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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.

Chapter Text

The remaining Avengers and their allies were given rooms in a building used to house visiting dignitaries and their retinues, or so Loki is told by the subdued Wakandan guard who directs him there. Loki cannot find it in himself to care one way or another, capable only of a brief dull surprise that he is to stay in his own suite and not a cell. The room he is given is small and simple, but the door locks from the inside, which is more than Loki really expected.

He crosses the room, swaying a little. It’s the first chance he’s had to sleep in a real bed since the Statesman and he’s exhausted, sick with fatigue and nearly drained of even the base seidr that keeps him functioning, and the last thing he wants to do is sleep. But his body gives him no choice; almost as soon as he sits down on the edge of the bed, weariness drags his eyes shut and he tumbles into unconsciousness. He dreams, first in restless flashes that make no particular sense—he is trapped on Muspelheim and burning, he is sinking into a bottomless ocean, he is wandering a maze made of towering thornbushes and he cannot find a way out, he is staring at a pair of shackles with an awful coldness in his gut.

And then he is on the wreck of the Statesman again, blackness overtaking his vision as he scrabbles uselessly at the hand that is killing him and thinks, despairing, that he would rather die any other way than this, with Thor forced to watch and the Titan’s satisfied smirk the last thing he sees. He can’t breathe, can’t breathe, and he can feel the cartilage in his throat buckling as Thanos tightens his grip—then a snap that blazes through him like lightning—

Loki bolts awake, his chest heaving as he gasps for breath, hands flying to his neck. It aches again, bone-deep, and his body can only remember the panic as he starved for air, his pulse frantic against the Titan’s fingers. For a wild moment he thinks none of this is real, that he never woke up on the Guardians’ ship, never went with Thor to Nidavellir and Wakanda, and instead it is all a fantasy his mind created in the moment of his death—that he is still there, dying, the Titan’s hand locked around his throat.

He lurches to his feet and stumbles to the bathroom, turning on the water as hot as it will go and sticking his hands under the faucet. The shock of it feels real, at least, and he stares at himself in the mirror as the skin of his fingers turns red. His eyes are wild and still bloodshot, his neck still badly bruised, but he can feel the air moving through his lungs and see the pulse beating in his neck.

Slowly, slowly, his heartbeat settles. He flicks off the water before his skin starts to blister and stands still, hands resting against the edge of the sink. This—this is real. But so is the memory of Thor crumbling to ash. And every time he breathes, he can almost feel that immovable hand around his throat, the sharp edges of the Infinity Gauntlet biting into the flesh under his jaw—

It’s still out there somewhere, he realizes. Of course it’s still out there, but exhaustion and grief kept him from recognizing the obvious until now. He saw the Gauntlet crack when Thanos snapped his fingers but he cannot imagine the Titan discarding the symbol of his victory, even after fulfilling his great purpose. Which means that if he can find Thanos, he can find the Gauntlet and bring back everyone Thanos ripped away.

Or he might die trying. The thought does not trouble him overmuch, given the alternatives, and at least this way he might die trying to save Thor again, instead of only trying to avenge him.

He could leave now, in fact. What reason does he have to stay any longer? He doesn’t have the strength to go far, probably, but his restless sleep has restored him enough to go somewhere, and if he can draw from the earth to supplement his seidr, it might be enough. All he really needs to do is track the Gauntlet’s energy signature, a task made easier by his familiarity with the Tesseract. If Stormbreaker will respond to him, as he thinks it will, he will only need to guide its power.

And then he will attack Thanos with everything left in him, and he will win or he will die. Either way, it will be over.

He wants, more than anything, for all of this to be over.

Loki leaves his rooms before he can think better of this plan of action. His seidr is still depleted enough that he has none to waste on veiling himself from sight, so it is fortunate that he sees no one else in the hall. But the path to the nearest exit will also take him through a lounge full of cushioned seats and potted plants, floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto the Wakandan landscape, and Loki’s steps slow as he realizes one of the seats is occupied.

Captain Rogers is sitting there, silent and unmoving. He still looks strange with the beard, almost like an entirely different person. His hair is longer too—nothing like as long as Loki’s, but even Thor’s current cut is much shorter.

Was. Was shorter.

Loki clenches his jaw until his teeth ache and strides into the lounge, his gaze fixed on the archway leading to the next hall. Rogers is staring sightlessly out the windows, but he lifts his head at Loki’s approach. “Going somewhere?”

There is no particular reason to answer him. Loki might not be able to slip away in his usual manner, but it is highly unlikely Rogers would be able to stop him even so. He says anyway, “I am going to find Thanos and tear the Infinity Gauntlet from him.”

Rogers goes still. “How?”

Loki shrugs. “It’s a work in progress.”

“And if you got it—”

“I would destroy him utterly,” Loki says, “and then I would bring them all back.”

“Is that possible?”

“With the Infinity Stones, Captain, virtually anything is possible. Finding him could be a bit difficult, but the chances are vanishingly unlikely that he will have destroyed or discarded the Gauntlet, at least not so soon. If I find him—and I believe I can—then I find the Gauntlet.”

Rogers is frowning at him now, his brow furrowed. “And then you, what, fight him by yourself?”

“That would appear to be the logical next step, yes,” Loki says.

“That sounds like a suicide mission,” Rogers says.

Loki lifts his chin. “Does it matter?”

“It’s a safe bet Thor wouldn’t want—”

“Don’t you dare,” Loki snarls. “Thor isn’t here. What he would or would not want is irrelevant because he is dead, and I will not be lectured by a mortal who at worst must grieve his own losses for mere decades.”

Instead of giving him the fight Loki abruptly realizes he wants, Rogers closes his eyes for the space of a slow breath in and out, clearly reaching for calm. “Okay,” he says. “Fine. How about his? If we’ve got any chance of getting back the Gauntlet or even avenging our dead, we have to do it smart and we’re gonna need all hands on deck. That absolutely includes you. You’re powerful, and right now you want the same thing as the rest of us. If we work together, we’ve got a better shot at actually accomplishing something.”

Loki looks away, shame curdling in his stomach. “Have you forgotten New York so quickly? Forgiven so easily what I did to your world?”

“No,” Rogers says, still in the same measured tone. “But we’re on the same side now—unless you were lying about that too, I guess.”

(He remembers Thor in the middle of battle, larger than life and blazing with power, so eager to introduce his strange new friends to his old one—and then grinning even more broadly and gesturing to Loki: “You remember my brother, I’m sure. He’s alive again and he’s good now.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “The latter is debatable, but I am on your side.”)

“No,” Loki says. “I was not.”

“So there’s that,” Rogers says. “Plus Bruce says you were under duress the first time.”

Loki goes cold. “I never said that.”

“He’s good at reading between the lines, even when he’s a giant green rage monster,” Rogers says. “Rocket picked up on the same thing, for what it’s worth.”

“Does it make a difference?” Loki says, unable to meet his gaze.

“My best friend—” Rogers’ voice hitches, but only a little— “killed dozens of people as a brainwashed assassin. Natasha did more or less the same thing. I can’t speak for anybody else, but for me, yeah, it makes a difference. Definitely enough to mean I can work with you.”

“You are…rather more of a pragmatist than I expected,” Loki says after a moment.

Rogers shrugs. “Desperate times. Means a couple different reasons I don’t love the idea of you heading out on a one-way trip.”

The tension itches under his skin. “Then what do you propose as an alternative, hm? Wait and let him regain his strength?”

“If he can still use the Infinity Gauntlet,” Rogers points out, “it doesn’t matter much if he has a chance to regroup or not, right? So how about instead of rushing off and probably getting yourself killed, you wait long enough for all of us to regain some of our strength and figure out some kind of plan, and then you go after him with backup?”

It is…logical. Smarter, certainly, and less likely to end in failure. More likely to accomplish something other than getting himself pointlessly killed. And—

“I can’t,” he bursts out. “I, I can’t just—sit here, and sleep, and heal, when—” He inhales, shakily, trying and failing to steady himself. “It should have been me. It was supposed to be me. I tried to die once and failed, survived twice more when I should have died, and Thor is the hero, the one who knows how to—to fight, and be a hero, and do what needs to be done, and carry on. I only know how to survive, like a—like a damn cockroach.” He makes himself stop, finally, almost panting, his skin burning with shame. If Rogers did not despise him before, he surely must now. He should, if he possesses any sense at all, but when Loki forces himself to meet Rogers’ gaze again, all he can see there is…understanding. Compassion. He wants to hate Rogers for it, and he is too hollowed out even for that.

“I don’t think anybody knows how, really,” Rogers says after a moment. “You just…you keep going and you do what you can. That’s all I’ve ever known how to do. Hell, I shouldn’t have survived either. Probably should’ve died as a kid and I definitely never should’ve survived going into the ice, let alone all the crazy shit that’s happened since. Something’s gonna kill me eventually, but until then…I guess I’m a cockroach too.”

“Was that supposed to be encouraging?” Loki says.

Rogers smiles without humor. “Honestly? If you’re looking for a pep talk, you’ve probably come to the wrong guy. I don’t have the lifespan you guys do, obviously, but…I know what it’s like to lose everything. At this point I’m pretty much down to stubbornness. But part of that is wanting to do as much good as I can for as long as I can. So… ‘you always stand up,’ my mom used to tell me. Don’t think I know how to do anything else. Maybe at this point it’s just habit. But it’s something. It’s a reason to keep going until I can’t anymore.”

“And what reason do I have?” Loki says. He means it to be skeptical, even snide; instead his voice only sounds tired. “You say you lost everything, Captain, and so you did, but your world still stands. You have friends, yet. Asgard is gone. Everyone I—that I care about awaits me in the land of the dead and if I am very lucky, and someone like Thanos strikes me down in battle, I may yet see them again. What reason have I to keep going, as you so eloquently put it? Why should I not pursue the Titan now, and most likely die in the attempt?”

“Spite?” Rogers suggests. Loki stares at him, and Rogers shrugs. “I’ve always got a few more assholes to prove wrong. Don’t you?”

“Just the one,” Loki says. “Just Thanos. The others are all dead.”

“Then fucking prove him wrong,” Rogers says, his gaze suddenly so intense Loki cannot look away. “Stay. Recover from getting your damn neck broken, for God's sake. Help us figure out what to do next. I’m not saying don’t go after Thanos; I’m saying wait long enough to do it with a good plan and some backup. Do it right. Get the Gauntlet and fix everything, or at least take the bastard out and make it mean something. And if we can’t bring everyone back that way, then…we keep trying. And we prove him wrong by surviving.”

“For millennia,” Loki says. “Alone. You cannot ask that of me.”

“No,” Rogers says. “You’re right, I can’t ask that, and I’m not. You can’t look that far ahead. For now just give it—a week. Or a couple days. Hell, start by staying until morning, and then…go from there.”

Even a few days sounds impossibly long, too much time for this world to scrape against his raw edges until all his sanity is hollowed out. Without Thor as his anchor, forced to continue in a monstrous universe that would take away the God of Thunder and leave Loki alive—he will shatter.

But Rogers is right. If any of this is to mean something, he needs a plan borne of something more than mere desperation. And if the thought of waiting a week or longer makes him want to scream until his throat tears, waiting until morning is…not so unbearable, if he plans no further.

“I am not going back to sleep,” he says.

Rogers relaxes a little. “Me either. But the sunrises here really are spectacular. Seems like a shame to miss it.”

“All right,” Loki says finally. “I will…at least wait until morning. You have my word on that.” He turns to leave, but with no clear idea of where he will go except that he certainly isn’t returning to his quarters.

Rogers’ quiet voice stops him. “You can stay, you know. The view’s pretty good, and I can’t say I’d mind the company.”

Loki frowns at him. “And you want my company.”

Rogers kindly refrains from pointing out that he did not actually say as much. “Yes.”

“I am not in the mood to make conversation,” Loki says, searching Rogers’ face for mockery and finding none. He only looks tired and worn, and far older than his few mortal years.

“Honestly, I don’t feel much like talking either.”

Loki hesitates. If he falls asleep after all, and dreams, he doesn’t want Rogers to see. But…he also doesn’t actually want to be alone, and it helps a little to know that Rogers is avoiding his own nightmares. He takes a chair near the window, not right next to Rogers but not very far either, and sinks into it.

Norns, he’s so tired.

“Do you want some tea?” Rogers asks after a moment. “They’ve got this automatic thing—caffeine doesn’t do much for me anymore, no idea if it does much for you, and I don’t know enough about tea to tell you anything about it, but it tastes good.” Loki shrugs. Rogers, evidently realizing he won’t get a more definitive response, goes to a corner pillar Loki had assumed was decorative and opens a nearly invisible panel on the front. There is a hiss of steaming liquid, and Rogers comes back bearing two mugs of what Loki supposes is Wakandan tea, the panel silently closing behind him. He hesitates briefly before setting one mug on the table next to Loki’s chair, thereby avoiding a potentially awkward handoff, and retreats to his own chair.

The mug is warm, not hot, despite the steam rising from its contents, and it burns Loki's tongue a little when he takes a sip. The sensation is…grounding, oddly enough, and the tea’s delicate flavor somehow reminds him of home.

Rogers curls his hands around his own mug and stares down into it, his gaze distant. He doesn’t speak again, even as hours crawl by, and Loki is grateful for it.

Slowly, the skyline lightens as the sun edges above the horizon, molten light pouring over forest and city and battlefield. Rogers sets aside his empty mug and hauls himself to his feet.

“So,” he says, holding out his hand. His eyes show the same bleak resolve Loki can feel in himself. “Ready to get to work?”

The frantic edge of his thoughts has dulled to something that is at least more bearable. He can’t say he feels better, but he is…steadier. Waiting and working with the Avengers, doing anything at all except throwing himself into a suicidal headlong rush at Thanos—the idea doesn’t exactly appeal, but it no longer makes him feel as if he will fly apart at the seams merely from considering it. It isn’t much, and he has no idea if it will be enough, but it is…something. More than what he had only a few hours ago.

He takes Rogers’ offered hand and gets to his feet. “Yes,” he says. “Whatever it takes.”