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Stranger Monsters with Stranger Faces

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nulla.

Much later on, after many things had come and gone and more were yet to come, he looks into the face he's come to know better and no more than his own to say:

"I never thought it would turn out this way, but I never knew what to expect either."

 

i.

He notices the man--really notices him--the fifth time he comes in. The man has dark hair, long and tied back, is an unearthly sort of pale, and dresses extremely fashionably in what Thor, due to Fandral's comments on the matter, knows to be the latest cuts of fashion. The man is tall and thin, the latter exceeding so, but it isn't displeasing as it would be on most people, instead accentuating angular, intense features. The man appears to be a creature of habit in a sense, always appearing at half past nine on Monday nights and ordering the same things: a glass of the house wine and the arugula salad without parmesan. From these observations, Thor can guess that the man must be a model or, at least, someone in the fashion business.

What draws Thor's attention most are not these things, but that the man is always alone. He never arrives with anyone and never leaves with anyone, and Thor has only seen the singular appearance of a cellphone, a no-nonsense, undecorated StarkPhone. He speaks in an undertone, almost a whisper, and it's lucky that he articulates well and comes in after the dinner crowd or the waiter would never be able to get his order. He always boxes half his salad and sits sipping his wine for ten minutes before leaving, turning left once after exiting the front door.

It isn't until the eighth week of this man appearing that Sif speaks up after Thor watches the mystery man depart, having left the usual payment of one crisp twenty and four singles in payment (a twenty percent tip).

"I think there's something wrong with him."

"I think he's a model," Volstagg offers from his place over the stove.

"That doesn't mean something is wrong with him!" Fandral says from where he's shining the cutlery.

Sif rolls her eyes. "That's not what I mean!" she grosses before focusing on Thor again. "You know what I mean, right?"

Thor isn't sure, but he nods. She smiles and pats him briefly on the shoulder. They all head back to work, although Thor can't help but glance at Hogun, who gives Thor a bland look before returning to his plating of a steak and serving of fries. Hogun dislikes prying into other people's lives, and usually Thor agrees. Unfortunately, there's just something about this man that stirs Thor's curiosity like carving meat does or how, in his youth, street racing did.

Much later on, Thor will come to mark that moment as when things start to spiral out of control.

 

ii.

Thor makes his move the tenth week.

"Excuse me."

The man's eyes look up from his contemplation of his half-drunken wine glass, focusing on Thor with a slightly raised eyebrow. Up close, Thor can see that the man has green eyes that are just as intense as the rest of his features, and he smells of expensive cigarette smoke mixed with even more expensive cologne. There's a definite air of coldness about him that most people would find inapproachable. Thor has never been one to let such a thing deter him (had never, his father would say, had much sense of self-preservation). He grins widely and thrusts out a hand.

"I'm Thor Odinson, the head chef and owner here. Is everything to your liking?"

The man blinks once, all long eyelashes and angles, before setting down his wine glass and taking Thor's hand, shaking lightly but firmly. His hand is smooth and cold, much like his demeanor. He doesn't return the smile, but he doesn't immediately draw away from the handshake, letting Thor keep his hand for a moment before withdrawing.

"Loki," he offers in his quiet voice, picking up his wine glass again and swirling the contents absentmindedly, "and, yes, it is."

Thor nods, grinning. He finally has a name to go on; it had been getting rather tiresome to mentally refer to Loki as that man or that customer.

"I was wondering if I could get you opinion on how we could improve our service or food," Thor continues, having at least planned out some of this in advance for once. "Is there anything we could improve upon or is there something in particular you enjoy?"

Loki stops swirling the wine in his glass to lift it to his lips, and Thor is treated to the sight of that well-defined throat swallowing, Adam's apple bobbing briefly before Loki sets the glass down again. There's definitely something to Loki, a sort of aura that is captivating as much as his general air is cold. Loki is silent for a long moment, eyes narrowing slightly in concentration, and it surprises Thor that his question is being taken seriously. Usually when he's approached people about such things, they have their answers and opinions ready without having to give it real thought. Loki's expression is serious, much like how he'd been staring at his wine glass before Thor approached him.

After a long silence, Loki picks up his wine glass again and drains it before supplying, "I have no personal complaints aside from the design of your menu."

Thor blinks, compulsively looking to the stack of menus next to the host station near the door before turning back to Loki, who isn't smiling exactly but is watching Thor with a bit of light in his eyes. Thor gets the impression he's amused Loki somehow.

"What's wrong with the menu?" Thor asks, and he knows he must sound distressed; he's never been good at hiding his emotions.

Loki shakes his head. "Nothing."

Thor is baffled, which must also show on his face because the impression of amusement about Loki increases. A beat of silence passes before Loki takes pity and continues.

"But that's just the problem," Loki explains, soft and almost contemplative, long index finger tracing the rim of the empty wine glass. "It looks just like every other independent restaurant ranked at two and half to four stars online but not yet listed in the Zagat or Michelin guides. Helvetica font, centered formatting, slip-case pages. It's hard to tell what will be good and what will be not quite as good with that sort of format. Nothing stands out."

"Oh," Thor says, still rather confused because it's Fandral and Sif who deal with the design aspects of Valhalla, but somehow he can't help but think that Loki's assessment is right. "What would you suggest we do?"

Loki's finger stops it's hypnotizing circling around the rim of his glass only to join its fellows being steepled before Loki's lips. "As I said, there is nothing wrong with the menu. It would be impractical to print new menus simply to highlight a few dishes -"

"But it would make things clearer," Thor says, already thinking about what dishes should be marked (the arugula salad, for one).

For a moment, Loki stares at him. Thor gets the impression that it's not that Loki is offended that Thor interrupted him, but, rather, surprise that Thor would take his suggestion so seriously. That strikes Thor as rather odd; Loki seems like the sort of person who most people would take seriously rather than not. When Loki answers again, his voice is the same tone as it has always been, as if he is still just ordering a glass of the house wine and the arugula salad, no parmesan, thank you, but his attention is now fully focused on Thor.

"Yes," he says in a plain but distinct tone, and Thor feels like he's won.

 

iii.

He finds out the fourteenth week that Loki is not a model.

"Many people have asked me that," Loki murmurs, frowning slightly. "I never have been and have no wish to be."

Thor shrugs. Valhalla is never busy after eight-thirty on Monday nights, and he's starting to get used to striking up conversations with Loki once the man has finished eating. Sif laughs at him, and Hogun rolls his eyes, but his friends and employees don't really do anything else to discourage him and it's not affecting business, so Thor has taken that as approval enough to go ahead. Loki doesn't seem to mind the conversation, and, today, he even looked to the kitchen door after signalling for his usual takeaway box, as if he expected Thor to come out to speak with him.

"What do you do then?" Thor asks, taking the perpetually empty seat across from Loki.

Loki breathes out, almost a sigh. "I write."

"You're an author?"

"Of a sort," Loki answers before taking a long drink of wine.

Thor gets the distinct impression that this is not something he should pursue, at least not at this point in time. Loki, Thor has begun to notice, seems to be prone to a melancholy not unlike Hogun's general grimness when conversation strays towards certain subjects. Thor can talk about pretty much anything with Loki, he's found, politics, religion, even Thor's own life and family, but once their talk strays onto the subject of Loki himself, Loki's mood dips, and their conversation inevitably becomes stunted. It's is unfortunate because Thor is dying to learn more about Loki besides his name.

Trying to avoid feeling put-out, Thor decides to change the subject. "It's not on the menu, but we have tiramisu tonight; Fandral was bored this afternoon. Would you like a piece? On the house, of course."

The look of surprise on Loki's face is the clearest one that Thor has seen yet, followed by a strange expression that's between uncertainty and discomfort, before it's all buried underneath the placid mask that usually adorns Loki's face. Because of this, Thor expects Loki to turn the offer down, but then the strangeness in his face shifts, a calmness tempered by a light of curiosity in his eyes.

"I would," Loki says, "but only if you join me."

It takes Thor a moment to realize that his mouth is open in shock. He shuts it as quickly as he can, feeling embarrassed. Loki watches at him with a brightness to his eyes that Thor has come to know as amusement, and it suddenly strikes Thor that maybe Loki enjoys throwing people off-balance. The thought makes Thor smile. Loki is odd but, much like the rest of him, not in a displeasing way.

"Alright," Thor grins, standing up and heading for the kitchen, pausing once to look back. "Would you like more wine with it?"

Loki nods before adding, in a slightly raised tone so that Thor can hear him, "And I will pay for that!"

Thor fusses over the plating of the tiramisu (Loki is a man, but he seems like a man that likes nice things, and the tiramisu slice came out lopsided) until Hogun sighs and shoves him out the door with it, Sif smirking after him. Due to the shove, Thor nearly drops the plate and the glass of wine as he stumbles out. He feels embarrased until he looks up and finds Loki almost at his side, one hand still slightly outstretched to catch Thor should he fall.

He isn't sure what he feels in that moment, not exactly. It's a mixture of emotions, some of it still embarrassed, but there's also surprise that Loki would move to help him and a great deal of puzzlement at Loki's expression. Loki looks stricken, as if he'd expected the worst to happen, and Thor realizes that Loki had to have moved amazingly fast. The stricken expression is already disappearing, passing underneath Loki's usual mask, although concern is still apparent.

"Are you alright?"

Thor nods, standing up straight and grinning a bit sheepishly. Loki stands as well, and it dawns on Thor that Loki the same height as he is. They're standing very close, enough that Thor can feel that Loki gives off almost no body heat at all, until Loki takes a small, polite step back. Loki motions to his table, an elegant, light sweep that starts at his elbow and doesn't move his upturned wrist. It looks like something out of a painting, a refined gesture that was completely out of place in modern life but somehow suited Loki utterly. The amused light is dancing in his eyes, and it takes Thor a moment before he has the presence of mind to not not stare so obviously.

"Shall we?" Loki asks, soft and cool and almost smiling.

Thor is suddenly very, very sure he's falling in love.

 

iv.

Loki's routine changes after that. He still appears at nine-thirty exactly, still orders the house wine and arugula salad, still eats only half of it, but it becomes a routine that, when Thor joins him that they share another glass of wine and whatever dessert Fandral is experimenting with this week. Thor finds out that Loki prefers chocolate to vanilla, berries to mint, coffee to tea, vodka to gin. After almost half a year,Thor hasn't discovered anything else about what Loki does outside of his Monday night visits to Valhalla, but he hopes, like he hopes he'll eventually get Loki to smile, one day he will.

It's on the twenty-third week of Loki appearing on Mondays that Thor notices something off about him. Thor can't put his finger on it exactly, just that Loki has started to look different somehow. He still dresses immaculately, still smells of expensive cigarettes and cologne, still speaks softly with only hints of amusement and coolness to indicate his preferences in conversation. But there's something strange about him that Thor notices when Loki sits alone, picking at his salad, or sipping his wine, or, on a few occasions, responding to something or someone on his StarkPhone.

The unnamed strangeness continues for a few weeks before Sif, on a slow Thursday night shift, brings it up while Thor is plating a ratatouille niçoise.

"There's something wrong with him," she murmurs, echoing her original sentiment from all those weeks ago, when Thor first started to really notice Loki, but now with some real concern in her voice.

Thor nods, handing Fandral, who is waiting tables this evening, the ratatouille. "He is seems tired," Thor says slowly, because it is difficult to communicate what exactly is so off about Loki.

"He's thinner," she says, and, when Thor's eyebrows draw together because he hadn't noticed any great change in that, she sighs, looking at him with a pinched, almost pained expression. "Next time, look at his wrists."

Thor does just that the following Monday while they share a crème brûlée with rasberry coulis. He isn't one-hundred percent sure, but he is almost certain that the sharp defintion of bones wasn't nearly so pronounced when they started this routine almost five months ago. Loki notices Thor's gaze after a few seconds of silence, though, and does a subtle rolling motion with his shoulder that shifts the cuff of his shirt to cover his wrist, at the same time inquiring after Thor's mother, who Thor had mentioned having gone on a week's vacation to Spain a week before.

When Loki leaves that evening, Thor can't help but feel that something is very wrong.

 

v.

Loki shows up the next Monday with his left hand in a brace over bandages and an large, ugly bruise marring the line of his right jaw.

"I do not mean to inconvenience you," he says when Thor comes out of the kitchen, "but I would like a bowl of minestone instead of the salad, please."

It takes a moment for Thor to respond to that, to the absolute nonchalant normalcy that Loki is presenting despite the fact he looks anything but. Thrown completely off-balance, he simply goes back into the kitchen, places the change in Loki's usual order to the surprise of Sif, and hurries back out to Loki, who has taken his normal seat and is gazing quietly at the full wine glass that Hogun had ready for him as if nothing is out of the ordinary.

Thor feels like he's completely out of his depth. He probably is.

"What happened?"

Loki blinks once, looking up from the wine glass in the same motion, and there's something so calm about him, so placid and emotionless, that it makes Thor's blood run momentarily cold. He's never been afraid of Loki before, never had a reason to be, but there's something so empty about Loki's expression in this moment that Thor's instinct is to back away and put something large and solid between himself and the man. Because that's not Loki. Loki is controlled, overly so, but he's never, not in all these weeks that Thor has known him, looked dead.

But then Loki sighs, and something seems to fall away from him, leaving exposed a side to Loki that Thor hasn't seen before, not obviously. He slumps slightly against the chair, and he looks so tired, the angles of his body too prominent and the light catching the hollows of his cheeks as he turns his head slightly away from Thor, gazing into his wine glass without really seeing it. When Loki finally speaks, after Thor has taken the seat across from him and Sif brings out the soup, his voice is low, so soft that Thor has to lean in to hear his words.

"There was an accident at work," Loki tells Thor, as he carefully spoons himself the broth of the minestone with his good hand; "I didn't move fast enough."

Thor's brows draw together as he watches Loki sip carefully from the spoon. "What kind of accident?"

Loki swallows his mouthful of broth before shaking his head, the coolness he usually displays towards topics of conversation he doesn't want to pursue augmented by the new tiredness he's exposed. Exhausted, Thor realizes; Loki is completely exhausted.

"What dessert do you have tonight?" Loki asks, picking up his wine glass and swirling it lightly.

It's the most blatant evasion Thor has seen him use yet, and, for some reason, the bluntness of it makes Thor back off, fall into a semblance of their usual routine. They discuss the current goings-on of Valhalla, how the weekends are becoming increasingly busy, although the weekdays remain mostly the same. Loki eats exactly half of the minestrone before asking for his usual takeaway, and Thor fetches the night's dessert, a slice of custard pie with fresh lemon curd.

"The pie's an old family recipe from my mother's side," Thor announces proudly after Loki expresses his compliments on it. "She always makes it during the holidays."

"My mother never cooked," Loki says, taking a bit more of the pie with his fork, "let alone on holidays."

Thor feels the surprise show on his face as immediately as Loki drops his eyes, fork still held in the air on the way to his mouth, which had apparently run off without his consent. Part of Thor is thrilled to finally learn something about Loki after months of association while another part feels bad that it has to come like this, when Loki is clearly not at his best. From the slight grimace on Loki's face, Thor can guess he's probably deeply regretting that momentary slip in control.

A wiser man that Thor would know what to do in this situation. Instead, Thor asks:

"What are you doing on Wednesday?"

Loki looks up abruptly, blinking as if he hadn't quite undestood the question. Thor can't blame him; he's not sure he really understand it either. He'd been thinking for about a month about inviting Loki on a date, a real date that isn't just Loki in Valhalla paying for Thor's food and having dessert on the house. He hadn't intended to ask it tonight, or, really, at any formulated point in time. It had just come out, and at a largely inappropriate time.

"Wednesday," Loki repeats, and, to Thor's surprise, his expression shifts to something calmer than he has been for the entire evening; thoughtful, Thor thinks, although he's become aware that nothing is clear about Loki, maybe even relieved. "I can be free in the evening."

Thor licks his lips, trying to regain some semblance of the suave character he'd wanted to exlude in the hours (days) when he had planned this conversation. Across from him, Loki finally finishes the bite of pie that he'd taken, and Thor watches thin, red lips close around the fork without teeth touching the metal. Loki looks him in the eye, and, for the first time, his lips quirk into a tiny, undoubtedly mischevious smile.

"Why?" Loki prompts, and Thor realizes he's simply been staring, open-mouthed and completely obvious.

Falling, part of Thor whispers. He's falling, and he doesn't know if he'll be able to get back up.

 

vi.

There's never been anyone that Thor has met like Loki.

Their third Wednesday date finds them back at a penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side that takes up two floors. Loki leaves Thor in the first floor sitting room that has a stunning view of the city, disappearing up the spiral staircase to change out of the immaculately tailored suit he calls his work clothes. Thor sits down on the dark leather couch, a glass of excellent wine in hand, and thinks, with no small ounce of terror as he gazes out over the city he's known all his life, that he might be a little in over his head.

"Alright there?"

Loki settles down next to him on the couch, wearing clothing that is of softer fabrics (cashmere?) than his suits but isn't at all what Thor would think of as dressed down. His left hand is still wrapped with bandages, but the brace is gone this week, and Thor can't help but wonder still what happened. Instead, he smiles and nods, earning a smile back.

"This is property of the family," Loki says after sipping from his own glass of wine. "Father lived here until he passed a couple years ago."

Thor sets his win glass down on one of the coasters that Loki set out before he went upstairs, shifting to face his host on the couch. "I'm sorry for you loss," he says, meaning it.

But Loki shakes his head, a flash of bitterness and some other emotion passing over his face before he hides it behind a sip of wine. "Don't be," he murmurs, and he sounds a mixture of pained and apologetic. "He was not the sort of man one should mourn."

Thor slings an arm around Loki's shoulders, feels him stiffen momentarily before he relaxes into the hold. From what Thor has gathered over their few dates, from the tiny bits of himself and his personal history that Loki seems to be attempting to offer despite his obvious discomfort with it, Loki had an empty if not outrightly abusive family life. Younger brothers who Loki had only spoken of with sadness, a mother who was at least emotionally absent, and, now, a father who Loki would prefer not to need to mourn. It doesn't help that Loki, Thor discovered on their second date which was to the cinema to watch a high-budget fantasy movie that Thor hadn't quite followed but had put Loki into such a good mood after it hardly mattered, is younger than Thor by about five years. These bits of knowledge stir something in Thor that he hasn't felt since Baldur was young, a protective urge that Thor knows can grow unbelievably strong.

"Thor," Loki murmurs, reaching up and touching the cool tips of the fingers of his bandaged hand to Thor's left cheek, "I'm sorry if I have upset you."

"You haven't," Thor answers, honest because it's not Loki's fault at all.

That earns Thor another of Loki's smiles, the one that Thor is beginning to expect is the closest to Loki's real one. Loki leans forward to set his wine glass on the other coaster before settling back and shifting to rest comfortably against Thor on the couch, some of his long hair falling into his face that he brushes out of the way absentmindedly.

"You're a rare creature, Thor Odinson," Loki says, a fondness seeping into his tone.

They remain like that for hours, only moving to finish their respective wine glasses and then to lie down together on the couch. Thor strokes his fingers through Loki's hair and watches as Loki slowly relaxes, little margins at a time. It's calmer and more chaste than Thor has ever done in a relationship before, but it seems the most appropriate, and Thor finds that he isn't in a rush. He waited thirty weeks to get this far.

"I think," he thinks he hears Loki whisper at some point during the night, "I would keep you, if I could."

He can wait a little bit more.

 

vii.

When he wakes up the next morning, Loki isn't there. There's a note on thick, ivory-colored paper, though, folded to stand upright on the coffee table where their wine glasses were the night before.

Thor,

I have left for work. Please help yourself to breakfast with whatever is in the kitchen. You may also wish to make use of the bath on the ground floor. Do not worry about locking up. I will see you on Monday.

Loki

Thor fingers the thick, expensive paper, admiring it and the thin, green-inked cursive that is Loki's handwriting. He folds it up again and puts it inside his wallet before moving to the kitchen that he can see through the open door to the right. He finds that it's a fine kitchen with all the modern amenities and full sets of cookingware, but he gets the distinct impression, as he makes himself an omelette with what he retrieves from the sparsely stocked fridge, that Loki spends very little time using it. In fact, he's quite sure that the only activity that Loki regularly engages in within the room is making coffee; there's a large variety of coffee beans and grounds in the cabinet above the machine, and there's dregs still in a bit of water at the bottom of the pot.

It strikes Thor that the apartment, tastefully decorated and spacious as it is, doesn't seem to be a place that Loki spends much time in at all. The ground floor bathroom has fresh towels and a range of toiletries laid out, all of which are new and unopened. It's like a hotel, in a way, pleasing but impersonal, and that, more than anything else, is what spurs Thor's curiosity when he passes the stairwell to the upstairs. He stands at the bottom of it for a long moment, fed and refreshed and buzzing to know, before he gives in and climbs.

The second level, Thor is relieved to see, is much more lived-in than the first. It's smaller, perhaps only half of the actual floor, and the rooms are decorated in the same fashion as the downstairs: dark tones with the occasional appearance of framed abstract art and glass. The door that probably leads to the bedroom is closed, but there's a study to the left of the stairwell, the door open to reveal shelves filled to overflowing with books and binders, a few of the later lying scattered on the floor. The desk is occupied by a very large computer screen and is fairly covered with various office items and scattered papers and books. There's a large printer with a fax and copier that occupies the only space of wall that isn't window or bookshelf, and even that has a couple of books and what looks like a box of paperclips on top of it. A thick green cardigan is thrown haphazardly over the back of the desk chair, and Thor notices that one of the desk drawers has simply been left open, full of what looks like wires for various computer components and stationary. Thor spends a long time standing in the study's doorway, gazing at the complete mess of the place, and he can't help but feel like he's learned something deep and tangible about Loki as a person, for once not obsessively shielded beneath Loki's reserve and expensive tastes.

And if he takes special notice of the empty takeaway box decorated with Valhalla's stamp open next to the computer screen with a burst of pride and fondness--well. He's only human.

 

viii.

The bandages on his wrist are gone, but Loki looks exhausted the following Monday, a certain greyness about his complexion that Thor knows anyone with a bit of an eye could notice. He takes a bit longer with his salad, picking at it rather than what Thor has realized is Loki methodically consuming a set amount of food. Thor wonders if Loki actually tastes what he's eating most of the time, although he does seem to taste the desserts they share, at least enough to comment on what he does or does not enjoy.

It's really starting to worry Thor, all things considered.

"Did you look upstairs?"

Thor starts, surprise quickly giving away to a guilty countenance. Loki only smiles, humored and utterly unsurprised.

"I'm sorry for the mess," he continues, although he doesn't sound very sorry at all. "It's been very busy lately."

The last statement comes out more dull than Loki probably intended it to because his lips momentarily thin, eyes flicking to the side. Thor can't help but wonder what exactly Loki does for a living and why he keeps up with it when it (or at least parts of it) so obviously makes him miserable. He can safely assume it's some kind of high paying job and that Loki does something that primarily requires writing, but none of that explains why Loki would get hurt at work and act as if it was a general feature.

Thor restrains himself from asking, although barely and only with the practice of running Valhalla and dealing with all kinds of customers behind him. He launches into a story about Baldur and how he's doing at NYU Law School, and lets the grateful look on Loki's face mean more than it probably should.

One day, Thor hopes. One day.

 

ix.

Wednesday finds them back at Loki's apartment because Loki is drunk. It's honestly rather hilarious, Thor thinks with a great amount of fondness, because Loki doesn't slur his words and is, in fact, entirely in control of his mental faculties, but his body is completely out of his control, balance thrown to the point that Thor has to keep a firm arm around Loki's waist to keep him from falling flat on his face. Even so, Loki ends up making small flailing gestures, unsure of his footing and aware of his state enough to be thoroughly embarrassed.

"Ah, well," Loki says once Thor deposits him on the same couch they'd slept on the week before, waiting for Loki to lie down so he doesn't accidentally tip off it, "this is certainly not how I meant to spend the night."

"How did you intend to spend it?"

"Not as a jellyfish," Loki sighs, resting a hand over his eyes, a tangle of disorderly limbs on leather. "Oh, I've probably ruined this suit..."

Thor just huffs a laugh and shakes his head. "I'm going to get you some water."

"That would be nice," Loki says, sounding airy and smiling rather brightly, more open than Thor knows he would prefer to be when sober. "Put two tablespoons of sugar in it, please?"

It's an odd request, but, when Thor brings it back out and watches Loki drink the whole glass in one go before flopping back on the couch, he gets that feeling he did when he looked into Loki's office, that warm feeling like he's finally getting through to who Loki really is. He's realized that there's very little in their relationship that's concrete, but it doesn't bother him as much as Sif and Hogun think it should.

"You still don't know where he works?" Sif had asked the past Friday, a combination of incredulous and worried. "Thor, I know you're really into him, but this isn't normal."

"He's a very private person," Thor had answered, and then gone to the back to fetch the redesigned menus before the dinner crowd arrived.

In the present, he settles to sit with Loki on the couch, smiling back when Loki beams at him. His lips are still wet from the water, making them shine a bit in the dim lighting of the room. Thor stares at them, watches as the smile quirks slightly, knowingly.

"You may kiss me, if that pleases you."

Thor swallows because he wants nothing more than to do just that. Instead, he shakes his head, trying his best to ignore the disappointment that comes over Loki's features.

"You're drunk."

Loki rolls his eyes, but he smiles again, a relaxed expression. "Rare creature you are," he mutters, and there's a note of wonder in his voice that stays with Thor for a long time after.

 

x.

Thor wakes up the next morning to the sound of Loki speaking to someone on the phone upstairs in a tone much louder than Thor is used to hearing from him.

"Yes, I know we're pushing the deadline, but it's not ready yet," Loki says, followed by a long pause and then: "Look, we'll talk about this when I get in. I already -" A short moment before Loki says loudly and forcefully, "Good-bye."

There's an awkward silence after that where Thor lies on the couch, a little uncertain of what to do. He has never heard Loki anywhere near that angry, and it's rather disconcerting. After a long moment, Loki appears at the bottom of the stairs with a grimace still on his face, running a hand through freshly washed hair and catching sight of Thor awake on the couch. Thor watches his expression fall, apology and embarrassment coming over his demeanor.

"I'm sorry--did I wake you?"

Thor sits up, shrugging, smiling in a comforting way. "Don't be," he says gently. "That sounded really important."

Loki breathes out in a huff, rubbing the same hand he'd threaded through his hair over his face, clearly trying to wake himself up a bit more although it's not really working. Thor can sympathize with that: having a hangover and also needing to go to work is never fun.

"It's impatience," Loki complains, lips pulling down into a pout that Thor can only think of as cute; "Incompetence, too. It doesn't help that there's only three of us, and everyone wants everything now."

Thor's eyebrows furrow. "Surely in today's economy you could find someone willing to take the job," he says, but Loki shakes his head.

"If only it was just a problem of personnel availability," he says, and there's an unkind note to his tone.

Thor shifts into standing, watching as Loki rubs at the bridge of his nose with both hands, attempting to push himself back into a semblance of his usual calm. He still seems embarrassed, and Thor wonders, not of the first time, at how much effort Loki must put into staying in control of his feelings. It doesn't seem like something that comes naturally to him, not with all the tiny nuances that sneak through that Thor noticed once he started to really pay attention. Part of Thor that sounds like his mother or Sif warns him that this indicates that Loki is a bomb waiting to go off; the other part, the one that's become progressively stronger these past few months, wants to nothing more than to know what Loki keeps hidden.

Curiosity killed the cat, but, as Loki sighs, his posture slumping and looking for all the world like the entire world is after him, Thor can't really care about such things. He reaches out to squeeze the shoulder closest to him in a reassuring way. Loki glances down at Thor's hand, surprise and confusion flitting across his features as if he can't quite figure out why Thor would offer him this before he puts on a small, appropriate smile, and it makes Thor's chest clench unpleasantly to know that Loki is so unused to friendly contact.

"Do you have time for breakfast?" he asks, gently still because he gets the feeling it would be all too easy to spook Loki right now. "I can whip something up that's hangover-friendly."

Loki blinks, and the predominent emotion that Thor can pick up of him is confusion. It takes a moment for Thor to get a response, even though Loki is staring straight at him and has obviously heard him. It reminds Thor abruptly of the mutt that Baldur adopted off the street back when they were both teenagers, how, after the mutt stopped hiding whenever humans besides Baldur entered the room, she would stare at them all with a slightly baffled expression, as if she couldn't quite comprehend why they were being nice to her. When Loki finally responds, his voice is soft, and he can't seem to figure out what to do with his face.

"That would be nice, actually," he says, and he sounds so helplessly confused that Thor wants nothing more than to gather him up and hug him.

He doesn't, though, because he remembers how well that worked with Baldur's strays. Instead, he goes to do exactly what he offered and goes to the kitchen, opening up the refrigerator only to find that there's only a head of broccoli that's obviously been munched on without being cut in the fresher and three cardboard 4-packs of Monster occupying the bottom shelf. Thor stares at the essentially empty fridge for a long moment, his turn to be baffled with a touch of horror. The sound of Loki making coffee brings him back from the Land of Empty Refrigerator, and he stares momentarily as Loki closes the top of the coffee maker, watching it start up with the single-mindedness of someone who is caffeine addicted.

"Why is there no food in your fridge?" Thor asks because he really can't figure it out.

"What?" Loki moves and opens the refrigerator door again, staring inside of it briefly before he sighs. "Ah, that's what I forgot to do."

Thor wants to ask if this happens often, but from the matter-of-fact response it's rather obvious that it does. This either means that Loki is, at least in some areas, a complete space case, or he just doesn't generally stock his fridge because he doesn't want or need to do so. He suspects, as nothing is straight-forward with Loki, that it's a combination of those things. Loki closes the refrigerator door, offering a kind of helpless little smile, the kind of expression that people wear when they're embarrassed and feeling rather out of control.

"I'll be better prepared next time," he says, and he for once sounds like how he looks. "I do have other food."

Loki opens the pantry next to the refrigerator, which Thor already knows is stocked with an oddly large array of cereals (all opened and in various states of consumption) and sweets in a variety of packets, boxes, and jars (also all opened and in the process of being consumed). He motions in a vague manner to it as the coffee machine makes a beeping noise, which takes Loki's attention away again. Thor watches, somewhat floored and really rather worried, as Loki starts to pour himself and Thor coffee into the two large mugs he'd set out earlier.

"Caffeine will only further dehydrate you," Thor says.

"I know," Loki sighs.

"Perhaps," Thor hedges, knowing he's pushing, "you should stay home from work today."

Loki pauses momentarily, the coffee pot still in hand, before he laughs slightly, an unhappy sound, and deposits the pot back in the machine. He takes one of the mugs, holding it close to himself and blowing steam off the top. The black suit he's wearing shifts at his waist like it was tailored for someone a size larger.

"I've already taken the morning off," he says, almost more to the coffee than to Thor. "I have to go in today."

You shouldn't have drank so much last night then, Thor thinks, but that would be a very hypocritical statement coming from him. He's spent many nights in the past after closing Valhalla getting riotously drunk with the rest of the crew and then crawling back the next day to pretend to be entirely sober. He picks up the second coffee mug, and the coffee is bold and leaves an almost sweet aftertaste in the back of his throat. Next to him, Loki drinks it without tasting it, as he always does, and the dress shirt's cuffs slip back from bone-thin wrists. The sight makes Thor's heart clench, the tightness staying long after they depart on their own ways for the day.

"I'm worried about him," Thor tells Sif that evening, as they clean up Valhalla after closing.

Sif looks at him with a sad, resigned expression that he's been seeing far too often directed at him these past few weeks. "He's not right," she sighs after a moment. "I know you aren't entirely blind to it, but you've glossed over a lot."

Thor has to try very hard not to be angry with her in that moment. He takes deep breathes and washes out a large pot.

"I think," he says, very carefully to the soap bubbles, "he might be ill."

Sif is quiet at that, and Thor places the pot on the rack and picks up one of the industrial-sized ladles before she responds. He hears her sigh, a heavy thing.

"We had noticed," she admits, and Thor very much wishes that someone would tell him things for once. "Is he really as thin as he looks?"

Thor remembers how he could feel all the contours of Loki's bone structure when he held him close to get out of the taxi, in the elevator, while they lay together on the couch. There had been muscle, yes, lean and defined, but there was more bone jutting about the joints, and Loki's ribs had shown occasionally through the fabric of his dress shirt after he'd gotten drunk enough to take his suit jacket off.

"Yes," he says, adding, "I don't think he's happy."

"Honestly?" Sif starts, and Thor looks up at his friend, at the serious certainty she offers him. "He only ever looks remotely happy when he looks at you."

 

xi.

On Friday morning, just before they open for lunch, Valhalla gets a phone call.

"I'd like to make a reservation on Sunday for--" the voice, a sophisticated sounding woman, breaks off momentarilly at the sound of something heavy moving in the background. "Excuse me for the interruption. I would like to make a reservation for ten people for Sunday evening at seven."

"We can do that," Thor answers, writing it down on the notepad they keep next to the phone. "I just need a name."

"This is Pepper Potts for Tony Stark," she responds, and Thor very nearly drops the phone. "This is not a joke," she adds, not unkindly.

"No, I believe you," Thor gets out, sounding a gobsmacked as he feels. "Sunday for seven, reservation for ten?"

"Yes," she answers smartly, and the next couple days dissolve into chaos.

Valhalla is a small restaurant, run by Thor and his small crew, and this is not the kind of attention they've ever planned for. It would be silly to change things just for one reservation, even if it is some kind of party of Tony Stark's. They order a bit more of the good liquor and ingredients for the more expensive dishes, and Fandral makes extra sure that the linens are all cleaned and pressed. In reality, there isn't really much they can do to prepare except try not to freak out too badly.

"This could put us on the map!" Fandral says, slightly giddy as he does the evening sauce prep on Sunday, eyes wide and bright and so very hopeful. "I mean, we're already kind of known now since the Times did that review last month, not to mention our Yelp ranking -"

"Don't get ahead of yourself," Hogun cuts in as he returns from the dry storage with a thirty pound basmati rice sack. "We must see what happens tonight."

As it happens, Pepper Potts shows up exactly five minutes before the seven o'clock reservation along with a tall, bald man that Thor recognizes immediately as Obadiah Stane and a man and a woman who Thor doesn't recognize. Thor shakes all four of their hands, introducing himself as the proprietor and main chef of Valhalla, and he lets himself have a moment of pride that his hands don't shake with his nervousness. He shows them to the large table that Volstagg got out of storage and set up earlier, smiling in his most winning fashion as Fandral begins to set out the menus.

Thor has just opened his mouth to inform them of an amendment to the wine list when he feels a hand on the small of his back and a quiet, familiar voice in his ear.

"I suppose," Loki's voice murmurs, "I should have told you where I work."

Thor whips around, mouth still open and his composure completely thrown. Loki's expression is lit with his most mischevious smile, the hand he had placed at Thor's back still lifted slightly in a way that doesn't bother to deny where it was a moment ago. Just next to him is what appears to be the rest of the party as well as Tony Stark, who looks like Christmas has somehow come early.

"Loki!" Tony exclaims, his face pulling into a mock pout of hurt. "You didn't tell me you'd found someone else!"

Loki's lips twist in a way that would look annoyed if his eyes weren't so clearly amused. "My private life is none of your business."

Tony grins, looking exactly like he does on television, and says, "Everything is my business," before he heads over to the table with the rest of the party, leaving Loki standing next to Thor, who belatedly realizes his mouth is still open.

He snaps his mouth shut only to immediately open it again. "I thought you were a writer?" Thor asks, completely and hopelessly out of his element now.

Loki smiles his mischevious smile again. "Of a sort," he repeats, the same phrase from months ago, before the smile gentles, just a little bit, just enough. "I'll tell you all about it later."

He takes the seat between Pepper and a man that Thor thinks is a famous scientist he's seen a few times on television, tilting his head slightly to the right to pick up what the scientist says to him. Thor stares for a moment longer before Sif shakes his elbow and ushers him back into the safety of the kitchen.

The rest of the evening passes in a strange sort of blur. Thor is extremely grateful they had the foresight to restock the more expensive items on the menu as that's what most of the table orders, except for Loki, who asks for his usual salad, and one of the other guests, who's allergic to gluten. Liquor, of course, flows freely as they expected, considering Tony's reputation and the size of the party. Most of the patrons at other tables try not to gape too obviously at the people at the large table, although Thor does notice a few people take covert pictures on their cellphones. He wonders if they'll have to make a house rule on that in the future.

By the time dessert comes out and champagne is added to the table, Thor can tell that Tony, Loki, and the famous scientist at the table are pretty gone. Tony and the scientist--Bruce, Thor figures out after the man's name is repeated a couple times--are having a heatless argument about some kind of complex theory Thor can't hope to follow. Loki isn't talking much, but his lips are quirked upwards, cheeks splashed with a pink glow, and his voice comes out bright when he decides he wants to contribute to one side or another of the argument. Thor figures out as he helps Fandral set out the different desserts that have been ordered that Loki not only can follow whatever science is happening here but is only currently using his knowledge to add fire to the flames.

"This always happens," the man who first came in with Pepper and Obadiah says to the woman who came in with them. "Why does it always happen?"

"We let them have liquor," the woman answers with an almost sigh.

"They do this with or without," the man sighs before he turns abruptly to Thor who has just set down a slice of sachertorte in front of the woman. "What's Laufeyson like when he's not being an ice-cold dick?"

Thor draws back slightly, both thrown and rather offended, and the man's face splits into a grin that Thor doesn't like at all -

"Barton," Loki's voice cuts in, abruptly cold and lips thin in a scowl; it looks far more intimidating than it should with how flushed from the wine and champagne he is.

Barton rolls his eyes, but he turns back to take a bite of the pumpkin pie he'd ordered. Loki's eyes linger briefly on him before sliding away, seemingly back to the argument that Tony and Bruce are completely absorbed in, but the smile that had been on his face is gone, the scowl remaining in place. Thor can't help but frown, too. He can't say anything, not here and with this sort of crowd, but it bothers him deeply that none of Loki's coworkers seemed to see anything wrong with Barton's question, at least not enough to come to his defense.

They remain until just before closing when Pepper announces the time and begins the well-practiced process of ushering everyone out in a polite, unhurried manner. Tony pays the bill and leaves a tip that almost equals it, and everyone begins to meander out to chauffered cars that have magically appeared to idle outside on the street. Loki breaks off from Tony and Bruce momentarily to lean in close to Thor at the door, keeping a hand on Bruce's elbow to make sure he doesn't just keep on moving with the lean and end up flat on his face.

"I just remembered: my number, I've never given it to you," he says, and then he fumbles with his suit jacket for a moment, pulling out a card case that he struggles with one-handed for a moment before just holding it out somewhat awkwardly to Thor. "Here, it's on my card."

Tony is snickering at them with no maliciousness, and Bruce just seems to be in that oddly calm place that excessive amounts of alcohol takes some people. Thor opens the thin metal case and takes one of the cards, which is the same color of ivory as the note Loki had left him a few weeks ago but much thicker. It carries the unmistakable Stark Industries logo on the left and the right side proclaims Dr. Loki Laufeyson, R&D on the first line and then a phone number and a fax number beneath. The back has a QR code inside of a strange design of a tree that Thor knows means something important.

"Do you have a QR reader app?" Loki asks as Thor studies the design.

"I don't have a smartphone," Thor admits, closing the case and reaching over to put it back in Loki's pocket so he doesn't have to struggle with it.

"Blasphemy!" Tony exclaims, and he looks like Thor's lack of technology personally does him offense. "I'll get you one!"

"No, that's -" Thor starts.

"Just let -" Loki begins.

"Yes, I will," Tony proclaims, and Bruce is moving towards the door, dragging both Tony and Loki along with him, the three of them a somehow functioning mess of drunken counterparts, and that's that. "To the Batmobile!"

It's possibly the weirdest night of Thor's life.

 

xii.

When Loki comes in the next night, his usual Monday, he looks a little bit like he's been hit by a truck, dark smudges of sleeplessness under his eyes and his pallor nearly that of the time he'd come in with the brace. He changes his usual order to a water and the minestrone soup and visibily has to force himself to eat his usual half-portion.

"We had to go back to the labs," he tells Thor over the mango sorbet, voice a bit rough and obviously worn out. "If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't know what day it is."

Loki, it turns out, writes code. When Thor asks for specifics, it earns him a soft, amused laugh.

"All kinds. Every kind. It's like -" Loki licks his lips even though there's no sorbet residue there, and there's a light on in his eyes that Thor hasn't seen before, a kind of passion that's borderline manic, so intense it's almost frightening. "When I have an idea, it'll just comes out, whatever I need, like magic.

"I'm something of a genius," he continues, and there's an unmistakable note of pride in his voice. "Of course, one must be to work in R&D at Stark Industries, let alone with Tony. I won't bore you with my credentials. I've been in R&D fulltime for five years now, two years here in New York."

Thor can't help but stare a little. He's thirty-one, and Loki is just twenty-six, so that would mean that Loki began working for Stark Industries when he was twenty-one at the most. Loki takes and swallows another bite of the sorbet before continuing.

"I started college when I was fourteen," he says, picking up his water glass but not drinking from it; the pride that's appeared seems to be suddenly and strangely more brittle, like it's some battered old shield that Loki has held against many a storm. "CalTech, full scholarship with room-and-board, and I left as soon as I had the court papers ready."

Loki falls silent, his fingers gripping the glass hard enough that his knuckles stand out white under his skin. Thor waits a bit, but Loki doesn't move, doesn't seem to be able to continue despite or because of himself, so Thor lets himself ask.

"Court papers?"

But Loki shakes his head, eyes flicking down and to the side, lips thinning. For a horrible moment, Thor thinks Loki might cry, but then Loki breathes in, deep and audible, and the grip on the glass eases slightly, although he doesn't move to put it down. When he finally speaks again, his words come out stilted, almost nervous.

"Mother had been gone for nearly five years by then. Father was furious with me, of course, but he was always furious. And my brothers: I don't think they'll ever forgive me. I am the eldest after all."

Loki looks very much as if he could use a stronger drink, but he doesn't ask for it, instead electing to take a long sip of water. Thor doesn't know what to say because he isn't sure how much or how little Loki is trying to tell him, how much of what he might be implying is true or not. Breathing out audibly, Loki sets the water glass back down, lips pursed in a frown.

"Bruce said I should tell you about myself," he says in a bitter, conflicted tone. "Honest things. I don't, on principle. Was this a mistake?"

Thor is reminded again of Baldur's stray, of how the mutt had skittered away even years after from sharp voices or rough hands. He has to admit, he's never been sure exactly what it is he's getting into with Loki, other than he's the singular most enrapturing person that Thor has ever met. It's not easy, nor is it normal, but Thor wants Loki, wants this. So, Thor does what he's always done best and goes with his instincts.

"No," he says, "it's not."

 

xiii.

When Wednesday rolls around, they break, though a Tuesday afternoon text conversation, the normal routine of Loki showing up at six outside of Valhalla when Thor gets off early for the night. Instead Thor meets Loki in the lobby of Stark Tower at six-thirty, an experience that feels as surreal as he expected it to be. Loki comes out of one of the many elevators, a bag in hand that he presents to Thor with an expression of mock-seriousness.

"The next generation prototype Starkphone," Loki explains once Thor extracts an unmarked product box marked with a red TESTING stamp, not bothering to hold onto the mock-seriousness and instead looking like a cat presenting a victorious, bloody kill. "Stane is always telling Tony he shouldn't give out these things as gifts, but he does as he pleases."

Thor can't help but laugh (a little helplessly) at that. "And you don't?"

Loki rolls his eyes, waving his hand in a dismissive way. "I do what I want," he answered, and Thor is getting to know Loki well enough to understand the different word choice does make a difference.

Loki has a briefcase on him that Thor hasn't seen before, a thin black thing that, when Thor looks closer at it as they walked away from the skyscraper, is a lot stronger than it appeared to be at first glance. They walk from Stark Tower five blocks until they came to the familiar apartment building where Loki lives, the late autumn wind biting at their faces.

"I met Tony for the first time when I was seventeen," Loki tells him, after ordering Indian takeaway from his phone on the way up in the elevator. "I had gained recognition for my undergraduate thesis from several places, but he was the only one who really understood it of the people that contacted me. I had just begun my doctorate at MIT, and he got me my own lab. I didn't even have to say yes to working for him."

"That's amazing," Thor says, meaning it, and he earns one of Loki's real smiles for that.

"You told me a while back that you started Valhalla just out of school," Loki returns, going to the wet bar and opening the cabinet to retrieve wine glasses for the bottle Thor had brought.

"Yeah, but I was much older than seventeen," Thor chuckles as Loki pours them wine. "I wasted a lot of time before I went to culinary school."

"Doing terrible things, you've said," Loki smirks as he handed Thor a full glass, his expression light but a bit odd. "We make weapons at Stark Industries."

Thor pauses with the glass halfway to his lips. He has to admit, the thought had crossed his mind, and it does, frankly, bother him a bit. Thor isn't a pacifist, not in the least, but some of the things that Stark Industries makes don't sit entirely well with him. He takes a sip of wine, watching Loki, who does the same, his face calm and clear of any real emotions.

"Do you?"

"I write," Loki says in that infuriating obstinate manner he has, "and what I write can be used in many different ways."

Thor nods slowly. He can accept that, although he knows it's clear that he doesn't really approve. Loki smiles again, one of his prideful looks that Thor is starting to realize is just a brittle as when he's showing the exhaustion that seems to plague him on a constant basis.

"Well enough," Loki decides.

The intercom buzzes to announce one of the building's doormen, a tall and imposing man with a deep scar over the rightside of his jaw, bringing up the takeaway. Loki had told Thor the first time they'd come back to his place his name was Svaðilfari, and he was the most truthworthy person in New York. Thor thinks, privately, Svaðilfari's trustworthiness is just for Loki because he sees the way that the man watches Loki, recognizes from the times he's caught sight of himself in a mirror while in Loki's presence. Svaðilfari obviously doesn't like Thor much from the way he always looks at Thor with narrowed eyes, but he has never said anything on the matter.

Loki turns away from the door, the takeaway in hand, and he smiles, one of the strange ones that Thor can never quite pin down. Thor smiles back, and the strangeness eases out, leaving behind a fondness that Thor never sees directed at anyone else. It makes Thor's heart beat in his throat and his stomach fill with butterflies.

Thor is pretty sure he's in over his head, but, as he settles down with Loki on the couch, unpacking out the boxed food and watching the lingering fondness in Loki's eyes as he scrolls through a selection of movies on the television, he can't bring himself to care.

(And if they kiss that night, Loki's fingers holding onto the hair at the base of Thor's neck, tasting like wine and sweet rice and a little bit of cucumber, the sound of explosions from the movie's climax in the background, Thor definitely, certainly doesn't care about anything else at all.)

 

xiv.

It's just after Christmas when the first ball drops.

Loki calls on Sunday, during the dinner rush, and Thor only picks up because it's so unusual for Loki to call rather than text. There's noise in the background that Thor can't distinguish, and Loki's voice is almost inaudible as it seems he's whispering.

"Thor, there's been--" There's shouting in the background, and Loki breathes in sharply before continuing. "There's been an accident. I can't come by on Monday."

"Are you alright?" and Thor hears his voice come out sharp, alarmed enough that Fandral automatically looks over at him with wide eyes.

The shouting in the background continues as well as the hubbub of noise for a long moment before Loki answers, stilted and rushed at the same time, "No. No, it's--Oh, I have to go. I'll call -"

Thor hears a click and then he's staring at the home screen of his StarkPhone (still not on the market, coming out next month), his heart in his throat. He remembers the last time Loki said there'd been an accident at work, and how he'd been injured for several weeks after. This, Thor can guess is worse somehow, and he can't stop thinking about it, going through the rest of the night on autopilot, checking his phone obsessively in the lulls of activity.

Loki doesn't call until very early the next morning, after Thor has dozed off sitting on his apartment's couch. Thor fumbles momentarily before hitting the right button on the screen to answer.

"Loki?"

"Thor," Loki whispers, and he sounds terribly shaky and very much like he's been crying.

"What's happened?"

Loki breathes in and coughs roughly; it takes him a moment to calm his breathing again. "Check the news."

Thor turns on his television and flips a few channels until he finds what Loki must be talking about, the headline at the bottom of the screen reading Tony Stark Missing in Afghanistan with a byline of 12 Confirmed Dead. On the other end, Loki attempts again to regain composure and largely fails when he breathes out in a sob.

"Did I ever tell you Tony was my first friend?"

Thor doesn't know Tony at all, just met him that once in Valhalla and has known him from the television and a few pieces of stories that Loki has shared over the past couple of months, but it sends a stabbing sensation through his chest to hear the pain in Loki's voice. He doesn't know what to say, but Loki continues on, voice wavering but with a note to it like he must speak or become hysterical.

"I was fourteen when I left home," Loki says, and Thor knows that means something important, since it's the first time he's heard Loki repeat a fact of his life. "I was alone. I always had been, in a way. It was alright. I existed. I succeeded. That is what I do."

There's movement on Loki's side of the conversation, and Thor can hear a door opening and closing, something heavy and made of glass being set down against a metal surface. He wonders where Loki is. From the way he sounds, Thor hopes he isn't in the lab he works in or alone. From what he knows of Loki, of his habits and need for control and his strangeness, that's exactly where and what he is.

"But," he continues, in the same halting, unsteady tone while he moves things in the background, "you see, it wasn't enough. It's never enough. I wanted. More. It's--Thor, you understand, you told me when you were racing, there's this rush, and you feel alive. You weren't lying, were you?"

"No," Thor says, and he's getting nervous now. "Loki, what -"

"That's what it's like," Loki says, breathlessly, and there's the sound of glass and metal again. "That's what making is like. For me. Tony understood. He was the only person who ever understood. How it feels when you have an idea in your head, unfolding before your mind's eye, at the tips of your fingers, and if you can't get it out, you'll explode, and if you can--there's this feeling. It's the most wonderful feeling in the world. Everything falls away, all the extraneous, immaterial, miscellaneous input, and then it's just you and the idea. Nothing else matters.

"Because," and Thor can hear Loki walking now, a door opening and closing, the sharp ping of an elevator arriving, "you have to understand: otherwise, I'm empty."

"Loki," Thor starts, and he knows his concern and the beginnings of panic are clear in his voice, "what's going on?"

"Tony's missing," Loki breathes out, like it's a confession or a benediction, "and I feel nothing."

 

xv.

Loki comes in to Valhalla on Monday at his usual time, but that's about all that is normal about him this day.

"Hello," he says, blood trickling from a gash somewhere above his hair line, clothing rumpled, and wavering on his feet in the doorway, Sif gazing at him in undisguised horror as Thor rushes out of the kitchen at her shout, "I'm terribly sorry to be a bother, but could I lie down somewhere?"

Thor helps Loki to the back, to the small room that's a combination of an office and a break room filled with mismatched furniture. He lowers Loki to the couch, and whatever strength that had been holding Loki up seems to dissipate, his face turning an ashen color as he breathes out unsteadily. Hogun appears with an damp cloth and the first aid kit they keep in the kitchen, murmuring for Thor not to worry about the rest of his shift. Thor nods distractedly, taking the cloth and first aid kit, his eyes never leaving Loki, who is staring resolutely at the ceiling.

"What happened?"

Loki accepts the cloth from Thor, his hand shaking visibly as he raises the cloth to clean his face and dab at the wound beneath his hair. "Tony's missing," he says, like it explains everything.

Thor clenches his fists and bites out, "That's not what I'm asking! What happened to you?"

Loki doesn't respond immediately, his eyes wide and staring straight at Thor, and Thor realizes belatedly that this is the harshest tone he's ever used around Loki in nearly the year they've known each other. He can't bring himself to feel guilty for it, though, because Loki is so damn abstract that it's almost like he's a piece of art. In a way, if so many people including Thor mistake him for a model at first, if he considers his job to be one of making, of creation, maybe he is.

"I suppose if I told you I fell down a flight of stairs, you wouldn't believe me," Loki says, smiling slightly, obviously trying to make a joke.

"No," Thor answers through clenched teeth before breathing out, opening the first aid kit and taking out antiseptic and cotton pads.

A silence falls between them, a tense, unhappy one. Loki fiddles with the cloth momentarily before shifting on the couch, teeth coming together in a grimace of pain as he curls his fingers around the bottom of his rumpled dress shirt where it's tucked in beneath his belt. With a deep breath, he yanks it up, and Thor recoils at the myriad of bruises arching from his right side, like he'd been kicked there and then a few more times when he'd been down.

"'Got into a fight," he grits out, letting the shirt fall and slumping back against the couch, breathing ragged. "They're worse off."

"They?" Thor asks, incredulousness showing through.

Loki smiles, a joyless one that's all teeth, and he doesn't look at Thor, instead reaching out to take the antiseptic and cotton pads from him with slightly less shaky hands. "There were three," he says, and there's that strange pride in his voice. "Don't look so alarmed, Thor. I've dealt with worse."

Vicious, Thor thinks suddenly even as he shifts to sit on the couch next to Loki and help him clean the deep cut under his hair near his temple. He used to see looks like that on the older men he'd street raced with, the ones who did it for money, yes, but also because there was nothing else they could do. They were the reckless ones, who raced without a care for themselves or others, and, in the end, it had been one of them, a man who was probably in his late twenties but looked almost fifty, who said either Thor never come back to the meets or he'd personally turn his name over to someone who would make sure he didn't. It had taken nearly eight years before Thor had realized that man had probably, whether intentionally or unintentionally, saved Thor's life.

The look doesn't linger, though, and by the time Thor has used up one cotton ball (coated in a thin layer of bloody mess), Loki is gazing up as the ceiling again, unfocused and pallor ashen. He seems miles away, and Thor can't help but remember what Loki had told him the night before, just when he abruptly ended the call.

"Loki."

He blinks, and it seems to take a great deal of strength for him to reign in his thoughts and to return Thor's gaze. "Yes?" he asks, and it's a thin, almost weak tone.

Thor wants desperately to know what's going on underneath this veneer of control that Loki has on, wants to tear it down and make Loki see what a mess he is. For Loki is a mess, no matter how much he tries to hide it, bone thin as he has been for a while and bruised and bleeding now. There's so little and yet so much, and Thor doesn't know how Loki can exist like this, but, then again, that's what Loki himself said he does.

He tosses the cotton ball in hand away, sets the antiseptic bottle aside, and gathers Loki up in his arms, hugging him close so he can't put something between them, can't run away. He feels Loki shiver, and he half expects Loki to bite, but he holds on, stubbornly, against the common sense he's never really had.

"You're not empty."

Loki makes a high sound, a keening noise, and Thor has a sinking moment when he thinks he's gotten it wrong. But then he feels Loki's hands grip the front of his shirt, and Loki begins to shake, face pressed against Thor's shoulder. Still hiding, but at least Thor can feel him for once, could understand that something really is going on underneath his skin.

"Don't," Loki moans, wretched and open. "Don't lie to me. Not you."

"I'm not lying," Thor says, hard and certain. "I would never lie to you."

Loki laughs. It's a broken noise, and Thor can imagine the way it would twist Loki's face if he could see it. Not for the first time, Thor wonders what has been done to Loki to make him like this. Was it his father, a man whose memory only brings bitterness and pain? Was it someone or something before Loki left for university? Or was it some combination of these things, all leading up to whatever Tony Stark means to Loki, and, maybe, what Thor means as well?

They remain like that for a long time, until Loki stops shaking and his breathing evens out for the most part. It's only then that Thor lets Loki draw away, lets him slump against the couch and gaze at the ceiling again. The head wound has stopped bleeding, and the blood is starting to mat around it in Loki's hair. It occurs to Thor that Loki might have a mild concussion, that he might very well be hiding more underneath his clothes, behind the pieces of information he's offered so far meant to placate and redirect.

Thor swallows. He loves Loki, loves him deeply and passionately, but there's so many moments where he realizes that he barely knows anything about him. Damaged goods, Fandral had called Loki when Thor had gotten that phone call on Sunday, not unkindly. Sif and Hogun have been supportive, but Thor knows they're also suspicious, and Volstagg has been worried about the oddness that Loki displays, the stress that it brings Thor. It's all against good sense; even Thor, who has never had much sense, can see that.

A cold touch of fingertips to Thor's cheek draws him out of this unusual moment of introspection, of understanding. Loki's lips--slightly purple rather than their usual red--are pulled into a pained, sad smile, green eyes red-rimmed and shadowed from crying and stress and all the other things that Thor doesn't know. But despite this, despite all of it, he's still the most beautiful thing Thor has ever seen, and, as Loki leans up to kiss him, cold but so very there, it tears his heart apart.

"Everyone lies," Loki whispers against Thor's lips.

And, even though he knows it's wrong, that Loki is wrong, he can't help but kiss back.

 

xvi.

They go back that night, after Valhalla is closed up and a taxi is phoned, to Loki's penthouse, Loki visibly struggling to stay awake for the short ride. Svaðilfari leaves his post at the front door's security as soon as he sees them, and Loki breaks away from Thor's hold to let the man look upon him and to whisper something in his ear. Svaðilfari looks up, past Loki to Thor, and for the first time Thor feels a sort of comradery, as if they've reach an understanding. Thor inclines his head, and Svaðilfari does the same once Loki has turned back to Thor.

Loki's apartment is the same, unlived-in space as always. Thor half-expects Loki to move them towards the wet bar for a glass of wine before migrating to the couch, but, instead, Loki leads Thor up the stairs, slowly and painfully if the clench of his jaw is any indication. He moves to his bedroom door, the last place that Thor hasn't seen in the penthouse, and opens it, keeping a firm hold on Thor's arm to avoid simply collapsing through the doorway.

The bedroom is much like the rest of the apartment, cold and impersonal with little evidence of a regular occupant besides the covers thrown haphazardly over the bed. It's like Loki made the bed with only half a mind, the comforter askew and a second, softer blanket half-pooled off the left bottom corner. It's the only part of the room that looks as if it was used within the last month.

"No," he says, when Thor starts to help him stagger over to the bed, "I want a bath."

"You're about to pass out -"

"Bath," Loki insists, and Thor sighs, moving towards the adjourning room.

The bathroom is nearly identical to the bedroom in spirit, only the toiletries lining the bath's shelf and a towel on the rack indicating Loki lives here. Loki breaks away from Thor at the doorway, limping heavily over to the wide bath and sitting down on the side of it, head falling forward and shoulders rising and falling harshly as he tries to work through his exhaustion and pain. Thor hovers uncertainly in the door, unsure if he should offer to help, if their relationship is enough for that.

A long moment passes before Loki looks up, lips pulling into a small, real smile. "You can come in, Thor," he says, voice slightly amused even with the edge of strain. "If I pass out, I'd rather not drown."

Thor enters, moving to sit down on the bench that takes up the wall opposite of the bath. Loki shifts, teeth gritting again as he swings his right leg over the side of the bath. He stops for a moment, breathing audibly, before doing the same with his left, back now facing Thor. It strikes Thor that Loki seems to have a lot of practice with dealing himself injured as he watches Loki begin to mechanically disrobe of his battered suit, flicking the clothing (the jacket is almost certainly ruined) away to land on the wall between the bath and the toilet. Thor thinks of Svaðilfari, how there was no surprise on his face, only concern, and doesn't like the implications of any of this at all.

Loki shrugs out of his dress shirt, and Thor thinks--with no little longing--of how he'd dreamed of seeing Loki undress, but not at all like this. The bruises that he'd shown Thor aren't the only ones that mark him; there's one large one forming at his left shoulder, and Thor can guess more will show up in a few hours time. Loki discards his belt and slips out of his pants (also most certainly ruined), slipping down to sit in the bath as he starts the water from the faucet.

"Isn't it cold?" Thor asks, starting to hate the silence, the lack of distraction from the unwilling stirring he can feel in his belly.

"Yes," Loki answers, glancing over briefly at Thor with a bit of a smirk to his lips. "I don't mind."

Thor feels heat rising to his face, and he forces himself to look down, away from the temptation in the tub. He doesn't want it to be like this, with Loki battered and almost certainly out of it, wants, he has to admit, for there to be some element of romance and normalcy (or whatever will pass as it in this relationship) to be involved. He's thought of this in many different scenarios with everything from rose petals across a bed to quick and passionate against a wall. He assumes, too, that Loki has thought of it, although he knows nothing of Loki's fantasies.

(If that pleases you, Loki'd said, looking up and smiling at him in what's beginning to feel like so long ago. But what pleases Loki? Thor doesn't know.)

He listens to the soft splashes of washing, the sound of bottles and soap being moved and the occasional run of additional water into the bath. Loki sighs after a while, and Thor looks over despite himself to find Loki with his back bent forward, his arms raised as he works shampoo carefully in his hair over where the wound lies. The suds are a dull maroon, tension radiating from the awkward, taunt posture.

"Do you need help?"

Loki doesn't respond immediately, his fingers picking at a clot of blood that's clumped together his hair and also adhered to his scalp as a scab. It looks unpleasant, and Thor can guess that it must be rather painful. He starts to get up, unbidden, just as Loki answers:

"Join me."

Thor freezes, half-standing, a hand still slightly behind him where he'd used it to push off the bench. Loki leans down into the bath, lifting water up from his lap to splash over his hair, and Thor can't see his face. He desperately wants to, wants to know what this means or if it means anything at all. When Loki straightens, he reaches to the side for the shampoo bottle again, only his profile available. There's a small smile on his lips, the one that Thor is so used to seeing there, and that makes Thor approach, come to sit on the wide ledge of the oversized tub.

"You might not want to get in," Loki says, putting the bottle back to the side and starting to work it carefully into his hair, the suds coming up cleaner now. "The water would likely feel tepid to you."

Thor ignores this, shucking off his pants and underwear, pulling his shirt off and tossing them all to join Loki's suit against the wall. He slides into the water in back of Loki in the tub, shivering slightly because the water is on the colder side of lukewarm. As Loki attempts to turn to face him, Thor reaches out and presses his hands over Loki's, which are still in his hair.

"Let me."

There's a pause, and Thor can see the muscles at the base of Loki's neck contract briefly, instinctively, before they relax, deliberately. Loki lets his hands slip from beneath Thor's, reaching his right to the soap bar instead, and Thor takes that as permission. The wound is clean, and Thor works on getting the last of the blood out of Loki's hair as gently as he can. A long moment passes before Loki chuckles, splashing more water over himself to wash away soap from his chest.

"This isn't how I wanted you to first see me naked."

Thor laughs, too, feeling both relieved and calmer than he has since Loki showed up in Valhalla this evening. "How did you want me to see you?"

Loki pauses, his right hand with the soap against his left side, and Thor massages the tips of his fingers along the base of Loki's hairline where it mets the back of his neck.

"I thought," Loki answers, his voice quiet and low, "we'd go out as we normally do on Wednesday. Maybe we'd go to the cinema, or the theatre, or just order in takeaway here. I wanted -" he breaks off, placing the soap back on the dish and then shifting to face Thor, eyes green and dark, "I want you to kiss me."

Thor starts, almost makes to pull back, but there's a hungry, almost desperate look in Loki's eyes that Thor is startled to realize he recognizes. It's the same look he's seen far too many times on his own face, in the years between high school and culinary school that he spent wandering after his father had had enough and kicked him out. Thor has done awful things, did them right up until he met Jane for those few, wonderful months they were together in New Mexico before she left for Washington D.C., and Thor returned to New York. They still talk sometimes, but Jane has her research and Thor has Valhalla, and they both know they've grown far apart.

To see Loki, here and now, with the light out of his eyes, dark and mysterious as he's always been, is like the cold water he prefers, thrown in Thor's face. This is what draws Thor to Loki, in the way that Sif must see as dangerous, that Loki, so different from Thor in so many ways, is yet also so similar. There's a creature that lurks in Thor, the one that races and did such awful things, and it's never truly gone out of him.

Thor leans in, pressing his lips against Loki's, feels the way they lift and smile, small and secretive as ever. Loki presses back, left hand reaching up and cupping the back of Thor's head, secure and sure, lips parting to allow Thor to plunder and push forward, in.

I would keep you, Loki had whispered once, such a long time ago.

Thor thinks he could.

 

xvii.

Thor awakes the next morning to floating holograms of schematics floating around him in Loki's bedroom. Next to him, Loki is sitting up in the bed, a laptop open on his lap, eyes lifted to a rotating hologram structure that looks like some sort of domed building above the center of the bed. His expression is focused but otherwise blank, mind obviously off in a world that is all his own, fingers tapping out endless lines of command on the laptop keyboard.

They remain like this for a long time, Loki off in his own world and Thor enraptured by the sight of a side of Loki that's, for once, so very natural. The closest that Thor has seen to this is when Loki's been drunk, and there's always a falseness to that sort of state, even if it's unintentional on Loki's part. Here, mind encased in a world that Thor can only hope to one day understand a scant piece of, Loki's body language is relaxed, unguarded, like his physical body only exists as a channel through which his mind can express itself. It explains so much about Loki that it's both wonderful and painful at the same time.

The sun is bright beneath the tiny gaps in the curtains over the bedroom window when Loki finally seems to come back down to earth, muttering something under his breath, and blinking rapidly. His fingers twitch over the keyboard like parts of a puppet with its strings being blown in a breeze.

"Thor?" he murmurs, low and almost too soft to hear, eyes still fixed on the holograms. "Are you awake?"

"Yes," Thor answers, shifting to sit up, letting his knee brush against Loki's under the comforter and blanket.

"Oh," Loki says, finally looking aways from the dome structure, pupils slightly blown but expression alert. "How long have you been up?"

"Maybe an hour," Thor leans forward, pressing a kiss to Loki's mouth, earning one in return. "It's still early."

Loki hums as Thor pulls back, his fingers tapping absently over the keyboard without depressing any of the keys. His lips are pulled up into a smile, but he isn't completely there: Thor can see it in the way the light in his eyes flicker, the slow, deep breaths. He feels like Loki is letting him in, though, to let him see this, a state that isn't hyper-controlled and aware or otherwise compromised. After a long moment, Loki focuses again, his smile shifting to one that touches his eyes, although there's a muted sadness about him.

"If both Tony and Bruce were in, we'd usually just be going to bed."

Mourning, part of Thor supplies; Loki is mourning. The other part, the one that Thor has grown over the years to be ashamed of, feels an irrational spark of jealousy. He knows a bit of it must have shown on his face because Loki's lips quirk, his smile turning amused and a little coy.

"Only once like that," he admits, no guilt in his tone, only some light humor, "three years ago. Bruce is not usually fond of carnal relations, and Tony is too much so. I have never lain with Bruce outside of that time."

Thor shifts, and, when Loki's expression doesn't change, asks, "And you and Tony?"

Loki's smile wavers, becoming a strained thing. He reaches out with his left hand, curling his fingers in Thor's right, and Thor can feel Loki's fingers twitching, like they can't quite decide if they're meant to grasp onto Thor's as an anchor or if they should be yanked away. Thor grips them, secure and reassuring, and watches Loki swallow before squeezing back.

"Off and on," Loki whispers, looking down at the sheets and not seeing them. "Not in recent months. And it was never--never what either of us wanted, not really. We were there, the only ones who understood, and sometimes it was all that could be done, when it comes down to it."

It's Thor's turn to swallow. "Did you -" he starts, pausing, starting again. "Do you love him?"

The question earns Thor a hollow laugh, and it looks like Loki will either scream or cry. Instead, his voice comes out in an undertone again, controlled as before, but his hand in Thor's shakes like a leaf.

"I don't think either of us have the first idea what love is."

Abruptly, he smiles, all teeth, at something Thor can't see. A laugh breaks free, a wobbly, unstable thing, his fingers pressing hard against Thor's now.

"And how could we," Loki whispers, lower than before, the darkness that Thor has glimpsed a few times bubbling up, "when there had never been any love to be had? We always knew it, and Bruce knew it, which is why he only joined in that once, but we never cared. We couldn't because then it would mean something, and we couldn't have that. Of course not. We knew better."

Loki laughs again but breaks off suddenly, throat moving like he's swallowed the sound. He closes his eyes, jaw working briefly, and when he opens his eyes again, his expression is calm, almost placid, his fingers releasing their death grip on Thor; they don't shake. There's something terrifying about that, just as it was the first time Thor saw Loki truly without any emotion showing. Loki smiles again, and it's the small meaningless one that Thor knows all too well.

"What I'm trying to say," Loki says in a normal, calm tone, gentle if heard in the right way but so, so desolate in others, "is, no, I don't."

 

xviii.

Thor doesn't go back to his tiny apartment that night. He returns to Loki's building after closing up Valhalla, Svaðilfari opening the second set of front doors for him since he doesn't have a keycard and Loki doesn't answer when Thor sends a text.

"He's likely still at the office," Svaðilfari says as Thor takes a seat next to the massive man's post by the doors.

"What time does he normally come back?"

Svaðilfari shrugs, an isolated movement that only includes his shoulders. "He has always come and gone."

Thor frowns slightly at that. "How long have you known him?"

Svaðilfari is silent for a moment, his eyes following a couple of girls dressed for a night out come out of the elevator and hurry out the front doors with friendly waves to Svaðilfari and covetous glances at Thor. Once, Thor would have grinned back and gotten up to greet them, but right now he only wants to hear Svaðilfari's answer to his question.

"Since he was a boy," Svaðilfari answers, and that surprises Thor because that's not at all what he expected the man to say. "I have worked here for twenty years."

"What was he like?"

Svaðilfari falls silent again, his eyes drifting around the room, through the doors, the glass windows that light the room during the day and reflect the night. He reminds Thor of someone suddenly, and Thor tries to place the flicker of recognition but can't pin it down before Svaðilfari speaks again.

"Brilliant," the man says, and there's something to his tone that makes the word both a compliment and a curse. "His mind is like a shooting star: it burns everything in its path. It has always been so."

Thor doesn't know what to say to that. There isn't much he can say that wouldn't sound completely trite. Surprisingly, Svaðilfari seems to take pity of him and continues to speak.

"He was a small child. Too smart for his own good. Everyone knew it, but he didn't care," he says, finally turning his gaze upon Thor, the statement bearing weight that Thor doesn't quite understand. "The man you know is little like that child."

It seems like a warning, although Thor can't place what exactly it's supposed to be for or even, really, whom. He knows the confusion and uncertainty shows on his face because Svaðilfari seems satisfied, his gaze moving away from Thor to the door he stands guard over. Thor follows his gaze and watches the activity out on the sidewalk for a few more minutes before he catches sight of Loki heading towards the door. He moves with a steady gait that would appear to be simply sedate to most, but Thor knows that Loki would never move that slowly if he wasn't in some sort of physical pain and trying to hide it.

(Loki moves like he has poison in his blood, like if he doesn't do it now he'll simply disconnect and the moment will be lost, lost forever, fingers clutching with muscle and nails, leaving bruises and shallow cuts behind in their wake -)

He watches Loki key in his code at the second set of doors, at how he's looking down at the pad like it has all the answers in the world. When he meets Thor's eyes, he smiles, but it's a wan attempt at his usual false expression. Thor wonders how he never noticed how inconsistent Loki really is.

"Thank you for letting Thor in, Svaðilfari," Loki says, coming to stand next to the both of them, shifing the briefcase from his right side to his left. "Have you been waiting long?"

Thor shakes his head, reaching out a hand to take the briefcase. Loki shakes his head minutely, knuckles whitening slightly as he holds it tighter, and Thor lets his hand fall to his side. Something flickers over Loki's face, an apology that he won't voice, a strange kind of sadness that Thor can't place, and he reaches out with his right hand to take Thor by the elbow.

"Let's go upstairs," he says, glancing back at Svaðilfari to bid him a good night.

Once they're inside of the elevator, Loki slumps, his head falling forward to rest against the cool metal of the lift. In the harsh electrical lighting, Thor can see dark bruises that have formed from lack of sleep under Loki's eyes, standing out like hollow shadows in his pale skin. Thor shifts and wraps his arms around Loki, who lets him, the fight that had flared momentarily over the briefcase gone out of him.

"So tired, Thor," Loki murmurs after the lift gets off at his level and he's keyed them into the front room. "You have no idea what's happening."

"You could tell me," Thor says as Loki sets the briefcase on the coffee table before collapsing with a grunt of discomfort on the couch.

"Oh, no," Loki moans, eyes closed and head tilted back against the couch; he looks like death warmed over. "I couldn't do that to you."

Thor purses his lips, bites down on how badly he wants to push right now, and moves to the small stack of takeaway menus that Loki keeps in a drawer in the wet bar. He selects a Chinese menu and orders enough to feed them both for at least two nights, watching Loki on the couch, how his breathing slows and evens out, his suit jacket still buttoned and gold cuff links glinting in the dim light. After hanging up, Thor comes to sit next to Loki on the couch, a little surprised when he doesn't immediately stir, instead sleeping on in the realm of the dead exhausted.

He's done this before, something in Thor supplies. This is what Loki does every night he actually comes back to his apartment. Just bathes and then collapses in bed, or, if he can't make it up the stairs, the couch will suffice, just like this. Svaðilfari must help him up here sometimes because Thor can't think of anyone else that would help him. He wonders how Loki hasn't ended up in a gutter or robbed or worse, and, with a horrible kind of clarity, if he actually has.

The door chimes with Svaðilfari and the Chinese takeaway. Loki jerks awake at the noise as Thor gets up, his eyes hazy with sleep as he voices a noise of confusion to the room. Thor touches his shoulder gently, earning his attention, intense despite his disorientation.

"I called in takeaway."

Loki blinks and then nods, sinking back into the couch as he breathes out. Thor turns and opens the door for Svaðilfari, who hands over the two packed bags of takeaway and turns to head back down the elevator after glancing briefly at Loki, who is staring up at the ceiling like it has all the answers to the universe. Thor stands for a moment in the door, watching Svaðilfari disappear into the lift.

How often does this happen? Thor wants to scream. How many times have you been here and done nothing? Why is this happening? He doesn't deserve it; this is wrong -

He sets the takeaway bags down on the coffee table with more force than necessary, causing Loki to blink and look to him with a hazy expression. Loki leans forward and picks up the briefcase still on the table, moving it to the small shelf underneath, his gaze never leaving Thor's face. His eyebrows draw together slightly, his posture still bent forward so that he's looking up at Thor. It makes him look strangely small.

"Are you angry?"

Thor breathes out, hard and loud, and breathes in again. "Not at you."

"Don't be angry at Svaðilfari," Loki says, and he sounds almost plaintive. "He's a good man."

"He talks behind your back," Thor snarls, taking out the chicken mushroom soup that Loki favors and setting it down with a spoon in front of him.

Loki gives Thor a vaguely curious look, uncovering the soup at the same time. "Of course he does," he says, dipping the spoon into the soup and stirring it around, steam lifting off around his fingers. "But he would never speak of me to those who wish me ill."

Thor doesn't know what to say to that. He sits down next to Loki on the couch, taking the sweet and sour pork and the egg fried rice from the bag to start on. Next to him, Loki gazes at a spot on the coffee table vacantly, his mind drifting as he scoops the mushrooms from the soup, eating each on their lonesome with a spoonful of broth.

"Did he tell you what happened to my father?"

Thor shakes his head, and Loki sets his spoon across the top of the soup container, sinking back into the couch to gaze at the ceiling again. He idly unbuttons his suit jacket, begins to undo his cuff links, slipping them into an inside pocket of his jacket.

"Father was killed in an automobile accident," Loki says, threading his fingers through his hair, which is getting to be overly long. "He was drunk, but he was always drunk when he wasn't at work. I had been living in Stark Industries housing here in the city at the time, and neither Helbindi or Býleistr have been in the state of New York since they came of age. Father had not updated his will since Mother passed, so I was contacted. I doubt he would have wanted any of this to go to me otherwise."

He falls silent for a moment, eyes having dropped to look out the window over the city. Thor reaches out and curls his fingers around the limp hand at his side, and Loki blinks, looking over to Thor like he's a hundred miles away. His lips lift, and it's the saddest smile that Thor has ever seen. He laughs and tries to put his face in his hands only to find Thor's holding onto one of them, so he's forced to settle for splaying his right out over his face and squeezing his eyes shut. He doesn't cry, even though Thor can tell he desperately wants to, the thin veneer of control the only thing that seems to be normal about him in recent days slipping now.

"It's the only gift Father ever gave me," he admits as Thor gathers him close, letting him hide his face against Thor's chest, "and it was never really meant for me anyways."

 

xix.

Thor wakes up in the middle of the night to Loki's StarkPhone going off. Loki jerks awake next to him in bed, a breath of curses escaping him as he gropes the phone off the bedside table where it buzzes and chirps angrily. He squints at the name on the screen before hastily tapping the answer button and pressing the phone to his ear.

"Bruce?" he croaks, sleep still clinging to his voice. "What -?"

He falls silent, and Thor can hear Bruce on the other end talking nonstop, his words inaudible to Thor's ears but the urgency behind them clear. Loki sits up fully, reaching out to turn on the bedside lamp and his eyes moving as he listens to his coworker. Thor can guess by the quickly building tension in his shoulders that there's nothing good about the news Bruce has.

"That -" Loki starts before sucking in a deep breath and then starting to get out of bed, quickly, unmindful of his injuries. "No, Bruce, don't move. I'll--yes. No. Yes. You still live--oh? Okay. I'll be there. Okay. Text me. Bye."

Thor is sitting up in bed, fully awake. Loki shoves the phone into the right pocket of his discarded pants on the ground, pulling his underwear back on with his other hand.

"May I ask a favor of you, Thor?" Loki says as he grabs a sock to pull on as he tries to find the other.

Thor slides from the bed, reaching for his much easier jeans. "Anything."

"We're going to go pick Bruce up from a hotel just off Hell's Kitchen," Loki says, grimacing in discomfort as he pulls on his dress shirt.

"Hell's Kitchen?"

"He lives there," Loki says, buttoning himself up in front of the mirror, his eyes narrowed slightly in concentration. "Or I think he does. He's always moving. That's not the favor, I'm asking, though."

Thor pulls his shirt on over his head, frowning slightly. "Then what is it?"

Loki works in his cuff links, giving the task far too much attention. Thor lets him have the moment, watches him put the suit jacket back on and button it before he turns to Thor, running his fingers carefully through his hair, mindful of the scabbed over cut hidden beneath it.

"I don't know how Bruce will be when we get to him," Loki says, motioning for Thor to walk with him out of the bedroom. "I have to ask you not to speak of this to anyone."

"I wasn't planning to," Thor says, and he can't keep the incredulousness out of his voice when Loki breathes out a sigh of relief at that. "Loki -"

Loki shakes his head as he pulls on his shoes at the door, dark shadows prominent under his eyes. Thor wonders when was the last time he got a full night's sleep.

"I just forget, Thor," he sighs, and he doesn't respond except to shake his head again when Thor makes a questioning noise at that.

There's a taxi idling a block from Loki's building that they get into, Loki showing the sleepy-looking driver an address that Bruce had texted them on the way down. Thor gets into the back of the car first, Loki pausing to glance around them before following. He seeks out Thor's hand immediately once they're seated and moving, his fingers gripping Thor's firmly, and Thor can't tell if it's for some sort of reassurance or an anchor. From the faraway look in Loki's eyes, the same one he wore when he was working on that dome structure, Thor can't even be sure Loki realizes he's even done it either.

The hotel is a dingy place on a street that Thor recognizes from his street racing days. Loki tells the taxi to wait and pulls out his phone to text Bruce that they're downstair. There's a responding text almost instanteously, and three minutes later Bruce appears outside, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans with sneakers, the only thing seemingly out of place with him a briefcase identical to Loki's that he clutches with white knuckles. Loki opens the door, and Thor slides down so that Bruce can squeeze in next to them in the back seat.

"Return to where we were before," Loki says to the driver once Bruce is seated, and, once they're moving again, Loki reaches out to Bruce, cupping his jaw. "Are you injured?"

"No," Bruce answers, blandly, glancing over at Thor with raised eyebrows. "You brought your boyfriend?"

Loki's grip on Thor's hand turns painful for a brief moment, the only thing that keeps Thor from speaking up first. "Yes," Loki says, baldly.

Bruce shakes his head slightly, dislodging Loki's hand on his cheek. There's a fondness in his eyes, which are rimmed with sleeplessness much as Loki's are, and Thor thinks of how Loki had lain with this man before with Tony Stark. He's oddly surprised that he doesn't feel jealousy, not when Loki is gripping his hand here and now.

"Are you alright?" Bruce asks after a long moment of silence.

"I'm fine," Loki answers, but he's looking ahead through the driver's window, and Bruce doesn't look like he believes him anymore than Thor does.

They get off at the same corner a block from Loki's building, Loki paying the driver with a hefty tip that earns them a smile and a tip of the man's cap. Bruce walks next to Loki, the briefcase shielded between them, and it occurs to Thor that there might be something untoward about it, about everything happening here.

Svaðilfari lets them in, giving Bruce a longer look than he gives Thor until Loki leans forward to murmur to him. Thor notices that Svaðilfari's hands twitch, like they want to touch Loki, but they don't, and he nods as Loki pulls away and leads them to the elevators. Thor can't help but glance back at the man, and Svaðilfari looks at him, a long, unnerving gaze that somehow makes Thor both nervous and oddly reassured. He wonders, with a sudden moment of clarity, when this kind of contrariness became a part of his life.

Loki lets them in and locking the door behind them before heading immediately for the kitchen. Thor and Bruce trail after him, Bruce looking back and forth as if he's never seen Loki's apartment.

"It's not as posh as Stark's," Bruce comments as Loki takes out some of the leftover Chinese from the refrigerator and starts reheating it in the microwave.

"I don't intend it to be," Loki answers easily, handing Bruce a fork from the utensil drawer. "I don't need artificial intelligence in every nook and cranny of my life."

Bruce catches Thor's expression of confusion as the microwave dings, drawing Loki's attention away from them. He smiles, tiredly and with a bit of strain to it, but honestly.

"Stark has an AI installed in his home and labs," Bruce explains, accepting the lo mein from Loki and digging into it with only half an eye. "'Named J.A.R.V.I.S. Very useful -"

"- If you overlook the snark," Loki finishes, leaning on the countertop with his hair falling into his face. "Much like Tony himself."

Bruce shoves a forkful of food in his mouth and doesn't say anything more. Thor slips an arm around Loki's waist and is relieved to feel Loki fold against him slight, just enough. Bruce eats like he hasn't had food for weeks, and Loki slowly lists to the left until Thor is supporting the majority of his body weight, his breathing a little unsteady but slow.

"I guess we're not going into work tomorrow?" Loki says in a voice that's half-asleep, half-resigned.

"Today," Bruce corrects, and he sounds like he's run a hundred miles. "I guess not."

Bruce takes the guest bedroom on the first floor, looking around it with the same appraising gaze he'd applied to the rest of the penthouse. Loki lingers in there with him for a long time, and Thor lets them have their privacy, sitting out in the living room and browsing the Internet idly on his phone. He catches pieces of their conversation, mostly scientific terminology he doesn't really understand, before Loki reappears, bidding Bruce a good night. He looks over to Thor, and Thor moves to him, letting Loki lean against him as they climb the stairs back to his room.

"We'll work from here," Loki says as he strips himself of his suit, this time taking care to discard the pieces on the low table next to the wardrobe. "There aren't any urgent deadlines."

He collapses into bed and Thor climbs in after, slinging an arm around Loki's chest beneath the blankets. Loki reaches up and thread his fingers into Thor's, and they fall asleep like that, Thor on his belly, Loki's grip tight and, for once, sure.

 

xx.

Valhalla has slowly but surely been gaining in popularity, and, by the time the lunch rush is over on Wednesday, Thor takes a moment to sit down in the backroom with Fandral and Volstagg, the both of them worn thin by the long, hectic hours.

"Maybe we should look into hiring some other staff," Fandral finally concedes, massaging a headache that the aspirin hasn't kicked in to combat yet. "With just the five of us, we're worn pretty thin."

Thor forces himself to nod. He doesn't want to have to hire anyone else. Valhalla is his and his friends', and it would feel like conceding weakness somehow. But he knows that Fandral says is true. None of them have had a substantial vacation in over a year and a half since Valhalla opened, and, while it hasn't affected their performance, it will only be a matter of time.

"There is a man who just moved into my apartment complex who is looking for a job while he attends NYU," Volstagg says, sipping a large glass of water.

Thor breathes out. "Does he have work experience?"

Volstagg nods. "He was in the military. His name is Steve Rogers. A very kind and polite young man."

"Find out when he'd be available for an interview," Thor says, standing up to head back to the kitchen. "We'd need him to work weekends."

Thor takes his usual night off after he helps ready the kitchen for the dinner rush, heading back to his apartment to pack an overnight bag before backtracking to Loki's building. He realizes he hasn't told his friends about what happened to Loki after Monday when he showed up, and he can't help but wonder a little bitterly if they care. Sif and Hogun have made no secret of the distrust they have for Loki's oddness, and Fandral and Volstagg haven't had much to say on the matter that's either positive or negative. Thor sucks in a breath and holds onto his overnight bag tighter.

Svaðilfari lets him in as soon as he sees Thor come through the first set of doors, inclining his head in greeting. Thor keys in the elevator code for Loki's floor, fishing out his StarkPhone as the elevator begins to rise to text Loki to let him know he's on his way up. All the security in the building feels a little ridiculous to Thor as well. It's also honestly somewhat intimidating, especially when he's moving about it without Loki's company.

The front door to the penthouse is propped open with the heel of a rainboot, and Thor reaches down to pick the boot up before opening the door fully. Bruce is on the loveseat, wearing a tracksuit as he types away on his laptop, completely engrossed. Loki gets up from the ground where he's been seated in front of a couple of holograms, one of them the dome structure from a couple days ago, and his laptop on the coffee table to come over and greet Thor with a kiss.

"We've made a complete mess of the place," Loki half-complains, half-apologizes, letting go of Thor to prod at the hologram that Thor doesn't recognize, "but that's how it usually goes when we work together."

Thor looks around, at the cigarette carton open on the top wet bar with Loki's lighter, several cans of Monster stacked up next to Bruce, a nearly empty coffee pot and mug on a stack of papers behind Loki's laptop. There are several binders open on the floor with scattered pens and highlighters, and the trashbin that usually stays in Loki's office has migrated to a spot equidistant from both Loki and Bruce's stations. Most of the mess appears to be Loki's and, for some reason, Thor finds it as endearing as he found Loki's office the first time he saw it.

Bruce finally looks up from his laptop, catching Thor's attention, asking, "How is the restaurant?"

Thor blinks, surprised, before smiling widely at Bruce. "We're doing well," he says, moving to sit on the couch where he can watch Loki pick at the hologram, his mind already lost to the physical world again. "It's been getting to be very busy, so we're looking to hire some new wait staff."

Bruce smiles, too, sitting back into the loveseat. "That's good to hear, especially in this economic climate," he says. "I remember enjoying the brisket I had."

"The brisket is Volstagg's specialty," Thor grins. "He'll be pleased to hear that."

The next hour is spent in relative silence, Bruce and Loki absorbed in their work again and Thor strangely finding himself relaxing, alternating between reading news and sports articles on his phone and watching Loki work with the holograms. There's a part of Thor, smaller more and more lately, that is envious of Loki and all the things he has--this penthouse and clothes, the elite social circle, his obvious intelligence--, but there's another part, the one that's been growing for months now, that cares for him, loves him. It's that latter part that realizes that it's only when Loki is working that Thor can really see him, the real Loki, who Loki himself keeps so closely shielded from the world.

What happened to you? Thor wonders, watching Loki type out lines of code as he watches the two holograms rotate slowly, right there but a million miles away. What does all of this mean?

"You'll be proud of me, Thor," Loki says with a toothy smile, after it grows late and Thor finally brings up the subject of dinner. "I had groceries delivered."

"He did," Bruce confirms, standing up and stretching, "but I'm cooking because if you ever let Laufeyson cook, the whole building will probably burn down."

The left side of Loki's lip twitches, like he might snarl, but then he just huffs and shakes his head, his unslicked hair flopping about as he does so. It makes him look so much younger, so much more his age than Thor is used to seeing him.

"I make perfectly passable eggs," Loki asserts, although he makes no move to follow Bruce to the kitchen.

"So long as they're hardboiled," Bruce quips, disappearing inside the door before Loki can say anything else to him.

But Loki has to have the last word, and he turns to Thor, looking so sincerely offended that Thor smiles all the more.

"He's only able to cook because he's a chemist," Loki complains, shifting to catch Thor's hand as if he needs to push his point. "You're a real chef. You'd be able to tell him off."

"I'm not going to complain about a home-cooked meal," Thor chuckles.

Loki just smiles, linking their fingers together and pulling Thor to sit on the ground with him. Thor slips off the couch and settles down at Loki's side, leaning to press a kiss to Loki's cheek, his jaw, his neck. Loki breathes deeply, humming low in his chest. He tastes like too many cigarettes and coffee.

"You're too humble, Thor," Loki murmurs, turning his head to catch Thor's lips, speaking against them as he reaches his free hand up to curl in Thor's hair. "Never deny what you know."

 

xxi.

There's another phone call for Loki in the middle of the night that wakes Thor. Loki moans softly but gropes for his phone on the bedside table anyhow, slipping away from Thor to lie on his front, forehead dipped forward to brush the pillow as he tucks the phone against his ear.

"Hello?"

Thor lies with his eyes only half-open, watching Loki listen to whoever is on the other end. A few seconds pass until Loki's shoulders slump, the top of his head sinking a bit more into the pillow.

"No, I -" Loki starts, breaking off for a long moment before trying again, louder and in a more desperate pitch. "Yes, I understand, but that's not how it works. There's still--no, of course not, that was never - No. Don't be like that. You know that's not true. I want--I'm doing all I can!"

Thor can hear the person--a man--shouting on the other end of the conversation, watches the way Loki curls on himself, hunching protectively in his own bed, and something in Thor snaps. It's a feeling he isn't wholly unfamiliar with, the way the rage just suddenly bursts through the dams he's spent years and years building up, but usually there's some way for him to channel it. Once it had been racing and then cooking, but right now there's only Loki and the phone in his hand, and Thor isn't about to hurt Loki (never, a voice deep in him whispers, never). He's yanked the phone away before he realizes what he's doing, pressing it to his own ear to thunder at the deep male voice still swearing there:

"Shut. Up."

He hurls the phone across the room just as Loki makes a grab for it from him. Thor ends up with an abrupt lapful of Loki, who lets out a noise somewhere between anger and pain. His eyes are blazing when he levers himself up to look at Thor, his breath coming fast and uneven.

"What the Hell, Thor? What the Hell?!"

Thor reaches out and gets his arms around Loki before he can escape to go after the phone again, holding on fast even when Loki lets out an indignant shriek. Loki twists in his grasp to face him, his hands coming up try and push himself away with surprising force, but Thor is stronger both by virtue of build and the fact that Loki is injured. There's a look in Loki's eyes, something that Thor doesn't recognize, but Thor is too angry right now to see it.

"Who was that?"

Loki struggles, eyeing narrowing as they dart back and forth. "I don't want to hurt you, Thor -"

Thor shifts them with his entire body, Loki letting out a sharp cry as he ends up on the bed, Thor on top of him. Thor opens his mouth to ask again, but Loki's expression, surprised before, suddenly shifts, his pupils blown wide in utter terror. Thor recognizes that look, recognizes it all too well from the worst memory that Thor has, and it makes Thor freeze, horror gripping him -

- a blind turn, taking it with a laugh in his throat because he's ahead! He's going to win this, and then he'll get new rims and finally get his hands on the real races where all the money and girls and boys are! He's going to win -

- and he remembers the man's face, just his face illuminated in Thor's headlights, young and pale with eyes overly wide with terror just before Thor slammed right into him. That is all Thor remembers because the crash sent his car spinning, and it wasn't about the guy he'd hit but about staying alive himself. He'd ended up skidding to a stop in a field, bruised but miraculously unbroken, his car smoking and lights on his dashboard flashing up at him. The rest of the night had been chaos, Thor's last memory of it before he ran away home the old man telling him to get out -

"Thor. Thor. Thor."

Loki's hands are patting his face, hard enough to sting, and the terror is gone from his eyes, although the pupils are still blown. Thor thinks, inanely, that he looks so young like this, wide and searching and open, dark hair splattered around him on the pale sheets. He looks young and bright and alive, and Thor can feel his breath coming unsteadily, can hear the edges of wretched sounds.

"Thor," Loki's hands are cool, pressed against Thor's cheeks, framing his face, "What happened to you?"

Thor bows his head into Loki's hold, lets himself be pulled down low against Loki's chest. He can hear Loki's heartbeat, quick but steady, feel the rise and fall of breath in his lungs. Loki's fingers thread through Thor's hair, absently, uncertain, the back of his nails skittering over the delicate skin behind Thor's ears. Loki smells like soap and the lingering salt of sweat and sex, and he's solid and whole and there, not flicking headlights and specks of blood splatter on the windshield.

"Thor?" Loki whispers.

"I think," Thor says, listening to the sound of Loki's heart, "I love you."

And he begins, for the first time in fourteen years, to weep.

 

xxii.

When Thor wakes up the next morning, Loki is there, sitting next him with his legs folded, the dome hologram structure spinning in his hands as he tweaks it. The structure is larger now than when Thor first saw it, more lines and variations in colors throughout it, and it sparkles beneath Loki's fingers. It looks like Loki is holding light, is twisting it to his will, like magic, and, for a moment as he watches the way the hologram illuminates Loki's eyes, Thor can't help but entertain the notion that's exactly what it is. Watching Loki work will never cease to fascinate Thor, watching Loki for once exist unshielded and uncontrolled, and that, in itself, is a kind of magic.

He isn't sure how long he spends watching Loki this time. He's far away, further than he was the night before when he was working downstairs with Bruce, maybe further than when he was typing on Tuesday morning. But, as the sun becomes bright behind the curtains, Loki seems to fall back to himself, blinking slowly down at the hologram, eyes still only for it and whatever it means, but his body language no longer completely unshielded and relaxed.

"Thor?" he asks, and, when he turns to look at Thor, his eyes are unfocused, flickering. "What time is it?"

Thor shifts his attention away from Loki to the soundless faced clock on the wall. "Almost ten in the morning," he says, turning back.

Loki blinks a few, each time clearing the faraway quality from his expression a bit more. His attention skitters between Thor and the hologram that's still in his hands, like he can't quite decide what he wants to pay more attention to, and Thor feels warmth from that.

"You should be getting ready for work."

Thor nods, sitting up finally and stretching. He feels drained from the night before still and more than a little embarrassed. Loki watches him but doesn't comment, mind already half-caught by the hologram again. It's a relief, really, because Thor doesn't know if he could answer Loki's questions without completely breaking down once more. It would be nice to be able to take a day off, he thinks, but that's not possible, not yet when there's no one to cover for him. He hopes Volstagg talked to this Steve and that it'll work out.

He cleans up in Loki's bathroom and dresses in the clothes he packed the night before, returning to the bedroom to find Loki with the hologram suspended above him now so he can tweak something on the base of the design. He stops when Thor comes out of the bathroom, gaze going over Thor in a way that's somehow like he's memorizing how Thor looks and undressing him at the same time.

"Come over tonight," Loki murmurs as Thor leans down to kiss him.

"Sure."

Loki's smile reaches his eyes as Thor stands up straight. "Bruce and I are working from here again," he says. "I'll be waiting."

When Thor gets to Valhalla, it's a quarter to eleven and Sif and Hogun are there. Thor greets them with a smile that quickly fades at their stern expressions.

"You haven't been in your apartment since Monday," Sif comments as Thor starts boiling potatoes.

"I've been at Loki's," Thor answers, adding a couple of pinches of salt to the water.

She and Hogun exchange looks, and Thor can't help but feel a rush of indignant anger at that even though they're just being concerned, as raw that he is after last night. He concentrates on what needs to be done before they open, keeping his emotions under as much lock and key as he ever has been able.

The lunch rush comes and goes, and it's as busy as it has been in the last few weeks. They're approaching late spring and summer, so it can only increase. Thor lets himself drop on the couch in the backroom when it finally slows down, breathing out as he scrubs his hand over his face. Volstagg is still in the kitchen and Fandral is out on the floor, so it's once more Sif and Hogun together with him. Sif has the graciousness to wait until Thor has relaxed a bit before she continues what she'd been starting on before.

"Thor, are you sure it's a good idea?"

Thor shrugs and exercises all the control he has not to comment that she clearly doesn't think it is. Sif frowns at him and Hogun watches with that quiet, knowing gaze, and Thor forces himself to breathe out slowly.

"It's as good an idea as any," he answers.

"Nothing about him is normal," Sif says.

Thor frowns then, and he knows his expression is unkind. "So what?"

Because Thor knows he isn't normal either. He might play at it with Valhalla and the daily work and a budding romantic relationship, but he spent his youth breaking every traffic and many criminal laws, continued to for years after until his wildness ruined his relationship with his family so completely that he can no longer call them his own. He killed a boy and ran away from it. He's been running from it for fourteen years.

Sif sighs, relenting, her eyes softening enough to show her concern clearly. "We're just worried about you, Thor," she admits. "You've been so tired lately."

"Burdened," Hogun corrects, neither gentle nor unkind.

Thor shrugs again because there's not much else he can do. He's not being flippant, which is what it might look like; it's just that he doesn't have anything to say. He can't deny that he is tired, that in the past week he hasn't gotten a good night's rest. He is burdened, too, by the memories that have been dragged up, by the confusion that's come from suddenly being an actual part of Loki's life rather than just a peripheral object. Being part of Loki's life is like being caught up in a whirlwind, a chaotic constant rush of changes that stop for no one, not even Loki. Loki isn't easy, not at all, but Thor thinks that's why he can love him: he's more than Thor himself.

The rest of the day and night goes much the same as lunch did, and, by the time closing comes, Thor is exhausted. Volstagg had said that Steve could come in on Saturday morning for an interview, and Thor is looking forward to it with the kind of hope he knows will make him very biased towards hiring the man. He heads back to Loki's building, saying hello to Svaðilfari when he's let in and receiving a slight, formal nod.

When he gets off at Loki's floor, the door is propped open again, this time by an empty chemistry beaker. The sight that greets him is the living room once more in the disarray that he'd found it in the day before but more so, as it appears that Bruce and Loki had begun drinking at some point. Bruce smiles at Thor from where he's lying on the floor, looking as if he hasn't a care in the world, and attempts to wave but only manages a strange flopping of his arm. Loki is splayed out on the couch, fingers of one hand curls around a half-drunken bottle of wine. He lifts his head from where he's staring up several spinning holograms, including the dome structure and one that looks like a fighter jet, and beams, joy bright in his eyes.

"Thor!" Loki cries, attempting to rise but only managing to narrowly avoid splashing himself and the couch with wine for his effort. "Welcome back!"

The television on and playing a black and white movie in a language Thor vaguely recognizes as French, and there's several boxes of Indian takeaway left opened and barely touched on the coffee table on floor. The apartment smells heavily of the takeaway, Loki's cigarettes, expensive alcohol, and coffee. Everything looks and feels lived-in now, without a doubt, and Thor, even though he's tired and worn out from work and emotions, can't help smile back at Loki, shaking his head as he laughs and crosses the room.

"Having a party without me?"

"No," Loki says, scooting ineffectively over on the couch to try and make room for Thor; Thor just reaches out and shifts him bodily so that he can slide in. "Bruce and I--we were just thirsty -"

"You're lying," Bruce says from the floor, his voice completely unaccussing.

"Yes," Loki admits, unrepentent, "I do tend to do that."

"Yes," Bruce continues, in the lazy, contented tone of the very drunk, "we all do."

"Not Thor," Loki says, and there's a fondness in his voice that Thor has only heard a few times before, and it warms him inside and out.

Bruce shifts on the floor, just enough to look at them, and he's smiling, a little vacantly. Loki giggles and lifts the bottle to take a deep swig from it before offering it up to Thor. Thor takes it up but doesn't drink, choosing instead to set it on the cluttered and abused coffee table (whatever happened to Loki's coasters will remain a mystery for now). The action earns a soft huff from Loki that carries no weight, and they pretend to watch the movie without actually seeing it.

Thor blinks awake on the couch some hours later, briefly disorientated as he looks around the darkened apartment, the only lights in it the slowly rotating holograms throughout the room. Loki is sitting on the ground at Thor's feet, gazing up at the holograms, once more faraway. Occasionally, his fingers move against where they rest against his thighs, tracing figures in the fabric of his slacks.

Slowly, Thor reaches out, catching his fingers in Loki's tangled hair. Loki doesn't respond aside from a brief flicker of his eyes and a twitch upwards of his lips, and Thor finds himself smiling back at the permission, the trust there. He threads his fingers through Loki's hair, smoothing it from sleep, and lets Loki's mind continue to wander the branches of his range of thought.

After a long time like this, Loki shifts, reaching out and picking up one of the hologram projectors. It affects the dome structure, pulling it back from above them to rest in front of Loki, projected onto his lap. Loki passes his hand over the surface, and it spins faster, blurring a bit like a discoball. Loki watches it, looking deep into it from what Thor can guess is memory.

"When I was eight," he says, surprising Thor a bit but not seeming to notice, his voice coming from miles off, "I wrote my first program. I meant it to keep track of my mother's medication, when I needed to administer what, how much was left of each persciption, what the numbers of her doctors were. It was a simple thing, and I often had to manually input information anyways because her condition was always changing. This is much like that."

"What is it?" Thor asks, stroking his fingers along the hair at the base of Loki's neck, gently, smoothly.

"Energy," Loki answers, and he smiles, the spinning lights dancing over his face. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

And Thor looks at him, at the way the smile brightens his eyes, and whispers, "Yes."

 

xxiii.

When Thor wakes up in the morning, rested for once, Loki is gone. There's a note on thick ivory-colored stationary on the pillow next to Thor's head, Loki's handwriting stating he's gone to work, that Bruce went with him, and that Thor is welcome to come back that evening. It reads nearly identical in language to the first letter, months ago, almost cold and impersonal except for the last part. It really isn't, Thor knows, but he doubts anyone else could see that.

The living room is still a mess. Thor spends a long moment looking down on it from the middle of the staircase, at the bottles, cans, and papers scattered around. It's a strange sight for Loki's apartment to look and feel so lived-in, and Thor knows if he was to linger into the early afternoon someone will be coming in to clean it. Loki never stated as much, but Thor doubts Loki maintains the apartment himself; he hasn't seen any cleaning supplies besides a half-used bottle of rubbing alcohol in either Loki's or the guest bathroom.

There's coffee, still warm on the maker's hotplate, in the kitchen. Thor helps himself to it and a bowl of cereal, noticing that the refrigerator has, once again, taken on a college dorm room quality: energy drinks, leftover takeaway, a few parcels of fruits and vegetables. There's a corked bottle of some sort of green liquid on the door next to the milk, and Thor takes a moment to uncork it and sniff it. It's strongly alcoholic and vaguely sweet smelling, and Thor gets the distinct feeling it's a homebrew. He guesses that Bruce must have made it.

He walks to work, thinking about if he needs to go back to his apartment tonight to pick up anything and feeling brighter than the day before. Fandral is the only one at Valhalla when Thor arrives, and he grins widely at Thor from where he's shining silverware.

"Someone looks like they had a good night's sleep," Fandral grins as Thor changes into his chef's whites.

"I did," Thor answers, smiling back.

Fandral chuckles with an edge of suggestiveness before shifting to business. "Volstagg said that Steve can come in for an interview anytime next week."

"Anytime?"

A nod and a shift to pick up a couple of steak knives to shine. "He's willing to work to our schedule. Guess the guy really wants the job."

Or needs it, Thor thinks, but he doesn't say it aloud because it's an unnecessary point. It would also be a sour thing to say in front of Fandral, who had had a much better paying job before the economy tanked a few years ago and a small modeling career on the side. Now, with Valhalla, Fandral once more has steady work, but he doesn't have time for modeling, not with how much work goes into running the restaurant and their small staff. Fandral never complains, but Thor knows he must miss it.

It's just after three in the afternoon when Bruce shows up in the doorway of Valhalla, looking a little puzzled as he puts his phone away and offering an awkward smile to Thor when he greets the scientist.

"Do you do takeaway?" Bruce asks when Thor offers him a table. "I've got an experiment I need to get back to; Laufeyson will complain if he has to watch it for much longer."

They don't do takeaway usually, but Thor grins and says, "Sure. Do you know what you want?"

"Whatever Laufeyson always gets," Bruce answers, his hand unconsciously drifting his pants pocket where he's put his phone away. "Unless you've convinced him to get different things on occasion."

"I'm working on it," Thor answers.

It earns him a short but real laugh, the first he's heard from Bruce. For a moment, Bruce appears friendly, not just innocuous, and Thor feels, as he heads to the kitchen to prepare the salads, that he just won something. The feeling stays when Bruce smiles again at him when Thor comes out with the paper bag and takeaway boxes, ignoring the pointed look that Sif throws his way at the kitchen door.

"Salad?" Bruce sighs as he inspects the top box, but there's an affectionate tone in his voice.

"It's what he always orders," Thor shrugs, handing over a bottle of the house red in exchange for Bruce's credit card.

"Better than Tony's burgers, I guess," Bruce says before he realizes the words; he grimaces and looks away briefly before shaking his head and taking his card. "No, keep the receipt. Are you coming back to Laufeyson's tonight?"

"Yes," Thor answers and doesn't look over his shoulder to where he knows Sif is listening.

Bruce nods, putting his wallet into the opposite pocket of his phone. "That's good," he says, and he sounds relieved. "I'll see you there."

The rest of the day and night passes somewhat awkwardly. Fandral throws over knowing gazes, but Sif and Hogun have the same disapproving air. It makes Thor uncomfortable in his own kitchen, in the one space he has always felt comfortable in, and he knows they don't mean it to be cruel, but it is.

He goes back to his apartment to pick up more clothes before heading over to Loki's building after closing up Valhalla. It's half to midnight by the time he gets up to Loki's apartment, the door propped open again by a rainboot this time. Bruce is the only one in the living room, which has reached a new height of disarray with the introduction of what looks like half of a library on the coffee table. Thor pauses in the doorway, staring at the books and binders, his brain uselessly in supplying an explanation for this.

Bruce is no help. "Laufeyson's showering," he says, getting up from the couch and stretching. "Want some pasta?"

It's some sort of pre-prepared pasta and tomato sauce that came from a can, but Thor eats it indiscriminately, not really tasting it as he watches Bruce putter around Loki's kitchen, putting the now empty pot into the sink and the cheese back into the disorganized refrigerator. He feels oddly relaxed here and right now, so very different from the rest of the day in Valhalla.

There's a loud thumping from the living room and a sharp curse before another thump follows. Thor gets up from the island and heads back with the bowl and fork in hand, Bruce following after him. Loki's back is to the kitchen door, and he's standing over a pile of books that has apparently fallen off the coffee table, wet hair from the shower untamed and falling about his shoulders. As Thor watches, Loki sighs heavily, reaching up to thread his fingers through his hair, drawing it away from his face as he looks up and then around to Thor and Bruce, expression momentarily shadowed before he smiles.

"Oh, Thor," he starts, some strain audible in his voice, "how long have you been waiting?"

"Not long," Thor answers, moving to slip an arm around Loki's waist and place a kiss on his lips. "Is this a new project?"

Loki sighs into the kiss, resting his shoulder against Thor's chest as his gaze gravitates back to the messy pile on and around the coffee table. "Something of the sort," he murmurs, breaking away to shuffle the books back into a stack of their own.

Thor settles down the couch to eat his bowl of pasta, watching as Loki settles on the floor with one of the binders pulled up onto his knees, leafing through several books spread open on the coffee table and making corrections to the binder's contents. Bruce works on a hologram model of some sort across the room near to the sliding glass doors that lead to the balcony, spending as much time looking at the impressive view as fiddling with the molecular structures.

Thor leans back, gazing out over this, and feels content.

 

xxiv.

"Thor."

He blinks awake to the dark of Loki's bedroom and Loki leaning over him, illuminated by the glow of his StarkPhone. It makes Loki's eyes too green within his pale face, like will-o'-the-wisps.

"They found Tony," Loki says in a voice that's too fast and unsteady.

"Found -?"

"He's alive," Loki continues, the phone's light timing out, momentarily plunging them into darkness; Thor feels Loki draw away, getting out of bed. "I'm needed."

"Needed?" Thor asks, sitting up now and trying to follow the bare outline of Loki moving about in the dark of the bedroom.

"He's done something to himself," Loki says, and the single light over the dressing mirror and the wardrobe clicks on, throwing into contrast the deep colors of the lingering bruises that mar his skin. "Or something's been done to him. I don't know."

Thor is quiet for a moment as he watches Loki dress himself hurriedly, uncertain of what he should do. Loki doesn't look over, his eyes flickering between the wardrobe and the mirror as he pulls on a starched dress shirt that hangs on him, slacks that do much the same.

"I'll go with you," Thor says, sitting up fully, but Loki shakes his head, tucking the tails of his shirt in.

"I don't think they'll let you in."

Thor throws back the covers, reaching into his bag to dig around for a clean shirt and jeans. "I'll wait outside."

A beat of silence before Loki says, in a strange tone, "You might be waiting for a long time."

Thor shrugs on a flannel shirt, glancing back over his shoulder as he does up the buttons. Loki has his head bent forward as he runs his hairbrush through his bangs, already dressed except for socks and shoes. Thor turns back to his bag to pull his pants on.

"I'm alright with that."

There's a padding of feet before Loki appears in Thor's peripheral vision, putting on his usual gold wrist cuffs. "You won't be allowed to leave unless I escort you out," Loki warns, and Thor can feel Loki watching him more than see it. "You might be late to work."

Thor pulls a clean pair of socks and looks over. "How late?"

Loki licks his lips, his hands folded together in front of himself. "I don't know," he says, quiet, controlled. "You don't have to do this."

Thor knows what will happen if he doesn't go, if he isn't there for Loki right here and now. Loki will close up again, like he always has between their meetings, and Thor will loose the little niche he's made in Loki's life over the past week, the connection he's so longed for, the thing he doesn't even have with his closest friends or even Valhalla, the rush and intensity he hasn't felt since racing. That's what Loki is, really, and Thor knows nothing short of death will make him let this go.

Thor shakes his head and stands up. "I do."

 

xxv.

Thor isn't sure how long he waits in the small, private waiting room after he, Loki, and Bruce get to Mount Sinai Hospital. Loki is called away almost immediately, and Thor manages to catch a few phrases about chest and heart and glowing. Bruce sits with him for the first few hours, arms crossed and obviously practicing some sort of calming technique that Thor doesn't understand but somewhat envies, until Loki appears briefly in the doorway, his eyes wild and expression moving in a way like he can't quite figure out what to do with his face.

"Bruce," is all he says before he leaves the door and Bruce gets up like a shot to hurry after him.

It's only after Bruce is gone and Thor is alone in the room that Thor realizes there was blood on Loki's hands. He can't remember if Loki was wearing gloves or if his sleeves were rolled up, and Thor thinks inanely that Loki would be awfully fussed if he had gotten blood on his suit. Come to think of it, Thor hadn't noticed anything else besides the blood and the way Loki's face was moving. Loki could have been wearing leather and armor for all Thor knows.

For now, it's just Thor in the private waiting room with its tasteless but slightly acidic instant coffee and yellow Lipton tea bags, sterile plastic chairs, and a few parenting magazines. Pepper Potts came by an hour ago to inform him that she's arranged for someone to cover his position at Valhalla and to thank him for understanding.

"That's not -"

"It is," she'd said, and there'd been a strange smile on her face, the same one that Thor had seen paint itself over Loki's when he was feeling too much and could only show one, appropriate emotion.

He wants to ask do you know you look like him? He wants to know why are you doing this? But he doesn't, which isn't like how Thor is at all, and it's because he feels, more than anything else, like he's been unseated somehow, jarred and thrown adrfit. Thor wonders what Loki means to these people. He can guess that Loki cares for Tony and for Bruce, although the latter more platonically than anything else. He can guess, too, that Tony holds something that Thor can probably never hope to share because Tony had come first, had meant something more than Thor had, long before Thor had been.

And that is the bare truth: Thor isn't Tony, never would be, and he could never hope to match what Tony means and has meant to Loki. There is no point in trying, just as there is no point in trying to force Loki to talk about what he doesn't want to discuss. Loki would simply clam up and eventually extract himself somehow, driven away by pushing and pulling he cannot control. So Thor cannot compete with Tony, cannot share whatever it is that Tony and Loki have because it's not for him, just as Loki has never been easy, never been right, and never been wrong, not quite, not exactly. These thoughts leave a bitter taste in his mouth that has nothing to do with the instant coffee.

Several more hours pass with people passing in and out of the waiting room. Thor speaks with Pepper a few more times when she comes through, all meaningless conversations that don't actually touch upon the current situation. There's a military man who comes in for about twenty minutes to talk to Pepper in hused, strained tones, their heads close together and hands clenched around their coffee cups. Out of all the people who pass through, they seem to be the only ones who really care, at least to Thor's eyes.

It's well past lunchtime when Loki reappears, this time without bloody hands but with reddened eyes. He only shakes his head when Thor inquires, tipping his cup of instant coffee down his throat with the indisciminate air of the exhausted.

"He'll recover," Loki says, making himself a second cup before taking a seat next to Thor on the couch. "As much as can be expected, I suppose."

They lapse into silence, sipping their respective coffee cups, Loki's gaze a thousand yards away. Eventually, Loki sets his empty cup on the magazine-decorated coffee table and fishes his lighter and a nearly empty carton of cigarettes from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He remains sitting for a moment, absently weighing the contents of the carton in his hand.

"I shouldn't smoke here, should I?"

Thor shakes his head. "It's illegal."

Loki doesn't say anything, his fingers tapping lightly on the cardboard, watching something that Thor can't see. He licks his lips and stands, stacking his lighter atop the carton in his hands.

"Come with me."

"What about the disclosure policy?"

Loki momentarily gives Thor a curious look before his lips part slightly in understanding. He smiles a little and shakes his head.

"We aren't leaving the hospital," he explains. "Just going up a few floors."

Thor gets up, holding onto his half-drunken coffee. He thinks that Loki's smile twitches upwards slightly before he turns and moves to the door, Thor following after him. Loki pushes open a stairwell at the end of the hall, his shoes falling quietly as he begins to climb.

"Besides," he says once they've gone up a couple of floors, "they can't fire me."

Loki's stops on a small landing behind a door that's labeled for the seventh floor, turning his lighter and cigarette carton over themselves in his hands. Thor stands next to him, taking a sip of his cooling coffee.

"Why not?"

"Because Tony is alive," Loki answers, and his smile widens briefly, viciously, at the door before he sobers, looking back to Thor. "Stane is going to make the announcement in a couple of hours. Then we can go."

Thor nods and watches as Loki flicks his lighter on and off without a rhythm. The anxiety that he'd started to feel earlier while he was alone in the waiting room is still there, but it's much calmer with Loki here, talking about Tony, yes, but also talking about them. So maybe Thor isn't Tony and never will be, but it might just be that Loki isn't looking for Tony, not here and now when Thor is the one standing next to him.

"Come home with me," Loki says after the silence starts to stretch, tucking away his cigarettes and lighter. "I'll ask Pepper to have someone go by your place and pick up more clothes."

"I'm not sure if I have anymore clean clothes," Thor chuckles, reaching up and scratching his chin.

"I'll call Svaðilfari about arranging laundry then," Loki shrugs, his phone already in hand. "I should probably send an apology to housekeeping as well."

"You should," Thor agrees with a laugh.

Loki's lips form the small smile that reaches his eyes. "Yes," he says, and he thumbs his passcode into the phone, unlocking the screen, "but I do what I want."

 

xxvi.

Loki's hair is becoming unruly, slightly overgrown and too thick at the base of his neck. Thor cards his fingers through it in the shower, working shampoo worth thrice what Thor would usually buy against Loki's scalp and watching the way Loki's closed eyelids scrunch reflexively in what he's come to know as pleasure.

"Why should I get a haircut when you can do my favorite part every night?" Loki asks as Thor massages the contours of Loki's skull, curling his fingertips just past Loki's ears. "Ah, yes, do that again."

Thor smiles, leaning down to press a kiss against Loki's shoulder, the hot water beating down on them. Steam fills the bathroom by the time they're finished, and it takes Thor a moment to realize he reached for his towel from the rack without thinking about it. It's been a long time since he last felt so comfortable in someone else's home, not since the few months he spent with Jane several years ago now. There's a warmth in that thought that has nothing to do with the steam-filled bathroom.

Svaðilfari has had something done about Thor's laundry, and it's all neatly pressed and folded on the decorative armchair next to the balcony doors in Loki's bedroom. Thor had stared at it for a long moment when they'd first come upstairs, but, right now, he isn't thinking about it beyond the vague notion that his chef whites haven't looked so crisp since he bought them. He's more concerned at the moment with Loki, and what Loki is doing with the pillows, his legs, and the blankets.

"Thor," he smiles, and Thor doesn't need to be a genius to know that for the invitation it is.

It's only when Thor gets onto the bed, hands settling easily on Loki's hips that he notices something is different this time. Not that they've had time yet to fall into habits with each other in this, but there's a light in Loki's eyes, an intenseness that Thor hasn't seen before. It gives Thor pause, and Loki smiles more before reaching up a hand, pressing his fore and ring fingers over Thor's eyes, easing the lids shut.

"What -?"

"Trust me."

Thor licks his lips and keeps his eyes shut when Loki's fingers draw away from his eyes and begin to map over the contours of his face, ghost-light. His fingertips rasp over the beginnings of stubble on Thor's jaw, trace over the sensitive skin beneath it and down the front of Thor's neck, his hands separating to follow each of Thor's collarbones. When he reaches the end of the frame of Thor's shoulders, Loki cups his hands over the joints, leaning in to press his lips against the hollow of Thor's throat, pressing slow, light kisses down Thor's sternum as his fingers begin to slide down Thor's arms.

"What are you doing?" Thor can't help but ask as Loki drifts lower, seemingly leisurely but obviously purposeful.

"Don't open your eyes," Loki murmurs, the soft tone overloud in the dark, speaking against Thor's diaphram.

Loki's mouth feels like air, just slightly damp and with just enough pressure to be a presence, to slip into Thor's awareness. Somewhere in the back of Thor's mind that isn't being overloaded with sensation, it occurs to Thor that Loki had to have learned this from somewhere or have planned this very carefully. He settles mentally for the latter because it's simpler and much more flattering, and there's only so much he can think about as Loki drifts slowly lower on his torso.

It's just as Loki is mouthing the inside of Thor's thigh, tongue darting out to start tracing the base of Thor's cock, that Thor realizes this is really happening. The realization must make him twitch because Loki breathes out a small laugh and Thor can feel him smile against the sensitive skin.

"You smell like my soap," Loki murmurs, and he sounds so deeply pleased Thor doesn't even begin to feel offended; rather, the opposite.

This (everything about today, tonight, them, this) is new. Thor didn't know it could be like this, almost entirely silent except for breathing and the obscene noise as Loki parts his lips to take a deeper breath, the sheets twisting around them. Thor has to squeeze his eyes shut to keep from opening them, his hands fisting into the bedclothes to stop from grabbing onto Loki's hair. Loki doesn't stop, doesn't speed up, doesn't try to guide Thor in any way, and it feels like everything belongs to Loki, every inch of Thor, the bedroom, the very air.

"Loki -"

And it's like Loki can read his mind, although what Thor wants is pretty obvious, and he finally speeds up a bit, increasing pressure and suction more. Thor doesn't dare open his eyes for fear that Loki will stop if he does (trust me echoes in Thor's ears, in the back of his brain), and he can distantly hear himself, gasping, moaning, making enough noise that what little presence of mind he has left that isn't covered in sensation is embarrassed. But even that fades as Thor peaks and he thinks he cries out, shuddering and pulled taunt, Loki not withdrawing, not letting up at all, and Thor can feel the deep pull of Loki swallowing Thor down through his release. It's only after Thor is finished that Loki pulls back, shifting forward to let Thor lean on him, hands snaking around beneath Thor's arms to hold him close.

"You can open your eyes now," Loki murmurs, and Thor wonders how on earth he doesn't sound any different than before.

They're so close together in this position that Thor can't see Loki's face completely, especially not in the unlit bedroom. He can see the lines of Loki's shoulders, the bones of his spine, the arch of his lower back. Loki shifts against him, supporting Thor's post-coital form, and Thor finds enough coordination to reach up and hug Loki back, humming a long, contented note into the darkness. They remain like that in silence for a long time, Loki idly tracing figures on Thor's back.

It's once Thor feels his energy coming back and he shifts slightly to press a kiss to Loki's shoulder that Loki speaks. "You don't have to do anything tonight, Thor."

Thor smirks, reaching low to trace his hand over Loki's hip. "I want to."

He feels rather than hears Loki laugh, little puffs of breath against his skin. "I'm a bad influence on you," Loki says, sounding as pleased as he did when he was just about to suck Thor off.

Thor chuckles, deep in his chest, in the way that reverberates throughout his body. "It seems so," he says, and it feels right, so very right, and that's all that matters.

 

xxvii.

Thor clings to that memory the next day when he gets to Valhalla to find Sif flat-out glaring at him in greeting.

"You couldn't call yourself?" she asks, obviously trying very hard not to sound as betrayed as she does. "Instead Pepper Potts did and then sent over someone we don't even know to do your job?"

"I didn't ask them to do that," Thor says, trying to sound apologetic and probably failing just as much as Sif.

"No, I didn't think so," she bites out, pounding the masher into the pot of potatoes harder than necessary. "She said there was something about a nondisclosure policy."

Thor isn't sure how Sif makes that sound like a dirty word, but she does somehow. It's almost impressive, a voice in the back of Thor's head that sounds suspiciously like Loki supplies, and, although it's unkind, it isn't a false statement. Thor occupies himself with retrieving some parsley from the refrigerator.

"There was one in place at the time," Thor says when he returns, opening the bag and beginning to sort through the good and bad sprigs.

Sif grinds her teeth briefly, setting the masher to the side and reaching for the cream. "I know," she says after a long, uncomfortable silence. "I saw the news. Thor, I just think -"

Thor shakes his head, really scowling now, and the tension-filled silence returns. Stubbornly, although he can think of a great deal of things to say, Thor doesn't break it. Instead, he just rolls the words that come to mind about in his head and sets about dicing up garlic.

"See?" Sif pushes after a couple of minutes of silence. "This is what I mean."

Thor breathes out in a long, thin stream through his teeth. "What do you mean?"

"You, keeping secrets!" Sif exclaims, abandoning all pretense to tending the mashed potatoes. "Thor, this isn't you! This is -"

"Sif," Hogun's voice cuts in, his grim face appearing to the side, two bottles of oil from storage in hand, "stop."

Thor uses all of his will and control to keep julienning the carrots and not to react, not explode, not like he has always been prone to doing. The last time he exploded, Loki looked at him like the boy he killed did, and he doesn't want to see that expression, not ever again; he can barely stand to see actors in movies mimick it (and they almost always get it wrong, and when they get it right, he knows they've experienced true terror).

Valhalla sits in tense silence until the Sunday brunch and lunch crowd start to trickle in. Thor concentrates on what he needs to do, cooking orders and generally confining himself to running his kitchen for a few hours. He needs to talk to Volstagg about Steve Rogers and what the status is on that, and he needs to check the books during the break and call Pepper Potts about paying the person who came in while Thor was gone on Saturday. He suspects that Stark Industries has always gone ahead and compensated whoever it was, but Thor doesn't want to owe them anything more than he already does. That's not Thor's way.

Volstagg arrives just after they close between lunch and dinner at two-thirty, and Thor makes an obvious beeline to him through the kitchen, leaving the last of the washing up to Hogun, who, for some reason, seems to like the task anyways. Volstagg smiles wide and welcoming at Thor, and, after they exchange greetings, he launches into exactly what Thor wanted to address.

"It's a shame you weren't here to meet Steve -"

Thor shakes his head. "I trust your judgement," he says. "If you think he'll work well here, then we'll hire him. Can he start on Monday?"

Volstagg looks momentarily surprised before his face splits into a huge grin and he thumps Thor on the back hard enough that it hurts a bit. "Wonderful!" Volstagg booms. "I shall call him immediately! It will be such a joy to have new blood in this place!"

Thor laughs, half because Volstagg is so happy and half because he can't think of anything to say to that. He does hope that this Steve is able to keep up with them, but, if he was in the military, he's probably used to adapting to new situations with a level of acceleration. The thought remind Thor of something, and he pauses on his way to the office to turn back to Volstagg.

"What's Steve's rank in the military?"

Volstagg pauses to think for a moment, still smiling broadly. "He's a Captain. Army, I think."

Thor keeps his smile on until he's safely behind the door to the office and seated at the desk, ledger in hand. It doesn't fade completely, but he knows if he was to look in a mirror, there would be anxiety plain on his face. An Army Captain. He would have certainly met Thor's father then, and Thor's last name would be a dead giveaway to their connection. It's too late to take back what he's just said to Volstagg for Thor never goes back on his word. He is always honest, sometimes to a fault.

Maybe it will not be the disaster he suspects it could be. Thor turns his attention to the ledger and supply listings and clings to that thought for the rest of the day.

 

xxviii.

Loki is completely engrossed in the dome structure--a much later hologram than what Thor has seen before this time--when Thor returns to the apartment that night, and Bruce makes a motion for silence when Thor makes his way into the front door, tonight propped open with one of Bruce's Monster cans.

"That's become very important recently," Bruce says while they're in the kitchen, having left Loki to the world that is his very own.

"What is it?"

Bruce stops momentarily, a new Monster can halfway to his lips. Thor knows the answer before Bruce actually shakes his head.

"It's classified," Bruce says, somewhat apologetically even though there's nothing to be sorry for, "and it's not my place to discuss it. It's Loki and Tony's project. It -,"

He stops for a moment, his face shifting towards something intense and burning that Thor hasn't seen in Bruce before. The expression only lasts a moment until Bruce calms himself with a deep breath, and he continues, although his tone is heavy and blunt.

"It's theirs. No one else has a right to it."

Thor frowns, glancing over his shoulder to the half-open door and the partial view of the living room, but Loki hasn't moved at all from his position under the hologram; Thor can clearly hear the clicking of Loki's fingers over the keyboard of his laptop. Thor stares for a long moment at what he can see of the dome structure, is distracted momentarily when he notices that part of it missing, like Loki had torn out a part of it completely. He turns back to Bruce, who nurses the Monster can in such a way that makes Thor suspect that Bruce has alcohol added to it.

"Is someone trying to take it from them?"

Bruce's jaw works as he tries to figure his words. Thor feels a flash of pity for him suddenly, and he wonders if Bruce is comfortable with his place in all of this, whatever this even is. Thor knows he isn't entirely, is only here because Loki is, but Bruce is more deeply engrained, his livelihood tied up in all of it. Thor remembers picking up Bruce from Hell's Kitchen (just earlier this week, really, but it feels like ages ago), how Bruce apparently had his entire life packed in one piece of luggage.

"We're not sure," he finally settles for, and Thor guesses it's as much truth as he can hope to get. "There's a lot of things going on right now with what's happened to Tony."

"Loki said he would recover."

Bruce nods, glancing to the door and Loki briefly before looking to Thor, expression as grim as Hogun's has ever been. "He'll never be the same as he was," Bruce says, and he takes a long gulp of his drink.

There really isn't anything to say to that. Loki might have words, but Loki is away in a world that Thor suspects only Tony can reach him in and Thor has never been good with words. He doesn't know Bruce well enough to reach out and put a hand on his shoulder either, and he suspects from Bruce's hunched and guarded body language such a gesture would be deeply unwelcome.

They move back out into the living room a few minutes later, less carefully than when they'd originally left it, and Loki looks away from the hologram and laptop screen briefly, lips lifting up into a distracted smile when they settle on Thor.

"Was everything in order at work?" Loki asks as Thor takes a seat on the couch, knees framing Loki's shoulders as he turns on the television to flip channels.

"Yes," Thor answers after taking a moment to think about it. "Tomorrow we're going to try out a new employee. Are you coming for dinner?"

Loki reaches up and begins to work the base of the hologram, his fingers twitching within it like he's weaving. Thor is starting to become familiar with some of the dome structure, at least in how it looks and the places that Loki often returns to work on. Loki might not be able to explain it to him, but Thor thinks he might know it, even if he will never understand it. Loki finishes whatever adjustment he was making and turns his gaze to Thor, focused and bright in his face.

"Of course," Loki says, a small, real smile on his lips. "I look forward to it."

 

xxix.

That night, somewhere just before dawn, Loki has a nightmare.

It in itself is not an uncommon occurrence. Thor has been woken a few times in the past to Loki's abrupt jolting upwards in bed, always with a hand outstetched as if to grasp something from the dream. They haven't talked about it, mostly because Loki never wishes to and Thor does not push Loki to explain himself as a rule. Thor has always slept easily, but he knows that even when Loki isn't waking from nightmares, his sleep is uneasy; they've slept beside each other enough to know such things.

This nightmare, though, is different. By the time Thor awakes, Loki is already sitting up next to him in bed, wiping tears from his face and breathing raggedly. Thor reaches out, pressing his hand to Loki's side. Loki jumps slightly, and his voice hiccups when he tries to protest.

"It's nothing -"

"It's not," Thor says, sitting up now, too, and pulling Loki close despite Loki's initial movement to draw away. "Don't lie to me."

That just earns him a wretched sob that cuts off abruptly as Loki swallows it, muscles spasming and tensing with the effort. Loki repeats the process of swallowing his sobs several more times, and it's probably the most painful thing that Thor has ever seen Loki do, including dealing with his still unexplained injuries. Eventually, Loki calms enough that his body sags in Thor's arms, although the tension is still there, rolling underneath his skin.

Abruptly, Loki draws in a deep breath and, in a flurry of movement, extracts himself from Thor's arms, crossing the room to the dressing table that keeps Loki's cologne and is where he sets his laptop and the work pieces he brings to the bedroom. It takes Thor a moment to comprehend the sudden change, and by then Loki is already opening his laptop and awakening it from sleep, the screen's light throwing his face in the dressing table's mirror into relief. There's still tear tracks on his cheeks, and his breathing is overly deep as he continues trying to calm himself, but his eyes are focused, intent.

Thor swings his legs over the side of the bed, confused, intrigued, and unsettled all at the same time as he watches Loki's fingers jitter over the keys, not quite depressing any of them as he stares at the lines of code on the screen. For a moment, it's like he can't quite get his thoughts together to articulate them, but then that passes and Loki begins to type at a furious speed, his eyes tracking the new lines coming up at a pace that Thor is surprised the computer can accomodate. Thor hovers on the edge of the bed, unsure of what he should do because Loki has never been quite so abrupt in his behavior before.

"Thor," Loki starts, cutting Thor's thoughts off even as he doesn't cease typing, "could you pass me my briefcase?"

Thor blinks before reaching for the briefcase leaning against the side of the bedside table on Loki's side of the bed. He brings it over to Loki, who finally looks away from the screen and to Thor, although he doesn't stop typing and his eyes are focused on something else beyond Thor, beyond the entire room. It's entirely disconcerting to look at, and, yet, it sends a shot of exhillaration through Thor that touches his very core.

"Thank you," Loki says after a moment, his hands moving from the keyboard and taking the case from Thor to lie it flat on the ground.

Loki bends over the case, thumbing a panel between the arch of the handle to produce a whirring noise accompanied by several clicks. He opens the case to lie flat on the floor, revealing a mess of wires, coils, and switches that his fingers dance over until the entire thing whirs and glows with blinking lights. Loki mutters under his breath words that are in English but aren't, at least to Thor's ears, too fast and technical for Thor to understand, his eyes darting back and forth between his fingers and the small black panel with scrolling green words in the middle of the lower half of the case. It's like watching Loki perform magic as slowly the entire case lights up with all the little lights turning green as well, their arrangement like a many-branched tree.

"What is it?" Thor asks, his voice breathy in fascination.

"The fruit of my knowledge," Loki answers, watching as the screen flashes entirely green before closing the case. "I'm going to wake Bruce and then -"

He stops himself abruptly, hand still resting on the case shut at his feet; Thor can still hear a faint whirring coming from it, can feel his blood thrumming in response. It's like racing or those elusive cooking highs but not. There's something else to it, a deeper meaning, because Loki is here with him, is driving him, and Thor is only just beginning to realize what his part is in the recipe, in the ride because -

"I want this," Thor says, and he sounds as mad and out of control as he feels, and it's so very exciting.

And Loki's face splits into the grin, a feral one that shows all his teeth and turns his eyes into twin flames, and Thor knows he loves Loki more than anything in the world.

 

xxx.

Bruce is frightened, and Thor can't blame him. He can feel the minute trembling as Bruce sits beside him as they barrel down the street in Loki's Ferrari, a sleek black thing that Loki barely knows how to drive. Or maybe he does know how to drive it but just chooses to act like a maniac, weaving in and out of the morning rush traffic and making screeching turns down back alleys and the wrong way on one way streets.

"You don't know where we're going," Loki had said when Thor had originally offered to drive, and now Thor really wishes he had pushed the issue.

They've twisted and spun about enough times that, if Thor hadn't lived in New York City almost all of his life, he would be hopelessly lost. Bruce has started to look queasy, which means he's confused and more than a little unbalanced, and it's taking all of Thor's years of wrongdoing not to be the same or worse. Loki simply swears and mutters to himself, treating the Ferrari like a bumper car at a fair. Most of what he's muttering Thor suspects is nonsense because half of it has started to rhyme, and he does find himself wondering a bit more than usual about Loki's sanity.

"Someone's following us," Bruce says, after taking a glance out the window as they enter a tunnel underpass.

"I know," Loki snaps. "I'm trying to loose them."

"Then stop choosing streets by intervals in children's songs," Bruce grits out, a slight green tinge to his cheeks, "and upgrade to symponies."

Loki pulls a face, and Thor watches Loki's hands on the wheel, listens to the way the wheels scream when they skid around a corner. Thor can guess that it's only a short matter of time before the police show up and he can feel his heart pounding, the start of the adrenaline he once lived off of, that he still craves.

"The police -" Bruce starts, and his knuckles are white where they grip the edge of his seat.

"Least of our worries," Loki answers, glancing to the side mirror and then gunning the engine.

Thor looks over his shoulder and sees it briefly, a sleek black car with tinted windows, before they abruptly turn a corner. It takes Thor a moment to find his breath again, although whether it's from surprise or excitement is something else entirely.

"Let me drive," he hears himself say before he fully realizes the thought itself.

"Not yet," Loki answers, although his eyes do flicker to meet Thor's in the rearview mirror, managing in a scant moment to communicate an understanding of what this means. "Soon."

There's a few more dizzyingly sharp turns before they end up in a badly lit parking garage, coming to a screeching stop in the middle of it. Loki lets go of the wheel, and Thor, for once since Loki entered his life, knows. He launches himself forward between the front seats, crawling over Loki who slides into the passenger seat, and takes the wheel, revving the engine with a rush of familarity that he hasn't allowed himself to feel for years.

"Where?" Thor asks, already tearing out of the parking lot, all of his cares stripping away, the only need in his soul the finish line.

"Let's make sure we lost them," Loki says in his ear, "and then we can figure out from there."

Thor laughs, tearing out of the parking lot and heading towards Hell's Kitchen and the racing roads he knows so well even after all these years. Next to him, Loki opens the glove compartment and pulls out a handgun that's tucked in the crushed pages of the maintenace manual, setting about loading it between glances to the side mirror. In the rearview mirror, Thor can see Bruce sigh and clutch both his and Loki's briefcase close and secure to his chest.

Yes, Thor thinks. Yes -

And then Loki rolls down the window and fires a shot that breaks the windshield of the car that's been chasing them. Thor has just a moment to see the car serve violently, going into a spin before Thor takes their car around a corner and the sight is gone, Loki already rolling the window up and settling back in his seat. Bruce is the color of milk in the rearview mirror, and Thor -

"Stark Industries," Loki says, the same voice that murmurs a glass of the house wine and the arugula salad, no parmesan, thank you, and -

Thor drives.

 

xxxi.

Loki directs Thor to a parking structure attached to Stark Industries, leans over Thor to pass his employee ID through the security booth, and then tells Thor to park in the third space from the elevator on the ground floor. Bruce gets out immediately, hurrying up the stairwell instead of going to the elevator with his own briefcase, and Thor starts to get out to follow before Loki catches his elbow.

"Here," Loki says, and he offers Thor the handgun, his other hand already occupied by his briefcase.

Thor takes it, both of them already moving, leaving Loki's expensive car running and doors open. "But -"

"You know how to use it," Loki says, not a question as he hits the button on the elevator, which slides open readily.

"Yes," Thor answers, letting it hang in his hand at his side, seeing no point in secrecy when Loki apparently isn't, "but -"

"I won't be able to use it when I activate this," Loki answers, and Thor knows he's talking about his briefcase.

Above them, the floor numbers are rushing up past the teens, and Thor knows it's now or never. "What are we doing?"

Loki licks his lips. "Saving Tony," he says and then amending in a softer tone, "Repaying my debt."

17. 18. "We might have killed whoever was driving that car."

19. 20. "If we did, then I killed them. Not you. Not Bruce."

21. 22. "What if I have to shoot someone?"

23. "I made you do it."

24. "It's my choice."

25. Loki looks at him, sees him, and smiles.

26. "You're a rare creature, Thor Odinson."

The elevator comes to a stop, the door opening into a dim labratory. It's so obviously Loki's somehow, from the disarray that everything on the tables and floor is in to the way all the walls are all somehow organized with papers and books and binders stacked on the shelves. Loki moves ahead of him to open the briefcase on a table next to the wall, connecting more wires between it and a couple of outlets and a main computer that blinks to life in a flurry of green text. And Thor thinks, of course, this is why Loki needed him to handle the gun because Loki probably wouldn't notice a knife at his neck right now, not when the world of code is before him.

On the walls, computer screens blink to life, words and designs and numbers scrolling endlessly from one to the next like some kind of beast awakened by magic. The light above the elevator blinks off and then on again, flickering like a firefly, and Thor can hear, distantly, a thin, high alarm going off somewhere. Thor shifts his hold on the hand gun, remembers the hunting trips he took with his father when he was still an Odinson in more than name. It had been a rifle then, and he had felt immortal with youth, emboldened in the thrill of the hunt.

"When I was a boy," Loki says, his fingers flying over keys while his eyes stare out somewhere beyond, "my mother told me that I would be her legacy."

The room is filled in the green glow of Loki's computer screens and the briefcase, pulsing with the life that Loki has fed into it. Thor can hear people moving around upstairs, and he thinks, in a sudden burst of clarity, there must be something illegal about all of this, that Loki must be the root of it all. He doesn't know what Bruce's part in it is, except, perhaps, to provide a distraction.

"I don't think," Loki says, in a voice that's more to himself than to Thor, "this is what she meant."

He hits the right Enter key on the keyboard. The screens pulse once, twice, as if they're alive, the green light surging up and out, painting across the labratory walls and floor like something otheworldly. The machines whir and whine, the third pulse surging brighter than the ones that came before, and, distantly, Thor thinks he can hear something screech: metal across metal, maybe, or perhaps a human scream. Loki turns away from the keyboard, hands falling to his sides like a puppet with its strings cut, and gazes up at the ceiling. Thor follows his gaze and recognizes the dome structure, spinning above their heads like a constellation in the night sky.

"It's beautiful," Thor says.

Loki laughs, a choked, surprised sound. Thor looks to him and finds him looking back, a strangely relieved smile on his lips. It's the first time, Thor thinks, that Loki hasn't looked so very burdened.

"I never thought it would turn out this way," Loki says, "but I never knew what to expect either."

 

xxxii.

He sits on the ground of the labratory, Loki tucked up against his left side, Loki's handgun at his right. Around them, the computers and machines whir, and Loki occasionally rises to input a few more commands, usually when something beeps a signal for him to do so. All of it, all of Loki, though, is relaxed, his movements so languid Thor would have though him drugged if he didn't know better.

"There's nothing illegal about this," Loki explains when Thor asks after a few hours pass and no one comes and nothing shuts down. "Well, yes, we broke quite a number of traffic laws, and we might have killed someone, but no one will press charges on that, I don't think."

Thor raises an eyebrow, and Loki giggles, his lips lifting into the small smile that Thor knows is real. "Why not?"

"Because," Loki says, motioning to the walls and ceiling, green light illuminating every surface, "these are the flood gates broken open."

A memory stirs in Thor's mind, of a strange expression on Loki's face and the words we make weapons at Stark Industries. Thor shifts slightly to look at Loki, at the calm, almost sleepy expression on his face, and is rewarded with a slight quirk of Loki's lips. Loki reaches up, tracing his fingers over Thor's jaw where a shadow of stubble has come up in the last several hours.

"Not everything I made was for Tony," Loki says, and there's no regret in his voice, not anymore. "I made things for Stane as well. I don't expect Tony to keep me, though, not after this."

"And what is this?"

Loki doesn't respond for a long moment. He looks younger, the tension that always pulls him tight gone from his body, the premature lines on his face smoother than Thor has seen them without drink. There are a lot of things wrong with Loki's life, and Thor suspects that part of it--especially Loki's eating habits--are by Loki's own choice. Most people would say that it's wrong, that Loki's wrong, but Thor finds, now more than ever, he can't agree, not completely, not when he sees all of Loki's world laid out before him.

"Redemption," Loki murmurs, his thumb rubbing absent circles over the stubble on Thor's jaw. "Stane would have killed Tony, given enough time to bury the evidence. I had all the pieces for months, all the back door deals, all the plans being commissioned and passed around, except the most important one: evidence of intent. So, I waited and waited, tried to play it safe, and Tony nearly died anyways."

They fall into silence again after that, Loki shifting away to type for a handful of minutes in front of the main terminal to change something in the world around them. He looks altogher more relaxed and openly sad than Thor is used to seeing him, like the barrier he's always worn has become useless within the last twelve hours. Perhaps, Thor thinks as Loki traces absentminded spirals over Thor's forearm, his eyes gazing out and faraway, it has. Around them, screens glow and machinery whirs, and it feels, despite everything, something like peace.

 

xxxiii.

It's nine-thirty on a Monday evening, and Loki is swirling his wine in its glass, eyes gazing out the font windows of Valhalla. Outside, it's snowing, the beginning of what will probably shape up into a blizzard, winter coming in fast and furious. Thor folds the new white linen napkins that Tony bought Valhalla as an early Christmas present as he watches Steve and Sif polish silverware out of the side of his eye. In the kitchen, Volstagg and Fandral are cleaning up; Hogun has the night off.

At a quarter to ten, Thor joins Loki at what's become their table, a plate of fresh pumpkin pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in hand. Loki's lips twitch, little lights coming on in his eyes, and he sets his mostly finished wine glass down on the new gold-colored tablecloth.

"Bruce was wondering if you would be making pies this year," he explains as he picks up the spooon that doesn't already occupy Thor's hand.

"Just pumpkin and custard," Thor amends, using the edge of the spoon to take a part of the crust end and scaping some ice cream to accompany. "Fandral hates doing the lattice pastry for a proper apple pie."

"Shame," Loki murmurs, lifting a spoonful of the pumpkin filling towards his lips. "But I suppose it's for the better in the end. Stane was fond of apple pies."

Thor swallows before asking, "How is the trial going?"

"Oh," Loki shrugs, the tip of tongue flicking out to lick a bit of residue off his spoon, "it's a regular circus, but you probably gathered that from the media coverage. Really, it's just gotten ridiculous. Did you know the defense tried to use Tony's medical records as evidence?"

Thor frowns; he hasn't been following the news much lately, mostly because it infuriates him and he still has Loki's gun. "Wouldn't that break doctor-patient confidentiality?"

"Yes, but that's just a little thing," Loki answers, reaching up absentmindedly and tucking a lock of hair that had fallen into his face behind his left ear. "What it actually indicates is that Stane is still trying to get at Tony. Stane and his lawyers try to make it look like the medical records would show that Stane had Tony's best interests at heart, but it would be circumstantial evidence at best. After all, Stane was the one trying to take Tony off life support from the very beginning. It's psychological warfare, really."

Thor nods, although he remains frowning at the dark tone that colors Loki's words at the last part. They eat for a couple of minutes in silence, companionable if rather heavy, until Thor breaks it as he usually does these days.

"Are you sure it's a good idea for you to testify?"

Loki's lips twitch, showing his teeth in a sardonic smile. Thor smiles back, rather sheepishly, and the lights go on again in Loki's eyes, signalling no harm done. It was a stupid question anyways. Thor had known that.

At ten o'clock sharp, Loki stands up, picking up his Starkphone from the tabletop and tucking it into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. Thor stands as well, picking up the dessert plate, spoons, and Loki's empty wine glass as he watches Loki pull on his trenchcoat and begin to wind his scarf around his neck. The snow outside is coming down fast and hard, and Thor suspects Valhalla will have to stay closed tomorrow.

"I'll see you at home," Thor says, moving towards the kitchen.

"Text me when you're coming up," Loki calls after him, an upwards lilt to his voice. "I have a surprise."

Thor looks back, at the small smile on Loki's lips and the way his eyes seem to glow at the angle his head is at, and grins widely, gladly, a hand pushing open the door.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world."