Loki crash lands in a fog-laden forest, his lungs aflame.
He gasps, sucking in huge gulps of air and for a moment, thinks he will die all the same, that his body has forgotten how respiration works and he will simply expire here in the dirt instead of gripped in Thanos' fist.
He curls sideways into the crater his body has formed in the damp forest floor and begins to retch. The soil pressed against his face smells strongly of pine beyond the scent of bile. Earth, then.
He remembers their vessel careening in space, rent to pieces. The smell of charred flesh and dripping fuel lines. He remembers Thor. Thor screaming. The roar of the Hulk and then silence. He remembers standing on quivering legs but not the words he spoke. Remembers being hoisted like a child's doll in the tyrant's fist, dangling. And then, a blast of light and a hard landing in a spray of earth.
This would be a far more pleasant place to die than the gutted bowels of a stolen spaceship, and he considers allowing himself to. To let the dark spots at the edge of his vision seep in and his tortured lungs quiet their ragged gasping. He lies in the dirt and considers it for what feels like ages but most have only been a brief moment.
Then, the sky cracks loud as thunder and a spectrum of color shoots across it. A dark shape hurtles above the hazy tree line. Loki feels the shudder of impact in the ground beneath his body. He closes his eyes for a moment and drags in a deep, painful breath.
And then, he heaves himself unsteadily to his feet and goes to Thor.
“You have pine needles in your hair,” is what Thor says to him when he arrives at the Asgardian-shaped crater some distance away. After a few, slow blinks, he says, “Brother, you're alive.”
Thor looks barely so, bleeding sluggishly and badly charred in places. He seems to be maintaining consciousness by sheer force of will, his eye unfocused and chest heaving.
“I suppose so,” Loki says and climbs down into the crater to drag his brother out. None of Thor's limbs seem to be in working order, so it's slow-going.
“Where are we?” Thor asks and stumbles yet again, Loki just barely managing to keep them from tumbling over and back into the pit.
“I can't say,” he says. “Earth. Somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.”
“We have to warn the others,” Thor says. “Thanos will be--” His left leg gives out and he falls to one knee, nearly dragging Loki over as well. With great effort, he rises again and together, they crest the top of the crater and collapse against a wide-trunked pine tree. “Thanos has the Space Stone, and he will soon seek the others. We have to--”
“Warning would be of no use,” Loki says. “His power is too great.” He relaxes back against the tree and allows his eyes to close.
“We need to figure out where we are,” Thor says. “We need to warn them.” He makes no move to get up, body slack against Loki's. Loki forces his eyes open to scan their surroundings.
They rest on the slope of a wooded valley, snow-capped mountains rising above a black lake, fog hugging the boughs of towering evergreens. The sky is tinted pink with sunset, and as they lie slumped against the tree, blue dusk begins to creep in and sharp stars peek through a thin haze of clouds. Loki fumbles to remember Earth constellations, but his brain feels sluggish. Perhaps oxygen-deprived. How close did he come to total asphyxiation?
“Heimdall's dead,” Thor says.
“And all the rest, too.”
“Yes, I assume so.”
Beside him, Thor takes a ragged breath and lets it out. Loki thinks perhaps this is the first time he has seen his brother resting for any substantial amount of time since before Ragnarok. His body lists sideways into him, head coming precariously close to resting on Loki's shoulder.
“We have to warn the others,” Thor says again, but his words slur with impending sleep. “Loki...”
“I heard you the first time,” Loki says. It's full dark now, and the stars gleam above the mountains. “It can wait until morning. You can barely stand, and I am not carrying you. Especially not in the dark through this godawful forest.”
“I dreamt of it,” Thor slurs.
“I dreamt of Asgard in flames. I thought that dream had been fulfilled at Ragnarok but... Asgard is not a place, it's a people. And my dream came to pass at Thanos' hands. My people burned.”
“Some may live. We deployed as many pods as we could.”
“Lifeboats from a lifeboat...” he says with great fatigue. Loki doesn't like hearing that note of defeat in his brother's voice. It feels as unfamiliar as this shadowed forest. The shadows at least he can do something about.
“We need to build a fire,” Loki says, standing. Maybe Thor will have passed out by the time he retrieves enough firewood, and he won't have to hear more angsting. The pine needles on the forest floor cushion the sound of his footsteps as he collects what tinder that he can. When he returns, Thor struggles to rise to help, but Loki pushes him back down with a hand to the chest.
“I can start the fire,” Thor protests.
“No, absolutely not. We'll end up with the whole forest in flames.”
With a few whispered words, tongues of fire leap from the pile Loki has fashioned, and the brothers stare into the flickering warmth.
“I dreamt of you as well,” Thor says. “Thanos' fist around your throat... the fire light on your face...”
“He broke you like a twig and tossed you at my feet. That also almost came to pass.”
“I don't perish so easily,” Loki says.
“You fool,” Thor says, still with that fatigued tone that makes Loki itch. “You took the Tesseract from father's throne room. If you hadn't, then Thanos would not have--”
“He would not have sought our ship, yes,” Loki says. “Perhaps more of our people would have lived. But it matters not. He will retrieve the rest of the stones, Thor.” Sparks of fire light flicker up into the boughs of the trees. “Surtr's wrath could not have destroyed the stone, and Thanos would have plucked it easily from the rubble of Asgard. In taking it, I hoped to protect it for a while longer.”
“Don't lie, brother. You sought its power for yourself.”
“Yes,” Loki says. Yes, he had. Its power was alluring. Like no other in the universe. When he held the glowing cube in his hands, it sang to him, sweet as any drug. “But you forget, I had the stone in my possession for years when I sat on the throne of Asgard. If I had truly wanted to use the stone, I could have then.”
“I guess it doesn't matter your motivation,” he says as he slides away from the tree to scrape a mound of pine needles into the approximation of a pillow and lie down closer to the fire. Even small movements seem to pain him greatly. “We're here now.”
Torture via infinity stone is no small thing, and though Loki knows Thor capable of soldiering through, it is a pain Loki knows well, a pain that drains away even the greatest strength and leaves only weariness. Perhaps in some reality where they weren't jettisoned into this forest, he would already be full speed after Thanos right now, but as it is, he looks vulnerable, curled child-like beside the fire.
“Yes,” Loki says. “We're here now.” The echo of I'm here spoken in the stale space air of their stolen vessel whispers through the branches of the evergreens. We're here now.
“Loki?” Thor asks. Such a small voice, muffled by fatigue. It's the voice Thor used some nights when they were young and had just begun to sleep in separate beds in their quarters in the palace. In those days, Loki had slipped from his own bed across the cold stone floor and under Thor's blankets, curling together face to face like parentheses.
So now in the dark wood, Loki does the same, and Thor grips him tight in an embrace that lasts even as he drops into sleep. Loki stays awake not much longer listening to the night sounds and the crackle of the fire until he too dozes, lulled by Thor's heartbeat.
Loki wakes covered in dew with the fire long burned out. Thor's arm is a heavy weight that tucks him against his chest, nose in Loki's hair.
He stares down into to the valley lit by morning sunlight and sits up when he realizes just what he's seeing.
“Thor,” he says, jostling him.
Groggily, Thor awakes and peers out where Loki is looking. His arm doesn't leave Loki's side.
“Huh,” Thor says.
Where yesterday the forest was obscured by fog, today a thin road is visible cutting through the mountainside in the distance. A vehicle passes every so often, curving along the slope.
“It could be too late,” Loki says even as they begin to walk, falling in step with one another.
“It could be,” Thor says. He doesn't slow his pace, and Loki soon finds himself following him, picking their way down the rock-strewn hillside towards Thanos.
The brothers have reached the edge of the lake and are beginning the trek around its circumference when it happens.
The air shifts and changes, and the chattering bird song falls to a hush. The volume seems to have been sucked out of the world.
Loki knows at once what it means.
“Thor, stop,” Loki says. His brother turns just in time to catch Loki as he stumbles ankle-deep into the lake. The slime in the shallows sucks at their feet, and Thor holds him up by the arms. The lake water seeps cold as ice into his boots.
“Loki?” There is a sharp terror in his voice. Don't be afraid, he thinks as an odd feeling flutters up through his gut.
“Something's happened, Thor,” he says. Thor clutches at him, as though a tighter grip will keep him alive and whole. “I'm sorry.” Sorry for how many times Thor has had to watch him die.
“No, no, no, Loki!” Thor shakes him. He looks terrified, brows crumpled, and Loki's chest aches to see it. Stop mourning for me. “Loki, what's happening?! What is this?!”
“I'm so very--” sorry. Thor pulls him tight against his chest, tucking Loki's head under his chin.
He feels tenuous, as though a slight breeze could blow him away.
And then it does, and Thor grips only ash.
Alone, Thor clambers up the steep slope and steps onto the mountain highway.
An overturned tractor trailer lists off the edge of the road, its driver vanished. A line of cars stretches on either side of it, occupants either turned to dust or blocked in traffic. As though from a great distance, he hears the sound of car horns, someone wailing.
On a borrowed cell phone, he makes a call. At first, the line is static, and the voice that finally answers is frantic with grief.
“Jane's gone,” Darcy says, choking on a sob. “She's just gone. They're all gone.”
Thor must say something to her, but his memory blurs. He sits down in middle of the roadway and waits.
Not long later there is a hum of static, and Valkyrie lands on the pavement. She wears gleaming armor and has a truly massive axe that seems to radiate sheer energy slung over her shoulder.
“That's me,” she says. “Your Earth has been a bit of a bitch so far.”
“That weapon,” he says. “It was--”
“Forged in the heart of a dying star, yeah,” she says. “Come on, buddy, we've all had a hell of a day. Get up.”
Somehow, he stands. Parts of him feel as if they blew away along with Loki and the rest.
“Is this everywhere? This was Thanos?” he asks, and Valkyrie grimaces.
“A single snap of his fingers,” she says, and then, “Loki?”
Thor shakes his head. He opens his fists and the last few fragments flutter into the air and fly up the mountain and over the pines.
“Gone.” He'll be back, he thinks. He always comes back. Grief and rage rise hot in his gut. Thanos is as good as dead.
Without another word, Valkyrie offers him her hand, and they rocket into the sky together, leaving the forest behind.
In the end, Thanos falls, the gauntlet shatters, and the dead filter back into reality the same way they had disappeared, piece by piece.
Loki does so in Thor's arms.
“You really are the worst,” Thor says and crushes his brother tighter to him.
“I told you,” Loki gasps, clutching back just as hard. “I do not perish so easily.”
Thor curls his fingers into Loki's hair and presses a dry kiss to his forehead.
Yes, he has always been difficult to kill for good, and it should be obvious by now to the both of them exactly why.