When they come for him, as he knows they inevitably must, Thanos does not fight.
His life’s work is done. He has scattered the Infinity Stones to the far reaches of the cosmos once more. Even if they search for lifetimes, they’ll find no way to undo what he has wrought. He is able to look on them now with a calm pity: Stark’s tears, Nebula’s bitterness, even the Asgardian who came so close to ruining everything, his raw grief now transmuted into something implacable and cold.
There is only peace ahead of him now. As the axe swings home, he closes his eyes and thinks, I’m coming, little one.
He does not know how much time passes before he opens them again, only that he awakes to a sick feeling of disorientation, as though he has taken a sharp left turn, and not to the rosy light he expects. This place is twilit and colourless and cold. If he were breathing, it would mist white in the air before his face; but he is not breathing, and when he looks down all the colour has leached from his flesh, leaving it the colour of a dead fish.
To each side of him, bare slate cliffs rise to the pale sky. Ahead stretches a bare rocky path that winds like a maze.
He realises he is being left to find his own way. To earn his reward, just as he did in life.
Well, he can deal with that.
He walks. It’s impossible to tell for how long, time seeming to stretch and snap back on itself in unexpected ways. It makes a kind of sense. Why should the long slow time of eternity feel anything like that of a mortal life?
The thought is a comfort. Eternity. That is what he has, now. What they will have, once he finds her again.
He becomes aware of—something. A shadow, following him, barely visible against the dark grey of the cliffside. He stops, waits.
The shadow fades, dissolves into dust and is borne away on the wind. And when he turns, the figure is right in front of him, features resolved into something familiar and unexpected.
“Now,” Thanos wonders aloud, “why would they send you to greet me?” It is not a surprise, exactly, that he should be greeted by one of his dead—but why this one? It was no more personal a death than any of the others, and certainly more deserving than some.
The Asgardian Prince smiles at him, opaque. He is as colourless as everything else in this place, a study in ash grey and inky black. “And who do you suppose they are?”
In honesty, Thanos has given it little thought. His concern was always with the material universe. The dead, he assumed, would have their peace; and that was good enough. He shrugs, finding himself out of patience with the conversation, and shoulders past the obstruction.
But when he rounds the next corner, Loki is standing ahead of him once more, that unreadable smirk still on his face. He cocks his head, birdlike. “Tell me, who was it that delivered the killing blow? Was it my brother?” At Thanos’ silence, his smirk becomes a grin. “It was, wasn’t it? Oh, I’ll have to find a way to thank him for this gift.”
At that, Thanos stops and looks at him dead-on. Now that he does so, there’s something not quite right about the Asgardian’s figure. The black of the cloak that swirls about him is too black, more a substance than a colour. There are things in it. And the outline of him is… uncertain, somehow, as though he might warp and change into something else in the space of a blink.
“What gift?” Thanos asks him. “You failed to stop me. Your brother failed to stop me. And if this is the afterlife, you’re trapped here just as I am.”
Loki lifts an eyebrow. “You still aren’t getting it, are you? This is an afterlife, yes, though it was… in disrepair, shall we say, when I arrived. The Goddess of Death being out of commission will do that, apparently.” He waves a hand—and suddenly they are in a place that Thanos understands to be the centre of the maze. Loki is high above him, seated atop a throne of black stone, a crown of ice shards upon his head—and then he is on the ground again, standing close enough that the cold comes off him in waves. “Luckily,” he goes on, “she had a brother. And bringing about Ragnarok is, it seems, an excellent qualification for the job.”
Quite unexpectedly, for the first time in many years, it occurs to Thanos to be afraid.
This is not the defiant-but-terrified being whose life he snuffed out with one hand. This is something else, alien and deadly.
Or is it? What were those last words? He heard so many in those few days he barely kept track, but they come back to him now. You will never be a god.
“The thing is,” Loki goes on, “you hear so many stories here. I wonder which I should show you first? The woman from your so-called daughter’s planet, who died from starvation outside the walled city the rich built to protect themselves if you ever came back? The Midgardian farmer whose crops rotted in the field with no-one to harvest them until he blew his brains out in an outhouse?”
“Show me her,” Thanos hears himself say, for that is a pain that can only ever be mixed with relief. “I promised—”
The Asgardian—no; the god—laughs, a cold, silvery sound, and a shard of memory, adamantine and not his own, pierces some soft part of Thanos’ mind. The bridge of the ship he blew to smithereens; two words that vow a lifetime; a lingering hug. “And I promised my brother I would stand at his side even unto the gates of Valhalla, but you rather put a damper on that.”
The God of Death circles like a shark. Darkness roils all around him, a quiet storm.
“You thought yourself merciful,” Loki tells him. “I have no such illusions. You’ll never see her again; I can promise you that.” He taps a finger against his lower lip, thoughtful. “You know, I seem to remember you promising to teach me a thing or two about pain, once upon a time. Of course—” His smile is bright as a blade. “—you probably imagined our positions being rather different, but still. I think it’s time we begin the lesson, don’t you?”
The darkness surges up to swallow Thanos whole.
It is not empty.