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The End of Infinity

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Earth-200004: October 2017

 

Vormir was cold, and Peter tried his best to hate it.

He certainly didn’t like it; he couldn’t, not when his spider-sense crawled further up his throat with every click closer the ship grew to touching down on Vormir’s surface. But as he carefully eased himself off the Benatar’s gangplank and into the uniform ombre of light that seemed to come from no sun at all, wonder joined his unease. He recognized this feeling, this lightness. The curiosity of a new place and the awe of a new planet. 

Peter might be able to sense the danger screaming at him from every angle, but he was still a human boy. And he still loved the novelty of space travel.

Their arrival through the atmosphere had been smooth, and the entire ship had released a held breath when the Benatar touched down. Quill steered the ship on the outskirts of Thanos’s radar field as best he could. They could easily avoid the fleet; in space, the Benatar could move in three dimensions. But like Gamora had promised, every one of them had known— on a level deeper than instinct—where they needed to go. And it wasn’t to the unguarded side of Vormir. 

It was impossible to reach the planet’s surface without ducking through the range of the fleet. Each of them had clustered tight, strung taunt with apprehension as they waited to be spotted and blown to bits. Quill’s hands had sweated on the controls. Tony grabbed Stephen’s elbow seemingly casually, but Peter had seen the tremble in his fingers as both engineer and sorcerer kept their eyes fixed on the cloaking code that they prayed would do its work. Peter’s jaw still ached from how tight he’d been clenching his teeth. 

And they’d made it. Hours felt like days, but the Benatar had crept through the hacked ranks of Thanos’s fleet and disappeared beneath the cloud cover of Vormir, and no one noticed. 

Gamora was the first one off the ship, Peter at her heels. He stopped up short when his feet splashed into something liquid. It was cold, but not frigid, and it reflected the orange and pink light as easily as a mirror. Peter saw his own wide eyes facing him. 

“Wow,” Peter said. He lifted his feet, sending a ripple through the small pool. Now that he looked, he could differentiate the scattered areas of dark water from the equally dark earth of the planet. A bog, maybe. A swamp of ebony and spirit. 

“It is a beautiful place,” Gamora said, but there was only darkness behind her words. 

Peter pressed on through the liquid, his pants wicking up water to soak his knees. He climbed onto the far bank. When he pressed a hand against the earth to stabilize himself, his skin came away streaked with fine black sand. 

He turned in place. In every direction barring the north, the planet was flat with an unbroken horizon. The blue and grey clouds, sculpted like artwork, seemed to glow from within. They obscured the sky and gathered in clumps along the landscape. But Peter couldn’t look at them for long—he had no interested in those directions. 

This planet had no interested in those directions. It watched Peter through a thousand black-liquid eyes, and Peter watched back, and knew where they needed to go.

To the north, where the reflected light from Thanos’s ships pierced through the cloud cover, Peter saw mountains. Great spines of rock, reflected upside down in the water. Their peaks and valleys almost matched the whorls of the clouds. Both glowed the same shades of violet and silver, but the orange shine that sharpened the angles of the mountains was absent from the rest of the landscape. 

“That way,” Peter said, though it didn’t mean anything. The rest of them would know just as well. 

Peter looked over his shoulder. The others had gathered at the base of the gangplank now, taking stock of Vormir just as Peter had. Fenrir lapped curiously at one of the pools before snarling and retreating to wind around Stephen’s ankles. Quill reached out to take Gamora’s hand. 

“Nice place,” Valkyrie said flippantly. “Great color scheme; reminds me of Svartalfheim.”

“Gesundheit,” Tony said with a raised eyebrow. 

“It’s where the Dark Elves were from,” Thor explained distractedly. His hand was tight on the handle of Stormbreaker, his fingernails scraping over the patterns of ice Loki had forged into it. He waded through the water to join Peter. 

Peter listened to the others out of one ear, kneeling and carefully sifting his fingers through the fine sand beneath him. It was almost like ash. It spilled off his palms as if it was liquid itself, leaving streaks behind that scintillated between black, purple, and orange. Something in the back of his mind, still raw from the Aether, recoiled from it. 

Reaching up to Thor to help pull himself back to his feet, Peter brushed his other hand off on his shirtfront. His fingers brushed Stormbreaker. The uru glowed beneath his touch. He had enough control not to start instantly melting through it, but it still surprised him enough to jump back.

“Sorry,” Peter said, retracting his arm. 

Thor smiled at him. “No harm done.”

Presently, the others joined them outside the shadow of the spaceship. Both Lokis took up ranks looking toward the mountains. They looked identical, down to the grain on their clothing, and their squinted eyes as they calculated the faraway fleet of battleships could’ve been mistaken for a reflection. 

“Everybody thank Stephen’s future self,” Tony said with a grunt as he hauled himself out of the water. “Because we’d all definitely have been blown to bits if we didn’t know Thanos was here.”

“Everybody thank me,” Rocket huffed. “I’m the one who actually got us here.”

“Let’s just agree to call it a group effort and move on to the part where we continue to not die, yeah?” Bruce said, his hands raised and steady. The calm he always wore across his form stood out all the more here, when even Carol seemed off-balance by the atmosphere of the planet around them. 

“So, we’re here,” Steve said. “What’s next? Everybody got their communicators set up?”

“Yes. And next is us,” said one of the Lokis. “You need to know what’s waiting for you, and you need an appropriate team to draw its attention while you seek the Stone.”

Peter’s chest crawled. “Are we sure about that?” he managed. “We saw the ships, we know the answer is ‘more than we can handle’. Is sending you guys off alone worth it?” 

“Relax,” said Loki. “They’ll never know we were there.”

The other version kept his gaze focused on the mountains. “Not all of Thanos’s forces are on the planet’s surface or in its atmosphere,” he said. “Myself and I will discover just how many need to be drawn away from wherever the Stone is hidden. Once the diversion begins, Thanos will reinforce his forces in the fight, but he is not an idiot.”

“He’ll retreat to protect the Stone, too,” Tony finished. “So we need to make this quick.”

Peter licked his lips and nodded. Steve, his new shield strapped tight to his back, glanced at Natasha. The assassin looked distracted. Preoccupied. It was unheard of for her, and it made Peter even more nervous. 

The two Lokis settled back onto their heels, and the air around them rippled with magic. Before they could change their shape, however, Stephen stepped sharply forward. “Wait.” 

Loki’s eyes, bright with power, faded. He glared and lowered his fingers. “What?” one of them demanded. 

“The Stones,” Stephen said. He jerked his chin over his shoulder to the still-purring Benatar. “We can’t leave them on the ship, undefended like that.”

“Taking them with us isn’t exactly the best idea either,” Rocket said, “but it’s better than just leaving them ripe for the picking.”

“Especially because the ship’s going to be Thanos’s target as soon as he realizes we’re here,” Tony sighed. He stepped back toward the ship, running a hand through his damp hair. Peter could see his necklace lying in the crease of his jacket. It had gained a fourth bead, a star of aluminum that made Peter smile. 

“Enough of this spywork shit,” Tony continued. “Just let me shoot something and get done with it.”

That made Natasha chuckle, and Peter let his own smile bloom across his face. “Getting stir-crazy in that ship, are you?” Natasha teased. 

“Hey, I haven’t gotten to shoot anything since Knowhere. You guys had all the fun on Asgard.”

“‘Fun’,” scoffed one of the Lokis.

“We all almost died.” Bruce raised his hand. 

“Occupational hazard,” Tony said blithely. “Now come on, we’ve got Stones to divvy up. How are we doing this?” 

“I say we just offload them on Carol,” Valkyrie suggested. “There’s three that aren’t yet claimed, right?”

“And the Time Gem,” Peter agreed. “Ms. Danvers?”

Carol flexed her wrists, a flash of light under her fingernails. “I’ll take Mind,” she said. “But I don’t think we should have more than one Stone with any given person.” 

“So Stephen’s out,” Tony said cheerfully. 

Stephen looked away, and one of the Lokis spoke up before Peter could squint at him. “We have the Space Stone,” he said. 

“Which one?” Tony asked. When the Lokis just looked at him, he rolled his eyes. “Fine, whatever, keep your secrets. Suppose it’ll be plenty confusing for Thanos too.”

Peter found himself speaking up. “I’ll take one,” he said.

The group turned to him. Peter consciously kept himself from wringing his hands and raised his chin. “I’m as good a choice as any. And I know how to control one if worst comes to worst. Just not—I’ll carry any of them but Reality.”

It didn’t require explanation. Tony looked unhappy, but he didn't hesitate to nod and Peter felt a burst of warmth at his trust. The discussion spiraled onward. Bruce offered to carry Reality, but Steve volunteered instead on the logic that they’d need the Hulk distracting Thanos’s forces, and it was likely he’d get up close and personal with the titan himself. Steve admitted that was a likely outcome for all of them. But Peter and the rest agreed that any small shift in probability was reason enough.

So Peter found himself streaked in black sand on the surface of Vormir, clutching the orb of the Power Stone in his hands. The voices of his companions washed through his ears. Peter ignored them, trailing his fingers over the metal around the Stone. 

It was still cracked and battered from their first encounter with it. The tiny seams where the orb sealed itself shut were blackened with rusty blood, and Peter rubbed at it with the pad of his thumb. He wondered if it was Tony’s or Kaizar’s. It felt like so long ago.

Carefully, Peter tucked the orb into his sleeve. Vormir was windy, and though his suit was built against weather conditions, he still found himself more comfortable with his jacket. Plus, it gave him a place to stash world-destroying relics without looking like he’d started growing a fifth limb. 

“Are we all ready, then?” Tony said finally, securing the Time Gem under his collar. His beads clinked against his arc reactor, and he steadied them with deft fingers. Theoretically, Thanos wouldn’t have any knowledge of the Gem. It would have little value to him anyway as a Stone from another universe.

“Better be,” Loki grumbled. “I thought we were trying to be quick about this?”

“Yes, yes.” Valkyrie waved a hand at him. “The patience has ended.”

Peter mumbled “what patience?” under his breath. Only the slight uptick of Stephen’s lips showed that anyone had heard.

Tony clapped his hands. There was nanotech crawling up from the crook of his elbows, and he pointed a finger at Loki. 

“Go do some spying, then,” he announced. 

The Vormir waters rippled, and both Lokis grinned.


Loki hadn’t taken a Chitarui shape in a long time. 

He wasn’t sure if he ever had, truly, but it wasn’t much of a challenge. These creatures had fought him, had fought for him, had captured and chained him. He’d hunted them with Thor when they were barely adults, still under Heimdall’s watchful gaze. Loki scoffed at the implication he couldn’t pick up their shapes from that much observance. 

Not to say he enjoyed this form, of course. In fact, he found it downright detestable. 

“How do they stand all this metal?” Loki hissed at his younger self. “I feel like my joints are rubbing up against it every time I try and move.” 

“It’s decidedly uncomfortable,” Odinson agreed.

“Warrior races could at least have some slight awareness that they are ugly as sin.” Loki flexed his tri-fingered hands and would’ve wrinkled his nose if he was physically capable of doing so. 

“Don’t be racist,” said Valkyrie in his not-exactly ear. Loki growled. 

“Allow me the luxury of complaining about the creatures that have tried on multiple occasions to kill me, yes?”

At least the spread of the Chitauri’s feet gave both Lokis an easy grip on the sands of Vormir. They made good time toward the mountains. The others followed, far behind and cautious to avoid growing close enough for even Loki and his younger self to spot them. Loki could see movement around the planes of the landscape, now, and it made the spines on his newly taken form bristle. He had to consciously smooth them down. 

The closer the two Lokis grew to the army, the clearer the sky became. Loki glimpsed metal in the sky, the shadow of the spaceships lurking just out of atmosphere. Vormir was a miniscule planet, but it would still take at least fifteen minutes for those ships to land. Good. 

He nodded to his younger self, and they stopped just outside sight range to silence their communicators. The danger of human voices being heard was too high to risk keeping in contact with the others. But Loki doubted it would be an issue. If he did happen to get into trouble, one wouldn’t need a communicator to tell. 

Now isolated, Loki and Odinson bounded over the ridge at the base of the mountains. Their claws dug deep into blackened sand. Their skin, grey-green and inlay with metallic modifications like all Chitauri, was slick with moisture from the pools of water that scattered the planet. The earth fell away beneath them, like a canyon carved by movement, like a crater of some enormous creature’s footprint. 

And it was all Loki could do not to freeze. 

A breath left his chest—maybe in relief, maybe in anticipation. Before him, there were soldiers. They lurked in shadows and over valleys, buzzed beneath circling spaceships and fought over the summits of small hills, and there were no more than a few hundred of them. Only a single triangular drop-ship stood open on the surface of the planet. Its Outrider contents spilled across the ground in growling masses of broken hive-minds. 

Loki assumed these had been left here to patrol the space. The rest of the army—Outriders and Chitauri and Thanos himself—would still be safe in orbit. 

Why waste the resources to land, after all, when your enemy wasn’t expecting you? If Thanos detected the Benatar upon arrival, he would have plenty of time to deploy the rest of his force to the surface of the planet.

Maybe Loki really should have thanked Stephen’s future self when he had the chance. 

Odinson hissed softly beside Loki. “That’s less than I was anticipating,” he said. “How long will it take for the other battalions to reach us once they’re alerted? Ten minutes? Fifteen?”

“Ten, to be safe,” Loki hummed. As one, they crept over the ridge on all fours, prowling toward the camp at its base. 

The growls of Outriders and the faraway hum of deafening spaceship engines sounded wrong in the silence of Vormir. Like an intrusion. When the Benatar had landed, even the wind had seemed silent to Loki—as if the entire planet had no need for breath, no need for heartbeats. Loki felt like a parasite on its surface. 

Perhaps it was this, this sense of broken purity, that drew scorn up Loki’s throat. Thanos had defiled this planet. He’d polluted its atmosphere and left mortal creatures to mark its surface for weeks, ringing ugly sound into a silent realm. As if ignorant of its natural state. As if entitled to the very universe.

Loki wanted to watch the life leave his eyes. 

His claws clenched in the soft earth as he and Odinson waited for a convenient opening in the bustle of the small camp. The cold was creeping through his thick Chitauri skin. Loki didn’t mind it.

“Are you still going through with it?” Odinson asked, suddenly, his voice low. 

Loki glanced over at him through compound eyes. He knew what his younger self spoke of. “I told Stephen I would help him. I won’t go back on that promise, not here. And neither will you.”

“We could,” Odinson said. “We could still tell the others—warn them.”  

Loki shifted, the guilt he’d tried to suppress churning like acid in his stomach. He wanted that. Wanted that more than he should admit, but he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he’d made this oath to Stephen and his hidden and blackened loss they can tolerate for a reason. 

“What harm is there?” Loki said as flippantly as he could. “If Stephen is wrong, no one will ever know. And if he is right… well, then however the damage, we will have saved the universe with this secret. It’s better to take this risk than none at all.” 

And yet, whispered a voice in his head that sounded like Peter. And yet, hadn’t they already learned this lesson? Hadn’t they already fallen apart in this way? 

‘We think what matters is each other’s safety, each other’s lives, at any cost. At the cost of our own,’ Peter had told Loki in the Asgard infirmary. Tears in his eyes, fists clenched tight, Peter had shouted the words with all the desperation of a boy who knew the world couldn’t listen. Who knew this was the way things were. 

‘We’re all wrong.’

But they’d won that day on Asgard. Maybe they’d win this time, too.

Loki and Odinson fell silent. They didn’t move, not even to blink, until a set of squabbling Outriders stepped close. Both Lokis slid into their ranks, spines clattering. The Outriders hissed at the two. Hissing back, Loki flexed his spines—he was the higher-ranking race, the stronger one, and these creatures would sense it. 

The Outriders flinched away. Their blind faces twitched. Whatever they’d sensed, they didn’t seem surprised, and Loki and Odinson merged with their patrol pattern. The two Outriders would serve as a fine shield should things go wrong. 

 In and out, Loki and Odinson slipped. They wove like spiders through the patterns of footprints. Ever careful to match the flow of the Outrider packs, they kept themselves low to the ground as they counted and calculated and appraised. Anything that resembled a threat. Anything that they thought could be useful. Anything at all. Loki refused to be responsible for the failure of this mission.

They were finally retreating, having counted a rough hour since they’d silenced their communicators, when it happened. 

Loki scanned the open base of the drop ship one final time. He was only half looking. So when he saw, picking a humanoid from the haze of monsters, it struck a sharp inhale from his lungs. He lost the rhythm of his steps, stopping in plain sight without thinking. 

Odinson snarled, grabbing Loki’s collar like an Outrider taking advantage of a moment of weakness. He hauled Loki sideways. Loki struggled with no intention whatsoever to escape, allowing Odinson to obscure his momentary lapse. 

Odinson hissed near-directly into Loki’s ear. “What the hell was that?” 

They tumbled over the nearest ridge, obscured and unnoticed. Loki smacked his younger self away and rubbed his compound arm across the carapace on the back of his neck, wincing when his claws came away streaked with blue-blood.

“You should thank me for saving your ass,” Odinson growled. “What in Odin’s name could make me freeze?” 

“He’s supposed to be dead,” Loki said slowly. Then he dug his claws into the ground, furious. “Shit.”

“Who?”

Loki looked across the curve of Vormir, back to where they’d left their companions, their Stones. His magic curled tight and protective around himself. His younger self shifted in his Chitauri skin, sensing it. Slited eyes flickered nervously.

“We need to get to the others. Now,” Loki said, already clambering toward the edge of the valley. Odinson bounded to catch up with him. They kicked black sand in their wake, obscuring their scents. 

“Loki, wait.” His younger self was on his heels as Loki retraced their steps toward the meeting point with ease. “What are you doing? Who did you see?” 

Loki’s lips lifted from his fangs in a snarl. “Ebony Maw.”