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Grief tasted like ashes on the back of Tony's tongue. He stared at the spot where Peter had been moments - hours? - before, still hearing the sound of Peter's frightened begging ringing in his ears. Distantly, he wondered just how many people on Earth were experiencing the same thing. It had to be utter chaos. Not just on Earth, but on every planet in the galaxy. Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters - Thanos would have spared no one in his ruthless snap of the fingers.

Something rustled nearby, but Tony couldn't summon the wherewithal to turn. His whole body felt impossibly heavy; he'd sealed up the stab wound in his belly, but he may very well have been bleeding internally. A light weight settled around his shoulders and he tensed before slowly realizing that it was that damnable cape. The one that Strange had worn. Tony stared at the dull red fabric, seeing the anguished look in Strange's eyes as he, like Peter and the Guardians, faded out of existence.

Tony, this was the only way.

The only way. What the hell did that mean?

"You should get up."

Until that point, he'd almost forgotten that he wasn't alone. Tony turned his head slightly, just enough that he could see the woman in his peripheral vision. What was her name? Nebula? She moved like she was in pain, one leg dragging behind her as she scrounged around. He wasn't sure what she was looking for until she made a quiet sound of triumph and held up a key. It took Tony's brain much longer than it should have to realize that she'd been searching for the key to the Milano. Quill had parked it somewhere safe, saying that they would need a way off the planet when they won.

"I'm leaving," Nebula said. "Are you coming?"

Tony stared at her for almost a minute before he remembered how to respond. "Sure."

"Then come on."

The cape fluttered, then suddenly dragged Tony to his feet. It held him in the air when his legs wouldn't support him, and kept holding him as he stumbled after Nebula on unsteady feet. He hated to leave the spot where Peter had died. But there wasn't even enough dust to take back to May. It had all blown away before Tony had even realized what was happening; Peter's ashes, if that's what you wanted to call them, were scattered across the remains of this godforsaken planet. The ashes of a child.

He refused to cry.

The Milano was where Quill had left it. Nebula stalked up the plank like she owned it. Tony supposed that she did now, given that all of the Guardians were dead. He numbly followed, collapsing into the chair that was closest to the door. His stomach continued to ache. He cupped a hand over the spot where it hurt the worst and stared at the table. Peter hadn't died of a stab wound. He hadn't bled out. He'd just... dematerialized. Ceased to exist, except in the minds of those who were still alive to remember him. It was the most terrifying end that Tony could think of.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

Nebula turned on the engine. "Anywhere but here."

That was a good enough answer for Tony. The spaceship rose into the air. Nebula seemed perfectly capable of doing everything herself, and probably would have snapped at him for getting in the way if he'd tried to help, so he went back to staring vacantly at the table. In his mind's eye, he replayed the moment when Peter, Strange and the Guardians all dematerialized until he passed out.

Intense cold woke him, so cold that Tony could barely breathe. It reminded him of both cold nights in the cave in Afghanistan and the freezing floor of a bunker in Siberia. He lurched awake, shaking violently, and nearly cracked his head together with Loki. Tony stopped himself just in time, dimly registering the relief in Loki's eyes that just as quickly was masked with annoyance. Loki leaned back, breathing heavily, the green glow around his fingers fading. Behind him, a female Asgardian that Tony didn't recognize folded her arms.

"He'll live?" she asked crisply.

"Yes," Loki said.

"What the fuck," Tony said.

Loki smirked at him. "I saved your life. You owe me."

"You destroyed my town. Fuck you," Tony said. He realized that his sweatshirt had been pulled up, exposing his stomach. The only thing that indicated he’d been stabbed was a thin scar directly above his belly button.

"With that kind of gratitude, I should've let you die," Loki muttered, but it was a half-hearted comment at best. He went to stand and yelped in alarm when the cape grabbed his arm, wrenching it backwards. Tony raised both eyebrows in bemusement as Loki snarled.

"You!"

"I take it you two have a history," Tony said.

Loki jerked free. "A brief one," he said with a sneer. The cape settled back across Tony's lap, spreading across his body in a way that was almost protective. Or possessive. If it had eyes, Tony would have sworn that it would've been glaring.

Tony thought he might regret asking, but he'd never been one for tact. "What happened to you? You look like shit."

"Thanos," Loki said, as though that explained it all. Frankly, it did. Still, he added, "Asgard has fallen. Thanos attacked the ship and killed everyone who remained except for Thor. And me, obviously, though he nearly killed me as well."

"I heard about the attack and went to see if I could help anyone. I didn't anticipate having to help Loki," said the woman, crinkling her nose. "I am Lady Sif. It is a pleasure to meet you, Tony Stark. Thor has often spoken of your willingness to enter battle and your trustworthiness as a comrade. It would be an honor to fight beside you as we defeat Thanos." She nodded to Tony.

"Thanks, but I don't know about fighting. I don't know what to do," Tony said, and he hated the whiny sound of his voice, but he thought he could be forgiven considering everything that had transpired in the past twenty-four hours. He'd lost Peter and Strange, and god only knew who else. He couldn't think about Pepper or Rhodey right now, or he was going to shatter into a hundred pieces. He needed to hold himself together and think of some kind of solution, no matter how crazy.

"You can't defeat Thanos now," Nebula said. The ship must have been on autopilot, because she got out of the chair and walked back to join them. Her next words were directed at Tony: "You can vouch for them? They appeared on the ship out of nowhere. This one," she nodded to Loki, "said he was locked onto your energy signature."

"What?" Tony said.

Loki scowled. "You were the closest thing I recognized. I thought you were on Earth," he snapped.

"What do you mean, we can't defeat Thanos?" Sif said.

"He has all six of the Infinity Stones. He can bend reality to be whatever he wants. He can read souls and minds. He'll know your plans long before you ever get close," Nebula said, her voice full of resignation. "We saw his power, and that was when he didn't have all the Stones. Now that he does, he's unbeatable."

Tony swallowed. She was right. "If only we had the time stone," he whispered. "Peter and I were so close to prying that stupid gauntlet off his hand. If Quill had just held out for one more fucking minute -" He closed his eyes against a fresh surge of anguish, biting his tongue. It wasn't fair to speak ill of the dead. And Quill had every right to lash out, considering that Thanos had murdered someone that Quill held very dear. Tony could understand that better than anyone. It was just unfortunate that everything had happened with such shitty timing.

Sif peered at him. "Are you well?"

"He lost his child and his lover," Nebula said. "The lover wore that cape. I wouldn't get too close. It tried to strangle me."

"W-what?" Tony squeaked, momentarily distracted.

"Ah," Sif nodded understandingly. "That is a grave loss for anyone to endure. My condolences, Tony Stark."

Tony just stared at her, mouth open.

Nebula punched one of her fists into her free hand. "Forget that. If only I'd had the chance to carry out my plan. I made my way onto his ship. My sword was at his throat! But he woke before I could apply enough pressure. Another thirty seconds and he would've been dead with only one Stone in his hands."

"Then none of this would have happened," Sif said quietly.

There was a long silence as all four of them contemplated that.

Then Loki said slowly, "There may be another way."

"What do you mean?" Tony said, deciding to push through the momentary weirdness of the whole lover-and-child thing.

"Time travel is complicated, but it was never limited solely to the time stone. Certainly that was the easiest way, and it required the least amount of effort on behalf of the wielder..." Loki trailed off, looking as though he was thinking very hard. "But there are other ways. I've heard of them during my studies. My mother mentioned a few, though any that were on Asgard would be lost now."

"Can you think of anywhere else to find them?" Tony asked. He tried not to feel any hope, but he wanted to believe that there was a way to end this so badly.

"I can," Sif said suddenly. "The Collector."

Nebula inhaled sharply. "Of course. If anyone would have something like that, it would be him. I'm setting a course for Knowhere."

"For where?" Tony said, increasingly baffled.

"Knowhere. It's where the Collector is," Sif said.

"Yeah, thanks, I got that. Who the hell is the Collector?"

"He collects everything," said Sif. "Objects, especially relics, plants, people. Anything that is interesting or rare. We gave him one of the Infinity Stones to protect." Her expression turned bleak. "He may not be alive."

Sif turned out to be right. When they arrived, having taken both ships, the wreckage was no longer burning - but the air was thick with the strench of burned metal and flesh. Tony was grateful that the nanobots had been working steadily to repair the damage done; they'd repaired themselves enough to form a new helmet, which at least kept the worst of the stench out and provided him with breathable air. He kept close to Nebula as they moved down the plank of the Milano and joined Loki and Sif, looking around at what remained of the Collector's building.

"What a mess," Tony said finally.

"Thanos was here," Nebula muttered. "It's unlikely anyone survived, but be wary."

"What are we looking for?" Sif asked.

Loki barely spared her a glance as he started forward. "I'll know it when I see it."

The cape clung to Tony's shoulders as he followed, sweeping the ground. It didn't take him long to come across some interesting-looking tools and bits of metal in the wreckage. He scooped them up; the cape helpfully formed a little pouch for him to put them into. Tony gave it a gentle pat in gratitude and kept looking. He wasn't really sure what he was looking for, but this was probably his one and only chance to explore a place like this. It also helped to keep his mind off of what had just happened, which was a considerable bonus.

After spending quite some time exploring, Tony grew tired and hungry. The cape, seeming to sense his fatigue, started pulling him back in the direction of the ship. Tony fought with it for a few minutes before gave up, realizing that this was yet another battle he wasn't going to win. He gave up and trekked back to the ship, passing by both Sif and Loki. Both of them were so focused on their search that they didn't even notice him. Tony didn't bother with attracting their attention; Sif seemed nice enough, but Loki wasn't to be trusted. He returned to the ship alone and was surprised to find Nebula already on board.

"I haven't eaten in a while," she said defensively when Tony appeared in the doorway.

Tony shrugged. "Fair." His stomach growled. He looked at the packages on the table and wondered if they were fit for human consumption. Hadn't Quill said something about being 50% human? Close enough.

He picked up a package and cautiously squeezed some of the mush into his mouth. The taste wasn't one he could define. It wasn't bad, and the texture was alright. It was food, at any rate, and Tony couldn't exactly complain. He kept eating until the package was empty. When he got up to toss it out, he found some containers in the little cupboard that appeared to contain water. He drank one of those too; he hadn't realized how thirsty he was until he had something to drink. Then, buoyed by a meal and water, he turned to Nebula.

"Is there something wrong with your leg?"

Nebula tensed. "It's none of your concern."

"I was just going to offer my help. I'm a mechanic. Sort of. I work with a lot of machines, and you're..." Tony trailed off. There didn't seem to be a kind way to say 'you appear to be mostly made of metal'. She was glaring at him, so he decided to go for a different tactic.

He turned away and busied himself with the things he'd scavenged, casually remarking, "It's just, if we do somehow go back in time to try and kill Thanos, we're going to need to be quick and quiet about it. I could hear your leg jerking and squeaking when we were walking around. He'll definitely hear you coming."

There was a long pause behind more. Tony paid no attention, smiling as the cape helped him to sort through the things. Finally, Nebula said, "If you do anything I don't like, I'll kill you."

"Story of my life," Tony muttered. He didn't take offence. He, better than anyone, knew what happened when you trusted the wrong people.

He had Nebula sit back in the chair and recline her feet on another chair. Then Tony knelt on the floor and examined the leg that was giving her so much trouble. He could see places where the metal had been stretched repeatedly, causing it to become weak. It didn't look like the kind of normal wear and tear that metal would see. He'd worked on the armor long enough to know that. This was deliberate, which meant it was probably from torture. Tony squashed the flicker of pity that he felt and set to work, quickly losing himself in it.

They remained in Knowhere for what was, by Tony's estimation, roughly five days. It was hard to know how much time was passing when there wasn't a sun or moon to mark the passage, but that was his best guess. Sif and Loki continued the search, while Tony devoted his time to repairing the damage done to not just Nebula's leg, but her arms and back as well. He had to go out foraging for material several times, but he was able to find what he needed between the wreckage, Sif’s ship and what was on the Milano - or a close enough approximation of what he needed. The Collector's collection was enormous and seemed to include a little bit of everything. Though much of it was burnt or destroyed beyond repair, Tony had built an armor from a box of scraps. He could do this easily enough.

On what Tony guessed was the “night” of their fifth day, he was sitting in the doorway of the Milano, watching Sif and Nebula spar while working on his own armor. They were truly amazing. Both of them were immensely powerful, moving at a speed that Tony’s human brain could just barely process. Nebula was much more graceful now that the repairs had been done. This was her test run, and if Tony had to guess she was pleased.

“I found it!”

Loki’s crow had Nebula and Sif stopping. They were barely panting; Sif wasn’t even sweating. Tony eyed them speculatively, wondering what they would be capable of doing to a couple of supersoldiers. It wouldn’t suck nearly as much to go back and face Steve if he had Nebula or Sif at his side. Then again, he didn’t even know if Steve was still alive. For all Tony knew, Steve had been one of the 50% who disintegrated. He tried not to openly grimace at the conflicting thought.

“Thank you,” Nebula said quietly as Sif moved to the edge of the wreckage to greet Loki. She looked up and directly at Tony. “My body is in much better condition now. I feel I could kill Thanos with no problem.”

Tony smiled at that. “That’s a good thing, because from the sound of it you’re about to get your chance.”

He left off his repairs as Loki appeared, standing up and walking down the plank. Absently, he stroked the cape with his left hand. It was a nervous habit he’d picked up lately and he couldn’t seem to stop doing it even when he was aware of his actions. The cape brought him more comfort than he cared to admit; he couldn’t sleep at night unless it was securely wrapped around him.

For some reason, once or twice he’d woken up wondering what it might be like to wake up wrapped up in Strange’s arms.

“I found it,” Loki repeated as soon as he was within speaking distance. He was holding something above his head.

“What is it?” Sif asked.

Loki said something in a language Tony didn’t recognize. It was high and shrill and made his ears ache. Sif seemed to understand, because she gasped and smiled broadly. Tony approached, looking to see what Loki held. To his human eyes, it looked like an ordinary green stone that was big enough that Loki’s fingers couldn’t close all the way around it. There was a black rope tied around the stone in a series of complicated knots.

“For those of us who can’t speak alien, what is that?” Tony asked. The cape stiffened around him when he got too close and abruptly pulled him back, forcing him to back up a step or two. Tony just barely caught his balance, patting at the cape in confusion.

Loki repeated what he’d said before. Then, apparently realizing Tony didn’t understand, rolled his eyes. “It is of the Xar’zexhes. They died out centuries ago, but they were well versed in the art of time travel.”

“Some say they have not truly died out,” Sif added, “but that they have been lost to the stream of time. Some of them may be living thousands of years ago or, may yet live thousands of years in the future.”

Tony eyed the stone dubiously. “I don’t really want to go back to when electricity wasn’t a thing.”

“We won’t. I can control it,” Loki said.

“Are you sure?” said Nebula.

“Yes,” Loki hissed. He didn’t like being challenged. “My mother and I studied the Xar’zexhes at length when I was young. She was considered an expert on them.”

Tony and Nebula looked at Sif, who nodded. “What he says is true. Queen Frigga was known to be something of a collector herself when it came to magic. She often said that she never wanted the magic of any race to die out, and that by learning what others knew you could help to live them.”

“Like a historian or anthropologist,” Tony said before he could stop himself.

Sif looked at him curiously. “I’m not sure what those terms mean.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Nebula said. “If you can use the stone, then let’s go.” Her eyes gleamed.

“Wait,” Tony said. “How does this thing work? Will it take just our minds back or our physical bodies? Am I going to end up back on Earth while you three are wherever you were? That’s not helpful.”

“It will send back whatever the caster is touching,” said Loki.

Tony cocked his head. “So… wait. If we were standing on, say, the planet Earth when you activated that stone –”

Loki smirked at him. “What do you think the Xar’zexhes died out? Their planet vanished.”

“Then we will do it from the Milano,” Nebula declared.

“My ship would be better,” Sif disagreed. “It’s smaller and built more for stealth.”

Nebula considered that for a moment and then nodded slowly. “Quill will be pissed if we leave his ship behind. I like it.”

“Quill isn’t around to care,” Tony pointed out. He rubbed the cape again, heart stuttering at the memories. “What will happen if we change time?”

They all looked at Loki, who shrugged. “I’m not sure. I can make an educated guess, but time travel was never a branch of magic I was proficient at.”

“That’s comforting,” Tony muttered.

Sif spoke over him. “What is your guess, then?”

“I believe the four of us will disappear,” Loki said bluntly. “We will cease to exist because we are from a future that no longer exists. The past, or present if you will, versions of ourselves may remember what happened, or they may not. It depends on the degree of the ripple that we create. But no one else will. For everyone else, it will be as if this never happened.”

Tony swallowed, stroking the cape harder. “Isn’t that better?” he asked softly. “I would be okay if I didn’t remember. And I sure as hell don’t want anyone else to, either.”

“How far back are we going?” Sif asked. Her expression was troubled.

Nebula turned to look at the wreckage, avoiding their eyes. She named what Tony presumed was a date that made sense to Loki and Sif and added, “That was when I snuck on board his ship. I was close to killing him before he discovered me and took me prisoner. To my knowledge, it was the closest anyone has come. If I had back-up, we could kill him completely.”

Apparently noticing Tony’s look of confusion, Loki – of all people! – took pity on him and said, “That is the equivalent of three months of your Earth time. Before Asgard was destroyed.”

Three months. Tony thought back over the past three months. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened, unless you counted Vision taking off once and for all. The past two years had been a shitshow, really. Between Vision regularly leaving and the (thus far unsuccessful) work they’d done to oust Ross so that they could make the Accords into something that were more than just Ross’s own agenda, Tony couldn’t think of anything good. He would’ve been alright with going back to before the whole fight with the other Avengers, but that was pretty self-serving. There was no need to go back that far. Still, he decided it couldn’t hurt to offer another option.

“The other option would be when we had him on Titan,” he pointed out. “We had him restrained and were pulling the gauntlet off. If someone was there to hold Quill down, we could get the gauntlet off and someone could kill him. But… that would still leave a lot of people dead. If you wanted to save your planet…”

Sif sighed. “Unfortunately Asgard was always doomed,” she said regretfully. “It was written in the stars long before any of this happened.”

“But not the ship,” Loki said quietly. “We could save those on the ship…” He trailed off when he noticed that he had their combined attention and scowled terrifically. Tony was discomfitted by the wave of sympathy he felt. He didn’t really like Loki, but what had happened would never be fair.

Nebula made the decision. “There is too much risk in going with the attack on Titan,” she declared. “There are too many uncontrolled variables. Killing him quickly and quietly is the better choice.” She looked fierce and determined, and Tony found himself nodding.

“That works for me. And Sif’s ship does make the most sense,” he added. His heart was beginning to pound.

“Very well,” Loki said. He was trying to pretend their choice didn’t matter, but Tony could see the gleam of hope in his eyes. “Board the ship.”

The same hope was reflected in Sif’s and Nebula’s eyes. And, Tony thought, probably in his own. He hid the shake of his hands in the cape as he followed the three of them up the plank of Sif’s ship. It was considerably smaller than the Milano, almost cramped with all four of them inside, so Sif was entirely right when she said that it was better for stealth. Compared to Thanos’s warship, their ship probably wouldn’t even register as a blip on the radar.

As Sif lifted off, Loki stood with his feet planted, hands cupped around the stone. His thumbs moved from knot to knot; Tony noticed it was a pattern, though not one he could make discernible sense of. It took maybe thirty seconds for him to realize that the stone was beginning to glow. The glow came from deep within, radiating out in little pulses, the same iridescent green color as Strange’s Time Stone. He had to fight against the urge to step back, or even remove himself from the ship entirely.

“Put your hand on Loki,” Sif said suddenly. She switched the ship into auto-pilot and stood. “Now.”

“Not the stone?” Tony said, a little uncomfortable.

“It would kill all of us. We don’t have the magic to handle it,” Sif said. She wrapped her hand around Loki’s upper arm, holding on firmly. Nebula copied her. Tony hesitated before putting his hand on Loki’s shoulder. The armor Loki wore was unexpectedly cold against his palm.

He suddenly realized that Loki was whispering. No, chanting. It was that same shrill language that made Tony’s ears hurt. He wished he had both hands free to cover his ears. He settled for blocking one ear and pressing his shoulder to the other, even as he squinted his eyes against the growing light of the stone. At the point where it became unbearable and Tony had to shut his eyes completely, Loki shouted something.

Tony experienced the disorienting feeling of having the world fall out from under him, but he didn’t fall. He was abruptly relieved that his hand was on Loki’s shoulder after all; Loki was a firm, unmoving point when it felt like the world around them was moving rapidly. He kept his eyes shut and held his breath, holding on perhaps harder than was necessary, skin tingling from head to toe –

“It stopped.”

The sound of Nebula’s surprised voice told Tony it was safe to look. He opened up one eye first, not sure what he expected to see. The stone was no longer glowing, but otherwise nothing had changed. All four of them were still standing in the middle of the ship. Loki’s hands were still cupped around the stone, and Tony, Nebula and Sif were still holding onto him.

“Did it work?” Tony asked, proud that his voice didn’t crack. He groped instinctively for the cape and was relieved when it gently patted at his fingers.

Sif let go and strode over to the pilot seat. “It worked,” she said, sounding dazed. “I can tell by the readings I’m getting. It worked!”

Loki looked equally dazed. “It worked…” he whispered.

“You can save your ship now,” Tony said. “After…”

“We have to kill Thanos first,” Nebula said. She rattled off a set of coordinates to Sif. Sif sat down and inputted them into the controls.

Tony, realizing he was the only one still touching Loki, hastily let go and sank into one of the seats that lined the walls. He’d actually gone back in time. That was… huh. If he lived through this, and actually remembered all of it, he was going to have a hell of a story to tell Rhodey during their next pizza and beer night. It was really weird to think that the last night he remembered with Rhodey technically hadn’t even happened yet.

Loki sat across from him, looking pale. Tony wondered how much it had taken out of him to cast that spell but opted not to ask. He stared out the front window as Sif and Nebula conferred in low voices. At one time, the sight of space would’ve sent him into a panic attack. Now, the thought of their mission was consuming every part of him. He didn’t have time for panic.

They were closer to Thanos’s ship than Tony would’ve expected. Nebula told him that Thanos tended to stick close to Titan when he wasn’t destroying planets. Tony was seized by a renewed surge of grim determination as the Sanctuary II grew closer. It was enormous, roughly the size of a small planet all by itself. Sif cut the power and let the ship’s pull bring them in.

“My past self is not far behind us,” Nebula said. “We must act now.”

“No complaints here,” Tony said. The nanobots rolled over him with a thought; the cape shifted as the armor appeared, then snugly reattached itself. The armor wasn’t in the best shape, but it would do.

It turned out that Nebula had snuck on board in plain sight. Thanos’s ship had a constant stream of ships coming and going – scouts, Nebula told them, and explorers and ravagers. She’d spent weeks studying the patterns and knew exactly how to get them in. Evidently, Thanos was confident enough in his ability to win that he wasn’t overly concerned about tight security.

Sneaking on board shouldn’t have been the easiest part of their mission, Tony thought, but it was. He stuck close to Loki as they moved off the ship. Loki had cast an illusion on all four of them, making them look like they belonged. Tony still saw Nebula, Loki and Sif when he looked at the others, but Loki’s insistence that the spell was working rang true: they walked right past the asshole who’d originally attacked Earth in search of Strange’s time zone and he didn’t look twice at them. Sif caught Tony turning to look at him.

“All ships,” she said quietly, “have some kind of self destruct mechanism built in. It’s possible that Thanos would’ve changed that for the Sanctuary II, but it’s unlikely. Perhaps you and I could look into that.”

Now that was an appealing thought. Kill Thanos and then destroy the majority of his minions? Tony smiled. “I would love to,” he said.

“We’ll have to kill Thanos first. He sleeps in the main control room,” Nebula said.

Tony looked at her strangely, though she couldn’t see it through the helmet. “What? Why?”

“Paranoia,” Loki said. “No one can betray you if you have all the control.”

That was fair, but still creepy. Tony shook his head and opted not to comment. They made their way to where Nebula had hid the first time. In the small closet, Nebula finally admitted how she’d been caught: she’d missed one of the security features and it had woken Thanos seconds before she would have killed him. Her eyes were burning with rage as she spoke.

“It won’t happen a second time,” she vowed, pulling her sword. “I will destroy him.”

“Maybe put your sword away until then,” Tony said. The closet was small and her sword was sharp.

Nebula rolled her eyes but obliged. Tony smiled to himself and rubbed at the cape. He couldn’t feel it through the armor, but it was comforting nonetheless.

There was still no sun and moon to mark the passage of time, but some kind of night must have fallen because the ship became quieter. Tony sensed a nervous energy coming over his companions. Nervous and desperate. He knew as well as they did that this was their only chance. If Thanos survived this, the terrible future they’d just come from would come to pass. There would be no changing it.

Tony thought of Strange and the resignation in his eyes. He thought of Peter and the sheer terror in his voice. He thought of the Guardians, of the Avengers, of Pepper and Rhodey and Happy, of Dummy and FRIDAY and the other ‘bots. He fixed their faces and voices in his mind and and felt himself calm as though someone had flipped a switch. He was doing this for them.

Sif pushed the door open. It slid open soundlessly and they stepped out one by one. Nebula led them to Thanos’s door. She and Loki murmured to each other as they went to work. Loki’s green magic was the only light. Tony and Sif stood back to let them work, keeping watch on the otherwise silent corridor. Apparently Thanos was confident enough, or paranoid enough, that he didn’t feel the need to post guards.

The bedroom wasn’t really a bedroom at all. It was, as Nebula said, a control room. A huge range of monitors that showed every inch of the ship covered on massive wall. Tony glanced at them and wondered how much time Thanos spent watching them. Or maybe, considering the rhetoric that asshole had been spouting, Thanos didn’t need to. Maybe everyone on this shop bought into it.

He made a mental note to ask Nebula if Thanos kept prisoners.

Tony and Loki hung back as Nebula and Sif made their way towards the bed. Both of the were armed to the hilt. Nebula’s eyes held a wicked gleam of pure glee; her footsteps were silent, but she was excited. Tony winced in horror when her leg brushed against the bedding. For a split second, it seemed like everyone froze.

Then Thanos came awake with a bellow of rage. Tony caught a glimpse of the purple Stone that Thanos possessed beginning to glow, and his heart sank as Thanos slapped Nebula across the face. She flew across the room and crashed into the far wall, sliding slowly to the ground. Thanos grabbed for Sif next, getting a hand around her throat. Sif gasped for breath, body spasming. She clawed uselessly at his hand.

“Enough!” Loki roared. His hands lit up with green magic. A similar magic echoed around Thanos. He didn’t look go of Sif, but he didn’t move either.

Tony reacted. He was moving before he thought about it, charging across the room and grabbing the sword Nebula had dropped. The cape came alive, lifting him soundlessly off the ground and putting him at the perfect level to draw the sword back and plunge it deep into Thanos’s chest. Thanos made a choked sound, staring at Tony – and in that second, Tony thought he saw a glint of recognition in those fathomless eyes.

“His head!” Nebula screamed from somewhere behind him. “Cut off his head!”

With a grunt, Tony yanked the sword free and swung. The expression of surprise was still painted across Thanos’s stupid face as his head came off, falling several feet to the floor and rolling away. The cape jerked Tony backwards out of reach of the spray. Thanos’s body fell to its knees; Loki lunged forward and gripped the hand that still held Sif’s throat, prying it open and freeing her.

Tony landed hard on his feet as the cape wove itself protectively around him. He backed up, still clutching the sword. There was a long moment during which no one spoke. Then Nebula lunged across the floor and grabbed the gauntlet, pulling at it. Tony shook himself out of his stupor and helped her. Loki joined them, and between the three of them they dragged the gauntlet off of Thanos’s hand. The shine of the purple Stone slowly faded away.

“It worked,” Tony said, a little hysterically. “He’s dead.”

“We’re fading away,” Nebula said at the same moment. They all looked at each other. Tony realized that what Loki had said was coming to pass. He turned to Loki.

“Take that,” he ordered, pointing to the gauntlet and the Stone. “Take it – take it somewhere. Anywhere that’s safe. Before we disappear.”

Loki nodded. He seized the gauntlet. “I’ll put it somewhere safe.”

“Loki!” Tony said.

“What?” Loki gave him an annoyed look.

“I know this won’t matter, but – Asgard. What’s left of it. Bring them to Earth. They’re welcome. You’re welcome,” Tony said.

Loki stared at him for a long moment, then nodded shortly. He vanished.

“Are there prisoners on this ship?” Tony said, turning to Nebula. They were disappearing slowly. They had maybe two or three minutes. Longer than anyone else had had.

“Probably,” Nebula said. “Destroy it.”

“But –”

“She’s right,” Sif said, staggering to her feet. “We must move quickly. We can’t allow anyone to take up in Thanos’s stead!”

Tony pressed his lips together but nodded, following Sif to the console. Nebula joined them. She was familiar with Thanos’s system, while Sif understood whatever language it was that they were looking at. Between the two of them, they navigated Tony through the unfamiliar database. He was half expecting them to run into passwords, but either Nebula knew how to bypass them or Thanos really was that arrogant.

“That one,” Sif said. She pointed to the screen. Tony could see the screen through her finger. He looked around at her and Nebula and realized that he only knew where they were because they hadn’t moved. Then he glanced down at himself. His legs were no longer there.

Right before he faded away completely, Tony slammed his hand down on the button and watched the explosions begin. His satisfied smirk was the last thing to go.