At the end of Realm of Kings, Richard Rider and Peter Quill risked everything to trap Thanos in another reality, one where nothing ever dies. They failed. Thanos and Quill have returned, but what about Richard Rider?
Hanging on the answer to this question are Rich's brother Robbie and the other Nova Corps recruits whose Nova force was taken in preparation for the final conflict, as well as old allies Darkhawk and Namorita, one of whom may be on the verge of a drastic physical and mental transformation. All of them are still out there somewhere in space.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, the recently re-formed New Warriors seem drawn to the stars. Water Snake has been charged by Atlantis to bring home Namorita, who has been thought dead ever since the tragedy that destroyed the team at Stamford, but cannot find her anywhere on Earth. Original Warriors Justice and Speedball are eager to help her in her quest for their teammate. And Sam Alexander, the new Nova, knows that his father is somewhere in the far reaches of space on a ship that is running out of fuel.
But the future is unravelling. In a last-ditch effort to prevent the collapse of all reality, the original Guardians of the Galaxy are trying desperately to find a way back in time; however, the hazards of their own fragmenting timeline have separated them. One of them has already arrived, but cannot remember what brought him to the past.
Love isn't something you find. Love is something that finds you.
Knowhere, on the Rip
Two and a Half Years Ago
The bulkhead scraped her knuckles when she hit it. It was satisfying. Her fingers left their impressions behind in the metal, obviously a better grade than anything they had on Earth.
The big guy in blue and white took her gently by the shoulders. "Nita."
Namorita sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. She had to restrain herself from turning and punching him. Of course the stubborn idiot had gone and gotten himself killed: he hadn't let anyone come along to talk sense into him. Rich's sacrifice had been a noble one; entire galaxies would sing of it for countless ages to come.
There would come a time when that thought would solace her, when she could take pride in his victory and the warrior he had grown to be. Grown without her; Namorita had only just begun to know him again. And now she was without him.
Namorita was at home in the water and on the land. But this airless void was Rich's home, not hers; and she was very alone here.
"Come spar with me."
For a moment, the words didn't even make sense.
"After a loss, it always helps to have something to fight. At least, that's how it is with me," he continued.
One corner of Namorita's mouth twitched feebly, although there was no humour in it. "You may come to regret that."
Namorita assessed him frankly. This Major Victory was a big guy. He had reach on her; but hunky as he was, the weight advantage wasn't so far on his side as he might think. Not that that was the kind of thing Namorita went around advertising.
She wasn't entirely human, after all. Atlanteans were built stronger, tougher, denser. A lot of surface-dwellers saw five and a half feet of leggy blonde in a bikini and assumed they knew what they were getting. They always looked so surprised when she turned them into fish food.
Having seen some of what Major Victory could do, Namorita didn't take it easy on him. He met her savagery smoothly, but she could sense anger rising to the surface. His was a controlled rage, harnessed but not tamed.
They pounded on each other until the shaking in their limbs owed more to fatigue than emotion. It was her strength against his finesse. She overextended and he got her pinned in a lock. Even though he was twice her size, Namorita could have broken it, along with a couple bones, maybe. Suddenly, though, it was enough.
She tapped out and Major Victory let her up at once, courteously extending his hand. Namorita eyed it with hostility, then took it in the spirit of comradeship in which it had been offered.
The salle and its attached armoury opened into some kind of living space. On one side there was something that might have been a kitchen, and then some furniture, and then an archway into another room where Namorita saw glimpses of stuff that looked like what Reed Richards probably wished his computers looked like. A series of closed doors probably led to personal quarters.
No one else was there except for the Guardians' telepathic dog, who was curled up in a sad-looking ball on a couch. He met her eyes, as sleepless as they both were.
Namorita wondered what time it was. Wait, what was she thinking? This was outer space, the farthest out you could get. Time was arbitrary. There wasn't even a star to orbit, just the, what? the dying glow of reality? No wonder all these cosmic geeks got so weird.
Major Victory handed her a glass of what turned out to be water, and Namorita thought she would have to find a pool somewhere soon. Her stomach was achingly empty, a demand she had been able to ignore up to now. She lived still and must attend to the routines of living.
She didn't cry, though. Tears were meaningless to an Atlantean. She had been born in salt water.
The dog lifted his brows, following them with his liquid eyes. Namorita sat down beside him and drained the glass.
"Refill?" the Major asked.
"Thanks. I get dehydrated out in the air," Namorita told him, idly scratching the dog's ears. "You said your name is Vance, right, big guy?"
"Yes; Vance Astro of the Guardians of the Galaxy," he said over his shoulder.
Namorita's hand stilled. "Wait, Astro? You mean Astrovik?"
"Well, it was before I changed it," the Major said, sounding surprised.
"Super Tights, you creep! Why didn't you tell me it was you? I should have recognised that costume."
She is beink another person from your future? the dog's voice sounded in Namorita's head.
"No...from my past," Major Victory said in a curious tone of voice. "I was originally born on the twentieth century Earth. There is another Vance Astrovik living there now. Nita, the boy you know must be the Vance of your timeline, the one I changed to prevent him from ever becoming me," the Major explained.
Namorita raised her eyebrows, accepting the glass back. "No wonder the poor boy's so screwed up."
"We're going to be late for dinner," Vance said.
"Ask me if I care," came the reply from the other room.
Vance sighed. They had been trying to get together with Kaine's friends in Houston for weeks, but coordinating the schedules of a doctor, a police officer, and three superheroes was about as difficult as you'd expect.
Well, Vance said 'they'. He straightened his cuffs and checked his watch again. "Kaine?"
"One more word and I'm going to remove your spleen," his boyfriend threatened. "I don't know where the spleen is, exactly, or what one looks like, so I'll probably have to search for a while before I find it."
"Have I mentioned your attitude lately?" Vance asked. "Because it could stand some improvement."
Kaine stomped out into the main room of his two-room apartment and glared at him. "Bite me."
Vance bussed his cheek. "Later. Do you have everything?"
"Is this what people mean when they talk about having a Jewish mother?" Kaine asked, reaching for the door.
"Don't tempt me."
At least Kaine was dressed for dinner. Usually, he slouched around in jeans and henleys when he was out of costume, not that Vance was complaining. He did have something else in his closet, evidently, because he'd come out wearing grey slacks and a western-yoke button-down in a wholly unexpected lavender. Vance was wearing deep red and dark brown in case he spilled something on himself.
"I don't know what you're worried about anyway," Kaine was saying as Vance followed him down the stairs, absolutely not ogling his broad shoulders. Or his ass. "You face down super-villains all the time; it's just dinner."
"I'm not worried. It's only good manners to be on time. Besides," Vance added a little inconsistently, "I have a better track-record with super-villains."
That wasn't really the whole truth. The truth was that Lieutenant Layton had had ample time to look Vance up by now. Any friends of Kaine's had to be reasonably broad-minded, so he wasn't (too) nervous about facing open hostility. It was the subtler reactions that were harder to predict. What with one thing and another, any discussion of his past was almost bound to land the conversation on what was still very chancy ground with a lot of America.
Vance let Kaine drive, which at least meant he was too distracted to worry about anything except dying in traffic. On the other hand, they arrived on time.
In fact, Lieutenant Layton and his husband walked into the restaurant right behind them with Aracely in tow, or vice-versa. Dr Meland was a worn man with sloping shoulders and a kind face leant character by an aquiline nose. He walked with a cane and had the drawn, pale look of someone recovering from a serious illness. The taller Layton hovered solicitously next to him only to be shooed away with affectionate exasperation. Meland's pale green eyes lit with a keen interest when they landed on Vance.
Vance braced himself and mustered a smile despite his nerves. The other thing about having lived so much of his life in the public eye, the part most people never considered, was that you were never sure how much of what was out there a given person might be aware of. Were Layton and his husband looking at Kaine's boyfriend or someone else? Justice the Avenger? Vance Astrovik, patricide?
Aracely broke the tension by running up to Kaine and throwing her arms around him. The haunted expression he'd had while looking at Meland melted into one of resignation.
"Nice dress," he said gruffly.
"Thanks!" Aracely twirled, the hem of her brightly-patterned dress flaring out. Then, a little to Vance's surprise, she hugged him too. "This is Vance! He's very nervous. Kaine wants you to give him a hard time because he thinks it's funny."
Vance gave Kaine a dry look over her head, to which he replied with an unapologetic shrug. A smile curved his lips, unwilled.
Meland and Layton watched this exchange with unabashed amusement. Layton cleared his throat and reached across to shake Vance's hand. "Good to see you again. This is my husband, Donald Meland."
"Nice to meet you." Vance did his best to wipe the goofy look off his face as he shook hands.
"Don't worry, we're not interested in scaring you off," Meland said with a sly twinkle in his eye.
"Let's sit down." Aracely bounced up to the hostess. "I want to eat before the hawk comes."
No one batted an eyelash. Obviously, these people knew Aracely, too.
Aracely was, if possible, more of an enigma than Kaine. Vance knew some things about Kaine's past, at least, although mostly not from Kaine. He was a clone of Spider-Man, former super-villain and assassin. He'd spent time in some kind of institution, but Vance didn't know if it had been voluntary. He knew Kaine was haunted by his past, that he was angry, that he he was trying so hard it hurt to watch.
Aracely... From what Vance gathered, she had grown up in Mexico. She was an empath and a telepath with few memories of her life before Kaine stumbled into her, somehow, here in Houston. She didn't remember her exact age or going to school, but she didn't have an accent, either. Vance had amassed a college course's worth of material on Aztec mythology in hopes of deciphering her visions.
None of this seemed to worry her much. Her disposition ran a short range from serene to sunny. None of them knew how powerful she was.
The hostess led them through the restaurant and out to a narrow, walled-in patio where a fountain burbled soothingly. They were seated at a wrought-iron table surrounded by shadowy greenery that worked with the low, warm lighting to create a sense of privacy.
Everybody else ordered water, too, except for Aracely who had a coke, which made Vance feel less awkward. It wasn't so much that his father had been a drunk as that even now that he was confident in his ability to control his powers, the idea of impairing himself still didn't really appeal to him.
Aracely opened her menu. "Oooh! Cheesecake!"
"Dinner first," they all chorused.
Aracely gave vent to a heavy sigh. Meland tried to disguise a snicker in a cough.
"So, Vance, how did you persuade Kaine to join this team of yours?" he asked.
Here goes. "Well, it wasn't so much me as some goons who kidnapped a bunch of us. At first I thought he might have been a little angry with them for interrupting his vacation; but now I realise he just enjoys a good fight." Vance smiled benignly at Kaine's sour look. Payback. "He picks some good ones."
"So have you," said Layton.
Vance kept his face neutral. He had made his peace with his decisions, and for the most part he felt he'd made the right ones. He was done backing down to humour other people's sensibilities, but he really, really didn't want tonight to be about that.
"Hah. Kaine doesn't like talking about that kind of thing either. I can see why he wanted to get out of New York, though," Layton said.
Vance got it. "Oh, you want to know if we're going to be sticking around. Well, the plan is to go where we're needed. Our base is pretty mobile right now."
"Uh, yes." Layton cleared his throat. "My superiors did request that I mention the mountain."
"Technically, boats can go right through it, and it's not affecting the currents. But we'll be careful to keep it away from the main shipping lanes. Or I suppose we could park it out off Galveston, but that's still a long way for Aracely to fly."
"She can fly?" asked Meland.
"I'm getting really good! And I can read minds and make people afraid."
"Well, we knew that," Layton said.
Aracely stuck her tongue out just in time for their waiter to appear. She smiled winsomely up at him and started speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. Kaine opened his mouth once, then closed it. A minute later, the waiter collected their menus and ducked back inside.
"Uh, what just happened?" Vance asked.
"Don't worry, I ordered what you want," Aracely assured him brightly. "Wally, I cannot believe you actually like the grasshoppers."
Vance placed a mental check in the 'needs more work' category. She slumped a little.
"We'll get there," he promised.
"You seem so normal," said Meland later, after their food had come. Vance had to admit, Aracely had done a good job ordering.
"Um," Vance said.
"What he means is, Kaine is obviously a hot mess."
"Hey!" Kaine protested.
"It is true," Aracely said.
"You want to deny it?" Layton challenged. "Vance, you've been in the middle of a lot of this crazy superhero stuff, pretty publicly. How do you handle it?"
"It's not easy; I've had a lot of help," Vance told him honestly. Then he grinned. "I try to keep things in perspective. My original career path would have stranded me in suspended animation for a thousand years. At least I can take my costume off."
"I'd help you. Maybe not if you were a thousand years old, though." Kaine leered at him.
"I'm serious. You know that scene from Indiana Jones, when the guy shrivels up and blows away in a cloud of dust?"
Kaine stared at him blankly.
Meland serenely kept eating. "We're still working on their cultural education."
Their waiter swung back around to check on them. "Is one of you a Mister Astrovik?" he asked, refreshing their water.
"That's me," Vance said, coming alert.
"Do you know a man named Chris Powell? He's out front, asking for you. He said he was a friend of yours, but if he's not we can—"
Darkhawk? What's he doing here? Vance stood up.
"It's okay, he is. Thanks. Excuse me, everybody; I'd better go see what's up."
Kaine's eyes were questioning; Vance gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze in passing. They all watched him go, the knowledge written on plainly on their faces: super-trouble. Just once, Vance would like to get through a date without someone trying to blow something up.
The guy scuffing his heels on the floor in front of the hostess station was thankfully not in costume. Medium height, young, with a half-familiar set to his shoulders. He looked up when Vance got close. His expression was tired but relieved, not panicked and fearful.
They clasped hands and clapped each other on the shoulder in greeting. Chris looked around.
"Let's take this outside."
Vance nodded and they went. He had never really known Chris all that well. Darkhawk had only ever been an intermittent member of the team, and they hadn't crossed paths much in the years since. He knew Chris manifested the armour using a crystal and that it gave him some offensive darkforce capabilities, as well as protection and flight.
Once they were out on the sidewalk, Chris' smile faded quickly, leaving his face the drained grey of exhaustion. "Hey, sorry to pull you out, but you weren't answering your phone."
"Not to be rude, but—how did you know that I was here?" Vance asked. He watched the street, watched the air, ready to pull up a shield at the first sign of attack.
"When I found out you guys had put the New Warriors back together, I knew you'd want to help. I've been looking for you all day; my claw drone finally tracked you down here. Sorry if it's a bad time; I didn't want to risk losing you again."
"What's wrong? Is it an emergency?" Vance asked.
"It's Nova," Chris said, and for a moment Vance actually thought he was talking about Sam. "I think I know how to find Richard Rider."
There wasn't a roar or a blinding flare of light. The calculations were complex, but they were so precise that the wasted energy was barely sufficient to give off a dim glow. It took all his concentration to hold them in his mind, shaping the power in the way they required and not letting it go roaring out of control.
There was no rest, no movement; he lay prone, but any input from his neglected body had been shut out long ago so he could give himself over entirely to the task.
Another fluctuation hit. The glow dimmed, approaching the unrelieved blackness of perfect economy as the calculations adjusted themselves, demanding perfect concentration from him in order to compensate. Unmarked, his body's respirations grew shallow instead of laboured, conserving even that little energy.
Every erg counted. The energy construct—there was no margin built in. Even now it was starting to degrade. Further instability in the power source could send the calculations into a furious cascade of too-rapid adjustments in an attempt to maintain full function with insufficient power, outracing his reaction time by so much that he started losing his grip on the whole thing and it all began slipping out of control in a searing fire of feedback.
A surge of terror flooded his mind at the memory. He could even hear the distant sounds of people shouting in alarm. The panic made it harder to concentrate, but the adrenaline surge that followed gave him an edge in fighting it back. Right now he could keep up, he could. Right now was all there was. Just do what they tell you. Just keep it going.
He could feel the fluctuation passing. The anxious voices were receding, once more leaving nothing to disturb his concentration. There was no room for relief as the construct stabilised. It would have been a lie anyway.