The battle against Thanos ended as quickly as it began. There is no other way to describe what remains of Midgard, of Earth, except as shaken—paralyzed, grief-stricken with half of its people gone as dust in the wind. New York City did not even see the sun rise twice over the horizon after the arrival of the Black Order to its fragile skyline before millions crumbled away inside it at the snap of a finger. It is almost insidious how quietly the disaster came and went, to then leave wreckage of so many families and foundations in its wake.
But Thor loves Earth for more than the tenderness of its heart. The sun rises again, and Earth's people stir from their funeral dirge.
The nations who can begin creating lists of the missing and dead. Family members reunite and weep tears of joy. Businesses shutter their windows, regroup, tentatively reopen. Schools go on leave, cancel finals, and (according to Tony) organize grief counseling: therapists with whom to talk through their experiences, plus quite a lot of dogs to pet. Governments shuffle their staff and rebuild. They discover that U.S. President Matthew Ellis and President pro tempore of the Senate are now ash in their carpets. The Vice President died in a car accident after his driver disintegrated; the Speaker of the House is not a natural-born citizen.
One day after Thanos's victory, Thaddeus Ross is publicly sworn in as President on live television.
When Thor enters the lounge of the Avengers Facility, after bouncing around its unfamiliar walls in bewilderment for the past twenty minutes, his friends and the few allies that remain are watching a replay of the ceremony. They sit and stand as if the room is polarized—but they are in the same room. Thor wonders how long this can last.
"Of all the damn luck," Tony grumbles, sprawled on the couch as he sips something bright blue in a cocktail glass. Bandages peek out from under his Stark Industries T-shirt. "It's like we're the dead horse that the universe keeps beating like a piñata, except the only treat coming out of us is blood."
Bruce grimaces at the imagery.
"He hasn't made a move against us yet, with all the chaos still keeping him busy," Natasha says. "But it's only a matter of time before we become number one on his hit list again."
"Before you guys become number one," Tony corrects. "No offense. I went missing. I haven't broken any rules."
"Well, I did," James Rhodes points out. "He's definitely going to court-martial me."
Tony frowns and stares into his drink.
"Thor, welcome back," Steve greets, nodding at him from his own seat with unexpectant neutrality. The expression almost irritates Thor with how careful it is, but he's simply too tired to feel more than a little nauseous. "How did everything go? Did you find them?"
"Everything went well. Many of them were injured, but luckily only a handful on the escape pods had perished before I arrived. Queen Shuri has been kind enough to promise them refuge until I can petition for a new home."
"Valkyrie?" Bruce asks, concern furrowing his brow.
"Bedridden for now. But she'll recover. She told me to tell you to be prepared for a beating when she sees you again." Thor gives a small, brief smile. "The Hulk threw her into an escape pod after Ebony Maw nearly killed her. I think she's still quite mad about it."
"Mad? It sounds like Hulk saved her life!"
Thor shrugs a shoulder. "I'm only the messenger."
Bruce grumbles, rubbing at the green vein now pulsing on the side of his head. Thor takes a seat on the end of a couch farthest from everyone else in the room and closes his eyes, the murmurs of the television floating through his brain like static noise.
His people are safe—but so few remain. Before, he was already questioning whether or not enough of them survived to recreate Asgard. Now...
Thor knows what his worst-case scenario is, if he can manage to negotiate around the Sokovia Accords and succeed at pleading with Earth for sanctuary. His people could be separated, scattered across the realm with no land to call home, sheltered by government spies or clueless aid programs on a planet utterly foreign to them. They would live—they might even regroup over time. But Asgard would die, as surely as if they did not flee before Surtur destroyed their homeland in Ragnarök.
The people are Asgard, Thor reminds himself, not the land. But a deep terror stirs in his stomach as he considers, not for the first time, how they might remain Asgard without their home, without a land of their own.
He expected help. He expected Heimdall's wisdom, his millennia of experience serving the throne, his all-seeing eyes to lean on—
(gasping with pain as the glaive pierced his chest, gurgling on his blood as Thanos drove the blade in deeper to rip apart his lung, meeting Thor's eye with agony but also loyalty and faith, and how could he possibly deserve them?)
Against all reason, he expected Loki's help. Loki, who betrayed. Loki, who stayed. Loki, who was always the better scholar, the better diplomat, the better politician with his wit and slyness and brilliantly silver tongue—
(that choked on nothing, eyes bulging as he kicked frantically, desperately, clawing at Thanos's hand for air that was denied him until the clawing died to a scrabble, the wheezing to a whisper, his brother's eyes rolling up into his skull as his limbs fell limp and twitching, Thanos squeezing ever tighter until the crunch—)
"Thor? You all right?"
Steve. Thor blinks and realizes how tight his jaw is, how constricted his chest feels, and the lump that seems to be swelling in his throat. The television is off—Thor is alarmed to not know when Tony must have turned it off—and everyone is looking at him now with varying degrees of concern and sympathy.
Something in him growls: They have all lost. Yet they remain strong while you whimper.
But Thor is too tired to be furious with himself. He clears his throat. "Of course," he says, his voice a bit hoarse, and he immediately wishes for the ground to open up beneath him and swallow him whole. He offers a smile, one that feels strained and blatantly transparent even to him. "Thank you for asking, Steve. But I think I need to excuse myself for a while."
Thor gets up and leaves, back tense with the feeling of their eyes on him.
. . .
Asgard has long been a warfaring nation of people. Loss and trauma are intimate, well-understood companions, and the inevitability of death despite glory has never been anything to dread. In point of fact, death in glory is one of an Asgardian's greatest possible achievements. Perhaps in the past few millennia, the Allfather dedicated Asgard's services to Yggdrasil's peace, but peace often cannot be maintained without war.
This last piece of logic baffles the few Midgardians Thor has tried explaining this to. It doesn't really surprise him; for them, war lasts long, and war swallows up lives that already seem so brief.
In his millennium and more, Thor has courted Valhalla as closely as any of Asgard's greatest warriors. He has slashed throats, crushed skulls, shattered bones. He has stood on battlefields of blood and mud and gory viscera, embraced in the miasma of death as the fallen groaned around him and rattled his ribs with the tremors of loss and triumph in equal measure. He has wiped the black grime from his face and sung songs of mourning, watched fleets' worth of ships drift from the shore and burn as bonfires until the last of the lights vanished into the night sky, the embers into the Void.
Death is as familiar to Thor as the hum of his mother's voice. As the hearty laughter of his father, the barroom chants of Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, the soft flip of Loki turning the next page of his book. He does not desire death, but neither does he fear it.
He just never considered that he might be the last.
. . .
When they finally return to the United States, the first thing they do is eat at a Waffle House while Natasha uses the pay phone on the street outside.
Thor does not want to eat, but his catastrophic past two days—past two weeks, really—have also been catastrophically arduous, and the needs of his starving stomach firmly disagree with the intellectual revulsion of his mind. He compromises with a single, rather modest plate of eggs, toast, and bacon (the sky is dim with the faint light of encroaching dawn) and pushes the eggs around with his fork.
None of the others inside are particularly enthusiastic, either: Bruce picks at his omelette with faraway worry in his eyes, Rhodes sips and gazes with a frown into his coffee.
Steve has nothing; he busies himself by staring out the window in the direction of Natasha and saying nothing. A small, blue and green stone jar sits on the table in front of him, and he absently runs a finger along its engravings.
Thor takes a bite of egg and chews slowly.
A few bites later, Natasha swings back into the Waffle House with a grim expression. They all tear themselves away from their preoccupations to await what must be poor news. "Tony's still missing," she says. "Apparently he was last seen flying after the ship over New York."
"He's probably light-years out in space," Bruce guesses. "Otherwise he would've turned up."
Natasha nods. "Both Fury and Pepper aren't picking up."
They all grimace.
Steve begins, "Do you think they're..."
No one finishes the sentence for him. The only noise among them that interrupts the somber silence is the clicking of Thor's fork against his plate.
"They might just be busy," Natasha eventually replies. It's a reasonable enough assumption considering recent events, but neither Thor nor anyone else feels convinced by it. "I can try again later. I called Clint, too, told him what was going on. He's okay, but Laura and Cooper... disappeared."
Steve sucks in a breath, eyes pained. Bruce bows his head, Rhodes closes his eyes.
Thor wishes he could feel more than only the slightest twinge of sympathy. "He will stay in retirement?"
"Yeah. He needs to focus on his kids more than ever now," Natasha says softly.
Thor nods, taking another slow bite of his food.
"There's another reason he can't come. We need to tackle the elephant in the room," Rhodes says. "You've been gone for the past two years. You and Bruce. A lot of things happened while you guys were gone. Mainly the Sokovia Accords. If you want to stay on this planet and not be a fugitive like Steve and Natasha—" the two make faces but nod, "—you're going to have to follow the new rules."
Thor chews and swallows. "Tell me about this. The Sokovia Accords."
Rhodes explains the details: its purpose as an international provision for regulating 'enhanced individuals,' after events like its namesake that greatly disturbed the international community with the levels of destruction wrought by people it had no ability to oversee. The international registry, the biometrics database, the tight leash on when a signed individual could or could not take action against any kind of threat. The state of the Avengers, now deprivatized and under the supervision of the United Nations.
"They can imprison you indefinitely, without trial," Steve says, a growl coloring his words. "If they just feel like it. It's a blatant violation of our rights."
"Steve is biased," Rhodes interjects. "He's been against the Accords since the beginning."
"Legitimate criticisms aren't bias," Steve counters. "I get the concerns, I do. But I would be the first person to tell you that sometimes people in power don't have the world's best interests at heart. The Accords don't create accountability, they control us. They strip away our rights. And they don't have any allowances for threats that are urgent. Doesn't that alarm you?"
"Of course it does. But the rights that the U.S. Constitution promise aren't exactly universal values. And in case you haven't been paying attention to global news, the U.N.'s already debating one amendment to the Accords that address some of the flaws you're talking about—"
"And if we followed the rules yesterday? How much would you bet that we'd have still been sitting in a room twiddling our thumbs by the time Thanos came to take the Mind Stone?"
"You broke the rules so we could team up to fight Thanos, James," Natasha says. "If this system really worked, you shouldn't have had to."
"You judge every good ideal behind this agreement by the flaws of its testing phase." Rhodes sets down his empty cup with a sharp clack. "This is why Tony and I find this argument ridiculous. Of course the first version has problems. I don't like them either. But this legislation isn't going to go away just because you don't like it. People are scared, and considering everything's that happened in the past decade, hell, everything that happened yesterday alone, they're right to be scared. But we're trying to fix that. We're trying to fix the problems. We're trying to negotiate more freedoms for us. The fact that you refuse to cooperate just makes my and Tony's job so much harder."
"Refusing to cooperate is the best way to make them change," Steve retorts. "Signing it makes us complacent with its flaws, with being deprived of our rights, with depriving every other enhanced person who deserves our protection just as much as the next guy. Ross and every other detractor in the U.N. will always be unhappy with us. Fight them from the inside any harder, and they might decide to lock you up as easily as they did us. You're already going to get court-martialed. Me? I don't need their approval to know when I'm doing the right thing."
Rhodes looks both irritated and exasperated; it's clearly not the first time he's heard this argument. Bruce eats his omelette, seeming as determined to remain out of the debate as he is to catching every word of it, while Natasha only leans back against the booth with a conflicted frown.
("Do you really think it's a good idea to go back to Earth?")
"Doesn't sound as if people like us much anymore," Thor murmurs.
Their expressions say plenty.
"Public opinion is... complicated," Natasha adds in words.
The quiet emptiness in Thor now pricks at his nose, his eye. His fork trembles until he sets it down and folds his hands together before him.
He was going to bring Asgard to Earth, ignorant of how much the planet had changed in his absence. How much the planet now tries to leave its golden age of heroes behind. He thinks back to the pair of girls that took a photo with him in front of the ruins of Shady Acres Care Home and wonders if they are the exception now, whether they'd still be as enthusiastic for a photo if he was Steve instead. If they realized it was Loki standing beside him.
Half of Asgard still remains, drifting toward Earth somewhere in the vastness of space between here and the wreckage of the Statesman. Thor still needs to find them. And Asgard is no human nation with only a few 'enhanced individuals' to inconvenience. He will have to beg aid from governments more interested in labeling every one of his citizens as undesirable, in confining or spurning the very essence that defines Asgard, than in providing refuge to a homeless and desperate people.
("Let me rephrase that. Do you really think it's a good idea to bring me back to Earth?"
"Probably not, to be honest.")
Despite himself, the crown grants Thor a painful perspective. Heimdall and Loki might have been too much for Earth to accept. Heimdall's abilities would have intimidated the Midgardians; Loki would have sneered at the very idea of the Sokovia Accords, even ignoring his leadership of the Chitauri Invasion years ago. Thor does not want to imagine having to choose between them and the rest of his people. In a terrible twist of fate, he will never need to.
"Bruce, Thor, I want you to think about it hard," Steve is saying. "You can join us. You don't have to sign. I refused because I didn't want to risk having superiors I don't agree with again. If people's lives are being threatened, I don't want to have to stand by and wait for a committee to allow me to save them. I want you to consider both sides of the issue. Please don't make a mistake you'll regret."
Rhodes's eyebrow twitches, but before he can say anything, Thor starts to laugh—a loud, full laugh straight from his belly, shoulders shaking as he covers his eyes with a hand and tears up in pure mirth. Steve, Natasha, and Rhodes all look at him with astonishment and no small amount of concern, but he keeps laughing anyway, unable to stop.
Steve's words were just so funny.
Bruce, who was with him on the Statesman, is unfazed. "They'll probably try to imprison me whether I sign or say I'll retire or whatever," he says to Steve once Thor's outburst dies to mere giggles, cutting away another piece of omelet. "Hulk's too unpredictable for them. I can't figure out anything I can take to keep him down without messing up my own brain. And Secretary Ross hates me. The outlook is not good."
"Tony will back you up," Rhodes says.
Bruce raises an eyebrow and pops the piece of omelet into his mouth. "The man who turns into a monster every time he gets a bit too mad?" he says, voice muffled. "You sure about that?"
"Thor, you okay?" Steve asks.
"Yes, perfectly all right," Thor manages, wiping away the tears from his eye. "I just—momentarily lost control over myself. I shouldn't have laughed at you, Steve. Your perspective is very important to you."
Steve frowns. "Yes."
"Unfortunately, you don't understand my predicament," Thor continues. "A lot has happened to me as well in the past two weeks. My father died, my evil sister whom I never knew I had escaped her prison to conquer Asgard and killed tens of thousands of my people, and she shattered Mjölnir. My brother and I were forced to destroy our home in Ragnarök in order to defeat her. Then Thanos and his children discovered the ship we and the remainder of my people were fleeing on and slaughtered half our number. My brother and Heimdall both perished at his hand. The other half of us is drifting out in space somewhere in escape pods, and I don't even know if Thanos's snap reduced our number further. We were coming here to Earth in hope of a new home, but then you tell me about these Sokovia Accords. Truly, I appreciate your thoughts, Steve. But I have many, many more concerns about these Accords than whether or not I personally will have sufficient agency."
Thor finishes with a rather bitter tone. His hands tremble again, and the corner of his eye burns with tears of a different sort now.
Natasha swears. Rhodes is speechless.
Bruce nods solemnly. "I was around for a lot of it," he says, "and let me tell you: it was exactly as horrible as it sounds."
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Steve whispers. "Thor, I'm so sorry."
Thor tries to smile. It doesn't really work. As if speaking of his troubles has suddenly cracked what pillars he built to keep up the assuring façade. "Don't be. We have all lost in the past few days."
"That's not the point. What happened to you, Thor, that's—terrible."
Thor swallows. "Yes. It is."
Natasha leans over to place a comforting hand on Thor's shoulder. "I'm sorry, too. For what it's worth, I hope everything works out for you and your people."
("I wouldn't worry, brother. I feel like everything's going to work out fine.")
"Thank you," Thor manages to say.
He's not sure what to hope for, anymore.
. . .
Before Thanos arrived, Asgard lived a week sailing through space. A week of bridled chaos on a single, if massive ark; of counting people, of sorting resources, of talking and talking and endless talking. Bookended by disaster.
The idea of absolute rule, the kind Thor once dreamed of holding for over a thousand years—the kind that carried the legacy of Hela within it... his stomach roiled at the thought, suddenly. He requested Heimdall's and Loki's assistance, and a day after his coronation they began creating a committee of survivors to represent his people in place of the court of royal advisors who once held the king's ear (and who were all now dead).
"Not the wisest choice," Loki said, eyeing the scraps of a census they'd hastily taken the first day, covered with Heimdall's annotations. "But it will make your job easier, I suppose."
You need it, he did not say, and Thor grimaced in his agreement.
Loki was kinder to deal with than he had been for a long time. He stood by Thor's side when he deliberated with the committee, he made insightful comments of his own accord, on occasion he kept silent when he might have criticized or mocked. Any tricks were harmless. Sometimes he even smiled when he saw Thor walk into the room.
He did not leave. Sometimes, Loki even seemed as if he did not want to.
"I'm here," he said. Thor embraced the familiar warmth of his brother in his arms, decanter stopper digging into his side, and dreamed of hope again.
. . .
Midgardians have a saying about grief: that there are five stages.
Thor doesn't remember what those stages are, but to be honest, the concept of a universal experience of loss, even among Midgardians, sounds like a load of tripe. He has grieved and seen grief, and the one constant about it is how differently people always manage to express it.
After rescuing his people, he spends his days in Wakanda reorganizing the shrunken representative committee and coordinating with the Wakandan government for their temporary accommodations. Thor owes much to Queen Shuri, with whom he has never been acquainted with before, who has no practical reason to offer his people aid, who has newly come into her throne after she and her nation suffered tremendous loss, and who has nevertheless welcomed his people with open and generous arms.
(Thor relates to her pain deeply. He wishes he could offer her advice, but he's hardly a paragon of wise rule. And neither would it be his place—not as an utter stranger of equal power, his people imposing on her land.)
If Thor can reduce Asgard's burden on the queen of Wakanda by even one person, he will. And he does, returning to the Avengers Facility and its early New York afternoons through the Bifrost to rest there once Wakanda finally sinks into night.
The third night after Thanos's victory, he passes through the halls in need for a glass of water and stops as his ears pick up some faint noise. Down another hall, light shines through the cracks of a door.
Thumps. Grunts. Words, so soft that Thor can only make out the turmoil behind them.
He goes to the kitchen. Ten minutes later, he's knocking gently on the door with a foot before letting himself in, a glass of water in one hand and a gallon jug of the same in the other. He nods at Steve, who stands in the middle of the training gym with a thoroughly beaten punching bag. He stares at him. His shirt is soaked in sweat, and circles as dark as the Void bruise the skin beneath his eyes.
Thor takes a sip from the glass and smacks his lips. "You look like shit," he says.
Steve cocks an eyebrow. "Don't hold back, now, Thor."
Thor notes his subdued tone and holds up the jug. "Thought you might like some water. You always made a bad habit of forgetting water before."
"Oh. Yeah. Thank you."
"Just set it right here." Thor walks over to place it down close by before patting a hand on Steve's back. "Do you want to talk about anything?"
Before, Thor is sure that Steve would've taken him up on the offer. They are—they were good friends, after all. But in the two years since they last saw each other, things apparently changed, or perhaps this is more than Thor has ever asked for before, because Steve only hesitates for the briefest second before shaking his head. "I appreciate the offer," he says. "But no. I'd rather not."
Thor conceals his disappointment. "All right. You should get some rest, friend. You need it."
Steve's mouth quirks up. "You too."
Thor raises the glass of water at him in acknowledgement and takes another sip as he turns to leave.
Thor looks back. In the time he's known Steve, his friend has borne his build well. But sometimes, though he never met him then, Thor can see the skinny, frail scrapper of a man he used to be. Steve wrings his hands but meets his eyes, and Thor can see it.
"I know we can't bear your burdens for you," Steve says. "But being a king is a lonely job. Don't let yourself become a stranger, okay? If you ever need us, we're here."
Thor's heart warms, and he inclines his head. "Of course. Thank you."
The next night, the entire floor is dark and quiet, so Thor nearly yells when he flips on the lights for the kitchen to reveal Tony sitting on the tile floor. Tony jumps at the sudden light change before twisting around to see Thor, an open, golden bottle grasped in one hand.
"Thor? What the devil are you doing here?" he asks.
"I wanted some water," Thor replies. "What are you doing here, sitting in the dark on the floor? Is that a bottle of alcohol?"
Tony winces. "No? Yes. It is."
Thor steps closer. Although it's not a big bottle, it seems to be half-empty already, and he peers at the label with tired eyes. A bunch of curly, tiny words he doesn't try to decipher. He's never paid much attention to Midgardian alcohol; taste buds aside, there's not much point in being picky when he can down that entire bottle, scorch his throat, and still feel absolutely none of it afterwards. A human, on the other hand...
"I thought you stopped getting that drunk," Thor says.
Tony barks a bitter laugh and roughly rubs his eyes with the heel of a palm. "Yeah, I thought so, too."
Thor purses his lips before stepping around Tony to open the cabinet of glasses. He takes one out and, ignoring Tony's attempts at pointing out the refrigerator, fills it up with tap water from the sink.
(He's aware of the refrigerator contraptions that provide chilled water and ice. But to be completely honest, Thor has no intention of ever using the one here. He's learned from experience that no two refrigerators on Earth are the same, which on principle already baffles him immensely, and he refuses to spend the next minute trying to puzzle out how this one functions just for a marginally cooler glass of water. Not in front of Tony.)
He sits down next to Tony with his glass of tap water. "I'm sorry," he says.
Tony slumps back against the cabinets, bottle and hand dropping to the floor with a double clink; silver bracelets dangle around his wrists. "Thanks, Thor. But I don't really want your pity."
Thor shakes his head. "It's not pity, Tony. This whole mess is my fault."
Tony eyes him.
"If I hadn't let Thanos destroy our ship," Thor says, "if I had just killed him right then and there... If I hadn't trusted my idiotic brother, who's betrayed me and tricked me time and again, if I had just suspected that he might have had the Tesseract—which was in the very vault I sent him to, like a cursed fool! If Loki had just taken the Tesseract and run..." Thor's next breath shudders with stoppered rage. "Run like he should have done, none of this would have happened. No one would be dead."
Tony gazes at the floor throughout this confession with an inscrutable look on his face. As Thor swallows down the lump that's spontaneously reappeared in his throat, Tony proffers the bottle of alcohol to him.
"It won't do anything for me," Thor says.
"Have a drink anyway," Tony replies.
Thor takes the bottle and drinks a long, deep draft before handing it back.
"Was kind of hoping you'd get rid of it all for me," Tony admits, swirling around the remaining few inches of liquid before taking a swig himself. "So that was when Thanos got the Space Stone, huh? When he attacked your ship? I was wondering how it happened."
"Yes. He boarded my ship, killed half my people, and took the stone. And I couldn't stop any of it."
Tony sighs and takes another drink. The two of them stare into the distance, Thor sipping his water and thinking of nothing but empty space—where his brother's body must be, somewhere. Doomed to drift for eternity, thankless and abandoned, as if it fell again through the endlessness of the Void. Neck snapped and heartbeat long silent. Loki could receive no funeral of honor. Not this time.
"I watched everyone die," Tony says.
Thor looks over at him.
"We were so close, you know," he continues. "We had Thanos on the ropes. That was where he was, by the way, before he ambushed you guys in Wakanda—on this wreck of a planet that used to be his. Me, Dr. Strange, Peter, the rest of the Guardians, we had him trussed up like a Christmas goose. But then Quill found out he'd killed someone important to him and lost it. Thanos got loose before we could get the Infinity Gauntlet off him, batted us around like flies, and then he ran me through."
He places a hand on his side, right where Thor imagines the blade must have been. "Dr. Strange traded the Time Stone for my life. And then I got to watch, completely helpless, as everyone else crumbled to ash right in front of me." His voice is rough. "Peter was just a kid. He never would've been on that planet if it wasn't for me. And I got to live while he cried and died in my arms."
Tony wipes at a few stray tears, dry-eyed again. As he does, Thor spots a ring clutched in his friend's hand that he didn't see before, gleaming and matching another on his finger.
Thor speaks before he can stop himself. "Is that..."
Tony notices the target of his gaze and grimaces, running his thumb along the edge of the ring. "The others told you?" he asks. "I got the news this morning while you were gone. I'm lucky to even have this—Pepper must've taken it off again to do paperwork without it irritating her."
"I'm sorry," Thor says again.
Tony only rolls the ring between his fingers, turning his face up to the ceiling and closing his eyes. "Thor," he finally says. "Did you get what I was saying earlier?"
"We almost beat Thanos. We were an inch away from taking that gauntlet and killing him. If Quill hadn't blown up on him, we'd have won. If Strange hadn't given up the Time Stone, if he had just hardened his heart and let me die—"
Thor suddenly has to clench his jaw against the sheer raw emotion threatening to burst out of him.
"—maybe Thanos wouldn't have gotten to snap his fingers. Maybe we would've thwarted him. And maybe half the universe would still be alive. Peter would've come back home." Tony catches the ring in his palm. "Pepper and I would still be getting married."
Thor thinks: If I try to speak now, I will start crying and I won't be able to stop.
"It sucks," Tony says, "that we lost because we couldn't stop caring about each other. I mean, that's not what's supposed to happen to heroes."
Thor tries to laugh and chokes on it.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is, there's no point in playing the blame game. We'd never stop if we did. Really, the only person we should be pointing fingers at is the mass-murdering purple Dragon Ball demon himself, talking about scarcity like he couldn't just create tons of grain with a snap of his fingers instead of killing half the universe. We tried our best to stop him. It's not our fault just because we failed."
Thor takes a deep, tremulous breath as Tony drinks from the bottle again. "Perhaps you ought to take your own advice," he manages.
"Well. Who's ever good at that?"
Tony hands Thor the bottle, and without a word, he knocks back the rest before gently setting it down on the floor and swallowing up the swell of grief and guilt trying to pull him apart at the seams.
"Listen," Tony says. "Thor. No matter what the U.N. decides, know that I've got your back. They're not the ultimate dictator of Earth like you guys had on Asgard. If you need anything, well, I've got a lot of money. Pretty hard to find anything on this planet you can't buy with a lot of money."
Thor smiles and hates the strain he can feel in it. "Thank you. But I would rather not rely on your generosity if I can help it."
"Yeah. I understand."
When they fall into silence again, Tony reaches over and grips his arm hard. I'm here, it insists, and the lump in Thor's throat reappears. Suddenly, fervently, his heart is overwhelmed with love. He is so glad that Thanos and his absence of two years did not manage to take away this—the friends he first made in this realm what feels so long ago. They may not be able to share the weight of his crown, but they are still there for him, and that is something. He closes his eyes and breathes, and Tony lets him.
Eventually, Thor says, "I know I vanished for two years, but I hope you were planning on inviting me to your wedding."
"You were on the list. We were still trying to figure out how to mail the invite to you, though. The postal service doesn't exactly offer stamps for Asgard. Or for... wherever you were."
"I was traveling all over Yggdrasil."
Tony waves a hand as if to say: Yes, exactly. That's the problem.
. . .
"You are crashing my party," Loki says, enunciating carefully. "Hm. Midgardians are good for turns of phrase, at the least. I assume Valkyrie invited you. I'm going to kill her as soon as I can walk again."
Thor stands stiffly in the doorway of the bar—a secret one, according to Valkyrie, as opposed to the very large and very not-secret one two blocks away, from which they confiscated all the alcohol on the first day. (He thinks Valkyrie has probably swallowed a full third of the massive stock by now.) This bar is nearly as large and well-furnished, and there is a bottle of liquor on the counter Loki lies slumped against, alongside two other empty ones.
"Not much of a party," Thor replies. "How long have you been here?"
Loki considers this for a long moment. "What time is it?"
Thor frowns but only with a little concern, as his brother's still coherent and reserved. He suspects he sobered somewhat between the second and third bottle. "You missed the meeting."
"Ah. Well. I can't say I'm sorry for being a disappointment. I'm sure Heimdall didn't miss me." Loki takes a lazy swig from the bottle. "Norns, this is disgusting. I will never understand how you and all your friends ever found this tolerable."
"Drinking yourselves into stupors." Loki's lip curls. "All it managed to do was make me feel worse, and dulled my mind besides. There is absolutely no appeal."
The vitriol Thor has grown familiar with has yet to rear its head, and Thor accepts this as a sign that he's not unwelcome. He sits at the bar beside him and replies, "I rather think dulling your mind is the point."
"You would think that."
Thor rolls his eye, and his brother chuckles before taking another drink.
Rare as it is for Loki to lower his guard around him, Thor doesn't hesitate to glance over him closely. The shadows under his eyes, as dark as they've been since Sakaar, have purpled like bruises, sunken into his face. He's eaten at every meal, but his sharp cheekbones can better be described as gaunt. Loki rarely drinks, as it loosens his tongue in a way he can never stomach sober. Yet he drank at Sakaar, Thor thinks, and he's drinking right now, more than Thor has ever seen him drink before.
His brow furrows. "Is everything all right, brother?" he asks.
Loki laughs, and it's a low and bitter sound. "What a ridiculous question. Of course not. We are refugees with our home reduced to an asteroid field, planning to beg for scraps from a planet that can't even solve its own torments."
Thor crosses his arms on the counter, pensive.
Loki drinks and licks his lips. "We are but a tiny shadow of the grand kingdom that we were. We are doomed to a slow and painful demise."
"You must have hope. We will make it through this."
"Hope?" Loki bares his teeth in a mockery of a smile. "Hope is what makes our dying breaths all the more torturous."
Thor tugs the half-empty bottle from Loki's hands. It comes away easier than he expected, and Loki slumps further forward as if the bottle was a support beam he just knocked down. "I tire of this pessimism. You sound like one of those tragic heroes you always complained about."
"You never listened to those rants."
"'This character's soliloquies are absolutely unbearable,'" Thor mocks, spinning around on the barstool to make faces at Loki. "'The structure is horrendous. He talks as if the entire world revolves around his suffering and nothing can be done to solve them. Perhaps if his first reaction to everything wasn't to stab the person, he would find his troubles so much easier to deal with.'"
Loki splutters. Thor grins. He hasn't seen Loki splutter in ages.
"I know what you're trying to do," Loki says, jabbing a finger into Thor's chest. "First of all, I do not sound like that. Second of all, I am not a tragic hero. I am a villain. I am the selfish and immoral trickster, the foil to your majestic, honorable protagonist whom I fool and betray. Repeatedly. I have no soliloquies except to cackle at your stupidity as I explain my evil plans."
"You are not a villain. I know this because you're rather bad at it."
"Bad at it?"
"You're still here for one. Aren't you?"
Loki doesn't reply at first, and for a second Thor's anxiety spikes. He hesitates before reaching out a hand to place on his brother's shoulder, and thankfully it finds solid flesh instead of an illusion. Loki shrinks from his touch but doesn't shake it off entirely, and he studies Thor with a wary skeptic's eyes.
"Weren't you the one who said it would be better if we never saw each other again?" he says.
"Isn't that what you wanted?" Thor runs the pad of his thumb along the rim of his stolen bottle. "Four years."
Loki's lips draw tight as he looks away.
"So many of us have tried to make you stay. But every time, you push us away—you hurt us, and laugh at our pain. It's been years. Even I don't have the patience or the foolishness to keep fighting someone who wants to leave."
Loki stares down at the dark varnished wood. Thor waits.
"I never wanted to be a villain," Loki finally says. "But I'm certainly not a tragic hero. And I will never be what you want me to be. I may have pushed you away, but I was hardly the one to push first. You and Odin did that well enough, long before I discovered the monster everyone had tried to hide from me."
Intentionally placed barbs, trying to taunt him into familiar lines of argument. Thor raises his eyebrows. Predictable.
Loki glances at him and scowls, finally brushing his hand off his shoulder.
"You're not making a good case for yourself," Thor says.
"And you're not doing very well at encouraging me not to stab you."
Thor chuckles, and Loki purses his lips, clearly trying his best not to laugh with him. The moment strikes Thor like a bolt from the blue—how young his brother looks, with his face flushed pink from indulgence. He splays a palm against the grain of the bar, smiling. He can almost add to the scene in his mind's eye: raucous noise, fellow patrons thumping shoulders in the haze of sweat and firesmoke, a bartender sliding over drinks to Sif and the Warriors Three beside them. Familiar times of victory and celebration, of centuries spent utterly carefree. Times long gone.
Thor's smile fades. "Tell me."
"Tell you what?"
Thor leans against the bar and turns to face him. "What do you think I want you to be?"
Loki curls his lip. "If this is your attempt at reassuring your pride—"
"I am done with pride. I want your honesty," Thor interrupts, meeting his brother's eyes and trying to convey every ounce of his sincerity that he can. "I never wanted it enough before. Please."
Loki says nothing. He stares at him. He looks—well, thunderstruck. Discombobulated.
Thor considers the reality he has come to acknowledge in the past two years of solitude and retrospection: that he rarely listened to his brother before, rarely prompted him of his own accord to speak his opinions freely, rarely gave thought to their present and how everything had changed instead of idealizing those days that had long passed into the dark.
He tosses back a swallow of what Loki was drinking. It tastes like paint thinner and sears like dragon fire all the way down.
Loki chews his lip. Indeed, things are different, like the exhaustion painted with dark strokes across his face, the longer locks of hair that conceal his expression, or the flickers in his eyes of something bleaker than mere melancholy—but right now, his brother still looks vulnerable. Thor almost feels guilty for taking advantage of his inebriation like this.
"You want me to be who I was," Loki says, quiet even in the silence of the bar. "Ignorant in his comfort and lies. You want me to be soft, and innocent, and forgetful, to return to being lesser, overshadowed by the golden big brother who will protect me like some fragile, incapable toy." He sneers, but the scorn is practiced and weighed down by an apathy that squeezes Thor's heart tight. "Well, I cannot and will not. And certainly your protection has been rather poor of late."
At the last, Thor's hands tighten on the bottle.
"Of course I want to protect you," he says, voice rough. "You're my brother. Loki—" Thor cuts off Loki as he opens his mouth again. "Loki. Don't you dare say anything about your blood. No matter how many times I have to repeat it, I will. We grew up together, played together, fought together. We loved the same mother and father. If you must reject us, then I cannot stop you. I will not, not anymore. You only fight back, I've learned that now. But as infuriating as you are, I love you. You're my brother."
Thor swallows, deliberately relaxing his hold on the bottle before it can shatter in his hands. "Of course I wish it could be like the past again. We've lost... everything, it seems. But I realize you've not been soft nor innocent nor the brother I once defended from the monsters in his nightmares, not for centuries.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry we never understood. We thought we wanted your happiness but really, we were stuck on what was, what we wanted. We thought it was simple, but it wasn't. Well, I think I understand now, brother. I would be happy—I would be overjoyed if you stayed by my side. But I don't want you to be somewhere that doesn't make you happy. Even if that includes me. Especially if that includes me," Thor jokes, cracking a frail smile. "Norns know you're unbearable when you're unhappy. I have enough trouble on my plate without adding a displeased god of mischief to the mix."
Loki sits still on the stool, face obscured by his hair. Thor has to resist the urge to take another drink from the bottle as he tenses, prepared to hear the inevitable agreement—and then he notices the tremble of his brother's shoulders, hands clutched white-knuckled on the bar before him.
In a ripple of shimmering green, Loki disappears. Thor's eye widens, and for a staggering second he tries to puzzle out how he managed to sneak away while right in front of his face, and when.
Drops of liquid fall out of empty space and splash onto the counter.
Thor's lungs shrivel in the realization. He can hear his brother's ragged breathing now, trying so softly to be inaudible. "Loki," he whispers. "I know you're still there."
Two more tears wet the wood, and then Loki wrinkles back into existence, curled into himself with a hand clapped over his mouth. He looks about ready to topple over from his perch with how hard he's shaking, and Thor is off his seat before he even knows what he should do. (It has been so long since he was last allowed to see his little brother cry.)
"Damn it," Loki gasps. "Damn—I hate—I am never drinking again."
Thor reaches out toward him, but Loki flinches.
The next moment belongs in the Midgardian comedies Darcy once played on the television for him on 'movie nights' (she gossiping about every main actor, their casting history, and her opinion on their physical attractiveness; Jane laughing softly from beneath the embrace of his arm). Loki flinches—and leans too far away. His eyes widen, he reaches for the bar, and his hand misses the wood. He tumbles backward off his stool with a yelp and several heavy thumps.
Thor's jaw drops. "Loki!"
Loki lies sprawled ass over teakettle on the floor. The tears that still wet his cheeks are tarnished by the utter shock on his face, the cape that flutters down to drape his front. Thor stares down at him, and his brother stares back.
"Are... are you all right?" Thor asks.
His brother grumbles under his breath. "Oh, absolutely. Peachy. Really, quite comfortable." He blows hair from his face and pouts, likely without thinking—else Loki would never allow himself to look so silly. Thor presses his lips together as the smallest giggle bubbles up his throat.
Loki's mouth falls open. "No," he says. "You will not."
The demand, so strained and flabbergasted, only tips him over the edge. Thor bends over and, holding his stomach, laughs so hard that it echoes like claps of thunder in the lonely barroom. His view of Loki's face blurs into an unintelligible bright red blob.
"I hate you," Loki mutters. "I hate you so much."
Thor about roars in mirth as he slides down to the floor, leaning his head back against the bar. "You—your face—you fell off!" he cackles.
Loki groans. "No thanks to you."
Thor can only turn his face up to the ceiling and try to smother his laughter with the back of his hand, in vain. His fit seems to last forever; it begins to die until he catches sight of Loki righting himself from off the floor or rearranging his clothes or his mouth twitching at him as he stifles his own snickers, and then Thor's laughing madly all over again, sides aching in protest as his eye spills with tears.
He's gasping for breath when Loki makes a strange noise. He looks in time for the euphoria to be swept away as his brother's face crumples.
Thor sits up, astonished. "Loki?"
"Norns—you don't know, you truly don't know." Loki laughs, the sound strangled. "You have no clue how much I missed you."
"Four years. I tried to push you away, I wanted everyone gone, and I had it. And all I did was miss you." Loki's voice breaks, and his hands clench into fists. He squeezes his eyes shut, as if he might lock away the weeping if he but closes them tight enough. "I missed you so much."
Thor watches, stunned, as his brother's so-cherished composure falls apart.
In another time, another place, he might have received these words with vindictive satisfaction. Even now, a part of him thinks: Finally, Loki regrets.
But his brother twists away, shaking and tense as load-bearing wire as he swipes furiously at his tears, his breaths quick and wet. Now, Thor recalls the gaunt cheekbones, the dark circles, the empty bottles and the bone-deep weariness in his eyes, and the rest of him thinks: my little brother has been alone.
Thor shifts closer, putting a hand on his shoulder, and this time Loki doesn't flinch. Slowly, watchful for any sign of resistance, he turns him back around and raises his other hand to gently cradle the side of his brother's face. He wipes at some of the tears with a calloused thumb, feeling the dark purple under his eyes as frail as paper, and Loki's breath hitches. His eyes slip closed and he tilts into the touch like a dying man (and Thor knows how to recognize that, doesn't he?), leaning his face into his palm, and Thor's throat draws tight. Quick as quicksilver, he lets go of Loki's shoulder to wrap an arm around him and pulls him close, tucks his brother's head beneath his chin and kisses his hair. Loki's breaths get harsher, faster, and Thor shushes him softly, stroking his arm. "It's okay," he murmurs, "it's okay."
Loki shudders and curls into his chest. "I missed you so much it hurt," he says, voice thick. The words tumble from his lips as if they are finally escaping a prison once left to be forgotten. "I miss home. I miss Mother. I miss..." He gasps. "I miss Father. And I killed them. I destroyed them."
Can't trust himself to speak.
Instead, he buries his face in his brother's hair, tears of his own slipping into the locks, and hopes it's enough.
Loki gradually quiets, head resting against Thor's chest. He presses his lips into his hair again and rubs circles into his back; his brother feels like trembling jelly in his arms, as if his embrace is the only thing holding his limbs together (and Thor wonders if it isn't the only thing holding himself together, too). Time passes like thick honey until abruptly, Loki wrenches himself from Thor's grip, and his heart stutters a beat until his brother starts retching a few stumbling steps away, alcohol and bile forming a sour pool on the floor.
Loki pants, spitting. Thor stands and moves close to place a hand on the back of his neck, feeling him tense beneath his palm.
"It's not that simple," Loki mumbles. "I haven't forgiven anything. But I don't understand how you can."
How does he explain?
They breathe. Finally, Thor says, "You're my little brother. I still love you. And I want us to try."
. . .
The day after his heartfelt midnight conversation with Tony, Thor returns from Wakanda, feeling somewhat brighter than he's been feeling in recent days after finalizing the last of his people's needs (and giving Queen Shuri a brief hug after a more personal, touching conversation), only to find Steve, Rhodes, and Tony in the lounge discussing future ways to keep in contact.
"Ross called a few hours ago," Natasha explains to him in her room, a single backpack settled on the edge of her bed. "He didn't find out we were here, but he knows we're still alive. So we can't stay."
"Where will you be going?" Thor asks.
"Everywhere. Nowhere. What we were doing before all this." Natasha shrugs as she tightly rolls up a shirt. "The world's a big place, and I still have plenty of uncompromised safe houses that S.H.I.E.L.D. never knew about. We might drop by Wakanda on occasion. It's a signatory of the Accords, but we're friends with King T'Challa. Or... we were." She purses her lips. "But I think Shuri will still be welcoming."
Thor mulls this over. "Then hopefully I shall see you again in the near future."
Natasha smiles, tucking the shirt into her backpack. "Hopefully."
They remain in silence as Natasha packs more items into her backpack, mostly clothing that's nondescript and comfortable—although she also tucks in money, food, and a few gadgets that Thor recognizes as Tony's work. It's a sensible system, so well-worn and focused on functional need, and he smiles. He's always admired the practicality behind Natasha's clever, thoughtful mind; he suspects she might resent the comparison, but she reminds Thor of his brother, if they were two opposite sides of the same coin.
("I, Loki, prince of Asgard, Odinson—")
Thor closes his eyes and breathes.
Eventually, Natasha straightens from her packing and looks at him, and Thor tenses at the gravity of her expression.
"Have you tried to contact Jane yet?" she asks.
Thor stiffens. Oh, yes; this was a bad turn for the conversation to take. "Jane and I broke up."
"I heard. I'm sorry. But that's not really an answer."
"No," Thor mutters. "I haven't."
"I didn't know you were back to being a five-year-old," Natasha says.
He grinds his teeth and tries to think of a way out of the question that isn't simply running away and hiding somewhere in a corner. "Natasha, I don't want to talk about this."
"Obviously. I haven't heard you mention her once this entire time," she replies. "And I know you care about her a lot. She cares a lot about you, too."
"You don't know her."
"All my years working with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s highest security projects and you think I've never met Jane Foster before? She's a very nice woman, and very intelligent. She definitely lives up to her reputation. She talked about you a lot, too, mostly in relation to her work; she's good at being professional. But it was obvious how much she liked you."
Thor grimaces, turning away.
"I don't expect that you two are still in love," Natasha says. "But I can't imagine that you wouldn't want to know whether she's still alive."
"I know you're a practical person," Thor remarks bitterly without thinking, "but thinking so carelessly of Wakanda and then this. I never imagined you to be this cold."
Natasha is the one to stiffen this time, genuinely hurt.
Thor, wide-eyed, immediately backtracks. "I didn't mean that, Natasha, I just—"
"It's all right. We're all still a bit raw." Natasha returns to packing, shoulders still tense. "I know I come off as cold sometimes. But I'm not interested in apologizing for myself when it should be obvious that I do have feelings."
"I know," Thor says softly. "I'm sorry. I just..." He takes a breath. "I'm afraid."
Natasha looks at him, relaxing slightly. "What do you mean?"
"I'm afraid that she'll be confused," he admits. "That she won't care, or she'll wonder why I'm even trying. That in the last two years, she's already forgotten about me. It would be for the best if she did, but I'm still afraid of it. Though most of all... well. You can guess."
She sighs. "Running from it won't help. Believe me, I've tried."
Thor imagines Jane—probably puttering around in a laboratory somewhere, or perhaps at home, reading through drafts of research papers or skimming through sheets of data. Imagines her gasping in shock as her hands start disintegrating before her eyes, terrified and innocent until the last second before what was left of her drifted to the floor. Of Darcy seeing and feeling the exact same thing, or Erik. All of them helpless and confused. Gone.
He's already lost so much.
"I'll find out eventually," he says quietly. "I swear. But... not now. I can't."
Thor watches her zip up a pocket of the backpack. "What about Banner?"
He doesn't miss the way Natasha tenses again. "What about him?"
"Is he leaving with you two?"
"As far as I know, he is. Either that or he'll go off on his own again like he's done before. The Accords won't be doing him any favors, and he's had a lot of experience with people who want to control him. I think he's decided that the risk of walking free with the Hulk is less than the risk of what might happen if he signs."
Natasha turns away to reach for something, but Thor catches the slight, proud smile on her face before she returns straight-faced to place the protein bar in the bag.
"Thor," she says.
"Take care of yourself."
The corner of Thor's mouth goes up. "And what makes you think I'm not?"
"This is what happens when you're the most well-adjusted," she sighs. "You have to turn into the group mom. You haven't been sleeping at all. You've barely been eating. And don't try to say something about being a god, Thor. Even mighty Asgardians can't not sleep without causing problems for themselves like you've been doing for the past several days. You're a king now."
As if I could forget, he thinks sourly.
"You've been working nonstop after two disasters in a row," Natasha continues. "Your body and your mind need the rest."
Thor shrugs. "Sleeping will not give me any rest."
"In a manner of speaking."
Natasha is right—Thor hasn't risked sleeping since he first woke up on the Guardians' ship after being rescued from space. Once, he dreamed of all-consuming fire and death, and that was before Surtur. Before Thanos. Thor doesn't need to sleep to know that his dreams will be neither pleasant nor wholly simple dreams.
"You could try medication. Figuring out a dosage for you will be a challenge, but the nightmares might go away. In fact, this morning we were all thinking about slipping tranquilizers in your food." Natasha smiles. "Tony suggested rhinoceros-level amounts."
Thor isn't sure what a rhinoceros is, but it startles him to realize his friends have grown concerned enough to talk about him. "I don't think that'll be necessary," he says.
"Tony might try it if you don't start sleeping, you know."
"I know. What about you, Natasha? Are you taking care of yourself?"
Natasha smiles; Thor is transparently trying to redirect the conversation, but she seems to feel merciful. "Thank you for the concern, but I've been taking care of myself for a long time. I'm fine." She checks through the contents of her backpack, zipping up each pocket as they pass inspection. "Compared to you guys, my own grief is nothing. But I've always been good at compartmentalizing my feelings." She hesitates. "Sometimes too much, I think."
"It's like being able to sort your thoughts and feelings into boxes. Being able to set them aside and take them out when you need it, or hide them away until you're confronted with them."
"Ah, yes. We use a different word for it on Asgard." Thor pauses, heart sinking. "Or we did."
Natasha nods. "It's a useful tool for a spy, but it was also a survival mechanism. Hide away the fear, the sorrow, the doubt... Even as a child, I learned to protect myself in so many ways. But now that I don't always have to, sometimes it hinders me more than it helps me."
She chews her lip as she zips up the last pocket, and Thor waits.
"I'm not good at this," she finally says.
"That's all right. I suppose this is the part where the compartmentalizing hinders you," he replies.
Natasha smiles, but it fades like dew in the sun. "I do have feelings. But sometimes, it feels as if there's something wrong with me. As if I don't care as much as normal people do because I can watch someone innocent die, or see a child cry, and not shed a single tear. I feel sympathy, of course, but... it's not the same. Does that make sense?"
Thor nods. He thinks he can even understand.
"It's disturbing sometimes. When I get too far down the rabbit hole, I start wondering how much I really care about people. If I've ever actually felt love, or if I'm capable of ever feeling it, because other people seem to feel so passionate and I... don't."
"Just because you can set your grief aside when tragedy strikes down others doesn't mean your compassion is any less real," Thor says.
Natasha's smile is frail. "Is it, really?"
"I believe so," Thor insists stubbornly. "Otherwise I would be rather heartless myself for working so hard, don't you think?"
"Ha. I guess so."
Thor senses that he hasn't completely reassured Natasha, but she abruptly cuts off the conversation by saying, "Here," turning to grab an object from her desk, and tossing it to him. He scrambles to catch it and nearly falls out of his chair. It's a prepaid flip phone. "If you ever need me or Steve for anything. Anything at all. The number's already put in for you. Call us. And please, try to not break this one before you do. I don't have any extras."
"Thank you, Natasha. And I am sorry, again. For what I said about your being cold."
"It's all right." Thor can't tell if she's being truthful; she has closed off, is again Natasha the spy. "If you really want to apologize, go sleep."
"But aren't you three leaving soon?"
"Tonight. We'll be less likely to be seen, and it'll be easier for Tony to fudge the building's security footage for us. Don't worry—if you're still not up, we'll wake you ourselves so you can give us a proper send-off," Natasha teases.
Thor smiles. "Please do."
. . .
Thor doesn't quite obey Natasha immediately. For an hour, he sits at the desk in his room with pen and paper trying to draft the address he knows he will have to give to the United Nations soon, and spends most of the time staring at old bullet points in exhausted despair. What I've seen of Earth is kindness and determination to do what's right, one of them reads. My people have nowhere else to go, reads another.
The headache that throbs through Thor's skull may as well be his crown. He rubs his temples and groans.
Rhetoric was never his strong suit, no matter that he may have done well enough for the Allfather to hear confidence in his tutors' reports. Thor knows he must grasp at any straw he can reach that might save his people. If that means he must panhandle at the feast like a penniless beggar, then he will. The thought pains his pride fiercely. Asgard, once the wealthiest, the most influential, the most powerful realm in Yggdrasil—reduced to pleas and appeals to sympathy. To pity. But it pains Thor's pride worse to remember where that pride came from. Asgard is no longer that empire nor can it ever be again, one way or another. Pride will not give his people shelter or food. To be honest, it isn't as if 'penniless beggars' is an unfair description of them now.
Loki would have figured out a way, Thor can't help but think. He would have given us bargaining power, somehow. He wouldn't need to wield our destitution as his only tool. But he already knew, didn't he, that they would have to plead? Loki's clever mind cannot help him. Loki cannot write his address. Loki cannot do or think anything, not anymore.
Frustration swells the lump in his throat. His breaths come shallow and quick, and in the solitude of his room, Thor can't hold himself together. How is he supposed to be a good king? How can he deserve his family's trust, Heimdall's, his people's, if he can't write this single speech?
He can't do this. He can't protect them, he can't—
In a flash, Thor hurls his pen across the room and yells before burying his face in his hands, panting. He can't. He can't do this. He's so tired.
He breathes for the remainder of the hour, and then crosses the room to retrieve the pen. He needs sleep, Thor finally accepts; at least some of his struggle can't be helped if he's exhausted. So he clears the desk, tucks the paper away in a drawer, undresses. He crawls into the bed for the first time since he arrived, and as if in objection to his reluctance, like the cutting of a puppet from its strings, Thor's body gives in to the darkness of sleep as soon as he is prone.
When he wakes ten hours later to the banging at his door, most of the dreams that came to him slip away, leaving in their wakes cold sweat, mangled sheets, and mere impressions—of gleaming blades, slaughter, weeping, blood. Scorching sienna sparks raining from the sky, blinding emerald light roasting his flesh to flakes of black. Millions upon millions of shrieking voices and gnashing teeth cast into an infinite void, their curses volleying into all directions of space in search of the person who brought them to their ends with a single choice.
One dream, however, endures:
Thor stirs slowly from a mess of blankets and pillows more comfortable than he can remember having for a long time, blinking his eyes open to dim morning light. He doesn't recognize the room until he sits up in the bed and notices that he's dressed in a familiar set of tacky pajamas—red and gold with a pattern of tiny Mjölnirs, a gag gift from Tony for Yule that he long forgot.
The Avengers Tower, he thinks. He's in his old sleeping quarters. Peeking through the shades reveals the hazy Manhattan skyline, confirming his conclusions.
He knows this is a dream, so he forgoes changing; this moment will probably end soon anyway, and no character he may meet will care. He wanders out of the room and is stunned to simply find the halls as he remembers them, friendly in their familiarity if too quiet.
"Steve? Tony?" Thor calls. His words echo off the walls.
He walks, calling his teammates' names and receiving no response. He remembers J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony's magic servant once embedded within the building's workings, and attempts to summon him as well, but even the being's polite, earnest voice fails to greet him. Thor's stomach sinks. Another disaster lying in wait, he's sure. Instinctively, he tries to summon a weapon—Mjölnir, Stormbreaker—but neither fly to his side. He will be defenseless this time.
Thor shuffles out of the hall, fists clenched tight.
To his surprise, it's not the lounge that he enters but the penthouse, the full, warm light of Earth's dawn shining through the glass walls and suffusing the tasteful but lonely floor. He casts his gaze about him, searching for anything out of the ordinary—and freezes upon seeing the figure bent over with its back to him, a knee and a hand on the floor.
"No," Thor says.
Loki glances back at him and offers a small, crooked grin. "Unfortunately, yes."
Thor is rooted to the ground, his blood like mud gurgling through his veins. Loki trails a hand along the stone of the floor, looking contemplative. A rare sight for Thor to see—a sight he never expected to see again.
"Do you remember when the Hulk smashed me into this very spot in the floor?" Loki says. "Of course, you'd not witnessed it, but you did see the crater afterward. It was a very... impressionable moment."
"Who are you?" Thor asks.
"Can you not see with your—eyes? Did you get a new eye?"
"My brother is dead. This is but a dream. And my dreams have not been kind."
Thor takes a step forward but stills as Loki slowly stands and faces him.
"Why, Thor," he says. "You know, of course, to never trust the evidence of your eyes around me. However, I would hope that any nightmare of yours featuring me would begin more impressively than this. And certainly not with you wearing that." He gives him a pointed once-over, eyebrows raised. "It's hideous."
Thor looks down at his clothes with widening eyes—the pajamas. He looks back up and stares at Loki, who waits with an air of long-suffering patience.
"Loki?" Thor asks.
"The light dawns." Loki grins, but the teeth flash only briefly before his jaw drops in astonishment as Thor stomps toward him. He steps back, but Thor is already grasping the lapels of his long, familiar coat and yanking him closer. Now, he can see the hand-shaped bruises that mar the pale flesh of his brother's neck.
"You," Thor snarls, "are the worst brother a person could ever have."
"Is this about the Tesseract," Loki gasps.
"It's about much more than the Tesseract!"
Thor lets go of Loki as if the green leather caught on fire in his hands before shoving him backwards. Loki stumbles and nearly falls over onto the floor.
"What were you thinking?" Thor demands.
"You're going to have to be a slight more specific, brother."
Thor growls, stalking toward him. Loki flinches, another step back bumping him into a countertop, and he raises a hand in defense, one of his knives shimmering into existence in its grip. The sight only enrages Thor further.
"How about," Thor says, "when you just surrendered an Infinity Stone to the madman who wanted to use it to murder half the universe?"
"What else was I supposed to do, let you die?"
"Yes! You should have teleported away with the Tesseract and run—run far, far away, out of Thanos's grasp!"
The fear in Loki's eyes has faded to become a backdrop to righteous indignation. "How ungrateful of the King of Asgard," he spits. "Last of the line of Odin. I saved your life."
"Thanos killed half the universe."
Loki snarls and drives his knife straight into the counter behind him, burying the blade deep into the stone. "Well, excuse me for not giving a damn about the universe when the only person I care for in it was dying right in front of me!" he yells.
"He killed you!" Thor roars.
Silence. His chest heaves, not only with fury. Loki's mouth works as if in search of words and failing, but he continues to glare, green eyes shining. His hand twitches up, perhaps to summon another knife—or reach for the bruises on his throat—and just like that, Thor becomes acutely aware of the half-blur of his sight, the tears welling in his sole good eye.
The fury drains out of him. Thor slumps, and then sits down heavily on the floor. Loki blinks.
"Why am I even doing this?" he murmurs, pressing the heel of his palm into his eye. "This is only a dream. You're still dead."
"Thor," Loki says quietly.
"Leave me be." Thor's voice is ragged. "Just—go away."
He stares down at his ridiculous Mjölnir-print pajamas, eye and nose burning. The penthouse is still silent; he can't even hear the noise of the city outside, something he knows to be ever-present from experience, though the morning sun shines warmly on his back. Then someone heaves a long sigh, and Loki sits down in front of him. "Brother," he says.
Thor turns away.
Loki grabs his shoulders, and slowly Thor allows him to turn him back around. His hands feel stunningly real, grounding him. "Brother."
"You didn't even try," Thor says, voice thick. "A single knife."
"My death at his hand was long coming, ever since I failed my assault on Earth," Loki says. "Once he boarded our ship, it was only a matter of time. With two Infinity Stones at his disposal, neither you nor I could have stopped him. We couldn't even kill him when he had but one."
"But you didn't have to give him the Tesseract. You could have run."
"He was killing you, Thor."
"He killed you," Thor replies with a glare.
"Well." Loki shrugs a shoulder. "You've already seen me die twice before. What's one more?"
Thor punches him. He pulls back at the last second so it's closer to a clip on the nose than a battering ram, but Loki's head still snaps back. "Ow," he groans.
"Joke about dying again," Thor says, shaking out his hand, "and I will kill you myself."
Loki prods gingerly at his nose. "Oh, so you're allowed to, but I'm not." He grimaces when Thor gives him an even harsher glower. "All right. But I was making a real point. The Mad Titan attacked our ship because he tracked the Tesseract. That's the only way he might've found us. If I had run, he would've simply killed you before chasing after me. And clearly, even I cannot run from him forever."
"It might have bought us time."
Loki barks a laugh. "Bought time for what? Your human friends, to prepare for an Infinity Gauntlet when they have barely achieved space travel? But you are forgetting an important detail, brother. In your proposed chain of events, you would have been dead."
"So? It was you, was it not, that relit Nidavellir to forge Stormbreaker? It was you that almost brought an end to the Titan before he could snap his fingers? Your desire to keep me alive is appreciated, brother, truly, but you are the strong one. Stronger than perhaps anyone else, certainly stronger than me. Without you, defeating him would be impossible."
"And because of this," Thor says, "I must accept your loss."
Loki frowns and eyes him, hearing the low simmer of anger in his words. "Well, yes. Don't tell me you would allow your sentiment to cloud your judgment. You were just trying to harangue me for the same."
Thor makes a strangled sort of noise. "That doesn't mean I want you to die!"
"And I didn't want you to die. Let's be honest, brother. For both of us, my death is so much easier to bear."
"Easier to—" Thor chokes as his face contorts. He takes a deep breath, Loki regarding him warily, as he fights the burning dual urge inside him to either shout in rage or start crying. He is grieved, he is lost, he is alone. "My little brother being throttled to death in front of me is hardly easy to bear."
Loki softens. "Survivable, then. The last two times were testament enough. You survived—grew stronger even, as you are always wont to do in the face of adversity. But if... if you were to die by my actions..." He looks away, lips twisting, and admits quietly, "I would rather die."
Thor opens his mouth, then closes it. What can he say to that?
"Please understand," Loki says. His words are earnest. "This was the only way. It is because you live that there is hope."
Thor laughs, and it is a broken sound. "Hope?"
Loki stares at him with a strange, twisted expression on his face. Dismay, Thor realizes, at seeing his older brother's heart so low. His vision blurs with searing tears at knowing the disappointment he must be to him. After so many years, he was finally allowed to be his big brother again—only to fail him in every way that mattered.
"Thor," Loki says, as Thor ducks his head and weeps.
So weak, he thinks. After Loki asked you to be strong. But Loki is dead. Heimdall is dead. Volstagg, Fandral, Hogun, Sif—all dead. Father is dead and Mother is long dead and so little of Asgard remains, and how is Thor meant to protect them when the only place he might adequately beg for sanctuary might not actually be adequate, might just turn him and his people out as easily as it was for them to lock up his friends if he cannot convince them otherwise?
He heaves for breath. Hot tears drip down his chin to wet his lap.
Hands grasp his shoulders. "Norns, Thor," Loki mutters, audibly discomfited. "Pull yourself together."
Thor shuts his eyes, suddenly overwhelmed. Pull himself together?
He is so tired.
"Look." Loki's voice is tight and distant. "Just—oh, brother."
Knees bump against his as an arm loops around his shoulders, and then Thor is pulled in to weep into his brother's chest instead. One hand goes to rest on the back of his neck, kneading soothingly with a thumb, while the other pats his back rather a bit more awkwardly. "There, there," Loki says, and Thor can feel the words vibrate in Loki's ribs. He leans his forehead against them and thinks he can hear his heart, beating beyond the bones.
Thor gives a wet laugh and grabs onto his brother's arms. "You're very bad at this," he mumbles.
"Well..." Loki rests his cheek on the crown of Thor's head, and his embrace is warmer than Manhattan's morning sun. "This was usually your job."
"Mhm. I'm sorry."
"Everything. You, everyone has so much faith in me. I don't know if I can do this."
Loki heaves a sigh (and he can hear it in his lungs, feel it as it shifts his head), and the familiar, affectionate exasperation in it makes Thor's eye burn fiercer. "I don't say you're strong as an empty platitude, brother," he murmurs. "You are. I don't regret what I did. I do regret that I cannot help you now. But you don't need my help. You never have."
"You don't know that."
"How many times over would I be dead without you?"
Loki hums, his amusement conceding the point. "Too many to count. But you will be fine. After all, you are the older brother to me. And you still have your friends."
He does. "But I want you here," Thor mumbles, knowing his words are against reason (and he hates his crown, he does). "It would be easier with you."
Loki slowly, tentatively starts rubbing circles into his back. Thor closes his eyes. Don't leave, he thinks, and as childish as the thought is, he is beyond thinking of pride or necessity. When the dream ends, Loki will be gone. So he relaxes into his brother's embrace, gripping onto the leather of his coat like a lifeline as he drowns himself in the soft sound of his brother's breathing.
"I love you," Loki whispers. "Never doubt. Remember?"
. . .
Thor wakes with wet cheeks to someone banging on his door. The room is dark, and his fists clutch air.
. . .
"You know what's funny," Tony says.
He and Thor are in the Avengers Facility laboratory nine days after Thanos's victory, Thor watching as Tony performs a number of the same experiments on Stormbreaker as he once did with Mjölnir so long ago. He has to restrain himself from twitching and flexing his hand every time Tony oh-so-casually picks the weapon up with his Iron Man gauntlet to move it around.
"What?" Thor replies.
"All of the original Avengers survived. You, me, Steve, Bruce, Natasha, Clint." Tony, as if out of ideas of what to try next, simply lights a propane torch and submerges the end of the handle in flame. The wood doesn't seem to react. "Somehow we're all still alive and kicking. It's almost like the old days, really. All we're missing is Fury yelling at us and your brother invading Manhattan with a giant flying centipede and an army of bug aliens."
Thor doesn't respond.
Tony turns off the torch and pushes up his pair of dark safety glasses to frown at him. "No comment, Your Thunderous Majesty?"
"I don't really see how it's supposed to be funny," Thor says.
"Yeah, that's fair." Tony sets down the torch and shuffles over to a seat, gingerly settling down with a groan and a hand on his healing abdomen.
Thor stretches out his hand and recalls Stormbreaker to his side with relief, its eerie hum vibrating through the air until it quiets in his grasp. As appreciated as his new, powerful weapon is—particularly for its ability to call upon the Bifrost—he will miss Mjölnir's stubbornness, its familiar weight and leather grip. No more jokes or games of worthiness, either. He recalls how Steve once shifted the hammer by a tiny sliver and almost smiles, but then remembers the Vision's worthiness and his gray, lifeless body sprawled broken in the dirt. Wanda's ashes scattered beside him. Ashes among ashes in the forest.
(Bodies scattered on the dark ship, his body bound as Heimdall drowned and Loki choked.)
He will miss Mjölnir, but Stormbreaker is favored for one more reason—Thanos's blood once soaked its blade. Someday, it will bathe in it again.
"God, that's scary," Tony mutters.
Thor hefts the weapon. "It's supposed to be."
"No, not that. I meant your face."
Thor raises his eyebrows.
"Well, not like that," Tony says with a roll of his eyes. "Don't worry, you're a pretty boy, Point Break. I meant the face you made. Like you were ready to cut someone's head off and play golf with it. Thinking about anyone in particular?" he asks knowingly.
The corner of Thor's mouth turns up. "Thanos."
Tony nods and smirks with just as much sour satisfaction. "Thanos."
They fall into silence. Thor gives Stormbreaker a flip and catches it, imagining the first part of Tony's words—felling Thanos from his wretched glory, sinking the blade deep into his massive neck. For my friends, he would scream as he'd swing. For Asgard. For Heimdall, for Loki.
You should have gone for the head, Thanos said. Well, he would not make the same mistake twice.
"We'll find him," Tony suddenly growls, a fire in his words that echoes the one still simmering in Thor's heart. "We'll find him and kill him, the purple bastard. He made a mistake, letting us live. We're not called the Avengers because we sit around and wallow in self-pity. We'll find him, and we'll make him pay for everything he's done."
"Yes. We will."
"And this time, we'll finally pull off the Infinity Gauntlet from his cold, dead hands." Tony sucks in a breath. "Son of a bitch."
Thor pauses. "What is it?"
"The Infinity Gauntlet," Tony breathes, a light beginning to gleam in his eyes. "That thing has all the power in the universe, doesn't it? If it can kill half the universe with a snap of the fingers, who's to say it can't bring those same people back to life?"
Thor hesitates. "Reversing death is far different from causing it."
"We saw Thanos bring Vision back to life and restore the Mind Stone," Tony retorts. "And that was just with the Time Stone. What about Reality, or Soul? All six of them together?"
A terrible hope blooms in Thor's chest.
"It would work." Tony raises himself back up with a wince to begin pacing back and forth. "It has to work. I don't see any reason why it couldn't work."
"Perhaps." Thor can barely hear his own voice over the pounding of his heart. Asgard. Heimdall. Loki. "But it's not that simple. Even one Stone can be impossible to wield. All six, even with the Infinity Gauntlet..."
"You're not wrong, but it doesn't matter," Tony says. He laughs giddily. "It really, really doesn't matter! Between me and Bruce—and Shuri, and that crazy anthropomorphic raccoon, and god, is Dr. Selvig still alive? There's a lot of geniuses on this planet. If we all put our heads together, we could figure out a solution. We just need to kill Thanos and retrieve the Gauntlet. Or we could make a better one ourselves, a safer one. Maybe we don't even need all the Stones. We should pay a visit to that place you mentioned, Nidavellir, talk to that dwarf and get some of that gorgeously, stupidly impossible alien metal. Uru, was it?"
Tony runs a hand through his hair. "Just think about it, Thor. A snap of our fingers, and bam—" His eyes glimmer. "Back to life. Everyone."
Thor can't breathe. He drops to the floor right there, dazed.
Asgard. Heimdall. Loki.
Tony looks down at him and stops to place a hand on his shoulder. "We have an objective, Point Break. An actual damn objective. Not just revenge."
Thor grasps Tony's arm and meets his gaze, seeing within the same pain and grief he saw four nights ago on the kitchen floor, seven days ago when Tony stepped off a ramshackle version of the Guardians' ship back onto Midgardian soil with only Nebula and the very same turmoil in his eyes. With one swift yank, Thor pulls Tony into his arms and hugs as tightly as he can, careful to avoid his side.
Tony wheezes. "Ow, you dick." But he hugs back.
"Tony Stark, you are a brilliant man," Thor mumbles as his vision blurs. "Have I said that before?"
"You could stand to say it more."
"I will. I promise." Thor beams. His smile is watery, but so is every other part of his body, it feels—trembling, weak, but warm. "We must contact the others. Discuss the idea thoroughly."
"Yeah. Yeah, for sure." Tony disentangles himself to shuffle-run to a distant table for a pad of paper and pencil, the sound of pages flipping and flipping over like a gust of papercuts. "God, I need Bruce here since approximately yesterday. I've missed his brain and seven PhDs so much. He's like my better half. F.R.I.D.A.Y., grab the burner phones for me?"
"Right away, sir."
Thor doesn't bother with standing. He crosses his legs and watches Tony scribble away on the paper from the floor, thoughts whirling.
("—do hereby pledge to you my undying fidelity.")
Thor turns his face up to the ceiling and closes his eyes. "I thought you were talking nonsense, brother," he murmurs to the darkness. "Is this what you meant when you said there was still hope?"
A robot whirs into the lab, and Tony whistles, still absorbed in his writing. "Samson, you mind?"
"Of course not." Thor grins. "Bruce first."