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The Things We Keep

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Afterward, Natasha was almost embarrassed to admit she remembered nearly nothing of the moments after it happened. Just flashes.

Steve on his knees, his expression void of comprehension.

Okoye shaken, horrified.

"Not even a goddamn twig left," the raccoon had said, "Not a goddamn twig."

Bruce screaming — had she ever heard him sound like that, so full of rage and pain? Where was the Hulk? — "No, no, no!"

(Thor walked over and pulled the suit apart with his bare hands so that Bruce could stumble out of it and stagger to the ground. She couldn't see his face.)

A whir of machinery. A hand on her shoulder. Metal. Tony? she almost said. Instinct.

"What happened?" Rhodey asked. "I don't — where — what just happened?"

"Half of all life in the universe," said Thor, his voice suddenly the only real thing in the world. "Gone."

Gone. Just like that.

(Snap.)

 

 

When they got back to the city, everyone was still varying levels of shocked or freaking out. The first thing Natasha did was find a phone and call Clint.

And Nick.

And Clint.

And Maria.

And Clint.

And Clint.

And Clint.

(She dialed Pepper's number. Natasha Romanov thought of herself as a brave person, but she still couldn't make herself hit send. Not with the TV, muted on the other side of the room, rudely reminding them all "Tony Stark still missing.")

She called Clint again.

Some time after dark, the Bifrost cut a brilliant slice out of the night as Thor returned (when had he left?) with Clint Barton tucked under one arm.

"They're gone, Nat," Clint said to her. "They're all gone."

 

 

Later, the god asked her quietly for some paper and something to write with. She found him a spiral-bound notebook and a ballpoint pen. It seemed like such a small price to pay for answered prayers.

 

 

He seemed okay. It never occurred to her that he shouldn't be.

"Hey," said Bruce to her, a little later.

"Hey," she said, smiling shallowly at him. She hadn't seen as much of him as she would have liked. The Avengers occupied a handful of guest rooms clustered around a shared parlor, where he and Clint had been mostly just sitting and moping and drinking (where had he picked up that habit?) People kept asking her to do things, because she had bounced back quicker than most of the others. It was fine. It was better to keep moving, keep busy.

This was horrible, but she'd seen horrible before.

("Where is Iron Man?" a newspaper lying on a table nearby asked.)

"Have you seen Thor around?" he asked.

She shook her head. Thor was someone else who kept moving, kept busy.

"I hope he's okay," Bruce said.

She thought of that, later that night, when she found Thor sitting alone at the table in the parlor, scarfing down takeout and scribbling in the notebook she'd given him.

"Mind some company?" she asked him.

He started at her voice, but smiled up at her. "Never," he said.

She covertly snuck a look at the page, but then thought, why hide it? Thor wasn't really one for secrets, was he?

"What are you working on?" she asked him.

"Ah—" he said. He hesitated, but it wasn't a none-of-your-business sort of hesitation, or even a this-is-embarrassing sort. It was a do-you-really-want-to-listen-to-more-bad-news sort of hesitation; all too familiar these days. He tipped the notebook toward her to reveal a list in his neat, runic script. "When Thanos attacked our ship, he killed half of its passengers. I have been returning there, to see that the dead receive a proper burial."

She stared at the list. "Are those names?"

He nodded.

"You know all of their names?"

"I am their king," he said, as if it were simple.

"Their families—" he started, but stopped. "Anyone who's left will want to know for certain of their fates. I don't yet know where the other half are, but I was taking them to Earth when—" his voice broke, and he cleared his throat and continued as if nothing was wrong, "So surely this is where they will come, if they can." He nodded.

Natasha wondered if the Asgardians' slaughter when Thanos retrieved the Tesseract had saved them from the culling that came later. She hoped so. Small mercies.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked him.

The smile he gave her was strange but familiar — the tilt of his head, the quirk of his eyebrows. "Can you teleport and survive in a vacuum?" he asked her, gently teasing.

She smiled back apologetically. "Sorry."

He nodded. "Unfortunate," he said, "But I thank you. I could use another pen soon, perhaps."

They spent the rest of the meal in companionable silence, and when he got up to leave, he kissed the top of her head.

Natasha should have known better than to be surprised that Thor Odinson, King of Asgard, could remember the name of every single one of his subjects after an event that had reduced those subjects to the contents of a single space-faring vessel.

King of Asgard.

Regimes fell every day, she reminded herself.

With no one around to hear it, she wept anyway.

 

 

Natasha staggered to the kitchen in Avengers Tower for her morning cup of coffee to find breakfast waiting for her.

"Lady Natasha!" Thor greeted her brightly. He didn't quite have a handle on Earth honorifics yet, but honestly it was kind of cute, so she didn't always correct him. "You're always up early, so I thought you might like some breakfast."

The stupid "Kiss the Cook" apron that Tony had furnished the kitchen with was so stupidly small on the beefy Asgardian, but it was the first time she'd been truly tempted to do as it asked. He set a plate before her.

She should have thanked him, but the sun had not yet risen, and she could barely make coherent thoughts, much less sentences. Instead, she asked, "What's this?"

He poured her a cup of coffee, because Thor was a god that answered prayers, apparently.

"I wanted to learn to read and write your language," he said to her, "So I started with the books in the kitchen."

She choked. "You learned English by reading cookbooks?"

"Jarvis helped me get through the first few," he said, as if that made it any less impressive.

The eggs were cooked the way she liked them. At the time, she had thought that maybe he had a crush on her (which was conflicting, because by that point she was already starting to Feel Things about Bruce.) Eventually she determined that he was just the sort of guy that noticed little things.

(Much later, she would come to understand that he made an effort to notice little things. There were important things, he admitted to her, that had slipped by his notice, before. Things that had seemed little, at the time.)

"Can I ask a favor?" he said. He was putting food on another plate, but not for himself.

For a breakfast like that, he could have asked her for a pint of blood. "Sure," she said.

"When you've got a moment, could you take this down to Stark's workshop? He won't let me in but I have a feeling a locked door won't be a problem for you." He winked at her. Tony insisted he was afraid Thor would short out his equipment. Natasha suspected he thought the Asgardian was just dumb. Irritatingly, Tony wasn't often wrong. She looked forward to the day this particular egregious misconception bit him in the ass.

"That's thoughtful," she said, sipping her coffee.

"He's been locked in there all night, tinkering. He'll forget for days if no one feeds him. My br— I— I knew— someone else just like that."

 

 

That was what Natasha thought about, when she scrounged him up a few pens and went to his room to deliver them early the next morning. He was in the shower, and she left the pens on his nightstand next to the notebook.

Always the spy, she thought to herself, as she lifted the cover of it, out of curiosity. (It wasn't spying if it wasn't a secret, right? And it wasn't a secret. Thor had told her— he'd told her— he—)

Page after page of names. Page after page after page. Hundreds of names.

Just the names would have been bad enough, but it wasn't just the names.

 

The sun will shine on us again.

(Is that how he said it?)

The sun will shine on Asgard again.  (no)

The sun will shine on  us  again.

The sun will shine on us again, brother.

"I promise"? "You'll see"? (can't remember)

Ask Bruce?  Doesn't remember. Hulk?

The sun  will  shine on us again.

The sun will shine on us again.

The sun will shine on us again.

The sun will shine on us again.

The sun will shine on us again.

The sun will shine on us again.

The sun will shine on us again.

The sun will shine on us again.

The sun will shine on us again.

The sun will shine on us again.

 

She flipped the pages, hand shaking. More names, and—

 

I, Loki, god of mischief

I, Loki Odinson

I, Loki,  king of Jotunheim , God of Mischief, Odin's son

Odinson

I, Loki, heir of Jotunheim (?) ( would Bruce know?  No)

I am Loki of Jotunheim

"of Jotunheim" on Svartalfheim too before fake death

I, Loki, heir of Jotunheim, God of Mischief, Odinson, do  hearby  hereby swear my undying fidelity

I, Loki

Heir of Jotunheim

God of Mischief

Odin's Son

Undying Fidelity

Undying

Undying

"You should choose your words more carefully"

Loki always chooses his words carefully

What does it mean

What were you trying to tell me, brother?

Where are you?

Undying

Where would he go?

Vanaheim, mother's home?  No

Alfheim? Uncle Frey?  not there either

Knowhere  gone stupid Aether was there stupid stupid

Valkyrie? Sakaar? (Not safe? Grandmaster?) Time dilation makes Bifrost travel impossible. Could Loki walk? (Can he, still? Hasn't since Convergence?)

Heimdall I can't see

Still at ship? Injured?  Find him

Undying

Undying

Undying

Undying

The sun  will  shine on us again.

 

The sound of the shower turning off jerked Natasha back to reality. She put the notebook back in its place and fled.

 

 

When it started, Thor had tried to help out, only disappearing into the void every few days. And then he was gone almost every day.

It had been three days since the last time someone had seen him.

"I don't," Natasha said, alarmed at how her voice caught in her throat, "I don't think he's okay."

The sun will shine on us again. Bruce had confirmed for her that these were the last words the Hulk had heard Loki speak to Thor. (At least, that sounded right. His memories as the Hulk were fuzzy at the best of times.)

All of them — all of the Avengers who were left, and the raccoon, Rocket — were sitting in the parlor, in couches around the low coffee table. Steve had the notebook in his hands and was turning the pages gently, a look of knowing sadness on his face.

Bruce sat with his face in his hands. "We all lost a lot," he said, "But Thor, Thor — his whole world is gone. His whole family, his entire planet. Everything. Asgard — Thor's people — we saved them. Goddamn it, we saved them, we got them on that stupid ship, and then Thanos just blew the ship to hell."

It's not fair, he didn't say, because words couldn't do it justice. The unfairness of it was overwhelming. That was what was eating Bruce. He'd helped — the Hulk had helped — and it had been for nothing. Natasha put her hand on the back of his head and ran her fingers through his hair. Had it always been so grey?

"Yeah," said Rhodey. "He's entitled to a little not okay."

He'll be okay, he's tough. Give him time, said Tony Stark's voice in her head, because he wasn't in the room to say it there. Tony Stark, who pretended things were fine when they weren't because he'd never been fine a day in his life.

"He thinks Loki's still alive," Steve said, "He's looking for him."

Natasha knew what he was thinking — that if there was even the slightest chance that Barnes was still out there somewhere, Steve wouldn't give up either. But this wasn't just faith, it was obsession.

The sun will shine on us again. Repeated, page after page of it far beyond the point of reason. The sun will shine on us again. Somehow, strangely comforting. An infectious spark of mad hope.

"Loki," said Rocket. "That's the dead brother, right?" He took the notebook from Steve's hands and flipped through it, then tossed it to the table in disgust. "Thor said he's been dead before. Who the hell are we to tell him to stop looking?"

 

 

He was back, the next day, and gone again the day after. Natasha couldn't shake the feeling that one day he wasn't going to come back. Slowly, slowly, he was slipping away from them.

 

 

In the end there was nothing they could think to do but let him be. One day Thor returned after nearly a week away looking battered but well, with a bottle of something blue-black he said was too strong for humans to handle. They drank it anyway.

"I've been on Sakaar," Thor told Bruce, nodding at the bottle, after he'd finished noting down his latest findings.

"No sign of Val?"

Thor shook his head. "I didn't really think they'd go back there anyway, but it was worth a try." He picked up the tumbler he was nursing and set it back down a few times, stamping out a triquetra in condensation on the chipboard back of the notebook. "I found Heimdall."

Bruce sighed. "God, Thor. I'm so sorry."

Thor nodded. "That's part of why I took so long, other than getting transport to Sakaar. That's it. The last of the bodies."

Natasha paused in the middle of a sip. In her peripheral vision, she saw Clint stop moving. All of them were quiet. All of them were paying attention, even Rocket (though the only sign of it was the perk of his ears.)

Thor licked his lips, picked up his glass, and drained it. And then he got up from the table and left the room, leaving the notebook behind.

None of them breathed.

Slowly, Natasha reached across the table and pulled it toward her. She flipped through slowly, page by page, until she found the last one, and let her eyes skim down to the end of the list.

Clint took it from her and flipped it shut.

He looked at Rocket. "There was an idea," he said. "Shit." By now, all of them knew Fury was gone. He looked at Steve and Natasha. "How did it go?"

"There was an idea called the Avengers Initiative," Natasha said, "To bring together a group of remarkable people."

"A team, to fight the battles nobody else could," said Steve.

Clint nodded. "Yeah," he said, and started: "Seven years ago, in a SHIELD bunker in New Mexico, a mad god fell, burning, out of a hole in space and stole an infinity stone. And that idea had to become reality real fast."