“This is the endgame.”
And Stephen Strange was gone. Crackling, and cold, and vanishing with the rest of them. And Tony Stark was alone.
“We need to go.”
There was nowhere to go. No reason to go. It was—everything had just… ended. As suddenly as it had begun. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Tony thought of that dust, of the aliens, of the space man, of the kid—
Nebula hauled him from the dirt.
She dragged him another few feet and Tony watched as blood seeped past the hastily sealed wound spanning his abdomen. “What does it matter? What does anything matter anymore?”
He didn’t have the energy to spit at the dirt. He could taste it pooling on his tongue—the grit, and the blood, and the mud. Nebula hefted him more squarely against her shoulder.
“Because we have to kill him. He can’t be allowed to win.”
Tony sighed and felt his head dip; in exhaustion, blood loss, despair—he couldn’t tell the difference anymore. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, but he already has.”
“We’re still alive,” Nebula rebuffed. “And until the day that we’re not, we fight.” Tony could see her jaw clench—a mesh of sharp blue machinery standing stark against the endless sea of red, red, red. Red sky, red ground, red blood—“For what he’s done to us. For those he’s taken from us.”
“We can’t win.” His eyes stung. Somehow that hurt worse than the knife in his belly. “There isn’t a way.”
“There is. There always is.”
“Not this time, there isn’t.”
She didn’t have a rebuttal for him.
Somehow, the original six had survived. Two super assassins, the God of Thunder, an angry green scientist, a thawed World War II veteran, and one genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. Tony stared around the room with a horrible sense of nostalgia. The original super team plus Rhodes and a racoon. A racoon of all things. A fucking racoon had survived the literal rapture, but Peter—
He couldn’t think about that right now.
For a long time there was just silence. Like that awful dinner after the invasion of New York eight years ago. Only this time instead of the quiet understanding that they had barely escaped their doom and that their world had been changed forever, there was the grave silence of acceptance. Like they’d all already passed on—that death was now just a formality for a group of people who’s lives had all already ended.
“So…” Clint began. Awkward and slow. And who wouldn’t be? He may not have fought Thanos himself, but he had a family. And they hadn’t been spared from the fifty-fifty coin flip of doom. “What do we do now?”
There wasn’t an answer, and no one really tried to toss one out.
Steve shook his head and Natasha reached over to help Tony change the dressing on his stab wound.
“I don’t know how you’re alive.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be.
Maybe if Strange had let him die and hidden the Infinity Stone away instead. Maybe when he’d died, there would have been enough of a distraction that Quill could have gotten Peter out of there, or the wizard could have opened a portal and shot them to the other end of the universe.
“There’s no use getting caught up in what ifs.”
Tony looked up, surprised.
Natasha stared back at him, eyes heavy.
“You know it, and I know it,” she said. “And I know what you’re thinking. And that’s not going to help us now. Or them.”
Tony scoffed and turned away. “I know you’ve been trained in the delicate art of emotional constipation all your adult life, but some of us aren’t able to just turn it on and off on a whim.”
Natasha’s lips curled up in a snarl and she pulled the last peace of gauze into place with more force than necessary.
“We can’t fight with each other,” Steve said. “Not now.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Tony snipped. It lacked the venom he’d intended, but he wasn’t sure he had it in him, so he’d take what he could get.
“Stark, I understand that you have experienced a great loss,” Thor said—arms crossed tight over his chest and Storm Breaker slung loosely at his hip. “But so have we all. And I wish that there was the time for you to grieve your friend—”
“Not my friend,” Tony snarled. “A kid. A kid from Queens. He was just a kid.”
“That’s the point, Tony,” Clint murmured. “A lot of kids are dead. Sons, and daughters, and so many children so much younger than Peter Parker. And as much as I’m hurt and I know you’re hurting, the entire universe is crying right now. And it’s up to us to make things right.”
“I know…” Tony said. “God, I know. I’m sorry, I’ll—We’re going to fix this.”
“Earth’s mightiest defenders,” Steve said. “We were left alive for a reason, I know it. And we’re going to make this right.”
“Alright, Rogers.” Tony stood. His side twinged and he almost stumbled forward. But not entirely. “Let’s do this.”
The blue space cyborg was good for something after all.
Despite her dour face and even more unpleasant personality, Nebula knew more about Thanos than anyone else alive. She knew his home, his tragically stupid backstory, and everything else that one would theoretically needed to know to commit a proper assassination.
“Well, I don’t know if you numbnuts have noticed,” Rocket piped in from his place across the massive table. A hologram of Titan spun beneath his tiny fingertips. “But that giant, rotting, purple testicle still has all six of the Infinity Stones. And we’ve got absolutely zilch.”
“We have Storm Breaker,” Thor retorted.
“Yeah, well, forgive me for not accounting for that oversized tooth pick when we’re planning to take out the most powerful being in the universe.”
“When Thanos used all the Stones at once, he broke the gauntlet,” Steve said. “I saw it. It was like it couldn’t contain all that power and just… crumbled.”
“So maybe that move was a one-hit-wonder,” Tony surmised. “With the gauntlet gone, he can only wield one Stone at a time, right?”
“If that’s the case, then we’ve got a fighting chance,” Steve said.
“And yeah, what are those odds exactly?” Rocket sniffed. “A billion to one?”
“Actually,” Tony snarked, “about fourteen million, six-hundred thousand, and four to one, if we’re being accurate.” The raccoon scowled back at him and Tony turned on the rest of the room. “Strange said there were fourteen million outcomes. We win one of them. Exactly one. No more, but no less. So I say we fuck statistical probability and give it everything we’ve got.”
Tony wasn’t entirely sure what he was expecting. A rowdy bout of applause? Some universal nods and grunts of acclimation? A hardy round of shouting and clenched fists raised high in the air? Radio silence, was not what he’d hoped for.
After a few moments of too tense quiet, Bruce stepped forward and placed a warm but firm hand on his shoulder.
He nodded. “We give it everything we’ve got.”
And that’s it.
That’s the end.
Bruce didn’t have to say it, but Tony heard the sentiment nonetheless. This was the last battle. Their swan song. They were all going to die.
But maybe, just maybe, Thanos would too.
Nebula led the way—a grumpy blue alien with no manners and even less humor heading the most ragtag bunch of misfits Tony had ever seen.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true.
They were worn and they were half-way broken, but they were a proper team of avengers nonetheless—with ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’ left to lose all at the same time.
Though the addition of the raccoon certainly made Tony feel like a proper hillbilly.
Nebula had sworn up and down that Thanos would be ‘resting’ now, and it was best to strike while he was still basking in the cozy glow of victory. Tony felt like he remembered something about that—something Thanos had said about wanting to rest, to watch the sun rise on Titan and live out the rest of his days in perfectly balanced bliss.
So the Avengers flew to Titan, ready for the fight of fights.
It was almost insulting, how easily Thanos thrashed them—even without the full utilization of his Infinity Stones.
Nebula went first—she was too anxious, too wild and emotional. Thanos picked her apart. Literally. It made Tony want to gag. Natasha and Clint followed soon after—too small, too human. Rocket and Rhodes both collapsed on opposite ends of the battle field. Bruce did his best, but the Hulk still seemed to cower at even the idea of facing Thanos’s fists.
Just like on Titan, Tony and his suit gave it their all. ‘All that,’ Thanos had said that first time, ‘just for one drop of blood.’ This time, Tony managed a heck of a lot more than a drop, but it still wasn’t enough. When a heavy kick sent him careening in the opposite direction—shattering his suit and ribs alike—Tony wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get back up again.
Thor lurched forward with a roar unlike anything Tony had ever heard. With a mighty swing of Storm Breaker and a burst of lightning that made Tony’s hair stand on end, the God of Thunder cleaved off that massive purple hand at the elbow, and it and the cracked gauntlet crashed to the dirt.
It seemed too good to be true—too quick to end this way.
But then Thanos slammed into Thor with all his might. Following that massive falcon punch, he went for the second blonde member of the fighting party. And despite his shield and his strength, the purple titan was just too big for a battered and bruised Captain America to handle.
Steve Rogers slipped forward with a resounding thud, and he did not get back up again.
Thanos stumbled too, but he didn’t fall. His great, purple face screwed up in agony. But he was moving. He was reaching for the fallen gauntlet with his one, mangled, hand.
Tony lurched forward with every last ounce of spitfire he had left and clawed at the shattered gauntlet. He grabbed at the first gem he could. One of them, any of them. Anything to keep the Stones away from Thanos. He couldn’t be allowed to have all of them—not again. The Time Stone slipped from the cracked metal gauntlet and into Tony’s fingers. And it burned. It burned worse than pretty much anything Tony Stark had ever felt. Worse than any bomb, or fire, or atomic blast. Worse than the blade on Titan or the Captain’s shield stabbing into his chest in Siberia. But not worse than I’m not ready to go, Mister Stark. I’m not. I’m not ready.
Nothing hurt worse than that.
So Tony hung on. He held that Stone until he could feel it searing his bones.
Just take me back, he begged. Just make it all go away. Take me back. Give me another chance to make this right.
Then the world was green, green, green.
It spun and curled and turned in on itself in a way that made Tony think of exploding galaxies—of the Big Bang that Alexander Friedmann was dreaming up all the way back in 1922, of the endless mess of constellations and comets that he’d always just wanted to reach out and touch.
And then Tony was falling. Cold, alone in the dark. Those stars whizzed right on by—just out of his grasp. Some sentimental and fanciful part of him wondered if maybe he could catch one. That maybe if he managed to wish just hard enough, he could make everything okay again. It was a stupid idea, and even if it wasn’t, it hardly mattered. All those stars were fading now—swallowed whole by the endless darkness of space.
Tony closed his eyes and wished that wherever everyone had gone, of if they had gone anywhere at all, that the world they’d died to protect would never forget them.
He landed with a metallic crunch.
And Tony Stark opened his eyes to a blue sky and a city in ruins.
“What—What the Hell?”
Thor grinned down at him, shaggy hair hanging low past his chin and blue eyes bright. Steve sighed in relief and sagged to the ground—his clean-shaven jaw smeared with soot and bruises. He looked ages younger, like the strappy young cap-sicle Tony had first met almost a full decade ago.
“What just happened?” And, before Tony even fully realized what he was saying, he coughed out “—Please tell me no one kissed me.”
Steve sat back on his heels and stared into the sky in awe. A gaggle of fallen Chituari soldiers were sprawled just a few feet away. New York City lay in ruins around them.
“We won,” Steve said, and Tony collapsed back into the dust.
Tony took a too large swig from his glass. He couldn’t even remember what he’d poured into it—just that it was amber, and light, and there wasn’t nearly enough bite to dig into the part of his brain that was screaming ‘something isn’t right.’
“You almost died, Tony,” Natasha pushed, cool as a Russian cucumber as per usual. “No one’s expecting you to get over that in an evening.”
“You would,” he griped, and took another swallow. “But I did, didn’t I?” he mused, trailing a finger over the rim of the glass. “Die.”
“No,” Natasha pushed again, brow tugged down low—in concern or irritation he couldn’t tell. Probably irritation. She was always irritated with him. It was no fair. What had he done other than, you know, save the world from some weird-ass Nordic God’s adopted brother?
He drained the last of the whatever-it-was in his cup and decided that even though it wasn’t muting his brain quite as effectively as he would have liked, he wouldn’t say no to another glass. Or two.
Tony paused mid-pour and took a moment to really look at the assassin seated across from him.
“When did you go back to being a red head?” The glass began to fill, far too slowly in his opinion. “I hear blondes have more fun, but I guess you and ‘fun’ in the same premises is just too much to ask for, am I right?
Natasha scowled, dark brows twisting downward—though there was a bit of confusion mixed into the annoyance now. “What are you talking about?”
Tony paused—tumbler half-raised to his lips.
He could see it, almost as vividly as he could see the woman seated across from him now. A chopped bob of slick, bleached, hair and a face somehow even more stern than the one glaring at him from the other side of the table. A super suit that was more than her slinky spy getup—a dark ensemble of heavy-hitting armor and even harsher weapons.
A blink, and it was gone.
Tony shook his head. “Ignore me. Almost died today, remember? Maybe I confused that ‘bright light’ with your face. You should take it as a compliment, really.”
Natasha rolled her eyes and that was that.
Tony pushed the glass aside and reached for the bottle.
He hadn’t intended to make Ultron. At least, not in the way that he had. But that’s how things always seemed to work out for Tony. The best intentions and the worst results. He really should have just stopped giving a crap about protecting people. It always seemed to make things worse. This ‘caring’ thing was just awful.
Tony watched as Steve continued to brood—chopping wood in his too-tight t-shirt all dramatically as he did so. As much as the image made him want to roll his eyes and snark about old-fashioned men and their woodworking, there was certainly something a bit unsettling about Captain Goody-Two-Shoes mutilating all those innocent logs with a massive axe.
“‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.’” Tony heard him scoff under his breath. “Pulled us apart like cotton candy.”
Tony flinched as a smattering of terribly gruesome images splashed across his brain—like some kind of awful tabloid headline from the not-so-distant future. He shook his head and most of those images faded into obscurity. It must have been some remnant of that Maximoff girl’s mind tricks.
Fury pulled him aside not too much later and Tony received more or less the same verbal flambeeing that each of his teammates had already so lovingly doled out.
“Artificial intelligence,” Fury seethed. “And you never even hesitated.”
You know how you could make that glare more effective? If you had both eyes to glare with. Yeah. That’s what he’d say.
Instead, Tony ran a hand through his already mused hair and snapped back, “Look, it's been a really long day. Like, Eugene O'Neill long. So how's about we skip to the part where you're useful?”
Fury crossed his arms, firm. “Look me in the eye and tell me you're going to shut him down.”
He couldn’t. He’d tried. “You're not the director of me.”
“I'm not the director of anybody.” Tony rolled his eyes “I'm just an old man—who cares very much about you.” Tony rolled his eyes harder.
Flashes then—of broken shields and bodies strewn across the dirt like rag dolls. Of dust. Of darkness, and time, and the end of the universe.
Tony worked through the lump in his throat and managed to spit back. “And I'm the man who killed the Avengers. I saw it. I saw them all dead, Nick. I felt it. And not just them. The whole world, too. And it's because of me. Because I wasn't ready. I didn't do all I could.”
“The Maximoff girl,” Fury pushed, almost gentle. “She's working you, Stark. Playing on your fear.”
“I wasn't tricked, I was shown. It wasn't a nightmare, it was my legacy. The end of the path I started us on.”
Fury stared down his nose at him, like he was trying to figure out how to explain the idea of personal responsibilities to a small child who’d broken a lamp playing ball in the house. “You've come up with some pretty impressive inventions, Tony. But don’t flatter yourself. War isn't one of them.”
“I watched my friends die,” Tony wretched. “And you'd think that'd be as bad as it gets, right? Nope. No way. That wasn't even the worst part.”
“I know. The worst part is that you didn't.”
I’m not ready to go, Mister Stark.
I don’t want to.
There was the feeling of strong but small arms wrapped tight around him and an overwhelming scent of ash in his nose.
“We’re not strong enough.” A pause as he tried to swallow the bile crawling up the back of his throat. No—not just vomit and self-loathing. Fear. With talons like knives tearing into him as it tried to dig its way out. “We’ll never be strong enough.”
“And Ultron was?” Fury snipped.
“I needed to keep us safe.”
“From what, Stark?” Anger now. And a complete lack of understanding as to why the once great and cocky billionaire, playboy, philanthropist was jumping at shadows—making armies to battle the boogeyman. “From what?!”
“I don’t know, Nick.” Gone. Gone. Everyone would be gone. “But I have to try.”
He and the Cap-sicle had never seen eye to eye on the best of days. So Tony wasn’t overly surprised when they eventually clashed in a way that led to death, disarray, and what was more or less an incredibly bad breakup gone public.
Why couldn’t Steve understand? This had to be done to keep them safe. Because if Tony couldn’t do it, someone else had to at least try.
Instead, the good Captain did the verbal equivalent of stomp his feet and run off to pout in the corner.
“Protection? Is that how you see this? This is protection? It's internment, Tony.”
“Give me a break! I'm doing what has to be done... to stave off something worse.”
Steve shook his head. “You keep telling yourself that.”
Bruce, who’d been gone for two years. Count ‘em. Two. Full. Years. Fucked off in a quinjet after the Ultron debacle to who-knows-where and to do who-knows-what, and now, magically reappearing as a herald for dooms day. Bruce was here. And there were wizards. With capes, and scowls, and dramatic facial hair for miles. And the end of the world was upon them. Again.
“Tell me his name again,” Tony demanded.
“Thanos,” Bruce managed to choke out. “And he’s coming here Tony. He’s coming here now.”
A part of Tony twinged in uncomfortable familiarity. But of course he knew Thanos. He was the one who’d sent Loki down to rain Hell all the way up the Hudson. Eight years he’d been waiting. A silent enemy, the final boss hiding in the shadows. And now he was here.
And they were all going to die.
Tony shook his head just as the winds started to blow. And then they were out on the street brawling with Giant Goon #3 and Voldemort’s weird goth cousin, and he didn’t have anymore time to think about premonitions, or dreams, or anything that wasn’t avoiding being hurled into the side of a skyscraper.
Doctor Stephen Strange (who was, in fact, very strange but even moreso an asshole) was an ungrateful son of bitch and Tony wanted to punt him into the fucking sun. Or… whatever star was central to this weird ass solar system.
“Eight years,” Tony mumbled. “Eight years he’s been living in my head. And now we’re here.”
“Just know,” the Doctor said, “if it comes down to it—to you, or the kid, or the Stone, I’m going to save the Stone. I have to.”
“Yeah. I get it,” Tony snarked. “Defender of the Cosmos and bla, bla, bla.”
“No. I don’t think you do,” Strange hummed, almost sad.
And that was that. They were coming up on Titan and the donut ship was making that awful scream that always seemed to preempt a crash landing, and Tony already had too little time to work out how to make sure said crash did not occur and not nearly enough to focus on the riddles of wizards with terrible facial hair.
The Doctor was meditating.
Then shaking, and convulsing, and glowing like some off-brand night light.
“I looked into the future,” he said, once he’d broken from his veritable seizure. The Time Stone glowed warm and green between his fingers. “I looked at all the outcomes of this fight. Every one.”
“How many did you see?” Tony asked.
“Fourteen million, six-hundred thousand, and five,” he replied and Tony blanched.
“And how many did we win?”
A pause—far too pregnant and uncomfortable for Tony’s liking. And then:
One. Just one. Those odds were impossible. Peter was staring at him with wide eyes in his new Spider Suit and Space Man Quill was glaring and stomping and being generally obnoxious. The kid smiled—just at the ends. His lips curling at the edges with as much promise and hope as any teenage boy can manage.
“Okay,” said Tony. “Okay.
This was Thanos. This purple monstrosity with deep set eyes and so many frown lines he could be a pleated shirt from the 80’s.
“You know me,” Tony said. It felt like it should be a question, but at the same time, he felt as if he already had the answer.
“You’re not the only one who’s been cursed with knowledge.”
And then Tony Stark was beaten into the dirt.
The blade in his side hurt less than it should have. Like a latent itch more than anything. Old wounds torn open before they had time to heal. Despite how anticlimactic it felt, the blood bubbling past his lips was no less real—no less bitter or warm.
“WAIT!” Strange called. He held out a battered hand and that emerald Infinity Stone floated between his fingers. “Take it. Let him live, and I’ll give it to you.”
Thanos paused, curious. “No tricks?
The blade slid from his abdomen and Thanos nodded down at him. “I hope they remember you.”
Slowly the world began to melt away and Strange locked eyes with Tony one final time.
“This is how it has to be. This is the endgame.”
And then everyone died all over again.
When Tony blinked awake it was to the Hulk’s terrifying roar.
“Please tell me no one kissed me.”
Steve scoffed and looked up at the clearing blue sky. He looked ruffled, certainly—soot caked and smeared with blood. But not quite so rugged as Tony remembered.
“Cap, when the Hell did you find time to shave?”
Steve frowned. “What?”
Then Tony thought of Shawarma.
As Tony worked on crafting Ultron’s mind—his motives and desire to protect—he thought ‘this time, I’ll do it right.’
And he took a moment to ponder on that, because certainly he’d never made anything like Ultron before. JARVIS maybe, in a diluted form. But nothing so complicated as the AI currently coming into existence beneath his fingers.
When Ultron went berserk and the Avengers were sent out to wrangle Tony’s latest and greatest failure, he thought ‘next time.’ He was too busy dodging crimson-mind-rays and trying not to be blown up to think about the implications of that.
“All of this,” Thor snarled at him after their first loss to the machine, “could have been avoided if you had not played with something you did not understand.”
Despite knowing very well that, yes, this Ultron thing was all his fault, and yes, he was a good half-a-foot shorter and probably a hundred pounds lighter than the growling God of Thunder currently spitting petty threats in his face, Tony chose to face him head on anyways.
“I’m sorry,” he sneered. “It’s so funny, isn’t it? It’s a hoot that you don’t get why we need this.”
Bruce stepped in, gentle and rational as per usual. Tony snapped at him. Steve, in that grating stick-up-the-ass-morality way of his, bit back in the quiet scientist’s defense.
“We were supposed to be different from SHIELD, Tony.”
Tony turned on the room in awe, hands spread wide—as if beseeching the Heavens to send down some, any bit of rationality to the lab’s other occupants. “Anybody remember when I carried a nuke through a wormhole?”
Rhodes snipped back, sarcastic, “Nope. Never came up.”
“Saved New York?”
“Never heard that.”
Incensed, Tony stormed back to face the charred remains of Ultron’s shell.
“Recall that? A hostile alien army came charging in through a hole in space…we're standing three-hundred feet below it. We're the Avengers. We can bust arms dealers all the live-long day, but…that up there? That's the endgame. How were you guys planning on beating that?”
“Together,” Steve said, firm.
“We'll lose,” Tony argued, never more certain of anything else.
“Then we'll do that together, too.”
Tony looked away, disgusted. In himself, in his failures, in Steve’s blind optimism.
This is the endgame.
He shook away that disgust, that blinding terror, and turned his back to his friends for what felt like the hundredth time.
While hiding away at Clint’s farm, Steve took a moment away from ripping apart logs with his bare freaking hands to yell old-man-obscenities at him.
“Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time.”
Tony thought this through and decided that Steve Rogers was well meaning, but an idiot. Which was, perhaps, one of the more irritating types of idiots.
Some wars couldn’t be won without a little cheating in advance. Or maybe even a lot. And if it meant saving his most important people, well then, Tony Stark would be a cheating war monger—disapproving, elderly, super soldiers or otherwise. The kid was counting on him.
Tony wasn’t sure where this new ideology had come from or why he was picturing some goofy looking teen in red spandex trailing after him, but it felt right enough.
“You know what that crater reminds me of? That giant wormhole in New York!”
The kid was excited and kind of cute in a ‘lost puppy’ sort of way, but also pretty irritating. And for some reason, a part of Tony really wasn’t okay with calling this little ball of curls ‘the kid.’ The kid was someone else. Someone far more important, and still so very far away. Certainly not in Tennessee. The kid was someone who built his own computers and strange suits instead of, you know, potato guns.
“Are they coming back?” this kid asked, clearly shaken. “The aliens?”
Tony thought on the massive crater that seemed as if it’d hollowed out the earth.
“I think they are.”
When Bruce smashed through the roof and about four subsequent floors of 177a Bleecker Street, Tony wasn’t nearly as surprised as he should have been.
When Doctor Stephen Strange popped out of the air to request his aid in saving the world from imminent destruction, Tony didn’t put up nearly so much a stink as he felt he should have—what with his prior dinner plans and general lack of desire for either physical or emotional evisceration.
When the winds started to blow and people began to scream, Tony didn’t feel confusion. He felt dread certainly, but also, he felt ready. This was going to be bad, but he knew that it was going to be bad. He knew it was going to be the worst thing he’d ever faced. But somehow, it felt like he’d faced enough ‘worst’ things at this point that another go wouldn’t be so bad.
And when Squidward’s evil twin tried to make off with Stephen Strange and the magical gem dangling around his neck, Tony was prepared. The demonic looking telepath made it halfway down the block with his floating, human, cargo before the teensy bomb Tony had snuck into the fold of Sir Squid’s clothes went BOOM.
Doctor Strange fell harmlessly (more or less) to the ground and Mister Evil Henchman landed half on a car, half over a street sign just a bit down the road.
Somehow, it felt like more than a victory.
This time, he wasn’t stupid enough to go to Thanos, thinking he could win. This time, Thanos came to them.
With five Infinity Stones already in hand, Tony knew that there was no way that they could prevail against the gargantuan, purple, monstrosity. Five was less than seven certainly, but it was nowhere near enough of a handicap.
Thanos and his followers stormed Wakanda. Tony watched in agony as the glimmering yellow Mind Stone was pried from Vision’s forehead. He’d never heard Wanda scream like that. He’d never thought he’d have to.
When he came face to face with Thanos, the giant almost smiled.
“You know me,” Tony said, firm. And I know you.
“You’re not the only one who’s been cursed with knowledge.”
“No, I guess I’m not. But out of the two of us, I’m probably the only one who actually uses it,” he managed to snip back before Thanos’s too large hands bore down on him and beat him half-way to death.
When the knife pierced his side and Strange called out to them from his place hidden amongst the trees to offer up the glittering green Time Stone in exchange for mercy, Tony felt as if he already knew the plea word-for-word.
Thanos barely glanced his way as he pulled the knife from its makeshift sheath in Tony’s abdomen. The looming titan flexed his fingers experimentally, watching with obvious contentment as the Time Stone set itself neatly into its designated groove in the Gauntlet—completing the set once more.
This is the endgame.
And Tony understood.
Thanos turned to him one last time, fist raised high above the rest of the world.
“I hope they remember you.”
Tony glared up at him from his place in the mud as the people around him began to crumble. “Don’t worry. They won’t. But I will.”
Thor looked confused. He stood—tall, blonde, and shaggy—beside his awful brother. That stupid, antler-donning, creepo and his even more stupid muzzle. Tony hated it. The one who had started all of this. It had been years, and years, and years, but that hate felt as fresh as if it’d formed just yesterday. To be fair, in a way, it kind of had.
“The Tesseract,” Tony said. “And emo boy’s Scepter.”
Thor’s brow furrowed. “The Tesseract will be safest on Asgard—”
“No,” Tony cut in, firm. “It won’t. It won’t be safe anywhere.”
“Do you realize the power you wish to destroy?” Thor gaped. “This could protect both of our peoples in their time of need!”
“But it won’t,” Tony insisted. “It will kill us. All of us.”
Bruce nudged Tony gently. “We don’t have any way to get rid of something like that, Tony.”
“Then we’ll find one.”
Maximoff, he thought. He just had to find her first. She could do it. Had done it. More times than he could probably count at this point. Tony allowed himself a moment to wonder just how many. In the back of his head, a familiar (though forever grating) voice piped in: fourteen million, six-hundred thousand, and four. Tony hoped the actual number wasn’t actually that high, and that wizards were just really big on over exaggeration.
When random portals began to open up all across Earth, Tony wasn’t sure what to make of it. There was worry at first—the idea that maybe his collection of Infinity Stones had set off an earlier reenactment of Thanos’s reign. However, nothing more than a few random monsters found their way through to create minimal destruction. None of them were Thanos and the timeframe was still all off anyways, so Tony wasn’t overly concerned.
When Thor appeared a brief time later—looking far worse for wear—and offered Tony ‘another curious object,’ the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist was more than ecstatic.
The red gem and odd mists that surrounded it made Stone Number Three. This one was encased in a garish looking metal contraption rather than some random glowing cube or a scary looking walking stick, which Tony supposed just made the storage aspect a bit easier until he finished tracking down the Maximoff twins.
Thor mentioned that it was dangerous to keep so many of these Stones in such close proximity, and Tony agreed. It was dangerous. It was like putting up neon ‘HERE WE ARE’ signs into the atmosphere. In that moment, Tony miraculously recalled the principal of needing a weapon of similar power to the gems in order to destroy them. So, naturally, one Infinity Stone should be more than capable of blowing up another. Maybe they needed to be brought together. Then, they could be destroyed.
The first experiment left Tony with two less eyebrows and a ridiculous looking burn that Pepper lied and said looked intimidating. The next almost took off his arm. The fifth left him so singed even the ever-polite Bruce was making ‘toast’ comments.
He glared down at the yellow Mind Stone—still perfectly perfect with not a scratch to be seen despite all his attempts to blow it to smithereens. This tiny thing was supposed to bring Vision to life—to save them all from the monster he would make of Ultron. But if there was no Ultron… Then…
Tony thought of Vision, of Wanda. He thought of smiles and covert laughter shared amongst two beings who were too powerful to really be understood by the rest of the world. But Wanda would have her brother. And Vision would be JARVIS, as he had always been. Guilt twisted his stomach, but this—this is what needed to be done. For everyone.
He shouldn’t have. He really, really, shouldn’t have.
But Tony felt like he’d sacrificed enough these past few years. His money, his ageless face, his dignity. To think, he’d deferred to Steve Rogers of all the people in the universe. But his pride wasn’t as great as his desire to not watch all his friends evaporate into dust. So Tony took up arms when Cap called him. He refused the Accords (there was always some catastrophe, he’d discovered. Even without Ultron there to create giant meteors out of countries). He hid away until questions of ‘Super Hero Safety’ weren’t front and center on every tabloid cover and Facebook page. He didn’t even fight (too strongly) when Steve dragged Bucky back from the depths of God knew where.
Besides, the kid would have done it anyways. He just… he was giving him a helping hand—keeping him safe, in the process. Better he had Iron Man on his side than, well… no one.
“So,” Tony said, with just a hint of a smirk. “You’re the… spiderling? Crime fighting spider? Spider boy?”
Peter crossed his arms tight over his chest, embarrassed. “Spider—I’m… Spider Man.”
Tony scoffed. “Not in that onesie, you’re not.”
“It’s—It’s not a onesie!”
He grinned. “You got a passport? Travel documentation? Immunization records? Any of that good stuff?”
“No, I don’t even have a driver’s—wait? What? What? Why?!”
“Ever been to outer space?” Tony beamed. Peter went white and continued to stutter up a storm, making excuses about homework of all things. Gods, Tony had missed the little bugger. “You’re gonna love it, Spider Man.”
Pietro Maximoff was a thorn in Tony’s ass if there ever was one. Not just a regular thorn, but a big, twisty, one that refused to be yanked out without taking half of his internal organs with it.
“Aren’t you supposed to be a genius?” the speedster mocked. “And my sister still has to do everything for you—”
“Remind me again who’s paying for this stupid cottage hideaway, all your food and clothes, your amenities, and HBO? Oh? Right. That’s me.”
Maximoff rolled his eyes so hard Tony hoped they would get stuck up there—forever searching in the dark for a brain that just didn’t exist.
“What do you want this time, Stark?”
“I bring good tidings and cash for the aforementioned expenditures,” Tony said, holding up a carefully packed bag of bills. He paused. “How’s she doing after the last Stone?”
The crimson Reality Stone had been particularly hard on Wanda for some reason. Not to say that the other two had been easy. But Tony had never seen her quite so drained. Not even after destroying the glimmering yellow Mind Stone. Tony had been expecting… some kind of reaction to it. Some pain, maybe. Hesitance. A burst of sentiment and a few trailing tears. But then again, Vision had never existed, had he? Because Ultron had never existed. And the world hadn’t needed saving then.
“She’s doing better,” Pietro hummed—some of that spunk tempered by his concern. “But I don’t think she’s ready for another one. Not yet.”
Well, that was just fine. Because Tony didn’t have any more Infinity Stones on hand to destroy. Not yet, anyways.
Tony popped his head in to drop a hello to the more pleasant of the Maximoff twins and found Wanda in a vaguely heated discussion with JARVIS—caught up over movie suggestions or something equally mundane. Tony had installed a tiny driver once the siblings had been properly moved into their new cottage. He told himself it was to keep them and the residents of Stark Tower in contact. In reality, he knew exactly why he’d done it.
“Oh. Hello, Tony,” Wanda smiled, small.
“Good afternoon, sir.”
Tony wasn’t sure if seeing woman and machine chatting so amicably broke his heart or warmed it. Either way, he grinned and offered up another wad of hundreds.
“I have received word that there is another Infinity Stone on Xandar,” Thor said.
Tony didn’t know where or what Xandar was, but he was thankful for the intel.
“How’d it get there?”
“Heimdall spoke to me of a battle. There was a blue man—tall. And he fought a group of heroes. And…” At this, his golden brow furrowed in confusion. “He was beaten by a… a dance? And a rabbit.”
Peter Quill, you sly dog.
Tony didn’t know as much about Peter as he did Rocket the gun toting racoon, but he knew enough from their brief scuffles and verbal sparring matches to know he was a good man who would be more than happy to help them take down Thanos.
“Can you get into contact with them? Or Xandar, at least?”
“I can reach out to Xandar easily enough. And I assume that they then can set some form of communication with their guardians.”
“You always were my favorite blonde on the team, Point Break.”
Thor grinned, and Tony pictured him with an axe instead of a hammer. He wondered when or if that’d come about in this botched up timeline of his. The God’s hair still hung long and luscious past his shoulders, so clearly that stage of traumatic-life-experiences had yet to play out.
“If I may add,” Thor began, looking very much as if he was about to start awkwardly scuffing his toes against the carpet. “Loki is alive after all and I was wondering if there is any possible chance of some kind of… amnesty?”
“You have been disowned.”
When Tony met Peter Quill, he was very nearly punched in the face. But not by Peter Quill.
“You think to take the Stone for yourself?!” the green alien lady had bellowed—fist in his face and wicked looking blade at his throat. He had never seen her before. Never. Not in any of his lifetimes. He was sure of it.
“I wish,” Tony snipped (because even in the face of absolute danger he was never not a loveable asshole), “to not be beaten to death by a purple testicle monster. And so I need the Stone so that I can destroy it and he can’t have it.”
At this, she-hulk paused—eyes narrowing in not just distrust, but very legitimate horror.
“Who is this ‘purple monster’ of which you speak, and how does he wreak such havoc if he is but a singular testicle?” Drax asked.
“His name is Thanos,” Tony said, and green-chick’s eyes widened to the size of dinner plates.
She reached out and latched tight onto the sleeve of Quill’s jacket—nails biting into the red leather. “Peter, we need to help him.”
“What?” Quill gaped. “Wait, wait, wait. Gamora—Why?”
Gamora turned her gaze back to Tony, deathly serious. “How many of the Stones have you destroyed?”
“Three,” Tony answered. “And I’m in good faith that this will be number four.”
Quill scoffed. “I don’t know what you’re on, dude, but I saw that thing in action. You can’t just, I don’t know, blow it up.”
“Yes,” Tony said, stern. “I can.”
Gamora stepped forward, around her irritable companion. “Let me help you.”
Doctor Stephen Strange was no less of a pompous asshole in this life than he was in all the other ones.
“Tony Stark,” he drawled, like even saying Tony’s name was a hindrance to him and his stupidly over-important job protecting the multiverse. “I can’t say I was expecting you.”
Despite being clearly no older than, say, forty-five, Stephen Strange somehow looked ancient. Then again, Tony mused, he probably looked pretty damn old by now too. But even then, Strange had a kind of… etherealness about him. That spoke of many lives lived and many lives lost. He floated gracefully about a foot above the floor, and it irritated Tony to no end. The dude was already taller than him. Having to literally crane his neck back in order to maintain eye contact was threatening to suck up the last of his patience.
“Nice to see you too, doc,” Tony shot back, crossing his arms stiffly over his chest. “We’ve gotta talk, you and I.” His eyes drifted down to the intricate necklace tucked neatly into the wizard’s robes. “On that note, your taste in jewelry is pretty awful. Tell you what—I’ll do you a favor and take that ugly, old, thing off your hands and buy you a nice watch instead. Something to complement your theme of ‘grandma’s drapery.’”
Strange looked him up and down, mouth twisted downwards in a severe line.
“Why are you here, Stark?”
“Were you not listening?” Tony asked. This time, it was his turn to act all haughty. “Or should I explain it more slowly?” He pointed. “I need you—" A gesture to himself, “To give me—” And then back to the necklace, “that Stone. So I can make it go bye-bye.”
Another pause as Strange stared deep into his eyes. It was unnerving, but also startling familiar. Enough so that Tony didn’t feel the need to flinch away or pull up his own bitter glare in defense. There was a moment more of silence and the Doctor seemed to pull back. His hand came up to clench tight around the necklace. Tony could see green seeping through his fingers.
“I don’t think you understand the severity of what you’re asking me to do.”
“Oh believe me,” Tony said. “I do. And call me crazy, but I think you do too.”
Strange slowly descended to the ground. His feet landed against the hardwood with a barely audible thmp. The cape around his neck seemed to move with an invisible wind and Tony briefly recalled how that little piece of feisty fabric would fight just as hard as its wearer. It was an odd thought, but if he could have his suits, he supposed the wizard was entitled to his sentient cape.
“There’s something coming. Isn’t there?” Strange guessed. “Something big.”
Tony nodded. “His name is Thanos. And he’s going to try to kill us all.”
A pause. Strange sighed. “Wow.”
“Yeah, man. I know. It sucks.”
‘I can sense a ship—headed for Earth. And the others at the Sanctum have felt it too. Something’s coming, Tony.’
He never really did seem to have any pleasant conversations with Stephen Strange.
Tony hung up the phone and rubbed his fingers into his eyes.
It didn’t feel like it was time. Tony had barely made first contact with T’Challa and his father. Thor had only just returned with a head of freshly buzzed hair and a shattered hammer. A ship, he too had warned. It had tried to apprehend him and his people, but they’d escaped more or less unharmed thanks to Heimdall’s quick thinking.
On one hand, Tony wanted to take that as a good sign. The forever awful trickster that was Loki was alive and as irritatingly snarky as always. Tony couldn’t ever remember the God of Mischief making it this far into the game, so certainly… this was good. Or it would have been, if Loki wasn’t blowing up every electronic device he came across in his frustrations at not understanding how these ‘ridiculous Midgardian contraptions’ functioned. Small sacrifices, Tony reminded himself over and over again. Small sacrifices.
Gamora approached him that evening, looking even more stern than usual.
“All of the Infinity Stones were destroyed?”
“All but one,” Tony sighed, dragging a hand through his scruff. He flicked at the tablet laid out before him and a glittering hologram of the Soul Stone swirled into the air. “This one. I don’t know where it is. I couldn’t find it. No matter what I did.”
Gamora shifted awkwardly for a moment before facing him once more—expression tight with determination.
“I know where it is. And Thanos can never get to it.”
Tony sat back, observing her carefully. “You’re sure?”
“One hundred percent,” she said.
Another heavy sigh.
“So without you,” Tony frowned, “he can’t get the last one. He’s coming here empty handed.”
Gamora nodded—as stiff necked as always.
“Yes. But even without the Infinity Stones, Thanos and his armies are still a threat. He wiped out half the people on my planet before he even knew the Stones existed.”
“But now we have a chance,” Tony said. “Right?”
“Right,” she parroted, green brow furrowed low. “Now at least we have a chance.”
She didn’t look entirely certain, but she also didn’t look quite so horrified as she had when Tony had first come knocking.
That was good enough for him.
This was it. Without the Time Stone, there was no going back. No redos. And Tony was ready.
The Doctor glanced his way with that usual, constipated, ‘wow look at me, I guard the cosmos’ look of his and Tony rolled his eyes, though there wasn’t really any real annoyance to it.
“I know,” he said, flexing his fingers. He’d put everything he had into this new suit. Hopefully, it would be enough. At least, enough to keep him from having his insides crushed with the rest of him. “This is the endgame, right?”
For a moment, Strange just peered at him with those age-old eyes that had seen so much in such a short amount of time. Then, despite years and years of past experiences leading Tony to believe it to be entirely impossible, Stephen Strange smiled.
“No, Stark. This is just the beginning.”
And when the sky opened up and all kinds of horrible creatures began to rain down, the Avengers stood together. When Thanos himself descended from the horrible mess of space above—sans gauntlet but still incredibly large and angry—Tony was ready. Thanos’s dark eyes picked him out amidst the chaos and narrowed.
‘Tony Stark.’ They seemed to say.
‘You know me.’ Tony would have replied in a time before this one, in an era never really meant to be. ‘And I know you. I’ve known you for a lifetime.’
Cap took up his shield. Sparks jumped between Thor’s fingers. There was green in Bruce’s eyes, red in Wanda’s. There were guns in hands—both human and raccoon. Across the world, T’Challa and the rest of Wakanda had weapons aimed to the skies. And Peter, young as he was, stood with a determination that Tony had and would always admire. Doctor Stephen Strange glanced his way once more and nodded.
The end was upon them. The biggest fight they would ever have to fight. The fate of the world, of everything. Every horrible death, every one of those fourteen million, six-hundred thousand, and four failures had led to this.
Tony was ready.