Thor sighed heavily, rolling his shoulders back as he stood. Every trip to Asgard was difficult in its own right. This trip had been harder than most even though it had been shorter. Nothing had truly pleased him and even his friends had brought him little comfort for he could not be honest with them.
He could not entirely forgive them for not mourning Loki. He could not tell them of Loki’s return or the happiness the child brought him. Knowing how little they would care tended to cause his mood to sour and every jape he made to take on an atypical but severe edge.
The magpie that had been his brother flew past the Avengers Tower. Thor smiled up at it. He considered waving. Then recalled the bird’s reaction to previous displays of enthusiasm and thought better of it.
Instead he nodded and sauntered into the building where he finally heard the sounds of crying.
Just inside the balcony door, Loki was sobbing and Coulson was holding him tightly.
Thor let Mjolnir clang down onto the top of the landing as he walked down to them. It was the easiest way of announcing his presence.
“Surely nothing horrible has happened,” he said.
Coulson shook his head. His eyes had dark circles around them. Clearly he had not slept in a very long time. “Nothing horrible. Daddy’s mission is taking longer than we expected, that’s all.”
Loki shook his head. He shoved lightly at his father and ran over to Thor.
Thor scooped his brother up, snuggling him close and resting his bearded chin against the child’s head. He could understand Loki’s sorrow. All children desired their parents to remain ever at their beck and call. Loki was fortunate that Clint Barton’s missions were sporadic at best. However, he was also unfortunate in that all the tears in the world could not prevent the world from needing Clint Barton and thus taking him away from Loki who doubtlessly felt that the world mattered not.
The first time had been the worst. Clint Barton’s ire had been freely given to each of his teammates, and he had left in a foul mood, pausing only to hug Loki and kiss Coulson. The archer had promised both husband and child that he would return as swiftly as he was able. Or words to that effect. For all his fine qualities, Clint Barton was not very eloquent.
At any rate, the operation had been intended to last for two days. When two days came and went, the Avengers had been left to contend with a truly miserable infant and a very angry agent who refused to do nearly anything at all for them until Loki stopped crying or Coulson got his husband back.
Clint returned after a fortnight looking pale but well. He also arrived mere seconds before Coulson could make good on his threat to show Tony Stark just how easily he could kill a man with several staples and a coffee cup.
Sweet words were exchanged in a manly fashion and Loki had ceased his hysterics right then and there. It had been a lovely evening for the most part. Steven and the Lady Romanov had laughed most heartily. Even Bruce seemed cheered by news of Tony’s near-death experience.
Clint Barton had wisely chosen from that point on to exaggerate the length of his mission, so for him to have been gone longer than expected… Thor decided it was best not to even think such things. He was not in the habit of tempting fate nor was he willing to lose another brother.
“I want daddy,” Loki begged.
“Ah, child,” Thor murmured. “He will return to you.”
“Why isn’t he here now? Why does he go away?”
Thor wasn’t sure how to explain a mission to a four and a half year old in such a way that would make sense without being far too frightening. “Perhaps a diversion is called for?” he asked.
Loki’s green eyes blinked away tears. But as he mulled the matter over, Loki become hopeful in a mischievous sort of way that all children do when they pick up on the scent of paternal or fraternal desperation. “Ice cream?”
Thor shook his head. “Nay, for thou art indulged far too often in that particular vice.”
Loki wrinkled up his nose. “Speak English.” He had picked up that habit from his beloved Uncle Steven.
“He means no ice cream,” Coulson gently explained.
Loki slumped a bit, setting his forehead against on Thor’s shoulder. “That’s okay. Ice cream won’t bring daddy back.”
“Your father is a brave warrior,” Thor insisted. He felt completely out of his element. “Fearless and loyal. Steadfast and true. He will come back to you because he is a hero.” And because Clint Barton has no other choice, damn him.
“I miss him.”
“I understand,” Thor said. “You are right to do so, but as ice cream is currently contraband… Perhaps we might go on an adventure?”
Loki glanced up. The child may have not been the Loki Thor had grown up with, but the expression on his face was a familiar one indicating curiosity with a hint of disdain. “An adventure?”
“That way you will have something good to share with your father when you are reunited. For I do not think he would be pleased to learn you had been in such low spirits during the course of his prolonged absence.”
“Father,” Loki complained. “Thor’s being a weird dope again.”
Coulson smiled. “It’s all right. He just thinks we should go do something.”
Loki frowned. “Like what?”
“Well....” He considered his brother’s current interests and eventually came up with a location although its proper name remained shrouded in mystery. “We could go to the place where the fish live.”
“Fish live near here?”
Coulson was giving both of them a look that suggested concern but also amusement albeit of the wry and weary variety. “There’s an aquarium. We could probably see some fish. Whales and penguins too.”
Loki rolled his eyes at his father. “Whales are fish.”
Coulson shook his head. “Whales are mammals, sweetheart. Like zebras and polar bears.”
“But zebras and polar bears don’t live underwater,” Loki argued. “Not all the time. Why do whales?”
“I can explain while we’re there.”
Thor waited by the tower doors for his little brother and Coulson. Bruce was standing next to him. The scientist looked uncertain, but Bruce seemed to spend a lot of time offering up timid looks so Thor said nothing to ease his concerns. And nothing could be done. Not when Loki had pleaded with Bruce for so long and so hard to come with them.
“The kid has very effective sad eyes,” Bruce murmured. “I keep thinking I can resist them, but I’m always wrong.”
“Loki is very persistent,” Thor said. He couldn’t keep himself from sounding very proud.
Bruce smiled. “He is, and he’s having a rough time. I don’t know if I’d have given up on getting any work done as quickly as I did if Clint was here.”
Tony sidled up to them and cleared his throat. “Speaking of Barton, Coulson is having a bad time, too. So both of you have to play nice when you go to visit Shamu.”
Thor and Bruce both gave Tony a look that suggested he fall silent when it came to addressing matters that were simply beyond Stark’s comprehension.
Since Tony Stark was Tony Stark, he didn’t immediately comply. “Look, all I’m saying is make the kid be cute, you know? Make Coulson pay attention. Find Nemo. Hang ten with Ariel. Chat up Ursula. Whatever it takes.”
Thor looked to Bruce for guidance.
Bruce shook his head and sighed. “Tony, I can’t imagine anything will be more distracting or better for Coulson than watching his son take in the wonders of the deep.”
“What’s your point?” Tony asked.
“My point is that Thor is going because Loki is his brother. I’m going because I’m trying to be a good uncle. Not because Coulson needs two babysitters.”
“Whatever,” Tony said. “Just keep an eye on him. Don’t let him sneak off even for a second. Maybe you haven’t seen the crazy way he checks his phone or how often he visits Clint’s range or how he hasn’t asked about a single form in two weeks, but I have.”
“He frets when his husband is away,” Thor stated. “That is natural and perfectly acceptable. The phone of smart provides him with a measure of comfort and so I am all for it. The same understanding must be extended to his seeking refuge at the range or even avoiding unnecessary paperwork.”
“Understanding, underschmanding. It’s creeping me out.”
Thor shrugged. “His heart is heavy, Friend Tony. You would not understand for you have never loved so truly or as strongly as the Son of Coul.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Stuff it, Mercutio. I don’t have time for your jibber-jabber.”
Thor looked askance.
Tony scowled. “Just do your part. I’m doing all I can to track our bird down and to stop other organizations from borrowing him. Until either one of those projects yield results, you guys have to keep him from snapping and killing some tourists with a paperclip.”
“Where is Natasha?” Thor asked.
“She checked out of here yesterday. Said something about an unpaid vacation,” Tony said. “I think we all know what her idea of a vacation means so I’m sure we’ll have Clint back soon.”
“Right,” Bruce said, crossing his arms. “In the mean time, we’ll look after Loki and Coulson. But the fact of the matter is that we’re not SHIELD or soldiers. We’re Avengers and people can’t keep poaching our teammates. I think the best way to handle that is for the three of us to talk to Fury together.”
“Throw some weight around,” Tony agreed. “I like it. I’m in and you know Steve will be as soon as I ask him. He can’t resist a lecture or sticking it to the man. What about you, Big Kahuna?”
Thor took a moment to sort through all that Tony Stark had said. He decided to ignore the unfamiliar aspects of the sentences and stick to what actually made some semblance of sense.
“I would be only too glad to prevent the future pilfering of either Clint Barton or Natasha Romanov,” Thor decided. “Banner is correct. They are Avengers now and they belong with us.”
“Word,” Tony said. “And it would be a shame to loose such fine assets. Am I right?”
Bruce sighed and pointed to the elevator.
Tony opened his mouth before he thought better of it. Then he departed.
Thor sighed heavily. “Over time I have developed a much better understanding of Midgard as well as the ways of her people, and yet I can never understand Stark completely.”
Bruce smiled as he patted Thor’s arm. “It doesn’t matter. He rarely makes much sense.”
“You understood him.”
“I did, Bruce admitted. “I’d tell you what Tony was getting at, but I like that you don’t have any idea what he means.”
Thor shrugged. “If it pleases you, I suppose that I do not mind.”
Loki insisted on music on the drive to the aquarium, and Coulson’s silence did seem a little strange. Or perhaps it was the lack of Clint who had a tendency to sing whatever song played for Loki’s amusement.
Hesitating only for a moment, Thor filled in for his dear friend and sang. His reward was Loki curling a small hand around several of his fingers. Eventually Thor’s voice and the roll of tires lulled the boy to sleep if only for a short while.
Once they were there, Loki seemed to be more cheerful. He made Coulson carry him to the line and then, when he noticed other children standing, he demanded to be put down. Even so he ended up keeping very close to his father’s side and giving Coulson’s arm several hugs while they stood in line.
“Are there clown fish?” Loki asked. “And angel fish? And those ones with the lanterns on their heads?”
Coulson smiled. “Angler fish?”
“They probably have all of those fish here.”
“Maybe an octopus? A big one?”
“There’s probably an octopus,” Coulson said. “But here’s the thing. Even if the octopus is small, you still have to be nice and excited. And quiet too. They’re very shy.”
Coulson nodded. “They like to hide and they can change colors.”
“That’s so cool!”
“Do you get tired of answering his ceaseless queries?” Thor asked Coulson when Loki decided it was high time he interrogated Bruce instead.
“No. These are easy questions. It’s the ones I can’t answer that bother me,” Coulson said with a wistful look. “But I try to know as much as I can. Loki’s always going to want answers, and it’s better if they’re the right ones.”
Every fish was exciting in its own way, and Loki was very respectful towards the shy octopus once Coulson found it. In fact, the child was very generous in his affection and enthusiasm, but he seemed to be very taken with turtles. He was fascinated by an ancient snapper turtle and watched it slumber. Then he fell completely in love with the sea turtles in one of the larger tanks.
The signs provided Coulson with most of the names Loki desired. Every now and then he would pull out a guidebook to verify his assumptions whenever a sign proved difficult to find or read. Loki was content so long as his father could provide him with some kind of answer. Failing that, there was always Bruce who knew not only the common names of everything they saw but the correct way to pronouce their Latin ones as well.
“Can I be a genius when I grow up?” Loki asked Bruce at one point.
Bruce had given the child a very warm smile. Then he crouched down next to him. “You can be anything, Loki. But you can definitely be a genius if you want to.”
Coulson only checked his phone twice, but both times he offered the device a grim look that suggested he was close to chucking it at a wall. And both times, he went back to calm and fond after Loki called out for him.
There were moments when Loki seemed to be on the verge of speaking of Clint. Then he would stop himself. The same was true for Coulson. Somehow they both always thought better of it. Instead Loki would take his father’s hand in his or Coulson would just pick his child up and hold him.
They ate an early dinner in an overpriced café before the very last dolphin performance. Loki picked at his food before chasing beluga whales from one end of the restaurant to the other. He came back at random intervals to report back on their movements.
Coulson listened intently each time, nodding his approval. Then Loki would dart away again.
Eventually Coulson finished his sandwich and went over to watch the whales with his son.
Thor watched them, feeling a strange ache as he did so. He did not have many memories of his brother that were not tainted by the way their relationship had changed. He found himself hoping time would be kind, and that this younger, new Loki would have many moments akin to this one. And that Thor would get to bear witness to a few of them even if he could not participate in them.
“Are you all right?” Bruce asked.
“I am not sure I remember Loki ever being so…” Thor tried to think of a word. “Free, I suppose. Open. He shares very easily with Coulson and Clint. I don’t remember that.”
“No. As a child, my brother was very reserved. Quiet. I remember that he would follow me in the early days and mimic all that I did. Then one day, he stopped. I never could figure out what I’d done wrong.”
“Maybe it wasn’t anything you did,” Bruce pointed out. “You were different. Even if he hadn’t been adopted, you would have been different.”
“Loki once accused me of keeping him from his full potential. Of being ever in my shadow. Perhaps he was right.”
Bruce shook his head. “You can’t dwell on things your brother said out of pain or anger. From what you’ve told me, I don’t even think he was trying to hurt you. He was just trying to hurt someone who could be hurt. And that was you.”
“Do you suppose?”
“I think it’s likely, but that kid over there… He doesn’t know about anything that happened before. He wouldn’t understand if you told him and he probably wouldn’t care.”
“I wish the Loki I knew as a boy had been blessed with similar fortune,” Thor murmured. “That I could have better memories of my brother.”
“You can,” Bruce pointed out. “Go over there and participate.”
Thor hesitated, but got up when Bruce shoved at his arm.
He stood near Coulson and Loki, but not with them as if the slight distance might prevent Thor from interfering in whatever bonding was taking place. He only realized how tight he’d been holding his breath when Loki wrapped his arms around his leg.
Loki laughed. “Are there whales on Asgard?”
“No. We have narfins.”
“It is like a Midgardian shark only larger and more… pointier. With black and purple scales.”
“Did you ever ride one?”
Thor laughed. “No, child. It would not be safe. Narfins have a massive spiraled horn on their head that they use to stab their prey.”
“Ew,” Loki said, looking pleased. “What do they have in Jotunheim?”
“Oh, many things I should think,” Thor said. “Large wolves with five eyes. Ice spiders...”
“Do you like the animals here?”
“Yes. I am very fond of the animals and the people of Midgard.”
Loki glanced around then tugged on Thor’s arm until the Asgardian crouched down.
“Is something wrong?”
“Do you think daddy is okay?”
“I know that he is.”
Loki’s eyes shimmered with concern. “And father? Is he okay?”
Thor pushed a stray lock of black hair behind his brother’s small ear. “Your father is hurting, but he is going to be all right.”
Loki waited patiently for an answer.
Thor cleared his throat before nodding. “I am quite well.”
Coulson’s phone rang as just as they were getting ready to leave the parking garage. Bruce had offered to drive, and the agent had reluctantly taken him up on the offer so he could sit in back with Loki and his new stuffed animal companions.
Coulson answered the phone. Then he nearly dropped the device before clutching it tightly with his hand. “Where are you?” There was a pause. “You scared the—Never mind. When can I… What’s your ETA? Okay. Good. Yeah, he’s right here.”
Thor glanced in the rearview mirror as Coulson gave the phone to Loki.
“Are you home?” Loki asked the phone. “You’re coming home?” He sniffed then scowled. “An hour? Daddy, come on.”
Thor could make out the faint sounds of tinny laughter, but not much more than that.
“Okay, but you missed all the fish and mammals,” Loki added. “I love you. Okay.”
Coulson took the phone back. “And I love you too, you stupid idiot. See you soon.” Then he hung up.
“Natasha found him,” Coulson explained to Thor and Bruce once he had let out a small sigh of relief.
“Aunt Nat is magic,” Loki said quietly. “Daddy always says so.”
The child dozed off, but once they got back to the tower, he set up a small makeshift camp by the main entrance with a purple octopus and a very large green sea turtle. Coulson eventually joined him, moving the turtle over gently so he could sit next to Loki. When he saw Thor watching them, he gestured the Asgardian over and moved the octopus down.
There was nothing really to be said so they all waited with Thor stretching from time to time, Loki fretting as minutes passed by, and Coulson drinking coffee.
When the doors slid open, Loki jumped up and ran out of them.
“Should we follow him?” Thor asked.
Coulson got to his feet. “No. He’ll be right back.”
“Of course I missed you,” Clint was saying as he entered. Loki was in his arms and determined to remain there for the foreseeable future. He was paler than usual and his expression was slightly haggard, but nothing else seemed amiss. “You have no idea how much I missed you.”
Coulson seemed slow to join them but he was quick to grab onto both of them once he did.
Clint smiled gently, kissing Coulson’s lips then snuggling Loki. “You two act like you haven’t seen me in a million years.”
“It felt longer,” Loki said in a very pitiable tone. “It felt like forever and it was horrible.”
Clint laughed and kissed his son’s cheek. “I’m sorry, baby. I thought my team would do a better job looking after both of you.”
“There is no adequate substitute for you,” Thor pointed out.
“There is that.”
Thor smiled hopefully. “Greetings, Clint.”
Clint rolled his eyes. “You know the drill. If you want a hug, you can have one.”
Thor grinned and wandered over.
Natasha entered behind them, taking in the rituals of family bonding with a smirk. She paused to ruffle Clint’s hair and to pet Loki’s cheek.
Loki offered up a contented smile. “Thank you, Aunt Natasha.”
“Anything for you, darling,” she said before glancing at Coulson. “Are you happy now? I ruined my vacation plans just for you.”
“Very happy,” Coulson said.
“Then it was worth it.”
“I need to sit down,” Clint said, adjusting Loki slightly and moving towards the living room.
Coulson moved to follow them then paused. “He’s all right?”
Natasha shrugged. “Nothing too new or exciting. Some sprains. Some cuts. A lot of bruises. He had a very mild case of dehydration, and probably should sleep. And drink a lot of fluids. But don’t tell him I told you that.”
Thor frowned. “Should he be in a hospital?”
Natasha shrugged. “I asked Clint what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to go home.”
Natasha went off to tell the others the good news and to keep them away for at least the first night as Coulson went into the kitchen. Thor went into the living room where Loki was telling Clint about the fish he’d seen. Clint was smiling and stroking the child’s hair.
“You are all right, Clint Barton?” Thor asked. “Truly?”
“A little out of sorts,” Clint admitted. “But better. Tired but better.”
“Sleep will help,” Loki suggested. “Let’s sleep soon.”
Coulson came in with both of Loki’s new animal companions in tow. He set them down on the coffee table along with several water bottles. Then he rearranged his husband and child so he could have both of them in his arms.
“Glad to be back?” Coulson asked.
“Totally,” Clint said. “It’s always good to be home.”
Loki had a difficult time deciding whom he wanted to cleave to the most. He eventually settled for holding on to one arm of each beloved parent.
“We’re going to sleep soon,” Loki insisted. “Daddy needs to sleep.”
“You’re a good kid,” Coulson said with a smile.
Loki grinned. “Can there be stories first then?”
Clint sighed happily, resting his head against Loki’s hair. “There can be stories.”
“Can I stay with you and father?”
“Sure. I’d like that.”
“Yeah,” Clint said quietly. He glanced over at Thor and smiled. Then went back to focusing back on his son.
“And the octopus and the turtle?”
“I don’t know if we’d have room for them and for your father. And I need him.”
“I need him too,” Loki insisted.
“The octopus and turtle could hang out in your playroom,” Coulson suggested. “And make some friends.”
Loki shook his head. “They’re new. They’ll be scared.”
Coulson gave his son a thoughtful look. “Could Thor watch them?”
“I guess,” Loki decided before looking at Thor. “Can they stay with you, Thor? Please?”
Thor blinked as Clint smirked. Coulson just gave Thor a kind but pointed look that indicated he ought to say yes then come up with something to do with his evening elsewhere.
“I would be only too glad to,” Thor decided.
“Then that’s settled,” Coulson said with a smile.
Clint shook his head and kissed Coulson’s cheek. Then murmured something Thor and Loki couldn’t hear, which made Coulson laugh.
Loki in the meantime had briefly abandoned his parents in order to round up his animal friends. He presented them to Thor one at a time. “You can’t have fun without me. They were my friends first.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Thor said with a feigned solemnity that was mostly for Clint’s benefit and amusement.
“I swear that I shall avoid having anything remotely resembling fun whilst in the company of your cherished, plush friends.”
Loki looked to his father for some sort of translation.
“He promised to look after them properly,” Coulson said.
“Okay, but no tea parties either,” Loki instruced. “We’ll have one tomorrow after I name them.”
Thor nodded. “Very well. There shall be no sipping from the hearty brew of friendship prior to their Name Day upon your return.”
Loki nodded solemnly. “That is acceptable.”
“You’re all ridiculous,” Clint announced, “and I love you very much.”