Underneath Loki’s skin, his pulse still beats.
His thumb presses into the place on his wrist between tendon and bone and he keeps a measure of it, the rhythm of the pulses. For every beat that passes, his heart is another beat closer to its last. Every squeeze of muscle is another one it will never be able to take back. The thought makes his pulse stutter before it quickens, getting faster and faster until Loki’s thumb presses harder as he wills it to slow.
His pulse does not slow. It never does, not when he wills it to, not when he’s so utterly aware of its precise tempo, not when the thudding gets louder and louder until it’s all he can hear, all he can focus on.
No matter the cost, it means he’s still alive.
"Loki," Thor says from the chair across the room.
Loki looks up and waits for Thor to continue. He doesn’t.
"What?" Loki is forced to ask.
“Are you...” Thor trails off.
Alright? Loki thinks he might ask. Still here? Are you even alive?
"Yes, do spit it out, Thor." The words are said with more venom than Loki originally intended but the damage has already been done.
Thor hesitates, deliberating his next words as he places his drink on the floor. "Are you settled?"
Settled? What exactly constitutes as settled? Loki has a place in which he can sleep and eat, and he knows his way around New Asgard well enough by now. Is that what's supposed to be meant by settled?
Somehow, Loki doubts it.
“Well enough,” Loki replies.
Thor grants him a nod. His gaze keeps flickering between Loki and the television, his fingertips still tapping the rim of his mug even though he’s put it down. It’s another change that’s occurred, the constant presence of alcohol. That and the television. The former habit aside, Loki despises the constant assault of noise but Thor appears to have developed the habit of not leaving it alone for more than a few hours. He also seems to apply the same principle to Loki.
Loki can't make his way to the farmer's market without Thor trailing behind him. He can't go for a walk without Thor claiming he could do with some exercise and inviting himself along.
It isn't Thor's presence that's the difficult part: the difficult part is in the sideways glances, in the way Thor frequently seems at the brink of asking him something and then keeps not voicing it, how Thor seems repulsed at the idea of touching him.
Thor never used to be that opposed to it, not even when they were fighting.
But what they’re doing can't be described as fighting, though neither can it be described as getting along. Things are... civil. Frustratingly forcefully civil. It provides an underlying tension Loki can barely withstand, and it makes him wonder how Thor can tolerate it.
Sometimes, Loki wishes Thor would just be out with it to spare him the wait. Other times, Loki isn't so certain he wants to know, not if it's making someone like Thor hesitate.
Thor presses the buttons on the remote to make the television quieter. It means he's going to say something, Loki’s accustomed enough to this routine by now, but more than that: it means Thor thinks this conversation is going to be a lengthy one.
“I know this place isn't like home.” Thor's lips press together after the last word.
Neither was Asgard, Loki thinks but it both was and wasn’t and it doesn’t matter anymore trying to deduce which because it’s gone.
It’s been gone for five years. Five years in which the Asgardian survivors rebuilt themselves and their homes. Five years in which they learned to adapt to life without Asgard. Five years in which Thor spent without Loki there to torment him. Loki should have seen it coming the moment Odin died: Asgard would not be far behind him.
But Thor's still waiting for an answer. What was it he'd said? Loki keeps finding this is a recurring pattern, these stray thoughts distracting him more and more frequently as of late. Ah yes, something about New Asgard not being like home.
“Isn't it?” Loki asks, but the intonation is flat.
“Not yet,” Thor says. He lifts his drink and takes a mouthful. “It might take a while but over time we could...'' He pauses. Loki fully expects him to finish the sentence with make it our home but instead the word Thor once again decides upon is, “Settle.”
If settling is the best that Thor, disparagingly optimistic Thor – or he used to be, anyway – thinks they can hope for then maybe they must be more doomed than Loki originally thought.
“This place is hardly ideal.”
Thor frowns. “We have housing here that was given to us. Generously given to us. New Asgard has been able to establish its own trade, first within our own community and then outside it. The landscape isn’t all that dissimilar to what Asgard’s was like outside of the city walls, and the people here have been incredibly welcoming, more than we could have asked for.”
“To you, perhaps.”
Thor looks like he's holding in a sigh. “Can you blame them?”
“This isn't a matter of blame.”
“Then what is it a matter of?”
Loki falters. His mouth opens but he can't think of any words he can live with saying if Thor hears.
“I know,” Loki says, more controlled and quieter than before, “that you want this place to be New Asgard. But I... I’m not sure I want there to be a New Asgard. And if I did, I certainly wouldn't want it here.”
The drink is once again in Thor’s lap. “Why wouldn't you want there to be a New Asgard?”
And there it is, even after Loki's calculated wording, the request for him to elaborate on something he had no inclination to do.
“Asgard is gone. Midgard just happened to accept our refugees. Having the word ‘new’ as a precursor to whichever word happens to be in front of it doesn’t make it a reformation of the old one.”
Thor's eyes are on him and there's a scrutiny in them that Loki isn't used to seeing in there, or, at least, he wasn't until recently.
Asgard is a people, Loki expects Thor to say. He says it so often the words ring hollow.
“What would you suggest then?” Thor asks.
“I don't know. I'd recommend asking somebody else – anybody else."
Thor's mouth sets in the same way it does whenever he feels the need to remind him of the fact that–
"You saved Asgard, Loki." Thor leans forward in a way Loki can only assume he's supposed to find imploring. "Don't forget that."
“You'll also find that I was the one to destroy it.”
Just like the Midgardian stories said. Loki, the bringer of doom. Loki, the bringer of Ragnarok. Loki, the one whose fault it would be when Asgard no longer existed and there would no longer be any Asgardians who called themselves gods.
"Sometimes you have to destroy things in order to save them."
Loki unleashes a laugh, a short and sharp one that makes Thor go rigid in his chair. “Careful, Thor. Some might mistake your words for wisdom.”
“And,” Thor says, louder now, as if that'll make his point less refutable, “if it wasn't for the ship you brought, none of us would’ve been able to escape.”
The ship Loki brought. The Grandmaster's ship he stole, Thor means. The ship Thor doesn't like to ask too many questions about.
But Thor stopped asking questions a long time ago. Sometimes Loki wonders exactly what it’d take to get Thor in enough of a state to roar at him, to shake him so hard it makes his teeth clash and leaves his vision unhinged, to get the fierce intensity his brother used to get in his eyes when he's filled with the conviction that there’s something to fight for.
The ale makes Thor mellow, but Loki suspects he’d still be mellow without it.
At least it's more convenient without the questions. Sometimes he needs to remind himself of that. Even if... Even if it means this Thor, the Thor sat in front of him, feels closer to a stranger than the brother of his memories.
"The ship I brought makes the Asgardian population slightly less inclined to despise me, not the Midgardian population.”
“Don't underestimate their memory.”
Loki laughs again. “Oh, their memory might be part of the problem.”
“After,” Thor says pointedly. “The Midgardians still remember what you did after you came back.”
After you came back. It's Thor's way of putting it. After Thanos choked the life out of him. After Thor watched him die. After Loki found himself being nothing at all until he fell through a portal and stepped out into the middle of a battlefield. But if Thor prefers to think of it as if Loki had merely disappeared for five years then he isn't going to force him to think otherwise.
"How odd," Loki says. "I can barely remember it myself.”
The look Thor gives him is too half-hearted to be a long-suffering one.
It's lazy. Thor was many things but he was never lazy.
He doesn't know what to do with this lethargic Thor, with the Thor who's lost his parents and closest friends and who keeps looking at him, staring at him like he’s a stranger he’s expecting to leave at any moment.
Maybe Loki will. Where, he doesn’t know, but he has few reasons to stay here other than convenience.
Maybe Midgard is a good a realm as any when there are so few realms he hasn't made enemies of. He still remembers where the places are, where the veils between realms are so thin he can just slip through them. He never found all of them but he found enough that he could weave paths between most of the Nine Realms if he ever needed to and now he has no other way apart from attempting to persuade Heimdall to let him use the Bifrost.
The prospect of quietly slipping away is becoming more and more appealing.
At least, if he does it Thor won't have to watch him die again.
Tomorrow, he keeps telling himself, I'll do it tomorrow. But tomorrow comes and goes and he finds himself sitting in the same tired house with the same tired furnishings and the same tired Thor.
Thor looks better when he doesn't have to talk to Loki; missing that is unavoidable. There's something more sincere about Thor's smile when they leave their shared solitary confinement and Thor can interact with people who aren't him. Valkyrie can make him laugh, and Thor's new friends are far better distractions than Loki ever was, occupying him with idle chatter and games of a playful nature rather than treachery and attempts of murder.
He'll be better off when Loki leaves. Thor can count it as one last betrayal and that'll be the end of it. They'll never have to see each other again. The space Loki occupies can be replaced with people capable of making Thor look like himself again, with people who are more than just Thor's last remaining link to the original Asgard.
Some link. He isn't even Asgardian.
Thor points the remote at the television and the volume returns to normal.
Loki doesn't pay much attention to what the television is showing them, not usually anyway. He spends most of his time indoors staring into various open books without any of the words sinking in, which seems, for reasons he can’t explain, like a more sensible way to fritter away time.
When he’s not monitoring his pulse, he’s occupied by the way his lungs operate, the way they inflate and deflate at every inhale and exhale. The air here is stale but the air outside is so fresh it feels like breathing in shards of glass. No – it feels like his lungs are made of glass and if he breathes in too much they might splinter and shatter.
The functions of his own body are a distraction in a way they have never been before. He once spent an entire afternoon staring at his own hand, overcome with how surreal it was that all he had to do was think the command for his fingers to move and they did so, all those tendons and muscle and bone obeying his thoughts. How was it that he could decide to move his body however he wanted and yet what he’d wanted the most, what he’d needed the most, was for his heart to continue beating and his throat to open and yet he had no control over himself when it truly mattered?
How inconvenient it was for neither life nor death to want him.
At least Thor tries to want him around. Sometimes Thor attempts to persuade him to accompany him to visits to see Valkyrie and the other companions he met on Sakaar, but he gives up without much fight.
He asks Loki once. Loki shakes his head. He learned this lesson long ago: Thor's friends aren't his friends. Friendship does not work in the same way that blood does, although that never worked in the way he thought it would either.
Loki's thoughts are interrupted by the slamming of the front door.
The footsteps sound faster than he’s used to.
Not Thor, he has time to think before the perpetrator announces themselves.
Loki let the daggers he's summoned slip back into his pocket dimension. Valkyrie watches as he does so, one corner of her mouth hitching in what might be amusement.
"Thor isn't here," Loki says.
"I can see that." She looks strange without a bottle in hand. “If Thor’s not there, he's at Korg's." She makes her way to Thor’s chair before throwing herself into it side-on, her legs thrust over one of the arms. "He won't mind," she says when she catches Loki frowning.
"No," Loki says after a moment, forcing himself to sit a little less stiffly, or, at least, less visibly so. "I suppose he won't."
He waits for her to leave but she remains slouched there, as relaxed as she would be if it was her own home. It suits her more than it does Loki – and what a petty thing to be envious of that is – but he can’t discern if this house in particular suits her better or homelessness in general.
It's tempting to return to his pretence of reading the book in his hands. He doesn't even know what it's called, let alone what it's about. But this is the first time he's been alone in a room with someone who isn't Thor in... he doesn't know how long. Since Sakaar, he realises. Since they fought.
"Thor may not be back for some time," Loki offers and all she does is shrugs.
There. He's being polite. He's sparing her the unnecessary wait. He could classify this as being considerate if it wasn't for the ulterior motive of no longer being trapped in a situation that borders on uncomfortable. People come to visit Thor. Not him.
He expects the Midgardians to object to him residing here eventually, but he’s only been here a matter of weeks and they’ve been preoccupied with their own dead or dearly departed returning. When they’re recovered enough to bother doing something about the problem that is Loki, the protests will begin. Perhaps even with Thor defending him for a lack of anything else to put himself to use with or out of some sort of misplaced obligation.
Loki plans to leave before he finds out which.
Valkyrie doesn't look like she's here to confront him though. She finds the remote hidden down the crack in the chair and starts flicking through the news channels.
Good. Loki can divert his attention without it being rude. It's a relief. He hears stories of families reuniting and pets returning and the messages from those still searching for the ones they've lost. There are far far too many of them in amongst the billions of Midgardians and the ones that make it on must have paid for it dearly.
He stares at the pages but the words are nothing more than ink on pieces of paper.
Maybe when Thor returns he'll proclaim it's some form of improvement that someone’s voluntarily spending time with him. It would be just like Thor to assume two people allowing themselves to be in the same room together is enough to constitute as friendship.
He still doesn’t know why Valkyrie is here but what little time he’s spent around her is enough to safely assume if there’s something she wants to say, she won’t skirt around it.
"Lost another kid, did you?"
Loki looks up over the top of his book. "Pardon?”
“So it wasn’t a memorable trip to Iceland then.” Valkyrie nods to the screen. "Big long sea serpent thing. That's supposed to be one of yours, isn't it?"
One of his? Loki lowers his book. The footage they’re showing is shaky, amateurish, clearly captured by some Midgardian who just happened to be passing by. The water is a dark grey but there is no tide. It must be a lake. The banks are just about visible on either side, but that’s not the focus of the camera. Because on top of the lake, in between the floating sheets of ice, there’s something moving. Its form is twisted, snaking underneath the surface of the water, and it’s too long to be captured in a single image. Then part of it emerges from the water, a glimpse of something white glistening like scales as it propels itself further forward, moving at such a speed the voice behind the camera lets out a startled shout and the footage ends.
Loki loses any faint modicum of interest when the screen is replaced with Midgardians narrating their excitement.
"Believe it or not," Loki says, "I have had no hand in this."
“Just like you had no hand with Sleipnir?”
“I found and raised him, it’s hardly my fault if the foal began to regard me with some sort of affection, it’s not as if that’s the same as what’s been more than implied with–”
“So you know what they’re calling the creature, then?”
“Based on what you’ve said, I believe I could take an accurate guess.”
“So you have heard what the Midgardians say about you.”
“Sometimes,” Loki says, “it’s difficult to avoid rumours that have existed about you for over a millenia.”
“Mm.” She reaches for a cushion before nestling it behind her head. “Go on, then.”
“Go on what?”
“I want to hear what you think.”
Loki squints at her.
“Really,” she tries to assure him. “I need a break from either beating the shit out of people at video games or talking about how much I’m gonna beat the shit out of them.” She pauses. “I thought hanging around with Asgard’s king so much would, I don’t know, make me more responsible for other people or something. But,” she says between a strained smile, “it doesn’t. So either I find new ways of entertaining myself or I start drinking again.” Her eyes settle on him. “So start talking.”
“Well…” Loki starts. It’s disconcerting to be the prime subject of such attention. “Assuming the thing in the footage is a creature, it’s hardly deserving of the name they’re giving it. It can’t be of a large enough size to encapsulate the entire realm if it fits inside of a singular lake.”
She leans further back. “Maybe it’s not fully grown yet.”
“Maybe there are ulterior motives for the pretence of its existence.”
She raises an eyebrow after hearing that one. “I’ve not been here for long but I’ve lived here longer than you. If someone is after attention, they’ve chosen a really bad time to get it.”
“And yet wherever the creature is will still profit from those intrigued by it.”
“Iceland,” Valkyrie says and Loki blinks at her. “That lake’s in Iceland. What? I’ve lived here for how long? You start picking up stuff when you’re in one place too long and not drinking.”
Though Thor still seems to have managed, Loki thinks. “So it would seem.”
The front door slams closed. The footsteps are heavy but hurried; they can’t be Thor’s because his are slower and quieter these days and Loki casts an eye to Valkyrie in case this is her doing.
She remains exactly where she is.
“I need your help,” a voice says from the door.
It turns out Loki was wrong. It’s Thor.
Thor is walking into the room and though he doesn’t do it with the same confidence he might’ve done in the years gone past, there’s something in his eyes, like kindling that might catch fire.
If Thor’s surprised by Valkyrie’s presence, he doesn’t show it. He addresses them both: “I need to find passage to Iceland.”
“You can’t possibly be serious,” Loki gets out.
But Thor does not falter. “There’s not much time to explain,” he says. And then, as if they don’t already know: “It’s Jörmungandr.”
"You," Loki says later that evening when they're alone, "are being ridiculous.”
"Why?" Thor asks. "I'm supposed to be one of the people defending Earth, so why would I not?'"
"The creature has nothing to do with us and you know it."
"The humans call it Jörmungandr," Thor states. "Its origins come from the stories and legends they tell of us so I think it does have something to do with us."
"How strange. I don't recall either of us ever having encountered an overgrown sea serpent before. You would have thought that sort of thing would stick in your memory, wouldn't you?"
"Just because it isn't in our past doesn't mean it's not supposed to be in our future."
"If it's supposed to be in our future then we needn't seek it out.”
"There were stories of Hela before we knew she existed. And all the other stories I've heard have some grain of truth to them." Thor realises what he's said and hastily adds, "Though sometimes they get misinterpreted or altered."
"For what it's worth, I am positively certain I haven't given birth to a sea snake. Or," Loki continues, "that I am about to any time soon."
"Even if you aren't in some way involved with the creature's appearance, the creature is still Norse, it's me it's supposed to fight."
No, Loki can’t help but think. It’s you it’s supposed to kill.
"The creature is called Jörmungandr because the humans named it that. Has it not occurred to you why they called it that?" Loki leans forward. "It’s because Jörmungandr is the most infamous story with the barest trace of a link to the creature. Of course it makes sense they name an entirely hypothetical serpent after it."
"You don't... You don't think it's real?"
"There are hundreds and hundreds of possibilities and the creature being genuine is the least likely of them."
Thor's shoulders deflate.
"And the creature being genuinely Nordic," Loki continues, "is even less likely than it being a genuine creature at all."
"But we saw it."
"No," Loki corrects. "We saw supposed footage of it."
“But why would anyone bother faking it?”
"Entertainment. Attention. To attract other humans to visit that region. The reasons are numerous."
“I meant why bother faking it now? Everyone’s so preoccupied with half the population reappearing that they’re not going to care about a sea creature that might or might not exist.”
Loki tries not to let the strangeness of both Valkyrie and Thor offering the same insight deter him. “Perhaps they’re banking on people being desperate to hear about something else. And it would be unwise to not consider the possibility of the sighting being a genuine misighting.”
"What about all the people who disappeared by that lake?"
"Wherever there are people, there are people who disappear. It's hardly surprising that some of the people who visited there remain lost."
"You think this is all a coincidence?"
"I wouldn't rule out the possibility."
"If we were still on Asgard, there was a time when you would have insisted on sending scouts out to ensure the safety of the realm.'"
"We're not on Asgard." The volume of his own voice startles him. Loki waits one second, then two, until the whiplash of his words begins to settle. "We are not responsible for the safety of those who call this realm home."
"Not in writing, no. But I... I joined the Avengers to keep this realm safe."
"Your Avengers tore this world apart far more than I ever did. They have more Midgardian blood on their hands than I ever will. Tell me: where were they when Asgard was in danger? Alliances are not only one-sided. Do you even know where your friends are? Scattered across the world or stranded or worse."
Thor's eyes meet his. There's a sharp focus in them that wasn't there before. "Then this world needs my help more than ever."
Loki almost laughs. "And you think yourself their saviour, do you?"
"What else would you have me do? Sit back and do nothing while innocent people die?"
"These people never chose you. You are foreign to them, you aren't even the same species. It makes no difference how much you pretend to be like them, how much you attempt to emulate their tastes in entertainment or cultural quirks, they never asked you to do that."
"So you're saying I should let people die because they didn't contact me."
"What I'm saying," Loki says and his voice is steadily growing louder and louder again, "is that you're as painfully transparent as you always were. You're assigning yourself a quest because you think by somehow completing it, you'll be rewarded with something greater than this." Loki throws his hands to the walls that surround them. "You think the Midgardians will accept you if you do this one thing for them, that this place will finally start feeling like home, but it won't Thor, no matter how desperately you try, this place will never feel like home."
Loki's panting when he's done and Thor does nothing but stare at him.
"Then I'm still going to help them," Thor says. "With or without you." And there's something so final and resolute about the way he says it that Loki can't offer a single word of protest. It’s also because of the finality of it that Loki’s taken aback when Thor asks, “Are you coming?”