Work Header

Future Imperfect

Chapter Text

Surely there is no way to turn it
Back to the old days
Of bliss and cheerful laughter
Mirror, mirror - Blind Guardian

It comes as no surprise to Thor that Heimdall has managed to save the records of the history of Asgard.

He discovers them almost by accident during the first hectic days of their trip when their priorities are counting their dead, treating their wounded and keeping the living fed and safe. They lie in a reinforced iron chest tucked away in a small storage room he had walked past hundreds of times before noticing its existence. The lock on the heavy lid seems daunting enough to discourage the most determined of thieves but when he tries it, it lifts as easily as an empty glass. It is only when his remaining eye adjusts to the murky gray light that he notices a wax seal cast over the sides of the iron chest with the Asgardian insignia broken neatly in half.

He wonders if Heimdall did it on purpose, like a child who leaves an unassuming strip of paper wedged in the doorframe to check if someone has been in their room. He wonders if he ever came back to discover the seal broken. If he had, his all-seeing eyes never revealed anything and in the following days, Thor’s thoughts quickly shift to more pressing matters.

A nasty fever hits the ship not long after they leave the ruins of Asgard behind and it preys on the children and the elderly. Their healers do the best they can but there’re not enough of them and the supplies they have are stretched paper thin. Miraculously, it passes without claiming anyone but even so, their makeshift infirmary is never empty. He sees gaunt, pale faces walk past him every day, wondering how long will it take for the place to become a floating graveyard when food and water run out. He keeps a lookout for inhabited planets and other ships but for weeks on end, their only companions are the distant stars that never get any closer. Asgard lies wrapped in cold metal, all alone in the night and all he wants is for its people to see the light of day again.

You’re a destroyer, Odinson. See where your power leads. 

Heimdall’s words from the vision conjured up by Wanda Maximoff come back to haunt him often in those weeks. He still cannot tell whether they were just a product of his troubled mind or a grim warning that he failed to heed. Clairvoyance has never been one of his gifts, but he has already seen Asgard burn in his dreams and visions of a large golden gauntlet and six glowing stones still dance in his mind when he closes his eyes. He had spent too long chasing after them, only for every trail to grow cold and now that his home lies in ruins by his own hand, an ominous thought creeps up on him every now and then.

If he can really see the future, it is only a future he cannot change.

That thought weighs on his mind heavier than the crown. He has no way of knowing whether he is right and that very uncertainty chases sleep away from his eyes, so he spends their rough equivalent of nights on the main deck, going through the hundreds of logs and listening to the low hum of electricity flowing through the ship like blood under metal skin. He does not know where his power leads yet, but it is not into the cold, silent darkness of space. He’s the God of Thunder; his very purpose is to bring light, however brief it may be.

And so, on the third week of their trip, he walks down some rusted stairs into the underbelly of the ship, to have a chat with its most unruly passenger.

Having the Hulk on the ship is a whole problem of its own, considering that he was never that fond of flying. Thor treats him like a sloppily constructed firework at the back of a rickety cart, which every sinkhole in the road can set off. Having him around his people can only bring trouble but he knows that he cannot keep him locked up in the storage sector forever. He is not a criminal, in fact, there are people upstairs what would not be alive if it was not for him. He is a vehicle of rage and confusion that is very useful when pointed straight at the enemy but a dangerous liability when cooped up in a steel can surrounded by nothing but vacuum.

So he walks up to the cell separated from the rest of the storage area by a row of thick red energy beams and sits cross-legged on the cold metal floor.

“Good morning, big guy. How is life treating you?”

The Hulk does not answer. Instead, he sits with his back pressed against the wall and stares straight at him. The murky green eyes are giving him a death glare but not a muscle moves on his body and Thor wonders whether it is because he is showing remarkable restraint or because he has learned that the red beams projecting symmetrical reflections across his face will throw him back every time. There are a couple of dents in the steel plates that confirm his theory and for a moment, his stomach sinks. He did what he had to do, to protect everyone on the ship but knowing that does not make him feel any better. If they make it to Earth in one piece, maybe they should have a spar in some isolated canyon, far from the eyes of the world. The guy probably deserves to land more than a couple punches on him.

“Have they been feeding you enough?” he asks and gets the exact same reaction. “I made sure your rations were adjusted to your size. And you haven’t lost weight, exactly.”

That does it. The murky eyes narrow as a low growl escapes his throat. He shoots up from his resting place, his face contorted in fury and Thor suppresses the instinct to back away. Baiting the Hulk is very far from the smartest thing he can do, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

“Sorry, that was a bad choice of words”, he flashes an apologetic smile which only gets him another angry roar. He reaches behind his back and rolls his eyes as he sees the large green hands curl into fists. “Calm down, I’m not here to make your life harder. I even brought you something. Consider if a peace offering it you like.”

The prospect seems to intrigue his unwilling prisoner as the giant fists slowly loosen, though his face is still locked in a surly mask. Thor waits for him to settle down, then slides a small wooden bowl brimming with pale green grapes in his direction. It stops just before the lowest energy beam, still in reach for both of them. Under their faint red light, they look almost translucent, like eggs of an odd alien species.

The Hulk hesitates as he takes one of the delicate orbs and turns it over in his hands. When he carefully sniffs it, Thor is ready to slam a hand over his face in frustration.

“Come on, they are not poisoned!” He reaches over to the bowl, snatches a couple of grapes and pops one in his mouth with a crunching sound. “See, I’m not dead! Not even close! Now you try them.”

He doesn’t need to ask twice. With one swift motion, a massive green hand scoops the bowl from under the energy beam and pours all of its contents in the Hulk’s mouth. Pale juice pours over his chin while he chews noisily and as he does, Thor sees the mad anger melt away from his face, replaced by an eerie expression that almost resembles actual joy.

He looks at the last, sad, wrinkled berry in his hand and sighs. “So you do not like sharing. Fair enough.” He stands up and brushes a thin layer of gray dust from his clothes. “I really hope you enjoyed them because there aren’t any more left.”

The swamp-colored eyes just stare blankly at him, before switching to a glare of pure disdain. Thor waits for him to say something but all he gets is a grunt as the Hulk kicks the wooden bowl so hard it flies all the way across the room, crashes against the rusty stairs and cracks in the middle.

“Thor leave Hulk alone!”

Thor sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose as his fingers run over the metal eyepatch. He can’t remember the last time he felt truly rested. It has been another long night and the day after is turning out to be even longer. A persistent and unhelpful voice at the back of his head keeps repeating that he has no idea what he’s doing. He doesn’t have the power of Natasha’s lullaby and talking his way out of a problem has never been his forte. It didn’t seem like much of an issue until a crown was placed on his head and with it, the responsibility for the lives of nearly eight thousand people. And with time and supplies running out, he better learn as he goes and do so quickly.

He shakes his head, chasing the piercing headache away and steps closer to the glowing red grid. “I can’t, I need your help.”

He’s expecting another angry outburst but the Hulk just lets out a short, barking laugh and goes back to leaning against the dented wall. Before he can find anything else to throw at him, Thor quickly fishes out a small, flat cylinder out of a leather bag clipped to his belt and presses one of its sides. A pale, blue outline of a three-dimensional map slowly blinks into existence and flickers as he gently places the device on the floor.

“Last week I got to the earliest records of this ship and I came across this.” He points to a small insignia tucked away at the bottom of the phantom layout that shows a whip and chain entwined over an alien skull. “Turns out, before it was abandoned on Sakaar, it used to be a slave ship. The kind that was created to roam the galaxy, kidnap unlucky souls from other planets and imprison them until they could be sold. You have to give it to the Grandmaster, he does have an eye for the gruesome and unpleasant.”

If any of his words are making sense to the Hulk, Thor cannot tell. His green prisoner just limits himself to another short grunt but his demeanor seems much calmer so he goes on. “My point is, they would spend years in space, so they needed a way to feed all those slaves and themselves during that time. It took me and Loki three nights to decipher their engineers’ gibberish but in the end, we found out how they did it. Look!”

He reaches into the blue layout floating before him, pulls out a tiny section and throws the image onto a wall where it blows up to reveal a large dome under which clusters of long, thin towers rise almost as high as to touch the curved ceiling. The Hulk looks on, utterly unimpressed.

“See these things?” He points to the thin columns covered from top to bottom in neat circular orifices. “They are all over the upper deck. At first we thought there were just decoration, but they are not.” He pauses for what he honestly hopes is dramatic effect and zooms in to a small symbol on one of the columns that closely resembles a blade of grass. “They are aeroponic towers!” He waits for a reaction that never comes, then adds helpfully. “It’s a giant greenhouse in space!”

Hulk just stares at him like he has suddenly switched to a foreign language. Thor sighs again and banishes the image from the wall with a wave of his hand.

“Listen, to be completely honest, I don’t know anything about these things.” he admits and watches his prisoner sneer. “It seems like no one has used them in years and the entire structure seems a little fragile. I wouldn’t dare fiddling with it to bring it back to life. Your more agreeable half on the other hand…”

He doesn’t get to finish the sentence before the Hulk snarls and lunges at him, coming dangerously close to touching the glowing beams. Thor pulls back and raises his hands in a pacifying gesture but his eyes remain fixed on the murky green ones, still looking for any sort of recognizable human emotion behind them besides murderous rage.

“Yes, yes I know, don’t mention puny Banner, got it.” He catches another fleeting glimpse of the dents in the wall and his treacherous memory flashes an image of similar dents in Loki’s cell back in Asgard. “Look, don’t get the wrong idea. You risked your life to save my people, I haven’t forgotten that. We are all forever in your debt and I’m sure you’ll get your own statue next to Loki’s at some point. Believe me, there is nothing I would like more than to open this door but I cannot trust your temper more than I can trust a river to flow backwards.” He sees the look of utter contempt on the green face and scrambles for something more familiar to him. “It’s like in that space movie we all watched together back on Earth. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of…”

This time the roar is loud enough to make his ears ring. “Thor go to Hell!”

The green fist stops mere inches before the deadly red light and Thor feels the air crackle around him as anger threatens to spill over. He does not have time for this. There’s eight thousand souls above them, clinging to life and out in space, life is more fragile than he ever thought possible. They all trust him to know what to do, to get them out of this cursed ship and to a place where they can build a new future. And here he is, trying to reason with an avatar of pure destruction that could tear them all apart in a matter of seconds. Under other circumstances, in another life, he would have just sworn and walked away.

But his other life has come to an end. And in this new one, he has never been more tired.

He lets out a long, controlled breath as the electricity swarming in the air settles down. “Fine, suit yourself! I guess you will have to rely on everyone else to pull your weight.” He slips the flat cylinder in his pocket and turns towards the rusty stairs leading up.

He stands still for a few seconds, then turns around again. “A word of advice, I don’t know how long it will take us to get to Earth but I promise you, it’s a very long trip to spend only on dried meat and stale bread. So if you want another one of these…”, he pops the last grape in his mouth and looks straight into the mad, green eyes, “ better let me talk to Banner.”

He is not sure what button he pushed but it has to be the right one because the Hulk’s dilated irises suddenly lose their crazed look and shrink to regular size. Eventually, his eyes close and he stumbles towards the back of the cell, a strange amalgamation of thick green hide and pale human skin. Thor watches him fall to his knees as his body mass decreases dramatically and wonders if his human form will retain the punishment of the containment grid. When he finally staggers to his feet, however, he looks dazed and confused but well and very much like Bruce Banner.

He grins and taps the wall next to the cell deactivating the red beams. “Welcome back, strongest Avenger.”

For a few moments his former green companion just stands there in mute astonishment. He is still wearing Tony Stark’s jeans which are now torn almost to his knees. His eyes dart across the cell, as if trying to conjure up the memory of some forgotten dream before he looks at Thor and mutters. “How long…?”

The dread in his voice is such that Thor is quick to reassure him. “A few weeks, not even a full month. Nothing close to two years, l promise.”

He gives him a small, weak nod and slowly walks out of the cell, bare feet leaving faint footprints on the dusty floor. “Did we save it? Asgard?”

On especially long nights, Thor often asks himself the same question but for now, he can do nothing else but return the nod.

“We did.” he replies and turns over the flat, steel cylinder in his hands. “You are about to save it again.”

The half-naked scientist in front of him just rolls his eyes and shivers in the cold air of the storage room. “Don’t sweet-talk me, just tell me what to fix. And please tell me you brought some normal clothes along this time.”

Thor dutifully unclips the leather bag from his belt and throws it to him. “Finest cloth in Asgard. Or at the very least, the finest that survived.”

“Thank God for small favors.” The scientist’s voice cracks a bit as the ship suddenly moans around them like a wounded metal whale. “Does that happen often?”

“Only when we get too close to a star’s magnetic field.” Thor does his best to ignore the light fixtures flickering erratically but can’t help wincing when one of them explodes in the background. “After a while you just stop noticing it.”

“Yeah well, I’m a real white-knuckle flyer.” Bruce finishes buttoning up his shirt and grabs the disc from Thor’s hand. “I’ll find my way around. Wherever we are, it can’t be worse than Sakaar.”

Thor’s words of gratitude never leave his mouth as he walks away. For a moment he considers following him and apologizing for the cell and the containment grid but the words his mind conjures sound hollow even to him. He did what he had to do and he would do it again. He can only hope that time will smooth out the rough edges between them though he gets the uneasy feeling that time might not be on his side.

His thoughts are interrupted by the sound of a boot against a metal plate. Brunnhilde kicks the heavy back door ajar and drags a cart of power cells into the room. When she sees the empty cell, she frowns but as she catches sight of Bruce walking up the stairs, she breathes out a sigh of relief.

“Well, what do you know? It worked!” She leaves the cart behind and walks up to him brushing away traces of machine oil from her face. “As much as I love the guy’s moves, I will definitely sleep easier knowing we no longer have a mine in the basement.”

Thor shrugs and raises his eyes to the metal ceiling where another light fixture begins to flicker. “Don’t let your guard down. The way this trip is going, anything can blow up at any moment. He was just the easiest thing to deal with.”

“And here I thought you were an eternal optimist.” She slams a fist over a power panel on the wall and the light stabilizes. “Do you really think he can make the towers work?”

Thor nods as he fights to suppress a long, exhausted yawn. “He has seven PhD’s. One of them is bound to be in something green.”

“I would avoid those exact words.” She takes a tentative swig out of a stained, metal flask and scrunches her face in disgust as the liquid makes its way down her throat. “We seriously need to improve the quality of booze on this ship. This tastes like expired paint thinner.”

“If we ever get that biodome working, be my guest.”

“You are benevolent king, indeed.” She punches him lightly in the arm and snickers as he flinches. “Get some rest, you look like you’re ready to drop where you stand. My team can help our brainy boy out and Korg has been itching for something to do besides teaching the kids the songs of his people.”

Thor lets out a short laugh at the memory of a loud, deep voice that could not carry a tune to save its life booming over the ship at the oddest hours. “I thought that was the water recycler malfunctioning. I was even about to go hit it with a crowbar to make it stop.”

She grins but her dark eyes give him a long, meaningful look. “I’m serious. You’re no use to anyone dead on your feet and you don’t have to be everywhere at once. Your father understood that.”

She takes another gulp from the flask and for a brief moment, Thor is tempted to join her in her never-ending quest to imbibe every type of alcohol on the ship, just to stop his mind from reeling. He has spent most of this trip agonizing over what his father would do and each time takes him dangerously close to the conclusion that if it weren’t for his father’s actions, they would not be in this mess. He wonders how close those actions take Odin himself to treason against Asgard and how he can ever reconcile those thoughts with the crown he never wears. Loki would scoff at that and welcome him to the cynical side of the family with open arms, one of which would probably be holding a dagger.

But those are questions for another time. Right now, there’s still work to do.

He shrugs off the tiredness and replies, “My father had time on his side. I’ll sleep when we get to Earth.”

The aeroponic towers manage to bear their fruits in the nick of time, when their supplies are almost gone and whispers of a possible famine begin to spread among the refugees of Asgard City. They grow lush and dense, so much that they have to expand the biodome, a job that Korg and his new team are happy to accept. Brunnhilde jokingly suggests they start making wine from the grapes and Bruce is adamant in dedicating at least one of the towers to his favorite variety of coffee. He sees life flow back into the anxious faces around him; they begin to smile again, laugh at each other’s jokes and even talk about the future. They are no longer pale shadows huddled under a metal sky, wondering if they will make it through another week. A few of them even organize to form a theatre troupe and as he huddles among the rest of the citizens to watch them perform, he feels a giant weight being lifted off his shoulders. They will survive this; what’s more, they will live again. He can ask for nothing else than that. 

On the third month of their trip, Loki puts together a play recreating the battle for Asgard in which a teenage girl in a wig made out of discarded branches chews the scenery playing Hela as Loki leads them all to glorious victory. Thor stands in the back of the giant room dedicated to the event, chuckling softly as the audience roars with laughter. It is only after the second act when he notices Heimdall standing next to him, holding a bunch of pale yellow grapes and watching the show with a half-hearted smile.

“He’s a poet at heart, isn’t he?” he says as he tears away a stem and hands it to Thor.

Thor accepts the offer with a grin as another fake explosion conjured entirely out of red paper ribbons envelopes the stage. “A very creative one, too. I don’t remember it happening like that at all.”

Heimdall doesn’t reply right away, his golden eyes fixed on the girl falling dramatically to the floor after a fake dagger buries itself in her back. “History is written by the victors, Odinson.” he says after a while. “They usually pick only the parts they like.”

He walks away as silently as he came, walking through the crowd like a ship parting the waves, leaving Thor standing there with a heavy heart and the faint memory of a reinforced iron chest waiting for him in a secluded storage room.

It takes him a whole week to go back to it. There’s always something to do on the ship, someone needs help, something breaks, there’s some dispute or crisis and he keeps telling himself that the past can wait. He tells himself that the future they are building is more important but in the end, what keeps him from opening that door is not his duties but the dread of knowledge. When he finally breaks and drags the chest into his personal quarters, he locks the crown away in a safe box and out of sight.

The archives start out telling a familiar story, that both he and Loki had drilled into their heads way back when they were children. It conjures up fond memories of studying together, trying to cram the most amount of information into their heads after spending the previous week goofing off and how this gambit always paid off better with Loki than himself. He can’t help smiling at the good old days but as he turns more and more pages, his smile gradually fades and when he picks up an old, cracked volume, that is almost falling apart, he knows that there is no turning back.

He recognizes the faded symbol of a horned helmet pressed into the black leather in flaking gold paint. They are Heimdall’s personal records, probably the only copy that remains after the purge.

He reads about the subjugation of the Nine Realms, of genocide, bloodshed and destruction and every word makes his blood run cold. How many of the citizens of Asgard are old enough to remember? How many would believe it, if he chose to make this hidden history known? Would it even be right, particularly now when their fond memories of home are the only thing that remains?

He has no answers to the questions swirling through his mind so he reads on. He reads night after night, until the words swim before his eyes and the pages he turns become so worn that only ancient spells are holding them together. He reads until the runes turn archaic and he has to summon his deepest memories of Asgardian codexes to understand their meaning. And the more he understands, the colder the world grows and the more sleep seems to elude him altogether.

Chapter Text

I close my eyes, only for a moment
And the moment's gone
Dust in the Wind- Kansas

The last thing Tony Stark expects to deal with on that cold Saturday morning is an alien spaceship falling out of the sky.

He is the first one on the scene, mostly because it happens right outside the woods that surround the Avengers Compound and the deafening noise wakes him out of a sound sleep. For one, heart-stopping moment, the memory of helicopter gunships flashes in his mind before time and space reassemble around him and reality paints a picture he understands even less. By the time he stumbles out of bed, the sound has ceased, but the ringing in his ears stays with him for a solid minute and the floor under his bare feet still vibrates as he makes his way towards the window. Outside the bulletproof glass panes, flocks of frightened birds scatter over the October sky, like black ink over a misty watercolor painting. Underneath them, treetops sway and topple out of sight, sending up clouds of dead leaves. As he pulls up his pants with one hand, and hastily buttons up his shirt, he watches a thickening billow of smoke pour into the crisp, morning air.

He mutters a short curse under his breath. Of course, out of all the places on Earth where something massive could have crashed, it had to be here. Maybe Vision had a point when he said that they attracted trouble just by existing.

His first thought as he flies to the crash site, clad in his newly-upgraded armor, is that it’s a particularly large meteorite until the erratic, white trail etched in the clouds dispels that theory. It stretches almost deliberately long and changes directions so sharply that it is impossible for it to be a natural phenomenon. It looks like it was trying to avoid something while in freefall and as he checks the map of the area that FRIDAY displays before him, he notices a water-treatment plant, a cluster of fishing lodges around a lake and a few factories directly in its path.

So at the very least their unexpected visitors are considerate. Always something to take into account, especially, with the National Guard helicopters closing in on his radar.

He drops a few firefighting grenades into the dark smoke below and watches them spread their soft, white contents around the alien form lodged firmly between century old trees that seem to have doled out as much damage as they received. By now, Tony has no doubts that it’s a spaceship, and it’s clearly a wreck. Thousands of scratches, dents and burns cover every visible surface, though the front side, which houses the cockpit, has taken the worst part of the impact. It is all but smashed inwards and almost hidden from sight by the overhanging branches of the giant oak trees it snapped like pencils on its way down. What seems to be the main engine is now pitifully sputtering as the flames inside it suffocate in foam and a viscous, dark substance oozes from a large hole in the fuselage. The aircraft lies ominous and silent, like a black beetle on a large piece of cotton, and whatever is inside is either dead or in no hurry to see the world it was so desperately trying to keep from harm.

Still, given his previous experience with aliens, he lands at a safe distance. “Talk to me, FRIDAY. I enjoy our little chats.”

The interface crackles in his ears with what he can only assume is its equivalent of a sigh. “This ship is not in any known database,” she informs. “The heat signature is growing colder so it doesn’t look like it’s taking off any time soon. No visible weapons either.” She pauses as a translucent beam runs across the debris-scarred walls. “There’s movement inside.”

Her last words are slightly muffled by the National Guard helicopters tearing the air overhead, as they look for a safe spot to land. Tony sighs, not looking forwards to dealing with them. Their usual approach to situations like these has a tendency to make things worse.

“How many?” he asks. “And are there any tentacles involved?”

Another, louder crackle fills his ears. “Hard to say, the walls are too thick.” FRIDAY goes silent for a few seconds, sending streams of data about the air and temperature around the ship across the inner screen of his visor. “I also detect an unusual source of energy.”

The telltale sound of heavy boots spreads around the artificial clearing. He groans in resignation and approaches the ship, deliberately treading on as many branches as he can. “You could stand to be more specific, FRIDAY. Unusual, how?”

She doesn’t answer right away but when she does, she seems to struggle for words. “The readings are similar to those of Vision,” she says eventually, then adds, “and Wanda Maximoff.”


He can muster nothing else and FRIDAY does not elaborate further. The name of the former Sokovian Avenger still stings in his memory and he wonders whether she has anything to do with Vision’s frequent departures from the compound. Sometimes he disappears for weeks on end, under the excuse of wanting the see the world but Tony suspects that even his artificial friend cannot stand the long, heavy silence that has permeated the building for the past couple of months. They both miss their friends but as the oldest and newest member of the team, they both deal with it in very different ways. He muses whether he should ask Vision about her next time he deigns to show up, carrying a strange souvenir from a country he can’t pronounce and looking a little bit sadder every time.

“Well, if they are anything like those two, let’s hope they are friendly.” He steps into the clearing and finds himself looking straight down the barrel of an automatic rifle.

The young soldier with strawberry-blond hair peeking from under his helmet seems to be more surprised than he is. Blue eyes open wide as Tony takes a few steps back, hands raised in a conciliatory gesture. “Relax, kid, I’m not the enemy. I’m just a friendly neighbor, dropping in.” He looks around to find more tense, pale faces looking at the steaming ship in mute apprehension. “You guys got here fast. This thing hasn’t even had time to cool down.”

“We don’t like to take chances.” A tall, heavy-built man with lieutenant bars on his shoulders and web of thin, spidery scars across his face steps out from behind a tree and waves a hand at the soldiers. “Stand down, we don’t want to kill this one. Yet.”

Tony lets out a short but loud cackle. “Norton, you magnificent bastard! I haven’t seen you since the New York kerfuffle!” He retracts his visor and walks up to the man who led the National Guard against the Chitauri four years ago and caught a blaster discharge in the face for his trouble. “Do you have a particular taste for aliens or do your superiors hate you that much?”

A small smirk tugs at the man’s scarred lips but his tone remains carefully flat. “What are you doing here, Stark? I don’t recall anyone informing us of your presence.”

Tony shrugs and runs a metal-clad hand along the busted fuselage of the ship, monitoring the slowly dissipating heat. “What can I say? I got curious. You don’t see ET making an emergency landing every day.” He side-eyes the rifle hanging on a leather belt over the uniformed shoulder. “Though you guys seem to be running more of a Predator scenario.”

“Like I said, we don’t like to take chances.” Norton follows him, heavy boots sinking into the dark, sticky marsh of dead leaves and leaking fuel. “You wouldn’t have brought the suit if you were so sure they weren’t hostile.”

“Well, you know how the old saying goes. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, expect nothing.” He frowns, trying to make sense of the faint electrical current running across the surface, like hoar frost after a cold winter night. “This puppy had some sort of electromagnetic shield around it. It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before.” A blue, translucent screen flashes before him as his eyes skim over the data FRIDAY is feeding across it. “Weird… it almost seems like it’s alive.”

Norton nods vaguely, looking past the screen towards the dying engine fire. “Then, I assume you’re not here in any official capacity.”

Tony bites back the next sarcastic comeback on the tip of his tongue. Things have been a bit tense for all of them after the Accords and it's at moments like these when he wishes Steve was still around. He had a face people felt compelled to trust, and after talking to him for ten minutes, take a bullet for. Before she disappeared into hiding, Natasha had called Cap the heart of the team and there were times when Tony asked himself whether, with Steve gone, the Avengers were still the same.

Then again, maybe he doesn’t need Steve’s superpowers, he concludes as he glances at the anxious soldiers clustered around the clearing. Many of them had seen the Chitauri tear apart New York and few of them want to experience it again. They stare at the steaming wreckage like it’s about to sprout legs and rush them. Norton himself seems less than happy to be facing another potential face melting and Tony is all too happy to spare him one.

“Well, they haven’t exactly had time to assemble a committee.” He replies and steps back from the ship, flicking off fuel from his hand. “I can leave if you want. You clearly have this alien hunk of metal under control.” There’s an uneasy shuffling among the soldiers as he continues. “What do you think they look like? Personally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for tentacles.”

Norton rolls his steel gray eyes at his obvious dirty gambit. He still seems ready to argue but as if on cue, the ship groans and shakes, disturbing the bed of dead leaves underneath it. A large rectangular section on its side slides a few inches forward, then folds out into a narrow ramp. A dark, metal door in the fuselage slowly begins to rise, emitting a soft screeching sound.

They exchange a nervous glance, before the man shrugs and steps into the tree line, leaving him alone in the clearing. “Knock yourself out, Stark. No skin off my back.”

A low, rhythmic thumping resonates through the hull, like a faraway war drum. The door slides open another few inches, spilling dim silver light over the ramp. Tony takes another careful step towards it, feeling like the butt of some elaborate cosmic joke. As ominous as the whole display is, the scene is straight out of a cheesy movie that a guy and his robot friends should be snarking at. He half-expects little green men to step out and ask to see their leader.

Which is why he is so surprised, when a gigantic green man in shredded clothes smashes down the door and roars at the open sky.

For a few moments, he can only stand there, stunned. A bout of shocked laughter escapes his throat but the situation quickly stops being funny as the clearing comes alive around him. The sound of a hundred rifles cocking fills the air and Norton barks an order he can’t hear but which Tony knows will only make things worse. He spins around to yell at them to hold their fire, but before a single bullet can fly, a very human looking hand slips through the door, grabs the green man’s forearm and drags him back inside.

It takes Tony another few seconds to recognize the second face that steps out.

It might have to do with the fact that an entire side of it is covered in fresh blood, the same side that has a faded, metal eyepatch where a blue eye should be. It might also be the fact that the last time he saw it, was two years ago, when it disappeared in a blinding stream of light leaving a giant, round seal burned into the compound’s lawn. His friend had left with a cryptic warning to look for the rest of the Infinity Stones and every now and then, Tony wondered whether he found the answers he was looking for. The pale, worn out vision with short, disheveled hair that leans heavily against the dented fuselage makes him wonder whether the answers were worth it.

Another muffled roar echoes at the back of the ship. The soldiers take aim again, a futile display that Thor ignores completely as he walks down the ramp, wiping the blood from his face with an unsteady hand.

“Sorry about my friend back there,” he says with a strained smile. “He’s a real white-knuckle flyer.”

And promptly falls from the ramp into the foam-covered grass below.

Another thing Tony Stark does not expect to see that day is Helen Cho’s team hovering over an unconscious Asgardian in the compound’s infirmary.

In fact, it is something he has never expected to see, and the thought troubles him as he stands outside the spacious white, room occasionally glancing through the loosely pulled blinds at the shapes moving across it at a brisk pace. They have been in there for a while and every minute that passes makes him increasingly uneasy. He feels his hands twitching at his sides, like they did during the months he was quitting alcohol and now, the need for a drink is throbbing at the back of his mind like an old wound. He checks his phone for any messages from the Stark Relief Foundation, already on the scene of the crash to assist the crowd of shocked, nervous people that poured out of the ship after a short while, but his inbox is empty and his curiosity unsated. He clicks his tongue in disappointment. In any other circumstances, an army couldn’t stop him from being there, finding out everything he could.

And yet, here he is, spying on busy shadows across the hall, very aware of his own utter futility. He keeps telling himself that he’s being ridiculous. For all he knows, his demi-god friend is practically indestructible. He has seen him plunge into an ice-cold sea as chunks of Sokovia rained around him and reappear at their side later like nothing happened, dripping water all over the helicarrier. In the year and a half he spent on Earth, the guy was pretty much the living embodiment of Cap’s shield, with a sunny disposition and a chronic lack of understanding of pop culture. It hasn’t ever occurred to any of the Avengers to worry about him.

Except when he shows up two years later, looking like death warmed over. Now, Tony might have a reason to start worrying.

He fiddles with the key-like device in his pocket, lined with a row of LEDs flashing red. He has just come back from the Hulk containment chamber he built as a worst case scenario but whose current occupant is in no hurry to test its lead-lined walls and just seems happy to have solid ground under his feet. There’s a spark of recollection in his green eyes when he looks at Tony but any attempts to talk to him through the intercom have been met with nothing but silence. He stares at the reinforced glass separating him from the compound like it’s an inconvenience he has faced before and which will resolve itself in due time. Every once in a while, he casts a cursory glance at the cameras that watch him from every angle, waiting to detect his change into genius scientist Bruce Banner and open the door. Something that Tony knows hasn’t happened yet since the LEDs glowing gently against the fabric of his trousers are still very much red.

This is, without a doubt, the best case scenario which Tony is grateful for yet profoundly confounded by. He had expected a full on rampage, with bullets flying, screams of panic and Veronica rescuing them all once again. But after his initial outburst, their green teammate seemed to enter an odd state of barely contained fury that just made everyone around all the more nervous. Occasionally, he would snarl at the soldiers who dared to step closer or take aim at them but for the most part, he paced restlessly around Tony as he knelt beside Thor in the cold, foam-splattered grass that began to acquire a crimson hue after a few minutes. After the medevac helicopter departed from the clearing, however, Tony could see whatever dam was containing his rage beginning to crack and when a few hundred pale and wary faces peeked out of the smashed door of the ship, there were suddenly more important things to worry about than keeping him in check. Locking him up seemed like the safest option, though guilt still pecked at Tony’s heart as he walked away from the chamber. He’s seen way too many friends locked up in similar cells and the last thing he wanted was to do that himself.

The infirmary door on the other side of the hall cracks open and three people step out, pulling surgical masks from their faces. They greet him with smiles but their sunken eyes betray them as they sit heavily in the nearby chairs and rub their temples. They look like they have pulled a particularly rough all-nighter and even Helen Cho, who stayed behind, looks like she could use some coffee. He gives them a small, thankful nod and steps inside.

The first thought that comes to him is that he needs to get rid of the fluorescent lamps. In the cold, white light that bathes the room, Thor’s face looks even paler and the dark circles under his eyes, more pronounced. His newly-cropped hair is now partially hidden underneath a layer of bandages, which also cover his left arm and shoulder. The blood-stained eyepatch lies discarded in a shallow metal tray, replaced by a square white one held in place with thin surgical tape. His other eye still remains closed and the bluish hue around it makes Tony’s stomach curl into a ball.

“So, how is he?” he asks in a deceptively casual tone and watches Helen’s dark eyes grow warmer.

“Well, he’s got the mother of all concussions for starters,” she replies as she pulls off latex gloves and cracks her long fingers. “Not to mention radiation burns and bruises all over. Plus we just spent around forty minutes fixing a compound fracture that really should have rendered his arm useless but it’s actually already beginning to heal.” He watches a smile ghost across her tired face. “I don’t know what his people are made of but we could all use some of that.”

Tony lets out a small sigh of relief as his eyes are drawn towards the steadily beeping heart monitor. “Probably snips, snails and puppy dog tails or some cryptic stuff that might as well be magic.” He steps closer to the hospital bed and can’t help but grimace at the sight of a purple and black bruise spreading over his friend’s right shoulder. “I guess even magic has limits.”

“There’s very few things in this world that don’t. The good news is, he should make a full recovery.” Helen pulls off the blue surgical cap, letting strands of long black hair fall over her forehead. ”The eye is a lost cause, though, the optic nerve is damaged beyond repair. It doesn’t help that the only thing that could have a shot at restoring it blew up two years ago.”

He raises his hands in apology at the gentle reprimand in her voice. “Yeah, sorry about that. How’s the rebuilding going?”

She shrugs and readjusts the oximeter clipped to Thor’s limp hand. “Slower than we expected. The first Cradle was a prototype and after Ultron destroyed our lab, we had to start from scratch. I hear your team got an interesting addition thanks to it.”

Tony thinks of their newest Avenger and wonders if he’s watching the current events unfold on some TV screen abroad. “Vision is interesting, alright. He’s going to regret missing all this excitement.” He pauses, leaning against the wall next to the bed but as Helen is about to reach for the door handle, he speaks up. “Thank you for saving the day again. I really wouldn’t have called if I trusted anyone else.”

She gives him a toothy smile from under her disheveled bangs. “Let me use your lab every now and then and we’re even.” She takes one last look at the room and clicks a button on the window frame to fully close the blinds. “I should get going. The Stark Relief Foundation will need all the help they can get and we can be of assistance. That is, if you want us around.”

She looks back at him, waiting for a confirmation and Tony senses the unbridled excitement masked behind her carefully phrased words. As the brilliant woman she is, Helen has a natural curiosity for everything under the sun and an alien landing is too good to pass up. He nods, checks his phone again and sighs at the zero new emails on the screen.

“Sure, the more the merrier,” he replies. “When you guys get there, tell them to finally give me a call. I’d really like to know what the hell is happening.”

His grumpy tone goes completely ignored by Helen, who just gives him a small, polite nod and walks out, leaving him under the buzzing fluorescent lights with only the slow, steady beeping of the heart monitor for company. He shuffles in place, looking for a chair but finds nothing except medical equipment and cupboards arranged in two neat rows around a defibrillator cabinet.

Tony sighs, feeling useless once more. He has one friend who won’t speak to him, another one who’s comatose, and he has no idea how to help either of them. He instinctively fumbles his pockets until he realizes that he picked the wrong time to quit smoking too.

“Credit where it’s due, you know how to make an entrance.” He lays a careful hand on Thor’s shoulder and gives it a gentle shake. “Come on, Point Break, wake up. In case you didn’t notice, you crashed a spaceship full of people in my backyard and the suspense is killing me.” He pauses as his eyes drift towards the bandages woven over the buzzed off hair. “Not to mention the makeover.”

He pauses, waiting for any kind of reaction but his quip falls on deaf ears and he realizes he’s wasting his time. Helen Cho’s team has done all they could and there’s probably a hundred things he should be dealing with right now. Soon the news of the crash will spread, people will start pouring in with questions and he has absolutely no answers. Until he gets some, he better come up with something believable or at least creative to placate them.

So he throws a blanket over the unconscious Asgardian, flicks off the light switch and walks away.

He finds Bruce sitting half-naked in the kitchen, nursing a chipped coffee mug with World’s Best Avenger printed on the side.

His first instinct is to immediately check the pager in his pocket to find it flashing green. He curses softly to himself, the damn thing was supposed to buzz to let him know the chamber opened but that’s what he gets for putting it together in the middle of the night and never getting around to the testing phase. He stands in the doorway for a while, watching the pale scientist press his trembling fingers against the warm porcelain as he breathes in the deep, comforting aroma. His glassy eyes have a strange faraway look about them, as if he has just woken up from a long, vivid dream and reality doesn’t quite make sense yet. As he steps closer, Tony notices more gray curls in his hair.

Bruce’s tired expression lights up as he spots him. He turns in the swivel chair and waves him a subdued but friendly greeting. “It’s good to see you again, Tony.”

He doesn’t get to finish his next sentence as Tony rushes towards him, finger pointed straight at his gaunt face. “Don’t you dare ‘Tony’ me! You disappear on us, you don’t call, you don’t even send a goddamn Christmas card!” He watches the brown eyes stare at him in amused shock and feels another wave of indignant fury rise up in his chest. “Goldilocks I understand, he is allergic to Earth technology, but you? You have a lot of explaining to do.”

He catches his breath, trying to stem another outburst but Bruce just shakes his head and grins as he squeezes Tony’s shoulder affectionately. “Yeah, I missed you too.” He takes another sip and closes his eyes in quiet enjoyment. “Trust me, it’s a very long story that gets progressively stupider and that you’re better off not hearing.”

Whatever anger Tony has left in him quickly melts as he returns the firm squeeze. “Try me, won’t you? We just found a couple thousand people in a spaceship in the woods. I think I can handle a little stupid.”

For a moment, panic flashes across Bruce’s face. “Shit, how’s Thor doing? Is he okay?”

“Relax, he’s one tough cookie, he’ll outlive us all.” Tony pours the rest of the coffee pot into a cup, takes a tentative sip, then immediately chucks it down the drain. “Quite literally, now that I think about it.”

“Good, because I want to kill him myself!” Bruce’s voice shifts gears so abruptly that Tony freezes midstep and frowns. “We got hit by a stray solar flare on the home stretch. It fried everything on the main bridge, autopilot, inertial dampeners, radiation shield, you name it. The rest of the ship was luckier but the asteroid belt pummeled the engine into scrap after that so the thing steered like a train. I told him the Hulk had a better chance of surviving landing it and what does he do? He welds the cockpit door shut in my face! Tells me I’ve got seven PhD’s to put to use and Earth already has its own lightning! If I didn’t know better, I’d think he’s trying to get himself killed!”

He swears under his breath as his fingers drum restlessly on the table. Tony can only chuckle in disbelief as he pours hot water over instant coffee.

“Yeah, that sounds about right. He was always a regular Superman.” He turns around to find Bruce raising a questioning eyebrow at him. “Think about it, alien, ridiculously strong, can fly…” he sips his drink and makes a face at the clearly inferior quality of the new brew. “...ditched red cape, which I can tell you, is a massive improvement.”

Bruce laughs along but his laughter has a bitter tone to it. “Destroyed home planet too. Checks out.”

“What?” Tony’s spoon slips from his fingers, sending dark coffee droplets all over the tiled floor. “Okay, that’s it! What the hell happened? Where have you two been all this time?”

The scientist on the other side of the table gives him a long, weary-eyed look and chugs down the rest of his mug. “Get me some clothes and a truck of Tylenol and I’ll tell you all about it.”

Chapter Text

I’ve seen the end of all
Be aware, the storm gets closer
Mirror, mirror – Blind Guardian

Thor knows he is dreaming because his field of vision is complete again.

It is also because sound does not carry in a vacuum and he definitely hears a voice amongst the cold stars that blink around him in the vast emptiness of space. It fills his ears, grave and dire, like rocks rumbling on a mountain peak right before an avalanche and dread washes over him when he realizes he has heard it before. It is the same voice that laughed in his head when the Water of Sight showed him the Infinity Stones and the birth of Vision. It speaks with an air of mocking condescension, a tone Thor knows well and has grown to despise.

In time, you will know what it's like to lose. To feel so desperately that you're right, yet to fail all the same.

A gigantic warship sporting plasma cannons large enough to obliterate moons hangs suspended in the void surrounded by a small support fleet bathed in the blue glow of a hydrogen cloud. He searches his memory for every advanced civilization that could build something of this magnitude but if Asgardians ever came across the artificers of this army, their meetings were never recorded. These are not Kree or Shi’ar and clearly not the Chitauri that almost tore him and his friends to shreds in New York. Their shadow stretches long and ominous against the eye-searing glow of Proxima Centauri and as his distant knowledge of star maps catches up with him, he feels a cold stone drop in his stomach. Whoever these beings are, they are too close to Earth for his liking. He can only hope they ignore it and unleash their destructive force elsewhere.

Something tells him his hope is foolish. Asgard did not burn behind his eyelids in vain. The visions come for a reason.

Dread it. Run from it.

The snide, gravelly voice rings in his head like a cracked bell. The fleet blinks out of existence, replaced by the image of massive hand closing into a fist over the Centaurus constellation. The stars swim and blur into a whirlpool of light before exploding into pitch blackness.

Destiny still arrives.

He wakes up to the faraway sound of thunder on an unseen sky.

He lies still for a while, heart still hammering in his chest, as he tries to make sense of his new surroundings. The lamps above him are switched off but some light manages to seep through the blinds pulled over a large window conferring the room an odd crepuscular darkness that is just enough to see. He turns his head on the pillow and spots the faded logo of Stark Industries stamped on the defibrillator box on the wall. The sight is enough to make him crack a small smile. Back at the tower in New York, the logo was impossible to escape, it was printed on everything, to the point where it became a contest among his teammates to come up with the most ridiculous Stark-branded item but along the way it also became a symbol for a safe haven and of home away from home. Seeing it again on the scratched plastic reminds him of better times, of laughter and friendship and how much he has missed all of them.

Thor wishes he had come back under better circumstances. Or at the very least, with better news.

He sits up, feeling his left shoulder protest at the sudden movement. A strip of white gauze falls over his face when he swings his legs off the bed and when he tries to brush it away, the rest of the bandages slip off onto the tiled floor. They must have loosened in his sleep, he realizes, and as he bends to pick them up, he accidentally knocks down a postcard with Hangul characters printed neatly over an intricate pattern. Their meaning escapes him completely until he notices the words next to them, written in fluid, cursive handwriting.

Get well soon, God of Thunder. You owe me a Cradle.

He turns it over in his hands with an amused expression which quickly turns into a frown as the implications of recent events sink in. The crash is still fresh in his mind, as is the memory of the cold, burning feeling on his skin when the electromagnetic shield gave out but everything else after he left the pilot seat is a tangled mess that unweaves itself slowly through a red mist. He vaguely recalls screams, guns pointed at the ship, the Hulk’s angry roar echoing across the clearing and a flash of red and gold before the world grew dark, silent, and a lot less complicated. A round clock with a cracked faceplate ticking on the wall tells him it’s half past eight and as he tries to figure out what time of the day that is exactly, he realizes he is starving.

He steps out of the room into a hallway bathed in the washed out light of an early morning, squinting and profoundly unsure of where to go. He knows Stark Tower like the palm of his hand but the compound is a vague memory at best. The place is also uncharacteristically silent for being the new Avengers headquarters. After wandering around aimlessly for a few minutes, he is ready to give up and just call out but before he can, faint familiar laughter drifts from behind a corner.

He follows it to a narrow door that hangs ajar, letting the smell of coffee waft into the hallway. It swings open soundlessly at the slightest pressure to reveal a small kitchen connected to a spacious living room with tall, slim windows behind which, wind and rain whip the branches of the trees surrounding the compound. A low wide table sits in the middle with stacks of papers scattered all over the wooden surface.

Spread like a cat over one of the largest sofas, Tony Stark snickers into his drink. “So then he tells me ‘I can’t go to Germany. I’ve got homework.’” He turns to Bruce Banner, who is sitting cross legged in a plaid-draped armchair. “The kid is still a bit wet behind the ears but he’s got potential. We’ll make an Avenger out of him yet.”

Bruce just shakes his head and runs his fingers over his own wave grained glass as the ice inside it slowly melts. “Sounds like you’ve had an eventful couple of years.”

Tony scoffs. “Well, it wasn’t anything like being a gladiator on an alien planet but who’s keeping score?” He finally spots Thor standing in the doorway and as he does, a smirk spreads over his face. “Hey, look who’s finally awake! How are you feeling, Kal-El?”

And just like that, it is as if the two years he has been gone never existed. Thor can’t help but laugh at the new indecipherable nickname when he replies, “Like a spaceship landed on me.”

“That’s pretty accurate.” Tony gestures at the eyepatch as he makes his way across the living room. “I see you still have no sense of self-preservation.”

“And you still have your sense of humor.” Thor clasps the engineer’s arm fondly and feels his own grin grow wider as Tony yanks him closer into a brief but almost bone-crushing hug. “I’m glad to see you again, Stark. It’s been too long.”

“Right, whose fault is that again?” Tony steps towards the cooler at the back of the kitchen and tosses him a bright red can with a label so stylized Thor gives up on reading it altogether. “Still no reception in space, I take it?

“No ravens either.” Thor turns to Bruce, relieved to see his human form, but his smile falters when he sees a pen twirl restlessly between his fingers, a telltale sign of trouble. “What’s the damage on the ship? Is everyone alright?”

The scientist doesn’t reply right away, pensive eyes studying the stack of papers stamped with a laurel-wreathed symbol that rings a distant bell in Thor’s mind. Eventually, Bruce just clicks the pen off on his wrist and joins them in the small kitchen, still erratically drumming it on his arm from time to time.

“They’re a bit shaken up by the whole landing experience but they’re fine. No serious injuries, present company excluded.” His voice grows colder for a moment as he stares Thor down. “You’re a colossal asshole, you know that?”

“I’ve been called a lot worse, repeatedly.” Thor leans against a tiled wall as he takes a tentative sip out of the bright can. The sweet and spicy aroma of ginger with a strong lemon aftertaste fills his mouth and he realizes how thirsty he is. He suppresses the overwhelming desire to down the whole thing in one gulp and asks, “How long was I out?”

“Two weeks.” Thor almost chokes on his drink and Tony lets out a short laugh. “I’m kidding, since yesterday morning.” He points at the dark clouds gathering over the compound and spreading over the burned treetops in the distance. “Is that your thing? It started last night and hasn’t let up since. Pretty sure all the meteorologists in the state are freaking out; they have been predicting clear skies for a week.”

Thor watches and frowns as a thin web of lightning flickers across the patchwork sky. Even after four months, his new powers are a mystery to him and he has no idea how being back on Earth will affect them. He thinks back to the vision of the alien fleet etched against the stars and wonders if his dreams are responsible for the temper tantrum the weather is throwing. For a moment, he considers telling his friends about them but changes his mind almost immediately. There’s nothing he can offer but a bunch of vague conjectures and there’s a very real matter at hand waiting for him in the woods; one he has been away from long enough.

“Maybe, I don’t know.” He leans away from the wall and blinks as the world tilts for a split second. “I should get back to the ship.”

He looks up to find unexpected concern flash across Tony’s face. “When was the last time you ate?” he asks and rolls his eyes as Thor returns him a blank look. “That’s what I thought. Sit down before you keel over.” He pulls a couple of plates from a nearby cupboard and shakes his head in dismay. “You guys could really stand to learn from my mistakes. Seniority’s got to be good for something.”

Bruce laughs quietly to himself as he empties the leftover ice from his glass in the kitchen sink. “Says the guy who almost didn’t make the team.”

“Whose side are you on, exactly?” Before Thor can open his mouth, Tony raises a reassuring hand in his direction. “Relax, the Stark Relief Foundation has been there since yesterday and they’ve got everything under control. Nobody is going to die if you don’t show up for another hour.” He lifts the lid from a large pan full to the brim with scrambled eggs and bacon, frowns at it and pops the whole thing in the oven. “Besides, we haven’t had time for breakfast either. Things came up...”

He trails off as his eyes dart towards the documents behind them. An odd, uneasy silence falls over the room that Thor has no idea how to interpret so he does the only thing he can and sits at the kitchen table, next to Bruce.

“Sure, alright, breakfast it is.” He pours himself the rest of the coffee pot and pauses as the first sip of the drink ignites his tired mind like a slow-burning firework. “So where’s the rest of the team? It’s October, knowing Barton’s obsession with Halloween, the whole place should look black and orange already. Or are we cleaning up our act for the sake of the new members?”

The scientist and the engineer share a meaningful look. Eventually, Tony lets out the long, weary sigh of a man who has been steadily ignoring the elephant in the room until it was ready to trample him.

“Yeah, about that...” he says. “We need to talk.”

By the time Thor makes it back to the ship, the weather has quieted down.

He walks across the tall drenched grass, rainwater soaking into the fabric of his jeans as the remains of the storm drip from broken branches overhead. The air still feels alive, like cold, invisible fire crackling gently on his skin and when he leans on a trunk to kick the dirt off cheap sneakers, tiny droplets crawl from all over the bark towards his hand. He lets go of the tree and watches them hover in place, then stream in a long rivulet over a patch of wild flowers. A lone bee describes confused circles around him, then gives up and loses itself in a cloud of mosquitoes that suddenly decide the safest place to be is as far away from him as possible.

He stands still for a while and closes his eyes as a familiar world breathes around him in an entirely new way. The storm still echoes in him, like a fading note on a plucked string and he wonders how long it will take to bring this little side-effect under control especially considering his current inner turmoil. He hadn’t given much thought to what had happened in Sokovia after they destroyed the city Ultron was planning to use as an improvised asteroid and now his mind is scrambling for memories of the aftermath. News reports of the devastation they left behind might have flickered across a screen somewhere in the background but by then, his attention was already fully focused on the Infinity Stones and all Earthly matters, no matter how important, were put aside. It hadn’t even occurred to him to look closer and now, the same hollow feeling that froze his heart when he read through Heimdall’s records returns to remind him that history has a tendency to repeat itself in unexpected ways.

If that is true, his knowledge of Asgard’s rewritten history gives him an advantage. If his people are going to have a new beginning on Earth, he must start by making amends for past mistakes.

He steps into the clearing and is greeted by a choir of loud, enthusiastic voices floating in the cool morning air. The gigantic trees the falling ship had smashed into have been moved out of the way and the place now looks less like a crash site and more like an improvised camp that has spontaneously sprung up in the middle of the forest. Humans and Asgardians blend together in a crowd gathered next to a row of tents with the Stark logo emblazoned across them. The smell of something warm and rich hits him as he walks by, looking for familiar faces until he spots Brunnhilde munching on a large green apple next to a stripped part of the fuselage, contemplating the exposed smoking machinery like a frustrated artist before a canvas.

“Behold, the fallen king returns!” She raises an eyebrow at the sight of Earth clothes. “You look… human.”

The word brings a smile to Thor’s lips. “When I lived here, I learned that it pays to blend in.” He pulls off a waterproof gray hood and looks at the fraying end of the wires secured with tape to the dented fuselage. “So, how bad is it?”

She flicks the gnawed apple core into the grass, and steps back with a disheartened sigh. “Well, the main bridge looks like a bomb went out inside, the rest of the ship is repairable if we find the resources. Your shield held on long enough to save the biodome, but everything inside is dead. The expansions we made did not survive either.” She lowers herself on a nearby tree stump and pulls on oil stained work gloves. “When Bruce dropped by he said the seeds were sealed away in the cargo bay so they should be fine but even so, nothing is growing in there in a long time.”

Thor’s face falls slightly as he readjusts the new leather eyepatch. The shield had been a long shot but it served its purpose after the asteroid belt crippled their engine, even though it was conjured out of pure adrenaline and as stable as a leaf on the wind. He had given it all he could until Earth’s electromagnetic field had wreaked havoc with it during reentry and by then, their most dangerous enemy had become gravity itself. He wonders if he can ever recreate it, if the need arises, then quietly prays that it never does.

“We brought those towers back to life before, we can do it again.” He notices a lever covered in peeling red paint propped against the stump and frowns. “Is that the switch to the power grid?

She nods and bends down to rummage in her toolbox. “Yeah, my team’s been trying to repair the damn thing since yesterday but it’s still acting up so the heating system has been unreliable at best. We’ve turned it off for now, until we can reroute the power from the inertial dampeners. It’s not like we’re going to need them, are we?”

Thor follows her gaze to the gaping hole in the ship’s main engine, wreathed in blackened metal shrapnel that pokes out like a charred cadaver’s bones. “Not any time soon. I guess all the logbooks are gone too?”

She cringes as she looks through the open door of the bridge. “You guess correct, the main computer is a pile of junk after the crash. Whoever wants to get it running will need to work some serious magic.” A disgruntled look crosses her tattooed face. “Ah, crap, does that mean we have to start the census all over again?”

Thor cannot help but give her a sympathetic look as he remembers how long the process took last time. “Seems so, let’s hope this one survives a bit longer.” He glances at the crowd gathered on the clearing which is slowly beginning to dissolve into smaller groups. “How are they holding up?”

Brunnhilde’s dark lips part in a smile as she stands next to him, brushing off dirt from her clothes. “Surprisingly well, all things considered. I guess we’re all glad to not be breathing recycled air anymore. Korg and Miek are an overnight sensation, though people were a bit freaked out by the whole knives for hands thing.” Thor raises an eyebrow at the information but says nothing so she goes on. “Plus, it helps to know that not everybody on this planet wants to shoot us on sight. Just a while ago I saw Hod from sector nine have a really passionate debate about spices with the guy in charge of the tents. I can’t believe he had to travel to another planet to find someone who’s as obsessed with food as him.”

Her chuckle goes unanswered as Thor catches a fleeting glimpse of a figure dressed in green and brown moving among the trees. “Is the army still around?” he asks and watches the Valkyrie’s expression darken.

“I’ve seen a few guys in uniform patrolling the woods,” she says and nods in the direction of the camo-clad figure walking away. “That’s their leader over there, with the face like a cracked windshield. Claimed they were here for protection but I’ve no idea whose exactly. I get the feeling they expect us to slit the humans’ throats the second they turn their back.” She watches him with increasing distaste, lingering on the gun over his shoulder as it reflects the meek sunlight. “What is it with these people? I thought you said Earth liked you.”

The slight disquiet in her voice cuts through Thor like a knife. The past four months have been rough on all of them, and even he could not wait to breathe easy once they reached their destination. Despite their triumph against cold, hunger and sorrow, the journey had felt like a breakneck race against time with unforeseen obstacles piling up as their ingenuity to surmount them stretched thinner. They all deserve a safe haven and he cannot shake the feeling that his best hope for a new beginning is slowly slipping through his fingers.

“They do!” he replies purely on instinct before his own darkening thoughts catch up with him. “Or rather, they did. I might have overestimated their trust.” He sees a perplexed shadow cross her face and adds. “A lot has happened since I was gone, none of it good. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all.”

The Valkyrie’s brown eyes peer into him, her silence deliberate and inquisitive. “Are we safe here?” she asks when he fails to elaborate.

Thor falls silent for a while, watching the crowd of humans and Asgardians ebb and flow around them like an odd, multicolor tide. Eventually, he replies, “We will be. You have my word.”

She flashes him a crooked smile and returns her attention to the stripped side of the ship. “Good, I’m still keeping an eye on Officer Twitchy over there.” A loud bout of laughter distracts her again as the turns her head towards a group of people who have just seen Korg bend a spoon between his fingers with the mere act of picking it up. “These guys, in turn, don’t seem like the kind that scares easily. Are they friends of yours?”

Her eyes settle on a tall young woman with a Stark Relief Foundation armband engaged in lively conversation with a wiry, teenage Asgardian with a scar running across his right cheek. For a few seconds, Thor is convinced his impaired depth-perception is playing tricks on him. He blinks away the dust in his sight and when the picture doesn’t change, slides a hand over his face in exasperation. The more things change around them, it seems, the more they stay the same.

“To be honest, I never met them in my life,” he replies. “I should go and introduce myself.”

By the time he reaches the pair, the young woman has walked away leaving her companion standing alone under the long shadow of a snapped oak tree. He straightens up when he sees Thor approaching, like a child caught doing something he shouldn’t.

“Good day to you, my liege,” he says in a measured voice, brushing away a mess of red curls. “I see you’re still with us.”

“You sound disappointed.” Thor sighs as he sees nearly genuine shock flash across the gray eyes. “Drop the act, Loki, I know it’s you.”

The hurt look wavers on the freckled face only for a moment before his eyes blur and turn a familiar shade of blue. “Damn it, what gave me away?”

Thor does his best not to smile at the hint of wounded pride in his brother’s voice. “How about the fact that the guy whose face you stole is losing at cards not forty feet away?” The teenage mask looks almost insultingly unimpressed. “Not to mention, the scar is on the wrong side.”

Loki’s eyes roll at the smugness Thor cannot hide in his own voice. “Are you done showing off? We probably all look the same to them, anyway.” He pulls out a small tangerine from his pocket and starts tearing off its skin in smooth, deliberate movements. “You can’t blame me for laying low, brother. My face is not very popular around here.”

He’s right, of course, and the knowledge does nothing to dispel Thor’s growing concerns. Loki’s situation is his own particular elephant in the room that is getting close to stomping all over them if he doesn’t think of something soon. “Do you plan to stay in disguise forever?” he asks. “You will run out of them at some point.”

“Let’s just say, I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.” Loki’s eyes suddenly narrow as he throws the tangerine away and takes a quick glance at his temporary twin through matted curls. “In fact, I better make myself even scarcer. You’ve got very interesting company.”

He saunters away, disappearing into the crowd as the glamour spell closes around him like a soft golden curtain. His new appearance remains a mystery which Thor quickly stops trying to solve when he sees a tall middle-aged man in a suit with graying hair make his way towards him in long confident strides. The crowd dissolves as the humans part around him like the sea before a prow, leaving the confused Asgardians standing alone. The man’s dark gray eyes, however, don’t even register their presence. He walks by them as if they were mere shadows which it is in his best interest not to acknowledge.

It takes a few moments for Thor to remember his face. He has only seen it in photographs and news clips be barely ever paid attention to. His name, on the other hand, had come up enough times in the past couple of hours to ingrain itself in his memory and become inextricably linked to bad news.

Thaddeus Ross reaches the irregular shade thrown by the cracked oak tree and gives him a short welcoming nod. The gray eyes linger over the eyepatch and Thor wonders whether it makes him more or less threatening to a former member of the army.

“It seems our information on the Avengers is grossly out-of-date,” he says instead of a greeting. “Our people in MI were under the impression that your kind was invulnerable.”

Thor’s first instinct is to ask what kind of information he is talking about. Instead, he replies, “They were very optimistic, then.”

The words bring the slightest of smiles out of Ross. “What can I say? For mere mortals like us, it’s comforting to know that even gods can bleed.” He stretches out a leathery hand that feels unusually cold when Thor accepts firm the handshake. “We were never formally introduced but I suppose you already know who I am.”

“I do.” Thor glances over the man’s shoulder at the crowd that is slowly beginning to merge together again. “We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
For What It's Worth - Buffalo Springfield

The US Secretary of State proves himself to be a man of few words.

In fact, Thor is sure Ross has heard similar stories before, and though his is probably the first one to feature spaceships and fire demons, he has a feeling they all end the same way.

There is a calculated neutral expression on the man’s face when he hears about the fall of Asgard, and he only speaks up to inquire about the number of their survivors and what artifacts they were able to salvage. He doesn’t mention the Tesseract by name but the question hangs in the air, unanswered and Thor wonders if Surtur’s sword was powerful enough to destroy it or whether it is still floating among the debris, along with the rest of Asgard’s lost relics. He and Heimdall had spent a few minutes scanning for it to find nothing except the same death and ruin that were sure to close in on them if they didn’t depart soon. His thoughts still return to it from time to time, but with all said and done, he is glad to spare Earth the burden of dealing with it again. The Mind Stone had wreaked enough havoc before it was safe with Vision, and keeping two Infinity Stones on the same planet was not wise. They never remained hidden for long and always fell into just the right hands to sow nothing but chaos.

“You seem to have landed on your feet, after all.” Ross remarks after Thor finishes speaking.

He lights a cigarette and surveys the camp through a bluish cloud of smoke that dissolves quickly under the chilly morning breeze. Thor isn’t sure what to make of those words, delivered in the same collected tone he has often heard Natasha Romanoff use seconds before unleashing her fury on some poor soul who had decided to make her life difficult. He doesn’t know enough about Ross to reach any conclusions, though the ever growing amount of cigarette butts on the ground betrays a gathering storm behind his unperturbed demeanor. Whether the wind blows in his favor or not is yet to be seen.

“We’ve had a lot of help,” he replies. “More than we expected, in fact. You have to give it to Stark, he knows how to make everything run like clockwork.”

A long stream of smoke escapes Ross’s mouth along with a curt laugh. “And yet he cannot return a single call. For someone who owns two phone companies he can be extremely hard to reach.” He pauses to stub out the cigarette on a nearby rock. “Then again, he’s not the only one with that problem.”

Thor holds back a long sigh as all the memories of his struggles with Midgardian technology hit him at once. Years ago, he inherited Darcy’s old flip phone which everyone claimed was useless because he kept forgetting to carry it and when he finally did, it got crushed by Steve’s shield not an hour into a mission. Its subsequent replacements met a similar fate in rapid succession until even his teammates became wary of leaving their own phones around him, as if he was the unwilling bearer of a very specific curse.

“I don’t see how that’s a problem,” he says. “You have found us just fine.”

“It wasn’t hard, I merely had to follow the trail of destruction.” Ross raises his head towards the path of singed treetops overhead. “You have an unfortunate talent for it, I’m afraid, but I’m glad you’re starting to see things our way. My sources inform me that you signed the Accords an hour ago. That was the right thing to do.”

There’s a hint of veiled satisfaction in the man’s voice which Thor finds himself very reluctant to share. If someone held a knife to his throat right then and there, he would say that signing hadn’t felt like a decision at all, but like a long-overdue formality. Tony had thrown him a sympathetic look when he impressed his runic signature on the paper but made no attempts to dissuade him. Bruce had hemmed and hawed about the issue for ages, pacing around the room with haunted eyes, occasionally looking back at him but Thor had little counsel to offer. At the end of the day, his friend’s decision remains his own, while he has a whole country to think of. His personal desires have long ago faded into the background leaving only the hope that he is worthy of Asgard’s throne as he was of Mjolnir.

Ross’s words burn in his mind with a cold fire. The right thing. He has spent the better part of fourth months trying to figure out what that is and if there is a lesson Ragnarok has taught him, it’s that not even the right decisions are free from consequences.

He looks up just in time to spot another camo-clad figure walking among the trees. “If that’s true, call off the army. You know we mean you no harm.”

Ross just shakes his head and fishes out another cigarette out of a leather bound case. “I have no doubts about that now, but intentions are fleeting and we need to take every precaution possible. Enhanced individuals are becoming more common these days and you just brought a ship full of them to Earth. That makes everybody a bit on edge.”

Thor lets out a temperate breath and skirts around the urge to ask if he would rather have the Chitauri back. He has read the words “enhanced individuals” about a thousand times in the past few hours but in Ross’s mouth they seem to carry another meaning altogether. He watches the soldier linger around a group of Asgardians, who are busy sorting out the charred scraps of the engine, and adjust the rifle on his shoulder matter-of-factly. The group does its best to ignore him but the simple rattle of the weapon against the man’s belt is enough for them to freeze and their faces to tense up. The fact that Ross seems not to notice the scene at all makes a familiar prickling sensation spread through his body.

“You point guns at unarmed people,” he says as the soldier walks away. “I do not call that protection.”

Ross takes a long drag out of his cigarette and lets the smoke curl into the air. “On my way here, I passed a creature that had knives for hands. I do not call that unarmed.”

Thor resists the temptation to call Miek over and place Ross’s hand over his head, just to watch his reaction. Back on the ship, he had assumed that the alien was a mute for the better part of a month until Korg explained to him that Miek’s species communicated through low-level telepathy. Establishing the link to his mind was easy enough, though for non-telepathic species, it proved a bit overwhelming. For Thor, it had felt like a colony of ants burrowing inside his brain before the uncomfortable sensation faded and pure abstract thoughts flowed in, bypassing words and language entirely. It had taken some time to get used to this form of communication but after a while, he learned that Miek’s species was native to Sakaar and he was captured to be a gladiator after his entire family was massacred. Since he had shown himself to be a capable fighter, the Grandmaster was considerate enough to replace his missing limbs with deadly weapons but not considerate enough to take him out of the arena. He is about to relay the entire story to Ross before a newfound cynical voice in his head warns him that the man is only likely to pay attention to the gladiator part.

Instead, he replies, “Trust me, he likes those even less than you; they weren’t his idea in the first place. We meant to fit him with better prosthetics but didn’t have the resources and at least knives are better than stumps. All he wants is not to have to use them anymore.” He watches a skeptical look cross the man’s face and adds, “That’s the whole reason we’re here.”

Ross nods at the not very subtle reminder. “Ah yes, you ‘humbly ask the people of Earth for asylum.’” Thor’s face remains carefully blank as his own words are thrown back at him with just enough of an inflection change to irk him. “I’m afraid things aren’t that simple anymore. The world might still see you as a hero but some of us can’t quite get past the fact that your brother was responsible for the New York incident.”

His voice falls into that measured, calm tone that is really starting to get under Thor’s skin. He chooses his next words very carefully. “You would refuse help to eight thousand people because of the reckless actions of one?”

Ross’s lips twist into an unpleasant little smile. “That is not the word I would use for Loki,” he says. “A child who plays with fire is reckless. Someone who kills innocent people without a second thought is usually described under very different terms. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“I know you still haven’t answered my question.”

“I suppose I haven’t.” The man crumples the spent cigarette. “See, you’ve been gone a long time and the thing about time is that it gives us perspective. The truth is that we’re had two potentially world ending events in the past four years and each time we looked closer we found you and your brother at the center of them. Loki had the entire galaxy at his disposal and he just happens to seek war with the planet under your protection. Ultron was Stark’s creation, but he could not have existed without the Mind Stone which Loki brought to Earth.” He pauses, as if daring him to challenge his words but Thor doesn’t, so he goes on. “Come to think of it, it’s the same stone that gave Wanda and Pietro Maximoff their powers so every life they’ve taken leads back to you both as well. You understand how after that track record, I might be inclined to think it’s not a great idea to have more Asgardians living among us.”

Thor fights to suppress the sparks gathering across his fingers. His voice comes out surprisingly steady when he finds it again, “If that’s what you think, then cast us both aside but let my people stay. They don’t need to pay for our mistakes.”

Whatever answer he expects Ross to give is long in coming. Eventually, the man fumbles for the cigarette case again, frowns to find it empty, then turns to him, diplomatic mask back on.

“Fortunately for you, not everybody shares my opinion,” he says. “There were a hundred and seventeen countries behind the Sokovia Accords and last night they all took a vote. They agreed that if you signed, your people would be given help and protection. And since you already have, it seems like I’ve got no case. Democracy in action is a beautiful thing, even when the chips don’t fall in your favor. You should keep that in mind, now that you’re king.”

Thor releases a breath he does not remember holding as relief washes over him. “So my request is granted?”

Ross gives him a brief nod. “From the moment your signature dried on the paper, yes. There was one last minute addition though, Loki is to be placed in the custody of the United States government in the next twenty four hours. I’m sure we can provide you with an updated copy later.”

In the heavy silence that follows, Thor’s heartbeat is almost deafening in his ears. After the situation on the ship stabilized, his thoughts had returned to the matter of Loki again and again, turning progressively darker each time. For a while, he had toyed with the idea of keeping him in the Avengers’ compound, a dangerous plan considering how things turned out last time they were all under the same roof, but still better than the alternative. The worst case scenario had always lingered at the back of his mind but whenever it got too close, he told himself he had nothing to worry about. Loki was, after all, nothing if not predictable and his talent for vanishing at the first sign of trouble was unparalleled. Thor had fully expected him to grab one of the escape pods and lose himself among the cold stars long before they got anywhere near Earth.

But he hadn’t. He had stayed with them through the first hellish weeks and the next perilous months. He was there to devour the first harvest of the biodome and to help draft the plans for its expansion. He appointed himself the head of the theatre troupe and would spend hours in their company, putting his glamour spells to increasingly creative uses. And when the solar flare engulfed the ship in a fiery inferno, he was on the front lines, trying to salvage everything they could and cursing at the Grandmaster’s lackadaisical approach to fire prevention. Thor caught a brief glimpse of his anxious face through the screen of the cockpit door before the ship was inescapably trapped in Earth’s gravity field and allowed himself a small glimmer of hope. His brother’s well-established pattern or backstabbing and treachery was finally beginning to unravel. There might still be a chance for their paths to grow closer.

He thinks back to Heimdall’s records, still hidden away in his quarters, a silent reminder that the past cannot be erased. Loki’s own Ragnarok is inevitable and nobody knows that better than Thor.

“Last time I checked, your country still applied the death penalty,” he hears himself say. “Do you think executing Loki will give you the closure you seek?”

“As much as some would love to see him dead, I think that would start us off on the wrong foot,” The man’s tone turns deceptively conciliatory. “I’m going to be frank with you, a lot of people were very angry when you took Loki back to Asgard. In their eyes, you denied him a fair trial. How do you think the citizens of New York feel about never seeing the murderer of their loved ones brought to justice?”

“Asgard did not spare him if that’s what you fear,” Thor retorts. “He was convicted to life imprisonment.”

“And unless he’s imprisoned as we speak, it doesn’t apply anymore,” Ross counters. “Look, I understand that right now you can’t afford to lock up able-bodied people but your brother racked up a body count of eighty before the Chitauri showed up. Prison is too good for him if you ask me.”

Thor sighs as he flashes back to the short-lived Hulk containment chamber in the helicarrier. “With all due respect, I don’t think you have one that can hold him.”

He’s surprised to hear genuine, amused laughter in response. “With all due respect, you underestimate us. Besides, if we all play our cards right, we may even help each other out.” Ross slides a thin silver phone out of his pocket and swipes through the flickering screen. “What do you know about Centerville, Pennsylvania?”

Despite all his time on Earth, the words still sound like a collection of disjointed syllables with only the vague suggestion of a place behind them. Thor leans forward as the device in Ross’s hands lights up to reveal a bird’s eye view of a valley, tucked between snow-crowned peaks. Neat rows of red and black roofs spread across the green landscape, clustering around a lake fed by a waterfall that spills over the gray stone like a curly, white mane. A long, winding road snakes through the streets before disappearing into the gaping mouth of a tunnel and Thor cannot help noticing that, for a picture taken in broad daylight, there are very few vehicles on it. For the briefest of moments, his thoughts betray him and he thinks of Jane and her collection of rare snow globes crowding the shelves of her tiny apartment. The town would fit perfectly among them, it looks like its own piece of reality, folded away from the rest of the world by the looming mountains and frozen in time.

He looks back and Ross and shakes his head. “Nothing at all,” he says.

“That’s not surprising, even by our standards, it’s old news.” Ross hands the phone over to Thor and slides open a folder, scattering a wide array of pictures over the screen. “It was a prosperous mining town in the seventies until a coal seam fire flooded the entire area with carbon monoxide. It didn’t help that it happened in the middle of the night so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.”

His grim expression leaves little room for any positive resolutions. “Any survivors?”, Thor asks.

Ross drums his fingers against the leather cigarette case, saying nothing. His diplomatic façade seems to crack as dejection crosses his wrinkled face and Thor feels unexpected sympathy rise within him. He knows what it’s like to mourn the deaths of people he has never met.

“Not as many as we’d hoped,” the man replies eventually, “Mostly those who lived in the outskirts or were out of town. The area was evacuated but by then, the fire had grown too large so the only solution was to let the coal vein burn itself out. The state has been closely monitoring the air since then. It’s been clean for the past five years and they have the records to prove it. However, as you can imagine, nobody is in a hurry to move back. They all think the place is cursed or haunted.” There’s a tinge of bitterness to his laughter as he looks back at Thor and adds, “Seems as good a place as any for your people to settle down. As soon we secure your brother, that is.”

He lets meaningful silence hand in the air, clearly waiting for an answer but Thor does not give him one. He watches the glowing screen in his hands and thinks of tall, majestic buildings rising up to the clouds, of crowded markets and furnaces powered by water and sun. He thinks of fields of gold, of taverns where music never ceases, and of what the Asgard Library will look like after its remains are joined by new texts written under an entirely different sky. The future he’s been chasing for months unfolds before him and though the vision is hazy, it is captivating enough to make his heart a little lighter.

He allows himself to bask in it before handing back the phone, “An entire town for Loki? That’s quite an uneven exchange for someone who doesn’t want us around.”

Ross shrugs. “Like I said, the countries that drafted the Sokovia Accords have spoken in your favor, so my opinion is irrelevant. I don’t want a bull in my china shop, but if I’m going to have one, I want to know exactly where it is.” He pauses to take another long look at the clearing teeming with humans and Asgardians. “This camp is fine for now but how long do you expect to survive on scraps from the Stark Foundation? I’m offering you a fresh start and ridding you of a nuisance at the same time. I suggest you take it before I change my mind.”

There’s a spark of aggravation in Thor’s mind at the word ‘nuisance’ but it goes ignored as a sinking feeling takes over. He reminds himself that he shouldn’t be surprised at all; the writing on the wall regarding Loki has been there for months. He tries to tell himself that this is the best resolution he could hope for. That it could have been so much worse.

“Where will you be holding him?”, he asks.

Ross lets out a dry laugh. “You should ask Stark, he knows all about it. Do we have a deal or not?”

The last barrier in Thor’s mind crumbles under the weight of the crown as he nods slowly. “Very well, I accept. As long as I am the one to bring him in.”

The wrinkles at the corner of Ross’s mouth grow deeper as he flashes an acrimonious smile. “Last time an Avenger said that to me, a German airport got destroyed and a criminal still got away. I’m not about to make the same mistake again.”

He runs his calloused fingers through graying hair and gives an almost imperceptible nod in the direction of the woods. A shadow dressed in brown and green moves at the edge of Thor’s vision, a few others soon join it . Suddenly, he understands why the army is still around and the realization doesn’t make his increasingly trying day any easier.

“Do you really want to pit your weapons against Loki’s magic?”, he asks and is faced with the unflappable look of a man who has spent too long preparing for battle and is all too eager to show his work.

“You continue to underestimate us,” the reply is punctuated with the sound of cocking rifles. “We’ve learned a lot while you were away. Believe me, we are fully capable of handling him if he doesn’t want to cooperate.”

There’s a kind of obstinate determination in the man’s voice that makes Thor’s patience snap in half. “I’ve spent enough time on Earth to see how you handle things. You will not have bullets flying amongst my people!” He turns around brusquely to see a small squad gathered near the edge of the clearing that freezes the moment he looks upon them. “If you cannot value our lives, then at least value your own.”

The group shuffles in place, suddenly all too aware of the gathering clouds on a very recently clear sky. Five pairs of nervous eyes turn to Ross for guidance and Thor comes close to pitying them if it weren’t for the rifles slung over their shoulders. Their agonizing wait lasts only a few seconds before the man sighs and gestures at them to stand down.

“All right, have it your way,” he concedes grudgingly. “You have thirty minutes; make them count.”

Thor breathes easier as he sees them slowly retreat, doing their best not to look relieved.

“Thank you,” he replies and walks away, leaving Ross standing over the graveyard of cigarette butts scattered across the grass. A parliament of rooks pecking at the ground for worms spooks and takes flight in an even black swoop save for one lone bird that sits perfectly still on the only surviving branch of the oak tree, watching him with beady eyes that carry the faintest hint of blue.

For the first time in months, Loki is surprisingly easy to find.

He lounges in his room, staring at tattered pages spread over his writing desk, crudely fashioned out of an old storage crate. He seems completely engrossed in them but still glances up when Thor walks in to give him a despondent smile. “I know that look. That’s your ‘bad news’ look. I’ve been seeing it a lot lately.”

The carefully constructed scenario in Thor’s head falls apart at those words. These might as well be their last moments of respite, before the last of his family is taken from him. He cannot help but make them last a little bit longer.

“You still read me like a book, brother,” he replies. The blue eyes roll mockingly, suggesting that if Thor is indeed a book, he isn’t a very long one. “Are you planning your next play already? I’ve just passed Nanna mouthing something very dramatic in the hallway. Is she your lead actress again?”

“She wishes. She barely bothered to learn her lines for the last one.” Loki throws one last disapproving look at the pages, then turns to Thor. “So are the rumors true? Have the mighty Avengers fallen out of favor with the good people of Earth?”

Thor would gladly give his other eye to know the real answer to that question. For the moment, he settles on replying, “That depends on who you ask.”

Loki gives him a nonchalant shrug. “Fair enough, I know I’ve seen a lot of young women blush and avert their eyes when you walk past.” The teasing smile soon fades into a scowl. “I suppose your most recent acquaintance had a very different reaction to your presence.”

Thor nods, gathering his thoughts. “He is not too fond of either of us,” he says to fill the creeping silence. “He’s willing to make an exception for one.”

Loki’s thin lips press into a tight line as he holds his gaze with a peculiar stoicism, like an actor committed to a particularly unpleasant script. “Right, no prizes for guessing which one. I assume that’s the reason you’re standing there with your best funeral face.” He pauses, clearly waiting for an explanation, but before Thor can speak again, he interrupts him. “Tell me, do you think throwing me at their mercy will win you their trust back? Do you think they will welcome us with open arms when they don’t even extend the same courtesy to their own kind?”

Thor frowns at the utter contempt on Loki’s face. “What do you think will happen if I refuse? Your actions in New York cannot be easily dismissed.”

“And yet, in your infinite wisdom, you still chose to come here!” For a second, ire bleeds into Loki’s voice but he quickly composes himself and lets out a resentful laugh. “Word is, your actions in Sokovia cannot be dismissed either. Funny how you get to be the people’s hero while I get to rot in a cell. Would you be that understanding if they suddenly decided you were to join me?”

“If that’s the price to pay for peace, then yes.”

The words just make Loki’s sneer grow wider. “Right, I forgot you’re all about diplomacy these days. Someone should really tell that to the very nervous people with guns outside.” He paces briefly across the room in short, deliberate strides before he stops and gives him a clandestine look. “You do realize this will never stop, do you? Anyone with two thoughts to rub together can see they are terrified of us. How long do you think your little experiment will last until they decide we’re more trouble than we’re worth?”

Thor suppresses a sick, slippery feeling rising in his chest. Ever since they were children, Loki has had an unsettling talent for reaching into his mind, plucking out the grimmest thoughts and presenting them in an even darker light. The fact that his brother is often on the right track does nothing to placate the storm inside him. In a bout of selfish fancy, he allows himself to consider the implications of Loki’s words but the moment doesn’t last long. Mistakes were made and need to be amended. Their personal frets pale in comparison to the bigger picture.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he says. “But I’m willing to take that chance.”

“Then you’re a bigger fool than I thought, brother.”

The blue eyes grow cold with resignation as Loki steps back, towards the heavy desk. His hand goes straight through the metal, wreathed in a familiar golden sheen that betrays an illusion. Before Thor can even think about being furious, a very faint click grazes the edge of his hearing and he feels the blood drain from his face.

“Loki… what have you done?”

“What I had to do.” There’s frustration in his brother’s voice, laced with sorrow as a small red light peeks between the crevices of the poorly assembled furniture and begins to blink frenetically. “You long for peace so much, you cannot hear the war drums closing in. That will be your doom in the long run. I pray it is not our doom as well.”

The illusion fades in a gilded mist before the intense, high-pitched whine of an alarm buries itself in Thor’s brain. He has just enough time to fling himself out of the room before a cloud of fire and heat bursts out of the desk, consuming everything in its wake. The shockwave slams him hard against the hallway wall, sending red spots across his vision. He can hear screams seeping through the ringing in his ears and when he turns towards them to check if anyone is hurt, he feels a hand grasp his shoulder.

Bruce’s ashen face peers into his, as he hastily puts down a crate of seeds from the cargo bay. “Thor! Are you alright? What the hell happened?”

For a few seconds, the only words Thor can utter are long-winded curses which all drown in a stream of acrid smoke that pours out of the destroyed room. He brushes off the stray sparks dying on his clothes and drags the scientist away from the wreckage. “Loki’s gone...”

“What do you mean gone?” The brown eyes widen in horror as they look back at the gaping hole in the wall that used to house Loki’s quarters. “Is he in there? Is he dead?”

Thor thinks of the army gathered around the ship, waiting for a reason to pounce and feels anger rise in him like a tidal wave. “When I find him, he’s going to wish he was.”

Chapter Text

And I'm holding on tight
To a world gone astray
Believe - Savatage

Tony is almost done putting on his shoes when his mobile phone goes off in the distance.

He scrambles for the device, stumbling clumsily towards the living room, but it dies as soon as his hand closes over it, strangling a guitar riff of his favorite ACDC song. The phone number for the head coordinator of the Stark Relief Foundation blinks at him on a red and gold background prompting a small frustrated sigh. He has been trying to get in touch with them for a long while now, with every attempt resulting in a busy signal or being redirected to a pre-recorded message that fills his ears with Pepper’s voice and reminds him just how much he misses her. She had taken over the Foundation a few months ago but was called off to a conference in Amsterdam last week, right in time for all hell to break loose. Her replacement seemed to be managing well enough, though Tony suspected she was a bit overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events. No matter how capable she was, her training probably didn’t cover a first contact scenario.

He hits the button to return the call, groans as the line goes busy again and slides his feet into rainproof boots, determined to check out the situation at the clearing in person. Bruce had left about half an hour ago, and Tony meant to join him but was interrupted by a barrage of phone calls from media outlets trying to get access to the crash site, all rather unconvinced by his increasingly creative synonyms for things like experimental aircrafts and weather balloons. The calls dwindled down just in time for the sound of helicopter blades to rip into the glorious silence and as he caught a glimpse of a large squadron speeding in the direction of the woods, he wondered what Norton and his boys were playing at. The situation he remembered did not warrant a reenactment of Independence Day, though he was confident that after New York, the military along with everyone else had scrapped the possibility of peaceful aliens altogether. Thor’s case had been its own rare contradiction; helped along by the unquestionable fact that people tended to find him easy on the eyes. Not having spent much time on Earth helped establish him as an oddity in the public eye, an intergalactic tourist on the Avenger’s team to be madly curious about, but not exactly afraid of. The Battle of Sokovia had turned the tide of public opinion enough for that image to crack and by the time a bomb claimed the lives of the Wakandan delegation in Lagos, the same people who obsessed about him were unashamedly glad that he was gone.

A frown descends on Tony’s face as he throws on his coat and steps into the chilly autumn air. If Earth’s honeymoon period with Asgardians was over, he cannot imagine the reaction to eight thousand of them, even if they couldn’t bend lightning to their will.

It takes him a few seconds to realize that the weather has taken a sharp turn for the worse. A vast swathe of clouds he cannot remember seeing ten minutes ago drapes over the gloomy sky, thick as velvet and dark as the sea after a storm. The meek golden sunlight from this morning has long faded into dull silver that hangs in the air like fog, heavy with the pungent smell of ozone. The world around him lies almost forcibly still, wrapped in the kind of eerie calm that would make his mother’s joints ache and the family dog run for cover. He is about to duck back inside to grab an umbrella before he spots a group of people, dressed in the gray and blue colors of U-GIN Genetics, walking out of the woods, looking crestfallen. A large wheeled robot carrying their equipment is following closely, skipping over the rocks and branches that litter the ground while its load rattles and sways. After a particularly large boulder almost makes the machine topple over, a woman separates from the group and kneels to readjust the straps over the cargo. When she brushes her long bangs away, Tony recognizes Helen Cho.

“Hey! Guys, wait up!” He waves at the group and walks briskly towards them, his gaze instinctively drawn towards the robot in the shape of a shallow mining cart, with two flat headlights welded to its front side, like big round eyes. “That thing could use some serious shock absorbers, you know? I hope it’s not carrying anything fragile.”

Helen smiles through a grimace of effort as she tightens the elastic bands running over the steel frame. “Poor FIDO’s not used to this type of terrain. All he’s ever known is smooth pavements and tiled floors.” She looks down at the thick layer of mud caked on the robot’s massive wheels with something resembling pride. “This is a whole new experience but I think he’s managing well.”

She wipes a layer of moisture off the headlights as if petting the cold metal and Tony cannot help but grin when no one in her team seems to question it. “FIDO, huh? That’s cute.” He points at the gear loaded onto the robot’s flat back. “What’s with all this? I thought you guys requested to stay for another week. Your confirmation came through five minutes ago.”

She shrugs and looks up as another military helicopter tears the air overhead sporting familiar gun turrets that send a chill down Tony’s spine. “Apparently the National Guard has other plans. There was an explosion on the ship so they told everyone to clear the area.” She pauses when she notices his stunned expression. “You didn’t know?”

As if on cue, his phone goes off again, filling the uneasy silence with screaming guitars and loud proclamations about a highway to hell. The tense, formal face of Violet Long, Pepper’s replacement at the Foundation stares at him from the vibrating screen, her picture blurred as raindrops begin to dot the smooth surface. A faint rumble echoes across the clouds like the subdued roar of a caged beast.

“Damn it, why do these guys only call me with bad news?” He picks up the phone and winces when sharp, unexpected static pours into his ears. “Violet, what the hell is going on? I just saw helicopters heading your way, looking ready to blast Fortunate Son. How...?”

He doesn’t get to finish his question or to hear her reply as an alarm erupts behind him, long and piercing, like the cry of an infant left in the cold. He looks back at the compound, where red and orange lights are flooding the third floor and swears.

“Hold on,” he says into the phone as he summons the armor. “I’m going to have to call you back."

Shortly after their official move from Stark Tower into the compound, Steve and Natasha started calling the third floor the Treasure Chamber.

The nickname had prompted an eye roll from Tony at first but it stuck and when even Happy began to use it offhandedly, it was too late to turn back. It was now added to every plaque in the building along with an icon of a dragon spread over a hoard of gold. The floor’s actual contents were less reminiscent of a large scaly beast though in the right hands, they could be just as dangerous. It housed the entire team’s gear, the Iron Legion and every iteration of the power armor he created over the years, including the Hulkbuster that had proven effective enough to be labeled as a weapon of mass destruction. The thought of someone breaking in sends Tony into a cold sweat as he rushes towards the scene, the alarm still wailing hysterically around him. Everything in there is locked with a fingerprint ID but the very fact that they have managed to get past the security system is bad news. No one should have been able to get through that door without a voice confirmation and a retinal scan after walking through a long corridor lined with cameras all running his personal brand of facial recognition software. The place was a fortress, accessible only to the team and for a moment, an unpleasant suspicion trickles into his mind. He knows next to nothing about the whereabouts of the rogue Avengers but he hopes that none of them would attempt to retrieve their gear from the compound. The last thing he wants is to start another fight with the people who still show up in pictures scattered over his phone memory and which he cannot bring himself to delete.

The heavy machinery in his head screeches to a halt when he reaches the Treasure Chamber door and finds it neatly locked.

He smashes a hand over the emergency shutdown to kill the alarm and lets silence flood back as he leans over the retinal scanner. The heavy double door slides aside, revealing a spacious, windowless room lined with ballistic glass cases, which - he is glad to see - still retain all of their contents. He runs his hands over them, looking for signs of tampering but finds none and lets out a long sigh of relief. He is almost ready to believe that this just is a particularly inconvenient hiccup in the security system but his optimism doesn’t last as he spots a thin steel display stand in the back, crumpled like aluminum foil. The grips over what it used to hold seem to have been melted right off and when Tony remembers what it was, he feels incredulous laughter rising in his throat. It has been a while since he has come across the very definition of petty theft.

The laughter dies immediately when he hears light footsteps behind him. He spins around to aim a repulsor blaster straight into a familiar face currently missing a blue eye.

“Jesus Christ, Point Break, don’t sneak up on me like that!” He lowers his arm as the surge of power within the gauntlet dies down. “I’ve just upgraded this thing, it can put a hole through a tank. I’d rather not test it on you first.”

“It’s hardly sneaking up if the door is open.” Thor flicks his thumb at the wide gap between the steel panels and walks past him, barely glancing at the deadly weapon. Tony gets the uncomfortable feeling that his friend has had too many guns pointed at him in the last couple of hours. “He stole the Scepter, didn’t he?”

There’s only one person he can be talking about, which puts the break-in into a heart-sinking perspective for Tony. Magic is the one thing he has not accounted for and he is not sure if he ever can. Back in Stark Tower, he had done his best to study Mjolnir but all his experiments failed to produce any concrete data and more than once, almost blew up the lab. Thor had insisted many times that magic and science were one and the same but if there was a connection, Tony failed to see it. Erik Selvig jokingly stated once that the only proof he needed was that Thor was mediocre at both.

“Your brother keeps finding new ways to get on my nerves,” he says letting the armor fall away from him and reassemble itself in a corner. “He’s also going to be very disappointed, without the Mind Stone that thing is a glorified pointy stick.” His eyes skim over the multiple burnt patches covering Thor’s clothes, as if he had walked through fire. “Are you guys alright back there? I heard there was an explosion.”

For a split second, the air in the room acquires an odd, fizzy texture. There is echo of a distant storm in Thor’s voice. “It was Loki’s grand exit and it didn’t do us any favors. The military has locked down the clearing and is watching our every move. As far as they are concerned, we are all complicit in his escape so we’re their prisoners until they find him.” He twists his foot in irritation and Tony notices the flat but bulky disk of a military electromagnetic beacon peeking from under the scorched hem of his jeans. “Or until I find him first.”

He slides a hand over his face as the picture before him turns uglier with every thought he gives it. “Bruce owes me ten bucks, he said that it would take Loki a week to turn his coat and it didn’t even take him two days. My question is, how didn’t you see it coming?”

“I was hopeful, I guess.” The words are drenched in the kind of bitter cynicism that he would never expect to come out of Thor’s mouth. “It doesn’t matter, I was a fool and Asgard paid the price. The only thing left is to find him before Earth pays it as well.”

Thor stands still for a moment, hands rubbing circles over singled temples. Tony isn’t entirely sure how to respond. Painfully standard words of comfort surge through his mind, but none of them sound particularly useful, so instead he asks, “Do you want to change clothes? You look crispy.”

Thor shakes his head as he resumes pacing among the glass cases, deep in thought. “I’ll be fine. Any idea where Vision is right now?”

“It’s hard to keep track of his comings and goings. Last time he was cleared for Oahu.” Tony fishes out his cell phone, quickly goes through his outgoing calls and clicks his tongue in disapproval. “I tried to check up on him several times but he has the bad habit of going completely off the grid. Sometimes I get the feeling he is trying to get as far away from here as possible.”

Thor stops in his tracks and frowns. “Is he alright?”

Tony lets out a long sigh as he ponders if the scientific community will ever truly know what goes on in their friend’s artificial head. “He’s… going through some stuff. The team splitting up was not a rose garden for anyone and Rhodey’s injury didn’t exactly help things. Nobody blames him for what happened but I don’t think he is comfortable staying in the compound anymore.” He pauses and throws Thor a disbelieving look. “You don’t seriously think Loki’s is crazy enough to try to take the Mind Stone back? Because if he is, it’s going to be a very one-sided fight.”

“Good, then the only thing we’ll have to do is pick him up.” Thor makes a beeline for the doorway, shrugging off his jacket as he walks. He only makes it halfway through before turning around and asking, “How do we get to Oahu?”

Tony cannot hide a proud grin at the memory of his engineering team’s most recent achievement. “In style, my friend. The new and improved Quinjet should get us there in about three hours. You’ll love it, it’s all kinds of shiny and still has that new car smell.” His smile wavers a bit as he sees a cotton ball tucked in the crook of Thor’s arm, held in place with a thin strip of medical tape. “Hey, what’s that? Did they give you a flu shot or something?”

Thor looks down at his arm, then casually rips off the tape and chucks it into a nearby bin. “No, they took my blood. Didn’t they do the same to Vision?” He frowns at Tony’s puzzled expression, then rattles off, “All enhanced individuals with innate powers, who sign the Accords must provide their DNA. You did read them, right?”

Tony nods as he pulls up the access codes for the Quinjet on his cellphone. The request had also come from SHIELD in the past though the data had been erased when HYDRA’s infiltration was discovered, courtesy of Black Widow. He was not surprised to see the same requirement in the Sokovia Accords, and though it didn’t apply to people like him, the potential nasty ramifications were not hard to spot. He himself had once refused to turn over the schematics for the Iron Man suit, in fear of anyone reverse engineering his work. The memory leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. Time has a funny way to rearrange the pieces of his past into a picture he likes less with every passing year.

“I found the style uninspired, the characters flat and the ending disappointing,” He falls into step next to Thor and adds, “Also, Vision is pure vibranium. He doesn’t bleed much.”

“That’s true.” Thor agrees, glancing at the bluish spidery bruise under his skin where the needle has broken a few blood vessels. “Some people have all the luck."

“Are you sure about this?” Tony insists into the phone as he brings up the command for autopilot on the control panel and reclines in the co-pilot seat. “Not to be a doomsayer, but the situation sounds custom-made to stress you out. Plus, there’s the whole Ross issue, if you get my drift.”

The voice on the other side of the line is drowned in a loud clatter, followed by an even louder curse that belongs in a theatre production, rather than in Bruce’s mouth. Tony has just enough time to chuckle at the word ‘accursed’ before the phone comes alive again. “Trust me, I’d rather be helping out here than sitting at the compound, twiddling my thumbs. These guys have been through enough and they could use a local around without a gun strapped to them.” There’s a long pause, filled with the sound of broken glass crunching under invisible boots before Bruce’s voice breaks through, “Someone should keep an eye on the biodome too, part of it cleaved during the crash. The Relief Foundation left us with some supplies but the sooner we can get back on our feet, the better.”

The unmistakable screeching of metal crates being dragged around floods Tony’s ears, making conversation impossible so he is left to ponder about how seamlessly Bruce switches between ‘they’ and ‘us’ when talking about the Asgardian refugees and how quickly he has adopted some of their expressions. Four months living in close quarters with them has left a mark, and though it took Thor nearly six to stop talking like he was in a Shakespearean production, their scientist friend seems well on his way to start.

He waits for the noise to die down and replies, “Fair enough, just keep your eyes open. Norton hasn’t forgotten New York and he’ll take his payback from anyone he can.”

“They won’t dare antagonize anyone while I’m around. My reputation has its advantages sometimes.” Bruce’s words are laced with the kind of ominous determination he used to reserve for a code green back in the day. Tony hears him walking across broken glass again, before his voice acquires a subtle echo, letting him know he is standing in a hallway. “You two be careful out there, I’ve no idea what’s cooking in Loki’s head but it can’t be good. His little stunt put a hole in the ship you can drive a truck through.”

The phone buzzes against Tony’s ear as a high-definition picture projects itself before him showing a black maw gaping wide on a half-melted metal wall, surrounded by the jagged remnants of what probably used to be a door. He sighs and runs a hand through his hair, remembering Loki’s overly confident display of power in Stuttgart. “Yeah, well, the guy has always had a flair for the dramatic. Can’t say that it’s a family thing, though.”

Bruce lets out a short, affectionate laugh. “Judging from my personal observations, it skipped the middle child. That or somebody should really confirm if Loki’s is the adopted one.” There’s a small tap as the phone rests on a flat surface and the camera shows Bruce’s slightly distorted face against a shelf, lined with small pots of sprouting greens. “Tell Vision I send my regards. Oh, and try not to die.”

The image blinks out of existence as he ends the call, leaving Tony hunched over in a seat that still smells like new leather and squeaks with every movement he makes. He’s surprised to find that this irritates him, as does the polished, fresh-out-of-the-box look of everything on the new Quinjet. He had slaved over the design for months, personally overseeing every detail of the project and when it was finished, he had been ready to burst with satisfaction. And yet, now that it has taken off for the first time, he realizes how much space there is to fill and how the heavy silence of the compound has followed him here. He has gotten used to the voices of his teammates in the background comparing notes, discussing strategies of just singing along to whatever happened to be playing on the music system. The new jet is scrubbed clean of all the memories he treasures, like the dark shade of crimson that spread over Steve’s face when he finally realized what Aerosmith’s Love in an Elevator was about or the entire team cheering Clint on as he arm-wrestled Natasha for the last candy bar, all of them agreeing that he was the one who needed the moral support. It seems to lack a purpose without them, like a new leaf turned over because it was necessary, not because he ever wanted to.

He cranes his neck to peek at the passenger area, wondering if his only traveling companion is asleep. Thor may as well have been on another planet since they left New York, sitting in the same spot for the past hour, silent as a grave and just as still. Tony cannot begin to guess what boils beneath that deceptively stoic surface, only that it is not anger. He has seen him angry before, sometimes up close, and though the sight is not exactly comforting, he will take it over seeing him lost to the world.

Thor seems to return to reality just after Bruce hangs up to ask, “How’s everything back there?”

Tony rises from his seat and leans forward to skim over a new report on the AI console embedded in a curved wall. “Tense but quiet for now. That’s all you can really hope for with people like Norton. Good news is, FRIDAY has managed to optimize our course so we might be able to shave off half an hour if the planets align.” He lowers himself in the seat facing Thor. “You okay? You’ve been awfully quiet for a god of thunder.”

Thor returns him a mechanical nod. His voice sounds like he’s still a thousand miles away when he replies, “I’m thinking.”

Tony suppresses a humorless chuckle as he fiddles with the seatbelt, then chooses to not bother and flings it aside. “Thinking about whether you’re okay? That’s not a great start, Kal-El.”

Thor doesn't answer, slumped shoulders giving him a brief noncommittal shrug. His only surviving eye slips closed as he weaves his hands together and rests his forehead on them. He looks absolutely exhausted, drained by the events of the past couple of days and Tony can relate to that on a molecular level, though he can offer no insight on how to deal with it. His strategy against his own downward spiral had been to cut out every acquired vice that used to numb him and redirect the gears turning perpetually in his head to anything constructive. He is still not entirely sure whether the plan was a success, but progress on the upgrades for Rhodey’s exoskeleton was swift so at the very least, something positive had come out of it.

“I’m sorry about the team,” Thor says out of the blue and Tony practically radiates waves of stunned silence, wondering how on Earth his friend ended up being the one to comfort him. Eventually, he just sighs and leans over one of the armrests, wishing he had splurged for padded ones.

“No point in dwelling on it,” he replies. “I made my choice, Steve made his. We can’t turn back time and even if we could, we would both do it all over again.” He stretches in his seat, his joints cracking too loudly in the pressurized atmosphere. “And let’s face it, nobody wants us wrecking a German airport twice.”

Thor nods against weaved hands. “I know. I just wish there could have been another way.”

“Yeah, we all do.” Tony pauses, gathering words that sound cheap in his mind but infinitely better than the silence. “I’m sorry about Asgard. And about Loki, for what it’s worth.”

Thor’s impassive mask wavers as a fatidic smile slips through. “Loki is as Loki does, there’s no point in dwelling on it either. As for Asgard, cities can be rebuilt. Our people survived, that’s all that matters.” He sits up straight, pulling his jacket tighter around him. “So what did Banner decide? About the Accords, I mean.”

Tony slides a pack of dried blueberries from under his seat and drums his fingers on the bright plastic. “Same as Barton, says he’s done with avenging. Hopefully, for him, it will stick.” He rips open the seal and tosses a handful of berries in his mouth, his voice muffled for a few moments as he munches on them. “Not that I’m surprised that he didn’t sign, there’s no love lost between him and Ross. The guy wanted to dissect him at one point. Can’t say he has let go of that idea entirely.”

Thor’s blue eye narrows at the words. “Not on my watch. Anyone who raises a hand to harm an Asgardian will lose that hand.”

Tony shakes his head in amusement at the thought of Bruce’s quickly expanding vocabulary. “That’s a nice and scary sentiment, but in case you forgot, he’s not Asgardian. He’s very close to talking like one, though.”

Thor’s response is only a passive shrug, as if Tony is arguing a minor technical detail. “What does it matter? He spilled his blood for us and he saved us from starving to death. You will not find a single soul on that ship who thinks he’s not one of their own. They call him ‘the green man’, and not for the reasons you might think.”

Thor lets out the first genuine laugh in two days, one that proves surprisingly contagious. “Yeah, you can tell he’s going native in record time,” Tony agrees. “Maybe he’s right, he could do more good with you guys than as an Avenger. There’s bound to be a lot less violence involved.”

“For his sake, I hope that’s true.” Thor’s voice carries a hint of concern as he stands up and walks towards the cockpit, resting his elbows on the back of the co-pilot seat. “His control of the Hulk has been slipping and he has already spent two years as not himself. Quitting is the safest thing he could have done.”

“I have it on good authority that it’s not easy being green.” Tony rolls out the last blueberry onto his hand and gives it an appraising look before chucking it into a bin. “Then again, if it’s so safe, why didn’t you quit? You’ve got a lot on your plate right now.”

He doesn’t get an immediate answer, as the pensive blue gaze drifts over an ocean of clouds unfurling below the massive windshield that serves as the Quinjet’s only window. “To be honest, I thought about it.” Thor admits after a while, “but the Avengers have suffered enough losses and I’ve mourned too many friends as it is. I don’t know what the future will bring, I just know that I don’t want you to stand alone.”

For the second time today, Tony reaches for words, finds none and hopes the condition isn’t permanent. He moves towards the windshield to join his traveling companion over the fluffy, white waves the Quinjet makes as it tears through the sky. Natasha’s parting moniker for Steve bubbles up in his memory and he wonders if Cap and Thor have an unspoken agreement to take turns being the unfathomable and occasionally punchable heart of the team.

“You are killing me, Point Break.” he says eventually and laughs at Thor’s raised eyebrow. “But, you know what they say, misery loves company.”

Before he can add anything else, the AI console behind them flickers back to life and displays a string of wildly contradictory data that sends Tony’s head reeling. He leans over the screen but has no time to attempt to make sense of any of it before a hole rimmed with orange light opens in the jet’s rubber-lined floor, directly under Thor’s feet. His friend just stares at the spatial anomaly in vague recollection before a long exasperated sigh escapes him.

“Ah great, I completely forgot about this guy.” He throws Tony an apologetic look and grimaces, as if bracing himself for something unpleasant. “I’ll be back.”

Tony can only stare at him dumbfounded as the light surrounding the gaping hole into nothingness glows brighter. “What do you mean you’ll be back? We’re thirty five thousand feet in the air!”

Whatever Thor’s answer may have been, it is abruptly cut short when he falls through the portal, leaving behind nothing but a jacket covered in burn marks and the lingering smell of dust.