It was madness. He knew it was madness.
In a thought that shimmered like summer sun on the surface of deep water, he realized that that didn't matter anymore. No one was keeping count. No one was left to keep score.
The freedom was tantalizing.
Thor needed him. Now, more than ever. Loki glanced at his brother, where he knelt, bound in the Maw's bands. Thanos would not need Thor dead, but he would demand that Thor be crippled – by grief if nothing else. Heimdall wouldn't be enough. The Titan had already tested his devotion to Thor –I assume you have a preference?– and Loki knew Thanos had been reminded of his every weakness.
His reasoning fell together like chimes blown by the wind. It was suicide.
In that same, dream-like clarity, Loki knew that Thor mattered.
For once, not even his own life mattered like Thor did.
His blood ran erratic and cold in his veins. He could feel his magic fracturing and sparking in his fingers. His breath lurched.
He remembered the smile that had burst to life in Thor's eye – still so blue and so hopelessly optimistic even though it stood alone – when he had come himself to Thor's room.
He longed for the future that they might have had, but the Web of Wyrd pulls tight, and Loki felt it dragging him onward. This was needed of him. It was his fault they were here.
Somehow, the guilt couldn't touch him anymore.
For one moment he closed his eyes.
He was afraid.
But none of that mattered any longer.
Just once, he could be greater than this cowardice.
He took a deep breath.
Then he stood up.
"If I may, interject," he said. "If you are going to Earth, you may need a guide, and I happen to have some experience."
The Titan regarded him passionlessly, then shrugged one great shoulder. "If you consider failure experience."
Irritation flared, flushing his skin, twinging together with his nerves. "I consider experience experience."
He could feel Thor watching him. Gagged. Bound. Panicked.
His memory had shaken free of Thanos' tampering long ago. He remembered the moment Thor had known when he had chosen to let go their father's spear. He remembered Thor's hopeless pleading when he had fallen in Svartalfheim.
Perhaps, this time, Thor could be proud of him.
Softening his voice, Loki drew nearer the Titan. He took a long breath, soothing his pulse as best he could. Perhaps this could work. Perhaps they need not abandon a future that had finally not seemed bleak.
"I, Loki," he said, "Prince of Asgard," he paced forward, "Rightful King of Jotunheim," dropping his eyes, he had to look at Thor, though he knew it might break his nerve. "…Odinson," he said.
"…God of Mischief," Loki lifted his head, meeting the inscrutable eyes of the Mad Titan, "pledge to you, my – undying – fidelity."
He closed the last space between himself, and Thanos, his heart shuddering in his throat and dropped stiffly to his knees. He could feel all his injuries as he moved, and the knife as he brought it forth, shimmering behind his forearm. He dared not look at Thor again. He could only hold the eyes of the Titan and fight to mask his own rising panic. Thor would have to glean what meaning he could.
Thanos just watched him.
His heart throbbed in his throat.
Then anger rose clear of the panic, as the Titan watched him, unanswering. He had remained on his knees, waiting for the approval of another, for too long.
Drawing a quick breath, Loki leapt to his feet, thrusting the knife in his hand towards the soft place in Thanos' throat that the Titan had bared when he removed his helm.
The Tesseract betrayed him, in the end. It mocked him for his arrogance in snatching it from the fires of Asgard. It berated him for his willful manipulation of it all those years ago on Earth.
Thanos had the presence of mind in that moment to utilize the gem and it froze Loki's hand a bare instant before he could strike.
"Undying," Thanos chuckled. He swatted Loki's arm aside, and he couldn't move. Panic flared in his blood. "You should choose your words more carefully."
The gauntlet closed on his throat as Thanos lifted him off the ground.
His breath was all-but stopped and his heart hammered through every vein in his body. He struggled, dragging rasped breaths into his lungs. His vision blurred and flashed and his skin burned. All he could see, was Thanos' smug face. His limbs went heavy, until not even panic could rouse them. He could only hope, through the frenzy, that it would be enough. That it could be enough. That Thanos might think Thor's grief amusement enough.
Loki couldn't breathe and his lungs burned, as Asgard had burned.
He was dying, he could feel it in his limbs, stuttering in his heart.
He couldn't help but spit at Death.
"You will never," he gasped, "be a, god."
Thanos' eyes narrowed in irritation and Loki would have laughed, even as the blackness closed over his eyes.
But Thanos' hand closed.
He opened his eyes, for a moment, blinking at the surface beneath him, disoriented.
Then memory flooded his mind, and his hand flew to his throat. His breath snagged and he choked as he shot up from the ground, scrabbling back because the only thing he knew in that moment was that he had to get away.
"Shh, Loki, it's all right,"
His breath heaved in his chest, filling his lungs again and again, and the light stung his eyes. This wasn't right, it wasn't right – he was sitting on the grass and there was sunlight all around him. This was wrong, how –
He wasn't in any pain.
He raised his head with a quick jerk. Beyond the edge of the cliffs was an ocean. He knew this place. Swallowing thickly, Loki looked down. He did not turn his head to look behind him.
"Thor?" he asked, quietly.
He could feel her where she knelt, just inches away.
"You saved him," she said.
Her voice was soft, and so familiar. His hand twitched, tearing the tender shoots that had tangled around his fingers. Tears pricked his eyes.
"He is with the mortals, now, Loki," she said, "You bought them their chance."
He wanted to look at her. Wanted to accept it. But he wanted to go back. His place was not here, not yet. He untangled the grass from his hand.
He drew a long breath.
She didn't move, but he could feel her there.
Finally, Loki raised his head and he looked. She was more beautiful, even, than he remembered. The wind played lightly through her hair. She was dressed in a gown of palest blue that shone in the thick, vibrant grass, and she watched him.
"Mother," he whispered.
Tears slid onto her face as she opened her arms. "I've missed you," she said.
He wanted to answer her. He wanted to be strong. But all the strength had gone out of him. His breath was heavy in his chest, grief flooding in where there wasn't room anymore for regret. He pressed his lips shut and closed his eyes.
Crooning, she put one arm around his shoulders. He had never expected to see her again. Not even like this. Not even here. Turning, he lay against her, resting his head against the softness of her neck. And the smell of her hair, of her skin, was real. All the intangible things that made her true were there.
He wept, and she cradled the back of his head, humming the songs that had lulled him to sleep as a child.
"I'm so proud of you," she whispered.
Loki raised his head. The light breeze that played over the water was cool on his face, cold in the tracks of the tears that remained. The water flashed in the sunlight, far away and silver blue below the cliffside.
Frigga's hand caressed his shoulder.
Loki looked out over the water, and he said nothing.
"Your father," she said, after some time, "Will be very pleased to see you."
Loki looked at her. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. He only looked at her, at a loss.
Frigga smiled, softly. "There is much he has desired to share with you, Loki."
Wordlessly, Loki dropped her gaze. He looked back out and over the water.
"And," he cleared his throat, "what of Thor?" he asked.
Frigga was silent for several, long moments. Silent with her hand on Loki's shoulder. Gently underneath them, the water murmured. "He will join us," she said, "But in his own time. The Norns still have plans for him."
Loki looked at her, unable to hate anymore the vulnerability in his voice. "But he will come?"
Sliding her hand down his arm, Frigga squeezed his hand. "I'm sure of it."
Breath uneven, Loki looked out over the water. He bowed his head, willing away the pricking of tears.
"It is never truly the end, Loki," she said.
She pressed his hand, and turning his, he took it. Drawing a long breath, he steadied himself. Then he looked at her. "I would like to see Father again."
Tears glittering in her eyes, Frigga smiled.
If you're looking for something a little more up-beat with IW as it's focus, I'm also publishing a story in the Avengers archive. It's called "He Knew I Liked Snakes".