A/N: This is my tribute to The Avengers, the most fantastic movie I've seen in quite a long time. Instead of going back to the theater to watch it for the tenth time, I decided to try and write something that could explore the characters and their backgrounds a little more. I'll decide whether to continue this based on the response to the first chapter.

Disclaimer: I don't own Marvel's The Avengers, or any of the characters of Marvel Comics

Chapter 1: The Best Intentions

"For his crimes against an innocent race, I, Odin All-Father, sentence the traitor Loki to death. At sundown he shall die by my hand."

The All-Father's voice echoed in the Audience Chamber, striking Thor like a hammer blow straight to his heart. It was over, then – Odin's word was final, and Loki would pay the ultimate price for his part in bringing the Chitauri to Earth. Although it hurt to admit it, Thor knew that the punishment was just.

Even now, the mass murderer and former Prince of Asgard stood with his head held high, showing no shame or regret for his actions. The black metal muzzle that covered his mouth and inhibited his magic prevented him from saying anything, but the hatred that shone from Loki's eyes spoke eloquently enough. He made no move to resist as Odin's guards marched forward, grabbing him by the shoulders and forcing him to march out of the chamber to the cell where he would await his execution.

Loki turned just before leaving the room, sweeping his eyes over the assembled crowd. His gaze lingered for a moment when he saw Thor, and some unfathomable emotion flared up for a second before disappearing. From her place at Thor's left side, Lady Sif reached out a hand and touched his shoulder gently. Thor sighed, turning slightly away. She was only trying to help, but Thor had no use for her pity. It couldn't give him his brother back.

Thor strode out of the Audience Chamber, eager to leave the place where his father had sentenced his brother to death. Thor knew this was just as hard for Odin, who had loved Loki every bit as much as his own son, but Thor still couldn't bear to look at his father. In only a few hours, Odin would wield the sword that separated Loki's head from his shoulders.

Thor's closest friends and brothers-in-arms, the Warriors Three as they called themselves, started to follow him. But Sif, who knew his moods a little better than the men, convinced them to leave him alone. She knew that for now, at least, Thor needed time alone.

He went straight to his quarters and asked his servant to bring a cask of mead and a mug. Thor meant to mourn his brother in true Asgardian fashion, with mead and memories. This was normally a tradition that followed funerals. Family and friends of the deceased would gather together and feast, sharing stories of the past, reliving the brightest moments in the life of the loved one with whom they would never again drink, laugh, or fight.

Loki had changed after falling from the Bifrost and disappearing into the murky depths of the universe. By the time Thor saw him again on Earth, he wasn't even sure that Loki had been fully sane – of course, that didn't justify what Loki had done. There was no end to the trail of death and suffering that lay at his feet. But Loki deserved to be remembered as more than the monster he'd become.

As Thor drained mug after mug of the honey-sweetened mead, he turned over each and every memory of his life with Loki in his mind. Each one hurt more than the last, bringing bittersweet regret and nostalgia for a time when everything had been simpler. When they had fought each other with all their might, yet could not stop from laughing as they did. When a word of praise from Odin was more precious than gold, and tomorrow was bright with untapped promise.

Was not that real? Thor asked his brother silently, though Loki was far away and could not hear. Do you remember none of that?

But Thor had already asked Loki that question, and he knew Loki's answer: "I remember a shadow."

Even back then, when they were only children, Thor had overshadowed his brother, too eager in his quest to become king to understand the injuries he was inflicting on Loki. How much of Loki's descent into madness had been due to Thor's careless cruelty? If Thor had known then what he knew now, that a crown is a trinket and a king seeking glory is a fool… maybe Loki would never have fallen into darkness.

Thor spoke to the empty room, his mind clear and his tongue unimpaired even though he had already consumed over half of the cask of mead. "If I could do everything over, I swear to you, brother… you would not suffer from my shadow."

Thor would never know if it was the mead that supplied his next thought, or if it arose of its own accord. Regardless, however, once the thought appeared it refused to go away, taking over his mind and making it echo with a single phrase: Why not?

Why couldn't he do it all again? With determination and persistence, anything was possible. No barrier was unbreakable, not even Time. You just needed the right tool, and Thor knew exactly where to find it. The Tesseract contained unlimited potential, and Thor already knew how to harness its power to jump between worlds. With a little bit of help, perhaps Thor could get the Tesseract to send him from the future into the past.

Once that thought had taken root in his mind, there was no going back. If there was any hope that Thor could correct his past mistakes, if there was the slightest chance that he could redeem Loki, he would pursue that hope across all the worlds that had ever been or would be.

With luck, however, Thor would only need to go to one other world before setting out on his self-appointed journey. That world was Earth, where a brilliant scientist named Erik Selvig would help Thor by turning the Tesseract into a time machine. Thor trusted that he could convince Selvig to help him, and there was no one who had as much experience working with the Tesseract.

Thor wasted no time in setting his plan in motion, leaving for the Treasure Room without a second thought. He wanted to leave for Earth before Loki's execution – somehow, Thor believed that if he didn't see his brother die, it wouldn't actually happen.

His father's guards stopped him at the entrance to the Treasure Room, but at his command they stepped aside and let him enter. Thor closed the door behind him, and went to the table against the far wall where the Tesseract rested in its container.

Thor took hold of the two handles on either end of the Tesseract's container, and twisted them in opposite directions. He focused on his memory of Erik Selvig, using it to help the Tesseract determine where he should transport to on Earth. Thor realized that Odin would be greatly displeased when he found out that Thor had taken the Tesseract without his express permission, but Thor wasn't about to stop now. Besides, it was always easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

Traveling by Tesseract was instantaneous and infallible. No sooner had Thor closed his eyes and activated the translocation than he opened his eyes and found himself in a laboratory, less than three feet from an extremely astonished Erik Selvig.

The scientist blinked twice. "Thor? Did you, ah… come to see Jane? She's still working on that job S.H.I.E.L.D found her when preparing for the invasion. It might have started as a way of keeping her safe, but she's never been one to leave a job half finished."

Thor smiled, glad to see the doctor. He was looking well after his ordeal with Loki, though perhaps a little gray around the edges. Overcoming the aftereffects of mind control was no mean feat, and Erik was no longer a young man.

"Not today, my friend," Thor said with a laugh, crushing the scientist to his chest in a bear hug. Erik let out a slightly squashed-sounding grunt. "No… today I am here to see you. I'll have time to see Jane, once I do what I've come here to do."

Erik was starting to look a little bit worried. "And what might that be?"

Thor hoisted the Tesseract with one hand, holding it out for Erik's inspection. "I want to make up for past mistakes. Tell me, Erik, do you think the Tesseract could become a doorway through Time as well as Space?"

Erik recoiled as if the Tesseract was a snake. "Thor, have you gone mad? You want to take the device that almost brought about Earth's destruction, and use it to meddle with the past? Do you have any idea of the harm that you might do?"

"It's just one trip," Thor said, "and the only changes I plan to make are good ones."

"But that's just the point," the scientist objected. "No matter what your intentions, the changes that may come about from such meddling will be far beyond what you anticipate. What could possibly be worth such a terrible risk?"

So Thor told him. He explained about Loki and his guilt, and how he would trade everything for the chance to redeem his lost brother. "If you help me, I promise not to betray your trust in me," Thor told him solemnly. "If I can't change Loki by the time we're both adults again, then I'll fight him just like the first time. But I believe he can change, and if he does it will not only benefit me, but the whole world as well. He can be a force for good, I'm sure of it."

Erik took much more convincing, but he agreed in the end, as Thor had known he would. Not only did he owe Thor for saving his life (and the lives of almost every living soul in New York City), he would have given his left arm to be able to work with the Tesseract once again. It was like a playground for the physicist, giving him knowledge of worlds unknown and truths only ever suspected.

"I trust you, Thor," Erik said at last, "and who am I to deny you the chance to redeem your brother? But you must promise me: if you don't think you can change him, you must not hesitate in bringing him to justice once again. Otherwise you could doom us all."

"I swear," Thor declared, bringing his fist to heart.

"All right," Erik said, turning to the Tesseract with a speculative light in his eyes. "Let's get to work."

oOoOo

Commander Fury stood in front of his two most trusted agents, Natasha Romanov and Clint Barton. They could tell immediately that this was not a normal debriefing. The Commander started pacing back and forth, the muscles in his jaw clenched tightly and the tension in his voice unmistakable.

"Two days ago, our instruments started picking up low levels of gamma radiation. It appears the Tesseract is back in town."

Natasha gave Clint a worried look. "Didn't Thor take it back to Asgard with him?"

"I guess he must have gotten lonely," Commander Fury said sarcastically. "Look at this."

He gestured at the nearest screen, which looked to be showing the inside of some kind of restaurant. "This is the security camera from a diner in New Mexico. It happens to be less than ten minutes from the lab where Erik Selvig is currently working. See that booth in the back? Recognize anyone?"

Of course, the question was rhetorical. The muscle-bound blond tearing into a plate piled high with pancakes and bacon could only have been Thor.

"At least it's not a shawarma joint," Agent Barton commented drily. "I don't think my digestive system has recovered from the last one."

"I need your commentary about as much as I need another eyepatch," the Commander snapped. "For whatever reason, Thor is back on Earth and he's brought the Tesseract. From his location, we have to assume that he's recruited Selvig. I don't know what the hell he's planning, but you guys are going to find out."

Natasha peered at the screen, watching Thor drain the last of a cup of coffee. What was he thinking? Why hadn't he contacted S.H.I.E.L.D.?

"If the Tesseract is involved," Natasha said, trying to focus on the task at hand, "we'll need to bring in Banner."

"I wouldn't worry about that," Fury said. "I'm bringing in the whole crew on this one. Captain Rogers is on his way here, and I sent Stark to retrieve Banner. Whatever Thor and Selvig are playing at, you're not going to head into it unprepared."

"Yes, sir." Natasha waited for Clint to acknowledge the Commander as well, but he was still watching Thor on the video screen. Agent Barton chuckled as Thor raised his mug high in the air, and then barely stopped himself from smashing it to the floor, a sheepish expression stretching across the demi-god's face. Apparently he was still adjusting to human customs regarding refills.

"Maybe it's because I've only got one eye," the Commander said to Barton in a tone as cold as ice and hard as iron, "but I fail to see anything funny about this situation."

Natasha kicked Clint in the ankle, trying to get him to be serious.

"I know Thor's one of the good guys," Commander Fury went on, "but I have no patience when it comes to the Tesseract. Treat this as a reconnaissance mission in potentially hostile territory. Understood?"

Clint Barton was many things, but stupid wasn't one of them. He came to attention and saluted the Commander crisply. "Understood, sir."

oOoOo

Agent Barton landed their jet in the desert, about twenty minutes' walk from the town where Erik Selvig's lab was located. Captain Steve Rogers was the first to step out into the hot New Mexico sun.

"Is Stark here yet?" he called over his shoulder to the two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.

Barton followed after Captain Rogers and scanned the surrounding sky, shielding his eyes from the glare with one hand. "He's coming," Barton said after a second. "Right about… there." He pointed at a spot almost due east, and before long the tell-tale reddish-gold glint of Stark's Ironman suit came into view, exactly where Barton was pointing. Natasha joined the two men in the sand, and together the three Avengers waited for Stark to close the distance between them.

"Wait," Natasha said after a second, "what's that trailing behind him?"

Captain Rogers squinted against the sun, straining to see what Natasha saw. There was indeed something behind the Ironman suit, though from this distance it looked like nothing more than a square, brownish blob. "It must be some kind of transport," Steve said, thinking it through. "Stark is bringing Dr. Banner, right? Maybe he's carrying him in a one-man pod of some kind?"

Agent Barton let out a strangled-sounding cough. "I don't know if you'd call it a transport," he said. "Unless my eyes are deceiving me, which in all modesty is highly unlikely, the object Stark is towing is an outhouse."

"Come again?" Steve said, sure that he'd heard wrong.

"An outhouse," Clint replied, keeping a straight face with considerable difficulty. "A small wooden construct meant for the elimination of bodily wastes-"

"I know what an outhouse is!" Steve snapped. "That was disbelief, not a lack of comprehension. Are you telling me that Stark carried Banner all the way from India in an outhouse?"

Clint shrugged. "Looks like it."

Natasha sighed heavily, not entirely surprised. "That's Stark for you."

The billionaire in question finished his descent, decelerating as he neared the ground. He hovered about twenty feet off the ground, carefully lowering the outhouse he was towing to the ground. The outhouse was suspended from his suit by metal cables that extended from his legs and wrapped multiple times around the top of the wooden structure. When the outhouse settled firmly into the sand, the cables retracted into the Ironman suit and Tony Stark landed next to it with a dramatic flourish. His metal mask retracted with a snap, revealing his face – he looked very satisfied with himself.

"Hey guys," Tony called out. "Anyone need to use the restroom before we hit the road?"

"STARK!" came an angry shout from inside the outhouse. The door banged open, revealing an extremely pissed-off Bruce. "I was stuck in there for eight god-damn hours!"

"Are you all right, Bruce?" Stark asked with mock concern. "You're looking a little green… and not in a Hulk-ish way, either."

"Just you wait, Stark," Bruce said, grimacing. "I will pay you back for this. It might not be today, or tomorrow, but I promise you: you'll regret this!"

Stark clapped his hands together purposefully. "Looks like I managed to make myself another archenemy. That's too bad – I had such high hopes for our friendship." He turned to Steve, his mouth quirking upwards in the signature Tony Stark grin. "Hey, Cap. Long time no see. I hear Thunder Boy's being naughty. What's the story?"

"That's what we're here to find out." Steve took one last look at the outhouse, and imagined being stuck in there for eight hours while being towed by an egomaniacal asshole in a metal suit. Oh god, what if they had run into turbulence? He shivered. There were some things it was best not to think about.

Natasha briefed Tony and Bruce as they walked through the desert, eventually coming within view of the town where Dr. Selvig had located his new laboratory. They went directly there, entering a nondescript brick building that gave no sign of its true nature. There was a secretary inside, who directed them to the lower levels when they told her they were looking for Dr. Selvig.

"I think he's in the middle of some kind of experiment," she warned. "He might not be able to meet with you until after."

After hearing that, they moved considerably quicker. Tony used his suit to scan for life-forms, and told them that there were only two other people in the entire compound, making their choice of direction very simple.

They finally reached a room surrounded by glass walls, which allowed them to see inside. They saw Dr. Selvig bustling around a control panel, flipping switches and muttering to himself. And in the center of the room was Thor, sitting in a chair with his hammer in hand. Next to him was a sight that made the rest of the Avengers extremely nervous.

It was the Tesseract, positioned in the center of some kind of metal contraption at the heart of a busy tangle of wires. "What the hell?" Steve breathed.

"They're focusing the energy somehow," Stark said, shocked. "But I don't know how or why."

Just then, the Tesseract began to glow, and its light seemed to bring the machine around it to life. It threw off sparks, and the wires running from the Tesseract into the ceiling started to quiver violently.

With Captain Rogers in the lead, the Avengers burst through the glass door and into the room. Thor looked up, alerted by the sound of their entrance. "Erik!" he cried, his face suffusing with alarm. "Do it now!"

"Stop right there, Doc," Steve ordered, holding his hands out. "Don't do a thing until we know what's going on! Thor, what is this?"

"I haven't the time to explain this to you!" Thor growled. "You won't stop me!" He raised his hammer Mjolnir, taking aim at the red switch next to Dr. Selvig.

A horrified expression came over the physicist's face. "No!" he cried out, but it was too late. Thor's hammer went flying, and with perfect precision it stopped just as it collided with the red switch, flicking it downwards. The glow from the Tesseract immediately doubled, and a humming sound filled the air.

There was a flash of light so bright that everyone had to close their eyes, and when they opened them Thor had disappeared. Steve let out a cry of dismay.

Tony rounded on Erik Selvig. "What did you do?" he cried out.

The physicist shrank before their accusing eyes. "Thor asked me for help," he said. "I… I couldn't say no. He's gone somewhere you can't follow."

"That's it," Steve said, disgusted. "You're coming with us. You can explain everything to Commander Fury. Let's pack up the Tesseract and get the hell out of here."

But no sooner did he take a step toward the Tesseract then the energy source gave another pulse of light. The glow from the machine warped and flickered, and the humming sound began again.

"Doctor," Bruce began hesitantly, "is it supposed to be doing this?"

"Um…" Selvig scanned the control panel, and then turned back to Bruce with a helpless shrug. "In a word… no. The Tesseract may be… misbehaving."

Agent Barton swore loudly. "I've heard you say that before, Doctor. I swear to God, if Loki comes out of that thing again I'm going to kill you first."

Selvig's response was lost as the Tesseract seemed to explode in another burst of light and sound. The radius of the burst was small, no more than a few yards. But the Avengers, who had been closer to Thor than Selvig, were all caught in the blast. There was a rushing sound, and then Dr. Selvig was alone in the laboratory.

The Tesseract gave a little huff, almost like a self-satisfied sigh, before lapsing into silence. The glowing decreased, until the cube was lit by nothing more than its usual inner radiance.

Dr. Selvig stared at the spot on the floor where, only seconds ago, Earth's mightiest heroes had been gathered. He blinked twice. "That… wasn't supposed to happen…"

A/N: If you like it so far and want to read more, please review! The next few chapters will reveal where the Avengers end up – they'll be short chapters, I think, each one focused on no more than one or two of the characters at a time.