The sky was on fire. Not literally, of course, but it might as well have been. Burnt orange and vivid pink streaked across the dark gray clouds, and nearby, Tony could still smell the burning remains of whatever building that had collapsed during the battle. He lounged on a crushed car, the suit detached around him, breathing in and appreciating the beautiful setting. There was something ethereal about the aftermath of destruction, when the dust finally settled and the flames died down.
Nearby, the team was relaxing while they waited for the ambulances to arrive. Sirens wailed in the distance. Clint was perched on a pile of rubble, his arms folded around his drawn-up knees. Natasha was stretched out beside him, seeming content to just be still. Thor and Bruce were sitting side-by-side on the hood of a truck, their feet swinging back and forth off the edge. And then there were the soldiers, standing a couple of feet away.
Tony glanced over at the Captain and Bucky, and relished the combination of love and pain that shot through his chest. As beautiful as the sky was, it could never compare to them. The smoke reflected in Bucky’s azure eyes as he gazed out over the worn battlefield. Ashes were smeared across Steve’s face, and his lips were reddened and parted ever so slightly. The fading light danced enchantingly across their perfect features, and Tony couldn’t help but let his gaze linger a little bit longer.
Bucky’s shiny hand laced together with Steve’s, and the two turned towards each other. Their lips met in a slow, passionate kiss that radiated love. Nobody had been surprised when the two announced they were dating, but it didn’t make it hurt any less. It sucked when you fell in love with two amazing people, who were perfect for each other. Their love had survived almost a century of tribulations, and there was no way in hell Tony could ever come between that. Not that he’d want to. He wasn’t that delusional.
Although, even with the pain, it was the perfect day. Some might think Tony weird for that, considering they were all bone-tired from the battle, but that simply meant that he would be able to sleep tonight without torment. His muscles were already sore, but it was the second-best kind, the absolute best being the soreness that came after really good sex. But the point was: they were all alive. They had survived, and won the battle, and everything was okay. The sun would set today, and it would inevitably rise tomorrow. And that comforted him.
Steve turned then, and those eyes flitted over to Tony. Bucky glanced over, presumably to see what Steve was looking at, and now Tony had two super soldiers locking eyes with him. The engineer flushed lightly in embarrassment at having been caught staring, so he just lifted a corner of his lips and shrugged. Steve smiled softly in response, causing butterflies to explode in Tony’s stomach. The Captain opened his mouth, as if to say something, but Tony would never figure out what it was. At that moment, Tony heard a deafening pop, and then pain exploded in his chest.
He had never felt anything like it before. It was undeniably the worst thing he had ever gone through, including Afghanistan, and he collapsed to the ground from the sheer force behind the gunshot. Something was ringing, and it took Tony a second to realize that it was his ears. He was on his back, staring up at the sky, and it was still so beautiful, which seemed ridiculous. His chest was slick with blood.
Steve and Bucky reached him first, and they dropped to their knees beside him, their faces horrified. “Tony!” Steve shouted, and Tony grimaced in pain.
He heard another gunshot, and then Natasha and Clint were there. Bruce and Thor arrived last, and the whole team was now kneeling around him, sporting various expressions between panicked and horrified. Bucky had his hands pressed against the wound, his eyes wild and his lips moving in a constant stream of protests. Steve was running his hands through Tony’s hair, looking desperate. Tony sucked in a shaky breath, his eyes watering and his chest gurgling with blood.
"You'd better not fucking die, Stark," Natasha warned, and her green eyes were watery when she glared at him. He managed a weak laugh, and winced from the pain. God, it hurt so much.
“Get an ambulance here now!” Bucky shouted at Clint, who immediately pulled out his phone.
“Tony? Hey, Tony! Look at me!” Steve commanded, and Tony did. He had never seen the Cap that scared before, and that comforted him in a strange way. Steve cared about him, at least. It was also alarming, because Tony understood that he was going to die, and he wanted them to be okay after he was gone.
“S-Steve,” Tony croaked, weakly lifting his hand to the Cap’s face. Steve leaned in so that Tony’s palm was resting on his cheek, and Tony noticed that his hand was covered in blood and he was staining the Cap’s skin. Those azure eyes swept over him, his mouth open in horror. Tony saw him swallow.
“Listen, you’re going to be fine,” Steve told him in a voice that was not breaking so much as already broken. “You’re going to be fine, Tony, you’re fine. Please, please, hang on, the ambulance is coming, I got you. I got you.”
“I-I’m sorry,” Tony croaked, because he should have seen it coming. Should have kept his suit on. Shouldn’t have let his guard down.
“Don’t speak, save your energy,” Bucky told him, his jaw tight with strain. “Stay awake, you hear me? You’re going to be fine.” Tony focused his gaze on the ex-assassin, and he saw that he was scared too. Tony blinked, his eyes staying shut a second longer than they should have. “Hey!” Bucky barked. “Stay awake! Dammit, Tony, you’re going to be fine!” And that was when he broke down and sobbed. “Please, please, you have to be okay, you can’t leave us!”
But Tony knew that he had to. He couldn’t stay with them, no matter how much he wanted to. He saw now that he should never had hid how he felt. Their anger was a small price to pay compared to the weight in his heart now. He couldn’t die without telling them.
“I love you,” he choked out, his vision darkening around the edges. He heard shouting, and desperate hands scrambled across his chest, in his hair, stroking his face, but it was all fading out. He looked up to the sky, and it was on fire, and it was so beautiful. And he smiled a small smile before everything went dark.
Shockingly, impossibly, against all odds, Tony opened his eyes. He was in a room, with the curtains drawn and a small amount of sunlight streaming in from the window. He was disoriented for a moment, wondering where the hell he was and what had happened. And then it all came rushing back. The battle. The gunshot. Dying. He bolted upright in alarm, then winced in pain as his whole body protested.
“Easy,” a kind voice cautioned. Tony turned to see a tall man, with swept back dark hair, smiling at him. Tony inhaled sharply, gazing around the room. He looked down to see that he was shirtless, with white bandages wrapping around his chest, and a soft gray blanket was draped over his lower half.
“Where…where am I?” Tony asked, his voice rough from disuse. The man shrugged and sat down on the edge of the bed. Tony figured he should be more worried about this stranger in the room with him, but he was more curious than anything. This time, he honestly thought that he was dead.
“My apartment,” the man said simply, as if that explained everything. “Here, have some water.” He held out a tall glass of water, and only then did Tony realize how thirsty he was. He took it from the man and drank greedily, only stopping to catch his breath when he was finished. The man took the glass back, and set it on the bedside table.
“Who are you?” Tony questioned. The man turned back to him, his hazel eyes gentle and calming. There was something about him that made Tony immediately comfortable, despite the mysteriousness surrounding the situation.
“My name is Enzo,” he answered in a deep tenor. “I’m the guy who brought you back to life.” Tony’s eyes widened, and he sucked in a sharp breath.
“What?” he breathed, shocked and simultaneously disbelieving. Enzo smiled.
“Don’t be so surprised, Tony,” he chastised, surprising the engineer with the casual use of his name. “You’ve seen weirder things. I have abilities that are beyond the realm of what is considered normal for humans. I can heal the dead, but only in very special circumstances. You fit those circumstances, so here you are.” Enzo paused, as if giving Tony time to process. Then he smiled wryly. “No need to thank me.”
“How- how long was I…?”
“A little over a week,” Enzo replied, immediately understanding what Tony meant. “It takes a while to revive the dead, believe it or not. Your friends had to suffer a little bit first.”
“What do you mean?” Tony asked, his gut twisting unpleasantly at the thought of his family suffering.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t do anything to them,” Enzo reassured him. “They just needed time to reflect on your death, time to let it sink in. My powers, while incredible, have limitations.”
“What are they?” Tony asked curiously. “How am I here?”
“I don’t deal with death exactly, per se. I deal with the soul,” Enzo began, looking lost in thought. “To put it in simple terms, Tony, every human being that walks the earth has a soul. And the soul forms connections with other souls. Souls are what feel pain, and joy, and grief. I can feel the soul, and I can bring it back from whatever it goes after it leaves the body. But only if that soul still has strong enough bonds to souls that are still on earth.”
“And my- my soul had…bonds?” Tony verified hesitantly. Enzo nodded approvingly, looking strangely pleased and reverent.
“You, Tony, had a very strong pull,” Enzo informed him softly, “which is how you came to my attention. You had a number of bonds that were connecting you to the living, and so your soul was not at rest. The people you are connected to are in pain. An immense amount.” Tony winced at that.
“Are they okay?” He dreaded Enzo’s answer.
“Depends on what you mean by ‘okay,’ Tony. Their souls are dimming. It happens when people suffer a loss. That is why most people cannot be brought back after their souls depart. The souls they are connected to are not strong enough to draw on. However, you had nine soul bonds. The amount of pain…” Enzo actually shuddered.
“Whoa,” Tony said softly. He had no idea that many people cared about him.
“Whoa is right,” Enzo muttered, still seeming disturbed. “Anyways, so I brought your soul back to your body with the help of that pain, and the help of those bonds. If you didn’t have as many connections, it wouldn’t have been possible. So when you return to your friends, Tony, understand that they are what brought you back. Remember that next time you feel like pushing them away.”
Tony was stunned into silence. His head was whirling with all of the information, and he wasn’t sure if he could believe it or not. But he was here, wasn’t he? He had been dead, and now he was not. And in a weird sort of way, Enzo’s explanation made sense. He decided to just go with it.
“So I’m back for good?” he asked, not daring to hope. Enzo smiled and nodded.
“Yes,” he replied, causing Tony’s heart to soar. “And from what it looks like, you have a lot of explaining to do to your friends. I would go swiftly, Tony. They’ve been waiting long enough already.”
“Do you know who the nine people are?” Tony asked. Enzo shrugged.
“Sure. Do you want to know?” Tony nodded before he could tell himself that this was a bad idea. But he wanted to know exactly who saved his life. To his surprise, Enzo moved forward and pressed his hands over Tony’s chest. “I can only see them through you, so as long as you know their names, or nicknames or whatever, I can tell you.”
“Okay,” Tony whispered nervously.
“Alright, let’s see,” Enzo murmured. “A man named Steve.” Tony’s heart stuttered in his chest. “Bucky.” Tony flushed in surprise, and felt slightly light-headed with the knowledge that Steve and Bucky cared about him, and that their souls were connected. “Natasha. Thor. Brucie-Bear?” Enzo was smiling as he said that one.
“Affectionate endearment,” Tony explained with a grin. Enzo shrugged and continued.
“Clint. Rhodey. Pepper. And Fury. What kind of a name is Fury?” Enzo demanded. Tony was shocked. He and Fury had a bond? He felt like dancing with joy. He always knew Fury cared about him! The hard-headed bastard just never showed it, that’s all. Tony smiled.
“He’s sort of my boss,” he told Enzo. “Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD. Probably going to yell at me for getting myself killed.” The thought made him chuckle.
“Sounds like a nice guy,” Enzo remarked with a smirk.
“He is.” There was a pause. “I’d better get going, then.” Enzo just nodded. Tony stood up on wobbly legs, and leaned against the bedside table. He felt like crap, but he was alive. He was alive.
“Try not to get shot again, okay?” Enzo asked, handing Tony a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie. Tony quickly got dressed.
“I’ll do my best,” he promised, and Enzo helped him to the door. “How close are we to the Avengers Tower?”
“It’s a couple blocks away,” Enzo replied, appraising him carefully. “Think you can make it on foot?”
“Absolutely,” Tony enthused. “I came back from the dead. Pretty sure I can walk a few hundred feet.” This earned him a genuine laugh from Enzo.
“Good man.” Enzo escorted the engineer to the door, handing him a folded up pile of clothes that were resting on a chair near the door. “You were wearing these when you died. Might want to burn ‘em. They’re kinda bloody. And here’s your phone.” Tony placed his hand on the doorknob, then paused, and glanced back.
“Hey, Enzo?” The dark-haired man locked eyes with the engineer. “Thank you.” Enzo just smiled, and retreated back into the apartment. Tony took a deep breath, then stepped outside. The sun was bright and blinding, yet refreshing at the same time.
He tucked the clothes under his arm, and started for home. He had his hoodie up so people wouldn’t recognize him-he didn’t need mass hysteria just yet. And as reached the outside of the tower, it occurred to him that his last words, to Steve and Bucky, were “I love you.” Oh, god. He didn’t honestly think that he was going to make it, so it was okay to say that at the time, because he wouldn’t have to face the disgust on their faces afterwards. He figured he would just be dead.
But he wasn’t. Which- obviously- complicated things. He hesitated, torn between wanting his family back and that strong urge to just run. Never look back, just keep going, and forget about the life he’d built for himself. In fact, he turned on his heel to do just that when Enzo’s words came floating back into his mind: “So when you return to your friends, Tony, understand that they are what brought you back. Remember that next time you feel like pushing them away.”
Enzo was right. Tony couldn’t make the decision for them. He would go back, and then give them the option. If they wanted him gone, he would leave. But if not, then he wasn’t going to let his damn insecurities keep him away from the place he belonged. Tony took a deep breath, and entered the building.
When he stepped inside, the first thing he did was glance up at the ceiling, a habit he couldn’t break no matter how many times he told himself that JARVIS was not in the ceiling.
“J?” he asked hesitantly, and there was a short pause.
“Sir?” JARVIS asked, sounding oddly hesitant. “Is that really you?”
Tony nodded, tears gathering in his eyes. “Yeah, buddy. It’s me.”
“We believed you were dead!” JARVIS replied, sounding upset for an AI. “Sir, how are you not dead?” Tony chuckled, and wiped away the tears.
“Long story, J,” he murmured. “But I’m back.” He inhaled deeply, a smile spreading across his face. “I’m back.”
“Would you like me to notify the others?” JARVIS inquired, and Tony deliberated for a moment before deciding against it. He’d rather just surprise them. A small laugh escaped him when he thought that it would be funny to pretend he was a ghost, but he quickly discarded the idea. Natasha would probably throw a knife into hi jugular if he did that.
“No thanks, buddy. You mind telling me where they are?”
“In the common room, though I must warn you, sir. They have entered a serious state of depression, and most of them have not eaten nor slept within the past 24 hours.” JARVIS’ voice took on a softer tone, and Tony swore under his breath. He didn’t realize it would be that bad. Anxiously, he took the elevator up to the main floor.
When he got off, he heard voices.
Steve was broken. There was no other way to put it. Something inside him died the day Tony bled out in his arms, and he knew he would never get it back. It had been the same when he thought Bucky had died falling off the train, only worse somehow. With Bucky, well, at least they both had love, and they knew how the other one felt. Steve had never gotten a chance to tell Tony that he loved him.
And Bucky hadn’t either. They had been planning on asking the beautiful, brilliant engineer out on a date after the battle. What a sick joke that was. And then Tony’s last words… he didn’t know what to make of them. Who had Tony been talking to? For all he knew, it could’ve been Clint, or any one of them. And he would never find out.
Steve wasn’t the only one who broke when Tony died; the rest of them had as well. Natasha had stopped smiling. Clint had stopped pulling pranks. Thor hadn’t eaten a pop tart. Bruce hadn’t stepped foot in the lab. And Bucky…well, Bucky had gone back to the way he was when he first came back. He rarely spoke. His eyes were hollow. And they spent most of their time curled up in each other’s arms, but not making eye contact; the reminder hurt too much.
“We can’t keep doing this,” Natasha suddenly said, her voice empty. Steve glanced up, and met the redhead’s gaze.
“Doing what?” Steve asked, though he already knew.
“Sitting around, being depressed,” she replied, her arms wrapped loosely around her knees, which were drawn up to her chest. “Tony wouldn’t have wanted this.”
“Well,” Bucky murmured, his voice rough with disuse. “He’s dead. What he would have wanted no longer matters.” Steve swallowed, feeling like he had been gutted.
“It does,” Bruce growled. “If we move on, we lose him all over again.”
“He’s already gone, Bruce,” Natasha objected quietly. “He’s dead. Moving on is all we have left. If you had died, would you have wanted Tony to just bury himself?”
“No, of course not,” Bruce retorted. “But it’s different.”
“How?” Thor challenged.
“Because Tony was glue,” Bucky spoke up, and Steve’s gaze slid up to see Bucky, with those hauntingly empty blue eyes. “He held us together. He meant a lot to each of us, because he cared. He treated us like family. He took care of us. It’s his tower, and he invited us all to live here. It’s different because without him…” Bucky inhaled shakily. “It’s empty.”
“Aww, Buck,” a familiar voice drawled. “I didn’t know you cared.” Steve’s head snapped up to find Tony, Tony, standing at the entrance to the living room with an amused smile gracing his lips. Steve felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.
“Tony?” Natasha breathed, slowly getting to her feet. Her wide, catlike green eyes were fixed on the engineer, and her lips were parted in shock. There was a collective, sharp inhale.
“In the flesh,” he confirmed, grinning as he spread his arms. “Did you miss me?”