Loki woke with a gasp.
It was a strange sensation, gasping with no air; his body could survive for days, perhaps even weeks, without oxygen, but he found its absence unpleasant nevertheless.
His surroundings were dark. What was left of the once massive ship—a hunk of metal maybe five meters in length—was open to the stars. Flames had long been smothered by the airless void, but the occasional spark of damaged equipment exposed a strange, misshapen shape beside him. As his eyes began to adjust, Loki realized it was a corpse.
A pair of fingers snapped in front of his face. In the vacuum it made no sound, but the movement attracted his focus anyway.
“Hey,” said a voice. “You up, sweetie?”
The voice was loud, though that should have been impossible. It had to be telepathic—but where was the sender?
Something shifted beside the jagged ruin that had once been a wall. Although it was obscured in shadow, there was something intimately familiar about the silhouette.
“C’mon, Loki. Speak to me. Or, ah, think to me, as it were.”
Loki tried to push himself to a sitting position, but found his clothes and—judging by the pain that flared across the surface of his back—some of his skin, had fused to the floor in the explosion. He jerked forward forcefully, ignoring the pain; without artificial gravity, the motion sent him floating away from the cold metal floor.
The figure—a man?—took his hand. Despite temperatures nearing absolute zero, Loki found the touch warm and dry. “Welcome back to the world of the living.”
A control panel short-circuited, illuminating the man’s face with a fleeting burst of blue. It was a face Loki would have recognized anywhere.
“Grandmaster,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
Using the man’s arm as an anchor, Loki pulled himself back to the platform; when his feet touched down he called upon his magic to hold him there.
“I thought it was obvious,” said the Grandmaster. “I’m saving your life. Or giving it back to you, rather. You were DOA.”
“Dead on arrival. Well, on my arrival, not yours.” He gave Loki’s hand a squeeze. “Forgive the colloquialism. I’ve, ah, been on Earth too long.”
“You were on Earth?” Loki’s free hand jumped to his own throat, remembering the iron grip with terrible clarity. “I was dead?”
“Neck broken, from the look of it. Don’t worry, you’re fine now.” He saw the Grandmaster smile in the dim light. “Wish I could say the same of my departed brother.”
“You have a brother?” Loki said. Then, remembering his own: “Where’s Thor?”
“Oh! You mean that devious Lord of Thunder. Don’t know. Don’t care. But I’ll, ah, answer all your questions if you come along with me.” He gestured to his left. “My ship’s there.”
With some effort, Loki spotted the vessel; it was a thin black ellipse, barely visible against a blanket of stars. “Where are we going?”
“Oh, right.” The Grandmaster released Loki’s hand, clapping his own together. “I forgot to tell you what we’re doing. Well, you see, half the universe got killed by—”
“Thanos? He succeeded?” Loki said sharply. “How long have I been dead?”
“Please, ah, hold your questions till the end of the presentation.” The Grandmaster rocked back on his heels. “In fact, why don’t you sit down.”
Loki obliged with some reluctance.
“Now, as I was saying.” The Grandmaster sat across from him, using the armoured chest of the corpse as a chair. “Thanos killed half the universe. Now, that would really be none of my business except for, ah, except for one thing. My dearest brother, the Collector, was among that half.”
Loki opened his mouth to ask a question (instinctively—his vocal chords were still quite useless) but the Grandmaster pressed on.
“Now, I bet you’re wondering why I didn’t just revive him, like I revived you. Well, I tried! Didn’t work. Because he’s not dead, exactly. It’s like he never existed at all. So, I said to myself, Grandmaster, you’re gonna have to kill this Thanos character and undo this whole mess.”
“So you need my help.”
“Your help?” The Grandmaster laughed. “That’s, that’s adorable, that’s—Loki, you never fail to make me smile. I’ve missed you. I really have.”
Loki furrowed his brow. “If you don’t need my help then why are you here?”
“Can’t I visit an old flame when the mood strikes? A quest like this needs good company. Besides, ah…” The Grandmaster reached out, tucking a stray lock of hair behind Loki’s ear. “Earth girls aren’t as easy as they say. Earth boys, neither! I tried this, this Tinder thing and it didn’t go well at all.”
There was silence for a beat.
“Let me get this straight,” Loki began. “You came all the way from Earth and raised me from the dead—not because you want me to help you kill Thanos, but because you couldn’t find anyone else to fuck along the way?”
“Not just along the way. On the way back, too.”
Loki felt for his daggers and was disappointed to find them missing.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding! Well, not about doing you on the way back. I was planning on that. But I had plenty of, ah, options at my disposal. It’s just. Well.” The Grandmaster’s hand slid to Loki’s jaw. “You’re my favorite. Even though you did aid and abet that Lord of Thunder—which I’m still mad about, by the way—I want you back.”
Loki’s cold fingers found the warm palm on his cheek. “Fine,” he said, pushing the hand away. “But I’m not bedding you until Thanos is dead. I want to watch the life drain from that murderous bastard’s eyes.”
“All the more reason for me to get this over with quickly.” The Grandmaster rose to his feet. “Now let’s get you inside, sweetie. You’re freezing.”
“Wait.” Loki stood to face him. “One more condition.”
“I might not be able to help you find Thanos, but there’s a dead man in this debris who can. I want you to revive him.”
“Done.” The Grandmaster held out his hand. “Now come on.”
Loki took it without further protestations.
The ship was larger than The Commodore, though its appearance was otherwise similar to the leisure vessel. Fluorescents lined the high ceiling, illuminating a white interior with meandering accents of blue. Loki blinked into the harsh light.
“Welcome aboard The Intrepid,” said the Grandmaster. “We’ve got food and wine aplenty, so help yourself. Sleeping quarters are tight, and they’ll be even tighter once we pick up your friend. Some of us are gonna have to share, if you, ah, catch my drift.”
Loki pointedly ignored the innuendo. Surveying the ship, he noticed a stranger at the helm; the man’s armour looked familiar (he would later recall it belonged to Topaz), but the button-up shirt beneath it was foreign.
“Who’s he?” said Loki.
“Oh, he’s Darryl.”
The man gave him a cursory wave. “I’m Darryl.”
Loki glanced between the Grandmaster and the man at the helm, but neither chose to elaborate. “Okay... Darryl. Assuming you know how to work the sensors on this vessel, I need you to find a man. Dark skin. Black hair. Hole in the chest where a spear pierced his heart.”
The man seemed to fumble with the controls.
“So,” the Grandmaster began. “When you said you weren’t going to ‘bed’ me before I kill Thanos, did that mean no, ah…” He made a crude gesture with his hand and mouth.
“Yes,” Loki said tersely. “There will be none of that, either.”
The Grandmaster frowned but did not press the subject.
It took nearly three hours to locate Heimdall in the wreckage. Loki suspected this was due in part to the incompetence of the Grandmaster’s Migardian servant, but being unfamiliar with the technology himself he could not be certain.
Corpses kept well in the cold, airless graveyard; though covered in burns, the body was in otherwise fair condition. Loki crouched next to the man he had known since childhood, studying the gaping wound in his chest.
“You can really raise the dead?” he said softly.
The Grandmaster joined him at Heimdall’s side. “I revived you, didn’t I?”
“That’s different. I don’t recall being dead. For all I know I was only unconscious when you found me.”
“It hurts to hear you doubt me, Loki.” The Grandmaster’s tone was playful. “Scooch over and I’ll, ah, show you how it’s done.”
Loki shifted to allow him access to the body.
There was no shimmer of green light beneath the Grandmaster’s hand, as with his own magic. There was no sound, either, except the low whistle of air passing through Heimdall’s nostrils. One moment the man was dead and the next he was alive. Simple as that.
He might be powerful enough to kill Thanos after all, Loki thought to himself. I can hardly believe it, but he really might.
“Alright, Hideball.” The Grandmaster snapped his fingers above the man’s face. “Rise and shine!”
Golden eyes opened. Loki saw a flicker of recognition as they met his own; then the gatekeeper’s gaze shifted to the Grandmaster.
“En Dwi Gast,” Heimdall rasped. “Never thought I would be glad to see you up close.”
The Grandmaster’s smile faltered. “Do I, ah—do I know you?”
“No.” Heimdall pushed himself to a sitting position. “But I’ve seen you.”
“Seeing is what he does,” Loki explained. “Speaking of, can you see Thor?”
For a long moment, Heimdall said nothing. Loki began to worry that the man had lost his sight—or worse, that what he’d seen was too terrible to share—when he spoke again.
“He’s alive.” Heimdall’s voice was strained. “He’s in terrible pain.”
“Oh, stupendous!” the Grandmaster exclaimed. “Then I can kill him myself. But aren’t we getting a wee bit sidetracked?”
“If anyone is killing my brother, I am,” Loki quipped. “But the Grandmaster’s right. Thanos is our priority. Heimdall?”
There was another long pause.
“I see him,” the gatekeeper said at last. “I can guide you to him.”
“Great! Then let’s get going, gang.” The Grandmaster started toward the helm as Loki helped Heimdall to his feet. A woman’s desiccated corpse drifted into the viewport; Darryl watched it float listlessly by, chin on hand.
Heimdall looked to the Midgardian and then to Loki, his expression puzzled. Loki shrugged.
“This is Darryl,” said the Grandmaster.
“I’m Darryl,” said Darryl.
Heimdall gave the man a curt nod.
A few hours later, Loki lay listening to the quiet hum of the warp drive. The Grandmaster hadn’t been lying about the sleeping situation; the only beds were narrow bunks stacked so closely together that it was impossible to sit up straight in either. The Intrepid was a warship, armed to the teeth, but lacking in base comforts.
With Heimdall at his back, Loki had little room to move. Darryl’s snores coupled with the unpleasant prospect of facing Thanos again had him counting his own breaths in lieu of sleep.
The bunk above him creaked with movement.
“Hey,” the Grandmaster whispered. “You awake?”
Loki shut his eyes and feigned sleep.
“Hey. Hey, Loki. Wake up, Loki. Loki. ”
“What?” he hissed, eyes flashing open.
“I’ve been thinking.” The Grandmaster’s head popped over the edge of the bunk. “After I kill Thanos and collect my brother—ha, collect. Because he’s the Collector, right? That’s his—”
“I get it.”
“Anyway, you should come back with me. Before this whole adventure started, I was making good progress toward becoming the, ah, ruler of Earth.”
“I tried ruling Earth once,” Loki said. “I don’t particularly care to try again.”
“Well, you wouldn’t be ruling this time, sweetie. Leave that to me. But if you don’t like Earth we could go somewhere else. Anywhere, really. Just you and me.”
A particularly loud snore cut through the little room.
“And Darryl,” the Grandmaster added.
Loki pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ll think about it.”
Loki had counted nearly fifty breaths when the man spoke again.
“Now, I know you said no oral, but how about—”
“I am not touching your cock in any shape, form, or fashion, nor am I permitting you to touch mine, until you throw the severed head of that purple monstrosity at my feet.”
The Grandmaster huffed. “Fine. Darryl’s a better cuddler than you, anyway.”
There was another bout of creaking as the man shifted above, but soon the only sound was the omnipresent rumble of Darryl’s snore.
The fate of the universe rests in the hands of a lunatic. If he fails, well… Loki stared sightlessly at the underside of the bunk. I’ve already died once. What’s one more time?
Tony Stark had braced himself for the worst when he emerged, limping and defeated, from Thanos’s shuttle.
He’d spotted Pepper first—her face nearly as gray as her blazer, but alive. Next there’d been Steve Rogers; they hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in two years, but the man seemed to have aged a decade. The dark undereye circles and overgrown beard gave Cap the look of a vagrant beggar. Tony was sure he hadn’t looked much better.
Then there’d been Bruce. Thor. Natasha. Not a happy reunion by any stretch of the imagination, but he’d been glad to see them all, even Steve. He’d started to believe he could hold himself together when his gaze fell on May Parker.
She’d been looking at the shuttle’s open hatch with something like hope. Her face had fallen a little when Nebula and Rocket stepped out together, but it hadn’t crumpled until she watched Tony rub his jaw with one hand, unable to meet her eyes.
He wished she’d slapped him. Yelled at him. Something. But she’d just looked at him, brows knitted together, shoulders shaking with the force of her sobs, and that was the worst of all.
The kid would’ve been dust in the wind even if he’d stayed home. Tony knew that, had reminded himself of it a thousand times on the way back to Earth, but the thought gave him no comfort. He’d denied a woman her nephew’s last moments, and for what? They’d lost.
He’d wept then, too. In retrospect, it seemed self-indulgent; he wished he’d just swallowed the lump in his throat and told May how sorry he was. For all that he’d lost, he still had Pepper. Peter Parker had been May’s world.
Tony shook his head, tracing the faceplate of his newly repaired suit with his thumb. Now wasn’t the time to wallow in his own regrets. Now was time to retrieve the gauntlet, reverse the slaughter, and kill Thanos.
Save the universe or die trying. Tony set his helmet aside with a mirthless smile. You know, typical hero stuff.
Despite the optimism of their newest recruit, he felt the latter outcome was more probable. Sure, Carol was a force to be reckoned with, but Thanos had tossed an entire moon at him like it was a baseball. Whatever the talents of “Captain Marvel,” taking him down wasn’t going to be easy.
The low buzz of his phone against glass broke his reverie. He plucked it off the coffee table and sank back into the couch. Pepper was calling.
“Tony, thank God. Where are you?”
He could just make out her question over the cacophony in the background, but there was something in her tone which made him sit up straight. “The old Avengers Tower. Are you okay? Where are you?”
“I’m fine. At headquarters, with Bruce and Natasha. Are you watching the news?”
“No.” With the death toll climbing every day and the Avengers shouldering more than their fair share of blame, he’d been avoiding news entirely. “Should I be?”
“Yes. It’s good. Too good, Tony, I—” Her voice faltered. “I almost can’t believe it.”
“Friday?” He called to the empty room.
“On it, sir,” the AI replied.
The television came to life. He read the headline. Then he read it again. Then he read it a third time, for good measure.
“Tony, are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.” He rose to his feet, heart pounding in his ears. “Friday, change the channel.”
“To what, sir?”
A colorful cartoon filled the screen. Across the bottom, a red banner titled “Breaking News” bore a headline with the same message as the first.
“Change it again,” he said.
He approached the television; it showed a pride of lions on patrol, oblivious to the red stripe underscoring the savannah, still proclaiming its impossible news:
S.H.I.E.L.D. BAFFLED: THANOS’ VICTIMS RETURN, ALIVE AND WELL
“It’s on every channel,” Pepper said.
“How?” he rasped, reaching up to touch the screen. “We didn’t even do anything.”
“Maybe Thanos had a change of heart.”
He snorted. “Not likely.”
“Got a better theory?”
Tony’s gaze slipped to the glass wall of the penthouse, where Midtown sprawled in all its splendor—the Chrysler building rising in the foreground; the East river, a black shape beneath the overcast sky, cleaving Manhattan from Brooklyn; a white ferry crossing the river obliquely, its path skewed south by the current. Did the streets seem busier than usual? Were the sidewalks more crowded? Perhaps. It was hard to believe the population had been restored, harder still to believe it had ever been halved.
“Tony? You there?”
“Yeah. I’m here.” He made a dismissive gesture at the television and Friday silently switched it off. “As for better theories, I’ve got two. Theory one: I just woke up from a hell of a nightmare.”
Now it was Pepper’s turn to snort. “And theory two?”
Tony watched the ferry dock on the far shore. A break in the clouds above it exposed a patch of perfect blue. “Divine intervention.”
Hundreds of lightyears away, on a planet called New Titan, two figures writhed in a field of wheat. The field had been razed flat—partly by the sleek black ship perched on its northeast corner, partly by violent means. Viewed from above, an irregularly shaped violet gash marred the otherwise golden clearing. The wound was clearly a recent one, as the crushed stalks were still dripping with violaceous ichor.
Loki and the Grandmaster lay at the center of this stain, half-undressed bodies streaked with gore, kissing with unbridled vigor. A few paces away, the form of the erstwhile Great Titan slumped in its battered armour.
The head, cleanly divorced from the body, was nowhere in sight.
“That was—” Loki gasped between kisses, “—the most sensual display of magical prowess—I have ever had the pleasure to witness.”
“And you were worried I would fail,” the Grandmaster purred, slipping a hand beneath Loki’s leather waistband. “Weren’t you, you silly little slut?”
“Never again,” Loki moaned, hips bucking obscenely into the touch. “Never again, Grandmaster.”
“Good, good.” He withdrew his hand, licking the fingers with relish. “So are you, ah, coming to Earth with me, sweetie?”
“Earth. Helheim. Anywhere.” Loki hooked one leg around the Grandmaster’s waist, pressing himself into the hardness there. “Just one condition.”
“I want you inside me in the next minute.”
The Grandmaster gave a low chuckle. “Why don’t you, ah, vanish these pesky clothes and I’ll—”
“Please,” a shrill voice cut in, “do not do that.” Darryl was standing beside the Intrepid , shifting beneath the weight of Topaz’s armour. “You know, we’ve been here the whole—oh, God.” He turned around sharply, his face a deep shade of crimson. Heimdall stood at the mouth of the ship, inspecting the sky in a desultory fashion.
“They’re naked,” Darryl informed him.
“I know,” Heimdall replied. “Better come back to the ship. They’re going to be a while.”
“Is it safe here? Shouldn’t we get back to Earth?”
“Thanos is dead. The danger has passed.” The gatekeeper considered the pair in the field, his expression faintly troubled. “For now.”
“Oh. Alright then.”
Loki let out a particularly vociferous moan, the force of which sent Darryl scurrying up the boarding ramp.
“Can’t you make them stop?”
Heimdall shook his head. “En Dwi Gast is an immensely powerful being. You’d do well not to involve yourself with him.”
“Little late for that.” He collapsed into his usual seat at the helm. “We’re flatmates, you know.”
Another cry came from outside; Loki was chanting “harder” in a way that made Darryl want to melt into the console.
“Can we at least close the hatch?” he pleaded.
Heimdall’s mouth twitched. It was the closest Darryl had seen him to a smile.
“Yes,” he said. “We can do that.”