Thor finally locates his brother in one of the mansion’s little-used rooms, seated by the window. He has his legs pulled up and a mug of tea clutched in both hands, his attention focused on the scene outside.
Thor enters quietly. He is certain that his brother is deep enough in thought that Thor’s normally exuberant approach will not disturb him, but he is loath to intrude on this calm place that Loki has found. Living at the mansion has been a good change, Thor is certain, but it can on occasion be a very exciting place. Thor adores the energy of it, but he respects his brother’s desire for solitude even if he does not always understand it.
He settles himself on the chair next to the window seat and puts one hand on his brother’s knee.
Loki blinks and turns, startled.
“I am sorry to disturb you. It is time for dinner.”
Loki frowns. Thor smiles indulgently at his brother. “You have been in contemplation for a while, I think. Have you seen anything interesting?”
Loki glances back out the window as if only just noticing that there is something to be seen. “Not particularly.”
Thor squeezes his brother’s knee. “Well, come then! Dinner awaits. I believe it is Bruce’s turn to provide tonight.”
He claims the mug so that his brother can arise from the window seat without incident. The tea is quite cold - Loki must have made it some time ago.
Thor frowns, carefully concealing the expression from his brother. Loki is much improved from his state of mind when they first arrived on Midgard those many weeks ago, but he is still... fragile, Thor supposes. He speaks seldom, mostly only to Thor, and is prone to episodes like this one. They seem to come in waves - unpredictable in frequency, but with a gradual build and release.
Thor keeps his hand on Loki’s back as they walk up to the kitchen. Loki does not shrug off the contact, which tells Thor that he is either too preoccupied to notice or he is in need of the comfort. Thor feels his frown deepen.
The kitchen is a riot of activity. Loki claims a corner as out of the way as he can manage, and Thor obediently places himself between his brother and the rest of the room. Initially meals had been handled on an individual basis, but Steve had expressed a longing for the companionship of group meals and Thor had supported him. They have tried a number of dinnertime strategies since - the current one is that each member in turn is responsible for a night. The results have been unpredictable but entertaining.
Tonight Bruce has created a feast of something called grilled cheese sandwiches, which Thor finds to be tasty but very small. Loki gives most of his to his brother, which sounds another note of warning in Thor’s mind.
“Oh, excellent, I took too many,” Tony says cheerfully, shovelling the contents of his plate onto Loki’s. Loki gives Tony an annoyed look, but Tony has already turned his attention to bickering with Clint.
Loki’s friendship with Tony is somewhat mystifying to Thor. At any given time they seem to be either in complete accord or utterly disgusted with the other’s very being. The fact that Loki rarely speaks and Tony rarely stops seems to have no bearing on their ability to communicate. It is nothing at all like the friendships Loki used to have with Sif and the Warriors Three, though to be fair, none of their Midgardian companions are noticeably Asgardian in temperament.
Across the table, Clint and Tony’s bickering devolves into violence and Steve and Natasha are forced to intervene. Thor changes his mind - contests of arms during banquets are an honored Asgardian custom. There may be hope of civilisation for these Midgardians yet.
During the commotion, Loki slips away from the table. Thor lets him go - he consumed most of his meal and the all-seeing Jarvis has been tasked by Tony to aid Thor in watching over him. On Jane and Erik’s advice Thor is attempting to trust Loki to know what he needs and to pursue it, although taking a less active role has been difficult.
That night as he lies in his bedchamber, attuned to the sounds of Loki sleeping next door, Thor dreams that his brother is weeping and in pain and Thor cannot reach him. In the morning, Loki is red-eyed and withdrawn.
“You seem... subdued,” Steve says during their daily sparring session.
Thor sighs, swinging Mjolnir from one hand. “I apologize, my friend. I am not an ideal combatant today.”
Steve slings his shield on his back. “Is it Loki?”
Thor shakes his head. “No. Well, yes, always, but not specifically. He appears to be entering a period of sadness, and that does worry me.” He pauses. Midgardians have unusual ideas about the nature of fate, Thor has discovered. “I had disquieting dreams last night.”
Steve nods sympathetically. “I have those myself, from time to time. It’s pretty common for a soldier.”
“Yes.” Thor is familiar with those dreams, the ones that come after a close call or the death of a companion. He had many after his battle with Loki on the Bifrost. “For an Asgardian, you must understand, there is also the fear that the dream may be prophetic in some way.”
Steve blinks. “Wow. What was it about?”
“Loki was in danger and I could not find him.”
Steve frowns. “But it didn’t make you worry about him more than usual?”
Thor bites his lip. His friend has hit upon the crux of the matter with commendable accuracy. “He was being harmed by Asgardians, those close to me. I pleaded but they did not listen.”
Steve’s eyes widen. “What are the chances of that actually happening?”
“Slim, with the Bifrost broken,” Thor says reluctantly. “And I think that as long as Loki remains here he should be in little danger, but I do not know how matters between Asgard and Jotunheim have progressed in my absence. With the state of their realm and the death of their king they should not have the power to demand Loki’s head, but if the situation has changed it is within their rights.”
Regicide. Patricide. Attempted genocide. Attempted fratricide, Thor thinks, and feels ill. It is not only the Jotuns who may wish to see that Loki receives a punishment more severe than exile to Midgard.
Steve’s eyes narrow thoughtfully. “And as the crown prince of Asgard you have responsibilities there, so you’ll need to find a way to travel between here and there regardless of what danger it puts Loki in.”
Thor feels his shoulders slump. “As you say. When we came here, I was able to place my brother’s wellbeing over the fate of my people. I fear that the time approaches in which I will not be able to make that decision so easily.” There is also a small, selfish part of him that is eager to return to Asgard, where the customs make sense and the people act reasonably. He loves Midgard, truly he does - its people have been welcoming and its habits are amusing - but there is still a part of him that longs to return home. It feels shameful, like a betrayal, and he knows it is something he can never reveal to his brother. Mostly he tries not to think on it.
Steve puts his hand comfortingly on Thor’s shoulder. “Well, it might be a small thing, but the two of you are always welcome here and we’ll do what we can to keep you safe.”
Thor smiles, touched. “I thank you, Steve Rogers aka Captain America. It is no small thing that you offer. Now!” He claps Steve on the arm. “Enough of this talk! We will spar. Jarvis, is my brother well?”
“I am unable to answer that question, Thor,” Jarvis’ smooth voice says. “Loki is not on the premises.”
“What?” Thor demands.
“Jarvis, what do you mean?” Steve asks, alarmed.
“He left the grounds thirty-two minutes ago.”
“Do you know his destination?” Thor asks. “Was he in the company of anyone?”
“I do not know his destination. He left alone.”
“Jarvis, what was he doing right before he left?” Steve asks, already heading for the door.
“He was conversing with Mr. Stark in the laboratory.”
Thor passes Steve in the hallway and arrives at Tony’s laboratory first. He does not bother with the silly little keypad but knocks the door open wide with Mjolnir.
“What the fuck?” Tony cries. He is clad in half of his armor and there are wires trailing from his breastplate to a computer console. They tangle and spark when Thor knocks him back against the table and presses Mjolnir to his throat.
“What did you say to Loki?” he demands. “What did you do to my brother?”
“Hell you talking about?” Tony says, choking. “I didn’t say anything!”
Steve wedges his shield between Thor and Tony and uses it to lever Thor back. “Thor, calm down and back up!”
“He - “
Thor complies reluctantly, Mjolnir held ready.
Steve interposes himself between the two of them, glaring at Thor. “Tony, Loki’s disappeared. Jarvis said he was down here talking to you right before he left. Did he say anything?”
Tony’s expression of ire fades into concern. “No - we were talking shop, it wasn’t anything weird. He wandered off afterwards, like he does. He didn’t raise any warning flags.” Tony turns to his collection of glowing screens and begins making quick gestures at them. “Jarvis, what direction did he head?”
“He departed from the south entrance, sir,” Jarvis says. “My surveillance ends there.”
“Okay,” Tony says, brow furrowed in concentration. “I can hack some security cameras, but it’ll take a minute.”
Steve nods decisively. “Thor and I will head out on foot. Let us know when you have something.”
They split up on the street, Thor going left and Steve going right. Thor’s heart pounds in his chest. Why had he not kept a closer watch on Loki? He had known his brother was feeling despondent. Why had he ever thought that a disembodied voice in the ceiling was enough to keep his brother safe? How prideful of him, to think that he had fixed his brother and all would be well. How selfish, to spend his time complaining about his separation from home while his brother was in danger. The city is fast and hard and vast - there are a multitude of ways in which Loki can come to harm, both deliberately and accidentally.
“Got him,” Tony’s voice says in his ear. “Thor, take a left at the next corner. He looks like he’s okay.”
Thor sprints to the corner. Sure enough, Loki is walking calmly along the sidewalk, holding an armful of books. He grunts in surprise when Thor embraces him fiercely.
“Thor, what is the matter?” Loki says. Thor cannot answer - he is too busy ensuring that his brother is safe. He cradles Loki close - he is warm and alive, his heart beating steadily.
“Thor, has something happened? Are you all right?”
“I could not find you,” Thor chokes. Abruptly, he remembers that Tony and Steve are still in communication. “Steve, he is unharmed. Tony, thank you for your aid - I apologize for my violence.”
“Violence?” Loki says, startled. “Thor, what did you do to Tony?”
“Give me fifteen minutes with Mjolnir and some diagnostic equipment and we’re even,” Tony says immediately. “Tell Loki he’s a jerk for making us worry.” The communication cuts off.
“Tony says you are a jerk,” Thor repeats obediently. They share a moment of silent bewilderment at Midgardian terms of endearment.
Thor knows he should release his brother, but he cannot quite manage to. Loki’s arm is caught between them in a manner that must be uncomfortable, and his books are digging into Thor’s chest.
Loki edges them over to a nearby bench and makes Thor sit down. Whether it is to force Thor to release him or because Thor’s knees are suddenly weak with relief Thor does not know, but he is grateful. Loki puts down the books between them.
“I apologize for causing you worry,” he says stiffly.
Thor nods. “Why did you leave, brother?” he asks, trying not to sound plaintive.
Loki pats the stack of books. “Bruce recommended these to me. I felt restless and went to find the library.”
Thor gives a half-hysterical little laugh. Tony had not even been involved in this fiasco. Of course. He picks up the top book.
“The Lord of the Rings? Is it a magical tome?”
Loki shakes his head. “It is a fictional tale - the fantasy of a Midgardian author. Bruce’s description made it sound very intriguing. I am sorry to have caused you distress,” he adds, looking at Thor sidelong. “It was not my intent.”
“I am sorry for my overreaction,” Thor responds in kind. “The last few days you have seemed so low, brother, I began to worry. When Jarvis said you were gone I feared the worst.”
Loki looks away. “I... have been unhappy,” he concedes.
Thor reaches over and takes hold of Loki’s hand. “Brother, please, for my own peace of mind - and for the state of the mansion’s furnishings,” he adds, remembering Tony’s door, “will you promise me to take no drastic actions? Will you promise that no harm shall befall you by your own hand?”
Loki’s hand clenches in his own. He becomes very still. “I... cannot,” he says slowly. “I do not feel... at the moment I...” he shakes his head, frustrated. “I cannot promise the future,” he says finally. “No one can.”
Thor nods, disappointed.
“I can promise,” Loki says slowly, “that if I begin to feel... if I begin to see that the only solution to my problem is a final one, I can promise to make a sincere attempt to seek you out beforehand.”
It is the best he can hope for, Thor knows, and for his slippery brother to make even such a half-oath is more than he was honestly expecting. “I thank you, brother.”
“Now,” Loki says gathering up his books with a decisive air. “Let us return to the mansion and, I suspect, attempt to repair it.”
After the library incident, Loki takes to following Thor silently about the mansion. Had Thor not been so attuned to his brother’s presence he might not have ever noticed it, but as it is every time he turns to look for his brother he finds him there, watching Thor with a pensive expression.
It is somehow both reassuring and unnerving. Thor likes having his brother close, but it has been quite a while since he has been on the receiving end of one of Loki’s most calculating looks. The experience has not gotten any less unsettling with time.
A few mornings after Loki’s unexpected outing, Thor walks into the kitchen for breakfast and is greeted by the sight of Clint choking on his coffee and spitting it all over the table. Thor pounds him helpfully on the back, which oddly does not seem to aid his breathing.
“Clint, Jesus - “ Tony begins, annoyed, and then he catches sight of Thor and bursts out laughing.
“Is something the matter?” Thor asks, puzzled.
“Nice hair, buddy,” Clint wheezes, cackling.
Thor reaches up and brings a strand of his hair into sight. It is the same bright pink color as Darcy’s musical device. A cross-eyed inspection of his beard reveals (he thinks) that it is the same hue. Thor looks around until he spots Loki standing in the corner, the very picture of mild innocence.
“Brother, are you responsible for this?”
“Thor, I have not been near you all morning,” Loki says sweetly.
“You played a trick,” Thor says, astonished. “Brother, you played a trick on me!” He whoops, picking his brother up in his happiness. Loki squawks in protest. “It was most clever, Loki, well done!”
“Put me down, you troglodyte!” Loki snaps.
Thor deposits his brother back on the floor. “Is it not excellent?” he asks his teammates delightedly, but they are both experiencing respiratory difficulties and are unable to respond.
Steve, Natasha, and Bruce, when Thor finds them, are also most impressed. In fact, Thor thinks it may be the first time he has ever seen Natasha smile.
The son of Coul is less enthusiastic. “Loki, change your brother’s hair back, please,” he says wearily. “I can’t have the Norse god of thunder running around looking like an extra from My Little Ponies.”
Thor does not know what this means and does not particularly care. “But I like it!” he protests. “I wish to keep it. I think it is most becoming.”
Loki changes it back, just to be perverse. Thor winks at Coulsson as he leaves, and is surprised when Coulsson looks startled. Really, Thor may be the idiot Loki sometimes claims, but he is no fool and he has been Loki’s brother for quite some time now.
A few days later, Loki plays another trick. This time it is on Steve, who walks in at lunch and says, “Loki, do you know why there’s suddenly a pinup of Rosie the Riveter painted on my shield?”
Loki blinks, wide-eyed. “Who?”
“Uh-huh,” Steve says, unconvinced. “Well, I guess it’s still patriotic, at least...”
Loki corrects Steve’s shield soon enough, but the incident - while amusing - does make Thor think. It is very good to see Loki returning in whatever small way to his former self, and Thor thinks he will probably be willing to let Loki get away with quite a bit of mischief on the strength of relief alone, but he has seen how others sometimes react to Loki’s amusements; it is not always favorably, and he has a regrettable habit of targeting those closest to him.
Thor finds Tony in his lab, just returned from his duties as a businessman.
“Tony, may I speak with you?”
“Sure,” Tony says, looking up from the mess of wires on his table.
Thor seats himself on one of Tony’s tall stools. “It is about my brother and his propensity for mischief.”
“Uh-huh,” Tony says absently, deftly stripping the colorful outer coating from a wire.
“I just wish to warn you,” Thor says slowly. “I love my brother dearly and I am very glad of his friendship with you, and I do not want to sour it. But I feel I must warn you that with his return to mischief-making you may begin to experience some... inconveniences. I would not wish for you to become overly irritated by this. It is just his way - he means nothing unkind by it.”
Tony works for a few minutes in silence. “You want to know why Loki and I get along so well?” he asks, and continues without waiting for a response. “It’s because we’re a lot alike. Same reason we sometimes hate each other, actually, so I think I can make a few observations here. Asgard, there are a lot of people like you there, am I right? Who value the same things you do, like doing battle and quaffing ale and all that jazz?”
Thor parses this statement carefully. “Yes.”
“Mm-hm.” Tony sets down his wires and turns his attention to a series of buttons and switches. Thor is not offended - he knows that it is Tony’s way to always be doing several things at once. “And when you’re in battle - that’s pretty much the happiest you ever are, right? You like the feeling of being in the middle of everything and having to use all your skills to fight your way out?”
“Of course,” Thor says, waiting patiently for the point to this line of questioning.
“And after the battle you sit around and everyone says ‘Thor, that battle was most mighty, you’re an excellent warrior, the way you split that last guy’s skull was practically poetic’ and that feels pretty good, right?”
“Well, yes,” Thor says, wondering if he’s about to be condemned for hubris.
“Okay, so, here’s the thing. On Earth we would call somebody like you a ‘jock’. And that’s not a bad thing - it takes a lot of skill and strategy and hard work and whatever - but people like me and Loki and Bruce, we’re different. Our battleground is all in the head. If we can figure out a way to outthink an enemy, if we can do something so smart that everybody sits there and says ‘Holy shit, I wish I were like that,’ it’s just like when you storm an enemy castle and emerge victorious and plant your flag, or whatever it is you do.”
“Usually we demand their surrender and then negotiate a forfeit - “
“Irrelevant to the discussion at hand,” Tony says, waving this off. “The point is, here on Earth our culture has just enough respect for brains that somebody like me, who’s a little too smart and a lot too mouthy, can still get that same admiration by standing up and demanding it. On Asgard I’m betting it wasn’t so easy.”
Thor frowns, trying to follow this string of reasoning. “You’re saying that Loki felt unappreciated?” Steve had made a comment, back when they were still in Puente Antigua with Jane, that had led to an admission of so much from Loki. “I have spoken to my brother about this. I am sorry for it but I confess that I am unsure what relevance it has at the moment.”
Tony rolls his eyes. “Thor, playing tricks was your brother’s way of standing up and making everybody admit he’d done something well even though he didn’t like to hit people. Even if they didn’t like what he’d done they had to agree it was clever. I’m trying to say I’m not going to get mad at him for it because it’s what I do all the time too. Overly intelligent and emotionally damaged is something I have a little bit of experience with.”
“Oh,” Thor says, surprised. Now that Tony suggests it, he does remember the grudging respect on Fandral’s face at one of Loki’s tricks, the resigned way Volstagg used to admit that Loki had outthought them, Sif’s irritation when Loki did something just to be clever.
“But we are here now and he has you and Bruce, who are also clever. Surely he does not feel the need to prove himself?”
Tony gives him a dry look. “Come on, when do you ever stop needing to prove yourself? Besides, he’s mostly just doing it now to make you feel better.”
“He is?” Thor says, floored.
“Sure. He saw you freak out, it made him notice how much you still worried about him, and now he’s trying to do things to make you relax.”
Thor stares. Abruptly Tony’s attention shifts. “All right, get out. I need to finish this.”
Thor gets out.
For the first time since coming to the mansion, Thor finds himself just as in need of a quiet place as Loki has been. After exploring the building for a few minutes he finally goes and sits on the roof, looking out over the city. It is not the same as the roof of Jane’s headquarters in Puente Antigua, but it is similar enough to be familiar.
He sits for a moment, but finds that his mind is in too much turmoil for contemplation. Tony has given him a great deal to consider. How is it he has never sat down and thought through his brother’s motivations for mischief? It had always seemed to Thor to be a means to an end - the point of it was the chaos. That might still be partially true, but Thor had never considered that there could have been other attractions.
For a moment, Thor tries to consider his own reactions if their positions had been switched, if Asgard had been a realm of Lokis instead of a realm of Thors. How would he have felt, as the only warrior?
It would have been very irritating, he supposes. He would have felt unappreciated, as Loki had said, and if everyone around him had continually made unkind comments about his interests it would have been hurtful. But eventually there would have been a danger and Thor would have been able to show his skills - that is just the way things are. Surely after that everything would have been fine.
Besides, it isn’t a fair comparison. Loki is a good fighter in addition to being clever, so in a realm of Lokis there would still have been a place for Thor.
He shakes his head, frustrated, and calls Jane. He was given a small communication device termed a ‘cell’ when he joined the Avengers, and Tony has kindly enchanted it to call Jane when the ‘1’ button is held down. Thor is grateful - he finds the cell to be ingenious but far too delicate.
“Hey, Thor,” Jane says into his ear. She sounds pleased to hear from him.
“Hello, Jane.” It is remarkable how peaceful her voice can make him feel, as if suddenly everything has fallen into place and all is right. He likes it very much. “How does your work progress?”
“Oh, it’s coming along really well!” Jane says happily. “We’re going to go out tonight and take some readings...”
Thor lets the rhythm of her speech flow over him. He does not understand much of what she says - the broad concepts may be familiar to him, but the terminology and technology she uses are not - but he finds listening to her enthusiasm to be very enjoyable regardless.
“ - so I’ll be coming up to New York soon, I think. They want to see my results in person.”
“That would be most enjoyable!” Thor says, delighted. “You must bring Darcy and Erik with you this time.”
Jane laughs. “Can you imagine Darcy in Avengers mansion? She’ll probably pass out from joy.”
Thor joins in her merriment. His first task upon arriving in New York had been to secure autographs from his new teammates. Darcy had called it ‘homework’ and said it was the least he could do after taking away her favorite movie-watching companion.
“So how’s Loki doing? Any more good pranks? Erik said to tell you the pink hair makes you look like Strawberry Shortcake. The cartoon character, not the dessert.”
Thor sobers reluctantly. “He is fine. He played one on Steve earlier today.”
“Uh-oh,” Jane says. “I know that tone. That’s the voice you use when you’re worried about him, which means you were either lying when you said he was fine or you’re worried about something else.”
“No, no, he is well,” Thor reassures her. “I had a conversation with Tony about him that I am attempting to make sense of.”
“Can I help?”
Thor considers. Jane is very clever, like Loki and Tony and Bruce. It is indeed possible that she can provide additional insights. “He said that I am something called a jock, as are the rest of my people, and that Loki is not and that is why he made so much mischief in Asgard. And he thinks that Loki is doing it now because he thinks I will find it reassuring.”
“Sure, that makes sense,” Jane says easily. “I guess you are kind of a jock - in a good way - and Sif and the Warriors Three seemed to be as well. But you know, I’d say it’s a good sign.”
“That we are jocks?”
“No, that Loki is paying enough attention to things around him to be worried about you.”
Thor is silent.
“Yes. Yes, I apologize. I had not considered that, it is... thank you, Jane. That was very helpful.” He had been so preoccupied by the other things Tony had said that he had utterly failed to see the obvious. Thor does not care if it is only to make him feel better - Loki is engaging with his surroundings, and that is a wondrous thing.
He bids Jane farewell and goes back inside. Loki is in the little-used room he seems to favor, curled up in the window. He is asleep, with one of Bruce’s books open on his chest. Thor supposes that it must be taking a lot of his energy to concentrate once again on the outside world.
Thor stands and watches his brother for a long time. His position cannot possibly be comfortable - the window seat is small and Loki has had to fold himself up in order to fit. He has always had the ability to become smaller than he is, even when they were children - to fit in places where logically there is no room for him. Thor had never considered the idea that it was a metaphorical trait as well as a physical one.
The Avengers’ first battle as a team goes very well. They are pitted against a small army of mutated creatures which are both fast and deadly, but their teamwork and training are sound and they roust their enemies handily. Afterwards, buoyed by fighting spirit and camaraderie, they repair to a tavern for celebration. Due to his unique metabolism only Steve is able to match Thor’s consumption of boilermakers; after a while even Natasha begins to look glassy-eyed, and they return home to put their teammates to rest.
Loki takes in their state resignedly - he had been sitting in the living room reading when they returned.
“You all tried to keep pace with Thor, didn’t you,” he says. Bruce and Steve, the only two still sober, sigh in fellow feeling. “Please just tell me he didn’t teach you any - “
Steve makes a frantic silencing gesture, but it is too late - Clint and Tony have started in on the chorus to ‘Odin’s Mighty Spear’. Loki winces.
“All right,” Bruce says with a groan, “Let’s get them to bed. Loki, can you handle your brother?”
They stumble down to Thor’s room, only encountering mishaps once or twice. Loki has always been slighter than his brother and his recent melancholy has exacerbated this trait, so Thor assumes that Loki must be using some of his magic to aid the process.
“No, Thor,” Loki says. “I just have a great deal of practice with this.”
Thor’s eyebrows rise. Surely Loki just stole the very thought out of his head! Truly, his brother is an impressive creature.
“No, Thor,” Loki says again, patiently. “You said that out loud.”
“Oh!” Thor must be significantly more inebriated than he had thought. “Captain Steve is a mighty drinker.”
“Steve’s metabolism actually prevents him from getting drunk at all, which is something I am positive he explained to you. More than once.”
“That explains why he was still so...” Thor waves one hand, nearly oversetting them both. “...buttoned. By the time we left.”
Loki snickers. “I am forever going to think of him as ‘buttoned’ now. Thank you.”
They lurch sideways into a small table that serves no apparent purpose. Thor chuckles manfully.
“Stop giggling, Thor, you sound ridiculous.”
They continue their wobbly way down the corridor, until at last they reach Thor’s door. Loki fumbles with the doorknob - Thor tries to help, but keeps missing it - and finally gets in, across the room (rather more hazardous an endeavour than Thor had remembered) and deposits Thor on the bed, where he promptly tilts over sideways. “You’re my favorite brother,” he tells Loki fondly as Loki tugs at his boots. “I’m glad I chose you over everybody else.”
Loki stops and raises his head, looking at Thor with a strange expression. Thor takes the opportunity to pet him. Loki has resumed his habit of slicking his hair back, but however he does it makes it still feel soft. Not like it did when Darcy fixed it for him in Puente Antigua.
“I’m your only brother, Thor,” Loki says, still with that strange expression.
“Yes,” Thor says, beaming at him.
“Get some rest,” Loki says softly. “Even you might be hungover tomorrow.”
Thor stretches happily and rolls over onto his back. He feels warm and loose, content with the world. Tomorrow he may be ill, but for tonight there are the quiet sounds of Loki moving about the room and the gentle way he touches Thor’s shoulder after he thinks Thor’s asleep.
Loki greets them all the next morning with a restorative healing draught to combat the results of the previous night’s revels. It has an unpredictable effect on hair and eye color and turns Tony into a woman for an hour, but dispels their hangovers admirably.
“Hot damn I have a fantastic rack,” Tony says, ogling himself. “Thanks, Loki!”
As if that first campaign was the pebble heralding a mighty avalanche, so the number of adventures the Avengers participate in multiplies over the next several weeks. They combat an army of robots that Tony seems to find personally offensive, accompany a team named the Fantastic Four on a craft called a spaceship, and become accidentally stranded for a brief period of time in an alternate dimension in which Natasha and Pepper are married and there are no shrimp. Jane comes to visit twice, and brings Erik and Darcy with her for the second visit. Erik spends most of his time with Loki, who is familiar, and Bruce, who turns out to be an old friend; Darcy spends most of her time saying “Oh my God” in increasingly faint tones in between introducing Loki to new forms of visual entertainment.
Jane’s work continues to progress satisfactorily. She and Coulsson spend an increasing amount of time arguing as she sets up equipment in a secured area outside of the city in preparation for the activation of the Einstein-Rosen bridge.
“I’m so close, Thor,” she says, eyes shining. “You don’t understand - this is so incredible, I can’t even believe it’s happening!”
“I am happy for you,” Thor says, and means it, but cannot express as much joy as Jane deserves. If Jane’s device works - and he has no doubt that it will - Heimdall should be able to use the information he gets from her transmission to complete the Bifrost’s connection, and that will be that. Whatever has been happening, whatever will happen... it is all going to become clear soon.
It is strange to think of the busy and frequently heartbreaking past few months as a respite, but Thor is beginning to fear that is exactly what they have been.
Loki, at least outwardly, seems unconcerned by this. He continues to interact with the team and can even be seen conversing with people other than Thor and Tony from time to time. He and Clint begin competing in the targeting range - it is mostly silent, but very focused. It is the first interest Thor has seen him display in what Tony calls ‘jock stuff’ in quite some time.
“I have finished Bruce’s books,” Loki says unexpectedly one morning. “They have a movie version. I think we should watch it.”
They recruit Darcy to obtain the entertainment for them, and by the time she has it and they are ready to watch it the rest of the team is demanding to participate as well.
“No talking during the movie, Tony,” Natasha says. She appears to take movie-watching most seriously. “And no complaining about how it doesn’t compare with the books, Bruce.” Bruce rolls his eyes.
“I’ll talk if I want to talk,” Tony says, solely to be difficult. “My commentary will provide a necessary point of cultural reference for our out-of-town friends.”
“I have a taser,” Darcy and Coulsson threaten at the same time, and give each other disturbed looks.
The tale is quite excellent. It is in three installments, which Thor puts down to the limitations of Midgardian technology, and though their teammates find it to be excessively long for one sitting it is the proper length for a good epic and Thor and Loki both enjoy it immensely.
By the end of the final installment Tony has wandered off, Coulsson and Natasha have been called away, and Darcy, Bruce and Clint are asleep. Thor sighs as the ending music plays - the movie has left him with a sad but contented feeling, because everything turned out for the best although many brave warriors died in battle. Thor is uncertain how the demises of fictional characters are handled, but he hopes that they ended up somewhere like Valhalla.
He realises that Loki is looking at him intently. “Is something wrong, brother?” he asks, quietly so as not to disturb the others.
“No,” Loki says slowly. “I merely wish to know your opinion of the ending.”
“Most satisfactory,” Thor decides. “Truly, you chose a worthy entertainment. I thank you, brother.”
“I mean...” Loki hesitates. “What you thought about the part where Frodo sailed away with the elves to the afterlife.”
“It was very sad that he was forced to leave his friends behind, particularly Sam,” Thor says. “But he went through a terrible trial. I understand why he would desire peace, even of so final a kind...” his voice trails off and he jerks around to face his brother full-on. Dracy mumbles in protest and shifts over to sleep against the arm of the couch. “Brother,” he says, voice shaking. “You once promised to let me know if you wished to harm yourself - “
“No!” Loki says, and repeats it a little quieter. “No - I’m sorry Thor, that wasn’t what I meant. I’m sorry to have alarmed you. I did... I did want you to see Frodo’s choice and understand why he made it, but not for that.” He looks suddenly uncertain. Thor reaches past Bruce’s head to lay a hand on his brother’s arm.
“Loki, I hope you know that you may share whatever confidences with me that you wish.”
“I do.” Loki nods, apparently making up his mind. “In the story, the peace Frodo sought was more necessary to him than anything else. I wanted you to understand that this is... no longer the situation I am in, at least for the time being.”
A feeling of lightness seems to come over Thor, as if he had been laboring under a great weight for so long he had ceased to even realise it was there. “Brother, I am very happy to hear this!”
“Do not embrace me,” Loki says quickly, but it is too late - Thor has flung himself at his brother in his joy.
“Ow, what?” Bruce complains as Thor accidentally knocks him in the head with one knee.
“Loki’s not suicidal any more,” Clint says, his voice roughened by sleep.
“Oh, good,” Bruce mumbles vaguely.
Loki makes an exasperated noise. “Brother, this is most undignified.”
“Hush,” Thor says, his face pressed against Loki’s neck. “Give me this moment, Loki.”
“Very well,” Loki says in a long-suffering tone, and lets his brother embrace him for far longer than Thor was expecting. He even deigns to pat Thor awkwardly on the back.
Although Thor does believe his brother’s revelation to be genuine (particularly given the underhanded way Loki had gone about it - if it had been stated in a straightforward manner Thor likely would have assumed that Loki was back to his old intricate plans), he is at heart a man of action. Words never have quite the same effect on him as a living demonstration.
It is this tendency that he blames for his inability to leave his brother to his own devices. Although he trusts that Loki is no longer in danger, he still finds himself checking in on him as often as he ever did. In fact, it is not until several days after their conversation that Thor allows himself to truly believe that Loki is firmly on the mend.
The Avengers are sent out to combat a rampaging creature set loose in the southern part of the city. It is a massive beast, and composed of a strange material that does not seem quite natural. It easily absorbs Thor’s strikes and Tony’s repulsor blasts and nearly succeeds in swallowing Steve’s shield before Tony manages to rescue it. The creature bats him against a building for his efforts, burying him in rubble.
The team can hear Tony swearing, so they know he is unharmed even if he is incapacitated. Clearly a mightier strike than usual is necessary, so remembering his victory against the ice beast on Jotunheim Thor takes to the air, confident that a large enough missile will cause more damage than the beast can deflect.
He does not get to test his theory. Before he makes it to his target the creature strikes him mightily, moving far more quickly than before. Thor tumbles to the ground, momentarily losing hold of Mjolnir as he skids across the pavement.
Winded, battered, and starting to actually worry about their chances, Thor looks up and finds himself in a crowd of Thors, all moving independently. There are copies of the other Avengers as well.
The creature roars in fury, striking at the illusions. Ice creeps up its base, covering it and holding it immobile, and well-placed explosive rounds from Natasha and Clint soon reduce it to useless fragments.
The illusions vanish. Loki turns away from the beast and stalks over to Thor, Jotun-blue fading from his face and right hand.
“Brother, that was most impressive!” Thor says happily, getting to his feet. This is the first battle Loki has been in since the fight on the Bifrost, which Thor generally tries not to think about, and it is the first time that Thor has ever seen Loki use his Jotun powers so naturally. It is a most welcome sight, and the thought that Loki must have been keeping watch over them in secret warms him.
Loki does not look nearly so jovial. “What have I told you about charging in without a plan?” he shouts, and strikes Thor in the head. “You could have been killed, you imbecile!”
“I did have a plan, brother,” Thor says mildly, rubbing his jaw. Loki still needs to build up a good deal of his lost muscle mass.
Loki makes an aggravated sound and vanishes Thor’s clothing with one hand, stomping off to help dig Tony out of the rubble.
His undressed state does not worry Thor overmuch - the fight is over, so he has no need for his armor, and he is reasonably certain his brother’s temperament will recover in time to bring it back for the next battle. In the meantime, Thor is pleased to have his brother’s cunning mind and magical skill once more at his side. It would have been very easy for him to put himself deliberately in harm’s way, and yet he had instead chosen an effective and practical method to defeat the creature.
Thor beams. He has his brother back, spiteful tricks and all.There is very little that could spoil his cheer at this moment.
“Loki,” Clint says, “Loki, please give your brother some underwear oh God my brain.”
“Is my brother not magnificent in battle?” Thor asks proudly. Steve coughs delicately and surrenders his much-abused shield to preserve Thor’s modesty.
Thor is sparring with Natasha when Clint stops by.
“Team meeting in fifteen minutes,” he calls. “Cap says to bring your brother.”
Thor and Natasha trade surprised looks.
“Villainous sorcerer?” he guesses. Loki has never taken part in a team meeting before. Well, not officially - given his unexpected arrival at the fight in the city a few days ago Thor suspects that his brother has been covertly observing them at their official activities for at least a little while now. He would not be surprised to find that Loki has been sitting in on their briefings as well.
Thor dutifully collects his brother - napping again in the spare room - and presents them both at the war room. Steve has placed several drawings on the screens about them - Thor thinks they might be of buildings, but it is difficult to say. They are quite interpretational.
“All right,” Steve says once they have assembled. “SHIELD’s done some digging and they think they’ve figured out where the beast we fought a few days ago in the city came from.” He taps something on the table and the drawings change to a photograph of a large building. “This is one of Doctor Doom’s facilities,” he says. “It’s located in southern Illinois. Normally Doom would be the Fantastic Four’s concern, but they’re still in space so SHIELD’s asked us to look into it.”
“That creature was organic, at least mostly,” Natasha says, frowning. “That’s not Doom’s usual style.”
“Oooh, bio-robotics?” Tony says, perking up. “Doomy, Doomy, Doomy, you naughty boy.”
“Yes, exactly,” Steve says, bringing up the drawings again. “What we need to do is go in and get our hands on as much of his research as possible. There are about ten scientists and twenty guards on duty at all times - we want to minimize casualties if we can help it. Doom himself probably won’t be there and we couldn’t hold him even if he was.”
“One strike from Mjolnir will crack that building like an egg,” Thor offers.
“Actually...” Steve hesitates. “We’re looking for a more subtle approach this time. We don’t want the scientists to have a chance to destroy any of the research or set loose another one of those creatures, if they’ve got one. Loki, if we got you in, do you think you’d be able to cause enough confusion to buy us some time?”
Thor sucks in a breath in anticipation. Loki blinks. “Certainly. Gaining entrance will not be a problem, either - I can handle that myself.”
Steve smiles. “Excellent, thank you. Do you have any suggestions?”
Loki glances down at the drawings. They seem to be comprehensible to him. “If we plan our attack during a meal time, a simple redirective spell on each entrance will trap everyone in the dining area with little effort,” he says, tapping a section of one of the drawings. “I can restrict free movement in the labs to all but ourselves as well, and lay some traps in selected corridors, although I warn you that my strength will be stretched thin at that point and I will not be able to contribute effectively to combat while I maintain those spells.”
Thor nods in agreement - he can see, now, that the drawings are meant to indicate rooms and corridors on a flat plane, and Loki’s strategy is both sound and efficient.
“You can leave trapping the corridors to Natasha, at least,” Steve says. “I don’t want to leave you undefended. The rest sounds excellent.”
“You’ll need a costume,” Tony says gleefully. Loki looks alarmed.
“Would not your Asgardian armor serve admirably?” Thor asks. While he knows that his brother is capable of defending himself, it would certainly be a comfort to know that he is adequately protected as well.
“Yes, but...” Loki pauses. “I do not think I should wear Asgardian armor in battle. At the moment.”
There is an awkward quiet. “Can you show it to us?” Tony asks. “I can use it as a baseline and design you something more Avengers-y.”
Loki sighs. “Very well.” He steps back and gives a little shake; his Midgardian clothing resettles upon him as armor.
“Holy crap,” Clint says, impressed.
“You can’t possibly fight with those horns,” Bruce says, awed. “Those things are like two feet tall.”
Loki touches his helmet self-consciously. “It took some practice, I will admit,” he says. “But I managed to fight Thor to a standstill wearing it.”
Thor scoffs. Encouraging his brother is all very well and good, but he is at heart an honest person and, more to the point, is more than capable of soundly trouncing his younger brother in a test of arms. “Brother, you did not. I won that fight.”
“You cheated by pinning me down with Mjolnir,” Loki says dismissively.
“You cheated by using illusions!”
“I am supposed to cheat!”
“Boys!” Steve snaps. “Do you really want to relive that particular fight?”
They look away, abashed. “No. We apologize,” Thor says and realises, with a sudden jolt in his chest, that they were just able to use that terrible battle on the Bifrost as grounds for a minor squabble, and it had been... all right. It had not hurt at all.
He is not quite sure what to do with that, but he thinks that it is a good thing.
They sort out the positions and duties of the rest of the team and set a time for the attack. Loki and Tony leave to work on Loki’s new armor and the rest of the team disbands shortly as well.
“Thor, could you stay back a minute?” Steve asks.
Thor complies. “Are you worried that I will leave my post if I think my brother is in danger?”
“I... am now,” Steve says. “Will you?”
Thor sighs. “I will endeavour not to. Loki is a capable warrior, even after months of inaction. I know my duty to the team as a whole must come first.”
“But if he’s in serious danger you’ll knock down walls to get to him,” Steve says resignedly. “Okay, I can try to plan for that.”
Thor smiles. Steve is a good leader. “Was there another issue you wished to discuss?”
“Yes, actually.” Steve looks uncomfortable. “When I visited you that first time in Puente Antigua, you explained the difference to me between your style of fighting and Loki’s. You said that Loki’s was... unfair, I think was the word. I just want to make sure you’re okay with us proceeding this way.”
Thor shrugs. “You made a good argument for stealth. It is not my preferred method, but there is still a reasonable chance that something will go wrong and I will have my opportunity to smite our enemies most mightily.”
Steve blinks at him. “Here’s hoping.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Bruce says. “He must have had some training on Asgard, right?”
Thor turns his attention away from the glowing screens in their transport. He and Bruce, deemed the least subtle of the team (edging out Tony by the narrowest of margins and on what Thor firmly believes to be a technicality), have been asked to remain on the periphery of the fight until the situation warrants their involvement or the facility is made secure.
“He has had extensive training,” Thor confirms. “He frequently failed to attend it, but even he could not help but learn regardless.” He puts a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “It is good of you to worry. You are a fine friend to my brother.”
“Oh, I’m always worried,” Bruce says dryly. “It’s not too much trouble to spare some of it for him.”
“Check in, everybody,” Steve commands over the communication system.
“I’m in,” Natasha’s voice says.
“As am I,” Loki responds.
“Perimeter’s secure,” Clint says. “The two guards on the front entrance have been neutralized.”
“I took out one at the back,” Natasha says.
“Western road’s clear. I’m so bored,” Tony sighs.
“Loki, how’s the cafeteria?”
There is a brief pause. “Contained,” Loki says, finally. Thor and Bruce both let out relieved breaths and carefully do not look at each other. “Anyone trying to leave will find himself right back in the room again. I count six scientists and eleven guards inside.”
“Two more guards down,” Natasha says, not even breathless. “Corridors six, nine, and four are a no-go.”
“Entering through the north entrance,” Steve says. “Proceeding down to the labs.”
“Labs are secure,” Loki says.
“All right. Hawkeye, stay on perimeter. Iron Man, you’re on the cafeteria. Everyone else meet in the labs,” Steve says. “Don’t forget your - your - “ he falters.
“Diadems,” Loki supplies helpfully.
“D-diadems,” Steve sighs.
Thor and Bruce put on the circlets that Loki made to protect them from the effects of his spell and go in to join the rest of the team. The lab is a cavernous room, presumably to accommodate the erstwhile bio-robotic creature, and cluttered with tables and equipment. Natasha is busily restraining several guards and scientists who are huddled on the ground, looking terrified.
Thor goes to join his brother, leaving Bruce and Steve to discuss the contents of the workstations. Loki looks well - he appears to be unharmed, and there is a light in his eyes that Thor has not seen for quite some time. His Avengers armor looks good on him - it is evocative of his Asgardian armor, but not so much that it is not clearly of its own design. Tony even managed to create the suggestion of horns on Loki’s helm while still respecting Midgardian decorative sensibilities.
“Personnel secure,” Natasha says. “Loki, you can lift the spell now.”
Loki gestures negligently with one hand. The captives relax immediately, looking relieved. The Avengers remove their diadems, looking just as gladdened.
“Brother, what spell did you have them under?” Thor asks tentatively. Loki had been very mysterious on this point.
“A simple gravitational misalignment,” Loki says, shrugging. “They were merely under the impression that the floor was the ceiling for a short time.”
“Ah.” That would explain why that one scientist had been clinging so tenaciously to the legs of his desk, certainly. “And the diadems - it was truly necessary to make them so... gaudy?”
“You don’t think they’re pretty?” Loki says, wide-eyed with innocence.
Thor looks down at his diadem and winces, revising his previous theory regarding Loki’s mischievous nature. His tricks on Asgard may have been played to secure praise for his intelligence, as Tony had surmised, but his brother clearly does feel a separate attraction for the more lighthearted side of the endeavour.
“Seriously, so bored,” Tony says over the communication device. “And I didn’t even get a pretty princess crown. I just want you all to know that I’m sulking.”
Over by one of the workstations, Steve rolls his eyes fondly. “All right - I’m giving SHIELD the go-ahead to move in. We’ll let them clean up here and we’ll reconvene at the mansion for a debriefing.”
Although it was a sedate mission, Thor finds himself very pleased by the outcome. The results from the lab had been very helpful, and that’s all very well, but he is most encouraged that Loki’s first mission was such a successful one. There were times, Thor can now see, that Loki’s particular skills were not valued for Asgardian battle, and it is nice that the Avengers do not have those preconceptions. He does not even mind that he was unable to take an active role in the endeavour - he and Clint have already planned to spar in the evening, and that will be enough.
His cell device chimes and Thor smiles, overcome by warm feelings. A conversation with Jane is the perfect addition to the day.
“Thor,” Jane says, her voice trembling with excitement. “The Einstein-Rosen bridge is ready.”
“No! No no no!” Tony’s voice echoes down the hallway outside of his laboratory. “I don’t care what kind of advanced mystic technocrap you’ve got, there are certain laws of the universe that are unalterable!”
“What should I care of the ramblings of a Midgardian scientist barely a quarter century ago?” Loki says, his tone bored.
“Three quarters! Three quarters of a century!”
“Oh, I do apologize. How progressive of you.”
Thor leans cautiously around the doorway, prepared for a hasty retreat, but Loki and Tony are merely conversing and appear to have no potentially dangerous objects to hand. “Brother? May I interrupt?”
Loki sniffs, clearly at his most outrageous. “Please do. The level of intelligence in this room depresses me.”
“Hey!” Tony says, outraged. “I’m not the one breaking things with no regard for consequences! Oh, wow, I’m not, that’s weird...”
“Brother, what did you break?” Thor asks in an undertone as the depart the lab. He may not understand what all Tony’s devices are supposed to do, but they do look very fragile.
“Reality,” Loki says smugly.
Thor gives his brother a concerned look, and decides that he will tentatively assume Loki is joking. If his brother had actually broken reality, surely he would have noticed by now...?
“What do you wish to discuss?”
Thor sets those concerns aside. “Yes, of course. Let us go to the roof, brother. The view is most excellent.” He is stalling, he knows - and from the quick glance Loki casts in his direction his brother is aware of it as well. He is not sure how Loki will take the news of the Bifrost’s repair - there were always so many other things to worry about, or take care of, that it was all too easy to push this topic to the side. For the first time in a very long time, Thor feels he may be justified in accusing himself of cowardice.
“It is a lovely view,” Loki says evenly. “Now tell me what is on your mind, Thor.”
Thor scuffs the roof with one boot. “I talked to Jane today.”
Loki is very still beside him. “Oh?”
“She says she is ready to attempt to connect to the Bifrost.”
“I see.” His tone is hard, although his words are neutral.
“It may not work -” Thor says desperately.
“You know it will work,” Loki says, cutting him off. “You will be able to return to Asgard, which I am sure will be a great relief to you, and they will have their golden prince back, which I’m sure will be a great relief to them.” His voice trembles.
“I am needed there,” Thor says softly. “And I do not wish to leave you - “
“I no longer require a nursemaid. You may leave with your sense of responsibility intact.”
Thor winces. He remembers throwing that word at Loki, back in the bleak first days in Puente Antigua. He should have known that Loki would keep it close. “Brother, I - “
“Do not call me that!” Loki snaps. “We both know it isn’t accurate.”
“Loki, let me speak!” Thor admonishes, but his brother vanishes before he can continue.
Thor growls in frustration and dents the brickwork wall at the edge of the roof with his fist. Words are Loki’s battleground. He should not have expected to win that fight. He should have expected it to be a fight.
Loki does not reappear that day. Thor lets the rest of the team know that they have had a misunderstanding and asks them to watch out for his brother, but if Loki makes contact with any of them he makes their silence on the subject a condition. That night Thor pointedly opens the door between their rooms so that he will hear Loki return and Loki will see that Thor wishes to speak with him.
He does not think Loki will harm himself - he hopes Loki will not harm himself - but he sleeps only a little and that fitfully, and rises in the morning feeling exhausted. The only sign of his brother’s presence is that the door between their rooms has been just as pointedly shut and locked once more.
Thor leaves for the site of Jane’s device in the late morning without seeing his brother. He had asked Coulsson, tentatively, if the device’s use could be postponed, but Coulsson refused and Thor felt too guilty about delaying Jane’s triumph to pursue the matter. It is not Jane’s fault that she is brilliant, and it is wrong to punish her for his and Loki’s shortcomings.
Jane and Erik are too busy with the device to notice Loki’s absence or Thor’s preoccupation, although Jane gives him a very nice welcome which does make him feel a little better. Darcy sidles up to him at a pause between demands for help.
“No Loki, huh?”
Thor shakes his head, and Darcy pats him sympathetically on the arm.
The activation of the device goes well, and Jane and Erik seem very excited by the data they get. It is unimpressive by Thor’s standards, used to the glorious Bifrost as he is, but he also knows that the purpose of this test was not to create a stable bridge but to connect for a brief time to Heimdall’s observatory. He pounds Erik on the back and swings Jane around in celebration.
They sit down to wait for Asgard’s response. There is no telling what shape the Bifrost is in or how long it will take for Asgard to make sense of their contact, but none of them are willing to leave. It is a nice afternoon, for all the uncertainty and harsh words that surround it, and reminds Thor fondly of a simpler time when all he worried about was finding Mjolnir and returning home.
If things have gone badly in Asgard, if Loki was right to vanish and protect himself from reparations... well. It is only a matter of time before those things become clear, and there is nothing Thor can do about it now but be vigilant.
The Bifrost activates that evening and deposits Sif and the Warriors Three neatly next to the device. There is much slapping of backs and many fond greetings, and they repair back to the Avengers’ mansion for the night. None of Thor’s companions give any hint that they are here for militant purposes, and Thor feels himself relax just a little. Sif and the Warriors Three are straightforward beings, and even given the manner of Thor’s departure from Asgard they view him with respect. They would not attempt to deceive him about something so important.
“We were astonished to receive your transmission,” Sif says as they sit around the living room. “Heimdall said that the Lady Jane was clever and would reach us, but we did not expect it so early!”
“Even Heimdall looked surprised,” Fandral laughs. “I would swear that I saw him blink.”
Jane beams at them, warmed by the compliment.
Thor had been worried that his friends and the Avengers would be too different for comradeship, but his fears are soon allayed. Tony is gregarious in any company, and Steve is possessed of an immediately likable nature. Bruce and Clint hang back a little at first, wary, but Natasha has no chance of being unsociable as soon as Fandral catches sight of her. Fandral is quickly rescued by Sif, however, so no lasting damage is done.
Thor is the center of both parties’ attention, but Volstagg manages to draw him aside as the evening wears on.
“Loki is not with us tonight?” he asks.
“No,” Thor says, good mood dampening. “He - no. But he is much recovered.”
“That is good,” Volstagg says dutifully.
The Avengers eventually retire, citing early obligations the next morning although Thor suspects them to be motivated by a desire to give him some time alone with his friends. Jane and Erik depart as well, a reluctant Darcy in tow, and Thor feels certain they will spend the rest of the night happily investigating their data rather than sleeping.
“So tell me, friends - what news of Asgard?” Thor says as they relax in solitude.
“You are greatly missed,” Fandral says. “It has not been the same since your departure.”
“I am sorry for the nature of my leaving,” Thor says. He shudders to remember that time - beside himself with worry over Loki’s mental state, bewildered by his friends’ inability to think anything but the worst of his brother, desperate for some course of action he could take and follow to the end. He had not spoken to his friends in days and did not apprise them of his plan. In retrospect, it could only have felt like an abandonment. “Are my parents well?”
“They are,” Volstagg says. “Though they miss you also. Relations with Jotunheim have improved, you will be pleased to hear - the All-Father would like you to return and be part of the negotiations, if you are able.” His voice trails off a little at the end.
“I assume Loki is not welcome,” Thor forces himself to ask.
“He is not,” Sif says, her voice neutral.
“Have you come to escort him back to Asgard?”
“No,” Sif says, her tone a little more comforting.
“Speaking of Loki, where is the little scamp?” Fandral says, striving for a lighthearted tone. “Hasn’t conquered the realm yet, I see.”
Hogun kicks him in the ankle and Fandral lapses into silence.
“He is elsewhere,” Thor says as the atmosphere becomes strained. “He is much better now.”
“That is good!” Sif says, glaring at Fandral. “You may journey back with us and see your parents.”
“Perhaps,” Thor allows. He does long to see his parents, and Asgard. His mother, he knows, will have worried over them this whole time, and while his father does not display such things he is certain that Odin has as well, but he does not wish to depart without speaking to Loki first. To leave with matters between them as they are would be.. damaging, and to more than just Thor’s sense of peace.
Sif glances nervously at the Warriors. “The invitation is... not in the nature of a request,” she says slowly.
“The All-Father commands it?” Thor asks, just to be clear.
“Very well.” Thor forces a smile. “But we needn’t depart immediately! We can take tomorrow for sport, can we not? My companions here are mighty warriors and I know you will enjoy their company.”
Sif wavers, then concedes. “I for one would enjoy that very much.”
“As would I,” Fandral says, a dreamy look overtaking his features. “The Lady Natasha is a formidable warrior, I am sure. Very adept at hand-to-hand.”
“She is, at that,” Thor says, feeling a little of his brother’s mischievous nature take hold. “I am sure she would enjoy sparring with you.”
Sif hides a smile. Clearly some part of her conversation with Natasha this evening revolved around battle tactics, for she seems to have a very realistic view of Fandral’s chances.
Thor shows them to their chambers shortly after and then takes himself off to his own. Loki is hovering in the doorway between their rooms when he enters.
“Broth- Loki - “
“I assume you’re leaving tomorrow.”
Thor halts, wary of scaring Loki off. His brother’s body language is tense and defensive, his arms crossed tightly over his chest.
“The day after, I believe.”
Loki nods sharply. “I refuse to go with you.” He straightens and prepares to retreat, then adds stiffly, “I shall see you when you return to visit Jane.”
“Loki - “ But Loki has already closed and locked the door. Thor kicks it, frustrated, and shouts “I do not want to leave you! You are my brother and I love you!”
There is no response. It is not until much later that Thor realizes Loki’s preemptive refusal to accompany him to Asgard saved both of them from a discussion of that impossibility.
The next day is indeed entertaining, and both sides acquit themselves well although everyone agrees that Natasha was the clear winner of her fight with Fandral. Fandral offers a kiss as a forfeit, and to everyone’s surprise Natasha accepts.
The day passes with no sign of Loki. Thor cannot decide if that is a relief or a worry, and eventually comes to the conclusion that it is both. He is certain that any meeting between Loki and Thor’s companions would end badly, and he does not want to find out which party would be most to blame for it.
Before Thor is truly ready, it is time to return to the Bifrost site. He brings few possessions along and no clothing, an unspoken promise of his return. Most of the Avengers accompany them to say their farewells and to trade parting jibes, with Tony of course in the forefront of those ranks. Jane kisses him goodbye, Darcy is firmly dissuaded from attempting to sneak along with them (“First human in another realm! I could totally use that in my Anthro class!”), and then the Bifrost whisks them away.
Odin and Frigga are waiting for them when they arrive. Thor embraces them both, and feels a part of himself become whole that he hadn’t even realized was broken.
It is extremely strange to be back in Asgard. Everything looks both different and familiar, as if Thor has changed size since last he was there. Odin and Frigga escort them from Heimdall’s observatory (indistinguishable from the original, which only lends to Thor’s sense of unreality) and back to the palace. People have gathered to see him return and wave to him as he passes - it is the first time such a things has happened to Thor when there has not been a mighty battle or great victory to prompt it.
They will have their golden prince back, which I’m sure will be a great relief to them, Loki’s voice says in his head, and he shivers a little.
There is a great homecoming feast planned for the evening, so Thor retreats to his room to prepare and gather himself. The room is as he left it, although possibly cleaner; when he thinks to check he finds that the scattered bits of practice armor he left heedlessly on the table have been painstakingly dusted around and left undisturbed. It feels a little like walking into someone else’s bedchamber; he does not remember what purpose the carefully hoarded bits of leather strapping on the mantle were meant to serve, but they appear to have been important. Thor spends several minutes walking around the room and trying not to touch anything, and then he retreats to the balcony for air.
There are people outside. They all wave to him. He waves back and flees.
He ends up in Loki’s room; no one will be watching it and it at least is someone else’s space. Where Thor’s room had obviously been kept in a ready state, prepared for his return, Loki’s has an air of neglect. It is clean, of course - nowhere in the palace would not be - and still contains his things, but they have been tidied away in a final manner Thor can’t quite put his finger on.
Thor feels a lump grow in his throat. Loki suddenly seems very far away.
He calls Tony. Loki has a cell device of his own, given to him by the Avengers when it became apparent that he could be counted as at least a standby team-member and that Thor would be infinitely easier in his mind with a reliable way to reach his brother, but Thor does not think that he will answer it. Tony, attached as he is to his devices, answers immediately.
“Thor?” he says. “What happened, they kick you out and you need a ride?”
Thor laughs a little. “No, Tony, I am fine. I just wanted to check on my brother.”
There is dead silence from the other end of the cell. “Are you trying to tell me you’re calling from Asgard?” Tony demands incredulously, apparently struggling with the power of speech.
“Yes,” Thor says patiently. “I have a cell and I have in fact learned how to use it.”
“Great, good for you, not what I meant,” Tony says. “Thor, cell phones don’t reach to other realms. I built it so I would know. You can’t be talking to me right now, it is in fact impossible.”
“Would you like me to hang up?” Thor asks tiredly.
“No! Jesus, this makes some kind of history, I don’t know what, but I built the very first - “ he stops, then begins to laugh. “Oh, that sneaky bastard.”
Thor sighs. This conversation is less comprehensible than usual, and is making him miss his teammates greatly. “Tony, I just wish to know if my brother is well.”
“I’d say he’s fine,” Tony says, still laughing. “You realise he must have enchanted that phone so you could call us, right? I’ll have to tell Darcy she was right to introduce him to Doctor Who.”
“Oh!” Thor smiles, a warm feeling in his chest. “I understand. Please tell him thank you for me.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony says. “I’ve got to go. Be careful with your quaffing, I hear it can be hazardous.”
“Undoubtedly, but at least here everyone knows the words to ‘Odin’s Mighty Spear’ and most can keep to a single tune,” Thor says. “Be well, my friend.”
He calls Jane after Tony hangs up, and Loki next. As expected he finds a recording instead of his brother, but he leaves a message anyway. Loki will listen to it, if only because he is by nature too curious not to.
Fortified and reassured by his contact with Midgard, Thor finds the homecoming feast easier to bear than he had expected. Everyone present clamors for tales of life on Midgard, and Thor gladly relates his adventures with the Avengers and even some humorous anecdotes about cultural misunderstandings. Volstagg gets in on the fun as well, telling a mightily exaggerated version of Fandral’s sparring session with Natasha. Thor does not mind the embellishments - they make Natasha sound justly formidable and Fandral takes the teasing well.
“Tell us another amusing story, Thor!” someone begs.
“Another amusing one, my lady?” Thor says, searching his memory. Ah - the tale of the Avengers and the bio-robotic creature should suffice. It does end in accidental nudity, after all, and Thor does not mind casting himself in humorous roles. “I do have one, but I warn you - I suffer a grave indignity in it!”
Everyone laughs. Thor takes a drink of mead and begins. “This occurred but a few weeks ago, when my comrades and I faced a mighty foe and had to be rescued by my - “
“That is not a humorous story, it is another adventure!” Sif interrupts, laughing. Thor stops, surprised, because it is not Sif’s usual laugh. “Volstagg, tell the tale of Hogun and the Iron Man!”
“H-hogun and the Iron Man?” Volstagg says, caught by surprise.
Bewildered, Thor catches his mother’s eye. She shakes her head and makes a tiny gesture for him to be still.
“Oh, yes,” Thor says, taking his cue. “Please, friend Volstagg, that is a much better story.”
Volstagg manages credibly, despite the fact that even with Tony’s involvement the event was not unusually entertaining, and Hogun’s dignity is a difficult target on any day. Thor spends the rest of the evening encouraging others to tell stories, worried that he will cause another misstep.
That night, as he lies in the bed that used to be his own, he thinks through the evening and attempts to understand it. He supposes that placing a recently banished prince in a comedic story would be insensitive, and it is possible Mother worried that the members of the court would be unsettled by it. The court can be a moody thing, Thor has been told, and must sometimes be managed delicately.
Before he darkens the room, Thor takes his cell device and painstakingly spells out i love you brother with the miniscule letter-buttons. He feels better after he sends the missive off to Loki, but it is a long time before he falls asleep.
The next day Thor leaves early to go hunting with Sif and the Warriors Three. It is a very enjoyable day - the weather is fine and Thor has missed the lush greenery of Asgard very much. New York, for all its charms, has little in the way of wilderness, and Puente Antigua had been flat and far too dry.
They fell a boar and return to the palace with it in the early afternoon. Fandral offers to spar, but Thor begs off and returns to his room, still a little overwhelmed by his return. It turns out to have been a good thing - his cell device, when he checks it, has received several messages, mostly from Natasha and Clint.
Thor reads through them, feeling his eyebrows rise, and immediately calls Steve.
“Hiya, Thor,” Steve says, his voice a little bit breathless.
“Hello, Steve,” Thor says. “Is my brother all right? I have received a number of odd messages. Clint wishes me to know that Loki is a...” Thor falters. “‘Deranged pervert’, and Natasha says several times in large letters that Loki is dead to her. Am I misunderstanding her intent or has something happened?”
Steve sighs. “Loki’s fine, Thor, and Natasha is fine and Clint is just being himself. Are you familiar with the phrase ‘acting out’?”
Thor deconstructs it hastily. “Is it to take action outdoors?”
“Ah, no. It means, more or less, that Loki feels... unsure, since you left, and he’s reacting... impishly.”
Thor translates this. “He is causing much mischief?”
“Yeah. Look, Thor, it’s really nothing to worry about. We know why he’s doing it and he’s not causing any permanent damage.”
Thor sighs. “I am sorry for this, Steve. Do you need me to return?”
“No, we can handle it,” Steve says reassuringly. “I think this will be good in the long run. Just keep in touch with him, even if he doesn’t answer back. I think that would help.”
“Of course,” Thor says, a little insulted.
After he has bidden Steve farewell, Thor feels a great restlessness take him over. He paces his room, picking things up and putting them down randomly. He considers going to find Fandral and the discards the idea; in this state he will be an inattentive combatant at best and a dangerous one at worst. He has dedicated so much of himself these last months to looking after his brother that without him Thor is adrift in the sensation that there is something important he ought to be doing and cannot.
Loki is causing mayhem with the Avengers, Thor is sure of it. He has seen Loki when he is feeling vindictive and provoked, and it can be an ugly thing. Steve does not sound worried, but surely if Thor was there...
Frustrated, Thor leaves his rooms at last. Darcy had told him once that ‘when the going gets tough the tough get Mom’, and it isn’t a bad idea. Darcy had been speaking of Coulsson at the time, but Frigga has long been one of Loki’s staunchest supporters and it was she who persuaded them to leave Asgard in the first place. It is possible she will have some insight, and it is probable that she will appreciate some news of her son. Her other son, Thor thinks bitterly. The one no one will talk about.
He finds his mother in her rooms, at her weaving. Insensitive to magic though he is Thor can see that what she makes is a powerful thing, but she sets her work aside to greet him.
As he had guessed, Frigga is eager for news of Loki, and listens attentively as Thor chronicles their journey from Asgard, through Puente Antigua, and finally to the Avengers. It is very good to speak to someone who loves and understands his brother as he does, and Thor finds himself talking for quite some time.
Finally, he is finished. Dark has fallen and dinner must have started, but Frigga makes no move to dismiss him. He sits at her feet and lets her stroke his hair as she did when he and Loki were children.
“Mother,” he says after a quiet moment of contemplation has passed. “Why did Sif prevent me from speaking of Loki at the banquet last night?”
His mother’s hand stills in his hair. “Thor... this is going to be difficult for you to hear. I know it is difficult for me.”
Thor moves until he can see his mother’s face. “Please tell me. I need to know.”
“I know,” Frigga says sadly. “I know you do. Your brother... is being held responsible for the attacks on Jotunheim.”
Thor frowns. “Well, yes, but he did - “ he stops. “‘Attacks’? Both of them?”
Frigga nods. “It was the only way your father could secure your return and repair our treaty with Jotunheim. It is true they are weak now, Thor, but taking advantage of the weak is a terrible thing and does no good for anyone.”
Thor gapes at her. “So it’s all right to blame Loki? This whole mess began because of my stupidity! It is not right!”
“I know, my son. It is good that you take responsibility for your actions but Loki also - “
“Loki’s actions were no different from my own!” Thor protests, getting to his feet. “I tried to destroy the Jotun, Loki tried to destroy the Jotun, the only difference was that Loki was more efficient! And for that he is banished while I am welcomed home like a hero?” Injustice swells in his heart. His brother is a broken thing now, healing but still damaged, and this feels like the worst sort of reprisal.
“And you returned from your banishment to save them,” Frigga says, getting to her feet as well. “It is ugly, Thor, I understand your - “
“So if I tried to destroy them again and Loki stopped me, that would make him a hero?” Thor demands, anger making his voice tremble. “I can do that, you understand, I will - I’m his brother and somebody has to stand up for h-”
“Thor!” Frigga’s voice cracks like a whip. “Control yourself. You are overwrought.” Thor reins himself in immediately; Frigga wields her full authority rarely but when she does it is wise to take heed. “You are young and you have had the luxury of acting how you please. It is time you learned that duty takes precedent whether you like it or not.”
“Politics,” Thor says bitterly, his voice dripping with scorn.
“Politics,” Frigga agrees, every inch the Queen of Asgard. “Your brother was good at it. It is time you learned to be a little more like him.”
Thor storms back to Loki’s room in a terrible fury. He throws himself down on the bed, intentionally mussing the perfect blankets and tidy bedding.
i hate asgard, he writes to Loki, and then gets up and moves through his brother’s room, intentionally setting things out of place until the chamber looks lived in once more. He knows he is probably only causing irritation for the blameless household servants, but it seems like an important thing to do.
The cell device chimes with Loki’s reply.
Too bad. They love you.
Because Thor has learned several important things from his banishment, most particularly how to control his temper and stop to think before he acts, he waits until the next morning to storm into his father’s chambers and start shouting. Odin is less than amused.
“I will not speak to you in this state,” he says, and Thor knows by the iron in his voice that he will be immovable on the subject.
He deliberately sets Mjolnir down by the door and takes several calming breaths.
“Mother tells me that Loki is being blamed for both attacks on Jotunheim,” he says, his voice even.
“That is correct,” Odin says, watching him narrowly.
“That’s not the truth.”
“No,” Odin agrees.
Thor turns his back until he can control his expression.
“You banished me so I would learn responsibility,” he says tightly. “This would seem to contradict that.”
“This is a new lesson. This is about politics.”
Thor’s teeth grind. “Mother said the same thing.”
“Your mother is very intelligent,” Odin says. “If you can control yourself for another few minutes, I can attempt to explain it to you.”
Thor breathes carefully through his rage. “Please.”
“The Jotuns saw you attack them with Loki at your side,” Odin says. “They also saw your brother come to them and boast about letting them into the armory during your coronation. He then made a deal with Laufey to kill me. From their perspective, Loki’s hand was visible throughout the entire disaster, your part included.”
“But Laufey’s dead,” Thor says. “Surely - “
“Yes.” Odin inclines his head. “The new king is fortunately less militant. He longs for peace and a chance to rebuild, and from that we can make a true alliance, not one that is based on us keeping them subjugated and powerless.”
“And the price for that was Loki.”
Odin breathes for a moment. “Yes.”
“The son you haven’t even asked after,” Thor says, choking on it.
Odin’s eye narrows. “I have asked Heimdall and I have asked your mother. Just because you have not seen it do not assume that it does not exist, and do not presume that you know how I feel about my own child.”
“You sacrificed your child!” Thor shouts, unable to be still any longer.
“I sacrificed one to avoid sacrificing both!” Odin roars. “Pray that you never have to make that choice!”
Thor stares, stricken. “Did you choose me because Loki is Jotun?”
“No, Thor,” Odin says heavily, “I chose you because no one would believe you to be the mastermind behind this mess.”
“Because I’m an idiot and Loki is clever,” Thor says numbly.
“Because you are open and easy to read,” Odin corrects. “Because you believe the best of all you meet and because Loki never trusted anyone, and they could tell.”
Thor leaves quietly, mind and heart too full to make sense of anything. He goes back to Loki’s room and lies down on the neatly made bed. The pillows do not smell like Loki. Nothing in the room does.
i miss you brother, he writes. i do not think i can do this alone.
There is a long pause.
I am still here, Loki says.
Thor passes the next several days quietly. He spars with Sif and the Warriors in the mornings and sits with his father in the afternoons as they work on the new treaty. There are meetings to be held on Asgard, and an official state visit to Jotunheim to plan. Thor says little and watches much, and wonders if this is how Loki sees the world.
He calls Jane and sometimes Steve and trades missives with Loki. Loki’s desperate mischief seems to have calmed somewhat, replaced by a brief return to his old melancholy. There are several more adventure for the Avengers to partake in and Steve assures him repeatedly that participating in the missions is beneficial for Loki and that he is in no danger.
Thor spends a lot of his time thinking. It is not precisely that he never thought before - it was simply different then. These thoughts are strangely-shaped and do not fit in his head at first, but the more he becomes used to them the more quickly they seem to come.
“Volstagg,” he says one day, taking his friend aside. “I would like you to tell me what rumors you hear about my brother.”
Volstagg looks uncomfortable. “I am not sure you want to hear them,” he says hesitantly. “Some are very unkind.”
“Tell me anyway, please,” Thor says, and Volstagg does.
Some of the rumors are accurate, some outlandish. A disturbing proportion of them seem to revolve around Loki kidnapping Thor and stranding him on Midgard for a multitude of nefarious purposes. Thor listens quietly until Volstagg has run out of things to say.
“Why do you think they are so willing to believe Loki to be evil?” Thor asks. “You do not agree, do you?”
Volstagg sighs. “I do not think he is evil now,” he says reluctantly. “You must understand, for him to take power after your banishment - it did not look good. It looked like a power-hungry younger brother plotting to steal the throne. I no longer think this is true - someone had to take control and looking back now I can see that Loki was very upset at the time, but...” he shrugs. “Getting others to believe that may be impossible. As to why they are so willing to believe the worst of him? I think it is because he is different. No one understands him and so it is easy to think the worst.”
Thor tracks down Fandral next.
“Between the magic and the fighting style, he didn’t really have a chance,” Fandral admits. “He values such different things. You must concede that he has always been strange.”
“Did you love Loki?” Thor asks Sif.
She looks away. “Love him? No. I tried to like him, for your sake, and then I tried to tolerate him, but no, I never loved him. I still don’t. I’m sorry, Thor - I did try.”
“Good with a knife,” is all Hogun says. It seems to be tentatively positive, which Thor is willing to find cheering.
“Asgard was awful for Loki,” Thor says to Jane later. “I think the real mystery is why he did not break sooner and more irreparably. Tony was right.”
“I’m sorry, Thor,” Jane says sympathetically. “If it helps at all, I don’t think this makes anyone on Asgard bad exactly, they’re just... underexposed, I guess. I mean, think about it - you landed on Midgard, which you’d never visited, and met me, the nerdiest nerd who ever nerded, and then ended up in a - a physics-government conspiracy maelstrom in which you couldn’t rely on anything you used to count on. Nobody on Asgard’s really had that kind of experience. Loki stuck out like a sore thumb and that was bad.”
“We’re too insular,” Thor says thoughtfully.
“Yes, exactly. Look at it this way - Loki’s found a much better place for himself now, and he’s never going to be forced back to Asgard. That’s good, right?”
“You’re right, Jane,” Thor says. “You’re very right. That is good. Thank you.”
Thor watches more, and says little, and then asks for an audience with his father.
“I have a proposal for you,” he says. “I think we have become too isolated, too proud of ourselves. We need more exposure to other ways of doing things. I propose that for the forseeable future I spend one Midgardian month here and one there, with the understanding that a legitimate emergency in either realm takes precedent over scheduling. The Midgardians are an evolving people and they are becoming powerful. My service there will be seen as a goodwill gesture, and in return I will learn about their customs and gather intelligence. In addition,” he adds, looking the All-Father straight in the eye, “I will be able to keep an eye on Loki and to learn from his way of thinking. It was recently pointed out to me that I could stand to be a little more like him.”
The All-Father stares at him for a long moment. Thor, kneeling on the floor, dedicates a considerable amount of effort to not wavering.
“Politics,” Odin says finally.
“Politics,” Thor agrees.
“Very well. I accept your proposal.”
Thor goes back to Loki’s room and takes a picture of his bookshelf with the little cell device.
what do you want me to bring you when i return, he writes.
The night before Thor is set to leave Asgard he has the dream again. He dreams that Loki is crying out in pain and anguish, and Thor cannot reach him.
In the morning, he makes immediately for his mother’s chambers. She has experience with prophetic dreams and beyond that is possessed of considerable wisdom. She listens patiently to Thor’s account.
“I thought at first that it pertained to the opening of the Bifrost,” Thor explains. “I thought I must be vigilant and make sure Loki was not captured and punished. But that has been averted now, has it not?”
Frigga is quiet for a long moment. “Thor,” she says finally. “I think you are correct when you say that this dream was a message, but I do not think it is a prophecy. I think it is a reminder.”
Thor frowns. “I do not understand. A reminder of what?”
Frigga looks at him steadily. “Not all hurts are physical, Thor. I think your brother’s pain and helplessness in the dream are from before you left here.”
“But why show it to me now? And why then?”
Frigga shrugs. “A reminder,” she repeats. “I think it is a reminder that you must continue to look beneath the surface instead of accepting everything for what it appears to be.”
Thor thinks on this as he packs his things, and his brother’s things (Bring me all the books. All of them. Steal more if you can), and prepares to depart. The roof of the Avengers’ mansion has been cleared to provide a permanent Bifrost connection, courtesy of Jane and Erik, and so Thor will not have to journey into the city when he arrives.
Thor bids farewell to his parents at the palace, and to Sif and the Warriors at Heimdall’s observatory, and departs Asgard under his own power for the first time in nearly half a year.
Loki, Jane, and Steve are waiting for him when he arrives. Jane greets him very warmly, and Loki and Steve both accept embraces, if only briefly in Loki’s case. They repair down to the kitchen to greet the others.
Tony is away attending to business concerns, which is regrettable, but everyone else is in residence. They are a merry party as they eat, and Thor finds himself watching them with his new attention to nuance. Steve is clearly in charge. Everyone defers to him in attitude if not always in language, but the power distribution amongst the rest shifts and resettles as every new topic of conversation comes to light. Loki weaves in and out of this dance as easily as breathing.
“ - And then Loki flies up - which we did not know he could do, I might add, you should’ve seen Cap’s face - and turns himself into some kind of freaking magic missile and takes the thing out.”
Thor tunes back into conversation abruptly. “You did what?” he asks his brother, astonished.
Loki shrugs, embarrassed. “It always seemed to work very well for you. I thought there could be no harm in trying.”
“When are you going to start talking like normal people?” Clint asks idly. “You’re never going to fit in with all that proper grammar and crap.”
“Why ever would I want to fit in?” Loki says archly. “It would mean surrendering half of my vocabulary and slurring the rest.”
Thor casts his brother an admonishing look, but Clint merely grins and makes a rude gesture. Everyone laughs. Thor cannot hold it in any longer, and embraces his brother mightily.
“Ah!” Loki protests. “Unhand me, you oaf!”
“It is so good to see you happy, Loki,” Thor says, his voice wavering.
Loki stills. “Would you all mind - “
The others depart, quickly and quietly. When the kitchen is empty Loki gives his brother an awkward pat on the shoulder, standing stiffly within Thor’s arms.
“All right, Thor,” he says. “What has happened? You are... different, since you returned.”
“I found Asgard much changed,” Thor says into Loki’s hair. “Well, Asgard itself had not altered greatly, but I myself had changed. I watched, and I listened, and I felt I could taste your misery in every part of the realm. I am so sorry, brother. I am so glad you are here now instead.”
Loki breathes in, surprised, and tentatively returns Thor’s embrace. “I... am sorry you had to see that,” he says softly. “But I cannot say I regret your insight.”
Thor leaves the embrace reluctantly before Loki has a chance to become too uncomfortable. “I have brought you presents from Asgard,” he says, looking away self-consciously. “Would you like them?”
“Certainly,” Loki says. “I presume you brought my books?”
“I did,” Thor says, ushering Loki out of the kitchen and down towards their rooms. “I brought all the books in your rooms, and then I walked through Mother’s chambers with her as she pointed out all the books she had not had a chance to share with you. She was then mysteriously called away for just as long as it took me to abscond with them.”
Loki laughs, pleased. “I look forward to seeing them.”
They reach Thor’s rooms and enter, going straight for the baggage Thor had returned with. He opens one of the packs and tosses Loki a bright object.
Loki catches it instinctively, then nearly drops it in surprise. “One of Idunn’s apples?” he asks, shocked.
“Yes,” Thor says. “Volstagg and I stole it for you.”
“Vol - what? Volstagg?” Loki makes a gesture that somehow manages to indicate Volstagg’s mighty girth and ponderous being. “Volstagg?”
“It was his idea, in fact,” Thor says, smiling.
“Huh,” Loki says, impressed.
“And mother sent you this,” Thor says, taking his mother’s tapestry gently out of his bag.
Loki takes it reverently. “There are very powerful protections woven into this,” he says, awed. “I have never seen... Mother made it? For - for me?”
“She loves you very much, brother,” Thor says gently, and watches Loki’s defenses crumble.
When they have composed themselves again, Thor pats his brother gruffly on the shoulder. “Father misses you very much as well,” he says. “In fact, the bargain I made with him to secure my return was conditional on the fact I learn to be a little more like you. As a cunning statesman it would seem I leave a little something to be desired.”
Loki laughs shakily. “I will do what I can, I suppose,” he says. “But I promise no miracles.”
Thor leaves his brother with his new possessions and his thoughts, reminding himself to come by occasionally and ensure that Loki stops reading long enough to eat and sleep. He wants to go and find Jane, but he makes himself detour before he can get distracted by thoughts of her.
Coulsson is in the living room on his cell device, but he ends the conversation when Thor enters.
“Thor,” he says. “Welcome back.”
“Thank you,” Thor returns, just as gravely. “Son of Coul, I have something I wish to ask you.”
“Of course, ask away.”
Thor stands and looks out the window at the city. “I have learned a little about the details that go into governance in my time away,” he says. “And it has occurred to me that Loki’s position here is very unusual. From your perspective, when we showed up all you knew of him was that he had caused destruction unprovoked in one of your provinces, and yet here he is - an integral part of the Avengers. For my own education, and my peace of mind, can you explain to me why this is?”
Coulsson tilts his head thoughtfully. “Officially? First he was under your custody, and you were an attractive enough ally that your brother’s... unconventional history could be set aside.”
“But I have been gone for many weeks,” Thor says.
“Mmm. Yes. Now the official story is that having him here working with us is... I suppose you could say ‘reparation’. He’s here on his own merit, and his continued help is a sign of his change of heart. Unofficially...” He hesitates, then says slowly, “I was... not unsympathetic to your brother’s mental state when he arrived, and I may have creatively reported a few things.”
“Politics?” Thor guesses.
“Paperwork,” Coulsson corrects, smiling his gentle little half-smile.
Chapter 18: Epilogue
Thor tilts his head back, breathes in the autumn New York air, and feels peace settle over him.
He is back on Midgard, again, taking a rare moment to himself to watch the realm’s people as they go about their business. The arrangement he has worked out with his father is proceeding well, although there have been more emergencies on both sides than he was anticipating. He is learning much, so much that sometimes he does not think his brain can hold it all, but Bruce assures him that there is yet to be a recorded instance of a brain actually collapsing under the strain of too much thought.
His brother is a surprisingly patient teacher, all things considered - he alternates dull talk with trips to distant Midgardian provinces so that Thor can observe various forms of governance and compare them, and the combination seems to be working effectively. Odin All-Father has turned over talks with Jotunheim entirely to his son - an irony that Thor still cannot quite wrap his mind around - but the situation has yet to collapse into disaster.
Loki is doing very well, although he still falls into occasional fits of melancholy. Thor considers these to count as an emergency legitimate enough to warrant recalling him from Asgard, but the other Avengers have proven to be adept at caring for Loki in Thor’s absence. Loki himself, of course, insists that he is fine and the fuss is unnecessary, and then causes some variety of disaster.
Jane’s work is starting to gather the attention it justly deserves as her results are published piecemeal under SHIELD’s discretion. This has caused some very entertaining arguments with Coulsson, but Thor has no doubt that Jane will get her way eventually. He has taken her with him to Asgard for one of his visits, ostensibly so she can observe the Bifrost in action but mostly because he dislikes having such a large part of his life remain a mystery to her. Jane charmed Asgard completely and was charmed by it in return, to Thor’s great relief.
Thor’s reverie is interrupted by a small Midgardian child who has stopped to look at the newspaper in the machine on the corner. It boasts a large picture of all the Avengers, with an exciting caption and many exclamation marks. Steve and Tony are the most prominent, as they are the most recognizable, but Loki is clearly displayed as well and looks most heroic. As a part-time member Thor is not included, but he does not mind. He decides to purchase the paper and save the article - he is amassing quite a collection of them.
“Do you have a favorite?” Thor asks the child.
“Loki,” she says, as if he is mentally deficient for even having to ask. “Magic is awesome.”
Thor smiles, and is content.