The ship is like a quinjet. Two wings, sharp pointed dock; it comes in to land jagged, lopsided, hovers then snaps from the air, like a puppet with its strings cut.
“This is it,” the racoon says, insists. “Man, this is it, I told you they’d come. I told you.”
Whatever is left of them, no doubt. Steve doesn’t hold out hope. It could be all of Rocket’s team, it could be none of them. It could be one of theirs.
The ramp descends. A blue woman, black eyed, and a bedraggled, half-naked Tony. Tony. Tony. Real? Alive? Here. Somehow, after all of them have died, he is here, he has made it, and – what is that? That feeling? Is it anguish?
Is it hope?
The blue woman is pulling him, like you’d pull a child on a shopping trip, impatient, annoyed. “You’re the Avengers?” She asks, shortly.
“What’s left of us,” Steve says morosely.
She tugs Tony forward, pushes him slightly, letting him stumble. “The wizard said he was important. Has to be important, because he traded the stone for his life.”
“Tony,” Rhodey calls, and then louder. “Tony, Tones – “
Tony stands there, mouth slightly slack, blinking drowsily. “He’s your responsibility now,” the blue woman snarls, vicious. “I got him here in one piece, didn’t I?”
“Jesus, Tony,” Rhodey croaks, stumbling forward. He pulls him, slack limbs and all, into a crushing hug. “I thought you were gone, man, I thought you were dusted, or he killed you – “
“Nebula, where are they?” Rocket asks. “Fuck, you’re not telling me – “
“All gone,” she says shortly. “Gamora is dead. The rest were dusted.”
“The rest?” Steve asks.
“My team,” Rocket croons, before collapsing like a dying star. “That’s not – all of them? Quill? And Drax – “
“All of them,” she finishes, shortly.
“That’s not fair,” he’s saying, “that’s not even equal. That’s not – even, doesn’t make sense – “
“We lost everyone,” Natasha is saying, and she’s talking to Tony, Steve thinks. “They’re all gone. Bucky, Sam, Wanda. Vision is dead. T’Challa is gone.”
“Tony,” Steve says roughly, stepping forward. “What about you? What happened up there?”
Tony stares at him, dulled, lifeless. “His ashes are on my hand,” he says, then, broken, disjointed. “I tried to get them off. But I thought I could bring him back maybe, somehow.”
Quiet. The trees above their heads sway in the wind, blissfully immune, impervious, pure.
“Bring who back?” Natasha asks.
Tony turns to her. “The kid. You know, he – they threw a moon at us.”
“They – what?” Steve asks.
“A moon, he threw – a moon at me. Turned it into bats, but I flew away. He – stabbed me,” Tony frowns, like he’s just remembering, “I – “
His knees give out, suddenly; Nebula rolls her eyes. “Don’t try,” she spits, “to get any sense out of him. I had to fly the ship back myself, he’s worse than useless. The wizard traded an infinity stone for his life and this is what we’re left with.”
Tony is clutching his side. “We need a med team,” Steve orders, but there’s only them to hear it. “Someone, just – there has to be doctors left. Just get one, somewhere.”
“I’ll look,” Bruce says quietly, kneeling in the – leaves, and dirt. And dust. “Hey, Tony. How you doing?”
“I think I’d like to just go,” Tony whispers.
“Go where?” Bruce asks, voice lower, conspiratorial.
“Away. You don’t have to fix it. You could just let me fade, like the rest of them.”
A beat. Bruce claps his hand against Tony’s shoulder, shakes him gently. “No, man,” he says wearily. “We need you, right? Earth’s greatest defender. Can’t let you disappear without a fight.”
Tony seems to accept this, solemn, quiet, lips pressed into a line. It’s his duty. Tony is man of duty, if nothing else.
They patch him up, and Nebula tells them what went down. She tells them about Doctor Strange, and Peter Parker, and how both of them faded. Steve remembers the kid; he was what, fifteen? Sixteen? But he won’t be the only child dead, millions of them across the universe, many much younger than him.
Still. Peter was one of theirs.
She tells them, again, in no uncertain terms, that Tony is here, that the only reason she brought him to Earth, was because the Sorcerer Supreme was under the impression that only he was necessary. That’s all the knows; that’s all Strange said. But as time goes on, it becomes apparent that Tony left a bit of himself out there, on that rock of planet. He’s not all there. He’s fragmented, pierced, shattered glass. Or rather: they’re all shattered glass, splintered. Tony’s just broken, pieces missing.
They’re all ruined in their own way.
“Everything’s gone,” he hears Tony mumble to himself. “Everyone went but I’m still here. I told you. I told you. I told you so.”
Steve wants to say, this is no time for self-pity, but it’s not self-pitying. It’s a statement of fact. Random choice, random chance.
They’re here, flesh and bone, and the others are dust on the wind.
They diagnose him with shellshock. Well, shock. PTSD, give him a battery of sedatives and tell them it’ll pass in time. The palace is empty with no king to hold court. Wakanda, like the rest of the world, mourns. They’re not impervious. All that secrecy, all those years of protecting their own, and for all the good it did them in the end.
He finds him, sitting out under a tree.
“I – hi,” Steve says, quietly.
“Hi,” Tony whispers. He stares forward, out over the savannah. The line of his back is – bent, bowed, like he can’t hold up his neck. He seems older, far far older, than Steve ever remembers, but then maybe he’s aged in the years since they fought. White hairs have peppered him temples, laughter lines on his face.
“Can I sit?”
“Sure. Free country.”
Steve does. The ground is hard, the soil cracked and thin. He tries not to think about the dust under his palms. “Hey,” he says, going for light, familiar, lightly ghosting his hand across Tony’s shoulder. “I never said – congratulations. On the engagement.”
Tony turns. “Is that some kind of joke?” He asks, desolate, half-way to angry.
“A joke? I – no. I just meant – “
“You come here, pretending to – what, be a friend? And then tell me, ‘congratulations on your engagement to your dead fucking dusted fiancé’.”
Steve shuts his eyes. “Shit,” he breathes. “Is she – “
“Gone? Yeah, she’s gone. Happy’s alive, for whatever the fuck that’s worth. But she’s gone. Alone, at her desk, waiting for me to call and – “
Tony shuts up. Fist in his mouth. Please don’t cry, Steve thinks, weakly.
Still, he collects himself. “Her phone was there,” he continues. And her shoes. Wine glass. But she’s gone. And that’s that.”
A beat. “I’m sorry,” Steve says, softly. He doesn’t say, I understand, because he doesn’t. He hasn’t lost a fiancé. He’s lost friends, not a lover. It’s not the same, and we won’t pretend it is.
“Doesn’t matter,” Tony mutters. “I don’t have a right to mourn. Not when we’ve all lost so much.”
“Not true. She should be remembered. We’ll remember them all. We’ll – “
“Steve,” Tony interrupts, “just – don’t. Please. Just don’t.”
“Strange traded you for the stone, she said.”
“Yeah,” Tony croaks. “He did.”
“What does that mean?”
Tony sighs. It’s not patronising, or irritated, just – exhausted. Broken, and tired. “I tried my best,” he says. “Did what I could, but – I couldn’t take him. Not on my own.”
“You held your own?”
“For a time. The more I tried to – you know, bind his hand, with my nanites, the more he just – “
“It didn’t work.”
“It didn’t work. I ran out. Then he stabbed me. Thought I was gone, for sure, he – said he knew me. ‘Stark’, he said. That he knew me, you know? And then he put his hand on my head – “
“He knew you?” Steve asks, hushed.
“We’re burdened with knowledge,” Tony says, like that’s supposed to make sense. “I told you. I told you what was coming, I – couldn’t stop it, I knew. You know?”
A beat. Tony’s head jerks to look at him; his eyes are wide, rabid, fevered, lined with red. “Yeah,” Steve tells him, quietly, soothing, “I know, Tony. You tried your best.”
“I did,” Tony mutters, balling his hands into fists. “I did try. Almost had him. We almost had him, and the Quill fucked it up – “
“Don’t do that to yourself.”
“Don’t do that to yourself,” Tony mocks, mimicking. “Who gives a fuck? It’s my fault, probably. I lived, right? No one else to take the blame, so – “
“They didn’t suffer,” Steve tells him. “Most of them, it happened before they even knew what was going on. It was almost – “ peaceful, he doesn’t say. ‘Steve’, he hears in his head, Bucky’s stumbling, broken steps, before he crumbled and faded away.
“Not always,” Tony mutters. “Peter knew. He has this – when he’s in danger, you know? He goes a little haywire. He calls it spidersense, because he’s a – dork, I guess. Whatever. It – he knew. Knew it was coming, sensed it, tried to – he died, and he knew what was happening, and while his legs crumbled away and he turned to dust in my hands I just sat there, and I tried to make it better for him, but somehow it was – too short, but it took too long. There wasn’t anything I could say. There wasn’t anything I could do. He was just a kid,”
He knew. The kid would have known, then. Watched the others disappear into dust and feared it, felt it. “Bucky was the first to go,” Steve whispers. “He was there, and then he wasn’t.”
Tony bows his head. “I’m sorry,” he says, not begrudging. “You’re right. At least is was painless. He wouldn’t have known.”
“Maybe – maybe they’re in a better place,” Steve suggests, hushed, like he can’t bear it. “Maybe, right?”
The look on his face shows that Tony doesn’t agree. “Yeah,” he says dully. “Maybe. Or maybe they all just – ceased to be. Who knows, maybe they’re the lucky ones, they get to bail and now we have to – “
“Tony,” Steve warns.
“I was going to say rebuild.”
Steve allows himself to consider it, just briefly. Half the population gone, what next? Regroup. New lines in the sand. Maybe even new countries, new leaders. Maybe they can rebuild. It’s not a blessing – no, Steve will never allow it to be called that, but maybe –
“Or we could avenge,” Tony says, flatly.
“Or, we could avenge,” Steve agrees.
He thinks, back to the in-between times. An ‘off’ in the on-and-off that was Pepper and Tony’s relationship. He looks at the sinew of Tony’s neck, and remembers resting his head there once, listening to his pulse.
He always loved Tony more than Tony loved him.
“You’ll have a plan,” Steve says, confidently.
“You overestimate you.”
“I trust in you. There’s a difference.”
Tony looks at him. His eyes really are vacant; it’s terrifying, and bizarre, like someone has reached inside and scraped Tony’s soul from his body. “You trust in me?” He whispers. “Even after this? Even after I’ve failed so – monumentally?”
Steve shakes his head. “You were the only one,” he tells him. “All these years, you told me. Sometimes, you’d tell me, and I’d laugh. I thought you were – “ Crazy, eccentric, attention-seeking, joking, “worried. But you were right. And I’m sorry.”
Tony pitches forward, hands fisting in Steve’s shirt. “He’s in my head,” he hisses, “don’t you understand? He’s been in my head, all these years, ever since I sent that nuke into space and saw it all, that death, and the pain, and the sinking black holes of a collapsing star – “
Steve covers his hands. “I know,” he says, quietly.
“He told me. He said – we were the same. He knew me, he knew me, Steve. What kind of monster am I – “
“Jesus, Tony – “
“And there’s a part of me that thinks: what if he’s right? What if he’s right? What if he sees what we don’t see? Maybe – maybe he was right. Perfectly balanced. Perfect.”
Steve digs his fingers into Tony’s wrists, not hard, but firm enough to ground. “Feel me,” he says, “do you feel me?”
“Real,” Tony croaks.
“Real. Flesh and blood. Both of us, we’re here, understand? Both of us.”
“Together,” Tony agrees. No other words need be spoken. They understand each other perfectly.
He soothes him, under the shade of the tree. Tony’s head rests in his lap; he strokes back his hair. He hums. The air smells sweet, there’s hope. Today they rest, tomorrow they fight.
But there’s still dust under his nails.