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The Dying of the Light

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It was a busy year for me. It always is, of course, but Thanos's gifts made it unbearably so.

I do not know why he thought giving me more work to do was the way to court me.

 

It is not Natasha's world. Her's is the realm of shadows and spies, and this, this war against Thanos, it is none of those things.

But the trickster hiding in the shadows, the one Thor still loves despite everything, he is. He is the very epitome of her world.

She does not know if Loki has truly sided with Thanos or if it is all just part of another scheme. She doesn't care. It is distracting Thor, and they cannot afford this wild card now.

She follows his tricks, his magics, his lies. She pretends to be deceived by them.

He should know better than to believe it. He should know this trick by now.

But he is millennia older than her, and he is convinced he sees it all.

Or perhaps he does see it all. Perhaps he merely wants it to end.

When she strikes, she is a snake, not a spider. Her venom is all the deadlier for it, although it is not her venom, not today.

It is a thing from myth itself, and she's not sure she's entirely human after what she did to get it.

His eyes are wide when he finally falls. He grips her wrist, and the cold is so intense she expects her veins to freeze.

The words he says are not ones she knows, but she catches Thor's name.

Then he is dead. She checks to make sure. She checks again and again, and then she destroys the body for good measure.

The cold on her wrist still burns. It burns and it burns until there is fire in her veins that shows up dark on her skin.

She doesn't go back. Thor cannot see.

She sends Clint a message that says, The water washed the spider out.

He will know what it means.

Then she stumbles to a quiet place where she can watch the rain while she dies.

(Thor knows his brother is dead. He does not know how it happened. He has a kingdom to prepare for war, however. He cannot afford to dwell on it, no matter how his heart aches.

Clint braces himself to tell his kids that Auntie Nat isn't coming home. His own heart won't stop shattering.)

 

Loki's soul is ice cold, and it has nothing to do with him being a Jotunn. It is a shattered and scattered thing with a cruel streak that makes it heavier than any souls I've carried have been in years.

But there is a bit of light left too, and it is not my place to judge.

Her's is a tattered thing, and her body is so used to desperately clinging to it that it takes me a minute to pull it away.

It is not the small, scuttling spider-like thing some would expect. It is the bound one of a terrified child.

I am not surprised by this. Her sisters had been the same. I shake the chains off gently and lift her up.

It is something of a relief to know that there will be no more Widows to carry. It is tempered by knowing how many others there will be like them.

 

Strange is an old friend of mine, though I suspect he doesn't see it that way. Those in the business of healing tend to think we are enemies. They think they are thwarting me.

Most of them don't realize they're just saving me some work.

 

There are still two gems that Thanos needs, and Dr. Strange has one of them.

The sanctuaries are strong. They are not quite strong enough.

Strange dons the Eye and begins the fight.

Over and over again, they play it out. Thanos wins. Strange rewinds. Thanos wins. Strange rewinds.

But Thanos is not Dormamu. He understands time. He understands change.

Thanos wins. Strange rewinds.

And Thanos manages to cut the Eye from his neck.

The time loop ends. The titan catches the stone.

Some of the other masters are helping civilians escape. Some stand behind him. Some are dead.

The titan ignores them all. He has eyes only for Strange. He scoops him up in one giant hand. "You will die slowly, little one."

Strange shrugs. "Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt." His hand is already moving to open a portal.

The power of the Infinity Stones is far greater than his weak magic.

Thanos laughs. "Your tricks cannot help you now. You have irked me, petty sorcerer. You will scream for that."

He does. For - Well, it's hard to say. Thanos has the time stone.

But Thanos does not hold him forever.

(Wong confronts Mordo.

"This is what comes of breaking the natural laws," Mordo says.

"This is what comes of not having the power to fight," Wong snaps back.

Mordo hesitates.

No one hears from him for a week.

He is next seen preparing defenses against Thanos.)

 

I know exactly the number of times that I reached for Strange's soul only for that stone to overrule me at Strange's command. It is a hundred and three if you were wondering. One hundred and three times that Strange used it, counting the incidents with both Dormamu and Thanos.

I know the number of times Thanos used it on him as well, but some things should remain private.

Strange made me laugh, you know. You don't know how rare that is.

His soul was so used to returning to his body, it didn't bother to rise up anymore. Thanos was slow as he reached for the time stone.

Before he could reach it, I darted forward and stole Strange away. Thanos could have wound back time anyway, but he said he respected my claim.

Thanos respects nothing. Strange's soul was battered in my arms.

 

I am very familiar with most soldiers by the time they die. James Rhodes is no exception.

War Machine, they call him.

I have met War. He has many machines. James Rhodes is not one of them. People never are.

 

He goes after Vision next, but Vision is not alone.

Tony is in New York, cutting a deal with Ross so that all of earth's heroes can be free to face Thanos the next time he appears.

Tony is gone, but Rhodey is there. Rhodey is there, and so are a legion of Iron Suits that Rhodey activates the minute the proximity sensors are triggered.

Vision cost Rhodey much, but Rhodey will never stand aside when a teammate is in danger.

He fires everything he's got at Thanos. It's a good shot. A legendary shot, because it takes Thanos enough by surprise that it makes him flinch.

It is not a good enough shot, and for the second time, Rhodey falls from the sky.

Vision follows the plan and flees while Thanos bats his way through the Iron Legion. Thanos must not get this last stone.

It is necessary, but it means Rhodey dies alone.

(Stark rages when he hears. He is fury incarnate when he faces Ross again, and he gets that deal he wants so much.

It is not enough to ease the grief that's breaking him.)

 

I am there to catch James when he falls. His soul is as sturdy as the armor he wears.

I watch Vision go. I wonder if there will be a soul for me to claim when that one's time comes, or if Vision is a true machine of man and War.

My job used to be much simpler than it is now.

It used to have less of Thanos in it too. I wish, not for the first time, that I could give that titan a piece of my mind.

But Thanos cannot see me, only the delusions his mind has conjured, and I have no time to spend wishing.

 

Normally, I do not question the methods with which beings choose to kill. Many are cruel. Many are slow. All add to my burden. I do not try to judge which method is the cruelest. I do not care whether a method is new or old.

I will admit to some surprise when I saw Clint's bow, however. Even greater surprise when I watched how he used it over the years.

I expected him to die young, you know. His kind normally does. But he wasn't like most of his kind, who reach for me with open arms. He wanted to live. He always found a reason to want to live.

I respect that.

 

Alien forces pour once more from the sky. Clint fights like a man who knows exactly who will suffer if they lose.

The alien soldiers fall by the dozens. He flits among the corpses like a shadow, regathering ammunition.

Their attempts to contain the enemy are stretched. The others are far away in other parts of the city. They are united again, at least nominally, but Clint's not sure it will be enough. They need another push to bring them back together.

But now is not the time for that. Now he fires again and again.

When all his arrows have snapped, he pulls out his gun and talks calmly into his comm.

"Cap, I'm almost out of ammo. I need backup."

"Falcon," Cap orders.

"On my way," Sam promises.

Clint fires and fires and fires again.

He knows he will not make it, but Falcon will be here soon. The line will hold.

(The line does hold, but now Sam cannot fly to the aid of the injured or overrun. The line will break soon, but it has not broken yet, and mortals live on not yet's.)

 

My arms are heavy with soldiers that did not die on their native ground. I still manage to take the archer, however.

I always have room for one more.

He does not want to go, but he has accepted the necessity. I take him with the others.

They were enemies in life, but they do not mind in death. Souls rarely do.

 

I told War once that I did not like children.

This was a lie. I treasure children.

I just detest the many ways I meet them.

 

Peter is not sure how long they've been fighting. He's not even really sure where they're fighting. Those Infinity Stones Tony mentioned are making everything really weird. Everything keeps shifting around him.

He does know what they're fighting though, and that's all that really matters. He swings around cracks of light he's pretty sure might be actual holes in reality itself and lands on the roof of the next building. He stumbles a bit on the landing.

It's just because the roof is shaking and starting to crumble. That's all. He's not tried or anything. Nope. Absolutely not. He is one hundred percent capable of continuing this fight.

Bucky - and he still can't believe how awesome it is be on nickname basis with a Howling Commando - takes one last shot down into the street and runs over to him, jumping over the gaps that open in the concrete. "You're sure you can lift me, right, kid?"

Peter shoots out one of the acid webs he's developed at a nasty trying to climb the building. "Hey, I'm stronger than I look. You should see me in gym. I won't drop you."

Bucky's eyebrows are still furrowed with worry, but they're out of time to argue. "Drop me if you have to."

Peter grabs him in an admittedly awkward hold and swings away from the collapsing building. "Yeah, no. I can do this. I am totally Avenger worthy material over here."

That's when a blast of energy cuts through his web.

He raises his shooters and aims frantically at the nearest wall -

Click. Empty.

They hit the ground.

It's not the furthest Bucky's ever fallen. Not by a long shot. There are bones grinding in ways they shouldn't, but he still pushes himself to his knees.

Peter tries to do the same.

He can't. He's pretty sure his ribs are broken. He can't breathe. He can't -

"Kid - Kid, no, come on - "

Bucky's beside him. Peter tries to focus on him.

"No, no, breathe, kid, breathe, you have to breathe, Stevie, you have to breathe - "

The world's warping in even weirder ways. There's something behind them. An enemy coming closer.

Peter can't choke out a warning, so he raises a shaking hand and points.

Bucky whirls to shoot it.

When he turns back, the light in Peter's eyes is all but gone.

(Bucky's voice breaks when he reports it into the comm, and every Avenger takes the news like a blow. He was not supposed to be here. Peter was never supposed to be here.

But the battle is in New York, and Peter had Stark's suit, and he never would have stayed away.

Bucky stops speaking into the comm, and it is the Soldier who stands up.)

 

There is too much responsibility on this soul's small shoulders. There is too much unfinished business shining in him. There are too many dreams lighting up his soul that should not go dark.

I hold him as gently as I can. I do not know if I am doing it right. I have cradled many children this way, but I have never been held myself. I do not know how it feels.

 

I rarely know the whole of someone's story. Most of the time, I only show up for the climax.

I know nearly all of Bucky's though. I saw him throughout his childhood every time I almost claimed Steve. I saw him when his parents died and when Steve's mother did. I saw him when he went to war, when he was captured, when he escaped.

When he fell.

When he killed Hydra's scientists. When he killed Hydra's enemies. When he nearly killed Steve. When Hydra nearly caught up with him when he was on the run. When Zemo finally did. When he came out of the ice and began to fight another war.

I didn't see everything, but I saw enough. I think I know him as well as Steve does.

I'm certain I know him better than he knows himself.

 

He fights like an unstoppable force. He does not hear the voice in his ear asking if he's alright. He doesn't feel his bones scrape against each other as they try to heal.

He doesn't hear the battle. He just hears a too scrawny kid trying to breathe.

He doesn't notice when Steve fights his way to him. He doesn't see Steve step in to guard his back.

But he hears the cry of pain when that costs him.

He whirls to take on the enemy, even though time is coming in fits and starts, letting the enemy move far, far too fast.

There are three of the aliens moving in. They're the bigger ones, the ones that are nearly impossible to take down.

But they've made Steve bleed.

Between the two of them, they manage to take down all three.

Then he sways on his feet and looks down at himself. At everything that's sticking out at him. At enough red to drown a hundred ledgers.

He falls to his knees.

(There are civilians in the buildings beside them. There are civilians under attack. Steve keeps fighting, keeps saving them, even when he realizes Bucky is not at his back. There are children here, and he cannot leave them to fend for themselves, not when Bucky is surely fine.

Bucky is not fine, and Steve is once again too late.)

 

His name is James Buchanan Barnes, but Steve called him Bucky, and it is important to the old soldier that he be called that.

It is a small enough kindness to do so, but it is all I can offer him.

His soul is torn and mangled and so very, very tired, but he refuses to be taken away until Steve has saved the last of the family in the building next to this last fight. Until Steve is there beside him one last time.

The soul shudders and reaches for him.

The three of us have come so far together that it feels wrong to leave one behind alone.

 

When Steven Grant Rogers is an infant, he is cradled half in his mother's arm and half in my own. When he is a child, it is only stubbornness that keeps him alive: his stubborn will, his mother's stubborn nursing, and his friend's stubborn prayers. When he is a young man, he sees me in his future and so he charges ahead like he's determined to hit me full speed. It is only Bucky's desperate grip that keeps him from flying into me.

I haunt him through the war. Especially after the train.

I cannot tell him that I have not claimed his friend, so when he sees me coming, he opens his arms wide.

But the ice holds him tighter than I can pull because deep down, he's too stubborn to truly let go.

When he wakes up, he stops trying to defy me, skips right past flirting with me, and just fixes his eyes grimly on War. Since everything he's tried for has slipped through his grasp, he fixes his eyes on something else and waits for me to come get him when I'm ready.

But it is not for me to choose when to take him, because I am never ready to take my favorites.

 

The others try to talk to him, but they are caught in the midst of their own battles.

Steve runs.

He runs through the maze of time traps and reality twisters. He runs through the battlefield. He runs through the pain of wounds he doesn't even notice.

He runs to where Thanos is fighting the most powerful of the Avengers. Hulk. Scarlet Witch. Vision. Thor.

Steve is enhanced, but he is still human. He cannot win this battle.

He charges forward, shield at the ready. He throws it hard.

It hits Thanos in his right eye.

He howls.

There is blood dripping from the wound.

Thanos lashes out with the gauntlet.

Steve falls.

(Thanos is wounded. Thanos bleeds.

And Steve is fallen.

The Avengers fight harder.)

 

I am surprised to be able to claim him now. I always thought his stubborn hold on his friends would keep him alive until he stood alone.

But he has been alone once, and I am glad he does not have to be again.

His soul is tired, but still so bright that he is almost blinding. I claim him gently and walk on.

 

I do not like the Pym particle. It has too much potential to send souls out of my reach until Time himself yields his soul to me.

I worry about those who use it. So when one dies cleanly, it comes as a relief.

 

Scott knows he's been in giant mode too long, but there's no way he's going tiny in a battle like this.

"Scott, you need to change back," Hope says through the comm.

"I'm fine!" He bats another alien ship out of the air and slam dunks it into one of the weird reality tears. "Really, I'm - "

There is a terrible ripping sensation all through him.

(He reverts back to ordinary size as his pieces fly apart. Hope screams into the comm, but the Wasp keeps fighting. She is used to fighting through losing the people she loves.)

 

His soul is scuffed but not mangled like so many of the others. He is not tortured like Thanos's soldiers or deeply wounded like most of the Avengers. He is as buoyant as a balloon and not at all burdensome.

If I could bend under weight, I would have been bent to the ground by now.

But I do not bend. I walk tall and straight, even when all else falls around me.

 

T'Challa should not be here. He is a king from a long line of kings and a warrior from a long line of warriors, and as of yet he has no heir. If he dies here, there will be no one to take his place.

Or no one I know of, at least. T'Challa has met me, but not frequently. There is much of his story that I do not know. Perhaps there is a cousin. Perhaps there is a wife. Perhaps there is a child.

I tell myself there is. I have been the end of many histories, many inheritances, many traditions.

That does not mean I like it.

 

He does not know these streets like he knows his home. The battle is his because the battle is for the earth and the city is merely incidental, but it is not a battle on his home ground.

He has been fighting for a long time. He is not injured, but he is tired. His thoughts are no longer clear.

When he sees a wall about to fall on two children, he springs forward and grabs them, rolling out of the way.

When he gets back on his feet, he sees Thanos's soldiers running towards them from three directions.

His arms are full. He cannot fight.

He runs.

He leads them on a merry chase through the streets as he desperately searches for a safe place to leave the children.

But he does not know these streets.

And the alley he has just chosen ends in a wall.

The alley is narrow. They can approach him only a few at a time.

He tells the children to stay behind him, and then he turns to fight.

(Vibranium makes for impressive armor.

But there are some things even it cannot stop.)

 

Two of the souls are tiny and precious. All souls are precious, of course, but children are special. I lift them up like they are as fragile as spider webs and precious as diamonds.

The third is that of a warrior. He is strong and fierce, but now that the battle is over, he is relaxing. There is a surprising amount of gentleness there.

I remember his father. They have much in common, I think.

 

Humans wonder what the worst way to die is. I have considered the matter some myself.

I do not think there is any one answer. I think it depends on the soul involved.

Ever since I saw the expression on Sam Wilson's face when I collected Riley, I knew that the worst way for him to die would be in a fall.

 

There is no line anymore. No safe zones. Just endless waves of Thanos's army, and a motley collection of heroes, costumed or otherwise, that fight whatever's closest.

Sam passes on what intel he can to the newest group of soldiers on the ground and then takes off again. He's careful to dive around the streaks of light in the sky. He's seen the kind of chaos that strikes when they touch something.

"The witch is injured!" Thor booms over the comm. "Falcon, are you free to assist?"

"On my way," he says, and he dives toward the main battle. His goggles pick up Wanda pretty quick. She's still standing, but judging by the ugly wound in her stomach, the thin skein of red magic she's holding over it is the only reason she is.

Thanos looks up and smiles. A burst of energy whips through the air.

For a heady moment, he thinks the titan has missed. There's still blood caking the eye that Steve hit, and that's gotta be throwing him off.

Then he feels the wind hit his wings. Not feels like "feels the effects," but really feels, the way he feels when it touches skin.

That energy changes reality, and suddenly he doesn't have tech strapped back to his back, he's got an extra set of limbs in the form of a pair of wings.

And he's falling through the air.

He remembers an article he saw once about why human flight was so hard to achieve, and there was something about wing spans and strain, and what it basically comes down to is that there's no way these wings can support him. No way.

He's got the wings he's always wanted, and he doesn't need his goggles to see the ground now because it's coming in fast.

Tony tries to break away from his fight at the mouth of the portal with a yell, but Sam already knows it'll be too late.

He spreads his wings.

And hits the ground.

(The wings are silver and scarlet. They are the most beautiful thing on the battlefield.

Tony Stark hates them almost as much as he hates Thanos.)

 

His soul is curled up like he's still braced for impact. That does not hide how brilliantly bright he is.

I am not supposed to judge the souls around me. I am not supposed to hate.

But I look at what Thanos has done in my name, and I want to drag his soul away more than I have wanted anything in quite some time.

 

I met Bruce Banner the night his father killed his mother. I held his mother close and wished I could hold her son.

I met him again the day he created the Hulk.

I don't know how he did that. I don't even really know what the Hulk is. All I know is that there is still only one soul in his body.

And that though he has caused death since then, he has not been in danger of death since the Hulk burst forth.

Not until now.

 

Bruce was in India when he saw the news. He made his way back to New York and smiled a twisted smile at the irony.

He's not sure how the fight is going. It's hard to tell much when he's in the backseat and the Hulk's out to play. All he's really sure of is that the fight's still raging on and that Thanos is stubbornly refusing to be smashed.

He thinks some of the others might be hurt. He saw Falcon go down, and he sees the Scarlet Witch weakening.

He does not see the wave of energy until it hits.

And then it's him standing there. Just him. Not him in the front seat, Hulk in the back, but just him. No Hulk.

He stares at his hands in wonder, and then something pierces his chest and he falls.

(Tony sees. Tony charges forward and takes his place in the fight.)

 

Bruce's soul is the oddest mix of anger and wonder that I've ever seen. He's scarred over the wounds I saw inflicted. The scars are thick and twisted, but the soul is still beautiful.

He is still beautiful, but he is so much more damaged than he was all those years ago.

I cannot cry.

Sometimes I want to.

 

I can be many places at once. It's a necessary skill in my line of work.

So after Pietro died, I could afford to split off part of myself to follow Wanda. I expected her to follow him soon, and it pays to be efficient.

Wanda surprised me and lived.

They call living when everyone expects you to die "cheating death."

I assure you, I rarely feel cheated. I have so much time and you have so little. I don't mind you stealing as much time as you can.

You all seem so young to me.

The weight in my arms is already so heavy. Please. Take as long as you can.

 

Her magic holds the blood back well, but she does not know how to repair the damage it has done to what is inside her.

She is running out of time. They are all running out of time. And no wonder, since Thanos holds it.

That is when the strange American music starts blaring from the sky.

There's a new kind of ship tearing through the portal, and it's followed by countless others.

And they're attacking Thanos's forces.

Thanos gapes.

While he is distracted, they strike.

Every bit of magic she has, every ounce of power Vision holds, all the lightning Thor can summon, and all the weapons in Stark's stores are turned to a single object.

Thanos's arm.

It severs.

With the last of her magic spent, Wanda falls.

(She imagines she sees a flash of silver as she does.)

 

Her magic was red, but her soul was not.

Her soul was liquid fire.

I didn't bother walking on when I'd gathered it. I knew I was still needed here.

 

For some reason, humans seem to think I know nothing of love. I don't know why that is.

I am Death. I have seen the best and worst of what people claim is love. I know the real thing from the fake better than any of your poets.

I have seen quite a lot of love. Very little of it has much to do with romance.

 

They all knew what would become of Earth if the gauntlet landed.

Thor lunged forward and caught it.

One stone he could have held. Two if they were in the gauntlet.

But this many?

The power burned through him. Thor roared.

For love of this world, he thought through the pain. For love of this people. For love of these comrades in arms.

For Jane.

"Grab his hands!" someone yelled.

Thor didn't hear it.

(His power held his body together. His soul had been burned out of it.)

 

I said very little has to do with romance. There is, perhaps, a bit.

Thor's soul is old and honest. The love in it shone like the sun.

It is very little like his brother's.

 

Some souls are easy to see, even from a distant. Some hide away in nooks and crannies until even I have to search for them.

Vision's soul, if he has one, I can't see at all.

 

Mr. Stark had grabbed Thor's hand as instructed. Vision takes his.

The pain blocks out most thoughts, but he is aware of more and more hands.

Civilians. Aliens. Something that appears to be a heavily armed raccoon.

And then the gauntlet is in the containment device Mr. Stark has prepared, and the pain fades.

Thanos stops gaping and roars.

Vision knows he should do something. He has the mind stone, it is his responsibility.

Everyone fires whatever weapons they still have.

Vision lets loose the full power of the stone.

His system is not prepared for it.

(Thanos falls. So does Vision. It is fortunate that his body cradles the stone until another containment device can be found.)

 

It turns out Vision was granted a soul after all. He is a very young one. He does not quite understand the world he is leaving.

That's alright. I don't quite understand it either.

Thanos's soul is shriveled and small. He is surprised to see me as I am instead of how he imagined me.

I am not careful with that one at all, I'm afraid.

 

I was not made knowing all the languages the peoples of the universe speak. I have to learn them, same as anyone. I pick up on them as I gather souls.

Inevitably, the first two words I learn are "why" and "no."

 

"Friday, check vital signs on all Avengers' equipment."

"Vital signs checked, sir. Signs positive for: Iron Man."

"And?" he demands. He knew he was ignoring the newcomers, but he didn't particularly care.

"No other positive signs detected. Shall I check surveillance footage for non-official Avengers?"

His heart had momentarily stopped, but it starts up again at that. "Yes," he snaps. Jarvis would have done that first instead of scaring him like that. Who all had he classified as non-official? A lot of people, surely.

"Life signs positive for: Mordo, Wong, Wasp, and Nick Fury."

He knows one of those people.

The kid is dead. The team is dead.

Everybody . . . . Everybody is dead. Everybody is dead except him.

He sits down hard. "Pepper?" His voice breaks.

"Miss Potts is in critical condition. She has been reached by a medic. Her chances of survival are predicted to be fifteen percent."

He needs to get to her. He needs to - He needs to -

"Suit at two percent power."

"Take it off," he says blankly. The armor collapses around him.

One of the newcomers walks forward. "Hey, man, you alright?"

He can't look away from where Bruce's body lies slumped on the pavement.

He should not be the last one left. Out of everyone, he should not be the last one left.

His hands are shaking. They can't seem to stop.

"They're dead," he says numbly. "They're all dead."

Wanda had shown him what would happen. She had shown him.

The earth is still standing.

He almost wishes it wasn't.

 

They used to call Tony Stark the Merchant of Death. It has made me curious, so even though he lives, I stop to examine his soul.

It looks almost exactly like his father's did when I claimed it. I wonder if they were close.

There are others crowded around to help him now since the battle in the skies is ending. There are plenty around him, yet his soul still looks very lonely.

If I had a hand free, I would pat his shoulder as I pass, but I don't, and he wouldn't feel it anyway. The only purpose would be to assuage my own guilt.

It is not my fault. I merely go where I am directed.

Still, for his sake, I wish that the next name on my list was not Miss Virginia "Pepper" Potts.