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in a wind that chills the skeletons of trees

Chapter Text

And when the sun comes up
We'll be nothing but dust
Just the outlines of our hands

By tomorrow we'll be lost amongst the leaves
In a wind that chills the skeletons of trees

— Daughter, "Tomorrow"

The instant Thanos snaps his fingers, Loki understands what is about to happen.

He sends the nearest Outriders flying with a wild burst of seidr—no reason to save it now—and sprints back to his brother. Thor is shouting at Thanos, what have you done with panic bleeding into his voice because he doesn’t understand, doesn’t see that they’ve already lost. With a final effort that he knows is pointless, Loki dredges up every last bit of his magic and hurls it at the Titan. But his power slides off like water as the Space Stone whisks Thanos away, because fate will not be denied forever.

Thor turns in a quick circle as if Thanos might be hiding nearby (and he does like to gloat, Loki remembers that clearly enough, even if he hadn’t been painfully reminded on the Statesman only…however long it’s been, now—but Thanos is also smart enough not to gloat when he is surrounded by enemies). Loki reaches him and grabs his arm. “Thor, he’s gone—”

Thor hefts Stormbreaker. “Then I’ll go after him.”

“You have no idea where he went and there’s no time, brother. It’s too late.” How much time do they have? The spot where they’re standing is the epicenter, but that means nothing to the Infinity Gauntlet. They have—seconds, probably. No way to know. “I’m sorry, but it’s too late.”

Thor stares at him, shock turning to horror as he, too, understands what is coming, and once again Loki’s silver tongue fails him. It’s all right, he meant to say, I was never supposed to survive this, because truly he’s been living on borrowed time for years now, ever since he fell, long before Thanos crushed his throat and left them both for dead—longer, even, when Odin saved him from his rightful death in infancy. But that is something Thor will never want to hear, and saying it will not comfort him, only hurt him worse. And he is going to watch Loki die for a fourth time. He should have left to spare Thor that much, Loki realizes with a pang, but it’s too late for that now. All he can do is try not to make it worse.

Thor drops Stormbreaker and seizes Loki’s arms, his hands nearly tight enough to bruise, his eyes desperately searching Loki’s face. Memorizing him. “I was supposed to save you this time,” he chokes out. “I—”

“You did,” Loki says. This time, at least he can offer some kind of absolution. “Brother, I made my choice and I do not regret it. At the end of everything—there is nowhere else I would rather be than with you.”

Thor hauls him into a desperate embrace and Loki hugs him back just as hard, trying to etch him into his memory—the solid warmth of him, his smell, the roughness of his beard, the lightning that crackles just under his skin. If these are his last moments alive, he wants to take this memory with him to whatever afterlife he’s earned.

He can feel it coming, like a wave about to crest, so monstrous it blocks out the sun. He buries his face in Thor’s shoulder, closes his eyes, and holds on tighter.

“Loki,” Thor says, his voice raw. “Brother. I’m sorry. I love you—”

The wave hits.

It’s nearly silent, when it happens. He hears a man’s voice say “Steve?” and then a gun clatters to the dirt. There is a soft sigh all around, like wind through the trees.

Between one breath and the next, Loki’s arms are empty, and his knees hit the ground. For a long moment he stays that way, head bowed, eyes still shut, because when he opens his eyes it will all be real. He will know, finally, whether Valhalla has a place for him, whether he will ever see his mother again—or whether he has at last found his way to Hel.

No matter what Asgard might think, Loki is no coward. He gives himself a few seconds, no more, and steels himself to look up—and then stares, uncomprehending, because it is as if nothing has changed. He is kneeling in a grove of trees, exactly like the Wakandan forest, the battlefield still visible past the clearing. A few paces away, Captain America crouches by a fallen gun, his expression one of stunned devastation. The witch is gone. As Loki watches, two nearby Wakandan warriors dissolve into dust. Loki’s gaze drops involuntarily, his heart stuttering in his chest. Stormbreaker still lies in front of him where Thor dropped it, and next to it—

Loki reaches out, hands shaking, and touches the tips of his fingers to the little pile of ash. His seidr knows the truth, even as he blinks at it and does not understand because what he is seeing is simply not possible.

This is Hel, Loki thinks wildly, a Hel of his own making, his mind conjuring up this vision to torment him—but the dirt is solid under his knees, the breeze tugs at his hair, he can feel his heart beating. Can feel himself breathing, the sound of it too loud in his ears.

Breathing, as Thor is not.

Thor is gone. This is real, and Thor is gone, and Loki is still alive.

“No,” he says, almost moans, and he doesn’t want anyone to hear him but he can’t stop. “No, no no no, this wasn’t supposed to happen—”

Rogers looks up and sees him, sees Stormbreaker, does not see Thor. “Oh god.”

“It was supposed to be me,” Loki says, desperate, as if appealing to an Avenger will change reality. “It—it should have been me.”

He almost expects Rogers to agree, almost wants him to agree, but the captain is too lost in his own grief for that. Stiffly, as if every movement pains him, Rogers gets to his feet and checks the android’s body for any sign of its artificial life. There is none—of course there is none—and he sits down hard, his expression blank, barely reacting when the Black Widow, Banner, and Iron Man’s silver-armored friend arrive.

He should say something, Loki thinks dully, now that Thor is not here to smooth things over. Not all of them saw him fight at Thor’s side; they might even assume he was with Thanos. But it seems terribly unimportant, the thought buried deep beneath layers of guilt and shock and numbed grief that will cripple him when he is able to feel all of it. At the moment, it is very difficult to think of a single good reason to move from this spot ever again.

“What happened?” Banner says. “Guys?”

“He did it,” Rogers says, voice hollow. “He won.”

There is vengeance, of course. Funny how often he seems to fall in with avengers, in one way or another. Midgard’s heroes will pick themselves up again and carry on, eventually, because their lives are too short to do anything else, and they will do their best to avenge their dead. They might even succeed; human ingenuity is a more powerful force than Loki ever suspected, after all, and when that fails they often seem to make up for it with sheer bloody-minded determination. It’s admirable, in its way, and for his part Loki knows he will not find rest until he or Thanos is dead. But none of it will bring Thor back.

And without Thor…

Loki has spent his entire life being defined by or in relation to Thor, in one way or another—first as his brother, his shadow, and then his opposite and enemy, the darkness to Thor’s blinding sunlight. He loved Thor all his life, hated him just as fervently for a considerable part of it, and cannot remember a time when he did not wish on some level to be more like Thor. Three years as Odin helped a bit, even as it confused the issue, and returning to Asgard’s remnant felt like it could be the start of something new, of a way to be more than just Thor’s foil.

He has no idea how to exist in a universe that does not have Thor in it.

The wind picks up, threatening to scatter Thor’s ashes, and the flash of sudden fear pierces the numbness. Loki holds out both hands, palms down, and draws every last bit up off the ground. What remains of his brother coalesces into a sphere no larger than a clenched fist, spun together on threads of Loki’s ragged seidr because there is nothing of Thor left in it, just inert matter. He releases a sharp breath and banishes Stormbreaker and the globe of ash to his pocket dimension, certain that he will break open if he looks at either of them a moment longer.

Rogers is watching him, he realizes, with an expression that hurts to look at. Wordlessly, Loki reaches a hand toward him and repeats the process with his friend’s ashes, sealing it all in a glass bottle (from Asgard, years ago, and he forces that thought away because it hurts too) that he drops in Rogers’ lap. The captain curls his hand around it and says quietly, “Thank you.”

Loki just nods; he doesn’t trust himself to speak without screaming. Instead he gathers up Groot’s ashes for Rocket and the witchling’s for Romanoff, simple uses of seidr that should not leave him drained and shaking but do anyway.

One of the Wakandan generals arrives then, looking shaken, and tells them the king is dead too.

Banner says awkwardly, “I’m so sorry—”

“Later, we will mourn,” she says sharply (under other circumstances, Loki thinks, he might admire her ability to act despite grief, but right now he is too numb to feel anything of the kind). “Now—we must gather the survivors, help the wounded, and try to count our dead.”

Rogers looks down at the bottle in his hand, then up at Loki, visibly shutting away his own grief for later. “Can you—find remains like this? Or do you need to already know where they are?”

“I can try,” Loki says. His voice is hoarse, as if he has been screaming. “There is…a residue, of sorts. Energy.” He does not add that it will take nearly all of his remaining energy to do so, especially if they want him to recover the remains of every soul who fell here, because it is irrelevant and he has no need for that energy now. What he needs is something that will require concentration and let him not think.

If the general wonders who Loki is or how he is going to find the ashes, she evidently puts that far below her other priorities, because she simply nods. “Do what you can. Dr. Banner, you will help our medical team. Do any of the rest of you have medical experience?”

Loki tunes them out and expands his senses outward. The ashes are swiftly fading pinpricks, their energy signatures an odd mix of the force that once animated them and traces of the Infinity Gauntlet’s power. A dull headache immediately begins throbbing in his temples and at the base of his skull, and Loki is grateful for it: something else that demands his attention, forces him to bend all his willpower toward concentration on his task.

He moves toward the nearest pile of ash and gathers it into another bottle. Residual energy is not enough for him to identify someone he never met in life, so he touches the bottle with a little more magic to make it glow and leaves it there. All he can really do is keep the remains from blowing away; the humans will have to do the rest. So he keeps going, ignoring everything else around him as he moves from ash pile to ash pile, his headache worsening and energy draining until each tiny use of seidr feels more like bloodletting.

The sun has set by the time he hits the outer limits of his stamina. If he pushes himself any further, at best he will simply collapse here on the battlefield. The thought is briefly tempting, but the kind of deep unconsciousness produced by complete seidr depletion is one from which he cannot rouse himself until he has recovered enough, which in this case means he will be trapped in whatever nightmares his mind can conjure up. At least if he succumbs to more ordinary exhaustion, he will be able to wake up. As it is, the first few steps make his head spin, the trees blurring around him in the dusk. He is grateful for that too, that he has to narrow his focus to putting one foot in front of the other instead of drowning in his thoughts.

He gathers the last shreds of his willpower, fixes his gaze on the city, and forces himself onward.