The princes of Asgard were scarcely half-grown on the day that found them in the palace gardens, the elder amidst the branches of the tree where they had spent the better part of the previous year constructing a fortress all of wood. It was an impressive structure, considering that the children had completed it with nothing more than their own minds and hands; every line and angle was made to exacting standards, each section lovingly assured by the younger boy's insistence on such things as measuring planks and testing the amount of weight the beams could support. For the moment, however, those days of cooperation- the long hours spent sprawled across Loki's bed debating over details- had come to an abrupt end.
For there within the wooden fortress atop the tree was the younger prince's newest tome of magic, stolen away by his brother in a moment of teasing impulse- and there also were Thor and the wild, golden-haired maiden who acted not like a maiden at all. The pair of them had pulled the ladder of rope into the tree and left Loki standing beneath, calling threats up to the sky.
“I shall enact a siege!” he told the laughing pair above him. “You'll not sleep for the stones that bombard you day and night!” The boy paced restlessly- considered each of his spells, one by one, and discarded them. Illusions would do naught to help him reach the fortress- and so he bent to gather the garden's decorative rocks. He let fly as though they were the throwing knives he'd come so recently to favor and was satisfied with the impact they made, hollow and solid, against the fortress' side.
“Your siege leaves much to be desired,” the older prince informed him, peering from a window to stare down at their small attacker. Loki did not draw back in shame but met his gaze even on- squared his shoulders and stood fierce and proud and warlike.
“Fear not, brother,” vowed the child. “I know my tactics by rote. Only when I starve you out, pray not cry to Father when you cannot attend supper this evening.”
This solemn promise sent Sif over in a new gale of laughter, and she had to gasp for breath before regaining control enough to join Thor at the window, looking down. “You've not the warriors needed to starve us out, little trickster.”
“I need none but myself!” For all the indignant wrath in the way those narrow shoulders trembled, Thor saw, the younger prince's fists were clenched tight shut in the way they often were before frustration made him weep. The jest, perhaps, had gone too far.
“Peace, brother,” Thor said, and let fall the the ladder of rope over the side. “Our quarrel is ended. Let us make a truce of it.” A bare instant later, Loki was joining them atop the fortress, mouth pinched with anger, cheeks blotchy red in a too-pale face. He snatched hold of the offered book with greedy hands.
Those green eyes flashed, bright and dangerous like sorcerers' fire. Loki took a slow breath in and let it out through his nose- then took another to compose himself. Though his arms were wrapped tightly round the book he held, one hand still clutched a rock gathered in the garden. “If it's to be a truce,” said the younger prince at last, “then I will have my say in the treaty terms.”
“Treaty terms,” choked Sif, “We've a diplomat on our hands!” And she laughed so hard that Loki threw the final rock at her.
It was not, as far as these things go, a terribly long-lived truce.
The streets were awash in chaos, painted in the reflected sparks of emerald green that danced overhead like the ghost-lights seen in the skies of northern Midgard. Here the humans had carried out their usual lives- had formed up orderly lines to take them to and from their daily duties- had allowed the boring grip of routine to tighten its hold.
But no longer- for where the god of mischief walked, routine shattered in his path like broken glass, left the world buried beneath the unusual, the unheard of, the absurd and unsettling. It left the impossible very possible indeed, and in just such a world as this, where mayhem streaked the streets of Manhattan, Loki lounged atop the roof of a five-story building and gazed out at the culmination of his plans.
Sunlight, it was said, in all the oldest tales, was known to turn trolls to stone. Sunlight reduced them from nightmare creatures to grotesque statues- and yet at night time, even in this city reputed by the humans never to sleep, there were less mortals in the open. Less of them to appreciate the scale of his newest ploy, to fall upon each other in a mad scramble for safety. Far better then, for this: trolls on the street in broad daylight, their mindless appetite driving them forward into the panicking masses while above, Loki's magic glowed flame-bright, blotting out the sun.
He watched it all with the absent smile of a child playing with matches, and he waited, anticipation a blade-sharp edge just below the surface. His brother would come, now; his brother must come. And this time, he would stare down upon Thor's golden hair, matted with blood, and know himself victorious.
The god of thunder arrived precisely as expected- foolish, brash, predictable Thor, bringing all his mortal friends behind him. Loki stood to greet them, dark promise in his eyes and charming smile on his lips, indicating the clock that stood on a nearby building with the flick of a pale finger.
“You grow lax,” the god of mischief called down to them. “I shall begin to think you care not what becomes of the humans, after all.”
“Provoke me no further, brother,” growled Thor, staring up with his face as dark as stormclouds. “Cease this madness! Though your mind has taken leave of its senses, never did I dream to find you consorting with trolls.” One thick arm lifted Mjolnir above his head, and the hammer caught the green light eerily; it would not take much longer, now. Just a few more carefully-placed jabs would send the thunderer rushing into the trap headlong, his pet mortals behind him.
“Condemning an alliance with monsters?” Loki's eyes widened in mock-surprise. “Such forceful words, Odinson- but hypocrisy suits you ill. You came of age beside a monster, did you not? And since you have taken up with others.” A careless hand indicated the creature that Banner became when riled. “You fight arm in arm with your pretend-man, even now.”
He saw the shift in Thor's features, the way his brow set downward into a scowl. The chain of events unrolled before them, inevitable as the slow spiral toward Ragnarok: a challenge would be roared, mighty Mjolnir would be lifted, and the crown prince of Asgard would rush forward like a mindless bilgesnipe to charge the one inciting him. And when Thor set foot upon the runes inscribed on the roof, when first the smallest part of him brushed the hidden spells, he would be shut up in the trap laid out for him as surely as the shifting of the moon.
Loki did not bother to hide the knowing tint to the smile that crept across his lips. At long last, the moment had come.
But the moment did not come.
The moment was well and truly interrupted when a blast of fire seared downward from the sky to strike the god of thunder and the humans clustered around him. And there, against all odds- against all calculations- hovered a woman in a costume of most garish red and orange, a woman whose hands glowed with the banked heat of coals.
“We have unfinished business,” said the woman to Loki's brother- to all those who styled themselves Avengers. “If you think that you can cross me and walk away, you're going to have to think again.” The god of mischief did not even know her face. He did not recognize the outlandish costume with which she sought to identify herself. But those things did not matter. She had made three mistakes of unforgivable gravity, and for those she would pay.
Her first was in thinking that she had the right to interrupt this scene- carefully scripted, scrupulously planned, painstakingly constructed. Her second was in stealing the eyes of Loki's brother, taking away the audience he so rightfully deserved in this their final battle.
And her final mistake- well. One does not turn one's back on the god of mischief.
Loki stepped forward with all the grace of a snake uncoiling. “Pardon,” he said, tone frightfully civil behind the teeth displayed by his smile.
When she turned to see who had addressed her, a gleaming wall of ice knocked her from the sky.
Loki, son of none that he would claim his own, had grown to be many things. He had become clever and capable- had sharpened his mind to a hair-thin blade that cut all who came too near. He had learned to twist words to his bidding, to make magic dance before him like a puppeteer at his craft. He had clawed his way to self-reliance, proud and viciously independent. He stood alone, beholden to no one; he stood alone, and he needed not such things as family.
And yet for all his cunning, for all his tricks, for all his careful plans set like the Midgard game of dominos to fall one into the next, he had come to this: battered and barely standing, magic whittled away from weeks of avoiding precisely this scenario. He was locked in a battle he had not the strength to win, nor the energy to flee.
It had been nothing more than a miscalculation. The wrong lie at the wrong time, overheard by one who had thought him an ally. A miscalculation, and here he would end- for the robots constructed by Doctor Doom cared not for his silver tongue nor his honeyed promises. They cared only for the orders they had been given, and those orders would have him broken and bleeding upon the black stone of Midgard's roads.
Theirs would be a victory not easily won, however; this he swore. He fought ever onward- fell back to the ice that drained his magic far less than learned spells- froze circuits and clogged weaponry, turned the world to cruel winter and let his skin bleed from pale to blue. When his blood was shed, it froze, and there was a grim satisfaction in the way the humans scrambled from their battle, the way they saw his form and named him monster.
It went for longer than he expected it would, longer than it ought have, by rights. And when at last the blow came that struck him hard enough to force him to one knee- when he flinched involuntarily and in doing so closed his eyes, he knew from the whir of mechanics near at hand that the strike that followed would not be near as harmless.
He waited for death, and death did not come.
“For Asgard!” bellowed his brother's voice at his side, and Loki slit open eyes of crimson to watch as Mjolnir shattered the nearest construct to gears and scrap. The thought occurred then that perhaps the humans had been accurate in their belief: that before one dies, life replays itself before you. Surely, it looked to be a scene he'd witnessed many times in his youth, a scene in which the god of thunder rained down fury upon all unwise enough to venture into his path.
But the buildings of New York stood behind him, and his enemies now were enemies crafted by the hands of man- and no recollection of the past would contain details such as these.
It was a struggle to regain his feet, but Loki forced himself to rise. He could not imagine, with his vision blurred and dizzy with lost blood, why it was that Thor had interceded. He could not examine too closely what this unexpected aid might mean.
There would be time enough for such considerations later, the god of mischief told himself, and he used the cover of his brother's assault to slip away.
“Do you plan to smother me, Odinson?” Loki's voice was poison laced with molasses, and he shifted beneath the thunderer's frame pointedly. It did not escape Thor's notice that even as he did so, he tipped his head, made access for the tongue currently working its way down toward his collar bone. “If that was your intention all along, you have my congratulations. You've nearly succeeded.”
A thick arm wrapped around Loki's shoulders- pulled him nearer so that their bodies did not part even as Thor rolled them to lie side by side. “This was meant to be a truce,” the man admonished, voice a soft rumble. His mouth had found his brother's chest, and he laved one nipple with his tongue- caught it between his teeth and held it there, a gentle reproval.
Loki hissed quietly at the attention; pale fingers laced through tousled golden hair to urge the man downward. “I recall. Though I know not what temporary ill of the mind allowed me to be swayed by your sentiment.”
“A truce,” Thor insisted, allowing himself to be guided, “requires a cease of hostilities.” He paused when he reached Loki's navel- pressed a kiss just above it before his tongue dipped briefly inside, a tease of a touch in the fashion that his brother had ever favored, in their youth.
As intended, there was a sharp intake of breath, a sudden slow roll of hips as the god of mischief shuddered. “I am aware of the word's meaning.” Loki's hands reaffirmed their grip and pressed downward again, more insistently this time- and against the juncture of his thigh, safely hidden from sight, Thor smiled at his eagerness.
“And yet you wield your words as viciously as ever.” Clothing had been discarded long ago, and there was nothing now to keep him from the hard curve of his brother's manhood, full and moist at the tip. It was red already with yearning, despite the god of mischief's fair skin, and Thor found himself wondering, as he bent to press a kiss to the slit at the end, how long it had been since last Loki had seen to his pleasure.
“They're mine by rights.” The grip in Thor's hair tightened, and one of Loki's hands dropped to his shoulder, digging in with fingernails. “I ask you not to set aside your strength, for you cannot be parted from it. Tender me the same consideration.”
The god of thunder lifted his gaze to take in Loki's face: lank black hair in disarray, hollowed cheeks, fever-bright green eyes. There was madness in him still- and yet, beneath it, tangled in it like a fox ensnared in a thicket, there were remnants of the brother he loved so dearly.
“Strength,” Thor told him, “need not be used to crush all that it touches.” He did not much like the laugh that came from Loki's throat at that- high and unsteady, no reason behind it- and so he lowered his mouth to his brother's length and took it all in, transformed the laughter halfway to a startled moan.
And that- that was better.
“Brother, please,” said Thor. “There are no other options to be had.” His hands were wrapped round the ceramic of the coffee cup, framing the steam that crept up from the cappuccino inside, and he watched Loki with consternation, attempting to make sense of the expression he wore. “Were it not necessary, I would never have come to you.”
And perhaps that had been the wrong thing to say, for the twist of his brother's thin lip was not at all difficult to interpret. “As well I am aware.”
“You ever seek insult where none is intended,” the god of thunder began, frustrated and at a loss. “Can you not see-”
But Loki was interrupting, words slipping in to stall the sentence, to trip and bend intention. “It is you who are blinded, Odinson- you who delude yourself into believing that things are as you wish them.” And if the humans that sat beside them in this house of coffee spared them second glances for the bile that lurked below his brother's words, Thor could not find blame in them.
“It has been long since things were last as I wished them, brother,” the god of thunder said roughly. He released the mug so that he could reach instead for Loki's shoulder, intending to set his hand there as a comforting weight, but Loki twisted aside, nimble as a cat, and avoided the touch. “Verily, I can name the day. It was when last you stood beside me, when we were home in Asgard and naught lay between us but-”
“Silence!” Thor's brother surged to his feet with the screech of a chair pushed suddenly back; the action spilled his drink, a concoction with thick, sweet cream, but its fate went unnoticed. Now the humans truly had turned to stare, and silence washed over the others that filled the shop. Loki's chest heaved as though they had gone a bout with swords; his eyes were wild around the edges, madness making itself known. “Silence. I have come here to this place at your bidding. I have stayed my hand I know not why- and yet you feed me lies and expect that they will pass unnoticed.”
“I speak the truth,” Thor protested, and he too was pushing back his chair, was rising with pain on his face and in his voice. “Brother, hear me. Were any to ask it of me, were any boon in all the nine realms to be laid at my feet, it would be that you and I-”
“Do you not know the meaning of silence?” Above them, the lights of the coffee shop surged and then went out in a shower of green sparks; behind the counter, mugs rattled as though an earthquake had begun. There were whispered murmurs of “mutant” from several- but one couple, who recognized from news reports the man more disposed to gleaming gold and emerald green than this elegant, fitted suit, countered them with warnings much more dire. Arguments both hushed and alarmed were exchanged; a side door was opened; the patrons made for safer venues, and the workers took shelter in the back.
Consequently, the silence that followed was not only Thor's but that of an empty space.
Loki barked a laugh, harsh and bitter- flipped one hand carelessly toward his brother. If he marked the humans as they left, he gave no indication. “Wonders pile one upon the next until the world near topples with them. The mighty Thor obeys a simple command.”
He waited, then- a challenge, perhaps, a dare for Thor to speak. But the god of thunder remained silent yet, and some of the agitation went from Loki, drained away with the tension in his shoulders. He sank once more into the chair behind him- reached for his drink and discovered it toppled and dripping to the floor. One pale hand seized his brother's instead, and he availed himself of a long swallow.
“Oh, speak,” he said at last, when he had set it down. “How am I to make sport of you when you give me no ammunition?”
There was a message in the near-disaster so narrowly avoided: that the topic had best be guided back to safer grounds, if this meeting were to yield any concession at all. “Hear me well, then, brother,” said the god of thunder, the emotion behind the words carefully banked. “The man of iron has need of a consultation with you. Two hours of your time, that he may question you as he will.” Thor lowered himself into his own chair once more and watched the place where Loki's slender hand curled about his drink.
The god of mischief caught him watching- smiled, smug and wicked, and took another sip. When he lowered the cup, some of the foam atop Thor's drink lingered on his upper lip, and he licked it clean with far more sensual deliberation than strictly necessary. “To what end?”
Thor's eyes followed the path that his brother's tongue took, but his answer, when he gave it, was grim and unwavering. “The aversion of a consequence most foul.” One of the thunderer's hands clenched where it lay upon the table, forming a fist as though in remembered anger. “You care not for the humans; this I know. But you must see that Midgard has become your home, brother. With Asgard closed to you, you would have no place to call your own were it destroyed.”
“This is the consequence of which you speak? The destruction of a realm whose animosity is heaped upon me?” The curve of Loki's lips grew crooked at the edge, something both resentful and self-deprecating threaded in amongst the expression and the words. “I've no shortage of places that despise me, Odinson. The loss of one would scarcely make me weep.”
Thor opened his mouth to protest, but before he was able, a single thin finger raised skyward.
“And yet.” The god of mischief lifted Thor's drink to his lips once more, unhurriedly. His throat worked as he swallowed. “I seem to recall that I owe you a boon.” Loki rotated the thick white mug- extended it toward his brother, handle first. “And I do so despise debts.”
“I intend to stay a fortnight, not a century,” Loki said archly as the god of thunder carried the third armful of blankets into a bedroom which had, until earlier this afternoon, been considered spare. “Unless you mean to see me entombed in mounds of fabric?”
Even the mocking lilt to the words could not quell Thor's mood; the grin that had not been far from his face for most of the day reappeared, now, a flash of white teeth through his beard. “You may yet find that you have need of them, brother,” he said, and deposited the newest stack of bedding atop a chair. “The chill of night can grow invasive, if the windows stand ajar.”
“How dire.” The god of mischief fixed Thor with an unreadable stare as he moved to sort through the newest additions. “But surely you've not forgotten that my kind feel the cold less keenly than do your own.”
If the thunderer recognized that such words might prove a test- or worse, an incentive to quarrel- he gave no sign. “Then leave them be,” Thor said, and clapped a hand upon his brother's shoulder. “Better they remain unneeded than you wake half frozen in the night.”
By the creeping dawn of the smirk upon Loki's lips, the test, if test it had been, was safely passed. He did not slow his hands as they sifted through the folded quilts, providing each a cursory examination and a gentle press of fingers. “You presume much.” The lidded look turned Thor's way was a sly thing, considering. “That I have been granted a room is no assurance I mean to sleep in it.”
The words were a blade; Thor drew back as though wounded, as though the weapon that had done the injury was set with jagged ridges. “This was a hard-won concession, brother.”
“You need not convince me.” One eyebrow quirked, a perfectly expressive arch as Loki at last selected a blanket from the pile and turned to set it upon the bed. “I can imagine how the master of spies squirmed when he learned I'd not be at his beck and call.”
“And yet he assented all the same.” Thor's broad shoulders were slumped now, his tone washed with the grey weariness of resignation. There was a moment after he had spoken, a pause uncomfortable with disappointment. “When you asked a space of your own,” he began- and then perhaps thought better of it, for what he'd begun to say remained unfinished. Instead, the god of thunder told him: “I must confess, I thought there a fair chance that you would stay.”
The laughter that came was not hollow with madness; it was not thick with hysteria, nor tainted by rage. It was a wry, amused thing, rising up from the days when Loki's mischief had been in fun, when their discontents were riled and smoothed week by week, no resentments between them.
“Make better use of your ears, brother mine,” said Loki. “I spoke of my room only.” There was no mistaking the deliberate backwards glance as the trickster made for the door, nor the way that he lingered, expecting to be followed. “Perhaps I have a mind to find my way to yours.”