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When I Fall to Rise

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His body goes limp. His neck breaks. Everything stops.

And restarts.

The rush of air into his lungs feels like the first breath he’s ever taken. Gasping, desperate, he’s sitting up and clawing at his throat like he’ll find a break there, his eyes barely open, the light  blinding them; alarms are blaring, deafening loud, people screaming in the distance and he can’t think.

His neck is reassuringly solid under his fingers and for a moment maybe it never happened, maybe he just –

Thor straining against the metal pinning his arms, Thor’s face twisted in desperation, begging him with everything except words to stop. To walk away.

He couldn’t have dreamt that. He doesn’t have the imagination. He has died in many different ways to date, but that was by far the worst.

Loki lets his hands fall from his neck and opens his eyes into the light and the chaos. He’s sitting up on a table in what looks like the universe’s smallest medical bay. It has a computer terminal, which he drags himself across too, squinting through the brightness and trying to focus through the endless noise. “Please be advised,” says a cool female voice over the ship intercom. “Life support will cease in two minutes.”

He pulls up the most recent situation report. As far as he can tell, from his limited exposure to Sakaarian computer systems, the life support systems on board detected a sudden surge in airborne contaminants, some kind of large dust or ash particles. These would be sizable enough to enter intricate computer systems and cause malfunctions so the computers had decided the best way to get rid of them was to vent all the air in the ship.

There is a small note at the bottom of the emergency procedure that says: Grandmaster is, of course, immortal and will be fine in temporary loss of life support. Please be advised that any non-immortal life forms on board may suffer irreversible health concerns as a result of this safety protocol.

There might be a way to abort it nicely, but he doesn’t have time to hunt for it. “Please be advised artificial gravity will cease operation in thirty –“

He grabs a shock wand from the medical table instead and slams 2000 Volts directly into the main computer system. All of the alarms and the voice shut off at once. Then the lights. Then the emergency lights.

The screaming gets louder.

Gravity loses its grip and his body lifts up off the table, cast adrift. Loki takes deep slow breaths of rapidly dwindling air. You wouldn’t build a ship without an emergency reboot in the event of an electricity overload. Grandmaster may be immortal, but his protocols prioritised equipment over literally all of the other people on the ship because floating around in space for forever with no functional equipment is a pretty shitty way to exist.

Loki knows. It was the second worst way to die.

His head is swimming.  Maybe this is the dream, one last flash of what he could’ve had, the potential to be something more. He closes his eyes and there’s no ship at all, just stars stretching endlessly into the distance and his skin turning blue in the cold.

“Welcome, Grandmaster.”

The lights come on like a punch to the face and he’s back in the medical bay. The screen is showing a smiling cartoon of the Grandmaster waving and asking for an access code.

Gasping for air, Loki types in: the height of the Grandmaster’s Tower in meters (560), the number of days of the Grandmaster’s longest continuous orgasm (64), and his favourite numerical sex position (69). The seven digit code worked for most things on Sakaar so he has to hope -

“Welcome, Grandmaster. Would you like to choose a playlist? Activate mood lighting? Close airlock doors? Enable party mode? Restore Life support? Enable Gravity? Sample our range of fine dining options?”

He hasn’t got enough air speak a command, so he hits every single unlabelled button on screen.

The lights come on in shades of red fused with dark purple, the airlock doors close somewhere in the distance with an audible slam followed by the recognisable pop-pop-pop of fireworks going off inside. Air rushes in and he’s just taken his first deep breath when the gravity switches on dropping him down onto the table with a stab of pain through his neck, as though his body has suddenly remembered that it was supposed to be dead.

“I should’ve known you’d be behind that.”

He turns his head slowly to see Valkyrie standing in the doorway, still in full armour with her sword at her side, looking disappointingly unfazed by just about everything. “What exactly did you do?”

Loki sits up slowly. Now the only sound is the slow undulating tones of the beginning of a particularly gloomy orgy playlist, which he can, unfortunately, properly catalogue. He’s wearing a black shift, traditional for burial. He’s in a control area rather than a medical bay. His neck is stiff, but it’s not braced or splinted. “I think, of the two of us, I should be the one asking the questions.”

She considers for a moment, then nods acceptance and steps into the room fully.

She’s cleaned up since he last saw her, running through the corridors of the main ship directing everyone she could find to the life rafts. She had had cuts across her cheeks, tears through the fabric of her underarmour that Loki had torn wider grabbing her by the shoulders to demand, “Where’s Thor?”

“He went up to the main deck, said he was going to stall them. I’m getting everyone to the life rafts, grab anyone you see and head down to deck nine. Our priority is to rescue as many people as we can find and get out of here.” She had looked at his face and shaken her head. “You can’t go up there, it’s suicide.”

Loki had nodded his agreement, then gone directly to the main deck. And died.

This, now he’s got a moment to look around, must be one of those life rafts. Much smaller, quicker to fill with air. For a moment, a sparse moment, he thinks that Thor must’ve grabbed his body and got them both on board.

But Thanos. The gauntlet. The stones. “Thor?”

Valkyrie’s face twists into some terrible hybrid of sadness and pity, and Loki knows what she’s going to say next but his heart still stops when he hears it. “He’s dead.”

Then why is he back? Why is he breathing at all - what is the point? Loki was handed the choice between destroying the entire universe and saving Thor for another minute and he chose Thor. Chooses Thor. Would choose Thor every single time.

He stands up and walks to the window where the sky outside is black, no sign of the ruined Statesman or Thanos’s ship. He remembers dying, he remembers waking up, and in between: nothing. Nothing at all. “I was dead,” he says.

“Technically, yes,” she says, flat.

Loki’s fingers close on the sill of the window until it digs painfully into his skin. It’s one thing to know it, another to have it confirmed out loud. He’s thought he was going to die before. He’s wished he was dead before. He’s convinced other people that he was dead before, more times than he could remember to count.

This is the first time he’s actually died. “Why me?”

“Because of all the dead I had on my hands, and believe me you will come to know what that means, you were both the least dead and the most useful.”

Loki turns away from the window and the endless, empty, space. “Where’s his body?”

If she resurrected him, it must mean she couldn’t wake Thor. But a Valkyrie is not a sorcerer. Whatever dark magic worked on him, he can turn it, even if he has to merge their souls, pair their blood, bind Thor to him forever.

She shakes her head. “We didn’t find it.”

Loki’s thoughts, tumbling a mile a minute through seidr and eidhr and darker rituals still, skid to a halt and he lifts his gaze to her face. “So you don’t know for sure.”

She gives him that look again. Like she’s given up. Like she hasn’t already proven once that death isn’t as all consuming as it once was. “He was alone with Thanos on a ship full of the dead, which then exploded.”

Loki shakes his head. “But you don’t know.” He can’t stand still; there’s a restless energy as he tries to think. “What would be the point of killing him? Why torment a man by exterminating his people if you’re not going to leave him to suffer with it?”

She throws up her hands. “Then he died in space, when we couldn’t find him. He was killed by whoever tried to pick him up. He disappeared into ash, but he is dead and he is gone and I need you.”

Loki stumbles half a step back in the face of her, desperate and shouting at a situation she can’t cut her way out of. Her hands are shaking, which might be the rage or might be the lack of provisions of any kind on an escape ship like this. How long has it been? Long enough to sober up. Long enough to bring a man back from the dead. “How did you bring me back?”

“Mixed up everything we could find in the med bay, plus the last one of Idun’s apples, plus some weird fluid that Korg’s friend Miek gives off because that thing seems to survive anything. Tilted back your head and tipped it down your throat,” she says, and smiles wide at the expression on his face. “Who says the end of the world doesn’t have its perks?”

Loki’s throat crawls, but he pushes on. “Why me?”

She shakes her head as though she’s already regretting it. “You’re his brother, you’re in line. I needed someone to be king.”

Loki would laugh, if he wasn’t so sure it would turn to weeping. He spent so long wanting this, it’s like he forgot what it meant to be second in line to a throne. Like he forgot what it takes. “The king is dead.”

“Long live the king,” she says, pointing a finger at his chest. “Call it regent if you have to, call it captain. I’m not a leader. Even in my golden days I was mid-rank, third row back, just another soldier. You, on the other hand, tried to conquer a planet, faked your death and killed Odin because you wanted to lead.” She spreads her palms wide. “Here’s your perfect opportunity.”

“At the end of the world,” Loki says, picking up on her words from earlier and turning it into a question.

She smiles. There’s absolutely no joy in it. “About that.”

***

There are sixty-seven Asgardians left. And that’s counting Loki, who isn’t Asgardian, so sixty-six. It’s a number too small to quite comprehend; the more he thinks about it, the more he feels like he’s back floating in that expanse of space unable to breathe, or move, or do anything much at all.

She brought him to the bridge, where the very limited controls have been left abandoned to drift as the video screens show the funeral rites being performed on the empty air of the decks below. There are no ships to send out in the sky, no war boats for the ashes of the deceased.

Valkyrie sits down against the wall, pulls out her sword to pick at her nails, giving him time to process. He doesn’t need time. There’s not enough time in the world for this.

Sixty-six. It’s a number too small to quite comprehend. They’re not even endangered at this point - they’re as good as gone. “Who?” he asks, to break the silence, in a voice that doesn’t sound like his.

She rattles them off. Miek is alive, Korg is not. Names he doesn’t recognise are not. Heimdall is not. Heimdall, who was always a fixed point around which the universe spun. Like Mjolnir, which is also gone. Loki considers telling her that Bruce was sent away before the explosion, but that’s no guarantee he’s alive and isn’t it enough that one of them is only holding themselves upright through false hope.

They are a long way from anywhere. There is enough food on board to feed one person for a year, and sixty people for considerably less.

The emergency beacon is offline. The water reclaimer is offline. The bio-waste food regeneration unit is offline.

The STI identification and repair station is, the computer hastens to inform him, fully operational.

“How many did you get on the ship before?” Loki says.

Even though he knows. Before she can say anything, he knows. “One hundred and thirty two.”

Half. Exactly half.

Loki spent eternity trapped in the Bifrost, and then a smaller eternity in the company of Thanos’s court. There was pain and there was madness. His memories of the time are sketchy, like dreams seen through shattered glass, but Thanos’s obsession was never far from his mind.

Bring order to the universe. Even out resources.

Loki had wanted, fiercely, to be a king, to destroy, to punish his brother for abandoning him (for letting him abandon himself), but he remembers thinking even after eternity of chaos his plans were still more rational than expecting to be appreciated for bringing the biggest mass slaughter in history.

It had been ridiculous at the time. A scheme on par with conquering the universe or convincing Thor to like him back.

Turns out anything is possible.

Loki places a palm on the controls and the screen lights up at his touch. “Where are we?”

Valkyrie tosses her knife and catches it with a shrug. “Space,” she offers. “Maybe five clicks from where we found you. My last navigator turned into ash and disappeared out the airlock, so I’m having trouble being precise.”

Least dead. Most useful. Loki brings up the tracking system, a broken green line showing how far the ship has come, and reaches for the controls. The crowds on the videoscreens jolt as the engines fire up.

Warning, the computer says. Critically low fuel. Critically low antimatter. Critical damage to port aft, starboard aft, port center, starboard stern engines.

“What are you doing?” Valkyrie asks, stabbing her knife into the floor in the process of standing up.

Loki taps the green line on the screen. “Turning the ship around.”

Her second knife appears from some sheath and comes down directly above his wrists. “No,” she says. “We are not going back there. This ship’s taken enough damage, we can’t waste fuel.”

Loki twists the joystick, scraping the skin off his knuckle with her blade in the process, and the ship jolts around.

Loki spent a long time trying to achieve power without ever making a plan for what he’d do if he got it. The actual leading of Earth didn’t really factor into his plans to conquer it. As for becoming Odin, there was nothing particularly ambitious about it. He didn’t want to die, and he didn’t want to go back to prison. Once he was there, it was mostly a case of amusing himself and waiting for Thor to show up, like he always did.

This time, it seems, he’s going to have to be more proactive. “You wanted me to be king.”

“Yeah,” she says. “But like, a semi-decent one.” She reaches for the controls. He twists the joystick, throwing the ship into a spin and sending her off-balance, and uses the moment to kick out her ankle and knock her to the floor, swiping her knife in the process.

“You fucker,” she says, as he tosses it into the air and pulls the ship back to its new course. “He’s not there. We looked, after we found you. We searched. That’s how the engines got fucked. This woman took charge, said we couldn’t leave without him. He wasn’t there.”

Loki speeds the engines up. The flashing lights tell him it’s a bad idea and they’ll run out of fuel shortly after arriving at their destination where - it warns - there are no fuel stations handy. “Bodies don’t disappear. If he’s not there, where is he?”

There’s an extremely heavy pause. She doesn’t get up, doesn’t make a joke. Loki lifts his hands from the controls and turns to fix his gaze on her. “Where is he?”

Her mouth twists off to the side. “We caught another ship on the sensors,” she admits. “They came and went before we got the power running so they didn’t detect us.”

The skin on Loki’s arms prickles. “Someone took him.”

“They had a jump drive,” she pushes on. “So they’ll be halfway across the universe by now.”

Thor had still been alive when Loki died. Alive and burning with the kind of rage that would not stop until he had taken revenge for his people.

He had every chance of surviving the explosion. Almost no chance of surviving the vacuum of space. A fifty percent chance of surviving the gauntlet. There’s a possibility there. Loki’s not willing to do the maths on how small a possibility it is, not as long as its there.

He turns away from the controls, letting the engines fade back into silence. The bridge is small. Valkyrie is pulling herself upright on a navigation panel. The crowds of Asgardians are huddled together watching the walls for movements. There’s a small stack of weapons in the corner of the room, as though Valkyrie did an arms check: first logical action of a soldier in command. Loki crosses to it and picks a sword, swinging it to check its balance.

“You need to address them,” Valkyrie says. “Let them know that you’re back, that we’re working on a plan.”

In Loki’s longest stint as king of anything, he let nine realms fall into chaos and staged a poorly reviewed play. “I have a plan,” he says. He’s dressed in black, rough Sakaarian fabric that suggests the explosion destroyed his old armour. It’s nothing like a true weave, but he layers an illusion over the top of his traditional green and black. The only shoes around appear to be a pair of ghastly orange boots, but he slides them onto his feet and illusions them too. Where he’s going is cold. “My gift to you: Two hours of extra food per person by reducing your population by one.”

“What the fuck?” She punches him hard in the arm. “These people need a leader. They need you. And don’t go pretending like you don’t give a shit about anything. You got us the ship on Sakaar. You came back to Asgard, to save these people. I brought you back to help, you can’t abandon them now.”

Loki shakes his head, turning away from the console. “You miscalculated,” he says, twisting his fingers into a familiar spell. “I didn’t come back for them.”

“He’s dead, ” she shouts. “And if he’s not, he’s half a universe away.”

There are two infinity stones on Earth. Thanos will have been there, and if he can pick up Thanos’s trail he can trust that Thor will be not far behind. He twists a few threads into a sheath strong enough to hold a sword and hooks it onto his belt.

“I need to find him,” he says. “Before he does something stupid and irrational in the name of vengeance  like run off on his own to try and kill Thanos.”

“And what if he’s already dead?” she snaps. “What then?”

Loki pauses, the sword halfway into his belt, and looks at her. “I suppose I’ll kill Thanos.”

He slides the sword home and lifts a hand to the archway of the ship. Portals are Jotun magic, he learned far later in life than learning to cast them. It took long hours in the library to figure out that Heimdall lost sight of him when he traveled because the Jotun beneath the illusion masked the Asgardian that Heimdall was looking for. By then it was academic, Heimdall was in hiding and Loki was procrastinating on finishing his play, but it was interesting to learn that the powers he’d used for so many years were from his blood, not his family.

It also explains why his mother was never able to include their control in her teachings. Everything Loki knows about portals was cobbled together from experiments and mistakes. The legends say Jotun sorcerers could travel all the way across the known universe without touching the Bifrost at all. It’s how their war with Asgard was so intense and wide-reaching.

Loki has nothing like that kind of power, but it should be easy enough to pull together enough energy for a short trip. He closes his fingers together, presses his palms and –

The ship seems to vanish around him. His lungs panic first, his eyes sting and blue traces spread over his skin from his wrists. The spell is half complete in his hand but the further he pushes, the colder it gets and he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe.

The spell should require just a basic drop, it's barely even active, but he finds he has to grab at his last memory with air and pull it back over him to even get a grasp on releasing the spell so it returns him to the ship instead of leaving him powerless in the vacuum.

He pulls so hard that the ship is dragged back around him, gravity punches him back onto his feet and he stumbles forward against the velocity of the walls spinning around him. Then he falls flat on his face, because Gravity is a bitch.

"Welcome back," Valkyrie says. "Did you have a good trip?"

There is not a single retort he can make that isn't even more childish than that statement, so it's probably lucky that his lungs are still too busy refilling with air to manage anything as extensive as speaking.

He lets the weave drop from his fingers, and sits up. The holomap is still floating in the air above him; Jotunheim hasn't vanished from the sky. Which makes sense - he hadn't had time to pull together a portal. He shouldn't have moved.

He stands up slowly, like the floor might disappear again at any moment. "What did you see?"

"You sort of," she wiggles her fingers, "flickered, then vanished, then came back in a hurry. Were the frost giants not happy to see you?" She claps him on the shoulder, apparently taking a cue from the Thor school of ‘making sure Loki is actually here’. “Looks like you’re stuck with us. Guess you’d better start working on that survival plan.”

He needs more protection. It's possible that without the bifrost existing in the universe, the passageways between space time are less stable than they've ever been before. If he misses his target, he'll end up floating in space for another century or so until his body finally accepts that it's never going to get more air and shuts down. He could look for a space suit - a little more time might be enough for him to spell himself back here, so long as back here still existed.

There's a few too many risks in that plan. Something simpler: take a vessel. The ship has an almost unlimited supply of air, as long as it's functioning.

They are a year’s flight from Earth. If he kills them all now before they can eat any of the supplies, he could fly the ship to Midgard.

And what would he find when he got there? If Thor survived – if, if – and saw half the population of his chosen planet turn to ash just days after the destruction of his home and the massacre of his people -

Thor would not stop to mourn. He would not travel slowly through the cosmos taking in the scenery. He will be an arrow into Thanos’s heart that does not stop and does not slow and he will not rest until he has killed Thanos and died in the attempt.

There’s no time. If Loki could snap his fingers and arrive on Midgard himself right this moment, what could he offer in the face of that rage? His own miraculous recovery would pale into utter, barren insignificance when stacked up against all that is lost: sixty-six Asgardian survivors left behind, all doomed to starve before Thor could reach them, Valkyrie similarly lost. So he has to offer something better: the chance at vengeance.

If he killed half the people, he could get this ship to a closer planet in three months.

If his magic wasn’t stealing the air from his lungs, he could be there now.

The two thoughts happen consecutively, and then combine as he lifts his head to look around him at the walls, the control panels, the faltering blips of the life support system. “How much does this ship weigh?”

Valkyrie looks at him like he’s insane. Probably he is. Probably death will do that to you. “It’s about the size of an Asgardian small range Transport shuttle.”

He’s taken ships through the weirdways before. He’s even taken other people, once or twice. This would be the largest object he’d ever tried to transport, but it’s not without precedent. There are legends on Jotunheim of great sorcerers of old who could click their fingers and appear on the field of battle mounted upon great beasts the size of mountains with an entire army already assembled behind them.

Loki is not a great sorcerer of old. He has less than two millennia of learning behind him and he is intending to travel a little further than a battlefield.

But the worst that could happen is he dies, and he’s already done that once today. “I need to borrow your ship.”

This is going to be complicated. Weirdways, he learned many years after he started travelling them, is more in line with Jotun magic than Asgardian. It doesn’t meld well with Seidr, but at its root Seidr is about tying things together, about connection. His mother’s teachings are the only power that could be strong enough to connect himself to this vessel and drag it along around him.

“Sorry,” Valkyrie drawls, not sounding sorry in the slightest. “This ship is in use. If you want to drag us all with you, you need to at least tell me where we’re going.”

Loki looks at her, one hand caught in his hair trying to figure out the right knots. “I wasn’t intending to bring you with me.”

It sounds callous, even from his own lips, and worse when he sees the way it hits her like a punch in the gut, like her expectations for him were phenomenally low and he’s still failed magnificently to meet them. “You weren’t planning…”

Loki turns to the computer, to check data and definitely not to avoid her gaze. There was nothing malicious in it; the more weight he’s carrying, the harder it’ll be to transport. These people have no hope anyway. He doesn’t need to justify his choices, so why does it, even in his head, sound like he is?

“This ship can’t support everyone on board long enough to reach safety,” he says. “Your mission is a doomed one, however you choose to look at it. I intend to travel to a closer planet than Midgard and use its resources to build a rudimentary Bifrost so that I can reach Thor before he does something suicidally stupid, assuming he hasn’t already.”

“And he’s worth more than all of us?”

Yes, Loki’s mind goes, instantly and without question. Yes, because one night wasn’t nearly enough. Yes, because in millennia of life Thor has always been the one constant. Yes, because what else is there?

“What do you think he’d do?" she says, like she doesn't realise Loki's plan is based largely on the fact that he has to get to Thor before he can do anything. "What would he say if you show up on Earth and tell him you left the last Asguardians to die floating in space?"

Pain. Tears. Rage. Loki would suffer for centuries for it, but at this point, he can’t find it in himself to care so long as he’s alive to do it. What’s a few centuries of torment more for having Thor safe?

But he makes the mistake of catching Valkyrie’s eye, imagining her drifting out in the vacuum gasping for air. Thor used to tell stories about Valkyries. Loki would’ve given good money for video of how badly he embarrassed himself when he first met her.

Sixty-six Asgardians.

She can tell she’s getting to him. Death, it seems, has wiped away far too many of his defences. “Wouldn’t it be nice to take him one piece of good news?”

Taking a ship this size through a weirdway already seems mostly impossible. How much more impossible could it be to bring sixty people with it?

"Fine," he says. "But we do this fast."

***

There are a number of problems. The first is keeping everybody tied to the ship when rules like walls, forces and physical space no longer apply. It seems entirely wrong to tie anchor knots to a traveling spell, but it's a simple piece of seidr that children can learn. They have a grand total of five children left on board, so Loki shows all of them how to braid it into hair and sends them out to tie off every adult on board.

The second is opening a portal. He's taken a vehicle through a wormhole before, but he always opened the passage first using a cave or arch to constrain its edges and only had to fly through it. The trouble is, as the saying goes, in space there is nothing to constrain your portal. The nearest asteroid field is a month away, and they’re already wasting too much time. He's going to have to open the portal directly around the nose and move it over the ship, as he would do to transport a single person.

The anchor knots on his body are not going to be as simple as a braid.

The third problem is navigation. He needs to keep  total focus on their destination, while also trying to Be a spaceship and not leave anybody behind. Fortunately, if he is a spaceship, however briefly, the position should come with some form of mapping.

He goes down to the main navigation room, where the engines hum in soft primary colours and there’s a familiar man scrolling through a map of the universe. Last time Loki saw him, he was wearing a black wig and playing the role of Loki to rapturous applause. Now he is pleading with a strange system, despair shadowed into the lines of his shoulders.

Loki had assumed that everyone on board would be strangers. The number of Asgardians whose names he doesn't know used to vastly outnumber the ones he did. It was easier to imagine risking the lives of strangers. But instead, here they are. Of all the people to survive.

"Damon," Loki says. "Son of Nor, isn't it?"

Damon turns, and his eyes open wide like he's seeing a ghost. In a way, perhaps he is. How many people saw Loki's corpse brought on board? Did they hold a funeral service, again? How many is that now?

Damon drops to one knee with a flourish betraying his true calling as an actor and bows his head. "My Lord Loki."

"I don't think that's necessary now."

He looks up, eyes wide. "With Thor gone, you are our King,"

It's nice that, even in this moment, he is sure to mention that Loki is the second choice. "What are you doing down here?"

Damon stands up, lifting his hand to the map. "Looking for any place close enough to give us shelter, as my lady Sif commanded when we got on board. It's a fool's errand, we have no hunters and we haven’t enough supplies or fuel to -"

"Sif survived?" He'd had to spell her, as with Odin. She could always see through him in the end. A small magically endured coma, just until he'd got everything figured out to his liking. Someone must have cared about her enough to carry her into hiding, and then through the fight on the rainbow bridge to get her on the rescue ship.

Loki's death would've broken the spell. "Where is she now?"

Damon swallows. "She survived... Before." His fingers wave in the air, like ash on the breeze.

And it's not like his spell killed her.

It's not like his spell killed Odin.

But people keep dying all the same.

“Come here,” Loki says, and when Damon steps in, it is Loki who carefully braids the anchor knot into his hair. “I can take us to a planet.”

His face shows all his emotions so clearly, like he’s never had to twist or lie like his life depended on it. “Somewhere safe?”

Loki ties it off, feels the ship accept another thread in its tapestry. He’s too close again, too involved. Thor is somewhere out there and that’s what he needs to focus on. “No,” he says, stepping past Damon to touch the screen. “I need you to find me a planet.”

“Which one?”

Loki pushes the screen at him, waits until his hands are on it before saying, “Jotunheim.”

He turns and walks across the room before Damon can object. As expected, Damon doesn’t leave his post, although he does stand on tiptoe to try and get Loki’s attention. “We can’t. We’re not warriors. We’re artists and parents, we don’t know how to fight.”

The ship isn’t seidr based, it doesn’t have a weave at its heart that he can tie into. He can’t touch the navigation panel where Damon is working so he pulls out another one at random to reveal hundreds of different coloured wires. Ancient technology, but the wires themselves are at least useful. He tears a handful loose, ignoring the new list of complaints from the alarm system. The metal core doesn’t flow like it should, but he can pull enough free to tie around his wrist. Every time the cut ends brush his skin it feels like standing beside Thor with the wind blowing and Mjolnir heavy at his side.

He ties himself tighter. “Do you have a position?”

“There are children on board -”

Loki grits his teeth, tugging the wires further with a fresh stab of pain, so that he can look into Damon’s eyes. “Am I your king?”

Damon stares back, a man brought to the very brink of what he can be asked to bear, and then nods very slightly. His throat moves as he swallows, lifting a hand to tap the screen again. His voice, when he speaks, is nothing more than a hoarse whisper. “We have a position.”

Loki reaches into the ship, ignoring the thousand tiny lightning bolts exploding into him in return. The craft isn’t intelligent enough to understand what he’s doing, but it has functions that tell it what to do and when and he can communicate with them to a degree. This is going to be like flying , he tells it, to keep it calm. Only faster.

The ship tells him its top speed. It’s trying to be helpful. “Hold onto something,” he says.

Hopefully Valkyrie and the children got to everyone. He wouldn’t want to be the single Asgardian left behind.

He reaches through the ship to the map Damon found, to the planet highlighted in shining blue.

Here , he tells the ship. And: Like this.

They’re sharing two bodies for a moment, bound together in a single tapestry. Loki reaches for the edges, like he would to transport himself, locks in the position using the ship’s systems and pushes .

The ship panics like a thunderbolt from Mjolnir blasting through him. The wires around his wrist burn but don’t unravel. He fixes both of their minds on that map, pushes the pain into Loki’s body and his mind further into the ship’s circuits where he won’t have to feel it.

It’s so much slower than moving a person. It feels like having to physically drag the entire ship through a canyon of rocks by simultaneously pushing and pulling.

Something explodes. It might be him. He doesn’t stop.

And in that final moment it’s like Sleipnir. Pushing and pushing and aching until suddenly it’s done. The weight lightens and the ship slips.

And everything goes black.

***

He’s woken up by the twin pains of being dumped firmly back in his own body and the wires braided tight around his wrist catching fire. He screams something loud and profane on instinct, shaking his wrist wildly for a solid few seconds before realising the freezing dampness against his back is from a pile of snow and plunging his entire arm into it down as far as the elbow.

The fire goes out almost instantly, but it takes longer for the cold to seep into his wrist and numb the pain of it. He uses the time to sit up as best he can, casting some small spells to ease the pain in his head and his shoulders and virtually every other nerve ending he has.

“Ow,” he remarks, almost absently, to the sky.

Which, now he’s looking around, begs a question somewhat more urgent than his body sending up desperate flags that it feels like it’s dying. He lifts his arm out of the snow, wires falling like bracelets from a wrist slowly fading from blue to pink in the air, and does a full 360 spin to check out the landscape in all directions.

Nothing but ice, as far as the eye can see.

He lifts a hand to his hair to touch the anchor knot, but his carefully tied braid has untwisted and fallen loose across his ear.

He tells himself that this is fine, that this was the original plan, and doesn’t think about Damon looking trustingly at him, or Valkyrie who didn’t trust him for a heartbeat but had no choice except to follow him.

The ship isn’t here, which would be a consolation except that Loki is fairly sure he remembers the walls tearing apart around him.

What’s he going to tell Thor?

Thor. His mind latches on to that thought. He’ll say he tried his best, and Thor won’t believe him - who would believe that? - but as long as he’s alive, as long as he’s alive . Loki shakes the blue from his skin and stands up. Ship or not, he’s made it to the one place in Jotunheim he remembers. The city is in the distance, towering walls side by side with ruins. He stands up, wishes he knew enough about his own blood to shape the ice into a crutch to hold him up. In its absence, he draws the sword from his belt and casts a spell to blunt the end, uses it to limp slowly up the nearest slope, jamming the Sakaarian boots into cracks in the ice to climb as high as he can.

Beyond the city, there is a crack in the land so large it seems as though the planet is entirely disappearing into it. The centre is a black hole down to the planet’s core, but the edges are marked with familiar spirals. Bifrost signatures.

This is his legacy here. He closes his eyes, for a moment, something in his chest twists -

He falls, head over heels. His sword snaps in his hand, wrenching his wrist with it. Whatever fabric the black burial outfit was made from, there’s no power to protect him even a little. He ends on his back, the sky overhead so white it may as well be the ground, and his ribs hurting like at least half of them are broken, . He tries to summon the tiniest dribble of magic for healing, but the effort makes his vision swim so much he has to shut his eyes and his ribs ache even harder.

What would it say of him, if he died now?

Something kicks him none-too-gently in the leg. An ice giant, perhaps, ready to finish the job.

“Wow,” Valkyrie says. “You do one little job and think you can lie around the rest of the day.”

Loki cracks his eyes open. Valkyrie is looking down at him, looking entirely in one piece with her anchor braid falling tightly against her shoulder. Behind her, black smoke is billowing up into the air. “You’re here?”

She reaches into her belt and pulls out a small medical scanner. “You managed to blow up the food, like a total asshole.” She crouches down beside him and touches the cool metal to his forehead. “But you missed all the people. Everyone’s here.”

Sixty-six Asgardians. Painters, actors and children, all dropped in a broken ship five miles from the stronghold of their greatest enemy.

***

The plan had involved marching up to the city gates and demanding an audience with Laufey. Thanks to Loki’s malfunctioning, mistimed magic tricks, they end up stranded on the ice while Valkyrie heals his ribs one at a time.

He’s still two short of a set when the first Jotun approaches. Their Asgardian scout, a woman Loki thankfully doesn’t recognise at all, says there were at least two but maybe more of them and she couldn’t tell how fast they were coming because, “they seemed close but, as you know, they are very tall.”

“Get me up,” Loki mutters. Someone brings him a strut of broken ship as a cane, but Valkyrie does most of the actual lifting. The rest of the Asgardians are hanging back by the ship, of two minds between protecting their king and hiding in the only vaguely familiar object around. They’re all shivering. No one stopped to pick up extra clothing in the evacuation, and the Grandmaster’s ships tended not to be known for their supplies of clothes.

One more problem on a very long list.

It would be nice to be taller. If he’d been at full strength, he could’ve lifted the ground beneath them. As it was he was only just supporting himself. He spoke when the giants were still far enough away that it would take them thirty seconds to kill him instead of two.

“I am Loki,” Loki says, in a voice that would carry far beyond the five giants almost at their location. “Prince of Asgard, son of Odin and rightful king of Jotunheim.”

The lead giant laughs, a low rumble that echoes through the surrounding hills like thunder, and with a single step is before them, easily three times their height. They bend down to a level maybe one and a half times that of Thor, looming over the two of them. “Asgard is destroyed,” they say. “Odin is dead. And Jotunheim does not recognise your claim.” They swing their club, stopping just short of their party. “So tell me, Loki of the dead, why I should not kill you too.”

“I am of Laufey’s blood,” Loki says, his hand shaking on the makeshift cane. “I demand a meeting with my father.”

The giant smiles, blue-white teeth the size of Loki’s head each coming sharply to a point. “Laufey has no blood,” they say. “Laufey is ashes, along with all his offspring. You come too late for meetings, for parley. You will die here, your people will die here. We will cut your heads from your necks for daring to step foot on this planet.”

The last time Loki saw his birth parent face to face was over Odin’s body, when Loki had shot him almost through the heart with Gungnir to claim his place as an Asgardian. Laufey had survived, just about. They sent him home to the ice to be brought back to health and Odin restored the peace between them. As Odin, Loki had approved a single meeting to reinforce that peace, and sent Sif in his place because when the moment came, he couldn’t face it.

And now Laufey is dead. Caught in the wave of random chance, ashes and dust on the wind.

Loki stares up into the cold, red eyes of this stranger and his tongue catches in his throat. The tiny amount of magic curling back into his fingers is worth little more than child spells. The Jotun’s eyes are angry and scared and Loki miscalculated, forgot, that Thanos would be felt here too. There is no planet now that is not half turned to ash and Loki - Loki the liesmith, Loki the trickster, Loki of the silvertongue freezes up at the thought. His voice is lost.

Valkyrie pushes him aside, putting herself between the Jotuns and the Asgardians. She looks the giant directly in the eye and draws her dragonfang blade as though a single Valkyrie may succeed where previously only the entire assembled armies of Asgard were enough –

She throws the sword aside. It skids across the ice, coming to a stop at the giant’s feet.

Valkyrie drops down to one knee in the snow, her blue cape streaming out behind her as she lifts her head to say clearly, in a voice that carries to the city and beyond: “In accordance with the laws of honour that governed our ancestors, and the intergalactic treaties to which Asgard and Jotunheim are beholden, we humbly request sanctuary and protection as refugees. We are sixty-seven Asgardians, the last surviving members of our species and we ask - no, we beg - Jotunheim’s aid.”

She knocks his cane with one hand and he falls down beside her.

***

It’s unclear if they are guests or prisoners, but they are not harmed. One of the giants has some level of sorcery, and he touches a hand to Loki’s chest, repairing enough of his body that he can walk. Loki can feel the blue of the handprint under his clothes as he walks through the snow. It’s the one part of him that doesn’t shiver at every breath of wind and every snowflake.

“Thor calls you brother,” Valkyrie says, in an undertone. They are kept separate from their people, but no one has chained them up. Valkyrie was even permitted to retrieve her sword.

Loki doesn’t turn to her. “He is my brother. Odin is my father, Frigga is my mother. Laufey birthed me and left me to die. I have no love for these people.”

“But you would claim their throne,” she points out.

He shrugs it off. “The throne of Jotunheim is most often won through combat. I bested Laufey once, so by rights… I had a messenger sent to remind them of it, but she told me they did not take it well.” He walks a few more steps, but the questions are too burning to hold in. “I must admit, I never did much research on treatment of refugees…?”

She laughs. “They never taught the princes how to beg for their lives? You should have spent longer on Sakaar. After a while, you become a natural.” She kicks a drift of snow. “They would be expected to give us lodging, food, water, until intergalactic aid comes. If they are proven to have denied us any of these things, the intergalactic community would be justified in excluding them from trade, from honouring any other treaties made with them and so forth.”

Loki glances over his shoulder to the shivering, huddled crowd. “Warmth was not on that list. And I have a feeling we won’t be the only species calling for aid.”

“No,” Valkyrie agrees, pulling her own cloak a little tighter around her shoulders. “So I hope whatever plan you had is open to modification.”

Loki turns back to the city. It sits right on the rim of the crack in the world, several buildings half collapsed into it. There is not enough power here to fix it. They are marched between ruined watchtowers, on a road run through with cracks. The only building to have been fully rebuilt is the great castle, which stretches as high as Asgard’s golden towers in the center of the city.

More giants come to their doorways to see them pass. Red eyes show no emotion, but hands reach for weapons in the fold of cloaks. They are surrounded, outnumbered a hundred to one, when their guards hold up a hand for them to stop in the courtyard before the palace.

A Jotun in a heavy mantle steps out from the doors. Loki recognises enough of her markings to know that she is old, and she is important. The lead guard approaches her and they speak briefly, then the guards step back and the newcomer comes forward. “I am Agrathar,” she says, “of the council of nine appointed to serve until a new king is named.”

Loki steps forward. “I am Laufey’s blood. I bested Laufey in combat when he wore the crown. I am the rightful king of Jotunheim, by your own laws.”

The giant has to lower her head to look at him, down a nose long and hooked enough to be growing an icicle at the tip. “Jotunheim does not recognise you, prince of Asgard. The throne room is locked and guarded by fifty of our finest warriors. The next person to enter that room and sit upon that throne will be our king.” She lifts her head, dismissive. “In accordance with intergalactic law, you will be housed. We have spare chambers in the barracks for the castle guard. For your own safety, we would advise that you remain in your rooms. As you know, the youth sometimes forget to think before making their attacks.”

“I need to speak with your sorcerers,” Loki says, desperation making him reckless. “I need to find -”

An ice blade forms across her arm as she swings, the tip sharp enough to cut his cheek open as it slices across it. His blood, red and warm, drips down his cheek. “Our sorcerers answer to none but our king,” she says. “You will go to your rooms, or your people will be deemed to have broken the grounds of the peace treaty and you will be removed from our lands.”

Valkyrie touches a warning hand to Loki’s wrist, but she needn’t have bothered. The requirements for access were just made very clear. “None but your king,” Loki says. “I understand.”

 

***

He wakes up suddenly. For a moment he doesn’t recognise the strange white room around him, then the chill of the air hits him and the whisper of the snow outside. The Jotun handprint on his chest has faded, and now his whole body feels the cold sinking bone deep. This spell of Odin’s has outlasted both their deaths, and now sucks the strength from his limbs where the cold should only increase it.

He looks around the room again. It’s certainly the same room he was shown to last night: the small window looking out over the cracked landscape, the bed with a single fur tossed carelessly over it.

The jug of water he left out before bed is gone, the small table perfectly empty. The carpet he tripped over lies flat. The door, which he is certain he closed and spelled shut, sits ajar, as though someone came in while he slept to straighten the furnishings instead of slitting his throat.

He stands up, slipping his feet into the orange boots which turn black and green as he stretches out his magic. There’s no sign of anyone else in the area, but his senses feel off somehow, as though everything is shifted in some way he’s unable to see.

The hallway outside is empty, a long featureless stretch of ice. The guards that were promised to keep them in their rooms are gone. He walks, expecting to be turned back, but there’s only empty halls and the wind cutting under the illusory coat and through the thin weave of the tunic underneath. He walks up the stairs, through even more empty halls. There is a stillness to the air, something expectant. It feels like he is the only person left alive, as though Thanos decided to finish the job and leave him here alone.

The door to the throne room is open.

Loki takes the steps slowly, waiting for magic to split the floor beneath him, the door to slam shut in his face or fifty of Jotunheim’s finest warriors to seize this opportunity and say he’s broken the rules of the treaty and they can slit his throat and the throats of his people.

He reaches the top step unscathed, and with a touch of his hand the door swings wide open.

The room is cavernous, easily as big as Odin’s throne room in Asgard and then twice as tall again. The throne itself is carved from a block of ice like a mountain, on a dais where each step is as high as Loki’s shoulders. In a room this size, the throne still looks enormous so much that it almost dwarfs the person sitting in it.

Laufey, the dead king of Jotunheim, looks down at him from beneath a crown of ice.

The path of the dead does not run straight, as Loki is intimately familiar with. It weaves in an out of the living, catching in moments where the walls are thin. When Loki was lying in the Grandmaster’s hangar bay waiting, trapped by lightning, for the grandmaster to find and kill him, he saw Odin for one final time. “You are not the God of betrayal,” Odin had said. And, “You are your mother’s son.”

Laufey looks down on him now, another parent pulled back into the world by Loki’s constant tightrope walk on the line of death. His red eyes are dark rimmed, and curious, as though he had not expected to see another soul here. “I know your face.”

Loki lifts his head for a better view. He is a few years older now, many worlds away from the boy he was when last they met. And different again still. With Asgard gone and Odin dead, there’s no sense in hiding. “I am Loki. Prince of Asgard. Son of Laufey.”

Those red eyes widen. Laufey steps up off the throne, takes a single step forward off the dais, and sinks onto one knee to be almost level with Loki’s face, examining it like he might find the frost giant in there somewhere. “Is this a dream?” he asks, lifting a hand as wide as Loki’s shoulders and touching a single finger to his brow.

It feels like a waterfall spilling down his scalp and over his shoulders, blue spreading from his touch. The cold abates, the wind ceases whispering and sings instead in his ears. If he had a mirror, he would not know his own face. Other than the wind, the halls are silent. The slight shift to the world sinks into understanding.

“It must be,” Laufey says, his voice soft in wonder as the last hint of Asgardian falls from Loki’s skin. “Why else would you be here, now, at the end of all things?”

Loki lifts his red eyes to Laufey’s face. The white of the walls seems fractal now - he can see a thousand shadows and shapes in the surface, the lines of the craftsman’s tools. Laufey’s skin is a hundred shades of blue, the lines only one part of an ever changing pattern upon his skin. “I came to kill you,” Loki says. “Take your throne, take your army.”

Laufey’s head tilts curiously, examining him. “You grew up strong, Prince of Asgard.”

It’s been Loki’s title since childhood, but he’s never heard it spoken as though it’s the cause of disappointment before. “I had to make the best of things, since my own father abandoned me.” He’s aiming for flippant, but the bitterness slips in around the edges like it always does. His frost tongue feels heavier in his mouth; it doesn’t form around lies the way it should.

“Your father,” Laufey echoes. “I have not thought of him in an age. He was a sorcerer, like you. Odin took you, I suppose.”

Loki swallows. “He said you left me to die.”

“We do not suffer runts to live. If you had shown your power –“

“As a child.”

Laufey considers him. His eyes are bright red, and whatever feelings they show Loki has not studied his own kind enough to read. “I assumed you had died in the war. So many of us did.” He lifts his head to look around the empty throne room. “Not so many as now.”

The silence of the hall, the absence of guards even in this strangely shifted dream place, is like the castle is mourning. Laufey’s grief seems to echo even in death, reaching through Loki’s dreams to bind them together. “I’m going to find him,” Loki says. “The man who did this.”

Laufey smiles, with a city’s worth of sorrow. “Take my throne, take my army,” he echoes. “But our people will not bow to an Asgardian even for revenge.”

Loki spreads his blue arms wide. “I am not an Asgardian.”

“You are.” He touches Loki’s chest. “You will have to fight. You will have to bargain. You will have to prove yourself.”

“How?” Loki asks.

“You are my son, you are your mother’s son, your father’s son, Odin’s son. There is Jotunheim in your blood and Asgard in your heart. You are the sum of two impossible worlds and you have stood back to back with lightning.” He lifts his hand and a single icicle falls from his fingers into Loki’s palms. “You take everything you have, and everything you are and you use it.”

Loki looks down at the ice, resting upon his skin. There’s no dampness to the edges; against his blue palms, there is no warmth to melt it. “And then,” he says. “Who do I challenge?”

Laufey’s mouth curves into a trickster’s smile of wickedly sharp teeth. “Anyone who tries to stop you.”

Loki looks up once more into his father’s eyes, then slides the ice into his belt alongside his dagger and walks out of the room. Through Jotun eyes the walls show a thousand images, etched so finely into the ice that previously he couldn’t have even known they were there. Images of Jotun magic users taking armies through space without the bifrost, Jotun warriors growing blades of ice from their skin fine enough to cut glass and strong enough to cleave mountains.

He falls back into his bed and dreams about Odin riding at the head of an army, Frigga at her loom catching a shaft of light in her hands, Thor’s fingers lit up by lightning. Thor’s body pressed up against his.

And when the sun comes through the window, he knows what to do.

*

He doesn’t have a loom. He grows pins from the ice that forms all too willingly at his fingertips and jams them into the desk to create a work surface. He can’t go to the skein store and collect what he needs easily, so he makes do with that he has. He pulls three hairs from his own head, tears the lining of his funeral cloak to pull another three strands. He tugs a long skein from the ice, thin enough to flex between his fingertips as he weaves it in. He doesn’t have Frigga’s skill for pulling thread from light, and it comes out full of lumps with rainbows caught in every kink.

He weaves it in anyway, there’s not enough time for finesse. If Thor were here, he’d be able to run lightning through every strand and give the cloth the weight of a thundercloud.

It always felt like Thor was standing beside him, the thousand tiny sparks embedded down into the clothes he wore underneath all of the signs and illusions. No matter how far away he got, no matter how much was torn between them, if Loki had nothing else in the world he had the memory of his brother’s presence.

He messes up half the strands on a row and has to undo. Undoing is harder than doing, it takes more of his focus so he doesn’t have to think about all the may bes and could bes and the probabilities of a thousand flipped coins all coming up thunder.

Valkyrie comes by when he has enough fabric for a scarf. He remembers, at the last moment, to throw an illusion over his skin. It’s paper-thin and won’t hold up to scrutiny, but she barely looks his way before throwing herself on her back on his bed.

It won’t be all that comfortable. The jotuns don’t go in for soft furnishings at any great level, and he’s unravelled most of what was there as a base.

“What are you doing?”

Loki steals a hint of the disdain in her voice, twists it with her scent and weaves it in. There’s not enough magic here to be picky about where it comes from. “Working.”

She sits up. He can hear her even though he’s determined not to give her the satisfaction of turning to look. “Are you making a scarf? I know it’s cold, but I didn’t realise we were clutching at straws.”

Loki’s fingers go still on the weave because he can’t – there is no way he is justifying that with a response. It was easier, so much easier, to be unattached. But the Asgardians raised him. The Jotuns made him. He has ties he didn’t ask for and never wanted. Perhaps he could get himself to Thor now and let the rest of his people fight to their deaths behind him.

Perhaps he could pretend he could live with that.

But he was never the god of death. As Odin so callously pointed out, he is not the god of betrayal. Lies, deceit, trickery is all in his nature. Thanos has made him a murderer once, he knows more than anyone the danger his rage can pose on a world.

“I was thinking,” Valkyrie says, digging her knife into his bedpost. “We could get ourselves registered as an endangered species. Appeal to some wildlife preservation groups. Maybe get ourselves moved into a zoo.”

She’s joking, but Loki’s skin still crawls at the thought of another cage. “I’m sure they’ll arrange us a very nice breeding program.”

She grins, flicking a shard of ice at him. “Don’t know if you know this, but Valkyries weren’t typically breeders.” She stands up, walking over to look at his weave. “Aren’t you the wrong shape for seidr?”

Currently, yes, but the weave has never seemed to mind. “My mother taught me.”

She touches a finger to the strands and a rainbow of light cascades from her fingertip. A single eyebrow lifts. “Did she teach you that it’s rude to steal a person’s essence without their permission?”

On more than one occasion. Loki shrugs. “I make do.”

Valkyrie glances over his workbench. “At this rate you’ll have a stylish belt. Not a lot in the way of armour.”

He’s been hitting the same problem himself. He could repeat themes, but that barely adds to the magic of a piece. He could go hunting, but the time it would take would leave it too late to make a difference. “If I had access to my mother’s work room –”

“You have access to the remains of a dying species. There should be some magic in that.” She drops the strands she’s holding. “I’ll help you, if you tell me what it’s for.”

Loki looks over the pathetically few pieces he has left. The last Asgardians, not to mention whatever fragments of Asgard they have tucked away in their bags and in their minds.

You take everything you have, and everything you are.

“I intend to make a challenge for the throne of Jotunheim.”

Loki weaving Seidr while Valkyrie watches

*

Seidr armour works like this: if you have the luxury of choice, you take strands from that which is closest to your heart. When Loki was weaving his first outfit of his own, he threaded a hearthfire and sunlight, the skin of the first hunt of the season and the first draught of a new keg of mead. Thor watched over his shoulder as he worked and lightning bled into every strand that touched his fingers.

When he first wove a shift for Thor, he threaded tricks, spidersilk, the shadows in the back of the throne room, royal blood and the chill of the first truly cold day of autumn. He wove it in secret, in his chambers, and his heart got caught up down deep where he could never get it all the way out.

Thor’s armour could stop a thousand spears, but it would never stop Loki’s knives. Not when they were made from the same shadows. The other fact about Seidr armour is that it has no colour. No matter what strands you weave into it, it has no shape or image of its own. Seidr is a window, not a wall. His mother used to weave strands that could show anything she required to see. For non-Seidr users like Thor and Valkyrie, armour would take on a shape and retain it.

Loki has a little more control than most. With the last of his people, the tail of a frost eagle and a touch of desperation woven in, there is only enough material to wrap around his waist in an approximation of a jotun kilt that turns black edged in green when it touches his skin. The magic hugs up his arms, wrapping them in a black coat open at the chest and falling down to his thighs. There are threads of green scattered up the sleeves like lightning.

“Do we all have to go shirtless?” Valkyrie says. “Or is it just you?”

Loki would prefer to not, but there is too much ice in the weave to argue and perhaps it is better to meet them at least somewhat on their terms. He cannot, actually, fight them all. “Will you be my second?”

“On the understanding that if they kill you, I’ll probably have to surrender since otherwise there’ll be no one left to stop all our people being killed, sure.”

Loki attempts to fashion a belt to hold the coat closed. He gets more lightning marks on the fabric but no change. “Your faith in me astounds.”

She sheaths her dragonfang and tosses him the old Asgardian sword he took on the ship. “Let’s go.”

*

In the time it’s taken him to weave the armour, the sun has risen as much as it ever does over the horizon. The Asgardians are keeping to their rooms; Loki will have to draw them out when it’s time, but the guards are in their places and watching. They snicker like glaciers colliding when Loki and Valkyrie walk past, and scrape blades against the walls like nails on a chalkboard.

The closer they get to the heart of the palace, the less theatrical the threats become. A spear is placed directly in Loki’s path. He steps neatly around it, without acknowledging, keeping his eyes fixed forward. A wall of ice grows up like a thousand years of a tree in a single instant and Loki steps to the side so Valkyrie can shatter it in a single blow of her sword.

Loki sends illusions of them to walk down the centre, and takes Valkyrie’s wrist to sneak them down the side which works for a few hallways, until the illusions are shattered by a blow from a club and ten giants are standing between them and the main door to the hall.

Loki steps out from the shadow as the illusions vanish. “You would openly defy the convents for those who come in peace and desperation.”

The central giant leans down to sneer at him. “I never touched a hair on your head, prince of ashes. Unfortunate.”

Loki lifts his eyes to the Jotun. “Let me pass.”

“The throne room is for the king, you are not our king.” They lift their hand, a thousand shards of ice shivering out of the walls, all deathly sharp and pointed directly at where Loki is standing.

Loki curls his fingers into a shield in front of his stomach, closing his eyes for an instant to push it out around him –

And opens them to an empty room, walls of smooth ice. The door to the throne room sits slightly open before him like some magic he never dreamed of knowing. For a moment he thinks Odin has saved him, somehow.

But as he steps through the door, he sees Laufey seated on the throne, a great sword resting across his knees as though preparing for battle. Loki bows his head in thanks, and when he lifts it the door is shut behind him and the room is empty again. On the other side of the door, he can hear the giants shouting, calling for backup, searching for him.

He shuts it out. Drops the illusion from his eyes so the room comes into focus. He has to pull himself up each step, getting his shoulders over and then bringing his knees up to join them. The throne itself he has to climb, using his newly focused eyesight to pick out cracks and ledges in the framework where he can just about wedge a finger or a few toes.

The door shudders in its frame from the impacts behind him and his grip slips, but doesn’t fail.

He used to go climbing with Thor. They climbed the rocks at the edge of the world, with the knowledge that a missed handhold would mean trusting Thor to catch him before he fell endlessly into space.

He makes it to the seat as the door explodes behind him into a million shards of ice and twenty guards stream in, weapons raised high.

Loki draws himself to his full height upon the throne and turns his gaze to Agrathar, pushing through at the rear. “The next person to enter this room and sit upon this throne will be our king,” he quotes. “Did I get that right?”

Agrathar’s eyes narrow and she raises a club in both hands. “You overstep, runt,” she growls. “Our king is the one we choose, one we kneel before, and that is not and will never be you. Standing on some seat does not make you king.”

Loki draws his sword. “It gives me a claim, and a chance to make a challenge.”

She laughs, the sound echoing around the room like an avalanche. “There is no king to challenge, Asgardian.”

Loki does not drop his eyes, not even to acknowledge Valkyrie slipping into the room behind them. “Then let it be known that I will challenge every single Jotun who thinks they have a claim.” He slams his sword point first into the seat, watches the ice crack either side of it. “We settle this now.”

***

The throne hall is not a place for death. Loki hesitates to lose the ground he’s gained, but Agrathor laughs in his face and gives him her word before the assembled crowd that his challenge will be honoured and he will be permitted to die in the arena at the tip of a thousand Jotun swords.

He and Valkyrie walk much slower than the giants. Agrathor keeps pace with them, as do the rest of the council of nine as an honour guard to ensure he makes it to his place of death intact. There are other Jotuns spreading his challenge through the palace. No one wants to miss a chance to kill the Asgardian prince. If Loki had hoped that these people didn’t know who was responsible for destroying half their city, this hope is quickly dashed.

Agrathor explains the rules of a formal challenge. The first one hundred will have to fight one at a time. The second one hundred can come in pairs. The third one hundred in fours, and so on. Whoever kills Loki must then uphold his challenge. When no further Jotuns are willing to fight, the last giant standing in the ring will take the throne.

All fights are to the death. All dead are left where they fall until the challenge ends. If the challenger leaves the circle, there are no limits to how many Jotun can attack at once and the challenger dies.

The arena is just outside the city, twice the size of the great stadium where they used to compete in the annual games at home. This one is carved into a cliff edge that serves as seating, with space for easily ten thousand giants to sit around. The council of nine take up positions around the circle to observe the fights. Loki is directed to a small area at one side of the circle where Valkyrie can reach into the circle to pass him more weapons, which they don’t have, or healing agents, which they also lack.

“None of them will give their nation to an Asgardian,” she says, running a whetstone down his sword blade in a way that may well break the whole thing off. “You won’t get much of an army if you have to kill every soul in Jotunheim to command it.” She looks at his face, then past him to the giants in the arena. “How many of them can you actually defeat?”

Loki is trying to avoid thinking about it. “Hopefully at least one, or this is going to be hideously embarrassing.” He takes the sword from her hand before she can wear it through. The blade wobbles a little when he swings it, not exactly a blade of a champion. “Tell me when there’s a crowd.”

She glances at the stands. “How big of a crowd?”

Loki slides the sword into his belt and straightens the seidr kilt around his waist. “As big as you can get without me being dead,” he says, and steps into the ring.

The first giant doesn’t wait to be called. They let out a roar and lift both arms, forming two long blades the size of Loki’s torso, and charge at him like a raging bull. Loki’s instincts take over and he splits into five illusory copies, stepping sideways and ducking down as the blades slice through all of them in three wild swinging arcs.

Loki steps in behind and drives his sword into the giant’s leg, keeping his hand carefully clear of the blisteringly cold skin. They spin around, tugging the sword out of his hand but their movements are hindered by the blood and their first strike goes wild.

Thor could’ve swung Mjolnir and flown up to smash this giant right across the face. Loki’s powers are unfortunately solely limited to the ground, so he drops into a roll, draws a dagger and slices through the vein in the giant’s artery.

Blood gushes out across the ice. The giant doesn’t seem to notice for a minute; Loki has to step around two more flailing blows before the Jotun collapses, their arms shaking. Loki walks to his sword and pulls.

“We will not suffer an Asgardian king,” the Jotun hisses.

Loki turns to reply and an iceblade stabs into his hip. He stumbles back in time to see it break off the Jotun’s knee and fall to the ground as the giant’s eyes slip closed.

He lifts a hand to his side, pressing the Seidr coat against the wound so the imprint of the knots can tie the skin back together. The second giant is already in the circle. This one is carrying a club in two hands, easily as tall as Loki. Loki gives his sword another ineffectual tug, then has to dive over the first giant’s body as the club comes crashing down with enough force to create a crack in the ice almost a foot wide. Not enough to bother a giant, but enough to break Loki’s leg if he doesn’t watch his step.

Loki throws himself into a roll and when he stands he is one of a circle of fifty of him, all dressed in seidr, all with veins of blue running out from the edges of their sleeves where he was closest to the fallen giant. His new opponent is no sorcerer, and they swing wildly through the constructs while Loki steps invisible back to his fallen opponent. His attempts to retrieve his sword result in the club crossing his back close enough that he feels the wind and flinches.

No time. He reaches for the ice blades, burning the illusion off his palms as he snaps a section off in both hands, spinning on the spot and pushing himself up to slam the blade into the giant’s throat. The ice cuts deep, and opens the vein with a gush of dark blue falling down across Loki’s shoulders as he lands back on the ground.

Loki lifts his head, shaking blood from his hair in a thousand tiny droplets, and sees a man standing in the circle. For a moment he thinks an Asgardian has been foolish enough to challenge him, then his vision stops swimming and he sees the blue skin, the black hair braided down to the waist, the hands cupped in front of a bare chest forming a ball of white light that blasts towards him faster than he can react. His coat absorbs some of it, but the force of it burns the remains of the illusion off his skin, and as he catches the ice to land still within the circle it is with blue nails and red eyes.

The sorcerer’s lip curls. “You are not one of us,” they hiss.

Loki lifts one arm where tiny threads of ice grow up from his wrist, reaching up from the sky into a blade. “Are you quite sure of that?”

***

“Loki.” Valkyrie puts a hand on his shoulder, gripping too tight, holding him up. It sounds like Valkyrie, at least, though he can’t see her face through blurred vision. There’s a crowd of Jotuns fighting over who gets to go in next - they think the next one will get to kill him - and all he feels is relief that this gives him a minute to rest.

“Loki,” she says, sharper, shaking his shoulder with a wave of stabbing pain that activates his brain for a moment. “The stands are full.”

It hits at just the right moment to wake him up. He lifts his head, blinks blood out of his eyes to squint up at the crowds. In every direction, there’s white blue screaming and jeering, all hoping to see him die, even if they don’t get to do it.

He spits a mouthful of blood onto the ground to clear his tongue. “Are our people here?”

“Every last one,” she says. “They’re worried for you.”

Loki finds a grin from somewhere that tastes like iron between his teeth. “That makes sixty-seven of us.” He stabs the broken half of his recovered sword down into the ice to free his hands and turns. The frost giant who has won the honour of killing him is not as tall as some of the others. She’s holding an ice blade in her left hand and preparing a spell in her right, either of which could be the end of him. “What’s your name?” Loki calls out to her.

She bares her teeth at him. “I am Skadi, child of Thiazi. Upon your corpse I will lead Jotunheim to a new golden age. We will rebuild our world, rebuild our people and hunt down and destroy the beast who tried to end us.” The crowd roars in approval, the loudest they have been so far. “I am the greatest warrior of my generation. I was born to rule. What are you but a liar, a trickster, an Asgardian wolf in Jotun skin?” She lifts her hand to the crack in the land. “Your people destroyed our world, the beast destroyed our people, but we are Jotun and we endure.”

Loki lifts both his bare hands up before him. He reaches into a familiar pocket of space and the Casket of Winter shines warm in his hands. His skin gleams blue in the light of it, his bare chest traces lines of his ancestry past Laufey to the kings of old. He has no natural horns, but his helmet settles back against his head to replicate them in shining gold.

The crowd is screaming, but when he speaks his voice echoes from the mountains to the ice wastes like thunder rolling in from the sky. “I am Loki,” he says. “Son of Odin. Son of Frigga. Child of Laufey.” He pauses. “Brother of Thor.” Then he lifts the casket high in both hands and the ice surges beneath him, a platform lifting up like a beacon to bring him above the crowd. “The beast who destroyed your people, I can tell you his name: Thanos. I can find him. I can bring you vengeance.” He looks out upon them, a sea of blue with the smallest pocket of Asgard amongst them. “As for my own crimes against you, I offer this recompense.”

He turns his face to the rift, brings the ice in the seidr wrapped around him for control, closes his eyes to focus as Odin taught him, and opens the casket.

It feels like holding onto a hurricane. Every time he used it before and thought it would tear his arms off is nothing compared to now. He pulls the ice beneath his feet up over his legs to hold them still, pulls the casket against his chest so that his seidr coat is protecting the crowd behind him from the winds whipping off to the sides, trying to defy his will.

This is not a power that is meant to be controlled. This is a power that is meant to turn a whole world to ice and raze everything in its path, with no concept of friend or foe. This is a wildfire of ice, one that wants to rip across the landscape and destroy, destroy, destroy.

And Loki is trying to hold it into a hearth, bringing all his willpower to bear on it. He has not lost an eye for wisdom but he has been raised in the heart of it. He has not gained a throne honestly, but he knows how to be king and a king commands.

The ice bends, the winds break to his will. The collected powers of the infinite combine into a single beam directly into the heart of the crack in the land and ice floods from the heart, spreading like cracks in glass and thickening. Down from the heart, growing up in spirals, snowflakes the size of lakes forming and closing up and reforming elsewhere. The light is so bright it’s almost blinding, the skin on his arms where he’s trying to hold on turns black, a level of cold even a Jotun cannot endure.

The tear in the landscape becomes a rift, becomes a crack thin as a cobweb, becomes the landscape, flowing seamless from one ice flow to another, to the distant mountains and the tundras, to the horizon and the red sun.

More, the casket seems to whisper, turning to the city, the blight upon the otherwise pristine landscape. The planets up in the sky, so many thousands with their terrible heat and their life where everything could be so pure, so white, so beautiful. More.

He could rule. Not only Jotunheim, but a thousand glass white planets to bow to his whim. What could Thanos do in the face of that, what is his perfect universe if there’s nothing but ice and snow and Loki as the lord of all things?

His blackened hands are numb;, he could hold on forever and he looks down at his wrists where the dark green lightning bolts cut across the black of his coat like the closed up crack in the land. He laughs, a fierce triumphant sound that breaks through the deafening winds as though they’re nothing. His own voice is louder, his own mind is louder. “What is the use of any of that,” he asks the winds and the storm. “Without him?”

The casket slams shut in his hands and he turns to face the crowd. “I am Loki,” he says, in a voice that has swallowed the wind. “King of Jotunheim.”

And one by one, they kneel.

***

Valkyrie and Agrathar escort him to the throne room. Agrathar clears the way before them, calling in a ringing voice, “Make way for Laukey, child of Laufey, king of Jotunheim, Wielder of the Casket of Ancient Winter, Restorer of the Ice.”

It is somewhat gratifying to see the few giants who weren’t in the arena balk at the sight of him, and then make haste to bow as he approaches. They keep their distance. Only Agrathar is staying close, and she’s so tall that Valkyrie can speak to him in a low voice without anyone hearing. “So how long have you had that up your sleeve?” she asks. “And were you planning to tell me about it?”

Loki waves a hand vaguely at the space of air before him where he keeps the Pocket. “It’s a little twist of dimensional space. I made it when I was a child.” He used to keep snacks in there to throw at Thor’s head during particularly long theory lessons. “It’s a bit more spacious than my sleeve.”

“I’ll say.” She eyes the patch of air like he might have stored alcohol in it somewhere. “What else can you keep in there?”

Loki laughs. It sounds different, in this shape, like icicles brushing each other in the wind. “An Infinity stone,” he says. “A few other things.”

“If you had died permanently, where would they go?”

He shrugs. It’s not a theory he’d ever be in a position to test, although it raises an interesting question of what would’ve happened if he’d been a bit braver and died before Thanos could start making threats. Would the space stone be trapped forever in nothingness?

“I can’t believe we sent you to destroy Asgard and you stopped to do a bit of light thievery on the way.”

Loki raises an eyebrow. “Have you met me?” Valkyrie he can maybe accept, but Thor should honestly have known better.

The city seems smaller than before. Walking through the ice is easier now he’s not trying to huddle down on himself for warmth. Everything feels different. The icy wind in his hair is a caress. His feet are bare on the ground and every step feels like belonging, being a part of an ice that is more ancient than life itself. He’d had to stop Valkyrie before she touched his chest, remembering Volstagg being burned by a Jotun’s touch all those years ago. All his wounds, all his tiredness and aches are washed away. The seidr coat sits better on his shoulders, his helmet has shrunk down to barely more than a golden crown and two curved gold horns.

Physically he feels better than he has in days, but he keeps getting distracted by the blue of his skin against the black coat, the way it clashes just a little against the green patterns, the ridged lines that he knows have meaning but could not read any more than he can read the fates of the stars.

He’s fundamentally different now. Whatever magic Odin put on him is well and truly shattered. If he chooses to appear as Asgardian again, it will be a false skin over this shape he has held inside for so long. “Did you see the Asgardians?” he asks. “After.”

Valkyrie hesitates before she answers, which means she did. “I guess they’ve never seen you like that - like this - before.”

No one had. Heimdall, once. Jotuns and Asgardians don’t mix. Even now, Valkyrie is having to be careful to hold him up by his coat so she doesn’t scald herself against his bare skin. “When we were children,” he says. “Jotuns were the monsters our parents told us stories about. The war with the frost giants was Odin’s great victory over the mindless, evil, savage beasts.”

“Father of the year, that one.”

They step into the palace, the guards moving aside and standing to attention where not three hours ago they’d been doing their best to bar the way. Loki wouldn’t need Agrathar’s direction. The passage to the throne room seems lit up, the elaborate patterns on the wall like guiding arrows pointing him through the halls to the great chamber. He doesn’t have to reach for the casket, the door swings open as he approaches.

The ice feels like magic - it has its own rhythms that run through him, that match up to the lines on his palms as he lifts a hand, and runt-sized steps lift up from the floor so he can walk smoothly up onto the dais.

He looks up at the throne three times his height. He could shrink it down, like his father’s throne in the Great Hall of Asgard. He could stand upon it, in the seat that his parent Laufey has occupied for so long. He could illusion himself large enough to fill it, take up all the space Jotunheim gifts to its king.

He looks up at the throne as the crowd files in behind, cramming into all the space available to see the first action of their new king.

Loki lifts a hand, reaches into the heart of the ice of the throne, finds the crack in the seat where he plunged the sword earlier, and gives it a gentle nudge. His whole body feels for a moment like it’s split in two, the room seems to flicker…

And the throne shatters . Fragments no bigger than marbles drop and scatter across the floor, flowing through the feet of the crowd to every corner of the room. The sound of it echoes around the room, then fades to a silence so absolute you could hear the icicles growing on the ceiling.

Loki turns to face his people. Agrathor and Valkyrie are standing on either side of the dais. The hall is filled mostly with Jotun, a few Asgardians out of breath but able to squeeze in between legs and feet to see him speak.

This is his army. These blue skinned giants with red eyes and skin that shines like a thousand diamonds, lines that tell stories of a race that has never given up and never stopped fighting. These people would have died to a man to stop an intruder taking their world from them, but turned on a dime at the promise of rebuilding it.

There are no mindless beasts in this room.

“I am Laukey,” Loki says. “One thousand years ago Laufey left me to die.” He holds out a hand and the ice comes to it, forming a long staff of frost white. “I did not.”

They are watching him, swords at their waists and challenges in their eyes. This army. His army.

“Two days ago,” he says. “Thanos sent half of you to death. Thanos sent half of the universe to death.” His eyes find the Asgardians, find Damon and Valkyrie and the faces he can’t name. “Half of Our people.” He lifts his gaze again to the giants. “I promised to rebuild and I promised you revenge. Tomorrow we will take up arms, find the trail of Thanos as it snakes across the universe. We will track him down and take vengeance for every race, every planet, every creature that cannot burn his eyes out themselves.” The crowd roars so loud the room shakes, so loud Loki has to hold the walls up to stop them following the throne into oblivion.

“I can’t promise to bring our loved ones back,” he says, and the entire palace seems to amplify his voice over the shouting. “I can’t promise that anything will be as it was. But I can promise that to the last breath in my body I will not stop until Thanos is dead.” He slams the staff down onto the floor. “Take up your weapons, send word to your sorcerers to build a portal. We leave at dawn.”

***

He falls asleep in the throne room and when he opens his eyes it’s dark and Laufey is sitting on the edge of the dais. The shards of the throne, which Loki watched be collected and swept away by a wave of industry to make room for star maps and portal sketches, are back filling the polished floor like so many diamonds.

Loki stands up in the shadows. Laufey isn’t looking at him - he’s staring down at the fragments, as though his ghost isn’t sure what to make of them.

“I should thank you,” Loki says, stepping into the moonlight.

Laufey’s eyes come up to look at him, taking in the gold horns, the coat, the Jotun skirt and his bare feet on the ice. “You,” he says, softly.

“I took your crown,” Loki lifts a hand and the ice curls around his fingers like a lover. It’s still a thrill, hard to believe he could have been doing this for years.

Laufey shakes his head, as though trying to clear it of something. “What manner of demon are you?” he asks bitterly. “Are you come to threaten me further? Or are you some figment of my own mind here to torment me?”

“Wait.” The star maps are gone. The weapons carefully stacked in the corner are gone. The room looks as though Loki had never been here. Loki looks back at his parent. “Which of us do you think is dreaming?”

Laufey stares at him and Loki… wakes up?

Loki blinks and he’s standing in the same room, but there’s a star map crumpled underneath his feet and swords stacked up beside the throne. He spins a full circle on the spot. No sign of Laufey. A few tiny shards of throne remain glittering in the corners, but mostly the floor swept bare.

“Hey,” Valkyrie says, coming around the dais eating an apple and not looking at him. “Do you think before you go you could insist on the Jotuns inventing the concept of central heating, because if you all die in your impossible quest I don’t want to freeze to death drinking ice wine.”

She looks real. Everything since he woke up on the ship has looked real. Has it been too easy? Really, he shouldn’t have been able to transport the ship at all. Really, could anyone have survived Thanos’s attack on the Statesman?

A snowball hits him in the shoulder. “Jotunheim to Odinson,” she calls. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Loki stretches his hands out before him. The way the ice feels, the way this room responds to him, he’s never felt anything like that before. He couldn’t imagine that. “What happened when the ship came here?”

She looks at him like he’s mad - gods, what if he’s mad? - but obliges slowly. “We were in the bridge, everything kind of lurched and the sky outside went white - only in the all colours kind of way instead of the no colours way - things started popping, sparks and all sorts and then suddenly there was a different kind of white and we were definitely falling. Damon came rushing in saying you’d disappeared, we hit the ground and we had to get everyone off before the ship exploded. We searched as best we could in the time, but we had to assume that you hadn’t made it or you were dead somewhere in the walls.

“We stumbled out into the snow, and five minutes later you showed up. I figured there was a bit of a time delay on your half of the spell, I never took a magic elective, so I assumed that’s how portals work. You were looking even worse than you usually do so -”

Loki holds up a hand to stop her. “I got there first,” he says. “You weren’t there when I arrived.”

She frowns. “No, we were definitely there first. We literally saw you appear, like you dropped out of the sky.”

He can’t stand still, can’t look at the empty dais and simultaneously can’t take his eyes off it. “Where’s Damon?”

“Are you feeling alright?” she asks. “He’s with the others, probably asleep since it’s about four in the morning -”

Loki is already down the hall. There were no other rooms available for the Asgardians, but he had them all moved into a single large space with a rotating attendant to maintain a fire in the centre that they could sleep around. More than one of them wake a little, blinking in confusion, when he steals past them. He may be invisible, but he is too wound up to be silent.

Damon is awake already, sitting by the fire and twisting his anchor braid with one finger.

Loki sits beside him, even though the heat of the flames is like a blacksmith’s furnace against his skin, and shimmers into existence. “Don’t move, you’ll wake the others.”

Damon jerks, moving to make a bow then realising that’s the exact opposite of the command, then seeing Loki’s skin and trying to hide the way it makes his expression blanch. “Loki. My… your highness.”

He hasn’t got time to make nice, or to comfort. “On the Statesman, Sif told you to look for a course. Did you find one?”

“I -” he starts, before seeming to register the question and stopping in confusion. “The Lady Sif? I - yes, I suppose. Cambrion, a small uninhabited planet a week or so away at top speed. The computer picked up some lifeforms that could be hunted, but Thanos took all of our hunters, and then we started getting warnings and engine failures.”

That would’ve been Loki’s fault for messing around in the systems. “Did you tell Sif the course? If she’d taken it, would she have moved from where we were when I woke up?”

“She died,” Damon says, shaking his head his brow furrowed in total confusion. “I don’t understand.”

Loki resists the urge to shake him. “If Sif had survived and if she had been in command of the ship and taken your course, where would she have been when I woke up?”

“A hundred miles away, easily,” he shakes his head again. “But I don’t understand…”

Loki is up and walking away before he can finish his sentence. He wakes up a handful more Asgardians taking the shortest route possible to the door. “What was that about?” Valkyrie asks from the doorway. “He looked traumatized.”

Loki’s body is buzzing like he’s holding the casket wide open again, like Thor is summoning lightning beside him. His steps feel lighter, he feels like he could do anything. “They’re alive.”

She has to jog a few steps to catch up with him. “What? Who’s alive?”

“Everyone.” His heart is beating a thousand times a minute. “All of them. I have to find Thor.” He turns a corner into the huge hall where ten Jotun sorcerers are still at work carving elaborate symbols around the border of an ice archway big enough for ten giants to walk through abreast. All ten jump to attention when he enters, turning to bow. “Is it ready for use?” Loki asks.

“It will be ready to transport the army by noon, your highness,” says a young sorcerer, lifting their head. “Right now, it is not stable enough to support the travel of so many at once.”

“The warriors will be ready at dawn,” Agrathar says. On his command, she is overseeing the construction and has drawn up the regiments for the army he will be taking. Her orders have been clear, efficient and swiftly obeyed but unfortunately she is too old to accompany them to Thanos himself.

Loki inclines his head to her in acknowledgment, then turns back to the sorcerer. “I need you to open the portal to me, now. I will travel to Midgard, and pick up Thanos’s trail. When the army is ready, send them directly to me.”

“We looked for Bifrost energy on Midgard as you instructed,” a second sorcerer says. “There were two huge bursts in the last week.”

Two. Against his better judgment, Loki’s heart beats faster. Heimdall had called on the dark energies once to send Banner in warning before he died. With Heimdall and Odin both dead, there should have been none left alive who could summon that kind of power. Thanos, perhaps, but with the space stone in his possession what need could he possibly have for the intricate threads of the rainbow bridge? He had not the tools, nor the will.

“The more recent,” Loki says, feeling threads of ice curving around his fingers and folding them into a fist out of sight. “Send me there.”

“We’ll have to give you an anchor token,” the sorcerer says, “So we can locate you. It will only be a moment.” He turns to the portal, lifting a hand to slice through the ice around a group of complex carvings.

A hand touches Loki’s shoulder, so warm without the coat it feels like it would burn his skin. He turns a little to see Valkyrie behind him. “Your skin,” she says.

He looks down at his hands, at the beautiful carved ice below, and the comfort he feels finally, here, on the planet of his birth. But she’s right. Thor has never seen him in this skin. He can’t have their reconciliation with the face of a stranger.

The memory of Odin’s spell is stronger than any remnants of it. He tugs on the threads of the years he wore it, a little of Valkyrie’s memories of him to get the face right. The spell settles on his shoulders like a heavy yoke, the room feels bitterly cold. He lifts his eyes to the arch in time to see all the designs fade into a blank white beam, almost blindingly bright. “Is this better?”

She considers him. “Your hair could be a little greasier, your nose a bit more pointy. You’re still looking a little blue around the fingertips, the ears, the nipples.”

Loki lifts a hand to his chest and, thankfully, the seidr armour complies, forming into a black leather tunic edged in green over black trousers. All the seidr in the world won’t stop his feet being bare against the ice and he shifts his weight from one to the other like hopping on knives. “You should be nicer. I’m a king, you know.”

“Of such a wonderful planet, too.” She slaps him on the shoulder, in the language of mild aggression that her and Thor speak so well. “Your subjects are readying themselves for war. To fight Thanos, you would need every able bodied fighter you can find.”

There is a question there that they both know the answer too. “I would not ask the Asgardians to die for us any more. Thor would not.” He turns away from the portal to look at her. “You saved them when we arrived here, you held their trust when my true face would have lost it. I know you want nothing more than to take your revenge, but they need you here.”

“I know,” she says with a heavy sigh, clapping his arm with one hand. “I’ll protect them.”

Loki nods. “You’re a better leader than I am.”

“Yeah, turns out the bar is very low.” She steps back to the edge of the room as the sorcerer runs up holding a perfect disc of white ice in one hand. “I expect our next planet to have leather seats and cupholders.”

Loki takes the anchor. “Let’s start small, try for temperatures above freezing.” He faces the portal. The air inside crackles with anticipation.

“It’s all set up,” the sorcerer says. “Ready to go.”

Loki turns to Agrathar. “You and Valkyrie are in charge. The Asgardians are not to be harmed.”

“My king,” she says, bowing her head.

Once upon a time, that was all Loki thought he wanted. Now he knows better.

“Tell Thor I said hi,” Valkyrie calls behind him.

Loki’s mouth curves into a smile. “I will,” he says, and steps through the arch.

***

With ten Jotun sorcerers holding the portal steady, the trip to Midgard is almost comfortable. He has a moment of feeling like he’s hovering in the centre of a multidimensional whirlpool with chaos and space spinning in all directions on all sides of him, and then he’s standing on the ground of another world.

He’s at the bottom of a small hill, in the centre of a circle of burned ash marring an otherwise green field. He’ll give the Jotun sorcerers this much: they’re accurate as hel. The sun is shining overhead, blessedly warm against the back of his neck and the ground is warm on his bare feet.

There was a battle here. The grass is torn up all over, blast marks and claw marks torn through the landscape. The scent of burning meat comes with every passing breeze. Loki is not the tracker that Hogun always claimed to be, but it only takes a few steps out of the Bifrost circle to find yellow blood splattered across the grass stems and red blood beside it. Shards of weapons litter the ground so commonly that he has to be careful where he steps, picking his way carefully up the hill.

There is no sign of Thor. He’s not sure what he expected, perhaps lightning storms rolling endlessly across the sky or to arrive and find Thor still at this spot, two days after Thanos’s great triumph, clutching his garments and weeping to the heavens.

Neither is true. The sky is a clear blue, sun shining down brightly as though no day could be more lovely. Somewhere there are birds singing, as though they haven’t realised that half of their number are gone from the world.

He reaches the top of the hill and finds, all of a sudden, people. Black skinned warriors in red carry spears that crackle with an energy Loki would not have thought humans capable of on his last visit to this planet. And just past them, noticing him at the same moment he notices them, is a group of people he definitely recognises.

With hindsight, he thinks as he drops knives into his hands ready to play defense, he should perhaps have considered that Thor might be spending time with his favourite Midgardian friends.

“Stranger,” one of the red-armoured women shouts, leveling a spear at him. “Who are you and where did you come from?”

Behind her, Captain America and the Black Widow are already drawing weapons. “Okoye,” Romanov calls as electricity flashes down her batons. “Stay back.”

Loki tries to see if Tony Stark and his armor are here. Magic or not, that thing packed a punch. He should have waited ten more hours and come with an army. He lifts his knives, shifting his weight in case they come at him from both sides. “I am -”

“Loki!”

Less than a month ago, Loki would never in his wildest dreams have predicted that he’d ever be glad to see the Hulk. Or at least one form of him. Bruce Banner pushes aside Captain America’s shield to break out of the group, ignoring all of the raised weapons in favour of running over to Loki. “You’re alive!” He doesn’t waste time throwing anything to check for illusions, just goes right in for the hug as though Loki isn’t holding two knives in the perfect position to stab him in the back. What with this and how close he stuck to Thor on the ship, Loki is starting to suspect the man is touch-starved.

His human arms are weak as a babe, but Loki doesn’t break his grip, not when Bruce is effectively shielding him from the crowd that want him dead. “Is Thor -?”

“Alive!” Bruce steps back, although with that one word he almost makes Loki want to hug him for real. Thor is alive. In this world. At least recently enough that Bruce doesn’t hesitate or doubt his claim. “He showed up here just before Thanos did. He was incredible, zapped in halfway through the battle with a raccoon and a tree. They must have killed easily half of those insect alien things between them. We’d all be dead if it wasn’t for him.”

All, he says carefully. Instead of half.

Loki doesn’t want to seem desperate, but he can’t quite believe just yet. Not until he sees him. “Is he here?”

Banner shakes his head quickly. “In Wakanda, no. On Earth… I believe so? He stayed to fight, and to bury our dead. He had some new weapon that allowed him to call on the Bifrost, but he said he would stop somewhere here to mourn his own dead.” He hesitates. “The other Asgardians, Valkyrie, are they…?”

“Alive,” Loki confirms, and Bruce’s face reflects the feeling in his own chest. “She’s with a group, just over sixty. We got out on a rescue ship.”

Bruce lets out a heavy sigh of relief and claps him on the shoulder. “Thanks,” he says. “Thank you. God, I can’t believe you’re here, man. Thor was certain you were dead. He said Thanos snapped your neck.”

Loki fights down the urge to lift a hand to his throat, as though he might still need to check it’s not broken. Thor had seen that, not minutes after he saw Loki hand the Tesseract to Thanos and allow all of this to happen. “Did he… say anything else?”

“Not much,” Bruce says, his voice going all gentle and pitying in a painfully sincere fashion. “He was cut up about it, looking for vengeance more than answers. He helped us clear the bodies, and then left. Rocket spoke to him more, I think -” He turns to look over his shoulder.

“Banner,” Captain America says. He and Black Widow have come closer, with the red-armoured woman - Okoye. None of them have lowered their weapons. “Few of us would like to know what the fuck is going on here?”

Loki takes a half step back. Much as he would love to defend himself, its clear Banner’s word is worth far more than his in this crowd. “It’s Loki,” Bruce says. “Thor’s brother.”

“Correct me if I am wrong,” says Okoye carefully. “But is that not the man who attempted to destroy New York?”

“You’re not wrong,” Romanov says, holding her batons like she’d dearly love to use them. “Working for Thanos, so I hear. He was supposed to be sentenced to life imprisonment on Asgard.”

“Well, Asgard was destroyed,” Banner says, putting himself a little more firmly between Romanov and Loki. It’s a nice gesture, although it would take her less than the blink of an eye to get through him. “There was this whole Ragnarok thing and Loki really helped with that. He’s not such a bad guy. Well, he did betray us all at once point, but then he came back to save the day and he destroyed Asgard so -”

“Hold up,” Captain America lifts both hands, the new black shields folding back a little to allow him to do so. “He betrayed you? He destroyed Asgard? And you want us to trust him.”

“In my defense,” Loki says. “It was taken over by our secret evil older sister at the time.”

“She was fully evil,” Bruce confirms. “Loki - we find it varies. But we wouldn’t have saved any of the people if not for him.” He turns to look Captain America directly in the eyes. “If anyone can convince Thor to come back, its him.”

That seems to turn the tide of opinion where nothing else had. Captain America hesitates, then twists his wrists to fold the two shields back down into his arms. Romanov sighs but the lights go out down her battens.

Loki lets his daggers fade back into the air. “Where is he?”

Captain America sighs. He looks a lot older than in New York, as though Midgard’s passed more years than Asgard. “He said he needed to hold a wake for his dead, and then he was going to chase Thanos to the ends of the universe. He wouldn’t take any aid, wouldn’t listen to reason.”

“It is nice to see sunshine for a change,” Okoye says darkly. She has not lowered her spear so much as an inch. Loki likes her. “But I agree that we need him, and I believe that he also needs us. That is not a man who should be alone.”

“Rocket tried to argue with him,” Bruce says. “But it was like something broke inside him. He almost killed Thanos before it all happened. He came the closest of any of us, but it didn’t work. And then he blamed himself for everything that happened after.”

That sounds like Thor. Thor and his endless need to be the hero, to be the savior. Thor with no one to hold him back, nothing to rein him in, not knowing if he was the last surviving member of his entire species. Loki wants to demand to know why Bruce let him go, but he knows better than anyone there are times when you cannot change Thor’s mind.

Rocket sounds like an incredibly brave man.

“Where is he?” Loki asks.

“Norway,” Bruce says. “Where your father died. If you wait a minute we’ll fire up a jet and we can come -”

Loki doesn’t wait a moment.

***

Transporting himself across a planet has never been simpler. Something about seeing a full Jotun portal from the inside, or the shard of ice solid as a rock in his pocket, or the fact that his skin flickers blue easily no longer trapped beneath an illusion heavier than plate armour as the Jotun magic takes hold.

The world opens up onto familiar grass and a screaming storm. The lightning that Okoye had been so relieved to be rid of is here in full force. Thunder rolls across the sky like a thousand avalanches. In the sea beyond the cliff edge, the waves are leaping up twice the height of a man like they too could touch the sky.

To either side of Loki, the rain thunders down onto sodden earth. At the cliff edge, a man kneels in the mud, red cape half brown and hair soaked against his skin, and Loki can almost believe it. He flicks a shield over his head and steps out of the portal, willing the figure to stand up, to turn around.

“How very dramatic.” He doesn’t shout, but he makes himself heard nonetheless.

And Thor turns around.

Thor. Standing there, breathing, existing. Loki was brought back to life two days ago, but in that moment he breathes again. Thor is alive.

Loki was prepared, he’d like to think, for anger - how dare you let me think… . He’s prepared for resignation, I should’ve known you’d be back again… He’s prepared, however unlikely it may be, for joy.

Thor shakes his head, his face etched deep with a despair Loki could not hope to reach. “What fresh hell is this?” he asks, lightning from the sky jumping to his fingertips, crackling through the rain. He’s made no effort to stop the raindrops falling on his face, but there’s no disguise for the red rings around his eyes - eyes , plural, although one has the tell-tale flicker of the electronic - and the way his shoulders shake.

This is no natural storm. Every raindrop is grief.

“Thor -” Loki begins.

“I don’t need your platitudes.” In any Thor that Loki has known before, it would be a roar. In this man with his shoulders bent and his hands shaking, the only thunder is in the sky above them. “Our father followed our mother to rest here, and the Gods could not wait until I left to send you to join them. They send me torments disguised as blessing and ask me to thank them for twisting the knife already buried in my heart.” He spreads his arms, offering his chest for Loki.

Loki’s arms are shaking, raindrops catching on his shoulders and wrists where his spell falters and his chest aches. “This is no trick.”

“I watched the life drain from your eyes! Spare me the lies and the false hopes - I cannot be asked to bear them. Tell me plain: What more have you come to ask of me? What more can I lose that they send you to demand it? My home is gone, my people are gone, my friends, my family, my love -” His voice breaks, his head drops. “It is only me left alone to avenge you, to carry the burdens of all your legacies upon my shoulders and now you come to ask for more.”

Loki takes a step forward and Thor flinches back as though at a blow. It is too much to be asked to bear. Loki hesitates for a moment, then reaches into his Pocket and finds a small object, dumped there in a careless moment when he needed his hands free.  He tosses the ornate stopper from a glass decanter once up into his palm, then throws with perfect accuracy at Thor’s head.

Thor’s instincts are stronger than his doubt and he lifts a hand in time for the object to thud into his palm.

“I’m here,” Loki says.

He’s expecting questions. He has answers, most of them, some of which are almost entirely true. He’s expecting Thor to demand more proof, that he’s not some beast in Loki’s shape or some foul zombie returned from the underworld.

What he gets is Thor’s hand slowly reaching for his cheek, his face falling open as his fingers touch skin instead of passing through. What he gets is Thor staring at his face like he is the sky and the stars and six infinity stones all rolled into one.

For a heartbeat it’s just fingertips. Then Thor’s hand cups his cheek and his free arm wraps around Loki’s waist and the sky tears open overhead as Thor kisses him. He tastes like Thor, he feels like lightning coursing through every inch and every particle. Loki wraps his arms around his neck, pulls him deeper before he can even think to stop, to check if this is okay .

He can’t focus on anything more than Thor’s lips and Thor’s chest against his. The rain falls through his shield, soaking them both and he doesn’t care. Lightning flashes across his body and he doesn’t care. He tastes water on their lips, doesn’t care.

“Loki,” is the first word on Thor’s lips when they break apart. “Loki. Gods, you’re alive. You’re here.”

Loki drags fingers through his short hair, pulls at the straps of his armour to get fingers on his bare skin. “I woke up and you were gone. I woke up -”

And then Thor kisses him again with a noise that is no words at all, just urgency and desperation echoed in the storm overhead.

***

This is not the first time. It’s not old enough yet to be familiar, but the first time was on the Statesman. Loki landed his cruiser and remained invisible through every hallway until he reached the main bedchamber. He didn’t know if he was going to stay, he didn’t know if he’d be welcome - he only knew that he had to see for himself that Thor had made it through.

“If you were here,” Thor said, and “I’m here,” Loki replied. Thor hugged him like they were children again, a great crushing bear hug and Loki closed his eyes and let himself believe that they were going to make it.

It was supposed to be a moment of weakness, but then Thor didn’t let go.  Then Loki didn’t want him to let go. “ I need to feel this,” one of them said, maybe both of them together. There was no one person making a move, only somehow a natural progression from Thor touching every inch of Loki’s face to check he was really there to Loki running hands across his bare chest to that big empty bed and the Grandmaster’s well stocked bedside cabinet of possibilities.

Afterwords Thor ran his hand up and down Loki’s back and said, “I thought you’d left me.”

And Loki’s heart said never but his mouth tripped into, “Not yet.”

And then there was Thanos’s hand around Loki’s neck and Loki couldn’t get enough air into his lungs to say, that’s not what I meant. And Loki died, without ever being able to explain.

And then he woke up, and Thor was gone.

***

“I thought I’d lost you,” Thor says, now, in the present day, with his arm around Loki’s waist and his forehead pressed to Loki’s shoulder like he cannot bear the thought of not touching him even for a moment. The rain is soaking through Loki’s clothes and washing his eyes clean before he has to admit anything at all. “I thought this time, for real.”

And Loki could tell the truth. He could say I have felt how it is to truly die, and it was still worse to wake up in a world that may not have you in it.

But he has seen Thor in despair, has seen how he will drive himself to ruin with it when Loki has offered him no promises, and no guarantee. Loki, for all his tricks, all his power and heritage, has a body that needs to breathe and a throat that can be broken. If he dies again with broken promises on his lips, what hope is there for Thor?

“How little faith,” Loki says with a laugh that tastes bitter. “How many times must you mourn me before you learn?”

Thor shakes his head, holding closer even as Loki would choose to turn away. “Three times now,” he says. “This is the third time I have thought you dead. Worse, it is the third time I have thought you dead and not known if I should be sad or angry.”

Loki stops trying to move away. This is what he intended. “I took your name. I promised we would have a future.”

“Why did you have the Tesseract?”

Loki shuts him up by pulling away. “Is this why you are glad to see me? So that you can decide if you should’ve been happy to lose your traitor brother?”

Thor reaches up to him. “Loki, I didn’t mean -”

“No,” Loki cuts him off. “I’d hate for you to feel like you must doubt me. I’m sure its most distracting when you’re trying to fuck someone to have to consider that they might be tricking you for… I’m not sure what my endgame is supposed to be here? Helping Thanos to break my neck? Putting my fate in the same lottery as everyone else’s? Becoming king of Asgard - oh wait, too late for that.”

“I did not mean to hurt you, brother. I only meant that I am tired of us fighting.”

Loki should pull away, he knows, but the temptation is too strong to tilt his head and let Thor fill the space at his back and the hollow of his throat, to reach behind and feel to bare skin of his side. “Even now,” he says. “After what we shared. You still think I could betray you?”

On the ship they had fallen into the grandmaster’s bed, too tired to do more than the simplest of acts, but still in that moment Loki had felt seen like never before. Thor had come across his fingers with the look of a man who has found the tree of all knowledge and held it in his arms. “It’s okay,” Thor had said. “We have all the time in the world.”

And they had slept, like fools, until Valkyrie woke them up banging on the door. “Thor, your brother of dubious loyalty has parked his ship on our roof and while I understand he did us a big favour, I’m somewhat concerned that now I can’t find him anywhere.”

Loki had buried his face in Thor’s shoulder to muffle his laughter as Thor swatted him in the leg and hissed. “Let me up, I need to be kingly. Why did you let me sleep.”

Loki had let him go, and then they had had no time at all. And now Thor still doubts how much Loki would give for him.

Thor kisses his shoulder, the seidr coat melting away at his touch. “I have loved you a thousand years,” he says. “That never stopped you before.”

Before. Before, before, they have a thousand befores and Loki has an excuse for every one of them. Thor was too hot headed. Loki wanted the throne. A millennia of torture will make even the most rational man a little invasion happy, and he wanted to live.

And maybe this is Loki’s fault too. Maybe there is worse than knowing his death would hurt Thor, and that is knowing that his life will hurt Thor as long as Thor is forced to love him and doubt him in the same breath.

Loki turns in Thor’s arms so he can look his brother in the eyes. “I was afraid,” he says, as he has never dared say before, but now with Thor’s arms around him, he is maybe protected enough, maybe safe enough.

Thor’s face is open, confused, a little sad. “Afraid of me?”

Loki could laugh at the naivety of it. “Afraid of death. These humans you love live such tiny lives - I cannot imagine waking up each day knowing how incredibly limited my days will be. The gods have blessed us with the potential to live for many thousands of years. The lives we could have, the knowledge we could hold. For so many years I could not bear the thought of throwing away even a moment of it. I tried to tell you on Sakaar, that we could live out our entire long lives there, together, without fear, but you didn’t listen. I thought I could abandon you for my own life then, but I could not. Perhaps I should have seen that as a sign.”

Thor strokes a hand through his hair, still confused but unwilling to move away even a little. “You returned for us.”

“I returned for you,” Loki corrects. “For you alone, not knowing if you would have me back or how long you would dare to trust me again. I took what I could for my own protection and I thought after a time I could see you safe and leave you.” He shakes his head. “I knew what the tesseract would mean for the universe. I thought I would die myself, before I gave it to him.”

“What changed?”

Loki looks up into his eyes, and speaks the truth heavy on his tongue. “All the tricks, all the lies, all the times we fought, it was always for your time or your people or your pride. You were Thor, God of thunder, and no matter how I beat you down, I knew you would always recover in the end. We were the two constants - no matter how far apart we stretched the universe would always bring us together.” He lifts a hand to touch Thor’s cheek, rough and familiar and warm against his fingertips. “When Thanos took a hold of you, he would not have stopped. He does not know how to stop, I think. And I saw in that moment what it would be to live a thousand lifetimes in a world without you in it and I could not bear it. I cannot live in that world.”

Thor makes a low noise in the back of his throat, a primordial cry for a feeling with no words, and kisses hims deeper than before, holds him tighter until it feels like they must either break apart or become one flesh. “I would have died a thousand times before letting him hurt you. You cannot know how it felt to watch you fall.”

Loki remembers waking up in an unfamiliar place not knowing if Thor was alive or dead, replaying the moment of his own death a thousand times to try and figure out if Thor could have survived that. If he could have survived after.

There are no words for any of it, so instead he kisses Thor deeper, digs his nails into Thor’s shoulders and they fall down to the ground where Thor’s cloak spreads beneath them. Loki’s armour melts away at his touch and Thor kisses across his shoulders, traces his skin as though to map every section. “Tell me you’re here,” Thor says, against Loki’s skin.

Loki clasps their fingers together. “I’m here,” he promises. “I’m alive.”

“I’m alive,” Thor echoes.

“I’m alive.”

Loki and Thor kiss in the rain

***

It seems an age, as though an entire generation could rise and fall between Thor first pressing his lips to Loki’s cock and Loki coming in his mouth, on his name. Loki takes his turn, but Thor is faster and Loki’s exhaustion stops him from anything too dramatic. He licks Thor’s come off his fingers and kisses Thor’s lips to share the taste.

Thor’s fingers keep coming back to his throat, gentle, searching the skin as though expecting to find a scar. “I know you must be real,” he says. “To have had you again as I have, to hold you and hear you speak, I know, and yet I cannot understand how it came to be. I saw your skin turn blue, I saw your body fall to the ground before me. If that was an illusion, your powers have changed since last we fought.”

Loki lifts a hand to his hair. It is too short to weave properly itself, but he twists a strand of his own around Thor’s roots, a tiny promise of protection with a little bit of possessive in the twists. “I was brought back,” he admits, slowly. If there is one thing the legends are clear on it is that no one returns from the dead without a price. “By some unholy combination of Asgard, Sakaar and Miek. Don’t ask me to recollect the taste, for I may decide it was better to be dead.”

Thor’s fingers catch in his hair, Thor’s forehead touches his like even a joke is too much. Which isn’t fair, if Loki can’t lie about it and can’t joke about it then all he’s got left is facing up to the reality and that sounds no fun at all. “Asgard and Miek,” Thor echoes. “You say it as though not everyone was caught in the explosion.”

An oversight, Loki realises, in an hour of reconciliation to have somehow forgotten to mention that small part. “Valkyrie and Sif rescued one hundred and thirty-two Asgardians in an escape ship before the explosion. They picked me up.”

Thor closes his eyes. “Half of those we rescued from Asgard,” he says, his voice bitter as smoke. “Thanos is nothing if not precise. That is what you woke up to?”

He hesitates to say, but he is committed to the truth now. “I woke to ash in the air and half again. On our ship: sixty-seven.”

Thor shakes his head sadly. “There was only one ship, brother.”

It had taken a few days to get settled enough for Thor to make it to a throne but after that first night they had not been given the chance for time alone. Thor spent most of that time arguing about the legalities of a throne without land or a crown, but it made sense that at some point he’d checked their emergency procedures. He wouldn’t have expected to make use of them so soon, however.

He’s right about the ship’s resources, but still - “It’s complicated,” Loki says.

“Where are they now?” Thor lifts his head, as though expecting to see Valkyrie, Damon and a crowd of strangers staring at them sitting naked in the grass braiding each other’s hair. “How did you come from being restored to life on a ship a million miles away to be in my arms now?”

Loki laughs. “It’s a long story. They’re safe enough, I think. We could go back to them, take back your crown and build a colony somewhere safe, somewhere far away.” The universe has space to spare now, after all.

He knew it was too much to hope for, but he had held out for more than a second of thought before Thor shook his head. “Your presence, your return, has cast me adrift, its true. To hear that you would give the world in trade for my life makes me wish I could promise it in its whole to you. But I know of my own failures. I know that I could have stopped this but in the moment of truth I failed to act as I should and billions, trillions of lives have suffered for it. I cannot turn away from my quest because you would prefer me safe, brother.”

Loki tugs himself free of Thor’s ministrations, lifting a hand to seal the end of the braid Thor was working with a quick spell to stop it unwinding. “And what, pray tell, is your glorious plan for vengeance?”

“Loki -” Thor lifts a hand to his thigh as though to pull him back down.

Loki shakes him off, summons the seidr to his skin with a flick of the fingers and his clothes take shape once again, hiding the marks and the skin from view. “You are going to track him down, somehow, across the entire universe.”

“My blade has tasted his blood,” Thor says. “There is nowhere he can go we cannot find him.”

It’s worse than Loki had feared. He’d thought no matter what he’d have time, while Thor tracked Thanos across the endless plains of the cosmos. Instead, he’s arrived barely minutes before the end and still Thor will not hear reason. “And then what?”

“I will kill him, take vengeance for the lives of my people that he has slaughtered, for the infinite lives he has destroyed.”

Loki turns to look at him, letting nothing show on his face but how appalling and ridiculous that plan is. “And how does that help anyone?”

Thor stares blankly up at him. “It is - it is vengeance.”

“You mentioned that. Let me restate: how does you showing up on Thanos’s doorstep with a weapon that has already failed to kill him once and being slaughtered wholesale for his amusement help anyone?”

“I made a mistake last time that I will not make again -”

“He fought the Hulk, ” Loki shouts, forgetting his composure and his plans. “With no gauntlet, no stones, he beat the Hulk up like some undersized puppy. He could turn you to bubbles with the snap of his fingers and you think, what, he’ll stand still as a statue to give you the chance to try again?

Thor stands up into a bolt of lightning and is fully dressed too in an instant, with a roar like thunder. “What would you have me do? Run and hide in this new universe and pretend as though everything is fine? Come with me, together we can -”

“Die,” Loki finishes. “We can die, brother.” He steps forward, into the heart of the storm, and lifts both hands to cup his brother’s cheeks, to force those eyes to fix on him. Up close, the fake is the wrong colour, the wrong shape, and he can see the circuitry underneath the false pupil. The real is dark, full of storm clouds and a pain so deep Loki cannot touch it.

Thor’s shoulders slump very slightly and his head drops. “What would you have me do?” he asks again, softer.

Loki tilts his chin back to kiss him once on the lips, once on the cheek. “I would have you run away with me to the furthest point of nowhere we can find. A planet with green fields, beasts the size of houses that we can go hunting, running barefoot through the trees. You could carve an axe from a stone and I will cut a bow from a willow tree. Build a tent out of leaves and fuck you beside a glistening golden waterfall where no one will ever find us.” He kisses Thor’s temple. “We could live out all our thousands of years together, let the universe go on without us, forget us, until we are nothing but shades of memories.”

Thor sighs, heavy as the grave, and wraps his arms around Loki’s waist as though he could spirit them away there right now. “You know that I can’t,” he says.

Loki knows. That doesn’t stop him dreaming. He could toss the Jotun token into the sea, let his crown melt alongside his army, let Valkyrie freeze on Jotunheim with the remains of their people. He could almost do that. “Then take the help you are offered,” Loki says. “The other Avengers, the armies, anyone who will take up a sword and fight.”

“And watch more people die? I cannot order more people to put their lives on the line.”

“You are not ordering what is freely given.” Loki kisses him again, because he is there, because he can. “It would be by their choice, for a cause that they believe in enough to put their lives on the line. You yourself would kill any man who dared to offer you less.”

Thor’s whole body seems to shake, as though torn between blind desire and reason. “Very well,” he says eventually. “We will return to Wakanda, but I will not wait to raise a new army. Every minute the blood gets weaker and the trail grows colder. We don’t have time to waste.”

Loki pulls his face close and kisses him once more, gently, on the lips. “Then we need to use every minute we have. Where is your weapon?”

“What makes you so certain I have one?”

“You used Mjolnir to funnel your power for over a thousand years,” Loki says. “I assumed in all the chaos, you’d be wanting some familiarity. Is it bigger? Shinier? Slightly more compensatory?”

Thor pushes him away, clearly one taunt away from sticking out his tongue. They could be five hundred years old again, if only Thor’s smile spread a little higher on his face. “It summons the Bifrost, so be nice about it or I won’t offer you a ride.”

“Has it got a name?” Loki asks. “Is it dramatic ?”

Thor’s face twists into a grimace, which means it does and it is. “Do you want to walk?”

Loki grins. “You should fetch it, but there’s no need for the Bifrost. I’m driving this one.”

Thor pauses, hand stretched out to the side. The weapon that thuds into it is absolutely bigger and shinier than Mjolnir.  “Its name is Stormbreaker,” he says which is somehow better and worse than anything Loki was imagining.

It looks like a teenager went to a blacksmith and kept insisting that they add more to make it bigger and less functional until it physically fell out of the forge. The blade is silver, elaborately carved and crackling with power. The handle looks like a stick that Thor found in the woods. Thor points it at him. “Say nothing.”

Loki smirks, which probably covers just about all comments he could make, and reaches around it to take Thor’s wrist in hand. It feels like stretching his hand alongside a trapped lightning bolt, the metal shimmering with rainbows from the Bifrost energy trapped inside.

“Are you sure you have the magic for such a trip?” Thor asks.

Maybe not before, but now his skin is thinner and the portal is easy to find. “Trust me,” Loki says, closing his fingers on Thor’s bare forearm. “I want to test a theory.”

***

They step out into silence. It is the same country that Loki left - he recognises the hill and the city and the forest in the distance - but the ground around them is scorched far beyond the marks of battle. The grass is burned and cracks beneath their feet, there is the smell of magic on the wind, and the only life is a thousand rough vine-like tree roots, spreading through the landscape as though the fire has caused them to burn impossibly fast. It is bright, like daylight, but the sky overhead is dark, like a bubble of black walls enclosing them in.

Loki feels stretched, like his body needs too much skin somehow. Behind him, Thor stumbles.

Loki turns to him and sees the battlefield, stretched out before them. No one has gathered the bodies here, no one has burned them - except for that blast of magic that killed the trees, scorching at the edges.

Thor looks at him, confused and afraid. “What have you done?” he asks. “What sorcery or illusion is this?”

There is something damp against Loki’s leg and he reaches into his pocket to find the Jotun ice disk melting by the warmth of his own body heat. “We need to be quick,” he says, weaving a tiny stasis spell around it. “Do you recognise any of these people?”

Thor stares at him a moment longer, then turns slowly to the battlefield. He walks slowly, his feet leaving imprints in the charred ground. Loki stays a few steps behind. Every gust of wind from the east brings a prickle of magic that bursts across his skin like static.

Thor stops, finally, beside the body of a fallen woman in the same red outfit as Okoye had worn. Her head is shaved bare, her skin almost as dark as the ground around it, and there is a spear just out of reach of her hand. “We buried this warrior,” Thor says. “Her name was T’Yana. Okoye and Nareema dug her grave.”

The woman lies on the burned ground in a nest of branches. Her throat sits at a strange angle, and Loki’s airway seems to close a little tighter just looking at it.

“Is this some vision?” Thor asks, turning away from the body to look at him. “You show me what could have been if we had been utterly overrun? What power is this and what use ?” His eyes are shining and Loki cannot offer hope unfounded, cannot offer anything at all.

He turns and walks up the hill, into the wind. His skin pulls tighter until Thor breaks from the woman and follows. Outside of the vines, the trees are dead, the plants are dead. The city is closed up, the windows boarded and the doors locked down.

“I burned and buried these bodies,” Thor says. It takes no effort for him to catch up, Loki is in no hurry to find the source of this. “I stayed for two days, we served a warrior’s burial for each of the fallen Wakandans and a service for those who Thanos defeated.” He spins on the spot, lifting Stormbreaker as though he might see an enemy to fight somewhere in the wasteland. Loki says nothing. He is done making promises he can’t keep.

They reach the top of the hill and Thor falls silent, Stormbreaker dropping in his hand.

There is the shape of a woman kneeling on the ground, in what must once have been a copse of trees but is now a burned wasteland. The scorch marks that burn the land all the way to the black sky barrier are centred on this one point. The smell of magic in the air, of strange too-powerful magic that prickles Loki’s skin all centres here.

And now she is still. Her hands do not move, the wind doesn’t touch her, she seems not even to breathe.

“Is she dead?” Thor asks.

It goes against every single one of Loki’s instincts, but he steps forward anyway and lays a hand on the red crown of her hair.

It feels like being bludgeoned again by a Frost Giant club, an overwhelmingly large force crashing into him of sorrow. Sorrow limitless, unending, every grief the mind can be thought to bear balled up into a single overwhelming onslaught. There is no longer a question of what burned the land and the sky, of what pain has wrought and been turned back on them. “No,” Loki says. “She is sad.”

He steps back from her, looking again at the vines around their feet. There are more here, forming a circle around her as though they tried to read her but were constantly pushed away. The wood is thicker, despite the burns. It looks like nothing more than the handle of Thor’s axe.

There is movement in the vines and Loki lifts his head in time to see a single individual step out from the shadows of the burned trees.

Thor steps up beside him, close enough to brush his arm, and his mouth falls open at the sight. “Groot?”

The figure turns to look at them. It’s a Flora Colossus. Loki has read about them in books, but they’re so reclusive and difficult to track down, he never in a million years thought he’d see one.

Thor showed up to battle with a tree, Bruce had said. Loki really needed to learn to pay attention.

“I am Groot,” the tree says.

Its body is the same colour as the vines that have torn across the landscape. The trees closing in on the alien bodies look like its arms. This one individual has spread across almost everything within sight, and yet Thor lifts Stormbreaker into a sheath at his back and raises his bare palms. “I know,” he says. “I know you didn’t hurt anyone.”

“I am Groot,” it repeats, louder.

“You tried to protect her,” Thor says. “You got the others to safety in the castle, that’s good, Groot. That’s amazing, you did amazing.”

“You speak Groot?” Loki says, distracted from the moment by the unlikeliness of it.

Thor looks away from the tree. “You talked about them so much when we were kids, so I took an elective class. I thought we could go and visit someday.”

He says it so matter-of-fact, like they could have been tourists on a trip to visit the Flora Colossus homeworld, in another life where they never grew apart.

“I am Groot.”

“No, Rocket’s fine.” Thor’s brow furrows suddenly into a frown. “Rocket - I left him here less than a day ago. You were the one who -” he turns back to Loki, and switches to an Asgardian tongue. “Groot was killed by Thanos. Rocket saw him die.” He is trying not to hope, Loki can see it in his eye. “Loki, what have you done?”

That’s all Loki needed to hear. He reaches out to take Thor’s hand before the disc in his pocket can vanish entirely. He still hasn’t quite got the knack, it’s a push that he’s never had to do intentionally before, but he weaves a reverse anchor knot with his fingers, closes his eyes firmly and opens them again on a familiar plain.

No vines, no tree people. A woman in red armour who isn’t Okoye shouts, “Thor returns,” a call that is picked up like an echo towards the palace.

Thor spins to see the remains of the great burial pyres at either side, then turns back to Loki. “Tell me.”

Loki stumbles over to a log to sit down, reaching into his pocket to check the disc is once again solid as rock and unmelting beneath his fingers. “Summon the others,” he says. “I only intend to explain this once.”

***

The reactions to Thor are far more positive than the reactions to Loki. Captain America goes in for a hug, his eyes glistening. Romanov breathes a very audible sigh of relief. Even Okoye is glad to see him, if her, “Thank the gods for small mercies,” is anything to go by.

Thor is surrounded by a pack of them, clapping his shoulder and thanking him repeatedly for returning.

Bruce comes to sit beside Loki. “Thank you,” he says.

Loki shrugs, and doesn’t admit that he would rather have taken Thor anywhere but here. They are both alive now, in this world, and he wishes that could be enough.

“Thor?” A racoon. A literal, actual raccoon wearing a bright orange jumpsuit and carrying a massive fuck off laser machine gun runs on all fours to get to Thor in the shortest amount of time possible. Thor spins around on his approach, actually smiling.

“Rocket! I must beg your forgiveness a thousand times, I have been a poor friend and crewmate indeed to abandon you in your hour of need.”

Rocket, Thor’s companion who Loki had imagined being roughly the size and body mass of Korg, turns out to be a furry faced rat who leaps onto Thor’s shoulder and slaps him on the head. “You’re a pirate angel a-hole , you know that?”

“A tree and a raccoon,” Loki says. “And I assumed you were joking.”

Bruce’s smile fades. “Groot,” he says. “He was caught up in it with the Gauntlet. Rocket says he was only a couple of years old, at least that incarnation.” He shakes his head. “It’s been a bad few days. Thor wouldn’t speak to anyone, Rocket refused to speak to anyone except Thor and when Thor left -”

“I’m sorry,” Thor is saying, crouched down on one knee to speak to Rocket eye to eye. “I allowed my rage to get the better of me, and I did not stop to think. I acted like a child and you deserved better.” He hesitates, turning his head to catch Loki’s eye through the crowd. “There is news, I think, although I will admit that I do not quite understand all it is that I have seen. I hope it is good.”

The eyes of all the Avengers, Okoye and Rocket the Thor-taming Raccoon all follow his gaze to fix on Loki. “What did you see?” Captain America asks.

Thor waits for Loki to nod before speaking, rising to his feet like a work of art. “I saw a place exactly like this one, only someone had scorched the ground to a cinder. Bodies were left to lie where they had fallen in battle, great roots split the earth. It was as though Wanda Maximoff’s power had been unleashed in one fell swoop from her pain.” He speaks to the crowd, but he doesn’t look away from Loki’s face. “I saw Groot.”

Rocket’s mouth falls open. Captain America’s brow furrows. “Not to disparage your vision, Thor, but we have been fooled by Loki’s illusions before.”

“He spoke to me,” Thor says. “In his own tongue, which Loki does not speak.” He looks down to Rocket. “He asked after you by name. His roots had spread far across the land as though he had experienced the same rage that led me to run.”

Bruce stands up, leaving Loki to sit alone. “Was it a vision? When Ultron invaded, you saw something of this -” he spreads his hand as though to indicate this world of After. “You saw the Stones. Was this like that?”

Thor lifts his gaze again to Loki, fixing him in place with confusion. “I smelled the smoke on the air, I felt the breeze on my skin and the warmth of my brother’s hand in mine. It felt as real to me as this place, here, now. The bodies of the people I buried here were real. The pain in my friend’s eyes was real. If it was a vision, it was the strongest I have ever felt and it was not caused by me.”

Loki does not dare break eye contact with Thor, but he feels everyone else turn to him. His body aches, and he wishes Thor would come closer, but he has too much pride to beg so he stands slowly, making sure his aching legs will take the weight. “I have a theory,” he says, choosing his words carefully as though these desperate souls might hold them against him later when everything goes wrong. “As you all know by now, I died not quite a week ago.” He lifts a hand to his throat, turns his gaze on Captain America and Black Widow who would’ve been so relieved to hear it. “Thanos snapped my neck.”

Thor flinches very slightly. His fingers twitch as though he wants to touch too, for the reassurance. Loki wishes he would. Wishes he’d taken more time. He reaches into his pocket to touch the tiny shard of ice. It feels colder than ever at his fingertips. There is no more time.

“While I was dead, thanks to failures on the part of every single safeguard put in place to protect them, Thanos took all six infinity stones and used their power to wipe out half the universe.”

“Yeah, we get it,” Rocket growls. “We were all there. Tell me about Groot.”

Loki swallows down the urge to fight the interruption. Patience is something he cannot demand right now. “I believe - that is to say I think - that he did not do what he intended.”

“He wiped out half the universe,” Black Widow says. “We saw it, they just turned to ash and drifted away. The UN did a count wherever possible, and it was exactly half. All over the world, and I imagine others too. Seemed pretty much perfect to me.”

One hundred and thirty-two Asgardians down to sixty-six. “The stones were the first constant of the universe,” Loki says. “They existed so strongly that everything else started existing around them. They are the everything that everything is made from and they were not meant to destroy.”

He lifts his hands carefully, palm to palm. “Imagine this is the universe. Thanos wanted to destroy half of it. Only the life - not counting plants from what I’ve seen - so only conscious life. But the stones aren’t meant to destroy. What they are good at is creating, good to the point that they created the entire universe.” He brings his hands apart. “So they created a new one. A perfect replica of this world, at the moment of Thanos’s demand.” He looks at Thor between the worlds. “And the universe splits. In each universe fifty percent of life dies, as Thanos demanded, but nothing is destroyed. Thanos is satisfied, the stones are satisfied, the world continues on.” He looks around the crowd. They aren’t interrupting anymore, staring at his split palms like a puddle in an endless desert.

Loki swallows. “I was dead,” he says. “At the time. Bodies are not life, they weren’t caught up in the split. My body existed in both universes, and then Valkyrie brought it back to life.

“It took me a while to figure it out,” he admits. “I wasn’t settled right, I kept slipping between the two without even realising it. From our ship to a void in space, then I started seeing people who should have been dead.” Laufey would have cleared his castle in mourning, as a Jotun king would in times of intense sorrow. What had he imagined? That Loki was projecting his image across the stars and threatening to kill him?

“Thor was the test,” Loki says. “I took him with me into the other universe. He recognised the bodies - they existed in both - and Groot who exists in only one.”

Rocket is the first to step forward, jumping onto a rock to get more height. “Can you take the rest of us?”

Loki looks down at him. For a raccoon, his face is unusually expressive, desperate and pleading. All this for a tree. “No,” Loki says, although he isn’t certain. He half expected Thor not to come with him, and to take anyone more might tear them both in half. “And if I could, I wouldn’t. To be honest with you, I’d rather not spend the rest of my life traveling the cosmos ferrying people from one universe to the other to reunite families. Let alone making sure both worlds have the right proportions of farmers, traders and sorcerers. It sounds boring and like a terrible drain on my time.”

Rocket’s lips curl back in a snarl that shows rows of very sharp teeth.

“However,” Loki says quickly. “There is a simpler solution.” He brings his hands back together and clasps his fingers. “We fix it.”

He expects everyone to instantly erupt into questions, probably the same ones his mind has been running through since Damon confirmed that the second-universe ship would not be occupying the same area of space as theirs. The ones with how and where and is this even possible that he has no answers too.

But the clearing is more silent than it has ever been, as six pairs of eyes stare entranced at his clasped hands.

Thor, eventually, is the one who breaks the silence. “This seems almost impossible,” he says. “As though you have stepped from a dream to offer hope where there was none. But tell me, brother, do you have the power to do such a thing?”

Loki parts his hands, with an audible whisper of air as everyone breathes again. “No,” he says. “The Stones are phenomenal wells of cosmic power capable of literally duplicating the universe. The only thing powerful enough to counter them is the stones themselves.”

Captain America steps forward. “And how do you propose we get them?”

Loki smiles. “We kill Thanos,” he says, letting his eyes move between the group so they can all take it in, finishing on Thor with Stormbreaker crackling between his hands. “And take the gauntlet from his corpse.” He reaches into his pocket as the tiny ice shard grows so cold it seem to be leeching all the warmth from his body, beneath the coat he can feel his skin turning blue.

This is going to be a masterpiece of timing.

“And how are we going to do that?” Romanov asks. “Thanos has already defeated us once with ease, when there were twice as many of us. We’re a little short on numbers for an army.”

“That’s not a problem,” Loki says as another red armoured woman runs up the hill behind them shouting for Okoye.

“A rift has opened inside the walls,” she shouts. “Revealing an army of creatures, twice as tall as any man, armed in ice and snow.”

Loki meets Okoye’s eye and winks. “I brought my own.”

Skadi comes up the hill half a moment later and kneels in the grass. “Your army,” she says to Loki. “Ten thousand strong and ready to fight.”

“Ten thousand,” Loki relays to Romanov in English. “Will that help at all?”

Okoye laughs, slamming her spear into the ground. “I like this man,” she says. “He gets things done.”

“He tried to destroy New York,” Captain America says.

“I have been to New York. I can see why someone would want such a thing.” She claps Loki on the shoulder. “Come, we will meet Shuri in the planning room.”

***

Planning, apparently, is an inside activity. Skadi takes her leave to return to assembling the troops, having received permission from Okoye to leave the Portal open, spilling ice over the Wakandan fields. Okoye’s fingers tensed as she looks down upon the grass, and she gave consent with a sharp nod and a, “I have no fond memories left of that place.”

Captain America seems hesitant to allow Loki into their citadel, but he has Thor at his side - Thor’s hand on the small of his back in what these people are free to assume is a gesture of brotherly solidarity - and the Captain does not give voice to his objections. Inside, the city is a technological marvel. Loki saw some of Midgard’s sorcery when he was attempting to control the tesseract, but what they have on display here is above and beyond anything from elsewhere.

The source turns out to be a young sorceress, Interim queen and teenage girl who greets Loki with a cry of joy and an, “Oh my god there are so many memes about you.” Then she somehow uses the Bifrost energy in Stormbreaker to create a link to Thanos’s blood, and pinpoints his location to his home on the far side of the planet Titan.

She’s accompanied by the queen mother, a warrior named M’Baku and a gunmetal grey version of the iron man armour who introduces himself as Colonel Rhodes. Despite intending to only explain once, Loki finds himself summarizing the situation again.

Shuri is not as quiet and in awe of his realisation as the Avengers had been. “Which universe does Thanos exist in?” she asks, as soon as he’s finished, her mind clearly already three steps ahead of everyone else.

It’s nice to be in the company of sorcerers again. “Thanos’s judgement was always reserved for everyone but himself,” Loki says. “He will not have included himself in the purge, therefore he will be like me, with a presence in both universes.”

“I was going to ask about that,” Romanov says. “Is there a second version of you walking around there? Your body bumping into strangers in hallways?”

As entertaining as that would have been on Jotunheim, Loki shakes his head. “It isn’t my body, nor my mind. More that there’s a space in that world that I fit into. When I took Thor with me, he also occupied that space. When I use magic, my essence is lighter and that’s when I tend to slip between the two. Thanos could have had similar experiences, or he could be entirely unaware of the second universe’s existence. It’s hard to say.”

“If he knew of it,” Thor says, with a confidence Loki cannot match, “he would have destroyed it by now. He may claim to be concerned with the universe’s resources, but there are many other ways to bring balance. He wishes to kill, and destroy, for his own pleasure.”

Captain America walks up to a holo-screen where Shuri has projected an image of Titan pulled from assorted human imagery. The quality is poor, but it shows the large expanse of space where their battle will be fought. “And the gauntlet,” he says. “Which universe does that exist in?”

“I would imagine both,” Loki says. “In the same way as myself and Thanos.”

Captain America turns to Loki. “If you were close enough, could you send the gauntlet into the other dimension?”

Loki has been thinking along the same lines, but based on his knowledge of Mjolnir there’s a glaring flaw in that idea. “I could move the gauntlet, and the physical presence of the stones. But the stones themselves are far more than their physical form. Their power exists in both the universes, and is tied to the gauntlet which is tied to Thanos. I can’t stop him drawing on the power.”

“After he performed his purge, the gauntlet was cracked and corroded, as though it was not intended to channel that much energy,” Thor says, lifting a hand to the shining gold gauntlet in the image. “It seemed as though it had hurt him. I think he will be hesitant to use its full power again, unless he truly believes he has no other option.”

“Brilliant,” Romanov says dryly. “So we can all just run up and attack him.”

“He still has the Chitauri,” Loki says. “It would take an insignificant amount of the gauntlet’s power to use the space stone and create a portal. Once they were summoned, he could easily sacrifice a hundred thousand without sparing a second thought.”

“The Chitauri,” Captain America says. “Just like the good old days. With half the numbers, no Hulk, and Thanos waiting to crush us like an ant if it looks for a minute like we’re winning.” He shakes his head. “Could we distract him enough for Thor to approach with Stormbreaker?”

Thor lifts his head. “Stormbreaker is a formidable weapon, but it has already failed to kill Thanos once. If I were to try again, I would need to draw on all of its power, a blow that launches into the sky and falls gathering lightning as it drops upon his head.”

“Not exactly subtle,” Romanov says, and she turns to Loki. “Can the two of you approach from the other universe?”

“I need to get close enough to Thanos in this universe to send the gauntlet into the other.” Loki is trying not to spend too much time staring at Thor, in case he gives their secret away in front of all Thor’s associates, but he can’t help it on occasion. “Thor can’t travel to and from the other universe without me.”

Steve frowns. “But even if we take the gauntlet, Thanos can still use it.”

True. However you look at it, they’re not in a good position. “Yes.”

“And you have to have your hands on it to send it into the other universe, where he can still use it.”

Loki nods. “I didn’t say it was a good plan. I have some thoughts on how to distract him from attempting to use it, but that doesn’t help Thor. Perhaps your wizard could work some spell of invisibility, or use his amateur portal magic to transport Thor across the battlefield.”

Captain America and Romanov both have matching expressions of utter confusion. Bruce raises a hand, “If by ‘wizard’ you mean Doctor Strange, he’s in space.”

The one time when Loki actually wanted to see the asshole. “Where in space?”

Bruce shakes his head. “We don’t know.”

“Eidhr,” Thor says.

Loki’s head snaps away from the holoscreen, no concern for who may be looking, to meet Thor’s eyes. “Bless you,” Colonel Rhodes says, but his voice seems somewhat distant when Thor is staring back at Loki as though to say yes, you heard me.

“No,” Loki says.

Romanov’s eyes are all too knowing, flicking between the two of them. “What’s Eidhr?”

“It’s a Jotun bonding ritual,” Thor says before Loki can cut in. “It would allow Loki and I to share power. I could take his place in the other universe, step back and forth on my own.”

Loki’s lip curls. “It’s a little bit more than that, although perhaps I shouldn’t say exactly what in front of your friends.”

Thor’s gaze does not falter, nor even hesitate. “I am aware of what Eidhr involves,” he says, although if that's true, Loki has no idea how he is holding his voice so steady, his body so still. Loki wants nothing more than to take him by the shoulders and shake him into sense, to take him by the shoulders and kiss him for daring to suggest it. “This would allow us both to enter the other universe and approach Thanos. Loki could then re-enter this universe to conceal the gauntlet, while I prepare and make my attack in the other.”

“It would also give me kingship over Asgard,” Loki says. “And I’d be able to wield Stormbreaker.”

His words have the desired effect. The Avengers - virtually as one - erupt into objections. Even Bruce, although he looks a little torn about it, says to Thor, “He did give Thanos an infinity stone. And there were all those times he betrayed us before. If he’s going to turn on us again, perhaps we shouldn’t hand him more power.”

Okoye snorts. “He commands the army of monsters outside, and he brought Thor back to us. I know you have fought in the past, but we are beyond the point of desperate now. Either we trust him, or we do not.”

“I’m team we do not,” Rhodes says. “For all we know this is a trap playing right into Thanos’s hands.”

Thor does not look at any of them. His eyes do not leave Loki’s face, not as Steve calls for order, slamming his shields into the table when no one stops talking. The hologram flickers and silence falls. “Thor,” he says, in a calm, reasonable voice. “I know you want to trust him, but I think we can find a better way.”

Thor, finally, looks away. “I have misrepresented the situation to you, Captain,” he says in a voice that allows no argument. “This is not a debate we are having, and it will not be put to vote. It is a decision that Loki and I will make.”

“No,” Loki says, too quickly, drawing surprised looks from half the room. “My decision is no.”

He cannot meet Thor’s gaze. He turns around and leaves the room, splitting into four illusions out of habit, walking out of the castle as a guard, then as a gust of wind, then as Shuri past the guards on the main doors. He could create a portal, be gone from here before anyone could look for him. He could leave Thor behind, travel the universe alone. A thousand sunsets, a thousand skies. Let them defeat or not defeat Thanos without him.

***

Loki sits down on a tree stump out beyond the palace. To his right the sun is slowly moving towards the horizon, to the left the great arch of the Jotun portal stands open overlooking the army spread on the ice plains. It is good to breathe the air, to stretch his legs, to look at the Wakandans herding their cattle around the icy wind blowing in from the other side of the universe and remember what people they are dying for.

Loki unpicks a handful of threads out of his Seidr armour and starts a new weave around the strands of vibranium that he stole from Shuri’s workbench while she wasn’t looking. Frankly, she deserved it for insisting she was a scientist and not a sorcerer.

“We were looking for you,” Bruce says, behind him.

Loki doesn’t say anything, but steals two strands of his hair and a thread that vibrates with worry to weave in alongside a handful of shadows and an idea of a trick. Bruce watches his hands move for a long minute, then sits down beside him. “Is this magic?” he asks.

Between Loki’s hands, the fabric looks like a shimmer in the air, slowly fading to black as he adds more layers. “Seidr,” he says. “Weaving. The power comes from the combination of threads, the way they’re tied and the composition of each one.” Loki pulls a thread of sunlight, just for show. “Ideas, images, objects, almost anything can be incorporated in.”

“I don’t understand where the magic comes from.”

Loki spreads his weave and pulls a thread of his confusion to add into the mix. “Everything has its own power, but you have to find where it lies. A chair doesn’t draw power from the fact that it has four legs, it draws power from the way it holds something up. A sunset might have power because it’s beautiful, a unicorn hair holds power because it’s rare.” He tries to remember how his mother explained it, back when he was a child still figuring out what gender he was going to be and what he could make of that. “Variety is key. I could weave an entire blanket from sunlight, but what could it do that the sun couldn’t?”

“I don’t understand what it’s going to do anyway,” Bruce points out.

Loki smiles, folding a shaft of ice into place. “It’s protection,” he says. “Of a kind.” He shakes it out and the fabric changes from green to red, stretching out into a long cloak of rich red fabric. “You might as well go ahead with what you came out here to ask.”

Bruce hesitates long enough that Loki lets the weaving fall into his lap to turn and look at him. “I suppose I don’t understand why you declined.”

Loki doesn’t try to suppress a laugh, although it comes out bitter. “Go back inside,” he says. “I’m sure your Captain, Miss Romanov, Okoye, and Colonel Rhodes can give you plenty of reasons why I should not be handed ultimate power.”

“I didn’t ask them,” Bruce looks to the sky, then walks around and sits on the log beside him. “I’m asking you.”

“He has no reason to offer this to me,” Loki bites out, caught in a moment of surprise by the truth. “There is another way to save the world - there is always another way. He has not thought through the consequences, or he has not considered all the options. Why would he want this from me?”

Bruce shrugs, touching a hand to Loki’s shoulder. “I don’t know much about Jotun bonding rituals,” he says. “But I have come to know the two of you. I saw him in his grief when he came here, I saw you in yours when you came after him. Have you considered that perhaps he genuinely doesn’t want to lose you again, and it would mean something to him to have a promise you will stay?”

Loki shakes his head. “I have made him plenty of promises.”

“Yes,” Bruce agrees. “But this one you couldn’t break.” There’s a moment of stillness between them, then Bruce claps him on the shoulder a second time and stands. “I’ll tell him you’re out here,” he says.

Thor arrives not five minutes later in a haze of static and turbulent emotions. Loki plucks three blades of grass to hold them and folds them in, feeling the whole armour shiver with the power of the lightning. On the horizon, the sun is dropping in a riot of colour reflected in reds and golds off the clouds and in a thousand rainbows off the ice below.

Thor sits down beside him and runs a hand across the fabric. “It feels unusual.”

The vibranium threads shimmer purple at his touch. It’s a fascinating material, that somehow has the characteristics of many different substances all at one time. Loki wove a strand into his own armour and his coat gained pauldrons in gunmetal grey. In this new weave, it lends the fabric a weight as though it could bear a nation.

He catches that thought, and the feeling behind it. This country was built on the unusual, the way it formed a peace that is embedded deep into the land underneath all its recent war. This is a place that has kept itself apart from conflict, and has prospered for it.

“When were you going to tell me?” Thor asks, and Loki would ask what he meant, but the ice of Jotunheim is just visible from where they sit, and Thor’s gaze is caught on the arc of it.

“Hey, Thor,” Loki says. “I’m king of Jotunheim.”

Thor shakes his head, but he’s laughing at least a little. Even if it's in a resigned fashion.

“King of one of them, at any rate,” Loki clarifies. “Laufey and I might be due a fistfight in Jotunheim B any day now.” He pauses. “ I also stole the Casket of Ancient Winters and returned it to Jotunheim, since Father wasn’t around to tell me no and I needed a convincing argument to stop them from trying to kill me.”

Thor lets out a dramatic groan. “Do you ever consider telling me the whole truth? Maybe on special occasions?”

Loki shrugs, kicking Thor’s ankle with his foot since he doesn’t know if Thor’s friends are watching, and if he’s allowed to kiss Thor in company. “I told you the sun would shine on us again,” he says.

Thor’s eyes lift to the sun, dropping over the horizon but still for the moment sending shards of golden light across their faces. He makes the first move, running fingers through Loki’s hair, and turns Loki’s face towards his, as though it ever needs encouragement. His kiss is careful, parting Loki’s lips slow and sweet.

“Why did we not do this before?” Loki asks, lifting his fingertips to Thor’s jaw.

Thor kisses them too. “I thought you would stab me for trying.”

In his defense, Loki has stabbed him for far lesser reasons. “And when you did?”

Thor’s hand stills in his hair, as though to claim his full attention. “I thought it wouldn’t matter if you did. It would hurt me more to risk losing you again without you knowing.” He might as well cut his heart from his chest and present it to Loki on a platter, and he seems to realise this because he laughs falsely and kisses Loki’s jaw, incidentally breaking eye contact. “Why did you never approach me?”

Thor would not have stabbed him. He was too Courageous, too Good to turn down a well-intentioned come-on with anything less than a gentle rejection, and then a careful separation so as not to encourage anything untoward. Loki had seen it enough times, and would honestly have preferred to take the blade. “I overthink,” he admits. “Do you want to know the countless thousands of ways I have pictured you breaking my heart?”

Thor’s palm touches his chest, Loki’s heart beating against his hand. “Perhaps one day, if only so I may refute each and every one.”

It’s cheesy and over the top, and Loki laughs because it’s expected of him and then pulls the moment into a hair-thin thread that he twists under his skin to keep safe. “Who would’ve thought you’d be a romantic?”

Thor smiles. “Come back inside.”

Loki tilts his head to catch the last of the warmth. “Another minute,” he asks, and Thor  kisses him again, a hand in his hair and on his thigh as the shard of sunlight gets thinner and the colours in the sky spread wider.

The air is dark again when they part and Loki lets Thor take him by the hand and lead him back into the palace. The guards stand to attention when they pass, but they don’t head to the audience chamber where the Avengers and Skadi, the frost giant commander, are likely still hotly debating strategies. Thor takes a winding stair upwards, down a hall to a door that opens at his touch.

It isn’t a planning room. A rich blue carpet covers the floor, a window looks out over the moon and an impossible number of stars, and at the centre of the room is a four poster bed draped in black and purple curtains and sheets spilling across the surface.

Thor steps in behind him, hip to hip, arms wrapping around Loki’s stomach.

Loki swallows. “I thought we were short of time,” he says, but makes no objection when Thor presses the first warm kiss to the side of his neck.

“We have time enough,” Thor says. “If we are to die tomorrow, I would not go with any regrets.”

Loki laughs, his breath catching on it as Thor’s beard scratches his skin. “Is that why you would propose such a ridiculous scheme?”

Thor stills against him. He doesn’t let go of his waist but does lift his head and spin Loki around so they’re face to face. The mechanical eye has to refocus, and there’s a noticeable flicker in the wrong-coloured iris. “Why is it so ridiculous?”

The reasons are too many to name, so why is Loki’s heart beating faster at the very thought? “We are barely even together. Counting from our first kiss, it’s been less than a week.”

“Counting from the moments when we each realised but were too afraid to speak, it’s been a thousand years,” Thor says, quickly, as though he has already been planning his response.

Loki swallows down the urge to forget his objections. “An Eidhr is not a casual agreement after a night of sex. It is an eternal bond, fusing two souls on a fundamental level so deep no other magic can touch it. You cannot suggest it like a simple quick-fix to our current problem.”

Thor’s finger trace around the line of his lips, as though he has no idea how close Loki is to losing control again. “And if our current problem was not an issue, and I were to ask you anyway?”

“My answer would be no,” Loki says, Loki lies, Loki wishes. “Of course.”

Thor’s eyes search his, but after a thousand years, every tell he could find, Loki has learned to quash. “Because you would be tied to me forever?” he asks in the end, hesitant.

Has anyone ever been more ridiculous? “Because you would be tied to me forever,” Loki says. “You are Thor, son of Odin. You are king of Asgard.” The universe has a bigger future for such a man than to trap him at the side of a frost giant trickster.

Thor considers him. “Asgard is sixty-six people,” he says. “And they are not here. Whereas the thousands-strong army standing out front, what would they say you are?”

King, comes to Loki’s mind, unbidden.

“I have loved you for a thousand years,” Thor says. “And more for every time you have betrayed me. If you will not because you want to plot against me, or because you wish to love another or because you simply do not want to, then I will say no more on the matter from now to the end of time. But if you believe yourself in some way inferior, then Loki, Odin’s son, Laufey’s bairn, King of Jotunheim and God of Mischief: your objections are noted, logged and entirely dismissed on a point of being entirely unfounded and untrue.”

Loki cannot help but to take his mouth in a kiss for that, arms around his neck to taste every single one of his ridiculous titles of Thor’s glorious tongue. “Tell me truthfully,” he says. “How long have you been considering this?”

“Since I learned of your parentage,” Thor says.  “And knew it were possible.” His arms are strong around Loki’s waist, strong enough to lift Loki fully off the floor and place him gently down upon the bed. “Of course, then you were in jail and I was mad at you, and then there was that year of pretending to be my father and trying to betray me on Sakaar, so I suppose it’s been off and on, but as a general idea in the back of my mind I’ve wanted it approximately as long as I’ve wanted to watch you on your back while you come so hard you see the stars spinning through the walls.”

And what can Loki do in response to that but tug him onto the bed after, his knees bracketing Loki’s thighs, and his mouth and his tongue hungry and searching. “If I were considering it,” Loki says, when Thor’s attention is turned to unlacing the neck of his tunic and placing kisses on the skin beneath, “Which I am not, it matters not, for the ritual is not so simple as holding hand and exchanging vows like on Asgard or here on Earth.”

Thor raises an eyebrow over his strange new eye. “As you so carefully insinuated when I raised the idea, and I repeat what I said then: I am aware of what Eidhr involves.” His hand presses against Loki’s crotch, through far too many layers of far too tight fabric.

Loki swallows, trying to keep his mind in his head instead of down under Thor’s gently probing fingers. “While Eidhr can be performed with a non-Jotun,” he says, his voice only slightly strained, “the Jotun must be in the… giving position.”

Thor lifts his head from Loki’s bared collarbone. “I am aware,” he says, as though it should have been obvious, like he cannot possibly comprehend Loki’s objections.

If he has to spell it out - “You have never…” Loki prompts. “With anyone. I would not have you do anything you find distasteful.”

Thor’s face does something very complicated, and Loki’s mouth is suddenly impossibly dry at the thoughts. “There are things,” Thor says, slowly, picking each word like they will make or break him, “that a crown prince is not expected to do. What paid company would dare mount the crown prince? What warrior to his commander?”

Loki opens his mouth to question further, then closes it again, for he finds Thor is right and he cannot picture it. If Thor were married, perhaps, in the sanctity of the marriage bed but otherwise in his world of Honour and Expectation, no matter how he asked, they would not dare.

Only an equal. Only a king.

“How long have you wanted this?” Loki asks.

Thor reaches to push his hair back, kissing the skin above his ear, a soft touch where Loki could not say for sure he has ever been touched before. “Marry me or no,” he says. “Bond with me or no, but if you will not do either I would still have you inside me at last.”

And Loki the Liesmith has absolutely no words in response to that. Nothing but a desperate noise torn from the back of his throat and Thor’s lips again, sliding knives into his palms to cut the straps on Thor’s armour and bare muscles across his arms that his entire hand cannot span. Thor’s hair is too short to twist his fingers through, but it is just long enough in places to grab and hold him in place.

This room is not so well equipped as the Grandmaster’s orgy suite, but perhaps Thor told someone what he intended to do here, because his hand leaves Loki’s skin for far too long a moment and returns with a tube of some Midgardian slick that smells like artificial fruit and sugar.

“Stop critiquing it,” Thor says, biting into his shoulder. “And start using it.”

Loki snorts. “Only for you,” he says, spilling the lube over his fingers.

It takes two rounds for Loki to make his decision. Once with Thor lying beneath him, running his palm up and down Loki’s thigh as Loki rocks into him and a second with Loki lying on his back and Thor above him, agonisingly, beautifully slow, twisting down to kiss him and to press red marks across his shoulders like a signature. I was here. And here.

The Eidhr ritual is not complicated. Loki twists them both around so Thor is underneath him, presses a palm between his shoulderblades and the heat of Thor’s body around him. “Will you be mine?” he asks.

Thor lowers his head to the sheets, as though baring his neck. He was truthful- he does know the ritual. How many times did he read that book? How many times did he picture this? “Yes,” he says, reaching back a single hand to find Loki’s fingers and clasp them tight. “Will you be mine?”

Loki holds on with his free hand. “Yes.”

On Thor’s back, Loki’s palm seems to shimmer as the illusion protecting his skin fades. Thor cries out once, the skin around it blackening for a moment and then instead of black, it’s blue spreading out from Loki’s touch. Dark blue patterns push across the surface of his skin, tracing out mirror images of Loki’s ancestry lines, running up the back of his neck to contrast against the dark blond of his hair there.

Loki moves inside him and feels the stretch of it, as though they’re in some infinite loop of giving and receiving. It’s all at once too much, for Thor as well by the way he moans, squeezing Loki’s hand tight enough to sting. “I can feel -”

Outside the complex, thunder rolls overhead. Stormbreaker flickers in the corner and Loki can feel the lightning responding in his own veins, flickering across his blue fingertips pressed against Thor’s back. It feels as though there is no blood in his veins, only ice and electricity somehow fused into a desperate heat. “Move,” Thor begs, or perhaps Loki himself says it, and they move as one, reaching to close their fingers around their cock and fucking into them and the sky up above them sounds like it tears itself in two as they come together.

***

Loki wakes up warm, with Thor’s arms around him, a soft breeze dancing across their matching skin and Thor’s cock hard against his thigh. He wakes Thor with a kiss on the cheek that turns into a kiss on the lips, Thor tugging Loki into his lap to run hands up his back and grind on each other like teenagers.

Every touch is mirrored on his skin, then back on Thor’s, like standing between two mirrors where every casual brush of skin is fireworks going off. Thor twists Loki’s hair up in one hand to kiss his neck, runs his teeth along the ridges in Loki’s skin. Loki drags his nails across the matching ridges on Thor’s back, the marks that show Thor is his. That Loki is Thor’s.

“We should get up,” Thor murmurs against his skin when they’ve both come twice and Loki is getting hard again beneath his fingers. He’s not sure whose stamina they’re relying on, or if they’re just bouncing back and forth in an endless daze, but he still feels as though he could go again, and again, and again.

Loki runs a hand down Thor’s back to find the now familiar curve of his ass. “Or we could stay.”

The books on Eidhr mentioned that most Jotun pairs are sequestered for a month after the ceremony. A sacred time, to reinforce their promises as a couple.

Thor groans and comes again on Loki’s fingers, in Loki’s hand, with his mouth on Loki’s skin. “After,” he says, finding Loki’s lap to return the favour. “After today. We’ll go. We’ll have all the time we need.”

Loki finds his mouth to stop him talking, to taste him, to kiss him deep and desperate like it could be the last time. He lifts his palms to the small of Thor’s back, reaches inside them for the Asgardian and pulls it to the surface.

Thor changes first. His eye turns blue, his skin flushed pink across his cheeks. It’s easier to steal his warmth than to try to use illusions to hide his own, and Loki tugs Thor’s essence around him into Loki’s own familiar skin.

Thor cups his cheek in one hand and kisses him again, all warmth and tenderness and for a moment they almost forget themselves again…

“No,” Thor says, apparently also for his own benefit, touching his head to Loki’s shoulder like that might push him away. “Save the universe first. Sex after.”

Loki kisses the short hair beside his ear again. “Now that’s my kind of incentive.”

They stumble into the war council room only half an hour late, after a particularly eventful shower. Loki is fully prepared to carefully explain that it turns out Thor can use his space in the other universe without Loki having to be there through some convenient fact of universe physics that none of them considered before.

All of which is ruined by the fact that Skadi is in the room when they enter. “By the lords,” she says. “You have completed Eidhr?”

This would not be a problem, since she is speaking Jotun, except that apparently Shuri and Mori the jotun sorcerer have pooled their powers to create a translation program.  Thanks to them, a cool female voice announces from speakers in seemingly every corner of the room, “Oh my god. You got married.”

It’s worth it for Captain America’s face.

***

The majority of the Wakandan army stays behind. The majority of the Wakandan army, Okoye points out, are dead already thanks to Thanos, and those that are left she will not ask to risk their lives for a third time. “You have ten thousand frost giants,” she says to Steve Rogers, holding the point of her spear half an inch from his nose. “Fifty Wakandans will not make enough difference either way.”

Loki has ten thousand frost giants,” Steve says, pointedly. Loki throws him his best wicked grin purely for the amusement value. He’s actually warmed to Steve after the Captain was the one to shut down all the clamor asking for details on their non-existent wedding.

Okoye comes with them, though, along with ten other Dora Milaje who refused to leave their princess. Shuri comes to program their destination into the Jotun portal - she could easily have told Loki how to do it, but she winks at him before he can mention this. “I’ve never seen a planet before,” she tells him when the Dora have left to arm-up. “Don’t ruin this for me.”

Bruce stays behind too. He doesn’t want to, but apparently the Hulk refuses to fight Thanos and the armour he used before is shattered into a thousand pieces. Thor claps him on the shoulders with a sincerity that would break a lesser man. “Think no less of yourself for staying behind. Your achievements in this war have been no less than any of ours.”

The army clear a pathway through the portal and Mori escorts the seven of them through.

Agrathar stands to the side, and as they enter she kneels to Loki. “My king, we have prepared -” she stops short, her nose twitching, lifting her head to narrow her eyes at Thor. “My kings,” she amends. “We have prepared the spell as you instructed.”

There is not going to be enough time to march an army through a portal arch, not with Thanos capable of knocking them off hundreds at a time. They are pinning their hopes on Thor’s claim that using all six infinity stones at one time caused Thanos injury, that this will stop him from going straight to wiping the entire army out in an instant. As far as Thanos knows, he is invincible. He doesn’t need to worry about wasting time.

So Loki and Mori worked on adapting the spell Loki used to transport the emergency ship, using the casket to create an arch and running the portal over it. It’s a scale and an amount of power that would be unthinkable alone, but with ten sorcerers putting all their energy behind it and Shuri anchoring the spell to it’s destination, the difficulty drops all the way to mildly impossible.

“Your soldiers are ready to follow you,” Agrathar says, pointedly.

Loki lifts his eyes off her face to see the ten thousand Jotun warriors spread across the plain before him, all holding their weapons high and fixing their eyes on him.

This is what it is to be a king. To command all these people into death and to be expected to give them hope before. He is more experienced at seizing power, at playing the intrigues of a bored court and twisting gossip around his little finger.

Thor snorts and claps a hand on his. Instantly the wind is a thousand times colder, Loki’s skin leeches colour like a flower and the snow flurries burn his cheeks. “Jotunheim,” Thor roars, stepping forward.

The dark blue of his skin contrasts against the red of his cape blowing back against the landscape. The ancestry lines on his skin are a perfect mirror of Loki’s own, disappearing into his beard and running down to his throat. “This is the day,” Thor says, in a voice that carries across the silent crowd like wildfire. “This is the hour of our vengeance. This is the day when we take back our loved ones, our families and our homes.”

When I am king, Thor had said once. I’ll hunt the monsters down and kill them all.

“We have all lost,” Thor says. “Some of our losses may be reversed, some may not. If we fail today, all futures are in jeopardy but at least we will know that we came together. We stood together. We made a promise to ourselves, to our ancestors and our descendants, that we would not stand aside and allow this to happen. We will not go quietly, we will not accept the false justice of a pretend God.” He reaches over his shoulder and draws Stormbreaker lifting it high above his head. “And when the sun goes down upon this day, I make you this promise. If we cannot save this universe,” he says. “You can be damn sure we will avenge it.”

A pillar of lightning shoots down from the heavens into Stormbreaker, running down the handle and across Thor’s body in a surge of white light, hitting all the Jotun lines on his skin.

The Jotuns roar in unison, a sound that shakes the very ice beneath their feet.

Thor turns away from them to grin at Loki. His teeth look impossibly white, curving beneath dark blue lips. The skin that Loki has constantly hidden on himself looks so different on Thor’s face. He wants to trace every line of it, watch the colour bleed across to his fingertips then back again, trading one skin back and forth for a night. For a thousand nights.

Shuri elbows him in the ribs. “Portal first,” she says. “Honeymoon after.”

***

The portal works perfectly first try. Loki takes Thor’s hand, pulling the Jotun skin back into himself as he cups the Casket between his hands and the magic flies over their head fast as an arrow, pulling a whole new sky behind it. The ground beneath them is orange dust for half a moment, before the sheer number of Jotuns around them turns it to ice beneath their feet.

The giant beside them, Taufi, gives Loki his arm and lifts him to shoulder height so that he can see over the assembled heads and into the distance.

They are in the centre of the army. Not the typical place for the king, but some sacrifices are necessary. There are Jotuns and ice on all sides, formed into their lines, waiting. Ahead of their army is an army of Chitauri, perfectly still and waiting for activation, and ahead of them - only just visible from all the way up here - is a small wooden pagoda with an unmistakable purple figure beneath.

Thanos barely so much as glances their way. He lifts his right hand, his empty hand, and as one the Chitauri lift their heads.

“Ready arms,” Steve Rogers calls, the command echoed by Skadi and the other commanders to run down the line.

Skadi had not been happy about taking orders from a human, but she eventually accepted that the Avengers were the only people present who had successfully defeated a Chitauri army once before.

Loki jumps off Taufi’s shoulder, back down to the small clearing where Thor is swinging Stormbreaker from side to side, clearly as willing to ready arms as any other warrior here. At a look from Loki though, he sighs and sheaths the weapon once more at his back. “Are you ready?” Mori asks.

It seems frankly insane to hand over their best weapon, but the army will have more use of it here. Loki places the casket in Mori’s outstretched hand. When he pulls his hands back, it’s easy to slip back into the familiar illusion. “Give us all the time you can,” Loki says.

He bows once. “My king.”

Loki takes Thor’s hand and they both step forward with a tug. The sound of battle vanishes, the heaving forms around them disappear. The dark orange land beneath their feet is still, unturned. If there were people here when this universe was formed, they are not here now and they have left no sign. The wind whips dust clouds across the landscape and the sky sits heavy overhead.

The only evidence of this planet being a place where people have lived is the small wooden shelter standing not half a league before them. Loki loosens his fingers intending to draw his hand away, but Thor’s grip tightens in response.

They walk.

The knowledge that people would die every minute wasted weighs heavy on Thor’s shoulders, but if Thanos is aware of this universe’s existence, they cannot afford to draw any attention to their presence in it. Stormbreaker is sheathed at Thor’s back, quiet as a normal axe that is three times the size it needs to be and so overly decorated it might as well be a lawn ornament anyway.

Every footstep leaves a print in the dirt, every breath feels like the first. Did Thanos not split the people on this world, or were there no people left to split? The Chitauri were summoned after, perhaps.

Loki’s foot catches on a stone and he stumbles, not given enough time to even catch his footing before Thor is there, holding his arm, holding him upright. “Watch your step,” he says, and the very presence of a voice feels alien.

Loki leans on him a little more than is necessary, walks on a little closer than is necessary, loves him a little deeper than is necessary. “Do you remember when we used to creep into the vaults as children?” he says, to break the silence and make some other mark on this place.

Thor laughs, and the clouds are thinner, the sun is warmer. “I remember you convincing me that it would be a wonderful idea and then disappearing just in time to avoid getting in trouble.”

“Well, in my defense, I was already grounded for the snake thing and your punishment was far lighter than mine would have been.”

Thor snorts. “I was washing dishes in the kitchens for six months!”

“I hear that kind of thing builds character.” He kicks up a cloud of dust, to make a mark. “You never told them it was me.”

“Well, no,” Thor agrees. “You were already grounded for the snake thing and if you’d been stuck in the kitchens on top of that we’d never have seen each other at all.”

Thor had a scar for two hundred years from the snake thing. It was one of Loki’s greatest achievements. He tugs Thor’s hand to make him turn and kisses him.

“What was that for?” Thor asks when they part, unable to hide a smile.

Loki kicks his ankle, to make sure he’s not getting too sentimental. “For keeping me out of the kitchens.”

Thor’s smile widens, his eyes bringing a whole world of life to this lifeless place. “Let’s race,” he says. “Like when we were children.”

“We can’t use magic,” Loki says, but his mind is already caught up in the memory of it, of how it felt to race lightning using every trick in the book and a handful he made up extra.

“So you can’t cheat.”

“I wasn’t cheating, I was employing tactical rule avoidance.” He pokes Thor’s chest. “You had Mjolnir, you were cheating.”

“Let’s find out.” Thor drops his hand, leaving his palm tingling. “Ready?”

“Go,” Loki says, twisting his foot to trip Thor on his first lunge and breaking out ahead.

They are barely a mile from the shelter, but with every step it feels closer to home. Loki’s seidr closes in tight to streamline, Thor’s great cloak folds down to almost nothing. Thor shoves him with a shoulder off to the side, Loki slides his feet to kick sand up into the wind at just the right moment to get it into his eyes.

It feels like being five hundred again, before Loki realised the life of a warrior was never going to be his calling, when they used to take the Bifrost to distant lands chasing rumours of beasts ten times the size of a house. Running barefoot on sand, through mud, hacking their way through the forest first one gets the glory, first one gets the kill, last one is a loser.

Loki can’t remember the last time he ran like this, hair flying back in the wind, grabbing Thor’s wrist and doing a turn and throw to get him on the ground without missing a step. Thor roars a laugh, rolls and comes back up without his legs even seeming to still. Instead of silence now, the ground seems to echo their laughter, pounding footprints thundering back over the hills.

For a spare few minutes they are wild, they are free, they are home. But even without magic, a mile goes by fast and somehow all of a sudden the shelter that holds a Thanos-shaped space in the universe is no longer a distant goal.

They stumble to a halt, together. Loki reaches without thinking, and finds Thor’s hand reaching back for him. There is no time to waste, but what is time for, if not to step into him and reach up and kiss him for a thousand years of waiting, for a thousand missed chances, for the way it makes his body light up and his heart beat faster.

Thor’s arms are tight around him, holding and kissing as though he could hold Loki here in this moment forever.

But even the gods cannot stop time. A spark catches between their lips as they part, the echo of the power that ties them together from now until death do them part. Which could be a few minutes from now. “I have to go,” Loki says. To delay, to dream.

“If we die today,” Thor says, touching a hand to Loki’s cheek to feel the warmth, the way their skins flicker with Jotun markings and their veins pass lightning back and forth. “It is good to know that you were mine. If only for a moment.”

Loki laughs, running a hand over his shoulder so the seidr there spreads again from his shoulders to the ground. “You fool,” he says. “I have always been yours.”

He steps back, and as Thor’s hands drop from his body, he takes a second step back and through.

The universe blurs and there is Thanos, standing beneath the shelter and watching with a smile as two armies tear each other apart for his entertainment. Loki lets his hands fall to his sides.

They needn’t have worried about magic. The gauntlet is a tidal wave of power,  like standing next to a sun. Loki has been in its presence a moment and his knees are shaking at the force of it.

“The Prince of Asgard,” Thanos. He lifts the gauntlet, the gold catching the sun in a shaft of light. It is not as new as before, not as shiny, tearing the universe in two has caused it to buckle and tarnish as though it were as ancient as the stones it carries. “You seem to be making this into a habit.”

“Resurrection?” Loki asks, the words straining every one of his muscles to come out against the power held against him.

Thanos smiles, a slow grin over a lump of a chin, and steps forward so he is looming over Loki, reaching out with the gauntlet, fingers spread level with Loki’s throat. “Bringing too little, too late,” he says.

His fingers close on Loki’s throat. Loki places both hands on the gauntlet like he might be able to hold it off. His vision goes black, and for a moment he’s back on the ship with Thor straining beside him. For a moment he’s back in the nothing that’s all he remembers of after.

BANG

The entire world seems to explode behind them. There’s a surge of heat at Loki’s back that his seidr armour can’t quite absorb entirely. The ground shakes, Thanos’s eyes lift for a moment, and Loki grabs onto the gauntlet tight with both hands.

He falls to the ground as Thanos’s grip fails, blinking the stars from his eyes, and takes the object he’s holding in one hand and slams it onto the other.

The Infinity Stones glow on his knuckles. Away from Thanos, the gauntlet is refreshed, bright gold and gleaming like new. Loki takes two steps back, away from the bare hand still curled in the shape of his neck.

The battlefield seems to go silent behind them as Thanos’s gaze returns to his face, to the gauntlet on his arm. “You think your tricks and illusions can fool me.” He reaches out his bare hand to Loki’s arm. “Your glamours have no substance, they -” He stops speaking as his fingers close on cold metal.

Loki closes his fist and Thanos’s hand snatches back as though burned, the skin of his palm darkened. “Dread it,” Loki says. “Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same.”

Thanos roars, drawing himself up to full height. “Then kill me,” he snarls. “If you can, and when the stones have burned your weak, useless body I will take the gauntlet back from your corpse.” He takes a step forward, his footprint slamming deep into the earth. “Who are you to wield such power?”

Loki takes another step back, lifting his arm to catch shards of sunlight across his gleaming hand. “Who am I?” he says, sliding his free hand behind his back and tossing a bottle cap into the air. It doesn’t come down.

“I am Loki,” Loki says as Thanos takes a second step forward to meet him. “Odin’s bane. Destroyer of Asgard. King of Jotunheim.” The sun shines down between the clouds, catching on the gauntlet and on Thanos’s bare head. “God of mischief. God of lies.” Loki smiles wide. “And God of distractions.”

The sky tears open and Thor drops from the heavens, Stormbreaker crackling with lightning that spreads across his arms, through his hair, lights a fire in his electronic eye. Thanos has an instant to lift his bare arm before then the axe slams into the centre of his skull and shatters into a thousand pieces in an explosion that rocks the earth.

Loki lifts the arm of his coat for protection, but the shockwave still sends him flying. The gauntlet falls off his arm, flying out in another direction, but he doesn’t even glance at it, instead lifting his head to focus ahead on the eye of the explosion where Thor and Thanos had been standing.

Thor still stands, holding a broken shard of a wooden handle as Thanos falls to his knees and to the ground, a shard of sun-forged axe embedded deep into his skull, and the life drained from his eyes.

Around and behind Loki, like dominoes, the Chitauri keel over. Too far from their home world, the portal that brought them here was the only thing keeping them alive.

Thor lifts his head. His hands are bare, but there is lightning running across every inch of skin. His electronic eye has burned out and he lifts a crackling hand to brush it from his eye-socket, sending it tumbling to the ground. “Loki.”

Loki steps into the lightning and the thunder, lets it wash across his skin and sink down into his bones. There are no words for this moment, but Thor drops the shard of wood to take Loki’s waist in hand, and pulls him into a kiss that draws the skies to them like a lightning rod. “I’m here,” Loki says. “We did it.”

***

There is one thing left. Loki nods at Thor and steps back into the second universe. There is a bottlecap lying on its side in the dust, a dent in the earth where Thor made his leap, and a golden gauntlet glowing with life lying abandoned on the ground where, in another universe, Thanos’s body lies.

It takes a few tries to get their movements co-ordinated - it’s difficult to remove a gauntlet from someone’s arm when you can’t see the arm - but with enough tugging in two worlds they manage it.

This gauntlet is charred, tarnished, but the stones glow brightly with some unfathomable power that makes his stomach churn just from the presence of. Thanos didn’t believe he could wield them, not even to kill one man.

When the stones have burned your weak, useless body.

Loki closes his eyes, reaching with his mind to find Thor, sharing a single space in two impossible worlds. I love you, he promises, with no hope that Thor will hear, and slides his arm inside.

It is completely different to wearing the replica. For one thing, he doesn’t have to hold his arm up for fear of it falling off. For another, it feels like there are knives stabbing into his arm at a hundred different points to hold it on; it feels like fire and ice all at once, like wearing the heart of a star on his sleeve, like falling in love and falling…

The soul stone demands a sacrifice, it says in a thousand whispers and a thousand shouts all at once inside their heads.

Loki’s heart clenches at the thought. They have one thing left, one thing, and he cannot give Thor up again. Not for every single person in every single world. Choose me, he thinks at Thor, at the gauntlet, desperately in all directions at once. Don’t let me be without you.

He hears Thor’s voice, out loud, as though they are standing on two sides of the same room. “I have sacrificed,” he says with the confidence of a king. In his mind Loki sees Heimdall, sees Hogan, sees Fandral and Volstagg and Siff and Odin and so many faces he hasn’t the time to learn their names. Sees Asgard’s golden towers falling to fire and smoke.

By your own hand? The stone seems to ask.

Loki closes his fist and lifts his head. He pictures lifting Surtur’s crown and placing it in the flame, calling for the Bifrost where Hela could follow, taking Odin’s throne and leaving him to stew in his own misery. A moment of petty aid to a dark elf. A thousand small moments that he could pretend, at the time, meant nothing. That he could pretend he bore no responsibility for. “Yes,” he says. “By my own hand.”

Very well. The feeling of knives is replaced with a warmth, spreading out from his hand across his body. What is your wish?

He opens his eyes. He opens eyes everywhere. He looks at the sun in the sky and holds it in the palm of his hand, to create or to destroy. Every grain of sand at his feet, he can see the life it has lived from the dawn of the universe itself. He can see the shadow of its twin alongside, just as he can see the ghost of the second gauntlet.

Everything is so very small. This experiment, this trial at being existence, at being things, at being life. What is its purpose? In 14 billion years, has it not run its course? It would be so easy to fold it all up in his palm and wipe it away.

He could start again. Make it newer, make it better. Or remain in the quiet of no time and no place and everything here and now. Why not? He has seen death, has seen the endless nothing that it holds. Is it not better to leave all that? Step outside of the universe and let it crumble. What more is there?

His heart aches in his chest. In his body standing in the sand, in this empty place.

What more could I lose?

Lazy kisses in the morning, a hand running down his side absently as though almost forgotten, running across the sand with the wind in their hair and the earth flying beneath their feet.

Laughter echoes across the hills, and he turns his head and sees ten minutes before: two brothers running; ten decades before: children playing; ten millenia before: silence.

“There is no more,” he says. “But there is enough.”

***

The stones are not built to destroy. It is the same problem Thanos had, and yet Loki finds himself surprised to hit it himself almost immediately. There are two universes where there should be one, but he cannot recombine two planets or two mountains. There simply isn’t enough room in the universe to fit both.

He only wants to draw the lives from the other universe into this one, but even as he starts thinking along those lines, his thoughts bridge in a thousand directions. For every thought he has, the gauntlet can suggest a thousand possibilities. What if he duplicated all the life, so that everyone existed twice? What if he went through the universe an atom at a time to decide what was worth keeping? He thinks can we skip the parts that don’t matter? and is hit with the realisation that everything matters. Every soul, every stone, every grain of sand was born and made and has lived. Who are you to decide what matters ?

He narrows his focus. The universe is too much. Titan is simpler. In this universe, there is him and a thousand miles away a group of lifeforms in a ship, skimming the planet’s surface. Loki takes their lives and his own in hand and steps through into his own world.

The reality, space and life stones shine bright. Thor’s arm is inside his for a moment, like seeing a blur in the air, and then his hand falls out of the Gauntlet and Loki is holding it up alone. It is simultaneously impossibly heavy and so light he has to curve his fingers inside to stop it floating away.

In the far edge of his awareness, the five other lives fall through the air and into the sand.

Another variable. Every space ship that was flying, every aeroplane, every submarine. Perhaps Thanos could have undone his own work, with his hundreds of years of preparation. Loki cannot hold every possibility in his mind at once.

Thor holds his elbow, just under the gauntlet, and Loki realises he was swaying on the spot. “We don’t trade lives,” Thor says, in words that don’t sound like his own. “We need a better plan.”

Loki curls his fingers again in the glove. It’s eating at the seidr of his coat underneath like acid, he can feel it starting to sting at his skin underneath. The gauntlet is failing, Thanos’s demands of it were too strong. Perhaps even he could not have held onto it for much longer. “Quickly,” he says.

Steve eyes it on Loki’s arm as one might examine a ticking bomb. “I thought you were going to wield it,” he says, pointedly, to Thor.

“Thanks to the Eidhr, we wield it together. Loki’s skills in magic make him more suitable to wear it, but he is right that our control will only last for so long.”

Romanov arrives, with Rocket hanging off one shoulder. “Is it done?”

Loki cannot visualize the entire universe as it should be in a single shining moment. “We need a map,” he says.

“A… map?” Okoye echoes.

Loki lifts his eyes to meet Thor’s and sees his brother get it. “A seidr map,” Thor says. “A memory of the universe as it was that will keep the best of these universes such as Loki’s repair of Jotunheim -” Skadi nods. “- And clear the worst, such as the destruction of Wakanda in the other universe.”

“Wait one second,” Okoye says. “T’Challa was in that Wakanda and you’re saying he allowed it to be destroyed?”

Thor looks at her, face serious for a moment. “Wanda experienced more grief and loss than she could bear. Neither T’Challa, nor I, could have contained her.” He turns to Rocket. “Groot did what he could for her.”

Rocket points a claw at Thor’s face. “He’d better not be even slightly destroyed, mister. We already have to have a serious discussion about cybertronic eyes, how much they’re worth and how I only had the one spare.”

Thor lifts a hand to the newly burned out socket, as though he forgot his loss. “My father used to say he found two good eyes when he lost one of his, for it was shortly after that he married my mother.” He lets his fingers fall.  “I will learn to manage, as he did."

Loki opens and closes the stiff metal fingers of the oversize glove. “I’ll need some help with the weave,” he says. “We need variety, as many different voices as possible.” He lifts his head to look back at the portal. “And a sorcerer. Someone fetch Shuri.”

“Well, we have ten thousand frost giants,” Steve says. “I don’t know how that stacks up for variety, but I can tell you they’re damn good in a fight. We held off an entire army and I’m not sure we lost a single man - person?”

Loki is almost startled into a smile. “Jotun,” he corrects. “I thank you for the explosion. If you hadn’t distracted him, I don’t know how I’d have reached the gauntlet. One of Shuri’s inventions?”

Steve shakes his head. “Nah, we lost all of them to one of those Chitauri behemoths while the two of you were in the other universe. Okoye and Mori decided to experiment with sticking a Vibranium spear into an incredibly powerful Jotun artifact.”

“It was a victory,” Mori says, approaching with shards of twisted metal and ice cupped in both hands. “That carried with it a loss.”

“I’ll be honest,” Steve says. “I had my doubts you could fool him. Where did you get a second gauntlet?”

“From our father’s treasure chamber,” Thor says in a decidedly judgmental voice. “Were there any other prize artifacts of our people you decided to steal and forget to mention?”

Loki is, thankfully, distracted from answering by Romanov. “What’s that?” she asks, pointing up into the sky where a speck of light is getting larger every minute. Steve and Thor both look up, but Loki has a solid theory. “Wait,” she says. “It looks like -”

The speck of light resolves into red, gold and assorted patches of silver and black, just about hovering in the sky above them. One boot keeps cutting out, so he’s jerking up and down in the sky as he presumably scans them. He lifts his mask with a switch, and it promptly raises two inches then cracks and falls a hundred meters to the ground at their feet. “Steve?” he calls.

Tony?

“The giant terrifying ice monsters?” Tony shouts.

“Our side,” Steve confirms. “Thus far.”

“Oh thank god.” Both boot jets cut out with a shower of sparks and Tony Stark has an entirely undignified fall interspersed with firing jets upside down from his hands to slow himself down enough that he hits the ground with a thud rather than a crash. “Hey,” he says, lifting a hand to his ear and tapping something hard. “Hey, Peter. The terrifying giant monsters are on our side. You can tell Strange to bring you all to me.”

A gold circle of sparks appears in the air and Loki’s favorite second rate wannabe sorcerer steps through. He’s followed by two humans, two aliens Loki doesn’t recognise, and Nebula, who looks around at the crowd before nodding. “Loki. You switched sides too?”

The older human frowns. “You know these people?”

“We had neighboring cells,” Loki says. “Sometimes Thanos let us torture each other.”

Nebula smiles. “Good times. Is he dead?”

Loki tilts his head in the direction of Thanos’s body. It’s the first time he’s looked at it properly. Thanos is still huge as a corpse, but his skin is scorched grey. His head is split in two, the shards of Stormbreaker embedded in his forehead and in the earth around him. A weapon built for a single purpose. Nebula heads towards it. One of the aliens and the older human go with her.

Loki curls his fingers, reaching for the space stone and pulls. Shuri stumbles out of the air, wrapped in what looks like the skin of an entire bilgesnipe. “Woah,” she says, almost tripping over the hem and searching for Loki in the crowd. “You could warn a girl.” She stops, turns back half a spin and her eyes widen at the sight of the human boy. “Oh my god,” she says. “You’re spider-man! You look about twelve!”

"You brought a child into space," Steve says, turning his judgmental gaze off Loki for a change. "A child."

"In my defence," Tony says. "It also seemed like a terrible idea while it was happening."

“It wasn’t his fault,” the kid says quickly. “I grabbed onto the spaceship and he told me to get off but the air was getting thin and I couldn’t breathe. Then he got me this whole new suit and I could breathe and I thought I should help out, you know. Save the world. After we thought he died I wanted to go back to Earth, but Starlord had the spaceship keys and I failed my driving test in a car and Doctor Strange’s powers weren’t working so we were all stuck scanning the surface looking for Thanos. I thought we came past here, but I guess we missed him? And then suddenly our ship vanished and the doc’s powers were fine. He took us back to where it had originally crashed and It was still there, only Mr Stark was there and he’d thought we were dead and he'd torn half the ship apart -"

"Half of my ship apart," the other human - Starlord - points out loudly. "My ship."

"He tore it apart to rebuild the suit and he'd found these readings of this giant terrifying army of monsters -" he hesitates, looking over at Skadi, who is standing with the Jotun sorcerers looking every bit the giantess she is.

"Hi," she says in her single word of English.

Spider-man swallows visibly. "So he flew over to check it out and-" he spreads his hands, and seems to notice Loki again. "We haven't met, have we? I'm Peter. Spider-man."

"Loki," Loki says. "King of Jotunheim and Prince of Asgard."

"I know," Peter says quickly. "Did you know there's like a thousand memes about you?"

***

Shuri, it turns out, doesn’t know how to weave. Fortunately Tony does, although he has to dismantle half his armour to get enough pieces for a stand and enough flexibility to do it, telling some story about how the original human circuit boards had to be knitted together by elders. Loki unthreads the hem of his coat to cast on, and Spider-man provides a line of web that looks like a nightmare to weave in, but adds enough interesting properties that Loki makes a note to steal some for later.

They are limited in numbers, but they’ve become unexpectedly diverse. Drax gives three hairs from his arms and the memory of his home world, his wife and child, the driving need for vengeance suddenly stymied by the target of years of hatred dying of unrelated means a thousand miles away.

Starlord pulls a thread free of his coat and says, “Gamora,” as Tony helps him feed it in.

Mantis, Shuri, Mori, Steve, Natasha. Rocket tugs hair from the tuft of his tail. Nebula opens up her arm to extract a thin line of copper wire, and adds a thousand memories of Thanos, of every time he recounted his plan, of all the preparation he had to do to control the stones as he did. She places a bloody handprint on the weaving and adds his death. Okoye places a memory in; Skadi pulls ten threads from her army and weaves them in herself, rough and uneven.

Thor picks up the smallest shard of Stormbreaker and draws a thread out of it. “For Asgard,” he says. “And Midgard, all the nine realms, and every world I have visited beyond.”

Loki has nothing physical left to add. He places the palm of the gauntlet down against the seidr and is instantly engulfed by the voices of a million souls caught inside it in touch, in memory. Tony, for all his claims not to be a sorcerer, is etched into every strand. Loss and drive and a singular, desperate need to save everyone. It’s echoed in Steve, in Thor, in Peter. There is vengeance from Drax, from Starlord, from Thor.

What is this? The gauntlet seems to ask.

Loki curls his fingers into the weave. “This is the universe,” he says, filling it with every moment of his own life. A baby left out on the rocks, Laufey turning away, years of lessons, of false skin and believing. That heartbroken moment of Thor being named heir and a month later the heart rending realisation that his whole life was a lie. A millenia and no time at all caught in a broken Bifrost. “This is nothing,” he tells the gauntlet. The endless, nothing of no time and nothing but time, enough to drive a mind utterly into despair and destruction.

And then Thor. Thor as a child in the sparring ring. Thor as an adult giving up his pride. Thor trying to save him again and again and again. “This is love.” The moment of placing his palm on Thor’s chest and seeing black burned skin turn to blue as their bodies became one, their souls became one.

“Eidhr,” he tells the gauntlet. “Bringing two halves together into a whole. No death, no destruction.”

The seidr gives him ships; although the physical weave is small, a seidr sheet has an infinite number of possible connections. For each atom in the universe, it can make a link and pick a world. The broken wreck of a ship in the ice wastes of Jotunheim: gone. The same ship full of Asgardians on quarter rations desperately flying towards Cambrion comes back into this universe with them. Some ships disappear from both, some exist twice, but everything balances. Through the seidr, Loki can build the entire universe from the ground up in the blink of an eye.

Or you could own it. Or you could rule it. Or you could build it in your own image.

Loki reaches into the heart of the weave, of ten thousand souls that knew the universe as it was, that loved the universe as it was. “It is enough.”

He slams the palm into the ground with a thud that shakes the earth, that shakes the universe down to the very core. The gauntlet shatters on his wrist, in a burst of light that spreads out in a sphere with a sound that is deafening and silent.

In a moment that is endless and immediate.

Everything turns impossibly bright.

***

And fades. Loki closes his eyes, opens them and he is still where he was, kneeling on the ground wearing the tattered shreds of his seidr coat, resting his palm on fragments of broken metal and a few lingering threads of what was briefly the universe itself.

Thor tugs off his cloak and wraps it around Loki’s shoulders. Loki’s own seidr falls, spent, to the ground, and the cloak forms a new outfit in green and gold, like the armour they used to wear as children. He lifts his head. Titan looks the same, in one direction nothing but dust, in the other ice and fallen Jotun warriors and a horizon where a portal used to be.

The infinity stones are scattered in the dust around his hand, looking like nothing more than rocks. “They need to be separated,” Loki says. “And protected.” He reaches out a hand and the space stone lifts into the air, a glass box forming around it before it drops into his hand.

Nebula is the first to move; she kneels down in the sand and picks up the yellow soul stone. It shines bright against her skin for a moment and her eyes close, her lips forming the word Gamora , and the light dies. She places it against her mechanical arm and it sinks in between the wires, sending shoots of golden light through the circuits under her skin.

Doctor Strange comes next. Loki is loathe to give a stone to anyone who has insufficient training to calibrate their magic to a new dimension, but they have limited options. At least he does nothing so foolish as reach out a hand, instead unwinding an amulet he wears around his neck to reveal a small cavity where the green time stone flies into place as though it had always been there.

Mori takes the reality stone, forming a prism of ice in his palm around it. “It will take the place of the casket,” he says. “In Jotunheim’s treasures.”

Shuri uses a vibranium dish to scoop up the mind stone. “For Wanda,” she says.

Starlord hesitates the longest, before taking the final life stone. “To put it somewhere safe,” he says, holding it with his coat and dropping it into his pocket as fast as possible. “I’m not spending the rest of my life running from tyrants for it. This won’t stay a secret for long, people will start asking what happened to Thanos and what happened to the stones. It’s only a matter of time before someone comes looking again.”

“I know.” Loki rises slowly to his feet and walks over to the fake gauntlet, shining and untouched in the sand. He turns and holds it out for Steve Rogers to take. “So let the universe know that the Avengers killed Thanos, and they protect the Stones.”

It worked for Odin, after all. Right up until Loki washed up on Titan full of secrets, knowledge and a seemingly endless burning rage.

“Well,” Rocket drawls. “This has all been very melodramatic and emotional. But maybe we should get out of this abandoned quarry-type hellhole and go see if Mrs Pirate Angel’s universe smushing powers are all they’re cracked up to be.”

Loki lifts the space stone in one hand. The little things are easy, it turns out. Little things like transporting an entire army across the universe. He summons Groot from Wakanda and sends the Guardians of the Galaxy back to their ship where the life stone will restore it to functionality. The humans go back to Earth to bring the mind stone to the witch and find their kin. Nebula takes a trip to a space port out by Namar and will accept nothing more than that.

The army Loki sends back to the plains of Jotunheim where they first assembled to fight for him, but Loki transports himself, Thor, Skadi and Mori directly to the throne room. The shards of the ice throne have been swept clear of the floor. Laufey has raised a single plinth of ice upon the dais where he sits, the crown resting on his brow. Agrathar and two others from the council of nine stand beside him. Loki folds the space stone into his Pocket as Skadi steps forward. “Presenting, Loki Laufeyson. King of Jotunheim and Prince of Asgard. Thor Odinson, Prince of Jotunheim and King of Asgard. Mori Andarsbairn, Grand sorcerer of Jotunheim.”

Laufey laughs, low and cold. “You think you can come into my kingdom and make a claim on my throne?”

Loki lifts up a hand before Skadi can draw her blade. “Technically,” he says. “I brought you and yours into my kingdom. I won my challenge, acquired fealty from the majority of Jotuns existing in the universe at the time, and I’ve fulfilled all my coronation promises, which might make me the greatest politician in the nine realms.”

“You do not know this place as I do. You think you can serve both Asgard and Jotunheim when we have been enemies for longer than the entirety of your short life. These people, my people were a means to an end for you. You have what you wanted. Your Asgard Eidhr, your universe restored. You will not have my throne. You are not one of us.”

Loki lets the blue loose to flood across his skin and Thor’s. The wall light up with the art of a thousand ages past. His seidr coat bares his chest and grows a heavy collar of thick fur. “I am your child,” he says. “And I am what you have made me. And I am king, here, paid for with my blood and the blood of my people.” He lifts his head to meet Laufey’s eyes. “But I am young, and I have proven I can fight, not that I can rule. We will take the Asgardians and we will leave. I will learn. And when I return in a thousand or ten thousand years - then we may discuss who is king.”

He turns deliberately to face Mori, putting his back to the throne. “No more abandoning babies. No more allowing children to suffer.” He places a palm over the ice pyramid in Mori’s hands. “If you need me, call.”

Mori bows his head. “My king.”

He turns to Skadi, and smiles. “I am glad you didn’t kill me.”

She nods. “My king.”

Loki reaches out a hand for Thor and he takes it. “Let’s go home,” he says, and the space stone shines.

***

There is a field on a cliffside in Norway that overlooks the ocean. It was once considered premium farmland, but the man who owned it grew old and his five children moved to the city, leaving the fields of their youth to grow wild. Wakanda pays one million euros for five hundred acres of broken fencing and weeded grass, with a single old stone house and a tractor that won’t start, and officially registers the land as the first Asgardian embassy.

It’s cold, but stepping through the portal from Jotunheim, the Asgardians throw off their furs as though it is noon in the desert.

Sif’s crowd are harder to summon. Loki has to twist grass into knots to account for relative velocity variations and use a Jotun arch to anchor the space stone portal in place. It’s complicated and for the first time in a long time it feels satisfying to get it right, like magic had almost ceased to hold any puzzle for him at all until now. Thor and Valkyrie go through the gate and return with Sif and sixty-six alive, slightly malnourished Asgardian refugees.

Wakanda sends them a plane of easy to assemble refugee camp tents, a few months rations, and Bruce Banner, who refuses to explain why he doesn’t want to stay with the Avengers. They don’t push, because he’s the only person who knows how to assemble the tents, but Loki does fire off a quick text to Shuri, who tells him for some reason Bruce is avoiding Romanov. He seems happy enough to be bros with Valkyrie, though. She punches him in the shoulder, then gives him a tankard of mead and he calls her Brunhilde like she’s a person with an actual name.

“You didn’t know I had a name ?” she says when Loki comments on this. “Did you think we were all just called Valkyrie? Did you think I was Valkyrie 142?”

She storms off and Thor claps Loki on the shoulder. “Nice going, brother.”

And then someone hands him a tankard of mead, and Loki loses him for a while. The local humans have arrived with some field-warming kegs of beer, Sif sets up a fire to roast a hundred packets of sausages and a group of Asgardian musicians are singing along to the Midgardian pop songs on the radio.

Loki slips away from the crowd to the rock where Odin had sat not so long ago. One hundred and thirty-two Asgardians is still not so many. There are enough Norwegians come to look,  and some will stay, some Asgardians will leave. They will mingle themselves out of existence, or into some new form of life in this place that has worlds and systems of their own.

Loki was not one of them before. He will be even less one of them after, with the humans already giving him a wide berth and the Asgardians from Valkyrie’s camp shooting him looks behind his back as though trying to see the blue under his illusory skin.

Bruce sits beside him, in the space where Odin is not. “Thor has asked Brunhilde and Sif to take charge for a few years. Did you know about that?”

A few. A thousand. Ten thousand. “He took the throne because it was expected of him. Valkyrie will be a good leader, better than she gives herself credit for. I’m sure Thor will be around.”

“Well, you’re welcome to stay here on Earth,” Bruce says. “Steve asked me to let you know that your villain status has officially been revoked. Congratulations Mr… Laufeyson? Odinson?”

Loki smiles. “I liked Mrs Pirate-Angel,” he says, as Thor reaches them. He can feel Thor’s happiness, somewhere underneath his own. And beneath that, restlessness like the lightning constantly flowing underneath his skin. “What do you think?” he asks, tilting his head back.

Thor takes the invitation, leaning in to kiss him. “You may take any name you like,” he says. “As long as I may also claim it.”

Bruce mutters something tactful about going to check on the party. Loki lifts his hand and Thor takes it, allowing himself to be led around to sit on the rock, looking out at the sea.

“What happens now?” Loki asks.

“I want to see the universe,” Thor says. “As I did when you were ruling Asgard. Perhaps we could continue on from your work with the gauntlet. Find the places where the universe has not fixed itself fully and make it right. Find the worlds Thanos would call overpopulated and show them how to increase their resources and work with the planet they have.” He rests a hand on Loki’s knee. “You turned down the throne of Jotunheim. Did you want to stay here?”

Loki could laugh, but does not. “No.” He cannot say what he wants. His left arm is withered, scars across the skin that show no signs of fading in either form. He has to tie knots with his right hand, and he can only weave slowly, a single strand at a time.

He wants to be done with it all. He wants permission to stop caring, to lie on a beach and stare at the sky and sleep. He wants to mourn his arm and his world and the impossible powers that were offered to him. But it’s not like they were stolen from him. He turned them down. He could leave now and he has not. He could do nothing, and he will not.

“Do we always have to be helping? Is it not enough to just be for a while?”

Thor smiles. “We can try,” he says. “But I think we’d get bored. I suppose you could always direct another play.”

Loki elbows him in the ribs. “What really happened with Jane?” Loki asks. “And you don’t have to lie and tell me you never loved her.”

Thor sighs. “I did,” he says, and Loki had told him to say it but it still stings. “She was smart, driven, brilliant, and she wanted to build a life. She wanted children and a house, a partner who could stick around.”

“While you were off fixing my mistakes in the nine realms.”

Thor lets out a soft laugh, a sad laugh and kisses the side of Loki’s head. “I’m barely fifteen hundred,” he says. “I wanted to see the nine realms, travel the universe. Ultimately, Father was right. Mortal lives are too short, and we don’t match up.” He stretches out his hand, finding Loki’s and lacing their fingers together. “He always said that I should stop looking so far afield and open my eyes to what was in front of me.”

Loki tilts Thor’s head towards himself to kiss him. “Well, yes. He wanted you to marry Sif.”

They both look in unison at the new Asgardian Town Square, where Valkyrie and Sif are making out beneath a branch that definitely isn’t mistletoe.

“In this spot,” Thor says. “Two days ago, you asked me to leave with you. Run to the furthest part of nowhere, go hunting on a planet that has beasts the size of houses.”

“The hunting was more for you than me,” Loki says, to cover the way his heart skips a beat.

Thor presses a kiss to his shoulder. “You passed on the leadership of Jotunheim,” he says.

“You have Asgard,” Loki replies, almost not daring to get his hopes up.

Thor looks out over their small town of a species. “If it remains,” he says. “I can always return to it.”

“We have the whole of space at our fingertips.”

Thor laughs and wraps an arm around Loki’s shoulders. “And all the time in the worlds.”