Natasha had never been good at cleaning things up. She was good at covering things up. That was her job; making sure no one knew what happened, where it happened, or how.
But covering up the fact that half of all life had died was impossible, so here she was, cleaning up. Locating survivors and confirming the disappeared, trying to make a team out of the fucking mess they’d become. That wasn’t her job either, but her doing it was better than Steve or Tony trying. She had less to cry over; less to lose. Far as she was concerned, the people she cared about were still alive and kicking.
Clint would respond as soon as he could. So would Laura. But in the meantime–
“Um,” Tony had been shaking, confined to a bed in the medical wing as white-dressed nurses prodded him with needles. He put a hand protectively over his chest when the doctor seemed too curious. “Pe—uh, Spider-man—and I went out with the wizard. Strange, that’s his name, er, Stephen Strange, I think. Friday’s not sure.” He wouldn’t look at her, staring into the middle space between them. “Ran into some morons calling themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy. Uh, and the blue robot chick. Nebula. Lookin’ for someone named Gamora.” A few, careful questions later, she managed to get the truth out of him. “Just-Just me. Nebula. That’s, uh… That’s it.”
Thor’s story was worse.
“We were on our way here when Thanos attacked,” he’d explained. “Half of Asgard was killed. Again. Heimdall, our gatekeeper—he died protecting us.” He pushed his hand through his hair, cropped short. Some of it had been cut closer to the skin, streaked like a lightning bolt across the side of his head. “Loki knew they were coming. Warned us. We had a plan, but…” His smiled pulled at the few heartstrings she still had, but she didn’t let it show. “…Well, Loki’s plans don’t always work out. You know.”
She’d seen the rest herself. The ones who’d disappeared in Wakanda after Thanos’ snap: Sam, Bucky, T’Challa, Wanda, and a tree named Groot. The Vision, dead. And there were probably more. There were most definitely more.
The list of the undetermined – Clint and Laura Barton, their children, Jane Foster and Eric Selvig, Pepper Potts, Nick Fury – grew longer by the day, familiar names added every time someone else came to her. She couldn’t help but wonder what (or who) a Valkyrie was, and by all of Thor’s accounts, Korg was more boulder than man.
She was currently following a lead on Jane Foster, phone in one hand and coffee in another, when Steve strolled into the throne room. It was roughly six in the morning, sunlight still a pink wash over the horizon.
“Morning,” she murmured over her mug, settled in one of the cushioned chairs meant for council, watching information flicker in front of her.
She pointed her toe at the holographic display, hands occupied, and swiped the timeline on a video feed a few hours further. Foster had been tracked down to the Greenwich Royal Observatory.
Steve, not paying much attention, lingered at the window, looking out at the dim morning light and the city. It was quiet now, most of the initial chaos died down, the ones not in a hospital trying to clean up the parts of the city that needed it most. Natasha tried not to wonder what was on his mind. She could hazard a guess.
Jane continued to not fade to dust on screen as Okoye marched in, talking quietly with a bleary-eyed Rhodey, who paused and bent to adjust his leg braces. And what a mess that was, she thought, watching astronomers fade to dust on screen. Rhodey being so willing to help them after they’d snapped his back in half.
It wasn’t like any of them had a choice, though. The end of the world didn’t care about civil wars.
Foster, startled, stumbled back from a large telescope and knocked over a chair on screen.
“…It’s not so bad, I think,” Shuri’s voice came through the large throne room doors, footsteps nearly inaudible alongside Bruce’s and the march of her guard behind them. “The backup is stable. But his functionality without the stone…”
“Well, he was an A.I. to start. He might just revert. JARVIS...”
“Ultron,” she reminded sharply.
“Let’s hope not.”
Busy with the hologram, Natasha didn’t look up to greet them. Bruce settle into the chair left of the throne as Shuri sat.
“Is this about Vision?” Rhodey interjected, standing back up and stretching one leg. “Tony wants to see him. We should talk to him first.”
“How is he?”
“Fine. Ditched his room this morning.”
Okoye’s expression betrayed her disapproval, but Natasha wasn’t surprised. Tony didn’t stay still for long.
“Clint?” Steve wondered, settling down into the chair beside her.
She kept her composure carefully in check. There was an established, unspoken rule between them all: everyone was alive until they weren’t. Worrying that they weren’t wasn’t productive — they had enough chaos in their lives as it was.
“We’ll find him, Nat.”
The expected response didn’t come from the expected source. Tony’s voice might’ve startled her on a different day, but today she just gripped her mug a little tighter and settled back, appreciating the warm ceramic in her palms. But Steve… well, Steve was a mess.
“I know,” she murmured.
Steve, in her peripherals, looked like someone had socked him in the chest. He didn’t say anything to greet Tony, seeming to hunker down where he sat, shoulders forward and gaze aside, hands tense on the armrests. It was all clear as day, but Tony was ignoring it as well as she was.
“So, uh,” Tony said, bodily blocking Steve out of her peripherals as he stepped between their chairs. “Anyone going to explain the talking Raccoon?” Natasha looked up and found Thor’s newest friend sitting on Tony’s shoulder as he leaned towards her, holding the back of her chair for support. “Found him on my way over. Heard you were meeting without me.”
Rocket huffed, whiskers bristling. “Found me? I ain’t the one drinkin’ myself to death before sun-up.” He jumped down off his shoulder into the center of the room, adjusting the potted plant under his arm for the fall. “Where’s Thunder-head?”
“Well, I don’t hear him snoring up a storm,” Tony muttered, shrugging the wrinkles out of his t-shirt. He was still wearing the loose clothes he’d stolen from the med-bay, a white t-shirt and plain sweats. “He’s probably trying to eat half the kitchen. But hey,” shoving his hand in his pocket, he rifled around for a moment before he found what he wanted, palming a intricate silver flask against Steve’s chest with an audible smack and slosh of liquid, “the man’s still got a good taste for booze.”
Tony wished that seeing Steve hadn’t made him feel so relieved.
He’ll know what to do was the first thought he had to swallow down, rattling around in his head like it meant something. And it might’ve meant something, once — before Sibera and the shield to the chest. Before Bucky Barnes and a whole mess of secrets.
(Those were the things that still ate him, that’d made him hesitate to call when shit hit the fan. The thoughts that made him restless, gave him nightmares and made him wonder if all of this was worth it.)
So, yes - it hurt to see Steve. He wasn’t ready for it, wasn’t ready to forgive him, but here he was feeling relieved, like somehow them being together would make this all right. Like they could handle the worst when they could barely handle each other.
(If only he’d known Steve was thinking the same thing - He’ll know what to do. He always does. - and hating himself for it, guilty and raw and vulnerable.)
Thirty minutes after their god-awful meeting had started, Tony closed his eyes and leaned his head back, feeling out of place occupying the chairs of Wakandan delegates that had probably turned to dust. Everyone was talking around him, over him, but he didn’t have the energy to interject. He shouldn’t have given the flask of mead to Steve. He shouldn’t have left his hospital bed. Pepper was still out there somewhere, so what good was he here, caught in conversations that didn’t even pretend to be constructive? There was work to be done. Press conferences to suffer through. An assistant-turned-CEO-turned-fiance to find. Man’s best autonomous friend to fix, stowed away in a lab with his frontal cortex ripped out.
“Friday,” he muttered to no one, tapping his fingernails against the metal plate in his chest.
“Standby,” was her impatient response, which only rattled him more.
As many times as he told himself she was working on it, that he reminded himself that she was doing everything she could do because she was the best , he had made her the best, it didn’t stop his blood pressure from steadily increasing.
His hand passed over his eyes and he leaned further back in his chair, relaxing too heavily, masking his expression from the room. The morning after had already come too quickly; he wanted it to be night again, when he could disappear back to the tasks at hand.
“We have to find the stones first.” Rhodey pointed out for the hundredth time. “We can’t do anything without them-”
“...Shouldn’t we be waiting for Thor?” Bruce wondered, interjecting nervously. Rocket talked over him.
“And do what with ‘em, huh?” Tony jostled as he felt two paws dig into his shoulder, Rocket stepping down from his perch on the back of the chair. He glanced up to see him shaking his head. “Those stones are nutso, kid. Me and my friends could barely hold onto one and Quill cheated.”
“Loki had two,” Steve said flatly. He was rolling pretty easily with the addition of a talking raccoon. (It wasn’t that hard, really, Tony thought, what with the shock and the numbness. Nothing could get more unbelievable than what had already happened.) “Had no problem using both.”
“Loki’s Asgardian,” Bruce added.
“A God,” Shuri corrected quietly, picking at a fray on her sleeve. Okoye shifted uneasily at her side.
“Yeah, but two still ain’t six.”
“Not much of a plan,” Natasha murmured, passing her empty mug between her hands. “We have to find Thanos first, either way.”
“He’s gone.” Tony snapped. The room quieted and he covered his face with his hand again, gesturing weakly towards the ceiling with the other. “And I don’t know about you, but I can’t track anybody through magic portals. Wanda was the only one who might’ve been able to. Hell, Loki even, but…”
Steve wrung his hands together, folded between his knees. Tony barely saw it, tempted to finally take a good look at him, but before he could give that a second thought, Friday was chattering in his ear.
No, Tony realized, not in his ear. To the room at large. From the ceiling, where she was definitely, absolutely not supposed to be. How had she—?
“Excuse me?” Shuri said, flabbergasted. Okoye looked to her for instruction.
“I’m sorry,” she said automatically, “It wasn’t my first choice, but he insisted.”
“Who insisted?” Shuri demanded. She was looking at the ceiling like there was something particularly offensive about it; everyone else was looking at Tony, who was, for the lack of a better term, buffering.
“I don’t set the permissions of my systems.”
“Friday, what are you talking about?” he finally managed, throwing his arms out in frustration. Right when he thought there was no way things could possibly get any weirder, the most consistent thing in his life went and threw a wrench into everything. Friday wasn’t supposed to surprise him. The went against the whole point of her and the others. JARVIS and DUM-E with his merry band of bots were the support system that kept consistency in his life.
“You have a phone call. From a pay phone.”
“I— I what?”
But before he could find that last piece of sanity to lose, there was a crackling noise. The silence of an open phone line with no one on the other side, as confusing as it was ominous. Tony stared into the open air, unable to escape the feeling that the world was falling to pieces around him again. The one thing that wasn’t supposed to go off the rails was careening dangerously towards the edge. If his tech was the next thing to go, he might as well launch himself back into space.
A distinct, familiar male voice sent a shockwave through the room. Steve stood straight out of his chair, Bruce jumped, and Rhodey went a shade paler. Natasha looked up from what she was doing, staring at the ceiling. Rocket looked around for explanation, but Tony was too busy losing his mind to care.
“Uh— Ah,” Steve looked at the ceiling for having no place else to look, a painful shred of hope in his uncertainty. “Vision?”
It wasn’t possible. Vision was miles away in a secret underground laboratory that Tony hadn’t found yet; Vision was dead with his brain ripped out of his skull. He couldn’t be talking to them right now. He couldn’t be at a pay phone.
“Captain Rogers?” asked Vision’s voice. “Are you well?”
Tony shared an unsteady look with Natasha as Steve stupidly leaned into hope. She was searching his expression the same as he was searching hers, wondering about the impossible. He caught Rhodey’s hesitant gaze next, then Bruce’s. It didn’t make sense. Vision just didn’t make sense… But the only alternative wasn’t possible either.
“Vision, what— where are you? How—?”
“Steve…” Bruce warned, “Wait a second.”
“Impossible,” Shuri whispered. Rocket rolled his eyes and scoffed, crossing his arms with a huff.
“I thought this dude was scraps.”
“No,” Tony said quietly, not moving in his chair. “I mean, he’s… he’s not—“
He felt the blood rush out of his face. Felt the shock settle in, an empty feeling in his chest. He couldn’t— He didn’t— If he let himself hope, he knew it couldn’t be true.
Rhodey cursed in awe. Tony’s heart jumped to his throat.
“I’m calling on behalf of Miss Potts. Rescue Protocols are in effect. Could you…” There was a pause and Tony remembered to breathe over the still sensation in his chest. “Could you, perhaps, send a car?”