Actions

Work Header

Can't Go Back the Same Way You Came

Work Text:

Afterwards, Loki falls.

He falls and he falls, through the void of space, for a length of time he cannot measure. At first he does not think to – he falls and he thinks of his father, his brother, Asgard, everything he has ever done wrong. He tries not to think of the end which must be coming.

Must be coming, but never does.

After a time, self-recrimination and terror edged like a blade give way to something duller. He counts heartbeats -- is distracted, nauseated by the twisting, blurring trails of the stars all around him -- loses count. He tries again.

Eventually, he passes out. Even the body of an Asga— the body of a jötunn must give in at some point.

--

Loki comes to in a field of wheat. He stares up from the ground, bare rustling stalks covering most of his field of sight. The sky seems very pale, and very far away.

It's cold, he supposes. Perhaps it is winter, or he is in the north of whatever realm this is. It cannot be Asgard or Jotunheim, nor Svartalfheim nor Nidavellir. Perhaps it is Vanaheim where he has fallen, the homelands of the Vanir – but no; Loki has visited Vanaheim before, and this is not it.

He blinks up at the uninterrupted sky and feels, suddenly, that this must be Midgard, that the universe has a sense of the appropriate; Thor's exile, all Loki's fault, took place in Midgard, so of course Loki's own more permanent exile will take place here, too.

Loki spares a moment to think, idly, of Thor's mortal friend Jane Foster. He spares another moment to wonder of what would have happened if Thor had not broken the Bifröst, if Loki had stayed his hand, if Loki had just thought

Loki thinks of the jötnar, and his gorge rises.

A breeze ruffles the wheat as it passes, and Loki's hair with it. Loki finds himself shivering, and does not know why – the cold does not touch him (and oh, how that thought hurts his heart to think); he is not over-tired.

He shivers, and he wonders. Loki has never been able to stop its mind in its tracks; thoughts run along the well-worn plain of his mind, quick as salmon in their stream, circling forever.

When he had been a child, he had often found it hard to sleep for the over-loud workings of his mind. When still he slept in the same bed as Thor, the presence of another body, quiet and deep-breathing, had helped. Later, when each prince could boast his own room, Loki had sought sleep in books, volumes of history from the castle's huge, echoing old libraries where few others bothered to tread. Now, Loki has no books, and there is no one in all the nine worlds who would willingly lie next to him, whose breathing he could match, slowly, deliberately.

Now, Loki is alone, and he knows what that means: vulnerability, a need to shore up his strength, to slip into shadows and hide for a time.

Strength begins from balance, and balance from knowledge of one's place in the world. Knowledge cannot be gained when one is on one's back in a wheat field with no direct recollection of how one has got there.

Loki pushes himself into a sitting position and waits for the momentary dizziness to pass. He breathes deep, and rolls upwards until he's standing, the wheat stalks scratching against his hips, his belly. Loki reaches up to shade his eyes against the pale glare of the afternoon sun, and his hand brushes his hair, fallen all into disarray, dirty and springing into its natural curls, freed from the oil he uses to slick it back.

He must look a fright. Thor had joked, once, that Loki fussed more over his hair than any maiden he knew; Loki had riposted with the fact that most of the girls Thor knew were, in fact, Sif , and thus in no way representative of Asgardian girls in general.

Sif had made a point to sharpen her sword in front of them, in a threatening silence, after that. Loki had had a comment about that, too, light and sharp and perhaps more cruel than he intended. He ever was making such comments, quicksilver tongue running away with him.

Loki thinks of Thor, and Sif, and Asgard, and his heart hurts. He is not used to feeling so.

He makes himself take first one step, then another.

--

The first town he comes to is minuscule, barely deserving of the name. Loki is wearing the clothing he wore when he came to Midgard last, suit and coat summoned from where he had left them. He empties the extensive pockets of his usual clothes, and lets them slide into an unused pocket of space, ready for whenever he may need them next.

He does not know when he will need them next. The future is, suddenly, open before him; there is not the least thing to fill it. It is awful and endless and empty and Loki has no idea how Thor managed to stand it.

Loki wanders into what looks like a public eating-house. It takes no thought at all to order the first hot drink on the menu, to pay with coins summoned from the serving man's own money-box with a lazy flip of his fingers, to find an empty table and sit.

There is a much-folded collection of paper on the table, a relic of a previous customer. It claims to be a newspaper, and lists deeds of recent times. Loki learns the town's name (Bruderheim: the sound of it comforts him), its location (somewhere in Alberta, which appears to be a province of the country called Canada), and the date from just the first page. He reads through the whole thing, slowly, absorbing all the information he can. He sips, absent-minded, from the thick white mug the proprietor gave him, and almost chokes; the drink is dark, scalding and bitter, nothing at all like any food in Asgard.

Loki finds he likes it.

He finishes the newspaper and drains the last drops of the coffee, finding himself coming to a decision as he does. Odin – his father, if he can still use the word – has always been a traveler, always been famous for it. Odin is called Vegtam, wanderer, and Loki has never shared his wander-lust. Thor had some of it, and Odin's battle-lust too. But with no home on Midgard, Loki may as well head to the place with people who know, at least, that Asgard exists.

Loki stands up. The man behind the counter looks up, at the sound of Loki's chair scraping across the floor tiles.

Loki puts on what he hopes is a winning smile as he approaches; he fears that it is nowhere near his best effort.

"Hello," he says, and "Kind sir, would you happen to know where I could purchase a map?"

The man raises an eyebrow, his long forehead crinkling. "You mean a road map? I got road maps. Local, provincial, or Canada-wide?"

Loki has no idea where Bruderheim exists in relation to Puente Antiguo, but the first rule is thus: Never give sign of weakness; never show ignorance.

He smiles again, brilliant, and says, "Canada-wide, I think."

The man grunts, and reaches below the counter to dig something out. "You're not from around here, are you? That accent sounds British to me."

"Oh," says Loki. "British. Definitely. Yes."

The man slaps a fat yellow book onto the counter; its cover, marked with the dust of long storage, proclaims it a Complete Road Map of Canada.

"That's ten fifty-three, thank you."

Loki rustles in his pockets, the very image of a man searching for his wallet, and summons a handful of money just as he did before. He feels paper against his hands; Loki pulls out one piece of paper, long and rectangular and blue, bearing a portrait of an old man and a number 5 in the corner; he reaches back in, and this time pulls out something green, with a woman's face on it this time, and a number 20. There's only one bare strip of metal along one side, and it folds between his fingers as he hands it over – obviously worthless in every way – but the man nods and accepts it, and rustles in the money-box for change. Loki receives in return another of the blue bills, two coins that are silver with centres of gold – something like a slice of boiled egg, he finds himself thinking – one small and thin and silver with ridges around the edges, two tiny silver coins as big around as the nail from his littlest finger, and a coin of tarnished copper.

He will learn more about the currency of this nation later; for now, he takes his map and his motley collection of coinage, thanks the proprietor as warmly as he finds himself able, and strides back outside.

There are only a few other people on the street with him, and, he thinks, none of them close enough to see him at all clearly. Loki takes another look up at the vast sky, now darkening; the night is approaching.

He attempts a wry grin upwards, and can feel it turn into a grimace on his cheeks.

Loki has no wish to seek out an inn, here, in this place. This means his options for the night are to camp in the wheat fields or stands of trees outside town, or to keep going.

Camping in the open, when the air is cold, reminds Loki of nothing but traveling with his brother and father, searching for game, hunting after stray giants, long ago in his youth.

The corners of his eyes tighten, and his hands ball into fists without him meaning them to.

But Loki, even if he cannot control his situation, refuses to have anything less than total control over himself; he uncurls his fists and smooths his brow and does not think of his home in Asgard at all. He brought this upon himself, by his own word and deed: he will deal with it himself.

Loki drifts through the town, browsing a map of all of Canada. It is a large country, bordered by an ocean on all sides but one. To the east and north, its outlying islands are close to the countries where the Aesir were worshipped as gods, a thousand and more years ago.

On the south border, he finds what he needs: a new country, labelled The United States of America / États-Unis. During Loki's previous trip to Midgard, he had learned that Puente Antiguo was within the state of New Mexico, which was a part of the United States. The small map did not extend to the south enough to show the precise location of the state, but it would serve for now, until he found a map of the United States. You could cross all of the nine realms, just taking one step at a time.

Of course, Loki's legs are longer than most, and he walks in shadows beside; he could travel swifter by foot than some on horseback.

When Loki had been a youth and easily bored, he had gone exploring in the palace, and had found the library. Better than any dragon's hoard, to his mind: gold shined bright and well-forged blades were always useful, but more useful than any trinket was knowledge.

Loki had spent much of his time there, sneaking off from any non-essential lessons, teaching himself things more fascinating than anything his fighting instructors had ever shown him. He learnt history, science, magic. He had practised spells with ingredients filched from the kitchens until he didn't need anything other than his own energy to work most spells.

He'd learned, from one book so old he'd had to spell it against crumbling, how to travel the shadows, how to step into the shade under an oak tree and step out of the dark under a bridge ten miles away. It didn't work for too-long distances, and he needed to have some knowledge of his destination (which was why he had bought the map), but it worked better than just about anything else Loki knew. He tired less easily than a horse, and traveled faster than any but Sleipnir could gallop.

How Thor had been envious, when Loki had first shown the skill off—

Loki's mouth thins out and his step falters, just for a moment.

He orients himself towards the south, and steps into shadow.

--

Loki has never needed to sleep much, and he finds himself forgoing even those few hours for the sake of travel – ever onwards, ever southwards. There is no need for urgency, not when the whole of his life stretches empty before him, not when there is no home to hurry to – but to sleep means to stop, and to stop means to let himself think, and that means to feel anger, or despair.

To travel by the shadow-ways means to have no room in his head for any thinking other than the strategic, the where-may-I-walk-next, the what-direction-shall-I-take, the how-may-I-find-it.

He does not think, often, of food, or rest. He has ever been thin; he grows thinner. No matter: his body sustains itself one way or another, on food given to it, or on itself. It feels meet.

The days lengthen, the sun brightens, as he slides south through the shadows. Long, twisting, grey roads stretch across the whole of the countryside, marking it, mapping it. Nothing like Asgard, nothing like anything in the other eight realms. He thinks of the deep freezing lakes, so blue and so dark; the dust rising off the packed-dirt training grounds, dancing in the sun; the stillness of the great halls in early morning, when even the servants were still abed.

No, nothing like Asgard.

Loki Odinsson, Loki Laufeysson, Loki son of absolutely no one at all continues on his way. He finds there is nothing else left for him to do.

--

Loki pauses, finally, in the next city he comes to. For food, and drink, and a chance to rest and to buy another newspaper. For a chance to sleep, before he finds himself shadow-walking by mistake onto the bottom of a riverbed.

The city turns out to be called Denver, and the newspaper is the Post. The money here is all green, confusing after the colour coordination of Canada. Loki has spent now almost a week traveling in shadows, and he has not yet slept.

He has not slept since his second-to-last night in Asgard; his last night he spent on his father's throne, thinking.

Loki's eyes blur, now, and he tells himself it is with tiredness only -- this and nothing else.

There are many inns, hotels and motels and bed-and-breakfasts they call themselves, in this city of Denver, Colorado. Loki hires a room from one with a bright, garish sign, suites lined up one after another, perfectly quiet and perfectly monotonous.

He is asked for identification papers at what the people of this country call the "cash"; he slips a scrap of paper out of his pocket, an end-page loosened from a book of maps, asks it silently to be what Loki needs it to be, and shows it to the man. He looks it over, nods. Even that small magic drains Loki, now, after so many days spent walking the shadow-ways.

Loki hires the room for a day, and sleeps through most of it. The rest of his time he spends watching the picture-box, the television. The technology here is not much advanced, but what there is is far more ubiquitous than that of Asgard. He has seen televisions in almost every dwelling he's passed on his way.

He comes across a news program, as he clicks through the television channels. Loki watches the whole thing, watches the bright lights bounce off the reporter's hair and perfect teeth.

There is not a single mention of any strange meteor or satellite landing, not in Puente Antiguo or Alberta or anywhere else. Loki lets out a breath he hadn't known he was holding.

The room is furnished simply, plain items meant to withstand constant use rather than to please the eyes. There are soaps, at least, in the bathroom; Loki avails himself of the shower and tries them out.

The hot water feels like a blessing against his back, muscles so tense for so long. Loki stands there, head bowed, steam rising in plumes around him, and tries to keep from thinking. One skill, at least, that he's never quite mastered.

He steps out of the cramped stall, steam twisting itself into wreaths in the chiller air. There's a mirror on the wall opposite, above the sink. Loki knows spells to stop his reflection from showing; they spring, unbidden, to his lips now, but he swallows them back down.

Loki's hair curls, kinks wildly in the heat and the damp. His hair, so unlike Thor's. Loki has no oils to slick it down with: he leaves it be.

His eyes, next, as poisonous a green as ever, but sunk into even further, now, into their sockets. His brows are drawn together, tense – Loki flattens them out.

His jaw has never been prone to sprouting hair very quickly, but it has been nearly a week since his last shave. Loki goes and fetches his small silver pocket-knife from the sleeve of his Midgard jacket. It was the knife he always had on him, no matter what, to cut bread or cheese or chosen herbs or, more than once, bandages. Its blade never dulled, and Loki did not like to think, just now, of who had given it to him, and when.

It would serve adequately as a razor; that was all that mattered.

Loki shaves – carefully, carefully, the little silver knife had an edge sharper than he was used to – and dries, and dresses, in his suit of Midgard clothing.

What next? Not much, next. Find something to eat, find a better map (Loki has been keeping each map he buys, thinking he may study them later: some knowledge is dull in its earning, but it is all worth the knowing), continue on his way to Puente Antiguo. And then? Contact Jane Foster? Contact the agency called S.H.I.E.L.D.?

Why bother with any of it, when return to Asgard is an impossibility, the Bifröst broken and nothing left there for him?

Loki dislikes these thoughts.

He gathers up his meagre supply of belongings, notes the time ("Checkout at 11:30," he'd been told. "You stay late, you pay extra." The innkeeper's voice, rough from years of smoking, had grated on his nerves.), and leaves, door unlocked and room empty behind him.

--

Loki meanders through the streets of Denver, belly full for the first time in a week. He had been planning to head off again southwards immediately, but now, with no real goal in mind outside of "reach Puente Antiguo", the whole thing seems an exercise in futility, and Loki hates to hasten needlessly.

So he finds himself wandering Denver, a city he finds he cares not much for. It is full of people, masses of them, more than he's used to in any circumstance but a battlefield, and his awareness of the bright-lifed mortals itches at the space between his shoulder blades.

Loki passes one man in the street who looks remarkably like Fandral of the Warriors Three, and nearly stops him before he sees the differences, the lack of mustache, the sharper nose, the clothing so different from anything Fandral the Dashing could ever condescend to wear.

The differences, on a more thorough look, are more prominent than the similarities. Loki tries not to wonder at this, that he is seeing the shades of his brother's companions in the people of Midgard.

The sighting of the man not Fandral seems an omen, of sorts. Loki takes it to mean that it is time to leave Denver, this city not for him, this city which could never belong to him the way he had used to think that Asgard could.

Loki continues his southward way through the shadows.
--

Loki reaches Puente Antiguo at last by using the route marked 285 on his most recent map; it passes through long stretches of uninhabited land, and Loki is grateful for that. The land is long and dry and coloured all in browns and golds – he cannot help but to compare it to the greens of Asgard, though he tries not to.

The land in its flatness and broadness, the sheer hugeness of its horizon, instills in Loki not a thoughtfulness but rather awareness, a stillness of being which makes him reluctant to use the shadow-ways. He walks for a time as a mortal man would, footsteps lining themselves up, one after another, on the sliding gravel shoulder of the road. He strips himself of his coat, tucks the checked scarf into a sleeve, folds the coat and drapes the whole bundle over his arm. He walks first under the high burning sun, then in the long purple shadows of evening, then in the fierce cold of the night when the sun is hidden by the bulk of the Earth. He walks, and he does not tire.

Few vehicles pass him. One driver offers him a ride in the cab of his eighteen-wheeler truck, "wherever you're going, the nearest service station, wherever"; Loki does not accept the offer, but is touched by it all the same. When the man drives off, still clearly unsure about leaving Loki alone on the vast road, Loki twists his long fingers together into the signs for a spelling of safe-passage, and sends it off after the truck.

He stands these for a long time, till the truck disappears over the horizon, till the dust trail kicked up by its tires settles.

Loki rouses; his shoulders settle back, and he finds his eyes clearing. He a stranger in a strange land. He tires of the journey, and he is glad to see its end ahead of him.

Loki slides back into the paths carved by shadows, and glides his swift sightless way down, down, down.

--

Loki walks into the town of Puente Antiguo minutes after dawn's first flush, a week and a day after his landing in a wheat-field in Alberta. In this part of Midgard they call this day Tuesday, the day of one-handed Tyr. The town is quiet still at this hour: doors shut, curtains drawn, all good mortal citizens still indoors.

An entire street is sectioned off, by bright yellow tape reading CAUTION – CAUTION – CAUTION in strident print. Beyond the tape is the debris left by the Destroyer: burnt husks of things, crushed automobiles, shattered concrete.

Loki feels regret as a sharp, sudden pain under his breastbone. The things he had done – the things he would have continued to do, if not for Thor – the thought knocks the very breath from Loki's lungs.

Thor always had been the one to fix things, when one of Loki's schemes went awry. Loki catches himself resenting that, for a bare moment, before the regret sinks back in.

Well: Thor is stuck in Asgard, now, with the Bifröst itself broken perhaps beyond repair, and all his princely duties to attend to. Loki will make reparations for the ills he himself brought upon this town, and then perhaps he will research how the Bifröst might be repaired, or supplemented, with the technology of this Earth.

Thor must be missing the human Jane Foster, and Loki will not let himself grudge his brother his relationships any longer. Thor had always been the favoured child, Loki a half-step behind him. Thor had proved himself worthy, and Loki had not. Loki could, perhaps, here and now in this insignificant town in the mortal realm of Midgard, make up for some of that.

Loki takes one long glance around the street; the sun continues its upward climb, chariot pulled along its route by the horses Arvak and Alsvid. He swallows a deep breath of the dusty air, and twists his wrists, moves his fingers in the patterns laid out in the old volumes sitting on their lecterns in the libraries of Asgard. The power comes in a slow stream, and when it's built up enough, Loki lets it free, and disappears from view.

His image slides across the more reflective surfaces – a window here, a car's rearview mirror there – as he walks across town, but there's nobody awake yet to notice.

--

It takes a further week the settle the problem of the Destroyer's wreckage. Not to clean up and repair it all – a week would not be time enough even in Asgard – but it is enough to hasten schedules, to pry and to poke into the circumstances of this town, to convince the government here in his own secret, sly way to bring more aid than planned.

Loki does not enjoy using his mirror-tricks on the people of Midgard, but as of yet he has no other way to exert any influence here, to make amends for his own cruelty and lack of foresight.

Thrice in that week Loki had seen Jane Foster. Once in the company of her small dark assistant and the old man with the familiar accent. Once alone. And once with the man Coulson, fiercely arguing or perhaps, rather, haranguing; Coulson had made not much reply, but instead made to imply with his silence and the position of his limbs, his expression, that she was having no great effect on him. The strategy had not worked, and Loki had been impressed by Jane Foster's relentless pursuit of her goals. She had appeared to him in that harsh afternoon light as one of the Valkyries themselves, as fit for battle as Brynhild.

If any Midgard mortal were to find a way to Asgard, it would be Jane Foster.

If any man existed who could help Jane Foster in her quest, it would be Loki, Loki who spent half his life in the libraries, learning everything he could about the Bifröst and its hidden sister-passages, snaking up and down the branches of Yggdrasil.

Loki thinks on this for a day, and then another. Slowly, piece-meal, he comes to a decision.

He begins the arrangements: a word whispered here, a record forged there. He builds up the paper history of a S.H.I.E.L.D.-employed scientist, a specialist in extragalactic astronomy who spent years in various remote locations, observing the sky. He fabricates a credit history, an academic career – the work is masterful, and in any other circumstances at all he'd have been itching to boast of it.

Here, though, there is nobody who can know who he really is. The proof of his skill will be in the ignorance of it.

Loki hires an apartment on the outskirts of Puente Antiguo, very near its single public library – it's small, kitchen not even its own separate room, and the yellow floorboards, old and worn in places from the foot-traffic of many years' tenants, are warped.

But there is a bed, and it has an address. It will suffice.

Loki purchases for himself more outfits of Midgard clothing: plain grey suits and simple buttoned shirts, the better to play the scientist with limited means. Other, more casual clothing, as simple as he can get it.

He visits the few grocery stores in town, more to set himself up as a recognizable figure in town than to really buy anything he means to consume. Despite having access to a kitchen, Loki is still not eating much; he has no appetite for anything in this realm. Nor, if he is being entirely honest, for anything from any of the other eight. The fault lies not with the colour or flavour of Midgard apples, nor with the quality of the bread that comes in cheerily labelled plastic bags. The fault lies entirely with Loki.

Loki sits on the lone chair in his apartment, back to a bare wall, facing a window through which the fading light of another sunset seeps. They have an expression here, do the humans, one that begins with, 'an apple a day…'

Loki's face shapes itself into a smile without any humour in it. He tosses an apple lightly into the air once, twice; the incandescent lights pick out shifting orange highlights on its skin as it twists in the air. On the third time, he lets it come to a rest in one palm. His fingers close around it, and he lifts it to take a bite of it, his first bite of food all day.

There is nothing objectively wrong with the fruit, not once Loki had removed the small plastic sticker proclaiming it a golden delicious, but it sticks like clay in his throat as he swallows.

Tomorrow, he begins his work at the S.H.I.E.L.D. research facility, moved now from the desert to the edge of town, near Jane Foster's old lab.

"I wish I had the least idea of what I was doing," Loki murmurs to himself, and the sound of his voice surprises him into a laugh, low and rough and mocking.

He has not had the least idea of what he has been doing for longer than he has been in this mortals' realm of Midgard.

--

Loki makes sure to come in early, though not earlier than Jane Foster; he thinks it best if he introduces himself once she's had time to sift through her day's work and drink her first cup of coffee.

Loki spends a surprisingly short half-hour sorting out his identification badge and the matter of clearance, and then he's pointed to the room given over to Jane Foster's research.

Though he's intimately familiar with the science of space and the connections between realms, he is less so with the vocabulary in current use. Loki has been giving himself an education in terms, this past week; he stands in the hallway and reads a single article (written five years ago by one Jane Foster, graduate student at Stanford) to refresh himself.

The desk given to Loki (equipped with a chair on wheels and what looks like a state-of-the-art computer, complete with a matched pair of monitors) is in a large room that hosts a dozen others, along with two long tables presumably meant for spreading out graphs or sharing work. Jane Foster's desk is nearest the window (Loki, newest employee, has a desk in the far corner); her mentor's desk is right by hers, and her assistant has a dedicated chair, decorated with a sticker of a rainbow breaking through a fluffy white cloud, and a white rectangle that reads HELLO MY NAME IS darcy lewis's chair for sitting on. The writing after Darcy's name is cramped up against the edge of the sticker, and in a different colour of pen.

Jane Foster's desk is covered in the strata of paper that develops when the owner has better things to do with their time than sort through paperwork. The small mountain of old coffee mugs and paper cups from Puente Antiguo's single Starbucks speaks, too, as to Jane Foster's dedication.

Neither Erik Selvig nor Darcy are present just yet, but Jane is, already busy scratching a pen across the margins of a printout.

Loki walks forward through the room, makes certain both his badge and his protections against Heimdall's far-seeing eyes are in place, and goes to greet his new…. boss.

Jane Foster looks up as he approaches, scowl of concentration clearing from her brow as she brushes a piece of hair out of her eyes.

"Hello," she says, and nothing more: curious rather than guarded.

"Hello," replies Loki; "I'm new here – would I be correct in assuming you're Jane Foster? I've been reading your articles," he adds, not a lie.

Jane coughs then laughs, quick and short. "I am Jane Foster, yes, but I'm gonna have to ask who you are and why you're reading my articles. Are you the new astronomer?"

"I am," says Loki, and smiles, wide and friendly. His hands rise, touch the edge of his ID badge. "Lucas Mercury; I specialize in the physics of space outside this galaxy. You can call me Luke."

Jane Foster looks him up and down, just once. "Nice to meet you, Luke. Now tell me, mister extra-galactic astrophysicist, what do you make of these readings? I keep thinking it's the equipment that's malfunctioning, not that there's some sort of new phenomenon, but I'd appreciate a clear eye on this."

She reaches up a hand for Loki to shake.

After the barest moment's hesitation, Loki takes it.

--

Loki had expected to respect Jane Foster; he had not expected to like her.

She is quick-witted, with a plain common sense and lively intuition that lets her see what many of her peers don't. Her deductions are inspired; little wonder S.H.I.E.L.D. had tried to keep them for itself, little wonder it hadn't succeeded.

She is driven to succeed in her quest – both from sheer scientific curiosity and a longing to see Thor again. She does not sit and sigh over her lost love; in her own way, she is fierce as Sif, and as relentless.

Loki sees easily now how she had been able to change Thor so thoroughly in so short a time. He thinks of his brother in Asgard, perhaps king by now, and the knowledge that Thor would be a just one is enough to ease the constriction in his chest, a little.

Erik Selvig stays in New Mexico with them, calling the research more interesting than what he'd been working on in Norway. "It's not often we get such a huge proof of the existence of Einstein-Rosen bridges or extraterrestrial life," he says.

"It's not often a researcher gets paid this much," says Jane, and Selvig shrugs.

Darcy, too, stays. She insists on finishing her internship, and claims to want to stick around as long as there's a chance she'll get another glimpse of Thor. Jane rolls her eyes at this, but she doesn’t yell at Darcy for the rest of the day.

---

The research moves slowly, as such research always does. Loki becomes familiar with the equipment, the security guards, the other scientists. Erik Selvig and Darcy Lewis stick around, and Loki gets to know them as well. Selvig's accent is a familiar one to him, and perhaps that enables Loki to relax in his presence.

Still, though, at the close of one workday, when Selvig invites Loki to go for a drink at his favoured bar, Loki refuses.

Selvig raises an eyebrow at that. "Why? You don't drink?"

Loki smiles up from the meteorological data he's looking over again. "Not much, and when I do, I get very quiet. I'm afraid I wouldn't be the best of company."

Selvig's eyebrow remains raised, but he accepts the excuse. Loki feels a flush of gratitude for that, and tamps it down. He's not here to befriend people; he is here to fix what was broken through his own misdeeds.

"Maybe some other time, then," Selvig says, and swings his bag onto his shoulder.

"Maybe," Loki says, agreeably. "Have a good evening."

And he turns back to his work, till he hears Selvig's footsteps fade.

Loki looks up again, once he's sure Selvig is gone, and glances around the room. His gaze is arrested by the sight of Jane Foster, chin in hand and pen in mouth, staring thoughtfully at him.

Loki had thought she'd gone home already. He smiles politely at her, and rises to pick up and jacket. He tries not to hurry as he leaves, but knowing she's watching sets an itch along his spine that he can't shake off.

--

Loki works for S.H.I.E.L.D. for days that spin themselves into weeks, as the New Mexico summer crawls relentlessly on. The work, and the company, are engaging, and Loki is drawn into them despite his best efforts to play the aloof scientist. One afternoon, Selvig makes a joke, a simple jest about the amount of work left before them, and Loki feels the skin around his eyes crinkling in a smile, the first spontaneous smile he can remember making since – since before the jötnar first came for the Casket of Ancient Winters. That thought makes the smile slip from his face, but Jane and Selvig are already looking at him with something new in their eyes.

He slips a bland smile on and opens his mouth to ask them something diverting, but then Darcy bangs the door open with her hip and waves four mugs of coffee at them.

"Hey, guys," she hollers from all the way across the room; Jane grins, and Selvig winces.

Darcy approaches, and sets a mug before everyone grouped around Jane's desk. She takes a sip of her own, and a look around. "So, what's up?"

"Luke smiled," says Jane. "We are all very shocked, and hoping for a repeat performance before too long – I am personally hoping for a chuckle in another month or two."

"I smile frequently," says Loki, as pleasantly as he is able. "I might go so far as to say that I do so on a daily basis."

"You smile because you're polite, not 'cause you're happy," Darcy says. She pulls out her iPod and pokes at its screen once, twice, as if to say there, that's the end of that.

Selvig clears his throat and says, "The lady has a point."

Darcy snaps her fingers and points upwards, vindication!

Loki cradles his mug of coffee (black, two sugars, as he's learned he likes it) and feels, abruptly, as though he is under attack.

Jane is looking at him, as if – as if – Loki is unsure, but he cannot bear the idea that she pities him. His lips pinch.

"If we're all done teasing the new kid, I believe there's something with these new data that could use further examination," he says, and it comes out with perhaps less grace and good humour than intended.

Jane gestures, a roll of her wrist, an elegant motion. "Have at it, new kid."

Loki rises and gathers the relevant papers. There are useful programs on the computers here, that will do many calculations and cross-examinations for the scientists, but sometimes they don't quite hold up to a person with a graphing calculator, a knowledge of algorithms, and a keen eye for things out of place.

He turns to go to his desk, and Darcy calls after him in a carrying voice, "I'm gonna steal your lunch money later, new kid!"

These are good people, here, in this place. The thought pulls at Loki's heart. He will not enjoy leaving them.

--

The summer pushes its way onwards, encroaching on fall's time. The weather begins to change, in increments; Jane has an idea that feels like it could be workable, though why Loki can't articulate yet; Darcy in theory makes her return to university, but in practice ends up in the labs whenever she doesn't have class; and Loki runs out of apples.

He still doesn't have much of an appetite to speak of, and has been surviving almost solely on apples from a local supermarket and mugs of coffee at work. Volstagg, valiant man though he is, would blanch at the idea; that thought first amuses Loki for a moment, before he remembers.

Well: loath though he is to go shopping, Loki has no choice; his cupboards are as bare as those of Mother Hubbard in the poem told to children in this realm. Not that they had ever been full to begin with, really, not with anything more than a few odds and ends purchased in his first days here.

The next day at the S.H.I.E.L.D. labs, he begs off work early. "I do need to do a little grocery shopping," he says, and spreads his hands wide. "Not that I wouldn't love to stay, not when we're finally getting somewhere, but—"

"You're damn right, you need to go grocery shopping," says Jane, eyeing him baldly. "You've been more of a stick than usual lately, I swear to God you weigh less than me."

"Oh, nobody ever feels like eating much when it's so hot out." Loki waves away her concern like an errant fly. "But I'll be sure to buy whole-fat mayonnaise this time, just for you, Miss Foster."

Darcy slams the lid of her laptop shut behind them; Loki starts. He turns to see Darcy with her hand in the air, as though she's still in her Intro to American Film class. Jane gestures for her to speak.

"I totally need to pick up some milk! And cereal! And…. probably bread."

"Well, then," says Jane. "I think this is a good opportunity for some classic team bonding time!" She smiles, sly: Loki trusts it no more than he would trust his own smile.

"We bond for more than nine hours a day," he says, and stands to roll his sleeves back to his wrists, shrug back into his suit jacket. Darcy, meanwhile, is packing up her bag – laptop in case, case in bag, iPod headphones wrapped around iPod, trussed iPod in bag, wallet in bag, bright purple pen tucked securely into individual pocket in bag.

Loki glances over at her and raises an eyebrow. "Well," he sighs, with over-acted resignation. "I suppose I could suffer your presence for another hour or so, Darcy."

She grins, her smile sharp. "I suppose you could, yeah."

He proffers his arm, the consummate gentleman. Darcy takes it with her version of a stately nod.

"'Bye, boss," she says to Jane, and waves to Selvig, over at the other end of the table, examining star-charts.

"Make Luke buy some actual food," Jane advises.

"You are cruel," says Loki, sorrowfully. "You are cruel, and you wound me deeply."

"He needs at least one pint of Ben & Jerry's," Jane adds. "Possibly doughnuts."

"Totally on it, boss," Darcy says, and rips off a textbook salute with her hand not currently clutching Loki's arm.

Loki sees his inevitable defeat, and accepts it with grace. "Have a good evening, Jane."

"You too, new kid," she says absently, already back to her work.

Darcy drags him out through the long corridors, past both outgoing security checkpoints, and finally into the daylight. The heat hits like a hammer, here outside the rigorously air-conditioned base, and Loki falters in his step a moment.

"Jeez," says Darcy, looking at him sidelong. "Still not used to New Mexico weather?"

Loki's nose wrinkles. "I doubt I'll ever get used to it."

They stroll through the streets of Puente Antiguo, crowded at this time of day. Some of the locals familiar to them wave; one tourist family glances up at their passing.

The largest local grocery is called Mike's, and the refrigerated interior is a comfort. Darcy shivers as they enter, and lets go Loki's arm to grab a shopping cart.

Loki raises an eyebrow, perfectly doubtful. "A simple basket would be less cumbersome, don't you think?"

Darcy laughs at him. "Oh, no, brother, not today. We are hooking you up with some food."

Loki raises his hands, a gesture of surrender.

The store is a riot of colours, products, aisles marching one past another, shelves almost bending with the weight of food under it. They pass through the fresh produce section first, and Loki bags a dozen apples – red, rounded, firm against the press of his fingers. He ties a knot into the neck of the bag and looks up to see Darcy a row away, judging between two bags of fat green grapes. She chooses the bag in her left hand, and places it into the cart, which already contains a basket of cherries and half a small watermelon.

"Planning on a fruit salad tonight, Darcy?" Loki calls over, and Darcy waves one finger in negation.

"This is all for you, Luke!"

It's touching, really, but if Loki takes it home it'll all just go to waste. He voices this thought, and Darcy snorts at him like a particularly recalcitrant horse.

Next after the produce (the apples, cherries, watermelon, a bunch of bananas, and some bell pepper, mushroom, bean sprouts, and snow peas he is commanded to make into stir-fry) comes the baked goods. Darcy snags a loaf of bread and a sack of pita for herself, and loads Loki up with bread, bagels, and a paper bag of doughnuts made in-store. The smell here combines with that of the fish and meat the next section over, almost enough to make Loki queasy. He hasn't been around this much food since his last meal in Asgard, and it makes him an odd combination of faint and ravenous.

Darcy makes to go in the direction of the meats next, and Loki interrupts her with a hasty, "I'm afraid I'm vegetarian – you won't be able to force any bacon on me."

Darcy eyes him up and down; Loki settles his face into a look of innocence. He's got nothing against meat, but he doesn't think he'd be able to handle the smell right now.

"We are definitely getting you some tofu, then."

After the baked goods and meat sections come the long rows of glass-fronted freezers, and Darcy's eyes light up when she spots the ice cream.

"Ooh… maybe we should wait till the end, though, so it doesn't melt." She nods in agreement with her own decision. "We'll come back to it later!"

They – or, really, Darcy with Loki pushing the cart behind her – choose dairy products, a squishy pack of tofu, a box of veggie burgers, a small jar of peanut butter and two kinds of jam ("You look like you need one serious PB&J"), cereal ("They have Reese's Puffs! You need to get in on this, Luke, you can totally get away with eating candy for breakfast and it is America's greatest invention"), a box of cookies, eggs, soba noodles ("For the stir fry you're gonna make for dinner tonight, right"), and elbow macaroni. Somewhat miraculously, the iPod doesn't leave Darcy's bag even once.

Darcy installs Loki with the shopping cart in line for the cashier and darts off. She returns soon after, triumphant, with three pints of ice cream held precariously in the crook of one arm. She tucks something into a pocket; probably her cell phone, Loki thinks. Darcy always is getting text messages from friends and classmates. "These two" – she gestures to something that looks chocolatey, and something else that calls itself Chunky Monkey – "are for you. And this" – she brandishes another pint with satisfaction – "is for me. I didn't even know they had the cheesecake flavours here! Mama is looking forward to tonight, let me tell you that."

Loki insists on paying for Darcy's items, and she lets him after only a token protest.

Everything they buy barely fits into four of the thin plastic bags the store provides, and neither of them own a car. Loki eyes the bags and hefts what he judges to be the heavier two.

"Darcy, I do hope you don't live too far, else your ice cream will turn to liquid before we get halfway there."

"Oh, no prob," she says, and grins up at him. "I got this!" She grabs the two remaining bags and shoves her way back out into the harsh heat and daylight. Out in the parking lot, she waves at – at Jane, sitting in the driver's seat of her van, door open and legs kicked out. Erik Selvig is in the passenger seat, wearing a put-upon expression.

Loki becomes aware that he's stopped walking – is standing still, probably blocking the way for other customers trying to leave. He steps to the side, and wipes the wide-eyed expression on his face.

"What is this, then?" he asks Darcy. "Am I being press-ganged into some adventure?"

She rolls her eyes so perfectly that at the zenith of their arc her eyes show nothing but white. Darcy grabs at his arm and pulls him along till they reach Jane's car.

"Hop in, new kid," says Jane. "We're going to make you some dinner."

Loki clambers into the back and places his bags of groceries next to himself on the bench. "Are you in on this betrayal as well, Selvig?" he questions, in as mild a tone as he can manage.

Selvig holds up a six-pack of beer in answer. "We never went drinking in a bar. May as well do it at your place."

Loki smiles, hopefully passably sincerely. "I blush to think of the state of my kitchen. Wouldn't it be simpler to go to a restaurant?"

"You're not getting out of this, Lucas Mercury," Darcy informs him, then slams the door. "Jane? Floor it."

Jane steers their way to Loki's apartment on the edge of town with no need for directions.

"Tell me, Miss Foster, how long have you been watching my every move?" Loki laces his fingers together and rests his hands on his crossed knees, nothing in his face but fascinated politeness.

Jane flips him off without looking at him, an easy gesture, and returns her hand to the wheel. "No need to watch you, Mister Mercury, not when S.H.I.E.L.D. has lovely, lovely employee databases, and I have the clearance to check up on my employees when I need to."

"Ah," says Loki; "I do love a good bit of abuse of government information."

"Shut up and get your keys out, Luke."

Loki shuts up and gets his keys out.

He opens the door to the building as Jane parks; Darcy and Selvig help carry the groceries, and Loki leads what feels like a parade up to his door, apartment number 17, labelled in chipping brown paint. He unlocks his door, slides inside, and pokes his head back out: "Please excuse me just a moment -- I'm afraid I'm not set up for entertaining guests."

Loki surveys the main room of his apartment with a critical eye. He has nothing, nothing but a single chair by the window and a few small things in the kitchen area. He sighs, raises his arms, and gestures; a green light surrounds his hand, and he thinks… he thinks old house, abandoned, nobody needs you there but I need you here, there's light and company and a use for you here; three more chairs settle into being by a new table, a small one. There are light clanking noises from the counter as a set of glasses, cutlery, plates and pots and pans all gain solidity, neatly arranged.

The expenditure of magic, real energy used for the summoning of real things, and not the creation of illusions, tires Loki out; he's glad he still has things like oil, and pepper, and a few bottles of water in the refrigerator from when he first came to Puente Antiguo and went through the pretence of setting himself up to live. It's… enough. The bare walls will cause comment, but not nearly so much as Loki having barely a stick of furniture to his name.

He pulls his suit jacket off, tosses it onto the back of one of the new chairs, and opens the door again. Darcy is leaning against the wall, poking at her iPod; Selvig is standing, braced solid with wide feet and arms crossed; and Jane is tossing her car keys up and down, idly. She looks up with interest at Loki. "Hid all your naughty magazines, then?"

"Oh, Jane Foster," says Loki, "You know if I had any at all, I'd be sure to gift them to you. Come in, all of you."

One of the greetings his mother used to use on guests at her hall, a well-wishing for luck and satisfaction, slides onto his tongue, and Loki barely closes his mouth on it in time.

His coworkers pile inside and lay all their belongings on the table. Then Darcy steps back, looks around, and raises an eyebrow.

"Wow, Luke. Been a little busy for decorating lately, huh?"

"A little," Loki allows. Selvig rustles through the bags of groceries; Loki leans over and plucks the bag with the milk and yogurt and ice cream off the table, and goes to put them away before any ill can come to them. His apartment doesn't have air conditioning, and as he's only really there to sleep, he hasn't bothered buying a fan yet.

Jane and Selvig come up behind him into the kitchenette and set themselves up, Selvig in front of the stove and Jane in front of the refrigerator. They toss each other items, clearly used to working in each other's presence in confined areas. Soon enough, the bags are emptied and folded neatly, the refrigerator has more food in it since before Loki moved in, the beer's chilling in the freezer, and there's a pile of ingredients in front of Erik. He eyes the mushrooms critically.

"Buttons? Really? You want me to make something decent with the most boring mushroom it is possible to buy in a grocery store?"

"I like button mushrooms," Darcy calls from the table, where she's already installed herself with her iPod. "Make stir-fry, okay? I've been craving."

"You like button mushrooms because your tastes are boring and unadventurous. You'd live on mac and cheese and California rolls if you could," Jane accuses. She rolls up her sleeves and chooses a knife.

Loki is overrun, his home taken over by invaders. He considers his options, and accepts the only viable one: He gives in.

He gets out of the way of the Erik-and-Jane dinner tag team, and says, "I don't suppose I'll get an explanation for this home invasion, will I?"

Erik grunts. "I don't suppose you'll have anything more interesting here than plain black pepper, will you?"

Loki shrugs. No answer seems possible.

The food takes its time being prepared, and at one point Jane asked Loki if he doesn't have a television.

"No," he answers, "but I do have a laptop in the other room—?"

Darcy pitches in with, "I've got my computer in my bag and all of Gilmore Girls on the hard drive."

Jane sort of winces quickly and tries to hide it, but Erik, standing at the stove with a fork in either hand, perks up visibly. Loki has no idea what Gilmore Girls is, nor what the appropriate reaction would be; he remains still.

"Never seen it?" Jane asks.

"Never got around to it, I suppose," says Loki, and Jane looks as if she'd like to say something but Darcy butts in with, "Then we definitely have to watch at least the first episode."

It's diverting enough, Loki supposes. Darcy and Erik clearly enjoy it and after a few minutes Jane gets into it too.

The food is ready by the time the episode is over: Erik and Jane have prepared stir-fry, the veggie burgers, a plate of cut fruit, and, bizarrely, French toast. Loki had previously thought the recipe restricted to breakfast-time.

He goes to set four places at the table with the borrowed tableware while Jane sets the food on the table, Erik rinses out the pots, and Darcy pulls the beers from where they had been cooling in the freezer.

The meal feels casual, in the bare room with the table surrounded by mismatched chairs, with the orange late-afternoon light filtering through the windows and setting halos in everyone's hair.

Jane urges him to eat, and he raises an eyebrow, mild as milk. "You're like a stick," she says unblushingly.

"Oh, so that is what this is about?" Loki can feel his hands tightening on his knife and fork; he forces them to relax, spreads out his fingers on the flat surface of the table. "It may come as a surprise to you, but I am capable of taking care of myself."

"Except for the part where you totally haven't been," interjects Darcy, and points her fork, pepper dangling and accusatory, at him.

"Face it, new kid, we've basically adopted you." Jane quirks an eyebrow at him.

"Well then," says Loki softly, looking down at his long-fingered hands. Something feels as though it is burning inside of him, a low fire filling his belly with heat and his throat with dry ash; his eyes sting a moment as though smoke-touched. "Well then."

Erik hands him a beer.

--

Erik brings him to Puente Antiguo's sole library, so close to Loki's apartment but as of yet unexplored. Loki leaves with a membership card, three books of history, and one novel, and finishes them all in days. He goes back later on his own and borrows a book of Norse myth; he makes himself read through them all, from creation-myth to Ragnarök, tight-lipped.

Darcy complains of all the essays she's forced to write, and insists on Loki checking them over for her. Whatever her personal faults, she writes well enough for a university student, and there is not much for Loki to do.

Jane institutes an under-the-stars weekly poker night, and only laughs when Loki fleeces the rest of them soundly. They bet with pieces of cereal, pink and green and purple rings that grow sticky with handling.

The work in the S.H.I.E.L.D. labs progresses, Jane's strange idea becoming more workable by the day. They are all there long hours, dawn till the late New Mexico dusk, Darcy fetching coffee and asking questions they are all hard-pressed to answer in words understandable by a non-astrophysicist.

Finally, one day halfway through September, Loki hits upon an analogy. Darcy asks again what it is that they're building, and Loki pauses to align his thoughts.

"Do you know how lightning works? The first charge doesn't come from the sky, but from the ground."

Darcy pops her gum and nods, dubious.

"Jane has speculated that the Einstein-Rosen bridge might work the same way; at first it initiated its openings by itself, but now for some reason it appears that it can't make the connection" – Loki hurts, deep in his chest, to say this – "so we're going to try to create a little ground lightning for it here, a charge for it to latch on to. A lightning rod we're baiting it with."

In Loki's mind's eye, a column of light explodes upwards into the sky, through the dimensions, and the Bifröst knits itself back together, in glimmering flashes of rainbow glass; all-seeing Heimdall steers the power to where it needs to go, channelling it until the Bifröst is whole again. This is how he hopes it will happen; there is so much potential for it to go wrong, if it works at all.

Darcy says, "Uh-huh," like she gets it.

Erik raises his head from the pile of electronics he's piecing together and calls over, "That's an exceptionally awful simplification of how it'll work, Luke."

Loki shrugs, flips his hands. "Have you a better analogy?"

Erik's nose wrinkles, but he doesn't say anything.

Loki turns back to the piece of equipment he's calibrating to the frequency of the Bifröst. He is, nominally, following the charts of information from the few times Jane recorded the opening of the Bifröst, but in reality he's following his memory more than anything; the Bifröst sings, a song he's heard so often it feels embedded in his bones, and every tiny calibration towards that brings him closer to feeling both right, in his place, and off-balance.

It's almost time for him to go, Loki thinks. The preparations are almost complete, and he'd like to be out of New Mexico before Thor's return. Loki had thought about staying, sometimes, but.... all the Aesir think him dead, the cause of all their recent troubles gone by his own hand. As much as shielding himself at all times from Heimdall drained him, it might be preferable to revealing himself. His old companions were mourning or not as they chose; Loki will not disturb them again.

The only trouble is knowing when exactly to leave, and where to go when he does. Best to not stay in the area, best to not keep his assumed name, perhaps best to leave the field of sciences entirely for the moment. Loki considers burying himself in academia for, perhaps, a decade – there are so many things to learn in this realm, and so many books.

But even the thought of trawling the best libraries in this realm doesn't appeal; all Loki longs for is Asgard, Asgard and a way to stay in the labs here – the wants are all tangled up, and though Loki doesn't know which are I wants and which are I needs, he knows he won't get any of them.

Loki blinks, eyes clearing. He looks down at his work, sees his still hands tangled in wires and dials. He picks up a spare bit of wire, excess trimmed from a longer length, and twists it around his long fingers. His hands turn it into knots, series of every knot he knows till there's nothing left to tie, and then he unpicks it. Loki can't quite get his mind up to speed, and when Erik claps a concerned hand onto his shoulder, Loki starts.

"All right there, Luke?" Erik asks, and his tone is kind. They are all kind here, and just thinking about that makes something inside Loki twist, small and harsh and pointed as the wire.

Loki looks up and smiles bright and brittle. "Perfectly fine; I thank you for your concern."

Something in his expression draws Erik's eyebrows together. "Well, if you need anything…"

"I won't," Loki manages, and "Thank you." He stands up, abrupt, and Erik's hand falls away. Loki's hands stretch wide at his sides, then he forces them still. He nods to Erik, more sharply than he intends, and he walks out.

His jacket, his wallet, his cell phone all rest on his desk in the S.H.I.E.L.D. labs; all he has with him is his ID badge, clipped to his belt.

Loki walks.

He paces through the dry streets of Puente Antiguo, hands stiff at his sides. He can't think, he can't stop himself from thinking, he knows what he ought to do, he has no idea what he's going to do.

Loki walks. He catches himself reaching for the shadow-ways as he goes, and makes himself let them go; the darkness gathering under his feet slides away again. He has to leave town, and soon, but not today.

Loki walks; he walks along the straight asphalt streets until they turn to packed dirt, to dust under his shoes. He walks until he nears the site of Mjölnir's fall. There is no longer any visible trace of the plastic-and-drywall base that S.H.I.E.L.D. built there, gone as quickly as it sprung up, a mushroom flourishing in one day's rain and disappearing in the next's sun. All that's left is the crater; even the base Mjölnir had thrust itself from is gone, carved from the ground and carried to the new facility.

Loki slows. He stops at the crater's lip; his shadow made long by the late afternoon sun spills even more elongated down the slope. He thinks about sitting, but instead turns his head to look at the sky. He thinks about clouds forming, massing there, twisting and splitting and twisting again, to let down the rainbow bridge across the dimensions.

Loki dismisses the image from his mind, and turns his back on the crater.

He walks back to town, back to the S.H.I.E.L.D. base. His shadow, flung out to his side, follows.

--

A week and a day later, they finish assembling a prototype that Jane deems "acceptable, for now". The machine is unassuming – a fat, squat thing, steel sides interrupted with dials, gauges, screens.

Erik pulls a bottle of sparkling grape juice from under his desk, and Jane takes it to pull off the foil and twist the cap; bubbles escape and she snorts when they hit her nose.

"No drinking on the job," she says, "but we've got to celebrate somehow. Darcy?"

Darcy sighs, but goes to filch some paper cups from the stack beside the water cooler anyway.

They toast to the project's success, and all lean against the table to drink. They chat; Jane wants to test it on a clear day, so there's no background weather interference, and Erik checks the forecast on his phone.

Loki sips from his cup; the drink is too sweet, and the bubbles rise in his throat to choke him. He should be celebrating with Jane and Erik and Darcy, he knows, talking happily about inconsequential things. But his face is drawn despite his best efforts to smooth it out, and all he can think is an endless loop of It's time to leave – I don't want to go – they can't know, I have to leave – and so on.

Jane furrows her eyebrows at him, pouts, the motion over-exaggerated, and prods him in the bicep. "Looking a little glum there, chum."

Loki raises his own brows. "Glum? No. A little pensive, maybe." He smiles, makes it bright and eager, teeth flashing. "But looking forward to the testing all the same."

Jane smiles, soft and a little lopsided. She exhales: not quite a sigh. "It's the culmination of years of work for me; I still can't quite believe it's happening."

"I can," Erik puts it; "You have always been singularly stubborn about your work. But take care to remember that this is only the first stage of testing – we could be on entirely the wrong track here, and won't know until" – he consults his phone once more – "Thursday, barring high winds."

"Winds shouldn't affect it so much, as long as they're not accompanied by clouds," Loki says slowly. "The type of energy we're using in the initial signal might be affected by solid or liquid matter interacting with it, but gases should be mostly okay."

"In other words," says Jane, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead?"

Darcy looks up from her iPod. "You know, that isn't the exact wording Admiral Farragut used?"

"You know I don't really care?" Jane replies. "As far as I'm concerned, Marie Antoinette told the French to go eat some cake."

Darcy's nose wrinkles; her entire face scrunches up in an expression of absolute disgust at Jane, or maybe at scientists in general. It makes Loki smile, fleeting but genuine.

They finish their cups of juice, and move on to the business of cleaning up all the discard: snippings of wires, computer chips, a display screen that turned out to be superfluous, the scrap notepaper they'd covered in diagrams. Erik, Jane, and Loki drift towards their computers, to write up their reports; Darcy bows out for the day. The sun's an hour from setting, and they were all here an hour after it rose.

The sound of keys clicking and keyboards rattling in their trays fill the room; Erik coughs and Jane shifts in her chair. Loki writes his report, Schwarzschild radii and Kruskal-Szekeres coordinates and Minkowski diagrams all together, new names for things he'd been studying long before he ever read one of Jane Foster's university papers on the topic.

He types quickly – keyboards one Midgard invention he'd come to appreciate very quickly – and soon enough, he finds himself tapping out the final period. He sends the file to print twice, once for his files and once for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s, and after a moment the great beige machine in the corner whirrs to electronic life.

Loki leans back in his chair. The report is finished, the prototype complete (no doubt it will work, if anything made in Midgard can; they have all done their best, and Loki cannot imagine any alteration, any further calibration, that would improve it). It's time for him to go, to let Jane and Erik do this by themselves. Loki cannot be there when the Bifröst heals itself. He cannot be there when Heimdall turns his whole gaze on Midgard, when his brother returns to Puente Antiguo to see Jane.

His brother thinks him dead; Loki will not do him the discourtesy of proving him wrong.

--

The hours until Thursday run quickly, and each hour that passes, Loki becomes more anxious, convinced he has to leave, unable to think of where to go.

Loki is unaccustomed to – to dithering; when he makes a plan, he follows it. But now, now he finds it impossible. He shouldn't stay in Puente Antiguo, shouldn't go back to the S.H.I.E.L.D. base at all. Loki wanders into the kitchen area of his apartment, and sees the cupboards full of food Darcy chose for him, the plastic jars of spices Erik gave to him two days after they'd invaded Loki's apartment for a dinner party.

He wanders back out, and sees the stack of library books on the table, novels mixing with non-fiction, and lying by them, a notepad and pen emblazoned with the round S.H.I.E.L.D. logo.

Loki sits down in a chair, the one he'd had before summoning the others from an empty house. He stares down at his hands, pale, long-fingered, calloused from years of practice with sword, staff, pen; there is a smudge of blue ink on the web between his right thumb and the index finger. His nails want trimming.

He raises his hands, and they fill with a green fire. Sick to his heart, he sends all the furniture back to where it came from; there's a rattling noise from the kitchenette as the dishes and silverware leave.

The books, the pen, the notepad all fall to the bare floor with a thump as the table disappears from under them. The pen rolls across the floorboards and stops only when it knocks into the wall.

Loki picks up the library books, leaning from his set, arms stretching long. He's only had them a week, but it's time to return them all the same.

The Puente Antiguo library is small, warm, cozy – the building used to be a private house and it still shows. There's a slot for returns on the outside of the building, but Loki goes inside to drop them off at the counter there. He walks, slowly, through the sections: children's books, videos and audiobooks, reference books, adult fiction and non-fiction separated into categories by the white stickers on their spines, Dewey decimals and authors' names.

The section that holds the books of mythology is cramped, racks and rows and three shallow steps leading up to more shelves. Loki strokes the spines of books as they pass: this one he's read, this one had looked interesting, this one hadn't appealed. One spine stops his fingers, a book of Norse myth, short texts and full-page illustrations. There are only two recent stamps on the slip of paper stuck to the back endpaper; one, the latter, is Loki's.

He leaves the book on the shelf, he leaves the mythology section, he leaves the library. He feels as though his footprints should burn into the floor, leave black marks of his passage.

He should leave Puente Antiguo. Instead, he returns to his apartment, and sits in his sole chair, a flat-backed wooden thing. Loki laces his fingers together, props his elbows on his knees, and watches the sky outside the window. He watches all night through blank eyes, barely letting himself blink.

Thursday dawns bright and clear, without a cloud in the sky. The birds begin their daily chatter; a car passes outside, engine rumbling.

Loki rises to shower. He'll leave today, he tells himself as the water, just on this side of bearable, runs across his shoulders. Somehow, he can't make himself believe it.

He dresses with care in a grey suit, a green shirt. The tie he leaves off – when he tries it on, it does nothing but choke him.

Loki combs his hair back from his face, curls disappearing under the weight of the gel. He looks up into the mirror and sees—. A tall, thin man, cheekbones too prominent, brows drawn. Loki straightens up, unbows his shoulders. He goes and fetches his pocket-knife, his wallet, his handful of small useful things he does not like to go without.

His stomach feels twisted up on itself, a snake eating its own tail, Jörmungand squeezing the world in its coils; the thought of breakfast is unbearable.

Loki leaves his apartment, locks the door behind him. He hesitates, hand still resting on the door – he should be leaving town now.

He'll go and help Jane and Erik set up the machine, those final last-minute calibrations, the last-minute adjustments and fetchings of wires and fixings of positioning. And after that he'll leave New Mexico.

Loki pushes himself away from the door and walks. It's a long way to walk, one end of town to another, and by the time he's arrived at the S.H.I.E.L.D. base Jane's truck is sitting in the parking lot and Erik's blue rental is next to it. The anonymous black coupe that Agent Coulson uses isn't in its reserved spot, but that doesn't mean a thing, when it comes to Coulson.

They've set up the machine in a lot out back, but Loki first passes through the wide room where they had been set up all summer, desks covered in the detritus of nearly three months of nine-, ten-hour days. There's a mug on Loki's desk next to the computer monitors, as well as the latest draft of Darcy's most recent essay; he'd told her to leave it there, that he'd read it over for her once the wormhole experiment was complete. He'd nearly said Bifröst experiment, he remembers, the word laying in wait to trip him up, a snake in the grass.

He regrets.

Loki leaves the room, automatic door swishing closed behind him.

The walk to the outdoor lot is a short one; the base is not very big. Jane and Erik are already there, hauling off the tarps that had protected the machines overnight. They pull the tarp off what Loki finds himself thinking of as the Bifröst machine; a breeze catches it and for a moment it billows out huge, echoes of the shape of a fluttering cape.

"You're here early," he comments to them. Jane grins, a smile that splits her face in half.

"Just couldn't stay away. And I see the same goes for you."

Loki smiles, spreads his hands. "Guilty as charged, I'm afraid. It's awfully exciting, isn't it?"

Erik grunts as he folds a tarp, tucks one side under his chin, brings two corners together. "It'll be exciting if it works, and we don't know that it'll work yet."

"Hope springs eternal," says Loki, and takes off his jacket. It's too warm already, here under the sun, even at this early hour. He removes the tarpaulin from the backup generator with a flourish, folds it neatly, lays it aside. "Is Darcy coming by today?"

Jane's nose wrinkles. "If she wakes up in time, I suppose."

Erik puts down the tarp. "You should call her; it'd be a shame if she missed it, after chasing your storms with you all summer."

Jane dials; her phone buzzes. Darcy's ring tone is one they've all grown accustomed to hearing, something high and perfectly irritating to anybody out of college. They hear it now, faint, then louder as the door opens.

Darcy answers her cell phone as she bumps the door open with her hip, both arms occupied.

"Hello?" she says into it. Jane stares, and flips her own phone shut.

"Hey, Darcy," she calls over. Darcy looks up and visibly starts. She slides her cell phone shut and slips it into a pocket.

"Boss, it is entirely rude to hang up on a person!"

Jane shrugs.

Darcy waves a cardboard tray of green-and-white paper cups at them. "It is also super rude to hang up on someone who's bringing you coffee out of the sheer goodness of her heart!"

"Ooh," says Jane, and "Forgive me? Darcy, you bring me coffee, I will adopt you and put you in my will. All my money is yours."

"Well," Darcy says, and sets the tray down on the picnic table. She takes a seat and the cup marked with her name, and pulls out her iPod. "I can always go for some science money."

Jane is nose-deep in her coffee; Erik has pulled the top off his and is letting it cool. Loki pulls out the cup marked Luke and pries off the cap: not the usual plain black coffee but something almost a dark burnt orange in colour. He raises an eyebrow at Darcy, who answers without even looking up from the screen.

"It's a special day, we're celebrating with fancy coffee, stop being boring."

"If you insist," Loki says, utterly gracious. He takes a drink. The coffee is sweet, creamy, and tastes unexpectedly of cinnamon. His eyebrows go up, and he takes a second drink.

"That was a great expression," Darcy says, and Loki looks up. Darcy is holding up her phone: "Smile," she adds.

Loki smiles in reflex; she snaps a photo.

"Out of curiousity, do you do that to everyone?" Loki asks, polite.

"It's only a miracle that she hasn't done it before now," Erik says. "She barely knew Thor a few hours before she was taking pictures of him."

"Thor," Loki says, and pretends the name doesn't burn his gut. "That was the man who came from the Einstein-Rosen bridge, wasn't it?"

"You've seen the security footage, same as us all," says Jane. "Now, to work. Enough dilly-dallying!"

"Dilly-dallying," says Loki.

"Shilly-shallying," Erik offers.

Darcy rolls her eyes.

They all get to work. There are wires to connect, boot-up sequences to keep an eye on. The generator, there in case their experimental machine blows a fuse, needs warming up.

Jane has a checklist on a clipboard, and it's only once every item has been ticked, then checked and ticked again, that she lets them begin the process of turning on the Bifröst machine.

The machine whirrs slowly to life, LEDs blinking on one after another, first red, then yellow, then finally green. There is an antenna on it, but only a short one: the distances the signal has to go, a metre of steel more or less won't change much.

Erik sits at the computer console set up at the picnic table, checking readouts; more trestle tables are scattered around the yard, covered in sensors of various sorts, all blinking slowly off-beat.

The noises from the machine take on a lower pitch. Erik looks up from his station at the computer and gives Jane a thumbs-up. Jane stays in front of the machine, turning each new function on slowly; Loki hovers near her, adjusting settings carefully with deft touches of his fingers.

The machine begins making a grinding noise, one so deep it make Darcy look up in alarm; she sets her iPod down and stares.

Power gathers around the Bifröst machine, shuttling back and forth between types, potential to electric to radiant to magnetic and back to electric, doubling itself each time. It makes the small hairs on Loki's arms rise; he wonders what the other feel. The pitch of the machine rises steadily, higher and higher in its strange wavering song, till Jane can't hear it, till Loki can't hear it, till some of their sensors can't detect it.

The backup generator's computer detects a dip in the output from the S.H.I.E.L.D. base's outlets, and the generator kicks in with its own power. The lights inside the building flicker, fade out.

A series of lights on the top of the Bifröst machine turn themselves on, one after another, green light following green light following green light.

The final light ticks on; they hold their breath. Darcy stares.

The light holds itself alight for a moment, another, a third—

And then all the lights in the machine fall dark, gauges all dropping to zero.

They all stay there, staring, for heartbeats longer, and then, quietly, Jane starts to laugh.

She props herself up on one of the tables and she laughs, long and deep. She visibly pulls herself together and says, in as calm a tone as usual,

"Well, team, that either worked or it didn't, and we probably won't know for a while, so let's clean up here and go over our results inside."

They all rise to start packing things together, to twist cables into neat bunches, to check over everything a final time. Loki rubs his hands one against the other – they still prickle with the feeling of energy, the too-familiar resonance of the Bifröst itself making his nerve ends tingle.

Everyone moves to start the cleanup – even Darcy stands up from her spot at the picnic table – when Erik, already at one of the trestle tables holding all their extra equipment, makes a noise.

"Jane," he says, something subdued in his tone, "I think you'd better see this."

They all crowd around him, and he gestures to the readout on one small machine. "This is the reader to a pressure gauge we left out in the desert in the area near where the 'satellites' fell. The weather's supposed to be clear and dry all day today, but pressure's dropping like anything. Almost thunderstorm conditions, and there wasn't a cloud within a hundred miles of here half an hour ago. Which means—"

Erik and Jane say the last phrase together: "Another satellite."

The two of them trade excited looks, Jane's eyes wide and sparkling. Darcy asks, drawling, "Does this mean Thor's coming back?"

"No idea!" Jane cries, already darting around the yard to pick up a piece of equipment here, a netbook there. She tosses her ring of keys at Darcy, who catches them with a clap of her hands. "I guess we'll see. You're driving."

Loki shakes himself out of his frozen position and says, "Someone will have to stay here to keep an eye on all the readouts; you can't possibly take everything with you." He almost trips over his words in his haste, and curses himself, lead-tongued when he should be his cleverest.

"Ohhh no you don't, Luke," Jane says, and grabs onto his wrist. "I don't care if you're a plant or a Russian spy or just the awkwardest little boy this side of the Mason-Dixie line, Lucas Mercury, you have been an invaluable help for almost three months and you are damn well coming with us!"

Loki could break her grip easily, but not without also breaking some of her fingers; he cannot bear the thought. Jane swings an over-stuffed bag of equipment onto her shoulder with her spare arm and drags Loki, numb and stumbling, through the twisting corridors of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base. By the time they get to the main entrance of the building, the clouds are already visible in the sky above the desert, darkening and twisting as they gather.

Darcy darts in front of them to unlock the doors to Jane's van; Jane shoves Loki and the bag of equipment inside, then jogs around to climb into the passenger seat. Erik hauls himself into the back with Loki, breathing heavily from the run through the base; Darcy slams the driver-side door and starts the car in one motion. She takes off, rubber tires screeching against the asphalt, before any of them manage to buckle their seatbelts.

Darcy drives; Jane navigates; Erik keeps an eye on sensor readouts; and Loki sits, stiff and frozen as an icicle.

The drive out of the city is always bumpy, the road unpaved; it's worse now, with the wind picking up and Darcy driving at almost twice the legal speed limit. The bags of equipment left unsecured on the seats shudder, jump, spill over onto the floor.

The clouds have increased, almost doubled in mass. Flickers of lightning play over their bellies, and a gap is opening in the centre, clouds twisting themselves into a ring around it. Erik wrestles out a hand-held video camera and holds it as steady as he can, filming the motion of the clouds.

The clouds spin and spin, lowering and spinning again, till a funnel-shape forms. It lengthens until the winds around it hit the earth, and they kick up huge amounts of dirt. Visibility lowers to almost nothing, and Darcy curses as the car hits a rock

The funnel of clouds touches down, and as it does a lightning bolt flashes through the centre of it, huge and bright enough to illuminate the entire thing from the inside out.

The winds, so strong, begin to die down. Darcy edges the van as close as she dares, and stops.

They all climb out, hair and loose clothing immediately caught up in the winds; the pins are torn from Jane's hair, and Darcy almost loses her purse.

The four of them walk forward slowly until they cannot anymore, Loki a short way behind them.

The winds drop away, but even without them the dust takes a long time to settle. There's no way at all to see through the brown haze for long minutes, until much of it settles.

All four of them are covered with the stuff, desert dirt and dust and sand on every possible square inch.

A darker shape shows up in the centre of the dust cloud; it grows bigger and more defined as it approaches them, movement now recognizable as a person walking.

The dust settles further; the person comes closer, the bulk of them huge; colours begin to define themselves, red and black and glinting silver.

Thor walks out of the dust, wind pushing his cloak around his legs. His stride is slow, unhurried; he stops when he sees the four of them ranged in a ragged line, huge smile breaking wide over his face, the sun showing itself above the tops of a mountain range.

His eyes lock on to one of their number. "Jane Foster!" he bellows, and starts forward again.

Loki moves and checks himself almost immediately, an aborted half-step backwards.

Thor stops once more, and stares at Loki. Jane, Erik, and Darcy look at the two of them, eyebrows cocked in confusion. Loki is sure that his face has gone white, his lips pinched, his eyes huge; Thor is reddening, under his beard.

Thor steps closer, stops a foot away from Loki. They are almost of a height, but nothing alike in width; Thor is broad and huge with his armour, his cape, his muscle. Loki is a slim dark line, made slimmer by the absence of his own Asgard-forged armour, with months of eating little and training not at all. He cannot quite make his gaze meet Thor's; instead it skitters across the expanse of him, cataloguing the differences three months apart make.

Thor raises his hands. Loki's own fist at his side.

"Brother," says Thor, in a low, wondering tone. "You are alive. You are alive!"

His voice jumps louder and he laughs loud in something like happiness. The other three are staring at them, Erik mouthing the word "brother", Jane looking as though she's calculating numbers in her head very, very quickly.

Loki turns his eyes to Thor's. He cannot meet his brother's gaze for more than a moment; his eyelids shutter lower once more. "My brother," he says, throat dry, voice cracking. He swallows, and adds, "My king."

Emotions make their way across Thor's face, plain as words on a page. He closes the gap between them in one step, and extends his arms; Loki raises his own, a gesture of warding-off.

Thor hugs his brother, so hard that if Loki were a mortal it could be described as "bone-cracking"; as it is, Loki's arms are trapped between his body and his brother's.

"I thought you were dead, Loki," Thor murmurs, beard scratching at Loki's shoulder.

Loki relaxes in his brother's grip, muscle by muscle. He heaves a deep breath, almost a sob, and shakes, a twig on a branch on a tree in the middle of a thunderstorm. It has been – three months and more, since he last held his brother in anything like companionship.

Thor steps away, but keeps hold of Loki, a hand on each shoulder. Wonder still fills his eyes, a simple joy at seeing his brother long thought dead. Loki asks himself how long it will be before it turns to resentment, anger, at Loki's earlier deeds, and knows himself to be cruel; Thor is a good, kind man, and Loki ought not ascribe feelings to him that he knows Thor will never feel.

Thor laughs, happy and loud, and bellows up at the sky: "Heimdall! My brother, by Mímir's well! Heimdall, Loki is alive!"

Loki, if possible, whitens further. "Heimdall cannot see me, Thor."

He hears himself say his brother's name, to his brother's face, and another wall falls somewhere inside him, mortar crumbling, bricks tumbling to the ground.

Thor's expression sobers. "One of your magics, my brother?" he asks, strangely gently for a man of his size.

Loki shifts in his brother's grip. "I thought it wiser," he begins; he is interrupted by Jane, striding up to them, Erik and Darcy barely a step behind.

"Brother, huh," she says, and stares up at Loki, then at Thor, perhaps trying to find a family resemblance; there is none to find.

Thor's smile breaks out again; his hands finally leave Loki's shoulders. "Jane," he says, and grasps one of her hands in his, such a strange contrast in size. "Jane Foster, I am immeasurably glad to see you again."

"Oh, you big lug," she says, fondly; they kiss.

Loki turns his head away, so polite. Darcy and Erik stare at him.

"Thor's brother," says Erik, quiet. Loki cannot read his expression, the turn of his brows, the slight twist in his mouth.

Loki casts for an answer; settles for the truth. "His brother: yes. Loki, Thor's brother. I am afraid I have not been entirely honest with you, Erik Selvig. Darcy."

Erik's eyebrows climb. He opens his mouth to say something; Darcy gets there first. "So are you, uh, a god, Luke? –Loki?"

His name sounds strange from her mouth. "Hardly that at all," he says, low. "And if Asgardians be near to gods in this realm, I am less than them."

Thor and Jane break away from each other; he follows her, gentle, with his eyes.

"Loki?" says Jane. "Loki, Odin's son? As in, Loki, Thor's brother, from the myths?"

Loki shrugs. He feels unsure, off-balance: easiest to retreat to flippancy. "Not quite from the myths; they invented a great deal. But, yes; Thor's brother."

Jane's mouth twists; she scowls. "And you never thought to tell us?"

Thor adds, soft, "You never thought to tell me you still lived, brother?"

They lean against each other, perhaps unconsciously; Thor's arm finds its way across Jane's shoulders.

Loki feels helpless in the face of them, his brother and Jane, Erik and Darcy still staring. "I had not….. I had not intended to stay so long in Puente Antiguo."

Darcy socks him in the arm, hard as she can; it barely hurts, but he flinches anyway. "That would be kind of a dick move, don't you think, disappearing on two groups of people in the same summer? And you promised to look over my essay, were you gonna leave without doing that?"

The concern in her voice, under her words, pulls at Loki's heart; he doesn't know what he's done, to deserve all this. "You'll get an A even without my help, Darcy," he says, voice quiet.

"That isn't the point," she says. He is, suddenly, too weary to argue.

"Loki," says Thor, soft; it breaks something inside Loki, a pane of ice shattering at the first tap of a hammer. He sags. "Loki, brother, how have you been hiding yourself from Heimdall's gaze?"

Loki laughs, the sound catching in his chest. "By magic, brother; how else? I landed far to the north of here, I suppose farther than Heimdall let his gaze wander; as soon as I knew where I was, I hid myself. Not hard, once you've the trick of it, though it drains more energy than appreciated."

"Uncloak yourself, brother," says Thor, quiet and fierce; "I am not crowned yet, Loki, and I do not command this as your ruler. I ask it as your brother. Asgard mourns for you."

"Asgard mourns for me? The usurper, the betrayer, the second son, never as worthy as the first? You think they mourn for me, the child of a—" The sound of Loki's voice is bitter, harsh to his own ears, and he cuts himself off barely in time; Thor looks stricken. Erik's eyebrows climb; Darcy mouths the word "whoa."

Jane pushes herself between Thor and Loki. "All right, I don't know what kind of backstory you two have going on here, but I know that this is definitely not the place to hash it out. Erik's place is biggest, I think, if he doesn't mind?"

Erik shrugs, the motion awkward. "Better than staying out here or trying to squeeze into your place, Jane. And I've got a full drinks cabinet, which Luke – Loki, god, that's strange to think – definitely looks like he needs."

"Then that's settled!" Jane says, brightly; she claps her hands together once, the sound startling in the vast expanses of the desert. "We'll go to Erik's place for now, and tomorrow we'll all come back" – she looks at Loki – "and do our lovely, lovely science stuff. This'll keep for a day or so; with the energy from the initial charge dissipated there's nothing urgent to do."

She chivvies the rest of them into the van. Erik sits behind the wheel now, with Darcy beside him. Loki climbs into the back, and Thor follows him, then Jane.

They drive in silence. Thor and Jane hold hands the entire time, leaning into each other's shoulders.

Erik's house is small, but it is a house, no cramped apartment or RV; the grass in the yard is a brittle green, going yellow, and the driveway is cracked asphalt. Sand leaks onto it as Erik parks the truck, and more falls out as they push the doors open.

Erik fumbles for his house key and Loki thinks for a moment of fading into the shadows, slipping away from these people. He bows his head, and crosses his arms over his chest, and stands in the sun.

Once Erik finds and uses his key, they all enter his house. Thor and Jane enter last, Loki caught up before them.

They remove their shoes in the entrance; sand spills from them, lodging in their socks, scattering across the floorboards. Erik makes a face at the mess but gestures them all further inside.

In his small living room there are two short sofas and a small dining table with four chairs. Jane and Thor occupy one sofa, Darcy takes possession of the other, and Loki draws himself a chair. He touches his temples; he feels worn out, threadbare.

Erik disappears into the adjoining kitchen and returns, five beers dangling from his fingers; they bead with condensation. He passes them around, and sits himself heavily down beside Darcy.

"…So," he says, into the silence of the room. Loki rolls his bottle between his fingers, and wonders how cold a thing has to be, to turn him jötunn-blue when he touches it.

His fingers become chill and damp soon enough, but stay pink.

Thor clears his throat with a rumbling noise as of thunder on a mountain. "Jane Foster," he says, "I do hope you know that these long months apart were not by my choice."

Jane smiles, and lays a hand on his broad armour-clad forearm. "I know. Scientist, remember? We detected a huge output of energy from the Einstein-Rosen bridge before it closed itself off completely. But what we couldn't tell was why it closed."

"Oh," Thor says, and shifts uncomfortably. "I… destroyed it, with Mjölnir."

"Myer-myer is that strong?" asks Darcy, interested.

Loki raises his head. "It is, perhaps, the strongest weapon in Asgard, barring Heimdall's own sword; only the worthy may wield it." His voice rings hollow, tired to his own ears. "And before you ask: Thor was forced to destroy it; he did it not by choice, but because I was using the power of the Bifröst to destroy Jotunheim – the realm of the ice giants."

He contemplates his bottle, and takes a drink. The beer is dark, rich, and fills his mouth with something other than bile; Loki appreciates it.

Thor speaks, quiet. "And yet I still do not know your reasoning behind the attack on Jotunheim, brother; it would have been genocide, the ruin of an entire people."

Loki considers reminding Thor of his own ill-advised attack on the jötnar, the day of his failed coronation; instead, he says, "I tried to kill you too, brother. Do you forgive me that more easily than you forgive the attempted murder of a race of monsters?"

"There is nothing to forgive, Loki," says Thor, even as the Midgard mortals in the room shift in their seats. "I know you could never harm a fellow Asgardian."

"You've more faith in me than I have," Loki says, to his bottle, clasped in his hands, dangling between his knees. His throat burns.

"Brother, I have more faith in you than I do in anyone else."

Loki cannot bear to raise his head, to meet Thor's eyes. His hair, so whipped out of place by the winds earlier, drops a curl onto his forehead, to hang in his eyes.

"Jane," he says, voice dry, cracked. "I'm sure Thor is curious to learn to how we repaired the Bifröst."

It's an escape, a pathetic, puling, coward's way out, but Jane lets him have it; she is kind. "I'm sure he is, and I know I'm curious about what happened on the other side of the Einstein-Rosen bridge when we set up our signal."

The sounds of conversation wash over Loki, as he sits, shoulders bowed, staring at the linoleum floor between his black-socked feet. Jane explains their research; Erik and Darcy pitch in at points. Thor's low rumble of a voice tells the story of what happened on his side of the Bifröst: Heimdall standing guard as always at the edge of the ruined, sparking bridge, watching Midgard, seeing Jane set up her work, ready when they turned on the machine, directing the power to align the Bifröst straight once more. Thor coming to see what was happening, meeting Heimdall enveloped in the gold glow of the rainbow bridge's magic, coming to Midgard, meeting Jane—

At some point, Loki rises, sets his beer on the table, walks outside. He sits on the curb and looks up at the sky; all the clouds from earlier are gone.

It's the middle of the day, and the sun is high and hot; Loki feels as though it should be night, that he should be looking up at the stars.

He sits there, half an hour and more, not moving, barely blinking. Loki feels nothing but shame, and regret, and a deep, unmoving tiredness.

Eventually, Thor eases his way out the door, quietly as he can. He's not great at quietness, more suited to brash action and loud noises, but he tries.

Thor sits down next to him, Mjölnir's short handle bumping against the concrete of the sidewalk.

"Loki," he says, and stops. Starts again. "Loki, I have missed you, but I don't understand why you did what you did."

His brother's gentleness tears a hole in Loki's heart; he cannot bear it. His voice takes on a mocking lilt. "I'd have thought all of Asgard would have been eager to explain my motivations to you, brother. I was jealous and power-hungry and so eager for the throne that I would ruin anyone who stood in my way."

Thor snorts, a sudden violent noise. "Don't be a fool, Loki, we both know all you ever wanted was to be able to sit in the library all day making notes about ancient books that haven't been opened since Heimdall himself was young."

Loki's mouth twists; he bows his head, accepting the possibility.

"But why you lied to me, brother, and why you let the jötnar in – and why you then tried to destroy Jotunheim, Loki," Thor continues, inexorably, brow furrowing with sincerity, "I don't understand. I'm sure you have a good reason, and I'd like to know what it is."

Loki's shoulders hunch of their own accord. "You want to know? Really, Thor? It's not a grand tale to boast of in the mead-hall to the einherjar, not the sort of thing you like."

"I want to understand." Thor's voice is firm, a basso rumble, the sound of an avalanche's beginning, somehow comforting.

Loki breathes deep and… tells him, starting the story from the beginning, his opening of one of the Bifröst's hidden byways the day of Thor's coronation, for a prank, to put off Thor's ascendancy just that bit longer, till he could hopefully gain some maturity, till he could be worthy of the Asgard throne. He continues with the attack of Jotunheim, not anything Loki had planned for at all. The – the jötunn's touch, Loki's skin bluing in the cold, touching the Casket later, confronting Odin—

His voice wavers, cracks, as he describes the scene; Loki ignores it and continues. Odin's speech, his explanation, his excuses. Loki says, "He told me how, in the last battle of Asgard against Jotunheim, he – he came upon a temple to the gods of the jötnar, and in that temple was a child, a jötunn infant lying on the altar. Odin the Allfather picked up that infant, and its blue skin turned pink, its red eyes white."

Thor looks at Loki, worry in his eyes. Loki holds up a shaking palm, forces it steady, summons ice to hover an inch above.

"Odin Spear-shaker took that jötunn child back with him to Asgard, and raised it – him – as his own. As a prince of Asgard, ignorant of his true heritage."

Loki's voice shakes, as do his shoulders. Thor next to him is white under his beard, pale as a fish's belly.

"Brother," Thor says, and pulls Loki to his side in a fierce hug. "I never knew this. How could Father hide this from us?"

"Have you not been listening?" asks Loki. He passes a hand over his face. "I am not your brother, Thor. I am jötunn, a monster, impostor, raised in the wrong realm."

Thor begins to shake next to him; when he speaks, Loki realizes that it is with suppressed anger. "How could he never tell you? Loki, Loki, you are my brother no matter what realm you're from; you could be from Svartalfheim, from Hel for all I care. But, Loki, to grow up, and to not know, and all this time us thinking the jötnar were nothing but monsters – how it must have been awful for you, when you touched the Casket."

Loki shudders. "It does not excuse a thing."

"But it explains a great deal," Thor counters. "Oh, Loki, brother, you are an Asgardian, you never had to prove it to anyone."

"Not to anyone but myself, it appears," Loki murmurs. His throat stings; his cheeks are wet.

Thor shakes himself, all over, like a dog rising from a swim, and rises from his seat on the curb. "I must discuss this with Father, Loki."

Thor takes in a breath, most likely readying himself to shout for Heimdall. Loki pulls him back down by the loops of his belt, even now not spurning the underhanded tactics of a younger brother.

"No, Thor," he says. "There is no point in running after Odin half-cocked; there is no point running after him at all. If you'd think, you'd realize I haven't explained the half of it."

Thor settles back again, grudgingly. Loki props his elbows on his knees, stares at the patterns of dirt on the asphalt of the road, the chipped paint of the centre line.

He continues. The Odinsleep, having to take up regency, Thor on Earth and Mjölnir unrelenting, Sif and the Warriors Three challenging him, Loki's own thoughtless rage. The Destroyer – he pulls away from Thor, here, and speaks to the ground – bringing the jötnar into Asgard in an awful plan to prove Loki's worth, killing Laufey himself, Thor's return. The plan to destroy Jotunheim, another unthinking mistake, another poor decision Loki will never make up for. And then… the fight on the Bifröst. Odin's arrival and rejection of Loki. Loki letting go of the spear Gungnir, believing it to be his end. And, finally, waking up in Midgard, with no idea of how he'd landed there, of all the places in all the nine realms.

His face and throat are dry when he finishes. His eyes sting from the lack of blinking.

"So," he says, hoarse. "After all that, do you still forgive me, brother?"

"Brother," says Thor, "There is nothing to forgive."

And that really is the end of it, for Thor.

Thor ever was a simple soul, kinder, both swifter to anger and to forgiveness than Loki. Loki stares down at his hands where they lay clasped in his lap. The knuckles are white with tension; Loki makes himself relax them.

"But," adds Thor, and the sound of it makes Loki's shoulders bow just that much more, "We do need to speak to Father. And soon. It's… it is not right, what's been kept from you. From us."

"But not right now," says Loki, and the sound of his voice grows stronger as he continues. "Thor, right now, there is a wonderful lady in that house behind us, and she's been looking forward to seeing you again for three months. She fixed the Bifröst itself for you, brother."

Thor's eyebrows rise, and he smiles, soft and immeasurably happy. "She did, didn't she? Tell me you like her, Loki."

"Oh," Loki says, mild, straight-faced; "I like her well enough, Thor, after spending a whole summer in her company; I'd tell you that if you hurt her, you'd feel my wrath, if not for the fact that she is entirely capable of taking care of herself."

"I know," says Thor happily. "Isn't she wonderful?"

He claps Loki on the shoulder as he rises, and enters Erik's house once more.

Loki stays outside, on the curb; he watches a weed, struggling through the crack between two slabs of pavement. It can't be resting in more than a cubic half-inch of dirt, but still it grows.

Minutes later, the door bangs open again, Erik and Darcy's voices rise.

They stride down the walkway. "Hey, Luke," says Darcy, and Loki looks up. "Thor and the boss are kicking us out for a little private time; wanna go somewhere?"

"I'm afraid not, Darcy," Loki says, and the rough sound of his voice surprises him even now. "As delightful as I find your company, I'm a little tired right now."

"And no wonder, Lu– Loki," says Erik. "I'd offer you the spare bed in my place for a few hours, but—well. Kids."

"I think I'll just go home, thank you," Loki says, touched by the offer.

Erik holds a hand out to Darcy; after a moment she, pouting, places a key in it. "Then we'll drive you, since I know you don't have a car, and then I'll go and deal with some of that paperwork we've been avoiding lately. Okay?"

Loki stands up; he feels off-balance, the ground beneath him not solid. Something yawns in his chest. "I thank you, Erik Selvig," he says, and tries for a smile. It feels strange on his face, tentative.

Erik coughs, gruff. "It's just a lift."

They all get in the car.

The ride is, again, a silent one, but this time the silence isn't awkward. Even Darcy doesn't venture to speak much, instead fiddling with her cell phone.

Erik drops Loki off on the corner of his street – it's a one-way, and getting in would be more trouble than it's worth for anyone – and Loki climbs the steps to his apartment slowly, heavily. He unlocks the door, and looks inside.

The place feels wrong now, empty, all the borrowed furniture back in their original places. Loki inhales, slow and deep, and sighs.

He doesn't turn any lights on as he goes. He enters the bedroom and sits on the small, hard bed, barely used. His shoulders sag; he closes his eyes.

Loki wakes up hours later, in the dark, fully dressed on top of his sheets. He blinks up at the cracked plaster of the ceiling, and thinks back on the events of the day.

And then he levers himself upwards, runs a hands through his hair, and grimaces when his fingers meet resistance.

Loki showers.

Afterwards he considers – for a moment – putting on his suit of Asgardian clothing, with its high neck, its stiff cloth, its sewn-in plates of armour, nothing like anything he's seen in Midgard.

Loki wonders if it will still seem familiar and comforting, after three months of not touching it. He instead puts on one of his more casual outfits, soft dark cloth in green and black, with sleeves that stop perhaps a handsbreadth from his wrists, and… he waits. He sits in his single chair and watches the dark sky outside. The word vigil comes to mind, perhaps not entirely inappropriately.

He sits; he waits; he drowses. There is nothing inside, any more, but a dull exhaustion. He indulges it, and naps in the chair, fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.

Some time after daybreak, someone knocks on his door, too loud in the still, quiet morning. The sound makes Loki start. He rubs a hand over his face and scrubs it over his scalp; he realizes with a jolt that he had neglected to oil it back, after his shower.

But the person at his door is banging again, and will presently wake Loki's neighbours. He goes to open the door.

Thor stands in the hallway, wearing the clothes Loki remembers Jane giving to him last time he came to Midgard; he holds a brown paper sack in one hand, and Mjölnir hangs from a loop on his jeans. He looks vibrant, joyous, real; Loki lets him in.

"Loki!" Thor says, voice booming. "Jane says it is Midgard custom to bring a person sweet pastries when one visits them in the morning!"

Loki smiles, the sensation strange on his cheeks. "Good morning to you too, Thor. How was your night?"

Thor's own smile turns fond, wondering. "We had a great deal to catch up on, after a threemonth apart. Jane told me many things about you, brother."

"Did she," says Loki. His hand finds its way to his hair again; his fingers tangle in the curls. "I'd offer you a seat, brother, but it's the one chair or the floor, I'm afraid."

Thor takes in the bare room for the first time; he frowns. "This is no way to live, brother," he says, less reproof in his tone than concern. "We'll go back to Jane's; she at least has furniture."

And he makes as if to leave immediately. Loki stops him, and retreats back to the bathroom of his apartment, just for a minute. He splashes his face with water from the tap and, finally, slicks his hair back from his face. He looks at his reflection in the mirror, sees the dark spots under his eyes, the hollows in his cheeks, the pinch of his mouth.

And he sighs and goes to find his socks.

The walk is long but easy, the sun barely a handspan above the horizon, the air still pleasantly cool. Thor fills the time with talk of Jane, of the strangeness of Midgard; he almost talks of Asgard a time or two before he stops his tongue with a worried expression and a sidelong look at Loki.

Loki says little, for his part, still caught up in thoughts. He has no idea what's to happen now, if he's expected to go home to Asgard. He isn't sure if he wants to.

Loki thinks of the palace in Asgard, of Frigga his mother, of Sif whom he'd known longer than almost anyone but Thor. His brows draw together.

Jane's RV is parked in the scrub just outside town, remains of a recent fire huddling dark in their stone-ringed pit.

The door is open, and Jane's sitting on the steps in old, frayed pyjama bottoms and a robe, clutching a mug. Her hair's knotted messily at the nape of her neck, and she smiles up at Thor and Loki as they approach.

"So the brothers return," she says, voice still rough with sleep. "Had a good talk?"

Thor smiles and bends down to kiss her, softly. "Not yet; I'm afraid there's nowhere to sit in my brother's apartment but on the floor. We returned to make use of your chairs and your coffee, Jane."

Jane's gaze sharpens, and she levels it at Loki. "And the time we all came over to your place?"

Loki shrugs. He wiggles his fingers: magic. "It seemed contrary to the point to set up an apartment with furnishings and all, when I wasn't planning on staying very long."

"My brother does not take care of himself," says Thor sternly. "Jane, may I pass?"

"Too right he doesn't," says Jane, and "Oh! Sure. Come on, I've got a pot of coffee brewing."

She rises and brushes the front of her robe free of dust and wrinkles, and leads the way into her cramped rooms. Thor pulls a plate out of the cupboard above the stove, already familiar with the place; he shakes his bag of pastries onto the plate. Jane ducks under his arm and snags two more heavy mugs from the open cupboard, and pulls the coffeepot off its stand.

"More room outside," she says, and gestures with a quick movement of her head to the left. She dodges past Loki, who follows behind; Thor brings up the rear with his plate.

The three of them set themselves up in the deck chairs around the fire-pit; Jane passes down mugs of coffee, and they trade the plate of pastries back and forth.

"So," says Jane, after a long silence. "If you're planning on staying in Puente Antiguo, Loki, we definitely have to make a day trip down to the IKEA in Phoenix and set you up with some decent furniture."

"If you are planning on staying, that is," says Thor. He has crumbs in his beard. "You know you'll be welcomed back to Asgard if you wish to return, brother."

"Do I?" asks Loki, soft. "Consider the circumstances under which I left, Thor; consider that every Asgardian from Odin Asagrim himself to your doughty companion Volstagg think me dead. Consider, brother, the general sentiment towards me; consider how it would change if it were widely known that I am—that I am of the jötnar." The words are not easy to say; they twist, turn bitter in his mouth.

"We can sort it all out," says Thor, sincere and above all earnest. "If people only hear half the truth, they will of course think wrongly. But if matters are laid out, plain – they will understand."

Loki stares into his mug. It shows a reflection of part of his face, rippling; one green eye shows a moment before disappearing under a wave. "You are more kind-hearted than most Asgardians, Thor."

"Mother mourns you, Loki," Thor says. Jane winces and mouths, "ouch."

Thor scratches at his beard and looks momentarily puzzled when pale flakes of pastry fall out. He presses on: "Sif has not challenged me to a wrestling match in weeks, brother. They know something is wrong. Will you continue their pain?"

"You strike a low blow, Thor."

"No honour among brothers, Loki! All I want is to see you happy again."

Loki sets his half-full mug down on the packed earth; he rubs at his temples. "And you know I'd do almost anything for you, Thor, but you are not asking me an easy thing."

Jane, sitting comfortably cross-legged, joins in: "Loki, you don't have to go live in Asgard again if it's painful for you, but you could at least tell them you're not dead? Whatever you're doing to hide from the watching guy, you can lift that, and see what happens."

Thor brightens at this. "An excellent idea, Jane! Loki, you might lift your spell so Heimdall sees you; he keeps his counsel, you know that. And he is old, and wise, and might have some advice for us."

Us, not you. Loki is overwhelmed, overrun, his composure destroyed.

"You will be a worthy king, Thor," he says, not looking at his brother, but meaning it all the same.

"Ahhhh, I never was as clever as you, Loki, but I'm sure I'll do my best."

Even now, the change wrought in Thor startles. In the face of his brother's newfound maturity, Loki can do nothing but surrender. He rises, graceful, from his seat. Jane looks up in concern.

Loki presses his hands to his face for a moment and drops them once more. He tilts his face upwards, feels the morning sun on his cheeks. And he thinks: concealment, shadow, held so long, wrapped like a cloak, a blindfold over the eyes: not needed any longer. Slip off the eyes, unwrap yourself, go free. He pictures the spell as a black cloth in his mind, and lets it unravel, warp and weft falling apart, crumbling to dust.

The spell, a drain on his energies for so long, falls away; Loki feels dizzy, and sits down hard.

Jane examines him critically. "You look… I don't know, brighter somehow."

"The energy," says Loki, short of breath; his head hangs between his knees. "It was never a spell meant for continued use, and now that's taking its toll."

Thor smiles, begins to say something – and the sky rumbles.

He looks up at the sky critically. "That's odd, the weather's all wrong for thunder."

"God of thunder," Jane says, fond.

The sky rumbles. Clouds begin to gather. Loki forces himself upright in alarm, and almost falls over once more.

"It's the Bifröst," he hisses, wide-eyed. "Either someone is coming down or Heimdall is bringing you – us – back up to Asgard." Legs stiff, knuckles white with tension, he stands up.

"There's no reason at all for someone else to be coming down right now," says Thor; "most likely Heimdall saw you already." He stands up too, and puts his mug down on the chair. He shakes his shoulders back, and despite the Midgard clothes, the few crumbs still scattered in the beard, he looks regal.

"And I guess I don't get to come, huh?" Jane asks, voice dry.

"Brothers only this time; I am sorry, Jane. I promise you, next time, I will take you with me, and show you all the sights of Asgard."

"I'll hold you to that, you big galoot," says Jane, and she leans up to kiss Thor.

Loki turns away. The clouds are dark and circling already, small charges of lightning playing over them.

Thor and Jane break away; Thor lifts Jane's hand in his, gently, and kisses the knuckles. She giggles; he smiles.

Jane backs away. "Good luck," she hollers, over the rising wind. Thor takes Mjölnir in one hand and waves with the other. "I hope you settle your family issues and get back here soon!"

Loki closes his eyes, opens them again slowly. He inhales, and calls back, "I hope so too, Jane Foster!"

The wind and billowing dust obscure her face, but Loki thinks she laughs.

Beside him, Thor grins; Loki squares his shoulders and waits for the Bifröst to bring him home.