Chapter 1: What Is Left Behind
Tony Stark did as he pleased, just as he always did, and damn the consequences.
Pepper had seethed the entire ride back from Central Park, too angry to bother calling him after Bruce and the strange wizard had taken off with him. Happy hadn’t asked where he was, sensing all too readily by her mood that his boss had popped off on another hair brained mission again. Tony had engaged in far less of that in the years since the Sokovia Accords. She had hoped that by signing them he’d actually stop testing her patience and her sanity and think before leaping into some other world-threatening catastrophe, perhaps wait for other people with cooler heads and better battle plans to come in and help. For the most part, he had, though admittedly, the Avengers break-up and the restrictions placed by the UN meant that he had not one a lot of anywhere on missions.
She had enjoyed the downtime with him, the moments they could build a relationship and just be the two of them, Tony and Pepper, and not Iron Man and...well, she supposed his annoying fiancee. That didn’t mean she didn’t see him in his lab tinkering on suits when he was bored or restless...or that he didn’t watch the news obsessively if there was a hint of a group of enhanced people out there in the world saving lives and helping others in defiance of the UN edict...or that he tried to hide the new, glowing blue badge he had taken to sticking onto his chest every morning under his clothes, right where the old Arc Reactor used to be.
He missed the Avengers, the old team, she knew it even if he didn’t say it. Sure he had Rhodey and Vision still, and if he wanted a mascot he had the Parker kid, but it wasn’t the same. Pepper knew Tony well, better than he knew himself at times, and understood how much he missed the way it was before the Accords. She had never asked him what happened in Berlin and Sokovia and he had never told her, only that he and Steve Rogers had “broken up”. Any further attempts to drill down on the subject had been shut down. She knew something horrible happened, because Tony looked as if he had been trampled by a herd of elephants, broken in body and spirit, with nothing but Steve’s iconic shield to show for it.
Yes, she got Tony, and was well aware when to leave things alone. She didn’t touch the ache she knew he still felt and decided to move on, hoping he would too, that he would just settle down with her and their relationship and this life. So he had, for two years, seeking therapy, actually giving input into the company she capably ran, and taking real vacations with her. It was a happy idyl, the quiet in the eye of the hurricane.
Now the storm was back in full force, and in the form of a spinning ship, as round and threatening as any tropical storm, churning dust and debris through Greenwich Village and all up and down the east coast of Manhattan, down the corridors of buildings and streets towards the East River, out to Brooklyn beyond. News cameras on sight showed debris everywhere, cars crunched into each other, light poles toppled on top of them, trash piled everywhere, busted windows, and fleeing people. In the center of it all stood Tony and the wizard, defiant against creatures she had only ever seen in the likes of in video games.
“FRIDAY, keep tracking Tony, will you?” She stared at the footage on her phone as Happy yelled at the mess of traffic, people either fleeing or gawking at whatever was floating in midtown.
“Of course, ma’am.” The AI’s ever polite, Irish lilt was unflustered despite the chaos. “Would you like me to put in a call to Colonel Rhodes.”
“Please,” she replied as Happy lurched, spinning them out of the main traffic and down back alleys to the penthouse she and Tony had purchased together after selling the old Avengers tower. She yelped but didn’t yell at him as he capably handled the large car.
“You think Tony is going to do something stupid,” Happy wondered as soon as he got the car stable once more.
“It’s Tony, Happy, what do you think?”
He only grimaced and nodded. “I knew that wizard was no good, even if he had Banner with him.”
Pepper didn’t need to echo his sentiment.
She was upstairs before she saw the footage of Tony streaking off into the sky after the departing space ship, the spinning ring rising through the atmosphere as Tony’s suit morphed to boost itself into space. Shrieking at the projected image, FRIDAY was already dialing Tony before she could articulate the words. He of course apologized, and despite her begging him to come home, she knew it was no good. He was already on the ship and committed to whatever hairbrained scheme he was up to, all by himself, with whatever threat it was. His voice broke up and crackled away into static as FRIDAY lost connection.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I’ve lost him.”
Pepper could only stare at the sky, tears burning to the surface, frustrated and fearful. “Yeah, so have I.”
“Colonel Rhodes is on the line, ma’am, if you’d like me to patch him through.”
Pepper wasn’t sure what good it would do, but she took it anyway. “Rhodey?”
“Pepper, did I just see what I thought I did?”
“Yes,” she uttered, scrubbing her hands across her face and over her hair, pulling on her ponytail in numb irritation. “Tony’s in that ship.”
“Of course,” she snapped, throwing herself on the couch as the news continued to play silently before her. “Why bother with taking five minutes to let people know and maybe have a plan, when he can go and get himself killed all by himself!”
Rhodey was a veteran of most of Tony’s poor choices, but still she could hear the same annoyance in his soft sigh on the other end of the line. “I’m at the compound now, trying to get Ross on the line and getting the runaround. I’m guessing they just now are finding out and are running around like headless chickens.”
This was what they had bargained for when they had signed the Sokovia Accords, this level of oversight, It was the very same agreement Tony had signed and now promptly ignored. “Seriously, the Lower East Side is going to be a mess now and they haven’t even called you once?”
“The level of bureaucratic hell to get anything done makes the US Military look organized.”
She would never say this to Rhodey, Tony, or anyone else openly, but there were days and moments when she wondered if Steve Rogers didn’t have a point. “Meanwhile, Tony is up in that ship right now. Is there anything you can do to, I don’t know, go up and help him?”
“In space? This suit isn’t cut out for that, Pepper. I’m shocked Tony’s is.
“The man who made an entire legion of suits and you think that he doesn’t have one that goes into space?”
“Good point,” Rhodey chuffed, though not with humor. “Look, I got a call from Banner. Did you know he’s back?”
“Yeah, he showed up in the park with this...wizard, I don’t know, saying something about the end of the world.” She hadn’t been clear and Tony hadn’t explained, except to say he had to go, despite her protests that others could handle this.
“Yeah, I’m going to fly and grab him and see if he can help sort this out for all of us. He seems to have most of the answers.” He paused, clearing his throat, carefully. “Also, he called Steve Rogers in on this.”
She didn’t want to admit relief at that, not when she felt he’d been just as stubbornly pig-headed as Tony. “How did he find him?”
“Tony’s phone, I guess. Tony’s always had a way to contact him. I’m not going to lie, Pepper, if he hadn’t, I’d have called Cap in. i’d have flown him in from wherever he is. Vision’s off line, we can’t find him, the spider kid is too young and shouldn’t be involved in this, and that leaves just me.”
“No, you did the right thing, Rhodey. If there’s any way I can clear things up to get them here, let me know.”
“Not unless you got pull with the US government. They are closing airspaces left and right, they’ll have to sneak in here. I’m already reaching to Cap and giving him coordinates that will let him get in through a back door.”
When the Avengers were needed most, they had to come in like criminals. Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose. “Right, well let me know what you all come up with. I’ve got FRIDAY trying to track Tony, wherever he is.”
“Let me know what you find out. I’ll handle things on this end. We’ll get him home.”
Pepper wasn’t so sure about that. “Thanks, Rhodey.”
He clicked off as Happy wandered in, his expression grim on his florid face. “So, what do we do, boss?”
She pulled her feet up on the couch, staring at the coverage from the news. “We wait and hope he pulls off another miracle.”
Chapter 2: And What Came After
In which the Avengers come to grips with the reality of their loss.
The world - the universe - had fallen apart around them and for the first time in Steve’s Rogers’ very long life he realized that there was not a damn thing any of them, least of all him, could do about it.
All around them, the cries of shock, pain, anguish rose through the Wakandan plain as the wind picked up the grit of those who had existed just the moment before, now carried away into the air like a dream, as if they’d not just been there. Bucky, who had been as solid and real to him as he had been the day they met nearly a century ago, had melted before his confused eyes, his ash still coating the fingertips dangling between his knees. He'd heard Sam's voice briefly before he too vanished, Rhodes calling for him desperately in the tall grass. Vision lay gray and lifeless on the ground beside Steve, his forehead scooped out like a melon, exposing the intricate circuitry inside, delicate and lifeless, somehow far more horrific in its way than any number of severed limbs he had seen over his long years of war. His blank eyes stared heavenward as if watching the last remains of Wanda flying upward to join him.
They all stood around him in silent shock, begging questions he had no answers for. For the first time in decades, maybe since his own mother’s death, Steve wanted to break down and weep in broken and abject misery. Instead, he sat, crumpled on the ground, unable to finding his footing physically or mentally to stand back up again. They had lost, irrevocably.
It was Natasha, of course, who pulled him back into himself with a gentle hand to the shoulder, a soft murmur of his name that turned him to look back up at her. She clutched her middle, clearly wounded, heartbreak in her large eyes, but she tugged him up, determined, as he rose, regarding the others who all stood in horror around them; Thor, Rhodes, Bruce, Okoye, and the strange talking racoon that he’d seen arrive with Thor. They all looked to him as if he had some sort of answers to what they should do. Perhaps, compared to them, he did.
“We need to get back to the lab, find Shuri, see what damage has been done.” His voice was rough and cracking, choked on smoke and tears. The others, lacking any other suggestions, agreed, making their way across the grasslands to the princess’ lab on the promontory just outside of the city. All around them, the grief of the Wakandan people sounded in an aching cacophony of loss and bewilderment, the torn and ruined ground pockmarked here and there by the smallest mounds of dark dust clinging to the dirt and grass, as if refusing to go. Along the way, a warrior, as tall as Thor and more massive, rushed to Okoye, shouting in disbelieving Wakandan as Okoye, still reeling, replied in a state of grieved shock, horrible anguish writ in her expression as tears began to fall. It occurred to Steve, as the larger man unexpectedly wrapped arms around the tall warrior woman that he had never seen the general of T’Challa’s forces and head of his personal guard ever break down, not once. From the first time he met her years ago he had admitted he had been somewhat intimidated by her, a feeling that both T’Challa and Bucky had freely admitted they had as well. There was something horrible in the way she sobbed into the other man’s cloak as he held her that shook him as much as the sight of Bucky dissolving before him, of Vision lying motionless on the ground.
The man turned to Steve, stern and shaken in his grief. “What has happened here?”
Steve could barely string words together to respond. It was Bruce who managed any sort of eloquence in Tony’s battered Veronica suit. “Thanos got all of the stones. He did what he set out to do, to kill half of all life in the universe.”
The man’s stern grief turned to pained confusion in an instant. “Why?”
“Because he thought it would save us all in the long run. Because he believed halving everything would make things thrive, not tax resources. I don’t know, he thought he was some cosmic gardner, a god who had the right to make that sort of arbitrary decision.”
Had he not seen what he had that day, the man might have laughed right in Bruce’s robotic face. “All of this because he wanted to prune us like a bush?”
Bruce clearly didn’t have answers for that. He stood silent as Okoye pulled away, wiping at streaming eyes. “M’Baku, the royal family…”
“I have to see to my people.” He clapped the woman on the shoulder, not unkind, but firm. “I am their lord, I need to see what has happened. Go see what remains and inform me.”
“Yes.” She turned to Steve and Natasha, jerking her head to the gleaming tower beyond. “Come, then. Let us go.”
M’Baku watch them go in grief and sadness, saying nothing as they stumbled forward, before calling to what remained of those on the field. Steve barely paid heed as they claimed one of the transports that they had sailed out in, Okoye holding her bracelet against it, activating it to float up once more with a soft humming sound. He held a hand first to Nat, then to the racoon, helping them on board before clambering on with Thor close behind.
“Banner, Rhodes, meet us at the research hangar. We need to figure out who is still alive here.”
“Right!” Rhodes had always been quick to jump at Steve’s orders, the military training too ingrained in him not to. Bruce, though, hung back for the briefest of moments, uncertain.
“Steve, we don’t know what has happened to Tony…”
Steve could only hold up a hand, still covered in the remains of Bucky. “We can only handle one thing at a time. Just...let’s get there and see what we got.”
He glanced towards Natasha, once, before bounding off after Rhodes, still clumsy and ungainly in his Stark Tech suit. Okoye took the helm of the speeder as they set off, standing as a silent sentinel leading the way back from defeat. They skimmed across the grass as Steve eyed the remains of Wakanda’s armies, wandering in the fields around the fallen bodies of comrades and alien creatures alike, dazed, confused, and lost.
“I will need to order them,” Okoye murmured, absently. Steve could only nod, numb in the moment.
The research labs and royal hangar were all eerily quiet, the mountain which housed both Shuri’s lab and the entrance to Wakanda’s vibranium mines empty save for a few hysterical and confused lab techs and guards and the ominous piles of ashey dust scattered across the white tiled floors. Natasha whispered something in Russian, he wasn’t sure what. They wandered, grimly, to Shuri’s lab, Okoye’s long strides moving faster the closer they got.
Just outside lay two bodies armored in red vibranium woven fabric, crumpled like forgotten dolls, spears in hand. Okoye stopped, eyeing them both for long moments, before bending to turn them from where they fell, shutting their eyes with trembling fingers, murmuring something in the musical, clicking language all Wakandans spoke. Without looking back at them, she entered the lab, searching for the princess.
It was empty. Somehow, he had expected that.
A window had been broken, he was guessing by Vision in his attempt to escape. A breeze blew in from the grassland below, stirring the ash at the bottom of the stairs by where Shuri had been working. Okoye stood in the middle of it, watching it all with the aching sadness she’d displayed on the field with M’Baku. Behind him, he could hear the clanking steps of Rhodes followed by what he presumed was Bruce. They stopped short at the door.
“Shuri,” Bruce called, brokenly, knowing the answer already.
“Gone,” Steve said simply, turning to regard the group. Thor hung back, his face inscrutable as he stared off into the fields beyond, the racoon by his side, eyeing the lab with sad curiosity. Rhodes and Bruce stood by the door, wringing their hands at a loss.
Natasha moved to stand by Okoye, placing a hand on her elbow. “Is there anyone else in the family left?”
“The Queen Mother, I hope.” She touched a finger to the beaded bracelet at her wrist, calling up an image that projected itself in front of her. The woebegone face of another Dora Milaje greeted her, seemingly relieved to see Okoye alive. Whatever her news, it was far more positive than Okoye’s, judging from the tenor of the conversation. Okoye’s response broke the young woman, however, who nodded in tears before signing out.
“Queen Ramonda is alive and safe.” Okoye stared down at the ashes of her princess, the brilliant young girl who had shamed even Bruce’s intellect. “I will need to see to my people, to Wakanda. That is my duty.”
“Of course.” What else could he say to the grieving warrior, to the grieving nation. He’d brought this here to them. They’d failed and he had brought all this misery on all of them. He looked to the others, who all looked as helpless as he felt. “We should head back to headquarters, find out what’s going on.”
He glanced to Okoye who still stared at the ashes of Shuri at her feet. “Chances are high that what happened here is happening everywhere. Our channel is open. Call us when you need.”
The barest inclination of the woman’s bald, tattooed head was all the indication he had that she had heard him at all.
Slowly, he marched through the lab, past the table where Vision had been just an hour before, beyond the dead bodies of the fallen women. The others fell in line behind him. It was only after they reboarded their quinjet, Rhodes setting coordinates to return to New York, that he really took stock of what had just happened. They had failed. The universe was falling apart. Tony was nowhere to be found. Thanos had won. Now what?
“Steve?” Thor’s rumble, like distant thunder, caught his attention. “Where were Stark and Barton?”
Rhodes glanced at him, sideways, grimacing before turning back to the controls.
“Clint was home with his family,” Natasha jumped in, worry etched on her worn face. “He’d been under house arrest.”
“Arrest?” Thor had been off planet for the last three years, since they moved into the Avengers facility. He hadn’t known about the events of the Accords or the fall out from it.
“A lot has happened since you left,” Natasha hedged. That was an understatement if ever Steve uttered one. “There was a...falling out.”
“Literally,” Rhodes chimed grimly from the cockpit. Steve caught Natasha’s pained grimace.
“Over what?” Thor’s confusion deepened into a scowl as the raccoon beside him eyed the tableau in silence.
“The world’s leaders weren’t so keen on the fact we tended to leave death and destruction wherever we went, so they tried to create some laws, guidelines for us to operate in.” Natasha, ever the diplomat, tried to couch it carefully.
“Some people didn’t agree with there being accountability for our actions.” Rhodes was testy, and Steve could almost feel the mild glare from the front. He couldn’t blame him. He’d lost his ability to walk in the mess.
Surprisingly, it was Natasha who clapped back at him. “Other people didn’t feel we should curtail our personal freedoms or those of other enhanced humans out of paranoia and give over the Avenger’s ability to do our job to a group of officials who little understood the situations we were in or the kind of work we do.”
If Rhodes was shocked it was Natasha who called him out, he didn't show it. “Yeah, great piece of work we did today. This time we managed to get half the universe killed.”
“As I recall from the little conversation you were having with Thunderbolt Ross when we arrived that bunch would have have been too busy dithering and consulting their legal experts to decide what to do about the impending alien crisis.”
“I wasn’t the one who signed the Sokovia Agreements and then turned my back on them when it was convenient.”
“They were wrong, Rhodey.”
“We needed accountability for our actions. We had just blown up half-a-country!”
“We tried to save half-a-country, you mean. Stark was the one who thought it was brilliant to create a killer robot to try and protect the entire earth!”
“Yeah, from Thanos, and now we see why he did it!”
“And we all had to pay the price for his hubris and overwhelming sense of guilt? His plan didn’t work. It broke the Avengers apart.”
“Guys!” Bruce, now out of the Hulk-busting armor, cut in, inserting himself between Natasha and Rhodes’ bickering, a hand up to each of them. “Look, none of this helps us in the moment. Why hash this out now?”
Natasha turned hard eyes on him, a storm brewing there, waiting to break. “Easy for you to say when you’d been gone for three years. This is what we’ve been dealing with while you were...where again?”
“Sakaar,” Thor supplied, clearly trying to be helpful, but only earning mild panic and a shake of the head from Bruce. “Sorry, just...yeah, that’s how I found him. I ended up there from Norway after my father...uh...died.”
He trailed off, looking to his feet as everyone stared at him, including Steve, as Thor underscored both how alien he actually was and how very long it had been since they had seen him. Clearly, they weren’t the only ones with long stories to tell.
Out of nowhere, the talking racoon decided to pipe up, long silent through the various exchanges. “So, you mean to tell me that this bunch is the Avengers you kept going on about? Earth’s mightiest heroes?”
Thor blinked, as if just remembering there was an animal standing right beside him sounding supremely unimpressed. “Uh, this is my friend Rabbit!”
“Rocket,” the racoon corrected, glaring at the much larger Asgardian before waving collectively at them all. “Pleased to get to know you.”
Steve didn’t want to know why it was a talking rodent sounded like he had a south Philly accent, but there it was. In a day full of so much grief and numbness, where he’d watched monsters out of nightmares come to Earth to attack them, one talking raccoon almost felt like a relief in the day. “We are some of the Avengers, yeah. Stark wasn’t with us. He went up on one of those spinning spaceships. One of them landed in New York.”
“Probably Thanos, then, if not one of his so-called kids.” Rocket shook his furry head in a very human way that would have been far more unnerving if Steve wasn’t already broken. “My guess he’s gathered the ships somewhere. Gamora would know where, if she’s still alive.”
“If Tony’s still alive.” Rhodes’ expression was bleak, turning to Bruce. “You didn’t hear where they were going?”
“Man, it was all happening so fast, I couldn’t keep up. The wizard, Strange, he was flinging spells and trying to keep his stone away from Thanos’ goons, and then this kid in some masked suit showed up, flinging strings and swinging around. Tony sent him to keep an eye on Strange and I think he went up on the ship first. Tony followed.”
“Peter Parker,” Rhodes supplied for the confused Bruce. “Tony’s protege, goes by Spider-Man.”
“He’s the one he brought to Berlin?” Steve remembered him. Smart, had a lot of heart, had been from neighboring Queens. Had the circumstances been different, Steve thought they would have gotten along.
“Yeah, the high school teenager from Queens, sure.” Rhodes’ rolled eyes said exactly how he felt about that. “Believe me, I gave Tony hell for that, bringing a kid to that sort of fight.”
Far too late now, Steve supposed, to lodge any sort of complaint. “So, Tony and potentially Peter Parker are lost in space and we don’t know where. We’ve yet to hear from Clint Barton or Scott Lang, either of them could be among the dead.” He didn’t dare look in Natasha’s direction, fearing what he might see.
“I don’t even know how to get to my team,” Rocket murmured dolefully into the stillness. “If they are even alive. Terra isn’t exactly known as a technological center of the universe.”
Considering the fact that till he met Thor, Steve hadn’t known there were such things as aliens in real life, he couldn’t fault the raccoon in his statement, but Rhodes still looked affronted all the same. “Where in the hell did you pick up a talking rodent, Thor?”
Rocket bristled immediately as Thor placed a firm, heavy, staying hand on his head. “Rhodey has never seen anything like you, before, Rabbit, and it’s been a horrific day, for all of us.”
That it had. Wearily, Steve scrubbed at his face, ignoring whatever traces of his childhood best friend remained on his palm. “Rest up! When we land in New York, we’ll try to raise who we can and figure out what’s left.”
Even as he said it, he knew his words were hollow. He wasn’t going to sleep again for a long time and he doubted any of the rest of them would either.
Chapter 3: The Great Beyond
In which Tony gets to know his new companion.
“I wonder if it would help if I got out and pushed.”
The woman - at least he thought she was a woman - Nebula only blinked at him blandly, her dark eyes and low monotone devoid of any humor. “We’re in space. You have nothing to push against.”
Tony could only sigh at that. “It’s a joke, you know. It’s...a bad Star Wars joke. Guess you’ve not seen that to get it anyway.”
Her bald head, blue and purple and shining in the faint light of the ship’s cockpit, shook as she considered. “Stars do not have wars, though I’ve seen plenty enough in space.”
“Yeah, not...it’s a movie, a form of entertainment back on Earth. It tells the story of some make believe humans in space somewhere.” He wasn’t sure why he felt the need to tell her this. She had no hope in hell of getting it, but Parker - Peter - wasn’t there to riff off pop culture references and make him feel ancient by calling a cherished childhood film “old”.
Some sort of recognition lighted on Nebula’s stoic face. “I believe this is something Quill spoke of, some story he liked as a boy. It involves a ship called the Enterprise?”
“Close enough.” Tony grimaced, rubbing at the red, swollen, infected scar in his middle and tried not to shiver despite the fever he knew would be raging sooner rather than later. He stared at the foreign conglomeration of bits, recognizing in a vague way the makings of a sort of flight engine both more advanced than any he’d ever seen and painfully similar. He could figure this out with a little research and a bit of elbow grease, that always had served him well before. “Does this Quill keep tools around? Maybe a manual on this thing?”
“Tools are in the back. The systems logs will have schematics.” She rose in a fluid motion, the same sort of grace Romanoff had, both mesmerizing and decidedly lethal, all of which set Tony’s teeth on edge. She tapped her fingers across a screen, pulling up diagrams and pictures in a language he couldn’t read.
She silently tapped on the systems preferences, or he assumed that’s what they were in this configuration. “Your planet has many languages. Which one’s yours?”
“English,” he replied, frowning quizzically at the back of her head. “Same one Quill speaks. Say, how is it I hear all of you in English?”
“You don’t, you just think you do.” She tapped a code and up popped the familiar Latin letters he’d learned when he was 2-years-old. “Universal translators, most civilized planets have them.”
“That would count us out.” He came behind her, glancing over her shoulder to swipe through the screen and text, quickly figuring out the situation at hand. “Fuel cells cracked, likely from whatever planet your father decided to send at us, and we’ll need to fix that before we can get going again.”
She hardly twitched at the mention of her father but she did seem impressed he had gathered it all so quickly. “You’re surprisingly not stupid.”
He should have been insulted by that and perhaps ten years ago he might have been, but now he only barked a laugh and wandered to the back where she said the tools were kept. “I was building robots as playmates when I was a child. I have a knack for this mechanical thing.”
Something about his words gave her pause as she cocked her head, almost like a puppy, a sound like gears clicking accompanying it. It hit him then why it was she’d hinged on that turn of phrase. He studied her for a brief moment, noting the mechanical panels, the streaks of silver in her skin, perhaps some sort of advanced neuron circuitry, and the way she kept one of her hands gloved. “You’re a robot yourself, aren’t you?”
The first real emotions he’d seen since they’d gotten themselves stranded in space flashed angrily in her eyes. “I’m a living creature, the same as everyone else.”
“Right and that ticky, clicking sound in your neck sounds just like me when I wake up, except I think I could fix yours with a screwdriver and a good lubricant - which also was the solution to one of my more infamous dates…”
“I’m a Luphomoid.” She cut off his lewd rejoinder with a scowl that honestly gave him pause. It really bothered her, the idea of not being quite organic. “My people are normal, just like everyone else.”
Well, save for the blue skin and baldness, but then again, they probably would find humans horrifying after one afternoon on a New York city subway.
“But you’re not,” he provided simply, shooting her a small, tight smile as he unearthed what he took for a tool box in one of the storage areas.
Nebula said nothing, but busied herself studying the gloved hand with sorrowful dispassion. Strange as she was, something about her reminded him very much of himself, once. Perhaps it was the whole having difficult fathers who engaged in wholesale slaughter business, or maybe it was the forlorn manner she had about her, the way she seemed to want to engage with others, but just couldn’t quite figure out how to do it right. Sighing, he took the kit and came out into the galley, setting it down on the table to rifle through it for tools he might be able to use.
“Life with Daddy Dearest wasn’t a picnic, hmmm?” It didn’t take a genius to guess that. He’d met Thanos and one of his so-called “children”.
Nebula didn’t look at him, but she shrugged, causing the whirring sound again. “I don’t remember anything else, really. I suppose I had a family and home. Something about me was enticing to him. He came to my planet, just like thousands of others over his long life, and slaughtered precisely half. The rest he let live to pick up the pieces of the lives they once had and somehow put it all back together. I don’t remember the day well. I just know he took me with him to his home, to raise with another girl, Gamora, a Zehoberei. He loved her, but she didn’t have a playmate. His other children were older and she was lonely. He would give Gamora anything. So I was supposed to be her sister, to love her and train with her and challenge her. If I did well, I’d be rewarded. If I did not, I would be improved.”
She uttered “improved” as blandly as she uttered the rest of her sad story, but Tony felt chills go up his spine all the same. “Thanos did this to you?”
Self-consciously, she rubbed the spot of her neck he knew was making the noise. “He wanted to use me as an assassin. What use is an assassin who can’t stand up to the greatest warrior in the universe? Every time I’d lose, he’d send me to the shop for upgrades, to make me more deadly, to match me to Gamora.
It was fucking sadistic was what it was and it left Tony feeling even more vaguely ill than he already was. Thoughts of Steve Roger’s friend, Barnes, floated to mind with more than a hint of regret and guilt. All he could manage in response was a slightly horrified “Why?”
“Because of his mission.” She regarded him simply, her naturally low voice barely a whisper. “He wished to bring balance to the universe and I and my siblings were his tools.”
“He’s a madman.”
“Yes,” she sighed, clutching her neck. “He is.”
Tony hated awkward silence, always had. It was why he had the unfortunate habit of acting outrageously and saying asshole things, but in this moment, all he could think to do was to wave to the seat by the table as he fumbled in the toolbox. “Sit.”
She stared at him as if he’d asked her to strip. “Why?”
“Because you got something out of whack in there and I’m an engineer and can fix it. So, sit.”
She still eyed him dubiously, clutching herself.
“I swear I won’t hurt you. I know what I’m doing. Remember, been at this since I was a kid.”
She may have doubted him, but she finally relented, coming to plop down in front of him without any of the previous grace she had shown. She slowly removed her fingers from her skin, allowing him access to the back of her neck. It was a brave thing to do for a warrior and assassin, he had to admit, and he recognized the courage it took to even let him, a perfect stranger, try this.
“Let’s see what we got here.” Just under where her skull met the spine, a panel, faint as a crease in her skin, was visible. He pressed gently as it gave way, opening the entire right side of her neck, exposing metal vertebrae and wires rather than bone and flesh. It would have been horrifying if he hadn’t had a hand in the making of Vision, and even then it still was rather ooky.
“I think I found the problem.” Several vertebrae were misaligned causing the whirring and clicking with every turn of her head. “Just need a bit of a chiropractic adjustment.”
“A what?” She turned her head sharply, causing the noise again and giving him a better example of what was going on.
“It’s what the rest of us have to do when our vertebrae get out of alignment, get pushed and pulled like a ball of dough.” He felt up the metal pieces, trying to figure out which one to push first. “Does it hurt?”
“Not particularly, no more than usual.”
That wasn’t reassuring.
“Okay, I’m going to move this one. If it hurts, I’m sorry.”
He grabbed the one in the middle, the fourth from the skull, and popped it forward, forcing the other two on either side that had bowed out with it to pop back into place as well. The movement was subtle, but it caused Nebula to gasp as he immediately let go, concern and a certain fear of her capabilities causing him to take a step back. “Did that work.”
“Uh….yes…” She panted, turning her head experimentally. He could see the vertebrae turn weirdly inside. “That was killing me! It’s been days since those went out.”
“Sports injury?” He had a feeling that would never be the answer with her.
“My father was torturing me for the location of the Soul Stone - or at least hoping he could lure my sister in to tell him where it was.”
For not the first time in this conversation, he paused, unnerved by her matter-of-fact accounting of the cruelties of her batshit crazy adopted father. “He did this?”
“Yes.” Her shrug was diffident. “It wasn’t the first time.”
Swallowing hard, he closed the flap as it sealed, smooth and almost flawless. “You survived.”
“To kill him,” she replied, quietly. “I failed at that.”
Hadn’t they all? “Yeah, I know that feeling.”
He returned to the tool kit as Nebula rose, turning her head this way and that, rolling it around. The sound didn’t return. Poor kid, she hadn’t asked for any of this and here she was stuck in the the horror factory that was Thanos and his other minions in their sacred quest. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, she was kind of growing on him.
“So I know a thing or two about being upgraded.” He meant it as a conversation piece more than anything, only realizing as the words spilled out of his mouth how connected they were.
She stopped her physical exercises, eyes flickering to the patch of light attached to his chest. “Your metal suit? Is that where it comes from?”
“Nanotechnology. This houses the nanotechnology that make it up, not terribly unlike your friend Starlord - Quill - whatever, his mask he wears. This is the latest iteration of my suit.”
“Latest?” True curiosity lit her face with an expression other than dull, angry blankness. “How many have there been?”
“Oh...a lot.” He shrugged, waving a hand as he studied the assortment of high tech tools, gauging what they did and what he could do with them. “I’ve tried every permutation out there, at this point, I think.”
“Because, your father was out to raid my planet for Infinity Stones and kill half the people, and I wasn’t okay with that.” He studied something he thought was some sort of wrench. “Because I thought if I could build a bigger, better suit of armor that could stop him.”
She was quiet for long moments as he poked in Quill’s heap of junk. “It would never have worked.”
“Really?” It hurt to hear, but he didn’t want to let her know that.
“He destroyed Xandar, one of the more technologically advanced planets in the universe. They had systems designed to keep the Power Stone safe. You and a suit of armor wouldn’t have stopped him.”
Somewhere, Steve Rogers was laughing at him, he was sure of it. “Well, I think that got proven out today in spectacular fashion.” He chucked a tool that he couldn’t even identify hard into the metal box, closing it shut, scrubbing at his feverish face.
“You survived, didn’t you?” She echoed his own words back at him. She was smart, this Nebula, for all that she was weird and somewhat creepy.
“I did.” He gathered the tools he recognized and piled them together, flopping into one of the chairs opposite her. “So, about ten years ago, my time at least, I wasn’t running around in metal suits fighting wannabe gods on alien planets. I was just a guy, albeit, a super rich, highly influential, dashingly attractive one. My father, Howard, had built this company from the ground up, making a lot of things, but mostly weapons. My planet was in a constant state of war for the last 100 years or so and he was filling a niche, and consequently got rich off it.”
Why he was telling her all this, he didn’t know, except that she was there, and it was space, and he was lonely. She had been honest and vulnerable with him, and God knew he was feeling broken and lost right now, and it just felt….good to connect with another living soul, metal or otherwise. He’d never been good at making friends, never saw the need for it in his brilliance and self-centeredness, but then again, he always had that tendency of connecting with the other lost and broken soul in the cave with him when he was at his lowest point.
“So, anyway, I get this company and I’m a genius making weapons that can kill smarter and better, and I’m showing off a bigger, better weapon in this country called Afghanistan, where there are insurgents taking over and killing people. While I’m heading back, this bomb goes off, kills everyone in the caravan but me. I survive, but not without damage.”
He tapped his chest, right where the nanotech plate sat attached to his skin.
“So, they bombed us with my own weapons. One of them had been rigged to send off shrapnel that would not necessarily kill you right away, but eventually would work its way through tissue to vital organs, killing you slowly. Anyway, so the the bad guys kidnap me and take me to their camp, where they have this other engineer, Yinsen, from a nearby village. He manages to save my life, puts a magnet in my chest to keep the shrapnel from digging in further. To keep it going, I created a power source, something my dad had been working on, miniaturized it, and stuck it in my chest, and from there I figured out I could power an entire suit of armor from it. So, while they thought I was making a weapon for them, in reality I was making my escape and maybe taking a few of them with me. Surprisingly, it worked.”
He hadn’t thought of that long ago day in awhile, of the clunky, giant metal suit he’d fashioned out of scrap pieces and weapons parts, or the fear that somehow they would be discovered and killed before it was complete. He hadn’t even thought of Yinsen, dead for years now, in a long time either. The man had saved his life and given him purpose when he really had none. He’d believed in Tony’s ability to survive and get out and to live a better life. He’d tried, thought he could fix what he’d created, that he could somehow make it all better all on his own.
“Anyway, I got out, and I got home and once I was there, I made the next suit, which was even better, and the funny thing with each suit I made was, each one made me feel safer, more powerful, like I didn’t have to worry about the bad guys coming in and taking over because I could stop them. I personally could end all war, all injustice, all cruelty, through my intellect, skills, and better suits of armor. So, I kept building them, kept trying to make better and better ones. Every time a new problem arose, a new weakness I had to address, I would upgrade the suit. I started thinking of new problems and new eventualities, so new suits, until I had an entire army of suits, there to stop all problems, all threats, all things, but especially your father.
Admitting it out loud for the first time felt odd, especially to this perfect stranger, this cyborg woman, but it was also freeing. He was admitting his most secret fear, the biggest crack in his warped psyche, the driving force behind who he, Tony Stark, was. “Iron Man was never just about my overwhelming hubris, which is prodigious indeed, or my narcissism, which is perhaps my most defining trait, and I’m not saying they aren’t all wrapped up in it. Iron Man was always about being scared, of knowing that there were monsters out there, real ones, and feeling like I had to do something, anything to stop it, to make everyone safe, to make me safe. I can’t just sit by and watch...watch someone else do something else cruel to someone just because they get kicks out of it. That’s what they did to Yinsen and me, and...I thought if I built bigger and better suits, kept upgrading, I’d stop it, all by myself, that I could make me and everyone I love safe. So, there it is! The secret of the great Tony Stark.”
He hadn’t even ever told his therapist that much. They’d focused on his issues with Howard, probably because that was more sensational. This...this had been freeing, speaking the truth that lay so deep inside, the true reason for the suits, for being Iron Man, for all of it. Certainly, Thanos had to have destroyed his world and everything in it for that to come burbling out past his carefully constructed wall of asshole-ness. Now, he felt simply feverish and empty, like one of his suits, all the life taken out of it once the key element is exposed.
Nebula only stared at him with dark, fathomless eyes, but her inscrutable face seemed to soften, somewhat. “I suppose we both learned from our weaknesses and came out stronger.”
What else could he do? He laughed at that, a hysterical, fever-tinged laugh that ached where Thanos had stabbed him with his own nanotech. “Not strong enough to defeat him.”
“No...not yet.” She reached for some of the tools on the table. “For now, let’s just handle what we can here. You said you were a genius engineer. You should be able to do this.”
He wasn’t so sure about that, but he had to admit it was better than sitting there twiddling their thumbs and hoping for a lift back to Earth. “Right, alien spacecraft, don’t foresee a problem there.”
No, he had never made friends with others easily, but he sensed that this pragmatic, no-nonsense cyber-lady might end up being one of those after all. For now, in the spot he was in, he would take it. He didn’t have many friends left in the universe.
Chapter 4: A Secret Fury
In which Natasha realizes Fury kept more secrets than she even knew about.
Fury had always kept his secrets, even from her - especially from her.
Natasha could never be quite sure why he had let Clint keep her alive rather than having someone just off her on the spot. Had the roles been reversed, she would have. She knew just how dangerous she was. Just like Clint, however, Fury had made another call. He saw something else in her beyond just a weapon, a tool to murder and remove others. He saw something worthy of being redeemed.
That said, it wasn’t exactly like Fury had trusted her, despite all that. It helped that he didn’t. They both walked in the gray area of espionage, a land of half-truths and outright lies, where your ability to dissemble and do it well was the difference between life and death. It made sense he didn’t tell her or anyone everything, as it kept people alive. Still, there were times she wished he had been a bit more honest about what he was up to, such as the moment he first suspected SHIELD had been compromised. Perhaps that would have been less of a shit show than it was. Certainly, this was one of those moments Natasha wished he had confided in someone, anyone, what the hell sort of layers of backup he had set up.
Pepper Potts had flown in to the compound in one of Stark’s suits, pale and shaken, with word of the chaos in New York City in the wake of millions disappearing in the blink of an eye. She’d not noticed at first, waking up in Manhattan, hours behind Wakanda. It was only when a helicopter crashed into a building a block down from her penthouse that she realized something was going on. On the news, the on-site reporter in Greenwich Village had dusted before everyone’s televised eyes. She'd brought with her a pager left at the last coordinates Maria Hill had given them on the location of herself and Fury. It was a classic model from the 1990s, souped up like nothing Natasha had ever seen before. Pepper handed it over to them as Stark’s suit crawled off her skin, like a living thing, some new technology that slightly disturbed Natasha and Steve, but which Pepper hardly noticed.
“What is it?” Steve frowned at the little gray device with it’s tiny screen as if it was some sort of alien technology. Funny, considering it was woefully out-of-date that it looked ancient compared to him.
“Pager, what we all used before cell phones.” Bruce took it gingerly from Pepper, studying it briefly. “A tricked out one, that’s for sure. Some sort of tech I’ve never seen before, maybe something SHIELD cooked up?”
Natasha could only shrug, realizing painfully that in the moment she was the only SHIELD expert on the team right now. “Maybe, though before my time. We haven’t used those things since dinosaurs walked the earth.”
“Still new to me,” Steve muttered, scratching at his beard as he studied it. “Is it working?”
“Looks as if he sent some signal out before he dusted.” Bruce grimaced but looked to the labs, mentally calculating what they had on hand. “I can see if I can set up an algorithm to triangulate where the signal is going to and who he was trying to call. Maybe he knew what was coming and was trying to get reinforcements.”
“Like who?” This one Steve directed at Natasha, his gaze lasering in on her with all the military precision he used to direct their team. A peevish part of her tired and heart-worn soul wanted to shrug and throw her hands up in the air. Contrary to popular belief, Fury hadn’t trusted her any more than he trusted anyone else.
“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me or Clint and SHIELD was full of secrets. There could be hints in the files, if we want to find them online and pour through them, but even then, I don’t even know where to begin.”
“Which means we will just have to wait for whoever it is he’s calling to show up.” Rhodey didn’t like it, but he was right, it was the only option they had.
“Whoever it is, I hope that they know what’s going on, because sure as hell, it isn’t us.” She glowered at the device in Bruce’s fingers. “Let us know when something pops?”
“Yeah,” he replied, looking as exhausted as they all felt. He shuffled off as Rhodey returned to setting up monitors on the screens of the reports coming in of the dead and missing. She glanced at the number, climbing steadily. Some names they knew, others...she hadn’t heard from Clint yet. She had called the minute she could once they hit the air, but it had gone to his voicemail. That had been after 8 am in the Midwest, the family would have been awake, but he had taken to keeping his phone in a drawer more often lately, not bothering to check it. He was enjoying retirement, being with Laura and the kids. She hadn’t even bothered calling him before this, not even to tell him where she was going, to give him some measure of peace. Now, she didn’t know if he wasn’t answering because he was out and about or if it was because he was one of the dusted too. Her heart ached and she found herself whipping around, marching out of the meeting area, phone in hand as she dialed Clint’s number once again. She wandered to the gardens just outside, the leafy trees rustling in the twilight of evening, pacing around them, unseeing as the phone rang and rang.
“Come on, Clint!” Her whispered plea went unanswered, however, as the phone went to voicemail, again. She resisted the urge to throw it, instead choosing to stare at the screen with it’s background picture of the Bartons from a now long ago Christmas. Nate was still just a toddler, Lila had been in pigtails, a Santa cap on that made her look like one of his elves. It had been a long time since she had seen any of them.
“No word from Barton?” Steve’s distinctive rumble sounded from the door. She glanced back at him over her shoulder, where he leaned, arms crossed over the undershirt he wore, watching her quietly.
“He’s been keeping his phone off line more and more. I’m not surprised.” She tried to be cool about it, even if underneath it all fear curled in her gut like a knife. “For all I know, they’re off camping or something and haven’t noticed.”
“He’s on house arrest. How far can he go?”
“On their property? Pretty far.” She knew he’d tested the limits no sooner than they had put the ankle bracelet on him. Of course Clint would, he was a spy and assassin, he never got caught, unlike Scott Lang who had set off alarms just by being clumsy. Still, Steve was right, Clint couldn’t go far, and chances were high that one of the kids would have turned on the television and seen what happened. He’d have called directly, if he could.
“Do you need to go out there and see him?”
“No.” She slipped her phone into a pocket.
“I’m needed here, Steve. If things have gone...sideways, I can’t do anything about it now.”
If nothing else her training had made her ruthlessly pragmatic about things like death. Still, she had to swallow hard against the tears threatening, pushing them down with sheer force of will. She didn’t dare look at the wealth of compassion on Steve’s face.
“How long as it been since you saw them? If you need to go, you know we’ll make it happen.”
“Let’s just figure out what we are doing right now and then I’ll take you up on that offer.”
He finally let it slide then, nodding as he pushed off from the door, allowing her to slide past. He had a good heart, Steve, one that would have moved mountains, literally, to ensure she got what she needed. Still, he respected her boundaries and didn’t press as he nodded to the conference table where already Bruce and Rocket were working on the pager and Rhodey was pulling up data. Pepper sat to one side, looking somewhat out of sorts at the hustle around her. Thor, however, was nowhere to be seen.
Unsure on what to zero in on first, she chose Pepper. The poor woman was taut with anxiety for all that she tried to put a professional face on it. She’d always liked Pepper, finding her smart, tough and practical, the antithesis to the mercurial and scatterbrained Tony Stark, a perfect match for him, really. Patient to a fault, Natasha was never sure how she had put up with his worst behavior, especially considering you would have to be blind to not see she had been in love with him for years. He had been a bit slower to the conclusion. Natasha had realized his feelings for his assistant long before he openly admitted it and had noted in her report to Fury that Pepper’s influence on him helped keep his worst tendencies in line. That said, now Pepper ran his company and was very, very good at it. She had no longer had time to babysit an impulsive genius. Natasha knew it hurt all the same to see him take off once again without any explanation or answers as to where he was going or if he was coming back.
“How are you doing, boss?” Natasha tried to lighten the mood somewhat, recalling her brief stint working as Pepper’s assistant while she was spying on Tony. Unlike her fiance, Pepper had never held her true loyalties against her and gave her a smile as Natasha settled beside her.
“It’s good seeing you.” The lines of the other woman’s shoulders relaxed, somewhat, as she studied her. “Blonde doesn’t suit you.”
“No, but certainly less noticeable than red.” She ran her fingers through her platinum hair, still feeling the grit of dust and dirt, not to mention whatever that ichor was that had come out of those creatures, all mingled with the sweat of the day. “I need a shower.”
“I wasn’t going to be the one to mention it,” Pepper teased, quietly, before a frown settled as she turned to the screen. On it, Rhodey had pulled up numbers. The one under “population” was growing alarmingly fast.
“How you holding up?” Natasha tried to pull Pepper’s attention from that, focusing it on her instead.
Pepper only shrugged, hugging her middle, silent in her anxiety and fear. Natasha got it. She reached to wrap an arm around the other woman’s shoulders, giving what comfort she could to her. “If he’s out there, and I think he is, we will find him.”
“In what state, though?”
To that, Natasha couldn’t say. She merely hugged Pepper tighter.
For a long moment, there was silence.
“Nat? Is that a raccoon over there helping Bruce?”
Natasha merely nodded beside her. “Yeah, it sure is.”
If only that were the weirdest thing about the day.
Eventually, someone, Natasha suspected the raccoon, said something about food. Unsure what was even open or functioning at the moment, Pepper offered to take the suit and run into Poughkeepsie to see if there was anything that was open offering sustenance. It was something to do and it made her feel useful, and everyone agreed as she took off. Steve took the chance to crawl into a shower, while she went to the screen, watching the reports coming in of governments frozen in indecision and confusion, of panic in the streets as officials attempted to get a handle on the situation while the masses grappled with what was going on.
“It’s getting ugly out there,” Rhodey murmured beside her, his expression clouded with anger and worry. “I tried raising Ross, but no answer. How much you want to bet that the only good thing to come out of this is he’s gone and not a pain in our asses anymore?”
“If we should only be so lucky,” she muttered, eyeing the chaos in the streets in cities all over the world. Even at half the population, many of those places still had a sizeable enough one. On another screen, a ragged looking reporter gave details of the numerous other deaths outside of Thanos’ snap, of planes that had gone down, cars that had crashed, trains derailed because the people controlling them had disappeared. Already, there were real fears of serious industrial and ecological problems at power plants and dams with the engineers who ran them now gone, and reports of boats left out at sea, crews missing or left without anyone to man them.
Half the populations? Did this Thanos even consider or care that in the end that it would be more? How many people, civilizations, other worlds would die off because he made an arbitrary decision all on his own, because he felt he was the ultimate authority on the universe and how it would best thrive? For all the blood she had spilled, the red in her ledger, she still could not understand how anyone sane could justify this. But then again, from what little she had seen of the massive, purple giant who had manhandled them all like rag dolls, she doubted “sane” was a descriptive anyone would apply to him.
Pepper returned with supplies saying that Poughkeepsie felt like a ghost town, with frightened people and an air of apocalyptic doom. Rhodey said the news already had streetside preachers out attesting to the “end times” and calling for people to repent. Pepper cooked some sort of food for all of them, Natasha thought it was a pasta, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember afterwards what she had put into her mouth. They all ate mechanically, even Thor, who had wandered from somewhere, brooding with mismatched eyes she didn’t remember him having. None of them spoke, not even Rocket, who clearly had no qualms with whatever they were eating and ate it with the same mechanic hunger the rest of them had.
The population kept climbing. With every number that ticked up, her jaw tightened and the crease between Steve’s brows deepened. Bruce picked through the noted dead, looking for those that they knew and recognized. There were those they lost in Wakanda, but he added other names to the already heartbreaking list: Scott Lang, Erik Selvig, and Stark’s protege, Peter Parker, the kid who they were just now learning was Spider-Man. That hit both Pepper and Steve hard, though for different reasons. Thor had silently studied the face of Selvig before stalking out again.
When Rhodey announced the pager had gone off, the fine thread of her dwindling equilibrium snapped. It wasn’t fair, perhaps, but there it was, the culmination of everything over the last two days. She didn’t care if Steve was nominally their leader or if they were dealing with tech twenty years out of date, Fury had left something for them, a clue, a thread of hope, and it was all she had clung onto for hours now. She needed to know what his last secret was and who it was he was trying to contact. When she whipped around she hadn’t expected the answer to have crept up on her to stare her right in the face.
Without thinking she dropped into a combat stance, the habit of a lifetime of training, as the glaring blonde in front of her demanded to know where Fury was. Around her she could see everyone follow her lead, with Steve immediately falling in at her left. It was he who took the initiative with the stranger.
“Who are you and how did you get in here?”
The woman glowered. “I asked first.”
Out of the corner of her eye she could see Steve’s jaw work in that trademark stubbornness. “You also broke in. You want answers, you give answers.”
This stranger may have just gotten the drop on her, which was nearly unthinkable, but if she believed she would somehow budge the immovable object that was the will of Steve Rogers she clearly had another thing coming. Still, her eyes narrowed dangerously as her hands started to sparkle and glow with an eerie, golden light. Natasha lowered her stance even more, prepared to duck and tackle if need be. She could hear a whine of Stark tech and didn’t know if it was Rhodey or Pepper who had managed a suit.
Just when blows were about to be exchanged, the raccoon had to throw himself into it all.
“Hold up, I know you!” Rocket stood nonchalantly on a table, a gun as big as himself in his hand, lowered as he cocked his fury head in recognition. “We ran across you a year ago in Kree imperial space. Quill thought you were hot.”
Even the woman looked taken aback by the sight of a talking raccoon standing on a table with a hand cannon. She paused, glancing between Rocket and the rest of them, before unclenching her tightened fist, the glow dispersing up the arms of her blue, red and gold suit. She frowned, puzzled. “How did you end up on Earth?”
“Long story involving an Asgardian god of thunder and an axe.”
Rhodey, unsurprisingly, was the first to recover. “You know her?”
Rocket shrugged, a gesture still weirdly uncanny to see off a giant, talking rodent. “Yeah, she’s this crazy Kree girl we met on a mission. Nearly took off with our reward.”
“Your loot you stole, you mean?” Her glare was back, but it didn’t seem to phase Rocket.
“See! Crazy Kree girl.”
“I’m not Kree,” she shot back, turning back to the rest of them in the room. “I’m human, like you. I’m from here on Earth.”
“I’ve never seen a human do that thing with their hands,” Natasha shot back, eyeing them as if they were dangerous weapons.
The woman held them up to study them, shrugging. “I had an accident a long time ago.”
That was some accident, Natasha thought.
“What’s your name?” That was Cap speaking, not Steve, and Natasha could see the woman instinctively respond to it.
“Carol Danvers, former captain, United States Air Force.”
“Danvers?” That perked Rhodey’s attention. “One of the first women to clear fighter pilot training?”
She arched an eyebrow at him, clearly pleased he knew her. “So I have a reputation?”
“Hell yeah, you do. They said you were tough as nails and could ride the stick like no one’s business.”
Danvers looked smug at that.
“They also said you were dead.” Rhodey crossed his arms in front of him. “Which is why I’m a bit surprised to see you alive and well with glowing hands.”
Here she shrugged in acquiescence. “There was an accident with an experimental plane and a secret energy source. I was a part of Project: Pegasus.”
That was a bit of information Natasha felt she could finally latch onto. “That was the joint SHIELD/NASA/US military research facility out in Nevada.”
“Yep,” she replied, moving her hands to her hips, her stance relaxing from the aggression she had arrived him. She looked Natasha up and down. “You seemed well versed in SHIELD classified intel.”
“I should be. I used to be SHIELD.” So this woman had known Fury then. One more of his secrets brought to the surface.
“Used to be?”
“SHIELD fell several years ago, corrupted by HYDRA.” Steve’s dark expression indicated he wasn’t exactly welcoming this stranger with open arms. “Which makes me wonder where you fall in all this.”
This put her on her guard again. “If SHIELD is gone, where is Fury and how did you get his pager?”
“Gone,” Natasha interjected, without remorse or gentleness, her tone nearly cold as she said it, despite the crushing soul ache within her. “He’s...gone. So is half the population of the Earth, all gone in a snap. The pager was the only piece of him we found and his last act was to use it to call you. Why?”
She could feel Steve’s glare turn on her and didn’t care. The posturing was getting nowhere and she wanted answers, so she cut straight to the chase. It worked, as the other woman’s face fell into shock, disbelief and sadness all at once.
“Gone? What do you mean, gone?”
“Dusted,” Natasha said, forcing an even calmness she did not feel. “Thanos, some alien, decided to destroy half of all life in the universe and he did it by collecting some Infinity Stones in order to use them to accomplish just that.”
It sounded crazy coming out of her own mouth, she could only imagine what it sounded like to Danvers. But rather than laugh skeptically or deny it outright, she only nodded, quiet and thoughtful. “I’d heard of Thanos. I’ve seen what he’s left behind.”
“You know what we are dealing with, then?” Steve jumped on that possibility with the hope of a desperate man.
“Some of it, sure. I’ve never seen him, only heard of him on planet after planet he devastated.”
Steve kept pressing. “Do you know where he is?”
“No, I don’t, but I know what he does.” For the first time, something horrible and sad flickered on her face. “I was with friends, off world, just...they crumbled in front of my eyes and scattered, before I could even catch them. They were gone in an instant.”
Natasha finally relaxed herself, standing straight again at seeing the other woman no longer posed a threat. “The same with us. We’d been fighting Thanos, then…”
She couldn’t say it, couldn’t speak of the moment when Wanda had disappeared, like cigarette ash blown away. She didn’t want to think of Clint. Still, this Carol Danvers seemed to finally understand they were not her enemy.
“You were fighting him?” She eyed them all, looking somewhat impressed. “Who they hell are you, then?”
It was Steve, naturally, who replied. “We’re the Avengers.”
She blinked, startled, but then laughed ruefully. “Seriously? He went through with it?”
That statement to anyone else would be confusing, but Natasha understood. She’d been there as Fury had gotten his hairbrained scheme off the ground, had helped him implement it for all that she thought it was a fool’s errand. She was curious how this woman, this stranger, knew about it.
Danvers explained that. “My call sign back in the day was Avenger. He started his initiative after I maybe showed up one day and introduced him to aliens by accident.”
Fury and his fucking secrets! Natasha clenched her jaw so tight, she thought she cracked a tooth trying to keep it from hitting the floor. Still, Danvers seemed to have finally warmed up to them and held out her hand to Steve, who took it willingly, shaking it with his firm formality.
“Captain Steve Rogers, former US Army.”
“Otherwise known as Captain America,” Rhodey supplied, perhaps just as shocked by the Avengers reveal as Natasha was and wanting to show of a little of their own street cred.
“Captain...America?” Danvers blinked, now wide-eyed herself as she clutched Steve’s hand, looking him in the face until pink rose above Steve’s beard. “You mean like...the Captain America? Like Howling Commandos Captain America?”
“Errr…” Steve stuttered, all cool confidence lost in the astonishment of Fury’s secret alien nuclear bomb.
“Oh, she’s a fan.” Bruce could only snort as they finally all relaxed, even Pepper who had indeed been the one in the suit.
“Wait, did she say Captain America?” Rocket even now blinked at Steve with new eyes.
Natasha only glared at Rhodey. “Look what you started!”
He didn’t even have the decency to look sorry.
Chapter 5: A Needle In A Haystack
In which Carol gets to know people better.
None of them seriously got it, they were sending her on a mission to recover their long lost friend, somewhere in the vastness of space, with little more than a vague hand wave and directions that might as well include “as the crow flies in them”. And they somehow expected her to be successful?
“Yeah, space travel to them is still sort of magic.” Rocket had sniffed at their technology, which to be fair was indeed primitive, but then again, she had the advantage of being able to fly through space without any ship.
“I didn’t go into space until the Kree kidnapped me and brainwashed my entire existence away.”
The raccoon merely stared at her for a long, stunned moment before blinking. “Gees, why the hell does every hero gotta have such a frickin’ sad story?”
That was a question Carol had asked herself many times over the years. “I don’t know, I guess you have to have something to work against to make you heroic.”
Rocket only snorted, continuing to plug away at coordinates with the AI, named FRIDAY, in the hopes of finding her creator. “Well, if this friend of theirs, Stark, was on Thanos’ ship, chances are high he’s dead by now. Besides, even if we did find him, we’d need to get to him.”
“What part of ‘travel through space without a ship’ did you miss out on?”
“Seems unnatural to me,” Rocket grumped, reading through data as projected above. He was one of the few of those at the compound still awake. Most of the rest had crashed in waves hours before, with Steve Rogers being the last one to go down, having fallen asleep in the chair he was sitting in. Rocket had finally told him his snoring was annoying and to go to bed, but if Rogers even heard him, he didn’t say anything. He more fell out of the chair and stumbled down the hallway towards a room.
Seriously, he was Captain America! The fact he was stumbling anywhere was both humanizing and a bit relatable, and the child inside of her who still only vaguely recalled her former life did remember long summer days where she sat up in the niche of a tree with a thermos of lemonade, a bag of cookies, and her father’s old comic books. The “Captain America” ones had been the most treasured, and thus the most enticing, and had been her favorite. Her father had let her have it when he found them in her backpack after one of her afternoons away, and she’d never gotten her hands on them again.
“How did you know of Captain America?” Her gaze slide sideways to the raccoon who made calculations on a notepad he purloined and muttered quietly to himself.
“What? Oh...yeah, Quill is a fan.”
“Who is Quill again?”
“Sort of idiot guy with a dumb face. Calls himself Star Lord.”
“Oh, him!” She remembered him now. “Has a case of permanent foot-in-mouth disease?”
“That’s the one. He’s Terran, grew up in someplace called ‘Missouri’. Don’t know where it is.”
“Same country as here, just in the middle, a thousand miles that way.” She pointed in the vague direction of west.
“Yeah, whatever, he liked the guy. Said his grandpa knew him or something, they were friends, at least the way he told it, I don’t know if any of it was true, but Quill said he was a super hero, cool guy. Anyway, he told us stories because he wanted Terra to sound cool.”
“It is cool!”
Rocket’s ambivalent glare told her what he thought of that opinion.
“It’s my home too, you know.” She couldn’t help but be a bit defensive.
“I should warn you, Quill is also the same one who thinks the greatest actor of all time is Kevin Bacon.”
“Seriously? I haven’t seen a Kevin Bacon movie in a while, admittedly, but even I can tell you that the greatest actor of all time is not Kevin Bacon.”
“I don’t know who he even is and I don’t care. FRIDAY, can you get me those readings for Quadrant 73?”
“Sure thing!” The AI had connected unexpectedly with the rodent, which had surprised everyone. Thus far it had been cool and polite to the others, but unattached, save to Banner and Potts who Carol had figured out were friends with Stark. Clearly, there was something about the AI that liked the alien creature, and the feeling was mutual as far as Carol could tell.
“This is a sexy piece of computer engineering, I have to admit. Banner said Stark made it himself, after the first having evolved into an android or something. I didn’t get the story on it.” If one could attribute lust to a sentient woodland creature, there was something akin to that in Rocket’s dark, beady eyes.
“So Earth can make things that don’t suck, then?”
“Ehh, even an idiot banging together two rocks can figure out a rhythm every now and again.” Rocket muttered, begrudgingly.
Carol could only chuckle as she crunched thoughtfully on potato chips, the first she had in years, at least since her last visit home. That had been...too long. Long enough that Maria would likely kick her ass when next they saw each other. Monica had to be out of the house with a life all her own now. That thought gave her pause, as did the next one after it. She didn’t know if they were even still alive after all of this. Fury had dusteded, why couldn’t they? She hadn’t thought to check till this very moment, and frankly, if she were honest with herself, she was too afraid to look. What if they were?
Half the universe, gone from existence, as if they hadn’t been there.
Her appetite for junk food now lost, she set the bag aside, curling it in on itself and clipping it, turning her attention to Rocket’s work. On one side of the screen she could see FRIDAY working out the signal for Stark, scanning the skies above. The other was a different signal, one for something called…
“The Benatar? What in the hell is that?”
“My ship,” Rocket replied without looking up. “Well...Quill’s ship, he’s the ‘captain’, but it’s mine. I keep her together.”
“And he named her, I’m guessing?”
“What was your first clue?”
“I don’t know, the fact he named it after a 80’s pop star I am supposing he had a poster of hanging on a wall of his bedroom as a kid?”
“I will have you know I do appreciate her music.” He sniffed, cutting eyes to Carol. “On pain of death, don’t you ever tell him I admitted that.”
Carol bit back a grin. “You do realize I’m pretty indestructible. I took out an entire Kree war fleet right over the skies not far away.”
That gave him pause.
“Fine, don’t tell him or else I will be forced to extort you, which is almost as good as death, but there’s more in it for me.”
“Much more reasonable.” She stretched, standing to wander to the kitchen area for something to drink. “You need anything? Water, juice, fresh venom to keep your stores well supplied?”
“Funny, very funny. No!” He muttered under his breath as she wandered off, opening the refrigerator to find what was inside. She’d thought about coffee, but found the maker on the counter too different and frightening to manage, so settled instead for a Coke, leaning against the counter to watch the first rays of sunrise crawl across the gray, eastern skies. Half the universe gone. Half of Earth gone. Fury gone. Maybe she should look up Maria and Monica, maybe Coulson, see if he was around…
“You’re up early.”
Rogers wandered in, looking bright-eyed for a man who had only gone to bed four hours before. He appeared considerably better for having slept, though the dark circles under his eyes remained. He was a far cry from the pictures she saw of him in his red, white and blue uniform, clean cut and wholesome, screaming World War II patriotism. Now, he looked more like the grizzled old soldier, home from a war that had chewed him up and spit him out.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she supplied to his comment, watching him rummage the cabinets before coming up with a tin of coffee grounds and managing the coffee machine that had frightened her with a capability that made her jealous.
“Do you need much?” He was more curious than anything as he went through the motions of starting a pot brewing. He was old enough to be her grandpa and could manage that thing better than she could. That was awkward.
“Er, no, I guess not. Some, I mean, I do sleep, just like normal people.” She sipped her soda as he set the machine and perused the cabinets, pulling out a box of extremely healthy looking cereal. “How about you?”
He shrugged, snagging a rather large bowl from a different cabinet. “I was sort of genetically engineered to never need much, but yeah, after a lot of physical exhaustion, I crash, same as you, I expect.”
“True,” she admitted as the scent of fresh brewed coffee made her current drink feel pallid in comparison. “I will go and go and then I just stop, wherever I am at, and sleep like the dead.”
“For hours, even! Isn’t it glorious?”
She thought of her comfy bed and sighed, nodding. “Yeah!”
“Till the nightmares start, at least.”
He had her cornered there. She stared at him in surprise as he smirked, ever so slightly, pouring milk onto his cereal.
“You guessed that, huh?”
He lifted his broad shoulders before putting the milk away, digging in a drawer for a spoon. He waited till he had settled at the table, digging through the bowl before he answered. “I wake up some nights still thinking I’m in ice and I’ve woken up in some other new time. Other times, it’s seeing my best friend falling out of my grasp and into any icy Alpine ravine, or the look of terror in another friend’s eyes when he thinks I’m going to kill him.”
He pauses before giving her a wan, rueful look. “Let’s just say I have demons of my own I have to work through.”
He was a soldier, just as she was, and she supposed he had seen a lot, perhaps more than she had. She’d never been allowed to fly combat when she was younger, but she’d seen plenty enough atrocities in her years flying around the universe, trying to stop what insanity she could. Those sorts of things left a mark, even if you didn’t want to admit it.
“How did you survive the crash and the war?” She’d been itching to ask it since she figured out who he was.
He stalled, eating a spoonful of cereal before answering. “Best we can tell, it was the serum. It protected my cells and repaired them after the crash, but I was frozen on top of it. The serum put me in stasis, shutting down my system until I could be revived.”
“And no one thought to come get you out?”
“Well, in fairness, I didn’t precisely tell them where I was and the North Atlantic is really big.”
His wry humor caught her off guard. She hadn’t expected him to be funny. “Cute.”
“I do try, from time-to-time.” He went back to his cereal. “I’ve got to admit, I’m not funny like Stark, always quick witted and cracking jokes, but it’s not like I don’t have a sense of humor.”
She didn’t know this Tony Stark enough to be able to judge one way or the other. “So, is this friend of yours any relation to Howard Stark, the inventor?”
Rogers paused briefly, staring into his bowl, before continuing. “Father and son. Tony inherited Stark Industries after Howard died.”
“Oh.” It hadn’t occurred to her that Howard would be dead. Her memories around him were vague at best, a silver haired man, more than a bit of an arrogant smart ass, but he had gotten on well with Dr. Lawson - Mar Vell. They had been good friends. But that was all thirty years ago, she supposed, and even if Howard had been alive, he’d be quite old.
“You knew Howard?” There was a note of something in his voice, but he smoothed it over with stoic expression. Yeah, Carol knew that habit, too.
“Uh, yeah, back when I was still a pilot.” When she was still normal, she silently supplied. “He started Project: Pegasus, worked with the head researcher, Wendy Lawson. I guess he was a pilot in the day, so we’d sit and talk shop.”
“He was a hell of a hand in the pilot seat. Only man crazy enough and good enough to fly me and my men into enemy territory. Flew me into my first mission in Austria, right into enemy fire, guns full on him. He handled it as if it were a Sunday afternoon stroll.”
Carol smiled, memories rising in her mind of the adventures of Captain America and his Howling Commandos splashed across pulpy pages in lurid ink, German guns blazing as he narrowly escaped death with his trusty shield. “Seriously, did you really carry a shield into battle with you?”
She hit a nerve. A crease formed between his brows as he pushed cereal in his bowl for a long moment. “Yeah, Howard made it for me out of vibranium, a rare metal found only in Wakanda in Africa.”
Carol had never heard of the place, but the image of his trusty shield flying through the air had seared into her childhood imagination. “I used to have a frisbee painted like your shield as a kid. I’d run around with it like I was you, throwing it at Nazis and saving the day.”
He flushed, something of a boyish smile creeping along his beard. “I guess I’m honored. You know, most of those comics and the movies were all make believe.”
“And the radio show?”
“Especially the radio show.”
From down the hall, she could hear the shuffling of feet and a drowsy, sleepy-eyed Romanoff wandered into the space, not even bothering to acknowledge any of them as she made a beeline to the coffee, grabbing a mug the size of a soup bowl and pouring a generous helping in. It was only after she drank a large gulp of it straight that she turned to address either of them.
“You talking about the radio show again?
Rogers rolled his eyes and continued eating. Romanoff wandered to the table, scrubbing at her face. “If you want to get him out of a room, just bring that up. Stark used to have it cued up at just the most embarrassing parts just to see how red he would get.”
Funny how in a moment of desperation small bits of humor crept in, like a balm when it hurt too much to think. Carol could see the silent teasing from one to the other, a friendship between the two. She had that with Maria back in the day and she supposed with Fury as well but not as much away from Earth. She was a loner out there in space. Who else would keep up with the likes of her? No one else even had her powers, let alone was as strong as she was by herself. Still, she could see in Romanoff and Rogers, and even in Banner and Rhodes, a camaraderie that made itself immediately known. Even in the darkest of times like this, these were people who had fought together and lost together and they weren’t about to give up on one of their own.
“So your powers,” Romanoff began conversationally, now that she had appeared to awaken to her fullest. “You are human. How did you get to be like this?”
“Like I said, an accident.” She wasn’t sure how much Romanoff had been made privy to by Fury, if anything. “I was one of the test pilots on the technology Howard Stark and Dr. Lawson were creating. We crashed, and in the fall out the energy source was destroyed. I got hit with the blast and...well, here you are.”
She didn’t know what else to say to that. For their part, neither of them seemed bothered by it, but took it all in stride. She guessed if they were Fury’s Avengers they’d seen weird stuff and more. Something inside of her relaxed a bit, knowing she wasn’t seen as odd for it, though, frankly, they did have Rocket there, so perhaps nothing did phase them anymore.
“Strange we’ve never heard of you once over all the years,” Romanoff mused, less out of suspicion, more with a hint of annoyance.
“I was needed elsewhere. The universe is a big place and lots of people need help. Fury knew what he had here. Clearly, he found you.”
“I don’t know if we quite lived up to expectations,” Rogers replied, pushing aside the rest of his uneaten breakfast. Something passed again between him and Romanoff. She reached a hand to squeeze his arm in comfort before he rose to get coffee for himself.
“It’s been...a hard few years.” Romanoff’s answer was cryptic, a trait she was learning the woman had in spades. Hanging around Fury, she could see why. Spies loved their secrets.
“It’s going to get harder,” Carol offered, meeting the other woman’s quiet gaze.
“Yeah,” she said, simply.
Way to bring a room down, Carol.
“Hey, guys!” Heedless of their conversation or the others sleeping, Rocket yelled loudly from the lab area, frowning at something up on the screens. “I think we got a hit.”
Rogers was at the desk in an instant, already scrutinizing the information at hand. “What do you got?”
Rocket pointed with one, tiny finger up at the incomprehensible string of numbers and digits. “That code there is the Benatar. It looks like she’s stuck in space, drifting. Hasn’t moved at all, and if it was Quill and them, they’d have been trying to make contact by now.”
He tapped keys on the projected keyboard on the table in front of him, flipping screens above. “Here, that faint-ass signal is your boy, Stark. He’s too far to pick up all by himself, wherever he is at, but it overlaps with the Benetar, which means the ship has picked it up and is transmitting it enough for us to find it.”
“Which means your friends found Tony somewhere.” The first relief Carol had seen on Rogers’ face broke. “Can you contact them?”
“Not with the primitive equipment you all have. If I had time I could maybe make something, but it will take me weeks to just figure it out and I’m not so sure they got that long.”
‘What do you mean?”
“If they are sitting there, dead-in-the-water as it were, means something’s wrong with the engines. Sort of like your planes here on Earth, no power means you don’t get air or heat or nothing.”
“How long do they have?”
Rocket shrugged, rubbing his snout as he calculated. “With the back ups, maybe a couple of weeks. More if they stretch it. If they’re all on there, they may not get that long.”
“And if they aren’t?” Rogers was blunt about it, making the raccoon wince a bit.
“They may hold out longer.”
He nodded, hands on his hips, considering as she and Romanoff watched. Sharp blue eyes turned up to Carol, and something long forgotten snapped within her, pulling her to attention as if she were standing on the parade grounds.
“Danvers, you can travel in space, right?”
“Yes, sir,” she found herself replying automatically, without thought. It felt both good and a bit alarming, her old military habits floating to the surface, like muscle memory.
“If we got you coordinates, could you find them?”
“Sure,” she glanced at Rocket. “I could even get them home if the engines are out.”
“By yourself?” Rocket didn’t look confident in that.
“Remember, Kree warships? I took those out by myself.”
“Yeah, yeah, super hero girl.” He grabbed a pen and began writing down the string of numbers. “I don’t know how you’ll find them without a navigation system. Closest planet near them is what remains of Titan.”
“Titan?” She knew of it. “That’s deserted, has been for longer than anyone can remember.”
“Sure, but still is Thanos’ home, according to Gamora and Nebula.” He ripped the lined paper off and handed it to her. “If you can get there, chances are high you can find them around the area. May take a bit of searching, though.”
“Got it.” She glanced instinctively to Rogers. “If they are there, I’ll bring the ship here and get Stark home.”
“I don’t know if we can be of assistance, but let us know if we can.” Steve turned to Rocket. “You keep scanning out there for them, just to make sure they at least stay where they are for us to find them.”
“Sure. Not like they can go anywhere.”
“And keep an eye out for Thanos as well.” Rogers’ eyes hardened as he watched the screens. “I wanted to find the bastard sooner rather than later.”
That, Carol suspected, would be a lot harder to do. “Right! Well, let me grab a cup of coffee and a shower, then I’ll be off.”
Romanoff was already standing there with a mug, passing it along. “You sure you got this?”
“Finding a needle in a haystack? Sure!” She glanced back at Rocket and Rogers. “And maybe Thanos too, if you find him. Showers are where again?”
Romanoff pointed down the hall. “Last room on the left, you can use that.”
“Excellent!” Actions, this felt good, doing something, movement, moving forward. This felt far better than the inertia of waiting and wondering what they could even do next. It was only after she had chugged the coffee and crawled into the scalding shower that it occurred to her that she still didn’t know the truth about Maria or Monica, and she didn’t want to know...not for a while, yet.
Chapter 6: About A Boy
In which Nebula asks Tony a simple question.
The fever left him weak as a kitten, drained and exhausted, too tired to even roll out of bed to take a leak, but he survived, thanks in no small part to whatever crazy-ass, alien medication Nebula had shot into his arm. She assured him it would be all right, Quill used it all the time and he was human. Tony was far from sure of that, but was in no place to argue the point.
The repairs they had managed got them 2 more days further and away from Titan, but after that, no more. They needed parts they didn’t have and in the deep of space there was no Triple A to come and tow them to the nearest station. He thought longingly of the many, many times he had flown in one car or the other down the PCH from his house in Malibu to El Segundo, careless of himself and others, finding himself longing for one last spin up the California coast, or maybe a more leisurely saunter from New York to Maine with Pepper, go hit up some B&Bs along the way and eat lobster till they exploded. Anything, but being stuck doing nothing in deepest space. At least, he admitted, as he stood staring out the window of the prow - was it called that - the views were amazing. Far more so than he had ever imagined it could be. That part of him who wanted to be an astronaut as a little boy was awed and amazed staring into infinity around him, realizing that at least if he had to be stuck somewhere, he was stuck here. That thought was a comfort, till he realized that on these stars half the life surrounding them was now gone because he couldn’t defeated a man who wanted to be God.
For all that she was as grim as his lawyer on any day Tony’s face appeared on the news, Nebula wasn’t a horrible...person? Android? Cyborg? In fact, she seemed not to mind his need for chatter when the silence was too oppressive, patiently answer his myriad of questions and curiously asking some of her own. He had gleaned a few more things about her in these chats; that she had no memory of her life before Thanos, that she had once had a horrible resentment of her sister fostered by her maniacal, blood-thirsty father, that despite it she had desired to please him, whatever it took, just to make it all go away. It certainly put his own issues with Howard into perspective. He had a cake walk next to this woman. Sure, his father had been difficult in his own way, but, he had loved his son. Well, Tony believed he loved him. That hadn’t been a word that passed between them a great deal, “love”, but in the end the worst his father had done was to frown and criticize Tony on his wasted potential not tear him apart bit by bit to improve him.
He’d also gained a bit of insight into these “Guardians of the Galaxy” that he had met, this strange family of aliens who sort of wandered about like guns for hire. Gamora had found them when she was sent to retrieve the Power Stone for Thanos. Perhaps it was Nebula’s telling, or maybe Tony’s bias after their brief meeting, but intelligence didn’t seem to be their forte outside of Gamora. They were scrappy, he supposed, like some sort of space equivalent of old-West cowboys. He had long known there were alien races outside of Earth, Thor talked about them all the time, but he hadn’t realized just how civilized the rest of the universe was. It was all just so...big. Here he was, just trying to keep his corner of it safe, clearly without much success. The way Nebula spoke of the Guardians, though, he couldn’t help but feel a small twinge of longing and miss the Avengers - the old team, even with Steve Rogers.
They were on day 12 of their own personal episode of Lost in Space, having just spent a leisurely few hours in a rousing game of paper football which Nebula, with her enhanced abilities, won handily. She had looked beyond moved by this and he could guess she likely didn’t win at life a lot. He had wandered to move, stretch, use the lavatory, and do something other than sitting in this ship. He’d listened through Quill’s playlist of oldies, but goodies, not horrible, though would it have killed him to have a bit of good classic metal on there? He was jonesing for something, anything to do, a book to read, hell, he’d take Wikipedia at this point, just something…
He fell into his habit of 20 questions with Nebula instead.
“If you could go anywhere in the universe, if given the chance, where would you go?”
Nebula shrugged, her dark, uncanny eyes unblinking, as always. “My home planet. If anyone is still alive I would try to find it at least, to see if anyone remembered me or my family. Perhaps, I’d find something of myself.”
Fair, he reasoned. He supposed all of them would go back to their past, if they could, to understand where they had come from. Nebula would want to have that piece back more than most.
“Would you stay with them?”
“No,” she shook her head firmly. “I’ve become something else since I was taken, something...not like them, something broken. I don’t know how well I’d fit in that life anymore.”
That gnawing guilt Tony loved to ignore reminded him again of Bucky Barnes and for not the first time since Siberia he wished he’d not let his righteous anger and dark temper get a hold of him. Not that Cap was justified in what he did, but, if he’d kept it together for just a bit longer…
“Do you have family left, then, back on...Earth?” She had taken to calling it that rather than Terra, he suspected to be polite.
“I hope so,” he replied, shooting her a sad smile, heart aching at the prospect. “I mean, it’s not much. My parents died long ago and I was an only child, so just little old me. But, I have Pepper. Virginia is her real name, but she hates it. She’s been the woman in my life for...a long time now, and I hope she’s waiting there if I ever get back.”
“If” being the operative word, there, he quietly noted.
He continued, drawling as he wandered around their confined space. “Other than that, I have my best friend, James Rhodes. I call him Rhodey. I’ve known him since we were at MIT - that’s an advanced school for science in my country - before he was commissioned into the military. And then there is Happy Hogan, my driver. Used to be my bodyguard. More than anything I think he just tried to keep me out of trouble. Sort of failed at that.”
God, he would kill to have any of them back. Hell, he’d take Steve Rogers’ stupid face at this point, if it just meant he had someone, anyone waiting on the other side of the universe. If he didn’t have to be alone with the weight of all of this; the sadness, the anger, the guilt…
“The boy who was there on Titan with you, the one in the strange suit. Was he your son?”
If Nebula had been trying to hurt him, he didn’t think she could have succeeded more if she tried. That she was deadly was without question, but in this she was merely innocent, a well-meaning question that gutted him, stopping him in his bored pacing as he swallowed, hard, against the wealth of anguish that rose up within him.
“No,” he barked out, aching as he turned to her even expression, just a hint of confusion surfacing at his reaction. “No, he wasn’t, he was just a kid. Just...he was my protege.”
The word clearly had no meaning in her translator, as she frowned at it. He clarified, words tumbling out as fast as the grief inside of his still weakened insides.
“He was a kid, just a student in school still, but smart, so, so, so smart. Orphaned kid, his parents died when he was young, some accident, raised by his father’s brother and sister-in-law. They were all right, average folks, hipster types from Queens, but they have this nephew who is precocious as hell and too smart for his own good, so they send him to this school for the sciences. On some school trip to a very questionable laboratory doing clearly unauthorized live animal experimentation, he got a bite from a spider, a sort of bug-like creature we have a lot of on our world. Don’t know what the lab did to the spider, but clearly it was genetically altered, and that altered the kid too, and it enhanced his abilities. Overnight, he became super strong, super agile, super fast, and could climb tall buildings without breaking a sweat.”
He recalled the videos Happy had shown him, of this impossible teenager doing feets that made even Cap look old and slow. He’d been interested then, but had decided to leave well enough alone till the kid got older at least. That was before the Accords and Cap’s peacing out. Then he’d called him in out of necessity, else he’d never have been able to face Cap at all. He still lost all the same, in every way imaginable. He hadn’t regretted the idea of bringing a child, a high school freshman, into this entire adventure - well, maybe just a little bit. Rhodey had given him hell when he’d found out and made him promise to wait till the kid was eighteen before bringing him into the Avengers, which Tony had hand-waved his way out of. Tony had seen too much of himself in Peter, that brightness, the whip smart intellect, the keen wit, and remembered what it was like to be 15 at MIT with Rhodey and young adults who were miles older and wiser than he was. He wanted to give Peter a chance.
He’d have been better served if Tony had never found him at all, had never given him a Spider-Man suit, had never seen one of his videos. If he hadn’t, then he’d have been home when this all hit. Maybe he wouldn’t have dusted, maybe he would have, but he wouldn’t have been on a planet far away from Queens and his aunt, with only the man who had used him at best, ignored him at worst. He could have died somewhere safe and not afraid.
He only realized he’d gone silent after noticing Nebula’s unblinking attention on him, unnerving in and of itself. “Right, so yeah, this kid, he develops super powers, essentially, but right then, his uncle dies in a robbery. So, being fourteen and thinking he can do anything, he decides he’s going to be a superhero, like the Avengers, except in his neighborhood, helping the little guy. He started posting videos of himself in a mask, doing crazy things to help people, and that’s how I found him. I figured he needed someone to help keep an eye on him, help him learn to use his abilities and not get killed, and I saw potential in him.”
“As an Avenger?” Her voice was dusky in the quiet.
“Sure, if he wanted, or maybe he could go to MIT, get a degree, become an engineer, whatever he wanted. The thing was the world was his oyster and he had a chance to be a hero, to make a difference, to be...to be all the things I wasn’t.”
That bit of truth fell out unexpectedly, tumbling past his lips, surprising him as he blinked at the other woman, the ache flaring painfully as he stopped, his weak knees forcing him into the chair he had vacated, collapsing, a pile of legs and elbows. He blinked, his vision filling with tears he hadn’t expected to cry, spilling down his wasted cheeks as he wiped absently at them.
“I...I’m an asshole, Nebula.” He laughed, wetly, as he continued to scrub at his face. “I’m a self-centered narcissist who has always, always believed I was smarter than everyone and that made me more right than everyone. If I had an idea that was what we were doing, no matter what. I wanted to be important, to be seen and recognized, to have people love me and view me as a hero because I needed that attention, fucked up as it was. I liked being Iron Man because I was Iron Man. Iron Man wasn’t a suit and a mask and an alter ego skulking at the top of high rises in the dead of night. Iron Man was me, out there saving the world. I liked feeling important, like I was doing something good for once.”
Wow, if that wasn’t the product of years of therapy spilling out all over a perfect stranger, he didn’t know what was. It welled up out of his ravaged body and in between them as he tried to collect the tattered fragments of his dignity. “Anyway, this kid, this improbable boy from Queens, he had all the pieces to be something great. And yeah, I saw myself in him, this scrappy kid who life had sort of kicked around, lonely, smart, and capable. And I thought, I’d help him grow into those powers he has. I’d help him become a superhero, one better than even me, because he had a big heart, a heart bigger than mine, a selfless one. Hell, Steve Rogers would have loved this kid. He was everything that I wasn’t, and I wanted him to be all the things I could never be. And then your father’s other murder children show up and he gets taken away and then everything else happens...and he’s gone. This boy, this child, with all the world in front of him, and he’s dead because I screwed up. I failed.”
The truth burned its way out of him as he shoved the table, hard, though it didn’t budge. It only managed to bruise his already weakened palms, He cursed, wrapping his now rubbery arms around himself, closing his eyes as he breathed, the image of the kid’s face in front of him, his last terrified moments, the feel of him disintegrating in his hands. He had begged and pleaded not to go and there wasn’t a damn thing Tony could do to stop it.
“He should never have been here,” Tony finally sighed, looking up at Nebula, blurred through his tears.
Her expressionless face at least held compassion as she reached across the table to touch his shoulder, a small gesture, but one that spoke volumes from her.
“What was his name,” she asked, simply.
“Peter.” His voice broke on the simple name, one that was filled with so much fortitude and strength. “Peter Parker.”
Nebula nodded. “Like Quill. That was his first name.”
Not like Quill, he wanted to snap, but refrained. He understood her making the connection. “Yeah, it’s an old name, from another language. Means ‘rock’, like someone who is strong, or maybe the centerpoint for something, the foundation.”
Nebula took that information in, quietly. “I suppose you could say Quill was the foundation for all of us coming together as the Guardians. Your Peter was your foundation for your future. We all lost what held us up.”
She was clearly not dumb at all.
“You’re father never valued you nearly enough, Nebula.”
The effect of his words stunned her to quiet. She blinked at him with her liquid dark eyes. “You’re a good man, Tony Stark. Whatever else happens, I hope you know that.”
High praise from this terse, broken, sad woman indeed.
He scrubbed at his face with the back of his hand, trying to clear his eyes. “Well, if we never get saved, I’m glad...honored..to have met you. If I have to die with you here as the only one who remembers me, thanks.”
They lapsed into silence again. After a while, he rose, looking for the shattered remains of his helmet, wherever he last left it.
“I’m going to make another nightly recording for Pepper, if we should happen to be found. I’ll let her know what you said.”
With that, he wandered off with his thoughts and misery to stare at the stars for a while and desperately wish he was back home with Pepper, with Peter safe in Queens with his Aunt May.
Chapter 7: Fumbling at the Line
In which Natasha and Steve discuss life choices.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is start over…
Steve had to wonder how many times one could start over in a lifetime before it was finally good enough.
They were in a holding pattern at the moment. Danvers had yet to send word on her search for Tony or of Rocket’s team. The rest watched the numbers climb and the news reports of unrest and fear across the globe, even as familiar names and faces came across their reports, ones that broke what was left of their hearts and morale piece-by-piece. He stood, stoically, watching his entire world, everything that he’d slowly and achingly built since waking up in the future, crumble and fall apart and pondered on Peggy’s words to him.
The digital clock read 3 AM, but Steve was far from sleep. FRIDAY had three screens up for filled with news on the chaos; CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera, all begging the question of how did this happen and what comes next. Already, the knowledge that there was an alien invasion in Wakanda, so newly open to the world, had finally broken and that coupled with the images from New York meant the world’s press was figuring out rather quickly what was going on. Reports from Wakanda had leaked Thanos and the world’s media grappled with what all of this meant, pulling in politicians and religious leaders to discuss as hysteria seemed to build to a fever pitch in the streets. All he could do was sit by and watch it unfold in utter helplessness. Not since that fateful day so long ago, sitting in that movie theater in Brooklyn, had he ever felt so powerless to do anything and so angry about it.
“I didn’t think it could get more scary out there.”
He glanced up at the door where Natasha stood, arms crossed as she watched the same reports, nodding grimly. “You know, you think you have seen the worst and then the universe has a way of surprising you.”
The hard smile that rose on her face agreed with his sentiment. “A lesser man would crack under that, yet here you are, always persevering, always clinging to hope. How in the hell do you do that?”
She snorted at his wry look, coming to stand before one of the screens. “Seriously, I thought that ‘greatest generation’ rhetoric was bullshit till I got to hang with you.”
“I wouldn’t say greatest, just one that had to put up with a lot and keep on moving forward. Tends to put things in perspective.”
“Even this?” She turned to him archly.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, watching a riot in some city, wondering how in the hell they could even begin fixing any of this. “Maybe there is an end to that well of optimism.”
She nodded, reaching a long finger up to the CNN screen to press onto a file in the corner. Up popped the list of missing that they knew, the associates to the Avengers who had all disappeared in the blink of an eye. One-by-one she flicked through the names, staring at each as is memorizing every line and crease on the far-too-many faces. She paused on Sam, her shoulders sinking just as Steve’s battered heart did.
“Does his family know?”
“I reached out to who was left. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Natasha nodded, arms crossed as she regarded Sam’s stoic expression, one that was completely at odds with the other side of his personality; jovial, quick-witted, eager to laugh and have a good time. He’d always teased Steve for being so somber all the time, had tried to drag him kicking and screaming into the modern era, throwing new movies, music and food at him. He’d been his first non-Avengers friend in this new world, a perfect stranger who had jumped in to help him that day in DC. He could have been killed for it and it’s a wonder he wasn’t. Steve didn’t know if he and Natasha could have ever managed surviving the revelation of HYDRA within SHIELD, let alone single-minded focus of the Winter Soldier, without Sam at their side. Sam had never questioned it, though, covering Steve’s left the same way Bucky always covered Steve’s right.
“Sam was a good man,” Natasha sighed, swiping his face away. “Far too good to die like this.”
Steve wasn’t sure any of them deserved to die like this, snapped out of existence as if they hadn’t ever been there. He rubbed his fingers as she spun through photographs, of Erik Selvig, the physicist who had worked for SHIELD and was friends with Thor, of Shuri, T’Challa’s brilliant young sister, of Peter Parker, the young kid from Queens who Tony had roped into battle.
And then she stopped on the next face.
“When did we hear?” Her expression didn't change, but he could hear the quiet quaver in her voice.
“Three days ago.” He wished she would flip past it, move on to Fury, Hill, anyone who wasn’t that face.
“I had Pepper and Rhodes follow up through back channels with the CIA. I’m still not sure what our legal status is in this country and I’m not about to start drawing attention to it.”
Natasha could only nod, sadness breaking at the sight of “deceased” under Sharon Carter’s name. “She was one of the few friends I had at SHIELD. She never cared I had been KGB or that I had been a Widow.”
“She had her own mind, else she never would have helped us out.”
Natasha’s eyes cut sideways towards him. “Seemed to be a Carter women trait.”
She wasn’t wrong. Still, the comparison didn’t sit particularly well with him. “Sharon was herself and no one else, especially not Peggy.”
Natasha acknowledged that with a cool tilt of her head. “I always wondered why you two didn’t work out.”
“You mean besides the fact that I was an internationally wanted fugitive and she worked for one of the organizations on the look out for me?”
“I, for one, would think that would add excitement to the relationship. Then again, I think we’ve established I have rather strange ideas for what makes for good relationships.”
Steve hadn’t missed the pointed way in which Natasha had avoided most direct interaction with Bruce since his return. “Yeah, well when you already had a rocky start because one of you was spying on the other, then add in that she worked for the CIA, and then the fact we couldn’t ever really connect because I was on the run, it just failed to launch.”
“Seems to be the story of most of our love lives. We get there, it’s in our hands, and then it all falls apart. What was that term Sam always had?”
“Fumble at the line.” Steve could hear Sam’s voice, the disapproving shake of his head as he glared at Steve every time the subject of Sharon ever came up in conversation. “Because he said I was always fumbling the ball at the line of scrimmage, never could move forward.”
“Accurate,” she sighed with dry empathy, running fingers through her blonde hair. “In fairness, circumstance hasn’t been any of our friend.”
“No, it has not.” He stared up at Sharon’s face, regret and guilt gnawing at him as he thought of Sam’s lectures. “I get what he was getting at, none of us can dwell in the past. We can’t go back and fix it, but it’s a bit hard to move forward when the world is so determined to kick you in the teeth.”
“Not that it has ever stopped Steve Rogers.”
Natasha knew him well. “No, not that it has.”
“So why did you stick around with the likes of us and not make more effort to go after Sharon?”
“You might as well, we all know you’re a terrible liar.”
That brought up a ghost of a smile. “I’m not that bad.”
“There’s a reason I’m the spy in this partnership.”
“Fair,” he conceded, mostly because she was right.
“So, why not?”
He scrubbed fretfully at his face, still unused to the loss of the beard he’d grown in his two years on the run. “Because as amazing as Sharon was, as smart, and funny, and attractive, there was a ghost of someone else there between us and we both knew it.”
Natasha was never one to judge and she certainly didn’t here. Instead she nodded as pieces she clearly suspected finally were confirmed. “I suppose it is hard to build a relationship with someone who is the great-niece of the long-lost love of your life.”
That was something of an understatement. “Every conversation we had somehow would loop back to that, and I started realizing that we both had the habit. She was close to Peggy, she had just passed, we both were grieving her...I don’t know, when you get down to it, it just didn’t feel right, starting to build a relationship off of that shared connection.”
“That’s fair, I suppose, though you seemed to like her okay when she was still Kate.”
He had, admittedly. “Which was all a cover, as you recall.”
“True, but that was still Sharon underneath there.”
“And how much of that is because she reminded me of Peggy?”
Natasha bobbed her head in the classic “maybe” gesture. “You do have a type, Rogers.”
“And that was the problem, that’s not moving forward, that’s clinging to something familiar, and worse, it was setting up expectations for both of us that neither of us could live up to. She isn’t Peggy Carter. I wasn’t about to start turning her into her aunt.”
“And you didn’t want to have a relationship straight out of a Hitchcock thriller?”
He only snorted at her levity, at least having finally seen Vertigo to understand what she was talking about. “That would have made a great by-line after the fact I was a fugitive from the law. ‘Captain America Becomes Psychotic’.”
“After everything that’s happened to you, how are you not?”
“Same reason you aren’t and you’ve been through far worse than I have. We just learn to pick up, learn to keep on going, even when we fumble the ball at the line of scrimmage on the goal line.”
“I see your American football references, Rogers, and I have spent enough Sunday afternoons with Clint yelling at a television to understand them.”
“Did the metaphor work?”
She grinned. “Yeah, it did.”
He regarded Sharon’s face still floating in the air, the old familiar question of “what might have been” spinning in his brain. It felt as if his entire life was made up of missed opportunities and chances not taken out illness, or duty, or fear. He had no one to blame but himself. He chose to fly Schmidt’s plane into the ice, to refuse to sign the Sokovia Accords, to go risk everything for his best friend, to walk away from the SHIELD and the idea of Captain America, and he had also chosen not to pursue a relationship with her.
“Sharon deserved much better than me.”
“You both deserved to be happy.” Natasha’s answer was firm, glaring at him mildly. “Why do you keep thinking you don’t?”
“I would like to be happy, sure.”
“But you don’t think you deserve to be?”
What could he even say to that? “When I was a kid, I had to learn to accept I’d never get to do the things I wanted because I was too sickly to get them. Expectations re-adjust, you learn that sometimes who you are means you can’t always have the things that you want, no matter how badly you want them.”
“You sound like Bruce.” Frustration mingled with exasperation briefly.
“And I don’t sound like you?” He knew she had been known to think and say the exact same things.
She frowned guiltily but wouldn’t back down. “Maybe we all have it wrong. You’re a good man, Steve, one of the best I’ve known and you deserve to have a life, to be happy. I just hope one day you catch on to that and stop wasting the chances that keep get thrown at you. Go out and grab that life with both hands and don’t ever let go.”
“And what about you?” He wouldn’t let her off the hook that easily. “You wanted a life once with someone. You got a second chance to maybe reconsider that.”
As expected, she demurred, that bit of her she only let her nearest friends see closing off somewhat. They were close, he and Natasha, but there were sacred cows even he couldn’t step on, and Bruce was one of them. “I have a hard enough time getting you figured out, let alone my life. Sam’s not here to get your head on straight, so that leaves little old me.”
He decided to take her graceful out of the conversation she didn’t want to have. “Sam would be glad someone is keeping on me.”
“Face it, you’re a mess, Rogers.” She looked to Sharon once more before clicking the rotating pictures off. The screen returned to the CNN coverage. “So I’m not sleeping for the rest of the night. Think Tony has some popcorn hidden in this joint?”
“Maybe, though likely it’s organic, dried goji berries or something.” Tony was always, always snacking on something. Even in the couple of weeks they had been home Steve had found baggies of dried fruit stuck in the most random, odd places all over the facility, most opened and tucked away by the absentminded engineer.
“Really, if Stark’s alive, we need to have a serious conversation about the kind of junk food he keeps around a place. I’ll go see what I can find, maybe we can sit up and find an appropriately awful movie to watch.”
He knew what she was doing and was grateful for it. “Sure, just don’t make it a romantic comedy.”
“I’m thinking action. We can sit and criticize Hollywood fighting techniques.”
He watched her wander off to putter in the kitchen, grateful that even when he fumbled the ball, he had a friend who would fall on it for him.
Chapter 8: Walking in Memphis
In which Natasha goes to see an old friend.
From high above in the quinjet the world looked peaceful and normal. It was only when you hit the ground that you realized it wasn’t. The snap may have taken half the population of the universe, but clearly it wasn’t even. Reports were coming in of whole small towns, rural farming communities that had existed for a century or more turned to dust, the homes, businesses and farms empty. Some cities had been hit harder than others. New York had lost half its giant population overnight, turning whole quarters into ghost towns, while Detroit, a city already rocked with population decline and city corruption, was devastated to the point that there was talking of closing down whole neighborhoods all together to bring residents to one central, safe area. The tallies were still coming in on who was left and who wasn’t.
There was one tally Natasha had yet to learn the truth on. She owed it to herself to go and find out.
She landed in the field outside of the quaint and tidy farmhouse near dusk. The route was familiar, she’d come alone many times, always to be met with one child or another’s shout from the house. But as she disembarked, she could hear only silence in the distance. The house, which would at least have had the light on over the back mudroom, was dark, and nothing stirred. She hadn’t expected it too, but still, she had foolishly hoped.
It had rained in Missouri the week since everything happened. The grass had grown and needed mowing, a job Clint had loved doing on his riding lawn mower. Nat had teased him that it was his baby tractor and he would ride through the fields with a beer, playing at being a farmer. It had grown up with the recent showers and needed trimming. It brushed high against her practical shoes as she hiked to the house.
“Clint,” she called, well before she reached the back porch with it’s stack of boots and the deliberately distressed, country kitsch flag on the back siding. She traced a finger across it, gathering grit on her fingertips as she went to the back door. It opened easily, not even locked, a habit that Laura had that drove Clint crazy. Laura swore people in the country never needed locks.
“Clint!” Her voice echoed into the Barton’s house. The mudroom led into the large, tidy kitchen. He’d finished that for Laura right after Natasha was hit outside of Odessa by Bucky Barnes, then the Winter Soldier. She’d convalesced on the couch in the living room listening to him saw and mutter, wandering through the house with a tool belt on, as Laura swore that if she didn’t have a working stove and sink in two days she would divorce him and take Nat with her. She’d been too injured to protest, but she laughed at Clint’s affront at his wife’s claim on her and protested he had found her first.
The kitchen was silent and dark now. Dishes sat in the sink, but no food remained save for a half-drunk juicebox one of the kids left behind. The fruit in the bowl on the counter was over-ripe, several of the oranges had turned green with mold, and a banana was on the verge of becoming brown sludge. The scent was sickeningly sweet as she wandered past into the living room. There was a book on the couch, one of Lila’s, some teen apocalyptic series she had fallen in love with that Clint had mocked for being unrealistic, to his daughter’s haughty protests. A pair of Nate’s socks lay on the hand-made rag rug, forgotten, again, by their owner. Cooper’s baseball sat on the coffee table, alone on the edge, having never rolled an inch. She willed the tears not to come as she spun around the perfect house, the place she had found refuge in when the rest of the world had gone to shit. This had been her family’s home. She had no one else, never had, and this was the closet she had to a brother and sister, to a niece and nephews. She hadn’t wanted it to be true.
He’d called nearly a day after they landed back in New York, but Danvers had arrived and they had focused on their energy on figuring out what happened and where Tony was. She got his message later, the broken truth of it. Laura and the kids had all dusted away before his eyes. He wanted to know what happened, was half afraid she was gone too, as she wasn’t answering her phone, if any of them had survived. She had called him back as soon as she could, but the phone had gone to voicemail. He hadn’t called back.
The stairs creaked with age as she climbed up to the rooms, daring to peek inside the private sanctums of the Bartons, hoping against hope to find some sort of life. Of course she was disappointed. Unless Clint was hiding under the mess of Cooper’s room or in the spilling closet of Lila’s, neither looked as if they had been touched.
“Clint,” she called again, knowing if he hadn’t answered yet, he wasn’t going to. She cursed loudly in Russian. She had hoped he was there, still. She shouldn’t have been surprised when he wasn’t.
Her phone in her pocket buzzed, startling in the stillness. She reached for it, expecting it to be Steve or Rhodey checking in on her. Instead, it was a single text message from a number she didn’t recognize.
You talk to Captain America with that mouth?
Her heart soared as she tapped back quickly, her thumbs flying across the StarkTech glass. Where are you?
There was a long pause as she stood in the hallway between the rooms, looking for the cameras she could guess Clint had set up to watch the place between missions. Clearly, he was watching her. It took a minute for her phone to buzz again, his reply popping up on the screen.
What the hell was in Houston? Why?
She glared at the camera she saw tucked in a space above the linen closet.
Don’t look at me like that?
She smirked, flipping off the camera.
You’ve learned bad habits on the run with Cap and Sam.
She typed quickly. Steve has a surprisingly blue vocabulary when he wants. Answer my question.
Another pause before a reply. I always knew he had it in him.
“Clint,” She shouted at the camera, her patience snapped.
Her phone now rang, the strange number appearing on her screen.
“Why Houston,” she snapped, without ceremony.
“I know a guy,” he drawled, tired and dark.
“A guy? What sort of guy?”
“Old contact back in the day.”
His evasiveness annoyed her. “How far back in the day are we talking, Barton?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.
“Reliving your old army days?”
“World has gone to hell, Romanoff, or haven’t you noticed?”
“I have, as a matter of fact, that’s why I'm here.”
He’s quiet for long moments.
“Clint, we need you.”
“To do what?” It wasn’t snide or mocking, just broken. Natasha’s heart ached at the sound.
“Look, everything is chaos, the world governments are in shambles, any semblance of order is in a tailspin, and we are here, trying to patch things up as best we can.”
“By ‘we’, who are you talking about?”
“Steve,” she uttered automatically. “Rhodey, Pepper, Thor, Banner.”
“Banner’s back?” That caught him by surprise. “Where the hell has he been?”
‘Off world with Thor.” She hadn’t gotten all the specifics on that.
“Where is Stark?”
“Still missing, we’ve got someone out there looking for him.”
Again, he went quiet. Twitching, Natasha grasped at anything.
“We could use you right now, Clint. I could use you.”
“Fat lot of good I did sitting at home while you all got your asses handed to you.”
“You did what you had to do.”
“And what good did that do me?” His voice broke in anger and grief, causing Natasha to curl in on herself, her shoulders hunching up as she willed the sobs in her chest away. “I was...we were just in the back, having lunch. Laura grilled hot dogs. The boys were having a catch, Lila...she got a bullseye. They are there one minute and the next, they are gone. I blink and they didn’t exist anymore, and all I could do was stand there with some stupid look on my face.”
“You wouldn’t be far off from the rest of us,” she whispered, tears leaking out of the corner of her closed eyes. “We watched them. Bucky Barnes went right in front of Steve. Okoye watched T’Challa. Wanda…”
Here the sob did escape, the memory of the young woman, holding her dead lover, almost grateful as she disintegrated like ash on the wind. On the other end of the line she could hear Clint curse.
“They’re gone, Clint. We can still do...something.”
“Like what?” Skepticism rang across the line, underscored by anger. “We made a stand and lost.”
“We can find Thanos, make him put it all back.”
“An alien from outer space and you want to find him? Jesus, Romanoff!” He half sobbed, half laughed, all of it despairing. “You’ve been around Rogers too long. When did you of all people become the wide-eyed optimist?”
She pursed her lips hard together, regarding the camera up above. “When someone reached a hand out to me and made a different call.”
His ragged breaths on the other end were the only indication he was still there.
“Clint, I know where you are heading. I know what this all sounds like a great idea. You’ve lost everything, you have nothing, and for a man of action now you can do something, anything to fill that aching hole there. I know that road better than you. You know what I did, what I was willing to do, how many lives I cost, and you also knew where I was headed. You pulled me out. Laura wouldn’t want this for you, the kids…”
“They’re gone now, so what does it matter?”
What could she possibly say to that?
“Tasha,” he breathed, the name only he really ever called her. “I hear you. I’m not saying I don’t hope you find something, I’m just saying I can’t hope...I can’t...they were why I did all the things I’ve done. Why I worked for SHIELD instead of as a merc, why I took up the good fight instead of going solo. Everything I’ve done all these years, especially the Avengers, was for the four of them. Without them, what do I got?”
“Me,” she whispered, tears flowing freely. “You’re best friend, the person you helped get out.”
“You were always stronger than you looked, Natasha. That’s why the KGB could never hold you. You’ve been doing fine without me around.”
“Yeah, but no one covers my six like you do.”
“No,” he admitted, roughly. “Let me know if you find anything on this Thanos asshole, will you?”
“Clint,” she begged, but the line went dead. She stared at the camera above but knew it was no use. Sobbing, she angrily turned from it, stomping down the stairs and back out the back, slamming the door hard behind her. The quinjet lifted, rising into the twilight air. In the distance, she could see the lights of a small town. Clint had told her it was called Memphis, had joked no one had an original name for a town out here. She’d never been there. She wondered who was possibly even left there, if anyone. Did they even know about the little farmhouse outside of town, of the family who lived there who were now gone.
She glanced down one last time at the quaint refuge she had once had before turning back towards New York. She burned it into her memory. She would never come back again.
Funny story, so I'm looking up where the Barton farm is supposed to be, knowing Clint historically was from around Iowa. They said...Missouri? Which, yeah, I suppose, but it made me laugh a lot especially as Quill is from Missouri and I wondered why. The only answer I got from a friend who does pick-up writing over at Marvel was that Missouri is seen as being wholesome.
Being from the fine Show Me State, I laughed really hard at that.
Anyway, so while it isn't central Iowa, you can practically see Iowa from his very large back yard. Also, it is the town where my favorite younger brother lives so I had to tell him that in my fanfiction he was unfortunately snapped out of existence.
Chapter 9: A Loss Too Terrible
In which Bruce checks on Thor.
If Bruce stared at the images of the dusted and missing one minute longer he might just put a hand through one of Tony’s expensive, clear monitors without Hulk to egg him on to do it. He paused on Shuri’s face, the young princess with a mind that put both Tony and him to shame, inquisitive eyes sparkling with humor. He could see she was likely too smart for her own good, both a joy and a trial to her regal mother and the apple of her royal brother’s eye. He was sad he wouldn’t get to know her now, this girl whose brain kicked his ass seven ways from Sunday.
Bruce turned the monitor off, scrubbing at his face under his glasses. He was back in his own clothes, finally, having found what he’d left behind in the Avenger’s complex years ago. Picking up the pieces of a life he once knew was difficult under the best of circumstances. Doing so after failing to save half the universe was way worse. He didn’t even know where to start with any of it. If he’d only been a bit faster in getting here, more insistent on getting Steve Rogers from the start, if he had not let Tony wander off alone into space to deal with it by himself...
He pushed away from the desk, out of the lab and into the common area. It was quiet at the moment. Pepper and Happy Hogan were trying to piece together Stark Industries and were working with Steve to coordinate relief efforts as they could. Rhodey was tied up with the military, trying to see what was left and what they could even do to help. He hadn’t seen Thor much at all in the days since Wakanda. He’d hidden himself away, avoiding all of them for the most part. Only Rocket was around, monitoring space on one hand, watching the news with the other, munching a bag of dried nuts and fruit as he gave Bruce a baleful eye.
“Shit is getting bad out there.” He nodded to a report of riots in some city. Bruce thought it was Cleveland. “People are scared.”
“They got a right to be.” He watched for several long minutes as the bottom third of the screen begged the question of “How did this happen?”
“If it’s this bad here, imagine elsewhere in the universe? Xandar was hit hard before the snap. Thanos hit it first to get the Power Stone. Guess they were hit again and ain’t nobody controlling their territory. The Kree, probably the same there, only worse 'cause they don't even know what happened.”
For all his time on Sakaar, none of these names made any sense to Bruce. “Any word on the Asgardians?”
“Trying to find them.” He waved at the monitor looking both for his ship and what was left of Thor’s people. “If they are out there, they’ll hail us.”
He hoped so. He knew Valkyrie was charged with getting the rest, mostly non-combatants, off the ship and to Earth. The last he saw of them was their desperate flight away from Thanos before he turned into Hulk. That was over two weeks ago and there was still no sign of them.
“You seen Thor?”
Rocket nodded, looking grim. “Been hiding in one of the training rooms.”
That sounded a bit promising. “Working out his stuff there, that’s good.”
Rocket arched a furry eyebrow up at him. “Don’t think that’s what exactly he’s been doing.”
What hope he had that his friend was managing melted into a puddle of anxiety. Distantly, he felt Hulk stir and shrug and roll over, unable to be bothered.
“Maybe I should go find him.”
“You could. I’d bring one of those fancy Stark suits with you.”
“Why is that?”
Rocket mimicked throwing something. “His aim is good, but he doesn’t always pay attention what’s between it and him.”
Yeah...really not good.
“Thanks for the advice.”
Nothing for it, Bruce supposed, but to find him and face the depressed wrath of a despondent Norse god. He vaguely wished Tony and Steve were here to help deal with this. Not that he couldn’t, he supposed, but Thor had always fit in neatly between the two polar opposites of Iron Man and Captain America. He had instinctively understood Tony, with all of his father issues and excessive hubris, and Steve, the soldier with his honor and his discipline. Thor had made things work well with those two. Bruce had tried to just avoid it all together. Now, he wished neither he nor Thor had ever left planet. Maybe none of this would have ever happened.
The facility had more training rooms than it knew what to do with; a gym, a pool, free weights, a padded room for tossing people around in. Bruce had never really been in this place. Tony had been building it while he was here, but they’d not moved in until after the Ultron fiasco, which was after he had disappeared. This wasn’t the home that the Tower had been and he found himself wandering from room-to-room, listening for the sounds of Thor’s new axe thunking into things. He eventually found it, in a padded room filled with random targets, or at least it had been until Thor’s axe had been unleashed in there.
He peeked inside the reinforced glass in the door, making sure that Thor wasn’t in the act of throwing the giant killing blade before he dared open the door. It seemed safe enough, as he stepped inside, looking for Thor standing motionless on the other side. The Asgardian was in the midst of calling it back to him, much as he had his hammer, the passage of it’s passing stirring against Bruce’s skin as it skidded in front of him to Thor’s outstretched hand.
“Hey, Thor, buddy!” He smiled at the thunderous scowl on the other man’s face. Bruce glanced at the room. All around, targets and pieces of wood lay shattered, while deep grooves and cuts bit deep into the padded walls and the steel behind them. It looked as if an entire gang of Vikings had run through here ransacking and pillaging, not just one depressed god.
“How are you holding up?” Not well, judging from the state of the room and of Thor himself. He’d changed into some of Steve’s clothes, the one person close enogh to him in build to have anything he could fit. They were now several days old, rumpled, and needing a wash. Frankly, so did Thor, but he was polite enough to at least not say it.
“Fine,” he rumbled, a desperate smile pulling at his mouth and up his cheeks. It didn’t quite reach his mismatched eyes. “I’m...fine. Waiting to see what Rabbit and the flying woman turn up, that’s all.”
“Yeah, Rocket is scanning for Valkyrie and the escape ship. I’m sure they will turn up.”
“Of course,” he tittered, a chuff that was a poor shadow for the full, ringing laugh he used to possess. “Of course, she has been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive, she’ll be fine.”
Bruce had been too long managing his own complex emotional state over the years not to hear the frantic edge in Thor’s voice. “You sure you’re doing all right?”
“Yeah, I’m...fine.” He at least let the slightly manic smile fall, finally, his face sliding into somberness. “It’s been a hard few weeks is all...for all of us.”
“Yeah, it has. “ For Thor in particular, he knew. “You want to talk about it? I mean, I’m not psychologist, but Tony always assumed I was, so I’m used to just listening, if you need.”
“Ahh, well, I don’t know if there is anything that could fix the likes of an Asgardian.”
“Try me,” Bruce replied, jerking his head towards the door. “Least let’s get you outside for a walk.”
Thor didn’t look as if he was going to comply, but finally gave in, setting his axe by the door gingerly as he stuffed hand’s in the pocket of the borrowed hoody, shuffling behind Bruce as they wandered out of the facility and onto the grounds. He'd been thrilled when Tony had chosen an old storage site his father had used ages ago, one that sat on the Hudson with acres of beautiful countryside and not a single building for Hulk to destroy. It was a lovely site, Bruce admitted, and he regretted not having been here to enjoy it. Pity it was under these circumstances he was back.
“Stark did choose a fine place to rebuild.” Thor commented mildly, more as something to say in the stillness than a true observation, Bruce guessed.
“Have you decided where the Asgardians will go when they get here?”
“Norway,” he responded automatically. “Tønsberg, it’s a city near where my father fought a great battle at a thousand years ago. He rather liked it there, I guess. Anyway, there was a village not far from there, just outside of the present city. It’s an old one, marking the spot of the battle. It never was the same after Steve’s war and that fellow he fought. What was his name?”
“Johann Schmidt.” Bruce shivered. He knew Schmidt well from his own research, another example of how the serum brought out the worst traits if not done right.
“Yes, that’s him. He destroyed much of the village and they never really recovered. But, they keep the old ways there, they still remember us. Maybe we can, you know, help them along.”
“I think Norway would be perfect for all of you. Appropriate.” He tried to put a positive spin on it, at least. It wasn’t Asgard, for certain, the beautiful golden city floating in space, but they could make a good life there. “I don’t know, Tony’s got some weird sway with the royal family, maybe he could chat with the King of Norway, make it all happen for you.”
“If he gets back.” Thor’s quiet rejoinder cut out the legs of Bruce’s optimism. “Things have not exactly fallen out for me the way I’d have hoped of late.”
Bruce privately thought that could be said for most of them of late, but in truth, for Thor it seemed the hardest. They’d all lost something in all of this; family, friends, loved ones. Thor had lost before he knew who Thanos was. His parents were both gone, a family secret that his father conveniently forgot to tell him revealed he had a long lost sister who was crazier than his adopted brother, and the only way to stop her from killing all their people was to destroy his whole world by bringing the prophesied Ragnarok, destroying her and the home of the Asgardians for centuries, leaving them alone on a single ship, prey to Thanos.
No, he supposed it hadn’t been easy for Thor of late.
“I know it’s been a difficult few weeks.”
The snort beside him was the only commentary Thor had on that statement.
“But you know, hiding away isn’t going to make any of it better.”
Thor’s mismatched eyes cut towards him in a deep scowl. “Says the man who ran away from his friends after he had a bad day and somehow ended up on another planet. Have you and Natasha talked much about the last few years?”
He hadn’t talked to Natasha at all, in truth. He’d avoided that particular time bomb like the plague and he owned that. “She’s been busy with all this. She’s out at Barton’s place, trying to find him.”
“So, you are avoiding people because you don’t want to deal with uncomfortable emotions and are lecturing me on the same?”
“Yes,” Bruce sighed, knowing the other man had a point and owning the irony of this situation. “But, that’s the reason I am! I tried hiding away from everyone, I thought I had messed up too badly and I ran. That’s why I’m here.”
“You didn’t fail your family, your people, and now the entire universe.”
“Well, I did destroy Johannesburg.”
“Half the universe is gone, Banner!” His bellow rolled with thunder. In the distance, Bruce could hear it floating across the river valley, even though it was a clear day. “I...I was so busy showing off and wanting to make him suffer, as my people suffered, as my brother suffered. I should have killed him. Instead I toyed with him, gloated. I enjoyed feeling as if I had won. I gave him the advantage. I let him snap his fingers and destroy half of everything because I wanted to show off.”
In fairness, he wasn’t wrong. Had he done what Thanos said and taken his head, none of this would be a problem. “Sure, you could have done that and we’d have won. But then again, Wanda could have destroyed Vision earlier or Steve could have not demanded we save him. I could have maybe not messed up the Mind Stone’s connection to his neural pathways so we could have gotten it off. Maybe Tony could have not gone tearing after Strange all by himself, hell, maybe he could have called Steve a hell of a lot sooner than he did, or how about the two of them could have worked out their differences before Thanos came calling. A lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda for all of us.”
The temper didn’t abait, but it did rumble less as Thor glowered, kicking at a tuft of grass with the toe of one shoe. “All my life, I’ve been raised to be a king, a ruler, a leader to my people. I have been anything but. I’ve been a braggart, a show-off, a bully, a hot-headed fool. My father would lecture me against that, and I wouldn’t listen. He banished me here to Earth because I nearly started a war with Jotunheim over a petty quibble. I thought I had learned, I thought I was better, that I had finally earned the wisdom and even nature needed to be a king, but in the end, they all died, and I decided to take on Thanos single-handedly out of revenge. I thought I had learned my lessons, and clearly, I hadn’t.”
It was the most honest Bruce had ever heard Thor in the years he had known him. Thor had always struck him as impossibly confident and sure of himself, never afraid to allow his true peronality out, unlike Bruce who feared his. That he felt the same anxieties the rest of them did made him feel - well, a bit more human.
“We all have ups and downs, you know.” Bruce knew that lesson better than most anyone. “I thought I had the big guy under control, only to have him let loose in South Africa and then I didn’t have control for two years. Now, I can’t get him to come out. We all think we have it put together and then life happens and you realize that in this moment, you just don’t, and that’s okay.”
“Tell that to Clint, if you ever get to speak to him.” Thor was eyeing high above, as a quinjet came up on the horizon. “Perhaps that will give him some comfort when he has to look me in the eye as I apologize for allowing his wife and children to die because I couldn’t be bothered to remove Thanos’ head from his shoulders with the giant axe I had made for the purpose. I’m sure he’ll be understanding.”
With that, the god of thunder turned heel and stalked back to the compound, leaving Bruce clumsily staring in his wake, eyeing the approaching quinjet he knew had Natasha in it. He had a feeling Clint wasn’t on it and Thor wouldn’t be having that conversation. He had thought the Avengers were broken before Thanos’ arrival. Right now, he didn’t think anything could make them better ever again.
Chapter 10: Honesty Between Friends
In which Steve has an honest conversation with Pepper.
Seeing Tony sprawled on the floor, broken like a doll, had jarred him more than he could say. Steve remembered all too well the days when he had been small and skinny, weak and sickly, and never wished that on anyone, but least of all on Tony Stark. From the moment he’d met him he’d been cocky, brash, powerful, a presence. To see him withered and hollowed out, broken both physically and emotionally, left Steve shocked beyond words. Just what had Thanos done to him?
He watched the blue, bouncing lights of Tony’s vitals on the screen above as Pepper pulled a blanket over Tony’s emaciated frame, pressing a kiss to his forehead as she did. She smoothed out hair that had grayed considerably since Steve had seen him last. It hit him that it had been a long time since that horrible day in Siberia, and Tony was a very different person.
Beside Steve, Nebula stood hesitant as she watched the tender tableau. She had been hovering outside of the med bay since they had made their plans, watching Tony with her black, inscrutable eyes. He hadn’t even had time to wrap his head around her and who she was outside of being a friend of Rocket’s and an exiled daughter of Thanos. She had kept Tony alive these last three weeks, which showed she had some compassion, and she clearly had no qualms in taking on the man who had kidnapped her, abused her and tortured her for much of her life. That thought alone disgusted Steve beyond words, seeing in the quiet, broken woman a memory of the best friend he had lost again. As if he needed more reason to want to see Thanos destroyed.
Pepper made her way outside to the lounge, the dark circles under her eyes and utter exhaustion in her demeanor at odds with her patent relief and joy at having Tony back. Tears in her eyes, she moved straight for Nebula and without hesitation threw her arms around the woman who reacted with startled uncertainty, eyes darting to Steve. He only smiled encouragingly as Nebula haltingly returned the embrace, unsure hands reaching up to pat Pepper on the back in ginger reassurance.
“Thank you,” the other woman breathed through her sobs. “Thank you for bringing him home to me.”
Nebula said nothing as she closed her eyes for a brief moment. Steve guessed such affection was unknown to her, and he could see her struggling as she gently pulled away, looking anywhere but at Pepper’s grateful face. “He’s strong, a survivor. It was an honor to fight beside him and to get him home.”
“Honestly, I’ve spent years expecting him to end up dead in some forgotten corner of the world. What’s another planet?” Pepper’s flippancy disguised the very real frustration she had long had with Tony, the fact she couldn’t ever get him to just stop at anything. This time had been so close...too close.
Nebula didn’t know this, however, as she glanced over Pepper’s shoulder to the sedated man on the other side of the glass. “He spoke of you. He told me your name was Virginia, that he trusted you with everything, including his company, and he loved you very much. He recorded messages to you every night on his helmet, just in case he didn’t return.”
Pepper burst into further tears, wiping futily at them. He could have called earlier, he could have brought them in. Steve would have moved heaven and earth to back Tony’s play up. Perhaps, if he had, things wouldn’t have gotten so bad, but Tony hadn’t called. It had been Bruce who did. He hadn’t trusted Steve enough to call. He hadn’t forgiven him at all, that was for certain, and Steve had no one to blame but himself.
“Whatever you need here, let me know, I’ll make it happen.” Pepper was babbling now as Nebula tried to find ways of removing herself from the feelings pouring out all over her.
He broke in, firmly but kindly. “Nebula, I think Rocket’s working on the ship, trying to patch up those fuel cells. If we want to take off soon, he may need some help.”
It was the out the other woman needed. She nodded gratefully, pausing only to lay a hand on Pepper’s shoulder, before wandering out to the grounds where Rocket’s ship still stood out front. He and Pepper watched her go for a long moment, Steve politely giving Pepper time to pull herself together.
“So, you all are going to do it?” She sounded more resigned than accusatory.
“If there is the smallest chance, Pepper, we have to take it.”
Wrapping arms around herself, she settled in one of the armchairs, looking far from pleased at the prospect. “You know what Tony said, Steve, of what he tried to do. Look at him, for God’s sake!”
Steve was looking. He knew what Thanos was capable of. He’d just had his ass handed to him too. “All of us know the threat and we are willing to risk that.”
“And if it doesn’t work?”
Steve had considered that possibility as well. “Then it can’t be worse than what it is now.”
Pepper’s snort was somewhere between a laugh and a sob, breaking as she scrubbed at her face. “You could all be dead, far away on some other planet.”
“Those are the risks. We know them. Besides, it’s what we signed up for doing this.”
“You talk as if you are still a soldier.”
He met her statement with a sad sort smile. “I never stopped. The others know what might happen. I wouldn’t ask any of them to come on board if they didn't.”
“But not Tony.”
He couldn’t help but eye the vitals over Tony’s bed again, shaking his head dolefully. “He’s done enough, Pepper, more than enough. I think it’s time for him to rest.”
The truth was that even if he had been able to, Steve doubted Tony would have come along. He saw the look in his eyes when he slapped the nanotech repository into Steve’s hand, the fear, the anger, the hurt. Thanos had scared him, truly scared him, like few things had ever scared the great Tony Stark. The only other time he had ever seen that expression on his face was when they had been fighting. Tony had truly believed, for half a moment, that Steve would kill him. Whether he liked to own it or not, that had haunted Steve ever since.
Reading his pensiveness, Pepper attempted reassurance. “You know, those things Tony said in there, he didn’t mean any of that. He’s exhausted and sick and been through a lot, and you know how he is on his best days.”
How much time in Pepper’s relationship with Tony had she spent covering his outrageous behavior? It was second nature to her now. In this case, she needn’t have bothered. “No apologizing, Pepper. Tony was right.”
She blinked at him with a hint of dubiousness. “Steve, what happened between you two?”
He startled from his revery to frown at her patient expression, surprised she didn’t already know. “Tony never told you?”
“I’m sure this will come to you as no surprise to you, but there are things that he doesn’t discuss with me, often to avoid the argument afterwards.”
Good to know that Tony had that habit with Pepper as well and not just him.
“Did he ever tell you what happened in Siberia after the bombing and the Sokovia Accords?”
“He said you decided to become a fugitive rather than sign the deal.”
“That’s a way of putting it.” He paced fretfully before settling on the couch across from her, pulling together the most neutral account of the events he could. “It’s no secret I didn’t agree with the Accords. I felt that handing over our freedom to articulate how we do our job to a government with their own agendas and secret motivations was a bad idea. Tony felt we needed more oversight and accountability to prevent things like...well, Sokovia. Perhaps, in the end, we would have worked through those differences. That wasn’t why I went on the run.”
With Thanos standing between the events of Sokovia and now, in hindsight that argument felt very small, but in truth it had been devastating for the Avengers in particular, for Steve personally. He and Tony had never had an easy relationship, but to have it degenerate the way it did had cut far more than he had expected. Only in hindsight had he realized how much of a friend Tony was to him, albeit in his prickly, self-absorbed way.
“So, you know the bombing in Vienna was initially pinned on someone else.” He might as well start from the beginning.
“Yeah, a Barnes, if I remember. Turned out to be a Sokovian named Zemo.”
Steve nodded. “James Barnes...Bucky, my childhood best friend.”
The soft exhale of breath was all the more reaction Pepper gave on the subject. It was unclear if she knew that connection or not.
“Even when I had nothing, I had him.” Steve scrubbed wearily at his face, recalling the echo of a time that was only slightly less stressful and much more carefree in the golden haze of memory. “I’ve known him since I was nine, since he took out the bullies who were trying to beat my face into the pavement for my pocket money. He peeled me off the cement, dusted me off, and he always had my back after that.”
If he closed his eyes, he could still remember sitting in Mrs. Barnes’ tidy and well-scrubbed kitchen, snitching shortbreads just out of the oven to stuff in their pockets without her looking, before running out of the back door of their apartment, off to some endless game of stickball on the street below. It carried with it the bittersweet ache of all that he had lost, coupled with the raw wound of losing Bucky all over again right in front of his eyes, even while Sam dusted completely out of sight, his other best friend gone before he even knew what was going on. He swallowed thickly at the hurt.
“HYDRA had captured him in the war and experimented on him, gave him a different form of the super soldier serum. None of us knew it. I thought he had died in ‘45 on a mission, falling from a moving train in the Alps. I tried to catch him and he slipped right through my fingers.”
He could still hear Bucky’s terrified scream as he fell, forever, through the snow and ice to the river below.
“When SHIELD went down, I discovered Bucky wasn’t dead. HYDRA had found him in that ravine, had captured him, tortured him and brainwashed him. They stripped him of his identity, of who he was, all of his memories, including me. All that remained was a tool, a weapon, an asset. He became a HYDRA assassin, kept in cryogenic stasis, removed to be deployed by them in order to get at high level targets so that HYDRA could further their agenda while hidden safely within SHIELD. When they were done, they would wipe his memory and stick him back in till they had someone else to kill. They kept him that way for seventy years, pull him out, wipe him down, send him to kill someone, put him under again - over and over and over again.”
He had read the files, the ones Natasha had pulled for him, of the conditioning, the psychological trauma, of the dehumanization of a man who had been as dear to him as a brother, the closest thing he’d ever had to one. Sam said it was a wonder he even survived with as much of himself as he did. A lesser man might have simply broken at it, never to be rescued.
“How did you even find him?” Pepper’s question was quiet in the stillness outside of Tony’s room, horrified and empathetic.
“He found me, or rather, HYDRA tried to have Natasha and I killed. He tried to take me out and I found out who he was. He didn’t remember me at all...not at first.”
“That was the fall of SHIELD.” Pepper knew that well. She’d been instrumental in helping to salvage the remains of the Avengers Initiative from the fallen debris of SHIELD. She and Maria Hill had worked to bring it under the aegis of Stark Industries. “How did you get him out?”
“I nearly didn’t. He almost killed me, if you remember.”
She did. She blanched, nodding.
“But in the end, he didn’t. I don’t remember being pulled out of the Potomac. I don’t remember if he did it, but he was the only one who could have. I want to think he remembered, that he finally broke through. After that, he ran away, free. Sam and I tried to find him, chased him through one destroyed HYDRA facility after another. He was used to being a ghost. He did it well, at least till Berlin. Then Zemo dug up the files on him, decided to pin a crime on him that he didn’t commit and waited to see what destruction it wrought.”
“That’s the part I didn’t get. Why did Zemo do any of it? All those people, dead, for what purpose?”
“To break up the Avengers.” It had been a long play, well planned out, an elaborate trap to lure them in and prey on their weaknesses. “He waited till the Accords were ratified, executed it so he could draw the world’s attention on us. He knew where our points of division would be in Tony and me and he exploited those using Bucky as the wedge to fracture us.”
“But I don’t understand? Tony didn’t know about your friend.”
“No, but he did think Bucky was a terrorist and was willing to follow the Accords and take him in for arrest on a crime he didn’t commit without any evidence.”
“All right, he was willing to do that, but he was ordered to.”
“Exactly, which was the problem. Those who ordered it had their own agenda and didn’t care about reasons or other stories to the contrary. They were happy to have an open and shut case and let Bucky rot in hell for something that for once he didn’t do.”
Pepper sighed, slumping in her seat. “All right, so Tony would have played into it, I get it. But he’s not totally unreasonable. Had he known, he would have worked around it.”
“There was a lot going on with Tony then.” Steve stepped around that as diplomatically as he could, knowing that had been one of he and Pepper's "breaks". Frankly, there was a lot going on with Steve too, though he didn’t recognize it till well after the fact. Zemo had played them like fiddles and they sang to his tune.
“There was something else, though, that Tony didn’t know.” He might as well rip the bandage off the cause of the rift, the true crime that had broken the Avengers apart. “His parents, everyone assumes they died in a car accident.”
That hadn’t been the segue Pepper had expected and she stilled. “You are telling me they didn’t?”
“No,” he sighed, heavy with regret. “Natasha and I found out when SHIELD fell. In the files, it was clear that HYDRA had Howard and Maria killed.”
In a month full of horrors, you would think nothing else could have shocked her. “Why?”
“Howard had been working on a new super soldier serum. He thought he had found it. From what we could piece together, Obadiah Stane had an agreement. He informed HYDRA of Howard’s breakthrough and where he would be with it and in exchange they’d kill him so he could take control of the company.”
For long moments, Pepper stared, her mouth working wordlessly, groping for the words. When she finally found them, they were in disbelief. “Are you serious?”
“I’m serious.” He spared a glance towards the quiescent form of Tony in the other room. “We found out about it and we didn’t tell him.”
It only hit Steve now just how devastating the knowledge that Howard had been killed really was. He’d been so focused on Bucky’s piece in the equation, it hadn’t really occurred to him till he saw Pepper’s utter dismay how truly horrifying this knowledge had to have been to his son, who had laboured for years under the supposition that it was all an unfortunate accident. Small wonder that in the grief of the moment Tony snapped.
A long silence followed. Steve didn’t dare look at her, half afraid to see the look on her face he had seen on Tony’s in Siberia. Not that he didn’t deserve that, but as much as it hurt coming from Tony, it would hurt all the same coming from Pepper who had shown him nothing but grace and compassion.
“Why not,” she finally asked, quietly. He cringed, his long fingers wringing together as he leaned against his knees.
“I told myself I wanted to spare him. I didn’t know the details of who ordered it or if they were even alive after the fall of SHIELD. I figured it was best to let sleeping dogs lie. But really, honestly, it was because underneath it all I was afraid.”
“Because you thought Bucky did it.” Pepper supplied, the pieces finally clicking into place for her. “You weren’t sure, but you at least suspected.”
“Yeah.” Guilt gnawed inside of him, squirming as his knuckles whitened around each other. “I had hoped I could find him, that I could get him home and into help and maybe then I could find out the truth for certain, tell Tony.”
“Would you have?” The question was blunt rather than accusatory and Steve could only shrug helplessly.
“I guess we will never know. Zemo got to us before then. He lured us into a trap, the three of us, and that’s when Tony found the truth. Not from me, not from Bucky, but from someone who used it to maximum effect to utterly demolish everything. I gave him the weapon to do it. To say it didn’t end well is an understatement of such epic proportions as to be laughable. In the end, I left the shield and took Bucky, but only after we beat the hell out of one another. We went to Wakanda with T’Challa. I didn’t speak to Tony again until the moment he got off that ship last night.”
And there the entire sordid tale laid out in the open. As shocked as he’d been that Pepper hadn’t already heard Tony’s side, he was even more stunned she hadn’t already started berating him for his part in all of this. He dared to glance up at her as she sat, pensive, eyes closed as she worked her fingers against her forehead.
“Steve,” she finally breathed, eyes finally opening to regard him with equal parts exasperation and pity. “If you only knew the hornets nest you stepped into with this. Tony, the loss of his mother, his relationship with Howard, what fell out with Stane, all the things left unsaid…”
“No, you don’t really. Your memory of Howard is locked somewhere in 1945, your wartime buddy, the man who still thought a blonde for breakfast and a brunette for lunch was acceptable. Tony didn’t know that man. He knew the great Howard Stark, a man who he barely connected with. He’s been to therapy for years about his issues with him, and whatever he says, he never, ever got over their deaths. His mother was one thing, that devastated him, but Howard was a wound he never figured out how to mend.”
Steve knew a thing or two about wounds that never mended and the lost opportunities of death and time. “I do get that, Pepper, and I know, I should have handled it and him differently.”
“Yeah, you should have.” Her pointed look gentled somewhat as she continued. “But then again, I can’t imagine being in your position, knowing it was my horrifically traumatized best friend who did it and not knowing what to do about it.”
Relief flooded through him as it hit him she had understood. “I couldn’t not try to help him.”
“I know.” Her smile was tight and sad. “It’s what makes you Captain America, which is a whole other can of worms with Tony you two will have to work out on your own sometime, but I get it. You would never abandon a friend. Had it been handled differently, maybe he would have understood.”
“Instead, I lied to him, caused him to lose faith in me, and undercut the Avengers just when we needed unity the most.” He knew very well what had been in the world “liar” as Tony uttered it, delirious and hysterical.
To his surprise, that only made Pepper laugh dryly. “Wow, that’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think?”
Peggy had said the same thing to him years ago, when everything with SHIELD had first broken. “It’s true.”
“To a certain extent, I suppose, but as my mother once said, it takes two to tango, and I’ve been dancing with Tony Stark a long, long time. I love Tony, madly, deeply, crazily, but I know he has flaws. Narcissism is only the one he likes to admit to, but he also is a man who has never been good at forming normal, human attachments, who has been wounded by those he loved and let down by those he respected. You hit more than a few of his triggers, and while it’s not an excuse, it is a reason. He overreacted too, and had things been different then, perhaps it all would have been mitigated. I was out of the picture at that point, and I'm sure that didn't help anything.”
“Pepper, even if you had been there…”
“No, if I had been there, I could have called him out on the bullshit. Instead, he sulked and hid till I finally drug him out of it months later, sent him off to therapy and on a vacation to India and we began to work it out. Even then, he didn’t tell me any of this. If he had...well, maybe you two would have been talking when Thanos showed up.”
She had a point, and a good one, but not one that overrode his deeply ingrained sense of guilt. “That doesn’t take away what I did.”
“No, it doesn’t, but you alone didn’t destroy the Avengers and neither did he. If it was anyone, I’d say it was HYDRA, or Zemo, or Thaddeus Ross, or all of it together. I know you have that old-school sense of patriotism and martyrdom going on there, Cap, but you don’t have to hold the whole burden of this failure by yourself and neither does Tony, The sooner the two of you get it through your heads, the happier you both will be.”
As she finished, Steve finally broke a rueful smile. He shook his head in wonder at the woman who somehow managed to keep even an impetuous Stark in line. “God, Tony doesn’t know how lucky he is having you.”
“I think he does, but he just chooses to forget at convenient moments.” She rolled her eyes fondly at the sleeping man in the other room. “We are lucky we still have each other, not everyone else was.”
No, they weren’t.
“We’ll find Thanos. If we can, we will make it right again.”
The gravity of their purpose hit the other woman once again. “And if you can’t?”
“Then we’ll move forward, won’t we?”
“I suppose we won’t have much of a choice.”
Moving forward was something he unfortunately knew far too well.
From out of the corner of his eye he saw the quiet shadow of Natasha emerge from the kitchen, leaning against the corner till he turned his attention to her. “Cap, Rocket thinks he will have things in shape by morning. You okay with that?”
“Yeah,” he replied, all business once again. “Let the others know. We’ll plan for 0600.”
“Right,” she responded crisply, pausing to shoot Pepper a brief, reassuring smile before wandering off to find the others. Pepper quietly watched her go before turning worried eyes on Steve.
“You’ll be careful, right?”
He couldn’t give her that promise, but he wasn’t going to lie to her. “We’ll do what we have to do.”
Chapter 11: A Whole New World
In which Rhodey contemplates being on a different planet.
“I had always wanted to travel to foreign planets, just...not like this.”
Rhodey stood on the edge of the field of some sort of alien plant life, ripe and rustling in the twilight of evening. The golden sunlight - could you still call it that here - was fading into the purple of dusk as in the distance the green trimmed mountains melted into the smudged blue of the sky, the stars of an entire different solar system peeking out above them. To think, these were different stars than the ones he knew, a different sky, a different world!
Beside him, Cap stood solemnly, eyes turned up to the very same sky, grim awe lighting his solemn features. “I never even dreamed that far as a kid. That wasn’t even a possibility.”
Rhodey often forgot just how old Steve Rogers actually was. “1920s wasn’t exactly the height of space travel, as I recall.”
“Nope,” he chuffed a broken chuckle. “We just were getting transatlantic flight when I was a kid, Lindbergh and all that. We used to pretend we were pilots flying across the Atlantic like him. He was kind of a big deal.”
“I know.” Rhodey tried to imagine the man standing beside him and the one-armed guy he saw briefly in Berlin ever being small boys pretending at airplanes in some alley in Brooklyn somewhere. He found he couldn’t.
“Bucky would have gone crazy over this,” Cap whispered achingly, staring all around him, eyes coming to rest at the small hut they had stormed like it was a gang B&E. “I had just gotten him back, just gotten his head together. He was doing good, working through what he’d been through...what he’d done.”
Rhodey didn’t dwell on the fact what James Barnes had done was kill his best friend’s parents. Frankly, unlike Tony, he understood how messed up this entire situation was, especially for Barnes. He’d seen more than his fair share of soldiers coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq irrevocably changed. Then again, it also wasn’t his parents that had died horribly, either.
“I’m sorry, Cap,” he murmured, clapping a hand to his impossibly broad shoulders. “For Barnes and for Wilson. I didn’t know Barnes, but Sam was a hell of a friend and a good man. I miss him.”
“He was, the best. The only friend I had for a long time and he didn’t deserve to die so far away from home, away from his family. He never even got to see them before everything. Just followed me to Wakanda blindly.” The crease between his brows deepened impossibly as he regarded the others in the field just beyond. “I know you thought we had a slim chance of pulling this off.”
‘Yeah, but I thought it was because Thanos would kick our ass, not because he had destroyed the one thing we needed to set it all right.” Even now, his stomach still churned with the twisting anguish of Thanos’ words. He wanted to believe he was lying, that he’d simply hidden them somewhere. It had never occurred to him or any of them he could just simply will them out of existence. “Makes you wonder what in the world would cause a guy like him to up and decide that destroying half the universe was okay.”
Cap shrugged. “Grief and loss do strange things to you.”
“Says the man who just lost his two best friends after waking up 70 years later to find everything he knew was gone. You didn’t turn into a genocidal maniac.”
“Not everyone is me.” Cap’s jaw tightened perceptibly. “And we all lost.”
Wasn’t that the truth? Rhodey turned to glance towards the gorgeous, foreign sunset one last time, nodding firmly. “Let’s finish this up and get home, Cap. I want to see how Tony’s doing.”
The others had gathered outside of Thanos’ cabin, a rough hewn affair, simple and rustic. It would have been charming, he supposed, if it wasn’t for the maniac who built it. Nebula came down the steps, slowly, carrying nothing with her as she met them. Her face was still splattered with the gore of Stormbreaker’s passing through Thanos’ neck.
“Burn it,” she muttered coming up to them, looking to Thor himself, who stood scowling, his axe still covered with the congealed mess of Thanos’ death. He didn’t so much as nod as he lifted the mighty weapon high, calling lightning from the clear, dark blue sky, striking the top of the dwelling with a resounding crack. The flash had barely begun to fade from Rhodey’s vision when the smell of burning wood and grass began, slowly eating up the thatched roof and moving towards the inside. They stood watching in silent witness as the alien sun set, the body of Thanos burning to ash within the crumbling remains of his paradise. Nebula said little as they stood there, her dark eyes unblinking as she watched, silent tears streaming down her blue and purple face. Perhaps he was a fucked up father, but he was clearly the only one she’d know.
They waited till the hut had burned to little more than embers, Bruce standing by in his suit to extinguish any stray fires that might blaze up from it. Full dark was on them, the fields of crops now filled with the sounds of whatever alien life constituted the flora and fauna of this world. It was only after Thor had raked through the coals briefly to find the charred remains of bone that Cap finally called for them to load up on the Benatar. They trailed to where they had parked it, winding through the stalks, flashlights out and saying little. Even as he followed the others, Rhodey hung back to stare at the sky one last time. When else would he ever get this chance again, to say he visited another world? That boy who had once dreamed of being an astronaut, who had gone to the theater to see Star Wars ten times as a child, stood in awe at this moment, even as the cynical adult in him reminded him that near all of these stars there were likely planets and they likely were wondering why half of their people vanish, all because of the man they had just killed.
“Tony will be pissed he didn’t see this.” Natasha’s quiet voice at his elbow startled him.
“I think he’s over space for a bit after what he’s been through.” Rhodey looked down at her tear-stained face. She had been so sure that all of this would work and they would bring everyone home. She and Cap had been the most crushed at Thanos’ revelation.
“Did you get any pictures?” Her normal levity sounded strained and hollow.
“Video even. Stuff to show the grandkids, if I have any.”
Her smile was small in her wan and tight face as they marched to the ship. “Perhaps you should, considering there are half as many of us as before.”
That thought was terrifying and heartbreaking all at once.
“I know I was the voice of doubt in all this, Romanoff, but for what it is worth, I hoped we would win and get them all back.”
“Yeah,” she sighed, tears he never thought he’d ever see her shed streaking down her stoic face. “Me too.”
He’d known Natasha since she’d worked for Tony. He’d never once saw her break. Awkwardly, he reached a robotic arm around her, careful not to crush her. She wrapped an arm around his, sobbing as she nodded, accepting his comfort, before neatly squirming out.
“Thanks, Rhodey,” she sighed, patting his hand before moving up the gangplank. Behind him, Danvers watched, solemn as he turned to her.
“You coming back with us, Superhero Girl?”
The other woman nodded quietly. “At least till we decide what to do next. Earth’s still my home, and I know...I know I have friends there. I need to make sure they are okay.”
He crawled in, strapping in the back as before, beside the silent Thor and the quietly crying Natasha. The entire cabin smelled of ashes and defeat. He took one last look out the front of the ship, to the foreign fields he could see under the Benetar’s floodlights, his last glimpse of another planet. That boy who once dreamed he could walk among the stars wished, for just a moment, he could have been there for something other than this, anything than this.
“Rocket,” Cap called as the raccoon strapped in. “Let’s go home.”
“Sure thing, Cap,” he called, sadly, as they lifted off, back into the stars and the nearest jump point. Back to what was left of home.
Chapter 12: A Pyrrhic Victory
In which Tony takes stock of the situation.
“When did they leave?” Tony’s mood upon waking was not much better than it had been when he collapsed on the floor at their feet.
Pepper quietly allowed it, far too exhausted to bother with calling him out on it. “Early this morning. I’m sure they’ll be back soon.”
He glared at her with one gaunt, jaundiced eye, his attention still on the myriad of news reports all over the screen. “If they aren’t already dead on some other planet. Whose hairbrained idea was it? Rogers?”
Pepper gripped her patience tightly as she stood watch by the window, hoping against hope to see the lights of Rocket’s ship settle in front of the Avenger’s building once again. “I think it was a mutual decision. They felt if there was a slim chance, whatever it was, they needed to take it.”
“Well, I don’t see half the population back, so I’m guessing the slim chance wasn’t one at all.” Pent up for weeks, his snark was in full force, spewing everywhere, and no less because he wasn’t feeling well. She had been prepared for that. Tony with a head cold was enough to try the patience of a saint. This, however, was on another level.
“They weren’t going to let all of this go without a fight.”
“Of course not, because why accept the perfectly logical conclusion that we lost when it’s so much more noble to stand on principle and get your head bashed in.”
She knew who was at the heart of that criticism but chose to stay silent.
“Seriously, Rhodey had to go with them, too? I thought he was smarter than that.”
“He was right by their side in Wakanda when Thanos arrived here. He had as much right to be there with them.”
“Ahh, the great stand! They got their asses handed to them when Thanos didn’t know how to use all the stones. How do they think they will fair with him knowing all of them?”
“Do you full intend to complain the entire time?” Pepper had hit her limit with it. Since he had woken up late that afternoon he had done nothing but voice his dissatisfaction, loudly. She tried to be understanding and patient in this, but after everything over the last three weeks what remained of her nerves were gone and she felt herself breaking, anxiety eating away at what precious reserves she had left.
Her snap caught him short. He stopped enough to stare at her, as if really seeing her for the first time since he stumbled, broken and incoherent, off the spaceship. A million thoughts flickered, she could see them as he finally nodded, simply raising his arm in invitation. She didn’t think twice, throwing herself onto the narrow cot, curling up in the comfort of his embrace, gently pressing her cheek to his fragile chest. Tears she hadn’t noticed soaked the thin fabric of the sheet that covered him.
“I’m so sorry I left you,” he whispered into her hair, nimble fingers running through the frazzled mess of it. “I know I keep doing it, and I’m sorry. I thought I’d never see you again.”
A sob shook her shoulders as his thin arm wrapped around her as tightly as he could manage in his state. God, she didn’t care that he felt so light that the wind would blow him away, like half of everyone around her, or that he needed a shower like he needed food and fluids. He was alive, he was here, and he was hers and she never wanted to let him go ever again.
“Do you know how lucky it was we even found you,” she finally managed, voice cracking with grief. “Rocket was scanning every signal he could find and he just happened to chance on it in his ship.”
“That’s the raccoon?”
“Yeah,” she sniffed, too tired to find the humor in the surrealness of all of it. “You just took off without anyone, without telling me, without calling anybody.”
“Who was there to call? I had to get to Strange before he took off, and Peter was up on that ship, and…”
She detangled herself from him enough to turn a hard look up at him, unfazed by the pleading she had seen a million times in his rapid-fire, schoolboy explanations of why it was he fell into the latest mess he found himself in. He paused, words dying as he realized it would do him no good. He at least had the grace to look shamefaced.
“You had that phone.” It was all she said.
Annoyance and guilt warred for a brief moment, and predictably, he went for annoyance. “What, Bruce tattle on me?”
“You had that phone for years.”
“Even if I had called, Pep, it would have taken them hours to get from the Middle East to Greenwich Village and we didn’t have that kind of time.”
“How did you know that they were in the Middle East?”
He was caught and he knew it. His mouth closed with an audible pop, the slack muscles of his hollow cheeks furrowing with mutinous stubbornness and vague sheepishness.
Pepper wasn’t going to let it go. “Don’t have an answer for that?”
“I didn’t know where precisely they were in the Middle East.”
She raised only one eyebrow up at him.
“Okay, I knew it was Syria, but that was guesswork more than anything. Honestly, you’d think having Romanoff there she’d have taught them a thing or two on the ‘cloak-and-dagger’ thing, but Rogers doesn’t know how to spell ‘covert’.”
“You were following them?”
“I kept an eye on them! I didn’t know where Vision was at, though, he turned off his transponder. I couldn’t track him. It didn’t take a genius to figure out he was with Maximoff. Why else would he be trying to hide?”
“You know, as an Avenger, and under the Accords you signed, you were supposed to arrest them.” She couldn’t help needling him just a bit, not after the last few weeks of her life. He’d never been happy with the Accords, but he’d signed readily enough out of his crippling guilt and hubris, certain that he had the moral high ground for once. The mixed legacy that remained rankled, and she wasn’t about to make it easy for him to deal with.
His frown made it clear he knew exactly what she was up to. “I could have, but that would have required a form and some sub-committee hearing, and then I’d have to talk to Ross, which I avoid at all cost…”
“You aren’t getting out of this, Tony. You went by yourself. I don’t know how you aren’t dead.”
Her fingers reached beneath the sheet to the pink mark just under his rib cage, only just missing his already battered and war torn heart. It was the only remnant of a wound that should have killed him had it not been for his quick thinking and the nanotechnology he had on him. Nebula had given her the full rundown of what had been perforated and the raging infection she helped him fight. It was one of many scars she knew he carried, literally and figuratively.
Quietly, he reached for her hand against his skin, pulling it up to press against his dry lips. “I don’t know how I’m not either, babe. I just...I didn’t stop to think. I didn’t have time to. I sent the kid after Strange, and then...I just did it. I knew if he got to him and got that stone, that was it, no more. And I tried, Pep, I tried so hard.”
His grief broke like she never had witnessed before. What was left of any composure he had crumbled in an onslaught of wracking sobs, a torrent of anguish that trembled through him as Pepper held on tight, or as tight as she dared, at least, to his withered body. All she could do was hum nonsense, murmur words of comfort as he fell apart, hoping that in the end she could put him back together again. The storm subsided, finally. He was too weak to let it go on forever, but he quieted to occasional sniffles and choked sobs as she reached on the bedside table for tissues. Quietly, she passed him one as he reached for it with trembling fingers, trying to put some semblance of his dignity back together again as she opened a Pedialyte for him.
“I lost the kid, Pep.” His bloodshot, dark eyes were so hurt, the classic Tony Stark swagger lost in his grief. “I...his aunt trusted him to me and I lost him.”
“Tony, you tried. You all did.”
“Trying doesn’t cut it when people die, does it?”
“No.” She didn’t know what else to say. There wasn’t a lot that could make any of this better. She smoothed his lank hair off his flushed face, pressing the drink on him till he finally took it, swallowing slowly.
“Happy is on his way from the city. It’s slow going, the drive, there are still quite a few abandoned cars they are trying to clear up.” She’d seen footage on the news, most places looked like something out of an apocalyptic movie. Pepper supposed that’s exactly what they were living in, now.
“How did you get here?”
“Took one of the suits.” She shrugged, ignoring the ghost of his cocky grin. “Turns out I’m not so bad using it.”
“Always thought you’d look sexy in one.”
He at least made her laugh. “I think that would take your narcissism and self-absorption to a whole new and very uncomfortable level.”
“You think that would be worst thing a therapist would have to say about me after the month I’ve had?”
If she couldn’t find some humor in all of this, she would cry, and they’d already done that. She only shook her head, kissing him lightly, pressing her forehead to his briefly. “You need a shower.”
“Don’t know if I’m up to one of those, yet. Sponge bath, though....attractive nurse…”
“I thought you wanted me in the suit.”
“Best of all worlds?”
“You are so weird,” she breathed, soaking in a moment of calm in the hurricane their lives had become.
Outside, the sound of roaring filled the air as the building reverberated with something re-entering the atmosphere. Pepper bolted up, eyes to the window, as outside she could catch the incoming light of an aircraft coming in to land.
“They’re back!” Her knees buckled, briefly, with the knowledge they had made it home. She didn’t know how safe of sound, but at least someone had come back. The Benatar circled before landing outside, nearly in the same place it had the night Tony had returned.
Tony was already trying to get up out of his sick bed. “Get the wheelchair over there, will you?”
“Tony, you need to stay in bed.”
“I want to see who made it back and what happened.” Something dark and manic glittered for just a moment in his expression before melting into pleading. “Please? They’re still my team!”
She relented, but only with the promise that he stay in his chair with the IV drip attached and to not repeat his performance from the previous day. He settled, achingly slowly, pulling his robe about himself with as much dignity as he could, and held on to the rolling IV frame as she pushed him carefully into the common area, waiting for the others to make it inside.
They were still alive at least, all of them, even Steve Rogers, which Pepper had half worried wouldn’t be the case. But one look at them all showed that whatever happened. It hadn’t been the win they wanted.
“Cap?” Tony’s dark eyes flickering between everyone, coming to rest on Steve.
“Thanos is dead. Thor took care of him.”
Pepper looked immediately to the tall, glowering god of thunder, hulking in the back of the group beside Bruce in his borrowed armor, and then to Nebula, her face still spattered with what looked like blood - likely her own father’s. Thor, for his part, looked neither pleased nor sorry for what he did. If anything, he still looked murderous. She suddenly felt vaguely ill.
“Gone,” Rocket said simply, little hands at his waist as he sank into one of the armchairs at the table. “We had him pinned down. It was like a mob jump. Golden Girl over there went in and grabbed him first, then your pals in the suits came up and grabbed his hands. Thor chopped off his gauntlet, but when I flipped it over, the stones were...gone.”
“Gone? How could they just be gone?” Agitated, Tony nearly jumped from his seat, till Pepper’s staying hand and her murmured reminder had him settling back again. “He had to be hiding them or gave them to someone…”
“He snapped his fingers again.” This was Natasha, standing to the right of Steve, her face pale, eyes red-rimmed and unguarded. It caught Pepper by surprise. She’d had always respected that this was a woman who carried herself with calm, poise and absolute steel in the face of outrageous odds, whether it was in a fight or as a spy. It’s what made her an Avenger. Pepper had never, ever seen her break like this, not without a purpose at least.
“We were able to find him because Rocket traced the energy signal from the second snap,” Natasha continued, her voice trembling. “He’d already used the gauntlet again, this time to undo the stones, to destroy them so that if we ever found him, we couldn’t undo what he had done.”
Clearly, Thanos had learned his lesson in regards to the Avengers. In a strange way, Pepper couldn’t fault him for thinking ahead, as he had been right, they had come, but it was too late. There were no other options, no do-overs, no go backs.
“So, we really lost?” The question in Tony’s voice was merely rhetorical. He had known. Still, he had perhaps carried some sliver of hope.
They all fell silent, heartbroken, at a loss. The only one to speak was Steve. “I’m sorry, Tony. We tried.”
Without a trace of bitterness or irony, he simply sighed, tugging at Pepper’s fingers on his shoulder, murmuring his earlier statement. “Trying doesn’t cut it when people die, does it?”
And there lay the open wound for all of them.
“Tony,” Rhodey began, that familiar, gentle rebuke in his voice, but Tony held up one thin, emaciated hand.
“I didn’t mean it as an asshole. We tried, we all tried, just...we lost. For the first time, we couldn’t out think, out smart, out maneuver, or out will the other guy. We tried, gang, and hey, that’s the best any of us can do. Now we have to figure out what to do from here.”
It was clearly not a conversation any of them were ready for, least of all Steve, the man who had lost and moved on so many times Pepper’s head spun to think of it. Still, he took in the rest of the team with him. “Go ahead, bunk down for the night. Nebula, Danvers, you are welcome here as long as you need.”
He glanced over to Tony warily, as if he just now remembering that technically he was still a fugitive and not the leader of the Avengers. “That’s if it’s okay by you.”
Tony at least still had enough wits about him to shrug lazily after a hard look at Steve, as if he couldn’t be bothered with such things. “Sure, knock yourself out, though the beer in the fridge is my favorite. I ship that in special from Georgia, so don’t drink it all.”
Thor may have looked somewhat disappointed by that.
“And you won’t turn us into the government?” Trust Natasha to take on the elephant in the room by both tusks, ignoring the reproachful murmur from Steve.
If Tony was offended by her challenge, he at least hid it. “Ross is dusted, isn’t he? Otherwise, I think they have more enough issues than worrying about the Avengers being back together again. Besides, they’ll probably need all of you sooner rather than later, judging from CNN.”
Natasha accepted this with a curt nod, but nothing more. Steve clearly was too tired to deal with any of it.
“We’ll let you get some rest, Tony. The rest of you, let’s regroup in the morning.”
They all finally wandered off in different directions. Rhodey wrapped an arm around Tony’s thin shoulders murmuring something Pepper couldn’t hear before heading to his quarters for a shower. Rocket agreed to take Nebula to one of the spare rooms so she could clean up. Thor wandered to the kitchen, propping his monster of an axe by the door, still dark with the blood of Thanos smeared all along its blade. Danvers eyed first it, then the Asgardian, before following him quietly into the kitchen with a quiet look passing between her and Steve. In the end, only Steve and Nat remained.
It was Steve who spoke first in their face off. “It’s good to see you, Tony. Damn good to see you.”
Tony was a man who didn’t let go of his grievances easily. Still, he was at least gracious enough to accept Steve’s goodwill. “Glad you held down the fort while I went on a little space adventure. Of course, had you been here the whole time…”
Pepper let her hand wander from his shoulder to his cheek, her voice soft but firm. “Tony…”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He did too, but that hurt was still healing and likely would be a long time in doing so, if ever. He sighed, letting his inner asshole drop for half a moment. “I’m sorry about Wilson...and Barnes.”
That last one had cost him. Pepper felt proud he said it.
“Thank you,” Steve murmured, quietly, his expression solemn with loss. “I’m sorry for Parker. He was an amazing kid.”
“Yeah.” Tony’s voice rasped with grief for just a moment before he cleared it. “Anyone find out about his aunt?”
“I can look.” Natasha volunteered. “If she’s alive, do you want us to…”
“No, I’ll do it. It should be me, anyway. I promised…” He trailed off, sighing. “She found out about the whole Spider-Man gig and what he was up to. When she did, she found me and threatened to either slap me with a lawsuit or have me killed. I wasn’t clear on the details. I promised her I would keep him safe to the best of my abilities. If anyone is the one to tell her, it should be me.”
“Okay,” Natasha assured him. “Anyone else?”
“Yeah, another kid, Harley Keener. He’s in Tennessee at a STEM high school for engineering. He’s supposed to be starting MIT next year. Just..he’s a good kid.”
“I’ll see what I can find out.”
“Thanks. Any word on Barton.”
“No.” She only flinched a little.
“His whole family?”
“Yes.” Her answer was simple, but it pulled from deep within her. Pepper felt for her and the loss of everything she had built for herself.
“Jesus,” Tony swore softly. “Fury kept them off the grid to keep them safe.”
“No one was safe in this. You know that.”
Tony’s shoulders slumped perceptibly. Even if he wasn’t tired, and she couldn’t see how he wasn’t, Pepper felt enough was enough. “I think we need to get you back in to rest.”
“Sure.” He nodded, regarding the other two. “Not going to lie, I’m glad Thor killed that son-of-a-bitch.”
Steve gave him a dark sort of smile. “Not going to lie, I am to.”
For what it was worth, a black part of Pepper’s soul was glad as well.
I haven't found anything definitive that says T. Ross was dusted (or E. Ross for that matter), but I liked the idea he was and then had to be rescued by the Avengers, Bruce specifically, so this is how I'm running with it.
Chapter 13: Forming In A Straight Line
In which Happy admits an uncomfortable truths out Peter.
In the days and weeks after the snap and Tony’s miraculous return, Happy Hogan’s phone was suspiciously quiet.
Honestly, it wasn’t like he was any less busy with half of the world gone and everything turned upside down, if anything, he was more so. There were fewer people in this world which meant a security nightmare. He had fewer resources, fewer bodies, and more territory to cover with less. Unfortunately for everyone, the snap didn’t take away thieves, hackers, con artists, or those interested in trying to use the chaos of the snap to break into the vast information networks and massive archives that Stark Industries possessed. Between shadowing Pepper wherever she went and worrying over Tony’s still frail and shaky health, his days were filled with video conferences, meetings, and protracted conversations on how to manage what felt like the impossible in a world where clearly anything was possible. So, no, he didn’t exactly have a lot of time in his day.
But everyday, around four o’clock, he’d look at his phone, expecting a flurry of voice messages to inundate his inbox, transcription flashing up on the screen faster than he could ever possibly read. For the last two years, like clockwork, his phone would ring with a Queens’ number and he’d send it to voicemail to listen to later in the evening. Most of it was just breathless ramblings, a tumbling torrent of words that was Peter Parker running down all his good deeds for the day as Happy tried to pick through it and see if there was anything he needed to involve the lawyers in for. Without fail, those check-ins came. Most of the time he ignored them in irritation. Now his phone was silent and he didn’t like it.
“Something up?” Pepper had been reviewing his report on security details for Stark Industries main headquarters in El Segundo and New York.
“What? Yeah, everything’s fine, just checking my phone.”
“It’s the fourth time you checked it in the last five minutes. Not even you are that attached to your phone.” She eyed it suspiciously. “Did you get a girlfriend?”
“I’m just saying, you wouldn’t check it so much unless you had a reason.”
“I am head of global security for your company, that’s not reason enough?”
“Because you wouldn’t check it if it were your mother.”
“Yeah, if only she could have gotten snapped.”
Pepper’s expression was reproachful. “Happy!”
“I don’t mean that, but I kinda do. No, it’s not my mother, it’s not a girlfriend.”
“Happy’s got a girlfriend?”
Trust Tony to come in on the backside of that conversation. He had wobbled in from the back area of their posh penthouse, still using his cane to shuffle along in a way that made Happy wince seeing it. Tony had his fair share of scrapes and knocks, hell, he’d had his ass handed to him more than a few times before he was ever Iron Man, but he had never been anything like this. Whatever this Thanos did to him, it had fucked him up but good, and nearly dying of starvation and infection clearly didn’t help. Tony was a shadow of who he was the day he left on that stupid ship and it hurt to see him like that.
“I don’t have a girlfriend and if I did, you don’t think I’d have told you by now?”
“True. Whatever happened to that nurse you were dating?” Tony hobbled over to the comfortable living room where Pepper had spread out her office, settling in an armchair and waving off his ever hovering fiancee.
“Janice? We broke up because you moved to New York and didn’t go back to LA where she lives.”
“Long distance relationships work,” Tony protested.
“They don’t work,” Pepper muttered.
“I have a private jet I can fly back and forth in, and barring that you have these nifty suits.”
He blinked mildly out of his haggard face, regarding her. “Right, I suppose that does help.”
“Happy was checking his phone,” Pepper now had a cohort in her mayhem and Happy wished he hadn’t even pulled the damn thing out of his pocket.
“And you say you don’t have a girlfriend?” Tony was like a dog on the hunt now, glee lighting his emaciated face. “Spill it, Hogan. Who is she?”
“No one and mind your own business.” He desperately didn’t want to have this conversation right now, especially not with Tony of all people.
“She got a name?”
“She live in New York?”
“She lives in Canada?”
“She’s a he?”
“No!” He glared at his best friend and sometimes employer who hardly looked sorry as he impishly smirked. “I mean, maybe it could be he, I prefer she types, but I am just saying, be open minded is all. It doesn’t matter because there is no one and leave it alone.”
“Not a girlfriend...you owe someone money?”
Happy glared at him. “What, you think this is the set of Goodfellas?”
“Would I work global security for your company and be in with the mob?”
“I’ve had people working for my company doing worse things, including some nutjobs, so you never can tell.”
“Well I’m not that Quentin Beck asshole, so no.”
Tony paused only long enough to consider a new angle. “Selling drugs?”
Happy only glared at him.
“Tony!” Pepper’s tone had an edge of warning in it.
“I’m cooped up here, Pep, I need some excitement in my life.”
“Picking on Happy isn’t it.”
He ignored her, dark eyes regarding Happy with gleeful possibility. “Working as a Vegas bookie?”
“No,” Happy snapped, wishing he would just stop at this point.
“Secret life as a male escort?”
“I was checking on the kid!”
Happy hadn’t meant to snap like that and was vaguely shocked that he did. He was a veteran of Tony’s needling to the point he could ignore most of it, but something about it had crawled under even his thick skin. He found himself staring at the stunned faces of both of them at his proclamation, feeling shame and guilt rise up as he glared at the said phone in front of him.
“Everyday at about this time, Parker would be calling me to give me one of his updates about whatever he was doing after school and people he would help. He never failed at it, even if it was just to tell me that he was late getting out because of practice or some test coming up. Everyday, I’d let it go to voicemail and then when I got home I’d listen to him ramble about catching bike thieves, and purse snatchers, and getting cookies from little old ladies. I’d make sure nothing crazy came up, you know, just make sure he was okay, because the last time I ignored his phone calls he nearly got killed by someone stealing your stuff and I promised I wouldn’t do that to him ever again. Last message he sent me, he had just gotten off his bus from his field trip and was heading to Greenwich Village and he wanted me to let you know he was coming. That was it, that was all he said, and my phone has been silent ever since.”
If he had thrown a flash grenade into the room, he didn’t think he could have had more of an impact on them. Pepper’s jaw hung on the floor as she glanced towards Tony, who looked as if Happy had shot him. He’d not heard the full story of what happened up there, only that Tony had lost the kid, and he’d not asked, but he could see the devastation as clear as day on his best friend’s face.
“I’m sorry,” Happy murmured, suddenly wishing he were anywhere but his bosses’ apartment ruining their lives.
“Happy,” Pepper finally gasped, sadness and sympathy in that single word.
“No, look, I’m sorry. I was here, giving my report, I didn’t mean to bring it up and…”
“I miss him too.” That was all Tony said as Happy fumbled for his phone and keys, staring blankly at Tony’s fixed face. He’d said so little about Peter since he got back from space, of what happened to him. All Happy knew was that he dusted like everyone else.
“He was a good kid.” Happy had meant it much more as a statement than the challenge it sounded like.
“He was,” Tony conceded, suddenly looking as exhausted as he had been when they’d gotten him back from outer space. “He was the best.”
They fell into silence, the ghost of a teenage boy hanging between them.
“FRIDAY,” Pepper finally murmured into the silence. “Could you move all my data into the bedroom. I’m going to take a call in there.”
She began gathering papers and files as Tony watched her apologetically. “I didn’t mean to run you out!”
“I know, but I think this is a conversation you both need to have.” She stood, her arms loaded as she leaned in to kiss him before glancing at Happy pointedly and wandering from the room. Her absence left just the two of them there with their grief and sadness.
Happy took the initiative at least. “I didn’t want to bring it up.”
“It’s all right.” Tony waved a frail hand, sounding as if it was anything but all right.
“I didn’t want to bring him up while your still recovering.”
Happy drew up short here. He wasn’t particularly sure why. “Because...look, Tony, I know what the kid meant to you.”
“Like he meant any less to you?”
“I know, I’m just saying…”
“We all lost, didn’t we?”
Happy never thought he ever heard Tony sound so defeated. “Yeah...I guess we did.”
They sat staring at each other for long moments, the only sound was Pepper’s voice far off in the distance, talking on the phone. Happy didn’t know what to say. He had never been into the super hero life, especially not for Tony. Hell, when he came on board twenty-five years before, Tony had still been deep in his balls-to-the-wall lifestyle of women, booze, drugs and occasionally inventing things. He’d nearly given Happy a heart attack many times over before he started to calm down. He’d always vaguely hoped Tony would chill out, like Howard did before him, get a life, find a woman, marry her and settle down. But then Afghanistan happened, then Iron Man, then Nick Fury shows up and dragged Tony merrily into saving the world. All Happy could do now was make sure Pepper was safe and stand with her helplessly as he tore off after one crisis after another. And it was one thing when it was Tony doing the crazy. Then he got the kid involved, and then...then it became something else.
“Can I just say something,” Happy asked, finally finding his words.
“Sure,” Tony shrugged, scrubbing at his already too-thin face.
“You should never have gotten the kid involved in all of this.”
Tony’s sigh pulled from somewhere deep inside of him as he let his head hang. “I know.”
“I mean it, Tony, you never should have, and it’s my fault that you even found out. I should have known better. You’re like a kid in a candy store when something new like that pops up, you gotta have it, and I showed you those videos and then you wanted to go recruit a high school freshman to go with you to try and take on Cap and the rest. And I should have said something, but I didn’t. Hell, that whole trip, he was acting like I was taking him to Disneyland, not like there were life and death stakes involved.”
“I get it, Happy, he was too young.”
“Yeah, he was too young, and too stupid to know his own limits. I mean, Christ, his uncle died what, not even a year before. Of course he’d think he could take on the world, stop people doing bad things like they did to him, because what kid wouldn’t dream of having that chance?”
Tony looked grim at that. “Peter wasn’t the vengeful kind.”
“No, he wasn’t, but he did want to be a superhero just like you. He wanted to be like Iron Man, stopping the bad guys and saving the world. You know what I wanted him to do? To get to class on time. To not skip school to go chase after people. I wanted him to get home and eat dinner and do his homework. I wanted him to be sleeping in his bed at his aunt’s apartment, safe, every night. That’s what I wanted, because then I did my job. Every time I turned around that kid was in the middle of something, and he thought he could get away with it because you told him he was your Avengers intern.”
“I didn’t mean for him to throw himself in that Toomes business and I sure as hell didn’t want him getting too deep into anything without signing up for the Accords.”
“Yeah, those Accords, the ones that were supposed to keep everyone in line. How well did that work out?”
“What, you want to come after my ass on that too, Hogan?”
“Yes...no.” He sighed, frustrated, flopping back into the deep cushions of their couch as he glared at Tony. “I’m just saying you have an unfortunate habit of acting first, feeling bad about it later, and then making everyone else ride on your guilt trip. If you hadn’t tried to push the Accords on the team, you and Cap wouldn’t have come to blows, and Peter could have just been a normal kid in Queens.”
“He was never going to be a normal kid, you know that, right? He could climb up walls and swing through buildings. He wasn’t ever going to be normal.”
Unfortunately, Happy knew he was right. “He didn’t have to be drug into this.”
“Yeah, I know that too.” Tony fiddled with his cane, rolling it between his bone thin fingers. “There’s a lot I regret in all of this, go figure. I regret not going to therapy sooner. I regret Ultron, and Sokovia. I regret not at least trying to hear out Rogers’ side of the argument and maybe trying to find a compromise. I regret...I regret all the fall out on that side of it, at least the stuff I’m guilty for. Yeah, sure, I regret it. I get it as much as it is hard to believe, I do get I had a part to play in the tragedy that helped bring this about. But bigger than all of those is the regret that there was this kid, this brilliant kid who I not only let down, I brought him in and I can never, ever get him back. I had him in my arms, Happy, when it hit. He was in my fingers when he crumbled to dust and I couldn’t do anything. So, yeah, I know what it means to miss him.”
Happy could list on one hand the number of times he’d seen Tony Stark moved to tears in their long association, and he didn’t need more than one digit to count that off. To see him now, frail and tearful, hurt more than words could say. “This was why I didn’t want to bring it up.”
Tony could only chuckle wetly. “I don’t hire you to keep me safe, you know.”
“Yeah, I kind of noticed. Besides, you don’t hire me at all, your fiance does.”
“Point, but I keep you around because you’re my friend and your honest with me and I need that. I guess I’ve been wallowing and should have remembered how much the kid meant to you, too.”
“Closest thing I’ll have to a nephew, I guess,” Happy sighed, considering. “Unless my sister actually gets married, and let's be honest, I can’t see that happening unless they are blind or desperate.”
“I don’t know, half the world is gone, fewer options, someone might be one or both.”
Levity restored, Happy chuckled much more loudly than he probably needed to at that. “Jesus...right I just...yeah. Anyway, I would like to think this is a moment of personal growth for the two of us.”
“Agreed, we shared our feeling, discussed like adults, came to an amicable conclusion.”
“Either therapy is working or we are getting old.”
Tony could only bark a laugh and sigh. “Christ, I think it’s the latter.”
Feelings were not something that Happy had a lot of experience dealing with, especially not with Tony Stark.
“So, wanna watch a movie?”
Which was how an hour-and-a-half later Pepper found them both snoring lightly in front of the projection of Die Hard,a fact that had her teasing them mercilessly for weeks to come.
Chapter 14: A Bad Romance
In which Bruce and Natasha confront the elephant in the room.
Bruce wasn’t a religious man, but if there were a God in this universe, and given recent events he wasn’t sure where he landed on that argument, whatever deity was out there had a sick sense of humor, putting him and Natasha Romanoff in any sort of failed romance. The two people perhaps the least capable and most confused in how to manage normal human relations get stuck together and when it predictably didn’t go well - admittedly, mostly his fault - they were left to somehow figure out what in the world they could possibly do about it. It wasn’t fair, but then again, what in his life ever was?
Natasha was a consummate professional, if anything, and given that the sky was falling, the world was ending, and they had so many more important things to worry about since returning from killing Thanos, nothing had come up. Of course, perhaps that was a bit self-centered, after all, considering the years, the way it all fell out, and the current state of everything, the last thing that would be top of anyone’s mind would be something like this, but Bruce was aware. He was always aware, he had to be, that itching anxiety in the back of his brain, the quiet fear and the silent worry of what this would mean about everything when they finally did have a chance to address it. He may not know how to keep relationships, but he had a hell of a knack for destroying them.
As fate would have it, it all came to a head, not in a stormy argument with flying dishes or some sadly emotional conversation in the rain by the side of the river, but because of Thor being Thor and being obtuse. Rocket had been trying to boost signal all day to find and hail the Asgardians and see who and what of them remained. Bruce had been there initially to help, but frankly, the talking rodent had it well in hand and between him and Friday had managed to scan the relative coordinates Thor remembered to try and find them.
“FRIDAY, love, think you can scan the quadrant and see if you find any particular signal, distress or otherwise.” Rocket had an affection for Tony’s AI that was bordering on creepy and Bruce wondered if he’d want to have one of his own.
“Sure thing. You are looking for something with an Asgardian signature?”
“Yep!” Rocket turned to Thor, slouched in a nearby chair, hoodie over his head. “Anything I should tell them?”
“Ask them how many are alive.” His words were dull and hollow, laced with a quiet desperation. Bruce’s heart went out to him. Poor guy had lost everything in the space of weeks, really, his home, his culture, his family, most of his people, and that wasn’t including Thanos and all of that. Even the Avengers were a mess. Small wonder he was falling apart at the seams.
“We’ll find them, buddy,” Bruce assured him, sharing a pointed glance with Rocket. “I mean, Valkyrie, she’s a good warrior, she’ll keep them safe till they get here.”
Rocket chimed in. “What’s the worst that could happen, right? I mean, half the universe is gone, so no one will come and kill what’s left!”
Not exactly the words of comfort Bruce would have used. “Or they could just be in space, perfectly fine and trying to figure out how to get here, all safe and normal.”
Rocket blinked at him. “That’s what I was getting at.”
“What’s up, guys?”
They all jumped and turned on Natasha, who stood leaning nonchalantly against the door, amused at the reaction she still got. Tony used to swear he’d put a bell on her, except she might just kill him with it.
“Gees, could you just make noise and be obnoxious like normal people?” Rocket clutched his chest and glared at her completely unapologetic expression. “How do you do that?”
“I was raised by a secret organization who trained young women to be assassins and spies in order to be used as tools in their wars on other nations.”
Rocket only stared at her for long minutes.
“Also, I studied ballet, a form of dance that develops grace and requires extreme muscle control, and believe me you can’t get through Swan Lake without learning how to walk quietly.”
If that had any meaning to the alien life form, he didn’t show it. “Why can’t any of you just have a normal backstory, like you had a family, you grew up, and then got into this hero gig because it was a great job?”
“You think this is a job choice?” Natasha eyed him as she threw herself down on the nearest couch.
“I had that story,” Thor spoke up quietly, staring hard at something in the middle distance only he could see. “Mother, father, brother, great childhood, raised to believe I had a place in this universe, that I was special.”
Rocket’s expression didn’t look impressed. “Yeah, as the future king of a magic land with golden halls, floating in the middle of space, not exactly normal people over there, Thor.”
“Well, that and it turned out to be a pack of lies perpetuated by my father who was hiding the truth from my brother and me, so there is that.”
Well, that brought the mood down a smidge.
“So, what you are saying is that you have a tragic backstory like everyone else.” Rocket threw his hands up in disgust before turning on Bruce. “What about you?”
“Me? It was normal, I suppose. Normal parents, normal school, normal everything.”
“Except for how many doctorates,” Natasha pointed out teasingly from her nest of pillows.
“A lot...but you know, I liked that. I mean, I had issues with my dad, but so did Tony, so did Clint, so does Thor, I mean, who doesn’t have those?”
Thor nodded slowly in companable understanding at him, holding up his fist for a brief bump. Bruce stared at it but obliged as the other man gave him a grimace he supposed meant they were in solidarity.
He continued. “Yeah, nothing was weird in my life until I got brought on to research the super soldier serum and well...became the other guy. That’s when everything fell apart.”
“You injected yourself with something that made you giant, green and angry on purpose?”
When Rocket put it that way…
“In my defense, I didn’t know it would do that to me. But, yeah, not precisely the best scientific approach, I suppose.”
Natasha shook her still weirdly blonde hair. “Isn’t that the plot of most classic horror movies? Scientist wants to science, decides to inject himself, mayhem ensues.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think Thaddeus Ross was big on institutional review boards.” In hindsight, it all sounded dumb and foolish now. In the heat of the moment, with Betty and her father there…
“Anyway, lost the job, the girl, my life as I knew it, and here we are.” He waved expansively to them all in the middle of the Avengers facility. They all looked at one another.
“At least we aren’t standing around in a circle like a bunch of assholes.” Rocket sniffed, turning back to the screen and the signal he was working on.
Thor, who had been strangely silent during much of that, finally emerged from his hoodie to regard Bruce. “You haven’t lost everything, you know.”
Bruce wasn’t sure if the other man meant that accusingly or not. “I...didn’t say…I…”
“You still have Natasha, after all.” He nodded knowingly at her in the corner of the couch, her face blank as a white sheet of paper, stoic and unreadable. It was her version of the deer in headlights face. He was sure his own expression was much more similar to the traditional one, jaw hanging on the ground, eyes wide in panic.
“Thor, I…” He began to babble, but the larger man held up a hand in the face of his utter confusion.
“As someone who had everything and then lost it all, just let me tell you both to take the opportunities you have and seize them. Don’t waste them. One day, you’ll wake up to find your world destroyed in the long-prophesied calamity that you had a part in starting, just to destroy your evil sister you didn’t know existed, and then in your escape, a mad, world-destroying Titan attacks your ship, slaughters half of the passengers, kills your best friend and your brother in front of your eyes and destroys your ship with you in it, leaving you to die in the void of space, only to mock you when you attempt to destroy him and fail because you are an idiot.”
Even Rocket turned around to stare at him over that one.
“Right, sorry, that got strangely self-involved.” He scrubbed at his face before rising to stand between Bruce and Natasha, his mismatched eye giving them both what he assumed was perhaps a sadly paternal expression. “I say this as your friend and someone who has known you both for a while, take your chances while you can. Gather your rosebuds while you may, I think the saying goes, by your Shakespeare! I read that after Stark made reference to it, but it applies just the same. Don’t lose your chance!”
With that, he inclined his head meaningfully to them all, shoved his hands into his hoodie, and wandered off in the direction of the kitchen to grab a six-pack of whatever was in there and wander off onto the grounds. They all stared at him as he went, quietly dumbfounded. It was Natasha who found her voice first.
“Wasn’t that To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick?”
Bruce shrugged. “Beats me! I’m just shocked he was reading human literature and poetry.”
“He’s in bad shape, whatever it is.” Rocket hissed through his teeth, perhaps his approximation of a whistle, shaking his furry head, before glancing between the two of them appreciatively. “So, you two...you’re...uh...a thing?”
Natasha only arched an eyebrow. “Maybe you should go after Thor and have him recite some Shakespeare to you. It will be educational.”
Rocket was smart enough to know when a dangerous woman was telling him to get the hell out. “Right, so I’ll go find Thor and ask him about this Shakes Pier guy and whatever.”
Bruce watched the wander in the direction of Thor as quickly as he could, muttering about not getting the middle of emotional entanglements. Bruce couldn’t blame him. Right now, he wished he wasn’t in the middle of one either.
“So,” Natasha began with a drawl. “There is that elephant in the room.”
“I don’t like elephants,” Bruce muttered, scrubbing at his face and wishing he could avoid this conversation for a bit longer.
“I don’t know, they are smart, kind of sweet, never forget.”
“Yeah.” He looked at her, at the hint of humor and depth of sadness lurking in her expression. “Natasha...”
“So, another planet?” She cut across him, shifting on the couch to sit, cross-legged, a pillow in her lap, hugged to her chest. “A trash planet?”
Her shift in conversation startled him as he pulled back from the apology that had been on his lips. “I...uh...yeah, something like that, I guess. Sort of more an intergalactic junkyard, where things that are lost or forgotten get dumped.”
He squirmed a bit. “Yeah, even people.”
Her expression, cool and distant, didn’t shift as she nodded, running her fingers through her hair. “So, the next question is how did you end up there? Last we saw, you were on the quinjet, lost somewhere over the Indian Ocean.”
That part was as much a mystery to him as anyone else. “Don’t know, I wasn’t the one in control. My guess is he hit something that caused us to end up in space. There’s a jump point not far away, probably just found it and that’s where he ended up, simple as that.”
“So simple.” She said it as if he were trying to explain how he backed the car up onto a light pole.
This was not going at all well.
“When did you first figure out you weren’t on Earth?”
“Err...not until Thor showed up a few weeks ago.” That was perhaps the second most surreal moment of his life, next to the first moment he had changed all those years ago. “I mean one moment I was in the dungeon in Strucker’s castle in Sokovia, kissing you, the next I’m waking up naked on the remains of the quinjet in a junk pile, Thor standing over me, and you on the vid screen telling me to come home. I didn’t know where I was or how I got there, and apparently everyone on the planet knew me, or at least they knew Hulk. He was some sort of celebrity there…”
“Well, good for him, then,” she muttered, dryly.
“No, not good for him! I don’t know, it was some sort of fighting pit, like ancient Rome, but I didn’t know how I got there or how long it had been. Honestly, Nat, I didn’t have any control over any of it. Three years...I mean, the Hulk hadn’t ever been in control of me for that long, ever. If that video hadn’t come up…”
He trailed off, slightly helpless at the very thought of it.
But Natasha wasn’t that shy about it. “You’d still be Hulk now, some gladiator in an alien stadium, oblivious to the rest of this?”
“Well...yeah.” He shrugged, his smile without humor. “It wasn’t my call, Nat.”
“I know. It was mine.” Her sigh was long and sad, pulling from the depths inside of her. “I suppose it’s my turn now to apologize for pushing you, but we needed Hulk, not Bruce.”
“I know.” Bruce Banner was a mild mannered scientist who got to hang out with superheroes all day. He was just a normal human being, nothing unique or special about him. The Hulk was who they needed, who they always needed, and yet he was unpredictable and uncontrollable. Case in point, the fact he still hadn’t coaxed him out of whatever part of Bruce’s psyche he called home, not since Thanos had beaten the crap out of him.
“So, how did things end up in Sokovia, since I don’t really remember it at all?” He might as well ask since they were on the subject.”
“Horrible! The city was destroyed. Wanda’s brother was killed saving Clint. Sokovia’s already shaky economy was in tatters, and you know, the world blamed us for it, so that was fun.”
“I’d have been here if I could have.”
“I know.” She plucked at a thread on the corner of the pillow, pulling it between thumb and forefinger as she studied it, quietly. “I get it, you weren’t you.”
That seemed to be the story of his life, never having any control of it at the very precise moments he needed it. “I’m me now, and this me...I’m still the same guy I was three years ago.”
“Yeah, but I’m not the same girl I was three years ago.”
Bruce tried to ignore the aching crack that broke in his chest then. ‘Nat…”
“You woke up and didn’t know what had happened. Me, I was here, with the Avengers...with our family! I was left behind, trying to hold them together and watching Tony and Steve pull them apart. I was stuck in the middle of a battle I could never win, while Thaddeus Ross tried to create watchlists of enhanced humans and put a leash on the Avengers. I was then forced to run when I wouldn’t submit. You may have blinked and three years had passed, but it didn’t for me. I wish I could say it did.”
For a brief moment Bruce had to wonder if this was how Steve felt when he woke up from the ice, awake in a world that had passed him by. “So where does that leave us?”
She stared at him for long moments, inscrutable. “I honestly don’t know.”
“I still feel the same for you I did then.”
Something softened, just a little at his words. “If only it were that simple.”
“You know it’s not.” She picked at the pillow yet again. “Perhaps it was a foolish idea, someone like me having a normal relationship with just a regular guy.”
The idea she would even use the word ‘regular’ to describe him made him laugh. “We both know I’m the furthest thing from one of those.”
“Well, in our line of work, you are the closest I get.” Her smile was small and sad.
“I don’t think it was a foolish idea for either of us.”
“No?” She didn’t sound so sure. “You know, it took a lot for me to even bring the idea up to you.”
For the confident, cool Natasha Romanoff he had a hard time believing that. “Why?”
“Because of who I am and what you become. Let’s be honest, you are a nice guy who turns into a monster. I am a monster who happens to look like a nice girl.”
“You aren’t a monster, Nat!”
“You don’t know everything I did before this.”
“I know some of what you did.”
“Not all of it.” She hugged the pillow in her arms so tight she might as well be strangling it. “I wasn’t a person for a very long time, Bruce, I was...a thing. I was a tool that could be used and projected on at will. Do you need a spy? Do you need an assassin? How about the sweet, innocent ingenue who can beguile the jaded man of wealth and power? How about the stripper to incriminate your enemy all over the world’s press? How about the woman in his bed who conveniently dispatches him so he’s no longer a problem? I could be a school girl, a mother, a whore, a saint, whatever you needed me to be, and I didn’t care about who it affected or who got hurt in the process.”
Bruce knew all this, had always known all this. Some of it he picked up from Natasha, but most of it he’d gotten off of Clint in a moment of big-brother protectiveness while they were hiding out at the Barton’s farm. “You know, none of that matters to me.”
“But it does matter to me.” He had never heard Natasha sound so brittle and vulnerable and he didn’t like that she did. “I’ve clawed my way to the place I’m at now. I’ve built this up, slowly, piece-by-piece, to be human, to care about people outside of my own narrow world, to care about my family I have now, my team, you. This is what I got and I’ve watched all of it fall to pieces the last few years and I got to wonder if maybe it was too much to hope for.”
“I don’t think it was.” The fervency in his voice shook even him. “Natasha, you were always human. That they made you something else, that is on them, but it was never on you, and you deserve all those things, same as everyone else.”
It took him a long moment to realize those were tears streaming down her otherwise calm features. “Standing in that hut, Thanos on the floor, all I could think was that I tried so hard to make it all better, to make it right, to balance the ledger and put it all back, and the harder I try, the worse it gets. All those people...Cooper, Lila and Nate...Laura...you know Clint risked everything for me. He was told to kill me, to remove me because I was a problem. He should have done it, but he didn’t. He put it all on the line to go into Fury and tell him that I deserved more than being put down. He brought me here. He gave me a family to love and something to do right, and I wanted to bring that all back for him.”
“I know.” He thought of Thor’s people, even now floating out there in space, lost and likely terrified.
She wiped at her cheeks absently. “This, the Avengers or what’s left of us, this is all that remains of everything. What we do here, what we try to do, this is what I got left. I came out of the cold because Clint convinced me I didn’t have to be the monster they made me to be. Laura and the kids may be gone, most of our team may be gone, Wanda, Sam, Bucky, Vision, but I’m here. The work still needs to be done, now more than ever with everything happening. The world still needs heroes, even if we are broken.”
Bruce couldn’t help but chuckle at her sentiment. “You sound like Steve right now.”
That statement seemed to brighten her, somewhat. “I’ll take that as a complement. Besides, I’ve spent a lot of time on the run with him of late, his idealism and goodness was bound to rub off.”
He could see how, after all she had been through, she would gravitate to Steve Rogers and his view of the world. “So, where does that leave us?”
That wasn’t as simple to answer and he knew it. He could see it in her eyes.
“We were going to go away together, you and I, remember? Leave all this behind. Walk away from the Avengers, from every crisis that hit the Earth, just be the two of us, normal people living their lives.”
It had been a lovely dream back then, hadn’t it?
“I’m guessing that window is closed now, huh?”
She nodded mutely, staring at her twisting fingers. He had known, of course, but still, he had kind of hoped for something, anything, even if they couldn’t have that.
“I guess we can’t always get what we want, right?” He had said something like that, or close enough, in the hut in India the first time he met her so long ago. She’d been so cooly relaxed, hiding the truth that she was absolutely terrified of him. He’d fucked with her then, a fact he nearly regretted when she had pulled a weapon on him so fast he couldn’t even blink. He thought he’d fallen for her just a little bit, seeing how despite the terror in her wide, green eyes, she hadn’t backed down. He should have known then that no matter what, the other guy was always going to stand there between them both.
“Right now, with all of this...this is where my focus is, on the Avengers and keeping the world together. I just don’t feel right taking off to find myself with you when so much of the world is falling apart.”
She was right, he knew she was right, but it didn’t make it hurt any less. “See, I told you Steve was rubbing off on you.”
“Maybe that part was always me, the real me, underneath all of what they made me.”
“Also told you that you weren’t a monster.”
“Silly me, trying to argue with the man who has more degrees that any decent person should. What was I thinking?”
They could at least laugh, even if it hurt like hell to do so. “Maybe...someday?”
She didn’t look hopeful. “I suppose that depends on a lot of other things outside of us, doesn’t it?”
He supposed it did.
“Well, that was a very awkward and heartbreaking conversation to have.” He pushed himself up, shoving his hands into his pockets and wondering where in the hell he could hide to nurse this wound back. “Maybe I’ll go get lunch now.”
“Yeah.” She didn’t move, either to hug him or join him, which was perhaps for the best. Right now, he felt that if she did, he’d fall apart and not even the Hulk could put him back together again.
“Right! I’ll just go see what Thor’s up to.” Blindly, he turned, in the vague direction that Thor and Rocket went in. Before he could get five steps, though, Natasha’s voice called back to him.
“I’m sorry, Bruce. I really am.”
He turned, only slightly, her pale, platinum hair just out of the corner of his eye. “Not more sorry than I am right now.”
She didn’t reply as he wandered off, shoulders hunched around the gutted feeling in his middle.
Time works funny sometimes in the MCU. I had Bruce gone three years rather than two to accommodate the time before Avengers: Age of Ultron and Avengers: Infinity War.
Chapter 15: A New Beginning
In which Tony works on his recovery.
“How in the hell did you ever put up with this?”
Rhodey eyed him blandly and completely unsympathetically. “Because I had an asshole who liked to tinker with my gear pushing me along the whole time.”
Tony hardly thought that was the correct assessment of how the situation had been. “You know, I don’t remember being that much of an asshole. I encouraged, sure, cajoled. I was a goddamn cheerleader!”
“I wanted to punch your face in and my only incentive for walking down those bars was to get my hands on you.”
“Good thing I am quick, now, isn’t it?"
“Yeah, we’ll see how quick on your feet you are in a few weeks. Till then, keep moving and I’ll give you one of those disgusting shakes you love drinking.”
“Those are properly balanced proteins and carbohydrates to acclimate my body back into a normal eating cycle, providing nutrients at a set pace to ensure I am absorbing them properly and helping me build up both body mass and muscle tone and strength to my pre-Thanos levels. Plus, they’re banana flavored.”
“Yeah, whatever, your science talk doesn’t make them any less disgusting.” Rhodey stood at the end of specially built treadmill, one Tony had made for him when he’d been paralyzed. “Could just eat a cheeseburger, like the rest of us.”
“I would literally give you all the money I have in the world for one of those right now if it wouldn’t make me sick.”
“All the money? I mean, you got a lot of it.”
“Seriously, I’d almost be willing to puke one back up just to have one right now.”
“That is sad, desperate, and disgusting all at once.”
Tony could only laugh as he got to the end of his training cycle, leaning heavily on the handles to the sides as Rhodey held an arm out for him to hold, helping him off the platform and over to one of the comfy chairs nearby, collapsing as his chest heaved from just the exertion of what would have been a brisk 20 minute walk ten weeks before. “You know, this kinda sucks.”
“I know. But, you’ve been here before. Remember Afghanistan?”
“Nah, I wasn’t this bad after Afghanistan.”
“True, but you did still have a mini-power generator in your chest.”
“Oh, those were the days.” He rubbed the heel of his palm against the cotton of his shirt, right in the spot where the arc reactor used to reside. It had long since been grafted over and healed, synthetic bone, cartilage and skin replacing what had been there before they decided to blow up his Humvee. If he were honest with himself, he still felt naked without having something over his heart, some sort of gadget glowing in the middle of his chest, there at a moments notice if he needed.
Rhodey flopped on a chair opposite, the braces on his legs whirring slightly as he did so. “We are getting too old for this.”
“Tell me about it.” He wouldn’t admit that to anyone outside of Rhodey, really...well, maybe Pepper, and that was a strong “maybe”. He was well aware that he had lived a very hard forty-eight years on this planet and the toll was wearing on him. “You’re older than me, even.”
“Yeah, I remember. No need to rub that one in.”
“Good thing I have a good-looking and beautiful future trophy wife to keep me young and remind everyone I still got it.”
“Speaking of, where is the future trophy wife this morning?”
Tony shrugged, waving out the window of the penthouse apartment he purchased after selling the Avengers Tower, mostly to give Pepper a place to crash when she was in the city. “Off running my company with much more capability, patience and strength than I got.”
“You are so lucky you got her, you know that.”
“So you keep reminding me and so I know all too well.” Lucky wasn’t even the half of it. How he still had her after half the shit he’d put her through, he didn’t know, but if there was a divine power he didn’t believe in out there, and some days he had to wonder given the fact he was still there, he would have thank them for putting Virginia Potts in his life. Frankly, he wasn’t so sure he deserved having her there at all, especially not of late.
“How bad did you guys get hit?” Rhodey’s question broke him from his revere, a fair one, considering the state of the world and the global economy at the moment, which was in a near panic, but not outright collapse just yet.
He grimaced, having gone over the numbers with Pepper earlier that week. “Not as bad as most companies, still not great. We are lucky, we still have a company that can function, unlike others. Not sure if we have as big a demand for products now but there are people assessing. Pepper’s trying to work with what’s left of the executive leadership team to reach out to families of those gone, if they are even alive, and see what we can do to help, while in the meantime reaching out to global governments to see how we can start taking the lead in things helping with their infrastructures and power grids. Most of them don’t even have crew to man what they got now.”
“Who would have thought that the push to clean energy we needed would come out of this?” Rhodey was both rueful and sad.
“Thanos, actually.” He hated to admit it, but yeah, the cold-blooded bastard wasn’t completely wrong in his twisted, philosophical way. Rhodey eyed him in surprise, but Tony shrugged. “Man - can you call him that - whatever, he did have some points, I guess, things that he used to justify his crazy scheme. I didn’t say I agreed with it, but the man had vision, I won’t deny that.”
“Tony, you have vision, that’s what you do. You didn’t kill off half of all living things and call it good.”
“Well, there are days when I’ve considered it.” He groaned as he leaned forward, pulling himself up slowly off the couch. Even his joints ached, weakened muscles shaking as he forced himself to stumble into the kitchen for the smoothie he had in the fridge.
“So you actually talked with him? Did he explain why he did any of this?”
“I didn’t talk with him, no. Strange did.” He shuffled into the open concept kitchen, leaning heavily against the granite as he began rummaging through the fridge for the shakes he personally thought were tasty, screw whatever Rhodey thought.
“Mage, sorcerer, I think he may have been a surgeon. Honestly, that was not the weirdest part about that day for me.”
Rhodey had followed, leaning on the other side of the counter as Tony managed to get his shake and sit at one of the tall stools. “So, what did he tell Strange about why he did it?”
The last thing he had wanted to talk about was Thanos and his crazed schemes. Rogers had been all about finding the son-of-a-bitch and fixing it, but Tony, all he wanted to do was lick his wounds and wrap his head around what had happened. He hadn’t wanted to ruminate or pontificate or charge in where angels feared to tread. They had lost, and badly, and right now, that was all he could really handle understanding in his life. Hell, he wasn’t sure he could handle that. But this was Rhodey, his best friend since he had been a snot-nosed fourteen-year-old who thought himself more brilliant than anyone there, mostly because he was, and couldn’t figure out how to fit into a campus of students all at least four years older than him. The only one who talked sense into him and stuck by his adolescent, angsty ass was James Rhodes, who was nearly as much of an outsider as himself. No matter how bad Tony got over the years, or the tabloid headlines he generated, or the embarrassing situations with the military Rhodey had to cover for, he was always by Tony’s side, even if it was simply to kick him in the pants.
“So, the ship we were on took us to his home planet called Titan. I guess back in the day it was like any other planet, beautiful, prosperous, and then it died off. Not sure how, climate change, overpopulation, disease, whatever the case, it was gone, his people, civilization, all disappeared.”
“And he took it out on the rest of us, then?”
“Grief does strange things to us, or so my therapist has told me, and for him it was going on some holy quest to prune the universe, to ‘bring balance’ as he kept yammering on about. I don’t know.”
“And why did he get to decide he was God and could do that?”
“No one else around to stop him, I suppose.” Tony had tried. He had failed. “Guess that means I’m not a god after all, either, if I couldn’t stop him.”
“I’ve been trying to tell you that for years and you are only just now getting that in your head?”
“Yeah, really, what was I thinking?” He snorted, selfishly glad in the moment he still had Rhodey along with Pepper and Happy. “How’s the military establishment given...everything.”
“A hot mess.” Rhodey’s weary response was perhaps the biggest understatement of the year. “Word on the street is that World War III has been on the brink at least four times in the last six weeks, but never got off because there’s not enough people to pull together that sort of weapons to make it happen...yet.”
“If I die after this because of some 12-year-old messing around in a missile silo…”
“The UN is pulling together what resources it can to try and contain most of that.” Rhodey grimaced, eyeing him ruefully. “They’re voting to ‘amend’ the Sokovia Accords.”
Tony had seen that in the news, lost in the mountain of other existential anguish being covered in the moment. “Yeah, I know.”
“They are basically talking of throwing them out.”
“Saw that too.” He busied himself with swirling the thick and chalky shake in its container. “Guess that means I don’t have to arrest you guys for breaking the law, now.”
In truth, he hadn’t been terribly surprised when it was announced. The UN had no choice. The world was in chaos and they needed help and they had that in the Avengers. They’d never been as effective with the Accords, and as much as Tony hated it, he knew it. Of course, they’d have been much more effective had most of them not decided to jump ship and side with Rogers in the argument, but even then, he knew the effect of the controls on their capability to do what needed doing free of any one government being an asshat about it was limited. Rogers hadn’t been totally wrong, but neither had Tony. Of course, realizing that in hindsight was helpful to just about nobody.
He glanced speculatively at Rhodey. “So, you going to go hang out upstate with the cool kids, leave your old buddy behind?”
“You talk as if you won’t be back to normal in a couple of months and ready to put on the latest iteration of your suit. I’m still waiting for the one that comes out of your orifices.”
“That’s just gross and it was going to be out of my skin, through my pores.” He’d never gotten to that prototype, mostly because it was just about as difficult as it sounded. “Besides, there isn’t going to be another iteration of my suit.”
“I heard you say that after the whole Mandarin business. What we are like 40 versions past that one?”
“No, I mean it, Rhodey.” Tony cut him off with a tight, painful grimace. “No more suiting up. I’m...I’m tapped out.”
His friend stared at him, incongruously looking both surprised and unsurprised, which Tony didn’t think was humanly possible. “Look, I know you got your ass handed to you, we all did. But if the world needed Iron Man at any time, now is it.”
“They had me for ten years. They’ve still got everyone else.”
“Sure! But can you stay out of the game?”
“I have done it before.”
“Please, you swore off Iron Man twice and each time I blinked you were back in that suit. Face it, Tony, you like being Iron Man. You are Iron Man, or did you forget that little production you put on before the Senate sub-committee?”
“I’m a guy in armor and so are you, and they got you! So, what’s the problem?”
“Just...I don’t know, Tony. Just didn’t see you giving up.”
“I’m not giving up!” He threw his hands in the air, more irrationally annoyed than he needed to be at Rhodey’s statement. “I was beat, Rhodey, within an inch of my life. I had a honest-to-goodness moon dragged down from on high to beat me in the the face. I’m not even kidding about that. I fought a demigod and I lost. I think I’ve earned the right to finally hang up the spurs, don’t you?”
Rhodey didn’t have an argument for that, so instead stared at him with that look that said if he sat disapproving of him enough, he’d get his way. Like that had ever worked once in their long friendship together.
“Look, buddy, I’ve thought this over. Really, I have. I mean, what else was I going to do for three weeks on a dead spaceship in the middle of nowhere? It’s time, and there’s no shame in that. I fell into this superhero business by accident, by circumstance. And sure, I chose it, and I’ve done my best, but you know, I can’t save everyone. I operated like I could, I thought I could. I tried everything I knew to somehow do that, signed up for the Avengers, created Ultron, fought against my own friends because I was convinced it was my job to save them all, and I can’t, no one can. It’s an impossible task. I set myself up for failure, and I did, and I have to accept that and move on.”
“It was never just about you, Tony.”
“For me, it was.” He spun the bottle with its milky mixture in it between his fingers on the granite. “When I got into this, there was just me, no one else.”
“And I told you years ago you didn’t need to do this lone cowboy schtick.”
“Look how far teamwork got me? I mean, face it, I was never a team player before Fury showed up at my house. Remember the dodgeball team in college?”
“When you argued that the rules didn’t bar robots counting as ‘team members’ and you beat the hell out of all of us? I remember.”
“They needed better defined rules. Dum-E isn’t smart, but has perfect aim.” He still wasn’t sorry about it thirty years later. “My point is that the Avengers work better without me. I was only ever supposed to be a consultant anyway. The world needs you guys, now, I get it. I’m happy to still provide tech and assistance as needed.”
“But not suiting up?”
“I think it’s for the best.”
Rhodey looked as if he still wanted to argue, but finally he nodded, giving in. “I bet Pepper is thrilled.”
“She’s the main reason I’m doing this.” Even thinking of her pulled a lopsided smile, bubbling up from inside of him. “You know, I thought I was dead. I was dying, and the last thought I had as I lay there on the floor was of her. All of this, everything I’ve done these last ten years, has been with her in my mind. She’s been so patient with me, ridiculously so, and I’ve pushed the limit with her as far as I possibly could. She deserves better. She always has, far better than me, and I got to give it to her, Rhodey. I got to do it for her, and for me, because right now, I need her. I need a life with her. The rest of the world has superheroes. All I’ve got is her.”
He had clearly shaken his friend with that raw confession. He didn’t think he had ever been as honest him about his feelings, especially in regards to Pepper. “Damn, Tony...that’s...that’s poetic.”
“It’s true.” He shrugged, blinking hard against the mist that filmed his eyes. “Probably not the sort of thing you expected to hear out of me back in the day.”
“No, back in the day I mostly expected to hear about a paternity suit.”
“I’m not saying that won’t still happen, but I think Pepper is well aware of my dark past at this point and knows I don’t have secrets. Not that I was very good at keeping any of them to begin with.”
“Not when a good Google search could find most of them, no.”
As if sensing the tenor of their conversation, FRIDAY broke in with a quiet “Ms. Potts is home, boss, and will be up up the elevator in one minute.”
Tony glanced at his watch, loose and dangling on his now skinny wrist. “Long day for her.”
Rhodey shrugged, pensive. “Can imagine it’s going to be a long day for a lot of people, trying to cover more with less.”
Right on time, the elevator pinged and Pepper wandered through the door, lookin seven different kinds of exhausted. Tony’s greeting was cheerful, even if he quietly worried about her. “Hey, babe! How was work?”
“Why did you make me CEO?” This had been a common complaint of hers since he’d named her years ago.
“Because you are brilliant, tough as nails, hard-working, compassionate, and the smartest woman I know. Also, you are not out to kill me, so that’s a plus.”
“Some days I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” She wandered over, placing a soft kiss on his forehead, brushing the hair back fondly before greeting Rhodey. “You staying this evening?”
“Can’t, got a strategy meeting on the Asgardian refugees in about an hour, so I’ll have to get going.”
“Bet Thor will be relieved to have them here.”
“If he notices,” Rhodey grumbled. Tony glanced up at Pepper who met his worried look.
“Bruce said it was bad,” she said, pulling away. “Maybe, with his people here…”
“Maybe, I don’t know. I know he’s been through some rough stuff. Cap’s coordinating most of the set up with Nat running interference with the local government. Thanks, by the way, for the call into the King of Norway.”
“Haakon’s an old friend college at Berkeley. He was happy to take the call.”
He couldn't seem to help the derisive snort that rose. “By 'old friend', he flirted with her outrageously at one of my parties in Malibu, as I remember.”
“Because you were schmoozing with some friends of his.”
“They were models asking me to review their portfolios.”
“Is that what they call it in Norway?”
Her acerbic glare only earned a wicked grin out of him.
“In any case, he is perfectly lovely and was happy to help. Frankly, I think any place would be willing to open its borders now.”
“All it takes is a little random genocide to make people’s hearts grow big enough to let others in.” Rhodey’s bitter was on full tilt today, clearly.
“When will they get here?”
“Rocket’s been in communication with them, they had some ship problems. They took a heavy hit when Thanos attacked them and they’ve been limping here.”
“Frankly, I bet they’ll be glad just to get onto solid land for a change.” She patted Tony’s shoulder briefly before wandering towards the bedrooms in the back. “I’m going to take a hot shower.”
“Okay,” he called back as Rhodey smiled, softly. “What?”
“You’re so domestic now, it’s cute.”
“You should try it, buddy. It’s not so bad.”
“Believe it or not, it’s a lot harder getting women to notice you when you have leg braces helping you walk.”
“Seriously, if there is a woman alive out there who doesn’t see the benefit in that, they don’t deserve you.”
Rhodey only snorted, but took Tony’s hand in a tight shake before wandering to the balcony patio overlooking lower Manhattan, where his suit waited. Tony watched him take off for long moments before slowly making his way to the bedroom. The apartment wasn’t as luxurious as their old place downtown had been, and it certainly wasn’t as big as the Malibu house, but it was all right, he supposed. Now at days he preferred the home they had been making at his father’s old fishing cabin upstate. It was a cabin only in the sense that it was marginally removed from the nearby town, sat on a lake, and had a rustic feel to its craftsman design, and that was about it. His father had never been fond of truly “roughing it” in the sense of sleeping in a hand-hewn hut with no power or plumbing, but he had liked getting away to fish. It was about the only pursuit he remembered his father having that was quiet and slow, and one of the few he had actually brought Tony along for. Few non-engineering things in life could hold Howard's attention for terribly long, his brain just worked on too many levels for that, but fishing was something he could do while pondering the deep wonders of the universe. Some of the only good times he could remember with Howard were at that cabin, sitting on the dock, a pole a piece, chatting about projects or dreaming of the future and what it would look like.
The shower had turned off by the time he managed to flop on the bed, curling into the pillows and yawning loudly. Soon, he’d not tire himself out walking to the bathroom. He had just drifted, drowsily, as the door opened to a cloud of floral scented steam, Pepper wandering out in a silk robe and a towel on her head, only looking mildly more refreshed than when she went in.
“Mmmm?” She shrugged, grabbing her briefcase from a chair and wandering to the bed with it.
“How’d your meetings go?”
“Well, good news, we still have a company. Bad news, we have to divert large portions of the workforce, and lots of projects are going to get cut for it.”
“Yeah.” He had some pet projects he had been putting through himself. “How are things going with the energy initiatives?”
“Many seem on board with it, though others...it will be a bit of a struggle. I’m working with who I can. We’re offering to have our teams come in free to several countries who can’t afford it, and Wakanda has already been making overtures to work with our engineers. They have technology that blows us out of the water. It’s astonishing the level of advancement they have.”
“Yeah, T’Challa was holding out on us.” He’d been as shocked as the rest of the world when Wakanda’s king had come back to the UN a year after his father’s death to announce that the small, secluded, intensely private and secretive African nation was opening its borders to the West. He’d not thought much of it, having only ever heard of the country in relation to vibranium and nothing else, until the BBC was invited by the palace to do a documentary and revealed a nation so insanely prosperous and technologically superior they might as well have been another planet. Pepper had wisely not pounced on the opportunity to connect with them, knowing Tony wanted to very badly, and she’d been right to wait. They had come to her when they were ready at this time of crises to step up like they never had before as a leading nation in the region. He couldn’t have been more proud of her.
“I ever tell you I’m damn lucky I have you?” He cuddled closer to where she lay against the pillows.
“A lot of late, but I’ll take it anyway.” She smiled, face still a bit wan after her shower. He didn’t like it, the dark circles under her eyes that hadn’t faded since his return or the exhaustion that etched itself into every line.
“You should get something to eat.”
“Not hungry,” she murmured, her mouth a moue of disgust. “FRIDAY, pull up my email and my reports.”
Her emails and a variety of brightly colored charts and graphics were projected in front of them, none of which made sense to him without context, but he glared at them all the same. “You feeling alright? You got me worried.”
“Fine, just a long day...month, two months….”
“Okay,” he murmured, though he could smell bullshit a mile away. She was being evasive and he had to wonder if it was something awful. Was it something he did? He didn’t think so. After all, the worst thing he did of late was not stop Thanos and nearly getting killed in the effort. The mess that the world was left in of course was draining on everyone and no one was unaffected by it. It was overwhelming in and of itself to think about. Perhaps that was it.
“I’m just saying, if you aren’t okay, you can talk to me.” Maybe that would tease out something? Unlike him, who had perfected the art of pouting alone in his lab, Pepper usually was more up front with what was bothering her if he pestered her enough.
“I know,” she smiled softly, leaning over to kiss his hair. “I’m all right.”
“Because I know you’ve been under the weather, and you’ve been down, and you aren’t even eating your organic yogurt with acai berry, which is just as well, as I’ve been using that in smoothies…”
“You are not going to leave me alone on this, are you?” Far from being irritated, she seemed resigned to this being the tenor of their conversation, which secretly delighted him. Pepper knew him better than anyone.
“I am just worried about you, honey. I know it’s been a lot. I’ve been a lot.”
“Everything has been a lot.” She ran a finger down his temple and across his cheek. “If I tell you, you have to promise to A, not be pompous about it and B, not put it out there for the world yet.”
“I’m sure I can manage B, but A, that’s historically been tough for me…”
She smirked, rolling her eyes. “FRIDAY, pull up the Mach 3 file?”
“Mach 3? Making me something for my birthday?”
“Something like that,” she grinned so broadly, she was fairly glowing. “Though, it might be a few months too late for it, or too early, depending on how you look at it.”
Presents he could get behind. “Am I going to like it is the question, and is it…”
He stared up at the file that FRIDAY projected, his jaw hitting the bed. For once he found himself at a loss for words.
“I hope you like it.” Pepper’s words were both smug and hesitant at his ear.
He didn’t even have a response, couldn’t formulate one. He stared at the information on the screen as the brilliant mind that always, always, always ran on overdrive skidded to a grinding, screeching halt. When he could speak again, the words that tumbled out didn’t really make sense.
“Huh...and does that mean…”
If she smiled any harder she may set fire to their apartment and frankly Tony couldn’t bring himself to care. “When a man and a woman love each other very much…”
“I got the mechanics down, baby, I meant...we haven’t…”
“I seem to recall you did just fine two nights before you decided to go out into outer space.”
Through the haze of angst, grief, and loss, he seemed to recall an impromptu night together spurred by nothing more than the fact she was wearing a delectable pair of jean shorts and carrying on about wedding details and he had wanted to stop the one and slowly remove the other. A chance moment, one of so many in his relationship with this amazing, wonderful, brilliant woman, and this was what came out of it? He didn’t care that tears were now dribbling down his face.
“Tony?” Pepper’s alarm brought him back to himself as he sat up fully, grabbing her face in both of his hands, kissing her desperately, like he hadn’t since he got back, out of joy, and shock, and sheer wonder that he, the stupid bastard he was, got all of this.
Unfortunately, his stamina wasn’t up to the depth of his emotions. He pulled back, breathless and awed as Pepper reached a hand up to wipe at his face. “Honey, I just...I don’t know what to say.”
“That’s a first,” she chuckled, misty-eyed herself. “I thought for sure you’d brag for the rest of the night about your oracular abilities.”
“I’m not saying that isn’t happening, because clearly I’m a prophet in my own time, but right now…” He stared back at the screen, his brain coming back online in full force, whirling with possibilities, with things they would need to do, of things that he’d have to take care of.
“You got about another eight months or so, Tony. Don’t go out tomorrow buying up all the baby stuff we will ever need.”
“I wasn’t...yet.” He was only somewhat sheepish. “Besides, I can order online or send Happy to do it for me.”
“Right!” She sighed, wiping at the tears still lingering on his cheeks. “I’d wanted to tell you in a big dinner or something. Make a production out of it, surprise you. I thought the Mach 3 thing was cute! I was going to go with a theme.”
“Do I not look surprised?” It was the most surprised he’d been in weeks and the first good surprise in so long, he couldn’t remember.
“I just...want to wait till I’m a bit further along before sharing it too widely. And no, I don’t want this out on your Twitter feed.”
“I’m not,” he promised. Frankly, at the moment, after all that they had been through and suffered together, this precious thing he wanted to keep to themselves for just a little bit. Reverently, he curled next to her, laying a hand on her still flat lower belly. She twined a hand with his there, holding on tightly.
“I suppose, Ms. Potts, this means you have to finally make an honest man out of me.”
“I suppose it does. Where you going to be in three months time?”
“Wherever you’re going to be, hopefully with an ordained clergy member and/or legal officiant, giving you half of all the money I got.”
“I already have that. I am really just after your heart.”
“You got that, honey, have since you put that Arc Reactor in my chest.”
“Oh, God,” she shivered at the memory, laughing quietly. “You are horrible.”
“But you love me.”
“That, I do.” She sighed, contented, as she blinked at the files, reports, and work floating in front of her. “How about we just curl in bed and watch stupid movies for the rest of the night?”
“Sounds like the best ‘I just found out I’m going to be a dad’ celebration ever.”
“Good.” She flicked a finger, sending the whole lot of it skidding into nothingness.
“You know,” he sighed as he wrapped her more firmly close to him. “Boy or girl, we are going to have to name them Morgan.”
“I hadn’t planned on anything else.”
Seriously, he loved this woman.
Chapter 16: Beyond Avengement
In which Natasha and Tony have a heart-to-heart.
No one was surprised when Tony said he was quitting the Avengers, what surprised Natasha was that he had gone through with it. He’d threatened and promised so many times over the years it was beginning to be something of a joke. They had taken wagers on how long it would be before he wandered back through the doors in the latest iteration of the suits he absolutely didn’t need anymore, ready to cause havoc and annoy Steve until he finally gave in and let Cap do his job. Frankly, it was a small wonder that Pepper hadn’t left him for good, for all the times he had “promised” he was leaving and had come back. Nat had been convinced their last “break” was final, that Pepper would finally catch on to the truth Natasha had known since she had detailed Tony years ago, that he was Iron Man. It wasn’t some mask he put on or weekend warrior persona he adopted, it was his identity, who he saw himself as and who he wanted to become. He couldn’t lay it aside any more than he could survive without his shell-shocked heart. Perhaps he thought he could just walk away, but he would always come back to it, convinced he alone had the mind, vision and will to save the world. He could never give it up - at least not till Titan and Thanos.
Natasha knew better than any of the others, perhaps even Pepper, just how fractured Tony’s psyche already was. It wasn’t like he got off to a good start with his contentious relationship with his father, the not-so-accidental death of his parents, his spiral into self-indulgence that led down the road to Stane, Afghanistan, and Iron Man. His years wearing the suit had only added to it. He was already a bundle of bad personality traits, anti-social issues, and anxiety, and that was before the PTSD hit him. He was, in short, a hot mess with a small fuse and it was small wonder that it got set off frequently, most usually by Steve. They still didn’t know what all had happened out there in space. Tony didn’t speak of it and most were afraid of ask. Natasha, who had seen the worst of humanity, saw the aching horror and despair in his face, the soul-crushing brokenness and knew that whatever happened up there, it had scared him. The Tony Stark who had left Greenwich Village that day in pursuit of Stephen Strange had been Iron Man, determined to do whatever it took to save the world. The man who came back was a pale shadow, someone who had expended himself too far and had seen too much and had nothing left to give.
That didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try and argue the point.
“You know, I can still come and do things here. Hell, Cap needs new armor if he’s going to keep doing this. Have you been letting him run around in rags this whole time?”
Natasha could only shrug, rolling her eyes as Tony eyed Steve’s old armor with mild horror. “Sorry, I think Walmart was all out of their red, white and blue combat gear for hunting season.”
“This is why I missed you, Romanoff, no one else has both your dry wit and lingering Marxist disdain for Western capitalism.”
“I’m here five shows a week. Try the salmon.” She smirked as she leaned against his lab table. He looked somewhat better, though still unhealthy and gaunt. The weeks since his return had been a slow road of progress for him. He still had months to go to be a fighting weight and that was only the physical side of it all. The mental wasn’t such an easy fix.
“Seriously, though, gadgets, update of computer systems, FRIDAY giving you hell, I’ll be here for it.”
“I would like to believe I’m far better behaved than that, boss.” FRIDAY managed to sound both indignant and prissy and it made Natasha laugh as she imagined an irritated, Irish school marm.
“We’ll be fine, Tony. Whatever help you can give us, that’s great, but we got Rocket now on the team. He could teach you a thing or two.”
The idea that a rodent with the mouth of a dock worker could teach the MIT trained child prodigy and genius Tony Stark anything galled him. “You do know I caught him spelunking in the bins out back, right?”
“You’re just jealous FRIDAY likes him.”
His face twitched, but he agreed to nothing. “Anyway, so the president fell all over himself to welcome you back. That’s good, I guess. You know, Sokovia Accords, law of the land, that gets thrown out the window in a crisis.”
Natasha bit back the more cynical response she had about politicians and only shrugged. “No one is precisely in a position to enforce it, and it’s not like there are that many enhanced people left for them to oversee. Besides, turns out they figured out they needed us now more than ever, and without a vast bureaucracy to keep us in line, we are left to our own devices after all.”
“All that grief and in the end, it was for nothing. Story of my life, I suppose.”
“True.” She admitted that if things weren’t so desperate, she would have found this all depressingly laughable. “It puts things in perspective, though.”
Well, some things. As far as she could tell, he and Steve weren’t exactly best friends, but they’d come to a detente, an agreement to ignore the sleeping dogs for now, perhaps forever. Tony was still angry and Steve was still guilty and it didn’t look as if either was ready to hash out the resentment between them. Still, it was one less burden on the thin emotional resources of the team, not having to be caught in the ongoing drama between the two men.
“It does put things in perspective.” His long sigh was more thoughtful than cynical. “I suppose, then, that you all will be the long arm of the law, policing the world for them.”
“Universe, now. Steve had us in a day long planning session the other day, strategizing. We pulled in who we could, anyone who was able and willing. We have Okoye in Wakanda. She’s got permission from the Queen Mother to use what is left of the Wakandan and Jabari forces to help oversee Africa and the Middle East until they can put a new king and structure in place. In the meantime, Danvers, Nebula and Rocket are patrolling space, trying to help where they can and keep an eye on the most immediate threats, filling us in to keep Earth in the loop and out of danger. That leaves Steve, Rhodey and me here to mop up the rest of it. We’ll see if Thor and the Asgardians want to help, but frankly, they will be too busy trying to put their life together again.”
Tony at least had the grace to not even offer a token of his help. “Not Barton, though?”
She happily didn’t flinch at the drop of his name. “No. He’s gone off the grid, doesn’t want to be found.”
“Can’t say I blame him,” he sighed, regretfully, shoving his hands into his pockets. “That’s a tall order for all of you.”
He eyed her speculatively, his mind spinning. She didn’t think she had ever seen anyone have as many thoughts going through their head at any one time as Tony Stark and it was even odds as to what would come out of his mouth. To her surprise, it was actually nothing rude or snarky, but rather quietly personal.
“Why are you still in this, Romanoff? All this time, on the run, then Thanos, and now...you could retire, live your life. Maybe kidnap Bruce and…”
The mention of Bruce earned an instant icy glare, catching him short as he realized he’d unintentionally stepped on one of the vulnerable places Natasha let show. He backpedaled, apologetically. “Right, sorry, just...I’m saying you’ve never had a chance to just live life. Why don’t you take it, before some other world crisis comes along and you lose that.”
She knew he wasn’t just thinking about her welfare in that. “And do what?”
“What do you want to do?” He said that as if it were as simple as waking up and deciding breakfast. Spoken like a white man born to great wealth and the privilege of being whoever and whatever he wanted in the world. He had always had that luxury. She hadn’t.
“What do I want to do?” She echoed his words, folding herself into a chair by his table, mulling them over in her mouth as if they were a new language. “I didn’t grow up wanting to be a princess or a ballerina, Stark. I carry the name of a royal family because that was the name given to me. I don’t even know who my parents were. As for being a ballerina, I’m Russian, it’s in our blood. I trained for that because it made me dexterous, agile, and quick, and it was good cover if I ever needed it.”
“And here I had harbored a secret belief you were a long lost grand duchess,” he teased.
There were times, many of them as a matter of fact, where she had rather wished that she was. “Not a lost grand duchess, no, just an orphaned kid who the state thought they could mold and fashion how they wished. From the moment I was given to the Red Room I was trained to be a spy and killer and I didn’t get any other options. You know the first time I ever had a choice in my life? It was when I stood there in the wreckage of a children’s hospital in Brazil, knowing I had caused all the destruction around me and realized that I had a choice - security or my soul. So I left the KGB and went on the run and I never looked back.”
She wasn’t sure she had ever told him any of this. Clint had known, as did Fury, and Steve and Sam, but Tony had never been overly interested. He held onto grudges like a champion, and he had never quite gotten over the fact she had duped him on Fury’s orders so many years ago. Now he saw her in a new light and pieces began falling into place.
“You know,” he began gravely, pulling himself up to sit on the top of his lab table, still-thin legs dangling over its edges. “I know a thing or two about that, about one day waking up to find that everything you’ve done has left nothing but a swath of destruction and pain that you can never, ever make up for.”
“Your name was on the bombs, Tony, but you weren’t the one pulling the trigger.”
“No,” he admitted, slowly. “But tell that to Wanda Maximoff or Helmut Zemo or any of the Ten Rings bastards who had me in a cave in Afghanistan. I stood at the helm of my father’s company, I profited off of the death and destruction for years, and I didn’t care as long as I could still research my pet projects, hang out with the world’s most beautiful models, and buy the fastest moving things on this planet to play with. To the people who lost their homes and families and way of life, I was the bad guy, the monster in the darkness, out to ruin their entire lives.”
“That is true, but misplaced on their part. On mine, I actually did kill those people and I didn’t blink an eye when doing it.”
“You were brainwashed and forced into it.”
“Same as Barnes, I know.” It was a low blow and it connected, making him glare at her for a long moment before nodding, scrubbing his face roughly.
“I concede the point that James Barnes was a tool who was mind fucked into doing awful things, including killing my parents, and I really hate you right now for turning that on me so craftily.”
“Red Room psychological training, not all of it was murderous or useless.”
“Jesus! My point, if I can get back to it, is that I understand. You carry a shit ton of guilt, the weight of all you did because that was the card you were dealt in life. And sure, you can spend a lifetime making up for it, trying to clear your ledger as it were, do enough good and selfless things to make it right. But when do you get a chance to live the life you didn’t get? When do you get to choose for yourself and not have someone else dictate what you do and where you go, how you live? You aren’t in the KGB anymore, and you aren’t in SHIELD. You can walk away from this. Maybe go find a beach somewhere, live a quiet life, take up gardening or...baking?”
“Baking?” Where that had come from, she didn’t know.
“Yeah, baking! I could see it.”
“What sort of fantasy have you been having about me, Stark?”
“I think the broader context of this conversation is that whatever you want to be in life, Romanoff, you can be, and I’m asking why you don’t want to be that instead of policing the world and its problems.”
The answer was simple, really, when it came down to it. “Because for a long time, I was a tool used in the making of those problems. Now, I’m in a place where I get to help fix those problems. That feels good. At a time when I feel like I’ve failed on so many levels, let alone saving the world, it’s nice to feel good about something. And the world needs us, needs me. That’s something I can do.”
“You know, it won’t bring Barton’s family back, right? It won’t make up for what’s lost.”
No one could ever accuse Tony Stark of being stupid. Self-centered and emotionally obtuse, yes, but never stupid.
“Yeah, I know. But if I don’t have them, I got this. It makes it a little less for nothing.”
Perhaps he understood that after all.
“You know, Romanoff, I didn’t like you for a long time.” He eyed her from his perch with the classic, narrow-eyed musing gaze he employed, whether he was studying people, scientific equations, or car engines. “I mean, sure, you’re one of the most attractive women I’ve met outside of Pepper, but I couldn’t trust a woman who hid in shadows and dealt in lies or so I told myself. Couldn’t ever decide where your allegiances lay. You were loyal to no one and nothing, and therefore why invest in you?”
She’d known that opinion for years. “And now?”
“I have a sad, sinking feeling that maybe you were the best of us all along, underneath it all.”
“From you that’s high praise indeed.”
“Well, for all of your other lies, you’ve always been honest in who you are and you’ve always kept us reeled in on the straight and narrow when we’d go flying at each other. You never forgot what this was all about, that it wasn’t about laws, or oversight, or personal freedom, or standing on principle. You just wanted to do what was good and right. I think maybe we all forgot that for a bit.”
She feigned indignation “Don’t you dare even hint that I’m a good guy underneath all of this.”
“Heaven forbid!” He held up his hands, a grin pulling up his still thin cheeks. “I know you all will do good. You don’t need me around except to maybe pay for things.”
“That’s what lawyers are for.”
“True,” he nodded, scooting to slide slowly off the table. He glanced around the space he had built for them, the place where he could be something more than just a genius, billionaire, playboy. She thought she could see a faint ghost of wistfulness coupled with the regret they all had now at days.
“So, uh...you’re the first to know, before Rhodey or Bruce even, because I couldn’t find them, but...Pepper’s pregnant.”
That shouldn’t hurt as much as it did. Faint images of being wheeled through an ancient hospital mingled with memories of Laura Barton placing a newborn Nate in her arms, the cherubic face of his sister beaming as she asked “What do you think, Auntie Nat?” What came out of her, however, was a broad smile and a truly pleased “congratulations”.
Tony still looked vaguely stunned by it all. “Yeah, so I had been teasing her about this dream I had that day with Thanos. Turns out I must be fucking prophetic, because last week she lays that on me. I mean...had things gone different, had I not gotten back...I mean...or what if she had been the one snapped…”
Words failed him as he shoved fists into his pockets, focused on the tips of his shoes as Natasha politely allowed him the moment to regroup himself. It took several long breaths before he cleared his throat and continued. “You know, my dad was about my age when I was born, and fatherhood sort of hit him out of left field. He was set in his ways, already had a company, was busy with the Arc Reactor, and unbeknownst to me, helping to run SHIELD. I mean, I don’t know if he knew what to do with me, frankly, and I know that I wasn’t the easiest child to put up with, especially for a man who thought he was saving the world.”
Knowing the brilliance and annoyance of the adult Tony, Natasha could see this.
“Anyway, we learn from our parents’ mistakes. I spent my childhood trying to convince my father I was as important as any of his five zillion projects. I don’t want my child to ever feel like that, thinking that the Avengers, my work, saving the world meant more to me than he or she does. Nothing on this planet means more to me than that baby and Pepper. The day I went after Thanos, I couldn’t say that. Today, two months later, I can.”
“You don’t need to explain yourself, Tony. This...this is big news, good news. I’m happy for you.” She was, honestly, pleased beyond words for him. As long as she had known him he had been unsettled and unmoored, trying to define himself by big deeds in a metal suit, looking for happiness and validation as a hero, tending to forget that the best source of it was standing right in front of him. Perhaps, finally, Tony Stark had grown up and found that he could be happy with the quiet, simple life. His lecture to her started to make some sense.
He shrugged his shoulders by his ears, still studying the tops of his athletic shoes. “Don’t tell everyone till I’ve had a chance to tell Rhodey and Bruce at least. They’ll never let me hear the end of it.”
“No worries.” She had never seen Tony look so bashful or so fretful. “Hey, it will be okay and no one will judge you for walking away from all of this, not for that.”
“No one?” He peeked up at her with pointed speculation, not completely convinced. She knew who he meant.
“No one, especially not Steve. If there is anyone on the planet who would understand leaving for the chance of happiness, it’s him.”
Petty irritation flickered as he threw his head back, rolling his eyes. “He really is insufferable, isn’t he?”
“I don’t think he means to be. Not everyone is as lucky as you are.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” He shook his head, dolefully, pulling his ubiquitous glasses out of his pocket. “Anyway, I can of course tender a formal resignation and all that, but the place is all yours, bought and paid for. Just, don’t throw wild parties in here, no boozers with the press.”
“That was your fault, remember.”
“Right,” he drawled, a grin creasing his sunken face. He stuck a hand out to Natasha. “Romanoff, come visit when you can. Keep me honest.”
She took his proffered hand to pull herself up in front of him. “I think that’s what Pepper’s around for.”
He laughed as she briefly wrapped her arms around him, pulling away quickly with a slight nod. “Take care of yourself, Tony. We’re here if you need.”
“Yeah,” he replied, shuffling out of his old lab, spinning slowly to look around the place. “You know, if you need a new interface with FRIDAY, I can come on a weekend, set things up.”
“Go!” She called. He waved and wandered out to the latest Audi he had parked in front, a sweet number in silver. She waited till the sound of his engine roared to life and peeled out of the drive at a speed that she was certain wasn’t legal. It was only when it faded away that she realized she was going to miss having him around, being annoying. Tony Stark had, unfortunately, rather grown on her.
Chapter 17: Centenarian
In which Natasha wishes Steve a happy birthday.
Steve made himself scarce these days. It amused Natasha. It was like he didn’t know her or anything. Honestly, to think he could avoid the likes of the Black Widow when he was a guy who regularly went around with the American flag emblazoned on his chest? Steve couldn’t dissemble if his life depended on it, which on occasion, it did. It was a wonder he made it this long.
She didn’t have to look very hard to find him. After two years abroad in shoddy lodging and worse surroundings, she knew he would high tail it to the one place he felt the safest. Steve Rogers was nothing if not loyal, and Brooklyn was his home. It might have changed in the century since he was born, but it was the closest thing to familiar he had in this crazy world turned upside down.
Natasha had lived in America long enough to know that the 4th of July was usually a day of celebration, flags everywhere, barbecue smoke wafting across the city, someone who had too much to drink attempting to fire off explosives against the advice of more sober voices. Her indoctrination whispered to her about the vile decadence of it all, but she had always found it charmingly brash, like most of America was, in love with the idea of its own history. The cynical part of herself would point out it was a history born in blood and violence and the vile use of others. The rest of her just liked to have a hot dog and a beer and sit out in the twilight watching the sky explode in stars.
None of that was visible as she drove through Brooklyn’s quiet streets. Here and there she thought she could smell charcoal or hear the pop of fireworks, but for the most part many stayed to themselves. Since well before Steve’s birth the teeming city had been home to more than 2.6 million people, a mix from all nations and languages, pressed cheek-to-jowl between the East River and the Atlantic Ocean, scraping by to make their dreams in this country they now called their own. Today, Brooklyn was a ghost of itself. Apartments that had gone for ridiculously stupid prices just months ago now sat empty of owners. Looting was a problem here as in many places, and even in the nicest neighborhoods graffiti began to pop up, claiming to be this gang, or that gang, or just someone bemoaning the fate of the universe. She’d seen more than a few artistic representations of Thanos and the destruction he wrought painted on the sides of brick buildings where months ago hipsters were having Sunday brunches of organic kale salads and locally-sourced, artisanal cheeses.
Steve’s building wasn’t far from Prospect Park, a nicer place that overlooked the swath of green in the middle of the city. It was one of the luckier buildings, it still had most of its tenants and she found a couple of them out walking their dog. They let her in after her sob story of having left her keys at her boyfriend’s place. She took the stairs up to the top floor where Steve had taken out a large apartment completely under his own name. If he had really wanted to hide he’d have at least made more effort to come up with a better alias. She rapped on the door, the sound loud in stillness, broken only by the faint strains of music from inside. Sam had at least finally broken Steve of the habit of only listening to ‘old fogey’ music, as Sam termed it, and gotten him to even embrace R&B and hip hop, a feet that had astonished Natasha. Right now, it sounded more jazz. Coltrane if she wasn’t mistaken, something melancholy and almost wistful.
It took another round of rapping before the door opened to a rather wary and somewhat surprised Steve, peeking out of the corner as if she were 6’8 and there to rob him. “Natasha? Where did you come from?”
“Russia, my files say Volgograd, but I don’t remember much of it. May I come in?”
He sighed, shaking his head, but opened the door enough for her and her large shopping bags to wander inside, casing the place as she did. It was certainly a good size, she’d grant him that. The hardwood floors were original, as was the open brick work, and the view on the park was particularly nice from the roof just outside of the large, floor to ceiling windows. She dug the open concept floor plan, if nothing else because of the free range of vision it gave. Good sight lines. The kitchen was perhaps a bit small for her tastes, but for a bachelor like Steve she doubted he noticed.
“Dare I ask how you found me?”
“Girl can’t give away her secrets.” She spun to face him, eyeing him up and down. “You’d make a shit spy.”
“Good thing I never tried being one of those.” He plucked quietly at his comfortable athletic pants and the undershirt that looked like a three-year-old had attacked him with oil paints. “I wasn’t...uh...precisely expecting anyone.”
“I got that memo, considering I haven’t seen you in two weeks.”
“Told you I was taking some time.” He shrugged as he wandered through the comfortable living room, with it’s large television and squashy couches, to the dining area-cum-artist’s studio. It was a sight that struck her with a hint of incongruousness. She’d always known Steve was an artist, but the sight of him standing there covered in paint as he wiped down the brushes he’d been using when she knocked on the door hit her as an oddity. Normally, her perception of Steve was of the fighter, the soldier, the leader who stood like a stubborn brick wall against his enemies. She never really saw the more sensitive side of him, the Steve who had at one point in time studied art, who had a love for creating things and capturing human existence in pencil and paint. For whatever reason, she had just assumed that this part of him must have disappeared under the ice like so much of Steve’s life did.
“I know you said you were taking time,” she finally responded, setting her canvas bag on the marble counter top of the kitchen island. “But you weren’t responding to communications.”
“Taking time means I’m not on the clock.”
“Doesn’t mean your friends don’t worry about you.” She crossed her arms as he ducked his head, sheepishly, continuing to rinse out brushes.
“I figure after two years on the road with me, you got to be sick of this mug.”
“Ehh, you’re a hell of a lot prettier than Rhodey and the raccoon. Don’t tell Rhodes I said that.”
He finally chuckled. “Your secret is safe with me.”
She watched as he went meticulously about his work, knowing he was avoiding asking the obvious question and deciding to have some mercy with him. “What are you working on?”
“A painting.” He didn’t look up, but she could see the hint of a smirk all the same. He was being a teasing shithead.
His shoulders tightened, but he at least didn’t shut down. “You can come take a look.”
She wandered behind him to the canvas on the eisel, covered in a swath of yellow-green field and bright, open sky. Wakanda, she realized, outside of Birnin Zanda, the great, glittering city and capital of the tiny and powerful nation. For now, it was still just the field and sky, but she could see in the distance the beginnings of the forest, perhaps a waterfall, and the giant, powerful panther that oversaw all of it.
“Figured if I was going to be relieving my own failures, I might as well paint it,” he murmured, coming to stand beside her. “Though, I think I’ll leave out the battle. Maybe paint something else, perhaps the king and princess, as a gift to the queen mother.”
She hated that her eyes burned with tears just then. “I think she would love it, to remember her children as they were.”
“Yeah,” he sighed, solemn as he studied it with a critical eye. “I figure if I brought war to her country and people and cost them their leader and future, I should do...something. I don’t know.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to say it wasn’t his fault, but that would do her no good. She knew that from experience. “They chose to die as warriors.”
“I don’t know if they chose at all,” he replied, quietly reaching over her to pull down a cloth to cover the painting for now until he decided to work on it again. “Not that I don’t appreciate a visit from a friend, but what are you doing here, Nat?”
“Bringing you dinner.”
He looked as if the thought hadn’t struck him. “A fellow never says no to a lady bringing him food, but you didn’t have to.”
“That’s the point, Rogers, I didn’t have to. I did it for a friend.” She moved past him to the bag she brought, pulling out foil wrapped items and placing them on the counter. “Please tell me you have beer, though.”
“One of the few things I do have in my fridge.”
“See, it’s a good thing that I brought you dinner, else you’d have starved.” She began opening the veritable tray of hot dogs, the pints of potato salad and baked beans, and the small mountain of corn on the cob. He eyed it, somewhat bemused. “If you weren’t going to go to a cookout, Rogers, it’s going to come to you.”
“You didn’t make this?” He looked both awed and horrified by the idea.
“God, no! I found a deli open and put in the order. Grab a plate and a beer and let’s go sit out on your roof.”
He didn’t need to be ordered twice. Clearly, he was starved, and probably had been too lost in his artistic endeavor to be bothered with things like food, a dangerous proposition for a man whose metabolism ran four times faster than a normal, athletic person. He piled a plate with hot dogs and another with sides, as Natasha primly made up one smaller one for herself and grabbed a six pack and the dessert as she climbed out of the window frame to the roof beyond. Outside, he had set up several folding, wooden lounge chairs. She set up shop on one, setting the beers on the table between, and waited as he maneuvered himself outside to settle beside her.
“Happy 4th of July,” she cheered as she popped open a bottle, pulling from it in a long sip, thinking that it was a far cry from where they had been this time last year. Steve opened his own bottle, echoing her sentiment. He dug into his food with gusto, and she was pleased to see it. She waited till he had downed at least two hot dogs before beginning her own, slathered in onions and mustard and dill pickles and tasting like barbecue in Clint’s back yard. She’d tried to track down where he was earlier that day, but had hit a dead end...again. Unlike Steve, Clint at least knew how to hide.
After he’d inhaled three of his hot dogs and began working more slowly on the side dishes, Steve finally spoke. “I was going to kind of let today pass by, you know.”
“I know.” She had come to understand him well since he first wandered onto the helicarrier years ago, wide-eyed, aching loss evident in every line of him, whether he knew it or not. At the time she’d never expected to like the old-fashioned man, stuck out of time, who kept referring to her as “ma’am” at every turn, a habit that had Clint in fits every time he did it. But Steve Rogers had a habit of growing on people - well, people who weren’t named Tony Stark. He was now as close to her as anyone, save Clint. He had her back so many times over the years it seemed a crime to not have his.
She eyed the sky above, having just turned from the golden hour as the sun sank low in the horizon, behind Manhattan's skyline and into New Jersey. The sky was now turning purple and gray, a breeze stirring off the East River. “So I looked it up, there will be fireworks soon in Prospect Park.”
“So that’s why you came here bringing food?”
“I own it. Nothing beats your view for them.”
“Well, I suppose there are a few perks of being Captain America.” He chewed on another hot dog, taking a sip of beer to wash it down.
“You know, there is a certain irony about you, Captain America, being born on the 4th of July, right? Like, it was destiny that someday you’d have to run around in a spangly costume with an American flag shield.”
He at least laughed at that. “It wasn’t planned, I promise you, but yeah. The press had a field day with that one when they figured out I was born on Independence Day. A ‘real life nephew of my Uncle Sam’.”
“You know I have seen Yankee Doodle Dandy,and I do get that reference.”
“You are full of surprises, Romanoff.”
She grinned, sipping at her beer and poking at her beans. “Did you grow up believing all the fireworks were for you, then?”
“My mom told me that at first, but I figured that out pretty quick. Bucky had his youngest kid sister, Agnes, convinced of the fact for years. She’d brag about it to the other kids, till she found out it was for American Independence. She then proceeded to cry and punch Bucky in the face.”
She tried to envision the man she knew as Bucky Barnes being a young man in Brooklyn in the 1930s, teasing his kid sister and found she couldn’t. “I can’t imagine what the two of you must have been like back then.”
“No different than any other kids, I guess.”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t like any normal kid.”
Steve’s eye roll at her only earned an impish grin. He finally reached for the phone he’d set aside when he sat down and took a moment to scroll through it. “Here, photographic evidence.”
Delighted, she took it, staring down into an image of a sepia-colored photo that looked like it should be in some Ken Burn’s documentary. Two boys stood there, dressed in clothes from decades before, children from a time long past. One was small and light-haired, who looked so skinny a stiff wind might carry him away. Even then, though, she could recognize the granite jaw and stubborn lift to the chin that characterized the tall, broad shouldered man sitting next to her. The other, taller and sturdier, had his arm thrown around the neck of the tiny boy. Darker haired, he had an easy, confident grin, a happy child who clearly hadn’t known a day of hardship in his life. Still, here and there, she could see faint glimmers of James Barnes, the man she had known as the Winter Soldier, or more accurately, she had seen in the man she knew the ghost of this child posing on a long ago day in a park somewhere.
“My birthday, 1928. I turned 10 that year, so my mom decided to make a day of it. We did a picnic, I invited the entire Barneses. Bucky’s eleven there. I remember he ate so many sandwiches he nearly got sick.”
“It’s so hard to believe either of you were these cute little kids once upon a time.”
“Yeah.” He had that familiar, Steve Rogers smile, the one that said he was lost somewhere in his own head, back in a place and time he couldn’t get to anymore. Sometimes, she envied him the fact that he could remember his past.
“How did you two meet?”
That earned a brief guffaw. “The way you would expect me to meet anyone. The summer I turned nine, I had spent a month earning pocket money carrying groceries for the neighbor lady, which for a kid like me, that was a lot of work. So I decided to take my dollar to go spend it, but this neighborhood bully, he corners me. He sort of ran his own personal extortion racket at the corner by the drug store so he could pin down kids like me. Anyway, he was maybe, I don’t know, three years older and built like a linebacker. He and his crony penned me in and demand my money. I said no. He said he was going to pound my face.”
“So you spit in his eye?”
“You know me well, Romanoff.”
“Lucky guess, but continue.”
“So, there I am, getting my face pounded into the pavement, and this blur comes flying out of nowhere and takes this kid out. I didn’t see much save flying fists and Cuddy screaming bloody murder, but he and Barney make a run for it. And this kid comes over, peels me off the pavement, dust me off and introduces himself as James Buchanan Barnes and asks me why I would do something as stupid as piss off Cuddy Neil when he could have eaten me for breakfast.”
“It’s a fair question. So you were fast friends after that?”
“While his mother patched me up, we bonded over baseball cards.”
“That sounds so ridiculously quaint.”
“It kind of was.”
She chuckled, fascinated by the idea that either of the men she had come to know could have ever been so disgustingly innocent. “So, why the name Bucky? Why not Jimmy or Jaime?”
“Do you know the single most popular boys’ name in that era was James?”
She nodded in the growing dark.
“The Howling Commandos had three men named James, not including Dernier, whose first name was Jacque, which is the French version. Back home I think every other kid on the street was named James. We ran out of nicknames for them, starting making stuff up at one point.”
“And going by ‘Bucky’ as an adult is totally dignified.”
“Well, it was a different time, I guess. Besides, he had the misfortune of being named for President James Buchanan. His parents thought it was a tribute, because he was an Irish-American president. This was in the age before Kennedy. Trouble was, they didn’t remember that James Buchanan was the president who helped lead the country into the Civil War.”
She hadn’t meant the hysterical giggle that burbled to the surface, but it popped out all the same. She sprayed beer as she slapped her palm to her lips, trying to stem the worst as her shoulders shook, tears of mirth and sadness creeping down her face. She couldn’t really put a pin in why it struck her so funny, other than the fucking tragedy of the splitting of the Avengers and why it happened, coupled with the losses all around them. Still, she snorted and coughed, laughing till her sides ached and her face was wet with tears. When she recovered herself, she found Steve watching her in bemusement, a faint smile on his face and worried confusion in his eyes.
“It’s just,” she snorted, trying to pull herself together. “It’s a fucking funny coincidence is what that is.”
Even Steve could see the humor. “Yeah, well, ill-luck name and all, he preferred Bucky to James and didn’t particularly care if it was dignified or not. He never had a problem with the ladies with that name, that’s for sure.”
Natasha had regrouped enough to finally have a calm conversation, wiping at her eyes with a napkin. “Do I detect a hint of jealousy?”
“Perhaps a bit.” He shrugged, embarrassed. “It was never easy keeping up with him. He graduated from Erasmus top of his class the year before me, lettered in all four sports, could have gone to college if his folks could have afforded it. Instead, he stuck around here to keep an eye on me after my mom died. We pooled our money together to get a place, this ratty hole where the radiators didn’t work half the time and the roof leaked, but it was ours. It was a total bachelor pad. I think it only ever got cleaned when his mother came over and then she’d clean it more for us because we were so bad at it. I worked days doing paintings for businesses, you know, signs, ads, whatever they would pay me for. He worked at the gym and wherever else he could get a job. On the weekends, we’d go out, usually he’d have some new girl on his arm and scrounge up a date for me, just so I wouldn’t have to be alone. When I got sick, which was all the time, he’d make sure I got a doctor and medicine, and never complained once about it. We even did art college together. He wasn’t bad, had an eye on industrial design, maybe engineering. He and Howard used to like to discuss those type of things. When Pearl Harbor happened, we tried signing up together. They took him. They didn’t take me.”
Even now, after all these years and everything that happened, Natasha could hear the regret and disappointment of rejection out of Steve. Some things you never get over. She passed the phone back, setting it on the table, quietly. “Is that why you volunteered for Project: Rebirth?”
“More or less.” He set aside his plate, all of the mountain of food now gone. “I stumbled on that at the Stark Expo. Erskine happened to be there and saw me with Bucky, and I guess he took pity on me. I don’t know, I just...couldn’t stomach the idea of all those men, of Bucky, going off to war and fighting and dying why I stuck around Brooklyn not doing anything to help, to take a stand.”
“There’s nothing wrong walking away from a fight, you know.” Natasha knew a thing or two about the strategic retreat.
“Remember, I was the kid who got beat up for a dollar in coins.”
Steve sighed as he looked out over the lights of the city. There weren’t as many of them as there once were. “I came into this world too weak and sickly to make it, so they said. I think I’ve spent my entire life since then just defying the odds and throwing myself at things I should have never been able to handle just to prove I could, to prove everyone who said I’d never make it wrong. I always figured if I fought hard enough, if I was stubborn enough, if I worked better than anyone else, I would be able to defeat anything. Then Thanos happened and we lost. Didn’t matter how much heart we had or how stubborn we were, none one of that mattered.”
Yes, they had lost.
“And the worst part, for me, was as I stood there, trying to make sense of what happened, the first thing I hear is Bucky’s voice, just to my right, calling my name. I turn, and there he is, taking a step towards me and then he’s gone. Dust, as if he’d never been there. I’d watched him die once before, falling off a train in the Alps. I had just got him back again, after what HYDRA did to him. I had defied the Accords, I fought with all of you, I nearly beat the living hell out of Tony and permanently destroyed our friendship forever, for Bucky, the last thing I had from my old life. I watched him dust right before my eyes. After everything, to have him gone. What the hell were we fighting for, Nat?”
She didn’t need to look at Steve to know there were tears streaming quietly down his face.
“Do you regret that we did it?”
Her words were simple, but they got through. “No.”
“Then we were fighting for them. And yes, we lost, but the world is still here. We are still here. And people still need us, still need the Avengers to take a stand and fight for them.” That was what she had signed up for, this chance to do something good and right in the world. She had thought the others had done the same.
“Will they ever stop needing us?”
That hadn’t been the question she expected out of Steve. He had always been willing to throw himself into the righteous cause. He had never known him to question it. “People are still broken creatures out to do stupid, awful things to others. Thanos didn’t change that.”
“I know.” He sighed, rubbing away tears with the back of his wrist before reaching for another beer. “I’m 100-years-old today.”
“And yet you don’t look a day over 30, tops.”
He laughed at that. “I feel like I’m twice as old.”
“Well, you know what they say, age is just a number.”
He hummed, swallowing from his new bottle, contemplating the world beyond his roof.
“You know, Bucky, Peggy, all of them at one point or the other said you have to keep going, keep moving on. I don’t know, right now, I’m just...tired.”
Of fighting or moving forward? He didn’t say and she didn’t ask. Anyone who knew Steve Rogers for longer than 5 minutes saw in him the endless optimism, the almost Pollyanna-like need to see the bright side in the darkest of times, the way he picked himself up and dusted himself off and kept going. Perhaps it was a product of growing up a sick kid to a widowed mother during the Depression and war, but underneath all of that, the “rah, rah, yay America” was hidden a man deeply hurt, wounded by the loss of nearly everyone and everything he’d ever cared for and his inability to stop any of it. Honestly, Natasha worried if he lost one more thing in his life, one more friend, he might just fall to pieces and crumble himself. Considering the pillar that Steve was in their lives, that prospect was terrifying.
“You know,” he sighed after long moments. “I always thought that after the war, I’d get to come home. Maybe settle down, have the life everyone else got to have for once. Put down the shield, just be an average guy.”
“I hate to tell you this, Steve, but you couldn’t be average if you tried.”
“That’s true.” He shrugged, shifting in his seat. “I am apparently bad at hiding in plain sight.”
“How you survived for two years on the run, I will never know.”
“I had a pretty good teacher.” He grinned at her. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have made it without you, Sam, and Wanda.”
They’d become something of a family, the four of them on the run, five if you counted Bucky in their times they got to Wakanda. For all she had missed Missouri and Clint, Laura and the kids, she had built friendships with the others, shared stories and fought by their side. She found herself missing Sam’s hysterical, teasing humor, the quiet, steady calm of Barnes, and Wanda, who had also had her own missteps coming into her own and who had looked to Natasha as an older, wiser sister.
“I miss them,” she whispered, quietly.
“Me too,” he murmured into the stillness.
They waited in companionable silence till the full darkness had turned the sky an inky blue. Somewhere in the neighborhood, someone had a grill out. In the space next to Steve’s on the roof, a family came out, a father and two children, a boy and a girl, carrying pillows and a blanket, spreading them out to get comfortable. Across the way, she could see other families on other rooftops doing the same. One had set up at a table with candles, chatting companionably. For all that they lost, for all who had disappeared, life continued to move on despite it all.
Why was it so goddamn hard?
In the distance, a sound, like thunder, could be heard. Across the skyline, pockets of color, red, blue, green, white, exploded like flowers bursting throughout the city landscape. The children beside them gasped in excitement. Steve had struck up a companionable conversation with the father from next door, both mutually missing baseball and bemoaning its loss in the face of everything. Natasha took the opportunity of his distraction and reached for the box beside her chair, quietly trying not to rustle it as she opened it.
The first fireworks over Prospect Park shot off, a shower of gold over the city as the children yelled in excitement. Nat lit the candle she had stuck in the middle of the thick apple pie, butting into the two men’s sad sports conversation, a childish smirk on her face as she held it up. She was pleased to see Steve’s heartfelt surprise and wry amusement at the large “100” glowing in the darkness.
“Happy birthday, Captain America,” she grinned, unrepentant as he blew out his birthday candle.
High above, the sky exploded in stars of red, white and blue.