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This is how we rise up, it’s our resistance

Chapter Text

Thanos drops Tony.

That’s how it happens. He just loses the Titan’s interest and Tony is unceremoniously thrown to the ground, like discarded rubbish. He scrapes his palms against the red planet, wrists burning briefly, and huffs at it like he’s not bleeding out from a stomach wound that he struggles to cauterise. Peter is by his side, helping him up, as Tony tries not to choke on his own blood, dirt in his mouth.

“Where’d he go?” someone says, through the blood thundering in his ears.

But it’s Peter’s harsh breath that takes his attention. “Mr Stark?”

The kid is turning to ash in his very hands and Tony stares at this horror, knows that he will see it for a thousand years over and over again. Peter’s face is creased in pain and horror, his eyes wide with fear.

“You’re alright,” Tony says quickly, trying to will his words into existence.

Please be alright—

Then Peter falls into his arms and Tony finds himself sinking to the ground, a breathless prayer burning within his chest, hotter than the arc reactor could ever be. Peter’s growing lighter in his arms, and all Tony can think about is the fucking ash—ash and dust, cinders blowing in the wind—

Mantis said something was happening—

“I—I don’t know what’s happening,” Peter stumbles out, his eyes wide with terror, and neither does he. Tony has never felt so helpless and clueless, but fuck, the kid shouldn’t know fear like this. Realisation begins to dawn on his face, his fingers trembling where Tony has gripped them. “Mr Stark, I don’t want to go, I don’t—,”

No, no, the universe wouldn’t be so cruel. But Tony knows it. He knows the strength of the awfulness within the universe, has felt its sharp sting more than once. The arc reactor burning in his chest is only one of the reminders that life isn’t fucking fair. That you might not want to go, but death will drag you by the heels, screaming and kicking.

But this is Peter, this is Peter Parker, and he doesn’t deserve this, Tony wants to scream.

There is Peter, and then there is nothing.

Tony stumbles forward helplessly, his hands reaching out desperately as ash fills the air and he almost chokes, stumbling to his knees. His heart has ripped itself in two, wrenching apart and leaving him scrambling in his grief like a mad, sick thing. He’s on his knees, begging and choking as he scrabbles desperately for Peter. Where is the kid? What the fuck is happening?

“Thanos,” the blue alien says mutely. “He did it.”

It’s the end of everything that has plagued him since New York, since he burst through that wormhole and saw things that would fuel his nightmares for a lifetime. Panic attacks, the PTSD, the trauma that left him cold and shaking. Things that he had tried to tell everyone about, over and over again, until they had gotten sick of him and left him dying in a Siberian bunker.

But Tony would take it all back, in a heartbeat, if it means Peter will be back.

And then, Tony realises to himself slowly, that Peter was the only exception.

Peter had managed to chink the armour of Tony Stark in a way that not even Pepper could. He rocks back and forth, alone on that distant planet Thanos once called home, the ashes of what was once Peter Parker left in his fingers. He was supposed to protect the kid. He was supposed to have the answer, like Peter always thinks he does, but now the kid’s gone, gone, gone—

The blue alien is on her knees, choking on something, murmuring Gamora’s name like a breathless prayer, as Tony grieves. He is quiet, as he has always been in his grief, as he has always been taught, since the morning he first heard of that fatal car crash and the press swooped in like vultures. Obadiah had given him those sunglasses to stop them seeing his true face.

But here, there is nobody to see him.

There is no Peter.

Here, Tony cries and cries, unwilling to move from where Peter had been, as though his tears could bring the kid back, as the blue alien’s distraught howls ring through the universe.

.

.

They have to get back to Earth, he thinks numbly.

It’s the problem-solving part of his brain that says this, the sensible part that had been driven to the ground by the ex-Avengers. He takes care of everything, cleans up everyone’s messes. Well, not since Captain America thrust his father’s shield into his chest and left him for dead in a freezing bunker, in a broken suit. Even the reminder makes him flinch briefly, but it’s a scene from another Tony Stark that seems a faded thing to him now.

It’s the life of a man who seems blissfully happy in comparison to him now, in spite of all the panic attacks, the recurring PTSD, the bad dreams. Tony would do anything to have it all again, because it would mean he’d be in a world where Peter Parker was still alive.

He knows he has to get back to Earth. He has to sort this mess out. He has to clean things up. Tony thinks first that he can’t, that he simply can’t physically do anything. It takes him a few moments to realise that he just doesn’t want to.

He’s done.

“He did it,” Tony says numbly. “He won.”

The blue alien’s head snaps up and she shoots him the darkest scowl he’s ever seen. Tony realises faintly that he had spoken out loud.

“The game is not over yet,” she snarls at him fiercely, unapologetic.

“They’re dead!” Tony says fiercely. “Thanos killed half of the universe—,”

Removed,” she corrects sharply. “Killed means we can’t get them back. Removed means we can.”

Tony stills. “What?”

“So, you better get to work,” she tells him. “You made your kid a promise.”

“What?” He’s a broken record now.

“You said it would be alright,” she explains, barely looking at him as she pokes through the rock of the planet. “You promised him things would be alright. You’ve got a duty to uphold that promise.”

Tony stares at her. “Tony Stark,” he says faintly.

“Nebula,” she replies, just as quick. “Gamora was my sister. The boy was yours?”

Their voices are so hollow and lone, ringing out in the quiet emptiness of the universe around them. It only serves to remind them just how alone they are, and it is so unimaginable to think that, a few moments ago, his world was filled with people.

“Not—not mine,” Tony corrects clumsily. “He—he was—,” He falters, choking on his grief. “God.”

Thanos took my kid, he wants to say. Thanos took my kid and now, I don’t know what to do. Instead, he shakes his head, breathing hard. Peter’s gone—he’s gone—

He said, Mr Stark, I don’t feel so good, and Tony had always been able to come up with a solution. Tony had always known what to do, and Peter had turned to him, in his fear and panic, as he always does. But this time, Tony is stuck, and Peter’s cries stay long with him.

Nebula only inclines her head, mutely. She understands. “I have heard of you,” she says, and there is the faint sound of her scrabbling for something, metal clinking. “The man of iron.”

Tony does not feel like he is made of iron. He feels like he is made of nothing, hollowed out completely where his heart once lay. There is no pain, not after Peter. Because when Peter died, the kid took his heart with him, and Tony doesn’t know what to do.

Nebula is continuing, her voice low.

“I have heard that you have intelligence that rivals even the people of Xander.” When he lifts his head, Tony realises that she is picking up their fallen weapons.  His brows furrow in confusion. “Though your technology is primitive at best, it is admirable what you have done with it.” Tony cannot even summon the energy to snort, but then Nebula cocks a gun and tosses it towards him. Her gaze is steady and fierce. “You seem like a worthy aide. What do you think of changing time, bringing our people home, and rearranging Thanos’ face for good measure?”

Tony’s head lifts sharply, a tiny spark of hope lighting within him at even the mention of Peter’s survival. He meets Nebula’s fierce gaze and sees something of Thanos in her, sees his resolute, biting determination. Instead of being repulsed or angered by the familiarity, Tony agrees with it. Thanos is a formidable figure and Nebula is not him.

“Alright,” Tony says, letting out a deep breath.

“Now is not the time to grieve,” she tells him. “Now is the time to fight.”

Chapter Text

The Milano shutters to life under his and Nebula’s worn fingers.

Tony watches and listens to Nebula’s clipped instructions as she tells him which buttons to press and which brakes to pull. It doesn’t take long for him to get the handle of flying the Milano, but the childish joy of steering a spaceship is marred. He’s forever reminded that someone else would have loved this all and it brings an aching hole to his chest that Tony thinks might never fill.

“So, you ever talk, Blue Man Group?” Tony asks again, drumming his fingers on the deck as the Milano swerves awkwardly. Both of them reach automatically to steady themselves, used to the swooping sensation by now and when Nebula only turns her head to serve him an unimpressed glare, Tony takes it in stride. “Cool, cool. I can do enough of that for both of us. Always do. Never stopped. Have a problem, you see. I’m always talking. It’s one of the worst and best qualities, though I think it’s the latter, because I’m a fucking delight.”

Nebula lifts her head and slams a metal hand on the deck, the clang ringing around them. “Do you ever,” she says, her voice taut with muted frustration, “stop talking, Terran?”

If he stops, he won’t ever start again, Tony wants to say, but his mouth won’t make the words. He’s trying for a smile, but there’s ash in his lungs, even though he and Nebula sweep the place clean methodically almost every moment they get up. It’s like the ash from Titan has settled deep into the marrow of his bones, forged itself to run with the blood in his veins, and every time he closes his eyes, he sees it all over again.

“No,” he says quickly before everything within him can fall apart again. Tony can feel the strain in his easy smile, the grief knocking him hollow once more. If he is quiet, the world becomes a place where he reminded that Peter Parker no longer exists, Tony thinks, and his fingers tense. “Someone’s got to brighten the place up. That’s my job. It’s what I do. I make things and I throw a good party.”

“You are insufferable,” Nebula points out, her eyes bright.

“What would you rather do, while we make the journey home? Play a boardgame? I don’t see any around. Wallow in your own misery?” Tony reaches for a torch, rattling it heavily against the deck as the metal clangs awkwardly. “No, see, the best way to deal with shit like this is to just fight. Like you said yourself, remember? Or did you change your mind?”

Nebula turns her gaze towards the large, gaping window where the stars gleam. Something terrible and sad falls over her face, a shadow flickering on the features as she clears her throat.

“I did not say I would not fight,” she says, and lifts her hand, the light gleaming against the metal. “It is what Thanos made me for.”

When the metal hand fizzes and sparks, she lets out a low hiss of pain and rolls her eyes. Tony’s gaze lingers on the hand curiously, but Nebula does not say anything else.

“What do we have on him, then?” he says, trying to sound casual as he lifts the torch to shine on the deck. “I had very little information on the prick back in New York, but you seem like you know him better.”

“He calls me his daughter,” Nebula says.

Tony doesn’t look up. “Fuck him.”

She gives a short laugh. “Yes. Fuck him,” Nebula repeats wonderingly. Her voice turns hoarse when she speaks again. “He took away Gamora.”

“Quill’s girl.”

“My sister,” she corrects.

A small silence echoes between them for a moment, one that makes Tony want to howl as his chest feels as though it might literally tear itself apart. He wants nothing more than to draw Stephen Strange back from the ashes and hit him very hard. What importance does Tony Stark have, compared to the rest of the world? It was the only way, the fucker had promised him, but Tony scoffs. There had been another way and that was never to give up the stone in the first place.

He would have happily died for it. Tony knows that deep in his bones. Of course, he doesn’t want to die, but he would have. Dr Strange had no right taking that choice from him and risking half of the universe, he thinks, shaking his head. The self-loathing buries in him deep, latches on him tight. Tony Stark is not worth anything, he thinks as he clenches the torch again and gets back to work.

Tony is working on his own suit, having salvaged everything they could from Titan, as Nebula directs them towards Earth. They’re moving fast enough that they should make it there soon enough, and in the meantime, Tony fashions stronger armour with Nebula’s combined prowess and intellect. She’s strikingly intelligent and Tony’s itching to ask if he can help her with her metal limbs, but boundaries have been set and they don’t cross either.

He doesn’t talk about Peter and she doesn’t talk about Gamora.

When Nebula turns the steering wheel a little too sharply, making the Milano jolt a little, Tony only just manages to grab the seat in time to steady himself. He’s a little startled, turning his head in confusion, only to realise that they’re not far off. Earth gleams amidst the stars, the planet a welcome relief after seeing only blackness for days, as Tony stares, breathless with hope.

“Ease up,” he tells Nebula faintly.

“Do you think Thanos will ease up?” Nebula retorts bitingly, but he’s used to her vitriol enough that this sharpness barely fazes him. It’s what comes next that does. “Gamora—Gamora was his favourite and he—he—,”

Tony lifts his head sharply, turning as he spies Nebula’s eyes widening slightly in shock. She’s trying to breathe properly, her fingers shaking in her seat as she takes hoarse, ragged breaths, chest rising and falling unevenly. Tears streak down her cheeks as she almost chokes, falling apart before him, and Tony knows what that is. He’s had too many panic attacks not to know what they are now.

He scrambles to her where she sits, slamming a hand on the auto pilot quickly.

“Okay, hey, you’re having a panic attack, but you’re going to be fine. Look at me, breathe, come on, it’s easy,” Tony tells her quickly, watching the way her eyes widen in crippling panic, the anxiety knotting itself tightly in his stomach. “Breathe, with me. One, two, three, and four. Come on, this is a temporary thing. It’ll finish soon, I swear it. You’re doing good, you’re doing great, breathe, much better than me, come on.”

Nebula breathes with him, her hoarse gasps turning softer and her eyes still wide as she listens to him natter on. Tony can tell that she’s slowly calming down, so he keeps talking, encouraging her to breathe properly.

“I—,” she begins, before faltering in quiet panic.

“I get it, I do,” Tony tells her quickly, talking as gently as he can. “Intimately. See, I’ve had panic attacks before, too. And they’re a bitch to handle, but they go, they always go—,”

“You talk so much,” Nebula tells him, but she’s calmer now and there’s less bite in her bark. She stares at him briefly, before huffing in defeat and trying not to look uncomfortable when she asks, hesitantly, “What is a …panic attack?”

“Worst of the worst,” Tony says, rubbing his forehead. He guesses there aren’t many mental health clinics in space. “They’re like—overwhelming. All your fears and anxieties and just emotions come bubbling to the top, takes you over suddenly. Makes it harder to breathe, to think, to know anything. Sometimes, it feels like you’re going to die. Or that—that you want to die. It—it’s normal, after experiencing something traumatic.”

“My body has been ripped apart, piece by piece, limb from limb. Ebony Maw has taken me apart and pushed me together far too many times to count,” Nebula tells him shortly, her voice defensive. “I have never had this before.”

“You ever lost your sister before? Tony shoots back angrily, curt. He backtracks immediately, a punch to his gut. “Sorry, that was shitty. I’m a shit, I’m sorry—,”

Nebula stare at him, before she shakes her head. “You think that it was—my—,” she falters, looking at him.

“Grief and mourning people could be triggers,” Tony supplies awkwardly. “I’m not a therapist, though. I don’t know your life.”

“You know that you give me headaches, with your constant nattering,” Nebula tells him helpfully, but she does not stop looking at him. Her gaze narrows in thought. “How do I stop these panic attacks?”

“Sometimes grounding techniques are good,” Tony says, rubbing the back of his neck. He’s deliberately not thinking of Peter, because he can’t, he can’t—it’ll kill him. He shakes his head and swallows thickly. “Find a sentence, or a list or something to remember. Recite it whenever you feel like that again and it’ll help to ground you, tie you back down so you feel less out of control. Usually, people talk about their feelings and stuff. They’re called therapists—I used to go to one.” He lifts his head. “If you want, I could get you someone to talk to.”

Nebula blinks at him. “What do you want in return?” she says. “I will not be indebted to you.”

Tony shakes his head. “Nothing,” he tells her. “Besides, you’ve already helped me so much. Could have left me on Titan to rot.”

“Why would I do that?” Nebula says. “Gamora would not like it.” Tony throws up a breathless sop of gratitude for the woman in question. “Besides, your work. For a Terran, it is not bad.”

“Means a lot, coming from you,” Tony says honestly. He’s giving a small smile as he looks to her. “Thank you.”

Nebula looks at him with new appreciation before she turns her gaze back to the windows. “Look alive, Terran. You’re home.”

.

.

When the Milano lands on the ground of the Compound, Tony breathes fresh air for the first time.

He’s collapsed into Rhodey’s arms, mumbling hoarsely into his best friend’s shoulder as Rhodey shudders around him. Night has drenched the whole world, but Tony recognises the grey of the ash still floating in the world around him and it turns his stomach. He’s had about of week of space to come to terms with what Thanos has done, but the sight of it still jars him. The place is filled with people, but Tony can only see his friend, grateful that Rhodey survived it.

“Tones, thank God,” Rhodey is muttering brokenly, his voice cracking. “You’re okay.”

“The kid,” Tony mumbles. “I lost—I lost—,”

Rhodey’s breath shutters. “Tones, it’s alright,” he murmurs. “We’re going to fuck shit up. Just like old times.”

He raises his head to meet Rhodey’s determined gaze and nods tightly, jaw clenched, as more figures, familiar and quiet, appear around them. The sight of Steve Rogers makes his mouth go dry as Tony thinks briefly of the cold of the Siberian bunker, having to literally drag himself and his heavy suit out as he’d been so broken apart he couldn’t get to his feet. His chest aches in an intimate familiar fashion that arrives whenever he sees Steve these days and when he looks around, he swallows tight.

“He is very weak,” Nebula says quietly, from behind him. “Terrans are supposed to have a lot of food. I did not know this until very recently.”

Rhodey blinks. “Hi.”

“Nebula, finally. Never thought I’d be glad to see you,” a fucking raccoon is gasping, looking ecstatic. He bounds forward towards the Milano, impatient and hopeful all at once. “Where’s Quill? Gamora! Drax!”

Nebula turns her gaze towards him. This must be Rocket, Tony thinks to himself, remembering Nebula’s stilted explanation of her sister’s ‘idiot friends’. His stomach clenches when he sees Nebula try to stop Rocket from going into the Milano, the raccoon’s face dropping suddenly in sheer pain that is so familiar and intimate that it feels like losing on Titan all over again.

Rocket doesn’t say a single word when Nebula talks to him, his face becoming deathly still as he stares at the Milano. Tony tries not to remember the ash on his fingers, as Rhodey looks him over worriedly, and the figures around him start making their rounds.

Pepper is there, he realises faintly, as she embraces him. She’s sobbing helplessly, her arms around him as Rhodey takes a step back. Her hair is in his mouth, but all Tony can think of is how it feels like it’s been a hundred years since their morning jog. Fuck, he thinks and remembers Peter with a pull that will never leave him. I don’t want kids.

“Never do that to me again,” she’s crying to him, fingers shaking as she breathes hard. “Oh my God, Tony—,”

“You know I will,” Tony tells her quietly. He can’t turn his back on Peter, on half the universe. Tony is Iron Man for both himself and for the world, which now apparently extends to the universe, too. “I’m going back for him. And I’m going to make him fix it, before I hold him down and Nebula cleaves the head from his body.”

It’s a solid plan, one they’d celebrated quietly together. Tony sees no reason why it wouldn’t work. He sees Rhodey shifting a little, watches Bruce and Natasha and Steve quieten around him. How long has it been? It feels longer than anything since he’s seen them, the old resentment and pain still drumming in his chest. He thought that the pain of their leaving him would have faded, by now.

But they cost him everything. And Steve lied.

Pepper has her hands to her mouth, pulling away. “No,” she says. “Tony. No.”

“I don’t have a choice—,”

“Yes, you do,” she tells him tightly, tearfully. She stares at him, something like understanding shuttering briefly through her features. “You could come back to me, Tony.”

“You know I won’t,” he tells her softly.

Through her tears, Pepper gives a cracked smile. “I know,” she says. Her voice is low when she speaks again, as she sniffs and takes a deep breath. “I don’t think we’re very good together, Tony.”

He knows what’s coming. Tony knows that it’s been coming for a long while, maybe from the beginning. They’re just not good for each other, never really have been. Pepper doesn’t want Iron Man and Tony can’t live without Iron Man. It’s as simple as that.

“I’m Iron Man,” he tells her quietly.

“I know,” Pepper says. “I wanted you to stay, but you didn’t.”

Tony’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “I have a job to do.”

“Is that an apology?”

“Not anymore.” He’s apologised enough to her for simply wanting to live and she deserves better than living in fear and danger.

Pepper looks at him and seems to make up her mind as she nods towards him. “Goodbye Tony.” She presses a quiet kiss to his cheek and Tony closes his eyes, breathes her in once more, before finally letting her go.

“Goodbye Pepper,” he murmurs. “See you around.”

She gives him that patented, patronising small half-smile of hers that always makes him feel like a little child. “No, Tony,” Pepper tells him. “I don’t think so.”

When she leaves, he lets out another breath and looks towards Rhodey, who has his eyebrows raised, vaguely impressed. Tony turns his head to Bruce, Natasha, and Steve. He lets himself embrace Bruce, breathlessly grateful once more, but there’s only three of them. He knows exactly what that means. The deeply haunted grief echoed in their ragged, worn faces, even Steve’s perfect features, only cements it.

“I tried,” Bruce tells him, voice hitching. “Tones, I tried—the Hulkbuster and we just—,”

Tony shakes his head. “We did awesome, but—it wasn’t enough,” he murmurs and his heart aches just that bit more. He lifts his head to look Steve Rogers in the eye. “I would say ‘I told you so’ but half of you aren’t here to appreciate it. So. What did you say to me all those years ago? I said, ‘something up there’s coming’. And what were your words, oh great Captain of the Avengers?”

“Tony—,” Natasha tries.

“I wasn’t asking you, Natalie,” Tony bites out furiously. “Go on, Captain. What did you say?” When Steve doesn’t answer, he answers for him. “Together. Fucking together, that’s the great Captain’s plan for a planetary defence system. How the fuck did you even lead a squadron in the forties, you—you made us lose, and you told me, you—for years, for fucking years—,”

Steve stares at him, helpless and quiet. “Tony, I’m sorry.”

“Liar,” Tony snarls out fiercely, voice cracking apart. He wants to lunge for Steve, but he doesn’t have the energy. “You fucking liar. You’re not sorry. You never were—,”

“I am now. I know what—,” Steve says. “I’m sorry, Tony. I always will be.”

Tony glares at the man before him, fury and resentment burning in him. Howard could fucking choke, but Steve’s best friend took away Mama from him. And Steve lied about it to his face. He’s humiliated and horrified and hurt all at once, all over again. Tony has already partly forgiven Steve for the bullshit he pulled during the Civil War shitfest, mostly because he kind of slightly understands. There are people out there in the world, Tony thinks, that he would happily start a war for.

That he is starting a war for.

Which he is late for, Tony thinks to himself.

Steve lifts his head once more, ashamed. “Tony—,”

“Move,” Tony says, and he pushes through everyone to move into the Compound to start everything up.

Resentment and feelings and emotion could wait. Tony has a war and a bone to pick with a certain Titan.

.

.

“Friday, my girl Friday.”

“Boss,” Friday says, a spark of relief in her soft Irish lilt.

Tony waves Nebula, Rocket, and everyone else into the Compound, opening up his workshop completely. Night is still touching the skies, but they have no time to waste, at this point. He’s moving around fast, opening up every channel he has, every source of communication at his disposal, switching on the television sets. Rhodey already has a screen and live list of everyone they’ve lost, and Tony stares at it for a moment, his breaths hitching before he gets back to work.

“Alright, activate the Iron Legion and start opening up communication with the World Security Council and any other government out there,” Tony tells Friday, as Nebula and Rhodey get to work around him. “Start cultivating more lists and documents, Fri, of people out there. Anyone out there who is in danger, all those plane crashes and accidents we saw along the way. We’ll start sending out emergency help with the Iron Legion and start opening up rehabilitation centres. Activate the hidden SHIELD network and Stark Industries again. We’re going to need all hands on deck.”

Rocket’s lifting his head. “What about Thanos?”

Tony smirks and plants his repulsor into the system. “This is made purely out of nanite technology,” he explains as the raccoon explores it. “When Thanos stabbed me, they latched onto him. We’ll be able to get a location on him soon.”

“And we get them all back,” Nebula says fiercely.

Tony nods as he lifts his head to look up at the Avengers filing in. “I’m still pissed off as fuck at you all. But the universe needs us more right now and we’re good at working together, if little else. You ready?”

“Always,” Natasha says.

Rhodey presses his fist to Tony before nodding to him and moving quickly, as Tony starts flooding the place with sharp light. It lights a figure in the darkness and it’s only because Tony vaguely registers it that he doesn’t blast the person apart with his repulsor in defence. He stares, his eyes wide, and his breaths taut.

“Thor?”

Thor blinks at him, his face deathly still. “Tony!” he says gratefully as he lifts himself up to embrace Tony fiercely. There’s a strain in his voice that Tony recognises, and he swallows thickly, wondering what Thor must have lost. And how many. “I have missed you dearly, my friend. We—we were coming to you.” Tony must look confused because Thor hastens to explain. “My sister came to kill us all and Loki initiated Ragnarok to save us and then we had to flee Asgard as it was falling apart in flames, and I said that I had some work colleagues on Earth who would be able to help us out for a bit, and then—,”

He breaks off, but Tony can tell.

“Thanos came.”

The god’s eyes are bright and tearful. “And Thanos went,” he says, voice hoarse. “I should have gone for the head.”

Nebula lifts her head to interject. “That’s my part,” she says, but when she sees Thor’s face, she hesitates. “I can… let you have a go, too. If you wish.”

Thor beams brightly, his smile wobbly. “You have a good heart,” he tells her. “Thank you.” To Tony, he nods. “I want to help. But. I have a friend, Valkyrie, who managed to flee with a few Asgardians, but I do not know if they are alive or well or anything at all. We are no use to you, I am afraid.”

“Hey, big guy,” Tony says. “You’re not here because you’re useful. You’ve got that mean swing, yeah, but we’re the Avengers, right? Heroes.”

“Yes,” Thor says. “We are the Avengers.” He gives a small, grateful smile to Tony. “I can speak to the governments. They have always liked me.”

“And they hate my ass,” Tony says, nodding. “Thank you, Thor.”

The World Security Council, the United Nations, and most of the governments of the world look very bleak on his screens. Tony recognises the grief and horrors etched out onto their faces and he wishes he could hate Thanos more, but he can’t. Because his hate for Thanos could envelope the very stars around them all, but his desire to reverse everything is infinite.

“Frankly, this is a situation nobody planned for, not even the Accords,” Tony tells them, his voice quiet and respectful. The people he is speaking to have lost everything, too. “Rules and laws have ceased to exist now. The world around us is completely changed and right now, we have to salvage what we can and do our bit to help people. As they’ve asked us to do.”

The ambassador to the UK has gaunt cheeks and a hollow look in her eyes that Tony knows all too well. She lifts her head to nod. “Mr Stark is right,” she says. “I’m as scared as you all are. My—my kids were crying and they just—,” She breaks herself off, swallowing thickly, and shakes with tears. The Ugandan ambassador reaches across to place her shaking hand on hers and squeezes comfortingly until she shakes her hair back and straightens. “But we have to do everything we can to make it safe for the people. That’s what we are here for, what they have appointed us to do.”

“These Avengers centres that you have opened, Mr Stark,” the ambassador to Germany says. “We must work to make them worldwide and open the borders to your Iron Legion, too. It will be difficult, but together, we can make it work.”

Tony nods. “We need to start volunteer clean ups, too,” he says, rubbing his head tiredly. “Thor is already working out on the streets, with Cap. It’ll be good for morale, I think. And we’ll have a press conference or issue a statement so that people will understand what’s happened.”

“What has happened, Mr Stark,” says the Sokovian ambassador tightly, “is that the Avengers we appointed to protect us, to help us, have failed.” She is shaking a little, her eyes bright as tears slide down her cheeks. “We gave you everything that you asked of us and—my son is still gone. My—,”

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, lowering his head in shame as he blinks away his own tears. “I am so sorry.”

“Sorry will not bring them back—,”

“No, ma’am,” Steve cuts in quietly. “You are right. Apologies will not bring anyone back. But Tony Stark will.”

Chapter Text

Amidst the chaos that rises with the Terran’s return, Rocket takes a moment to breathe and finds that he can’t.

He cannot breathe, though he doesn’t really need to. But the constant rise and fall of his chest is a reassuring thing, often, and the fact that he cannot do it now is going to kill him. He is going to die, Rocket thinks. He would not mind dying, he thinks blearily, if it meant that he would see them all again, just once, please. As he crumbles to his knees, Rocket hacks out hoarse coughs, because they are all gone, all of them—

I got a lot to lose, he remembered saying once, and then he did. He lost them all.

“Up, my friend,” comes a voice amidst the darkness. “You are too strong to kneel to the devastation the Titan has left us.”

Rocket lifts his head to stare up at Thor. “Thought—,” he falters, sounding too broken for words. He clears his throat, assumes his usual asshole expression though it’s not as strong as it once was. “Thought you were helping with the street clean up?”

Thor raises the broom with a small smile. “We ran out of supplies,” he says.

“And…”

“And it is almost dawnbreak,” the god admits quietly.

Rocket doesn’t say anything for a bit. He doesn’t quite understand Thor’s newfound fascination with the sunlight, but over the past few days, they’ve all noticed it. No matter what Thor is doing, whether it is helping the Captain or the Iron guy (Rocket can’t be bothered to remember their names, okay? That’s a… special privilege.), he will always be found on the exact same bench on the roof of the Avengers Tower.

Sometimes, he’ll be with the others, but they all seem to quietly realise that Thor would rather be alone.

“Can I, uh,” Rocket swallows tightly, “join you, too?”

“I would be honoured.”

The climb up the Tower isn’t very long, though Rocket wishes it would be. They’d all relocated back to wherever the fuck they are now, some Terran city or other they call New York, mostly so they could finally kickstart the emergency services from a better point. Nebula and he stay in the Tower, working on a way to locate Thanos through the nanite technology, while the other heroes go out helping people, saving things. They always come back a little worse for wear and there’s obviously friction between them all, but Rocket just doesn’t give a fuck.

He doesn’t know these people. He’s had all of a few days to know them, and Rocket’s never been one to make friends so easily. Quill and the others had been the exception. They raise the brimming wrath within him, shadowed only by his crippling grief, as he’s torn between wanting to crack someone’s face open for what Thanos did to the one thing he loved or opening up his back and taking a screwdriver to it as he’d done only once before. Now, Rocket stays by Nebula’s side mostly just for a familiar face and to remind him to keep fighting, even if it’s Nebula.

But Thor’s not so bad, either.

They settle themselves on the bench and Rocket stares up at the skies, while Thor looks towards the east, a wretched desperation tearing through his features. Sometimes he wants to go back to those brief moments in time when the Milano had poured through the clouds and Rocket’s hope had lit up in his chest. He’d never felt such breathless relief, he’d been the first one out of the doors, desperate to see them all again.

Rocket swallows tightly and turns his head.

“Sometimes I think we should have never answered your distress beacon,” he breathes.

Thor only gives him a small, understanding smile and Rocket wants to hate him for it. He’s being an asshole, like he always is, and yet Thor remains soft and kind, as always. While Rocket had practically trashed the Milano apart, the beefcake had torn into all the punching bags, and the blonde woman had unloaded bullet after bullet into every target she could find, Thor had been the quietest of them all.

“Sometimes, I wish that, too,” Thor admits, tilting back his head quietly.

“Fuck, don’t say that.” Rocket’s voice is a hoarse growl. “I was—I was being a shit, I’m sorry, man.” Thor shakes his head quietly, but he doesn’t say anything. Rocket closes his eyes. “I told you, didn’t I? I was right. They’re—they’re all—I was right. And what did you tell me? Have hope, rabbit. All is not yet lost.”

“Tony is here. Steve, the Avengers,” Thor murmurs. “We have a plan. We can do this.”

“How much do you really believe that?” Rocket rounds on him, but his voice breaks. He wants to be angry, but that takes too much energy now and he’s too tired for anger. “We don’t have a chance. They’re gone forever—,”

“They’re still here,” Thor insists. He’s still looking towards the skies where the sun has not yet risen, something torn and hopeful writhing through his features as he stares. “They …made a promise.”

“Fuck,” Rocket breathes hotly, as he curls down, presses his shaking hands to his hand. “Why does it hurt so much? I don’t—even fucking Quill, that idiot.”

“They were your own,” Thor explains. “Your family.”

“No, they weren’t. They were—assholes and—and idiots.”

He’s breathing with difficulty, eyes burning a little when Rocket lifts his head to look to Thor, whose face is etched in pain. The god reaches a hand to pat his back comfortingly, and for a moment, Rocket thinks of Drax’s large, hulking form sitting beside him, the fresh hollow grief of losing Groot carving into his chest, and he pulls back, gasping hotly. It’s a strange universe where Rocket would prefer Drax to Thor, but here they are.

“I’m sorry,” Thor apologises quietly, as Rocket shrugs it away. He looks towards the skies once more.

Rocket follows his gaze. “Why are you here?”

“My brother made me a promise.” The god doesn’t look away, for once. “He’s the worst at keeping promises, did you know?”

“Yeah, Quill’s the same. Idiot just blurts out all the secrets he knows,” Rocket says, something torn in his chest. His mouth is quiet and bitter, and he itches to carve something into Thanos’ face as he continues, voice quiet, “We were just starting to help Mantis learn what secrets were.”

The god holds his breath as the sunlight pours through the skies, burning the city alive in gold and framing the ash around them in light. Rocket sees his entire body tense as Thor lets out a shaky, defeated breath and lowers his head to cry. Tears track down Thor’s cheeks.

“Why does it hurt so much?”

Rocket shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

.

.

Tony steadies the repulsor.

“On my mark,” Steve calls to him and he nods, breaths in his throat, as Steve reaches to lift up the first car in the pile-up.

Even though he’s seen so much of it over the past few days, it still makes Tony’s throat close up and the bile threaten to brim over. He’s taking a deep breath as he moves into the wreck, the HUD registering the signs of life breathlessly, helping Steve push aside the cars on the bridge. He’s breathing hard when he sees them, the two figures huddled around each other, in the backseat of the car, under the wreckage.

The teenage girl lifts her head, blood pouring against her forehead, eyes desperate and terrified. “Please…” she breathes desperately.

She’s got a boy who looks like her, unconscious and curled against her in the next seat, fingers still desperately reaching for him. Tony pulls back the faceplate quickly, studiously ignoring the ash in the driver seats, as he gives a quick smile.

“You’re being really brave, right now, you hear me?” he says easily. “What’s your name? I’m Tony. This is my—this is Steve. We’re here to help you. Is that your brother?”

“Name’s—Alia,” the girl says, breathing hard as she stares up at Steve. “We can’t move—the cars—they’ll crush us—,”

“It’s okay,” Steve says quickly. “We’ve got the cars; we just need your help. We need you to be a little braver right now, can you do that for us? For your brother?”

Alia nods in terror and together, Tony’s heart in his throat the whole time, they help tear apart the seatbelts as Steve keeps a steady grip on the unsteady wreckage above them. Tony helps pull the two from the car quickly, shielding them as best as he can, while the car teeters and whines a little. Tony lifts his head quickly to look up at Steve, who is breathing hard, his cheeks blown red.

“You doing okay?” He hates the words coming out of his mouth, but he has to know.

Steve nods. “Just get them out, Tony.”

Tony keeps an eye on Steve’s wavering form as he manages to get the children out of the wreckage in time. He’s breathing hard the whole time as the medics rush to them and Alia grabs his arm, gratefully. But then Steve lets out a slight cry, in trying to drop the cars down again safely, and Tony turns his head back to the man. The cars are too heavy for the man and Tony can see that Steve’s about to drop.

He lifts his repulsor quickly, the armour clanking against the street as he shoots the wheel. It promptly deflates, teetering the car on the other side as Steve manages to pull himself back in time. Tony and Steve move forward to pull the car back from the wreckage, both of them awkward and yet terrifyingly aware of the ash in the seats before them.

“Thank you,” Steve tells him quietly.

“No big deal.” Tony waves it off.

Steve seems ready to argue the matter, but Tony’s turning away. He still can’t really stand the sight of the man, can’t seem to look at him without seeing the insides of the Siberian bunker all over again. Sometimes, Tony looks at him and genuinely thinks that Steve will finish the job, will grab the hunk of shield that’s left and plant it squarely into his chest. It’s not like it’s anything he doesn’t deserve, after all.

“Mr Stark?” the Chief of Police is calling to him. “Mr Rogers, we’re grateful for your help. This jurisdiction’s been locked down by my people, so we’re good for now. Thank you.”

Tony wonders whether he should argue, but he’s been on his feet for over two days now. He only nods, but when the car comes, via Friday, to pick them up, Tony doesn’t get in. His gaze turns to the familiar streets of Queens and something latches in his throat, dark and bitter and painful.

“Tony?” Steve is calling after him.

“Tell them I have something to do,” Tony mutters, before he moves off by himself.

He doesn’t stick around to hear the car pulling away, tapping the arc reactor so that the suit folds itself back into his chest quietly as possible. Tony walks down the quiet roads, his eyes burning from all the ash, every step heavier than the last. He can’t do this, he thinks to himself, but he won’t stop himself either.

When he stands before the familiar building, Tony swallows tightly. It doesn’t take him long to scale the place and gently nudge the familiar apartment door open.

The place is empty, as ever. As he’d known it would be. He had had Friday run the name in the registry almost as soon as he’d stepped into the Compound. I’m sorry, boss. May Parker is gone, too. And all Tony had been able to do was laugh hysterically, so loud that the Avengers had burst into the workshop in full battle gear, alarmed. Of course, he’d bit out, sounding slightly unhinged even to his own ears. Of course she is.

It’s slightly damp and musty as he walks in. Haphazardly messy in that way the Parker household always seemed to be, with cups and clothes left anywhere. It even looks lived in, Tony thinks as his throat tightens, as though May’s just gone out for a bit. He stares at the ash on the ground, cursing Thanos to the end of his days, cursing himself.

“I’m going to get him back,” Tony mutters. “I’m going to get you back. You don’t deserve—I’m so sorry—,”

He breaks himself off, turning around to walk straight back out when his gaze catches on something in the corner. Tony turns, frowning a little, the sunlight winking off the glass and he reaches out, fingers shaking, for the framed photo. His eyes widen and his mouth opens, letting out a slight shocked sound.

That kid.

It’s them, he sees, his breaths hitching. Tony had wanted to make the internship official and they’d been ribbing each other about something, he couldn’t remember what. Peter had whipped out his old, cheap camera, and fuck, Tony even remembers making a note about buying the kid a new camera, wanting to commemorate the moment.

Tony hadn’t felt so blissfully happy in forever, hadn’t felt so damned fucking comfortable in such a long time. It was horrifically rare in his stupid, shitty head to be able to find some grounding amongst the chaos of anxiety and depression and the PTSD, but every time he’d step into the Parkers’ open, caring company, he’d feel the tension beginning to lift slowly. May had taken the picture, had told them to say, ‘cheese’, and rolled her eyes good-naturedly when they’d both thrown up bunny ears behind each other.

“Fuck,” Tony mutters, eyes blurring. “What did I do to you—,”

He’s breathing hard before he can stop himself, his chest feeling as though it’s caving in, eyes bright with unshed tears. Blackness begins to fall around him, and Tony can’t breathe, his head is aching, and everything is terrible, May looked him in the eye and trusted him and now Peter is gone, gone, gone—

Not yet, not yet, he thinks to himself amidst the horror of his own mind. Tony grabs it desperately, breaths hitching. He can’t stop breathing now. Not when the universe still needs his skills. Tony gulps down air desperately, his eyes wide as tears track down his cheeks, and he finds he’s kneeling on the floor. As he mutters the coping mechanism for his usual panic attacks, pressing his fingers to the ground to cement himself to the world once more, Tony breathes out properly, once more.

The framed photo is cracked under his hands, having fallen to the ground, and Tony thinks he might break apart all over again. Instead, he gets to his feet and tucks the frame into his pocket, holding it so tight that the glass cuts into his palm.

.

.

There are very few cameras in the press conference.

There are even fewer reporters.

He doesn’t want to be here. Tony wants to be back in his lab, finding the media a waste of time. Time that he could be using to find Peter and reverse everything. Figuring out what the fuck happened on Titan. The only way, Strange? Fuck off with your cryptic bullshit, Tony would think sometimes, wanting desperately to claw out the arc reactor again from his chest.

It’s because of Peter that he doesn’t, that he willingly stays. Because Tony Stark for Peter Parker has never been, and never will be, a fair deal. Ever.

Tony swallows tightly. We lost, he wants to snap. Now, fuck off.

“You can’t say that,” Natasha says gently beside him.

“Stop fucking reading me, Romanoff,” Tony mutters, rubbing his forehead. “Fury’s not here.”

Natasha’s face creases only a little, the brief hurt lighting in her eyes lightly. “I guess I deserved that, a little,” she admits lowly. “You’ve been avoiding us.”

Tony tilts his head back. “I wonder why,” he says sarcastically. “Maybe because I did everything in my power to save you and you threw it back into my face, anyway?” He shakes his head. “No. No, I think it was the leaving thing. Can you believe it took the actual threat I’d been begging you to hear me out about, to come before you decided to step foot back home?”

The Black Widow does not say anything for a while.

“I guess it’s too late to apologise, as well,” she murmurs. “For what it’s worth, then. I’m sorry.”

“It’s worth shit all,” Tony says. “It’s the end of the world, Nat. Nothing matters anymore.”

Natasha looks at him quietly. “You don’t believe that,” she tells him. “When you feel ready, we’ll always be here. You should know that.”

Tony takes off his sunglasses, tucks them away into his pocket, as he walks up to the podium, a brief thread of hot anger still rippling through him. On the stage, the Avengers stand quietly, watching him, as ever. He wants nothing more than to leave, to go back to working on finding Thanos, instead of wasting more time here. But then Tony stares out at them all, recognising even Christine Everhart amidst the tired, ragged lot.

They’re haunted, worn faces, all of them, and yet they’re all fucking heroes for even turning up at his behest. Tony thinks about it, something in his heart aching hotly, beautifully. They’re the bravest people he’s known, right up there with the UK Ambassador, Dianne, and every single person Tony has had the fortune to meet in the last few crazy days. Every single person Tony and the Avengers have seen are just that bit braver, because every single person walks with the same etched grief and yet, they fight through it, in order to do the kind thing and help.

It’s so beautifully human of them.

The desire to carve out Thanos’ face increases.

“Thank you,” Tony says, as he moves to sit down on the floor, ignoring the podium.

For the first time, he’s stuck for words, simply staring at the handful of brave reporters before him, as they give him small, pained smiles. The cameras are rolling, and they’ve got their recorders out and they’re waiting, but Tony’s throat sticks. Why had he thought he should have done this alone? Why couldn’t he have accepted Rhodey’s help, instead of just reassuring his friend that he would manage the press with the Avengers, while he helped Nebula, Rocket, and the UN?

Before him, Christine shifts a little, her face drawn in deep grief, and clears her throat a little. She seems to recognise the slight frozen state he’s found himself in and so, she speaks first.

“Thank you for inviting us,” Christine says, her voice cracking. “To the Avengers. You all started the world back up again, so we followed suit. Mr Stark. Could you—please.” She falters, her brave façade cracking as she blinks desperately. Her voice hitches and her tears fall carelessly as she continues, “What—what happened?”

Tony just stares at them. He swallows tightly, drawing another breath. But all he can see is ash, the world darkened in grey.

“Please,” Christine says again, and it breaks the damn within him, forces him back. “I lost my mother. My—my sister. Please.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony tells them hoarsely, lifting his head. “There—there was a Titan. His name was Thanos and he was from New York. He wanted to finish what he’d started and—he was an idiot. He said that he wanted to destroy half of the universe. And I’m sorry, I’m so—I—I failed.”

I failed you all.

They’re all staring at him. “He took out half of the universe,” one of the reporters repeat hollowly. “Why?”

Tony hates the way their eyes brim. “He thought it was for our own good,” he tells them, and Christine swears violently, an impressive, bristling list of hoarse words sharper than a blade and all very fitting titles for Thanos. “He was a fucking idiot and—and—,”

“And he will rue the very day he hurt us,” Thor says, as the god comes in to sit beside Tony. He lifts his head to look towards the cameras, blue lightning crackling through his fingertips. “I would like to—I am sorry. I have failed you, lovely people of Earth. I have failed… many.”

Tony stiffens beside him, but it’s Natasha who speaks for them. “We tried,” she says hesitantly, her voice faltering as she finally lets her features twist into an open expression of guilt and pain. “We fought for you and we will continue to keep fighting for you. We will continue trying, we swear it.”

Christine gives a watery smile, but her voice is firm and filled with deep determination when she speaks. “We know.” She takes a deep breath. “What we want to know, is what we can do.”

Tony blinks. “I’m sorry?”

“This is our world, too,” Christine says fiercely. “What happens if this Thanos comes for us again?”

He hadn’t thought about that. Why would Thanos want them again? He’d already gotten what he wanted, Tony thinks to himself. But, yes, if they were to start a war against the Titan, Earth would be at risk. Tony falters, his usual spark fading as his thoughts flash through his mind desperately. What does he do? What does he say?

“Then we stand,” Steve says, Christine turning her head towards him. “We all stand together.”

“You didn’t seem willing to stand together a few years back, Captain,” Christine says softly, her gaze turning pained. There’s no anger left from the previous years, not really, Tony thinks. All that seems hollow in comparison to what they have now. “How can we trust you now?”

“A few years back, I took a stand for my universe,” Steve tells them. “Things fell apart and I am so sorry. But when we get them all back, and we will, Thanos will pay. He’ll pay, by all of our hands. Because Thanos may have started it, but we will end it.” Steve lifts his head, his eyes bright and blazing. “This is war. And we will win.”

Chapter Text

Clint gets into the Tower at night.

Security’s a bit shit, but he’s not entirely so surprised, he thinks to himself as he walks into the largely empty building, once so filled with life and light. The moonlight shines, gleams flickering through the place as Clint turns his gaze. He’d promised to bring Lila and Nate to the Tower, because they’d begged him so hard and Clint’s never been able to say no to the kids.

Especially after the Civil War.

Laura had seen him on the six o’clock news and the kids hadn’t been able to avoid the news, not when it was everywhere. School, TV, even the neighbours. In the end, living on a farm in the middle of nowhere still hadn’t been enough to protect his family. When he’d come back, with the ankle monitor, the parole officer, and the shame, the hurt and the betrayal that painted their faces was worse than anything he’d ever known.

Or, he thought it was.

Turns out, there was something worse than even that. Clint’s breaths hitch a little as he tries not to remember the ash on the floor of his house. It had been dinnertime and the world could have ended outside, but Clint had been so grateful to just sit at his place, at the table. They’d just started properly talking again, all of them. Laura was offering him a plate and Lila had insisted that she be allowed to wield his bow and arrow before Cooper, the two of them starting an argument that Clint had opened his mouth to quiet.

Then the quiet came, and Clint had hated it.

When the figure comes for him, he only has seconds to react. He’s getting sloppy, Clint thinks, even as he ducks down, hitting a flat palm against the side of his assailant to take her down. But they’re even faster, more powerful than anything he’s ever seen, as Clint barely manages to keep up, only able to duck and dodge before he tries to get in some hits of his own.

He’s breathless annoyingly, as he struggles to keep up, before a voice calls out.

“Nebula, no!”

The figure stops immediately, as the lights flood the reception immediately. Clint blinks in the fluorescent light, staring at the blue woman before him. He’s seen some things, in his life, but that’s a—

“Holy shit,” he breathes, staring.

She looks a little like Vision, except she’s blue and she has metal hands. Clint tenses, ready to defend himself, but mostly slightly in awe that she’d been able to knock him flat—metaphorically speaking, of course. He’s still standing.

“The circus came to town,” Natasha’s saying, as he breathes a small sigh of relief.

Clint walks across the reception to embrace her tightly. “That’s so fucking old, Nat,” he mutters into her shoulder, grateful as she squeezes.

Everyone else is filtering in, Steve and Bruce and even Thor. Tony’s the one who moves past him to the blue woman, looking concerned as Clint overhears him asking after her hands and making sure that she’s okay. Natasha holds him for a second longer and for a moment, Clint lets himself breathe ever since he left the farm. He feels as though he might genuinely fall apart, the taste of ash still in his mouth.

“Laura and the kids?” Natasha asks, when she pulls back.

He doesn’t say anything, but that’s enough of an answer. Steve’s face creases in pain as he embraces Cap. “I’m sorry, Clint,” he tells him, voice cracking slightly, as Bruce pats his back comfortingly.

Thor only gives him a small smile, but they all look the same. Haunted, gaunt-eyed figures, barely standing. Tony looks really bad, as though he hasn’t been eating, let alone sleeping. Bruce and Thor look dead on their feet, while Natasha has dark circles under her dark circles. Even Steve looks thinner.

“Old band’s back together, huh?” Clint says roughly.

It takes him a moment to look up towards Tony, something like shame and remembered guilt sinking deep in his stomach. It had all been such a mess and Clint can’t sometimes believe that he had ever thought to follow Steve over his family. He used to hate it over the months, confined to house arrest, but now, the pain of it all is something so faded that it barely registers in him. There is something worse taking its place, now.

“Like the Beatles.” Tony’s voice is quiet, a faint tinge of his old snarky humour but it lacks his usual punch.

Clint lifts his head. “I saw your message,” he said. “This fucker? Thanos? I’m ready.” He turns to the blue woman. “Could you teach me how to do that front flip?”

.

.

While Clint gets reacquainted—or their version of reacquainted, which is just ignoring everything that’s happened, but Thanos—Bruce has to take a minute.

He’s pressing his hands against the cold of the marble sink, shivering slightly, as he stares at himself in the mirror. When he turns to look back towards the door, Bruce can hear the quiet muffled voices of his former team. He still has no idea what happened that fractured them apart so much, and nobody’s offering up the information willingly. Tony spends all of his time with Rhodey, who is in charge of search and rescue, and focusing on finding Thanos, while Steve is on the far end of the spectrum, spending his time in the makeshift hospitals and letting Natasha speak for them all.

Bruce had hoped that Thor would make them speak, at the very least, but the god throws himself on clean-up operations while staring up at the skies every spare moment he can steal. And Clint? Clint’s just training hard, with Nebula and Rocket, now.

“Hulk?” Bruce’s voice is softer than it has ever been. He lets out a shaky breath. I really need someone right now. “Come on, man.”

No answer.

His voice cracks. “Hulk, come on,” Bruce says. “Don’t leave me, too.”

“NO!”

Finally, Bruce thinks, breathless with relief, before he frowns. No? Hulk has never said no to him before.

“Why not?” he demands, staring at the green crawling over his features in the mirror. “Hey, why not? They need us out there—,”

“NO!”

Bruce plants his fist in the wall, wincing when he sees the crack against the marble. He’s not as apologetic about his anger now, as he once would have been, especially in the Tower. Throughout their time here, there have been no conversations, but there have been a lot of frayed tempers. Mostly it’s Tony throwing random gauntlets and smashing spluttering wires in his workshop, or sometimes Natasha will be practicing her aim before a few too many moments have passed, and entire structures will fall apart.

Even so, Bruce takes a breath. The green has still pooled out over his face, features shifting slightly as he recognises the Hulk finally coming out since his time on the Asgardian ship. He can’t quite say it entirely, but he’s gotten used to the Hulk. Understands him intimately, in a way that he’d never bothered to understand before. He had thought that the Hulk hated him, but it had been love, pure and simple, through the anger, that brought the Hulk rumbling to the surface, time and time again. 

“Look,” Bruce begins again, staring at the Hulk’s half-formed face on his own in the mirror. “I’m sorry—,”

“NO!”

“No, you won’t listen, or no, you don’t believe me when I say I’m sorry?”

No answer.

It’s hard not to feel frustrated, but under the edges of frustration, Bruce can feel the beating of fear. His heart is hammering hard, the green pooling out around him tightly, but that’s not him. There’s no reason for him to feel fear, not here. Which means…

“I’m sorry, okay?” Bruce says again. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you or tried to force you to come out in Wakanda. Or New York. I know—I know you’re scared.”

Hulk is quiet. “Hulk wasn’t scared.”

“No, I know,” he lies, voice low and quiet. “I was scared, though. You’re always there for me and I just—I guess I forgot what the world was like, without you. Maybe it’s time for me to be there for you, too.”

The Hulk lifts his right hand up, green forming all around the thick, meaty fingers, and Bruce lets out a quiet, relieved smile as he raises his left hand to press it to Hulk’s.

.

.

The wormhole in New York swallows him whole and drops him out into a blinding nightmare where Raza grins at him, all bright eyes and wickedness as he reaches to carve out his heart.

“Iron Man?” Raza says, before he turns into Howard. Howard’s lips turn down and he examines the heart. “Stark men are made of iron.”

“Howard—,” Tony gasps out hotly. He needs his heart; he needs it to live—

“This is not iron.”

The world shifts and cracks apart around him and Tony is holding his heart in his arms. Peter is crying and Tony cries with him.

“You’re alright,” he lies, utterly terrified, as he clutches Peter closer to him, desperate.

“Please,” Peter is sobbing helplessly, “I don’t want to go.”

Please, please, he thinks desperately. Begging, pleading to anyone who could care to listen. Please, no. Please, don’t let him go, I beg you, please—

But Peter is turning to ash and dust right in his arms again, and Tony’s knees give way as he collapses, screaming something. He’s moaning in pain, scrabbling for Peter, before he presses his fingers to his face. He’s so hollowed out that all he does is crumble apart faster than the ash in his hands, and then Steve is there, shaking his head.

“I have to do this,” Steve says, and suddenly, he’s ramming his shield in Tony’s chest again, again—

Tony wakes up, screaming.

“Tony, it’s okay, it’s alright!” Rhodey’s voice pokes through the blinding darkness as Tony gasps for breath, staring out desperately without seeing. “Tony, breathe with me, it’s alright. You’re okay—,”

But Peter’s not, he wants to say, and that’s not a world he wants to live in.

Tony gasps on the floor, sweating intensely, his cheeks flaming hot. Rhodey helps him calm down, breathing heavily and forcefully enough as his best friend shows him how to breathe again. Slowly, Tony gets his own breath back and grows quieter, his whole figure shaking as he leans back against the wall, his chest aching slightly but there’s not really pain anymore. Not after Peter.

“I should get back to work,” Tony mutters. “Wasn’t supposed t’fall asleep—,”

“You’re dead on your feet, Tony,” Rhodey tells him. “How long do you really think you could have gone on like that?”

Tony pushes himself to his feet, wavering slightly. “Sleep is for the weak,” he says, pointing at Rhodey. “Hey, when—there are two of you.”

“I’m over here,” Rhodey No. 1 says, furrowing his brows in concern. “Tony. You have to eat properly and sleep, too. You’re still healing from the last fight, man. You’re in pain.”

Thanos took the kid, he wants to say, something taut and desperate stuck in his throat. Thanos took my kid, and now I don’t know what to do.

Tony holds himself straight, though. If he talks about the kid, he thinks the pain will swallow him whole, will destroy him completely. He can’t do it, he won’t do it—not now, maybe not ever. Tony stands for a bit, remembering how to breathe again. Rhodey is staring at him again, face creased in concern.

“Rhodey,” Tony mumbles. He shakes his head to gather his bearings. “I got to talk to the President. And Wakanda’s been calling us.”

“I’ll do it,” Rhodey says, but Tony is already shaking his head again at him. “Tones, come on. You have to rest. I’ll do it.”

“No, no, can’t rest,” Tony tells him, pushing himself up to his feet properly.

If he stops, he’ll start thinking. And if he starts thinking, well, there would be no hope left. Tony inhales sharply, rubbing his head tiredly as Rhodey watches him carefully, concern written into the lines of his features. His best friend has the same expression Tony has always known on his face. It’s always been a constant, that worry on his face, and the guilt has never hurt Tony more than it has now.

What is he doing to the people around him? How can he be worth anything at all, if all he does is turn everything to ash?

.

.

Rhodey taps out a staccato on the table while he waits, nervous.

He stops when Okoye’s gaze turns on him, unimpressed. She’s holding herself taut beside the table, hands clenched protectively around the spear that Rhodey knows instinctively is not just a spear. Rhodey’s gaze flickers towards her and he sees her face, the expression cast over it like a mournful cloud. It’s the same face he sees in the mirror, in every face, but this expression is more intimate and Rhodey recognises it instantly.

Princess Shuri was said to be taking the loss pretty hard, he remembers reading, but that hadn’t stopped her from continuing her brother’s hard work to keep the borders of Wakanda open. Rhodey knows he has no right to even sit here, to ask for help like this, when everyone is already so very strained, but he wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t completely desperate.

“Does she refuse to sleep, too?” he asks, looking at the table.

There’s a beat of a silence.

“She has to be pulled from the workshop, often enough. If her mother was still—there is very little that persuades her to rest,” Okoye offers quietly. “I—I am grateful that she wasn’t there.”

“Yeah,” Rhodey says. Not many people were so lucky as the princess, the general before him included. He’d seen the footage; the way Okoye’s face had lifted in hope as she’d reached for her king before the shocked horror had faltered over her face when he’d turned to dust before her very eyes. Rhodey lifts his head to look at the general before him. “I’m—I’m sorry that you were.”

“Thank you,” Okoye murmurs, the silence between them turning companionable as the doors finally open.

“Colonel Rhodes, I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. Okoye,” Princess Shuri says as she sweeps in quickly, brushing aside a stray lock of hair. She’s got dark circles and she looks too tired for such a young girl, the burden of kingship already so heavy, as Okoye looks after her with a worried furrow of her brows. “There were some problems with the food imports and the medicines.”

“It’s alright,” Rhodey tells her, feeling ancient as the princess seats herself at the table. “I’m really sorry to have requested an appointment, especially when I know that you are so busy—,”

“That’s enough, Colonel. My brother saw you as a friend and so you are, by extension, my friend, too,” Shuri tells him, and her voice cracks only a little when she speaks of her brother. She pauses only a little, breaths hitching slightly before she’s pasting on a friendly smile and continuing, with ease, “Besides, it’s not every day you see five white people get on their knees and beg for the world’s forgiveness live on air.”

Rhodey snorts in surprise, unable to help himself. He hasn’t laughed in such a long time that the feel of it in his throat is unfamiliar and strange, yet not entirely unwelcome. The guards are smirking to themselves too, Okoye’s lips attempting to press themselves into a thin line, as Shuri gives a pleased smile.

“They feel guilty,” Rhodey says. “We had a job to do.” He takes a breath. There’s no point rehashing events all over again, he guesses. He has a job to do, here. “Princess Shuri—,”

“Queen,” Okoye corrects. “You must address her—,”

“Okoye, please,” Shuri interrupts, her voice keening in distress and the general’s mouth snaps shut instantly. She lifts her head with determination, a spark of hope in her eyes. “My brother and mother are coming back to me. I am just… keeping his seat warm while he takes his time, like the lazy thing he is.”

“Yes, they are,” Rhodey agrees, inclining his head. “As the Defence Minister of the UN, I have been given the responsibility of organising planetary defences while we’re still so open and the Avengers have made their stance on receiving Thanos in a fight clear. It’s likely that things will escalate, and most of the countries on the UN are advocating to rally their armies for the oncoming battle.”

Shuri blinks. “The Wakandan army is severely depleted, Colonel,” she tells him. “We can barely protect ourselves, let alone the world again. Even now, I am severely limited—I can only help African neighbouring countries as half of our jets and fleet were destroyed in the fight.”

“I’m not asking for your army,” Rhodey says. “I’m asking for your hand on the table. A fight’s coming, and it’s coming soon. Tony’s already starting to draw up plans, with the others, for when we manage to bring Thanos down. We’re not so optimistic to think that he’ll go quietly, and neither is the rest of the world. People are offering their help, most countries want to avenge, too. We were thinking that if Wakanda steps up to the plate and offers use of weaponry and armour to help outfit—,”

“I am not sure,” Shuri interrupts. “I understand what you are trying to do, Colonel, but right now, I cannot prioritise war over the health and welfare of the people. That is the Avengers’ task, not mine. People want to help the Avengers, that is admirable and good and noble, but I—I am…” She breaks off, tears tracking down her cheeks.

Rhodey’s guilt clenches his stomach. She’s just a kid, he thinks to himself. What is he doing, talking politics to a kid? Fuck it, he thinks, and gives her a small, bracing smile. “You were fantastic, princess,” he tells her, voice gentle. “You did everything you could have and you’re doing wonderfully even now. Your family would be very proud of you. The King will likely abdicate once he returns to you, when he sees that you’ve done a better job than him.”

Shuri snickers tearfully, a watery laugh echoing from his throat. “He can have the throne, I don’t want it,” she says. Okoye takes a step towards her and Shuri rests her head against the general’s chest, crying quietly. Her voice is a soft moan when she speaks, the lilt in her voice distressed. “I want them back. I want them home.”

“We’re working on it,” Rhodey promises quietly. “We have a tracker on Thanos and we’re going to use the infinity stones to bring back the people we lost. There’s Nebula and Rocket and the others. They say that the people were just removed, not gone forever.”

“A tracker?” Shuri lifts her head, blinking. “Have you found him, yet? If he is on another planet, how do you plan to make the trip? What makes you think that six white people will be enough to subdue the Titan when an entire Wakandan army could not?”

“Because those six white people have me,” Rhodey jokes. He watches her give a small smile, before he continues, “We’re having a bit of trouble tracking him, but we’ll do it.”

“I want to help,” Shuri says immediately. “I can help, I know it. If it’s the weaponry you need, I’m happy to make them for Thanos and Thanos, alone.” She gives a small, apologetic smile. “I can’t send Wakanda into another fight, not so soon.”

“I wasn’t asking for that,” Rhodey tells her. “You still have your duties here. How do you want to—,”

“Okoye,” Shuri murmurs. “For me.”

The general’s face shifts. “Your Highness, it would be my honour to represent you for the United Nations,” Okoye says as she crosses her hands. “Wakanda forever.”

Shuri stares at the general, eyes too bright. “Wakanda forever.”

.

.

Steve gets back to the Tower when it’s so late the night sky is beginning to fade away for dawn’s touch.

Friday gives him a quiet welcome when he walks in, going straight to the top floor where they’ve silently agreed to stay. Silently, because nobody speaks to each other anymore. They split themselves up, again, on some mutually silent agreement, to help out the world and do their best to get it starting again, but they barely talk to each other, except for quiet grunts and one-word answers, especially in Tony’s case. They just ignore each other now, and it hurts more than Steve thought it would.

He can see Thor’s heavy figure on the bench, on the roof, and Steve wonders if he should join the god, something heavy and aching in his chest. But he doesn’t know if he would be welcome, if he should be welcome. He remembers training sessions with the god, and all of them, remembers laughingly trying to lift Mjolnir, but all of that’s gone now.

Steve lets out a heavy breath, making for his room as he rubs the back of his head tiredly. The constant grief hammers in his chest, his breaths coming out fraught. He’s so tired. He has lost them all over again and it hurts. Half of the universe is gone, but it feels like everything else has gone, too. Not just Bucky or Sam or Wanda or the others, but Steve’s lost the Avengers, too.

He can hear the sounds of machinery in Tony’s workshop, wondering how long it has been since the man last slept. Rhodey left a couple of days ago to answer the distress beacons in the East, with the army, so it was probably a few days. Steve wonders if he has the right anymore to tell Tony to rest.

Probably not.

God's righteous man. Pretending you could live without a war.

He tries not to flinch, Ultron’s voice a terrifying constant in the back of his head. A lot of his vehemence and anger against Tony had been because Ultron had managed to snake his way into his mind and peel it away in a way that not even the SHIELD therapists had managed. Steve swallows tightly, pausing at his door. He’s too amped up to sleep and even if he did, Ultron would find him. The ice would claw at his throat, he’d watch Bucky fall from the train to turn to dust, and he’d drown all over again.

He remembers once asking Natasha if it could have been true. If he really couldn’t live without a war. Do you think it’s true, Natasha? Natasha had looked at him with those sharp, bright eyes and asked, Do you?

Before, Steve had been unable to find an answer. But now he’s pretty sure of it. He used to pick fights everywhere, even as a scrawny, weak thing, but he’s tired, now. What life is there left to live without fighting? He thought he’d been able to see some sunlight and hope in Bucky’s return, with Sam and Nat and the Avengers, but he’s gone and fucked that all up, too.

Steve hears the clanging in the workshop and makes up his mind.

He turns around and walks towards the workshop, where he can see the brief flicker of regret over Tony’s face. Maybe Tony wishes he hadn’t taken down the doors. Tony had blasted them apart with his repulsors, and when they’d all come running, having expected a fight only to slowly lower their weapons, Tony had just laughed in that strangely unhinged way he was doing lately and told them that he was just doing some target practice.

They’ve all been doing a lot of target practice, lately.

“Tony?” Steve’s voice falters a little.

Coward, he thinks of himself. Tony barely looks up from hammering the suit, and his chest tightens. Even though the machinery is loud, it contrasts against Tony who is quiet, as he has been throughout all of these days, as everyone has been, the grief hanging low over their faces. But they’ve all still resiliently been putting in the work, though it doesn’t feel anything like it used to.

All the old betrayals and hurt and anger doesn’t mean anything, but it’s still there, festering like an old wound. Their untouched emotions brim together in the Tower, barely enough to keep down, bubbling and ready.

Just one spark could be enough to set them all afire.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says again.

He could apologise for a thousand years and it wouldn’t be enough. But he’s a selfish man, always has been. Steve still wants to say sorry, even if it means nothing to Tony.

Now,” Tony says roughly, pausing as he lifts his head to glare. “Now, you’re sorry. Now that you finally know what I meant, now that the world’s ended, and it’s too damn late!

Steve’s heart twists in his chest, eyes burning. Tony has every right to be angry, especially with what he did. He’s made a lot of mistakes, but he thought that he’d been given the chance to atone. He thought that he had been right all this time and he was wrong, so very, very wrong. He wonders if Tony will ever understand just how sorry he is. Probably not.

Maybe he—he can explain, at the very least. Tony deserves that, right?

“I’ve always been a selfish man,” he admits with difficulty, swallowing tight. It’s hard to get the words out, hard to be humble when for years, he’s had to be strong and capable as everyone thought he was. When he sees Tony’s angry face, Steve continues, “I’m not—making excuses, Tony, I swear it. It’s—an explanation. I just wanted to—I failed at being Captain America when I came out of the ice, failed the whole world, and I just—I wanted to—I—,”

Tony is looking confused, brows furrowed in incredulous surprise. “What the fuck are you talking about?” he says. “When did you fail at anything, ever?”

He’s blinking at him, completely bewildered and the sight of that expression makes Steve’s stomach clench in disappointment even more. Tony doesn’t understand. Why would he? How could he? Tony Stark is always so confident and so sure of himself and so capable that it probably doesn’t even occur to him how stupid Steve is beside him. Beside them all. They’re all excellent and brilliant Avengers, Steve thinks sadly, and what is he, but some old man out of time, just struggling to keep up?

What right does he have to captain the Avengers, anyway? Ultron had been right. Without the war, Steve has nothing and with it, he makes every worst decision possible. For a moment he struggles to speak, feeling like the insecure little child he’d always been, searching desperately for a way to prove himself to get his father to stay.

“I’m—,” Steve begins, before he shakes his head. There’s no point. Nobody could understand, after all. “I’m still sorry, Tony.”

Tony stares at him. “How could you do that to me? You weren’t my friend, but you were at least a teammate. My captain. How could you do that?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says, shaking his head apologetically. “My mom used to say it, too, how stubborn I got. I get things in my head sometimes and I just won’t stop and—I’m sorry, Tony. I’m sorry about lying and Bucky and—,”

“Stop,” Tony tells him. “I’m not mad at him. I—I have a James, too. I get it, but—I’m mad at you. I trusted you. I—I thought we were friends.”

He ruins things, Steve wants to tell Tony. Everything he touches falls apart. His mother, the army, Peggy, Bucky. The Avengers.

“I was so…” Steve wants to explain it. How desperate he had been to keep everything, to stop himself from breaking everything apart as he usually does. “I can understand if you want me to go, Tony.”

“You know you can’t,” Tony tells him. “You said it yourself. We’re supposed to work together.”

He can’t stand the word anymore. Together. It comes back to haunt him in his worst nights.

Steve raises his head. “How?” he says. “Don’t you get tired of it? Of me? There’s nothing that I can do for the Avengers, here, Tony. I tried—and I failed. I thought that—that I could save them and you and everyone and the Avengers, and I failed.”

For a moment, neither of them speak, the silence between them growing thick and heavy.

Tony speaks first. “We all failed,” he corrects. “You’re—get that in your head, first. But we won’t fail again.”

Chapter Text

Natasha keeps her cool, though beside her, Tony’s fingers twitch.

She’s used to uncomfortable situations, having been forced into them most of her whole life, and she almost even thrives off them now, in some weird, twisted way. There’s something toxic in that probably, but Natasha knows it’s far too late for therapy for her, now. The thought of it draws a slight curl to her lips, but she has to focus and so she looks quietly towards General Ross, who looks vaguely unsettled by the calm of her eyes.

“We can’t hold a re-election,” Tony is arguing, has been arguing this whole time. His voice threatens to escape its fixed patient tone, but Natasha knows him too well to know that Tony will let anything like that slip. “Because half of the country has been reduced to ash.”

Beside him, she tenses at his brazenness, retracting the previous thoughts immediately. Maybe not. Tony’s been acting less stable recently, but she knows better than to ask him about it. Natasha knows that she has no right to even be here with him, but he’d asked for an Avenger who would be able to stop him from sending a suit to drop Ross in the ocean, and Natasha was the only one in the room.

General Ross’ smile is fixed, just as fake as her own. It’s because he’s in the Oval Office, surrounded by the very few people remaining in the government that the general won’t threaten them like he used to, Natasha knows. But when she looks at Tony, his face is filled with actual rage. He looks angrier than she’s ever seen him, fingers twitching tightly, and she can almost hear him screaming in frustration like he did before the call even came.

Half the universe has gone, he’d been ranting angrily to Rhodey when she’d entered the room. Who gives a fucking shit about politics?

Of course, logically, they know that there must be someone. There’s only so much that the Avengers can do in the U.S and with the UN, without having someone taking the lead. But the sheer fury rippling across Tony’s face at that moment had genuinely startled Natasha. Not in all her years of knowing him had she ever seen anything like that.

Was it really Thanos that had Tony so filled with black rage? Or—

She thinks back to when he’d stumbled off the Milano, collapsing heavily into Rhodey’s arms, and mumbling blearily. Natasha had thought that it was delirious ramblings, but maybe not. She opens her mouth to ask, before shaking her head.

She has no right. Not anymore.

“Then what would you suggest, Mr Stark?” the general is saying testily. His tone borders on the slightest edge of insolence, making Tony’s name sound like an insult. “Because half of the people on this table are also gone. And we need a leader.”

The you don’t qualify goes unsaid as Tony lifts his head to glare outright at the Secretary of State. Natasha is also trying to tamp down her own emotions, brimming over. She knows exactly what the general wants, the slimy son of a bitch. How can someone be so self-serving, when everything has gone to shit like this? But then, of course, Natasha knows just how unfair the world can be, has felt it in every beating laid into her skin.

She’d worked so hard to make the world fair again.

Distress rises within her as Natasha swallows hard. How desperate had she been when Clint found her, when he’d put down the bow and arrow to offer her a hand, instead? Escaping the Red Room had been one thing but escaping herself was another. And the Avengers had offered to her a branch of hope and genuine love in a way that Natasha never thought she’d deserved.

Now, they’re all fractured apart, the universe is crying, and General Ross is still the biggest prick.

“Then the other half will put it to a vote,” she announces, and when she looks at the general, she tilts her head and glares at him hard, daring him to question her. Beside her, Tony is smirking a little and Natasha bites down her own appreciative smile, remembering the way she used to take the lead in press conferences for them. She’d enjoyed that, lording it over Steve, who always fumbled under the questions, and she and Tony would often find ways of making fun of the press when they got bored. But then Tony’s smile drops and Natasha’s heart clenches in disappointment and nostalgia. She continues smoothly, as though nothing has happened, “For what it’s worth, your daughter has mine, General.”

General Ross shifts a little on the screen, but Betty Ross lifts her head so they can see her as she shakes her head, from the table. She’s been scrawling signatures on the papers at the table, talking and avidly debating with half of the people left in the US government, but at the mention of her name, her attention is caught. Too often, Natasha’s mouth runs faster than her mind, but she’s learned to lean into it and trust her own intuition; even now, she barely has to think about it, having known Betty since the events of the Civil War.

Betty Ross is a smart woman, she knows even without having read her file. Quiet and shy, but quick as a whip and very deserving of a place at that table. Completely unwilling to forgive her father for his actions but understanding of his worth and value as the Secretary of State at the same time. General Ross will be unlikely to usurp or fight against anyone else and she’ll have a faster time getting things done, Natasha thinks. And as acting President?

Well, it’s about time, isn’t it?

Betty’s looking confused. “Dad?”

“You have my vote, too,” Tony says, and his smile is blinding but for the slight unhinged look it gives him.

Natasha casts a concerned look over Tony, but Betty is speaking, shaking her head. “I can’t,” she says, uncertainly. “I’m not qualified and I’m—,”

“From what I’ve heard,” Natasha says, “you’re more than enough.”

General Ross is looking more convinced, Natasha can tell, and she smirks to herself, recognising the slight light dawning in the general’s eyes. The idiot thinks he can manipulate his daughter, but he’ll have another thing coming, she thinks.

“You were always saying you wanted to be president, sweetheart,” he murmurs, and for a moment, Natasha tries not to stare. That’s real love, terrible general or not, she thinks to herself. He still loves his daughter, she realises and beside her, Tony is tense, staring, too. She never knew her father, but she knew that Howard Stark was a fucking, selfish asshole. Natasha wants to comfort Tony, but she doesn’t know how. “President or princess, I said. President princess, you said.”

His daughter’s cheeks flush with embarrassment. “Dad!”

“I second the vote,” says the UK ambassador from the UN panel, looking up. “If we have a leader, we’ll start getting more shipments and imports and exports out, faster. Betty?”

Natasha watches as Betty Ross looks to the people on the table, who are already voicing their agreements, before she nods quietly. She still looks a little shocked, the insecurity and uncertain hanging off her a little too much, but General Ross is stiff with pride. Natasha watches as Betty’s first motion as acting President is to focus on cleaning the water supplies. They’ll be alright, she thinks to herself in relief, her heartbeat slowing down a little, as Tony bids goodbye and switches off the screen.

There’s a still quiet between them before Tony breaks it.

“That was a good thing you did,” he comments lightly. “She deserves that.”

Natasha turns her head, her heart aching in that way it does now, a soft, tired sort of beating. Something in her wishes she could turn back the time, just like Thanos had done it so easily, and do it all over again, but better. How had she let Shield get into her head about the Avengers? They’d preyed on her fears, making her feel as though she didn’t deserve her place on the roster and so, Natasha had taken on more separate missions until Hydra swarmed Shield. By then, it had already been too late.

“A compliment, Tony?”

She has a soft smile on her lips, as she tilts her head up to eye him curiously. It’s almost reminiscent of their old banter and Natasha feels the pull even deeper now. She wants it back even though she knows she doesn’t deserve any of it. A second chance, she thinks desperately. That’s all. A single, second chance.

But Tony’s face turns to stone.

“Don’t ruin it.”

Her heart is broken, her smile falling. “Is that what you think I do?”

“You’ve never given me reason to believe otherwise.”

He’s bitter and cutting when he speaks and though Natasha tries to hide the sheer hurt, she’s not sure it works. But it’s true, it’s so horribly, painfully true. Natasha has ruined everything, everywhere. She swallows painfully, tears threatening to brim over as she struggles to breathe properly through the sheer self-loathing. Natasha Romanoff, the woman with the Midas touch, except instead of turning things to gold, all that she touches turns to pure ruin and utter devastation.

This is not the Red Room, this is not the Red Room, she chants to herself quietly, a soft whimper threatening to escape. You deserve the Red Room, you deserve the Red Room.

“I thought we were friends,” Natasha says quietly, desperate for something, anything to keep her head above water.

“So did I.”

.

.

“I thought you said,” Nebula says as she lifts a repulsor and considers it thoughtfully, “that Iron Man was a pain in your planet’s ass?”

“Yeah, well,” Tony mutters, helping Rocket navigate the screen carefully, “Thanos is a strong contender.”

“Thanos is a bitch,” Rocket corrects viciously.

He mutters something sleepily about going to fix up a plate of food for Thor, before he leaves the workshop, rubbing at his bloodshot eyes. Tony is still tense from talking to Ross. He burns at the injustice of it all, just thinking about it. Peter Parker, the epitome of caring and selflessness, fell away to pieces under his fingers, and General Ross still breathes the air.

There’s something very wrong about that.

Nebula looks toward him carefully, though she does not say anything, as Tony’s gaze drops to her cracking fingers. The metal hand is shifting apart slightly, worn under the amount of times she’s hefted the welding iron to help fix up Cap’s shield and Natasha’s newly reinforced Bites.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to help you with that?” he asks her.

The blue alien rolls her eyes. “We don’t have time to spare.”

“Can’t have you falling apart in the fight, R2-D2,” Tony tells her.

She looks conflicted for a moment, clearly torn between her drive and her desperation.

Tony understands it.

Every time he steps into the room where he’s set up all the news stations and the communications open for the rest of the world, all he wants is to hurry back into the workshop, to work on finding a way to get Peter back. Tony feels cruel when he thinks of it, cruel and selfish to the bone, because the United Nations are working hard to get all these centres up and running. They’ve managed to rehouse and help over thousands of people, thanks to all of their efforts.

Tony had considered telling them about their attempts to track Thanos, but he doesn’t want to give them false hope. He’d seen the way the UK ambassador had shuddered, had almost broken down helping two young children so much like her own. An old grandma, crying that she was supposed to leave them first; a little baby still in his crib, screaming for parents who were never coming; people in the streets sinking to their knees in hoarse grief and calling out for their mothers, fathers, siblings, friends.

If someone had given him false hope, Tony thinks, about Peter, he doesn’t know what he’d do.

“It’s not false hope,” Nebula says, and he realises he’s been talking out loud again. “It’s the waiting game that you are afraid of.” She breathes out in annoyance as her entire arm falls off and impatiently shoves it back in, hissing out in pain. “Fine. Do what you can, Tony Stark.”

Tony gets to work immediately. As he focuses on the complexity of Nebula’s code, Nebula starts to fiddle with his things, bored and unashamed of snooping. A part of her head snaps off, clattering to the counter, and Nebula swears impressively under her breath briefly.

“Your parts are all breaking down,” Tony mutters to her.

“Thanos is a bastard, what’s new?” Nebula retorts under her breath, as she fidgets with DUM-e idly.

His head snaps up from her arm, brows furrowed. “Wait. Thanos did this to you?”

“Took me apart, piece by piece, to every fight I lost with Gamora,” Nebula tells him softly, her gaze on something in the distance, attention faraway. She turns her eyes on him, something sharp and unnervingly focused in the way she looks at him. “I thought I hated her for that, hated her for winning every fight, and making—making Thanos do that to me. I resented her like anything for it, but no. I could never hate her.” Nebula shakes her head. “Gamora is the only one who—she is my sister.”

Fuck, Tony thought waking up with a hand stuck in his chest was enough. He stares, trying not to make it look like he’s staring, compartmentalising the amount of modifications Nebula’s been forced under. It’s too many, he realises, his stomach churning uncomfortably. He might even be sick.

“You didn’t deserve that, you know that, right?” he tells her.

Nebula inclines her head. “I know it now,” she admits. Unprompted, she taps at something in her head and says softly, “Activate memories.”

Light flickers across the quiet workplace and Tony turns his head to see a green woman, beautiful and tall, cast against the only wall that’s not completely broken apart. It’s a bit fuzzy, shifting in pieces, but it is clear to see that it is Gamora as the light softens. Gamora reaches forward to embrace Nebula in the memory, her voice soft and kind. Tony watches as Nebula’s face crumples slightly in her sister’s embrace, her lips turned down as she stares, longing written all over her face. Her breath hitches and her eyes water briefly, in the same way as she had looked back on Titan.

Tony recognises the look of grief on her.

“She’s… she looks kind,” he offers.

“She is,” Nebula says. “Too kind, I think. For a cruel universe. She fought to get out of Thanos’ thrall and she did. While I… the fool that I am, got stupidly caught.” Her voice cracks slightly, turning pleading and desperate. “I told her not to. I told her that I was not worth it, but she—I told her. She gave up the soul stone to save me.”

“It’s not your fault,” Tony says automatically, his voice sharp, because he recognises this feeling, too. The thick guilt in Nebula’s voice, the self-loathing written all over her features. He knows that too well, has lived with it, had it caress his heart and squeeze over the years, since Afghanistan. Maybe even before that. But now the feeling wraps itself around his throat and tightens. “Gamora saved you, because you’re her sister, too.”

Nebula lets out a heavy, shaky breath. “And your boy?” she asks bluntly. “What is his name?”

It doesn’t escape his notice how they insist on speaking of them in present terms, as though they’re right there, but Tony wouldn’t have it any other way. Any other way, and he’d refuse to breathe.

“Peter,” he manages to get out, a proud, pained smile on his lips. I can’t survive this, I’m not strong enough. “Smartest kid you’ll ever know. He’s in the decathlon, too, winning all these trophies and things like it’s easy.” Tony clears his throat, remembering May, a flush on his cheeks. He has no right. “He’s not my kid, though. Not, like, biologically.”

Nebula shrugs.

“Gamora and I are not biologically related,” she says, and how does a blue alien girl know how to make him feel more better than anyone else in this bloody tower?

Tony swallows thickly, before he taps at the desk. The screen lights up a video of him and Peter, tinkering away at the lab like they used to, and the mere sight of it takes his breath away. Peter is laughing at something that Tony is saying, and it is all too easy to see Tony’s small, fond smile even as he attempts to keep it hidden, his head ducked.

“Mr Stark?” Peter says in the video, and though the Tony in the video lifts his head up immediately, Tony in real life stiffens, writhes in jealousy, and stares, the pain and pleasure warring within him fiercely. “Mr Stark, have you watched that really old movie, Back to the Future?”

He can hear his video-self replying, but Tony’s gaze stays fixated desperately on Peter, his eyes already watering. There is a lump in his throat, and he thinks that he might possibly break down again.

Nebula’s voice is low. “He is like you,” she tells him.

Gamora and Peter’s forms flicker against the screens briefly and the strain of longing pain is mirrored on both Tony and Nebula’s faces. They don’t say a single word, both of them staying quiet as Tony continues working while Nebula watches the videos silently. When he is finally finished, they watch quietly for a bit while Peter laughs carelessly on the screen and Gamora’s smile is wide as Peter Quill serenades her with a song.

“If,” Tony says, his voice faltering and hitching in his rising distress, but he needs to say this, has to get this out, “if there is ever—when we get them back and if anything happens—,”

“I will choose him over you,” Nebula promises quietly. “I will protect him for you.”

He’s blown away by the promise, his heart clenching slightly as Tony simply stares helplessly at Peter.

“Thank you.”

.

.

Shuri enters Iron Man’s workshop with a touch of her previous confidence before it is completely eradicated.

Alarm bells are already ringing in her head when she comes in, because she’s seen the Avengers, okay? Shuri knows what they look like fighting together, has seen their press photos and all of that fun stuff. Though they fight, every single media outlet claims, the Avengers always have each other’s backs and they’re here to protect us. Shuri stares at them all right now and calls bullshit.

Tony Stark is standing at the workshop counter, a gauntlet in his fingers, beside the blue alien woman and the raccoon Shuri had been notified about. He’s stiffer than a board and it’s clear to see why, even if he hadn’t been looking warily towards Steve Rogers, who is standing though hunching over as though trying to make as little noise as possible. Natasha Romanoff is beside the large, cracked window, Clint Barton sprawled seemingly carelessly on the sofa on the opposite corner, while Bruce Banner and Thor are just walking in together.

They’re just standing so …awkwardly, Shuri thinks to herself absently.

“Princess,” Tony Stark is saying, clearly having listened to Colonel Rhodes which she very much appreciates. “Thank you for coming. Rhodey said that you were really busy.”

“We heard your call, Dr Stark,” Shuri says. “My brother fought for this world and I would like to do the same. Whatever skills you all require of me, I offer of my own free will.”

“Thank you,” Steve Rogers says as Shuri inclines her head to him politely, trying not to writhe in anger, but as he speaks, Tony flinches a little.

It’s hard not to hate them all here, right now. They had a single job to do and Steve Rogers decided that Wakandan lives meant nothing to Vision, while her brother, so desperate to do the right thing and save the world, followed suit. But they all look so sad and pathetic that Shuri can’t help but feel a little sorry. Shuri ignores them all and gets to work.

“The reason why you cannot find the Titan,” she tells them, as they get up to follow her, all these great and fearsome warriors following after her, “is because you have not been expanding your technology. You’ve been searching only in this part of the universe, without taking into account these dark areas, see?”

“So how do we cast a wider net?” Natasha Romanoff asks her.

It’s a little strange to look up and realise that these white people are waiting for her to take the lead. In Wakanda, Shuri is used to the respect they give her as a princess and then the newfound wonder and awe they deliver when they see what she’s capable of. But she’s resigned herself to the fake pitying looks people outside of Wakanda give her, the condescension lining the edge of their tone when they say, I’m not racist, but…

Mother, Shuri thinks, her heart aching, if you could see me now.

“Like this,” Shuri says, and shows them.

She puts Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in charge of stripping back the wires and outfitting them with reinforced vibranium, while Thor and Bruce Banner help her take apart half of the lab so they can make enough space. Nebula and Rocket go to outfit the Milano for their journey, while she and Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton work on decoding the nanite technology to locate Thanos.

It takes them maybe half an hour before everything falls apart.

Nobody really says anything, but things are still so tense that when Steve drops something on the floor, they all flinch but Shuri. She’s actually working hard, but Clint says something that she can’t hear.

“I’m trying!” Tony is suddenly exclaiming, as he slams his hands on the table, the palm cutting into the edge tightly.

Clint shakes his head. “Try harder!”

“Clint, stop—,” Steve begins, as Natasha reaches to put a hand on the man’s arm.

“Fuck you,” Tony is snarling fiercely, as Shuri lifts her head in surprise. “Fuck you. Where the fuck were you—oh, that’s right, your stupid ass got you stuck in house arrest—,”

“And where were you—,”

Shuri turns to exchange a look with Bruce, whose eyes are wide. At least she’s not the only confused one here, she thinks, and though she insisted she didn’t need the Dora Milaje, she’s kind of grateful Okoye insisted they accompany her, even if they’re waiting outside of the workshop. Thor is already getting up to stop the argument, but it’s Steve who speaks again, and that seems like the worst idea.

“This isn’t helping anybody,” the Captain says, and Tony throws something on the ground.

It’s a coffee mug, the grains scattering as the shards scatter apart; Tony threw it away from everyone else, so it doesn’t hurt anyone. Shuri is the only one who flinches in alarm, startled when she realises nobody else seems at all surprised. Regular outbursts must be a thing here, then, she thinks. These people all need therapy.

Tony yanks the screen towards him with an anger she recognises, knows well enough. It’s a fury that will linger under the lining of her skin, in a way that makes her restless and shake. Shuri has felt it when she wanted to scream at the heavens for taking away all of her family and leaving her behind. She swallows tightly, waving a hand to the Dora Milaje to keep their distance as she watches them all with a critical eye. Tony is fuming still, the screen cracking pathetically under his grasp, but the man moves forward carelessly as he reaches for more metal scraps.

“What,” Shuri says slowly, “is going on?”

“That’s a question I’d like an answer for, too,” Bruce says.

But nobody seems willing to say anything at all. Shuri lifts her head to glare at them all, slamming the toolbox shut with a loud bang. Tony Stark is shaking, Steve Rogers looks as though he would rather throw himself out of the window than stay here for a moment longer amongst these people, Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton seem tensed for an actual fight, Thor is so angry and grieving with a black fury that it slightly scares her, and Bruce Banner is completely clueless.

No wonder Thanos steamrollered over us all, she thinks disparagingly, if this was what the world had to offer. These are your Avengers?

“Tensions are just a little high, these days,” Natasha says finally. “We haven’t been in a room all together since—we’re just a little bit distressed, lately.”

Shuri narrows her gaze, unimpressed. She knows what that means. It means whatever fight they had a couple of years ago—all of the effects have lingered still and it’s fracturing them apart, literally. And it’s been only a week and a half since Tony Stark came back to Earth in a spaceship, she thinks, so that means these people, who were supposed to be a team, who promised the world they would rally together and avenge them, have not spent a single second all together to do as they promised.

Rage fills her, harsh and cold and unforgiving.

“Distress?” she repeats scathingly. “We are all distressed, Ms Romanoff. You think I do not understand or see your grief, too? I am sorry for it, I am. But you are the ones who made us all a promise.”

“Shuri—,” Steve begins apologetically.

“No,” Shuri says, shaking her head. “You all need to get your shit together. I am not risking the whole universe in your hands if this is what they look like! If you feel that you cannot do this, if you are incapable of facing Thanos, then step down. I will not judge you, nobody will. But nothing will stop me from getting my family back, least of all the likes of a group of people so filled with hate towards each other that they will likely kill the rest of the universe than save it!”

Her words have shocked them, Shuri can see it. Steve holds that old shame she is used to, something in her heart aching for the man. She didn’t spend very much time with the Captain as T’Challa, but she knows enough about to him to understand just how deep the self-loathing goes. And now that she recognises it in Steve’s face, Shuri sees it in every single Avenger, too.

They wear their grief like cloaks, all-consuming and hanging off them, but their self-hatred is hidden in the dark circles under their eyes, the tenseness of their shaking fingers. Shuri’s gaze flickers from one figure to another carefully. Quiet, uncomfortable regret fills her throat, but not enough for her to take back her words.

The resounding silence is interrupted by a sharp beeping sound, Tony’s face filled with pale shock.

“It’s—,” he begins falteringly, his head lifting. “We found him. We found Thanos.”

Chapter Text

The Wakandan princess’ words linger thickly in the air around them as Rocket instructs them to settle into the Milano.

Colonel Rhodes is away, conducting business with the UN, Tony says, but they can’t afford the time to wait for this, so the Colonel tells them to go without him. Natasha watches the blue alien woman as they seat themselves, thinking thoughtfully. The Milano is quiet, uncomfortably so, but it’s enough to let her mind wander back to New York when Fury had first put them all together, had assembled the Avengers. For some reason, she can’t stop thinking about the arguments they’d had. The continuous arguing, she thinks, realising faintly that they’d all essentially attacked each other, and Loki’s sceptre had barely anything to do with it.

You get backed into a corner, you come out swinging and kicking. How did it take her so abominably long to realise that Fury put all six of them in a pressure cooker together? She wouldn’t be surprised if it was another one of his experiments. Like when he used to ask her to train new recruits and it turned out that she was actually the one being trained, or when he died and didn’t tell her.

“I don’t want to sit next to you,” Nebula says tightly, when Natasha buckles herself in.

She blinks, startled, before a ring of amusement rises within her. “Sorry,” she says, “but there were no other seats.”

“Sit on the floor.”

“Did I do something to you—,”

“I don’t like anyone,” Nebula explains. She pulls a face. “Gamora says that I have to work on that.”

Natasha presses her lips together to stop herself from laughing. After years of double meanings and words sharpened like knives, it’s a little refreshing to have someone so blunt and uncaring before her. Natasha doesn’t know if she likes it, hates it, or envies it. It’s the first time she’s wanted to laugh since everything happened, she realises faintly, as Rocket tells them to buckle up or he’s tossing them out of the airlock. They strap themselves in tightly, Natasha’s fingers shaking as she settles herself, her heart hammering in her chest.

Aliens falling from the skies, entire countries lifting into the air, giant mad titans howling for their hearts. This is not anything the Red Room has ever trained her for. Even Ivan could not have seen anything like this coming, Natasha thinks, and for a moment, she wonders what it would be like to go back into a normal life of spies and undercover missions. Has she been ruined by the Avengers, she wonders, the crook of her lips turning up a little.

“Hold on,” Rocket is telling them, as he fumbles over the buttons, Tony by his side.

Natasha has to wonder what her life has become at this point as Clint reaches to grip her hand briefly, squeezing in comfort. The ship lifts into the air and suddenly, they’re propelling through the clouds and into the dark blackness of the starry skies, Natasha’s stomach flipping uncomfortably. The sensation is distinct and difficult to explain, the sudden leap through the skies is unlike any quinjet she’s ever been on. She’s not one to get sick very often, but right now, she wants to throw up.

For a blinding moment, she thinks of the smell of a car, her fingers pressed against her mouth, as Ivan offers her a ginger sweet to stop her feeling sick. Natasha pulls herself back in alarm, breaths taut as the ship careens into the darkness. The world is blinding, but Natasha is startled at herself. She hasn’t let herself think of the time before the Red Room in years, she realises, something faint flitting across her chest as she tries to breathe again.

“Nat?” Bruce’s voice is soft. “Come on, with me, Nat. Breathe. You can do it. In, and out, we got you, come on…”

Her cheeks flush a hot red when she comes back to herself, when she realises that she’s surrounded by the Avengers, all of whom hold the same quiet, concerned expression on their faces. Even Tony, she realises, something in his eyes that reminds her of those dark nights they used to spend together, drinking tea and not saying a single word between them. They all stare for a brief, lingering moment, the air between them fragile in a way that it hasn’t been before, and for a moment, Natasha thinks Steve might say something. Might piece them back together in that way he used to, might say the right thing as he always did.

Bruce looks questioning, as ever, but it’s Clint who stares at them all, the same torn expression wracked through his features. Natasha recognises the genuine confusion in Thor’s features, because she’s seen that expression in the mirror over the years, more and more.

What happened to us?

But Princess Shuri clears her throat and pronounces, “The air is clean.”

The moment breaks apart and they split once more, as though it never existed. Natasha is left, staring pathetically at their backs, as she fumbles to unclip the belt and fights back Ivan in her mind as he threatens to claw his way back. She realises faintly that Nebula is watching them all, though she seems to have caught the blue alien’s attention most as Nebula hangs back, gaze narrowed. Natasha assumes a face of impassiveness, before she reminds herself that her usual tactics are no longer useful nor required anymore.

She’s been a spy so long she thought she’d never find a way to breathe.

The Avengers had been a lifeboat and Natasha hates the thought that she might have tossed it all away. Ruined it, as she ruins everything in her life, as Ivan had always warned her that she would.

“That was a panic attack,” Nebula states.

Natasha blinks. “Yes,” she says uncertainly. “Yes, it—it was.”

“I have them, too,” the alien tells her, almost conversationally. “They are terrible. I do not know you, but I would not wish that on you.”

She’s blown away by the sentiment, her eyes filling before she can stop herself. Everything in the past few years, or perhaps her whole life, seem to be climbing up on her and Natasha can’t help but remember Madame. The smug curve of her lips as she’d pronounced Natasha ready, the way she’d condemned and praised Natasha in the same breath when she’d graduated. They’d done everything to make her believe that the Black Widow was a patriot for her country, a necessary soldier saving people. It took her embarrassingly long to realise that the Black Widow was a curse.

“You—you get them, too?” Natasha says, her accent tinged by old Russian before she can stop herself. She’s already out of her seat, watching as Nebula leads them both out of the ship.

Nebula is nodding. “Because of Thanos,” she says, and for the first time since Natasha saw her walking calmly down the crashing Milano, her voice wavers a little. Her gaze turns down to the bionic hand, the metal clinking together gently, and Natasha watches her mouth tighten. “Thanos gave this to me. Proxima Midnight took apart my hand in a fight and Thanos took my good hand and led me to the workshop beside his throne. He made me sit down while he fit the new hand on and when I screamed, he told me he had no problem replacing my voicebox either.”

This is sounding far too familiar to Natasha, who remembers being strapped down as well. Hands all over her, scalpels and medical instruments gleaming in the fluorescent lights. She stares at the hand, remembering her own forced body …modifications with a bad taste in her mouth.

“And this was your… father,” she states.

Nebula’s fingers tighten into a fist. “He is not my father. He fashions himself as such because he thinks he has a heart.” Her voice is taut when she continues. “Tony says that no father would cut away pieces of me and call it love.”

Natasha thinks of Howard Stark with a sharp clench of her own fist. “He was right. They almost replaced my leg, too,” Natasha says. When Nebula’s head snaps up, she swallows tightly. “I… had a Thanos, too. His name was Ivan. He—he rose me in the Red Room, where I grew up. Or was trained. I didn’t realise, for years, that it wasn’t normal to have your arms and legs broken in punishment if you couldn’t kill your opponent in the ring.”

“Gamora said that.”

The blue alien’s eyes are bright and sharp, but there’s a touch of desperation that Natasha recognises too easily in there. So, she continues, her voice firm, “I once broke my own leg and carved it up, so I could take out the tracker they put in me. You are not his. You are your own.”

“I—I am not like you or Gamora,” Nebula admits falteringly. Her fingers are shaking as she unclenches them. “You feel no fear. Gamora was never scared when she defied him. Me, I was—I still am. The fear, it paralyses me.”

“Who said I felt no fear?” Natasha tells her. “I was terrified every day. Sometimes, I still am. But I—,” I met a team of people. Steve, with his sharp quips; Tony and his jokes; Bruce’s kindness; Thor’s sweet disposition; Clint’s mercy. They made me feel as though I deserved to live again. “I am stronger than that fear. And you are, too.”

“Sometimes I look at him and all I want is for him to be pleased with me.” Nebula’s voice is caught in a breathless whisper, as Steve turns back to make sure Natasha is coming out. Natasha recognises the shame clinging to the alien’s voice, but Natasha is turning to her. “Your… Ivan. What did you do? How are you… free?”

“I snapped his neck.”

Natasha clamps her mouth shut. She hasn’t told a single soul about that, not even Clint. They probably know, because it’s not like it wasn’t so obvious, but she’s never admitted it to anyone at all. She wonders if she regrets telling the alien before her.

When Nebula’s eyes turn to her, fierce and bright and unwavering, the brief flicker of regret in Natasha dies out immediately.

“If a Terran can do it…” Nebula is murmuring. “What if I am not enough to kill him?”

Natasha reaches to squeeze the metal fingers, the coolness light on her skin. “I was,” she says. “And if you can’t, it’s like the princess said. You don’t have to. There’s enough of us to do the job, after all. But… the stuff inside you? I know that. I can help you through it, if you want.”

Nebula lifts her head to look at her, before she nods, a short jerk of her head.

“You gonna make us wait all day, Terran?” Rocket’s calling back to them. “Come on!”

.

.

Thanos goes down on one knee.

“My love, please—,”

“You bore me,” Mistress Death drawls, pulling out her box of cigarettes. “I task you to correct the universe, tell you about the problems of overpopulation, and you take it as some stupid attempt to impress and court me. You take it as some stupid quest to find the infinity stones and snap away half of the universe to dust. And then you fail, anyway.”

His fingers are shaking as he lifts his head up to stare longingly towards the Mistress, as she lounges on her throne lazily. Her robes are dark and filled with the screams of the wounded dead, shifting as she takes a long, slow drag of her cigarette. Thanos kneels at her throne, his heart a wrecked, torn thing for her, as she barely looks at him.

She’s focusing on her kingdom, brows furrowed on the scrolls she’s looking over carelessly, and Thanos tries not to grow unnerved by the winged bats that fly over the open throne hall. There is no need for a ceiling in this place, as Mistress Death likes to keep the world open for herself to look through, so the stars gleam overhead. The place is still most lavishly decorated, with large black marbled pillars, the musicians setting up in the corner for her amusement, and white flowers strewn across the statues, spiking the air with a soft jasmine scent.

“I am sorry, my love,” he begins hesitantly. “Please, forgive me—,”

“I don’t want to forgive you,” she says scathingly. “I want you to go away.”

Thanos is distraught, his breathing coming hard. The infinity stones gleam still on the gauntlet and they’re slowly taking the life from him, but he has to be strong in front of his love. He must show her that he is worthy of her, even when she is so cruel to him. Mistress Death blows out soft rings of smoke that settle into patterns, the light of the gauntlet gleaming against her beautiful crown. Every time Thanos looks at her, he feels the swell of love all over again and he swallows.

“You mean the universe to me, my love,” he says. “So, I gave it to you.”

Mistress Death barks with cold laughter, dripping with derision as she taps out the ash from her cigarette. Her laughter raises the attention of her large wolf, Fenrir, who growls at Thanos. Thanos holds himself strong, refusing to flinch under Fenrir’s yellowed eyes. He knows what Fenrir can do, has even ordered the wolf on Nebula a few times. But that was then, and this is now.

“You didn’t give me the universe,” she scorns. “You gave me ash. Can you believe that? Terrans give flowers and the residents of Xandar give pieces of their own hearts from their paramours. And what do I get from you?”

“I swear to you,” Thanos breathes, “I’ll do better. I’ll return them to you, I’ll—,”

Her gaze narrows darkly on him and she is looking at him for the first time since entering her throne chamber. Thanos’ heart leaps with hope. She’s so lovely, he thinks desperately, his chest feeling as though it’s being caved in, and all he has ever wanted is her. The loveliest creature in the whole universe and she will barely drop him even a smile. He has known her smiles before, has seen the graceful curve of her lips and felt the warmth of it; Thanos yearns desperately for it, now. But she grew bored of him trying so desperately to court her and Thanos’ heart had almost broken.

When she had told him about her concerns of overpopulation, Thanos had spent years and years researching the best ways to help her. His lady was conflicted and Thanos would do whatever it took to save her heart. If that meant keeping it along the way, well, he wasn’t complaining.

“How?” Mistress Death snaps sharply. Her gaze lingers on the infinity stones and Thanos thinks blindingly for a moment to offer them up. But no god can hold the stones for too long and he would never do that to her. “Those stones aren’t going to be yours for much longer. And they won’t keep you alive either, when they finally leave you.”

Is that concern he hears? Thanos bites down on a smile. She is worried for him, his lady. She does not want him to die.

“I have no intentions to die, my lady, I promise you,” he reassures her, but she is looking unamused, reaching a hand to scratch Fenrir’s chin. “I have a few plans in the making. They will not be ash for much longer, and you will have your half of the universe, for your kingdom, soon.” And I will have your hand.

Mistress Death narrows her gaze. “How? You can’t—,”

“Do you remember the stories?” Thanos says softly as he lifts the gauntlet. “Soul, power, time, mind, reality and space all make up the universe, yes? All of them, working together to create the balance. But like always, there is one everyone forgets. Everyone but me.” He inclines his head. “You.”

His lady is looking stunned. “But that’s a myth,” she says, sounding completely thrown. It’s not often that his intelligent Mistress Death is shocked, Thanos thinks but the light of the surprised expression against her soft features turns her even lovelier. “It doesn’t exist. Do you really think that I would not have known?”

Thanos hurries to reassure her. “I recently discovered it myself, my lady. The Trickster hid it away well enough from me,” he explains. “But there were never only five stones, my lady.”

Her voice is high. “Where?”

“Where else?”

.

.

The planet they’re on is kind of beautiful in a strange way, Bruce thinks as he follows quietly, taking mental notes in awe.

It’s breathable, for one, and there are strange flowers dotted around the place. In the distance, Bruce can see a makeshift farm, turning his head to hear Clint’s quippy disclaimer about how he had the farm idea first. But Clint is clenching his jaw, his eyes turning dark with badly concealed fury that Bruce intimately recognises, as he glares at the farm. Bruce remembers the agent’s children, the way they’d run circles around them all, but he remembers Clint’s shy, proud smile the most.

SAD.

“Yeah,” Bruce mumbles. “Yeah, he is.”

He hangs back a little, conflicted within himself as he looks after the rest of them, something tugging in his chest. Still, Bruce has no idea what has happened between them all, but now, at this point, he stares at the way Tony kicks at the plants in their way or the way Steve grips his shield tight, how Natasha’s looking ready to fall apart at any given moment, Clint right beside her, or even the way Thor’s face is clenched dark and closed in a way Bruce has never seen before and is slightly afraid of. At this point, does it really matter?

They’re ruined already.

Can you miss people, even when they’re right in front of you? Bruce wonders at that, as he stares hopelessly after them all. in the back of his head, Hulk rumbles in light confusion. He called them all a ticking time bomb once, but it seems the bomb’s silently exploded and the destructions are heavy and catastrophic beyond repair. This is the quiet after the explosion and the ringing’s still in his ears.

Thor trails Stormbreaker on the ground slowly as he walks, something dark and dangerous in his gaze. Bruce is nervous at the very sight of his friend. He’s never seen Thor so angry before, not even when Hela attacked them, and his stomach clenches anxiously at the sight of it. Hulk surfaces a little, green coursing around his fingers to give him small comfort, but the Hulk doesn’t understand Bruce’s wariness around his friends here.

He doesn’t see the cracks. Bruce even wonders if he’s just imagining it, if he’s making something out of nothing, so he moves forward resolutely.

“Thor,” Bruce begins, voice taut. “Hey, you’re—um, you’re alright, right?”

He sounds pathetic, even to his own ears, but it feels like there’s nothing else he can say. There’s some tension in the air around them, even now, and Bruce falters over his own words, unable to summon up the right thing to say, in his perpetual awkwardness. He’s never been one to talk to people by himself, but his friends had never seemed to mind that he was so shy, and anxiety ridden. Tony could talk enough for the both of them, and Steve’s always had them in stitches with his stories about how he’d made a fool of himself in front of Peggy too many times to count.

Thor turns his head towards him, gaze shifting slightly. “Hmm?” he says absently. “Oh, yes. I will kill Thanos and we will be just fine.”

Bruce is awkward as he tries again. “I wanted to—how are you doing, with—with Loki—,”

“Loki’s not dead,” Thor says cheerfully.

Bruce winces. “Thor—,”

“He does this to me, all the time. Makes me get all upset and mourn and then he takes pictures and blackmails me,” Thor explains. “I’m not mourning you this time, Loki! You’re going to have to do a lot better than that!”

Bruce watches Thor move forwards and even Hulk simmers lightly, watching after Thor with a thread of worry and concern. Thor has been so different these days and even whenever he smiles, Bruce can’t help but feel that it looks vaguely unhinged. Beside him, Natasha is looking just as wary but before he can say anything to her, Rocket clears his throat.

“There’s a lotta flowers for one man,” he comments, brows furrowed.

Nebula is looking thoughtful, frowning a little. “Thanos does not plant. That was always Gamora’s forte.”

“The fucker planted roses,” Tony is saying, as he aims his repulsor. Bruce lets out a yelp and Shuri looks thunderous when Tony sets the entire field aflame. There’s a hoarse vein of pure fury in Tony’s voice when he speaks again. “Killed trillions, turned half the universe to dust. All so he could come back here to be a fucking farmer!”

God, they’re a disaster, Bruce realises, and he is way out of his depth here. He watches aghast, as Clint and Natasha scope out the farm terrain and Tony and Thor start ruining Thanos’ farm. Beside him, Steve is staring at the helmet propped up on the scarecrow-like figure. Bruce breathes a sigh of relief. Steve will listen to him, Steve is always the one who can sort things out—

Something in the Captain’s face cracks and suddenly, Steve is smashing the helmet apart with his shield.

“You’re all psychos,” Rocket comments, as he and Bruce pull Steve back, Shuri snapping at the others.

“You want the Titan to hear us, you idiots?” Shuri snarls, tapping her own gauntlets together as they fizz a little. “Stop!”

Thor’s voice is slightly unbalanced. “Yes, let’s call him out!” he calls out angrily, trailing Stormbreaker dangerously against the ground. He holds the great weapon far too recklessly for something so powerful, Bruce thinks worriedly. “I’ve come for your head, you BASTARD!”

“You are going to get us killed!” Shuri begins, before they hear Tony calling out, his voice filled with the same unhinged highness of Thor’s.

“The fucker’s been planting flowers! We’re out here, trying to clean up the water supply and make our grass green again and he’s here mowing his fucking lawns!”

Bruce is so distressed he can barely see, Hulk rising within him immediately, as he stares at them all. Steve’s been pulled back from beating the helmet, but Clint’s taken up where he left off, smashing the remnants apart. Natasha has given up on calling him back and is continuing to gauge the place, while Tony and Thor go on some one-man mission to destroy all of Thanos’ farm. He wants to call for Hulk, but the Hulk is wary of Thanos, terrified.

“Come on, man,” Bruce is muttering, his voice almost a plea. “I need you, Hulk. I never had anybody, but I had you. I need you now.”

“NO!”

His distress climbs. “They need us!”

“NO!”

“I emptied a whole shotgun in my mouth once and this is what you have a problem with?” he snarls.

Hulk doesn’t bother to answer him. Bruce feels the resentment burying itself deep within him, his mouth pressing into a thin, angered line.

Shuri turns to him angrily. “What is wrong with all of you?” she demands.

Bruce feels small under her righteous fury, but he shakes his head, just as confused and distraught as her. “I don’t—I don’t know,” he says helplessly.

And then the world explodes.

.

.

Tony sees Thanos before anyone else does.

So, he goes for the bastard first. No wasting time, no thinking, no hesitation—Tony just goes for it. Thanos is lumbering out of his stupid fucking farm, obviously having heard the commotion, and Tony can see the glint of the golden gauntlet on his arm. The gauntlet that took away Peter and the rest of the universe. The sight of him alone just fills Tony with a rage that he’s never felt before. Tony has never been this angry before, all reckless black fury and wildness; he lets it fill him completely, lets the raw, wild rage rob him completely of anything else, and leave him snarling.

He can vaguely register Thor and Steve following him fast, all of them doubling down on Thanos at the same time, as the others hurry behind him. But all that exists in Tony’s world is Thanos and his respulsors, so Tony points for Thanos’ head and fires rapidly, barely letting him breathe.

Everything explodes.

Tony’s always been good at blowing shit up, after all. In this case, it almost means him, because the resulting explosion sends him careening back into the dirt, the armour scraping his flesh hotly as Tony hits the ground hard. The taste of blood fills his mouth, as his head knocks back against the helmet, and he can hear a few bones cracking apart under the strain, as Friday tells him about the bruises and injuries he’s acquired on the fall. But Tony barely cares for them, pushing himself back up as his body aches in pain, searching.

He pulls back the helmet to spit out the blood in his mouth, looking through the ash and dust to see if Thanos is down. Tony doesn’t really expect the Titan to be felled so easily. He’s gone up against him before and besides, the universe fucking hates him, so when Tony sees Thanos’ large figure getting up slowly, he only swears.

“Come on!” Natasha is offering a hand to him, and Tony takes it without thinking, yanks himself up into the air again.

He keeps going, because he’s fucking damned if he’s not going to get the kid back. But as Tony moves to deliver a second blow, Thor is already on his way, lightning screaming all around them, as the god points Stormbreaker at Thanos. There’s a dark black rage that Tony recognises on Thor’s face and as the god roars, the world becomes thunder and lightning. Blue and black crackle sharply all around them, taking over the grey of the ash and the dust as Stormbreaker rises, but Tony can hear Steve’s roaring above it all.

“HIS ARM! TAKE OFF HIS FUCKING ARM!” Steve roars amidst the blinding chaos.

Tony can see Thor aiming, his gaze narrowed, but Thanos lifts his head and smirks. As soon as Stormbreaker comes crashing down, Thanos simply lifts his arm and the gauntlet gleams wickedly and suddenly, Tony is being blinded. Thor’s weapon shatters apart, cracking the earths around them as the entire planet shakes and lightning comes crashing down on them all, blue and silver snapping everywhere. Tony doesn’t hesitate to dive in, Shuri screaming after them in the comms to stay back, to think, to plan, as both Clint and Natasha launch themselves at Thanos’ throat.

Rocket is already unleashing the heavy arsenal of a machine gun at the Titan, screaming hoarsely as he and Nebula go gunning for him. Clint is letting loose every arrow as they sink into Thanos’ skin, making the Titan cry out in brief pain. Tony can see the blinding shine of the gold gauntlet, the infinity stones so powerful that they’re literally humming in the air, before he realises why Steve was screaming for them to cut off his hand.

The gauntlet has melted onto Thanos’ arm.

Gold merges onto the purple of his skin, a heavy, clunking thing, and it’s clear to see that it’s fatiguing Thanos. The Titan isn’t even at the same strength that he was on his home planet, Tony realises, and maybe this is just a sign from the universe that they’ve been given some sort of break, for once. When Thanos easily disposes of Clint, Tony thinks, maybe not.

“You want some peaceful farm at the end of this all, while the universe mourns and screams?” Tony lunges for his throat, grateful when Natasha unloads a new round on the gauntlet, but the bullets bounce off, so she slides out of the way to let him attack. “Tough shit, fucker. You don’t get to relax!”

He’s barely even aiming for Thanos at this point, just setting fire to everything he can see. All the fucking plants and shrubbery go up in flames as Thanos howls at them all. In the comms, he can hear Bruce fighting with the Hulk, but he can’t care for them right now. Tony barely recognises the person he’s become, in this fight, and when he looks at the others, the Avengers, he doesn’t recognise them, either.

There’s something dark and culpable in the edge of their fierce snarls, the resolution in the way they just keep going. Thanos reaches to crush Natasha’s head but she’s sliding out of the way just in time to let Thor bring down the might of thunder and lightning on his head and it barely fazes him as the Titan uses the stones to throw him back. Steve and Clint work together briefly to take him down from his knees, making Thanos crumple to the ground but he’s only down for barely a second.

Fall back!” Shuri is calling to them. “This is not working, fall back!”

Fuck that, Tony thinks. He wants to make the fucker who took away Peter bleed. Thanos is snarling at Steve and Thor, forcing them back with the power of the infinity stones as Steve immediately thrusts up the shield to protect them both. Nebula and Natasha are trying to take advantage of his distracted state, but Thanos barely has to move and the two are sprawling on the ground helplessly. Tony barrages his own weapons on the Titan, rage taking him over completely.

Thanos lifts his head. “Stark,” he says, sounding unconcerned. “You are angry.”

“No fucking shit—,”

“But you grieve more,” Thanos says as Tony lets out a roar of anger, as the Titan peels away more of his armour with insulting ease. “Weak. You are… like me. Soft of heart.”

“Fix it!” Tony roars at him, jaw tensing as he lays down blow after blow. “Bring him back! Fix what you did!”

But all Thanos does is chuckle lowly and it ramps up his fury even more. His hands are filled with blood, Tony thinks. Innocent, guilty, they’ve done it all. He could turn the seas red with the amount of blood he’s shed. He has no qualms about adding another to the list. But Thanos speaks before Tony can blast him into oblivion.

“I cannot,” he says, and his voice rings with devastating truth as he spreads his hands. “Time does not work that way.”

What is he talking about? Tony breathes hard. “Yes, it does! Make it—fix it!”

Thanos gives him a pitying look. It reminds him startlingly of Howard and Tony falters. “The universe is always in motion,” he says. “Things happen, things break, things go back. But it will always go on. This time has already been written. I once rewound time, for only a few seconds, and it cracked apart parts of the entire universe. The Watchers almost had my head for it.”

It’s worth it, Tony wants to say blindingly, but he knows better. If what Thanos is saying is true, that means Peter’s death is written. That it was always meant to happen, that half of the universe snapping themselves out in the blink of an eye had been written down. Tony wants to scream and rage in fury. How is that in any way fair? They can’t reverse a single thing because the universe would shatter. Fuck it, he thinks suddenly. It deserves to shatter if it lets Thanos ruin things like this.

“We can’t trust you,” he says instead.

“Then, don’t,” Thanos says, shrugging. “It makes no difference to me. I, however, have somewhere to be—,”

Tony launches himself at Thanos again, blasting the Titan relentlessly with his repulsors, the power of the infinity stones already peeling away his armour to pathetic strips. He’s breathing hard, barely able to catch his breath as his mind goes into overdrive, ducking and dodging and attacking all in the same moment as Thanos looks barely fazed. It enrages him even more as Thanos simply tosses him away like an insect and Tony hits the ground hard, realising faintly that Steve and Thor aren’t moving.

“I understand,” Thanos begins to say, as he looks towards him. “Your loss was too great, so you—,”

“Yeah, see, no, I don’t think you do,” Tony says, his voice curt and short as he forces himself to get up. The world spins briefly, but Tony focuses, hard. “You took my kid from me. That’s the mistake you made. Remember Gamora—,”

Thanos’ face darkens. “Do not say her name—,”

“My kid meant everything to me that she meant to you,” Tony snarls out, amping up the power on his repulsors. He won’t survive this next blow and he’s kind of counting on it. Anything, to see Peter again, he thinks blindingly, a wildness surging through him. “Except I wouldn’t hurt him if it killed me, but logistics. Not my point. My point is you. What would you do, if someone killed your kid, someone else took away Gamora from you?”

When Thanos’ face grows serious, Tony chuckles humourlessly.

“Do you understand me now?” he snarls darkly. “I’m coming for you, you giant, purple fuck. I’m going to kill you. I’m going to take that stupid glove off your hand and I’m going to kill you.”

“I will spare you for your grief,” Thanos tells him, and Tony almost loses it. “It had to happen, Stark.”

“No,” Tony spits darkly, shaking his head. “No. It didn’t. That—that was my kid and he—he was good—,”

“I understand your loss—,”

“Don’t you dare,” Tony snarls furiously.

Rage brims through him completely and he’s never known this type of anger. This is something deeper and feral, primal, because he doesn’t want to kill Thanos. He wants to tear him apart with his bare hands. He wants to bring the Titan to his knees, to wring out the secret to bringing Peter back from his mouth.

“You mourn, as I mourn. I know the grief of a father—,”

“No, I don’t think you do,” Tony snaps sharply, his eyes narrowing. “See, I don’t care for your respect or your mercy or—or whatever. You took my kid from me, so, in my books, that means you die.”

He’s about to move as Thanos lowers his gauntlet, giving him another one of his stupid pitying smiles, when Bruce lumbers in, the Hulkbuster smooth as it rams into Thanos. Tony wants to scream, but Bruce has forced Thanos to his knees, using the strength of the Hulkbuster to push him down, he realises suddenly. And suddenly Rocket and Shuri are there, too, both of them working together to get the gauntlet off as the infinity stones hum and gleam playfully.

Nebula helps him up to his feet, tensing when Thanos calls for her.

“Daughter,” he says, even as he struggles under the collective might of Rocket, Shuri, and Bruce. “What are you here for?”

“You,” Nebula snarls at him, as she lifts her blade and points it at him. “I will cleave the head from your—,”

“You cannot kill me.” Thanos only laughs. “You have always been weak.”

And Tony can recognise the fear flittering across her face as Thanos scorns her disparagingly. Nebula’s fingers are shaking. Parts of the armour have started to fall apart, but Tony doesn’t care for it, already settling to attack once more. Tony and Nebula hurry towards them, to help Bruce, as Thor is beginning to stir, but Shuri calls out.

“No, stop!”

Tony barely manages to stop himself from attacking, just as the gleam of Shuri’s gauntlets come down and suddenly, Thanos is screaming.

He’s never heard such a horrible sound, but the blood soaks the ground and the gauntlet clatters heavily on the earth, amidst the dusted grass beside them. Tony reaches for the infinity stones, but they flitter briefly in the air, glowing and humming before they scatter, in the blink of an eye. They’re gone, and with it, Tony’s last resort to getting Peter back, he realises as he collapses to his knees. Rocket slams the butt of his machine gun against Thanos’ head and the Titan sinks forward, unconscious.

“You’re welcome,” the raccoon says gruffly, before he’s looking to Nebula. “You alright there, blue?”

Nebula’s movements are jerky, as Clint and Natasha make their way back and Shuri is helping Thor to his feet. Steve is blinking awake, but Tony stares at Thanos’ unconscious form. There’s no way to bring them back, he realises. The stones are gone. Thanos is no use. He’s sinking to his own knees before he can stop himself, shaking his head, a hoarse cry echoing from his throat.

“No, no, no…” Tony is crying.

“We lost again,” Steve is breathing hotly, already in tears, as blood pours down his face. He’s choked up as he kneels to the ground, an anguish in his voice. “We can’t get them back.”

Clint’s voice is rough. “He used the stones,” he says, his voice faltering as he stares at them. “Right before—I saw him—,”

They all stiffen in fear, breaths hitching tightly. Tony doesn’t think that any of them are afraid to die, he realises. But it’s the fear of losing even more that resounds heavier in the air around them. He’s looking at them all hungrily, desperate and terrified. No more ash, no more ash, please, please, Tony thinks in terror. He can’t take it. Beside him, Natasha is shaking, staring at them all desperately and Tony can see her gripping Steve’s shoulder and Clint’s hand tightly.

He can hear her breathing unsteadily, “Stay with me, please, please, stay—,”

But nothing seems to happen, Tony realises and he’s not sure if that’s worse. Thor is screaming, throwing something in the distance, Bruce by his side as a calming presence. Rocket is trashing the Milano again, as Tony watches Shuri stare at them all in fury.

“We should kill him,” Clint says angrily, already lifting his gun and pointing it at Thanos’ unconscious form. “Make him suffer.”

Shuri breathes out. “No,” she says.

They all snap their heads to her. “Princess—,” Bruce begins.

“None of you did shit in that fight,” Shuri tells them furiously. “Rocket knocked him out and I took down the gauntlet, while the rest of you were off on your suicidal kick—,”

“That’s—,”

“Exactly what it was,” Shuri interrupts Natasha. “None of you have any concern or regard for yourselves in the fight and it shows. How are the Avengers supposed to avenge us if they can barely take care of themselves?” She scorns them. “I will imprison Thanos and find out a way to reverse things and bring them back. With or without you.”

Tony gets to his feet. “Your Highness, all due respect, we—,”

Shuri’s gaze is like daggers. “You know damn well that we could have saved a lot of time, resources, and energy if you all hadn’t just thrown yourselves in,” she tells them. “You want to know why you couldn’t kill him? It’s because you can’t get your heads out of your asses long enough to trust each other to do your jobs! You all talk a good talk, but when the time comes, you’re arrogant and stupid, and it will be all of our ends, if you don’t wise up! I knew I should have brought the Dora Milaje…”

They’re all a little stunned after Shuri’s words, the way they linger in the air after them. Tony knows it’s true, the guilt and shame overtaking the reckless rage he’d fallen into. If they hadn’t attacked without thinking, if he hadn’t dived in so stupidly, they would be less injured. Someone could have even died, he thinks, and the age-old grief rises to take him over once more.

Rocket clears his throat, from where he stands on the threshold of the ship. “You coming?” he calls to them, clutching something in his hands tightly. When Tony squints, he realises it’s a Walkman.

Steve nods, gaze curling in disgust when he looks at Thanos. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

So, they have themselves a Titan.

But when they get back to Earth, the black fury does not abate in Thor. If anything, it seems to grow and expand into something he does not recognise in himself, a strange, reckless wildness filling him completely. Thor stares at the crack in Stormbreaker, remembering his sister and Loki with an aching clench of his heart, from where he sits on the bench. Everyone else has gone down to safely secure Thanos in a prison of Tony’s making, but Thor hangs back for a bit, Bruce squeezing his arm in comfort as he goes.

He knows rationally that the Princess’ words are truth.

Princess Shuri has had to leave, on account of there being an emergency in Wakanda that requires her assistance, but her words still remain. There has been a fracture in their little group, but Thor can’t spare the heartache to figure out what. He misses them deeply, but something in his grief is so restricting that he can’t breathe. Thor has lost people before. A lot of people. Loki has died multiple times that he and Heimdall had a bet going. But not like this. Thor has never lost people like this.

He drops Stormbreaker to the ground, watching as the hammer shatters apart, before reaching for the small ravenscroll that had appeared only a few days after Thanos had snapped his fingers. Valkyrie’s messy scrawl writes out two lines, a hurried rush of words that reassure Thor she’d saved a few people and was making her way back to him. It’s the only message he’s received, as she hadn’t sent anything else, and Thor feels so useless.

What kind of a king is he, if he cannot protect his people? If he could not even do anything when Loki—

Thor’s breath hitches, eyes filling as he tilts his head to the gleaming stars once more. Oh, brother, how long did you suffer, so alone, so quiet, and in vain? How could I have never told you how much you meant to me, Loki? How did you not know? Thor clutches the scroll tightly, his fingers shaking, and he almost hates himself for how pathetic he is, but he lifts it up and keeps it close. His heart stutters a little at how much it smells like home and Thor finds himself mourning Asgard all over again.

Why would you give yourself up for the likes of me?

“Thor?” Bruce’s voice is low. “Are you—how are you doing?”

Thor lifts his head, inadvertently crumpling the scroll in his fist, and for a moment, blind panic throws him completely. He’s reaching for the scroll to straighten it out quickly, heartbeat picking up, as Bruce lingers on the threshold, clearly unsure whether or not to come out. They’ve been like that for a while now, strangely. All of them, lingering on the edge with each other, unwilling to break whatever tension it is that is brewing between them all.

“Of course,” Thor lies with one of his brightest smiles. Bruce does not look reassured, so he continues, “I am fine, Bruce. Thank you for asking. Have they managed to cage the Titan?”

Bruce nods. “Took a while to put it in Tony’s prison, but the Princess of Wakanda’s vibranium is working, we think,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck. “She’s still really mad at us.”

Thor doesn’t really blame her.

When Thanos came out, the princess had barely had a chance to react. Mostly because all of the Avengers had done it for her. He remembers them losing it at the sight of Thanos, all of them just lunging to kill without hesitation in one chaotic, blinding mess. Rocket had even commented how he was slightly embarrassed, thinking that one Quill was enough. Thor had remembered thinking vaguely that they were all going to get themselves killed, before he’d realised, well, wasn’t that the point?

None of them expected to get out of this alive. He’s not entirely sure that he wants to.

What life is there left to live, if it looks like this, after all?

“Is… is that Stormbreaker?” Bruce is asking. “Is it broken?”

Thor nods. “Thanos,” he says. “I was going to cut his head off with it. Instead, he cut Stormbreaker.”

Bruce winces. “You know you don’t need Stormbreaker, right?” he says gently, and some of the raging storm in Thor’s heart seems to ebb. “You’re enough of a storm yourself. And Thanos is going to suffer.”

“We should beat the shit out of him, then,” Thor suggests, getting up. “Get him to reverse the snap properly and save the world, like we usually do, right?”

Bruce’s face grows taut with determination as he nods firmly. “Yeah,” he says, flashing Thor a quick, grateful grin. “Like we usually do.”

.

.

“He killed Gamora!” Rocket is snarling fiercely. “He doesn’t get to fucking live!”

Clint watches as Nebula forces the raccoon back with some difficulty. He doesn’t blame the creature, because every time he looks towards the doors that hide the prison Thanos is currently in, all he wants is to blast it to bits. One good explosive arrow would do the job, Clint knows fiercely. But he wants his family back more than he wants revenge on the fucker who took them away. And for that alone, for the half of the universe that still breathes around him, he stays still.

“What do we do now?” Natasha’s voice is quiet as she lifts her head to look at them. “He said that the snap can’t be reversed. We can’t—we can’t get them back.”

The brief hope that had clutched his heart at the thought of the snap being reversed dwindles a little. Clint’s eyes burn as he balls his fist up and presses them against his face, the saltwater leaking into his mouth as he turns away.

“Do we know that he’s telling the truth?” Steve says, voice firm. “He could be messing with us. Like Loki—,” Steve breaks off quickly, but Thor is not looking their way, and Clint sees the man flush heavily before he continues, his voice a little stilted. “He could be lying.”

Nebula looks up from where she has been talking to Rocket. “There is no reason for him to lie,” she tells them, as Tony slams a hand on the kitchen counter, Rhodey beside him. At least it’s not another coffee mug, Clint thinks of saying, but that’s a Clint from another age now. All joking and happiness amongst his new-found friends. “Thanos is cruel and terrible. But he is not purposely malicious, and he has never mocked anyone like this. I do not believe that he is lying.”

“But we still have to find a way,” Rhodey says. “We can’t just give up on them.”

Tony’s fingers tap incessantly against the counter, a pattern Clint vaguely recognises. He wonders briefly how he’d forgotten that Tony used to have so many tics, his heart pulling a little. “Someone has to talk to him,” he says. “Someone has to find out what he knows. How we can get them back.”

There’s a small silence that lingers between them.

Natasha clears her throat. “I’ll do it,” she tells them, lips quirking a little humourlessly. “I’m the best at interrogations, after all.” She gets up, casting an eye over them all. “You all should… get some rest.”

Her words ring hollow in the air around them and Clint thinks of laughing, but that takes too much energy. As if anyone has even thought of resting anymore, he thinks, and they watch Natasha enter the prison that Tony and Shuri have reinforced with vibranium. Natasha taps out the code and she knows that they won’t get any rest, because the entire wall flickers. They can see inside, but Thanos cannot see them, Clint realises as he tenses.

They all tense a little at the sight of Thanos stirring, Clint’s fingers itching to wrap around a trigger. But nobody says a word as Natasha walks in. Thanos is chained to the prison, in his seat, with all of the heaviest holds that they could find for him. Tony’s hastily made shock collars and Shuri’s chokeholds and they’d melted the vibranium around Thanos’ arms and legs to the ground so that he literally cannot move a single muscle.

“Proxima Midnight spoke of you,” Thanos says calmly as he watches Natasha. “My daughter. She was very angry with you.”

Natasha doesn’t show anything, but Clint can see that she would smile if she could. “We killed her… lover, yes?”

“Husband,” Thanos clarifies. “They were happy together. Young love.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Natasha says. “That’s never really been in my cards.”

“I’m sorry. We all deserve love.”

Clint wants to kill him. “What about the rest of the universe you killed?” Natasha says and her fingers shake, the only thing that Clint knows means she’s holding herself back with great control. “The half of the universe you decided needed correction, needed to die? Do they not deserve love?”

Thanos’ brow furrows. “Great things require great sacrifice. Generations from now will thank them for the price they paid,” he says. “Overpopulation was a threat and I removed it. You will be grateful once you see it, too.”

Natasha stiffens. “You didn’t see it before?”

“My—my lady enlightened me,” Thanos says, as Nebula inhales sharply.

He’s got everyone’s attentions now, as Clint leans forward in alarm. There’s another player in the game, he realises as everyone, even Thor, lifts their head to watch intently. Lady, Clint thinks frantically, his breaths hitching. Who can Thanos be talking about? If even the Titan, who snapped away half of the universe and barely came away with a scratch after facing them, looks so bashful at the mere mention of this lady, they’d do well to be scared, he thinks.

“Your lady?” Natasha asks. Her eyes widen with realisation. “You’re in love.”

“Who the fuck would love that?” Rhodey echoes lowly, and Steve snorts tearfully.

“Mistress Death,” Nebula breathes. “He—he actually did it for her.” They snap their heads towards her in alarm, as Thor stiffens. “The Mistress is the goddess of Death. Thanos was enamoured—no, obsessed with her. They often used to talk long in the night about things that we were not privy to know. I was usually busy, fending off her wolf.” Her cheeks flare hot with humiliation. “Ebony Maw thought it funny to set the beast on the only metal thing in her kingdom.”

Clint breathes hard. “Fuck him,” he says angrily as Tony shocks Thanos three times in a row.

Natasha lifts her head to scowl at them as Thanos’ head lolls briefly against his body, but Nebula is clearing her throat. “I think—I think he might be speaking truth,” she says. She still looks a little confused, her breaths fraught, and murmurs to herself, “Roses. He planted roses.”

“Yeah, so what?” Rocket growls, lifting his head. “He’s been planting vegetables and flowers.”

But Nebula is still looking thoughtful. “He is not one to do that,” she insists. “There is something here that we do not know. I must speak to him.”

.

.

Steve watches, furrowing his brow as Nebula enters the room, Natasha quiet by her side.

Thanos has long since returned to consciousness, his gaze turning towards the glass wall as though he knows they’re all watching him. As though he sees them back, Steve thinks. “The archer,” he is saying as Clint flinches horribly. “Your mind still holds remnants of the stone. It still likes you. The spider, sent to me once more to fish out my secrets. The soldier, torn between time. The Asgardian king without a kingdom. The green one. And Stark. Have I got you all?”

“You missed me,” Nebula says, her gaze turning stony as she stares at him hard. There’s something fierce in her eyes when she reaches forward to pull out a blade and carves above the melted vibranium around Thanos’ one good hand. “For Gamora. Because you used this to drag her to her death.”

Steve doesn’t so much as flinch when Thanos screams in pain, something hoarse and vindictive burning in him. He’s never felt a fury like this before, but he keeps remembering the startled look over Bucky’s face when he’d called out his name. His throat sticks at the reminder of Bucky once more, something tearing apart his chest. Steve has lost Bucky too many times to count and he doesn’t know how much more he can take.

He doesn’t think he can survive this.

He doesn’t know if he wants to.

“I will say nothing to you,” Thanos is saying, voice ragged as Natasha watches him calmly. “I want to speak only to my daughter.”

Nebula’s lip curls into a harsh snarl. “I am not yours,” she bites out.

“A lot of people start out, not wanting to talk to me,” Natasha says, her voice sharp and sweet as she flashes Thanos her harshest smile. “Then they meet me.”

“Do you know what you have done?” Nebula demands of Thanos. “Lady Hela would not like you for this—,”

Thanos’ mouth twitches. “Do not sully the lady’s good name, daughter. I am merciful to you, only because you are mine own,” he snaps darkly, as Nebula’s face shutters briefly in fear. Steve can see the brief panic clinging to the blue alien’s features, the way Nebula’s fingers shake as she pulls back under the heaviness of Thanos’ fury. He stiffens in muted anger and clenches a fist, knowing what it’s like to see people cowering under their abusers, but Thanos is already talking. “I am not cruel—,”

“Bullshit,” Natasha throws back, her voice edging the line of barely suppressed fury as she grasps Nebula’s hand in brief comfort before letting go. “You know exactly what you are. You just don’t care.”

“And this is the company you now keep, daughter?” Thanos’ voice is mocking as Nebula flinches hard.

“This is enough,” Tony is muttering. “We should get her out of there—,”

“Why did they turn to ash?” Nebula is demanding fiercely. “You risked everything for Mistress Death, even—even Gamora. But death demands physicality. There is a reason they turned to ash. Why?”

Steve lifts his head in alarm, furrowing his brows. Is what Nebula is saying true? He had thought the ash meant nothing, but Nebula seems to think otherwise.

Thanos looks at Nebula, with renewed interest. “Did you know that Vormir demands a soul for a soul?” he comments slowly, as something like realisation filters across Nebula’s face. Steve wants to know what she has just figured out, something aching in his chest at the horribly familiar feeling of Thanos always being a step ahead of them in the game. “Gamora was always better than you.”

“How could you do that to her?” Nebula’s voice cracks.

“The correction of the universe and my lady’s hand was a price I was willing to pay for,” Thanos says, but he doesn’t look so affected.

Tony is frowning at him. “Does he look… not upset to you?”

Not upset, Steve thinks in realisation as Rhodey inhales sharply. Yes, that’s it. Thanos looks fine. Perfectly fine, completely filled with a lack of remorse that makes his fingers shake and he wants to attack again, over and over until the Titan is a mass of quivering flesh and sopping blood. But Tony is shifting slightly, as though there’s something more in that and Steve stiffens where he sits, furrowing his brows. Is Thanos supposed to be upset?

“You think he’d be crying buckets, Tony?” Clint mutters hoarsely. “He’s fucking fine—,”

“On Titan, he was mourning Gamora,” Tony says. “He was grieving.” He stares at the Titan, that characteristic spark of curiosity burning in his eyes again. “Does he look like he’s grieving to you?”

“Thanos does not feel,” Thor snarls. “He has not the capability of it.” He shifts a little. “Lady Hela, however. I know her.”

They lift their heads towards him, but Thanos is laughing from where he sits, distracting them. “I am not sick in the head.”

“You’re a selfish asshole,” Natasha says, and Steve has never seen her so angry. “What happened to the economics lesson you were giving us? Do you know that you’ve killed more than half the universe? There were people in airplanes that didn’t turn to dust, but their pilots did. Car accidents, fires, flooding—you started earthquakes! And I’m willing to bet there’s more aliens up there who have died, too, and you did it because what, we’re overpopulated?”

“The universe demands control and balance,” Thanos says. “I was doing my duty.”

“You know, you sound a lot like someone who is parroting bullshit just to get into someone’s pants,” Natasha comments, as Rhodey’s jaw drops. “I’m kind of the expert on that. I see right through you. And I say, that you don’t really care about the universe. Or people. Or anything at all, really.” She leans in, her mouth pulled into a vicious snarl. “And I think you pulled this fucking bullshit, because you don’t know how to talk to a girl.”

Tony’s staring as Clint’s face flashes with pride. “I have never been prouder,” he says as they chuckle together and for a brief, shining moment, Steve feels like it’s the old days again, with them sprawled out in the common room of the Avengers Tower, crowing together as they cheer Thanos into fitting a hundred blueberries into his mouth.

Then he blinks, and they’re back in an ash-covered universe, with them spread out and separated as far as humanly possible in the same room, glaring at the one thing that has taken everything away from them. Steve’s stomach clenches uncomfortably as he looks away in discomfort.

Thanos lets out an inhuman roar and to his horror, the melted vibranium creaks as he attempts to lunge for Natasha. Steve is already on his feet, Thor moving towards the room, but Tony shocks Thanos multiple times again, blood seeping to the ground as the Titan twitches though remains conscious. To her credit, Natasha barely flinches, glares straight back at him, though Nebula’s face stiffens in blinding fear and panic. Natasha pauses long enough to gently nudge the blue alien back out of the room. Thanos is spitting vicious insults at Nebula’s back as she leaves and Tony jumps to his feet, muttering something reassuring to her.

“I will look forward to your end, daughter!” Thanos is snarling fiercely, as Nebula shakes.

Natasha snaps sharply, “Don’t fucking look at her.” She stiffens briefly as Thanos turns his attention back on her, the brief flicker of triumph flashing across her face before she turns impassive once more. “I’m right, aren’t I? So, where’s the girl? She happy with what you’ve done, or did she put you in the doghouse?” Steve doesn’t know what Natasha sees in Thanos’ face but something like a satisfied smirk flits across her face. “Your lady isn’t very happy with you, then.”

Thanos’ face darkens. “You don’t know what you’re speaking of, Terran—,”

“So, what did she say when you brought her all that ash? Honey, I’m home, and I brought you something better than flowers?” Natasha scorns scathingly, something brutal in the way she speaks. She’s hitting at Thanos’ ego, Steve realises faintly, rooting her on silently. “Oh, she didn’t like the ash? Didn’t like that her man was a mass murdering psychopath, then. Did she kick you out? Send you to the farm so you could think about what you did? Or did you snap your fingers with the infinity stones to reverse it for her?”

For a moment, Thanos stills before he lifts his head. “You saw me use them again,” he comments. “And you think that you could use them, too? Do not tell me,” he says, mirth in his eyes as he stares at Natasha, “that you think to snap the infinity stones twice?”

Natasha narrows her eyes. “Why not? Wouldn’t that bring everyone back?”

“If something goes wrong, do you do it a second time and hope for a different result?” Thanos scoffs at her scathingly. There’s something dark and wretched and smug in the way he speaks that makes Steve want to beat him to a bloody mess. He continues, unimpressed. “And these are your greatest defenders, Terra. I confess myself… disappointed. I was wanting to provide my lady the entertainment of a good fight, at the very least.”

Rocket’s voice is a vicious snarl. “I’ll show him a good fight,” he bites out viciously. “I’ll bury the fucking Milano in his chest—,”

“Hey, man,” Rhodey is saying, but Steve is staring at Thanos in distress.

They’re all panicking, as Clint leans forward and Steve’s breaths hitch. Something like a hoarse moan escapes from Tony’s mouth and he never thought Tony could make such a terrible sound like that, but Thor looks ready to cry, too. Steve’s mind is reeling. They can’t snap the stones again, he thinks mutely. They can’t get back Bucky and Sam and Wanda and everything in this new world that he loved so much, that he wanted.

“So, the stones won’t work?” Natasha is saying. She looks distressed, so startled that she forgets to bring up the mask. “What about time? They could come back with the time stone—,”

“I did not tell you to try to reverse time,” Thanos says and he all but rolls his eyes at Natasha, getting visibly frustrated with her seeming lack of intelligence. “They are dead. Gone. You have lost, Terrans. At the very least, you should accept your defeat with dignity.”

They were gone.

Steve drops to his knees before he can stop himself, something wretched dragging from his throat as Tony throws something angrily, a crash echoing in the distance of the room. Nobody flinches, but Rhodey is murmuring something to his friend as Tony shakes his head. Clint’s face is completely numb, his eyes the only light thing about him as he stares at Thanos, something desperate in his gaze. Thor watches as Natasha lets herself back in, and Steve wants to get up, wants to reassure everyone. He even makes it to his feet, his chest tearing himself apart again, stumbling a little.

But Nebula speaks, her voice fierce and low.

“Something is wrong,” she says, as Steve turns his head. “He came too easily.”

Clint’s brows furrow, as Nebula’s words get their attention properly. “He lost his hand,” he points out, but Natasha’s already turning back to look towards Thanos carefully.

At that moment, an alarm blares out, so loud that it’s almost deafening, and Friday’s flashing up blue screens in front of Tony and Rhodey, both of whom look sufficiently startled. Steve snaps his head up in panic, already reaching out for the shield he left on the seat beside him, as he gets to his feet quickly. It’s not long for them to ready themselves, though there’s an exhausted grief rattling around in the hollowed centre of his chest as Steve raises his head.

“What’s going on?” Thor is asking, forehead creasing in alarm, blue lightning sparking at the edge of his fingers. “Tony?”

“Something just entered the atmosphere,” Tony tells them, running towards another screen and tapping at something, as he rattles out a litter of codes and clutches the arc reactor on his chest. “Friday? Friendlies? Tell me they’re friendly, girl.”

The suit forms around Tony easily as Steve tenses, all of them hurrying towards the roof, Rhodey staying behind to keep an eye on Thanos. Cold night air wraps around them and Steve gapes up at the large aircraft moving down through the dark grey clouds. Thor’s jaw is set with determination, lightning crackling as thunder above rumbles and Clint balances himself lightly on the balls of his feet, all of them in a circle as they stare upwards. He clutches the shield as Natasha cocks her gun, readying himself, trying not to feel completely out of place beside them all. Who is he to even take a stand, when he has no place amongst these Avengers?

Nebula’s breaths hitch, looking furiously thoughtful. “He wanted to be here,” she mutters. “He—he wanted to be here.”

Steve turns in alarm. “What—,”

But Friday is speaking, breathing out, “Hostiles,” and then the ship is opening up and thunder is screaming all around them and aliens are pouring from the skies once more. No, not Chitauri, Steve realises as he tenses while Thor roars at the sight of the four hulking aliens swinging from the open deck of the ship. He recognises them instantly, eyes widening at the familiar woman whose spear crackles louder than Thor’s lightning. It’s that Black Order Nebula had told them about. They’re back?

“Everyone seeing this?” Natasha is muttering into the comms. “They were dead, right?”

“Dead people coming back to life,” Rocket says, his voice still slightly hoarse, cocking his gun. “Yeah, I can get behind that.”

Tony says, “Funny. So can I.”

The leader of them, Ebony Maw, something in the back of Steve’s mind registers, turns his head to look at them in the eye. He watches his lips quirk, something angry rolling in his stomach as Steve stiffens, readying the shield.

“Begin,” Ebony Maw orders, and all the world is utter chaos.

Steve is already moving fiercely, ducking and dodging the attacks of Proxima Midnight whose spear clatters against his shield, almost tearing apart the vibranium. Natasha swings into an attack on Corvus Glaive, going straight for his curved blade, as Steve briefly covers her and Clint’s arrows explode all around the giant, Cull Obsidian. He can see Tony gunning straight for Ebony Maw, as thunder and lightning crashes all around them.

Amidst the chaos, Nebula’s voice rings out in deafening confusion and blinding hope.

“Gamora?”

Chapter Text

Nebula moves faster than she’s ever moved before, surging forwards.

Gamora, she thinks blindingly, chasing after her sister with a deafening hope that lifts her heart. Gamora, Gamora, Gamora—

Because that is Gamora, right there before her. She can see her, from the cascading dark red hair that gleams down her back, the green lit in the light of the ship that Nebula recognises as their own. The Black Order are back, and her mind moves in a furious array of thoughts as she registers and realises several things all at once. They were dead, but Thanos brought them back. That was what he used the infinity stones for—and he brought back Gamora, too.

Gamora barely throws her a second glance before she flits past her.

That bare-faced liar, she thinks with thundering anger. How did he get them back if he could not reverse time?

The fight is clamouring around them, the world all darkness, but all Nebula can see is her sister and she chases after her, realising faintly that Gamora is making straight for Thanos. Perhaps she means to kill him, some faint part of her thinks and she remembers the way she’d carved out Thanos’ hand, the same hand that he’d abused her and her sister with. If Gamora wants to kill Thanos, then Nebula wants to be there. Wants to help.

“Gamora!” she screams after her sister, voice lined with fraught desperation.

And then Gamora turns her head and it’s the flashing growl that pulls at the edge of her mouth that warns Nebula just in time. Because Gamora does not snarl like that, has never held such a terribly ruthless expression especially against Nebula, even in their darkest moments. And her eyes, Nebula thinks, as she stutters back, almost stumbling against the stairs in her shock. Gamora’s eyes are completely devoid of any colour or anything at all. Her sister looks like a hollowed-out shell and it would be terrifying if it didn’t make her want to cry.

“You,” Gamora says, something like faint recognition flitting over her face.

Nebula’s heart, a beaten, mechanical thing, lifts in hope, slamming itself over and over in her chest as she nods. Saltwater is on her cheeks as she surges forward, reaching out a metal, clinking hand towards her sister as Gamora freezes, staring at her uncertainly.

“Me,” she says, nodding feverishly as hope clings to her, leaving her short of breath. “Gamora. It is—it is me. Nebula.” She doesn’t hesitate before she continues. “Your sister.”

Gamora’s face shutters a little as Nebula holds her breath.

The battle rages on over their heads, but her sister only stares at her as though they are the only things left in the universe. Nebula has never said those words to Gamora personally, has never called Gamora her sister, even though Gamora has said it over and over again. Gamora was always the one with the biggest heart of them all, the one who was so willing to throw herself happily into whatever fun adventure they had next, accepting a whole group of idiot guardians, and she was the one who gripped Nebula fiercely, promising that they were sisters, no matter what.

Her eyes fill, something thick in her throat. Nebula had held onto that over the weeks, had watched every clip of her sister and her Guardians until her eyes felt as though they would burn themselves out in their sockets and Rocket had even offered her another. She’d refused it, citing that she didn’t need his pity or charity, but mostly because she wanted Gamora to recognise her when she finally came back to her. She couldn’t have her sister looking at her like she was a stranger.

But Gamora looks at her like she’s a stranger now.

“Sister,” Gamora repeats blankly, staring at her. With every moment that tolls above them, slowing until the whole world seems to still completely, Nebula’s hope slowly starts to ebb. But as she stays staring, recognition filters into her features, turns her expression softer as Nebula’s breath hitches in encouraged anticipation. “You are… the one he spoke of. Nebula.”

Her heart sinks like a stone.

Gamora tastes her name in her mouth, spits it out like a curse.

But that’s not what hurts the most. What hurts the most is that Gamora says her name like Thanos says her name. Gamora speaks with disgust, with familiar hatred, but that is not the Gamora Nebula knows. Nebula’s eyes fill, burning hotly, before she can stop herself and when Gamora’s mouth pulls into a snarl, her hand moves so fast it becomes a blur. Nebula manages to grasp Gamora’s singing blade just in time before it can sink into her forehead and her hand closes around the handle in shock, her breaths hitched as she stares.

Gamora—,”

“Stop. Talking,” Gamora says with exasperation, as she dives forward and cracks her fist across her face.

Nebula is so shocked she forgets to move. Perhaps it’s something more than the shock, too. The combination of knowing with fierce surety that Gamora would never willingly hurt her like this, that Gamora never laid a hand to her so painfully, even before when Thanos wrought them against each other, not unless Nebula struck first, which she always did. But Gamora has never cast the first stone and the confusion brims around her as the blood pours from her face.

She feels the painful crack of her nose, the throbbing pain bloom across her face, the blur of the blood and the tears and the sweat mingling together. Her mouth fills with blood as Nebula spits, stumbling back helplessly from the sheer strength of the blow. For a moment, Nebula thinks dizzily that she deserves it, that Gamora should kill her, because Nebula could not save her and if this is penance, she would gladly take it.

But this is not penance, because this is not Gamora.

Ducking the next blow, Nebula lunges for Gamora’s legs immediately, reaching to knock her sister out even as she reaches a hand to cushion the blow of Gamora’s head against the railings of the staircase around them. They clatter together on the stairs, as Gamora snarls something fierce and goes straight for her head again. She’s always been powerful, her sister, and Nebula recognises the fighting style even as she swerves and ducks with familiar precision, evading Gamora’s fatal blows and kicks with growing dread. Nebula’s barely letting herself breathe, but she reaches for Gamora even still.

“Gamora!” she calls at her sister as she barely manages to avoid the three knives Gamora sends through the air towards her head. “Gamora, what are you doing?”

“Killing you,” Gamora says like it should be obvious.

“We stopped doing that, don’t you remember?”

“No.” As Gamora lunges for her throat, clawing viciously, Nebula sees her falter slightly, something shifting over her features before it shutters to the scary impassive expression once more. “No,” Gamora says again, to Nebula’s climbing horror, as she clenches her fist and drives it towards Nebula, trying to smash apart her metal hand. “I don’t know you!”

Thanos did something to her sister, Nebula realises with a shuttered gasp and she is so startled Gamora smacks her head into the wall, but she swipes her hand back quickly. “What has he done?” she snarls out viciously. “What has that bastard—,”

“You will speak with respect of my father!” Gamora snaps out viciously and she plants her feet into Nebula’s chest, kicking her into the wall as Nebula stumbles across the stairs. The tower shakes a little around them, something hard and triumphant going into Gamora’s eyes as she looks around. “How dare you abuse him?”

“Gamora!” Nebula is distraught, her eyes bright and watering. “You hate him as much as I do! Gamora, it’s me! See me, know me, please! Gamora!”

Gamora walks towards her, staring down at her with flittering confusion before a call from above distracts them both. It’s Rocket, who looks like he’s about to cry as he stares towards Gamora. Nebula watches her sister’s expression filter slightly, knowing that Gamora must recognise the raccoon before her.

“Gamora, you’re okay,” he is gasping with relief. “Thank—Gamora—,”

Nebula is too groggy to speak, her head dizzy but she opens her mouth. The words won’t come out, feeling like sludge in her mouth. My sister, Rocket, she wants to scream in warning, distraught. She is me. Thanos has done something terrible. He has unmade Gamora.

“Rodent,” Gamora says flatly, staring.

Rocket’s face shutters off, before it’s replaced with blind hatred and cold fury. “What did he do to you?”

And then, as Nebula reaches out, to her horror, Gamora pulls back the machine gun from his fingers and uses it to hit the raccoon over the head. Rocket falls heavily, slumped over the stairs, but Nebula is already on her feet, avoiding the bullets as Gamora fires without hesitation towards her. She runs fast, scattering down the stairs, knowing that she has to lead her sister away from Thanos. Her mind flitters quickly and for a blind moment, she thinks stupidly of those roses.

The roses in Thanos’ farm, the flowers she and Rocket had spotted before Tony and his Avengers had burned them all to ash. Thanos was never a farmer, Nebula had told them.

But Gamora was.

“Let me help you, Gamora—,”

She doesn’t see the machine gun until it’s too late.

.

.

“How the fuck are you still alive?” Tony snarls at Ebony Maw.

He sends a blast against the alien, aiming straight for his head but Ebony Maw shifts aside and turns his head to look at him with quiet interest, a soft smile pressed against the curve of his lips. The explosion is resounding but Ebony Maw barely flinches around it, even though the roof of the tower is practically on fire right now. Tony can feel the whole tower shaking a little under the barrage of the fight around them, but it holds itself still, even so. It’s always stayed solid.

“You are the smart one, Stark,” Ebony Maw whispers, insultingly amused as his gaze turns to something that’s held his interest. Tony turns his head and realises he’s watching Thor, the blue lightning crackling all around them as Thor roars, lunging for Corvus Glaive. “You figure it out.”

And then Tony is being lifted into the air, held like a puppet without strings, Ebony Maw’s face too close to his. The suit is completely out of his own control as Tony starts shouting out orders to Friday, to take control but it’s not enough. The alien’s magic whispers all around him, twining itself into a strange sensation around his head, as Ebony Maw smirks at him triumphantly, and he’s practically frozen, held still, at the mercy of the alien before him. He’s in a metal coffin, Tony realises, and he reaches out, flailing helplessly as Ebony Maw sends him crashing down the floors of the tower.

“Tony!”

Screams fall after him, but Tony can barely hear anything through the blood roaring through his brain, his breaths fraught with terror and pure fear. There’s nothing in the suit that he can control right now and rubble and dust float all around him as Tony is tossed clean through three floors, the suit crumpling under the heavy weight. His head hits back against the helmet of the suit painfully, his entire body aching in pain as Tony shifts awkwardly under all the bricks, the smoke wafting around him.

He’s barely conscious, blood seeping from his mouth, his head aching, when Tony registers a hand above him.

“Tony?” Tony blinks blearily, a grogginess aching his head as he shifts, but the voice is urgent. “Don’t move. We’re getting you out.”

He doesn’t have to move. That’s good. That’s great. He doesn’t really want to. Tony opens his eyes properly, wincing as Steve shifts the bricks and the rubble. The fight is still going on overhead, he can tell, from the blows and the explosions that Thor and Clint are racking up between them. Beside Steve, Natasha is there, reaching for his arm gently, as she and Steve help to pull him out of the wreckage. Tony flips back the faceplate, his focus sharpening as he regains consciousness and reaches a hand to wipe away the blood at his face, smearing the red.

“He’s going for Thor—,” he manages to get out in alarm, just as Natasha lunges for Steve across him.

Natasha manages to draw Steve down long enough for the explosion to rock all around them and it shifts apart some of the wreckage as Tony dives in front of them, the suit forming itself into a shield around them briefly. Proxima Midnight is laughing as she barrages her spear against his shield, almost cutting it apart like a knife through butter, and Tony thinks fast, shifting the shield before he aims his repulsors at her throat and fires.

The resulting explosion leaves his ears ringing, as they crumple against each other, rubble and brick falling around them. They’re in the common room, Tony realises when he recognises parts of the sofa that Clint liked to lounge on, and he pushes it away, huffing out a breath. Beside him, Natasha is drifting in and out of consciousness, her lashes fluttering against her cheeks, a cut on her forehead that seeps blood. Tony reaches for her before Proxima Midnight is diving for them again and he’s distracted.

“Nat—,” Steve is grabbing Natasha and pulling her away, as Tony calls to him. “Take her outside, Tony!”

Tony nods and takes a breath, before he leads Proxima Midnight outside of the tower, lunging for that damned fucking spear. It flickers in the air, crackles with electricity as Proxima Midnight practically dances on the roof, her footsteps light and easy and her fingers practically a blur as she twirls the spear with insulting ease. He can see Clint barely managing to dodge Corvus Glaive’s swinging sword, as the archer ducks and moves swiftly out of the way without a scrape, with the ease of someone who had grown up in the circus. It reminds him vaguely of those times when Clint used to swing himself up around the ceiling in the training rooms, running rings around them all in their training sessions.

When the spear cracks into his arm, Tony howls in pain, the electricity shocking through the armour and burying itself deep as he screams and continues to scream helplessly. Proxima Midnight eyes him, something sharp and glowing in her gaze, before she raises a hand and suddenly, the spear increases in density until Tony is being dragged down in the air again. It’s so heavy that Tony struggles to keep himself up, the suit straining, and he reaches for the spear, biting out instructions to Friday as he calculates the amount of electricity he can absorb from the weapon.

“I wonder how long you can last, Terran,” Proxima Midnight says, and she aims a smug smirk towards him, as though she knows that he’s about to lose. "There are very few who can withstand my spear."

Tony thinks of Thanos still down there in the prison, vibranium melting around his great purple form, and remembers that the Titan still has to bring back the universe he’d stolen away from them all.

Like hell he’s going to lose now.

His grip tightens around the spear and he reaches to pull it out, jaw setting in fierce determination as he braces himself against the oncoming pain. On the roof, Steve and Natasha are running to protect Clint just as Cull Obsidian tears apart the Hulkbuster, leaving Bruce vulnerable. Proxima Midnight pulls the spear down even more as Tony screams, suspended in the air, but he manages to turn in alarm, his horror rising as Bruce screams for the Hulk, and green starts to pool out but the Hulk turns away, afraid once more.

Bruce is about to die

And then lightning comes crashing down on Cull Obsidian, forcing him back away from the torn pieces of the Hulkbuster as Bruce stumbles onto the ground helplessly. Tony yanks out the spear and shatters it apart with the strength left in him, as he aims the repulsor towards a startled Proxima Midnight. She’s distracted, caught between howling in anguish for her spear and wanting to protect Cull Obsidian from Thor’s oncoming rage, Tony realises, and he tenses with a harsh grin, enjoying her misery, lining up the shot.

But then something happens.

A soft whisper in his ear, the breathless relief of the pain ebbing away, and Tony blinks, looking around himself in confusion. His eyes are wide, the arc reactor back in his chest for some reason as he stares down at it. Something settles in his chest at the very sight of it, a startling sense of peace, because he’d missed it. Of course he had. It was toxic, he knew, to miss something that had been the source of such horror, but he was always a little messed up. Besides, it wasn’t just the reminder of everything he’d been through in Afghanistan, but it was the last gift Yinsen had given him.

Yinsen’s words linger even now. “Don’t waste it… don’t waste your life.”

Well, he hasn’t, Tony’s kind of happy to say. Everything in his life is perfect now. He’s with his family, the ragtag bunch of idiots styling themselves as the Avengers, and he’s actually doing good now, with Iron Man. Yinsen, I hope you’re proud of me up there.

He’s in the Tower, Tony realises as he looks around himself, but it’s a little different now as he walks around. There’s… no cold edges, no crippling loneliness clinging to every room, but colours everywhere. Clint’s kids have scribbled all over the drawings on the fridge, he realises, a fond smile on his lips. It’s not something he’s really meant for. Kids. Tony had thought about it once or twice, but he’d get bored too easily. There’s only ever been one exception to that, though.

Tony walks around slowly, considering everything with a familiar ache in his chest. Clothes are strewn everywhere because apparently, he’s hosting a biker gang, though it seems Nat did her best to pick up after them for a bit before she obviously got bored or distracted, and Tony reaches for the green smoothie on the kitchen counter, knowing that Steve made these ones. They’re all doing this thing where they pretend that Steve’s cooking is actually good, and Bruce is experimenting with how much Thor can eat of it without getting violently sick.

Tony’s heart aches, because something about this feels

“Mr Stark?” Peter’s eyes are brighter than the sun, rivalled only by his blinding grin as he walks in. Everything within Tony seems to relax at the sight of the kid. “I know I’m late, I’m really sorry, but Ned bought this new Lego set and we just had to check it out and—Mr Stark?” he breaks off, as Tony stares at him, unable to stop looking. The kid is walking up to him, looking a little confused and blinking owlishly at him. “Are you okay?”

“Huh?” Tony blinks. “Yeah. Of course, kid.”

“You’re—you’re crying, Mr Stark.”

“Am I?” Tony lifts a hand to his cheek, and it comes away wet. Why is he crying? He’s never been happier than he is, at this very moment. “Doesn’t matter about that. This Lego set, Pete. Tell me more.”

Peter smiles at him and everything is right in the world.

.

.

Thor is reaching for Bruce to pull him away when it happens.

Something whispers in the air and he reacts on instinct, turning his head sharply as he raises his hands protectively. The Hulkbuster armour Tony so lovingly created to protect Bruce is in torn pieces around his feet, he can hear Steve screaming for Natasha as they dive in to grab Clint around them, and though Thor cannot see Tony yet, he hopes that he is doing alright. They seem to be almost winning this fight, Thor thinks for a brief moment, and then lightning crackles around his fingers. He is left gasping hotly, his eyes wide as he stares around himself.

“Thor, my lovely, put that down before you take out an eye,” Mother is telling him gently, her smile a lovely curve against her features.

Thor turns his head, staring as something thickens in his throat inexplicably.

He is holding Mjolnir, playing with it and showing off as usual. When he looks around, he realises that he is home, back in Asgard, amongst the palace gardens and his friends, who are sparring and laughing on the training grounds beside them. Mother has decided to take luncheon outside today with him, sitting beside him at the large, carved wooden table Heimdall gifted them on their anniversary. Loki has spelled the wood so that the animals and beasts carved into the table move and writhe slightly, making Mother give that wonderfully proud beam that he and Loki drink in hungrily.

She’s reaching for a plate of fresh sliced fruit to pass to him as Thor stares at her, something tearing in his chest. He looks away to the table where the feast is spread. Delicious roasted meat falling off the bone, smoked salmon, flaky pastries stuffed with meat spiced with black peppers in the way Thor has always loved, black pudding gleaming on the side, meat pies and lamb stews still steaming hotly. It all looks glorious, but something about it is making his stomach turn uncomfortably. He doesn’t quite know why he’s feeling so strange and Mother even looks vaguely worried, putting down the fruit next to the ripe grapes and blood oranges to press a hand to his forehead.

Thor’s eyes fill at her touch, but he doesn’t know why.

“Mother?” Loki’s calling to them, from where he is sparring with Sif, his cheeks flushed with exertion. “Something wrong, brother?”

Thor snaps his head towards his brother in alarm, his breaths hitching at the familiar green spirals of Loki’s magic threading towards them. Loki is talking to Sif who grins before bowing to them and leaving, as his brother moves towards them. Thor stares at him all the while, unable to look away, his throat closing up inexplicably. He’s staring at Loki’s neck for some reason, brows furrowed together in confusion, as flashes of purple and red make him flinch back.

Mother’s voice is tinged with alarm. “Thor?”

His mouth is dry, as though he’s been crying. Thor lifts his head and gives a small smile towards their worried faces. “I’m alright,” he reassures them though it tastes like a lie in his mouth, feeling slightly breathless.

Loki is frowning at him. “You look like you’re about to be sick,” he points out. “Are you sick?”

“I’m not sick—,”

“You look sick—,”

“I said, I’m not sick!”

“Are you, though?” Loki tilts his head, his mouth twitching with faint amusement before Thor blinks at him and his brother looks vaguely worried when Thor doesn’t banter back.

Mother clears her throat to stop them getting into another one of their arguments. “I don’t sense anything,” she tells him. “Perhaps you’re just fatigued. You should eat something and rest. If I know you, Thor, you’ve been training all morning.”

Thor nods as he reaches to take a roasted chicken leg from his mother. “Yes,” he says. “I was training all morning. That must be it.” His gaze turns to Mjolnir sitting gently beside him and something fills his throat again, uncertain and quiet. Thor can feel his mother and brother exchanging glances, so he speaks, his voice softer than he usually is and almost cracking a little in his light confusion. “I think… I think I had a bad dream.”

“Oh,” Loki says, making Thor’s leg disappear as Thor raises up an annoyed protest and their mother gives Loki a stern look until he huffs and grudgingly gives Thor his food back. Green sparks and tendrils scatter around their plates as Loki shrugs. “Well, it was just a dream.”

Chapter Text

Natasha grins at Steve’s singing as she moves to the kitchen in the Tower, before she catches her face in the mirror.

For a moment, she thinks her hair ought to be a different colour before she shakes her head, something like quiet relief filling her chest at the familiar red spilling around her shoulders. Clint calls to her to come back quick, from the common room, as Natasha listens to Bruce cheering Tony getting to his feet for his turn on the karaoke machine as everyone applauds Steve’s singing, most of the wolf whistles coming from Clint and Thor, who is learning from Clint. Everyone but Bucky, who keeps cracking jokes at Steve’s expense, Sam guffawing uncontrollably as Steve banters back with comforting ease.

There’s a settled and warming relief in her chest as Natasha reaches to grab the bowls of popcorn and returns to the common room.

“Finally!” Clint says, as Natasha rolls her eyes at him, pulling her bowl out of his grasping fingers. “Nat!”

“This has Asgardian mead on it. You can’t handle Asgardian mead,” she tells him, passing the bowl to Thor, who shares it with Steve appreciatively, thanking her briefly as she nods her head towards him.

“I could.”

“You really couldn’t.”

Tony taps the microphone as the next song comes up and Natasha lifts her head to cheer him on, before suddenly, the Tower is crashed apart and everything around them is in complete and utter chaos. The world is all wreck and ruin around her, the whole Tower literally looking as though someone has torn it apart, bricks and rubble scattered around her. Someone is calling her name and Natasha turns around in blinding panic, her heart torn and distraught as she reaches for the makeshift family around her in alarm, just as a whisper fills her ears.

But they’re not there—

“Don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky heart,” Tony is crooning as Steve practically dissolves in laughter and Tony breaks off briefly to throw popcorn at his face.

Natasha blinks, staring around herself in confusion. She feels as though she’s been running, her heart pounding in her chest, but she hasn’t. She’s been sprawled between Thor and Clint the whole time, making fun of Tony’s singing and gearing everyone up to making Steve get up again. Her gaze falls down on her hair again, blinking at the small curl of blonde as her stomach clenches uncomfortably, and Natasha reels back, her breaths fraught with horror.

She has dyed her hair before, but it never gets any easier. Being with the Avengers has been the longest that Natasha’s let her natural hair grow out so long—

“Natasha! Natasha!”

That’s Colonel Rhodes, Natasha realises faintly as she turns her head around her. Tony is catching popcorn in his mouth and Bruce is shouting out scores, but Colonel Rhodes is not here. That’s because he’s supposed to be on a mission today, she thinks faintly before a thin thread of lingering doubt filters through. Isn’t he?

Tony is handing the microphone to her, a fond smile on his face. “Come on, Red,” he says. “We all did our time.”

Once upon a time, she would have refused, would have reached instead for the bottle of beer and drunk that instead. But they’ve moved past New York and everything else now, leaving nothing but genuine trust and care between them. Natasha has never thought that she would ever be so lucky enough to move past what the Red Room did to her, but here she is, amongst idiots that she calls family, family who see her, in a place she’s happy to call home, and genuinely, incandescently happy. She didn’t think she deserved anything like this, but here she is now.

Natasha reaches a hand for it, her heart swelling as they cheer her on—

“I’m really sorry for this—,”

Her hand closes on nothing as a blinding pain blooms across the side of her head and Natasha is left reeling, flinching back to protect herself, snarling viciously. She immediately shifts aside to launch into a vicious attack, but then the whole world is shuttering around her and suddenly, Natasha comes back to the real world with a hoarse, strangled gasp. Something in her chest aches for that world she’d so unwillingly left behind as she stares into Rhodey’s face, wide-eyed and distraught.

“Natasha?” Rhodey is saying, his voice quiet with worry. “You were the first—everything went real quiet, real fast, and I only just managed to get—are you okay?”

She can’t breathe, as Natasha’s mind reels, trying to catch her breath and stare around herself. Inexplicably, she can still smell the warm butter melting on the popcorn, still feel the heat of the microphone around her fingers, as her mind fights to get control again. Natasha stares around herself, realising she’s in the common room, having been smashed through a window, her whole body sore and aching as she shifts, broken glass clinking beside her. Rhodey has brushed away most of the glass and though he’s keeping his distance, he still looks worried as she stares towards the large cracked screen on the wall where Tony had been messing up the lyrics on purpose to wind up Clint.

“What did he do to me?” Natasha gasps, as she looks around desperately. “Where are they all?”

Rhodey shakes his head. “I just managed to get you out,” he tells her, helping her to her feet as Natasha gets a hold of herself quickly, flushing whenever he casts her a worried look. “The guy with the big head was floating around and saying stuff, but I was—I got hit by Gamora. She’s alive, did you know that?” As Natasha nods, picking out the broken glass from her arm and hurrying forwards to look for them all, Rhodey continues to explain. “The aliens are all still there, I think, but I think they’re looking for something. They keep knocking the tower. The big head one is still floating, though.” 

“Ebony Maw,” Natasha murmurs. “He’s—he has magic. Like Wanda.” She wonders what he’s making the others see, a heartsick ache in her chest as Natasha swallows tight.

Rhodey hesitates a little, before he speaks again. “He… he said that Thanos wanted him to spare us all, that the Black Order were not without mercy,” he says, swearing hoarsely. He looks a little confused when he speaks. “That’s why he just made you …sleep?”

Natasha’s mouth tightens in brief rage at the sheer violation. Ebony Maw had pulled inside her mind, peeled it apart to pick and choose what mercy he deemed her deserving of. She feels like she might be sick, but she knows she can’t. If she had been knocked clean into a window like this, who knows what the Black Order have done to the rest of them? She wavers a little as she gets to her feet, before Rhodey offers her a hand and Natasha uncertainly, gratefully leans on his side.

“We have to find the others,” she mutters fiercely.

The tower wobbles around them as a sharp cry of frustration echoes and Natasha stiffens in defence automatically, but nobody comes in. She turns to throw Rhodey a startled look of confusion, before they both move forwards immediately. Natasha keeps an eye on Rhodey beside her, as he passes her a gun and she cocks it warily, looking around carefully. He was right, she realises. The silence is so eerie and terrifying around her, broken only when Rhodey explains that the only reason he had been free of Ebony Maw’s thrall was likely because the alien hadn’t seen him when he’d been knocked out by Gamora in their fight below.

Thanos has apparently broken free of the melted vibranium though it had taken some time to break apart, but as Natasha turns her head to the shattered window, she can see that the spaceship is still there. It’s still night and though it feels like it’s been a thousand years since the fight began, she knows sensibly that it’s likely only been a few hours. Maybe even less. Not enough to get the reinforcements they need, that’s for sure, she thinks, even though Rhodey has called for help. Once more, the tower creaks and aches as Natasha steadies herself with a hand, reaching for Rhodey before he can stumble, and her confusion only rises.

Tony’s tower is a resilient thing, but what does Thanos want with it?

.

.

Bruce opens his eyes just as Cull Obsidian lunges for his throat.

He stumbles back in horror, his mind reeling as he stares around himself, distraught. Something in his chest is aching and Bruce’s cheeks are wet. Why is he not in Tony’s lab? He was—he was right there, eating blueberries with Nat, because he was the only one she would share anything with, and entertaining themselves by watching Thor and Tony run around with Thor’s new Asgardian tech. He’d been interested to join in, but they’d been working for two days and Tony had somehow only gotten more energetic with every hour.

Bruce had been ready to drop.

He knows it. He had felt it. The exhaustion—it had clung to him, sinking him down beside Nat on the ratty sofa, but it had been a good tiredness. It had been satisfying and sweet and there had been a warmth in his chest—

“MOVE!” the Hulk is bellowing at him, but Bruce is too stunned.

Hulk is roaring so loudly Bruce’s ears are going numb. His head is aching, a dull thrum like the steady hand of a tick ticking clock and he remembers a time of warm laughter around the dinner table and blue screens and the sharp familiarity of glass beakers and the feel of finding something truly extraordinary, the feel of a piece in his heart finally slotting into place—

I don’t want to move, he thinks suddenly, a keening distress tearing apart his chest. I want to go back—

“THERE IS NO BACK!” Hulk sounds almost desperate now, but Bruce keeps looking around himself in confusion. Where was the lab? Where is Nat and Tony and everyone? He was happy there—“THERE IS ONLY NOW!”

But he can barely do anything and as Cull Obsidian’s smirking snarl tears from his mouth, lunging forward once more, all he wants to do is cry. Bruce breathes hoarsely, but green courses from his hand and suddenly Hulk is growling, a dangerous, dark thing, as he drives a fist into Cull Obsidian’s face. The strength of the blow takes the alien giant back a few paces, blood matting his face as Bruce hears the sickly sound of something cracking.

As Cull Obsidian howls in pain, Bruce manages to catch his breath, stumbling back heavily in the wall as he stares around the rooftop. It’s still night and the world is eerily quiet around him, saltwater still soaking his cheeks. The tower is in pieces, but it still stands strong as ever, but Bruce barely has a moment before Cull Obsidian is coming back for a second round. He stumbles back, looking around helplessly but the Hulkbuster is in tatters, literally torn to shreds at his feet, and there’s nothing he can use as a weapon. Bruce breathes hard, the giant alien towering for him.

“Hulk—,”

NO!”

“Hulk, come on, man—,”

YOU WANT TO LEAVE ME!”

“What are you talking about?” Bruce splutters, scrambling back from Cull Obsidian.

The giant alien lunges for him again, but something barrages into him, a flitting blur of blonde and Bruce breathes out a heavy sigh of relief as Natasha unloads one of Rocket’s modified machine guns into Cull Obsidian. War Machine is up in the air, diving for Tony and Bruce wishes that his comms hadn’t been destroyed in the attack, because he has literally no idea what’s happening. His knees feel weak and he still feels slightly out of his own body, vaguely uncomfortable as though his mind has just been pulled apart and shoved back in messily.

But Bruce mostly feels an aching sadness deep in his chest, clinging to his ribcage, beating with his heart. It’s terrifying and all too familiar a sensation as his eyes water painfully.

“Get somewhere safe, Bruce!” Nat calls back to him, her eyes bright with worry as she literally riddles the alien with bullets. As Cull Obsidian howls in pain, Natasha turns back to him, her forehead creasing. Whatever she sees on his face must be bad because Natasha hits Cull Obsidian across the face with the machine gun with more force than necessary and when she looks back at him, her voice wavers. “Bruce? Are you—it was Ebony Maw, Bruce. Whatever you saw, it wasn’t—it wasn’t real.”

Her breaths hitch and Bruce stares up at her desperately.

It felt real.

All those breakfasts he’d had in his memories, the mornings he and the rest of them had spent together with Clint throwing poptarts at Thor who caught them in his mouth, Tony and Nat convincing Steve to try some coffee, grinning evilly to each other. Their lives had been laid out to him in the pocket of memory he’d been in, as though he had known nothing else. They had been in the Tower, he remembers, grasping for the memories, and they had been happy. Bruce’s heart aches as it, wanting it desperately. It felt sweet and soft and warmer than anything Bruce had thought he’d ever deserved.

At that thought, Hulk rumbles in protest, but Bruce is too distraught to figure out the big green guy this time. Besides, he’s still a little mad. They’d promised they’d have each other’s backs and Hulk still ditched him. How can he be stuck with someone and still get rejected?

“I wish it was,” Bruce confesses in a half whisper, his words tumbling out as Natasha kneels beside him. She grasps his shaking fingers, helping him breathe properly. “Did you—are you alright?”

Natasha’s eyes are tearful. He’s never seen her cry before. “Yeah,” she says smoothly. It’s a blatant lie and they both know it. “How’s Hulk?”

“Mad at me. Again.”

“You’ll figure it out.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Bruce closes his eyes and swallows tightly. “Are the others okay?”

Natasha lets out a shaky breath. “I don’t know,” she confesses, and that is what gives Bruce the strength to get up.

The rooftop is cracking apart but Bruce hurries to Thor’s side, wary and mindful of the flickers of lightning that spark around his fingers as Bruce reaches to feel for a pulse. The last time he had seen everyone, Clint had been gaining the upper hand over Corvus Glaive, Tony had shattered Proxima Midnight’s spear, Thor was killing Cull Obsidian, and Steve had been helping Nat. Natasha already has her head to Clint’s chest, checking his heartbeat, feeling for Steve’s pulse, too, and they both let out sighs of relief in unison. They seem relatively alright, Bruce thinks to himself as he worriedly checks them over and they start to try to wake them up.

“Thor?” he calls, but the god is shifting, moaning.

Tears are shining on Steve’s cheeks, something murmuring from his mouth, just as Rhodey finally manages to get Tony down on the rooftop, too. Bruce gets up immediately to help him, his eyes wide at the shattered shards of Proxima Midnight’s spear slowly impaling Tony’s arm. Natasha breaks it off with a viciousness, as they look over Tony, his heart pounding. Rhodey works on Tony’s wound as Bruce quickly shakes Steve’s shoulder, wary of Thor’s tears, too, something in his heart aching for them. He wonders what they’re seeing.

“They’re not waking up,” he says urgently.

“Smack them,” Rhodey tells him without looking up. Bruce falters. “It’s the only thing that works, man. I wouldn’t, if I didn’t have to, you know that.”

“Time’s running out,” Natasha agrees, and she hits Clint’s face first.

Clint wakes screaming, gasping out Lila’s name as he stares wide-eyed around them, and Bruce reaches for Thor, Natasha’s soft murmurs of comfort and Clint’s hoarse sobs echoing in the air. Thor is muttering his mother’s name, a feverish red high in his cheeks, a desperation in his voice, and Bruce swallows tightly before he clenches a fist unwillingly. As Thor wakes howling, Bruce apologises and Steve gasps awake, too, sobs echoing from their throats.

Their expressions are all the same.

Crippling heartache, wide-eyed confusion, a desperation that Bruce intimately understands. They stare at him helplessly, staring around with a desperate want in their haunted eyes, tears still shining on their cheeks, minds reeling as he, Natasha, and Rhodey help to calm them down. Bruce wonders if he looked like that as well, and as he helps calm Steve from his hysterics, he knows that he probably did. Thor is crying softly on his knees, as Rhodey and Clint try to help Tony, who is still unconscious.

“Where—where is he?” Steve says, his voice hoarse. “Where are they all?”

“They’re down there,” Natasha tells them. “With Thanos. We think they’re looking for something in the tower.”

“They’re not going to get it.”

Bruce doesn’t know who says it, but the fierceness is a sentiment everyone echoes.

.

.

Rhodey can’t bring himself to hit Tony.

He’s never seen such a calm, almost happy expression cast over Tony’s face like that and it’s fucking selfish to the bone, a terrible thing for him to do, he knows, but Rhodey decides to give his best friend just a little bit more in that strange world that gifted all of them such happiness. He still remembers the smile on Natasha’s face, which had been crazy enough, and Bruce almost laughing before they’d woken, and it’s only going to hurt Tony even more when he wakes up, but Rhodey is fucking weak, okay?

His best friend has been broken and bruised and stressed out ever since the fucking cradle, and Rhodey’s tried his best, from drinking with Tony during the long nights at MIT to sinking helplessly beside him in the burning sand in Afghanistan, but some hurts even he can’t fix. So, if Rhodey gets to see a small smile finally appear on Tony’s face, even if it’s some dream because of some bughead alien, he’d let Tony have that for a little while longer before pulling him back into this shitty world.

In the end, he doesn’t have to wake Tony, because like everything Tony does, he does that by himself, too.

Or rather, as Rhodey is bandaging up Tony’s arm as carefully as he can, the pain must be debilitating because Tony wakes, screaming in pain. The alien’s spear clatters heavily beside him as Rhodey pulls back with difficulty, knowing that when Tony gets like this, it’s best to keep his distance. Instead, he composes himself, something in his chest aching for his friend, and swallows tight, wondering if he ought to smile but then he gives up on that, too.

“Tones?”

Tony turns his head sharply, staring at him in confusion. “Rho—Rhodey?” he gasps. “You—you were downstairs.”

“Yeah,” Rhodey says, a little relieved. Tony must have remembered everything faster, he thinks and he’s grateful that his friend is so clever because he doesn’t know how to tell him that whatever he’d seen was not real. “Yeah, I was with Thanos, but—,”

“No, you—you were coming up to me,” Tony says, his eyes bright as he stares around himself in horrified bewilderment. His voice is hitching slightly, growing louder in his keening distress. “To us. We were—with the Lego and the—where is he? Rhodey, where is he?

Rhodey’s throat sticks. “I’m sorry, Tony,” he begins, saltwater down his cheeks. “I’m sorry—,”

“No,” Tony murmurs, turning around and searching for something. He’s moaning in anguish, shaking his head as he raises it to look around himself, something like crushed hope in the light of his eyes, mouth opening. “No. No. No, not again, Rhodey, please, not again, not again—,”

And Tony is crying, shaking his head as he sobs helplessly, almost curling up in himself. The wound in his arm must be killing him, but Tony barely seems to care for that, staring at his hand with desperation as his sobs come out hoarse. Rhodey surges forward to embrace his friend, wrapping his arms around him tightly, protectively, and if he closes his eyes, he can almost see them back in their old room in MIT, with Tony pretending not to cry because of Howard, and Rhodey comforting him as best as he could.

But this is not MIT and Tony isn’t pretending.

“I’m sorry, Tony,” he says. Fuck, he should have brought out his friend earlier, Rhodey thinks to himself. How could he think to be so selfish and horrible and thoughtless—

Tony is shaking his head. “He was there, he was right there, we were all—,” he’s babbling feverishly, tears clinging to his lashes as he shakes in Rhodey’s arms.

“Tony?” Natasha’s voice is soft and careful, as Rhodey lifts his head.

Steve is still looking shellshocked, his eyes wide and unseeing as Bruce and Clint try to help him and Natasha has been seated with Thor, whose tear tracks spark with lightning. But at Natasha’s voice, everyone turns to him in concern. Rhodey can appreciate that, at the very least. They’ve fucked up everything, he knows, but at least they’re all trying now.

Natasha moves forward, but Tony’s breathing is becoming hitched and Rhodey recognises this.

“He’s going to pass out—,” he manages to get out, just as Tony’s body goes limp. He lifts his head up to look at Natasha. “I’ll get him somewhere safe. Thanos is still down there.”

Her fingers shaking, Natasha reaches forward to press a hand to Tony’s cheek. “We’ll get Thanos.”

“Don’t get him,” Rhodey says. He fixes Natasha with a dark, dangerous glare. “Kill him.”

.

.

Steve still sees the gleaming sunlight slanting in the windows, casting gold over everyone at the lake near the Compound.

His mind knows that that’s not true, that he’s sprawled helplessly, his entire body aching in sore pain, across the rooftop of the tower in New York, but he still sees it. There’s the light flickering over the lake as he captures it on paper, the sleepy, warm good mornings of everyone who enters the living room for breakfast that Thor and Tony cooked this time, according to the schedule. He and Bruce aren’t really allowed near the kitchen, Steve knows, a fond smile against his face. He’s reading over the letter Bucky sent him from Canada, with a fond smile as Natasha squeezes his shoulder and Clint passes him a plate, yawning.

Everything is exactly as it should be, but it’s not.

He’s not there. He’s still in New York, the dark skies sweeping around them as Steve’s heart aches in earnest displeasure, his eyes burning. Natasha is saying something to him, a soft string of comforting words, as he stares at her blankly, trying to understand and make sense of it. The alien took over their minds, and instantly, Steve turns to Clint in alarm, to make sure he’s alright. Clint isn’t saying anything, his mouth pressed together, but his eyes are dark, and his cheeks are haunted with a similar pallor that reminds Steve starkly of the weeks after their first alien invasion.

“We have to go, Steve,” Natasha is saying. “Thanos is still down there. We have to stop him.”

Steve nods, swallowing tightly as Bruce helps him to his feet. He wavers a little unsteadily, looking around at them in worry. Tony has come to and is crying in Rhodey’s arms, Clint is looking haunted but he’s doing the deep breathing and murmuring his grounding mechanisms with Natasha’s help, Bruce is trying to help Thor to his feet and Steve moves to help him, putting a solid arm around his friend. He has no idea where Nebula and Rocket are, worrying for them even so. They’re all too mentally exhausted, all of their trauma brought to the breaking point, and Steve knows that it’s stupid, to throw themselves into a fight when they’re like this, knows that it’s unwise, that they will lose.

But the alternative is letting Thanos get away and he knows that none of them will ever let that happen.

“You guys up for one more round?” he asks, his voice growing firm as he looks at them.

Tony speaks first, a hoarseness in the back of his throat. “I’m game if you are.”

He lets out a deep breath as everyone slowly starts to get back to their feet. Steve helps Thor with Bruce, lightning sparks at the edge of the god’s fingertips as Thor’s tears course down his cheeks and he stares helplessly at them, seeming to want to say something but thinking better of it. Beside him, Natasha is getting Clint to his feet and Rhodey is half-heartedly trying to convince Tony to sit back down, knowing that there’s no use in it.

When they get to the stairs, Steve sees Rocket first.

He kneels to the ground, reaching to check if he’s still breathing and lets out a sigh of relief when he does. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for the raccoon to wake and the first thing he does is breathe Gamora’s name earnestly. Steve still has no idea how any of the Black Order or even Gamora are all still alive, but it gives him hope, lights the fire in his chest. Because if they’re still alive, then it stands to reason that there’s a possibility to get back their lost ones, too. Thanos mourned his Black Order and got them back; Steve’s done with mourning and he just wants them back, now.  

“She took my gun,” Rocket is saying faintly, but there’s a slight breathless tone to it as though he’s almost grateful.

Steve can understand that. He wishes Bucky was still alive to take his gun, too. Natasha gives Rocket another as they move down the stairs slowly. The place is literally torn to pieces, the stairs almost giving way under them, just as the tower suddenly shakes heavily. The whole building feels as though it’s shattering apart, to his horror, and Steve grabs at the railing, reaching to grab Natasha who is the furthest away, to make sure that she won’t fall.

“What the hell are they doing to my tower?” Tony mutters before they move.

The common room has been completely demolished apart, the landing pad holding the rest of the Black Order. Nebula is an unconscious figure, left on the ground carelessly in a way that makes Tony’s worry etch itself into the dark circles of his eyes and Natasha shifts in concern. Melted gleaming vibranium trails lazily across the ground from where Thanos has struggled and moved, rubble and smoke still wafting in the air in languid grey spirals, but Steve realises that they’ve practically torn apart pieces of the wall, the bricks tossed carelessly against the ground. His brows furrow in confusion before he catches sight of the gleam of the wall nearest to Thanos.

It looks like black diamond, Steve thinks suddenly, staring.

“Again,” Thanos orders, the rumble cracking from his throat, and Steve realises faintly that the Titan is in pain. The vibranium must have done a number on him.

Gamora’s figure makes itself known as she stands before the wall and Steve watches in confusion before she clenches her fist. Blood drips from her cracked knuckles, the flesh torn apart and ripped horrifically in a way that makes even his stomach turn. No, no, you’ll hurt yourself

Gamora!” Rocket calls out in alarm just before she can do it, and as Gamora turns her head, Steve sees the same shuttered confused light filter over her eyes that he once saw in Bucky. “No!”

And suddenly, they’re lunging for Thanos once more as Steve immediately goes for Ebony Maw who has moved first towards them. He’s snarling fiercely as he hits the alien with the shield repeatedly, before he can even get a single magic word out, the strength of the blow propelling him across the room and almost out of the tower completely. Bruce, Clint, and Natasha are watching their backs, attacking Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive, as Thor goes straight for Cull Obsidian and Tony lunges for Thanos’ throat only to be torn back by Gamora.

“Enough!” Thanos thunders and immediately, Gamora and the Black Order freeze, pulling back.

Natasha immediately fires, under no such order, and the bullet sinks into Corvus Glaive’s forehead, as Proxima howls in anguish and tries to scratch her eyes out. Magic curls around them, courtesy of Ebony Maw, keeping them back but Steve’s immediately diving to protect her side, just as Natasha snarls fiercely, easily up to the fight. But Thanos only has to look at Proxima for her to fall back, to their surprise. Corvus Glaive has collapsed to the ground, blood pouring out of his forehead and Steve feels his stomach turn at the way Thanos simply turns away so carelessly from his dead body.

But in that same moment, Corvus Glaive is coughing hotly, getting to his feet.

Steve’s jaw drops.

“Father—,” the alien manages to get out, pitifully weak.

He’s alive. How is he alive?

Thanos looks down at him in distaste. “You and Ebony Maw have disappointed me greatly today,” he says, as though an alien who got shot in the fucking head didn’t just get back up and dust himself off like nothing happened. Ebony Maw and Corvus Glaive look terrified, their eyes wide and wavering. “Bring the ship around.”

“But Father, the God—,” Ebony Maw begins, his voice a desperate note as he lifts his head to look up.

For once, Steve sees the alien look scared, and it’s because of Thanos’ words, his head resounding with all those psych books he’d read once he discovered that SHIELD was only willing to give him therapists from their pockets. He remembers one book about the psychology of abuse and Steve had counted himself lucky that he’d never had to suffer anything like that before. Now, his heart straining, he kind of wishes that Ebony Maw and the Black Order didn’t suffer through the likes of that.

What does he want with Thor, though?

But one look from Thanos quells any further protests any of the Black Order may have.

Thanos looks at Nebula’s lifeless figure, and as Tony strains, Steve watches his gaze shift. Is Nebula dead? “Take my daughter.”

Gamora gives no protest as she is marched away, with Corvus Glaive picking up Nebula’s terrifying limp body, as they strain to fight. Steve punches heavily against the magic that’s containing them all, angered and furious. He didn’t know Nebula very much as the blue alien didn’t like to spend time with any of them, but she was still one of them. And she doesn’t deserve anything like Thanos, ever.

“What are you doing?” Tony manages to snarl out, clawing at the coursing magic around them with a dark red repulsor. His suit splutters a little, pathetic and quiet as Steve breathes hard, realising faintly that Tony is delivering them a distraction. He strains, victorious when he can move a little, closer to the wall that has the black diamond Thanos so desperately wants. “What do you want?”

“I can take you all, you understand this,” Thanos says idly, looking at Tony, but for a moment, Steve thinks that he’s lying. He can’t, he thinks fiercely as he shifts a leg painfully, his entire body screaming at him in protest. “I could kill everything in here in the blink of an eye. You would do well to speak to me with some respect, Stark.”

Natasha snarls out fiercely, “You don’t deserve our respect.”

Tilting his head in quiet amusement, Thanos’ lip quirks. Beside Steve, Thor’s fingers crackle with lightning and he nods mutely towards the god, exchanging a meaningful look. His heart pounds as Thanos continues to speak, sounding amused.

“Your arrogance is quite staggering,” Thanos comments. They’re the arrogant ones? “Still, you think you have the upper hand in this. Still, you think you have a chance. Still, you rise to avenge.” He says the word like it’s a quip, a teasing joke between them, and Steve thinks of Fury, a heated defensiveness rising in his chest angrily. “Letting you live was a mercy, Stark. I thought you, of all, could understand. You are a logical man, but I see now that you are just as small as the rest of them. It was mercy that saved you. Mercy and chance.”

“It was your mistake,” Clint corrects sharply, his gaze burning something fierce as Steve strains to move.

“No,” Thanos says as he nods to Cull Obsidian. “We all have our purpose. Mine was to be here, at this very moment in time. You were to deliver me.”

Steve stills. “What for?”

Thanos’ eyes are lit with a mocking light. “You did not genuinely think that you had the power to capture the likes of me and keep me contained?”

“I don’t know, man,” Rhodey says bitingly. “That vibranium doesn’t seem to be doing you any favours.”

“A mere hindrance,” Thanos tells them, but Steve’s heart has stopped, as Cull Obsidian moves to Thanos’ side, tensing himself.

He watches them with amusement as they realise that he always meant to be in the Tower. As bait, Steve thinks vaguely, but bait for what? His gaze turns to the black diamond once more where Cull Obsidian is clenching his fist, his large frame towering. That’s not black diamond, is it?

Whatever it is, Thanos shouldn’t get it. That’s all Steve knows.

Thanos is still talking. This guy really likes the sound of his own voice, Steve thinks vaguely as he shifts a little. “You were right,” he admits, looking at them with a smirk. “The half of the universe that I snapped away are not dead.” His stomach drops. “There are no bodies. Simply ash. Death demands physical evidence, as my daughter told you, yet all that remains is ash and dust. Why do you think that is?”

Tony is staring helplessly, his eyes wide. “Why?”

“Why?” Thanos repeats. “Because they are not here. They have been removed to a different plane of existence, one beyond our own.” He looks at them carefully before showing the black diamond nestled into the wall. “Do you know what this is? You wouldn’t. The Trickster laced it with such well-crafted protective spells it remained undetected for years.” The Trickster? Who was that? Thor’s jaw is taut. “This is the death stone and once I take it, it will return everything you ever loved to dust for real, this time. They will truly be gone. From every plane of existence.”

No, Steve thinks desperately, his eyes wide. No, no, no—

Thanos is shaking his head at them. “You should have stayed in the mercy I gave you. Ignorance is bliss, after all.” He turns his head. “Cull Obsidian.”

And as Steve lunges just a fraction of a second too late, Cull Obsidian cracks his fist across the black death stone and the reverberation echoes around them all, the entire tower shaking fiercely. Steve hears the ringing in his ears, the explosion sending him through the wall, ash and dust around them. The death stone opens its mouth and devours everything whole, blackness spilling across his vision.

Chapter Text

“My love, my life, my everything.”

Hela rolls her eyes disparagingly at the very sound, almost automatically before she lifts her head. She’d been conferring with some of her chiefs in council about the security issues they’ve been having, when her assistant came to her with the papers for Corvus Glaive’s third death since his resurrection. Really, Hela had scoffed in annoyance, signing the dotted line with an agitated scrawl, after dying the first few times, you’d think he’d know better by now.

When the large shadow of the Titan casts dully against her gleaming black marble halls, the glowing green flames in their pillars flaring up as she moves, Hela makes an irritated sound before she nods to dismiss the people around her. Thanos thinks that she does it for him, that she dismisses her people to give him her utmost attention, but in truth, Hela is irrationally possessive of her kingdom. Odin had his claws in her, during her Asgardian reign, ordering her about like an attack dog, but Hel is all of her own making.

Hela likes to think that it’s far better than anything in Asgard. It’s even named after her. She had considered that it might be a little egotistical, but then she’d thought of how easily she’d shed Odinsdottir out of her name and shrugged. It’s her kingdom. She can do what she likes.

Including playing around with Thanos. Good entertainment is so hard to find, you see.

The Titan kneels to his feet immediately upon seeing her, sweeping into an impressive bow as Hela’s lips twitch in amusement. He’s beginning to lavish an immense amount of praise on her, which is rather impressive, considering that he’s done the same thing for her, for over a thousand years, and he still manages to find a vast array of adjectives to describe her.

“Oh,” she says, interrupting him carelessly. Hela is already disinterestedly turning away, the dark skirts of her gown rustling around her as she moves down the hall. “It’s you again.”

“My lady—,”

“Your minion died again, Thanos,” Hela tells him disapprovingly, smirking as she imagines the horror-filled look creasing Thanos’ face right now as he realises he’s disappointed his lady. She sweeps her gown around her as she walks and Thanos hurries to get to his feet, to catch up to her. “You’re getting very sloppy.” She freezes suddenly, sensing something, her breaths coming out fraught and urgent. Hela spins around immediately, skirts shifting into a graceful arc, her head tilting back to look up at Thanos in alarm, her eyes widening. “What the fuck did you bring into my home?”

Thanos’ eyes are filled with his usual adoration, his features creased as he shakes his head quickly.

“I swear to you, I would never do a thing to harm you, my lady,” he tells her, but she’s not reassured at all. She’s about to snarl at him, her hackles raising as she feels Fenrir rise protectively to find her, from where he is outside the palace, when Thanos continues, pulling his mangled hand out from his cloak where he raises something dark and perfect curling a little above his cupped hand. “My lady, Cull Obsidian died for this.”

“It was Corvus Glaive’s name I signed,” Hela says in confusion. She doesn’t care for his Black Order, but she’s not fucking incompetent. “Don’t tell me you have what I think you have.”

“The death stone,” Thanos tells her reverently, as the black obsidian stone gleams and glows wickedly.

It’s contained within some gilded birdcage Thanos has crudely fashioned, marked by remnants of Ebony Maw’s magic, Hela can tell as she stares, and he lifts it in the air, letting it spin lazily, with something like triumph marking the light in his eyes. Cull Obsidian touched that thing and he was eradicated from existence, cast away in a darker pit that even she could not reach. Even her own kingdom could not catch him, Hela thinks as her stomach drops uncomfortably. Her realm, which takes in all of the dead, could not save Cull Obsidian from the death stone.

The sheer power that it possesses alone, she thinks to herself, staring; it dizzies Hela and makes her short of breath, just to even think of it. When she stares at it, completely ignoring a hopeful Thanos beside her, Hela’s heart skips a beat, watching the way the black spirals lazily writhe within the cage. It’s so sad, she thinks briefly, to keep something so wondrous and powerful locked away. She can sense some of Loki’s magic, faint sparking remnants of her brother’s protective spells laced within the rock, and has to tamp down a slightly proud smirk.

To be able to tame something of that power and to hide it away within plain sight for so long demands a power even she would be wary to wield. But Loki had done it.

He’s not really her brother, Hela knows. She barely knew him or Thor at all. They had been such young things when Odin had cast her away.

But in this moment, she’s kind of proud.

“You can’t withstand the power it takes to wield that,” Hela only comments lazily, her gaze narrowing. “And the Watchers have been traversing my kingdom for the likes of you. The universe is cracking apart because of your abuse of the infinity stones. They say the space stone is missing, too.”

Thanos inclines his head as respectfully as he can manage, something like shame creasing his features as he responds slowly. “None of that will matter, my lady,” he tells her earnestly, “once I return the universe to dust, for you. I already have my Black Order searching for a way to stabilise the stone’s power, so that I may use it. They—they say iridium is a good source—,”

“And where exactly do you think you get iridium?” Hela interrupts sharply, as her favourite assistant rounds the corner to find her in the hallway. Her gaze turns back to the gilded cage, fingers tensing a little, as black swirls of magic pour from her hands. Thanos is too enamoured with her to notice it, as he attempts to apologise profusely, but he still doesn’t get it. “Terra. Iridium comes from Terra. Will you lose another Cull Obsidian, then? Or Gamora? I could not pluck her from the soul stone, so she is beyond my help or repair—,”

“My lady, I have once never raised my voice at you,” Thanos says coldly, and for a moment, Hela stills, startled. He never has, he’s right; no matter how hard Hela has pushed him, how much she teases and taunts and mocks, Thanos always just takes it. Has she gone too far this time? He lifts his head to meet her gaze, steady and blazing and unyielding in a way that genuinely makes her suppress a shiver. “I do not wish to start today.”

Hela’s jaw tenses briefly, her breaths coming short. Thanos has never lost his temper with her, but then, she has never rebuked Gamora’s name so cruelly, either. She likes Gamora. Plucky little thing, good arm. Great hair. But that’s all Hela cares for Thanos’ playthings.

If the mere mention of her will let Thanos lose his manners in front of her, well, that’s just not done. Hela has nothing against Gamora, at all. But Thanos has never failed to be impolite, not even in his darkest moments.

“I would… ask that you give up on this futile task, Lord Thanos,” Hela says instead, her voice cold and biting and devastating, as Thanos inhales sharply, alarmed. She looks away from him, knowing that the rising panic will writhe within him, eyes the gleaming birdcage, and watches it shift a little, the mirage falling over it briefly with some satisfaction. When she continues, Hela turns back to him, her voice dripping with disdain and a careless mocking tone, her eyes cooler than the black stone before them. “I can ask another to complete it, if you are so… incapable.”

She revels in the sheer panic cast against Thanos’ face as he stiffens, breathless. “My lady, I swear to you that I will succeed—,”

“How?” Her voice is high and demanding. “You killed my brother.”

“My—my lady?”

Hela gestures. “The stone is soaked in Loki’s protections.” She tilts her head, rather enjoying the way Thanos’ eyes widen in realisation. “You expect to tell me that you do not know that it will not work for you unless you have Loki’s touch to stabilise it, too?”

The shuttering surprise that is swiftly replaced with muted fury is highly entertaining to watch, Hela thinks as she nods to her assistant to come to her. The sharp little priestess has been standing at the edge of the hallway, waiting for her queen’s bidding all the while, quiet and half hidden in the shadows so that even Thanos’ head turns sharply when she appears. Hela knew there was a reason she gave her that promotion.

“A Trickster, through and through,” Thanos manages to get out through gritted teeth. “The iridium will do nothing without him.”

“The iridium will do nothing without him,” Hela repeats delicately.

“But he is dead,” Thanos says.

Hela’s eyes flash briefly, but her voice is careless. “Not my problem,” she tells him. “You should get going, my lord. Time is ticking and the Watchers cannot wait forever.”

Thanos bends his head low and murmurs his apologies before he dismisses himself, promising that he loves her still. Hela watches him go, completely unimpressed, as he waves a hand around the gilded cage, the black death stone twisting and turning idly within it, and it disappears. Do not presume to tell me, she thinks disparagingly, you still hold any affection in that cold heart for me. A shallow love like yours could never have survived this long.

“My queen?” The priestess’ voice is quiet and polite.

“You’d think I could do better, but everyone else is just so boring,” Hela comments lazily, reaching for the cigarette the priestess gives her. She answers the unspoken question that most of her staff have whenever they see Thanos traversing her halls, a careless amusement to the edge of her voice. “He’s always been obsessed with me. I just like to keep him hanging. It amuses me.”

The priestess smirks a little. “Yes, Your Grace,” she answers politely. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Hela nods, taking a slow drag. She leans her head back to look up at the gaping, open ceiling, the stars glowing and winking down at her. Grey ashy clouds burst around the gleam of the silver as Hela blows up a slow smoke ring, watching it fade quietly.

“I need you to find Loki.”

.

.

When she wakes up, she is back.

Her entire body is spread out, split apart into broken shreds as she lies, suspended in the air, and for a moment, Nebula wishes she had tear ducts. Crying is supposed to alleviate the pain, Thor told her, and Nebula is in too much pain to even think right now. A mewl of pain escapes her lips, as Proxima Midnight snickers at her, Ebony Maw taking careful steps around her as he examines her carefully. Nebula hisses at him sharply, straining to pull herself back together, her gaze flickering around the adjusted chamber once more.

Thanos used to put her on the table in his workshop when he wanted to punish her, piece apart something of flesh and replace it with cold, hard metal, but when he’d caught her last time, he had insisted Ebony Maw craft something more suited for her disobedience. Instead of replacing anything, he’d simply taken out flesh or metal and watched her scream. This chamber is dark and cold, rusting parts of her, a callous design on Ebony Maw’s part, she thinks furiously, looking around. Gamora is not there and neither is Corvus Glaive or Cull Obsidian, but Proxima stands, eyes fixate on her.

“What did you do to Gamora?” she snarls out fiercely, before her words keen into a scream as Ebony Maw reaches for her eyes.

“Open memory folder,” he says delicately, ignoring her, but Proxima steps forward.

Her smile is harsh curve against her mouth and Nebula can see dried blood matted in her hair, barely healed scarring all over Proxima’s body. This means, she thinks fast, her mind whirring, that Proxima came straight from the fight, that it hasn’t been so very long, and something has gone wrong. Proxima doesn’t look like she’s guarding her, though Ebony Maw would be enough for that, especially as she doesn’t seem to be holding her famed spear. Nebula has always hated that spear, even before Proxima would jeeringly use it against her in their training, would jam the damn thing through her chest and leave her scrambling for breath and release.

Proxima smirks at her. “Oh, little sister. Did you really think you could escape us for long?”

“Proxima, you’re in my way,” Ebony Maw tells her, before she shifts aside, huffing, and he moves forward to settle in front of Nebula’s face. He taps at it as she hisses at him, trying to bite his fingers off, but he only rolls his eyes at her efforts. His voice is amused and mocking as he notices the new headpieces. “This is new. Did your new friends give you that?”

Tony had given her the materials, but Nebula had welded her new head herself, had worked on it in his workshop in the Tower fiercely. She’d even given a small, unfamiliar smile when Tony had told her admiringly that it looked awesome and when she’d fit it across her head, reinforcing it, Natasha had given her a proud smile.

Nebula snarls at him. “Don’t touch it—,” she manages to get out, before her breaths veer off into a hoarse, sharp gasp of pain as Ebony Maw takes control of her head. She’s blinking back tears, the pain blinding her as blue flickers across the chamber, her head piece split apart and showing her memories. “No, stop it, stop—,”

The reel shows DUM-e, Tony’s robot, making them coffee in the workshop. Nebula spits hers out in disgust, but Tony just swallows the whole thing down. Grief hangs low on their faces and Nebula hates the way Ebony Maw watches it with fascinated interest, the violation tearing through her. It’s not even a particularly good memory; it’s just her and Tony in the workshop, working away on something together she can barely remember, but Nebula rears back in defence even so as her private moments are peeled away from her.

“Stark,” Ebony Maw says, scribbling something down, as Proxima Midnight hisses sharply at the figure and Nebula stiffens in defence. For a moment, looking at the sheer revulsion on Proxima’s face makes her grateful that Tony is not here. “If you can’t behave, Proxima, leave. It’s nobody’s fault but your own that you were so stupid to lose your spear to a Terran.”

Nebula watches the snarl take hold of Proxima’s mouth, pull it downwards into something harsh and dangerous, and for a moment, she thinks that Proxima will lunge forwards and jab her fingers into Ebony Maw’s eyes to gouge them out. She’d tried that once before, Nebula remembers, on the training mat, but Ebony Maw had broken her fingers and almost crushed them to dust. He’d threatened her that Nebula would have a friend in Father’s workshop, before Proxima had taken out his legs and poised the spear into his heart, increasing the weight as Ebony Maw screamed and cracked apart her body and Proxima refused to let up, until Thanos had finally stepped in and rewarded them both.

But Proxima turns away, scowling at Nebula scathingly, and pulls back.

“How are you here?” Nebula manages to get out hoarsely, a gasp torn from her throat as she thinks furiously. If she can distract them long enough, maybe she can get herself out of this. “You were dead. Even—Thanos killed Gamora. How are you all here?”

Ebony Maw smirks to Proxima, both of them watching Nebula with a smugness in the light of their eyes. “Father loved us too much to let us lie,” Ebony Maw says.

“Or he loved what you could do for him,” Nebula spits back, but she’s fraught with confusion. How could he bring them back? He’d have to traverse the kingdom of the dead, beg at—the Lady Hela’s feet. Realisation sinks in, hard and fast, as Nebula inhales sharply. “You come from Lady Hela. She brought you back to the universe, from the dead.”

When Ebony Maw’s fingers peel back the memories, picking them apart with more of a viciousness, Nebula screams and Proxima reaches forward to crack her fist across her face. She spits out blood, her mouth mashed apart as the pain blooms horrifically, but Nebula doesn’t focus on it, gasping hotly. She focuses on Ebony Maw instead, her gaze fixated on the memories Ebony Maw is carelessly picking apart, her jaw clenching together in hoarse determination.

She has a multitude of memories of all of the Avengers, their Tower, the defence stations. Their armour, their abilities, Nebula thinks, focusing. Of course she had checked everything all out, had spent the first night carefully keeping a clear record of everything around her on Terra. It was called keeping herself safe. They could have turned on her in the blink of an eye, she’d thought warily, though it wasn’t until the second day that Nebula had realised they were too sad to do that. Too sad and too angry. Nebula had related, perhaps too well.

Ebony Maw’s eyes gleam just as he reaches for a memory of Thor on the rooftop once more, but Nebula grits her teeth, ignoring the flash of pain that threatens to crack the rest of her mouth apart, and focuses, hard.

“My brother—,” Thor begins mournfully, before the blue shifts immediately to show Gamora.

She’s amidst the wreckage of the ship, with the Guardians beside her. Nebula remembers the cold of the shackles around her wrist, the fury that had built in her at not being able to best her sister yet again, only rising because she knew that even so weak and vulnerable, Gamora would never lay a hand on her again. Gamora is telling her that the fruit is not ripe, and across the flickering memory, Nebula can see Proxima’s face shuttering as Ebony Maw snarls at her angrily.

The memory shifts.

It’s Gamora and Nebula fighting on the mat, Gamora refusing to let Nebula win.

“Stop it—what are you doing—,”

Nebula in the workshop, screaming as Thanos assures her that she will be stronger for this.

“Nebula—,”

Sinking to her knees amidst the dust of Titan, asking her sister to come back to her, please, please

Stop—,”

Realising that she only had the one life and she knew that no matter what she did with it, she never wanted to give it to Thanos—

Something careens into her head and Nebula reels back in pain, a hoarse cry escaping her mouth as her vision blurs before it focuses. Blood seeps against the parts of her face that are shifted together, dripping on the ground, but Nebula grins, a harsh curve at her mouth as she sees Ebony Maw’s face. The alien is looking unsettled for the first time that she has ever seen him and Proxima stands ready to hit her again, but she is looking startled, too, her eyes narrowed in suspicion and confusion all at once. She’s never seen such worried, confused expression filter over their faces.

It’s a good look on them, Nebula thinks, with a vicious line of satisfaction edging her thoughts.

“What did you do?” Ebony Maw snarls out at her angrily. He looks slightly unhinged as he reaches to grab parts of her shoulder bodily, almost tearing them apart as Nebula screams. “How did you do that? How could you evade my magic—,”

“The same way I could,” Proxima says sharply. When the alien hisses at her, she rolls her eyes and snarls out an explanation as Nebula stares. “My love for Corvus overcomes your magic. Her love for Gamora overcomes it, too. Just because it is not the romantic love does not mean that it is not love and it is just as powerful. It makes sense, Ebony Maw, and you know it.”

Ebony Maw turns away to slam a fist against the table angrily, as Nebula takes a moment through the blinding pain, to really appreciate the snarling fury she’s managed to provoke in them. “I can crush them,” he says suddenly, his head snapping up. “The memories you throw up as smokescreen. I can destroy them, and you will never get them back. You will forget them.”

He wouldn’t dare, Nebula thinks, suddenly terrified as she leans back in mute horror. She feels like crying, straining with more desperation now, for her life means nothing but losing Gamora, too? The memories of her sister are all she has left.

“You can’t risk it,” Proxima is saying. “You’re not as well versed in putting heads back together as you are in picking them apart, even on a good day. Minds are fragile things, Ebony Maw, and you don’t seem to be speaking with a rational one right now.”

“Father—,”

“Is looking for the Trickster right now, with his favourite,” Proxima says calmly. “He is very angry with you and won’t be pleased if you leave Nebula a vegetable.”

Nebula watches with the tiniest trace of hope in her partially distorted chest as Ebony Maw finally nods and pulls away. She doesn’t dare to so much as let out a breath of relief, but she thinks of a breathless thanks to nobody in particular, her chest blooming with grateful warmth. As they start to turn away from the chamber, Ebony Maw reaching to pick up his materials and Proxima turning to leave a last lingering threat, Nebula already starts to plan to herself, thinking fast. She has to find a way out of here and she has to find Gamora and take her until they get away as far as they can.

For a moment, her head aches and then Nebula realises why.

It’s because Gamora hit her across the head.

Gamora hit her. That’s happened before, but not recently. Nebula stares at Proxima who is threatening her at the moment, but she doesn’t bother to listen because really, it’s all the same. Instead, she chooses to focus on Proxima’s face, fixating on the light in her eyes, the quiet familiar roll of her shoulders, and realises faintly that Proxima Midnight is herself. So, by the looks of the determined jut to Ebony Maw’s chin and the faint spiral of interest in the light of his eye, is Ebony Maw. They look exactly how they did before death took them away.

That makes sense. Lady Hela would have returned them the exact way they once were, even with their weapons, Nebula remembers. Thanos would have asked for nothing else and Lady Hela would never have disgraced herself with a shoddy job.

But Gamora cannot remember her. Could not.

And she hit Rocket, too.

Lady Hela did not bring back Gamora, Nebula thinks with a startled gasp, so sure in her realisation that she blurts it out.

“Where did Gamora come from?” she demands, right in the middle of Proxima’s fairly detailed threat about breaking apart the metal of her leg and jamming it into the flesh one, bit by bit. Proxima blinks, and though her face grows impassive and smirking quickly enough, Nebula is close enough to see the startled flash across her features. And she knows she is right. “Gamora does not remember me. Or she did. And she’s—different now. Loyal to Thanos. That’s not her. That’s not the real Gamora—,”

“It’s the true Gamora,” Proxima snarls out viciously, too quickly. “She should be grateful for her chance. Father was too merciful—,”

“Thanos does not take insults to his favourite lightly,” Ebony Maw warns carelessly and Proxima’s mouth clamps shut. He lifts his head to look up at Nebula with a small smirk gracing his mouth. “So, you do have a brain in there. I did wonder. Proxima thought it had been replaced with wool.” He eyes her. “You’re right. Lady Hela did not return Gamora to us.”

Her breaths are fraught. “So, how is she back here?”

“You’re the one who fled after she did.” Ebony Maw’s eyes fixate on her, dark and calculating, as ever. “You figure it out.”

Chapter Text

Cull Obsidian is dead and Thanos is gone with the death stone.

Tony doesn’t even have to see it to just feel it. Death hangs in the air around them, heavy and dark and pervading in his senses, as the tower fervently holds still, the smoke from the explosion sifting through the world in grey. He’s sprawled against his liquor cabinet, the alcohol pouring into the carpet around him as the suit frays and sputters pathetically, and Tony hits his head back against the helmet of the suit repeatedly, a gaping chasm in his chest.

“Fuck, fuck—FUCK!” Tony snarls out fiercely, his voice breaking into a shallow, hoarse sob.

Thor is breathless as he gets up first, looking around them desperately. “He’s gone. He’s—,”

The god collapses to his knees, crying out helplessly. Natasha is moaning in pain, as Steve shifts amidst the rubble in the opposite wall. Rhodey looks relatively alright, helping Rocket to his feet, and Clint punches something so hard he splits his knuckles. The world is all quiet now, the aliens gone with their death stone to make the deaths permanent. Tony didn’t think he would have a heart to break, but he’s been proved wrong before.

Suddenly, the gaping grief is bigger than his rage. It swallows him whole, leaving few remnants of the roaring black fury that had propelled him forwards these past few weeks, that had kept him going. There is an emptiness in him now, a numbness that was born when he was, but now it spreads fast, cracks him apart and lays him bare. He wanted to kill Thanos and he failed too many times to count. I’m sorry, Peter. I couldn’t get you back. I’m so sorry.

People are talking, but Tony can’t hear them.

He vaguely registers Rhodey and Rocket telling them they’re going downstairs to start damage control, while everyone else gets themselves cleaned up, and find Nebula amidst the wreckage where Rocket swears he saw Corvus Glaive drop her when the explosion hit them. Corvus Glaive, the alien twice dead. It’s almost laughable, that a murderous alien could bat death away with ease while Peter, innocent, good Peter, and everyone else remain dust. Rhodey reaches to help Tony to his feet, putting an arm around him, but Tony shakes his head and moves away from his friend’s help. Nebula and everyone else need Rhodey’s expertise a lot more right now.

“Tony—,” Rhodey says before he breaks himself off. “I’ll come back as soon as I’ve got this sorted out.”

His gaze turns to the roof and he almost tells Rhodey don’t come back, run away from me, before Tony swallows tight and nods. When he embraces Rhodey, Tony grips him hard, breathes hoarsely, and finally lets him go, as he knows that he should have. Before New York, before Afghanistan. In MIT, when Rhodey practically waded through the sea of bullies to protect him and Tony had latched on like some heartsick puppy since and Rhodey had been too kind to tell him to fuck off. He should have listened to Howard when he said that Starks ruin everything they touch and stayed away.

Tony spares a brief moment to hope that Nebula is alright before he looks around the crumbling common room, his gaze turning to the wall tiredly. Loki put a death stone in his Tower, he thinks, and he knows that he should be a little more concerned about that, should be asking a myriad of questions, but fuck, is he tired.

There’s no hope.

Not anymore.

Peter’s gone. Everything is gone and dead and reduced to nothing. Tony’s breath hitches before he can stop himself, something thick and aching in his throat as his eyes burn with unshed tears. He’s looking around the destruction, as Steve gets Natasha to her feet and Clint’s blood trails on the wall where he’s hammed his fist into it and Bruce kneels beside Thor. The stench of failure hangs hard in the air and Tony thinks he might choke on it. He can’t breathe, he needs—he needs—

Air.

Tony turns his gaze towards the windows. They’ve completely shattered apart, the wind blowing softly against the shifting white curtains, and Tony slowly picks apart the rubble in his attempt to get out of the suit. He makes some noise as he does so, the heavy metal clunking clumsily and raising everyone’s attention but pays them no mind, his focus on one thing only. When he puts aside the helmet, he gives one last longing look at the picture of Peter on his HUD screen, his breaths hitching as his cheeks grow wet and his mind tears itself apart once more.

He’d seen Peter. Felt him. Held him.

Peter had been real and good and kind, and he was talking about Lego and Tony could have listened to him for eternity. Rhodey had told him about the alien messing with his head again and he feels like his mind has been rifled through, that same feeling after Wanda had pushed her fingers in and meddled, but it’s difficult to find the ability to care very much. Because Wanda had showed him death and destruction at his own hands, but Ebony Maw had shown him everything he had ever wanted, and Tony had never wanted to leave.

“Tony?” Natasha’s voice is soft, keening off into slight pain as Tony passes them.

Bruce’s head lifts in confusion. “Where are you going? Tony?”

He hears their worried voices rise behind him as he moves, pushing open the cracked door as electricity crackles a little faintly around them. The tower is still holding itself upright and strong, something Tony would be proud of, but he’s too numb now. All he has left in his head is one thing.

When Tony walks out onto the roof, the skies are turning softer.

New York is beautiful any time of the year, but this strange, unfamiliar world seems as though it has never known anything of the once-bustling, thriving city. The air is filled with ash and dust, the scent of rubble and smoke still lingering in the world from the fight, as Tony looks around, the breeze blowing against his heated cheeks and wiping away the saltwater. The sky is lightening, the dark jade slowly washing itself away with the soft, rimmed rose pastels on the edge of the world, and it’s a little heartening to think that Thanos could not touch red sunrises, at the very least.

Tony takes a deep breath, thinks of Peter, and steps onto the ledge.

His heart is hammering, a wild hummingbird slamming itself against the cage, but at least it’s better than the echoing numbness. The cold of the wind is breathlessly soothing against the heat in his cheeks and the world has never been so quiet to him. His head has never been so quiet.

That’s the problem with being a genius. He says that without a trace of arrogance, funnily enough. It’s the truth. His head started screaming when he was born and Howard pulled the circuit board out of his hand with a mixture of awe and hatred, and it hasn’t stopped since.

“Tony.” Thor’s voice is as gentle as him, and so understanding that it kills. Tony can’t help but think about all the years they’ve wasted away. All those times he’d been alone, just wanting. Ebony Maw had seen it in his heart, had pulled it free and made it a reality. Why couldn’t they just stay? Thor says softly, “Come down, friend.”

I’m not your friend, Tony wants to scream, but he can’t find his voice right now. Friends don’t leave.

Natasha says, “Tony. Please.”

The Black Widow begging, and for the likes of him. What a sight, he thinks scathingly.

“Don’t do it.” Bruce’s voice is tearful and Tony’s stubborn heart wavers.

He wants to, Bruce. He wants to, so badly. Because everything in the world just hurts and he put the gun in his mouth at fourteen once, put another gun at eighteen, when his parents died, at twenty-three, at twenty-nine, at thirty—the list is endless and Tony is no stranger to the vast potential of weaponry, after all. So, when he sees the quiet way Bruce watches the guns Natasha and Clint handle with ease, he understands.

Tony swallows tightly, opening his eyes. He can see them all, something startled blooming in his chest at the sight of their worried faces. Their tension, their grief, but their understanding, too. They get it, he thinks. They’re just not as cowardly as he is, wanting so badly to take the easy way out. Bruce’s eyes are bright with tears and Natasha seems to be tensing, as though readying herself to lunge for him, even though Tony knows she’ll likely end up going over, too. The thought of that steadies him a little, as he watches Clint scanning the ledge warily.

But Steve doesn’t say anything at all, before he tilts his head up, something quiet and pained in his eyes. To Tony’s surprise, Steve walks up on the ledge beside Tony, in one swift step, and Tony remembers all those years ago what he’d said once. If they lost, they lost together. He guesses Steve wasn’t joking, but as he watches, Steve doesn’t move. Not yet. Even so, Tony can see the yearning in his face. The desire. For a moment, he wonders what Steve had seen in the dream, but does it matter? It must have been bad, like it was, for all of them.

He gives a short laugh, reminiscent of his old arrogant self. “Damn, Cap,” Tony says flippantly. “You always gotta steal my thunder?”

Steve gives a small smile back, but Natasha is muttering, “Fuck you all,” before she’s clambering up on the ledge as well, nifty and easily. She stands beside Tony, her hand knocking against his, and Tony knows what it means, so when he slowly reaches for Natasha’s hand, she squeezes back in comfort and he focuses on swallowing the lump in his throat.

Thor helps Bruce up before he gets up himself, standing beside Natasha as Steve helps to steady Bruce. For a moment, Tony’s heart aches. “I won’t die,” Thor tells them helpfully, “if I fall.”

“We appreciate the sentiment,” Steve tells him, and Thor pats Tony’s shoulder comfortingly.

There’s a soft, amused snicker from Natasha as the wind picks up slightly and they grip on to each other a little tighter. The ledge is flat, paved stone, so they can stand on it without much difficulty, but if the wind grows any stronger, Tony knows that they’ll be taken clean off. He turns to look around at them, his eyes burning, as Steve lets out a hoarse breath and Natasha’s face grows calm as ever. Bruce looks as though the place is familiar and Thor gives him a watery, comforting smile.

“You’re all idiots,” Clint tells them. “What the fuck are you all on?” But Natasha barely has to open her mouth before he is rolling his eyes and hopping up beside Bruce with careless ease. They stand in a line, staring out at the sunrise, Thor’s breaths hitching with hope. “Well? Now look at us. Bunch of fuckfaces standing on a tower. Looking like idiots.”

Tony’s mouth twitches before he closes his eyes. There’s something in his throat when he manages to finally speak, his heart pounding. “First time I was up on a ledge was when I was fourteen.”

It’s all too clear what he means and for a moment, Tony wants to scramble, wants to take it all back desperately, because he’s never bared himself vulnerably like this before. But the Avengers, the family in the dream Ebony Maw had given him, had already known and Tony thought maybe it wasn’t fair that this group didn’t know, either. Maybe he wants to compare both reactions.

“Seventeen,” Bruce confesses after a while, and Tony’s breath hitches.

Eight, but it was for a training session, he remembers Natasha saying next, hope clinging to his chest.

“Eight,” Natasha tells them, “but it was for a training session.”

Thor shakes his head. “Never.”

“Me neither,” Steve says softly, but he was the first one up beside Tony.

“Been up on ledges before I could walk,” Clint says as Natasha calls him a circus freak fondly.

Tony is reeling, his breaths fraught as he swallows tight, something like brief hope clinging to his chest as he lifts his head up. In the dream world, they had known it and they had accepted it, and they had reacted exactly like this. But the feeling of pure relief that overwhelms him is nothing like the mere shadow he’d felt in the dream world. Does this mean that, despite everything they have been through, in spite of all the pain and bitterness and anger and hatred, there might still be a chance? He’d thought he was being a heartsick, desperate idiot, as ever, when he’d unveiled the Avengers Tower and offered it, to be gently refused. Maybe that rejection didn’t mean a complete rejection of him, like he’d initially thought.

Clint is chuckling dryly. “The Princess was right,” he says. “We’re fucked up.”

None of them move strangely, and Tony thinks vaguely that maybe they’re waiting for him, but he’s almost slightly comfortable here. He still doesn’t know if he’s going to take that last step, as the quiet, sad silence ebbs between them all and Tony can practically feel the grief clinging to everyone. It’s not just them, he knows that rationally. They’re not the only ones out here who have lost people. All the work they’ve been doing with the rest of the world can attest to that.

But it still feels personal.

“It’s pretty,” Natasha hums quietly, her gaze fixed on the sunrise, the glow of the soft pink dawn casting over her features. “I never noticed how nice the view was from up here.”

“We were too busy fighting,” Tony mutters bitterly. “That’s all we ever do.”

.

.

Thor’s heart aches for them up on the ledge.

He’d been on Asgard, in the dream world Ebony Maw had delivered them, but he’d been starting to talk to Heimdall on the bridge, had been preparing to make a social call down to Midgard, to see what everyone was doing. And that stuns him a little more, leaves his heart aching that much more. Because he had never really done that, had he? Even before, social visits and parties and things of that sort were far and too few for people whose company he had really enjoyed. For people who had been like him, for people he had almost seen himself in.

The sheer casualness with which he’d conversed with Heimdall still startles him and Thor wishes deeply he’d stayed in that world. Perhaps it truly had been a mercy, as the alien had insisted, he thinks, his throat growing thick. But Tony and Natasha are speaking, and disappointment crushes the small trace of hope in his chest.

It is true. All they do is fight.

And if they are not fighting anything else, they are fighting each other.

Thor thinks of the casual ease he’d asked to see his friends again on Midgard, remembers the easy smile blooming across his face whenever he had seen them in the dream world, and looks up at the real Avengers beside him. Something like determination curls deep within him as he takes a breath and he knows, then, that he may have lost everything, but he will keep this. Whatever is left of them to salvage, even if they all step off this ledge right now, Thor wants to go, knowing that he has something left to love. Something that loves him back, too.

“We have been selfish. Me, more than most,” Thor tells them quietly, his voice wrecked with apology as he breathes out slowly. “And cruel to each other. Untrusting. Unyielding. For my part, I apologise to you all. I would kneel, but we happen to have very little space.”

For a moment, nobody says anything, but Thor can see the sadness and frustration creasing their faces, before Natasha lets out a taut breath. “We don’t trust each other,” she says. “And we have to talk. If we’re going to die, then I’d like to do it with some peace.”

“You think we deserve peace?” Thor hears Steve murmur, so quiet that only he hears, and he opens his mouth to answer, shocked, but Bruce is nodding.

“I want to know what exactly happened between us all that this went down in the first place,” Bruce tells them. “Everything’s splintered and I’d like to know why.”

“What do you care?” Tony bites out, but his voice has more sadness than barb. “You weren’t there.”

“Not by choice,” Bruce says calmly, as they turn their heads in alarm. “I was on some garbage planet in space, stuck as Hulk for two years before Thor saved me. He risked his life for me, helped me, and I trusted him when he told me he’d get me out, safe. Just as I thought we all trusted each other.” He looks at them. “I’d like to think that if that happened to me again and instead of Thor, I got any one of you, you’d still be willing to help me. That I could trust you, too.”

“Bruce—,” Steve begins, but Bruce is shaking his head.

“But the minute I came down here, the fight began, and we barely had a moment to ourselves and now that we do, now that we’ve lost, nobody wants to say anything at all,” Bruce says. “I get that, I do. But I thought we cared about each other a little bit more.”

Tony’s voice is hoarse. “That was just a dream, Bruce,” he says tautly. “We’re shits to each other. We’re not—we’re not like that, in this shitty reality.”

“But we want to be,” Clint says. “That alien showed us what we really wanted. And—and I don’t know about you guys, but I saw me taking the kids and Laura to the Avengers Tower, where—where we were all a team. All still friends.” He gives a small humourless laugh as he continues, “Tony, you were singing the wrong lyrics to—,”

Achy Breaky Heart,” Natasha says, sharing a wondrous smile with Clint, her free hand reaching to trail at the strand of loose hair on her shoulder.

For a moment, again, nobody says anything before Tony lets out a quiet breath.

“Damn you all,” he mutters without any heat, but he finally takes a step down from the ledge onto solid ground.

Natasha and Clint follow swiftly, helping Bruce down as Thor turns his head towards Steve. The captain is staring out at the sunrise, something aching and longing cast against his features as his eyes fill, and Thor reaches for his arm. Steve looks down in surprise when he feels Thor’s grip but shakily accepts it and avoids Thor’s worried gaze when he finally steps down, too. Tony has gone straight for the bench Thor often haunts, collapsing bonelessly onto it, as Bruce sits down beside him. It’s only when Thor sits down too that Natasha, Clint, and Steve follow suit.

Somehow, they all manage to squeeze onto the bench, the silence between them soft and lingering as the sun rises.

Tony lets out a heavy breath, breaking the silence. “Fuck, I need a drink.”

Thor opens his mouth immediately to offer Asgardian beverage, diluted of course, before he falters, remembering. Everything that was once Asgard is in pieces, torn apart to shreds. His home. His mother’s final resting place. The marketplace he used to run around in, with Loki, driving the merchants crazy, the training grounds he and Sif used to spar in. It’s all gone. His mother had been right there before him and he should have told her that he loved her more, even if it was some dream; Loki had been teasing him, as ever, and Thor had seen his neck cracked apart horrifically—

Oh, he’s lost them, he’s lost everything—he’s lost them all—

“Thor?”

He can’t breathe. His chest is growing tight, as though something hot and unyielding wraps itself around his heart, trying to stop it from beating, his throat thick with unshed tears, as Thor struggles. He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, he can’t see anything at all—

“Thor, it’s okay, you’re alright—,”

“He’s having a panic attack—,”

Voices float around him as Thor sobs hoarsely, gasping for air. He’s never felt so weak and vulnerable before, his chest clenched and his breaths short as he sputters. He has lost everything he has ever known and there is no hope left, there is nothing left for him anymore, and he will be alone, forever, because that was the worst thing to be done to him. Everyone around him has died and passed and gone, and here he is, watching them float away from his fingers, while he stays, stuck and living, alone and just going on.

Thor has never known such pain, and everything is horrible and painful and he’s panicking—

“We’ve got you, it’s alright—,”

“Think of something to ground you—,”

Thor shakes his head, sobbing. “I can’t—I—can’t breathe—,” he manages to get out, blinking up through blurred vision.

“Yes, you can. Thor, come on, I’ve done this before, you'll be okay—,"

“Breathe with me, come on, please, breathe.”

And slowly, Thor breathes with them hoarsely, painfully until he manages to contain his own. Slowly, his chest unwinds and when he blinks, he realises that his knees are pressed to the hard gravel of the rooftop, everyone kneeling beside him with the same expression of concern on their faces. Bruce is nearest to him, but they’re keeping their distance, at Tony’s order, so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed and Thor stares at them, feels as though his heart may collapse. They stayed. Just like in his dream.

“You alright, man?” Tony is asking, as Natasha offers her hand to help him to his feet.

But Thor refuses, feeling too weak to actually get up. He’s next to the bench, leaning back against the wood, as his breaths slowly get back to normal. Steve clears his throat.

“Thor, we’ve got you, come on,” he says, grasping his shoulder comfortingly.

“I cannot—I cannot get up,” Thor confesses, his cheeks flushed.

Nobody bats an eye and he’s choked with gratefulness when Steve sits down beside him on the hard ground quietly. Natasha and Bruce settle quickly, too, Clint sitting beside Natasha, and Tony stares at him for a while before he follows suit, worry flickering in the light of their eyes.

“That’s okay,” Steve says. “We’ll sit with you till you can.”

.

.

“We have to take care of each other,” Thor murmurs quietly. “We don’t have anyone else.”

Steve swallows tight, his breath hitching slightly as Natasha pushes back a stray lock of hair.

“I don’t want to lose us, too,” she confesses heavily, her eyes bright and soft all at once as she stares at them, cheeks red. “We—we don’t have time to waste, I know. And if we have any hope to keep fighting—there is a fracture here that will ruin any chance that we have left against Thanos. Logically, we all know it.” She stares at them tentatively. “And if there’s anything that we all agree on, it’s that we don’t stop fighting. So there. That’s—that’s a foundation to build on, at least.”

“I need a drink if we’re going to do this,” Tony says.

Somehow, they manage to stumble back down to the common room where they filch through the rest of the scattered rubble and bricks in the tower before Steve finds the liquor cabinet first. He can’t get drunk and neither can Thor, but how he wishes for the burn of it. Even before, in the forties, he never really cared for alcohol, and when he tried his first beer, he had practically choked at the taste as Bucky laughed at him for his lack of tolerance. But the numbness was something addicting and as Steve watches Tony and the others swig from the cracked bottles, walking back to the roof to get very drunk, he wishes he could stop feeling, too.

He feels like a dead man still breathing. As though he doesn’t know what it means to live without a war hanging over his head anymore.

There’s a moment where he finally manages to catch up to Tony.

He knows better than to try to offer his help to the man as Tony stumbles to the roof, but he swallows tight and focuses on Tony, who is determinedly looking away. Everyone is around them, but Steve takes a deep breath and summons his courage.

“Tony. I—I’d like to apologise, too,” he says. “To everyone, really, but first, to you—,”

“Don’t.”

“Please. I know you hate me—,”

“I don’t hate you.” Tony lifts his head, his eyes sad. “You were my friend. Or, I thought you were. But you lied to me.”

His voice is a heavy confession. “I was desperate,” Steve says, his voice thick and throat heavy. Tony’s forehead creases at him in confusion, as Steve tries to explain, cheeks flushed. “I just wanted to protect Bucky.”

“I could have helped you,” Tony tells him.

“Why would you?”

Hurt flashes through Tony’s face, and Steve curses himself once more. He’s gone and put his foot in it all over again, wincing. Why can he never say the right thing? How can he even sit amongst these superheroes right now, and pretend that he is anything like them? That he is worthy? Natasha’s eyes fixate on him, with some small modicum of understanding but Bruce and Thor are looking hurt and confused for him. Clint’s features are cool and quiet, patient as ever.

“Do you really think that low of me?” Tony lets out a heavy breath, staring at him, looking upset. He’s never seen Tony look so hurt before and Steve hates himself all over again.

“No,” he says urgently, shaking his head. Tony must understand it. “It—it’s me, Tony. I think that low of me. I’m not worth your time or your money or your help.” Shock filters through Tony’s face as understanding falls over them all and Thor inhales sharply, as Steve bares himself vulnerable to them all properly for the first time since he’s known them. “You’ve—you’ve already done so much for me and for everyone. I knew that you were—that you had a lot on your plate and I just didn’t want to add to it. Just thought that I could take Bucky and—,”

“Leave?” Natasha says, her voice tight. “You wanted to leave us.”

Tony is staring at him. “You’d just leave. Just like that.”

Steve doesn’t know what the startled, hurt expressions on their faces mean. Surely they can’t think that the act he puts on is real? That the whole Captain America spiel is what he’s really like? Captain America is everything good and kind and stronger than anything Steve Rogers could ever be. Sometimes he wishes Erskine never chose him. Or if he had, then Erskine could have told him what he saw in Steve Rogers, because Steve sure doesn’t see it in the mirror.

“I’m not like you guys,” Steve says, as Bruce shifts, brows furrowed. But there’s something in Clint’s gaze when he meets Steve’s eyes that say he understands. “I can’t do all the things you can. Supersoldier or not, I’m just Steve.”

“That makes no sense,” Tony says fiercely. “You’re not just Steve. You’re Captain America.”

Clint’s voice is low. “Yeah, it does. Nobody’s looking to the guy with a weapon from the Palaeolithic era to shoot lightning or rock up in a suit of armour, either,” he says, and Tony looks slightly stricken but Steve finally feels like someone understands. He just wishes it wasn’t so late. Clint clinks his bottle against Steve’s and nods. “I get it, man.”

Bruce is watching them. “I thought I was the one with the issues,” he says, with a soft genuine smile that Steve returns, something in his chest loosening at the way everyone seems to understand. “Nobody thought to look to the guy who got pulled out of the ice seventy years later.”

Natasha is watching him, but Tony’s voice is quiet. “Then, why did you leave?”

Steve looks back at him, wetting his lips. “I didn’t think I was worth staying for.”

Tony’s face shutters a little with pained understanding but he doesn’t look away, staring at him. There’s something in the way Tony looks at him that makes Steve realise that Tony gets it, too. He wonders at how long it took him to figure it out, that Tony felt exactly as inadequate and unworthy as he did every single day. And then when he looks around at them all, he realises that they’re all wearing the same expression, his heart feeling as though it might collapse apart in his chest as Steve’s breath catches.

None of the Avengers felt worthy enough to avenge? To be a hero?

Every one of them felt exactly the same as he had?

“I’ve never felt like a hero in my whole life,” Steve confesses heavily. “Even after the serum.”

“I guess we all know what I felt,” Bruce says.

“Neither have I,” Thor admits.

“Closest I ever came to liking myself was New York,” Nat tells them.

“Closest I ever came to offing myself was New York,” Clint says.

Tony gives a humourless snicker. “We’re all fucked up,” he says, and when he reaches his bottle, everyone clinks it together, giving drunk chuckles. When Tony nudges his bottle against Steve’s own, his throat sticks and Tony turns to look at him. “I won’t forget what you did, Steve—,”

“I would never—,”

“But I can understand it, I guess,” Tony says. He shrugs and takes a swig. “Starting a war for the only one who got you.”

“If it means anything,” Thor says, “I’d start a war for any of you.”

As Clint and Natasha propose a toast to that, Steve’s eyes burn with unshed tears.

The silence between them turns softer with the skies, shifting from the almost unbearable awkwardness to something a little more comfortable. It will still take a lot of time, Steve thinks, but now he thinks they might actually have a chance.

Natasha is playing with her hair, staring at the blonde strands with something inscrutable over her expression, as she leans against his shoulder on the roof. The cool air is soft against his cheeks and Steve can feel that something is broken, and his leg is bruised to the point where he can hardly move it, but he doesn’t care much. Everyone else seems to be relatively alright, with Bruce fussing over the bandages Rhodey had tied around Tony’s arm and though Tony insists he doesn’t need to be babied, it’s not too difficult to see how touch-starved the man is.

“My hair, Steve…” Nat mumbles tiredly against his shoulder. She takes another swig of the bottle and Steve is startled to see the tears in her eyes.

“Nat?” he asks worriedly, but she’s shaking her head, clearing her throat.

“Sam and I,” she tells them. “We planned to turn your hair pink. Bought the dye and everything. Sam said he’d take pictures. It was Bucky’s idea.”

“Sounds like them,” Steve says, his lips twitching. “Punks.”

Tony almost chokes with laughter, the drink turning his voice slurred and strange. Bruce and Clint are chuckling, their hands clutching their bottles tightly, but Thor still stares up at the skies, albeit with a small smile against his features as Natasha gives a smug smirk, tinged with pain. Steve lets her rest her head against his thigh, her hair fanning around her, as she pushes back to lie down on the rooftop, her head lifted up to look at the sky above them. Everyone lies sprawled on the rooftop, tired and exhausted amidst the brick and rubble, the skies starting to lighten and cast gold hues over their wan faces.

“I never told you,” Natasha tells him, “but I knew him. Bucky. The American, they called him in the Red Room.” They’re staring at her, alarmed, but Natasha doesn’t seem to notice, as she raises an arm to the air, eyeing it thoughtfully. “He broke this arm.”

“You said it was your leg,” Clint says.

“And a leg.”

Bruce’s eyes widen and Tony swears lightly under his breath. “You never talk about the Red Room,” Bruce comments quietly.

“Well, it wasn’t the Bahamas,” Natasha says drunkenly, snickering slightly as Clint reaches forward to clink her bottle against his. “And you’ve never talked about the gamma radiation, Bruce.”

“It’s not really a story worth telling, but I get your point.”

Natasha hums thoughtfully, as Steve lets out a taut breath. Thor has turned his gaze from the skies to look at them all, his brows furrowed. “We’ve seen so much. It’s so strange to think we survived all of that,” Thor says, “only to turn to dust.”

“We’re not letting them go, you know that, right?” Steve says immediately, a fierce line edging his voice. To his surprise, Tony is the first to nod sharply and agree. “Everyone who was snapped to dust—we’re going to bring them back.”

But though everyone else looks fierce and determined and hopeless all at once, Thor’s eyes brim and he gives a small smile. “My people were not snapped,” he says quietly and Steve stills in horror. Thor hasn’t said a word about Asgard or Loki or what exactly happened when Thanos had first attacked them. Even Bruce had only given them a few lines to explain the attack, but they didn’t really know. “Thanos and his army ravaged us all, without mercy. Heimdall and—and the others fell. We survived my sister and the fall of Asgard only to die at Thanos’ hand.”

So, even if they reverse what Thanos did, it’s unlikely Thor will ever get his world back. They all understand even if he hasn’t said it. Natasha is reaching for Thor’s hand and she squeezes as Thor lets out a small breath.

“Thor—,”

“And Loki,” Thor says, his voice heavy, and out of the corner of his eye, Steve sees Clint stiffen briefly. “He’s gone, too. No resurrections this time.”

Tony swallows. “I’m sorry, Thor.”

Thor’s eyes are bright. “I lost everyone, but I never thought that I could lose him. Not really. He was always a slippery thing, my brother. No matter how many times he died, I knew that he would always come back,” he tells them. “But Loki would not do this to me.” Thor reaches for the bottle that Bruce offers him and takes a swig. It has no effect on him. “I have lost everyone. I vowed to protect them, to lead them. And I killed them all. How do you live with yourself?”

Steve still doesn’t know the answer to that one. But Natasha does. “I’m just figuring it out,” she confesses, and she looks up at them with a small, pained smile. “But people make it easier.”

Chapter Text

“Are we sure this is a good idea?”

Clint laughs uncontrollably at Bruce’s slurred speech, sagging beside Tony in the bathroom as they pile onto the cracked marble tiles. Bruce is trying to look important as he helps Natasha sit up next to the large bathtub, Thor and Steve moving forward to help her properly. Tony is already pulling open the bathroom cabinets, the ones that are still holding strong, and shaking through boxes of hair dye as Clint squints at them, frowning.

“It’s a good thing,” Tony insists drunkenly. “‘cause Nat doesn’t like her hair, see?”

Natasha is nodding, reaching to pick up a strand of her hair sadly. “S’pposed to be red.”

“Who has this much hair dye?” Steve says, as he sifts through the boxes Tony’s tossing onto the floor. “And how do you have the exact shade of Nat’s old hair?”

“You didn’t think Pepper’s hair was real?” Clint giggles, finding the whole situation too funny.

“C’mon,” Bruce says, sounding important as he kneels to Natasha’s side near the bathtub. Steve hurries forward to stop him from tilting the entire unopened box over Natasha’s head and grabs the box just in time. “Ste-e-e-eve!”

Steve’s lips twitch as Clint leans heavily against Tony, stifling a tired yawn, and he and Thor promise to dye Natasha’s hair properly, insisting that the others just take a moment to rest for a bit. Tony agrees immediately, collapsing against Clint who stares at the glowing arc reactor in his chest for a moment, his brows furrowed. Bruce takes a little longer to convince and by the time Thor has finished convincing him, Natasha is half asleep, leaning heavily on Steve’s side, as Steve reads out the instructions on the back of the box.

“Does—it hurt?” Clint asks, wanting to tap the arc reactor but holding back.

“No,” Natasha assures Steve, reaching a hand up to pat his cheek but accidentally poking him in the eye.

Steve is partially blinded for a moment, leaving Thor to finish up, as Clint calls Tony’s attention back to them and Bruce insists that he can save Steve’s eye. Tony looks at Clint thoughtfully, something strange and old flittering through his features quietly, as Steve tries to reassure Bruce that he really doesn’t need surgery for his eye.

“Not really,” Tony says, shaking his head. “Not anymore.”

Clint lets out a breath. “That’s good,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Tony’s eyes are too bright, but his smile is soft and hopeful. Natasha hums a slow melody as she leans against Thor’s side, an old Russian song Clint’s heard her sing a couple of times, and quietly, Thor joins in, applying the dye to her hair with care. Bruce has finally given up trying to convince Steve that he needs to undergo an operation and Steve gently tugs the rest of the bottles from their fingers, with very little protest as Clint’s rather tired now. Tony’s shoulder and the marbled bathroom floor look very comfy, he thinks to himself.

“When I was in school, I tried to be like you, Steve,” Tony says, lifting his head, as Natasha’s lullaby trails away.

Steve looks stricken, before he asks, “What do you mean, Tony?”

“Used to pick fights all the time.” Tony shakes his head. “Not as noble as you, though.”

Natasha turns her head. “Why?”

“My mother,” he says.

Clint stills a little, thinking of his brother in the circus, his ears still burning as though he’s just recently gotten them boxed in. He’d been so lucky, too lucky, the doctors told him. He could have completely lost his hearing.

His voice is hoarse when he speaks. “Defending her honour?” Clint asks.

“No,” Tony says, as Bruce turns to look at him. He lets out a breath, gives a fake smile that they all see right through. “Howard was a fucking dick, but he had a great right hook.” Thor inhales sharply at that, but Tony is continuing, Steve’s eyes widening with fury. Clint’s fist clenches at the implication, something hot and angry burning in his chest. “If she only saw the shit Tiberius Stone and the other fuckers laid on me, she wouldn’t have to choose Howard over me.”

Bruce’s face creases with something like understanding, but Steve is looking mutinous, much like how Clint is feeling right now. Because he gets it. He gets the refusal to speak up, because if you do, you lose something much greater, worth much more. You risk a choice to be made—you or them. And God help you if you’re tossed in the dust because they mean so much more. He couldn’t survive a choice like that. He’d rather forever wonder if they didn’t care, rather than know for certain. When Clint looks at Tony, he can understand why a young Tony, a fresh thing in MIT and tossed out into the harsh world, would rather choose to be hurt by his father than his mother.

“Tony,” Steve is muttering, swearing low under his breath.

Clint raises a hand. “We should go piss on his grave.”

“Been there, done that,” Tony says, drunkenly chuckling, as he bumps fists with Clint who crows in triumph and admiration for Tony. Steve is still looking conflicted but Thor’s lips quirk a little upwards in amusement as he helps adjust Natasha so she doesn’t lean at an awkward angle against the bathtub. Bruce is watching them, something inscrutable in his expression, but his eyes brighten a little in humour. “Almost broke the fucker’s headstone too, but Rhodey said it wasn’t worth it.”

“What,” Natasha says, pulling herself up, “makes you think that your mother would pick Howard over you, Tony?”

Tony looks at Steve. “Everyone fucking does.”

“I didn’t,” Bruce pipes up, and Tony high fives him.

Steve clears his throat. “I wouldn’t.”

Clint watches Tony’s face shutter a little as the realisation of what Steve’s saying, of what Steve’s promising, filters over him properly. Natasha speaks before anyone else can, Thor and Bruce helping to clean away the residual dye.

“Did you ever give her the chance, Tony?” she asks softly. “Because the information I got on Maria Stark said that she cared for Howard, but she killed three people who tried to take you when you were a baby.” When Tony stares, blinking, Natasha gives him a small smile and reaches for his hand to squeeze it, tight and comforting. She turns around to them all, looking quiet and hopeful. “Maybe it’s time that we give us all a chance again.”

.

.

Rocket is trudging back up the stairs, looking for Nebula when he sees them on the ledge.

If anyone asks, he wasn’t praying that his Guardians come back to him. No fucking way was he dragging himself up the steps, thinking of the way Nebula screamed for Gamora, the way his chest had practically caved in on itself with sheer, blinding hope at the sight of her face. To think that someone, other than Groot, could have kickstarted such a wondrous emotion in him is enough to make him feel sick, but Rocket can’t deny the relief in him. He knows that he would take a million hits from Gamora if he just knew that she was okay.

Fuck, Rocket thinks, looking around the rubble and half hoping Nebula’s not under them all, half hoping she is. He even mises Quill. He just wants them to come back to him, he thinks, wanting to hate himself for letting his heart open up just a smidge to let those idiot Guardians inside. Or if he could not bring them back, then he would easily go to meet them instead.

It’s why, when he lifts his head up and he sees them on the ledge, he doesn’t immediately think, somebody stop them, they’re about to jump, they’re doing Thanos’ job for them. Rocket also doesn’t do what Quill would have done, which is lunging forwards without thinking and grabbing at their legs and inadvertently tipping them both over the edge, leaving Gamora or one of the others to help them out. Rocket speaks from experience. Putting an experimenting Drax and a curious Mantis near the airlock had been a mistake nobody was willing to repeat.

Instead, he thinks, yeah, I get it.

They’re all up there, even Thor, standing on the ledge between life and death, and Rocket half wants to scream at them. He’s so jealous he writhes hopelessly with the feeling, because they have each other, at least. At least, they are not alone, like he is. Nebula is gone and Gamora is not Gamora and Groot fell apart in Rocket’s arms and when he sleeps, he dreams of them back in the ship, the blue and purple galaxy coursing around them softly.

“Everywhere I go,” Rocket mutters instead, trying his best to sound as bitter and jealous as possible though his voice careens into something a little more broken and hoarser instead, “I’m surrounded by idiots. Idiots in a circle, idiots on a ledge.”

He stares at them, something hot and burning in his chest.

Quill would tell him to do something, Rocket knows. Gamora, too. They’re the ones most concerned with doing the right thing, whatever that is. But they’re not here, some dark, twisted part of him snarls fiercely and it’s the angered, furious part of him that swallows him up sometimes, that consumes him completely. The overwhelming fury that Rocket used to carry in his chest in the days before the guardians and Groot. It’s nasty and drenched in the blood of the scientists who had peeled his back apart and though there is the promise of blessed numbness, Rocket knows that if he lets himself grow that angry again, there’s no way he would ever get anyone back. 

They’re not here, but they should be, he thinks, watching them stand on the edge of the world. The wind picks up something sharp and cool and the blow Gamora left on his head aches something fierce. Should I say something? Should I do something? Let them jump, what do I care?

And then that blasted little voice in the back of his voice, the one that sounds too much like Mantis’ soft tenor and Drax’s booming laugh and Gamora’s teasing and Groot’s gruffness and all of Quill, sneaks back. Quill would give a shit. They would all give too much of a shit, Rocket knows it. He can practically see the way Quill screws his face up in frustration when they’re being shits and Drax considering the pros and cons of the reward they’d receive while Gamora would insist that being good guardians was supposed to be its own reward.

Fuck, he’s gone native, Rocket thinks but it’s hard to regret even that, now.

When he lifts his head up again, he realises there was no point in debating all of that. They’re all sprawled on the rooftop, far away from the ledge, dawning sunlight scattering softly all over them. Rocket stares at them with a mixture of hatred and jealousy and burning grief, before he turns away, clutching Quill’s Walkman so hard it could snap. He lets out a hoarse, shaky breath, his chest aching terribly, gaze turning back to the Walkman.

Come back to me.

.

.

“The death stone?” Shuri repeats quizzically.

Tony hisses a little as Rhodey and Bruce look over his injured arm once again from the sofa where they had insisted he sit while they examine him. Rhodey is seated beside him, his brows furrowed but Tony waves his friend up, knowing that he wants to help Shuri up at the deck, too. The lab is relatively empty today, with Steve going to debrief the UN and President Betty of the events and Rocket re-watching the fight on the screens, quietly rewinding on all the parts with Gamora and Nebula. Natasha and Clint are helping the clean-up of the tower, and Thor is with them, trying to stabilise it with his own magic. Bruce had tried to get the Hulk to help, but Hulk is being uncooperative, as ever. He didn’t even so much as lift his head when Tony tried to speak to him and they’re worried, but right now, their problems are a little bigger and Bruce insists that they’re fine.

Rhodey is nodding. “That’s what he called it,” he says, eyeing the chaos around Tony’s wall in the common room.

The place vibrates with energy and what feels like literal death. Tony thought he knew death, had watched it take away everything he loved, but that was a mere shadow, a fragment compared to what is lingering around them right now. No, that was some careless shade attempting at death, barely a raven’s wings as it caressed them lightly. This is death, all dark and ugly and jagged, soaking the world in a cool warmth to lull everyone into some false sense of security, before it greedily unhinges its jaws wide open and takes and takes and takes.

Shuri is looking ragged and worried, too young for such worry lines, Tony thinks distractedly as the princess bends her head over her tablet in thought. “And his aim was to kill the snapped ones properly, make their deaths permanent?”

“Which means that there’s still a chance they’re out there,” Tony says.

He doesn’t really need to say it out loud; everyone got the message loud and clear, but there’s a firm hope that lingers every time one of them says it. They had been running on blind desperation before, but now there’s a chance. Nebula had, as ever, been right and Tony turns his head back to Rocket, who is scanning the footage once more to see where she’d gone.

The princess’ eyes water briefly before she gulps and nods tightly. “We don’t know if he has used the death stone, yet.”

“I think we’d know,” Bruce says, rubbing the back of his head as he finally lets go of Tony’s arm and Tony flashes a quick, grateful smile. “When Cull Obsidian took the brunt of the stone, it was—devastating. We could—I could practically taste his death.”

“Ew,” Rocket pipes up in distaste as everyone makes a face, but Tony gets it.

He knows exactly what Bruce is talking about. It’s hard to explain, but the sheer power he had felt emanate and crack across the whole tower—it had been devouring everything. Cull Obsidian had been literally reduced to nothing at all and wasn’t that a terrifying thought? Imagine having your entire existence rooted out completely.

“And the stone was severely destabilised,” he adds, rubbing his forehead. “There is no way that Thanos, even as powerful as he is, would be able to hold something like that. Cull Obsidian barely grazed the thing and it ate him.” Tony is thinking aloud, his brows furrowed together. “He’d need to find a way to harness the power safely, so he doesn’t kill himself even more. One more snap of the stones, of any stones, and he’d destroy himself. And I don’t think he’s willing to die for the stones, funnily enough.”

“No,” Rocket mutters bitterly, “he wants to have victory sex with Hela.”

Tony pulls a face, feeling vaguely disgusted before Thor walks in and immediately, he tries to rearrange his features. Thor’s smile is pained in a way that makes Tony frown a little. They’d spoken a little about Ragnarok and what Hela had done to Asgard, but Bruce had confessed that it was Thor’s story to tell and Thor had just looked so sad that nobody wanted to push.

“Please,” Thor says, and Tony has never seen a raccoon look so embarrassed before. “Speak of my sister with some respect. She may be… she is still family, I’m afraid.”

He remembers Thor talking about Hela last night, but it was very little.

Last night had been a fucking adventure, that was for sure, Tony thinks. He certainly never thought that he would wake up, sprawled on the rooftop, squished against Bruce’s shoulder and Natasha’s legs thrown over his stomach as Clint and Thor snored louder than the heavens. Steve had been sleeping soundly next to Natasha, which Tony was kind of grateful for, because they may have talked but things were still too raw.

The time had passed since Siberia and everything in the Civil War as the media had smugly dubbed it, but Tony is still grateful that something seemed to have been said. He’s grateful that Steve apologised, at least, but he’s not very surprised. Steve’s a good man, despite what he thinks of himself. Which apparently isn’t very much, Tony had been startled to discover. He’d recognised the gaping self-hatred, the sheer inability to look in the mirror and like what’s looking back, in Steve’s face, because like recognises like, doesn’t it? What had been surprising was that every single Avenger on that bloody rooftop seemed to recognise it, too.

He knew sensibly, rationally even, that they had all gone through terrible shit, but Tony had thought that they had managed to deal with it far better than he had. That they were fine, unlike him, and he was the only inadequate one in the group, the only non-Avenger. The consultant, always straining to reach the level of superhero status and always just missing the mark. Imagine his surprise when every one of them had felt exactly the same. It had made him feel defensive and angered on their behalf, because he knew their worth. Tony saw what they were capable of.

It didn’t make sense that they would be so insecure, he had argued, and Natasha had drunkenly giggled that they were in a tower of his making, surrounded by strewn pieces of the armour he’d built with his own hands, and he still had the audacity to call himself a consultant. Tony had said fiercely that the same could be said for every single one of them, that they were all good people, before Natasha clinked her bottle against his, her damp hair against his shoulder, and toasted to his words.

Maybe Fury had been onto something, after all, Tony remembers thinking.

And then he had finally slept.

It had been a bit of a surprise, him sleeping, as he hadn’t been able to sleep for weeks now.

Not anywhere but in the room that was Peter’s, that’s filled with his schoolwork and his Lego sets and his things that make him Peter. In his breaks, when everyone thought that he was sleeping, he used to go to sit in Peter’s room, hollowed out and numb. If he did sleep, it was in fitful bursts and he woke, muffling his own screams. Most of the time, he never bothered, choosing instead to look through the videos of his workshop where he and Peter would sometimes work. Every moment he watched was like being stabbed through the heart and healing his heart at the same time.

But Tony had managed to sleep last night. It had been a fitful sleep, but he’d managed it.

“Thor?” Bruce is clearing his throat. “What do you know?”

Thor is examining the wall carefully, his brows furrowed in thought. Tony recognises it as his worried face and shifts a little, swallowing tight. “Loki,” Thor finally breathes, lightning sparks clattering from his fingers.

There’s something like relief clinging to his features, though Bruce and Rocket lift their heads, looking concerned. He doesn’t think Loki is still alive, does he? Tony has to think about it. It would be something the Trickster would do, he thinks, but he remembers how grief-stricken and wrought Thor had been. Would his brother really put him through something like that?

Bruce’s voice is soft when he speaks. “Thor—,”

Thor shakes his head, waving away their concerns. “This is Loki’s magic. His protective enchantments. He stored the death stone safely away in here for…” Thor uses his own magic, fingers sparking, to peel back Loki’s spells, the blue shifting softly around the green, caressing it gently as Tony watches, fascinated. “Years. Since—since New York.”

Tony blinks. “Excuse me, what?”

Loki, you fucker. Tony’s stomach drops uncomfortably. He kept a death stone in his tower?! Tony is staring at the wall, thinking of the many times he’s carelessly knocked against it. Fuck, didn’t he have sex against that wall? Multiple times? Holy shit, he needs to sit down.

“Tony, you are sitting down,” Rhodey tells him, as Tony splutters. “Here, man, take a breath. Come on. I got you.”

Tony shakes his head. “That motherfucker,” he mutters, quiet so that Thor doesn’t hear him, as Rhodey nods, his lips twitching.

His best friend is narrowing his gaze at him. “Didn’t you…”

“Yes.”

“How many—,”

Too many, Rhodey!”

Rhodey snorts with amusement. “Ah.”

Shuri is lifting her head from her tablet, listening to Thor talk about Loki’s magic and the power of the death stone. “Is there a possibility that we can use the stone to reverse the deaths?” she says, brows furrowed. “If it has the ability to take life, surely, we can find a way to—,”

“Make it give us the universe back,” Tony breathes hopefully, nodding tightly, just as Steve and the others come back in the room.

It’s unfortunately become a habit to stiffen in defence at the sight of everyone in the room, but the slight awkwardness filtering with the unfamiliar sense of seeing someone open themselves bare in the soft comfort of the night, now contrasted in the sharp daylight is a strange sensation indeed. Like a one-night stand, Tony thinks faintly as he gets to his feet, except without the benefits of great sex. He forces himself to relax, taking some comfort in the fact that everyone else is feeling just as awkward as he feels, as Clint tries to smile at them before seating himself uncertainly in a way that reminds Tony that the man had dissolved into a giggling fit at the word ‘orange’ and collapsed against his shoulder last night.

Natasha’s red hair gleams in the soft light and Tony doesn’t miss the soft smile at the edge of her lips every time she reaches for the strands to push them back. She sits down next to Clint with that ease of firm purpose she always has, and Steve is the last to come in, though he doesn’t sit. Before, Tony would have thought it the usual arrogance of the Captain, but now, with the hindsight of last night, he sees the quiet uncertain insecurity lingering at the edge of Steve’s shaking hands, the way the man keeps himself just a little bit out of the circle he believes he doesn’t belong to.

Tony knows all too well what that feels like.

He won’t have it anymore.

“So, we just have to find Thanos and get the death stone back before he can use it,” Rhodey says.

“And Gamora and Nebula,” Rocket interrupts sharply, his voice firm and unyielding. He lifts his head defiantly, as though ready for a fight, but everyone is nodding their heads in agreement. “We have to find them, too.”

Bruce is looking worried. “It’s a big universe,” Natasha voices their concern out loud. “Where do we even start?”

But Thor’s forehead is creased. “I know where they are,” he says, his voice steadying slightly as they snap their heads towards him in alarm. But Thor is looking determined, blue lightning sparks at the edge of his fingertips as he meets their gazes firmly. “I know where Thanos would have taken Nebula.”

“Where?” Clint demands.

“Establish one thing for me, first,” Thor says first, looking around at them all carefully. “Nothing is off limits. What would you do for the ones you love?”

There’s no hesitation. Tony lifts his head and answers for everyone clearly. “We’d go to the end of the universe for them.”

“Well, lucky for us, that’s our stop.”

Chapter Text

Thor buckles himself in with shaking hands, the stars gleaming around him.

Space is as devastating and beautiful as ever, with gleaming collapsing nebulas and broken constellations, grey clouds pooling around them, but when he peers closer, he realises there is an actual layer of ash and dust scattered across the universe. Parts of the universe really are cracking apart, Thor realises, something twisting the pits of his stomach. Mass genocide on a scale even the universe’s Watchers could never have seen, he thinks, wondering if he ought to be grateful that his people did not live to suffer through such a hardship.

If he should be happy that Loki suffered a quick and clean death rather than the little bit of death that Thor has to swallow every day.

His heart is beginning to flutter into a panic once more, his chest tightening when he feels a nudging at his shoulder and Thor snaps his head up, startled. The world focuses briefly around him, as the ship rockets forward, a dizzying sensation hitting his head, as Rocket shouts for them to hold on tight. Steve is looking as though he might be sick, while Tony sits up with Rocket as ever, but Natasha’s the one who is seated close enough to Thor that she’s pushed against his shoulder.

He’s not sure whether she’s seated beside him for his benefit or her own, but when she reaches to squeeze his shoulder again, Thor actively accepts it.

“How far, big guy?” Rocket calls to him.

Thor swallows tight before he answers, ripping his gaze away from the window where a cloud of ashy grey splinters through the glowing constellations. “I’ve never been. It’s further than Asgard, though, and I know the way. Heimdall would have—,” he falters, pushing himself back into his seat, the crushing pall over his heart once more. His thoughts finish the line before he can manage, his mouth feeling as though it’s filled with wool as he struggles to breathe. Heimdall would have known.

Steve makes an effort to reach forwards, swallowing, as Bruce and Clint mirror the worried expressions on his features, and even though he looks like he might be sick, the good captain still seeks to comfort him over establishing his own ease.

“Are we going in the right direction, Thor?” Steve asks him gently, deliberately giving him a question that doesn’t require him to speak.

Grateful that he doesn’t have to speak, Thor nods.

Rocket says something that Thor can’t hear over the cacophony of the ship bursting forwards into the skies, with Tony answering, as Natasha leans forward, her red hair swinging. He remembers touching the hair and listening to her sleepily sing a song, something in the quiet vulnerability catching his heart. She doesn’t touch him, though Thor kind of wishes she would.

He’s so touch-starved he cried a little in the soft hours of the morning when he woke, sunlight spilling across his form on the rooftop where he was leaning heavily on Bruce and sprawled against Clint’s arm, Natasha using his as a makeshift pillow. Thor is not used to people staying beside him for very long, and the last time anyone touched him was his mother caressing his cheek.

“Thor?” Natasha is offering them all something out of a bag that he doesn’t remember her packing. But Natasha’s always like that, isn’t she? Not a mystery, but smart and prepared and open. Why had he never bothered to get to know her even more? Thor’s gaze lingers briefly on her red hair before she smiles at him. “It’s ginger. Settles my stomach when I get carsick. I thought it might help here as well.” Clint takes his stick first and Natasha rummages through her bag. “I got some for all of us.”

He’s not really feeling sick, so he doesn’t know if it will work. The way his stomach flips uncomfortably is just his brimming panic for the breaking universe outside of the ship. Thor takes the piece of ginger with shaking fingers gratefully, the warmth of Natasha’s small, hopeful smile spilling over him, and puts it between his teeth. Almost automatically, they all make comically disgusted expressions, with Bruce screwing up his face and Steve almost choking. Tony has to spit his out, while a complaining Rocket reaches to swig something from his personal bottle to get out the taste.

Thor doesn’t spit it out, but the raw ginger spreads bitterly in his mouth and leaves a residual, lingering taste, a film over his tongue. He almost thinks he might like it. Clint and Natasha are the only ones who chew completely, looking vaguely amused as Bruce practically chugs the bottled water. Steve doesn’t look like he might be sick anymore, but he reaches for the water as soon as Bruce is done and drinks heartily, too. Natasha reaches into her bag to offer them all some more with a wicked grin hidden at the edge of her mouth, but they insist that they no longer feel sick.

“Where exactly is it we’re going?” Clint asks finally, lifting his head.

“The Kingdom of Hel,” Thor says, reaching a hand up to rub the back of his head, as they gape at him. “My sister’s domain. She rules it now, I’m told.”

Heimdall had told him what had become of Hela during the few moments they could get to themselves after the destruction of Asgard and when they had taken to the stars. She hadn’t been completely cast out as Odin had wanted her to be and had wrought her reign on the black gates of Hel throughout the past centuries, until his death had set her wholly free to take Asgard. Thor and Loki had listened to Heimdall avidly, both of them trying not to look so impressed. Their sister had managed to rule an entire kingdom all by herself quite successfully, which was a rather big feat for an Odinson.

Tony blinks. “What.”

“It is where the dead all go to receive their dues,” Thor explains. They must not know very much about Hel, he thinks, and secretly chides Midgard’s education systems again. Every single Asgardian child can recite all the rhymes about each land of Hel by the age of seven. Or, he thinks sombrely, they could. He clears his throat to continue. “Hela is in charge of the dead. She directs where they go, what they deserve. Apparently, she’s done a very good job of it. I hear she receives special commendations from the Watchers. Personally.”

Hela took out his eye, Thor has to remind himself. Wrought ruin over Asgard and brought everything about the kingdom to its knees. Made them all refugees, destroyed everything.

But personal commendations from the Watchers?

It’s hard not to be a little impressed at that.

Everyone is still staring blankly at him. Midgard was more backwards than he thought, Thor thinks and opens his mouth to explain some more.

“We’re going to meet your crazy sister,” Rocket says blandly. “The one who—,”

The raccoon points at the eyepatch, spluttering something incoherently. Wearing a dead man’s eye had gotten a little uncomfortable for him, especially when it kept spinning about and trying to jump out at random intervals. He’d accidentally sent an old lady screaming in the street and that was when Thor had decided to give back the eye.

Thor nods. “I know what it sounds like—,”

“She tried to destroy Asgard,” Bruce says. He blinks and corrects himself. “She did destroy Asgard. And she’s Thanos’ …”

“I want to say girlfriend, but that just sounds wrong on so many levels,” Tony says as Clint nods in agreement, pulling a face that Thor doesn’t really appreciate.

Will he always have to defend his siblings to them?

Steve is frowning. “Thor, are you sure?”

He knows what it sounds like, he really does. But Hela is an Odinson and no goddess would ever go for a Titan. It sounds classist, and it is, but that’s kind of the way of it. Thor remembers all the raised eyebrows when he brought Jane to Asgard. Instead of this sound argument, which he thinks the others might not appreciate as much, Thor says, “There is no place else Thanos can go. Titan is a mass of rubble. His farm? We put a stop to that.”

“Fuck yes we did,” Tony says smugly, and he bumps fists with Clint.

“Exactly,” Thor says, and he wishes he could bump fists, too. Instead, he continues, a little revived. “He will be in Hel and he will be with Gamora and Nebula, too. Trying to figure out a way to stabilise the death stone, I suspect.” He smirks to himself, a bitter, curled thing filled with a blank humour. “He will be searching forever.”

“Why’s that?” Bruce asks.

When he lifts his head to look at them, he gives a humourless smile, something deep and aching in his chest as he speaks. “The death stone was wrapped in Loki’s magic. I—I could see it. Loki laced the stone with protective spells. Intricate, very well written stuff. My mother taught him.” It had taken everything within him to step away from it, so desperate was he to wrap himself up in something of his dead brother and his mother, too. He hadn’t seen her magic in a long time. The grief threatens to knock him out as Thor continues, knowing they don’t understand. “If Thanos wishes to use the stone, he must first break the protections Loki wound around the stone. And the only way he can do that is—,”

“With Loki himself,” Clint says, letting out a breath.

Thor’s smile drops immediately, then. Because though none of them say it out loud, he can practically hear it in the silent ship.

Good thing he’s dead, then.

.

.

Thor is looking slightly distraught, Natasha realises warily.

It’s hard not to feel grateful that Loki is dead, given the utter nightmare he put them through a few years back, but he was still Thor’s brother and Thor had loved him deeply, even so. That kind of love, Natasha can’t help but feel slightly jealous of. And from what she can gather from Bruce, Loki had even helped them out of a few tough spots. Yes, it’s all too confusing, but Natasha understands it. How do you see past the blood on the hands of the person beside you?

Everyone around her seems to forget that she has toppled not just regimes but sliced apart whole countries. Forget politicians and diplomats, Natasha’s kill count for the innocents spikes much higher than it does for the not-so-innocent. She’s destroyed the beginnings of empires and there would be a whole new set of islands in the West now if it wasn’t for her. Natasha’s ledgers aren’t just dripping, they’re, like Loki told her, gushing.

Sometimes, she’s grateful for it. Loves the way they look at her, the way Steve smiles as though he only believes that she is goodness and Tony jokes with her or Clint nudges her shoulder, tapping out on the mat frantically. But other times, Natasha wants to scream at them. Don’t you know what I have done? Do you not understand that the world you stand in, I helped to shape and build? I hold so many secrets and so many ways that I may kill you and you still leave yourselves so desperately unguarded—I do not deserve that. See me. Know me. Hear me.

But they don’t. Natasha can’t really blame them for that. Everyone’s walls are raised higher than Tony’s tower. Everything in this team, in this ship even, is so damned fragile and she hates it and loves it all in the same breath.

Natasha looks at them and she knows that she wants this desperately, has always wanted this. So, she swallows tightly, leans forward. Space is trippy as ever, the broken constellations bursting around the windows in a way that makes her stomach flip a little, but she forces herself to ignore it.

“We’re sorry about Loki, Thor,” Natasha says, catching the way Clint stiffens a little, visibly uncomfortable, in the corner of her vision. She falters a little, but continues, “Despite everything, he’s—he’s still your brother.”

Tony puts a hand on Thor’s shoulder as Clint clears his throat awkwardly and Bruce nods. Steve is watching Thor warily, but the god lifts his head, giving a bracing smile.

“Despite everything,” Thor repeats softly, and Natasha freezes briefly. Has she gone too far? Has she destroyed it already? Is this finally the end of them? “Loki was—was selfish and cruel and I do not want to brush past everything he has done, but I must defend my brother’s honour.”

“Thor?” Steve’s voice is quiet with ringing confusion.

“He was taken by Thanos,” Thor confesses, and Natasha feels, rather than sees, the way everyone immediately stiffens at that. She herself is focusing on keeping her face as smooth and impassive as ever, though the information is blinding. Loki? In Thanos’ clutches? “It is not my secret to tell, but I cannot abide this—mockery, no, this misunderstanding of him, when he fought so valiantly, so bravely during New York—,”

Natasha’s stomach drops, as the tension immediately snaps. She has enough time to think, oh no, before it all goes down again.

“Oh, that’s convenient,” Clint snarls out, his face wan and pale as the snappishness in his tone rings around the ship. He’s looking defensive and slightly distraught as he continues. “And we’re supposed to believe this, that he had such a change of heart? What, do you want to gift him a fucking medal for New York, because he conveniently happened to be Thanos’ puppet?”

Steve’s eyes are widening in alarm. “Clint, that’s not—,”

“There is nothing convenient about it,” Thor says sharply. “My brother was tortured by the Mad Titan to the point of insanity and he spent every second of New York, trying his best to aid and abet us. He told me this himself—,”

Clint barks out a mad laugh that borders on unhinged. “And you believed him?” He’s utterly scathing and the way he looks right now reminds Natasha of the darkest days after New York, when Clint hadn’t even trusted himself around his own family, refusing to go home. Natasha opens her mouth, reaching for him, but he just shakes her off. “You’re supposed to be a god, mate, but you really are just some ignorant blonde jock, aren’t you?”

“That’s going too far,” Tony says angrily, defensive. “Clint—,”

“No, too far is what the fuck his brother made me do,” Clint snaps hoarsely, breathing hard. His voice is breaking slightly as Steve and Bruce both wince, but Natasha swallows tight, opening her mouth. But Clint continues, angry and husky and bitter, as he lifts his head, eyes brimming with unshed tears. “Do you know what he made me do—and now he wants us to forgive him for it? He took over my head and made me, violated—I’m not fucking forgiving him for anything!”

“You’re one to fucking talk,” Tony snaps right back, and Natasha’s voice dies in her throat in confusion.

Steve is still trying to act as mediator. “Guys, come on—,”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Clint says sharply, looking ready for a fight and unfortunately, Tony looks just as willing, Natasha realises. She has to stop this, she thinks to herself, beginning to panic, her eyes burning. She has to—

“Maximoff violated all of us and you brought her in with a fucking welcome cake,” Tony says darkly, as Natasha’s stomach drops and she remembers a harsh array of colours, red spooling across her vision, the cold straps keeping her down against the trailing table, wheels skidding—

“She’s just a kid, Tony,” Clint says, but he doesn’t sound too sure now.

Steve is shaking his head. “We’ve all done shitty things to each other. Me, more than most, and I’ll forever be sorry,” he says, apologetic and low. “But Wanda’s also done her part to make up for the blood she spilled—,”

“All I’m saying,” Tony says peevishly, glaring at both Steve and Clint, though his ire seems too hot, Natasha thinks faintly, “is that you can’t fucking sit there, on your high seat, and pretend that Loki messing with your head is more traumatising than Wanda messing with all of ours.”

“She proved herself, though,” Natasha tells them quietly. How many times has Wanda broken her own hands in the training rooms, working hard over and over again to make sure she never hurt anyone again? They’ve all seen her beg and apologise profusely for her actions during Sokovia and Laagos, even volunteering to assist Tony’s clean-up operations in her desperation to make up for her actions. Natasha knows what that’s like, has seen it in herself a multitude of times, especially from when she came from the Red Room, raw. “You’ve seen that. We all have.”

Bruce is not saying anything, but the way that he and Tony exchange looks so quietly, and with an intimate, shared understanding, makes Natasha’s stomach clench uncomfortably. Why is Tony so antsy about Wanda? Natasha casts her mind about frantically, but she can’t think of anything about the two, other than Wanda being put in the Compound by Tony for her safety. Even during the whole Ultron fiasco, Natasha can’t remember Tony ever being anywhere near Wanda. He had been safe, she thought, but now she’s not so sure. She hadn’t taken over his mind, had she?

Maximoff violated all of us.

Natasha stills very lightly, before she raises her head to look up at Tony. Her voice is soft enough that she captures everyone’s attention in the ship. “Tony.”

“What now?”

“Did—did Wanda make you see something, too?” she asks, ignoring his brusque tone and focusing sharply.

Tony’s face shutters a little, and there, Natasha has her answer, her stomach dropping in horror. She had seen the darkness reaching for her in the Red Room, had felt the crack of her nose when Madame did not like the way she performed a certain manoeuvre, had screamed and howled and struggled under the thick straps that held her down like a dog while they injected the only known graduate of the Red Room. Natasha remembers the horrors vividly, paling at the thought of it even now, before she tears her mind away from that and focuses on what she’d read in Tony’s file.

He’d been through utter nightmares, too, but the three months in Afghanistan had been left a stark blank, though there had been whispers that waterboarding had been the lightest punishment. Natasha’s been waterboarded before. It’s not something she’d ever do again. That’s not even counting the utter shit he’s been through since Afghanistan, she thinks, remembering Stane.

So, if Tony had seen such horrors, too, had not escaped Wanda’s red visions like they had all thought he had, what did that mean? Natasha can feel the answer lingering right at the edge of her thoughts, can practically see it, before she inhales sharply.

“Nat—,” Clint is beginning, staring at Tony in confusion.

Thor is still looking mad at them, but everyone is starting to look very thoughtful as Tony’s face grows hot and defensive. Natasha clears her throat and swallows tightly.

“Did Wanda make you take Loki’s sceptre, Tony?”

For a moment, nobody says a word, though Thor’s face completely drains of all anger and is replaced with nothing but shock. Steve and Clint look pale and shocked, but Bruce’s features are softer, as though he already knew this. It’s likely that he already did, Natasha thinks distractedly. Tony and Bruce had always shared a deeper friendship. Her mind is whirring at a thousand thoughts a minute, her fingers shaking as the realisations claw in and everyone just stares, the silence screaming around them.

“You stopped fighting yet, Terrans?” Rocket calls to them, as their heads all snap up in unison. “You’re gonna need to save your strength. ‘Cause we’re here.”

“She didn’t make me do anything. It was—it was my fault,” Tony mutters sharply and it’s a lie that nobody but perhaps Tony himself believes. He lifts his head up to glare at them, snapping his mouth shut, and stalks off, first.

As everyone else quietly unlatch their seatbelts, the remnants of their argument lingering between them, Natasha’s heart feels as though it might crumble. Are they so weak together that they cannot simply work without arguing? Is there any point to anything at all, now? Natasha doesn’t want to lose this.

But perhaps she already has.

.

.

There are gates.

Large, cast-iron, black gates with intricate designs that trail all the way up to the stars that wink and glitter above them. Rocket lands the ship tentatively on the edge of the gleaming bridge that looks suspiciously like the rainbow bridge Thor is always talking about, though it’s completely black. Hela has an aesthetic, it seems, Tony thinks to himself as he looks around admiringly. The whole kingdom is completely drenched in gleaming shades of black and even the sands they stand on are grains of ashy grey.

Tony has to admire the décor of the goddess. It’s not something he’s personally into, because he’s all about sleek blues and silvers with his décor, but it’s pretty good.

And then the fucking guard dog comes out.

A large wolf, the size of his tower alone, moves slowly out of the shadows, a low growl rumbling deep in his throat as Tony spies the gleam of his white, sharp teeth first. He snaps up his repulsor immediately, shifting forwards to become a physical shield for both Clint and Nat. Large, heavy paws pad the trickling sand as they stumble back in alarm, though Thor’s face creases with recognition and Bruce heaves a heavy, resigned sigh, green shifting across his skin in what Tony has recognised to be one of his endless arguments with the Hulk.

“What the—,” Rocket is spluttering as they scramble to get away from the wolf.

“Fenrir,” Thor calls out, his hands up. He turns his head back towards them, seeming to recognise the sheer terror in their faces. “He is my sister’s pet.”

“She couldn’t get herself a cat?” Clint says, his voice coming out very faint, though he pulls out an arrow just in case, fingers completely still and careful.

Natasha looks pale and wary as ever, her shoulders rolling back stiffly, and beside her, Steve is readying his shield, already moving to shift beside Thor’s side. Even though Bruce is clearly losing the argument against the Hulk, he still takes a step forward, just as everyone readies themselves for this oncoming fight. Tony kind of wants to hate them all for it, even as he powers up the repulsor, keeping the helmet down just in case they’re being too paranoid. Sometimes he really hates how well they work together on the field.

If they hadn’t been such a good team, maybe it would have been easier. Or maybe not.

“Fenrir, we mean you no harm,” Thor is telling the wolf, and Tony wants to laugh at the almost sceptical look the wolf throws Bruce.

Then the gates shift a little and Fenrir tenses, while they ready themselves, Tony thinking a thousand thoughts a minute to worry about just how quickly they can take down such a large wolf, should he go for their throats. But a few moments pass, and the wolf does not attack. Instead, a voice rings out, sharp and unyielding. It cries something out briskly in another language Tony doesn’t recognise, though Thor’s face creases slightly, and when they turn, a figure comes out of the gates.

It’s a young girl with a clipboard, her eyes dark and fixated on them. She’s wearing a long gown that floats around her, the edges trailing so that it makes her look like she’s in the air, and there are little broken hairclips strewn in the soft braids of her dark hair. Or, Tony thinks they’re just little hairclips, before he looks up slowly towards the deep purple skies and notices the shards of yellow cast against the ashy grey clouds, realising faintly that she has stars in her hair.

“My name is Chandra, of the stars. Guardian of the Gates of Hel. I’m looking for an Odinson, Thor?” the girl says, running a finger briskly down her clipboard as Fenrir pulls back. “Is there an Odinson—,”

“That’s him,” Rocket says, jabbing a finger at Thor, who looks bewildered.

Chandra looks pleased, before her gaze rakes over him. “Hmm. You have her eyes,” she says, and Steve looks like he might choke. Natasha’s eyes follow hers onto Thor, who is looking startled, but Tony is watching the girl carefully. She turns to look around at them, something frustrated coming into the edge of her mouth. “I didn’t think you would be bringing this many with you. I guess we can't take the chariot, then. We'll have to walk. I thought you only had the green one…” She pauses to look at the clipboard again. “And the Valkyrie.”

Thor’s face shutters slightly in alarm, before Tony is frowning. A Valkyrie? What the hell is a Valkyrie? He knows by the look on everyone’s face, but Bruce, that they’re just as confused as him. For a moment, Tony has to swallow the bitterness in his mouth, as though the ginger Natasha gave them still lingers on his tongue. He has to bite down the irrational annoyance that they’re still keeping secrets from each other, even now.

He’s a fucking hypocrite, of course. Tony hasn’t even so much as said a word about Peter to them. He thought he might last night, might confess his shame and guilt and the blood on his hands, the ash in his lungs, but sleep had drowned him instead. And now, well, there’s no point, is there?

“Excuse me?” Thor is saying in confusion. “I don’t understand—,”

“Lady Hela has been expecting you,” Chandra says as though it’s obvious. “Said you’d be coming.”

Tony blinks. “Does she have magic that sees things like that?” he asks, intrigued. He doesn’t know much about magic and it’s a new thing, for him, to know very little about a topic, but unlike what most people tend to think about him, Tony’s always interested in learning. “Did she see us all coming here?”

Chandra throws him an unimpressed look. “No, some idiot snapped away half of the universe and not a single soul came to be collected in the Kingdom of the Dead,” she answers dryly. Her gaze is lingering on them, moving slowly over Clint’s bow and arrow, Natasha’s clenched mouth, Steve’s shield, and the green pooling restlessly around Bruce’s arms. When she finally looks at his repulsors, her mouth quirks upwards with some amusement, before she has to look back at Thor. Her voice is steady. “She figured you’d have some questions for her.”

.

.

“NO! NO! NO—"

Fine! Fine, okay? I won’t ask you anymore!” Bruce snaps at the Hulk, simmering furiously as they follow the clipboard-wielding lady into Hela’s kingdom. “I just—just wanted to thank you for protecting me against Cull Obsidian.”

No answer.

“But if I get killed here because of you, you can bet your ass I’m coming back to haunt you!”

Hulk only grumbles angrily in the back of his head, a harsh, blunt thing as ever, but Bruce makes an effort to ignore him and does it deliberately loud enough that Hulk can tell he’s being ignored. Even when green shifts over his hand to raise it to his cheek, Bruce grits his teeth and pushes his arms down, presses them tight against his form, before he moves close towards Tony. Tony is looking wary and careful, his face half caught in fascination and interest, but he’s got the suit on and Bruce knows Tony’s reflexes are faster than anyone else’s on the team, only beaten by Nat.

But Tony is protected in the suit and Natasha is still scared of the Hulk, so Bruce knows who he should stand next to, if Hulk decides to throw a fit. He focuses on breathing properly, as they move through the land of the dead, his gaze turning around the whole place.

It’s beautiful, in a dusky, glowing sort of way. The skies are all dark scarlets and deep purples and gleaming blues, the black sands under their feet shifting slightly at their movement, and the buildings are larger than anything, towering over them. When he turns his head, Chandra is carelessly pointing out the night markets, where the folk harness the stars from their boats with nets that are woven from pieces of broken constellations as stars apparently attract stars. It’s fascinating to watch and Bruce can see the beginnings of a celebration starting out.

People move past them to get to the night markets, though they are given strange, interested looks. Bruce is never used to it, even years later; the attention makes his skin crawl, makes him want to hide away, his cheeks feeling as though they’ll burn forever. But there’s a little girl winding something glowing in her fingers and when she talks to Chandra, she speaks in a different chattering language. Chandra pauses, a pursed set in her mouth, before she nods.

“Quick,” she says, and the little girl’s beam widens with delight.

She offers them all small crowns made of stars, Bruce realises, and he stares at his in wonder, thanking her gratefully. Though the girl gives everyone their crowns in their hands, she looks entranced at Natasha’s leather jacket and insists on putting the crown on Natasha’s head. Nat’s smile turns softer and she shrugs off her jacket with ease, to give it in return as the girl looks delighted. Chandra looks as though she might smile, too, before she hurries them on impatiently.

It’s startling to see harrowed, dark figures clapping their hands and dancing cheerfully to some music, around a thick, large tree that grows out of seemingly nowhere, but plants itself through the entire kingdom. But they seem to be having fun, Bruce realises, and he doesn’t begrudge them that. It’s almost nice to see some normalcy, amidst this destruction, even if he is on the other side of the universe, currently traversing through the land of the dead.

“The trees are Hela’s own,” Chandra says, noticing him watching, with a small proud smile. “They’re not real, of course, but they provide light and power portals through the entire kingdom. Saves a good amount on transport.”

“It looks like Asgard,” Thor breathes, his eyes wide with awe and something like wretched desperation cast over his features.

Beside him, Clint and Rocket look faintly confused, and Bruce’s chest aches for his friend, but he has to kind of agree when he looks around. From what little he saw of Asgard, the infrastructure and the buildings seem in almost the same position—heck, even the bridge looks similar. Natasha is already patting his shoulder and Steve is murmuring something to him in comfort, but Tony and Bruce are watching Chandra, whose cheeks flush lightly.

Chandra’s voice is forcibly brisk when she speaks. “Well, Lady Hela partook in the infrastructure and foundations of Asgard’s beginnings,” she says importantly.

“So, she was inspired, huh?” Clint asks, and Chandra looks mutinous.

She sniffs. “We’re here,” she tells them, jabbing her clipboard at the large, gaping palace and gesturing for them to go inside.

“You’re not going in with us?” Natasha asks warily.

Chandra’s eyes gleam when she watches them. “Nope.” She waves her clipboard with a smugness set in the edge of her mouth that Bruce doesn’t really like. “I actually have a job to do. I expect you mere Terrans wouldn’t understand, seeing as you fashioned yourselves heroes and only doomed the universe instead of saving it, like you’d promised.” She smirks at them. “Maybe you should have chosen political careers, instead.”

When she leaves them, Bruce is startled to realise that her words actually sting. Hulk is stirring defensively in him, but Bruce can’t really say anything to the Hulk, because it’s true, isn’t it? They called themselves heroes, thinking themselves so brave and daring and good, named themselves Avengers, and they could barely even do that. Rocket looks barely fazed, though, only rolling his eyes. But even Tony is looking affected, his face creased with a heavy grief that Bruce wishes he could feel comfortable enough asking after, but doesn’t dare.

“She’s wrong,” Steve says, and when Bruce looks up, he realises that Steve is the only one fiercely looking at them. He’s clutching the shield tight as though he means to throw it and Bruce has no idea where. “You are heroes and we’re doing everything that we possibly can.” He gives them a small smile. “Besides, we’re pretty bad with press conferences so a political career’s right out of the window, isn’t it?”

Everyone chuckles at that, as Bruce remembers the disastrous press conferences Nick had arranged for them over and over again. Thor hadn’t really understood the concept or the idea behind a press conference, or, Bruce suspected, he just found it funny, so he and Clint used to just eat as much as they could from the food tables. Bruce only fumbled whenever it came to public speaking, so it was down to Natasha and Tony, who would only pepper increasingly dirty, lewd jokes into their statements, as subtly as they could get away with it, while the vein bulging in Nick’s forehead grew bigger. He’d depended on Steve to smile his American golden boy smile and say something charming, but Steve had about as much charm as a monkey on crack.

The first time Fox News had spoken about immigration, Steve’s smile had dropped immediately, and he’d gone off on a passionate rant about the benefits of immigration and how he just fucking wished some people out there would think about other people for once. Tony and Natasha had gotten up to nod along and make statements about how the Avengers completely agreed with Captain America, and though Bruce knew they agreed wholeheartedly, he also knew that they were standing beside Steve to make sure he didn’t lunge for the reporter.

As the large doors of the palace push open, Bruce’s mouth dries and Lady Hela stands before them, her smile as wicked as ever. She’s terrible and beautiful as ever, her long hair shifting past her shoulders, looking as though Asgard barely scraped her. Her gaze flickers over them all, something amused at the lilting edge of her mouth, before she’s stepping back to let them inside, her large gown rustling around her figure.

“Brother, I’m so glad that you could make it! I’ve missed you so,” Hela drawls happily, draping herself toweringly before them. All the way across the kingdom, the wolf growls and it’s a sound that rumbles all the way up to the doors, shaking the earth under their feet. She watches the way they all flinch back, tensing in defence, ready for a fight, and her amused smile grows even brighter, her eyes wicked. “How’s the eye?”

Chapter Text

“You’re right about the death stone,” Hela says, looking vaguely impressed, answering Thor’s rapid, frantic questioning with a sense of carelessness, as she waves them inside airily. There’s a spike of approval in her words, something sounds almost sisterly when she continues.  “Well done, Thor. I thought Loki was the one who did all the thinking.”

They stop at the sight of the hall before them, startled.

Thor did say, Natasha thinks warily, that Hela was a little …barmy. But this is something else. Hela has the hall set up for them, people hastily setting out extra seats at the large, beautifully ornate table, the winds picking up at the dark grey hangings against the walls. Up above, there is no roof, just the open skies and the stars that gleam so wickedly it looks as though they might set the whole world aflame. She’s watching them all with something bright and sharp in her gaze, a tinge of humour written in the curve of her soft smile, as though she wants to know what they’ll say, what they’ll do.

Natasha’s gaze rakes over the large silver platters heaped with a mountain of choice foods.

A large, roasted boar gleams in the middle of the table, surrounded by a bed of green lettuce and ripe baby tomatoes, baked freshwater salmon, large sliced meats seasoned with red pepper and oregano, clear soups with sliced ham and shaved white truffle, white rice with gleaming saffron strewn between it, pastries stuffed with chunks of beef rubbed in oil and sea salt. The oysters look fresh from the sea and soft, especially next to the chilli crab, the filet mignon, and the sticky rice, topped with shredded chicken and spring onions. The chalices are full to the brim with rich, dark wine and fresh fruits dot the tables, too—rich pomegranates and grapefruits and mandarins and the ripest peaches she’s ever seen.

Her mouth waters at the sight of it all.

And then Natasha sees the pelmeni on the small platter, still shining with rich butter and topped with cool sour cream. Her stomach flips, memories beginning to already flood in, before she lifts her head and frowns. There’s a Brooklyn-style pizza beside the fresh fruit and cream, cheeseburgers and shawarma still steaming hotly, the sloppy meats rich in dark sauces, and the Indian dosas are paired with a various array of pickles and chutney, lime juice still drizzled over them.

It’s the candyfloss that really does it.

Clint’s face is torn with something deep and aching when he stares at it, and when she looks around, she sees everyone else is completely enamoured too. Clint loves candyfloss, she knows. It reminds him of the circus, the good and the bad, he’d once told her, looking defensive as though he knew it was difficult to explain wanting the bad with the good, too. But Natasha understands. Pelmeni, for her, is reminiscent of the Red Room or those days when she’d completed her missions and was allowed some semblance of a ‘reward’. She hasn’t had it in years.

Even Thor is staring, entranced, his face looking exactly how it did when he had looked at Hela’s kingdom and confessed quietly that it looked like Asgard.

“Stop it,” Natasha says, snapping her head up to look at a playful Hela. “That’s just cruel.”

Hela’s smirk is playful and suddenly Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, settles on the table before her.

“Make me.”

This is not a question she wants answered, Natasha thinks frantically, but Hela is arching a challenging eyebrow towards her. Hela has Thor’s old hammer as a trophy, Natasha realises, as Thor’s gaze lingers only on the food on the table. Everyone else doesn’t seem to have noticed them and Natasha gives a heavy sigh. Why is Hela so bored that she must play with her? Slowly, Natasha reaches out a hand and closes it around the hammer.

“I’m warning you,” she says. “It won’t work for me.”

Natasha knows she only has moments, as Hela just shrugs, and slowly, she lifts the hammer, her stomach completely dropping. Hela’s gaze is filled with amusement before she waves a hand and Mjolnir completely vanishes, while everyone else is blinking themselves awake. Natasha’s breaths hitch lightly in shock, her eyes beginning to water.

She’s worthy?

Hela smirks at the shock on her face, but her gaze turns to Thor and she lets out a soft breath. “Ah, well,” she says softly, catching their attention. “I just thought you wanted a taste of something good for once.”

“No offence,” Clint says fiercely, clenching his bow, “but I’m fucking sick of aliens thinking they know what’s good for us.”

The goddess’ eyes turn to slits, something frosty going over her face, and Natasha tenses immediately, beside Tony, swallowing down the breathless gasp of shock that threatens to overwhelm her. Steve gives her a startled look of concern, but Natasha forces herself to breathe. Tony take his position quickly in front of them both as discreetly as he can, as he usually does, and Natasha positions herself so that she can protect his side and Clint at the same time. Just in case it comes to a fight. Beside her, Rocket is shifting uncomfortably, his fingers clenching around the body of his gun.

But Hela’s lips quirk and she only gives a tinkling laugh that raises the hair on the back of Natasha’s neck. “I forgot how charming Terrans could be,” she says carelessly, looking at Thor when she speaks. “No wonder you surround yourself with them, brother. I thought it was because you couldn’t find anyone of the same mental …capacity.”

“That’s the second time you’ve insulted his intelligence,” Steve says tightly, defensively. “Ma’am, with all due respect, we’d rather get this over and done with, as quick as possible. Without the passive aggressive insults.”

Hela only blinks at him, before she turns back to Thor and points at them as though they’re animals in a zoo. “Aren't they so cute!” she says delightedly, giving a soft laugh. “And a rabbit, too!”

Rocket looks mad but he doesn’t say anything. Thor reaches a hand to touch his eyepatch and Natasha watches quietly as Hela’s gaze follows the action almost solemnly, her suspicions raising. She’s smoothing out the expression immediately as the goddess waves them to sit themselves down. It’s only when Thor sits himself at the table that everyone else follows suit, though none of them dares to touch a thing on the table. Natasha’s seat is on the edge, right in front of the pelmeni, and it smells exactly like it used to, in the Red Room.

Hela really is an asshole, she thinks.

“I assume you know why we’re here, Hela?” Thor is saying, looking up at his sister who has draped herself at the head of the table.

“Social visit? I’m guessing that you missed your big sister?” Hela says, reaching for a gleaming pomegranate and slicing into it with careless ease. Red juice soaks her fingers and the table, makes it look like she’s drenched in blood. When Thor doesn’t smile back, Hela only rolls her eyes and puts a pomegranate seed into her mouth. “When you were younger, you used to love my jokes. Did Lord Thanos snap away your sense of humour, too, Thor?”

“He killed half of the universe, Hela,” Thor tells her, unamused, as Bruce and Tony tense beside him. “And he says he did it for you.”

To her credit, Hela barely flinches. Instead, she reaches to put the pomegranate down on the plate before her and selects a pastry filled with fresh cream and strawberries, before daintily biting into it. While they wait for her to speak, visibly impatient though Natasha just watches the goddess with fascination, Hela picks up the napkin and pats delicately around her mouth.

“He did,” Hela says, shrugging. She looks at Natasha, a quirk at the curve of her mouth, and rolls her eyes. “Men. What can you do? You get it, don’t you, darling?” Natasha only looks steadily back at her, refusing to look away, and Hela looks slightly amused, putting the pastry down. The pelmeni gleams, the smell growing tantalising, but Natasha keeps her gaze steady. Hela looks away first, turning to all of them to speak properly. “What can I say? A few thousand years ago, I was mad at overpopulation and Thanos took my idea and ran with it. I was also mad that my shoes didn’t match my dress, but no, he had to choose the infinity stones over heels. Men.”

At that, Natasha lets herself smile just a little and Hela looks a little pleased, as Tony lounges against the chair in his usual feigned relaxed pose. He lifts his head, reaching for a ripe peach but only balancing it within the curve of his palm.

“So, what do we do?” Tony asks. “Do we find the infinity stones again? Reverse it somehow?”

He’s looking at the peach, but Natasha can tell that he’s just as alert as everyone else around the table. This is where they can confirm if Thanos was lying about the stones. Is it true that they can’t reverse the effects of the snap with the stones? Is it completely impossible? Hope clings impossibly to her chest even though Natasha tries to fight it back. It’s the pelmeni, she thinks distractedly. She’s getting abominably sentimental.

“Why would the infinity stones reverse anything? What are they, a reverse card?”

Hela scoffs, eyes lit with amusement, but Natasha can sense the underlying frustration lining the edge of her words. She’d thought them unintelligent and still, she’d expected more, Natasha realises, but that doesn’t mean anything. What is important is that the infinity stones can’t help them now. Her stomach sinks at the confirmation, heart in her throat, as Natasha has to finally look down at the plate.

Steve’s jaw is clenched. “That’s not fair.”

“Life isn’t fair, baby blue,” Hela drawls. “You should all know that by now. Isn’t that why you wore those shitty outfits?”

Tony looks briefly thrilled to have his opinion validated. He’d been complaining about their clothing styles drunkenly last night and had sworn, hand on his heart, that, come hell or high water, he would design something that would enhance all of their assets, to the best of his ability. But Natasha’s focus is on Hela’s words. No more of the universe, she thinks sadly. Everyone would have to move on with a gaping hole in their hearts, before she shakes her head.

Natasha swore she’d avenge. That’s what she’s going to do.

“Then what do we do?” she asks fiercely, her voice cracking slightly.

Hela just looks at her carefully, her fingers sparkling slightly. “There’s a reckoning coming,” she says instead, her voice quiet and serious since they first met. “I can assure you of that. When Thanos abused the infinity stones in such an abominable action, the universe clawed back. It will have its vengeance and Thanos will pay for what he’s done. The Watchers will have him scream for all of eternity, maybe even prop him up to warn others.” She looks at them all. “He will pay.”

But that’s not enough for Natasha. She doesn’t care about making Thanos pay. She wants the universe back. Steve is opening his mouth, but Thor speaks first.

“What about the people who have turned to dust?” he asks bluntly. “What happens to them?”

“Lost,” Hela says, shrugging. “They’re not in my grasp so I can’t save them. Somewhere in the depths of the soul realm, I suppose. I wouldn’t really know. But once the Watchers have Thanos, you can start getting your world back to rights.”

Without them?” Steve blurts out, shaking his head.

Thor clears his throat, lifts his head. “We’re not giving up on the half of the universe, Hela,” he says fiercely. There’s a note of desperation that Natasha is beginning to feel, edging his words as he leans forward, earnest and anxious and distressed. “You know what we can do to get them back. So, what do we do?”

Hela only looks at him, something inscrutable flickering through her features. “What terrible influences these Terrans have been to you, little brother,” she says quietly, though her jaw is set, and Rocket’s gaze looks wary. She almost sounds disapproving, Natasha thinks, utterly bewildered, but before anyone can say anything, Hela is pointing at the large boar in the middle of the table and clapping her hands briskly. “Eat, go on. I had them roast your favourite. You don’t look so good these days. Nobody is taking the time to feed my brother?”

“Hela, please.”

Thor’s voice is soft and pleading. Natasha watches Hela’s features soften briefly, before she scowls immediately and reaches for a cigarette that seems to appear completely out of thin air. It doesn’t take long for her to light the thing, wisps of grey smoke billowing in the air around her, before she takes a long drag, eyeing them all. Her gaze flickers over every single one of them briefly before she settles on Thor, last, and Natasha knows she isn’t imagining the way Hela’s eyes fixate on Thor’s eyepatch.

“They’re locked away from me,” Hela explains shortly, taking another long drag. She doesn’t like looking incompetent, Natasha realises, as the goddess continues, her voice curt and quick. “In the soul realm. They’re not dead, just removed. Trillions of souls in the blink of an eye, the snap of a finger, you think the universe wouldn’t bite back? They’re just stuck.”

Hope lingers in the air around them, a caged bird with one song left to give.

Tony leans forward, his eyes bright and breaths fraught with desperation they all feel. “How do we get them out?”

The goddess smirks, blowing soft smoke circles into the air. “Thanos can’t snap them all away just yet, because the death stone won’t work for him. And the death stone does not just take.” She watches them carefully. “It also has the power to give.”

Natasha’s breaths hitch as Steve’s eyes turn brighter. “You mean—,”

“Provided, of course, that the wielder has the power to use it correctly, which, I’m told, isn’t very likely for Thanos or for any of you,” Hela says. Her voice turns steady and she fixates only on Thor when she continues. “It will, however, work for someone else. Someone Lord Thanos is searching for.”

Thor has stilled beside them. “Loki. But he’s—,” he breaks himself off, something breathless in his voice.

Hela’s gaze softens very lightly on her brother. “Loki is not in my kingdom, little brother,” she tells them very deliberately, as Natasha freezes and Clint pales. Realisation falls over them and Tony almost falls from his seat, Bruce’s jaw drops, and Steve stares at her. “My people came to me, speaking of a… devastation on a ship filled with Asgardians. We waited. To file their souls. But none of them came by my gates.”

They’re silent for a moment before Thor speaks.

“That son of a bitch,” Thor only says, before he begins to laugh hysterically.

“Your universe is in a cage,” Hela says. “What do you do to a cage?”

“Open the door.” Bruce inhales sharply in realisation.

Hela smirks. “So, find the key. My trickster of a little brother,” she says, stabbing out the remnants of her cigarette into the flaking pastry. Her fingers gleam and spark briefly, scattering constellations around them, before something forms in Hela’s cupped hands. “I suppose I should return this to you. Though I’m liking the eyepatch, truly. Very Odin-esque, even though he’s still a shit.”

To Natasha, and everyone else’s utter shock, Hela raises her hand and Thor’s eye lingers in the air above her fingers, caressed in soft wisps of gold. Thor is staring at it before his gaze turns to his sister in alarm and the suspicion creased across their faces makes Hela wince briefly before the defensive mask falls into place once more. Natasha thinks of Mjolnir once more and lets herself breathe.

“Hela—,” Thor begins.

“You don’t have to wear it,” Hela snaps defensively. “It can help you find Loki. If you want.” She turns to Rocket, whose mouth has already opened. “And the other one. The blue daughter of Thanos.”

“Nebula,” Tony corrects sharply.

Hela shrugs carelessly. Nobody says anything, as Thor reaches forward to grab the eye tentatively. He doesn’t put it in right away, but he nods at Hela in quiet acknowledgement. Something that seems to make the goddess look briefly pleased, if anything.

Thor looks at her carefully, as they get up from their seats. “I’m not going to thank you, if that’s what you want,” he tells her. “And I’m not forgiving you either.”

“Why?”

“You killed everything,” Thor says accusingly, but Natasha sees the flickering guilt pass through her face briefly. “It’s because of you that Asgard fell. That Thanos took the stone and killed everyone.”

“They’re not really dead,” Hela says weakly. “I don’t know where they are, yet, but they’re not—,”

“You destroyed my home and everything I care for,” Thor interrupts sharply. “I’m not going to forgive you for that.”

For a moment, Hela only looks at him and doesn’t say a single word, something inscrutable in her expression as she considers Thor before him. She doesn’t so much as bother with everyone else tensing around him defensively, ready to fight if that’s what it comes down to it. Natasha keeps herself steady, knowing that Hela can go either way if she likes.

“A true King,” she says instead, inclining her head. “It’s been too long, brother. You should visit me sometime. Dad’s a shit, as always, though.”

This family is weird, Natasha thinks, even by her standards.

“And—,” Thor pauses, swallowing tightly. “How—how is Mother?”

“They’re alright, little brother,” Hela tells him. She hesitates a little, before speaking quickly, cheeks flushed very light. “When you find Loki, you should both come visit.”

Chapter Text

Loki watches the way Thor stares at his neck and frowns.

“Do I have something on my face?” he asks his brother, slouching in his seat beside his mother, who chides him gently.

Thor’s not usually one for pranking him; that’s usually reserved for him, and even now, Loki is already sending tendrils on magic on Thor’s plate, turning his food into rock. But his brother just stares at him, something distraught written across his face, and Loki just blinks, even as his mother pauses from chiding him for turning the food inedible, to look at her eldest. And his brother is really quiet, too, Loki thinks to himself, something like unease slithering in his stomach uncomfortable.

“Thor?” Mother calls out softly to him again. She looks worried, her magic turning the food back properly as Loki actually holds back this time. “How terrible was this dream, my darling?”

But his brother is barely listening, gaze lingering inexplicably on Mjolnir which rests on the chair that Thor insists Mjolnir be provided at every table. Loki usually rolls his eyes and makes fun of Thor for it, but there’s just something on his face—

“It wasn’t that bad,” Thor says, and it’s such a blatant lie, Loki realises suddenly.

Not just because Thor’s the worst liar since the dawn of time, but his brother’s eyes are watering suddenly, his voice cracking as he speaks. Mother is really looking worried now and Loki has to kind of agree, his stomach clenching uncomfortably as their mother reaches to touch Thor’s forehead again. It’s no affliction, is it? Loki wonders if he has to strengthen the wards again, brows furrowed in thought, and he tenses, teasing out the green tendrils tentatively.

The protective spells around the palace are strong as ever, holding fast. Nothing should have been able to touch any one of them, least of all Thor. Loki’s protections are toughest and more powerful for his brother, mostly because Thor is one of the most self-sacrificing idiots he knows, though he would never admit to it, even under pain of death. He doesn’t dare to touch Thor’s mind; a violation of that sort is disgusting, even if he has done it before to lesser creatures, but he would never do that to Thor or anyone he actually cared for.

But Mother is still looking concerned even as Thor makes a joke about training. They raise their heads to give each other worried looks as Thor devours the food hungrily and Mother ladles more food into his plate. Loki inclines his head slowly to indicate that he’s willing to knock Thor about to find out what exactly is wrong with him, before he slouches easily in his seat and uses his magic to clatter Thor’s cutlery loud enough to annoy him incessantly.

“Loki!” Thor shouts as a grin blooms across his face. “Oi, Trickster! Wake up!”

“What?”

“I didn’t spend all day working with these horses for you to fall asleep on me, green boy.”

Loki blinks awake, his head snapping up fast. The protective wards around him swarm briefly, rearing up before he recognises Valkyrie’s scowl and rubs the sleep out of his eyes, before throwing a perfect scowl right back at her. They haven’t been getting along very well these days, with Valkyrie finding his hidden liquor (that he has been keeping safe for thousands of years) and Loki trying to encourage her horses to kick her in the face, just a little before Heimdall gave them his patented Look.

“Is there not one day that you can use to annoy someone else, other than me?” Loki throws at her, trying to hide how rattled he is from his dream.

Someone has been using magic to torment his brother, and he recognises Ebony Maw’s dirty fingerprints all over it. Loki barely has to look around to recognise where he is, in the badly reconstructed office quarters they’ve been using in the rebuilding of New Asgard. Korg and Mike are leading the rebuilding of the land upon the foundations of Asgard, the parts that Loki managed to salvage, that is. Or rather, Korg and Miek think they are—Heimdall is really the one doing most of the work. Thor picks the weirdest friends, Loki thinks distractedly as he reaches for his things.

Valkyrie opens her mouth to say something else, but she stops suddenly, looking at his face. She’s still in her riding gear, clearly having come back from tending to the horses. She’s also another one who is trying to help rebuild Asgard, but not doing a very good job of it so she mostly helps out in the makeshift refugee area and with the horses that she swears can fly. Everyone just thinks she’s kidding, but Loki likes to tell her that she’s a nutter right to her face, knowing that she can’t do anything to him because she’s friends with Thor, too.

“What’d you see?” she asks him, producing a large bottle from seemingly nowhere.

“What makes you think,” Loki says, annoyed, as he closes his eyes and focuses, “that I saw something?”

“You’ve got your Thor face on.”

He opens an eye, startled. “I don’t have a Thor face.”

“Looks very similar to your constipated face.”

“I don’t—,”

“Has shades of your I-don’t-know-anything face.”

“I don’t have an—,”

“But you look worried, too,” Valkyrie says, as she pops the cork off the bottle. She perches herself on the desk next to his, lifting herself up and making her legs swing, seemingly carelessly. But Loki knows better. There is nothing careless about the way she leans forward, brows furrowed in concern, voice tinged in something edging worry as she asks him, “What’d you see?”

He swallows tightly for a moment, thinking of his mother with an ache in his heart. Loki still remembers the way she smelled in the dream, the warmth of her soft smile on him, and he lets out another deep breath, grief clinging to him deep. Thor’s okay, though, he hopes, but he still remembers the way his brother had looked. All haunted face and sunken eyes, worn cheeks and a heaviness on his shoulders that Loki didn’t see even when Thor took to the throne. And he’s never seen his big brother cry before. Loki really doesn’t like it.

“I—,” Loki begins, faltering slightly before he tries to cover it up with the search for his things frantically.

Valkyrie takes a hard swig. “That bad, huh?” she says, something fraught in her voice.

Her gaze turns to the fractured ceiling above them, the sunlight streaming in relentlessly, and her hair swings a little around her shoulders before she reaches to pass Loki the bottle. He drinks deep without stopping. Valkyrie arches an eyebrow but doesn’t say anything.

“I know what you’re here to ask,” Loki says, wiping at his mouth sloppily. “And no, I’m not done, yet.”

“You put us in this protective ward and you still can’t get us out? Some magician.”

“I’m a god,” he corrects, before rolling his eyes at her. There’s less bite in his words anyway, because she’s annoying but Loki has unfortunately grown used to it. “And you should be grateful that the wards are so powerful, because without them, you’d have all died. Without me, you would have all happily marched into Hela’s realm once more and signed the little box that says murdered by Lord Thanos. So, I would appreciate a little gratefulness—,”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Valkyrie interrupts. “It was a good speech the first few days, mate. Now, people are getting… antsy. Thanos is still out there and we have no idea what’s happened. If he got the stones, what he’s done, hell, we don’t even know if Thor got away—,”

Loki snaps sharply, “We do.” He focuses clearly now, using his hands to draw up a gleaming green circle before him. Valkyrie barely bats an eye at the magic or his rising tone. Guilt dredges in his chest tightly, threatens to drown him completely but Loki says defensively, “I would know if Thor died.”

As the Tesseract finally appears within the green cage, hovering above his desk, Valkyrie doesn’t look away from him. She reaches to quickly snatch up the bottle where he’s left it and just stares at him, something thoughtful and considering cast over her expression.

“You know,” she begins, her voice more careful than he’s ever heard her. It immediately raises his defences, as Loki casts an eye around himself quickly before focusing on the Tesseract before him. “It’s not your fault. You know that, right?” When he doesn’t answer, something in his stomach clenching, Valkyrie continues airily. “I make a lot of fun of you for it, to your face and behind your back, but it did take a lot of magic to get us all out and use those illusions to fool the Mad Titan. It was a good job. And even though I still don’t know why you did it, Thor wouldn’t blame you for not taking him, too—,”

“Stop,” Loki bites out through gritted teeth, “talking.”

She seems to realise she’s crossed a line because Valkyrie only nods and passes him the bottle again. Loki keeps an eye on the glowing Tesseract as he drinks, very careful and considerate of its wide span of powers. The cage he’s put it in is already beginning to sap at his strength, so Loki has to focus on it quickly, his brows furrowed in thought. It’s one of his finest tricks, Loki likes to think proudly, smugly, and if he only had a better audience to show off in front of, apart from all the Asgardian refugees. He’d shown Heimdall, but the man had only smiled at him genuinely and thanked him for saving them, making Loki’s cheeks flush hotly with embarrassment as he insisted that he only did it because he needed people to erect his statue again.

The space stone gleams in front of him, almost winking at him, as Loki breathes out properly, a thin sheen of sweat lining his forehead. He put a spell on it, as he did the death stone, except instead of protection spells, Loki tied himself to the space stone. Thanos may have taken it, but he could have never kept it. The stone is laced to him through a red thread of unimaginable power that took far too much out of him, returning to him as soon as it had enough individual power to do so.

It helps to keep the protective wards around them all and New Asgard up, as well as Loki’s own individual laced spells, to make sure that nothing and nobody can so much as get anywhere near them. Loki is getting worried, though. This dream he’s had—what could it mean? Is Thor alright? Is it time for him to break themselves out of the ward and return to help his brother, to fight by his side as Loki always knew he was made to do?

“When are we going home, then?” Valkyrie asks, and Loki blinks, not realising that he’s been speaking aloud.

“This is home, isn’t it?” he says, snarky.

“Homes aren’t usually literal protective bubbles that stop people from going out or coming in,” she retorts. “You know what I mean.”

“I’ll tell you when we can get out,” Loki says, his brows furrowed as he watches the space stone carefully, before he reaches for the developed photos he has. He shuffles through the ones he has of Thor crying over his body, the usual smug smirk absent from his features. Before, he’d thought of happily showering his brother in them when he finally showed up again, but seeing Thor in the dream makes him want to shred them to pieces. “I don’t think they’ve even found the bloody death stone yet, these idiots. Thor really has the worst friends.”

It’s then that there’s a startling ray of grey light bursting before them. Valkyrie is immediately tensing into a defensive position, her hands clenching around a gun that wasn’t there before, as Loki waves his hand quickly. His helmet forms around his head with ease, his shoulders stiff as he leans forward, examining the familiar magic settling before him. There’s something about it that looks like he’s seen it before, he thinks to himself, his brows furrowing in thought.

Loki.”

Loki stills in alarm, his eyes widening at the coin that spins on his desk. The grey swirls around it softly, clouding the coin as it continues to spin fast enough to let the message emanate around them. Her voice is a slap around his face, and he has to know, how did she bypass his protective wards?

“That bitch,” Valkyrie snarls out bitingly, already cocking his gun. “Go get the defence systems in place, I’ll hold her down here—,”

“She’s not here,” Loki says, just as the coin clatters. He strides forward, cape billowing behind him, and he reaches for the coin, grasping it quickly. Magic brims around it, soft and quick and tasting of death, as Loki tries not to pull a face at it. “She—she sent a message.”

I hope you’re having fun in that little protective bubble of yours. Great spellwork, by the way. Mother says she’s very proud. Odin tried to say something, but I stuffed a sock in his mouth. Head’s up, little brother, Thanos is on his way and he’s bringing his daughter of death with him, too. Try not to die. Thor’s an ugly crier.”

Valkyrie stiffens. “She has Thor.”

“She had Thor,” Loki corrects, his eyes on the coin, as the realisations fall in. Hela’s sending them a warning, because Thanos has probably found out about the death stone. He’s probably got the damn thing, Loki thinks, cursing the stupid Avengers before he mutters, “She’s—for fuck’s sake, I have to do everything around here.”

“You think Thanos is really coming?” Valkyrie looks at him sternly. “We can’t trust your batshit sister—,”

“We can trust her on this,” Loki tells her. “He’s coming for us. We’re practically sitting ducks for his army.”

Valkyrie’s jaw tautens and she cocks her gun in determination. “Well, if he’s coming, we’ll be ready.”

“No.” Loki’s grin is harsh, magic brimming from his cupped fingers. “We’ll be gone.”

.

.

Nebula looks like shit when they come for her.

“Fuck,” Rocket swears hotly over and over again, when he sees her, reeling back as the flashbacks threaten to careen completely over him. He’s shaking with a fury that threatens to take him over completely, his eyes bright with unshed tears, as he forces himself to breathe, an urgency taking over his voice at the sheer sight of her. “Nebula—Nebula, wake up!”

She’s completely split apart in the chamber, pieces of her body literally shattered, and blood pours out of the corner of her mouth where it’s clear that she’s been hit multiple times. Nebula had always spoken about what Thanos did to her, but Rocket had never put two thoughts to it, always thinking of himself first. He’s always been a selfish, terrible thing, but Rocket knows that he’ll never say a word against Nebula ever again.

Nebula is unconscious, but at the sound of his voice, she starts to stir. A moan of pain escapes her mouth, blood trickling against her cracked face as her eyes flutter open briefly. Tony surges for her, already snapping out orders as he and Rocket try to figure out a way to get her back together safely. Behind him, Thor and the others are taking care of the Chitauri guards on duty, keeping an eye out, as Rocket reaches for Nebula’s broken parts and tries to remember how to breathe again.

She’s not crying, but she looks like she’s about a second away from completely breaking down, Rocket thinks, distressed. Since he found them, Rocket has never seen any of the Guardians in pain like this, and it makes him want to be sick to even think of what Nebula’s going through right now. He’s been through that, he’s felt people peeling apart his back and split his skull to unspool what they want from him. The thought of any one of them—of Gamora, Groot, Mantis, even Quill, suffering like this, too?

Rocket clutches his gun tighter, the muscles in his jaw clenching.

“Get her out, get her out right now!” Steve is calling out brisk orders, reaching forwards to help Tony work out how to properly dissemble the machine that holds her in the air.

The Avengers all work well together, Rocket thinks in the back of his mind, his heart aching for his idiot guardians once more, and as they reach forward to help Nebula down, he’s glad that they didn’t take that step off the ledge. Tony is staring at the mechanics of the machine, something thoughtful in his expression, just as Natasha grabs Nebula’s cracked hand and Steve tentatively helps her put the pieces of herself back together. Nebula’s pieces and parts click back together, as she gets to her feet, refusing to lean on the shoulder Natasha offers her, and Rocket grabs the helmet to offer it up to her.

Nebula stares at him, wiping the dried blood at her mouth, before she reaches to accept the helmet piece and fits it back into her head. “Gamora hit you,” she says, her voice hoarse and throaty.

“Yeah,” Rocket says, grimacing briefly at the reminder, “I remember.”

“That wasn’t her,” she tells him, as Rocket furrows his brows in confusion.

Tony is looking towards her worriedly. “You doing okay, Blue?”

To his surprise, her lips quirk a little humourlessly and Nebula ducks her head into a brief nod. “Been better,” she admits, and then in one sharp motion, she reaches for the machine that had held her. Jams her entire arm through the damn thing and tears it out completely, the wires fraying and screaming, as her hand clutches some brief parts of whatever it is. Something dark, smug, and satisfied latches onto the edge of her mouth, the curves not quite a smile but enough to show her fury. “But I’m feeling pretty good now.”

His gaze turning up to her face, Tony nods towards her, something inscrutable passing through their features. Rocket looks back at Nebula meaningfully, kind of grateful when the Avengers let them have their moment alone to talk. He knows they don’t have very long in here, so Tony starts to piece apart the machine at their feet with some interest and Natasha looks briefly worried, while Steve clears his throat. Rocket can practically smell the argument coming up, so he turns his back on them and focuses on Nebula before him.

“Something is wrong with Gamora,” Nebula tells him immediately.

“No shit,” Rocket says. “She doesn’t ever hit me.”

Nebula’s brows furrow in thought. “Thanos brought back his Black Order through the Lady Hela’s ability, but not Gamora. She came back a different way—I don’t understand it—,”

“Thanos sacrificed her for the soul stone, right?” Rocket’s breath hitches at the reminder, his chest aching as he remembers when Nebula had told him, unable to even look at him. He’d thought that the ship peeking through the clouds meant his family had returned, but they’d all been picked off by Thanos, one by one, and Rocket may have been terrified of Thanos, but there’s no fucking stopping him now. That fucker took out every single one of them and Rocket’s damned if he’s not going to at least avenge them. “You said they went to Vormir. Maybe her death is something that even Hela’s crazy ass can’t touch?”

It’s just an idea but Nebula’s features crease suddenly in deep thought, something considering and quiet cast against her expression. Rocket doesn’t really know very much about the universe, not like Gamora and Quill do. He and Groot had mostly stayed to their own little corner, picking up idiots for the credits and cashing it all in as best they could, and when they did have to run, he sure as fuck wasn’t bothering to sightsee, like Quill insists on. Quill’s the strangest teammate, especially when he announces weird Terran traditions like ‘taking in the moment’ and birthdays and weird, wacky shit that none of them really understand but humour him through anyway.

Rocket used to think he’d knock out the teeth of anyone who dared to say that he really, secretly, enjoyed them. Now, he’d confess that he loved every single thing Quill put them through, even when they got drenched in the rose fountains on the rings of Trichor and that cake they made for Drax was half mulch by the time they could sit down to eat.

“The cliffs of Vormir are located on the fringes of reality,” Nebula murmurs thoughtfully, hope flitting through her features briefly. She looks at him, something hard and desperate in her face, the same way she had looked when Gamora had dropped to the rooftop and they’d seen her for the first time. Rocket gets it, knows the hope lingering in her right now because he’s trying to breathe through it, too. “The rules work differently there. I can’t—,”

“A soul for a soul,” Rocket mutters suddenly, lifting his head.

“What?”

“That’s what Thanos said,” he says, repeating the phrase, before looking at Nebula in confusion. “When we had him in the Terran’s tower. He said that Vormir demanded a soul for a soul. You think he bargained for Gamora’s—soul?”

Nebula looks dark and murderous. “As though taking apart her mind for himself wasn’t enough,” she spits, her voice a vicious, harsh snarl of fury. “I will kill everything that he is, if he has truly put Gamora through such a horror.”

Rocket’s jaw is taut, cocking his gun darkly. “I’ll help.”

.

.

Steve tries not to look frustrated.

The temporary peace they made through last night is just that. Fragile. Temporary as the dawn. Easy to break apart in the blink of an eye. Steve doesn’t want to hurt them all more than he already has. He won’t be the one to put a sledgehammer through them, he thinks firmly. He can’t. He wants them all too badly to let them go.

“It’s dangerous, Tony,” he says, as the man in question sifts through the machine that held Nebula with an interested eye. He knows what happens when people mess with magic deeper and darker than themselves. Steve doesn’t want that for Tony. “We shouldn’t tamper with things that we don’t understand.”

“We do understand it—or they do,” Tony says brightly, pointing at Nebula and Rocket who are talking in the corner. He’s earnest when he continues, though Steve is wary in a way that makes his stomach clench uncomfortably. “We already know that Earth is severely lacking in strong tech to keep us safe. This technology could help us reinforce our own. We could use it against Thanos.”

“And if we can’t?”

“We get Nebula to break it again. Easy.”

He’s too flippant, Steve thinks, but that’s always been Tony. “Not easy,” he tells Tony, his worry creasing his features. “It’s not worth the potential danger, Tony, and you know that. We can’t die, too—,”

“If it means bringing back everyone,” Tony says, getting to his feet, a firmness in his voice, as he glares fiercely, “then I’m willing to risk anything. You know that, Steve—,”

Steve can’t stop his hackles from raising in defence, something sharp in his voice when he speaks. Tony’s always been the ones who can really push his buttons after all, and he understands where the man is coming from, he really does. “But there won’t be anyone to bring them back if we die, Tony,” he argues back fiercely.

“Stop it, both of you,” Natasha says sharply. She sounds like an annoyed schoolteacher, and shame overcomes both of them at the chiding tone she holds. It’s very effective, Steve thinks, his cheeks flooding red. Natasha is shorter than them both but right now, she towers over them completely, folding her arms, red hair swinging as she glowers up at them. “The only enemy we have right now is Thanos, not each other!”

“Yeah, I—I know,” Steve says, giving a heavy sigh. He gives Tony an apologetic small smile. “I’m sorry, I just—I don’t want to lose more people.”

Tony’s face softens as he looks at him, sagging slightly. It’s just now that Steve realises how defensive Tony had gotten, something punching him in his gut as he realises that Tony had likely been preparing himself for yet another fight, yet another opportunity to defend himself against them. But Natasha had been right. They all want the same thing and they all care for each other deeply. That’s really all there should be to it.

“I’ll leave it,” Tony offers, rubbing the back of his neck. “You’re right. I would have died for them.”

Steve gives a quirk of his lips. “But we have to live for them, first.”

Tony nods. “We’re no use to them dead—,”

“No, it could be of use to us,” Steve says. “You’re right. If we handle it safely, we could actually harness it for our benefit. And I trust you, too—,”

Clint is staring at them. “Why are you both like this?” he says, amused as Bruce’s face creases, the Hulk shifting across his features to chuckle at them.

Steve just breathes a quiet sigh of relief. He doesn’t want another fight. Never again. He’s glad to know that neither does anyone else on this team, and he hopes that they, just like him, also want to go back to that soft, sweet moment in the night when they had been so blissful and happy, for once in their lives. Steve doesn’t remember being able to just laugh with ease and comfort in such a long time. He hasn’t been able to see Bucky as much as he’d liked to, as his best friend had been safe under Wakandan protection, and every other part of his life had just been nonstop chaos.

He usually likes the chaos, loves the fight for something that is right, but recently, things had just gotten so blurred that he didn’t know what he’d liked anymore. But last night had put a pin in all of that. It had been the Avengers Steve was destined for when he woke up in the twenty-first century, the group of heroes that he was supposed to find a home and family in, and the years after that had just been him finding his way back to them.

Nebula is speaking. “Thanos is looking for the Trickster,” she announces to them, as Thor looks alarmed and Clint stiffens warily. Steve tries not to tense, his fingers clutching his shield tightly. “I don’t know what he intends to do, but it can’t be anything good. We have to get back to Terra and start reassembling ourselves, because Thanos will be coming for us again.”

“He won’t get past Loki,” Thor says, a proud edge lining his voice, but Steve’s stomach clenches uncomfortably. “We are safe from the death stone, for now, at the very least. My brother is too smart for that.”

It’s hard to rid the lasting image they had of the God of Mischief or the sheer devastation Loki had laid onto New York. Steve had helped with the clean-up efforts that Tony led with the Avengers, and he still remembers helping Tony as they lifted apart pieces of wreckage, still wakes up dreaming of screaming people, of the smoke and rubble still in the air. Bruce spent hours in Tony’s lab, eyes rimmed red, and the guilt written all over his face. Natasha used to come back from Clint’s therapy sessions with a haunted look on her face, though she wouldn’t say a word about them. When Steve looks around at them, he can feel the tension cracking in the air about them, and he can practically feel Clint breaking.

“Look, Thor,” Clint begins stiffly, “Loki may be the bee’s knees for you, but the rest of us—we’re not exactly out of our minds to see him. You get that, right?”

Thor’s jaw tightens. “He has redeemed himself,” he says, voice defensive and insistent. “I would not dare to ask your forgiveness, but Loki has saved the Asgardian people and attempted to protect the universe, even against Thanos. I should think that would warrant some sympathy—,”

“That fucker is getting nothing from me,” Clint says angrily, and just like that, everything breaks. “He took my head apart, Thor—,”

“I thought you’d understand,” Tony breaks in, something harsh and sharp flashing across the light of his eyes. His voice is dripping with dry sarcasm as he continues, spiteful and vicious, “You were so happy to bring in Maximoff, Clint—,”

Natasha’s voice is careful. “Tony—,”

“I’m not here for your psych student bullshit, Natasha—,”

“Stop it, all of you—,” Bruce says.

“You’re not that type of doctor, remember, Bruce, so you can fuck right off, too!”

“Hey!” Hulk protests angrily.

“Let’s all just dial it all way back,” Steve says loudly, but Clint whirls in on him.

“You’d fucking love that, wouldn’t you? Everyone else has their own problems, but who gives a shit, unless it’s affecting Steve and his precious Bucky, right?” Clint bites darkly, and Steve forces himself to remember that Clint doesn’t know what he’s saying, that Clint is angry and—

“Bucky didn’t do anything of his own free will, which I thought you’d understand, Clint—,”

“Free will’s a fucking laughable thing for you, isn’t it?” Tony snaps angrily. “Whatever you say, goes. Bucky’s good, so he stays. Wanda’s good, she stays. Tony’s bad, he goes—,”

Steve can’t take this. “What do you have against Wanda, Tony? What has she ever done to you?”

“Do you even know what she fucking did to my head, my mind—,” Tony screams, suddenly broken apart. His voice keens into a hoarse, frantic cry as he continues, throat wrecked, “For weeks, I closed my eyes and I saw you all dead! I was going out of my fucking mind, it was like I was being eaten alive by own shitty mental—,”

Bruce is distressed. “Tony—,”

“You think I don’t know what the fuck that’s like?” Clint bites back angrily.

“Why would you bring in someone who hurt us all, then?” Thor is saying. “If you hate Loki so much—,”

Natasha is looking distraught. “Stop, stop it—,”

“Every single fucking SHIELD therapist they sent me rattled around in my head,” Steve shout back at Tony, louder than anything, “poked around for the shit they thought I could do for them, because I was always nothing but a fucking puppet on their damn strings—if you think I couldn’t understand what the fuck that’s like, Tony—,”

“Then why did you bring her in?” Tony roars. “If you knew what it was like, why did you do it?”

“I saw her in me!” Steve roars back. “I’m not a captain! Or—or a superhero like the rest of you! I barely know what I’m doing half the time and I just wanted to be worthy of you all!” Everything stills around them as they stare at him, his cheeks flaring hot red with pained humiliation. Steve’s throat is hoarse, but he continues, trying to explain, breathing hard. “I don’t belong here. I’m not even a real captain. I’m a… a dancing monkey. All over again.”

Steve stares at them all, as the silence lingers around them all, ringing with Natasha’s words. Tony’s face is still red with anger, Clint looks utterly distraught, and Thor looks as though he might be about to cry. Green has pooled over Bruce’s face but Hulk stays still. Steve suddenly misses Bucky very badly. Tony is staring at him, but it’s Natasha who speaks, her voice jagged and harsh.

“No, you’re not,” she says fiercely to him. “You’re Steve Rogers. You’re Captain America. You’re an Avenger.” She whirls on them all angrily. “We all are! Do you hear me? Nick had an idea and that was us. We’ve got issues, yes, but you all have to make a choice right now. Are you hearing me right now? Make the choice. Right here, right now. Are you an Avenger? Do you choose to stay here, to work on this, work on us, and fix us up? Or do you want to go?”

But before they can answer, everything explodes.

Chapter Text

Tony registers the blow coming right before it actually hits.

So, he tucks himself in quickly, lunges straight for the people closest to him, and makes himself a human shield. The world rumbles and shakes all around them, cracking apart, the sound deafening in his ears and for a moment, Tony thinks the ash in the air will stay in his lungs forever, panic beginning to take him over. Natasha is in his arms, having already tucked herself into a protective ball, into the metal of the suit as Tony keeps his arms around her head, breathing hard. She seems to recognise his harsh breathing, her head lifting up, her eyes widening.

“Tony?” Her voice rings around his world, echoing slightly, as Tony tries to breathe again.

Ash in the air, ash in his mouth, Peter crying—

“Tony, breathe with me, it’s okay—,”

He pulls himself back with a harsh gasp, his breaths shuttered as Natasha presses a bloodied, shaking hand up to the faceplate. She has to be completely uncomfortable in this position, Tony thinks, and a thousand innuendos go racing in his head, but it all fades away to the sheer concern and care written all over Natasha’s bruised face. It looks like she might have knocked her head, but all she focuses on is him, and Tony remembers her words, the echo rattling around his head as he leans back to let her breathe.

“Thank you,” he murmurs briefly, and she only gives him a quick, small smile.

Then Tony turns and the fight begins all over again.

Natasha is already reaching to squeeze the metal of his arm comfortingly, before she launches herself into the fight, already sliding into protect Clint’s open side as he shifts and ducks the blow from Corvus Glaive. The Black Order are here, and Tony has a fucking bone to pick with Ebony Maw. But it looks like Nebula’s gotten there first, screaming something as she and Rocket lunge for his throat and Nebula almost manages to gouges out the alien’s eyes before Ebony Maw is faltering back and falling through the air where Bruce has picked up one of Rocket’s guns to aim at him.

A blade sings through the air, going within a hair of his face as it sinks into the black rock right next to him. Tony reaches for it, pulling it out before he turns to the wielder, repulsors already powering up as he tenses, shoulders rolling back. It’s a good knife, he thinks faintly in the back of his mind, registering the curve of the silver and how Natasha would appreciate it.

“Not so fast, Terran.” Proxima Midnight’s voice is a vicious, harsh snarl. Her smile is dark and curling with menace when she looks to him, her eyes bright and sharper than the knife in his hands. “You and I have a score to settle.”

“Proxima!” Tony calls out in delight, smirking at her as she moves towards him. “Is it true that the spear was better than your husband?”

Corvus snarls something out angrily, as Natasha adds wickedly, “I heard that’s why you’re missing it so bad?”

She snarls something in another language before cracking her clenched fists towards him and Tony ducks the blow just in time, laughing as her hand hits the black rock behind his head instead. Blood sprays everywhere as Proxima shouts at him. She keeps lunging for him and Tony’s fast losing breath as he stumbles back, unable to deal with the sheer weight of her anger as he raises his repulsors and fires. Proxima wipes the blood from her nose and keeps going for his throat.

Steve and Thor are both fighting Ebony Maw and Corvus Glaive at the same time, and just as Tony swerves from Proxima’s next shattering blow, his breaths fraught, Clint turns and sees him struggling. He shouts something and Natasha turns to reach for Proxima’s legs just as the alien lunges for him. Tony barely manages to get out of the way in time as Natasha grabs Proxima and literally slams the alien back on the ground viciously, using her entire body weight, to leave her unconscious form amidst the strewn pieces of the machine he’d been gathering up.

Tony doesn’t hesitate, pointing the repulsor into Corvus Glaive’s face just as the alien tries to lunge for Thor’s head when he’s distracted with Ebony Maw. The alien screams in pain, spotting Proxima’s limp figure before he throws a series of knives that just barely miss Tony.

“I will have you screaming, filthy Terran,” Corvus snarls out furiously with each echoing blow. “You will watch me peel the spine from your back—,”

“Buy him dinner first,” Natasha says, as she and Clint move first, the latter laughing and ducking so she can leap forwards just as Tony shields her from the knives.

Corvus bats her away easily, a single arm against Natasha’s lithe frame as she falls back right into Steve’s steadying grip. Tony moves forward, letting the fury recoil through him briefly, as he spars with Corvus Glaive, ducking the various blows and shifting quickly, hitting out at the alien’s head. Corvus is fast, but there’s something in the frantic way he moves, the way his eyes flitter all around them, as though—as though he’s not supposed to be here.

Tony stares. “Does Thanos know you’re here?”

He pauses just long enough for Corvus to drive his blade right into the shields between them, shock blowing him away as Tony stumbles back. But it’s enough for Tony to see the startled look of shock written across Corvus Glaive’s face, the fear in his eyes. They’re not supposed to be here, he realises, lifting up his repulsor quickly to defend himself.

“Did you really think,” Corvus snarls instead, clearly trying to derail him as he raises his blade, “Father would let you rip up his favourite’s flowers?”

Thor turns his head to scorn, “Favourite?”

“Thor!” Clint is shouting for him, just in time to barrel in front of the god and get him safely out of the way of Ebony Maw’s attack.

“Gamora?” Tony snarls out, Rocket’s attention already caught. His face is filled with disgust, an anger burying itself deep in his chest and howling something raw and red until it wants to burn its way completely out of him. He doesn’t know Gamora at all, has never met the woman, but she was Nebula’s sister and she was good, and she didn’t deserve Thanos. Doesn’t deserve Thanos. “Don’t pretend like you ever gave a shit about her. Nebula told us everything, you abusive fuckers. We’re going to make your precious Dad fucking rot.”

Corvus Glaive lets out an inhuman roar, spinning his blade in his fingers so fast that it becomes a vicious blur, and lunges for them all. Clint shouts, “Oh, great, thanks Tony, for winding up the crazy serial killer alien!”

“You’re welcome!”

Steve launches himself at Corvus Glaive before the alien can move, almost smashing his skull against the floor just as Tony moves to cover him carefully. Natasha darts forward almost immediately to protect his side from a screaming Proxima who has regained consciousness, but Steve has already broken Corvus’ fingers so he cannot use them against Clint and Tony. Tony moves, as Steve slams the alien against the ground repeatedly, crushing his head as Proxima howls fiercely.

Proxima screams for Natasha’s throat, the alien slashing towards her, but Tony isn’t having that. Neither is Bruce, who hurries to pull Natasha back from the blow and Tony nods towards him in acknowledgement. He moves in fast, batting away an attack from Corvus Glaive’s side towards Steve just in time and as Proxima lunges with her own scattered blade, Tony grabs it before it can complete the perfect swinging arc in the air. But Proxima is faltering slightly, barking something out, and Tony sees Ebony Maw’s gaze turn towards them, protective fury written all over his face.

Bruce turns his head towards him. “Tony, drop it! Drop it now!”

Alarm ripples through him as Tony drops the blade immediately, but he’s too late and it slides against one of his repulsors, practically shaving it off. Proxima’s snarl is a harsh smile against her face as she reaches for the sword, Ebony Maw’s magic rippling vicariously around it, and Tony ducks back as she swings the blade towards his face. It slices through his faceplate like butter and it completely falls apart, the metal practically melting away, the wires and the HUD flickering and sputtering pathetically, as Tony’s anger grows.

He aims his good repulsor for her face, but Proxima Midnight only snarls harshly at him and moves for him again, lifting her sword up in the air again. Just in time, Clint trips her up using his bow and Thor slams the alien down against the table that Nebula had pointed out Thanos used to pick her apart in.

She screams in pain, Corvus Glaive groggily reaching for her, but Steve and Natasha refuse to let him anywhere near. They’re going to win this, Tony thinks suddenly, just as Bruce roars something and finally, Hulk’s green pools across his face briefly. For once, they might actually win this.

Looks like Hulk’s coming out to play, he thinks triumphantly, almost delirious and wondering idly if they have enough space in the ship for three alien prisoners this time.

Ebony Maw shouts something at them, tendrils of magic reaching for Thor, and for a blinding moment, Tony realises exactly what it is the alien wants from them. He lunges for Thor, just as Steve moves at the same moment, both of them coming to the same conclusion at the same time. Tony nods at Steve and the shield immediately goes up, just as Thor and Tony lunge for the corner of the room. But Ebony Maw blows up the entire roof, brick and rubble falling around them as Tony moves to shield both Clint and Bruce while Steve lifts his shield over Natasha’s head, and Nebula howls for Ebony Maw once more, screaming something about Gamora. Rocket aims his gun, but Corvus Glaive is already scrambling to reach for Proxima’s limp body, grasping her wildly.

“Go, go, go, now!” Corvus is screaming at Ebony Maw and Tony shouts towards them, but the Black Order flee from them.

“Cowards!” Nebula screams. “Cowards!”

Tony collapses heavily against the wall, tired out and exhausted though Steve and Thor remain standing, ready if the fight comes back to them. Natasha is already at his side, examining the damage to the faceplate, even as Tony carefully scans everyone around him, to make sure that they’re okay. Bruce is breathless, sinking beside Tony, the gun clattering from his hands as Nebula howls after the fleeing Black Order, screaming after them hoarsely.

“What did they want?” Clint is asking, rubbing his forehead, blood staining his face. “They left pretty quickly, it didn’t—what did they want?”

Tony stares at Thor. “You.”

Thor blinks. “Me?”

“Or Loki,” Steve says. “They wanted to use you to lure out Loki.”

“And I’m guessing, by the lack of Thanos,” Natasha says carefully, “they never bothered to tell him about this impromptu attack. They must be in his bad books.”

“They are,” Nebula says harshly, wiping at her bloodied mouth with a clicking hand. Tony doesn’t even have to ask but Nebula is already pulling it off and offering it to him. Though he has barely enough energy, Tony examines the hand quickly, fixing up the fraying wires and the scattered sparks to make it safe enough and less painful as he clicks it back on. She offers him a grateful nod before continuing, stretching out her fingers experimentally. “When they were talking to me, they seemed …antagonistic. Thanos is no longer listening to them. Ebony Maw is particularly annoyed—he’s used to holding the higher title, especially above Gamora.”

Rocket swears under his breath.

“So, they all thought to bring out Loki for Thanos, to curry his favour once more,” Natasha murmurs in thought, letting out a hoarse breath. “How much he must terrify them.”

.

.

Tony is completely exhausted when they finally get back home.

The air in the ship is still fraught with tension and Natasha’s last words linger around them, as the woman in question swings her head to watch them carefully. Nobody will break the silence, nobody dares to say a thing, because what’s the point? They’ve already found out, Tony thinks harshly, something dropping in his stomach, that they can’t work together. They can fight together but they don’t really care for each other. They barely lasted a day.

Tony gets up, casting a concerned eye over Nebula who is sleeping soundly in her seat, to move, to pace. Just get his legs working at the very least, antsy from having sat down for so long. When he goes into the kitchen, idly looking through the cupboards which are filled with weird space fruit, Thor follows him. Hela’s little fun feast made him extra ravenous and even now, Tony thinks of that steaming shawarma, the meat still dripping with dark, rich sauces, his stomach rumbling hungrily.

“You hungry, big guy?” Tony asks him, picking up something that looks like a grapefruit.

“That’s poisonous to mortals,” Thor tells him, and Tony yelps, dropping the damn thing quickly as Thor’s lips quirk in amusement.

He chuckles, letting out a breath, just as Thor gets out a piece of fruit that is actually edible. They seat themselves quietly at the table, the ship rocking as Tony’s gaze turns to the broken constellations outside of the window. Thor had told them about the universe beginning to shatter apart due to the abuse of the infinity stones, that Thanos had defied the Watcher’s rules or something and it was having its vengeance. Apparently, these Watchers were searching for Thanos before the universe could eat itself up and Tony hopes when they find him, they make him bleed.

“Thanks,” he murmurs when Thor offers him a piece of fruit.

Thor is watching him thoughtfully, something inscrutable across his expression, but before Tony can ask what’s up, he speaks. “Loki. Uh, Loki reminds me of you, sometimes,” he says, and Tony stills. He puts the fruit down on the table, his hackles rising in defence immediately, jaw clenching, but Thor is shaking his head quickly. “Not in that way. It’s—you’re a brother to me, too.” Something warm blooms across Tony’s chest at that. “But like Loki, you also hide things. You hide what hurts you, what helps you.”

Like he doesn’t already know he’s messed up.

“We’ve all got issues,” Tony says humourlessly, picking up the fruit again. He takes a curious bite, makes a face, and continues to chew. There’s clear derision in his voice, a self-loathing that crawls out and grasps his words tight, masking itself in his usual dry sarcasm. “It’s what makes us special.”

“You shouldn’t talk about yourself like that,” Thor murmurs quietly towards him. He pauses before continuing, something soft and earnest in his voice when he speaks. “You’re far better than you know, Tony.”

For a moment, Tony lifts his head sharply to snap at Thor, something hot and angry filling his chest, his eyes already burning with unshed tears. To scream and shout until his throat cracks itself out, what do you know? I killed everything. It is all my fault! Strange gave up the stone because of me and my whole universe turned to dust in my hands. But he sees Thor’s broken face, creased in pain and guilt and grief that Tony knows all too well, and instead, he sighs heavily, stripped of his fury.

“Thanos is going to pay,” Tony tells Thor firmly, “for what he did to you, too.” Thor looks like he might break down again. “I’m sorry about everything that’s happened to you, Thor. You didn’t deserve any of it, but—and this might nothing at all—but you’re not alone. I’m—we’re all right here with you.”

“I am very fortunate to have you all by my side,” Thor admits lowly, giving a watery smile.

When Tony offers him a part of the fruit, Thor accepts it and they eat quietly until Rocket shouts at them to strap themselves in for the landing. Tony goes first and for a moment, when he looks at Thor’s face, he thinks that Thor might not sit down safely. He hates that moment because in it, Tony looks at him and thinks, I wouldn’t blame you. I wouldn’t blame you at all. He even thinks of joining Thor, but the god finally gets to his feet and sits down in his seat, just as Tony follows, swallowing something bitter and acrid in his mouth.

.

.

Apparently, it’s been a couple of days up in space, so when they finally make it back to the ground, it’s late afternoon, the dusk clawing up at the night skies.

Tony immediately goes straight for the lab, ignoring the way everyone else moves for the showers, the words of their last argument still lingering around them all. Rhodey is just getting up from talking with Betty Ross and Princess Shuri, something about the problems they’re having with food shortages and the water, and Tony pauses briefly to offer his help, but Rhodey just looks at him.

“Maybe you should rest, man,” Rhodey tells him gently. “You’ve had a big fight. Take a shower, come debrief tomorrow.”

Tony looks at his friend, and Rhodey is suddenly hugging him tight, almost collapsing in his arms. “I—,” he begins, faltering. “I’m tired, Rhodey.”

Rhodey’s arms are warm and safe. “You’re okay, Tones,” he says. “Just take a breath, it’s alright. We’ve got this. You’re okay.”

He doesn’t deserve his best friend. Rhodey doesn’t deserve the likes of him.

Tony pulls away first. “Yeah,” he lies weakly, nodding so Rhodey can’t see his face.

But instead of heading for the bathroom, Tony goes into his lab, trailing uselessly near the bots. His face floods with humiliation every time he looks towards the bathroom and he breathes hard, knowing that he needs to clean up, that he needs to put his head down, but he just can’t. Adrenaline fills him completely and he paces relentlessly, his heart hammering hard in his chest every time he thinks of the water splattering on the tiles, the water that sounds far too similar to the water that drowned him in the heady caves, the hand yanking his hair down painfully, the water filling his lungs—

Tony is pressing his clammy palms against his desk, focusing on the breathing patterns he picked up from therapist no. 23, bending his head as his chest grows heavier. He can’t breathe properly, and he doesn’t really want to, something aching in his head as the world turns to grey all around him. But when he turns, his gaze catches on the picture of Peter and his breath catches. His heart aches something fierce, his eyes burning already.

Oh, kid.

Tony picks up the photo, something building in his throat as he stares, his vision blurring briefly. Peter swims in his gaze, the bright smile turning accusing and sharper. His grip on the frame clenches tightly, the edge threatening to break the skin on his palm. I don’t want to die, he’d begged Tony, because Tony had selfishly tricked him into thinking that Iron Man could do anything, that Iron Man could save anyone. Peter is holding the certificate in his fingers, but Tony’s the one holding him close, a selfish, cruel thing, keeping an innocent kid beside him when he knew what people did whenever they got too close to him.

People get too close to a Stark? They die.

Don’t let me die, Peter had begged him, and Tony had been so distraught he’d promised, I won’t let you. But weeks have passed by, Thanos has the death stone, and Peter is still gone. Tony’s breath catches in guilt, his chest growing heavy and it’s not the arc reactor sitting there quietly.

His eyes are burning, and hot tears are suddenly falling as Tony clasps the photo tight, bending his head against the frame. I’m sorry, I love you, I love you, I love you, I’m so sorry, he breathes hotly against Peter’s accusing eyes. It should have been me, I’m so sorry.

“Tony?”

He straightens immediately, breathless and stiffening automatically as Tony shifts, slamming the photo back down into his desk so hard he hears a brief crack in the air. Blood stains the rib of the frame but Tony keeps it face down, his heart beating fast as he summons his usual bullshit grin and turns to see Steve lingering in the threshold of the lab. Steve has cleaned the blood off his face, showered fresh, and now he looks at Tony, the clear contrast between them even sharper than ever.

“What can I do you for, Cap?”

Steve’s face creases in confusion. “Sorry, do you want me to go?” he asks.

Tony blinks. “What?”

“Well, you’re getting in the shower, right?” Steve says awkwardly. “I didn’t mean to—,”

He swallows tightly before shaking his head. “It’s fine,” Tony lies. “What is it, Steve?”

Steve’s eyes are tinged with hope. “Bruce was—Bruce was saying that with the materials we got, there’s—we can make something that can hold the death stone without killing us all, and wield it properly. Thor says that if we—there’s a possibility that we can use the power of the death stone to get everyone back,” he tells Tony, something breathless in his voice. “We can get everyone back, Tony.”

“We have to get the stone first,” Tony says, something vicious in him wanting to put a downer on everything.

Bucky and everyone will be ecstatic to see Steve again, but Tony knows he can’t face even seeing Peter’s broken face. How can he look at May Parker and tell her to her face that he failed to save her boy? Steve doesn’t say anything, just looks back at him until the guilt and frustration threatens to dredge up in his throat and completely explode from him. But Tony lets out a heavy breath and just nods at him, rubbing his sleeve against his face tiredly.

“I want to say sorry,” Steve tells him. “It’s the materials we got from the ship that let this happen and you were smart to see that. I’m sorry, Tony, I was just being an idiot—,”

“No, you were smart to question me. How many times have I messed with shit and gotten myself blown up?” Tony says, shaking his head.

Steve watches him. “Why’d you do it, then, Tony?” he says, before his eyes widen a little, at how rude he might seem. “I mean—I don’t—I know that you’re a really selfless, kind person, but it—there’s a lot of stuff that you could be doing instead. Safer stuff—,”

“I want to be Iron Man till it kills me,” Tony says sharply, wanting to stun the perfect Captain shut for a moment.

It works, only for a bit. Steve gapes before he realises that’s exactly the reaction Tony is looking for and then he closes his mouth to eye him carefully.

“Yeah,” Steve says finally, “I get that. I can’t really let go of the Captain thing either. Do anything to help, dancing monkey or no, right?”

He really does get it, Tony thinks. Superheroes with a god complex and a death wish—a bad combination. And what did it all end up doing, but bringing Thanos on them and wringing out devastation amidst the whole universe?

“Right,” Tony says, his lips quirking. “To answer your first question. I, um. Wasn’t alone in Afghanistan.”

That’s all he will say, and that’s all Steve seems to sense he can say, something hoarse and dark thickening in his throat. Yinsen’s face flashes in his mind and Tony thinks he might break down again, his breaths fraught and tight. His gaze drops down to the photo frame, to his hands which are calloused and rough and completely soaked in the blood of innocents, the blood of killers, the blood of Yinsen and Peter and his mother and everyone else who should never have touched his life. Everyone else he should have known better to let go.

Steve’s face doesn’t soften with sympathy, which Tony is grateful for. “We’re going to make him pay, Tony. And we can pull this off. One last time.”

He looks up at Steve, sees Captain America’s fiercely hopeful face gleaming through. When he looks at Steve, Tony thinks he can see that brave optimism, that blinding hope, everyone’s always talking about. He can almost believe in it, too. The Steve Rogers effect.

“One last time.”

.

.

Shuri wipes her forehead tiredly as she hammers in the last of the vibranium, her brows furrowed with concentration.

Beside her, the raccoon has half a dozen screws in his mouth as he helps her weld the edge of the vibranium properly with the welding gun, the bright orange glow flaring up around them powerfully. Nebula keeps an eye on them both as she and Tony fit another heavy body part to the machine, one that will hopefully not explode this time. Bruce is adjusting his glasses, as he reads over the pieces of information Shuri and Tony Stark have been able to scramble to get together on the death stone.

There’s shamefully little of the death stone, even with Thor, Rocket, and Nebula’s helpful input, and it grates on Shuri a little. She likes to have all the facts at her disposal before undertaking a project, especially since Erik successfully threw a coup that took away her brother. In any case, together, they’ve worked on something that should be able to successfully hold the power of the infinity stone without destroying them to pieces. Shuri is still worried about it, but they’re testing it out with the parts of the stone that remained stuck in Tony’s wall of the Tower.

Fingers crossed, she thinks, something in her throat as she pulls back.

She hasn’t let herself hope. It hurts too much, especially after the first test they did, when Rocket’s eyes had gleamed and Tony looked as though he might break down in those few moments the death stone had been held in the machine before splintering into sharp, dangerous shards that almost impaled them completely. Shuri had held her breath until she’d managed to get out of the workshop and collapsed to her knees in her room, shaking and sobbing helplessly.

“Is it done?” Bruce is asking tentatively, his brows furrowed in that perpetual worry the man always seems to feel.

Shuri would tease his shyness, make a little fun with Okoye, but Okoye is with Colonel Rhodes and Captain Rogers and the other Avengers, trying to establish some end to their import and riot problem. She thinks instead that she’ll tell her mother or badger T’Challa about Bruce Banner, the genius who gets tongue-tied at the slightest of things, before it happens again. Something in her chest grows impossibly heavy as though something has been placed onto it, crushing her ribs, as her eyes water against her will.

She grips the hammer tight in her fingers, hating having to remind herself over and over that they’re not here.

They are not here. They are not here. They are not here.

Not yet, some impossible part of her whispers.

Sometimes Shuri wakes in the nights and for that brief, soft moment, she’s in her old chambers, in Wakanda, in the hall where she can just go and annoy her brother until he throws a pillow at her and she goes to her mother to get him into trouble, just because she’s bored. But then, Shuri will look around herself and realise that she’s not home, she’s in their American house in New York, surrounded by the Dora Milaje, who are mourning just as heavy as she is.

The disappointment clings to her and she ends up grieving all over again.

She really hates sleeping, now.

The first times she’d woken screaming, howling, dreaming that the Chitauri had grasped her brother’s throat and squeezed until there was nothing left, before turning onto her mother while she stood, stupid and stuck and helpless, Okoye had burst into the doors. Her face had creased in understanding as Shuri had broken down completely and she’d spent the whole night wrapped up in her guard’s arms, shaking and sobbing helplessly.

I am sorry, I am so sorry, Okoye had whispered to her brokenly, in Xhosa. You are too young to have seen such pain, Princess. I am sorry, I am so sorry.

“Princess?” Tony Stark is calling her, and Shuri blinks fiercely before summoning her brightest grin.

“Of course it’s done,” she says with an edge of her usual pride.

It’s hard to find anything to be proud of these days, even in her work which she used to show her family and the people of Wakanda with a prideful flourish, devouring their praise in delight. But these days, Shuri works raggedly to the bone, trying to save as many people as she can, with the United Nations and the various governments of the world, that when she gets one thing done, there’s barely enough time to feel anything at all until she has to do something else. She can’t really be a kid anymore and she kind of misses it, with a selfish, savage kind of grief.

All four of them have spent the last couple of days working on this machine together, though, so Okoye has taken over part of her duties, her and Lord M’Baku both. Shuri has never been so grateful for her people as she is now, so grateful that her brother managed to cultivate such a wonderfully loving environment where the people around her selflessly help her, with all the kindness and compassion in their bones. They’re relentless and running on very little sleep and a lot of coffee, all of them in Tony’s lab in the Tower because of the death stone.

It’s been difficult to import anything, but Rocket had offered his ship to fly in more materials from Wakanda and Tony’s robots had been a strangely great amount of help, too. Shuri found herself falling half in love with them, but it’s the people around her that she’s grown to respect and care for, too. Tony was funny and he wasn’t at all condescending to her abilities, like she’d thought he would be. Instead, he was rather admiring and wide-eyed with enthusiasm whenever she taught him something new.

They’re all nothing like what she expected of them.

Tucked away in Wakanda, from the rest of the world, hiding with her country, Shuri can admit that she’d grown presumptuous and judgemental of the other people in America and the rest of the world. But really, what else can be expected of her when Everett Ross looks right at Okoye and instantly assumes she can’t speak English? Or when she once dropped into California to look over her brother’s new project for him, a white woman called the police on her for ‘loitering’?

“Fingers crossed it works this time,” Tony says and though he’s smiling, it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Mark sixteen, is it?”

“I work by tests,” Shuri says, just to be an asshole, half testing, half tentative.

Some reckless, terrible part of her wants to push as much as possible, until these white people break apart around her and show their true selves. Don’t be immature, Shuri, she can practically hear her mother saying, but her mother isn’t here to chide her from doing it, so she juts out her chin and meets Tony Stark’s gaze.

But Tony is completely unfazed, as ever. “Test sixteen, then,” he corrects with a small smile, and Shuri wants to hate him, but she can’t.

Rocket is already with Nebula, both of them watching as Bruce carries over the cracked part of the death stone with gloved hands and steel forceps. Mostly, he’d volunteered because the Hulk should be able to withstand more power than them all and it had made sense. Shuri pulls herself to her feet, something tight in her throat as her breaths grow heavy and ragged with a fervent desire. If this works, there’s a possibility, a smidgeon of a chance that they can actually pull this off, she thinks to herself, the pressure on her shoulders heavier than the world.

Because it’s the whole universe on their heads now, not just Wakanda or New York. This is the universe. And if this works, they can bring back everything again. She wants it so bad that she thinks she might die. What was that old line? And when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. Well, part of the universe is gone, so maybe it might not work. But dear, God, she wants this. Shuri wants this so badly she might fall apart again and this time, she’s not sure she’ll want to put herself back together again.

If this works, Shuri vows that she won’t stop lording it over T’Challa’s head forever.

“Ready?” Bruce asks them rhetorically.

Rocket’s voice is harsh, but breaks halfway through. “Just do it, man.”

She braces herself, praying to everything around her breathlessly, crossing all of her fingers and staring until her eyes burn. Beside her, Tony tenses in the suit protectively around them, as they brace themselves and Bruce holds the cracked death stone tightly, green shifting across his face slightly. Hulk has been a no-show mostly, though Shuri sometimes spots him. He’s always very quiet and Tony is wary, but Hulk never does a single thing. She wonders if Bruce hates him for that.

Bruce moves so quietly and slowly that she hates it and she can see the frustration and the impatience crawling over Nebula’s face, too, but nobody says a word. It’s so quiet that Shuri can hear her own breaths lingering in the air and she swallows tight.

The black of the death stone is like staring into oblivion, strangely fascinating but unable to look at it too much otherwise her head starts to hurt. Bruce is focusing on the machine as he moves forward to gently nudge the cracked stone into the machine tentatively and everyone flinches all at the same time, Shuri lifting her vibranium gauntlets immediately in defence. They hear it clatter in the machine as the vibranium holds it tightly, the sound echoing slightly as everyone tenses, readying themselves for yet another explosion.

But nothing happens.

Shuri can barely breathe, staring at the machine as she shakes. Nebula is the first one to speak, her breaths fraught.

“It worked.”

Tony’s eyes are wide, and it looks like he might break down. “Holy shit.”

And suddenly, for the first time since her whole universe turned to dust right before her eyes and left her screaming alone, Shuri lets herself hope.

Chapter Text

“There’s a lot of ash and not enough people to clear it away,” Betty Ross says, rubbing her forehead. “We barely have enough electricity to last us this meeting.”

Rhodey speaks up quickly. “Tony’s working on the clean energy protocols with his arc reactors, ma’am,” he says. “It’s just taking some time to launch properly.”

Okoye leans forward. “Wakanda can help with the electricity problem,” she offers. “We have already got parts of Africa up and running.”

Betty looks relieved as she inclines her head towards them both. “Thank you,” she says gratefully, her voice ringing with clear honesty. “But when one problem is solved, unfortunately for us, another arises. The riots. They’re starting to increase.”

Thor turns his head in confusion as Rhodey reaches for the papers that the President is passing him. “Riots?” he repeats.

Rhodey tunes out the explanation, already knowing it all, something sticking in his throat as he looks over the new reports, with a disparaging eye. By the looks of it, they certainly didn’t need Thanos. They were doing such a good job of killing each other all by themselves. There’s your population control, you great fat purple prick, he thinks angrily, his fists clenching under the table where he sits. They haven’t been able to clean most of the water up in time and the food rations are starting to get people antsy.

The fact that these people have to go around with half of their souls, with such a dead look in their eyes, just tips them over the edge. Rhodey wants to condemn them for their grief and devastation and desperation, but he understands it. For that first week, all he’d wanted to do is scream and break things, but his legs wouldn’t let him. Lack of legs, he has to remind himself, something heavy and hot and defensive in his chest.

Tony apologises over and over, and Rhodey’s been so insistent that it’s not his best friend’s fault that he’s forgotten most of the therapy he went through. It doesn’t really help that his therapist had been snapped away and the rest of them had needed therapy themselves.

“People are angry,” Natasha says quietly. “They’re lashing out.”

The UK ambassador Diane stares at her incredulously.

“We’re not all superheroes,” she says bitingly, and it’s clear that she’s mistaken Natasha’s observation for something condescending. Rhodey opens his mouth to speak, but Diane’s voice is wavering. “We can’t just hit space aliens until our pain goes away. So, yes, people are angry. People are furious. Half of everything is completely gone and it’s not fair and the people we thought was going to save us, the people who promised they’d fight the battles we certainly couldn’t, failed us!”

“Hear, hear!” someone else says. “And where are Stark and Banner, anyway? Shouldn’t they be here, too?”

Rhodey leans forward to defend Tony immediately, startled when he realises Steve and the others are doing so as well. Natasha’s face creases with guilt and pain, her eyes bright with unshed tears, but everyone else is talking over themselves, defending her fiercely. Okoye just watches them all carefully, Lord M’Baku by her side. Steve’s voice is louder than a foghorn, but he has the same expression on his face that Rhodey recognises on his own features whenever some asshole would accuse Tony of being selfish. Clint looks mad, and Thor is practically shouting in defence of Natasha and Bruce and Tony, but it’s him they all listen to, thank God.

“That’s enough,” Rhodey says and everything quiets immediately. He looks at Diane first. “Fighting isn’t going to get us anywhere, for once. If we want to defeat Thanos, we’re going to have to do it all together.” Rhodey’s chest aches. “Yes, we failed you. Yes, we keep failing you. But as long as we are still here, we’re still going to do something. We’re still going to try.” Diane looks properly admonished.

Okoye clears her throat. “The colonel is right,” she says, though her voice is not accusing and he gives her an appreciative smile. “If you keep pushing people away and creating a division between us all, then Thanos wins.”

Rhodey knows all about division between people. Yes, they really didn’t need Thanos. They had their own killers.

Betty speaks first, breaking the quiet. “I gave this option to you the very first time we sat down at this table,” she says, her voice in that easy calm. “But I think I should ask you again.”

She’s wearing that tired, exhaustion expression everyone seems to be wearing right now. It’s all the rage, Rhodey thinks flatly, and he remembers back in the nineties when he and Tony had walked the ramp in New York fashion week as a joke. Those golden days where everything seemed immortal and like nothing could end. Now look at them all.

“What—,” Steve begins in confusion, before Betty continues.

She speaks, her voice quiet yet commanding. “Anyone here who does not feel that they can get along with the others on this table, now is the time to get up,” Betty tells them. “We won’t judge, we won’t say a single word. In fact, I almost encourage it. Having to do this, day in, day out, with no end in sight—I’m sorry for it, I really am. I wouldn’t have wished any of this on any of you, at all. But I know as well as you, that together, we are capable of so much more. We are stronger together. But I would not force you to stay where you did not want to.”

Nobody leaves and Rhodey gives a sigh of relief. Diane murmurs an apology to Natasha who shakes her head, refusing to take it. Instead, she reaches for Diane’s hand and squeezes quietly, before the conversation starts up again.

“Thank you,” Betty says again, looking breathlessly relieved. “Our first priority are the streets. They’re cleaner now, and we have a good, strong system going with the rationing. But we need to find an end to the rioting.” She rifles through the papers, before explaining. “People are angry, now that we’ve got the word out on what’s happened. Imports are still tough, and parts of the Hudson are still unclean, but we have enough that people are starting to get over the initial shock. And when the shock goes away, the fear and anger start. So. Any ideas?”

We get them to fight, instead, Rhodey thinks before he scoffs at himself scathingly. She’s right. People are angry. People are grieving, but before the crushing depression comes the building fury and soon, something’s going to break. Rhodey can feel it. They none of them are telling anyone about the death stone, but Betty. Not even the United Nations knows the full details of what Thanos had been seeking out in the Tower, mostly because Betty had wanted to spare them.

Hope is the worst thing to have right now.

Rhodey gets it. He’s been ringing for his mother for days now, and when he finally managed to get a few moments to go downtown, he’d opened the door into a quiet house. Ash on the floor. Tony beside him. There was nothing else to say, was there?

Steve is rubbing his forehead and Rhodey thinks faintly, distracted, Tony was right. Cap does get a frown between his brows when he thinks like that. He knows that Tony has found a family within the Avengers, knows that something between them has cracked and fixed itself and cracked all over again. There’s something about them, for his best friend, that is too enigmatic, too magnetising. He can’t let them go, because he just loves and cares for them so much.

Sometimes, Rhodey worries if they’re going to be okay, but sometimes, in these moments when he sees Clint and Thor and Steve speaking up so fiercely for Natasha and defending Tony and Bruce when they’re not here, he knows they will be.

“Will another press conference help?” Steve asks tentatively. “We could tell them about our efforts to reverse Thanos’ snap—,”

“No,” Betty says immediately. She shakes her head, tapping her fingers on the table. “We don’t have any solid, hard evidence that they could put their faith in. There’s nothing to show for it, but you. And no offence, Captain, for the first time, you’re not enough.”

Clint looks defensive, when he sees Steve’s face grow sadder. “We’re doing our best,” he says, as Thor seconds the sentiment. “We went to fucking space for you all. Almost died, again.” But nobody says anything and Clint just glowers, his voice a harsh mutter. “I fucking hate people.”

Rhodey is staring at the panel before him, watching the way they shift uncomfortably, their faces flushed slightly. It’s kind of mean of Clint to say that, but he gets both sides, funnily enough. Maybe it’s the legs. It’s not that the people don’t want to help them fight, he knows. It’s that they feel they can’t do the same things the Avengers can. How can they? They’re not Black Widows or wearing great suits of armour or Princes. They feel useless, Rhodey realises, and his heart breaks for them. They want to protect their world, too.

So, why not give them a chance?

“We have…” Rhodey begins, letting out a heavy breath. “The beginnings of a plan.” Diane’s head snaps towards him. “It’s—,”

“Colonel,” Lord M’Baku interrupts tightly, his eyes flashing. “Is this wise?”

“Probably not,” Rhodey confesses.

Diane’s mouth is pursed. “If you’re keeping secrets—,”

“We were thinking of luring Thanos back to Earth,” Rhodey says, and everyone goes still and quiet. For once. “There’s something that he has that we feel might—and I say this very lightly—might reverse the effects of the snap. There’s only a very small possibility.” He looks at them, at the hope beginning to light their faces, and Rhodey hopes he’s not doing the wrong thing here. Natasha’s face is impassive, but Steve looks worried. “But there is a possibility. So. When he comes back down, with all of his Chitauri, we may need—,”

“An army,” the German ambassador says, something harsh. “You need cattle. Collateral damage to gain the upper hand. You think we don’t know how wars work, Colonel?”

Rhodey’s stomach drops in discomfort, but Natasha leans forward to defend him. “Not like that,” she says tightly, her voice sharper than a blade. “Rhodey didn’t mean it like that.”

“I wouldn’t force anyone to enlist,” Rhodey says, his voice earnest and insistent. He looks at Betty. “But you have a lot of angry people.”

“And you think by taking advantage of their emotions and manipulating them—,”

“I think by giving them a choice to defend their planet, to be an Avenger—,”

Betty is shaking her head. “No,” she says immediately. “No. It’s too risky, too dangerous. Too cruel.”

But when Rhodey looks down at the panel, he can see the beginnings of interest starting to spark everyone’s faces, including Diane.

.

.

“What would you do,” Ivan snarls, “for the Motherland, Natalia?”

Natalia shakes her head, squeezes her eyes shut. “My name is Natalia Romanova. I am one of the twenty-eight young ballerinas with the Bolshoi. Training is hard, but the glory of the Soviet culture, and the warmth of my parents… my… parents… makes up for…”

“What would you do, Natalia?” Ivan is screaming at her.

“My name is Natalia Romanova. I am one of the twenty-eight Black Widow agents with the Red Room. Training is hard, but the glory of the Soviet supremacy, and the warmth of my parents… all my parents… makes up for…”

“Natalia!” Ivan is knocking her head against the ground, so hard that she sees stars. “You are so weak, Natalia. Have you forgotten everything I taught you?”

“Never,” she breathes, blood in her mouth.

Ivan’s face flickers, turns to Thanos. “What will you do, for the ones you love?” he asks, and slowly, painfully, Natasha thinks of Mjolnir and gets to her knees.

“I am worthy.”

“Natasha!”

She wakes with one sharp inhale, one hand reaching out to grab the one reaching for her and slamming it against the table, turning it back on itself. But Clint is faster, moving with the blow so quickly that he manages to pull her back. Natasha breathes hard, blows the red hair out of her face, before she stares at him.

He grins at her. “Hi.”

Natasha breathes out once more before she starts to relax, relief overwhelming her completely. “Hi.”

“Bad dream?”

“No more than usual.”

His face creases in sympathy. “You’re okay?”

Her gaze turns to Tony’s liquor cabinet behind them and she nods towards it. “Give me one of those and then I’ll tell you.”

Clint doesn’t move, though he lets go of her. She can register the slight worry in his features, because she hasn’t had one of these bad dreams in a long while. It’s because of Ebony Maw, Natasha knows. The nightmares had finally started to ebb away, but something in the alien’s meddling had triggered them all back up again.

Plus, Natasha doesn’t often slip, so nobody but Clint knows about her bad dreams. So, falling asleep right after that heavy meeting and on the table, too? Clint looks at her worriedly, knowing that it must have been bad. She’d practically collapsed in the common room, unwilling to drag herself back to her room, and perhaps some small part of her had registered how safe Tony’s tower always was. Those motels and Wakanda and every other safe apartment she’d ever been in had never felt anything like the Tower.

When Natasha looks towards the large windows, the glass still unreplaced from Thanos and his Black Order’s impromptu attack, she sees that night has fallen. Thor and Steve have also slumped onto the sofa beside her, both of them still drowsing sleepily, though she can see the beginnings of an uncomfortable nightmare starting to linger down on them. Her brows furrow together when she swings her gaze back to look at Clint, whose face is creased in that heavy sadness that she’s too used to, now.

She’d demanded they make a choice.

Rhodey had offered the idea that the people of this world, the people who couldn’t fight the battles they could, should have a choice, too. They’d talked about the armies of each country, the possibility of flying them in for the battle, the military and the like as Wakandan military had had the chance to help in the first fight. Betty Ross had immediately dismissed the idea, but Natasha had looked at the people on the UN panel and realised that they didn’t answer to the acting President of the United States. She doesn’t want more people to die, but can she really begrudge them their fury and their vengeance?

Their choice to be an Avenger?

If the Avengers beside her are giving up, then the roster’s pretty empty, Natasha thinks, half hysterical just as Steve cries out in his sleep and Tony bursts into the common room noisily, looking completely shattered but breathless with hope. He’s so loud that Thor startles awake, and Natasha moves immediately to block Steve from attacking the god beside him in defence. Steve looks wild-eyed, his breaths fraught, but he relaxes much faster than she does, and Natasha’s heart aches when she realises that everyone in this room is severely messed up.

“Tony?” Clint is saying, Bruce having barrelled after Tony. “What is it?”

“We did it,” Tony says breathlessly, and Thor shifts, startled. “We—we did it.”

Natasha’s heart leaps in joy, as Steve immediately gets up. Bruce explains quickly, his cheeks flushed as he rubs his eyes tiredly. They haven’t slept, Natasha realises faintly in the back of her head, concern blooming within her when she notices the dark circles under both Tony and Bruce’s eyes. When she looks at Thor and Clint and Steve, she realises they have the same dark circles. None of them have.

“The machine we were working on—it can hold a part of the death stone,” Bruce says. “We’re—it’s only a testing, but it’s something, at least.”

Thor looks as though he might cry. “You are both geniuses,” he says, reaching to embrace Bruce and Tony within his big, burly arms, laughingly. “You’re amazing! Thanos has had the upper hand all this time! He’s been one step ahead of us, for years!”

“This time,” Tony says, nodding as he laughs in Thor’s grip, “it’s our turn.”

Steve’s eyes are bright and fervent, as Clint sinks back into his chair, looking stunned and completely bowled over. They all look like they’re about to break down completely and Natasha waits for the small awkward silence to finally linger between them. It does, as it always does. She looks at them all and thinks briefly about what kind of a world it would be without them, before she decides, that’s not for me. Ivan had been right, in a way. She’d swapped the KGB for SHIELD for the Avengers.

It had taken a while, but Natasha knows that she’s one of them now.

When the silence lingers between them, she breaks it first. “Tony?” Natasha says, moving towards the liquor cabinet. She rummages through the bottles, pulling a few out and clutching them tight. “This one’s your favourite, right?”

“Uh… yeah?” Tony blinks.

“Come on, then.”

She drags them all up to the rooftop, the wind blowing in her face. Every time she sees the red hair Thor so lovingly dyed back for her, it’s like climbing back to a person she actually really likes this time. Sometimes, whenever Natasha looks at them, she can see something like happiness for her. She lets out a breath and offers the bottle towards them, tentative and something in her throat.

“I asked you all to make a choice,” Natasha tells them, as she takes a swig. “I’ve made mine. I’m here, not because of Nick or the rest of the world. But for us.”

For a brief moment, she thinks she’s misjudged everything and something in her stomach clenches uncomfortably, her breaths coming out fraught and ragged. And then Tony reaches for the bottle and takes a long drink, meaningful and quiet before he clears his throat.

“I made my choice a long time ago,” he says, shrugging.

Steve takes the next swig, chuckling lightly. “I have you beat in terms of time.”

Natasha thinks she might cry. One by one, they all drink from the bottle and right there, as they stand quietly together, the night air drenched around them, she finally feels something like peace. Ivan tried to take that out of her; the Red Room and Madame had broken her into pieces, splintered her so far apart she never thought she’d be able to piece herself back together again. And when she finally did, she never thought she’d be able to know what it was like to feel. She was just some ragged puppet, pulled on strings, but now, looking at them, she is her own person. She is happy.

Steve looks at Tony. “I’m sorry, Tony. I didn’t know about Wanda—,”

“I’m sorry, too, man,” Clint says.

Tony flushes hot. “It’s fine,” he says, waving it away.

Bruce shakes his head. “No, it’s not,” he says. “I was supposed to be there for you, doctor or no doctor. I’m sorry I wasn’t.”

Natasha collapses onto the rooftop, leaning heavily against the ground as she stares up at the skies, as they talk around her. Tony comes down beside her first, taking a long swig, as the others drop down, too, slowly and uncertainly but with a tentative peace that makes Natasha think that if they work for this, they can make it work. Thor is leaning next to her, but his focus is on Clint, quiet and soft.

“He hurt me, man,” Clint tells him, pointing at his head. “Stuffed—all sorts of shit in there and he—,”

“I would never ask you to forgive him for that,” Thor tells him, and beside her, Tony lets out a breath. “I’ll always be the first to step between you and him, for you, Clint. That goes for all of you. I know my brother. I know what he is capable of, and I know that he will not hurt you. If he does, he will have to go through me, first.”

Clint’s breath shutters, as Thor’s words linger in the air around them. Up above, the stars gasp and gleam, glowing constellations splintering themselves apart until the whole world is touched in shades of black and gold. Natasha holds her breath.

“I held Mjolnir,” she confesses quietly, and when Tony whoops in delight for her, her smile grows so big it could rival the curve of the moon above them. Steve looks genuinely happy and Bruce congratulates her breathlessly, as Clint and Thor encourage her to chug and Natasha’s eyes brim, but she drinks in celebration. “I wanted to give it to you, Thor, but—,”

Thor only waves it away. “I’ll steal it back from Hela next time I go back,” he says all too carelessly, completely ignorant of the startled side glances they give them.

Slowly, tentatively but with a love that resounds around them, they let go of their fears around each other as the air fills with the ease of conversation, Natasha completely chuffed that Mjolnir found her worthy, staring up at the stars with everyone. And finally, she starts to see an ending to the constant arguing and a genuine friendship or family blossoming between them. Ha, Natasha thinks spitefully. Suck on that, Ivan, and rot where you are. Tony still looks a little stunned, blinking.

“He kept a death stone in my tower, where I sleep,” he says, playing with Natasha’s hair, incredulous.

“Loki’s always been a bit…” Thor trails off. Barmy, Natasha thinks, remembering Hela. It must run in the family. “Did I tell you about the time he turned into a snake?”

“Yes,” they all chorus, grinning.

“So Asgard looked like Hela’s place, then?” Clint asks.

Thor shakes his head, fondness affecting his features. “Better. Golden,” he says. “I always meant to take you all. It’s… rubble now.”

Natasha finds his hand and squeezes tightly. “You know,” Bruce tells him, drinking some more and his voice starting to slur. “When Loki and everyone comes here, we can find something for them. We’ve already started to get some stuff back on top. I mean we can find space, right, for a new Asgard?”

It wouldn’t be the same, Natasha thinks, but she sees Thor give a soft, appreciative smile. “Yes,” he says eventually, letting out a breath. “That is, if you’ll have us.”

“We’ve got problems of our own,” Steve says jokingly. “What’s a couple more?”

“Grandpa’s opening the borders!” Tony crows drunkenly as Natasha guffaws with laughter.

Clint dissolves into giggles. “We’re going to really do it, aren’t we? Get everyone back,” he says, something shining in his eyes. His cheeks are wet. “I miss them all. So bad.”

Steve’s voice is soft. “We’re getting them back, Clint. Don’t worry.”

Silence descends quietly over them, and Natasha sees something casts over Tony’s face. “I wasn’t alone on Titan,” he says quietly, as they all stiffen.

Natasha had suspected it, but she never thought it confirmed. She remembered reading reports of the red and blue figure caught on cameras, lifting up into the air. Spider-Man, the hero who Tony had talked about with a bright light in his eye, enthusiastic and so soft.

“You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want—,” Thor says quietly, but Tony is shaking his head, his eyes bright and wet.

“They all went in the blink of an eye, right? No pain,” Tony says. He shuffles slightly where he lies, reaching for something in his back pocket. It’s a frame and within it, the picture shines bright. Natasha’s breath catches in horror as everyone else stiffens when Tony lifts it up, the shine gleaming over them all. He’s so young, she thinks, her eyes brimming immediately. “Not Peter. He went crying, begging me to save him—,”

“Tony—,”

She’s not sure who says it, but Tony is shaking his head and continuing.

“He was a kid,” Tony says brokenly. “And he was good. And he was innocent and kind. And he didn’t deserve that. He didn’t deserve me.”

“Don’t ever say that,” Steve says immediately. “You didn’t do anything, Tony—,”

“Don’t,” Tony says, shaking his head, and they all fall silent. “Just—don’t. Please.”

Natasha bites her lip. “What’s he like? Peter?”

And over Tony’s face comes a smile she’s only seen in small shades, a soft curve tilting with such open love and free affection that Natasha knows she’s said the right thing. They all have watchful expressions, Natasha and Clint staring at the picture of the kid. He’s got a goofy smile, just like Tony, she thinks faintly, and they’re throwing up bunny ears behind each other, holding up a Stark internship certificate. When Natasha looks at Tony’s face, she can see that little pieces of his heart has been returned to him and it’s because of Peter.

“Good,” he says quietly. “Better than any of us. So—selfless and kind. I’ve never seen anything like it. The kid’s—he feeds stray cats and empties his pockets for the homeless. Literally helps old ladies across the street. He’s a regular Steve Rogers, Gramps. Came straight into the fight because he saw that I was in trouble and he wanted to help,” he says, nudging Steve playfully. His smile turns softer when he looks up at the skies and confesses, “I didn’t think—I didn’t think kindness like that existed anymore.”

The world is quiet, the night sky soft over them. The stars are so bright and gleaming it looks like it might shower gold.

“We’ll get them back. All of them,” Clint says, and he smiles bracingly at Tony who smiles back.

“I’m not an Avenger,” Tony says and Natasha’s stomach drops, knowing exactly what he means.

But before she can say anything about that stupid psych eval, before she can apologise for it, Steve speaks. “Bullshit,” he says immediately. “If you’re not an Avenger, neither am I.”

But Tony is shaking his head. “It’s the kid,” Tony confesses hotly, squeezing Natasha’s fingers as her breaths hitch. “I’m the most selfish person you’ll ever know. All I want is the kid back. I’m no damn Avenger.”

Thor smiles a watery smile at him. “That’s not selfish, Tony,” he says, looking at the picture frame quietly. “That’s not selfish at all.” He adds, his smile growing brighter, “And we should have a new name. I’ve been thinking about it actually…”

“Don’t say the Revengers, Thor.”

“Why not?”

“That’s a terrible name!”

“It’s a beautiful name!”

“The stars look really nice, you guys. Isn’t there a song about them?”

“I think Avengers sounds good enough?”

“There’s a million songs about stars, Clint. How drunk are you?”

“Not that much, Mom!”

“Avengers just sounds so pretentious, though?”

You’re pretentious—,”

“The Black Order, now that’s a name.”

“You’re not seriously considering the Black Order as our new name?”

“In this current political climate alone—,”

“But it sounds so cool!”

“They tried to kill us all and you want to steal their name?”

“Well, the Guardians have their fancy name. I’m just saying, the Avengers sounds terrible next to the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Black Order—even Hela’s Berserker Army sounds way cooler.”

“We should call ourselves the Stars. Because they’re really pretty and Steve is pretty, too.”

“Thank you, Clint.”

“I’m pretty, too!”

“We know, Tony.”

“And we should sing a song.” A pause. “SHOT THROUGH THE HEART AND YOU’RE TO BLAME, DARLING—,”

“God, Tony, you’re screaming in my ear!”

“Bon Jovi deserves our utmost respect, Bruce!”

“Tony, guitar solo!”

“Is someone recording this?”

“Steve, your turn!”

YOU GIVE LOVE A BAD NAME!”

Holy shit, Steve. You’ve got a good voice—,”

“Nat, join us for the chorus!”

I PLAYED MY PART, YOU PLAYED YOUR GAME, YOU GIVE LOVE A BAD NAME—,”

“Midgardian music is terrible—,”

“Blasphemy! Cast him out right now!”

“I got our new name! Avenging Army?”

“What are we, fallen angels?”

“Steve could be.”

Steve took drugs. No angel takes drugs.”

“I did not take—oh my God, I took drugs.”

Chapter Text

When he wakes, they’re all sprawled, snoring on the roof again.

Steve has a pounding headache, an aching back and sore muscles from playing air guitar last night, and Clint’s foot in his mouth. He groans tiredly, pushing Clint’s foot back, as Tony chuckles over them, the smell of breakfast lingering in the air around them. When he lifts his head, blinking in confusion, he realises Tony has literally got a stove set up, and the biggest shit-eating grin on his face, eyes bright as the gold of the dawn casts against their sleeping figures on the roof of the Tower.

There’s a bunch of cracked eggshells next to the countertop and a faint smell of burning in the air that feels vaguely worrying to Steve, but Tony doesn’t seem to care. He remembers Tony not being very good at cooking during their time in the Compound and amusement rises in him.

“Is this going to be a regular thing?” Tony asks as he flips a few sausages with casual ease. Tony points his spatula at the way they’re all splayed on the rooftop, Thor snoring loudly. “Because, we have got to get some beds up here. My back is killing me.”

To his surprise, Steve just bursts out laughing, the humour building deep in his chest as he looks around at them all with a fondness that he can’t quite believe he’s feeling. Natasha is curled up into a ball beside him, leaning heavily on Thor’s arm, while Clint lays splayed out like a starfish. Bruce is practically spooning Thor, which is a strange sight in and of itself. Steve rubs the sleep out of his eyes, muffling a yawn. Honestly, he hasn’t been able to sleep so well in ages. The couple of nights that they’ve been up here, despite his sore back, Steve’s actually managed to sleep well enough.

“Did you take pictures?” Steve asks Tony, getting up and accepting the plate heaped with rather soggy-looking eggs and slightly blackened sausages.

Despite how it looks, the food isn’t so bad and when Steve tells him so, there’s a light that brightens in Tony’s eyes. Tony tells him that he’s got practically a whole album of Clint putting his foot in everyone’s mouths and Steve guffaws, both of them brighter. This is what hope looks like, Steve realises when he looks at Tony’s face, as everyone starts to shift, the dappling sunlight waking them up quietly, yellow warmth flittering over their figures and framing them in dripping gold.

Natasha is yawning as Tony offers her plate and Thor is already awake, looking ecstatic as he enthusiastically thanks Tony for breakfast. Steve sits on the bench, reaching up to rub his eyes properly, as he eats hungrily when his hand knocks clumsily against something.

The picture frame. His gaze turns quietly, eyeing the picture of Peter, something in his heart aching for the poor kid. Brooklyn, Steve remembers but he doesn’t dare pick up the picture. The way Tony talks about Peter is the way Steve talks about Bucky, Natasha had commented softly with a small smile on her face. And when Steve had looked at Tony’s face, the way his features softened whenever he looked at Peter, he’d vowed to himself that he’d get Tony’s kid back or die trying.

“Well, all I’m saying,” Clint is saying, “is that if we’re going to be sleeping up here—forgoing perfect rooms downstairs, by the way—then we should just do it in style.”

Thor looks approving, his eyes bright. “In Asgard, when the summer months rolled around and it was too hot to do anything, we used to sleep outside.”

Natasha shrugs. “We could get the beds up, but while the space is enough, I’m not sure the roof will hold them,” she says, eyeing the rooftop. “Sleeping up here is a good idea, though. Most of our rooms have got rubble in them and this has enough stability that we won’t die.”

“We could accidentally roll over and that would be one less Avenger,” Bruce says tentatively, pointing to the horizon or rather the ledge that they’d stepped on.

A faltering quiet falls over them, then, the reminder of what they’d almost done lingering between them. Something in his gut clenches at the reminder, as Steve tries to breathe properly once more. He’d been so ready, he thinks, slightly scared of himself. So willing. Because if there was a life without Bucky or even Tony and the Avengers, what other life was there? He’d never felt so much of a failure or so alone than he did on that roof and he was only too startled to realise just how much the Avengers beside him felt exactly the same.

He’d rather die than have any of them feel that way.

“We made our choice yesterday, which means that we choose to live,” Natasha says, and there’s something fierce lining the edge of her voice as she tilts her head up, red hair swinging about her shoulders like a waterfall. She looks at them all, hard and desperate. “So, none of us will ever do anything like that ever again. Even if it gets bad, if—if things get horrible, then… the only way you will take an out is if we ask each other to do it.”

Their faces are painted in horror, as Tony begins, “Of course, I’m not going to do that to any of you—,”

Natasha turns her head. “That’s exactly the point,” she says. “As long as we have each other, as long as each of us refuses to pull the trigger, then that’s something worth living for.” There’s something watery in her voice and Steve doesn’t want to see Natasha cry. Her fingers are shaking around her plate, but she looks at them all, fierce and quiet and desperate in a way that shakes him. “Please. I don’t want to lose any more people.”

“Alright,” Steve says first, half surprising himself as he nods to Natasha., the others making various sounds of agreement, too, to his breathless relief. The tension slides away from Natasha’s face as she lets out a heavy breath, reassured. He lifts his head, gaze turning to the ledge before he continues. “But we should probably put up some protecting fencing or something around there. So, we don’t accidentally fall over.”

Tony waves a hand, carelessly. “Leave that to me.”

.

.

Thor and Steve are lumped with getting the sofas.

They’d given up on beds, mostly because there was hardly enough space to pull them up to the rooftop, and Thor didn’t want to test the poor staircase even more. So, it was sofas for them all, just two large pull-outs, big enough to hold them all. Thor’s half grateful for it, because secretly, he doesn’t really want to sleep by himself. Being by himself is scary enough, especially when he’s left to the thoughts in his head and though he knows, with time, it’ll get better, he knows that it’ll get better faster with his friends by his side.

“Left a bit,” Clint calls out.

Steve’s mouth purses but there’s a light of amusement in the brightness of his eyes. Natasha drinks her Starbucks and shakes her head. “No, to the right.”

Beside Tony, in the corner of the roof, Bruce is looking over the notes and information pieces they have on the death stone as he checks over the machine carefully, while Tony fixes up the transparent protective fencing around the ledge to keep them from falling with his little whirring bots. Thor lifts up the sofa with ease, moving to where Natasha and Clint bossily direct them as Steve wipes the sheen of sweat off his head.

“You know,” Thor says, “this would be a lot easier if you would both sit on the bench.”

From her seat on the sofa, perched in the air, Natasha swings her legs easily, pushing back a lock of hair behind her ear, while Clint drinks his Starbucks. “Better view this way,” she tells him, with a teasing grin that Thor finds himself returning.

Finally, they’re done and Thor waits, his chest aching with a warmth and a careless affection, something that’s not the heavy grief that has been plaguing him for weeks, as Steve, Bruce, and Tony pile themselves onto the sofas, groaning beside Natasha and Clint. Tony tries to steal Clint’s drink and Clint almost upturns the whole thing over Steve just so Tony doesn’t get even a sip, while Natasha and Bruce talk about the latest findings of the machine.

“Come on, Thor,” Natasha says, patting the space beside her. “Saved you a spot.”

Thor’s breath hitches a little, as he sits down. It’s so early in the dawn, barely past five, and he’s never really had something like this before. People beside him, making him feel less lonely, easy, carefree laughter. In Asgard, he had had his friends and they were fun to hang around with, but they’re gone now and they’re nothing like the Avengers. There’s something more visceral between them all now, like the terrible dark parts of what they’d done to each other have started to finally wash itself out. He wonders if that’s a good or a bad thing.

“…so, all we need to do is find a way to lure Thanos here long enough for us to get the death stone off him,” Bruce is saying, brows furrowed as he leans back.

“Well, when you say it like that, it sounds like a piece of cake,” Natasha jokes as Steve laughs.

“We need a plan,” Tony announces, turning his head to address them all. He looks thoughtful, and a little wary as if he imagines they might refuse his idea. “An actual battle plan when he comes in. Can’t just go guns blazing anymore, like the old days.”

Thor brightens at that. “I can help with that,” he says earnestly, though his heart tugs a little. “Loki and I have drawn up many a battle plan together.”

“Provided we can even get Thanos back here,” Clint argues, looking worried. “Anyone else thinking this sounds a little bit too risky? He practically annihilated us the last time he was here. We were just lucky he didn’t kill any civilians because he just wanted the stone in the tower.”

Steve is nodding, a furrow in the middle of his forehead. “If this is going to go down to a fight, we need someplace we can actually take him down safely. The Compound is being used as a rehabilitation centre right now. We can’t just tell all those families to get out because there’s going to be a fight and we’re looking for a battleground.”

Tony’s gaze lingers out onto the horizon, the sky gleaming soft blues and rays of pastel pinks across their faces. “What about here? New York?” he says, the sunlight turning his eyes gold. “Evacuation times are record-fast because very little people live here right now. It’s because of how dirty the river is. I mean, it was messed up before but now it’s like filthy.”

Natasha is looking thoughtful. “We’d have to get Betty to sign off on it,” she says, but she grimaces at the reminder. “Looking out for civilians is one thing, but property damage and the like is another. Plus, with the way our last meeting went, I’m not so sure that the Avengers are very liked anymore.” She gives a small quirk of her lips, jokingly. “If only we had the poll numbers.”

“I thought we put her in power because she’s a nice guy!” Tony says.

“She is a nice guy—person,” Steve tells them. “I think she’s just trying to do her best, the best anyone can do in a situation like this. This is just brainstorming, though, right? We still don’t even know if we can get Thanos here. How are we going to bring him here when we don’t have anything that he wants?”

Thor shakes his head. “We could send him a missed call,” he suggests. “Tony told me about those. He has to pick up and if we’re still not answering… no?”

Tony’s eyes are bright with mirth. “Never change, Thor.”

But their gazes go down to the machine on the rooftop. Thor and Steve had brought it up, at Bruce’s request, as it’s supposed to work in much the same way as a worldwide portal or something. Reversing the effects with the death stone would open up life and bring everyone back, hopefully. The world turns quiet and soft red dawnlight glow against their cheeks as nobody dares to breathe, staring at it with breathless hope and wonder.

“Maybe we should,” Steve pauses, “say something.”

Tony takes a swig of Natasha’s Starbucks. “We’re coming back for you all,” he promises, voice hacked slightly. “We’re not going to stop trying. And we’ll never forget.”

They toast to that with slightly burnt sausages and Starbucks. Just as Thor takes a bite, the world glows and gleams before them until it opens up, and a familiar burst of green pours through.

.

.

Clint stumbles back first, recognising the bright flash of green from his nightmares.

It’s Loki, he realises it before everyone else, the swirl of green dredged deep from his fried memories as he bumps into Tony’s shoulder, barely registering it when Tony and Steve steady him worriedly. He’s breathing hard and ragged and Natasha turns to move in front of him protectively, but it’s Thor who pushes forward to reach for his shoulder and squeezes, inclining his head. Clint remembers what Thor had told him, had promised him, and he can finally start to breathe again.

Everyone tenses together, readying themselves to fight, as Clint breathes properly and this is what Nick had meant, he realises faintly, realising that he’s trusting someone other than Nat to have his back. This is what he meant when there was a team. People who would have his back and whose back he would have, unconditionally, with utmost care. Everyone looks ready to fight Loki with their bare hands for him, and Clint hates how he’s just realising the worth of this right now.

“Stop pushing!” someone calls out, an unfamiliar voice.

Steve blinks in confusion, but Thor’s face creases in recognition. “Um…”

“I’m not pushing, you’re pushing!” That’s Loki, Clint realises, his stomach clenching.

“I’m going to push my foot up your damn—,”

“Valkyrie!” Thor says, looking utterly delighted as the green pools away and three figures fall out haphazardly. “Heimdall! You’re alive!”

Clint stares, with the rest of them, blinking at the small woman with knives strapped to her waist amidst the guns and the deeply suspicious gaze she sweeps over them all, tensing beside a man who looks far too calm for words. He must be Heimdall, Clint thinks, the guy Thor sometimes spoke of. Loki stands a little back, his eyes bright and watchful, as Thor surges forward for them all, a half sob escaping his mouth helplessly.

“I have missed you, my King,” Heimdall says, his eyes bright as he embraces Thor bodily.

“What am I, chopped liver?” Loki says, his voice dry, but when Thor lunges for his brother, he looks slightly mollified.

He stays stiff as Thor embraces him tightly, looking as though he might never let go. And, even though he knows everything Loki is, Clint can’t begrudge Thor this. Besides, he gets it. If he ever saw his kids or Laura—Clint stops thinking of them, something in his throat. It hurts too much.

Thor pulls back, first, and his voice is accusatory. “You asshole, Loki!”

“Hi, Thor,” Loki says flippantly, looking remarkably careless for someone who had put his brother through the wringer. Clint feels an irrational surge of anger rise up in him, for Thor. Loki doesn’t know how hard Thor had mourned, but still. “Relax. You knew I was alive.”

“I mourned you!” he protests.

Loki gives a small snicker. “You always mourn me.”

But nothing about this is amusing and Thor actually takes a step back, something shifting over his face. Clint can see the way Loki’s face flitters in slight shock, looking startled at his brother. Loki thought his brother was completely predictable, but this is Thor getting angry. Clint doesn’t blame him. He remembers those dark nights Thor would trudge up the steps to sit before the sunrise, hopeful for a brief moments before the disappointment crushed him.

“Don’t do that to me, Loki,” Thor says, looking angry. “You strung me along for weeks, led me to think—that everything was gone! That I was alone.”

“You had your Avengers,” Loki tells him, something harsh at the edge of his mouth.

Natasha’s face is mutinous. “He wanted you,” she points out accusingly.

Loki’s face shutters slightly, looking serious now as he watches Thor. “I missed you too, big brother,” he confesses quietly, before Thor looks tearful and Loki looks briefly panicked. He gives a flippant grin, quick. “Getting your neck snapped isn’t always fun, even if it’s an illusion.”

“How did you do it?” Thor asks him, brows furrowed.

Why? That’s the question Clint wants to ask, but as Loki shrugs carelessly, he can see the care and love written all over his face. The love for his big brother, the desire to be loved back. Isn’t it obvious, Thor? It doesn’t matter how he did it; he did it for you. It’s uncomfortable, knowing that someone who hurt him so deeply is capable of emotion other than evil and manipulation. Has saved a lot of lives. Will probably be helping them now, if Thor has anything to say about it. He’s not sure what to feel about it, really, but when Tony brushes his shoulder comfortingly and Natasha and Bruce give him bracing looks and Steve and Thor keep themselves protectively around them all, Clint feels like it’s not all bad.

“Used the Tesseract to get everyone out,” Loki says. For the first time, an apology flitters over his face as he looks to his brother, something red and flushed across his cheeks. “I meant to come back for you, but—I was too late.”

He blames himself, Clint realises quietly. He can recognise guilt when he sees it.

Thor reaches for his brother, but Loki moves back, avoiding his touch “It’s alright,” Thor tells him quietly, absolving him of guilt but Loki still looks shamed. “Thank you, Loki. But—why?”

“I had to save you, brother,” Loki admits. He shrugs, jerking his head towards Valkyrie and Heimdall, the two who are happily talking to Tony and Steve, comparing weapons and knowledge. “And saving you meant saving them, too, so.” When he looks at Thor, a blush crawls over his cheeks before he assumes a careless, smug expression and continues, pointing at the dawning skies above them, sunlight cast over them all in rays of cut gold. “I told you the sun would shine on us again, brother.”

Valkyrie looks unamused as she calls to them. “He literally made us wait until dawnbreak to come.”

“Someone,” Loki glares at Valkyrie, “doesn’t appreciate good theatre. Thor, you seriously have the worst friends. Uneducated swines, completely lacking in knowledge about fine art and—,”

“Don’t let him fool you,” Valkyrie says, rolling her eyes in derision. “The whole time on Asgard, he was doing my bloody head in. ‘We have to find Thor.’ ‘Thanos will come for him.’ ‘Did you finish the ship’s supply of alcohol in two days?’ Drama queen.”

“Yes,” Heimdall says, answering Thor’s unspoken question. “They have been bickering like children for the whole time.” When Heimdall turns to look at the Valkyrie and Loki, his face is slightly amused, and he addresses them with some recognition. “You must be the Avengers,” he says, inclining his head towards them politely. “The king’s Midgardian friends. It is my honour to meet with you, properly.”

Tony speaks first. “I like him. We should keep him.”

Loki looks at them properly for the first time, a smirk at the edge of his mouth. “The old gang back together again,” he says, as Clint tenses. “Isn’t this fun?”

“No,” Natasha says sharply.

“Ledger girl.” Loki nods at her, before his gaze turns towards him and Clint’s jaw clenches. “Midgardian vegetable.” He waves at Bruce. “Doctor. Tin man. And …the soldier.”

They glare at him, unamused, tensing together as Thor closes his eyes in annoyance. “Last time we saw each other,” Steve says, “you were trying to take over the world.”

“He’s sorry for that,” Thor says.

Loki pulls a face. “No, I’m not.”

Thor stamps on his foot. “Yes, you are.”

As Loki hisses at his brother, Clint gets the beginnings of an idea, his brows furrowing. Steve’s head tilts as the same idea hits all of them. Thanos is searching for Loki, Clint thinks, triumphant and fierce. They need bait to get the death stone, smack down Thanos, and reverse the snap. And lo and behold, but what do they have before them?

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Valkyrie says warily.

“Not you,” Tony says, before he points at Loki. “Him.”

Clint says it first. “I think we just found our bait, you guys.”

Loki’s eyes widen. “Wait, what?”

Thor brightens as Heimdall chuckles and Valkyrie just guffaws. “Thanos has the death stone—,”

“You lost the death stone?” Loki whirls on them angrily. “You incompetent—,”

“And he wants you, so what better way to get back the stone?” Steve barely bats an eye, smiling politely as Natasha’s grin turns wicked.

“That is a terrible idea!” Loki protests.

Clint eyes Loki. “You know, Thor,” he says. “We should truss him up like a Christmas turkey. Really sell the bait act. Thanos won’t believe us otherwise.”

Loki starts spluttering, but Thor nods. “If it would make you feel better, Clint.”

“Thor—!”

“It would, yes,” Clint says. “It would make me feel so much better.”

.

.

In the end, Loki does not end up trussed like a Christmas turkey.

These Midgardians are going to kill him, he thinks, rolling his eyes in frustration, as he reaches for the Tesseract with his mind. But before he can do anything, Loki senses Thor coming up to see him, the Black Widow keeping a wary distance but a sharp eye on them both. He rolls his eyes. The Avengers have already worked out some stupid plan to keep an eye on him. Apparently, he’s untrustworthy, especially around so many mortals. Loki wants to scoff at them. You try to take over a planet one time. Besides, what would he do with their stupid planet?

But such sound logic would only just fly over their heads, so he doesn’t bother. Loki keeps an eye out around the Tower, sensing parts of his old magic. It was in New York that he’d stashed away the death stone in those few moments he had been able to draw himself away from Thanos’ torturous pull. He can still remember it, even now. Clear as day.

Something in his throat thickens and Loki tears away his thoughts, watching the various new figures moving around the rooftop. They’re setting up the iridium machine to hold the death stone, with a Wakandan princess, a raccoon, and Thanos’ daughter. They really must be desperate, Loki thinks disparagingly, sensing the hope lingering in the air around them, wondering if once again, he can just get Thor and take them home. But Thor would be sad and mope for days, so Loki stays.

“Loki!” Thor hugs him again, reassuring himself that he’s still here over and over again. Loki’s getting kind of sick of it, to be honest, and he rolls his eyes.

“Thor, stop it,” he says, shuffling his brother away from him. “You’re embarrassing me.”

Thor barely acknowledges that. “You saved everyone and Heimdall tells me such good things!” he says instead, his smile brighter than the sun above them. “I’m so proud of you, Loki.”

His heart shutters a little at that, but Loki swallows tight. “Your pride means absolutely nothing to me,” he says flatly, lying through his teeth. “Besides, I have work to do.”

“What work?” Thor grins at him. “All you have to do is sit there and look pretty.”

He is pretty, Loki thinks of saying, but he shakes his head, unamused, wanting Thor to know just how much he’s undertaken for his brother. “I have plans upon plans upon plans. Contingencies, possibilities, backups. All of that settling into place, right now. The death stone was just plan B, part 3A. My being bait is contingency plan 2, so you know what, congratulations, Thor. Your Avengers are doing a lot better than I expected, considering how they use very little brainpower.”

It doesn’t take long for the realisation to fall on Thor’s face. Regardless of what Thor likes to have people think, he is smart. He catches up, fast.

“You—you knew that we would ask you to be bait.”

When Thor stares at him, Loki shrugs. “Come on, Thor. I had to voice some token protest. Make the idiots you hang around with feel a little bit useful.”

His brother shifts a little, that same defensiveness falling over his face again. Loki doesn’t really like the look of it, nor does he like the tone of Thor’s voice when he speaks.

“They are my friends, Loki,” he says, voice firm. “I would ask you to be kinder.”

Kinder? To lesser mortals who hadn’t the braincells to rub together long enough to pick up the thousands of clues he’d left for them, to stop Thanos? Loki snorts. “They’re mortals, brother,” he tells Thor flippantly. “You should have standards.”

But Thor does not look amused, his face still. “I have standards,” he says. “Right now, you’re not meeting them.”

His stomach sinks at that.

“Thor.”

His brother refuses to budge, something hard in his eyes. Perhaps Loki has pushed Thor too far this time. “You have to understand just how much it means that they’re even letting you here, Loki,” Thor says angrily. “You kept a death stone in Tony’s tower—,”

“Plan 45B!” he splutters defensively.

“You attacked Clint and New York—,”

Loki glares at Thor. His brother wouldn’t ever hold what Thanos did to him against him, but it feels like he is. “You know I didn’t do that willingly.”

“They know it, too,” Thor says, “but the fact remains that it’s done.”

“That’s not fair.” He sounds like a petulant child right now, but Loki doesn’t care.

Thor doesn’t give him the sympathy he wants. Instead, he gives a soft smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Life isn’t fair, little brother,” Thor tells him quietly, before completely devastating him with his next words. “I realised that when I held your broken body.”

He’s not going to cry; he’s not going to cry. Seeing Thor grab his body, even an illusion of it, watching him scream and cry over it—it had disturbed Loki. He knew Thor would mourn him, but he never knew just how much.

“I …saw you crying,” he confesses quietly, wanting Thor to know it even if his brother might hate him for it. “I didn’t mean to—to let you grieve for so long. I didn’t think you would grieve for so long.”

“You’re my brother, Loki,” Thor says hoarsely. “How could you think I wouldn’t grieve you?”

Loki swallows tight. “Not your real brother.”

“Isn’t that getting a little old now, Loki?” Thor says, his lips quirking. “You have all of these pictures of me mourning you, you saved Asgard and everybody, like the prince you are, you made all of these plans to keep the universe safe from Thanos, and you still call yourself unworthy, little brother?” He gives a small, worried smile. “Have I failed so terribly in my job as brother, Loki?”

“You haven’t,” Loki says immediately. Thor never fails at anything. “It’s me. Always me.”

“Never you,” Thor says, and this time, when his brother embraces him, Loki lets it happen. Thor pulls back, watching him carefully, something worried in his face, before he speaks again. “Are you sure you don’t want to have a little bit of twine? It really would make Clint feel better—,”

No, Thor!”

Chapter Text

Bruce sits down at the kitchen island, rubbing his head as it aches.

The motion doesn’t go unnoticed by Tony, who lifts his head to aim a sympathetic look towards him, and Natasha, who looks briefly wary. They’ve called it his Hulk-face, apparently; the flicker of worry that passes his face every time Hulk disappears or shouts at him inexplicably. Most of the time, Hulk just stops talking and all that remains is a headache. It worries Bruce, a lot. For so long, he’s wanted nothing more than to be left alone, but now that Hulk is actually gone, it’s the worst feeling he’s ever had.

Since he’d thanked Hulk for helping him with Cull Obsidian, he’d thought that things would be better. But Hulk just stopped talking and the quiet is terrifying.

“Hulk again?” Tony asks, reaching to help Steve with the bowls.

The kitchen is filled with the warm smell of spices and herbs, flooded with soft fluorescent light, and their quiet chatter. Rhodey is in another room, talking on the screens to President Betty, who is clearly distressed about the oncoming fight, while the rest of the UN members argue back and forth about the advantages of having a bigger army for Thanos. Thor is speaking to Loki, Rocket and Nebula are in the Milano though Natasha has gone to deliver them food, but everyone else is here. It feels a little like sinking into something like home, if the world outside wasn’t completely shot to bits and they weren’t planning for war over the dining room table.

Steve has been cooking, with Natasha helping to cut up vegetables. Bruce is helping toss the flat, warm roti on the plate. It’s an Indian feast today, with spicy chicken tikka and fried fish dripping with tangy lemon, paired with the rotis Bruce is making. There is also lentils and potatoes tossed in garam masala and olive oil, the smell of hot chillies and turmeric spiking the air around them. Clint and Tony had offered to help, but the last time they did, Tony had blown up the kitchen and the food Clint had placed before them had bits of arrows in it. To this day, Bruce still can’t understand exactly how.

The archer in question turns his head, moving from where he has been strategically placed so as not to mess up the flow of the kitchen. He’s been cleaning his bow and arrow, instead, moving it when Natasha brings over the bowl of steaming curry. “He giving you a hard time?”

Hulk’s presence is cool and quiet and angry in the back of his head in a way that Bruce doesn’t understand. He nods towards them. “I don’t get what he wants from me,” he says, huffing a little. “I don’t get why he’s so scared.”

He says it on purpose, but even calling him scared doesn’t rile Hulk up anymore.

Tony looks thoughtful, as Steve tosses the salad. “Maybe he’s scared to lose you,” he suggests, opening the drawers and offering Steve a device that he swears is used for salads, but Steve just looks scared. As Tony shows Steve how the device works, he continues, “You did say that he keeps trying to pull you back from the fighting.”

“But he doesn’t ever come out to protect me, when I do,” Bruce points out. His brows push together, and his voice wavers a little when he speaks again. “I think he really hates me.”

Hulk is still silent, but Natasha is shaking her head immediately. “I don’t think he could hate you, Bruce,” she tells him gently, as she and Steve plate up the food on the table. She nudges Tony so he takes the glasses of cold water from her. “I don’t think anyone could ever hate you.”

He’s about to protest, something tight and angry rippling under the surface, to shout about hundreds of thousands out there who saw only a flash of green before they saw no more, people who cried and begged and screamed, and it still wasn’t enough, when Bruce sees them. When he looks at them all, seated at the kitchen island, Tony eating as he lounges half in his chair, half out, while Natasha sits on the island and Clint perches himself precariously on the stool, doing a balancing act. Steve is the only one sitting normally beside him, but there’s a quiet understanding and care between them all as they nod in agreement and Bruce’s cheeks warm.

His world had been so lonely, even before Hulk came along, but times like these, everything seems just a little bit brighter, a little bit better.

“Maybe we should ask him,” Steve volunteers over a mouthful of rice.

Tony spears a green bean and blinks. “Who are you and what have you done with Cap?”

“Well, Thor says that Hulk wouldn’t hurt any of us,” Steve says, but the smile at the edge of his mouth is soft. “And we trust you, Bruce.”

“I don’t know,” Bruce says, shaking his head. He doesn’t think Hulk would hurt them, but there’s no point in getting hopeful, is there? “Hulk’s not—he doesn’t do much, these days. Barely says two words to even me anymore.” But Clint is ladling peas into his plate, because Clint doesn’t like them and Bruce does, and Natasha is drinking her water and Tony and Steve are just looking at him earnestly. So, Bruce nods quietly. “But I guess I can try.”

.

.

Hulk raises his head when Bruce calls for him.

“Hey, man, are you alright? You’ve been listening, right?”

He doesn’t say anything, something hot and angry bubbling under the surface. Something angry is always bubbling under the surface for him, but now it is lined with the edge of sadness and loneliness. Before, he had always had Bruce. Lovely, wonderful Bruce with a heart of sunshine and goodness. Bruce, who Hulk had followed into every situation, dire or worse. Bruce, who he had fought with and protected from all harm, lovingly, carefully, reverently.

Hulk doesn’t answer, petulant and hot all over, but that doesn’t affect Bruce. That doesn’t affect Bruce at all.

“Well, even if you’re not, the guys have something to say.”

He doesn’t care for the guys.

No, that’s a lie. Hulk does like them. They’re funny. Especially the Tin Man. Natasha is pretty, too.

But they’re heroes, and Hulk is not a hero. Hulk is not anything at all. Hulk tried to protect Bruce and failed over and over again.

Hey, big guy,” Tin Man is saying in that usual flippant way he does. He takes a long drink of the sweet mango lassi Bruce made earlier, mouth edged with yellow, before he continues. “Hear that you and Bruce are having a bit of a fight going. He’s real upset, you know. Misses you like anything. You know, you mean a lot to him.”

“No, I don’t!” Hulk shouts angrily.

He will not be lied to. Bruce doesn’t care about him. Bruce hates him, loathes every part of him until he feels the self-loathing settle in the deep of his veins. Bruce has never cared about him, unless he wants to know what Hulk can give him, unless he wants Hulk to get him out of whatever stupid problem, he’s gotten himself into. Hulk won’t take it anymore. He refuses it. And it hurts.

“Of course you do,” Tin Man continues with ease, barely flinching though the archer and pretty Natasha have shifted a little off the table, tensing a little. Even the Captain looks wary, but Tin Man is the only one who lounges, even more relaxed. “Think Bruce ate all that Indian food because he likes the spice?” Hulk falters, as Tin Man talks to him gently, lifting his head and looking at him steadily. “Hey, I know what you’re feeling, okay? Even if Bruce doesn’t get it. You’re scared, aren’t you?”

“NO! HULK NEVER SCARED!”

I get scared,” Tin Man says, just as the bowls around them begin to scatter a little. Pretty Natasha looks a bit wary and the arrow guy is worried, but Tin Man barely bats an eye, reaching to straighten the cutlery Hulk had accidentally knocked aside. “I get scared a lot. The worst time was… when I was up on Titan, you remember?”

He remembers Tin Man on the roof, talking about his kid. “Peter.” Hulk watches the sadness go over Tin Man’s face.

Tin Man nods, something in his eyes. “Yeah. Peter,” he says softly. “I was so scared I couldn’t breathe. You know what that’s like? When you can’t even remember how to breathe?”

Hulk thinks of those moments when he had realised Cull Obsidian would kill him. The fear that had completely swallowed him, only to be shuttered out with a crippling realisation. He would die, he had realised. And his death would mean no more Bruce. Bruce would no longer exist in the world and that was not a world Hulk liked very much.  

“Yes.”

“It’s because I… really cared for the kid,” Tin Man says. “And when I realised I couldn’t save him, I really… hated myself for that. I’m guessing you feel the same way about Bruce. That’s why you get mad, right? Because I do that, too. A lot. I throw things and I shout, and I push people away. But in the end, all that gets you is an empty room and a broken heart.”

“And that’s not really worth it,” Captain tells him gently. “Not when you could have something much more than that.”

Hulk shifts uncomfortably. “Banner hates me.”

You know better than to think Bruce could ever hate you.” Tin Man pats his hand. “You love each other, and you’re just scared. That’s okay.”

“I think you got a lot of catching up to do with him,” Natasha says.  

Captain reaches to take the glasses out of the way and continues. “Then you can get back to doing what you like best.”

Hulk nods enthusiastically. He has missed it so deeply. “SMASH!”

Tin Man chuckles. “Yeah. Smash.” He shifts aside the broken cutlery and offers a bowl. “Rice?”

.

.

They’re getting things sorted out properly when Natasha bends to her curiosity and walks out to where the Valkyrie woman is feeding her Pegasus.

Heimdall and Loki have been working on opening up more steady portals for reinforcements, and they keep coming, all with their own winged horses, wings beating across the air, rippling something fierce. They’re utterly beautiful, neighing lightly around the grounds of the Tower, where Tony has cautioned Valkyrie to keep them away from the river because it’s still not clean. He and the others are helping to oversee the evacuation of the city, just in case things get… hairy.

When Natasha turns her head, she can see the preparations for the upcoming battle splay out across the city. Clint is with Nebula, scouting out the grounds, while Rocket keeps an eye on Loki and helps to reinforce the iridium machine, readying it for the death stone. Loki is winding his magic all around the city long enough to mask himself and everyone. Apparently, the protective magic will only hold against Thanos for about a day’s turn, so everyone is working fast.

Tony and Bruce and Shuri are laying out as many traps as they can across the city around the Tower, while Thor and Steve help to evacuate the civilians and welcome in Asgardians and the few Wakandan soldiers that General Okoye had volunteered and vouched for. They don’t have much of an army, but they’re going on a lot of hope and faith. And volunteers. Speaking of volunteers, civilians are starting to realise that New York is to be the final battleground for the war against Thanos and Natasha sometimes can’t really believe the sheer courage of complete strangers.

And their fury. They’re rallying, fighting against Betty Ross and advocating for a chance to lay one on Thanos themselves. Natasha has gone through many wars before, but none quite so much like this. Figures, she supposes. Thousands of years of humanity fighting with each other and the only way to briefly, temporarily stop any of that was to fight a common enemy. Thanos fit the mould pretty effortlessly. He’d hit out at every single person, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, and if there was anything all of humanity could find themselves in common with, right now, it was grief.

She just wishes Fury were here to see all of this.

His good eye would pop out in shock.

Natasha turns her head back to the Pegasus, her breaths catching at the beauty of the beast. She has always loved animals. They never judged a single thing she did. She used to feed stray cats and once dared to bring one to her apartment, or rather, she let the cat clean her out completely. Ivan had found out pretty quickly, though. Natasha never saw the cat again.

“She’s beautiful,” she tells Valkyrie who doesn’t so much as stiffen. Though she keeps her distance, she raises a hand as if to pet the beast before them. “Can I?”

Valkyrie eyes her, something considering and careful flitting across her face. Natasha knows what a sizing up looks like, so she keeps quiet, until Valkyrie pulls back and she’s pleasantly surprised. It’s not often that people trust her so easily, but Valkyrie can probably overpower her, should it come to a fight, she reasons. But winning fights is not everything a Black Widow is. It’s the ability to know the situation and to accept that you may find an opponent greater than you. Black Widows survive, above all else.

The Asgardian warrior takes a step back and pats the horse’s rear as the horse clops forward a few steps, neighing lightly, the mane falling like a waterfall over her head. “Careful,” Valkyrie says, voice low and wary. “She doesn’t really like strangers.”

We have that in common, Natasha thinks but doesn’t say. Instead she nods and takes a careful step forward, reaching out a steady hand for the beast. The Pegasus stares at her, bright eyes sharp and watchful as though wondering what she’s up to, but the horse doesn’t rear back when she moves forward. When Natasha finally touches her head, fingers running through the softness of the full mane in wonder, she gives a tentative smile, letting out a breath of relief.

“She’s wonderful,” Natasha tells Valkyrie quietly, her breath caught.

“Looks like she likes you,” Valkyrie says. “You want to take her for a spin?”

Natasha turns her head sharply, her heart leaping in joy. “What?”

“Pegasi aren’t Valkyrie Steeds,” Valkyrie says, as though Natasha knows what she’s talking about. “You don’t have to be a Valkyrie to ride them. And it seems like Athena likes you pretty well.”

“Really?” Natasha bites her lip in earnest, looking back at Athena who ducks her head and buries it under her fingers. She wonders what it would be like to fly like that, something in her chest squeezing and letting go in brief delight.

“You’re the ledger girl, aren’t you?” Valkyrie’s voice filters in recognition. When Natasha’s face shutters in defence, her back stiffening, the woman makes a face. “Sorry. Spend enough time around that horned idiot, he starts rubbing off on you.”

She gives a small chuckle, though her heart beats hard and she doesn’t feel any of it. “Natasha,” Natasha clarifies. “When he last came here, Loki wasn’t really taking names.”

“Nat!” Clint is calling for her and Natasha turns her head, giving an apologetic smile.

“Yeah, I heard he was a bit of a prick.” This time, Natasha really does laugh, a bubble of genuine amusement bursting out of her, to her surprise, and Valkyrie grins back at her. “You ever feel like knowing what it’s like to fly, Natasha, you know where to find me.”

.

.

“You must be the rabbit Thor spoke about,” Loki calls to him, as Rocket checks over the machine relentlessly.

Rocket determinedly doesn’t flinch when the god’s gaze lingers on him, something clenching in his stomach. “My name is Rocket,” he says, refusing to admit that only Thor is allowed to call him a rabbit. His brother does not get family privileges or any bullshit like that. “Stop talking. I’m concentrating.”

Loki looks briefly mutinous before his mouth twitches. “A rabbit with a sense of humour. Or a lack of self-preservation,” he says, and it’s a clear attempt to get Rocket to talk, to get under his skin, but Rocket refuses to bite. For once. He doesn’t banter with anyone other than his idiot guardians. It’s a personal rule. Loki eyes him. “The more you hammer that thing, the little difference it’s going to make. My magic is enough.”

“I don’t do magic,” Rocket says, rolling his eyes. “I like cold, hard machine.”

“And you’re friends with my brother?” Loki looks incredulous. “How did that happen?”

“Beats me.” Rocket looks up, lets out an annoyed huff. “Look. They told me about you. I know you’re bored and you’re an asshole, but I’m stuck here, babysittin’ your godly ass and I’m not going to fall for it. So, sit your ass down, get your magic started, and shut up.”

There’s a small silence.

“I could impale you for that,” Loki tells him calmly, but Rocket rolls his eyes. “You know that, right? I could destroy everything under you right now so that your little, frail rabbit body would crack against the concrete, your head bursting open like an egg, your blood—oh, no, your little wires unspooling out and unable to fit you back together again.”

It’s not the first threat he’s ever had. Pretty imaginative one, yes, but Rocket thinks of Nebula coming down in an empty ship, his throat thick, remembers Gamora looking at him and not recognising him, and shakes his head, eyes wet. He knows what pain is. Cracking apart his body is nothing, if the god before him wants to hurt him. He’s been through worse, after all.

“Go on, then.”

Loki blinks. “What?”

Rocket swings around and fixes him with a dark, steady gaze, something reckless and terrible burning hotly in his chest. He keeps thinking of Gamora and the others, the way she’d just looked through him, and nothing had filtered through her face. Even in her darkest moments, in her worst nightmares, Gamora had never looked at him like that. Ever. She always had a quiet smile to give, a quick and witty comment, or even a great snack. Nebula gets it, but Nebula’s too angry to be sad and Rocket gets that, too.

He wishes he could be that angry. To let the fury wash away the echoing grief in his chest, to lean into the desire to just trash everything in the Milano and let it pilot him away until he crashes somewhere and hopefully stops breathing. Rocket hates that in himself. That he let those idiots get so far under his skin, that he’s willing to do anything to get them back. It’s that kind of weakness that he’d always refused to let himself feel, and yet, now, Rocket doesn’t regret it at all.

“Do it,” Rocket says, letting out a breath. When Loki doesn’t lift a finger, he finds himself getting angry. “Go on, then, big shot. Give me all you got, you green horned freak. Fucking do it!”

Loki’s mouth turns down into something Rocket doesn’t recognise. He fucking hopes it’s not pity. “I don’t do charity cases,” is all he says, before he turns away and Rocket is left breathing hoarsely.

“You’re an asshole.”

“As the Midgardian saying goes, it takes one to know one, apparently.”

Rocket shifts at that, uncomfortable and furious and hot all over. He’s done his best to live by Yondu’s last words, the way the guy had just seen straight through him completely. Exposed him for being a professional asshole. Rocket had tried his best to become softer to them all, realising how much they held him in their esteem. He thought he was doing better. Apparently not.

“Fuck you, too,” he spits furiously, but Loki turns back to fix him with a blazing eye.

“You’re a very lucky fool, you know that?” Loki tells him fiercely. “You have my mercy and you try to throw it back in my face—,”

“Mercy?” Rocket repeats hoarsely. He doesn’t do well with liars, and apparently the god before him is the best one of them all. “I don’t have your mercy. I have your understanding. Because you know exactly what it’s like, too.” Loki’s face burns hot, but Rocket continues, something terrible and self-destructive crawling inside him tightly. “I’m willing to bet that you lost everything, too. Your brother. That’s why you’re here, no matter what you keep tellin’ everyone. So, yeah. It takes one to know one.”

He storms out of the room, pushing past the Terran in his way.

“Hey, Rocket!” Steve calls back to him. “Are you—,”

“My babysittin’ hours are up!”

.

.

Nebula is sharpening her blade at the table when Tony comes in.

He’s supposed to go and take up his position to babysit Loki, as they’ve now dubbed it. He lingers in the doorway and knocks carefully. She doesn’t so much as flinch, even though her back is too him, and Tony’s gaze lingers on her with something like concern. Nebula’s not sure what to do with that. She’s not used to people concerning themselves over her.  

“What is it?” Nebula asks him, something hard in her voice.

“Can I come in?”

She jerks her head and Tony enters quietly, taking a seat at the table. The blade gleams wickedly before them both, winking sharply as Nebula wipes it down with sharp, fast motions. Her mouth is pulled down and there’s something hard in her face for she’s just barely holding herself together. It’s half literal, as Ebony Maw’s new fancy machine had left its mark, in worse ways. Tony had helped patch her back together, in the few moments they were able to salvage together, and he’d told her that he’s hoping he survives through this whole thing long enough to ask about how that machine worked.

“It is your turn to watch the Trickster,” Nebula comments quietly. She doesn’t want him gone, not at all. But people always want things from her. “Why are you here, Tony?”

“Wanted to know if you were doing okay,” he says, the clear honesty ringing through his voice in a way that makes Nebula’s stomach clench, shrugging. “You went through—fuck, I can’t even begin to imagine it. I just wanted to know if you were alright and if there’s anything I can do.”

Tony looks worried after her and she wants to say that he has no right to care, to be so concerned. She’s certainly not worth it. Gamora’s voice whispers in the back of her head and Nebula shakes her head, clearing her throat.

“It’s not the first time,” she tells him, watching the way his face stiffens in horror. He looks so worried for her that it makes her feel partly guilty, for some reason. Nebula hurries on, her voice fierce. “There’s nothing else that I want other than Thanos’ head and my sister back to me.”

His lips quirk, but he doesn’t laugh outright. “You know that we’re going to do everything we can to get that opportunity right to you.”

She shrugs, the words falling easily out of her mouth. “I know.”

And it’s strange to realise it, but she really does know. She can trust these weird Terrans around her to have her back. Nebula doesn’t really understand it, doesn’t still know quite why, but they’d rescued her from Thanos. Technically, she’d had to rescue herself because none of them could understand the machine that held her, but they were also there. And so was Rocket. It’s weird having people at her back, having people seek out her company for her and not for what she could offer.

The Black Order had never felt like this, a collective unit of sneering jeers. Gamora held the coveted top spot and Nebula was always beaten to the mat, left screaming and begging for Thanos to stop every time she was beaten.

Tony just looks at her. “You’ve always got a place here,” he tells her gently. “If you ever want to visit or anything. I know you think it’s a trash planet or whatever, but you’re always going to be welcome here, Nebula.”

Nebula looks up at him properly, something tight in her chest. It feels like salvation as she can breathe out properly, her gaze fraught and her eyes softening on the man before her. He looks earnest and quiet, nothing but honesty in his features. She’s never had a place to call home. Anything before Thanos, she can barely remember. Not that she wants to.

Even after getting out of Thanos’ thrall, all she has ever known is the anger and vengeance that lingers low in her bones, borne of that hot fury that had always risen in her chest every time Thanos strapped her to the table and made her scream. Every piece of her he had taken away, she had vowed to take back, and she had never thought, never been so stupid or hopeful enough to think that she’d survive anything like that. Nebula had always though that when Thanos finally fell, she would fall along with him.

“Here?” she repeats quietly, as Tony nods, giving her a small smile. “Why would you open your home to me, Tony? I could hurt you. You have been betrayed multiple times.”

“And yet I still keep trusting people,” he says jokingly. “You’d think I’d learn.”

“Tony.”

“I’m being serious, Blue,” he tells her. “I trust you. I know you’ve got all of our backs. Just saying that we have yours, too.”

Chapter Text

When he makes his way up to babysit, Heimdall is just coming down the stairs.

Tony tries not to look too disturbed whenever Heimdall looks at him with those bright, all-seeing eyes, little flecks of gold gleaming in them. It’s a bit creepy, he’d thought, and the others had agreed with him, though Thor doesn’t seem to think so. The fact that someone out there is watching everything at every moment, everywhere, had only made him feel vaguely disturbed. But now when he looks at Heimdall, he remembers seeing the collapse of space in the wormhole, the way the stars had gleamed and burned out, the armies waiting to swallow them whole. Tony had barely been able to see it once.

He takes a step aside to let the man go, but Heimdall stays standing quietly before him. When he doesn’t say anything, Tony frowns a little. “You got something to say, Goldeneye?”

Heimdall’s lips pull up into something that’s not quite a smile, but he ducks his head. “I saw you on Titan,” he says, and Tony stills, his heart beating hard in his chest. “I know what you think. But Stephen Strange chose you for a reason, Tony Stark.”

“Strange was a dumbass—,” he begins hotly, his cheeks burning.

“Who knew exactly what you were capable of,” Heimdall interrupts calmly. The way the Asgardian speaks makes Tony think of the hot sands of Afghanistan, the water drowning him constantly, Yinsen’s quiet murmurs. “I know that you feel guilty for it, but we all have our parts to play. Stephen Strange knew that.” When he looks at Tony again, something shifts across his face, a patronising curve against his mouth. “I guess you don’t understand it just yet.”

Tony breathes hard, confused. “Stop talking in riddles—,”

“You’re not alone,” Heimdall tells him.

“What?”

The man looks at him carefully, before his gaze turns up to the stairs and he says, “And most things aren’t what they seem.”

He’s bowled over completely at that, so bewildered that Heimdall’s lips quirk up in amusement as he moves back down the stairs, leaving Tony gaping after him in utter confusion. He’s still on the staircase for a long few moments before he hurries upstairs, bounding up as quick as he can, his mind brimming with confusion. Heimdall seems to think Strange let him live for a reason? And there’s more to what that he doesn’t know? The familiar guilt dredges up in him tightly, but Tony thinks past it.

He can’t understand why he, of all people, of Peter Parker, would need to live. What purpose would he serve?

“You’ve turned quieter, Stark,” Loki calls to him mockingly, as Tony flinches back sharply. His grin widens at that, as Tony rolls his eyes in derision. “Thanos get you down?”

“You’re not exactly a delight to be around,” Tony tells Loki, but the god barely bats an eye at the barb, refusing to rise to the bait. “So. Thor says you’ve been planning this all from the get-go. Should’ve known, really. You were good in New York.”

Loki smirks. “And that was with two hands tied behind my back,” he says, preening a little.

“By Thanos,” Tony says, eyeing the way his smile falters a little. “So, you what, you put us all together, a little band of heroes against the great Thanos. But Thor says that you’re just throwing us bones now. What for?”

Loki rolls his eyes. “You think I haven’t been keeping an eye on Midgard all these years?” he says. “Think I haven’t seen all that you’ve put each other through? With your petty grievances and your fighting. Forgive me if I want to ensure that you idiots don’t get us all killed because God forbid, one of you ate the other one’s sandwich that one time.”

Tony arches an eyebrow. “Why do you want us together, Horns?”

“Collateral damage, of course,” Loki says, with a harsh smile that lifts the curve of his mouth in a disturbing way as Tony’s heart sinks in horror. “All great wars have their casualties. I’m just… helping Death along.”

He’s not really insulted or betrayed, mostly because he knew that Loki never gave a shit about them. Might pretend to care, just for Thor’s sake, but Tony knows better than to think that Loki is ever looking out for any other in this battle, other than himself. It stings a little, but it’s more than Tony had been expecting, if anything.

“So, we’re the real bait, and not you.”

“Always knew you were the smartest Avenger, Stark.”

Tony is quiet for a moment, his mind whirring over that in careful deliberation. “You know, I don’t think that’s true.”

“It doesn’t really matter to me what you think—,” Loki begins carelessly, before he breaks himself off, something sharp in his voice, clearly filtering Tony’s words properly. When he speaks again, his voice is gritted. “Doesn’t matter at all.”

Got you.

“What’s the point of risking everything on the off-chance that Thanos dies? There’s a very real possibility, bigger than any chance we have, that he’ll overpower us and kill us all. And you’re not an idiot. You wouldn’t risk anything like that, not unless you were certain,” Tony says, thinking out loud. Loki wouldn’t risk Thor, Tony thinks with certainty. He can see the muscles in Loki’s jaw twitch. “Which makes me think that you are planning something. What is it? You want to be seen as a hero? An Avenger?”

Loki rolls his eyes. “Please. Don’t insult me, Stark.”

“Valkyrie said you call yourself Asgard’s saviour.”

“Valkyrie is a liar!”

Tony looks at Loki carefully. There’s something that the Trickster god is planning, but he has no idea what, he thinks, worriedly. He hopes it doesn’t affect them and moves onto another question that’s been plaguing him for far too long.

“Why my tower, then?” he asks, eyeing the god before him. “Of all places to keep your mystical stone of death, you choose my tower?”

He could have stored it anywhere, Tony thinks. Anywhere in the universe. They just went to the end of the whole universe and it’s massive. One little stone could have hidden away easy. Everyone else had been confused, as well, when Tony posed the question, but none of them had any answers to give. When he looks at Loki, the god is shifting slightly in a way that sparks his curiosity and suspicion even more, but Loki just gives a large grin.

“I thought it would be funny,” Loki tells him, but Tony is unamused.

“It fucking ate Cull Obsidian,” Tony splutters. “It could have killed me!”

Loki rolls his eyes, amused. “Stop exaggerating,” he says. “You would have been fine.” He pulls a face and amends, “I think.”

Tony’s going to have a heart attack. “You think?”

“Besides,” Loki continues, scoffing a little, “you’re smart, Stark. I figured that you could handle it. And look. You did.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Reindeer Games,” Tony tells him, something reckless and biting in his words. “You put your brother in danger, too. Thor only managed to recognise your magic in time. You could have killed him, too.”

His face is like stone. “Thor would have been fine,” Loki only says. “I laced the stone with enough protections to make sure it didn’t attack those I needed to live.”

“A-ha! So, we are important to you!”

“About as important as pawns in a game of chess, Stark.”

The way Loki looks at him then is like a smug cat that’s got the cream and Tony has to wonder what on earth Loki is planning now.

.

.

When Loki’s protections finally break away and Thanos comes, they are ready.

Well, as ready as they can be, anyway. Tony watches as the city is completely evacuated, as his home is emptied dry of the people who make it home, the last few remaining stragglers grumbling as they move out. Shuri has just finished setting up the protective barriers, because Thor may trust Loki but none of them do, as General Okoye speaks to her quietly and she begins to address the few Wakandan soldiers who came with her general. Tony can’t hear her speech when she finishes, her eyes bright with tears, but he can hear Okoye telling her to leave.

Shuri makes as though to protest, but Okoye shakes her head firmly. Tony watches Shuri shakily embrace her General before she leaves, to Tony’s relief. No more kids, he thinks to himself. No more kids.

The whole city is completely empty but for them. General Okoye and a few of the Dora Milaje take their positions beside the Avengers, Valkyrie and the Asgardians nearer to Thor who heads them as the King he is. Loki is stuck on the roof of the tower, sitting grumpily on the sofa that Tony had thought to argue was certainly not for him but couldn’t take the trouble to do so.

Beside him, they all stand before the Tower, ready to protect the machine as long as it takes to get the death stone, like it’s the ledge once more. Steve at his side, Natasha on the other. Bruce in the Hulkbuster, Clint next to him, and Thor towering up above them all. He looks at them all, something deep and ragged in his chest. All those years, they’d simply wasted away, Tony thinks to himself. How he wants them back.

“You guys ready?” Tony says, swallowing tightly.

They could do this, he thought. They could be heroes.

He’s not sure if he believes even himself.

Clint stretches out an arrow, twanging it against the bow experimentally. “As we’ll ever be,” he says.

“We could die,” Steve tells them. “We could die today.”

“We could.” Natasha only gives a small smile. “We all know that there’s a risk. I’m glad that I’m taking it with you.”

They look at each other, and Tony doesn’t know what they’re thinking of, but he remembers the sunlight warming their faces, that soft few moments of dawn they’d gotten to themselves, the quiet and the ease. For years he’d been searching for a home, a peace of some sort, the search only growing bigger after Afghanistan, after New York, after every great tragedy that broke apart the pieces of himself that he tried so painstakingly to put back together again. And now he’s finally gotten a taste of it and he could lose it all.

Tony could walk away, could live this new life with the Avengers. He knows that he has only to ask them and they’d do it. Could live a new life without them. Free of danger and even Iron Man, though the idea of it brings a sharp dagger to his chest. Maybe he’d find Pepper again. He thinks of the way she’d looked when she’d asked him to choose between her and Iron Man. Maybe not.

But Peter Parker.

Even if Peter was truly dead, he’d traverse the millions of miles to Hela’s kingdom and demand him back. Peter’s just in another world, some shadow realm, and Tony will reach in there and bring him home. Wherever Peter would go, Tony would almost certainly follow, no matter what risk it was to his life. He’d take that risk a thousand times over, without blinking.

What life was there, after all, without the ones you loved?

None of them say goodbye, but it lingers unspoken in the air around them as Tony stares after them worriedly, as they take their positions. He and Nebula are grouped together where they can cover the ground before them, while Clint, Rhodey, and Bruce are in the air. Natasha and Steve have assumed their positions, with Rocket and Thor around the back. Everyone else is assembled around the tower. It’s a bit of a shit plan, but Thor had been busy, and they’d only had about a day because Loki had told them that Thanos had sensed his arrival on Earth and they didn’t have very long.

Loki was a cryptic asshole, but he knew more than he was saying, Tony knew.

Tony had demanded to know about the snapped ones. Were they okay? Were they hurt, in pain? Was it safe wherever they were? Magic stole them away, the Trickster only told them, watching them all with bright, amused eyes, and magic will bring them back.

They have a plan, he reminds himself, heart in his throat. They have a plan.

He puts up the picture of Peter on his HUD as the skies open up and Thanos descends.

.

.

Ebony Maw moves first, lunging for Loki right out of the ship as it crashes down onto them.

Nebula screams something hoarse as she dives for his throat, drawing the alien to the dirt of the ground ready for Tony to level his repulsors on him, powered with Thor’s crackling lightning. Even as they fight Ebony Maw back down, Tony is looking around frantically, searching for Thanos. He doesn’t seem to be around yet, and in his distraction, Ebony Maw throws them back hard. Tony hits the ground, the world becoming nothing but rubble and red brick as he looks up to see Chitauri aliens crawling over the city, dropping from the skies.

“Tony!” someone is screaming his name, and as his head rings, he reaches for the hand Nebula is offering him to pull himself to his feet.

Thor’s lightning is cracking everywhere, striking down every alien around them, Steve and Natasha are already swinging together on Chitauri jets, bringing them crashing down to the grounds around them, just as Okoye spins and rams her spear into three aliens at once to protect an Asgardian on a winged horse. Valkyrie is literally standing on her Pegasus with perfect balance as she helps Okoye lunge for Proxima Midnight, who swings her blade and screams for their throats.

“Where is Thanos? Where is the stone?” Tony demands fiercely.

“Where’s Gamora?” Nebula snarls out along with him.

“I thought you were supposed to be smart,” Ebony Maw says, a heavy amount of smug disapproval dripping from his voice.

Ebony Maw is smirking in their faces, leaning back as he watches them unsteadily get to their feet. Nebula is bleeding from her mouth, but her face turns fierce and furious as she leans back to exchange a look at him. Her fingers curl around her sword, clenching it tightly, as Tony prepares his own repulsors, his breaths coming out fraught.

They lunge forwards, rushing at the alien, just as Ebony Maw lazily rips up the pavements and the roads, cars screeching in earnest, with a careless finger. He sends them surging bodily towards them and Tony reaches to grab Nebula around the waist, to pull them both out of the way just in time. The cars and the pavement crash together into a building, brick and rubble cracking apart as the large building starts to whine, crumbling down. Tony gasps for breath as they hit the ground painfully, clutching Nebula tight, as Ebony Maw starts to uproot the trees and the rest of the pavement for them.

“I killed you once,” Tony vows to Ebony Maw, whose face turns down into a vicious snarl. “I’ll kill you again.”

He fires his repulsors three times in a row, as the alien is brought down by his arsenal and Nebula dives forward to crack her fist across Ebony Maw’s face painfully. Ebony Maw’s fingers strain, magic building up around him, and Tony shakes his head laughing maniacally before he reaches forward and cracks his hands apart fiercely, while Nebula holds him down. The alien screams like a banshee, and Nebula’s mouth turns up into a vicious curve, before she pulls back to look at him.

“Find Thanos. Make him pay,” she says. “I’ll deal with him.”

Tony nods. “Be careful,” he tells her, before he hits Ebony Maw again and pulls back.

Around him, Chitauri aliens are falling like stars and Corvus Glaive is attacking Bruce and Clint with a vengeance. Thor reaches to save Natasha from falling debris just in time, both of them protecting their backs as Thor swings Natasha into the air with a delighted whoop and Valkyrie catches her. The Asgardian warrior leaves Natasha on the Pegasus while she helps Thor take down a large Chitauri leviathan together, Thor’s magic crackling through the entire warship as Valkyrie brings down her heavy arsenal on it and Natasha swoops in to save them both before the leviathan can crush them.   

Steve is planting Proxima’s sword into her own chest, as Tony turns his head to see Corvus Glaive screaming something unintelligible, the rush of burning anger turning his voice into something so piercing it threatens to split apart Tony’s skull. Proxima stumbles back heavily, collapsing to the ground, as the blood pours from her chest and Tony moves. He has very little time as Proxima Midnight howls in pain and Tony reaches to help Steve, who is stumbling back weakly, pulling him up to his feet. Proxima Midnight gasps for breath, spitting out the blood in her mouth, before she grasps the sword in her chest.

Tony’s eyes widen and Ebony Maw’s magic wraps around it. Nebula is attempting to split apart his skull, but Ebony Maw has pushed her back, and with his cracked, broken fingers, he reaches for Proxima in vain. As Nebula drives her fist into his face, Ebony Maw howls, but the deed is done. Proxima breathes hard and fierce, her fingers clenching tightly around the handle of the blade, and suddenly, Tony knows exactly what she’s going to do before she does it.

“No, don’t—,” he begins to protest.

“Tony?” Steve is mumbling weakly, blood pouring from his forehead as he leans heavily against Tony. “We got the stone?”

“Not yet.”

“Not ever,” Proxima promises harshly, her eyes turning to slits.

She yanks out the sword, balancing the weapon in her hands and weighing it carefully before she glares at them from her place on the ground, looking as though she wants nothing more than to peel the skin from their bones. It is completely soaked in her blood, red dripping and drenching the gleaming blade, silver shining partly through it. A Chitauri chariot rumbles close towards them and as Tony and Steve duck, Proxima jumps on it, roaring in pain and might and fury, before she moves.

Corvus Glaive moves along with her, swiftly pulling back from Clint’s attack and lunging to slam Rhodey to the ground heavily, as Bruce moves for them across the field, in worry. Thor’s magic curls around them all, but it’s not enough and Ebony Maw grips Nebula’s blade before it can slice his head off, grasping it with his palm, and Proxima reaches to swing him up into the chariot. Tony moves, with Steve right by his side, swinging his repulsors just as Steve decks Ebony Maw in the face to knock him down into the dust.

The entire world caves in around them all, as Nebula moves faster than anything to help pummel the Black Order into the dust. Tony and Clint reach forward together to help knock Proxima out of the chariot, with Clint attacking Proxima and driving his feet into her chest wound where she screams. Tony protects Clint from Corvus Glaive, ducking his crippling blows and unleashing all of his arsenal, pulling the alien off the chariot and into the dirt.

“Tony!” Steve is calling to him. “Thanos!”

Nebula’s head snaps up, but Gamora is nowhere to be seen. Thanos is there, though, Tony realises, his head lifting in horror, as he looks past Rocket and the Wakandan soldiers taking down the Chitauri and Thor and the Asgardians diving to help them with the Black Order. Thanos is making straight for the tower, he realises, his chest growing tight and his heart beating fast in alarm, where Loki is standing like the bait he promised he’d be, looking bored as he crosses his arms and glowers down at them all.

A Chitauri alien lands on the roof, the chariot crackling powerfully as the alien lunges for Loki’s throat, but the god just jams his hand through the alien’s neck airily. He dismantles it completely with his magic, green burying itself deep in the alien, before dumping the remains and shaking his hand off the roof. Thanos turns his head to look straight at Tony, who barrages forward breathlessly, hovering in the air with a repulsor at his face.

Thanos lifts his hand to carelessly bat aside a winged horse, and Natasha moves in with her Pegasus just in time, Valkyrie leaping onto the back of the horse Thanos cast aside. Natasha’s horse leans back and the wings beat against the thunderous skies, the power of the breeze picking up until it becomes a fierce storm, literally driving Thanos back against the ground. The Black Order stumble back to help Thanos, but the Titan is drawn back long enough for them all to get to the tower, getting into their protective positions, as Tony’s jaw tautens, looking for the death stone and Gamora.

Just try and stop us now.

“Hey, asshole! We got a bone to pick with you!” Tony calls out across the field, as Thanos straightens. He aims a winning grin, as Thor calls down lightning at his fingers, cupping the magic within his palms, and Natasha perches herself on a wall near them, seated securely on the horse’s back, the wings drawing back up again. “Remember me?”

“Stark,” Thanos says. His gaze rakes over them all and he gives a heavy sigh. “And you brought the whole motley crew with you.”

“We prefer to be called Avengers,” Clint puts in, nocking an arrow and aiming it straight between Thanos’ eyes. He grins at Ebony Maw. “That’s right, fuckface. We’ve got a team name, too.”

“Black Order still sounds cooler,” Natasha mutters to them. “I’ll put in a note to Fury.”

“He’ll say no,” Steve objects.

Clint nods. “He still hasn’t forgiven you for receding his hairline.”

“I thought that was me?” Bruce blinks.

Natasha shakes her head and smiles proudly. “All me.”

Thanos only arches an unimpressed eyebrow at them all, his gaze moving past them to settle onto Loki on the Tower. “You brought me the Trickster,” he says, before he smirks at them all. “Did you really think, for that worthless creature, I would be so grateful as to let you live? Were you so foolish?”

“Hey!” Thor roars defensively. “That’s my brother!”

And that’s their cue.

Thanos moves and so does everyone else. Tony and Thor move fast, lunging for Thanos as lightning crackles all around them, as the Black Order surge forwards to attack them all. Tony prepares the suit, moving straight for Thanos’ throat, just as his whole world careens and suddenly, he’s crashing straight through a building, screams echoing in his comms. The HUD flickers briefly, as Tony lifts his head groggily from where he’s collapsed, bricks and dust shifting around him, and he blinks long enough to recognise—

“Gamora,” Tony breathe, and he ducks as she swings a post for his face, yelping in alarm. “Stop! I know Nebula!”

Gamora falters only a little before she aims for him again. “I don’t care.”

“Yes, you do!”

He can’t hurt her, he realises, stumbling back over stone and wood, feet cracking the shattered glass on the ground. Gamora’s hair whirls as she lunges for him, her eyes blazing fierce, swift and smooth. She’s like Natasha on the training mat, Tony thinks as he ducks and dodges her blows as quickly as he can. He thinks of Nebula and shakes his head. No. He can’t hurt her.

“Father never said you were a coward,” Gamora snarls out fiercely when he ducks her swing again.

“He’s not your family,” Tony tells her. “I know Rocket—and Nebula—and Quill! Do you remember Quill? And Mantis and Drax and Groot! But apparently you had a thing for Quill—,”

“Stop. Talking!”

Gamora lets out a hoarse scream and suddenly, the whole world completely explodes around them, her eyes widening in brief panic. Tony is thrown back by the thundering reverberation, hitting the ground outside so hard he sees stars, just as Ebony Maw smirks at him, magic healing his broken, stiff fingers. Tony sees his gaze turning briefly to Gamora, who looks relatively alright, still in the building, and he realises that Ebony Maw brought him out because of Gamora.

Thanos’ doesn’t have as strong a hold on her, he thinks suddenly, but before he can do anything, Ebony Maw is reaching for him. Tony weakly moans, but his suit is suddenly lifted out of his control completely and he’s pulled up into the air. In the distance, Tony can see Okoye beating down Proxima just as Thor goes straight for Thanos again, Steve and Natasha right by his side. Rocket is on the field, skittering around Thanos’ feet, clearly searching for the stone, Bruce watching his back.

He breathes hard, turning his focus back on Ebony Maw, and glares at him.

“Give me my suit back,” Tony snarls out, Rhodey coming to his side behind the alien.

He’s just got to keep Ebony Maw distracted long enough for Rhodey to hit him down, Tony thinks to himself, nodding to his best friend. Easy. He lifts a repulsor and fires repeatedly, yanking the arm out of the magic that envelopes it. Ebony Maw goes careening down, crashing straight through the tower, the bricks crumbling around him as he lands in a mess of a heap in Tony’s workshop. The alien groggily hits the ground, near his desk, and Tony’s heart sinks.

Rhodey immediately goes gunning for him, but Tony screams, “No! Stop!”

It’s a terrible scream and it echoes hoarsely around the entire city, getting everyone’s attention around them. Tony can tell everyone is distraught, wondering why he sounds so horrified and distressed, but he can’t bother with explanations right now.

Ebony Maw is reaching for the framed picture of Peter, and Tony’s heart is clenching in horror, his eyes burning feverishly, a frantic horror rippling through him. He’s shaking his head rapidly and blindingly, breathless as he powers his suit faster to get to the tower in time. There’s no time to waste and he barely has enough voice in his throat, as Rhodey demands to know what is going on, thinking something might be wrong with the suit. Blood is roaring through his ears, his heart is hammering against his chest in a relentless storm, everything is going to—

“Oh, what’s this?” Ebony Maw says mockingly, his voice slimy and shattering as he picks up the frame. His mouth turns down into a vicious, harsh snarl, smug, self-assured, and satisfied in a way that makes Tony want to deck him until his face is nothing but pulp. “Mortals. So easy. So weak.”

“Don’t—,” Tony is shaking his head, already sobbing harshly, barrelling forwards desperately, but he’s too late. “Stop! No!”

The alien lifts his hand, the hand Tony had cracked and broken apart, and smashes the photo frame against the desk, glass trickling heavily on the ground, splintering apart until all that’s left is the photo. Tony can see it, can see Peter’s grin winking at him. Ebony Maw turns his head slowly and smiles at Tony, the wicked curve visible even from a distance. He lifts his hand, the hand Tony should have beaten to nothing but a mass of quivering flesh and blood, and snaps it mockingly.

To Tony’s horror, the photo disintegrates completely.

Peter turns into ash again.

The black fury that fills Tony is something that he has never felt before. It fills him completely, the rage sweeping over him like fire as Tony breathes hard and harsh, ragged snarls, something taking over his mouth as he roars something, narrowing his eyes into slits. Peter is gone, gone, gone, and he didn’t make a copy, is all he can think. He thought he was too fucking cool to have feelings and May had given him that knowing smile when she’d shown them the picture she’d taken and asked him if he’d like a copy and it had scared him and like the idiot he is, he said no and now Peter is gone forever—

Tony can barely breathe, the rush of blood roaring in his ears, as he roars something unintelligible. Ebony Maw took away the last thread he had left to Peter and now the fucker has got to pay.

But voices break into his comms suddenly, rattling around inside his head, Rhodey’s one blindingly loud. “Tony! Was that—,”

“Did he—,” Steve’s jaw sets in anger as he lifts his head up to look across at Ebony Maw, recognition flittering across his face. “You motherfucker.”

Ebony Maw smirks mockingly. “Did I hit a nerve?”

“No, but I’m about to hit yours,” Natasha snarls, and she’s inside the Tower, popping up behind the alien.

Natasha decks Ebony Maw so hard the alien slumps heavily against the desk, the magic crawling from his fingers to attack her in defence, but Nebula is suddenly there and she’s ramming her fist into his face repeatedly.

Thor looks towards the smashed frame, the pieces gone forever, and blinding hatred comes over his face. “THAT WAS TONY’S SON!” he roars as he lunges forward.

“He’s not my son—,” Tony tries to correct, but the battle is renewed now, and everyone won’t stop.

Corvus Glaive swings his blade at him as Tony ducks back furiously, he and Clint attacking fiercely, barraging forwards as the alien laughs at their fury.

“Hey, you’re the ones who brought us to the party,” he snarls out, his eyes bright with mirth and derision.

Proxima Midnight tilts back her head and barks out a laugh. “We’re just showing you how to have some fun,” she agrees.

“I’ll show you fun,” Okoye mutters before she lunges for the alien’s throat.

She swings herself back, pressing her foot to Proxima’s wounded stomach and pushes her down to the ground, cracking her skull against the dirt, as Proxima screams loud and loud. Corvus Glaive lets out an enraged roar, distracted long enough for Clint to fire three arrows consecutively into his chest. The alien is barely fazed, though he stumbles back heavily into the ground long enough for Bruce to lunge forwards to protect Clint from his barraging attack. The Asgardians move forwards, using the wings of the horses to beat the Chitauri back as another leviathan crawls through the skies and aims for them.

But Tony’s eyes are on Thanos and he turns to Clint, who nods. “Go!”

Thanos is on his way towards Loki, tearing apart the buildings around him in his search and creating a strange barricade of sorts. Separating them from each other, he realises, before Tony realises that Thanos’ only goal is not just Loki. His gaze is fixed on the iridium machine, too, and something in his gut clenches in horror, though he knows that it’s not true. It’s not real, it’s not real, Tony thinks to himself, but he still lunges forward, screaming for Thanos.

The Titan turns his head, looking faintly amused as he bats aside Tony’s attack, the whole world turning into red and black dust around them as Tony lunges for his throat, driving his repulsors into his skin and pulling the trigger, but it barely fazes the Titan who merely brushes it off, including him. Tony is thrown back into the air, crashing down onto the ground of the rooftop, barely managing to get back his balance as Thanos reaches for the iridium machine with an interested eye.

“This machine of yours is a wonder, Stark, I’ll admit,” he says. Something pained goes over his face as he looks towards Tony. “You would have been a beautiful addition to my Black Order.”

“Over my dead fucking body.”

“That can be arranged.” Thanos’ gaze turns to the photo frame. “How stupid you were, Stark, to love.”

“I thought you were obsessed with the goddess of death?”

“My love is greater than yours could be,” Thanos snarls, his lips pulling back to reveal his teeth angrily.

He’s hit a real nerve, Tony realises. “She doesn’t give a shit about you, you know?” he says breathlessly, the fury rippling across Thanos’ face as he ducks another blow. He can’t quite avoid the next one and tastes blood in his mouth, practically careening through a building as he gets up groggily, balancing unsteadily in the air before Thanos. “Told us her—herself. She’s stringing you along like cheese. Because she doesn’t get cable in her land of the dead and you’re the next best thing.”

When he sees Thanos’ face, he wonders if maybe he’s gone too far.

Thanos roars something fierce, the sound coming deep from his throat and growling as his eyes turn to slits in his dark fury. He bats Tony away into the air and Tony hits the ground heavily, breathlessly, the wind completely knocked out of him. To his horror, Thanos has lifted the tower into the air, practically tearing the bricks apart to grab Loki. The Trickster is gone, but the iridum machine is in his hands and he snarls out fiercely, a smirk poking at the edge of his mouth, as Tony screams.

“NO!”

Thanos shatters the machine apart.

Chapter Text

Loki breathes hard with the effort of keeping the illusion up just until Ebony Maw lets out a startled cry of realisation.

He’s too late to keep the alien back just as Ebony Maw lunges for him and magic crawls through him relentlessly until Loki is screaming in pain, cast down against the ground where he positioned himself for the battle. The whole city ripples and flickers right before his horrified eyes, his attention and concentration completely broken, and suddenly, the illusion is torn away, ripped apart like a page out of a book.

Stark’s voice resounds in his head, moaning about how some Mantis woman was far stronger than he, and he scowls at nothing in particular, just imagining the ribbing he’s going to get for being clobbered over the head by Ebony Maw’s psycho ass.

Everything rushes away and the truth is laid out there before them like a canvas.

Thanos’ head ducks down to see the iridium machine melting away, replaced by some random rock.

“A trick,” he says, grasping the rock in his hands, the machine safely stored away on the tower, far away from them all. He lifts his head to look at Loki, and the way he looks at him, with the amusement edged at the corner of his mouth, reminds Loki far too much of the way he had looked when Loki had been held down by Ebony Maw’s magic the first time, knocked into their world. He’d been screaming so hard his throat had broken and Thanos had looked down on him and smirked, amused. “I must admit I did not think you worthy of it. I confess myself impressed, Trickster.

And then, as he tosses away the rock, Nebula is right there, next to Thanos, reaching to grab the death stone out of his twitching fingers, as the other Avengers take down the Chitauri and the Black Order around them. Gamora is screaming for Nebula, lunging forwards to protect Thanos, who is looking furious though a little groggy, Loki’s magic still running through his head, no doubt. The raccoon is running after Gamora, who prepares to attack Nebula, but Loki’s attention is caught elsewhere.

His gaze turns to the death stone gleaming hotly in Thanos’ clenched fist, but he can’t sense the damn thing, wondering if his protective spells were stronger than he thought. Loki’s head resounds in pain as he reaches a hand to rub at it absently, turning around just in time to dodge Ebony Maw’s magic as he swerves the teetering pavement shooting his way. He’s protected himself fiercely against Ebony Maw, so that the alien’s magic cannot take apart his mind anymore and when he had heard of what the alien had done to Thor, Loki had laid the protection spells over everyone else, too.

Without them knowing, of course, but he saw the way they looked at him.

Monstrous. Horrific. A burden.

He was here, only on Thor’s good word, and Loki knew that even attempting to offer the idea that he could protect their weak little minds would raise nothing but mistrust. He’s not sure that he really blames them for it, considering what he’s done. If anything, it’s smart for them to mistrust him. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t still sting a little, though.

“An illusion?” Ebony Maw snarls out fiercely. “Did you think we were so stupid?”

It’s satisfyingly clear to see that he’s insulted. Offended that he had fallen prey to the same trickery he laid to others, Loki thinks with some visceral satisfaction. Giving the asshole who had tried to break his brother a taste of the same medicine had only been a bonus and if he had made Ebony Maw’s illusion a little more painful, allowing for Stark and Nebula to break those spidery fingers even if it wasn’t really a part of the plan, then that was between himself only.

“Actually,” Loki says, shifting slightly as he brings his weapons to him and creates powerful wards around them all, reinforcing the city properly again and locking it all up as best he can, “yes.”

Ebony Maw’s gaze turns to vicious slits, his breathing hoarse and furious. “You insolent—,”

“You’re just mad you couldn’t sense it,” he jeers back, knowing the best way to get under the alien’s skin. That’s his skill, Loki Liesmith, Trickster, Asshole Who Won’t Quit. He watches the way Ebony Maw’s magic becomes clumsier, a vivid satisfaction brimming under his skin, and keeps the alien close, knowing that if Ebony Maw were to realise that he was keeping his attention away from those Loki would die for, the alien would turn on them faster than Thor’s lightning. “You, with all your abilities, Maw. Couldn’t. Sense. Me.”

The alien roars at him, magic sliding through the air, but it’s a clumsy blow, propelled forth by Ebony Maw’s fury, his emotions clouding his judgement. Loki barks with laughter, barely bothering to duck the attack just in time, watching the way Ebony Maw’s eyes narrow in anger.

“Stop laughing at me!”

“Not my fault you’re a fucking joke, Maw,” Loki banters back, grinning across his face as he watches Ebony Maw’s face grow darker. “I hear Thanos isn’t too impressed with you lot, these days. Apparently, you’re getting sloppy.”

A hoarse roar escapes Ebony Maw’s mouth as he lunges forward and Loki moves quickly, his protective spells flickering powerfully around him, swinging his blade so fiercely that it almost slices Ebony Maw’s hands clean off. As he parries Ebony Maw’s attack and avoids the blows, he tries to keep an eye around him.

What has happened, now that they have lost their advantage?

He manages to cast a glance around him, realising that the Avengers are all attacking Thanos once more, but in his distraction, Ebony Maw slams something hard into his face, bricks and rubble collapsing around him as the ground opens up and Loki howls in pain, startled.

His entire body is being forced down into the ground and Loki has had control of his form ripped away before, has known what it means to see his body taken away from him, but that doesn’t make it any less horrifying. He’s breathing hard, barely able to see past the sheer panic that threatens to overwhelm him completely as Loki struggles to gain the upper hand back up again, his chest feeling as though it might cave it on itself. The sword clatters to the ground, swallowed up by the earth as Ebony Maw laughs, pushing him down as the world threatens to bury him alive, and Loki screams, unable to help himself.

“No!” Thor is roaring and suddenly everything is blue all around him and the whole world erupts.

He can see Ebony Maw’s eyes widen briefly as the lightning comes for him, striking him in his chest so hard the alien is thrown back, crashing through a building. Loki’s vision blurs a little as he scrabbles amidst the dirt and collapses heavily against the ground, the world opening itself up again so that he can breathe. He falls to his knees helplessly as he chokes heavily, breaths coming out fraught and chest squeezing itself so much he can barely see in his distress.

Beside him, he can see dark, shadowed figures, cast against the ground, the wings of the Pegasi beating strongly around them, fierce and protective. Thor’s lightning crackles heavily around them all, his magic, though unsteady and clumsy, winding itself around him in protection. Loki lets himself be wrapped in the blue, accepting it with a hoarse gasp, as Thor kneels to his side.

“Brother—,”

“I’m fine,” Loki snaps harshly, his cheeks flushed in humiliation as he tries to force himself to his feet. He’s supposed to be the one who has Thor’s back, not the other way around. “Get off me, Thor. I said I’m fine.”

“Why are you so angry?” Thor asks him. “Have I done something wrong—,”

“No, just—it’s fine, Thor!”

For a long moment, his brother doesn’t say anything and that’s unsettling in itself, because Thor doesn’t often do that. Thor is always speaking, such a large and robust figure that he takes over everything in the room, towers around everyone. His charisma and irresistible likability are the charm of him, and Loki has accepted it, as much as he has accepted that he is the slinking, sly creature in the background, doomed to always be cast in his brother’s shadows.

But as Loki gets to his feet, he feels as though they’ve been switched, and he doesn’t know the man standing before him very much. Thor has been… different, since he got to Midgard and it’s strange and unfamiliar in a way that he’s not sure he likes. When he looks at Thor, his once open and cheerful face is completely impassive and Loki suddenly realises, with a shot of cold shock, that he cannot read his brother at all.

“You held the illusion strongly, Loki,” Thor finally tells him, and Loki’s voice disappears in shock. He’s supposed to be the one who sees past his brother, not the other way around. “I am proud of you, brother. You did wonderfully. I’m only sorry that I was not there to keep Ebony Maw from you sooner.”

He doesn’t …know what to say. Loki lifts his head to stare at his brother, startled. Thor has never really been like this to him. He’s never been praised like this, apart from Mother, but there’s only honesty and open truth in Thor’s face. His brother really means it, he realises, staring at Thor’s soft, gentle smile, and the warmth of his trust and praise fills Loki’s chest until the pain from Ebony Maw’s inflicted wounds hurts no longer.

“Thank you, brother,” Loki mumbles, cheeks flushed as he steadies himself.

Thor looks pleased. “Come on,” he tells Loki pleasantly. “We have him. I rather think you’d like to see your abuser in some pain, yes?”

They had Thanos? Loki tries not to splutter in shock, startled. He knew that the Midgardians were capable, but he also knew they were a liability, which was the reasons for plans C to E, all of which appeared to be no longer needed.

“What?” Loki turns his head sharply to his brother, his eyes wide. “You’re not serious.”

“I am,” Thor says, grinning at him. “Looks like the useless Misgardians aren’t so bad, after all, right brother?”

.

.

Natasha swings off Athena, patting the horse clumsily as she gains her footing back on the ground, a little unsteady.

The Pegasi moves alongside her as Natasha rushes forward to help the others, her breaths fraught and her eyes wide. Thanos is on his knees, Steve and Thor and Loki holding him down as Tony keeps a hold over his curled fist, and Clint fires arrow after arrow as the Titan screams in pain. Behind her, Okoye, Rocket, and Nebula are fighting Gamora, Proxima’s limp figure heavy on the ground as Corvus Glaive screams and attacks a laughing Valkyrie. Natasha unloads her gun, firing at Thanos hard, but the bullets barely do anything, practically bouncing off him.

“We need to—get the stone!” Tony is shouting, as he powers up his repulsors once more, gripping Thanos’ arm and attempting open the fists. The stone must be in Thanos’ hand, Natasha realises, but she’s not getting the same dizzying feeling that the stone had given off in Tony’s tower, strangely enough. Something in her instincts rumble, as though something might be wrong, but she doesn’t have enough time to deliberate, as Tony calls to her, a delirious grin lifting his lips, “The fucker’s strong, Nat!”

She casts her eye around for any ideas, racking her brains. Athena’s already gone to help Valkyrie who swings around the horse’s figure, landing nimbly on the back of the beast before she hits Corvus in the face repeatedly. The Asgardians and the Pegasi are too far away, battling the Chitauri and the leviathans that are coming their way. There’s one that crashes past the river, before it slinks through the air, aiming for them, and an idea sparks her mind suddenly.

Natasha moves fast, gauging the distance between them and the leviathan, as she reaches for a scattered spear, launching herself up onto a Chitauri chariot. She decks the Chitauri in the face easily, avoiding the clumsy blow just in time before kicking the alien out of the hovering chariot, and balances herself with ease, keeping an eye on the leviathan.

“Nat!” Clint is shouting up towards her.

Steve looks alarmed, as Loki’s magic winds tight around Thanos’ screaming form. “Nat! What are you doing?”

“Give it a minute!” Natasha calls back, balancing herself on the chariot with the ease of all the ballet training she’s had.

If she can just capture the leviathan’s attention, she can draw it towards them long enough for it to physically take down Thanos. It’s heavy enough and she’s felt it try to crack her apart on Athena, so hopefully it will be confused enough to try to overpower the Titan, too. They only need a few seconds, a window of time so they can get the stone, after all, she thinks, as she tenses herself, her breaths fraught, fingers wrapped around the spear and clenching it fiercely.

“No, wait!” Bruce is shouting towards them. “I—I can do this!”

Natasha turns her head in alarm, as the Hulkbuster clumsily moves forward across the field for them. Tony is screaming with Thanos as Steve and Thor barrage the amount of power onto Thanos’ head, Loki joining them as magic crawls all around them, a green snaking thing curling with Thor’s lightning. Hulk breaks out of the Hulkbuster suddenly, green pooling out across Bruce’s face, and Thor is cheering loudly in delight, as Natasha lets out a hoarse laugh, the sound bursting out of her chest in delight.

“HULK!” Hulk roars wildly. “SMASH!”

“YES!” Thor howls gloriously.

And green crashes straight into Thanos, almost a blur as Thanos stumbles back and everyone bolts forward, the Titan bringing Hulk to the ground heavily. Natasha turns to spot the leviathan, her heart pounding, but Okoye is shouting towards her to go as the General moves with Rhodey and a few Asgardians, to lead the leviathan away. Hulk isn’t down for long as Loki’s magic reaches around him protectively and he grabs Thanos’ head, pummelling into it heavily as Natasha crashes the Chitauri chariot into the ground, hurrying forwards to help Tony. Clint is by her side, both of them reaching for Thanos’ open hand where the death stone rests, gleaming hotly, the black stone wrapped completely around his cracked, bruised fingers.

“You’re all fools,” Thanos is spitting harshly, as Tony dives to practically slice off his hand, the gleam of the Iron Man blades winking in the air. “You know not what you do—,”

“No, you’re the idiot!” Clint snarls out angrily, breathless as he and Natasha are thrown back to the ground. Her head is groggy, but Clint helps her up and he’s still mad, practically shouting at Thanos. “You’re doing all this to get a girl who doesn’t even give a shit about you?”

Thanos stills slightly, long enough for Steve to lunge for the stone, Loki’s magic wrapping around the hand as the Titan howls in pain. It’s not enough and Thanos reaches for Steve’s throat, just as Hulk barrels forward and knocks him down to the ground. Natasha’s head is a whirl, but she can’t stop thinking of the look on Thanos’ face when Clint had spoken. Betrayal, shock, disbelief, fury, she thinks, her chest squeezing. She’s seen that look on many a man who thought themselves entitled to a woman and suddenly, Natasha knows what to do.

She sees her chance, ducking a heavy blow as Thanos pummels Hulk’s head. “Yeah, didn’t you hear?” she calls out loudly as Tony turns his head sharply towards her. Natasha is suddenly desperately grateful for the Avengers around her, as the realisation falls on their faces, too, as they figure out what she had, their eyes widening. She continues, almost breathless as she shouts to Thanos. “Hela doesn’t care for you! She’s using you! For her own amusement!”

“Liar!” Thanos roars at her, but his voice wavers and his eyes are bright with mutinous fury, but there’s something else that’s desperate in them. Natasha thinks suddenly of an old noble lord who had refused to believe that his mistress had stolen away his best jewels, and she’s so distracted Clint has to pull her out of the way of an oncoming attack, grabbing her tight. “You dare to besmirch the good Lady Hela’s name, you filthy Terran—,”

“Hey, don’t call her that!” Thor rumbles, lightning crackling all around them as Hulk attacks once more, Tony and Steve working together to dive for Thanos’ throat once more. “It’s not our fault Hela’s stringing you along!”

Thanos looks ready to break, Natasha realises.

“You lie,” he gets out hoarsely, angrily, viciously. His fingers unclench to show the death stone practically writhing through his fingers, his hand practically rotting away as Natasha reels in disgust. The death stone is eating him, she realises hotly, and Thanos smirks at their reactions. But there’s something unhinged in the light of his eye and the uneven curve of his mouth that unnerves Natasha a little. “You’d do anything to get to this, wouldn’t you? This is what you all really want. That machine of yours up there, well, I couldn’t kill that.” Natasha’s heart drops, as Thanos raises the death stone in the air, letting it hover gently, mockingly above his fingers. “But I can kill this.”

And to her screaming horror, Thanos shatters the death stone, grabs Gamora, and disappears.

.

.

Tony is screaming, “We’re not fucking done with you!” after him, but Thanos is gone. “Get back here! Come back!”

Steve is shaking, on his knees as his gaze catches the trail of red dust Thanos left behind. He’s collapsed heavily on the ground, a complete mess as he shakes his head, desperately, eyes burning at the remains of the death stone cracked apart on the ground. It’s not real, it can’t be—it has to be another illusion, he thinks desperately to himself, something in his throat catching as a scream echoes out in frustration, mingling with Clint’s. They did everything right. They did everything—everything right!

So, how have they still lost? Again?

He pummels his fists into the dirt angrily, feeling as though his heart may literally claw its way out of his chest in sheer frustration. Nebula is screaming after Gamora, sobbing helplessly as Rocket’s gun clatters to the ground. They’ve lost again and again and again, and Steve can’t take it anymore. It must be retribution, he thinks suddenly. There was always a reckoning coming for him, Steve had always known it to be true. There was no way good things could be written out there for him.

The universe had gotten sick of him winning, though they never felt like wins, not really. Never tasted like true victory, not unless he had the people he loved by his side, and though he has that, he wants more. He wants Bucky and Sam and everyone he has known in this new world, too. Steve has always wanted more. Perhaps it will be the end of him.

Hulk is on his knees beside him, too, green and quiet, and for a startling moment, Steve thinks the Hulk might pull him up to his feet. But instead, Hulk just sits beside him, the ground shaking a little, before he speaks, voice deep and low. “Hulk was too late,” he says gruffly, apologetically, to Steve’s surprise. “Hulk is sorry—,”

“No, don’t say that,” Natasha says immediately, her voice gentle though a little wary.

Tony is nodding, though he looks like he did when he went out on that ledge, and Steve has to stop himself from shifting slightly in defence. There is no ledge here, but there’s enough weapons scattered on the ground. He just hopes they’re enough for Tony not to pick one up.

“Yeah, you did good, man,” Tony says lowly. He looks around at them all as Clint claps a weak hand on his shoulder, eyes bright and watery. “We all did. It just… wasn’t enough, I guess.”

“It was never enough,” Rocket mutters bitterly, angrily, something taut and furious in his expression.

Loki is moving forwards and though Clint flinches, Steve shifting slightly in protection to defend the man automatically, the god doesn’t stop by their side. He’s looking at Tony, something strange in his expression, before green tendrils spin dizzily around his fingers and suddenly glass is gleaming in the sunlight, familiar glass. He’s holding what looks like a picture frame and slowly, Loki shifts his fingers, very quietly, and Peter returns to Tony.

Tony looks as though he’s been struck, his face pale and wan but shock and pure love filters over his expression, a choked sound escaping his mouth. Loki offers the picture back to Tony without a single word, and he takes it, stunned. His entire form is drenched in blood, but Tony holds the picture reverently, taking meticulous care not to get blood on the glass. Nobody dares to say a word, lest Loki take back his beautiful gift, but Steve is choked up with grief and gratefulness, thankful that Tony, at the very least, has the picture back.

He’d gotten so angry when he’d seen the aliens crumple it to dust and if Natasha hadn’t hit Ebony Maw, Steve was already preparing to do so, pretty hard. Clint’s face shutters slightly before he turns his gaze towards Tony and juts his jaw out determinedly.

“That was decent,” Clint only says, and Loki meets his gaze, something flashing through his features.

For a moment, Steve prepares himself for another fight, his features tensing slightly, and he registers the others around him already shifting slightly, ready to put themselves between Clint and Loki, should the need arise. The deep clinging exhaustion shakes itself off as Steve tenses and beside him, Hulk’s gaze narrows onto Loki, as though warning him quietly not to do anything stupid. His brows furrowing slightly as confusion flickers through his features, Loki doesn’t seem to notice them all, or if he does, he doesn’t seem to care.

Instead, his face, looking deep in thought, creases slightly before he’s kneeling to the ground too, head bent down as Thor speaks up. Loki rummages through the remains of the death stone, fingers running through the black, earnestly, brows furrowed.

“Loki?”

“What?”

“What are you doing?”

“Sunbathing, brother. What does it look like?”

“Stop being a shit,” Valkyrie calls, rubbing the mess of blood against her mouth. Her hair is blown out all around her shoulders and she looks wild and beautiful, but she’s leaning heavily on one leg, putting another hand around her side. Beside her, Okoye is helping to keep her standing, and Rhodey goes to Tony, letting Tony collapse against him heavily as he tightens his fingers around the frame. “What are you doing, sniffing around like that?”

“This… is not the death stone,” Loki says suddenly, and Steve’s stomach drops.

Tony’s head snaps towards him first in alarm. “What?”

Thor’s voice is soft and pleading. “If this is a trick, Loki,” he says, “please, please, do not do this to us—,”

“I wouldn’t!” Loki snaps at him harshly, something hurt and betrayed shifting in his voice. He looks around suddenly, seeming to realise he’s spoken too emotionally and continues. “It has remnants of the obsidian,” Loki explains to them, reaching to rub his fingers between the particles of the black ash on the ground, the wind breezing through them all as Steve’s hopes begin to rise, once more, unable to stop. “Obsidian was used in the death stone, but it holds other properties as all the infinity stones do. I knew there was something strange about it—,”

“It didn’t feel the same,” Natasha says, nodding, something tangible and hopeful and quiet in her voice. She sounds wary as she continues, as though she thinks someone might contest her. “The parts of it in the wall felt different.”

Loki inclines his head, a smirk edging his mouth with satisfaction and a resounding amount of smugness. “Someone has played a little trick on Thanos,” he says to them with distinct pleasure, and Steve’s eyes widen. Who in all the universe would dare? “He thought he held the death stone, but it was just some random black rock.”

“But that—,” Thor says, before shaking his head. Hope lingers in the air around them, lights up his eyes in earnest. “Then where do we go next?”

Nebula is lifting her head, looking annoyed. “The real death stone could be anywhere,” she protests, shaking her head at them. “Once Thanos discovers he has been played for a fool, nothing will remain of this universe.”

Loki’s fingers play with the black ash, something soft and playful against his mouth. “I don’t know about that,” he drawls carelessly. Steve stiffens as magic falls from his fingers, green shifting around the black stuff on the ground. “I think I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

Valkyrie, in the back, swears hotly, realisation falling across her face. “That fucking—,”

“Hela,” Loki calls, grinning across his face as Steve’s jaw promptly drops.

And then the world is shifting slightly, red dust swirling up in the air before them as his vision blurs a little and suddenly, Steve can smell the coldness that had entrenched Hela’s kingdom, the light air breathing against his cheeks. Hela steps out onto the ground gracefully, greenery falling all around her as Loki’s magic shifts slightly, and shakes back her hair, her wide, smug grin looking deadly and her lithe form so stunning that it holds a strange soft glow, making her look devastatingly beautiful amidst the dust and the dirt around them.

Steve stumbles back immediately, reaching to pull his shield up around himself, Clint, and Natasha, while Hulk and Tony move forwards in defence smoothly, Thor’s lightning crackling protectively all around them. Every single person on the field instantly, even though Steve can see that they’re tired to the bone and ready to completely drop, shifts to attention, readying themselves for a fight. Steve’s mind is an adrenaline-rushed blur, as he thinks rapidly of what Thor had told them, of the Army of the Dead, of Hela’s Berserkers invading Asgard, and rampaging the golden kingdom apart—

Hela pushes back her crackling dark hair, dusts something off her midnight blue skirts, and aims a winning smile at them, her eyes bright and playful.

“You rang?”

Chapter Text

“The idiot’s rampaging through my kingdom,” Hela says, grumbling a little. But she smirks a little, as she continues, “Looking for me, I expect.”

“For good reason,” Thor says. “The stone, Hela.”

She seems almost entertained by his vehemence, her eyes sparking as she leans forward, the drag against her mouth edged with amusement. “What’s in it for me?”

That’s it, he thinks. Thor has fucking had it by now.

He moves fast, impatiently kicking up Proxima Midnight’s forgotten blade and grasping it in the same instance, swinging it through the air and letting it rest against the paleness of Hela’s neck. Blood wells up at the edge of her skin and barely a beat passes by before there is movement in the air and Thor’s breath hitches with warm relief when the Avengers move, too. Tony shifts automatically into a defensive position, raising his repulsors to attack, besides Clint and Natasha who raise their respective weapons and keep their eyes on Hela’s every move. Steve and Hulk move to defend his back, but as always, it’s Loki who startles Thor the most.

Loki waves his hand almost lazily, but Thor is the only one who recognises the steel in his eyes and knows it for what it means. A shield of green passes out around them all, filtering protectively around him most of all, and as ever, Thor knows that Loki will always have his back. It’s been a terribly long time since Mexico, but that feels like when it all began.

Mexico.

Their relationship had been strong before then, when everything Thor had known had felt like truth and the world was simpler. And then they fractured apart, and Thor had worried, wondering if they’d ever find each other again. But in this moment, where Loki’s gaze shifts from his quiet amusement at Hela’s antics to fierce determination to protect him, Thor’s heart fills and he thinks, maybe they’ll be okay.

“Your life, Hela,” Thor promises hotly, but her gaze has dropped to the blood at her neck.

Something hot and mutinous passes her face then, angry to the point where Thor feels the beginning of a battle rumbling. They’re too exhausted for this and for a moment, he thinks he’s back to the old Thor, the reckless and terrible one. Cruel Thor, arrogant Thor. Reckless, selfish Thor. Thor who never thought about anything at all.

What is it about family that brings out all the worst in you?

He hates the old Thor, because the old Thor would have acted as rashly and terribly too, would have threatened instead of cajoled or asked for some peace like new Thor. But it feels slightly gratifying to finally pick up a sword and do something after so much nothing. So, he is not old Thor or new Thor, anymore.

So, what is he?

“This is a new dress, Thor!” Hela protests in frustration. She looks barely fazed at the blade gleaming a few moments away from her throat, ready to slice the flesh clean through, and huffs at him, rolling her eyes. “If the stains don’t come out, I’ll have your head, little brother!”

“No, you won’t,” Loki says with careless ease but there’s enough steeliness in his voice to show how serious he is, and Hela picks up on it, too, her gaze flickering over towards them. She shifts a little, something flickering over her face as Loki continues. “The stone, you demonic hellbeast.”

“Sister will do just fine,” Hela says, almost petulant, but she gives a soft quirk of her lips, waving her fingers.

Black pours freely out of her steady hands, curling around into a soft delicate ball that lingers in the air above her cupped palms. Thor hasn’t let up the blade, nor has she asked him to, but they all stare, breaths hitching as the death stone finally comes into view. It’s layered with so many protections Thor can practically taste the heavy magic in the air before him, and he almost chokes on it, terrified that it might break apart from Hela’s protective spells. Everyone tenses beside him, and Thor automatically, unconsciously shifts himself in front of them. He pulls the blade back so that he may protect them too, dark lightning crackling from his fingers.

“How did you take it from Thanos?” Tony is asking, as nobody dares to move. “Did you…”

Natasha turns to scowl at him. “If you say, ‘do a Black Widow’, Tony, I swear—,”

Hela looks amused as both Loki and Thor pull faces and grimace at the thought of it alone. His elder sister and Thanos together is not a thought Thor would like to spend time deliberating over, he thinks to himself, feeling vaguely disgusted.

“You think I seduced him? I have standards,” Hela says, her lip curling a little in derision before she turns to look at Thor. “Thor, what have you been teaching these Midgardians? They’re so cute but terribly primitive.” She chuckles at them as though they’re animals to pet at, her eyes bright with mirth. “I swapped it when he was waxing poetic about how my eyes gleamed like the stars above. He was so busy staring at me and talking about himself the great oaf barely noticed a thing. Men.”

All the men start to flush slightly under the way Hela speaks, but Okoye is looking vaguely amused, the edge of her mouth pulling a little. Plus, Natasha is nodding in quiet understanding like she gets what Hela is talking about. Thor certainly doesn’t. Do men often talk about themselves? He knows his father used to take up much conversation at the table, but that didn’t mean anything, did it? He used to interrupt Mother all the time so that he’d never notice Mother slipping him vegetables—oh, shit.

“Can we use it, then?” Steve is asking tentatively, his eyes bright with brief hope. He’s got blood on his face and his fingers tremble around the shield, but there’s a fierceness and a determination in the way he speaks when he asks, “Is it possible to reverse the effects of the snap?”

Loki is eyeing the death stone, looking it over carefully.

“A night,” he says eventually, lifting his head up to aim a smug smirk at them. “I can do it in a night.”

“Pitiful, little brother.” Hela snorts. “Give me half a night.”

“Two hours!” Loki looks challenging.

“Well, now, that’s just ridiculous—,”

“What are you talking about?” Thor clears his throat to break up the oncoming argument that seems ready to last.

“Big sister over here has layered the infinity stone with enough protections to give it a coronary to anyone who might even look at it wrong.” Everyone averts their gaze immediately, as Hela smiles proudly all across her face. Loki continues to explain. “But apart from that, if it’s going in that machine to reverse the effects, it needs to go in safely. We have to unravel parts of the protection spells, bit by bit, to make sure that it will do what we want.”

“We?” Bruce repeats tightly.

Hela aims a dazzling grin, her voice dripping with false innocence. “What, you don’t trust me and little brother?”

“No,” a chorus of voices reply flatly in unison immediately.

Thor doesn’t blame them at all for being wary, but it’s difficult to tamp down the flare of protectiveness that curls within him at the thought of someone being cruel to his family. Hela and Loki are what they are, and he understands their hesitation and mistrust, doesn’t even blame it, but.

But they are family and he is a selfish thing who does not want to choose.

So, he lifts his head and speaks instead.

“Do you trust me?” Thor asks quietly.

There’s no hesitation before everyone is nodding, to his quiet relief. “Of course,” Tony says immediately, but his brows pull together into a concerned frown. “But you can’t think we’d let you watch over those two alone, Thor.”

Thor is torn between appreciation for his friends and exhaustion for his family. Perhaps he will always be torn between them. Something flickers over Hela’s face as she considers him, too fast for to place. But Natasha is keeping an eye on her and Thor knows that she has a greater understanding of emotions and can see things much better than he, so he knows that she will tell them all later if there’s anything they’ve missed. Okoye is looking thoughtful, Valkyrie still tensed enough to fight, though everyone else seems to have the fight taken out of them, looking utterly knackered.

“But Thanos is still out there,” General Okoye protests, her voice firm but worried. She gestures towards the stone and Hela, who blinks at her. “Once he discovers that you are not in your kingdom, he will know that you are here. And then he will come, and we will only have brought back the snapped ones to all be killed again. And this time, he will not miss any of us either.”

Tony flinches at that, grasping the frame tighter, as Rhodey adjusts himself beside him, and Thor stiffens in defence automatically, wanting to protect his friend. But everyone is nodding, looking worried as ever, and Thor can see it on their faces, the breathlessness, the desperation, the hope, the sheer want written all over their expressions. They hope but don’t dare to let themselves think much more because if they do, the pain of it all would crack them apart, unable to pool back together.

Thor vowed to protect this Earth.

But he has everything back now.

His whole world, his people, his brother. Everything he’d mourned for months had been returned to him in the blink of an eye and when Loki looks at him, Thor knows exactly what his brother is asking of him. But even though he could flee to the far corners of the universe, even though he could go back to Asgard with Loki and the others, even though he could quite possibly seek sanctuary through twisting one of Hela’s bargains, he knows that he wouldn’t do it.

So, if he is to die, he will die fighting.

Loki’s face shifts a little, before he turns away and speak, Hela’s gaze flickering between them both.

“I can hold us for a little longer,” Loki says tightly, sounding defensive as he used to, back on Asgard when Thor was stupid and did not see how much his little brother was hurting when they teased him about his magic. His magic, which has saved their lives over and over again. “My magic can protect Midgard. I am strong enough.”

“But for how long? Okoye is right. This fight is not over. Thanos is still out there and when he realises that we have the real stone, he’ll come for us,” Natasha mutters, rubbing her head. She looks around at them all, the pitiful warriors they look like now. “And look at us. Our defences are lower than ever and if Thanos comes, at any time now, he’ll mow us down. We have nothing left to fight with. We can barely hold ourselves up. We don’t have anyone else.”

Thor can offer a few willing Asgardian soldiers, but it’s like Natasha says, he realises. They simply don’t have enough people to help them in this fight. None of them can trust anything Hela gives them, which means they really are alone. The Avengers aren’t enough, this time. It’s such a huge universe, Thor thinks suddenly, and yet, it’s never felt so empty.

But Rocket is looking thoughtful, his brows furrowed into a frown, his gaze turning flitting and careful. He takes something out of his pocket and checks it over, Nebula’s head snapping towards him. Something passes between them in quiet understanding and hidden conversation, but Thor doesn’t know what. Sometimes he wishes he had Natasha’s skill at reading people.

“The fight’s not yet over,” Rhodey is agreeing as he pulls something out of the catch on the arm of his suit. His phone is flashing, and he taps at it, reading the message quickly. Whatever he’s read must be good news, because Rhodey’s jaw drops a little, before he’s looking up with a startled grin and he speaks. “And Thanos could come at any time. But we’re not alone.”

They frown at him in confusion, but Rocket seems to understand him faster.

“I got an army, too,” Rocket says, as he looks up to meet their gazes with a smug smirk. “Bet you mine’s bigger.”

.

.

Rocket explains it as they’re limping back into the Tower and Rhodey calls Betty Ross to chase down her message.

Her message which was just Be ready. The Avengers just got a whole lot bigger.

Rhodey had showed it to everyone and something had filtered over Natasha’s face, but Steve is too tired out right now, to decipher the message or do anything but keep an ever-present eye on Hela and Loki, everything in him alert but exhausted all at the same time. The supersoldier serum keeps him running a lot longer than everyone else, so he insists that the others go in first, spying the way Clint leans heavily on Natasha and Tony clutching the frame so tight it makes marks in his bare palm and the way Thor’s face creases in a mixture of both yearning and desperation as he looks to his people and his family.

Bruce is the only one who seems alright beside him, having changed back into himself from the Hulk, though green still remains around his hands so that it looks almost like they’re holding hands. It’s almost sweet, in a way.

“I, uh,” Rocket begins, “got the idea when you were talkin’ to your leaders.”

Nobody bothers to interpret the complicated politics of the United Nations to Rocket, who likely wouldn’t care anyway. It’s then that Steve realises faintly, as he’s collapsing heavily into the sofa, Natasha sinking down beside him in exhaustion as he adjusts himself so that she can curl against him like she likes to, that he realises that he knows these people well, now. He knows the way Tony’s face creases that means he’s holding back his tears and the way Clint shifts towards him, with Rhodey, helping to steady him, the way Thor will collapse against them all too, cradling them tight because they’d almost lost each other. Bruce will be a little distant, but he’ll come to them with medicine and food, wanting to save them that way.

“What idea?”

“People are really mad; they actually want to fight. Never seen anything like it,” Rocket explains. “But I get it. Some stupid fuckface took away our whole universe and he’s going to pay for it.” Rocket is nervous as he continues, clearly so, in a way that makes it clear that he’s startled everyone is paying him so much attention and actually listening to him. “It’s not just Terra that Thanos hit. He hit half the universe.” His head lifts, eyes bright and blazing fierce with determination. “We need all the power we can get, right? All the people we can assemble?”

Steve catches up fast, but he can’t quite believe what Rocket is saying. There’s no way that they could be so lucky.

“You’re saying there’s people out there,” Tony breathes in realisation. “Aliens who can fight.”

“Who want to fight,” Nebula corrects, and she’s already cocking her guns, having cleaned them all up in record time.

“Anyone. Everyone. We send out a beacon. A ringing call to the universe,” he explains eagerly, a fierce fight left in him. Rocket nods firmly as he continues quickly, hurrying to show them the flickering screens from his gadget. “Anyone who wants to rearrange Thanos’ face. We send out the coordinates of this place and the message, tell them to meet us and kick that purple grape ass.”

“It’s dangerous,” General Okoye says, looking worried. “How do we know we aren’t just bringing in a bunch of warriors to take over Earth from us?”

“Nobody has time for that,” Rocket says carelessly, waving a hand. Too carelessly, Steve thinks, but Rocket is continuing. “Terra sucks ass, anyway. Who would want a shithole like this? People of Xander have weapons better than anything I’ve seen. Stuff on here doesn’t make a blip on the weaponry the Kree have. There’s a guy on the Nine Rings of Urore who took down a whole ship of Ravagers.” He focuses on them, looking them in the eye. “What I’m saying is if we give people the choice, they’ll want to fight.”

Steve’s slowly getting used to the idea, nodding as he looks up at them all, exchanging looks with each other. Natasha looks wary and Tony is already looking excited, but Steve can tell that though Clint and Bruce are ready, Thor looks a little worried, too. It’s gratifying to think of people out there who are exactly like them, who can fight, too, he has to think. When Thanos comes, though, Steve thinks, looking at everything he has left in this world, contained within this one small room, staring at their faces and memorising, he hopes he can last long enough to take Thanos down for them.

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s time to tell people what we’ve been doing. To give them hope.” Tony is nodding and it encourages Steve. “We have the death stone. We have the machine. We can do it, but we can only do it if we have enough people on our side.”

“And people are going to want to be on our side,” Rocket says. “It’s like you said. Thanos didn’t leave anything untouched. Even if there’s someone out there who hasn’t lost anyone at all, the universe is still cracking. We’ll lose everything, once this universe swallows itself and there’ll be nothing left. So, if any fucker out there asks us what business we have trying to save the universe? We’re the idiots who live in it.” Something flickers across his face, but he continues, fiercer than ever, “And someone tried to hurt it, and we’re not taking that lying down.”

Betty Ross calls Rhodey back and Steve turns his gaze towards him, watching as Thor and Clint follow Loki and Hela up to the roof with the gleam of the death stone quietly. It’s relieving to have the death stone leave their presence, because it’s stifling, suffocating in a way that seems to try to swallow him whole and he hates it desperately without knowing what it is until the death stone actually leaves the place around them. Natasha gives a shiver and Steve squeezes her fingers in quiet comfort, before she gets up to look after Tony and check to make sure that he’s doing okay too.

Betty’s face fills the air between them, her breaths fraught. “Do I need to ask how it went?”

“We got it,” Rhodey says.

Betty’s face lifts in hope and tears, her eyes brightening suddenly and Steve wonders if he looks like that, too. The thought that Bucky and Sam and all the others may climb their way back into their world, may fall back in, is all-consuming and he knows that if he falls too deep in this hope, it’ll eat him alive and spit him back out into something like deliriousness. Even so, he can’t quite help it, either.

“Oh my God,” Betty whispers breathlessly, losing her professionalism for a brief moment before she manages to contain herself. “So, there’s a chance, now? You—we can bring everyone back?” Her breaths are fraught as she stares at them, hope and joy in her eyes, her voice watery when she speaks. “We can really—bring them home?”

“We got the death stone, ma’am, but we lost Thanos. He’ll be back.”

Rhodey is unable to speak again as Betty’s face shutters, and Steve continues, getting to his feet quickly. “Thanos is still out there,” he tells her, watching the President’s face shift into position. “And he’s going to be coming for us, because we have the stone. Rocket had an idea, that we send out a beacon and get as much as we can for this fight. It’s going to be the fight of our lives and as people are coming back home, we have to make sure it’s a safe home for them, too.”

Betty is nodding. “I—the UN have been—people are clamouring here, too,” she says, with a small, watery smile. “People want to fight. And I don’t want to stand in the way of that. They deserve to have their moment to avenge, too. To be Avengers.”

The beautiful decency of people, he thinks suddenly. This is what he wanted. This is what he loves about humankind. For one act of wrongdoing, a thousand more rise up to defend, to protect. To avenge.

“We set up the last fight here,” Tony says, nodding. “And we open up parts of the borders to let in the armies, the people who can and want to fight. And we also give an open space for Rocket’s aliens, too.”

Rocket nods. “I can call in favours.”

Nebula clears her throat. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but I don’t have any friends to call for this fight.”

Steve’s letting out a hoarse, breathless laugh when he turns and suddenly, they’re all laughing together, breathless and hopeful and suddenly lifting in delight that he hasn’t felt in months. Diane, the UK ambassador, is moving into the frame, her eyes bright and her mouth pursed into a pressed line that could be construed as strict and unyielding, but her fingers are shaking, and Steve knows what a desperate hope looks like.

Wanting to hope but knowing that there’s still the possibility of having every expectation completely shattered to the point where there’s nothing left of you.

“You say,” she demands tightly, “you say that this has a chance of getting everyone back?”

Tony looks back at her seriously and nods.

“A chance.”

There’s no protest at all as the UN nod immediately. And really, that’s all they can ask for. A slight window of time between which they’ll use to grasp and claw back their happiness and lives, because people are selfish, and people won’t stop wanting and Steve wouldn’t change it for the damn universe. Thanos has no idea what’s coming for him.

So, they record the message and Tony blasts it through the whole world, while Rocket wires it up to echo throughout the universe.

“So, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, also known as the Avengers, are gearing up to bring the fight to Thanos and deck the shit out of that giant purple thumb. We’re going to get our universe back and we’re sending out this call to see if there’s any other crazy motherfuckers out there, willing to join us. Anybody else have a bone to pick with purple baldie? Call Tony Stark, self-proclaimed Earth’s Mightiest Defender and—,”

“Thor! Who is God of Thunder and King of Asgard, which isn’t destroyed, but shouldn’t that make me Earth’s Mightiest—,”

“Come on, Point Break. You got the muscles, give me this one—,”

“I can kill you both and send the message myself.” That’s Nebula.

Silence for a bit, then, Thor. “Bit intense, isn’t she? Thanos’ daughter, everyone! The best hero out there! Come join us kill her dad!”

“He’s not my dad!”

“Come join us kill her kidnapper and abuser!”

“Are we a fucking youth club? You idiots are so—,”

Rocket’s voice breaks off the message and Steve laughs and laughs.

Chapter Text

Unravelling the protection spells takes longer than Loki had challenged.

Of course, he doesn’t say a damn thing at all, sensing the wry, smug smirk that takes over Hela’s lips at the green magic from his fingers even without looking up. Loki is stubborn and ruthlessly competitive, refusing to lift a finger to wipe away the thick sheen of sweat against his forehead. He can feel Thor’s worried gaze on him and something in his chest loosens a little at that, at the knowledge that his brother will always have his back even if the rest of the world does not.

He knows enough now, after all these years, to be grateful for such a thing.

Losing his brother was not an experience Loki would like to repeat, but seeing what Thor had been through in their absence? What it had done to him?

Even watching from the safe space of Asgard hadn’t shown him just how bad things had gotten for his brother. Loki can only be grateful to those idiot Midgardians for helping him pull through, out of the darkness and into the light. Green shifts and pervades around them, both Loki and Hela’s magic twining together as Loki takes out a strand of protection just before Hela lets out a sharp yelp of warning.

And then a clear shield is flickering in front of him suddenly, absorbing the blast of pure death that would have eaten him whole. It’s massive, brimming with magic and flares up in front of him, protectively. It looks devastatingly familiar and Loki thinks of freaking out about almost dying but he can only focus on the magic before him. Instead, his gaze flickers and suddenly, he turns to stare at the shield.

“I remember that,” Loki says suddenly, his breaths coming out fraught.

Hela is looking him over rather frantically, her brows pulled into an agitated look of concern as Thor moves forward, having noticed the commotion. He and his friends are preparing for the battle, but Thor and the archer are still watching over him, though the archer is setting up the sofa. Clearly, not for them, but Loki thinks it’s for the Avengers. He knows better than to think he’d ever have a place at that table, but something in him still yearns even so.

“Loki?” Thor is calling for him, looking concerned.

His sister’s magic flows from her fingers and Loki remembers that, too, but instead of Iceland and falling through a rippling timestream, he remembers staring up into a room with a domed ceiling, sparkling with the night sky and constellations gleaming in gold above him, close enough to touch. The memory startles him and he winces back, but Hela takes it wrong and she moves forward, looking alarmed.

“Are you alright?” Hela is asking him, checking. “You must tell me, if even the slightest—,”

“I’m fine,” Loki says, batting away her concerns, as he blinks towards the shield. It’s flashing lightly, sparking something of a memory before him. It’s in a soft green circle, protruding slightly and for a minute, Loki thinks of hands grabbing up at spluttering bubbles, a head full of dark hair curling over the crib and laughing, magic flowing in the air between them. He points at the shield. “I—I remember that.”

Hela turns her gaze carelessly, looking confused before realisation filters through.

“Oh, that old thing?” she says. Something passes through her face before she actually speaks to him, her voice gentler than usual, devoid of her usual barking amusement. “I used to show it to you when you were a child and couldn’t sleep. You loved all the lights. Bubbles, mostly. Thor was worse—I used to have to make all these circles singing lullabies for him.” She gives a small, deprecating smile. “Mother, of course, helped with the singing part. I can’t sing for anything.”

“You—,” he begins, faltering slightly, still unable to compute what she’s telling him. “You showed me lights.”

It’s so strange and jarring to see the woman who cackled as she took out Thor’s eye and burned his home to the ground conflating suddenly with the curious little girl who peered over his crib. The little girl with dark hair and bright eyes, wondering what was making him cry so much and drawing clumsy bubbles from her cupped hands, with the small amount of magic she’d learned, to make him laugh.

“Yeah, you screamed a lot as a kid,” Hela says, shrugging before she turns away, to focus on the death stone again. “Guess you missed your real home.”

He stills at that.

There’s a carelessness in her voice that makes it sound as though Loki should know this. But he doesn’t. That’s the point, right? It looks like, suddenly, he’s lost a lot more of his life than he actually knows, and he stares at Hela in surprise. Finding out about her had been startling, but he never thought that Odin had ever let them near each other. He can’t remember her, but he can remember dark hair and eyes that gleamed like stars and a girl’s shadow flickering from the long, hallowed halls of Asgard as she laughed and pulled them forwards until Odin stole her away.

He used to tell them all about his conquests and Hela had disappeared from the stories until she was nothing. Until they’d forgotten her, too.

“You knew?” Loki asks, something in his voice that makes her turn her head back to him.

She’d known about Laufey? Loki isn’t sure what to feel about that, something strange and conflicting tearing within him. Hela’s gaze turns over him before she speaks.

“Only a little after I’d grown out of making bubbles,” she says, a quirk at the edge of her mouth. She looks at him, something in her gaze as she speaks again, voice turning slightly softer. “I argued against it, you know. They stole you away, baby brother, and had the audacity to act as though they were the ones doing you a favour.”

He doesn’t quite know if he can breathe just yet, shock falling over him as he stares back at her. The shield is still flickering lightly between them, almost as though she means to protect herself from him. Or protect him from her, Loki amends quietly, looking at the way Hela looks back at him, at the way her fingers shake, at the way she holds herself back from them both as though she doesn’t quite trust herself yet, something torn in her features, expression shuttering a little.

“I loved them,” Loki confesses quietly, almost shamefully, the words falling out of his mouth before he can stop them. He’s never said this before, but the way Hela looks at him makes him feel as though he might break down. His breaths are fraught when he continues, unable to stop himself. “All I ever wanted was to have them see me the way they saw Thor. But they looked at me, at—at my magic and saw—,”

Me,” Hela says softly, giving a small, apologetic smile. “I, uh, didn’t leave such a great impression, did I? It’s the overwhelming pressure on big sisters, I think. I kind of… snapped.” Her voice tinges with her usual biting humour, in that way she does when she doesn’t take things seriously. But when she looks over at Thor, something flitters briefly over her expression. It almost looks like affection, Loki thinks, startled. “I almost took you two with me, before I realised what Odin was going to do to me. I didn’t—didn’t want to leave you with Odin.”

That surprises him and Loki turns his head sharply to stare at her, shocked. Hela almost stole them away?

“Why would you want to do that?”

Why didn’t you do it?

That’s the real question he wants to know the answer to.

Hela’s gaze turns softer, faraway as she shrugs.

“I’m not… the best person,” she says without looking at him and Loki snorts at her. She smirks at him before continuing to explain, face softening. “Had a lot of time to think after what I did to you two. After Ragnarok. Back in my kingdom, I was in a place that I didn’t realise had always been home.” She looks back at him, as though making sure he’s listening, earnest as she continues. “Spending all that time locked away and alone, because of Odin does something to a girl. Messed up my head and made me so… toxic. Envious, really. The two of you were living the life I used to want so badly. Had Father and Mother’s love, had the kingdom, had everything.” She looks up to Loki, before he can protest. “I know the truth of it, little brother. I know what you went through, now. I guess I saw what I wanted to see. But people who look like us and all those other Midgardians back there never had anything at all.”

It’s startling and annoying to think that he has anything in common with the Midgardians, but Loki can’t find his voice just yet. Unfortunately, he can kind of get it. Didn’t he attack Jotun to impress Odin? The thought of it makes him cringe with shame and embarrassment. But Hela hurt them. Their people. Their world. Thor. He’s not forgetting that.

“Do you still want it?” he demands to know, stiffening slightly. They’re not dumb enough to understand what they’re talking about, but he clarifies to avoid any possibility of Hela making some shit joke all over again. With the quiet implication, Loki lets her know that where his alignments lie and it’s with Thor. “Asgard?”

Hela looks back at him, matching his seriousness immediately.

“No,” she says honestly, before a grin splits her mouth. “I have a kingdom of my own to take care of. It’s hard enough trying to wrangle Fenrir back from eating everyone at the gate. Chandra’s great at her job, but she keeps asking for a raise, and really, the only reason I’m here is so I don’t have to deal with overpopulation. Fucking Thanos.”

“That’s good,” he says, his lips twitching. “We would have fought you if you still wanted to take it.”

“I know,” she says simply. “I saw the magic you’ve been weaving around Asgard. Strong stuff. Defensive.” It’s praise, Loki realises, and he doesn’t know whether to let it warm him. It’s nice, though, because it’s not very often that people praise his magic. Hela is hesitant when she continues, “If you need—,”

“No,” Loki says immediately, but Hela isn’t offended, only nodding. “We don’t need anything from you. We can protect Asgard by ourselves.”

Hela’s gaze shutters a little as she nods.

“Offer’s always open, though,” she says, before her eyes turn to Thor. “As is dinner. Always. Forever. You and Thor are welcome to join.”

“We’ve got to live through this first,” he says, as something tightens in his throat and Loki tears his gaze away from her. He turns his eyes on the death stone. “If Thanos unleashes this stone on us all, there’ll be nothing left of this universe. Let alone dinner.”

“Then I guess we’d better be careful.”

.

.

Tony palms the frame of Peter in his shaking hands protectively.

It’s so late in the night that everyone is supposed to be sleeping, but instead he’s up on the rooftop, collapsed onto the sofa they’d piled onto on those nights. Tony had reassured Rhodey that he’d go to bed, too, after helping his friend sleep. Even Hela and Loki are sleeping, having collapsed after exerting themselves with their efforts with the death stone and nobody had had the heart to demand them to continue. Instead, they had all helped Thor take the gods downstairs and lock them into the prison that had held Thanos. They’re not idiots.

He’s not sure where the others are, but he kind of misses them.

The night lingers on as Tony looks out onto the city he once took to calling his own, he vowed to protect, he’s flown recklessly and so happily through. The city Peter swung through, he thinks, something clenching his heart tight. Peter will be swinging through them again, soon enough.

But maybe not too soon after he comes back. Tony doesn’t know if his heart can really take that.

Tony looks towards the trucks and cars carrying Stark Industries deliveries. He already has enough supplies and transport set up for when people come back. They don’t really have an idea of how they will come back to them and Tony is half terrified that Peter and the other Guardians may just end up on Titan, but Loki’s told them not to underestimate the power of the death stone.

And it’s a weird enough day when everyone’s listening to Loki, of all people.

Even so, Tony and Rocket have the ship standing nearby, just in case. Tony has back up plans of his back up plans, has people standing by, is watching the armies settle in. Rocket’s message has started getting replies and he’s gone to sleep in his ship, after establishing proper coordinates for the aliens to land. Things are happening now, after so long of just tossing ideas in his workshop and having multiple panic attacks about New York. It’s terrifying, but in a way, Tony is also kind of glad.

Either they will win, or they will lose.

At the very least, there will be an end.

Tony tilts his head back to stare up at the blank night sky, deep violet and rich blue cast against the gleam of the grey wisps of clouds. Hela swears Thanos is still rampaging through her kingdom, so they still have this night to themselves, until he breaks through the skies and tries to kill them all again. He can’t quite believe that they’re relying on Hela and Loki, but this is the life they lead now.

“World’s bigger than you thought, huh?” Natasha says softly, walking up the stairs.

She’s followed by Clint and Bruce, all of whom send Tony a questioning look to which he nods minutely and relievedly, they pile beside him. Slowly, sweetly, Tony starts to feel less alone. Steve is talking quietly with Thor as they come to the rooftop again. The last stand, Tony thinks suddenly, and he wouldn’t want to face this battle without them beside him. He knows it to be true as bone and breathes out quietly, clutching the frame tight.

“Is that arrogance or stupidity, do you think?” Tony asks. “That we thought we were the only ones out here.”

Thor grins. “Both. Midgard is quite backwards, but I rather like it that way, I must admit,” he tells them, something fond and affectionate in the light of his eyes.

“How’s Loki and Hela?” Steve asks as they grin back.

“Sleeping like rocks,” Thor says, his hands clammy as he sits beside them and all of them look at each other. Clint’s looking at Thor, something exchanging their expressions. “They… don’t seem to have any ulterior motives, though I wouldn’t expect them to stay for the battle.”

“I would,” Steve says lowly. They look at him quizzically, clearly confused, before Steve opts to explain to them. “Loki… he looks like how Bucky looks.”

He doesn’t meet Tony’s gaze, but Tony doesn’t feel the pain that comes along with Bucky anymore. Time really is the best healer, he guesses, but perhaps it’s also helped by the fact that he kind of understands Steve’s motives, too. If Peter was in Bucky’s position, there’s no telling what Tony would do for him. Hell, Peter has been snapped away by Thanos and here Tony is raising an army for him.

It’s then that Tony realises something else. It’s the first time Steve has spoken of Bucky since everything and Tony realises faintly that Steve stopped talking about his best friend for him. Tony looks towards Steve and gives him a small nod, watching the relief course through Steve’s face.

Is this salvation, surrounded by people who understand and see him just like he’s never wanted, but always needed? Is this what acceptance finally feels like? Has it happened?

Tony lets out a breath and leans back, listening to the conversation.

“What do you mean?” Bruce is asking, confused.

“Bucky’s my brother,” Steve explains quietly, his voice earnest as he talks to them. There’s something soft and vulnerable in the way he speaks; he’s opening himself up to them, willingly, openly, trusting they wouldn’t hurt him for it. “He’s always looked out for me, always cared. Understood me even when I couldn’t understand myself. I’m a hard headcase, but Bucky was always there.” Steve looks at Thor with a small smile. “I see that in Loki, too. He loves you, Thor. That’s why he’s here.”

Thor is looking honestly startled, as though he never thought to consider that, and Tony has to blink at that. Everyone can see why Loki’s here, but Thor himself couldn’t? God, Odin’s a worse fucker than Howard, he has to think. He wonders idly if there’s a grave they can piss on for Odin, too. There’s the sound of clinking bottles and Natasha is bringing out beer, to which Clint crows happily and Steve smiles indulgently. Tony doesn’t let go of the frame, but he takes his bottle, clinking it against everyone else’s and the silence is soft and quiet and comfortable as they all drink.

“I miss them,” Steve says quietly. “Bucky and Sam and—God, I miss them.”

Natasha reaches for his hand and squeezes tightly. Clint’s voice is low.

“Lila wanted to use my bow and arrow. Cooper said he thought he’d be better. I thought they were going to start attacking each other over the damn dinner table. It would have been worse than Budapest.” He chuckles bitterly, his voice keening into something watery and tearful. “Fatherhood’s a fucking adventure in itself.”

Tony pulls a face and drinks some more. Thor lets out a heavy sigh.

“I feel like everything has been a dream,” he confesses softly, his eyes bright with tears. “I was so alone and lost and now everything is back. Asgard and Loki and everyone. It doesn’t feel real at all.”

Tony can sort of get that.

The past few months of heavy grief and darkness that he’s been drenched in and now the appearance of the death stone and the oncoming fight is like a beacon of light and hope that he’s not sure whether or not to take. Of course, he will. For Peter, he’d do anything. But there’s the horrible possibility that he’ll wake up the next morning and the universe will still be cracked apart. Or he won’t wake up at all. Tony wouldn’t mind not waking up if Peter isn’t there. He drinks some more, instead of saying this, though.

“It is, though,” Bruce says fiercely, firmly. “We’re getting everyone back. Everyone.”

“I never knew them all,” Natasha tells them quietly. “But if things go south tomorrow, I’m going to miss you all. More than anything.”

Tony stays quiet as he picks up the frame and taps at it. “That’s Peter,” he says, stilted. Everyone is quiet and soft. “He’s—he’s the best of all of us.”

“We’re going to do it for him. We have to do this together,” Natasha tells them. “We worked well once before. We can do it again.”

“Can we?” Bruce asks. “Can we wipe out that much of our past together when we’ve caused each other so much pain? We’ve shown that we work better apart.”

“I have faith in us,” Steve says quietly. “I think we work well together. We just need to give us a chance again. And I think we’ve earned that.”

“It’s not a question of wiping away the past, either,” he says. Tony clears his throat. “It’s moving past it. I’m game if you are. For Peter.”

“Bucky, Sam, Wanda.”

“Laura, Lila, Nate, Cooper.”

“Loki, Asgard.”

“Hulk.”

Natasha’s lips curve when they look at her, waiting quietly for her response.

“For us,” she says gently, the surprise flitting across their faces as Tony blinks in surprise. She looks amused as she speaks to them, a small smile at her face, teasing and soft and comfortable. “You selfless idiots. Didn’t it occur to you a single moment that we were the good guys, for once? For once, we’re not against each other or fighting shadowy corporations and secrets. Thanos made it too easy. We’re the good guys now, and we deserve to fight for us, too. And because I think we deserve happiness, too.”

It’s quiet after she speaks, startled and soft and thoughtful as they stare at each other.

The truth is out there, laid bare between them in this soft night air. They’re not just fighting for the people they’ve lost anymore. They’re fighting for each other now, for themselves, too. It might sound selfish, but that’s humanity all over, that’s everyone all over, Tony thinks. And he thinks that Peter wouldn’t quite mind if he fought for the people by his side, too.

“To everyone we lost, everyone we’ll bring back, and everyone we’ll fight for.”

He reaches forward to clink his bottle to theirs and the sound echoes gently in the air around them, as they toast to all their loved ones first and then Natasha clinks it again, nudging her bottle softly against theirs again.

“To us.”

“To us.”

Chapter Text

She rummages through the rooms with a methodical, clinical edge to her movements.

Lady Hela’s palace is stunningly beautiful, all sharp dark edges and marbled pillars. Black curtains billow in the wind against the large balconies and filled with glassed tables and expensive vases that Gamora is so wound up about she has to restrain herself from completely shattering. Instead, she pushes aside the various articles and gifts Father has granted the good lady, careless for they mean nothing now, nothing at all since she has betrayed Father’s love and goodness for her.

Searching for the death stone would have been easier with the Black Order by her side, but they’re currently grovelling on their knees for Father. Ebony Maw, more than most, though Proxima Midnight’s screams echo and skitter around the halls at random intervals.

Gamora lifts a beautiful glass rose, larger than anything she’s ever seen and gleaming in rosy red, crafted from the gushing waterfalls of Mount Boreas in the far corners of the universe by Thanos himself. She knows the story, knows that he had to brave the worst of the weathered storms and battle with the Frost Giants to get there, had to forge the flower himself and almost burned his hands off with how cold it was, before presenting it to his lady with all the love he had.

“Careful,” one of Lady Hela’s workers say. “That one’s a pretty—,”

She promptly smashes it to the ground.

The motion drives a sharp gasp of pain through her and Gamora finds herself stumbling back weakly, clutching at the marble pillar to balance herself. This has been happening more and more often, of late, her …weakness. She doesn’t understand what is wrong with her and she had been terrified to tell Father, knowing that he did not tolerate any weakness. But the truth came out when she had collapsed heavily against his throne.

Gamora had confessed the headaches and the exhaustion, but instead of Father getting angry with her, he’d only pursed his lips, and something had skittered across his face. Father has scoured the universe to bring her the healthiest fruits, even apples of Idunn from his vaults that he shared with nobody. Once Father had brought her before Ebony Maw, but Gamora hadn’t known what the alien had told her father, because Father came out with a hardened look in his eye and only made Gamora eat more of the apple to regain her strength, before he never bothered again.

“Where is it?” Gamora turns around to demand, catching her breath, as the woman before her narrows her gaze in suspicion.

The woman only looks back at her.

“Where is what?” she says, almost playful.

“This will go a lot easier for you if you’d deliver the stone to us,” Gamora warns her fiercely, tamping down the frustration to appear sweet and kind. It comes easier to her than anything else, like slipping into an old mask, and Gamora swallows tightly, fumbling for control once more. She clears her throat to continue. “I will have my good Father spare you your lives, if you wish.”

“We live and deal with death here, darling,” the woman tells her lazily, almost careless in her curved smile. “What fear do we have left?” She takes a step further to look at Gamora, though, her lips twitching and her gaze narrowing in thoughtfulness. “I remember you. He beat you, took you apart like a toy. You’re Nebula—no, that one doesn’t have hair. You must be Gamora, then. I hear he took you apart, too.”

“How dare you?” Gamora snarls out fiercely, bringing her blade up to the lady’s throat. Her fingers shake but she holds herself steady. “How dare you stand there so arrogantly and defile my father’s name like this? I am not—,”

But the lady only lifts a hand and bats aside Gamora’s blade carelessly. To Gamora’s horror, the sword clatters out of her fingers and she finds herself struggling to stand up. Her head is aching, and her body feels horribly weak, as though there is no more strength in her left. The woman reaches for her but Gamora stumbles out of her grasp desperately, something stuck in her throat. It tastes like confusion and a mess, but Gamora is still trying to breathe properly.

“Are you alright?” the woman asks her softly.

“What—what have you done to me?” she gasps out hotly, her eyes wild.

“I didn’t do anything,” the woman tells her, honesty ringing clear through her voice. “This is all Thanos. Oh, what has he done to you, poor soul?”

She’s not quite sure she likes the sympathetic tone in the woman’s voice, the way it warms and keens in slight distress for her, but some part of her curls and aches for something like it. Some small part of her, the part that screamed when she saw Nebula and Rocket, it wants to curl within someone’s arms and stay there forever. Gamora doesn’t know where that came from. That strange little voice within her that she stifles and strangles easily until it creeps up on her in her weakest moments. Like this.

“Who?” Gamora bites out angrily. She doesn’t like not knowing things and as she almost collapses to the ground helplessly, her breaths come out in a hoarse gasp, choked up and collapsing as her voice cracks in distress. “What is wrong with me? What have you done?”

The woman takes a step forward, but a shadow is suddenly taking over the room and Gamora lets out a sigh of relief and a crack of hoarse pain all at the same time, when she sees Thanos darkening the threshold. Thanos’ gaze rakes over the large chamber, skittering briefly over the shattered glass petals on the ground with something casting over his face before he focuses on her properly, surging forwards in concern.

For a brief moment, she flinches back from him without thinking, but Father does not take offence, letting her lean heavily on his large arm as she has always done.

“Gamora,” Father murmurs softly.

“Father, I don’t—,”

“Fenrir will tear you apart limb from limb, should you and your Black Order not leave right now,” the woman tells him commandingly, seemingly unafraid of Father. When Thanos does not answer, she continues, her gaze raking briefly over Gamora, “You made a terrible mistake, Lord Thanos. I thought you were smart, but I can smell Vormir all over her. It’s a dangerous game you’re playing, you know.”

What was the woman talking about? What game?

The sound of Vormir felt familiar, but in a faint, distant way, as though it was the wisps of a dream she’d once had. It makes her think of red and leather boots dragged against sand and a woman screaming louder than anything. For a moment, she stills, but the memory or whatever it was fades away, slipping away like silk. Gamora furrows her brows in confusion, her heart beating fast in her chest, but Thanos tenses beside her.

“Hold your tongue—,”

“A soul for a soul, right?” the woman questions. “Your time is running out fast, Lord Thanos.” She points at Gamora. “She is wasting away ever second you tarry. She is weak enough already—,”

“Enough!” Thanos bellows and the woman falls silent. “Gamora. It seems that Lady Hela has misplaced the stone and I feel I know exactly where it lies. Come.”

He yanks her up with a painful pull, but Gamora knows better than to complain, though her entire body aches as Thanos strides out of the chambers, glass gleaming hotly around them. Father doesn’t often speak but she’s known him long enough to understand exactly what he’s feeling and thinking. His entire body right now is completely tense, wound up like a spring. Father is shaken, Gamora realises, startled, and for a moment, she feels completely out of her own body, as though she does not belong in it.

She feels displaced, faint and distant.

As though she does not exist.

“Father,” Gamora whispers, lifting her head in alarm as tears prick her eyes. Thanos softens, as he always does for her, and slows his pace for her benefit. “Father, I think something is wrong with me.”

Nothing is wrong with you,” Thanos thunders furiously, his voice booming and powerful in its defensive denial, and she flinches now properly, tensing for the blow, but it never comes. He forces himself to calm down properly, voice coming out forced and taut as he repeats his words fiercely. “Nothing. Nothing is wrong with you, Gamora. You are fine.”

A soul for a soul, she thinks and something within her feels terribly empty for a terrifying moment. As though she is a hollowed-out cage, as though there is supposed to be something in her. But she knows better than to protest against her father’s words, especially when he’s in the mood he’s in now. Even so, Gamora is terrified and she doesn’t know if she’ll find comfort in Father.

But Father is all she has.

“The way they look at me, Father,” she whispers, remembering Nebula’s face as her heart stutters, “like I am a stranger. Like I am not real. Father, I don’t—I feel—,” Her breath hitches slightly, shuttering a little, but she forces herself to continue, her distress climbing. “Nebula and the—the animal. Rocket. They—they—,”

“Tried to hurt you,” Thanos says, his voice ringing with notes of finality, in that way it does when Gamora knows that a conversation is closed.

They knew me, she thinks instead, so secretly she thinks that Thanos may reach in to unspool her brain and pull out her thoughts and use them against her. When he doesn’t stop, Gamora thinks it again, tensing and worried and distressed. They saw me.

I wish I knew what they saw.

I wish I saw me, too.

.

.

When dawn falls over them, the sunlight trickles over their wan faces.

They haven’t really slept at all, just murmuring and taking in each other’s company on the rooftop quietly. Haven’t been able to sleep. Haven’t wanted to, more like.

Natasha drinks them all in desperately, more terrified than she has been in the past years. Even the Red Room had not scared her as it does now, because now she has everything to lose all over again. Though Ivan and Madame and everyone throughout her life had tried to knock the heart out of her, they had never succeeded for it beats fiercely between them all, clenched in her fist.

Peter sits in the middle of them all, lingering softly as a gentle reminder, with everyone else they love who was taken away from them, snatched away so cruelly before their time. Natasha’s gaze drops to his grinning, shining face yet again, the pull in her chest aching. It’s not at all the first time she’s seen innocence like that or happiness, but it’s the first time she understands how he feels.

The restless yet airy sensation in her chest, finally loosening, finally relaxing, the heavy weight of everything collapsing onto her shoulders constantly throughout the years, all of it seems to just ebb away slowly. As though the people around her, Steve and Tony and Bruce and Thor and Clint and all the shadows, the ashes of the ones who remain quietly in the middle, have picked up the pieces of her soul and heart that Ivan and everything she has ever been through shattered and stole and snatched away, and given it back to her.

Is this love?

Love is for children, she remembers herself once saying. Believing it, too.

But if love is for children, she wants to be a child too.

“Nat?” Tony’s voice is a soft murmur. He can hold his liquor well, but he hasn’t been drinking as much. Natasha thinks it might be because of Peter. Isn’t it all because of Peter? “Are you alright?”

She nods quietly. “Just thinking.”

“About?”

“Everything,” she says and something in Tony’s face shutters with understanding. “Everything we’ve been through brought us to where we are now. I don’t know if I should be grateful for it.”

Tony shakes his head. “You deserve goodness, Nat,” he tells her quietly. “You’re worthy, even without Mjolnir. And if you didn’t have the Red Room, if you didn’t go through anything so terrible as that at all, I think I’d still like you even so.”

Her smile slowly blooms across her face and her eyes are bright with tears. “Peter’s a lucky kid.”

“No, he's not—,”

“We’re all very lucky,” Thor says softly, and Clint gives a small smile. “I don’t know what we would have done without you, Tony.”

“Lived. You would have lived,” Tony says, the guilt edging over his face as his voice keens slightly in distress. “Strange—the wizard. He gave up the stone. For me. The fucker—Thanos was going to kill me and Strange swore he’d give me up, should the choice—,”

“I’m glad he didn’t,” Natasha says suddenly, her heart beating faster. She has to thank Strange for that, when he comes back. She’s not losing anymore. Tony’s face shutters in surprise. “I’m …grateful, that he did that for you, Tony.”

“So am I,” Bruce confesses quietly. “I wouldn’t want to be in a world without any of you by my side.”

Tony’s eyes widen, but he shakes his head. “It’s because of me. I didn’t die, so half of the universe did. So—Peter—,”

“No,” Steve says fiercely. “It’s never because of you. It’s not our faults, at all. The only one to blame for the whole universe is Thanos. And we’ll make sure he gets his due.”

And then, just as the silence begins to fall over them all, the skies grow darker.

When Natasha looks up, she thinks it’s just clouds, but then Rocket clatters up towards the stairs, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, followed closely by Nebula, who is alert. Natasha has to fight to keep herself still, though she tenses even so. Steve is a little less controlled and immediately jumps to his feet, moving to protect everyone as Thor’s fingers spark with magic and blue lightning.

“They’re here,” Rocket says. “I didn’t think anyone—would come, but—they’re here. They listened.”

“What?” Clint is saying in confusion as they tilt their heads up to the skies.

“Rocket, is this safe?” Steve is calling out.

“Come on, Terrans!” Rocket is pulling at them. “You got your army!”

And as Natasha lets out a bark of laughter, joined by Tony’s delighted laugh, the skies open up and fill with spaceships she’s never seen before. They’re not clouds at all, but dark circled spaceships, the world practically alive with thrumming ships, filled with aliens who are vengeful and ready to fight for each other. Her jaw drops in breathless delight, as Rocket tugs them downstairs to assemble everyone together, clattering down together, to see hundreds of thousands of aliens appearing before them.

All of these people, different shapes, different sizes, different species.

All collected in their united desire to punch Thanos in the face.

Then Loki is barrelling outside to see them, his face looking completely wrung out, Hela looking exhausted beside him, but they’re looking smug and satisfied.

“We did it,” he says. “The death stone can fit in the machine. We can get everyone back.”

Chapter Text

Tony’s fingers are shaking.

They’re all surrounded on the rooftop, Rhodey and the others having gone to talk to the aliens and the army that’s settling. Betty Ross was wary about telling everyone the truth of what they’d been doing, about confessing that it wasn’t just vengeance they were seeking but their whole universes back, but Steve had shaken his head and asked that the truth be told. Tony hasn’t said a word, but Natasha reaches for his hands and squeezes them tight, trembling.

They’re standing together around the machine, Bruce on his knees beside it, tinkering, with Shuri wrapped up tight in Okoye’s arms. Tony can’t really breathe right now, his throat closing up and choked a little, knowing that it’s a beautiful privilege to be up here right now and he’s torn apart. Steve is crying already, and Thor is embracing him tight, while Clint just stares at the machine, something torn and wretched and desperate written all over his features. He just keeps staring and won’t look away.

The machine is large and bulky and shoddily made, created on days of coffee and no sleep and breathless prayers.

But the death stone gleams above it as Hela and Loki’s magic wraps around it protectively. And to their credit, neither Hela nor Loki make any jokes nor any of their usual quips.

Tony wants to think that it might be because of the haunted grief hanging all over their faces. But it’s likely because Hela had opened her mouth, her eyes bright and vivid and humorous, and Natasha had drawn out her blade and threatened her to within an inch of her life. Loki had only looked towards his brother briefly before nodding towards them.

As the death stone sinks inside, Tony prays feverishly to everything.

He breathes his last bit of effort. Wishes, wishes, wishes. Please, he breathes. Please, bring him back to me. Give me back my kid.

The infinity stone gleam and whisper, the machine whirring up around them as a bright blinding light echo around them. Tony has to squint his eyes shut against the light, though he wants nothing more than to look for Peter. He is tense all over, fingers shaking. Everyone is praying hard, barely breathing, barely seeing anything.

For a moment, nobody breathes.

“Did—did it work?” Bruce is murmuring nervously, his gaze lifting towards them warily.

It didn’t work.

Nobody is here, nothing has come back.

All around them is devastating quiet and they’re staring around themselves desperately to no avail. The picture frame falls from his fingers, cracking apart on the ground and Tony collapses to his knees heavily, hacking out hoarse sobs, feeling as though his heart is clawing its way out of him, as Steve howls and Clint screams, Shuri sobbing helplessly, collected in their shared grief. Natasha is doing her best to keep them standing, but she drops to her knees beside them and Tony can’t breathe, he can’t see anything—

It didn’t work, it didn’t work, everything is lost, everyone is gone

Peter is dead, Peter is gone, there is no more—

And then Natasha’s sharp, hitched breath gets their attention.

“Oh my God,” she breathes, and Tony’s head snaps up.

Tony Stark cries and for once, for one shining, blinding moment, the universe listens.

The death stone gleams in the air and suddenly ash is falling through the air and Shuri screams as she tears herself out of Okoye’s arms and bowls over T’Challa and her mother, hugging them fiercely. Orange circles glow around them all as Strange steps out of them and one by one, the Guardians are coming back slowly, as Rocket lunges for them. Everyone looks disoriented and startled, blinking uncertainly, but Tony is filled with desperation that doesn’t fade at all. He stares around for himself, helplessly, his heart aching, almost in tears.

“Mr Stark?”

And suddenly, Peter is there, his voice fragile and breaking.

Tony suddenly can’t breathe. He breaks a half-sob, before stumbling forwards and he practically lunges for him, wrapping the kid up in his arms as he sobs and Peter is shaking, but Tony can’t let go. He’s back, he’s here, he’s right here. His knees go weak and he grabs desperately at the kid, wrapping his arms around him, and he could hold him for a thousand years and never let go.

Peter,” Tony’s voice cracks, “oh God, you’re real, you’re here—,”

“I thought you didn’t like hugging—,”

“Fuck that,” Tony mumbles, hugging him tighter than ever. He presses his lips to Peter’s forehead desperately, holds his face lovingly and chokes up, sobbing gratefully. “You’re here, you’re really—,”

He can hear the faint echoes of cries around him and Strange is talking to Clint, as his phone rings and Tony can hear Clint sobbing for Laura as his wife speaks to him on the phone. Beside him, Steve is crying out. “Bucky,” he says, his sob escaping his mouth and he practically lunges for his friend desperately.

Bucky looks confused but he hugs Steve back. “Steve?”

“It’s been so long.” Steve’s voice cracks in pain.

“On your left,” Sam says, grinning all over his face before looking vaguely startled when Steve almost bowls him over, too. “Hey, Nat, love the hair.”

Everything’s going to be okay now, he realises, breathing out properly. Natasha is smoothing down Wanda’s hair, sobbing, and embracing Sam tightly as Rocket collapses to his knees, crying helplessly when Groot reaches for him. All around him, Tony can see them embracing their loved ones tightly, sobbing hoarsely and cracked voices, as the snapped ones look confusedly around them, grief and wonder in the air. Quill and Mantis and Drax are enveloped tightly by Rocket’s arms and Groot who winds himself tight around them before pulling Nebula in as well.

Tony can’t breathe, because they will never understand what it feels like, but he would kill before he ever let Peter know what this pain feels like.

“Mr Stark,” Peter says quietly, staring up at him. “You’re crying.”

He reaches a hand to touch Tony’s cheek and Tony leans into the touch, barely daring to breathe, staring at Peter before him. He almost ends up crumpling to his knees, breathlessly whispering his gratefulness to the stars. He’s terrified that Peter will fade away to ashes before him, so he doesn’t dare to blink. Peter just looks back up at him, looking vaguely confused as if the past few months haven’t happened, as if he doesn’t quite understand what is happening but all he knows is that Mr Stark is here so that means he is safe.

And slowly, painfully, the pieces of his heart that Peter had taken with him when he left are given back to him.

“Are you alright?” Tony scrambles to know. “Are you hurt? Is—,”

“It hurt,” Peter confesses, shaking his head, “but I’m okay now. Are you—,”

“Stark.” Strange’s voice echoes from beside him as Tony embraces Peter tightly again, his breaths hitching hoarsely as his tears fall and Peter just hugs him back, slightly confused. “Tony.”

The usual anger that comes with remembering Strange doesn’t come.

He thought he’d be too angry to ever look at Stephen Strange ever again, that he’d attack the man, should he appear before him again. But as Peter tugs at his shirt meaningfully, and Tony finally, reluctantly, lifts his head again, his jaw taut and tense as he looks over at the wizard. Stephen is doing something with his hands, razor-fast, orange magic looping itself around his fingers repeatedly as he mutters something feverishly and Tony blinks in confusion. He steps in front of Peter but doesn’t let go, holding onto Peter’s arm to make sure he doesn’t fall apart into ash again.

“What are you—,”

Stephen jerks his head towards the ones around them.

“They were the first ones to go, so they’re the first ones to come back. The stone is bringing everyone back, but slowly. Healing the universe back up,” he tells him. Stephen turns a meaningful gaze over towards the armies that have settled on New York, something desperate and impatient in his eyes. “It’s always harder to put things back together than it is to break them apart. I’m doing my best to return people safely, but it’s difficult. We could still lose everything,” he says and Tony squeezes Peter’s fingers tight.

Tony begins to realise what Stephen is saying. “What did you see?”

But Stephen shakes his head. “You have a job to do,” he says, eyes bright. “Thanos is coming and he is coming now.” He hesitates. “I’m—I know you want more time here, with them, but—Thanos is coming.”

He stares back at the wizard, something hot and hateful brimming under his skin as Peter starts to ask what’s going on and if they have to get ready for another fight. Tony’s arms around the kid tighten at that, his heart hammering hard. Thanos is coming, the wizard says, and time is running out for them. Stephen is trying to be kind, he realises, and Tony wants to hate him desperately for that.

Instead, Tony takes a deep, ragged breath, his fingers shaking as he looks over to the others, something in his throat. Bruce and Natasha are welcoming all the others, while Steve is shaking, pulling back from Sam. He doesn’t want to do this to them, Tony thinks. But before he can even say anything, Steve looks up to meet Tony’s gaze.

Mutual understanding flits through their gazes and Steve gives him a small, comforting smile. Natasha is already getting to her feet, wiping her tears as she reaches for her gun, but it’s when Bucky reaches for one of her guns too, that they actually shift and stand to attention.

“No,” Tony and Steve say commandingly at the same time and there’s no mistaking the sheer panic in their tones.

Sam blinks, having already reached to adjust his own suit. “What?” he says, startled. “There’s a fight coming, isn’t there?”

“Yup,” Clint says. “Big one. Whopper.”

Bucky looks confused. “Then?”

“You’re just not going to have anything to do with it,” Natasha says decisively, as Bruce hands Clint’s bow and arrow to him.

Tony vaguely registers the way Bucky’s gaze follows their faces and twitches in something like confusion. Everyone stares at them getting their things, looking utterly bewildered, but Steve is already nodding as Thor clears his throat.

“Nat’s right,” Thor says.

Nat?” Sam repeats, startled. “Since when do you—,”

“You’ll all stay down,” Tony says firmly, unfastening his watch and wrapping it tight around Peter’s wrist. His fingers are shaking, but he calibrates the watch quickly, making sure that Peter will be protected. “Far away from the fight.”

“What?” Peter exclaims aloud in protest. “But, Mr Stark—,”

“You’ve got an aunt,” Tony tells him pointedly, as Peter looks aghast, ready to argue. “I’ve got to get you home.”

“But—this makes no sense,” Wanda says, her voice keening.

“Steve?” Sam turns to the man, blinking at them in confusion. “We’re trained, we’re good. This is what we’ve been planning for. Come on, man, what are you—,”

“I said, no,” Steve says, his voice coming out only a little in a tight snap. He looks towards them, breathing properly out when Natasha touches his shoulder comfortingly, and when he speaks again, his voice is softer though still firm. “Captain’s orders. You will all stay down from this fight.”

“Steve, I don’t understand,” Bucky is saying, looking at them. “I thought—,”

Tony sees the beseeching torment in Steve’s face, the way he looks as though he might be able to shatter apart. “We said, no,” he says tightly, claiming their attention as Steve takes advantage of the distraction to wipe at his eyes quickly. “We’re the Avengers. We had New York, we had Ultron, we have this. We’re going to fight and you’re going to stay down where it is safe.”

Peter is staring up at him earnestly, in that way that makes Tony go weak, that way that Tony would give him anything. Peter could ask for the universe on a platter and Tony would wrench the death stone out of that machine and give him everything he’d ever dreamed of. It’s a good thing the kid is so innocent he has no idea just how powerful a sway he has over him. Even if he did, Tony knows Peter would never abuse it. He hasn’t a cruel bone in his body.

“Mr Stark,” Peter says. “We could help.”

Tony would do anything for the kid.

But he won’t give him this.

“No, Peter,” Tony says, shaking his head. “My word is final.”

Drax clears his throat. “You should take the child to the fight. It’s a good exercise—,”

“Would you keep your aliens under control?” Clint is snapping, when they see Peter’s eyes light up.

“We don’t control anyone,” Quill begins, before he’s interrupted.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, big guy,” Rocket says flippantly, pointing at Drax. “You guys aren’t coming, either.”

General Okoye is nodding and pointing at Shuri and T’Challa. “Neither are the two of you.”

Quill’s face blooms with confusion. “What?”

King T’Challa’s voice keens. “What?”

Mantis frowns. “But we are Guardians,” she says. “We protect people. We kick the world and save ass.”

“I am the King of Wakanda. If I cannot protect my people—,”

“Your people will protect you,” General Okoye says firmly, her eyes bright. “Please.”

Tony sees Rocket’s eyes shining with tearful amusement, Okoye looking torn between wanting them all deeply and never letting them out of his sight again. He gets it. Peter literally died in front of him and he wants to keep him beside him, as long as possible, to make sure he’s still there, he’s still safe. He keeps reaching out to touch Peter’s shoulder at random intervals, to reassure himself that Peter won’t fade away again.

“But you said I was an Avenger!” Peter protests.

“And now I take it back!” Tony tells him, his voice rising. He hates the way Peter’s face drops in hurt and confusion, something tearing in his chest.

“It’s not safe,” Bruce begins to say.

“It’s never been safe!” Peter begins to clamour, as the others start to argue as well, staring up at the worn-looking Avengers. “This isn’t fair!”

Know what’s not fair, Peter? Living these months without you.

Tony isn’t strong enough to do it again and he knows, without a doubt, that he certainly won’t make it a second time. Natasha squeezes Tony’s hand in comfort and Clint nudges his shoulder, as they pass looks between each other. They know exactly what is and isn’t fair, he thinks. And he’s fucking damned if he’s ever going to let any of his family’s loved ones lose them again, as well, Tony thinks fiercely, looking at them all.

Clint’s voice is gruff, but firm. “We’ve got you all safe transport to get out of here,” he tells them. “You’ll take it.”

Steve nods to them all. “Suit up,” he says quietly, as Natasha smiles softly. When Bucky opens his mouth, Steve adds, “Not you.”

As they’re walking down the Tower to deliver them to the transport, Tony still grasps Peter’s hand reverently. They all do, watching their loved ones speak and breathe and laugh and argue, just staring at them with desperate love in their eyes. King T’Challa and Shuri have already left on their own jet to Wakanda. Peter chatters on and on about Titan and the ash and literally waking up in a whole other world, because he swore they were on another planet like a minute ago, and Mr Stark, he’s really sorry but he doesn’t think he has any extra clothes, and suddenly Tony is spluttering with raucous laughter that infects them all until Natasha’s cheeks are blown red and Bruce is grinning and Thor and Clint are chuckling and Steve just stares at Peter as though he is the most precious thing he’s ever seen.

Which he is.

Stephen Strange clears his throat when they’re finally done. “I—,” he begins hesitantly.

“Is something wrong?” Tony demands to know, already reaching for Peter as Steve and Natasha look towards the skies.

But Strange shakes his head quickly, looking at them with something in his eyes. “I—I guess I just—I wanted to say sorry.”

“For?”

“For what you’ve—been through.”

They stare at him, startled, and Stephen Strange, face red, ducks his head quickly and gets into the car first.

.

.

Stephen’s head is ringing up a storm.

Fuck, he misses Wong. If he’s calculated it right, then it should be around two months since Wong has seen him. For him, it’s been a couple of hours, Strange thinks, even as the car starts up, the transport he knows that Stark has arranged for them safely. Everyone is making token protests, as he’d seen, and Strange wants to complain, wants to sharply call out at them in his impatience, but something in Steve Rogers’ face when he looks at Sam and Bucky arguing, something in the way Clint Barton’s voice skitters and collapses in itself when he calls for his wife, something in the breathless relief collapsing against Thor and Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff makes him pause.

It’s the reverent look over Tony Stark’s face that actually stops the voice coming up his throat, though.

He has a heart, no matter what everyone else might say. He might not understand exactly what they’ve been through, but two months had to be a number on anyone, right?

“Peter,” Tony is murmuring as they say their goodbyes, his voice cracking a little as he continues, the lie smooth in his mouth. “I’m going to see you again, okay? For now, find your aunt, make sure you’re both okay. I have stuff set up for everyone.”

“But we can do something,” Sam says tightly, still earnestly trying to convince them. It won’t work, Stephen knows. “We’re Avengers, man! We’re supposed to avenge, right?”

“You don’t have anything to avenge,” Natasha says quietly, in a way that makes Sam’s voice die. “We do.”

The Avengers finally leave, moving back into the tower, though the clear reluctance and heartbreak is written all over their faces and Stephen watches as they take comfort in each other, leaning against each other quietly. Tony’s fingers leave Peter’s reluctantly and Steve reaches in to embrace Bucky again, breaths hitching. The car starts up and Stephen lets out a taut breath, his head pounding.

He lifts his face up to look outside of the window as Stark’s car takes them smoothly out of the city. The skies are a rich violet, the world filled with alien spaceships and orange circles of the wizards who are following his plan all over the world, hopefully. He drops his eyes back down to his watch, calculating carefully, head still a little fuzzy from the stone’s effects.

“I don’t understand,” Bucky is saying, as the car stops somewhere safely outside of the city. “Steve’s never looked like this before.”

Stephen gets out of the car first, taking a few deep breaths until he hears the others murmuring in agreement and rolls his eyes. “I am surrounded by idiots,” he mutters to himself, before raising his voice to address them. “Has anyone picked up a newspaper? Or checked the date, at all?” He snaps his fingers at Peter. “You. Generation Z. Don’t you have a phone?”

Peter blinks at him. “Not with the suit,” he says. “Where would I even put it?”

Sam is reaching for a newspaper stand near them and he grabs a newspaper. “Holy fuck,” he says. “It’s not July?”

There it is, Stephen thinks disparagingly, before he quietly chides himself for being insensitive again. At least he’s not saying this out loud.

“They’ve lost us for two months,” Wanda says in horror as Peter’s face shutters, startled, and Quill seizes a newspaper for himself, Mantis and Drax asking for a translation, as his features pale and turn slightly wan. “Two months.”

“I don’t—,” Peter’s looking breathless. “Two months?”

“Yes, two months they’ve been without you. Do you think they’re willing to lose you again?” Strange says harshly. Perhaps too harshly because everyone stares at him, looking startled, and he has to remind himself that they don’t know anything he does, that they don’t even know anything the unsnapped ones do. They looked down at themselves and saw their bodies turn to ash right before their very eyes and then in the blink of an eye, they were back, pulled together in the same second. He kind of hates them for their ignorance, their sweet, blessed ignorance. Stephen shakes his head. “Come along. We’re needed elsewhere. We have to let them go.”

“Go?” Wanda repeats. “We can—,”

“We have to let them to do their job, so we can do ours,” he says, making an effort not to roll his eyes and wish for Wong. They finally stand to attention properly, listening to him though they likely have no idea who he is or why they’re listening to him. “You know what happened. You saw it.” He looks at Peter. “You felt it. Thanos won for a bit, but they’ve got us back now, okay?” He watches the way their faces shift. “And this is when our jobs come in. We’re not Avengers. We’re heroes. We save people. And those people are coming back, slowly from what Thanos did to them—and they are coming back in pain, disoriented and confused.”

Sam’s face creases with realisation and understanding, before he frowns. “How are we supposed to be enough for the city, let alone the world, man?”

“There are more heroes than you know out there,” Stephen says, with his patented smirk until he feels slightly like himself again. The taste of ash is still in his mouth and it’s uncomfortable, but he puts that feeling away, trying to focus. “Trust me. We’re enough for this place. And we’ve got a job to do. I’ll be sending you to places to help out and making sure they go nowhere near this battlefield. If the Avengers have done their jobs right, then you should be okay.”

“What about them?” Bucky says stiffly. “You think I’d ever let Stevie go into war without me by his damn side—,”

“Our place is here! I don’t give a shit about your Steve!” Stephen snaps furiously, breathing hard. He’s finally fucking lost it with them, angry and uncomfortable and strung out like a violin. “I don’t care if you think you can help, if you want to be there by them like you’ve always fucking promised—if any of you try to make it on that battlefield, I will kill you myself!”

They’re staring at him, startled, and he’s beginning to fray apart, Stephen can feel it, the heavy weight of the pressure all on his shoulders. From the minute he lifted his head to look up at Tony Stark’s face on Titan, having seen what he’d seen, all those universes, all those possibilities, all resting on the slightest fringes of actions and possibilities that could never be messed with, no matter what, Stephen has felt that heavy burden and hated it so much.

He’s still breathing hard when Mantis takes a step forward. Stephen flinches harshly, as Quill reaches to pull her back, muttering something about it not being the right time. The young Peter looks up at him quietly, something understanding in his eyes.

“Dr Strange?” Peter says gently, too kindly that it makes Stephen want to collapse. “We’re not going to go anywhere.” His voice is soft. “Is there anything we can do? Are you—,”

“I’m fine,” he snaps so harshly that he knows Tony Stark would cut out his vocal cords for raising his voice to his kid like that. Stephen takes out another drag of a breath, his lungs stuttering, as he breathes out again. I am not ash; I am not ash. I am not dead; I am not dead. There is only one way. There is only one way. There is only one way and I have to pull my shit together. “I’m fine.”

“Why?” Sam asks. “Why do we have to stay here? You owe us that much, man. I don’t even know you and I’m supposed to follow you?”

“Because they have a job to do and they can’t become compromised right now. That’s why.,” Stephen breathes out hotly. He points at the tower, at the armies rumbling in the distance and stares at them, hard and fierce. “You think any one of them out there is fighting for themselves? You think they care enough about themselves to do that?” He watches the way their faces shutter. “Fuck no! They’re fighting for you! You think Avengers is just a fancy job title? Who exactly do you think they’re avenging?”

There’s a small silence that echoes between them and slowly, everyone starts to nod. Wanda clears her throat quietly.

“Alright,” she says, red whispering through her fingers. Visibly, she braces herself, tying up her hair practically and pushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear, to look up at him decisively. “Where do you want me?”

Sam stands tall as Peter fiddles with the watch Stark gave him, pulling the mask back on his face, and Stephen lets out a breath of relief. He starts making orange circles, magic brimming through the city, to send them to different places of the whole city to catch fallen people and save them from being crushed by houses or cars or even dropped in the river. Wanda is looking up at the skies, eyes wide as Stephen talks. He gives them instructions, reassuring them that the magic is safe, though there’s not really much need for that as Quill and Peter talk about how cool it looks.

Bucky pauses, turning to look at him. “You, uh, sure I should be here?” the Winter Soldier asks.

“What are you talking about?”

The man looks worried, a frown between his forehead. “Seventy years, I’ve been hurting people. ‘M better at killing people,” he says and the amount of self-loathing in his voice is staggering. Bucky lifts his head to look at Stephen in the eye, something torn and desperate wrought out over his features, searching for something. “You sure you can trust me to save them instead?”

Stephen leans back on the balls of his feet and fixes the man before him with a stern look. “That’s not my choice to make, now, is it?” He watches as the realisation flitters over Bucky’s face. “It’s not a question of whether I trust you. It’s if you trust you.”

“I don’t know—,”

“Yes, you do.”

Bucky looks at him carefully, before he gives a small crack of a grin. It’s a pale shadow of the booming laughter Stephen has seen in the Smithsonian, but it looks more real. “You do therapy, too, doc?”

“Fuck no, I can’t take that headache,” Stephen says, and Bucky laughs properly. “I’ve got enough of my own.” He raises his hands, orange pouring through his fingers and as they all shift, ready to step through, Stephen hesitates. “And.”

Everyone else pauses, turning their heads to look at him, and waiting patiently until Stephen stumbles a little, stuttering as his mind goes completely blank. Sam blinks. “What’s wrong?”

Stephen just looks at them, something in his throat. “Uh. Stay safe.”

Peter’s eyes almost bulge out of his skull in blinding panic, as the confusion ripples around them all and Bucky asks warily, “Doc, is there something that you’ve seen—,”

“No, nothing like that,” Stephen says quickly, already hating himself for speaking up. This is what he gets for fucking giving a shit, for even trying to give some stupid sop of comfort. He’ll end up messing with everything and ruining everything and it’s all going to be his damn fault. All that blood on his hands, it’s not Thanos, it’s his. “It’s fine, I shouldn’t have said anything—,”

“Hey, man,” Sam begins gently, his voice soothing, “take a breath.”

Stephen actually does as he says and rubs his forehead tiredly. “Just stay safe, is all I’m saying.” He gives a grimace, watching the panic turn to confusion as it skitters across their expression and hastens to explain. “They’ve, uh, missed you a lot. I wouldn’t want them to lose you again.”

There’s a small silence at that and the expression on their faces mirrors the looks they had when the Avengers had practically lunged for them, in their desperate relief. Stephen had only been able to see parts and fragments of what the world had been like, in their absence, but he knows that it had been bad. He’d seen Captain America cry. Bucky’s hand tightens around the newspaper, looking back down at the date again. But it’s Peter who speaks, his voice soft and earnest. 

“They won’t lose us, Dr Strange. We’ll be careful,” he says firmly, with a youthful ease that Stephen envies. “And besides, Mr Stark will save us. All the Avengers will. You’ll see. That’s what they do.”

His endless hope and optimism cuts Stephen to the core, leaves him feeling slightly sick to his stomach with the sheer pressure on his shoulders. On all of them. He can barely find the words in his throat to speak again, before he realises that Bucky is talking, his voice low and careful.

“Hey, kid,” he saying, and dear God, Peter is just a child, “you, uh, you gotta think about the possibility that Stark—Mr Stark might not be able to… I mean, they’ve all done some impossible things, but this is… this is something else, kid.”

Stephen kind of disagrees with that. He gets where Bucky is coming from. Nobody wants to crush the kid’s hopeful heart. But Stephen has more faith.

“They’ve brought a universal war to New York. They put out a beacon across the universe to call for anyone out there who might be wanting to fight. They’ve called for every Avenger they could find remaining and asked for their help to put Thanos down. And who do you think they did that all for? Themselves?” Stephen would scoff, but he simply stares at them all, his gaze shifting towards Peter Parker, his heart beating fast. Love makes people do crazy things, but of course, the Avengers had to go one step above that. He points at the skies. “Look how far they went, for love of you.”

Chapter Text

The death stone lies protected within Thor’s magic, laced with Hela’s spells and Loki’s protections, as they suit up together.

Tony demanded to take over their battle gear, because their previous designs had been pitiful, and they weren’t going into battle looking like shit. But the limited time meant he could only fix up so much, so they worked together. He helps Natasha secure her knives as she fits the shattered faceplate over his head again. Tony hasn’t had time to fix it up, so Bruce and Natasha both work on it as Tony helps outfit Natasha properly. Steve is picking up the shield, weighing it within his arms as Thor looks out towards the magic curling between his siblings’. Clint’s still on the phone, gripping it so tight it could break as he breathes hotly and speaks to his kids while Natasha gently moves to help him with his bow and arrow.

It’s strange to have them working together so well, suiting up together while they can hear Betty and Rhodey speaking to the leaders of the aliens and the United Nations countries at their doorstep. A battle’s in the air and Tony can practically taste it, but all he can think about is Peter’s bright eyes, the way he had felt so real in his arms. He doesn’t want to leave Peter or the others, even though he knows that they will be safe away. He doesn’t want to be here. He wants to be with Peter and everyone he loves, and he can’t fucking believe that it is real, that he actually got it.

For the first time in his life, something finally went right, and Tony would have everything go wrong if he got to keep this. They’ve got everything to lose all over again and he’s not going to risk this.

When they’ve finally suited up, they’re left staring at each other, smiles cracking open their tired, exhausted faces. Their smiles start small before they’re infectious, blooming across their cheeks and lighting up their faces with a tearful, desperate happiness. Tony’s eyes are bright with tears and he can barely breathe, because they did it. They did it.

“They’re back,” Thor says, in a slight hoarse, disbelieving note, and his face is filled with a brightness as Tony lets out a breathless laugh. “We did it. We got them back.”

Steve’s voice keens into a grateful chuckle as he nods, looking relieved and delighted all at once. “Did you see Bucky and Sam? Their faces—,”

“Peter is a sweetheart,” Natasha tells him quietly, and it’s like a dam has been broken and their voices overlap in their brimming excitement together, all of them giddy and delighted and just happy.

“Laura says that she’s fine—,”

“Half of the universe is actually coming back, slowly—,”

“Can you believe, we did it? We actually did it—,”

“Did you see Peter’s face? God—,”

“I swear, he sounds exactly like you—,”

“Sam said, ‘on your left’ and—,”

They break off to laugh giddily at each other, half drunk and delirious with exhilaration and delight as Tony blinks back his tears, grateful to the stars as his chest warms. They all look like excited schoolkids, he realises, chattering eagerly with each other and practically jumping around, before they finally relax to stare at each other in the soft calm. The air is sweet and they’re gripping each other tightly, eyes brighter than the stars above them, happy for themselves and each other.

“Are we all sure about this?” Steve finally asks, his voice wavering slightly. His eyes are on Clint and Thor, every one of whom have so much to lose in this battle though Tony feels his gaze on him as well. “You can leave. We all have a choice here.”

Clint is the one who speaks first. “I made my choice a long time ago when I signed up for New York. I think we all did, really,” he confesses. “And at least my kids will be able to see their dad being a hero.”

Natasha lets out a breath. “They already know you are,” she tells him gently.

They stare at each other then, all of them breathless and staring at each other with the tear tracks gleaming on their cheeks still. It’s harsh and raw and open, as Tony can see them, and they can see him in this very moment. He’s never felt so vulnerable before, but if he had to be so exposed like this, he’s happy that it could be with them. They’re going to last long enough in this battle to stop Thanos and save the universe, he thinks. It would be too much to keep hoping for anything more.

He’s glad that he got those few moments with Peter.

“It’s time to finish this,” Tony says, and he flips his faceplate down, the HUD screen flickering as Peter’s picture lingers in the corner.

When they go up to the rooftop, to assemble themselves properly, dawn breaks out over the world properly, sweeping the whole city in pastel colours of rosy pinks and soft reds, the sun beaming brilliantly. Tony’s breath hitches as he stares over it all, his eyes growing wide with shock. The whole city is writhing with hundreds of thousands of people, armies rippling out around them, all of whom make up the universe, made up of the world they know and the worlds out there they don’t know.

They’re all angry and grieving and passionate—and they’re here.

And Tony never thought, growing up, that he would ever be the one to head an army with his friends, never thought he could ever be anything like Iron Man. He thought that he would crawl away and die somewhere, forgotten and unremarkable and a footnote in Howard Stark’s biography. But as Tony stares out at everything before him, he’s a mixture of pure awe and sagging relief all at once.

“Our roster’s looking pretty full,” Clint says.

“They came,” Natasha breathes, as his chest warms. “We called for them, and they came. They’re actually here.”

People answered their call for help.

They sent out a call they thought was hopeless, asking for assistant, asking for help against Thanos, a powerful Titan who eradicated half of the universe, from this tiny backwater of a ridiculous planet, and people came. For a moment, Tony thinks of Howard Stark telling him he would never be worth anything at all, thinks of all those terrible nightmares and burning through New York with a nuclear bomb on his back, thinks of the Mandarin and Extremis bubbling under the surface. He thinks of Ultron levelling a city, thinks of everything he has ever gone through, thinking himself so alone in the universe.

He’s not.

He’s not alone at all.

He never was.

Tony looks out over the crowd and he has never felt so ready. Everyone has lost everything too, their Peters, their Sams, their Buckys, and Tony is stunned to see that they’re so willing to fight back. But when he looks at Betty Ross, at the other leaders, he realises that they’re not just determined, they’re grateful, too. Thankful they were granted the chance to do something. As they stand together as one, Tony realises something quietly.

They’re all Avengers now.

When he looks at the ones beside him, Tony lets out a breath.

“You know,” he says, “if this is how we’re going to die, you have to admit, it’s a hell of a way to go.”

“I don’t want to lose you,” Natasha murmurs, gripping them tight, “but if this is how I go, I’m glad that it’s with you. For you.”

They look at each other, nodding gently, before Nebula pushes herself to the front of the rooftop and shouts, her blade gleaming through the air. She calls for attention, before she addresses every single living figure out there and Tony holds his breath. Maybe she’ll talk about Thanos or how he hurt her, maybe she’ll invigorate the armies and rally them to attack the Titan who stole so much of her away, maybe she’ll—

“If any of you touch Gamora, I will break your skulls to dust.”

Or maybe she’ll just threaten every single one of them. As Nebula brandishes the blade, Tony’s jaw drops, and he shares a look of horror with everyone as they lunge for her quickly.

“I will turn you to waste and—,”

“Nebula, no—,”

.

.

It feels inexplicable to stare out at everyone on New York.

Thor has seen armies before, has headed them, has followed Odin into battles and wars. He knows the strength of soldiers and the bravery and courage that comes with fighting for something worthwhile. He understands the sacrifice, the power of the people, because he has seen it, he has touched it, he has lived through it all.

But the sight that lays itself out before him now, the grand magnificence that spreads and sweeps across the whole city as far as the eye can see? The city filled with normal people, not soldiers though trained long enough for something, just normal folk, living their lives until something came in to tear that away from them, breathing in terror and fear but overcoming that fear long enough to do something worthwhile? All of them, combined and collected in their one desire to hit Thanos, the one who took their hearts away, ready and determined?

Now, that’s epic.

Thor swallows tight, his heart clenching.

Everyone has already dispersed, with Tony looking over their defence systems with Shuri and talking with Betty Ross and several Xandarian consultants to get them ready and up to date on the battle plans for what’s about to happen. Steve is assembling the lines and formations of different parts of the army and directing who comes in where and when. Natasha and Clint are working together with Rhodey to address their air support, following Rhodey’s lead as he speaks to a few aliens, working to understand what they’re capable of and how best to implement their strengths and capabilities, as Bruce and Valkyrie head up the Asgardians with Loki by their side.

He’s never felt so scared in his life or so overcome with sheer wonder at the decency of people. The everlasting fight that lingers in their hearts, their eyes burning with wildfire that lights them up completely. Thor feels gratified to even stand beside them in this fight.

When Hela takes a step beside him quietly, Thor still does not look away.

“You know,” she says, trying to sound conversational and casual, “I …I still have Mjolnir. If you want it.”

Thor is truly tempted for a moment, wanting nothing more than to hold his beloved hammer again. But the knowledge that Hela did not shatter it fills him with both frustration and gratification. How could she play with him like this? Toy with his emotions? Natasha thinks she might regret it, but Thor is still too raw to even think of forgiveness. Instead, he lets out a breath and looks out towards Loki and Valkyrie and Heimdall, and something calms his chest at the sight of them.

“No,” he murmurs eventually, shaking his head. “I am more than the god of hammers.”

For a moment, Hela doesn’t say anything at all; she just looks at him, something strange and inscrutable in her expression that Thor can’t decipher. He doesn’t want to give her the pleasure of asking, so he looks towards Steve and Tony, who are shaking hands. Beside them, Natasha is rolling her eyes before wrapping her arms around them both and yanking them all into a tight, loving embrace.

“I wish I had known you,” Hela confesses suddenly, before Thor can leave her to go to his friends. Her voice is softer than Thor has ever heard her and when she speaks, there is something quiet in her tone, ringing of a confession. She continues, barrelling on, despite Thor’s clear shock written across his face. “You and Loki both. I—I thought he had turned you against me, that he had made you Odinsons through and through. But you are your own and I—,”

“Odin did not turn you against us,” Thor says bluntly. “You did that all by yourself.”

“I know,” she says quietly. “I—I know.”

“What is it you want, Hela?” Thor asks, finally sick of all this back and forth. Trying to figure out Loki is enough on his plate and now his big sister has to be an annoying enigma of a mystery, too? “Loki says that you have helped him so much, that you sang to us in our youth. You have sworn never to touch Asgard again, yet you were the reason for its end. Valkyrie is still traumatised from what you did to her and yet you came here. You gave up the death stone that you stole from Thanos, knowing that it would sever any attachment between you and destroy any affection he held for you, knowing that it puts you in danger, and you brought everyone back.” He lets out a frustrated huff. “I cannot understand you, sister.”

It is Hela’s turn to look away, then, something skittering briefly over her face. She is an annoyingly closed book for one who was so open and vengeful and furious during her coup, Thor thinks to himself. The woman standing before him would be a complete stranger to him, except he  still remembers the mad cackle as she tore out his eye, the screams of the wounded she dropped behind her so carelessly, the way she ranted and raved about the golden days and bringing Asgard to its former glory.

But then he thinks of what Loki told him about her and Thor remembers a little girl with dark hair and bright eyes laughingly tugging him down golden halls, exploring gleaming pools and green magic bubbling around him.

Who is Hela?

“First, I never sang to you and anyone who repeats that will go straight into Tartarus,” Hela says and inadvertently, a small smile quirks at his lips. She lets out a breath of relief, looking slightly pleased at his expression before Thor smooths his face over, and Hela’s face shutters again. “And I want…” she trails off a little, before she turns to look at him properly. “I want dinner. With the family. I can keep Odin tied up and Fenrir can watch over him to make sure he doesn’t say anything wrong. But—,”

Thor is completely bewildered. “Dinner?” he repeats, startled. Of everything he’d been expecting, he hadn’t thought of that. “Hela, stop playing your games—,”

“I’m not playing any games,” Hela tells him, completely straight-faced. She’s utterly honest as she shrugs, though she looks a little defensive when she speaks. “I just thought that a family dinner would be nice.”

He narrows his eyes in suspicion. “As—as payment for what you have done for us, here?” Thor asks tentatively, his heart in his mouth. Magic crackles at his fingertips, ready to protect. “Are you asking to blackmail us for protection?”

Hela looks aghast. “What have these Midgardians been teaching you?” she says, before she shakes her head. “There’s no strings, no ties, no nothing attached. It’s just a dinner, Thor.”

“Why?” he demands.

Something like regret creases her face.

“Have I really done you so wrong that you would think a simple family dinner would be something to fear?”

Yes.” There’s no hesitation when he speaks, but he sees the hurt skitter briefly across her face, her mouth parting slightly and her eyes hooded as she blinks. But Thor doesn’t look away, examining her carefully for any falseness. He feels a little bad so he adds, “You cannot begrudge me my caution, Hela.”

“No,” Hela agrees. “No, I cannot.” She looks up at him properly. “I am sorry for it. If it counts for a single thing at all, I would not do it again. I was not… in a very good place and I want to make up for my actions. The last thing I truly remember of us all is a family dinner and so—,”

“A farce of a dinner won’t make up what you’ve done,” Thor tells her, and he sees her features shutter completely. Guilt twists his stomach uncomfortably. “But I guess maybe having lunch with just us would be a start.”

Something light and hopeful enters Hela’s features, and she gives a small smile. “So, when are you leaving here, brother?”

“After the battle is done,” Thor says, and Hela’s face turns serious, looking alarmed.

“Thor.”

“What?”

“Thanos will kill them all,” she says harshly, her voice edging with a tone of urgency. “I have seen him decimate entire civilisations, topple planets. He will not hesitate to take you as well.”

Thor shrugs. He’s known the stakes a long time. “Then it will either be the end of the universe or history being made,” he says easily. They will either make history or break it. He knows the answer even as he looks towards her. “Will you stay?”

Hela shakes her head, still staring at him. “You should go, too, brother. You and Loki, both,” she tells him, something urgent in her voice. “You could die.”

“Then I will die with my people,” Thor says softly, “for a good cause.”

She looks frustrated, bursting out in her anger as she splutters. “These are not your people!” Hela tells him angrily. “These—these are backwater filthy creatures! Midgardians, Thor! Have you really fallen so far?”

“They’re not creatures,” Thor says patiently. “These are New Yorkers. Wakandans, Xandarians, British, Germans, Chinese, Indians. And that’s just the front row, Hela.” He gestures. “This is the universe. So, they are my people.”

Hela huffs out a breath. “If—if you stay here, I won’t save you. I’ll leave you to die, I swear it!”

Thor shrugs. “That’s alright.”

For a long moment, she simply stares at him. “You really are stubborn enough to die for them.”

A small hopeless smile lifts his lips.

“Not nearly as stubborn as they are to die for each other.”

.

.

“Ten years ago,” Steve watches Tony say as he addresses the armies from his position, “I made a promise to you. I told you that I was Iron Man. That I was your protector and helper. And that I would avenge you.” His face shutters a little, but he continues. “I failed you. And for that, I am sorry. I will—forever remain sorry.”

His mouth is dry, but Steve won’t look away. Tony didn’t fail them alone, he wants to say. It was him, too. But Tony keeps going, his voice strengthening.

“Today, I’m here to amend myself and fight again. We’ve been given a second chance,” he says. “So do not fight for me. Fight for you, fight for the ones you love and fight to keep them here. Today, we are all Avengers. Today, we avenge our own. We will take back our universe and Thanos will rue the very day he snapped those damn fingers!”

There’s a raucous applause that echoes thunderously through the entire city, almost levelling it with the sheer noise that comes from so many. Steve has to remind himself to breathe, sharing looks with the others in his nervousness as he draws comfort from them. It’s strange to think that he would ever feel comfortable in the presence of anyone other than Bucky, especially after having been dragged from the ice, dragged back towards the land of the living and forced to live out a strangely hollowed-out life that felt as though he was half dunked in water.

But seeing everyone, Tony and Thor and Nat and Clint and Bruce, familiar figures, having gone with them through blood and sweat and war, battled with them, for them, against them before being dragged out into a world where he could live and breathe properly, for the first time since he even enlisted for the serum, is something that Steve never thought he would ever be granted. It’s a blessing, a rare, peaceful sweetness that washes and sweeps over him completely. Steve can finally breathe for the first time, his chest feeling less tight and heavy.

“You okay?” Natasha asks him quietly, her voice gentle as it always is, as she ties her hair back with careful, practiced fingers.

Steve opens his mouth, the lie carefully poised and prepared though he knows Natasha can read him better than a book. He shakes his head quickly and gives a small, short smile as Wakanda begins a war cry, headed by General Okoye, stamping their vibranium spears on the ground. King T’Challa had wanted to fight with his people, for his people, but Princess Shuri had thrown a fit and they left to stabilise Wakanda and help out with the rest of the universe that would be coming back, as Shuri had demanded.

“Yeah, me neither,” Clint says, as Natasha reaches to pat him on the shoulder, and he nocks his arrows, his face creased with a mixture of fear and determination.

“This is it, then,” Bruce says to them, as green pools out around him and suddenly Hulk is peering out at them with a grin. “The big one.”

“You ready, big guy?” Tony asks. “Whipped ‘em all up for us, ready to take down Thanos.” He gives a breathless, awed sort of smile, and it’s rather relieving to know that everyone else feels just as overwhelmed as he does, even Tony, who is used to large crowds and audiences eating out of the palm of his hand. “Does anyone feel like we could just tell them to storm the barricades right now?”

They all chuckle together as Thor says, “It was a great speech, Tony.”

“You think you could do better?” Tony squints at him but his eyes are bright.

“I’ve just had more experience—,”

“Put your money where your mouth is.”

“Ten bucks on Thor,” Natasha says instantly.

“Natasha!”

“Tin Man.”

“Hulk knows loyalty. Thank you, big guy.”

Thor looks at them, playful grins tugging at their mouths before he turns around to address the armies before them. Though he does not raise his voice, it still carries over the wind and speaks to every single figure out there and his voice is booming when he lifts his head to speak. Like the King he is, Steve realises, his stomach flipping slightly as Tony’s breaths hitch.

“Friends, good people. I am so very grateful that you are here beside me, today. I know that you are all very scared right now,” Thor says, and his voice carries over the sheer silence with a regal ease as they stare at him proudly. “So am I. I am very afraid right now.”

It’s a strange thing to see Thor terrified, but here they are.

“But of all of my years of life in this universe, there are some things that we share, that we understand. Some things are just not right.”

The crowd roars to him. “NOT RIGHT!”

“Some things require us to get to our feet and make a difference!”

“MAKE A DIFFERENCE!”

“Sometimes, you just have to get up and say no, I will not let you do this, even if you are terrified to your very core. Thanos is coming for us, right now. Thanos, the same Titan, who stole away everything we ever loved in the blink of an eye. Thanos, who wants to destroy everything we have ever known!” Thor is roaring at this moment, lightning crackling all around him, blue whipping up a fierce storm. “So, friends, tell me, what do we say to Thanos, when he comes to us, when he wants to take apart our universe and devour it whole?”

“NO!” Millions of people, across the city, as far as the eye can see, roar right back and the world is trembling.

When Thor comes back to them, Tony is the one to blink first and clap him around the shoulder, embracing him tight. Steve looks out at the roaring army, his stomach clenching as he lifts his shield. Natasha’s breath hitches and suddenly, the clouds are opening up and Chitauri are pouring from the skies.

Thanos is here.

Steve takes a deep breath, looks to the ones he loves, and moves forward. He raises his shield, calling out to the army.

“AVENGERS!”

Natasha grins.

ASSEMBLE!”

Chapter Text

The Chitauri fall first.

Natasha is breathless, holding herself back with Clint, as she watches Rhodey, Tony, the Iron Legion and the other air control with the Xanderian ships and the Wakandan forces swarm the air. She keeps an eye on everything, rapping out orders through the comms and managing to warn Tony in time before he can get crushed by a Leviathan. Her breaths hitch the minute Rhodey turns his head and Tony lunges out of the way just in time, and relief courses through her as soon as Hulk roars. He dives for the Leviathan, decking it completely as it crashes through the ground, red dust surging around them.

Nebula is beside her, raising her blade. “Where is he?” she mutters, roaming the horizon as the Black Order come down, but there’s no Gamora nor Thanos.

“Thor!” Clint calls out, even as he’s nocking an arrow and he hits Corvus Glaive squarely in the back of the shoulder, just as Steve and Thor work together, crashing lightning into Corvus’s chest with the shield. “Your right!”

Thor avoids Proxima Midnight’s blow just in time, reaching up to crackle lightning all around them as dozens of Chitauri drop to the ground and Natasha lets out a breath of relief. A Xandarian swings a blade into Proxima’s chest, pulling her back as she screams and Ebony Maw is scanning the place, looking for them, Natasha realises. She lunges forward to protect Clint’s side from a Chitauri and sends the alien’s chariot crashing to the ground heavily.

Shuri’s explosions are going off all around the city and Natasha can see Chitauri falling, but her only focus is on Thanos, who is still not here, Nebula and Clint getting edgier from the ledge where she’s left them. She spots Rhodey tussling with a Chitauri up in the air, brings up her gun and fires easily, and Rhodey salutes her with a grateful thanks before diving into protecting Rocket from one of his own traps.

“You think he’s going for Hela?” Clint asks, just as Loki’s magic crawls around the entire world and blows everything to shreds.

Nebula reaches for them both, pulling them down to the ground heavily, as Natasha tucks herself in away from the attack. She’s shaking as she scans the place quickly, looking for the Black Order. Tony and Steve are fighting Corvus Glaive and Hulk is still crashing Leviathans into the dirt, bringing them down with ease, though he keeps shattering the skyscrapers around them. Thor is fighting Proxima Midnight with Heimdall, but Natasha can see Loki reaching to protect his brother’s back, fighting well.

“He wouldn’t,” Nebula says when they’ve finally caught their breaths. “Loki is here. The death stone is here. He would win and punish Hela later.”

“Nebula!” Ebony Maw is crowing as he brings pavements and trees crashing down heavily on Xanderian soldiers and half of the British army. They’re diving for cover and Natasha rattles out orders to protect and defend them, her breaths fraught, as Ebony Maw makes his way towards them. His magic is practically rumbling the earths around them, almost exploding the whole world apart. “You’re not one to hide away from a fight. And hiding behind filthy Terrans, too? You really have fallen, Nebula.”

Natasha is breathless, as she fires off a round at the alien, who simply bats the bullets away with ease. Beside her, Clint barely breaks a sweat and uses his explosive arrows but Ebony Maw only smirks at him and Natasha screams something, her mind moving at a thousand miles an hour.

Before she can stop Clint, Ebony Maw contains the explosion into a protective magical bubble before he tosses it carelessly aside, half shattering the skyscraper around them and sending people crashing through the buildings, glass shattering all around them. Clint’s face creases in horror and guilt, but he doesn’t use the arrows anymore, her ears ringing, as they look towards each other and nod, mutually understanding of what they have to do.

Budapest, Natasha mouths.

Budapest, Clint nods.

“Where is Gamora, Maw?” Nebula snaps out furiously, already wielding her blade though she howls when Ebony Maw begins to use it against her. The gleam of the silver clatters as it bends horrifically and almost enters her chest. Thor’s magic protects her though, keeps it from lingering too long and when the blade crackles with blue lightning, Nebula drops it and Natasha has enough time to see Ebony Maw’s widened eyes as it sinks into his chest, driving him back. “WHERE IS SHE?”

Ebony Maw’s magic wraps around the blade, already healing his wounds, but Natasha lunges for his throat in that same moment, swiftly moving to let Clint deck him across the face harshly, long enough to let him have his moment for the explosion. She wraps her fingers around Nebula’s sword, keeping it buried into his chest. The magic threatens to take them both down, but Nebula is there immediately, gripping his throat and slamming his head repeatedly down on the ground, just as Clint moves to protect Steve’s side from Proxima when she spots them.

“My friend asked you a question,” Natasha says harshly, yanking out the sword and letting him have a few seconds to breathe before she slams it down into his arm, blood pouring. “Where are they?”

Ebony Maw is screaming, flailing as Corvus Glaive roars for him, lunging for Natasha’s throat and she’s already ready to throw herself out of the way, but Hulk is there just in time. He grabs the alien’s throat with ease before he throws him into a building, sending him crashing through the entire skyscraper and leaving him a groggy mess against the pile of rubble, red dust in the air around them. Natasha turns her attentions back onto Ebony Maw, as Nebula puts her boot to his face and presses down, hard.

“Where is Thanos?”

“If you wanted me, daughter,” comes a voice that rumbles over the entire city, “you should have just asked.”

Ebony Maw smirks through his bloodied teeth, and then everything explodes.

.

.

A splatter of web wraps around him and Bucky lifts his head to spot a young girl carefully dropped down for him to catch.

He grabs the kid and pulls her out of the way, setting her down on the pavement. She’s looking shocked, her eyes wide with confusion as she stares up at him in alarm, her gaze turning to the gleam of the metal arm.

“You’re okay,” he says gruffly, something in his stomach, as the young girl gapes at him. He’s not good at reassuring people and Bucky can feel it shows, because he has no idea what to say, his mind drawing a complete blank. “Uh, you’re alright—,”

“I was—I was—,” she gasps hotly, breathing hard as she turns to look for people who are certainly not there, seeing as it’s been a couple of months and she spent them as dust.

Before Bucky can fail at reassuring her some more, Stark’s spider kid drops gently beside them and smiles at the girl, who visibly relaxes at the sight of him. She must recognise the mask, Bucky thinks briefly, his gaze falling to the metal arm as something clenches in his stomach uncomfortably.

“It’s okay,” the kid is saying softly. He looks at her in the eye, his voice open and trusting and gentle in a way that Bucky can never be. “You’re alright. You’re here, you’re real right now. Are you hurt? What’s your name?”

“Ae-Ra,” she manages to get out, looking still confused as she turns around, frowning. Her breaths are hitched, and she looks just like he did when he was in Wakanda one moment and walking through an orange circle into New York the next. “My name is Ae-Ra. I’m not hurt. I was—I was with my brother. We were at home and he was hogging the TV—,”

Bucky has to fight down a smile as he explains, “You’re okay. There was another fight. Like, uh, like New York.”

He remembers Steve explaining it to him, watching the footage and staring in awe. Right now, Ae-Ra’s face shutters in recognition, her eyes widening as she looks around in worry and concern.

“Is everyone okay?” she asks. “My—,”

“Don’t worry,” Spider-Man says. “They’re going to be just fine. The Avengers are here and they’re taking care of it. Oh yeah, I forgot. My name’s Spider-Man.”

“I know,” she says. “I follow you on Twitter.”

“That’s so cool! And that’s Mr Winter Soldier,” he says brightly, as Bucky flushes, lifting up a hand to wave meekly until he realises that it’s his metal arm and he cringes.

“I want to find my family,” Ae-Ra says, lifting her head to look at them worriedly. She doesn’t seem the slightest bit perturbed at the sight of the metal arm, seemingly taking Spider-Man’s word for it. If Spider-Man says he’s a hero, then apparently that’s enough for her. “We live on the East side.”

“It’s blocked off right now,” Bucky says gruffly. “There’s a Stark rehabilitation centre I saw just on the outskirts of this road. You write your name down and you increase your chances of finding ‘em again.” He looks at the orange circles Dr Strange is opening up again, knowing it’s for him and turns to the spider kid. “Kid, you going to be okay here?”

“Are you?” Spider kid asks him, with wide eyes.

Bucky pauses briefly. It’s hard to say, really. Helping people has never been his priority—he can barely remember doing it, really. All he has known for seventy years is pain and he had been so reluctant to think that he was ever enough to save people, or to help them, but he’s doing it. He’s actually doing it, and Bucky genuinely thinks that this might be worth living for. The breathless light in their eyes as he grabs them and save them from dropping or hurting themselves. It’s like saving Steve all over again, except it’s jarring and terrifying and gratifying all at the same time.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, with a small grin. He’s glad that the kid asked, having run into him a few times. Spider kid makes all his fun quips and makes them all laugh. He’d seen even Dr Strange crack a small smile at times. “You going to be okay? I gotta—,”

“Yeah, don’t worry,” Spider kid says. “I can take her.”

As Bucky enters the orange circle, he hears Ae-Ra’s voice.

“…so, if I give you my Twitter handle, can you follow me back?”

.

.

When Thanos comes down, the world explodes around them.

Tony is sent crashing to the ground, ringing in his ears, and he tastes blood in his mouth when he lifts his head, the suit crackling around him. He’d been lunging to protect Okoye and lift her onto one of those flying horses, he remembers, and blinks blearily, realising she’s helping him get to his feet. Tony coughs and chokes, before he gets up and finds Thanos who is sitting beside the Tower. He looks thoughtful and contemplative as he stares at the iridum machine, Gamora right by his side.

Anger takes away any thoughts in his head, a red fury burning through him completely.

This fucker took Peter away from him and he’s going to regret it.

He’s not going to rest until he has Thanos whimpering under his rage, under his hands, begging for mercy and his life, and still it won’t be enough because Peter had sobbed, had shaken, had begged, and it was because of this fucker before him. Okoye is shaking too, and Tony gets to his feet hoarsely, breathing hard. He turns to look around at the others, as Natasha and Clint limp to his side and Steve and Thor get in front of them protectively, Hulk already beside him.

Thanos lifts his head to look at them, not even looking the slightest bit concerned at their defensive stances. Behind them, the rest of their tattered army converges and strengthens behind them and Valkyrie swoops in on her flying horse, Asgardians and Xanderians and human armies collectively rising up together. Tony thinks of Titan, of collapsing alone into the red planet and sobbing hoarsely for nobody to hear, thinks of Peter crumbling to dust in his arms. Then, he thinks of clutching Peter tightly, protectively in his arms, a solid and real figure, remembering what Thor had told them all before the skies had opened up and the Chitauri had fallen.

With the universe at his back and his friends at his side and a kid worth fighting for, the sentiment is clear.

Tony is not doing this alone.

“Where is the stone, Avengers?” Thanos says as he raises the iridium machine and shatters it against the ground. Nobody says anything, but Tony sees Gamora faltering slightly, a strangely weak figure beside him. Thanos is soft when he speaks, dangerously devastating as Tony’s spine curls. “Your Trickster’s illusions cannot last for too long and I am fast losing my patience. If you do not deliver the stone to me, I will tear this planet apart like paper. You have not seen my true fury, Avengers, and I hope you never will. I truly wish that for you.” He lifts his head and stares at them. “So. The question remains. Will you deliver me the stone?”

The answer is clear enough.

“NO!” Thor roars first and then the entire army is roaring with him, as they lunge forwards, screaming at the top of their lungs.

Tony takes to the air immediately, using his repulsors on Thanos as Gamora swiftly lunges forward, a fast and enigmatic figure, spinning and ducking blows before delivering powerful ones of her own. She’s holding her own perfectly well against the many who come after her, especially as Nebula’s warning seems to stick, and Tony can see Nebula making her way through the city to get to her sister.

They’re all by his side, but Tony is faster as they’d planned and he goes straight for Thanos’ throat, but the Titan simply lifts his head and smirks. Something about it sends a coldness down his back and suddenly, Tony is screaming in pain, slammed to the ground as Thanos drives a blow against him.

He hits the ground heavily, but the distraction is enough as Thor and Steve get to him and Clint barrages Thanos with arrows and Natasha unleashes a round with fierce determination. Thor’s lightning crackles hotly around Thanos’ figure and magic rumbles around the earth, threatening to crash it completely, as they all circle in around Thanos, attacking him at the same time.

Steve slams the shield against Thanos’ body, bringing him down to the ground, and Tony dives in at the same moment, covering his side just before Thanos can hit out at him. He’s grateful when Natasha lunges for them both to protect them from Clint’s explosive arrows as one sinks into Thanos’s shoulder and the Titan howls in pain. This is what working together is like, Tony realises. This is everything they had been meant for, fighting together and picking up the slack and protecting each other.

Thanos’ hide is a powerful thing, as it barely fazes from the smoking bullets and the repulsors and even Steve’s powerful blows, but the explosion that results from Clint’s arrows leaves their ears ringing as well. Thor roars, blue lightning crackling all around him as it invigorates them all and hurts the great Titan before them.

Thanos is being brought down by their collective efforts, Tony realises, gasping for breath as he gets to his feet again. It’s working, and he lunges forward to help Thor, before he’s getting hit across the chest and Natasha is screaming something at him.

“TONY!”

Ebony Maw is suddenly there and he drives a blow into his chest.

Before he can think, Tony is being thrown back into a building, crashing through brick and cement.

He’s slammed on the ground and has enough time to look up and see Ebony Maw’s magic wrapping itself tightly around the large skyscraper. The entire building lifts itself cleanly into the air, bricks and rubble falling around him before it threatens to crush him completely. Tony throws up his shields, but they shatter instantly and he’s thinking of Peter, he’s thinking of Rhodey, of Natasha, Clint, Thor, Steve, Bruce, of everything he has ever known and loved—

“NO!”

Steve is suddenly there and he’s holding up the building.

He’s clearly straining with the effort and Tony struggles to move but his body isn’t reciprocating, and he breathes out hoarsely, barely able to hold up the suit as it practically pins him down. A permanent coffin, he thinks blindingly, wanting to scream because he’ll kill them both. But where he fails, another Avenger picks up the slack, and suddenly, Clint is reaching for him as the faceplate shatters.

Natasha grabs the faceplate before it can break his face or go into his eyes and together, they shoulder his weight, running out of the building. Hulk is lunging for Ebony Maw and Natasha moves, leaving Clint with Tony, to help drive the blade into Ebony Maw’s chest, leaving him a slumped, dead figure on the ground.

Proxima Midnight screams as Nebula spins to attack her and Thor slams lightning into Thanos so powerfully that the Titan is actually drawn back against the dirt, right before Thor decks him clean across the face.

Tony turns his head back groggily, screaming for Steve, but Valkyrie is suddenly there, swooping in and crashing through the windows to grab Steve bodily. She’s lifted him cleanly into the air and for a crazily hysterical moment, Tony thinks about how much Steve must weigh, but Valkyrie slumps Steve’s exhausted form against her Pegasus, sending him into the air. Tired, but alive, Tony is grateful to realise, but then Loki starts to scream, and it’s such a horrible sound Tony can’t breathe—

Thor, he thinks blindingly, mumbling out the name through the blood in his mouth.

“Thor—,”

“We—Tony, you can’t stand,” Clint tells him, but neither can the archer and they’re both practically collapsing heavily against the ground, Clint’s eyes drifting shut.

“Clint!” Tony reaches for him. “Don’t go to sleep! Clint, wake up! Clint!”

He’s squinting to look for Thor, but Tony can’t see him at all and suddenly Corvus Glaive is surging for them both. Tony moves sluggishly, raising a repulsor before he realises that it’s fizzing because it’s broken. Instead, he manages to lunge to protect Clint, using the suit as a protective shield against Corvus Glaive’s sword though it threatens to slice through the suit like butter. Tony scrambles back with Clint in his arms, spits out the blood in his mouth, swaying and dizzied, as he turns to Clint, who is practically unconscious, blood pouring from his mouth.

“Clint!” Tony screams at him as Corvus Glaive laughs, stalking them almost painfully slow and mocking, as he swings his blade in his hands. “Stay awake! Get up! Think of Laura! Nate and Lila and Cooper, Clint! Come on! If you fucking die on me here, I will go to Hela’s kingdom to personally kick your ass!

“I’m going to enjoy this,” Corvus Glaive promises harshly, as he lifts his sword and Tony can’t breathe—

“So am I,” General Okoye says and suddenly, they’re completely surrounded by the Wakandan and Xanderian delegation.

Salvation, Tony thinks with a gasp. A British officer is helping Tony to his feet and suddenly, General Okoye is bringing her blade swinging down onto Corvus Glaive’s head. Tony can’t see the alien die through the blurriness of his vision, but he hears Proxima Midnight’s screams keening in distress.

Even now, after everything, guilt and concern wrenches through him.

Thanos roars angrily and suddenly Loki is roaring, green magic wrapping around the world and brimming ever so slightly, as Thor is slammed down to the ground heavily, his head knocking. Loki is right there, protecting his brother as Thanos lunges for them both harshly, darkness pulling at his face, and Tony is looking into the face of a ruthless killer, a mass murderer, the devourer of worlds. Loki is brushed aside, hitting a building heavily as the illusions shatter and Thor is screaming in pain, the sound wrenched from his throat as Thanos hits him.

Thor looks bad, even from where Tony can see. Clint is slumped in his arms and Tony is choking up blood and Natasha is unconscious on the ground and Hulk is struggling to protect them both against a Leviathan as it threatens to swallow them whole and Steve is nowhere to be seen and Loki is too far away and Thor is about to die—

Then the world is green and black, and all is dust.

A figure appears before Thor, holding up a powerful protective stance over him, magic crackling so fierce and powerful that Tony can feel it even from such a distance. Hela looks furious and mad, her eyes bright with power and sheer fury as she screams something and Thanos is looking enraged as he is driven back by the sheer force of her magic. Thor is a crumpled figure behind her, but she stays right in front of him, ready to protect him fiercely, and Tony can hardly believe what he’s seeing in front of him.

“Lady Hela—,” Thanos manages to get out hoarsely.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Hela snarls, as her magic cracks over him like a whip, sending him to his knees.

“Father!” Gamora is screaming, but Nebula is lunging for her.

“Gamora, no!”

Gamora whirls around to hit out at Nebula who ducks the attack just in time. Thanos is struggling for breath, choking up blood, forced to his knees as Hela towers above him, a fierce and formidable figure, her hair crackling around her. Thanos isn’t let up for a brief moment at all as he screams in pain and Tony can hear cracking bones and ripping flesh and blood pours from the Titan, so thick and fast that it soaks the earth completely.

That’s a stain that will never get out, Tony thinks blindingly, breathlessly.

“My brother, Thanos?” Hela is barking out fiercely, and though her voice turns softer, it is no less terrifying and devastating. With every harsh word, she cracks more of Thanos’ bones and sends him howling to the ground. “My little brother? You swore to me, you said you wouldn’t lay a single finger on him. And here I find you, wanting to deliver him to my kingdom?”

“Do not be so foolish—,” Thanos manages to gasp out, choking on his own blood, “to think that any of our bargains remain intact, my lady.” He lifts his head and a vicious snarl rips from his throat, growling fiercely as his eyes grow darker, and suddenly Tony is terrified. “I may have started out this entire quest for your hand and heart, but I know the truth now. You are too cold and tempestuous and selfish and vain to even begin to deliver a sop of civility to anyone. You do not deserve my devotion.”

Hela’s face shutters a little, but she doesn’t look upset, just wary.

“Lord Thanos, you have always known that you can never have me,” she says harshly, and then Thanos breaks.

“I will have this universe,” Thanos roars thunderously. “I will have everything!”

He howls something, swiping a hand at Hela and sends her crashing to the ground, his face drawn in sheer rage. Tony sees him looking around and he manages to get to his feet, spitting blood, the suit practically falling from him. But before he can make it even a few steps, Thanos is lunging for Gamora. He grabs Gamora and Nebula screams, hitting out at him, but Thanos grabs her, too, and Tony is roaring, his voice mingling with Natasha’s, lips turning into a vicious snarl.

But magic ripples around them all and cracks itself apart and suddenly, Thanos is gone.

Thanos is gone.

Chapter Text

Magic envelopes her rapidly, threatening to strangle her throat, and Nebula screams and struggles fiercely.

“Stop squirming.” Gamora’s voice echoes, snarling and harsh all around her.

Nebula stills instantly, fear pounding through her as she is tossed harshly to the ground.

The world is all red and large, towering cliffs all around her, planets and stars gleaming hotly in the skies, and there’s a swish of black across them as Nebula forces herself to breathe properly. She gets to her feet immediately, swinging her head around until she’s got a good idea of where she is right now. A red planet that looks vaguely familiar, Nebula thinks. Thanos is nowhere to be seen, but Gamora is struggling to get to her feet, weak with exhaustion, her forehead shining with sweat as she grunts, pulling herself to her feet.

“Gamora?” Nebula’s voice tumbles out softly, as she moves forward.

“Get back!” Gamora brandishes a short dagger at her, whirling it fast and quick through the air, and Nebula manages to pull back just in time before it slices through her throat. “Stay away from me!”

She stumbles back clumsily, hitting the red rock painfully behind her, but her eyes stay on Gamora only, watching as her sister’s breathing grows hoarse and ragged, weakening slightly. Nebula casts an eye around warily for Thanos, but he is nowhere to be seen and Gamora looks as though she may be about to completely drop to the ground. She wants to surge forwards and help her sister, concern rippling through her, but Gamora would likely gut her before she could even try.

“What’s wrong? What has he done to you?” Nebula demands, her voice cracking slightly. “Gamora—,”

Gamora inhales sharply, but draws herself up in her fury, eyes bright and fierce in that way she used to look before. It makes Nebula’s stomach swoop.

“Father has done nothing—,”

“He is not your father!” Nebula almost screams, broken apart by Gamora’s words. There’s real anguish in the way her voice cracks as she continues, earnest and desperate for Gamora to understand the truth. “Your real father was murdered by him! He slayed your entire planet! Gamora, don’t you remember? You were the one who saw him for what he was, first! Out of all of us, you saw him as the killer, the murderer—our abuser!”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Gamora snaps out at her, but she’s starting to look uncomfortable. She parrots Thanos’ words and it makes Nebula want to be sick. “Father saved me. He saved you too. You were just stupid enough to betray his kindness, his goodness—,”

“He snapped away half of the universe and left you to rot on Vormir,” Nebula spits harshly, as Gamora falters. “Tell me, sister, could you call that kindness? Would you call that goodness?” She doesn’t stop, stamping forwards as she pulls at her bionic arm, clicking it angrily as she harshly yanks out her eye before shoving it back in. “He did this to me. Took me down on the table and held me as he tore pieces of me apart, as I screamed and begged for him not to. Gamora, tell me, would you call that kindness?”

She’s screaming by now, tears streaming down her cheeks as she shakes before Gamora. Gamora holds the blade, but she looks helplessly vulnerable now, her expression creased with confusion and distress as she stares up at Nebula. Her gaze turns to the arm Nebula pieces back in and the small trace of sheer horror that paints her features makes the hope in Nebula’s chest grow briefly.

“I did it for your own good, but you were always so defiant and ungrateful, daughter,” comes the voice that haunts Nebula’s dreams deep.

Nebula stills immediately, the small wisp of hope extinguishing. She presses her lips together to stop the shaky, fearful whimper from escaping her mouth.

Thanos grabs her arm and examines it as Nebula freezes up in horror, her eyes burning with unshed terror, everything screaming in her to move, move, move, hit him, you idiot, hit him NOW, KILL HIM, YOU STUPID, USELESS THING, but she can’t. She can hardly breathe in fear and terror, her throat closing up and practically choking her out as her chest clenches and she can only stare up at him, trying to pathetically scramble back, weaker than anything. Nebula doesn’t dare to look at Gamora, helpless whimpers falling from her mouth, as her heart hammers in her chest, the blood roaring in her ears and her fear crippling her completely.

All her big talk about killing Thanos and here she is, completely frozen in fear.

“Stop,” Nebula manages to get out painfully weakly. Her whimpers only serve to amuse Thanos.

“A remarkable thing,” Thanos comments, barely acknowledging her weak attempts to get out of his tight hold. He looks over the arm carefully and she hates the way he just reaches forward and takes it, as though he is entitled to it. Or maybe Nebula hates the way she cringes back and lets him. His hold over her is still so strong and she hates herself so much for it. “Stark’s creation, I take it? When I take the universe for my own, he will live long enough for me to pick through his head.”

He examines the mechanics of the arm, large purple fingers tracing across the metal with more care than he has ever treated her, for it stands to reason that Thanos would prize a metal object with no thought or emotion over her. Nebula remembers her old flesh arm before Gamora had bent it behind her back on the training mat. Thanos had watched them fight until Nebula was screaming hotly to surrender and he had taken her to the table for the first time and ripped her arm away from her socket. Blood had completely soaked the table and Nebula screamed as she had never screamed before, before Thanos smoothed back the hair on her head, the hair he would one day shave off.

He had smiled down at her, promising her mercy.

Mercy, young daughter. You will be alright.

She, the foolish, stupid, stuck thing, had believed him.

Yes, Father.

It is this memory that flashes before her now and delivers her the strength and sheer fury to yank herself out of his space. Nebula pulls herself back, cradling her arm protectively as she lifts her head and glares up at Thanos, venomously. He only smirks at her, looking vaguely amused as he and the Black Order had always looked at her. They’d only seen her as an annoying gnat, barely capable of anything at all, let alone taking them all down.

Even now, Nebula doubts her abilities. But she has to be strong, she knows it. If not for herself, then for her sister.

“What have you done to Gamora?” she demands to know hoarsely, her voice coming out strung and cracked. Nebula jerks her head towards Gamora, to whom Thanos turns his attention, and she bites out something hoarse. A furious noise comes out of her throat when Thanos reaches to stroke Gamora’s hair. “Get away from her, you bastard. What have you done to her?”

His fingers tighten around Gamora’s head and Nebula holds her breath. She thinks briefly of the way he had wrapped his hands around her head and slammed it down against the table until he could fit the helmet around her skull. He called that salvation, too, she thinks, and she knows that if he even thinks of hurting Gamora, she will kill him.

“I have saved her,” Thanos says, but it’s clear to see that Nebula’s venom has rattled him slightly. “And now she will save herself. Tell me, daughters, do you know where we are right now?”

“We are not your—,” Nebula begins to spit harshly.

“Vormir,” Gamora says softly, a weak trace of recognition in her voice as it shutters. She lifts her head, looking up to Thanos with something like understanding flittering over her features and gives a small, sad smile. “We are in Vormir.”

Nebula freezes.

Vormir, she thinks blindingly. Where Thanos took Gamora the first time to die. The shadows disperse around them and Nebula flinches back when a dark, hooded figure moves towards them, black robes billowing out around him. When he pulls the hood back to reveal a red, wretched, and distorted face, Nebula doesn’t so much as blink. He’s holding a staff, and Nebula tenses, her gaze cast around them all, wondering what Thanos is planning right now.

What are they doing here, now?

She can feel the answer right at her fingertips, can practically taste it. She knows it, Nebula thinks angrily. She knows and yet, she also doesn’t.

“Lord Thanos,” the figure says flatly, without a trace of the usual reverence Nebula knows most folk exhibit. Only Lady Hela and the Avengers refuse to entertain Thanos with his title. “You know what Vormir demands of you, should you wish it. For the sacrifice you wish to make, the rules are simple enough. A soul for a soul.”

Gamora’s face is creasing in realisation. “A soul for a soul.”

Thanos inclines his head as though this is information that is not unfamiliar to him. “It cannot be me, daughter, or I would have done it already,” he tells her apologetically, and Nebula’s heart is hammering hard and fast. What is happening? “I brought you your soul, but the rest, you must do yourself. The sacrifice wants what it wants, and it will take something. A soul for a soul, after all.”

Her sister is nodding quietly, before she lifts her head up to look straight at Nebula.

“Goodbye, sister.”

“What—,” Nebula begins in confusion and then Gamora is suddenly lunging for her. She yelps out inadvertently, an alarmed noise of protest in her throat, before ducking the blow and calling out, in bewildered alarm, “Gamora—,”

But Gamora is not wasting a single second, leaping for Nebula once more as her blade swipes the air, surging for Nebula’s throat. Nebula ducks the blow once more, moving with the blade, her hands going up to hit out against Gamora’s wrist to make her drop the dagger. But Gamora is hard and fast so Nebula slams her hand against the rock, hard enough to break the bones, and finally the dagger clatters quickly to the ground.

She does not get a chance to breathe as she kicks the knife aside and hears it drop over the cliff. Thanos does not move, only watches with an amused glint in his eye, from his position as Gamora grabs her and kicks her in the ribs. This is exactly like the old training mats, Nebula thinks suddenly, the wind completely blown out of her as she stumbles back heavily, moving into the attack as she forces herself to her feet properly.

Exactly like the training mats.

Thanos watching them spar, Gamora gaining the upper hand, Nebula growing more and more vicious with her blows as she let her emotions get the better of her—

And then as she swerves and ducks Gamora’s blow, Nebula realises it.

A soul for a soul.

“You don’t have your soul,” she manages to get out hoarsely, as she pulls herself back from the attack as fast as she can. “That’s why you cannot remember me!”

Gamora snarls out fiercely, twisting herself in the air, her hands wrapped around Nebula’s throat just as Nebula moves into the blow and drives herself back to slam Gamora against the ground. Gamora’s fingers squeeze around her throat, crushing it, but Nebula hits out at everything around her, hating the way Gamora yells out in pain. But her fingers finally let go and Nebula takes her chance, pulling herself forwards into a swift roll.

“A sacrifice for your soul—the soul that he gave up for the stone! But he didn’t give the stone back, so that means you’re not back properly, either!” She’s thinking aloud, her mind running at a thousand miles an hour, as Nebula pants for breath and ducks Gamora’s next blow. “Which means you need me—a soul for a soul—Gamora!” Nebula calls out to her hoarsely. “Look at me, Gamora! You know me! You don’t want to hurt me””

“Yes!” Gamora snarls out, hitting at her with every word. “I! Do!”

She brings her arms up to protect herself against Gamora when her sister takes a running leap at her, pulling her down to the ground to smash her face against the rocky terrain. Nebula hits the ground heavily, Gamora's fist cracking across her face and she spits blood as pain blooms across her cheek. Nebula throws a few swift punches against Gamora’s side to break her hold, but grabs her sister’s head tightly, staring at her in the eyes.

It’s the eyes, she realises, breathing hard and hoarse. The eyes were so soulless and not at all filled with the usual life or spark that Gamora had.

How could she not have seen it?

“Gamora,” Nebula breathes, almost tearful. “Know me. See me. Or if—if not me, then—then Rocket! Or Quill—Quill’s back, Gamora! Your weird Terran lover! With the—the songs! And the bad dancing!”

Gamora’s face shutters briefly, something like recognition flickering over her face. Hope surging in her chest like never before, Nebula takes advantage of the hesitation, pulling herself back as she raises her arms suddenly.

“Gamora.” Thanos’ voice is a quiet command, but devastatingly shattering.

“Yes, Father,” Gamora says meekly.

She hits Nebula across the face so hard that Nebula crumples to the ground.

Something hits her quietly and Nebula knows the truth of herself here. She will die, she thinks suddenly. Gamora will sacrifice her, will take back her soul in return for Nebula’s and she and Thanos will go on to do terrible things, even without the stones and the Black Order and the Chitauri. If Thanos has Gamora by his side, he needs no army.

But if it is for Gamora, Nebula will willingly walk into the jaws of death and be subjected to Hela’s awful company for millennia.

She’s torn, on the ground, spitting blood before the realisation filters through her.

Gamora would not want this.

Once Gamora gets back her soul, she would not want it, knowing how she got it. Nebula is renewed with fresh determination as she gets to her feet and avoids the next few blows, Gamora letting out a shout of frustration as Nebula swerves and ducks quickly.

Nebula falls back, stumbling into the dirt, and she can see the slight surprise creasing Gamora’s face when she doesn’t fight back. Gamora hits her again, a strangled noise coming out of her throat, and Nebula breathes out hoarsely, sobbing breathlessly as blood pours from her face.

Her worthless, pitiful life secured for Gamora’s soul?

Always, Nebula thinks, before she raises her arms to protect herself from the next set of blows raining down on her face. But not like this.

“He’s not your father, Gamora,” she says, as Gamora cracks her fist across her face and Nebula hates the way she has to push her sister back. “He has no hold over you! You fought him once, you can do it again, sister! Please, I—I believe in you!”

“Stop it!” Gamora shouts at her with every blow. “Why won’t you just stop?”

“Because you would never forgive yourself,” Nebula breathes, blinking through her tears as Gamora listens, despite herself, looking startled. “You think I care to live, sister? What life do I have left? What world out there would accept the likes of me? But you! You have a family, Gamora! They’re all idiots, but they’re people who love you, who would die for you! I have nothing at all, but this. And if it’s the last thing I do for you, I will not let you go back to your home, guilty over this.”

Gamora’s face shutters in alarm, staring at her as she hesitates, her breaths fraught. Nebula raises her hands to protect herself, her eyes bright with tears as they course down her cheeks. She’s shaking, but Gamora looks as though she is softening.

“You’re—you’re trying to distract me,” she manages to get out, still trying to find betrayal in Nebula even after everything. “You’re going—you’re just saying that.”

And quite suddenly, Nebula knows exactly what to say.

She puts down her hands, surrendering herself as she stares at her sister, breathless and swallowing hard. Gamora stares back at her in alarm, clearly realising what she’s about to do.

“No, I’m—I’m trying to tell you something,” Nebula tells her softly as Gamora’s face creases. She breathes out hoarsely, a ragged terrible thing, and for the first time in her life, since she remembers anything at all, Nebula lifts her head and summons all her courage with everything in her. Gamora needs her as she’s never needed her before, and Nebula knows she must say this. “I—I absolve you of your guilt, Gamora. I want you to do this for yourself. I want you to do it for me.”

“Why?” Gamora demands, looking torn and wretched. “I don’t—why?”

Nebula smiles tearfully. “You’re my sister,” she says, her voice cracking as she gives a small shrug, though her heart breaks. “And I love you.”

Gamora’s face shutters slightly, her eyes widening.

“A touching sentiment,” Thanos calls out, sounding amused as he sneers at her. Nebula wants to drive her fist through his eye, something angry brimming under the surface, as he spits all over her last words to Gamora. She wants to claw out his filthy mouth and kill everything that he is. Thanos turns his head to Gamora, who is about to deliver the killing blow. “Finish her, Gamora. A soul for a soul, remember? That is the only way. Nebula for you, my daughter.”

“Yes, Father,” Gamora says softly, and Nebula closes her eyes, breathing hard. But there’s something harsh and familiar in the way her sister speaks again, that makes her open her eyes as Gamora stares at her, hard and meaningful. “A soul for a soul.”

Nebula can hardly breathe, but she agrees.

“A soul for a soul,” she murmurs softly, before she lifts her head and they turn to Thanos. “Gamora for you.”

And then suddenly, they’re both moving, swifter than anything, pounding across the ground as Nebula lunges for Thanos’ head, driving Gamora’s blade through his eye.

He howls in pain, surprised but managing to throw her back, and Nebula hits the rock groggily, shifting to get right back up again. As he reaches to pull out the blade, snarling harshly and roaring at her, Gamora moves around behind him and trips him up.

She moves forward, faster than light, tossing Thanos to the ground where she drives blow after blow into his face, screaming something unintelligible. Gamora is crying, too, angry and upset and furious, and as Thanos grabs at her, Nebula moves fast. She drives for his wounded face and hits his eye so hard he screams in pain again and falls back against the dirt heavily. Nebula hits him across the face with both flesh and metal hands, until Thanos is a writhing mess of quivering flesh and blood.

Gamora lifts her head to the hooded figure and yanks Thanos’ head up harshly. Blood is pouring from his face, his entire figure completely weakened under their combined effort, and Nebula breathes hard, staring at their abuser in the face. She’d thought him a powerfully capable figure, strong and triumphant no matter what.

He doesn’t look so strong now, she thinks.

“A soul for a soul,” Gamora hacks out harshly to the shadowed guardian. “Him for me.”

The figure inclines his head and spreads his arms to the cliffs.

“Let it be so.”

Nebula looks at Gamora who nods jerkily as they grab Thanos, dragging him across the red rocky terrain, aiming a few kicks at him when they can. He’s heavier than anything and weakened too much to do anything but struggle in vain against them, but Nebula knows they must do this. She and Gamora pull him to the top of the cliff, the winds beating up a fierce storm all around them.

They look to each other, then. Gamora stares at her without really seeing her and Nebula wonders how she could have taken so long to see that her sister was her sister but not really. She holds her breath.

Gamora asks, “Ready?”

“No,” Nebula gasps out hotly. She feels as though she might collapse.

“Yeah,” Gamora says. “Me neither.”

“But it’s now or never.”

It’s a statement, a plea, almost. Gamora nods towards her.

“I choose now.”

“So do I.”

Gamora reaches for her free hand and squeezes. “If—if it doesn’t work,” she says falteringly, “I love you, too, Nebula.”

And somehow, Nebula finds the strength to lift Thanos up, looking at Gamora all the while, as together, they toss him down the cliffs of Vormir.

His body cracks instantly on impact as magic wraps around it fiercely, red sorts and dust around his broken figure. Nebula, her stomach clenching uncomfortably in a way that makes her feel as though she will be sick, leans out to look, to continue staring, unable to stop herself. It will be a sight to burn into her mind forever, the sight of Thanos’ broken body cracked out against the plains of Vormir.

Turned small and weak and cowardly, she thinks to herself with vivid satisfaction, her fingers still shaking slightly.

Nebula—,” Gamora gasps out before suddenly, she crumples to the ground.

Nebula lunges forward to catch her just in time, her sister collapsed against her arms. Gamora is still breathing, but fear pounds through her, as though Thanos’ ghost has wrapped his hands around her throat, still. She jerks her head up to glare accusingly at the figure before them.

“You swore that she would be okay! A soul for a soul!” Nebula bites out fiercely. “I will gut you from—,”

“And she is,” the figure snaps out, a little peevish, pointing at Gamora who is, to Nebula’s relief, breathing. “Her soul is intact, and she is returned to you.”

Nebula stares down at Gamora, her eyes bright with tears and burning slightly as she hoarsely lets out ragged breaths. Her sister is still breathing, she reminds herself, sagging a little with relief, exhaustion pulling her down. Thanos is dead and Gamora still lives. As it should be. Her arms wrap tightly around Gamora, protective and fierce as she shakes with grateful tears. Gamora is back, her sister is alive and well, and they are both free.

“Oh,” she manages to say weakly, before she too sinks to the ground, to her knees, clutching Gamora’s figure to her chest and sobs openly. “Oh. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

They are free.

Her breaths are shaky, her tears cool on her cheeks, but Nebula feels clean.

She remembers crashing another red planet, on Titan where she had learned she had lost her sister. And now she is on Vormir, having gotten her back. Nebula doesn’t know how long she stays there, rocking Gamora’s form to her chest and sobbing with gratefulness, but when Gamora starts to stir slightly, her eyes fluttering open as something whirs up behind them, Nebula lets go, staring at her sister all over to make sure she is okay.

“Nebula?” Gamora murmurs in confusion before her eyes widen and she jolts upright. “Thanos—Nebula, are you okay? I hurt you—,”

“You’re back,” Nebula manages to get out hoarsely, just before she lunges to wrap her arms around Gamora again. “You’re—you’re back. I missed you.”

Gamora embraces her back tightly. “Thank you,” she breathes. “Nebula, thank you.”

“I do not wish to break this touching display,” comes a voice and both sisters get to their feet immediately, razor-fast into defensive stances together. Nebula blinks, recognising the Watchers before them. They’re powerful figures, all yellowed eyes and stony faces. The first Watcher who speaks to them continues, his voice soft and quiet. “But Thanos is ours. We seek to imprison him for his crimes against the universe.”

Gamora moves to step aside for them, but Nebula does not. “No,” she says.

The Watcher eyes her dangerously, as Gamora tugs at her sleeve urgently, looking alarmed. “No?” he repeats.

Nebula lifts her head and looks him in the eye. “No,” she repeats. She turns to the figure guarding the soul stone. “If we could trade Thanos’ soul to get Gamora’s, then it stands to reason that anyone else could do the same?”

The figure inclines his head. “Possibly.”

“Possibly is more than enough for me,” Nebula says tightly. “Nobody can ever trade Thanos for anyone. His body must decay. It must be destroyed.”

The Watcher stares at her. “You are defying the ancient—,”

“I don’t care,” Nebula says tightly. Her voice is biting, though it softens as she continues to speak her piece. “Half of the universe is back from the ash Thanos reduced them to, and the other half will want …peace. Do you really want me to take you back to Terra and tell them that you are the reason they cannot find peace?”

The Watcher’s face creases a little, looking a little humoured. He pauses a little, lips twitching as his gaze turns to the cliffs.

“What will you do with him?”

“You’re a Watcher,” Nebula says. “Come watch.”

Chapter Text

Funnily enough, none of the Watchers take them up on their offer.

Instead, as Gamora sits and catches her breath, feeling weak, Nebula negotiates fiercely for one of their ships and helps her inside. She even moves to buckle her seatbelt but Gamora’s not that weak, so she does it herself, tiredly leaning her head back against the seat as Nebula drags Thanos’ body inside, pushing him into a smaller room, out of sight. She winces at the sound of Nebula dropping something heavy on Thanos, knowing that her sister needed constant reassurance, as she did and gratefully accepts the water and a few fruits that Nebula has managed to wrangle up from the ship.

Her sister starts up the ship and finally, they leave Vormir.

Gamora doesn’t look outside of the window as they go, focusing on swallowing the fruit. She keeps her head down, trying to breathe properly, when she realises that beside her, Nebula has put the ship on pilot mode and is watching her, something inexplicable cast against her features. Her sister hasn’t stopped looking towards her, constant, sporadic looks, and Gamora would find it uncomfortable if she didn’t remember what she’d put everyone through for the past few months.

Guilt wrenches her stomach.

She is getting her memories back in small fragments, of the past few months, and she can really only remember feeling unbearably weak and leaning sickeningly on Thanos and calling him father. It makes her feel sick, to think of it. She can’t begrudge Nebula’s wariness, her sister’s caution.

“I won’t hurt you again,” Gamora promises heavily, remembering the way Nebula had looked when she’d accepted that she would die by Gamora’s hand, for her. She hates that Thanos made her do that, made her raise a hand to her sister all over again like they were on the training mats all over again. This time, Nebula wasn’t the one with the cracked and broken body, though, she thinks viciously, her gaze lingering on Thanos’ dead form. “I’m—oh, Nebula, I’m so sorry. I swear it, I would never—,”

“Like you could hurt me,” Nebula says, tossing her head. But the faux smugness falls away quick enough, betraying itself as a mask when she stares at Gamora when she speaks, voice quiet. “I just—I’ve missed you.”

Her voice begins arrogant and scratchy before it softens a little, so unlike the Nebula that Gamora has known that it startles her. And, strangely enough, Gamora believes it. She’d almost killed her sister and still, Nebula loved her.

Gamora’s voice is completely gone, as she stares at Nebula, startled.

For a moment, she thinks that Nebula might take the words back, but she doesn’t, as her sister gets up to move towards the panel to make sure they’re on the right track. All those years, she had thought she was so terribly alone in her life, before she’d met the Guardians and Quill and Rocket and everyone, who had falteringly and stupidly stumbled over themselves as they attempted to love and care for each other as clumsy as they could. The cracked parts of her heart had started to heal a little and Gamora had been thankful every single day.

But Nebula had been there from the very beginning.

Her sister’s words linger in her mind.

“You think I have anything to live for?”

“Don’t do that again,” Gamora says suddenly, and Nebula turns her head, looking confused. Her voice catches up to her thoughts as Gamora explains. “Back—back there, you tried to sacrifice yourself for me, thinking you had nothing left to live for. That nobody would miss you if you left. Don’t you ever—ever do anything like that again, Nebula, do you understand me?” Her voice is harsh and keening in distress as Nebula blinks at her, startled.

“I don’t—I don’t understand.”

Gamora tilts her head. “Then let me help you understand,” she says. “How could you think—how could you even think that nobody would care, Nebula? Because I would! You think I would ever care to keep breathing, knowing that you had sacrificed yourself to let it be so?”

Nebula’s mouth tautens. “You’re a better person than I am,” she says simply. “You’re worth it.”

“Don’t you ever say that!” Gamora snaps at her angrily, breathing hard. “It’s—it’s not about who is better or worse. And you’re worth everything.” Her breaths hitch, but she knows what to say. “I love you, too, sister.”

And slowly, a small smile lifts Nebula’s mouth, lightens her features, casts her softer.

Gamora’s eyes water but she reaches forward to embrace her tight as the ship hurtles across the skies, the universe knitting itself back up again as the Watchers fix things quietly. Nebula’s form is shaking slightly, and she can tell that her sister is crying. It must have been a terrible time, Gamora thinks worriedly, and though Nebula hasn’t said a word to her, she vows to do everything she can to help her sister.

When they finally touch down on Terra, Gamora can’t remember how to breathe properly. Nebula isn’t nearly as nervous as she is, casually checking their landing as she opens up the ship and waves at the armies positioning themselves to fight.

When Gamora looks out, alongside her sister, the cries are resounding.

“GAMORA!”

“STAND DOWN! IT’S NEBULA!”

As they move out into the dust-strewn city, Gamora lifts her head to look at the straggling armies still struggling to stand to attention around them. The Iron Man Nebula had spoken of is leaning heavily on a red-haired woman, both of whom look determined and bloodied. Though their exhaustion seems to weigh them down heavily, Gamora can tell that, for this tiny, sad backwater of a planet, they wouldn’t hesitate to fight yet again. She can admire that.

And then she’s practically bowled over by the Guardians as they rush at her, embracing her tightly. Nebula has stepped away quietly and Quill is wrapping his arms around her and Mantis is touching her cheek and emanating love and affection and relief. Drax is holding them all, lifting them clean off their feet while Groot wraps tendrils of branches around their forms protectively. Gamora sobs happily, leaning her forehead against Quill, who is crying, too.

“You’re okay, you’re okay,” Quill is breathing hotly, his eyes wide and breathless.

“I am Groot.”

“I missed you, Gamora!” Drax says cheerfully.

“I can’t breathe,” Mantis tells them just as happily. “I think Drax is breaking my ribs!”

All of our ribs,” Quill manages to get out, suddenly just as breathless. “Drax, bud, come on!”

Drax finally lets them drop, but Groot stays near to her, brushing leaves against her tear-strewn face as Gamora’s breaths hitch. Her gaze rakes out over the place until it settles on Nebula and Rocket, who are standing close to each other, with ease and comfort and a familiarity that seems strange to her. Rocket is staring at them, something flickering over his features, and Gamora gently untangles herself from the rest of them before they’re walking up to Rocket.

“Hey,” she says.

“Milano’s fixed,” Rocket says shortly, as he tosses Quill’s Walkman back to Quill who crows with delight, thinking that he’d lost it. Gamora stays still, looking at Rocket with some confusion. He’s stiff and defensive and Rocket is only stiff and defensive if something is very terribly wrong. Before she can question him, he continues, “You guys ready to hunt down Thanos?”

Nebula smirks and turns her head to Tony Stark, eyes bright.

“There’s no need,” she says, just the edge of smugness in her voice. “We brought him to you.”

She bangs her hand against the ship’s door, letting it open up.

A gasp echoes throughout the entire city as Thanos’ broken form lies on the ground heavily for all to see. It’s a solid confirmation of the end of all of their nightmares as Tony almost breaks down in relief, collapsing against the red-haired woman who cries too, and the army finally stands down properly.

Gamora looks at them and thinks, this is relief, this is salvation, this is freedom.

Thanos terrorised everything in the universe and they rose up in anger against him for doing that. She feels clean, but these people before her, they are just as free.

Chapter Text

His sister talks like a queen.

It’s the first thing T’Challa realises when he opens his mouth to address his people and hears Shuri’s voice instead. She’s calm and clear when she talks, clearly addressing the few who were left behind as she rallies them to cheer for the ones who came back, turning her head to beam at him. Her eyes are bright with unshed tears, but it’s not even that that takes him aback.

It’s the maturity, the seemingly aged wisdom his little sister holds in her very stance.

Three months is too small a time for his sister to have grown up so fast, but he’d grown up when his father had died. And Shuri had not just lost him or their mother, but half of their people, too.

“Welcome back, brother,” Shuri says, smiling all over her face as she reaches to embrace him.

For a moment, T’Challa’s chest tightens and he wants so badly to be pranked. Shuri’s pranks are legendary around these parts and he’s always the best victim, as he never sees them coming and he has the best reactions, according to her. She’d pranked their mother once, but after being set to cleaning the entire foyer, Shuri had learned her lesson quickly enough. He’s too weak to set her to punishments like that and she’d happily exploited the weakness over and over again.

But Shuri just hugs him tight, her small body shaking slightly as her tears soak his back, and T’Challa reaches to embrace her back. His little sister, he thinks, his heart wrenching as he lets out a shaky breath. She was never meant for such harsh lessons as this, never meant to look so wise and ancient, never meant to have such a sad look in her eye. He feels as though he has failed her, even though the thought itself is ridiculous.

“It’s alright,” he murmurs. “I’m here. You’re alright.”

“But you weren’t,” Shuri breathes and T’Challa stills.

That’s the point, isn’t it?

He’d left his little sister for three months and she never deserved that. They both didn’t deserve anything like that.

T’Challa had never considered what it meant to die.

Of course, he knew what he’d do. T’Challa had always thought he would like to go peacefully, having done his part for his people and leaving a strong legacy behind. But he always thought of himself when he thought of dying. He knew he’d leave, but he’d never thought once of what he would leave behind.

When he lifts his head, he sees General Okoye and gives her a small, grateful smile.

T’Challa pulls back from Shuri and looks at her in the eye.

“I’m here now,” he tells her quietly but firmly. “You did it. You saved us, Shuri. Things are going to be okay now.”

.

.

Thanos’ funeral is aired all over the universe.

Rocket and Tony and Nebula make sure of it. Rocket knows what it’s like to have uncertainty that the nightmare is still out there, and this will stop any rumours, any attempts to bring him back. Nebula defied the Watchers for it and though she’s enough to stop them from delivering any consequences, Rocket slides a few notes into the aired messages throughout the universe. They talk about her sacrifice to commemorate her as a hero, for what she’d done on Vormir. Yeah, he’d exaggerated a little, but what can be expected of him?

They’re building a statue for her in Xander. He can’t wait to see her face when she sees it.

Of course, the funeral is not an average funeral, especially not with Tony Stark paying for it.

There’s glitter and confetti and literal fireworks that go off all around Thanos’ dead body and Nebula stands guard with a stony face while the celebrations and clean-up duties go on around her. They’re going to bury him under the same building Ebony Maw tried to bury the Avengers under, which is something like poetic justice, but Rocket doesn’t really give a shit. He throws a bunch of glitter, tosses a careless look towards his Guardians who are singing with Gamora, something in his chest aching, and steps beside Nebula.

“You ever going to let up?” he asks her. “You must be dead on your feet. You can rest, you know.”

“Tony says just a day’s turn,” Nebula tells him. She hesitates a little before she continues. “I know he’s dead, but I won’t—I need to see him buried, too.”

Rocket gets that.

She needs the closure, he guesses, because when he looks down, her fingers are still shaking incessantly. Even after everything, Nebula is still scared that her nightmare might rise back up and claw its way towards her throat. Rocket thought that he’d only ever fight for himself, then for the Guardians. Now he knows he’d fight for Nebula and the whole universe, too.

His gaze lingers towards the Guardians. Gamora’s giving him looks that he knows means he’s in for one of those shitty heart-to-hearts talks that Quill insists they do, for ‘team bonding’, whatever the fuck that means. Secretly, he quite likes them, but he’d eat his own code than ever admit anything like that to them. Even so, he they’re going to get the truth out of him one day, Rocket knows, staring at them with breathless relief and aching love in his chest.

One day, he’ll tell them how much he loves them.

How, after losing them, he wanted so badly to join them, but he loved them long enough to seek out a fight with the biggest murderers in the universe, face to face. How he thought of Quill when he looked at the Walkman, how he walked the empty ship relentlessly, dreaming of them, how he helped to cleave off Thanos’ hand, the same hand that had taken them so cruelly from him, snatched them away in the blink of an eye.

The snap of a finger.

Dear God, Rocket thinks, aching with affection as he stares, how he loves them.

“They don’t remember anything, but waking up,” Nebula says lightly, following his gaze. She doesn’t mention the lovelorn written across his face and continues, tactfully, “They turned to dust on Titan and then they woke up on Terra. That’s all they know.”

Rocket thinks of ash on his fingers, his ship parting through the clouds and the gut-wrenching grief he thought would kill him. Wanted to kill him.

“Good,” he manages to get out gruffly. “I don’t want them to know anything else than that.”

The nightmares were already eating away at him, but he didn’t mind them as long as the others didn’t feel them either. Tony and his Avengers were also struggling with their own set of nightmares, as they helped put their planet back to rights. After they’d gotten out of the medical bays, Rocket had seen them collapse together up on the rooftop in the nights, screaming in their nightmares but helping to comfort each other, over the few days since the war.

“Me, too,” Nebula agrees. She’s staring at the Guardians too, their blissful ignorance, and comments quietly, “These few months. They’ll—they’ll never understand it.”

“I don’t want ‘em to,” Rocket says fiercely protective. None of them deserve that, he thinks. Mantis still sometimes sees ash and freaks out, but they’re getting past it. He’s hiding his nightmares, but it won’t be for too long. Hopefully, by the time they find out what happened properly, Rocket will be relatively alright. He knows that he can trust them to help him, strangely enough. Their gazes fixate briefly on the way his Guardians laugh, effortless and echoing and happy. “They—they should stay laughing like that forever.”

Nebula doesn’t say anything, but she jerks her head slightly to agree. For a moment, they linger in silence together, before Nebula speaks again.

“Gamora is starting to remember the past few months, properly. Eventually, she’ll know it all and she will hate herself for it, though it was not her fault. She will hate that she turned her hands on us, that she chose Thanos, though it was not of her free will.” She fixes him with a sharp eye and her voice is strict when she continues. “You have to remind her that she is good, that it was never her fault at all.”

“Remind her yourself,” Rocket tells her suddenly, feeling slightly startled. What is Nebula planning? “She’ll—she’ll listen to you better.”

“No, she won’t,” Nebula says. “She is still sick with guilt from… Vormir.” She tilts her head up to look around them and something old and strange casts against her face, unfamiliar and quiet as she murmurs, “Besides, I don’t belong here.”

She wants to leave, he realises, furrowing his brows as he looks at her. Something cold slithers into his stomach at the realisation, his breaths coming hoarse and unbound. They all just got back together. Why does she want to leave that?

“Fuck that. What we’ve been through together—you’ve been beside me, Nebula,” Rocket gets out harshly. He’s not good at these emotional talks, but that doesn’t seem to matter as he wants Nebula to understand this, to know that she’s not just Gamora’s crazy sister to him anymore. “You’ve always got a place on the ship, as a Guardian.”

Nebula shakes her head. “I don’t want to be a Guardian. That’s always been Gamora,” she says.

And then, at the quiet flicker over her features, the hitch in her breath when she speaks of her sister, Rocket suddenly understands it. She’d spend so long under Thanos’ thumb and now she was free.

She wanted to know what else she could be.

He remembers whooping and screaming with joy the minute he’d managed to escape the scientists who dug into his back. Crashing into planets and raising hell, just for the sake of it. Learning about new planets and new foods and drinking his way through every single bar in the galaxy simply because he could.

Rocket looks at Nebula and he wants that for her, too. But he also knows that it gets lonely out there, so he clears his throat and swallows tightly.

“I’m serious,” he tells her, his voice a little taut. “Gamora’s had this room in the back all done up for you, even though nobody says anything. We all know that it’s—it’s your room. And you’ve always got a place with us. If you ever want to come to something like home, our doors are always open.”

She stares at him before nodding slightly.

“Thank you,” Nebula murmurs.

And as the first droplets of rain begin to fall over them, Rocket tilts back his head to feel the wind on his cheeks, the clouds clearing. For the first time, the air feels breathable and light again and he can finally breathe. He lets out a heavy breath, turning his head to see Tony starting to walk up to them.

Dusk is sinking down on them fast, Rocket realises, and the time has come to toss Thanos’ body into his grave. Tony is still limping a little, his face fresh with bruises, though they’ve all cleaned up. In the back, Rocket can see Clint and Steve keeping a concerned eye on him to make sure he doesn’t fall over. The rest of the Avengers are talking to their families and friends, helping Thor and the Asgardians with the Reunite program that Tony and Bruce had built up to help get people back to their homes and families faster. Rocket and Shuri had given their own input and he’d helped adjust it to make it universe-wide, for Xander to take up with them.

Nebula immediately helps adjust Tony’s footing as he looks over Thanos’ corpse.

“You ready to help us dump him in the dirt?” Tony says, as Nebula and Rocket nod, a harsh grin against their faces.

“I’ll get the livestream down,” Rocket says easily. “You got the shovel?”

Tony chuckles lowly before nodding. “Hey, you guys are going to stay for the party, right?”

Rocket blinks. “What?”

“Yeah, I’m just throwing a little something together, tomorrow,” Tony tells them, a twinkle in his eye. “Celebrating our win, you know? We kind of deserve it, I figure. Just a small get-together. Tiny. Miniscule, even.”

Well, Rocket thinks. As long as it’s just a small shindig.

Chapter Text

Tony throws a party for the whole city and then it turns into a worldwide celebration.

Let him explain.

It starts as a party that shuts down parts of the streets of the city and lights them up in red and gold fireworks (he couldn’t resist), before it turns into a parade that snakes through New York and fills the other states. And then somehow, the rest of the world is joining in with them, and their victory turns into a worldwide celebration that lasts for much longer than the week Tony had anticipated.

Betty Ross keeps giving him dark glares (they were still transitioning the American government and she was still Acting President for a bit) but even she can’t say anything when Tony manages to wheedle Thor into dancing with her. Lightning sparks around her form on the streets as she laughs when the god dips her.

Music pounds through the whole city, flowers streaming through the air, the world brimming with magic, in only the way a Stark party can create. The whole place is brought down in celebration and applause with live singers, lights and colours brimming through the city. Buildings are still half made, but because they managed to evacuate the residents, they found temporary homes, leaving the whole of New York practically empty. Which is a good thing, because people have set up parties everywhere. Fireworks crash around the whole place and Thor has turned the Brooklyn Bridge into a makeshift slide, unconvinced that that’s not what the bridge was originally made for.

King T’Challa and his people brought the liquor and the music, along with General Okoye who is enthusiastically re-enacting her fighting scenes while everyone discovers what they already knew: Steve Rogers can’t dance for shit, though surprisingly, Bucky Barnes can. Valkyrie and the girls are clearing out most of his liquor cabinet, drinking shots and Gamora whoops drunkenly when Valkyrie jumps onto the table to dance.

Someone has managed to get their hands on water guns in the toy stores and the whole city is completely soaked as colours spray the air, though the feasts are protected by the live orchestras. Fireworks, balloons, and cascading glitter, drums sounding, dancers and sculptures and revelry, it’s everywhere, and the world seems alive again.

As Clint put it so eloquently, “We’ll live, but for now? We dance.”

So, where are their heroes?

Tony slumps heavily against the sofa on the rooftop of the tower, staring out at the celebrations and blinding festivities with a small smile as Bruce brings them the platter of food. Clint is already moving for the candyfloss, tearing it apart and handing it to his kids who clamour happily over it. Natasha’s gaze lingers on the pelmeni briefly before she reaches for the beer and clinks it against his own. Tony is completely exhausted, but he drinks anyway, staring at them all with a breathless sense of relief and wonder in his chest.

The screens before them flicker slightly, as people from all around the world and parts of the universe send messages to them, thanking them. It makes their cheeks go red every time Tony sees them, but mostly the Avengers watch the messages just to see the celebrations and festivities and unadulterated happiness pour from them.

India is filled with colour and the streets are bursting with dancing, while Egypt is practically brimming with gold lights as people dance in night parades, silks and music strewn around the cities, Ireland’s greenery effervescent, Germany’s parades pounding, Mexico alive with music and colour. And everywhere, Tony can see people laughing and dancing and singing together. Sure, there’s a couple of people humping Steve’s picture but that’s to be expected. Nobody’s perfect.

The old man on the latest screen is commenting on their victory. He looks like Hugh Hefner, Tony thinks, squinting.

“I mean, I think I’d have done a better job,” he drawls, as they all laugh, “but I guess we made do. It’s been a fight for the ages and I’ve never been prouder.”

Steve collapses beside them, as Bucky makes his way towards them. Tony raises his head to examine the expression on Steve’s face, relieved when he sees that Steve looks more at ease, especially with Bucky looking far more comfortable than he ever did. Bucky nods at them all in quiet greeting and they smile back, all of them piled against each other on the sofa. Bruce is dozing lightly against Steve’s form and Clint is the only one who is just a little bit away from them, with his family, Natasha lying across Steve and Tony’s laps with ease.

“Why don’t you guys join the party?” Bucky says, gesturing to the celebrations behind him. In the distance, Thor’s magic erupts, and children scream happily as he lifts them in the air, Loki helping to levitate them down as the water ripples over them. “You’re the only ones hiding away and you’re the reason for all this. That this could even happen. That’s not the Avengers we knew.”

Steve’s smile is soft, even turning a little patronising and Tony can see the reaction in Bucky’s face, making him look a little wary. It’s clear that he’s never not been able to read his best friend before, but then he’s likely never seen Steve so at ease with the people around him either, and that, Tony realises, is the thing that makes Bucky look at him softer. Three months is, after all, a very long time.

“We’re good here, Buck, just watching,” Steve tells him honestly, though that’s really only part of it. “Besides, you get the best view of Thor and Valkyrie surfing from up here.”

“Cheers to that,” Natasha says laughingly, clinking her glass against theirs.

Sam lopes towards them, party streamers threaded behind his ear as he laughs with a few Wakandans. “You guys aren’t coming?” he asks, raising the Polaroid to click a few photos of them sprawled out on the sofas together. Natasha pulls a funny face and Tony sticks his tongue out as Steve grins at them all.

“Not yet,” Steve says.

“Ah, man,” Sam says, looking like Christmas came early, “you’re about to make Bucky cry.”

Bucky turns to him. “If you take another picture of me—,”

But Sam’s already clicking the Polaroid. “You’re an ugly crier—,”

They chuckle as Sam bolts and Bucky throws something at him.

“Mr Stark!” Peter is moving towards the rooftop, his eyes bright as May follows him with a small smile. “How come you guys are all up here? They’ve got these real nice food downstairs. Nebula says it’s called, um, pel—pem—,”

“Pelmeni,” Natasha says gently, adjusting herself so that Tony can get up to talk to May. “You want some?”

Tony looks at Peter. “Have you eaten? What do kids eat? You need a vegetable.”

Peter rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “I’m fine, Mr Stark,” he says, as Steve and Natasha introduce him to more foods on the platter and Tony turns to May.

“Saw what you did for my boy,” May comments with a small smile.

“I’m—I’m really sorry, May,” Tony begins heavily. “I never should have let him stay with us on Titan, I should have taken him straight home—,”

May’s smile is gentle. “Don’t do that to yourself, Tony,” she tells him. She looks earnest and soft when she speaks. “I’m glad that you were there with him. He said that he was terrified, but you were with him every step of the way and I can’t ask for anything more.”

“I tried, May,” Tony tells her earnestly, pleadingly. “I’m really sorry. I tried.”

“I don’t know what it was like,” Hell, he thinks as May looks at him, “and I don’t think I could imagine it. But for what you and everyone have done for us all, out of the sheer goodness of your hearts, the selflessness—I can’t believe that there are people out there who are so kind.” She’s crying as she stares at them. “Thank you.”

Tony stares at her, not knowing what to say. “I—,” he begins hesitantly, before he lets out a slight laugh. “You make us sound like saints.”

May looks up at him, watery-eyed. “You’re heroes,” she says, before she lets out a breath. “What are you going to do now?”

He shrugs quietly. “I tried to retire, once. Twice. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t.” Tony shakes his head. “Is there a difference?”

May is looking at him. “You don’t have to,” she tells him. “Besides, you’re a genius, right? You’ll figure out the key to happiness soon enough.”

Tony’s gaze turns to Peter, who is crowing and laughing with Natasha as Steve pulls a face over the food. A small smile blooms against his mouth.

“Yeah, I think I already have.”

She follows his gaze. “Can I leave him here with you?” she asks, though it’s not really a question and it’s not really for her, Tony knows. “Valkyrie swears she can match me, shot for shot.”

Tony grins as he nods. “Yeah,” he says gratefully. “We’ll keep an eye on him.”

As May leaves to talk to Peter, who nods enthusiastically and moves aside to let Tony collapse beside him, he lets out a breath of relief and wraps an arm around Peter protectively, letting the kid tuck into his side. When Tony looks out at the world, night is starting to slowly set, the sun sinking in the skies and red washing out over them all. People are starting to look exhausted and leaving, though they have smiles on their faces and that’s really all Tony has ever wanted.

Peter stifles a yawn and Tony’s attention shifts.

“You tired, kid?”

“No,” Peter lies blatantly as Steve chuckles, before he lifts his head up to blink at Tony sleepily. “You look tired, Tony.”

He’s right.

They haven’t been sleeping well. All of them, even Thor. They just can’t do it, all of them still traumatised and desperate to keep their eyes open long enough to make sure this isn’t a dream. Even the small nap Bruce has fallen into has spanned at least ten minutes, but he’ll be up soon. They spend their nights making plans for the future and settling things properly, but they refuse to sleep. Tony would be worried for the others, except that would make him a hypocrite and he can’t really begrudge it for them.

They will sleep eventually, he reasons. Just maybe not right now.

“Didn’t anyone tell you to be respectful to your elders?” Natasha chides playfully, while Bruce blinks himself awake and she immediately rests a comforting hand on his arm to make sure he doesn’t freak out again.

Peter blushes but he looks back at Tony, his brows furrowed in concern. “When’s the last time you slept?” he asks, before he looks around at them all. “Have you guys slept at all?”

Steve’s reaching for a slice of pizza. “Sleep is for the weak.”

“I’m rubbing off on you,” Tony scolds playfully.

But Peter is refusing to be distracted.

“Tony.”

Tony looks at him properly, appreciating briefly the way everyone else seems to fade away, gently disentangling themselves from the sofa to give them privacy. Not for the first time, Tony is grateful for the effortless way they seem to see and understand him. He thought he’d hate something like that and would only want Rhodey to see him as he was. But having the Avengers by his side, as something like a family who looked out for him when Howard didn’t, heals a part of his heart that he didn’t know needed healing.

He lets out a breath. Peter deserves everything.

Even his honesty.

“If—if I close my eyes,” Tony says hesitantly, his heart in his throat as he stares at Peter, “you’ll be gone. And I—I can’t do that again, kid. I just can’t.”

“Oh.” Peter’s face shutters with understanding. He lifts his head to look up at Tony and his voice is soft when he speaks. “I’m scared, too.”

“I’m not—,” Tony begins defensively, before he swallows hard. “Yeah. I can’t—I can’t lose you again. I wouldn’t make it.” He corrects himself, voice low, “I wouldn’t want to.”

Peter reaches a hand to touch his face and Tony breathes out, leaning into the touch as the kid smiles at him softly.

“May used to say something when we lost Ben,” Peter says. “Today’s a gift and we can’t let it go.” He breathes hard. “What happened was horrible and I’m—I’m sorry that I—I did that to you.”

“No,” Tony says fiercely. “You didn’t do a thing, Peter. Trust me, kid. You’re the best of all of us.”

His cheeks flush but Peter smiles at him.

“You don’t know whether you’re going to lose me or I’m going to lose you and things are going to be whatever we make of it. And I have a feeling that things are going to get better.” He takes a deep breath. “We’ve all got you and we’re not going anywhere. You’ve saved the universe. So, you can rest now, Tony.”

And finally, Tony lets himself slump against the sofa, Peter still in his arms, as he closes his eyes and lets the exhaustion pull him down. Running on a week of no sleep and lots of coffee with the others wasn’t very wise, especially when the doctors had told him not to get out of the medical bay and Tony had done it anyway. He lets himself let out a breath, finally relaxing properly for once, and all the years of sheer horror and pain fall away in the light of this love.

As he’s drifting away to sleep, he can feel Peter wriggling slightly and opens one eye discreetly. Peter wrinkles his nose.

“I didn’t realise he’d be a snorer.”

Tony laughs louder than he’s laughed before.

.

.

“You son of a bitch,” Wong says, as Stephen collapses down on the sofa.

The cape tugs itself around him, protective and soft and warm as Stephen resists the urge to nuzzle his nose against the soft material, almost breathless in his exhaustion. Celebrations are still going on outside the Sanctum, with some of the wizards performing their magic and entertaining themselves, but Stephen is too tired. All he wants to do is fall into his bed and sleep for the next century. If any Titan comes knocking, he’s not available.

“Ugh,” Stephen says unintelligibly, planting his face into the pillow.

“We pulled it off,” Wong laughs. “I can’t believe we actually pulled it off.”

“Told you we could,” Stephen mumbles. As Wong reaches for his blanket to lay over him, before the cape lightly taps his wrist and Wong gets the message, pulling the blanket away and letting the cape wrap itself around him, Stephen says, “I don’t want to do that again, ever.”

Wong’s voice is soft. “Neither do I.”

Stephen lifts his head. “I never—I never asked. How did the past months go? I mean, I saw parts of it, but—,” he breaks off, seeing Wong’s face.

Oh. That bad, he thinks.

“We got through it,” Wong says.

“Yeah,” Stephen says as he sinks down into the bed. “Yeah, we did.”

.

.

They’re all sprawled on the rooftop of the tower, watching the sun come up.

The world is quiet for once, but in a soft, completed way, as though things have finally slotted back into place. There’s still music somewhere in the distance, the remnants of the party lingering around them, but the world is like the sky after a storm, washed clean.

Steve hasn’t slept all night, with Natasha just as alert and aware by his side, both of them taking turns to look to Thanos’ grave and keeping an eye on their little team together. She’s already taken copious amounts of videos of Bucky and Sam snoring together. Bruce is cradled within Hulk’s form, both of them shifting slightly to the surface as the sunlight streams over them softly. Tony wakes to find Peter nestled into his side and presses his lips to his cheek tearfully. Steve watches Thor wake up to look for his brother protectively, still shaking a little though Loki is sleeping heavily in the prison that they’d insisted on but Loki had only rolled his eyes at before entering and demanding a slice of Steve’s pizza, and he pauses, wondering if he ought to say something but Thor breathes out properly.

He’s bustling about in the kitchen quietly, getting breakfast ready as the sun filters in through the windows, framing them all in dusted glimmers of gold. Slowly, everyone else wakes too, and they meander into the kitchen, to help him bring up breakfast. Tony and Bruce take the trays and cups while Natasha fills up the coffee maker and Clint and Thor help Steve balance the plates.

It’s routine by now, a familiarity that brims under Steve’s skin with comfortable ease as they move sleepily around the kitchen together, murmuring good mornings and adjusting each other.

It’s domestic, Steve thinks as he reaches to grab the cup that Tony accidentally drops.

Gold sunlight casts against them all, soft rays of dawnlight sweeping pink pastels, sweet yellows, and quiet reds all over them. The smell of burnt toast lingers in the air, mingling with Clint’s quiet humming as he lifts himself up to get at the pantry and Natasha uses her hip to push the fridge door shut, bumping hips with him in a makeshift dance that has them both smiling. Bruce is tossing Tony his blueberries, Thor is shuffling forwards and yawning sleepily as he helps Natasha take out ingredients from the top shelves, and Steve’s heart just swells with love and warmth and appreciation for this moment.

“Steve? You want blueberries?” Tony is asking and Steve nods.

“I got the coffee,” Natasha says, piling up their worn mugs on the tray and reaching for an extra blanket to hand to Thor. “Who’s bringing the plates? Not you, Clint.”

“You spin one plate—,”

“It wasn’t just one plate, it was ten,” Bruce tells him, grinning playfully as Clint rolls his eyes and follows them up.

Steve takes the plates and Tony snatches up another blanket before they make it back up to the rooftop again, movements soft and familiar as the pink dawn gleams over the world, cascading sunlight bathing it in a rosy gold. He helps them all set out the breakfast on the ground this time, instead of the sofa, as Peter, Rhodey, Bucky, and Sam are still sleeping soundly. Tony’s face is all filled with affection as he lovingly places yet another blanket on Peter, adjusting it over Rhodey as well.

Natasha snags a bit of toast, thanks Clint for the orange juice he poured her, and passes Steve a cup of coffee. They eat quietly, content, Natasha and Tony sprawled out on the ground and leaning beside each other, as Clint lingers back with his family. Thor and Bruce collapse against each other and Steve leans back against the wall and keeps an eye on them all.

“So, what do we do now?” Tony asks. “Anyone got our next breakdown scheduled?” They all chuckle at that, Steve’s lips quirking upwards though they make an effort to be quieter, casting careful looks on the sofa behind them. But Peter only snuffles in his sleep and shifts a little. “We, uh, gonna get back together the next time shit hits the fan?"

"I don't want that," Steve says. "I don't want to lose this. I don't want to lose us."

“I will be helping rebuild Asgard,” Thor tells them. He grimaces a little. “It will take time and I am afraid I might not be able to come here as much as I would like.”

“You can bring us there, though?” Bruce asks. “We could help you. That a good idea?”

Thor’s eyes brighten and his smile crinkles his cheeks. “Yes,” he says. “That’s a very good idea.” He lets out a breath. “I will spend forever striving to be worthy of my people.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, his eyes on his family as he reaches to adjust the blanket on Lila lovingly, “I get that.” He lifts his head to look at them. “I’ll be ‘retiring’, too. Farmhouse is in ruins, though, and Laura’s always wanted to move into the city. I’ve got a few places here that we can set up.”

“I can think of no place safer,” Natasha murmurs before she turns to Tony, filching a few blueberries from him. “That is, if you’ll have us here?”

“Ah, go on. I think I can put up with you all a little longer,” Tony says good-naturedly. He pokes at Steve playfully. “Still think we should put you in a home, though. All that running around can’t be good for your knees.”

“Are you ever going to stop the old jokes?”

“Yeah, careful, Tony, or he’ll hit you with his walking stick.”

Tony grins, but he clears his throat a little to speak. “Besides, I was thinking of what we can do with the Compound and the Avengers Initiative.” He looks a little nervous as he continues. “The roster’s filled back up now, so we can move them all into the Compound. I was thinking we should… take a bit of a backseat, this time, to teach and train and do our own thing together.”

Steve barely has to think about it. “That sounds great,” he says, and Tony’s relieved smile makes his chest warm. “A …retirement stint, so to speak. I have a lot of drawings to catch up on.”

Tony’s grinning, reaching for something on the plate beside them. At first glance, Steve thinks it’s a watch, but it’s a bunch of phones. “Exactly. We’ll be guys in the chair.” He flushes with light fond embarrassment when they grin at him. “That’s what the kid calls it, anyway. Working behind the scenes.” He tilts his head towards the guys on the sofa. “Let them take the reins for once.”

“I like the sound of that,” Natasha says.

“Let’s be honest,” Clint says. “None of us are really going to retire for good. Steve might say he’s going to sit and start drawing, but we all know he’s going to start ranting on Twitter again.”

Bruce hums. “The Hulk keeps liking all his posts, so we’ve got no complaints here.”

“No Nick Fury to force us together,” Tony says, as he hands out the phones to them. “No SHIELD or Hydra, no US government. Just the United Nations, and the whole world, finally knowing that they can count on us.” He pauses. “And each other. These only work with us, our fingerprints. You want to talk, talk. You want to come by, drop in. If we need each other—,”

“We’ll be there, and we’ll have each other’s backs,” Steve says softly. “Thank you, Tony.”

Natasha’s playing with her phone already and grinning. “What if I want to tell you that your new haircut is terrible?”

“What’s that, blondie?”

“We won’t speak of that anymore,” Natasha decrees laughingly as Steve lets out a breath.

They had fought so hard and so much, he realises quietly as they descend into an easy, comfortable silence between each other, Natasha sprawling out against his legs and Tony reaching up to adjust the blanket on Peter’s shoulders, while Clint smooths out Lila’s hair. Bruce reaches for a cup of coffee that Thor pours out and Steve looks at them with a loving ache in his chest. He thinks they deserve a bit of the goodness they give to each other.

Steve thinks this time around, they’ll manage it.

And as they eat breakfast, they watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.