Loki gasped in a pained breath and stared at the frozen, shattered corpse in front of him.
He lay on the ground on his chest, the Casket of Ancient Winters clenched in both of his hands, its magic emptied. There were others, around him. Allies. Peppered along the Midgardian battlefield in shell-shocked relief.
To his left were Gamora and Nebula, crouched on the ground, murmuring quietly to each other, red staining their hands. To the right, Loki could see Thor panting, his hands gripped around his newly constructed hammer. Blood leaked freely down his shoulder, and he favored his left leg as he stood, staring ahead—but he was alive. He was alive and standing, and—
—and Thanos was dead.
Another gasp of air shot through his lungs, and Loki felt his breathing start to quicken and fail, his blood rioting at the lack of oxygen, his heart thumping desperately. He couldn’t breathe, his vision greyed, his body vibrated with hot chills that trembled down his spine, and he couldn’t breathe. Loki cried out and clenched his eyes shut, driving his forehead into the barren rock beneath him.
“Loki,” Thor’s voice came from far away.
A foreign hand tucked around his shoulder, and Loki jerked away, panicked. The hand retreated.
“Loki,” said Thor’s voice again, “can you hear me?”
By strength of will, Loki broke through the roaring fog in his ears and forced his eyes to open. His hands were still clenched around the Casket, and they were blue, like ice. Loki released its handles as if they were burning him. He choked on the air in his lungs, and gasped for more.
“Are you hurt? What should I do?” Thor’s voice, much closer. Thor kneeling at Loki’s side with one hand outstretched. His red cape sprawled along the ground, and if Loki followed the line of it, it led him right to—
Right to the remnants of Thanos. Frozen to ice. Shattered to pieces.
He wanted to scream. “This isn’t right,” he choked between panicked breaths. “This isn’t—right.”
How could he explain the wrongness he felt—to know that they’d won, to see the evidence mere meters away from him. To have Thor, kneeling next to him, in one piece. To be breathing brokenly, to be laying here conscious, to be alive.
Thor’s hand at last curled around Loki’s shoulder, and Loki didn’t flinch away this time. “What isn’t right?” Thor asked. “What’s wrong?”
At once, the panic transformed into a lump in his throat and a stinging in his eyes. Loki swallowed a sob that tingled all the way down his throat, and he pressed his lips together to keep the feelings, the white hot blare of emotions, bottled inside him. Tears leaked down his cheeks at the pressure.
He looked at Thor, meeting his brother’s single-eyed gaze and seeing the deep, rich blue he had never expected to see again.
“I was never supposed to live through this,” Loki gasped.
Thor’s expression broke. He dragged Loki by the arms and locked him into a steel embrace that grew tighter with every passing second, until Thor was squeezing his lungs so hard that dry sobs poured out of Loki’s throat. Loki clung to Thor, tucked his nose into Thor’s shoulder, and stared at his hands, which were no longer blue.
In his wildest dreams, Loki had never expected either of them to live. Especially not himself.
The universe expanded with a frightening amount of options, of avenues for him to pursue, of feelings for him to experience—and he was afraid, he was terrified, because now that it was here, at his fingertips, he feared to lose all of it. It was water in the desert that he couldn’t help but crave.
Loki clenched his eyes shut and let himself cry.
For hours, Loki slept.
He slept as if sleep had denied him all his life, as if he’d wandered the world, wide-eyed and waking at all times, watching for untold dangers at every corner, waiting, waiting, waiting for the Final Threat to ravage everything he treasured and loved.
He slept as if there was no more Final Threat, as if the entire universe had fallen to a peace that would last for centuries to come.
He slept under Thor’s muscled arm, face pressed to Thor’s chest, where he breathed in the earthy scent of rain, where he listened to his brother’s heartbeat like a lullaby. Thor’s heart thumped away, slow and gentle and never breaking its rhythm, and Loki thought, in sleep, that his own heart matched.
He slept as if they were children again.
And when he woke, it wasn’t misery. It was a fluttering of eyelashes and silky sheets and early morning rays of sunlight. He breathed, deep and even. For a moment, he lay there, unwilling to move and break the hum of silence. There was no urgency, nowhere to run, nothing to do, and he could lay here for hours more if he wanted.
Surprised that Thor was awake, Loki shifted out from under Thor’s arm to get a good look at his brother.
Thor’s eye was glassy and strained and rimmed with red. The sunlight illuminated streaks of wet down Thor’s cheek, where tears clung stubbornly to his chin. Chills ran through Loki’s chest as he wondered what could possibly have made his brother, the God of Thunder, cry on so peaceful a morning as this.
“Are you alright?” he asked, quiet and faint.
“Yes,” Thor said, but his voice was raw and shaking, and his arm shifted, as he scrubbed his face clean of the tear trails. “Yes, I’m fine. Go back to sleep.” His arm opened, encouraging Loki closer, but Loki remained where he was, frowning.
“I’m well-rested,” he said. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
Thor recoiled. He rolled onto his back, hiding his face within his elbow. “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”
Loki sat up and rested a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Thor.”
Thor didn’t move.
“Brother,” Loki breathed, stern, as adrenaline woke in his veins. “Please. You’re worrying me.”
That, it seemed, was what did it. Thor’s fists clenched, the muscles in his arms straining, and his body shook with one single tremor. “I shouldn’t tell you. I can’t—hurt you—”
“Just tell me.” Loki stroked his thumb in a circle around Thor’s shoulder. “I can handle it.”
For a while, the silence lasted. And then,
“What you said,” Thor murmured at last with the bare minimum of his voice. “That you weren’t supposed to—” He cut off, and his neck bobbed with a visible swallow. “—to make it through this. Alive.”
Panic renewed in Loki’s chest, biting at his lungs and squirming through his shoulders. He closed his eyes and exhaled.
“I—thought you wouldn’t either,” Thor went on, his fists trembling. “I thought—I thought I’d lose you. Again. I thought . . .”
Loki breathed in, bottling the rising sense of unease, and—he shouldn’t be here, neither of them should be here, and maybe they’d been wrong, maybe Thanos wasn’t dead, maybe they were all going to die in the next heartbeat—he focused on the weightlessness of the mattress beneath him, the birds chirping loudly outside.
This was real.
They were alive.
He nudged Thor’s fist, the one near his face, until it opened and they could join palms. “You didn’t lose me,” Loki said. “I’m right here. I’m fine. We’re both fine.” As he spoke, he guided Thor’s arm away from his face, revealing the clenched eye and set jaw beneath. “Thor, look at me.”
Reluctantly, Thor’s eye opened and stared at him, a new tear leaking from the corner.
“See?” Loki tried to smile. It wouldn’t come. There were too many horrors haunting him, eradicated from the universe, perhaps, but still too close, too recent.
At the sight of his failed smile, Thor sat up and pressed them close, shoulder-to-shoulder. “Do you think we’ll ever be happy again?”
“I don’t know,” Loki said honestly.
It was one thing to live and to be grateful for it. To sleep well. To cherish his brother’s presence. It was quite another thing to not want to die, and he didn’t know if he remembered what it was like, wanting to live, finding this goodness to be worth all the pain it had cost.
Thor was used to such wanting, and he would regain it quickly, Loki knew.
But for Loki, it felt wrong, even still. As if he didn’t belong in this goodness, as if he was a ghost forced to breathe and eat and drink and sleep in a world where everyone else was alive. He didn’t know what he wanted, and he didn’t know if he wanted anything at all.
“Will you promise me something?” Thor asked, quiet.
Loki didn’t answer. He wouldn’t promise Thor something he couldn’t keep.
After a time, Thor sighed. “Will you promise me that you’re here to stay?”
Swallowing, Loki rested his head on his brother’s shoulder. “I promise I’ll try,” he said.
It would have to be enough for now.