The battle for what remains of Asgard is lost quickly.
Loki fights at his side, laughing grimly all the way through the slaughter as though he knows something everyone else does not, as though he is both manically pleased by that fact and worried by it. In the blood and smoke, only Loki’s teeth, bared in that grin or grimace, shine clear. In the moment before Thanos’s children separate them, Loki closes his hand tightly around Thor’s wrist, as if this brief manacle-close grip is some substitute embrace.
The children of Thanos know Loki, of course. He is the subject of their delighted snickers. Just wait until Daddy gets home, the most loyal of them giggle, as the less loyal only look grateful that at least for now they are not the ones on the chopping block.
They will take Loki apart piece by piece. Thor will put out his other eye before he watches that. Or he will keep it open as long as he can so Loki does not have do die unwitnessed, alone.
He remembers when the biggest dilemma of their brotherhood was who would have the earlier bedtime.
He smiles at Loki as if that will be comfort. They’ll kill me too, you know.
Loki raises his eyebrows. Is that supposed to be reassuring?
Loki’s gestures have always been less ambiguous than his words. Thor can read them plainly, just as Loki can read his.
Though that same transparency means these exchanges hardly qualify as private.
“Aren’t they darling,” one of Thanos’s children murmurs, her voice silky. “Aren’t they just the dearest little things.”
“We are not dear,” Thor says.
“Really?” Loki says. “That’s your priority right now?”
Smiling, smiling. The madness of the last few years is back in his eyes, but it hasn’t swallowed him whole this time. It feels different. Like the sheen off a well-polished blade.
It makes Thor uneasy to look at him, so he he turns now to look at Heimdall instead, though there’s no comfort there either. Loki at least came through the fighting whole, preserved like a pig for slaughter, and none of the blood on his clothes is his own. Heimdall is dying.
“I should have sent you off with Valkyrie, old friend,” Thor says. “Place or people, there is no Asgard without you.”
“There will always be an Asgard,” Heimdall says. His voice is completely calm. He looks at Loki and adds, “I expect you’ll talk.”
Loki’s face goes white and his smile vanishes. He answers with the same quiet. “Oh, you know me. I expect I’ll talk and talk and talk. I never was a surprise to you, was I?”
“Sometimes a surprise,” Heimdall says, “but never a mystery.”
Thor wishes the last words between the two of them would not be so harsh. He himself does not expect Loki to withstand great torture, but then, he does not expect that of anyone. And besides, all this is for revenge, not interrogation, not coercion. Loki can talk, but he has nothing to offer, nothing to divulge. Thanos will wrench screams from him, not words.
He starts to say something to this effect, but then Thanos enters.
He’s an impressive creature in stature. Less so in looks. Maybe it’s convenient, for his peculiar kind of grandiosity, his intergalactic fame: every spur of shit-colored desert rock, every butte or lumpy tor, is already a monument to him.
Heimdall’s arm is outstretched, his muscles shaking a little with the effort to hold it straight as his body fails around him, but he does nothing. Not yet. He’s waiting, but for what, Thor doesn’t know. This does feel like the end. This feels like the end of everything.
He was taught of the Infinity Stones. Indeed, Asgard-as-was held a replica of the very gauntlet Thanos wears now, a museum piece used only in their history lessons. He knows the purple gleam of the one Thanos wears. The Power Stone, strong enough to cleave the ship in two with nothing more than Thanos’s wish that it do so.
The children of Thanos offer their father the remains of Asgard. The corpse of a bird dropped by a dog at its master’s feet.
He has some regard for it, but more regard for—more interest in—Loki.
Thanos says, “Give me the Tesseract.”
Loki smiles and smiles.
Thor says, “We don’t have the Tesseract. Asgard was destroyed, it all burned.”
“I feel it,” Thanos says. “And I know how a rat behaves when fleeing a fire. There’s no scramble for safety so desperate that it can’t take one last bite.”
“I resent this comparison,” Loki says. The muscles in his face are rigid.
“Then let me prove to you how true it is. You’re a failure, beneath my notice. Unworthy even of the pain I’d give. But your brother—”
Loki laughs. “Do you realize how many times I’ve tried to kill my brother?”
“I have seen the pieces of your mind scattered like ashes across the Void,” Thanos says. “There is nothing in your past I’m blind to.”
“Well, I do have a present, you know. And a future.”
“And a future without your brother?” Thanos extends his hand and lays one huge, square-tipped finger against Thor’s temple.
Thor wants to shock him, for the pettiness of it if nothing else, but his power is drained. Scorched-out.
The pain of whatever Thanos does to him next is unbearable. It’s as if his face is being flayed.
Only Loki’s voice cuts through the agony. “Stop!”
Thanos takes his hand away. “Why stop?” he says in his rumbling voice. “I’m told you have nothing to offer to me.”
Loki inhales deeply. He says, “I have the Tesseract.”
That is a deeper, colder thing to bear than the torture. “Brother.”
Loki meets his eyes. There is no apology in his expression, none at all. “Please, save both your protests and your strength.” He raises his hand and the Tesseract, blue and gleaming, is suddenly within it. He holds it so tightly the sweat on his fingers make the glass squeak, but then he seems, abruptly, to resign himself to giving it up. He lowers his hand and presents Thanos with his prize.
“One of the weaker ones,” Loki says, almost dismissively. “Give me the Power Stone any day. I can’t believe I’ve almost died twice-over for the ability to move things.”
“You don’t know what you’ve done,” Thor says.
“I know very well what I’m doing.”
Something is wrong here. Not only everything, but something. It takes him a moment: his head is laggard, still full of pain.
Loki spoke as though, whatever he’s doing, it’s not yet done.
Thanos crushes the Tesseract into dust and takes the stone from it. With his bare hand, close enough to it to know its power. His direct touch rids Thor of any hope that the stone is somehow a false one. Thanos might fall for that as long as the stone’s power was held, channeled, but not with it pinched between his own two fingers.
Loki bows his head. “May I speak with my brother?”
“You owe me your death,” Thanos says. “Your offering doesn’t change that. It’s years too late.”
“Well,” Loki says waspishly, “I’m hoping you’ll be reasonable at least to spare me some pain. And a little time. I know your quest, Lord Thanos. You are not absent compassion. Spare my brother—and Heimdall, I suppose—and allow me some time to say goodbye. Or take this as another gesture, if you will—we have a Hulk.” He snaps his fingers. “Now quite contained. Go and see.” He points one of Thanos’s children down the hall.
She goes and returns. “A great green beast swollen with muscles. It would have been fun to kill. But it’s as he said, it’s manacled to the wall.”
“Magic,” Loki says, waggling his fingers. “By my will alone, I reformed that wall around his wrists before he even noticed. You see, I can be an asset.”
“He was our last chance,” Thor says. His voice aches. “Loki—”
“I assure you, brother, the sun will shine on us again.”
Thanos smiles. “You remain a liar.”
“Oh, until the end,” Loki says. “I learned from the best. May I have my moment with my brother now?”
“You may.” Thanos, damn him, says this with graciousness. “Maybe you have one or two tricks in you left after all. I could let you buy your life by the day.”
“Go back to the ship,” Thanos says to his children. He flexes his wrist. “I have enough might on my own to destroy them where they stand, if they were even worth destroying. Return to the ship and prepare to have a new brother. A temporary one, at least.” He says to Loki, “Talk as you like until I lose my patience, and then one word after that means the death of your brother-king and what remains of your friends.”
Loki leaves off the obsequious, smarmy thanks and merely nods. He crouches down in front Thor and pushes his fingers through Thor’s hair, frowning as if he can’t quite get used to how short it has been since Sakaar. Or simply because he realizes how little Thor wants to look at him now.
But Loki makes Thor look. And once again, he smiles.
“Well, honestly, brother, there’s no need to glower. Of course I stole the Tesseract. It was right there. How else was I supposed to escape the inferno, exactly? And that, you’ll recall, was your idea.”
“You’ve destroyed every—”
Loki snaps his fingers again, the mere sound of it vicious, and Thor’s lips seal tightly together.
“Shh. I’m talking, you’re listening.”
Yet the magic fades swiftly away as Loki resumes his speech.
“I stole several things, actually. Believe it or not, I even considered trying to take Hela’s wolf, but of course he wasn’t exactly travel-sized. Besides, there’s a quaint Midgardian expression about that: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And you know how I love tricks, brother. You know me better than anyone.”
He does. He does know Loki.
Loki hates to admit that, though. He would never just say it. Even as goodbye. He wouldn’t say it unless he could use it somehow, but what is there left to use? What is Thor supposed to know?
You know how I love tricks.
Loki’s chin moves just slightly. He’s not nodding. He can’t nod.
He’s never been able to deceive with gestures as well as he can with words. You would think this would be the time to stop talking, but he’s not. He is, as he promised Heimdall, talking and talking.
So Thor listens.
“Honestly,” Loki says through his smile, “it’s actually a little disloyal of you to not have even thought about doing a little raiding. Disloyal to Asgard. Was I supposed to let her treasures burn? Think of everything that was locked inside the Vault, brother. Really think about it.”
Yes, brother. I’m thinking.
“Besides, think of it this way. At least they’re still in the family. Wouldn’t Father be pleased?”
Loki looks back over his shoulder and says to Thanos, “He’s surprised. There’s history there, as you know.”
“You begged to say goodbye,” Thanos says. “Say it.”
“I’ve earned your patience.”
“You’ve earned nothing. Two minutes.”
Loki doesn’t waste time arguing, yet another indication that something is different.
He doesn’t argue, but he does waste time. He goes on talking. Whatever he’s saying now means more to him than disagreement, something Thor would have thought impossible.
“Yes,” Loki says. “I’ll call him my father now, I’ll name myself Odinson. These last few days have taught me much about the All-Father. I’d no idea the resemblance between us was so great. Both liars, both secret-keepers who speak in riddles. Both a little prone to saying, ‘Oh, I’d have explained it all to you if I’d only had a little more time.’ But there never was enough time for him to explain himself, was there? Maybe we just never listened carefully enough.”
“Maybe you didn’t,” Thor says. “I’m a very good listener.”
“Good,” Loki says. It’s an exhalation as much as a word. Then he’s back to smiling. “I’m glad I finally heard what he was always saying. He did love me, even if the blood between us was a lie. Maybe he even loved me a little because I was a lie. Maybe it amused him to forge an Aesir child from a Jotun one and turn him into a prince. I was a very good one, in my way. I sat in the throne room and no one knew the difference even when I was right in front of their eyes.”
And just like that, Thor’s hope begins to fade. Because this does not surprise him. Loki has done little else over the last few years besides cut himself and everyone around him to ribbons, and this feels like more of the same. If he is going to die, he doesn’t want this to be the last thing he hears his brother saying.
Yet Loki insists. His hand goes back to Thor’s hair again, actually pulling at it now, like he hasn’t done since they were children together. The little brat.
“Yes, Thor. I was the fake prince of Asgard, but Odin had a connoisseur’s appreciation for fakes. The Vault, after all, was full of them. But he loved them, didn’t he? We learned from them, didn’t we?”
Odin’s big hands guiding their small ones around the gems in the forged Infinity Gauntlet. “Always do your best, my sons, not to touch the stones directly.”
“But they’re not real,” Thor objected.
Loki rolled his eyes. “They’re real rubies and sapphires and—”
“Shh, children, you’re both right. As gemstones, they are real. As Infinity Stones, they’re as worthless as paste. You could touch these—even hold them—without doing yourself any harm. Not so with the real stones, which is why the gauntlet is necessary. The real stones would bite and burn you. You would feel their power. But the gauntlet is not so extraordinary, merely a channeling device. This is very nearly indistinguishable from the real one. It’s biggest falsehood is that it has all the gems. May we never be so deserted by fortune as to see the real Gauntlet with all six Infinity Stones in place. Now, which of you can name them and their powers?”
Now, Thor risks a glance at Thanos. The Infinity Gauntlet he wears holds the two stones in his possession: the Power Stone and the Space Stone. The other spaces are empty, waiting to be filled.
Then maybe he is wrong, maybe there is no hope—
But Loki smiles.
And Thor sees the glint behind his teeth, there and then gone. Ruby. Sapphire. Called in and out of Loki’s grin like the daggers in and out of his hands.
“Yes,” Thor says. “I remember.”
“I’m so glad we understand each other. Really, I knew you wouldn’t blame me. How could we have faced off against Thanos while he held the Power Stone? If he’d only held the Space Stone, maybe. But really, anyone mighty enough to gain the Power Stone is still a deadly adversary even without it. I couldn’t take any chances.”
“Your time is up,” Thanos says. “Your endless font of self-justification must run dry, Loki Odinson.”
Loki nods. His eyes are calm. He leans in and takes Thor’s hands up in his and holds his arms pinned between them while he leans his forehead against Thor’s.
Thor feels the sudden weight on his arm. The sudden tightness.
Loki whispers, “Get help.”
And Thor heaves him aside and raises his hand.
The one true purple stone, entrenched in its setting, glows bright.
Thanos realizes, but he realizes too late. By the time he has thought to try the Space Stone, by the time its blue light begins to flare, Thor has already used the Power Stone in his own Infinity Gauntlet to turn him to dust.
Afterwards, Thor’s hand is shaking so badly that it takes him three tries to remove the gauntlet from his arm. There is something about the amethyst glow of the Power Stone that he cannot like, though it saved them. It was good that they had it. He does not want to continue to have it. It goes against his grain to kill with a thought.
Heimdall bandages himself carefully. He notices Thor looking. “Oh, I’ll live. I promised you.”
“You saw me take it,” Loki says from where he’s sitting against the wall.
“I saw you take a lot of things,” Heimdall says dryly. “Many of which I doubt you have a clever plan to use.”
“They were right there.”
Thor picks up the other gauntlet, Thanos’s, from the floor. “What is the difference between the fake one and the real?”
“Nothing, essentially,” Loki says. “Except I carved my initials in the fake one a long time ago, which thankfully Thanos didn’t notice. He could still have used it to control the Space Stone, and he had to have the real Space Stone, because I knew he’d touch it. Hence why I had to make very sure you understood me before I armed you. Really, it was a much fairer fight than I would have preferred.”
“Why put the other gauntlet on my arm, then?” Thor says. “Why give me the stone, as opposed to using it yourself?”
“I was much more in Thanos’s eyeline,” Loki says. “I couldn’t risk him seeing it and reacting before I could act.”
But, more than anything else Loki has said today, this sounds like a lie. And Loki still has not handled either of the gauntlets. Even now, he lets Thor and Heimdall deal with them while he sits, exhausted.
He could have had this power, but he chose to give it away. He trusted Thor over himself.
He matches Thor’s gaze with his own. “Your face is made of glass, brother. I pray you never have to deceive anyone.”
“Why would I have to,” Thor says, “so long as you’re at my side?”
Loki’s mouth twitches. He’s tired, unsmiling even at a compliment. But here.
“So,” Thor says, not so much to have it straight in his mind as to give Loki a chance to dwell on his own cleverness—he’ll like that, and he’s earned it now if he ever has—“you stole the Tesseract and the fake Infinity Gauntlet—”
“And whatever else his magic would let him carry,” Heimdall says. He still seems amused by it.
“—and when you saw Thanos, you—”
“Used the Tesseract, for the moment I could actually hold it, since I couldn’t use it when it was in the ether with my armor and… all the other things I’m sure Heimdall will be delighted to tell you about. Of course, the Tesseract itself could reach anywhere, so then I just swapped Father’s Infinity Gauntlet with Thanos’s without ruffling a single hair. Materialize, dematerialize, or else move far faster than light, I’m not sure.”
Even now, not to persuade, not to trick, Loki said father.
“And teleported out the fake gems,” Thor says.
“Right, yes, and teleported out the fake gems, all but the fake Power Stone, since Thanos would need to see it there. I just had to hope Thanos wouldn’t try to use it. If he did, and we weren’t ready, we’d all be fucked. I tried to make it believable, within reason.”
“So ‘believable, within reason’ is why I wound up getting tortured?”
“I’m sure the galaxy appreciates your sacrifice. Anyway, I made the switch while I held the Tesseract and then stashed the Power Stone gauntlet back in the ether, clued you in, popped it on, and here we are. Though, for the record, ‘get help’ in this case meant ‘this is where we execute the plot,’ not ‘please throw me across the room.’”
“I needed you out of my line of fire,” Thor protests. “And you let me be tortured, I’ll say again.”
Loki waves his hand as if this is all now officially beneath his notice.
So many dead, still. Half of what remained of Asgard escaped with Val—those could be called back—but half perished beside them, Loki’s plan useless until Thanos was within his sight. Dead for naught.
There is no clean victory. Their father taught them that, too.
Thor sighs. He doesn’t know what to do with the two Infinity Stones in their possession. Another vault, in the new Asgard they would found on Earth?
Heimdall touches his shoulder. “You’ll make a decision.”
“The right one?”
“No one ever knows that.”
“I’ve thought about it,” Thor says, “and you’re not at all comforting.”
Heimdall laughs, of course, because near-omniscience gives a man a bewildering sense of humor. “I think I’ll dare to go try to free our green friend from the wall. I make no promises for his demeanor once it’s done.”
“He’ll get me killed,” Loki says as Heimdall leaves. “The idiot monster won’t understand I was trying to save his life. While sneaking in yet another excuse to talk about wrists and heavy metal bands being on them. Genius is often unappreciated.”
“Mm,” Thor says. “I’m sure that’s a constant burden for you.”
“Oh, it is.”
“Would you have said all that to me if we had been about to die?”
Loki frowns. “You mean would I have blathered on about our childhood and lies and forgeries? No, brother, I think I could have managed something more meaningful.”
“And then put it in a play, no doubt.”
“I didn’t know, then,” Loki says quietly. “That I would live.” He rubs his shoulder. “It didn’t feel like I would.”
Thor doesn’t know whether or not he believes that. He can often tell when Loki is lying to him, these days, but he can’t tell if Loki doesn’t know it himself. But he remembers Loki’s hand against the back of his head, Loki’s forehead resting against his. Not a word but a gesture, like Loki placing the Infinity Gauntlet on Thor’s arm instead of his own. To those things, Thor listens. In them, he believes, is the truth.