It hadn't really surprised anyone when, through a messy, quick spate of trial-and-error, it was determined that Thor was emotionally unfit to conduct a bit of subterfuge in past Asgard. While a team was certainly still needed to collect the Aether from there, Thor's sudden, shocking fragility, post-Thanos, was made readily apparent upon his triumphant(?) return to the Avengers facility, via a number of increasingly volatile panic attacks, to say nothing of the angry outbursts, the rambling, confused speech, and the tears. What was arguably a somewhat comical commitment to encroaching alcoholism and garbage food was quickly waylaid, time and again, by Thor's inability to so much as talk about anything that had happened without shutting down. Thus, it was collectively decided that some improvisation was necessary before they could move forward as a team, because, of course, working together was the only way this would work at all.
"He can't handle it." Bruce's tone is kind, yet realistic. The remaining team, sans Natasha, who is currently away on her own mission to recruit the wayward Clint, turns to glance at their Asgardian friend, currently propped in a fat armchair in the corner of the room. A cursory medical examination by Bruce had determined that he was, at least physically, fine, all things considered. "You guys didn't see him when we first picked him up," Bruce continues quietly, not trying to wake Thor up, but not not trying, either. "He couldn't even handle hearing Thanos' name without having a god-sized meltdown. I can't even imagine what he's going to do when he's back home with people there that aren't here anymore." Nearby, Rocket nods sadly, knowingly.
"So what are we gonna do?" Scott Lang's above average intelligence has allowed him to infer much from the old team's shorthand and vague references, which is good, since nobody quite has it in them to catch anyone up. "Can he still go somewhere else? We don't have a lot of other options."
"New York is a bust," Tony Stark says after a beat. "Loki's gonna be there, too. He won't be able to deal with that. Who's to say he won't try to change the timeline to rescue his brother?"
Silence reigns for a long moment. "So Team Morag-Vormir, then," Steve offers. "Still a lot riding on those big shoulders, but at least he won't know anyone there outright. It will be easier for him to stay focused. Rocket, you'll still probably need to carry some of that weight, but at least we won't be setting him up to fail."
"So, uh, Morag, or Vormir?" Scott asks.
Rocket shrugs. "I'm up for either."
"Morag's not a good idea." From somewhere outside of the subconscious inner circle that had formed, Nebula's gravelly voice contains a dull warning. "My father is also looking for the Stones in 2014. He will not fare well there." She looks as though she has more to say, but does not.
Everyone considers this. "Well," Tony finally agrees, "I guess the big guy's going to Vormir." In his sleep, Thor snorts.
Tony's nano technology envelops Thor and Rocket in form-fitting black suits for their leg of the mission. Before they leave Rhodey and Nebula behind on Morag in 2014, Nebula chances a pointed glance at Rocket.
"Be careful," she warns, arms crossed, face grim. "Th- my father," she corrects, in case Thor overhears (though the large headphones that have been clamped around his head since they collected him from New Asgard make that generally unlikely), "he did something to Gamora in order to obtain the Soul Stone. There will probably be some sort of price to pay."
Rocket rubs the back of his neck with one surprisingly small paw. "Haven't we all paid a big enough price already?" he queries, and then sighs. "You think this is gonna work?" he asks, his voice hopeful and resigned at once.
Nebula's face is inscrutible. "I don't know," she says simply, and then they part ways.
Thor is quiet on the ride to Vormir, though he does not fall asleep. For his own part, Rocket leaves him be, relieved for small details, including that Thor has managed to be parted from any alcoholic beverages at this point.
Vormir has a mystical feeling to it. Much of it is lost on Rocket, but as he and Thor begin to ascend the gigantic mountain that rises before them, Thor huffing with the effort, it swirls around them both nonetheless. The foggy atmosphere is surprisingly warm, another hint that this is not a typical planet. Nebula had told them that it was the cosmic center of the universe, after all. Even without full knowledge of what that means, Rocket can guess that it doesn't mean anything good for them. He is equally sure, however, that Thor is barely handling it as-is, and so aside from some occasional words of encouragement as they continue their trek ("move it or lose it, Thunder Thighs"), Rocket keeps his theories to himself.
The appearance of the ethereal, black-clad figure makes them both jump. In a literal flash, Stormbreaker jumps to Thor's gloved hand. Somewhat less dramatically, Rocket brandishes his favorite blaster approximately at the being's chest. "You the boogey-man who runs this place?" he queries. Beside him, Thor's heavy breathing is likely a combination of exertion and sudden wariness of their guest.
The figure does not react, however. "I am your guide to this realm," it tells them in an accented, foreign voice. "Many years ago, I, too, sought the Soul Stone, and failed. As punishment, it is my duty to lead others to their own fate."
"We gotta fight something, then?" Thor finally speaks.
The figure says nothing in response, however. "Thor, son of Odin," it - he, Rocket surmises - offers instead; "Rocket, creation of Halfworld: The price to obtain the Stone is steep."
"'s why we had to climb a fucking mountain," Thor huffs.
The being gestures at the twin pillars signifying the 'entrance' to the cavern below. "In order to retrieve the Soul Stone," he intones, "a sacrifice must be made: One soul for another. Irrevocable. Only once one has paid in blood shall the Stone be won."
Thor's breathing is ragged, now. "I don't understand," he finally manages, and a now-familiar wetness has begun to gather in the corners of his eyes. "You're saying one of us has to be sacrificed?"
"Yes," the cloaked figure agrees. "But also, no. It is more complicated than that. The sacrifice is borne of blood through love. I was not able to acquire the Soul Stone because I could not pay its price."
"You had no one to sacrifice yourself for." Thor's voice is dull, yet agitated. His eyes dart as he stares angrily, cloudily at the ground. "But Th - but HE did?"
"He sacrificed his daughter." Rocket's voice is small. Suddenly, it is difficult to breathe, and not because of the anticipation of thinner air this high up. "He must have ... it must have been enough."
Thor, suddenly enraged, is at once illuminated in the blue light of his own making. With a devastated roar, he raises Stormbreaker, taking aim at the figure. However, while Rocket's paw raising to stop him has no effect, the figure turning to face him does. With wisps of magic, its hood falls away, revealing a surprisingly solid-looking, albeit red-colored skull. "Your weapon has no effect on me," it acknowledges. "It is my curse to remain here, unable to touch or be touched. You, however, may well leave this realm, if that should be your fate."
Thor continues to bare his teeth. Beside him, Rocket's mind races. "We can get someone else to come," he finds himself rambling, barely realizing he's talking in the first place. "We can take it off of ... him, personally."
"It won't work," Thor intones.
"I can do it," Rocket suggests next, sounding desperate.
"You can't," Thor snaps. "All of the people you loved are gone."
"I mean, ditto," Rocket retorts. "So neither of us are capable of it. So that's it here. C'mon, I'll race you back down the mountain."
"No." Thor's rounded shoulders square up. The air shifts almost imperceptibly. "Not everyone I've lost was Snapped."
"Yeah," Rocket agrees, "but that means they're like, really gone. So that's not gonna help us here either."
Thor swallows thickly. "Maybe not. Maybe there's still ... he knew his way around a lot of different types of magics, he could have sur- he-"
"You're not talking about your brother." It's not a question. It's also somehow not surprising at all when, aside the red skull, another figure suddenly shimmers into being. "You can't!" Rocket yells, knowing without even knowing that this slight, dark-haired, pale-faced creature before them now is none other than Loki. "Thor, you can't do this!"
"The intention is there," the skull acknowledges.
Thor says nothing, though his eyes are red and beaded with tears as he stares openly at the form of his deceased brother, whom Rocket strongly suspects is not absolutely corporeal at this point. "Loki ..."
"Thor." Loki licks thin, parted lips. "Brother," he asserts, the lilting cadence at once a blooming burst of love and pain in Thor's chest. "The raccoon is right, it does not make sense for you to do this. Your friends need you back with them, they need you there to fight-"
"I have no more fight in me." Thor's voice is ragged in its honesty. "I no longer wake up hoping to see the sun overhead." He takes a deep, shaky breath. "They can win without me."
"Yeah, but we don't want to!" Rocket protests.
Thor shakes his head a little. Through the tears mottling his cheeks anew, his gaze appears to fixate ahead. "Do you hear it?" he asks, and Rocket knows the question is not aimed at him.
"Thor, please." Its intended recipient also does not rise to the bait. Instead, Loki begins to move towards the thunder god. Reaching out, Thor attempts to grasp at Loki's hand, only for his own to pass straight through his brother's flesh-made-apparition. Snorting a little, Thor shakes his head. "Please," Loki says again, and Thor smiles sadly through him.
"You really are the worst, brother." Loki closes his eyes briefly. "I l-love you," Thor whispers. "Thank you." In the end, neither Loki nor Red Skull can physically stop it from happening, and even at his current girth, Thor can still outrun Rocket. A halo of light caps the two pillars suddenly, surrounded, with cruel irony, by storm clouds, overhead, and before everything goes dark, the last thing Rocket sees is his friend's massive frame splayed, unmoving, at the bottom of the cavern far, far below.
They awaken in water, reborn, it seems. In Loki's case, this can be taken quite literally; reaching over, Rocket's paw makes solid contact with Thor's brother's hand. It's then that they both realize it is clenched, and that, upon stretching long, spidery fingers for the first time in five years, the Soul Stone, as orange as an Asgardian sunset, sits nestled in the palm.
The rest of the team is not particularly happy when a newly corporeal Loki returns with Rocket. It's even less happy to realize that he is their consolation prize in place of Thor. In spite of that, there is little to be gained from turning away much-needed help, and so Loki is briefed on all that has happened, and gets slated to make up for what has been lost. He's a warm body again now, after all.
The Hudson is hardly Asgard, or even what Loki has come to learn has been dubbed New Asgard on Earth, but the remaining crew pays its respects to their latest fallen teammate there anyways. For his part, Loki stays a long time sitting near the water's edge, staring at a reflection that should no longer be possible. Thanks to Thor, however, it is. When the sky darkens so sufficiently that he is no longer able to comfortably see his own feet dangling off of the dock, he returns to the compound.
Sending the raven to the Valkyrie is a vaguely uncomfortable flexing of magical abilities long dormant, to say nothing of the subject matter, but he knows it is a necessary step. When - if - they survive, he assures her briefly in writing, what's left of Odin's kingdom can mourn its latest lost King properly. In complete honesty, Loki isn't sure whether he prefers to see it or not.
They win. Loki, however, has never felt more lost.