"Mr. Odinson, your father's on line two." Katie switches the call before Thor can get a word in edgewise and he wonders darkly where her loyalties really lie.
"Thor," he hears the breeze whistling at the other end; his father must be out on the patio, smoking those cigars his mother hates to smell inside the house, "your mother hasn't been feeling well today, the doctor says she must have caught a bug on our trip to The Hamptons, so I need you to go to that charity fundraiser tonight. We're in need of some good press right now."
He sounds weary, older than his fifty-five years, and Thor feels a pang of guilt about not having done more to mitigate the backlash from the scandal that rocked Asgard Corp a month ago. Its CFO, his father's closest friend, embezzling funds from their shareholders and funneling them to an offshore account to indulge the whims of his two mistresses no less. The feds had handcuffed him, led him out of the building, and the reporters had been ready, like sharks swarming at the scent of blood. Their only saving grace was Stark Industries. Tony had stepped up to the plate, vouched for them with his typical air of nonchalance and charmed the media enough that the clamor died down to indiscreet whispers, long enough for them to batten down the hatches before the trial.
Thor swivels his chair around to face the window and stares at skyline spread out before him like it's his for the taking. He used to think he had a right to all of it. Now he's no longer so sure.
"Your mother says bring a date. That grad student in astrophysics you brought to dinner. She was a lovely girl. Smart girl."
He picks up a pen and scribbles her name onto the margins of a notepad. Jane Foster. They met last Thursday for lunch, at a hole-in-the-wall diner she had raved about until he relented, then made him admit the food was delicious and that he was a snob. (He countered that it was hardly his fault for being brought up on French linens, five-course meals, and fastidious table etiquette).
"I'll ask her. It's short notice, though, she might have plans."
"I'm sure you'll come up with a way to persuade her."
Thor glances at his watch. "All right, I'll do my best. Tell mother to stay in bed and get some rest. There's an auction at Christie's I need to get to."
"Christie's? What would you want from there?"
He bristles a little at his father's tone. "What? I can't have an appreciation for art?"
"Of course that's not what I meant."
"What did you mean then." He knows he's being difficult but he wants his father to acknowledge the elephant in the room, the name he refuses to say out loud for fear that his regret will take on too solid a shape to bear.
"Nothing. I meant nothing by it."
Thor wants to punch the window and feel his knuckles break against the glass. Instead he says goodbye and hangs up, standing to pull on his suit jacket. He sets his palms against the desk for a moment, watching them shake a little then still, before walking out the door.
After he checks in at Christie's it takes him no time at all to find the painting, displayed in the center of the gallery with a modest frame that makes it look like it could belong anywhere, even when the name and the starting bid attached to it suggest otherwise.
He waits for the crowd to disperse a little before stepping forward and standing before it, close enough to touch. The painted scene is so familiar he's instantly submerged in his memories, caught in the undertow of sounds, smells, and sights that fool him for a moment into thinking he can gain back what he's lost.
He's seated at the edge of the terrace so that only part of him is shaded by the awning, the other part bathed in the morning sun. There's a freshly-baked croissant on his plate, and strawberry jam, next to a cup of café au lait. His brother is seated across from him, leaned in close to tell him about a painting by Vincent van Gogh of this very place, to ask him to imagine a single lantern illuminating the terrace and a starry sky that holds no darkness, only light.
When he resurfaces his chest is aching, lungs straining as he sucks in a breath and finds himself alone. Movement out of the corner of his eye makes him turn, but there's no one there. He drags a hand across his face and walks away without a glance at the other pieces of art.
He wins the painting at a bid of thirty million dollars.
He meets Steve at Nick's for their routine Thursday lunch, where they slide into the corner booth and Charlene winks at them and gets them their usual. Tony calls them the two most predictable people on earth but he doesn't mind. In fact, he relishes in being a creature of habit, whether it's taking his shoes off when he gets to the office or arguing with Steve about the finer points of college football over egg salad and pecan pie.
"Saw your picture in the Times today. I forgot how photogenic you are." Steve grins as he folds the wrapper of his straw into an accordion.
"Says the man voted 'sexiest special agent' by the staff interns." Thor had been beside himself with childish glee when Nat leaked the information a month ago to Steve's utter dismay. It's exactly the kind of thing that makes Steve flush beet red and glare like they've maligned his virtue. Thor's made it a point to bring it up at least once a week.
"You'll never let me live that down, will you," he mutters darkly, color rising predictably in his cheeks.
"Probably not, no."
Charlene comes by with their food and two other orders balanced expertly along the length of her arm.
"That never fails to impress me," Thor says, just to see her smile because in any other life he might've let her steal his heart.
She sets down the plates, hair coming loose from her braid, eyes bright and warm.
"Darlin', you ain't see nothin' yet," she says, flashing that smile. "Enjoy, boys."
"So," Steve squirts ketchup onto the side of his plate, "how's your dad holding up? He's taking it pretty hard, huh."
"He's doing all right. It'll blow over when the next scandal hits. It always does. PR's been a goddamn nightmare, though."
"If there's anything I can do—" Steve looks guilty, like he's the one causing them so much grief when he was only doing his job. And it's what he does best, Thor knows. The youngest agent to lead an investigative team since the FBI established its white-collar crime division.
"You can come to our dinner party Saturday night. Mother's inviting her bridge friends, who coincidentally all have daughters she's dying for you to meet." Thor smiles cheerfully. "You might as well get it over with. You know she's relentless."
Steve's expression shifts from horror to resignation. "She'll have to give up one of these days."
"I wouldn't count on it."
They lapse into a companionable silence for a while amid the lull of conversation around them.
"I know this is supposed to be our work-free zone," Steve finally says, "but I figured the sooner I tell you the better."
Thor frowns and watches Steve pull a file from his briefcase. "I thought you already closed the case on Barry.”
"It's not about Barry." Steve sets the file down on the table and his hand on top of it. "We started tracking a forger who gave us the slip a couple years ago after he made a killing off counterfeit bonds. At the time we couldn't prove it anyway so we didn't pursue it. Now the word is he's made a name for himself across Europe, stealing art, antiquities, artifacts, anything with a hefty price tag. He's wanted in five countries, but he's clever, really clever, and he's racked up an impressive list of aliases. He disappeared off the radar about a month ago. Two days ago he popped up again. In Manhattan. We're trying to figure out his mark."
Thor's still frowning. Unease creeps up his spine. "What does this have to do with me?"
Steve says nothing, just opens the file and pushes it forward, eyes shuttered, jawline tense.
Thor looks down at the pictures, taken candidly from every angle, each more incriminating than the last, and grips the table's edge with numb fingers, feeling his world slide off its axis. In the end he finds enough breath to utter the name he never had the heart to bury.
Steve rides with him back to the office because he agrees to answer a few questions, even though Steve’s fully aware that his knowledge of the last five years of his brother's life sums up to nothing.
He had been unrelenting at first in his quest to find Loki, determined to scour the corners of the earth to bring him home. And then somewhere along the way he'd stopped, knowing that there was no finding him if he didn't want to be found. (He had always won their games of hide-and-seek, appearing only when Thor began to rage and sulk with a smile that never revealed his secrets.)
Now Thor wonders if he should've tried harder, if Loki had only been testing his patience, his faith that whatever came between them wouldn't keep them apart forever.
He stares out the window at the crowds and he's struck by the thought that Loki might be one of those faces, yards from his reach when up until today he'd thought his brother unreachable. And suddenly he wants to leap out of the car and snatch up this chance he's been gifted to find him, run the length of the city if he has to because it's a hell of a lot shorter than the length of the world.
"We're here, sir." John looks at him through the rear view mirror with a little concern, knowing that his silence is usually an indication of something amiss.
"Thank you, John." He smiles with as much sincerity as he can muster before stepping out and walking beside Steve through the heavy double doors.
He tells Katie to hold all his calls, then closes his office door tightly behind them and heads straight to the minibar to pour himself a drink.
"Thor." He looks up to see Steve approach his newly acquired painting, hung in isolation in the center of the left wall. "Is this what I think it is?"
"I got it at Christie's a couple days ago. I've never had much of an eye for art, but this one's something special, isn't it?"
"It must've cost you a fortune." Steve's fingers reach out, then halt an inch away from the frame. "Ten? Twenty mil?"
"Jesus." He stares at the painting for a moment longer before turning around, eyebrows knitted. "You said the auction was two days ago?"
Thor nods and brings the glass of scotch to his lips, then freezes. He disappeared off the radar about a month ago. Two days ago he popped up again. In Manhattan.
"No." He denies it out loud even when he knows it can't be coincidence, the timing and the motive too perfect. (He'd banked silently on the hope that Loki had come back for a life that was never his intent to forsake. That Loki had come back for him.)
"Thor—" Steve starts and stops, no doubt trying to make honesty sound a little less accusing. "He's not the man you used to know. People change, and sometimes it's out of your hands."
Thor drains his scotch in one go and sets the tumbler on the counter, knuckles ghastly white around the glass.
"I can't do this today." He closes his eyes, heart still rebelling against the thought that Loki would use him as a means to an end. "I need some time."
"Okay." Steve suddenly looks a little unsure, a little helpless. "He couldn't have known you'd be the one to buy it."
"No, he couldn't," Thor says, even though he knows Loki counted on it. He had always been too sentimental for his own good.
Steve walks out and pauses at the door to say, "I'm sorry," before closing it behind him.