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The Eternals

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Clint dies in battle. He has always been lucky, triply so since he fought as an ordinary man among gods and super soldiers and men in iron suits. He runs on a weapon with limited ammunition, not a hammer or a suit powered by a reactor powerful enough to run a small town for months. Life is not a first person shooter with infinite reloads, but he always seems to come out on top. But this time, he is one arrow short.

***

The first time Bruce tries to kill himself, he sticks a gun down his throat and pulls the trigger. The Hulk spits it back out.

After he sees the clear cage, he has a moment of hope, but chaining himself to a battleship at the bottom of the ocean only results in the disruption of a lot of fish and an oil rig when the Hulk walks the thing back to shore.

He even tries jumping at the sun while they are battling in space. After a month floating in the void, Loki retrieves him, arguing that space will make a man crazy (Bruce and the Hulk are inclined to agree) and that they don’t really need a crazy enraged monster on the surface of the sun.

***

Steve lost everyone he knew and loved once: Bucky, Peggy, Howard, his unit, his commanding officers, the backup dancers in his stage show. But at least it was a clean break. Now, he stays young, watching as the people he loves die slow deaths around him.

***

Towards the end, Natasha forgets who she is. Sometimes she speaks in Russian. Sometimes she begs. Sometimes she interrogates the staff of the nursing home as though why they are five minutes late with dinner is a state secret. At times she is hateful. She spits at Steve and calls him the enemy. Other times she is sweet, more vulnerable than Steve has ever seen the Black Widow, sitting by the window with her head on his shoulder like a familiar lover. It’s the sweetness that hurts the most.

***

The Aesir do not die, per say. Loki had explained it once, when Tony complained about why he could not do magic without the use of technology. Loki and Thor are physical manifestations of multi-dimensional beings. Loki has access to his full nature, the part that is connected with probability and infinite space. Most Aesir do not until they are released from their physical form and sent to either Valhalla or Helheim.

And then there is Ragnarok. There are beings, the Norns, who exist outside of time. They see the big bang over and over again, millions of universes, millions of possibilities. But Thor, Loki, Odin, the Gods all have an appointment with fate - one that they will make, because they have already. They will. It is all the same.

Loki had laughed once, bloodied, with his entrails hanging out and half his face missing, when Steve threatened to finish him. “I know my death intimately,” he had said. “How arrogant of you to assume you can change what is written.”

***

Tony died in a cave in Afghanistan and every moment since he has been walking dead. He has lived far longer than his reckless behavior deserves. He has lived longer than a man with shrapnel in his heart can expect. But, still, he dies too soon.

The shrapnel had been easy for a god to magic away, but the scar tissue and the years of living with a power source in his chest, the many injuries, the drinking. One day he is working in his lab and his heart simply stops between one beat and the next.

***

Coulson was the first to die, the most tragic for how much life he still had to live. But his death had meaning - it shaped the lives of those around him. It bonded the greatest team the world had ever known.

But not all death is meaningful.

***

It’s Tony’s that does it. Thor wears his armor and comes with a trunk-full of mead for when he expects them to celebrate Tony’s warrior’s death.

Bruce is a mess, crying like a child.

“Why do you cry at this death when you selfishly seek your own?” Thor asks.

“Tony did not want to die. I didn’t want him to. I’ll miss him.”

Thor thinks for a moment. “I do not want you to die. I will miss you.”

“But I kill people. The Hulk . . . he can’t be contained.”

“Not here, perhaps,” Thor acknowledges. “Mortal lives are short, Bruce Banner. We have been cautioned since childhood not to love them. Miss them, of course. Appreciate them, become absorbed by them, but never bind our souls to a mortal. If they die today or tomorrow it matters not in the growth of Yggdrasil. They will die - that is the nature of things.”

Bruce is shocked. Thor has been compassionate, a protector of Earth for as long as Bruce has known him. Thor will fight to his last breath for the Earth and he has sacrificed much for his teammates.

“Lives are short, but your civilizations, the cultures that rise and fall here. Your ingenuity, your promise, comes as a people. The Earth must keep turning, Bruce Banner. It has a great role to play. It is eternal, but mortal lives are not. They are like grains of sand and what anchors fate is the beach.”

It all makes sense then - why Thor is so ruthless in battle, why Loki was not punished more harshly for all the death he brought, why Thor has never seemed affected by the loss of their colleagues, why he is not afraid of the Hulk.

“You say ‘they’ but I am also human.”

Thor laughs. “Oh, friend Bruce, you are mistaken. You are a God, albeit of your own creation. You will fight beside me at Ragnarok and you will survive.” Thor’s grin has always felt like the sunshine itself, but now it clenches at Bruce’s heart like a vice. “So it is written.”

“Come,” Thor says, leading them away from the gravesite. “We will find Rogerson and drink and sing to Tony’s many victories, to the great, most interesting man he was. He is a lucky man, for you and I and Steve and Loki will remember him and carry his memory to the end of time. That is the most a mortal can ask for. He had your love - the love of a God.”

There is rage, suddenly, deeper, more honest that Bruce has ever felt. It claws at him - the unfairness of the universe, that he should live while everyone he loves dies around him - people who deserve to live. It rages against Thor’s arrogance, even when Bruce knows that Thor is right. That if he is cursed to live forever, then he must stop thinking like a mortal and start thinking like a god.

His bones creak, his skins rips, a strangled roar escapes his throat and Bruce is the Hulk. He is the Hulk, both sides integrated for the first time. The rage is universal. It is green. But it is so all encompassing, so directionless, that it dissipated on everything and nothing, leaving Bruce standing there, giant and green beside a god. The stragglers who have not yet left the cemetery scream and run, but Bruce does not care. They are grains of sand.

Thor smiles, patting Bruce on the arm. “After we have mourned our friend, Tony, you will come with me and I will show you all the divine realms. You will be happy there, Bruce. You will be as you were meant to.”

***

Steve thinks that having Wolverine on the team will be a comfort. Like Steve and Bruce he has lived longer than he deserves. He is angry like Bruce and a man out of time like Steve. But Wolverine is not a man who makes people feel comfortable.

He has lived so long and not once bothered to change.

***

Thor fought his brother, but he never really thought they would be enemies forever. They spent nearly a millennia as inseparable allies. They fought together, were raised together, loved each other. Loki’s moods have been mercurial and his fate has been unkind. He spent a year in the void, with its cruel spirits.

And Thor is right, soon enough - ten odd years or so and Loki is back by his side. The Midgardians are shocked. Some say that Thor never really tried to fight Loki. Others say that Asgard is a corrupt realm to grant his brother forgiveness. Thor does not much care for the opinions of mortals and their myopic vision.

All Thor knows is that they years they were apart were the most painful Thor has ever known - a short, horrible spot on his far reaching lifetime.

How can he forgive Loki? It is an absurd question. How could he not?

***

Unlike Thor, who after so many years and so many deaths (Tony, Pepper, Coulson, Fury, Natasha, Clint, Peter, Hank, Professor X, Pietro, Jane . . . the list seems endless) still wears his red cape and battle armor to funerals, Loki is dressed in a dapper black suit and a trenchcoat. His eyes are sober and his features seem almost made for mourning. He stands at Steve’s side solemnly and joins in on all the prayers, even those in Russian, when they lower Natasha’s casket into the ground.

He leads Steve away when the tears begin to flow. Other than Thor and Bruce, Natasha was the last of the original team, the team assembled to fight the man whose arm is now around him, a comfort rather than a threat. The worst curse of this long life is how much everything changes - not just people and places, but the world never slows down to catch its breath. Steve is tired of adapting. He is just tired.

He’s not even Captain America anymore, not with the new world government stepping into place next fall. He was an anachronism when he returned and is even moreso now. His great war is a great joke in a world that has moved beyond nation states and a humanity that is moving increasingly beyond its own biology. Ironically, the Red Skull proved to be right about his vision of the future. There are no flags and Steve is more than a man. Now, SHIELD has an army of super soldiers and weapons of energy. Mutants are becoming more common by the day and some are evolving beyond even the flesh. The new Avengers are such extraordinary individuals, raised on the notion that with great power comes great responsibility and groomed to be heros from childhood. Even the Hulk is gone to play among the giants in Jotunheim and jump around the great forests of Asgard like Tarzan. No, there will always be threats to the planet, but Steve himself is no longer needed to fight them.

Natasha is buried in Arlington. Its great green lawn dotted with headstones does not offer a place to hide, but Loki must have cast some glamor on them. They stand in the middle of the path, but the rest of the Sunday crowd just walks around them without noticing their presence.

Loki grips Steve’s arms. For all he seems thin and fragile compared to Thor, Loki is a tall man, and when the tears clear away their eyes meet. The first time they met, Loki called Steve a man out of time. It stings to know how right he was.

“It’s time,” Loki whispers and Steve knows he is right. It is not a deal with a charming dark haired devil, he argues. Thor and Loki do not die. The Norns, Valhalla, it all exists. The Norse were right and Steve’s mother and father and their parents before them were all wrong. The God Steve worshipped, the creator he loved, does not exist. Steve himself is proof of a perversity a generous God could never have intended.

Steve has watched the friends of two lifetimes fade away. He has experienced more sorrow than he deserves and he has watched his own life be slowly drained of meaning.

Loki extends a hand and Steve takes it.

The sunrise glitters of the magnificent towers of Asgard and Steve looks around at the many people in white robes, smiling and laughing. A green giant and four warriors in armor approach them.

“These friends, you will never lose,” Loki says. “These people, will live until Ragnarok and then we will start it all again.”

***

“Then Enoch walked with God and he was no more, for God took him away.” -Genesis 5:24