Loki didn’t understand, at first, what had happened.
One moment he’d been on the Statesman, too acutely aware of every breath he was taking, half-certain each would be his last - but no, not until Thanos had the Tesseract. Then - then.
Their one chance - the Hulk - was losing his fight. There was probably no way to get both himself and Thor out of here alive. So if it came down to it - he was just going to have to make sure it was Thor.
Except then the Bifrost had swept him off his feet and into space, dragging him away.
“Thor!” He screamed, fighting it, but the Bifrost tore the words away from him. He wasn’t alone, either; he could see the Hulk, ahead of him. What was Heimdall thinking, what did he think he was doing--
It was Bruce Banner who broke his fall. Loki was on his feet before he could push Loki off, scrambling out of the hole the Bifrost had left.
“Heimdall!” He shouted. He could feel the Tesseract thrumming where it was hidden, but - useless. He didn’t know where he should be going. Where in space to open a portal. “Open the portal!”
They’d smashed through the roof of someone’s house, Loki registered. Where? Didn’t matter. He swore. “Are you listening to me? I know you can hear--”
Except - except he’d been wounded. Except Thanos had just seen his prize vanish from within his grasp, except.
No no no no.
He felt magic behind him, vaguely familiar. “Loki,” someone said. “What are you doing here?”
The overweening sorcerer. Trying to snare him, no you don’t, I don’t have time for you.
“Get off me,” Loki snarled, whirling. The sorcerer’s magic melted away in the face of Loki’s own; he didn’t waste time with knives. He used raw force instead, sending the man flying, and shouted, “Heimdall! Bring me back!”
Nothing. Nothing, and Thor wasn’t here, and Thanos was there.
“Heimdall!” He shouted, louder. “You dragon-fucking bastard, bring me back, right now, Thor-”
Thor needs me.
“Loki,” he heard behind him, and to his surprise it was Banner, crawling out of the hole he’d left - the Hulk had left - in the concrete. “I don’t think-”
“Shut up,” Loki snarled at him. “I don’t care what you think. You don’t understand. I need to get back there, Thor needs help-”
I have the Tesseract. If I give him the Tesseract, maybe, maybe he’ll, maybe Thanos will…
“If I can interrupt,” the sorcerer said, from where he’d apparently picked himself up off the ground.
“No,” Loki said shortly. “You can’t.” He raised his voice again. “Gatekeeper-”
“Loki,” Banner said, and Loki hated the gentleness of his voice. “This is what Thor wanted.”
A scream started somewhere in Loki’s head. “What,” he said through his teeth, “is that supposed to mean?”
“Calm down,” the sorcerer said.
“If you say one more word to me I swear I will bury you in the foundations of this house,” Loki said, and he could hear the desperate vibration in his voice, staring at Banner. “Banner. Bruce.”
“We talked about this,” Banner said. He looked shaken, scared, but his eyes stayed on Loki. “After you told us about everything. Well, Thor talked to Heimdall.”
“I know,” Loki said flatly. “He told me, they decided that in the event of an attack Valkyrie would take the escape pods and Heimdall would send you to Midgard-”
“And you,” Banner said. “Me, and you.”
Loki’s stomach plunged. He locked his knees so he didn’t sway. The screaming in his head got louder. Oh no, Thor, he thought, suddenly nauseated. What did you do? “Explain,” he said, and somehow his voice was terribly calm.
Banner took a deep breath. “Thor said...he said he’d had watched you die too many times, and he wasn’t going to let it happen again.” Loki’s stomach squeezed viciously. No, he thought. No. You idiot, you had no right--
“So Heimdall said that if it was possible...that he’d send you away, too.”
He was going to be sick. He was going to faint. He was, quite possibly, just going to die, right here, right now. He’d been ready. He’d been ready, and Thor had to step in and ruin it, had to make the decision alone without asking what Loki wanted. It was never supposed to be me.
Thor didn’t have the Tesseract. There was no reason to keep him alive.
It was already over. It had been over the moment Heimdall had used the dark energy to send Loki and Bruce away.
“Loki,” Bruce said, sounding alarmed. “Breathe.”
He couldn’t. He didn’t deserve to.
“I’m serious,” Bruce said, more urgently. “Breathe.”
“Maybe we should,” the wizard said, somewhere far distant.
“I wouldn’t,” Bruce said. There was a hand on his arm abruptly, and Loki stared at it, followed the arm attached to it up to the face. “Blink if you can hear me,” he said. Loki blinked. His head was starting to swim. “Okay,” Bruce said. “Now, um - maybe try just an exhale?”
No, Loki thought. I won’t. If I die, Thor survives. That’s the exchange. If I die--
The air exploded out of his lungs and rushed back in. He stared at Bruce. “He had no right,” he said, his voice raw.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce said, and Loki could have struck him except that he sounded all too aware of the inadequacy of the words.
It’s too late now. There’s no way back. Heimdall, Thor - they’re dead.
You’re all that’s left. You, and Bruce. Harbingers of Midgard’s doom.
“Jesus Christ, what happened here - Bruce?”
“Heimdall and Thor,” Loki murmured, for his ears alone. “I bid you...I bid you take your place in the halls of Valhalla, where the brave...where the brave shall live forever. Nor shall we mourn, but rejoice…”
Hear me and rejoice! You have had the privilege of being saved by the Great Titan. You may think this is suffering. No...it is salvation.
Loki trailed off.
“Hey, Tony,” Bruce said. “Uh. Long time no see.”
“They’ll be coming here,” he said. His voice sounded strange, hardly like his own. “Thanos’s children. The Black Order.”
“Wait,” Stark said. “Is that-?”
Loki turned. His smile felt thin, strained, and unpleasant. “I’m afraid I am no longer your biggest problem, Stark,” he said. He could feel the wizard watching him intently, and ignored him. “There is something a great deal worse on the way.”
Wonder of wonders, they actually listened.
Oh, they weren’t happy. They were very far indeed from happy. But the sorcerer held his tongue and Stark stood with arms crossed and did not interrupt. Bruce hovered close to him like he thought Loki might stop breathing again.
He wouldn’t. Not until Thanos did, or until he crushed the breath out of Loki’s lungs with his own hands.
He’d said all this before, which made it easier this time. Easier, too, than it had been with Thor.
Thor. Even thinking the name was like a wound, so he held it there, letting it dig in. Could he, he would open his chest and carve Thor’s name on every one of his ribs.
He’d stopped talking. Loki shook himself and took a breath. “Where was I?”
“Something about a big nasty named Thanos chasing something called Infinity Stones who sent you here in the first place,” Stark said. “What’s an Infinity Stone?”
“Very powerful objects of magical power,” said the wizard. “There are six, in the universe.”
“How do you know that?” Stark asked.
“He is wearing one,” Loki said simply. All three of them stared at him, and Loki almost wanted to laugh. He suspected it would only come out hysterical, though. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice? You’re carrying an object of incredible power. It blazes like a bonfire at night, and I am not blind. At any rate, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is one of three that are here now, which means this planet is going to be a primary target.”
“Why should we believe a word you say?” Stark asked. Loki stopped, because he could not think of a single good reason. Not one.
“Because it’s true,” Bruce said. “I saw him. I fought him - or, the Hulk did. And lost.” He turned back toward Loki, eyebrows furrowed. “But - three? The one that was in the scepter, um - the one he has, and...oh.”
“He beat the Hulk?” Stark said, sounding a little bit shocked for the first time.
“Yes,” Loki said simply. “The Tesseract. I wasn’t going to leave it there.” As if he hadn’t left it in Odin’s Vault to be blasted into space, and thus led Thanos directly to what was left of Asgard. If he’d left it on the Statesman - maybe Thanos would consider the price paid, and Thor would be alive. Maybe--
“Where are the other three?” The wizard asked.
“Where’s everyone else?” Bruce asked, almost at the same time. “Steve, Clint, Natasha…”
Stark’s expression spasmed. “You missed a lot,” he said.
“You’re wasting time,” Loki said curtly. “The Reality Stone is on Knowhere - a very long ways from here, not reachable by any means you possess unless humanity has managed significant advancements when I wasn’t looking. He - Thanos already possesses the Power Stone. I have no idea where the Soul Stone is, and believe me, I looked. But that isn’t important right now, since none of them are reachable. What is-”
The hair on the back of Loki’s neck stood on end and he jerked around a moment before he heard the sound of the engines. His stomach plunged and no, no, he’d hoped for more time--
Should have known better. The Fates, if ever they had any time for you, have utterly deserted you.
Loki could see the ship descending through the gaping hole in the roof. His throat closed with instinctive fear that he forced away.
Think of Thor. Heimdall. All the dead Asgardians whose names you didn’t know, slaughtered for Thanos’s madness.
“They’re here,” he said. Bruce’s eyes widened.
Loki turned for the door, something vibrating in his chest. He took it for his magic at first, but it was something else: a mixture of fear and rage. The Black Order had followed the scent of Infinity Stones here. They wouldn’t leave without them.
Over my dead body, he thought. Aware that might be a literal turn of phrase, and unable to care. His life had run out on the Statesman. He was living on borrowed time, until Thanos stopped breathing.
“Where are you going?” Stark shouted at his back.
“I am not going to let them choose the ground for this battle,” Loki said. He stepped out through the front door.
“Loki, wait a minute,” he heard Bruce say, but he’d already gauged the trajectory of the ship and twisted his hands to summon the Casket from where he’d hidden it.
Ice enveloped the ship, blizzard winds freezing it in seconds. Momentum kept the ship going but the extra weight dragged it down, arcing toward the ground; Loki checked its course again and stepped through space, folding the Casket away again and summoning his magic. He waited as it crashed to the ground, ploughing a furrow in concrete, letting the streams of fleeing people flow past him. His eyes remained fixed on the ship, waiting. One breath, two, three.
The ice cracked and the metal sheared open, flying to the side. It was a tall, too familiar figure who stepped out, floating on air.
Loki had expected it would be him. Nonetheless, for a moment he stood frozen, his breathing stuck in his chest.
You may think this is suffering.
I’ve never worked with your kind before.
“Ebony Maw,” he said, vaguely proud of the steadiness of this voice.
“Loki,” Maw said. “You reneged on your bargain.”
Not willingly. I would have kept it. I would have handed over the universe on a platter to keep Thor alive.
“You left the Great Titan with no choice,” he said, all elegance. “Unless you would like to pay the same price as your brother did, hand over the Tesseract.” Loki could feel psychic tendrils reaching out, probing, but his mind fixed on one thing.
Thor, screaming. Thor, suffering. Thor, saving Loki’s wretched life at the cost of his own.
His magic boiled up and exploded out of him like a volcanic eruption, and about as controlled.
It was just raw power, no finesse, no real intent but to kill, to destroy. Maw blocked it with a chunk of the street in front of him torn up out of the ground. Loki left an illusion where he was standing and circled to the side, a knife coming to one hand and magic to the other, a spell to rip flesh and break bone. Maw batted the latter away but didn’t catch the knife - or wouldn’t have, except that it glanced off armored hide instead.
Of course Maw hadn’t come alone.
“If you will not give it over willingly,” Maw said, “we will be forced to tear it from you by other means.”
Cull Obsidian towered over him. Loki bared his teeth in a rictus grin.
“Other means it is,” he said. “Your master has lost the only bargaining chip that mattered. I already know what you can do. And I am no longer afraid of your pain.”
(A small untruth. But truth enough. Thor had saved his life; Loki needed to make that worth something.)
“Cull,” Maw started to say, and was cut off by a red and gold blur slamming into him from the side.
A portal opened as Cull lunged and he fell through, the other side opening thirty feet above the ground. Loki recognized the wizard’s power and turned to see him casting, and Bruce jogging up to him.
“Don’t do that,” he said, breathing hard.
“Do what,” Loki said, scanning for Maw. He was the more dangerous of the two, and he didn’t trust Stark to be able to handle him.
“Take off on your own like that,” Bruce said. “You’re not.”
Loki cast him a profoundly skeptical look. “Where’s your green friend,” he asked bluntly. Bruce fidgeted.
“I...couldn’t get him to come back. I think he’s upset.”
Loki snarled under his breath, cast a wide net with his magic, and found what he was looking for. This time Bruce grabbed onto his arm and followed him. He threw up a shield immediately to deflect the metal projectiles being flung at his face.
“There you are,” Maw said.
“Loki, go!” Bruce shouted. “You have the Tesseract, use it to get out of here, find the others!”
What others, Loki thought wildly. There are no others left. He ignored Bruce, trying to shake him off his arm.
“Either unleash your green friend or get out of here,” he snapped, and cast, duplicating himself ten times, twenty.
“Pretty tricks,” Maw sneered, though his eyes moved from one copy to another. “But I know your measure, Loki.”
A snarl boiled up in Loki’s throat. “You don’t know me at all,” he said, all of his illusions with him. Maw’s smile was cruel, sending a shiver through Loki’s whole body.
“Don’t I?” He said, and Loki felt his psychic blow like a spike in his brain, exploitation of what had been done to him before to connect him to the Other. He was bound and screaming, his whole body pulsing with--
The connection broke and Loki could move again, was moving, but he was no longer standing in front of Maw. Loki spun, searching for him, and saw the sorcerer suspended in the air by his fluttering cloak.
“You’re welcome,” he said. Loki ignored him and turned on Banner.
“Where’s the Hulk,” he demanded.
“I don’t know,” he said, face ashen. “I can’t…”
Loki made a frustrated noise and switched his attention back to the sorcerer. “Where did you send him,” he asked. “And where is--”
“The other one? Somewhere in the Antarctic,” the sorcerer said, sounding immensely pleased with himself. Which was when the street erupted.
Loki grabbed Banner and teleported them both out of the way, twisting back only to see the sorcerer caught in mid-air, metal wrapping itself around his body like a snake. By the limpness of his body, he must have been knocked unconscious. And already flying away, dragged by Maw’s telekinesis toward where he stood at the end of the street.
The Time Stone. If he has the sorcerer, Thanos has the Time Stone. He should have ripped it from the man when he’d had the chance.
He moved now, bounding into motion. “Tell Stark not to let him get away!” He shouted over his shoulder at Banner, and then extended his magic, one stride three blocks away and the next slamming bodily into Maw.
He was surprised enough that Loki managed to knock him off balance, but only for a moment. It was long enough for Loki to get a knife out and bring it up slashing for his throat, but Maw’s magic ripped it out of his hand and flung Loki aside. He caught himself, rolled to his feet, and came up already weaving another working.
Maw had spoken truly, though. He knew Loki, knew his strategies and his abilities, knew his magic and how to fight it. Loki was faster, but he was also exhausted from battling Thanos’s forces earlier, from being dragged across the universe, from the pain that was Thor’s name pounding in his head.
“You should have heard your brother scream,” Maw said as though he’d heard Loki’s thought, countering every spell he cast. “He begged our master for mercy.”
Nausea and rage surged together. “Die,” he hissed, stepping through space again, but Maw was ready for him.
“Do you think he regretted sending you away?” Maw asked. “Sacrificing his life for yours? In his last moments, perhaps he did not feel the bargain was worth it.”
Loki wanted to scream. Grief blinding him. But the rage, burning as he’d never felt before--
Time seemed to slow. The edges of the world were sharp enough to bleed against. For just a moment, Loki was floating, everything perfectly clear as he thought if he did, he would have been right.
Ebony Maw was clever, and his power was strong, and subtle. But he made the same mistake many sorcerers made. He was used to defending against magic. He was less prepared for the knife Loki drove into his brain at the base of his skull.
The creature of Loki’s nightmares, his tormentor, with his gift for pain, died almost instantly. The magic holding the unconscious sorcerer above the ground disintegrated, dropping him to the street at the same time as Maw himself.
Looking down at the body, Loki stood frozen in place, breathing hard. You won, he thought dully.
Loki folded, bitterly exhausted. He stared at Ebony Maw’s dead eyes and wished he felt any satisfaction at all. Or anything else. All there was was a gnawing pain like an animal had burrowed into his chest and was trying to devour his heart.
But he would not weep.
The sorcerer did not stir. Loki heard footsteps approaching and then stopping.
“Yes,” he said dully.
Bruce approached him in his peripheral vision and looked down at Maw, and then over at the sorcerer. “He’s...dead?”
“Maw, yes,” Loki said. “The sorcerer, no.”
“Are you hurt?”
Loki wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question. Yes. I am. Thor is gone and that is a greater wound than the Kursed’s blade through my chest. “No,” he said, because he knew that wasn’t what Bruce meant. After a long moment he laid a tentative hand on Loki’s shoulder.
His eyes burned at the small kindness of that gesture.
“There is still Corvus Glaive and Proxima Midnight,” Loki said. “And - Thanos. And whatever army he has mustered.”
“Okay,” Bruce said. “Okay. Guess we’re getting the band back together.”
“Great,” Stark said wearily. “Just great. This should be fun.”
Their motley group retreated back to the sorcerer’s ruined house to regroup, the sorcerer himself - still unconscious - in tow. Banner stayed close to Loki, and he kept his distance from Stark. The man cast periodic, wary, glances over his shoulder.
“Since when are the two of you buddies,” he asked. Loki said nothing. Banner shrugged.
“Mutual experiences?” He said. Loki heard himself let out a strangled laugh.
“He means,” Loki said, his voice rough, “that I was one of the number who removed him from the planet where he spent the last two years. Or so. Time runs differently there.”
“How’d that happen,” Stark said.
“It’s a long story,” Loki said.
“We’ve got time. Unless Cap and his rogue squadron have been lurking in New York all this time, there’s going to be a flight involved.”
Loki wondered if he ought to ask about why there was this fracture in Thor’s band of mortals, but the fact was that he didn’t particularly care. “That was the polite answer,” he said. “The less polite is that it is none of your business.”
“I think it’s very much my business to get an explanation of when you turned over a brand new leaf,” Stark started to say.
“Tony,” Banner said. “Maybe not now?”
Loki tasted bile on the back of his tongue. “No,” he said. “By all means, let me. When Odin - that is, Thor’s - our father died, it unleashed his firstborn daughter Hela, apparently locked away millennia ago. She conquered Asgard by killing most of its population. Thor and I ended up on Sakaar, where Banner’s green friend had been making a name for himself by slaughtering all comers in a gladiatorial arena.
“After leaving the planet, we returned to Asgard, where Hela was making a good start on killing the rest of its people using an army of undead soldiers and an enormous undead wolf. We saved the survivors by unleashing Surtur, thus consuming Asgard-that-was in flame. Roughly two weeks later Thanos caught up to the ship the remaining four-hundred Asgardians were on. Some escape pods may have managed to leave. Of those that were onboard the ship, there were no survivors.”
No survivors. Thor. Norns, Thor, how could you be so stupid--
Stark did not seem to have an immediate rejoinder.
“I suppose,” Loki added after a moment, “you could say that somewhere between the murder of my mother and the murder of my brother, I have gained a little perspective.”
“What was the Hulk doing?” Banner asked, sounding a little faint.
“They would have killed you given half a chance,” Loki said. “I wouldn’t feel too guilty about it.”
“You wouldn’t,” Banner said, not quite accusation. Loki shrugged. Stark still hadn’t said anything, which was probably a record amount of silence from him.
“Asgard is gone?” The sorcerer said. Loki turned on him.
“Is this relevant?” He snapped. “Where are the rest of your people? Should you not be concerning yourselves with finding them and dealing with the Mad Titan coming to raze your planet? The Mind Stone is here, isn’t it? Where?”
“Working on it,” Stark said, at the same time as the sorcerer said, “Scotland.”
“And who is guarding it,” Loki demanded.
Banner glanced at Stark, whose expression tightened. “It’s complicated,” he said. Loki stiffened.
“Please tell me that someone is. Someone trustworthy.”
“Someone is,” Stark said. “As for trustworthy - that kind of depends on what he’s doing in Scotland.” He sounded unmistakably disgruntled. Loki couldn’t bring himself to care. He didn’t feel, at the moment, like he cared about much other than Thanos’s demise.
There wasn’t room for anything else. Not if he wanted to remain standing.
Loki glanced at the sorcerer. “Can you give me a more precise location than ‘Scotland’?”
“I could,” the sorcerer said, but Banner broke in.
“Can we maybe start with calling everyone else in and getting them up to speed on what’s happening?” He said. “Before anyone goes haring off on their own?” The look he gave Loki was pointed. Loki pretended not to notice.
“You can,” he said.
“Would you stop acting like you’re in charge, here?” Stark said. “As far as I’m concerned I trust you about as far as I could throw you.”
“I don’t care,” Loki said. “I do not expect you to trust me, and I do not need you to. You may do what you like, stand around talking with each other while Thanos bears down on you, but I--”
Except. What was he going to do? He didn’t know where the Mind Stone was. He was exhausted, and while he could probably reach the location, roughly, he would still have to find its bearer and be ready for a fight with Corvus and Proxima. And in his current condition, he wouldn’t be.
He was helpless. As he had been helpless on the Statesman, watching Thor scream.
And now Thor was dead and Loki was alive, dead for Loki’s mistakes, and this was not how things should be.
He was going to be sick again. He swallowed it back with an effort. They were all staring at him and Loki’s hackles rose, but Banner cleared his throat. “Tony,” Banner said, “make the call. Please? Or - I will if you’d rather not, but - Loki’s right.”
Stark grimaced. “Please never say that again,” he said.
“He is,” Banner insisted. “We don’t have time to lose.”
Loki could feel the sorcerer looking at him and ignored him. Ignored everything, focusing inward, testing his reservoirs. Weak as well. Just on the edge of used up, and if he pressed past that…
Now isn’t the time for caution. You have nothing left to lose, do you? Give everything. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll wind up seeing Thor again at the end of this.
Loki shook himself out of his thoughts and refocused. Stark was on the phone, stiff as a plank of wood; Loki did not bother trying to eavesdrop.
Banner walked up next to him slowly. “So, uh,” he said. “You mentioned there are...others like those two we just fought?”
Loki twitched. “Yes.”
Banner shifted. “There was an implicit question in there.”
What do you want to know, Loki thought. Do you want to know what sorts of torturers they were? What I remember of the pain they doled out, to temper me, to train me, to break me? Would you like me to describe for your pleasure--
He severed the thought and said simply, “you want to know what to expect.”
Loki took a breath and separated his mind from itself. It was a trick he’d learned under Thanos’s care and used more than once since then - when he’d explained everything to Thor on the Statesman (Thor, his name like a knife twisting in Loki’s vitals). It made things easier. Kept the unreasoning fear from overrunning him, and however dulled everything was just now…
“You’ve met two of them,” Loki said. “Ebony Maw - telepathic and telekinetic, Thanos’s mouthpiece and master torturer - . He’s dead. Cull Obsidian - I wouldn’t count on his being dead, but at least he is elsewhere - wherever the sorcerer put him. He is - their Hulk, I suppose you could say. Smarter, though.”
“Hey,” Banner said, though it mostly sounded like an objection for form. Loki shrugged.
“Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive are the other two, as I said. They are both deadly on their own, and deadlier together, which is how they prefer to fight. She uses a three-pronged spear - a trident - that can unleash energy bursts, and she can call it back to her after it is thrown. She is - stronger than any of you, faster, and very experienced with killing. Were it not for Ebony Maw, I would call her the most dangerous, though Corvus is close behind. In terms of brute force, he might be stronger than Proxima.
“The other two...one is a Zen-Whoberi, the other a Luphomoid - that won’t mean anything to you, will it? It doesn’t matter. I have no idea where any of the others are from, save that they were taken - ‘rescued’ - from planets Thanos had razed before. I was never…” Loki licked his lips, absently. “Formally introduced to either of them. The Luphomoid was perhaps only...ten percent organic when I last saw her; it might be less now. Or she might be dead. The Zen-Whoberi was the only person I ever saw Proxima fear. We never spoke.” He hadn’t been in speaking condition when she’d been there. Even through his layer of remove Loki felt his throat tighten. “All were fanatically loyal to Thanos. Or too afraid of him to be anything else.”
Loki took a deep breath and went on. “It is likely he has some army similar to the Chitauri as well. Expendable foot-soldiers. I saw...something, on the ship, but I don’t know what they were, or how many there may be. If I had to guess I would say perhaps four or five warships, in addition to Sanctuary...”
“Loki,” Banner said, his voice sounding a bit strange. He blinked, jarred out of his dissociation, and realized that he was shaking slightly. Stark was off the phone and staring at him. The sorcerer was giving him an odd look as well. Loki went back over what he had said.
“What?” Banner looked uncertain. He glanced at Stark, who made a bit of a face. Loki narrowed his eyes. “What?”
“You were, uh,” Banner paused. “Going on a little. Did you hear me ask…”
Loki went back again, replaying his own words again, and he could hear, vaguely, Banner saying something. He hadn’t really registered it at the time. That was...concerning.
You can’t slip yet. Hang on until Thanos is dead and then it doesn’t matter what you do. He clenched his fist, letting the sting of his nails in his palm ground him, and then released it. “My apologies,” he said. “Your question?”
“Never mind,” Banner said quickly. “Tony?”
Stark was still looking at Loki with a frown; Loki stared back at him, keeping his expression blank. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I explained what was going on. He said they’re coming to New York anyway, so we can meet here.” Stark tapped his hand against his leg in an unsubtly agitated gesture. “Vision was already attacked.”
“Vision?” Loki said. There was conspicuous silence, and Loki almost laughed.
“He’s an android made out of a combination of Tony’s old AI and the gem from your old scepter,” Banner said eventually. “Which turned out to be the Mind Stone, so...yeah.”
“Bruce,” Stark said, a little reproachful.
“What?” Banner said. “It’s not like it’s going to stay a secret if he’s coming here.”
Loki stared back and forth between them and then did bark a laugh. “You remarkable idiots,” he said, and turned his back, walking away. At least that answered his earlier question about the Stone’s protector and his whereabouts. Already attacked. So Corvus and Proxima were here as well, on the hunt; they wouldn’t give up after one try. And Thanos himself…
Loki prayed that the Collector would at least put up a good fight. Thanos only had one Infinity Stone thus far. If the Collector could keep him from acquiring the Reality Stone...if Thanos was as ignorant of the Soul Stone’s location as Loki was...if, if, if.
He could not quite silence the voice in his head that said you are going to die, all of them are going to die, the world will burn. And even in death, he would never see Thor again. Loki very much doubted Valhalla would open its doors to the likes of him.
Absently, Loki wondered who the they coming to New York would include. How many familiar faces. How many of them would react more to who he was than what he had to say.
This was why it should be Thor here. That, and a hundred other reasons. But he isn’t. It’s going to have to be you, and you’re just going to have to be enough. (As though you’ve ever been enough.)
He turned his head a fraction to look at the sorcerer, who was eyeing him warily but with significantly less hostility.
“What do you want,” he said.
The man cleared his throat. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.
A tremor ran through Loki, a foreshock portending a larger earthquake that would tear him in two along the faultline running through his heart. “Just because we are working for a common goal,” Loki said, his voice strange and distant, “do not think I would not put a knife through your heart in seconds, were I solely considering my desires. Do not offer your sympathies to me.”
A part of him howled rip the Time Stone from around his neck, you could undo all of this, turn back time and return Thor to life, but he would only be delivering the Stone to Thanos.
The sorcerer did not withdraw. “I know something about losing–”
Loki twisted with a snarl. “Losing everything,” he said, harsh and vicious. “Is that what you were going to say? I beg to differ. As for losing - I lost nothing. Thor was murdered. My mother was murdered. My home was burned to ashes. The people I was meant to protect were slaughtered. None of this is loss. They were taken. Every damn last one of them except for me. Do not talk to me about loss.”
The sorcerer looked tense, ready to defend himself. “Loki,” Banner said placatingly, and Loki almost snarled at him too, but as abruptly as it had come the anger left.
He barked a laugh, turning away. “Don’t worry,” he said, disgust twisting through him. Look at you. Lashing out at your putative allies like a rabid dog. “I won’t harm you. Just now, you are too valuable.”
Nobody else tried to speak to him. Not even Banner, though he hovered nearby, and Loki wasn’t sure if it was because he thought Loki might attack or thought he might collapse.
Banner. The closest thing to a friend he had left.
And if that wasn’t proof that the Norns had a fucking wretched sense of humor, Loki wasn’t sure what would be.
The second company that Stark had contacted, it turned out, included two familiar faces and five unfamiliar ones.
They met the plane where it landed, on the roof of Stark’s building. Stark and Rogers eyed each other like two hounds squaring off to determine which was dominant. The one called Vision was easy to identify by virtue of the Mind Stone embedded in the center of his forehead; Loki didn’t recognize the redhead supporting him, though he could feel her power - peculiarly reminiscent of the Mind Stone, but not the same. He wondered dully where Barton was - he was the only one of their original number unaccounted for, it seemed - but it didn’t seem the time to ask. Loki didn’t recognize either of the others.
He did recognize Romanov. Her eyes bypassed Tony, and the sorcerer, and went first to Banner - and then a moment later to him.
She stiffened and went for her weapon. Loki didn’t move, but Banner stepped quickly in front of him, hands up. “Natasha,” he said. “Hang on, just a minute.”
That got everyone’s attention. And brought all of them, immediately, into position to attack. Loki felt a laugh bubbling up again and managed to swallow it back.
“What the hell, Tony,” said one of the strangers.
“I know, Rhodey, believe me, I know,” Stark said.
“Loki’s working with us,” Banner said.
“Supposedly,” Stark said. Rogers looked between him and Banner, his eyes narrowed. He’d changed since Loki had last seen him, and not just the beard: older, a little harder.
“Bruce,” Romanov said lowly, “out of the way.”
“Uh,” Bruce said. “I don’t think so. Not until we...talk about this for a minute.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Loki said. “It isn’t as though they could actually hurt me.” Certainly not worse than he was already hurting. It might almost be a relief.
“I could,” the witch said. She looked young, but there was an edge on her voice, and Loki noted that she’d positioned herself protectively in front of the Mind Stone’s bearer.
“Nobody’s hurting anyone,” Banner said. “Loki...stop helping.”
This time the laugh did boil out of him. “Why don’t we just make this simple,” he said. “I have information you need about Thanos. I am the one person on this planet who knows anything about him or has interacted with him, other than the Hulk’s abortive battle. I am also significantly more powerful than all of you save the Hulk, who seems to be in hiding, and - perhaps - you, witchling, and that thing you call Vision.”
“He’s not a thing,” snapped the witch.
“What do you mean, the Hulk is in hiding,” Romanov said.
“Are we seriously listening to this,” the remaining stranger said. “Isn’t this guy kind of known for lying?”
“He’s not,” Stark said, and then grimaced. “At least, not about the threat. Remember how Thor went haring off after Sokovia talking about someone playing us, a great danger involving the Mind Stone, etcetera? And I told you about the two alien nasties who were here. You saw the wreckage, I’m guessing, and dealt with two of your own. All serving the same guy.”
Rogers was still frowning. “Where’s Thor,” he asked, and that question felt like a knife ripping through his guts, felt like it was designed to be that, to be a reminder of his failure, of how he should not be standing here.
Oh, Thor. How dare you.
“Dead,” he said. Made himself say. You should have heard your brother scream. The silence that followed was deafening. A sound caught in Loki’s throat; he wasn’t sure if it was a laugh, a sob, or a scream. “Before you ask,” he said, and hated the tremor that crept into his voice, “It wasn’t me.”
Banner stopped his staring at Romanov to glance over his shoulder at Loki, that little crease appearing between his eyebrows like he was concerned about what he was hearing.
“Yeah,” Stark said after a moment. “And there’s that.”
Loki flexed his hand open and closed. “This is all a very pointless delay,” he said, shunting his emotions sideways again where they couldn’t hurt him. Or hurt less. Or should he not do that, should he try to embrace every ounce of pain as a reminder? (As though he could forget.)
His thoughts were pieces of glass, and when he tried to put them together he bled.
They were looking at him again. Banner looked like he was about to say something, and Loki cut him off.
“If you aren’t going to try to kill me,” he said, “then do whatever you need to assure yourselves that I won’t kill you, and then perhaps we might get back to the larger question?” Silence, and Loki exhaled harshly. “If you would like privacy, then,” he said, “I will be downstairs.”
They didn’t try to stop him.
He walked into the room where he’d stood listening to Stark threaten him six years before. There was a decorative pool in the middle; it took him a moment to pinpoint its location as roughly corresponding to where his body would have left a hole in the floor. That urge to laugh returned.
If he’d died then - if the Hulk had killed him - would Thor still be alive? Would he still be alive if Loki had died on Svartalfheim, when he’d thought he truly would?
He would undoubtedly still be alive if Loki had never crawled back out of the Void he’d meant to die in.
He flexed his fingers restlessly, hearing someone approach, and didn’t turn.
“Romanov,” he said, keeping his voice carefully level. Where’s Barton, he was tempted to ask, but she would probably take it as cruelty. As provocation.
“Loki,” she said. Cautious, wary.
“Is this another attempt at one of your sideways interrogations?” Loki asked. “Because there’s really no need for the pantomime.”
“No,” Romanov said. “This isn’t an interrogation.”
“An assessment of my sanity, then?”
“No. I don’t think I need an assessment for that.” Loki blinked, then barked a laugh that hurt his throat and turned to face her. She hadn’t changed much, despite the different hair color: the same wary watchfulness, coiled readiness, tight control.
“Why didn’t you say anything about Thanos before?”
“Does it matter? Stupidity, obstinacy, pride. The end is the same.”
“It matters to me.”
She narrowed her eyes and Loki met them with indifference. Didn’t she understand that none of this mattered? History, motivation, what might or might not have been - they were here now. The only thing that mattered, now, was Thanos’s death.
“I don’t like going into a fight with someone suicidal at my back, even when I trust that person,” Romanov said.
“You are concerned I will throw the rest of you to the wolves seeking my own death,” Loki said. She didn’t answer, and he half smiled at her. “You misunderstand, Romanov. I am not trying to die. I am trying to kill Thanos. That the two are not mutually exclusive is incidental.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Romanov said. “Maybe you don’t care about coming out of this alive, but I care about everyone else coming out of this alive. I don’t think you’ll throw us under the bus trying to die. I think you might do it because you don’t care if you do.”
“Then it is probably best when the time comes,” Loki said evenly, “if you get out of my way.”
“That doesn’t really work for me.”
Loki clenched one hand into a fist. “I need you alive to fight him,” he said. “Is that enough for you? I will not intentionally, uselessly sacrifice necessary allies. I am very clear on who I want dead and it isn’t you or your friends. Is that sufficiently reassuring?”
“I wouldn’t call it reassuring,” Romanov said after a lengthy silence, “but it’s good enough.”
“You are welcome.” Loki cracked his neck to the side. “Does this mean you’ve made up your minds, then?”
“More or less,” Romanov said. “But–”
“Loki? Are you down - oh, hey, Nat.” Banner looked back and forth between the two of them and then said to Loki, “you okay?”
Loki blinked. Such concern. Are you trying to make up for not saving Thor? He thought. Because that wasn’t your job. It was mine. You couldn’t have done anything more than what you did. “Yes,” he said, because there was no other answer.
“Yeah, okay,” Banner said after a moment, under his breath. “Stupid question.” More loudly, he said, “what were you two talking about?”
“Suicide,” Loki said. He smiled thinly at Romanov. “So. Where are we going?”
Wakanda was the answer, it turned out. Rogers had said it like it ought to mean something to him. Loki pointed out bluntly that he hadn’t exactly made a study of Midgardian maps recently, and only had the loosest sense of what they called their continents. It was a country, apparently, with advanced technological abilities (whatever that meant, in Midgardian terms), where they intended to try to remove the Mind Stone from its housing without killing the construct powered by it.
Then, he was told, the witchling - her powers themselves a creation of the Mind Stone, it turned out - would destroy the Stone, thus preventing Thanos from claiming at least one-sixth of his prize.
It struck Loki as a rather significant waste of time to put in the effort to divide Vision from the Stone before destroying it, but he was also quite certain it had occurred to everyone else and they had discarded the idea. He could remove the Stone himself by the simple expedient of ripping it out of the construct’s forehead, but destroying it would be beyond him, and attacking one of their own without that ability would be worse than pointless.
So he held his tongue, and shrugged, and followed.
A distant part of him noted and catalogued the tensions between supposed teammates, and they were not lacking, but it was more out of habit than any real interest. Mostly he found himself fighting off exhaustion: the kind he was all too familiar with, the kind that sank its teeth into him and bled him dry, urging him to lie down and give up. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the side of the ship - plane, whatever they wanted to call it.
The Tesseract, or your brother’s head. I assume you have a preference?
Oh, I do. Kill away.
He could feel the Tesseract singing where it was hidden away. An exchange he hadn’t been able to bear to make, and he’d ended up making it anyway.
Someone sat down next to him. Loki didn’t open his eyes, waiting. They cleared their throat.
“Bruce explained a little about what happened,” Rogers said.
“Which part,” Loki said.
“Since we last saw you. At least, what he knew.”
“Mm,” Loki said. “And you are here looking for me to fill in the holes in that knowledge?”
“No,” Rogers said carefully, like Loki was a tripwire he was trying not to set off. “Not exactly. He indicated that you still have the Tesseract in your possession.”
“That’s correct,” Loki said.
“Where?” Rogers asked. Loki turned his head fractionally, opening his eyes to slits to look at him.
“An extra-dimensional pocket of space,” he said. “Why?”
“If it’s not where anyone else can see it, that’s going to make it harder to protect.” Loki snorted, and Rogers narrowed his eyes. “What?”
“In point of fact, it is quite a bit safer where it is,” Loki said. “There is some possibility, I suppose, that Thanos may be able to use one of the other stones - Reality, perhaps - to rip it out of me, or Mind to force me to give way. But barring that...there is no way he can reach it without my giving it to him. And thus a greater possibility that at least one of the Stones may be withheld, considering.”
“Considering what,” Rogers said. Loki directed his gaze back up toward the roof of the plane.
“Considering that not only are you all weaker and more fragile than I am, thus making you more apt to die and lose control that way, you are also more vulnerable to both torture and, more significantly, the use of your companions as leverage. And Thanos will use that against you.”
“Right,” Rogers said flatly. “And you don’t care if any of us die.”
“No,” Loki said. “I don’t. Thanos killed the one person he might have used against me.” His lips twisted at one corner. “My dear Captain, I very literally have nothing to lose.”
“That isn’t necessarily an advantage,” Rogers said quietly.
“In this case, it is.”
Loki could feel Rogers frowning at him as they began their descent, like he was trying to decide whether to say something or not. Apparently he decided against it, because he rose and moved away. Loki heard him talking quietly to someone - the one called Sam, whom Loki didn’t know.
Loki wondered distantly who he was, where these new people had come from, and when. He imagined if Thor were here, what he would be doing: introducing himself, undoubtedly. He would manage to connect with them despite the gravity of the situation. Despite his grief, and Loki did believe now that Thor would grieve. That was the problem, wasn’t it? That he had not wanted to again, and thus made it so that Loki would.
How could Thor have been so selfish? How could he think that Loki would be able to bear it any better?
His eyes were burning, tears on the verge of spilling over. Loki bit down hard on the inside of his cheek so they didn't, reeling himself back in, shoving all the darkness back down. You don't need to hold it together for long. Just long enough to finish this.
One way or another, it will be over soon.
No one else approached him for the duration of the flight. He could feel eyes on him but didn't look to see to whom they belonged. It didn't, he thought, much matter.
They landed in Wakanda, and the number of suspicious eyes on Loki more than doubled. The corps of formidable women that surrounded their king, all of them watching him closely, made him think of the Valkyrior of legend, which made him think of the one Valkyrie he knew. He wondered distantly where she was. How many survivors had managed to escape the catastrophe.
Too few. And weakened, vulnerable...Thanos might have struck Asgard its death blow.
Nothing you can do. Loki watched the animated argument between Wakanda's ruler, Rogers, and Stark, pretending not to notice Bruce edging closer to him again.
"What do you want," he said.
"Your help, actually," Bruce said. Loki gave him a sharp look, and Bruce said, "you're as familiar with the Mind Stone as anyone else here. And more familiar with the Infinity Stones in general. If we're going to try to separate Vision from that thing..."
Familiar. Oh, yes. From using it on your friends, Loki almost reminded him, because the way Bruce was treating him made his hackles rise. "It's a waste of time," Loki said bluntly. "What you are trying to do. Time we don't have."
"We have to try," Bruce said. "And since we're going to do it anyway..." He swallowed. "I don't want to lose any more people to Thanos."
Thor would try to save him, murmured a voice in Loki's mind, but he wasn't Thor, couldn't be Thor, that was the whole problem. But what was he doing as it was? Nothing. Waiting.
"Fine," he said. "If you're set on stupidity, I suppose I may as well see if I can mitigate it."
Bruce gave him a weak, tentative smile. He reached out and Loki shied away; he let his hand fall, even the weak smile fading. "I'm sorry," he said. "I know that...really, really doesn't mean anything. But...Thor wanted this. Wanted you to survive."
"The dead don't want anything," Loki said flatly. "Do not pursue this line of conversation, Dr. Banner. Where are we going?"
Bruce sighed, but he led Loki into the palace itself. Loki registered its beauty even as he wondered how much of it would remain standing when this was done. Bruce was talking - something about neural networks and interlacing - but Loki didn't pay him much mind.
The witch was there, which was unsurprising, but though she eyed him warily, there was less hostility than before. Loki wondered why; perhaps she just had more pressing things on her mind. A young woman - barely more than a girl, in Loki's estimation - hovered over a bank of computers next to where the creature they called Vision was lying. She looked up when he came in, her gaze assessing.
"Don't break anything in my lab," she said, and turned back to her work.
"Bruce said you know things about how the Mind Stone works," the witch said.
"I have both used it and had it used on me," Loki said. He caught Bruce's look in his direction and his faint frown, and knew why: Loki had omitted that particular detail in his accounting to Thor and the others. It hadn't seemed relevant. "And I likely have a greater understanding of its power, at least on a technical level."
"And you'll help us remove the Stone from Vision so we can destroy it? Without hurting him?"
"That is why I am here, is it not?"
The witch nodded, finally. "I'm Wanda," she said. "Wanda Maximoff."
I don't particularly care, Loki thought, but he just inclined his head in her direction before walking over to Vision, flexing his fingers and shifting his vision sideways so he could see the threads of magic overlaid on the world. Even at a glance, he could see the difficulty: the Mind Stone wasn't just embedded in his forehead. It was bonded to him, tendrils fanning out from it into his whole body like the roots of a tree. Its magic animated him in the same way the natural energy of living beings animated them. The closest thing in Loki's experience was an especially complex magical construct, but even that would be a pale imitation of what he saw now.
To free him would require not just removing that elaborate network of roots without damaging the underlying structures, but replacing them with an equivalent energy to sustain his peculiar form of life. It would be a difficult task at the best of times - Loki could not easily imagine a form of energy that could stand in for the power of an Infinity Stone, with the same complexity and strength. Now, with their limited time...it was an impossibility.
He opened his mouth to say so and his eyes fell on the witch - Wanda. She was looking at Vision with her eyebrows furrowed and her hands clenched into fists. The look in her eyes held an ocean of fear and desperation, and Loki knew it instantly.
I've lost everything else. Not this.
She would never accept it. Never believe it. Never allow it.
If someone had told him, on the Statesman, that there was nothing he could do to save Thor, that whatever he did his brother was going to die--
He would not have surrendered. He would have died before surrender.
"Well?" Bruce prompted.
Loki looked away from Wanda and his eyes met Vision's. He saw the awareness there, the understanding, and for a moment, the request. And looked away.
"Tell me what you are doing," he said, "and I will see how I can help."
Loki held back his magic, conserving it, letting himself recover from what energy he’d already expended. He felt vaguely guilty about doing so, but...there were more important things to be concerned with. More important things that remained to be done.
Thanos still lived. Until he didn’t, Loki couldn’t truly focus on anything else.
The quiet was oppressive. Oh, it wasn’t quiet - people were moving about, arguing with each other, Rogers coming in and leaving again, Bruce and the princess talking back and forth increasingly quickly. Loki suspected it was partly because of that larger quiet - the looming feeling of pressure that came before a storm, the world holding its breath. They felt it, and fought to fend it off.
Loki felt it, and lived in it. He, too, was in a state of waiting for it to begin - because it would begin, the only question was when.
He felt it when it happened - a shift in the atmosphere, a drop in pressure, the hair rising on the back of his neck. “They’re here,” he said, and all four heads in the room pivoted toward him.
“What?” Bruce said, a little faintly.
“I said, they’re here,” Loki said, already moving toward the door. “Or will be soon.”
The princess looked at a panel and said, “we’re not finished here.”
“Wanda,” Vision said.
“No,” she said. Loki glanced at her.
“Leave Bruce and the princess to their work, witch,” he said. “You’ll be more useful on the battlefield.”
She wavered. “If anyone comes after Vision–”
“Do you want to leave the rest of your friends to die? If they do, you can be sure he will as well.” Loki didn’t bother to make his voice anything less than harsh. The witch hesitated.
“Go,” Vision said. Loki’s estimation of the being - he didn’t know what to call him - rose somewhat. “He’s right. And I am in good hands.”
Wanda hesitated a moment longer, then nodded. She bent over to give him a light kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you soon,” she said softly. Loki turned his back on all of them and walked away, his stomach aching.
She caught up to him a moment later as he strode down the hallways. “Do you know where the others will be?” He asked curtly.
“I would guess outside preparing,” Wanda said. “But I can find out to be certain.”
He could feel her looking at him sidelong, like she was searching for something. He ignored it until she said, “Thor was your brother, right?”
Loki’s face seized and he forced it to blankness. That was cut him; he still struggled to think of Thor in past tense. “Yes.”
“And Thanos killed him,” she said. Loki wanted to backhand her for saying it, grab her throat and slam her against the wall for putting into words what felt unthinkable every time he thought it.
He clenched his right hand into a fist and said, “he attacked our ship in search of the Tesseract, which I possessed. Thor sent me to Earth with Doctor Banner in order to save my life. Thanos would not have been pleased at the loss of his prize.”
So many words to avoid saying simply, yes, Thanos killed him.
“My brother - my twin - was killed three years ago,” she said. “It still feels like it was just days ago, sometimes.”
Loki’s body seized. “This is not,” he said, “a conversation I wish to have. I have no interest in comparing–”
“I’m not,” Wanda said. “Loss can’t be compared, I know that. But I just wanted to say that I wanted to die when he did. I didn’t, and…”
“And you don’t regret it?” Loki interrupted. “Is that what you are trying to tell me?” He did not bother to pause, or look at her. “That is fortunate for you. I do not know why you would think it relevant to me.”
“I can’t see someone careening toward a cliff and not try to help them,” Wanda said.
“We are all careening toward a cliff,” Loki said. “Me no more than anyone else.”
“Most of us are trying not to fall.”
Sometimes I think I never stopped. “I think,” Loki said flatly, “that you are mistaking me for someone who cares what you have to say.”
That silenced her, though he could see her mouth pinch and her nostrils flare. But she didn’t press further.
The city, Loki saw when he glanced outside, was being evacuated. A grim part of him noted that if they failed here, there was no safe distance - but at least on this battlefield, civilians would not be getting in the way. (His thoughts flashed to a memory of stepping over the corpse of a young girl, her head nearly severed from her neck, as the Order brought him before their lord and master, and he pushed it aside. Not now.)
"They're here," he said to the gathered assemblage, when he found them. The man with the metal arm - Loki didn't know him, either - jerked his chin at the sky, and the descending fleet.
"Yeah," he said flatly. "We noticed."
Loki hissed out through his teeth. "And you are just standing idly?"
"I didn't hear anyone asking for your input," Stark said snappishly, his eyes on the metal-armed man more than Loki. Loki clenched and unclenched his right hand, anger boiling up before he tamped it down hard. He needed to focus. Be ready. And not freeze when it came to the vital moment.
The first ship slammed into a shimmering barrier Loki hadn't noticed. Metal screamed in protest, and Loki felt the pulse of power, force absorbed and then bounced back, ripping through the vessel. It didn't explode so much as disintegrate in flames, crashing to the ground. Loki felt his eyebrows rise a fraction.
"I love this country," the metal-armed man said, looking inches away from grinning. Loki paced forward, scanning the fleet.
Where was Thanos?
For that matter, where were Proxima and Corvus?
A loud boom overhead as gunfire from above struck the shield. It held. For now. Loki kept his eyes fixed upward, counting ships. He didn't know what was inside them, but if they could winnow down the force at all...
"Why do I get the feeling he's about to do something," Loki heard someone say. He twisted space around himself and stepped--
--into the dark belly of a ship, surrounded by six-armed creatures he didn't recognize, all of them staring at him in surprise that was already turning toward the instinct to kill. It smelled like carrion and old blood, and Loki wondered if any of these beasts had fed on Aesir flesh.
He bared his teeth and summoned the Casket. See me, Thanos, he thought. Know I am here.
Know I am coming for you.
He tore through two ships before he ran into Proxima on the third.
Loki just barely kept from being impaled on the spear she flung at him.
“You should have died in space,” she said. Loki grinned at her.
“Probably,” he agreed. He might be able to get the Casket open and use it before she put her spear through his neck. Might be.
Loki folded the Casket back into space and summoned his knives, falling back a step. One of the beasts lunged at him, maw open, and Loki rolled under it, driving a blade up under one of its arms into what he hoped was something vital. Unfortunately, that put his back to Proxima for just an instant too long.
The spear went in below his ribs. Loki let out a startled gasp, pain lighting up his side for a moment before he slammed it down, muting the sensation (that old training coming in handy now, thank you Thanos). She jerked the spear free and Loki turned, grabbing the shaft before she could pull it away.
“Let’s finish this somewhere with a little more space,” he said, pressing his free hand over the puncture wounds in his side, feeding as little magic as he dared into damage control. Yanking her forward, Loki twisted space again.
They fell, but not far, and into chaos. The shield had broken - or been lowered. Proxima found her feet quickly and it took another burst of Loki’s magic to get out of the way of her attack. Back on his feet, they sized each other up.
“Where is your master?” Loki asked her.
“He’ll be here,” Proxima said. “And I will be ready to offer him your corpse.”
“Ah,” Loki said. “I think you’ll find he wants me alive. I have something he wants.” He went for her. Knowing he was wasting time, and energy, and should be focusing on the larger picture - but all he could think of was her spear pointed at his head as Thor screamed, or further back, her sneering disdain as Ebony Maw picked his mind apart.
One moment he was alone, and the next - the next, he wasn’t. He felt the witch’s magic before he saw her, and with her was another woman - tall, imposing, armed with a spear. Across the field he thought he saw the sorcerer and the Captain engaged with what might be Corvus.
Still no Thanos. But he would be here. He would be here.
Go, he heard, whispering across his thoughts, and he turned in surprise, his eyes briefly catching Wanda’s. She nodded, barely, her eyes glowing and hands wreathed in red, and Loki wanted to push on, wanted cut Proxima’s throat himself and stand over her as she bled dry–
This was a battle, not a duel. Proxima was not the only enemy on the ground. Stay focused.
Loki kept moving.
Down here he didn’t dare use the Casket - too much of a risk of catching allies in the crossfire, and he needed them to keep Thanos’s warriors off his back if nothing else. The Tesseract was his most potent weapon, of course - even more than the Casket - but he didn't dare use it. Drawing Thanos's attention - he wanted that. But giving him access to the Stone - no. Thanos would have to rip it out of his corpse. If that would even be possible, and Loki doubted it was. Tesseract or not - he had his magic, and his knives, though he conserved the latter carefully, searching for his true target.
The rest of this battle was meaningless detail. It was Thanos who mattered, and--
There. Loki saw him, the height of the Hulk, the Gauntlet gleaming on his hand. He held the Power Stone, but no others. So he'd come here, first, rather than dealing with the Collector; Loki supposed that made sense. If he could succeed here, he would bring his total up to four of six. More than enough to overpower even an Elder.
He wasn't going to succeed here.
Loki heard a snarl boil up from deep in his throat and stepped through space, emerging behind with magic in his hands and rage in his heart. Hold back nothing, he thought. This is where it ends.
He let himself fly like an arrow, driving his knife into Thanos's back.
It sank in deep, but didn't do much damage. That wasn't the point. Loki skipped back as Thanos turned, baring his teeth in a grin. "Missed me?" He said.
"You again," Thanos said. "I don't suppose you've reconsidered your attempt at defiance and are here to surrender the Space Stone to me."
Loki's grin widened. It felt utterly mad, and he was sure it looked it. "On the contrary," he said. "I am going to kill you."
Thanos laughed. "Well," he said. "I guess I'll be dealing with you first."
The Power Stone hammered against Loki's hastily erected defenses - shredded them. But they gave him enough time to get out of the way, ducking back between worlds only to reemerge, weaving three-six-twelve illusions of himself and scattering them. He didn't stand a chance fighting head-on. His best hope was to keep moving, wear Thanos down, make him vulnerable. If he could steal the Power Stone itself...
He didn't go for Thanos's body this time, but his hand. Driving his knife into his wrist above the gauntlet itself and shoving his magic along with it, forcing apart flesh.
Thanos's other hand, without the gauntlet, grabbed Loki and slammed him into the ground with crushing force.
The air exploded out of Loki's lungs and he felt a couple of his ribs give. Thanos flexed the gauntlet, Power Stone glowing, and said, "the Tesseract."
"Apologies," Loki gasped out, with the air he could get. "I think I've - lost it." He grinned, wide and feral. Thanos pressed down harder and another rib snapped; Loki barely noticed the pain. He drew on his magic and crafted an illusion of the Hulk charging for them, and in the moment that Thanos's attention switched from him he shifted, slender coils slithering through the Titan's fingers. Then back, on his feet again, his ribs snapping back into place as his body reflexively healed itself.
He attacked again. Summoned the Casket from its hiding place and turned its withering force on Thanos - but even as ice devoured him it began cracking from within. The frozen cage shattered and a blade of ice sliced into Loki’s cheek.
He fell back slightly, the Tesseract whispering to him: use me, use me. He ignored it. Its power had been seductive, once - overpoweringly so - but now–
Now, there were other things he wanted more.
Loki was aware - dimly - that he wasn’t fighting alone. Thanos was no longer focused solely on him. He could feel the witch’s power, the sorcerer’s, was vaguely aware of others as well. But he only had eyes for Thanos, and the others were just - convenient distractions.
Loki launched himself back into it. Thanos hit him again and his scapula shattered; he stood, forcing bone back together.
You’re still holding back, he thought. Still hewing to those rules about what you can and should not do. You can do more. You can give more. Stop protecting yourself.
Yes, Loki thought.
He unleashed himself, and let go. Let magic roar into him, and through him, and it didn’t matter how many times Thanos threw him down he would get up again, and again, and again, and again until it was over. His body breaking and healing and breaking, magic searing through his veins until he blazed with it, burned with it.
It didn't matter if he burned himself to ashes as long as Thanos burned with him. He would light the match and smile.
He'd already lit it. Loki knew his limits and he'd hit the end of his reserves a while ago. He was using his own life force now, his body screaming warnings at him to stop, slow down, rest. He wasn't going to, though. Of course he wasn't going to. He could continue until Thanos fell and then, at last, there would be silence.
No peace. No rest. But at the very least oblivion.
The sky tore open. The smell of ozone; the roar of thunder.
For a second, Loki couldn't breathe. He started to turn, his head swimming, and in the moment of distraction Thanos struck. Something in his chest ruptured under the raw force of the Power Stone and he buckled, or started to, catching himself just in time. He was laughing, Loki realized, laughing wildly, with tears streaming down his face because either he was hallucinating now in the moment before death or Thor was here, and Thor was angry.
Loki dragged himself upright. He could taste blood on the back of his tongue and something ground painfully in his wrist when he raised his hands, but it didn't matter. What mattered was the crackle of lightning in the air that was as familiar to Loki as his own agonized breathing. Thor.
Sometimes, just sometimes, the universe is just. With his brother here. Loki had enough in him to finish this.
They had enough to win.
Exhaustion and pain were swept away. He felt unstoppable, invincible, like Thor's return had given him new life. Where he'd thought there was nothing left, there was something, and he gave it. His heart sang, pounding fit to burst.
"The Gauntlet!" Loki shouted, and Thor's axe swung (where did he get that? Loki wondered, absently), and took Thanos's hand off at the wrist. Even as Thanos roared with rage and pain and moved to attack, the witch's magic caught and held him, dragging him down to his knees.
Loki didn't wait. Didn't think. He slammed his hand against Thanos's head, twisting the magic together. An adaptation of what Ebony Maw had used on him. What he had done to the Valkyrie.
"You shouldn't have touched me," Loki snarled. "You shouldn't have touched him."
He reached down into himself, gathered all the power he could find - all the pain and suffering and fear and grief - and drove it into Thanos's mind like a heated blade, destroying everything it touched. He would leave the Titan a husk, a mindless puppet, perhaps with just enough awareness to understand that he had lost.
Loki felt something shatter. He might have cried out. The spell did shatter and he staggered back; Thanos was looking at him, eyes foggy, dazed.
Then Thor swung his axe again, and Thanos's head went tumbling off his shoulders, rolling to a halt before Loki's feet.
And Thor was looking at him.
“Well,” he heard Stark say, even his machine-voice breathless, “damn.” Someone else replied, but Loki couldn’t hear them, or didn’t care to.
Loki swayed, staring hungrily at Thor, disbelievingly at Thor. He looked weary, dirty, alive. Thor was alive, and looking back at him, striding over to him only to check himself, his eyes flicking over Loki from head to toe. Loki’s legs shook and his vision blurred, the world tilting sideways. He realized, vaguely, that there was something very wrong with him. He was cold, so cold, and his lungs didn’t seem to be working right. That shattering feeling - probably did not bode well. He’d pushed himself well past too far, and now he was paying the price.
But none of that mattered.
“Loki,” Thor said lowly, a world of feeling in that single word.
Loki smiled at him. “You’re late,” he said.
Thor was reaching for him, the expression on his face shifting to alarm. I’m sorry, Loki thought. I’m sorry, Thor, but this is always how it was supposed to be.
He let himself fall, confident that Thor would catch him, and that seemed like a good way to die.
...don’t know what’s wrong with him…
...not responding to light…
Voices drifted in and out of Loki’s awareness, fading from loud to soft and back again. He could almost recognize voices, but every time he tried his thoughts slipped away like fish sliding between his fingers. Consciousness slipped away.
...not giving up. Not this time, Loki, you don’t get to leave like this.
...what else can we do?
...sorry, Thor, I just…
Thor. Thor was there, Thor was alive. That was good. He remembered that. Thor was alive and Thanos was dead. And he was dead too. Or almost. Or at least, he wasn’t alive. Hanging somewhere in between, but by the feel of things he wouldn’t be for long.
That was all right. He’d done what he’d needed to do. Thanos was dead, and Thor was alive. He could rest now.
Finally, he could rest.
...please, Loki - everyone get out, get back--
Loki's resurrection came by fire.
Or at least, that was what it felt like. Heat blazing through his veins, burning along his nerves, shocking him out of his gradual freefall into the dark. His eyes snapped open wide as he sucked in a breath that seemed to sear his lungs, looking up at Thor's blurry face. The first thing he registered was that Thor's eyes didn't match. They were supposed to match. His lips were moving, but it sounded like he was talking underwater. His relief, though, was obvious.
His heart staggered, then steadied. Breathing hurt. Everything hurt.
Thor's hands were resting on his chest, on bare skin.
"You shocked me," Loki said, realizing. His voice sounded strange, barely like his own.
"Your heart stopped," Thor said, though Loki was guessing at that based on the fragments of words he could understand. "It was all I could think to do."
"It hurt," Loki said. His eyes dragged closed.
"Stay awake," Thor said, loud enough that Loki could actually hear him this time. "Loki, open your eyes. I need you to stay awake."
"Tired," Loki mumbled, because he was. Like a candle burned down to a nubbin of wax, he had nothing left.
"I know," Thor said. "I know. But you can't sleep right now."
Loki could recognize the sense in that, after a fashion. Sleep was a step away from death, and so was he. He could feel himself teetering on the edge of that cliff. It was hard to remember why he shouldn't let himself go.
But Thor didn't want him to. Thor wanted him to stay awake. Loki supposed that was one good reason.
He forced his eyes back open. His chest still ached. Thor's smile looked like it hurt. "Good," he said, softer. "That's good. Thank you." He took a deep breath. "How does one treat magical overexertion?"
Loki started to close his eyes and forced them back open. "Rest," he said. "Time."
"Is that all?"
"Don't imagine...Midgard has the materials for anything else. Treating symptoms, I suppose."
"We tried," Thor said unhappily. "But your body just kept...failing." He sat down. There was, Loki realized, a chair next to whatever cot he was lying on; he wondered distantly how much time Thor had spent there. And for how long. He couldn't quite summon the wherewithal to ask; it was hard to hold onto any one thought.
"Oh," he said, after several moments. "It must have been - very bad, then."
Thor's expression cracked. "You idiot," he said, little more than a whisper. "I sent you away to save you. Not so you could kill yourself."
Loki's laugh hurt. "How could you expect me to do anything else?"
Thor gaped at him, taking several seconds to recover and shake his head. "No. You cannot mean that."
"I thought you were dead," Loki said. "It was never supposed to be you. What else was there? You were all I had left." His eyes burned with unshed tears. "I couldn't..."
"Shh," Thor said, his voice softening again, one of his hands moving to Loki's shoulder, the side of his neck. "It's - it's all right now. I'm here. And you're going to be all right, too." His voice wobbled, very slightly, and Loki's heart twinged.
His limbs felt weak and shaky, but he raised one hand and wrapped his fingers weakly around Thor's wrist. He didn't know exactly what he meant to say, but what came out was, "don't leave."
"I won't," Thor said. "I swear it."
It could not be true, but those words alone seemed to steady Loki's heart, laboring painfully on.
Once again, he crawled out of death a little at a time. Mostly, he slept. When he woke, Thor always seemed to be there - sometimes alone, sometimes not. Murmuring voices drifted in and out of his awareness, never quite clear enough for him to make out words. He was weak, and dizzy, and even when he was conscious he could only focus on anything for a few minutes at a time before, exhausted, he lost track. He woke whimpering from nightmares that he couldn't remember and Thor had to soothe him like he was a child, his fingers curling weakly to cling to Thor's shirt.
But he was recovering. At least, in some ways. The first day he stood on his own felt like a triumph, even if he weakened quickly. It was a sobering reminder of just how much damage he'd done to himself. How far he'd gone beyond his limits.
Lying awake and watching Thor, who had fallen asleep on a settee near his sickbed, Loki realized that it was a miracle he'd lived long enough to see his brother's return at all. The thought sent a shudder down his spine. He could have careened headlong into death, never knowing that Thor lived.
Perhaps, somehow, Thor sensed the darkness of Loki's thoughts, because he stirred and woke with a small noise, his eyes instantly seeking out Loki's. He relaxed, and Loki realized that perhaps it wasn't the darkness of Loki's thoughts that had woken him.
"Are you all right?" He asked. Loki blinked, then shook himself.
"Fine," he said. Thor frowned, and Loki said, "just restless."
"I don't blame you," Thor said. He stretched, rolling out his shoulders. "Pain? Headache?"
Loki shook his head. "Neither."
"Good," Thor said. "That's good."
Loki bit the inside of his cheek and then said, "I was ready."
He expected Thor to ask for clarification, but he just fell still and then said heavily, "I know."
"You - what?"
"I said, I know," Thor said. "You mean that...you were ready to die. To let Thanos kill you." Loki said nothing. Thor's smile was a small, sad, thing. "I could see it. And even before that...when you told us - me - about Thanos, I could see it then, too."
Was that true? Had he been thinking, even then, making the calculations--
Of course he had. Whatever Loki's desperate hopes, he'd known that he couldn't run forever. That sooner or later, Thanos would find him. And he'd known that for the sake of keeping Thor alive, he would do anything, of which his death was probably the least.
"It's part of why I spoke to Heimdall, after," Thor said. His voice hitched slightly on the Watchman's name - the grief there still raw. "Why I asked him to send you away, if there was need. I know it was selfish, to leave you to bear a loss that I could not. But sometimes I am selfish."
Loki swallowed hard around the lump in his throat. "Thor," he said, his voice hoarse.
"If I went back," Thor said, his voice hardening, turning fiercer, "I would make the same choice."
"If I went back," Loki said, "so would I." Thor was silent, though Loki could hear his breathing. "You are..." Loki closed his eyes. "You are too much of my heart to live without. You should not have asked me to try."
Loki closed his eyes like that would help him hide from what he'd just spoken. Like it would make him feel less raw, less like he'd cracked open his soul to bare something ugly and broken to Thor's eye. He heard Thor stand and a moment later there was his embrace. "Loki," he said, raw, but then nothing, seemingly at a loss for other words. Loki leaned into him and breathed in his warm, familiar smell. His eyes burned.
"When I saw you collapse," Thor said finally, "when I watched you slipping away and knew you had done it to yourself - that frightened me more than facing Thanos did. I could not reach you. I could not help you. And any victory that did not have you in it felt utterly empty."
Loki's breath in trembled. He was shaking, himself. He ached, deep within, somewhere primal and terrible.
"I am done," Thor said finally, his voice muffled. "I am done with losing you. Never again, Loki. Never again."
Loki curled his fingers around Thor's forearms and held on. Never again. He wanted to believe that, but all he could truly believe in was for now.
Maybe that could be enough.
The more Loki recovered - and he was recovering, if painfully slowly - the more he wondered what Thor's friends might make of his presence. It hadn't mattered, before - he hadn't exactly been considering a future. Now...
But either they had decided that he was no longer a threat, or Thor had spoken to them himself. By and large, they simply avoided him, with the exception of Bruce. Loki didn't really know what to do with him or his fumbling attempts at camaraderie. He liked Bruce better than his green alter ego, certainly, but he wasn't...
Perhaps he'd just forgotten how to make friends, Loki thought, with a bitter kind of humor. He knew how to manipulate people, if need be, but connecting with them, bonding with them...that had never come easily. Perhaps he was no longer capable.
Thor helped with the rebuilding. Loki...
He did nothing. Even if he could help - could stand longer than a span of thirty minutes without giving in to exhaustion - he doubted that he would be welcome. Which left him adrift, at a loss, uncertain what he was meant to be doing with himself. He'd scarcely known the answer to that before all of this, all too aware that whatever Thor said it was unlikely that he would simply be accepted on Midgard. And then Thanos had come and ripped everything to shreds, and now...it still felt as though he was grasping at tatters, trying and failing to weave them back together.
Thor was alive, and that ought to be enough, but it still felt like he was slipping.
"You know you don't need to hide yourself away," Thor said one evening. Loki glanced at him sidelong from where he was trying to put together an intricate jigsaw puzzle of, apparently, a coral reef.
"I am not," he said. Thor gave him a skeptical look, and Loki sighed. "I am not hiding, Thor. But I will not insert myself where I am unwelcome."
"You assume you would be unwelcome."
"I do," Loki said after a brief pause. "It doesn't seem an unreasonable assumption, all things considered." Loki turned to look more directly at Thor. "That they are your friends does not make them mine, Thor. Nor does the fact that I assisted them in dealing with Thanos. I made no secret of the fact that I was using them for my own vengeance, and did not particularly care about their lives." Thor looked like he wanted to wince, but he didn't back down.
"You still helped," he insisted. "You could at least give them the chance to know you."
I hardly know me, anymore. Loki bent his head forward and rubbed his eyes. "I don't need them to be friends with me."
"You do need friends," Thor said. Loki wanted to sneer at him, but he couldn't, quite. "Bruce would be one, if you let him."
"Bruce hovers like a mother hen," Loki said snippily.
"He worries. As do I." Thor sighed. "It was just a thought."
Loki exhaled slowly. “This matters to you.”
Thor gave him a startled look. “Of course it does,” he said. “I don’t enjoy you being so isolated. And I don’t like feeling as though my life is divided down the middle, with you on one side and...everyone else on the other.”
What else, it occurred to Loki, was he going to do? Sit on the outside once again, sustained by Thor’s divided attention alone, for the rest of his life? Lurking like a wolf outside the circle of firelight, lunging on any scraps thrown his way?
Norns help him.
“Very well,” he said. “I’ll take it under consideration.”
“That is all I can ask.” Thor put an arm around Loki’s shoulders and drew him in close. He was doing that more, lately - touching Loki, embracing him, brushing shoulders. Loki couldn’t tell if it was for his benefit or Thor’s. He knew his brother bore his own scars, but Thor seemed to be as disinclined to discuss them as Loki was to discuss his.
Loki leaned into him, closing his eyes. “Do you think any of them are still alive?” He asked quietly.
Thor was silent for several long seconds, and Loki thought he might pretend not to understand. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I want to believe it. That whatever survivors escaped the ship are still out there. Valkyrie is strong. A survivor. She would...she would keep them safe, if it were at all possible.”
“We might never find out,” Loki said.
“Until we do,” Thor said, “I will choose to believe that they live.” Still, his fingers tightened, digging into the muscle of Loki’s shoulders like he thought Loki might slip away if he didn’t hold on.
Loki did not quite know what to make of Thor's peculiar companions - the adolescent Flora Colossus and the one that Thor called a rabbit, who Loki was fairly certain was not, in fact, a rabbit. Apparently they were members of the crew that had plucked Thor out of space after the destruction of the Statesman, for which Loki had to be grateful.
It took Loki some time to learn more about their companions, who had apparently gone to Knowhere searching for the Reality Stone and had not been heard from since. The not-rabbit, who called himself Rocket, spent most of his time trying, and failing, to make contact with their ship.
Loki pointed out that as Thanos had not possessed the Reality Stone, it was likely they hadn't crossed his path, and their silence was probably an artifact of Midgard's limited communication capabilities. Rocket gave him a narrow-eyed look.
"You don't know that," he said. "Could be they just managed to get rid of it first. Quill being an idiot and Gamora--"
Loki jerked. "Gamora?" he said, his voice choking a little. Thor, sitting nearby and idly watching Groot play some sort of game, looked up.
"You know - oh," he said, and abruptly looked uncomfortable. Rocket glanced back and forth between them.
"Oh," Loki said, a little too high. "We've met. On Sanctuary. It isn't a pleasant memory. And you call her a friend--"
"We can't choose our family," Thor said quietly. Loki rounded on him.
"She tortured me!"
Thor stared at him, his expression stiffening and going cold. He stared at Loki and he tried not to flinch back from the anger burning in his eye, though it softened quickly enough that Loki realized it wasn't at him. The Flora Colossus lowered his game and began to look a little dangerous.
"Hey," Rocket said. "Gamora's a--" He paused, and scowled. "--teammate."
"I didn't know," Thor said. Loki looked away. He found he could not hold on to his bitterness.
"I suppose it doesn't matter now," he said wearily. "If she truly has had a - change of heart, it would seem a bit hypocritical to hold a grudge." Thor reached for him, but Loki drew back. "If you will excuse me."
He retreated, ensconcing himself safely behind the closed door of his room, curling up, and focusing on breathing deeply and trying to clear his mind of memories. To calm his racing heart. Some time later, he still had not calmed enough not to jump when someone knocked. "It's me," Thor said, and after a long hesitation Loki flicked his hand to open the door. Even that small flexing of his magic brought a dull twinge in his chest, but he ignored it.
Thor stood in the doorway, looking at him. Loki just stared back, and finally Thor glanced down, rubbing his eye. "I am sorry," he said. "I truly did not know."
"There was no reason you would have."
"All the same." Thor paused. "Should she come here..."
"I do not ask that you attempt to avenge me," Loki said. "In fact, it would be best if you didn't." Thor's expression flickered, visibly conflicted. "You would only make more enemies," Loki added. "Whether or not you succeeded. I can manage. And as you said, one cannot choose one's family - as I myself illustrate well.” He forced a smile. “It is easy to imagine that...Thanos is not - was not - an easy person to deny."
Thor's eyebrows furrowed unhappily and he reached out to set a hand on Loki's leg. "You will not resent me for not standing on your side?" he asked quietly. Loki exhaled.
"No," he said. "I will not." He paused. "Or - I suppose I am not certain that is true. But I should not. And I know that. As I said, there is no point in...causing unnecessary conflict, and creating new enemies. I have few enough friends as it is; I would not lose you any more of yours." He glanced sidelong at Thor. "You have lost enough."
"I still have you," Thor said. Loki's lips twisted.
"Do not think," he said, "that I underestimate your suffering. You sent me away to spare yourself my death, but you still watched our peoples', and Heimdall's. Thanos tortured you and then cast you into space to die. I do know that you are not invincible."
Thor's head bowed forward slowly. "No," he said finally. "I am not. But I am still standing. We are. And I must focus on what I still have to remain that way - not what I have lost." He glanced at Loki. "What we have lost."
Loki leaned a little toward him, nudging Thor's shoulder with his. "In that case," he said softly, "you do still have me."
Thor seized him, abruptly, and pulled him into a hug that was almost too tight. Loki did not try to fight it, leaning into Thor's warmth. He still felt - shaky, the ground unsteady under his feet. But the fear did not feel so close.
Thor and his friends gathered for dinner once every seven days. Loki paced back and forth, in turmoil, for almost two hours before he finally girded himself for battle and went to join them.
The room fell immediately silent the moment he stepped inside. Thor looked startled for a moment before he broke into a smile; Loki focused on his face rather than anyone else’s. His body thrummed with the instinct to either run or fight.
“Loki!” Bruce said, too enthusiastically. “Hey, uh, how’s it going–”
Loki’s fingers twitched and he forced them to still, turning his head fractionally to offer Bruce a tight smile. “Well, thank you,” he said, though his skin was crawling and he could feel the signs of a tension headache coming on. This had been a bad idea. A terrible idea. He should find some excuse, slip out, perhaps he could claim that he’d only come to tell Thor something…
Thor stood up, his chair scraping backward loudly. “Where can we find another chair?” He asked. “Brother, sit.” He gestured at the chair he’d just vacated, his smile encouraging. Loki faltered, his eyes flicking around the table from Barton’s stony glare to the witch’s intense scrutiny.
Coward, he sneered at himself, and made himself walk over and fold himself into the seat. Bruce was on his left, Rogers on his right. Thor rested a hand very briefly on his shoulder, and Loki tried to draw reassurance from its warmth.
The silence stretched, and Loki made his head turn to look at Rogers to say, “if you wouldn’t mind passing the potatoes?”
Rogers passed them, and Loki served himself. Not much - his appetite was still intermittent at most - but he was trying to seem as normal and harmless as possible and that meant...potatoes.
One of the faces Loki didn’t recognize - Barnes, maybe? - cleared his throat. “Right,” he said. “Anyway.”
Conversation bled slowly back in. Loki let it wash over him, though he relaxed when Thor wedged a chair in between Loki and Rogers. “Thank you for coming,” he said, and Loki gave him a very faint, sidelong smile.
“Still think I am welcome?” He asked. Thor looked pained, and Loki shook his head. “No matter. It is important to you. I thought I should at least make a one-time appearance.”
“Loki,” the witch said abruptly, and his head whipped around too fast to look at her, tensing. She didn’t look hostile, though - looked like she was trying to look friendly. Trying a little too hard, perhaps, but...trying. “You’re...looking better.”
Loki blinked. “I am recovering,” he said slowly. “Thank you.”
“That’s good.” She hesitated. “When you’re...better, I’d be interested in - if you were willing to teach me anything about magic. I don’t know enough about my own powers.”
Loki stared blankly at her. He half expected some kind of outcry from someone else, but Vision was just looking at him with polite interest and though Barton was scowling at his plate and stabbing aggressively at his salad, he wasn’t actually voicing any protest.
“I doubt I would make much of a teacher,” Loki said. The witch smiled, though it was fragile.
“I don’t have one at all right now. And I don’t know how good of a student I’ll make, either.”
Vision and the witch weren’t the only ones looking at him, now. Rogers was glancing at him sidelong, too, and Wilson frowning in his direction. Romanov was focused on her plate, expression unreadable.
“I suppose,” he said. “If you wish.” He wasn’t sure, the moment after he said it, if he wanted to, but it wasn’t as though he was doing anything else, and Thor gave his arm a squeeze and smiled at him with approval that warmed him all the way through. Sentimental fool, Loki thought, but it wasn’t directed at his brother.
All in all, Loki couldn’t say it was the worst dinner he’d attended. It was awkward, and uncomfortable, and by the end he was exhausted, but no one tried to stab him, or blast him, or otherwise cause him bodily harm. Still, he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t relieved when it was over.
He got up to leave the moment it no longer seemed impolite to do so. “Thank you for the meal,” he said to the room at large, sketching a slight bow, and moved to slip out the door without further fanfare.
“Hey,” Barton said, his voice harsh, and Loki fell still. He took a breath through his nose and made himself turn and look at his former servant - former slave. His eyes were clear and level and not friendly.
“Dinner’s potluck style,” Barton said. “Next time you show up, bring something with you.”
Loki blinked. “Duly noted,” he said carefully, and made his exit. Next time, he thought. Does that mean I am expected to do this again?
The week following he brought hjónabandssaela, the closest approximation he could find to the dessert he remembered.
“Did you make this?” Stark asked, mouth disgustingly full.
“Yes,” Loki said cautiously.
“Fuck,” Stark said. “You missed your calling. Start a bakery, buddy. You’ll make a killing.”
Loki wasn’t certain that he was not being mocked. He tried a smile, though.
“I’m proud of you,” Thor said after, when they were alone. Loki frowned at him.
“Proud of me?” He said.
“Yes,” Thor said. “I am.” He gave Loki’s shoulder another squeeze. “Accept it.”
Loki kept frowning at Thor’s back as he walked away, obscurely annoyed by the deep warmth in his chest.
Norns. How had he ever thought that he could cut Thor out of his heart? All that wasted time.
At least now he was getting some of it back.
When Thor was not rebuilding, he was with Loki. Where once he would have been restless with any great span of idleness, now Thor seemed content to simply be still for hours, the two of them, sometimes passing the time with games (Midgardian and otherwise), sometimes simply in silence. Thor wrote a great deal, though he never let Loki see what, and he didn’t press the matter.
Loki supposed with all the excitement of the recent years, they ought to have earned a long rest. He could not blame Thor for being weary.
“What,” Thor said, looking up from the notebook he had been scribbling in, and Loki realized that he had been staring.
“Nothing,” he said automatically, and then said, “only thinking. You have been very quiet.”
Thor raised his eyebrows. “Do you object?”
“Not at all,” Loki said. “But…” He exhaled. “Are you all right?”
“Are you?” Thor asked. Loki frowned at him, and Thor shook his head. “I am not...trying to avoid the question.”
“I am fine,” Loki said stiffly, after considering refusing to answer. “I could be better. I have been worse.”
Thor’s smile was faint and a little melancholy. “Just so,” he said. “If I am quiet, it is only because I have taken advice you tried to give me many times - to think more, and talk less.”
“Speaking from experience, there is such a thing as too much thinking,” Loki said. “Careful you do not overindulge.”
“I shall be cautious.” Thor closed his notebook. “You are still...on the mend, right? Healing?”
“I believe so,” Loki said. “Sometimes it is hard to tell.” He caught the bitterness in his voice before it leaked too far. “I am endeavoring to be patient.”
“Not a natural state for you, I know,” Thor said, with another faint smile, but this one looked more wry than melancholy. The knot in Loki’s chest eased slightly.
“No,” he agreed. “Far from it.” He paused. “May I ask–”
He was interrupted by Rocket bursting into the room, waving a device made out of what looked like several gnarled knots of wire and cords. "Got 'em!" He said triumphantly, though all Loki could hear was static. "I got them on the line - or at least I had them, unbe-fucking-lievable--"
Thor straightened. “Who?”
“The Guardians of the fucking Galaxy,” Rocket said, like it should be obvious. “My crew. Told them where we are, and they're on their way here now!”
Which meant Gamora was. Loki shoved that thought down - it would be fine, he could just avoid her if worst came to worst - and Thor, after a brief blink, smiled. "That is marvelous news," he said. "I am glad to hear it. They're well?"
"Yeah, somehow," Rocket said. "Assholes." He looked, Loki thought, like he was trying not to be overcome with emotion. He glanced at Thor and wondered if he was imagining the brief unhappiness around Thor's eyes, and wondered if he'd been hoping that Rocket might contact another ship.
"When do you expect them to arrive?" Thor asked.
"Month or so, probably," Rocket said. "Maybe sooner, Quill drives like a Pluvian. But worse." He wrinkled his snout. "Gamora said they would've made it sooner except they ran into - oh, right. Do you know anyone named Valkyrie?"
Thor's face lit up like a candle in the dark. "I do," he said. "Is she--"
"Quill said they found a bunch of escape pods stumbling along looking for 'Midgard'," Rocket said. "Guess they're on their way here with the others."
Thor snatched Rocket up, embracing him. "Thank the Norns," he said breathlessly. "They're safe. And - and coming here, you said?"
"Yeah," Rocket said, his voice a little strangled. "Should be along in a few days. Now put me down or I'm taking back that eye I gave you."
Thor set Rocket down gently and turned toward Loki, beaming. "Did you hear that?" He asked. "Loki - survivors. Coming here."
Loki felt a very small smile creeping across his face. "I heard," he said. It couldn't be many. He didn't know exact numbers, but - Asgard's numbers had been small enough, and in a few escape pods, without resources...
But it was still survivors. Still some of their people who had come through the conflagration. And the relieved joy on Thor's face was a gift in itself.
He stood up, brushing his hands off on his pants. "Well," he said, "we shall have to make sure things are ready for them when they come, shan't we?"
Thor’s smile broadened. The love in his eyes cut deep, and healed.