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the taste you were forever chasing

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Thor is washing the dishes.

Usually the task falls to someone else, but tonight's dinner was a surprisingly good joint effort from Rogers and Barton, so Thor, who still has the idiotic notion that he must be helpful in every respect or the Avengers will cease to tolerate him, volunteered to clean.

(It is not an idiotic notion, really. Loki understands the urge intimately, though she has given up wasting time and energy on the fear that she will cease to be tolerated.)

The others are still bringing dishes in from the next room, talking and laughing. The topic of conversation has just turned to Rogers' latest project, his effort to teach Thor and Loki how to drive. Loki has not yet pointed out that they are both more than capable of traveling without transit as simple as Midgardian cars, in large part because Loki has found she enjoys cars very much indeed.

"So," Agent Romanoff says over her shoulder to Rogers, all false innocence, "how are driving lessons?"

Loki, who is leaning against the counter near Thor, deliberately fails to hide her smirk. There is good sport in watching how Rogers blanches. She takes a plate from Agent Romanoff and says, "I drove on the highway today."

Natasha nearly cracks a visible smile. Loki awards herself a point for that.

"You're progressing really well," Rogers says, rallying. "I mean, besides acting like the words 'defensive driving' mean nothing to you."

Stark, damn him, sets his dishes in the sink and backs out of Loki's immediate range before saying, "They actually don't. Loki fessed up to me after your last lesson."

"Ah," Rogers sighs, handing Thor the soup pot. "That does explain it."

Thor sets an encouraging hand on his shoulder. "Explain 'defensive driving' to me, then."

Loki catches herself looking at Thor with exasperated fondness. Thor is as yet a terrible driver. He tries at first to wield every tool as though it is Mjolnir. It is no surprise to Loki, who has seen Thor have the same initial difficulty with every weapon he's tried, and with sorcery, and with tactics. When Thor tries to learn to use tools and men and magic as extensions of himself, it has always been much like trying to shut the lid of a box on lightning: he cannot easily mitigate himself with other mediums. It can be done, of course -- after all, much of Midgard powers itself with electricity, neatly harnessed -- and what Thor lacks in patience he makes up for in determination; but it does take time.

"That is not the whole difficulty," Thor is explaining, grinning ruefully. "Bruce, would you hand me the frying pan? Thank you. The difficulty is in the turns, especially the sharp ones to the right; I cannot make the car respond as it should."

"Gone off the road?" Dr. Banner asks, with smiling sympathy. He looks amused; they all do. The Avengers have rarely seen Thor struggle, and think they have found his one humorous weakness. Loki knows better, from long experience: once Thor masters something, he will be very good at it.

For now there is a comfort in knowing she is better at it than Thor is, and a strange comfort too in knowing it cleanly, without the accompanying desperate triumph in knowing she has beaten Thor at anything, no matter how small. Instead Loki takes pleasure in the memory of driving. Earlier that day she bore out a theory that she can fit through any gap in traffic if she manages it swiftly enough, and enjoyed the look of horror on Rogers' face at the risk. She didn't bother to explain that there was no real question of her maneuvering capability: the car is but another carapace, and Loki learns new shapes swiftly.

"You want me to take Thor out next time?" Barton asks Rogers. "We can take turns."

"I would not want to try your patience," Thor says. His arms are now covered in suds up to the elbows, though he tries to turn half away from the sink to address Barton and Rogers equally. Loki's gaze latches onto Thor's arms for a moment too long, watching water slide down the contours of his muscles, and desire begins to curl in her belly. She wrenches her attention back to the conversation.

"No," Barton says. "I'd like to. It ... sounds kind of fun."

It is a pity that Barton is only offering to accompany Thor. Loki has seen Barton's driving on missions; Loki was sitting in the back of a truck while Barton drove it out of a collapsing SHIELD compound, a year and more ago; she knows that Barton drives the way she wants to. Loki wonders, idly, what she has that she might barter in exchange for lessons. She supposes Agent Romanoff might teach her instead; but for all the tension between them, as there is still tension between Loki and everyone in this room, they are already allies. Barton is the one with whom Loki still needs to make repairs.

Besides, Barton is the better driver.

"Sure," Rogers is saying, "if you don't mind. That would be great, actually," and gives an apologetic shrug to Thor, who laughs good-naturedly.

Loki knows that as things stand, she won't find a foothold with Barton through Rogers. They do have some camaraderie after all their time in training together, and though she and Rogers have ... a particular level of understanding between them since the final act of the Chitauri war, their ties are much too new. Payoff from Rogers will come in grander gestures, during times of greater need; unlike her brother, he is entirely aware that he is a legend.

She turns, inspired, and helps to dry dishes while Rogers is watching: small favors invested will yield the same.

It gives her time to think. The way to Barton is not through Natasha, either, because no one here is better equipped to notice Loki leveraging on their goodwill. Loki values too much what she and Agent Romanoff have built to risk it on such a trifle. By rights, Loki should continue to hate Natasha: she has made no effort to pin down the quicksilver at Loki's core, and so none of it has escaped her notice. Loki's hands clench a little too hard around the dishtowel before she remembers herself.

Natasha's cleverness is a terror and a blessing. Loki has toyed with the idea of changing her clothes to a more feminine style when she has female form, but it seems far too late to bring it up with her mother, and too delicate a matter to mention otherwise. Natasha must have noticed: several times she has left bright books of current Midgardian fashion around the Mansion, and Loki stole them with vicious satisfaction before realizing she'd never seen Natasha reading any of them, had never seen them before. Agent Romanoff has the poise and cleverness of a queen, and Loki feels no small measure of respect for her.

Agent Romanoff is so painfully good to have around that it's dangerous.

"Best of luck," Dr. Banner says to Barton. "I hope no one minds if I cut out early? Dr. Foster asked if I could look over some data with her this evening, and it's almost dinnertime in New Mexico now; I should catch her before she leaves the office --"

"Sure, sure," Stark says, waving him off. "I'll meet you down there." He gives Dr. Banner a brief kiss and turns to Rogers. "Have either of them smashed into a stop sign yet?"

"Yet?" Rogers echoes.

Loki smiles at that, though her attention is for the moment on Dr. Banner as he leaves the room. Dr. Banner is as indispensable as Agent Romanoff, even if he lacks her grace -- Quit saying that word, 'monster,' he'd interrupted a perfectly innocuous discussion of xenobiology three days ago. The chorus just gets louder when you add your own voice. I'm serious, cut it out. The directness of it had shaken Loki's composure. She doesn't know whether respect or wariness plays a greater role in keeping Dr. Banner and Agent Romanoff free of her manipulations.

Stark is out of the question, she thinks, and smiles. Stark is rambling off a list of his own youthful escapades in cars, to Rogers' laughing half-feigned horror, and Loki listens with half an ear, still calculating. Besides offering no particular advantage, she suspects Stark would disapprove on principle of her utilitarian motives for wanting to secure Barton's regard.

And, she realizes, with a sort of rising bewilderment, she needs only calculate how to keep from falling from Stark's regard -- which means she is within it already. Nearly every careful move is made to keep the Avengers, not to win them; there is no mad scramble in her soul to make them care for her. She doesn't know how this came to pass. Perhaps it is because they are but mortal, and have but short mortal memories. But Loki knows that she is doing the Avengers a disservice by excusing it so, though she cannot think why they would allow her otherwise. It is not even because of Thor: on Asgard, Sif and the Warriors Three tolerated Loki for a time because Thor wished them to, and so they deigned throw some charity to her; here Loki knows that the Avengers don't trust Thor's good opinion of her for a moment, so if they do keep company with her, it is because they wish to do so.

Loki does not think on this often. When she does, as now, she begins to feel it under her skin, electric with something that is too bright with pleasure to be fear and too sharp to be anything so hollow and soft as gratitude.

"Come on," Natasha says to Barton. "Let's get in one last sparring session before you die teaching Thor how to drive."

"It's not that bad," Rogers protests, and then, perhaps not realizing how his words will sound as though he's agreeing with Natasha's assessment, "Mind if I come too?"

This prompts a burst of mirth from the room at large, Thor's rolling laugh of rueful good humor louder than the rest. It catches under Loki's skin; it makes her body hum with a sudden need to touch him, to bite at his lip and steal the laughter from his mouth. She grips hard at the dish in her hands, recalling herself only just in time to keep from breaking it. She should shift to another form, Loki thinks; she courts danger, keeping this form while coveting Thor's body.

But she doesn't want to change, not yet.

Loki hates this sometimes. The warmth and easy camaraderie in this room, easy and natural, including her as much as it does Thor, closes in around her like choking expectation. Loki knows well enough that this cannot last. The Avengers may be sincere in their regard for her, but this is only a moment, an island of good fortune surrounded on all sides by the truth: that Loki has never been able to be anything but a creature of destruction, and that in time she will tear this down, whether she means to do so or no.

Her reluctance to change form now is perhaps the beginning of that destruction. Thor has said that nothing of Loki frightens him away; but there is a difference between tolerance and love, and Loki can't afford to hope.

"Good night," Natasha throws to Loki, with a smile, and leaves the room, Barton in her wake. Loki nods to them; she thinks she is still smiling, and thinks it looks real, but like a fool she has dwelt in calculation too long and turned simple after-dinner conversation into a quiet explosion of fear.

"Either of you want to come down with us?" Rogers asks Thor and Loki, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the practice rooms.

"Not tonight, I think," Thor says, giving Rogers a smile and holding up one of the last dishes in explanation. "I wish you victory."

"Against Tasha?" Rogers grins. "Not a chance. Night, everyone."

"And I have a date with Bruce and Dr. Foster," Stark says. He dares get close enough to punch Loki's arm: his willingness to touch Loki is one of his most bewildering habits, though Loki does not entirely dislike it. "You kids have fun."

"Say hello to Jane for me!" Thor calls after his retreating back.

Then the kitchen is empty, but for Thor and Loki. Loki sets down her towel with deliberate care. She watches Thor as he rinses the last of the dishes and drains the sink, absorbed in his task, smiling to himself. Since the Chitauri War, Thor's smiles come less easily, and Loki cannot help hungrily taking in the sight of her brother so at ease.

Thor catches her eye. His smile grows, full of plain joy, and Loki feels it like a knife under the ribs, too much to bear on top of all the fears and edges she has gathered to herself with her thoughts. This is not going to last; this was never going to last; so Loki decides not to draw it out longer. She might as well destroy it all again, so Loki closes the space between them, and kisses him.

For a moment Thor is still, simply letting her kiss him, and Loki feels a burst of savage triumph at how easy it was to prove Thor a liar. Then Thor's mouth parts under hers, his hands coming up to hold her waist and pull Loki flush against him, and all of Loki's vicious certainty vanishes.

Perhaps this won't be a disaster. Thor's hands, warm and still a little damp, are skimming over Loki's back over her shirt, the touch still familiar in this new skin. Perhaps this won't be a disaster, Loki thinks, but she knows she's being a fool. She has never allowed Thor to touch her so in this form, with good reason. There are a thousand terrible foolish things Thor could say, some of them blatantly contradictory -- she fears both his hesitance and his overeagerness, how he might treat her as simply his brother with a quim, an arousing curiosity; she fears both his assuredness regarding her identity and his confusion over what to make of her. She is a living trap.

There is still time. Thor is curling a hand around the nape of her neck, tangling in her hair, his kiss going deep and messy in a prelude Loki knows well; but there is still time. She can still fold herself back into the form that no one has ever taken immediate issue with. She can still put off the inevitability of knowing exactly what Thor will say or do that will forever destroy the vanishing possibility that Thor might not ruin this. But this is better: knowing is always better. Loki has grown dangerously comfortable in this place, and it is past time to see how things truly stand.

Besides, Loki wants this. She has wanted it since she made the mistake of lingering too long upon Thor's arms over dishes, and by now she is aching for it, so burningly aware of every point of contact between them that it's near painful.

Thor breaks away from the kiss to press another to her forehead. "Loki," he murmurs, and Loki's grip on his shoulders goes tight, the only tell she allows for the way Thor's voice works upon her when it drops an octave with arousal. "There are better places for this than the kitchen," Thor says, chuckling a little against Loki's ear.

It is foolish to do so, distracted in so many different directions as Loki is, but Loki still gathers enough concentration to move them from one place to another without much difficulty. Where a moment before Thor's back was pressed to the sink, the backs of his knees are now against their bed, and with a laugh that is more pleasure than surprise, Thor falls back upon it, pulling Loki down with him.

He is half hard against her belly, which could mean anything at all, and watching Loki with the beginnings of calculation, which can only mean that Thor is about to open his mouth and say something uniquely idiotic. Loki braces herself.

"You seem elsewhere, sister," Thor says, and tugs sharply at her hair. "I'll have to find ways to make you pay attention, and you may not like them."

"Try me," Loki hisses back, but it is only a reflexive response. What she feels now, more than wanting, is pure astonishment, the word sister falling from Thor's lips with the same fondness and longing that brother ever did. Loki doesn't know what to do with her hands; Loki doesn't know what to do with her body. Thor has to be a moment from some inevitable stupidity, has to be. Loki is pressed to Thor's solid warmth and she aches with hollow wanting and her throat is constricted with fear and something that might, horribly, be gratitude, and she cannot crush the sudden awful hope that Thor won't fail.

She is a fool. She wants this with the same blinding clawing want that always ends in a fall. She should know better, does know better, should have realized, the moment she dared show more of herself to the Avengers, that soon she would demand too much. Allowing herself the freedom to change as she likes should make it easier to go back in the cage when she has to, but in truth it only makes it all the worse; and so it is here too. Loki is tasting something she shouldn't be allowed to have, and it is terrible.

Thor frowns at her, and Loki has one flash of fear that he has tired of this before Thor is rolling, pinning Loki down and sinking his teeth, hard, into the flesh above Loki's breast. She yelps, reflexively boxing his ear, and Thor shakes it off with a laugh. "I did warn you," he says.

Loki snarls, caught halfway between fear and elation, and goes for Thor's throat.

She has not fought him in this form before. Her weight is different, but this is an advantage; she knows how to carry it better than Thor knows how to throw it off-balance, and she is still far quicker than he is. He tries to pin her by the wrists and Loki bites his arms; he tries to pull her hair and she twists, raking her nails across his side. Thor is laughing with breathless delight, kissing Loki, dragging ineffectually at her clothes, biting her in return. Loki's skin feels singingly bright with pleasure, with love, with acceptance, and she thinks this is a lie she will believe, spitefully, in the face of the way the universe works.

"Clothes, Loki," Thor snarls, evidently reaching the end of his patience for half-undone trousers, and Loki does away with them in a moment, the better to get at Thor's skin. Thor kisses her again, biting kisses while Loki claws at his back, his skin as astonishingly hot as it is every time, wonderful. Thor wrestles Loki's legs open and she bites into his shoulder hard enough that he makes a satisfying noise of real pain,. She raises her hips to help the slide of his cock into her, her eyes rolling up for a moment at the glorious feeling of being so filled, wrapping her legs around his hips and leaving bruises on his ribs with her hands. Thor moans, biting at her throat and beginning to thrust, steady and familiar.

It is only then that Loki realizes that the moment she has been dreading for its complexity has passed almost unnoticed in their unrelenting contest to tear each other apart. She cannot help it: in her surprise and pleasure she stops tearing at Thor. He has Loki pinned, her legs open under his weight. One of Thor's hands is on her wrist and one in her hair; his teeth work her throat, his chest slick and pressed against every inch of her chest, his cock stretching her open and moving steadily inside her, and Loki, open and warm and well-touched, goes a little slack.

Thor shudders all through and deliberately slows his thrusts. Loki knows how he loves to have his little sibling helpless, no matter how it shames him to admit it, and convulsively she wraps closer around him, loving how Thor cannot help being a monster sometimes. Thor is gasping into her shoulder, the roll of his hips agonizingly slow, and Loki realizes with rising joy that he's trying so hard to draw this out.

"Thor," Loki whispers, stroking his hair. "Taking your time with me? You only go this slowly when you're close, when you have me this unresisting under you."

"Loki," Thor grits out. His grip is nearly grinding the bones of her wrists, wonderfully painful, and Loki tightens around Thor without meaning to, so that Thor shudders and his next thrust is deliciously hard. They are already an avalanche, goading one another on, and Loki suddenly wants to hang on just as much as Thor does, wants to push him over first.

"You'd like to fuck me for hours," she murmurs, relishing the words. "I'd let you, I'd let myself go raw and dropping-off exhausted before I asked you to stop --"

Thor screams, biting into her shoulder, and it is that bright pain, and the way he thrusts in deep, the trembling in his muscles as he starts to come; Loki's own orgasm crashes through her, though she manages to gasp, "Thor, I want you to," before he's coming too, and all she can do is hang on to him.

They lie there for a time, their breath slowing in tandem, before Thor shakily props himself up and kisses Loki, slow and soft and painfully gentle.

"Damn you," he murmurs fervently.

Loki laughs, giddy. "I'd do that again in a heartbeat," she says, and oh, her body likes that idea so much; she is slick and warm and oversensitive and Thor feels amazingly good. She shudders, tightening around him and running her free hand lightly up his side.

"As would I," Thor says, smiling fondly down at her, "but I fear you have the advantage on me in your present form."

Loki startles, chagrined, and cannot help the look that comes across her face. But Thor only breaks into a grin. "Loki," he says, "you have nothing to worry about," and before she can pull herself together enough to make some scathing reply, Thor is pulling away to slide down her body. Loki opens her mouth, but a moment later completely forgets what she was about to say, which was probably Thor's calculated strategy all along, because he has buried his face between her legs and oh Norns what is happening.

She gasps blindly at the ceiling. Thor is usually talented enough with his mouth; he was able to take Loki's cock after a few careful tries; but this is something else entirely. His tongue feels as though it is everywhere at once, and two of his fingers are back inside her, sliding in time with the movement of his head. Loki's hips are arching up, though she doesn't know whether she's trying to get closer or get away, it's so overwhelming; and then she's coming again, but Thor doesn't stop, just moans as though this is all he's ever wanted and grips Loki's hip hard with his free hand, and Loki thrashes, wondering with her last coherent thought how it is that Thor can possibly be making her feel this good.

When Loki comes to herself, Thor is settled at her side, stroking her hair and looking at her not with smug satisfaction but with wonder. It is such a tender look that Loki must close her eyes again; it nearly painful, meeting Thor's gaze when he's looking at her like that. Loki's throat hurts a little. "Was I screaming?" she ventures.

"Not much," Thor murmurs, kissing her lightly.

Loki feels suddenly as though she is about to cry; and her stupid brother certainly knows her well enough to sense this, because he gathers her up, curling on his side against her back, arms wrapped around her. Loki allows him this mercy because she's tired, and can't be bothered to correct such behavior; but Thor buries his face in her hair, and Loki squeezes his arm tight, scrabbling to touch him more before she can stop herself. The warmth of Thor at her back soaks into her, relaxing her further, and Loki does not fight it.

Perhaps, she thinks, a careful deliberate thought on the edge of sleep, it is not an entirely foolish thing to wish for this space of good fortune to endure. Perhaps she is not surrounded on all sides by some inevitable downfall. She tried to break the Avengers, and they took her in; she tried to break through Thor's lie that he can love her however she is, and yet here they are.

Loki drifts to sleep in Thor's arms, and for a blessed time her thoughts are quiet.