Today, they fought in a field of thriving grass and a vivid rainbow of flowers. Trees resembling Earth's weeping willows were scattered about, their long branches waving in the wind. Birds flew in the sky, calling to each other.
It was gorgeous. At least, it would've been if half the grass wasn't scorched, that wind wasn't blaster fire and magical kickback, and the birds were chattering instead of shrieking in terror.
"I thought we agreed to keep this place pretty!" Peter shouted. He was on the edge of the fighting, perched atop a boulder, using his Celestial abilities to take out soldiers from afar.
"I am Groot," the tree, now teetering on the verge of adulthood, confirmed indignantly.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Loki shot back, flinging out bursts of magic to blast back his opponents. "Next time, we just won't fight back."
The Guardians, a team of seven ever since the Infinity War, had been hired to chase a small army of invaders off the tribal lands of the planet Yrgow. They were hideous ash grey beings, with a third arm protruding from their chests that made it that much harder to deal a fatal blow. Their rock-hard skin didn't help, either. It wasn't impenetrable, but Gamora and even Drax had abandoned their swords and daggers to fight with blasters. They were effective enough, after a couple blows, and Groot's strategy of punching till they broke was sort of working, too; Rocket was perched on the tree's shoulder, firing at who he missed, and Mantis was guarding their backs.
But it was Loki and Peter that were doing the most damage. When Peter wasn't tearing them apart, he was flinging them at each other. Loki was blasting them apart, stabbing them with magical bolts when they were too close to a Guardian. It was perhaps the hardest the Asgardian prince had fought since Thanos.
"Loki's right!" Gamora chimed in, her tone part amused, mostly exasperated. "You can just regrow all of this."
Peter groaned. "I am half god, not half magical gardener!"
"Still debatable," Loki muttered.
"Shut it, you high and mighty Asgardian!"
Loki smirked, stabbing down into the neck of a soldier trying to punch his stomach. "I am high and mighty, aren't I?"
"Quill is currently higher than you are," Drax said.
"The rock does not count."
A blaster shot suddenly took out an enemy sneaking up on Loki, startling the prince. "Focus, boys," Gamora rebuked, her stare pointed.
"Yes, Gamora," they both mumbled. God and demigod though they may be, the ex-assassin was quite capable of terrifying them both.
Loki returned his full attention to the swathe of grey beings in front of him. Forming a pair of glowing green dagger-like bolts, he began hacking through them. The easiest strategy, he'd found, was to chop off the middle hand and go for the kill while they were flailing in pain, but that was still a difficult task - a blow from their rock-hard skin felt like a blow from, well, a rock. It hurt. And they were skilled fighters who sometimes didn't seem to even register they were suddenly missing an appendage.
Val and Thor would've come in handy...
Well, they're not here, so make do.
It was a thought he'd been having more and more often lately. The Guardians visited Earth a couple times a year, and they called far more frequently, but it didn't change the fact that Loki had chosen to separate from his brother all but immediately after their reunion. He missed him. But he had joined the Guardians, on Peter's request, to prove that he could be good, both to himself and his doubters on Earth. If he had stayed - if he went back - he knew he wouldn't be as free as he was with a group of ex-criminals just like him.
And, if he was being honest with himself, he still didn't know if being amongst those who doubted his loyalties would shove him back to the dark side.
He was still hacking, nearly through to the raccoon, tree, and bug, when he heard Peter warn, "Loki, behind you!"
The prince spun, magical blades ready, only to freeze when he spotted the massive beast behind him. Its fur was matted and greasy, the same dark grey as its allies. It stalked towards him on six legs, its snarl showing off a mouthful of stained, devastatingly sharp teeth. A pair of fangs added to its menace, jutting down several inches below its lips. It had to weigh 500 pounds, at least, and towered over Loki. Aside from that, it looked kind of like a pug.
"Father's beard," Loki rasped. He flung the daggers at it, but the comparatively small weapons hardly scratched the creature. It rumbled deep in its chest, as if mocking the prince's attempt.
Laughter rolled through the remaining enemies. "You cannot defeat the Eviscerator!" they chanted in guttural Allspeak.
In response, Peter scooped up a group of them and tossed them into the creature's side. It just shook them off with an irritated growl. Drax ran at it with a battle cry, firing rapidly at one of its legs, but it just swatted him aside as he neared. He crashed to the ground, unmoving.
"Drax!" Mantis cried.
Loki slowly backed away from it, moving away from his teammates. Thankfully for them, it followed the prince. Squelching down panic, he started using both hands to form a magic sword. "I could use some help here, Star-Lord!"
"Working on it," Peter grunted. Loki didn't dare take his eyes from the beast. He tensed, readying himself to react to whatever Peter threw at it.
It came in the form of a boulder nearly the size of the beast's head, hurtling straight towards its face. The beast stopped, seeing it coming, but too late to dodge. The boulder smacked into its head and it yelped, stumbling. Knowing this was as dazed as it would get, Loki charged forward, plunging the sword deep into its chest. It yelped once more, shuddering.
Then it started to collapse.
Loki scrambled to run, but he knew it was pointless. If a fang didn't impale him, the beast's weight would crush him. He couldn't get out of the way fast enough.
Except, apparently he could.
Just as the beast came crashing down, something slammed into him from behind. He was sent sprawling, whacking into a tree a few yards away but otherwise fine. He lay there for a moment, gasping for air.
Loki bolted upright, ignoring his ribs' protests. The enemies were fleeing, terrified by the death of their beast. Rocket was running to Drax, who was beginning to stir. Gamora, who had shouted, was sprinting towards the beast, Groot and Mantis on her tail. But it wasn't the beast they were running towards - it was the man half-crushed beneath its head. Using the tree for support, Loki hauled himself to his feet and moved to join them, helping Groot and Mantis shove the beast's head aside so Gamora could pull Peter free.
They moved quickly not out of fear for his life, but care for his wounds. Peter's Celestial powers came with immortality – this wouldn't be fatal. He had survived stab wounds, gunshots, flames, space, and massive falls in the last few years. So this wouldn't kill him literally, but the bones that must be broken must have been killing him figuratively, and the faster he was safe, the faster he could heal.
The married couple collapsed not far away, and the trio dropped the head. Loki shook drool off his hand, nose wrinkled in disgust. Groot headed off to help Rocket and Drax, while Mantis and Loki moved to Peter and Gamora.
His legs were so badly contorted, nausea hit even Loki at the sight of them. The left side of his chest and ribcage was caved in, that same arm severely dislocated at both shoulder and elbow. Loki didn't even want to look at that hand's fingers. His head and right arm seemed to have escaped significant damage. Gamora was kneeling beside him, guiding his right hand to a gaping hole in his right side, holding it out so Peter could heal the bleeding wound.
"S-something's wrong," Peter stammered, his eyes wide, breathing rapid and shallow. His white magic was flickering instead of glowing steadily.
"You can do this," Gamora urged. Mantis crouched by Peter's head, preparing to soothe his pain so he could focus. Loki stood beside her, bracing her against his leg, knowing the pain touching him would cause her. But this time was different.
Mantis shrieked in agony the very moment she touched him. Tears fell from her eyes. Jagged black lines formed, starting at her fingertips and spreading up her arms to her face. She was shaking, her mouth still wide but no sound coming out. Loki jerked her away from Peter and she went limp, gasping desperately. Dropping into a crouch of his own, fear for his friend beginning to pump his heart faster, Loki ran a diagnostic hand over Peter, green light swirling beneath it.
His magic touched the bloody wound. Agony ripped through Loki, burning and icy at the same time. The same black lines now fading from Mantis spread over him. He didn't know if he was screaming or not. His vision, too, was going black, but not the unconscious kind – everything, from the green grass to the blue sky to Peter's maroon coat, was just turning black.
It was Mantis's turn to yank him away. Weakened, they collapsed onto the grass, panting and staring at each other. Their gazes asked what their voices could not: What the hell was that?
"Mantis?" Drax exclaimed worriedly, hobbling across the field towards her. He carefully helped her sit up, glancing from her to Loki to their fallen leader. "What is wrong?"
Mantis shook her head. "I have never felt pain like that."
"L-loki," Peter rasped. "This isn't- I can't- I need-"
Loki pushed himself upright, leaning over Peter. His magic was still sputtering, but most of his wounds seemed to be healing: his legs and arm were straightening, his torso rounding out. But the hole in his side wasn't. In fact, it was turning black. Gamora looked up at Loki, obviously trying to look strong for Peter, but in her eyes was desperate terror.
Shaking off his lingering pain, Loki pushed Peter's coat aside and placed his hands on either side of the wound. Closing his eyes, Loki summoned every scrap of magic he possessed, and aimed it at the ever-blackening wound.
Loki's magic ricocheted off something like a wall, flooding the rest of Peter's body. His other injuries healed in a flash, but the wound remained untouched. Gritting his teeth, Loki pushed harder, straining to break through the barrier. He shoved with all of his might, blacking out the rest of the world to focus on this one task. Outside of Thor and Val, Peter was his first true friend in a long time, and Loki would not lose him-
Suddenly, he was being pushed away. His connection to Peter snapped, abruptly dropping Loki back into his own body. He fell into Groot's arms, too exhausted to hold himself up.
Gamora's hand was held out - she had pushed him. As Loki met her gaze, he saw her mask breaking, both of them realizing at the same time what she had just done.
"Did it-" she started, her voice breaking. Pausing to take a breath, she tried, "Can you-" But her voice failed, because she knew what Loki would say.
"It's too strong," Loki admitted in a faint whisper, guilt washing over him.
Peter picked that moment to laugh, the noise strained and half-groan. "Look at that. The immortal, dying before anyone else."
"No!" Gamora protested, reaching up to cup Peter's face. "No, you're going to be fine-"
"Gammy," Peter whispered, squeezing her hand as he let his magic fade away. "It's ok."
Peter cupped the back of her head, guiding her down to him. Their lips met tenderly, and Loki and the others looked away. He cast a little spell, keeping their final words to each other private. He did the same for the others - crying Mantis, huddled in Drax's arms; Drax himself, squeezing Peter's shoulder for strength; trembling Groot; and Rocket, trying and miserably failing at keeping up his usual shell. Then a finger tapped his knee, and Peter's next words made Loki forget all about his magic.
"You're the best friend a guy could ever have," Peter said, voice raspy and agonized but truly sincere. "We had a great run, even if we had a rough start. I wouldn't trade these last few years for anything."
"You're my best friend, too," Loki told him quietly. And then, because guilt was eating him alive, he blurted, "I'm sorry, I wasn't good enough-"
"Hey! No," Peter stated. "This was my choice, and mine alone. Even if I knew it would kill me, I would've done it. You're worth dying for."
"No, I'm not," Loki murmured despondently. "All I do is-"
"Your best," Peter cut him off. "All you do is your best, and that's all anyone can do. Do you slip up occasionally? Yes. We all do, but that just means we're people. You're a good man, Loki, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise - you included."
Loki tried to smile, to say he believed his friend, but the words wouldn't come. And then Peter was coughing, choking, black lines edging over his face. He clutched Gamora in a death grip, and Loki and Mantis pressed their hands against him again, doing everything they could to ease his pain. Drax, Groot, and Rocket just looked on helplessly.
"I love you," Peter choked out, looking at Gamora. Then he swept his gaze around. "I love all of you."
His eyes landed on Loki.
And then he was gone.
Star-Lord, the immortal, their Peter Quill, was... dead.