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(Don't) Fear the Reaper

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The first time Thanos meets Death, he’s terrified.

Reclining on the shores of a mud-thick river, the young Titan sucks on a button, chewing at the lip of hard plastic, and dreams of bread, of fruits falling plentiful from the cornucopia, and of yellow stalks heavy with fat kernels of wheat. His muscles are withered stick-thin and pulled across a too-broad frame. His younger brother, Eros, sits beside him, digging trenches in the wet earth with quick repetitious passes of restless feet.

Thanos tongues the button to one side. “If you have the energy to twitch, you have the energy to check the fishing nets,” he reprimands him.

Eros pauses, looking sheepish. “Sorry,” he replies, lifting himself up to his feet and shaking out his stiffened joints in a stretch. Even with Thanos sitting, Eros stands level to his brother’s forehead. The difference is to be expected. Born during the first Great Famine as an unplanned spare, the boy had grown to be runty and pale, a stark contrast to Thanos’s intimidating bulk.

“Go on, then,” Thanos orders, waving in the direction of the buoy that had floated down and halfway across the stream, the line pulled taut by the swift currents. It had rained that morning, causing the river to swell.

Eros worries his bottom lip with his teeth. “It’s a bit fast, don’t you think?”

His brother’s response is unnecessarily harsh. “If you don’t go, we don’t eat.”

Thanos means not only today but also in general. It had been Eros’s birth that had violated the famine-era one-child law and subjected their entire family unit to reduced rations as punishment. His existence is unnecessary, selfish, with a direct negative effect on Titan’s burgeoning environmental crisis.

The state – and to a certain extent, his own brother – never let the boy forget it.

Eros ducks his head in shame. “Alright,” he says, as he removes his shirt and outer pants to carefully fold and place them on an elevated boulder to warm in the sun. He will be glad for his foresight when he emerges wet and shivering later.

Thanos clicks the button between his teeth.

As a child, Thanos had been different, special, advanced. He had grown quickly, demonstrating formidable strength and advanced intelligence in his youthful endeavors. He often tussled with his father and frequently won, much to the older man’s ceaseless pride. He had also developed an unusual aptitude for hunting, taking down a pachioraptor at an age where most children were still learning to set snares for smaller prey. Surpassing even his physical strength was his cleverness occasionally bordering on a sort of mean-spirited cruelty.

Kronan may never regain sight in his left eye, his mother had told him.

I see, Thanos had replied, his tone carefully even.

She had frowned at the pun, but continued, It appears that the visor he had stolen from Eros was laced with a metal highly reactive to water, and when he jumped into Brower’s Lake, it exploded. She had watched him after, gauging his reaction to the subtle accusation.

Thanos waited a beat, then: Is it Eros’s visor now? Last week, he had claimed ownership over the bronzed wristguards that bore a striking resemblance to the ones Eros had ‘lost’ the day he came home with all those bruises. His mother had taken a deep steadying breath at that, while he persisted, If Kronan hadn’t been both a thief and a liar, then he would still have use of both his eyes.

She had looked at him, hurt and concerned and more than a little unnerved. If you keep this up, you are going to kill someone some day.

Thanos no longer dabbles in explosive eyewear, but he is still his brother’s (reluctant) keeper. Presently, he watches his charge dip a toe in the water upstream from the buoy, hissing at the cold and looking over his shoulder to meet his glare. Don’t you dare complain, it manages to convey. So, the boy stomps forward resolutely, splashing in the shallows before diving into deeper waters.

In contrast to his elder brother, Eros had been a disappointment – feeble, useless, but determined to make up for his shortcomings and prove his worth. He often failed, losing to Thanos in nearly all contests of skill, save one.

You’ve found your calling, Thanos had told him months earlier, flopping onto the opposite shore minutes after his brother. It appears your diminutive stature and lack of muscle mass gives you the advantage in a limited set of circumstances.

Eros had smiled then, happy to have finally bested his brother.

That success had bred expectation and responsibility.

He starts out well enough, his lithe body flashing pale as it breaks through the brown currents in rhythmic strokes. Thanos watches the distance between the boy and the buoy shrink than stall. His body vertical, Eros swims against the water rushing over him.

He’s dawdling again, Thanos thinks. Typical.

He’s about to call out to his brother to stop screwing around when the boy’s head disappears entirely beneath the surface, the white ghost of his body pinned in place but pulled in the direction of the current.

Panic blooms fast and breathless in Thanos’s chest. He spits out the button and rushes forward, splashing into the river and clumsily fighting through the swift rapids to reach his submerged brother. The stream is stronger, faster than anticipated, and his own body is too dense to float effectively as he expends much of his energy just treading water.

Thanos has many gifts, but he has never been a strong swimmer.

The water overwhelming and suffocating him is murky dark brown, but when he opens his eyes, he thinks he sees blue several shades darker than the sky and centered in that unexpected hue, fuzzy from water and terror, two burning red eyes.

It is the face of Death.

Thanos feels the taut fishing line pass by one arm, bowling him over, but he reaches out to grab it with the other hand, grasping it tight then pulling himself above the surface where he gasps large mouthfuls of air. He swivels his head around, chasing his hallucination, chasing Death, but finds nothing but his brother’s body several yards away, his foot tangled in an old discarded net, anchoring him down as the river flows over his limp form.

 


 

In the aftermath of Eros’s fatal drowning, their home is quiet, and his parents grieve in their own way, emotionally detaching from Thanos and from each other. His mother in particular proves inconsolable, sewing then destroying her youngest child’s funerary garbs before remaking them yet again.

It has been three days, and though there is more food available with one less mouth to feed, she snaps at Thanos when he reaches for his brother’s portion. Thanos misses his brother, but that is no reason for good food to go to waste. He wisely chooses not to say as much to his stricken mother.

 Instead, she confronts him about the circumstances of Eros’s death on the fourth day.

“My son, tell me: did you…?” She can’t even finish, not wanting to give voice to the unfathomable.

Had he? The current had been swift, his brother small, and their need great.

You are going to kill someone some day.

“No, of course not, Mother,” he replies.

Thanos is uncertain whether it’s the truth, and by the look on his mother’s face, so is she.

 


 

Thanos is training, beating his fists rhythmically against opponents made of compacted straw, and the sky is darkening, bleeding inky black towards the horizon. Soon, it will be night, but still he pays the late hour no mind. Thanos doesn’t spend much time at home these days. His mother cries; his father drinks; and both activities leave little time for their surviving son.

So Thanos does what he always does in such situations: He adapts. He rationalizes and contextualizes the instigating event, doling out responsibility to other relevant parties in order to shore up his own emotional stability against the waves of guilt that ebb and flow over his psyche.

If the state hadn’t instituted draconian family planning laws, then Eros and he wouldn’t have been at the river.

If his parents hadn’t violated those laws, then the state wouldn’t have reduced their rations.

If Eros hadn’t been so weak, if he had never been born at all…

He remembers the dark mop of hair plastered to the boy’s forehead, his face slack and unnaturally pallid and water spilling out of his nose and mouth in rivulets. It had been the same color, though sparser and wispy-thin, when he had been handed to a seated Thanos – gentle, gentle, be sure to support his neck – the day Eros was born.

No.

…If only prior generations hadn’t depleted Titan of its resources, the state wouldn’t have seen the need to establish such regulations.

Ergo, it wasn’t anyone’s fault necessarily, he reasons, least of all his own. There are just too many people, and soon their planet will buckle under the weight of their collective need to the suffering of everyone. It’s an inevitable trajectory given the constraints of their environment, one that threatens to make mourners of them all.

He remembers holding Eros back then, wary of his delicacy and too nervous to so much as rock him.

Gentle. Gentle.

He had also helped his father carry the casket, carry his brother to his final resting place, Eros’s weight heavier across Thanos’s shoulders than he had ever been in life, full to bursting with grief and unfulfilled potential.

Be sure to support…

It’s more than he can stand.

 


 

The second time Thanos meets Death, he’s intrigued.

Thanos has always been a leader. Authoritative and strong in an uncertain world, it’s only natural that others gravitate towards him. He amasses quite a following before long, building his own family of enforcers. And that’s what he calls them: A family.

It’s the only one he has left.

His father is gone, and his mother might as well be, with how little time they spend in each other’s presence. He still visits her home – he no longer thinks of his childhood home as his own – and makes sure she stays fed and wants for nothing, except a little company. She doesn’t seem to want him to stick around anyway, and he never presses the issue. It’s okay; it’s not like he’s lonely either. He has a new family, and they love fear respect him as their head.

And if Thanos has to bust a few heads to make a point, then that’s just the price of good leadership. He takes no pleasure in the act, but no one respects a man afraid to get his own hands dirty.

“I'm sorry!” The traitor exclaims through broken teeth, his tone breaking with a stuttered sob. He certainly looks sorry, his eyes puffed closed and blood running from his nose and mouth and dripping down his chin.

Thanos grabs the front of his shirt, lifting him up to his feet to bring him in close. His knuckles smear purple onto the brown cotton. There's a moment of silence before: “I believe you.”

His subordinate relaxes incrementally, the tension released from his shoulders in relieved sniveling, but when Thanos lets him go, he collapses, his breath becoming quick and shallow. The others cart him away, but it’s already too late.

Thanos hadn’t meant the beating to be fatal, but perhaps he had been a bit too… enthusiastic in his punishment.

Then he sees it – sees him – out of the corner of his eye. He turns quickly before he’s gone, only to catch the eye of some nervous underlings hoping to escape his notice. They straighten up immediately, but Thanos is not paying attention to them, having lost sight of the figure.

It’s just a glimpse, a flash of blue. It’s nothing for Death but imprints on Thanos…

He thinks he has never seen something so beautiful.

 


 

Death does not remember Yondu Udonta.

It has been over a millennium in the past or approximately fifty years in the future since he had been mortal, since he had felt the burning ice in his veins and suffered the quick asphyxiation of exposure to the void all for the sake of one flawed, perfect boy. The flow of time hadn’t been a river, but a spotlight running over the very fabric of spacetime, illuminating scenes that had already existed in every single configuration, the membrane between parallel possibilities tissue-thin yet impermeable to the beings that lived within them. When Yondu Udonta the mortal ceased to be, his tether to his native timeline had severed, and the Reaper he had became had simply come into being at an earlier instance, forced to serve his sentence in a past he did not recognize among people who were already dust by the time he drew his first breath.

Initially, he had thought it a blessing, a small kindness, to have not been forced to sever the cords of those he had felt a certain level of camaraderie in his mortal lifetime. He could serve out his sentence in purgatory before reuniting with loved ones in the hereafter (whatever that may entail).

But then he reaped his first soul.

The boy must not have been much older than Quill back when Yondu first picked him up, a child who had succumbed to a sudden illness common among younglings in this quadrant. Medicine had not yet caught up to childhood mortality rates, as evidenced by the birth and death dates inscribed in family ledgers.

Yondu had tilted his face upwards towards Fate, Provenance, whatever bureaucratic mix-up caused this mess. “Fuck no,” he yelled at the sky. “I ain’t doin’ no kids.”

The sky had been silent on his refusal, but the boy had not been.

He had whimpered in the way of a body used to chronic pain, but his distress grew every moment Yondu’s scythe remains idle. He curled in on himself, around his middle, his center of gravity, as his invisible cord pulls tight.

“Mister… what’s… it hurts,” he had panted, his astral skin growing pallid and weathered the longer it remained in the in-between, still connected to a mortal body that had already begun to decompose, however slightly. Yondu’s head snapped back to the ailing soul, still struggling to form words. “I want… I–”

He had exhaled out of habit. “Damn it.” Damn me.

His scythe arced towards the child, and when it’s over, he had thought he could feel a sliver of his humanity fade away along with him. If he still had a stomach, he would empty it over his new robes, but he didn't. Instead, he had dry-heaved and thought of Ego’s children, the ones he didn’t save.

They say you never forget your first.

They are wrong.

The slips in his memory had been small, imperceptible, at first. The crest of his first Kree master, the one he had burned off his skin while still alive; the exact layout of the Eclector; that scarred, bulbous face of the last traitorous mutineer blasted by Yaka-fueled fires. What had his name been? Scrotal-face? It didn’t sound quite right, but the moniker is more accurate than anything he could conjure up from the depths of his fading memories.

And then, more details fell to the wayside – the feel of his leathers cracked and worn over achy knees, the taste of moonshine brewed in rusted vats, the fond smirk of some skinny brat who had molded his hairstyle to match his own – all the trappings of his former life, the things that made him mortal, scattered into the ether.

Eventually, he even forgets his son’s name…

But not before his own.

After all, mortal minds were never meant to hold a millennium of memories.

It’s a slow terrifyingly-progressive slide into anonymity, but Death still holds on to the boy’s face. Of course, the details blur and fade at the edges, but at least he still has that.

It’s more than he deserves.

Death never forgets he wasn’t a good man.

If he had been, he wouldn’t be a Reaper.

If he had been, at the time of his demise, there would have been confusion, maybe even terror as another cut the cord tying him to the mortal realm, but he could rest after it all. He still hopes to rest.

One day.

One day, he will be retired to the great unknown. He hopes that when the time comes, he will remember enough to recall he had a son, to recognize his boy and finally hold him again. And when that happens, if the fates are kind, then perhaps his boy will find it in his heart to forgive him for forgotten transgressions and return his embrace.

But until then…

Death grips the worn handle of his scythe, slicing it towards an invisible thread centered within his next victim’s torso before he can even process the reality of his death. The man fades from this middle plane of existence; his eyes, wide and terrified, are the last to dissipate.

Lucky bastard.

 


 

Despite rumors whispered to the contrary, Thanos is not insane.

When questioned, the others wring their hands, their eyes downturned and voices tremulous, as they nervously claim ignorance of the mysterious figure (Thanos does not tolerate liars), but their blindness is not surprising. Thanos has always been a visionary, and he knows what he sees, had always seen since that day in the river. He is gratified to find that the man – for certainly it is a man – stays longer with every visit, his features sharpening into stark relief. With a square jaw and deep-set red eyes to match the ragged fin rising from his crown, he might have even been handsome, once. Now, his face and arms are withered and wrinkled, and any skin that peaks out from under his dark cloak is startlingly blue and thin, stretched grotesque over bone so the joints jut out sharp and unnatural. And in those thin hands, he carries a scythe, sharp but the sheen dull with blood-rust.

He never speaks, but he accompanies every murder, every death, and vanishes shortly after the victim draws their last breath.

Thanos is not stupid. He recognizes Death when he sees it.

In quiet moments, Thanos finds his mind wandering to his silent shadow, and he wonders, not for the first time, whether he could speak and if so, what he would sound like. Death is ancient, enticingly authoritative; he likely speaks with a refined register, almost-aristocratic in tone and content.

He could teach Thanos a thing or two...

The possibility to meet such an advanced being stirs something within his belly. From what Thanos has witnessed, Death may be short, feeble-looking, but his gaunt frame belies his power. Everyone, rich and poor, strong and weak, eventually succumbs to Him, kneeling before his superior might.

So, by the sixteenth (eighteenth?) time Thanos meets Death, he thinks he’s in love.

He looks at the cloaked apparition, over the labored last gasps of his most recent victim. “We have to stop meeting like this.”

“Wha…” the man who has displeased him struggles to say, but it comes out as a wheeze and cough.

“I’m not talking to you,” he says, not breaking eye contact with Death.

Scythe raised in anticipation, Death frowns, creasing his brow to form deep valleys between his hooded eyes. He tilts his head and peaks over his shoulder, as if trying to ascertain whether Thanos means him or someone standing behind him, but no, the three (soon to be two) of them are alone on the Killing Floor.

Thanos points his blade, thick and boxy as a razor, directly at Death. “Well?”

The man lying between them expires, and Death lets his scythe fall, severing the connection between this life and the next, but unlike other times, he stays, standing stoic before Thanos.

Death had heard of such aberrations from other Reapers: Craxx the Viscous, Vlad the Impaler… Murderers who while not on the verge of death themselves still stood at its precipice, gleefully flinging their fellow beings into its ravenous maw. All of them brutal mortals who greeted Death like an old friend–

“I have waited for this moment a long time, and you do not disappoint. Seeing you like this… You should know you grow more beautiful with each new encounter.”

…or like a lover.

Death opens his mouth, but all that comes out is the raspy, tinny exhale of a creature who had long stopped breathing, much less talking.

It’s no matter. Thanos waits, his heart thumping in anticipation. This is it.

Death massages his creaky jaw at the joint then downwards towards his stiffened vocal cords, manually warming them up for their grand debut. And so, for the first time in near a millennium, he speaks, his voice husky with disuse, dry, papery, ancient as a crumbling papyrus in a crypt.

“Yer a fuckin’ crazy bastard, ain’t chu?”

Chapter Text

There must be some mistake.

Thanos taps the hard nub of the implanted translator behind his ear. He had not expected the crude vernacular nor the low-class twang that accompanied it. Before him stood an ageless being of immense power and limitless potential, and he sounded like that.

“You’d have’ta be to see the likes o’ me,” Death continues, his speech trailing into a wheeze and a cough. He opens and closes his mouth in a circular motion to further stretch his jaw, clearly unused to the exercise.

Perhaps Titan tech is too underdeveloped to translate the exact wording along with the doubtlessly refined accent. This situation is certainly unheard of and unlikely to be covered by the device’s manufacturing specifications. Really, he should be thankful that he can understand Death at all.

“I have imagined this scene innumerable times before, where I would express my… admiration for your work, for what you are, and we could go from there, but I must confess… you aren’t what I expected,” he admits truthfully, suppressing the urge to articulate the true extent of his surprise. It wouldn’t do to come across as petulant to one so omnipotent.

Death shrugs, an all-too-mortal gesture that Thanos doesn’t know how to account for. “I would say sorry to disappoint, but I ain’t no hired wench performin’ at yer say-so, so…”

“I stand by what I said. You’re not a disappointment, just… different.” Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad. Thanos can admit to himself that he had been somewhat intimidated before, mentally building up the stakes of this first meeting with a higher power to a greater degree than was warranted. It is like meeting your childhood wet dream only to discover they had bad skin and an unfortunate overbite in person: a little disillusioning sure, but several magnitudes more approachable than the original fantasy. Hell, Death may even be attainable if he plays his cards right.

“Has anyone ever told you your eyes are quite fetching?” Thanos tries again, delighting in how those very same eyes widen at the unexpected flirtation. “I had thought perhaps you would be more bone than flesh, but I think I prefer you like this.”

“…I ain’t got no time fer this shit,” Death scoffs, mostly to himself, as he fades away, but Thanos doesn’t think he imagines the way Death’s gaze flits to him in the final moments, covertly looking up at him though patchy whispers of eyelash in an almost coquettish fashion.

Thanos has always enjoyed a challenge.

 


 

The next few times Thanos kills someone, Death is elusive, only materializing momentarily, hastily swiping his prize at the exact moment of death with no dallying before or after. He does not so much as acknowledge Thanos, much less speak. It’s acutely discouraging. A lesser man may even conclude that Death wants nothing to do with him, but Thanos knows better.

Thanos has always been special. The fact he can see this otherworldly specter proves it. Death is just… well, not exactly intimidated by him, but he supposes it has likely been a long time (if ever) since someone could interact with Death on a long-term basis, which is a necessary foundation for any significant relationship. Death is just unnerved to have met a mortal with the ability to do so and has turned their interactions into a game of cat and mouse.

Thanos rarely plays with his food, but perhaps he should take a page from the proverbial cat.

“It must be lonely,” Thanos says conversationally, distracted from the man kicking out and struggling in his chokehold to address Death. Bramos had double-crossed him, angling to establish himself in the drug trade and solidify his reputation as a man who would and could get things done – a better, more business-savvy alternative to Thanos’s leadership.

Thanos had disagreed. Vehemently.

Still, he has developed a hypothesis, one he needs to test, and through his treachery, Bramos had more or less volunteered, leading to the present circumstances. Choking him to unconsciousness – to the threshold of death – then releasing, Thanos wonders how long Bramos will last. He is not usually a sadist drawing pleasure from his victim’s suffering, but he figures an extenuated process may keep Death from disappearing all too quickly.

Death doesn’t confirm his conjecture. “All this for me?” he asks instead, standing preternaturally still, with not so much as a breath to ruffle his demeanor.

Thanos smiles, and his fingers loosen their grip around Bramos’s neck, the color, deep purple like a bruise, draining from his face and settling instead at his neck in the shape of fingertips. He gasps and chokes on a breath.

“Perhaps,” he grunts, pleased at forcing Death’s response. “This display has certainly garnered your attention.”

“I– I’m sorry, boss. Y– You’ve got my… attention,” Bramos croaks, barely intelligible due to the damage to his larynx, his hands weakly resting against his neck, trying to massage the pain away. “You lonely, too? I could fix–”

“Quiet.” Thanos demands with displeasure, the fingers encircling the unfortunate man’s neck, tightening once more. Bramos tenses up, his hands trying to loosen Thanos’s hold, desperate but futile.

“You don’t have’ta do that, ya know… keepin’ ‘im between two worlds like that,” Death says, using his scythe for support to lean forward, glimmering gaze trained on Bramos like the predator he is. The man’s flailing is becoming more sporadic as he claws at the hands around his neck, his eyes prickling purple from petechial hemorrhaging.

Oh.

So it’s like that.

“If I give him to you, you’ll stay?” Thanos bargains. The man is fading, but not fast enough.

Death’s nod of assent is short, terse but unmistakable.

“Very well.” With a sudden twist, Thanos snaps Bramos’s neck, while Death immediately reaps his emerging soul, sending him to the afterlife without a moment of reprieve. Thanos is glad to be of service. He lets the body fall, his victim’s neck bent at a wrong angle. It makes sense after all. Death is relentless, ubiquitous, and chronically unsatisfied, ravaging Titan even as its starving populace scrap and scramble to survive in the face of resource shortages and unrelenting climate change. He would require such tribute from his subjects.

And no one has ever accused Thanos of being a tease. He will provide Death all he desires.

“So, are you?” he asks, continuing his earlier thread of conversation as if there hadn’t been a dead body cooling between them. “Lonely?”

“I git around,” Death says, vaguely flippant. “Meet a lot’a new people on the job.”

“None like me, I’d wager.”

Death is silent at that, contemplative. “Not in a while,” he allows.

Ah, so Thanos is not his first.

“Do you have a name?” Thanos inquires. “Something by which I can call you?”

“You already know what I am.”

“But do you have a preference?”

“We ain’t on a first name basis,” and with that, Death fades away.

It’s progress, Thanos thinks.

 


 

Over time, their conversation lengthens but remains stilted, impersonal, yet Thanos persists.

Death doesn’t flinch at gore, but sometimes, Thanos thinks he surprises even Death himself.

“An’ what’d this one do?” Death asks, not even pausing in his dogged quest for souls to ask the recently departed before he reaps them. He never asks the victim what they have done to earn Thanos’s ire, preferring to ask the man himself.

Thanos takes it as a sign that his own desire for companionship cannot possibly be one-sided.

“He was causing trouble and then had the audacity to lie about it.”

Death’s reply is characteristically cold, but even. “That’s all it took fer you to remove their jaw, huh?”

“I value honesty.”

He’s frowning, but that’s not unusual; Death never smiles, no matter how many times they do this.

Thanos can’t seem to get a read on the taciturn entity. He gifts Death a steady stream of souls and company, but nothing Thanos does ever seems to please the entity; every sacrifice is accepted with a perfunctory slash of his scythe and no real satisfaction that Thanos can ascertain. Then again, maybe pleasure is a mortal concept, too alien for a higher power to feel, much less express. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of piety he can provide is just this: his unerring devotion with no expectation of reward or reciprocity.

Thanos must accept that Death will always remain appropriately aloof – separate – as it should be…

And then his mother dies.

A neighbor had found her, sprawled in the kitchen, having fallen from a stool when she had reached for something or other – probably the fermenting citrons she stored in jars on the highest shelf. Thanos is tall; if he had been there….

But it had been over a year since he had last spoken to her, much less visited. There had always been the excuses, the half-formed promises that next time, he’d visit and they’ll talk; next time, they’d figure it out and resolve this cold anathema that had settled between them, forged by years full of disappointments and growing resentments. It had seemed easier to avoid it all back then, but now, the missed opportunities weigh on him.

He regrets killing the messenger who had brought him the news. It was a rare irrational lapse of judgment on his part. It won’t happen again, he silently promises the corpse.

“Did you take her?” he asks Death.

A curt nod.

Yes.

“Did she suffer?”

A pause, then Death shakes his head.

“Good. I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t have wanted her to…” he sucks in a breath, “to suffer.”

After all, she had already been through so much, having him for a son.

“Can you communicate with the recently departed in any capacity?”

Another shake accompanied by a verbal “No.”

“You cannot relay a message even?” Thanos presses, trying to find a loophole. He doesn’t know what he would say if given the chance, but–

“That ain’t how this works. I’m just a courier, boy. An’ my scythe’s a one-way ticket,” Death explains, rolling the handle of his scythe fractionally one way than the other, causing the blade to swivel. “Ain’t no way to reach the other side once I cut her cord?”

“I see,” Thanos chews on his answer. Death is not usually so forthcoming. “Do you know what happens to them, on the other side?”

“Not personally, no. I imagine it depends on what chu do in this life,” Death ruminates, before adding, “An’ maybe after. There’s a lot’a ugliness in the mortal realm; can’t imagine people are much better when they pass on.”

“Then what’s the point of it all?” Thanos’s voice is low but harsh. “You’ve seen what it’s like out there; you must see! People are dying in the streets from lack of food, clean water, medical supplies… empathy. There’s too many of us, and not enough of anything to go around.”

“Shortages, famine, plagues… ain’t an issue when you don’t have a physical body, I wager,” but Death thinks better of his answer. “If it’s yer Ma yer worried ‘bout, I’m sure she don’t want fer nothin’ where she’s at.”

Death is terrible at consoling mortals, Thanos decides, though he can appreciate the effort. “Thank you… I think.”

“Don’t mention it, big guy.”

“Thanos,” he corrects him. “You should call me Thanos.”

“I’d rather not. If I name you, I might get attached.”

Now, there’s a thought.

 


 

Thanos doesn’t think it’s his imagination when their subsequent conversations grow more substantial, tilting towards an almost philosophical angle, and become almost playful.

“If I may be so bold – Forgive my impertinence on this – but why do you or I exist?” he muses one day.

“You? Beats me. I couldn’t begin to tell ya the meaning of life. Didn’t know it when I was alive; couldn’t tell you now that I ain’t. But Death? I’m a necessary part o’ life,” he says the last part like he’s reciting the company line.

Wait. Thanos mind grinds to a stuttering stop. There’s a pause then, “You used to be among the living?”

Death shrugs, and suddenly the gesture doesn’t seem so out-of-place. “Once upon a time. Long ago, or hell, maybe at some point in the future. Time got a bit weird when I died, so there ain’t no tellin’ when that was.”

“But… so, you were mortal? You had a life before all this?”

“Before, after… it’s all the same, I suppose. Don’t right remember most of it. Bits an’ pieces, mostly. Not enough to remember specific events or when. Been reapin’ too long fer that.”

Thanos has so many questions about that tidbit, the possibilities rolling around his mind like grits of sand in a mollusk, an irritation smoothed out and layered to a pearly sheen, but first: “Did you have a name?”

“Yeah, but I don’t remember it none,” he replies honestly. Thanos’s brow lowers in disappointment before Death discloses, “I remember feathers. Mayhap my name is related to that, or birds were important in my prior life. I would say I was Shi’ar, but I ain’t that purty,” he wheezes drily in such a way that passes for a laugh these days. “Maybe I worked in an aviary, or somethin’.” Though what he could have done in that capacity to deserve a stint as a Grim Reaper he couldn’t begin to fathom. He crinkles his brow at the uncertainty of it all. Perhaps he maliciously killed off several critically-endangered species under his care.

He says as much to Thanos, much to the man’s amusement.

“You don’t strike me as a genocidal maniac,” Thanos tells him.

“Right, ‘cause Death seems like such a nice guy,” he quips.

Thanos laughs at that, then falls silent as he considers the possibilities of Death being mortal, with mortal appetites, with another life and his own set of joys and regrets. What does it mean for them now that Thanos knows it’s possible for Death to want?

“Was there anyone you miss, Little Bird?”

Thanos means a lover, but that’s not how Death understands it.

He weighs his response before deciding that there would be no harm in divulging what little he did remember. Who knows? Perhaps talking about it will even help him retain the knowledge. “I think I had a son. Once. Don’t remember much ‘bout him ‘cept his face. He was a cute li’l bugger when he was a small brat, ya know? Smart, too, in a pinch. Not all kids are, but my boy… he was somethin’ special. Always thought… well, when I see him again, maybe…” he doesn’t finish that sentence, seemingly realizing too late how personal – how emotionally compromising – this information is.

Thanos sees the sliver of hope in Death’s countenance and feels a pang of jealousy, wanting to squash it until he himself is all Death has left. “If he’s still in your future… What if you don’t recognize him when you see him again? He could have changed quite a bit since last you saw him.”

“I’ll know ‘im,” Death states with finality and more confidence than he feels.

 


 

If Thanos has learned anything in his life, it is this: You can’t save everyone.

Titan is burning up and drying out. There are too many people and too much pollution in the air, soil, and water poisoning the already-limited food and vital resources. It’s an emergency in slow motion, stretched out over years, allowing the politicians and leaders of Titan society to squabble amongst themselves for supremacy of the dying planet. In a generation, Titan will be inhospitable for its populace, a husk of its former self, but in the intervening years, the ruling class will pick over its bones, hoard what little remains, and assign blame to the fecund lower classes for the shortage.

“And how many have you reaped today, Little Bird?” Thanos asks him.

“More in the last week than in the two prior to that combined.” Death doesn’t like to talk about his work, but perhaps any conversation is better than none at all.

“It’s accelerating then,” he remarks, his tone grave.

“It’s a cycle,” Death replies. “Happens a lot. Any species smart enough to do it will eventually git too big fer their britches an’ they’ll wear out their planet. You escape to the stars or die out. Planet recovers given long enough, an’ the process starts over again ‘til the next time. Truth is life will go on even if you Titans don’t.”

Thanos massages his temple, staving off a headache. “There has to be a way to stop it.”

“Well, there ain’t. I’ve seen it too many times to count. This problem ain’t unique to Titan,” Death comments. “Best you save up fer an M-ship an’ blast off. Ain’t nothin’ holdin’ you back from leavin’.”

It comes to Thanos then, the perfect solution. His eyes fix on Death. “What if we can slow it down?”

 


 

Death wasn’t a fan of his plan.

And neither is the politician on his payroll.

“We’ll hold a lottery, run an algorithm to identify at random which half of the population must be sacrificed for the survival of us all,” Thanos proposes. “If we can cull half the population, then there should be enough resources for the remaining people to–”

“Are you mad?” Craxys rages. “Set aside the morality of the whole enterprise for a minute. No one, not one of my constituents, will agree to such a thing, much less the Council.”

“You’ve passed family planning laws in the past,” Thanos points out.

“Yes, to prevent the births of hypothetical children.” Craxys draws up to his full height, trying to demonstrate that Thanos cannot intimidate him with his superior bulk. “What you’re suggesting… it’s murder! It’s insanity!”

“There are eight billion people on Titan who are all destined to starve in the next thirty years. Wouldn’t it be better to kill off four billion now to save the rest?” he reasons.

“And are you going to volunteer yourself for this lottery?”

Thanos crosses his arms in stubborn resolve. “I don’t see why not. I should have the same chance as any other person.”

"Great. Someone who eats their own bullshit," Craxys murmurs. He is lucky Thanos needs him... for the time being. Presently, he closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose in frustration, breathing out slowly and formulating a palatable spin on his benefactor's plan. “Perhaps if the ones chosen were from the lower rungs of society – the homeless, the disabled – ones with nothing to contribute–”

“No,” Thanos cuts him off. “It must be fair.”

“Then your plan has no chance of success. No one with any power is going to back it, unless you can make certain assurances…”

Thanos doesn’t back down. He floats his idea to other politicians who are even less enthusiastic about his theory than Craxys had been. His public insistence on the benefits of such drastic policies earns him the moniker “Mad Titan.” Some of his retinue leave, disillusioned with his rabid advocacy of a brutal plan that will never come to fruition, but still more join, drawn to his unwavering conviction and charisma. They pool their resources, enriching Thanos and his ‘family,’ stockpiling weapons and consolidating power to stave off the death of Titan.

But in the end, their efforts are futile. Environmental collapse follows several years later, earlier than Thanos had originally projected. Most perish, starving on the surface which can no longer sustain life, but some, like himself and his faction, had the funds to escape off-planet, becoming nomads, the remnants of a dead people.

Thanos looks out the bow of his mothership, facing the stars.

It’s too late to save Titan.

He’s too late.

But there are others in need of salvation.

 


 

And so his army moves on, to other worlds, other planets.

“Perhaps you should ease up.” Death tells him one day after he and his army had liberated a mining planet from economic and environmental collapse through the slaughter of half its population at random, killing oligarchs, working class, the destitute, and state dependents in one blitz attack, leaving the living to sort through piles of bodies.

“I know what I’m doing,” Thanos says. “In a generation, they will thank me.”

Thanos does gain a reputation, both publicly with every planet they ‘save’ and privately within his inner circle. His personal kills behind closed doors are a bit more hands-on than they had been in the beginning, but at least his victims go quick, not like Bramos, never like Bramos anymore. More disturbingly, he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time with the bodies afterwards based on their tepid temperature and telltale stiffening of rigor mortis when they are finally collected. His subordinates don’t want to know what he does with the corpses, but there is talk of black magic…

It is the preferable explanation, better than the alternative. That it might be something sexual.

Eventually, his lieutenants draw straws to check on him after it has been a couple hours, and the poor sap who loses finds him fully-clothed (thank the stars) and carrying on half a conversation with thin air, pausing at appropriate intervals before continuing, as if hearing a response only he is privy to while the body of his victim is cast aside, forgotten.

He really is going mad, they say. Maybe it’s his mother’s death, or his failure on Titan, maybe he kills to stave off a general bloodlust. He’s always been a little off, but surely he’s losing it.

Maybe… maybe we can use it to our advantage, some of them say.

Thanos violently disabuses them of the notion, weeding out disloyalty and rebellion, until it’s barely a whisper among his ranks to be pre-emptively squashed by his devoted officers.

“When we are done, the universe will be perfectly balanced, as all things should be. We will prevent what happened to Titan, what remains the fate of many worlds without intervention, without sacrifice, from reoccurring,” he tells his army.

“We will be their saviors.”

Chapter Text

Saving the universe is hard, thankless work measured in expended weapons cartridges and blunted swords dulled over bone, but a prosperous future is well worth the cost, even when Thanos factors in the damage to his own soul. He supposes a weaker man would crumble under the strain, lacking conviction of his principles.

Thanos has no such qualms. Never has a mortal had such clarity of purpose and the means to carry out what is necessary for the greater good. Death himself had doubted him – perhaps doubts him even now – but Thanos doesn’t need Death’s faith to earn his respect.

“Yer like a full time job,” his ghostly companion grumbles, scythe swinging through a swath of souls recently gunned down on the unlucky half of the plaza. He glides back to Thanos’s side, his gaze sliding from the corpses to the survivors rushing towards the fallen in the aftermath of the culling.

Thanos raises a brow. “You don’t like my tribute?”

Death shrugs noncommittally, his body otherwise too-still and demeanor unreadable.

“Don’t you enjoy it?” Thanos presses.

“Enjoy what?”

Well, now he’s just being deliberately obtuse.

“This. Your occupation.”

“I suppose it pays the bills – my debts an’ all that.”

“…You have bills?”

“Course I do. Lookin’ this good ain’t cheap.” Death angles his scythe to reflect his countenance, picking at a non-existent bit of nothing stuck between his teeth and giving it a snaggletoothed grin, but Thanos can see there is naught in the makeshift mirror except a dull sheen. Death clearly hasn’t seen his face in ages, has likely long forgotten what he even looks like.

Thanos raises an eye ridge at that, choosing to say nothing of the obvious falsehood, before Death simply snorts. “Jus’ fuckin’ with you. It’s gallows humor, big guy,” he chuckles at his own joke. It’s a dry, brittle sound ending in a throaty wheeze. His voice had improved with time, but laughter is still too infrequent to be anything other than what it is.

Thanos cracks a smile. At least his Little Bird is laughing.

“But all this… ya know you don’t have’ta do all this on account’a li’l ol’ me. I’ll stay by yer side without the big grand gestures,” he says, trying for flippant but still maintaining an undertone of sincerity that surprises Thanos.

Thanos’s heart swells with cautious delight. Death may say that or several variations of the sentiment during their time together, but they both know Thanos wouldn’t have garnered nearly as much attention without such ‘grand gestures,’ nor would Thanos expect to have received any special consideration without it – Death deserved to be courted after all – yet it still warmed his belly to think on it.

“It is my pleasure to serve, both you and the cause. Together we will save this world and restore balance to the universe one planet at a time.”

They will create something beautiful, the stuff of legends.

Together.

 


 

Sometimes, the nameless, nebulous thing between them can be downright pleasant.

“What do ya think o’ this li’l feller?” Death sticks out a shriveled finger pointed out towards the bobbling tchotchke as if to flick it. “Kind’a cute, right?”

Thanos stares down the plastic creature, its cheeks fat and rounded into a caricature of a type of rodent. “Cute?” he repeats. They had stopped by this satellite for a supply run only to be sidetracked yet again by Death’s perplexing fondness for useless crap. It is an endearing, if frustrating, quirk of his. “I am familiar with this animal. It is a common disease vector in this quadrant. Has caused much illness and fatalities.”

“Cute an’ industrious,” Death amends. He tries to tap the head, but it continues its listless nodding unperturbed. He frowns, withdrawing his finger at last.

Thanos reaches over and lightly flicks it, springing it awake to Death’s delight. “An agreeable creature, I suppose.”

“Can I help you, sir?”

Thanos looks up to meet the vendor’s appraising eye. “I would like to purchase this… vermin.”

She nods, already reaching for the creature. “And would you like it gift wrapped? Is it for someone special?”

“…Yes. Yes, I suppose it is.”

Unfortunately, their easy camaraderie is not always a given.

Death is in one of his moods again.

“You can stop this,” he says on the Bridge, after Thanos's navigator has locked in the coordinates for yet another crumbling planet in need of rescue. “You should stop this.”

Thanos is firm. “It is my destiny. I cannot deny it again.”

“’S a lunatic’s errand is what it is.”

Thanos purses his lips. He had heard that insult before, with the Council, with Craxys. He thinks of Mother, after Eros. She was angry; she was sad, but at least she ate.

Truth is he had expected better of Death.

“Visionaries are often mistaken as madmen to their shortsighted contemporaries.”

“That what I am? A ‘shortsighted contemporary?’”

Thanos can’t think of a response that wouldn’t be insulting, so he nit-picks the verbiage. “I wouldn’t call you my contemporary, necessarily.”

“But shortsighted is alright with ya?” Death challenges him.

“You’re surprisingly sentimental given your occupation.”

“An’ yer surprisingly cruel given yer mortality.”

Thanos grits his teeth, tired of this endless argument. “Someone needs to do it. I can save them.”

“Yer damning yerself, you know,” Death shoots back.

“If that is the price, so be it.”

 


 

Thanos doesn’t notice it until the next planet they save. He blames it on his old biases and assumptions about how an entity like Death should think and act.

To his mind, Death should be dispassionate and hence fair, reaping both rich and poor, young and old. It’s one of the traits that Thanos had admired about him. Of course, unbeknownst to Thanos, there had been a time when Death had quibbles, doubts that would stay his hand and prolong the suffering of the dying. Back in the time before memory, the children had been the hardest.

Children are easier for Thanos. They have lived shorter lives, suffered less, and he considered their early deaths a kindness he dispensed frequently and generously on each planet he deigned to improve. It is mercy, he’d argue, to cut down the young before they could be crushed by the inevitable grind of need and scarcity, to prune the tree of life so the branches left behind can flourish unchoked by competition for limited resources.

And Thanos is nothing if not merciful.

But, here they stand, Death lingering over a conclave of children, half an orphanage that had ended up on the wrong side of the culling. His scythe is ready, Thanos realizes, ready to cut them down first like an overeager bilgesnip consuming the best parts of its kill raw and pulsing with lifeblood. Aching for it actually, if the slight quiver in his arms is any indication.

And it is then that Thanos realizes: Death loves children.

He had had a son in life, so perhaps they reminded him of what he had lost. Thanos could use such knowledge to his advantage, to bind Death to him permanently with the unbreakable ties of domestic battle, presenting a united front against the follies of a younger generation.

By the stars, he will start a family with Death.

Thanos holds up one hand to stay their execution, then crosses over towards Death, towards the children, eyes roaming over their small gaunt faces. They all look down to their feet or bury faces with their hands, bawling and shying away from his presence. All. Save one.

The boy stares up at him, shivering with fear, his lower lip trembling with the effort to stay still, knuckles almost white from the vice-like grip he maintains on his friend’s hand, but still, he meets Thanos’s gaze.

“You,” Thanos reaches out to grab his shoulder, dragging him along, away from his doomed friends. “You will do nicely.”

The boy struggles then, trying to hold onto his friend, but Thanos shakes him lose, bodily separating the two.

“Hey! What’re you doin’?” Death calls out, blinking out then reappearing before him to block his path.

“Adoption.”

Although it is unnecessary, Thanos sidesteps the non-corporeal entity, pulling the child to safety shortly before signaling the firing squad to proceed. The cacophony of blaster fire drown out the boy’s screams, and he would have collapsed to the ground as if shot himself had Thanos not maintained a firm grip on him.

 


 

Thanos names him Corvus Glaive, after the sword he wields, the one Thanos gifts him. He instructs the boy to call him Father, which is a novel experience for both the perennial bachelor and a child orphaned long before Thanos’s ships landed on his homeworld. Thanos trains him, punishing and praising him in turn, always reinforcing his philosophy, indoctrinating the boy in his campaign to serve a higher purpose.

“Salvation through sacrifice,” he tells a young Corvus Glaive.

“Don’t feed him that bullshit,” Death criticizes from the sidelines, unseen by the boy. Thanos ignores him, concentrating on the education of their son, this ‘Child of Thanos,’ as he has been ordained by his army.

Under his tutelage, Corvus Glaive grows to be an efficient assassin, an instrument of Death, loyal to the cause and Thanos himself.

He is the first of many.

Thanos takes them each one at a time – one child per planet saved, an orphan (or at least a child who will shortly become one) – to train personally as part of his growing family with Death.

Ebony Maw. Proxima Midnight. Cull Obsidian.

Gamora.

It was his youngest that surprised him.

She is a quick study, faster and more alert than her siblings before her, with a certain brilliance for strategy Thanos had not anticipated in one so young.

Thanos wipes a finger across his arm, smudging purple from the small cut, practically a scrap. “You have managed to draw blood, little one.”

Gamora doesn’t answer, not dropping her defensive stance during her test.

“Well done.”

She ascended in his esteem until he expected much from her, displacing even her eldest brother in his confidence and affections.

“You shouldn’t have favorites,” Death admonishes him one day as they watch Gamora and Cull Obsidian, the strongest but more oafish of their children, spar. Gamora had used her superior agility and her brother’s own momentum against him to bring him down, at least temporarily.

Thanos bristles at the criticism. “Why not? Gamora is clearly the more competent child.”

“Havin’ favorites, ‘specially if everyone knows… it causes problems.”

Death winces when Cull Obsidian’s fist connects with the small girl, sending her flying before he pins her and declares victory.

Thanos is highly displeased.

Gamora limps away to wallow in her loss, her fear at Thanos’s anger greater than any physical damage Cull Obsidian could have inflicted.

His shoulders drooping, Death glides over to take a seat beside her, their youngest daughter, as she curls up against the far wall, arms circled around her knees and staring into nothing. She knows she disappointed Father, failing to block the strike from her brother with a move that Thanos had taught her the prior week.

Death reaches out, hovering his ghostly hand over her shoulder to give the appearance of tactile comfort, and though she cannot feel him as a physical presence, Gamora shivers as if cold.

That’s new.

“Gamora, come. We will correct your failings,” Thanos calls out to her. She perks up, her demeanor radiating fear until she manages to tamp it down, schooling her features to reflect neutral obedience. His tone is stern. “You will not disappointment me again.”

“Yes, Father.”

 


 

“You shouldn’t’a done that,” Death rages later, after Thanos had embedded cybernetics in Gamora to enhance her breathing ability, greatly improving her endurance. Implants for strength and general durability will have to come later, once she stopped growing and her bones had settled to their adult sizes. “Gamora is a child.”

“Gamora is our child. She is exceptional, but she will not survive her training or the trials to come without help,” Thanos reasons. He doesn’t understand Death’s continued reluctance in his quest for the advancement of their children and the betterment of the universe as a whole.

“She is not our child.”

A fierce protectiveness Thanos didn’t know he possessed wells up within him. How dare he?

Death continues unabated, unaware of the frigid shift in Thanos’s demeanor, the rift growing wider between them. “You kidnapped her, and then put that… those machines in her.”

“She would have died had I not intervened.”

“By yer own hand,” Death graces him with a feral curl of his lips. “It don’t count if ya would’a been the cause o’ death.”

“I saved them. The Zeheborei were in the last gasps of their civilization. They were starving, and no one had the foresight, the strength, the resolve to do anything about it. And now? Now, they will flourish. I took away their moral quandary, the guilt, the hard choices, so they can heal and move on. I gave that to them, and Gamora will come to understand why. In time, she will gladly carry that same burden for others.”

Death slams his scythe into the ground, angling it towards Thanos. “An’ she will be the last; I mean it this time,” he hisses, low and gravelly, shortly before blinking out.

Coward.

 


 

Thanos has everything he could ever want: Death, an army, a family… a driving purpose in life. He supposes he should be happy, but having children has strengthened his cause yet strained his relationship with Death.

He supposes that shouldn’t be surprising. His own family of origin was anything but warm, especially after…

After.

“My son, tell me: did you…?” his mother’s voice whispers in his memories.

To him, family is a cold home. So, why did he expect building his own to feel any different?

 


 

Thanos comes to Luphom, bringing Death in his wake.

His men stand at attention, ready to carry out the culling at his signal, waiting for what has become almost a ritual to them.

“I said no more,” Death warns him.

Thanos’s tone is one of appeasement, “Just one more then never again, Little Bird.”

Death slouches against his scythe. It’s not like he has much say in the matters of the living, but it’s one more child, then maybe Thanos will stop growing this perverse charade of a family.

Thanos waits out the telltale lull in their simmering quarrel, savoring his unseen companion’s quiet acquiescence, then whispers, “You do it.”

That startles Death.

“No.”

“You do it, or they all perish now,” he mutters low, still aware of his open position and the crowds hanging on his every outspoken word.

Death shakes his head. “I can’t choose. I’m only the messenger; I ain’t the one what writes the message.”

Thanos supposes it’s easier that way; if one has no choice, then there is little guilt in the act. But he wants to prove a point, and he has learned in the intervening years that Death still has just enough humanity for the effort to bear fruit. “You can save one of them. Isn’t that better than none?”

He waits for Death’s decision, smiling when the entity curses and glides out, weaving through the damned, followed at some distance by Thanos himself. He wonders about Death’s selection criteria. Here and there are candidates Thanos might have picked, had the decision been his, but he stops short when Death hovers behind a woman clinging to a small girl child, a weeping runt whose impressive cries manage to rise above the general din. The woman clutches the child tighter, trying to muffle her piercing shrieks by squeezing her face tight to the cloth of her dress.

“This one,” Death declares.

Her?

He can’t be serious.

“You said I git to pick, an’ I pick this li’l bugger.” He sounds almost smug about it.

Clearly, Death had only one requirement in his search: A good, sturdy pair of lungs. He had found the loudest, most obnoxious child in the kill zone.

“Kid will be more quiet if you take the mama as well,” he suggests.

Thanos narrows his eyes at the child before roughly tugging her away as her mother screams and claws at his arms. He places a large palm against the woman’s face and shoves her to the ground, knocking her head against the stone with a loud thump and finally extracting the child who bites and continues to struggle in his arm. Not looking at Death, he bundles her up and hooks the girl under his arm while she flails and kicks his back, his shoulders, any part of him in range of her sharp knees and tiny feet.

He exits the perimeter, signaling his army to continue the massacre while the child – Nebula, he later learns – screeches at his side then falls limp to a whimper in the aftermath, her voice hoarse and hiccupping.

Death looks wane and pale, grimmer than he has in years. “You didn’t have’ta do it like that.”

It may be petty, but–

“You picked her. I am only the messenger,” Thanos parrots his excuses back at him.

 


 

There is a Terran saying, one which Thanos has never heard before nor will he for years to come, but which is apt for the situation he and Death now find themselves:

You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

Though he is similarly unfamiliar with the phrase, Death takes its sentiment to heart with how he now watches over Nebula. It hadn’t even been subtle, how he now shadows the girl, trailing after her like the doting father he never was with their older children. She can’t see him – none of them ever could – but Thanos can. He thinks it might be guilt on Death’s part, an obligation or pity. Perhaps it’s even penance for thrusting this life upon a young child who lacked both the skill and temperament for such a barren existence, he thinks.

At least at first.

“There ya go,” Death gruffly encourages the girl as he crouches over her, observing her progress. Unaware of her invisible audience, she hesitates, wiggling the arm into the base.

“C’mon, you know how to assemble the blaster. Jus’ needs a li’l elbow grease,” he says, not disheartened by her lack of awareness of his presence. He’s obviously used to mortal blindness, seems to prefer it sometimes in fact. “An’… we’re done.” The arm slots into place, and she gives it a small smile.

“I think… I think my boy had a liking fer these things, but his aim was shit,” he tells her as she replaces the casing and locks the final piece in place. “Yer much better at it. Would’a given ‘im hell.” His gaze is paternal, softer than Thanos has ever seen him.

Ah, there it is.

When Thanos recognizes that look, the white-hot stab of jealousy surprises even him.

It is love.

The very thing Death had always withheld from him, something Thanos had always wanted from him but never attained. He had long assuaged his bruised ego by telling himself Death is incapable of such base mortal feelings, that he had been above it all.

And now, here stands the rebuttal to that assumption made flagrant.

“Too slow,” Thanos criticizes Nebula. “If you are to be useful in any capacity, you will have to be quicker like your sister.”

She looks up at him and frowns, her large dark eyes wet and wide.

“I will do better next time, Father,” she squeaks, disassembling the weapon to try again, but the arm sticks.

“See that you do.”

She pulls at the arm, trying to slide it out, growing more panicked the longer it takes.

“Problem?” Thanos asks, his voice dropping dangerously low.

Nebula pulls harder.

Death tries to intervene. “Hey, big guy, she’s got it. Just–”

Crack!

A plastic nub at the end, a cosmetic feature of little consequence, snaps off under the stress of her desperate twisting.

Thanos's hand darts out, grasping her around the shoulder, his large palm nearly encapsulating the entire blade, as he snaps the partially-dissembled blaster out of her hands. He squeezes. She cries out.

“I’m sorry, Father!” she begs him, small hands covering his index and pinkie, but she dares not try to pry him off.

“Thanos, no!” Unthinking, Death’s arm ghosts through Thanos’s shoulder, and the Titan shivers at the cold pass of ether through flesh, though his response has nothing to do with the drop in temperature.

Their first touch, almost as intimate as a kiss after going so long without.

You shouldn’t have favorites.

“Weren’t her fault,” Death defends Nebula when it’s clear he can’t physically constrain the other man. They’ve always known it, but he had forgotten himself.

It is no matter; Nebula is no matter, except what she means to Death. Thanos releases their daughter, dismissing her from his presence. “Go to your room. I’ll deal with you later.”

Nebula seems uncertain, waffling in place from foot to foot, scared to fail what might be yet another test. “I apologize I disapp–”

“Go.” His tone brooks no argument, and she walks away, quickly enough for compliance but not so fast as to betray cowardice.

Thanos doesn’t watch her leave, fixing his gaze on Death, ready to condemn the entity’s softness bordering on negligent parenting. Good fathers have to set boundaries and mete out punishments for failure and disappointment. Otherwise, how will their children reach their true potential?

“You spoil her, Little Bird,” he says instead.

Death does not agree with his assessment. “An’ with all that posturin’, yer settin’ her up fer failure.”

“Nebula is not in the same league as any of the others. I will prove it to you.”

 


 

Thanos pits her against Gamora, and his favored daughter does not disappoint. Nebula ends up on the floor, whimpering and cradling her dislocated shoulder.

Thanos replaces it with one made of metal. He will have to upgrade it over time as she grows, the flesh pinching angry and swollen where the metal joins the shoulder, but it’s worth it to see the loss reflected in Death’s face.

He’s angry, but he stays.

“It is better this way,” Thanos tells Death calmly as he reviews economic and environmental surveys of nearby planets on a holographic screen to select his next target in need of salvation. “If she dislocates her elbow, her wrist, any of her joints… it will simply whirr back into place with no medical intervention necessary. She will never be reliant on medical professionals in any battlefield.”

“We both know that ain’t why you did it.”

There’s a beat of silence as Thanos flicks several windows closed. “You were right before. Nebula may have some use yet.” He has narrowed down the prospective choices to three nearby planets in danger of imminent collapse in the next fifty years. Then, he looks through the holograph to meet Death’s glare.

Death likes Gamora, but he loves Nebula.

“You favor the useless runt. She’s blue,” like you goes unsaid. “We can end this little experiment right now. I can give her to you, if you so desire.”

Death cottons on to what he’s suggesting. “No.”

“Do you not want to spare her?” Thanos insists.

“Not like that.”

He returns focus to the three planets projected in blue light, ultimately settling on one, spreading his hands wide to enlarge a map of his final choice. “But it is the only option afforded to you. Your choices are to either allow her to go through a period of torment, in which she will emerge on the other side a stronger, more competent fighter, impervious to fatal injuries that have claimed many in her position, or certain death.”

It is the same choice he makes with each planet he saves.

Death’s frown deepens and the crease in his brow grows. “I know what yer tryin’ to git me to agree to, but it ain’t the same.”

“You love her too much to let her go, even if it may hurt her in the process. You want her to survive despite the pain it will cause her. It is how I feel about the universe I inhabit, about the planets I save.”

“You have never loved anythin’ in yer damn life.”

“I love you.”

And there it is, the truth laid bare.

Death doesn’t say it back of course. Because he isn’t a liar. That’s yet another thing Thanos respects about him.

It is also maddening.

“I do wonder, however… if I were to replace Nebula. Her arms, her legs, her organs… even her brain. Convert everything piece by piece to metal and circuitry slowly over a number of years. Upgrade her, as it were. I wonder at which point she will cease to be herself, to be a mortal worthy of housing her essence, of being called Nebula. 50%? 90%? When the last ounce of organic matter is replaced? Where does the soul reside, exactly? And at which point will you be required to reap her?”

Death chokes audibly, another deliciously wheezy sound from the back of his throat.

Thanos imagines taking Nebula apart with relish, removing a body part every time Death steps out of line, every time he threatens to disappear on him. He wishes he could take Death himself apart, see how he’s put together, see the components of his own soul (if he has such a thing), and destroy everything that is not Thanos’s. All those rebellious bits of him that refuse to yield.

“Why don’t we find out?”

Chapter Text

Thanos knows he can’t actually kill Nebula. She is his daughter after all (and doing so would be admitting failure), but more than that, she’s leverage.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t come close.

“I did not tell you to cease, Gamora,” Thanos admonishes his favored daughter when her bludgeon stills then drops to her side.

She looks down at a beaten and bruised Nebula, uncertain and nervous. “She has already lost.” Her voice is too high, too thin, with an edge that might border on pleading.

Thanos frowns. “Proceed,” he orders. His daughter knows better than to question his judgment a second time.

So Gamora lets her club fall, and Nebula knows no more.

When she awakens on a medical cot, Nebula’s vision is digital, fritzy at the corners in a way it hadn’t been before, and the crown of her head is smooth chrome yet to be covered in artificial skin. There’s too much feedback overtaking her as her artificial brain adjusts to the new sensations, the pain and existential dread, and learns to parse and disregard unimportant background noise. She curls into herself, her breath quickening as she wonders whether the real Nebula is dead. Is she only a copy, an android who thinks she is a dead woman?

“How are you feeling, Sister?” Gamora inquires softly, reaching out to touch the new prosthetic.

Nebula flinches, and Gamora retracts her hand.

 


 

It’s after the failure on Xandar that Thanos finally learns what he’s lost. His favorite daughter has gone AWOL, shacking up with some petty thief of little consequence and his merry band of losers.

It’s disappointing but not unexpected. Many children go through a rebellious phase, and he had been aware of her burgeoning defiance in the past decade or so. Gamora will come to her senses and return home eventually, once she gets this youthful restlessness out of her system.

Thanos is mulling over her desertion in his barren throne room when Death appears at his side.

He might as well get it over with.

“Gamora left. Nebula followed her.”

Death whistles low. “I didn’t think our girls had it in ‘em.”

“They will be back,” Thanos states, lest Death gets any ideas about their daughters’ absence changing the status quo. “Gamora just needs some space to clear her head.”

There’s a beat of silence before Death asks, “And Nebula?”

Thanos knew her fate would weigh on him, wondering whether Nebula will bear the brunt of both sisters’ punishment for absconding together. “Inconsequential,” he states, deciding to soothe his beloved’s fears in such trying times. “I’ve spent long enough trying to shape her into something useful, someone better, and still she turned out to be a disappointment. All that time and effort… wasted. As long as she stays away from my plans, Nebula can do whatever she desires.”

Death’s shoulders droop in relief. Thanos knows what he’s thinking.

“Though I suppose I can still find her, track her down and dissemble her for spare parts. It’s not like she doesn’t have an assortment of trackers embedded in her cybernetics,” he muses. “It would be easy.”

Death’s back goes as stiff as his voice. “I wouldn’t want chu to go to all the trouble fer an old bag o’ bolts.”

“I wouldn’t… normally, but I would like to remind you how simple such an action would be… if she became too much trouble, if she interfered with my plans…” Thanos insinuates. “You understand my meaning.”

“Loud an’ clear, big guy. Loud an’ clear.”

“You should call me Thanos at some point. Not just when you are upset.”

Death simply glares back, his lips thinned into a disgruntled line.

 


 

Four years pass, and Gamora doesn’t come back.

But Nebula does.

After the destruction of Xandar in his bid to reclaim the power stone, Nebula had slipped in behind his defenses and nearly succeeded in taking off Thanos’s head.

He’s almost proud of her.

So, he has her suspended and disjointed, frozen in silent pain. She grunts through the experience, tremors wracking her body but refusing to give her captors the satisfaction while Death stands beside her in quiet vigil, pointedly turned away from Thanos, helpless anger radiating off him in waves.

“Stupid girl,” he mutters, lifting a withered hand to pantomime a caress across her cheek. “My stupid, angry, brave girl… what has he done to you?”

Thanos has had enough. “Much as I have enjoyed this little family reunion, I have other, more-pressing matters to attend to,” he tightens her gravitational restraints, locking her in a most-uncomfortable position. “Nebula, why don’t you hang tight, and we will catch up later? Perhaps we can review old home movies and reminisce about the past. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Nebula doesn’t respond – can’t, in fact – but that does little to deter Thanos. He steps up to the command center and keys in a query to search the data files of Nebula’s digital brain for memories of Gamora. He knows from discrete check-ins over the years that Gamora and Nebula occasionally collaborated on missions together, periodically rekindling their sisterhood in their self-imposed exile from the mothership.

Oh, how Thanos misses his favorite daughter. It had been too long; their reunion far past due. He aches to have her by his side when he finally fulfills his destiny.

Gamora will soon learn about Xandar, and his daughter, being the clever assassin she is, will know where he is headed next. He must get there first to prepare the welcoming party she deserves.

“Come,” he orders Death. “We cannot delay.”

 


 

Thanos first collects the Space Stone from his one-time collaborator, Loki Odinson, after wiping out half the Asgardian refugees aboard the Statesman. He strangles the treacherous prince and jettisons his brother into the void for good measure.

“Asgardians are rare specimens for one such as you; are they not?” He murmurs to Death in the aftermath. It’s a peace offering, an olive branch extended to his beloved.

I forgive you, he means but doesn’t say.

Death refuses to respond, to accept Thanos’s magnanimity.

Thanos will just have to try harder.

So he decimates Knowhere, killing every single living being within the Celestial’s rotting head and finally collecting the Reality Stone upon the death of The Collector, an ageless being commonly thought to be untouchable to one such as Death.

“Obtained you an immortal, Beloved. Are you not impressed?” he wheedles the taciturn entity once again.

As if to drive home his point, Death fades out, likely returning to Nebula’s side. Death will pay for his obstinacy, as will Nebula, but for now, Thanos concentrates on his quickly-approaching reunion with Gamora.

After so many years, Thanos has one question for her, one niggling doubt he would like to lay to rest, and he knows of the perfect test.

 


 

Gamora loves him.

Yes, she ‘kills’ him, but she cries about it after. And that’s all that matters.

Her boyfriend is willing to kill her, too, just as she asked. Thanos knows he would have cried over that as well. Truth told, he didn’t think this Peter Quill had it in him. He is vaguely impressed. Not that that is important anymore. Gamora is back where she belongs, with Thanos, as he enters the final stages of their plans, the culmination of his life’s purpose.

He will bring balance to the universe, no matter the cost.

 


 

He takes Gamora back to the mothership and locks her in her old room, untouched for four years, everything just how she left it. Gamora pounds on the door, crashes everything within in her anger and despair.

Thanos returns to Nebula to watch some clips of Gamora, trying to understand the depth of their sisterhood he had actively tried to discourage during their upbringing.

He learns of the Soul Stone and sees red.

 


 

Gamora lies to him. Again. She’s not very good at it.

So, he threatens Nebula, extending her already drawn limbs, and her screams seem to undo something within Gamora, jarring the truth loose.

“Vormir!” she cries out, caressing Nebula’s face as she collapses back into herself. “The stone is on Vormir.”

Thanos briefly wonders what it is about Nebula exactly, that inspires such loyalty in people he respects, both Death and Gamora. She is a failure, a waste of spare parts, and yet… he watches the middle-space, where Death has stepped in between him and their daughters.

He may never understand what they see in her. Nebula was never good for much beyond her value as a hostage.

 


 

Thanos is already crying. He knows what he must do.

“Now, let’s think about this,” Death tries to reason with him.

Thanos remembers Eros, Mother, Titan, all the people he has killed up to that point. He imagines them laughing at the irony of it all. For him to have come so far, lost so much, only for the fates to demand one last sacrifice of the only thing he has ever…

Gamora draws back, horror dawning on her face.

“No. This isn’t love,” she insists with the certainty of someone who thinks she has experienced better. Perhaps with that posse of idiots he had recently plucked her from, or maybe even before that, when she lived a meager existence amongst the Zehoberei. Thanos knows better, of course. Gamora had had to scrounge for scraps and would have likely died at an early age had he not intervened, but he supposes anyone’s past has a way of improving upon reflection.

It doesn’t lessen his sorrow at what is now required of him.

“I ignored my destiny once. I cannot do that again. Even for you,” he says with conviction. Gamora snaps her dagger from his belt, slides out the dual blades, and quickly pulls it towards her own stomach, but the weapon erupts in a harmless burst of bubbles.

“I’m sorry, little one,” Thanos says softly, latching onto Gamora’s arm and pulling her towards the precipice.

“Stop it! Stop! Stars damn it!” Death demands, positioning himself between them and the ledge.

Thanos pushes through Death, ignoring the cold shiver as they pass through the spirit. He can barely hear anything over the thrumming in his ears, the wild beat of his heart in his chest.

Gamora struggles valiantly, kicking and screaming in his grasp, but it’s not enough. He’s too strong, his grip as steely as his determination as he drags her over the edge and releases. He watches her fall then crash into the rocks below, her body broken and still.

The sky flashes brilliant orange-yellow, and Thanos awakens in a shallow pool at the base of the mountain, the Soul Stone pressed into his palm.

“I can’t believe you,” Death growls at him as Thanos slides the stone into the gauntlet. Whatever has happened to Gamora’s soul on Vormir, it hadn’t been reaped by Death upon the demise of her mortal vessel. Thanos tries not to think of the implications of that as the Soul Stone winks in its casing.

Instead he attempts to justify himself: “It’s not personal. Her death was necessary,” but it comes across too wooden, unconvincing.

“Maybe sometimes it should be,” Death snarls then spits out, “Personal.”

“Is it ever for you?”

Death’s tone drops low. “I remember… when I saw what chu did to Gamora, I finally remembered how I died. I destroyed my ship, my men… lost everythin’. No, that ain’t right – I freely gave everythin’ just so he could live. You killed our daughter fer yer cause, but I burned my whole world to save my boy.”

“My actions will spare trillions.”

“I always thought at least Gamora was safe with you,” Death snaps back.

“It had to be her. She is–” Thanos chokes on the tense, “was the only one it could have been.” The only one I loved enough, he doesn’t say, but the words hang between them. “Don’t you see? It was Fate that brought us both here today, to Vormir. It is my destiny. And hers. Her sacrifice will not be in vain. I will–”

Death promptly dissipates, unwilling to listen any further.

Thanos stares at the empty space where Death had stood, his insistence that he had done the right thing solidifying into conviction within his mind. It had to have been worth it; it had to have been.

But Death…

Death will be back. He always came back.

 


 

Death isn’t there when Thanos returns home, to Titan, to fight a contingent of Earth’s Mightiest Defenders.

He still isn’t there when Thanos blinks out of that place of death and stale memories, the Time Stone nestled in his gauntlet.

There will be time for reconciliation… later, Thanos reasons. There’s only one stone left now – the Mind Stone – and then this will all be over.

 


 

For his part, Death can’t even stomach Thanos’s presence, not after what he had done.

How could he? he thinks, remembering Gamora. She had been Thanos’s favorite, a little slip of a girl grown seemingly cold and cruel in his presence, but in quiet moments away from Thanos’s influence, Death had spied a softness hidden within, the one Nebula cherished when her anger and helpless frustration would abate.

He watches over Nebula now, on Titan, in Thanos’s absence. Her face is shuttered, though her lip trembles in grief as she stares at the ground, unable to meet anyone’s eye.

Ah, so she knows about Gamora.

Death gives her companions a cursory glance. Nebula has always been a lone operator, and the way she stands apart from the others shows she has not changed. His gaze lingers on a man leaning heavily on a bug-eyed woman as he limps towards his hodgepodge team. There’s something familiar about him that Death can’t place. Perhaps the traumatized son or partner of someone he had reaped back in the day?

He’s still trying to figure it out when he feels a pulse vibrate past him and overtake the living.

The bug-eyed woman is the first to notice the change, the feeling of wrongness settling into her bones.

“Something… is… happening,” she says, but her body is already disintegrating into black ash as her soul reappears in the in-between. Confused, Death swings his scythe, severing the cord connecting her to the mortal realm.

The man she had been propping up looks on in horror, but his attention is directed elsewhere to his nearby muscle-bound companion.

“Quill?” Muscles says as he too dissolves.

Death nearly stops at the name, coming back to himself in time to reap Muscles as well. Death has no heart beat, hasn’t felt it in ages, but he swears he feels his heart jump to his throat, that yammering organ pitching in his chest and clogging up his airways, preventing all speech.

“Steady, Quill,” yet another encased in armor tells him, visibly trying not to panic as the tips of Quill’s fingers blacken and begin to flake away in wisps.

Like Feathers.

Death stares at the disintegrating man, this Quill, in terrible realization, unable to turn away as the pieces slot into place. He recalls the one stubborn memory remaining from his mortal life. That last hold-out when everything else had fallen away.

Feathers.

And a young boy grown into a man. His son.

Quill.

“Aw, man,” his son says, the ashes overtaking him and reconstituting his essence in the in-between.

Quill’s eyes widen. “…Yondu?” he whispers.

Death – Yondu – hesitates, wanting to say so much, to apologize, to hold him and soothe his fears of the ever-after, but in the next moment, Quill doubles over in pain, his soul being pulled in all directions as his tether to the moral realm frays and splits into millions of threadbare strings.

“I’m sorry, boy,” Yondu chokes out, slicing the taut bunch at the root centered in his chest and sending his son to the afterlife.

 


 

Gamora is there, at the end of all things. “Did you do it?” she asks, her face upturned to meet Thanos’s eye. He had forgotten how small she had been, back then, the top of her head barely level with his hip.

“Yes,” Thanos replies, his expression tortured.

She’s silent then, mulling over the implications of that short reply, her face breaking in a knowing expression. “What did it cost?”

He looks at her, the very best thing in his life, as she was before she met him: Young, innocent, uncomplicated.

“Everything.”

 


 

It is done.

With the use of the Space Stone, Thanos escapes Earth, reappearing on his allotment in the Garden where he had long planned his retirement. The whole ordeal has left his body blistered, injured but still whole.

Yondu is waiting for him there.

“You killed him, you know that. You killed my son.”

That surprises Thanos. “You saw him?”

“I had to reap him,” Yondu whispers, his voice trembling with rage.

Thanos drops heavily onto a large wooden chair then leans back and presses the heel of his undamaged palm to his eyes, exhaling slow all the while. He doesn’t know what to do with that information. The deaths had been random, claiming half his forces as well as dealing a tremendous toll on his half his body, sapping his strength and vigor. In fact, he is uncertain whether any of their children still lived, though it seems unlikely.

Silence bears down on them both, heavy and oppressive.

Yondu is the first to break it. “He recognized me… in those last moments, Quill… Peter… he saw me and called out my name, and I had to…” he bites his lip against the shudder. “I didn’t want him to suffer fer any longer than he had to.”

Thanos latches onto one bit of news, that which is relevant to his daughter. “Quill… your son was Peter Quill, that weak buffoon Gamora took up with when she left.”

“My boy ain’t weak,” Yondu snaps. “An' Quill? He was good fer her. She was happy. She wouldn’t’a stayed with him if she weren't.”

“Gamora is more than what she was when she was with him.” Their daughter had potential; she deserved better.

“An’ you killed her anyway.”

Thanos recalls her face, the last time he saw her, in that tranquil world of the damned, and he finds he can’t refute Death’s accusation.

So he asks instead, “Why did you spare me, all those years ago?” He had always wondered. Why take Eros and not him?

“Weren’t yer time.” Yondu almost sounds regretful.

“But it won’t be long now,” he continues, his tone subdued. “Yer reckonin’s near. Ain’t no way no one’s comin’ fer you. All of ‘em are comin’, everyone that lost someone, an’ you don’t got no one left to fight alongside you.”

Thanos stares him down, but stays silent.

“Yer goin’a hafta live with what chu done. Without Gamora, without me. ‘Cause I’m done,” he says, turning away.

That won’t do.

“Nebula–”

“Nebula ain’t alone no more,” Yondu interrupts, his red eyes narrowed. “She got people – good, powerful people – an’ it would be too much trouble fer you to extract her, more’n you think she’s worth, anyway. So I’m tellin’ you… I ain’t never goin’a see you no more ‘til I come to cut your thread. It’s over.”

“If I kill again, you will still be compelled to reap my victims. Your position doesn’t change.”

“You won’t even see me. Nothin’ you do will make me stay no more. I’m tellin’ you, I’m done,” and with that, Yondu dissipates.

Thanos curls his stiffened fingers within the gauntlet, making the stones pulse and twinkle. He considers calling Death on his bluff. He could locate another victim, kill them slow, and see what happens.

He thinks about the ramifications before his arm falls slack. He straightens his fingers to slip the gauntlet off, letting it fall to the floor with a dull thud.

If he does all that and Death doesn’t appear as he threatened to do, then they’re truly over.

 


 

They come for him twenty-three days later, but not before he destroys the Infinity Stones.

“The universe required correction. After that, the stones served no purpose, beyond temptation,” Thanos tells the assembled Avengers who had arrived with his lone surviving daughter, Nebula. He implies and they understand it to mean temptation for others to undo his work.

He doesn’t admit he had also been tempted to do the same, on occasion. He had mulled over the decision a mere two days prior, after a solid three weeks of isolation, even pulling the Gauntlet over his mutilated left hand as he considered undoing his legacy. But he knew it wouldn’t bring back Gamora nor would the action inspire Death’s forgiveness, so when he ultimately snapped a second time, it had been to destroy the stones, to reduce them all to atoms to scatter across the cosmos. The act had crippled him, far more than the initial snap, but it had been worth it to remove the persistent What if scratching at the corners of his mind.

The Avengers try to extract a different answer from him, pummeling his weakened body, but he tells them the truth. “I used the stones to destroy the stones. It nearly… killed me. But the work is done. It will always be. I am inevitable.”

The dark man in the iron armor is desperate. “We have to tear this place apart, he… he- he has to be lying.”

Surprisingly, it is Nebula who vouches for Thanos’s honesty: “My father is many things. A liar is not one of them.”

“Ah, thank you, daughter,” he says, warmth coloring his tone. “Perhaps I treated you too harshly.”

Then, Thor summons Stormbreaker, cleaving him at the neck.

Thanos never sees it coming.

He phases into the in-between only to discover a familiar face.

“Ah, so you are here, Beloved,” Thanos comments, a dull ache radiating from his torso outwards. He ignores it for now; he has long grown used to the chronic pain of nerve and tissue damage.

“Yes,” Yondu states, his expression unreadable.

“What happens now?” The pain sharpens, erupting like needles across his ethereal flesh.

Yondu cocks his head to one side. “This is normally where I’d reap ya, but…” he trails off, watching Thanos with an unnerving intensity.

It’s unbearable now, burning bright, seemingly searing all his nerve endings.

“…But?” Thanos manages, his face screwed up into a grimace as he fails to suppress a keening wail as the torment worsens exponentially.

“Well, I’ve always been curious ‘bout what happens to a soul when I don’t, so…”

Agony overwhelms Thanos. He curls into a ball, trying to keep himself together as his thread pulls taut at his center like he’s being drawn and quartered from the inside. His flesh shrivels and rots, becoming black and fetid.

“Why don’t we find out?”

Chapter Text

The Benatar had been completely refurbished by Rocket during the five years the rest of the Guardians had been gone. Peter considers Rocket's upgrades as he crouches down to reach the posh new coffee maker Rocket had installed on the kitchen counter, which had been lowered so as to be convenient for someone of his reduced stature. Though annoyed, Peter found he couldn’t really fault his once and current teammate for moving on as it were. It had been five years, after all, and he would prefer to think any of them could live beyond the team, if the situation called for it.

Still…

He replaces the pot, stretching out to his full height and casually turning around to lean a hip against the similarly lowered shelving. He takes a sip, staring over the rim of his mug and a bit lower into the middle space, level to where Yondu’s eyes had been in life. He had been short, not that Yondu had appreciated the reminder. Peter drains the cup, wishing that he had something stronger, that Rocket had not insisted on a dry ship to combat Thor’s rampant alcoholism.

He puts the cup down on the lowered counter, then stares back across the vacant room, shoulders slouched.

“Hey Yondu,” he starts, then lifts an arm to rub the back of his neck, rolling his eyes towards the ceiling. “This is so stupid, I swear,” he mutters, mostly to himself. “Probably was hallucinating anyway. Dying makes you see weird things sometimes. Life-flashing-before-your-eyes stuff. Yeah… so, it was probably nothing.”

But his gaze veers back towards the empty space where Yondu would have stood. “But um… Yondu, if you’re there, if you’re listening… I just wanted to say… Thanks, I guess.”

Tapping a foot, he waits a beat for something – anything – but unsurprisingly, there is no response. It couldn’t hurt to elaborate though, just in case, especially since such opportunities for privacy are rare on a crowded ship. “Thank you for… saving me, time and again, and for being there when it counted. I’m not sure if you’ve been keeping tabs on me since you… or if that was just the one-time thing, but… I got a kid now. Groot. He’s a handful, and I kind of get why you were the way you were. With me. Sometimes, it’s hard, not knowing what to do, making everything up on the fly and trying not to screw up too badly… It’s very hard and confusing and you never stop worrying about them, do you? I get that now, and well, I guess what I’m trying to say is… that you weren’t half-bad at it, Yondu, being a dad that is. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination - I mean, that whole thing with the M-ship and Nova Corps when I was ten, what were you think-" he stops himself and coughs, "but anyways... well, you did okay, so thank you, and... and I’m sorry.”

Peter shivers, a sudden chill coming over him, curling up his spine, across his shoulders, and settling on his chest. He wonders if Rocket had lowered the air vents as well, but when he looks up, he sees their position is unchanged from what he remembers. He crosses his arms, rubbing the icy bite from his skin with warm hands, but the inexplicable cold doesn’t abate.

He exhales and sees the wispy ghost of his breath, then relaxes, sliding back to slump across Rocket’s countertop.

“See you later, old man.”