Loki did not awaken the next morning or all the next day, despite the noise and bustle about him. Come afternoon Sif folded her arms, frowning down at his motionless form on the pallet, and said, "He should be cured; by now he's likely malingering to make us worry."

"You worry for him?" Thor asked, pleased.

Sif let go a huff of breath (rather like how Loki expressed vexation at Thor's denseness, though Thor wisely did not remark upon this.) "If I worry, it's only out of old habit."

The humans looked between them. After a moment Rogers commented, "So you all have known each other a while, huh? And Loki, too?"

"Aye, the three of them raised Hel as wee things," Volstagg said, "since Sif was fostered at the palace. Until they met we Three, who put them on a proper warrior's path—"

"Wine, women, and song," Fandral laughed, "—though food and mead more than wine, and more girls than women—and boys, too, of course," with a nod to Sif, "—and Hogun here cannot hardly carry a tune—"

"Better than you can carry a wife to your marriage bed," Hogun returned.

"Now that sounds like a story," Stark said. "Come on, spill!" and Volstagg obliged. That tale led to others, and the Avengers in return shared some of their recent adventures and mishaps, until more of them than not were laughing out loud.

The gaiety lasted until Fandral happened on the tale of the storm giant's treasure. It had long been a favorite recounting, but when he described in merry detail Loki's illusion which made Volstagg and Thor appear as members of the giant's sheep flock, the humans' high spirits abruptly waned. Barton shut his mouth and Natasha with him. The others looked to them, then at the sleeping figure on the pallet behind them, and quieted. Fandral, attentive to the Lady Natasha, shut his own mouth with a hasty apology; but the mood was broken. Soon after Thor admitted to tiredness, and they left him to his repose for the rest of the afternoon.

Come evening Volstagg kindly thought to bring a plate of real dinner to supplement the healer's broths. Thor ate gladly, and went to sleep full and content and feeling almost recovered. When the healers came later, he dozed through their enchantments, reassured by familiar voices, Eir and his human friends, and another...

Not until much later in the night did Thor find himself blinking up at the shadowy ceiling in some confusion, unsure of what had roused him. A cool night breeze caressed his cheeks, and stars showed in the clear black sky out the open windows.

Hearing a soft snuffling, he turned his head to see a moonlit Steve Rogers seated in a chair beside his pallet, arms crossed over his chest and head down as he slept.

"I've one, too," a soft voice said.

Thor sat up, entirely awake. Loki was sitting up in his own bed to look toward the sill behind him, occupied as usual by Clint Barton. The archer was as soundly asleep as the captain, his head tipped back and snores rasping from his extended throat.

"Mortals do get rather attached, don't they?" Loki remarked, tipping his chin at the bow in Barton's hand, grip firm for all his snoring.

"Brother," Thor said, smiling, "you're recovered?"

Loki settled back against his propped pillow, drawing his silk-wrapped hand into his lap. "Largely, yes, so the healers tell me," he said, his voice quiet, and not just to keep from disturbing their sleeping allies. For all his recent rest he sounded tired, more weakened even than Thor had felt himself upon first waking.

"We were triumphant," Thor told him. "Thanos is defeated, pulled into the void and not to return; and Father sealed the vortex afterwards—"

"With the Tesseract," Loki said. "Yes, I remember that." His eyes were dark through the shadows as he studied Thor. "And you—are you well?"

"Nearly mended," Thor assured him. "Eir said I'll likely be allowed to leave the hall tomorrow." In truth Thor thought he had rested more than enough, disregarding the dizziness when he tried to stand. But healers always would be overly cautious. Or perhaps Eir understood that he would have remained in the healing hall anyway, until Loki had awoken.

"I am glad you are unscathed," Loki said, in a quiet and carefully flat tone, as if he were trying not to sound too overly earnest for fear that any feeling would be disbelieved.

"I wish you were," Thor said, not hiding his own sorrow. "Does your hand pain you greatly?"

Loki looked down at the offending limb resting on his knees, layers of gray silk replacing the gauntlet's gold. "It's numb now; I cannot feel nor move it." His brow furrowed, not with pain or anger but like he might regard a puzzling page Fjalar had brought him.

He had written on those pages with his right hand, worked his magic with a motion of his agile fingers. Had cast the spell to exchange them, when Thor was under Thanos's blow. Thor swallowed. "Brother—"

Loki tucked his arm closer to his chest, as if to conceal it in the folds of his loose white robe. "A small price to pay, for our victory."

Far less a price than expected, that was true. "You said the gauntlet's destruction would destroy you with it, as well as Thanos," Thor said. "That it would rip asunder everything nearby it..."

"It seems I was mistaken."

"Were you?"

"I am here, am I not? And undestroyed, for the most part."

"But the vortex opened to the void, as just you said it would be," Thor said. Loki's eyes were steady on him—too steady? In the moonlit dimness it was hard to be sure. "And Thanos was lost in it, and you might have been, had I not caught you—"

"You might have been," Loki said, his calm narrowing to a needle-sharp point. "Not if you had fled, as I told you to—but you stopped; you were too close, when the gems shattered—"

"Was I close enough that I also might have been annihilated by their destruction?" Thor asked.

Watching intently, he saw Loki's shoulders stiffen, spine pulled straight by tension; they answered his question better than Loki's tongue, which only said, flatly, "How could I guess that, when I didn't rightly know the gems' power?"

"Whether or not you knew the full scope of that power, I wonder if you still might have directed it," Thor said. "When the gem cracked, could you have deliberately channeled its energies into the void, rather than risk destroying what lay on this side?"

"Even if I had such control, that seems a foolish choice for me to make," Loki said, "when to do so would rip a hole into the void wide enough to certainly swallow me."

"Indeed," Thor said, considering. "And you told me before that you would rather be destroyed than returned to the void..."

"So I said," Loki said, almost successfully toneless.

"Was that a lie?"

Loki turned away from Thor, toward the stars out the window. "No." He shuddered, even with his shoulders held so tight. "It was not."

Thor did not wish to hurt his brother; but he feared that not knowing, he risked doing him worse harm. "Loki, how long were you lost in the void, before Thanos found you?"

"I do not know." Loki continued gazing at the stars. "It was...it was not dark nor light; there was no sun or moon, no night or day. No way to tell what time had passed, but to count the seconds going by. And then I would lose the tally, when..."

He trailed off, shook his head and resumed in a flat, feelingless voice, "It is not empty, of course—oh, if it only were empty! But what is there—what passes there does not pass as it does here; one does not perceive any of it as one sees or hears or touches anything here. All my knowledge and magic arts proved as useless as—as your hammer and your strength would be there. I thought—I felt—for centuries I fell, it seemed, until I lost all hope of ever stopping—until I forgot I had ever even believed I would die, until I forgot why I had even fallen, where I had fallen from, who was falling—and then the Chitauri found me."

Loki's breath quickened, and the words poured from him faster, too fast to be silenced, though still monotone. "By luck, not intent; even Thanos's power was not so strong as to find one soul dropping through the endless void. But he found me, caught me, and I was...it was not gratefulness, it was not even relief—but to not be falling, to lie in place and feel solid stone beneath me, every pebble and jagged edge different against my skin—it was joy. Even the pain was joy, at first, because it was not the void..."

"Brother," Thor said, soft and sick with horror, and Loki finally turned from the window back to him.

"We could not have fought free," he said. "If you had fallen into the void with me—not in a thousand years, not in a hundred thousand, could we have freed ourselves; and you would curse me, for dragging you after me. Even as I cursed you as I fell, for your cruel mercy, for not smiting me with Mjolnir as you smote the rainbow bridge—" Loki snapped up his hand to cut off Thor's next words. "Do not apologize," he said, clipped short by his caught breath. "I do not want to know how much I have hurt you, in telling you this; you asked me, and so brought it on yourself."

"Then I will not," Thor said. "But Loki, if ever you should fall into that void again, know that I will pull you from it. I will find you in it; I will save you, whatever power I need obtain to manage it. I vow this."

Loki closed his eyes, started to shake his head.

"'A prince of Asgard should know better than to make vows he cannot keep'," Thor said, before Loki could. "So you told me before—but I saved you from Thanos, as I swore to. And this vow I make not as a prince, but as the All-Father of the Nine Realms, as I will be someday—on my future throne, I swear it."

Loki's breath rattled in his throat; but when he opened his eyes, their green gaze was steady through the dimness, and his voice was cool, laced with irony. "And if I steal that throne from you, as I have before?"

"But you did not," Thor said. "It was rightly granted you, when I was banished. And would you really want it back, were it offered to you again?"

Loki arched his eyebrows, exaggerated in the shadows. "I should think that time with your humans would've reminded you of my ambitions."

"They're my friends, not mine own creatures!" Thor shook his head. "And why should I heed anything you told me on Earth? You lie, brother. To the Tesseract as much as to anyone, I think. And you wished to anger me—you've always had a gift for that."

"It takes little enough skill," Loki muttered, then added, grudgingly, "if a bit more, now."

"I don't believe you ever wanted to rule," Thor said. "I told you before, the throne would suit you ill; even if you served it well, you would find it an uncomfortable seat. You enjoy rules too little to ever enjoy ruling."

"It's different to be the one making the rules," Loki said.

"But a king does not make rules," Thor said. "Not unless the people desire them. Not a good king, anyway. And would you really be content to be a bad one, brother?"

Loki snorted, shaking his head, not in denial but sarcastic despair. "A good king serves his subjects," Thor said. "So when I am king, I would be serving you."

"...If I were still a subject of Asgard," Loki said, and at Thor's sharp look went on, "You must have realized it by now. With Thanos's defeat, Asgard's first war with the Chitauri is ended. So I am that war's prisoner no longer."

"Then Father—"

"The All-Father will decide as is best for Asgard," Loki said. "As a good king must. And I am yet a traitor and a criminal—"

"Not now," Thor said. "You're Eir's patient now, by her honor, until you are recovered..." His eyes fell unwilling to Loki's silk-shrouded hand.

Loki lifted the bandaged limb into the moonlight, examined it blandly. "Do not think me so crippled as to merit mercy. What the healers can't put right, I'll find another solution for. I've never learned more than the basics of healing magic; this will supply motivation." His gaze shifted to Thor, the corners of his lips curling up. "Did you not tell me before, that I best enjoy finding the complicated answers?"

Thor nodded. "And so I think I can best serve you by giving you the most difficult problems to wrestle—and Asgard's problems are complex indeed. We have more enemies than mad titans and alien armies; and more who may be made our foes, if we misstep. And I can be clumsy, and don't always see the right way clearly. I do not want to be the king that leads Asgard to ruin, and so I would have you by my side when I rule, brother...if you would be willing to stand there."

Loki's shoulders curved inward, the black curtain of his hair falling over his eyes as he drew his uninjured arm around his knees. "My will matters not, if not in accordance with the All-Father's."

"Father will not always be the All-Father," Thor said. "And when I am, I will decide what is best for Asgard."

Loki did not answer. In the fallow silence, Steve Rogers on the chair beside Thor snorted, shifted position without awaking. Thor looked to him, then at Barton still asleep on the sill, and remarked, "By the by, brother—Clint Barton is not a man to doze off while keeping watch. Nor Captain Rogers."

Loki glanced back at the humans, asked innocently, "No?"

Thor sighed. "Take your spell off them."

"It wasn't my spell," Loki said. "I merely suggested to a healer that the mortals are overtired, taxed beyond sense, and needed rest despite their noble urge to watch over us. They'll feel better for it."

"Loki. They trust you little enough already."

Loki sunk his head down again. "Barton's hawk stare gets...tiresome."

"Then show him he has no need to watch you so closely."

"And if he does?"

Thor simply looked at him, until Loki grumbled, "Fine, then, wake them! But I'll sleep through that conversation, if you don't mind," and he laid himself down on his pallet, folding his good left hand over the bandaged right, so his sleeve hid the injury.

Thor continued to study his brother's sharp and pale face, asked him, "How has your sleep been now, these past days? The nightmares..."

"I am far out of Thanos's reach now; he cannot touch my dreams."

"But do you dream well?"

"If I do not," Loki said softly, "then they are at least my own horrors and no one else's. And not yours to defeat, brother."

"No," Thor said, "but you will tell me, if there's anything I can do to lessen them?"

Loki angled a glance across to Thor. "If I do not, will you otherwise seek your own way to enter my head and smite my demons with your mighty hammer?"

"I will," Thor said, determined.

Loki sighed, closing his eyes. "...Then I will tell you."

o o o

It took three more days of rest before the healers reluctantly relinquished Loki from their halls. If he was still pallid and thin, he was steady on his feet, and his eyes seemed clearer than before, with the black rings about them lessened. With his hair smoothed down and tied back, he looked younger to Thor, almost like his brother before he had fallen.

Though when Loki dispelled the white healing robes, it was his longcoat he donned. With his magic he saw to mending its tears and stains, oiling the leather until it sheened black and green. He forwent his armor; without those golden accents, he was outfitted as somberly as for a funeral.

Before they left the halls, he held out his hands to Thor, diffidently. Thor shook his head. "No, brother; you need no chains now."

Loki arched an eyebrow at him. "So Odin declared the prisoner should walk freely to the throne room?"

"He commanded that I bring you, bound and secure," Thor said, and nodded at the silk wrapping still tied about Loki's right hand, the only remaining sign of his injuries. "That binds your hand and your magic both, better than manacles would."

Loki's lips quirked. "Some might be more comforted by the chains. Such as the Einherjar sworn to protect the king. To say nothing of your human friends..."

Thor put his hand to Mjolnir on his belt. "This will comfort them, well enough."

"—Or stop them from complaining, at least," Loki murmured, and followed Thor from the healing halls.

No guard accompanied them, and the palace corridors were empty, washed in golden daylight. In the antechamber of the throne room, Thor stopped them, gave his brother an examining look. "The last time you stood in formal audience before the king, it was in another form."

"So it was," Loki said.

"Would you want to make the same point now?"

"Ah, would I?" Loki mused. His smirk was quicksilver, a wicked glitter between the cracks of his calm facade.

Thor snorted, then stepped past the curtain and through the golden doors. Loki kept an even pace at his side. His footsteps did not falter when they entered the throne room to see the larger part of the host of Asgard before them, over five thousand strong, warriors and nobility, guards and crafters, all standing according to their rank and principles.

The last time so many had gathered in the throne room was to witness Thor's failed coronation. Then the spirit had been celebratory—or so Thor had thought at the time; he wondered now how many of that cheering throng had had misgivings, besides his brother. The atmosphere now was more overtly strict, voices silenced and gestures stilled, and all eyes upon them, watchful, assessing, curious. For most of the audience, the imprisoned traitor prince had been only a rumor until this moment.

Every footfall of their boots on the etched floor echoed through the assemblage. Loki's strides were measured as they marched the aisle between the crowd, neither lagging nor hurried. He had probably anticipated this gathering from the emptiness of the halls. Thor kept facing forward, toward the throne as they approached, not looking to his brother. That Loki was still Aesir in appearance, not assuming the Jotunn blue, Thor guessed from the lack of reaction about them. And otherwise Loki's expression would tell him nothing.

The ambassadors from the other realms stood at their place before the throne's dais. The Avengers stood behind Fjalar and Aridva—a misordering; as representatives of the aggrieved world they should be in front, but Thor suspected they had let the dwarves forward so they might more easily observe. Fjalar caught Thor's eye in passing and winked; Thor gave him a slight nod back. He offered another nod to his human friends, all in their battle dress, save for Bruce Banner who wore a gray outfit that was embarrassingly plain to Thor's eyes, but which Tony Stark had assured them was the height of Midgard ceremonial fashion.

Thor and Loki halted at the base of the dais, and Thor stepped to the side so that Loki stood alone—though not too far.

Loki bowed, graceful and respectfully plain, before raising his face to the throne. "Greetings, Odin-King, All-Father," he said. "I again stand before you—"

He got no further, for Odin raised his hand, and Loki fell silent like the rest of the watching crowd. The All-Father stood from his throne. Taking Gungnir in hand, he descended the golden steps down to the dais's first rise, where Frigga stood in her most formal court finery.

At Odin's gesture, Thor took Loki's arm and escorted him up the steps of the dais to the rise, to stand level with the king. For all the evenness of Loki's steps, Thor saw his brother's shoulders tense, rigid with the effort of meeting the king's gaze.

Odin stood facing Loki, his back as straight, single blue eye locked with Loki's green. Carefully, deliberately, he set down Gungnir to stand beside him.

Then Asgard's king reached out and roughly pulled Loki into an embrace, before he could flinch or step back from it. Frigga smiled, and Thor beamed as their father clasped Loki tight to him, then gripped him by the shoulders and pushed him back upright. Odin held him there a moment, studying his aspect, as if to make sure his son would not flee, or fall over. From the shocked whiteness of Loki's face, neither would be so unlikely. Thor took a step nearer to his brother as Odin took up his spear again, raised it as he overlooked the watching crowd.

"We welcome back Loki Odinson," the All-Father shouted, his voice reverberating throughout the throne room. "Our prince and one-time king of Asgard, thought lost to us. But even as Thanos and the Chitauri were defeated, so now has the last shadow passed over this kingdom, with our lost son's return!"

For a moment the silence held, and Thor glanced down at the Avengers gathered before the dais.

Odin had spoken to them earlier, that these court affairs would not be a surprise. If the humans wished to, they had the right now to contest the king's pronouncement and make accusations against the enemy of their world. Thor watched them as surreptitiously as he could, not wanting to stare and so seem to discourage them from their rightful course. But none of them came forth. Though Stark was unreadable behind his metal mask, Rogers and Banner both looked thoughtful. And Natasha and Barton had their heads together, murmuring; but neither stepped forward.

Thor swallowed. He did not know if it was out of their gratitude or friendship for him, or for the sake of being Asgard's allies, or else it was that incredible human mercy; whatever their reasons, his heart ached from his own gratefulness.

Odin nodded to the humans, then brought Gungnir crashing down, echoing through the great hall. In answer a great roaring cheer swelled from all those gathered, breaking like a wave over the silence.

If most were shouting in answer to the All-Father's command, some were shouting for who he celebrated. Sif and the Warriors Three all threw back their heads to holler Loki's name. In the past three days, Stark had had the opportunity to show off the video he had recorded, projected images showing Loki's rescue of Thor in the face of Thanos's brutality; and Thor had told them in detail about the fight and afterwards, of how Loki had asked to be let go, lest he pull Thor into the void with him. Loki had no wish to speak of such himself, nor much desire to talk with anyone as he healed, so this was the first chance they had had to show him their feelings, and they expressed them loudly, as was their wont.

Fjalar's cheering was also directly meant; he grinned up at Loki, pumping his fist. Behind him, the Avengers all applauded with blank-faced, diplomatic courtesy.

No blanker, however, than Loki's own face, so astonished that he could not even fake some other feeling, as he stared out over that cheering host. Frigga came forward to claim her own embrace as queen to prince, which Loki returned mechanically, still looking dazed, until his mother whispered something in his ear that made him straighten up again, chin lifting in a measure of restored, proud composure.

After a bit, when the noise began to lull, Thor stepped up beside his brother on the dais, and the cheers rose high again. He heard his own name in it now—the bards had already begun on several versions of his battle with Thanos, some of which Loki did not figure as prominently in as he ought. Still, when Thor raised Mjolnir and the shouting redoubled, he could not help smiling at the enthusiasm, as gratifying thunder as anything he called from the clouds.

Loki shot him a sidelong look, a smirk curling around the edges of his lips, too slight a thing to be seen by any other. Nodding meaningfully to Thor, he raised his hands to join in the applause as he himself took a deferential step back, ceding the crown prince the center of the dais, so broadly visible gesture as to not be missed over the tumult.

Thor grinned back at Loki, then threw his arm around his brother's shoulders and hauled him forward again, so they stood side by side before the throne, with all of Asgard cheering both their names.

o o o

"So that's it, then?" Tony Stark asked, taking a gulp from his latest cup. He was much taken with Asgard's mead and had already discussed importing some back to Earth. Around them the feasting continued, ever livelier the more wine and mead was poured; but the human's eyes were serious as he stared across the table at Loki. "The king says you're back, and all's forgiven?"

"Not forgiven," Loki said, "but rather forgotten. And so too must I forget—the name I had before, and all the deeds of he who held it, are no longer mine to claim. Nor anything that was his."

"So you give up any salvage rights to the Tesseract—not that you had any right to it anyway—and get to wipe a failed invasion and a prison term clean off your record," Stark said. He finished his stein, slammed it down on the table with appropriate vigor. "Sounds like a good deal to me."

"Aye, but so too do his victories against Thanos and the Chitauri get wiped," Volstagg said, leaning across the table toward Stark. "If the bards deign mention Thor's ally against the Mad Titan, it will be the traitor Loki Laufeyson who helped defeat him. Not the second Odinson, who has yet to prove himself so worthily."

"Except that you and everybody else knows it was him," Rogers remarked from Stark's other side.

Volstagg shrugged. "For now. In ten years, in a hundred...memories are fickle; legend and song endure."

Thor looked over at his brother, but Loki said nothing; he was watching Volstagg with a thoughtful look.

"Awfully convenient, isn't it?" Barton said. His own stein and wineglass were still full, untouched. "This criminal Loki Laufeyson goes down fighting Thanos, and then the prodigal son Loki Odinson just happens to pop up—this happen a lot in your legends?"

"There is precedent," Thor said.

Rogers coughed pointedly. Barton looked from the captain to Thor and muttered, "Uh, sorry, no offense—"

"But he's got a point," Stark said. "A complete karmic reset, and all you've got to do is change your name—I'd take that deal—"

"No, you wouldn't," the Lady Natasha said, seemingly mild.

Stark flushed with more than the spirits. "...Okay, maybe not. But still..."

"...And we have precedent, too." Banner had hardly spoken during the meal before, so while his voice was quiet it still commanded all their attention. Even Loki's green eyes flicked to him, as Banner continued, "SHIELD hasn't put me on trial for all the things the Hulk has done. "

"But that's different—"

"Yeah, maybe." Bruce looked down into the golden mead in his goblet. "I wonder..."

He did not break the silence which fell amidst the tumult of the feast around them, and the others dared not, until at last Stark cleared his throat. "Here's to rebranding," he said, lifting his stein. "May it go better than New Coke."

"Tony," Rogers sighed, but raised his own cup. "To new beginnings," he said firmly. The other Avengers echoed it, Thor with them as they knocked their steins together in the Midgardian fashion and drank, even Barton and Banner wetting their lips.

And Loki said nothing, and did not tap his cup to theirs; but he did lift it and drink with them, deeply enough to drain his wine.

"So," Fandral said, before another quiet could descend, "is it true you'll be breaking my heart by departing tomorrow, Lady Natasha?"

"Yes," Barton growled out, glaring, as Volstagg and Stark both snorted, and Natasha sipped from her stein, effectively hiding any expression. While to Thor's knowledge she had yet to return Fandral's advances, neither had she spurned them—Stark had declared she obviously had a thing for 'Robin Hood types'.

From there the conversation turned to the humans' impending return to Midgard. "You're sure you won't be able to come back with us?" Barton asked Thor again, and Thor again denied it, making the effort to smile around the heaviness of his heart. He had already discussed the matter with Rogers. In the case of dire emergencies to Earth Asgard's might could be called upon; but Thor had obligations to the realm that his father and his own honor would not release him from. Though it pained him, knowing most of his friends, and Jane Foster as well, were mortal; even if he might free himself somewhat in a few decades' time, their friendship might have faded, and perhaps their lives as well.

It was his own fault, of course, for long shirking his responsibilities as prince in favor of questing and carousing, and regrets now could not change youthful folly. So when Barton sighed and said, "Fury's going to be disappointed, would've made up for a lot, to have you around long-term," Thor could only say, "I'm sorry, my friends," and try not to wish too hard for Midgard to be direly threatened.

Sometime in the course of this discussion, Loki slipped away from their company. Thor did not see him go, only realizing it when he turned to ask his brother what he thought of Stark trading with the dwarves, and found his seat empty. Before Thor could rise in alarm, Sif met his eyes and nodded to the door to indicate Loki's departure, and Thor settled back in his chair, if less comfortably than before.

The others were moreso; with Loki absent, Barton offered a few toasts of his own, and their conversation grew more boisterous. Thor enjoyed it greatly, knowing it to be his last chance in however long to share the company of his human friends.

Though as the night deepened and Loki did not return, Thor's thoughts were drawn back to his brother. It gave him a start to realize that he would not know where to look, if Thor sought him now. No longer a prisoner in the dungeons, Loki might go anywhere. He might have left the palace, if he cared to—or even the realm, by one of his hidden routes that did not require the Bifrost. Though those might be more dangerous for him now, when his injury curtailed what spells he could cast...

The hour was quite late, the king and queen already retired, so Thor excusing himself was no marked event. Banner withdrew with him, and the other Avengers seemed likely to soon follow, either by way of being dragged or else doing the dragging. Theirs would be a late departure from Asgard tomorrow, Thor guessed.

After directing Banner to the guest chambers, Thor did not himself head for his own rooms. Instead he wandered back to the balcony alongside the throne room, to take in the night air, and a view of the palace grounds. Not that he expected to see Loki—but then, his brothers always had liked to explore the gardens' shadows, and after so long in the cell he might enjoy watching the open sky...

As it happened, however, the balcony was occupied, low conversation floating thought the night's quiet. Thor halted, concealed behind the columns lining the corridor and staying silent so as not to interrupt, as Odin's voice said, "You would pose Midgard as a threat against us, when they haven't even the power to understand the Tesseract, much less harness its power?"

"Not a threat," Loki's voice answered. "Not yet, at least; and hopefully not ever. Earth's people may not yet have advanced to our level, but witness how far they've come in scarcely more than the blink of an eye. The shortness of their lives drives them to attempt as much in their brief time as we do in millennia. In mere centuries they are already near able to meet us on the Bifrost; in a few more they may well surpass us. They are our protectorate now, but one day they'll be worthy allies to Asgard."

"They are our allies now," Odin said. "How do you propose to strengthen that bond?"

"By assuring that Asgard's king is as known and respected on Midgard as here," Loki said. "If they had the chance to get to know Thor, as we know him, to witness for themselves his heroism and honor—I'm not suggesting any great delay; with mortal life spans, it wouldn't take much time to make an impression upon them. You would only have to bear the crown's burden a little while longer, perhaps thirty or forty years, while Thor makes a name for himself on Earth. And it would be to political advantage as well for Asgard's king to understand better the ways of the humans."

"I didn't know you had such great respect for mortal ways, my son."

"That was my error—but you have always appreciated Midgard's potential, Father; why else would you banish Thor there to learn? There are already more humans now than all the other peoples of the realms together, and someday they may be stronger than us as well. Only a fool would ignore or overlook them, however quaint their customs might seem to us."

"And you do not think Thor would be such a fool."

"He is not," Loki said. "And he appreciates more than either you or I the best qualities of the Midgardians. His honest respect would win their respect in turn."

"Do you agree, Thor?" Odin's raised voice echoed tellingly between the columns.

Thor, flushing, ducked his head and stepped out onto the balcony. His father and brother both turned to him. In the moonlight their calmly assessing faces looked a near perfect match, for all the differences in age and blood. Neither showed any surprise; Thor supposed his tread approaching had not been so quiet as that, after all.

His father's pause was expectant, awaiting his answer, so Thor said, "I do respect my friends, that is true. And I would value the chance to better prove myself worthy of their respect, and closer friendship as well."

"...And maybe they could teach him more finesse in eavesdropping than drunkenly stumbling into private conversations," Loki murmured.

Thor gave him a mildly insulted look. "I could hardly become inebriated from sharing a few toasts with mortal men, brother!"

"Thor," Odin said, "would you be willing to live again among the humans—not banished, and returning to Asgard whenever you wished it or were summoned; but spending the greater part of your time dwelling on Midgard, to protect them with your strength, and make better acquaintance with them and their customs?"

Though it was true he'd hardly drunk enough to notice it, Thor felt almost dizzy now with unexpected hope. "I—I would, Father, be most willing! —If it would indeed serve Asgard, to go to Earth..."

Odin nodded. "Then I will consider this tonight, to discuss it with our Avenging allies on the morrow—and consult with your mother; she may regret having to relinquish her sons after so brief a reunion. But she will see what is best for the realm, and for you besides." With that, their father clasped both Loki and Thor by the arms, wished them goodnight and withdrew.

Thor stood beside Loki in silence, looking out over the grounds, softened into gentle dark shapes by the moonlight. Beyond the wall spread the glittering sea, and the Bifrost over it, reflecting prismatic rainbows on the dark waves. To think that soon it would be Earth's vast oceans that he gazed upon...

At last Thor conquered his emotions enough to say clearly, "I thank you, brother. This—this is a most incredible gift!"

Loki glanced at him sideways, only his eyes moving, his face still in unreadable profile. "You realize this might all be to further my own schemes. To get you exiled once more to Midgard, so I might have free reign on Asgard, out from under your all-too-understanding eye."

"But how would you get up to mischief here, from all the ways away on Earth?" Thor wondered.

Loki's brow furrowed in puzzlement.

"After all," Thor explained, "even if I succeed in winning the Midgardians' esteem, how would they trust me on Asgard's throne, if they knew my right-hand adviser only as the villain who once attempted to conquer them? They know you as neither Laufeyson nor Odinson, but only Loki; and it seems to me you have a greater need to make good that name on Earth than I."

Loki went still for a moment, staring at him. Then he said, "Setting aside my reputation in the world entire, I doubt any of your friends would willingly work with me, without the threat of Thanos and the realms endangered."

"On the contrary," Thor said. "Stark is most interested in studying your magic, as is Banner. And Captain Rogers believes it may be employed in multiple tactics, which Barton and the Lady Natasha are also intrigued by. They think that the man Fury would see its advantages as well."

"You've discussed this with your friends?"

"I have," Thor said. "Even not knowing when we would next journey to Earth, I told them you would also be Midgard's defender now."

"And they would trust me?" Loki laughed, brief and breathlessly sharp. "Even knowing my power and my ambitions, my crimes and my madness—no, they wouldn't trust me; it's you they trust. Did you swear to them that you would vanquish me, should I threaten their world again? Or did you rather threaten them, to accept me, or else deny them your own support?"

"Neither," Thor said. "I will not fight you again, Loki—I'll stop your evil should you attempt any, and save those you may threaten; but I will not seek your defeat or capture. But nor will I fight for you, when you have the strength to do so yourself, unless you ask for my help."

Loki stopped short. "Then how do you plan to reassure them? You're not so naive to believe the humans will simply accept me among their ranks, however interested they may be in my magic."

"No," Thor agreed. "But I'll be their ally, fighting alongside them and sparring with them—and they are very clever, those men Stark and Banner, and Jane as well. The better they know me, the better they will know how to defend against me—how to defeat Asgardians."

"So you will give them my weaknesses, so they might defeat me, and leave your own hands clean."

Thor shook his head. "I'll not reveal your vulnerabilities, save those we share—and one other. They know you are my brother, and it's my wish that you be given this chance. So if you betray it, the fault is mine, for believing in you when I should not have; and so too shall the punishment be mine, whatever they deem appropriate for your misdeeds, to be inflicted upon me."

Loki stared at him for a long moment in silence. Thor met his eyes squarely, that his brother might see his resolve.

"You'd make yourself a hostage to my good conduct?" Loki asked at last. "And you foolishly think that will be enough? That I would restrain myself for your sake, even knowing the mortals had not the power to stop me—"

"I think," Thor said over him, "that you would sooner have destroyed yourself with the gauntlet than endure the void again—yet you refused to destroy me with you. I think that when you shattered the Infinity Gem and we were suspended over the abyss, that you could have switched places with me with your magic, given me to the void in exchange for your own freedom—yet you did not do so. I think, brother, that you gave up your life and your death both, for my sake. You told me before that your hatred of Thanos was not a truth or lie but simply was; and I think that it is not a truth or lie that you love me—that you are simply my brother, and so you do. As I love you."

Loki shut his eyes, braced his arms on the balcony's railing to lean into the wind, letting the night breeze brush his black hair off his white face. Thor leaned against the balustrade beside him, looking over the palace and sea and shining rainbow bridge.

Loki did not answer him directly, and Thor did not expect it of him. But when his brother leaned in, so their shoulders pressed together, Thor smiled. "So," he asked, "will you accompany me to Midgard?"

He felt Loki tense. "Is that my brother's request, or the order of my future king?"

"It's a challenge," Thor said. "You would not let me go to Jotunheim alone, and you would not let me fall into the void at all—but will you dare return to Earth with me, even knowing the tribulations that await you there?"

For a long moment Loki was silent. His green eyes were open, studying the distant glitter of the Bifrost, and the multitude of stars spreading beyond. Perhaps he was thinking of all the myriad ways he knew to walk among them, all the secret places he could find the solace of solitude, now that he was free.

Perhaps this had truly been his scheme after all, to gift Thor with Midgard and then find his own way, find his own self that had been so long lost, in the void and after. They were no longer boys, after all; they had long since outgrown the days when Loki would dare Thor to reach the fruit on the furthest branch, or Thor would bet that Loki's magic tricks could not beat him in a spar...

"You realize," Loki said, quiet and too calm, "that my sorcery now is limited," and he lifted his silk-wrapped hand. "Perhaps when we were before the void, I tried to cast the spell to exchange us, but failed with my injury."

"But you did not try to cast it," Thor said, "and you're lying now to try to convince me otherwise."

"You are so sure of that? So sure of my lies?"

"I am so sure of you," Thor said. "And your other hand was uninjured."

Loki breathed out silently, his shoulder falling against Thor's. "Come with me to Earth," Thor said.

"...All right. But only out of duty to Asgard; I have no interest in the humans, or proving myself to them or anyone," Loki lied, and Thor smiled and replied, "As you say, brother."

the end

And so it ends!

My eternal gratitude to everyone who made it all the way here! This is the longest story I've ever written, and I cannot tell you how glad I am that someone actually made it all the way through the monster. I'm not even sure how it happened... (though I blame Loki. It's always Loki's fault.)

Especially thank you so much to everyone who reviewed and followed and favorited this story! The best thing about posting a fic is knowing I'm fanning along with people, and the response this has gotten has been amazing. I know my take on Loki, and Loki & Thor, maybe isn't in step with much of the fandom, in one direction or another; so I'm so happy to know it worked for people anyway. And my greatest thanks to Gnine and Becky, for being the most awesome cheerleaders - I wouldn't have made it to the end (or heck, halfway through) without them (and there's a few fights that wouldn't have made any sense without their help...!)

This story grew from several seeds, in particular a Tumblr post about Loki's situation and possible motivations (which I latched onto the "junkie" description even more than the possible mind control), and another post which made me crave such a resolution. (See the version of this fic on my Archive of Our Own account for the links.) If I'd known it would take me 150K words to work it out...well, I probably would've gone ahead with it anyway. (Yup, I still blame Loki.) It was a blast to write, and though I know this isn't how Thor 2 or Avengers 2 will go, I still wanted to give myself a version of the story that wouldn't break my heart. And hey, this is comics; canon is what one makes it!

For those who have asked, I have no plans for an actual sequel at this point; if anyone's interested I may write a short piece or two set afterwards (would like to give Natasha and Bruce their due, they tragically didn't have enough to do here.) I don't have any other particular ficcish plans at the moment, but I still love Loki and Thor, and am equal parts looking forward to and dreading Thor 2, so...will see how that goes!