In a blinding flash of light, the quantum realm gave way to the lower cells of Asgard.
Thor leaned against the wall next to him while he regained his bearings, feeling his connection to the golden realm that had been his home for over a thousand years reignite within his chest. The sensation brought with it an overwhelming rush of homesickness that had him hunching over with a gasp.
Just like every Asgardian, he had been intrinsically linked with the golden city and when it had gone up in flames he had felt a part of him wither and die. Being back made him feel both uplifted and weighed down all at once.
It brought back all the guilt he had harbored since he had unleashed Surtur and triggered Ragnarok. His first act as the King of Asgard had been to destroy it and flee across the stars, leading his people to the brink of extinction at the hands of Thanos.
But now was not the time for him to fall apart. Their mission was too important for him to screw up, and he had racked enough screw-ups in the past decade to not be in a hurry to add one more. Even if he was in no way ready to face the mistakes of his past.
Rocket was already creeping forward, the extractor for the reality stone in his paws, so Thor shook himself free from his thoughts and fell into step behind the rabbit, trying to recall the fastest way to take them from the cells to royal chambers where Jane would most likely be.
He felt a small pang at thinking of her, remembering that time in his life where he thought he had everything figured out. How blind he had been, how naive.
Deep in thought, as he was, Thor almost missed what was housed in the cell to their left. But a flicker of movement caught his eye and had him turning his head, eyes falling on the occupant of a cell.
It was Loki.
Seeing him felt like a punch to the gut and Thor froze in place, his eyes drinking in the sight of his brother as he lay reclined on the bed within his cell, tossing a cup in the air and catching it in a repetitive action that spoke of extreme boredom.
“Thor,” Rocket hissed, his paws tugging at Thor’s pants and breaking Thor’s frozen introspection. “Why are you stopping?”
“Loki. He’s– It’s my brother.” He gestured helplessly towards Loki, unable to tear his eyes away.
“The dead one?” Rocket replied with about as much tact as usual.
“Aye, that one.” Tears blurred his vision and his feet started carrying him in that direction, ignoring Rockets angry whispers.
“Just give me a moment.”
“I’m going to go on record to say this is a bad idea.” Rocket grumbled but hung back, leaving Thor to approach the cell alone.
Too soon he found himself outside the glowing barrier that separated him from his brother. Loki had turned his head towards the sound of approaching footsteps, expression one of feigned disinterest.
“What would bring the great oaf Volstagg to visit me?”
Thor frowned and looked down at himself, realizing that with the full beard and wider figure he had begun to resemble his large warrior friend. He tugged the worn, oversized hoodie he was wearing self consciously, noticing for the first time in a long while just how much he had changed in the years after Thanos. Enough it seemed for Loki to not recognize him and that, more than anything, stung.
“Well?” Loki was sitting up now, an eyebrow raised and mouth twisted, ready to form more sharp insults.
Gathering the last of his courage, Thor took the final step into the light given off by Loki’s cell. Immediately he had Loki’s full attention and in a single fluid movement, Loki was on his feet and approaching the barrier, his gaze sharp.
Thor felt cut open by the stare; as though Loki was peeling him down layer by layer until the raw truth of him was exposed.
And Thor could do nothing but stare in return, drinking in the sight of his little brother, safe and alive.
“Thor?” When Loki spoke again, a whole barrage of questions was loaded in that single syllable.
“Loki,” Thor choked out in response.
“Have I been imprisoned so long that you would age so terribly in my absence,” Loki responded with his usual cutting tone, his eyes taking in Thor’s new look in distaste. “Or perhaps this is a trick of the All-fathers, although I cannot fathom its purpose.”
“Have I changed that much brother?”
“You’re not my brother.” Loki spat, green eyes flashing.
“You will always be my brother Loki.”
“What brings the golden prince to visit his disgraced brother then, hmm?” Loki sneered the term, “Are you here to mock? To gloat? Or perhaps you seek revenge?”
“None of that Loki.” Thor had forgotten how full of rage and hate Loki had been at this time. And he was ashamed to remember how he had simply ignored his brother until he needed him to commit treason. Content to leave him behind in the shadows. No wonder Loki had hated him.
“Well? Are you going to simply continue to stare? I am rather busy so if it’s all the same to you.” Loki turned his back to Thor and picked a book up off the ground and pretended to be absorbed reading it, ignoring Thor completely.
“I’m so sorry Loki,” Thor said at a lack of anything better. Loki’s back tensed and for a long moment there was silence before he slammed the book shut and turning back to Thor, spitting his next words at him like snake poison.
“What are you sorry for now? Sorry that you left me here to rot in the dungeons while the rest of Asgard pretends I never existed? Sorry that you have a Frost Giant for a brother? You will have to be more specific than that I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry I was never there for you when you needed me.”
Loki scoffed, “I haven’t needed anything from you in a long time.”
“Perhaps not. But I never stopped needing you. There seemed to be nothing we could not face when we stood together.”
“What brings you to say these things now. Do you think it will change anything? That we will suddenly become brothers again?” Loki’s words were derisive, well aimed to cut at his already tattered heart.
“No. It's because when it most counted, I let you down. I let everyone down. I couldn’t save you, I couldn't save anyone.” Tears obscured his vision and he looked away, ashamed at falling apart so pathetically.
“I never thought I would see the day,” Loki smiled cruelly, “the mighty Thor crying over a Frost Giant. Oh, but what a sight it is to behold.”
“And do my tears satisfy you?” Thor growled, swiping his tears away angrily. But as much as Loki’s words pained him he cherished each one. It was better to have Loki’s scorn and hatred than nothing at all.
“Satisfaction is not in my nature.” Thor jerked his head up to stare at Loki when he spoke those words, the very same ones he uttered after they had escaped from Asgard. Something that would happen mere hours from now. Which begged the question…
“Why did you come, Thor?” Loki asked again and this time he seemed genuinely curious behind his mask of disinterest.
“I needed to see you."
"Has my future self finally seen sense and left you behind."
“How… you–” He snapped his mouth shut but had already given Loki all the answers he needed.
“Please,” Loki smirked, expression smug. “Don’t insult my intelligence by trying to deny it.”
“Your mind is as sharp as ever Loki." Thor sighed in defeat, hoping this wouldn’t upset the timeline too much. "I could never hide anything from you.”
“Then you cannot think I would believe you would come all this way, only to see me.”
“I cannot share your future with you Loki. But I wished you could have trusted me enough to tell me the truth of your past."
“I have no idea of what you–”
“Thanos.” Thor interrupted.
Loki froze at the name, body going tense and a flicker of fear crossing his expression before he controlled his reaction.
“He finds me.” It was a statement, not a question.
Thor hesitated a moment, before uttering a quiet, “yes.”
Loki closed his eyes, jaw clenching and Thor wished he could reassure Loki that everything would be fine. But he knew Loki would not appreciate the lie.
"How did I die? Was it heroic?"
"Loki…" But Thor couldn't say any more than that, the trauma of that day still too fresh in his mind, despite the passage of time.
He wasn't sure what Loki read in his expression but Thor saw his defenses come up and cursed himself for adding to Loki's misery.
“I have been running on borrowed time since my fall. It seems my fate has been decided.” Loki’s words sounded flat and his eyes looked so hollow and defeated that Thor hated himself just a little more for being the cause. He should have never let himself approach the cell, but once again he had been selfish.
Thor searched for something – anything – to say to Loki when he felt sharp claws scratch against his leg, pulling his attention away.
"Thor, we have to go." Rocket tugged at his leg insistently and Thor nodded, knew he couldn’t afford to linger any longer when they had such a limited window in which to exact the Aether.
Yet he found it difficult to walk away from his brother when this moment would be the last time he would see him alive. He ached to see Loki set free. To pull him close and never let him go. But he knew that this wasn't his Loki. Not yet. And such a move would disrupt the flow of time. Loki’s fate was not something he could decide. It was time he learned to accept that.
Thor felt his heart breaking all over again as he forced himself away. There was nothing he could do for Loki. His actions would not change the future, no matter how much he wished they could.
Loki's eyes followed him as he backed away, his expression closed and distant. Thor wanted to reassure him, to impart some great wisdom before leaving his brother to his fate and unbidden, words came to him. Words that he had repeated to himself as a source of comfort many times during the past five years.
“I assure you brother, the sun will shine on us again.”
Then with a final lingering look, Thor turned his back on the past and the one person he knew would haunt him forever.