I'm a fool.
Thor hears him again.
He knows by now that it is a dream. It doesn't bother him—not that much, at least. Not enough to force himself to wake up.
Because outside of dreams, there is no other way for him to hear Loki's voice.
Thor doesn't remember where he last was in this fantasy, only that now he finds himself kneeling—again—in dark ashes, bent low as if to shield the ground with his body.
He knows Loki is in his arms without needing to look down.
I'm so sorry—
He doesn't want to dream of this again. Doesn't want to entertain his masochism that toys him with images of Loki he cannot hear, or Loki's voice he cannot find, or Loki's presence he cannot feel, because his dreams were no longer meant to make-believe as reality. But he doesn't try to wake himself up, because he still remembers Loki's voice, and that in itself is a painful relief.
"It's all right," Thor says again.
He looks down. Loki is in his arms, gray-faced and wide-eyed as short, sharp breaths escape his thin lips. He feels so light in Thor's hands. Thor tries hard not to squeeze, not to concentrate on how he cannot truly feel Loki, or else his mind would realize it did not trick itself and force him awake.
Thor reaches a hand to cup Loki's face. He thinks of other words he could say, other truths he ought to relay, anything else that he could have done better before he let his brother die in his arms for his sake, but every time he tries to say a word he can only sob.
I'm so sorry, Thor—
Thor bends low to hug Loki closer to him, just to feel him against his chest and dear God if only he could save him. Because it is so damn pathetic that even in his dreams, where he can be the god of his own mind, he still cannot keep Loki from dying. He never can.
He tries not to squeeze his eyes shut. He wants to cry.
"Loki," Thor says.
Thor, Thor, look, Thor—
Thor is suddenly standing, empty-armed. He is in the Midgardian city—London. There are no ashes here, no black sands. No whipping, stinging wind.
He turns. There is the large clock tower. Over there, the university hall. And there, just beyond, he can see the large wheel. Familiarity.
Have you ever gone on it?
Loki is standing beside him, pointing at the London Eye. He wears none of his armor, his hair is clean. There is no dark hole in his chest.
Thor almost answers. Loki grins with such ease, expecting an answer, as if none of this was so abnormal, even in a dream's standard.
"How long will you haunt me?" Thor says.
This is not the first time he asks this. Regardless, he does not think he will mind the time.
Will you ever forget me?
Thor pauses, then laughs.
What is it?
"You've never been here, have you?" says Thor.
He knows Loki hasn't, and never will, but he takes Loki's arm and takes him around the city, to see this new town and new life, as he has done countless times in countless other dreams before. It is some sort of wistful hunger, a desire—just to take his brother and show him around his new home—and reality is already so broken that it can never happen.
The dream changes. He and Loki are standing on the edge of a shattered Bifrost. Loki looks down at the swirling mass of stars where the Observatory had fallen into, leaning over the edge dangerously. Thor tries to cling to Loki's shoulder, to keep him steady. Loki keeps slipping from his fingers.
Loki looks back. His face is young. Thor nearly does not recognize it.
Would I still be dead if this went differently?
Thor wants to answer, but he does not know. He is afraid to say no, and afraid to say yes. Because the answer hardly matters when Loki is already dead.
Thor is in Svartalfheim again, all of a sudden. He stands in the ashes, but this time, he sees himself. Like a ghost, he sees himself holding Loki in frightened, shaking arms. Thor never realized how small Loki is compared to him until now.
He watches himself cry as Loki stammers, as Loki bleeds and his hands shake.
I know, I'm a fool—
I'm a fool—
He wills himself to hug Loki closer, to tell Loki that he loves him, to press a kiss on his forehead. He wonders why his past self has never thought of such small but meaningful acts of love before. It's too late now.
He watches his dream-self do what he wishes he truly had done. Press lips against a pale forehead, hold the bleeding form close to his heart. His heart bursts with a strange jealousy.
Loki's eyes are slipping close for the last time. Thor tries to close his own—he does not want to see this, see Loki take his last breath again. But he has no eyelids to close and no gaze to turn away, and he watches—again—as Loki's head falls back and eyes close, and how his other self would shake Loki to no avail, and scream.
Thor almost has time to will his other self to lift Loki into his arms before the black wind could pick up, to carry his brother's body with him so he could take him back to Asgard and not leave it in this stranger's land so far from home—but before he can, he wakes.
It is cold. Thor is lying on his left side—he never sleeps on his left side. He always found it harder to breathe that way.
He opens his eyes. It is still dark—the timepiece on the coffee table reads three in the morning. The night is still long, and young.
He still can see Loki in the back of his mind. His stomach churns and he pulls the covers over his head. It is strangely comforting, but only just.
He stays like so for perhaps ten minutes, waiting for Loki's memory to subside to a low simmer, so that it only scorches him a little. Then he throws the blankets off as if they are chains and stumbles off of the couch he was sleeping on.
His neck hurts. He rubs it, wincing.
There is a low rumble of thunder. He tries to restrain it, guilt pricking the back of his mind. He can't stop it, though. He is (was) never like Loki, who could hide emotions like all that is needed is a curtain drawn to close the window to the heart. If Thor must be strong, then so will his storms.
He drags himself to the tiny kitchen and turns on the light. There is nothing to distract himself in the fridge, except he doesn't have the stomach to take in anything. He fills a glass with tap water and drains it quickly. And then another cup.
It begins to rain—softly, slowly, then all at once. He tells himself that it isn't his fault. It only rains harder.
He goes back to the living room where he sleeps and turns on a lamp. The sofa's cushions are massively indented from his sleeping form; he kicks them back into shape and sits on the floor.
He rubs his still stiff neck. It thunders—it is soft, and muffled, like a yawn.
(I'm so sorry—)
It's like trying to recall an old lullaby from a childhood that might as well not be his own. Thor cannot believe that he can only hear that voice inside his head, and not his ears anymore.
He suppresses a shudder. His heart feels like it is twisting.
Thor turns his head. Jane is at the doorway to the small hallway of their shared flat. After Thor made it known to SHIELD that he is stationing himself on Earth, they provided him his own flat in London and necessities for surviving. Still, he finds himself in Jane's own flat more often than not when he is afraid of his shadow more than he hates the dark.
"Hello," he says to her.
Jane comes and sits down next to him on the floor, a fleece blanket around her shoulders. Thor stares at the blank television screen before him. His arms itch, and he runs his hand over them. He keeps feeling like they are carrying some burden, or at least they should.
"You okay?" she said.
"I can't fall asleep," he says. "That's all."
A groan of thunder over their heads. Jane presses her lips together. She watches his face carefully. He still looks forward, at the blank screen that he expects to see his reflection, but apparently this is not the same as a mirror, and he only sees blank gray.
"You've had another nightmare again," she says, "didn't you?"
Thor says nothing. Jane puts a small hand on his back, rubbing small circles between his shoulders. He takes in a deep breath, and it must have been too big because it makes his chest ache.
"I'm sorry," he says.
"No, no," she says. "You have absolutely nothing to be sorry about. I'm sorry, Thor." Her voice softens. "I'm so sorry."
The rims of his eyes burn. He can still see how Loki's eyes had slipped close, and how he stopped breathing and stopped moving and stopped living.
"It has already been a month," Thor says. "Why does it feel like it was only yesterday?"
"There's nothing wrong with it still hurting," Jane says. "It'll take a while, and that's okay."
Like a child, Thor wraps his arms around his legs. He hugs them tight, trying to relieve that emptiness in his touch that he cannot fill again, because when he returned to Svartalfheim after the battle he couldn't find Loki's body again. He feels like a failure.
"This is the second time, Jane," says Thor. "This is the second time I just let him die."
"You didn't let him die," Jane says.
But he did, and Thor does not understand why Jane doesn't realize that, because when Heimdall declared Loki alive after his fall from the Bifrost, Thor thought that finally, surely, he had a second chance to make it all right, that he could pull Loki out of that Void that was his mind—Thor had been given that second chance, and Loki had died again because of Thor, and there is nothing left.
"Did I wake you?" Thor says.
"No," she says. "Don't worry about me." She grips his shoulder. Her hands are so small that they can barely grasp his shoulder. "What can I do for you now?"
"I don't know," says Thor.
He knows he should sleep—he has to wake up early to go to the SHIELD base at London. He needs his energy. But he doesn't want to keep dreaming, if all it will do is make him wake up wishing reality isn't actually all there is.
"Jane," says Thor.
Jane raises her head to him. He swallows hard, then swallows again.
"He looked so frightened when I held him, Jane," Thor says. His voice suddenly shakes. He can't help it—he claps his hand over his mouth. "He looked so frightened and in pain and I couldn't do anything, I couldn't even bring him back home—"
She holds him tight and rocks him as he crumples. Cradles his head as he shakes, as he nearly crushes her in his arms because he cannot stop feeling the frail weight that was his brother's body.
"You've been so strong, Thor," Jane says. She is crying for him. He wishes she would cry for Loki, too. "You've been so strong this whole time, Thor, it's okay to still grieve. It still hurts, but that's okay."
Thor doesn't know why he cannot put his brother's memory to rest. He has had little time to put his mother's to rest either, and even with Jane holding him he feels so alone.
I wonder if I could have ever saved you.
It still hurts.
Like a splinter embedded in skin. It stings, but he can't pick it out, and he knows it will only get worse.
He unconsciously keeps his unfamiliarly calloused, weathered hand just below his chest, where it twinges. Still, he keeps his back straight, so no one will see something amiss. As if he is only keeping a straight-shouldered stance.
His magic shudders. He feels it in his core.
He pretends it is nothing. He only has enough time to convince himself that before it is all too obvious.
(Loki died with honor—)
He hides a laugh.
He still can feel Thor's hand cradling his neck.
Died with honor, and yet—
Loki turns his head veiled with Odin's visage. The Lady Sif and Volstaag stand before him, the small metal box held tightly in Sif's hands. He tries not to smile at her. He tightens his grip on Gungnir.
"Do you truly mean to give the Aether up to another's care?" she says.
He wonders if she doubts him. She always seems to doubt his role as king. He supposes—in hindsight—it is odd to Sif, undoubtedly, that the All-Father would imprison her and the Warriors Three for treason only to be released with an important task. But Loki has no interest in keeping a front. There is very little wrong with a little more chaos.
"Yes," he says. His voice hurts when he mimics Odin. "Our vaults can only be home to so much power. What wisdom is there to keep the Tesseract and the Infinity Gauntlet in the same place as it?"
He remembers the Void. He still feels the electrifying pain of the Other's touch. The horror of something sweeter than pain.
He will not let fear of Thanos control him any longer.
"And the Collector?" says Sif. "He will keep guard of it? He has no army to defend it."
What good is an army, Loki wants to say, in the face of Thanos? One cannot wage a war with Thanos and expect to win—Loki can only set him on a wild goose chase, and watch him dance for as long as possible, until Thanos is crushed into fine dust and ruin just as he had crushed Loki.
"It is safer in the hands of a spoiled child than that of a warring king," says Loki.
His gaze lingers on the Aether—sometimes he wonders how it feels to have that power thrum in his veins. To have the touch to bend reality however he wills it.
He takes a breath. Feels the splinter in his bones.
He wonders if he would change anything at all, if he had the power.
But unlimited power is nothing but a trinket now. It cannot help him anymore, even if he would let it.
"As you wish, my liege," Sif says.
She and Volstaag place their fists across their chests. For a moment Loki basks in this warmth of thinly deserved honor, this power to be able to hold the realms' fate in balance as an Infinity Gem leaves the Vault—except he feels weary and this body he moves feels like he is trying to stretch tight rubber, and this honor and power and throne are nothing but props, gilded wood that digs into his skin and hurts.
When they turn to leave, he sinks into the throne. He tries not to smile—even harder not to laugh, because the world thinks him dead and yet he plays its pieces until the world will not play out the same if it was not for him.
His breath suddenly falls short. He closes his eyes and swallows, and tastes the ghost of blood.
(—died with honor—)
Loki feels Thor's hand cradling his neck, and he smiles in spite of himself.
He almost reaches behind his neck just to feel if anything was truly there.
He is free to remain or to find the ends of this reality, and yet he knows he cannot stay away any longer.