With Loki gone and in the wind, everyone seemed to be upset except for Thor. Hawkeye had stormed through the hallways in nothing but a towel, a nail file clenched in one fist, and when Thor had asked him about it the only answer he received was a punch in the arm. Thor had followed him to a conference room, keeping a safe distance from the nail file. Agents Coulson and Romanoff were already there. Natasha paced back and forth, sputtering incoherently about the inappropriate use of personal hygiene products. Coulson wasn't so much furious as quietly annoyed about the state of his new shirt.
It was probably for the best that the other Avengers had been elsewhere at the time, since Thor had a feeling he would have been on the receiving end of more uncalled-for punching and shouting. Which didn't bother him that much specifically, since that was sort of like a polite hello in Asgard, but he mostly didn't care for everyone obliquely blaming him for Loki's escape.
Because really, it wasn't Thor's fault that it was utterly hilarious, or that he couldn't stop the snickers and guffaws36 that leaked from his blond beard. Loki just had that effect on him37.
So Thor did his best to stay as out of the way as it was possible for him to be, which was really like watching an elephant trying to Not Be A Bother Don't Mind Me. Agent Romanoff made a noise that was somewhere in between an angry beehive and a boiling kettle and kicked over a chair. It made a satisfying enough crash; she smoothed her hair down, dusting her hands off.
“I don't know what that chair ever did to you,” Hawkeye said.
“Shut up, Clint. Maybe you should go put on some pants if you want to keep fighting evil today38,” Agent Romanoff snapped. She turned to Agent Coulson, who was rubbing a Tide pen on his shirt collar, a bitter set to his mouth. “Do we have anything?”
“Nothing. No one was in place.”
She seemed to be seriously considering kicking the chair again. “And we don't know where his current apartment is.”
“Oh, you know that jerk... he just said something about doing this again sometime, at his place.” She cracked her knuckles. “I wish. God, I'd love to nail him.”
Thor clapped a hand over his mouth as Agent Romanoff gave him a look that would have set lesser beings and all nearby furniture on fire.
“You're being a big help.”
Thor composed himself enough to shrug and keep his tone steady when he said, “We will find him sooner rather than later. Have faith in your people. If you are right about his magic, he won't be able to move fast.”
“Apparently I wasn't right, since he used magic to get himself out of here.”
Thor cleared his throat. “Not exactly.”
“And how is freezing a lock not magic? Unless your brother's also a mutant and you just never told us.”
The conversation had officially ceased to be fun. Thor carefully inspected his boots. “Not exactly.”
“Thor. Spill it.”
He continued to stare stubbornly at his shoes, trying to find the right words. Words were his brother's kingdom, not his, and he hated trying to grasp them.
It wasn't a thing he liked to talk about; he still wasn't comfortable with it himself, and he'd been afraid before now say anything since he thought the others would be more eager to do real harm to Loki if they knew he wasn't related by blood. It also shamed him, and his father, and his mother, cast them all in a bad light because in a way, it was something they had done to Loki...
Thor was saved from having to answer by one of the guards letting himself into the room, a magazine clutched in his hand. “Finished going through the prisoner's cell. This was really the only thing out of place.”
Agent Romanoff took the magazine, flipping idly through it. “Is Kitteridge back from medical leave yet?”
The guard cleared his throat awkwardly. “Probably not, if you're just going to give him another Loki project. Ma'am.”
“He's folded several of the pages,” she said, then sighed and tossed the magazine on the table. “What's the point? The last time, it turned out to be just another way for him to mess with us.” She went back to pacing. “Your brother, Thor. Your brother.”
She didn't seem to expect a response, and there wasn't much he could offer other than the standard, “Well yes, he has that effect on people.”
But she also seemed to have forgotten her previous line of questioning, and Thor kept quiet so she wouldn't be reminded. He picked up the magazine – it seemed to involve a lot of pictures of smiling children in sweaters – and began paging slowly through it. Because if he didn't look at Agent Romanoff or meet her eyes, she was a lot less likely to notice him.
Soon Coulson and Clint were quietly discussing their next possible move, while Natasha interjected occasional comments, and Thor was all but forgotten.
He got to the end of the magazine, then flipped through it again, this time making it a quick fan of pages. And then he did it a second time, watching the way the words and numbers flickered as the pages moved by.
He couldn't help it; he started laughing, knitting magazine bunched between his thick hands. He was near mirthful tears when he realized that he was making the only noise in the room, and that all eyes were on him. Which was a fairly normal state of affairs when he was outside of a SHIELD base, but inside he was just another guy with giant muscles.
“Something you'd like to share with the rest of the class?” Agent Coulson said.
Thor held up the magazine, trying to muffle his laughter with one hand.
“Are sweaters a punchline in Asgard?” Agent Romanoff asked.
“I think they're fuckin' hilarious,” Clint added.
Thor shook his head. “No, no. I know where my brother's gone. If he's still there.”
An instant later, the three of them were hanging over him; Clint kept prodding him in the shoulder with the nail file. Thor tried to shoo the man away, waving his hand like Clint was an annoying and curious cat, and only succeeded in almost yanking his towel off. Which earned him another poke from the nail file.
“Pants, Clint,” Agent Romanoff said.
“Pants can wait for secret coded messages.”
Thor flipped through the magazine again, “Right here. Where it says 'three green squares.'”
“Maybe you should just explain it to us, since we apparently don't have the secret key to understanding how your brother's twisted mind works,” Agent Romanoff said.
“It's directions. Given as if we're going there in the air, because my brother knows that I would fly. It's the fastest way to catch up to him.”
Agent Romanoff thumped a pad of yellow paper down next to him, and a pencil. “Write them down. Aerial photos, we've got plenty of. Clint, go put on some pants.”
“Wait, do that again,” Clint said, ignoring her. “Does that say...”
“Hairy blond disaster,” Coulson read.
Thor shrugged. “It's addressed to me.”
Clint was the only one that laughed; then Agent Romanoff pointedly tried to yank his towel off. He got the hint and left.
“But why would he leave directions for Thor?” Agent Romanoff asked.
“It's probably a trap,” Coulson said.
“It's always a trap.”
“Exactly. With Loki, it's almost a requirement.”
Thor found it somewhat annoying when the agents talked over his head (though this often required them standing on chairs), but he focused on just writing down the directions. Because he knew that they wouldn't believe him anyway; they never did, when it came to Loki.
And to be fair, often he was wrong about his brother. Or at least half wrong. But in a funny way.
It was possible that he would be wrong again, that the others were right and it was some kind of trap. But Thor knew his brother better than anyone in Midgard or Asgard39. He knew that something was wrong, even if he couldn't exactly say what. And if Loki was telling him where he could be found, it was probably because Loki thought there was at least a chance that he might need help.
And that little thought made a big knot of sour fear in the pit of Thor's stomach. Because Loki never wanted help until the situation was so messed up and out of control that it was beyond even a god's ability to fix.
Two hours after Loki's escape from the facility, a man in a white coat handed Agent Coulson a sheaf of aerial photographs with various areas circled in red. One of the photos was a shot of New York City; it was the closest possible location.
Thor could have flown there easily himself, and more quickly, but even he felt uncertain about going alone. He proposed just taking Hawkeye along since it had worked out so well last time, and Hawkeye insisted that there would be a helicopter damnit, and if they were taking a chopper than both Coulson and Romanoff insisted on joining the fun too.
As the only one who could independently fly, Thor sat at the door of the black helicopter. In response to his presence, dark clouds gathered, the feeling of static shuddering through the air. The pilot seemed less than thrilled, but accepted Thor's promise that he'd keep his 'little friends' from getting out of hand.
As they moved in on the skyscrapers, thunder rumbled behind them.
Coulson consulted the photos again, handing the best view up to the pilot. “If we're even in the right city, that's the building,” he said, his voice crackling through Thor's headphones.
Thor nodded, staring intensely at the apartment building as if that would allow him to peer through the distant windows.
Something burst through the glass, an angular black speck tumbling down the mirrored building front.
Both Coulson and Hawkeye started to speak, but Thor had already ripped his headset off. He threw open the helicopter door and simply jumped out, Mjolnir held steady in his hand. He went from dive to smooth flight as soon as he was clear of the helicopter's rotors.
Either an ordinary person was in trouble, or... or an extraordinary person was.
Something else fell from the broken window. Someone else. And he was still miles away.
He urged Mjolnir to go faster, tightening his grip on the hammer until his knuckles cracked. Wind shrieked and groaned in his ears, and then the air itself broke in a deafening boom. Around him windows cracked and shattered.
Faster, he urged Mjolnir. Faster. Still too slow. The man who had jumped, or fallen, or been thrown from the window rushed toward the ground, and Thor saw dark hair, thin hands splayed out as if to catch the air. There was no doubt who it was.
“Faster!” he bellowed, the word torn from his mouth by the battering wind.
Loki was even with the tops of the trees. And then Thor was there, stretching as far as he could go, hammer almost touching the building. Cracks webbed all of the windows.
Thor matched his brother's speed and direction, wrapped Loki in his arms, then quickly pulled up into a steep curve before they could touch the sidewalk. The tips of Loki's shoes snapped off the end of a tree branch.
And Loki, terrifyingly enough, clung to him. His mouth moved like he was saying something, babbling almost, and that was even more scary, but then Loki started laughing like he'd never stop, his head thrown back as they rocketed up the building.
Thor set them down just inside the broken window, hammer at the ready for whatever had attacked his brother.
“What a pleasant surprise, brother. The best surprise I've ever gotten,” Loki gasped out, then started laughing again.
Thor gave Loki a little shake; his brother's head wobbled strangely back and forth, but he stopped laughing. Loki blinked owlishly, then looked around. “Oh,” he said. “I was just here.” He let go of Thor, then shoved at his chest until he could step away. Thor watched with concern as Loki stumbled, almost fell, and caught himself on a black leather couch.
There was blood, he realized. Blood on Loki's shoulder like he'd been shot all over again. But that was impossible. “Loki?”
Loki looked around the apartment; he even took a few staggering steps and cautiously pushed the kitchen door open, peering inside. “Son of a bitch. He still took my waffle iron.”
Thor stayed with him, ready to catch Loki if he collapsed – since that actually seemed to be a possibility. “Who, brother? Who threw you out of the window?”
Loki waved one hand, grimacing, then tried to smooth his hair down. “Oh, I threw myself out the window. It was the only option I really had at the time. Good thing you happened to be in the area.”
“I actually expected it to take you far longer to figure out the little clue. So good show. Good show.” Loki slapped him companionably on the arm, then abruptly sat down on the floor. “I think I may need to go back to your hospital now.” He reached up shakily and pressed one hand against his bloody shoulder.
Thor crouched down. Loki seemed to be trying to look at everything but him. He finally just grabbed his brother's chin, tilting Loki's face up so he had no choice but to meet his gaze. Loki's eyes were wide and a little unfocused, his face pale. Thor had seen expressions like that before, mostly on men fresh from their first battlefield: shock. “Brother, what has happened to you?” Thor asked quietly.
And maybe it was the shock, but he saw something unfamiliar in Loki's eyes – honesty. “We're all in quite a bit of trouble, I'm afraid.” Loki smiled, the expression odd and wobbly. “And it's only partly my fault, can you believe that?” And he laughed, like it was all just an enormous joke.
36 – Agent Romanoff had accused him of giggling on more than one occasion, and that was patently absurd. School girls giggled. Norse Gods only partook in heartier forms of laughter, preferably while in the process of quaffing some sort of alcoholic beverage. Thor had been sad to note the distinct lack of quaffing that seemed to plague all SHIELD facilities.
37 – Though it should be noted that Loki only had that effect on him when someone else was the brunt of the joke. Funny, that.
38 – All credit given to Mystery Men.
39 – At times this wasn't saying much. At other times, it was saying quite incredible things about Thor; most people who tried to get to know Loki ended up in a room with rubber wallpaper or in a pine box. Or occasionally, a pine box with rubber wallpaper, just in case.