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Oh, Hey There, Mister Blue

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Thanos’ ship is empty.

Gamora would have expected at least a battalion of soldiers surrounding it, and more inside to guard whatever lay within.

But instead the ship has been left completely unmanned, the entrance locked but easy to bypass — it took Stark only a few short minutes to hack into the ship’s door controls and get them inside. She doesn't like this, and judging from Thor’s and Stark’s silence, neither do they.

“There’s likely to be nothing of value here,” she says, though she knows they are both smart enough to have gathered that much. “Much less any of the stones. But we still have to be sure.”

“It could be a trap,” Thor warns.

“It could,” Gamora agrees, but she doesn’t look back at either of them as she steps into the ship.

They follow shortly after, as she knew they would. Between the three of them, they can probably handle whatever Thanos has left here, soldiers or traps or anything else.

“No one on board but us,” Stark speaks up, and she turns to raise an eyebrow at him. He isn’t looking at her, instead turning his gaze upward as if he can see through the ceiling and into the many halls of the ship. It’s only a second later that Gamora remembers he actually can, in a way. “No heat signatures, no pulse readings… Wait.”

He pauses, and Gamora wishes she could read his expression past that never-changing, always vaguely angry looking mask. She knows he needs it for protection — needs all of the suit for protection, given the fragility of Terran bodies — but that makes it no less off-putting.

“What is it?” Thor asks, and Gamora crosses her arms over her chest.

“There’s no heat signature, but I’m picking up a pulse,” he says. “It’s weak, but it’s there. Maybe another kind of alien without body heat?”

“It’s weak?” Gamora asks. The suit nods, and she sighs, her heart sinking with that too-familiar disappointment at another life lost. “It’s not a soldier. Thanos would never leave just one behind to guard the ship. It’s probably a prisoner. A dying one, if he left it here alone.”

She chews on the inside of her cheek. Her bedside manner is nothing to envy, but…

“Where?” she asks.

“Two floors up, starboard side,” Stark tells her, pointing.

“I’ll take care of it,” she decides. “Thor, you search the captain’s quarters and storage. Stark, the engine rooms.”

Stark sends her a fleeting look she doesn’t like because she can’t see it, and Thor gives her a look she likes even less because she can see it. But they both follow her lead for the same reason they've followed her here; she knows Thanos better than anyone, and she has proven the value of her judgement several times over in the little time they've known her. They do as she says, and if Thor hangs back a second too long, she pretends not to notice.

When they’re gone, she makes her way up to where Stark indicated.

She knows the two of them have good intentions, stupidly noble hearts. They’re like Peter that way, and she’s taken a liking to both of them in spite of herself because of it.

But that is exactly why she can’t trust either of them to make the decision that might await her upstairs. Thanos never leaves a prisoner behind if they are strong enough to even attempt escape, and in all likelihood, the creature upstairs was left behind to die. And that leaves her tasked with putting it out of its misery.

When she ascends the two floors, she finds herself at the head of a hallway lined with cells.

She slowly and silently walks down the hall, one hand on her sword as she glances into each cell, just in case this is some sort of convoluted trap. It’s not Thanos’ style, but Gamora is not one to make assumptions and take stupid risks.

Once she finds him, though, her grip on her sword slackens.

She sighs. It’s not a soldier, or a guard, or anyone she has to fear. The prisoner that lies before her is most definitely a prisoner, and by the look of him, her suspicion is confirmed. There aren’t many creatures that could survive what this one seems to have been through.

She is going to have to take one more life today after all, and she is not thrilled about it.

Gamora can see him plainly through the glass cell wall, huddled in the back corner, and the quick once-over she gives him is nothing but reflex. Terran, maybe, she thinks, though a lot of species look that way. Unconscious and barely breathing. His black hair is damp and sticking to his skin with sweat or blood or both. There are more cuts and scrapes on him than she cares to count, one across his hairline and several all over his face, and more, she suspects, where she can’t see. His left cheekbone is broken. She can tell by the pattern of the bruising, ugly black and yellow against pale skin.

Her eyes drift to the blackened skin ringing his neck, then to the visibly broken leg, and then finally to the real cause of his condition — a deep, dark red soaking into his shirt right at the center of his abdomen. His wrists are bound, and his hands lay over the wound as if he was trying futilely to stop the bleeding not too long ago. But she knows the stomach must have been pierced, allowing stomach acid into the abdominal cavity.

A slow death and, if he were conscious, a painful one.

This is not the work of Thanos, she thinks. Not directly. It's too personal, too vindictive, too passionate. This sort of treatment just screams of the Black Order, and at that thought Gamora feels another twinge of sympathy for this stranger.

No one deserves that.

She sets her jaw and turns her attention to the lock. She’s familiar with a good deal of the tech on Thanos’ ship, but nevertheless it takes her a fair amount of effort and several minutes to crack it. Still, eventually the system gives way, and the sheer cell wall disappears, retracting up and into the ceiling.

She steps into the cell, slowly approaching the corner and crouching down in front of him.

His breath is coming in slow and ragged, each exhale more tremulous than the one before it, and it’s only now that she’s so close that she realizes he is conscious. His breath is too uneven for unconsciousness. Her eyebrows raise; this Terran-like man is stronger than she gave him credit for, apparently.

His eyes flutter open, but just barely.

“It’s alright,” she says, watching the way his fingers twitch. It’s a movement she knows well, an involuntary reach for a weapon or anything he can use to defend himself, but he’s far too weakened to actually do it. “Rest. I’m not going to hurt you.”

He still isn’t looking directly at her, either because he lacks the strength to lift his head or because avoiding eye contact is a habit after his torture under Thanos and his remaining children. He takes in another of those shaky breaths and says one word, his voice impossibly hoarse.

“… Lying.”

Gamora’s brow furrows. “Come again?”

“Know… a lie,” he breathes, “… when I… hear it.”

“You think I’m going to hurt you?”

He closes his eyes, apparently too exhausted to keep them open, but he gives a barely perceptible nod as he lets his head fall against the wall beside him. She frowns and looks down at his stomach, where his bloodied hands still rest over the wound that’s slowly but surely killing him.

“I’ll be blunt, then,” she tells him, though she can hear a gentleness in her own voice that betrays her words. “Your wounds are going to kill you, in time. It will be painful, and slow. Thanos wanted it that way.”

He doesn’t flinch at the sound of Thanos’ name, and she finds herself becoming more impressed with him by the minute.

His passing will be a shame, she thinks.

“But I am no friend of Thanos. I can end this,” she says. “I can end the pain, right here and now. I know how to end a life quickly and without pain. But I will only do it if you tell me that’s what you want.”

He doesn’t respond, and for a moment she’s unsure whether he has actually fallen unconscious now. His breathing is more even, more calm.

“Is that what you want?” she presses.

Finally, he responds. It’s a small nod, his head barely moving against the support of the wall, because she doubts he has the strength for anything else.

But again, he surprises her. His eyes open just enough that he can look into her eyes, and she feels a flicker of something ethereal reaching between them, a connection that makes the hairs at the back of her neck stand on end — a sort of power like the kind that Mantis has, perhaps. And then she hears the prisoner’s voice in her head, only slightly stronger than it sounded when he was speaking aloud.

Thank you, he says. You’re saving more than one life, doing this.

As much as she hates the feeling of having someone else in her head, she gives him a pass, given the circumstances. She offers him a small, sad smile as his eyes close again.

Gamora reaches out and moves some of the hair from his face. It’s a simple gesture, barely remembered from a time before Thanos ever found her, to give this man one last kind touch before he passes.

As she lowers her hand to reach for her sword, though, she hears footsteps approaching. Someone is coming down the hall, and there’s no loud clanking of metal on metal, so it’s not Stark in his suit. Damn it, she thinks. It’s either Thor, who will complicate this and draw it out, or it’s an enemy, who will also complicate this and draw it out but will at least give her something to take her aggression out on in the meantime.

No such luck. She looks over her shoulder and feels the static energy that always seems to hang around the God of Thunder before she sees him.

Thor steps in front of the cell empty-handed, though Gamora expected that none of them would find anything in their search anyway, and he looks first at her and then to the prisoner.

… And he promptly looks like someone has punched him in the chest.

“Loki,” he says, and his tone leaves absolutely no doubt in Gamora’s mind that this is about to get much more difficult. Because Thor knows this poor man. He wastes no time in closing the distance between them, dropping to one knee at Gamora’s side and reaching out to lay a hand on the prisoner’s forearm. His eyes scan over the man’s numerous injuries. His voice is so quiet when he next speaks that she almost doesn’t hear it. “Oh, Loki, what have they done to you?”

“He’s been tortured,” Gamora tells him, though that much is obvious. She hesitates before continuing, but decides nothing good will come of sugarcoating this. “I’m going to put him out of his misery.”

Without warning a spark of electricity arcs from Thor’s back and pops, loudly, in the air behind him. Gamora’s eyes widen.

“You will do no such thing,” he practically growls, his voice suddenly darker than she’s ever heard it, and out of habit she almost bites back at him, almost gets angry.

But by the look on his face when he saw the prisoner — Loki, apparently — he’s close to him, and she pauses, tries to imagine herself in Thor’s place, tries to imagine someone she cares for in Loki’s place. It’s not difficult to picture; she sees it enough in her nightmares.

She sighs.

“Thor, I’m sorry, but his wounds are going to kill him either way. If we do nothing, all it does for him is draw out his pain.”

“His wounds won’t kill him,” he says. “He’s Asgardian. He’s healed from worse than this.”

Gamora blinks, eyes wide. Asgardian?  She shoots a confused look at Loki, who still has yet to reopen his eyes. If he really is Asgardian, than he must know his wounds aren't fatal, however painful they might be.

And yet he gave her permission to kill him, even thanked her for it.

Before she can voice any of that, though, again she hears someone else coming to interrupt them. And this time she does hear the clanking of Stark’s boots. She doesn’t even turn around as Stark approaches from the end of the hall, and neither does Thor — though Gamora doubts he’s capable of looking at anything other than Loki at the moment.

“So who do we…” Stark begins to say as he steps in front of the cell, but his voice cuts off when he catches sight of the scene before him. He lets out a slow breath and a muttered curse, followed by the sound of his faceplate opening up, and his voice is far clearer when he says, “… Well. Shit. Can’t say I saw that one coming. The hell happened to him?”

Thor hasn’t acknowledged Stark’s presence, but as he moves forward to continue trying to wake Loki, Gamora stands and dusts off her legs.

“Thanos happened to him,” she explains.

“But he’s already got the Tesseract,” Stark says, his brow furrowed. “What else could Loki have that Thanos needed to get out of him?”

“This wasn’t because Thanos had anything to gain from Loki,” Thor says, his voice low, still not turning to look at either of them. “This was retribution.”

Gamora frowns. “Retribution for what?”

“For keeping the Tesseract hidden as long as he did,” Thor says. He sighs, brushing Loki’s hair back like Gamora had done. “He’s not waking.”

Without another word he moves to lift Loki up, carefully avoiding the worst of his injuries.

“Thor,” Stark says. “Wait.”

Oh, and Gamora does not care for the tone in his voice. She does not like the way Thor’s entire body tenses up, either, nor the way the air suddenly seems to crackle around them, buzzing with even more energy than it usually does around Thor.

“Do not test me, Stark,” Thor warns. And out of all the people Gamora has met on this planet, Thor has the uncanny ability to pack his words more full of emotion than the rest of them combined. He doesn’t need to raise his voice past a whisper.

“I’m— I’m not, just… listen,” Stark says. “Think about what we're dealing with here. This empty ship? Thanos just… leaving your brother here, beaten half to hell, unguarded, where he should have expected us to come looking for the stones? I don’t like it. And you wouldn’t either, if you were thinking straight.”

“You’re saying it’s a trap,” Gamora says, and she has to admit, he has a point.

“I’m saying… we need to think about this,” says Stark. “We can’t afford to make mistakes here, and just scooping Loki up and taking him back to the tower really feels like a mistake.”

“Well, then, by all means, Stark,” Thor says, and he continues to lift Loki up as though he had never been interrupted. It’s awkward, Loki being nearly as tall as his brother is, but Thor manages to get one arm under his legs and another under his torso. He slowly stands, gently shifting his brother in his arms so that Loki’s head falls listlessly against Thor’s shoulder. As he turns to face them, he sets his unyielding gaze on Stark and says, “Feel free to stop me.”

Stark frowns at him, and Gamora almost thinks he's going to take up the challenge. Her hand drifts to the hilt of her sword.

“You know I’m not gonna fight you,” Stark tells him.

“You’re not moving out of my way, either.”

There's a beat of silence in which it seems like this might actually come to blows if Gamora doesn't interrupt them. So she does.

“He asked me to kill him.”

That’s enough to break the intense staredown between Thor and Stark, and their shocked faces turn straight to her. Gamora doesn’t care; she avoids their stares and looks down at Loki’s unresponsive face.

“When I found him like this, I told him I could give him a quick death to end the pain, because— I thought, anyway, that his wounds were bound to kill him on their own. Thanos likes to give his torture victims a slow death when he’s done with them,” she explains. She glances up at Thor. “I asked his permission first, and he gave it. He… did something, got his voice in my head, and he told me I was saving more than one life by killing him.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Thor asks.

“Well that's obvious, isn’t it?” Stark asks. “It means there's something rotten in Denver. There's something up here we don't know about, but apparently he does, and whatever it is, it's bad enough that he thinks he's better off dead. He wanted someone to kill him. That doesn't ring any alarms?”

“If you intend to kill my brother, Stark, you'll have to go through me.”

“Seriously,” he shoots back, annoyance clear in his voice. “You think I want to kill him?”

“You have no business implying it if you can't do it yourself.”

“Jesus, I’m not implying any of us kill him!” Stark all but shouts.

“So what's the alternative? We leave him here to await further torture? Is that what you would have me do?”

“Of course not,” Gamora cuts in before Stark can answer and further escalate this argument that they already don't have time for. In truth, she’s not entirely sure that leaving him isn’t what Stark is suggesting, but whatever weird history is here between these three, Gamora has a feeling that Stark would sooner accept a better solution than leave Loki in Thanos’ hands. “We just don’t take him back to where the others are. We take him somewhere safe, where Thanos can’t find him, and where he can’t be of any use if he turns out to be… a spy, or whatever other danger that Thanos has made him into.”

“Where?” Thor asks, and he no longer looks angry as he looks to Gamora. All she sees in his face now is worry, and some hesitance, the same look he had when they first pulled him onto their ship.

“I don't know,” she admits.

“The tower’s got more security than you can shake a stick at, but Thanos would see that coming a mile away,” says Stark, and Gamora has to admit she's relieved that he has indeed jumped at the opportunity to provide a better solution. Again, stupidly noble hearts, the both of them. “So the tower’s out, and any place connected to it is a bad bet, and any place he recognizes is probably a bad bet, too.”

“Our ship.”

Again both of them turn to stare at her, and Stark asks, “You think that's safe?”

Gamora nods, crossing her arms over her chest. “It’s somewhere he wouldn’t recognize. So even if he has some way of contacting Thanos, he won’t know where he is or who anyone on the ship is. We can remain on the move to stay well out of Thanos' reach. Plus the ship is heavily armed and manned and shielded in the event he tries to escape, or in the event Thanos sends anyone after him.”

“And if he's—” Stark begins to say. He shoots a furtive glance toward Thor before apparently checking his wording, and he asks, “If something's up with him?”

“Does he really look in any shape to pose a danger to any of us?”

Stark pauses for a beat and then gives a little tilt of his head. “Yeah, that’s fair.”

“You're sure?”

It's the first input Thor's given since asking where they should take him, and Gamora glances down at Loki again, still supposedly out cold in Thor's arms. She suspects he's not entirely unconscious — not that he's faking it, just that he is too exhausted and weak to indicate otherwise.

Maybe he can hear them, she thinks.

She wonders if maybe Thanos can hear them, too.

“I’ve been one step ahead of Thanos for years,” she says, eyes still on Loki. “If he thinks he can use this one to get the better of me now, he must be losing his edge. I’m sure.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Death feels nothing like Loki would have expected.

The Zehoberei woman spoke the truth. She did, evidently, know how to end a life without causing pain. He never even felt the killing blow.

Well, that, or she was another of Thanos’ tricks. She may never have dealt the blow at all. She could have been just another way to give him false hope, another way for the Black Order to continually play with their food. She could have offered and then waited for him to lose consciousness, only for him to awaken hours later to the same torment he's been barely enduring for… days, weeks, he isn't sure.

He tries not to think about that. It's not difficult: his exhaustion makes it nearly impossible to think about much of anything for a very long time.

And in any case, he must be dead. He must be. The hand that gently moved his hair from his face felt too much like Frigga’s, the sound of someone saying his name sounded too much like the Allfather’s. Loki doesn't know why he would ever have ended up in the same afterlife as they did, but he's too weak, too grateful, too exhausted to bother questioning it.

And then there's the warmth — all he knows is absolute, enveloping warmth that seeps into his bones, chases away the ever present chill, distracts him from the pain that hasn't yet left him.

Is this a part of dying?

He never wants the warmth to leave.

Thank you, he thinks, and he doubts he's ever been more grateful for anything in his centuries of existence.

He hasn’t got the slightest idea whether he will have any power in the afterlife, whether he will be able to affect the living in any capacity, but he resolves to do something nice for that Zehoberei woman, if he can.

The last thing he's aware of before the darkness takes him is a voice, felt more than heard, deep and too muffled for him to make out words. It brings to mind a nearly forgotten memory, a time when he was just a child, when he had gotten hurt due to his and Thor's (but, admittedly, mostly his) mischief, and the Allfather lifted him up into his arms and carried him to safety. He remembers no details of the incident, just how the Allfather’s deep voice rumbled in his chest as he scolded Loki for his thoughtlessness.

And then the voice fades away, and Loki allows the darkness to swallow him up, carrying him off into a nothingness that is positively blissful.

 


 

It doesn't last long.

The pain is the first thing that registers, the return of the pain, the sharp burn in his stomach and the throb in his leg and the aches and stings everywhere else and, worst of all, the echo of Thanos’ grip like scalding talons digging into his mind, carving searing holes in his consciousness.

Then comes the confusion, because the pain should have left him, all feeling should have left him as he died, which can only mean he hasn’t died at all—

That woman, she was a trick. She never truly intended to kill him. He can hear nothing past his pulse hammering away in his head, a pulse that was supposed to have stopped, and now that it hasn’t Thanos can still reach him, can still inflict whatever miseries he sees fit, can still use him to— to—

For the first time in a very long time, Loki panics.

He opens his eyes to the dark red ceiling of some unknown room, and a startled shout comes from somewhere to his right. A flash of magic bursts from within him, wild and uncontrolled, and he glances to his right just in time to see a huge man of a species he doesn’t recognize — not Midgardian or Asgardian, though, he knows that much — go flying through the air and hit the opposite wall with a yell and a dull smack.

The stranger recovers quickly, but not quickly enough— wait, no. It shouldn’t have been quickly enough, Loki thinks. He should be quicker than this great muscle-bound oaf, but he’s too injured, too weak. He scrambles to his feet, stumbling for a moment as he realizes he can't bear any weight whatsoever on his left leg, and the hulking creature is already nearly on top of him.

Loki ducks out of the way of the man’s arm and weaves around him, delivering a swift elbow to his opponent’s side. He brings his other hand up to the back of the man’s head, drawing forth what little energy he has left, trying to break into this stranger’s mind and open up whatever secrets he can — why am I here who are you what is this place why are you doing Thanos’ bidding

He briefly sees the bright eyed, small face of a child the same species as the man he’s fighting, grey skin with sharp red markings, and he feels a tightness in his chest and the horrible, soul crushing sense of loss, and he’s felt this pain before, or he thought he did, when his mother was killed, but this is so much worse—

The image is gone as quickly as it came, because someone else has joined the fray. Loki is aware of a pair of arms around his waist and a shoulder in his ribs just before he is pushed to the floor in a tangle of limbs.

“Quill! Be careful!”

Whoever just tackled him hastily moves away, and for one heart-stopping moment Loki mistakes the broad shoulders and light hair for someone else, but this one is a stranger, too, though at least of a species he recognizes. Midgardian, definitely.

And then he sees her. His eyes move to the woman standing in the doorway, drawn to all the chaos, green skin and dark hair and one hand on the sword at her hip.

Loki launches himself at her. He’s on his feet, or one of them anyway, in half a second, and in the next he closes half the distance between him and the woman who promised to kill him

The Midgardian and the grey man are on him, each grabbing a hold of one of his arms. Another burst of magic gets them off of him for just a moment.

It’s all he needs. He reaches the woman and tries to attack, tries to reach for her sword.

But she is far too fast, impossibly fast. She effortlessly dodges his blow, grabs a hold of his arm, and whirls him around until she has him pinned, chest-first, into the wall. She has one hand tight on his arm, the other cool and tense on the back of his neck.

“It’s alright,” she says. The same words she spoke to him in his cell. This time it sounds more genuine than the last, but all that does is confuse him.

“Gamora, be careful! He has some kind of magic.”

“I know, Drax,” says the Zehoberei woman, and now at least Loki has a name. Gamora. “Mantis, there you are. Help me out here.”

End it, Loki thinks. I’m not fighting back anymore. Just end it.

Another hand is on the back of his head, just above where Gamora’s is still on his neck, and a new voice — Norns, how many of them are there? — says, “Sleep.”

It’s impossible to fight.

He sleeps.

 


 

When he next wakes, the pain is slightly less. Slightly.

Now Thanos’ hold on his mind feels… not gone, not quite, but reserved, if only for the moment. The gaping wounds in his consciousness, once sharp and searing, have receded to a dull headache at the base of his skull and a pounding behind his eyes.

It is useless to try and understand why Thanos does anything, least of all why he would allow Loki’s mind a moment of relative peace now, so Loki doesn’t try. Instead, he tries to assess his situation. He is lying on something flat, not quite a bed, but something close. There is a steady beeping coming from somewhere nearby. Somewhere else, not very far, he hears the crunch of distorting metal.

“Don't— hey, hey, stop eating that!” someone shouts. “Spit it out! Sheesh.

“What did he try to eat?” asks a voice that sounds… strangely familiar. Deep and gravelly.

“I am Groot.”

“No, not nothing! Where in the hell did ya learn to lie like that, Groot?”

“I am Groot.”

“You did not learn that from me.”

“What did he try to eat?”

“The frickin’ alternator. Look, it's all dented now.”

“I am Groot.”

“Aw, see that?” says another, entirely new voice. “He's sorry, Rocket. Try being a little gentler on him, would ya?”

Ugh. Look, I’m tryin’ to get us enough firepower to fight a frickin’ Titan and his damn monster army — on top of holding a maybe mind controlled As-frickin’-gardian on our ship, so I'm just sayin’, it'd be helpful, if my supplies wouldn't get eaten all the damn time.”

Holding an Asgardian.

They’re talking about him, about building up firepower to use against him.

The steady beeping that's been here since he regained conscious suddenly begins to pick up speed, and Loki realizes a second too late that it's coming from a heart rate monitor. A heart rate monitor attached to him.

He opens his eyes — his captors will know soon enough that he's woken, so he might as well get an understanding of his surroundings while he still can — and comes face to face with a pair of huge, dark eyes that are entirely too close to his own.

“Oh!” cries the creature in front of him, a woman with antennas protruding from her forehead. As his own eyes widen and he tries to move away — only to find his wrists bound to the bed he's found himself on — she adds, “He is awake!”

“Ah, shit, that was fast.”

“Mantis, give the guy a little space.”

The woman named Mantis quickly steps back, allowing Loki to take in the rest of his surroundings.

… And if he weren’t hopelessly confused already, well. He is now.

Before him stands the most motley assortment of species he's ever seen. There’s that Midgardian who rammed into his side and knocked him to the floor during his last fight to escape, watching him with wary eyes from just a few feet away, standing beside Mantis. In the back corner of the room is a Flora colossus, but a young one, not nearly fully grown yet, standing next to some sort of small furry thing. A cat? A monkey? Loki has no idea, and he doesn't bother trying to guess. The huge grey man from before is there, too, sitting beside the Flora colossus and sharpening a dagger on his lap… Loki tries to remember his name, and fails. Clear, coherent thought is something that drifts just out of his reach at the moment.

The woman who was supposed to kill him stands against the far wall, her arms crossed over her chest.

He tugs at the restraints once, but decides he'll wait until he's less outnumbered before he truly tests if he can break them.

“What is this?” he asks, and his throat is absolute agony, but that pain is nothing new. He presses on, “Who the hell are all of you?”

The furry creature gives a snort that sounds entirely too much like a laugh, and then it actually speaks.

“Damn, guess they are related.”

Loki stares at it with wide eyes for a moment, but he shakes off the initial shock. So the little beast is the one who was yelling about someone eating alternators. At least it doesn’t take long to deduce who was eating them. The Flora colossus has already picked up another piece of metal and is chewing on it quietly, seeming to have gathered that no one’s attention is on him anymore.

We are the unlucky a-holes that got stuck babysittin’ your ass,” the furry one says, addressing him directly now and pointing at him with what appears to be a tiny wrench.

“What Rocket means,” says the Midgardian with the air of a peace keeper, his hands on his hips, “is we’re here to keep Thanos off you. You’ll be safe here while you heal up, so long as you don’t go attacking us every ten minutes.”

Loki’s brow furrows.

“Keep Thanos off me?” he asks, struggling past the rawness of his throat. His first instinct is to detect a lie, but the Midgardian might as well be radiating sincerity.

That's worse, he thinks. All of these people, if they truly are trying to help him, they’re already doomed. They were doomed from the moment they dragged him onto this ship.

“… You’re,” he tries to say, coughs, and tries again. “You’re all either… incredibly arrogant... or incredibly stupid.”

“Eh. Bit of both,” says the Midgardian, shrugging one shoulder. “Name’s Peter. Peter Quill. You already met Gamora and Drax. Woulda thought you could tell by looking at ‘em, but for the future, it ain’t too smart to pick a fight with those two. That's Rocket, and fair warning, he can be a bit of a dick” — he ducks quickly, as if he knew to expect the wrench that Rocket throws at him, and it sails over his head — “but from what I hear you two are peas in a pod, so you should get along just fine. That there’s Groot. He’s growing real fast and he’ll eat just about anything he can get his hands on, so just try to keep anything valuable out of his reach for the time being. You’ll meet Kraglin later, he’s busy flyin’ the ship.”

He clamps a protective hand on Mantis’ shoulder, smiling. “And this here is Mantis. She’s probably the nicest person, ever, and she’s definitely a whole lot nicer than any of us a-holes. That bein’ said, she won’t hesitate to put your ass to sleep if you try to attack any of us again. You got that?”

Loki stares at each of them in turn and is, for once in his life, completely speechless. None of what the Midgardian has said to him makes much sense — or the words themselves make sense, but not in this context, like he’s welcoming Loki to some bizarre family reunion. None of it explains why, why he's here, why they’ve really brought him here, so he ignores all of it and turns his glare on Gamora.

“You were going to kill me.”

She nods. “I was.”

“You were supposed to kill me,” he snarls. “You told me you could end it.”

“That was before I knew you were Asgardian,” she says, with more than a hint of accusation in her tone. “Those wounds were not going to kill you, and you knew it.”

“I’m not—” he starts to argue, but he bites back the automatic reply. Partly because it feels wrong to say I’m not Asgardian when he just gave up his life, his freedom, simply to buy time for what little remained of the Asgardian people. His people. But mostly because his own heritage is not what matters right now.

He shakes his head and changes tactics. Sincerity is what will get through to these people, he can tell.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “It was a mistake to let me live. You’re all in danger as long as I’m on this ship.”

“Well, you’re not leaving the ship,” Gamora says. “We’re not letting Thanos get a hold of you again.”

“Killing me is the only way you could have prevented that,” he shoots back, unable to hide the edge in his voice.

“Yeah, we’re not doing that, either,” says Peter the Midgardian. “Cause even if we wanted to, I’m not looking to get zapped full of lightning by your brother any time soon.”

Loki feels the color leave his face.

“Thor? Thor's alive?”

“Don't think anything short of a nuke is gonna kill Sparkie,” says Rocket without looking up from the alternator he's still trying to repair, this time with what looks like a screwdriver instead of the wrench he no longer has.

“Where is he?” Loki asks, the previous argument all but forgotten.

“Til about an hour ago, he was here,” says the Midgardian. “Got called away on business.”

“What kind of business?”

Peter and Gamora share a significant look that Loki doesn't like. Mantis is watching him curiously, as is Groot, and even Rocket has looked up now. Only Drax has yet to look up from what he’s doing, eyes still on the dagger he’s sharpening.

The change in atmosphere is hard to miss.

“What kind of business?” Loki repeats.

“See, here's the thing,” Peter says, grabbing a chair from the opposite wall and dragging it toward Loki. He sits down on it backwards, forearms folded on the chair back, his chin coming to rest on his arms. “Before we go telling you anything… we gotta figure out whose side you’re on.”

 

Chapter Text

 

The Asgardian Douchebag surprises Rocket more and more as time goes on.

For one, his stab wound reached almost to his frickin’ back when his brother dragged him on board, and less than a day later the scans are already showing it’s almost half scar tissue — same with the broken leg, except he set that one back a bit by trying to stand on it when he first woke up and went nuts.

For another, he's so cold that the damn life support monitor thought he was dead when he first got hooked up. His temperature reads at about 280 Kelvin, 30 less than humans and about 35 less than his brother.

But whatever, wacky alien biology’s nothing Rocket ain’t used to.

What’s really weird is that the guy tells them everything. Shifty and nervous and untrustworthy as he seems, as soon as Quill asks him what's going on, he tells them. He's a little hesitant about it maybe, but they don’t even need to have Mantis work her magic on him.

Guess the guy's desperate. Hell if Rocket knows.

Apparently Thanos can track him, something to do with traces of energy from the Tesseract still flowing in his veins, yada yada yada. It explains why he was so sure that they were “all in danger” as long as he was on the ship at least, but if Thanos could really track him, Rocket bets he'd have been here long before the guy even woke up.

So either Thanos was lying, or — and this is just Rocket's theory — the energy shields that protect the ship from damage are somehow blocking whatever Tesseract-y signal Thanos is trying to pick up.

Whatever. They just won't take the shields down as a precaution. Problem A, solved. Probably. Maybe.

Problem B is a little trickier.

Turns out, Thanos can control him. Sometimes, and not completely, but enough to be a pain in the ass for all of them if it comes up. Also, he might be able to see what Loki sees. Again, sometimes, and Rocket has no idea how exactly it works, and maybe whatever is stopping Thanos from tracking him is also stopping him from spying and playing Loki like a puppet. Maybe.

It's all way more of a headache than Rocket wants to deal with. It's more of a risk than any of them want to take.

But he's Thor's brother. And even if the Royal Lightning Rod didn't specifically ask them — with a little more desperation in his voice than Rocket was all that comfortable with, if he's being honest — to keep Loki safe, none of them would probably sleep too well if they just handed him back to the guy that made him look like he went through a damn meat grinder.

Plus, whatever Thanos wants, they’re all pretty much in agreement they ain't too eager to hand over.

So the plan, for now, is to rotate babysitter duty. At least until they get a better handle on the situation, or until their guest of honor heals up. Whichever, or both.

First choice to watch him would have been Mantis, since she's the only one that can put him out if needed — well, Gamora probably can too, but the guy’s already got enough injuries.

But, as Rocket’s luck would have it, right after Mantis put Loki under again, she got called away to help the Avengers on some kind of mission. Something about one of the remaining stones, a tip from a source of questionable trustworthiness, top security measures, etcetera, etcetera. Basically a whole mess of problems. Problems that are easily solved by someone like Mantis.

And that's how Rocket ends up sitting with Groot in the med bay, tinkering with a new bazooka on the workbench that Groot dragged in here for him.

He's wrist deep in a pile of wires when Loki stirs.

“Mornin’, your highness,” Rocket mutters without looking up, because even with those restraints in place he doesn't like the idea of startling a jumpy Asgardian.

The jumpy a-hole in question groans lowly, wincing.

“I am Groot?”

Rocket rolls his eyes. He wasn't planning on asking Loki much of anything; like he gives an A'askavariian’s ass how the guy's feeling. But, predictably, it's taken almost no time for Groot to decide he likes their new guest.

Apparently he warms up to jerks real easy. Who knew?

“I’m... better, I suppose,” Loki answers. “Not that that's saying much.”

Rocket pauses, eyes narrowing as he shoots a look up at Loki. He gestures with his laser cutter at Groot, who by now has looked back down at the handheld holo-game he’s playing, apparently satisfied with the answer he got. “You understand him?”

Loki nods, groggily turning his face to rub it against his shoulder since his hands still aren't free. He doesn't explain where he learned to understand a Flora colossus, but Rocket shakes his head and chalks it up to the crazy long lifespan Asgardians are supposed to have. He’d have had plenty of time to pick it up.

There’s a few minutes of silence while Rocket looks over the wires in the bazooka laid across his lap. Bet I could find a better conductor to give this baby some serious power, he thinks, going through a mental list of supplies he’s got on hand. He could add some homing mechs, too, he thinks, just in case he goes overboard again and makes the bazooka a little too destructive.

It’s already equipped with projectiles powerful enough to take out a building, but they're not going up against a building, are they?

“I gather everyone else has already tired of my company,” Loki says, pulling him from his thoughts.

Rocket snorts a little laugh and doesn't look up. “To be fair, you been out cold a few hours now.”

“Right,” he answers, irritation clear in his voice. “Your friend Mantis made sure of that.”

“Ah, don't get your tunic in a twist,” Rocket says. “She’s helping you out. You're never gonna heal from all” — he points at Loki with his laser cutter, gesturing from his head to his feet — “that, if ya keep tryin’ to move around.”

Loki hums, and Rocket chooses to take it as an agreement even though he knows it isn't.

“And out of everyone, the others have chosen the two of you to stay here and watch over me? Or did you draw straws?”

It's half a joke, half a serious question. Rocket doesn't miss the tone Loki uses when he says the two of you, but he shrugs it off. People have underestimated them as long as he can remember — even back with eight foot tall Groot — and he don't mind it much. Makes it more fun sometimes.

Rocket looks down as he disconnects the bazooka’s triggering mechanism.

“Mantis was busy.”

Another low hum. “I don't suppose you'll tell me anything about that.”

He disconnects a wire from the central circuit, holds it up to look at it in the light. “Nah.”

“Smart,” Loki says. “And the Zehoberei?”

“You know, her name is a lot easier to say than her species.”

“Where is she?”

“Gamora and Quill are also out on business,” he says, still looking down as he works. “Also none of yours.”

“And the other one? Drax?”

“Won't go near ya unless he's our last option. Says you make him uncomfortable. And Kraglin’s gotta fly the ship so long as I’m busy with all this. So unless you wanna sleep in the cockpit, you're stuck with me.”

There’s a pause.

“We're still flying?”

“Yup. Gotta keep on the move if we're gonna keep Thanos off our asses.”

Another pause, this time long enough that Rocket just assumes that's the end of the conversation.

But then Loki says, “You know it's pointless to run from him.”

Finally Rocket looks away from his gutted bazooka and eyes the Asgardian on the bed, who is now sitting up as well as he can, staring down at his own lap. He’s sitting up almost all the way, actually, now that Rocket looks. Must have magicked all those shitty pillows under his back while Rocket wasn’t paying attention.

And he don’t like that one bit, but at least Loki ain’t using that magic against him.

Yet.

“We're doing pretty good so far,” Rocket answers.

“So far,” Loki says, glancing up at him, the look on his face daring Rocket to argue. And there’s something in his voice that sets Rocket’s fur on edge, something that wasn't there before. “But it won't last. You cannot hope to outrun Thanos. You cannot hope to hide from him. He will track down this ship and kill every last one of you. He'll do it slowly, he'll toy with each of you, all because you've insulted him by trying to keep me out of his reach.”

Rocket narrows his eyes. Loki isn't looking at him anymore.

“Pretty sure he wants Gamora a little more than you, Your Royal Importantness, and we never had any trouble with him ‘til your brother showed up.”

Something in Loki’s face changes. His shoulders tense. He doesn't look up.

“My brother,” he says, and yeah, something is definitely off about his voice. “Why haven't I seen him since I was brought here?”

Rocket turns over the laser cutter in his hands, watching Loki. Truth is, Thor’s actually been around twice to see his brother in the last 24 hours or so that he's been laid out in their med bay. But Loki’s been in and out of sleep so much that he doesn't know that.

“Like I said. Business.”

“Where is he?” Loki asks. “I know you can't tell me everything, but… I just need something. Why he hasn't been here, who he's with, anything. I don’t even know that he’s really alive.”

For a second Rocket almost wants to help the poor sap out. But the thing is, the stuff he's saying should sound different. He's asking about his brother, and if Thor told it right Loki gave himself up to Thanos just give his brother a shot at getting away.

And there's nothing whatsoever in his voice. Like all the feeling just got sucked right out of him.

“Uh-huh,” he says, mostly to give himself a second to think. “You want me to give you a little more than the usual ‘he's alive, quit worrying about it.’ That it?”

When Loki looks up at him, Rocket’s more than a little surprised to see him looking… well, shit, downright terrified.

“Yes,” he says, monotone as a damn robot.

And then Rocket almost drops the laser cutter he's holding, because Loki shakes his head. It's barely noticeable — Rocket would've chalked it up to a weird twitch if he didn't look so frickin’ scared — but as soon as he does it, it's like a light bulb comes on in Rocket's brain.

Well, son of a bitch.

He and Groot exchange a quick look, and he knows they're both thinking the same thing. Groot’s a hell of a lot more intuitive than he lets on sometimes.

Rocket looks back at Loki.

“Uh-huh. Well. Hate to disappoint, but I can't help you there,” he says, watching Loki carefully. “I don't know anything more than you do.”

A crate of med supplies suddenly flies off the floor and smacks, hard, into the wall. It's far enough away that Rocket knows it wasn't meant to hit him or Groot, but it still makes both of them jump.

“I am Groot!”

“S’alright,” he quietly tells Groot, his eyes still on Loki. He watches and waits, but Loki doesn't move or speak, just stays staring down at his lap with his fists clenched and wrists still bound at his sides.

Rocket gives him about another thirty seconds to sit there without saying anything.

“Guess the shields aren't keeping him outta your head after all,” he finally says, already running through a mental list of tweaks he can make that might fix it. “He gone yet?”

“Not quite,” comes a voice from behind him, and Rocket jumps to his feet.

But he's not quick enough. In half a second there's a hand around his neck that lifts him up into the air. He hears an angry shout from Groot and the clanging clatter of his workbench being upended, tools and parts and all, and the hand slams him into the wall, knocking the wind out of him and sending his vision full of stars.

Shit shit shit son of a d’ast motherf

A very blurry version of Loki’s face is inches in front of his own — no, wait, he's not blurry, he just damn near knocked Rocket's brain out of his skull.

Rocket blinks, trying to focus, and realizes it's getting hard to breathe.

Shit.

Behind where Loki actually is, standing right in front of him and apparently trying to choke the life out of him, Rocket sees what he thought was Loki on the bed slowly flicker out of existence like a burnt out hologram. The bed is empty, the restraints broken.

Thor wasn't kidding. His brother is good at tricks.

“Tell me where Thor is,” he demands, “or the one you call Vision.”

Black dots are starting to burst in the air between them, or maybe that's just Rocket's eyes. Damn, his lungs hurt.

“I can pry the information from your mind if you won't offer it willingly.”

Rocket’s got his hands busy trying to pry the frickin’ vice off of his neck, but he's starting to lose feeling in his muscles. Doesn't Loki — or Thanos or whatever krutackin' asshole is causing this — get how to interrogate a person? He can't damn well answer any questions without any air.

“Come now,” Loki says, eyes bloodshot and angry. Long branches are starting to wind around the Asgardian's neck and his torso, and Rocket feels something brush up against his hip. “It will be easier if—”

Finally the grip relaxes on Rocket’s throat, and holy son of an A'askavariian he can breathe again. Loki’s eyes go wide and blue veins show up all over his face, and he seizes up and drops Rocket to the floor.

There are a few seconds in which Rocket doesn’t do anything but kneel on the floor, rubbing at his throat and sucking in as much air as he can get.

When he does speak, it hurts. But he's too pissed off to care.

“You think I’m some” — he pauses, coughs — “kind of frickin’ moron that I’d go up against a damn God without a back-up plan?”

He slowly gets to his feet and coughs again, holding out his hand for Groot to give him the remote he hadn't been able to grab from his own belt.

Damn Asgardian jackass distracting him by almost killing him. It's a good thing Groot was here, at least.

Rocket shoots a glare at Loki, who by now is being lifted by Groot back into the bed, still seizing and shaking and bug-eyed.

“Oh, I like this thing,” he says, mostly to himself, holding up the remote and looking at it, then at the little disk clinging to Loki’s neck. Any weapon that can take down an Asgardian with a single click is pretty awesome in his book. “Got it from your brother,” he tells Loki. “So’s we’re clear, you try going crazy when Mantis is here, you go to sleep. You try that around me or Groot, you get this.”

“I am Groot.”

Rocket rolls his eyes as he tosses the remote aside, well out of Loki’s reach. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know he didn't mean it.”

He sighs and scratches the back of his head, thinking. As if he didn't have enough to do already, now he's gonna have to go rig together some stronger restraints. He can’t reroute any power from the shields — can’t risk lowering their already shoddy defenses against Thanos — but it should still be doable.

Maybe he's got some of them batteries still laying around. That’d do the trick.

“I’m trustin’ there ain't no hard feelings here,” he says. He looks at Loki and tries not to wince. Handy as that contraption is, it don't look fun to be on the receiving end. “Gotta keep you like this til I finish riggin’ something that’s strong enough to hold you down. Or til Mantis gets back. Whichever. You can let go of him, Groot, he ain't going anywhere.”

He frowns. It occurs to him that, if Thanos really can see what Loki sees, the frickin’ sadist is probably enjoying this. Toying with them, throwing in a little extra torture for Loki when he ain't even here.

Puts a sour taste in Rocket's mouth. Makes him itch to shoot some guys.

For now he'll settle with giving Thanos a big fat “screw you” by keeping him from getting what he really wants. Stronger restraints, and stronger shields, if he can figure it out.

One problem at a time.

 

Chapter Text

 

It's been two days since the destruction of Asgard, or roughly forty-eight hours, anyway, since days have little meaning on a spaceship, with no planet and no sun. Forty-eight hours since their home was swallowed up in Surtur’s flames, the once great realm reduced to an explosion of glowing embers against the pitch darkness of space.

Now they’re traveling at near light speed, but the stars still look static. Loki tries to judge from them where Asgard used to be, somewhere in that infinite blackness.

It's a useless endeavor.

To think, he had ruled over that realm for nearly two years. He’d been a ruler by deception, sure, but a ruler nonetheless.

And look at him now.

King of the ashes, he thinks. Wasn't there a proverb about that? He can't remember exactly, but in his mind he hears the words in Frigga’s voice. Some long forgotten story from his childhood no doubt, a story to warn about the trials of ruling, the virtues of patience and restraint.

No wonder he doesn't remember it.

“I have to say, brother, I’m surprised you’ve decided to stay.”

He doesn't jump at the intrusion; he saw Thor's faint reflection in the glass before he spoke.

Loki keeps his gaze focused on the stars instead of looking at Thor. Some of the constellations are those that could have been seen from Asgard, and Loki traces his eyes over the most familiar ones, while he still can.

It's the first time they've spoken since the bridge, when Thor decided that they would head for Earth. And although the concept of returning there had made Loki want to jump on the nearest escape pod and go off on his own, well… He's still here. Somehow.

He thinks, Where would I go?

He says, “Who says I’m staying?”

Thor's barely-there reflection steps up to stand beside him and smiles. Loki expects him to call his bluff. Almost wishes he would, because that would make the leaving easier, at least.

But he doesn’t.

“Well, I’m surprised you’ve stayed this long, anyway,” Thor says, staring out into the stars. His smile is more reserved, peaceful. And then, quickly, as if an afterthought he adds, “I’m glad you have.”

Loki shrugs one shoulder, hands still in his pockets. “You started learning to expect when I’d betray you. Can’t have that, can I? I’ve got to keep you guessing.”

At that, Thor chuckles, and Loki feels his brother’s arm over his shoulders, pulling him close to his side. He allows it with little more than a roll of his eyes.

“Yes, I suppose you do,” is all Thor says.

 

“You still alive over there?”

Loki wakes with a start, the last vestiges of his dream already beginning to fade to the back of his subconscious. Thor was there, he knows that much. And it wasn't like most of his dreams have been of late. He can only tell that by his steady pulse, the lack of terror-induced sweat on the back of his neck.

He blinks and tries to sit up.

Two things already seem… off. The first is the item that's been dropped on his lap, something wrapped in paper. The second is that he's capable of sitting up at all without impediment. He is no longer bound to the bed.

Loki frowns, looking down at the metal contraptions attached to each of his wrists. Solid, sleek, grey metal, each covering half the length of his forearm, flush to his skin but not so tight as to cause pain. There is nothing about them to indicate any underlying purpose, but — and his stomach gives an unpleasant lurch at this realization — he cannot feel a single flicker of the magical energy that usually sits somewhere above his core.

The absence of it feels wrong, like an itch. He hasn't been without his seiðr since…

Well. Not for a very, very long time.

He pushes that thought away for the moment and looks down at the object in his lap, just in time for a second object to be tossed onto the bed, landing by his hip.

It's a bottle of water. Loki’s brow furrows, and he looks up to see the Midgardian named Quill as he sits down on the chair beside the bed. Quill leans back and kicks his feet up, resting them on the edge of the bed as he opens his own bottle. The brownish drink inside gives a hiss as the cap pops open.

He's not alone. Mantis sits in the only other chair in the room, closer to the foot of the bed, and she stares unabashedly and innocently at him — but he’s used to that, now, more or less. Staring seems to be her default state, as does her strange sort of innocence. In the corner of the room Groot is sat on the floor, focused on his little handheld game, and on his shoulder is Rocket, who is watching Loki with narrowed eyes.

It’s then that Loki remembers what transpired the last time he was awake — fighting to regain control of his actions, his vision blurring and reddening as if through a poorly made lens. The sudden crackle of fire in his veins, familiar, excruciating, unceasing.

He averts his gaze from Rocket to look down at his wrists.

“What is this?” he asks, looking to Quill.

Quill was in the middle of a sip of his drink, but he gulps it down and answers, “Roast beef and cheese.”

What?

“Roast beef and cheese,” he says again, gesturing toward the paper-wrapped parcel still sitting in Loki’s lap. “Wasn’t sure what you would want, but your brother seemed to like those well enough, figured it’d be a good guess. It’s a thing they have on Earth, a sandwich, it’s—”

“I know what a sandwich is,” Loki cuts in, and he lifts his hands to draw Quill’s attention to the contraptions locked around his wrists. “What is this?”

“Oh, yeah, that,” Quill says. He pushes his foot against the bed, tilting his chair back on two legs. “Rocket designed ‘em. Got a little outside help, too. They work right and they’ll block the use of any electrical force outside of whatever’s needed to — you know, keep your nervous system running and whatnot.”

From the corner, Rocket snorts, crossing his arms. “Way to oversimplify it, Quill,” he grumbles. And then he directs his attention to Loki and asks, “So? Is it working or what?”

Loki raises an eyebrow.

“Don’t give me that look,” Rocket argues. “You know what I mean. I didn’t stay up all damn night building those things and upgrading the ship’s shielding just to guess if it was gonna work or not. So is the Titanic Asshole still pokin’ around in your head, or what?”

Loki opens his mouth, a scathing retort already on the tip of his tongue — he doesn’t give a damn if he did try to kill the rodent not too long ago — but he pauses, frowning.

He glances down at his wrists again, and then back up at Rocket.

There is not so much as a whisper of Thanos’ voice in the spaces between his own thoughts. Where the Titan’s grip once burned into the very roots of Loki’s consciousness there is now merely a tingle, concerning in its presence but an absolute relief in its mutedness. Thanos has relaxed his hold before, sometimes because he had no use for his prisoner and other times to deliberately give Loki false hope.

But this is different. This is silence.

“No,” he answers, unable to conceal the shock in his voice. “He’s not.”

He is so distracted by the sudden lack of other voices in his head that he never notices Mantis reach out and lay a hand on his right ankle, not until her antennae begin to glow and she closes her eyes. Loki jerks his leg away, shooting a glare at her that she doesn’t see.

“He is surprised,” she says, bringing her hands back to her lap. “He did not think you would be able to free his mind from Thanos, I think. He is… not grateful, really, because he still does not trust any of us. But he is relieved. And he is still scared. I think he is telling the truth.”

Before Loki can tell her off for entering his thoughts without his permission, Rocket gives a satisfied, “Humph,” and hops off of Groot’s shoulder, looking thoroughly pleased with himself. “Good to know that princess wasn't kidding ‘bout what that stuff can do,” he says, and Loki has absolutely no idea what he means by that, but he doesn't explain. “Now don’t get too comfortable, Prince of Ass-Guard, ‘cause we still don’t know if those things are gonna work forever. There’s a real delicate balance of power needed to keep Thanos’ voodoo shit out of you without frying your whole damn nervous system, and in the interest of not getting killed by your idiot brother, I’m gonna keep errin’ on the side of not frying you to a crisp. So Thanos might come back, but this is the best we got for now.”

Loki eyes Rocket down for a moment. He wonders if Rocket expected that the cuffs would suppress his use of magic. He doesn’t ask.

“I take it you still have that obedience disk attached to me as a precaution.”

“Better,” Rocket answers, baring his sharp teeth in what Loki thinks is supposed to be a grin. He pulls a remote control from his pocket and waves it in the air. “Got it wired right into those cuffs.”

With that, Rocket turns around and makes to leave the med bay, tossing the remote to Mantis as he leaves.

“My work’s done here,” he says as he passes through the doorway. Groot, barely looking up from his game, automatically rises to his feet so he can follow. “Quill, I’m gonna need an extra pair of hands on the shield array circuits in a few minutes.”

“I helped you last time with that!” Quill complains. “Can’t you get Drax to do it?”

Rocket’s voice answers from out in the hallway, “Oh yeah, sure, if you want his giant hands in the mainframe that control every shield we got.”

Quill groans. “I hate helping him with the shields,” he mutters. “He always gets my fingers electrocuted.”

“What’s that, Quill?”

“Nothing! Be there in a sec,” Quill calls out, drawing a giggle from Mantis. He turns his attention to Loki and smirks, his voice lowering to a conspiratorial whisper. “Don’t worry too much about Rocket, he’s not really mad. He knows it wasn’t you that tried to kill him.”

Loki makes a face at that — because why would he care if the little creature was angry with him? But Quill doesn't seem to notice. He slaps his hands on his knees and stands up. “So. Long as you got those cuffs on, there ain’t no reason you can’t stretch your legs a bit. I mean, try not to stand on that left leg if you can help it. You heal pretty fast, but standing on a broken leg twice in two days ain't doing you any favors.” He scratches the back of his head, eyeing the leg in question. “Anyway, point stands. Bathroom’s in the hall on the left, second door down. Kitchen’s the next door on the right. You can go in both of those, but that’s about it until we know for sure Thanos won’t be riding shotgun in your head anymore. Sound like a deal?”

Loki frowns, crossing his legs in front of him so that he’s a little further out of Mantis’ reach, suppressing a wince as the movement sends a spike of pain up his left thigh.

“That sounds… amenable, I suppose.”

“Amenable. Cool. I’ll take it,” Quill says with a shrug. He starts heading for the door and pats Mantis on the shoulder as he passes. “Let us know if anything changes with those cuffs, alright?”

Loki isn’t sure whether the request was directed at him or Mantis, but she smiles up at Quill and offers a small nod.

And then the Midgardian is gone, leaving behind only Loki and Mantis and a stiflingly awkward silence in the med bay.

But the silence does not last long.

“The sandwich is for you,” Mantis says, blinking her strange wide eyes at him. “Terran food is… odd, but I find it is very tasty. Or are you not hungry?”

In fact, he is hungry. He’s absolutely starving, and nearly dying from thirst. Probably literally, if he’s being honest with himself.

Without answering her question, he uncaps the bottle of water and drinks. The first drop feels like heaven to his parched throat, and before he knows it he has already drained the entire bottle in one continuous gulp. It’s unexpectedly dizzying, the sudden intake of water after weeks of dehydration, and he squeezes his eyes shut for a moment while he waits for the feeling to pass.

Once it does, he shakes his head, unwraps the sandwich and, after giving it a cursory sniff, takes a bite. And then another, and another. He barely registers whether he likes the taste or not; at this point he would gladly eat even Volstagg’s cooking, he thinks.

It’s only after he has eaten half of the sandwich that he glances up at Mantis again, to see her giving him a strange look — stranger, even, than the strange look that he’s found is always on her face. It’s a queer sort of half-smile that makes him more than a little bit uncomfortable.

“What?” he asks, none too gently, but his tone seems to go right over her head.

“Hmm? I did not say anything.”

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Oh,” she says. “It is nothing important. I just did not notice until now that you bear a resemblance to your brother.”

Loki blinks. That was… unexpected, to say the least. He shakes his head and flippantly tells her, “That’s impossible. I have no actual relation to Thor. I was adopted.”

“Oh,” she says again, as Loki returns to his sandwich. “I suppose that is why I never noticed a resemblance before. But you do look a bit like him when you are eating.”

He freezes, halfway through a bite, and suddenly realizes how ravenously he’s been devouring this sandwich. With an annoyed exhale through his nose, he slowly chews the food already in his mouth and places the sandwich back down on his lap. He clears his throat, wishing for a moment that he had not finished all of his water before he started on the sandwich, and Mantis speaks up yet again.

“Are you still thirsty?” she asks.

“You shouldn’t enter a person’s thoughts without their permission,” he snaps, glaring at her. “It’s invasive.”

“Oh, I was not — I cannot hear thoughts. I was only guessing, because Terran food always makes me thirsty,” she explains, a look of hesitant worry befalling her features. “There is more in the kitchen, if you want, it is in the hall to—”

“To the left, third door on the right, I know,” he reminds her. “I’m— no. Thank you. I’m alright for the moment.” That’s a lie, of course. He is still thirsty, and his throat still feels awful, but he has more pressing matters to address. “So you can make a person sleep with a touch and you were able to tell your friends everything I was thinking just now. But you claim you can’t hear thoughts?”

“Oh. Yes,” she answers with a nod, apparently more than happy to explain. “I am an empath. I do not hear thoughts, only feel feelings. And I have to touch a person to feel their feelings.”

“An empath,” he repeats, his eyes lingering on her antennae. “I’ve never seen another of your kind before.”

“Oh, no, you would not have. I think I am the only one left,” she says matter-of-factly, though her amiable smile takes on a sad note.

Loki’s brow furrows. “You think?”

She nods. “Yes, I think so. I was in a larval stage when I was taken from my planet, and I was raised alone on—” she falters, barely, and continues, “on another planet. I have not heard of any others of my kind, and neither have any of my friends. So it is likely that I am the last one.”

Loki regards her for a moment.

“I’m sorry.”

At those words, for some reason, all traces of sadness vanish from her face, and her smile widens so much that her eyes squint. “You are sweet,” she says, marking exactly the first time he has ever been told that in his life. “But it is alright. I do not remember my home planet enough to miss it. Not really.”

He frowns. “Well, regardless.”

And he finds, surprisingly, that he means it. He had only ever seen another Frost Giant at the end of a blade, metaphorical or otherwise. He had only known Laufey for a grand total of three days, just enough to become firmly convinced that he would die at Loki’s hand. Jotunheim meant little and less to him. He never considered it a curse that he was the last of his kind, never let it bother him.

But Mantis is the last of hers, and for some reason he can't quite place, that does bother him.

He pushes that thought aside. His mind goes to all the others he’s seen here, the odd assortment of species gathered onto a single team. Zehoberei, Flora colossus, Midgardian. And that’s to say nothing of Rocket and Drax, both members of species he had never even seen before waking on this strange ship.

“Are all of you the last of your kind?” he asks. “Aside from Quill.”

Mantis opens her mouth to answer, but then she frowns and cocks her head to the side. Her antennae droop a bit.

“I am supposed to be very careful about what I tell you,” she explains, “in case Thanos can hear it.”

She is easy to read. He can tell without a doubt that although she does care about accidentally aiding Thanos, she cares far more about the possibility of letting down her friends.

“I can tell you with certainty,” Loki assures her, because he's bored and curious and she seems like the sort that’s easy to reassure, “that the very last thing Thanos cares to know is where his enemies come from. If it cannot be used against them, it’s safe to tell.”

She chews on the inside of her cheek for a moment, looking at him with uncertainty in her eyes. And then, slowly, she scoots her chair closer to where he sits, pockets the remote control she’s been holding through the length of their conversation, and lifts her hand with her palm toward his upper arm. Her wide eyes never leave his. She does not touch him, clearly waiting for his permission this time.

Loki watches her warily, but in the end decides to acquiesce. Thanos is no longer in his mind, for now, and aside from storing this information away for potential future use, for once he has no ulterior motives.

Plus, he wants to better understand this ability of hers.

He steels himself and gives a short nod. And then he reaches for his seiðr, to throw up whatever defenses he can, to block her from reaching anything too personal — and remembers with a stab of panic that he can’t. The contraptions on his wrist are preventing any use of seiðr at all.

The realization comes half a second too late. Her hand is already upon his upper arm. Without magic at his disposal, Loki hastily tries the next best thing: controlling his own thoughts. He pushes all the safe ones to the forefront. Boredom, curiosity, a bit of confusion. All the rest he tries to banish from his mind.

He waits. There is no cold feeling in his veins, no tingle in his mind. It’s nothing like Asgardian magic, nothing like Thanos’ control, but something entirely different. Her ability gives him no indication whatsoever that it’s being used on him at all — he feels no physical difference, save for the warmth of her palm through the fabric of his clothes.

Her antennae glow, and her eyes close.

And then the moment is over.

She pulls her hand away, and the glow dissipates from her antennae. She opens her eyes.

“There is no reason to be frightened,” she says, earning her an indignant glare that she doesn't seem to notice. “Thank you for giving me permission.”

She emphasizes that last word like she's only recently learned it, which is a troubling thought.

“So?” Loki asks. “Did I pass?”

She smiles again. “Yes. You are uncomfortable with not knowing things, but that is because you are very curious by nature. I will still be careful about what I tell you, but I trust you,” she says, again expressing a sentiment that Loki is entirely unused to hearing. “So… yes, I am the last of my kind. Gamora is the last of hers, too. Kraglin is not, and Drax is not, but neither of them visit their home planets much at all.”

“Why not?”

Mantis gives him a quick, apologetic look, and the message is clear. That is information that she cannot give, and Loki tamps down a bit of disappointment and nods her along.

All in due time.

She continues, “Rocket is— um, Peter calls him a raccoon. He says that a raccoon is an animal from Earth, and that Rocket looks like one. But none of us know exactly where he comes from. I’m not sure even Rocket does. It does not seem to bother him, though,” she says. “Groot is not the last of his species, but… he cannot return to his home planet, I think. Or he does not want to, or both. I’m not sure.”

Loki’s eyes narrow, and he asks, “You’ve never met another Flora colossus, have you?”

She cocks her head to the side. “A what?”

“A Flora colossus, it’s what your friend Groot is. You’ve never met one other than him.”

She shakes her head, frowning.

“I thought as much.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I have,” he tells her. “It was… three or four decades ago, I believe. And your friend is, to put it lightly, nothing like any other Flora colossus I’ve ever seen.”

“How so?”

“He’s…” Loki trails off, trying to find the right word, and settles with, “friendly.”

To say the Flora colossi are unfriendly would be a horrible understatement. From Loki’s experience, all the rest of Groot’s kind are hell-bent on invading every inhabited planet in their little corner of the universe. They’re cold and heartless at best, cruelly murderous at worst. He glances at Mantis’ guileless, innocent face and makes the immediate decision to keep that information to himself.

“Suffice it to say, it’s not surprising that he chooses to stay isolated from the rest of his people.”

Assuming they all have yet to be destroyed by their own violent ambitions, he thinks. It’s an interesting concept, a friendly Flora colossus. Groot may not be the last of his kind, but to Loki’s knowledge he is certainly the first.

The team on this ship is a band of misfits, it would seem. Outcasts, runaways, members of near-extinct species.

The irony is not lost on him.

“I think,” he says, “I’ll take that water, now.”

He swings his legs over the edge of the bed, waving off Mantis’ efforts to help him.

“No, no, I’ll do it myself.”

“But your injuries—”

“Are nothing more than I can handle,” he insists, testing a bit of weight on his left leg as he stands. It hurts, but far less than the last two times he stood on it. “In any case, I’ll be needing to use the bathroom as well. Second door on the left?”

She nods. He starts to limp toward the door, but to his ultimate frustration she stands up and moves to follow him.

“Do you intend to babysit me while I’m in the bathroom, as well?” he snaps.

Mantis frowns. Her antennae droop. “I am only making sure you are alright.”

“I’m fine,” he says, and he deliberately walks without a limp into the hallway, gritting his teeth through the resultant pain in his leg.

He still feels her gaze on him even out in the hallway, though he doesn’t turn to look at her. He feels it as he marches toward the second door on the left, as he opens it, as he steps into the bathroom, all the way up until he shuts the door behind his back with a click and slides down until he’s sitting on the cold metal floor.

The bathroom is a tiny, pathetic little thing. Loki can barely stretch his legs across the length of it. He looks up at the walls and finds nothing but bare, uninterrupted metal, and a ceiling covered in a mesh of red wires and piping.

No windows. He won’t be leaving the ship through here.

Loki gulps and presses the heels of his palms into his eyes. His leg is throbbing. His lungs still flinch at every breath, and the muscles of his abdomen twitch with every movement as his body still works at healing what had once been a gaping hole from front to back. Every bone in his body still aches with the echoes of Thanos’ torture, though that is at least beginning to fade.

The ache in his mind is different. He doubts that will fade for a very, very long time.

But that is nothing compared to what awaits him if Thanos gets a hold of him again, or worse, if he ends up winning this war he’s started. It’s nothing compared to what awaits every single one of the idiots on this ship, should Thanos ever find them.

And he will find them, if Loki stays here.

Slowly, painstakingly, he presses one hand into the floor and pushes himself back onto his feet, stepping up to the sink and turning on the tap.

He splashes some water onto his face, bends over and drinks from it. The water is bitter and metallic. There is better water in the kitchen, he knows, but he doesn’t yet want to leave the only space he is guaranteed to have to himself. He needs to think, and he can’t do that when there are eyes watching his every movement.

He grips the sides of the sink and leans into its support, looking up at the dirt-muddled mirror, eyeing up his own reflection.

You look like hell.

Dark circles under his eyes, faded bruising all over his face, partially healed cuts dotting his skin. All of that was, more or less, expected. It makes him shudder to think what he must have looked like mere days ago, when he was found barely conscious on Thanos’ ship, but it was expected nonetheless. What he did not expect was to be able to read his own expression like an open book.

He looks absolutely terrified.

He is terrified.

Loki is rather adept at denying his own weaknesses, even to himself. But he is also rather adept at reading people, and here in the solitude of this dingy little bathroom he lacks the fortitude to control his own face, to put up the indifferent facade.

He's shaking now.

There is no good option here, he knows.

Either he stays and waits until Rocket’s clever little contraptions cease to work — in which case Thanos will use him to kill everyone on this ship, slowly, one by one, and then use him to kill Thor and who knows what countless others until he inevitably gets himself killed — or he escapes, runs far from here, gets as far away as he possibly can from anyone Thanos might want to hurt.

But leaving this ship risks Thanos finding you.

He watches the pallor in his own face go from too-pale white to a slight tinge of green.

I don’t have a choice, he thinks. He remembers too clearly the feeling of Rocket’s tiny throat in his hand, remembers how sickeningly easy it felt, and he forces himself to imagine others in that place, imagines what Thanos might have him do to all the others. Mantis, that Midgardian Quill, the Zehoberei woman Gamora, Valkyrie, Sif, Heimdall, Thor.

The sink cracks. A chunk of it breaks off in his grip, sending a stream of porcelain dust to the floor.

He closes his eyes.

Breathe.

Think.

You know what you have to do.

Make the decision now, while your thoughts are still your own.

He sets his jaw and meets his own bloodshot gaze in the mirror. The decision is an easy one.

I need to get out of here.

 

Chapter Text

 

Peter’s no good with suspense. Never has been.

‘Cause here's the thing. The last few times the shit hit the fan, it happened by accident, or it happened all at once, or it snowballed so quick that he didn't know they were on the precipice of something real serious until it was already happening. One second he's hanging out with his long lost mystery dad, next second his team is battling a whole planet for the fate of the universe. Boom. Quick and easy, right to the action.

This time it’s different. This time they all know something real serious is coming. Hell, they've known this was gonna be coming for years now.

This time there's a hell of a lot of preparing, and planning, and waiting. And Peter hates it.

Here's what he knows so far.

Thanos already brought the first wave of his attack a week ago, before the Guardians even landed on Earth. Peter came back home for the first time in thirty-something years to find the suburbs just outside New York smashed to smithereens by a crash-landed ship the size of an entire town. They arrived in the aftermath. Apparently the Earth’s own squadron of protectors — and Peter still can't really wrap his head around the fact that the Captain America is alive and kicking, much less that there's a bunch of honest-to-God superheroes on Earth, too — handled it without any casualties.

Gamora said that was just Thanos testing Earth’s defenses. Turned out she was right, and things got a whole lot more complicated when the second wave hit. It wasn't much bigger than the first, and they handled it best they could, but this time there was collateral damage. Civilians caught in the crossfire, two of the Avengers too wounded to be fit to fight again any time soon.

And then Gamora went off with Thor and Stark to search Thanos’ ship for stones or weapons or anything they could use against him. And instead, well…

Instead she came back with Loki.

Now they gotta keep the ship on the move to stop Thanos from tracking them down, Rocket almost got crushed to death by a mind-controlled demigod, and they're still no closer to beating Thanos when he finally decides to bring the third wave of his attack.

Peter absently hums along to the music playing lowly from the headphones around his neck — I fear, rivers overflowin’, I hear, the voice of rage and ruin — and navigates the ship around some white-capped mountains and into a wide valley, his thoughts on just about anything other than flying.

It doesn’t help his nerves much that Rhomann Dey still hasn't answered any of his messages. That ain't like him. The whole Nova Corps could be dead for all Peter knows. Hell, the whole of Xandar could be nothing but ash by now. It's more than likely, if he's being honest with himself, since they know Thanos already got his hands on the Power Stone somehow. But, well, he likes to hope some of them made it out.

Hopefully the Collector’s crafty enough to stay out of Thanos’ radar, but even that ain't a guarantee.

Peter drums his fingers on the piloting console.

Hope you, got your things together…

Gamora seems to think the next wave is gonna be the last one. The final showdown. Lately she's been acting more like the deadliest woman in the galaxy everyone thinks she is — and yeah, Peter knows, technically, that she always has been, but now she’s talking in that distracted and ominous tone a lot more, flashing that quiet smile a whole lot less, and Peter gets the sick feeling in his gut that it’s because she doesn't expect them to make it out of this one.

Drax is no better, or maybe he’s worse. Peter doesn’t just get the feeling Drax doesn’t expect to survive the fight against Thanos; he’s starting to think Drax doesn’t plan to survive it. And Kraglin’s a damn nutcase, too, practicing with Yondu’s arrow so much that Rocket’s already threatened twice to blast his teeth in just to make him stop whistling.

The team ain't dealing with the suspense any better than he is.

So he's just gotta pretend is all. And he's doing alright with that, he thinks. It's something Yondu used to say, the Captain ain't gotta have all his shit together all the time, but his crew sure as hell better think he does.

A zigzag of lightning splits his view of the sky clean in half, startling Peter out of his thoughts. The storm’s far enough out that it won't be much of a problem, but still, better safe than sorry. Peter shakes his head to clear it, dipping the ship down a bit closer to the ground.

At the same time the thunder rumbles in the distance, Peter hears a dull thud from somewhere a few rooms away.

His brow furrows. A little commotion on the ship is nothing new, so it might’ve been nothing, but if that sound came from where he thinks it came from—

A high-pitched scream reaches his ears through the thin walls of the ship’s interior, and his stomach drops.

Mantis.

Shit.

Peter flips a switch on the console, and before the ship even finishes rocking to a stop in midair, he’s already out the door.

He leaves the cockpit at a dead sprint, skids into a turn at the end of the hallway, and hauls ass toward the med bay. It's only been about three seconds since Mantis screamed when Peter barrels through the door, but when he does, Loki is already gone.

Mantis is scrambling to her feet, and Peter's eyes widen at the sight of the dent that her body made in the metal wall. The remote that connects to those cuffs Rocket and Shuri made is on the floor in front of her— or what's left of it, anyway. Loki must have stomped on it before he ran.

“Peter,” Mantis says, clearly out of breath, “Peter, he's—”

She points, and after glancing her up and down for serious injuries and finding none, Peter turns and sprints down the hall.

Loki’s way faster than Peter is, but he doesn't know this ship nearly as well. He doesn't know which halls lead to an exit, which doors to take from the med bay, which parts of the floor have seen so heavily damaged over the years that they make even the lightest footsteps sound like a hammer coming down—

Bingo.

Peter hears a clang the next room over, and as he shoves his way through the door he catches sight of Loki’s back as the Asgardian runs into the next hall.

He's getting too close to the exit now. One lucky turn and he'll be long gone.

Peter sprints through the door and, for the second time in two days, dives forward and slams his entire weight into Loki’s back. The two of them go careening into the floor, a confusing mess of limbs and shouts.

And of course, Peter hadn't really given much thought to the fact that he just football-tackled a literal God into the floor with every intention of trying to fight him.

Loki kicks him away, and a weightless feeling makes Peter’s stomach turn over itself as he's sent flying up into the air. The metal ceiling smacks into his back so hard that it sends a shock of pain through his bones, and two seconds later he's tumbling across the floor several yards away from where he started.

Before he even gets to his feet, Peter yanks his pistol out of its holster and points it in the general direction Loki should be. His vision is swimming a bit.

“Loki, stop!”

For good measure, he fires the gun into the floor by Loki’s feet. The deafening squeal of the blaster and the sizzle of burning metal might get through to Loki a little easier than some human yelling at him, Peter thinks.

It works. Loki freezes where he stands, just a dozen or so feet down the hallway, and Peter carefully stands up, keeping the gun pointed at Loki all the while.

Loki slowly turns to face him.

“You would kill me,” Loki says, “after going through all that trouble to save my life?”

He’s trying to call his bluff, which is… not great, since Peter’s only about half sure he'd actually be willing to shoot this guy. Peter gulps. “Well, this is a pretty crap way to repay us for saving your life, isn't it?”

“I disagree.”

“Yeah, well I don't.”

Loki takes a step toward him. Peter takes a step back and shoots him a warning look. Don't try it.

“This isn't Thanos in your head, is it?” he asks, though he thinks he already knows. “This is all you.”

Loki doesn't answer, but that's answer enough.

“Yeah. Thought so,” Peter says. “So we got Thanos outta your head and gave you a safe spot to rest til you're all healed up, and your way of saying ‘thank you’ is attacking Mantis and running off to get yourself killed and put everyone on this ship in danger? ‘Cause that's how I’m seeing it.”

“Mantis is unhurt,” Loki answers. “She is stronger than you think she is.”

Again Loki takes a step forward, and Peter takes yet another step back. He feels like holding a gun on the guy should make saying don't come any closer a little redundant, but apparently not.

“Hey, man,” he says, quieter, going for friendliness this time. “What's your plan here? I know your brother made it out in space okay before we picked him up, but from how he tells it, you can't fly. You're gonna get out an airlock and… what, float around ‘til Thanos finds you again?”

Loki laughs at that. Sort of. He smiles, shakes his head, and there's a crazed sort of look in his eyes that makes Peter think he might be able to see a little bit of that guy that Stark says took out half of New York some five, six years ago.

Peter tightens his grip on the gun, just in case. He could always aim for the guy’s leg if he has to.

“We're not in space,” Loki says, and Peter tries not to let his disappointment show on his face. Damn it. “We're on Earth.”

“That right?”

Loki just raises an eyebrow, still smiling that knowing smile.

Peter asks, “Sure about that, are you?”

“Earth food, Earth drinks,” Loki says, tilting his head from side to side as he goes through list. “You and your friends going off for short periods on ‘business,’ which I imagine involves the only other fools trying to gather their forces against Thanos. The Avengers, who reside on—”

“On Earth, yeah, I get it,” Peter cuts in.

Loki's smile widens at that, and he takes another deliberate step forward.

His insistence on coming closer is starting to get on Peter’s nerves, but he makes to step back again and realizes with a twinge of fear that he can't.

His back is nearly against a wall.

… Shit.

Loki notices. Peter has barely a second of warning before Loki dodges to the left — apparently he knew that the gun would fire in Peter's moment of panic — and lunges at him.

Peter tries to fight, and he almost lands a hit, but he’s outmatched in close quarters like this and both of them know it. Loki deflects his arm and tears the gun from his grip, and in the same movement grabs a fistful of Peter's shirt with his other hand and thrusts him back into the wall.

“Ow,” Peter complains with an annoyed glare, which Loki ignores.

The music is still playing lowly from the headphones around his neck, and Loki spares it a quick, confused glance before turning his attention to the blaster he's taken.

He looks it over, easily keeping Peter immobile with his free hand, and it occurs to Peter, strangely, that this is the first time he's ever seen Loki standing up fully. They're just about the same height, which doesn’t really seem right, him being a God and all. After a second or two Loki drops the gun and crushes it under his boot. It's not a clean break, but the snap that resounds from somewhere within it leaves no doubt that it's broken.

Peter winces. “I liked that blaster.”

“Let me be perfectly clear,” Loki says as if Peter never spoke at all, levelling him with a cold glare. “I am leaving. I would prefer to do it without seriously injuring anyone, but I will if I must. Do you understand?”

His voice is confident, threatening, the kind of tone a guy only uses when he knows he can back up his threats. But with how close they are, all Peter can see is the exhaustion and desperation in his face.

Still, though. He's definitely not bluffing. Peter gulps, turns his hands up.

“We're in the middle of nowhere, man. Yeah, we're on Earth, you got me there, but it ain't nowhere friendly. Where you gonna go?”

“Far away from here.”

Peter frowns. “Where’s that?”

“Not your concern.”

For a second he debates arguing, but he lets out a huff and rolls his eyes instead. “Fine. Whatever. But how are you gonna get there? Can you actually fly? How far you think you can walk on that leg before it gives out?”

“It’s nearly healed. I will manage.”

“See, no, I don’t think you’re gonna manage,” he says, feeling more and more like Yondu must have after the eighth or ninth time Peter tried to run away as a kid. “I don’t even think you know where you’re gonna go. I think you’re gonna yourself killed, or worse, you're gonna get scooped up by Thanos again.”

“As I said, that is not your concern—”

“Oh, my ass, it's not!” he shoots back, instinctively trying to push Loki’s arm away in his anger and only getting angrier when he’s unsuccessful. He leaves his hand on Loki’s forearm and takes a breath, closes his eyes for a second to think.

He can get through to this guy, he thinks. Loki’s not thinking straight and he's probably scared out of his brain, but they all are, aren't they?

Peter sighs. “Look… I get it. I do. From what I hear you’ve been on both sides of the fight before, right? None of these assholes can agree if you’re a good guy or a bad guy, mostly they’re saying you switch back and forth a whole lot. But this war? It’s gonna split everything down the middle. It's all gonna be black and white, us versus them, the good guys fighting the bad guys. You’re either with us, the good guys, or you’re with Thanos,” he says. “And I don’t think you’re with Thanos.”

“Obviously—”

“Yeah, see? Obviously. You don’t want half the universe wiped out any more than we do,” he says. “And if you're against him, that means you're with us. And if you're with us, you gotta be with us, man. You can’t be part of the team if you run off first chance you get.”

Loki scoffs, shaking his head with a humorless smile on his face. “I’m not a part of your team.”

“You could be.”

He offers it without thinking. Loki gives him a look like that's the strangest thing he's said yet, and maybe it is, but Peter just shrugs and decides that he meant it. They've all got a mess load of issues, and they're all a little too adept at fighting and blowing stuff up for their own good, and they were all once a little unsure where they belonged. Far as he can tell, Loki's no different.

The look he's getting now is hard to read. It's a little bit of confusion, a little bit of fear, Peter thinks. But mostly Loki just looks tired.

“You don't want me here,” Loki says. “And you won't convince me to stay. I’m leaving.”

Peter lets out a breath. “Yeah, figured as much. And I mean… don't get me wrong, you still got a place with us if you want it. I meant that. But I wasn't really trying to convince you to stay, anyway.”

“Oh? Is that so?” Loki asks. “Then tell me, what were you trying to do?”

Peter shrugs. “Eh. Mostly just trying to stall you until someone heard all the commotion and came running to help.”

He sees the look of dawning apprehension on Loki's face at the same time that a hesitant voice calls out from down the hallway to Peter's left.

“You alright there, Pete?”

Peter keeps his eyes on Loki, tilting his head with an apologetic wince.

“Could use a hand, Krag. Thanks.”

There's a low whistle, and then the familiar hum of the Yaka arrow as it whizzes down the hall and stops, hovering a foot away from Loki’s ear.

Kraglin’s no Yondu — that arrow would be spinning in the air with about a hair’s breadth between its tip and Loki’s forehead if he was — but he's been practicing, and it's plenty to make Loki scowl and release his hold on Peter's shirt.

Mantis has also caught up by now. She stops running, sliding to a halt at the other end of the hall, to Peter’s right and to Loki’s left. Peter watches Loki take in this new situation, warily looking from Mantis on one end of the hall to Kraglin on the other, before he sets his gaze back on Peter.

His voice is low with warning when he says, “Don’t make me do this.”

“Not making you do anything, man,” Peter tells him, his back still against the wall and his hands up in surrender. “Come on. We can go back to the med bay, we’ll talk this all out.”

Again Loki looks to Mantis, then again to Kraglin.

His eyes linger on the arrow.

“Loki. Hey, now, don't—”

Before he can finish his sentence, before he can even register that it's happened, Loki snatches the arrow out of the air.

Peter swears his heart skips a beat. He's never seen anyone grab the arrow that quick, not since Yondu.

Kraglin whistles, and Peter's the only one close enough to see the absolute shock on Loki’s face when the arrow is ripped from his fist. It loops around in the air, a stream of bright red light returning right back to him, and Loki manages to dodge the first go around. In the same movement he grasps Peter’s shirt by the front of it and throws him with all his strength down the hallway. Again Peter feels his stomach turn over itself, air rushes past his ears, and he hears a shout as all two-hundred-something pounds of him collides with Mantis.

The two of them fall over each other in a heap. Peter looks up just in time to see Loki duck down — dodging the arrow’s second go around by no more than an inch — and grab the broken gun. He flings it with expert precision at Kraglin, and it meets with the center of Kraglin’s forehead.

The whistle cuts off. The arrow stops in mid air just short of piercing Loki’s leg and clatters to the floor, and Kraglin stumbles back one, two, three steps before falling onto his back with a definitive thud.

“Kraglin!”

Peter scrambles to his feet just a few seconds later than Mantis does. She's already running after Loki, who's already running past Kraglin, away from all of them and down the hall. Peter follows behind, skids to a stop by Kraglin, and kneels down next to him.

He's fine, not even knocked out, just groaning curses and blinking dazedly up at the ceiling. Peter breathes a sigh of relief and pats Krag on the chest before he jumps back up and sprints off after Mantis. He's always been quick, and he knows Mantis is quicker, but it doesn't seem like either of them are nearly quick enough to catch up to Loki.

Loki gets to the end of the hall, turns right, and keeps on running, looking left and right for a clear sign of an exit. Peter knows they'd be fighting him face-to-face instead of racing like this if Loki didn't know that Mantis can knock him out with a single touch, and if he's honest, he really can't decide whether that's a good thing or not.

Loki's damn close to getting out now. If he makes a left turn in a few seconds he’ll see the airlock door…

He doesn't get that chance.

Gamora must have heard the commotion, too, and she appears in the hallway right in front of him, cutting off his route to the airlock, already poised for a fight.

Mantis and Peter skid to a stop, but Loki doesn't. He ducks to the floor and slides under Gamora’s arm, attempting to grab her leg and topple her over as he passes. He misses, or Gamora dodges, Peter isn't sure, and he quickly gets back to his feet and tries to keep on running.

Gamora grabs him by the back of his collar and yanks him back, and suddenly Peter finds himself watching a one-on-one fight in the middle of his ship, standing nearby, unsure whether he can help, unsure whether he should. A quick glance to Mantis and he knows he isn’t alone in that.

And Peter’s seen Gamora fight before. He knows what she can do. Hell, he’s fought her himself and barely made it out thanks to some quick thinking with a pocket thruster.

But this is an efficiency like nothing he's ever seen. She parries Loki’s first blow with a forearm, ducks around him and lands an elbow to the back of his neck, swings a leg around to try and trip him up. He jumps over her leg, whips around and lands one good punch to Gamora’s ribs that makes Peter cringe. She returns the blow in kind, aims it straight for the center of his stomach. As he falters for just half a second, she deals a swift high kick to his side, grabs hold of his arm, and spins him until she has him pinned, stomach-first, to the wall.

Loki tries, just once, to break free from her grip. She has his left arm twisted behind his back and very nearly loses her hold on him, but Loki stills when he hears more footsteps around them. Now Drax has heard what’s happening, too, and he steps into the hall on the other end from where Mantis and Peter stand. There’s a low rumble as Groot steps up behind Drax, Rocket perched on his shoulder.

“The hell’s goin’ on now?”

Drax stays silent. He frowns, hand already on the dagger at his waist, but Gamora gives all of them a quick shake of her head that Peter’s seen a thousand times before. Don’t intervene, she's saying. I can handle this.

“It’s over,” she says, tightening her grip on Loki’s arm. “Stop wasting your strength.”

When he speaks, Loki’s voice is laced with venom, more so than Peter's ever heard from him. “You can only fight me,” he pants, “when I’ve had my power stripped away by these ridiculous cuffs.”

“You're probably right,” Gamora answers in a calm whisper. “Will that be a comfort to you when you're lying unconscious in the medical bay?”

“Loki, come on,” Peter cuts in before Loki can give a smart-ass response. “Give it up. You almost hurt Mantis, you could have killed Kraglin—”

Gamora looks to Peter with wide eyes.

Rocket shouts, “What?”

Loki protests, “He’s fine.”

“He is,” Peter assures them before sending his glare back to Loki. “But you could have crushed his skull if you threw that gun too hard, man.”

“And did I?”

“No, but—”

“No, I did not. Because I held back. Do you imagine he'll encounter that sort of mercy from Thanos or the Black Order or any of the Outriders?” he asks. “If any of your team is nearly as fragile as you seem to think they are, perhaps they shouldn't be making themselves targets of Thanos in the first place.”

“It's not ‘cause I think they're fragile, alright? This is my family you're talking about,” Peter shoots back. “They could all be invincible and I’d still worry about them getting hurt.”

“If you don't want them to get hurt, then you will let me leave.”

“You cannot leave,” Drax speaks up.

Loki rolls his eyes, though the effect is a bit lost when he’s still pinned with his face half pressed into the wall. “Oh, please, if you think—”

“He’s right,” Gamora interrupts. “If you leave now, and Thanos finds you, he will invade your mind again, and this time he will use what you know about us and our ship, and he'll come straight here to wipe us all out before we've even had a chance to fight back.”

“And if I stay, he will invade my mind again regardless,” Loki growls. “The protection of these cuffs cannot last forever.”

“Okay, but don't you think it’s better if that happens while you’re here?” Peter asks. He glances at Mantis, and then at Gamora and Drax, looking for one of them to back him up.

It’s Rocket that comes to his rescue. “It’s way better. If the purple asshole gets through again then at least the shields’ll probably keep him from finding ya, and then you’ll—”

“And then I’ll have to feel all of your bones snapping in my own hands!”

His words shock all of them into silence, at least for a second, but it turns out a second is all he needs. Again he tries to break free from Gamora’s grip, and this time he manages to pull it off. With a grunt of effort he wrenches his arm from her hands and pushes back against her, forcing her to stumble back a step, and he whirls around to face her with his hands up in surrender before she charges forward.

She has one forearm to his chest now, pinning him again, but there’s no mistaking that this time he allowed it happen.

Loki sweeps his gaze over all of them, hands still raised.

“If these cuffs begin to allow Thanos into my mind again,” he says, his voice low, “then it stands to reason I will have access to my magic again as well. You’ve all seen me fighting when I’m unarmed and weakened. Do you imagine that any of you will stand a chance when I have my magic at my disposal? Or when someone else is controlling my actions and won’t account for my injuries? Believe me when I say you will not survive it.”

“So we’ll upgrade the cuffs,” Peter offers. “We can—”

“No, you’re not understanding me, there is no avoiding this,” he snaps. “There is no keeping Thanos at bay forever. So, forgive me if I would rather not lose all autonomy again and have to…”

His voice trails off to nothing, his eyes widening. Peter frowns. Loki looks like he’s seen a ghost.

“What’s—?”

“Let go of me,” Loki says before Peter can get a second word in, turning his harsh glare on Gamora.

She doesn’t move. In the distance, Peter hears a clap of thunder from the storm nearby.

“I said, let go of me,” he hisses.

“Loki, would you just tell us what has you looking like—”

There’s another clap of thunder. This time it’s far louder, rattling the metal floors beneath their feet.

And suddenly Peter understands what’s happening. They were never close enough to the storm for it to shake the ship like it just did, Peter made sure of that.

They aren’t caught in a thunderstorm. They’re being paid a visit.

As soon as that thought crosses his mind, something hits the side of the ship, right around the airlock door. Peter feels the hairs on his arms stand up as the air and the metal floors begin to thrum with static. He knows the others feel it, too. There’s a distant series of beeps as the outer door passcode is entered, and then the airlock opens with a wssh of air that smells like rain.

The seven of them all look up as Thor steps into view, the last traces of blue light fading from his one eye.

He spares a lingering glance at Loki, but although his brow creases with concern, he doesn’t comment on the fact that Gamora currently has his injured brother pinned to the wall. Instead he addresses all of them, his face solemn and his voice heavy with foreboding.

“He’s coming. Thanos will land on Earth within the hour.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Alarms blare as the invaders board the Statesman, somewhere on the starboard side. Red light floods the walls in turns, casting distorted and ever-changing shadows as the ship comes alive with worried people running about.

Thor is already gone.

Thor, the stupid brave selfless idiot, ran off to address the threat before Loki could get a word in.

Now Loki moves in a daze, forcing his feet to carry him to the starboard side of the ship despite his every nerve screaming at him to turn around and flee, to get the hell out of here before it’s too late.

But it already is too late.

Thanos and his lackeys work quickly, as they always have. It’s been barely ten minutes, and Loki can already smell smoke and the sickening tang of blood in the air. He hears the moans of the wounded and dying well before he nearly stumbles over the first body.

His breath catches in his throat. He knows her. The long curls and bright blue eyes are hard to miss, even in death. Runa, barely out of adolescence, far too young to be facing the likes of Thanos, far too foolish to stay away from the worst of the fighting.

The second body he recognizes as well. Halvar. Loki grits his teeth, ignoring the pang in his chest — you barely knew these people, keep moving you idiot — as he steps over the body.

The third is someone he knows only by face, not by name. That should make it more bearable, he thinks, but somehow it only makes it worse.

Loki passes under the threshold and finds himself in the heart of the battle, or the heart of what was the battle, as the fighting has very clearly already come to its end. The only light comes from the fires. The lights above have been burnt out, either by some collateral damage to the ship’s power grid or by Thor’s final attempt to protect his people. There are more bodies littered about, tens of dozens of them, and Loki feels his heart sink.

There were so few of us left.

The Black Order is the only company Thanos has brought with him, and they all immediately move to surround Loki as he approaches. Proxima Midnight hefts her weapon and trains it squarely on him, but he barely spares her a glance.

His eyes are only on Thanos.

Because there, with his head tightly gripped in the Mad Titan’s right hand, is Thor.

At first Loki thinks that his brother must be dead That can’t be Thor, that can only be his body. But then Thor cringes and reaches one arm up, trying futilely to dislodge Thanos’ hand.

Loki feels his hands shaking. He clenches them into fists.

“Thanos,” he says, surprising himself with the steadiness of his own voice. He inclines his head.

Thanos bares his teeth in a smile that almost makes Loki want to look away, but he forces himself to maintain eye contact. Don't look at Thor. Don't look at him. Not for a single second.

“Spare me your false greetings. Do you have what I want?”

Loki nods. “I do.”

Thanos wordlessly reaches out with his free hand.

“But,” Loki says with an automatic flash of his trickster’s smile, though his pulse is hammering away in his chest, “you can’t expect that I’ll give it to you without something in return.”

The look on Thanos’ face is like nothing Loki has ever seen. Thanos is not accustomed to defiance. He glances to one of the Black Order, and pain erupts at the back of Loki’s skull, the force of the hit knocking him down to his hands and knees. He doesn’t even know which one of them it was, but from the sharpness of the pain it was likely Proxima Midnight and her spear.

It doesn’t matter. It’s nothing, just a show of physical power. It won’t make him give up the Tesseract. Not yet.

“You are in no position to bargain.”

Loki looks up. “Consider it a request, then.”

“You are in no position to make requests, either.”

“Oh, but I only ask for what you’re willing to give,” Loki insists, inwardly berating himself for the slight note of desperation he’s let creep into his voice. “I know what you want. Half the universe obliterated, all things in perfect balance. And I trust you know by now that Asgard has already been destroyed. A great deal more than half of its people has already been lost. And more still, now that you’ve descended upon us.”

He realizes, as the word leaves his mouth, what a mistake he’s made. Thanos laughs, and true fear sends ice through Loki’s veins.

“Us?”

Loki’s instinct is to backpedal. A million lies flit through his thoughts. He could claim force of habit. He could insist that he counts himself among them only because he knows Thanos would kill him as quickly and thoughtlessly as he has done to so many of the others that lay dead around him.

But he bites his tongue.

His request will make it plain enough. There’s no sense in hiding it now.

Loki nods. The confident mask is slipping, bit by bit, and he allows it to. Perhaps it will sate Thanos’ ego, make him more plaint, if he sees a touch of fear and reverence.

“I only ask that you count what remains of the Asgardian people as the survivors of your war,” he says. “You’ve already shown your strength. You’ve killed so many.” He gulps. “The rest are not worth your time.”

He watches Thanos carefully for any sign that his words might be getting through, and there is a moment, just a moment, in which Thanos looks like he might consider.

But then he sends a look to one of the Black Order again, smiles that sickening smile, and brings his gaze back to Loki.

Thanos lifts Thor by his skull, drags him up like a ragdoll as if he weighs nothing, lifts him up until his feet barely graze the floor. Thor cries out in pain as Thanos tightens his grip, and for the first time since entering the room, Loki gives in and breaks eye contact with Thanos to stare at his brother.

No, he thinks, no, no, no, no—

He watches it happen, wide-eyed and shaking. If he weren't already on his knees he knows his legs would have given out. He feels bile rise in his throat, but the only sound that leaves him is a choked gasp.

The low pop of Thor’s skull will echo in his nightmares for the rest of his life.

“You are in no position to make requests,” Thanos repeats, as Thor’s body falls slack and collapses in a lifeless heap on the floor. A pool of blood has already begun to spread from where Thor’s head now lays, and Loki cannot look away from it.

And then, suddenly, Thor is no longer lying dead on the floor.

Instead, he’s right back where he started, dangling by his still intact head in Thanos’ grip. He’s still breathing, still groaning in pain. There is no pool of blood on the floor. There never was.

Loki hears a low chuckle from behind him.

Of course. Right. Obviously. Ebony Maw and his mind games.

Every part of him is shaking now, and he tries to get his breathing in order. Decades spent with a mask of cool indifference couldn’t have prepared him for seeing that. Even now, seeing that Thor is not dead, there is no room in his mind to feel relief, not when he knows that Thanos can make that vision a reality at any moment.

… And he will, Loki realizes.

Thor is not dead yet, but he’s as good as. Loki forces himself to face that reality, here and now. Thanos will not leave a King to survive with his people. It's too late for Thor. It’s also, more than likely, far too late for Loki as well.

All that's left is the chance that he’s given Heimdall and Valkyrie and all the others enough time to flee.

“Now, are you going to give me what I want?”

Loki takes a slow, steadying breath.

Still shaking, tears cold on his cheeks — and when he’d allowed that to happen he has no idea — he slowly stands and reaches into the small pocket in the universe he’s carved aside for this purpose. He drags out the moment as long as he can without arousing suspicion, plays off his slow and deliberate movements as a product of his fear.

And then, too soon, the Tesseract sits warm and pulsing in his palm. He holds it up with a trembling hand.

Thanos laughs, a low and dark sound that rumbles through the floor.

And Loki knew he wouldn’t let Thor live, but knowing doesn’t soften the blow. Thanos crushes the Tesseract, harnesses the raw power of its Infinity Stone in the palm of his hand, and opens up a black portal in the wall of the ship.

Thanos’ first use of the Infinity Stone that Loki gave to him is to cast Thor out into the cold vacuum of space.

Then, for the second time, pain bursts at the back of his skull, and Loki’s vision goes black.

 


 

“He’s coming,” Thor says, looking at each of them in turn. “Thanos will land on Earth within the hour.”

There is a beat of silence, and then everyone tries to speak all at once.

What? Already—?”

“Are you certain—”

“Oh, no, only one hour—”

“Then we must gather our defenses—”

“Shit, alright, Groot, let’s—”

“I am Groot.”

Gamora has already released him and stepped away, but Loki still doesn’t move. He doesn’t join the cacophony of voices, either.

They weren’t lying, he thinks.

Of course he had suspected as much. Most of Quill’s ragtag crew seemed far too guileless to craft such a complicated lie, and they all knew far too much about Thor to have never met him at all.

Still. Hearing that his brother is alive against all evidence that once pointed to the contrary is rather different than seeing the proof, the living and walking and talking proof, standing right in front of him.

He feels, oddly, like he’s looking at a ghost.

“We’ve been preparing for this,” Thor says. He grabs Drax by the shoulder in a show of camaraderie, looking at the rest of them. “Thanos will not reach any of the remaining Infinity Stones. His attempted conquest ends here, today. I know it. All of you, as Drax said, gather your defenses. Quill, we should take course for the country of Wakanda. The others will be waiting for us there.” He releases Drax’s shoulder. “And if you all wouldn’t mind, I’d like a moment to speak with my brother.”

He doesn’t say alone, but evidently it goes unspoken.

Drax is the first to leave, quickly outrun by Rocket scurrying down the hall whilst yelling about some weapon or another that he needs to upgrade, Groot following close behind. Quill nods at Mantis to follow him in the opposite direction, heading back from where they came — where, just about now, Kraglin must be starting to arise. Gamora is the last to move. She casts a sideways glance at Loki before striding away after Drax, but as she passes Thor she lays a hand on his arm and leans in to say something to him that Loki doesn’t catch.

Thor nods. Whatever she told him was something he already knew.

And then Gamora leaves, and Thor watches her go before turning his attention back to Loki.

“You look well,” Thor says, and at the face Loki makes, he corrects himself with a tilt of his head. “Better than you were.”

Again Loki is left wondering just how horrible he must have looked when they found him on Thanos’ ship, but he chooses not to dwell on it. “I could say the same to you,” he says instead, and it’s true. His brother looks battle weary, a bit bruised here and there, but he looked far worse with his head encased in the Mad Titan’s unforgiving grip. “You’re still breathing, for one thing.”

“I am.”

Loki looks him over again, biting the inside of his cheek. “I thought you were dead.”

“Can’t imagine what that must have been like,” Thor says with a smirk, “thinking your brother dead.”

Loki glares at that. He had it coming, he supposes, but he isn’t used to Thor getting the better of him with his wits. It’s unsettling. It's frustrating. Yet still, beneath the simmering anger he finds it very, very difficult to ignore the relief that’s there, too.

Difficult, but not impossible. He has a lifetime of practice ignoring his weaker tendencies.

Thor gestures with a nod down the hall, back toward the medical bay. “Come on, let's go sit somewhere. We don't have a lot of time.”

They fall into step together, walking side by side down the hall, Thor with the ease of someone who has been on this ship a thousand times before, and Loki, for his part, focusing primarily on not limping.

“Are you going to tell me how you survived?” Loki asks.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees Thor nod. “It was the Guardians.”

“The what?”

“It’s what they’re called. The Midgardian Quill and the rest of his crew,” he says. “The Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“What?”

Thor laughs. “You heard me.”

“The Guardians of—? Are you joking?”

They turn a corner toward the med bay. Thor, still smiling, says, “From what I hear, they've earned the title. Saved the galaxy twice, actually. And now they're joining the Avengers to save it a third time.”

Loki takes a second to process that information. He tries to imagine any one of Quill’s crew fighting off evil beings with the grandeur and righteousness of someone like… well, someone like Thor, or one of his Avenger friends, and he just can't picture it.

“They don't seem the galaxy-saving type.”

Thor hums in agreement. “They may be a bit… unconventional. But they're good people.”

“Hmm.”

“They are,” Thor insists. “I owe them a great debt. They saved my life, pulling me onto their ship instead of leaving me out in space, not to mention they’ve been keeping you safe these past few days—”

“Keeping me prisoner, you mean.”

Thor shoots him a look. “Keeping you safe.”

Loki shrugs. It’s not worth arguing. The distinction doesn't make much of a difference now, not with Thanos already on his way here, not when he no longer needs to use Loki’s mind to find the remaining Infinity Stones— since, evidently, he's figured out where they are all on his own.

“Still. Guardians of the Galaxy,” Loki mutters. He wrinkles his nose in distaste. “It’s a bit much.”

Thor smiles again, but he doesn't agree aloud.

“It could be worse, though,” Loki admits, a wicked grin tugging at the corners of his lips. “They could have called themselves the Revengers.”

His jibe draws an instant annoyed groan from Thor and then a swift, light punch to Loki’s arm. It's so familiar and normal that it nearly makes him forget, for a moment, about the impending end of half the universe.

But it also brings another urgent question to mind, a question he almost doesn't want to ask.

“The others,” Loki says. “Valkyrie, Heimdall, the rest of Asgard.”

“They escaped the attack,” Thor tells him, and Loki takes a slow breath and nods. At least he hadn't given up the Tesseract for nothing. “They're currently waiting for us in Wakanda.”

“And that is?”

“A country on Earth. Their king has been more than gracious these past few weeks. He's given our people a place to regroup, and he's offering aid in the fight against Thanos.”

Loki’s brow furrows. “That's… surprisingly helpful, given… well. Earth.”

“Wakanda is not much like the rest of Earth,” Thor answers with a shrug, and Loki can instantly tell that Thor has grown very fond of this mysterious Midgardian country. And it's not like the strange inexplicable love that Thor has for all of Midgard, it's something else, something particular about Wakanda or its people.

They pass the threshold into the med bay and Thor pulls up a crate to sit on. Loki strides past him — and past the Mantis-sized dent in the wall, too, which he pointedly doesn't look at — and sits at the edge of the bed that's been his for the past two days.

Loki leans forward, elbows on his knees and fingers steepled together, and he looks at his brother, trying to glean from Thor's expression some inkling of what this conversation is all about. A simple greeting, a “good to see you're alive, now let's get ready for this battle,” that's what Loki would have expected.

But there's something else.

“How prepared are we?” Loki asks.

Thor scratches the back of his head, opening his mouth to reply, but Loki cuts him off before he can offer the empty platitude that Loki knows is coming.

“You know what I mean,” he says. “You saw Thanos and the Black Order firsthand. You know what they're capable of.”

Thor frowns. “I know Earth’s defenses won't go down without a fight.”

“Not without a fight,” Loki agrees, “but they will go down.”

“I’m not saying that—”

“You're not not saying it.”

“Because I don't know what will happen,” Thor says with a twinge of anger in his voice, shooting Loki a look that tells him he's succeeding in grating Thor's nerves. Then the look fades, and he lets out a tired sigh. “I don't know if we'll be enough. We fought off your Chitauri invasion with just… what, the six of us? Now we have whole armies on our side, we've got sorcerers and witches, half of what's left of Asgard, the warriors we brought from Sakaar, the Guardians… and to be honest, I still don't know if it will be enough.”

Loki frowns. He sees something in his brother’s face that he hasn't seen in a very long time, with the exception of one brief moment on the cliffs of Norway just a few weeks ago.

Thor is afraid. The emotion sits strangely on his features, unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

Good, Loki thinks. He should be afraid.

“Half of what’s left of Asgard,” Loki repeats, pensively staring down at his hands. “After what they saw Thanos do on the Statesman, they still wish to fight him?”

Thor huffs a laugh, though for the life of him Loki can’t understand why. “We’d barely escaped Hela’s slaughter when he descended upon us,” Thor says. “The people thought they were safe, finally, and then suddenly Thanos appeared and killed so many more of us. Friends, family, people who thought they’d just fled from such a fate…”

He doesn’t bother to hide the bitterness in his voice. Loki will have to teach him to maintain a facade better, one day. Bitterness is easy to exploit.

“After that, I had a hard enough time convincing some of them not to fight him,” Thor says, and when Loki looks up he sees a smile on his brother’s face. There’s some sadness in that look, some worry, but mostly pride. Pride for his people, a people as stubborn and foolhardy and brave as their new king.

For a moment, Loki wonders how exactly Thor managed to convince half of them to stay out of the fight.

And then, all at once, he realizes what this conversation is about. His eyes widen at the realization, and the warmth in his chest is snuffed out, something dark and chilling taking its place.

“No,” he says, prompting a confused look from Thor. “Absolutely not.”

“No… what?”

“No, you won’t convince me,” Loki says. He speaks in a tone that leaves no room for argument — or at least, it would, if he were talking to just about anyone else. “I’m not staying behind while you and your friends fight a battle that will decide all of our fates, Thor.”

It’s so easy to see Thor’s entire thought process play across his face. I have got to teach him to control that, it’ll be the death of him if he survives today. For one single second, Loki can see that he wants to deny it. He wasn’t expecting his intentions to be drug out into the open so soon, and worse still by someone other than him. But then he sets his jaw and takes a slow breath.

“Loki…”

“Don’t Loki me.”

“You’re hurt,” Thor presses on.

“I’m fine.”

“You’re not. I saw your injuries when we first brought you to this ship. I know how long it takes us to recover from—”

“How long it takes an Asgardian, you mean.”

Thor lets out a slow exhale through his nose, clearly trying to keep his temper in check. “I know how long it takes you to recover from injuries, Loki, and even if I didn’t, I can still see. Your leg is still partially broken, you’re bruised all over, and whatever fight I just walked in on between you and the Guardians, apparently you had some trouble holding your own against them—”

“A seven-to-one fight came to a draw, and you’re citing that as evidence that my injuries have left me too weak to fight?” Loki asks, standing up and glaring down at Thor, his arms crossed over his chest.

Thor doesn’t rise to the bait. As calmly as ever — and isn't that just infuriating, that Thor of all people is keeping a level head — he says, “You would not survive the battle, Loki.”

“Neither will half of your friends,” Loki says, taking a bit of satisfaction from the way it makes Thor flinch. “You know it as well as I do. And yet I don’t see you sitting down with any of them, trying futilely to convince them not to fight.”

“This is different.”

“Oh, is it?”

“It is.”

“And why is that? Because I’m your brother?” he asks, a cruel lilt of mocking in his voice, a humorless smile tugging at his lips. “Because you just couldn’t bear to lose me again? Spare me the sentiment. You’ve already seen me die twice. You can handle a third.”

“That’s…” Thor trails off, before settling with, “… debatable. But that’s not—”

“Oh, please,” Loki cuts in. “You got on just fine without me before. And now that I finally have good reason to—” he cuts himself off before the word die very nearly escapes him, but he recovers quickly. “Now that I actually want to fight for something real, something that matters, now is when you decide my safety is too important? You know that this is just as much my fight as it is any of yours, after everything I had to endure—”

“Loki—”

“—and it doesn’t matter anyway,” Loki goes on without acknowledging the interruption. “Even if you could stop me. There’s no point. Keeping me away from the fight, it won’t matter in the end, not if he wins. Do you not get that? There will be nowhere in the universe that’s safe—”

“But if there was, you could find it!” Thor cuts in, finally standing up.

The sheer unexpectedness of his words, the senselessness of them, shocks Loki into silence for a second.

“… What?”

“If there’s anywhere that’s safe from Thanos,” says Thor, “any way to keep out of his path, any way at all, you’re the only person I would ever trust to be able to find it.”

“And… what, you think I would just run off and hide from him? Spend the rest of my days running like a coward?”

“No, of course not,” Thor says, and then he tilts his head and shrugs one shoulder. “Not by yourself, anyway.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

Thor runs a hand through his cropped hair, bringing it rest at the back of his neck for a moment, and he looks at Loki with an expression that is, for once, difficult to read.

“Do you really not understand?” Thor asks, and as Loki’s confused face darkens with barely controlled anger Thor relents and raises his hands in surrender. “Alright. Alright,” he says with a sigh. “Look… You’re right, of course I don’t want you to die. That should go without saying, and it’ll never not be true, but that’s not why I want you to stay out of this battle. I want you to stay out of it, not because you might die, but… well, because I might.”

Loki’s brow furrows. “What does that have to do with—”

“With you?” Thor asks. “Really? What does the possible death of Asgard’s king have to do with you, its crown prince?”

It takes a second for Thor's meaning to register.

When it does, Loki realizes dimly, somewhere in the back of his mind, that what he's hearing should elicit some sort of emotion. He's not sure what it should be — elation, triumph, fear, anger — but he knows it should be something.

Instead there's just a numbing cold at the center of his chest, seeping out and trickling into his veins like rivers of ice.

“No,” Loki says, shaking his head. “No, that's not…”

“Why not? You ruled over Asgard for years already.”

“By deception.”

“Regardless, you were a King longer than I ever was.”

Yet, he thinks, longer than you have been yet. Don't say it like you're planning on dying.

He shakes his head again. “I was their King, and the nine realms fell into chaos, you said it yourself.”

“But not Asgard,” Thor shoots back. “Thanos was tearing apart the galaxies searching for the Infinity Stones, gathering followers, sending entire civilizations to extinction. But Asgard was at peace. Asgard was safe.”

“It doesn’t matter! They would never accept me as their King, you know that. Not if I hid like a coward the whole fight.”

“If you find a way to keep them safe, nothing you've ever done will matter one bit to them,” Thor insists.

Loki frowns. Every fiber of his being is rebelling against this idea, against staying out of the fight, against having to rule again, against Thor dying. “Let's just say, for sake of argument," he says, "that I stay out of the fight and I survive today. If Thanos wins his war, keeping Asgard out of his path… You would be asking me to do the impossible.”

And it absolutely would be impossible, he knows. If Thor dies — if, Loki thinks, if he dies — and Thanos wins… Loki meant what he said. There is no hiding from him.

No realm, no barren moon, no crevice where he cannot find you.

“Impossible,” Thor repeats, “like coming back from the dead is impossible? Or staying hidden from Heimdall, or traveling between realms without using the Bifrost? Like I said, if there’s a way, you are the only person I would trust to find it.”

As he says that, a steady beep draws Loki’s attention down to Thor’s wrist. He's wearing a bracelet of some sort, a small chain of silver orbs, and one of them is lighting up in time with the sound.

Thor spares it a glance, pinches the orb between two fingers, and the beeping ceases.

“We’re running out of time,” Thor says. He grabs onto Loki’s shoulder, firm and bracing. “Listen. I’m not saying you can’t find some way to help. I’m just saying this is… this is bigger than anything we’ve ever faced before.” He gives a wry smile. “Believe me, I’ve always thought the two of us dying side-by-side on the battlefield was how it ought to happen. But now I have greater concerns than a glorious death. Asgard needs an Odinson on the throne. They need someone to lead them, someone familiar, someone who can protect them. I hope to see this through to the end, but if I don’t…” His grip on Loki’s shoulder tightens just slightly. “Asgard cannot lose both of us. You understand that.”

Loki gulps. There’s something incredibly uncomfortable pinching at his throat. He gives his best attempt at an unaffected smile and says, “Covering all of your bases. That’s remarkably prudent of you, brother.”

There’s a sad note to Thor’s smile now, and he shrugs. “I can no longer afford to not be.”

The bracelet starts up its beeping again, and Thor releases his hold on Loki’s shoulder, stepping back with a sigh and lifting his wrist to look at it.

Above the blinking bead a small three-dimensional rendering projects itself, too solid to be a true hologram, of a young woman from the waist up.

“Where have you been?” she asks with an accent Loki does not recognize, staring up at Thor. “You are still not back yet?”

“I’ll be there soon, I promise,” Thor says, smiling down at her.

She rolls her eyes, but there’s a good-natured lack of venom in the glare she sends him. It’s a look Loki recognizes immediately, playful and almost sibling-like. “You better be,” she says, and then her gaze turns to Loki, and her eyes widen in surprise. “Oh, so the infamous brother lives! How are those cuffs working for you, then?”

Loki raises an eyebrow at her, looks down at the cuffs, then back up at her.

“Well? Nothing?”

“I—yes, they work.”

“Of course they work,” she says, exasperated. “I did not design them not to work. But how well do they work?”

Finally Loki remembers what Rocket said about the cuffs when he first awoke with them on his wrists. This must be the Princess he was talking about, though Loki wonders which of them is exaggerating their own role in designing them. He suspects Rocket, though a joint effort can't be ruled out.

Perhaps the Princess designed them and Rocket built them. If that’s the case, Loki thinks, then she may know why it’s suppressing his magic.

“Thanos has yet to invade my mind,” he tells her. “He used to be in the background of everything, but there hasn’t been so much as a whisper since I’ve had these on. They seem to work perfectly, except” — he chances a quick glance at Thor, but decides to just get on with it — “they have the… unfortunate side effect of suppressing my magic.”

He does not miss the look Thor gives him, the why-didn’t-you-mention-that-before look. As if they’ve had an abundance of time to talk about it.

The Princess frowns and hums in thought. “That was unintended, but it is interesting. You see, I’m on a bit of a learning curve when it comes to magic. But I'm sure I have something here that will help, or I can…” she trails off, glancing at her watch, and she groans. “Ah! We have so little time!”

She turns to look at something to her left, something that they can’t see.

“Alright, I’m picking up your signal, you are just about to land,” she says. “Thor, my brother is there waiting for you. Loki, give me… oh, Bast, we really have so little time. Alright. Give me ten minutes. I will figure out a way to improve the cuffs.”

“Thank you for everything, Princess Shuri,” Thor says with a respectful incline of his head.

“Yes, yes, of course,” she responds, waving a hand, and the image fades away.

At that moment, the ship begins its descent. Both brothers look up at the ceiling, listening to the whirring of the turbines for a moment.

“We’re here,” Thor says. “I have to go.”

He grabs hold of Loki’s shoulder again, this time closer to his neck, and looks him in the eye.

“You’ll remember what I said?” he asks.

Loki opens his mouth to say something in response and finds himself, bizarrely and for the first time in recent memory, at a loss for words. But he can plainly see that Thor needs this. He needs to know that Loki will listen to him, just this once. Despite years of evidence that he cannot be trusted with so much as a small favor, Thor is trusting him now with something as monumental as the well-being and survival of what remains of his people.

He closes his mouth and nods.

Thor releases his hold on him. “I hope we’ll see each other again when this is all over.”

With that, he turns and makes to leave. It’s not until he’s left the room entirely that Loki finally rediscovers his voice.

“Thor.”

Loki steps out into the hallway and watches Thor turn back toward him, already halfway down the hall, headed for the nearest exit to prepare for the battle. Thor raises an eyebrow at him, waiting.

“I hated ruling,” Loki admits, turning his hands up in a helpless shrug. “I hated being King. It was boring, and tedious, and exhausting.”

There’s a hint of a smile on Thor’s face now. “So…?”

Loki lets out an annoyed huff. “So don’t go dying and shoving all that responsibility right back on me, alright?”

The hint of a smile on his brother’s face is a full ear-to-ear grin now. Thor is positively beaming at him, and Loki rolls his eyes again. As if saying don’t die was equivalent to professing undying affection for his brother.

Though to be fair, he supposes it is the closest he’s come to saying anything sentimental since— well, long enough that he can’t quite remember. It’s certainly been decades since he’s said anything sentimental and meant it.

“I’ll do my best,” Thor answers.

Once he turns away and disappears around the bend in the ship’s hallway, Loki stares at the space where his brother was just standing, an unpleasant feeling coiling in his gut. It’s anxiety about the battle, he’s sure, about the millions of different futures that lay ahead. Thanos winning. Thanos losing. Thor dying and leaving Loki to lead a broken people in a half-destroyed universe, no longer with the guise of Odin to hide behind. Thanos getting his hands on Loki again, using him as a weapon, using him to commit any great number of horrible atrocities. Loki’s own death.

Oddly, that seems the most preferable of any of those outcomes. He isn't sure how he feels about that.

“That was cute.”

Startled out of his thoughts, he whirls around and finds Gamora leaning casually against the wall. She has her arms crossed over her chest, her face deceptively lacking in any smugness. Or any emotion at all, for that matter.

“And exactly how long were you standing there?”

She shrugs one shoulder. “Not long.”

“Shouldn’t you be preparing for the battle?”

“No need,” she answers right away. “I’ve been preparing for this day since I was a little girl.”

Loki tilts his head, regarding her with narrowed eyes. “Have you now?”

She nods, but says nothing. Loki debates whether to ask what she means by that, but he can generally tell the difference between someone worth finessing answers out of and someone who would sooner put a blade to his throat than offer any worthwhile information.

Gamora is, without doubt, the latter.

Still, he likes a challenge, and he's curious, and he’s got ten minutes to kill. So he switches tactics. He laces his voice with suspicion that begs an explanation and says, “Tell me, where do you get all that strength from? You're quite a bit stronger than the average Zehoberei.”

It might have been the wrong thing to say, but at least it gets a reaction out of her. There’s a flicker of surprise across her face, and then her features settle into a cool anger. “I’m the only Zehoberei.”

“Now, yes,” he says. “But you are a great deal stronger than any of them ever were. Why is that, I wonder?”

She holds his gaze, and he doesn’t back down, staring right back at her. The staredown lasts for only a few seconds before she sighs in annoyance and rolls her eyes. “I’m not having this conversation with you. There’s no time.”

“Indeed there isn’t. And yet here you are, wasting away your precious little time before the battle with me.”

Again she doesn’t answer right away. She drums the fingers of her right hand along her left bicep, looking at him with that piercing and calculating gaze of hers, and then finally she says, “Your brother does not want you in this battle.”

… Oh.

Oh.

Loki has to resist the urge to groan aloud, so he settles with a low hum that probably comes out sounding like a growl. “Yes, I’m well aware of what Thor does not want me to do. I suppose you’ll be trying to stop me, then?”

“Should I?”

Loki starts to retort, but he pauses. She’s asking him? That alone is enough to surprise the short-lived anger out of him.

“I wasn’t under the impression I had any say in the matter,” he answers honestly, crossing his own arms and leaning sideways against the doorframe. “Less than half an hour ago you seemed fairly convinced that my leaving the ship at all would be nothing short of catastrophic.”

She shrugs again. “Circumstances have changed.”

“But you’re still here, apparently debating whether to let me leave or not.”

“Well? Should I?”

Loki tries to read from her what her intentions are, which way she’s leaning, but she may as well be made of stone. It occurs to him now that he has never stood face-to-face with this woman and spoken to her without exchanging blows, not since Thanos’ ship. He hasn’t had much time to gauge what she’s like, what motivates her, how easily manipulable she may be.

He suspects he knows the answer to that last one already, though.

“Thanos won’t be defeated easily,” he says at length. “You know that.”

“I do.”

“Then you know you’d be a fool to deprive yourself of a hand in this fight.”

Gamora then does something entirely unexpected — she laughs. It’s a quick, muted laugh, but it’s such a stark difference from her usual demeanor that she may as well have fallen over in hysterics.

“Did I say something funny?”

“Just… reminded me of someone,” she says, shaking her head with the slightest smile still on her face. It looks natural and easy for her, smiling like this, and Loki wonders for a moment if she’s usually less angry, less cold, without the threat of half the universe’s demise looming over all of them.

“Look,” she says, stepping away from the wall and taking a step toward him, her hands on her hips now. “I know you have no intention of respecting your brother’s wishes and staying out of this battle. I think you should heed his words, but I’m not a fool. I know you won't. And I’ll be honest, I have neither the time nor the energy to stop you.”

Loki narrows his eyes. “Is that so?”

She nods, but Loki cannot help but wonder if there’s a catch. He eyes her warily and begins to step around her, making his way toward where Thor just ran off to and where, he now knows, the exit is.

There’s the shhhink of metal against metal, and he lets out an annoyed sigh as a sword suddenly blocks his path and forces him back a step.

“Not so fast.”

He glances down at it, noting that its sharp edge is angled away from him, the blunted edge pressed to his leathers. He flicks his gaze back up to her.

“I’m sorry, I thought I was free to go.”

“I wasn’t done,” she says. “You need to be careful. Your torture under Thanos has made you reckless.”

He huffs a little laugh. “Noted.”

“I’m serious,” she says. “I don’t suspect you’re used to hearing this, but in this battle, you are nothing more than a soldier. Stick to taking down as many grunts as you can, and do not reach above your ability. You’re strong, but you’re still hurt. You could get yourself killed and endanger everyone around you if you don’t keep that in mind.”

He makes a show of mulling over her words, nodding along with a hum. “Is that all?”

“Not quite,” she says, and she lifts the sword so that it's just a little bit closer to his neck. “If you attack my friends again, whether you are acting of your own volition or because Thanos has gotten into your head…” She pauses, gently placing the point of the blade just beneath his collarbone, and smiles. “I will separate your head from the rest of your body. Do you understand?”

Loki smirks as if there isn't two feet of sharpened steel just a few inches from his throat.

“You’re certain you'll really do it this time?” he asks. “You won't change your mind at the last moment?”

Gamora tilts her head with a look that seems to ask, What do you think?

Loki nods. “Good. I’ll hold you to it, then.”

For a moment she doesn't move. She keeps the blade tipped against his collarbone, her eyes focused on his. And then in one quick movement, she flips the blade around in her hand and expertly catches it by the blunted edge, so that its hilt hangs in the air right in front of his chest.

He raises an eyebrow at her.

“Don't give me that look,” she says. “If I’m letting you leave this ship to fight, I’m not letting you go unarmed. Take it.”

“You're giving me your sword?” he asks as he grabs hold of the hilt.

“This is not my sword,” she tells him. “Believe me, when I draw Godslayer, you will know. This we were gifted by the Nova Corps for busting an illegal weapons smuggling outfit.”

She watches as he tests out the balance of the blade, and then as he grasps the hilt and gives it a quick twirl. It glides soundlessly through the air.

“This is Vanir made,” he says.

Gamora nods. “So they told us.”

He pulls the hilt in two. The entire blade splits easily down an invisible seam along its length, and then Loki is holding two identical blades. He gives them another twirl, one in each hand, and shoots her a knowing look.

“You never intended to stop me from fighting at all, did you?”

“If your brother asks, I will deny that.”

She turns and starts off down the hallway toward the exit, not bothering to look and see if he follows.

“Now let’s go,” she says. “We’ve got a war to win.”

 

Chapter Text

 

There is one custom among Terrans that has posed a particular problem for Mantis in the short time they have been here.

When they first meet each other, Terrans shake hands.

Mantis is not stupid. She knows her empathy makes people uncomfortable. Drax is the exception, not the rule. Gamora has told her, softly and kindly when they were alone, that she should try learning to suppress the ability. That way, Mantis can be in control of when others’ feelings flow to her. That way, she can use her power without accidentally abusing it.

But it is more difficult than Gamora realizes.

When they first landed on Terra, touching down on the ruins of Thanos’ first attack, they were met with a group of Terrans at their door before they had even recalibrated the ship’s internal gravity and atmosphere to open the airlock. Once it was made clear that the Guardians came in peace, handshakes were given, names were exchanged.

And Mantis tried so very hard not to pry, but when the first man touched her hand she instantly felt it. He was wary, distrusting of this strange group of aliens, and there was a whole bundle of emotions below the surface that he had spent years, perhaps his whole life, trying to suppress. Hope. A fierce, almost paternal protectiveness. Grief, soured by anger, smoothed over by… time, maybe, or true healing. Perhaps both.

She knew all of this with one touch, felt it, and it took a fair amount of effort not to affect his emotions in return.

It has gone similarly with the rest of the Terrans she has met, and with Thor, and with Loki, too. Their first and foremost emotion is always fear. Fear of this strange alien lady with the startlingly large eyes and the glowing antennae, fear of the aliens beside her, fear that the Guardians are not the peaceful friends they claim to be.

It is always the same.

Or, that is, it is always the same until she meets Princess Shuri.

When Mantis steps off the ship with Peter and Kraglin and she shakes hands with the young Terran Princess, she does get a bit of fear, but it is only for what is coming, for Princess Shuri’s brother and mother and for her home planet, now that Thanos has set his sights on them. None of it is directed at Mantis herself.

“It is nice to meet you,” Mantis says, because that is something you are supposed to say to people upon meeting them. “I am Mantis.”

“Shuri,” she answers with a quick nod, looking down at a contraption on the wrist of her free hand. There is anxiety, impatience, nervousness, like a tingle that creeps under her skin.

Then Shuri glances up at Mantis’ glowing antennae, and suddenly Mantis feels something she has not felt from any of the other Terrans before.

Excitement. Wonder.

“Oh, after all this is over, you must tell me how that works,” Shuri says, letting go of her hand, and Mantis feels heat rushing to her cheeks. “Ah, and hello to you, too, Star Lord,” she says with a nod to Peter, the only of the Guardians she has met so far aside from Rocket and Groot, and then she turns to Kraglin. “And you are?”

Kraglin gives a modified version of the Ravager salute; he places his fist on his chest and bows just slightly. “Kraglin Obfonteri at yer service, your Highness.”

Shuri smiles and raises her eyebrows at Mantis in a way that makes her feel like they are in on the same joke — and although Mantis does not know what the joke is, she smiles back anyway. “Good to meet you, too, but please, the bow is unnecessary,” she says kindly, eyes lingering on the fin atop Kraglin’s head before her attention is pulled to the others disembarking from the ship. “Ah, and you are definitely Drax,” she says as Drax walks up behind Mantis. “And there's Loki, alright, and you must be Gamora. Good, good to meet you all, now come, come, let's go.”

Before Mantis even gets a chance to look over her shoulder, Shuri has grabbed a hold of her hand again and tugged her along toward the edge of the hangar.

“My brother has already gone with Thor to America with Rocket, Groot, Stark, and Colonel Rhodes. He should be back soon,” she explains, looking at that machine on her wrist again. Mantis wonders how Shuri’s brother plans to travel all the way across the planet and back so quickly, but she doesn't have time to ask before Shuri continues, “We will wait for him in the lab, and then you all will be joining the others. With any luck, Thanos’ attention will be drawn far away from here.”

Her words are said with confidence, but unease sits heavily in the pit of Mantis’ stomach before Shuri lets go of her hand.

She leads them into an elevator that is very spacious, but probably not intended to fit six people along with a seventh the size of Drax. They all cram in together, and Shuri ends up pressed to Mantis’ left side while Loki stands tense and straight to her right. Mantis nervously glances up at him and shifts an inch closer to Shuri; living amongst the Guardians may have given her a bit of a thick skin, but he did just throw her into a wall less than an hour ago. He does not seem to notice her discomfort. He does notice Kraglin, though, weaving around all of them to get as far from Loki as possible, and Mantis sees Loki roll his eyes.

“Take us to the lab.”

The elevator whirs to life, sending them down through the ground.

Mantis knows the plan, as do the rest of them — with the exception of Loki, of course, in case Thanos should get into his mind again. It has been in the works since the Guardians helped in Thanos’ second attack on New York. They have already begun evacuating the city, as Thanos is most likely to direct his attack there again, and Thor and the Guardians and some of Earth’s own fighters will be further drawing his attention there.

The hope is that Thanos will fail to realize that the Mind Stone is on the other side of the planet, that they can confine the battle only to New York, but they are not depending on that hope. King T’Challa’s armies and some of Earth’s other fighters will remain in Wakanda to defend it as well.

Mantis just hopes they will be able to get to New York before Thanos arrives. She does not want the fight to begin before she has been reunited with Rocket and Groot.

The elevator doors glide open, and all of them file out into a massive lab with gleaming metal floors and sheer glass walls.

“Alright, all of you, quickly, come this way,” Shuri ushers them all through the lab. “And do not touch anything!”

She leads the group of them across the lab to a countertop that spans the length of the back wall, atop which sits a number of glittering, twinkling metal contraptions that — to Mantis, anyway — look more like jewelry than any kind of weapon. She glances up to Drax, who by now has gravitated to her side as he usually tends to do, and she can tell without touching him that he is thinking the same thing.

“Star Lord,” Shuri says, and as she reaches for something on the countertop, Mantis sees that there is something in that confusing assortment of items that she recognizes after all. It is Peter’s helmet, or the tiny earpiece that becomes his helmet anyway, and Shuri tosses it to him. “All fixed. I had it fitted with some improvements, too. Just a little Vibranium outer shell to stop it getting broken again, and some minor software updates.”

“Updates, huh?” Peter asks, turning the device over in his hands. “What kind of updates?”

Shuri smiles. “Put it on.”

Peter slips it onto his ear and taps the button on its side, and the helmet deploys. It looks very much the same as it always has. Shuri turns toward the rest of the guests gathered in her lab, looking at each of them in turn before she points at Drax.

“You,” she says. “Try to attack him.”

Drax points at his own chest, raising his eyebrows.

“Uh… what, now?” Peter asks, voice muffled by the helmet as he takes a step back.

“Just hit him,” Shuri says. “A light punch will do, trust me.”

Drax hesitates, looking first to Peter, then to Shuri, and at last to Mantis. Then he shrugs, taking two quick steps toward Peter and — ignoring Peter’s panicked shout of, “Woah, woah, wait!” — delivers a swift punch to Peter’s stomach.

Or at least, he tries to.

Mantis lets out a gasp and covers her mouth. It looks as if a cloud of blue smoke has billowed out around Peter like a semi-transparent bubble, but when Drax’s fist makes contact with the smoke it seems to become solid, just long enough to send Drax flying backward several feet up into the air and halfway across the lab.

“Huh. Impressive,” Gamora speaks up, one hand on her hip and a smile on her face.

“The reaction gets stronger based on the attack,” Shuri explains with a proud smirk. “Are you alright over there, Drax?”

Mantis watches worriedly, hands still over her mouth, but Drax just clutches his stomach and erupts into ecstatic laughter, and she lets out a little sigh of relief.

“That was truly awesome!”

Peter taps the earpiece again, and when the helmet fades away his jaw is hanging open. “That is pretty awesome,” he agrees. “You call that a minor update?”

“It’s only a little electromagnetic force field,” she says with a dismissive wave of her hand. “It will not keep assailants away indefinitely, but it is certainly a step above going into the battle unprotected, wouldn’t you say?”

“I would,” Peter says with a smile. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

Shuri smiles back at him and returns to her collection of devices. “Alright, now, for the rest of you, as you are helping us defend the Earth, I am offering anything on this counter to help you do that. These,” she says, pointing to a series of what look like beaded bracelets dangling from hooks, “are communication devices. Each of you take one, and you will be able to send immediate warning to us here if anything goes amiss in New York. Anything you think we may need to know, you speak it into these devices. Especially if you hear any mention of Wakanda by the enemy forces or see any of them flying East out of the city.”

They each take one of the bracelets, and they’re not even done before Shuri moves on and starts pointing out various items and describing them as she goes. Mantis has to stand up on her toes, watching over the others’ shoulders as they all weave around each other to grab up what they need.

“From what I understand you can all handle your own weapons,” Shuri says over the commotion, “so this is all mostly defensive. Armor, more force field generators, that sort of thing. Mr. Obfonteri, I would steer clear of the latter, as the magnetics may interfere with that fin. Stick to a pair of vibranium arm braces.” She tosses the braces over Drax’s head and Kraglin catches them against his chest, blinking in surprise. “The rest of you may take what you like from this table. Okay, now, Loki. Over here, if you would.”

Loki, who had been looking over a small blinking orb in his palm, looks up at her, raising his eyebrows.

“Come, come,” she says, beckoning him toward a chair, “so I can take a look at the cuffs.”

After a beat of hesitation, Loki looks down at the orb in his palm and pockets it before separating himself from the group and approaching the chair Shuri had indicated. As he sits, Shuri grabs another chair and wheels it up to his so that she can sit down facing him, absently playing with a thin metal instrument in her right hand.

Mantis watches curiously, half paying attention to Shuri’s work, half focused on equipping herself with a pair of arm braces like Kraglin’s. The metal is lighter than she expected, and it hums with a strange sort of energy below the surface, low and subtle, almost like it’s alive.

She wonders if any of the others can feel it.

“I almost didn’t recognize you without your helmet,” Shuri says conversationally to Loki, as she scans over the his left cuff with her bracelet.

Mantis sees Loki frown, raising an eyebrow at her.

Shuri glances up at him, apparently noticing his confusion, and with her free hand she gestures above her head as if she is wearing a huge headdress. “You know, the… the helmet, thing,” she explains. “The horns?”

“I know,” Loki says. “I’m just surprised you know of it.”

Shuri gives a light snort of a laugh and taps her little metal contraption on his cuff, and a seam appears that had not been there before. A panel pops out of the cuff, exposing a blinking processor beneath. “I’m young, but I’m not that young,” she explains with a smirk. “I was eleven years old during the Battle of New York, and on the other side of the world, but it was all anyone talked about for months, even here.” She pokes and prods at the complicated mesh of lights in the hidden panel, following a pattern that only she seems to understand. “It was the first time aliens ever came to Earth. Not exactly something an aspiring scientist forgets easily, you know.”

Mantis looks away from them for a moment and tries to balance on one leg, attaching a piece of humming Vibranium armor to her shin, and she almost topples over. She gets down on one knee instead, securing it tightly and then flexing her foot as she stands.

There is a short pause, and then she hears Loki say, “It wasn’t the first time.”

That gets a true laugh out of Shuri, though she doesn’t look up from her work. “Yes, I suppose it couldn’t have been. The Norse myths and legends, that was all you and your brother, eh? Can’t exactly have been a coincidence.” She leans closer to get a better look at the finer pieces of the processor, eyes narrowing, and her voice grows lower and more distracted as she concentrates. “Still… It was the first time in my lifetime. First time in modern history. First time we knew you were aliens… It was a big deal. Scary, but exciting. Good to see you’re on our side this time around, though.”

Loki gives a huff that might be amusement, or might be agreement.

“Okay,” Shuri says. “Here we go. Let me know if you feel anything.”

Mantis has been focusing on attaching a piece of armor to her other leg, but she pauses and looks up. Loki seems to sense that something significant is going to happen as well, because he takes a slow breath and grips the seat of his chair with his free hand before he says, “Go ahead.”

Very gently, very carefully, Shuri taps her metal instrument to the processor, watching Loki’s face as she does so.

The change is immediate and impossible to miss. Loki tenses and shuts his eyes. His grip on the chair tightens, and a green glow emanates all around him, pulsing out across the floor and thrumming through the air like electricity.

Shuri watches him warily. “Is that a good sign?”

By now everyone in the lab has turned to watch them, too, waiting.

Loki does not loosen his grip on the chair.

“It’s not,” he mutters, voice strained, and he opens his eyes to look at Shuri. “Put it back. Put it back now.”

But before Shuri can do anything, the greenish energy coalesces between them and promptly explodes.

Shuri lets out a startled shout as she and her chair are sent wheeling backwards across the metal floor, the blast powerful enough to send her nearly across the entire length of the lab. Loki is already on his feet, his own chair knocked over and forgotten, wide eyes staring down at the cuff.

“Close the panel!” Shuri shouts, and Mantis can hear the fear in her voice. “It will automatically revert to its last setting.”

Loki has already slammed his hand down over it before she has even finished talking, and it softly clicks back into place. Instantly the greenish glow in the air dissipates, the faint hum silencing along with it.

And Loki’s legs give out beneath him.

Peter is the first to reach him with a startled shout of, “Oh, shit,” before he grabs Loki by the arm and begins to haul him to his feet, but Loki gruffly shakes him off.

“I’m fine,” he growls, shooting a glare at Peter, but he convinces absolutely none of them. He looks pale, and shaken, and there is a faint sheen of sweat to his skin. Peter hovers, close enough to jump in and help but far enough away that Loki can ignore him, which he does. Loki runs a shaking hand through his hair and looks up at Shuri as she hurriedly returns, wheeling the chair behind her. Then, when he finds his hands still shaking, he busies himself with picking up the chair he had knocked over and righting it.

“Sorry,” Shuri says. “I wasn’t expecting such a quick reaction. Was that a product of having your magic suppressed, or was it…?”

Loki shoots her a look that is plenty to answer her question.

Shuri bites her lip for half a second. “Okay. Thanos, then. What did he see?”

Loki shakes his head, and his voice is quiet when he says, “He doesn’t know where I am. He saw you, and he could see that you were responsible for…” he lifts his hands and displays the cuffs, “… this, or he inferred it from my thoughts, at least.”

“So he made you attack me.”

Loki nods. He clenches and unclenches his fists as he speaks. “He was waiting for an opening,” he says, scowling. “He was waiting for it, and we gave it to him. You cannot completely deactivate these—”

“That much is clear,” Shuri agrees.

“But I cannot go into this fight without my magic,” Loki admits. “It could mean the difference between victory and failure. It could mean the difference between my living and dying, or my saving someone else and letting them die. There has to be some kind of a middle ground.”

Shuri takes a slow breath and lets it out in a huff, nodding. “Okay. Okay, I think I should be able to—”

She freezes as a strange sound comes from somewhere around the center of the lab, near the spiraling ramp covered in colorful Terran artwork, and Mantis turns to see what has caught her so off guard.

“Really? Already?” Shuri asks, crossing her arms over her chest.

Mantis watches with widening eyes as, quite inexplicably, a series of bright orange sparks appear out of nothing and hang suspended in the air before them. Shuri seems to be the only one who is completely unbothered by this sudden appearance — except for, apparently, the timing of it — and she drums her fingers against her bicep, watching as the orange sparks begin to spin around and around and then open up to form a dark hole in midair.

And she seems completely unfazed, too, when a man steps out of it.

Mantis stares unabashedly as the newcomer enters the room as casually as if he had entered through a doorway. He spares a quick glance at Loki, and then he looks to Shuri and greets her with an elegant, sweeping bow.

“You have got to be joking,” Loki whispers to himself, quiet enough that the newcomer might not have heard him — and if he does hear, he does not acknowledge it.

“Princess,” the new man says.

“Doctor,” Shuri answers, annoyance clear in her voice, “I told you I needed more time.”

“Yeah. Well,” he says with a tilt of his head and without, apparently, noticing any of their surprise. “It doesn’t look like we have more time. Thanos’ armies are landing in the Upper East Side as we speak.”

And at that moment Mantis cannot help but let out a surprised, “Oh!” as yet another man steps out of the still sparking hole in the center of the lab, his feet hitting the floor with the practiced ease and mild annoyance of someone who has done this several times and is quickly getting tired of the experience.

“Shuri, we must get going,” the new man says, breathless.

She throws her hands up in the air. “Can they not hold their own for just a few more minutes?”

“They cannot. The evacuation is not complete and the fighting has already started.”

“But brother—”

“They need reinforcements or the entire city will be overrun,” her brother interrupts, leaving no room for argument. So that is King T’Challa, Mantis realizes. The king turns toward the other man and says, “Doctor. Thank you for returning me home, and for everything you have done to help protect Wakanda. We will not forget it.”

The man, whose name is Doctor apparently, though Mantis finds that quite odd, shakes hands with T’Challa with a cordial smile.

“Don’t mention it, Your Majesty,” he says before turning and, for the first time since his arrival, addressing the rest of them. His eyes twinkle with something that might be amusement as his gaze sweeps over them, and he gestures toward the sparking hole in the air. “Alright, everyone, one at a time.”

Mantis does not move, eyeing him nervously with her hands held tentatively in front of her.

“You want us to go into that?” Peter asks, voicing exactly what she was thinking.

“I assure you, the portal is perfectly safe,” Doctor tells them.

“Doctor,” Shuri interrupts, “would you be able to generate a second portal in perhaps, ten minutes?”

“Shuri,” T’Challa says, “we cannot afford to wait—”

“—for reinforcements, brother, I know,” Shuri finishes for him. “I’m not saying we can’t send reinforcements now, I’m saying they cannot all go yet. I still need to take a look at Loki’s cuffs before I let him go anywhere. The rest can go now, but he needs to stay.”

Doctor glances up at Loki, and from the way Loki bristles and glares back — angry, defiant, unyielding — Mantis finds herself very glad to not be touching him.

It is such a striking difference, she thinks, between this Loki and the Loki of just a few minutes ago. Striking, and a little bit confusing.

T’Challa holds his sister’s gaze for a moment, his mouth a thin line. Neither he nor Doctor voice the true issue here; that whatever course of action they take, the one thing they absolutely cannot do is leave Loki in Wakanda indefinitely. He is the only one that must go to New York, Mantis knows, because if Thanos figures out a way to track him again, leaving him in Wakanda will defeat the entire purpose of diverting Thanos’ attention away.

Finally, King T’Challa gives a defeated sigh and asks, “Well, Doctor?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he answers, and he shares a significant look with Shuri. “Ten minutes is all I can give you, though. You know that.”

“That is all I need,” Shuri answers.

With that, Doctor turns back toward the rest of them and gestures again toward the portal, and in the same instance Shuri hurriedly motions for Loki to sit back down. Kraglin is the first to shrug off the strangeness of the portal and make his way toward it, and the rest of them quickly line up behind him.

… All of them, at least, except for Mantis. She pauses and glances toward Shuri and Loki, biting the inside of her cheek and wringing her hands together as she thinks.

“Wait!” she shouts. “Could I stay behind as well, and wait for the next portal?”

“Huh? Why would you wanna do that?”

Mantis looks at Peter, then gulps, looking to the portal. In truth, she is slightly afraid of going through it, and slightly more afraid of the battle to come. But that is only what made her think to stay behind— until she realized she had a very good reason for doing so.

“I may be able to help,” she says, becoming more confident the more she thinks it over. She straightens her back with determination and looks to Shuri. “If anything goes wrong while you are fixing the cuffs, I can stop Thanos from using it to his advantage.”

There is a moment of silence in which her words sink in, and to her surprise, it is Loki that first speaks up in her defense.

“That’s… not a terrible idea, actually.”

Shuri looks at Loki, then turns to the rest of them. Peter lets out a sigh, his hands on his hips, and reluctantly agrees, “Yeah, she’s not wrong.”

“If she wants to stay, she can stay,” T’Challa says. “But the rest of you, go, now. New York cannot afford to wait any longer.”

And just like that, it is decided, T’Challa’s words ringing with finality.

Kraglin flashes a quick, encouraging smile and a thumbs up at Mantis before he disappears through the portal. Drax pats her on the shoulder as he passes — a great wave of excitement for the battle and an underlying twinge of worry for the rest of the Guardians rushes through her — and he follows suit. Gamora pulls her in for a hug, and Mantis tries to focus on the sweetness of the gesture and not the fear that tightens in her chest, fear for Peter and for Mantis and Drax and Rocket and Groot and Nebula and half the universe, before Gamora pulls away and smiles at her with an expression that reveals absolutely none of that fear. She steps back and laces her fingers together with Peter’s, and Peter winks at Mantis and says, “See you soon, kiddo.”

They step into the portal together. Doctor, just before he follows them, turns and reminds Shuri of their new time limit. “Ten minutes,” he says, and then he steps backward into the portal and closes it up behind him.

T’Challa, his eyes still lingering on the place where the portal had been, sighs.

“Bast willing this works,” he mutters, shaking his head and tugging Shuri into a quick one-armed hug. “I must speak with Okoye, prepare the final defenses. I’ll see you up in the throne room when you’re done here?”

Shuri nods, returning his hug. T’Challa gives a tight smile and, with a nod each to Mantis and Loki, makes his way up the spiraling ramp at the center of the lab.

“Okay,” Shuri says as soon as he's gone, shaking her head and returning to the task in front of her. With a wave of her hand, a holographic projection springs to life beside her, showing what seems to be an impossibly complicated list of schematics. “If I had more time I’m sure I could get to the root of the problem and truly fix this. But with only ten minutes, the best I can do is install a kind of control into the cuffs,” she explains, looking over the list and clicking her tongue in thought. “That way you can be in full control of exactly how much energy it dampens, lessening the cuffs power and heightening it as you see fit. It will be on a percentage scale, from zero to one hundred, so think of it like, ah…”

“Like a volume dial?” Mantis guesses. “On a radio?”

Shuri smiles and points at her with the metal tool still in her hand. “Yes, exactly. Like a volume dial,” she says. “Mantis, you say you can stop Thanos from reaching Loki while I work on this?”

Mantis hesitates. “I… I think so.”

“Even if she can’t,” Loki says, “she can knock me out fairly quickly if worse comes to worse. I would prefer, though, if that were kept as a last resort.”

With that last sentiment he looks up at her from where he sits, waiting for her agreement, and she gives him a nervous smile and a nod.

“Alright, then,” Shuri says. “Let’s get to work, shall we?”

Mantis flexes her fingers and takes a breath to steel herself, and she steps up to where Loki sits, laying a hand on his shoulder.

The rush of emotion is, as always, instant and momentarily disorienting. She tenses at the contact at the very same moment that Loki does, and all at once she feels… uncomfortable, annoyed, exposed in a strange and unfamiliar way — having his magic under someone else’s control is a feeling so viscerally not right that it has his every nerve frayed, his every muscle rigid like an overwound spring, and having his emotions openly on display to someone else is not helping matters. He hates feeling vulnerable, hates being at someone else’s mercy.

Mantis reminds herself to breathe. She is already very familiar with Loki’s emotions, more than he probably expects or would approve of. It only takes one or two times sifting through another person’s feelings to become familiar with them. The homesickness is still there, still tightly woven to lingering resentment and guilt. The deep-seated terror of Thanos is still there. The ever-present undercurrent of worry for his brother is still there, too, but in the face of the upcoming battle it seems to have come roaring to the forefront to the point that he has trouble even thinking about it without panicking—

“Loki, I need you to be very still,” Shuri says.

Mantis glances down at his shaking hands. She hesitates, and then says, “Be calm.”

The taut muscles of his shoulder relax under her hand, and he lets out a breath he had been holding. It is the first time she has influenced his emotions without outright putting him to sleep, but despite the twinge of guilt she feels for doing it without his permission, she notices it stops the tremor that had been interfering with Shuri’s work.

“Thank you.”

Mantis looks down at him with wide eyes, but he does not see it. His eyes are closed, so Mantis just smiles and gives his shoulder a squeeze.

She watches Shuri work, mindful of any change in Loki’s mood — a jolt of fear, anger, anything that might indicate that he has been compromised.

The moment does not come. Mantis does not know if that is thanks to her, or thanks to Shuri being more careful in her work this time around, but Thanos does not get through again, and she is more than grateful for it.

Be grateful for small victories, as Gamora would say.

She watches as Shuri opens a different panel on the cuffs, entirely removing it and replacing it. The new panel looks almost exactly the same, except for a thin crease running along its length.

“Hey,” Shuri says without looking up as she continues setting up the new installment. “Earlier, when Thanos got through and made you attack me, you didn’t actually hurt me. Are you able to retain some control even when he does get through?”

Loki nods. “Some, yes, but not much. And not for very long.”

“Hmm. Well,” Shuri mutters, still tinkering, “that could be useful as a back-up.”

“Useful how?” Loki asks.

Shuri finally looks up at him, worrying her tongue between her teeth for a moment. “If something goes wrong and he gets in again,” she explains, “if you accidentally let the setting go too low on the cuffs, or he breaks through on his own somehow… You could, as a last resort, activate the remote to set off the taser.”

… Uh-oh.

She feels Loki freeze.

“Again,” Shuri goes on, “it would be an absolute last resort. I cannot stress that enough. It would completely incapacitate you, which, unless you’re surrounded by allies, would likely mean your death — and why are you both looking at me like that?”

Mantis feels the instinctual urge to lie welling up in Loki.

And, without thinking about it, she does it for him.

“There was an… accident, on the ship,” she tells Shuri. “The remote was broken.”

Shuri blinks with wide eyes at her, and Mantis knows instantly that she must be a terrible liar by the flare of embarrassment she feels from Loki. She braces for Shuri to call her out on it, but after a second of dumbfounded staring at the two of them Shuri just groans in annoyance and mutters with a shake of her head, “You guys are killing me.”

Mantis relaxes as Shuri returns to her work. She sees Loki turn to shoot her a look out of the corner of his eye, and she smiles and gives a thumbs up, to which he only rolls his eyes and looks away.

She almost laughs. He acts as if she doesn't know that, for just a moment there, he was strangely proud of her for lying on his behalf.

“Well,” Shuri says, “it is still good thing you can retain some control against him. If you let the setting go too low, it will only take one movement on your part to restore it.”

She spins the thin metal instrument in her right hand, sitting back in her seat and looking at the contraption on her wrist again.

Loki frowns. “Finished already?”

“And with two minutes to spare,” Shuri answers with a smile.

She tucks the metal instrument behind her ear and links her hands together, pushing them forward to stretch her shoulders. Then she stands up and plants her hands on her hips, looking between the two of them.

“So. Let's test it out, shall we?”

 

Chapter Text

 

He has to admit, the Princess’s work is beyond anything he would have expected from Earth.

The design is elegant in its simplicity. Loki taps one fingertip to the new panel on the left cuff and runs it along the groove in the metal’s surface, just an inch or so before he stops, and a faint green number beneath the groove ticks down from 100 to 76. The reaction is instant — a pleasantly cool trickle beneath the skin of his forearms, in his veins, alighting his nerves. It flows up to his shoulders and slowly swirls and pools somewhere below his sternum.

He freezes, waiting for the catch, waiting for the moment that his mind will be taken over again. Behind him he can sense Mantis, too, still hovering within arm’s reach, tense as a bowstring.

After a moment, he relaxes. It seems this setting is safe.

He conjures a small dagger, just because he can, and smiles as he flips it around in his hand. It’s about all he can manage at the moment, but as tempting as it may be, he knows that pushing the limits will have to wait until it is absolutely necessary — which he has no doubt that it will be, sooner rather than later.

Still. Even just this, conjuring a weapon out of nothing, it's like being able to breathe again.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees Shuri check her watch for what must be the fifteenth time since she finished explaining the update. He keeps her in his peripheral as he lobs the dagger up and lets it land, perfectly balanced, on the back of his wrist.

And he watches, frowning, as Shuri crosses her arms over her chest and begins to pace.

He is almost certain he will regret it, but he lets out a sigh and asks anyway, “What is it?”

She looks up at him, and then her eyes are drawn toward the center of the lab, where the Midgardian sorcerer last disappeared. “He's two minutes late.”

“Do you think something has gone wrong?” Mantis asks.

Shuri bites her bottom lip for a moment, staring into space as she thinks. “I don’t know, but you both heard him. He said ten minutes. He was very clear about that.”

“Oh,” says Mantis. Her antennae droop just slightly as her shoulders slump, and she follows Shuri’s gaze to stare worriedly at the center of lab as well.

Loki frowns, looking between the two of them. He is quite used to being the oldest person in room — with all the time he has spent away from Asgard, he has often been the oldest person in the room by centuries — but it’s a rare thing to feel it as acutely as he does now. After a moment’s hesitation he lazily flips the dagger into the air, where it shapeshifts into a quail, flaps toward the ceiling, and vanishes in a burst of translucent gold feathers. The trick grabs their attention and startles them out of those thousand-yard stares, at least.

“It's a battle,” Loki reminds them. “And quite a big one at that. I doubt he’s checking the time as diligently as either of you are.”

Both of them are looking at him now, Shuri with her brow furrowed and Mantis blinking her perpetually wide eyes at him.

“He will be here,” Loki adds with a shrug of one shoulder. “I’m certain of it.”

It's… not entirely the truth. But he has good reason to believe it anyway. Loathe as he may be to admit it, he knows how powerful the Midgardian sorcerer is; it only took one meeting to gather that much. And he also has that infuriating tenacity Loki has found particularly unique to some humans, which combined with his power makes him seem altogether impossible to kill.

Not that Loki won't give it his best shot, if by some miracle he actually survives to see this war reach its end. He shakes the thought away.

Mantis takes his words with a small, acquiescent nod.

Shuri, on the other hand, seems unconvinced. Her frown deepens and she turns on her heel, and with a wave of her hand she seems to conjure up a holographic screen in exactly the same way Loki conjures his knives. It takes him a second to remember that it was that bracelet on her wrist that did it.

“Show me news coverage of New York,” she says, and the screen obediently splits itself into two rows of three. Six separate channels, six views of New York, a cacophony of voices narrating over one another that Shuri quickly mutes with another flick of her wrist.

“Right, as I said,” Loki murmurs, though he feels like a stone has sunk into his gut as he stares along with them, “it’s a battle.”

The first of Thanos’ ships clearly demolished a building on its landing, the crash site visible in the lower right screen, still emitting smoke and dust. The top center screen shows as a second ship makes its descent, carelessly swiping against the side of a skyscraper and sending up massive plumes of glass and concrete in its wake.

It’s been, what, fifteen minutes since the first ship landed? Perhaps twenty? And the city is already well on its way to being overrun.

The Mad Titan works quickly as always.

In five of the six screens, Outriders charge through the streets amongst overturned vehicles and the crumbling facades of half-destroyed buildings. Here and there he sees a human or two running for their lives. Loki sees Stark’s ridiculous tower in the background of one screen, still standing for now. In another, an Outrider is felled by a bright white beam of light that can only have come from Stark himself, somewhere off screen.

Nowhere at all does Loki see any of the Black Order, nor does he see Thanos, which could be a coincidence or a good sign or a very, very bad one. Before he can dwell on it though, a brilliant crack of lightning splits through the cloudless sky, all at once in three separate screens. Loki’s jaw tightens. Wherever Thor is, Loki cannot see him.

Watching the battle this way is not nearly enough to discern anything about it, who is fighting where, which side has the upper hand. The whole thing is far too chaotic, the humans’ cameras too carelessly placed in their haste to evacuate.

And in any case, they don't have time to watch.

At that moment, the tell-tale sound of the Midgardian sorcerer’s particular type of portal resounds from behind them, and all three turn to see the air rend itself open amongst a shower of golden sparks.

Took him long enough, he thinks.

“There. What did I tell you?” he says to Shuri, to which she rolls her eyes despite the relieved smile on her face.

As soon as the portal is wide enough, the sorcerer steps through, hurriedly and clumsily landing on the lab floor. All the poise and elegance he had only ten minutes ago seems almost forgotten — almost, for he quickly straightens to his full height and addresses them all with a tilt of his head.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says, composed if a bit breathless. The left side of his face is covered in soot, but he doesn't seem to notice. He flashes a pompous little smirk that makes Loki itch to conjure another dagger. “All set to join the fun?”

Loki tamps down the urge to scowl and doesn’t grace him with an answer. Instead he glances down at Shuri, suddenly very aware that he owes her more than he is comfortable admitting aloud, and equally aware that he's unlikely to live long enough to repay her.

“Thank you,” he says anyway, even though he’s already said it once.

Shuri glances back at the television screens over her shoulder, and she offers him half a smile. “Thank me by getting those monsters off my planet, will you?”

He smirks and inclines his head in agreement. Then, with a wave, he gestures for Mantis to go first. “After you.”

Mantis bites her lip for a moment, visibly steels herself, and then with a determined nod she takes two steps forward and jumps through the portal with a swiftness that leaves her no time to change her mind — which, he thinks, was likely her intention. And Loki, steadfastly ignoring the sorcerer beside him, ignoring the oppressive familiarity of this particular type of portal, ignoring the memory of falling for minutes that felt like hours, follows suit.

This time, he does not fall. This time, his feet hit the ground so quickly that he would have thought he never left the lab at all, if not for the darkness that swallows up his vision as the bright light of Shuri’s lab recedes behind him.

He hears the sorcerer arrive a second later, and the light disappears entirely as the portal shrinks away to nothing.

“Loki? Doctor?”

A hand clamps down on his upper arm, and two points of glowing white light suddenly come to life beside him — Mantis’ antennae. At the very same instant a sort of cringing fear sinks in his stomach, and he knows, instinctively, that this particular fear does not belong to him. He wonders if she even realizes she's doing it.

He endures it without complaint. It's nothing he cannot handle, and in any case, the light from her antennae helps his eyes adjust more quickly.

By the time she releases her hold on him, he can see just fine.

They are standing in a huge room of stone walls and mostly burnt out fluorescent lights, advertisements plastered on every available surface, a few benches scattered about. He sees turnstiles in the distance and hears the muffled rumbling of gunfire somewhere above them.

“Subway station,” says the sorcerer. “Welcome back to lovely New York.”

Loki shoots him a glare. “You couldn't have transported us to the actual battle?” And to somewhere that reeks a bit less?

“If you want to portal directly into the line of fire before you've had a chance to fight, Loki, please, be my guest,” he answers, striding past Loki toward the stairs. And then, to Loki’s absolute frustration, the sorcerer looks over his shoulder and has the audacity to wink at him.

Loki feels his blood boil, and his fingers twitch toward the Vanir blade at his waist.

It would be so easy, he thinks, indulging himself in the fantasy for half a second. Such a pity one of Thanos’ lackeys got to him. If he had been a better sorcerer, perhaps he might have survived, but alas…

Mantis follows behind the sorcerer, glancing back at Loki, and he sighs and abandons his murderous train of thought.

As they reach the foot of the stairs an orange light flares in the sorcerer's hands, casting a dim glow on the walls. “See you topside,” he says. He ascends through the stairwell without letting his feet ever touch the ground. A moment later he has completely disappeared from their sight, leaving the two of them behind, presumably to pick up the fight wherever he left off.

Loki rolls his eyes — the drama of it, honestly— and starts up the stairs the old fashioned way.

His annoyance with the sorcerer is easy to put out of his mind, though, as he and Mantis approach the top of the stairs. The chaos above rings louder and louder in his ears with each step, gunfire and explosions and the crashing of felled buildings, shouts and screams from Outrider and human alike.

An incomplete evacuation, indeed.

Three-quarters of the way up he throws out an arm to block Mantis’ path, which she fails to notice until she bumps into it, and he shoots her a look with narrowed eyes.

“Did you really bring no weapon at all?” he hisses, wondering just how the hell he missed that until now.

Mantis blinks up at him in confusion and then frowns, bristling in defense.

“I prefer to keep my hands free,” she says in an equally hushed voice, turning her empty palms up as though to emphasize her point.

He doesn't answer right away. She can knock someone like him unconscious with a touch, he knows that, but now it's just beginning to sink in that this may not be the best arena for her… unique abilities. One ill-timed blow from an Outrider, one stray bit of gunfire — that is all it would take.

There's no time to worry about it, though, and indeed there is nothing he can do about it. Another shout, distinctly inhuman this time, resounds from above, followed by a dull thwack of a body hitting concrete.

“Fine,” he growls. “Just… stay behind me, for now.”

“Watch your back,” she says with a nod. “Got it.”

That wasn't exactly what he meant, but she gets the point. He shakes his head and ascends the last few steps into the city above.

The street is, more or less, exactly as he pictured it, exactly as the Midgardian news stations made it appear. It’s chaos, pure and simple. He emerges onto the city’s concrete ground, buildings of glistening glass and metal towering above on either side, the air choked with dust and smoke everywhere he looks, a few Outriders clawing through the wreckage in the distance. Gunfire sounds off from somewhere he can't see, the quick bra-tat-tat of the humans’ automatic weapons, the occasional isolated pop of their tiny pistols.

He sees none of the Avengers on this particular street, nor any of the Guardians, but overhead he catches the unmistakable sound of someone breaking the sound barrier. Stark, no doubt, though he doesn't look up to see.

Hardly a second passes before he is forced to move. There is already an Outrider upon him, one he hadn't noticed at first, though it evidently noticed him the moment he appeared and sprinted straight for him—

He ducks underneath it and, in one movement, conjures a dagger that digs deep into the monster’s gut as he lifts it over his head and tosses it aside.

One down.

Another of the creatures comes barreling up in its place, all heaving putrid breath and blackened teeth, and without thinking Loki projects a glowing green forcefield to stop its charge — but the creature breaks through the shield as though it were made of glass.

Loki falters. He's fought creatures that were strong enough to do that before, but usually there is a pain associated with it, or at least some sort of sensation. This time there was nothing, just the magic slipping through his fingers like sand through a sieve.

He regains his senses and grasps the hilt of the Vanir blade at his waist, but he does not get the chance to use it.

The Outrider stumbles forward, falling against him, knocking him to the ground so violently that he thinks the creature must still be attacking, but its teeth and its claws never make contact. The beast is unconscious, limp and lifeless even as it pins Loki to the ground with its weight.

And there, just behind where the creature last stood, is Mantis.

“I told you to stay behind me,” Loki groans, pushing the creature off of him. It flops over onto its back, and Loki plunges the Vanir blade into its chest until he feels the steel scrape the concrete below.

“I am watching your back,” Mantis insists.

Loki looks up and sees, simultaneously, her brow furrowed in defiance and a third Outrider charging up behind her. She jumps with a squeak as his sword sails past her and buries itself into the creature's throat. It lets out a disgusting gurgle and crumples, dead before it hits the ground.

Blood from the Outrider’s throat has splattered all over her hair and her shoulder, and there are even a few droplets on her cheek. The horrified look on her face almost makes him laugh. Almost.

“Don't forget to watch your own back, too.”

They’ve cleared the area around them — for now, at least — so he has a moment to collect himself. He taps the cuff again, lowering the setting until it reads 65, and takes a slow breath. Mantis watches him warily, her eyes darting from his face to his wrists and back again. There’s a slight tingle at the base of his skull that momentarily makes his blood run cold with the familiarity of it, and then… nothing. No voices in his head. His thoughts are still his own. His actions are still his own.

And maybe now he’ll at least be able to project a force field that works.

Loki steps past her to yank his blade from the Outrider’s body. “Let's keep moving.”

 


 

Before long, Loki finds himself beginning to understand how Mantis and her friends have managed to save the galaxy, as Thor so quaintly put it.

Mantis is a far more experienced fighter than he expected, at least, which is a relief. She knows how to play to her own strengths. She’s agile enough to avoid the Outriders’ claws, small enough to duck around their attacks and send them tumbling to the ground for Loki to deal the killing strike, fast enough that she never slows him down as they carve a path through the city.

They make a good team.

And it occurs to him — distantly, through a haze of adrenaline as he parries an Outrider’s claw away with the half of the Vanir blade and separates its head from its shoulders with the other — that this is familiar. It's only been flipped. He was always the one to sneak around the enemy, weaken their defenses before they ever saw him coming, all to make it easier for Thor to deliver the final blow.

It should be concerning, he thinks, how easy it is to fall into the opposite role, how easy it is to lose himself in the exhilaration and thoughtlessness of killing.

It should be.

He can worry about that later, though.

Because right now he has far more pressing concerns.

Mantis is gone.

When he first realizes it, he stops, eyes frantically scanning over the chaos surrounding him for a pair of antennae, a whirl of black hair. How long has it been since he last saw her? A minute? Two?

An Outrider takes advantage of his momentary distraction and dives at his back, only to slam face-first into a wall of shimmering emerald light. It shrieks and clamors against the barrier, claws phasing through it as Loki loses his concentration, and he allows it to fade entirely so that the creature can throw itself forward, impaling itself on the Vanir blade.

As it twitches and slumps onto the blade, half on top of him, Loki pays it no mind. He looks to his left, his right, searching through the smoke and overturned cars and felled buildings. There are humans here and there, human police officers and a few civilians wielding tiny human weapons, others desperately running from the monsters in their midst.

But no Mantis.

Was she not just beside him a moment ago? She couldn’t have been more than ten yards away when he last looked — but when did he last look?

He shouts her name once, then twice, and he gets no reply.

And he has no time to dwell on it, either, because he has barely taken a breath before something huge and heavy collides with him from the right, sending him off his feet and sprawling against the concrete. The sword and the dead Outrider speared by it slip from his grip, and pain surges from his left wrist all the way up to his shoulder as he tries to catch his fall. On instinct he lets loose a quick burst of seiðr that flares out in all directions, not as powerful as it should be, but powerful enough to send the creature off of him.

Before it can recover, Loki conjures a dagger from where he lays on the ground and flings it so it sinks hilt-deep into the Outrider’s throat.

For a moment, he doesn’t move. He lays there and pants, propped up on one elbow, and he funnels some last remaining reserve of energy into disappearing from view with a ripple of seiðr. An Outrider or a human could still trip over him if he’s unlucky, but the invisibility should buy him a few seconds at least.

He winces as he touches his fingertips to the newly tender spot on the right side, and even though he can’t see it, he can feel the stickiness of his own blood on his fingers.

Well, he thinks, wrinkling his nose as he wipes it on his thigh, that’s not ideal.

The wound isn’t deep, though. The creature’s claws barely pierced his leathers. He shakes his head and gets to his feet, and he plants one foot on the dead Outrider still lying beside him and yanks the Vanir blade out of its stomach. If anyone running by happens to notice the sword pulling itself out of a dead body and floating in the air of its own accord, he thinks, well, it's the least of their problems, isn't it?

In any case, he can't hold the invisibility for much longer. He splits the Vanir blade in two, gripping the halves firmly in each hand, and releases his magic.

Mantis can fend for herself, he thinks. She'll have to.

He pushes his worries away, and he moves on.

It's easy enough to slip back into the role of solo fighter. Contrary to what Gamora may have believed when she warned him back on the ship, being a soldier is nothing new, not for him. One does not spend the better part of fifteen centuries thinking himself an Odinson without participating in his fair share of wars. Granted, in all of those wars he fought as both a soldier and a prince, knowing that any one of the Einherjar fighting alongside him would gladly give their lives for him without a second thought — as, indeed, some of them did.

This is, admittedly, quite different. It’s grittier. He feels smaller. It's closer to the battle he fought six years past, not just for its location but for its brutality, for the way Loki feels down to his very core that he is fighting this battle very much alone and very much against an enemy he is not likely to defeat.

Stick to taking down as many grunts as you can, Gamora had told him.

Well that much, at least, he can do with pleasure. He ducks around a corner, stabbing his left blade deep into an Outrider’s back before it even gets a chance to fight, and he ducks and slides under another beast’s claws in the next breath, slicing through its side.

A third Outrider manages to land a hit as he regains his footing. Pain bursts in his shoulder, knocking him to the side, but he raises a blade to fight back — and for the second time today, he does not get a chance.

The creature’s head snaps backward, and it falls to the ground. Loki looks over his shoulder, where an unfamiliar human stands behind the partial cover of an overturned car, still aiming her little weapon where she last fired it. She barely spares him a glance before she turns and fires at more of the creatures, and Loki, in a quick act of thanks, telekinetically takes hold of the creature closest to her and sends it flying into a brick wall before he moves on.

It was probably a good thing he left the horned helmet behind, he thinks, or that random Midgardian may not have exempted him from her list of targets.

They even seem to believe I’m one of them.

As the fight rages on, every so often he notices some sign of one of the Avengers nearby; the high-pitched whine of Stark’s propulsor beams somewhere he can’t see, the rumble of thunder that can only have come from his brother. He never sees them, though, and there is no sign at all of Bruce or his beast, nor the Captain, nor the Black Widow or Barton — probably for the best, he thinks, since the latter three would likely take one look at him and mark him for an enemy, whereas the Hulk, well…

He's still not entirely sure where he stands with the Hulk.

He does eventually see two fighters that must be Avengers by the look of them, though he has never seen either of them before. A colorless, bulkier version of Stark’s armor flies overhead, its departure soon followed by a series of explosions that rock the ground beneath him even from three or four blocks away. A few minutes later, as he stands in a freshly cleared area of dead Outriders and catches his breath, he sees a flash of red up in his peripheral, and he finds himself doing a double take because — is that person swinging around a skyscraper? On a string?

But at that moment his attention is pulled away by a familiar voice just around the corner. It's the loud, raucous laugh of someone who is thoroughly enjoying himself in spite of their bleak surroundings, and then:

“You want this?! YOU WANT IT? YEAH, COME AND GET SOME, SPACE DOGS!”

Rocket’s delighted screams are cut off by more explosions and then a bellowing roar that Loki recognizes immediately as the roar of a Flora colossus, still every bit as loud as an adult's would be despite the adolescent squeak that punctuates the end of it.

The pair of them come sprinting around the corner just moments later — or at least Groot does. Rocket bounces along on Groot’s shoulder facing backwards, clinging to the uneven branches on Groot’s head with one hand while, in his other hand, he handles a bazooka that by all accounts a creature of his size should never be untrusted to hold, let alone use. Behind them follows a crowd of no less than a dozen Outriders, the foremost of them very nearly closing in, and Loki sighs and flips the blades around in preparation to fight the creatures back.

He hesitates, though, watching as Rocket lets out a malicious cackle and pulls the trigger on his weapon. A fist-sized shell ejects from the bazooka with a thunk and, in midair, falls apart to release a cloud of tiny darts within. The darts hover for just a moment before splitting up and homing in on the Outriders in their midst, and Loki watches, blinking in surprise, as the darts make contact with their targets and each of them promptly bursts in a great, roiling ball of fire. The Outriders begin to collapse, one by one in smouldering heaps, and Rocket lets out a triumphant holler and shakes the bazooka in the air.

“Damn, I love this thing!”

Groot lets off a disgruntled rumble. “I am Groot.”

“Well, of course they smell,” Loki says with a smirk. “You’ve just lit them on fire.”

Groot looks up, evidently noticing Loki for the first time, and Rocket spins around on his shoulder. The bazooka wobbles dangerously in his grip before he hefts it up onto his own shoulder, where it balances comically at twice his height.

“Hey! If it isn't tall, dark, and cranky!” Rocket yells, his sharp teeth bared in a grin.

Loki rolls his eyes, but otherwise ignores the jibe as the two of them make their way toward him. “You both seem to be faring well.”

Groot shrugs. “I am Groot.”

Loki raises an eyebrow, looking pointedly over at the charred Outriders. “That looked a bit more than so-so.”

“Yeah, you're one to talk,” Rocket says, sounding annoyed as he waves his free hand at all of the dead monsters surrounding Loki, piles upon piles of them well outnumbering the ones Rocket has just finished burning to a crisp. Groot makes a face and kicks one of them out of his way. “Look at you, having all this fun without us. It ain't right.”

Loki almost laughs at that, but he pauses, tilting his head as he listens through the distant uproar of the battle. Rising above the explosions and thudding gunfire is the screeching of yet more Outriders, the scrape of their claws on the concrete getting ever closer.

“Well, I wouldn't worry about that,” Loki says. “Seems there's plenty to go around.”

As more of the creatures round the corner from which the two of them just came, Loki glances over his shoulder and sees a few approaching from behind as well — drawn here, no doubt, by the increasingly unpleasant stench of all those Outriders felled by Rocket’s weapon. The fact that they are about to be attacked from both sides is not lost on either Rocket or Groot, the latter of whom immediately positions himself back-to-back with Loki.

“I am Groot.”

“Yeah, I would,” says Rocket, patting his bazooka, “except this baby needs a second or two to cool down before she’s got another round in her.”

Before he’s finished his sentence, the Outriders are nearly on top of them. With a grunt of effort Loki beheads of the one at the very front of the pack, lifting the next up into the air with his seiðr and thrusting it backward so that it violently slams into another of its brethren with a sickening crunch. At the same instant he hears several of the creatures howling in pain behind him, and he glances over his shoulder just in time to see that Groot has extended an arm — literally extended it, growing it longer and longer until it’s skewered five, six, seven Outriders at once, and he swipes the arm left and right, bowling over the entire crowd of them in his path.

“I am Groot.”

“It’ll be ready when I say it’s ready,” Rocket answers, firing a few shots from the spare blaster he had strapped to his back.

“I may have a better idea, anyway,” Loki speaks up.

“Oh, yeah?”

Loki nods, though in truth he’s not entirely sure he has the energy to pull this off. Too late to change your mind now, he thinks as he quickly taps the cuff and lowers the setting just a bit, not bothering to look down at the number as he does so — there’s no time.

The tingle at the base of his skull returns, and this time it doesn't leave. But there is nothing more, no voices in his head, no change in what he sees around him. Close enough, he thinks, and he says, “Don’t move.”

He casts a glamour over all three of them and simultaneously projects a double just a few feet away, so that it looks, to the Outriders swarming around them at least, like Rocket and Groot have vanished into thin air while Loki has suddenly decided to make a run for it, straight through the crowd of Outriders.

“What the—?”

“Shh,” Loki hisses, and the shock of hearing his voice so close is, apparently, enough to shut Rocket up.

He focuses on making the double as realistic as possible, though he supposes the effort is a bit wasted; Outriders are brainless enough that they would likely be fooled by even his shoddiest magic tricks. And sure enough, the lot of them only pause for a moment in confusion before turning and directing their bloodlust on the double, charging after him like a horde of Bilgesnipe converging on a slab of meat.

Loki reaches into his pocket. The little orb he took from Shuri’s lab is still hidden along with the rest of him, but he can feel the smooth steel of it against his palm.

He runs his thumb over the orb’s surface until he catches the slight divot of the button on its side. The Outriders are seconds from closing in on the double, nearly all the way at the other end of the city block, and Loki presses the button and hurls the orb through the air so that it lands, softly beeping, and skitters along the asphalt until it hits one of the Outriders' feet.

There is only half a second of delay between the orb hitting the street — during which two or three of the Outriders confusedly glance down at it — and its resultant detonation.

It is certainly a sight to behold.

Loki finds his eyes widening as the air surrounding the crowd of Outriders begins to warp and glow with a dull purple energy, a huge dome spanning the entire width of the street and into the neighboring buildings, reaching some thirty or forty feet into the sky. It seems to suck up all sound for a moment, slowing the Outriders’ movements so dramatically that it almost seems to stop time. And then, with the ear-popping whoosh of compressed air, the purple glow and everything within it contracts, ripping apart chunks of the buildings within its range, and then explodes forcefully outward in all directions.

Every Outrider that had been trying to tear his double apart — that is, every single Outrider in sight — is catapulted away from the source of the blast along with several of the humans’ vehicles and roadside carts. Some of the creatures are sent slamming straight through several walls of nearby buildings. Others crash to the ground, digging smouldering craters in the asphalt or smashing the concrete sidewalk to pieces. A van flies up and smacks through the third story of a skyscraper. Loki’s gaze is drawn up, watching as one of the monsters tumbles over itself in the air, rising up and up and up until it's well higher than any of the buildings on either side. When it falls, it disappears behind the cloud of smoke and dust kicked up by the explosion.

His double, still standing unharmed amongst the debris, finally disintegrates. The glamour over the three of them fades as well, and Loki lets out a low whistle.

“I am Groot.”

“You're tellin’ me,” Rocket says, his voice quiet with unrestrained awe. He jumps roughly from Groot’s shoulder onto Loki’s, and before Loki can shove him off he jumps down of his own accord to get a closer look at the carnage left by Shuri’s grenade. “How many of those things you got on ya?”

“Just the one.”

“What?” Rocket yells, spinning around to stare up at him.

“I am Groot!”

Loki shrugs, and when it becomes clear he is not going to respond to either of their complaints, Rocket groans and shakes his head.

“I’m the only one on this d’ast rock that appreciates a good bomb,” he mutters, and then he heaves up the bazooka up to balance on his shoulder again. He turns away from both of them, wordlessly assuming they'll follow as he starts marching away from this now quiet street and toward the distant sounds of battle. Groot shrugs and walks around Loki to follow Rocket’s lead, and Loki decides with a sigh that he may as well join them.

He takes one single step forward—

Behind him, someone claps. The sound echoes oddly in the post-explosion quiet. Loki freezes. Whoever it is claps a second time, then a third, calmly applauding the show before them. Rocket and Groot both turn around to look at the source of it before Loki can find it in himself to move.

Oh, no.

Oh, no no no.

The clapping ceases, and the person behind him speaks, his voice grating and sickeningly smooth all at once, a voice that chills Loki down to the bone.

“Very impressive.”

Loki almost curses aloud, but he reins it in at the last moment.

He slowly turns, willing himself to look far more composed than he feels, clenching his fists so that his hands won’t shake. And there, not fifty yards away, standing amongst the dead and dying Outriders and the crumbling ruin of the street, is the very last person he had hoped to see in this fight, a person he had hoped to never see again. More so than any of the others. More so even than Thanos.

They must have known that, he supposes.

“Not that it will make much difference, in the end,” Ebony Maw continues, tilting his head and regarding the aftereffects of the grenade with mild interest. A smile spreads across his grotesque face, and his gaze comes to rest squarely on Loki. “Still. It was quite the spectacle, wasn’t it?”

 

Chapter Text

 

“Who's this ugly asshole?”

“I am Groot.”

“Hey, I’m allowed to say that, not you. I’m the adult here.”

“I am Groot!”

“It don't have to be fair.”

Loki barely registers a word of their bickering. He does not tear his gaze away from Ebony Maw, who only smiles at them through the billowing smoke, serene as ever, as though he is not standing upon a ruined street strewn about with dead monsters. He has not attacked yet, but he doesn't need to. Loki knows him well enough to know that Maw wants to take his time with this. He wants to enjoy it.

“Both of you,” Loki says, unmoving, his voice quiet, “get out of here.”

Rocket pauses in the middle of whatever he was saying to Groot, cutting himself off midsentence. “Huh?”

“Now.”

“What, ‘cause of old and wrinkly over there?” Rocket asks, walking to stand in front of Loki, and he cocks his head to the side as he regards their new enemy. “Eh. He don't look so tough.”

Ebony Maw only smiles wider at that, his fingers steepled together as he takes one languid stride forward. There is still just enough of the street-made-battlefield stretched between them that Loki knows neither Rocket nor Groot see him as a true threat, not just yet. They don't know what he's capable of. Maw’s gaze sweeps over the three of them before coming to rest, once again, on Loki.

“Friends of yours, Loki?”

Loki doesn't bother humoring him with an answer.

“Rocket,” he says instead, and his sudden use of Rocket’s actual name at least gets his attention for a moment. In his peripheral he can see Rocket turning to look up at him, but Loki still keeps his eyes on Maw. “Both of you need to get far away from here. I can cover you long enough to get away” — no you can’t, he thinks, not against him, not weakened like you are — “but you have to go right now.”

Rocket snorts. “Yeah. Don’t think so.”

“It wasn't a request.”

“Oh, I am so sorry, your Highness—”

“Rocket—”

“—for a second there I forgot that I take orders from you. Oh, wait! That's right. I don't.”

“This is serious. You're putting yourself and Groot in more danger than you know,” Loki insists, knowing full well that using Groot against him is a low move, and not caring one bit. Whatever it takes to make them leave.

“By all means, Loki,” Ebony Maw speaks up, stepping over a dead Outrider and closing just a bit more of the distance between them, “they are both welcome to stay and watch.”

“Both of you, go. Now.”

Groot steps up beside him, glaring obstinately ahead and growing himself taller so that he's nearly as high as Loki’s shoulder.

“I am Groot.”

“Yeah, what he said,” agrees Rocket, lifting the bazooka away from his shoulder so that he's holding it in both hands.

“He’ll kill you both,” Loki says, shaking his head and already preparing a spell to help them get away. A trace of seiðr tingles along his fingertips. “He’s more powerful than either of you can comprehend.”

“Ooh, more powerful than we can comprehend, huh?” Rocket asks, and he lets out a skeptical little humph. He cocks the bazooka and aims it squarely at Ebony Maw, tilting his head down to peer through the weapon’s sight. “He fireproof, too?”

“Wait, don't!”

Loki’s warning comes a second too late, because Rocket has already pulled the trigger.

Another heavy shell ejects from the bazooka, lobbing into the air exactly as it did before. The shell casing falls away, and the tiny darts within it hover for a moment before they converge and home in on the only living target in their range.

Ebony Maw barely moves. He watches, smile never fading as the darts weave through the air in a spinning trajectory straight for him, and he waits until they are just half a second from making contact.

He lifts a hand.

The darts immediately change course, banking and passing harmlessly by his right side, and they curve in a wide arc behind him to pass around his left, beelining until they are heading in exactly the direction he wants them to, returning straight for the three of them.

Except it seems that, perhaps on a whim — or more likely because he knows what exactly these darts do — Maw has chosen to aim them directly at Groot.

Loki acts on instinct. He throws one hand out and projects a forcefield inches from the darts, too quickly for Maw to avoid it, and they collide with the shimmering wall of seiðr as soon as it appears. The force of the hit reverberates up into his bones and he flinches, dropping his hold immediately, but the damage is already done. The darts burst on contact and erupt into a massive ball of flame, far enough that none of them is consumed by it, but close enough that all of them feel its oppressive heat.

Rocket curses loudly and backs up until he hits Loki’s leg.

“Course he’s got frickin’ magic powers,” he mutters, making a valiant effort at sounding pissed off rather than shaken by how close those darts just came to incinerating his friend.

“As I said,” Loki says, and with a wave of his hand both Rocket and Groot vanish from sight. It will not be enough to fool Ebony Maw, but it may be enough to throw off his aim. “Leave. Now.”

His words are met with silence at first, and then from the seemingly empty space by Loki’s feet he hears Rocket give an angry groan.

“Shit. Dammit. Shit, okay. Fine. Groot, come on.”

There is a rumble of dissent from his right, but Groot doesn't argue.

“Really, Loki, the theatrics are hardly necessary,” says Ebony Maw, again stepping closer. “Your little friends are going to die soon anyway, with or without my help.”

He makes no move to attack, simply watching Loki with vague amusement. Still, Loki holds the magic that keeps Rocket and Groot hidden, even as sweat beads at the back of his neck from the effort. There is more quiet grumbling from Rocket as he leaps up, clamoring up Groot's arm by the sound of it, and then his voice is behind Loki’s left ear.

“Hold off ugly over there for as long as you can,” Rocket whispers. “We’re gonna go find ya some help.”

It’s a nice sentiment, he supposes, but ultimately pointless. Loki knows, looking through the dissipating smoke at Ebony Maw, that his arrival has already taken Loki's flimsy chance of surviving this fight and plummeted it ever further, and any help Rocket and Groot may bring will only be giving his certain death an audience — or else adding to Maw’s kill count. He gives a single nod anyway to indicate he's heard, and then the faint sound of Groot’s footsteps grows ever fainter as the two of them finally leave.

Ebony Maw waits a moment, and then he makes a show of looking over their surroundings.

“I take it your friends have left, then?”

“Not my friends,” Loki corrects.

He finally releases his magic, and he has to grit his teeth to avoid letting out a sigh of relief. Not that hiding his weakness will matter much. Any amount of false bravado won’t change the fact that Maw has already seen every dark corner of his mind, places even Thanos was never able to reach.

Still. Old habits.

“Of course,” Ebony Maw answers. “You haven't got any of those, have you?”

It’s not meant to ruffle him, and it doesn't. It's merely fact. Loki only tilts his head in agreement, clasping his hands behind his back.

“Easier that way, isn't it?” Maw continues, weaving around yet another dead Outrider as he approaches. The battle nearby is beginning to grow quieter, or farther away, unless Loki is imagining that. “Better to keep everyone at arm’s length, lest they be used against you. Easier to… let it burn? Is that right?”

Now that is meant to ruffle him, a reminder that his memories no longer belong solely to him, that everything in his mind has been ripped out and examined and twisted. As if he needs the reminder. Loki gulps and does not respond, and behind his back he siphons magic into his hands, collecting every ounce of energy he has in him — which truthfully is not much — and letting it pool together at his fingertips.

“Of course, that doesn't always work, does it?” Ebony Maw asks, and now he's halved the distance between them. “Because try as you might, you just can't keep everyone at arm's length, can you? There is always…”

The tingle at the base of Loki’s skull expands, wells up until it seeps into his temples, and—

Thor, gasping, heaving for breath, Thanos’ grip tightening on his skull as Thor cries out and desperately claws at the Titan’s hand, tries to dislodge his fingers

“… one or two…”

Mother’s eyes go wide as a blade buries deep into her stomach, her mouth opens in a silent cry, her hands grasping for her killer even as the light fades from her eyes

“… that slip through your defenses,” Maw says, practically purrs, and when reality and the present come swimming back into view Maw is standing less than ten feet away, his features twisted into a sneer.

Loki takes a slow breath. He focuses on the heat of the asphalt through his boots, the acrid smell of smoke in the air. As jarring as it was, as jarring as it always is, to have his thoughts tugged to the surface like that against his will, he finds it surprisingly easy to refocus on the present. Easier than it used to be, anyway. Perhaps he has the cuffs to thank for that, or perhaps he’s just in better shape to defend his mind now than when he was trapped in that cell.

Either way, as soon as he’s certain he can pull it off, Loki flashes an unaffected smile.

“Is that really all you’ve got? A mother that has long been dead, and a brother,” he says, daring to take a step forward, “that even your precious, almighty Thanos could not kill?”

He sees a momentary twitch of Maw’s features, a faltering of his smile.

Loki shrugs one shoulder. “Not a very extensive list, is it?”

The solid ground beneath his right foot gives way, asphalt melting into sand. It swallows up his ankle and reaches halfway up to his knee before it solidifies again, pulling him down so that he’s just slightly off-balance and trapped where he stands.

“Struck a nerve, there, I suppose,” Loki says, wrinkling his nose. “It bothers you, doesn’t it? That Thanos was the first being to ever wield not just one Infinity Stone but two, and yet… My brother still lives. Half of Asgard still lives. I still live.”

Ebony Maw glares mildly at him, his lip just slightly curled up into a scowl, trying so hard to look merely annoyed when Loki knows there's barely checked rage simmering right beneath the surface.

And wasn’t this Loki’s only solace when he was imprisoned in that cell? The Other had promised him pain worse than any pain he had ever known, worlds of it, unending and unbearable, and Thanos and his children had certainly delivered on that promise.

But even at his most powerless, Loki could always make his words bite.

“And not only am I still alive,” Loki adds, “but I got away. I imagine that must sting quite a bit.”

After a moment, the scowl fades from Maw’s face, and he huffs a laugh. There’s a deafening screech as the streetlights on either side of the road tear away from the ground, and Loki does not bother fighting it as the metal bends to Maw’s will, one beam coiling firmly around his left leg and the other weaving beneath his arms and around his chest.

“You never did know when to stop talking,” Maw says.

The metal beams squeeze around him, just enough that he has to hold his breath to avoid letting out a pained gasp.

“Always speaking out of turn, lashing out with your words because you know you have nothing else left. You got away, indeed,” Maw continues with a mocking lilt. One end of the beam around Loki’s chest unwinds and then wraps over his left shoulder, pulling backward until it nearly dislocates his arm. Loki does not quite manage to stifle a groan, and Ebony Maw smiles at the sound. “You know perfectly well that you would never have left the ship if Thanos had not willed it.”

“Of course I know that.”

“And yet you boast of it.”

“Well, yes,” he answers with a raised eyebrow. “Because even that did not go as he wanted, did it?”

The metal tightens again, but Loki is not finished, even if speaking takes a fair amount of extra effort now.

“I was taken in by those conspiring against him, just as he knew I would be. And tell me, how many did I kill, exactly? Because correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe my kill count at the moment amounts to…” he tilts his head from side to side, estimating, “… roughly seventy or eighty Outriders, and exactly none of Thanos’ enemies. Better yet” — his voice cuts off with a cringe as Maw tightens his hold even further and Loki’s arm is actually dislocated, pops right out of its socket, but he breathlessly presses on — “how many Infinity Stones was I able to locate for Thanos? Hmm?”

In response Ebony Maw tightens the beam around his left leg, exactly where he knows the bone was snapped by Corvus Glaive less than a week ago, and pain shoots up the leg into his stomach.

“Hardly a surprise,” Maw answers with a smile. “You are a failure as always, Loki.”

Seiðr still pulses at his fingertips, swirling in his palms, waiting for release. Loki twists his hands as he shrugs his right shoulder.

“Honestly, I think that depends on who you ask.”

Before Ebony Maw can so much as open his mouth to speak, a glowing green minivan wrenches up from the ground and plows straight through him.

The metal beams wrapped about him loosen a bit when Ebony Maw’s concentration is broken, and rather than let up on the magic keeping the vehicle moving, Loki pushes the beams away the old fashioned way, muscles straining with the effort of bending the steel. The asphalt morphed around his leg is easier; it takes only a rough shake to free himself of that, and he’s once again on his feet.

Hearing Ebony Maw let out a scream of shock and pain upon impact was encouraging, but Loki knows he has only bought himself a moment. He drops his hold on the car without bothering to look — perhaps if he's lucky Maw will end up pinned beneath it — and turns away, casting a glamour over himself, ready to put as much distance between them as he can.

He makes it about three steps.

The asphalt suddenly dips and swells like waves in the ocean, just long enough to trip him up before it becomes solid again, and he throws out his right arm to catch his fall and hastily scrambles to his feet.

The minivan crashes into the ground in front of him with such force that all of its windows shatter, and he stops in his tracks.

“That,” says Ebony Maw, audibly seething as he telekinetically rips out one of the minivan’s doors, “was unwise.”

Maw uses the door to slam Loki face-first into the side of the destroyed minivan, and Loki immediately loses his hold on the glamour and ripples back into view. The door lifts away from him, but before he can say anything or even take a breath it comes surging forward again, slamming him into the minivan hard enough to send all the air from his lungs.

“No, no, that’s alright, I think you’ve said enough,” Maw tells him.

Loki clenches a fist, and an abandoned news cart on the side of the road flips up into the air, but seconds before it meets its target Maw simply waves a hand, and it falls back to the ground with a clatter and a scrape of metal on concrete.

The minivan door surges forward a third time, and this time it crumples all around Loki and flips him around, back pressed against the side of the minivan and his arms pinned to his sides. The pressure builds on his chest so that he can barely breathe, much less speak, and then the entire vehicle contorts as he is crushed downward, his knees forced to bend so that Ebony Maw can sneer down at him.

“Yes, I think that’s quite enough out of you.”

Pain rushes through his left shoulder — probably should have popped that back into place when I had the chance, he thinks — and there is a dull throb that pulses through his chest. Every breath comes in too shallow and his lungs begin to burn. Something is definitely bleeding, either internally or somewhere in his mouth; he can taste the tang of it on his tongue.

Ebony Maw leans in until there is hardly a foot of distance between them, and he smiles, reaching out to grasp Loki’s jaw in his hand, forcing him to make eye contact.

And then, something truly remarkable happens.

The pressure of the metal against him lessens. It’s a subtle shift, hardly noticeable to Loki, but apparently plenty noticeable to Ebony Maw. Loki’s brow furrows, and he watches as Maw’s smile fades and his eyes widen. He releases his hold on Loki as if his touch has burned him, taking a step back.

For a second he only stares down at his own hand, and Loki realizes all at once what must have happened. When Ebony Maw lifts his gaze back up to Loki, the rage in his eyes is like nothing Loki has ever seen.

“What kind of— of devilry—”

Maw raises his hand toward Loki again, no longer daring to touch him, and part of the metal behind Loki’s back sharpens into a point and spears straight through him, impaling the flesh on his right side just below the ribs. Loki clenches his jaw against the urge to cry out, and half a second later the pressure returns to his chest, this time weighing down on him heavily enough that another sharp pain erupts somewhere on his left. A cracked rib, he suspects.

But Ebony Maw does not stop there. A strip of metal tears away from the roof of the vehicle and wraps itself tight around Loki’s neck.

“I don't know how you managed to do that,” Maw drawls, an even calm having returned to his voice as Loki tries in vain to gasp for breath. Through the tears pricking in his eyes he can see Maw idly inspecting the hand he touched Loki with before he turns his gaze back up. “I expect it’s related to how you’ve kept us out of your head more-or-less consistently these last few days. But I suppose it hardly matters now, does it?”

The rough edges of the metal dig into the skin of Loki’s neck, the weight on his chest gradually increasing, and Loki tries to dredge up some remaining bit of seiðr to defend himself with, to push back, to do something.

But whatever is left in him is not nearly enough.

It’s only when black dots start to loom in his vision that Loki realizes this very well might be it. This may be where his fight ends.

“None of it matters,” Ebony Maw continues, and Loki was right about one thing. Maw is taking his time now that he has the clear upper hand. He's letting himself enjoy this. “Not this fight” — he gestures between the two of them with a wave — “nor the fights going on a block away, or two blocks away, or all over this entire putrid city. Thanos will have the last of the Infinity Stones soon, and all your fighting will never have mattered. You know that as well as I do.”

Loki can barely see anything beyond Maw standing just a few feet away, and his lungs are screaming for air, and his arm and his side and his chest are all in agony.

Any moment now his life will be over, and he can’t even muster the breath for any clever last words.

Oh, Thor’s going to be livid.

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Maw says, apparently having gotten into his head just enough to determine what he was thinking. “Your brother won’t live to be angry with you much longer, anyway. Do you understand, Loki? They’re all going to die. Thor, your little Avenger friends, the rodent and the walking tree you sent off earlier… Nothing will hold off Thanos’ might, not indefinitely. Even I may die, when this is all over.”

Ebony Maw crouches down to his eye level, his face a dull grey blur only inches from Loki's own.

“But the difference between you and me, Loki, is that I am more than willing to die for this cause. I don’t fear death, or run from it. Not like you,” he says, and he raises a hand so that the strip of metal around Loki’s neck tightens and Loki wonders how much more pressure his spine can handle before it will snap. And he hopes, through the murky haze that his thoughts have become, that Ebony Maw cannot see enough of his mind at the moment to see how right he actually is, to see that spark of fear that Loki does not have the strength to smother.

“Well, that,” Ebony Maw continues as Loki’s vision is reduced to silhouettes, “and the fact that you, Loki, are going to die very much alone.”

It happens so quickly that, at first, Loki has no idea what actually happened.

One moment he is being slowly crushed to death, Ebony Maw’s contemptuous grin right in front of his face. Then there is a flash of red light, and Ebony Maw is just very abruptly not there anymore.

“See, that’s the thing,” says a voice that is not Ebony Maw’s and that Loki, in his dazed, half-suffocated state, does not immediately recognize. “He ain’t alone, douchebag.”

And then there is a new face swimming in front of him, but Loki can barely make out any of this new person’s features. He just knows it can’t be Ebony Maw, the face isn’t grey enough. There is something warm touching his neck, prodding at the metal still wrapped around it.

“Ah— shit, that doesn’t look good. Drax, help me out here, man.”

Another pair of hands are right by his throat, and Loki hears a grunt of effort as the metal is bent and torn away from him. A second later the pressure of the minivan’s crumpled door is forcibly lifted from his chest, and Loki immediately reaches up for his neck as he takes in the deepest breath he possibly can. There is still a spike of sharpened metal pierced through his right side and preventing him from moving, but the relief of being able to breathe again is so acute that he finds he genuinely does not care, not yet.

“That’s it, you’re good, just don’t move for a sec,” says the voice that Loki belatedly understands to be Quill’s. He feels a hand gently patting his shoulder. “Rocket wasn’t kidding, that is the ugliest son of a bitch I’ve seen in a long while. Krag, is he down for good?”

“I just put a hole in his neck, Pete,” comes Kraglin’s voice. “And he ain’t moving.”

“Check his pulse, dude.”

As coherent thought returns to him Loki starts to understand precisely what they’ve done, what that flash of red light was. That arrow, the one Kraglin used to attack him on the ship… Loki looks to his left, and sure enough, he sees Ebony Maw sprawled out on the ground with a hole the size of a small coin burned into the side of his neck.

Dread sinks into Loki’s stomach.

That won’t be enough.

He sees Kraglin leaning over what he must believe to be Ebony Maw’s dead body, and Loki tries to speak, tries to warn him, but his throat won’t cooperate.

Before any of them can react, Kraglin is sent hurtling backwards with a shriek; he goes flying, thirty, forty, fifty feet into the air, and Loki barely manages to throw out a hand in time to soften his landing half a block away with a touch of seiðr.

“He’s alive!” Drax shouts.

“Son of a bitch.”

Ebony Maw hacks a cough, one hand over the hole in his neck as he uses his telekinesis to patch up the delicate nerves and veins that have been severed. Drax throws himself forward with a battle cry, two daggers drawn, but he is sent flying backward exactly as Kraglin just was. Loki doesn’t have the energy left to soften Drax’s landing, but he has to trust that Drax is rather more durable than Kraglin is — and if the fact that he continues his incoherent shouting even while crashing through a distant wall is any clue, Loki figures he was right to think so.

“Quill,” he says, and he doesn’t have to work to keep his voice quiet with how raw his throat is. “Distract him.”

“What?”

“Trust me.”

Loki taps the cuff and turns the setting all the way back up until it reads 100, and the complete, instant loss of his magic is more dizzying than ever. Bracing himself, he lurches forward, and he can't help but cry out as the metal spike is torn out of him. A fresh wave of black dots floats and bursts before his eyes.

Don’t black out, he tells himself. Not now. Don’t you dare.

Quill, his helmet deployed and his blaster poised to shoot, has already started carefully tip-toeing in a wide circle around Ebony Maw until he stands directly on the opposite side of him. Maw is on his knees now, slowly and shakily getting to his feet with one hand still hovering above the hole in his neck.

“Hey, asshole!”

Ebony Maw turns, glancing in Quill’s direction, and with a growl he waves his free hand like swatting at a fly. Quill is sent hurtling straight backward until he is bound to slam back-first into a nearby car — for half a second Loki thinks that the impact will kill him, but that protective forcefield in his helmet deploys and pushes the car back so that it skids across the asphalt. Quill remains, if a bit unsteadily, on his feet. He raises the blaster again, but with another wave of Maw’s hand the weapon begins to disintegrate, flaking away as though it were made of ash.

It is a distraction of a mere few seconds, and a few seconds are all that Loki needs.

In the space between one heartbeat and the next, Loki has closed the distance between them and clamped a hand over the back of Ebony Maw’s neck. The reaction is instant, the cuffs working seamlessly to suppress the energy flowing through not just one magical being, but two. He feels Maw tense under his grip, sees the exact moment that Quill’s blaster stops falling apart, half of it still intact in his hands.

By now Loki is intimately familiar with how it feels to have lost access to his magic. It’s uncomfortable, disorienting, even when he knows it’s only temporary. It feels wrong, like removing a limb and never being able to shake the feeling it should somehow still be there.

But cutting off access to his own magic is a small price to pay if he gets to see Ebony Maw die without his.

“No—” Maw chokes out, “no—”

He tries to twist in Loki’s grip, raises a hand to try and call to his powers that will no longer respond.

“Don’t bother,” Loki rasps. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Quill cautiously approaching them, but Loki pays him no mind. “It’s funny, you know. I always knew that this was why you never got too close to any of the prisoners. You would never come near me unless my arms and legs were restrained. And here’s the proof — without your powers, your body is as frail as a human’s, isn’t it?”

Ebony Maw’s only response is a pained whine, his voice failing him, and despite the savage pleasure Loki gets from knowing he's finally gotten the upper hand, it has the unfortunate effect of bringing to mind all the times Maw drew that very sound from him. Anger sends Loki’s limbs trembling. Or maybe that's the blood loss, or the oxygen deprivation. But no matter.

“Don't like feeling powerless, do you?” he asks, his voice shaking worse than the rest of him. “Don't like finding yourself at someone else’s mercy? I imagine it must be strange for you.”

He tightens his grip just enough to make it hurt.

“Suppose it doesn't matter, though,” Loki says, leaning close so that Maw can hear every word. “After all, you don’t fear death, do you?”

The half-healed wound in Maw’s neck might kill him on its own now, if Loki only holds on and waits. But he was never an especially patient person. He twists his hand until he feels the definitive snap of breaking bone, and he maintains his hold on Maw until he goes completely slack, the pulse beneath Loki’s fingers fading away to nothing.

Loki drops Ebony Maw’s body so that it falls unceremoniously to the ground, and his own legs give out half a second later.

Again it’s Quill that tries to pull him to his feet, and this time, Loki does not fight it. He can't fight it. He just stares exhaustedly ahead at the body as Quill tugs Loki’s right arm up and over his shoulders, guiding him off the street. It seems that his body is belatedly recognizing his injuries; white-hot fire shoots through his side where Maw impaled him, and there is a weakness in his limbs that forces him to lean heavily into Quill’s support and a twitch of pain that crawls up his left arm with every movement.

“Gotta admit, that was pretty badass,” Quill says quietly as they reach the nearest intact wall, and he gently lowers Loki down to sit.

Loki winces, leaning his back into the wall and closing his eyes. Without looking he taps the cuff again and lowers its setting until he can feel the seiðr swelling up inside of him, pulled of its own accord to his many injuries like cool water into a well.

The tingle at the base of his skull does not return, not this time. So it was Maw jumping back into my head at every chance we gave him, he thinks, not Thanos.

Something pushes gently against his side, right over what is arguably his worst injury, and Loki opens his eyes to find Quill crouched in front of him. He's taken off his leather jacket and balled it up, and he has it pressed to Loki’s side, using it to stem the blood flow.

“You, uh— you good, Loki? I don't know much about Asgardian biology, but…”

“I’m fine.”

With heavy footfalls announcing his arrival, Drax appears behind Quill, bits of powdered cement and plaster all over his shoulders and chest and turning his pants nearly white. He glances back at Ebony Maw’s body and then looks down at Loki.

“You killed him,” he says, and he raises his eyebrows. “I’m impressed.”

Before Loki can make a sarcastic remark, Quill cuts him off.

“You sure you're not dying or anything?” he asks. “You kind of got impaled. Like, all the way impaled, not like when we got you off the purple dickhead’s ship.”

“Not the first time I’ve been impaled,” Loki tells them, ignoring the looks he earns from both of them for that comment. He shrugs his one good shoulder. “I will live. My magic will take care of it.”

“Your magic’ll take care of it,” Quill repeats with a snorted laugh, and he shakes his head. “Course it will. Frickin’ gods, man.”

“Is that jealousy I hear, Quill?” Loki asks, managing a smirk.

“A little, yeah,” Quill answers, but he's grinning, too. He nods toward Loki’s left shoulder. “Let me take care of that, though — unless your magic’s gonna move that back into place, too.”

Rather than answer aloud Loki just wordlessly leans forward, allowing him access to the injury and taking the balled up jacket from him to free up his hands.

“Count of three,” Quill says, one hand gripping his upper arm and the other on his back. “One, two—”

“Ow,” Loki complains with a mild glare, but immediately he can feel the seiðr getting to work at stitching up the injury from within, the pain fading as quickly as it came.

Quill sits back on his heels. Behind him, Kraglin has finally returned from wherever he was thrown. He’s winded, but he looks far better than Drax does thanks to the magic that cushioned his fall. He takes one look at Ebony Maw and lets out a low, impressed whistle — or at least, that’s what Loki thought he was doing, until the glowing red arrow floats away from the holster at his hip and shoots through the body’s head.

Kraglin shrugs as the arrow returns to his side. “Just in case.”

It's then that Loki realizes something is off, or rather, missing. His brow furrows.

“Where are Rocket and Groot?”

“Oh, uh— right now? Probably about… seven, eight blocks that way,” Quill answers, waving vaguely in the direction that Loki thinks might be south. “There’s still a hell of a lot of those four-armed ninja turtles running around, and a lot of people that still ain’t been evacuated yet. We’ll be joining ‘em soon enough, but just sit back a second. I think we earned it.”

Loki nods, leaning back against the wall again. It makes sense. Rocket and Groot are each far better equipped to handle Outriders and the evacuation effort than to fight a member of the Black Order, much less one like Ebony Maw; they saw that much for themselves.

And the two of them sent Quill, Drax, and Kraglin to his aid, which may very well have saved his life.

“I lost track of Mantis,” Loki suddenly admits, surprising himself. He hadn’t felt the need to tell Rocket and Groot, not when they were all already quite busy, but now, sitting here on a too-quiet street, face to face with Quill… For some reason he feels like Quill needs to know. He shakes his head and explains, “We were fighting together when we first arrived, but at some point I lost track of her. I don’t know where she is.”

He doesn't add or if she's alive, because he supposes that goes without saying, in a battle like this.

But then Drax, his voice startlingly and confusingly certain, says, “Mantis is fine.”

Loki shoots him a look. “How do you know that?”

Quill rubs the back of his neck and lets out a heavy sigh.

“Because we know where she is,” Quill tells him, and his tone — half reluctant, half apologetic — is that of someone who has been forced to admit something he was sincerely hoping he could put off until later. He taps his ear by way of explanation. “We all wear earpieces on our missions. Communication helps with the whole galaxy saving thing.”

“And she… told you where she went?” Loki asks, more confused than ever. Had Mantis intended to disappear?

Quill nods.

“And she is…?”

“Back in Wakanda,” Quill answers. “Gamora and Thor and some of the Avengers are there, too.”

“What? How?” Loki asks, and then realizes there’s a far more important question. “Why?”

There’s a pause. Loki frowns, looking between each of their hesitant faces and feeling more and more infuriatingly out of the loop with each passing second. He finds himself growing angrier and angrier, until—

“Because Thanos landed there ten minutes ago,” Quill says.

His anger is extinguished in a flash. It’s amazing, he thinks, how quickly terror takes hold of him at the mere thought that the Mad Titan is on the same planet as him, that Thanos is getting closer and closer to his goal while half of the planet’s defenses idly waste their time on the other side of the globe.

“Ten minutes ago,” Loki quietly repeats.

Quill nods. “Yeah.”

“So why are we still here?”

“I mean, there wasn't a whole lot of time to figure it out,” Quill says. “That, uh— that wizard guy? Apparently he got word that Thanos was landing, he did his portal thing to get a few of the heaviest hitters to Wakanda, and last I heard he was gonna come back for more of us, but… he hasn't turned back up yet. And I ain't willing to risk distracting Gamora or Mantis asking for updates.”

Loki runs a hand over his face, his thoughts racing nearly as quickly as his pulse. Thanos is thousands of miles away, but he's on this planet. He would only have come in person if he’s nearly gotten all the Infinity Stones. Mantis is there, with Gamora, and Stark, and Thor.

“Alright,” he says, his mind made up. He nods. “Alright. If the sorcerer will not take us there, I suppose I’ll have to do it. There's a spell that might work—”

“Woah, woah, Loki, hang on—”

“—but it would require far more energy than I have at the moment,” he continues, ignoring Quill’s interruption. “It’s a matter of turning these cuffs entirely off, and then waiting until I have the strength for it. I’d rather get there right this second but if this is our next best option—”

“Loki,” Quill interrupts again, grabbing his good shoulder to cut him off. “Listen to me. We can't all go to Wakanda. There's still a ton of innocent people here that need our help.”

“That doesn't matter,” Loki tells him, incredulous. “If Thanos wins, none of this matters. You know that.”

“Yeah, I know that, and that's why they got Gamora and Mantis and Thor and a bunch of Avengers and all those Wakandan armies fighting him,” Quill says. “Hell, your brother’s practically as strong as all them put together. That fight’s in good hands. This one still needs us, and you killing yourself trying to teleport us across a planet isn’t gonna help anything.”

“No,” Loki insists, shaking Quill off his shoulder. “No, you don't understand, I’ve seen Thor fight against Thanos before. It's not even a fight.”

“Did he have Gamora with him then? Or Mantis, or a whole damn army at his back?”

“No, but—”

“Exactly.”

“I agree with the greasy Asgardian,” Drax says, and Loki is too stunned by his support to be angry at the insult. “We should be focusing our efforts on Thanos.”

“Not now, Drax,” Quill groans. He runs a hand through his hair and says to Loki, “Look. You don't think I’m dying to get to Wakanda and help, too? Gamora and Mantis are there. I’m worried out of my damn skull. But listen, man, they got this. And if there's one thing I’ve learned from Gamora in the last few years, it’s that when you're fighting a guy like Thanos, you got two options. You can either try to kill him, or you try to protect the people he's trying to hurt. And which one of those do think is a bigger ‘screw you’ to him, huh?”

“Killing him,” Drax answers.

Quill lets out a long, frustrated breath through his nose, staring ahead at nothing. “Thank you, Drax,” he says in a sarcastic, almost sing-song voice. “But the answer was protecting the people he's trying to hurt.”

“Oh,” Drax answers. “I would prefer to kill him.”

“I know you would, buddy,” says Quill as, behind him, Kraglin gives Drax a conciliatory pat on the back, releasing a plume of powdered plaster from his skin. Quill worries his tongue between his teeth for a moment. “Okay. Here’s the deal. If the wizard guy comes back, obviously that means they need back-up, so we’ll go. If he doesn't, we gotta assume that means they have it handled, and in the meantime, we focus on helping the people here. Deal?”

“I can get us there,” Loki insists, shaking his head. “We don't need—”

“Loki, seriously, dude, you look like a stiff breeze would knock you over,” Quill says, his voice gaining a frustrated edge. “And didn't your brother make you promise not to get yourself killed, anyway?”

There were hundreds of arguments already churning through Loki’s head, from calm and logical rationalizations to biting words and below-the-belt insults, and Quill has just said the only thing that could silence every single one of them. Loki gulps, setting his jaw and glaring silently ahead at none of them.

Finally, he gives a stiff nod and then, perhaps a bit too roughly in his anger, shoves the jacket back into Quill's hands.

“Oof. Right. Good. Cool,” says Quill, and he stands. He holds out a hand to help Loki up, which goes untaken as Loki stubbornly stands on his own and stifles a wince. Quill frowns but doesn't comment on it. Instead he taps his ear and says, “Rocket, what do you got?”

He jumps, cringing as Rocket’s indistinct shouting warbles through the earpiece loud enough for all of them to hear it.

“Okay, okay,” Quill answers. “That’s, uh… that's up by Stark tower, right?”

There's a few more shouts, and what Loki thinks might be the radio-distorted sound of an explosion.

“Got it,” Quill says, and then he addresses the rest of them. “We should split up, cover more ground. There's a bunch of cops trying to run an evac out of a subway station, uh… about four blocks that way, where most of the alien things are—”

“I’ll take it,” Loki cuts in.

Quill shoots him a look. “Splitting up means two groups of two, man.”

“Fine,” Loki snaps with a roll of his eyes, too pressed for time to bother arguing. “Drax. You come with me.”

All three of them stare in wide-eyed shock at him, but luckily none of them actually voice their confusion, and Drax is the first to shrug it off and step away from the group.

“Uh. Okay, then,” Quill says before shaking his head. “Krag, guess that leaves us to take the crowd of ‘em up by Central Park. You guys keep in touch, and—”

But Loki has already stalked away in the direction Quill indicated, not bothering to wait and hear his and Kraglin’s plans. He hears heavy footfalls behind him and knows Drax is already following behind.

“… and let us know if you see the wizard guy!” Quill calls out behind them, raising his voice in clear annoyance as they continue walking away.

Loki doesn’t so much as glance over his shoulder, though he hears Drax grunt an affirmative, and Quill lets out an exaggerated sigh.

“Okay, cool. Awesome. Good talk.”

 

Chapter Text

 

“It was smart to take me with you. You are weakened from your fight with the ugly man. I can protect you.”

A few steps ahead of him, Loki gives a strange snort.

“What?” Drax asks.

Loki doesn’t turn to look at him when he answers, “You think I chose you for your protection?”

Drax frowns. It sounds like Loki is suggesting that he did not choose to bring Drax along for his superior fighting skills — but that can't be right. Drax eyes down the Asgardian; he is clearly favoring his right side, walking with a pronounced limp. Drax nods. “Of course.”

This time Loki does turn to look at him with an eyebrow raised, and he rolls his eyes before turning ahead again.

“I chose you to come with me,” Loki says, speaking slowly, “because as soon as I am physically able to do it, I will be teleporting myself and whoever is with me to Wakanda.”

Drax pauses, but Loki doesn't, and he is left staring at Loki's back for a few seconds before he jogs to catch back up.

“You seemed least likely to try and talk me out of it,” Loki adds.

“Huh,” Drax says. “I see. So you lied to Quill.”

“That I did. Do you have a problem with that?”

Drax thinks it over for a second, and then he shrugs. “If we are going after Thanos, I do not.”

“Fantastic. We'll go as soon as my magic is strong enough,” Loki says. “It shouldn't be long. I’ll just have to be careful to use it sparingly until then.”

Drax watches as Loki takes the sword from his hip — a sword that Drax suddenly realizes he recognizes from their weapons storage — and splits it right down the middle by its hilt so that he is holding two blades, one in each hand.

“Thanos will die today,” Drax says.

“Well, that’s the idea, at any rate,” Loki answers, staring pensively at the weapons in his hands. After a moment he seems to snap out of it, and he shakes his head. “So. Let’s kill some Outriders in the meantime, shall we?”

Drax’s only answer is a smile as he unsheathes his own daggers.

They turn the next corner and find a street swarmed with those disgusting four-armed monsters, just as Quill said they would.

A few of them are running off along the side streets, but the main horde is attempting to claw its way toward one of those square holes in the ground that lead into the Terrans’ subway system. Several humans are attempting to keep them back, and it seems to be working. For now. Some of them shoot their little guns from well back into the subway entrance, and some of them, once again surprising Drax with the very warrior-like bravery of these tiny Terrans, physically beat the creatures back with whatever blunt objects they have gotten their hands on.

As soon as he sees the monsters, Drax breaks into a run, a ruthless smile on his face, and he lets loose a mighty battle cry as he throws himself into the fray.

The monsters fall in droves to his daggers. They're strong but also slow, and clumsy, and stupid. Drax charges through the crowd of them, slicing through the mess of clawed limbs and gnashing teeth, spraying their blood into the air, on each other, on himself — and laughing all the while. His entrance into the battle even serves an extra purpose; he notices several of the monsters that were nearly on top of the humans turn and redirect their attention to this new threat in their midst, giving the humans a moment to recuperate.

And Loki, as it turns out, is a very deadly fighter as well. Drax already knew that, of course, from experience, but the strange Asgardian quickly proves he is just as deadly a fighter even without the mind tricks and the odd green magic he has, which Drax definitely did not know.

It is a pleasant surprise.

Whereas Drax dives into the center of the battle, Loki fights from the outskirts in. Drax sees him sweep around the more disperse areas, taking down the creatures where he has more room to swing his blades, ducking and weaving through the monsters while the vast majority of them are too focused on Drax.

Actually, Drax sees him far less than he doesn't see him — one moment Loki beheads one of the monsters far to Drax’s left, and the next he is nowhere to be seen, lost in the chaos of the fight. When Drax next sees him it is only a brief glimpse somewhere straight ahead before he disappears again behind the mass of writhing bodies.

A few seconds later, there is a fearful scream from near the subway entrance to his right, and before Drax can direct his attention to it he finds that Loki has already gotten there and planted himself firmly between the horde of monsters and the tiny humans.

Drax elects to leave Loki to his fight over by the subway while he, in turn, focuses on dwindling their numbers from the center of the horde — that is, until he feels a pull of something not-quite-solid on his arm. A shimmering green light has wrapped itself around his wrist, tugging at him, not nearly strong enough to move him but plenty to get his attention.

He turns and carves a path through the monsters to get to the subway entrance, killing indiscriminately as he goes, throwing monsters off his back as they pounce on him. One lands a surprisingly strong punch to his stomach, but it only gets a pained grunt from Drax and a dagger through its eye for its effort.

When Drax finally reaches Loki, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with him and faces the crowd of monsters that — Drax is pleased to see — is now far smaller than it was. They have killed well over half of them already. As the foremost of the creatures lunges at him he stabs his left dagger through its throat, and at the same instant a gunshot rings out from behind him. The monster he was planning to attack next falls to the ground with a hole in its head.

Drax raises his eyebrows, impressed. So that's why Loki urged him to come and fight from this vantage point instead.

“Gathering all the warriors in one place,” Drax shouts to Loki with a nod. “An excellent strategy.”

“They're not warriors,” Loki corrects him. He has merged his two swords back into one, and with his free hand Loki lifts one monster by its throat and flings it aside so that it collides with another. “They’re far more fragile than either of us.”

“Ah,” Drax remembers. “Right.”

He forgets that sometimes.

He shrugs and kills yet another monster, this time opting for a punch to its chest that caves in its ribcage.

“Protecting the people Thanos wants to hurt,” Drax shouts over the noise. “Just as Quill said.”

For some reason, his words elicit a growl from Loki that makes him sound almost exactly like Rocket does when he's annoyed, and he slices the arm off another creature.

“Don't remind me.”

Loki backs up a step, forcing the humans behind him to back up as well. Most of them understand his meaning and scramble down the stairs away from the danger, while two of them stubbornly remain just behind their new alien protectors. Loki takes another step, roughly shoving his back into one of them and forcing her to move. She retreats a few steps down but refuses to run, still shooting her gun to help slow the onslaught of monsters.

The top of the stairwell is now at his and Loki’s heels.

“If we continue down the stairs, they will have the higher ground,” Drax shouts.

“What's the matter?” asks Loki, already stepping back again so that he’s standing on the first stair. “Scared of a little challenge?”

As he speaks, Loki stabs his blade deep into a monster’s gut and thrusts it upward with an adrenaline-fueled smile on his face. Drax body checks the one closest to him — the force of it sends the creature flying backward and slamming into three others — and he nods in agreement.

They both take a step back.

Drax has to admit, there is at least one advantage to their new position. The monsters now have to crawl up and over a messy pile of their fallen brethren to reach the subway. It makes them clumsier; half of them slip and stumble straight into his or Loki’s weapons before they’ve even managed to attack. And the more they kill, the messier the pile becomes and the more difficult it gets for the monsters to overcome it.

As they take another step backward, the human behind Drax finally turns and retreats into the subway station, but the woman behind Loki still remains. She fires a shot that goes straight through the head of a monster that was trying to scramble over the pile of the dead — it goes limp and tumbles lifelessly down the stairs so that all three of them have to jump out of its way to avoid being bowled over.

Drax smiles as he looks back up at the subway entrance. The crowd above them is thinning out considerably.

“It’s working! We're winning!” Drax cries out in triumph, and as one of the monsters runs straight into his daggers, he lets that one’s body tumble down the stairs behind him as well.

He turns to face the next monster, but something makes him pause.

A deep rumble has just sounded off in the distance, a low vibration reverberating through the stone steps beneath their feet, and Drax’s brow creases.

Of the dozen or so monsters coming at them from above, nearly all of them stop in their tracks and twist their hideous necks to look toward the source of the noise. The few of them that don’t stop are all met with quick deaths — one falls to a punch in the throat from Drax, another to the human’s gun, and a third to Loki’s sword — and then, just like that, the monsters are gone, the remainder of them having run off to somewhere they cannot see.

Drax shouts, “What is that noise?”

He catches a brief, confused head shake from Loki. Apparently he does not know what to make of the sound either, but the Terran woman goes completely still, the color gone from her face as the rumbling grows steadily louder and gains a higher pitch. The ground quakes beneath them more and more violently, rocks and bits of concrete sent hopping up into the air by their feet. A chunk of the ceiling behind them cracks away and falls onto one of the stairs below.

“Move,” she tells both of them, her voice laden with fear as she starts to retreat down the stairs, beckoning them to follow with a quick tilt of her head. “Now!”

“What is it?!” Loki shouts over the noise.

The woman reaches out and grabs Loki by the wrist, physically tugging him along down the stairs, presumably under the assumption that Drax will simply follow. She can’t possibly be strong enough to force Loki to move, but Loki seems too flabbergasted to do anything but comply, at least for the first few steps.

“What the hell are you—?”

The rest of Loki’s question is drowned out entirely, and Drax glances up just in time to see the source of the noise.

His stomach drops at the sight of it.

“A missile,” he says aloud to no one in particular. It streaks through the air some nine or ten stories above the ground, trailing smoke and flame in its wake.

But why would the humans—?

It doesn’t matter.

“GET DOWN!”

Drax pivots and, without taking a single second to think about it, throws all of his weight into both Loki and the human woman. Loki shouts something at him that he can’t hear over the scream of the missile or the woman’s shriek of fright.

Not half a second later the missile makes contact with a building somewhere above, somewhere much too close. The explosion of rubble and shattered brick and glass and metal is so much louder than the rumbling ever was, and Drax’s ears pop as the ground beneath them gives way — or, wait, no, the ground is still where it was, they’ve just been thrown up into the air with the force of the blast, feet lifted away from the stairs beneath them. Drax has gotten one arm around each of them now, and he does his best to control their fall into the subway station below.

It all happens in a blur of crumbling rock and a wave of heat at his back, and when Drax lands, his shoulder blades collide with a smack on the concrete floor at the bottom of the staircase, and both Loki and the human woman land directly on top of him. He hadn’t even realized he’d turned at the last second before they hit the bottom — but it is a good thing he did, he thinks. Between a fragile human and a severely injured Asgardian, Drax supposes he was best suited for taking the brunt of their fall.

Loki is the first to roughly shove himself off of Drax, stumbling to his feet with a scowl on his face.

The Terran woman, though, sits back on her heels and opens her mouth to say something to Drax, but Drax frowns in confusion when no sound comes forth.

“What?!” Drax shouts.

There’s a ringing in his ears, and it takes him a second to realize that that’s why he can’t hear her. By the time the ringing fades, she has a hand on his shoulder, trying to help him up.

“—hear me? Are you okay?”

He nods, sitting up and resting his arms on his knees, looking up at the staircase from which they just came. Half of the stairs have collapsed in on themselves, huge chunks of stone and other bits of rubble having fallen from above and blocked up their exit, and a massive crack has split the ceiling above them, originating from the staircase and trailing at least fifty yards into the subway station.

In front of him, Loki eyes up the damage with his hands on his hips.

“Do me a favor, would you?” Loki asks without turning. “Never say the words we’re winning in my presence ever again.”

“Why not? We were winning.”

Loki shakes his head and mutters something under his breath that Drax doesn’t hear, and then he sighs. “Well, regardless, we certainly won’t be leaving the way we came.”

“I don’t understand. That was a human weapon,” Drax says. “Why would they fire on their own people? It makes no sense.”

Loki shrugs one shoulder, glancing around the subway station. “It’s not unheard of. Last time I fought here, they tried to vaporize the entire city rather than let the opposing army take it over,” he says with a nonchalance that does not fit his words at all, and Drax wonders for a second if he’s kidding. “This little weapon was child’s play compared to that one, so it could have been worse.”

Before Drax can ask why a child would ever play with such a weapon, the human woman speaks up.

“Holy shit,” she breathes. Drax frowns up at her as she stands; she suddenly looks terrified, more so than he’s seen her yet, which is a feat in itself. She gulps and points at Loki. “I knew I recognized you from somewhere. You’re— you’re that guy from the incident. It’s actually you. Holy shit.”

Loki turns to look at her with an amused smile. “Oh, is that what they’re calling it, now? An incident?”

She doesn’t respond right away, taking a step back, and she fumbles for the holster at her hip only to find it empty. The gun must have been lost in the fall, probably buried under all that rubble, and she pales even further at the realization that she's unarmed.

“You're welcome, by the way,” Loki says, and he lightly kicks the corpse of one that had fallen down here before the missile strike. “This whole place would be swarmed with Outriders by now if we hadn't shown up—”

Another explosion shakes the ground above, cutting him off, and all three of them look up at the ceiling.

“We need to move,” Drax says, getting to his feet.

“Agreed,” Loki answers, and he turns his gaze on the woman again. “Am I right in assuming the subway tunnel is just past those turnstiles?”

The woman gulps again, still staring fearfully at Loki.

“Oh, for the…” he grumbles, pinching the bridge of his nose for a moment. “If I came here to kill more of you, I could have just let the Outriders have at it, couldn't I? And I certainly wouldn't have gotten their disgusting innards all over myself trying to fight them off.” His nose wrinkles as he looks down at his blood spattered armor. “But by all means, if you'd prefer to keep your distance, you can stay here and wait for more missiles to bring this entire place down. We, on the other hand” — he gestures impatiently at both himself and Drax — “are going to keep moving. The tunnel?”

The woman hesitates, eyes him down from head to toe, and then a third explosion rocks the ground above and sends a quake through the entire station. The crack in the ceiling audibly lengthens and drops a chunk of stone onto the floor just a few feet away.

She shakes her head, then she sucks in a breath and lets it out in a huff.

“Okay,” she says, leading them to the gates. “Okay, yeah, it’s this way.”

As they pass the gates and head down another, shorter set of stairs, the hum of voices carries up to them from below.

“The trains stopped running after the evac,” she explains, “so the plan now is to get any stragglers left behind and send them on foot down the tunnels, anywhere other than here. Last I heard everyone was headed downtown since those things seem to be condensing up by Times Square.”

When they reach the bottom, they find themselves at the edge of a stifling crowd of humans, all pressed together and weaving around each other in the cramped space of the subway station. There's so many more than Drax had expected from the sound of them — but then, it seems that the majority has been frightened into silence by the ordeal they’re still trying to flee from. Somewhere, though Drax cannot pinpoint exactly where, the crying of a young human child rises above the thrum of voices, and he feels a twinge of sympathy before he forces himself not to dwell on it.

At the center of the claustrophobic press of bodies, Drax sees several of the humans hopping down onto a lowered platform. They trail into the tunnel on the right, departing in small groups at a time, and he can hear one of the humans barking orders to keep everyone organized.

Above, the rumble of more explosions is impossible to miss. Distantly, in the tunnel to the left, Drax hears the sound of gunfire. The child’s wailing gets louder.

“Are you guys serious about helping?” asks the human woman.

Drax says, “Of course,” at the same time that Loki shrugs and says, “Might as well, while we’re here.”

The woman gives Loki an odd look, but she doesn't comment on it. Instead she points to the tunnel on the left. “If you want to help, you can stop those things from reaching us. They can't get in from this station anymore, but that's not stopping them getting in from further uptown.”

Again, gunfire erupts in the tunnel, closer than it was just seconds before.

Drax gives the human a nod and, without another word, proceeds to push his way through the crowd toward the lowered platform. The humans move aside for him without complaint, some staring in open-mouthed awe as he passes, and he hops down onto the railroad tracks with ease.

“Not exactly where I imagined biding my time,” Loki says as he lands just beside Drax, already twirling his sword. “Suppose I could stand to blow off some more steam, though.”

Blow off some steam.

Hmm. Definitely a metaphor by the sound of it, but Drax doesn’t ask. He gets the idea. Probably.

They make their way into the left tunnel, and it is not long at all before they reach the source of the gunfire. There are three humans, each armed with one of those tiny little guns. Dead monsters litter the ground in front of them, but Drax can hear the snarls of others echoing against the walls of the tunnel, too far away to see past the faint light offered from the station behind them.

He gently lays a hand on one of the humans’ arms in a bid for him to lower his weapon.

“Go,” Drax says to all three of them. “Protect the humans at the station. We will fend them off from here.”

“Yes, I'd prefer doing this without having to dodge bullets from behind, if that’s possible,” says Loki.

The humans retreat as asked, all staring at Drax just like their fellow humans did at the station. And again, just like the two humans at the subway entrance, all three of them remain just a few yards behind, clearly waiting for the moment their aid may be needed.

“Eager sort, aren't they?” Loki comments as he steps up beside Drax.

A moment later, a creature claws its way into the faint light with a screech, and a second and a third follow close behind.

Drax wastes no time. He rushes forward to grab the first two by their throats, and he smacks their heads together with a grunt, killing them instantly, as Loki beheads the third. One more comes quickly after, but the humans kill that one with their bullets before either Drax or Loki can reach it. Then a fifth and a sixth come running out of the dark; he takes the one on the right, Loki the one on the left, and then—

Then… nothing.

Six monsters. That's it.

As the last one lets out its dying breath, it leaves behind nothing but silence in the tunnel ahead, the only sound the background murmur of voices still behind them and the muffled thud of explosions above.

“That was… easy,” Loki says, sheathing his sword with his brow furrowed.

“It was.”

“Feels a bit like déjà vu.”

“I do not know what that means,” Drax says. “But something is wrong. I don't like it.”

“Hm. Perhaps you're not as dumb as you look,” Loki tells him. Before Drax can work out whether that was an insult or a compliment he adds, “I don't like it either.”

Above, the rumbling of the explosions gains a bit of volume, and somewhere further into the tunnel Drax hears the same loud crack that resounded from the ceiling in the staircase just a few minutes ago.

“Oh,” Loki says, taking a step back with something like fear in his eyes, “well, that's— not good.”

He turns toward the humans.

“Move,” he orders, waving them ahead. “Quickly.”

Another crack sounds off from further down the tunnel, then another and another in quick succession — cra-cra-crack, then the smashing of stone hitting the floor.

“NOW!” Loki practically screams, shoving one of the humans from behind until all three start sprinting toward the subway station. “Damn it,” he mutters to himself, glancing behind at the darkened tunnel. “Damn it. Damn it.”

“The tunnel is collapsing,” Drax says.

“You don’t say!”

“I… just did. Do you not hear it?”

Loki doesn’t answer. When they reach the station, it is not nearly as crowded as it was. The humans have, apparently, hastened their rush into the south tunnel, leaving only two dozen or so still lingering on the lower platform as they await their chance to file in behind.

“Move!” Loki shouts, his voice suddenly so loud that Drax wonders if he's using magic to amplify it.

Nearly all the humans jump, startled, but at least they don’t seem to question it. They all pile into the tunnel a bit faster, squeezing and pressing in together, shoving at those in front of them to make more room.

Another crack comes from behind them, far closer than the last. Drax looks over his shoulder just in time to see a slab of concrete from the roof of the tunnel come crashing down against the tracks. He looks up; bits of tile from the station’s ceiling are chipping away as well, falling like some bizarre, sporadic drizzle.

“This station is going to collapse as well,” he says.

“It is,” Loki agrees, also staring up at the ceiling.

Drax looks down, and he sees Loki’s fingers clenching and unclenching at his sides, a greenish light gathering in his palms. “Do you have the strength for your teleportation spell yet?”

“I’m not sure,” Loki answers. Drax sees his throat bob as he gulps. “I think— perhaps. I might.”

Drax frowns. They’re just approaching the rear of the crowd now, but the throng of people within the southern tunnel is so tightly packed that it's taking far too long for those left behind to squeeze in. Drax thinks he may understand the reason for the slight note of anger in Loki’s voice, and he lowers his own so the humans do not hear him.

“But you do not have enough strength to transport all of them.”

Loki’s eyes close, a muscle twitching in his jaw, and Drax thinks that must mean he was right.

“If they make it out of the station, they might be safe,” Drax says, worriedly eyeing the human closest to him — she’s holding a small child on her hip, a child no older than Kamaria was. “That tunnel may not collapse.”

“Maybe not,” Loki says, opening his eyes to glare straight ahead. “If the idiots would just get moving.”

A huge piece of the ceiling breaks away near the stairs, chipped tile and concrete falling together to smash to the ground. Some of the humans jump, and a second later, they all look up — and Drax and Loki do, too — as a faultline splits open in the station’s ceiling, entire square tiles dropping away and shattering on the floor.

“Come on, come on…” Loki mutters, staring at the humans in front of him. Drax has to resist the urge to physically shove them into the tunnel; he knows it will not do them any good until the crowd up front grows thinner. “Come on.”

“Loki—”

The rest of Drax's sentence is lost as the tunnel behind them finally gives under the pressure, a deafening cascade of rocks and concrete hitting the tracks below, and the back corner of the subway station quickly follows suit.

Loki shouts something, loudly, something that Drax thinks must be a frustrated curse by the sound of it, but it's in some gravelly language that even his translator chip cannot recognize. And in the same instant, the rest of the tiled ceiling above them gives way. Drax feels something tighten in his gut — all these people are still here, they will never make it out in time — and there’s a series of cracks as the ceiling bows and sinks in what seems like slow motion…

… until Drax realizes that it is falling in slow motion.

The green glow from Loki’s hands has spread out and settled below the tile from one end of the station to the other, covering every inch of the ceiling and keeping it mostly upright, even as it breaks to pieces above the glowing barrier.

Beside Drax, Loki loses his balance and falls to one knee.

“Loki!”

Loki gives no answer. His left arm extends out to the floor to brace his fall, his right fist clenched at his side, that green light pulsing from his fist all the way up to his elbow. Drax looks up at the glowing ceiling, now having fallen to about three-quarters of its previous height, and then he looks to the humans who have paused to stare up at the display.

“Get out!” Drax yells, waving them on. “Go!”

They do. Those in the back keep pushing fervently against those in front of them until, finally, they’ve just about cleared the tunnel entrance.

So, not entirely out of danger. But closer than they were.

It’ll have to be enough.

Drax pulls his attention away from them, and he circles around Loki, crouching in front of him. He tries to get a look at his face to see exactly what kind of toll this magic is taking on him, but Loki won't look up. His entire body is taut with stress, like he’s holding the ceiling up on his back rather than twenty feet above — and maybe, Drax thinks, it actually feels that way to him. For all Drax knows about magic, it could. Loki’s arms are trembling, too, and badly, which is especially concerning given that his left arm is the only thing standing between his face and a rough collision with the ground.

“… Loki?”

On impulse, Drax lays a hand on his shoulder, just on the slightest off-chance that it might help, that maybe his magic works similarly to when Quill tried to hold an Infinity Stone.

Apparently, it doesn't. Drax feels no difference, and the ceiling continues to sink a few feet at a time as Loki lets out a strangled sound from the back of his throat.

Drax keeps his hand where it is anyway.

“How much longer can you hold this?” he asks. They need to get out of here before the ceiling falls, but Loki seems unable to stand, much less walk out of the station. Drax could easily carry him into the still-standing tunnel behind the humans, but would moving him disrupt the magic in some way?

Before he can ask, Loki looks up at him. He's still shaking terribly, all traces of color gone from his face except for one single blue vein bulging near his temple. He fixes his wide eyes on Drax and struggles to speak.

“I— I’m sorry— I can't—”

It's all the warning Drax gets before the green glow fades away. The groaning of the ceiling is replaced by the rush of displaced air and the almost instant crash of falling tile and stone and concrete.

Drax is aware of a horrible pain somewhere below his right knee, and then all sensation disappears as his vision goes black.

 


 

Hearing is the first thing to return, and even that returns slowly.

Everything is muffled, and Drax wonders — vaguely, for just a moment — if he is underwater, if he’s drowning again. That would explain the heavy feeling in his lungs, at least.

Is he dying?

Is he already dead?

If this is what dying is like, then how long does this part of it last? At what point can he move on to what the afterlife is supposed to be? When does he get to see Hovat and Kamaria again? Because right now everything hurts, and he can’t see a thing, and all he can hear is the muffled sound of— voices? One voice? Two?

No. Definitely just one. And whoever it belongs to sounds very, very angry.

Drax opens his eyes. He still can’t see anything, just darkness and a gray smudge right in front of his face, but things are slowly beginning to feel more… real. He’s not dead. He might be dying, judging by that heaviness in his lungs and the pain shooting up his right thigh, but the fact that he can feel any of that at all means he must not be dead. Not yet.

His right arm doesn’t respond at all to his commands to move, which is… concerning. But he can move his left arm, and he lifts it toward the strange gray shape floating in front of him.

His palm meets warm concrete.

Right. The subway station.

Drax grits his teeth and pushes against the obstruction with all of his might. It shifts, just barely, just a fraction of an inch. There must be several tons of weight bearing down upon it, he can feel it, but he keeps pushing until something above the slab falls away with a crash and the weight becomes slightly easier to bear.

“Oh. Good,” comes the voice from earlier, clearer now, if a bit strained. “Still alive, too, are you?”

Loki’s hand appears at the edge of the concrete slab somewhere to Drax's left. They work together at lifting it until it's too high for Drax to reach from where he lies on his back, and Loki pales as he bears the weight of it on his own. Still, he manages to shove the concrete aside to where it's no longer crushing Drax’s chest, and he lets it fall.

There is a shuddering all around them as he drops it, and they both go still, waiting for the rest of the structure to come down on them.

It doesn't.

Drax gulps, and he asks the first question that comes to mind, even though he dreads the answer.

“How long was I unconscious?”

Loki grimaces as he sits down. He looks just as bad as Drax feels. It’s impossible to tell how much of the blood on him is his own and how much came from the slain monsters, but the color has yet to return to his skin, and he's cradling his left hand to his chest, and the wound in his side seems to have begun bleeding anew. “Not long,” he says. “It’s only been a few minutes.”

That’s good, at least. Drax frowns and takes a look at their surroundings. Or, well, what he can see of their surroundings, anyway. The fallen pieces of the subway station have left them with a space smaller than his quarters on the ship. Maybe ten feet across, no visible exits, barely enough space to stand up straight — if he even could stand.

And it's then that Drax looks down at himself and sees, for the first time, why his right leg hurts so much.

“… Oh,” is all he can really think to say.

Loki glances at him, frowns, and looks away. “Yeah.”

Above Drax’s right knee, his leg is unhurt except for a few scrapes. Below the knee, though… He can't see it, not past the massive piece of the ceiling that’s fallen on top of it, but he can guess how extensive the damage is.

“Help me remove it.”

“Absolutely not.”

Drax frowns. “Why not?”

“Because it might be the only thing keeping you from bleeding to death,” Loki tells him. “And moving anything else at all risks compromising whatever integrity this place still has.”

“What about your magic?”

Loki looks at him with something suspiciously close to sympathy in his eyes. When he speaks, his voice is quiet. “It took everything I had, doing what I just did.” He looks away, absently picking up a rock from the cracked ground beside his lap. “And in any case, healing magic was never my forté.”

Drax takes a moment to process that. Then he nods, looking down at his leg.

This is not how he imagined dying today. Not in such a disappointing way. Not so far away from Thanos.

“Did the humans make it out?”

Loki suddenly hurls the rock in his hand. It hits the opposite wall of stone with a sound like a gunshot. “I should have teleported us out when I had the chance,” he growls, ignoring Drax’s question. “Instead I wasted what little energy I had on delaying all of… this”  — he waves a hand in the air — “by a measly few seconds.”

“But you saved the humans,” Drax says, because Loki still has yet to confirm it.

“I did,” Loki says, sounding strangely angry about it as he reaches for another rock to throw. “An… unfortunate lapse in judgement. But yes.”

Drax frowns. A lapse in judgement? “They are alive because of what you did.”

“Yes, and look at all I have to show for it. Stuck in the crumbling ruin of a stinking Midgardian subway,” Loki says, spitting that last word in a way that makes Drax wonder if he has a personal vendetta against human subways, “with no way to get to Thanos, and a grand total of one ally who’s now one leg short of a full set.”

He throws the second rock so that, again, it hits the other end of the clearing with a loud pow.

Drax shrugs, and both shoulders actually move; some feeling has returned to his right arm now that the largest bit of rubble on top of him has been cleared away.

“Yes, but they are alive because of it,” Drax reasons, both to Loki and to himself as he tries to work out why he's alright with this turn of events.

Because he is alright with it. Even if he dies. He did not agree with Quill’s assessment before, that saving those Thanos wanted to hurt was a better alternative to killing the tyrant himself, but actually seeing the would-be victims of Thanos’ violence, knowing they are alive now when they might not have been otherwise…

It changes things. He is not sure why, but it does.

“There were children among those humans. Innocents,” he says, again picturing Kamaria in that human child’s place. “If I have to die for them to live, then so be it.”

“Oh, that is just nauseatingly noble,” Loki groans, rolling his eyes. “Though I suppose you would be biased in favor of those little creatures.”

Drax raises an eyebrow at him.

Loki only shakes his head. “And anyway, you're not going to die.”

“I’m not?”

“You're not.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you're not leaving me alone down here with nothing but a rotting corpse as company, for one,” Loki says. “I’m going to get us out of here.”

“How?”

Loki shoots him a look. “I’m working on it.”

“Hmm. Well, perhaps the humans will come back for us.”

At that, Loki actually laughs. “Oh, yes, perhaps the humans will risk their lives to rescue two aliens, one of whom nearly wiped out their precious city six years ago,” he says with a gesture at himself. Before Drax can ask what he means by that, Loki continues, “No. We're on our own for this. I would say you should contact Quill, but even he and Kraglin won't be much help. If you and I can't move all this rubble away, there's no chance that they'll be able to do it.”

Loki picks up another rock, turning it over in his hands as he stares into space, thinking.

“I’ll have to wait until the use of the slightest bit of magic no longer gives me the urge to vomit, and then I’ll… figure something out, I suppose,” he says. He tosses the rock, gentler this time, and it skids across the ground. “Of course, this is under the assumption that Thanos does not wipe out half the Universe while we're still down here. In which case I’ll no longer have any say in whether either of us lives. So. There's that, too.”

“You are worried that Thanos will win.”

For a while, Loki only stares silently ahead at nothing. His hands lay in his lap now, and he jabs his right thumb into the palm of his left hand without, apparently, noticing that he's doing it. He mutters, “Not much I can do about it from here.”

“I wanted to be there, too,” Drax tells him. “I wanted nothing more than to watch Thanos die for what he has done. But now we must have hope that the others will be able to destroy him without us.”

Loki shoots him a look, his brow creased. He does not comment, though, and with a pained wince he moves to stand. He begins to pace slowly around the area, ducking beneath the jagged rocky ceiling and inspecting the rubble that blocks them in from all sides. His right hand hovers over the wound in his side, but he traces his left over the walls, apparently searching for something.

“Hope,” he finally says, “was also never my forté.”

Drax frowns. “I have hope. Our friends in Wakanda have an entire army gathered against Thanos.”

Loki huffs a humorless laugh. “That matters far less than you might imagine. And even if it did, Thanos has an army of his own.”

“They have your brother, too.”

“Not exactly a comfort,” Loki says, sounding angry again. “Thor is—” he falters, then sighs. “He is stronger than most. But he’s not stronger than Thanos.”

“He does not have to be. Quill always says there is strength in numbers,” Drax explains. “And they have Thor, and Gamora, and Mantis, and Nebula—”

“And who?”

Loki has turned to face him again, eyes suddenly wide. Drax raises an eyebrow before he realizes. “Oh. Yes, you never met Nebula,” he says. “She is Gamora's sister.”

Now Loki’s mouth hangs open as he stares at Drax. “You’re joking.”

Drax shakes his head.

“Nebula,” Loki says. “The daughter of Thanos, Nebula.”

“Yes.”

That Nebula.”

“… Yes?”

“Is Gamora's sister.”

Drax nods, slowly, wondering what exactly Loki is failing to understand.

Loki blinks, still wide-eyed, and then he shakes his head and runs a hand over his face, looking away. “That… well, that explains a lot, actually,” he says. “And you're saying she's in Wakanda as well?”

Again, Drax nods. “She and Gamora are capable warriors who know Thanos well. Your brother is most formidable in battle, and Mantis has proven herself strong enough to subdue a planet,” he says. “And they have an army of Earth’s fighters on their side. Thanos may still die today.”

Loki laughs again, still without humor, barely more than a sigh. “You are remarkably optimistic for someone who hasn’t a clue whether he’ll live to see tomorrow, you know that?”

Drax pauses, and even though Loki didn't ask for an explanation, he gives one anyway.

“I am not worried about dying. If I die today, I will be reunited with my wife and daughter,” he says with a shrug. “If I do not, I will continue living with the family I have now, and Hovat and Kamaria will rest well knowing that Thanos has met his end. Either outcome would be acceptable.”

Loki gives a humph that sounds like disbelief. He's facing Drax again, frowning with his arms crossed over his chest.

“I think the family you have now might take issue with that.”

Drax hesitates, and then he closes his mouth and agrees with a tilt of his head.

Loki is right. Technically.

“The dead can always wait,” Loki adds, resuming his inspection of the walls. “Believe me. They've got an eternity for it.”

Drax watches Loki in his meandering circuit around the clearing, watching without really watching.

And not for the first time — not even close — he imagines his wife and daughter, waiting for him in whatever afterlife they might have found, waiting on his arrival for so many years. But Loki does have a point. What are years, stacked against an eternity? Especially when Hovat and Kamaria have, hopefully, found some sort of peace. Meanwhile, his family now…

Losers, Quill called them all those years ago. Folks who’ve lost stuff.

And if Drax dies today, they'll have each lost one more.

Drax sighs. “That is a good—”

“Hang on. Did you say a planet?”

He blinks, confused by the sudden interruption, and Loki doesn’t give him more than two seconds before he repeats his question:

“You said Mantis has subdued a planet?”

“Oh,” says Drax. “Yes. A celestial. Quill’s birth father.”

“Quill’s—?” Loki starts to ask, and then he shakes his head. “You’re saying Mantis subdued a celestial? You’re certain? You saw it happen yourself?”

The tone in Loki’s voice is impossible to miss, and Drax agrees with a nod, “It was indeed very impressive, although she could only make him sleep for a few minutes. But yes, I was right beside her. It was my idea for her to try it.”

For a moment, Loki only stares at him from across the clearing, struck silent.

“What is it?” Drax asks.

“I have to get to Wakanda,” Loki murmurs, barely loud enough for Drax to hear it. He’s staring blankly at nothing now, and he runs a hand over his face again. “I have to get to Wakanda right now.”

“But you said you used up all your—”

“I know,” Loki cuts him off, wringing his hands together. “I know. But I have to get there. Magic is not… It doesn’t quite work like that. I used every ounce of seiðr I could reach, yes, and using any more of it could very well kill me at this point, but… there must be some way I could…”

He stares down at the metal covering his forearms, and then — Drax recognizes the change in his face immediately.

It’s what Quill calls a light bulb coming on.

Loki lifts his right arm, the one bearing a beaded bracelet from the lab, and he hesitates before speaking to the bracelet, “… Princess? Are you there?”

There’s a pause. Drax tries to sit up so he can get a better look.

“Shuri, if you can hear this, I need—”

“I am a bit busy at the moment!”

A strange, tiny rendering of the Princess materializes above Loki’s bracelet. The small version of Shuri is not looking at either of them; instead she is focused intently on something they cannot see. Her right hand types away at the air as if there is a keyboard beneath it; her left is covered by some sort of wearable weapon, and she fires a powerful blast from it a second later.

“What are you—?” Drax starts to ask Loki, because what can the Princess possibly do for him from the other side of the planet? But he's cut off when she shouts:

“One! Second!”

She fires another blast, and a third, and a fourth. Then she braces her right hand against her left arm, and the weapon lets out a high-pitched whirr before letting loose a white light that’s nearly blinding — even transmitted through a hologram.

The Princess glances to her left and to her right, and then she finally looks up at Loki.

“Well? What is it? You had better make it quick.”

“I will,” Loki answers. “The cuffs you made. They suppressed the energy I use for my magic—”

“No kidding! Did I not already fix that?”

“You did,” Loki says. The hologram of the Princess looks away again, anxiously watching something else they can't see but still, apparently, listening. “You said you didn't have time to get to the root of the problem. You didn't know how exactly the cuffs were suppressing it.”

“So, what's the question, then?” she asks, shooting a glare up at him. “I still don't know for sure—”

“I know,” Loki says.

Drax manages to fully sit up, watching the two of them intently now. Loki glances at him and then back at Princess Shuri.

“The cuffs suppress my magic,” Loki reiterates, “but is it possible, at all… that they might be able to do the opposite?”

 

Chapter Text

 

Seiðr, no matter who wields it, no matter how it manifests, is — at its core — still just seiðr, different shapes cut from the same cloth. It takes its power from the same source. It's made of the same stuff.

Thor’s problem was always that he had far too much of it. He was a walking, talking overcharged circuit from the moment he generated his first spark, his power nearly impossible to control. Loki well remembers falling victim to one of his lightning blasts when they were children, almost as vivid a memory as that of having his ear talked off afterward for several days in the infirmary by his profusely apologetic brother. Luckily Thor figured out how to wrest it into submission, with time and with practice and, eventually, with Mjolnir.

But that was why his power always manifested as such raw, supercharged energy. That was why he could take down entire buildings and destroy whole armies but could never cast so much as a simple glamour.

At least that was how their mother always explained it. Thor’s and Loki’s powers, while as different as black and white to the naked eye, were still quite the same. Still just seiðr.

And Loki confirmed as much for himself, too, when he was seven years old and managed to short circuit the lights in the throne room with a flick of his wrist — an incident which, naturally, Thor took the blame for. Loki could never produce so much as a visible arc of lightning, but the smaller currents were his to manipulate as he wished.

Shuri’s cuffs work in about the same way. They require seiðr to manipulate, but not much. A diverted electrical current here, a shifted wire there.

Still, even that much makes Loki’s insides turn and his head pound. That little stunt with the collapsing subway station left him absolutely gutted — another instance in which he would have gladly given up his finer control of magic for his brother’s raw brute strength, if only for a moment.

Loki takes a slow, even breath. The urge to vomit passes.

This has to work.

It has to.

According to the Princess — who by now has cut off communication to resume her own battle — this particular form of Vibranium has a radioactivity to it; Loki can feel that, too, a low hum beneath the surface, a backdrop to the ebb and flow of electricity through its multitude of circuits and processors.

Somewhere in there, the energy from his own seiðr lies in wait. Some of it. Maybe. The Princess admitted that it’s possible, and Loki just… he knows it.

It started as the barest inkling of an idea, a tiny spark, but the more he explained it to the Princess, the more it started to make sense. The cuffs had to have siphoned off some of the magical energy they suppressed, somehow storing it, converting it maybe. Otherwise, he should have been nearly overwhelmed with power as soon as he turned the damn things off.

“Is it working?”

Loki opens one eye to glance at Drax. What a sight he must be right now, he thinks, battered and bruised and bloodstained, sitting with his legs crossed and his forearms laid palm-up across his knees as if he’s meditating in this demolished Midgardian subway station beneath several tons of crumbling concrete.

He clicks his tongue, closes his eye again. “Not yet.”

A delicate tendril of seiðr probes and pokes at the electrical currents, the magnetic fields they generate, shifting aside what it can and avoiding what it can't. It is a truly exhausting endeavor, and it may even be fruitless. There may very well be nothing to find, despite his hunch to the contrary. And even if there is something to find, it could be too small an amount to matter.

And, he realizes with a slight cringe, if it’s not too small an amount to matter, then the surge of power that could come forth when he unlocks it could kill him. Or — how had Rocket put it? It could fry his whole damn nervous system?

Again he glances up at Drax, this time opening both eyes.

“I apologize in advance if this kills me,” Loki says, acutely aware of the fact that he himself was just complaining about the possibility of being left alone down here with a dead body.

“Why?”

“Because if I die down here, that bodes quite ill for you,” Loki answers, no longer looking at Drax and, indeed, already hardly paying attention to the conversation anymore. His vision has just suddenly blurred, a cold feeling settling in his gut. He closes his eyes again.

It might be just… there…

“No, I meant why would it kill you?”

Through the fog of seiðr and Loki’s addled senses, it takes a moment for Drax’s words to register, and when they do, he grunts out a response, “It’s— hard to explain.”

“But if this might kill you, then—”

“It might not.”

“Why take the chance?”

“I have to,” he snaps, opening his eyes once more to shoot a glare at Drax.

He returns his attention to the cuffs.

He’s close. He can feel it. If this is going to work — and it will, he tells himself, he knows it will — it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.

It feels as if his seiðr is pressing up against a closed door, a door that can only handle so much pressure before it gives and releases a torrent from within. A torrent, or a trickle. It’s impossible to know which until he breaches that barrier.

“If I can make it more likely that Thanos will die today,” Loki says to Drax, mentally preparing himself for his leap, “then it is well worth the risk that I might.”

He takes a slow breath.

And he shoves open the door.

 


 

Gamora has to admit, Earth has no shortage of valiant warriors ready to rally to its defense.

The Outriders never stood a chance, at least. Neither did most of the Black Order, really, when it came down to it. Corvus Glaive met his end through the combined effort of Captain Rogers and King T’Challa near the very start of the battle. Cull Obsidian lasted far longer. It took Nebula crash-landing her stolen ship on top of him, followed by a brutal pummelling at the hands of the humans’ green beast, before Cull was even dazed long enough for the Asgardian Valkyrie to slice his head from his shoulders.

Ebony Maw is still nowhere to be seen, though Gamora has heard whispers across the battlefield of his demise as well.

That only leaves Proxima Midnight, a crowd of a hundred or so Outriders and, of course, Thanos himself.

It would be encouraging if Gamora did not know, deep in her bones, that however impressive the battle may have been up until her father’s arrival, however incredible it may have been to witness the green beast literally tearing the battlefield apart, however much lightning Thor brings down upon them all…

Even killing the entire Black Order is a far, far cry from killing Thanos.

And they haven’t even killed the entire Black Order.

Because as far as Gamora can tell, Proxima Midnight just won’t die.

She doesn’t know how the battle with Thanos is faring, because Proxima has her on the run. The sounds of the battle have faded by now to a background rumble of thunder.

There is a deep thrumming behind her as she dashes through the trees, the telltale sound of Proxima’s spear distorting the space around it as it barrels toward her, and Gamora has exactly half a second to react and throw herself to the ground. She is rewarded with a mouthful of dirt, the shriek of the spear slicing through the air where her torso had been only a heartbeat before, and the stomach-turning sensation of the weapon warping the space above her with all the weight of the sun from which it was forged.

It continues on its path, and as Gamora looks up, she sees the thicket of trees up ahead reduced to an explosion of splinters and kindling and smoke, a great crater the size of a ship left in its wake.

She leaps to her feet and continues her sprint through the forest. Somewhere to her left, Mantis darts through the surviving trees. Somewhere to her right, she catches a brief glimpse of red hair.

Good, Gamora thinks. Stay close, but not too close. And don’t give your position away.

Not for the first time, she thanks whatever deity might be listening for putting Wanda Maximoff on their side and not on the side of Thanos. The young Terran’s unique abilities might be the only reason Gamora and Mantis are still alive.

It is certainly the only reason that Proxima’s spear, the weapon known throughout the galaxies for never missing its mark, has been missing so much in these last ten minutes or so.

The spear in question rips itself from its own smouldering crater as Gamora dashes past. She sees a brief reddish glow settle over the weapon, causing it to wobble in midair for just a moment before it ultimately overcomes the magic and returns to its owner.

Whatever you’re doing, Wanda, please keep doing it.

A roar from a nearby Outrider draws Gamora’s attention to the left, but her worry is misplaced. Mantis makes quick work of the stray monster, bringing it to the ground with only a quick tap to its arm as she continues sprinting.

“Oh, come now, Gamora…”

Behind her, Proxima Midnight’s voice is as calm as ever, raised just enough for Gamora to hear it across the distance separating them and the clash of the nearby battle. If Proxima is thrown off at all by the fact that her spear is failing to hit its targets for the first time in its history, she is certainly not showing it.

“… stop running and make this more fun for me, would you?”

Gamora pulls a dagger from its holster at her hip, whirls around mid-stride, and flings it in the direction of Proxima’s voice. She wastes no time waiting to see if her aim was true — she knows it was, but Proxima Midnight is nothing if not quick on her feet — and instead turns again to resume her zig-zagging through the trees.

A second later, she hears Proxima let out a guttural snarl.

“Throw all the knives you want, it will change nothing!”

It made me feel better, Gamora thinks with a satisfied smirk, too breathless to voice it aloud. So that’s something.

She keeps running. Mantis is just a few strides away, a pale blur in the trees. There is a pained grunt from behind as Proxima yanks the dagger from whatever body part Gamora managed to hit, and then—

Then the spear rips through the air by her left arm, so close she feels the heat of it on her skin and, for just a second, is lifted off the ground by its gravitational pull, her boots just skimming the dirt. The red glow of Wanda’s magic warps and pulls at the air around the spear and paints Gamora’s entire left side of vision the color of sunset, none-too-gently shoving the spear and Gamora in opposite directions.

Gamora loses her footing and falls, her left ear pops, pain erupts in her upper arm but none of that matters because the spear was headed right for Mantis—

Whatever Wanda does to save them, it works. By the time Gamora looks up, a huge swath of the forest canopy has been destroyed, a gaping hole with flames licking at the edges and spreading quickly to engulf the leaves and branches all around, until the entire forest seems bathed in flickering orange light from above.

The spear was sent angling just slightly up, too high to hurt any of them, but Gamora does not even get the chance to be relieved.

“Oh, Gamora,” Proxima Midnight purrs from behind her, standing just by her feet from the sound of it. “How I have waited for this day.”

There is a deafening rumble and the shriek of splitting wood as the spear rips through the burning forest, reducing tree trunks to splinters as it returns obediently into its owner’s waiting hand, right over Gamora’s head, and Gamora rolls herself over onto her back with a wince. If Proxima is going to kill her now, she’s going to look her in the eye when she does it.

And maybe, just maybe, Gamora can stall her long enough for Mantis to get away.

Proxima Midnight twirls her spear, looking the weapon over with a smile, and then her eyes shift down to Gamora. The raging fire above casts her features in a bright orange glow, alighting the wound Gamora left — in her shoulder, as it turns out — and turning her dull eyes into two flickering pinpoints of flame.

“Seems your little telekinetic has finally left us,” she says, lips turning up in a brief scowl at the descriptor before her self-assured smile returns. “No more magic tricks up your sleeve, dear sister?”

Gamora, lying on the ground at Proxima’s feet with quite literally nothing left at her disposal, glares up at her.

“I am not your sister.”

“Hmm, yes, I suppose it’s a bit of a moot point, isn’t it?” Proxima asks, unfazed. She twirls the spear again, idly glancing around at their surroundings. “After today, I won’t have any sisters left, will I?”

Her smile widens to a manic grin, eyes glinting with flame, and she points the spear at Gamora so that it’s tip hovers just above her chest — so close that Gamora has to check her own breathing to avoid touching it.

“Because after so many long years, Thanos has finally given up on you,” Proxima Midnight continues. “You stole the Power Stone from under that incompetent Ronan’s nose, and still Thanos refused to let any of us kill you. You ran off to galavant across the galaxies, conspiring against him, and still he held out hope that you would return.” She tips the spear just a little further, and Gamora is forced to press her back harder into the dirt, shrinking away from it. “But now? Now that victory is so close at hand, he has accepted what must be done. What I must do for him.”

“So he’s still too weak to kill me himself,” Gamora growls, still maintaining her glare even as Proxima tips the spear just above her collarbone.

Proxima Midnight tilts her head, smile never fading for a second. “Nice try. But this is a pleasure I want all to myself.”

“Then get it over with.”

“Oh, I will,” she promises. “I only want to make sure you die knowing how soon all your little friends will be following you. I want…”

Proxima Midnight pauses. Something behind Gamora has caught her attention, however briefly, drawing her attention up with her brow furrowed.

It’s just a half second, if that, but Gamora doesn’t waste a moment wondering what gave her the opening; she thrusts one leg up, bypassing the spear and dealing a powerful kick to the arm that wields it. Proxima’s arm flails, the spear swinging in a wide arc, but she doesn’t let go of it. Gamora kicks out with her other leg, driving the sole of her boot into her opponent’s stomach.

Proxima Midnight lets out a howl of frustration, stumbling back one step, then two, and—

And then, just as she regains her balance and makes to throw herself forward to attack, a shadow falls over her.

Before Gamora can so much as blink, one of the cargo ships that had borne hundreds of Outriders only an hour before comes crashing down, a massive hunk of metal absolutely obliterating the spot where Proxima Midnight had once stood. The impact alone would have made Gamora fall over had she been standing. It sends up a plume of dirt and dust and the charred splinters of what used to be the Wakandan forest, snuffing out the flames all around, choking the air, and Gamora coughs into the crook of her arm.

She hears footsteps running toward her, quick and light.

“Gamora?”

When the dust clears, Mantis is standing just a few yards away, coughing into her hands, but she wilts with relief upon seeing Gamora relatively unharmed.

And there, just beside the crashed ship, a very weary Wanda Maximoff stands with her arms still outstretched. Her hair sticks out in every direction, her chest heaving, her fingers twitching with the last remnants of magic fading like wisps of crimson smoke from her skin. The faint reddish glow over the entire ship is just now beginning to dissipate as she releases her hold on it.

She exchanges a breathless smile with Gamora and slowly lowers her arms.

“Thanks for the distraction.”

Mantis helps her to her feet, and Gamora opens her mouth to answer, but someone else beats her to it.

“Oh, it was no trouble. Don't mention it.”

Gamora’s heart thuds in her chest and she whirls around, already on edge from the battle and half expecting to find yet another new enemy standing behind her. Because that sounded like— but it couldn't have been—

But it is.

“Loki?”

He looks… odd. There's a strange aura hanging around him, like the rippling of hot air over hotter metal. His skin has gone faintly green, which if she's not mistaken is a sign that he's dangerously ill, even disregarding the multitude of injuries he seems to have sustained since she last saw him in the Princess’s lab. He’s favoring his right side, holding one hand to his stomach, blood and dirt coating every inch of his clothes.

And is that—? Was he stabbed?

“I was talking to Gamora,” Wanda corrects.

Loki shrugs, brushing off her dismissal and making an admirable effort to look like he isn’t seconds from collapsing. His eyes linger on the crashed ship before falling on Mantis, who seems just as confused as Gamora is about exactly when — and better yet, how — he ended up here, and then he glances at their surroundings.

His brow furrows. “Thanos?”

As if in answer to his question, a sharp crack of thunder resounds in the distance. Loki’s eyes widen, his gaze snapping up to the source of the noise. And Gamora didn't think it was possible, but for a moment, he actually looks even sicker.

She shakes off the initial shock of his appearance, and that of nearly being crushed by a ship; they only have so much time. And now, with the entire Black Order dead, they have the closest thing to a fighting chance that they’ve ever had.

It’s not much, and it’s not enough for her to truly believe they can win.

But it’s something.

“Come on,” she says, turning and nodding all of them along. “Thanos is all that’s left.”

“Wait.”

She had been ready to sprint through the forest to the main battle, but she stops in her tracks, turning toward him. “What is it?” she asks, wondering what could possibly warrant waiting at a time like this.

Loki gulps, looking to all three of them in turn.

“I… may have a plan, and I’ll need” — he glances toward Wanda as a new thought, apparently, occurs to him — “actually, all three of you for it.”

He pauses, squeezing his eyes shut, and at first Gamora suspects he might vomit right here and now. The hand over his stomach tenses.

At the same moment the strange rippling of the air around him intensifies, and Gamora thinks it must be her exhaustion playing tricks on her, because Loki seems to have suddenly shifted out of focus right before her eyes.

But the moment passes, and her eyes adjust.

“I’m not— I’m not sure how long I have,” he says, “so we’ll have to act now.”

Wanda regards him with narrowed eyes. “What kind of a plan do you have?”

And then, for the first time since he arrived looking beaten and battered half to hell, Loki flashes a smile, tremulous but hopeful.

“The Thanos killing kind.”

 


 

This is… not going particularly well, Thor has to admit.

Thanos, after all, was formidable enough on the Statesman, and that was when he had just one of the Infinity Stones. His Black Order tore through the last remaining warriors of Asgard while he stood idly by and watched, only stepping forward to act when he deemed it necessary.

Nothing any of them did made a difference. None of their warriors could stop him. The Hulk could not stop him. Thor could not stop him.

Then, any miniscule chance they may have had vanished before their eyes, jettisoned out into the cold vastness of space along with their King, because Thanos got his hands on a second Infinity Stone.

The Mad Titan armed with one of the stones was formidable; the Mad Titan armed with two was all but impossible to defeat.

And now he has three.

He is well on his way to a fourth, as well; the Midgardian sorcerer and self-proclaimed protector of the Time Stone has fallen. He is not dead, not yet — whatever spellwork he put in place to protect the stone requires that he be alive to break it, and evidently, Thanos is patient. Strange, already far too injured to continue the fight, far too injured even to access any of his spells, was dealt one swift final blow to the head by Thanos himself in the midst of battle, knocking him unconscious and removing him from the fight entirely.

That was over fifteen minutes ago.

Thor doesn’t even know where Strange is now. He certainly doesn’t want to think about what’s in store for him later, should they lose this fight.

The battlefield now is a chaotic mess of Outriders and Earth’s protectors, a clash of claws and spears and firearms and teeth, with Thanos standing tall at its center.

Thor’s right arm still throbs from where the Power Stone seemed to burn straight through the muscle down to the bone, the result of a nearly successful attempt at protecting Strange before he fell. He cannot feel his right hand at all, either, but — well, that’s a concern for later, isn’t it?

One of the Wakandan warriors nearest Thor is fighting off three Outriders at once. With his left hand Thor grasps one by the scruff of its neck and flings it aside; it goes soaring several hundred feet into the air, and he doesn’t bother seeing where it lands. He tries not to waste any lightning on the Outriders — save it for Thanos, always save it for Thanos, he reminds himself — and luckily, he doesn’t need to. The Wakandan warrior makes quick work of the other two beasts, bringing them down with her spear.

Even the other beasts don't pose much of a threat to her, not after one of the other Asgardian citizens comes to fight at her side.

Thor moves on.

If he can just fight his way through, if he can just get back to Thanos…

One Outrider attempts to block his way, but a single punch to its skull brings it to the ground. At that same instant another one collides with Thor’s back, claws digging into the exposed skin at his neck, teeth sinking into the burnt flesh of his right arm—

There’s a hum of electricity, and Thor breaks his own save-the-lightning-for-Thanos rule before he even realizes he’s done anything. The creature behind him promptly explodes in a burst of blood and guts and sinew and the pop of thunder, static crackling through the air in every direction, and his vision is suddenly awash with bright white-blue light.

The throb in his arm has escalated to a jackhammer in time with his own heartbeat, but when his vision clears, so too has a ten-yard radius of the monsters all around him.

He shakes off the pain, and charges forward, eyes only on Thanos.

Thor is not a fool. He knows the Mad Titan could have made quick work of all of them, could have killed all of them with hardly a breath and a wave of his hand if he so chose. Reality alone would have been sufficient; he could have reduced the lot of them to pieces the moment he set foot on Midgardian soil.

But he considers himself merciful. He’s regarding them as little more than a tedious obstruction on his way to victory, letting the Outriders and Earth’s protectors have at it, carelessly swatting aside any that dare come after him.

And that, Thor decides, will be his downfall today.

Right now Thanos has Stark attacking him from one side, T’Challa from the other, the General Okoye from yet another. Stark’s nanobots extend from his boots and root him into the ground, and he lets off a bright white beam that very nearly collides with Thanos’ chest — but a quick movement of the Infinity Gauntlet deflects the beam and sends it straight up into the sky. Thanos pivots where he stands, bringing his attention to T'Challa. The crimson light of the Reality Stone glows from its place in his gauntlet, and an instant later T’Challa finds himself buried waist-deep into the ground.

This time Thor welcomes the energy racing through his veins, the white-hot blinding light that floods his vision. The sky above Thanos darkens, clouds churning above his head, and in a flash of white the ground on which Thanos stands is reduced to an explosion of charred dirt and rock. Not half a second later Thor has already leapt into the air, and he drives his shoulder into Thanos’ midsection with all the strength he has left.

There is something deeply disorienting about charging forward to tackle someone to the ground and then, by the power of an Infinity Stone, being sent hurtling in precisely the opposite direction.

Thor’s back hits the dirt, black dots burst in his vision, and the lightning tapers to a mere crackle at his fingertips.

When he looks up, though, he sees that his attack was not entirely in vain. It provided General Okoye with an opening — she weaves around Thanos’ feet and drives the point of her spear into the fleshy spot beneath his ribs before he even realizes she’s there. Her efforts earn her a pained shout from Thanos before he swipes her aside with a scowl and sends her flying across the battlefield.

Valkyrie and Steve both appear, it seems, from nowhere; they each sprint from around Thanos’ other side and try to trip him up by throwing themselves into the back of the Mad Titan’s legs.

And T’Challa, it turns out, benefited from Thor’s attack far more than any of them. The ground that had encased him was demolished by the lightning blast, and as he stands, electricity arcs across his suit, the Vibranium humming and glowing with a bright violet energy that gets brighter and brighter and brighter still.

Lightning surges from T’Challa’s boots, leaving scorched prints in his wake as he charges at Thanos. At the exact instant that Steve and Valkyrie make contact from behind, T’Challa leaps into the air and delivers a powerful blow to the Mad Titan’s chest.

Time itself seems to stop. Steve and Valkyrie skid across the ground in what feels to Thor like slow motion, and T’Challa is thrown backward with the force of his own attack. Even Stark, in the midst of aiming his cannons to fire another volley at Thanos, stops. The whirring of his weapons dies to a dull whine.

And blue light encases every single one of them.

“Enough.”

Only Thanos is capable of moving now. Even the Outriders find themselves trapped under the hold of the Space Stone. Steve and Valkyrie and T’Challa were able to knock the Mad Titan off of his feet, but he stands, dusting off his legs as if it was nothing more than an inconvenience. The wound General Okoye left in his side is already healing, but whether that is an effect of the Infinity Stones or simple Titan physiology, Thor hasn’t the faintest idea.

He tries to move. It’s the basest instinct, even though he knows the effort is useless.

“I grow tired of this fight,” Thanos says, glancing around at the lot of them. The Hulk, long since trapped neck-deep in a cliff face by the Reality Stone, roars so loudly that it seems to shake the very ground beneath them. Thanos ignores it. “Now… which one of you—”

There is a scream from behind him, the angry, defiant sound of a battle cry from someone Thor cannot see.

And Thanos lets out such a howl of pain that Thor allows himself to wonder, for just half a second, if someone has actually managed to deal a killing blow. Violet blood spatters from his arm just above the rim of the Gauntlet, and his features contort with rage as he spins around to face this new attacker.

His left arm hangs by his side, blood oozing onto the Gauntlet from an open gash that splits his triceps open from shoulder to elbow. But the Space Stone remains as bright as ever, and although Thor struggles again to move, it seems the wound hasn’t shaken Thanos’ concentration quite enough to break his hold on any of them.

With his bare right hand, Thanos lifts someone up by their throat, someone Thor has only seen briefly on the battlefield until now, someone whose name he hasn’t yet had time to learn.

“Oh, daughter,” Thanos drones, tilting his head. “You disappoint me.”

The blue cyborg howls in frustration, clawing at his forearm. She’s unarmed now, the weapon she used to split open his flesh having been snapped from her grip and discarded on the ground below her kicking feet. Thanos tightens his grip on her throat so that she lets out a sputtering cough, and her hands move from his forearm to his fingers in a desperate attempt to dislodge them.

Thanos lazily lifts his injured arm, regarding the wound with a profoundly unimpressed look, before he turns his gaze back on her.

“I suppose you’re proud of this, aren’t you?” he asks. The stones of Space and Reality are lit now, and Thor watches with his heart sinking as the wound stitches itself together, the blood flow reduced to a trickle. “Hmm. So many years, conspiring against me, and your life’s work culminates in… what? A papercut?”

Thanos huffs an unsmiling laugh, and again he tightens his grip. Something in the cyborg’s neck lets out a sickening crack, but it apparently is not enough to kill her, not yet. And aside from the tears that prick at the corners of her eyes, she glares up at him and gives no indication that she fears him choking her to death right here and now.

Thor tries, once more, to break free from the Space Stone’s hold.

He can’t just sit by and watch this.

“You are going to die today,” Thanos says. “And I will go on, unimpeded onto my destiny, as it always was going to be.”

He lifts her up higher, heedless of her attempts to pry his fingers from her throat.

“Goodbye, daughter.”

“Wait!”

Another voice interrupts, wild and desperate.

And Thor wouldn’t have believed it was possible, but he watches, astounded, as the sound of Gamora shouting at them from across the scorched battlefield actually makes the Mad Titan falter.

 


 

Nebula has not had a real, beating heart in over a decade.

But right now, at the sound of that voice, she swears she feels it sink like a stone into her stomach.

No, she thinks, and the dread only grows worse as Thanos loosens his grip upon her throat. No, no, no, Gamora, don’t.

But she still can’t speak. She still can’t move. She can’t do anything as she watches her sister slowly step through the smouldering remains of the battlefield to approach the two of them, her shoulders back and her head held high, fists clenched at her sides. Godslayer is nowhere to be seen.

She’s not even armed.

Thanos says nothing as she walks toward them, but he watches Gamora with an expression so determinedly neutral it must be hiding something beneath.

As Gamora gets closer, Nebula sees that her sister is shaking. Her fists, her legs, her jaw. Tears build up in her eyes. Some have already fallen, streaking clean lines through the dirt smeared on her cheeks.

“Please,” she says, and her eyes go to Nebula, wide and shining. “Please, stop.”

At her request, the first sign of anything beyond stoicism shows in Thanos’ face. His lip curls into a scowl, and he tightens his grip on Nebula’s throat just enough so that she can’t help letting out another choked gasp. And Gamora, already looking on the verge of collapse, violently flinches and allows her legs to give out beneath her, one hand covering her mouth.

“Stop!”

“And why,” Thanos says, “would I do that?”

Again he tightens his grip. Just by a hair. The enhancements that brace Nebula’s spine against injury give a whine of protest. A shock of pain cascades through every nerve, down to the tips of her fingers, but she has no voice with which to cry out.

Gamora lets out a shuddering gasp, tears flowing freely now.

“I’m waiting for a reason, daughter.”

No.

No, don’t you dare.

Not for me, you idiot.

But Gamora shakes her head and, apparently too ashamed of what she’s doing to even look Nebula in the eye anymore — or perhaps because she thinks she’ll lose her resolve if she sees the anger in Nebula’s gaze — she keeps her head down as she answers.

“Spare her,” she says, her voice a trembling, pathetic thing. “Spare all of them, leave this planet now… and I will take you to the Soul Stone.”

Even knowing it was coming doesn’t soften the blow.

And, God, Nebula wants to rage at her sister, rage and scream and berate her for her stupidity, for her horrible childish sentiment, but her father’s grip allows nothing beyond a pathetic sputter from the back of her throat.

Thanos stares evenly down at Gamora. His expression is pitiless, emotionless, utterly uncaring — which, Nebula dimly realizes, doesn’t make much sense.

Gamora is the only one of his children he ever seemed to care for, perhaps the only person he’s ever cared for. And she is kneeling before him, sobbing and promising him that she will bring him to the last of the Infinity Stones, that she will single-handedly allow him to complete this terrible quest that has fueled his every action for decades.

And he just… doesn’t seem to care.

“Please,” Gamora says again, because apparently she’s noticed exactly what Nebula has. “I’ll stay by your side. I’ll help you gather the last of the Infinity Stones. Father, please.”

Thanos, for another moment, still doesn’t respond.

Then he gives a short huff, a barely-there sound, as the corner of his mouth twitches into a smirk.

“A tempting offer, isn’t it?” he asks.

Without warning he tosses Nebula aside, but with his strength it feels like she has been launched across the battlefield. The bright Terran sky and the brownish green ground tumble over each other, spiraling in a horrible dizzying blur, and Nebula feels something snap as she collides with— something. The ground, one of the ships, a tree, maybe. She’s too dazed to tell.

And even when her vision comes back to her, she only has eyes for her sister.

They’re thirty yards away now. Thanos stares down at Gamora, who still kneels, eyes downcast, unmoving as a statue as she awaits their father’s judgement.

“A tempting offer, indeed,” Thanos says, nodding to himself.

Behind him, some fifty or so yards away, the green beast roars again from where Thanos has trapped it, nearly entirely buried into the face of a cliff. Elsewhere, scattered throughout the battlefield, are the sparse few of Terra’s fighters that are both alive and not quite too injured to stand — the Asgardian, the humans’ Captain, their General, the man with the red and gold armor, a few others Nebula doesn’t know — and they all watch helplessly under the power of the Space Stone. Thanos does not lose his focus on them for even a second, even as he seems entirely focused on Gamora.

“For so long I’ve wanted nothing more than to hear those words from my daughter,” Thanos says. He crouches down to get closer to her eye level, his forearms resting across his knees as he tilts his head and regards her with a mildly amused look on his face. “You have no idea how it feels to hear it now.”

The smirk grows, and he shakes his head.

“Or… I suppose you do know, don’t you?” he asks. “You knew what I wanted to hear, and you knew who I wanted to hear it from. Otherwise… why bother with the deception?”

Wait.

Deception?

Is Gamora planning to double-cross him? No, she wouldn't be that stupid, would she?

Nebula doesn’t have time to dwell on it, though, because at that moment, Thanos thrusts his hand forward and grasps Gamora by the throat, lifting her off her feet with ease as he stands to his full height. He smiles cruelly at the second of his daughters to find themselves in this exact position, apparently ready to kill even the one that was, as he so often insisted, his favorite.

Nebula reaches for the dagger at her waist, the only weapon she has left, even though she knows it won’t make a difference.

He’s going to kill her.

He’s going to kill her right in front of me, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

For one single instant, Nebula thinks she understands why Gamora offered to give up the Soul Stone, but she wishes more than anything that Gamora hadn’t interrupted Thanos at all — at least then, Nebula wouldn’t have been alive to see this.

“Really,” Thanos says, smiling as Gamora gasps for breath, as her legs kick feebly at the air beneath her, as she grasps at his wrist with both hands in a futile attempt at stalling her own fate.

And then he says something that makes every thought in Nebula’s head grind to a halt:

“Did you think I wouldn’t recognize your little magic trick, Loki?”

Loki?

She knows that name, why does she—?

There’s an emerald shimmer of light that ripples across Gamora’s skin, over her hair, over her clothes, like the very air around her is shuddering and falling away as she chokes to death in their father’s grip. Distantly, Nebula registers the equally confused faces of the trapped Terrans all around — except, she notices, for the Asgardian, who seems to have lost every trace of color in his face as he stares with wide eyes at Gamora and the Mad Titan.

And then, as Gamora seems to slowly warp and shift before all of their eyes, her terrified expression shifts into something angry, a steely glare that is equal parts hatred and stolid resolve. Her jaw sets in determination even as she struggles for breath, and her fingers tighten on their father’s wrist.

Her scars fade, her green skin growing paler and paler until it’s no longer green at all. The crimson of her hair gives way to pure, jet black.

Two points of glowing white light emerge above her head.

“Sleep,” she hisses through gritted teeth.

And Thanos—

—Thanos stumbles.

For a moment Nebula feels frozen right along with him, shock rendering her limbs unresponsive. She has no idea how Mantis pulled off something like that, but it doesn’t matter, she cannot possibly be strong enough to…

Thanos isn’t moving.

He isn’t moving.

He hasn’t fallen. Mantis is nowhere near strong enough to actually make him sleep, but he’s stumbled forward a step, and his eyes have widened in disbelief, and his arm has lowered just an inch, and he’s shaking but he’s not moving.

Nebula hardly pays any attention to what happens next. It doesn’t matter how Mantis did what she did, it doesn’t matter that she’s not strong enough to truly render Thanos unconscious. This may be the only chance she gets — the only chance any of them will get. The damaged circuits in her legs groan in protest as she struggles to stand; something in her right leg pops and nearly gives out.

At the very same instant that the mirage disguising Mantis falls away, a second deception reveals itself: Behind her, a Terran woman ripples into view as if from thin air, and Gamora — the real Gamora — does as well, standing right beside her with Godslayer at her hip.

“Hurry!” Mantis cries, tears welling up in her eyes, and Nebula is already striding forward with the dagger clenched in her fist.

The Terran woman waves her hands.

Nebula has halved the distance between them. Her right leg hasn't recovered yet, she’s not as fast as she should be, but—

But she doesn't need to be. Crimson smoke seems to pour from the hands of the Terran woman, acting of its own accord and wrapping around the Gauntlet.

It shifts. An inch, then two.

Nebula is nearly upon them when the entire thing slips from her father’s hand and falls to the ground with a clunk that seems to reverberate through the entire battlefield. All around, Earth’s warriors are released from their unmoving, pulsing blue prisons. The Outriders are, too, but at that moment lightning seems to come down from everywhere — it dots the entire battlefield, streaking down from the sky and smiting dozens, hundreds of the beasts where they stand. The few that escape being fried to a crisp are dealt with quickly, by Terran and Asgardian warriors alike.

Heedless of anything else happening around them, Gamora swings Godslayer, bringing it down with all her strength upon the arm that once wielded the power of three Infinity Stones. The pain of it, or perhaps Mantis’ influence, or the red-tinged smoke that now seems to hover around him like an aura, forces Thanos to his knees.

It takes three savage attacks for Gamora slice all the way through, and Nebula sees it clear as day — there are tears in her sister's eyes as she hacks away at their father.

It's not until Nebula lunges forward to sink her dagger into Thanos’ throat that she realizes why.

“Stop!”

Gamora has one hand tight on Nebula’s arm, halting her.

“Not yet,” she insists, wild-eyed and frantically shaking her head, “not when he’s still touching Mantis.”

The rest of the Terran warriors have now reached them. The red-and-gold armored human fires a beam at the Gauntlet so that it is sent tumbling, end over end, away from all of them and far out of Thanos’ reach, before he plants his boots in the ground and aims his hands at Thanos, preparing to fire. White light glows in his palms, turbines whirring. The Terran’s Captain and a woman in silver armor both grapple with Thanos’ only remaining arm, holding it in place, while the Asgardian and a man in jet black armor work together at holding him by the throat.

It is only then — with one arm removed, with two warriors holding down the other, another two at his throat, and both of his daughters plus an armored Terran standing before him fully poised to kill—that Thanos is finally freed from Mantis’ influence.

His hand opens up, and although her feet hit the ground first, her legs do absolutely nothing to catch her fall. Gamora catches her instead, dropping Godslayer in favor of wrapping both arms around her young friend’s waist, and Mantis collapses bonelessly against her, evidently unable to hold herself up anymore.

Nebula turns from them to look at Thanos. Where before there was nothing at all in his eyes, just a hollow whiteness, now he glares at her with manic, livid disbelief. Mantis releasing him has returned clarity to his gaze.

Good, she thinks.

It would be a shame for him to miss this.

Nebula grips her dagger in her fist. She thinks of Gamora’s home planet, and of her own home planet that she can no longer remember. She remembers a few heartfelt words spoken in the quiet halls of a half-destroyed ship.

There are little girls like you, all across the Universe, who are in danger. You can come with us, you can help them.

I will help them by killing Thanos, she thinks, for the hundredth or the thousandth or the hundred-thousandth time. It doesn’t matter.

She doesn’t bother with words. She doesn’t need them.

Instead she just maintains her father’s gaze, and in one quick, merciless movement, drives the point of her dagger into his eye.

 


 

It is not the hatred that gets under Mantis’ skin. Not really.

It is not the unbridled hatred for Nebula and — though a bit more complicated, a bit more reluctant — the hatred for Gamora that leaves her shivering. It is not the anger, even though it burns in a white-hot course through her chest. It is not even the fear, the trembling fear turning her insides to puddy as soon as Thanos realizes he is nearing the end of his own life, that gets to her.

It’s the sadness, the mourning, the righteousness.

They always, always think they’re right.

And it is difficult, sometimes, to parse someone else’s emotions from her own. It is difficult, in that thirty seconds that stretch on into infinity, for her to convince herself that — no, she does not hate Nebula, and she does not hate Gamora, and she is not angry, and she is not afraid. The most difficult of all, though, is convincing herself that she is not mourning the end of Thanos’ plan.

For a moment, for the tiniest little moment, she thinks that it really is a shame that he will not succeed in his bid to end half the universe.

So, when Mantis finally gives up her hold on him and his hand goes slack, when his emotions are ripped from her own consciousness, when her legs give out beneath her, Mantis falls into Gamora’s support and grips the closest part of her friend that she can reach — her upper arm — and holds on tight.

Relief floods through her.

Relief, and love.

Mantis clings to it with everything she has. She shifts, wraps her arms around Gamora so that her chin falls on Gamora’s shoulder — she’s too tired, too confused, to think about how truly incredible it is that Gamora, her kind-hearted, gentle friend Gamora, was raised by someone like him, someone whose righteous hatred is still simmering in her own veins. Mantis shakes the thought away. She closes her eyes. She breathes.

And she tries not to flinch at the sound of Nebula’s dagger striking true.

“It’s alright,” Gamora whispers to her. “It’s alright. It’s over.”

Nebula echoes, “It’s done.”

The sound of the Titan’s body falling is a definitive thud, and Mantis tightens her grip on Gamora. The other warriors take a moment to let this new reality sink in, standing silently in awe of their victory, before a few of them begin making plans to recover from the battle, to clean up the destruction left in Thanos’ wake.

Mantis hears none of it.

A hand finds her shoulder — new relief surges at the touch, relief that far outshines Gamora’s, a strange and unfamiliar happiness that she never thought she’d feel, a twinge of disbelief — and Nebula gives her a quick little pat before wordlessly turning away and sitting down, right there in the middle of the scorched battlefield.

The next touch is very different.

There is relief, yes, sincere as it is warm, but it is shot through with a bright flash of nerves, a deep-seated worry.

Mantis lifts her head from Gamora’s shoulder to find Thor looking at her with kind eyes. His hand on her upper back is so gentle that it seems at odds with the immense strength she saw from him only moments ago.

“Are you alright?” he asks.

It’s not the question he really wants to ask, though, she can tell.

Which, actually— wait, now that he’s got her thinking of it—

Her brow furrows, and she slowly pulls away from Gamora. Not entirely, of course; she leaves one hand still clinging to her friend’s upper arm, because her relief is something Mantis doesn’t know that she can deal without, not quite yet.

She glances all around, searching.

“Where is Loki?” she asks, looking to Gamora, who seems to have taken to looking around the battlefield as well.

“So that was his magic,” Thor says. “He was here?”

Mantis nods, and a faint dread begins to pool somewhere in her stomach. Is that Thor’s? Or her own? Her eyes scan over their surroundings a second time, then a third.

There is no sign of Loki anywhere.

“Yes, but… I do not know where he went,” she admits, and she points in the direction of the trees. “He was… He was just there. Where would he have gone?”

“I’m not sure he was ever really here in the first place.”

Both Thor and Mantis look to Gamora, but she only shakes her head and brings a hand up to her earpiece.

“Peter?” she asks. “Peter? Drax? Can either of you hear me?”

There's a moment of silence, and she tries again.

“Peter? Drax, Rocket, Groot, Kraglin? Can any of you hear me?” she asks, and then she frowns, and— oh. That little feeling of dread coalesces and then spreads, quickens her pulse. Gamora shoots a quick look at Mantis, and she understands immediately: You try.

With her free hand, Mantis taps the earpiece.

Static is the only sound that comes forth.

“Why are they not answering?” she asks.

Gamora shakes her head. “I don't think it's them. I think it's us, our communication devices. It could be any number of things. The Infinity Stones, the city’s shields,” she says, waving a hand up at the shimmering blue light above that — even now, well after the ships have breached it — is flickering back into and out of view. “They’ll still be in New York.”

New York.

The Terran city infested with those frightening, four-armed monsters. The Terran city that was falling to pieces when they left it. Mantis gulps. She can feel that Gamora is nervous, too — terrified, really, for Peter and the others, though she doesn’t show it.

“And if I’m right,” Gamora adds, looking up to Thor, “then your brother will be there, too.”

“I’ve never seen him project one of his false doubles across a distance like that,” Thor tells them. “You’re certain?”

“We saw him here, and now he’s not,” Gamora says with half a shrug. “I can’t think of another explanation.”

Thor, just once, looks off in the direction of the trees, where Loki had been only minutes ago. Then he nods, gives Mantis one last pat on her shoulder, and gestures with a tilt of his head for the two of them to follow him off of the battlefield.

“I suppose we’ll just have to find out for ourselves, then,” he says simply. He spares one lingering look at the massive, limp body lying in the dirt beside them, but he shakes his head and moves along without another word about it. Gamora doesn’t look at it at all as they pass, and Mantis takes her lead.

“We are going to New York?” Mantis asks.

Again, Thor nods. “The danger here has passed, and we all have family on the other side of the planet. We can return to help with the recovery after we’ve made sure Quill and my brother and all the others are safe.”

“Thor,” Gamora says, “our ship is the other way.”

“Yes, I know,” Thor answers, and when Mantis looks up at him, he’s smiling at something off in the distance.

She follows his gaze, and there, sitting on the ground with a sword across his lap and a veritable swarm of warriors surrounding him, is a man in shining gilded armor she saw at the beginning of the battle — though his armor shines far less now, covered as it is in dirt and grime. His leg is injured, too, but not gravely. One of the warriors takes his sword and helps him to his feet, and at that moment he looks up and notices the three of them approaching.

Even from this distance, the man’s bright eyes stand out like molten gold.

“I may have a faster way for us to get to New York, anyway,” Thor says. “And besides, I think it’s high time the two of you met Heimdall.”

 

Chapter Text

 

“… one here…”

“… dead for a while…”

“… wait…”

“… shit, he moved… how is he…?”

“… stretcher over here…”

“… heavier than he looks…”

“… hey…”

“… some help over…?”

 


 

It is disgustingly, stiflingly, unbearably hot.

The heat is — oh, Norns, it’s everywhere, covering his legs, his arms, his chest, his face. It digs its way down into his throat and fills up his lungs, climbs up into his skull and seeps into his brain.

He can hardly breathe. He can hardly think.

What the hell is this?

He’s never felt heat like this before.

When it finally occurs to him to try to move… he can’t. Nothing responds the way it should. He’s so exhausted, far more exhausted than he thinks he’s ever been — though he can’t remember if that’s true, not really, and honestly he can’t even remember why he’s so exhausted — and the fatigue keeps his arms like lead weights at his sides.

That should worry him more than it does, he thinks.

Shouldn’t it?

But… it’s so hot, and he’s so tired

Perhaps if he just… gets a bit more rest…

 


 

The first thing he hears is a steady beep.

The heat is still there. He can still hardly breathe. He’s still far too exhausted to move.

Where in the Nine is he that it’s this damned hot, anyway?

Slowly, as feeling returns to him in a meandering trickle of sensation up his limbs — though he’s still too hot, too tired, too everything to actually do anything about it — more sounds begin to filter in.

A voice, low, blurred by static.

“… in the aftermath… efforts to… pouring in…”

A television, maybe.

The beeping he first heard is still there, rhythmic and steady, but another beep is there too, somewhere further away.

There are more voices — a lot of voices, actually. It’s the dull sort of thrumming that can only be a crowd of people nearby, so many different voices talking over each other that they blur into indistinction. Here and there, a few clipped words make themselves heard above the rest, but to his dazed mind even that sounds like absolute gibberish.

He gives up on trying to understand. He’s just too exhausted. Sleep takes him under and releases him as it will; the voices fade out and back in without rhyme or reason.

Eventually, though, one voice stands out.

It’s… familiar, somehow, though he can’t quite place it.

“—in charge here, huh?”

There’s a clatter of metal hitting the floor. Someone lets out a startled shriek.

The voices rise in a crescendo, and Loki only catches snippets of whatever it is that’s happening out there.

“—big and loud, buncha red tattoos, can’t miss him—”

“—um, I don’t— sir? You can’t—”

“—helped save this whole stinkin’ rock, so I’m pretty sure I can—”

“—wait, you really can’t be in—”

“I am Groot!”

The voices are more distinct now, getting closer.

Loki wishes they’d just shut up. How is he supposed to fall back asleep if they keep up all this noise?

Somewhere, a door slams open.

“Um— sir, I’m afraid we can’t allow—”

“Listen, lady, you ain’t gotta allow anything. I been all over this frickin’ place lookin’ for my friends, and last I heard Drax was somewhere around—”

“I am Groot!”

“What? Seriously? You’re sure, Groot?”

“I am Groot.”

“Sir, you have to wait just a—”

Another door slams open, and from the sound of it, it’s very, very close.

“Alright, good eyes, Groot! Well, that’s one down at least, even if he looks— what in the hell are you morons doing to him?”

“What? Sir, he’s—”

“He’s goddamn overheatin’, that’s what he is!”

There are more of them now. More people arguing, shouting over each other.

Why can’t they just shut up?

“Okay, that’s it—”

“I am Groot!”

“Sir? I’m afraid you and your— um, friend— need to leave, now.”

“Oh, yeah, sure, we’ll just leave and let ya cook our friend alive—”

“What? No, he’s far below normal body temperature—”

“Yeah, normal human body temperature, ya d’ast idiots—”

“What are you—?”

“Groot, go find some ice, would ya?”

“I am Groot.”

“Sir, really, I have to insist—”

None of what he’s hearing makes any sense at all. Everyone is arguing so loudly. But apparently someone is being cooked alive? That… almost makes sense. It is horribly hot in here. Wherever “here” is, anyway.

Something hits him in the leg. There’s the tiniest pinprick of pain in the crook of his arm, for just a moment. Some of the heat starts to dissipate, some small fraction of it, and Loki hears something soft hit the ground. Then another, and another, and another.

There’s something on his chest now, and something grabbing at his face.

“Hey, tall dark and cranky! Say something.”

That— alright, that sounds familiar. Why does that sound familiar? Loki winces. It seems his facial muscles are the first ones willing to respond to his commands, and he lets out a low groan.

“What was…? Actually, you know what, I’ll take it.”

“I am Groot!”

“Ah, ha! Finally!”

“I am Groot?”

“Yeah, yeah, that should be enough. Now get over here and dump—”

Loki does not register another word, because at that moment there is an instant rush of cold all over him. The heat is suddenly a distant memory, and Loki can — sort of — breathe again. He takes in a sharp gasp, opening his eyes to see nothing but… a stretch of white foam tile above him?

“Dammit, Groot, you could’ve waited til after I got off him.”

“I am Groot.”

The heat has been replaced by what must be the most blessed cold he’s ever felt in his life, but everything still hurts, and he can still barely move. Actually, everything seems to hurt worse now that some lucidity has returned to his thoughts. Loki groans again, trying to move anyway, and the weight on his chest shifts.

“Woah, take it easy there, big guy.”

Loki blinks. He glances down to find two brownish blurs hovering right in front of his face, and his vision teeters back into clarity in fits and starts. One blur sharpens into a furry little creature with its hands on either side of his face, and the other, into…

Oh. Rocket and Groot. Right.

Behind them, standing by the door, is a very baffled looking group of humans.

“There ya go, take it slow,” Rocket tells Loki, totally ignoring the humans in the corner. One of them — a young woman in a lab coat — blinks wide eyes at the three of them, then shakes her head with a huff and leaves the room. Rocket doesn’t acknowledge that either. Instead he releases Loki’s face and shudders from head to toe, shaking bits of ice off of his fur.

Groot, who is only inches away and consequently gets hit with a smattering of ice, shoots a mild glare at Rocket. “I am Groot.”

“Then quit hovering. He’s alright,” Rocket says. “Relatively speakin’, anyway.”

“I am Groot?”

Loki winces again. He’s on a bed, in… a hospital? A Midgardian hospital, judging by all the humans. And Rocket is standing on his chest, and he’s—

His entire bed is covered in a mountain of ice.

“I am Groot.”

“I’m…” Loki forces himself to speak, slowly shifting back in an attempt to sit up and get Rocket off of him. But every movement, however slight, sends a shock of pain through his limbs and releases a cascade of ice from the bed to spill all over the floor. Finally he forfeits the idea of sitting up at all and just lets his head fall back onto the pillow. “I’m… fine, Groot.”

“I am Groot.”

“Yeah,” Rocket agrees, now sitting on Loki’s chest with, apparently, no intent to move any time soon. He’s even cleared the ice away from a little one-foot-radius space around him so he can sit comfortably. “You don’t look too fine.”

“Well,” Loki starts to argue, and then he just settles with, “nor do you.”

It’s true. Rocket’s fur looks singed in a few places, sticking up in odd directions. Groot seems to be missing an entire chunk of his left arm — though the branches are already beginning the slow process of regrowing to fill the space — and the two of them absolutely reek of burnt wood.

“Eh, we seen worse,” Rocket dismisses with a shrug.

Loki doesn’t answer that. Talking hurts, too, and the light above hurts his eyes, so he shuts them and tries to think.

His memory is a hazy, troublesome thing, but the battle comes back to him in pieces at a time. Mostly he remembers the intense need to vomit, though at least that seems to have passed by now. He remembers something about— light? It was dark, almost too dark to see anything at all, and then…

The collapsed subway station. It was dark, and then his vision swam back and forth between the darkness of the underground and—

—and fire.

Loki opens his eyes again. The beeping from beside the bed kicks up its pace.

“Thanos,” is all he can think to say at first, but Rocket cuts him off before he can say anything else.

“Yeah, yeah, we won,” Rocket says, then he shrugs. “Far as I know, anyway.”

We won.

Rocket keeps talking, but it all fades to background noise, because all Loki can focus on is those two words, spoken so casually, but they can’t— there’s no possible way—

They won? But… did it really work? Could it have?

All Loki remembers, no matter how hard he tries, is just the barest bits and pieces of the battle. Standing beneath a blanket of flame, slapping together a plan with hardly an iota of a chance at success, and then… He was standing on the battlefield — barely, as his hold on the double felt dangerously close to slipping at any second — and casting a glamour over Mantis, hiding himself and Gamora and that young Midgardian with the telekinetic powers…

He remembers Thanos grasping Mantis by the throat, he remembers a stab of panic deep in the center of his chest, he remembers thinking it’s not going to work it’s not working he’s going to snap her neck before she gets the chance to—

“Woah, hey, snap out of it!”

“I am Groot!”

Loki barely hears them. He shakes his head, pushing himself up onto his elbows, and even that makes the room spin in a dizzying rush of white and grey and brown. He screws his eyes shut, takes a slow breath, and then pushes his arms back more forcefully against the bed until Rocket topples off of him with an indignant yelp.

“Hey, watch it!”

Ice tumbles off the bed onto the floor. Loki manages to get himself sitting upright with his legs over the side of the bed, and he looks toward the door; the humans have all left by now, apparently having moved on to more important matters out in the crowded halls of the hospital.

“How do you know?” Loki asks, looking to Rocket, who by now has climbed his way up to Groot’s shoulder. “You’re certain that he— that Thanos is—?”

“Does it sound like half the Universe dropped dead while you were getting your beauty sleep?” Rocket asks, rolling his eyes. “No. It doesn’t.”

“But—”

“News broke about an hour ago,” Rocket cuts him off again, waving vaguely at the small television mounted into the wall in the back corner of the room. Loki glances up, sees a human woman speaking into a microphone in front of some sort of demolished building, but the volume is barely audible.

“What news?” Loki demands. “What are they saying happened?”

“They’re sayin’ the Avengers beat the bad guy.”

“I am Groot.”

“Yeah, seriously, I mean, what are we? Chopped liver?”

“I am Groot.”

“But how?” Loki presses, getting frustrated now. He needs details, damn it.

At that moment, though, before Rocket can answer, there is yet another eruption of chaos from out in the hall, the cacophony of voices getting ever louder and someone, again, growing increasingly frustrated and shouting over all of them.

“Okay, really, the two of you have to wait in the waiting room—”

“—you just tell me if you’ve seen—?”

“QUILL!” Rocket shouts, and he leaps off of Groot’s shoulder to dash across the hospital floor out into the hall.

Loki doesn’t move, sitting where he is at the edge of the hospital bed. He’s still not entirely convinced he can move, and for the moment, Groot stays by his side. They both listen; there is another shriek as someone probably spots a shouting rodent scurrying past their feet, followed by the echoing clang of something rather large being knocked over.

The crowd gets even more restless, the voices rising in volume.

“Oof— ow, Rocket, I’m fine—”

A few seconds later, Quill, likely following Rocket’s trail of destruction, emerges in the doorway to the hospital room. Rocket stands perched on his shoulder, laughing and shouting as he messes up Quill’s hair. “I knew you weren’t dead, you big, dumb lug!”

“Oh, don’t worry ‘bout me,” comes Kraglin’s voice from outside before he follows them both in. “I’m fine, too.”

“I am Groot.”

“Aw, thanks, bud,” Kraglin answers. “That means a lot.”

Groot lets out a pleased rumble, moving from beside the bed to pull both Kraglin and Quill into a hug.

“It’s good to see you guys, too,” Quill says, laughter evident in his voice. He’s absolutely covered in soot and dirt, his hair sticking up in every possible direction, and there’s a light streak of blood across his cheek — but he doesn’t seem to mind any of that. His eyes widen when he catches sight of Loki on the hospital bed. “You alright, man?”

Loki shakes his head. His heart is hammering at a mile a minute, and it’s only getting worse the longer he goes without any evidence that what Rocket’s told him is true. “It’s a long story. Where are the others?”

“We, uh— we’re working on it,” Quill admits, worry flashing across his features for a brief moment. Rocket jumps from his shoulder back onto Groot’s. “We just came here ‘cause of—”

“Drax?” Rocket cuts him off. “Yeah, same here.”

“Find him yet?” Kraglin asks.

“Nah, found Loki first—”

“How do you all know he’s here?” Loki asks.

“He told us,” Quill explains. “But he stopped answering his comm like twenty minutes ago.”

“Yeah, said something about the humies cuttin’ his leg off,” Rocket says. “Wasn’t makin’ any sense—”

“Actually, that makes perfect sense,” Loki cuts in, his voice distracted. He is just now realizing that Drax ended up being right; the humans must have come back to rescue them after all. That explains how the two of them ended up in a Midgardian hospital, anyway. “They very likely are amputating it.”

“I am Groot!”

“I’m sorry,” Quill says, “they’re what—?”

“He’ll survive,” Loki interrupts with another shake of his head, because really, Drax is the only one of the lot of them that he already knew would survive. He doesn’t have time for this. “What of the others? Mantis and Gamora?”

And — God, sometimes, the ease with which he can read all of their guileless expressions is an asset.

This time, he unequivocally hates it. In the silence that follows his question, Loki swears he feels his heart physically sink down into his stomach.

No. Are both Mantis and Gamora…? Is that why they were all so pleased to see each other in one piece? Because they’re all that’s left of their little group?

And if that’s true, then—

Then what does that mean for Thor?

“No,” Loki finally says aloud, shaking his head.

Then Quill says, “We don’t know.”

Oh.

Well, that’s not quite the same as them being dead, but—

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“He means we don’t know,” Rocket answers, his voice suddenly uncharacteristically quiet. “They ain’t responding on the comms neither.”

“But you said Thanos is dead,” Loki says.

“According to everybody, yeah,” Quill says, turning up his hands in a helpless shrug. Kraglin taps the device in his ear, but from the look on his face it doesn’t magically begin working again. “We don’t know exactly what happened yet. Just that a message came out of Wakanda saying it’s over. The Avengers won.”

In the doorway behind him, the human in the lab coat comes breathlessly storming into the room, this time with two others in tow. There’s a man wearing a bizarre, misshapen mint-green outfit, and a tall woman made taller by a pair of pointed heels, straightening her crisp navy suit as she enters the room.

They immediately set about trying to usher Quill and Kraglin and Rocket and Groot all out of the room, and meeting very unyielding — and very loud — resistance to their requests, but Loki hears hardly a word of their inane arguing.

He debates, for a moment, standing up and leaving and trying to find some other confirmation that the fight has been won.

It’s pointless to do so, though, he knows. Rocket was right. Sort of. Half the Universe would not have dropped dead had Thanos won, not yet, because he still would need the last of the six Infinity Stones after leaving the planet. But Rocket was right in that they would all know by now if Thanos had defeated Earth’s forces.

More importantly, Loki would know.

He looks down at his own hands, ignoring the faint tremor in his fingers. The humans left him in his half-destroyed and bloodstained outfit — time constraints, he supposes, given the plethora of other patients likely flooding their facilities — but they've completely removed the cuffs.

Thanos is dead.

That much is very, very certain, if for nothing else than the utter lack of influence clouding his own mind.

But if Thanos is truly dead, then his death could not have come without a price, could it? Defeating Hela came at the price of their entire realm, the palace and the gardens and the mountains and everything shattered into space dust. Loki would have expected that killing Thanos would have come at the cost of his own life, but he’s still sitting here, and that means—

Loki runs both hands over his face, tries to even out his own breathing.

It’s bad enough that he can’t shake the image of Mantis being lifted high into the air with the Mad Titan’s fist around her throat — and it’s Loki’s fault if she’s dead now, that blame will lie squarely on his shoulders, because he put her there — but worse, far worse, is the one sound from the battle that stands out in his memory above all else.

One single, solitary clap of thunder.

He heard it just after his double arrived in Wakanda, and then… nothing else.

He never heard so much as the faintest echo of his brother’s power, never caught a single glimpse of Thor on the battlefield or saw even a spark of lightning out of the corner of his eye. He was far too preoccupied for that, far too aware that any deviation from his concentration could be the doom of half the Universe.

Loki has no way of knowing if Thor made it out of the battle alive.

Could he have? Is it even possible that he survived? Because even if Thor wasn’t so hot-headed, even if he wasn't always so determined to throw himself into the front lines of every battle, Thanos would have targeted him above all the others anyway, wouldn't he? Partly because of Thor's strength, the threat he posed to the Mad Titan's endgame. Partly for the insult of surviving Thanos’ first attempt on his life.

But mostly because of Loki. Because Thanos is — was, he reminds himself, squeezing his eyes shut, was — obsessed with getting his retribution, obsessed with making sure Loki paid a thousand times over for keeping the Tesseract from him for as long as he did.

Asgard cannot lose both of us, you understand that.

“I am Groot?”

Loki opens his eyes to find the young Flora colossus standing by his side once more, regarding him with concerned eyes and his head tilted.

Over by the door, Quill is now trying to hold Rocket back from physically attacking the woman in the lab coat while Kraglin shouts apologies and half-hearted placations over all of them, and somehow, Groot speaking as quietly as he did made it all the more easy to hear.

Loki shakes his head and lies, “I’m alright.”

“I am Groot.”

Under different circumstances, Loki might have laughed. Of course the youngest of them is the only one perceptive enough to see through the God of Lies.

He doesn't much feel up to laughing, though. Instead he wrings his hands together and turns his attention to the argument transpiring right beside them.

“—one damn reason I shouldn't—”

“Chill out, Rocket,” Quill says, one arm tight around Rocket’s waist.

“Sir,” the woman in the suit says, with a quick nervous glance down at the seething animal on Quill’s arm, “this hospital is already incredibly overcrowded, you cannot just—”

“We just helped save this whole krutackin’ rock and they wanna kick us—”

“Can't we just see our friend?” Quill shouts, determinedly speaking over Rocket.

“We won’t be no trouble, ma’am,” Kraglin says, apparently completely ignorant to the irony in that statement, “just wanna make sure he's—”

“Your friend is in the middle of surgery,” the woman cuts in. Her voice is just slightly strained but calm, firm, the voice of a person who is accustomed to having her orders followed to the letter. “I assure you, he is in the best hands we have to—”

“In human hands!” Rocket shouts. “Same human hands that went and tried to cook this one alive—”

“Rocket,” Loki cuts in, because Rocket has just thrown a hand back to gesture wildly at him, and because the humans and… whatever Kraglin is, are having a hard time talking him down at this point. “They would never have been able to ‘cook me alive.’ Heat doesn’t kill me, it only makes me drowsy. And if anything, keeping me asleep was the best thing for my injuries at the time.”

“Okay, sure, whatever, but Drax—”

“—is going to survive the day,” Loki insists. “The humans here are primitive, yes, but they’re not murderous psychopaths.” Mostly, he thinks but doesn’t say. “I saw Drax’s injury myself. If he hasn’t died from it yet, he’s not going to.”

“Yes, thank you,” says the woman in the suit, though she sounds more frustrated than grateful. “Now, if the four of you would kindly— oh, what the hell is it now?”

In a flash, the calm authority in her face has dropped away, wide-eyed anger in its place. The woman in the lab coat and the man in the mint green outfit have both jumped, the voices out in the hall for the third time rising in collective shock and confusion.

Because there was just an explosion outside.

“What was that, a bomb?” asks the man in mint green.

“Wasn’t like no bomb I ever heard,” Rocket answers, shoving himself off of Quill’s arm to drop to the floor. He turns to look toward the window, eyes narrowed and nose twitching. “Kinda smells like it, though.”

“It wasn’t a bomb,” Loki tells them.

He tries to stand. His injuries protest immediately; an hour or so, it turns out, is not quite long enough to heal from being impaled. Not without seiðr, at least. His entire right side feels like it’s on fire, his limbs weighed down like lead, hardy half-responsive, but that doesn’t matter. He manages to stand with one hand on the hospital bed for support, the other hand hovering over the wound in his side.

Loki doesn’t want to let himself hope, but he finds, at the moment, he really cannot help it.

Because he knows what that sound was.

It’s not him, the darker parts of his thoughts tell him. We can't have both survived this. I'm still here, so he can't be. Our luck can't have gone on this long.

Out in the hospital, he hears the humans yelling now, all of them trying to be heard over one another. A door slams again. The chaos makes it nearly impossible to discern a word of what’s happening — or who, exactly, has just arrived to cause all the commotion.

The three humans have already left the room to investigate. Kraglin, being closest to the door, is the first of the rest of them to step out into the hall and see for himself.

“Oh, hey!” he shouts, his voice all pleased surprise.

The immediate answer is an ear-piercing squeal of excitement, and a second later Kraglin comes stumbling backward into the hospital room, with his face full of black hair and with a pair of arms wrapped tightly around his neck.

Loki lets himself breathe as soon as he sees her, alive and whole and only a little bit bruised, and he tells himself that the relief is only because she is one less innocent death on his conscience. Mantis releases Kraglin with a bright smile and hastily jumps onto Quill, pulling him into a hug that’s just as tight. Rocket jumps on top of both of them, leaping from one of their shoulders to the other, shouting incoherently over everyone else’s excited yelling, and there’s another low hum from Groot as he leans in to hug all three of them together.

Mantis breaks away from them after a moment to jump up and throw her arms around Loki’s shoulders as well, hugging him before he can even register that it’s happening, like hugging him isn’t strange at all, just the next logical step after hugging everyone else. The skin of her forearm briefly touches the back of his neck — relief absolute exquisite relief and happiness so bright it burns — before she steps back with her hands clasped in front of her chest.

Out in the hall, another familiar voice rings out:

“Yes, I understand that, now please let me through.”

Quill lets out a sound that seems caught halfway between a laugh and a sob, and Loki hardly catches a glimpse of Gamora stepping into the room at all before Quill has both arms tight around her middle. Without a beat of hesitation he pulls her into a deep kiss — and Loki blinks, wondering for half a second if this is a new development or if he’s just really been that oblivious this entire time — and as soon as the kiss ends the two of them are wound ever more tightly together, their faces tucked into each other’s shoulders.

Gamora lifts her head just enough to look up at Groot and Rocket, her eyes bright with tears, and she unwinds one arm from around Quill to pull the two of them in as well.

Loki shifts uneasily; he wants to leave the room, to leave the Guardians to their own reunion and go find out who else they’ve brought along with them — because he knows what Heimdall’s magic sounds like, he knows what it feels like, and that was definitely it, so there must be some Asgardian with them, even if it’s not—

But he can’t. He can hardly move. He’s not even sure he has it in himself to walk at all, not yet, not without the support of one hand on the hospital bed.

As it turns out, though, he doesn’t need to.

He hears Thor’s voice before he sees him, that ridiculously low baritone carrying well past the voices of all the humans, and something in Loki’s chest just… deflates, the horrible pounding of his pulse slowing to something a bit more bearable.

“—of course, yes, the rest of the Avengers will be here, soon. I just— er, if you don’t mind, I have to go check on— um, someone, first—”

Thor half walks, half trips into the hospital room, and he hastily shuts the door behind him with a mild wince at the vague cacophonous sounds of dissent from the other side. But he visibly shakes it off and straightens up, spares a fond look at the Guardians’ massive hug pile, and then inches carefully around them to get to Loki.

And he looks—

Oh, he looks like Hell.

In the two or three seconds it takes for Thor to reach him, Loki has already scanned a critical eye over his brother’s multitude of injuries. The dirt and the blood aren’t much of a concern; half the blood likely isn’t his, anyway. But the ugly bruise blossoming across his cheekbone certainly is, as is the bandage wrapped around the top of his head like some sort of bizarre headband, along with the faint crimson line that’s already begun seeping through the fabric. His eyepatch is gone, too, discarded or knocked away at some point in the battle, exposing their sister’s handiwork that still hasn’t quite healed properly even after weeks have passed.

The biggest concern, though, is his right arm, wrapped as it is in bandaging from his shoulder all the way down to his wrist. It’s such an extensive covering that Loki shudders to think what it must look like beneath.

For the look on Thor’s face, though, he might as well be in perfect condition.

He smiles as if he hasn’t got a care in the world, bringing one hand — his left hand, Loki notices — to rest on Loki’s shoulder, and the touch is firm and familiar and so warm with life that it threatens to overwhelm him.

And, stupidly, the only thing Loki can think to say is, “You’re alive.”

The smile falters for a second. It seems Thor can sense the strain in Loki’s voice, the sheer disbelief in those two words, and the unspoken I thought you were dead, again, apparently does not go unnoticed. “I know, I’m sorry. We meant to get here as soon as the battle was done,” Thor explains, “but Heimdall insisted we see the healers first, and once he assured us that you were all alright—”

Loki doesn’t let him finish. He grabs his brother by the side of his scorched, disgusting, blood-covered armor and tugs him forward until he has one arm around Thor’s middle and the other tight around his shoulders.

He feels, more than hears, Thor chuckle.

“Shut up,” Loki mumbles, his voice muffled by Thor’s shoulder.

That only makes Thor chuckle again, and Loki feels him returning the embrace with enthusiasm — and with both arms, too, as tight and secure as Thor’s hugs always have been, which at least lessens Loki’s concerns about his injured right arm.

Sort of. A bit. He’ll still have to take a look at it later.

Thor, so quietly Loki would never have heard it if they weren't so close, his voice absolutely reeking of sincerity, says, “I’m glad to see you alive, too, brother.”

Loki wants to tell him to shut up again, but the words just won't come.

So instead he tightens his hold, squeezes his eyes shut, forces himself to take a slow, very slow breath to shrink the awful lump that’s gone and lodged itself in his throat. Because he’s not crying. He’s not. Not even when Thor starts slowly rubbing circles over his back like he used to do when they were children, not even when it feels like something that was misplaced inside him just — shifts, clicks right back into its place, and it hits Loki like a punch to the chest that this is really Thor, his brother is actually alive, they both really outlived the Mad Titan.

They all did. Quill and his entire, strange, overly likeable band of misfits, Thor and apparently Heimdall as well.

They’re all exhausted, and shaken, and wounded. Loki’s head aches horribly and the wound in his side still throbs in time with his own pulse and his legs are almost certainly going to give out the moment Thor lets him go. His seiðr still feels like it's been clawed out of him, overuse like he has never experienced in all his life, leaving his core feeling pitifully empty and scraped raw.

He’s lost more than he cares to tally in the last few weeks alone — they both have — but…

But they’re alive.

And that’s enough.

For now, as far as Loki is concerned, that is more than enough.

Chapter Text

 

One Week Later

“So.”

Gamora doesn’t so much sit in the chair across from Loki as she lets herself fall into it, and she kicks her boots up onto the table’s edge, one ankle crossed over the other. She pops open a bottle of Terran ale and takes a gulp — mostly for effect, since Terran ales tend to taste almost exactly how Groot’s bedroom on the ship tends to smell.

She practically exudes nonchalance. No one at the party will question her sitting here, casually sipping a drink and chatting up Thor’s wayward little brother for a bit.

The wayward little brother in question, though, doesn’t buy it for a second. Naturally.

He does break away from that haunted thousand-yard stare of his, though, which she allows herself to count as a small victory. His brow creases, and the glazed-over look in his eyes sharpens into something far less haunted and far more suspicious as he looks up from the bottle he’s been absently swirling around on the table. Gamora waits, maintaining his gaze as she takes another sip from her own drink.

After nearly thirty seconds, Loki seems to tire of waiting. He lets out an annoyed huff.

“So…?”

“So,” she repeats, gesturing with a lazy hand wave at the crowded courtyard all around them. “This is quite the victory celebration the Princess has thrown for us. Everyone seems to be having the time of their lives.”

As if to punctuate her words, there is a sudden uproar of laughter and cheers from the other end of the party, swelling momentarily above the music thudding from speakers placed all around. Gamora glances over her shoulder to see that the Valkyrie has just won yet another arm wrestling competition — this time against a very smitten looking Captain Rogers, if Gamora’s not mistaken. He seems to take his defeat quite well, laughing as he concedes his seat to the next contender.

Gamora looks back to Loki.

“Everyone except you,” she says, gesturing to him with a tip of her bottle.

Loki stares at her for a moment with an unreadable expression on his face. Then he huffs a little laugh that is completely bereft of humor.

“Is that concern I hear? From the daughter of Thanos herself?” he asks, acid dripping from that famous silver tongue of his. “Color me shocked.”

Ah, she thinks. There's the reason for the suspicion. His blithe almost-anger is only a defense, she knows, but she would be lying if she said that hearing it doesn’t still sting.

“Don't do that.”

“Do what?” he asks, as he lifts his bottle for a sip.

“Dismiss me as the child of a monster.”

He looks ready to bite back with one of the hundreds of scathing retorts he must have at the ready — but then, inexplicably, he looks stricken by what she's said. The guilt in his eyes is gone in a flash, but it was definitely there, however briefly.

Hmm. Now that's interesting.

His features are quick to settle into a look of cool annoyance as he lowers his bottle to the table with a soft clink.

“Sorry.”

Gamora raises her eyebrows in surprise, a smile tugging at her lips.

“Oh, don’t make me take it back,” he says with a roll of his eyes, though without any of the venom that laced his words only moments ago. He either doesn't notice that her smile widens at that or he pretends not to. He chews on the inside of his cheek and looks down at his hands, tapping his thumb against the bottle — a nervous tic? — and eventually he sighs. “We don’t choose our fathers. I know that. But you could have mentioned.”

Gamora shrugs one shoulder. “It never came up.”

“It never came up,” Loki repeats, shooting her a skeptical look. “You took me from his ship and kept me hidden from him for nearly three days, all while every single waking moment was spent, by all of us, doing everything we could to conspire against him. And it just conveniently ‘never came up’ that you were his daughter? That you were Nebula’s sister? I had to hear it from Drax of all people.”

Gamora regards him silently for a moment. Her gaze drifts over to the far corner of the courtyard where, sequestered from the liveliest areas of the party, Nebula sits beside Mantis in a companionable silence, apparently content to people-watch.

It's the closest thing to content she has ever seen in her sister, and Gamora has to tear her gaze away to bring herself back to the conversation at hand.

“Would you have stayed if you knew?”

“I didn’t stay,” Loki reminds her. “I tried to leave the first chance I got.”

She blinks. Then she tilts her head in agreement.

“True,” she concedes. “But regardless, I was under no obligation to tell you. My past, and everything and everyone that comes with it” — and she barely resists the urge to let her eyes fall on Nebula again — “belongs to me. It's mine to divulge as I choose. To whomever I choose. Just as your past belongs to you.”

Something shifts in his scrutinizing stare, something cold and vaguely dangerous.

“If that was an attempt at getting me to—”

“It wasn't,” Gamora assures him, shaking her head. She watches as his hackles gradually lower. “I meant it. You should know by now that none of us care about whatever you might have done in the past. We can only ask that you extend the same courtesy to us.”

She takes a few more gulps of the ale until she's drained the bottle. The taste, she decides, is not so bad once you get used to it.

“Anyway,” she continues before he has come up with a response. “You’re quite skilled at misdirection. But I know my parentage isn't the reason you're sulking alone at this table while everyone else celebrates our victory.”

For a long while, Loki only looks at her, his expression revealing nothing of what he’s thinking, though she thinks she can guess — he’s still trying to determine her motives. It will be a long time before he truly trusts any of them, she knows, even after all they’ve been through together. It will be even longer before he ever fully trusts her.

Still. She would be remiss if she didn’t try.

Behind her, she hears Drax shouting excitedly over the din, and Loki seems glad to have a reason to look away. They both watch as Drax parts the crowd to get to the Valkyrie’s table. It’s hard to make out all of his words, but Gamora hears something about it being his turn to test his “mighty strength” against the “famed warrior goddess.”

Not for the first time, Gamora sweeps a scrutinizing look over him from head to toe, but even from this distance, it is clear he's faring well. If Gamora didn’t know better she would say he hadn’t been injured at all, let alone had his leg crushed below the knee only a week ago. Drax has adapted to the Vibranium prosthetic with unprecedented speed and, according to the Terran doctors, unprecedented enthusiasm; he barely limps at all as he settles into the seat opposite the Valkyrie.

It seems Thor has wandered over to the table as well. He stands behind the Valkyrie with a warm smile on his face and his arms folded over his chest, watching as Rocket scrambles up onto the table and shouts something that, in between his slurred words and the heavy bass of the music, Gamora understands to be an offer to place bets.

“I didn’t expect to still be alive, after all this.”

Loki’s voice yanks her back to him.

She's not surprised by what he said. She's only surprised he was willing to say it aloud, and to her. She finds him staring absently ahead, past her, like he was watching his brother and the Valkyrie before he zoned out and never bothered to look elsewhere.

“I know,” Gamora says.

His gaze snaps back to her, and for once, he no longer looks at her with suspicion. He just looks… lost, but with a slight twinge of hope there.

As if maybe, he believes Gamora can offer a lifeline.

She gives it her best shot.

“I spent my entire life defined by Thanos,” she explains. She chews on her lip, thinking. “First it was… what he did to me, what he made me do, what he made me into. My existence was whatever he wanted it to be. And then, even after I escaped him, he was still…” She trails off, waves vaguely at her own head. “He was still there. I tried running, living out a life with my new family, protecting people and saving the galaxy, but no matter what I did, he was always there. Then, once I had decided I would need to do something to stop him, I accepted that I wasn't likely to survive it. And I was fine with dying, if it meant stopping Thanos. I couldn't picture a life after defeating him anyway, not after he held such sway over so much of my existence.”

She slowly takes her feet off the table and leans forward, giving him her full attention.

“So… I know,” she tells him, her voice low. “I cannot guarantee the feeling will pass, but I can guarantee you're not alone in feeling it.”

Loki doesn't move, doesn't speak, apparently at a loss for how to respond.

Behind them, laughter erupts above the music, and Gamora uses it as an excuse to give Loki a moment without her eyeing him down. She turns, watching what everyone's laughing at, and she has trouble suppressing a grin of her own.

Rocket, still standing on the table beside Drax’s and the Valkyrie’s elbows, has actually wrapped his arms around their hands, his feet slipping on the table as he tries to literally pull the competition in Drax’s favor — not that it's doing much. The Valkyrie takes a swig from the bottle in her free hand with a smirk, effortlessly holding Drax’s arm in place.

Gamora shakes her head and turns back to Loki.

“It helps to have a clear goal in mind,” she offers. “You have a life ahead of you that you didn't think you'd have, before. It helps knowing what you want to do with it.”

Loki raises an eyebrow. “And what do you plan to do with it?”

“The same thing I was doing before.”

“Really,” he says, making a face. “That's it?”

Gamora nods. “Thanos didn't manage to take any of my family away,” she says, and she can't help but smile at that because she still can't quite believe it, “and I plan on enjoying every second I get to spend with them as a result. But there will always be more men like Thanos, people who think they get to decide who lives and who dies. Someone has to stop them, and we’re certainly well-equipped for it. So…” She pauses, shrugs. “Yes, that’s it. Saving the galaxy when it needs to be saved, protecting those who can't protect themselves.”

Again, Loki doesn’t respond right away, and Gamora debates for about two seconds before she decides to just come out with it.

“You would be welcome to join us, you know.”

Loki raises his eyebrows, and there’s something skeptical about the motion as he takes a sip from his drink. “Yes, Quill had mentioned something about that.”

“Did he?”

“When I tried to escape,” he explains. “Before Thor showed up. He seemed under the impression I could be part of the team.” Loki doesn’t actually make air quotes when he says part of the team, but it’s hard not to hear them in his tone. “I imagine it was just an attempt to stop me from leaving the ship, though.”

“No,” Gamora answers, shaking her head. “Peter hardly ever says anything if he doesn’t mean it.”

And it’s as if Peter was waiting for her to say his name. His voice suddenly cuts through the music, only a few yards away and so loud that it actually makes Gamora jump.

“Gamora! Ga-mora, ‘mora, ‘mora!”

And then Peter is practically on top of her, leaning into her from behind with his big arms wrapped around her shoulders, dropping a kiss to the crown of her head as he continues singing her name to the tune of whatever song is playing through the speakers. Gamora bites her lip as a smile spreads over her face, and she reaches up to run a hand through his hair before settling her hands on his arms.

“I r’quested our song, it should play soon — oh, hey! Loki!” Peter shouts despite the lack of distance between them. “How you liking — hic — Earth so far, buddy?”

Loki raises an eyebrow. “You know this isn’t my first time on Earth.”

“Yeah, but like, without having to fight a bunch of aliens,” Peter says, distractedly kissing the top of Gamora’s head again, just because it’s there. “Y’know? Earth’s fun when you don’t have to worry about, like, the end of the Universe. And Wakanda’s pretty — hic — cool, too. I never left Missouri when I was a kid, but Africa’s awesome. And Shuri throws a hell of a party, huh?”

“You certainly seem to be enjoying it,” Loki answers, barely succeeding in holding back a smirk.

“Peter,” Gamora interrupts softly, stroking his forearm to get his attention. “Do you know how much you’ve had to drink?”

He hums in thought for a moment, and then he shrugs and gives a noncommittal I dunno sound, nuzzling his nose into her hair. He mumbles, “Got in a drinkin’ contest with Thor.”

Loki had been taking a sip from his drink, but now he chokes on it, letting out a series of coughs into his fist. Once he regains control he looks aghast at Peter and asks, “How are you still conscious?”

“I second that,” Gamora says with a twinge of worry.

“He quit,” Peter answers with another shrug. “Forfeited. I went shot for shot with the… with the God of Thunder, babe.”

“Peter, you have got to stop challenging people who aren’t human to drinking contests,” she says. At least Thor had the common sense to let Peter off the hook before it got too far. She’ll have to thank him for that later.

“Eh, I’m alright,” Peter says. And then, switching topics like he’s already forgotten what they were talking about, which he likely has, he asks, “Loki tell ya ‘bout our badass fight yet?”

One look at Loki is all it takes, apparently, for him to gather the answer, and he immediately launches into the story.

“Oh, it was so cool, babe, Loki was fighting this, uh— this ugly sunnuvabitch— wha’ was it…?”

He waves a hand at Loki, who eventually humors him. “Ebony Maw.”

“Elveny Maw, that’s it,” Peter says, and his chin rubs against the top of Gamora’s head as he nods.

“You killed Ebony Maw?” Gamora asks, wide-eyed

How is this the first time he’s brought this up?

“Oh, nah, I just helped. Loki did the actual— uh, actual killin’ part. Anyway, yeah, Envy Maul, he was using his, uh, his magic Jedi powers, and he thought it was just him against Loki, right? And he had him all, like, pinned to a van, and he was monologuing, he was all, ‘You’re gonna die alone, Loki,’ and then, and then, oh, it was so awesome, babe, he never even saw it comin’, Krag shot him with the Yaka arrow, and guess — hic — guess what I said?”

“He’s not alone?” Gamora guesses.

“He did tell you!”

“No, I just know you too well,” she says with a smile. She knows there must be more to the story, since Ebony Maw wouldn’t have been killed by a single arrow shot. But that can wait — they clearly all came out of it alive, and that’s all she cares about, anyway. “Hey, Peter?”

“Hmm?”

“Can you clear something up for us? Loki and I were just discussing whether you wanted him to come with us when we leave Earth.”

“What?” Peter asks, and when she twists her head out from under his chin and looks up at him, she finds him blinking in confusion. “Course I do. ‘S what I said, innit? Aw, you’d fit in the team so good, man. You gotta come.”

Gamora shoots a look at Loki that says, I told you so. And though she can plainly see him trying, Loki can’t quite hide the way Peter’s insistence has left him at a stunned loss for words, if only for a moment. His jaw drops, but he quickly picks it up and clears his throat.

“Er— yes. Well,” Loki says. “As it stands, I have… certain obligations, here.”

“Oh, yeah, dude, I know,” Peter answers. “Gotta help your brother get, uh, New Asgard all settled in and everything. We were just talkin’ ‘bout that, actually.”

“So you know I can’t exactly go disappearing into space.”

“Well, yeah, not now. Duh. We’re not leavin’ Earth yet, either.”

Loki’s brow furrows. “You’re not?”

“Nope,” Peter answers, popping the p at the end of the word.

“We’re spending the next few weeks on Earth,” Gamora explains for him. “Peter wants to visit his childhood home while we’re here, and show us around the planet.”

“It’s a vacation!” Peter exclaims. “Oh, we’re gonna see everything, man. Gotta check on my gramps first, see if he’s still, uh— if he’s still around. Probably gonna have to stay there a while if he is, I kinda owe him after disappearin’ like I did. But then… then we’re going to Disney World.”

“Maybe,” Gamora corrects. She’s still not entirely certain that a group of aliens will be welcomed with open arms into a Terran amusement park, but she’s willing to look into it, if only because of the wistful way Peter talks about the place.

At that moment, the rhythmic bass currently beating over the speakers fades out, and Gamora hears a familiar string of piano notes flowing through the courtyard.

She almost laughs, because of course he requested this one, and she hums along with the first few words. If you ever… change your mind… It’s quite the mood switch from whatever was playing before it, but the humans gathered around the courtyard seem to take it in stride, pairing up and swaying together to the slower beat.

“They listened!” Peter shouts, and he wastes no time in tugging Gamora to her feet. “Ooh, bring your sweet lovin’… Come on, babe. You gotta dance. It’s our song.”

Gamora spares a glance at Loki, who just gives an unaffected smirk and lifts his drink in a little salute, and she decides that she’s made her point. Even if he decides not to join them when they eventually leave Earth, well, at least now she’s made it clear that the invitation was there.

That’s all she can do, really. The rest is up to him.

And so, she takes Peter’s hand and lets him lead her out into the middle of the dance floor. Peter hums along with the music and twirls her around with surprising grace for a man who just attempted to outdrink a Norse God, and Gamora leans into him, allowing herself to just sway to the music and enjoy this moment in a life post-Thanos.

It will be the first of many to come.

 


 

“Did you honestly challenge a human to a drinking competition?”

Loki’s voice startles him out of his thoughts, and Thor turns, twisting around where he sits to see his little brother watching him with his arms crossed over his chest and a smirk on his face.

It takes a second for his words to register, but when they do, Thor laughs.

“I’ll have you know Quill challenged me.”

“Mm-hmm,” is Loki’s only response as he strides to where Thor sits at the topmost stair outside the palace, looking out at the Midgardian sunset — and he stands on Thor's left side, he doesn’t fail to notice. Even back on the Statesman, Loki seemed to adapt to Thor’s loss of his right eye far quicker than Thor himself did. Loki clicks his tongue and asks, “Now, I wonder why I don’t believe that?”

Thor gives a mock wince. “Because it’s not true?”

“And there it is,” Loki says with a growing smirk, finally taking a seat beside him.

“Alright, I challenged him, but in my defense, I had to.”

“Oh, is that so?”

“It is.”

“Right.”

“No, really. I only had his best interests at heart.”

“Oh, of course. And how is that, exactly?”

“Because he challenged Val first,” Thor says, and he casts a sideways glance at Loki just in time to see the teasing smile fall away.

Loki’s eyes widen just a bit, and he blinks. “… Oh.”

“Yes, she isn’t exactly familiar with Midgardians and their… lackluster constitutions,” Thor says with a fond smile and a shrug. “Whereas she might have been likely to accidentally send poor Quill into a coma, I had the foresight to replace half his shots with water.”

“And quit,” Loki reminds him.

“And quit,” Thor agrees with a nod.

Loki shakes his head, still staring ahead toward the sunset, and he asks, “Who are you and what have you done with my brother, hmm? Sitting alone out here while there’s a party nearby is one thing, but forfeiting a competition? And a drinking competition no less?”

He makes an admirable effort of sounding unconcerned, but Thor hears the question implicit in his teasing. “I’m alright,” he says, and he gestures with a wave at the landscape in front of them. “I only came out here to appreciate the view.”

It’s not a lie, per se. The Princess hadn’t been bluffing when she mentioned that the sunsets here are a sight to behold.

When he looks toward Loki, though, his little brother is regarding the landscape with a wrinkled nose. “I see a sun setting in the West and a thunderstorm brewing up North,” Loki says with a tilt of his head in the direction of the dark clouds gathering in the distance, his tone unmistakably dismissive. “The former happens every single night, without fail, and the latter every time you throw a temper tantrum, so even less rare.”

Thor shoves him lightly with his shoulder.

“Ow,” Loki answers, even though it definitely didn’t hurt, rubbing his upper arm. Thor only shakes his head with a smile, not looking away from the vast orange-and-red washed hills rolling out in front of him.

He chews on the inside of his cheek for a second, and then he quietly admits, “It reminds me of home.”

“Does it?” Loki asks, raising an eyebrow. “It hardly looks anything like Asgard.”

“I know,” he agrees. “It’s not the way the place looks. It’s” — he gestures vaguely at his own chest, searching for words to describe the feeling, the way certain little unexpected things will simply make his heart ache for home — “something else. I’m not sure how to explain it. I’ve never been as good with my words as you.”

At first, Loki only stares out at the sights as well, and the sunset paints his little brother’s features in a far warmer light than Thor’s seen in a very long time. Then Loki closes his eyes and lets out a soft sigh, his shoulders sagging, before he opens them again.

“No, I get it,” Loki says, nodding. “To an extent. And honestly, I’m not quite sure I can explain it, either.”

“The laughter and the music doesn’t hurt,” Thor adds with a smirk, because the noise from the party is plenty noticeable from here — it’s likely being heard across the entire city — and it does remind him of the livelihood of Asgard, at least, the celebrations that never seemed to have an end. A good portion of the noise is likely from the Aesir members of the party, anyway.

Loki smiles at that. “No, it certainly doesn’t hurt.”

They fall into silence for a bit, both of them just enjoying the view, basking in the warmth of the sun before it’s bound to retreat below the horizon.

The two of them never had much time to process the events of the last few weeks, Thor knows. The loss of their father still sits like a sharp pang in his chest, burning brighter and sharper whenever he thinks on it for too long — and he knows, from experience, from the loss of his mother, that the feeling is not going to fade any time soon — but until recently there was no time to think on it for very long, was there?

First it was Hela, then Sakaar, then Surtur and their entire Realm crumbled to pieces before his eyes. Then there was Thanos, and more death, and Loki whisked off to unknown tortures, and a war with the fate of half the Universe hanging in the balance.

Thor closes his eye, takes a breath. There will be time to wallow in all that later. For now…

“I know I can make the storms myself,” Thor says, eager to speak of something— anything, really, to get his mind off of more troublesome things. His gaze lingers on the storm clouds, far enough away that this particular area won’t see any rain for some time. “But I do like to sit back and watch what nature can do, sometimes. It’s… humbling, I suppose.”

“Alright, really, who are you?” Loki asks, turning to shoot an incredulous look at Thor. “Humbling? Are you joking?”

Thor chuckles. “Not in the slightest.”

“You,” Loki says, and he reaches up to knock on the side of Thor’s head. “You, Thor, son of Odin, are sitting next to me talking fondly of being humbled?” He shakes his head and asks, “Since when?”

Still smiling, Thor shrugs. “People are allowed to change, Loki. I’m not the same person I was last year, or even last week.”

Loki rolls his eyes, looking away.

“And neither are you,” Thor adds with a gentle nudge that Loki pointedly ignores. “I happen to remember a Loki that considered the humans beneath us by their very nature, and so, imagine my surprise at hearing that my little brother single-handedly saved dozens of them in New York with an ‘incredible show’ of telekinetic power—”

Loki cuts him off with a loud groan.

“Great. Fantastic,” he complains, massaging his temple with a finger. “Now I have to kill Drax.”

That startles a genuine laugh out of Thor, a loud bark of a laugh that feels positively cathartic, and he pats Loki on the back hard enough to nearly send him off the stair he’s sitting on.

“Oh, it wasn’t Drax who told me,” he says. “The humans are very fond of sharing stories, and I happened to catch a news segment about it a few days ago. They didn’t know who you were, but I put two and two together.”

Loki’s only answer is an annoyed hum.

“And besides,” Thor adds, “you wouldn’t kill Drax.”

Loki gives a wistful sigh. “No, you're right,” he says. “It wouldn’t be worth the rest of them trying to kill me afterward.”

“Oh, stop it,” Thor says. “Admit it, you’ve grown just as fond of them as I have.”

“I will admit to no such thing.”

Thor just looks at him with a knowing smile on his face, and Loki holds his gaze for only a few seconds before he rolls his eyes and looks away again, out at the darkening sky.

“Groot is alright,” he admits, quietly. “And Mantis is… tolerable, I suppose.”

“Groot and Mantis,” Thor repeats with a thoughtful nod. “Funny, I would have thought you’d get along with Rocket the most.”

“Rocket?”

“Yes, you two are very similar.”

“We are not—!” Loki starts to argue, then he shakes his head, apparently deciding it’s not worth the effort. He lets out a petulant huff. “Honestly. Similar. Absolutely ridiculous.” Again he shakes his head, like he just cannot believe the words that come out of his brother’s mouth sometimes, and then he says while still looking straight ahead, “Do you know Quill even wants me to join them? After all this is over?”

Thor nods. Quill had mentioned that, more or less coherently. “Are you going to?”

His simple question, unexpectedly, seems to jar something loose in Loki’s carefully annoyed expression; he turns, wide eyes going straight to Thor, before he blinks and collects himself and looks away again. He raises his eyebrows and asks, “That eager to be rid of me, are you?”

“Loki…” Thor starts, his voice low with warning.

“What?”

“You know as well as I do that I’ll never be eager to be rid of you,” Thor tells him. “Don't be dramatic. I’m only curious if you’re accepting Quill’s offer, that’s all.”

“You’re not exactly trying to dissuade me.”

“Well, I would prefer if you would stay for at least a little while before disappearing again, I admit,” Thor says, looking down at his hands. “I am still glad to have you back, you know.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“I’m not, I just…” Thor cuts himself off, sighs. How best to explain? He chews on his cheek for a second and then says, “Loki, you were dead. For years.”

“And he says he’s not changing the subject,” Loki sighs.

“I’m not,” Thor repeats. “I just think, with everything that’s happened, it’s easy for you to forget… I spent years thinking you were dead. All that time I spent dwelling on regrets, wondering what I could have done differently, wishing I had a second chance to right any wrongs between us. And I realized something, I think, that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Beside him, Loki gives a hum without looking at him. “And what was this profound realization, dare I ask?”

“That I never paid attention as much as I should have,” Thor admits with a shrug. In his mind all he sees is Loki, years ago, Gungnir clenched in his fist and his eyes bright with wild rage. I never wanted the throne, I only ever wanted to be your equal. He shakes the thought away. “I was so focused on what you were to me, what I wanted you to be, that I never stopped to consider what it was that you wanted.”

He chances a glance at his brother, and finds him staring down through his lashes at his own hands, determinedly silent.

“Look,” Thor says. “As I said, I would prefer you stayed for at least a little while. Once this party is over, and everyone’s done celebrating the fact that we’re all still alive, it’s going to sink in, rather quickly, that we’re not all still alive. There will be somber funeral ceremonies to prepare, a whole Realm to rebuild, negotiations to be made. I’ll admit I can’t do all of that without you by my side.”

Loki shrugs, still not looking at him. “You could.”

“I don’t want to, then.”

It takes a moment, but eventually, when it becomes clear that Thor is waiting on his brother before he’ll continue, Loki closes his eyes and gives the barest, almost imperceptible nod.

And Thor swears he can feel a weight lift from shoulders at the confirmation that Loki is not going to disappear any moment now, that he won’t be left to handle all of this alone.

“But after that, I’ll be honest,” Thor tells him, “I don’t really care whether you accept Quill’s offer or not.”

Loki shoots him a skeptical look.

“I don’t,” Thor insists.

And it’s the truth. Sort of. There is a small part of him that hopes Loki takes the offer, a part of him that knows, deep down, that the freedom of open space and the camaraderie of Quill’s crew can only be good for Loki after the tumultuous few years that the both of them have had. For Thor, healing will come in the form of a new Asgard and rebuilding their home. But as for Loki, well, even when they were children Loki was never content to stay in one place for very long, was he?

Of course there’s another part of Thor, the selfish, childish part, that rebels at the idea of his little brother leaving his side at all. So he figures it’s about an even split.

Thor doesn’t voice any of that. Instead he shrugs and says, “I only care that you do whatever it is that makes you happy. Whatever that may be. Wherever that takes you. And you know you'll always have a home to return to. Wherever Asgard is, brother, there will always be a place for you in it. Never doubt that.”

The skepticism on Loki’s face fades, and Thor knows his brother well enough to know that the sort of openly dumbstruck look that is on Loki’s face now is exactly the sort that makes Loki profoundly uncomfortable and usually, as a result, precedes a small knife sinking into Thor’s thigh.

Now, though, he's saved the discomfort of an ill-timed stabbing by a very well timed voice calling out over the din from behind them:

“Your Majesties!”

Loki shakes himself out of his reverie in an instant, just as Val comes swaggering up to where they sit at the top of the stairs. She’s holding three brown bottles in one hand by their necks, and they softly clink together as she walks.

She wedges herself into the space between the two brothers, passing one bottle to each of them.

“Is this always what it’s like with you two?” she asks with a smile. “Massive battles that determine the fate of entire Realms, one right after the other?”

Thor pops open the bottle she gave him. “More or less.”

“Trouble tends to seek out Thor everywhere he goes,” Loki says with a smirk. “And when it doesn’t, he seeks it out himself.” He opens the bottle Val gave him and adds, “You’ve got a rough time ahead of you as Asgard’s leading warrior, I’m afraid.”

“Hmm. Is it too late to take back my vow to protect the throne? Given that the throne seems hellbent on throwing himself at all-powerful beings every two weeks?”

“Only a few thousand years too late,” Thor tells her with a wink.

“Damn,” she says, taking a swing of her beer. “Can’t fault a girl for trying. But hey, let’s take a breather this time around, yeah? Maybe hold off on the fighting all-powerful beings thing for a while?”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Thor says. “The people could use some peace after all that’s happened. We all could.”

He watches as Valkyrie, looking off at the darkening landscape with a soft smile, gives a hum in agreement. Beside her, Loki picks idly at the label on his bottle, apparently lost in his own thoughts.

After a moment, Valkyrie's smile widens and she holds her bottle aloft in front of her with a flourish. “To New Asgard?”

Thor raises his own bottle. “To maintaining the peace.”

“And keeping our noses out of trouble,” Loki adds, and then tilts his head, “at least for the first few weeks.”

Somehow, Thor knows how improbable that is, and he knows that Loki knows how improbable that is. Trouble will always crop up at the best of times, and this certainly is not that — they’ll be rebuilding an entire Realm on a foreign planet, and there are bound to be all sorts of trials and tribulations in their near future.

But Thor feels more at ease about the whole thing than he thinks he ever has. They’ve got each other, and they can handle whatever lies ahead.

The three of them clink their bottles together, and then sit back and enjoy the view.

 


 

Three Weeks Later

 

“Well, here’s the bad news,” Peter says, one hand on the back of his neck as he looks down at the holo-screen in his other hand, “we’re all officially banned from forty-three states in the U.S.”

Drax, with a three-person sofa perched awkwardly on his shoulder, turns halfway up the ramp to raise his eyebrows at Peter. The sofa makes a wide arc behind him and smacks into the side of the ship’s doorway hard enough to make Peter wince, but Drax doesn't seem to notice.

“That is not so bad.”

“There's only fifty of ‘em,” Peter says, throwing his hands in the air before he returns to staring down at the report and scratching the back of his head. “And we only visited twelve. They banned us from states we never even went to.”

“Our reputation precedes us,” Drax says with a smile, turning away to bring the sofa onto the ship.

Peter calls after him, “Our bad reputation, dude! That ain’t a good thing!”

“I am Groot.”

“Where the hell’d you hear—?” Peter starts to ask, then he shakes his head. “And anyway, that's not true. There is totally such a thing as bad publicity.”

Groot shrugs, walking past Peter and up the ramp without looking up from his handheld game. “I am Groot.”

“I don’t care what Rocket says, I’m way smarter than him anyway,” Peter argues. He glances down at the holo-screen again, then sighs and taps it against his thigh so the image winks away and the screen shrinks down to pocket size. No use complaining over it now, I guess. He calls out after Groot just before he disappears into the ship, “Hey! How ‘bout helpin’ out with the luggage, huh?”

And… no answer.

Typical.

“What is the good news?” Mantis asks as she passes him. She's got her arms stretched out in front of her to hold a huge cardboard box against her stomach, a box with Pete - ‘85 & ‘86 scrawled in thick Sharpie across the side.

“Huh?”

“The good news,” she repeats, tilting her head. “You always give the bad news first, and the good news second.”

“Oh. Uh…”

“The GOOD news,” Rocket chimes in, traipsing past both of them with a burlap sack over his shoulder that drags across the grass, “is that our little road trip gave me a chance to up my record. That’s twenty-eight prison breaks now — and countin’.”

“Rocket, two of those were Animal Control offices,” Gamora reminds him, effortlessly balancing a forty-eight inch TV on one shoulder. “I’m not sure they count as prisons.”

“Eh, a cage’s a cage,” Rocket says with a shrug. The sack he’s dragging up the ramp gives a series of metal clinks as it moves, and Peter debates asking what exactly Rocket stashed in that thing — because that sack’s definitely not from the rest of the luggage.

He decides against it. Probably better he doesn’t know.

“Well, the actual good news,” Peter says instead, “is that we managed to not get banned from Kansas. Somehow. So next time we come to visit, Gramps can drive over to see us, since he’s only about a half hour’s drive from the Missouri border.”

“A ten minute drive,” Rocket casually corrects just before he clears the entrance to the ship with his clinking burlap sack.

“What? Why would—?” Peter starts to ask, and then Rocket’s meaning clicks. “Rocket, what did you do to my grandpa’s car?”

Now having disappeared into the interior of the ship, Rocket’s voice carries out from inside, “Relax, Quill, the guy’s gonna love it.”

“Oh, that is terrifying,” Peter mutters to himself. Mantis only giggles, making her way into the ship as well.

After Gramps had gotten over the fact that his long-lost grandkid was alive, and then the fact that said grandkid was friends with a bunch of aliens, and then that one of those aliens was a smartass talking raccoon, he and Rocket had actually kind of gotten along. Weirdly. In the week or so they stayed at his grandpa’s house, Rocket spent about two-thirds of his waking hours in the garage helping him fix up his old clunker of a car.

And now he might have done something to make the car three times as fast as it’s supposed to be. Wouldn’t be that big of a deal, really, if the thing wasn’t owned by an eighty-seven-year-old.

Peter shakes the thought away. He doesn’t exactly have room to complain much, seeing as Rocket also upgraded his grandpa’s old house phone to reach the communications array on the ship after they’re gone.

Gotta take the bad with the good sometimes.

“I think it went well,” Gamora says, still standing beside him with the TV on her shoulder, “all things considered.”

“Yeah,” Peter agrees with a shrug. He’s not sure what he was expecting, really, taking the Guardians of the Galaxy on a road trip of all things. “Coulda gone worse.”

“It was certainly memorable,” Gamora adds, which — yeah. Understatement of the year. “And it was very nice of your grandfather to give us all these things to take with us before we left, too.”

“Yeah,” Peter agrees with a smile. To tell the truth, he’s still pretty sure his Gramps giving them a couch and a TV had less to do with him thinking they needed it, and a whole lot more to do with the fact that Peter showed up with a couple people who could lift a few tons without breaking a sweat and he had some big furniture to get rid of. The boxes of old pictures and his mom’s music collection, though — now that Gramps definitely gave them ‘cause he thought Peter would need it. “It’ll be cool having a little bit of Earth on the ship, you know?”

Gamora smiles, tilting the TV a bit so that she can lean in to press a kiss to his cheek. “Yes. I know.”

Peter feels his face turning red, but he grabs the collar of her jacket, stopping her before she can fully step away, and pulls her in for a deeper kiss. She lets out a pleased hum before she breaks away.

As she turns to head up the ramp, Peter asks, “Say, you think we should swing by Norway on our way off the planet?”

Gamora glances over her shoulder at him, and there’s something very understanding in that look she’s sending his way. “You told him when we were leaving, Peter,” she says, her voice gentle. “If he’s going to come with us, he’ll be here.”

“Oh, yeah, no, I know,” Peter’s quick to assure her with half a shrug, waving a dismissive hand as he starts to head up the ramp, too.

“Do you?”

“Course, yeah,” Peter says. “I was just thinking, I mean, doesn’t feel all that right leaving without at least stopping by, right? Gotta see how they’re gettin’ along, maybe see if they need any help with… like… I dunno, whatever goes into building a whole new country from scratch.”

“They’re a highly advanced civilization of incalculably strong, near-immortal citizens, Peter,” Gamora reminds him, “and considering some of Terra’s wealthiest people were subsidizing the whole thing, they’ve hardly been building it from scratch.”

“… Yeah, that’s fair,” Peter admits with a sigh.

“I doubt they require our assistance,” Gamora says, and then she smiles and nudges Peter in the side as they pass through the doorway into the ship. “But perhaps you’re right. It wouldn’t be polite to leave without at least bidding them farewell.”

God, Peter thinks, he really loves her sometimes. She always knows exactly what he needs to hear.

He opens his mouth to say as much, but someone else beats him to it—

—and nearly makes him jump out of his damn skin.

“She’s right, you know.”

Peter curses, whirling around and almost tripping over his own feet, but he regains his footing at the last second. Gamora, naturally, just raises an eyebrow and turns, switching the TV onto her other shoulder to avoid bumping it into the wall.

Loki stands leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest.

“Jesus, dude, when the hell’d you—?” Peter starts to ask, shakes his head, and asks instead, “Wait, what’d you say?”

“I said, she’s right,” Loki repeats calmly with a nod toward Gamora. “Asgard is in perfectly capable hands. That being said, Thor would be quite upset if we left the planet without a visit to say goodbye, at the very least.”

Now that the quick spike of adrenaline from Loki startling him has begun to fade, Peter takes a second to really look him over. A few weeks of real, genuine peace and hanging around with his brother and the rest of the Asgardians seems to have done him some good. He looks better, more rested, calmer than Peter’s used to.

It’s a good look on him.

“We?” Gamora asks.

Peter pauses, then a smile spreads over his face as he plants his hands on his hips. “That mean you’re coming with us?”

Loki shrugs the shoulder that isn't leaning against the doorframe. “I don't see why not. Asgard cannot stay on Earth forever, and some traveling through space will give me ample opportunity to scout out new locations for settlements,” he says. “But that’s still a long way off, of course. As you said” — he nods toward Gamora again — “we are a near-immortal people, after all. Now, how long do you suppose it will take this ship to get from here to Norway?”

“Uh— probably ‘bout an hour,” Peter answers. “Why?”

“Well, then I suppose I’ve got about an hour to change my mind, haven’t I?” Loki says, flashing a smile at both of them before he strides past them into the depths of the ship.

For a second, Gamora and Peter both just stand there, watching him retreat further down the hall, and then Peter shakes himself out of it and cups both hands around his mouth, shouting so that his voice will be heard throughout most of the ship:

“Hey, guys!” he screams first, taking a bit of pleasure in the way it makes Loki jump. Fair’s fair, after all. “Loki’s comin’ with us!”

There’s a crash in a nearby hall. Something definitely just got broken, but whatever it is, Peter’s got no idea. Someone, Drax by the sound of it, starts laughing — though the sound’s muffled across a few walls.

Footsteps start hurrying their way through the ship toward them, two sets of them, along with a faint and consistent screeeech of metal on metal. A second later, Mantis comes sprinting into the hall and skids to a stop in front of Loki, her hair blown around a bit by her run and a breathless smile on her face. Rocket appears right after her, with a… what is that, a steel beam he’s dragging across the floor? Where in the hell did he get that?

“Cool, ya showed up,” Rocket says, looking Loki up and down. “We got a bet goin’ on, wanna help us out?”

Loki asks, “What sort of bet?”

“Well, s’actually more of an experiment, really—”

“We are seeing how many things Drax can break in half with his new leg!” Mantis interrupts, jumping up and down in her excitement, and Peter lets out a groan. Seriously?

“Yeah, guess that about sums it up,” Rocket says, predictably ignoring Peter, “and we could use an Asgardian for, uh, comparison’s sake. So? You down?”

Loki seems to think it over for a second, then he shrugs. “Why not?”

“Good,” Rocket says, and then he drops the steel beam, letting it fall with a deafening bang to the floor. “You can carry that, Mr. None-of-You’d-Stand-a-Chance-Against-My-Strength.”

“Actually, that's Prince None of You Would Stand a Chance Against My Strength, thank you,” Loki corrects him, but he picks up the steel beam without another complaint and follows Mantis and Rocket back down the hall from which they came, and all three of them are out of sight a second later.

“… Huh,” Peter says, staring at the space where they just were.

“What is it?” Gamora asks.

“I’m, uh, I’m just realizing now that I invited a guy who was literally the inspiration behind all the chaotic trickster gods in Earth mythology to come live with us,” Peter says, scratching the back of his head. “Not sure I thought that one through.”

“You don’t think most things through,” Gamora reminds him as she starts to make her way down the hall with the TV, and she doesn't look back. “Things usually tend to work out anyway.”

Peter tilts his head. She’s got a point.

“A bunch of criminals and ex-assassins and troublemakers,” Peter says, thinking it over with a quick mental headcount, “plus one God of Mischief.”

He lets out a sigh before he shrugs and follows after Gamora with his hands in his pockets.

“What could go wrong?”