Actions

Work Header

Let's Change the Inevitable

Chapter Text

“And for another, we have the hulk.”

Hulk charged in the same moment Loki leapt forward, the Tesseract bouncing away as he grabbed Thor with both hands and dragged him away from Thanos. They rolled, falling from the raised platform that they had been standing on mere hours ago, before the optimism and hope for the future had been swallowed by the shadow of Thanos’s ship. Every bone in Loki’s body ached, but he swallowed a comment down when he considered Thor’s bruised and dirty face, blood dripping from his nose, the corner of his mouth, the wound on his temple from Thanos’s gauntlet. Loki swallowed at the sight of that too, averting his eyes.

Thor groaned in pain as Loki pulled them both upright, his face contorted in a pained snarl as he glared with his one eye, slurring his words through bloody spit. “You still have the Tesseract?! Loki!”

“You can conceive some terrible and awful punishment for me when we’re out of this mess,” Loki said through gritted teeth, hooking one arm under Thor’s and hauling him further back. Thor resisted, trying to twist out his grip, leaning his weight towards Hulk.

“Bruce. We have to help Bruce…” he trailed off, heaving for breath to hiss out each word.

We have to get out of here.” Loki kept his grip on Thor, holding him back from doing something stupid, because he would definitely do something stupid and heroic and get them all killed. He scanned the debris and—and the bodies… for the Tesseract while Hulk fought a losing battle against Thanos as they traded punch-for-punch: single-minded fury outmatched by cold, brutal calculation. Hulk stumbled just as Loki spotted the Tesseract behind a fallen column of metal pipes and grating, wires and cables sparking weakly with blue-white electricity.

Unfortunately, Maw spotted it the same time.

Meeting each other’s eyes for the briefest moment, registering that the other had seen the prize, they lunged for it: Maw elegantly striding forward to pluck it from the ground, Loki frantically scrabbling across the floor on bloody hands and knees to snatch it back. Maw was faster, uninjured at full health, but Loki didn’t play fair. He summoned a dagger from the ether and threw it as he made a final dive for the Tesseract.

His fingers closed around the sharp corners of the cube.

The dagger sank into Maw’s arm.

Thanos beat Hulk to the ground, a shudder reverberating through the floor.

The jolt stole the Tesseract from Loki’s fingers; he chased it as it tumbled across the floor with three heavy, dead clangs that rang in Loki's ears, before it scraped to a stop at Maw’s feet.

Sound left the chamber. His vision shrank until there was nothing but the Tesseract, it’s cold light casting a blue glow on Maw’s smug face as he reached down with his good hand and curled his fingers around it's edges. Loki tracked it, unblinking, as time slowed to an almost standstill in the few short seconds that Maw presented the Tesseract to Thanos, his words warping and dragging through his little speech. Thanos crushed the cube in one hand in less than a second, but Loki saw it as if it took an hour, watching every crack and splinter form across its surface before it crumbled to dust between his fingers.

It fused to the gauntlet, set on Thanos’s knuckle next to the power stone. He turned his attention back to Loki and Thor.

Everything sharpened into focus again under Thanos’s stare. He couldn’t look away, even if he tried; his heart threatened to burst out his rib cage and run away, his ears roaring in time with his pounding pulse. Cold sweat pricked down the raised hairs on the back of his neck, but he didn’t unclench his fists to wipe it away; he wouldn’t reveal how badly his hands were shaking.

Stall him.

His voice was lead. His mouth was too dry to speak; even if he could, they had no means of escape. He was good, but he couldn’t talk forever. Thanos wouldn’t allow it.

“I recall, you once said you would bring the Tesseract to me,” Thanos said, slowly approaching them. “In return for the use of the sceptre I granted you use of, for the vengeance you coveted against the man behind you.”

His eyes flicked from Loki to Thor, who wheezed for breath, his weight falling more heavily on Loki’s back by the dragging second. Loki braced him, keeping his body between Thor and Thanos.

Stall him.

“Instead, you would’ve attempted to keep both from me, for the same man behind you.” He said it without malice or anger; a statement of fact that left no room for denial.

Stall him.

Loki found his voice, forcing a smile onto his face, indifference into his words. “Perhaps you could consider it a momentary lapse in judgement. The other two stones on earth—you’ll need someone with experience to guide you to them. I have that experience.”

Thor jostled him sharply, but Loki refused to look at him, his eyes fixed on Thanos.

“If you consider failure experience," Thanos replied with a half shrug. His generals formed a half-circle behind him, watching Loki with savage glee. Loki’s knife hung at Maw’s side, the hilt rolling between his fingertips, blood dripping down his arm. Loki didn’t look at that either. Out the corner of his eye, Heimdall lay bleeding in the rubble, mouthing the words to call on the rainbow bridge one final time. Just a little more time…

Stall him.

“I consider experience, experience,” he countered. Shifting his weight, he slyly gripped Thor’s wrist tight in his hand, and prayed Thor didn’t give them away with his stupid face. “In the end, it’s all the same: I’ve been to earth, I know who and what is there.”

“The Avengers,” Thanos said. He nodded, approaching them.

Thor tensed behind him, ready for a fight: Loki kept his grip firm, holding his ground even as Thanos narrowed the gap between them, even as he saw his own death closing in on him.

“Yes,” he agreed. “The Avengers.”

“The same group of humans that defeated you,” Thanos said. “Do you consider that another lapse in your judgement?”

A beat of silence. Loki licked his lips, searching for an answer.

He was going to die.

“See, that has always been your downfall, Loki,” Thanos said. “You’ve always lacked conviction.”

He was going to die.

He summoned a blade from the ether in his free hand, hiding it from view. His heart raced in his chest, chasing his death with each pounding beat. He fought for something to say; anything that would give them—him—just a few seconds more, just a little bit longer to come up with a plan.

Time ran out.

Loki flipped the dagger around in his hand, catching the hilt as Thanos reached for him.

Light erupted from behind Thanos, a kaleidoscope of colour racing through the ship. The rainbow bridge shot past them, carrying Hulk’s half-conscious body along in its path. Loki leapt for the edge, pulling Thor along with him.

Triumphant, he turned to smirk at Thanos and his Generals.

The glint of a knife out the corner of his eye stole his attention the second before it sank into his throat.

It jolted him backwards, stopping his breath, his remaining knife falling from his grip with a distant, hollow clatter. A white blanket fell over his vision, spotted with black flashes, his steps faltering as he half-jumped, half-fell into the rainbow bridge. His fingers loosened from Thor’s wrist, even as he screamed without a voice to hold onto him, to pull him to safety, to save him. With one last spasm, they closed on empty air, and he shot through the window and out into space, the rainbow bridge carrying him far away from the decimated Asgardian ship, and Thor.


They zipped through space at dizzying speeds, only Heimdall knowing where the bridge was taking them. Loki swam in and out of consciousness, his hands curled around his throat to stem the bleeding, his magic exploding from his fingertips in a frenzy to salvage the damage caused, the hysterical green flashes healing him without conscious thought. He gasped for breath around the blade of the dagger as his magic slowly rejected it from his body, fighting to remain awake.

The knife was nearly completely ejected when a small blue planet rose up in his vision, the rainbow bridge arcing down onto its surface.

Earth. Of course.

The planet surface came into focus at an alarming rate: mountains, cities, streets. The rooftop. Two floors. The stairs.

The rainbow bridge collapsed there, leaving them sprawled on the floor in a nest of rubble and debris, while the rest fell down around their heads. His dulling, spotting vision found two shadowy figures looking down on them, bright orange circles like shields fizzing and sparking in front of them.

I remember them…

“Thanos,” Banner—now Banner, not Hulk—said nearby, outside of Loki's vision. “Thanos is coming.”

Darkness swallowed Loki.

Chapter Text

Loki dragged himself back to consciousness through spite and stubborn force of will, his breath rasping in his throat as he pulled in deep lungs-full of air. Frozen where he lay, he blinked up at the ceiling for a few short seconds, recalling the where and the who and the how he ended up where he lay now.

Throwing himself upright, he ignored the black spots flashing in his peripheral vision and the sudden wave of lightheaded nausea, and grabbed his throat with clumsy, shaky hands. Dry, thick cotton scratched his fingertips, extending all the way around his neck; he mapped it blindly, testing for damp or boggy areas of drying blood. His wound hadn’t bled through, although his throat pained him with every breath; he sent out gentle, probing wisps of his magic to assess what would cause the residual burning ache, hyper aware of his heartbeat as it sent throbbing pain up his throat, and through his jaw, culminating in a headache that split through him from temple to temple and arced over his skull.

Muffled voices from a nearby room distracted him, his magic retreating back into the ether from where he called it. Straining his ears, he recognised Bruce’s hurried, frazzled stammering and the slow, muted drawl of the earth magician he and Thor had once encountered.

He swung his legs over the side of the table, gripping the edge till his knuckles turned white and gritting his teeth. Of all the places to send them, Heimdall had chosen the second-rate pretender who had been too cowardly to fight Loki in magic. Loki sneered; Heimdall must have lost his touch—or his mind—in his final moments to send them here. That gave Loki pause, pressing his lips together thinly. Thanos wouldn’t allow Heimdall to live after helping him escape, and Thor would follow—had followed—him to death at Thanos’s hand——

No.

Thor wouldn’t die. He couldn’t: he was too stupid for that—too stupid to keep hold of Loki’s hand so they could escape, too, no surprise. No: Thor would find some elaborate, dramatic exit from the fight and come storming back with cloak billowing and lightning flashing because “that’s what heroes do”. Idiot.

Loki’s shoulders slumped, and he slid off the table onto his feet. A little unsteady, unsure of the floor underfoot, but he strode as best as he could through the open doors and into the main entry hall, where Bruce stood speaking to the sorcerer and another Loki didn’t recognise. The sorcerer saw him first, his gaze shifting away from Bruce, who followed his eye line over his shoulder and spun to face Loki.

“Loki! Holy… I thought you’d be, I thought you were, I mean, you were pretty out of it.” Bruce stopped a few feet away from Loki, wringing his hands together. “You had me, uh, had us worried, there, for a while.”

“Actually, he was the only one worrying,” the sorcerer corrected, pointing at Bruce.

The other one nodded in agreement. “He would not sit down long enough to tell us what happened when we pulled you both out of the hole in our staircase. He was up and down and up and down from his seat. Then the pacing! Back and forth and back and forth and back——”

“Yeah, okay, I think he gets it, guys,” Bruce interrupted, glancing over his shoulder and holding up one hand to halt the repetitive rambling. He turned back to Loki. “Listen, Loki, do you—”

We need a plan, he interrupted. Well, that was what he wanted to say: instead he just wheezed, the words lost in a raspy hiss of air. He coughed, his throat contracting painfully as he struggled to breathe through the scratchy pain. Hands curled around his arms as he slumped forward, steadying him, his fingers scrambling for purchase: he latched onto Bruce’s shoulders, leaning his weight on him until he could breathe again. Regaining control, he jerked his head up, meeting Bruce’s eyes: Bruce’s face mirrored his, the perfect reflection of the dread that dropped his heart to his stomach. Gasping for breath, his eyes slid from Bruce to the sorcerer, who’d drawn closer during his coughing fit.

“Loki…” Bruce warned.

Loki lunged for the sorcerer, and stumbled out a fizzing orange portal on the other side of the room.

The sorcerer flicked his cloak over his shoulders as he turned elegantly to face Loki. “Let’s not do this again, hmm?”

“Loki, maybe you should just—”

Loki prowled toward the sorcerer again, summoning his dagger from the ether. The pull of magic flipped the room onto a steep axis, his vision sliding the opposite direction. His head reeled, pain squeezing his brain until he could feel it pulse. He shook his head, his foot slipping out from under him before he righted himself.

“Loki, I would suggest you don’t exert yourself—” Loki’s dagger glanced off a solid disc of magic, sparks hissing and flashing from the edges like fire embers as he flipped the dagger between each hand, thrusting it towards the sorcerer from every achievable angle, parried every time. “Loki, enough.”

What did you do to me? He snarled silently, nothing but hoarse, raspy gasps of air passing his lips. His vision shrank to a blur of orange and blue smudges on top of each other. The sorcerer didn’t answer, unable to understand him, parrying him again and knocking him back a few steps: Loki paused, panting for breath. Sweat clung to his forehead and temples, slipping down his cheek as he glared at them all with wavering vision.

“Loki, come on,” Bruce pleaded. “Let’s not get Big Green in here.”

The mention of Hulk drew Loki’s eyes to the faint, eerily familiar green glow resting on the sorcerer’s chest from a chain around his neck. He followed Loki’s gaze, his lips thinning into a grimace. He shook his head slightly. “Don’t—”

Loki threw the dagger in his hand: it bounced against the shield of magic and spun away into a corner of the room. While the sorcerer’s arms were raised, Loki rushed to grab the time stone from his neck.

The fizz of magic dispelled, and strong, firm fingers circled his wrists, halting his tracks inches away from the stone. The sorcerer and Loki glared at each other, frozen in place.

Loki snarled, and tugged his hands away. The sorcerer did not let go.

He tugged again, shaking them for emphasis.

“Are you going to stop attacking me?”

Loki just glared, and pointed to the stone. Use it, he mouthed. When the sorcerer narrowed his eyes in confusion, Loki exaggerated the words—use, it—and pointed between the stone and his bandaged throat, jabbing his finger more desperately towards the latter. The sorcerer’s face softened, his confusion replaced with understanding, then replaced with sympathy.

“Loki, I can’t do that. Loki—” He gripped Loki’s wrist tighter when Loki lunged for the stone again, the corner of his cloak whipping out and snapping Loki on the calf. The sharp strike was enough to undo Loki, sending him crumpling to the ground. He grunted when his knees hit the floor, keeling to one side. His hands, now free, caught his fall. Panting for breath, he shuffled into a sitting position at the base of the stairs, pulling knees up to rest his elbows on them, supporting his head on his hands.

Bruce came and sat beside him, placing a tentative hand on his shoulder. Loki shrugged him off, and Bruce did not try again. “Loki, it’s not Dr Strange’s fault. Don’t be mad at him for what Thanos did to you.”

Too tired, too angry, too overwhelmed—and unable to argue anyway—Loki wordlessly pointed to the time stone again, then back to his throat.

“Loki, if I use the time stone to reverse what happened, you’ll bleed out on my floor,” Dr Strange explained. “Your own magic seems to have automatically repaired the damage on a superficial level, but I can’t undo what you subconsciously did and correct it at the same time. You’ve lost too much blood and we have no way to provide you with a blood transfusion, given we don’t have immediate access to any, and we didn’t know your blood type.”

“Or whether Asgardian’s even have blood types.”

“Oh, uh, actually, Wong, he’s not Asgardian, he’s, uh, he’s…” Bruce looked to Loki, waiting for Loki to stop him. Loki was past caring. “Jotuun.”

“Even better,” Strange drawled. “Although you seem to be recuperating from the blood loss faster than a human, so I imagine a little more time and bed rest will get you back to full strength.”

Loki rolled his head up, glaring at him, and gestured to him from head to foot, mouthing: doctor.

Strange sighed, looking down at his hands. Loki noted the heavy, methodical scars that scored the skin on the back of each from wrist to each fingertip. “I’m not a practising doctor anymore, and if I was, I was a neurosurgeon, not an ENT surgeon. I wouldn’t be able to help you.”

Loki hung his head, his frustration and desperation draining from him until empty hollowness filled him instead. He reached up and touched the bandage around his neck, wondering what the mess hidden underneath looked like. A silvertongue who couldn’t speak… he’d be the laughing stock of all of Asgard, if any still lived to see him like this. His fingertips fell from his neck, his hands curling into fists on his knees. He’d curse Thor if he still had a voice: Thor had chosen to go to earth, he had put them in Thanos’s path. Now Loki was mute, all because he tried to protect and save Thor.

Better that he was dead, otherwise Loki would kill him himself if he ever saw him again.

He touched the bandage again, sending little streams of magic into his throat to assess the damage, and winced at what he felt: a mess of cartilage and tissue and muscle and nerves stitched back together haphazardly, repaired to the bare minimum of survival. Evidently the focus had been to himself breathing, while everything else was a by-product of the magical interference. He dropped his hand from his throat: the complicated meshwork of repairs and corrections he’d have to make, without making it worse or affecting the surrounding structures, would take him time he didn’t have and energy he needed to regain before he could begin.

Thanos was on his way.

Loki needed to leave.

Bruce spoke with Strange and Wong over his head, none of them paying attention to him. He eyed them surreptitiously, recalling his dagger from the other side of the room and slipping it into the ether. Glancing towards the door, he judged the distance: he wouldn’t go unnoticed, but he could disappear into the crowd if he moved quick enough. Checking that none of the men around him were paying him attention, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and pushed himself up from the stairs.

Striding towards the door, he heard the crackling hiss of Strange’s magic—

—And tripped straight through a swirling orange portal.

 

Loki hated sorcerers.

Chapter Text

“Now what?” Tony muttered, gently pushing Pepper back as he approached the fizzing orange circle expanding in the middle of the path. So much for no more surprises, he hated his promises being broken so quickly: he’d have to log it and see if two whole seconds was the new record. Beyond the sparking, crackling—well, he guessed it must be magic, he hadn’t had a normal day since 2012—vortex, shadows and shapes began to focus into a large open hall facing a set of shattered stairs, four indistinct figures standing on the other side; until one fell through onto the ground by Tony’s feet, and he jumped back a step, surprised. Then shock turned him ice cold when the figure hurriedly pushed themselves to their feet, raising their head to meet Tony’s eyes.

Loki?!”

Loki’s eyes widened in recognition, his jaw falling open before he clenched his jaw shut with a clack, the muscle jumping in his cheek; he rolled his eyes in exasperation over his shoulder and onto the second figure stepping through the portal.

“Tony Stark? I’m Stephen Strange,” the man introduced, striding towards Tony and completely ignoring Loki glaring at him. Another surprise that Tony didn’t like.

“I need you to come with me,” Strange added. “We need your help.”

“Uh, “we”?” Tony repeated. He pointed between Strange and Loki. “You and him, that the “we” you’re talking about? Cause between not knowing who the hell you are and definitely knowing who the hell he is, neither is a “we” I want to help. Thanks for thinking about me, though, I’ll send you a card.”

“Tony.”

Tony stopped short at the voice, his breath catching in recognition. It had to be impossible, but no, there stood Bruce, stepping out of the glowing orange light show almost exactly as Tony remembered. A little older, a little wearier, with dark shadows under his eyes and a more noticeable slump to his shoulders. “Bruce.”

He couldn’t think of anything else to say, lost for words as Bruce carefully stepped around Loki without blinking an eye—even gently patting his shoulder to pass him, like they were friends—and stepped in to hug Tony. He opened his mouth to speak, his arms automatically coming around and returning the hug, and still couldn’t find the words, his jaw slack and his eyes finding Pepper’s, who looked equally lost.

“Are you okay?” It sounded stupid, even to his own ears. “What is going on?”

“Best not speak of it out in the open,” Strange said. “But I assure you, it is not an understatement when I say the fate of the world is at stake.”

Tony exhaled heavily, his heart racing. The end of the world had finally come.

*

Tony listened intently to Wong as he summarised the creation and existence of the Infinity Stones, each possessing a unique power: powers that the Avengers had been circling the edges of for years, stretching their hands out blindly to them every time one showed up, reaching without fully understanding what they were trying to reach. Someone else had been reaching for them this whole time as well, invisible fingers seeking out the stones for something big, something world-altering.

“What’s his name, again?” Tony asked, dropping his hand from his chin into his lap. He kept his hands loose, his feet planted firmly on the ground to stop his leg from bouncing, as every nightmare he had had in the last six years became grounded in reality before his very eyes. Unable to keep completely still, adrenaline ratcheting his pulse up to the pounding of war drums in his ears, he stood, making a show of studying the holographic display Wong had made of the stones.

“Thanos,” Bruce replied, wringing his hands together.

From Greek: Thanatos, “death, to die, dying”. Vindication didn’t feel as good without a full audience.

“He’s the one who sent Loki to New York,” Bruce continued. Loki gave a jaunty wave from where he sat on the wrecked staircase. “It’s all him. He was the mastermind behind it all, not Loki.”

Loki scowled at that.

Tony pursed his lips in thought, tapping his fingers against his palm as he considered the information that had been laid out before him, picking at connections and pulling at the strings of ideas and plans to see how far they spun before discarding them one after the other.

“So, this is it,” he muttered. He paced around the room with an air of nonchalance, as if he were considering the decorations instead of the end of the world. “How much time do we have?”

“No idea,” Bruce answered, his arms spreading wide; animated, restless. A visual mirror to the whirlwind in Tony’s mind. “Could be days, could be weeks, could be hours. He has two of these stones, that makes him more powerful than anything else in the whole freaking universe. You can’t imagine what he’d do with all six.”

Tony could argue with that. His nightmares could, anyway.

“And what about him?” he asked, pointing to Loki. “He’s on the team now?”

Bruce inched across Tony’s vision to put himself a little bit more in the direct line of sight to Loki. Tony didn’t know how to react to that, the shift in dynamic between Loki and Bruce surprising him every time he looked over and saw Loki lounging on the staircase like he belonged there, with them. So, he didn’t react at all, turning away and leaning against an old standing pot and stretching his legs, keeping up the façade of calm indifference to his nightmares coming to life.

“We’ve… been through some stuff, me and Thor and Loki,” Bruce explained carefully. “He’s helped us more than once when it mattered, so I think—hope—” he glanced at Loki when he said this, “he’ll help us now.”

“Bit of a stretch to put hope in this guy when Thor is more reliable, don’t you think?”

“We don’t have that option,” Strange interjected. “If Thanos gains the power of all six stones, he could destroy life on a scale hitherto undreamt of.”

““Hitherto undreamt of”? Seriously?”

“Get off my cauldron of the cosmos. Seriously.”

A slap of heavy material knocked Tony’s leg down, and he whirled around to see the Strange’s cloak drop back into place, except his hands had been nowhere near it. Odd.

“Okay, Mister Magic, if you don’t want him to get all six stones, why not take that one and flush it down the garbage disposal? Or hit it with a hammer – hey, you guys didn’t think of taking Mjolnir to the space stone while you had it?”

“Mjolnir was destroyed,” Bruce interjected, rubbing his hands down his face.

“By Thanos?”

“By Thor’s crazy older sister.”

“Oh my god, he doesn’t just have you?” Tony asked Loki. “Poor bastard.”

Loki glared at him harder.

“We swore a life long oath to protect the Time stone, not destroy it,” Wong explained.

“And priorities don’t change?”

“Not this one,” Strange said.

“Obviously neither does your fashion in what, two-thousand years?”

The cloak—not Strange, the fucking cloak—slapped his leg again, and he startled back a step. Strange smirked at him, raising his eyebrows in challenge.

“Okay,” Tony said, pointing at the cloak and reorienting himself to the reality where clothes were sentient. “You know what, I will deal with that later.”

“The Time stone may be our best chance at defeating Thanos. It’s one of the few advantages we have against him.”

“And you don’t think the fact that it’s an Infinity Stone makes it an advantage to him, against us?”

"Only if you have no idea what you're doing."

"I think I have no idea what you're doing? What is that, again?"

“Okay, guys, we’re not getting anywhere fast, and Thanos is making a beeline in our direction,” Bruce said, stepping in between them. “Can we focus on that, please?”

“Look,” he continued. “We know there are two stones on earth—that one, and the mind stone, which is with Vision. We have to find him and get him somewhere safe, if there is someplace safe.”

“Uh, yeah,” Tony said, scratching his ear. “That’s… There’s a hiccup, in that plan.”

“What? What hiccup? Why hiccup? Androids don’t get hiccups.”

“Not this one. He turned off his transponder a couple weeks ago,” Tony said, pacing again. “He’s… gone. Offline. Untraceable.”

“You lost another one? Tony!”

“Hey, he’s… he’s evolving, learning. He’s his own grown up person-android-bot.”

“Is there anyone else who can find Vision?” Strange demanded.

Tony paused, his back to them. One name sprung to mind. He discarded it and it bounced back, because, really, he was the other person Tony knew who had even the most tenuous link to Vision, if he still had Wanda under his protection. Shit.

“Steve Rogers could,” he said eventually. “Maybe.”

Strange scoffed in disapproval, shaking his head.

“So, what are we waiting for?” Bruce asked. “Call him, get him here; get all the Avengers back and let’s do this. Just like we always do.”

“Ha, yeah, uh, that’s the thing, buddy,” Tony said, facing Bruce again. “You've been out of the loop for a while so I'll give you the abridged version: there are no more Avengers. We split up.”

“Split up? Like we’re some kind of boyband? What…”

A rasping, high pitched wheeze interrupted Bruce, and they turned to Loki, who sat clutching his stomach and curling over himself, gasps of air hissing through his teeth. It sounded like he was choking, or gagging for air, until he threw his head back, and he was actually laughing at them: holding his head in his free hand, he pushed his hair off his face and gestured between Tony and Bruce, his gaze focused on the latter. His grinning mouth formed silent words, carried on high, whistling hisses of breath, but Tony could understand the gist of what he found so funny. Earth’s mightiest heroes, indeed.

“Okay, you zip it,” Tony said, rubbing his forehead. “Look, so, we haven’t spoken to each other in a while, and that doesn’t look like it’s about to change.”

“Tony,” Bruce said, pulling Tony’s attention back to him as he stepped in close. “Listen to me. Thor is gone. Thanos is coming. It doesn’t matter who you’re not speaking to.”

Tony clenched his teeth, hating the truth staring him right in the face. He paced, battling with himself. Anger had been harder to hold onto the longer time passed, but pride kept its claws sunk in deep; he had kept the phone for a reason, because logic won out against both of them. One day all his nightmares and fears would catch up and find their way to his doorstep. One day would come where he’d need people who he had at least trusted once upon a time to come and fight them off, because he couldn’t do it alone. One day, he’d have to swallow his pride and anger and reach out to the one person who still extended their hand to him.

One day had just arrived.

“Okay,” he relented. “Okay.”

He fished the old flip phone from his pocket, flipping it open and selecting the one number listed there. He thumbed over the call button, gathering the conviction to press it, when something shifted in the air. A cold breeze; a sudden change in air pressure. The hairs on the back of his neck rose, a chill creeping down his spine. He glanced at the others: Strange’s narrowed eyes and tense shoulders gave away his awareness of the change; Loki had stopped silent-laughing, his face pale and jaw slack, a fine sheen of sweat beading on his brow.

They glanced around the hall, barely breathing as the wind picked up outside, rising to a quiet, mournful howl.

“Hey Doc, tell me that’s you waving your hair to be dramatic.”

“That’s definitely not me,” Strange drawled.

A low, rumbling moan filtered through the hole in the roof, alien and threatening, carried on the wind.

Loki pulled himself up by the banister, staring at the front door. Beyond it, shadows rushed past, faint screams of terror joining the discordant choir.

Loki swallowed, his chin trembling as he slowly formed two words that made Tony’s blood run cold.

He’s here.

Chapter Text

“Nope, we’re out of here,” Clint said with a strained laugh, offering the Red Skull a sarcastic, single wave. “Thanks for your time.”

He strolled over to where Natasha sat with her back turned to the cliff edge, her chin resting on her clenched fists. Her gaze was far off in the distance, her mouth set in a grim line.

“Jesus,” Clint sighed, shaking his head and readjusting his weapons on his back. “He’s lying. He’s gotta be making this shit up.”

“I don’t think so,” Natasha said, her eyes still slightly off to the left of Clint.

“Come on, Nat, we’re really going to trust the word of a hundred-year-old floating Nazi?” he asked, beginning to pace. He glanced over at the Red Skull, but he did nothing more than float silently to one side, leaving the path to the cliff edge clear. Unlike Clint or Nat, he didn’t seem to be affected by the light snowfall that caught in their hair, or the biting wind that nipped their faces. Clint turned and paced back towards Nat.

“He knew other things.”

“What? Like your dad’s name? So, what?”

“I didn’t.”

Clint paused, staring at Natasha.

Natasha finally dropped her gaze to her fists, her thumb rubbing over her knuckles as she spoke her next words thoughtfully. “Thanos brought Gamora here, and left with the stone, but not her. It can’t be a coincidence.”

Clint heaved another sigh. The logic was reasonably sound, for what is was: the fact it was called the “Soul Stone” itself meant it just had to have some bullshit mystical rule attached to it. That was how those type of things worked in stories, right? Mjolnir only answered the call of the worthy, only the true king could pull the sword from the stone; only a soul could pay for the soul stone. He looked over at the cliff again, the sharp edge muted by the dark purple shadows cast by the dull twilight sun. Vormir seemed to permanently exist in twilight, stuck in the in-between of night and day but never one or the other. Maybe it was the power of the stone, the incorporeality of it: both “here” and “not-here”, neither one or the other until a decision was made. Schrödinger’s stone.

“Ah, shit,” he cursed. “Yeah, okay.”

A small, sad smile pulled at the corner of Natasha’s mouth. “We did say, whatever it takes.”

“Yeah, whatever it takes,” Clint agreed, hanging his head. “Aw, man.”

Natasha finally looked at him, catching something in his tone, and climbed to her feet, closing the gap between them. “Without the stone, we can’t undo what Thanos did. Billions stay dead; not just on earth, but everywhere in the whole universe.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

They both stared at the cliff, blinking light dustings of snow off their eyelashes.

“Well, then, I guess one of us is going over,” Clint said finally. The knowledge didn’t scare him; it didn’t really do anything to him, the numbness in his bones had settled so deep for so long that nothing could shake it. What was the emptiness of death, if not the next natural step? At least it would count for something. That was all that mattered in the end. That was why he had chosen the life he had lived.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Natasha agreed. The soft, sad whisper of her voice made his heart clench: if there was one regret he would have in doing this, it would be causing her pain.

“We both know who it’s gotta be,” he replied softly, his best attempt to comfort her. They might have all the time in the world with the Pym particles for a long, drawn out farewell, but it would just be delaying the inevitable. Best just to bite the bullet—or more accurately, take the leap—and get it done so she wouldn’t have to stay longer than needed on this damned planet.

“Yeah, I know.”

Clint reached out his hand to hers one last time, clasping it tight. It felt right, like the most natural thing in the world. He couldn’t remember his life before her; couldn’t remember what it had been like, before they dragged themselves out of that collapsing building, his enemies and her former colleagues raining fire and metal down on them. They’d trusted one another from the very first, on the split-second decision when he had offered her a different way, and she’d grabbed it—and him—with both hands and fought for it, tooth and nail and sheer force of will. Selfishly, he was relieved he didn’t have to know a life after her.

Then she squeezed his hand, clutching it in both of hers, and he felt the slight tremble through her gloves, the tension in her arms.

His heart stopped, his blood running cold. He stared at their joined hands, his body rigid for fear of one wrong move could send her bolting before he could talk sense into her. He collected his thoughts, keeping his tone light and casual as they locked eyes. “I’m starting to think we mean different people here, Natasha.”

“The last five years, all I’ve wanted to do is get things back to the way they were,” Natasha said, her face slack with shock, as if she was genuinely surprised he’d take the leap for her. “Everything I’ve done was so I could get here, to do this. So, everybody could come back.”

“Oh, don’t get all decent on me, now.”

“You think I’m going to just let you do it? I’m trying to save your life.”

“I don’t want you to,” Clint replied, shaking his head. “I don’t need you to. You never owed me a thing.”

Natasha, trying to interrupt, closed her mouth, her words dying in her throat. Unable to look away from each other, as if truly seeing each other for the first time, Clint smiled sadly at her.

“Nat, things can’t go back to how they were,” he said. “Too much has changed. I’m too different from what I was; they wouldn’t even recognise me, what I’ve become.”

“I don’t judge people on their mistakes.” Natasha shook her head, stroking Clint’s hand reassuringly. Her eyes shone in the dim light with unshed tears, her voice wobbling just on the edge of her words. “You never did.”

Clint’s composure began to slip, his eyes burning warningly of tears to match Natasha’s. He clenched his jaw when his breath quietly hitched, his chin trembling with the building grief. One of them would go over the cliff, and the surety that it would be him began to slip from his grasp. He blinked his eyes rapidly, speaking around the lump in his throat. “You’re a pain in my ass, you know that?”

Natasha smiled, and they leaned in as one, closing their eyes and pressing their foreheads gently together. Like this, they could feel each other’s every little movement, from the change in their breath to the shifting of their weight, neither pulling away nor pushing closer. They could feel the small shivers elicited by the cold, the warmth of shared body heat.

Clint listened to the steady rhythm of Natasha’s breathing, the warmth of every exhale ghosting over his jaw. Loose strands of her hair tickled his forehead. He marked the feeling of it one last time, before he opened his eyes and pulled away, straightening with resolve. “Okay. Okay, Nat, you win.”

Natasha visibly relaxed, her shoulders sagging, relief smoothing the furrow of her brow.

Clint grabbed her collar and swept her legs out from under her, throwing her to the ground. “Sorry, Nat.”

He pushed up and turned, running for the cliff edge. A weight struck his back and pain erupted through his nerves, shocking his limbs into spasm. He cried out, stumbling and face planting on the ground. Boots crunched across gravel on his left as Natasha ran for the edge, and he threw his arm out, catching her ankle as she passed him, and pulled her to the ground with him.

She landed with a winded grunt, stones scattering. Clint scrambled to his feet and dragged her back. Leaping over her, he tried for the cliff again.

This time, the weight that landed on his back was Natasha’s whole body, leaping onto him piggyback style and throwing off his centre of balance. They tipped sideways, landing heavily on the ground again, within meters of the edge. Eyeing the distance left between them and the jump, Clint tried to wriggle out the tangle of their limbs, both pushing himself away from her and grabbing her arms and legs to hold her back from the edge. She fought him the same way, neither of them freeing themselves from the other as they both inched forward while failing to keep the other back until they dragged each other to their feet at the threshold, the sharp, sheer drop yawning wide beneath them, the jagged rocks ringing the flat circle like starving, waiting teeth.

Panting for breath, locked against each other in a tangle of arms and legs, they fought to keep the other balanced, while trying to send themself over the ledge. They wavered, finding their precarious balance. Clint’s pulse pounded in his ears, frustration raging through him like a furnace. He gritted his teeth, his eyes frantically darting between Natasha’s face and the drop awaiting one of them.

“God damn it, Nat, why can’t you just let me jump?” he hissed through his teeth.

“Why can’t you?” she demanded right back. Her eyes flicked to the bottom of the cliff before her determined gaze returned to him. “They think the world of you; you’ll never see them again if you do this.”

“I’ll never see you again if you do this!” His voice cracked, his lungs heaving in his chest. His heart beat so hard in his chest he felt it would burst out his ribs and throw itself over the ledge. It would follow Natasha over anyway, if she got away from him. He wavered, dangerously close to the edge, and he shifted his weight as a stronger gust of wind rose up from the bottom of the cliff, battering them impatiently.

“Clint,” Natasha said softly, apologetically. “Clint.”

“No. No.” He shook his head, forcing his eyes away from her, looking anywhere but her face. “No, I’m not going to do this.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” she reassured. “You just have to let me go.”

He shook his head again, more frantically, squeezing his eyes shut and sucking in great lungsful of air. He couldn’t use his whole strength to throw her back and himself forward; he could pull them both over by accident.

“Clint,” she repeated, her voice close to his ear, her breath whispering across his skin.

He opened his eyes, and there she was, inches from him.

“Nat, please. Don’t.”

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “I promise. It’s okay.”

“Nat…”

Her hand relaxed in his grip, slipping free and dropping to his waist. His grappling rope shot out to the side, embedding in the flat rock. He jerked his head to the side, his hand falling to where hers had been, loosening his hold on her further.

Then she shoved, pushing herself over the edge.

“NO!”

He lost his balance, falling after her a short distance when the rope pulled taut, stopping him a few feet from the edge while she continued down, down, down. “Natasha! NATASHA!”

He screamed in frustration and pain and fury, his face turned to the swirling clouds above, screaming wordlessly at them, cursing the whole universe.

The clouds above the two stone obelisks marking the entrance to the clifftop opened up above them, the wind rushing up through the tunnel created by them. Thunder rumbled across the sky, light flooding down from the strange, swirling tunnel and racing across the underbelly of the dark purple clouds. There was a blinding flash, and everything abruptly stopped.

Clint clung onto the rope keeping him from falling for several long minutes, staring down into the darkness beneath him: he couldn’t see Natasha, although that was probably for the best. The last image of her face would be of it inches from his, her eyes soft and her smile gentle. He gasped for breath through his sobs, unable to gather the strength to pull himself up. A part of him didn’t want to: let the rope fail, let him fall to his death. What did it matter, anyway? What could they achieve? Five years will still be missing, five years that couldn’t be erased with a snap. They’d bring people back, but they’d come back to a world they didn’t know or recognise. How fucked up was that?

Natasha shouldn’t die in vain, though.

That thought was enough to give him the strength to pull himself back onto the cliff top with a pained sound at the back of his throat, to force him to go on.

He operated on autopilot, his movements sluggish and numb. He unhooked the rope from the rock bed, winding it back onto its spool by his side. Approaching the Red Skull with heavy footsteps, he extended his hand out to him.

“You got your sacrifice, now hand over the stone and let me off this planet.”

The Red Skull cocked his head, his expression curious and confused. “I do not have it.”

Clint’s thoughts short circuited in a white-hot surge, red bleeding across his vision. “What.”

“The stone should come to your possession after the sacrifice has been made,” he explained. “I cannot possess it, myself, to give it to you.”

“Then where the hell is it?” Clint snarled, his hands balling into trembling fists. “Where the hell is the stone? What did Natasha throw herself over the edge for?”

“I cannot presume to know the stone’s reasons behinds its actions. I only advise those who seek it.”

“The stone’s reasons? It’s a shiny pebble, it doesn’t have reasons!” Clint spat. He glared at the Red Skull, his whole body shaking with adrenaline. “You lied, didn’t you? You fucking lied, you son of a bitch! We didn’t need to sacrifice anything! Natasha died for nothing!”

“I assure you, the way to the stone is sacrifice. A soul for a soul. Perhaps, the soul was an inadequate offering for the stone.”

His cold, monotonous tone broke Clint, and he drew his bow and arrow from his back, firing it at the Red Skull.

The arrow shattered before it reached him, and the Red Skull threw him across the rock with a blast of power. Clint slammed into the ground, sprawling across the gravel. Winded, he gasped for breath, hauling himself to his feet and rushing at the Red Skull again. He stopped short, stumbling to his knees when he saw empty space where the Red Skull had been floating. Twisting on the spot, he sought him out, his eyes darting across the jutting rocks and uneven stone, but he was alone on the cliff top, the mountain silent save for the wind and the far-off rush of waves against the rock face.

He was gone, leaving Clint alone and without the stone.

Defeated, Clint buried his face in his hands and cried.

*

Clint slowly picked his way down the mountain path, his feet scuffing the dry dust. He felt no rush to return to the present, even though he could avoid the trip down if he travelled back. He couldn’t face the others with his failure: losing Natasha and the stone was too much to bear alone, without seeing the heartbreak and disappointment on everyone’s faces when he told them.

No, better make the slow descent, stewing in his own guilt than run away back home the instant it was over. He considered if he could find Natasha’s body; at least take it home with him, give her a proper burial. Vormir had stolen her soul, surely it didn’t need her body.

He stopped short, clutching the wall beside him as he curled over himself, the pain in his chest too great to bear. He heaved for breath, tasting bile in his throat. Unable to throw up or catch his breath, he stood there for several long moments, trapped in an airless, choking fit, struggling to find something to ground him back to his body.

Eventually, it passed, and he straightened. Wiping spittle from the corner of his mouth, he gulped in air to his struggling lungs, and began to continue down the path when something caught his attention out his peripheral vision. Pausing, he turned his head, and squinted out across the flat plains of dust and sand, his eyes narrowing in on the single dark figure hurrying towards the mountain.

His heart leapt in his chest, the hairs on his arms rising in the hope that maybe… maybe…

He tampered down on the hope with a pained noise in the back of his throat, refusing to give life to the seed that planted in his heart, and inhaled a steadying breath, his hand on his hip, and glanced at the figure again: they didn’t seem to have seen him, but then, most people didn’t have Clint’s vision. They simply kept their hurried pace over the dunes, unwavering in their path: they were definitely heading towards the mountain. Clint began to walk again, picking up his pace, keeping one eye on the trail ahead and the other on the figure on the dunes: if they were foe, he could take on a single combatant hand to hand. If it were friend… god, he couldn’t stop the part of him that prayed for a miracle. He hurried down the trail, faster and faster, his eyes still straying to the approaching figure until they snapped into focus, and he saw who approached the mountain even in the dim light of the mountains shadow. He broke into a run, the ground beneath his feet giving way from solid rock to soft sand as he jumped down the last few feet.

“Natasha!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.

Natasha stopped in her tracks, her head jerking up; even still so far apart, he felt her eyes on him, and she threw herself into a run, racing towards him.

Clint called her name as he ran, ignoring the burning in his legs and the freezing air in his lungs as the distance between them lessened and lessened, until Natasha leapt into his arms, and he caught her.

Forced back a step with her momentum, he steadied them both; her legs hooked around his waist, his face buried in the crook of her neck. He wrapped his arms tightly around her back, feeling the weight and warmth of her: not a mirage, not a hallucination. Tears tracked down his cheeks, catching on her hair, the damp red-blonde braid pressed messily against his face, tickling his cheeks with loose strands. He didn’t care; didn’t care how she clutched him so tight it hurt to breathe, didn’t care her suit felt wet, as if she’d been swimming, didn’t care that his arms and legs were shaking with exhaustion after the trip back and forth up the mountain, he’d hold her till the day he died if it meant he’d never have to let her go.

“I thought it was a trick,” she whispered, tears thick in her voice. “I thought it had taken you instead.”

He hugged her tighter.

Eventually, she shifted in his grip, her legs slipping down his hips to get back under her, holding her up. Clint didn’t pull away, keeping his arms locked around her waist, his forehead pressed against her shoulder. She clutched him just as tight, her cheek brushing against his, warm despite the cold air.

Clint straightened, his gaze falling on her face. He shook his head in disbelief, brushing away some loose strands of hair from her face, curving his palm to cup her cheek. “I thought I lost you.”

Natasha smiled, her lip trembling still, and they closed the last little distance between them and kissed. They moved together, neither initiating it, simply doing it; they kept it simple, closed mouths pressed firm and tender against the other’s lips, Clint’s hands cupping Natasha’s face, her hands pressed against his back, under the sheath of his sword and the quiver of his bow, only his suit between her hand and his body.

Clint drew back first, cocking his head back, his brow furrowed in confusion. “So, then, what happened to the stone?”

Natasha smiled, opening one of the small pockets attached to her belt, and withdrew the faintly glowing, orange soul stone.

Clint exhaled in a shocked rush: he hadn’t expected she would have it until he saw it, nestled in the palm of her gloved hand.

“How? We’re both—”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I don’t know. I just didn’t want you to be dead.”

“Well, I’m not going question when things go right,” Clint said after a moment of consideration. “Let’s get out of here.”

Natasha nodded, slipping the stone back into the safety of the pocket. Clasping each other’s hand, they activated the quantum suits, and went home.

Chapter Text

“Time travel?” Bruce repeated, speaking around a mouthful of scrambled eggs. He laughed under his breath, shaking his head. “You’re kidding me, right?”

“I’m afraid not,” Steve replied.

“We never meet up just for coffee. Why do we never just meet up for coffee?”

“Scott thinks its possible,” Natasha added, nodding to Scott sitting beside Bruce.

Time travel?!”

“Bruce, we wouldn’t be asking if we didn’t think we had a chance.” Steve leaned back in the booth next to Natasha, his coffee sitting untouched in front of him. The four of them sat at the back of the café, Bruce facing the door on the seat furthest from the window as he ate his way through three helpings of eggs and two full stacks of pancakes, washing it down with a pot and a half with coffee. Yet there was no sign of Hulk to account for such an appetite, when Steve had rarely seen Bruce finish a full plate of cereal when the Avengers had still been together.

Bruce caught him staring, and cleared his throat, wringing his hands on a napkin. “Sorry about this. I’m pretty hungry these days.”

“Eating for two does that,” Natasha joked lightly, resting her folded arms on the table, idly spinning her cup with her fingertips.

“Yeah, well, I don’t know about that.” Bruce shook his head, gulping down the last of his coffee and hailing the waitress for more. “It’s been five years since I last saw him. Five years of being Hulk free.”

“That must be a new record.”

“Yeah, you could say that,” he scoffed. “You wanna know what my last record was? Fourteen months. Fourteen months was the longest I’d ever been without Hulk surfacing, and before that, the longest had been five and a half. Now, five years, nothing. Not even a rumble. It’s… It’s weird.”

“Well, we didn’t come here looking for the Hulk.”

“I think you’d be disappointed either way, Steve,” Bruce replied. He leaned back against the high back of the booth, rubbing one hand down his face with a sigh.

“You know, there was a time when I believed; if Hulk ever showed up, one too many times, that was it for me. Bruce Banner would never be coming back.” He rubbed his eyes, casting his gaze up to the ceiling as if the answers were written on the tiles. “And now it’s like, Hulk is gone. I have to live with just being puny Banner again, have to remember I’ve not got that safety net where Big Green shows up and I’m saved from harm. I could actually get hurt. It’s crazy to think that I was taking him for granted, all those times I complained about him.”

“I’m sorry, Bruce.”

Bruce shrugged. “Yeah well, it’s not like we can change the past.”

“I mean, you say that,” Scott interjected. “But, if we had time travel…”

“It’s impossible,” Bruce replied. “Even if it wasn’t, you would have to contend with the time paradox created by said time travel: going and changing the past would—theoretically—only create an alternate timeline while leaving this one unchanged, or you would—theoretically—change this timeline’s present for the worse, or you might change your past so your future never happens. Theoretically.”

“Yeah, Stark maybe mentioned that,” Scott said, chewing on his soda straw.

“Tony knows his stuff. He’s got a better idea of this kinda thing, I’m mediocre at best.”

“What? Don’t you have, like, seven PhDs?”

“Yeah, and I’m currently having to use all of them to stop the whole world collapsing in on itself.”

Steve sat up straighter in his seat, his eyes narrowing. “What do you mean?”

Bruce sighed, dropping the forkful of eggs half way to his mouth back on to the plate. “I mean, while you guys have been dealing with natural disasters and averting civil wars, what do you think has been going on in the background?”

Steve and Natasha shared a look; Natasha shrugged.

“Everyone seemed to be looking out for themselves, all the governments had the same idea of isolationism and focused on their own problems,” Natasha summarised.

“Yeah, well, it’s not like they had much choice, when Stark Industries bought out the majority of the worlds weapon manufacturers—don’t make that face.”

“What face?” Steve asked.

“That face you just had of big disappointment, like Tony betrayed you or something.” Bruce leaned forward, folding his arms on the table and fixing Steve with a hard look. “Let me tell you something about the world, about its governments, Steve: they don’t care. They didn’t care that half of all living things got wiped out; they didn’t care that their population was halved. All they cared about was whether or not their half was bigger than everyone else’s half, and they were ready to gamble on war after war after war just so they could take someone else’s remaining resources to keep themselves comfortable. Except Tony, by sheer dumb luck, is one of the few billionaires left alive with his company still standing, and he and Pepper swallowed almost all of his former competitors within a month and turned them into something useful: he’s the reason the world still has running water, has electricity, has cleaner energy. He stopped all-out war before if even began, so innocent people didn’t get hurt, so they could keep on living whatever lives they have left.”

“So, you can take the moral high ground and be the righteous man, believing that people, or soldiers, or governments, will do the right thing because it’s the right thing, but the reality is, you’re the only one who thinks like you,” Bruce said. “Tony saved the world in the most effective way he knew how, so everyone else could stand a chance.”

Steve averted his eyes to the table, pressing his lips into a thin line in shame. “I’m sorry, Bruce. I shouldn’t have jumped to the worst conclusion. Even if that is true, I don’t want to do this for the sake of the government or world leaders, I want to do it for the innocent people who got caught in the crossfire of our fight with Thanos. I want to try because it is the right thing to do, so people can live their lives with the one’s they loved and lost. Even if we fail.”

“Yeah, well,” Bruce conceded, relaxing back into his seat. “Even when we succeed, things still aren’t looking great.”

“That’s an understatement.” Natasha smiled mirthlessly.

Bruce shook his head. “Nah, nah, nah, you don’t understand. The governments released a census of the missing people, but not anything else. Hell, if anyone found out I told you guys... this is what me and the scientific community has been working on behind the scenes for the last five years: we’ve been studying and calculating the remaining numbers of all the remaining resources left, cause Thanos didn’t just wipe out half the people, he wiped out half of everything. That caused problems in on itself.”

“Wait, what? How?” Scott asked. “I thought the whole “destroy half the universe, save the other half” was Thanos’s great plan?”

“Except how many species—doesn't matter if they're plant or animal—can you think of that were on the “kind of endangered” list? Half those numbers, suddenly they’re now “really endangered”, and all those species that were “really endangered”? They’re now effectively extinct. And don’t get me started on the crash to the eco-system when half of all insects alone disappear.”

“Bruce, all I’m hearing is even more reasons to give this a shot,” Steve countered. “If the situation is that bad—”

“Oh, it’s not even close to what you’re thinking,” Bruce replied, rubbing his eyes under the lens of his glasses. “I’m talking twenty years, maybe, before total collapse.”

There was a long pause; Scott, Natasha, and Steve all stared at each other, absorbing this new information.

“So,” Scott drawled out, turning back to Bruce. “Time heist?”

Bruce exhaled a long hard breath, pressing the heel of his palm to his forehead. He looked up at Steve over the rim of his glasses. “You really think this would work?”

“If there was anyone who could figure a way to make it work, it would be you,” Steve replied, almost as if he was trying to reassure himself.

“No, it would be Tony,” Bruce corrected. He straightened in his seat, scratching a hand through his hair. “I’d have to see how the quantum tunnel you guys created works, then I’d have to calculate how to manipulate the quantum realm to navigate the traveller to a specific point in our timeline, and then I’d have to figure out a way to bring them back without disrupting the quantum tunnel and leaving them stuck in the past, or worse, split between them.”

“That would be messy,” Scott agreed, pulling a face.

“And that would all just be for the theory behind it, not actually doing it.”

“I still think it’s worth trying,” Steve replied. “Even if we fail, at least we tried something.”

“You ever consider you might just be delaying the inevitable?” Bruce asked.

Steve shrugged. “If what you say is true, then it’s not like we can change it. So yeah, I’m willing to try delaying it for as long as we can.”

“So, time heist?” Scott repeated, a smile on his face.

Bruce stared at each of them in turn, before his shoulders slumped in resignation. “Yeah, okay. Time heist.”