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“Now what?” Peter asks after Rogers’ team has disappeared in the forest.

“I don’t suppose sleep is on the list?” T’Challa asks as he makes himself comfortable on his bough. It’s been an eventful day. He stretches a little.

“Tired, Bagheera?” Tony asks mirthfully. 

“Mmhmm,” T’Challa confirms and smiles mischievously as he takes his helmet off. “And before you ask, pet at your risk.”

“You know I’ll take that as a challenge,” Tony warns amusedly.

“Good,” T’Challa shoots back. “It’s supposed to be therapeutic.” He smirks and shrugs. “If you don’t lose the hand. Mind you, you’d have to reach me first.”

People laugh, and Tony retorts, “Is that a height joke?” He’s smiling widely.

“It wasn’t,” T’Challa chuckles. “It was a climbing skills joke. But if you prefer to take it as a height one, who am to argue?”

“I’ll have you know that I have climbed things before, but, in this case, I already thought: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’” Tony says, studying the tree. “So now I’m hoping nobody gets this out on the internet because this is going to be funny.”

“Want a boost, Boss?” FRIDAY asks impishly.

Tony rolls his eyes. “You’re doing enough giving my ego a boost, Fry.”

The tree separates in two boughs about six feet above Tony’s height. There are footholds here and there, so it’s not completely impossible to climb. That doesn’t seem to make a difference to T’Challa, who keeps watching closely, and he’s not the only one. Barnes, Peter, Vision, Loki, Rhodes, and FRIDAY are paying attention that’s on this side of alert, and Groot has a suspiciously elongated branch.

Tony, however, doesn’t have any difficulties. As far as footholds go, he does end up using one, but it’s the bark itself and not one of its knots. He makes the jump gracefully, estimating well the optimum level of effort for the distance he has to cross. Catching himself on his arms doesn’t seem to be a problem, and neither is lifting his body weight.

Very well executed.

Maybe it’s because his hardships are not visible to people that he keeps getting underestimated. Possibly even people who know forget them. But it’s not necessary to overlook what Tony went through; sometimes incredulity that all of it can happen to a single person is enough. After all, it’s a miracle he’s still alive—what more can they expect from him?

As for the others, people like T’Challa, Shuri, Loki, Peter, Groot, and so many more... People who care. Perhaps there is something in Tony that makes others protective of him, or he attracts them so much that his loss is unacceptable. He’s also kind and generous, so people being in his debt is not a possibility easily discarded. Not all beginnings have a selfless edge.

The answer evades T’Challa and, though he hopes to ponder on it later, right now he’s happy that there are people ready to catch Tony in case he falls—even from something that can’t be all that harmful.

“I stand corrected,” T’Challa admits easily, applauding lightly.

“Thank you,” Tony bows.

And with a quick pat to T’Challa’s forearm, Tony jumps back down causing a flurry of twitches with it. T’Challa extends an arm, Peter fires a web, Gamora moves forward a step, so do Barnes and Rhodes, Vision takes flight, and the earth is suddenly bouncy, thanks to Loki. Needless to say, Tony loses his footing upon landing and there’s now webbing on his shirt. He does not look impressed.

However, all Tony says is, “Better. We didn’t almost kill each other this time.”

That is, unfortunately, the best that can be said about the situation.

“Let’s hear the plan,” T’Challa says. “We’ll have some to do some training together, we really do, but it would be helpful to find out what we’re dealing with here.”

“Thanos is a year and…” Tony trails off looking at Loki.

Loki picks up immediately. “Two months, five days, give or take a few hours.”

“And you know this how?” Banner asks neutrally.

“That’s what we three were working on last, and the results came in just as I teleported from Latveria,” Loki answers pleasantly enough.

Something happened with those two.

“Why don’t we call this third person here?” Quill asks.

“We need him,” Tony says with a shrug, taking a couple of steps back to see everybody better.

Loki agrees, “We needed you to agree with his presence, and to warn you against doing him harm, as he will not attack first.”

There are nods all around. Some—Rhodes—more reluctant than others. Drax, for example, doesn’t seem to care.

And, before they know it, Doom is there.

It hits T’Challa, all of a sudden—the sheer magnitude of what they are attempting. At the airport in Germany was when he saw the sheer destruction a small number of highly skilled and/or highly powered individuals could make, and, here, there are considerably more. Villains or heroes, different life-forms from the biological to the cybernetic and everything in between, T’Challa looks around him and sees the beginning. There’s so much work to do, there are so many people to organize… it seems daunting. Although T’Challa understood what the attack meant for his country, he never stopped to imagine the size of the conflict.

T’Challa feels small.

For one moment, he permits himself the privilege of being overwhelmed. For one slow blink, he is clumsy and too scared to move. For one moment he wants to run.

T’Challa breathes. In. Out.

Then the moment has passed. He remembers there’s nowhere to run, that he has the country’s faith and the Tribe’s support, and he will prevail. When he looks around him he sees the beginning as unlikely allies standing together, and that’s as perfect as it gets.

“What is the first thing on the agenda?” T’Challa asks.

“I was thinking we need to contact Lady Death,” Tony answers.

Doom starts to creak.

“Mistress,” Loki corrects seemingly on reflex. “Mistress Death.”

“Wait,” Quill pleads. “What?”

“Everything dies,” Tony says. “Thor, Loki, Strange’s dimension eating-creature…”

“My father,” Quill adds absently.

Thor turns with an inquisitive eyebrow. “Why would your father matter in this?”

“Huh?” Quill blinks. “Ah. Um, Celestials. They die too.”

Loki and Thor exchange looks.

“I guess?” Tony offers. “But Thanos was not born impervious to all harm. Nor did he obtain it somehow. Mrs. Death rejects him, and so he can’t die.”

“Mistress,” Loki insists.

Doom creaks louder.

“What are you saying?” Rocket and Peter ask at the same time. They study each other for several moments, before seemingly deciding to leave it for another time, and they both turn expectant faces to Tony.

“Thanos doesn’t just have a long life, he wasn’t cursed, he’s immortal, and, at the same time, invulnerable,” Tony says. “That’s not natural.”

“So you believe,” Doom says through alarming creaks that T’Challa finally identifies as laughter, “that it’s her fault.”

Tony nods, carefree as anything. “Goddess Death, yes.”

“Mistress,” Loki snaps.

Tony rolls his eyes.

“How do we know he’s immortal?” Banner asks.

Gamora clenches her teeth. “We are reasonably certain.”

“From their efforts,” Loki offers. “That, and a lot of talking, reading, and experiments on various parts he happened to lose.”

“Is he now without those body parts?” Peter asks with a sort of horrified fascination.

Lang watches him inquisitively. “How old are you?”

“No,” Loki answers. “Death rejects him. Every part of him.”

“They found their way back to him,” Doom announces.

“Dude,” Peter whispers.

“Seriously,” Lang persists. “How old are you?”

T’Challa ignored the byplay. “How do we contact… her?”

“Well…” Doom trails off.

“We can ask her,” Loki says. “First, we have to find the person among us who has the better reason, or has killed the most people.”

“I’m above five,” Tony says.

Loki doesn’t seem impressed. “Thousand? Or hundreds of thousands?”

“My friend, I have—”

Thor is interrupted by Tony’s quiet, but firm, “Million.”

Loki’s eyebrow raises, and Thor’s mouth closes with a click.

“Gamora?” Quill mentions quietly.

“I was an assassin,” Gamora answers the implied question and shakes her head. “I have toppled countries by my actions and plunged them into war, but I do not believe it counts. Does it?” She looks in askance at Loki.

“It may,” Loki responds. “But, I fear it does not." He turns to Tony. "I suppose you feel responsible for every one of those."

"You were just doing your job, man," Lang interjects.

"It's not something that disappears from one moment to the next, though Drax gave it a good shot," Tony replies with a nod to Drax. 

"It takes time," Drax agrees. 

It’s Doom who by-passes the tension by saying, “Stark will make the request.”

And Banner is the one who follows it through. “What do we want to accomplish by this?”

“Please kill him for us?” Peter says doubtfully. “Pretty please with a pomegranate on top?”

Rocket snorts, and so does T’Challa.

“Good first try,” Tony says chuckling. “But—” He freezes.

Probably because everybody facing Tony is suddenly on alert.

Tony closes his eyes. “She’s not behind me, is she?”

She is.

Peter nods fanatically.

“Awesome,” Tony says dryly. He swings around and takes a bow. “Empress Death.”

Loki pinches the bridge of his nose.

“That is not my name, child,” Mistress Death replies.

It should be a normal voice. Though it has more of an echo to it, it’s something that can easily happen with the right acoustics. It’s certainly not the ‘we are legion’ one. Even her appearance should be innocuous. She’s wearing a shapeless black cloak with a generous hood. T’Challa can’t see anything, but that includes things that shouldn’t be there. It’s just a cloak worn by somebody.

And yet.

There’s something that feels… off about her. It’s eerie, and complex, and frightening. T’Challa feels a bead of sweat making its way down his temple. His mouth is dry, but he’s too scared to swallow. He feels watched.

Is that quality really there? Or are they seeing what they want to see? Is T’Challa’s version different from others? Does the fear come from her or from whom they perceive her as? Is it a result of their own instincts that recognize a bigger predator?

As she exhales and T’Challa shivers because of it, he finds it hard to care.

“Well,” Tony says nonchalantly, hands firmly in his pockets. “Since you’re going for jump-scares now, I thought you wouldn’t mind an upgrade in titles.”

Peter chokes on an aborted snort and T’Challa feels pretty much the same.

“Acceptable, my Merchant,” Mistress Death says with a nod.

Her title makes Tony take half a step forward. “I haven’t been that in years.”

“Haven’t you?” Mistress Death sounds amused. “It certainly wasn’t a breeze that ended the life of that large Chitauri hunting pack.”

That hits Tony like a blow and he flinches hard.

“Oh, my Merchant.” Mistress Death sighs making T’Challa shudder. He’s not the only one. “That doesn’t mean you’re evil. It doesn’t mean you’re good. You’re more neutral than most.” She extends a hand. It’s a pale, deathly white, and it lands on Tony’s cheek. T’Challa doesn’t blame him for jumping.“You are like me in that way. Thus, you are my Merchant.”

There’s an odd sort of gentleness that comes across from her behavior towards Tony that T’Challa doesn’t know how to interpret.

“You’ve been listening?” Tony picks up his wits with admirable speed.

Mistress Death nods shallowly. “I often do when people mention me.”

T’Challa isn’t surprised when he’s not the only one glaring at Loki.

“As a concept, not by name,” Mistress Death continues wryly.

“How about it then?” Tony asks. “Pretty please, pomegranate included.”

“I’m not convinced.” Mistress Death shakes her head. “I do not want Thanos anywhere near me. Besides, if I did, it means he won. He gets what he wants. What sort of lesson in that? What sort of precedent does it establish? No, I’m not convinced.”

“You played yourself,” Tony spits without any ounce of sympathy.

T’Challa is sure this will lead to—

“You dare?!” Mistress Death hisses while her arm grabs Tony by the neck and lifts him.

That. It will lead to that. T’Challa totally saw this coming.

“At least he spoke this time,” Loki murmurs dryly.

“You are not helping,” T’Challa snaps back.

Tony catches her arm and uses it to lift himself and ease the pressure on his throat.

That’s when it happens.

Peter pleads, “Please—”

Banner says, “He didn’t mean to disrespect—”

Rocket shouts, “Hey!”

Rhodes admits, “He’s stupid, but—”

Loki begins, “Mistress Death—”

T’Challa chooses to go with, “In his culture—”

Gamora and Barnes take a step forward.

Drax and Thor stand.

Quill exclaims, “Let’s calm do—”

Even Doom mentions, “He can’t speak wit—”

But Tony ignores them all.  “You played yourself, and you’re not the one that’s paying the price.” He’s seething. “On behalf of those who will suffer for your mistakes, I ask: What were you thinking?”

Mistress Death appears taken aback. T’Challa can sympathize. It’s probably the first time someone speaks to her in that tone.

“From all the options of torture and killing, for all the times you could have made him suffer, you chose the option that’s strategically guaranteed to bite you in the ass: you thought you’d stick your head in the sand. You chose to make him everybody else’s problem because you couldn’t deal with him. Where the hell is your responsibility?” Tony continues to rage. “You know him. You know what he’s capable of. You know he won’t stop. And you make it so that he can’t be!” T’Challa can’t see Tony, but bets that he’s glaring for all he’s worth. “Stop letting everybody else deal with your shit. He’s your problem!”

Mistress Death screams and throws Tony into the tree. Before he touches it, T’Challa is already there to soften the impact. And behind T’Challa there’s a net of webbing. And behind that, there’s suddenly moss on the tree. And behind that, the wood is soft and airy.

Tony has friends.

It takes a moment or two for T’Challa to orient himself, but Tony is already railing.

“Can’t handle the truth?”

Tony keeps pressing.

“What’s so damn neutral about causing the death of entire civilizations?”

And pressing.

“Do you not answer to anyone?”

And pressing.

“Shouldn’t that mean that you should be even more careful about what ants you step on?”

And pressing.

“Your self-control should be better than that.”

And pressing.

“You should control him, and instead he controls you.”

And pressing.

“Do something!”

Until…

“Fine!” Mistress of Death says firmly, and her voice makes everyone stagger. “I will take him.” She’s suddenly in front of Tony again. “But if you don’t manage to win this war, I’m going to make you his puppet! You will be awake to see all the abominations you build, all the misery you spread, all the lives you ruin, but you won’t be able to stop yourself,” she hisses.

Silence engulfs the clearing.

“That’s all I wanted, really,” Tony retorts, his tone calm and his hands hidden.

Mistress Death laughs. It’s haunting and all the more beautiful for it. “Let’s see you do what you do best.” She leans forward, gently putting a hand on the back of Tony’s neck, guiding him in her direction, and—though T’Challa can’t be sure—kisses Tony’s forehead. “I won’t like to see you a puppet.”

“But you’ll make me one anyway,” Tony shoots back.

“Only if you lose, my Merchant,” Mistress Death specifies. “It shall be done by tonight. Best of luck.”

Mistress Death disappears, Tony’s knees tremble in her absence, and T’Challa hurries to steady him.

“…So that happened,” Peter says shocked.

“I swear, you sound like you’re twelve,” Lang complains. “You’re not, are you?”