really do as he says he would?"

His mother is quiet for so long that Thor wonders whether she heard him. Then, "Yes," Frigga murmurs. "Yes. He will do as he says."

Thor bows his head. It is a relief to hear, for all that it brings him no comfort: it means that things are desperate enough that he must do what he has to. "Then let us do this, and be done with it," he says.

Frigga draws away. "I will bring Loki," she says. "Meet me in the vault at midday. If anyone asks, say you are there upon my errand."

"Of course," Thor says, though he intends to do no such thing; he would not for any world cause Frigga to come to trouble for the defiance he means to make.

They take leave of each other. There is some time still before midday, but Thor wastes most of it pacing his chambers, looking out over Asgard's houses and hills and mountains rising in the distance, and debating with himself. Perhaps he should warn Sif and the Warriors of this plan, or say goodbye to them, even if he is only to be gone a short time. But he knows he's only entertaining the idea because he wishes for comfort when there is none to be found, so when the time draws near, Thor takes his hammer and goes to the vault.

None of the guards ask him his business; he is the son of Odin, and can go where he likes, even to the most closely protected parts of the realm.

The Tesseract sits alone, a blue glow lighting an alcove. Not a dozen steps away is the place where frost spread to cover the floor, bringing ruin to Thor's coronation. Thor stares at the dark floor, Mjolnir a comforting heaviness at his side, and waits. Waiting is always the most difficult thing; action is easy, any action at all, but the moments beforehand ... Thor stands alone in the echoing vault, and thinks, the one thought he allows, This is terrible. He does not wonder whether Frigga will appear at the appointed hour, or whether she will be able to convince Loki to come at all. He does not think what his father might do. He waits, in the silence.

At length the doors swing open. Thor looks up, and the flood of relief he feels at seeing Frigga and Loki on the stair nearly chokes him.

Loki still wears the shining cuffs that bind his magic, but he is not shackled, nor muzzled again. Their mother, then, did not have the heart for that, but Thor cannot blame her. She walks down the steps with Loki, a hand light on his elbow as though to guide him. They stop before the Tesseract.

"Two of Earth's days," Thor says. "Give me that, and then bring me home."

Frigga ducks her head in agreement. She lets go of Loki. He stays very still. Thor cannot bring himself to look on Loki's face, but he can feel Loki's glare on him, and bears up under it with all the assurance he can. He smiles instead at his mother. She smiles back, and reaches out briefly to touch his face.

"Take care of one another," she says.

What a strange thing to say, Thor thinks, but he only nods and takes Loki's arm. Frigga reaches for the Tesseract. The world flares up blue and becomes a rush of light, the weight of Loki beside him Thor's only anchor.

When the world becomes solid again, Thor and Loki are standing upon a path surrounded by trees, and Thor cannot help breaking into a grin of relief. They're back on Midgard.

Chapter Text

Thor recognizes the place where he and Loki have landed. It is the park in the middle of the city, surrounded by tall buildings, the same place from which he and Loki left some weeks before. There are mortals here and there nearby, walking the path or lying under the trees, reading. None of them have noticed Thor and Loki's sudden appearance save one, a small child gawking at them over food she has dropped on her feet. Thor gives her a smile.

At his side Loki stirs, the slight, wary movement of a predator scenting out some new place. Thor remembers his charge and looks around, which is when he makes the uncomfortable discovery that, while he recognizes the park, he has no memory of where Stark's tower sits. But it is no matter; Thor has found his way in far worse places than this.

Of course, those times Loki was at his side in feeling as well as physical presence. Thor has no great desire to hear any more of Loki's opinions on the ill-thought nature of his plan.

Before Thor can decide upon a course, however, there is a roaring noise from the sky. Thor raises his hammer, and then relaxes -- fractionally -- when Tony Stark, in his metal suit, executes a neat landing before them. Stark's hands are raised, energy weapons glowing in his palms, but Thor hardly blames him.

"What the fuck," the Man of Iron says.

"Stark," says Thor. "I will explain."

This takes some doing. Thor does succeed in explaining that he and Loki are on Midgard from an extremity of need, that they seek asylum, and that Loki's bound magic renders him for the moment far less dangerous than he was. But by this time Stark has brought them to his tower, and Thor must explain it all over again to the other Avengers, whom Stark summoned the moment he discovered Thor and Loki's presence. Stark arranges for a room in which Loki can be locked, so he cannot interfere with Thor's explanation. Loki suffers this without complaint, but he throws Thor a look of sardonic challenge just before the door closes on him; and Thor knows that Loki's doubt is not entirely misplaced. He and Stark join the rest of the Avengers in a room in Stark's tower which reminds Thor very much of his father's council hall. Thor is touched that all of them have come. Barton is stony-faced, Romanoff unreadable; Rogers looks frustrated, and Banner mildly amused. Stark fidgets with a pen.

But when Thor makes his explanation, all of them listen without protest. Even Barton listens, for all that his grievance against Loki might be strongest. Thor is just beginning to have hope that all might go well when Nick Fury arrives, striding into the room without announcing himself, black coat billowing in his wake.

"I thought your people were going to take care of Loki," Fury says.

Take care of. Fury says these words, and they sound final; they sound knowing; they sound as though Fury thinks as Odin does. Thor meets Fury's eye, and remembers how, long weeks ago, Fury looked at him exactly thus and asked him what he was prepared to do.

"They were going to," Thor admits. "I could not let that stand."

"So you've come to dump the problem back on us?" Fury demands.

Thor raises his chin and marshals his thoughts. Fury is of a type he knows, but Fury is mortal, and Thor owes him nothing beyond his greater obligation to Midgard; Thor will not be shamed by him. "I know we owe each other nothing," he says, "and that you have no wish to take responsibility for Loki's confinement. But your world is no longer alone in the universe. The rest of the Chitauri fleet may be coming for my realm first, but only because it is closer -- you cannot think they will ignore this place because you have rebuffed one attack." Thor keeps his gaze locked on Fury's, but he can sense the others stirring around the table, and knows he's gained ground. "When the Chitauri come again, and they will come, I should like to aid those who are already my allies."

Fury simply stares at him. Thor wonders if Fury can tell it is an empty threat; and then he wonders if, after all, he would come to Midgard's aid were Loki lost to him, and he feels something shift in his expression, hardening.

"Gods," Fury says meditatively. "All of you are bastards. All right."

"All right?" Stark echoes.

"Yes, Mr. Stark," Fury drawls. "We're going to keep Loki. We have a facility that should hold him just fine, if his magic's really gone like Thor says."

"It is," Thor confirms.

"Hang on just a minute," Stark snaps. He looks around the table, searching for support. "C'mon, guys, are we actually going to be bullied into this? We worked our asses off to get rid of Loki, and now a month later we're going to play babysitters for him? I'm sorry, no. Cap -- Cap, after what he did to the city?"

Captain Rogers has been frowning down at his hands. He looks up. "I get why Thor came back," he says, and looks over at Thor. "I'm not saying I'm a fan of the ultimatum, or the implication that we can't defend the Earth just fine without you, but ..." He shrugs. "I'd like to call handing Loki over to the Chitauri poetic justice, but he is still Thor's brother, and if Thor wasn't expecting anything that harsh, I don't think it sits right with me either. Besides, who knows what Loki might talk his way into back with the Chitauri? We might have an even bigger mess on our hands. Personally I'm happy to have Loki where we can keep an eye on him."

Stark makes a noise of baffled frustration and turns, snapping his fingers and pointing at Romanoff and Barton in turn. "Coulson," he says. "Are we going to call that one water under the bridge?"

Romanoff gives Stark the frown of someone not seeing the relevance to this argument; but Barton starts to say something, thinks better of it, and gives Stark the long stare of a man caught out.

Fury heaves a sigh.

"Coulson isn't dead," Romanoff says, glancing to Fury and back at Stark. "His condition was unstable for a few hours; no one was sure he would make it for about a day."

"Ah," Stark says, inflectionless. "Well. Glad you bothered to tell us."

"That's ... good news," Banner puts in, as though he hopes it is. Captain Rogers looks as though he's not sure either.

So Agent Coulson's recovery is news to Rogers, Banner, and Stark as well as to Thor. Thor is glad indeed to hear that he lives; in a deeply unpleasant day, the moment when Loki thrust his spear through Coulson's chest was one of the most unpleasant of all. Thor resolves to leave some message of apology for Agent Coulson before he goes; then he sets his joy at this news aside, and recalculates. No one looks particularly pleased to hear that Coulson is well -- because, of course, Fury was keeping it from them. That Fury has agreed to keep Loki now seems like no advantage at all. Thor tries to think of a new approach, but Fury speaks first.

"Of course it's good news," he says, long-suffering. "Feel like you saved the world for nothing now, Stark?"

"I -- no!" Stark snaps, sounding distinctly wrong-footed.

"Here's how it's going to go," Fury says. "We're going to put Loki somewhere we can keep an eye on him, and have plenty of advance warning if he tries to get up to anything; and if he does misbehave, that might give us a heads-up if Thor's right, and the alien army comes calling again." Stark opens his mouth, and Fury holds up a hand. "It isn't up to you. And if you feel like making it, chew on this: you still want the Avengers to be a reality? You want to keep being a team of heroes, saving the day and not getting in trouble for the damages?"

"I can pay the repairs," Stark protests.

"You can," Fury agrees. "But I'm the only thing standing between you and total bureaucratic shutdown. And the people who want to shut you down? Sometimes they throw nukes at New York City."

Thor can actually see the color drain from Stark's face. "So," Stark says, very flat, "those people are definitely not people we want to get their hands on Loki, either."

"Now you're getting it," says Fury.

Stark mashes the heels of his hands under his eyes. "Fine," he says, muffled. Looking up again, he asks around the table, "All in favor?"

Slowly the rest nod, Barton behind the others; he seems to be having an argument with Fury that consists only of them looking at one another, but at length he heaves a sigh and shrugs agreement. Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff both meet Thor's eyes, acknowledging their acceptance of his request, and Captain Rogers gives Thor a small, crooked smile. Thor manages a smile in return, grateful that he is already sitting down. The relief is overwhelming.

He didn't know he had been so afraid.

*

Thor's request to stay that night in Stark's tower before returning to Asgard in the morning is granted by Stark. "Not a problem," Stark tells him. "I have plenty of rooms, and the gang's all here." He narrows his eyes in thought. "Actually," he says, "I sent Pepper to DC the moment I realized it was Loki in the Park, and Rhodey's way the fuck out on the West Coast, and Cap and our friends the agents have SHIELD housing -- seriously, they could each have their own floor but apparently some brownstone in Brooklyn is nicer? -- so the gang's just me and Bruce and the robots." He gives Thor a grin that's mostly teeth.

"Ah," Thor says, entirely at a loss. "Thank you?"

He considers whether he should check on the state of Loki's new accommodations. He knows that Loki has been transported to a SHIELD prison facility by Fury and some of his agents; Fury left to do this while Thor was still answering more in-depth questions for the Avengers on the nature of Odin's binding spell, and the political situation on Asgard, and his own plans to return home and help in the war. Thor felt he owed his comrades those answers, at least. Now that they are gone, he could go see Loki one last time before he departs -- he doubts Fury would refuse him that request -- but Thor balks at the idea. What more have he and Loki to say to one another? Loki would only say hurtful things for the sake of seeing Thor hurt. No: it is better to give Loki no farewell at all than to go back to war with the memory of a painful one. Thor has enough of those already.

Instead he follows Stark into an elevator, which rises from the conference floor. When it stops, however, Stark turns to Thor and says, "This is me, sweetheart. JARVIS, give Thor the tour."

"Certainly, sir," a disembodied voice replies.

Thor looks around curiously as the doors slide closed after Stark. The elevator is quite devoid of places in which to hide. "What manner of being are you?" he asks.

"JARVIS, sir," the voice says. "I'm an artificial intelligence, created by Mr. Stark to run the internal systems of his homes and Iron Man suits. Would you like the tour?"

Thor is much more fascinated by JARVIS, the disembodied servant whose intelligence seems quite real, than he is in learning the layout of some small mortal home, but he understands the desire to fulfill a duty well, so he follows JARVIS's voice through the tower. He learns the location of the kitchen, the library, the sparring room, and the hall of entertainment; JARVIS calls some of these by unfamiliar names, but explains their functions well enough for translation. Much of the tower is off-limits to those who do not have Stark's skills at sorcery, but Thor accepts this. JARVIS runs the elevator between floors, and will take him where he needs to go.

JARVIS offers to show Thor his quarters, but Thor says, "Thank you, no; I would eat before I take my rest. The tour was most informative."

"A pleasure, sir," JARVIS says, and goes silent.

Thor makes his way back to the kitchen. It is very unlike the kitchens in the palace, or indeed those elsewhere in Asgard: there is no central fire, and while Thor sees something that looks like an oven, there is no warmth to it. Nor does it remind him of the space in Jane's workshop that served as kitchen, for this place is far too opulent. Here there are all manner of metallic devices with no purpose that Thor can discern, and even though he does recognize some of the same appliances that Jane's kitchen had, these ones look unnecessarily complicated. At Smith Motors they had only a small gas oven, on which Thor made Erik eggs to cure his hangover, and a small oven which Jane used to warm pop tarts.

He misses Jane, suddenly, like a sharp whipcrack that hurts all the more because he did not think to prepare himself for it. He hopes she's somewhere safe. He's grateful that Coulson -- Coulson, who is still alive, despite Loki's worst vicious efforts -- sent Jane away. He's even grateful that Loki is locked up here, on Midgard, harmless and out of Asgard's reckoning and no longer Thor's responsibility.

No. Unworthy thought.

Thor shakes this off and goes to search the cupboards for food. Everything is neatly packaged and unappealing. He wishes for diner food like Izzy's, back in Puente Antiguo. He wishes for thick stew and late-summer apples. He wishes for anything familiar.

"I do that all the time," says a mild voice behind him. Thor turns in surprise, and sees Dr. Banner standing there in his rumpled clothes, looking self-deprecating and harmless. Thor wonders whether he can read minds. But Banner just smiles lopsidedly and elaborates, "I'll stand in front of the fridge for five minutes and never figure out what I want."

"I could use some guidance," Thor admits.

"Let's see." Banner comes up to stand beside him, looking over the food. Thor notices, not for the first time, how carefully Banner moves, and how strangely, as though he must keep himself from touching anything for fear of breaking the world. Thor wonders whether he does it consciously. But he doesn't ask, and after a moment Banner says, decisively, "Pasta," and begins gathering ingredients.

"May I help?" Thor asks.

"Sure," says Banner. "Boil some water. Ever made pasta before?"

Thor has not; in fact, he's never seen anything quite like it. These noodles are out of his reckoning, and the way they go from brittle to pliant in the boiling water amuses him greatly. The sauce too is wholly unfamiliar, though Thor takes to it at once. At least neither cheese nor vegetables are strange to him; he eats the end of the block of cheese while they finish their cooking preparations.

Banner makes enough for three, but Stark does not appear. Thor is a little grateful for that; he keeps dropping the noodles, making a mess, and where Banner's laughter is good-natured, Thor suspects he would find Stark's less so.

"I'm sorry I can't stay longer," Thor says, once he more or less has the hang of eating the pasta. "The food here is a delight."

"Next time," Banner says. It sounds like polite empty words, but Thor sees that it is a question -- You will come back? You won't leave us to watch Loki forever? -- and he nods acknowledgment and confirmation. Banner sighs and twirls pasta around his fork. "We could use you," he says. "We're doing fine, I guess, but this Avengers thing ..."

"Stark did say you were the only one living here," Thor says. He serves himself a third helping of pasta. "This place seems ideal as headquarters. Why are the others so far away? Is this 'Avengers thing' not happening properly?"

"Oh, it is," Banner says. His mouth quirks up on one side. "Any time there's a problem that seems tricky for local law enforcement to solve, we turn up and save the day. Well. I say we. Half of the time we're working on reconstruction, repairing the city after -- people are calling it the Battle of New York -- after Loki." Banner looks apologetic, but Thor merely nods. Banner nods back, ruefully. "And half the time we're dealing with people more powered-up than the police can handle. Not on a god-level or anything, just the people with seriously big weapons or abilities. Even then, the, uh, the other guy usually sits out. He ... breaks things."

"The Hulk is formidable," Thor agrees, and shares a smile with Banner. "It is good to hear the Avengers are succeeding, even if you do not share quarters, or come to every battle. A warrior with friends is better than a warrior alone."

"Which is why we could use you," Banner says, pointing his fork at Thor. "We need another heavyweight; someone reliable. Which I'm afraid you weren't really being, earlier today. Did you seriously threaten Director Fury that you'd bail on Earth if he didn't do what you wanted?"

"Yes," Thor says. "I suppose I did."

Banner shakes his head, chuckling. Then Thor is laughing too, a little surprised with himself after all. "Well," Banner says, "it took guts. But how do you know Fury's going to stick to it? He could be bluffing you."

Thor's laughter trails off. "Fury will stick to it," he says, "because the alternatives are worse."

"Yeah," Banner agrees, sobering.

"Tell me something of your exploits," Thor says quickly, before Banner can follow any of those alternatives in his thoughts. "Living with Stark must be very exciting."

Banner hesitates a moment; then he relents to the swift change in topic, and smiles, a slow spreading smile of such fond warmth it takes Thor by surprise. "Tony's ... something," Banner allows. "He has whole floors just for his scientific equipment -- not just for his clean energy work, either, but that's incredible, and I think I might actually be working him up to admitting that peer review is an important part of --" He breaks off, giving Thor a rueful smile. "I bet this is all Greek to you."

Thor tries to parse this, and realizes what the idiom must be from the look of dawning self-recriminating hilarity on Banner's face. "I don't have to follow the particulars to understand your enthusiasm. I take it that peer review involves having one's work examined by others who understand the work and have similar skills?"

"Yeah." Banner scrutinizes Thor. "Hey, do you happen to know anything about how the Tesseract works? We've been trying to talk to Dr. Selvig about it, but he asked for leave from SHIELD for a little while; he's somewhere out in the desert. I wouldn't actually mention it to Tony -- he's, uh, a bit frustrated that Selvig's probably off sharing notes with Dr. Foster instead of him."

The name lances joy through Thor. "Dr. Jane Foster?" he asks.

"Right, you know her." Banner huffs a laugh. "It really is too bad you're not sticking around."

"I begin to feel so as well," Thor confesses. "And if matters were less urgent, I think I would do so. This world is dear to me, but the war summons me home, and if I can help defeat the Chitauri while they are yet near Asgard, I will have done my duty to both our realms." He breathes out, letting go of that tension of duty for a moment. "But I find it a pity indeed that I have twice returned to Midgard without paying Jane a visit. It would ... be very good to see her."

Banner's face softens. "Yeah," he says. "Well, if you do get the chance, she's out in New Mexico, doing really amazing work."

"I'm sure she'd be happy at the chance to meet you as well," Thor says, and watches Banner's face stay soft and longing. He knows better than to touch that more deeply, so instead Thor slurps up the last of his noodles and adds, "I believe now would be the time to bid you goodnight."

"Sure," Banner says. "I can't imagine the jetlag you must have right now."

"Jetlag?" Thor repeats. "That is all Greek to me," and Bruce laughs with him.

*

In the morning Thor wakes to the golden rise of a strange star, and successfully navigates his way to the pantry and thus to pop tarts while no one but JARVIS is awake. This turns out to be a blessing, for Thor tries to use the stove to heat the pop tarts, as Bruce cooked the pasta the previous night, and he startles more than he should when JARVIS says, very sharply, "Sir! I would advise you to use the toaster." Then of course Thor must be instructed in the use of the toaster, and while he does achieve his pop tarts without further mishap, he starts the day in an ill mood. Tony Stark's Midgard is not the one he is used to; it defeats him with its alienness even when he does not feel wrong-footed by it.

Thor is most of the way through the second heated box (cinnamon) when Stark strolls into the kitchen wearing nothing but loose grey trousers. Thor stops, food halfway to his mouth, and stares.

He did not realize that the glowing device which powered Stark's armor was in fact a part of Stark; but there it is, embedded in his chest, glowing. The sight gives Thor a strange feeling, a respect close enough to awe to be distinctly uncomfortable. He had not realized that Stark's sorcery was so great, nor so ... unsubtle.

"Morning, sunshine," Stark drawls. Thor's gaze snaps back up to his face. Stark gives Thor that brilliant grin, mostly teeth. "Like what you see?"

"Your energy device is most impressive," Thor says, opting for honesty.

It seems to work; Stark's smile suddenly looks more like a smile. "Arc reactor," he says. "Powers the suit, powers me, long story, we'll save the version in epic verse for a time when you're vacationing here a little longer."

"I should like that," Thor says.

"Mmhm." Stark comes up to the table, and blinks at Thor's plate. "Huh. Is that a whole box of pop tarts?"

Thor is saved from admitting that it is, in fact, the second box, by a sudden interruption from JARVIS. "Sir," the intelligence's voice says, "I've picked up the same keywords on both SHIELD and NYPD frequencies. The chatter seems to indicate an altercation at the docks, and the use of a 'brainwashing machine'. Some sort of sonic device inducing rage in everyone within range."

"Huh." Stark squints out at the view of the city below them. "Could the suit block it?"

"Without running tests --"

"We're on it," Stark says. "Get Bruce up for this one, will you? I doubt a brainwashing rage machine will make much difference to the Hulk. And assemble the others at whatever recon point is nearest this thing. Can we be there in ten? We'll be there in ten."

"The alert is already sent, sir," JARVIS replies.

"What do we know so far?" Stark asks, pressing buttons on the device around his wrist.

"A unit of police discovered suspicious activity at the docks," JARVIS reports. "Shortly after they called it in, their presence was discovered, and they were attacked, it seems, not by the workers at the suspicious crate, but by all nearby civilians. This is the point at which SHIELD took an interest."

"I'd say," Stark says, his eyebrows going up. "And the current situation?"

"Complete chaos, sir," JARVIS says dryly.

Stark snorts. "This should be fun. Okay, suiting up, heading out."

"What of Barton?" Thor blurts.

Stark blinks at him. It's plain he had forgotten that Thor was even in the room. Thor frowns and elaborates, "If this machine can alter the mind -- after what Loki did to him -- I'm not suggesting he is not a capable warrior, simply that he should be informed of the foe he'll be facing."

"We'll inform," Stark says, waving a hand. A beat, and then he adds, "You wanna come take down a bad guy?"

Thor grins. "Yes."

*

Thor finds the earplugs provided by SHIELD distracting, and the high-pitched noise emitted by the machine in question only mildly irritating. The Hulk, too, finds it mildly irritating; between Thor's swiftness and the Hulk's resistance to bullets, the machine is soon in pieces.

With the machine destroyed, the civilians caught in the crossfire are free to run. The men still guarding the machine lose most of their nerve; it is easy work for the Avengers to take them down. Thor even finds it a little unsporting to use Mjolnir against them, at least until he sees for a moment a glowing point of red light against his armor -- Agent Barton knocks him out of the way, something very small and fast shoots past Thor's head, and he loses most of his idle impulse for mercy. He fights back-to-back with Barton, swinging his hammer at any who come too close while Barton shoots those rushing them from a distance. Behind him, Thor can hear the sound of the Hulk making very sure that the machine does not ever function again. To Thor's left, Agent Romanoff fells a foe with a small lightning of her own while the Captain punches another going for her blind spot. To Thor's right, Stark comes down out of the sky, his energy weapons blazing, and makes straight for their enemies' apparent leader, whose face is startling and strange: metal covers half his skull, and one of his eyes glows machine-red.

Thor thinks he prefers Stark's sorcery to this man's.

The Captain comes to Stark's aid, shouting something, but Thor pays it little mind. He's swept up in battle-joy, though he has the presence of mind not to laugh with it, not in this still-unfamiliar company. But he can, he realizes, hear Barton, who only laughs a brief bitter laugh and says, as the Captain knocks their foes' leader out with finality, "Yeah, take that, dick."

Not especially eloquent, Thor supposes, but very much to the point upon victory.

It is the work of moments to round up the remainder of their enemies. By then the city's law enforcement has arrived, to shackle the men and lead them away; Thor also briefly glimpses Agent Hill, making her way straight to their foes' leader and taking him quietly away. Thor glances sideways at Agent Romanoff, and sees her noticing that he's noticed. Her mouth quirks into a brief sideways smile of acknowledgment.

"Everyone out who's getting out," she says under her breath. "That means you, Clint."

"What about Thor?" Barton asks. "He's not doing the press circuit."

"Exactly." Stark has come up during this exchange. "This is a me, Rogers, Romanoff, and Bruce operation only. Where's Bruce? Is he Bruce yet? Hawkeye, do you have Bruce's spare pants?"

"Always," Barton says, rolling his eyes. His shoulders tighten. "Okay, Thor, come on, we're benched."

Thor follows Barton willingly enough, puzzled. They find Bruce in the crater of broken machinery -- he accepts the clothing graciously -- and go on to a black vehicle which will, Thor assumes, return them to Stark's tower. He gets in after Barton, and watches the city go by, sitting as still as he's able. It's not very; he has yet to come down from the joy of battle, and he can feel the pump of his blood. It was good to have something to fight, good to have the Avengers at his side, good to have something simple, but now that it's over he still has such energy that he feels the battle was much too short. Barton, beside him, seems no better off; the mortal sits very still, but it is fighting-still, or perhaps anger-still. Thor would be willing to bet it's the second, for though Barton sounded easy enough about being 'benched,' his body said otherwise.

"The press circuit?" Thor asks.

"News media," Barton says shortly. "They've gotten better at finding out where the Avengers are gonna be. Show up, film us fighting, want a play-by-play afterwards. Stark loves it. Of course he does."

Thor tries to imagine how Stark would talk, explaining the battle to curious strangers. He would boast, Thor suspects, playing up the Avengers' deeds and prowess; Thor cannot help the grin that crosses his face at the thought.

They reach Stark's tower in good time, and go up to the common spaces together. Given Barton's mood, Thor expects him to go somewhere alone, but Barton simply throws himself upon the nearest couch and stays sprawled there, glaring out the wide window. This seems enough like an invitation that Thor settles himself upon the floor by the couch, leaning back on his elbows and observing the view as well. The spires and towers of New York City cannot rival Asgard's for beauty, but there is something grand in them all the same, and something a little like home.

"Why did they wish for you to return here?" Thor asks, low.

Barton is silent for a long time, long enough that Thor supposes Barton must be ignoring the question, or pretending not to have heard it. Then, "I know him," Barton says. "The guy who was leading them. I mean, I've dealt with him before."

Thor twists to look up at Barton. "He is an old foe?"

"An old foe," Barton mutters, and smiles, brief and ironic. "Yeah."

Barton, Thor reflects, is nearly as taciturn as Hogun. "I would like to hear about him, if you wouldn't mind telling," he says. "Even if he is defeated, it is good to know one's enemies. And I think he would have been formidable, had we not joined forces against him. His machine was a clever sorcery."

"Oh yeah, he has lots where that came from." Barton sits upright. "So this guy, right. William Cross, calls himself Crossfire. He created that brainwashing shit himself, back when he was working for the CIA -- that's one of the intelligence agencies we have here -- and when he went rogue, SHIELD sent me to investigate his private company. I got him, too, and that was after he'd decided I was enough of a threat to send his best assassins after me."

"It seems unwise to send assassins after an assassin," Thor says obligingly into the pause in Barton's tale. Barton actually grins at him for that. Much of Thor's fighting tension unexpectedly leaves him; but it is good indeed to be falling into tandem with Barton here, especially since Barton has less reason than the rest of them to be glad of Thor's presence.

"So once I'd taken care of his lackeys, he comes after me himself," Barton resumes. "And -- god, this fucker, seriously, I could fill a book. I put him away that time, but of course he broke out of prison, and he'd taken me kind of personally, because this time he decides to put a bounty on my arm. You got that? Not me, just my fucking arm, and he didn't even go after me that time, he just sat back and waited for all the greedy lowlifes to come swarming."

"And you beat these soundly, too," Thor says, nodding assuredly at Barton's still quite intact arms.

"Yeah, well, I had help that time," Barton says; and abruptly he refocuses, the sardonic grin vanishing, the careful tension coming back. "Guy I've known for ages. He taught me how to use a bow. He was my mentor at the circus. Hey, do you have circuses on ... wherever you're from?"

"Asgard," Thor answers readily enough. He doesn't know what to make of this change in mood, but he knows well enough to keep from touching it. This moment of Barton's history is only Thor's so far as Barton allows it; that he has been given this much, by Barton now, by Bruce earlier, is a gift indeed. So Thor lets the rest go, and he says, "I don't believe we do. What is a circus?"

*

Long beams of afternoon sunlight are sliding across the floor, encroaching upon where Thor and Barton sit together on a couch with a laptop, when the others finally return to the tower. They can be heard before they're seen, arguing as they exit the elevator. Barton pauses partway through a YouTube video -- two acrobats stay frozen upon the screen on their trapeze -- and Thor rises rather gratefully; Barton's willingness to educate him in the entertainment of the circus was indeed interesting, but Thor has been sitting still too long.

"But they love the jokes!" Stark is saying loudly.

"So joke about something other than supervillain prison," Romanoff answers, her voice tight with annoyance. Thor might not have heard her reply at all, it's said with enough soft control, except that the argument has now entered the room in which Thor stands. Stark looks exasperatedly amused, Romanoff patiently irritated; behind them, Rogers looks tired, and Bruce wears his usual expression of mild detachment.

"Oh, hey, Thor," Stark says, spotting him. "What are you still doing here?"

"It is not yet past time for me to return home," Thor says, "though I expect I'll be recalled soon. I take it the press circuit went ... interestingly?"

"That's a word for it," Romanoff says dryly. "Hey, Clint."

"Hey, Tasha," Barton returns. "The usual fun?"

"It went fine," Rogers says. "But I'm beat. Anyone want early dinner?"

"Chinese?" Stark asks, but Thor is already halfway through saying, "Bruce, what shall we cook tonight?" and by the time he's finished it seems foolish to backtrack and enquire about Stark's question.

"Uh." Bruce looks mildly taken aback. "I don't know if we have all the ingredients for it, but I do make a mean enchilada."

"If we don't have the stuff, I'll call out for it," Stark says promptly. "Thor's gonna help cook? This I have to see."

*

That Thor has not been recalled to Asgard by the time dinner is prepared is mildly puzzling, but he is not worried overmuch. There is rice in Stark's hair, which actually brought Barton to tears of laughter, though he is calm now, sitting at the counter. A relaxed Romanoff leans on Barton's shoulder, grinning at his expense. Rogers has introduced Thor to something disgusting and delicious called soda before subsequently revoking all Thor's soda privileges, which Thor suspects is wise, given the way the bubbles keep getting up his nose. Bruce's food smells wonderful.

They all line up with plates and serve themselves one at a time from the stove. Next to Thor, Stark mutters, "Stay. Seriously, you should stay, today was awesome and no one's gone home yet."

Thor knows Stark is only joking, though when he smiles back at Stark it is a little pained. He wishes he could accept; he wishes that there was no looming war at home, no reason for his presence on Midgard at all besides a desire to see the Avengers again. He can see the truth in Stark's words: as they sit down to their food, they settle into configurations that already feel familiar. Barton and Romanoff sit next to each other at one end of the table, Rogers across from them; Stark takes a seat at the countertop to talk to Bruce, who is tidying the small mess he made while cooking. Thor does not attend any one conversation too closely; what strikes him is the ease with which they were struck up. The first meal the Avengers shared -- the victory feast of shawarma, at Stark's request -- was painfully silent. No one knew where to look, and feet jumped back when they bumped under the table. It has been less than a month, and all awkwardness seems to have evaporated. It compliments the seamlessness of the way they fight together, and Thor thinks, looking at Stark and Rogers, their bodies canted toward each other even as they look to their own conversations, that they have built a truly wonderful force in such a short amount of time. It reminds him of a hundred meals back on Asgard, of feasting and laughing with his brother and the Warriors and Sif.

Stark interrupts the flow of talk, and, mercifully, Thor's thoughts. "Hey, I heard that CNN guy say we were gonna be on at six. Want to see?"

There is a general chorus of assent, and Stark activates a large screen at one end of the room. Images resolve into clips of Romanoff neatly throwing a man with a gun over her back; Thor swinging Mjolnir while opponents appear to skim off of him like stones on water, and Barton firing arrows from his blind spots; and Stark and the Captain jointly subduing Crossfire. The voice narrating the course of the events of the morning is drowned out by the commentary in the room.

"I like the buddy system we have going on here, I think we should --"

"Shit, Tasha, how big was that guy?"

"Over ninety kilos. I like the big ones, they go down heavier and stay --"

"-- oh, right in the kneecap! Remind me not to piss off Barton."

The chatter stills as the words Supervillains Entering the War on Drugs? flash across the screen. Bruce, who has paused in his drying of the countertop, heaves a sigh of irritation. "Here we go," he says, turning his back on the screen. "Just what the city needs, more stop-and-frisks."

Thor glances at Bruce, who has hunched his shoulders over his task, then looks around at the others. Barton catches his eye. "It's a law that lets the police stop you and search you if they have reasonable suspicion that you're committing a crime," he explains. "Define 'reasonable suspicion'."

"Not to mention it's mostly enforced against social minorities," Stark adds, "poorer neighborhoods, people who aren't white."

Thor realizes this must be a contextual gap -- he has yet to meet a person on Midgard that can be described with one color.

"I'm not going to argue that it's enforced unfairly," says Rogers, "but I have to ask -- does it work, for getting hard drugs off the street?"

Bruce huffs a bitter laugh. "You know the majority of drug arrests in the US are for pot possession?" Thor has the brief amusing image of a villain furtively clutching a flowerpot, but Bruce is obviously talking about something else entirely, and Thor's thought only tells him how little he truly knows about Midgard. He focuses on Bruce. "-- and the case rate with a public defender means you're almost certainly doing jail time, which then shows up, for the rest of your life, on job applications, welfare applications, voting records --"

Thor looks to Rogers, who seems to understand the substance of what he hears, but still looks overwhelmed. Romanoff looks sideways at Bruce, and says, "Crossfire was CIA -- that's probably where he learned the drug trade. Even his mules were mind-controlled, he had practically no ties in the surrounding community." Rogers has now turned a puzzled look her way, which she answers with a quiet aside to him. "After World War Two -- look up the French Connection and the Iran-Contra Affair."

Rogers nods, looking lost. Thor catches his eye as Bruce begins to speak again, and offers a sympathetic smile. Rogers smiles ruefully back, but appears heartened, which heartens Thor in turn.

"Okay, I'll see who I can get the press team to connect with about this one," Stark is saying. "I don't think we can predict every story they're gonna pitch, so we'll keep it light for the post-action sound bites, and discuss our statements later. But," he points at Bruce, "I think you're right, this is part of the job description."

"Thank you," says Bruce, smiling again.

The talk turns to other matters, but Thor pays it little mind. He is too busy going over the discussion and thinking, uneasily, of Loki laughing at him on a mountainside: You're doing a marvelous job. Loki might not have been thinking of anything so small as innocents being punished for the misdeeds of others, but that Loki is more aware of Midgard's ills than Thor -- that rankles. No; Loki's own knowledge aside, Thor realizes that he is angry with himself for knowing so little about the world he wishes to protect. He stares down at his plate, which holds the remains of good new food made for him, and in part by his own hand, with a friend he is loath to leave; he looks around the room, at Barton and Rogers, intently discussing strategy, at Bruce and Romanoff, both of them laughing at something Stark has just said, and he does not want to leave. But he thinks of how the feast halls at home are nothing like this now, and he thinks of his mother weaving war bandages, and he thinks of Sif, leaning solidly against him in the garden, and Thor's skin itches with the need to go home.

The summons back to Asgard does not come. Instead, Thor helps Rogers wash dishes, until Stark comes by, says, "Guys, we have a dishwasher, just rinse them," and elbows them out of the way.

"Patience," Thor murmurs to Rogers, seeing a muscle jump in Rogers' jaw. "He does not mean to insult you."

"Yeah," Rogers says, stalking into the next room, "but not meaning to and not doing are two different things."

Thor says nothing, because he cannot argue with that.

"I think I might hang out tonight," Barton announces, heading back towards the couch. "You have every channel in the universe, right?"

"Of course," Stark calls back from the kitchen.

"I'm going home," Romanoff says. "Steve?"

"Sure." Rogers goes for his jacket. "I'm ready to go. Want to take the train? We've got SHIELD housing in Brooklyn," he adds aside to Thor, and Thor appreciates the gesture if not the context.

"Have a good night, kids," Stark says, emerging and blowing them a kiss. "Bruce, wanna play in the lab?"

"Okay." Bruce scrubs his hands on his trousers and gives everyone a smile. "Uh, goodnight. Thor, you heading out?"

"Oh. Yes." Thor tries an unconvincing smile. "Thank you all for your hospitality."

"Any time," Stark says, and sounds like he actually means it.

In short order Thor is alone. Bruce and Stark have left for one of the other floors, Romanoff and Rogers for Brooklyn; from the next room comes the sound of Barton watching television, but Thor has no desire to join him. The niggling feeling that Frigga should have come for him by now, which remained only an itch through dinner, has bloomed into fear. What is happening on Asgard?

At a loss, Thor goes to the elevator, and waits patiently until it comes for him. He steps inside. "JARVIS, take me to the roof."

He wonders whether this request is even possible to grant, for he still does not know how this building works from the inside; but the elevator rises, and Thor finds himself not on the roof but in a dim-lit stairwell, with a ladder and a square of sky visible above. Thor climbs this ladder, and finds himself on the highest point of the building, the gravel-covered roof where Loki set the Tesseract to open a portal in the sky. Thor walks across the roof, buffeted by cool wind, and sits down near the edge. Beneath him the city spreads wide, lit so bright it creates a sort of false daylight; the sky above is a strange dark color, without clouds but also without visible stars.

"Mother," he says, looking up into the strange sky, "it is past time. Please. Heimdall. Anyone."

But there is no reply. Thor stares out over the city, listening to its distant unceasing noise under the wind, and feels entirely alone.

*

"Thor," Frigga says.

There is gravel pressed to Thor's cheek. He blinks up at his mother, frowning. The wind is gone, and the stars are back, in great bright familiar swirls like the sky on Asgard; but he looks around, and New York City is still below them. "Ah," Thor says, understanding. "Why have you not come? What is amiss?"

"Nothing is amiss," Frigga says, "yet." She sinks down to sit beside Thor, her dress a bright billow around her. She touches Thor's face gently, and he leans into it, for comfort given by an apparition in a dream is comfort still.

"Then why?" he asks.

Frigga smiles at him, but it looks like pity, or perhaps regret. "It is terrible to fight two wars at once," she says, "and worst of all when one of those wars is with your own family. Thor, you will be safe on Midgard for a time. You and Loki can look after one another, while your father and I take care of the Chitauri here."

Thor stares at her, too astonished yet for anger. "But Asgard needs me."

"Midgard needs you," Frigga tells him. "The Chitauri may come for Loki yet, whether or not you are there; you all stand a much greater chance of victory if you are not worlds away. You know Asgard can defend itself if you are away for a time. You are not its only defense." She softens these words with a gentle kiss to Thor's forehead, but Thor recoils, and Frigga allows it. "I understand if you are unhappy with me," she adds.

"Yes," Thor says. "Very. Mother, please, I do not wish to bear another exile."

"Oh, Thor," she breathes, "no. Not an exile. A task, if you must."

At least, Thor thinks numbly, he has Mjolnir with him this time. The fact that this is a dream does not make it easier; on the contrary, in the way of dreams, for a moment he is nearly back in another time, in a small bright-lit white room, wet and miserable, with Loki standing before him: Mother has forbidden your return. Somehow it is more difficult to believe now than it was then, though Frigga sits before him. "When," Thor says. It comes out much quieter than he means it to. "When can I come home?"

"When the Chitauri are taken care of," Frigga says, and hesitates. "Or when the need becomes too great."

So she does know that Asgard might need him, after all. Her decision to relegate him to this realm stings less for that. And perhaps she saw some of what he did: the Avengers are formidable warriors, and the better off for having Thor with them. "All right," he says, trying a smile. Frigga might even smile back, except that bright light is flaring up all around them. Thor wakes blinking to morning sunlight.

"Oh," he says. "Damn."

He doesn't actually think about it -- there is nothing so intentional as thought; he merely knows what he has to do. Thor rises to his feet, lifting his hammer, and with a crack of thunder across the blue morning sky he is in the air and racing towards the only person who might still be able to transport him home.

*

Puente Antiguo looks much as Thor remembers it. The Smith Motors building still sits on the edge of the desert, though when Thor approaches it, he sees that it now houses much more equipment than it did. It pleases him so much to see Jane's workspace thus improved that he feels his mood is better than it has been in a very long while; since, perhaps, the last time he saw her.

He enters the building quietly. As he hoped, he finds Jane at once. She is sitting across the room in front of a computer, hair up in a careless knot, squinting intently at the screen and scribbling notes in her small black journal. She looks up when the door closes behind Thor, and squints across the intervening space, full of computers and sundry equipment. "Hello?"

"Jane," Thor says, his voice resonant with joy.

"Thor?" Jane gets to her feet. "Oh my god, Thor!"

They go to each other, Jane nearly crashing into one of the tables in her excitement. She hugs him, small and warm and vital, and for a moment Thor cannot speak, he is so glad to see her. Jane, of course, has not lost her words; she tilts her head up, staring at him as though he's a particularly difficult and delightful puzzle, and says, "I tried to reach you, I did, and then I saw the footage from the Battle of New York," and she seems to recall, through her excitement, that delight is not the only thing she feels. She draws back and glares at him. "But the news said you'd already left! What happened?"

"I tried to reach you as well," Thor says. "I believe you were in Tromsø while I was in New York? Some friends at SHIELD were keeping you safe. I'm so sorry I could not see you."

"That's ... okay, fine." Jane's frown becomes less severe. "But why are you here? I mean, you left, but now you're back, and I'm really glad to see you, but --?"

"I was taking Loki to SHIELD," Thor hastens to explain. "I wish I could stay longer, but I'm afraid I have to go again, and I need your help."

"To get back home?" Jane asks, and stills. "Wait. You went home with Loki, but now he's back with SHIELD?"

"Yes," Thor says slowly. He did not think to anticipate trouble from this quarter, which only goes to show that he was not thinking. "Asgard is at war with the Chitauri. I had to bring Loki back here, so that neither side might use him as leverage, and so that he might be safe. But I must return to my duties, and the way is barred from me."

"Wait," Jane says again, with less confusion this time, and more anger. "Are you really -- how could you? Not that you're leaving, I mean, I get it, your planet is at war, but you're leaving the guy who started that war -- and we're talking interplanetary war -- Do you know we've only ever had World Wars before? Those were so unspeakably bad, and this is bigger -- You're leaving him here?" Her voice is climbing; all at once it drops again, soft with disbelief. "And you want me to help. No."

Thor opens his mouth, intending to argue, and falters. He sees, suddenly, what he has been too intent upon returning to Asgard to see before. He does not know if, like Jane, Frigga fears what might become of the mortals if Loki is left alone with them, or if instead she fears what might happen to Loki. But either way, Thor thinks they might be right, and he finds himself saying, "I. Yes. I understand."

Jane pulls up short at this, as surprised as Thor. "Oh," she says. "Well. Um. Why -- why did you bring him back here? He's leverage?"

Thor feels a small glimmer of hope again; or perhaps he simply wants someone to tell, someone who is not necessary as an ally but someone he thinks of as a friend. So he tells her: Odin's ultimatum, Loki's refusal, his own decision to remove Loki from Asgard entirely, and thus from danger.

Jane is frowning. "I wish Loki had just done what your father said."

"Yes," Thor says. "But Loki is my brother, and I -- couldn't."

"Yeah," Jane says, arms wrapped unhappily around her torso. "And Erik is practically a father to me. What am I supposed to tell him?"

There is a long silence. They look at one another, Jane's face stubborn and anguished, and Thor realizes, with a small strange shock, that he really could grow to love her.

"So," Jane says, "you think there's really going to be a war."

"Yes."

"I might not get a choice, then," Jane says. "But given one? I don't think I can afford to get involved in this. I think --" Her voice breaks. "I think maybe you shouldn't come visit me again, at least until this is all over."

In its own way, this is much less of a surprise than Frigga's rejection. Thor finds himself nodding. "I believe you're right," he says. "And I wish there was some way to apologize." Jane smiles, small and shaky; encouraged, Thor continues, "I will keep track of Loki, and I will look after Midgard."

"Okay," Jane says, her voice wavering. Her smile nearly breaks; she starts forward and falls against Thor, burying her face in his chest and hugging him tightly. "Take care of yourself," she tells him, fierce and muffled. "Good luck."

Thor can feel his shirt getting a little damp where Jane's face is pressed to it, but his own eyesight is wavering a little, so he does not fault her. "I wish you well, Jane Foster," he whispers to her, and she giggles, the way he remembers she always did when he paid her a courtesy.

They stay like that for a long while. Then Thor murmurs, "Farewell for a time, Jane." Jane squeezes him a little tighter for it. Wordlessly she walks him to the door. There Thor takes to the air. He flies for New York in the lowering afternoon light, uncertain, angry, hoping to be better than those feelings in the coming days.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Coffee?" Stark says in greeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Astute," Stark says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thor nods. Quite probably he will need it.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hello," Thor says.

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

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

Loki laughs soundlessly. "As you say."

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

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

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

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

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

Loki laughs, sharp and mirthless.

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

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

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

Loki's face goes freezingly still.

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

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

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

"It doesn't matter."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

The words hover in a short silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What do you think?" Thor asks.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is struck by a sudden idea.

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

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

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

"Apples?" says Barton.

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

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

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

"I shall make note," says Thor.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Excuse me!"

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

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

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

"Indeed."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The moon landing?" Rachel Tanaka repeats.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Loki."

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

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

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

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

"It's just conversation," Thor says.

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

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

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

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

Thor goes.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

"Perhaps books instead," Thor suggests.

"Maybe," the guard agrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Wow, you really do speak like that."

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

"Sometimes," Colonel Rhodes acknowledges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thor swallows. "Will you?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loki blinks. "What?"

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Good," Thor says firmly.

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

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

Clint snorts. "Want to hear the rest?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thank you," Thor says, smiling back.

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

*

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

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

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

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

"No one," Thor assures him.

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

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

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

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

Loki goes very still.

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

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

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

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

"Loki --"

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

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

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

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

And Loki kisses him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loki goes very, very still.

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

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

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

Chapter Text

Thor returns to Avengers Tower.

He makes sandwiches, and delivers them to Bruce and Tony in the lab, before Tony can sweep them up in a project so they forget to eat. He gives Clint and Agent Romanoff a pleasant greeting when they pass him down the hall on their way to a sparring session. He goes to his room, and spends long minutes staring at Mjolnir before Steve finds him and drags him out. Thor politely declines a sparring session of his own, so instead he and Steve walk the familiar way up to the Park, Steve talking and Thor making the best answers he can.

"Hey," Steve says, when Thor waits a beat too long before saying that he is not in the mood for cotton candy today, "are you okay?"

"Yes," Thor says. He is afraid to speak too loudly; lodged in his chest is an animal scream or a storm of sobbing or even precise words of confession, and he cannot let those escape. "Your pardon. It has been a difficult day."

Steve nods, accepting this. It is fortunate that Thor's friends are used to his quieter moods.

Thor stares out at the trees of Central Park, listening to not a word Steve is saying, and thinks again of Mjolnir. The hammer was where he left it. It looked the same as it always does; it looked easy enough to lift. He remembers, vividly clear, Loki's half-veiled admiration the day Thor first raised Mjolnir. He remembers his brother's eyes growing wide as Thor shared tales of violence and war their elders had not deemed Loki ready for. That memory is very old. Loki soon outstripped Thor in the telling of tales.

"Thor?" Steve asks again, gently.

"Oh," Thor says, looking in surprise down at his hands, clenched into shaking fists. Perhaps merely saying that today was difficult will not be enough. Loki's favorite trick was always half-truths. "I visited Loki today," Thor tells Steve quietly. "It did not ... go well."

"Why don't we go back and watch a movie?" Steve suggests. "Get you out of your head a little. How about The Wizard of Oz? There's flying monkeys."

Thor shakes himself. "Yes," he says. "I should like that very much."

*

Three days after the visit with Loki, Tony comes to Thor's room, carrying chicken salad and a mildly anxious look. "You're not eating much, buddy," Tony says. "Doing okay?" Thor had not noticed the loss of appetite. He smiles, makes excuses, thanks Tony for the food. Eats, and feels his stomach turn.

*

Memories clatter back into his awareness, unforgiving and relentless. When sparring with Loki -- or even fighting him, for this was true too in the Battle of New York -- Thor's breath would catch up under his ribs as if in a moment of freefall, and as soon as he landed a blow, it would feel as though he had just avoided impact. He had not known what that meant; he had never considered any impulse to violence as a substitution for something else. But he remembers too the odd, inarticulate satisfaction he would get when he left sparring bruises on Loki when they were young. He remembers precisely the bright pleasure of seeing the edge of a mark he made against the collar of Loki's shirt. He remembers how Loki would wince, bumping a lightly injured arm against a table, before throwing Thor a laughingly annoyed look, and how it would warm Thor from the inside.

It had all seemed entirely unremarkable. But Thor remembers these things, and every moment of warmth or satisfaction comes back to him like an echoing bloom of want. Thor inwardly recoils from himself. He did not have the courage to confront this for what it is nor uproot it when he was much younger, and so it has taken hold.

Sitting in the rec room, watching Lady Pepper surreptitiously tangle fingers into the hair at the back of Tony's neck, Thor recalls his habit of doing the same to Loki in their early adolescence. Shortly after, Loki began to wear his hair as he has done since -- slicked back, neat -- and would chide Thor for mussing it. Loki must have known, even then, what Thor did not. Perhaps Loki did not know fully, but it was enough that he shed his childhood instinct to trust fraternal affection; enough to find ways to insinuate himself away from his brother's touch.

Now that he has discovered this in himself -- now that it is too late -- it's terribly obvious. He has always appreciated Loki's cleverness and the way Loki moves, always been entirely aware of where Loki is in a room; and now this has translated into a desperate desire to hold Loki down and learn every inch of his skin. Thor wants to believe it is sudden, wants to believe it is new, some awful trick of Loki's; that he is but having a moment of confusion. But he remembers so many times, with sudden painful clarity, when they were young and Loki would smile and come in too close; Thor would laugh and shove him away, and he was always panicking just a little.

Loki has kissed him, and Thor does not know how to shut it out. Loki has kissed him, and Thor kissed him back; and already it feels not like a single bad decision, but like a huge and terrible secret that Loki tore from him because Thor did not know enough to arm himself against it.

*

Thor eats when the others do, and smiles when he should. He is unfailingly helpful. He spars with Steve, and manages to hold his own; he engages with the stories on movie nights, and laughs along with the others. If sometimes he cannot quite meet their eyes -- if sometimes he feels his mind slipping for a moment into horror -- he is still doing everything he can to let his single mistake remain so.

"Thor," Steve says.

Thor and Bruce look up from the laptop in front of them. Bruce is giving him a lesson in navigating the internet, but most of it is running through Thor's head like water, and he does not mind the distraction. "Yes?" Thor says.

"When's the last time you went to see Loki?" Steve asks.

Thor ignores the lance of fear and shame that goes through him at his brother's name. It has been six days and two hours. "A week, perhaps," he says.

Steve and Bruce exchange a look. "Listen," Steve says. "You've been ... pretty out of sorts since then. Want to talk about it?"

"No." Thor attempts a smile. "And I thank you for the concern, but the matter between us is between us." He turns back to Bruce. "Explain to me again how to filter search terms?"

It is a small incident, but it concerns him. He knows he has failed to conceal his distress. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot forget the feel of Loki's mouth, of Loki's body. He is beginning to fear he will go mad; plainly something needs to change. No matter how he dreads it, he must see Loki. He must apologize and swear never to do anything of the kind ever again, not only for his own sake but for Loki's. Jolted for a moment from panic, Thor realizes that Loki has every reason now to believe he has been used and abandoned.

So Thor will go back to Loki, to end this madness.

*

"How is he?" Thor asks the guard anxiously.

"Same as ever." The guard shrugs. "Better behaved since you and Romanoff started visiting. He has a few books now."

"Good," Thor murmurs, gazing at Loki upon the screen. His brother looks composed, sitting folded up on his bed, reading. He looks so entirely ordinary that Thor thinks for a wild moment that he must have imagined their frantic kissing a week ago. "Thank you," Thor tells the guard. "I will see him now."

His heart is pounding so hard as he goes down the hall to Loki that it seems to shake his chest. Thor takes a deep breath and goes in, open-handed, terrified.

Loki looks up from his book. Thor lets the door thump closed behind him. They stare at each other for a long, breathless moment. I'm sorry, tangles in Thor's throat, but before he can speak, Loki smiles. It is a soft, slow smile, of a kind Thor has not seen in an age, and he knows with bright terrible clarity that he did not imagine kissing Loki after all.

"I thought you would not return," says Loki, quiet, a simple awful statement of fact.

"I would not leave you," Thor tells him. It comes out cracked, and Loki's smile grows wider. Thor cannot stop staring at the curve of Loki's mouth. This is much worse than he thought, though he is a fool not to have anticipated how unbearable it is to be in the same room as Loki now. He takes a deep breath and tears his gaze up to Loki's eyes. "I am -- sorry. I am sorry I took advantage as I did --"

"What," Loki says on a rueful laugh, setting his book aside, "you would take responsibility for my transgressions as well as my salvation?"

It is very odd; he says it not with venom but with exasperated fondness.

This is not going how Thor expected. He fumbles, but says, "No, I -- please hear me, Loki, I have done an unforgivable thing but I will not do it again, I swear it. I will do right by you, I -- I will be a good brother --"

"No," Loki says.

Thor chokes on whatever words remain to him. He stares at Loki.

"No," Loki repeats. He laughs again. "You can't," he says, soft and matter-of-fact. "It will never again be something you can escape, now that you know it, no matter how badly you want to be the perfect son and brother you were taught to be." He will not look at Thor now, instead gazing down at his fingers interlaced in his lap.

"I will," Thor says, hardly knowing what he's saying but knowing that he must, "I have to."

"No," Loki snaps, looking up at Thor again. His face is all sharp angles. "No, you will not take this from me."

"What?" Thor is getting that familiar horrible sinking feeling of being on untried ground.

Loki rises. Thor stays against the door, but Loki does not make any move towards him. He simply stands there, still with tension, and says, soft and vicious and precise, "I know your secret, brother. I know you desire me; for all your vaunted perfection, for all your nobility, you would throw me down and take me in a prison cell because, dear Thor, you too are a monster."

The breath leaves Thor's body in a rush.

For a moment he thinks it is because Loki has finally said something too terrible; but what he is feeling is not rage but relief. From across the room Loki is watching him as though he actually cares what Thor will do, and Thor knows, sudden and swift and terrible, that he has Loki back.

"I do not wish to do this to you," Thor whispers.

Loki still makes no move towards him. He simply says, with open face and open posture, "Please."

Thor shakes his head, helplessly.

Now Loki does approach, with his familiar cautious steps, and puts his hand up to Thor's face. Thor cannot find it in himself to flinch away. "Please," Loki says again, in a near-whisper. He tongue flicks out briefly over his lips, and Thor can't stop staring. "It is all right, Thor," Loki says, still soft and earnest. "I wish you to do it."

Thor knows, scrabbling for any purchase, that Loki is fully aware of what to do to make Thor yield, and this is it. Thor tries to pull himself far enough away that he cannot feel their breath entangling. "Loki ... no."

For a moment Loki's face starts to shift back to anger; then he pauses, and though Thor can see the calculation, there is still nothing he can do against it when Loki looks at him, eyes bright, his voice catching ragged when he says, "Do you know how long I've wanted this?"

It slides like a dagger under Thor's ribs. They meet in the middle. Loki's mouth is as hungry as the last time, and though he is not tearing at Thor's clothing, Thor feels as though his heart might beat out of his chest.

This time, because he has had far too much time to think on it, Thor knows exactly what he is doing. This is your brother, he thinks, his whole body flooding hot with shame, and the worst of it is that this does nothing to stop him. Loki's hands are clenched tight in Thor's shirt as though he's terrified Thor might try to break away; but Thor is afraid nothing could make him leave now. He slides his hands into Loki's hair, cool and fine between his fingers, distractingly lovely even with Loki pressing urgently into his mouth. It's too much at once, and Thor is unsure how long he will be able to stand it. They are both shaking, wrapping around one another slow and certain. This is your brother, Thor thinks, and this time cannot stop a low helpless noise of wanting.

Loki echoes it, gripping more tightly at Thor's shirt, and the dizzy arousal that follows does drown Thor's thoughts. He bites at Loki's lower lip and Loki keens, surging up against him; Thor cups the back of Loki's neck, holding him in place, kissing Loki thoroughly while Loki makes soft ragged whimpers into his mouth.

Your brother winnows through Thor's mind again, but the shame is still a goad rather than a deterrent. His hands slide over Loki's shoulders and to the hollow of his throat. Loki shivers, breaking the kiss and tipping his head back a little, and that -- the pale column of Loki's throat -- Thor is not going to be so foolish as to leave any marks. He swallows convulsively and instead undoes the top button of Loki's shirt.

He stops. This is something else again.

Loki meets his eyes. "Yes," he says.

So Thor undoes the second button, and the third, slow and careful; he can feel a rising jittery urgency, but if he gives in to it his hands will be useless. He hesitates at the fourth button, looks up at Loki again. One side of Loki's mouth lifts up into a smile. "Yes."

Suddenly Thor cannot remove Loki's shirt fast enough. He scrambles through the last few buttons, managing to undo them without tearing them off or ruining the fabric. He slides the shirt from Loki's shoulders. Loki helps, moving sinuously against him, laughing, low and lascivious, "Yes." He tilts his head back again and this time Thor must: he curls over Loki, pressing his mouth to the hollow of Loki's throat, lapping a trail from the center of his collarbones to the tip of his shoulder, and Loki says, "Yes, Thor."

He kisses Loki's mouth again, though not to stop the words; he finds he loves how Loki says his name, half-shocked and warm, loves it so much it makes him dizzy. Loki returns the kiss fierce and hungry. Thor pulls him closer, hands on Loki's back, at the dip in his spine. Thor already knows what Loki's skin feels like, of course, he's known for years, but still this feels new and precious and terrifying. Loki shifts, leaning into the touch, and his hands come up to hook into Thor's belt loops. Loki pulls Thor's hips firmly flush against his, and Thor bites down involuntarily on Loki's lip.

Loki laughs, soft and delighted, rolling against him. Thor can feel Loki's back muscles sliding under his hands, and Thor remembers that his brother is no longer young, no longer a fragile mage and scholar; he is a powerful man who has grown into a force that can barely be contained.

He is subtly unbuttoning and unzipping Thor's trousers, so quick and deft that it takes Thor a moment to realize.

Thor startles at that, and pulls back to look at Loki. Loki looks back at him, eyebrows slightly raised, looking amused and sure. For a moment Thor thinks it would be easy to forget his surroundings, to pretend this is like so many other trysts he's had, with confident, noble sorts of people -- albeit with an added edge of danger. He knows that is foolishness (this is your brother) but he cannot stop the slow grin that rises in return, battle-happy and fierce. "You first," he says.

Loki regards him, long enough that Thor's grin begins to falter; he has overstepped some bound, much too late, without meaning to; Loki is going to laugh and mock him. But Loki does none of these things. Instead he simply raises his brows a little higher and says, "Very well."

Then he turns toward the bed, pulling the drawstring on his trousers. He drops them, steps out of them, and sits down on the bed to look at Thor. Thor's mouth has gone entirely dry. It is one thing to think of Loki in pieced-together memories, quickly shoved aside; it is another entirely to see his brother, lithe and graceful and entirely without discomfort, naked before him on a bed.

Loki's expression turns to haughty command. He raises his chin a little, and says, precise and sharp, "Undress and come here."

Thor does not think of arguing. He goes to Loki, stripping off garments as he does so, and shoves Loki backwards onto the bed. Loki goes easily, sprawling under him, and Thor cannot bear Loki's easy confidence when he still feels halfway to terror. He braces his hands on Loki's shoulders, pinning his brother to the mattress, and Loki --

Loki does not fight. The laughing confidence fades from his face; his eyes flutter near-shut, and when he looks at Thor again, they are fathomlessly dark. He brings his hands up slowly, tracing the braced muscles of Thor's arms, down Thor's chest, fingers following ribs, thumb tracing a muscle on Thor's stomach. Thor trembles over him, surprised and unsure.

He meets Loki's eyes again. Loki gazes up at him, looking stunned, and under Thor he shivers, just once, as shocked and helpless as Thor feels. Thor does not stop to think; he has never needed anything as much as he suddenly needs to be as close to Loki as he can. He settles his weight onto Loki, and Loki's legs fall open, fitting them perfectly together, skin to skin.

They both moan. Loki's hands are bruisingly tight on Thor's hips, his legs wrapping around Thor's thighs. Thor kisses him, helpless, drowning in it. This is your brother, he thinks, but the words are flooded with joy and awe and affection now, useless as a defense. This is Loki writhing under him, mouth hot and sure; Loki gasping, "Thor, yes," when Thor breaks away to kiss the line of his jaw and down his neck; Loki growing aroused against Thor's thigh. Thor is beginning to have trouble thinking of anything but how very much he wants to touch Loki's cock.

Taking a shuddering breath, Thor disentangles as best he can, rising to his hands and knees over Loki again. Loki makes a choked-off keening noise at the loss of contact and glares up at Thor. "What --"

"Loki," Thor says. His voice cracks with desperation. "I -- I want to --"

"Anything," Loki says, quick and sharp and terribly honest. It pools in Thor's belly like a benediction; he shivers, and wraps a hand around Loki's already-slick cock.

Loki arches into it bow-taut, with a noise only slightly too teeth-clenched to be a scream. Thor can feel the throb of his pulse, and he simply holds Loki for a long moment, barely breathing, nearly too heavy with want to move. Loki does not seem to mind. He trembles under Thor, eyes unfocused. With idle fascination, half to see what Loki does and half for the feel of it, Thor thumbs the head of Loki's cock; Loki's eyelids flutter and he moves, a slow, hypnotic roll of his hips. "Yes."

It is so lovely that Thor leans down and kisses Loki again, soft, slow kisses that Loki returns in kind. This is, Thor realizes dazedly, already so overwhelming that to ask for more might be madness.

Loki breaks the kiss. His hands ghost over Thor's face, thumbs brushing his cheekbones. He gives Thor a slow, knowing smile, as though he can read Thor's mind. More than once, Thor has sincerely hoped otherwise; but now it might be a boon. "Loki --"

"You want to fuck me," Loki says, low and matter-of-fact.

Thor had been unsure; he wants more, yes, but that more had been a hot uncertainty. It crystallizes now, so sharp he cannot for a moment breathe. "Yes."

"Did you bring anything to ease the way?" Loki asks. Thor blinks at him, and Loki actually rolls his eyes. "No, of course you didn't; you came here pretending you did not want this. No matter: I have made do before. Give me your hand."

Thor obeys, and it is only when Loki's mouth is sliding hot and close over his fingers that he realizes what Loki meant. I have made do before. Were Thor capable of any real thought, he might have reacted better; as it is, he grabs at Loki's hair with his free hand and shoves Loki's face down on his fingers as though that might drive away the memory of Loki making do with anyone else.

Even as he does it Thor regrets the violence of the response, but Loki, far from trying to get away, makes a soft strangled noise of pleasure and sucks hard on Thor's fingers. Surprised arousal spikes through Thor. He grips Loki's hair harder, pushing Loki down onto his fingers again, and this time Loki claws at Thor in obvious desperation, his eyes falling shut and his cheeks flushing. Thor is riveted.

The desire to bite down on the junction of Loki's neck and shoulder, hard enough to leave a bruise, washes over Thor so strongly that he nearly does it before remembering where they are. Instead he says, low against Loki's ear, "We would be discovered, were I to be as rough with you as I wish. But I do wish it, Loki."

Loki hisses softly, biting down a little on Thor's fingers. They both shiver. This is more strange and wonderful than Thor might have imagined; this is where finally they are speaking to the same purpose. Thor wants to tell Loki how good that is, no matter how obviously foolish the words would be; but Loki saves him from speaking by lapping his tongue along the underside of Thor's fingers. It spikes through Thor again, the desire to hold Loki down and take him.

Thor swears, pulling his fingers from Loki's mouth. Loki's legs spread obligingly, and Thor is already starting to work his way in before Loki laughs and says "Slowly! Slo -- oh." Thor freezes at the same time that Loki grabs his wrist. Their eyes meet again. Loki grins, bright and fierce, and moves himself down on Thor's fingers. His mouth goes slack.

Far too late, Thor realizes that he must somehow survive this. He has two fingers inside his little brother. His brother, who is hot and tight around him; his brother whose face is relaxed, transported; his brother, making small high noises of surprise and delight, still rolling his hips minutely, hand tight on Thor's wrist urging Thor on. Thor feels a pressure in his chest halfway between joy and panic. He should go; this is a terrible mistake; he knew that the moment he walked in the door and the moment Loki kissed him and even the moment he pressed his fingers inside Loki, and he will not go because there is a look on Loki's face like dazed bliss and Thor is the one who did that.

No; he will not go because Loki loves it, but that reason still speaks to Thor's nobility, and it is entirely clear that he has none. The truth is that he will not go because it is good beyond the telling of it to do this to Loki, and because Thor wants nothing more than to take his brother wholly, wants it so much that it hurts.

Thor takes a dragging breath. "Are you ready?"

It takes Loki a moment to focus. He blinks up at Thor with dark eyes and says, "I thought you'd never ask."

The tension in Thor's spine comes undone. He cannot help the snort of laughter. Apparently his wretch of a brother does not stop being irritating for anything in the universe.

Loki hisses a little when Thor pulls his fingers out. Thor has a brief flash of worry -- he was a fool, he is going to hurt Loki -- but Loki is still watching him, halfway between impatience and boneless readiness, and there is nothing for it; Thor takes hold of Loki's hips, angling them, and presses into Loki, agonizingly slow.

Loki's body bows, and he keens, pulling Thor closer with scrabbling hands. Thor wants to take a moment to pause, to hold himself still and feel how good it is to be seated inside Loki like this; but he is in freefall, can hardly breathe, is so far gone with pleasure that he has nothing left with which to protest when Loki rolls against him. "Thor," he says, and Thor cannot keep still. He moves, seeking more; not just the friction along his cock but against his belly, around his hips, the impossible tightening of Loki's fingertips on his lower back in a grip that would hurt were it not drawing them closer together.

Thor snaps his hips harder to see the shifting look on Loki's face; but he is not prepared for Loki's gasp, sudden and stunned, "Brother."

After that there is no question of control. Thor grasps Loki's shoulders more than hard enough to leave bruises, rutting into Loki with desperation. Loki twists under him, making a choked-off noise that sounds like it wants to be a scream, spasming around Thor, and Thor thinks, dazedly, Loki, before his orgasm crashes over him, so hard that his arms give out and he moans, shaking all over, into Loki's shoulder.

They lie very still, entwined and trembling.

At length Loki smiles hesitantly at him, a stray hair sticking to his forehead. Thor remains still, feeling as though a small supernova has taken place under his skin. The tingling subsides only a little if he breathes deeply, and he is already panting.

Loki's quick huff of breath might be a laugh, or just the release of his last pent-up tension. He lines up his hips and waist to resettle neatly under Thor's, and the fit of him there is unbelievable.

"We were not meant to see how well we -- how well this feels."

Loki's fingertips slide up Thor's biceps, and rest there. "No," he agrees simply, lightly. "You found it good, then?"

Good. Not at all. Terrifying, certainly, and wonderful beyond measure. But Thor does not want to explain his horror, nor his joy. Instead he pulls Loki close and kisses him, soft and slow and thorough.

*

"So it went okay?"

"What was that?" Thor asks absently. Steve is unwrapping the tape from his knuckles, a towel slung over his shoulders; Thor feels pleasantly loose and alert. This was perhaps the best sparring session they have had yet.

"Your visit with Loki," Steve says. His focus is still on his knuckles, and he fortunately misses the momentary look of panic that Thor cannot stop from crossing his face. "You don't look like you're having the worst week of your life anymore."

"No," Thor says. "No, it has ... improved. We have moved past the worst of his silences, I think."

"Well," Steve says, looking up with a grin, "I don't envy you the task, but I'm glad it's going better."

"Yes," Thor agrees. He wonders whether it is a lie. But things do seem to be going better; at the very least, he has passed straight through his guilt and terror and come out the other side into a strange sort of clarity. He is not who he thought he was. He is not Asgard's sole defense, nor Earth's, and this is fortunate, because the only thing that Thor knows he is, with certainty, is a man who will lie with his brother and love every moment of it. He is not sure what that makes him; a little like Loki, perhaps.

(It was a difficult thing, to leave Loki. They both dressed again as best they could, but Thor's skin was singing with the need to touch Loki still, and Loki did nothing to dissuade him. "I will return as soon as I am able," Thor told him, and Loki twined around him, kissing him and kissing him until Thor's joints were loose and he was half-hard again. Then Loki laughed and let him go; every time Thor thinks on that moment again, his lips tingle and his chest feels tight with warmth.)

He wonders that Steve cannot see that he is wholly different. But what Steve saw in him, it seems, was a strange melancholy and a return to equilibrium, and Thor is not going to disabuse him.

Their Starkphones ping. Steve fumbles his out of his jeans pocket. "Code green," he says. "Tony says Agent Coulson wants to catch up on what we've been doing as a team." He looks over at Thor. "Should I have a briefing ready?"

"A code green sounds informal enough," Thor says, smiling.

Everyone comes for code green calls, now. Of course, today they all came because it was Coulson’s summons, but it's more than that: they have all grown comfortable with one another. They no longer sit always in the same configurations -- in the beginning Clint and Agent Romanoff would always sit together, Tony and Bruce, Steve and Thor. But on this evening Thor tells Coulson of their latest battle strategy, assisted by Clint, while Tony argues about something to do with his company with Lady Pepper, and argues with Bruce about something happening in the lab, and argues with Steve and Romanoff while they discuss the ongoing problem of assisting in the rebuilding from the Battle of New York.

"Look, I am the champion of multitasking," Tony is saying, "considering I'm doing the clean energy initiative and the upkeep on the suits and coordinating the Avengers while also getting in personal time with Pepper and hooking up with Bruce, so don't tell me I'm not on top of this."

Surprised silence ripples out around him. Bruce stares at Tony. "Careful of my heart rate," he says, very mildly.

"Look," Steve says, "it's long past time we coordinate with local -- Wait, what?"

Thor is quite good enough at idiom now to follow, but he thinks feigned ignorance might diffuse the situation. "I must ask your patience again, friends, but what is 'hooking up'?"

Clint gives a snort of amusement, but no one else responds. The silence stretches awkwardly until Lady Pepper huffs quietly and says, as though to herself, "'I am Iron Man'." That draws a laugh from the whole table.

"Thank you," Tony says, pointing to her. "Pepper is right, that was so much worse, and on the bright side here Bruce just totally kept his cool, which he is by the way very good at, we've had zero Hulk incidents in the bedroom." He grins at Bruce, who is gaping at him. "I know this is a little TMI, but Bruce, honey, I think you deserve some recognition, and you need to get better at accepting compliments, and since I'm on a roll anyway --"

"Tony, no," Bruce says quietly but firmly over him. Tony stops mid-word, as though Bruce has flipped a switch.

The silence is rather more stunned, but much shorter; Clint, recovering first, says, "Actually, I think that was more TMI."

"Move to adjourn," Agent Romanoff says. Clint looks as though he's stifling laughter, and Agent Coulson looks as though he has several strategies to rethink. Thor smiles down at the table and reflects that it seems all entanglements have their complications.

*

"Can I ask your advice?" Steve says that evening.

They've taken pizza and beer to the roof again. Clint and Agents Romanoff and Coulson disappeared some time ago, presumably for a SHIELD briefing, around the same time that Tony, Bruce, and Lady Pepper vanished in another direction, hopefully for affection rather than recriminations. The sky is clear tonight and Thor can see one or two distant faded stars.

"Of course," Thor says to Steve. He takes the last slice of pizza.

"This thing with Tony and Bruce," Steve says. "It has me thinking. I thought, fraternization within the team, probably a bad thing, especially because -- I know there's no official team leader, but it does feel like Tony and I have taken point on that." Steve takes a deep breath. "But I think I've taken a shine to Natasha.”

Thor is not quite sure what he was expecting. He blinks, but answers readily, "A very worthy subject for your affections. Do you believe she feels the same?"

"Well, that's the thing, it's sort of difficult to get a read on her." Steve mirrors Thor's grin of rueful understanding. "You may have noticed. But like I said ..."

Thor nods. "Having taken up the task of team leader, you feel that as her superior it would not be right to put her in a position where you would show her special favor."

"Or make her uncomfortable." Steve shrugs. "And I don't know whether I feel that more or less strongly now. I mean, Tony liked Bruce a lot already, so them having a thing, not actually much of a change. I guess it's a different situation."

"Perhaps more like that of Tony and Lady Pepper," Thor suggests. "They seem to have found a measure of balance, despite their relative positions in Stark Industries."

Steve laughs. "So we come back around to me asking Tony Stark for relationship advice. He'd never let me live it down."

Thor considers. "We could invite Lady Natasha to accompany us when we go into the city. As you say, it is difficult to read her, and I would very much like to; I believe I would enjoy her company as well. Perhaps you could determine her interest in you."

"Yeah," Steve says, brightening. "If you wouldn't mind, that'd be swell. Thanks, Thor."

"Of course," Thor says, and smiles up at the sky.

*

Later that evening, for the first time since he kissed Loki, Thor dares to touch Mjolnir. He has put it off more than long enough; inevitably the Avengers will be needed for another battle, and if he is to be caught without it he will have to find some other weapons. But the hammer leaps to his hand just as it should, warm and alive and dependable, and Thor breathes out more tension than he knew he had.

Loving Loki does not, then, condemn him. Or those things he does for his friends outweigh it, Thor thinks, but he does not linger overlong wondering at the matter. Mjolnir is still his, and that is enough.

*

The following day, when Lady Natasha cannot be found at the Tower, Steve dithers only a little before sending her a text of invitation, and in the evening she meets up with them, wearing casual Midgardian clothing and a polite smile. They get burgers at a corner diner, at Thor's insistence; he is not yet remotely tired of milkshakes.

"We were just thinking," Steve says, while they wait for their food to come, "a team is only as strong as everyone in it, and since the three of us haven't really --"

"Steve," Lady Natasha says, "it's fine. I like doing normal things sometimes."

"Normal," Thor echoes, swirling his milkshake around with his straw. "Forgive me, Lady Natasha, but I suspect all three of us have very different ideas of what that is."

The corner of Lady Natasha's mouth tilts up. "So tell us your normal."

Thor glances over at Steve, but Steve looks interested, and not at all displeased at this turn of the conversation, so Thor tells them readily enough: summers in Vanaheim, long winters while Odin slept; feasts and storytelling of the old battles and great victories; dusty days in the training yard. They have heard of his grand adventures in other realms already, but not of this, those small things Thor misses constantly, the roar of the ocean over the edge of the world and the sweep of the galaxy's arm beyond.

"So not much like where I grew up," Steve concludes.

"Or where I did," Lady Natasha agrees; the food arrives as she says it, sparing her any elaboration, which seems very convenient timing. Thor suspects she meant it to be.

"Sometimes I think normal is the war," Steve confesses. "Which I know is dumb. I was only in real combat for a year, but ..."

"I'd like to hear it firsthand," Lady Natasha says, leaning forward. "If you don't mind."

"No, not at all," Steve says, smiling at her. "Where would you like me to start?"

"At the beginning," Lady Natasha suggests. "Your rescue of that unit from Schmidt's fortress."

Lady Natasha obviously knows much more about this than Thor does. Thor listens in fascination. His education on the history of Midgard did not go into World War Two in great detail, since Steve knew all the particulars and Thor was content with Steve's summary. He knew already that Steve was -- and is -- clever, brave, a good tactician, and willing to sacrifice himself for his men in a way that would do any Asgardian proud; but hearing the particulars is a delight.

"...whole thing blown up behind us," Steve concludes. "Schmidt escaped, obviously, but the whole unit was recovered."

Lady Natasha whistles softly, obviously impressed. "Not that I thought the SHIELD dossiers were exaggerating," she says, "but they do like to emphasize their victories." She steals a fry off Steve's plate. "That reminds me of a time I was in Minsk ..."

It transpires that Lady Natasha's stories are just as impressive as Steve's, although she has a tendency to avoid particular time frames, people, specific locations. She does, however, have tales of several explosions, told with such a deadpan expression that by the end of the third one, Steve is laughing so hard he cannot breathe, and Thor is laughing equally hard, mostly at Steve.

"Thor," Lady Natasha says, with grinning composure, "what have you blown up?"

Thor chuckles, pulling himself together, and after some consideration regales them with the story of the time with Sif, the bilgesnipe, and the library tower. Both Loki and Heimdall had been furious about that one, but Sif told Thor later that Frigga had confessed to laughing about it in private. "Besides," Thor says, "the books were all fine, and it was Sif's first kill."

"See," Lady Natasha says, leaning back, "cultural exchange."

They pay for their meal and wander out into the night. Lady Natasha heads for the subway, but before she takes the stairs down, she turns to Thor and Steve and says, "I'd like to ask a favor."

"Sure," says Steve, as Thor says, "Of course." They grin at each other.

Natasha's mouth tilts up into another of the smiles that Thor is coming to recognize as her true one. "I've noticed the two of you holding morning sparring sessions," she says. "Clint and I keep each other on our game, but we know all each other's moves backwards. I think you two would shake it up a little."

"Well, I --" Steve says, looking a little dubious.

"Yes," Thor says swiftly. He remembers well enough how Sif used to cajole and threaten him into sparring with her, and he would like to spare Natasha the same trouble. Besides, he has seen her in a fight. She fights dirty, and he admires that in a would-be opponent. "I would be honored."

"Good." Natasha's smile grows wider. "I want to know how to take on monsters and gods."

She bids them goodnight, and goes before Thor can ask her which of those she thinks he is.

*

He promised he would return as soon as he could, so the next day Thor goes to see Loki.

Already he distrusts the record of his memory. He does not know whether Loki said Thor's name with the enthusiastic fervency that Thor recalls; it seems a flattery and an exaggeration, something Thor wishes to be true, or something Loki knew Thor wished. Thor goes to Loki's cell with several contingencies in mind, some of them more apologetic than others, and the resolution that he must be entirely sure of Loki.

"Thor," Loki breathes when Thor enters, and oh, Thor's memory was not exaggerating.

"Loki, I --" Thor starts, but by then Loki is on him; he backs Thor against the door, one hand braced on the wall next to Thor's shoulder, taking Thor by the nape of his neck with the other. He brings Thor into a kiss, not so much grinding against Thor as sliding up against him whole-bodied. Thor gasps, and Loki licks into his mouth, laughing.

The kiss floods all Thor's nerves alight, and he kisses Loki back, starved for it. But he fists his hands in Loki's shirt, too, and gathers the will to push Loki back slightly. "Wait," he says against Loki's lips.

"Yes?" Loki murmurs. He leaves Thor's mouth and kisses along his jaw, nuzzling under Thor's ear, nipping at his throat. Thor shivers, hands twisting in Loki's shirt.

"I -- I wanted to ask," Thor tries. It comes out breathy, but he keeps going, even when Loki hums absently and sucks a kiss into his collarbone. "If you still wish -- Loki -- if you want this truly, if this was not some ploy that went too far --"

Loki glances up at him, looking honestly affronted. "You still doubt I want this?"

"I need to be sure, Loki," Thor says. His hands smooth over the front of Loki's shirt, and Loki arches into the touch, apparently without thought; he is still regarding Thor with skepticism. "I am your brother, and you -- you are a prisoner here ..."

Loki laughs, more derisive than amused. "I have no doubt you would stop the moment I told you to," he tells Thor, in such a conciliatory tone that Thor thinks, a little irritated, that Loki is not taking this half so seriously as he should. Perhaps Loki sees this; the mocking fades from his face. "I want you," he says, low and serious. "You may be dishonorable, dear brother," he touches Thor's cheek, "but you would never take me unwilling. I want this." He tugs at Thor's hair, and adds, sharp, "If you please."

This time when he kisses Thor, Thor returns it without hesitation. Loki's hands tangle in Thor's hair, still pulling a little, and it reminds Thor of all the roughhousing they were wont to do as boys. He nips at Loki's tongue; Loki gasps and laughs and twists his hands, hard enough to hurt. Thor jolts, shoving a leg between Loki's. He fumbles open one button on Loki's shirt, and the next; without breaking the kiss Loki starts at the bottom of his shirt, and when their hands meet in the middle Thor pushes the shirt from Loki's shoulders. Loki bites Thor's lower lip and pulls away to tug the t-shirt over Thor's head.

"Bed?" Thor gasps.

"Or floor," Loki says on a breathless laugh, "I'm not feeling particular."

"Loki," Thor growls, hauling his stupid insatiable brother towards the bed. They're nearly upon it when Loki turns, leveraging his weight over Thor. Thor sits down hard on the bed and Loki's momentum carries him neatly down to straddle Thor's lap. Thor grabs Loki's hips in reflexive surprise; Loki grinds down, taking Thor's face in his hands and kissing him thoroughly.

It is strangely reassuring, Thor realizes distantly, sinking into the feel of Loki's mouth, of Loki upon him; he forgets that Loki always has a knife, or an illusion, or an unexpected shift of his weight, that Loki is entirely capable of defending himself. If Loki is straddling Thor on a bed, that is exactly where he wants them to be.

Thor rubs his thumbs over the waistband of Loki's trousers, along the skin of his hips. Loki shivers and stills, the kiss becoming nothing but their mouths softly aligned. Thor runs his hands up Loki's sides, palms for a moment bracketing his ribs; skims his fingers over the planes of Loki's back, and across his shoulders. Loki shudders again, pulling back enough to look at Thor with wide eyes. Thor fears for a moment that Loki will stop him, accuse him of base sentiment. But Loki merely exhales, quiet and shaky, and leans forward again to rest his forehead against Thor's. His hands play idly with the hair at the nape of Thor's neck. Thor does not know what to do with the rising warmth he feels; there is, for the first time, no desperation to this. He keeps touching Loki, soft, wondering, at the way that Loki arches into it, at the way the muscles in his belly jump a little under Thor's hands. "Loki," Thor breathes.

"I hardly believe it either," Loki whispers.

Thor's touch stills for a moment; then he keeps on, running his hands up Loki's chest. Loki makes a soft appreciative noise, hips shifting. Thor is loath to encroach upon this moment with words, but Loki is not laughing at him, and he can think of no better time. "Nor can I," Thor says, low. "But I -- did not come to this on a whim."

"Did you not?" Loki murmurs. He sounds not mocking but mildly curious, and when he draws back to look at Thor, his face is so serious and so open that Thor can hardly breathe.

"I," Thor says, and swallows. "I have wanted this for ages."

"Thor," Loki says, "you need not reassure me --"

"No," Thor says, swift, pressing his fingers to Loki's mouth to stop the words. Loki's mouth curves into a smile; he nips lightly at the pads of Thor's fingers. "I mean it," Thor tells him. "I spent a week telling myself that kissing you had been but a momentary madness, and the more I tried to believe it, the more I came to the opposite conclusion."

Loki's smile is growing wider. There is still nothing mocking to it. The warmth in Thor's chest is growing to pressure, stopping his throat with relief. Here is his brother, after all, the Loki Thor has missed desperately, to whom Thor used to tell everything. Thor cannot help it; he draws Loki into another kiss, loving the way Loki's mouth opens to his, the minute roll of Loki's hips creating friction that spikes arousal up Thor's spine.

He ignores it, content still to drag this out. At the end of the kiss he presses his forehead to Loki's again, and murmurs, "Small things. Excuses to touch you. How well I liked giving you bruises in practice --"

Loki's grip goes convulsively tight on his shoulders. For a moment Thor fears he has said too much; but when he looks at Loki, his brother only says, sharp and breathy, "Please, keep talking," and without warning slides gracefully to the floor between Thor's legs.

"Oh," Thor says, abruptly so hard he has trouble focusing.

Loki runs his hands up Thor's thighs, pushing them apart, and smiles up at Thor, slow and wicked. "Take these off," he says.

Thor undoes his trousers with haste, lifting his hips so Loki can pull them down. They tangle around his shoes, but that is no matter; Loki is already touching Thor's thighs again, skin-to-skin now. Thor reaches out to settle his fingertips on Loki's jaw. Loki's gaze flickers back up to meet Thor's; he says, quiet and precise, "I said, keep talking. And do speak clearly, Thor."

Then he slides his mouth down over Thor's cock, hot and relentless, until Thor feels the head hit the back of Loki's throat. Thor digs his fingers into the mattress, hoping very distantly that he won't tear the sheets. "Loki," he gasps.

Loki looks up at him, raising his eyebrows.

"You expect me to talk?" Thor chokes.

Loki pulls off, his mouth already a little redder. "Yes," he says simply.

Thor groans. "Hideous wretch."

"Yes," Loki agrees. He kisses the head of Thor's cock, feather-light.

Thor shudders, trying to collect his scattered thoughts when all he can think is how much he wants to grab Loki and shove him back down. He's near certain Loki would enjoy that; all the evidence so far suggests that Loki loves being used thus. But that is not the game that Loki is playing right now. Loki, damn him, is teasing Thor --

And Thor remembers, as he did not even remember in the panic of the previous week, a moment long ago when he felt much like this.

"Vanaheim," Thor says. Loki waits, watching him. "Damn you, Loki, please -- We were apple-picking on Vanaheim in the summer, an age ago, I did not have Mjolnir yet." Loki nods and leans forward, mouth sliding over Thor's cock again, slower this time.

It feels no less intensely wonderful, but Thor takes a deep, shivery breath, and tells Loki's bowed head, "You'd brought a book, but I would -- nngh -- not let you read, it was much too lovely a midsummer morning. You were annoyed with me, I think." Loki hollows his cheeks, eyes fluttering closed; Thor's vision goes blurred with pleasure.

"Since you could not read, you spent the whole day flirting with Freya," he says. His voice has gone slow, but the words are easier now. His skin is tingling, and each heartbeat brings a new heavy throb of arousal. He lifts a hand to lightly cup the back of Loki's head, and Loki moans softly, his face a picture of intense focus. "You gave me such smug looks," Thor says, "all the while eating apples and licking the juice from your fingers, and Loki, oh, what I wanted to do to you." He lets the hand on the back of Loki's head go heavier, and Loki shivers, looking up at him, eyes dark. "I wanted to hold you down," Thor tells him, "and kiss the taste of apples from your mouth, and make you forget you had ever even seen Freya."

He grips Loki's hair and pushes his brother down on his cock, slow and inexorable.

Loki shudders, eyes falling shut again, and sucks hard enough that Thor's hips jerk up involuntarily. Loki makes a strangled noise that sounds like joy, and Thor, entirely out of words and close to the edge already, does it again with purpose, fucking his brother's mouth while Loki writhes between his legs and tries to get even closer. "Loki," Thor moans, and has the presence of mind to transfer his grip to the bedclothes as he comes, gasping and oversensitized and wrung out.

He feels Loki rest his head against Thor's thigh, a heavy weight that could mean either satisfaction or desperation. With effort Thor looks down at him; when he sees how very still Loki is holding himself, he says, "Come here, Loki, now," and allows himself to be knocked backwards onto the bed, Loki on him and over him and kissing him frantically. Thor winds a hand in Loki's hair, kissing the taste of himself from his brother's mouth, and wraps his other hand around Loki's cock. It takes only a few pulls before Loki is coming too, shaking and moaning against Thor's neck.

Thor pulls Loki to him, and Loki settles atop him with a sigh, still shivering a little. They stay like that for some time, wrapped around each other without words.

*

"What do you think?" Thor asks when Steve arrives at the Tower, well-scrubbed and nervous, for their first sparring sessions with Natasha.

"That she won't appreciate it if we go easy on her," Steve says.

"Yes, certainly," Thor agrees, "though I meant in regards to your interest in her."

"Oh." Steve shrugs. "I don't think she's interested. I mean, it feels kind of early to rule out anything ever, but I don't think I'm going to hold onto this crush very hard. Besides, she kind of reminds me of someone, and I think I should get to know her for her a bit more." They reach the sparring room. Steve looks over at Thor. "What about you? Not about Natasha, I mean. Do you have a sweetheart?"

Thor thinks for a moment of Loki. The word is entirely incongruous next to the thought of his brother; and the thought of Loki is entirely incongruous when he is standing in Avengers Tower talking with Steve. Thor's mind shies from it. "No," Thor says. "There was ... I had some interest in Jane Foster, but nothing came of it."

"Because of Loki?" Steve says, with sympathy.

Thor ignores the rising desire to laugh hysterically. "Yes," he says. "Because of Loki."

Thankfully Natasha arrives then. Steve offers to take the first bout with her, which she accepts cheerfully, and Thor settles in against the wall to observe them. They are, he is impressed to see within the first few moments, very evenly matched; Steve might be bigger, but they are equally swift, and Steve makes exactly the same mistake that Thor would often make with Sif, holding back just a little, at least until Natasha has knocked him down twice. Then Steve does not hold back, and it is a short while before Natasha adjusts for this and is able to take him down again.

"So?" Natasha asks. Her hair is sticking to her forehead, and she's breathing a little harder than usual, but both she and Steve still look fresh and cheerful.

"So I believe it is my turn," Thor says.

An hour later, they head upstairs for lunch, Thor's muscles aching pleasantly. The three of them eat together, quietly content, and Thor watches Natasha, considering. She is very good at what she does. She uses joint locks and clever dodges and Thor's own weight against him, which is only what Thor expected; but it is unexpected, too, because there is no pattern to her. She learned Steve's easily, and some of Thor's, but in return she is ... ephemeral, Thor thinks. The word is a kindness; she seems made half of trickery.

Thor has not had much to do with her before, but of course he has seen her with their teammates, and what he knows is this: with Lady Pepper, she is smart and calm and dryly funny, and she shares the dry humor with Tony; with Steve and Agent Coulson, she is all competence; she is frank with Bruce, and Thor thinks this is what she is showing of herself to him as well. What she is with Clint is very much what Thor is with his own closest friends, and tells him nothing but that she is human. He does not know which parts of her are the true ones, or if that is the wrong question entirely. But for all this, Thor finds that he is beginning to like her very much.

"What?" Natasha asks. She stands, taking her dishes. "Stop staring; it's good for you to get beaten by people half your size."

"It is," Thor agrees humbly. "Thank you for the lesson."

*

The sparring quickly becomes routine; nor does it stay between only Thor, Natasha, and Steve. The next morning Clint turns up, a curious Tony in tow. Clint and Steve spar with each other while Natasha and Thor teach Tony what Natasha calls basic self-defense moves. ("You won't always have a suit on you in time," Natasha tells him, and Tony does concede the point.)

In the afternoon Bruce and Agent Coulson join them too, Coulson calling advice and Bruce simply sitting on the sidelines. Thor briefly joins him there, and asks, "Would you like some practice in this form as well?"

"I think I'm good," Bruce says. "Thanks, though."

Thor hesitates. "I ... confess I would enjoy sparring with the Hulk."

"I don't think we should risk breaking the gym," Bruce says, but he gives Thor a smile. "But I'll, uh, we'll keep that in mind."

"Thank you," Thor says, clapping Bruce on the back, and returns to go another round with Natasha, intent to learn more now that Agent Coulson is here to provide commentary.

In the evening, they order from the Thai place around the corner and settle in to watch the night's movie; they take it in turns to pick films, now, and tonight Clint chooses Braveheart, smirking while he suggests it.

Thor finds the story very entertaining, in fact, and the food as always excellent, but what he cares for more is the way they all settle into the room together. Tony lies sprawled across a couch, head in Lady Pepper's lap and feet over Bruce's legs; Steve and Thor sit upon the other couch with Natasha between them; Agent Coulson sits in the room's best armchair, with Clint perched on the arm. Thor feels such warmth for all of them, and something that is not protectiveness, nor even responsibility, but very much akin to the two. He values them very much indeed.

He thinks, for a fleeting moment, of what they might say if they learn of what he is doing with Loki.

Thor shakes the thought off, and turns his attention back to the film. But afterwards, when the lights are on and the takeout cartons being cleared, Bruce pulls Thor aside. "Anything going on? You ... went away for a minute, earlier."

"I," Thor starts, and realizes that he must do somewhat better than he has done so far, or any one of his perceptive teammates might realize the truth. The flash of terror jolts him into inspiration. "It is nothing, truly. Though ... may I ask a favor? I have had no need of an email account before now, but Jane Foster's phone number is not a matter of public record."

"Oh." Bruce's face softens. "Yeah, we can get you one. I take it you have her email address?"

"Of course," Thor says. Upon learning Google one of the first things Thor did was look for Jane, and though there are many Jane Fosters on Midgard, not many of them are astrophysicists. "So this can be done?"

Bruce nods. "Yeah, of course. Tonight, if you like." He waits for Clint and Coulson to go, leaving the room empty; then he says, quiet, "I know how tough it is, not being able to see someone you care about." Thor does not wish to pry, but he must look curious, for Bruce quirks a smile at him and says, "Her name is Betty. Dr. Ross. We used to work together. It ... didn't work out, obviously. And even now that I have the other guy mostly under control, there's -- other stuff. Family. The life situations we're in now. But we try to keep in contact anyway. She's seeing a nice guy now, and I'm seeing a nice -- well, Tony." Thor laughs at that, and Bruce grins briefly. "Point is, if you want to stay in Jane's life, I'm happy to help."

"I thank you," Thor says. He dislikes giving Bruce such a lie; but then, whatever his motive for the request, Thor does want to speak with Jane again.

Bruce shows him how to set up the account. It is mostly straightforward, although Thor becomes increasingly frustrated when, in succession, he finds that thorodinson, mightythorodinson, godofthunder, and wielderofmjolnir are all already taken. "Pretenders," Thor grumbles, but he does accept Bruce's suggestion of adding some numbers to the end, and does not long dwell on the small indignity.

He bids Bruce farewell soon after, and spends some time staring at the blank dialogue box that would allow him to write Jane a letter.

He can think of nothing to say. He thinks of Bruce, speaking of Betty Ross and the good man she is seeing, speaking of his own relationship with Tony, and the implication that neither of them mind. He imagines telling Jane even a fraction of what is happening between him and Loki now, and feels torn between laughter and tears. In the end he takes a deep breath and sends her simply

Jane,
Forgive me for not reaching you sooner, but I have been very busy. I expect you have seen the exploits of the Avengers on the news by now. It is good to be of use here, and I hope that someday soon we can see each other again under better circumstances. I wish you the best of endeavors in your science.
With warm regards,
Thor

It is not enough, and Thor fears that some of the overwhelming guilt he feels must be seeping into his tone. But it will have to do; he has no better words. He sends it, and stops thinking as best he can, and goes to bed.

*

He does not hear back from Jane at once, but he did not expect to; even if she is not busy with her research, which is likely, he does not know whether she has forgiven him, nor if she is likely to respond at all.

But he does not have long to ruminate on this: after breakfast the next morning, Tony corners him, and brings instead a new problem.

"What the hell," Tony says, low, "has been going on with you and Loki?"

Thor has only a moment to stare at Tony, frozen with indecision that has not yet become terror, before Tony goes on. "I didn't take into account how long your visits were going to get when I built that algorithm! There's only so much footage I have to work with already."

"Oh," Thor says, breathing out in a rush of relief. "Do Loki's stubborn silences not serve?"

Tony scrutinizes Thor for long enough that Thor begins to worry that he suspects something after all. Then Tony shrugs, sniffs, and says, "Okay, yeah, more or less, and it's not like the lack of progress is surprising. Just ... what is taking so long?"

"We are talking now," Thor says. The words come out easy and a little warm. "Loki is giving up no secrets; I promise I would report any he told me. But we have made a reconnection, and I thank you deeply for giving us privacy in which to do so."

"What changed?" Tony asks. His expression remains steady when Thor gives him a startled look. "What? Something must have happened. Did you tell him you aren't being watched?"

"That is it almost exactly," Thor confesses. "He became less ... guarded, then."

"Happy to help," Tony says, but he doesn't look it. "I'd still dial back the time a little. Do your heart-to-hearts in manageable doses."

"I will keep this in mind," Thor says, and leaves the conversation uneasy. He knows he cannot tell any of them, that none of the Avengers would understand. Thor supposes he could simply stop seeing Loki, or cut this madness off. He thinks of the bright joy in Loki's face, the way Loki gripped him as though he couldn't bear letting Thor go, and Thor knows that he will have to be forcibly torn from Loki before he will stop.

He goes to Loki that day, because if he cannot get the better of this desire, then he will give in to it willingly.

The guard outside Loki's cell seems surprised to see Thor again so soon. Thinking of Tony's words and the guard's reaction, Thor promises to make this visit quick. He wonders how he will manage to do so; but the second the door has shut behind him, Loki is upon him, already tugging Thor's shirt up over his head, and where at another time Thor might laugh and tell Loki to slow down, today he simply does the same to Loki in return.

They make it to the bed, leaving a trail of discarded clothes in their wake. They do nothing more complex than touch each other, skin to skin, hands wrapped around each other's cocks while they kiss deep and messy. Thor makes no effort to draw it out, but it is lovely nonetheless, sparking under his skin, and the knowledge that it is Loki touching him singing through him like joy. When they are sprawled together afterwards, breathing together and all their limbs entangled, Thor feels such a perfect well of happiness that he cannot help but murmur, "I am glad you're doing so much better."

He feels Loki go still, but Thor is so content that it takes him a moment to realize something is wrong. "Loki?"

"Better," Loki repeats, half a question.

"More like yourself," Thor explains, moving to kiss him, but at this Loki goes so tense that Thor pauses.

"Get out," Loki says, very quietly.

Thor's body understands before his mind can make sense of it; he's disentangled from Loki and off the bed, space between them, before he registers that Loki sounds murderously angry.

Loki sits up slowly, a feral animal uncurling. His face is blazing with rage. "You think," he says, still quiet and precise, with a calm that Thor remembers very well is dangerous, "that I have become better?"

A bare minute ago, Thor could have said yes in all confidence. Now he stares at Loki in mounting alarm.

"How dare you," Loki hisses, "even think that my problem is some pathetic need to know that you love me? Do you really believe I am made better so easily?" He gets to his feet, and though they are both naked, Thor feels as though he is the one without defenses.

He is still surprised, but in the face of Loki's anger he is starting to feel angry in return. "Clearly not," he snaps.

Loki laughs, the old laugh -- not the lovely soft chuckle that he was beginning to have again, but the vicious cracked sound that Thor remembers from battle. "No," Loki says. "Clearly not. Dear Thor, did you really think you could fuck me better?"

"You're missing the point," Thor growls.

"No," Loki says, sharp and cold, "you are missing the point. You imagine you can sink to my level and understand me, as though you were above me in the first place, as though fucking your brother is the worst thing you can imagine doing. You spared me no such thought when we were young. Your tale of Vanaheim is charming, but I disbelieve it; you're remembering it as you wish to, as you always do."

Thor stares at him, breathless with outrage. "How dare --"

Loki grabs Thor's clothes and flings them at him. Thor catches them reflexively. "Leave," Loki snarls.

Getting dressed in a fury is difficult, but Thor does it quickly nonetheless, and Loki spits no further invectives; he simply dresses again himself, in short sharp movements. They stay across the room from each other, as far away as possible; Thor knows very well that they would come to blows if Loki were within reach. He remembers thinking of this desire for violence as a subsuming of other desires, and he does not know what to think.

He goes without a word, still shaking with anger.

*

Thor spends the rest of that day, and much of the next few, feeling baffled and furious by turns. Everything was going so well. Loki had smiled at him, and opened to him, and seemed to be speaking somewhat to the same purpose again. Now Thor cannot tell whether it was mockery and tricks after all, whether he really is that much of a fool; and he is angry because he suspects he is. Loki is still Loki.

The worst thing, strangely, is the way Thor's memory keeps circling back around to Loki saying he did not believe Thor wanted him as well. To be told the contents of his own mind is infuriating.

Thor prods his scrambled eggs in irritation, flipping through morning cartoons, and turns off the television when Natasha joins him on the couch with a stack of pancakes. "Loki?" she asks.

"Often," Thor says ruefully. He accepts the pancake she offers him. "I hear you've been visiting him. How is he with you?"

Natasha considers. "Standoffish to vicious," she says, "or grateful of the company, and willing to discuss the books I've brought him. It depends a lot on how recently you've visited him."

"And if I have recently visited?" Thor asks.

"Standoffish to vicious," Natasha repeats, with a brief smile. "Maybe having other company gets his defenses back up, or maybe you just really piss him off."

It sounds like a joke, but Thor does not laugh.

Natasha takes a deep breath and sets her dish aside. "Thor." She frowns down at her hands. Thor waits her out. When Natasha looks back up at him, her gaze is serious and direct. "You do know that you can't fix a person for them."

She says it like an obvious statement of fact. Thor frowns. "I fear I don't follow."

"I mean, there's only so much you can do for someone." Natasha pulls her legs up onto the couch, tucking them neatly under her -- rearranging herself to look smaller, Thor sees, the way he is beginning to notice many things about Natasha, now that he is learning to look. "With me, for example," Natasha says. "Clint decided to bring me in as a possible asset, rather than doing the job he was assigned to do, because he saw potential. Maybe you see that in Loki; obviously you know him better than any of us do. The problem is, you're ..." She frowns, searching for the words. "You're overreaching your assignment. When Clint brought me in, he let the appropriate people give me my options, and because he'd made a good call for me, I returned the favor. You've done the same thing -- you brought Loki here rather than allowing him to be given to the Chitauri, and that was your call to make. You following?"

"Yes," Thor says. He can see the shape of where this is headed, and he sees Natasha's wisdom, but that doesn't mean he likes it.

"Good." Natasha gives Thor a brief smile, obviously for his benefit. "Now that Loki's here, though, it's his turn. You can't make him choose to cooperate. You can't ... talk him or push him or do anything to get him to a place where he's the way you want him to be, because that's the part he has to do."

"I know," Thor says, a reflex of meaningless sound.

"No," Natasha returns steadily, "you don't. You have to cut back on the visits, and you have to stop running yourself ragged over something that is absolutely not in your control."

"You mean to talk until I'm as you wish me to be?" Thor asks, but he smiles to soften it. To his relief Natasha smiles back, a small genuine smile. "I understand," Thor says, and means it this time. "Willing Loki into a better frame of mind will not make it so; I will give him some time apart from me."

Even as he says it Thor feels a bloom of relief, and a following uneasiness; happiness at retreat feels much too close to cowardice for his liking. Still, time apart may clear his head, might still the turmoil of frustration Thor feels at their latest encounter, might even allow Thor to focus on anything but the memory of Loki's cool dragging fingertips, his mouth pressing sucking kisses down Thor's chest, the sinuous curve of his body under Thor's -- yes. Time apart would be wise.

"Good," Natasha says briskly, unfolding from the couch. Rather than leaving at once, though, she pauses, sets a hand on Thor's shoulder, and says, low, "You can't love someone better, Thor. Remember that."

Thor nods wordlessly, and is grateful when she goes.

*

He does stay away for a few days, but it makes no difference. The need to see Loki is like a hook in his chest, and the longer he resists its pull, the more it hurts.

Besides, Natasha's words circle around in his head -- you can't fix a person for them -- colliding with Loki's snarled You think I have become better? and he thinks he sees the shape of his mistake. Brooding over the problem does no good, nor does allowing Loki to brood over it; so, sooner than perhaps is wise, Thor goes to Loki again.

"Why do you bother?" the guard outside Loki's cell asks him. "He just sits there and glares at you."

Thor stares long at the image of Loki, sitting very still, head bowed in contemplation over his hands, or perhaps over the thin bands of magic encircling his wrists. "Because," Thor says, "he is still my brother. Now let me see him, please."

Loki is sitting just as he appeared on the screen. He does not look up, not even when Thor shuts the door.

"I'm sorry," Thor says quietly. He searches for the words, difficult though they are. "I should not have implied that I have -- have fixed you. It was a stupid and arrogant thing to say."

Loki does look up at that. He does not look angry; he does not have any expression at all. He says nothing.

"That is all," Thor says. "I can go now, if you wish it."

Loki simply looks at him. Thor waits a moment longer; then he takes a shaky breath and turns to the door.

"You're easy to love," Loki murmurs behind him, so quietly that Thor is not sure he really heard it. But he turns, and Loki is still looking at him, eyes very bright. "That was a good and honorable thing to do."

Thor blinks. "Loki, I need no assurance --"

"But you are honorable," Loki says, no louder. "I see how it tears you up, coming to me like this." He frowns a little. "Thor, there is no need to remain in the doorway. Come, I have heard your apology." He touches the bed next to him, splayed hand pale even against the colorless sheets.

There is no way to refuse, and Thor does not want to, even wary as he feels of Loki acting quiet and expressionless. He settles next to Loki on the bed. Loki shudders and turns, curling into Thor with his head tucked under Thor's chin, and Thor allows it, wrapping an arm around Loki and feeling entirely out of his depth. That Loki would say he is unchanged and follow this with an action that specifically recalls moments in their childhood -- Thor has no idea what to make of it. He would suspect a knife under his ribs, but for that he knows Loki is unarmed.

"I know you hate lying," Loki says against Thor's shoulder, "even when it is practical. You are incapable of grudges; even when your own father had you banished, stripped of power in a desert -- even then you showed perfect loyalty --" His voice breaks.

He turns bonelessly in Thor's arms, and kisses him, tentatively. Thor does not know anymore what hesitation might mean, but he is desperately afraid that if he makes any sign Loki might take as rejection, it will be the worse for them. So Thor returns the kiss with fervency, all the reassurance he can give, and Loki melts, sighing all his electric tension into a soft moan in Thor's mouth.

"Do you want --?" Thor whispers.

"Yes," Loki says, and he laughs, low and delighted, when he discovers the packets of lube in Thor's pocket. "Optimist, are you?"

"I've had those for a week now," Thor says, flushing. "It seemed practical."

"Very," Loki says, already fumbling with his trousers and trying to kiss Thor again at the same time. It's too fast, Thor thinks; but he remembers Tony's concern, and he can feel Loki trembling a little with urgency, and Thor is already hard despite his uneasiness.

Their clothes off, Loki seizes Thor's wrist and eases down onto Thor's slick fingers, shuddering so hard that Thor pauses. "No," Loki snarls, "more, damn you," and when Thor complies he keens softly, half arching off the bed, and presses his heels to Thor's back to drag him closer. "Now," Loki gasps, "Thor, please, please --"

The look on Loki's face forbids argument, so Thor grips Loki's hips and pushes into him as gently as he's able. Loki moans, hips rising to meet his. The feel of Loki around him is just as terribly overwhelming as it was the first time, so Thor stays very still, hands sliding up to hold Loki's wrists, trying to anchor them both. He feels, dizzily, as though Loki is slipping away beneath his fingers. Loki arches against him, and Thor leans down to meet his brother's mouth.

Two wet, aching kisses later, Thor adjusts enough that it is not so overwhelming, and rolls his hips. They break the kiss to breathe through it, foreheads pressed together, and Loki says, so low and breathless that Thor nearly misses it, "You've lost your taste for killing, of course."

"What?" Thor asks, pulling back enough to see Loki's face.

"I mean no offense," says Loki, with a small, coy smile. He falls back, so that Thor cannot help but sink into him further. "You can, if you have to. But you have no wish to watch destruction for its own sake." His wrists slip out from under Thor's slack grip. "You see no appeal in watching things fall apart." He pulls Thor close with a hand behind his hips and the fingers of the other along his jaw. "I wish I knew where to find discipline as you have."

Thor thinks, with growing unease, that if he had true discipline he would leave off claiming Loki’s body, and tell his brother that he will not allow these games. Instead he is leaning into Loki’s touch, still thrusting into him, slow and even because his body craves it so. He gathers his words as best he can. "I don't -- I have no wish to talk now."

For a moment he thinks Loki might heed him, because Loki goes pliant, wrapping himself around Thor; but it is only for a moment. Then Loki reaches up to where Thor's arm is braced next to his head, takes Thor's wrist in a vise-grip, and snaps his hips hard, making a mockery of Thor’s restrained, gentle thrusts. Thor gasps, feeling himself respond in kind; Loki knows how Thor has always sought physical outlets for his troubles, and is using it against him. A tiny moment of vertigo hits Thor. "Please," Loki grates out. "I'm not lying this time. I am trying to do you the honor of honesty, please, hear me."

He won't release Thor's wrist. Thor resists the urge to twist away, but it is too much to concentrate on all at once, and Loki's hips are still rising hard to meet his. Thor groans, and cannot tell whether he means protest or assent.

"To be perfectly honest," Loki says, with a rising rueful smile, "though I've grown to appreciate a kill, the moment when blood hits the air, it has never compared to that first moment of fear." Loki's voice is almost entirely even, rocked though he is by Thor's thrusts. He is watching Thor, bright and steady with his pupils very wide and a flush of pleasure in his face. "Your coronation was perfect," he breathes. "I cannot begin to tell you how good it was to feel the warmth in that hall turn cold, to hear the stillness of the crowd, to watch you come to know you weren't safe in your home, that the enemy was already inside -- ironic, when you consid --"

"Enough, Loki!" Thor gasps, gaining at least the wits to stop Loki's words, though he cannot summon the will to stop moving.

But, "Why does it surprise you?" Loki laughs. His voice turns rapid and vicious. "Why do you believe I would parlay with Jotun and Chitauri and darker monsters, why do you think I would find the cracks Heimdall cannot see into, unless I loved it? Why else would I bear names like liesmith and coward, unless the sorcery I received in return was too wonderful to give up?" His face, Thor sees through his own alarm, is at odd with his words: he is still flushed, and watching Thor intently, but there is no triumph there, nor satisfaction; he looks as though he is confessing rather than fighting.

Loki's hand is a cold band around Thor's wrist, like the magical cuff on Loki's. Thor shudders, and finds he can slow after all; he leans in, kissing Loki, rocking into him as gently as he's able given Loki's movements, caressing the only way he can. "When we were children," Thor says, soft against Loki's mouth, "you remember, the tricks you would play for me --"

"You think I did that for your, oh, coveted, oh, attentions?" Loki twists under Thor, rolling up in such a way that Thor gasps and twitches, and Loki moans, throwing his head back. Thor cannot tell whether Loki is lying, or wants Thor to believe he is. Thor drives in very hard, once, and Loki's ensuing moan is more prolonged. His voice sounds a little hollow when he speaks again, and his eyes are slightly glassy.

"I bedded beasts, as I wandered in the void." He says it as though the words are nothing. "I was curious. Even if I hadn't been, I had so little with me to trade, after my magic. They were curious too."

Thor's whole skin goes chill, though he's still shamefully hard inside Loki. "Loki, don't say such --"

"You saw how much the Chitauri entrusted me with. Their leaders had the same difficulty as you." Loki's eyes flutter on a slow roll of his hips. "They found me a burr they couldn’t stop picking at, as you do, you cannot stop returning to me --"

"You are my brother, Loki, not --"

"It's different with you, of course it is." Loki hooks a leg around the back of Thor's thigh. "You're beautiful; I've known your scent since the cradle; I've thought about your hands on me since before I knew what I wanted them for --"

The sudden spike of desire makes Thor shudder, and he hides his face in Loki's shoulder.

Loki laughs, quiet and dark, and cards a hand through Thor's hair in a mockery of a caress. "I know," he whispers. "You're nothing like the others. Dear brother," and laughs again when Thor's hips twitch, as though he can taste Thor's arousal and shame.

"Loki," Thor whispers against Loki's shoulder, "stop."

Loki stills. "As you wish," he murmurs, and this time when he strokes Thor's hair it feels nearly sincere. "Come, Thor, I know you still want me; take me, then."

Thor's whole body feels too hot, his face near glowing. He is not any less hard than he was; in fact, he fears moving too much will make him come tellingly quickly. There is a feeling like tears at the back of his throat. Loki does not wait him out, but moves again, a slow sinuous roll, hands scratching lightly down Thor's back. Thor moans, helpless with humiliation and desire, and thrusts. This time when he starts he cannot stop; he can already feel the build of pleasure at the base of his spine, and Loki is whispering, so soft and distracted that it does not sound calculated at all, "Thor, yes, yes."

Hearing Loki lost in pleasure is what does it. Thor presses his face into Loki's shoulder and comes; it wracks him, nearly painful in its intensity, and in the aftermath Thor's skin feels so oversensitive that he rolls off Loki at once and collapses next to him, shaking.

When his breathing has slowed enough, he turns his head and glances at Loki askance. Loki has half-rolled to face Thor; he is stroking himself lazily, and looks intensely thoughtful.

"Don't ever do that again," Thor says quietly.

"Don't dare to presume anything about me," Loki says in return, nearly as quiet.

Thor simply nods.

He remembers how, when Loki was imprisoned on Asgard, he had thought of his visits with Loki as a battle. One I do not wish to fight, he had said, and Loki had corrected him, One you don't know how to fight. Thor had forgotten, but he remembers now, and he knows that it is true after all.

They lay in silence for a time. Loki does not try to rush him out, and Thor waits until his pulse has calmed before he gathers his things and goes.

*

Thor knows that he has delayed the inevitable long enough: he must face what he has done. He has never been so far out of his depth. He is, Thor forces himself to admit, terrified, though of what he is unsure; his own ruin, perhaps, or Loki's.

He entertains the idea of telling someone. The obvious choice is Natasha: she has, after all, been visiting Loki, and her understanding of him is not blinded as Thor's is by sentiment. But as soon as he decides to go to her, Thor finds it is impossible to catch Natasha by herself. When she is at the Tower she is in company, for movie nights or sparring or strategizing; Thor manages to be alone in a room with her once or twice, but every time, while he is still gathering the courage to speak, one of the others comes in and Thor concedes the field with relief.

The truth is that Thor cannot think how he could tell her, even if he gathered the courage to do so. He allows himself to hope that she would not hate him; but then he thinks of what Clint would say, or Steve, and he can hardly breathe for shame. At least he knows it is not cowardice alone that stops him. He only knows that there is no justification for what he is doing with Loki, and if he cannot look his companions in the eye and tell them of his deeds, he can hardly expect them to help him. It is his own doing, and he must see to it.

He does not know how.

At the very least he cannot return to Loki until he has a better grasp of their battlefield. Loki has bitter poison for a weapon, while Thor has only useless frustration and even more useless love for his. Nor does he want to stay away, because while Loki must know he is winning, if Thor does not come Loki will see the retreat for what it is.

His mind runs in these circles for a week. The Avengers make no mention of it; his preoccupation, Thor realizes with a jolt, is simply a fact now, one that bears no special concern. Besides, Thor cannot afford to be locked in his head. They have several media appearances; Steve and Thor take a day trip to Brooklyn; Thor still takes comfort in making his friends meals in the evening. On Saturday, it is Steve's turn to pick a movie -- Casablanca, which it seems he has already seen, judging by how excited he is for Thor to see it -- and Thor risks several experiments with popcorn, even becoming diverted enough by the process to laugh until his belly hurts when it goes flying all over the room. Tony ends up sitting on the floor amid the popcorn crying with laughter; Steve laughs nearly as hard, though he is not actually in tears. The commotion draws in Pepper and Bruce as well; "Oh Tony," Pepper says, and begins to giggle when Tony only wheezes helplessly and points an accusing finger at Thor.

When they have cleaned up and their mirth has calmed to the occasional chuckle, they head for the rec room. It is only then that they all notice Clint and Natasha are nowhere to be found. "Hold on, maybe they forgot," Tony says, frowning over his Starkphone as he sends off a rapid text.

"On Saturday?" Steve says skeptically.

The return text from Natasha comes quickly enough. Situation at SHIELD, sorry we can't make it.

"Very forthcoming, as usual." Tony retrieves the bowl of popcorn. "Well, their loss. C'mon, the night's not getting any younger, and we're not getting answers until tomorrow if we get answers at all."

Natasha and Clint show up just after breakfast the next morning, looking very serious.

"We were hacked," Natasha explains. "Don't look like that, Stark; as far as we know, no one's gone for your personal servers. But someone did get right through all our firewalls, and they've accessed everything we have on planetary defense." She looks over at Thor. "Thoughts?"

"Do you suspect the Chitauri?" Thor gives a shrug of apology. "I know no more than you. From what I observed, and what Heimdall saw of them, they are scavengers and hive creatures; whether they have the means to break through your security, I do not know. If they have any magic to speak of, I could not see it, but they may have other means."

"Personally I'd prefer the Chitauri," Clint says. "Devil you know, right? Otherwise we might be looking at our next space invaders."

He and Natasha are still looking at Thor expectantly. Thor blinks. "Perhaps," he says. "Friends, truly I have no more insight than that."

"Whoever got through our security," Clint tells him, "they also accessed Loki's prison file. Not any of the others in that complex, just his."

Thor feels a thrill of anticipation. He is hardly happy to hear it, but anything is better than an interminable waiting without knowing. "It is almost certainly the Chitauri, then," he says, "though how they were able to do such a thing, I do not know."

"That," Natasha says quietly, "or Loki managed it somehow. Couldn’t someone hack the servers using magic?"

"It is possible," Thor acknowledges, "but the wards my father put upon Loki are still in place. I would not dare call Loki harmless, but there is no way he could have been the one to access SHIELD's information; if he could, would he not have done it before his first attempt on this planet?"

This reasoning does seem to make an impression; Natasha blinks, and Clint shrugs, and everyone relaxes a little. "Even so," Natasha says, "we're going to watch him more closely, just in case he is involved."

*

SHIELD's suspicion of Loki is, in its own way, a blessing. Natasha goes to Loki near daily, and Thor would not be able to get the necessary time alone with him to have any meaningful interaction even if he wished to do so. Meanwhile, SHIELD comes no closer to finding out the cause of the breach, or so Clint tells them; he is not needed to work their technology, and he reasonably refuses to spend any time observing Loki, so instead he remains at the Tower while SHIELD is in lockdown.

"Thor," Tony says, taking Thor's elbow and pulling him aside a few days into the lockdown. "Look. The geeks at SHIELD are going to be going over every bit of Loki's footage with a fine-toothed comb right about now, and when they look hard enough they're eventually going to notice that the footage isn't real."

"I would rather you didn't volunteer the information," Thor replies, calmly enough. "I promise Loki was not secretly contacting the erstwhile allies who want him dead while he was with me."

"Well, obviously." Tony rolls his eyes. "You're missing the point, which is, I guarantee you, that sometime in the next few days everyone's going to panic about Loki screwing with his footage when you visit, which means you will look suspicious, and me helping you will look suspicious. Saving New York from Loki only gets you so many points, especially when Loki is the one it looks like we're protecting." He searches Thor's face, frowning a little now. "I'm telling you to give you a heads-up, okay? I'm letting Fury know before his whole organization panics."

"If you must," Thor manages, "though I fail to see how it will help; you are only exchanging the possibility that they might discover your deception for the certainty that they will know we have deceived them."

"Probability," Tony corrects, his eyebrows going up, "and I'm not an idiot, I have a good-faith gesture, here. I'll give them the real footage."

Thor's breath stops.

"You kept it?" he asks faintly.

"Well, yeah," Stark says, as though this is entirely obvious. "The algorithm overwrote the prison feed, but I had JARVIS backup record it in case we'd ever need it."

"I did not know," Thor says, idiotically.

"Now you do." Stark claps him on the back, looking mildly concerned.

He has to tell Stark, Thor realizes, feeling numb now that the first awful shock is past. He was a fool to think that they were entirely safe -- never from Heimdall, of course, though until now Thor has mostly managed to avoid thinking of it -- but never from Midgard's technologies, either. He has to tell Tony, but he cannot find the words, no blunt ones, no insinuating ones, nothing. And even as he gropes for some means to explain to Tony why the footage cannot be turned over, a sudden spike of fear stops his throat. What might they do to Loki, if they knew? Until this moment all Thor's worry has been for their reaction to knowing what he has done; but if an act that Loki had no part in, this hacking of SHIELD, makes them immediately suspicious of him, how much worse might it be for an act that Loki did take part in? The fear floods him, and Thor stands under it helpless, in near animal panic for his brother's safety.

He has no words left. It all happens in a moment, and the only thing Thor can force out, cracked and quiet and anguished, is, "Tony, please don't."

Tony's eyes go wide. "Okay," he says quietly. "Okay, Thor. I won't. I should, um." He gestures down the hall and goes, but Thor pays him hardly any heed. He stands there, paralyzed with fear.

He needs a plan, but Thor can hardly force himself to think. Once he calms down he will have to tell them; this much is obvious, no matter that he cannot tear himself from the overwhelming desire to run to Loki and take him elsewhere. There is no elsewhere, that is the problem. Asgard is barred to him, and he can feel Midgard shrinking in around him like a trap. Thor breathes deeply, until the feeling of hemmed-in panic fades. It leaves behind the conviction, still, that he needs to get out. He must do something, and if he does not get out he must go after Tony, this very moment, and wrest the footage of Loki's cell from him somehow, stop him from ever seeing it, destroy it. That option, of course, is no option at all, being pure cowardice and active betrayal, and so Thor comes back around to fleeing, and taking Loki with him. It is that, or confessing before Tony can discover what Thor has done, and by now Thor has been standing frozen with horror for so long that it might be too late.

"Thor?"

Flinching, Thor turns to see Steve looking into the hall. "There you are," Steve says. "I don't have much going on today. Would you like to spar?"

"I." Thor swallows. "Perhaps not."

Steve comes closer, with a look of growing concern. "Hey, are you okay?"

"No," Thor says quietly. Steve's look of concern settles, but he makes no move to prod Thor. Thor feels as though his chest is cracking with grief. "I am sorry, Steve. I cannot."

Steve's phone pings. He glances down at it, frowns, and sends a rapid text in return. He glances up at Thor, but nearly at once the phone pings again; Steve reads it and this time his head snaps back up to Thor in surprise. Thor's nerves sing. He does not ask for the contents of the text, and he cannot meet Steve's eyes, but he tries to get around Steve to the door.

Steve steps out, squarely into Thor's way.

For an instant Thor thinks of knocking Steve aside. He could do it; they have sparred enough that he knows Steve is very fast and very good, but a single movement, unprepared-for and fueled by desperation, could incapacitate Steve long enough that Thor might get away. Or perhaps not: Steve is standing firmly planted, looking as though he believes Thor might be capable of nearly anything.

This is it, then.

Thor's shoulders slump. Steve makes no move to relax, but his face shifts back from wariness to worry.

"Tony?" Thor asks, low, indicating the phone.

"Yeah," Steve says. "Apparently you're code red."

The words hit Thor with awful, sick finality. He nods in defeat. Thor can nearly see how this will go, but he cannot afford to go there yet; it will only panic him. Instead, he sees how it might have gone; how when Loki kissed him and Steve asked afterward if he was well, he might have spoken. He doesn't know whether he might have found sympathy from any of them then, and it is much too late now to know.

"Want to tell me what's up?" Steve asks.

Thor takes a shuddering breath. "Loki," he says, unsure what to say after, but he is not given the chance: Tony and Natasha appear behind Steve in the doorway. Tony's face is very white and Natasha's is very calm.

"Yeah," Tony says. "Tell us about Loki, why don't you?"

Now comes the panic Thor was trying to stave off, pouring down upon him in a rush. His vision goes grey at the edges. "You broke your word!"

"Um, no, you don't get to act like the injured party, here," Tony says. The anger in his voice is still modulated, barely. "Were you already planning to do it when you asked me to hide your visits?"

"No," Thor says, the single syllable all he can manage.

"He asked you --? Planning what?" Steve demands. He still does not understand. The fury and betrayal on Tony's face is but a pale reflection of how Steve will look in moments; and knowing that, Thor finds his voice again.

"Please," Thor says, "please, Tony, I had no such plans, and I would not have Steve learn of it this way --"

"Would you rather we just showed him the tapes?" Tony asks, with a terrible coldness. "There are things I am never going to fucking unsee. Before you ask, no, I didn't decide to subject SHIELD to that bullshit, they probably see enough they'd rather forget already. Hawkeye's updating Fury. He doesn't even want to be in the same building as you."

"Would someone," Steve says, loudly, "tell me what the hell is going on!"

"Thor has been sleeping with Loki," Natasha says, quiet and even.

"...What?" Steve turns to blink at her; turns to blink at Thor. "Wait. What?"

"Sleeping with doesn't really paint the right picture," Tony tells him. Thor sees, with mounting alarm, that he was underestimating how deeply upset Tony is. "They're fucking. Thor is fucking his brother, the psycho nutcase who tried to destroy New York!" He ends this yelling at Thor, and stops abruptly, panting, as though he has run out of words.

Steve turns back to Thor, with the beginning of comprehension on his face. "Thor," he says. "He's a prisoner."

"Are we missing the incest-with-a-supervillain angle here?" Tony demands.

"Thor?" Steve says, ignoring him.

Thor forces himself to meet Steve's eyes. There is a welling-up of pain in Steve's face, confusion growing to his own slow sort of anger. "I was," Thor says, as steadily as he can. "He reached out to me, and I -- I did not know how I could refuse him without destroying whatever chance I might still have to reach him."

"Thor," Natasha says. She doesn't say anything else, but the sheer tired disappointment in the word cuts into him like a dagger.

"I don't," Steve says. "I've gotta." He stumbles back a step, and another. Thor does not stop him; he has no right, and above this he is relieved that Steve is the first to run. He does not know how much longer either of them could bear this. Natasha stands aside to let Steve pass.

"Here's how it works," Natasha tells Thor, still very calmly, when Steve is gone. "You're not going to see Loki again, at least for a time, and when you do it will only be to explain the situation. You will under no circumstances be allowed alone with him. We'll place you in SHIELD housing where we can keep an eye on you, and --"

"Nope," Tony says, his voice brittle. "JARVIS can keep a better eye on him. Why the hell would we give this mess to SHIELD? We're going to deal with it. Thor is staying right here."

"You won't leave the Tower unless you're given explicit permission and accompanied by one of us," Natasha continues smoothly. "Understood?"

Thor feels numb. He nods. "Yes," he says. He looks over at Tony, though he flinches away from meeting Tony's eyes. "Thank you."

"No," Tony says. His voice cracks. "Get the hell out of my sight."

There is nothing Thor would like better. He goes down the hall away from them, their eyes burning into his back the whole way. He dreads what Bruce will think, but hasn't the heart to tell him himself; he dreads what Lady Pepper will think, too, and wonders whether he'll ever see Clint again. He aches with the desire to get out of his own skin.

In the elevator, he looks up at the ceiling and says, "The roof, please, JARVIS."

"I'm sorry, sir," JARVIS answers. "The only floors you are authorized for are the current one and your own quarters. Shall I take you there?"

Thor's breath hitches. "My quarters, then."

His bedroom is even more bleak and barren than he remembers. Thor ignores Mjolnir, sitting against the nightstand; he goes instead to the wide window, and stares down at the alien city below him, blank with despair.

Chapter Text

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

*

It has been a week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sir," JARVIS says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"For me," Thor echoes, incredulous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unwillingly Thor nods.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Thor gives a tight nod. "I know."

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

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

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

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

"Yes," Thor manages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

"Are we?" Thor asks, without interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But --"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thor," Loki breathes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Loki vanishes.

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

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

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

"Then where?" Natasha asks sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

"What can we do?" Thor asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Would you?" Thor persists.

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

"If you wish --" Thor starts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Loki," Thor says softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"If I may," Thor says quietly.

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

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

Another silence.

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

"What?" Steve tears his gaze from Thor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

It goes, Thor thinks, fairly well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Go ahead," Steve says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Indeed," Thor sighs. They go.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

The Chitauri strike London two days later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Damn," Clint says mildly.

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

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

"Stark?" Loki, a little uncertainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

"Is it everything you imagined?" Loki murmurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natasha blinks at him. "What?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Loki?" Thor mumbles finally.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Want me along?" Tony asks swiftly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Have you been sleeping?" Thor asks gently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve winces. "I was thinking -- Look, would they really total a planet if they didn't have to? If we hit them fast enough -- they're smart, they're not just thoughtless monsters, if we got 'em where it hurt maybe they'd retreat. They don't need our resources so badly they'd all die for a shot at them, right?"

Everyone is looking at Loki with desperate hope, Thor included. Loki's mouth twists in a mirthless smile. "The Chitauri may indeed be so reasonable, but their general ... has other plans. Thanos finds the Chitauri useful because their strategies of war wreak such havoc, and he finds it ..." Loki searches for the word. His smile twists a little more. "Elegant," he settles on. "It took me some time, observing him, before I discovered his motives. But it is simple enough: he loves death."

"You'll need to give us more than that," Natasha says flatly. "You're saying it like an insight, but right now all I'm hearing is a platitude about a madman."

Loki laughs softly. "He ... looks up to death; the ultimate unconquerable force, you see, and thus the most alluring to one who wishes the magnitude of power and control that he does. He wants to be equal to death, I think, or perhaps death's disciple. In either case he wishes to prove himself a fine general, and a fine killer. That was the reason he wished to have the Tesseract: he believed it would give him yet more power to destroy, to rule the universe and to control who within it lives and dies."

There is a silence, all of them momentarily aghast at this news.

"So why is he here if the Tesseract is back on Thor's planet?" Clint demands. "Is he just -- bitter it's gone? Does he want to torture us for fun?"

"No," Loki says, sounding nearly impatient at the scope of Clint's question. "You impressed him in the Battle of New York. Midgard has proven a worthy opponent, and now he intends to play with you."

There is a second silence, even longer and more horrified than the first.

"Well," Steve says finally, on a shaky exhale, "at least that explains what he's doing here even if the Tesseract is somewhere else. It still doesn't tell us how the hell we should come at this thing, though."

He looks at Thor, but Thor has already risen from the table to go, not even trying for composure. Loki's description of their enemy's motives tells a far grimmer tale than he would wish, on Earth or on Asgard. He wonders if, since they have seen no sign of the Tesseract, it is a good sign for Asgard after all.

But in his heart he fears the worst for all of them, now; and when he thinks of the emptiness that crosses Loki's face sometimes, he thinks he understands a little of what lies behind it, and fears all the more.

*

The one blessing of Fury bringing them back to America is their ability to work again out of Avengers Tower rather than the Helicarrier. It frees the Helicarrier up for Director Fury and his agents, and allows the Avengers their home base back, some familiarity, some small comfort. Thor does what he can while they are there; he sends the others to their rest for injuries, watches them to make sure they eat what small meals he has the energy to make, speaks to them, smiles. When Thor was young he had imagined doing such things to be the way a leader might keep up morale; he sees now that it is what will keep them up at all, not so that they might be confident of success but that they might find strength for the next battle.

The battles themselves blur together, one much like the next. The Chitauri know well enough by now that Thor is the one who will bring down their leviathans before they can be used to full effect; and with the weather turning cold, winter rolling down upon them in steel skies, they are equally wary of Loki's rains of cutting ice. Thor and Loki find themselves at the center of any battle zone, back to back and fighting fiercely, a tempting enough target that the Avengers shift their strategy to make any place where Thor and Loki land a potential trap for the enemy. Thor loves and hates it in equal measure; it is good to have found so effective a method, but the danger to Loki tears at him.

"Fool," Loki says, not without fondness, when Thor tells him as much. "You cannot think I need your protection."

"I think one day you will not be able to conjure enough knives to kill them all," Thor says, "with their numbers greater every time."

Loki gives Thor a look of consideration. "If it will ease your worry," he says, "I will show you my answer to your concerns about my weapons."

He takes Thor down to one of Tony's labs, and from a workbench he unveils a spear. Thor circles it with admiration: the thing glows with a dangerous blue light, its point lethally sharp, though the metal is strange and dark, Midgardian make. "It was a gun once," Loki murmurs, clearly pleased with Thor's reaction. "It was in SHIELD's possession; one of their Hydra weapons. It runs on Tesseract energy, so it was easy enough to refashion." He glances sideways at Thor. "I did not wish to unveil it without need. For one thing, Barton has grown nearly tolerable."

"We have need," Thor tells him. "Use it on the Chitauri alone and the others will not protest."

Thor is more or less right: Clint stares at the spear for a long second, then shrugs and says, in the same tone of casual violence he uses always around Loki, and with a deliberate edge, "I'll shoot you before you try anything."

"This spear is fashioned only for death," Loki says in return. Clint accepts this with a crooked smile. Steve is not so assured; "We're going to just start using unregulated Hydra tech?" he demands, and grows even more displeased when Natasha points out that SHIELD has already started negotiating with the World Security Council about whether they might start equipping soldiers with Hydra technology as an extra defense against the Chitauri.

The whole affair creates an extra layer of tension that Thor had not anticipated. Though Clint seemed honest enough in his dismissal of Loki's new spear, discussing it at all serves as a catalyst for Thor's worry that he has treated Clint ill in his support of Loki; so that evening he finds Clint in the rec room, flipping from staticky channel to staticky channel, and says, "May I?"

"Sure, come in," Clint says absently. He has long given up ignoring Thor entirely, but has regained none of his warmth.

"I ... wished to ask how you fare," Thor says.

Clint regards him assessingly. "You really want to know?" Thor nods, meaning it sincerely, and braces himself nevertheless when Clint nods shortly and says, "I'm feeling kind of bothered that a lot of innocent people have been dying and someone like Loki is still alive."

Thor cannot help flinching, but he can bite back any angry reply. In Clint's place, he would feel the same; in Clint's place, he might feel much the same about himself, never mind Loki. He cannot say anything in agreement, but he can at least take the blow for what it is and do so honestly.

"So, that," Clint says. He softens somewhat. "And it's -- it's not what I signed up for. Not with SHIELD, I mean, but with the Avengers. I thought, being a superhero, that's great; if I have these skills, I should be using them to help people. But now ... it's like we're helping people less than we were, but it's taking twice the effort for half the return. I hate it."

Thor nods slowly. "I always thought," he says, "that in times of war my people could simply come down to engage the enemy in a single glorious battle. Perhaps that would be true if I had the entire might of an Asgardian army at my back, but ... I doubt it all the same, now. I have seen glorious battle, and seen it with all of you, but not in this war."

"Yeah," Clint says, and turns back to flipping channels; but he adds, not looking at Thor, "Not bad, having you around for it," and that, Thor knows, is as much as he can ever expect to receive in forgiveness.

*

A night later they are all woken from their beds by JARVIS, carrying an urgent message from SHIELD: Chitauri bearing down on Toronto. They run to the Quinjet, half-awake in the dark, and fly north over the strangely dark world. Thor finds he misses the mortals' habit of keeping their lights on all night, now that the lights are gone.

When they arrive the Chitauri are already well-entrenched, and the local authorities, when Steve contacts them, are disoriented with the nighttime attack. Everything is streaks of energy-weaponry flashing between buildings, fire and low visibility and utter chaos. "Let's do this," Natasha says grimly, so they go in; but none of their usual strategies are useful. The Chitauri do not go for Thor and Loki specifically, not seeing them in the dark, so it is impossible to draw them out to one spot, and impossible to effectively hunt them down. They are fighting blind. Over the comm, the voices of Thor's team are more than usually disconnected, interrupted by screaming aliens and mortals alike, weapon fire like static.

They do what they can, and by dawn there are no more Chitauri; if any remain, they have gone to ground amid the smoking wreckage. The Avengers reconvene at the Quinjet: Clint and Natasha holding each other upright, Tony's face deathly pale, Steve's uniform torn at the shoulder and streaked with soot, Bruce clutching his torn trousers around his hips and sagging with exhaustion, Loki spattered with blood and swaying a little where he stands. Thor has never been so grateful to see them all. They climb into the Quinjet in a daze, and though they are all equally drained, Natasha insists, flat and quiet, upon flying them home for a proper rest.

By the time they land at the Tower, Thor has pushed through his exhaustion into a terrible keyed-up fatigue. The battle falls into strange nightmare fragments in his recollection, until all he can remember of it is the repetition: laying into the Chitauri about him, fighting back a rising hum of terror from the moment he lost track of Loki in the fight. That Loki was beside him on the flight back makes no difference to Thor's mind, oversaturated as he is with adrenaline and weariness.

When the others make for their rooms, Thor turns to Loki. Loki looks half-dead on his feet, and Thor hates it, and hates the Chitauri, and hates every inch of space between them, and says, "Loki," his voice cracking, "please."

Loki does not ask what he means. Wordlessly they go to Thor's rooms, and wordlessly they undress one another, hands fumbling. Loki when he kisses Thor tastes first of ashes and then of himself, smells coppery with blood before he smells of sweat alone; their hands on each other's skin leech the worst of the tension from their muscles. Thor begins to be afraid that he might cry. Instead he bites down on Loki's shoulder, exactly where the last bruise has already long faded, and Loki hisses encouragement, nails tearing across Thor's back.

After that it feels like a necessity. For every battle they make it through, there is the prospect of Loki in his bed afterwards, the one bright spot amidst the destruction all around them, the relentless cycle of battle and assessment and battle again. Thor knows the grave importance of defending Midgard; he does it willingly and with the greatest commitment, but what he lives for are the moments with his brother. With Loki, Thor finds he is happy, not least because oft after a battle Loki is the one to seek him out first, to seize him and tear at his clothing and kiss him with violent intent; and Thor feels strangely, wonderfully cherished for it.

He discovers things in himself that he would never have guessed at, except that now he is too tired to avoid them, and too eager for anything of Loki to deny his desires. He learns how much he likes giving Loki pain -- asked for; Thor still knows well enough that he would not harm his brother if Loki did not want it -- and how too he likes when Loki fights back, how he loved the day Loki scratched and slithered his way out of Thor’s grasp, and waited taunting until Thor grabbed him by the ankle and pulled him back across the bed; how after Loki bit down hard on his arm, Thor wore the bruise under his left vambrace and felt a strange answering bloom of warmth every time it gave a faint throb of pain. Thor discovers more of Loki, too: that he loves being choked, by Thor's hand pressing inexorably down on his throat, or by Thor's cock, Loki sliding down along the length and taking him to the hilt while Thor's hips jerk, heedless of Loki's breath.

"I want to do everything to you," Thor tells him, one evening on a rare second day without a new attack. He already feels drunk with pleasure. Loki has brought him off with only slow long strokes of his tongue on Thor's cock and balls and lower belly and inner thighs; Thor is a shivering mess and entirely sincere. "I would do the same for you."

"Would you," Loki says, straightening, intrigued. "Very well, then; come here."

It should not be very different, Thor thinks, having done this for women before. But Loki tugs his hair, a short sharp instruction, not quite painful, and when Thor brings his mouth down on Loki's cock it feels like an exciting, frightening, dizzying breach, new and forbidden and shockingly wonderful. Thor realizes, in a slow warm roil of thought, that he wishes for Loki to take him; and when Loki pushes Thor down a little, Thor cannot help moaning and clutching at Loki's thighs. "Oh," Loki whispers, a shocked exhale of discovery, and though burning color rises to Thor's cheeks, he does not stop.

The thought sits in Thor's mind, a warmth and a distraction through the mundane horrors of the following week, until the one outweighs the other and Thor fears he will become less effective in battle for it. Then Thor asks as best he can, fumbling and graceless, having never asked such a thing before; but Loki, once he has stopped looking stunned, does not look mocking. Instead, he curls a hand around the nape of Thor's neck and says, with soft vicious delight, "I will undo you."

So Thor finds himself sprawled facedown on the bed, clutching at the sheets in a futile attempt to anchor himself while Loki holds his hips and rocks into him, murmuring encouragements that twist in Thor's belly simply because they do help. "You need not," Thor says, as steadily as he can, "treat me as something breakable," and cries out when Loki thrusts in hard. "That's more like it," Thor says, and laughs with breathless joy when Loki does it again, and again, hissing invectives that sound like endearments.

Your little brother, Thor thinks, feeling dizzy and open and hungry, and takes everything Loki gives him, and more, and more.

*

Winter closes in. The Chitauri attack only once or twice a week, more often than not in places the Avengers cannot visit, wary of Loki's rains of ice. They are all glad of the rest, though some take it more strangely than others; or at least Thor cannot imagine what Tony is about, when he comes to breakfast one morning and finds a row of mismatched stockings hung up on a window ledge. All the Avengers' names are there, as well as Pepper's and, oddly, JARVIS', though there is none for Loki.

"What is the meaning of the stockings?" he asks Bruce over eggs.

Bruce smiles tiredly at him. Bruce looks tired all the time now, and subtly dangerous, as though he can no longer put in the effort to seem harmless. "Christmas decorations," he says. "Not that we'll be, uh, celebrating or anything, but Tony said he wanted to brighten the place up a bit."

Feasts and merriment during the dark seasons are important, Thor knows, and he is glad the mortals have such traditions. Now more than ever they seem necessary, though he fears there will be little time or cause for celebration. With the Chitauri attacks less frequent, strategy meetings take their place. When SHIELD has new intel they gather on the Helicarrier to discuss it, every possible idea a fragment of hope.

"Let's use the conference room on the bridge," Tony suggests, before one such session. Director Fury gives Tony a half-suspicious sideways look for this request, but complies. When they reach the bridge, Tony looks out over all the SHIELD agents working frantically at their computers, and says loudly, "I have something to ask everyone in the spirit of the holidays." This turns a few heads, enough that Tony looks pleased and continues, "I don't know how many of you are aware of this, since you're all busy trying to save the world from aliens, but my CEO, the inestimable Pepper Potts, has been doing her own world-saving stuff. And I don't mean the part where Stark Industries is manufacturing weapons again -- desperate times, all that, let me tell you Ms. Potts was not thrilled -- I'm talking the fundraising she's been doing. Relief efforts mostly at home, obviously, for all the evacuees and refugees, though she's also got some international stuff going on. And, you know," Tony makes an expansive gesture, "it being Christmas and all, we were hoping you might all want to pitch in. Pass the hat around, that sort of thing."

Indeed, Thor sees that while Tony was talking Bruce has gone down among the SHIELD agents, carrying not a hat but a box, and that the agents are already flocking willingly towards him with various currency, all looking very happy about it. Tony beams.

There is a celebratory air to the whole thing; it lifts everyone's spirits, and Thor even slips a few bills in, never mind that they were lent to him by Tony ages ago for the purchase of food.

On the flight back down to the Tower, Tony shuffles through the contributions looking immensely pleased. "Pep will love this," he tells Bruce. "She'll take on the whole world and make it look easy, but it's really not, she knows it's not, and this will make her so happy. I wonder where she is right now? Last I heard she was in Iowa, Idaho, one of those 'I' states. She should stop running around for two seconds, it's Christmas."

They come down into the main living floor, the other Avengers trailing Tony, who is still talking rapidly on the subject of their fundraising. "And once we meet that goal, we --" Tony stops abruptly. The others peer around him and see Pepper, standing in the kitchen holding a half-eaten sandwich. "Pepper?" Tony says.

"Hey," says Pepper, waving tiredly at all of them.

"What are you doing here?" Tony demands. Thor sees him look around for Loki, an automatic fear, but Loki had stayed behind on the Helicarrier to discuss further strategy with Fury. Tony's shoulders drop a little, obviously recalling this, but he still sounds worried when he says, "What are you doing here? It's dangerous, if you haven't noticed the way the city's being repeatedly attacked --"

"Tony," Pepper says, "Tony, Tony, I'm flying all over the country in poky little passenger planes, do you really think that's much safer --"

"If you're trying to be reassuring, it's not working --"

"I wasn't trying to be reassuring," Pepper says, overlapping him, "I was just trying to point out that --"

"I know what you were --" Tony says, but it ends in a jumble of words between them, because by then Tony has reached her and they are hugging so tightly that it seems unlikely anyone will be able to pry them apart for some time.

Thor looks over at Bruce. Bruce is smiling at them, the slow lopsided smile of a man who has seen his work done well; and Thor feels a strange mix of envy for Tony, who has found such kindness in his lovers, and gratitude that a man such as Bruce should be in his life at all.

*

That evening Thor emails Jane again, half out of a strange melancholy that has clung to him since witnessing Tony and Pepper's reunion, half from an honest desire to wish her what joy she can find from her winter holiday. Merry Christmas, I am told one says, he writes her. And I do wish you all the merriment you might find in such a time as this. I hope you and those you care for remain safe.

Then of course it is some time before he can check his email again: the Chitauri attack Houston, squarely within the Avengers' range of defense, but too far south to make any use of Loki's Jotun magics, and it takes them nearly three days to drive the Chitauri out again. Thor is so exhausted that he nearly forgets to see if Jane has replied; but Loki kisses him in a tired and desultory fashion before falling straight to sleep, so Thor does have the presence of mind to remember his correspondence.

Actually it's Happy New Year by now, Jane has written back, and I really hope this one will be lots better. I know I probably shouldn't ask this because if you do have a good answer you shouldn't tell me, but I want to ask just to ask it: has there been any change? Are you any closer to getting rid of these guys? I want to know if you're okay, and if life's ever going to go back to normal or ... anything. Sorry, but I don't know who else to ask.

It wrenches Thor's heart; but he wants to answer honesty with honesty, so he emails her back explaining their greatest tactical issue, their inability to know with any certainty where the Chitauri might hit next. Some of his frustration seeps into the explanation, though he does his best not to lay any specific blame upon Tony for failing to interpret or intercept the sort of communication the Chitauri use. Loki thinks that perhaps it is magic, he writes, given the way he used to communicate with his army; but he had access to the Tesseract then, and without it does not know how to proceed. He nearly does not send the email, not liking to sound frustrated, before he remembers that Jane is not in the war, that he does not need to reassure her for the sake of group morale; and then Thor cannot send it fast enough, so strong is his need to tell someone of their troubles.

A few days later, Tony corners Thor when Thor is only trying to eat cereal and wake himself up. Tony's eyes are shining. "What did you do?" he demands in great excitement. Thor gives him a baffled look, and Tony waves a hand at him. "Dr. Foster. She emailed me, she emailed Bruce, she emailed Coulson trying to get in touch with SHIELD's science division, she asked me if Loki had an email address --" He stops in sudden thought. "Loki doesn't, does he? He'd better not."

"He doesn't," Thor assures him. "What did Jane wish to speak about?"

"Quantum communication," Tony says, like something sacred. "Hey, is Loki around? He should hear this."

The next day they are summoned to the Helicarrier for another strategy meeting. "I think you're going to like this one," Coulson tells them when they arrive, although he throws Thor a look that seems almost like apology as he says it. When they reach the bridge Thor understands: waiting for them at the round meeting table are Jane and Erik and Darcy, the last of whom is looking around in open curiosity. Thor stares at them, and over at Loki, who looks suspiciously unsurprised, and then over at Fury, who gives Thor sardonically raised eyebrows as though asking why it is now that Thor chooses to worry about bringing Loki along in company.

"Dr. Foster has a proposal for us," Coulson says, smiling slightly. "I don't pretend I can understand all of it myself, but it's going to be very important, so if everyone would please sit down and give her your full attention."

They do so, with some puzzled looks between them, before everyone takes their seats. Erik, Thor sees with sinking disappointment, is pointedly not looking at Thor, and just as pointedly eyeing Loki; but he does not wonder why Erik came. Plainly he wants to make sure Jane is safe from Loki, which is a noble gesture if a foolish one.

"Thanks for taking the time to come up here," Jane starts. Her cheeks are glowing with excitement, and her face has a determined cast that Thor recognizes with great affection. "I know you have a lot to do, so I want to make this as quick and useful as possible. I had a thought, talking with Thor --" she nods at him "-- about your difficulty in intercepting the alien communications. He said you thought the Chitauri might be using magic, and it made me think of another thing he'd told me earlier: that Earth science and Asgard's magic are just different names for the same thing. And I had a theory, but I ... wanted to run it by Loki." She glances at Thor and makes a grimacing face that may be apology, though she's still too excited to look contrite. "Mr. Stark helped me contact him, and, well -- Loki, tell them what you told me, that Well of Urd story."

Loki gives her a graceful nod. "Deep within Yggdrasil is the Well of Urd. Water from the Well flows up the trunk and through the branches of Yggdrasil before it falls in dewdrops back down. The Norns, living at the Well, carve the names and destinies of all children born into the Tree, and the water flows around those destinies." Loki smiles. "It is a paltry way of explaining what they truly do, of course. Yggdrasil is no tree, but rather the energy connecting the realms. It describes the spatial configuration between them in each moment. The Well is ... the past, we shall say, and the water from it is the flow of causality -- the path a life will take is shaped by what the Norns have written."

"Just like observations on a quantum mechanical system localize a probability curve," Jane cuts in, nearly tripping over the words in her eagerness to explain. Thor looks around the table and is relieved to see that his is not the only nonplussed face, though he suspects that some of the others have looked baffled from the moment Loki started speaking.

Thor hides a smile and turns his attention back to Jane, who is saying, "It's -- it ensures that what is observed, or -- or 'written,' is exactly where the system was going to localize all along! The present retroactively changing the past, like those dewdrops falling back into the Well. It's the Asgardian scientific model of existence! Loki's magic is -- it's shaping reality by making a probability a solid point of data, determining the state of the universe through an act of will."

Jane stops, takes a deep breath, and looks around the table. She seems to realize how many blank looks she's getting in return, and squares her shoulders. "The point is, what Loki was doing 'magically' when he was communicating with his army was just initiating quantum communication -- taking advantage of particles that are entangled -- which means their most basic properties, on a quantum level, are dependent on each other and capable of influencing each other, even instantaneously across large distances, to transmit strings of information. It's an ideal method of communication for a space-faring people, given the distances they have to travel!"

"So ... that means it's possible to intercept their communications?" Steve ventures. "Or just that you've figured out how Loki's magic works in Earth-science terms?"

"Quantum communications aren't interceptable," Bruce says. "Quantum data is fragile -- if a third party intercepts it, it changes, and the two parties communicating know they've been hacked."

"That was true," Jane says. "But I've read every article on quantum encryption I could get my hands on in the last few days, and it's been done by researchers at the University of Singapore. They were able to third-party eavesdrop without introducing enough errors that the eavesdrop was detected -- it doesn't look any different than the random background errors that happen sometimes." She holds up a hand. "Now, I don't know all the mechanics of the system the Chitauri have set up, or how many countermeasures they've taken, but I'm willing to work with Loki. And we'll have Erik on board." She smiles over at him, and Erik gives her a faint smile in return. "Between the three of us, I think we can figure out what to do."

"I think it's worth a shot," Tony says. He grins. "Besides, Thor and Loki thought cracking this stuff was beyond us. Maybe the Chitauri will think so, too; they might not catch on for a while."

Though the plan sounds both good and necessary, Thor cannot help feeling uneasy. But it appears that Jane is not in the least upset at the notion of working with Loki, and this reassures him enough that Thor finds he can smile too, anticipating their advantage.

"So that's settled," Coulson says quietly. "You'll be working on the Helicarrier, along with Dr. Selvig and ... Dr. Foster's assistant?" He gives Darcy a vaguely puzzled look and moves on. "Entirely monitored at all times, of course."

"Of course," Loki murmurs. "So then. Let us begin."

*

Thor desperately wants to get Jane alone to ask her how she's doing; but, though she smiles at him when she sees him, she is so much occupied with her work that it is difficult to have any real conversation with her. Besides, Thor is delighted and horrified by her presence in equal measure, and is unsure whether either of those feelings would be welcome. So he smiles at her in return and leaves her to her work.

They all stay on the Helicarrier now. The Chitauri attack Atlanta partway through the week, but even without Loki, the Avengers are able to keep the Chitauri from gaining a foothold in the city.

Despite the success of the fight, Thor feels unbalanced without Loki at his side. It is good to see him again when they return, good enough that he tries to pull Loki away from his science-magics long enough to at least kiss him hello; but Loki will have none of it.

"Why," Loki says to him indignantly by way of greeting, as soon as they are alone, "did you even think of giving her up?"

"What?" Thor says, utterly baffled.

"Jane," Loki says, much more lightly now. "She is perhaps as brilliant a sorceress as I have ever seen. What were you thinking."

"I ... knew her for but days," Thor says, unsure whether Loki is in jest. "And I like her very much -- she is clever and kind and brave. But there was no giving up to do, Loki; or if there was, she was the one who decided upon it."

"Because you brought me here," Loki says.

"You should return to your work," Thor tells him. "But I am glad indeed that you have respect for her magics."

Nor is that respect ill-founded: only a short time later, Coulson calls them to assemble at the Quinjet and says, "Dr. Foster and Dr. Selvig and Loki think they have something. Three Chitauri leviathan are set to deploy for Mexico City within the hour. We're calculating their best flight routes now. If we hurry you should be able to intercept them over the Texas desert. Even if they panic and turn tail you might be able to shoot them all down before they have a chance to hit San Antonio on the retreat."

"We're a strike team," Steve points out. "Shooting at them from the Quinjet seems ineffective, even if we catch them by surprise."

"That's what you have us for," someone says from across the room. It's Tony's friend Colonel Rhodes, striding over to shake Steve's hand and clap Tony on the shoulder. With him is a woman in a similar uniform, with short blonde hair and a sharp look in her eye. "SWORD will be lending you a couple of squadrons. You'll be on the ground to take down the Chitauri we drop."

"Except for Thor," the woman adds, favoring Thor with a grin. "Can you do that lightning trick without hitting friendlies?"

"Easily," Thor says, grinning back.

"Major Carol Danvers," she says, offering a hand.

Rhodes leads one group of planes, Danvers another, both of them flanking the Quinjet on the flight south. Loki is not along for this battle, either, instead staying in the Helicarrier with Jane in an attempt to intercept any further communications between the Chitauri.

Thor does not know what to expect from the battle, though he has hope; but what he truly does not expect is to be rendered half-unnecessary. When they meet the Chitauri formation, and he summons lightning to take down the first leviathan, it is no trouble at all: the SWORD planes shoot down all the Chitauri who come at Thor, and within minutes all three leviathans are smoldering ruins in the dust below.

Given some hours' warning, Thor realizes with rising delight, the Avengers can have an army at their back for any confrontation. Not a single bystander has been injured; not a single building has fallen. It is a clean, swift victory.

Back on the Helicarrier they are all stunned, even Loki and Jane. "It worked?" Jane asks.

"It worked," Thor tells her. "Thank you," and even though everyone else is there for the debrief, agents and pilots and all, Jane laughs with joy and gives Thor a swift hard hug. Thor hugs her back, and when he glances involuntarily at Loki, Loki only gives Thor a slow pleased smile as though he wishes to do the same.

*

Like that, it is easy. SWORD, and other Midgardian militaries with flight power, are with Jane and Loki's new intelligence able to hold off any new invasion forces the Chitauri send. The Avengers are no longer sent running helpless from location to location; instead, they begin going through the cities that the Chitauri already occupy, beginning to drive them off. New York is first, difficult but necessary, an exhausted week of fighting even when Loki joins them and adds his magics. But their old city-fighting tactics work well, and now they feel like progress, like reclamation, like an apology for mistakes, like anything but the futile holding-back of a flood.

"We should do Toronto next," Steve says, while they eat pizza given to them by a family only too happy to find the commute to their restaurant clear of aliens. "That was ... our worst failure. They're entrenched there. I think we owe it to the city."

"I like that," Clint says. "Hands up, all in favor."

Coulson, when they tell him of their destination, cautiously gives them the go-ahead; perhaps he realizes why it is important. Upon their arrival, battle is easy to find: the Chitauri are numerous in the city, scarcely bothering to hide. When they see Loki they scream their war cries and make for him, in small groups and then in swarms, and Thor is beginning to think that rooting the Chitauri out of this city will be easier than any of them suspected when his comm crackles to life.

"Finish and get out," Coulson says, his voice tight. "As quickly as you can."

It is not an easy order to follow: the Chitauri keep coming, and Thor wonders whether this is some sort of trap. "Fight them off," Steve calls, evidently having the same thought, "and get back to the Quinjet! Hawkeye, where's Hulk?"

"I see him," Clint says. "Give me a second."

Effective, Thor thinks approvingly, when the Hulk comes roaring in, flinging Chitauri in his wake, and carves a swift way for them to their plane. Then there is an awful tense moment: it is the first time it has been necessary for the Hulk to become Bruce once more while under such stress. The Hulk roars again at the Chitauri, a yell of inarticulate frustration, and Tony, landing beside him, says, "Buddy, hey, you gotta shrink down enough to get on the plane now." The Hulk glares at him.

"Enough theatrics, Banner," Loki snaps. He blasts several Chitauri back with his spear. The Hulk glares at Loki, too, but when Tony sets a metal-gloved hand softly against his side, he shudders and twists and shrinks until Bruce is there. He stumbles backwards onto the plane, swearing inarticulately but looking in no immediate danger.

"This is why having the other guy along isn't always the best idea," he tells Tony ruefully while Natasha flies them towards the Helicarrier. None of the Chitauri are following, content with chasing them off.

"No," Tony says, "do you not realize how completely awesomely you just did there --"

"Quiet," Steve says, hand to his earpiece. "Agent Coulson, we're away from the fighting. What do you need?"

"I think it might be what you need," Coulson's voice comes to them over the comm. "The resistance you got back there, that was no accident. Dr. Foster doesn't know how she missed the communication orders for this one."

"For what?" Steve asks.

"Avengers Tower," Coulson says. "We're being sent a message. The rest of the city's still in one piece, but -- a group of Chitauri flew in with some sort of explosive. They leveled it. The Tower's gone."

Chapter Text

Thor wakes at dawn.

He is used by now to waking in unfamiliar places. But this is not a bunk on the Helicarrier nor the back of the Quinjet. The bed is wide enough for him and Loki to sleep comfortably together; indeed, Loki is asleep beside him, pale in the rising light, his hair dark against the pillow. Outside the window is the faint murmur traffic as life in New York begins returning to normal, now that they have cleared the Chitauri from the streets. Reassured, Thor sinks back into sleep.

When he wakes again it is fully light and Loki is gone. Thor rises. Everything is very quiet, though this is unsurprising: for a house with only a few floors, it manages to be quite large. He pads downstairs, through empty hallways, through the empty kitchen, finding his bearings.

Tony brought them here the night before. "He's not scaring us out of New York," he told them, pale and angry. "If the message is be afraid, here's one back: we're not. My mom's mansion is just as good as the Tower. We're staying right here."

Given that the attack on Avengers Tower happened while they were away, it does seem that the goal was to dishearten rather than kill them; so the mansion in New York City seems safe enough, and Thor approves of any attempt to raise their spirits. They need it.

He discovers Jane in a room off the kitchen. She's in grey sweatpants and a plaid shirt, her hair in disarray, swearing quietly to herself as she hunts for something among the couch cushions. When she sees Thor she stops, righting herself and giving him a false smile. "Hey, Thor."

"Can I help you with anything?" he asks.

"Oh, no, I was just --" Jane gestures at the room as a whole, the couches and coffee table and blank television. "I was looking for the remote. I was hoping to catch the news, you know, to see if anyone was hurt, make sure everyone who was still nearby got out when the Tower came down --" Her voice breaks; she presses a fist to her mouth, making a soft sharp noise, and blinks against the tears that are sliding down her face. "It just," she says, shaky. "It just keeps going, the war, and --"

"Jane," Thor says softly, going to her. She shudders and leans against him, fragile and mortal and brilliant. He wraps his arms around her. Thor tries to find words. He cannot tell her the war will end soon, or how it might; he does not know quite how to say that if he has a choice between dragging through and going on with upright courage, he will do it as bravely as he's able.

"I did this," Jane says, muffled against his chest. "I made them angry, and who knows what they might do now to prove a point --"

"Jane, no," Thor tells her, still quiet, doing his best to disguise his alarm. "What you have done is a wonder. It turned the tide of the war for us --"

"Yeah," Jane says, sounding not in the least reassured. "But that only worked for a little while. Now it's like they're laughing at us. Or -- or it was effective enough that I really pissed them off, and I can't decide which is worse because it's all so terrible ..." She trails off, shuddering. Thor rubs circles into her back. After a moment Jane rallies and says, low, "So I helped out with the war, good for me. What about all the bystanders who are probably hurt now because I got the Chitauri's attention?"

"We were able to fight the Chitauri outside the cities for a time because of you," Thor reminds her. "I know one life does not make up for another, but I think of the number of people you have saved, and I really do believe that you have done more than all the Avengers have done, by the skill of your mind alone."

"Maybe," Jane whispers, but she goes a little less tense in Thor's arms.

They stay like this for a time, silently; Thor thinks that perhaps he is drawing as much comfort from the contact as she is. "Jane," he says finally. "Do you like chocolate chip cookies?"

Jane sniffles, blinking up at him, and cracks a small smile. "Well, yeah," she says. "Who doesn't?"

"Then I will make you some," he tells her firmly.

"Thor," she says, "I'm not sure there's even any food in the house."

"I will acquire it somehow," Thor reassures her.

While Jane turns out to be correct, they do find paper, and make a short list of groceries. The map function on Jane's phone has been useless for a month but Thor thinks he knows the area decently well, so they set out looking for an open grocery store. It takes longer to find than Thor anticipated -- it seems the stores cleared out when those mortals who could afford to left the city -- but they persist, and eventually find a promisingly lit bodega. Inside, surrounded by food, they get somewhat carried away. "Chocolate chips," Jane says, and "Cheese?" Thor asks, and "Yes, here, pasta," Jane tells him, and somehow they come away with half the store, most of it discounted by the owner, who has only recently reopened and is delighted to have them there.

Back at the mansion they do start with cookies, but it is late enough in the morning that they are hungry for more substantial fare, so Thor makes spaghetti and salad, as well. Jane has no great passion for cooking, but she proves a cheerful assistant, and keeps stealing bits of cookie dough when Thor is turned the other way, smiling a little wider each time.

"That smells amazing," Bruce says, wandering into the kitchen in a rumpled t-shirt. "Hey, Jane."

"Hi, Bruce," Jane says. "Cookie dough?"

By the time the pasta is ready, Tony has appeared as well, followed by Natasha, Clint, Steve, Darcy, and an exhausted-looking Erik, all of them still in various states of sleepy disarray. Thor makes a second round of food and tells them sternly not to ruin their appetites by eating too many of the cooling cookies.

Possibly summoned by this admonishment, Loki wanders through the kitchen, giving Thor a brief distracted smile before taking a cookie and wandering out again.

Food in hand, they drift to the next room and settle on couches. Steve locates the remote and turns the television on to the news: footage from the previous day of Avengers Tower falling; Chitauri on Osaka, established in the city before a response team arrived; concerned reporters asking what various militaries' plans are now, what the Avengers' plans are now, what will happen.

"Hey," Clint says, "can you switch it to cartoons or something?"

Steve immediately flips the channel without argument.

No one is much inclined to move. They spend the afternoon watching cartoons, leaning against one another, periodically going back into the kitchen for more cookies or smaller snacks made from the great quantity of food Thor and Jane brought in. When the cartoon channel begins doing a marathon of a particularly silly children's show, Darcy pulls up a laptop and calls for meme video requests.

Midafternoon Loki appears again, in light armor and holding what appears to be a half-eaten tub of ice cream. "Good afternoon," she says; Thor takes a quick second look and smothers the still-familiar urge to snap at his fool brother for doing this in company. But though Jane and Erik give Loki surprised looks, the others do not even blink. "It is good you look well," Loki tells them all. "I would like to propose a plan."

"Is that the chocolate fudge?" Bruce asks.

Loki glances at the label on the carton. "Yes," she says, and goes back to digging out a spoonful.

"Plan?" Natasha asks Thor. Thor shrugs.

"I kind of wanted some of that," Bruce says.

"My mistake," says Loki, not sounding sorry at all. She digs for another spoonful.

"So what's this plan?" Steve asks.

Loki looks around at them all, consideringly; then she comes into the room, passing Bruce the carton of ice cream as she goes past. Bruce catches it reflexively and, after a moment's consideration, picks up Loki's spoon. Loki smiles to herself and settles on the coffee table, more or less in everyone's line of sight.

"We can bring down Thanos' ship from the inside," she says.

"What?" nearly everyone cries.

"I have never magicked anyone besides myself over so great a distance," Loki admits, "so it is by no means guaranteed to succeed. But I think it could be done, if carefully. And if I could get us aboard the ship, we could crash it into the ocean below."

There is a silence while they all absorb the proposal; desperate as it is, Thor knows as well as anyone else that they are down to desperation now.

"Okay," Steve says, with a breath of determination, "assuming we can get inside, how could we possibly manage to bring it down? It has to be well-guarded, and besides that, we don't know the layout."

"I have seen it before," Loki says, with the twist of a smile. "I do not recall its exact layout, but I do know how to pull up its schematics, so finding navigation should be no difficult task. Reaching it, however -- there will be a great number of Chitauri on board. I see no recourse but to use Thor and myself as a distraction."

Thor sees at once the wisdom in this, but Bruce raises a spoon in query. "Why you instead of, well, me?"

"For one thing, Dr. Banner, I believe that you would be of greater use elsewhere," Loki says. "For another, the Hulk will look like a distraction; an effective one, I grant you, but for all that, they will only wish to subdue you so you do not damage their ship, and then they will move on. For Thor and I ..." She glances over at Thor, and for a moment seems to hesitate. "They want to kill me, of course, perhaps as creatively as they can. But they do not wish to kill Thor; they wish to capture him, and that will buy us time."

"Wait, what?" Clint says. "I mean, it was obvious they were going for him, but I figured it's because he brings the lightning. Now you're saying they wanted Thor as a prisoner of some kind?"

"It is still but a theory," Loki says, shrugging. "It came to me at one of our strategy meetings: I had explained Thanos' tactics, and Captain Rogers said he understood why Thanos had come here without the Tesseract. But upon reflection, it seemed to me that even if Thanos regarded Midgard as a worthy opponent -- which I believe he does -- he would not choose to return here without every advantage. They do not have the Tesseract. Presumably they failed to wrest it from Asgard by force; but Thanos would not give up on it so easily. If they were to capture the prince of Asgard, well." She gives Thor a lopsided smile. "Even if they do only wish to kill him, my proposed distraction still works quite well, as they do tend to target him, whatever the reason."

"What about the rest of us?" Natasha asks.

"Hold on," Tony says, "I need to get something, we don't have JARVIS fully installed here yet --" and dashes out, returning a minute later with a whiteboard on wheels and a focused look. "Okay," he says to Loki, "strategize."

Loki smiles a slow satisfied smile, leaning forward. Some of the others, Steve particularly, still look dubious; but nonetheless they all settle in, and begin to plan.

*

Thor staggers, cursedly unsteady and without bearings in the darkness. He cannot imagine how it can be that Loki enjoys traveling in this way. Loki's hand slips from his waist, Loki's breath a little unsteady. Slowly Thor's eyes adjust.

Thanos' ship has curving organic walls, like the insides of a ribcage, arcing up into impenetrable shadow; but the chamber they have landed in seems to be a small one, judging by the complete lack of echo.

"Now we're all here," Loki murmurs. He touches a section of wall, gingerly, as though afraid of giving some alarm. But a piece of it slides out silently; and in soft illumination come the spidering veins of corridors, chambers, and engines. Steve stirs a little, coming out of the shadows to look at it closely, followed by Bruce.

"Engines look obvious," Clint whispers, pointing to them. "Ready?"

A muscle briefly twitches in Bruce's jaw, but he nods.

"And here's us," Steve says to Natasha. She nods briskly.

They go, swiftly and quietly. Loki looks at Thor. Thor nods, satisfied. The first snag is over with: Loki has transported all of them aboard, two at a time, without his magic alerting anyone to their presence. Bruce and Clint are heading to the ship's engine rooms, and Steve and Natasha are working their way to the helm. If Bruce and Clint are successful at shutting down or disabling the engines, it will be Steve and Natasha's job to make sure the ship comes down over water, which will shield the planet from radiation fallout from the fusion core. Thor trusts both teams will do their jobs. They are all to maintain radio silence until absolutely necessary.

He does not envy Tony this next hour. Tony is still aboard the Helicarrier. Given his tendency to panic if anyone discusses space in his presence, he agreed that he would be of more help on the ground; so Tony and his weapons are helping SHIELD provide the rest of the distraction.

"Ready?" Thor asks Loki quietly.

Loki gives Thor a smile, mirthless and terrible. Thor grins back.

They leave the side passage for a longer corridor, better lit; the walls here curve away so high that they look a little like the lesser halls in Asgard. They creep along the corridor as quietly as possible, Loki leading with sure steps upwards and upwards towards Thanos’ command center.

A few corridors on, they meet their first Chitauri. The Chitauri stares at them in obvious surprise, stunned for a moment into silence; then, when it comes to its senses and calls out a rattling cry of warning, Thor takes a deep breath and raises Mjolnir. He sends lightning crackling down the corridor. The lightning hits the first Chitauri head-on, felling it, and then sparks off the hidden circuitry of the ship, creating arcing braches of light that feed off themselves, and in seconds they can hear the answering calls of more Chitauri. In moments the Chitauri are pouring into the corridor, fighting through the lightning and trying to fire their own energy weapons at the same time, only adding to the confusion. Thor briefly fears that they have been discovered too soon; but beside Thor, Loki is laughing quietly, sending bolts from his spear in return.

They have called more than enough attention to themselves. Thor lets the lightning go out, though it crackles on down the corridor for some time after he's stopped. Instead he swings at the nearest Chitauri, and so begins carving a way up through the corridor.

It is slow going. For every Chitauri they vanquish, two or three more appear. Thor feels some triumph, beneath the battle-joy, beneath the way he is sinking into the rhythm of the fight. The Chitauri come in droves, and each fights furiously, but none of them are going in for the kill against Thor, and that means Loki is right: they do want Thor as a prisoner, and will thus allow them to get much further than they should.

From this corridor Loki leads them to the next. Thor is just feeling the first stirrings of worry that the others were not able to carry through their parts when all around them the ship suddenly gives a great horrible shudder. Thor swings with renewed energy, but suddenly there are far fewer Chitauri blocking the way, for many of them cry out in alarm or distraction, some of them breaking away from the battle at once to discover what has gone wrong.

The radio silence from other parts of the ship has been broken: Steve and Natasha, and Clint and Bruce, have given Tony their signals. Back on the Helicarrier, maneuvered into position over northern Canada, Tony is firing Stark Industry's latest Tesseract-technology-augmented energy weapon at Thanos' ship. Even now, the Chitauri that have abandoned the fight with Thor and Loki should be rushing out to attack the Helicarrier, which is well-defended by SWORD.

But more are already coming to take their place. Thor fights these willingly, too, but when he looks over at Loki, he sees that his brother is as baffled as he is. This fight was only meant to be a distraction until the real fight began; surely a threat to their mothership is of greater import than capturing Thor would be. Yet the Chitauri keep coming, pressing in around them.

For a moment Loki goes down, blasted by three Chitauri at once. He stumbles back to his feet, his hair in disarray; he looks dazed and angry, and Thor does not even think before cutting down the Chitauri surrounding his brother, heedless of his own defense. The Chitauri scream in return and rush them, sending them both stumbling back. There are too many, Thor sees with rising dismay, and looks around for some opening that will give them a respite.

At least the Chitauri are disorganized now, angry enough at the attack on their mothership to lose some of the focus that makes them formidable opponents. Loki sees a weakness in their first line and goes for it, blasting through with his spear, and Thor follows. In this way they manage to get to the next corridor, though Thor no longer has any idea whether they are going the right way. He does not care; it is enough to look for another opening, to knock down the few Chitauri between him and the next space that will gain them some ground, to go from there to the next corridor.

"Thor," Loki says breathlessly, when for a moment they find themselves back-to-back, "we're headed towards the command center still --"

"Good." Thor knocks down the nearest Chitauri. "If we can ever get out --"

Loki laughs ruefully and they separate.

Another corridor on, and another. The ship around them is shaking in a way that sits in the pit of Thor's stomach like a foreboding of freefall, though he trusts they are not crashing yet; but he cannot keep track of time amid the battle, and he begins to fear that it grows short.

Loki has had this thought as well: "Thor!" he yells, and Thor sees it too, a doorway the Chitauri have not yet covered. Together they run for it.

The moment they are through the doorway, a door slides down, rough and solid as stone behind them. At first Thor thinks Loki shut it; but he sees Loki's face, first merely startled, and then very white and still. Thor turns to follow Loki's gaze.

They are in a small chamber, the first one with an external view: the blue curve of Earth is stretched out below the window, an oval opening in the wall. A great thronelike chair sits before the widow, and in the chair is the blue-skinned man who first delivered Thanos' ultimatums. He is wearing his elaborate mask, but under it Thor sees him regarding Loki with the slow pleased look of a predator. Next to him, Loki is so still that, if Thor didn't know him so well, he would not see how his brother is trembling.

"Asgardian," the man says, a satisfied rumble. Loki's chin tilts up a little; Thor cannot tell whether Loki means unconscious defiance or unconscious surrender. The man rises, a deliberate movement that carries horror in its wake; Thor finds his limbs turned loose with fear. Under the fear he is baffled, and then angry -- it is a spell of some kind, it must be, to set his heart pounding with terror before he knows anything of this man but that Loki looks frightened of him. He does not even have any visible weapon.

"We have your ship," Loki says.

"I brought you here," the man says. "Did I not say there was nowhere I could not find you? We have waited, and we have watched, and we know every weakness you have." His gaze shifts to Thor. He smiles.

Thor has time to grip his hammer tightly, readying himself to strike; and then the man moves first, impossibly fast, not for Thor but for Loki. In an instant he is behind Loki, twisting one arm behind Loki's back, the other gripping Loki's hair to pull it back. Loki is bowed taught and shaking, and Thor does not know why he doesn't pull free. Thor does not know, and the creature's many-fingered hand is sliding down Loki's pale neck with proprietary satisfaction, and this time when Thor's skin goes chill it is not with any spell-made fear.

"Drop your hammer," the creature tells Thor, low and sure.

Thor hesitates.

He is prince of Asgard, and he has sworn to protect the Earth, and this creature is touching Loki with absolute terrible surety, and if Thor surrenders Loki might still live, and through the awful cold fear he wants nothing more than to tear the creature part with his bare hands for daring to take his brother.

Loki's eyes lock with Thor's. He seems to be trying to tell Thor something with a look alone; and then Thor sees it, a bloom of red like the spreading of blood in Loki's eyes. Whorls of lines fan out across Loki's face, blue seeping into his skin, another color entirely than the blue of the creature. The creature hisses in surprise and pain, snatching its hands away from where they touch Loki's bare skin, and for just an instant the spell of fear snaps to nothing.

Thor throws Mjolnir at the creature's head.

The creature falls. Loki is already turning, a whirl of vicious movement, and he brings the point of his spear down hard into the creature's chest. The creature gives one surprised, gurgling gasp, convulses, and is still. Loki stands over it, and drives the spear in deeper, teeth gritted.

"Loki," Thor says, only a little shakily.

Loki makes a soft choked noise like a laugh, half pulls the spear out, and drives it in again. The creature twitches, the reflexive nerve movements of a dead thing, and Loki takes a shuddering breath that Thor pretends isn't a little like a sob.

"Loki," Thor says again, quietly. His brother looks up, and gives him the false twitch of a smile. Thor can see the terrible insincerity of it; perhaps Loki cannot make the effort to lie. "Come," Thor says. "I would like to be far away from that thing."

"Yes." Loki looks at the door. "It would be unwise to return that way. In their certainty of the Other's triumph they have driven us to the commanders' quarters." He looks at Thor again. "The command center should be nearby."

"Good," Thor says, hearing the bravado in his own voice but unable to do better. "Let us end this."

*

They need to find the command center. It is there, Loki told them, that Thanos would address the Chitauri; if they want to speak to the full might of the army, then that is where they must do so.

Killing Thanos is no real part of the plan. They discussed it at some length while back at the mansion, but Loki insisted upon its inherent impracticality. "You know we are difficult enough to incapacitate," she said, gesturing between Thor and herself. "Imagine someone far more difficult, and you may come close to understanding." Their hope instead is to drive Thanos away: if his ship is falling, fleeing to another Chitauri ship will not do much good. Between Loki's knowledge and the intelligence they gathered during the days they had Jane's encryption hack, they know that the other Chitauri ships do not have nearly the missile capabilities of the flagship, and alone cannot adequately defend themselves from a Midgardian offensive.

Loki is murmuring directions to himself as they go swiftly through the corridors. Thor keeps half an eye out for any Chitauri that might discover them and raise another alarm, but most of his attention is on his brother. Loki looks lit up, full of vibrant energy from killing the creature, and Thor has no idea whether he should feel viciously pleased or very worried.

"Through here," Loki says, seizing Thor's arm and dragging him to a doorway. "Carefully." Thor nods, gripping his hammer tight, and goes in first, Loki at his back.

The space-side wall of the room is one great window, the vista of Earth spread out below, dazzling and beautiful. Thor feels a rush of affection for Midgard, but there is no time to linger. The rest of the room is covered in glowing maps of the world below, points of light upon them: targets, Thor thinks, and then sees in alarm that many of the points are pulsing with purpose. There is not a single Chitauri present to guard all this intelligence, but someone else is in the room, facing away from them and surveying Midgard. Though Thor and Loki have made but little noise coming in, the figure at the window turns at once, with casual curiosity.

"Ah," Loki says, a soft laugh of despair.

Thanos looks like a war leader: he is as imposingly large as the Hulk, with keen piercing eyes, which he turns upon Thor and Loki with cold assessment. Thor meets Thanos' gaze squarely. There is no creeping insidious horror in this room, no suggestion of magics; they are in the presence of a master tactician, and if Loki is frightened of him, it is the fear of respect.

"Well met, General Thanos," Thor says. The ship shudders around them again; the view of Earth outside tilts a little, with awful dizziness. Thanos does not turn, nor flinch. "I see you have made no retreat."

"Retreat," Thanos repeats, deep and puzzled, tasting out an unfamiliar word. "You have come to the heart of my fleet as though you believe it will make a difference. My weapons are functional still. In hours this planet will be rubble."

Beside Thor, Loki gives a snort of derision.

Both Thor and Thanos turn to him in astonishment. Loki is smiling mockingly. "Behind schedule?" he asks.

Thanos laughs, seeming for a moment charmed by this impertinence. "You were a minor inconvenience," he says. "I was expecting my lieutenant here by now. Perhaps you finally grew courage enough to wrest yourself from him, Asgardian?"

"Yes," Loki says. "By my count, then, I'm faring better than you today. You have not fled the field; well enough. But your last grand gesture is to destroy this planet? I think little of it."

"And why should Thanos care what you think?" Thanos demands; but even to Thor this sounds less like a dismissal than he suspects Thanos would like.

"Because it is pathetic," Loki says. Thanos starts a step forward, and Thor grips Mjolnir tight in warning, and Loki ignores both these things, a condescending grin rising in his face. "This is the best you have to offer? You orchestrated the slow, meticulous, well-considered desecration of a world; now you give up and throw everything you have at it when faced with the first serious rebuff?" He tilts his chin up, staring Thanos down disdainfully. "Death-god indeed," he says. "A death-god who lacks the patience of death, who lacks the subtlety, the creativity -- I pitied you for your desperate attempt to fashion yourself Death's equal, but now, well." Loki spreads his hands. "It's getting sad."

Thor listens with increasing horror. If Loki were to speak to him thus, in Thanos' position, he would not tolerate such words; rather they would spur him to action at once. Thor opens his mouth, trying furiously to think of what might cause Thanos to back down from this; but the general, eyes fixed on Loki, seems less angry than amused.

"Is this your attempt to talk me out of it?" Thanos laughs. "If I destroyed this planet now, there would be no one to miss it, no one who would know."

"You would," Loki points out, shrugging. "And I would; I could take my brother and flee this rock as it disintegrates. Anyone who has been paying the least attention to this corner of the universe could see this for the abortive attempt to prove yourself that it is. If you want instead to say that you tire of a thing, simply leave it where it is, and trust that others will clean it up."

"Magnanimous, to advise me so," says Thanos, dryly. "What prompts this sudden generosity?"

"I had hoped to stay a little longer," Loki says, "to see what the aftermath had to offer me." He glances swiftly at Thor and away again, and gives Thanos the twist of a smile. Thor can see there is a lie here, but can no longer see what it might be. "But there are always other plans," Loki tells Thanos, "always new ways of fashioning name and kingdom." A tension seems to leave him, the desperation of the fight evaporating into a careless vicious grin. "In any case, enjoy destroying your planet."

He turns to gather Thor. "Loki --" Thor says, stunned and horrified, finally catching on. He remembers, back at the mansion, how after their planning session Steve had drawn him briefly aside. I don't trust Loki an inch, Steve said. Be careful. Don't let him get away with anything. Thor had nodded, brushing it aside. Now he backs away from Loki, fearing that if Loki touches him he will find himself elsewhere against his will, their allies left to die on a shattering world.

"It's over, Thor," Loki says, quite cheerfully. "We cannot take him in a fight; it is best to leave this world to him."

"No," Thanos says. Loki turns to him, but Thor keeps his eyes on Loki, so Thor hears rather than sees Thanos' smile, the note of charmed amusement in his voice. "I have done what I can with this place, and it has shown what mettle it has. I leave it to you; enjoy your broken world, scavenger-king. Enjoy wresting this one from your brother."

Loki ducks his head, smiling in return, and allows Thanos to stride past him and out of the room. Thor stares after him, feeling whiplashed. He is only now shifting from the horror that Loki would let Thanos destroy Midgard to the horror that Loki would talk Thanos into leaving, that Thanos would agree, that they have agreed to spare this world now in exchange for another later. But Thanos is gone before Thor can protest, and the blinking lights on the maps wink out, one by one, until the light is steady.

The ship shudders again. Past the window a single escape pod sails away from the Earth into blackness.

"Well," Loki breathes. "I think that went well."

Thor rounds on him. "That was no bluff," he snaps.

"Everything is a bluff," Loki returns, with the beginning of irritation.

"You were going to let Midgard be destroyed!" Thor yells. Loki has, quite wisely, slipped around to the other side of one bank of maps, and appears to be fiddling with control buttons, blinking the maps out of existence and pulling other schematics up instead. Thor knows he should be paying attention to this, in case Loki is about to do something even more foolish, but he is much too angry. "You fought with them for months, Loki, does even that bond mean nothing to you --?"

"Even the strongest bonds can be cut," Loki returns; infuriatingly, he does not even deign to look at Thor, and seems only half-engaged, refusing to allow this to become the fight Thor needs. "The bonds to family, to home, to self -- desperate circumstances ..." Under his hands an array lights up, and he looks up at Thor with a brief satisfied smile. "The fleet awaits your command."

Thor blinks at Loki, skidding from anger into surprise. He had forgotten entirely what their next move was to be, but while he was shouting, Loki has pulled up the necessary communications; they can give the Chitauri their terms of surrender, now, in the increasingly short space before Thanos' ship falls from orbit.

"Loki," Thor says, "I'm angry with you," and it comes out so exasperatedly fond that Loki huffs a laugh.

"Lightning never lingers," Loki tells him. "Come, time is short."

Thor takes a breath, letting go of his anger. He might still be displeased with Loki's methods, but there are more important things to worry about. He steps up to the communication relay; Loki presses a button and nods.

"To the Chitauri fleet," Thor says. He can hear the distant reverberations of his own voice in the depths of the ship, assuring him that Loki found the right communication panel. "I am Thor, son of Odin, prince of Asgard, as you well know; I am addressing you from your flagship, granted the authority to speak on behalf of this planet by the humans who live there. The situation is this: your emissary, your general's second, is dead; General Thanos has quit the field and given up this campaign, leaving you to our mercies. The flagship is going down; it will crash into the planet's oceans within the hour; already it is too late to stop." He looks over at Loki, who is watching him with bright expectation. "These are our terms," Thor says. "Leave. We will not blast your ships from the sky; we will not hunt you down to kill you upon the ground. We will give you a week to recover all your troops from the cities in which they are entrenched, without further killing. If you think this too great a task, we will send our own crafts to help you retrieve your ground troops, provided their surrender. Then you must leave, or we will strike down those who remain. We wish for no prisoners of war, and for no further reparations; there has been enough destruction on both sides for much bitterness, and we have no desire to compound it. Your immediate surrender, and a week to leave."

Loki cuts the feed. They stare at one another. Thor feels suddenly winded, as though he has been stunned, or fighting for many more hours than he truly has. "That's done, then," he says, and again, with some wonder, "That is done, Loki."

"Yes, yes," Loki says, "and if we do not wish to go down with this ship we should find the others at once."

Thor sees the wisdom in this, and they set off at once. On their way to the rendezvous point they meet occasional Chiaturi, still, some of them helping their fellows along. One or two even give Thor and Loki nods of acknowledgement as they pass; but though Thor keeps a hand on Mjolnir’s haft, he does not raise his hammer against any of them, for none seem in a fighting mood. They are all heading for their own escape routes, it seems, while meanwhile Thor and Loki move back towards the heart of the ship. It is shuddering all around them now, the floors tilting as the gravity field begins to fail.

"Over here!" they hear a yell over the awful dying rumble of the engines.

Down the corridor Thor spots Clint and Hulk, and he sets off faster towards them. Loki follows, but hangs back a little, and Thor feels a flash of amusement, that Loki will face down Thanos but be hesitant to come near the Hulk.

"Good speech," Clint says, when they are near enough to speak. "Me and the Hulk here were very impressed, weren't we, buddy?"

"Shut up," Hulk rumbles. "Where Cap and Tasha?"

"If you think I'm magicking you back to the Helicarrier like that --" Loki says.

"Quiet," Thor snaps. "Bruce, it might be easier ..."

"Fine," Hulk says sulkily, and shrinks, pinking. Bruce wraps his trousers more securely around his waist. "The point is," he goes on, "seriously, where are Steve and Natasha?"

"Quiet," Clint says, a finger to his earpiece. "Tasha says they got held up. The Chitauri escape pods are all down there; they're panicking, they can't all get out before the ship crashes, and Tasha says she and Steve can't get through the crush." He looks around at them, face stricken. "She says they'll be fine."

"You know when she's lying." Loki frowns. "We haven't the time for this."

Bruce fishes his own earpiece out of his half-destroyed trousers and crams it into his ear. "Tony," he says, "do we have time to pull them out of navigation?" but Thor needs no comm of his own to know the answer, even before Bruce winces.

Clint rounds on Loki. "Can you teleport in?" he demands.

"Not accurately," Loki says. "I've never seen that part of the ship."

"Well, try!" Clint says, half a shout. "We'll wait here, just --"

"Don't be stupid," Loki snaps, seizing Clint's wrist; Clint tries to twist away, and Loki grabs Bruce with his other hand, and at the last moment, unthinkingly, Thor grips Loki's shoulder in a stupid futile effort to stop him. The world squeezes in, small and dark and cold and breathless, and pops back out into itself, depositing them all on the bridge of the Helicarrier.

Agents turn to look at them, startled. Tony rises from the schematics he was pouring over and comes for them, face white. Clint whirls on Loki, shaking free and punching his arm so hard that Loki staggers. "Fuck you, take me back, you can't leave them --!"

"I won't," Loki snaps back, and vanishes.

"What the hell," Tony says. He's reached them, and wraps his jacket around Bruce. "Where are the others? Did Loki just straight up run away? What --?"

"Be silent," Thor says.

He does not say it loudly, but he says it with the cold stillness of horror, and it shuts Tony up at once. They all follow Thor's gaze. Outside the domed windows of the Helicarrier's observation deck, falling with deceptive slowness, comes Thanos' ship. It is burning with friction, though Chitauri ships are still coming from it, spiraling up into the sky; or perhaps bits of the ship itself are breaking away in the fall. It is starkly black against the white of the arctic sky. Thor cannot breathe. Three people he loves are aboard that ship, and however slow the fall looks, it is moments from ice.

The moments stretch, and stretch, and when the impact comes Thor does not know what he will do.

Loki blinks into existence, one arm around Natasha, and the other around Steve, all of them smeared with ash and sagging against each other. A moment later out the window Thanos' ship blooms up in flames, the shockwave hitting the Helicarrier a second later.

Tony catches Steve, and Clint catches Natasha, and Thor sees this long enough to understand they are safe; and then he cannot bring himself to care about anything but Loki, standing there swaying with exhaustion and spent magic. Every second of Thanos' ship in freefall is screaming under his skin, and Loki is vanishing from under Thor's hand and Loki is letting go of their father's spear and Loki is standing there, still alive.

Thor crosses the space between them, seizing Loki's shoulders. Loki actually looks at him in astonishment before understanding slides across his face, and then Thor is kissing him. He does not care that they are standing on the bridge of the Helicarrier; he does not care that they have just won a war. Loki is alive, and solid in his arms, wrapping his hands in Thor's hair to draw him closer, kissing him back as though Loki needs the reassurance as much as Thor.

At the end of the kiss they stand with their foreheads pressed together. In a moment Thor will have to look up, will have to deal with the aftermath of everything they have done; but for now he stays with his forehead against his brother’s, and holds on like he will never let Loki go.

Chapter Text

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.