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Bunch of Jackasses, Standing in a Circle

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Fool.

Loki escaped the cell promised to him by Thor, only to find himself trailing Thanos’ favored daughter into another.

The small Midgardian mammal’s incessant drivel does nothing to soothe Loki’s frayed nerves.

“I guess most of Nova Corps wanna uphold the laws, but these ones here, they’re corrupt and cruel. But, hey, that’s not my problem. I ain’t gonna be here long. I’ve escaped 22 prisons. This one’s no different. You’re lucky the broad showed up, because otherwise, me and Groot would be collecting that bounty right now, and you’d be getting drawn and quartered by Yondu and those Ravagers.”

The Midgardian man following a step behind Loki scoffs. “I’ve had a lot of folks try to kill me over the years. I ain’t about to be brought down by a tree and a talking raccoon.”

“Hold,” commands one of their guards.

“What’s a raccoon?”

“‘What’s a raccoon?’ It’s what you are stupid.”

Gamora scowls over her shoulder, catching Loki’s eyes for a moment. Confusion furrows her brow. Loki can hear her mind working to identify the male Iekip form he wears.

Metal clinks and the next door opens.

“Ain’t no thing like me, except me.”

Their procession proceeds into the Kyln.

“So, this Orb has a real shiny blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe. What is it?”

Loki’s eyes narrow, focused on the back of Gamora’s head. He worries at the tough, pale pink hide of his left index finger, cuffs clicking.

“I am Groot.”

“So what? What’s the Orb?”

“I have no words for an honorless thief,” Gamora says, voice cool.

“Pretty high and mighty coming from the lackey of a genocidal maniac.”

“And the daughter of another,” Loki cannot help but mutter.

Gamora’s furious eyes cut between the two of them.

The raccoon grins. “Yeah, we know who you are,” he chuckles, not missing a beat. “Anyone who’s anyone knows who you are.”

“Yeah, we know who you are.” The Midgardian’s breath ghosts across Loki’s neck. “Who is she?”

Loki twists his neck, swiping his pronged frill in the Midgardian’s direction. He trips out of range.

“Do not presume to approach me, Midgardian.”

“I am Groot.”

“Yeah, you said that,” growls the Midgardian. “What the fuck’s a mid guardian?”

Midgardian,” Loki corrects. “It is what you are, ‘stupid’.”

“Sounds made up,” the man snorts.

“Aye, but not so vainly fabricated as ‘Star-Lord’.”

The man bristles. His jaw clicks open and shut.

“I wasn’t retrieving the Orb for Ronan. I was betraying him. I had an agreement to sell it to a third party,” Gamora interrupts.

Loki does not need to speculate who the third party might be. There can only be one buyer when the object for sale is an Infinity Stone.

The door clatters, sliding aside.

“I am Groot.”

“Well, that’s just as fascinating as the first 89 times you told me that. What is wrong with the Giving Tree, here?”

“Well, he don’t know talking good like me and you. So his vocabulistics is limited to ‘I’ and ‘am’ and ‘Groot’. Exclusively in that order.”

“This creature is of the Flora colossi. Communication with the species relies on understanding specific inflection and syllable length,” Loki explains, condescension dripping from every syllable.

“Gee, thanks, Teach. Who the hell—” The Midgardian cuts himself off, freezing.

“Hey! Put that away!”

A Kyln guard organizing their impounded belongings slips a headset over his ears. Music rings from the device. The door to the storage area begins to slide closed. The Midgardian slips through the breach amidst electronic beeps.

“Hey! Listen to me, you big blue bastard. Take those headphones off. That’s mine. Those belong to impound.”

The guard takes up a weapon.

“That tape and that player is mine!”

Electricity hisses from the weapon. The guard digs it into the Midgardian’s gut. The static noise returns to a low hum as he draws back.

Panting and on his knees, the Midgardian chokes, “‘Hooked on a Feeling’, Blue Swede, 1973. That song belongs to me!”

The weapon whirs to life.

“Disappointing pupil,” Loki hums, watching sparks arc over his abdomen. Gamora snorts.

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

Loki does not linger overlong with the others when they enter the prison proper. He cuts away, securing a spot on the ground. He unravels his bedroll just enough to avoid sitting directly on the filthy floor.

The Flora colossus and raccoon assert their dominance and a mob hound Gamora until she’s sealed away in a private cell, but soon enough the chaos in the Kyln dies, replaced by a low rumble of uneducated voices reminiscent of the noise of Asgard’s prison in the hours before the Svartálfar invasion.

Loki summons a book. The binding is worn. The pages are yellow. He runs fingers across the lines of text, imagining Frigga’s narration though centuries have passed since she last read to him.

If the guards notice the book in his possession, they say nothing. Nothing until curfew. The intercom buzzes with orders for the prisoners to make their way to designated spaces for sleeping. Loki follows the current of male inmates.

He finds himself in a crowded cell. Loki locates the largest man and marches over to him. The man’s eyes widen in shock when Loki’s fingers close around his throat. He hoists the man up, the tips of his toes just brushing the metal floor below.

Loki hefts him out the entrance to the holding cell. He topples a few inmates. Others in the room blink at Loki. They skirt the perimeter of the space Loki’s won, choosing to sprawl across one another rather than test him.

The floor beneath Loki’s bedroll retains the body heat of the man who’d lain there before. It’s nowhere near the luxury of his cell on Asgard, but it’s a great deal better than the damp, puss and blood-stained rock of the other prison in Loki’s recent memory.

Whatever nightmares the future holds, are dreams compared to what's behind me.

Loki drifts asleep, experiencing an uncomfortable sense of kinship with Gamora.

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

“You’re in my seat.”

Loki’s eyes flick up from his rations.

A man towers over him, attempting intimidation with a scowl etched across his face. Not old, but aging, if the gray wisps in his locked hair are any indication. Tall and broad, which lends itself to the intimidation attempt. There’s an energy surrounding him—a superiority—that Loki recognizes.

“You are an Áss.”

The scowl melts away, replaced with consideration. “And you’re not an Iekip. The Mad Titan annihilated that race of people decades ago.”

“I have miserable luck, surviving when my people were slaughtered,” Loki replies, careful to suppress tells.

The Áss raises an eyebrow, smirking. “And you identified me in the Æsir way.” His wire-connected cups clatter onto the tabletop. “Other species just call us Asgardians.” He takes a seat on the bench opposite Loki, gaze trained on him. “So, who are you?”

“Tell me your name and I shall tell you mine,” Loki offers.

The Áss snorts. He shovels a large portion of food into his mouth, watching Loki with a thoughtful expression. “Sigurd,” he admits after a moment, speaking through the half-chewed mouthful.

Loki’s eyes widen, exposing more of his green sclera. “The Blade of Bor?” He licks his lips, recalling the stories Frigga told Thor and him. Tales of a great hero—the First Hero of Asgard—and the Sword of Truth, Gram.

Sigurd’s face pinches. “I haven’t been that in a long time.” He taps his utensil on the edge of the cups. “Your name?”

Loki grants him a bland smile.

“You’re not going to tell me? You said—”

“They call me Liesmith, and that should be explanation enough. You see, this Iekip form may not be mine, but I am still threatened by the Mad Titan. Forgive me for taking precautions.”

Sigurd frowns. The conversation stalls. Loki prods at the slop in one of his cups. Sigurd does not hesitate, practically inhaling the substances in each.

“I know it’s sort of improper to ask, but what got you thrown in here, Liesmith?”

Loki scowls. “A reckless attempt to exact revenge against the Mad Titan by obtaining his favorite daughter.”

“The Zehoberei with cybernetics that you arrived with?”

“Indeed,” Loki replies, curt. He watches Sigurd swallow another bite. “And you? What crime did you commit?”

Sigurd shrugs. The motion shifts the collar of the prison garb, revealing his prisoner identification number printed on the fabric. Loki scans the symbols before meeting Sigurd’s eyes once more, smile bright. “Well played.”

“Now we both have a secret.”

The room plunges into darkness, an electronic whine petering out.

Alarms blare, accompanied by flashing red lights.

Loki’s vision lands on the Flora colossus standing under the watchtower. His vine-like fingers clutch a metal item emitting a faint purple glow, which he extends towards his raccoon partner sat with Gamora and the Midgardian. The raccoon turns back to them, body language frustrated, and the others spare a moment to speak before abandoning the table in a hurry.

Sigurd spits his half-chewed food back into its cup, drawing Loki’s attention. Sigurd spots the disgust etched over Loki’s false features and shrugs. “You don’t want to be cryoed with that shit in your esophagus.”

“Cryoed?” Loki asks.

Panels slide aside around the room and on the ceiling—one next to their table—revealing massive canon-like weapons, frost ringing the muzzles. A clunk echoes somewhere deep in the Kyln. Orange energy fields bubble around the handful of guards in the room.

Loki stands, stepping away, eyes narrowing.

Ice erupts from the canons, blisteringly cold sheets permeating the prison proper. Frost builds over Sigurd’s brown skin, over Loki’s false skin, and every other prisoner in the Kyln.

“Rocket!” the Midgardian cries, voice distorted by a frozen-stiff jaw.

The temperature drops beyond a certain threshold. Pale pink turns blue.

Damn.

“I thought you were an Áss,” Sigurd forces out.

Loki tries to smother disgust with satisfaction, the involuntary transformation granting him mobility.

And control.

“Common assumption,” Loki grins, no mirth behind it.

Abruptly the cryo-canons cease their steady spray, each groaning due to buildup.

The pipes delivering the ice swell. They snake down to the cryo machine.

Loki can feel the frigid, unforgiving coldness where the machine pumps.

He can feel the packed frost within the pipes—the point of the clog—drawing nearer to the source.

The entire Kyln hears the rumble of the cryo machine failing. The prison quakes at its breakdown.

Loki tears the residual freeze from the skins of his fellow inmates. It swirls around him, coming up to waist height, a miniature whirlwind blizzard.

He feels eyes on him.

“Get the things!” the raccoon shouts. Gamora sprints through Loki’s peripheral vision. The raccoon meets Loki’s stare. “You want out? I’ve got a plan.”

“A plan that nearly failed,” Loki points out, unimpressed.

“Which you helped get back on track.” Flying sentry drones pour into the prison proper. One swarm circles Groot, another Loki. “And I’m hoping you’ll do it again.”

“Prisoners, drop the device immediately and cease manipulating the ice. Retreat to your cells, or we will open fire.”

“It seems I have little choice,” Loki sighs.

The Flora colossus sprouts tendrils, agitation growing. “I am Groot!”

“Fire!”

Loki condenses the whirlwind around him into daggers of ice, seiðr launching them at the turrets of each sentry.

The drones hover there, rendered useless.

The Flora colossus smacks one bot firing upon him across the room, resulting in a fiery explosion.

More swarms descend. Loki avoids the bullets, picking off a few at a time with summoned knives. He vanishes the prisoner garments, armor materializing to protect against unavoidable projectiles.

The Flora colossus sends more drones ricocheting about the prison.

Prisoners burst into action. Some dive under tables. Others run for the holding cells, away from the central watchtower.

“All prisoners return to your sleeping areas.”

The raccoon climbs the Flora colossus. “You idiot! How am I supposed to fight these things without my stuff?”

Loki rolls under a table to avoid another volley of bullets. On his back, he plants his feet on the underside of the tabletop, delivering a swift kick. Aided by a burst of seiðr, the table slams into four drones, one crashing into a fifth.

“Creepy little beast!” A few paces from Loki an unknown prisoner stands, guards unconscious or dead at his feet. He throws one of their guns towards the raccoon.

The raccoon catches it. “Oh, yeah.”

Together the Flora colossus and the raccoon shout, spinning and laughing, felling the sentry drones around them.

Until the raccoon’s ammo runs out.

“Rocket!” Gamora yells. The raccoon—Rocket—turns towards her, snatching the device she tosses him.

“Move to the watchtower!”

The Flora colossus lumbers toward the bridge connecting the watchtower. Gamora leaps through open air, landing with a bang.

Loki reaches out with his seiðr, getting a sense of the space he occupies, and the space he desires to occupy, until the two blend.

Gamora startles, crouched to aid Rocket. “You.”

“Truce?” Loki offers.

“You know him?” Rocket asks, half-interested, climbing through the railing.

“I’ve never seen him blue before.”

Loki snarls, shifting into familiar Æsir skin.

“You! Man who has lain with an A’askavariian!” Loki peers over the rail, spotting the Midgardian, a prosthetic leg tucked under his chin, and the same unfamiliar prisoner who threw Rocket a gun.

“It was one time, man.” The Midgardian says, climbing the Flora colossus’ extended torso.

The prisoner follows behind him, and in a few moments all six of them stand on the bridge, the Flora colossus still retracting branches.

Rocket fiddles with his makeshift device. The watchtower doors part, the single guard within looking upon them with a terrified expression. He raises his arms in surrender as they enter. Gamora reaches him first, laying a hand on his shoulder and pushing him away from the console. The Flora colossus wraps tendrils around the guard, whipping him out of the room.

Loki halts left of Gamora, eyeing the console. Gamora flinches closer to him, away from the other prisoner.

“Spare me your foul gaze, woman.”

Gamora composes herself. She looks at the Midgardian. “Why is this one here?”

“We promised him he could stay by your side until he kills your boss. I always keep my promises when they’re to muscles-bound whack-jobs who will kill me if I don’t.”

“I should think it wiser to avoid association with Gamora,” Loki advises.

The prisoner appraises him. “You are no longer blue.”

“Here you go.” The Midgardian drops the prosthetic leg on the console before Rocket.

“Oh, I was just kidding about the leg. I just needed these two things.”

“What?”

Rocket turns from the console. “No, I thought it’d be funny. Was it funny? Oh, wait, what did he look like hopping around?”

“I had to transfer him 30,000 units!”

“Why were you blue?” Gamora asks, ignoring Rocket and the Midgardian’s squabble.

“Did your dear brother never share my shameful secret with the rest of you?” Gamora’s face contorts, a mix of fury and regret. “I am a monster. A Frost Giant.”

“You cannot be a Frost Giant.” Loki glances at the unknown prisoner. “You are neither frost, nor giant.”

“Be that as it may—”

“I am taller than you.”

Loki blinks. “My sire found fault in my height.” He flexes his fingers. “I murdered him.”

Bullets ting against the reinforced glass of the watchtower. The prisoner ignores Loki’s veiled threat, or perhaps misses it. “How are we going to leave?”

“Well, he’s got a plan. Right? Or is that another thing you made up?”

“I have a plan! I have a plan!”

“Cease your yammering and relieve us from this irksome confinement.”

“Yeah, I’ll have to agree with the walking thesaurus on that one,” the Midgardian says, surveying the area outside the watchtower and the nicks in the glass.

“Do not ever call me a thesaurus.”

“It’s just a metaphor, dude.”

“His people are completely literal. Metaphors are gonna go over his head,” Rocket explains, tapping various buttons on the console.

“Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.”

Loki covers his face with his palms, exasperated.

“I’m going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy,” Gamora whispers.

“Not if I obliterate them to silence their inane prattle,” Loki hisses.

“Those are some big guns.” The Midgardian shifts.

Five guards drop to one knee beneath the watchtower, rocket launchers hoisted over their shoulders.

“On my command!” Loki tenses. “Fire!”

Seiðr envelopes the watchtower, a green shimmer coating the glass, fissures and ripples bursting where the five rockets strike.

“How are we alive?” the Midgardian wonders, uncurling from a protective position.

Gamora sucks in a breath. “Rodent, we are ready for your plan.”

“Hold on!”

Loki draws in a shuddering breath. “I did not have sufficient time to prepare an adequate shield. Another round of rockets and my seiðr will fail.”

“How are you doing this?”

“I am an exceptionally powerful seiðmaðr.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Quill, quiet! Rocket!” Gamora shouts, watching the guards reload.

“I recognize this animal. We’d roast them over a flame pit as children. Their flesh was quite delicious.”

“Not helping!”

“Fire!”

Loki winces, seiðr evaporating under the force of another five explosions. One panel of glass—the one nearest Gamora and himself—fractures.

Rocket rips wires out of the console.

The guards reload their rocket launchers, once more hoisting them over their shoulders.

“You got another… seether… whatever in you?” Quill asks Loki, shooting him a desperate look.

“No.”

Rocket connects two wires.

“Fi—”

An electric whine sings through the Kyln. Beneath the watchtower, people and things lift off the ground. Floating. Suspended.

The guards lose their grip on their rocket launchers and their footing on a solid surface from which to launch them.

Gamora leans forward, reading the console display. “He turned off the artificial gravity, everywhere but in here.”

Loki releases a surprised laugh.

Rocket tugs a lever. The ground beneath tilts at a slight angle, coming untethered from the rest of the watchtower. Their sanctuary jostles, thuds alerting them of the drones coming to grip the sides of the watchtower’s command center. Rocket steers them forward and down—down at a ninety-degree angle. Loki steadies himself on the console.

“I told you I had a plan.”

One of the Kyln guards smacks against a pane of glass, sliding over top their improvised vessel as the fly through the entrance, Rocket barely managing to open the doors for them.

They come to a crashing halt, taking out two other guards in the process. The prison doors slam shut at the other end of the hallway.

“That was a pretty good plan,” Quill concedes.

Rocket spreads his arms, glancing about in search of praise.

Loki offers him a manic grin. “Brilliant.”

Quill shoves past Loki and Gamora. He grips the top of the window, swinging back and kicking in the broken glass. He climbs out, heading for impound. They follow him.

“Yeah! There it is. Get my ship. It’s the Milano, the orange and blue one over in the corner.”

Loki scans the numbers on each box.

“They crumpled my pants up into a ball. That’s rude! They folded yours. What are you looking for? All they took from you were your clothes, and they’re right here.”

Excitement surges through Loki when he locates the correct number. He tugs the box free, dropping in on the table with the others. He yanks it open, the lock snapping under the sudden strain.

Rocket’s eyes go wide. “Woah. Fancy.”

“I am Groot?”

Loki smiles at the Flora colossus. “Mine,” He runs a finger over the ornate etchings along the surface of the blade. “For what does the Liesmith covet more than the truth?” Space folds around the weapon, storing it away.

“I have so many questions,” Rocket informs Loki. “But let’s get outta here first.” He takes off towards the hanger.

Loki lingers with Gamora and Quill, watching the Midgardian fish through his impounded items.

Gamora peers over Quill’s shoulder. “The Orb’s there. Let’s go.” She turns, eyes flicking to Loki’s.

“Wait, wait, wait.”

Gamora rounds on Quill. “What?” she demands.

“That bastard didn’t put it back.”

“Put what back?”

“Here.” Quill stands, holding out his satchel to Gamora, his clothes balanced on one arm, protruding slightly where Quill’s palm should be, perhaps due to his gun. “Get them to the ship. I will be right back.”

Loki frowns.

“How are you gonna possibly—”

“Just keep the Milano close by. Go.” He runs off, clothes bundled even more so than before. “Go!”

Gamora sighs. “Come on.” She marches after Rocket and the others.

Loki tilts his head.

Or perhaps not his gun.

He deliberates for a moment, then follows Gamora.

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

“Well, how’s he gonna get to us?”

The Milano waits in open space, a frustrated Rocket at the helm.

“He declined to share that information with me,” Gamora informs him.

“Well, screw this, then! I ain’t waiting around for some humie with a death wish. You got the Orb, right?”

Loki bites his lower lip, tucking a fist under his chin.

“Yes,” Gamora confirms, opening the satchel.

There’s no Orb.

Gamora pulls out a food wrapper.

“He did quite well to disguise his removing the Orb,” Loki hums.

Gamora whips around to face him. “You knew?”

Loki shrugs. “I am curious to see how everything turns out. I will retrieve the Orb if needs must.”

Gamora’s clenches her fists, sitting rigid in her seat.

“If we don’t leave now, we will be blown to bits.”

“No! We’re not leaving without the Orb.” She glares at Loki. “Go get it. Now.”

Loki sneers. “You sound so like your father.”

Gamora stands.

“Behold,” the other prisoner—Drax—interrupts. Streaking towards the Milano, a shape. Quill.

Gamora crosses to the entry port, glowering at Loki. Drax follows her.

“This one shows spirit,” Drax says, the two of them helping Quill onto the ship. “He shall make a keen ally in the battle against Ronan. Companion, what were you retrieving?”

Quill passes Drax the musical device he’d been so possessive of upon their arrival.

Drax studies the object. “You’re an imbecile.”

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

They are meant to await a servant of the buyer at the Boot of Jemiah, a bar crowded with drunk patrons and gamblers. An unfamiliar pageantry for Loki, who appeared unannounced when last selling to the Collector.

Loki neglects to mention any of this to the others. Units hadn’t been the currency last time—only transportation and silence. A fortune could be quite useful.

Gamora does not linger with them—anywhere near Loki, their fight on the Milano still fresh. She cuts across the bar, exiting onto a balcony at the far end of the room. Quill spares a moment to glance at the rest of them before hesitantly trailing after Gamora, concerned or, perhaps, prepared to exploit a momentary vulnerability.

“I’ve been thinking,” Rocket announces, assessing Loki. “I bet your fancy, golden shit’s worth a load of units.”

“Do you mean to steal them?” Loki asks. Rocket snorts, a noise that does nothing to clarify his intentions. “The metal is gilded, not golden. Gold may only be used in ceremonial armors. It is too weak for practical use.”

“Gilding’s a thin layer of gold, right?”

“The gilding is worthless.”

Rocket gnashes his teeth. “Whatever.” A whoop rises above the din, drawing his eyes to the Orloni table. “Eh, c’mon Groot. I’m feelin’ lucky.” He pads away, Groot lumbering behind.

“Worth less than the material the armor is crafted of,” Loki admits, smirking after them.

Drax barks a solitary, subdued laugh. Loki startles. “You are amusing, man that is neither frost, nor giant.”

Irritation flares, but the pooling of discomfort quashes its flame. Loki releases a stuttering sigh through the nose. “Nor am I a man.”

The transformation is swift. Infinitesimal. Her features hardly change, softening but not reshaping. Her body develops curves in appropriate places, but her shoulders remain broader than average, and the same lean muscles stretch beneath her skin. Loki allows some of her armor to fade, trading her breastplate and tunic for a flowy, silken top appropriate for the casual, sociable environment of the bar. Her slacks, bracers, and boots remain, no adjustments necessary.

“You are a woman?”

Loki tucks long, curling strands of ink-black hair behind one ear. “I am myself. Always,” she agrees. Her lips purse. “It’s a recent liberation. Come, let us join Rocket at the Orloni table.”

Drax proves amenable to the suggestion/distraction. He leads her towards Rocket, in the process of laying down a sizable bet at the table. Loki settles beside him, ignoring the lewd expressions of a few aliens in the crowd.

Rocket glances at her. “You look nice.”

“Thank you.”

A round of drinks arrives, courtesy of Rocket. Loki nods her appreciation.

“I shall wager, as well,” Drax speaks to the table. He points at a large Orloni with bright blue and red facial markings. “This one will be my champion,” he declares.

“Anyone else wanna gamble?”

Loki leans forward, fingers tense on the edge of the table.

“Alright then.”

The Orloni battle begins, the creatures dart over the table, snatching live morsels from the air, or wrestling them from the clutches of their competition.

Patrons shout and cheer. Whoop in elation. Cry foul when their Orloni fails.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Drax screams, deep voice resonating.

“Whoa!”

“Yahoo!” Rocket contributes, draining his third glass.

Drax’s Orloni swallows a final morsel whole, ending the round.

“My Orloni has won, as I won at all things! Now, let’s put more of this liquid into our bodies.”

Groot gulps his drink.

“That’s the first thing you said that wasn’t bat-shit crazy!”

“I am going to find a stronger beverage,” Loki informs Rocket.

There are only a handful of patrons sat at the bar, most choosing to flock around the gambling attractions. The bartender shoots her a winning smile, exposing sharp incisors. “What’s your poison, beautiful?”

Loki returns the smile with a flirtatious one of her own, thoughtfully twirling her hair around her finger. “What might you have for a Vanir far from home?”

He slaps the countertop, grin widening. “Can’t go wrong with Sakaaran cocktails. They pack a punch even you immortal types can’t metabolize too quick.”

“I’ll have one of those. Something… sour.”

“Coming right up.”

Mixing the drink proves to be a performance. The bartender goes out of his way to showboat, winking when he pulls off a trick. Loki feigns interest.

The bartender slides the glass across the counter. “On the house.”

Loki brushes her fingers over his before twining them around the stem. “You’re too kind,” she simpers.

The bartender catches sight of something over her shoulder, rolling his eyes. “Fuck.”

Fighting sounds behind her. Loki turns around, one elbow balanced on the counter.

Groot slams into the ground, Drax straddling him, both lashing out, Drax punching.

Loki sips her drink. “Fools.”

Groot wraps Drax up in branches, which he breaks apart.

Rocket cocks a gun.

Loki straightens.

Gamora appears, Quill a few paces from her. She pulls Drax off Groot. “Stop! Stop it!”

Loki jostles through the crowd of excited onlookers.

Quill jumps between Drax and Rocket, the latter still aiming a gun at the former. “Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?”

“This vermin speaks of affairs he knows nothing about!” Drax yells, restrained by Gamora.

“That is true!”

“He has no respect!”

“That is also true!”

“Hold on! Hold on!”

Loki offers Groot a hand. The Flora colossus accepts it with a sad expression, rubbing his somewhat splintered jaw. Loki releases a pulse of seiðr into him, numbing any discomfort. “I am Groot.”

“You are welcome.”

“Keep calling me vermin, tough guy! You just wanna laugh at me like everyone else!”

“Rocket, you’re drunk. All right? No one’s laughing at you,” Quill pacifies.

“He thinks I’m some stupid thing! He does! Well, I didn’t ask to get made! I didn’t ask to be torn apart, and put back together, over and over and over and turned into some…” He trails off, inhaling deeply. “Some little monster!”

Loki swallows, throat tight.

“Rocket, no one’s calling you a monster.”

Rocket throws an accusatory finger in Drax’s direction. “He called me ‘vermin’!” He jabs the same finger at Gamora. “She called me ‘rodent’! Let’s see if you can laugh after five or six good shots to your frickin’ face!” He hefts his gun.

Drax attempts to surge forward, Gamora doubling her efforts to hold him. Loki wraps a hand around his bicep, aiding her.

Quill turns fully towards Rocket, both palms coming up. “No, no, no, n-no, no! Four billion units! Rocket! Come on, man. Hey! Suck it up for one more lousy night and you’re rich.”

Rocket considers this for a tense moment. He lowers the gun. “Fine. But I can’t promise when this is all over I’m not going to kill every last one of you jerks.”

Quill emits an exasperated grunt. “See? That’s exactly why none of you have any friends!” He rounds on the rest of their party. “Five seconds after you meet somebody, you’re already trying to kill them!”

“It saves time,” Loki offers. Quill blinks at her, head tilting.

“Why are you—”

“We have traveled halfway across the quadrant,” Drax pants. “And Ronan is no closer to being dead.” He shoulders Loki and Gamora’s hands away, stomping in the direction of the exit, footsteps echoing in the silenced bar.

“Drax!” Quill calls.

“Let him go. We don’t need him.”

A door behind Quill and Rocket slides open, revealing a petite Krylorian female. Carina, Loki recalls.

“Milady Gamora. I’m here to fetch you for my master.”

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

The experience of entering the Collector's Museum generates the same uneasy sensation Loki felt the first time. The suspended compartments, the vast shadows cast by powerful, pointed lights, the collection of sounds.

“Okay, this isn’t creepy at all,” Rocket mutters.

“We house the galaxy’s largest collection of fauna, relics, and species of all manner.” Carina glides forward a few paces more, then gracefully pivots to face them. She spreads her arms wide. “I present to you, Taneleer Tivan, The Collector.”

The Elder turns towards their party. Gamora steps closer to him, ready to discuss their deal. He lowers his spectacles, then removes them entirely. He strides to meet her.

“Oh, my dear Gamora,” he simpers. He captures her hand. “How wonderful to meet in the flesh.” He gentles a kiss on the back of her hand.

“Let’s bypass the formalities, Tivan,” Gamora suggests, all business. Loki grimaces. Pleasantries and flirtation, in her experience, reveal hidden opportunities. “We have what we discussed,” Gamora continues.

The Elder’s eyes affix on Groot, intrigue and covetousness pooling within. “What is that thing there?”

“I am Groot,” Groot offers, and for once the words are genuinely intended as an introduction.

The Elder stalks forward. His eyes rake over the Flora colossus, examining the twisting, moss-covered bark of his torso. “I never thought I’d meet a Groot.” He bounces on his feet. “Sir, you must allow me to pay you now so that I may own your carcass. At the moment of your death, of course.”

“I am Groot.”

“Why, so he can turn you into a frickin’ chair?” Rocket growls.

“That’s your pet?” The Elder asks, smile playing at his lips. He catches sight of Loki, then.

“His what?” Rocket shouts. He reaches for his gun.

Gamora moves between the two. “Tivan—”

“Loki,” The Elder greets, smile wide and toothy. “So wonderful to see you again.”

“Again?” Quill asks. Loki ignores him.

“And yet, it must seem as though you are meeting me for the first time.” Loki offers her hand.

“Oh, not so. I saw you clearly. You were always a blank canvas, captivating for your… possibilities.” He kisses the back of her hand, then flips it over and presses kisses into her palm and against her wrist. Loki tilts her chin to expose the pale column of her neck. Or—more importantly—the way the muscles pull and the veins pump.

Gamora clears her throat. “We have been halfway around the galaxy retrieving this Orb.”

The Elder drops Loki’s hand, distracted, as ever, by the promise of an Infinity Stone. “Very well, then. Let us see what you brought.”

Gamora looks to Quill. He goes to hold the Orb out but loses his grip on the sphere. It clatters to the ground. Quill drops to retrieve it, straightening up fast, attempting to mask the blunder. Loki schools an amused smirk.

The Elder encourages them to gather around a table strewn with instruments and dials. He slots the Orb into a device. Carina lingers at the edge of their party, expression tight. Rocket climbs up next to the Elder, studying his instruments.

“Oh, my new friends. Before creation itself, there were six singularities.” He flicks a switch, and the device begins to twist and turn the Orb, breaking the puzzle lock. Purple rings form in the air around them. “Then the universe exploded into existence, and the remnants of these systems were forged into concentrated ingots.” Within the rings, images dance. The universe explodes. Colorful energies coalesce and solidify. The Orb clicks as another seal breaks. A glowing, violet rock shines through the cage of the next lock.

“Infinity Stones.” Loki mouths the words along with the Elder, her gaze trained on the newly exposed artifact.

The Power Stone.

“These stones, it seems, can only be brandished by beings of extraordinary strength.” Loki looks up, meeting the Elder’s mirthful eyes. She tenses, but the others are distracted. “Observe,” he demands, drawing the others’ attention to a large ring hovering behind them.

The image within the ring depicts an armored giant. The creature slams its scepter to the surface of the planet. The Power Stone—settled in the ornate crest—ravages the planet and its people in an instant. “These carriers can use the Stone to mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field.” The image reveals the planet, the Power Stone’s energy spreading over its entire surface.

Thanos could obliterate Asgard in an instant.

“There’s a little pee coming out of me right now.”

Loki inhales a deep breath, releasing it in a rush.

“Once, for a moment, a group was able to share the energy amongst themselves, but even they were quickly destroyed by it.”

The image in the rings shifts to a kaleidoscope of colors. Loki returns her gaze to the Orb, just in time to witness it open.

The Elder squirms with excitement. “Beautiful.” His splayed palms quiver. “Beyond compare.”

“Blah, blah, blah.” Loki shoots a glare at Rocket. The raccoon does not notice. “We’re all very fascinated, whitey. But we’d like to get paid.”

The rings vanish. The Elder strays from the Stone. “How would you like to get paid?” 

“What do you think, fancy man? Units!”

Reluctant, Loki trails after Rocket, Gamora, and Quill, awaiting her share of the profits.

The Elder opens a drawer of his desk. His eyes flick up suddenly, staring past them. “Carina. Stand back.”

Loki whirls.

Carina stands beside the exposed Infinity Stone. Her limbs shake, but her eyes are hard and determined.

“I will no longer be your slave!”

“No!”

Carina’s palm closes around the Power Stone.

Chaos erupts around them. Power whips from the Stone, shattering lights and scorching surfaces.

Gamora throws herself at Quill, shoving the Midgardian to the ground. They crawl behind upright vents. Loki follows them, herself on her knees to avoid the shots of purple energy ricocheting around the museum. She buries herself against Gamora’s back, erecting the most durable shield her seiðr can manage without preparation or resources.

A shriek pierces Loki’s ears.

Everything through their shield burns, dissolves, explodes.

A power like a billion hungry wildfires erupts outwards. The walls and glass ceiling of the museum are torn apart.

And then, it is black and still.

Loki, Gamora, and Quill peer through the green film of the shield. Carina is gone. The museum is dark and broken. A spark alights for a moment, spiting, then puttering out.

“What the fuck?”

Gamora stands, rounding the vents. Quill and Loki hurry after her, until all three of them stand before it.

Loki glances at the prone Elder across the room.

Gamora grunts, sealing the Power Stone within its protective sphere. 

Loki leans into her space. “Go. I must recover something,” she murmurs.

“We’re not waiting,” Quill whispers through gritted teeth. He rubs his abdomen, grimacing.

“So be it.”

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

Finding the Tesseract would be an impossible task had Loki not utilized its power in escaping Asgard. There’s a bond between them now. Loki can sense the Stone within. Sense its anticipation and pleasure, perhaps at feeling the might of its kin.

It’s high up and tucked away from prying eyes. Loki transforms into a magpie, soaring to the rafters, which groan and collapse, dragging broken cages down with them. Loki picks her way over the husks of displays, some with inhabitants pleading for rescue or attempting to escape.

The Elder stores the Tesseract in a shrouded display, but the blue light of the awoken Infinity Stone illuminates well. The display is stronger than the others, undisturbed by the prior explosions. There’s a lock on it. Loki cannot unseal it with her seiðr, but there are other, cruder methods at her disposal.

She places a finger against the metal of the locking mechanism and shifts. Blue climbs across her skin. Frost climbs over the lock. She continues to manipulate the freeze, the lock becoming colder and colder, until the metal turns brittle.

Loki closes her hand in a fist, Æsir skin resetting. She shoves against the lock. The metal crumples.

Lights blink at the base of the display. Loki can hear a mechanism within whirring to life, ready to disable the thief with the powerful magic of an Elder of the Universe.

She does not waste time. Her fingers brush against the Tesseract. Space folds around it, placing it in storage.

The Elder’s magic lashes out.

Space shifts around Loki.

She crumps beside the entrance to the Boot of Jemiah. Damage from the Elder’s magic covers her newly exposed legs, her pants seared short. Bruises weave over her skin in fractal patterns. The veins in her legs are prominent and sickly grey-green. Loki quivers. Her breathing is shallow. She scoots backward into an empty, blackened alley, palms scraping against the hard ground.

Shifting her legs pulls a whimper from her. Her hand hovers, shaking, over one mutilated limb. The touch of her seiðr generates a new wave of searing pain that shatters her concentration. She cries out. Her seiðr fails.

Loki’s head falls against the wall of the bar. She pants. The pain lessens.

Tucked away in a pocket of space, Loki hoards numerous healing stones. She calls forth six stones and places three over the length of each of her legs.

Even with their numbing seiðr, the interacting magics create a new wave of agony. Loki bites down on her hand to smother her screams.

Heat suffuses the alley, then blazing debris strikes the dirt several paces away, exploding.

For the first time, Loki notices the yelling and the aerial battle above. Ravager ships. Kree ships. Mining Pods. Debris falls like deadly rain over the settlement, and the various species run for cover.

“Damn,” she winces. Loki cannot move yet. The stones can only heal this damage so fast. She watches new skin grow out from the stones in circles, pink and raw.

The dogfighting spaceships abandon the settlement before Loki can stand again. She limps out of the alley, along the wreckage strewn streets.

A single mining pod drops around the corner. “Blasted idiot. They’re all idiots!”

Loki follows Rocket’s voice.

“Quill just got himself captured. None of this ever would have happened if you didn’t try to single-handedly take on a frickin’ army!”

“What happened?” Loki demands. She absorbs her surroundings: Drax propping himself up on one elbow, Groot kneeling above him, and Rocket vibrating with fury.

Rocket points at Drax. “This idiot frickin’ called Ronan!”

Loki blinks. “What?” she hisses.

“You’re right,” Drax breathes. “I was a fool.” His voice sounds wet and weary. “All the anger, all the rage, was just to cover my loss.”

Groot lays a hand on Drax’s shoulder.

Loki swallows. Hiding bitter pain and loss under the cover of anger… it is not a foreign concept.

“Oh, boo-hoo-hoo. ‘My wife and child are dead.’” Rocket mocks. Groot gasps in horror. “Oh, I don’t care if it’s mean! Everybody’s got dead people. It’s no excuse to get everybody else dead along the way!”

Loki blinks. She purses her lips.

“Come on, Groot. Ronan has the Stone.” Loki whips her head towards Rocket, heart seizing. “The only chance we got is to get to the other side of the universe as fast as we can and maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to live full lives before the whack-job ever gets there.”

Ronan might not reach them, but the Stone would not remain in his possession forever.

Groot rises. “I am Groot,” he insists, scowling at Rocket.

Loki closes her eyes.

“Save them? How?”

“I am Groot.”

“I know they’re the only friends that we ever had, but there’s an army of Ravagers round them. And there’s only two of us.”

“Three,” Drax says.

Loki sighs. She opens her eyes.

“Four.”

Drax’s hand rests on Groot’s back. The Flora colossus’ face is determined and hopeful.

Rocket growls, raking claws through the fur covering his scalp. He turns, shifting and searching. “Aw!” He settles before a tuft of greenery. He kicks it. “You’re making me—” Kick. “Beat—” Kick. “Up—” Kick. “Grass!”

Dirt sprays everywhere.

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

“Let me see if I understand your plan. Drax will fire a handheld canon at the Ravager ship to get their attention. Once you have their attention, you intend to demand they turn over Quill and Gamora, and, if they do not, you will destroy their vessel.”

“That’s correct,” Rocket nods.

Loki bites the inside of his cheek. “Ingenious. I think I will sit back there.” He drops into an empty seat and tosses his legs over the armrest, grinning.

Drax clambers onto the roof of the Milano.

Rocket brings them level with the Ravager ship.

Vibrations run through their ship as Drax begins to fire a volley of shots. Rocket preps the speakers. He clears his throat.

Loki presses his fist against his lips.

“Attention, idiots. The lunatic on top of this craft is holding a Hardon Enforcer. It’s a weapon of my own design. If you don’t hand over our companions now, he’s gonna tear you ship a new one. A very big new one! I’m giving you to the count of five. Five. Four. Three—”

The ship intercom bursts alive. “Rocket, it’s me, for God sake! We figured it out! We’re fine!”

“Oh, hey, Quill. What’s going on?” Rocket asks.

Loki erupts in a fit of laughter.

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

“You call that ‘figured it out’?”

“Why does this plan surprise you?” Loki asks. “I thought this our intention in saving Quill and Gamora. I only agreed to attempt this rescue because Gamora’s expertise are required to retrieve the Orb.”

Rocket shoots him an exasperated look. “Why do you all wanna rob the guys who just beat us senseless?”

“Oh, you wanna talk about senseless? How about trying to save us by blowing us up?” Quill pouts at Loki. “How does that work if you need Gamora?”

Loki grins.

“We were only gonna blow you up if they didn’t turn you over!”

“And how on earth were they gonna turn us over when you only gave them a count of five?”

“We didn’t have time to work out the minutiae of the plan. This is what we get for acting altruistically.”

“I am Groot.”

“They are ungrateful,” Rocket agrees.

“I thought the entire charade hysterical,” Loki supplies.

“What’s important now is we get the Ravagers’ army to help us save Xandar,” Gamora asserts.

“So we can give the Stone to Yondu who’s just gonna sell it to somebody even worse?”

“I will not allow that,” Loki deadpans.

Quill glances at him. “We’ll figure that part out later—”

“If I must, I will execute Yondu to protect the Stone,” Loki announces. “There, the matter is figured out.”

“We have to stop Ronan.”

“How?” Rocket demands.

“I have a plan.”

“You’ve got a plan?”

“Yes,” Quill confirms.

“First of all, you’re copying me from when I said I had a plan.”

“No, I’m not. People say that all the time. It’s not that unique of a thing to say.”

“Secondly, I don’t even believe you have a plan.”

Quill glares at Rocket in open-mouthed irritation. “I have… part of a plan!”

Loki tenses. “Part? We are en route to Xandar, and you have only devised part of a plan?”

“What percentage of a plan do you have?”

Gamora points at Drax. “You don’t get to ask questions after the nonsense you pulled on Knowhere.”

“I just saved Quill,” Drax says, affronted.

Loki grits his teeth. “Can we please focus on—”

“We’ve already established that you destroying the ship that I’m on is not saving me.”

“When did we establish it?”

“Like three seconds ago!”                                                         

“I wasn’t listening. I was thinking of something else.”

“Oh…,” Gamora groans.

“I am thinking we stand better odds of success without them,” Loki suggests to Gamora. Quill’s glare lands on him.

“She’s right. You don’t get an opinion. What—”

“What percentage?” Loki interrupts.

“I was just gonna ask that!”

“What percentage?” Loki repeats through gnashed teeth, ignoring Rocket.

“I don’t know. Twelve percent.”

“Twelve percent?” Rocket bursts into false laughter.

“That’s a fake laugh,” Quill says.

“It’s real!”

“Totally fake.”

“That is the most real, authentic, hysterical laugh of my entire life because that is not a plan.”

“It’s barely a concept,” Gamora agrees. Loki nods.

“You’re taking their side?”

“I am Groot,” Groot offers.

“So what, it’s better than eleven percent? What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

“Thank you, Groot. Thank you.” Quill bumps Groot’s shoulder, appreciative. “See? Groot’s the only one of you who has a clue.”

Loki watches, blank-faced, whilst Groot eats foliage from his arm. Quill catches sight of the action. He turns away, pinching the bridge of his nose.

He faces their circle again. “Guys. Come on. Yondu is gonna be here in two seconds. He expects to hear this big plan of ours. I need your help.

“I look around at us. You know what I see?” Quill pauses. “Losers.” Loki raises an unimpressed eyebrow. Around their circle, everyone shifts, indignant or dubious. “I mean, like, folks who have lost stuff. And we have. Man, we have. All of us. Our homes, our families, normal lives.” Loki looks down at his lap where his hands twist together. He worries the skin of his palm. “And usually life takes more than it gives. But not today. Today, it’s given us something. It has given us a chance.”

“To do what?” Drax wonders, subdued.

“To give a shit. For once. Not run away. I, for one, am not going to stand by and watch as Ronan wipes out billions of innocent lives.”

“But, Quill, stopping Ronan, it’s impossible. You’re asking us to die.”

Quill stays quiet, only breaking the silence with a sigh.

“Yeah, I guess I am,” he admits after a beat. “I—” He turns away, burying his face against his palm. “Fuck.”

“Quill,” Gamora begins. Quill turns to face her. “I have lived most my life surrounded by my enemies.” She stands. “I will be grateful to die among my friends.”

Loki gazes at her, picking at his fingers. He snorts, then follows her lead, straightening up next to her. “I have only ever been found worthy in death.” Loki smiles. “I have always desired to be worthy.”

Drax stands. “You are an honorable man, Quill. I will fight beside you. And in the end, I will see my wife and daughter again.”

Groot rises. “I am Groot.”

Groot looks down at Rocket. Loki eyes the Midgardian creature. His eyes dart around their circle. He sighs. “Oh, what the hell. I don’t got that long a lifespan, anyway.”

Rocket climbs atop his seat. “Now I’m standing. Ya’ll happy? We’re all standing up now. Bunch of jackasses, standing in a circle.”

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

“You would not happen to have something to hold your hair form your face, would you?” Loki glances over his shoulder, hair held in a haphazard bun.

Gamora hesitates, drumming her fingers against her thigh. She unclasps a secret pocket of her trousers and pulls out a plain string of leather, passing it to Loki.

“My thanks.” He ties the leather, securing the bun. He smirks. “There’s not many people that can sneak up on me. Of course, loud assassins are undesirable, even when one wishes to make a statement.”

“Would you accept my apology if I made one?” Gamora snaps.

Loki sees the conflict in her eyes. “I should wish to hear it before promising to accept it,” he reasons.

Gamora purses her lips. Her gaze drops.

Loki waits.

“I know how it must seem. I’ve betrayed Thanos now, for my own gain, but I didn’t—” She inhales through her nose. “I had the opportunity to… help you, and I didn’t. I should have. I should never have… done anything Thanos wished.”

Tension hovers in the air around her.

“I don’t accept your apology.” Gamora’s face pinches and her fist clenches, but she attempts a stiff nod. “There’s nothing to forgive,” Loki clarifies, schooling his grin.

Gamora tilts her head. “But—”

“I have discovered a renewed appreciation for my life since we knew one another. It would be ridiculous to condemn you for refusing to kill me when I begged you, since I am now glad you did not.” Loki’s fingernail digs into the pad of his thumb. “And… I would be a hypocrite to condemn you for following Thanos’ orders. So, you have nothing to apologize to me for.” Their eyes meet. “And our glorious deaths on Xandar might, perhaps, serve in place of the personal apologies we owe.”

Gamora’s lips tick upward a fraction.

“There you are,” Quill calls from down the hall. He walks towards them. “Hey.” He draws near, hesitating, awkwardly clapping the folded piles of leather he holds together. His eyes shift between Gamora and Loki, mouth pinched. “Sorry to interrupt.” There isn’t a hint of remorse behind the statement.

“Is there a reason for this interruption?” Loki demands, encouraging Quill’s wildest imaginings with false irritation.

Quill blinks, scowl forming. He tosses Loki one bundle of leather, handing the other to Gamora. Loki unfolds the material: a long coat. “New clothes. Figured we should be matching.”

Gamora smiles and nods. “Thank you, Peter.” She looks between him and Loki. “I’m going to go change.” Quill watches her retreat down the hallway. She passes Drax—now resplendent in Ravager pants—who catches sight of Loki and Quill and ambles towards them.

Loki pinches the lapel of the crimson, leather Ravager coat between thumb and forefinger, grimacing at the garment. “I do not suppose I have the time to make alterations? Sew a fur collar, perhaps?”

Quill snorts. Loki raises his eyebrows at him. “You know how to sew?” Quill asks in disbelief.

Loki tsks. “Aye.”

Quills expression remains disbelieving. “It’s just… you’re, you know.” His wrist twists in a useless gesture.

“A warrior,” Loki quips. “Who might tear their cloak or their flesh whilst far from the healing halls of home, and so need possess some skill in their mending.”

“I, too, know how to sew,” Drax announces. “Sewing is a useful skill.”

Quill glances between Drax and Loki. “I guess,” he mutters. He shuffles away, followed by Loki’s glare. Drax trails after Quill. The pound of their footsteps fades down the hall.

Loki draws pieces of his armor from pockets in space, feeling the weight of them enclose around him. He makes slight adjustments, then shrugs the leather coat on over the armor. It falls just above the ankle.

He stands motionless, looking down at himself.

Loki shakes his head. “What would Thor say?”

Would he be proud?

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

The glass of the Ravager ship closes around the cockpit.

“This is a terrible plan.”

“Well, it’s like Gamora said: at least we’ll be dying among friends.” Loki turns a dubious expression on the raccoon. “Or something,” Rocket amends, shrugging his shoulders.

Their ship drops into open air.

Ahead of their fleet, Ronan’s ship—the Dark Aster—descends through the atmosphere.

“Fire!” Yondu commands.

Two balls of orange light streak through the sky, bursting into a brilliant, distracting field of energy.

“Cover it down. Submerge!”

Rocket steers their ship beneath the field, pulling them up in a sharp ascent.

The speakers crackle. “Rocket, hurry!” Quill calls.

Their ship skirts beneath the Dark Aster, cresting with two others alongside the starboard kern—the chosen section of the hull.

“Ready?” Rocket asks.

Loki leans forward. “Heat the material. I’ll strip it.”

The three Ravager ships fire on the spot, bullets ting off the outside of the ship, harmless.

Well, nearly harmless.

Seiðr licks over Loki’s skin. He closes his eyes, focusing on the feel of the hull, locating the stressed point of assault.

Convincing it to warp. Convincing it to collapse. Convincing it to burn away.

“Quill! Yondu! Now!”

Loki opens his eyes. The sky around them buzzes with hostile activity, Ronan’s necrocrafts having joined the fray. There’s a gaping hole in the Dark Aster, large enough for the Milano to squeeze through. The jagged edges of the crater shimmer a faint green.

They dive once more, avoiding attacks by enemy ships.

Loki’s fingers glow. He deflects projectiles, both enemy and friendly fire, into nearby necrocrafts. Rocket shoots down a pair of ships tailing a Ravager.

Gamora’s voice comes over the intercom. “There are too many of them, Rocket! We’ll never make it up there!”

“Shit,” Rocket mutters, dodging debris.

He brings them around. Loki scans the battle for the Milano.

Spiked yellow and green ships—Nova Corps ships—rise into battle, picking off necrocrafts.

“Peter Quill,” An unfamiliar voice travels second-hand over their open channel with the Milano. “This is Denarian Saal of the Nova Corps. For the record, I advised against trusting you here.”

“They got my ‘dick’ message!”

Rocket chuckles. He revs their ship’s engine, flying for a cluster of enemy vessels, shooting them down one by one.

The Nova Corps ships align before the Dark Aster, locking in, a golden energy field growing and netting Ronan’s ship, arresting its downward momentum.

The intact necrocrafts dive for the surface of Xandar.

“They mean to crash into the city,” Loki hisses.

“I know, I know.” Rocket patches into the Ravagers’ channel. “The Nova Corps have this covered. Take out the little ships before they can reach the ground.” They spiral down.

“Fire a volley. Fire a volley now!” Loki demands.

Rocket does.

Loki scatters the bullets with seiðr, necrocrafts bursting, impromptu fireworks.

Rocket flips a switch on the intercom. “Keep Ronan up there, Saal. We’ll take care of the people down here.”

They sweep right, dropping under a bridge, emerging to fire up at incoming necrocrafts. Loki slams the debris of one ship into another, both exploding, fire swirling through the air.

And then he hears it—a synthetic moan.

Loki’s stomach sinks.

The fire burns away. Behind it, swimming on the currents of the wind, they come.

“Leviathans.”

“What?” Rocket follows Loki’s gaze. “What are those?”

Chitauri spill from the two Leviathans, forming a dark cloud—massive, bloodthirsty locusts.

“Listen to me.” Loki turns to Rocket, fingers denting the armrest. “They are a hivemind. The only way to ensure their invasion is stopped is to destroy their command ship.”

“Where’s that?”

“Close, but too far for us to fly there in time.”

Rocket growls. “How are we supposed to get there, then?”

We will not. I shall go alone.”

“How?”

“With the Infinity Stone in my possession. The Space Stone.”

Stunned silence fills the cockpit.

“With it, I can travel great distances—”

“You have another Stone? Why does everyone just carry these frickin’ things around? Did you not see what one did?” Rocket shouts.

Nine Chitauri peel away from the hoard, converging on their vessel.

“Drop! Under that bridge!”

Rocket heeds the command. The shade of the bridge passes over them. Loki focuses on the way the light reflects off their vessel, manipulating it with seiðr, creating the illusion that they have vanished into thin air. It confuses their pursuers.

“Land.”

Rocket brings their ship down, undetected, in an empty part of the city.

“They’re not with Ronan?” Rocket wonders, watching the Chitauri cripple necrocrafts and Ravager ships alike.

Loki’s mind races.

Ronan must have betrayed Thanos. That would explain the minimal forces. Not all the Chitauri were sent to Xandar.

Hala.

“If you reveal that I possess the Space Stone to anyone, I will obliterate you,” Loki threatens, climbing out of the cockpit.

“Anyone ever tell you you’re a dick?” Rocket wonders.

Loki hesitates, one foot in the ship, one on the pavement. He purses his lips. Seiðr shimmers, golden, curved horns appearing, green light chasing over the rest of his helm. Rocket eyes it, perched where Loki sat a moment ago.

“It’s worth more than the Milano,” Loki says. “Do with it what you will.”

Rocket whistles. “Hey, what was it you have that I’m not meant to be telling anyone about again? I forgot.”

Loki grins.

“Good luck,” Rocket says, sealing the cockpit when Loki steps back. The ship ascends to rejoin the battle.

Loki sprints for cover. Somewhere private. He crouches to clear the entrance of a half-collapsed building. No cameras. No people. Just the burning husk of a necrocraft—the one that divebombed the place. The room isn’t large, but the structure is already destroyed. No one will question further damage.

Loki opens his palm.

The Tesseract glows bright with anticipation. Already Loki can feel the immense, omnipresent power of the Space Stone imprisoned within.

It would consume you, Thor scoffs.

He’d spoken of the Aether, but the principle remains the same. To use an object of such power is a gamble, without question, but one that, if successful, will have the most satisfying—nay, thrilling—results. A decisive victory against Thanos. One that not even Thor had accomplished unaided.

Loki channels the Tesseract’s power.

In a single instant, the Space Stone opens, threatening to drag him through thousands of star systems. It’s only due to his command of seiðr that Loki holds himself to a single point in space—to the floor of this room on Xandar.

He searches. The Space Stone resists direction. Resist focus.

Loki bends it to his will.

His skin blisters. Heat and cold wash over him in waves. He can feel his form shifting—the instinct to self-preserve drawing forth his Jötunn form with its unparalleled ability to regulate temperature.

And there, at a midpoint between Xandar and Hala, Loki finds the Chitauri command ship.

And then he steps onto the spacecraft.

Loki returns the Tesseract to a pocket dimension.

He scans the corridor, finding it empty save for semi-organic tubes racing through the body of the ship in various directions. Loki studies them with seiðr, tracing different paths, until he senses a vital neural hub.

It takes time to navigate through the ship. It’s not laid out like any vessel Loki’s ever been on—the Chitauri do not exist in the same conditions other mortals prefer. Finally, he slips through an access port, entering a rotunda snaked with veins and neural pathways, all converging on a heavily armored central core.

Loki studies the web. He picks his way through them, examining each for some flaw to exploit.

“Asgardian.”

Tension races down Loki’s spine. His breath catches. That voice—the same squelching, scraping growl that plagued Loki years ago.

Slowly, Loki turns to face the Other.

“I had hoped to meet you here.” He saunters a few steps toward the creature, false, charming smile spreading. “I never could stand unfinished business.”

The Other’s form flickers. It lunges, reappearing in Loki’s space. Its rancid breath strikes his face. “You have failed him.”

“Well, of course.” He steps aside, the illusion of himself projecting casual indifference at the accusation.

The Other hisses, swiping. It shatters the illusion. The creature tilts its head.

It surges backward. Gram passes harmlessly through open air.

Weaving around the room, Loki scatters multiple images of his visage. It confuses the Other, who dashes back and forth to avoid each phantom blade.

Loki maps the pattern of retreat.

He plants his feet.

The Other darts away from two of Loki’s advancing doubles, impaling itself on Loki’s sword.

Gram slides cleanly through the Other’s back.

Loki intends to slice through the creature’s body.

He cannot.

Gram shines molten golden. Light forks from the weapon.

The Other’s shriek sunders the vine-like tracts crisscrossing the room.

Where Gram remains lodged in the Other’s back, a rift billows outward. Loki stares into it.

Red eyes stare back.

Their effect is paralyzing.

Serrated, black tentacles slither over the edges of the rift. One twines itself up Loki’s arm, stripping armor and flesh and muscle and bone.

Loki cannot move. He cannot scream.

His seiðr flares, racing over the tentacles. They pull back, tracking rivers of blood down Loki’s arm. Tears form in Loki’s eyes. He chokes on an anguished cry.

The red eyes darken. The tentacles tighten their grip.

A voice echoes within Loki’s skull—a language too ancient to comprehend.

And Loki knows to what those red eyes belong. He looks upon a corporeal fragment of an Elder God.

And he knows he will die here.

Then let it consume me, Loki replies.

The shell of the Tesseract fractures under the pressure of Loki’s numbing fingers.

For a moment, the Space Stone hesitates, flickering within its broken prison.

Then space erupts.

Before Loki’s eyes, the rift, the Chitauri ship, the Other’s impaled corpse, collapse piece by piece into folds and ripples of planets and stars and galaxies.

The red eyes of the Elder God burn with fury, reflecting blue light. Its power rushes forward, protective, and Loki can no longer see the eyes through the murky shield.

Loki clutches Gram, watching space lick at the edges of the sword, stealing away tiny, golden slivers.

The hull of the ship is stripped away in a blue flash. Loki’s eyes and tongue and nose boil. The void peers at him, greeting him with familiar black indifference and emptiness. He kicks against the pull of memories—the ringing of Odin’s condemnation—but certain instincts are not so easy to dislodge. He cannot hold at bay the want. The same want that had him screaming his voice raw while trapped on Sanctuary, crying for his big brother to save him.

Thor couldn’t hear him. It became easy to believe their suggestion that Thor didn’t want to hear him.

Anyone ever tell you you’re a dick?

Loki closes his throbbing, tearless eyes.

The sensation of the Space Stone washes over him, drawing his being across multiple galaxies.

Uncertainty. Loki experiences it, though he is not its source.

Then recognition dawns. A recognition tinged with gratitude and kinship.

Loki is shoved hard, a swift blow to the stomach that winds him.

He lands face down in the dirt, Gram cool beneath the palm of one hand. He gasps, watches swaths of dust lift and whip away, sucked into a churning vortex.

Loki blinks.

The world around him is a maelstrom of destructive, gluttonous, violet power.

It’s near impossible to move against the whirlwind. He presses up on one elbow—the other too numb with nerve damage—and cranes his neck towards the source: The Power Stone.

Drax, Rocket, Quill, and Gamora form a line of barely contained energy. Their skin bubbles and sizzles, lines of purple etching over their bodies.

Something clicks.

The Power Stone submits.

Between the forms of his comrades, Loki spots a Kree: Ronan. He gawks at the four in utter disbelief. It mirrors Loki’s own.

“You’re mortal! How?”

“You said it yourself, bitch. We’re the Guardians of the Galaxy.”

With a control Loki cannot comprehend, Quill unleashes the full might of the Power Stone on the Kree. It fuses with his form, gorging itself.

Ronan is torn apart with an immense, heated shockwave. Sparks dance in Loki’s vision.

He hears Gamora grunt, the rush of air as something seals shut, and then nothing.

Everything goes still.

“Well, well, well.” Loki’s eyes shoot to Yondu, sauntering towards the group, staring at Quill. “Quite the light show.” A ring of Ravagers circle, awaiting orders. “Ain’t this sweet.” Guns cock. “But you got some business to attend to before all the nookie-nookie starts.” Out of the corner of his eye, Loki spies Quill slipping the Orb into a back pocket, out of sight.

Loki relaxes, resting his forehead against the settled dirt. He pats Gram, willing the blade to return to storage.

“Peter, you can’t. Peter.”

“You gotta reconsider this, Yondu. I don’t know who you’re selling this to, but the only way the universe can survive is if you give it to the Nova Corps.”

“I may be as pretty as an angel, but I sure as hell ain’t one. Hand it over, son.”

Loki braces himself, shoving up onto his knees, looking towards the others in time to see Quill place a different sphere in Yondu’s palm. Loki struggles, getting his left leg beneath himself.

Yondu laughs. The Ravagers begin to move out.

“Yondu,” Quill says. Yondu turns back to him. “Do not open that Orb. You know that, right? You’ve seen what it does to people.”

Loki manages a tired smirk.

The Ravagers pile onto their ships, flying away.

Loki stands, weak, quivering with fatigue. He limps towards Quill and Gamora.

“But he was about the only family I had,” Quill mutters, glancing up at the Ravager ship.

Gamora places her hands atop Quill’s around the true Orb. “No. He wasn’t.”

Loki stumbles.

Gamora gasps. “Where have you been?” she demands, steadying Loki.

“What the hell happened to your arm?” Quill cries, disgusted. Loki ignores the dull throbbing in his shoulder—the only part of the arm experiencing any sensation—too exhausted to process it.

He wielded an Infinity Stone.

He fought back an Elder God.

“We have to find a doctor,” Gamora says.

“I destroyed the Chitauri he sent,” Loki rasps, nodding towards the nearest corpse.

Gamora’s eyes go wide, noticing the creatures for the first time. “He sent—”

“Ugh! It smells!” Peter interrupts, nose wrinkling, eyes locked on Loki’s mutilated flesh. “Is it infected? Could it be infected already?”

Loki sags against Gamora.

“Just help me move him.”

Quill gingerly wraps an arm around Loki’s waist. Together, the three of them take measured steps, each one accompanied by black spots in Loki’s vision. A few locals flock around them to offer directions.

Loki rolls his neck to speak low in Quill’s ear. “I was wrong,” he admits. “You are not a Midgardian.”

He sinks into unconsciousness.

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

Rocket spots Loki first. “You’re arm no longer look like shredded meat?” He cradles a pot in his paws, Groot’s sprig growing from the packed dirt within. Drax stands beside him, fingers hooked in his belt.

A heaviness settles over Loki’s heart at the sight of the pot, a confirmation of the news Gamora had relayed to him in the medical wing of the Nova Corps building. Groot’s death.

“I have been tended to.” Loki raises his wrapped arm, focusing on enjoying the way the healed joints bend and the tendons pull, not on melancholy. In a few hours the bandages will be pointless.

“Follow me, please. You friends are meeting with Nova Prime Rael,” the Nova Prime’s assistant interjects, prim and proper. She pivots, heading towards the meeting rooms. Rocket, Drax, and Loki follow.

“—could be why you were able to hold the Stone for as long as you did,” Gamora is saying upon their entry. She and Quill gaze towards a projection of Quill’s physical form, certain strands of DNA highlighted. Differing substantially from Midgardian genetic samples Loki’s seen.

The projection deactivates.

“Your friends have arrived.” A well-maintained, official-looking woman steps away from the table, hands clasped, smile wide and welcoming. “On behalf of the Nova Corps, we’d like to express our profound gratitude for your help in saving Xandar. And Hala, of course. Their leadership asked me to convey their… gratitude.” She gestures to an officer standing on the other side of the table. “If you will follow Denarian Dey, he has something to show you.”

“Thank you, Nova Prime,” Quill says.

Dey leads them to another door, Quill on his heels. Loki walks behind Gamora, who falls into step with Drax.

“Your wife and child shall rest well knowing that you have avenged them.”

“Yes,” Drax breaks his silence. “Of course, Ronan was only a puppet. It’s really Thanos I need to kill.”

Gamora falters. Loki winds his unbandaged arm through hers, urging her on.

“He is a fool, but he is not wrong. Leaving the Stone here, we have condemned this planet to future attacks. We have saved no one,” Loki whispers.

“What cheerful thoughts.” Gamora stares down at her feet.

The truth hurts.

“We tried to keep it as close to the original as possible,” Denarian Dey explains. Loki and Gamora emerge into the daylight of Xandar.

Waiting for them, docked near the Nova Corps building, the restored and refurbished Milano hovers. With the very same loathsome color scheme.

“We salvaged as much as we could.”

“Wow. I…” Quill breathes.

Gamora breaks away from Loki, letting her smile chase away his dark warnings.

“Thank you,” Quill continues.

“I have a family. They’re alive because of you.”

Gamora glances at the Nova Corps officer, smile matching how Loki feels: equal parts pleased and haunted.

The Nova Corps might possess the strength to match Thanos, at least without the Infinity Stones, but it would not come without a cost.

“Your criminal records have also been expunged. Except for those outside our jurisdiction.” He meets Loki’s eyes. “I’m saying that mainly for your benefit. We still have no idea who you are.”

Loki smirks.

“However, I have to warn you against breaking any laws in the future.” Quill gives a jerky nod.

“Question. What if I see something that I want to take, and it belongs to someone else?” Rocket postulates.

“You will be arrested.”

“But what if I want it more than the person who has it?”

“It’s still illegal.”

“That doesn’t follow. No, I want it more, sir. Do you understand?”

Loki bites the inside of his cheek, reigning in a mirthful grin.

Gamora chuckles. She pats Rocket on the back, prompting him to follow her.

“What are you laughing at? Why? Can’t I have a discussion with this gentleman?”

“I believe Rocket makes a good deal of sense. If someone does not value their possessions, it would be wasteful to allow them to be squandered.”

Dey frowns at Loki. “I can’t tell if either of you are serious.”

“Almost never,” Loki offers.

Drax steps forward. “What if someone does something irksome and I decide to remove his spine?”

Dey glances between Quill and Loki, searching for some indication how he ought to respond. “That’s… That’s actually murder. It’s one of the worst crimes of all. So… also illegal.”

“What a pity,” Loki bemoans. He presses a palm to Drax’s shoulder blade, steering him towards the Milano, the man still wearing a thoughtful expression.

“They’ll be fine, Dey,” Loki hears Quill promise. “I’m gonna keep an eye on ‘em.”

★♫★♫★♫★♫★♫★

Quill disappears into his bunk when he clambers aboard, leaving Rocket to prep the Milano for takeoff.

“And make a few modifications,” the raccoon says, rewiring the controls.

Music floats into the cockpit, the artists singing of climbing mountains—a metaphor for overcoming insurmountable odds—together. Gamora walks towards the source of the music.

She re-enters the cockpit with Quill minutes later. Quill settles into the pilot’s chair, Rocket sprawling in the copilot’s seat, pot perched between his legs. Loki relaxes into his own plush armchair. The Nova Corps spared no expense, it seems.

Gamora leans against the side of Quill’s seat.

Rocket looks back at Drax and Loki, grinning. Loki returns the expression and Drax nods.

Quill flicks a few dials. The Milano’s engine hums.

“So, what should we do next? Something good? Something bad? A bit of both?”

Gamora glances at everyone on the ship. “We’ll follow your lead, Star-Lord.”

Loki bites his tongue, deciding not to spoil their moment.

Quill drums his fingers against the console, considering, revving the engine.

“Bit of both.”